Sisterhood Blog

A Brief History of Mikveh in the Ghettos

By Lani Lederer Berman

Throughout history, the mikveh has stood at the very core of religious Jewish life and practice, and said to protect the Jewish people both physically and spiritually. It is therefore fitting on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, to explore some of the discourse surrounding mikveh during the Holocaust, when Jewish existence was threatened in both these realms. Though this piece is not an exhaustive examination of the topic, it is meant to join the conversation in an attempt to pay respect to those who endured the suffering and thereby fought for the physical and spiritual survival of our nation.

Letter of Thanks from the Lodz rabbis for heating the mikveh waters.

The Nazis understood the importance of the mikveh. Rabbinic responsa record that in many places, specifically in the ghettos, the Nazis banned the use of the mikveh and closed them down. They prevented Jews from immersing for any reason, and thereby largely prevented women from keeping the laws connected to family purity. This raised serious questions regarding the propriety of a halakhic marriage. In the Oneg Shabbat Archives, which chronicled the lives of Jewish people in the Warsaw Ghetto, Rabbi Yehoshua Moshe Aronson notes that after the Nazi invasion, the mikvehs were closed in the Warsaw Ghetto. This led him and others to worry that “the consecration of married life would be marred by impurity.”

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Watch One Woman's Response to Unequal Pay

By Sarah Breger


Today is Equal Pay Day. Why? Because it is how far into the year the average woman must work to earn as much as her male counterpart earned in 2014.

While making up up nearly half of the American work force, women still earn 78 cents for every dollar a man earns. (Of course, this statistic has been challenged for not taking into account other factors such as education, tenure, workweek hours etc.)

Watch one woman’s response to discovering that she only earns 78 percent of what her male co-workers earn.

Turning Rape and Bulimia Into Comedy

By Batya Ungar-Sargon

Jessie Kahnweiler, right, with her mother, Jennifer Kahnweiler, at the 2013 Los Angeles premiere of Jessie’s web series “Dude, Where’s My Chutzpah?” (Clark Henry)

(JTA) — In an early episode of “Dude, Where’s My Chutzpah?,” the 2013 docu-comedy web series by Jessie Kahnweiler that put her on the comedic map, Kahnweiler’s character ends up at the barrier separating the West Bank from Israel. She had asked a taxi driver to take her to “the Wall.”

The character, Jessie — the comedian’s amped-up, disinhibited alter ego — approaches a woman standing in the shade. “So this is the Wailing Wall?” she asks, referring to the holy site at the heart of Jerusalem’s Old City, but pointing to the concrete wall shrouded in barbed wire that divides the Palestinian village of Bil’in. “Is this where I put my note?”

When the woman points out the Israeli soldiers standing guard, Jessie begins to flirt.

“Shalom!” she calls out, with a smile and a wave. And then: “Can I have diet tear gas? I’m kind of trying to watch my weight.”

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Pulpit Plus One: 'I Built My Own Castle'

By Julie Sugar

llustration by Lior Zaltzman

“Pulpit Plus One: The Secret Lives of Rabbis’ Husbands, Partners, and Wives” features the voices and experiences of the partners of pulpit rabbis. In this interview series, “Pulpit Plus One” takes an honest and lively look into the nuances of a complex role.

Tamar is a 36-year-old Jewish communal professional in a role of considerable leadership. She grew up Orthodox and moved away from the movement as a young adult. Her husband is the senior rabbi of a Conservative congregation in Massachusetts. They have four children.

You’ve been married for over twelve years, and your husband has been a pulpit rabbi for almost that long. What were your feelings going in about being married to a pulpit rabbi?

I had a lot of visions and fantasies, and things that I thought living that life would be…and I was totally wrong! [laughs]

What did you think that role would look like? How were you wrong?

Well, a lot of this does come from my Orthodox background, because I didn’t understand what it meant to be in a real Conservative synagogue. I grew up in an Orthodox community, and so I had a lot of rebbetzins [Yiddish, “rabbis’ wives”] who cooked big Shabbos meals, and had a lot of people over.

I thought that’s what that would be: you were your husband’s partner, and leading a community, and that it would be very warm, and we’d be helping people…and I thought that people would like me! I was not prepared for the judgement. I was not prepared for being looked at almost as a celebrity.

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Israeli Women Are More Than Bullets and Bikinis

By Ilana Masad

The character of Ziva David on the TV show NCIS is a classic stereotype of the Israeli women. Via Wikicommons

When you google “israeli woman,” the first thing you see is the images.

Sexy, tough, military, or all three. After the images, you get the expected results: a Wikipedia page for “Women in Israel,” an article in The New Yorker. And then, unfortunately, a piece about “Israel’s Sexiest Women.”

This is the stereotype: Israeli women as hot gun-toting warriors. Israeli women are aggressive because they served in the military, because they learned how to shoot guns, and served as commanders ordering others around. Another stereotype is that they’re in control, powerful, confident, and effortlessly equal to men in all things. The illusion of equality to men probably comes from the early days of secular immigrants to the land occupied by the British Mandate; the men and women who came to Palestine back in the 1930s and 1940s — and who remained the backbone of Israel once it was declared a country — were quite a Marxist, Communist, socialist bunch, and they believed that women and men were to be equal in all things. This didn’t remain the case for very long.

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A Dialogue on Mad Men's Rachel Menken

By Tara Metal and Judith Rosenbaum


Is Rachel Menken the ‘One Who Got Away’?

Tara Metal

“Mad Men” is a show about reinvention and regret. Our hero, Don Draper, pulls himself out of an abusive, impoverished childhood and becomes a successful ad man on Madison Avenue. He has it all, yet he always wants more.

Season 7 (Part 2) of “Mad Men” opens as Don is in the throes of his second divorce. He is back to cavorting around the city with Roger Sterling, and apparently juggling so many women that he’s hired a service just to manage all of their calls. Of course, any dedicated “Mad Men” viewer knows all too well that this parade of women doesn’t amount to happiness for Don Draper. They’re distractions, sure to give way to the torment lurking just beneath the surface of his polished veneer.

As anticipation for the final season of “Mad Men” built, so did the question of who would appear in these last episodes. There have been so many characters weaving in and out of the narrative over the years, many of them women in Don’s life. Midge, Suzanne, Bobbie Barrett, Dr. Faye, Sylvia — each affair meant something different to Don, because each represented something about his character and the way he saw himself at that time. And no affair meant more to Don than his brief time with Rachel Menken.

When we meet Rachel in Season 1, she is hiring Sterling Cooper to re-brand her father’s department store, Menken’s. Menken’s is old, reliable, and Jewish, and Rachel wants more for it. She wants higher-end, glamorous customers, Jewish and non. She is demanding and forward thinking. She runs every meeting she’s in, convincing her father and the men at Sterling Cooper what’s right for the business. It’s made clear that she has chosen work over marriage, and that she gets great satisfaction out of her job. Audiences fell for this smart, independent woman right away, as did Don.

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A Manifesto for the Unsung Female Artist

By Hannah Rubin

Recent studies show that only 30% of artists represented by galleries are female. This statistic is troubling, given that women comprise 80% of BFA graduates, and 60% of MFA graduates. In this series, The Sisterhood aims to shed light on this staggering gender skew in the art world. We will be interviewing different female artists, in order to discuss the way they navigate gender, sexuality, religion, family, and politics in their life and work.

Melissa Meyer

Melissa Meyer makes bold paintings. Rich brooding colors share space with gestural marks of all sizes. They stare out at you, coyly, confidently. They speak, in a language that feels both comprehensible and just out of reach. Meyer is similar.

A thick New York accent, dark hair, and standing at barely 5’2’’, Meyer speaks softly, answering questions with stories, brown eyes smiling cautiously.

“I paint because I’m hooked,” she says, humbly, when I ask about her incredibly well-established career as a visual artist. “What other people think of you is none of your business,” she says, when I ask what it is like to have been doing Abstract Expressionism in the 1960s, during an era of pointed female exclusion.

Her relationship with her feminist politics are layered and ever-changing — one gets the sense that things that once moved her deeply have now taken a second seat to her true passion: Her work. Yet, although she doesn’t define her work as feminist, her life undoubtedly is.

Meyer is represented by Lennon, Weinberg Gallery in New York, and completely financially independent. She has had over 40 one-person exhibitions and her work is included in a myriad of permanent collections, including, but not limited to, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the MOMA, The Brooklyn Museum, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and the Jewish Museum. She has designed public commissions in New York, Tokyo, Shanghai — and is currently working on one for a building in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. She has also received many grants and residencies, including the Rome Prize, Yaddo, NEA and the Bogliasco Foundation.

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Lore Krüger's Suitcase Full of Pictures

By Avner Shapira (Haaretz)

BERLIN – This city’s Willy-Brandt-Haus is currently showing an exhibition of the U.S. street photographer Vivian Maier, who gained fame only after her death. At another venue in the city, meanwhile, the work of an artist who could be called Maier’s local equivalent is on display: The photography museum C|O Berlin is holding the first-ever retrospective of the German-Jewish Lore Krüger. Called “A Suitcase Full of Pictures,” the exhibition – which opened in January and is scheduled to close on April 10 – is a hot topic on the Berlin art scene.

Krüger, like Maier, died in 2009. And both artists left behind a visual record of great talent that went largely undiscovered during their lifetimes.

The fact that Krüger (née Heinemann), through her photographs, focused on a dark time in history was tied indirectly to her own biography as a Jewish refugee who fled Nazi Germany, became a Communist agitator, documented with her camera the historic shifts of a shattered Europe in the 1930s, and continued her artistic work and political activism after fleeing to the United States in 1941. But when she returned to Germany after the war, she left photography behind. All that was left of that early love was a suitcase filled with some 250 photographs that she brought with her, and on which the current exhibition is based.

The 100 or so photographs in the exhibition were taken in the decade between 1934 and 1944, and they suggest the directions Krüger might have taken had she not abandoned the camera, according to Felix Hoffmann, the cocurator of the exhibition on behalf of the C|O Berlin Foundation. “Ten years, 10 turbulent and dramatic years, moreover, is rather a short time to develop as an artist and to find out what one wants and is able to do,” Hoffmann wrote in the exhibition catalog. Nevertheless, he finds in her work the aesthetic influences of the Bauhaus, the “New Seeing” movement, cubism, Dada, surrealism and even Russian constructivism. Yet on the other hand, he sees an acute social and political sensitivity, reflected in her photographs of Gypsies (also known as Roma), and of laborers and political exiles.

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The 'Mad Men' Premiere Was All About One Jewish Woman

By Anne Cohen


This post contains spoilers for season 7, episode 8 of “Mad Men.” If you haven’t seen it…what are you waiting for?

The final half-season premiere of “Mad Men” was all about women: Models, stewardesses, diner waitresses, career women — in the guise of Peggy and Joan — and socialites all made an appearance. But ironically, the plot centered around one conspicuously absent woman. A Jewish woman.

The first scene in “Severance,” as the episode is called, shows a woman eyes — is it me or did she look a little like Bar Refaeli? — before the camera pans down to her almost naked form, covered only by a $15,000 chinchilla fur coat. “Show me how smooth your skin is,” an oily Don Draper purrs.

Okay. So, 1970 hasn’t done much for the objectification of women.

And speaking of our old friend Don, he’s on a roll: five minutes into the episode, he’s already successfully creeped on four different women (not to mention the diner waitress that he repeatedly visits in one of those typical Weinerian “Is this a dream?” sequences).

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Privilege, Day School and the Lure of the $80 Hoodie

By Shayna Goodman

Illustration by Lior Zaltzman

When Juicy Couture closed its doors this summer I felt a certain schadenfreude. While I attended Ramaz High School, a modern Orthodox prep school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, there was nothing I wanted more than an $80 Juicy Couture zip-up.

During our morning prayers, my classmates walked down the aisle that ran through the girls’ side of mechitza showing off designer knee-length jean skirts and soft cotton blouses. I eyed the visible labels with envy.

Wealth was noticeable at Ramaz in students’ references to ski vacations, Hamptons beach houses, family lineage at elite universities (albeit a short lineage due to Jewish quotas at universities) and in their last names, which were recognizable for libraries their families had donated. For girls, there was an added expectation to look pretty, which often involved scrupulous grooming and expensive clothing.

Despite the high visibility of wealth and material consumption, teachers and administrators never addressed the subject of money. I rarely heard students discuss money among themselves, even those like me who received need-based scholarships. It wasn’t until college that I realized how few Americans had the amount of wealth that I assumed was the norm.

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Addicted to (Unrequited) Love

By Johnna Kaplan

“Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife” by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, the most famous unrequited love story in the Bible (via Wikimedia Commons).

Twenty years ago, Lisa A. Phillips found herself knocking obsessively on the door of a man who had tried to end their friendship-turned-romance relationship months earlier. The experience, she writes, transformed her “from a sane, conscientious college teacher and radio reporter into someone I barely knew — someone who couldn’t realize that she was taking her yearning much, much too far.”

It also led Phillips, now a journalism professor at SUNY New Paltz, to write Unrequited: Women and Romantic Obsession. The book examines one-sided passion as documented in ancient Roman medical records, biographies of prominent women in history, and conversations with modern women whose lives were upended by unrequited love. The Sisterhood’s Johnna Kaplan spoke to Phillips on extreme love and the Bible’s “most prominent female stalker in the Torah.”

Johnna Kaplan: One thing that occurred to me while reading your book is that women in unrequited love are usually mentioned only as tragic literary figures. When you started researching this book, did you find that a lot had been written already, or that there wasn’t much out there?

Lisa A. Phillips: There wasn’t any book for a popular audience on the subject of women and unrequited love. But once I started to get a real working definition and use that as the lens through which to view experiences of women throughout history and today, I found a lot. I mean there’s a lot out there in history, in literature, in pop culture, and in the psychology of it.

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Portrait of the Artist As 'Mamochka'

By Chana Pollack

Welcome to Throwback Thursday, a weekly photo feature in which we sift 116 years of Forward history to find snapshots of women’s lives.

Standing out in a series of photographs in our archive depicting the artwork of painter Alexandra Pregel (1907-1984), published in the Forverts in 1948, is a striking portrait of an elderly woman whose melancholic gaze and soft posture belie the historic role she played as intellectual salonniere, revolutionist, publisher and artistic midwife to the early modern Soviet creative class of three different countries.

Maria Samoilovna Zetlin (1882-1976), seen here in a portrait by her daughter the artist, was born Maria Tumarkina in Moscow to an artisanal jeweler. Completing her doctorate in philosophy at the University of Bern in Switzerland in the early 1900s, she was a revolutionist and member of the Socialist party. In Bern she then met and fell in love with fellow activist Nikolai Avksentiev who was shortly to become her fellow prison-mate after the failed 1905 revolution, and it was there, in 1906 that they married. When Avksentiev was sentenced to Siberian exile, Maria followed him there — and when he escaped — she returned to Moscow, found passage for herself to Helsinki, Finland where she gave birth to daughter Alexandra. Divorcing in 1910, she then married Mikhail Zetlin, a descendent of Zionist activists and heir to the famous Wissotzky Jewish tea fortune, whom she had met earlier at university.

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The Salon Recap: Babies, Baristas, and Body Image

By Rebecca Honig Friedman

This month’s episode of “The Salon” feels especially momentous because, in addition to it being our pre-Passover episode it was also our very pregnant co-host’s last show before her due date, and in fact as I am writing this she is in labor and on her way to the hospital to give birth! (If she gives birth by the time I get to the end I will let you know.)

We were excited to have Forward columnist and the host of the Discovery Life series “World’s Worst Mom,” Lenore Skenazy, on the show this month, along with the National Council of Jewish Women-New York section’s executive director, Andrea Salwen Kopel, and Yeshivat Maharat’s director of pastoral counseling, Dr. Esther Altmann.

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A Poet's Lens Into a Violent Marriage

By Judy Bolton-Fasman

Photograph courtesy of Jehanne Dubrow

The Arranged Marriage is Jehanne Dubrow’s powerful new volume of poetry, and it bears witness to her Jewish Honduran mother Jeannette’s complicated life story. Her family left Germany in the late 1930s for Honduras, and Jeannette was born in San Antonio, Texas in 1946 for medical reasons. Immediately after the birth, mother and child returned to their family in Central America where Jeannette lived until she was 15.

Dubrow, who is an award-winning poet, captures her family’s traumatic departure from Europe in a poem from the book called “Limen.” She writes: “I think of my mother’s family, circa 1936—/folding Warsaw and Berlin in their steamer trunks, /beneath prayer shawls, pictures of the dead./That shipped to Honduras.”

In a recent interview Dubrow notes, “My mother came from a Yiddish, German, Spanish speaking household.” Her father was the son of assimilated German Jews who made their way to Miami through Cuba just before the Holocaust. He spoke German as a child and Dubrow remembers her grandparents’ heavily accented English.

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The Haggadah Illuminations of Barbara Wolff

By Menachem Wecker

A recent donation of artwork by Jewish artist Barbara Wolff to the Morgan Library & Museum in New York is doubly rare. With few exceptions, the Morgan’s collection stops at the year 1600, and its Hebrew illumination holdings are scarce.

Rudi Wolf
Barbara Wolff, “Against All the Gods of Egypt I Will Execute Judgement.” Rose Haggadah/Morgan Library & Museum.

“A gift of this sort is highly unusual to the department of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts,” says Roger Wieck, acting head of the department and Morgan curator. “We have been approached in the past by modern illuminators, who would have like to have their work represented at the Morgan, but we have not been favorably impressed with the quality.”

Wolff’s manuscripts – a hagaddah and a book that derives from Psalms – are “superlative” and the two donations “catapult the department’s holdings into the 21st century,” Wieck says.

The Rose Haggadah, donated to the museum by Daniel and Joanna S. Rose and one of the subjects of the Morgan exhibit “Hebrew Illumination for Our Time: The Art of Barbara Wolff” (through May 3), is a first for the museum, according to Wieck.

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Wanted: Female Date Tree To Save 2,000-Year-Old Species

By Shira Rubin and Ruth Schuster (Haaretz))

Dr. Elaine Solowey planting a rather younger Methuselah in the ground, 2007. Photo by Dan Keinan

Methuselah, the Judean date palm grown from a 2,000-year old seed, has turned out to be male, and there’s fresh hope he could sire a revival of his extinct species – he’s potent.

Now ten years old, the tree is over ten feet tall, with offshoots and flowers, and its pollen works, says Sarah Sallon, MD, director of the Hadassah organization’s Louis L. Borick Natural Medicine Research Center.

Sallon who initiated the Germination of Ancient Seed Program as part of her long term Middle Eastern Medicinal Plant project, works with neighbors - Palestinians and Jordanians - to develop and conserve the medicinal plants in this area. “Plants have no borders,” Sallon points out, and she believes there could be great potential in their medicinal properties.

Methuselah was born of a date seed found during the 1960s excavation of Masada by Prof Yigal Yadin. Sallon obtained it by asking the late archaeologist Prof Ehud Netzer for seeds. “He thought I was mad but he agreed,” Sallon said.

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Ruth Bader Ginsburg's Problematic Passover Reading

By Sarah Brodsky

Getty images

In the Passover story, as in most of the Bible, men usually get the acclaim. So when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt recently published an article highlighting the role of Moses’s sister Miriam, Pharoah’s daughter Batya, and other women in the biblical narrative, it was hailed as a feminist perspective. But while being reminded of the women who participated in the events related at the Passover seder may feel inspirational and affirming to women, such female-centric retellings work counter to the goals of empowering women in Judaism. People who want to advocate for Jewish women should be careful not to lean too heavily on the rhetoric of the strong female biblical figure.

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Remembering Infertility on Passover

By Amy Klein

Photograph by Michal Solomon

(JTA) — I recently attended the bris of my friend’s son and it was the first such occasion at which I was not crying tears of sadness for myself. Two years ago I was at her older son’s bris, and I remember pretending my copious tears were of joy. In reality, all I could think was: How come everyone else gets to have the very thing that I want most?

It would take me three years, 10 doctors, nine rounds of in-vitro fertilization and four miscarriages to finally get and stay pregnant.

And there I was, in my second trimester of pregnancy, listening to my friend deliver a speech at her son’s bris, and all I can think was: What about everyone else who can’t have children? Even though I’m out of the precarious first trimester, when risk of a pregnancy loss is greatest, the pain of my long, winding fertility journey is still too raw for me to forget everyone I’ve left behind.

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The Art of Goysplaining

By Lilit Marcus

Illustration by Lior Zaltzman

The other day at work, I got goysplained.

Let me back up. In 2008, Rebecca Solnit wrote her seminal essay, “Men Explain Things To Me.” In the essay, Solnit relates a story where she went to a party and mentioned that she had been writing about the famous photographer Eadweard Muybridge. Almost immediately, a man begins talking over her, pontificating that a very important book on the subject was published recently and she should really know about it. The book he is talking about, despite not having read, was the one written by Solnit. Another party guest had to point it out to the man several times before he would acknowledge Solnit’s book, and he didn’t apologize for lecturing her.

Although Solnit herself did not coin the term “mansplaining,” she is often given credit for identifying the phenomenon where men who are less knowledgeable on a topic insist on lecturing a woman who may know more than they do but who is ignored or taken less seriously because of her gender. And thanks to her essay and others like it, I finally have words to articulate the feeling of being condescended to by people who are less informed than I am. That’s why when a non-Jewish colleague at work spent ten minutes explaining Passover to me as if I, a Jew, had never heard of it before, a word immediately popped into my head: “goysplaining.”

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Lena Dunham's Piece Was Anti-Semitic. Get Over It.

By J.E. Reich


By now, you’ve surely heard of the uproar of Lena Dunham’s latest New Yorker piece, titled “Dog or Jewish Boyfriend? A Quiz.” In list form, Dunham asks the reader to judge whether it is her pet dog or her Jewish boyfriend (Jack Antonoff of the rock bands Bleachers and Fun) who “doesn’t tip,” “never brings his wallet anywhere,” and “expects to be waited on hand and foot by the women in his life.” As per most things produced by Dunham, the (Jewish) internet flew into a frenzy, debating as to whether the piece was anti-Semitic or not. After reading the piece myself — and as someone who is a champion of Dunham’s work — I came to the conclusion that yes, Dunham’s article is not only guilty of perpetuating well-worn Jewish stereotypes for cheap laughs but ingrained with anti-Semitic overtones, if not borderline or overtly anti-Semitic in nature. (For a dissenting opinion, read Flavorwire’s Sarah Seltzer’s hilarious “Other Lena Dunham Pitches The New Yorker (and the ADL) Will Definitely Accept”, or Hilary Saunders’ response here at the Forward.)

It’s no one’s place to judge another person’s sense of Jewish identity; to do so is not only egregious, but divisive for the Jewish community as a whole. However, Dunham’s piece can also be considered a case of whether it is, indeed, a piece of Jewish humor, or whether it is a piece of humor that happens to be written by someone Jewish. To me, it’s the latter. Humor that speaks from within the culture is different than humor that speaks from one who positions themselves on the outside the culture. By failing to use inclusive qualifiers to identify herself from within the culture, Dunham’s piece skewers toward the anthropological, the study of the Jewish boyfriend from one that does not identify as the sole same.

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