Comedian Sarah Silverman has been called many things, but never a prophetess. Until yesterday, when she was given prophetic credentials in the magazine section of the Israeli newspaper Yediot Achronot.
The accolade comes from an interview with her sister, Jerusalem-based Reform rabbi (and one of the Forward 50 list of important Jews) Susan Silverman, which is the cover item and a two-page feature in yesterday’s edition.
“I didn’t say she’s a Biblical prophet but she continues that path,” said Susan Silverman, suggesting that her perceptiveness about society and powers of observation make her, in a sense, prophetic. The prophecy theme provided the headline for the article: “Sister of the prophetess.”
(JTA) — It was, perhaps, not the most auspicious setting for Ronit Peskin’s first-ever public speech.
The 25-year-old self-described housewife stood in front of a crowded room at the biggest Jewish conference of the year, the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly in Jerusalem. She was about to verbally assail Women of the Wall — a group most in the audience supported. On the stage with her were Yesh Atid Knesset member Aliza Lavie, representing a party that championed religious pluralism; Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, who’s spearheading a compromise on the Kotel; and Women of the Wall’s chairwoman, Anat Hoffman, a confident public speaker with decades of experience.
By the end of the event, Lavie was telling Peskin she should run for Knesset.
A Cleveland native and mother of three who moved to Israel at age 18, Peskin says she generally tries to avoid the spotlight. Most of her frequent Facebook posts are about cooking and household economy — publicity for her blog, Penniless Parenting.
But since April, Peskin has also served as co-founder of Women for the Wall, a traditionalist group that aims to maintain the status quo at the Kotel and that opposes Women of the Wall — helping to draw thousands of girls to the women’s section to counter WOW’s monthly services.
In her GA speech last week, she didn’t hold back.
“When Anat Hoffman and other WOW board members mistakenly compare Israel to Saudi Arabia, claim that women here are oppressed and have no rights, and that Conservative and Reform Jews get arrested for praying in their way, it’s doing irreparable harm to our nation,” she said. “The answer is not to let a tiny but vocal minority ruin the experience for everyone else.”
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.
Comedian Sarah Silverman is known for her outrageous shtick. But her sister, Rabbi Susan Silverman, and niece, Hallel, have become leading members of the Israeli activist group Women of the Wall, which fights for women’s rights to pray as they see fit at the Western Wall.
The Silvermans are well known for their involvement in the Kotel protests. But Susan Silverman’s husband, Yosef, is himself an activist for green solar technology in Israel.
Recently, videographer Harvey Stein travelled with the family to the monthly prayer protests under threats of violence.
Fifty years ago civil rights activists staged a sit-in at the lunch counter of Woolworth’s in Jackson Mississippi to protest the segregated seating which existed, mandating separate areas for black and white patrons.
Young students from nearby Tougaloo College, both black and white, sat together at the “whites only” counter, waiting futilely to be served. These brave young students were attacked by local citizens who felt that their way of life was being threatened. The mob screamed, cursed, spat on and punched the people sitting-in at the lunch counter. They poured coffee, salt, pepper, sugar, ketchup and mustard on them. They hit them with brass knuckles.
Eventually, after several hours of violence, the police moved in to break up the mob.
Hillel Halkin brands Women of the Wall ‘childish provocateurs’ who put their rights to protest ahead of other Jews’ feelings
Prior to the sit-in, Medgar Evers, then the Field Secretary for the NAACP in Jackson, wrote a letter indicating their intent. “We are determined to end all state and local government sponsored segregation in the parks, playgrounds, schools, libraries, and other public facilities. To accomplish this, we shall use all lawful means of protest,” Evers wrote.
Two weeks after the sit-in, Medgar Evers was murdered by a local KuKlux Klan member. Woolworth’s closed the lunch counter altogether to avoid serving blacks.
But the protests resounded — and humanity prevaile. A year later, Congress passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, prohibiting discrimination based on race.
Reading today about this historic struggle in American history reminded me of my own experience last month on May 10 (Rosh Chodesh Sivan), when I was privileged to be a participant with the Women of the Wall in Jerusalem.
Strangely similar to the accounts of the struggle in Mississippi were the screams, the taunts, the cursing, and even the spilling of food, such as water and coffee by the Haredim, who were protesting the existence of the Women of the Wall, our prayers, our tallitot, our voices rising to the Heavens.
Like the mob in Mississippi, they were worried that their way of life would be threatened.
At Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport, the use of racial profiling is so controversial that it is the subject of a legal challenge by human rights advocates. But what about a different type of profiling — religious profiling — and of all places at the Western Wall?
As we reported, the tables were turned at the Western Wall on Sunday when Women of the Wall held its communal prayers. Until a court ruling demanded otherwise on April 25, the police treated the group’s monthly gatherings as illegal.
But on Sunday police didn’t just let WOW pray — to do so they kept Haredi women away from the Wall. Police erected barriers by the women’s section of the Wall and only let worshippers who looked like they were part of the WOW gathering through.
Women who wore Haredi attire weren’t allowed to approach the Wall during the time of the WOW prayers. An Orthodox woman who isn’t a member of WOW but who went to join the group’s prayers, tells me that she was stopped and questioned on where she was going. It was clear, she said, that if she hadn’t been headed to take part in WOW prayers, she would have been temporarily barred from the Wall.
This situation presents a conundrum. WOW have won their hard-earned religious freedom, and are now allowed to hold prayers at the Wall. And certain Haredi women continue to show determination to disrupt their prayers, as I reported on Sunday. It may even be the case that allowing these particular Haredi women close to WOW would cause direct confrontation. So on the one hand the measures taken on Sunday could seem justified.
The tables were well and truly turned at the Western Wall this morning, as the Israeli Police, which until this spring detained women holding communal prayers, executed a mass operation to protect them and facilitate their worship.
Until April 25, the police treated the monthly gatherings by the feminist alliance Women of the Wall as illegal, and as a result detained its members. However, on that date a Jerusalem district court ruled that this interpretation of the law wasn’t correct.
As a result, at their service a month ago, they were allowed to hold their communal prayers. However, the scene was chaotic, with large numbers of Haredi protestors doing much to disturb the prayers, and some of them throwing projectiles at the women.
At today’s service, however, the scene was very different. Haredi leaders, keen to for their community to avoid the bad press it received a month ago, and instructed youngsters to keep away, in a bid to keep hotheads at bay. But the biggest difference was the punctilious organization by police, who took their obligation to protect the women exceedingly seriously.
While just a couple of months ago it was the objectors to Women of the Wall who had the upper hand at the Wall, today, they were kept away from much of the women’s section as WOW gathered. Police escorted women in to the prayer area from their buses. If you hadn’t arrived on a bus, officers asked where you were going, and only if you were participating with WOW were you allowed near their gathering. The officers covered a special walkway with tarpaulin, so that WOW participants couldn’t be seen by Haredi demonstrators — and in a worst-case scenario of object being throw wouldn’t be harmed.
Could Tzipi Livni be sweetening feminists before dropping a bombshell?
As discussed earlier on Forward Thinking, Justice Minister Livni has just announced that she is working on legislation to criminalize the exclusion of women from the public sphere. The timing is interesting — just as she could find herself in a very awkward position on women’s issues.
Women of the Wall, the interdenominational feminist group that prays once a month at the Western Wall, is waiting to see what will become of its newfound rights.
For the first time ever, women tried to hold public prayers at the Western Wall with he blessing of the state today. It was be the group’s first prayer meeting since a landmark court ruling that will put an end to the police’s habit of detaining its members.
Women planned to gather at the Wall, some of them wearing prayer shawls and phylacteries, with guarantees from police that they will respect the protection that the court afforded them.
Instead of the police, women found themselves facing off against thousands of ultra-Orthodox demonstrators. Police had to protect them from the Haredi mob.
Now, non-Orthodox religious leaders are demanding an investigation into the violence.
Israel’s Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein has just dealt the political establishment a trump card to clamp down on the women. This week he waived his right to challenge the permissive court ruling they received as he believes it accords with the current law, but in his decision he left the door wide open for the Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett to redefine the law and put a stop to their newly-won right to public prayer at the Wall.
If Bennett decides to alter the law, he will head straight to Livni’s office for her signature to do so. The pressure will be high on Livni, the junior party of the coalition, from strongman Bennett. Perhaps she’s making a big gesture to women in her announcement today so that, if and when the time comes to reel in rights at the Kotel, she can say that she’s only lost a battle but won the war.
Either way, the ball is in Tzipi’s court.
The Orthodox rabbi who oversees the Western Wall has vowed not to soften his confrontational approach toward Jewish women seeking to pray at the holy site in Jerusalem.
On Friday, police detained four women for wearing prayer shawls as they tried to start a prayer service. There have been numerous similar incidents in the past.
In an article that Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz sent to journalists Tuesday, but apparently written before Friday’s incident, he said that women trying to pray at the wall represent a “liberal-zealous” agenda.
Rabinowitz, who is an Israeli state employee, is the man behind the ban on female public prayer that the police enforces. He presents himself as caught “between two types of zealotry.”
He wrote: “From the side of the traditionalist zealots, I have been attacked because of my vigorous actions t bring thousands of groups of students and soldiers to the Western Wall. Many of these groups do not live a traditional Jewish lifestyle. From the liberal-zealous direction.”
The “zealotry” from the other direction is that of the Women of the Wall, the inter-denominational group that wants the right to wear prayer shawls, to pray, and to read out loud from the Torah at the Wall.
Discussing a Talmudic passage he wrote of zealotry: “With pretty words it asks for our protection – in the name of tolerance, of course. Under the protection of tolerance, it grows and flourishes, until it is impossible to prevent the disaster that it brings upon all of us.”
He went on to state “loud and clear” that “[a]s long as I have authority, placed upon me by the State of Israel, over the Western Wall, there will be no place for zealotry there. The stones of the Wall can teach us about the cost of zealotry. They still remember the heat of the flames, lit by the zealotry of the residents of Jerusalem, each man against his brother. Before these glorious stones, we are charged never to make the same mistake again.”
Calling on the federation system to join synagogues in a fight against religious discrimination in Israel, Reform leader Rabbi Rick Jacobs aimed to engage the broader Jewish community in the struggle for equality of non-Orthodox Jewish denominations in Israel.
Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, described Israel as “the only democracy that legally discriminates against the majority of Jews who are in the non-Orthodox streams.”
He also spoke out against Israel’s decision not to allow women full access to the Western Wall, its refusal to recognize marriages performed by non-Orthodox rabbis and the discrimination against religious institutions affiliated with the Reform and Conservative movements.
“It is time to end this discrimination once and for all,” Jacobs declared.
While this call for arms is not new in the Reform discourse with Israel, his effort to enlist the federation system in the struggle does represent a new phase in the battle against the Orthodox denomination’s hold on Israel Jewish institutions.