Tzitzit, the Deviant Body, and Male Entitlement

 

I’m a young woman who visibly wears tzitzit. The public nature of my observance of this mitzvah means that when I leave my home, I become public property to many; in the same way that people feel free to comment on the bodies of or even touch pregnant women, people with noticeable tattoos or piercings, and, as has been written about extensively, black women’s hair, when I wear tzitzit in public, my deviant body — at least for those who recognize my fringes — suspends normal expectations of courtesy and privacy. I’m often approached in inappropriate contexts, and even have had my tzitzit grabbed.

 

Is there any context in which it is ever appropriate for an older man to approach a young woman and inquire about what she’s wearing under her shirt? (Let’s put aside, for the moment, that male teachers and administrators at Orthodox day schools DO police girls’ clothing, as has most recently been brought to light by a senior at the Yeshivah of Flatbush.) Yes, my fringes are visible, but the violation of my privacy I face on a regular basis about my tallit katan is appalling. The typical interaction of “Excuse me, can I ask you a question?” followed by an awkward fidgeting and mumble about my tzitzit as the asker realizes that they hadn’t actually formulated a question is always unpleasant for me as an introvert, and irritating in its assumption that my unusual garment means I am open for conversation in otherwise rude contexts. (See: the Israeli police officer who interrupted a date to ask.) Curious women are one thing; while I’m often disturbed to be questioned by strangers in public, part of the reason I wear my tzitzit visible is so that the image of a woman in tzitzit will become normalized — when I first began to consider tzitzit, the one image of a woman I’d seen in tzitzit at a partnership minyan flashed again and again in my brain and strengthened my resolve. Even when strange women approach me and ask if I’m wearing standard “boy tzitzit” or a garment made specifically for women, I’ll answer; this question about what is in some ways my underwear gives me a chance to share my views on the mitzvah with more women, and to share with them the resource that is Netzitzot.

 

Men, however, take a different tone when they want to know about my tzitzit. Even if the interaction begins typically (“Excuse me, can I ask you a question?”), it always escalates to a confrontational tone, if not one of outright hostility. I’m consistently shocked by the way men — never peers, always older and better-educated due to their age — feel entitled to confront and debate me. It is as if my tzitzit suspend all of the courtesy, privacy, and in some cases the basic feeling of safety I should be entitled to in any interaction.

Sometimes, the way men use my tzitzit as an opportunity for harassment is obvious – my deviant body provides an opening for creepiness. On a recent evening on Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem, I was walking alone when I was approached by a man in a black velvet kippah and scruffy beard. He began (in Hebrew) with the usual: “Can I ask you a question?” I nodded unenthusiastically, and he said “are you wearing tzitzit?” “Yes,” I responded. “Are you a man or a woman?” (His use of the feminine “you” in Hebrew made it clear that he was not really confused about my gender.) “Woman,” I said curtly, and moved to walk away. The man then picked up one of my fringes and kissed it – in the process, brushing his hand along my leg. At that point, I began to walk away in earnest. “Wait!” he said, “I want to talk to you more!” “No,” I told him, and began to cross the street. “But I really want to talk to you!” “NO,” I said, and walked away as fast as I could. Later in the evening, I was subjected to a drunken pun from another man about “tzitzit” and “tzitzim” (the Israeli equivalent of “tits”).

Not all interactions I have with men about my tzitzit are as immediately recognizable as creepy. A few months ago, on a summer program for students in or recently graduated from high school, I was sitting in a common area in a college Hillel, studying my Torah reading for Shabbat afternoon. A male peer from the program, who was sitting opposite me, asked a casual question about my beliefs, with an apology if he had disturbed me and an assurance that I wasn’t obligated to answer if I was busy or uncomfortable with the question. I happily engaged in debate with him, but a graduate student sitting nearby soon interjected. Having not been party to any of the previous conversations I’d had over the course of the program during which I’d explained my conception of ritual obligation, the man began to assail me with a series of rapid-fire questions that assumed a familiarity with philosophy that I, as a then-seventeen-year-old with no particular extracurricular interest in the discipline who had for obvious reasons never taken Philosophy 101, lacked. Feeling attacked and uncomfortable, I answered as best I could, then cut him off and left the room to continue learning my leyning.

I sat down in an armchair immediately outside of the room, curled up with my tikkun. I could hear the man still talking to my peers about me. After about ten minutes of productive practicing, a middle-aged man (whom I had apparently not noticed enter the room behind me and join the still-raging debate about my personal practice) walked up to wear I was sitting, and looked me up and down.

“Are you the girl — oh, you are the one with tzitzit!” (It should be noted that because of the way I was curled in the chair and the way he was looking at me, this comment was made with his eyes directed at my ass.)

I nodded and returned to my tikkun, trying to learn one of the final pesukim. The grey-haired professorial-type, ignoring this obvious cue, plunked himself down in the armchair opposite me.

“Do you wear tzitzit to be like your brothers?”

“I don’t have brothers,” I said curtly, returning my focus to Parashat Pinchas.

“Do you want to be a brother?”

I gaped at him.

“No, it’s okay, you can talk to me about it,” he said, “I’m a psychotherapist.”

I gaped at him some more, angry but too thrown off-balance to think of a response. After an unrelated comment about some organization he ran, the man simply picked himself up and walked away. I sat there, confused, upset, and still two pesukim short of having memorized my leyning.

While I did learn the aliyah in time, this encounter (which, it bears mention, also smacked of transphobia) was simply a more extreme example of the ageist, sexist, entitlement unfamiliar men feel to engage with young women through the veneer of a discussion about ideology. Men should never feel like they can aggressively and confrontationally engage with young women about their beliefs or their outfits, and when  they do, their differences in education — what high school student will feel comfortable debating halakha with a rabbi or philosophy with a PhD candidate? — are used as a tactic to silence and overwhelm.

The entitlement of older men to comment on the religious beliefs and experiences of young women came to a head a few months ago in an appalling way. Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, an Orthodox congregational rabbi and blogger, somehow dug up a piece published by Eden Farber on the New York Jewish Week’s teen writing site Fresh Ink for Teens about her discomfort as a girl attending an Orthodox shul. (Full disclosure: Eden is a close friend of mine and long-time chavruta.) Rabbi Pruzanksy viciously attacked the article and Eden personally — ignoring that at the time of its publication, the writer was fifteen years old. His article deserves a full and angry rebuttal, but the following is a representative quote: “Young girls who obsess over Tefillin and ignore the strictures of tzniut are really living in a different reality and have abandoned the pretense of serving G-d in favor of self-worship. One might as well daven in front of a mirror.”

In addition to the personal offense I take at comments like “We wouldn’t need the Torah if we could determine how to live – what G-d expects from us – by reading “The Feminine Mystique” or some female teen magazine,” there is a deeper attitude of not only condescension, but what for me as a young woman sets off alarm bells of what can only be called creepiness. Why is a middle-aged male rabbi trawling teen sites for two-year-old articles to rebut?

Rabbi Pruzansky’s behavior echoes that of the man who asked me if I wished I was a boy. There is no respect for boundaries, for age dynamics, for differences in education; this disregard of boundaries easily becomes or blurs into outright sexual harassment. When older men appear to treat teenage girls as partners for debate, this is not an expression of respect. This is the most unequivocal display of sexism and entitlement.

Simply because we exist — sometimes, as in the case of my tzitzit, very visibly — and express and act on our beliefs, we are not philosophical cases to ponder or peers to attack (and, obviously, are not merely sexualized bodies). We are articulate, well-read, and confident in our knowledge and practice. We are often happy to publicly and privately speak about the things we believe in, and to risk criticism online and in person for this. This does not make us public property. We are young women. Those who act as if they do not see this factor are those who are most aware of it.

My Sukkot Wish for our Queer Jewish Community

Suzie and I are hosting the big Keshet and JP Shabbat Sukkot potluck again this year! (You should come!)

Boston is a great place to be queer and Jewish, so I really just have one wish for our fabulous local LGBTQ Jewish community this year: flirting.

Why bother having separate LGBTQ community events when many Jewish institutions have become more and more inclusive of LGBTQ Jews?

Because flirting.

Imagine you are a young queer Jew looking for a date. You’re bored with OkCupid and JDate, so you try going to a singles night sponsored by your local synagogue. You get all gussied up, maybe you drag along a friend as a wingman, and you head in to the venue. What do you see? A whole bunch of straight people. (Regardless of how inclusive the shul is, this is a numbers game. There are more straight people than gay people.)

Okay, so let’s say you’re not instantly discouraged by the fact that most of the people in the room are a) not what you’re looking for and b) not looking for you. Let’s say you don’t feel super weird about either feeling invisible or feeling like you stand out in the wrong ways. You’re resilient! You can do this! So you look around the room for other LGBTQ people. Hey there’s one! But that person is not a gender you’re interested in. Oh, there’s someone who might be the right gender for you! But that person seems significantly too old/young for you. Or perhaps you just don’t find them attractive. HEY! Over there! There’s someone cute, of an appropriate gender, the right age–and they turn out to be your ex. And now you’ve exhausted your supply of LGBTQ people in the room. Dang.

This is where the LGBTQ Jewish community comes in! After feeling like there is a dearth of romantic options available for you in your shul, wouldn’t it be nice to go to an event where everyone is Jewish and LGBTQ? So many more possibilities! You could date EVERYBODY! (Okay, well, at least a significant portion of attendees.) It’s like Jewish summer camp! Yayyyy!

This is why you should come to my house if you happen to be LGBTQ and in the Boston area on October 10th. (If you’re old and married like me, you should still come, because you’ll help introduce the single people to each other. It’ll make things less awkward, and we’ll all have a good time.)

This is why you should host an event like this if you’re LGBTQ and not in the Boston area on October 10th.

This is why Jewish LGBTQ organizations should still care about hosting local events for members once in a while.

This is why Jewish institutions who are welcoming and inclusive of LGBTQ members should continue to help support Jewish LGBTQ organizations do their own things sometimes.

Because flirting.

Seeing and Being Seen: Ask Big Questions

I contributed a blogpost to our friends at At Big Questions for this month’s theme of Seeing and Being Seen, which they encouraged me to cross-post here.  Check out more of their work!

“I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind.  I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass.  When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination — indeed, everything and anything except me.”

– Ralph Ellison, Prologue to Invisible Man

We all know that a picture is worth a thousand words.  But which words?  And how do we know?  And what is it, exactly, that we know?

To continue, click here.

 

Rachel Azaria’s Solution for Silencing “Antisemites”

You all know what I’m talking about. As much as Jews are working to combat Antisemitism, so do Jews love to refer to anyone who is rude to them or disagrees with them as an Antisemite. And now, as it turns out, anyone who is rude can always be implied to be a Hamas supporter who is also anti-human rights and definitely a misogynist.

Here’s the conversation as reported by the victim herself which took place on the subway in NYC: More »

Meet the Man Behind The Men of the Naughty Jewish Boys Calendar

Naughty Jewish Boys CalendarLast February, I shared a link right here on Jewschool to a Craigslist ad advertising for models for a “Naughty Jewish Boys” calendar. I was so tickled by the idea when I saw it on my friend Duncan Pflaster‘s Facebook page, I didn’t even realize that he had posted the ad – or that the Jewschool post would bring it widespread Jewish media attention. Fast forward five months, and the calendar is a real thing that exists in the world in two versions: the regular and extra-naughty editions. I sat down with Duncan this week to chat about his adventures in putting these calendars together.

Naturally, the first thing I wanted to know about was what kind of controversy the calendar had generated. Duncan’s run-ins with the creator of the Nice Jewish Guys calendar have been well documented elsewhere, but I had to know: were religious people offended at the images of nearly-naked men with ritual objects? Were liberals offended at a non-Jewish photographer eroticizing or even fetishizing Jewish men? Nope. “Most everybody has thought it’s been a fantastic idea,” he told me, “Especially the Jewish press.” While he did have a couple of people get upset over eroticizing Judaism, the more common response has been from women saying “it’s incredible. Thank you so much for doing this.”  More »

The Genderlessness of War

When I was little, I asked my mom why girls couldn’t be soldiers.

“I think because the governments are afraid of girls. They would fight so hard, it would be too scary.” My mother always explained things in ways where I could see myself as strong. It was an empowering perspective, but I never actually wanted to fight scary hard.

Old photos and newspapers tell a different story from my mother’s. Women were delicate flowers, unable to defend themselves and their country—we can’t have them be soldiers! They’re too busy being wives and mothers! Our culture was (and still is) far more comfortable with images of young widows collapsing in tears than with images of women getting blown up along with their brothers.

Even moments when women were depicted as strong and capable, like Rosie the Riveter and women’s baseball, come from gendered war propaganda—the men were out fighting, so the ladies had to toughen up a bit and do “men’s work” until their fathers, brothers, and husbands came home.

This gendering of war strikes me as so absurd. Anyone who has ever lost a loved one knows that death does not just affect one person at a time; each death ripples through a community like an earthquake, bringing friends and family to their knees in hopeless sorrow. Even when death comes peacefully in old age, it sends close family members reeling with emotion. And when violent death comes to the young! Look at today’s photos from any article about Gaza—anguished weeping knows no bounds, no gender or age. Old men sob over family members just as hard as the beautiful widows whom the newspapers seem to love.

I came across a few articles from the mid-1990s critiquing the pacifism of feminists as clichéd and backward. They argued that, as modern feminists, we should push back against the trope of wives and mothers opposing war on moral grounds, and in fact that we should argue in favor of what we see as “just wars.”

I find this just as absurd as the idea that only women grieve over the untimely deaths that war wreaks. Striving for a lasting peace isn’t just a feminine value; it’s a human value. I see no reason to go around looking for “just wars,” simply because one presents as female.

War is horrible, and war is just as genderless as grief.

 

A meaningful fast to all who are fasting, and a prayer for a swift end to all bloodshed.

Earning Egalitarianism

Leading tefillah for the first time is scary. Countless bar mitzvah boys, and increasing numbers of bat mitzvah girls, experience this fear as part of a rite of passage; facilitating  a community in prayer marks their coming of age, their full adult membership in this community. Despite my familiarity with traditional Hebrew prayers and innumerable hours spent in shul, however, I did not lead any element of tefillah, nor did I read from the Torah, until I was seventeen — three weeks ago.

Growing up in a Modern Orthodox community and attending Modern Orthodox day schools, I was given tremendous gifts of Jewish literacy. I can read Biblical texts and accompanying commentaries. I can look up and understand halakhic rulings. With the help of a dictionary or two, I can make my way through a page of Talmud. But these skills did me little good in the synagogue. At prayer, I was a silent observer, able to mutter liturgy quickly and fluently, but never with the knowledge, confidence, or — most importantly — the opportunity to lead.

As I began to move in the world and become active in creating Jewish spaces, especially as I agitated to ensure that egalitarian tefillah was provided in as many contexts as possible, my inability to serve as a shlichat tzibbur or to leyn became a serious hindrance. I could plan a prayer service, but not lead it, coordinate leyners but not read from the Torah myself. This surprised people; I seemed, apparently, to be a person who is comfortable and competent in Jewish leadership positions, so how could I be neither in the synagogue?

I’ve always been a nervous performer. For as long as I can remember, school plays and class presentations were a source of terror. As I have grown older, I’ve become confident presenting about World War I to my history class, happy to announce a club meeting at morning announcements in school; the vestiges of my stage fright, however remain. I still opt out of plays, preferring to applaud my friends from the audience, and when asked to speak in front of large groups, I often demur. This anxiety carries over to tefillah — though I am fluent in the prayers, the thought of leading them alone prompts trepidation.

Ideally, membership in a community requires participation. Investment in a shul or a minyan asks one to step up, to take on a role in facilitating services. But is this a necessary prerequisite for egalitarianism? Should I have to participate in them to ensure that there are services which meet my basic moral standard of treating me like a person? This has been a dilemma of mine for the past year, as I press for egalitarianism but could not act out those principles myself.

On one hand, if I want a certain type of prayer community, it is my responsibility to create it. I cannot simply sit and wait for others to carry out my values in any context, but all the more so religiously. On the other hand, however, my commitment to egalitarianism is as an issue of fundamental equality. Must I be shul-competent to earn the right to a prayer service in which I am counted and treated as an equal adult Jew? By what calculus does one earn accommodation of her moral principles?

Ultimately, my desire to be fully literate in the language of the synagogue won out over my fear of performance, and I’ve now led weekday maariv and mincha. I was spurred to learn to leyn by a friend who simply insisted that I do it; the expectation that I needed the skill to be a full member of my Jewish community was a new one, one that every Orthodox bar mitzvah boy experiences. Every time I do it, it gets easier. I have not resolved my internal conflict — I still don’t believe that I need to earn the right to egalitarian tefillah, but now I am more competent to create it.

The creation of a truly egalitarian community requires the community to internally encourage and expect women, who are often raised without the skill and comfort with liturgy and Torah reading that our male peers have, to learn (and then teach) these abilities. Egalitarian communities must offer women education paired with expectation. One does not need high-level musical skill to lead weekday mincha. Leyning is, for many people, not as hard as it looks. There must be a balance: one should never have to earn her place in the synagogue, to be treated as full member of the community, through liturgical skill. But women are shortchanged when we are not expected to attain the skills and literacy that almost every observant thirteen-year-old boy learns.

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. – See more at: jewschool.com/2014/03/24/31822/every-time-a-woman-is-seen-in-tefillin-or-tzitzit-the-jew-at-prayer-in-the-common-imagination-becomes-more-fluid-2/#sthash.MDuInwYE.dpuf
Avigayil is a 2014 graduate of the Hebrew High School of New England. She is an alumna of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships and The Jewish Women’s Archive and Prozdor’s inaugural class of Rising Voices Fellows, as well as Drisha Institute’s Dr. Beth Samuels High School Programs. Avigayil plans to spend the upcoming academic year studying at Midreshet Ein Hanatziv, after which she will attend Yale University.
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. – See more at: jewschool.com/2014/03/24/31822/every-time-a-woman-is-seen-in-tefillin-or-tzitzit-the-jew-at-prayer-in-the-common-imagination-becomes-more-fluid-2/#sthash.MDuInwYE.dpuf

Why Do Rebbetzins Still Exist?

“See that lady over there? That’s the rebbetzin.”

“Ohhh.” I leaned forward to get a better glimpse at the woman with silver hair sitting in the front row of shul. “What’s a rebbetzin?”

I was about eleven years old, and we had just started going to a Conservative shul. My mother pointed out the rebbetzin at our new shul the way one might point out a movie star or head of state or renowned scholar, but I had never heard of one before.

“A rebbetzin is the rabbi’s wife. She’s a very important person.”

“Why?”

“Well…” my feminist mother, with her short cropped hair and her kippah, struggled to find words to explain. “A long time ago women couldn’t be rabbis, so instead there were rebbetzins. They were very knowledgeable and respected, and people went to them with their problems, and they would advise people in the community. Sometimes people went to rebbetzins with problems they didn’t want to talk to the rabbi about.”

At the time, my mom’s answer was good enough for me. I sat through the service and then ran off with my friends. I didn’t stop to wonder why my mother’s definition revolved around what a rebbetzin used to be, in some vague and distant past (which I now know to be about 1971). I didn’t stop to question what kind of politics were involved around my mother’s hesitation, why this was the only time my mother had defined a woman by her husband’s occupation. I didn’t question what kind of lingering shtetl memories passed down through the generations had fostered my mother’s residual respect for an anachronistic (and possibly sexist) role. I didn’t stop to think about why a rebbetzin is important now.

Then I married a rabbinical student.

Suddenly I find myself much more interested in these questions regarding the modern rebbetzin role.

My own experience of the role involves getting invited to Shabbat dinners and finding myself amidst a social minefield.  Small transgressions like mentioning a moment when I texted my sister on the second day of Passover are met with raised eyebrows, and I often wonder whether I’ve inadvertently jeopardized my spouse’s future career. For the past three years, every time I’ve gone to shul I’ve wondered exactly how much my hemline matters and how many congregants would judge me for wearing the wrong thing. (You wouldn’t. I know. But maybe your aunt would.) I clearly have no idea what I’m doing as a rebbetzin—but I feel like I ought to.

I try to research what to do as a rebbetzin, but everything I read about them references the past, either with reverence or righteous indignation, and nothing is fully in present tense.

Yes, there is something archaic and sexist about the role of the rebbetzin. The idea that someone’s identity, their title in the world, can be defined by his or her partner’s occupation in this day and age is absurd. It’s outrageous. One would think that in our progressive circles we would be finished with such an idea.

However, the rebbetzin still exists.

The rebbetzin role exists when we force it to, by insisting that families of rabbinical students spend a year in Israel/Palestine (as if all spousal careers are nothing important or could magically occur on whatever continent is needed at the time).

The rebbetzin role also exists in our subconscious, when we feel disappointed if a rebbetzin isn’t friendly enough with congregants.

The rebbetzin role exists when shul board members would prefer to hire a rabbi who is already married, when rabbinical students feel more comfortable if they’re partnered, because somehow the partner of the rabbi means something special and important, but we’re not exactly sure what.

If the rebbetzin role still exists, then we need to pay attention to it. Just because something is ignored does not mean it goes away. If we don’t pay attention to roles we rely upon—yet feel vaguely guilty about—we end up doing tweaky things like disrupting careers with Israel/Palestine sabbaticals.

I want to know why we still need rebbetzins. I want to figure out what kind of psychological and economic and gender relationship stuff is going on such that there is still a role out there which is defined by partnership. I want a better answer for my eleven year old self who asked “why” so many years ago—I want an answer that doesn’t start with “a long time ago”; I want an answer that starts with here and now.

Throw Back Thursday: The Knesset is Full of Ladies (Kind of) Edition

While it appears that the seams are splitting in Israel, here’s Kung Fu Jew‘s piece from March 2013 on women in the Knesset, and at least to me, things felt like they might be moving in different direction.

A Newly Feminist Knesset — Sort Of (Updated)

Updated: New ministerial positions were appointed since time of publishing, including two more women.

There are 53 new faces in the 19th Knesset — 16 of them women. With the 11 women who retained their seats, this is one of the highest women’s representation in Israel’s parliament at 27 MKs. But it’s not just because four more women got elected than last time. Former lawmaker Naomi Chazan was wont to lament last Knesset that barely a tenth of MKs were female and even fewer were feminist. Not the case any longer. Just a week ago, all but one banded together in a new women’s lobbyMore »

Tamar Fox: Talking in Shul

Tamar Fox is one third of the team that brings you  “Talking in Shul,” along with Mimi Lewis and Zahava Stadler. Tamar is a writer and editor in Philadelphia. She has worked at MyJewishLearning.comHaggadot.comShma.com, and Jewcy.com, among others. Her writing has been published in the Washington Post, the Jerusalem Post, and Tablet Magazine. Tamar’s first book, No Baths at Camp, was published in 2013, and is a PJ Library selection.

Jewschool: Tell us about Talking in Shul and how it got started. 

Tamar Fox: Talking in Shul is a roundtable podcast featuring Zahava Stadler, Mimi Lewis, and me, talking about various Jewish political and cultural topics. It’s one of several podcasts in the Open Quorum family of podcasts–the other big one is SermonSlam, but there are many more forthcoming. David Zvi Kalman, who came up with the idea for OpenQuorum approached me about creating a podcast and I’m a total podcast fiend, so I was on board right away. I really love podcasts where a group of people bat around an idea for 10-30 minutes, so that’s the kind of podcast I wanted to create and we set about looking for other people to join the table, as it were.

Jewschool:  What do you think each of you brings to the podcast, in terms of background and perspective?

Tamar Fox: Zahava is pretty solidly modern Orthodox. Mimi comes from a Reform background, and I grew up going to Conservative and Orthodox day schools, and going to a non-denominational minyan, so between us I think we speak to a wide scope of Jewish experiences.

Jewschool:  How do you decide what to talk about?

Tamar Fox: We have a Google doc where we brainstorm ideas, and we sometimes come up with ideas for future tapings while we’re recording episodes. We also try to be at least a little newsy, and think about whatever stories are big in the Jewish news world.

Jewschool:  What do you think is unique about this podcast? Why should we listen to it?

Tamar Fox:  I didn’t set out to have it be only women, but I think it’s really wonderful that we are featuring women’s voices, and that’s not something that you see a lot in Jewish podcasts. Also, I think we’re really a fun, interesting crew, and it’s nice to have a Jewish news/culture discussion podcast. That’s not something that really exists otherwise, to my knowledge.

Jewschool: How can people find Talking in Shul? 

Tamar Fox: You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, or you can list on the Open Quorum website.  Sermonslam is basically a poetry slam for sermons, where sermons are very loosely defined as “short performances on a preset theme.” They are similar to the Moth storytelling events, with winners chosen at the end, but we record all performances, and you can listen to them on the Open Quorum podcast stream.

Jewschool: Finally, what are you  excited about for  the future of the podcast? 
Tamar Fox: I don’t know for sure when we’re going to talk about it, but we’re thinking about doing a segment on Jewish social justice, and how sometimes Jews want to frame an issue as particularly Jewish, when really, it’s just a moral imperative, and maybe that’s Torah based and maybe not, but we should still act on it.

 

(P.S.  If you do a Google search for “Talking in Shul,” this comes up. Which apparently is the inspiration for the song “Don’t Talk, Just Daven,” by the Miami Boys Choir. When I did a search on You Tube for that song, I found this.)

Skirts in Context

This is a guest post by Avigayil Halpern.

One of my most vivid memories from elementary school is obstacle courses in gym class. Riding on small, flat, scooters and propelling ourselves with our hands we would wind our way through a series of foam pads and balance beams in relay races, an activity that I found more fun than the usual sports activities. I don’t remember these races for the fun, however. On a regular basis, my skirt would catch in the wheels of the scooters as I raced my peers through the obstacles, and this is what sticks in my head.

I’ve worn skirts to school every day since first grade. The skirts/school connection is so strong in my mind that I have had nightmares about accidentally showing up at school in a pair of jeans, the Orthodox day school girl equivalent of the showing-up-at-school-in-your-underwear dream. It has been such a part of the natural order of my world that back when my skirt got caught in the scooter wheels, I shrugged and pulled it out again, calmly, accepting that the dress code would make me fall a little behind the boy racing me from the other team.  More »

We’ve Been Waiting for You: A Retrospective with Maharats

Just about a year ago, the first class of Maharats graduated. For those of you who haven’t been following the various stories over the last year or so, the term Maharat is a Hebrew acronym for Manhiga Hilkhatit Rukhanit Toranit, translated as one who is teacher of Jewish law and spirituality. In other words, an Orthodox Jewish female rabbi. But, you know, without the title of rabbi. I was fortunate enough to be a part of a webinar hosted by JOFA entitled “The Maharats’ First Year: A Retrospective,” where three Maharats and one soon-be-ordained Maharat spoke about their experiences thus far. Part of me was hoping for anger: these women are basically rabbis, don’t they deserve the respect of earning the same title for the same job that men do? Even though I was hoping for angry women ready to lead the way for change in their fields, I’m also relieved that this was not the case. Instead, Maharats Ruth Balinsky Friedman, Abby Brown Scheir, Rachel Kohl Finegold, and Rori Picker Neiss were enthusiastic, calm, and not bitter in the slightest.

Each woman spoke of the supportive nature her respective congregation and fellow clergy people. While there were minor displays of negativity, for the most part each Maharat was warmly welcomed into her community. Communities that for so long have denied women the opportunities to become leaders in their shuls. Now, these communities can see the full potential the women members of their synagogue have to offer. Maharat Abby spoke of how excited her community was to have her, and how interest in bat mitzvahs have increased since she began her position.  More »

The Jewish Women’s Archive: 18 Years and Still Going Strong

It’s been almost a year since I started working at the Jewish Women’s Archive. I started off as a summer intern, working with almost everyone in the office at least once and learning the ropes of the organization. After a couple months, I was offered a part-time position as the Education Program Assistant, and I worked almost exclusively with the Education team. And now, I’m proud to say that I have been a full-time staff person at JWA for almost six months. And in the time that I’ve been here, a lot of exciting changes have been underway.

For the past eighteen years, Founding Executive Director Gail Twersky Reimer has been our fearless leader. It was her vision of an online resource all about Jewish women that has brought us here, and her dedication and passion have kept the organization alive and the website running. And now, after eighteen loyal years, Gail will be retiring and passing the torch to a new Executive Director.

About three weeks ago, many of JWA’s friends, supporters, and a contingency of its staff gathered at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York to celebrate Gail’s legacy. A colleague and I stood at the entrance to the museum welcoming the guests and pointing them towards the reception upstairs. As someone who has been working in the Jewish non-profit world for over two years and who has steeped herself in Jewish and feminist academia for most of her life, I was thrilled to have this job. We greeted artists, writers, teachers, board members, and so many more people that it was absolutely dizzying. The number of people who walked in who I admired and respected was insurmountable, and I found myself practically quivering with excitement the whole evening.

The air in the reception hall was electric, to say the least. What made the event so special was not just that everyone was there to celebrate Gail and the Jewish Women’s Archive. But everyone had so many other connections as well. People who had worked together, studied together, grew up together, all converged in this event. When describing the event later to my roommate, she said thoughtfully, “The Jewish community is really small, isn’t it?” And while the hall was filled with friends, supporters, and family of Gail T. Reimer and JWA, I couldn’t help but notice how everybody was connected in so many different ways that evening, making the Jewish community a most intimate and loving one.

The Good Mother Myth in Jerusalem

If you’re in Jerusalem on Sunday, June 1, check out  The Good Mother Myth editor Avital Norman  Nathman & contributor Sarah Tuttle-Singer at the  Jerusalem Press Club for great conversations and  readings!

Directions and more on the event’s Facebook page.

 

This is Not a Post about Ayelet Shaked’s Horrible Politics

So there’s this piece in Ha’aretz right now that is apparently about Ayelet Shaked and how she’s a deplorable human, but then there’s this opening paragraph that is kind of a problem:

“She first appeared as a curiosity – a young and pretty secular woman from an upscale north Tel Aviv neighborhood, a fresh and well-educated Zionist who found a warm Jewish home — to borrow from her party’s name, Habayit Hayehudi. She doesn’t resemble extremist figures from the past like Meir Kahane and Moshe Levinger, or former MK Michael Ben-Ari. She’s much more attractive and elegant than the caricatures of crazed right-wingers with their bushy beards, skullcaps askew and Uzis dangling from their shoulders.” (emphasis mine)

I just did a search of Ayelet Shaked on Google, and one of the first suggestions that comes up is “Ayelet Shaked hot.” (Thanks, Internet.)  Look, I understand the mystery here. How can an attractive woman have politics that are  repugnant?  Isn’t that behavior that’s reserved for ugly women? Aren’t pretty women just supposed to be pretty?

Ravit Hecht’s lede is that Shaked doesn’t look like the dudes with repugnant politics who have proceeded her in the Knesset, hang out on hilltops, etc. That’s not actually what the rest of the piece is about, and it’s a cheap way in. It doesn’t matter if she’s attractive. (I can’t believe I even have to type that.) It’s not even a little bit relevant and it’s sexist. Apparently, there’s no way to talk about a female politician without mentioning how she looks, and this is true on the Right AND the Left, in US politics as well. Hillary Clinton is one obvious example, but when Illinois GOP candidate Susanne Atanus said that God put tornadoes and autism on earth because of the homosexuals, the comment threads exploded with references to her physical appearance. (I know, I know, never read the comments.) There’s an unfortunate and repetitive trend here, and it’s  sad, really, how easy it is to not perpetuate the sexism in this case, but since it’s sold as not only relevant, but newsworthy, lede worthy, we keep it up. CUT IT OUT, humans. I know you can do better.

 

P.S. Also, read this. And stop it.

 

On Sexual Harassment and the Religious Pedestal

This is a guest post by Shani Ben Or, the Community Coordinator for Kol HaNeshama, Jerusalem’s flagship congregation of the Reform Movement, where she also serves as a cantor, studies Critical, Feminist Pedagogy at the Kibbutzim College, and is a fellow in the inaugural Jerusalem cohort of the Takum social justice beit midrash. Translated from the Hebrew by Aryeh Bernstein.

A few years ago, I volunteered in a youth center for teens at risk in south Tel Aviv.  The constituency served by the center represented the sectors most oppressed and discriminated against by Israeli society.  In many respects, this encounter was life-changing for me, but was also wound up with numerous challenges, among the most significant of which related to gender.  Every week, I was greeted with comments about my appearance, my beauty, and my body.  I received countless “offers”, of varying degrees of obscenity.  It was clear to me that these teenage boys were testing my boundaries in a smart and sophisticated way.  When push came to shove, they touched on my greatest place of vulnerability with regard to them.  In every other way, the power hierarchy in this youth center was clear and priviliged me: I was a volunteer and they were the troubled youth being mentored and counseled.  The power hierarchy in Israeli society was just as clear and to my privilege:  I am an Ashkenazic Jew in Israel from an American background. However, in one respect, the power relationship privileged them and put them in a position of power over me:  I am a woman and they are men.  They tipped the scales of the power balance to assert some power over a person who in many ways has power over them, and it worked:  as a woman, with my own experiences of gender oppression, I was affected by their actions.  They succeeded. More »

Not the Break Up Hair Cut: On Appearance, Ritual and Going Short

This is a guest post by Miriam Cantor-Stone.

About three weeks ago, I walked into a hair salon and when asked how much hair I wanted cut, I responded, “All of it, please!” It was a bit of an exaggeration, but only just. When the hair stylist was done, I left with a pixie cut and a foot and a half of hair to donate. As I walked out of the salon, I found myself simply buzzing with energy. I felt as if I had a load lifted off of me (practically literally, as I have very thick hair!), and I might as well have floated home. I wanted to jump and shout and… say a blessing?

Ever since that day I’ve been wondering if and how Judaism deals with haircuts. Of course I thought about the story of Samson losing his strength from an unwanted haircut. I seem to have had the opposite experience though; I’ve gained a new energy rather than lost it. I looked up “Judaism and haircutting” and all I could find was the ritual of upsherin. In some traditional Jewish sects, boys do not get their first hair cut until they are three years old. This ceremonial hair cut signifies the beginning of the boy’s Jewish education, and they are often given a kippah and tzittzit to wear. More »

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.