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?”
(Question from an audience member: ”Should Israel Jews be able to interfere in American politics the way American Jews are interfering in Israel’s? Why should that be allowed?”
Friend I brought with me, under her breath: ”I don’t know, trillions of dollars in military aid?”)
It’s the opinion of the American Jewish community that RKE feels led Netanyahu charge Natan Sharansky with creating a solution to the “problem” of Women of the Wall and their goal of creating equal gendered space. (RKE-Robinson’s Arch is not so physically accessible, and can seem “like you’re praying in an archae0logical dig.”) There’s some confusion, however, as to who makes the ultimate decision. It’s not Naftali Bennett, apparently, but RKE encouraged the audience to email him and write him letters. It’s probably not Netanyahu, either. “Liberal Jews have given up on the Kotel,” said RKE. “They’re saying, this is not our place, we don’t need to be involved. I’m not interested in restoring the sacrificial system, but I don’t want to give (the Kotel) up. It’s ours, too. We’re liberating the wall again.” Citing the May 10th prayer service, which was the first time that Women of the Wall were protected by the Israeli police, RKE said, “We’re watching the ground shift, we’re not going to go back.”
*Tally, in case you’re interested, from this session:
# of times someone asks a question that is not actually a question: 3
# of times speaker is interrupted by someone in the audience: 4
I picked up Still Jewish: A History of Women and Intermarriage in America because I’m in an interfaith relationship, and reading it gave me something I didn’t know I needed. It gave me an academic but accessible text that said it is possible to be strong in my Jewish identity in an interfaith relationship, and that more than that—many women before me have and still do so. An interfaith relationship does not require one to set aside their Jewish identity.
Still Jewish follows the trends of Jewish women’s intermarriages in America, and the attitudes towards those marriages. McGinity stretches back to the interfaith marriages of immigrant women at the end of the 19th century, working forward to the mid 00’s.
The mythos of intermarriage says that once a Jewish woman intermarries, she’s lost to the faith. She assimilates, loses her name, ditches her faith, and joins a mainstream Christian majority, taking any children she might have with her. McGinity uses multigenerational studies, research and first person interviews to show it’s just that: mythos. The truth is more complex.
Something McGinity saw increasing over her research was a building trend in renewed Jewish identity on the part of intermarried women over time. Particularly when you cross into the Civil Rights era (50’s-60’s) that trend of strongly renewed sense of self-identification as a Jew starts to pick up. One of the things I found painful while I read the book was the ever-present, often vociferous opinions against intermarriage. It gets wince-worthy the closer the book comes to the present. In some ways it was easier for me to write off the anti-intermarriage sentiment of the late 1800s and early 1900s because it was so ‘long ago.’
The closer you get to the present day the more bullshit it feels that people still think these things. That a community could prioritize “in reach” to eliminate intermarriage over proactive outreach to keep intermarried families involved strikes me as particularly heinous. McGinity’s delivery is more nuanced and more mature than mine is here, but her dismay over the prejudiced reactions to intermarried families was clear. She did her duty to present both sides of the argument throughout her text, presenting a historic longview where each set of attitudes were in their proper contexts to each other.
The story of Jewish women in the States, is a one that is deeply influenced by it being a narrative that takes place in the U.S. Our identities as Jewish women here have been deeply affected by the Civil Rights movement, the many phases of the American Feminist movement, and the nationwide conversations over time concerning faith, individualism, and secularism.
As our rights have increased, there has been a corresponding growth in a renewed and strengthened Jewish self in intermarried Jewish women. We’re not “losing” intermarried women in droves to assimilation, as told in the hysteric polemic of institution conversation. Jewish identity and family have become complex, but plenty of women remain Jews in their intermarriages.
The data McGinity shows throughout her text would suggest to me that even more women will feel empowered and strong in their identities when the Jewish establishment stops its vicious inward conversation about whether “in reach” or “outreach” is more important than the other, and ascribing moral outcomes to either. Because these women are still Jewish.
If you want to get in on the work of Jewish Women Watching, the anonymous feminist group monitoring and responding to sexism in Jewish communities, apply now! The group is taking applications for new members until Wednesday, May 1st.
In Jewish law, Abortion is not considered murder until quite late in the pregnancy – in fact, until the head crowns. While that is the case, abortion was not to be done lightly – not because it was murder, but because the fetus is considered a part of the mother’s body, and one may not mutilate a healthy limb.
Perhaps it is partly for that reason that the squabbling over abortion which sometimes dominates so much of American political blather didn’t seem to have made many inroads to Israel. Perhaps it’s only because children are much more part of daily life in Israel – they are cherished communally in way that they aren’t here. Or perhaps it was just another women’s issue which has been buried in the swamp of we’ll deal with that later, right now, we have a war to deal with. Why, yes, I am being a bit sarcastic.
RIght now there are so many mattersof democaracy and freedom on which Israel is moving backwards, that it’s difficult to keep track of them all. On women’s issues, in particular, Israel has lagged behind the US – the usual saying is “by about 25 years.”
But on reproductive rights, the discussion seems to have been missing at least partly because, while technically legal, it is quite arduous to actually obtain an abortion, and nearly impossible for married women. In fact, women seeking abortion have to navigate some rather arcane process of approval from a committee, a social worker, a technician who shows you ultrasounds – and apparently married women rarely, if ever, receive approval. As the author here says, “we stayed silent when signs reading ‘The Jewish womb belongs to the Jewish people’ were hoisted.” Yes, indeed, instead of the fetus being a limb of the woman, apparently the woman is actually a limb of the state.
But in any case, the struggle over women’s ability to obtain an abortion has begun getting a lot more press recently. Apparently fake-clinics, modeled on those supported by the American Christian right have begun aggressively advertising in Israel. Efrat, the name of the main one of these organizations, has been not only advertising aggressively, but has also apparently taken it upon themselves to track down pregnant women and dissuade them from getting abortions. Creepy stalker much?
Well, now Efrat is also featuring rather prominently in a tragedy that has Israel suddenly paying attention to the issue.
A teenage boy, 18-year-old Raz Atias, was killed in a standoff with police who were trying to prevent him and his pregnant girlfriend from committing suicide. Police had found Atias and his girlfriend outside of Jerusalem, with Atias holding a gun to his girlfriend’s head and threatening to kill her and then himself.
The details of the incident are still not entirely clear, but the girlfriend’s sister reported that members of the Israeli anti-abortion organization Efrat had visited the pregnant teenager in the hospital to “brainwash” her against having an abortion, which led to significant emotional turmoil for the young couple.
As far as I’m concerned, the entire struggle just goes to underline what I’ve said for a long time: the hareidim don’t follow Jewish law – they have a reactionary social agenda. And they are willing to make up any kind of nonsense and call it halacha to expand it. So much so that they don’t care if they have to borrow from the more reactionary parts of Christianity to do it.
Shayna Weiss is from Jacksonville, Florida. In 2007, she graduated from Brandeis University with a double major in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and International and Global Studies At Brandeis, she received highest honors for her thesis on religious women in the Israeli Defense Forces. After studying at Drisha, Shayna is now a doctoral candidate at NYU in Hebrew and Judaic Studies and the Taub center for Israel Studies, focusing on issues of religion and gender in Israeli society. She is currently in the midst of a dissertation on swimming spaces in Israel. Shayna is also obsessed with Lipa Schmeltzer, frozen yogurt, and yoga. Tell her your favorite Israeli reality tv show on twitter (@shaynamalka).
Jewschool: Tell the folks out there what your research is about and why you chose to pursue it.
Shayna Weiss: Currently, I am researching the origins of gender segregation in Israel by looking at fights about pools and beaches—fights against mixed swimming, and to establish gender-segregated swimming. My two historical main examples are the first public pool in Jerusalem (which was controversial because it had mixed swimming) and Israel’s first gender segregated beach in Tel Aviv. I then compare these controversies to what is happening with separate buses now, to draw larger conclusions about how gender and religion work in the public sphere, and how we can think about religious-secular relations in spatial terms.
I have several other projects swimming in my mind. I dream of learning Russian to research Israel’s residents from the former Soviet Union. Another unfinished project I have is on Israeli television, and especially on Srugim, the first show to focus on the religious Zionist community. My fifteen minutes of internet fame so far have come from co-authoring a recap blog on Srugim, a wonderfully fun project. That project lays dormant for now, but I cannot wait to return to it one day—television is wonderfully understudied, and Israeli television is experiencing a renaissance—just look at Homeland. (You can listen to Shayna’s presentation at the 2010 JOFA conference on Srugim, gender and feminism here.)More »
On Monday, October 22, more than 120 viewers logged on to watch a ProZion UK live webcast of Anat Hoffman being interviewed by Deborah Blausten. All over the world, watching and listening, live tweeting and asking questions, people watched Hoffman talk about religious freedom, women’s rights, and democracy.
Anat Hoffman is part of Women of the Wall, a women’s prayer group that started in Israel in 1988. Arguably, she is the most recognizable face of WoW, particularly in the Diaspora. She is the woman whose name I’ve been hearing since my teens, connected to concepts like equality, religious freedom and religious pluralism. She is the one whose name I remember connected to repeated arrests, because a woman praying in a tallit is so threatening as to be a crime. More »
Nobody attends a Women of the Wall service without knowing that being arrested for wearing a tallit or praying aloud is a distinct possibility. At the group’s monthly Rosh Chodesh services, some women choose to save their voices and their prayer shawls for the Torah service that takes place at a nearby location. Others take the risk. Regular participants advise first-timers regarding how to avoid arrest.
It stands to reason, then, that the Hadassah leaders who were building up anticipation for the joint Women of the Wall/Hadassah prayer service on Tuesday evening were prepared for possible police action against the group of 200 women. One might also imagine that they were set to offer a statement in the event that such action occurred. As of now, however, Hadassah has declined to take a public stand on this issue. Their website and Twitter feed (@Haddashorg) refer the public to JTA articles and Women of the Kotel statements. Hadassah leaders remain silent on the violent detainment of Nashot Hakotel leader Anat Hoffman, or the general mistreatment of women who pray at the Kotel.***
Meanwhile, Hadassah plans to present PM Netanyahu with an award named for Hadassah founder Henrietta Szold.
What would Henrietta Szold do in such a case?
Given that she struggled to be admitted to the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and was finally allowed to matriculate together with rabbinical students under the condition that she never ask to be ordained, in all likelihood she would have been at the Kotel, determined to find a way for women to pray there.
At the very least, no doubt Anat Hoffman is correct when she says that the Women of the Wall organization is more deserving of the prize than Bibi is. The vision of Henrietta Szold, whose unique brand of leadership encompassosed the social feminist movement of her day as well as an inclusive, diverse vision of Jewish peoplehood, was much more akin to the work of Women of the Wall than to any aspect of the current Israeli government’s leadership. In any case, the women’s Zionist organization should not be silent now regarding this violation of the rights of women in Zion.
*** Update: Hadassah has published a one-sentence resolution regarding this:
In Jerusalem, at the National Business Meeting of the Centennial Convention of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, delegates unanimously approved a resolution reaffirming its commitment to and support for freedom of worship for women at the Western Wall.
It is worth following the replies to this by Hadassah members, which have a little more bite:
Something to consider when you are doing whatever it is you do on Yom Kippur: on the holiday in September 1907, Emma Goldman held a picnic “for free thinkers and radicals” in Central Park. Leah Berkenwald wrote last year over at the Jewish Women’s Archive about the way Occupy Wall Street and other activisms and movements have changed the way we think about prayer and observance and religion, and how Judaism can be a lens to unthink things as much it is to fit them together.
ED: I started to write Black, Gay and Jewish when I realized that converting to Judaism and talking about Jewish things was taking up a lot of space on my now defunct blog about lesbian dating in NYC (I’d just come out). I started writing it as a sort of personal journal through the process of converting to Judaism and also because there was only one other blog penned by a black, gay and Jewish woman. (This isn’t to say that there weren’t awesome blogs out there about conversion; there are so many that it boggles the mind. A few are written by gay Jews and by Jews of Color, but rarely did I find anything on the web that had all three.)
In the world of Israel advocacy, there’s a popular campaign aimed at halting people’s criticism of Israel’s policies by listing all the excellent and innovative technologies Israel has invented (and/or talking about it’s worse to be a woman/queer person in a place that’s not Israel and usually rhymes with Schmalestine).
To add to the list of things Israel has invented (in addition to cell phones, instant messenger, radiation free breast cancer diagnostics) is the Anti Date Rape straw. The straw can detect two most widely-used date rape drugs: ketamine and gamma-hydroxybutyric acid (GHB) in a drink and the change of color alerts the person drinking of the presence of those drugs.
Let’s hope that distributing this straw doesn’t become a substitute for not having conversations about consent, power, rape and communication. And if it’s going to become a staple of the kind of Israel advocacy that I mentioned above, let’s also take the opportunity to talk about the current position of women in Israeli society (shitty), and MAYBE EVEN that rape and sexual assault happen in the Jewish community. It would be a great opportunity to elevate the sad state of Israel advocacy (on campus and otherwise) and talk about something hard that we don’t like to talk about, as a community or otherwise.
Of course, the existence of said straw is good regardless of whether or not nuanced conversations about it happen. But you know, not better than just not raping people.
Csanad Szegedi was enjoying a fine career as a politician in Hungary’s nationalist Jobbik Party. The 30-year-old Hungarian helped market Hungarian nationalist merchandise online, acted as an EU lawmaker, and did not skimp on the Jew-bashing in his public speeches.
Csanad Szegedi, your new favourite Jewish anti-Semite
This guest post was first given as a dvar torah at Shir HaMaalot, Crown Heights’ first trad-egal havurah, by Amy Schiller on Friday, July 13, 2012. Shir HaMaalot meets next Friday, August 3 in partnership with Altshul at Mount Prospect Park (across street from Union Temple, 17 Eastern Parkway) at 7 pm.
Amy Schiller writes about politics, feminism, philanthropy and pop culture. Her work has appeared in The Nation, Salon, Alternet, Heeb, and other publications. She previously worked for five years as a political organizer and non-profit fundraising consultant. You can read more at amybessschiller.com and follow her at @justaschill.
I want to start with a disclaimer that this d’var Torah contains references to adult content and is recommended for mature audiences. And if you think I’m being gratuitously provocative, let me assure you that the Torah started it. But we’ll get to that momentarily.
This week’s parsha, Pinchas, contains a great proto-feminist anecdote, the story of the daughters of Tzelophechad — Machlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milkah and Tirtzah. To summarize, Tzelophechad dies with no male heirs to receive his portion of land in the Promised Land. His daughters go to the tribunals to plead their case, that they should inherit their father’s share in the absence of any sons to claim it. Their case is decided favorably, with God instructing Moses that they are indeed entitled to the land inheritance. Rashi praises these five women, noting they are each named individually to reflect their stature and righteousness. Furthermore, Rashi notes that their legal arguments were of such strength and quality that they perceived the Torah with greater acuity than Moshe himself. So here we have a success story of women’s agency, intelligence and early strides towards equal citizenship within the Jewish people. This interpretation is popular, affirming, and uplifting — and it is not the dvar Torah I can give tonight. More »
Sexism can be confusing. Sometimes it doesn’t look like sexism. For example, if you were to auction off dates with your female bloggers, get called out for it, and then decide that in order to escape this mess you got yourself into, you’d auction off some dates with your male bloggers, because, you know, the idea of BUYING someone, regardless of gender is not innately problematic. As a smart friend of mine pointed out: “Involving men is not an equalizing measure because it’s still referencing the original commodification of women. it’s satire of the original problem based on gender differences, i.e. why football players can dress in drag for pep rallies, because men being girly is hilarious.”
So there was a lot that came out of the Jewlicious fundraising fiasco, not the least of which was a total lack of recognition that what was proposed was actually problematic and sexist. Instead, the use of the words “patriarchy” and “misogyny” was mocked, and Naomi Zeveloff, the Forward writer who called out the auction situation, was condescended to. (According to David Abitbol, she “sure seems nice.”)
Here we are a few weeks later, and not only does Jewlicious refuse to take any responsibility for the situation, but they’ve actually continued to engage with the sexist media by posting about the World Air Stewardess Association’s announcement that the El Al Airlines has the “Most Beautiful Air Hostesses.”
Is this confusing? Is this somehow not a blatant commodification of women? If you want to convince people you’re not sexist, it’s not enough to just say you’re not, you have to actually do something. A post about how this list of the most beautiful women who serve you food in the air is a problem would be a start.
To quote David Abitbol himself, “the patriarchy is pernicious and needs to called out constantly.” Once you rely on a trope as antique as lady selling, you and the media that perpetuates it deserve to be held accountable- actively, relentlessly and without hesitation.
“There she is… Ms. Holocaust Surviv- whoa.” The very sound of the phrase “Ms. Holocaust Survivor” grates the ears and sounds like part of some Sarah Silverman sketch. My own feelings about pageants is that they are ridiculous, sexist and generally degrade the participants. Still, this is one I might actually attend and that it had the opposite effect. The New York Times covers as does AP. 79 year old Hava Heskowitz won.
Hosted by Helping Hand, which aids survivors in Israel, the event drew hundreds of participants, a couple MK’s, a fair amount of criticism and a lot of press attention. Given what we know about survivors, and what we in our worst nightmares can’t even begin to imagine about their experiences, it would seem that a “Ms. Holocaust Survivor” Pageant would be the ultimate in bad taste, the punchline to a gallows humor joke.
In spite of this, there is something sweet about the story of “Ms. Holocaust Survivor” that carries a redeeming quality, the championing of the human spirit over evil. It seems to have been a celebration of these women in their 70′s and 80′s, and a positive one at that. No blazing lights and cameras broadcasting the affair, no lurid swimsuit segment, no Little Miss Sunshine moments.
If you work for a Jewish organization, you’ve probably experienced the phenomenon of food being everywhere. Sometimes it’s gross, sometimes it doesn’t belong to you, but it’s pretty ubiquitous. With this infusion of nutrients come statements such as the following (overheard), in reaction to delicious baked goods:
“Oh, no, that’s so bad. I can’t eat that.”
“I’d have to do to the gym if I ate that.”
“I can’t believe you walked past it! You have so much willpower!”
It saddens, but doesn’t surprise me, that it was all women making these comments. It also doesn’t surprise me that people think of food as having moral value-it’s good or it’s bad, it’s not something that nourishes you or that you should enjoy, that you give to others so they can enjoy it too.What we really mean when we say, “That food is bad,” is “I am a bad person for eating it.” If we eat food that we enjoy (or if we eat, period), we should immediately torture ourselves emotionally and/or physically, and make sure everyone around us knows that we’re doing so, and in turn, make sure that those people feel a certain way about their own eating and exercise habits.
Diet culture is relentless and misogynist, and it affects us in ways we aren’t even aware of. (I’m holding back here, folks. I’m not getting into the crazy, exploitative, capitalist that is the diet industry. See how I did that?) Maybe you’re not trying to trigger people when talking about the 5 pounds you’d like to lose, but people hear that shit. It creates body hatred and it erodes relationships between women (who, let’s face it, are a lot of the population working in Jewish organizations in a certain capacity).
There’s a certain tension between culture, Jewish and American, and food. In spite of our bodies being real bodies, we’re bombarded with the ideal that is impossible to achieve. We know that Jewish women are living with eating disorders, that the statistics are on the rise, and that many cases are unreported. Part of Jewish (or any other ethnic group’s) assimilation into American culture means adopting the ideals of the physical body. I often think of dieting and diet culture as a shiny red ball thrown at women as if to say, “Look over there!” As in, think about how to be this specific, empty version of perfect, put your energy into getting skinny at all costs, instead of channeling it into redistributing power. (And by the way, diet talk doesn’t only affect women, it affects everyone.)
I’m proposing that Jewish organizations adopt a “No Diet Talk” policy, with the aim of moving towards a different culture around food and bodies in our organizational spaces. This doesn’t mean you can’t commiserate about your diet behind closed doors with a trusted colleague. It doesn’t mean that you can’t be on a diet. It does mean that when there’s food to be enjoyed, you let people enjoy it without talking about how you are on the quest to lose weight. You don’t comment on other people’s food choices, (“Are you really going to eat that?”) or talk about how much you go to the gym, or how much you need to.
This does mean that policing ourselves. It’s likely that we don’t even realize how much we talk about diet and weight until we don’t do it anymore. Saying,“You look great! Did you lose weight?” is so common, it’s practically small talk. We can do better.
In the 1920’s, Soviet filmmaker maverick Lev Kuleshov demonstrated how the juxtaposition of distinct, isolated filmed images can suggest psychologically-charged narratives: for example, a shot of a relatively ‘neutral’ gazing face followed by a shot of a bowl of soup leads viewers to understand that the person in the first shot is hungry. This all-important editing technique in cinema routinely forces us to forge narrative meaning and continuity by connecting isolated images and scenarios. It takes a particularly gifted filmmaker to transcend and even reverse such a tendency in the process of creating dramatic tension.
Such a filmmaker is Joseph Cedar, who most recently directed the dark comedy Footnote. At the very start of the film, the audience is required to interpret the context—in this case, the induction ceremony of the Israeli Academy of Arts and Sciences scene—based on the face which confronts us, and not vice versa. Via a tight medium close-up shot, we are introduced to Uriel and Eliezer Shkolnik, a son and father situated side by side amidst the assembled crowd. We later learn that have both spent their professional lives as academics. Uriel ultimately disappears from the frame (as we soon learn, from the off-screen dialogue, to ascend to the podium and accept the honour of his induction to this society), but the camera remains fixed on the singularly disturbed visage of his father. As we watch Eliezer’s almost haunted, blank expression, which suggests a deeply repressed quiet fury, we also listen to Uriel’s acceptance speech, in which he relates an anecdote from his early childhood involving his father. Read or heard in isolation, the speech would most likely appear benign–even gracious. However, as we absorb the tortured, humiliated look of defeat fixed on Eliezer’s face as the camera gradually positions him in the frame’s center throughout this long take, and as we listen to the polite collective laughter punctuating Uriel’s clever moments of public oratory, it is nearly impossible to not interpret the son’s words as anything but the severest cruelty. More »