Shayna Weiss: “Gender segregation goes to the core of a discussion of what a Jewish and democratic state might look like.”

Shayna Weiss is from Jacksonville, Florida. In 2007, she graduated from Brandeis University with a double major in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and International and Global Studies At Brandeis, she received highest honors for her thesis on religious women in the Israeli Defense Forces.  After studying at Drisha, Shayna is now a doctoral candidate at NYU in Hebrew and Judaic Studies and the Taub center for Israel Studies, focusing on issues of religion and gender in Israeli society. She is currently in the midst of a dissertation on swimming spaces in Israel. Shayna is also obsessed with Lipa Schmeltzer, frozen yogurt, and yoga. Tell her your favorite Israeli reality tv show on twitter (@shaynamalka).

Jewschool: Tell the folks out there what your research is about and why you chose to pursue it.

Shayna Weiss: Currently, I am researching the origins of gender segregation in Israel by looking at fights about pools and beaches—fights against mixed swimming, and to establish gender-segregated swimming. My two historical main examples are the first public pool in Jerusalem (which was controversial because it had mixed swimming) and Israel’s first gender segregated beach in Tel Aviv. I then compare these controversies to what is happening with separate buses now, to draw larger conclusions about how gender and religion work in the public sphere, and how we can think about religious-secular relations in spatial terms.

I have several other projects swimming in my mind. I dream of learning Russian to research Israel’s residents from the former Soviet Union.  Another unfinished project I have is on Israeli television, and especially on Srugim, the first show to focus on the religious Zionist community. My fifteen minutes of internet fame so far have come from co-authoring a recap blog on Srugim, a wonderfully fun project. That project lays dormant for now, but I cannot wait to return to it one day—television is wonderfully understudied, and Israeli television is experiencing a renaissance—just look at Homeland.  (You can listen to Shayna’s presentation at the 2010 JOFA conference on Srugim, gender and feminism here.)

I always knew I wanted to be an academic, ever since high school. College was a matter of finding a discipline. After ruling out International Public Health, Talmud was the next option—a love I had discovered while spending time at the Drisha Institute. But after going to Advanced Talmud classes I could finally understand, I started to reconfigure my thoughts. I didn’t really like these classes, and found myself bored by talks of manuscripts and obscure commentaries.

Meanwhile, I had become obsessed with Israel. My parents refusal to let me go on the standard summer programs because my teenage years coincided with the second Intifada. As soon I was 18, I went on Birthright during my first year at Brandeis and was hooked. I returned several times during my undergraduate years, including my junior year at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Yet my love was a cautious one. I arrived to Jerusalem for my junior year two weeks before the disengagement from Gaza, torn between my support for the withdrawal and the opposition of the vast majority of my religious friends. I could go on and on about the people I met—from the Serbian priest in my ulpan to the South African Jewish surrogate family who de facto adopted me for random Shabbatot and Hagim,etc, but I will say that I left with more questions than answers. I needed to return.

Soon after that year I began the task of starting my senior thesis. If I wanted to be an academic, I reasoned, it was time for my first serious research project. Already disenchanted with Talmud, I figured I could finagle a free trip if I wrote something related to Israel. And so with little background and against the wishes of my advisor, I wrote a senior thesis on religious women in the Israeli army (and got a free trip to do research.) I knew from then on that I had chosen the right path.

JS: What are you learning? (Without giving away secrets?)

SW: I will try to not give away all my secrets. Basically, I’ve learned how old some of these issues of gender are. They really go to the core of Jewish settlement in  Palestine, from the very beginning of what we call the First Aliyah.  Also, I have been surprised to find out how much common cause religious and secular people had in their concern over the beach, especially in the Mandate Period. Those norms have shifted now, but some of them still remain. Gender segregation goes to the core of a discussion of what a Jewish and democratic state might look like.  We need to realize that these aren’t new issues.

Also, I do not like the trend to only blame Haredim for the current trends in Israel, although I am not suggesting in any way that they are blame-free.  The secular government has been just as much blame—these things are the products of long historical processes of compromises and controversies. My research has taken me to all sorts of crazy places, from random kibbutzim to the Archbishop of Canterbury. I really enjoy how it feels like detective work. I’ve even dealt with classified files.

JS: How has this research changed/added to your personal notions of Israel and/or Judaism?

SW: I do feel sometimes as if I am getting a Phd in Crazy People. Studying this region is stressful and everyone expects you to take a side. Modern Orthodoxy, the community with which I generally align, is sometimes hard because my opinions do not fall in line with the standard position taken. I feel like the veil has been lifted, and I harbor no illusions that my Zionist upbringing taught me about the pioneers and making the dessert bloom. Israel is a real place, and exists in highs and lows, shame and wonder. The shuk still entrances me, but I also wonder about the Palestinian teenager who sells me my beets.

Jewishly, I have been challenged by the religious establishment in Israel, especially the Rabbinate. It’s not an organization I am fond of, and it’s hard when Israelis assume that you, as an observant person, are their representative because I observe the Sabbath. I understand why they make those assumptions, but I don’t like it.

In general, Israelis do not always trust an American doing research about Israel—especially an observant female American. I am frequently asked if I know Hebrew (or how it was possible to learn Hebrew if I am not Israeli) . One memorable moment was when I was asked in an academic conference, right after I presented a paper, how I had gotten a heter (rabbinic permission) to read gender theory from my rabbi.

JS: What do you see as the implications for your research in the Jewish community? (If any?)

SW: Researching Israel is not a simple thing. While my research does not focus directly on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is of course impossible to avoid. I carry my own opinions, but suffice it to say I do my best to resist being enlisted by any cheerleaders of a particular cause. That is not to say I am an objective observer—I am involved as a stakeholder as an American Jewish woman, an self-identified observant Jew, etc. I don’t think I want to get into specific party lines here, but I will say I urge a critical thinking about Israel—it is a multifaceted land with real people, and real issues. A unwillingness to see those issues and especially to confront serious issues does not benefit anyone. When teaching the history of Israel to undergraduates, my Jewish students in particular, regardless of political affiliation, they tell me how much resent the indoctrination attempts of their youth groups and schools.

However, my focus on gender and especially religion can disguise the subversive nature of my research; a funny quirk that I think ultimately is to my own benefit. I want to challenge our most basic assumptions about how Judaism works in the state of Israel, and how forms of Orthodoxy have flourished in a seeming secular society. I suspect Israel is much more traditional than it cares to admit.

Finally, I consider myself in a unique position: an American white Jewish female researching Israel, a position that is neither inside nor outside. It’s funny that my research leads me to speak in shuls and the like—I’m the farthest thing from clergy, yet being a Jewish studies academic sometimes leads people to think that my role is interchangeable with that of a rabbi. I do not see my professional life as being beholden to the Jewish community—I answer to the gods of the Academy alone—but I sometimes take on the role of a consultant. If I can help people, Jews included, understand Israel better—for good, and for bad—I am thrilled. But this does require tossing our rose colored glasses, and confronting the reality behind the symbols. Americans especially tend to remake Zion in our own image, and this tendency is especially problematic when we in the Jewish community project our notions of Zion onto what we think Israel should be. Just look at Women of the Wall: secular Israelis, who often complain about the overbearing role of Orthodox Judaism in their life, have for the most part given up on the Kotel—and don’t have sympathy for these women and their cause.

JS: What are you excited about? (Related to your research or not.)

SW: I just downloaded a Shas app to my phone. I can type in my name and requests blessings from Rav OvadiaYosef. I am excited to write my dissertation and start a wider conversation about gender in Israel. And always, more Israeli television is an exciting prospect.

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"I may attack a certain point of view which I consider false, but I will never attack a person who preaches it. I have always a high regard for the individual who is honest and moral, even when I am not in agreement with him. Such a relation is in accord with the concept of kavod habriyot, for beloved is man for he is created in the image of God." —Rav Joseph Soloveitchik