Sisterhood Blog

A First in the Jewish World

By Dorri Olds

Jordan Cassway

Rabbi Deborah Waxman has been many firsts in her life. She was one of the first bat mitzvahs to be celebrated on a Saturday morning in her hometown of West Hartford, Connecticut in 1979 and now she is the first female rabbi, and lesbian, to helm a Jewish congregational institution.

Waxman, 47, took office as president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC) and Jewish Reconstructionist Communities on January 1, 2014. Since then, Waxman has made it her business to bring a Reconstructionist perspective to a broader public conversation. She has been invited to speak at a number of settings from the JCPA Plenum to the WAMC public radio station in the Berkshires that broadcasts to 6 states.

Growing up in a Conservative Jewish family, Waxman is a middle child of a family of five. Her father was a traveling salesman and her mother was involved in their synagogue. Waxman earned a Ph.D. in American Jewish History from Temple University after her M.A. in Hebrew Letters from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Before that she’d earned a B.A. in religion from Columbia University.

Waxman now lives in Philadelphia with her partner, Christina Ager.

The Forward’s Dorri Olds caught up with Waxman ahead of her October 26 inauguration ceremony to find out about the changing culture of Judaism. When asked why she puts an orange on the Seder plate every year Waxman quotes an Orthodox rabbi who once said, “A woman on the bimah is like an orange on the Seder plate.”

Dorri Olds: When did your orange on the Seder plate tradition begin?

Rabbi Deborah Waxman: We’ve been doing that in my home for the past 30 years. I see the orange as both a symbol of celebration and of challenge. In the Reconstructionist movement we can celebrate [this change]. In the wider Jewish world it’s still a challenge. One of the things about bringing a Reconstructionist analysis more fully across the wider Jewish community would be a shattering of what seems to be a glass ceiling. Instead, it should be what I see at the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable.

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Throwback Thursday: From Stalinist to US Spy

By Chana Pollack

Copyright Forward Association

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

Seemingly waiting for her thoughts to fuse, Ruth Fischer’s photo in our archive depicts her with notepad in hand at the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1946, in a painfully dull side profile for a former revolutionist. And yet, Fisher’s blazing life force, absent in such a quotidian image, hovers in the imagination like an afterimage with the power to warp the very negative used to create the print.

In 1948, only two years after this image was made at the hearing, Fischer authored a vast tome entitled “Stalin And German Communism.” Published by Harvard University Press and ranging 687 pages, it was received as an authoritative work on German communism and its Stalinist influences, and was considered both readable, and even riveting by some.

Ruth Fischer was born Elfriede Eisler to a Jewish father, a philosophy professor at the University of Leipzig, and a Lutheran mother who supplemented the family’s income with work as a domestic aide. Along with her brothers, the noted film composer Hans and Gerhart, also an activist, Ruth is credited with founding the Austrian Communist Party in the early years after World War One. But then, in 1919, after reportedly incensed at criticism of her as being too rightist, Fischer and brother Gerhart departed for Berlin where she led the German communist party, was elected to the Reichstag and remained active there, despite burgeoning internal party tensions.

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Malala Gives $50K to Gaza Schools

By JTA

Getty Images

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai said she will donate $50,000 to a U.N. agency in the effort to rebuild damaged schools in Gaza.

Yousafzai, an advocate for worldwide access to education, was awarded the World Children’s Prize on Wednesday and promptly said she would donate the prize money to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees to assist its efforts to repair schools damaged by this summer’s fighting in Gaza.

“Innocent Palestinian children have suffered terribly and for too long,” said Yousafzai, a 17-year-old Pakistani, in remarks posted on the UNRWA website. “We must all work to ensure Palestinian boys and girls, and all children everywhere, receive a quality education in a safe environment. Because without education, there will never be peace.”

In the Gaza conflict this summer, UNRWA schools served as civilian shelters. Several schools were shelled, killing dozens of civilians and workers. UNRWA officials accused Israel of targeting schools, but Israel denied the claim while acknowledging that some of its shells had hit schools.

However, rockets were found stored in UNRWA schools and then subsequently disappeared, leading to Israeli accusations that agency officials had given them back to Hamas.


When the Mikveh Is an Ordeal of Faith

By Frimet Goldberger

Mayyim Hayyim Community Mikveh

The first time I prepared to immerse in the mikveh, the Jewish ritual bath, I was 18 years old and four days away from my wedding. I sat naked in a white bathtub as the mikveh attendant scrubbed my back with a washcloth and a dollop of baking soda.

“You’re lucky you will only have your hair this one time,” the “mikveh lady,” as she was commonly referred to, informed me in Yiddish. (Satmar Hasidic women shave their heads after their weddings and cover them with a wig or kerchief.)

Scrub, scrub, scrub. I pulled my hands in over my chest. Scrub, scrub, scrub. As I wondered if she was looking at my naked body, I shifted uncomfortably, making ripples with the water beneath my feet.

My mother accompanied me on this first visit to the women’s mikveh in the Satmar Hasidic village Kiryas Joel, one chilly December evening 11 years ago. She rang the doorbell of the vast grey brick building that sits on the corner of one of the village’s main roads and is surrounded by tall pine bushes to obscure the views of passersby. There was a buzz to let us in.

“Welcome to the woman’s palace,” the attendant at the front desk exclaimed cheerfully in Yiddish. “This is the place to relax.”

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The Bat Mitzvah Girl Who Made Kotel History

By Rita Kashner

Bat mitzvah girl Sasha Lutt reads from a tiny Torah scroll smuggled into the Kotel / Haaretz

I am sitting in front of my computer, talking via Skype with three women in Israel — Irina Lutt, her 12-year-old daughter Sasha, and Shira Pruce — who are kicking back after a day of school and work. Sasha made history at her bat mitzvah last week when she became the first female to read Torah at the Western Wall in 25 years. The fact that she’s a celebrity doesn’t seem to have registered with her. “You made the New York Times!” I tell her. She looks quizzically at her mother; she has never heard of the Times.

Shira, who is translating for us and trying to get Sasha to eat something, is director of public relations for Women of the Wall (WOW), the organization that has been fighting for a quarter century to secure the rights of women to pray at the Kotel. She and Irina know what a hard-won victory this bat mitzvah was for WOW and for the rights of women in Israel.

To begin with, they had to smuggle in a tiny Torah, because women have been aggressively and sometimes violently blocked from reading Torah at the Wall. Surrounded and sheltered by a circle of women, Sasha had to use a magnifying glass to read the text. She shrugs off my comment that this must have been tough. “I knew it really well,” she says.

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So a Jewish Woman Got on an El Al Flight ...

By Roz Warren

So a man boards his El Al flight from New York to Tel Aviv, but when he sees that Elana Sztokman is in the seat adjacent to his, he refuses to sit next to her.

Was she holding a howling baby? Did she have a hacking cough? A touch of Ebola, maybe?

No. The problem, simply, was that she was a she.

The man, an ultra-religious Orthodox Jew, was so certain that God didn’t want him to sit beside a woman that he demanded a seat change. Other Orthodox men onboard took up his cause, and the ensuing bru ha ha delayed take-off until, finally, another seat could be found for him.

Sztokman just happens to be the author of a new book, “The War On Women In Israel: A Story of Religious Radicalism and the Women Fighting For Freedom” in which she calls for an end to “the religious extremism that is hurting women” in that country.

Proving? God, if he does exist, has a sense of humor. Or, at the very least, a deep sense of irony.

The outraged essay that Sztokman wrote about the incident quickly went viral.

Will this help Sztokman sell books? I certainly hope so.

Seating flaps like this aren’t unusual for El Al. It happens often enough that instituting gender-segregated seating on their planes has been discussed.

And playing musical chairs with airplane seats, of course, is nothing new. It usually results when families who have been assigned seats all over the plane actually want to sit together. But seat shifting happens for other reasons too. To maximize leg room. To move away from a bathroom.

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Throwback Thursday: Novellas About Sexy Tel Aviv

By Chana Pollack

Regina Kolitz // Copyright Forward Association

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

Publisher Heinrich H. Glanz created the Juedisch-Politische Bibliothek [Jewish-Political] series of books in Vienna before it was “confiscated” after Nazi Anschluss in 1938. After emigrating to safety in Washington Heights, New York City, in 1949, he released “Passport to the Past,” a 126-page novella by Regina Kolitz. The book promised a “tale of an indestructible love between an Arab and a Jewess.”

Set in 1930’s Palestine, where Kolitz herself settled, the novella sets the main character, Rina, adrift between her romantic suitor, Pierre whose upper class family hails from Alexandria, Egypt and her father, scion of a Rabbinic dynasty back home in her native Lithuania. But such conflict pales in the face of Rina and Pierre’s passionate bond and we are convinced to read on by the cover flyleaf text stating that “exaltation is all that remains.”

Posed in an archival image besides a desk in the Forverts offices sometime in the 1940’s, Kolitz herself similarly appears to a deeply romantic figure. Despite or perhaps because of the white paste-up ink blocking out more of the background in the image, with her wide light colored eyes focused just slightly offside the camera’s lens, full lips not quite framed in a pout, her arty bohemian halo of tight curly hair and herringbone patterned jacket — she herself is simply put — exalted looking.

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Gossip Queen Margo Howard Talks Serial Marriage

By Julie Wiener

Margo Howard

(JTA) — When your mother is the world’s most famous advice columnist you wouldn’t think you’d have to learn any lesson the hard way. But Margo Howard — daughter of the late Ann Landers and the niece of Landers’ twin sister Dear Abby (née Esther and Pauline Friedman) — had to marry four times before she finally felt she’d gotten it right.

In her new book “Eat, Drink and Remarry: Confessions of a Serial Wife,” the 74-year-old Howard, a Jewish former journalist and Slate’s former “Dear Prudence” advice columnist, details her matrimonial history and the various adventures and lessons learned along the way. One lesson she didn’t need to learn was thrift: thanks to her high-profile parents (her father, Julius Lederer, founded Budget Rent-A-Car) and high-earning hubbies (hotel investor, funeral director, actor/TV star and heart surgeon), money has never been a concern. The book includes abundant descriptions of Rolls Royces, boarding schools for her three kids (from marriage No. 1), live-in nannies, swanky vacations and celebrity-studded social gatherings. The memoir contains plenty of Yiddish phrasing, and some Jewish revelations, too — like how her famous mother had long dreamed of her marrying a Jewish doctor.

Howard — the surname comes from her third (and only non-Jewish) husband —spoke with JTA by phone from her Cambridge, Mass., home the day before Yom Kippur.

I noticed three of your four husbands were Jewish. Was that a conscious decision? Did you care whether or not you married a Jew?

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Did Rabbi Freundel Build Mikveh for Own Fantasy?

By Haviva Ner-David

Photo by Nir Keidar/Haaretz


(Haaretz) — When I first heard about Rabbi Barry Freundel’s arrest on grounds of voyeurism, I was upset, but not horrified. If the allegations are true, I thought, we have a case of a sick man who couldn’t control his sexual urges. Sad. Especially since he carries a title that would make us expect he should know better.

But then I heard how he allegedly carried out his crime: Placing hidden video cameras in the mikveh, the ritual bath, to watch his female conversion candidates practicing their nude immersions. Horrifying! I cried when I heard this. The ultimate abuse of male rabbinic power, yet an unsurprising symptom of a patriarchal system that sexualizes and objectifies women in so many ways. A prime example is the exclusively “women’s mikveh”, where all know that women are going to immerse in the nude to purify themselves for sex, but where men make the rules.

Twenty-three years ago, I was a creative writing student living in Washington, D.C. and took a part-time job running one of the (if not the) first mikveh located in a Conservative synagogue, Adas Israel. It was the only mikveh in Washington, D.C. Yet Freundel told his congregants not to come to our mikveh, but rather to travel to Silver Spring, Maryland, to a mikveh that was located in an Orthodox synagogue there. This too was upsetting but not horrifying. An expression of Orthodox Jewish distrust of and disrespect for anyone not Orthodox, especially liberal Jewish rabbis and institutions.

But Freundel always wanted his own mikveh, which is probably one reason he did not want to acknowledge that there was a perfectly kosher mikveh already existing in Washington, D.C. A few years ago I heard that his dream had come true; there was now an Orthodox mikveh in D.C., and he was its rabbi.

We know that sexual predators are not created overnight but rather develop patterns over time. If the accusations about Freundel are true, I wonder if even back then he was plotting this extreme abuse of his rabbinic power and fantasizing about the women’s bodies he would have access to once he had his very own women’s mikveh.

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After Mikveh Scandal, Make Us Feel Clean Again

By Elyse Goldstein


It’s time for Simchat Torah, but I don’t feel much like dancing. A promise I made long ago has been broken.

In the summer of 1986, I wrote what many consider the first piece about non-Orthodox women using the mikvah. Published in Lilith Magazine, in “Take Back the Waters” I proposed a feminist re-appropriation of mikvah and all its symbolism. I suggested that the mikvah no longer be considered the domain only of married women; its rationale not only to make us “kosher” for resumed sex with our husbands but to mark important moments in our female lives: first menstruation, menopause, lactation. After that article I started taking women to the mikvah for all sorts of experiences: after chemotherapy, after marital infidelity, after rape. I went before my ordination and again after shloshim for my sister. I wrote other articles and suggested many times that mikvah be considered “spiritual therapy.” I found myself on panels with psychologists speaking about how helpful mikvah could be for these non-traditional uses.

In effect, I promised women that the patriarchy which controlled our bodies and the mikvah itself could be overturned with our good feminist intentions.

This week proved me wrong.

Rabbi Barry Freundel, a once-highly respected Orthodox rabbi, is accused of peeping at women through hidden cameras in the mikvah. Much has been said and written already about all this.

Let me add my voice in this direction: we must continue to see this travesty not as an isolated incident but as a result of a system which continues to both sexualize and desexualize women concurrently, and all within the name of Jewish law.

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We Are All (Fill in the Blank) Jews

By Leigh Shulman

Courtesy Leigh Shulman


I was recently e-mailing with a woman I know and told her how I planned to take a couple days off for Rosh Hashanah. I haven’t been to synagogue in years, but I do mark the holiday by spending time with family.

“You’re Jewish?” she asked surprised, immediately mentioning the ultra-Orthodox crowd in Brooklyn who screamed at her for wearing shorts in their neighborhood. “Then you’re one of the only Jews I’ve ever liked.”

She’s not the first to say this to me, and I’m sure she won’t be the last. Yet every time, it signals the end of a friendship. When I hear people say that they don’t like [fill in the blank] Jews, it makes me very uncomfortable. In part because I cannot serve as a representative of all Jews. But even more so, because I have to wonder where they draw the line between the Jews they like and the ones they don’t like.

I grew up Orthodox and spent a year in an ultra-Orthodox community in Israel where I lived a with people from different sects of Hasidism. There are many reasons I’m not observant anymore, not least of which the limitations, segregation and misogyny you’ll find in many of those communities.

So, yes, I understand why people often look at Orthodox communities with distaste. They’ve had stones thrown at them or people shout at them for transgressing an observance about which they knew nothing.

Still, I always say that how those people choose to observe, treat women and talk to other people is not a function of Judaism. It is instead the reactions of individuals making specific choices and then using “god wants” as an excuse to act like shitty human beings.

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Bringing Malala Into Bat Mitzvah Ceremony

By Jeffrey Salkin

You would have to have a heart encrusted with cynicism to not be moved by Malala Yousafzai.

It is, in many ways, a modern miracle. An activist for equal education for young girls in her native Pakistan, Malala survived a Taliban bullet and expanded her local quest into an international movement for women’s education in Muslim countries. This past week, she became the first Pakistani and the youngest person – seventeen years old – to win the Nobel Peace Prize. She is, in fact, the most famous teenager in the world.

But the proof of a truly inspirational story is that it moves beyond its own national and cultural boundaries, and that it becomes universal. I am going to suggest that this is truly the case with Malala – and that, more than that, her story needs to become the story of young Jewish girls as well.

Take the case of bat mitzvah.

Most Jewish girls who become bat mitzvah have little sense of how revolutionary that rite of passage once was – and how, comparatively speaking, it is one of Judaism’s most modern rituals. It is, in fact, “only” 92 years old – “born” when Judith Kaplan, the daughter of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, was called to the Torah at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism in New York. Or, to put it in generational perspective: bat mitzvah is only slightly older than many of the grandparents of young women who are becoming bat mitzvah now.

Why was bat mitzvah revolutionary? Because it symbolized, and continues to symbolize, that Jewish women would have equal access to the Torah, that their minds and souls would no longer be locked behind the mehitzah of ignorance, and that they would be able to see their own lives reflected in the beauty of the sacred letters.

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How Glamsquad Brings the Makeover to You

By Maia Efrem

Courtesy of Glamsquad

Your local salon is about to look emptier when you walk by, because all those former clients will now be getting dolled up at home. On the heels of Rent the Runway and Uber comes Glamsquad, another on-demand service provider that makes house calls for hairstyling and makeup application at affordable prices. All with just a swipe on your smartphone.

The woman behind the company is Victoria Eisner, the founder of Glamsquad. The Los Angeles native spent most of her career as a certified holistic health coach, counseling clients on health, wellness and beauty. Now Eisner, 29, is bringing her experience to thousands of customers.

Much like Rent the Runway, Glamsquad may have just changed the game for every woman planning a wedding, attending an event or just looking for a glamorous pick-me-up after the gym. The network of hairstylists and makeup artists are accessible by web and range in price from $50 for The Bombshell blow-out to $125 for an elegant updo with The Prima. And makeup application is $75 for all the different looks. Not only will the trained stylists go to your home, but they will also go to your office, your gym or, really, wherever you want them to go.

Courtesy of Glamdsquad

Having officially launched in New York during this past January, Glamsquad is launching in L.A. next and has its sights on other major metropolitan centers, like Boston, Miami and Washington, D.C.

The Forward’s Maia Efrem spoke with Eisner via email about the glamorous future of Glamsquad.

Maia Efrem: How did this idea come to you?

Victoria Eisner: It was New Year’s Eve, and I was dreading doing my hair; it takes so much of my time, and I can never get it to look the way I want. Since I get everything else delivered, I wished there was a beauty delivery service app that would send a blowout stylist to my home. I Googled it and was shocked to discover that nothing of this nature existed. I knew then that there was a huge hole in the marketplace for women to have access to high-quality, on-demand beauty professionals, trained by the pros, and at an affordable price point!

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Why Are Israel's Top Models All Blondes?

By Shachar Atwan and Gili Izikovich

Model Galit Gutmann in an ad for ‘Crazy Line.’ Photo by Dudi Hasson/Haaretz

(Haaretz) — It was supposed to be her big break after winning the Israeli version of “Big Brother.” In March, Ethiopian-born model Tahounia Rubel was chosen to appear in a new ad for the April Cosmetics chain. She was to appear alongside blonde model Esti Ginzburg, who has been the chain’s public face for years. However, when she arrived on set, Rubel soon realized her role would be less promising than expected.

Artistic directors at the Zarmon DDB ad agency described what would happen in the ad: Ginzburg lies on a chaise longue, the wind ruffling her light colored hair. But there’s a twist: She has a maid, or a friend, who is black and polishing Ginzburg’s toenails. Judging by the ad’s closing words – “Set your beauty free” – it appears that whoever produced the ad intended that the hints of slavery would create a furor that would only advance the media exposure.

However, Rubel was not partner to this excitement. She refused to cooperate with the production, claiming it was insulting and humiliating. For more than an hour, producers, the director and even representatives of the ad agency tried to convince Rubel that the ad flattered her. When these attempts failed, her personal manager, Ofer Refaeli, was summoned. He told her the toenail polishing would be mutual and that Ginzburg would also do her nails as well. Only then did she agree to continue.

The April Cosmetics incident continues to reverberate here. Two weeks ago, Haaretz reported that the Walla! website pulled a story on the filming of an ad for Golf Kids, in which all the models had fair-colored hair and eyes. Three weeks prior to that, there was a report about the Education Ministry’s website, which featured photos of children with light skin, hair and eyes, and who, like in the Golf Kids ad, appeared to be European (it turned out that the photos had come from an overseas database). Surfers on social networks were furious, leading to a hasty – although reserved – apology, as well a substitution of faces for photos of neutral images such as books or hands. In the past, many complaints were directed at mobile phone provider Pelephone, whose ads featured only light-skinned customers, most of whom looked Scandinavian.

Tahounia Rubel as she appeared in a April Cosmetics ad

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Gabrielle Birkner Named to Top JTA Post

By JTA

Former Sisterhood editor Gabrielle Birkner has been named the new managing editor of JTA.

Birkner is heading JTA’s editorial team and leading efforts to expand and improve the 97-year-old Jewish news agency’s digital offerings.

“We are so proud and excited to have Gabi assuming this role,” said Ami Eden, JTA’s CEO and editor in chief. “She is a top-rate journalist, a great digital strategist and a superb mentor and manager. She is the perfect person to uphold our century-long tradition of journalistic excellence, while helping us continue to implement a digital strategy for the future.”

Birkner is the former director of digital media at the Forward, where she founded and edited the women’s issues blog, The Sisterhood. She also served as a religion reporter and features editor at The New York Sun, and as a staff writer at The New York Jewish Week. She co-founded and serves as executive editor of Modern Loss, an online magazine about grief and loss, geared toward 20- and 30-somethings.

“I’m thrilled to join JTA’s talented team at this pivotal moment for the news organization. I look forward to working with our staff writers and correspondents around the world to deliver exceptional journalism to our online readers and client newspapers,” Birkner said.

Founded in 1917 and known for decades as the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, JTA reports on developments impacting Jews and Jewish communities in the United States, Israel and around the world. JTA serves 3 million users per year via its website and enewsletters, and distributes content to 75 syndication clients around the world.

JTA is in the process of merging with MyJewishLearning. Eden and board leaders of both organizations have agreed that even after the merger JTA will continue to operate as a standalone news brand.

Read more: http://www.jta.org/2014/10/07/news-opinion/united-states/gabrielle-birkner-tapped-as-managing-editor-of-jta#ixzz3FSRLuuzY


The Shallowness of Men Who Won't Sit by Women

By Simon Yisrael Feuerman

Copyright Thinkstock

What’s up with these men — my brothers — who refuse to sit next to women — my sisters — on planes and trains, buses and light rails?

The situations of frum men refusing to sit next to women lend themselves to a kind of grade-school snickering. Methinks the man doth protest too much, way too much. In fact, one imagines a gap between what they are thinking and what they are saying — something like, “I can’t (but desperately really want to) sit next to you” The woman might be thinking the same thing or the opposite “I am insulted and also glad that you don’t want to sit next to me, thank you very much.” Beneath the oppressive humor though there may be serious matters at stake.

As everyone knows, much of the hubbub and hullabaloo has formed around a prominent Orthodox feminist whose flight from Israel to the United States was delayed by a man who insisted that he did not have to sit next to her — a woman — for religious reasons. The woman rather than just “take it” protested loudly calling it an insult akin to racism and published an article about it. In a separate incident reported in the Washington Post and elsewhere, a number of “ultra-orthodox” men delayed a flight to Israel, causing “chaos and panic in the aisles” because they did not want to sit next to women.

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Why Netanyahu and Abbas Might Ask For Forgiveness

By Rachel Delia Benaim

Peace Agreement: Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat with U.S. president Jimmy Carter at Camp David, 1978. // Copyright Wikimedia Commons

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ addresses at this year’s United Nations General Assembly were, well, not the friendliest.

Netanyahu accused Abbas of war crimes.

Abbas accused Israel of genocide.

Netanyahu accused Abbas of executing civilians.

Abbas accused Netanyahu undermining peace efforts.

You get the picture.

This weekend marks the Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. Traditionally, in the days leading up to Yom Kippur, Jews engage in deep introspection. We each look at our relations with others in the world, and asking their forgiveness, because, according to scripture, only then are we fit to appear before God and ask his forgiveness as well.

This weekend also marks the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha. During Eid al-Adha, practicing Muslims sacrifice sheep and calves to commemorate the patriarch, Ibrahim, or Abraham, following God’s commandments. In addition to these sacrifices, on Eid, family members travel around to visit and greet each other, and mend and renew interpersonal relations.

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A Life of Social Activism and Free Love

By Chana Pollack

Lucy Fox Robins Lang (second from right) at her book party, 1948 // Copyright Forward Association

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

When Lucy Fox Robins Lang’s memoir “Tomorrow is Beautiful” was published by Macmillan in 1948, the Forverts was there to cover the book party.

Celebrating along with Lang, on the far left of the image with his back to the camera was no less than David Dubinsky, President of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union.

As a young girl Lang immigrated to America with her family, where she evolved into a much beloved progressive activist who reportedly journeyed within movements as varied as anarchism, the Wobbly group (Industrial Workers of the World), socialism and pacifism. Her belief in women’s equality carried into her intimate life where she was a practitioner of “free-love” and domestic partnerships decades before that was common. In her later years, Lang was also part of a dynamic progressive power couple when she married third husband Harry Lang, Forverts lead writer on labor and eventual pioneering Labor Editor for the Forverts’ West Coast bureau. But before going West together, they reportedly travelled way back East to his town of origin in Lithuania, as early as 1928.

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The Danger of Teshuva Season

By Debbie Nehmad

We are currently in the thick of what I like to call Teshuva Season. Starting with Rosh Chodesh Elul and continuing through Hoshana Rabbah, this time of year gives us a full seven weeks of reflection, repentance, and self-reproach. It is known as a time to mend our relationships with others and with God, our chance to beg for forgiveness lest our names be excluded from the Book of Life for the coming year.

As someone who recovered from depression and had, at one point in time, a very low sense of self-worth, this time of year can be deeply triggering for me. Year after year we are taught to repent for our sins, leading many of us to feel that the more we suffer over our mistakes, the greater our chances will be of deserving forgiveness and salvation. I remember growing up in school and hearing about how we needed to beg God to spare us our lives. I remember hating myself for feeling like I wasn’t strong enough to fully commit to certain mitzvot. I remember thinking during Yom Kippur services that there was no way I deserved to live another year because of the many sins I felt I had done. No one ever said these things to me, and yet these were the messages I absorbed from my teachers every September.

Many people can use this feeling of guilt in a way that is healthy and constructive, turning them into powerful motivators for change. I am not one of those people. If I’m not careful and disciplined with my thoughts, my guilt turns into a bitter tirade against myself. In this way the Yom Kippur craze can become a tool for masochism that is sneakily disguised as religious fervor. Even without an active behavior, the self-loathing mentality is one that indulges those inner demons I work so hard to silence and yet find so difficult to ignore.

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When Yom Kippur Prayers Don't Help Grieving

By Judy Bolton-Fasman

Rosh Hashanah prayers, as depicted in the 18th century // Copyright Wikimedia Commons

My father was buried on the eve of Rosh Hashanah 2002 and the holiday began just a few surreal hours after I stood at his open grave. The shiva — the seven-day period of formal mourning — was cancelled to usher in the New Year. With a truncated shiva behind me, I debuted as a congregational mourner on Rosh Hashanah. It was the first time that I said the Mourner’s Kaddish. Arguably, the busiest day of the year in the synagogue, I stood up in front of 800 people to recite the Kaddish — effectively a love song to God whom I felt didn’t deserve my adoration.

The feminist, poet and liturgist Marcia Falk had a similar experience. In 1978, her father Abraham Abbey Falk died midway between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and her grieving was cut short by the advent of the Day of Atonement. After three days of shiva, Falk braced herself to mourn in a crowded synagogue. But the public face she tried to show faded away when she was confronted with the somber, terrifying words of the Un’taneh Tokef. The thousand year-old prayer, written by an unknown author in Northern Europe, is central to the Yom Kippur liturgy.

In a recent presentation at Brandeis University sponsored by the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, Falk noted that her ambivalent relationship with the Un’taneh Tokef was the inspiration for her latest book, The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, And Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season.. “The Un’taneh Tokef” she said, “is a listing, a repentance. The message it conveyed to me, five days after losing my father, was that if he had been a pious, righteous and repentant man the decree would have been averted and he would not be dead. No one actually believed that, but nonetheless the words were hurtful and unhelpful.”

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