She didn’t speak up to start a war.
She didn’t speak up to sow doubt, or inflict pain, or ‘ruin lives.’
She spoke up to reclaim the voice, the sense of wholeness that was taken from her when he first put his hand on her thigh. She remembered what she wore the first time it happened — dangling earrings, a soft green button down shirt, her favorite sunglasses, and a tight-fitting black skirt that hit just above the knee. She was on her way to the Old City, her small purple-covered prayer book in hand. He asked her to stop by his office.
She remembered the skirt, specifically, because the skirt was the reason this was her fault. When she rushed back to her seminary dorm room to examine her reflection in the mirror, her flushed cheeks and ghostly white lips were not the first details she noticed. It was those two inches extra inches of skin above the knee, peeking out from below her hem. The tireless chidings of her high school teachers began to echo through her mind — cover your knees, girls, you don’t realize what men can see.
She ripped off the skirt and collapsed on the bed.
It was easier, she decided, to forget what had happened. It must have been a mistake, a fluke, a trick of her imagination. It must have been her fault. And what if it was not her fault? She let her frightened mind wander, for a moment. Who would believe her? Who would she tell? What would be the punishment? He had credibility — she only had words. He was pious — she was a rule breaker. He had power — she had none.
So she kept quiet, until it happened again. This time, his hand inched under her skirt. This time her knees were covered.
Panic constricted her thoughts. She stopped laughing on the phone with her friends and calling her parents. She decided to skip breakfast and dinner, and just eat a small salad in the middle of the day. Her stomach protested, she ignored it. Punishment felt warranted. She started to sleep in late and skip classes. Her friends noticed — they were concerned at first. They talked about her in hushed tones. Do you think she’s sick? A bad break up? Depression? She must be going through something, they concluded. She must need some space.
Alone beneath the covers, she hid. If she could hide from herself, maybe he wouldn’t be able to see her.
But when he pressed her up against a wall and put his lips on her mouth, she realized she couldn’t hide.
My name is Hannah Dreyfus, and this is not my story. It is the story of a young woman I interviewed in the immediate aftermath of the #MeToo social media campaign, aimed at uniting female victims of sexual assault and harassment across cultures, ethnicities, socioeconomic classes and nationalities.
This young woman requested to remain completely anonymous. She did not want to start a fuss, make a “mess,” as she put it. She did not want this story to become her story, her identity. She wanted to recover and heal. And, sadly, she had little hope that justice would be served in this case, even if she did come forward.
Nonetheless, she wanted to speak. By profession, I am a reporter and editor. In the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein scandal — the film producer and entertainment mogul exposed for decades of sexual harassment — several women, specifically Jewish women, shared with me their stories of enduring sexual harassment. Some women shared their stories on the record, meaning for publication. Others shared their stories with our mutual understanding of secrecy and anonymity.
The story I describe above is real. The victim is much like you or me — she grew up a large Modern Orthodox community, went to a religious all-girls high school, and today works in the medical field. Still, the secret she carries is a heavy one. Speaking to me was a first step towards regaining the person she had lost that first day he placed an unwanted hand on her knee.
In my role as a journalist, I am not just the teller of stories — I carry them as well. Many of the stories I hear I cannot tell — I am asked, for a myriad of different reasons, to keep these stories private, at least for the moment. Some make their way to surface, with my help or without. Many I still hold.
Some of the stories I carry haunt me. They haunt me with the acute pain of inaction in the face of injustice. They haunt me with the powerlessness of the victim, frequently at the mercy of a loyal majority who would prefer not to believe. They haunt me with the silence, apathy and mistrust of the many aligned against the fragile voices of the few.
When I sat at my dining room table watching the Chanukah lights dance this year, I thought about what it takes to fulfill the mitzvah, or commandment, of lighting the candles. Though many of us have chosen to go above and beyond, the minimum commandment is that only one person need light for his/her household. Ner eesh u’beto. Only one candle is needed to commemorate the miracle of ages past.
Over Chanukah, we add a paragraph to the silent Amidah prayer that also celebrates the deliverance of the many into the hands of the few:
“You (God) in your abundant mercy rose up for them in the time of their trouble, pled their cause, executed judgment, avenged their wrong, and delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and insolent ones into the hands of those occupied with Your Torah.”
On Chanukah, we celebrate the power of the few against the many. It is a celebration of courageous voices raised in the pursuit of good and in defense of the vulnerable. One candle has the ability to dispel a seemingly endless void of darkness, pain, or silence.
The whispers of change when it comes to reckoning with sexual harassment do not only come from Hollywood or Silicon Valley. They come from within our own tight-knit communities, where guilt and shame expertly assist silence and inaction.
When a voice that has been subdued for many years first emerges, you may hear a hoarse whisper. But a whisper turns into a murmur, a murmur into a cry, a cry into an outcry, and an outcry into a roar.
One lit candle will always disturb the darkness.