Sisterhood Blog

Reinserting Women into the Holocaust Narrative

By Brian Schaefer

Jewish women in Budapest, October 1944. Photograph by Wikimedia Commons

(Haaretz) – On October 7, 1944, Jewish prisoners in Auschwitz blew up a crematorium in an attempted revolt that, while ultimately futile, has become a powerful rebuttal to the claim that Jews succumbed to the Nazis without a fight. Many know this story but few know the names Roza Robota, Estera Wajcblum, Regina Szafirsztajn and Ala Gertner, four women who smuggled gunpowder under their fingernails and stitched it into the seams of their clothes to make the uprising possible.

Their role has been diminished in historical accounts of the event, if mentioned at all, but a new exhibition by the American Jewish Historical Society in Manhattan, called “October 7, 1944,” seeks to reinsert them into the narrative. The exhibition, which opened last month on the 70th anniversary of the revolt and runs through December 30, makes its case in a most unorthodox way: It merges contemporary dance and archival material.

“Holocaust and dance are not common bedfellows,” choreographer Jonah Bokaer told Haaretz. Bokaer, an internationally renowned artist, was commissioned by the historical society to make a 30-minute dance film inspired by the story that is projected on a wall of the exhibition.

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Advocating for Orthodox Feminism While Male

By Sarah Breger

Photograph via cafepress

As the associate director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), Aaron Steinberg, has a direct role in shaping the trajectory of Orthodox feminist advocacy. In the lead up to JOFA’s “UnConference” on Sunday in New York, the Sisterhood’s Sarah Breger spoke with Steinberg about the future of Orthodox feminism and what it’s like to be the only man in the room.

Sarah Breger: Have you always considered yourself a feminist?

Aaron Steinberg: While I can’t say I’ve always considered myself a feminist, for as long as I can remember I’ve felt pretty strongly about judging people as individuals—not groups. That doesn’t mean I can’t look back and remember things I’m not proud of. As a product of the Orthodox educational setting, I spent a fair amount of time in largely single-gender settings—specifically a year studying at an Israeli yeshiva and three years at Yeshiva College, YU. Hanging around a bunch of guys isn’t a recipe for thinking critically and intellectually about the opposite gender, and it took a lot of maturing and conscientiousness to get to where I am today.

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The Phantom Yiddish Writer

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.

Shoshana Rose was so beloved a performer and writer, that when she died in November of 1968, Editor Moishe Crystol dedicated space in his weekly editorial column to underscore the magnitude of the loss, writing,“The Forverts and its readers have been orphaned.”

From her very first published Yiddish piece in 1912 in the “Lodzer Tog-Blat” [The Lodz Daily], Shoshana Rose published under a collection of pseudonyms including, Mary Rose, Esther Brovorska, Shoshana Kahan, Manye Friling, Ruzhe Kahan and Ruzhe Yakubovitsh. After marrying writer and editor Lazar Kahan, her legal name became Esther-Ruda Kahan, but in a heartfelt front-page obituary the Forverts chose to refer to her as “Shoshana.”

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A Grandmother’s Report From Har Nof

By Tziporah Heller

Photograph courtesy of Tziporah Heller

Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller is a popular teacher at Har Nof’s Neve Yerushalayim College, whose grandson and son-in-law were at the Har Nof synagogue on Tuesday morning. Here is an update Heller sent to family and friends following the attack, published with her permission:

Dear Friends,

At about 7 am my daughter Miri called: “Mordechai just came home from shul. He said that Arabs came in and are shooting, and that a man with an axe is hitting everyone. Some of the people threw chairs at them, but it didn’t help.”

The twelve year old had hit the floor along with everyone else when the bullets began to fly. He was fully aware of what was going on, and what it meant. He somehow found the courage to let go of his father’s hand, crawl towards the exit and break into a run.

Some of you know Miri and her family. She has had some of you over for Shabbos and holidays, and others sleeping in one of her kid’s bedrooms when the crowd at my house gets too big to accommodate sanely.

Mordechai is blonde, freckled, and a soft spoken somewhat introverted and studious boy, much like his father, Shmuli. He is not Huck Finn, and the courage he found at those moments was a gift straight from G-d.

By the time he finished telling Miri what happened, sirens from Hatzalah ambulances, police cars, and Magen David could be heard telling her that there were casualties. “Where’s Shmuli?” was the thought that entered her mind again and again as the seconds which felt like hours began to tick. She called me and said, “Say Tehillim. There is shooting in Bnei Torah.”

I began to say the ancient prayers, stopped myself and called Rabbi Weidan, and told him what was happening. I then began the Tehillim again, knocked on my neighbor’s door and told her to do the same. Chani called and told me to look at the news to see what was really happening. Nothing was reported as yet. Of course not. It was only 7:10.

I realized that whether or not the attack was over, no one as yet knew whether the murderers had escaped. I called again, asking that everything be done to see that no one leaves the campus, and then called Miri. Thank G-d she had the sense to stay indoors and not run to the besieged synagogue. When Mordechai came home, the shooting was still happening.

By 7:20 we both realized that if she didn’t hear from Shmuli, something was very wrong. The police and other services had no information as yet to give to the public, but a family friend, who had seen the terror with his own eyes, said that Shmuli had been taken to Hadassah Hospital at Ein Kerem.

When Mordechai let go of his hand, he instinctively ran after the child, placing himself in the sight of the terrorists. One of them attacked him with his cleaver, hitting him on the left side of his head, his back and his arm. Somehow he made it to the door.

Josh White, a student of Machon Shlomo, was riding down Agassi Street on his bike. He noticed what he described later as “a lot of confusion” in front of Bnei Torah, asked someone what was going on, and surprisingly (for Har Nof) the man answered him in Hebrew! In the midst of what to him was gibberish, he picked up the word Aravim (Arabs) and immediately grasped what was happening.

He approached the shul and saw Shmuli, who was still conscious. The Machon student took of his shirt and stopped the bleeding, a move which may have saved Shmuli’s life. The shooting was still happening inside. It was about 7:15. The emergency crew drew back, but because Shmuli was already outside, they evacuated him, thus making him the first of the wounded to be taken to Hadassah, another factor in his survival.

Before collapsing, he asked where Mordechai was, and when he was told that the boy had run away from the carnage, he said, “Baruch Hashem.” (Shmuli has since regained consciousness in the hospital) Inside, the terrorists were continuing their “work”. When they entered they turned to their left, and immediately cut down Rabbi Twersky and Rav Kalman Levine who were standing in the corner. Reb Kalman was the husband of Chaya, formally Markowitz, who was a student and later a madrichah at Neve.

Her husband was not a regular attendee of Bnei Torah. He would generally daven in the earliest possible minyan so he could get in a couple of hours of learning before beginning his day. Yesterday he had a question about something he had learned and had gone after davening to Bnei Torah to put the question to its erudite rav, Rabbi Rubin. The question will now only be resolved in the Heavenly Acadamy.

Rev Avraham Goldberg, the third man to be killed, is Breina Goldberg’s husband. Many of you know Breina as the warm caring efficient secretary cum mother figure at the front desk in the afternoon. I don’t as yet know how her husband, or Reb Aryeh Kupinski, the fourth victim, met their deaths. The only thing that I know is that it was brutal and swift.

The first policemen to enter were traffic cops who knew what they were facing, and also knew that they were not wearing protective gear. They entered anyway and together with the forces that came afterwards ended the bloodbath. By 7:30 the murderers were apprehended.

Miri, my daughter Guli, and her husband were in Hadassah. Miri’s other kids were watched by relatives and friends for the day. Mordechai was urged to speak about what he saw again and again in order to diminish the damage of the trauma he had undergone. The rest of the family flowed in, saying Tehillim and waiting for updates. The hospital social worker, Aviva, who is blessed with the rare gift of being empathic without being overbearing, and the women of Ezer Mitzion (a volunteer organization), kept us well supplied with food, calming conversation and practical advice. We were allowed to see Shmuli, who was put under anesthesia. We don’t know if he heard us or not, but we were talking to him stressing that Mordechai was fine.

In the hours before the surgery was done, we found ourselves with Risa Rotman. Her husband, Chaim Yechiel ben Malka, was also attacked, and the extent of his wounds are very serious. Some of you may know Risa (who if I am not mistaken also is an OBG) and those of you whose husbands learned in Ohr Sameach or who recall Reb Meir Shuster, who he helped unstintingly for years, may know him as Howie.

The policeman who entered first, passed away. May Hashem avenge his blood. (Policeman Zedan Saif, who was shot in the head by one of the terrorists, died of his wounds hours later — the fifth victim.)

Every day in Eretz Yisrael is a gift and a miracle. I have no pretensions of knowing Hashem’s will, but I do know that everything He does is purposeful, and that His compassion is often hidden from the human eye.

Love always,
 Tziporah


On Bill Cosby, Why Did It Take Us So Long?

By Sarah Breger

As the long-known rape accusations against comedian Bill Cosby come to our collective attention, it’s hard not to wonder what took so long? Yesterday Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a reflective piece on this subject over at theatlantic.com that reads like a mix of mussar and atonement. Coates recounts his reluctance, when profiling Bill Cosby in 2008, to pursue the rape allegations, citing a lack of definitive proof and personal “cowardice.”

But more importantly, Coates argues it was hard to accuse Bill Cosby as a serial rapist because “the belief doesn’t just indict Cosby, it indicts us.” He continues, “It damns us for drawing intimate conclusions about people based on pudding-pop commercials and popular TV shows. It destroys our ability to lean on icons for our morality. And it forces us back into a world where seemingly good men do unspeakably evil things, and this is just the chaos of human history.”

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When A Nice Jewish Boy Marries Out

By Judy Bolton-Fasman

Getty Images

I think Keren McGinity has a crystal ball. McGinity, a groundbreaking scholar, captures the telling details and the idiosyncratic trajectory of interfaith relationships and marriages in America. But as academic as McGinity’s work is, it is also highly personal. Her parents, both Jewish, divorced when she was ten years-old. Each of them went on to have enduring marriages with non-Jewish partners. McGinity herself was in an interfaith marriage for a decade and is raising a Jewish daughter.

In 2009 McGinity published a trailblazing study of women and intermarriage aptly titled “Still Jewish: A History of Women and Intermarriage in America” In the book she contends that the American Jewish community has had the wrong impression about intermarriage for much of the twentieth century: it’s not actually bad for the Jews.

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The Power of Touch — and Contra Dancing

By Sarah Rubin

From the time I was a young child and attended high holiday services, I always felt a shiver up my spine during the prayer where the community begs God not to abandon them like the way elders are forgotten during their old age. This notion became particularly acute in my job as a social worker in a residence for older adults with complicated medical and family histories. As the prayer foretold, my clients were cast off to the margins of society and were mostly forgotten about by their families, the neighborhood community and society as a whole. Though housed with others their own age, these seniors were isolated from the larger community with few visitors or opportunities for social interaction outside of the home.

What I was most struck by in my work with this population, however, was the lack of physical interaction with and among this age group. These seniors receive most of their physical care from aids and nurses and these acts of touch are prescribed in the care and are not of spontaneity, comfort and assurance. In contrast, babies and young children are almost always physically engaged—through cuddling, kissing or holding. Young people express a great amount of pleasure from this attention, acknowledgement, validation and stimulation. What occurs over the span of a lifetime to lose this very basic form of interaction?

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Why Is ‘Mikveh Suicide’ a Fiction Motif?

By Nora Gold

(Haaretz) — Imagine a young Orthodox woman being forced, against her will, to marry an older man who disgusts her. Seeing no way out, she commits suicide – by drowning herself in a mikveh. Now imagine another young Orthodox woman being forced to marry an older man who repulses her. She goes ahead and marries him, and after three months of beatings, forced sex, and her husband refusing to grant her a get, she commits suicide – again by drowning herself in a mikveh.

Sound unlikely? I might have thought so once, but now I no longer do. The above plot lines belong to two stories – “Tashlich” and “Total Immersion” – just two out of the more than 200 stories published so far in the online literary journal I edit, Jewish Fiction.net. Yet these two stories leaped to mind as soon as the Freundel affair broke, because out of the eight stories about mikvehs submitted to us over the past four years, only two portrayed the Jewish ritual bath in a positive light, whereas all the other six had plot lines like the ones above, involving what I’ve come to think of as “mikveh suicides.” The frequency of this plot line – three out of four of all the mikveh-related stories we’ve received – has been striking, even shocking.

The selection of the mikveh as a place of death – a place to escape oppression and find “purity” through death – seems to me not only shocking as a motif but also significant. As a writer, feminist, and former therapist, I can’t help but wonder if these mikveh stories were their writers’ way of intimating something that couldn’t yet be spoken aloud. It seems to me that these stories hint at more than just the misery and desperation in some arranged marriages or the serious problem of domestic abuse. I hear them whispering about a topic that is even more taboo: suicide.

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Why I Hope This Isn't 'Year of the Jewish Woman'

By Judith Rosenbaum

First of all, let me make clear that I sincerely hope this isn’t “The Year of the Jewish Woman,” as the headline of the Jewish Daily Forward’s “Forward 50” list proclaims. One year isn’t enough for me; I’m aiming for a world in which Jewish women—and all people—get the opportunities and recognition they deserve every year. But I’m pleased that the Forward managed to reach parity + 1 this year, after more than 20 years of lists in which women were not represented in proportion to their percentage in the population.

What is the significance of achieving this milestone on the list of American Jews who have made the biggest national impact this year? First of all, it indicates that we’ve reached a point at which women’s public roles have become prominent enough to register on the national scene. This list is not a measure of general impact—women have, after all, always influenced and shaped families and societies in immeasurable ways—but rather a snapshot of public life, in which women play an increasingly important role.

Women’s presence here also reflects the subjective inclinations of this year’s list makers as well as the relative openness of the “softer” fields to women. The Forward editors admit that the 2014 list is light on politicians and communal leaders, choosing instead to highlight the impact of art, culture, and creative ventures—arenas in which women have traditionally found more access and greater opportunities for leadership.

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A Shooting Star of Early Israeli Cinema

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.

Like a meteor blazing momentarily across the sky, Didi Ramati’s acting career—despite a pioneering role in early Israeli filmmaking—shined brightly but “faded out” just as fast.

In 1952 the Forverts published her image as a way of introducing a nay un sheyn yidish punim, a new and darling Jewish face of the silver screen. Starring in a cutting edge Israeli film premiering in New York City at Park Avenue Theatre, then located at 59th Street, Didi Ramati played ‘Tamar’ in the film ‘Faithful City.’ The paper enthusiastically described the film as the first English language and first feature-length film to emerge from Israel’s fledgling cinema industry. Influenced perhaps by the 1948 Yiddish film ‘Undzere Kinder’ [Our Children], the plot similarly centered around two teachers devoted to their young war-orphaned charges. It was Ramati’s first film appearance.

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A Computer Program to Enhance Your Mikveh Experience

By Chana Billet

Eight years ago, Rivkah Bloom, a computer programmer from south Florida, overheard a conversation which changed her life. Bloom’s friends, Orthodox women who observe the laws of ‘Family Purity,’ were discussing the challenges they face calculating mikveh dates and other the important times in their menstrual cycle.

“They wished there was a computer program where they could punch in information about their cycle and have the dates, which are significant to the laws of ‘Family Purity,’ be automatically calculated and laid out in a personalized calendar,” said Bloom.

Jewish couples who follow the dictates of ‘Tahrat Mishpacha’ or ‘Family Purity,’ abstain from sexual relations during the wife’s period and the following seven days. Once the wife immerses in the mikvah, the couple can resume sexual relations until her period resumes and the cycle starts again.

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Jill Soloway Teams Up with Porn Star to Discuss Consent

By Sarah Breger

What exactly is consent? Adult film star Nina Hartley helps one young couple establish and respect each other’s sexual boundaries in this short video co-directed by “Transparent” creator Jill Soloway.

Is visiting a sex dungeon really the best way to understand this idea? “The kink community is actually very centered on honesty, consent, and openness,” Gaby Dunn, who starred and helped created the video, told me via email. “I hope people learn that communication is PARAMOUNT to good sex, and that it isn’t just on the table but absolutely necessary and mandatory.”

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The Jewish Woman Who's Fighting ISIS

By Isabel Coles and Dan Williams

(Reuters) - A Canadian-born immigrant to Israel has become the first foreign woman to join Kurds battling Islamic State in Syria, a Kurdish source said on Tuesday, as details of the volunteer’s turbulent past surfaced.

Gill Rosenberg, 31, is a civil aviation pilot who enlisted in an Israeli army search-and-rescue unit before being arrested in 2009, extradited to the United States and jailed over an international phone scam, one of her former lawyers said.

On Monday, Israel Radio aired an interview with Rosenberg in which she said she had traveled to Iraq, was training with Kurdish guerrillas and would go into combat in next-door Syria.

The station did not name the interviewee, who spoke North American-accented Hebrew, but source involved in the report identified her as Rosenberg.

“They (the Kurds) are our brothers. They are good people. They love life, a lot like us, really,” Rosenberg said, explaining why she joined up after contacting the guerrillas over the Internet.

A source in the Kurdistan region with knowledge of the issue said Rosenberg was the first foreign woman to join YPG, the Kurds’ dominant fighting force in northern Syria. She has crossed into Syria and is one of around 10 Westerners recruited by YPG, the source said.

Contacted on an Iraqi cell phone number, Rosenberg told Reuters she was in Syria, but declined to comment further: “Sorry, you have to go through the chain of command in YPJ,” she said, referring to the Kurdish women’s militia she has joined.

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Broad City's Back With Bongs, Seth Rogen and a Shiva

By Sarah Breger

Everyone’s favorite comedic duo, Abbi and Ilana are back—this time in “white power” suits. Comedy Central unveiled the trailer for season two of the series that last year the Sisterhood called “a feminist triumph.” The half hour comedy follows the New York City-based misadventures of the shows co-stars and creators Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer. From the looks of it this coming season may be zanier than the last. The trailer teases a “Pretty Woman” shopping trip, Seth Rogen yelling at a kitten and Ilana’s grandmother’s shiva.

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The Bible's Other Child Sacrifice

By Susan Reimer-Torn

Finally, after 3,000 years, the public is invited to the trial of the century: Forefather Abraham will be tried for endangerment of a minor and attempted murder in connection with the near sacrifice of his son Isaac at Temple Emanu-El’s Skirball Center on November 16th. The indomitable Alan Dershowitz is arguing the defense, while the ever-confident Eliot Spitzer is prosecuting. What will we take away from this combination of tainted celebrity and shrewd legal minds overlaid on a biblical shocker of almost murder that is central to the spiritual consciousness of Jews (and Christians and Muslims, as well)?

If nothing else, the trial is an ingenious publicity stunt. The Sacrifice of Isaac is a perennial. The centerpiece of last week’s Torah portion and read several weeks ago on Rosh Hashanah, it is one of the most discussed story of our tradition. Yet, there are many other stories—arguably as thought-provoking, certainly every bit as appalling—that tend to lie a little fallow. What about the lore of child sacrifice that involves a daughter and ends in tragedy rather than featuring a son and invoking eleventh-hour salvation?

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Weekend Roundup: All-of-a-Kind Family Edition

By Sarah Breger

First for Orthodox Rabbinic group. In a sign of changing times, Dr. Michelle Friedman of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT), has been invited to join the board of the Beth Din of America, the religious court of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA). Friedman, founder and chair of the Department of Pastoral Counseling at YCT, a progressive Orthodox rabbinical school in New York, is the first woman invited to serve in this capacity. This follows RCA’s decision last week to appoint a new conversion committee, including five women. (It is worth nothing that there are no YCT-ordained rabbis who have been accepted to the RCA). I imagine Rabbi Pruzansky is thrilled. [The Jewish Week]

Single in San Francisco? This is your chance. In this week’s San Francisco Craigslist “personals section,” a self-described “Shaygetz” seeks a “Zaftig, Politically Progressive, Shy Submissive Jewish Woman.” He warns, “I do not need to hear from (sometimes irate) Jewish women, informing me that Jewish women aren’t submissive.” How could you not be interested in someone who writes: “I still mourn…the-not so recent passing of the brilliant Edward Said.” Don’t we all? Alas, this ad is location specific as he does “not have a car or drive. So, it would be best if you lived in S.F., too. Or nearby, within BART range.” Enjoy SF ladies! Read the full ad here. [Craigslist]

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Throwback Thursday: The Actress Who Could Hold Her Own

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.

The image of Yiddish theatre diva Sonia Nadolsky depicts a stiff, haughty looking woman who could easily play everyone’s favorite serpent-tongued bubbie —the Dowager Countess of Grantham on television’s Downton Abbey. According to Forverts journalist and screenplay author Mendl Osherowitch, Nadolsky’s powerful gaze might be due to her impressive ability to stare down and attack any director unjustly critical of her performance.

Nadolsky was born Sore Katz to a family of ritual slaughterers in 1867 in Ukraine’s Kaments Podolski, one-time home to the writer Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh, who under the pseudonym, Mendele Moykher-Sforim or Mendel the book peddler, became one of the founders of modern Yiddish literature. Blessed with an entrepreneurial spirit, as well as a creative one, Sonia reportedly organized theatricals as a young girl, and charged the local kids to attend. Payment in the form of buttons was accepted.

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How Katha Pollitt Helped Me Break Abortion Silence

By Judy Bolton-Fasman

A woman shouts claiming for her abortion right during a demonstration in Madrid, Spain // Getty Images

My abortion was a secret that I kept for almost 20 years. When I decided to terminate my pregnancy in 1995, I was happily married and the mother of a six month-old baby girl. I was also dealing with post-partum depression and knew that I could not handle two children fifteen months apart. I was also well aware that having an abortion was a right that women like my grandmother didn’t have. In 1940s Havana she had tried to abort a pregnancy by ripening her cervix with olive oil and taking scalding baths. Abortion wasn’t a medical procedure that Katha Pollitt’s mother was entitled to either. “I never had an abortion, but my mother did…it was in 1960, so like almost all abortions back then, it was illegal,” begins Pollitt’s new book, “Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights.”

I am— Pollitt tells me— part of a striking, even comforting set of statistics. Three in ten American women have had abortions by the time they reach menopause. Most of these women are not victims of rape or incest. Six out of ten of them are mothers like me who have elected to have an abortion because they cannot have a child at that moment. For Pollitt, these women are making a reasonable and even a commendable decision.

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Don't Judge Hasidic Seat-Switchers

By Tova Ross

Thinkstock

I know I run the risk of relinquishing some modicum of feminist street cred and incurring the wrath of all those up in arms over the situation, but here goes: I am not offended when the Hasidic gentleman next to me asks to switch his seat so he might not fly an entire flight to or from Israel next to a woman. I might think he’s an extremist, and I might think he’s not practicing a very halachic form of Judaism, but as for taking personal offense, so long as my uncomfortable Hasidic or Haredi male neighbor asks politely if he can switch his seat, and so long as he doesn’t hold up a flight should it be impossible to find an empty seat or willing passenger ready to switch, then I have bigger things by which to be offended than his preference not to sit next to me.

I write this in response to the media frenzy surrounding Sisterhood contributor Elana Sztokman’s recent account of an ultra-Orthodox male passenger delaying her flight for over half an hour while he insisted that another seat, one not next to a woman, be made available for him. Obviously, this was extremely rude, inconsiderate and the absolute wrong thing to do. But it seems that the ire this account has generated—a petition demanding El Al change its policy on accommodating those who desire a gender-segregated seat, incensed comments about the accumulated societal ills of the ultra-Orthodox and a video mocking this phenomenon, complete with offering Hasidic men a condom-like body vest to protect themselves from female neighbors—is directed more at the general practice of asking to switch seats and less so at the extremes to which this particular male passenger took it. Sztokman herself says: “What offends me is the premise that sitting next to me is a problem.” The premise—not the problematic way this man expected his proclivity to be accommodated.

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New York's First Female Crime Boss

By Sarah Breger

The press called her a “Queen Among Thieves” and the person who “first put crime in America on a syndicated basis.” In 1884, The New York Times named her “the nucleus and center of the whole organization of crime in New York City.” During the Gilded Age, Fredericka Mandelbaum, a German-Jewish immigrant, rose to power as the country’s premier fence—seller of stolen goods. Described as “a huge woman weighing more than two hundred and fifty pounds” with “extraordinarily fat cheeks,” Mandelbaum was the head of one of the first organized crime rings and a driving force behind New York City’s underworld for more than twenty-five years. J. North Conway, who has written the new biography “Queen of Thieves: The True Story of “Marm” Mandelbaum and Her Gangs of New York,” talks with The Forward’s Sarah Breger about life in the Gilded Age, chasing the American dream and why no one has turned Mandelbaum’s life into a Hollywood blockbuster.

Courtesy of Skyhorse

Sarah Breger: What brought Fredericka Mandelbaum to New York?
J. North Conway: A combination of factors including the infamous potato famine of 1848 and increasing restrictions against Jews in Germany brought Fredericka to the United States in 1850. Her husband Wolf, had sailed a few months earlier, so she was traveling alone in steerage with a new baby. She was so tall that some documents I’ve seen said she had to stoop the whole time.

SB: Why did Mandelbaum enter a life of crime?
JC: This is a story of coming to America for whatever reasons and trying to make good. Like every immigrant she was trying to make a better life for her children. She came for the American dream and it happened to be the only job she could get was in crime. And she was good at it. I couldn’t find where she learned the ropes or if she had an innate ability but she knew how to set up this criminal network. She knew enough to bribe the right people, and she knew protecting her interests meant protecting a cadre of criminals; if they went to jail, they couldn’t steal things, if they couldn’t steal things, they couldn’t sell to her, and then she couldn’t sell to other people. If you were to do a flow chart of her enterprise, it would look like a very functioning business today. As a business model you would say she would be up there with the Bill Gateses of the world.

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