Let’s Talk Abortion: Chanel’s Writing on Abortion and Judaism

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Chanel Dubofsky is a writer based in Brooklyn. She worked in Jewish education and service, and left several years ago to write full-time. Chanel’s non-fiction work often includes reporting on abortion.

Nina Pine: A lot of your non-fiction writing has been focused on abortion. Can you tell me more about what draws you to this topic?
Chanel Dubofsky: I write a lot about abortion because I’ve always thought about choice, and what stands between people and what they see as the best version of their life. Abortion, and its socio-economic links, has always felt really urgent for me to talk about. What I’ve realized is that there are some things that seem prescribed but are not mandatory–such as marriage or having children–they are options. And when I realized I don’t want those things, it felt really ardent that I write about abortion and access.

NP: Can you tell me more about how these “mandatory” social constructions came to be in your life?
CD: I was raised by my single mom and my grandmother. On one hand that was great, because I was always told that I could do anything and my mom always said she was proud of my independence. But as I got older, my mom treated my independence as something dangerous, saying it would make men dislike me. “You want to be normal,” she’d say. And I know where that came from; she was sick for most of her life, had an undiagnosed mental illness, and so “normal” was always emphasized. Be smart, independent, normal; meaning let boys hold doors open for you, go on dates, etc. As long as that was encouraged, I was pushing back against it. A lot of that was about me not wanting to “act like a lady.” It felt wrong to me.

When I began working in the Jewish community, I didn’t have any role models who weren’t living these “traditional” lives. Every woman I met got married and had a baby, or aspired to. I remember feeling really disappointed about that. I know that’s shitty, but it felt like a loss — I would think “I guess we’re not going to live this uncharted life together.” It doesn’t feel that way anymore, because now I feel like I don’t need people to live that life. I can do that myself.

NP: How have you heard women discuss abortion in Jewish communities?
CD: Jewish women are talking about their abortions, but not so much within a Jewish context. I think there are so many factors as to why they aren’t talking about it in synagogue. In Jewish culture, you’re not supposed to refute the opportunity to become a parent. It’s a socioeconomic assumption that you’ll be educated, and have a kid: go to medical school, get married, have children, etc. For example I have friends in Rabbinical school that are having children, and it’s only possible because they have parental support or a partner that is financially stable. There is something that allows them to have that.

There’s this belief that you can do all of these things, but that you have to have a child — it’s just what you do. So considering this belief, why would you have an abortion? If you’re in college, 21 years-old, and not very religiously observant, it may be more acceptable to discuss your abortion experience. There are still expectations of you that you need to complete, such as your education, before you’re expected to have children. You may talk to your parents about it, but they wouldn’t tell their friends about your abortion. We haven’t escaped puritanism just because we’re Jews. But if you’re in your thirties, why would you have an abortion? Wouldn’t you want children at that point?

Jewish people are not all socioeconomically the same, a lot of Jews don’t have money which is something that many believe. That stereotype is even common among Jews. There are many things that I didn’t do within a Jewish context because we didn’t have the money, such as Jewish camps or spending a year in Israel. But I think there’s this assumption that by the time you’re 26 or 30 or whatever, there would be no need for an abortion due to an assumed financial stability.

NP: What do you hope discussions in the Jewish community around abortion will look like?
CD: I think the discussion on abortion sits within the larger context of how Jewish communities need to begin investing in social justice differently. I think there is a fissure between millennials and the older generation, and that millenials feel lied to. They are sick of this anti-intellectual treatment of Israel and the denial of occupation for example. The way we discuss abortion, racism, and other issues are all wrapped up in the concept of: “it’s okay, we’re Jews. We were slaves once. We marched with Martin Luther King Jr.” This is a played narrative with no push. I think that the way we talk about social justice issues without looking at ourselves critically is the same way we don’t talk about abortion, or race in a meaningful way. For example, few Rabbis take on police brutality or have really worked with Black Lives Matter. There are a few radical ones, and I’m not saying that they aren’t risking anything by being out there or that they aren’t confrontational. There may even be more out there, I just don’t know them. We may say that “abortion should be legal and accessible” but we don’t talk about how the teenager that needed an abortion was undocumented. We aren’t talking about it, we’re just not.

I don’t have a hopeful answer, because I think we the mainstream Jewish community needs an overhaul. Jews have a radical past, but the mainstream Jewish community is running away from it both structurally and organizationally. It only exists to us when it’s convenient. I think we need to burn it down, replace it with people who are younger and aren’t afraid to confront complicated shit. I think there’s a deep fear of complicated narratives, but young people, queer Jews, and Jews of color know what it’s like to love something and to have a complicated relationship with it.

NP: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
CD: I appreciate the ability to talk about these two parts of myself. I was worried for a while that people only saw me as a Jewish writer, and I appreciate the opportunity to be nuanced about the Jewish and pro-choice side of me.

When I look at the Jewish community, I see it as a microcosm of a larger conversation around abortion, what we’re really afraid of, and why we aren’t talking about it. There’s a lot at stake when you ignore intersectionality. Identity politics is not a small, inconsequential thing .It never was, but it can’t be dismissed anymore. And the stakes are too high right now, because you can’t tell these young Jews that their curiosity and anger don’t matter. They’re just going to leave — and I’m a good example of that. I’m done with mainstream liturgy and community, there isn’t a place for me. And once you’re gone it’s hard to get back. There’s a point where you feel like you’re getting gaslighted by your own community. And even in the context of abortion, okay, you’re pro-choice but what about reproductive justice?

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