David Abitbol’s (lame) defense of Jewlicious

This rather misogynistic blog post from Jewlicious raised quite a few eyebrows.  Fortunately, the Forward’s Sisterhood blog was on hand to get an even-more-embarrassing defense from Jewlicious’ founder:

I know it might seem a little … how did someone on Twitter put it? “Gross.” However, we will not accept a donation from anyone with ulterior motives, and Michelle and Jessica will at all times be accompanied by a burly chaperon. No donations will be accepted without a prior interview and all meetings will take place in public. I know this offer seemed provocative, and it is, but it’s not sleazy. What’s really provocative is the notion that charging a Jewish philanthropist $5,000-$7,500 for a chance to speak to intelligent and articulate young Jews is actually a good deal compared to whatever outreach they are doing now. That’s totally fucking outrageous if you ask me.

Dude, this whole thing isn’t objectionable because of the possibility that someone might try to have sex with these women (I’m not going to mince words here).  It’s objectionable because that’s what they’re supposed to want.  It’s transparently obvious that Jewlicious is selling these women on the basis of their sex appeal.  As Naomi Zeveloff points out (from that same Sisterhood post):

Strangely, the site doesn’t link to the work of either of these “capable, intelligent and fierce” women, leaving one to guess that it’s not their dazzling resumes that might be of interest to potential donors, but the photos at the top of the post.

It’s nice of her to say “strangely,” but let’s be honest: this kind of thing is only strange to people who’ve never heard of sexism.  To anyone with any understanding of patriarchy , this kind of stunt is depressingly normal.

Gender, Privilege, and Women of the Wall

Molly got verbally attacked as we were leaving.

This is a guest post by Becky Silverstein, a Hebrew College Rabbinical Student currently finishing a year of study in Jerusalem. When not studying Talmud, she enjoys being outdoors — particularly during fall in New England.

A year ago I entered the women’s side of the mechitza at the Kotel (Western Wall) and tried to place a prayer written on a small piece of paper into one of the cracks. The prayer asked Gd to create space for me at the wall and in Jewish community generally, as well as for the strength to be active in creating that space for myself and others. Instead of finding itself wedged into a crack among the folded-up prayers of thousands of other Jews, it fell. As I watched it fall, I suddenly felt out of place, aware that I was wearing shorts and polo shirt in a sea of long skirts. I felt like I was invading women’s sacred space. I felt like where I was standing was not a place that I, a genderqueer rabbinical student, belonged. Before my prayer reached the ground, I had run out of the women’s section. Pacing the Kotel Plaza, I recited the line “ashrei yoshvei beitecha [happy are those who dwell in your house]” (Psalm 84:5) over and over again to try and slow my heart rate. I vowed never to enter another women’s prayer space again. Since then, I have entered the women’s side of a mechitza twice, but not at the Kotel. Nor have I have questioned my decision to stay out of that space — until Tuesday morning. Tuesday morning, I prayed with Women of the Wall. More »

Women of the Wall

By now I’m sure many of you have heard about today’s monthly Women of the Wall gathering. The short version is that the police, allegedly present to protect the women from those who do not believe they have a right to daven at the Kotel, approached many of the women, said they weren’t permitted to wear talleisim, and took the names and id of three women who’ll be “further investigated.” You can read more about it in the JTA and Jerusalem Post, or check out a blog post by one of the three women (who happen to all be rabbinical students). You can also watch their reaction in this interview on YouTube.

Police, defying the mechitzah, to teach Deb how a woman ought to wear her tallis.

It wasn’t long before I spotted the photos on Facebook, counting several friends among them. Based on the two photos included in this post, I decided to talk to Deb (pictured) about her experience today and each month she joins Women of the Wall for their Rosh Chodesh davening.

Right off the bat, Deb made clear that she hasn’t historically connected to the kotel as a place where she’s wanted to daven. However, she finds that the more she goes with Women of the Wall, the more she wants to go. It’s the community Women of the Wall is fighting to create that speaks to her more than the wall itself.

She told me, the group is “called ‘women’ but it’s actually creating a space for all who want to daven there, who have the right to access this public, Jewish space.” The group’s mission states they “seek the right for Jewish women from Israel and around the world to conduct prayer services, read from a Torah scroll while wearing prayer shawls, and sing out loud at the Western Wall – Judaism’s most sacred holy site and the principal symbol of Jewish people hood and sovereignty.” Deb appreciates that they’ve also created a “queer-friendly space,” and that they “call attention to the need for spaces that are friendly and welcoming to all. There are folks who identify as genderqueer and trans who are invited to lead services, read from the Torah, and take on other roles. Likewise, Women of the Wall creates a welcome space for all genders, including male-identifed folks, to participate in the Torah services” that they hold at Robinson’s Arch after they move from the Western Wall.

Wearing a tallis in a hijab-like manner is apparently permitted.

When I showed Deb the two photos from Facebook, she said that she feels like she’s being “singled out each month” by the police, because she wears a tallis that is more traditionally considered a man’s, and not a colourful tallis that might be more “feminine.” Today, a policeman asked permission of Anat (co-founder of Women of the Wall) to demonstrate, using Deb and her tallis, how women should properly wear a tallis like a shawl. The idea being that this would avoid the 2001 law that makes it illegal for women to perform those religious practices “traditionally done by men” at holy sites, like reading from the Torah, wearing tefillin or a tallis, or blowing the shofar.

“He folded it up, and put it around me like a fake scarf… Of course I unfolded it and ended up wearing almost like a hijab instead!”

Her other response to the police? She davens extra loud when she’s with Women of the Wall. I asked if that was a way of protesting the police interference, but she corrected me. “The truth is that I’m extra loud so that the women feel a presence. And it’s for the policemen, so they hear the truth of the davening, rather than the protest of the women. Because that’s really why I am there: so that I can pray and sing and so can any other person. I guess I like to think I bring some davening confidence…”

Her confidence, and the monthly return of so many woman (and folks of all genders) reminds us that they’re fighting over a public space. A Jewish space. And women (and those who identify outside the gender binary) have just as much right to pray in public as men.

Tova Benjamin Bombs

Louder Than a Bomb is Chicago’s High School Poetry competition, though that is not the spirit found among its participants.  Founded by local poet, author and jew Kevin Coval, Louder Than a Bomb is something of a Chicago darling. WBEZ covers the finals event every year (Coval was a contributor to the station’s 848 program).  Now in its 10th year, its is the subject of a new and inspiring documentary film getting rave reviews.

One of the previous winners, and a subject of the film, is one Adam Gottlieb, whose poem Maxwell Street surprised many with its thick references to his Jewish identity.  Coval himself has explored his Jewishness in his work, and this year, another young poet, Tova Benjamin, emerged from the Orthodox stronghold of West Rogers Park.  Her poem, Not an Envelope Opener, is getting a bit of notice for similar reasons.  Benjamin has apparently strayed from the derech, but one hopes that means a deeper exploration of her faith and identity and not a departure from it. Indeed, I would like to hear more from her on the subject.  Check her out below, or listen to this interview on WBEZ.

Get Inspired with the Jewish Women’s Archive





March is Women’s History Month, and the Jewish Women’s Archive is marking it by launching “Jewish Women Inspire,” a project that invites folks to participate by posting the story of an inspirational American Jewish women online.

Visit the Jewish Women’s Archive’s online exhibits, the Encyclopedia, or contribute the story of a Jewish woman from your own life. Write a few lines about why this particular woman inspires you,  post a picture of the woman in question (or of yourself), and take part in creating feminist history.

Filed under Feminism, Gender

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Defining Beauty: Ms. Wheelchair America

A few years ago, my roommate had a Miss America pageant watching party. The only way to get through such a thing, if you choose to indulge in it in the first place, is to attack it with an unparallelled level of snark, such as the world has never seen, which we did. That was the last time I saw a beauty pageant, until today.


“Defining Beauty: Ms. Wheelchair America” is a feature included in the Reel Abilities: NY Disabilities Film Festival, a project dedicated to promoting awareness and appreciation of the lives, stories and artistic expressions of people with different disabilities, founded by the UJA-Federation. Director of the Israel Film Center at the JCC in Manhattan, Isaac Zablocki, who also directs the festival, told me,”The film celebrates an inclusive society, which I believe is something very important to the Jewish community.”

Ms. Wheelchair America is a beauty pageant, seeking to provide an opportunity for women to educate and advocate for folks with disabilities. Women between the ages of 18 and 60 and who rely on wheelchairs as the their primary form of mobility are eligible. The documentary, directed by Alexis Ostrander,  follows five women as they compete for the title of Ms. Wheelchair America.

The film is  unflinching; early on, Amber Marcy (Ms. Wheelchair America Michigan 2009) tells the camera that she “took a dump in my pants” before her first meeting with the judges. She and Alyson Roth, Ms. Wheelchair America California, discuss how complicated it is to control their bowels and get into the handicap stalls when they need to. A central theme throughout involves confronting truths, as well as the stereotypes and misconceptions about disabled women. Michelle Colvard, Miss Wheelchair America 2009, said, “Either you’re a hero or you’re a victim.”

The line between hero and victim is indeed blurred as we learn more about the five contestants. Identities get more complex as the film goes on-Erika, the single mother with three children whose spinal injury is the result of an abusive boyfriend, is criticized by her mother and the father of one of her girls for making bad decisions. Alyson, an overachiever whose reaction to her injury has been to start loving Jesus a lot, spreads a rumor that Santina, another contestant, has been making pornography catering to those who fetishize disabled women.

It’s worth noting that all the winners of Ms. Wheelchair America listed on the website are white skinned women. While we’re told throughout that Ms. Wheelchair America is supposed to be an atypical pageant, there’s an evening gown competition, montages of the women putting on make up are featured, and the panel of judges seems to be largely middle aged, able bodied white dudes. The narrator of the film, Katey Sagal, reminds us that although the contest is about achievement, advocacy and education, the contestants still really want to win. The parents of the contestants say things like, “It doesn’t matter if you win, you’ve already won.”

“Defining Beauty” is a challenge, full and honest and complicated, which in my opinion, is the best kind. You can still catch it, with the rest of the films in the Reel Abilities Festival. Check them out here.

Birth control is NOT like pork chops

Feministe has a round-up on the recent squabbling about whether or not religious organizations that don’t approve of birth control should have to have health plans cover it.
Aside from the misogyny and offensive attitudes on display in general, let us analyze the statement made by a few people that requiring such organizations to require it would be like serving bacon at a Jewish barbeque. Well, let’s see: suppose someone attending the barbeque had a life-threatening illness that required them to eat pork. And supposing that person had to attend the barbeque and to eat while there. Well, now, I suppose they’d just fire up a separate grill upwind, since under those circumstances, Jewish law requires them to eat it. And if they weren’t Jewish? All the more so.
Now, shut up.


A little tempest in a teapot has apparently hit the ranks of the Conservative movement about the cover of the latest issue of Kolot (The Conservative Movement’s now-integrated magazine, including more or less all the different arms of the movement that used to have separate magazines).

The Jewish week showcased an internal spat between Kolot and some selected women rabbis who objected to the most recent cover which features a picture of two female arms holding hands whilst wearing tefillin.
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New Music Review: Chana Rothman’s Beautiful Land: A Labour of Love

In today’s popular American culture, expecting celebrities often recede from the limelight while pregnant. In her new EP, Beautiful Land, singer/songwriter Chana Rothman actively embraces the opportunity to channel her creative energy into an unforgettable musical journey, specifically during her pregnancy. The result is a celebration of life, brimming with heartfelt empathy, mesmerising grooves, and earthy splendor.


Photo by Elise Warshavsky

In just six tracks, Rothman creates a universe, transporting the listener to a different realm, one in which emotional honesty and whimsical funkiness reign supreme. Rothman’s music resides somewhere between the intersection of pop, folk, and ethnic, but she transcends all of them. As Rothman’s music demonstrates, we live in a thoroughly cosmopolitan, interconnected time, when such designations are essentially irrelevant labels.

The opening track, Shine, offers a life-affirming message to young people, with its light, breezy groove.  The title track, Beautiful Land, showcases Rothman’s impressive stylistic and thematic versatility. Inspired by her travels in Jamaica, Rothman wrote this loving, polyrhythmic reggae-infused piece as a tribute to its people. Accented with hints of a West African groove, Beautiful Land conjures up distant times and lands, while insisting on a temporal and spatial immediacy with its hypnotic rhythms and gentle melody.


Of all the pieces on this EP, Inadequate packs in the most nerve and verve, with its brutally honest lyrics, reflecting on body image. Other reviewers likened Rothman’s lyrically-driven Inadequate to Ani DiFranco—and this was my initial association.  One could also compare this track to India Arie’s I’m Not My Hair, but Rothman’s upbeat and bluesy piece has much more flavor, political punch, and lyrical colour.

In Come on Home, Rothman shifts gears again, this time offering a poignantly understated elegiac ballad. A modern-day Psalm of sorts, this piece never names the subject of its mourning, but rather evokes a flood of feeling and taps the core of the experience of loss.  The following track again radically departs into an entirely different feeling and space.  Listening to Baby Do That Dance for Me, one almost expects Django Reinhardt to surface magically and rip into one of his legendary hot jazz guitar solos.  This joyful and jazzily ambient piece certainly makes you want to rise to your feet and dance along.

Remember Your Name, the other ballad on this EP, is the final track and mourns the loss of Michael Jackson, while also reflecting on his legacy and memory. Enlisting Soulfarm guitarist C Lanzbom’s help on the slide guitar, this track serves as an apt coda to an album which amply attests to the restorative power of music. Beautiful Land, which is available  in stores starting today (and will be available digitally beginning Thursday, December 8), would make a gloriously soulful Hanukkah gift for the music lovers on your list.

'Beautiful Land' cover art: Graphic design by Michelle Nichols; Artwork by Michele Kishita

The Other Israel Film Festival: “77 Steps”

“77 Steps,” a documentary by Palestinian-Israeli filmmaker Ibtisam Mara’ana, is a selection at this year’s Other Israel Film Festival. The subject of the film is Mara’ana herself, who moves from her Arab-Muslim village to Tel Aviv. She includes a conversation between herself and a landlord who agrees to show her an apartment until he realizes she’s Arab. “Sometimes,” she tells the audience, “I had to shorten my name.”

After securing an apartment, Ibtisam throws herself into living life in Tel Aviv. “I want to belong to this place,” she says. At a roof top party, she meets Jonathan, her Jewish-Canadian emigre neighbor who’s been in Israel for 6 years. The rest of the film documents their relationship amid MP Avigdor Lieberman’s calls for loyalty oaths from Israeli Arabs, conflict with families, and Ibitsam’s resignation from the Meretz party in the face of the Gaza war (which the party will not renounce).
It’s Jonathan’s grandfather’s visit from Canada to Kibbutz Ein Dor, which he left in 1948, that’s perhaps the turning point for the couple’s relationship. Jonathan’s grandfather regrets leaving the kibbutz, and feels that his grandson’s aliyah makes up for this. He says, “At the time, Israel represented the best of morality. “Not anymore?” Itbisam asks. “No,” he replies.
At the kibbutz, Itbisam questions a staff member if she ever tells people that the kibbutz was built on Arab land. The conversation deteriorates when the staff member says that she believes Arabs should go live in a Palestinian state, and that although it was an injustice that Arabs were displaced, the Holocaust was “a greater injustice.” Jonathan chastizes Itbisam for being “aggressive” in the exchange. “I’ve lived here my whole life,” she says. “I know how I feel.”
Following a series of conversations that  illumine “the limits of our relationship,”  Jonathan moves out of the apartment building that neighbors Itbisam’s. The end of the affair isn’t melodramatic or angry; instead, it seems like an evolution. For Itbisam, it’s part of what she came to Tel Aviv to do, to stretch beyond the limitations of her previous life in her family’s village and to become more of herself. She counted the steps of the house she grew up in every day she lived there, all 77 of them, until the day she left. Of Tel Aviv, she says, “I found a place where I can get some rest.”
After the film, a conversation and q/a with Itbisam herself and the executive director of the film festival, Isaac Zablocki, took place at the Speakeasy Cafe. Zablocki remarked that the importance of the film for a North American Jewish audience lies in the fact that in it, “Israel is not what the tourists see. It’s a different perspective.”
Ultimately, Itbisam believes that the end of her relationship with Jonathan was due to a difference in culture. “We loved each other for two years, “she said. “I don’t have shame about my story…I’m not asking people what they think about my work. I just work.”  While one of her sisters has seen the film, but it has not been shown in Arab communities. “I”m dealing with taboos. It’s too early for Arabs and Palestinians to deal with this film.”
“The film is about finding identity,” said Itbisam. “I’m lucky that I have a lot of identities. I’m deep in all of them-female, Palestinian, Arab. It’s not hate or love, I have a lot of identities, I’m proud of all of them.”


Last night’s screening of “77 Steps” was co sponsored by the New Israel Fund. The Other Israel Film Festival is running in Manhattan through November 17th. Visit www.otherisrael.org/ for a list of films and to buy tickets.

Egalitarian. You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means…

This is a guest post by Aurora Mendelsohn of Rainbow Tallit Baby.

Has feminism run its course in Jewish liturgy and ritual practice? Jay Michaelson (“Rethinking Egalitarianism: Are We Leveling the Playing Field Too Low?”, Forward, Nov. 5, 2010) described how young Jews, who grew up in progressive shuls, when moving to places with fewer synagogue options, end up choosing vibrant, engaged, child-friendly, non-egalitarian communities over spiritually empty, formal, egalitarian ones.

Danya Ruttenberg suggested (Sh’ma Magazine, “Messy Complexity: On God, Language, and Metaphor”, April 2011) that the goals of feminists over the 40 years—proposing alternative, less male-centric language, allowing people who value feminism to be at home in Judaism, and allowing everyone to explore the female aspects of the divine terms—have been achieved. Ruttenberg writes that the time has come to “stop thinking about language and God” because this focus becomes the totality of experiencing the divine. In a similar vein, Jo Ellen Green Kaiser argues (“Do We Still Need Jewish Feminism?”, Zeek) that within American practice, “egalitarianism has become the baseline practice for the majority of American Jews” and that in non-Orthodox Judaism, egalitarian religious practice and liturgy, the dreams of Jewish feminists have been achieved.

Kaiser also describes the great strides in the modern Orthodox world, as it “edges toward Egalitarianism” with women’s Tfillah (prayer) groups, women offering divrei Torah (sermons) and being ordained as quasi-rabbis. This is a better description of the modern Orthodox world than an op-ed in a major Canadian paper by prominent Reform Rabbi Dow Marmur, which said modern Orthodox groups now make women “full and equal participants in worship” because women were allowed to read from the Torah. He was describing an international modern Orthodox movement in which women are indeed accorded significant access to ritual participation. However, this movement deliberately uses the term ‘partnership minyan’ to describe itself to acknowledge that according to their reading of Jewish law, equal access or status is not possible. (Though one partnership minyan in Israel refers to itself as “an egalitarian Orthodox community”). Neither Kaiser nor Marmur note the strong rejection of these innovations from the large majority of Orthodoxy, such as the Rabbinical Council of America, to the extent that these congregations are considered “non-Orthodox” by the Orthodox leadership and are denied membership in the Orthodox Union.

Recently, I saw a brochure for a local Orthodox synagogue touting its egalitarian advances. I scanned it, intrigued, looking for a women’s prayer group or Simchat Torah celebration, but found that it was referring to their new policy of allowing women to sit on the board. I could not help channeling Inigo Montoya; “Egalitarian…You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.” It began to dawn on me that egalitarianism in Jewish practice might be in the eye of the beholder. This uncertainty about what egalitarianism means reminded me of when I attended a college minyan, called “the Egalitarian minyan”. In terms of service leading, what people did, it was totally egalitarian. But to me, who grew up with an egalitarian liturgy, what people said, its use of traditional liturgy was most certainly not.

There are myriad ways for women to enter into public religious practices that were once dominated by men (which shows just how few there once were reserved for women). It is clear women’s roles in public ritual have evolved considerably over the past century. In the timeline of Jewish history, this is quite a short time. It seems equally clear they will also evolve during the next century. Some practices that were heretical a hundred years ago are commonplace and normative now across denominations from Orthodox to Renewal (like a public acknowledgement of a bat mitzvah). To have any meaningful discussion about whether egalitarianism has been successful, how much it may have achieved (as noted by Ruttenberg and Kaiser) or what future directions should be pursued, or how weight should be given to it when it conflicts with other values (as raised by Michaelson), one must first know what egalitarianism is, even if there are multiple answers. Towards this end I have compiled a taxonomy of egalitarianism in Jewish practice (inspired by BZ’s Taxonomy of Jewish pluralism), which looks at four areas of Jewish practice: participation (what we do), liturgy (what we say about ourselves, our ancestors, and God), identity (who we are), and legal status. To assess the merits of egalitarianism, to determine whether its goals have been achieved, or to progress, we must first know where we have come from and where we now stand.
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Not Bringing Sexy Back…Please


Over on Salon, Tracy Clark-Flory declares that sexlessness (or at least articles about it) are officially a trend. Which strikes me as funny, because the article just below that one in the queue is all about the rise of non-monogamy (which together with Dan Savage’s proclamations that people should consider non-monogamy and today’s JTA headline that an Israeli group of Orthodox rabbis (c’mon, you knew this was coming!) is trying to bring back polygamy (a trend that even the Torah implicitly warns against while not forbidding) definitely qualifies as a trend.

So what to get to first? I’m impressed by the ridiculousness of Erica Jong’s complaint. I’m not sure why Clark-Flory concludes that her complaint is that technology has taken over for the actual messiness and intimacy of sex – 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:
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A Storahtelling B Mitzvah

Cross-posted form the InterfaithFamily.com Blog.

Last night, I attended a gala celebrating Storahtelling. And it was great*.

If you’re not familiar with Storahtelling, they’re a ritual theatre company, focusing on bringing the Torah, and Judaism, to wider audiences, making it more accessible and relevant today. I didn’t crib that from their mission statement, so allow me to Seriously, I <3 Jackie Hoffman. @Storahtelling, thank you...excerpt it here:

Storahtelling restores the Torah Service to its original stature through a revival of the lost craft of the Maven, the traditional storyteller who translated the Hebrew Torah into local language. Rooted in biblical text and ritual practice, Storahtelling uses dramatized interpretations, traditional chanting, orginal music and live interaction to bring Bible off the page and onto the global stage.

The event was great, celebrating Storahtelling’s “b mitzvah,” which, as founding director Amichai Lau-Levie explained, is a “bar mitzvah, a bat mitzvah, a b mitzvah inclusive celebration for all genders.” And what a b mitzvah it was! Storahtelling turned 13, honoring their founding director, their incoming executive director and members of the board.

But what’s a b mitzvah without a little Torah? Jackie Hoffman, Jewish actress and comedian extraordinaire, studied with the Storahtelling staff, learning the Torah parsha that would have been her bat mitzvah parsha when she was a girl (raised Orthodox, Jackie didn’t have the option). She tackled a topic that many shy from: the rape of Dinah.

She broke the story up, making it more palatable, relevant and interesting. She interspersed chanting and discussion – with a healthy dose of humor, of course. (Amichai gave the English translations to Jackie’s Torah chanting on the fly.)

With more than a little (much appreciated) feminism flavoring her words, Jackie gave voice to Dinah. Dinah, the central character of this story, does not have any of her own words in the Bible. So Jackie, channeling Dinah, asked why the women of the Bible were too often chattel, to be swamped and shared amongst the men. She set the scene: Dinah had “two Jewish mothers. Think about that for a moment. And 12 stinky brothers.” She asked why Dinah’s mother was so willing to marry Dinah to the man who had raped her. (“Was she so desperate to see her daughter married, she’d ok a man who would defile her? Oh wait, that’s my mother!”) And she might have relished in her telling of the circumcisions of the men of Shechem: “They were in penis pain for three days!”

But it was an impromptu statement after she finished (and after she accepted her present from the “Sisterhood,” two gay Storahtelling staff) that summarized Storahtelling’s work so perfectly: “I’m a person who hates everything, and I dug this experience hard.”

And that’s just it. For Jackie, it was about bringing in some feminism, giving voice to the silent and suffering Dinah, and wrapping it all up in some jokes. For others, it might be highlighting gay characters or interfaith families, placing the Torah stories in contemporary settings, drawing and singing and acting the stories… bringing them to life. If you have the chance to get to a Storahtelling event], I highly recommend it.

*The only thing that would have made this night better? Had I gotten my photo taken with the hilarious Jackie Hoffman. And had she performed her Shavuot song, just for me.

Purim, Women & Violence: New Voices

Yosef Goldman is a rabbinical student and cantorial student at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He serves as a Cooperberg-Rittmaster Rabbinic Intern at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST) in Manhattan. You can follow Yosef on twitter: twitter.com/yosgold.

“Esther reminds us that we too have choices to make, even if they are not as dramatic as her own. We too have a destiny we must not flee out of fear.” –Rabbi Jill Hammer

Today is a noteworthy day on the calendar, not just because it’s St. Patrick’s Day. Today is the Fast of Esther, a minor fast observed by most traditional Jews that precedes Purim. It commemorates the three days on which Esther and her handmaids fasted in the story of the Book of Esther before Esther approached King Ahashuerus without being invited.

Like Purim itself, the fast of Esther highlights the protagonist of Purim the story for whom the megillah is named. No other holiday in the Jewish calendar spotlights women to the extent that Purim does. Yet the role that Esther plays is fraught with difficulty.

At first blush the story of Purim can seem to border on misogyny. Esther might be the heroine, but in the megillah, she often seems meek and suggestible. She achieves her goals through an act of sexual diplomacy, getting the attention of a king hungry for beauty and sex by coming close to him and “touching the head of his golden scepter” (Esther 5:2).

Other women don’t fare much better. In the first two chapters, Vashti is killed for refusing to appear at the king’s banquet in (nothing but) her crown for Ahasuerus and the revelers. The king signs a royal edict demanding women’s subordination and then rounds up all virgins in the kingdoms to “audition” for the throne. (The other named woman—Haman’s wife, Zeresh—is not exactly a pleasant character either.)

Over the past 15 years Jewish feminists have reclaimed the book of Esther as a celebration of women. Their readings are beyond the scope of this post, but anyone interested in encouraged to check out articles by Wendy Amsellem in the JOFA Journal and Bonna Devora Haberman in Tikkun. Lilith has a slew of resources online written by senior editor Rabbi Susan Shcnur at Lilith. (For a more in depth, academic approach, check out this paper from Sylvia Barack Fishman.) More »

JWA Looks at Jewish Women in the Labor Movement

The Jewish Women’s Archive has a nifty little series going on now: the top 10 Jewish women in labor history, with profiles of a bunch of asskicking hellcats and firebrands being added over the next few weeks in honor of Women’s History Month. Lots of great nuggets, like how “bread and roses” became a labor catchphrase (that would be Rose Schneiderman, pictured, commenting that basic needs weren’t enough for our laborers–they needed quality of life as well.)

Here’s the introductory post, and here’s the link to the series. Or, natch, just follow the JWA blog to get ‘em as the come.

Abstinence, OU Style

So the House has voted to defund Planned Parenthood, a source of free/low cost birth control, HIV, cancer screenings, and sex positive education. And now, we have NCSY Say K(No)w: The First Abstinence Website for Jewish Teens. It must be Erode Access to Important Information Week.

If we’re going to talk about sex, we have to make sure it’s more complicated and honest than simply “don’t do it.” What are you waiting, or not waiting for? What information are you basing your decision on? Is it about pressure from your partner, your parents, or your community? Shame, confusion, or fear of your sexuality? “Facts” about sex that are actually wrong?

You can find all this (and more) on the OU.org‘s website. First of all, condoms are bad. They don’t protect you from everything, so don’t even bother. Neither does the Pill, or Depo, or the patch. Of course, because the goal of the website is abstinence, there’s no suggestion that using two forms of birth control might actually be a great option. In case you’ve sought out this website as a guide to protecting yourself from pregnancy and STI’s…good luck. There’s no practical  information for you here. We hope you don’t get pregnant!

Also noteworthy-suicide! According to the study credited (“Adolescent Depression and Suicide Risk Association with Sex and Drug Behaviors.” American Journal of Preventative Medicine, vol. 27 no. 3.), “sexually active boys are therefore EIGHT TIMES more likely to attempt suicide!” Girls who are sexually active are three times as likely. I’m going out on a limb here, but maybe it’s because they’ve gotten false/bad information about sex, STI’s, pregnancy prevention and might find themselves in a horrible situation beyond their control? Maybe because they feel ashamed,  alienated from their communities,  like they can’t tell anyone and have no resources?

If this all weren’t disconcerting enough, there’s gender policing going on. In the section on Messing Around,  it’s spelled out for us: Girls are vulnerable. Girls think sex means love, it’s how we get boys to love us.  It’s not about pleasure, or exploring sexuality. Boys want sex. All boys, all the time, and they’ll do anything to get it. At least both girls and boys are vulnerable to the “non-physical effects of sexual activity.Guilt, worry, regret, shame, depression and other emotional consequences remain the same, regardless of any contraceptives that may be used.”

I know I’m asking for something that I’m not going to get, which is for the  OU to behave as if it were an entirely different organization-one which is sex positive and inclusive. So I’ll set the bar even lower and ask that it be a responsible organization, and give young folks accurate  information about sex, as opposed to ignoring reality in exchange for scaring them into abstinence.

Rabbah Redux

http://internationalrabbinicfellowship.org/sites/all/themes/irf/images/irf_logo_home.gif JTA reports that last month, the 140 member International Rabbinic Fellowship narrowly voted down admitting women to its ranks as either full or limited members.

The Dec. 20 vote came after what the president of the organization, Rabbi Barry Gelman of Houston, told The Jewish Week was a “wonderfully healthy and passionate discussion.”

This is the liberal orthodox group co-founded by R. Avi Weiss of Riverdale, where Rabbah Sara Hurwitz gained fame. Glad to hear that there was neither a rubber stamp nor a hasty thumbs down, but a vigorous debate.   Judaism always should be both vigours and a debate, a wrestling with God and the law.  In this respect, IRF demonstrates how it is similar to its Conservative cousins- not in that it would consider women as members, but that it would engage in thoughtful debate of the subject.


So Debbie Friedman has passed away.  JTA has an article and the URJ has issued a statement.  Her passing has been really sad for me and thousands of others.  I will write a longer post in the coming days but I thought I would invite those of you who were touched by her music and dedication to the Jewish people share your Remembering Debbie stories in the comments here as well as on Twitter with the Hash Tag #rememberingdebbie.

Here is mine:  Once in the late 1990s Debbie preformed at House of the Book at the then Brandeis-Bardin Institute and she told us that Jews can’t clap on 2 and 4 and proceed to prove it to us.  It was funny.  It was sad.  It was classic Debbie Friedman.