The Man’s Seder: The Backlash to the Backlash

 This is a guest post by Miriam Cantor-Stone. Miriam serves as the Education Program Assistant at the Jewish Women’s Archive in Brookline, MA. When she’s not working at JWA, she teaches third graders about immigration and Jewish culture at the Boston Workmen’s Circle Shule/Sunday School and sings in Voices Rising, an all-female feminist chorus. 

 

I have had many experiences in my life that have involved spaces made just for women. These women-only spaces were not created specifically to exclude men, rather they were to give opportunities to women who might not have had them otherwise. For instance, I graduated from Mount Holyoke College, a women’s college in western Massachusetts. While I may have been initially drawn to a women’s college to escape the “dumb boys” of high school, I stuck with it for the excellent education and once-in-a-lifetime chances offered to me, like working abroad for a summer and directing plays as a non-theatre major.

 

So when I read the blog post entitled “Man’s Seder: The Backlash,” I was immediately skeptical. I imagined it was written by the same kind of person who would obnoxiously ask, “If there’s a ‘women’s studies’ major why isn’t there a men’s studies’ major?” As I read the post, by Rabbi Reuven Spolter of Israel, I couldn’t help but scoff and snort my way through most of it. It’s clear to me that he has little to no understanding of why events like women’s seders were created in the first place.  He makes this very clear when he says, “I wondered why only women were having such an event, and decided to organize a similar program for the men. Was there an outcry at the exclusionary tactics of the Federation for creating a gendered version of the Seder? Hardly. There was a need, and we created it.” Rabbi Spolter makes all sorts of assumptions about his readers that I find both laughable and a little bit offensive. When defending the idea of a Men’s Seder, he says:

 

“At your Seder, who recites the Kiddush? Who breaks the Matzah? Who makes the Motzi? At most Sedarim (although I wonder about those of the members of the “I’m also fed up with the way women are treated in Orthodoxy” FB group), a man makes the kiddush, breaks the Matzah at Yachatz, etc. In other words, he ‘leads’ the Seder. That doesn’t mean he monopolizes or controls it. He leads it. Wouldn’t it also make sense that in addition to the technical aspects of leading, that he also came to the Seder prepared to lead a discussion and engage in meaningful conversation about the Exodus? Yes? You agree? That’s the basic idea of the Man’s Seder.”

 

Rabbi Spolter seems to think that all seders everywhere are just like the ones he attends. While he’s making his case for a Men’s Seder, he’s perpetuating every reason why Women’s Seders exist in the first place. His argument is that because men have traditionally led seders in the past, then of course an all-male seder makes sense. Rabbi Spolter, you really don’t get it, do you? Women’s Seders were created for the purpose of giving women the opportunity to participate in a ritual that up until the last few decades has been exclusively a men’s zone. And when he mentions the Facebook group that lit the spark of criticism of Men’s Seders, he is completely disrespectful and hypocritical. He says, “You’re fed up? You’re angry? Can there be a more negative, nasty, distasteful group on Facebook? (It is the definition of what’s wrong with Facebook. While FB can be a tool to spread ideas and share constructive thoughts, too often it serves as a clearinghouse for venomous spewing of negativity and hatred).” Umm, HELLO?! You’re writing a BLOG POST, buddy. Don’t condemn people for online discussions when you’re writing in essentially the same manner. He continues, “What you end up with is a group of Feminists from across the religious spectrum who have gathered to criticize Orthodoxy. Great.” It’s not Orthodoxy they’re criticizing, dude, it’s the idea that people are creating ritual space for men that has been a space for men for centuries, and acting like it’s revolutionary and necessary.

 

I fully understand the need for an inclusive space. It’s important to have a group of people that understands each other’s situations and feelings and needs. Rabbi Spolter and all rabbis who have done or are thinking of hosting a Men’s Seder, please think about your intentions and about how women have been treated in the past in your chosen movement. Each branch of Judaism has had to work on (and is still working on) the full acceptance of women as full members of the Jewish community. No longer are women confining themselves only to the kitchen to prepare the enormous Passover meal; they’re also digging through scores of Haggadot to choose the best way to lead their Seders. And remember that Women’s Seders were not created to exclude men, so do not for a moment think that a Men’s Seder is needed to exclude women. However much Rabbi Spolter claims to support women in his community, it seems to me he’s got a whole long way to go, as do many other Jewish communities, not to mention people in general.

Throwback Thursday: from the “why won’t this go away?” file

I noticed recently that polygamy and its presumed benefits seem to be making the rounds – unfortunately – once again, so I dug up this old fisking. Nope, still not a good idea.

…from what I can tell, her real complaint is that this younger generation prefers monogamy and childrearing to the raunch that she claims her generation championed. Look at the utter condescension:

Punishing the sexual woman is a hoary, antique meme found from “Jane Eyre” to “The Scarlet Letter” to “Sex and the City,” where the lustiest woman ended up with breast cancer. Sex for women is dangerous. Sex for women leads to madness in attics, cancer and death by fire. Better to soul cycle and write cookbooks. Better to give up men and sleep with one’s children. Better to wear one’s baby in a man-distancing sling and breast-feed at all hours so your mate knows your breasts don’t belong to him. Our current orgy of multiple maternity does indeed leave little room for sexuality. With children in your bed, is there any space for sexual passion? The question lingers in the air, unanswered.

Right. Just where does she think those babies come from… what, they were decanted from a tube? The irony is so thick – she seems to be arguing for people to uncouple sex and intimacy even while her subtext is that people are rejecting intimacy. I wonder if she actually remembers any of the people who were engaged in those wonderful open marriages?
- See more at: jewschool.com/2011/07/12/26564/not-bringing-sexy-backplease/#sthash.fLGNmfGM.dpuf

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On Gender and “America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis”

This is a guest post by Miriam Cantor-Stone. Miriam serves as the Education Program Assistant at the Jewish Women’s Archive in Brookline, MA. When she’s not working at JWA, she teaches third graders about immigration and Jewish culture at the Boston Workmen’s Circle Shule/Sunday School and sings in Voices Rising, an all-female feminist chorus.

In an age where fewer people seem to be joining, let alone attending, synagogues, the writers from the Forward call their list of “America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis, “an affirmation that despite the worrying mega-trends, our spiritual leaders are connecting with Jews and strengthening communities across America.”

I don’t think a list like this a bad idea. If anything, it might help connect people to their rabbis or potential future rabbis. It’s fair to say the Jewish people appreciate good press, and it’s nice to see Rabbis from all denominations represented. Frustratingly, what wasn’t very well represented was gender. The list features 28 rabbis from across North America (mostly New York, which isn’t much of a surprise) and only 9 women.

I’m sure the creators of this list will have plenty to say in their defense. But what excuse could they have? Women have quickly become an important presence in the rabbinate, even in Orthodoxy. Yes, women rabbis are still making new and crucial strides on the pulpit (see the fabulous Rabbi Angela Warnick Buchdahl at NYC’s Central Synagogue) but women rabbis are more accepted today than in the 50 years since Rabbi Sally Priesand was ordained at Hebrew Union College.

It’s fair to say that people frustrated by this list aren’t asking for a re-do. The list features some incredible Jewish leaders who all certainly deserve to be recognize for the work they do. I just hope next time the Forward will better represent the women involved in keeping Judaism alive as best as they can, just like their male counterparts.

 

 

“Every time a woman is seen in tefillin or tzitzit, the Jew at prayer in the common imagination becomes more fluid…”

This is a guest post by Avigayil Halpern. Avigayil is a senior at the Hebrew High School of New England. She is a Bronfman Youth Fellow for 2013, a Rising Voices Fellow, through the Jewish Women’s Archive and Prozdor, and an alumna of Drisha’s Dr. Beth Samuels High School Programs. She maintains a personal blog at theprocessofthetaking.blogspot.com. Follow her on Twitter at @avigayiln.

The first time I wrapped tefillin was on Masada, in Israel last summer as a Bronfman Youth Fellow. It should have been highly meaningful: I was watching the sun rise, standing in the ruins of a final Jewish stronghold, and I was with tremendously inspiring peers and teachers. Instead, when my counselor handed me the green velvet bag, I stood holding it, nervous and unsure of what to do with myself. As a childhood friend of mine wrapped the straps around my arm and hand and helped me adjust the head-tefillin, I stood still, repeating the brachot after him. When I prayed, any concentration that might have stemmed from the tefillin was canceled out by the strangeness of the physical sensation; the tefillin were powerful because of what they were, not because they grounded me.

My prayers that morning were punctuated by quibbles between my friends — the chazzan was going too fast, a more slowly praying participant was “backseat leading” — and repeatedly counting to make sure we still had a minyan as people wandered away. After we finished, my friend helped me unwrap the tefillin.

It was not until three weeks later that I was taught properly how to don tefillin myself. It was in a rush, the afternoon before my program left Israel, when we were all dashing around packing stray socks and squeegeeing the tile floors. Judith Rosenbaum, a program faculty member, Jewish women’s historian, and personal mentor, took me aside and taught me how to put on tefillin. She showed me how to twine the bands around my fingers, needing to practice on herself; it is not often that one wraps tefillin around another’s hand.

These anecdotes, my first tefillin stories, aren’t simple and spiritual. My experiences were confusing and mundane. Those moments did not ring with feelings of empowerment or reclamation. My Orthodox background, contrary to what I had expected, did not make the tefillin feel taboo — by the time I actually wore them, I had long been considering the idea. What sticks with me about these experiences is how natural it felt to be taught this mitzvah by a woman. I didn’t feel alone, as I had expected; I was part of a chain of tefillin-laying women.

My experience when I began wearing tzitzit was radically different. While I had previously considered wearing them, my first pair was an impulse buy. I was shopping on Ben Yehuda Street with a friend, and wandered into one of the tourist-geared Judaica shops that pepper the boulevard. I began to pick up packaged tallitot katan, examining them to see if I could find a small size. When the only pairs out were in a men’s medium, I asked the store’s proprietor (a friendly-looking, white-bearded, American-sounding Chareidi man) if they had tzitzit in smaller boys’ sizes. He answered in the affirmative, and began to hold up very small garments. “I’m looking for one that would fit a twelve-year-old boy,” I said. My friend added, “It’s for her little brother.”

I walked out of the store, three pairs of tzitzit in hand, grinning. I wore them for the first time the very next day. It was a Friday, and my group was venturing to Tzfat for Shabbat. As we walked through the city’s narrow stone alleyways and blue-painted synagogues and cemeteries, I grinned each time I caught sight of my fringes. They were both very strange and intimately familiar, totally new and yet totally me. Several times over the course of the weekend, I was approached by friendly strangers inquiring as to why I, a woman, was wearing tzitzit. The first time this happened, two young Chareidi woman came over to me at Kabbalat Shabbat. I wasn’t prepared to answer their question, and simply stammered out “it’s a mitzvah!” The twenty-somethings smiled, and one of them said, “That’s so interesting, I’ve never seen that before. Does your Rav think it’s okay?” I grinned and assured them that yes, my rav permits it. I didn’t attempt to explain to them that the community of people I consider to be my “rav” is large and diverse; while not everyone around me approves of my tzitzit, the people I look to for religious guidance, my “rebbeim,” are supportive.

My experiences of tzitzit and tefillin are unique. Some women wear tzitzit under their clothes, as a private reminder of the Divine. Some women have been laying tefillin since their Bat Mitzvah. Some women find these practices radically spiritual, while for others they are entirely mundane. Each woman’s experience is different. But we share a common bond; every time we perform these mitzvot, we shift Jewish practice a little bit. Every time I explain to a little girl that “yes, girls can wear tzitzit too, isn’t that cool?” as she curiously twists the strings between her fingers, she is more likely to feel that she, too, can own this mitzvah. Every time a woman changes her Facebook profile picture of one of herself praying with tefillin, the cultural image of the praying Jew becomes a little more female. Every time a woman is seen in tefillin or tzitzit, the Jew at prayer in the common imagination becomes more fluid, less likely to have a beard.

The Jewish world needs to hear women’s real experiences with these mitzvoth. It is for this reason that I have founded V’Tzivanu: Women, Tefillin, and Tzitzit, (v’tzivanu translates to “and has made us a mitzvah”) a blog project which will publish women’s writing on tefillin or tzitzit twice a month. Recent uproar in the Jewish blogosphere about women and tefillin has led to an increased presence of women’s voices and stories, but this is insufficient. V’Tzivanu is a project for my past self, the tenth grader who Googled “women and tefillin” and found only an explanation of why women’s spiritual superiority leads to our exemption from mitzvot. This is a project for older women, who have been laying tefillin for decades and have faced obstacles of which I have never dreamed. This is a project for Bat Mitzvah girls, who will see that Jewish womanhood is so much broader and deeper than a set of candlesticks. This is a project for the Jewish people.

Thoughts on Amalek from the Jerusalem Sermon Slam

For anyone trying to hold on to those last breaths of Purim, here is my piece from the recent Jerusalem Sermon Slam on the theme of Amalek, in which I consider a bizarrely persistent custom about about language, Amalek’s relationship to sexual violence and degradation, and how we capture that dystopic reality theologically.  It was a provocative evening — a safe space for dangerous Torah (h/t for that phrase to my student, Rabbi Eric Woodward).  Check out the other videos from the event, as well.  My personal favorites are by Charlie Buckholtz (Amalek, predatory housing corruption, and more), Candace Mittel (remembering so that there’s no room left for Amalek), Bonna Haberman (how we produce Amalek), and Julie Seltzer (finding Amalek through its physical letters).  To find out more about Sermon Slam and to support its next steps, you can check out the Kickstarter campaign.  Check out upcoming Sermon Slams March 24 in Philadelphia, March 27 at Brandeis University, April 3 triple-header in Berkeley, Boston, and NYC-Washington Heights, April 7 in Philadelphia (Interfaith), and April 10 in Providence.

Rabbinical Girl

The following post is contributed by guest poster Miriam Liebman. A native Detroiter, Miriam Liebman is currently a second-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Miriam is also an alum of AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps.

On a Shabbat afternoon last summer, sitting with two colleagues, one turned to the other and said, “Daniel, is this your tallis?” “No,” I said, “It’s mine.” Nothing specifically identifies my tallis as feminine. To the contrary, it is nondescript; white with blue stripes, the tallis my brother received for his Bar Mitzvah. The bag, too, is blue velvet with a gold embroidered star. I would have made the same mistake. The only thing that identifies my tallis as belonging to a woman are the lipstick stains.

I wear make-up and high heals, I like manicures and nice clothes; I am a girly girl. But when it comes to my prayer garb, I feel I will be taken more seriously in something considered un-gendered, neutral. But the more time I spend in traditional Jewish spaces, the more I have come realize that when we claim that a tallis is not gendered what we really mean is that it is male. And when we claim that we are creating egalitarian spaces what we really mean is that women are allowed to enter and participate in traditionally men’s spaces. Are we really only asking for women to find a role in a man’s world or are we asking to ungender the entire space?

Still from "Sermonizer" video

Judaism was a system created by men for men. To the rabbis of the Talmud, “all Jews” meant “all free men.” Today, I am in my second year of rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary. I spend my days immersed in texts that tell the lives, stories, and laws of those rabbis. As their words come to life for me, I feel more and more embedded in a vision of Judaism that will both allow me to honor my inheritance and bring my voice to bear on what future generations will inherit. My love of Jewish texts and tradition is not void of an understanding that my voice and the voices of many others are missing. If we are to exist in community where “all Jews” really means “all Jews,” we must live that out without exceptions, without caveats, and without apologies. We must hold ourselves to standards, not because we are expecting perfection, but because being in community means holding each other accountable.

This past fall, a group of seminary women at Duke University put out a parody of Britney Spears’ Womanizer. Taking the music of Britney Spears, they sang and danced on library tables about their own experiences as Lady Preachers in a music video they called Sermonizer. In reflecting on the video, one of the women, Christina, wrote,

I am a lady preacher because some of the best preachers I know are women. Because they stood behind pulpits and talked about periods and infertility, about rape, about divorce. Because they stood behind pulpits and said words that you don’t say in church. Because they helped me learn to say them, too.
I too stand behind a long line of women and their male allies who helped create a place where I can struggle openly and honestly with the inheritance handed to me.

And so, inspired by the Lady Preachers, a group of women at the Jewish Theological Seminary decided to make our own video for the JTS Purim Spiel: Rabbinical Girl, to the music of Madonna’s Material Girl. We did this because we are both proud of and proud to be at JTS. We make jokes about the absence of women’s restrooms on the fifth floor and the pressure often felt at JTS to be partnered, especially as women. Like the Lady Preachers, we were being silly. We were creating and sharing what we knew to be the best Purim Torah we could think of. And like so much of the best comedy that exists, there was no doubt truth in what we said.

There was a moment during editing of the video where I wondered out loud if some of what we were saying was too offensive. I immediately retracted my statement understanding that if we are not willing to publicly say what we believe at our core, we don’t stand for anything. And though we joke about being invisible to those in the non-egalitarian minyan at JTS, and pride ourselves on having worn tefillin since the 80s, the sentiments behind our jokes hold true. Because until we begin to redefine what a person who wears a tallis looks like, lipstick stains or not, and incorporate the experiences of non-masculine bodies and voices into our perceptions of what we mean today when we say “all Jews,” we are continuing to do nothing more than allow women to participate.

When we start from the premise that women and other minority members of our community must be affirmed, we are maintaining a system of patriarchy. Let’s start from the fundamental assumption that all members of our community are equal. I am not under any allusion that habits change over night. But the way we perceive gender roles can only change if we begin to shift the conversation to one that assumes that all roles are open to all people. Affirmation and allowance are not enough. Acknowledging that we are already on a path to full equality, this necessary phase of acceptance must move beyond a woman’s ability to enter into and participate in traditionally held men’s spaces and into one where roles and obligations are no longer questioned on the basis of gender.

It’s time we stop viewing particular women as honorary men. It’s time we stop giving women permission to take on certain roles. It’s time we raise a generation who no longer assumes the rabbi is a man. It’s time we embrace tradition not because it belongs to the binaries we’ve created of men and women but because it belongs to us.

Framing Gender and Tefillin: Rabbi Aryeh Klapper Responds to Raphael Magarik’s Critique

In the context of a recent flurry of articles about gender and tefillin, Raphael Magarik recently published here in Jewschool a critique of Rabbi Aryeh Klapper’s critique of a legal analysis by Rabbi Ethan Tucker.  Here is Rabbi Klapper’s response. –aryehbernstein

Rabbi Aryeh Klapper is Dean of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership, Instructor of Rabbinics and Medical Ethics at  Gann Academy, and a member of the Boston Beit Din.  You can find out more about his work here.

Dear Raffi,

Several mutual friends have forwarded your response to me, and I really appreciate that you read and cared about what I wrote, and your desire to defend your teacher’s position.  My instinct was to let my article speak for itself, but they have persuaded me that at least a brief response is appropriate.

So with maximal brevity, and apology if that generates apparent curtness:

1)  I suggested that there is room for masculine and feminine ritual, and as an example cited the liturgical conception that wrapping tefillin around the fingers symbolizes G-d placing a ring on the finger of His betrothed Israel.  You moved from there to the claim that I must believe that women “cannot partake in the experience of being betrothed . . . a woman cannot be the servant of G-d, because she is already the servant of men.”

However, footnote 4 of my article says:

“Women can play that religious role as well or better than men; my point is that it would not be the same experience for women as men, and that the power of the tefillin-liturgy for men may stem precisely from its requirement that they experience a female role in the context of a ritual only men are obligated to perform.”

2)  You say – “the suggestion, as I take it, is that the male role is dominant, the female submissive”.

Why do you take it that way?  I do not see these as the only way to conceptualize male and female differences.  Do you?  If yes, of course you will see all gender differences as embodiments of evil patriarchal dominance. More »

Can Women be God’s Servants? A response to Rabbi Aryeh Klapper on Gender and Tefillin

by Raphael Magarik

Raphael Magarik is a PhD student in English at Berkeley and a friend of Jewschool.  Check out his site for more. –aryehbernstein

I come late to the current conversation over gender and tefillin, and we have already heard plenty from other men already on the subject. That said, I thought I would share a quick reaction to R. Aryeh Klapper’s response to my teacher, R. Ethan Tucker.

I have several local disagreements with R. Klapper. For instance, when he claims the Talmud did imagine women wearing tefillin, he over-reads Bavli Eiruvin 95-96. There the idea that women are obligated in tefillin is introduced only as a dialectical, logical hypothetical. Elizabeth Shanks Alexander, who analyzes the Eruvin passage very closely, concludes, “ideological concerns about gender are not responsible for the creation of a position allowing women to wear tefillin.” The position (attributed to R. Meir), which she notes had no practical ramifications, “grew [instead] out of interpretive pressures forced by the Bavli’s academic agenda.” That explains why, as Tosafot and David Weiss Halivni ad loc note, the position directly contracts an explicit anonymous Mishnah, which we usually attribute to R. Meir.

The latest, anonymous layer of the Bavli, the so-called “stamma,” collates widely disparate materials and weaves them together dialectically. The editors express many radical or fanciful ideas which reflect its aesthetic of abstract argumentation—not serious halakhic proposals. Perhaps R. Klapper is not as enamored of academic interpretations of the Bavli as I am and would prefer not to dismiss any line of the Talmud as formal dialectics. But it is telling that he later suggests that those who hold that women are obligated in tefillin “are behaving like ‘outsiders, who transgress the words of the sages and do not wish to interpret Scripture as they do.’” Apparently, R. Meir’s is now the way of outsiders. Or more likely, when push comes to shove, R. Klapper does what we all do. He discounts the Stamma’s move in Eruvin.

More »

Mimi Arbeit: “Say that none of the words feel quite right, and commit to speaking and listening anyway.”

 Mimi Arbeit is a Ph.D. student at Tufts in Child Development, where she studies adolescent sexuality, sexual health, and sexual violence prevention. She is a freelance sexuality educator and also works locally to promote and strengthen sexuality education in public schools.

The Debrief, Mimi’s column on sex, dating, and relationships, comes out every Wednesday on JewishBoston.com. She loves dancing, taking walks around the city, and listening to people share their stories. Email mimia@jewishboston.com or tweet @MimiArbeit.
 

Jewschool: What’s the intersection of progressive values, sex ed and Jewish identity for you?

Mimi Arbeit: Progressive values, sex ed, and promoting healthy relationships is at the core of my Jewish involvement. My commitment to feminist and queer values is central to who I am as a person and the work I try to do in the world. I became involved with Judaism as a teenager, but departed from Jewish spaces in college when I realized how much the tradition clung to harmful gender norms and patriarchal practices. For years, I didn’t know what to do. Jewish community can be beautiful and powerful, but I needed a Jewish community in which I could bring all of my passions, and in which my own desire for personhood and my commitment to building a better world would not be eclipsed by a reification of problematic Jewish traditions. The communities I found in Boston allowed me to be a part of exploring the kinds of Judaism that hold more possibility for me – especially the Moishe Kavod House, Keshet, and JewishBoston.com.

JS: Before writing at The Debrief, you wrote a blog called Sex Ed Transforms. What can we find there? 

MA: I started Sex Ed Transforms five years ago when I was working in a public school teaching health and sex ed. I used this space to give words to my dream, my work, and my analysis. I discussed my experience with sex ed in public school, my reflections on what I was reading, my own personal growth in activities such as body-positive challenge, and my sex ed for young adults work at the Moishe Kavod House. In the month before my wedding, I wrote extensively about my experience grappling with sexism, materialism, and interpersonal challenges throughout the planning process. Last year, I made it into the final round of the Feministing “So You Think You Can Blog” contest by submitting a post on queer identity and a post on 50 Shades of Grey. Although I did not become a regular contributor to Feministing, I soon after started writing The Debrief weekly at JewishBoston.com, and now I post on Sex Ed Transforms much more rarely.

JS:  What’s been the most difficult topic (you can name a few) you’ve handled at The Debrief? What’s your favorite? 

MA: The Debrief is a sex, dating, and relationships column posted every Wednesday at JewishBoston.com. I love facilitating this space in which I can invite other community members to share their stories, questions, and reflections, either by name or anonymously. I am honored every time people choose to share their stories with me, and I am deeply moved by what they express.

I also write several pieces myself. The most difficult pieces to write have been the two addressing issues of trauma and violence. I wrote a post connecting the ritual of spilling wine at the Passover seder with the Steubenville rape trial, and soon after that I wrote a post about different kinds of trauma in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing. It was a difficult spring.

My favorite posts of the ones I wrote myself are the pieces that push boundaries. One of my earliest posts asked, “Can hookups be holy?,” and I wrote a post about National Masturbation Month in May. I also have enjoyed the opportunity to share some of my own process. Elul, the last month of the Jewish calendar, is a time set aside for reflection. I took the entire month to reflect on sex, dating, relationships, and building community, and continued this tone through Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I gained a lot, personally, from working on these posts and sharing them with my readers.

I am always looking for new story ideas and new contributions, so I encourage readers to email me at mimia@jewishboston.com anytime.

JS: What do you think is the current state of the conversation about sex in Jewish communities? Why do you think it is what it is? What advice would you give to folks who want to change the status quo? 

MA: I can only hope to learn that a wide variety of dynamic, engaging, critical conversations about sex are currently taking place in Jewish communities worldwide. But I also know that many Jewish communities are not having such conversations. I think we are held back because we are nervous, embarrassed, ashamed, afraid, or we don’t know the words to use to express how we feel. We try to say what we think we are supposed to say, and we try to do what we think we are supposed to do, and when we say or do something different from what’s expected of us, we too often get told to stop.

If we want to change the status quo, and I certainly do, we need to start with deep sharing and listening. Really taking risks to hear each other, understand the complexity of our own and each other’s lived experiences, ask caring and probing questions of each other, and speak. Share. Try to explain even when none of the words we know feel quite right. Name that – say that none of the words feel quite right, and commit to speaking and listening anyway.

With the foundation of a community committed to listening and speaking, speaking and listening, we need to pursue conversations that are inclusive of all voices. Wait, not only inclusive, but structured through a model of equity. Working to merely include marginalized voices will still leave those voices marginalized. We need to find a way to actively structure a new conversation about sex and relationships with people who have previously been marginalized now at the center. As part of that process, we will need trauma-informed ways to talk about sex. So many members of our community are survivors of sexual trauma of different forms – more people than we even realize. When we talk about sex, it can be a wonderful and positive part of our lives, and it can also be a place of violence and violation. We need to find out how to talk about all of that.

JS: What, for you, is at stake in this work? 

MA: Acceptance. Humanity. Connection. The possibility of a life lived honestly and powerfully. World peace.

Seeking Outstanding Young Feminist Leader for Tannenbaum Prize

The Hadassah Foundation is looking to highlight the accomplishments of an amazing emerging professional who is working to advance the cause of Jewish girls and young women in the United States or the cause of Israeli women—can you help us identify such a professional?

We are excited to announce that The Hadassah Foundation is accepting nominations for its annual Bernice S. Tannenbaum Prize. As you may know, the Tannenbaum Prize aims to reward an emerging professional (with less than approximately 15 years of experience) who has demonstrated a high degree of talent, commitment, and accomplishment in their work to enhance the status of women and girls, and who anticipates continuing their careers in this field. The intent of the Prize is to make the field more effective by supporting the development of future leaders.

Current and past Hadassah Foundation grantees from Israel and the United States, as well as other organizations that serve Jewish girls and young women in the United States or who serve women in Israel, may nominate a staff person to receive this prize. There will be an award of up to $2,500, which the Prize recipient must use for professional development. In addition, there will be an award of $500 that may be used for general operating support. The Board of Directors of the Hadassah Foundation will select the winner and present the award at a special ceremony on June 10, 2014 in New York City. The winner is required to attend the ceremony; their travel and hotel expenses will be covered by the Foundation.

See the prize guidelines, deadline noon Eastern time on Friday, February 7, 2014.

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The Forward’s 2013 Salary Survey, Round 1: Registering the Gender Gap

“Things gonna change; it’s apparent, and all the transparent gonna be seen through.
Let God redeem you, keep your deen true.
Watch out what you cling to; you can get the green too.  Observe how a queen do…
You could get the money, you could get the power, but keep your eyes on the final hour.” — Lauryn Hill (“Final Hour”)

Jane Eisner and her good crew at The Forward have published their fifth annual salary survey, listing the 62 top-earning executives of American, Jewish non-profit organizations and their salaries.  The main two questions emerging from these annual surveys are whether the salaries paid to our community’s leaders are appropriate, excessive, or insufficient, and why the gender gap remains so significant.

This year’s survey is accompanied, for the first time, by statistical analysis by Wharton Business School statistics Professor Abraham Wyner and his student Tamara Pier, quantifying pretty accessibly which CEO’s are overpaid in relation to the expected salary for an organization of the size they run.  Wyner and his team also tackle the gender gap, quantifying how much of it should be attributed to the fact that when women run Jewish organizations, they tend to be smaller organizations, and how much should be attributed to other factors, such as sex discrimination in salary.

For what I hope is just round one of processing of this information here in Jewschool, I’m not jumping to conclusions yet about which, if any, of the salaries on this list is excessive and what kind of waste is going on in Jewish philanthropy, etc., as I don’t feel that I have sufficient command of the market data for how much non-profit CEO’s should be paid in order to recruit top people, what salaries need to be in different cities based on cost of living, etc.

I would like to home in on the gender data, just to focus our attention toward a productive strategy conversation toward communal repair.  A few disturbing observations: More »

“We wanted to be both inclusive to people who may not raise their hands as feminists”

The tagline of this year’s Jewish Feminist Alliance (JOFA) 8th annual gathering on Dec 7-8 has sparked a conversation: “It’s not just for feminists anymore.”

Long time JOFA supporter Jennifer Moran’s Facebook feed blew up when she posted this status:  ”Just received an ad for the 8th International JOFA Conference, which proclaims, ‘It’s not just for feminists anymore…’ How I wish that I could convince my fellow women’s rights activists to stop disparaging, diminishing, or distancing themselves from feminism.” Others wondered if JOFA’s mission had changed, if social norms in the Orthodox community had led JOFA to shift its recruitment strategy away from the “radical” notion of feminism.

What’s the motivation behind this tagline and what’s happening at the conference?  We spoke with Sarah Blechner, Marketing Chair for the upcoming conference. Blechner was raised in an Orthodox feminist household and has attended JOFA conferences since she was in high school.

 

Jewschool: What can we expect from this year’s JOFA conference that’s different from previous years? 

Sarah Blechner: Whereas many of the past conferences have focused on the Orthodox community writ large, this year, while we will still be tackling those large, community issues, we are also talking in a much more personal way than ever before. We are really looking forward to bringing many of the “big” issues down to an individual level and discussing how many of these issues impact the everyday, the individual, and the quieter moments. More »

Zombie manicures arise once more!

Like the zombie living dead trend,Torah manicures fever just will not die.
Starve the cold, feed the fever, or the reverse. Kill it, already. Why is this still being talked about as though it were an innovative thing? It is NOT.

Look, the idea seems innocuous- in order to make Torah attractive to girls, let’s have a middle school club in which they give themselves manicures with things related to the Torah, parsha scenes, perhaps, and (eventually) discuss them. (How bold, how innovative! came the cry from the innovation alter kockers.)

Guess what Midrash Manicures is not, other than innovative? Innocuous. It trivializes both the girls and the Torah. It doesn’t (as some claim) make Torah more accessible, it makes it “cute” – compared to what “boys do” – which is, study commentaries, and use Torah to make laws and meaning. (When boys do things like get manicures, as they sometimes do for events like Manicure for the Cure, it’s funny, because what girls and women do is seen as trivial and silly. Even though they’re stepping outside of traditional masculinity, they can do it in this instance, as long as they make a joke out of it.)

But, everyone howls, it makes girls more interested in Torah! Well, does it really?

Let’s say it does: So, why aren’t they interested in Torah without it then? What is the structural problems with the way we teach Torah that makes girls think, Nope, not for me? The reason girls maybe don’t love the Torah or whatever is that it’s not cute or cool or sexy for girls to be smart, ESPECIALLY in middle school, when this whole manicure thing is going down. Girls are socialized to not be openly smart or bold or interesting because boys don’t like it. (And boys are the most important thing. Duh.) Instead of openly challenging that-or anything else- Midrash Manicures is buying right into it. It’s not unlike fraternities and sororities who coordinate massive efforts around philanthropy and raise money for kids with cancer-it looks like a great thing to do, so no one questions it, or their failure to work on any level for structural change or systemic roots.

It’s not that, in and of itself, there’s something wrong with getting a manicure. It’s the idea that painting one’s nails with the parshah is an innovative way to teach girls Torah instead of a regressive reinforcement of ideas about gender and both the importance of Torah (it’s so simple you can put it on your nails, if you’re a girl) and how girls can be induced to learn. But in several of the articles lauding this innovation, when the girls were asked about it, their responses were along the lines of: My friends say I’m so lucky because I get to do my nails in school. Clearly the Torah study is sinking in.

Rainbow Tallit Baby has written about this as well, and nailed it (pun intended): “While the manicure program may get more girls in the door than a regular midrash class, offering this program sends the message that torah study is not a serious occupation for women and that torah is not appealing on its own and needs to be sugar-coated (or Ravishing Red coated) to be made palatable to them.”

The Jewish Women’s Archive and Prozdor Announce the Rising Voices Fellowship for Teens

from the Jewish Women’s Archive Blog

Prozdor and the Jewish Women’s Archive announce the pilot year of the  Rising Voices Fellowship!

The fellowship is open to female-identified teens in grades 11 and 12 who have a passion for writing, a demonstrated concern for current events, a commitment to improving their writing skills, and a strong interest in Judaism—particularly as it relates to issues of gender and equality.  These fellows will write 8-12 monthly posts for “Jewesses with Attitude,” the Jewish Women’s Archive blog.

What does the fellowship look like? 

• The fellowship will launch with a half-day kick-off meeting at Hebrew College in Newton, MA, on October 13, 2013.  At this meeting, staff from Prozdor and JWA will review the goals of the program, facilitate community building, and begin teaching the techniques for crafting quality blog posts.

• Following the kick-off, the cohort will meet monthly throughout the year, including both virtual and in-person meetings. (Because these meetings will take place at Prozdor in Newton, MA, we are limiting our pilot year to New England-based participants who are able to travel to and from our meetings.)

• Tools and techniques for improving one’s writing and understanding of social media will be at the core of each of these meetings. Between writing, peer review, and preparation for upcoming meetings, participants will be asked to allocate two to three hours a week to the program.

• Jordyn Rozensky, JWA’s Blog Editor, will work independently with each of the fellows on her writing. The ability to accept and learn from edits, as well as a commitment to improving writing skills, is crucial for success in the program.

• Participants who successfully complete the fellowship will be invited to serve as mentors for the next year’s fellows.

To apply participants will be required to submit a blog style writing sample of 300-400 words, a short essay exploring what the applicant hopes to get out of the program, a sample tweet, and the names of two references.

Applications are due on September 16th and interviews with finalists will be conducted (via phone or Skype) the week of September 23rd. The fellowship will be awarded on October 4th. The final selection of the fellows will be done by a panel of successful writers in their 20s and 30s.

 

Seclusion, Intimacy, and Power: Taking the Laws of Yichud Seriously

Introduction:  Halakhic Insights from Outsiders

I’m always intrigued when individuals or groups of people who are meticulously observant of some law system – particularly Halakhah – perceive themselves as not observing something even though they understand it to be the law.  They are quite observant in general and they acknowledge that the particular practice is the law, but just don’t do that practice.  Often, I find that if these people are really listened to and empowered with legal language, they turn out to possess some insight into that law.  It’s not that they randomly disregard it; it’s that they intuit that the law is being misinterpreted or misapplied, that it shouldn’t actually be understood as the law, and that if the halls of interpretational power had better-constructed avenues of access, such that more diverse vantage points and experiences were represented, communal perception of Halakhah would be much different.

I suspect that one fascinating example of this is the laws of yichud, the restrictions on men and women from being physically alone together, in private.  My anecdotal perception is that in much of the modern, observant world – let’s say, people who pursue higher, liberal arts education and work in the general workforce while maintaining life practices of mitzvot – yichud is not at the top of the halakhah heap.  Even people who do observe sexual prohibitions that are counter-cultural in their integrated world still often disregard yichud.  More striking, they’ll sometimes make fun of it, telling dinner party stories about that baal teshuvah friend who was staying with a family for Shabbat and kept clandestinely going down to open the front door whenever the dad went out, and then the mom would close it and wonder how it got open, hahahaha, isn’t that ridiculous how frummies can get out of hand (say the people who send someone down every 10 minutes to look for the late guest, because of course they – we – won’t press the buzzer on Shabbat).

That’s interesting to me.  People of this sort will generally construct their lifestyles around a deep commitment to halakhah, sometimes at great sacrifice; they would find it small-minded, offensive, and perhaps anti-Semitic for someone to mock their practices; they don’t dispute this particular practice’s identity as a halakhah, yet they consciously do not observe it and sometimes mock those who do.   What’s going on there? More »

Women of the Wall: Rosh Chodesh Av

I participated in Women of the Wall’s Rosh Chodesh Av service this morning. Here’s an attempt to capture what the experience was like for me.

One Hundred and Twenty Minutes in the JCC

Sometimes when I go to Jewish events that I know will include a  question and answer session,  I make a chart that looks like this:

# of times someone asks a question that is not actually a question  ( __ ) 

# of times speaker is interrupted by someone in the audience ( __ )

# of rants by audience members  ( ___ ) *

This chart has come in particularly handy at conferences, but can be applied on a holiday such as Shavuot, if you write. (It also makes an excellent drinking game.)

I spent Shavuot at the JCC in Manhattan, which, if you have not attended a tikkun there before, can be really overwhelming. It’s super crowded, especially in the areas with the cheesecake and water and coffee. The offerings are pretty diverse: yoga, films, art, speakers, and more traditional learning situations with chevrutah. I came because I was in the neighborhood, and also for the 10 pm session with Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson (RKE in this piece, for the sake of brevity here), director of the Women’s Rabbinic Network, called “Women of the Wall, Pluralism in Israel, and American Jews.”

RKE began by asking the audience about the values that motivate their activism (“I just don’t want someone to say that my voice can’t be heard,” said one woman,) and also about the values that they felt Israel should embody, which were no surprise in a liberal Jewish crowd: equality, democracy, justice, respect, Judaism, co-existence, pluralism. “I am worried by what I see in the news,” said RKE, before giving a brief history of the actions of Women of the Wall, beginning in 1988, when the group gathered at the Kotel for the first time. In 1993, the group attempted to read Torah for the first time at the Wall, resulting in the arrest and detainment of group members. (The Torah reading happened, outside the jail near Jaffa Gate, while members of the group and allies waited for folks to be released.)  ”There was a feeling of being vulnerable, and yet so strong,” said RKE. The events  continued to escalate after 1993, and American Jewish support for WOW grew.  RKE: “Seeing Jewish women being taken away by Israeli police in a Jewish state? How can it be?” More »

Mishegaas, or more reasons why The Onion rules everything

NO, really:

Onion gets hacked by Syrian propagandists, responds with funny article. The Onion got hacked, sending out a bunch of nonsense tweets such as:

To which they responded with their usual aplomb. HT BoingBoing

Is Yiddish dying? Uh, no.

Is Jack Rosen hijacking the AJCongress? Does anyone care?

Dvora Myers on Unorthodox Gymnastics comments on the chutzpah it takes to thanks God for not being a woman ironically. What do you think?

Doctor Who is a Jew? Come on Tablet, can’t you do any better than that?

And here’s a kickstarter to translate for what sounds like a completely fascinating book. I can’t wait to read it.

If you can read Yiddish literature only in English translation, Joseph Opatoshu’s 1921 novel, In Poylishe Velder (In The Forests of Poland),is one of the most important works of world literature with which you’re probably unfamiliar. A vast panorama of Jewish life in Poland during the 1850s, Opatoshu’s novel concentrates on backwoods Jews who live among gentile peasants rather than in Jewish communities in cities or shtetlekh. Touching as it does on hasidism, heresy, pre-Christian Polish folk customs, wife-swapping, messianism, and Polish nationalism, this book will change the way you think about Jewish life in Poland. Those parts not set in the forests or on the road take place in the court of the Rebbe of Kotzk, the last of the classical hasidic leaders. The Rebbe and his court are portrayed so convincingly that even members of the book’s original audience often forgot that they were reading a novel and not an intimate history of hasidism in Kotzk. It’s the price that Opatoshu had to pay for writing some of the best prose ever published in Yiddish.

Of course, I consider myself the last of the Kotsker Hasidim, so perhaps it’s just me.