You can read more of Leah’s work at the Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe Series.
On February 10, Leah Vincent and I met in early afternoon around Union Square. Over cups of hot tea, we discussed her recently published memoir, Cut Me Loose: Sin & Salvation After My Ultra Orthodox Girlhood, which traces her body’s exit from her Haredi upbringing in Pittsburgh to her acceptance at Harvard University–and the detours in-between. For the course of an hour, we delved into the mise-en-scène of writing a book, bodily contaminations, and what it means to live like a zombie orphan.
Sam Shuman: I’m curious about your habits of writing. I don’t think in any of your other interviews, people have asked: where do you write? When do you write? Do you have specific habits around the craft?
Leah Vincent: No. And I feel very guilty about this. I feel like I need to be more disciplined. And that’s my constant resolution—to get more disciplined about it. I have a toddler. So my writing revolves around whatever time the babysitter is there and [whether] I don’t have other pressing things. I write on the couch, or chair, on my bed. With my laptop. And just type frantically. I’m a really big believer in the shitty first drafts. So I’m just always trying to just push myself to write whenever it comes and not judge it. And come back to it. And rework it and rework it and rework it.
I try to write everyday. It’s also depends. It’s very project bound. So when I was in this book, and especially once the draft was done, I worked very heavily with my editor to shape that final draft. So, as soon as she gave me something, it was so exciting to get to work with somebody on it. Because it’s so solitary. I spent two years working on it beforehand. And suddenly I’d have something with comments. I’d throw myself into it. It was just like this drug. Any moment I could grab to work on the edits and to write was just incredibly exciting. I would love to be able to say, “I sit down in my office from 9 AM to 5 PM.” That does not happen at all. Of course, every time I come to a difficult scene, I’m checking on Facebook every ten seconds. Something on Twitter has become very, very important instantly. I know that I should shut off the internet, but I don’t. It’s a very organic, meandering engagement.
I’m particularly interested in women writers. I’m particularly interested in female memoir writers. But let’s say women writers—and particularly mothers who have to balance their motherhood with their profession. That’s really interesting to me. I think a little bit about that–about how I feel like I have to push harder. Even in the most understanding relationship with my husband and a progressive world and community, I still have to push to make the space. I feel like if I could go to an office everyday, doing something like being a pediatrician, I’d have the time for my work. But because I’m a writer, somehow I have to fight a little bit harder to be taken seriously–by myself maybe more than anybody else (laughs). I’m allowed to say, “I’m not taking everything else. I’m just writing for two hours.” There’s this constant pushing of the space that one needs to live and that one has to do on one’s own.
SS: That’s an interesting sense of immediacy, too–all these other things that you’re balancing at the same time. That probably changes the tempo of your writing.
LV: Yes. Especially when you’re writing something that’s so emotional. I’m not distanced from this material. Life is just woven together. The book. The rest of my life. There’s no separate spheres really, which, in a way, is a great blessing. Because it means that the work I’m doing is like my lifeblood. It’s personal to me. To me, it’s so thrilling because it’s something that I care so much about. But, on the other hand, if I was a pediatrician or a plumber, I’d be like, “wait, this is my work life and this is my personal life.” And that might be nice to have that space.
SS: Do you keep a notebook for your writing?
LV: I keep like seven notebooks. Not even notebooks. Documents. I’m so organized in all aspects of my life but my writing is schizophrenic. There’s bit and pieces everywhere. So I have my diary notebook, where I try to records some thoughts. And I just started doing dailies, where you’re supposed to write three pages. So I have that. And then I just started a secret poetry blog, where I try to write a poem every day about my life going on. So I have that. And then I have my to-do list. And then I’m sometimes carrying notes. And then I have my phone, which has forty-six documents from the past week alone. So it’s a little bit totally crazy, but somehow the magic works and it comes together. And one day, I will get more organized with it.
SS: Do you see your work as a break or a continuation of an older genre of literature—something like the Autobiography of Solomon Maimon or the treatises of that other rabble rouser, Baruch Spinoza?
LV: I’ve not read enough of Spinoza or at all of the first [writer] you mentioned, but I definitely think we have a claim to the Haskalah. Before OTD [Off the Derech] became as popular as it was two, three years ago, I was saying we have to call ourselves Maskilim, not because we’re identical to the original Maskilim, but because we carry some of their spirit forward and it’s important for us to realize that we have a lineage. That we’re not coming out of nowhere. It’s not, obviously, an unbroken chain. The themes are very different. For example, they are, for the most part, much more intellectual than say, my book is. But I’m proud to claim them. I don’t know how they would feel about being claimed, but I’m proud to claim them (laughs). And I think we should.
On the one hand, you’re working within the construct of the frum community, which assumes that historical precedence gives you validity. I think that’s part of the urge to claim the connection to them. And I think there’s value to that. I don’t just dismiss that. But, on the other hand, I think you’re right. People got angry at me for saying let’s call ourselves Maskilim, but I was never saying it literally. Obviously, literally, I’m not saying I’m the same as them. I do think that, especially when you’ve been rejected, as some of us have, by everyone we knew and cared about, to claim kinship with people who are dead, to be able to look out onto a much wider world, and say, “listen, the immediate world has rejected me, but I’m going to find family or intellectual counterparts or people I can to connect to.” I think that’s hugely powerful. I wouldn’t want to deny myself or other people who find comfort and confidence and ideas and inspiration from that.
SS: People have been presumably going off the derech since the legal bricklayers paved the path. But leaving the Haredi world is no longer enough—there’s a drive now to change it, whether it be through writing, protests, billboards, or non-profits. Having spoken to people who went off the derech over twenty to twenty-five years ago, they’ve noticed that change, too. How do you account for this change? Why do you think that there’s been a cultural shift now?
by Shira H. Fischer
Shira H. Fischer, MD, PhD, is a clinical informatics researcher at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, in Boston. She was a Dorot Fellow in Israel and an AJWS D’var Tzedek Fellow and has taught for the Melton Adult Mini-School and for Limmud. –aryehbernstein
Since the news broke about the girls wearing tefillin in an Orthodox day school, I have been following with interest the discussion about the role of women and laying tefillin – not as a scholar or as someone who has previously thought about the issue very much, but simply as a committed, egalitarian woman who feels very tied to tradition and who has never put on tefillin (and never much considered that fact). Ethan Tucker’s fascinating and thoughtful piece led me to think more about the issue than I had ever before. Rabbi Tucker’s comments about his daughter were particularly relevant as I have two young daughters and my reflections on women and Judaism and education and egalitarianism now have new motivations and new emotions.
I also followed with interest Aryeh Klapper and Raphael Magarik’s conversation on Jewschool, and I appreciated Rabbi Klapper’s responses. (I don’t think anyone who knows him could suggest he thinks the role of man is domination or that woman is man’s servant). My beef with Rabbi Klapper’s article was not about gender but rather about denomination and who determines authenticity.
After criticizing Rabbi Tucker for allegedly seeming “oddly dismissive of the lived experience of the halakhic community” by degendering tefillin, Rabbi Klapper adds a footnote explaining the term “halakhic community” that is as troubling as it is telling. He first very carefully says that he has, in this article, “tried to avoid the trap” of defining a community’s halakhic bona fides and then judging an argument from that community’s practice on the basis of its bona fides or lack thereof. He then proceeds to do exactly that, defining davening with a mechitza as the sine qua non of halakhic norms, thereby deeming legally irrelevant and dismiss-able the practices of communities that do not do so, and undercutting the “standing of scholars”, such as Rabbi Tucker, who who stand behind them. Here is his note in full: More »
In the context of a recent flurry of articles about gender and tefillin, Raphael Magarik recently published here in Jewschool a critique of Rabbi Aryeh Klapper’s critique of a legal analysis by Rabbi Ethan Tucker. Here is Rabbi Klapper’s response. –aryehbernstein
Rabbi Aryeh Klapper is Dean of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership, Instructor of Rabbinics and Medical Ethics at Gann Academy, and a member of the Boston Beit Din. You can find out more about his work here.
Several mutual friends have forwarded your response to me, and I really appreciate that you read and cared about what I wrote, and your desire to defend your teacher’s position. My instinct was to let my article speak for itself, but they have persuaded me that at least a brief response is appropriate.
So with maximal brevity, and apology if that generates apparent curtness:
1) I suggested that there is room for masculine and feminine ritual, and as an example cited the liturgical conception that wrapping tefillin around the fingers symbolizes G-d placing a ring on the finger of His betrothed Israel. You moved from there to the claim that I must believe that women “cannot partake in the experience of being betrothed . . . a woman cannot be the servant of G-d, because she is already the servant of men.”
However, footnote 4 of my article says:
“Women can play that religious role as well or better than men; my point is that it would not be the same experience for women as men, and that the power of the tefillin-liturgy for men may stem precisely from its requirement that they experience a female role in the context of a ritual only men are obligated to perform.”
2) You say – “the suggestion, as I take it, is that the male role is dominant, the female submissive”.
Why do you take it that way? I do not see these as the only way to conceptualize male and female differences. Do you? If yes, of course you will see all gender differences as embodiments of evil patriarchal dominance. More »
by Raphael Magarik
Raphael Magarik is a PhD student in English at Berkeley and a friend of Jewschool. Check out his site for more. –aryehbernstein
I come late to the current conversation over gender and tefillin, and we have already heard plenty from other men already on the subject. That said, I thought I would share a quick reaction to R. Aryeh Klapper’s response to my teacher, R. Ethan Tucker.
I have several local disagreements with R. Klapper. For instance, when he claims the Talmud did imagine women wearing tefillin, he over-reads Bavli Eiruvin 95-96. There the idea that women are obligated in tefillin is introduced only as a dialectical, logical hypothetical. Elizabeth Shanks Alexander, who analyzes the Eruvin passage very closely, concludes, “ideological concerns about gender are not responsible for the creation of a position allowing women to wear tefillin.” The position (attributed to R. Meir), which she notes had no practical ramifications, “grew [instead] out of interpretive pressures forced by the Bavli’s academic agenda.” That explains why, as Tosafot and David Weiss Halivni ad loc note, the position directly contracts an explicit anonymous Mishnah, which we usually attribute to R. Meir.
The latest, anonymous layer of the Bavli, the so-called “stamma,” collates widely disparate materials and weaves them together dialectically. The editors express many radical or fanciful ideas which reflect its aesthetic of abstract argumentation—not serious halakhic proposals. Perhaps R. Klapper is not as enamored of academic interpretations of the Bavli as I am and would prefer not to dismiss any line of the Talmud as formal dialectics. But it is telling that he later suggests that those who hold that women are obligated in tefillin “are behaving like ‘outsiders, who transgress the words of the sages and do not wish to interpret Scripture as they do.’” Apparently, R. Meir’s is now the way of outsiders. Or more likely, when push comes to shove, R. Klapper does what we all do. He discounts the Stamma’s move in Eruvin.
Mimi Arbeit is a Ph.D. student at Tufts in Child Development, where she studies adolescent sexuality, sexual health, and sexual violence prevention. She is a freelance sexuality educator and also works locally to promote and strengthen sexuality education in public schools.
The Debrief, Mimi’s column on sex, dating, and relationships, comes out every Wednesday on JewishBoston.com. She loves dancing, taking walks around the city, and listening to people share their stories. Email email@example.com or tweet @MimiArbeit.
Jewschool: What’s the intersection of progressive values, sex ed and Jewish identity for you?
Mimi Arbeit: Progressive values, sex ed, and promoting healthy relationships is at the core of my Jewish involvement. My commitment to feminist and queer values is central to who I am as a person and the work I try to do in the world. I became involved with Judaism as a teenager, but departed from Jewish spaces in college when I realized how much the tradition clung to harmful gender norms and patriarchal practices. For years, I didn’t know what to do. Jewish community can be beautiful and powerful, but I needed a Jewish community in which I could bring all of my passions, and in which my own desire for personhood and my commitment to building a better world would not be eclipsed by a reification of problematic Jewish traditions. The communities I found in Boston allowed me to be a part of exploring the kinds of Judaism that hold more possibility for me – especially the Moishe Kavod House, Keshet, and JewishBoston.com.
JS: Before writing at The Debrief, you wrote a blog called Sex Ed Transforms. What can we find there?
MA: I started Sex Ed Transforms five years ago when I was working in a public school teaching health and sex ed. I used this space to give words to my dream, my work, and my analysis. I discussed my experience with sex ed in public school, my reflections on what I was reading, my own personal growth in activities such as body-positive challenge, and my sex ed for young adults work at the Moishe Kavod House. In the month before my wedding, I wrote extensively about my experience grappling with sexism, materialism, and interpersonal challenges throughout the planning process. Last year, I made it into the final round of the Feministing “So You Think You Can Blog” contest by submitting a post on queer identity and a post on 50 Shades of Grey. Although I did not become a regular contributor to Feministing, I soon after started writing The Debrief weekly at JewishBoston.com, and now I post on Sex Ed Transforms much more rarely.
JS: What’s been the most difficult topic (you can name a few) you’ve handled at The Debrief? What’s your favorite?
MA: The Debrief is a sex, dating, and relationships column posted every Wednesday at JewishBoston.com. I love facilitating this space in which I can invite other community members to share their stories, questions, and reflections, either by name or anonymously. I am honored every time people choose to share their stories with me, and I am deeply moved by what they express.
I also write several pieces myself. The most difficult pieces to write have been the two addressing issues of trauma and violence. I wrote a post connecting the ritual of spilling wine at the Passover seder with the Steubenville rape trial, and soon after that I wrote a post about different kinds of trauma in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing. It was a difficult spring.
My favorite posts of the ones I wrote myself are the pieces that push boundaries. One of my earliest posts asked, “Can hookups be holy?,” and I wrote a post about National Masturbation Month in May. I also have enjoyed the opportunity to share some of my own process. Elul, the last month of the Jewish calendar, is a time set aside for reflection. I took the entire month to reflect on sex, dating, relationships, and building community, and continued this tone through Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I gained a lot, personally, from working on these posts and sharing them with my readers.
I am always looking for new story ideas and new contributions, so I encourage readers to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org anytime.
JS: What do you think is the current state of the conversation about sex in Jewish communities? Why do you think it is what it is? What advice would you give to folks who want to change the status quo?
MA: I can only hope to learn that a wide variety of dynamic, engaging, critical conversations about sex are currently taking place in Jewish communities worldwide. But I also know that many Jewish communities are not having such conversations. I think we are held back because we are nervous, embarrassed, ashamed, afraid, or we don’t know the words to use to express how we feel. We try to say what we think we are supposed to say, and we try to do what we think we are supposed to do, and when we say or do something different from what’s expected of us, we too often get told to stop.
If we want to change the status quo, and I certainly do, we need to start with deep sharing and listening. Really taking risks to hear each other, understand the complexity of our own and each other’s lived experiences, ask caring and probing questions of each other, and speak. Share. Try to explain even when none of the words we know feel quite right. Name that – say that none of the words feel quite right, and commit to speaking and listening anyway.
With the foundation of a community committed to listening and speaking, speaking and listening, we need to pursue conversations that are inclusive of all voices. Wait, not only inclusive, but structured through a model of equity. Working to merely include marginalized voices will still leave those voices marginalized. We need to find a way to actively structure a new conversation about sex and relationships with people who have previously been marginalized now at the center. As part of that process, we will need trauma-informed ways to talk about sex. So many members of our community are survivors of sexual trauma of different forms – more people than we even realize. When we talk about sex, it can be a wonderful and positive part of our lives, and it can also be a place of violence and violation. We need to find out how to talk about all of that.
JS: What, for you, is at stake in this work?
MA: Acceptance. Humanity. Connection. The possibility of a life lived honestly and powerfully. World peace.
“Things gonna change; it’s apparent, and all the transparent gonna be seen through.
Let God redeem you, keep your deen true.
Watch out what you cling to; you can get the green too. Observe how a queen do…
You could get the money, you could get the power, but keep your eyes on the final hour.” — Lauryn Hill (“Final Hour”)
Jane Eisner and her good crew at The Forward have published their fifth annual salary survey, listing the 62 top-earning executives of American, Jewish non-profit organizations and their salaries. The main two questions emerging from these annual surveys are whether the salaries paid to our community’s leaders are appropriate, excessive, or insufficient, and why the gender gap remains so significant.
This year’s survey is accompanied, for the first time, by statistical analysis by Wharton Business School statistics Professor Abraham Wyner and his student Tamara Pier, quantifying pretty accessibly which CEO’s are overpaid in relation to the expected salary for an organization of the size they run. Wyner and his team also tackle the gender gap, quantifying how much of it should be attributed to the fact that when women run Jewish organizations, they tend to be smaller organizations, and how much should be attributed to other factors, such as sex discrimination in salary.
For what I hope is just round one of processing of this information here in Jewschool, I’m not jumping to conclusions yet about which, if any, of the salaries on this list is excessive and what kind of waste is going on in Jewish philanthropy, etc., as I don’t feel that I have sufficient command of the market data for how much non-profit CEO’s should be paid in order to recruit top people, what salaries need to be in different cities based on cost of living, etc.
I would like to home in on the gender data, just to focus our attention toward a productive strategy conversation toward communal repair. A few disturbing observations: More »
This is a guest post by Chava Shervington. A passionate and committed Jewish diversity advocate, Chava co-founded an organization which created opportunities for Jews of Color to connect in safe spaces across the East Coast. Currently, Chava is honored to serve as president of the Jewish Multiracial Network, an organizational leader in a movement to make Jewish racial/ethnic diversity fully embraced in American Jewish life.
Anat Tel Medelovich‘s documentary, “Mom, Dad, I’m Muslim” was featured at this year’s Other Israel Film Festival. It tells the story of Maor, a devout Muslim, who was born Jewish, converted to Islam at 18, and at 22 is in search of a Muslim husband.
(click here for official film website)
In recent years there have been a rash of documentaries of Muslim converts (or reverts as they are called in Islam), as there seems to be a particular fascination with white Westerners who decide to take on Islam. Most of these documentaries focus on the motivation of the convert, the reactions of their families and communities, as well as their adjustment to adopting Muslim law and social customs. ”Mom, Dad, I’m Muslim” is both a unique story and a missed opportunity. While there have been many stories of converts to Islam, this one had the potential to explore an entire range of issues besides the usual family tension and personal struggle, but it barely scratches the surface of the story of Maor, a young Jewish woman in Israel who converts to Islam.
While there is definitely focus on Maor’s family (a hodge podge of characters, including an anti-religious brother, a Kahane supporting father, an increasingly observant mother and younger brother, a confused younger sister, and feisty grandmother), we only seem to get half of the story. Everyone outside of her grandmother seems to be supportive of her religious choice and allows her to exist on the periphery of their traditional Jewish lives. For the most part they seem to express apathy with her choice, but support her out of love. Her grandmother is the only one who ever vocalizes strong opposition to Maor’s new religious conviction, although even though her mother vocalizes her support, under the surface their seems to be a genuine hope that this is only a phase. There seems to be a concerted effort not to ostracize her for her conversion. While her family makes Kiddush and hamotzi for Shabbat dinner, Maor sits silent at the table in her hijab, at a Yom Hazikaron ceremony she stands silently while her family and others proudly sing Hatikvah, she’s obviously strongly connected to her family members, but at the same time completely disconnected from their Jewish identities.
Unfortunately, that disconnection is never truly explored. Maybe it’s because as with many converts (to any religion) she finds the motivations for her conversion difficult to express. When asked by her younger sister, the answer is couched in a metaphor of white roses, but essentially boils down to “because that’s what I think G-d wants from me”. But for us as an audience it feels like we a) came into the story halfway and b) only get half of the story.
As a Jewish watcher I was left with so many questions: What was Maor’s Jewish background prior to her conversion?; Did she ever explore Judaism further? How are the things that appeal to her about Islam-modesty and interactions between women and men-different from traditional Judaism? How does she relate to her Jewish identity? Did she experience any emotional conflict with changing her identity? Has her conversion affected her relationship to the state of Israel? We learn of her strong connection with Arab Muslim classmates from an early age, and the death of one in particular seemed to affect her strongly, but because we know so little about her interaction with the Jewish community all we’re left with are questions.
There are so many topics introduced and barely covered, particularly those things that make this such a unique conversion story. As a Jewish Muslim convert in Israel, Maor, must do more than take the shahada (Islamic creed declaring the oneness of Gd), she must undergo a formal conversion with the government so that she will be allowed to marry a fellow Muslim. We learn absolutely nothing about what that involves, how long it takes, or what she must undergo. When she changes the nationality on her identity card, does she experience hesitation or only relief? (Spoiler—she does find a Muslim husband, but we learn absolutely nothing about the process and/or how her unique circumstances factor into her decision.) One minute she’s talking about starting to look for a husband, the next she’s looking at his picture online, two minutes later she refers to him as her fiancée. It’s a completely unexplored whirlwind.
One thing we do understand throughout this film is how incredibly lonely Maor’s journey is. When not at home or running an errand with her family, she’s shown walking and sitting alone. No one in her community speaks to her; she is the constant subject of stares and is questioned by both Arab Muslim and Jewish communities. The story flows from one scene in a restaurant when she’s questioned by Muslim customers and workers: “Is she Arab, is someone in her family Arab, where does she live, is she married” to a Yom Hazikaron ceremony where she faces the same questions from Jews, along with assumptions such as that she must have grown up not surrounded by Jews, she must have no connection/relationship with her family, etc. It isn’t until almost three quarters through the film that we meet a friend outside of her family, Lital, another Jewish convert to Islam.
As the film ended, I was left with so many mixed emotions; I could only wish her happiness in her journey, yet feel sadness about her path, and continue to wonder how she got there. I’m not sure it’s a story I as a committed Jew could ever feel completely comfortable with, but still wish I could appreciate her story and motivations, but this film left so many topics unexplored, I’m not sure we as the audience can get there.
The tagline of this year’s Jewish Feminist Alliance (JOFA) 8th annual gathering on Dec 7-8 has sparked a conversation: “It’s not just for feminists anymore.”
Long time JOFA supporter Jennifer Moran’s Facebook feed blew up when she posted this status: ”Just received an ad for the 8th International JOFA Conference, which proclaims, ‘It’s not just for feminists anymore…’ How I wish that I could convince my fellow women’s rights activists to stop disparaging, diminishing, or distancing themselves from feminism.” Others wondered if JOFA’s mission had changed, if social norms in the Orthodox community had led JOFA to shift its recruitment strategy away from the “radical” notion of feminism.
What’s the motivation behind this tagline and what’s happening at the conference? We spoke with Sarah Blechner, Marketing Chair for the upcoming conference. Blechner was raised in an Orthodox feminist household and has attended JOFA conferences since she was in high school.
Jewschool: What can we expect from this year’s JOFA conference that’s different from previous years?
Sarah Blechner: Whereas many of the past conferences have focused on the Orthodox community writ large, this year, while we will still be tackling those large, community issues, we are also talking in a much more personal way than ever before. We are really looking forward to bringing many of the “big” issues down to an individual level and discussing how many of these issues impact the everyday, the individual, and the quieter moments. More »
Like the zombie living dead trend,Torah manicures fever just will not die.
Starve the cold, feed the fever, or the reverse. Kill it, already. Why is this still being talked about as though it were an innovative thing? It is NOT.
Look, the idea seems innocuous- in order to make Torah attractive to girls, let’s have a middle school club in which they give themselves manicures with things related to the Torah, parsha scenes, perhaps, and (eventually) discuss them. (How bold, how innovative! came the cry from the innovation alter kockers.)
Guess what Midrash Manicures is not, other than innovative? Innocuous. It trivializes both the girls and the Torah. It doesn’t (as some claim) make Torah more accessible, it makes it “cute” – compared to what “boys do” – which is, study commentaries, and use Torah to make laws and meaning. (When boys do things like get manicures, as they sometimes do for events like Manicure for the Cure, it’s funny, because what girls and women do is seen as trivial and silly. Even though they’re stepping outside of traditional masculinity, they can do it in this instance, as long as they make a joke out of it.)
But, everyone howls, it makes girls more interested in Torah! Well, does it really?
Let’s say it does: So, why aren’t they interested in Torah without it then? What is the structural problems with the way we teach Torah that makes girls think, Nope, not for me? The reason girls maybe don’t love the Torah or whatever is that it’s not cute or cool or sexy for girls to be smart, ESPECIALLY in middle school, when this whole manicure thing is going down. Girls are socialized to not be openly smart or bold or interesting because boys don’t like it. (And boys are the most important thing. Duh.) Instead of openly challenging that-or anything else- Midrash Manicures is buying right into it. It’s not unlike fraternities and sororities who coordinate massive efforts around philanthropy and raise money for kids with cancer-it looks like a great thing to do, so no one questions it, or their failure to work on any level for structural change or systemic roots.
It’s not that, in and of itself, there’s something wrong with getting a manicure. It’s the idea that painting one’s nails with the parshah is an innovative way to teach girls Torah instead of a regressive reinforcement of ideas about gender and both the importance of Torah (it’s so simple you can put it on your nails, if you’re a girl) and how girls can be induced to learn. But in several of the articles lauding this innovation, when the girls were asked about it, their responses were along the lines of: My friends say I’m so lucky because I get to do my nails in school. Clearly the Torah study is sinking in.
Rainbow Tallit Baby has written about this as well, and nailed it (pun intended): “While the manicure program may get more girls in the door than a regular midrash class, offering this program sends the message that torah study is not a serious occupation for women and that torah is not appealing on its own and needs to be sugar-coated (or Ravishing Red coated) to be made palatable to them.”
Guest-post by Ben Greenfield, a rabbinical student (YCT) and writer based in New York City. His writing on Jewish-Muslim architecture, medieval Hebrew art, and Rabbinic romance have been featured on Jewish Ideas Daily.
5 Tips for Leading High Holiday Services in Prison
Last week, a colleague and I led Rosh Hashana services at Rikers Island, the massive East River prison complex in which New Yorkers house some 14,000 of their more suspect neighbors. We slept on the floor of a jail classroom, from which we withdrew to chat about the season, share kosher airplane meals, and attempt to serve some 60 Jewish and non-Jewish congregants.
1. Don’t bring glass bottles of Kedem grape juice.
A rookie mistake, quickly confiscated. And while hardcover siddurim are OK for the chapel, don’t think that makes them safe enough for the cells.
One inmate requested I put in a good word about him receiving a pair of Tefillin. While they’re usually permitted, he let me know why he is an exception. A few inches below the tail ends of his payos, two sunset pink scars slash across his neck. The state is worried that he’ll hang himself with the holy black straps.
For Jews at Rikers, the sacred is in constant residence with the darkly violent. Tefillin is a noose, kiddush wine a shiv. One inmate seamlessly wove memories of studying in Old City yeshivot with troubled (hallucinatory?) visions of kidnappings in broad daylight and his desire to start a new life in Iran. At Rikers, comfortable symbols of Jewish life become morbid reminders of the new reality. No glass bottles here.
By no accident does Fill The Void begin in a supermarket. That a religious mother and daughter would spy on a potential suitor in as banal a site as a supermarket is funny precisely because it is banal. But as much as the scene plays with a caricatured image of Haredi women (where else would a housewife be outside the home?), it plays against it. The story begins with a seal of disapproval—not from a rebbe, but rather curiously, from the gaze of a mother and daughter—eying a potential match for the daughter. The young girl’s possibilities might be limited, but she has choice in the matter. Or so it seems. After all, it’s she and her mother who snoop on the Hasidic suitor in question—not the other way around. The viewer is not entering, as framed by the opening scene, a matchmaking marketplace where women can be acquired like a product on an aisle shelf.
Fill The Void is a tale chock full of reversals—of things that lie outside law altogether, in the realm of the extrajudicial. Unsurprisingly, the film begins with the backward temporality of Purim. And as the plot moves forwards, the more it unravels backwards. A young mother dies, leaving her widowed, crestfallen husband with a motherless child—a mirror image of yibum, the Levirite marriage, where one brother dies and the next brother marries his sister-in-law. But the film stages the scenario in reverse. And the reversal is instructive. An unexpected tragedy forces the family to confront what happens when a void, a chasm, a cleavage, opens—when not law, but sticky interpersonal subjectivities, rule supreme. What happens when religious actors in their daily performance of ritual have no script from which to read? When the choreography has-yet-to-be-penciled-in? And, in this space of extrajudiciality, is filled the precarity of feeling. An unmarried, eighteen-year old girl must navigate the vertigo of defining where agency and restriction lie in a space outside the bounds and boundaries of law. As revealed in a most poignant scene, the rebbe asks her:
“[So] what does the daughter feel about the match?”
“This is not a matter of feeling,” she retorts with restraint.
“This is only a matter of feeling,” the Rebbe responds gingerly.
The film captures, with a minimalist aesthetic, the claustrophobia of a family in mourning. Their apartment becomes a feeling organism—radically open at times and frightfully closed at others. It can stretch to accommodate swarms of guests and then retract back into itself, with the touch of a sliding door, into chambers of intimate solitude. Alcohol reveals secrets. Cigarettes calm nerves. And the Karliner niggun, “Kah Echsof,” is sung earnestly as the women stare blankly onto the dishes of a set Shabbos table.
And when she quakes tearfully in a wedding gown with the purest devotion of dveykus to the recitation of Tehillim—beside her mother and aunt—the camera navigates across the ritual geography of the wedding. It glides from the wedding chair—a safe domain of feminine kinship—to the chuppah—a liminal, makeshift home—and ends in the yihud room. Between the seen quivering moments of intimacy (with the divine) and the unseen quivering moments of intimacy (with her husband) is formed a visual dialectic between the concealed and revealed. And as soon as her husband enters the yichud room and places his fur hat on the rack, the camera pans on her face—wan with the terror of the unexpected. The movie ends. Black fills the screen. But so much is filled in the void.
from the Jewish Women’s Archive Blog
Prozdor and the Jewish Women’s Archive announce the pilot year of the Rising Voices Fellowship!
The fellowship is open to female-identified teens in grades 11 and 12 who have a passion for writing, a demonstrated concern for current events, a commitment to improving their writing skills, and a strong interest in Judaism—particularly as it relates to issues of gender and equality. These fellows will write 8-12 monthly posts for “Jewesses with Attitude,” the Jewish Women’s Archive blog.
What does the fellowship look like?
• The fellowship will launch with a half-day kick-off meeting at Hebrew College in Newton, MA, on October 13, 2013. At this meeting, staff from Prozdor and JWA will review the goals of the program, facilitate community building, and begin teaching the techniques for crafting quality blog posts.
• Following the kick-off, the cohort will meet monthly throughout the year, including both virtual and in-person meetings. (Because these meetings will take place at Prozdor in Newton, MA, we are limiting our pilot year to New England-based participants who are able to travel to and from our meetings.)
• Tools and techniques for improving one’s writing and understanding of social media will be at the core of each of these meetings. Between writing, peer review, and preparation for upcoming meetings, participants will be asked to allocate two to three hours a week to the program.
• Jordyn Rozensky, JWA’s Blog Editor, will work independently with each of the fellows on her writing. The ability to accept and learn from edits, as well as a commitment to improving writing skills, is crucial for success in the program.
• Participants who successfully complete the fellowship will be invited to serve as mentors for the next year’s fellows.
To apply participants will be required to submit a blog style writing sample of 300-400 words, a short essay exploring what the applicant hopes to get out of the program, a sample tweet, and the names of two references.
Applications are due on September 16th and interviews with finalists will be conducted (via phone or Skype) the week of September 23rd. The fellowship will be awarded on October 4th. The final selection of the fellows will be done by a panel of successful writers in their 20s and 30s.
Introduction: Halakhic Insights from Outsiders
I’m always intrigued when individuals or groups of people who are meticulously observant of some law system – particularly Halakhah – perceive themselves as not observing something even though they understand it to be the law. They are quite observant in general and they acknowledge that the particular practice is the law, but just don’t do that practice. Often, I find that if these people are really listened to and empowered with legal language, they turn out to possess some insight into that law. It’s not that they randomly disregard it; it’s that they intuit that the law is being misinterpreted or misapplied, that it shouldn’t actually be understood as the law, and that if the halls of interpretational power had better-constructed avenues of access, such that more diverse vantage points and experiences were represented, communal perception of Halakhah would be much different.
I suspect that one fascinating example of this is the laws of yichud, the restrictions on men and women from being physically alone together, in private. My anecdotal perception is that in much of the modern, observant world – let’s say, people who pursue higher, liberal arts education and work in the general workforce while maintaining life practices of mitzvot – yichud is not at the top of the halakhah heap. Even people who do observe sexual prohibitions that are counter-cultural in their integrated world still often disregard yichud. More striking, they’ll sometimes make fun of it, telling dinner party stories about that baal teshuvah friend who was staying with a family for Shabbat and kept clandestinely going down to open the front door whenever the dad went out, and then the mom would close it and wonder how it got open, hahahaha, isn’t that ridiculous how frummies can get out of hand (say the people who send someone down every 10 minutes to look for the late guest, because of course they – we – won’t press the buzzer on Shabbat).
That’s interesting to me. People of this sort will generally construct their lifestyles around a deep commitment to halakhah, sometimes at great sacrifice; they would find it small-minded, offensive, and perhaps anti-Semitic for someone to mock their practices; they don’t dispute this particular practice’s identity as a halakhah, yet they consciously do not observe it and sometimes mock those who do. What’s going on there? More »
I participated in Women of the Wall’s Rosh Chodesh Av service this morning. Here’s an attempt to capture what the experience was like for me.
Sometimes when I go to Jewish events that I know will include a question and answer session, I make a chart that looks like this:
# of times someone asks a question that is not actually a question ( __ )
# of times speaker is interrupted by someone in the audience ( __ )
# of rants by audience members ( ___ ) *
This chart has come in particularly handy at conferences, but can be applied on a holiday such as Shavuot, if you write. (It also makes an excellent drinking game.)
I spent Shavuot at the JCC in Manhattan, which, if you have not attended a tikkun there before, can be really overwhelming. It’s super crowded, especially in the areas with the cheesecake and water and coffee. The offerings are pretty diverse: yoga, films, art, speakers, and more traditional learning situations with chevrutah. I came because I was in the neighborhood, and also for the 10 pm session with Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson (RKE in this piece, for the sake of brevity here), director of the Women’s Rabbinic Network, called “Women of the Wall, Pluralism in Israel, and American Jews.”
RKE began by asking the audience about the values that motivate their activism (“I just don’t want someone to say that my voice can’t be heard,” said one woman,) and also about the values that they felt Israel should embody, which were no surprise in a liberal Jewish crowd: equality, democracy, justice, respect, Judaism, co-existence, pluralism. “I am worried by what I see in the news,” said RKE, before giving a brief history of the actions of Women of the Wall, beginning in 1988, when the group gathered at the Kotel for the first time. In 1993, the group attempted to read Torah for the first time at the Wall, resulting in the arrest and detainment of group members. (The Torah reading happened, outside the jail near Jaffa Gate, while members of the group and allies waited for folks to be released.) ”There was a feeling of being vulnerable, and yet so strong,” said RKE. The events continued to escalate after 1993, and American Jewish support for WOW grew. RKE: “Seeing Jewish women being taken away by Israeli police in a Jewish state? How can it be?” More »
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.
You can find the application here.
The anonymous rabble rousing feminists at Jewish Women Watching are in search of new membership. You can can answer the call here, and also check out past projects (like the one below from Shavuot 5768) on their website.