Christian art depicting Jews being tortured in hell
Are the Jews somehow to blame for the CIA’s torture of detainees?
That’s what some want to know after yesterday’s release of the so-called “CIA Torture Report” by the Senate Intelligence Committee.
The CIA is in the business of extracting secrets and then burying them deep in its bureaucratic pockets. So it was somewhat surreal yesterday when the agency was forced to publicly spill its guts in the 528-page Senate report (redacted from a still-classified 6,000-page version). Among the disturbing revelations: the tactics were both more brutal and less effective than the CIA had claimed; some interrogators were inexperienced and should have been “flagged” for violent tendencies; the program had no meaningful oversight; and the CIA systematically duped the media, Congress and even President Bush in exaggerating the tactics’ success.
Another startling scoop from the Senate report is that CIA lawyers cited the “Israeli example” as part of their legal rationale justifying torture, referring to the 1999 Israeli Supreme Court decision that allowed interrogators to exert “moderate physical pressure” in some circumstances. This has already caused a stir among some, including the website Electronic Intifada, and is bound to embolden those who see a Zionist finger behind all the world’s evils.
Rabbi Avi Weiss
“Retire is a word I’d like to retire,” said my rabbi, Rav Avi Weiss, from the pulpit he has held for over 40 years.
Over the holiday of Shemini Atzeret, Rav Avi announced that he would step back from his position as senior rabbi at the synagogue he helped found, The Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, or as it’s affectionately known, The Bayit (Hebrew for “home”). Rav Avi has had an illustrious career as a political activist and progressive voice within Orthodoxy. Now he plans to write and teach more, as well as spend more time with his family.
I sat in the pews with my family nearby as I have the honor of serving this year as a rabbinic intern at The Bayit. I am at the beginning of my rabbinic journey, about to complete my studies at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the rabbinical school Rav Avi founded.
As he gave his speech, my eyes were glued to the scene. It is hard to imagine a more joyous transition, with Rav Avi’s words beginning and ending in song and dance. Many congregants expressed sadness as well, seeing as Rav Avi has been there for so many of his congregants’ lifecycle events. Some congregants even remembered The Bayit’s original days, back when it was housed in a cellar; the synagogue now seats several hundreds of people.
This past Shabbat, shortly after delivering this talk, Rav Avi gathered a group of men and a Torah scroll to go pay a visit to an elderly congregant who has been homebound for the past few months. This was at the end of a three-day holiday marathon, but Rav Avi managed to gather a group.
As we walked across the street, I asked Rav Avi where we were headed. It turns out we were visiting a noted linguist and dear friend of my grandparents, Dr. Fishman (or Shikl, as my grandfather called him) and Gella, his wife. We entered their home and Rav Avi began with a tune.
Shikl and Gella’s faces lit up. We cleared the coffee table so as to put the Torah down. We set up our synagogue in their apartment, calling Shikl up to the Torah for his aliyah. Lifting the Torah so it would be easier for Shikl to kiss and to see, Rav Avi said each word of the blessing quietly but loud enough for Shikl to hear and then repeat. A loud amen followed Shikl’s blessing — and with that, the Torah portion. “In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth.”
An ultra-Orthodox Jew watches the bombardment of Gaza from southern Israel / Getty Images
(JTA) — Most Israelis blame the war in Gaza squarely on Hamas, though there are plenty who fault the Israeli government for not pursuing peace more aggressively.
In the haredi Orthodox community, however, where practically everything is ascribed to the omnipresent hand of God in one form or another, the true cause of Israel’s troubles is seen as something else: sin, with the troubles Israel’s punishment.
Which sin? Take your pick.
American Apparel’s idea of an Orthodox man
What is “Orthodox”? Is it “Haredi”? Is it “Modern”? Is it “Ultra”? Is it “Yeshivish”?
These days, the Orthodox world is a confusing place.
Fifty years ago, Orthodox Jews (who had been known at the turn of the 20th century as “Traditionalist”) talked about three flavors of Orthodoxy: (1) the Modern Orthodox; (2) the “Yeshiva Welt,” the arena of sectarian or “Haredi” yeshivas — Torah Vo-Da’as, Mir, Telze, Chaim Berlin, Lakewood and many others; and (3) Chasidim. Period.
In 2014, none of these categories works the way they did in 1954 or 1964 — or even 1994.
In my new taxonomy, there are six categories: Modern Orthodox; Centrist Orthodox; the Yeshiva arena (“yeshivish”); Chasidim; Chabad; and Satmar. These last two, whatever else they may be, are not Chasidim.
Hasidim walk through Williamsburg / All photos courtesy of Mo Gelber
Pro tip for anyone considering a tour of Hasidic Williamsburg: It’s not that big a deal. You do not need to wear a hat, broad-brimmed or otherwise. You may visit during the week, and you may visit on weekends. You may bring along with you whatever food you like — nobody cares. And rest assured, there is no group of Hasidic thugs waiting to attack you at the slightest sign of disrespect.
Here, on the other hand, is one thing not to do — especially if you are a gray-haired gentleman of late-middle-age: attempt to engage with eight-year-old Hasidic girls on the street without their parents’ consent, and then throw a hissy fit when the girls seem suspicious of you and your motives.
Other things not to do: gawk, objectify, belittle, and otherwise bring your prejudices and misconceptions with you. Leave those at the edge of the Williamsburg bridge, if you must, and you might choose not to pick them up on your way out.
You would think these guidelines are common sense. To some, however, they are not.
Last month, Dr. Marty Klein, a nationally renowned psychologist and sexuality expert, took a 90-minute walk around the Hasidic part of Williamsburg. After his tour, which he wrote about on his blog, he declared the most notable thing about Williamsburg: the women “have no eyes” and the children are “creepy.”
Immigrants from the former Soviet Union arrive in Israel. / Getty Images
Did you hear about the latest coup for the Reform and Conservative movements in the Knesset? A new piece of legislation that passed the Law Committee today and is ready for voting in a few weeks will apparently bring closer a day when non-Orthodox movements can carry out state-recognized conversions in Israel.
Orthodox lawmaker Orit Struck of the religious-Zionist Jewish Home party is furious. The proponent of the bill is “is trying to appease all kinds of Reform and Conservative groups that are trying to give us conversions that are not according to Jewish law,” she said.
Struck continued with her statement of alarm at the imminent non-Orthodox gains, saying: “There is no way we can do anything to aid in widening the opening for the Reform with regard to anything that touches on what they call conversion. We can’t defraud people who want to embrace Judaism. We are selling them a bill of goods instead of conversion.”
It isn’t every day that I find myself truly inspired by an Orthodox rabbi; it isn’t often that Forward readers hear me espouse such sentiments. But when the Forward put out a call to readers to nominate a rabbi that inspired or touched them in some way, I felt it my duty to nominate the rabbi who unwittingly impacted my life two years ago.
Fortuitously enough, I had sent a long message the day before to this rabbi’s son – who happens to also be an inspiring Orthodox rabbi, if a bit of a different flavor – explaining how profoundly his father impacted my life.
Sometime late in the summer of 2011, my husband and I walked into the office of Rabbi Aaron Fink, Dean of Ateres Bais Yaakov in Monsey, N.Y., armed with the emotional wherewithal to counter what we thought would be inevitable rejection. We came to try to enroll our four-year-old daughter, Ruchy, in his school – an unconventional Bais Yaakov for girls – a school where love, acceptance and empowerment take precedence over other teachings.
This was approximately three years after we moved out of Kiryas Joel – three years of countless rejections by rabbis of various Hasidic and Orthodox schools.
Before we came to Rabbi Fink, we were told that no one wants former Satmar members in their schools, that our leaving the community indicates a desire to abandon Orthodoxy, that parents are afraid to send their children to school with those whose parents are Hasidic deviants, and that accepting us would negatively affect the school’s reputation. When we came to Rabbi Fink’s door, we were ready to give up on finding an Orthodox school to provide a Jewish education for our kids.
In a recent essay in the Forward, I made the case for jettisoning the time-honored (if, to me, less than honorable) term “ultra-Orthodox.”
I argued that, like “ultra-conservative” or “ultra-liberal” in domestic politics, the prefix implies extremism, something that isn’t accurate about most Haredim.
What best to replace it with is less obvious, as “haredi” is a foreign word, and euphemisms like “fervently Orthodox” insult non-haredi Jews, many of whom are as fervent in their prayer and observances as any haredi Jew (not to mention that some haredi Jews are far from fervent).
I suggested using the unadorned word “Orthodox” to refer to Haredim, whose lives, I contended, most resemble those of their forbears.
After all, I argued, self-described “Centrist” and “Modern” and “Open” Orthodox Jews are, well, self-described, with those prefixes of their choices. So why not use “Orthodox” alone, without any modifier, to refer to “black-hatters,” or “yeshivish” folks. (The Haredi subset of Hasidism could simply be called Hasidim, a word familiar to English speakers.) Think Coke, Cherry Coke, Diet Coke…
One immediate response to my essay came from Samuel Heilman, a Queens College professor of sociology.
Professor Heilman’s jaundiced eye regarding Haredim is legend. He is often quoted in the media as critical of Orthodox Jews more conservative in their practices than he. (After September 11, 2001, he famously, risibly, implied that haredi yeshivas are “quiescent” beds of potential terrorists.)
The professor rejects “ultra” too, but sees the prefix not as a pejorative but as reflecting the idea that Haredim are “truer in their beliefs and practices than others.”
He also accuses Haredim of departing from the Orthodoxy of the past. The example he offers is that, in the charedi world, “water must be certified kosher.” And he decries the Haredi “notion that Orthodox Jews always shunned popular culture.” Hasidic rebbes,” he explains, were, “among the crowds who streamed to Marienbad, Karlsbad and the other spas and baths of Europe for the cure, so much a part of popular culture in pre-Holocaust Europe.”
A woman prays wearing tefillin in Jerusalem/Getty Images
Must, should, or can observant Jewish women wrap tefillin, or not? This well-worn question was recently revived thanks to the two Modern Orthodox high schools in New York — SAR and Ramaz — that have tepidly embraced female students who wish to wrap tefillin publicly in their schools’ prayer services.
In an email circulated to parents, students and board members, Rabbi Kenny Schiowitz, Ramaz’s Talmud chair, offers an internally contradictory five-point bulletin that makes his distaste for the practice clear. On the one hand, women are not obligated to wear tefillin (point 1) but nevertheless receive the benefit of having performed a mitzvah, or commandment (point 2). But in the very next breath he argues they should not be encouraged to do so and perhaps even discouraged from doing so (based on his “proof-text” in point 3), and “taught that they do not need to wear tefillin to lead Jewishly-religiously meaningful lives” (point 5). The schizophrenia of the letter is demonstrated by the head of school’s hopeful sign-off to “see more people observing more mitzvot.”
Which is it? Is women’s observance of this mitzvah a religiously suspicious act destined to shame Torah and undermine halakhic (Jewish legal) commitment? Is it merely religiously tolerable, the isolated province of a few outliers on the religious bell curve? Or is it the natural, proper response to the times in which we live, possibly even mandated by our changed social circumstances?
A young woman prays wearing tefillin on April 11, 2013 in Jerusalem, Israel. / Getty Images
On December 8, 2013, SAR High School principal Rabbi Naphtali Harcsztark permitted students Ronit Morris and Yael Marans to lay tefillin in the school’s daily women’s prayer group, allowing them to do so within the school building. While this is the first time in its 12-year history that SAR High School has faced this issue, SAR Academy, the associated elementary and middle school, has had female students who lay tefillin. So has Ramaz, another Modern Orthodox high school in New York.
I began laying tefillin when I was a seventh grade student at SAR, over thirteen years ago. Unlike in the case of Morris and Marans, the SAR administration barred me from praying with tefillin in the school building, and excused me from praying with my class. Instead, my prayer took place in my living room, before I left for school.
As a result of not being able to pray daily with the rest of my classmates, I missed out on a lot. Announcements were regularly made at the end of services, and I missed them. Students celebrated bnei mitzvah during services, and I missed them. I missed class jokes about the boy who always hit the ceiling when he did hagbah, the lifting of the Torah scroll, or the boys who (flirtatiously?) handed their tefillin to the girls for re-wrapping at the end of services. I missed the camaraderie of praying with my peers.
After graduating from the eighth grade, I attended Ramaz High School, where another student, Shifra Mincer, also began to lay tefillin. Shifra and I were excused from morning services, and prohibited from laying tefillin in school. However, there was one exception to this rule: Tuesday mornings.
(JTA) — The Rabbinical Council of America is standing behind Rabbi Avi Weiss of Riverdale, N.Y., in his dispute with Israel’s Chief Rabbinate — sort of.
Last week, the Rabbinate for the first time offered its reasons for deciding several months ago that Weiss, an Orthodox rabbi and RCA member, wasn’t kosher enough to affirm that a Diaspora Jew seeking to marry in Israel was indeed Jewish (Israel requires that such people provide a letter from their local Orthodox rabbi affirming they are Jewish and single).
The reason? Well-known American Orthodox rabbis, including members of the RCA, had told the Rabbinate that Weiss — spiritual leader of the Orthodox Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, founder of the liberal Orthodox rabbinical school Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, and founder of Yeshivat Maharat, a yeshiva that ordains Orthodox female clergy — had a “questionable” commitment to Jewish law, or halachah.
Last Friday, the RCA – America’s main Modern Orthodox rabbinical group — issued a statement saying it wasn’t the RCA that had cast aspersions on Weiss: “Recent assertions that the Rabbinical Council of America advised the Chief Rabbinate of Israel to reject the testimony of RCA member Rabbi Avi Weiss are categorically untrue.”
But the RCA statement did not contain any expression of support for Weiss or endorsement of his commitment to halachah.
So on Monday I phoned up RCA’s executive vice president, Rabbi Mark Dratch, to ask him whether or not the RCA stands by Weiss.
“We stand by his letters,” Dratch said.
But do you stand by him? I asked.
“He is a person who is committed to halachah, although there are many within the RCA that do not support every halachic position that he takes,” Dratch said. “Rabbi Weiss has done many wonderful things and continues to do many wonderful things for the Jewish people, but not everything he does is agreed to by members of the Rabbinical Council of America and so this is an ongoing discussion and debate.”
The debates, he said, concern Weiss’ ordination of women, among other things.
“There’s no official RCA position with regard to some of these matters,” Dratch said. “A majority of RCA members feel that some of his decisions are pushing the halachic red line or beyond that.”
Dratch called Weiss a “person of integrity.”
As for the dispute with the Israeli Rabbinate — which involves about a dozen other Orthodox rabbis who over the last few months have had their letters suddenly rejected by the Rabbinate — Dratch said his office is in constant contact with the Israelis.
“We are hopeful that we will be able to come to an understanding in the very near future about how to process these letters,” Dratch said. “Our goal is to be able to support the rabbis of the RCA, to be able to make sure that their letters are accepted by the Chief Rabbinate’s office.”
Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein have yet to sell shtreimels. But one fashion commentator — and a whole lot of YouTube viewers — think Hasidic garb is worth another look.
“The Substance of Hasidic Style,” a video posted by fashion platform StyleLikeU (and reposted by Upworthy), has garnered more than 170,000 views after it was picked up by Upworthy.com. The 16-minute mini-documentary is comprised of interviews with several Hasidim and focuses on Hasidic attitudes towards fashion, modesty, community, and belief in God.
Elisa Goodkind and Lily Mandlebaum, the mother-daughter team that runs StyleLikeU, could easily have treated the Hasidic community as some sort of oddball curiosity. When I read that they had previously produced short films on the style of monks, nuns, and ballerinas, I was skeptical about how they might portray Hasidim: would they be shown as a freakish “other,” wearing outlandish clothing, stuck in the past?
To the team’s credit, the film treats the Hasidic community quite respectfully and even admiringly. Elisa Goodkind writes that the time she and her team spent among Hasidim in the Catskills was “a 12-hour odyssey that would change us forever.”
“[N]ot only did I begin to identify with some of my own life values, but I found a new group of the coolest people I had met in a long time, who were about to become my new great friends,” writes Goodkind, who describes herself as “a reform and rebellious Jew.” Her film not only depicts Hasidic clothing, but offers a broader looks at the Hasidic way of life. Hasidic views on modesty, community, and femininity are all portrayed sympathetically.
(JTA) — The websites look like those of political prisoners.
Under the caption “Free Tamar Now!” there is a close-up photo of demonstrators with signs and megaphones. “Stop the abuse,” one sign reads.
But FreeTamar.org and the Free Gital Facebook group seek emancipation not from literal bars or chains. Rather, they seek liberation for agunot — so-called chained women being denied religious writs of divorce from their husbands.
Under Jewish law, divorces are not final until the husband gives his wife the writ, known as a get. If a husband refuses, the woman cannot remarry; any intimate relationship with another man is considered adultery. Children born from such a relationship are considered mamzers, a category of illegitimacy under Jewish law that carries severe restrictions.
Under Jewish law, women chained to recalcitrant husbands have little recourse, and the problem of agunot long has plagued the Jewish community. In one recent case that garnered broad media attention, the FBI arrested several men in New York who allegedly kidnapped and tortured recalcitrant husbands — for fees of tens of thousands of dollars.
A more common and increasingly popular tactic agunot advocates are adopting to try to compel recalcitrant husbands to relent and grant their wives gets is the public shaming campaign.
Gital Doderson, 25, of Lakewood, N.J., brought her divorce fight to the front page of the New York Post on Tuesday. After three years of pursuing but failing to obtain a get from her husband, Dodelson wrote, “I’ve decided to go public with my story after exhausting every other possible means. The Orthodox are fiercely private, but I am willing to air my dirty laundry if it means I can finally get on with my life.”
The Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, known as ORA, is at the forefront of a campaign to harness public remonstrance as a means to thwart recalcitrant husbands.
In London’s school uniform shops, the experienced sales clerks know what Jewish parents will order before they open their mouths.
The shops carry the clothing with embroidered crests for numerous schools, but today, you can normally guess from the parents which school their children go to, and therefore which uniform they want. The frum-ness level of the parents’ appearance gives it away.
There are all sorts of nuances in the parents’ appearance that point to their precise religious orientation, and more often than not, they will go for the schools that fit their look.
The Jewish day school system in Britain is an amazing success, to an extent that it makes Jewish educators in America jealous. With the state meeting all costs of most of the Jewish schools except the cost of religious studies, and Jewish schools faring well in secular education, a very high proportion of British Jews send to Jewish schools. More than 50% of Jewish children between the ages of 4 and 18 are now in Jewish day schools.
These rates have risen significantly in the last three decades. And one of the knock-on effects has been the polarization of families from different religious levels.
New York mayoral candidate Bill Thompson’s political tour guides to Hasidic Brooklyn are two guys named Joseph — both famous influence-peddlers with strong community connections and checkered pasts.
When he campaigned in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Williamsburg on Labor Day, Thompson was accompanied by Hasidic fixers Joseph Menczer and Joseph Goldberger, the New York Observer reported.
Menczer and Goldberger are members of the Pupa Hasidic sect, a small ultra-Orthodox group based in Williamsburg. They have close ties to Rabbi David Niederman, a leader of the larger of the two halves of the divided Satmar Hasidic community.
Once owners of retail stores in Williamsburg, the two rose to prominence in the late 1990s after their prodigious fundraising efforts for George Pataki’s gubernatorial campaign gave them exceptional access to the governor’s office.
In 2000, the New York Times revealed that Goldberger and Menczer had parlayed their $500,000 in donations to the Pataki campaign into a highly unusual relationship with state health officials who they lobbied behalf of for-profit businesses.
A lengthy piece in the New Republic asserts — or, more accurately, hopes — that “an unlikely alliance between Orthodox and progressive women will save Israel from fundamentalism.” The latter word, of course, is intended to refer to traditional Orthodox Judaism.
Heavy on anecdotes about Haredi crazies harassing sympathetic women, the piece, titled “The Feminists of Zion,” details how demographic changes in Israel have brought the decades-old peaceful co-existence of secular and Haredi Jews to something of a head. The “once-tiny minority” of Haredim “now comprises more than 10% of the population,” it informs. And it warns that “as their numbers have increased, so has their sway over political and civil life.”
That sway has resulted in things like “an increase in modesty signs on public boulevards and gender-segregated sidewalks in Haredi neighborhoods,” not to mention “gender-separated office hours in government-funded medical clinics and de facto gender segregation on publicly subsidized buses,” among other affronts.
In 19th-century America, there was much anxiety about the “Yellow Peril,” the pernicious effect that Chinese immigrants were imagined to have on the culture of the union.
During the Second World War, the phrase was applied to Japanese-Americans. The New Republic writers, Haaretz’s Allison Kaplan Sommer and Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick, seem to perceive what they might call (although they don’t) a “Black Peril” in Israel. And the white knight on the horizon who might vanquish the monster is the Jewish state’s “fighting feminist spirit.”
That spirit, the writers say, is championed by the Israeli Reform movement (and its legal arm, the Israel Religious Action Center, or IRAC) and by “modern-Orthodox” women in Israel who are fed up with Haredim. One group of such Orthodox feminists, Kolech, the article notes, has begun to work with IRAC on “a host of issues.”
The “highest profile example of the renewed fighting feminist spirit in Israel,” the writers assert, may be “the stunning success this year of Women of the Wall,” (WOW), the group of feminists that has made a point of gathering monthly at the Western Wall, or Kotel Maaravi, to hold vocal services while wearing religious garb and items traditionally worn by men, which offends the Haredi men and women who regularly pray at the site around the clock.
For most Americans, a solid high school education is a stepping stone to college. But Hasidic boys and girls who chose to pursue a higher degree do not have this foundation to build on. Most Hasidic boys receive one hour of English studies per day, four days per week, from third grade to bar mitzvah — one hour in which they are taught the bare minimum, often by Hasidic teachers who themselves lack a secular education. Most Hasidic girls, on the other hand, study the rudiments of English, math and science three hours per day, four days per week. Most boys do not graduate high school, and most girls receive non-accredited diplomas.
Hasidic men and women who choose to go to college do so for different reasons. Some face challenges in providing for their large families, and see education as the key to a bigger salary. Others seek a way out of their communities, and want to function as intelligent adults in the secular world. In their pursuit of a college degree, Hasidim struggle to bridge many academic and cultural gaps.
Six weeks ago, I embarked on a journey to document the stories of individuals, myself included, who took the leap from a rudimentary Hasidic education to college. I spoke with Frieda Vizel, Naftuli Moster and others, who are identified by their first names or by pseudonyms in the piece. (They asked to remain anonymous out of concern that they would face retribution for criticizing the schools in the Hasidic community, of which they are still a part.)
I raked through hours of poignant interviews. What resulted was a story of collective hope, struggle and triumph. Click below to listen.
Frimet Goldberger is a radio producer, writer and senior at Sarah Lawrence College. When she is not running after people with a recorder, she enjoys spending time with her husband and two children.
Josh Halpern’s essay, Should Men Thank God They Were Not Born Women? sensitively and articulately outlines many of the tensions facing those of us who are committed to the halacha and Orthodoxy and at the same time live in a world a seemingly incongruous world: a world where women are first-class politicians, lawyers, doctors, educators and then have second class status upon entering an orthodox synagogue.
Orthodox feminists must promote gender equality whenever it is halachically sanctioned. This is an approach I agree with. This is not the space for exploration of the halachik status of the bracha of shelo asani isha, though perhaps further though in this matter is warranted. However, I would like to offer two reactions and solutions to Josh’s challenge.
First, a practical solution. As a matter of communal practice, I and most of the communities I pray with are advocates of beginning communal prayer with Rebbi Yishmael omer, omitting all the morning blessings from the communal recitation and instead asking the community to recite the morning blessings at the home as they were originally intended. This mitigates the concern of a public statement, whether intended or interpreted, of the value of one gender over another. There is no halachik requirement that these brachot be said out loud, and if their recitation causes half of the people in the room to feel insulted, shamed or silenced it behooves the community to say them privately.
This is an effective, though surface solution. It does not address the deeper issues Josh raises.
So what is an Orthodox feminist to do? One could simply throw out this blessing. But then aren’t there a host of other blessings, passages from the Talmud, even biblical verses that may jibe with today, or tomorrow’s, moral sensibilities?
The Supreme Court’s decisions around marriage rights may have elated gay and lesbian Jews and their allies. But for LGBT Jews in the Orthodox community, the ruling might have the opposite effect. The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations issued a statement reiterating Judaism “forbids homosexual relationships”; Agudath Israel went a step further, claiming the “sanctity” of marriage “may have been grievously insulted by the High Court.”
Enter Shlomo Ashkinazy. A quiet but pathbreaking activist, Ashkinazy has counseled gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews about reconciling “untenable contradictions” in their religious and sexual identities. Most recently, he’s leading a video storytelling project for Eshel, the New York-based organization which advocates for acceptance of LGBT Jews in Orthodox communities.
Ashkinazy’s personal activism stretches back much farther. In the 1970s, he became the nation’s first openly gay social-work graduate student. And in 1985, he became founding principal at the Harvey Milk High School, the first public school for LGBT students in the country.
On the heels of historic high-court decisions on civil rights for LGBT people, the Forward caught up with Ashkinazy from Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood, where he lives with his partner Michael.
In the insular Jewish world there is constant buzz around the so-called shidduch (marriage) crisis, where Orthodox are single despite wanting to find a mate.
This marriage worldview manifested itself in a recent letter, published on the Jewish news site Shmais, in which an anonymous “older single girl” describes her shame and depression for being unmarried.
The stigma of singlehood is rooted in conformist values that lack individual expression. It is sacrificing the individual for the sake of family and community.
The letter is addressed to her “Married Friends.” She starts by describing herself as a nebech – a pity case. She then details the pain and frustration of being single and without children.
She mostly refers to her married friends as a reference point for the ideal life she is lacking. She never discussed why she wants to be married and have children – but only about the life she sees others living.
Marriage is sacred and beautiful. Children are the greatest blessing. But it is harmful when a society conveys the message that you must be married to be happy.
It tells people they must conform to be happy. They must have kids. They must be married. Otherwise they will be miserable. In reality, happiness comes from within, not external factors like marriage.
If you can’t be happily single, you can’t be happily married.