Sisterhood Blog

Make Space for Transgender Jews at the Kotel

By Joy Ladin

illustration by Lior Zaltzman

When Kay Long approached the Western Wall in Jerusalem last week, she was turned away because according to one of the Orthodox women supervising the women’s side of the Wall, Ms. Long was not a woman. In Orthodox Judaism, religious space is gendered space. Men and women are rigorously separated, not just at the Western Wall but in synagogues, while studying sacred texts, and even at weddings, where men and women dance separately.

Halacha or Traditional Jewish law assumes that maleness and femaleness are unchangeable and self-evident. The Orthodox woman who turned Ms. Long away was charged with ensuring that only women and girls enter the women’s section, so that the sacred space would remain acceptable and thus accessible to Orthodox women. In order to do so they rely on their ideas about what women should look like to decide whether those who approach their side may enter. Ms. Long, evidently, did not fit those ideas, despite the fact that it had been years since she had made the transition from living as a man to living as a woman.

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Norman Lamm, Alfred Kinsey and the Re-Making of Jewish Sexuality

By Rachel Gordan

Norman Lamm, Yeshiva University

When the biology professor Alfred Kinsey published his reports on male (1948) and female (1953) sexuality, his results proved explosive. Through personal interviews that were designed to uncover sexual behaviors rather than the meanings behind them, Kinsey and his associates gathered information about the sexual activity of men and women. Among Kinsey’s findings that suggested taboos were not quite so taboo among mid-century men and women: 85 percent of American men engaged in premarital sex, 46 percent had engaged in both heterosexual and homosexual activity and half of married men had engaged in some extramarital activity. Even more revelatory than the news that confirmed 1950s notions that “boys will be boys,” were Kinsey’s findings about women.

Disproving widely held views that women were asexual beings, the reports revealed that women did in fact enjoy sexual activity and achieved orgasm. Among his female subjects, Kinsey also uncovered the influence of class on sexual activity: Upper-class women were more likely to engage in extramarital intercourse and homosexual relations than lower-class women, as well as the influence of historical atmosphere on female sexuality: women who came of age after World War II, showed increased participation in various sexual activities. Critics objected that Kinsey’s data skewed toward the more sexually adventurous and toward those more willing to talk about their sexual lives. Yet, Kinsey had brought national attention to the topic of sex, and in particular to the idea that sexual satisfaction was central to women’s (and therefore marital) well-being and happiness.

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Why Couldn’t My Two Bubbies Love Each Other?

By Marla Brown Fogelman

illustration by Lior Zaltzman

My grandmothers, Bubbie R. and Bubbie G., lived next door to each other throughout my childhood in Wilmington, Delaware. They had also been next-door neighbors throughout my parents’ childhoods in that same city. Yet even then they were striking in their differences, as dissimilar to each other as night and day, oil and water, cheese blintzes and Pillsbury dinner rolls. Bubbie R., a woman who cooked by feel and taste, had spent her childhood on the ever-changing border of Poland and Russia, shearing sheep, evading pogroms, and riding horses. She had a thick-as-chicken-schmaltz Yiddish accent and called everyone “dahling.”

Bubbie G., who clipped recipes from Ladies Home Journal and local newspapers, had had the good fortune of “coming over” from Russia as a child. She grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba, where she learned to read and write English, Yiddish, and Hebrew. She became a career Hebrew school teacher, and peppered her conversations with phrases like “pedagogically speaking.”

Yet, like any child who grows up with grandparents who share a backyard flagstone patio and a need to make sure that I always had enough to eat, I didn’t realize that these two former Pioneer Women presidents, who wore similar but not matching housedresses, had their differences. I just knew I loved running back and forth between their semi-detached brick houses and bathing in the constancy of their hugs, admonitions, and rugelach.

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Unlikely Orthodox Superstar Finds Her Voice

By Elana Sztokman

Shayna Rehberg performing on Kochav Nolad. Screenshot via

Shayna Rehberg is an unlikely superstar. A 30-year-old religious mother of four originally from Texas and now living in Safed, Shayna walked onto the stage of Israel’s popular singing competition show, Kochav Haba [Next Star], donning her headscarf and long skirt, and made it to the next round following a rendition of Alanis Morisette’s “Ironic”. She impressed the judges perhaps less with her singing — which at times was lilting and commanding and at other times withdrawn and fragile — and more with her life story. She told the judges, and thousands of viewers, that she had stopped singing for ten years because of religion.

“This is like coming out of the closet,” Judge Harel Skaat sympathetically told her, adding that it was no different from his own experience of coming out as gay. “You’re coming out of a cage, even if it’s a self-imposed one.”

This exchange with Harel Skaat was not only beautiful for its empathy, but also incredibly revealing and insightful about the dynamics of being an Orthodox Jewish woman.

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Transgender Woman Barred From Kotel — Both Sections

By Marcy Oster

Kay Long poses on the Kotel plaza after being refused access to both women’s and men’s sections.

(JTA) — A transgender woman was denied access to both the women’s and men’s sections of the Western Wall.

Kay Long, who designs wedding dresses, evening gowns and costumes, on Monday visited the Western Wall with a friend visiting from Madrid.

When she approached the women’s section she was turned away by an Orthodox woman patrolling the site who said she is not a woman. She was not allowed into the men’s section because she does not look like a man and in any case would not wear a yarmulke.

“From an early age we are taught that if we place a note at the Kotel our prayers might be answered,” she wrote Monday using the heading “Dilemma” on her Facebook page, under a photo of her outside the Western Wall plaza with the Kotel in the background. “All that’s left now is to take a picture and say a prayer from afar with the hope that it will be answered. Because God is everywhere and loves us all.”

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Lizzie Stark's ‘Real Steps to Survival’

By Seth Berkman

Courtesy of J.R. Blackwell

In 2009, while still in her 20s, Lizzie Stark — a carrier of a BRCA1 mutation which increases the risk of breast or ovarian cancer — decided to have a prophylactic double mastectomy. Today, Stark is a healthy 33-year-old writer and recently published her memoir “Pandora’s DNA” which chronicles the history of breast surgery, the BRCA gene and the humor with which she dealt with the situation, including holding a “goodbye to boobs” party before her operation.

The Forward’s Seth Berkman spoke with Stark about life after her double mastectomy, her views as a non-Jew on the debate on whether all Ashkenazi women should get tested for the BRCA gene, and the effect of Angelina Jolie’s public announcement of her preventive double mastectomy.

Seth Berkman: What were the difficulties of writing a personal book also heavily based on science and medicine?

Lizzle Stark: I’m not a scientist. In that way it was very much like the live action role-playing book. You come in, and at first there’s a lot of unfamiliar jargon, buzzwords, confusing acronyms. The memoir angle really presented challenges — I was writing about some of the most painful episodes of my family history and also of my own personal history. I cried almost every day. Psychologically, it felt like being back in the shoes I was in getting ready to have this mastectomy.

Is there adequate awareness of BRCA testing? Did Angelina Jolie’s story help?

I think Angelina Jolie dramatically raised awareness of BRCA and the BRCA test. I spoke to the president elect of the National Society of Genetic Counselors [Joy Larsen Haidle], and she told me that there had suddenly been a “Jolie bounce.” At that time, it was mostly anecdotal information, an increase of women calling genetic counseling centers to ask about the gene.

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Mimicking the GOP, Naftali Bennett's Lady-Themed Ad Is Not a Good Thing

By Tiki Krakowski

Screenshot vis YouTube

Women like to talk about men. They also like to exercise. And often do these two things at once. At least that’s what I learned from Naftali Bennett’s new campaign video. In it a pair of attractive seemingly secular women appear in five vignettes. In each vignette they are shown conversing about various social issues as they go about their day (3 out of 5 of the scenes involve them working out).

“The security guard in our building told me that they raised the salary for all the security guards by 1,000 shekel”, one woman tells the other as they ride their bikes.

“1,000 shekel? Who did that?” her friend replies.

“Bennett. Not only the security guards, he also raised the salary of the cleaning staff by 1000 shekel.”

For a moment it appears that the women will be seduced by Bennett’s ability to get things done, “To tell you the truth, he really does it…”, they say, but then they ruefully recall that, “but he’s a right-winger.”

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Five Quotes From Bess Myerson, The Only Jewish Miss America

By Sarah Breger

Ed Koch, Bess Myerson, and Henry Kissinger at Stephen S. Wise Award Dinner, 1977 via flickr

Bess Myerson, who died last month at the age of 90, was once described as ”the closest thing to a bona fide intellectual ever to cross a stage in a bathing suit.” The first (and only) Jewish Miss America, Myerson, parlayed her win into a television career and achieved local and national political influence. Myerson ultimately lost her public standing in the 1980s after a highly publicized scandal referred to as the “Bess Mess.” A woman of many lives, Myerson’s one constant was her quick wit. Here are five of her more memorable comebacks.

On changing her name: “I said, ‘I live in a cooperative with 250 other families, all of them Jewish. If I win, they’ll feel very, very good, but if I change my name, they won’t even know it’s me.”

On the press: “I’m glad you’re attractive, because I have had such trouble with fat, ugly reporters. They hate me.”

Her controversial love life: I am not the type of person to go after men. Men go after me. And I choose among them.”

Her beauty “God gave it to me and I’m grateful. I don’t question it.”

Her tough exterior: “A lot of the poignant parts of me have to do with my height. I had to protect myself because other people wouldn’t protect me. Even today, I’m always amazed at how people observe me. There’s always great strength attributed to me. But inside there’s a little girl trying to get out.”

The Danger of the 'Nice Jewish Guy'

By Chanel Dubofsky and Lilit Marcus

via Flickr/Creative Commons

Last month, Randi Weingarten, president of American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO, published a piece on detailing her experience with sexual assault as a college student.

During a summer internship at an automobile plant in Warren, Ohio, after her junior year in college, Weingarten found herself feeling lonely and isolated. “I tried to find community to anchor my summer in Warren. I did what was familiar: I went to shul. One family invited me over for Shabbat dinner. Dutifully and hopefully, I went. They also invited a young man. He was nice enough. So, when this ‘nice Jewish guy’ invited me for dinner, I said, ‘Sure.’” She followed up: “A few days later, I went to his apartment. And that’s where it happened. He tried to rape me. I managed to get out after a struggle, but the emotional scarring was deep.”

Most commenters focused — rightly — on Weingarten’s bravery in sharing her story, with the Jewish detail going largely unnoticed. But as conversations about acquaintance rape change in this country, that “nice Jewish guy” (NJG) is a pivotal figure. According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network), approximately two-thirds of rapes were committed by someone known to the victim (U.S. Department of Justice. 2005 National Crime Victimization Study).

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In Jewish Studies, Women Remain ‘Second Sex’

By Keren R. McGinity

via Creative Commons

Whenever I tell my thirteen year old daughter Shira about an article I’m writing or a presentation I’m giving, the first thing she asks me is “Will you be paid?” This simple question illustrates that female Jewish academics are still the “second sex” in the American University system.

In his plenary address at the annual Association for Jewish Studies conference December 14th, AJS president and noted Brandeis historian, Jonathan D. Sarna said “Women have not yet achieved anything like equality in terms of salaries.” His speech synthesized data from a yet-to-be-released survey of AJS members sponsored by the American Academy of Jewish research and conducted by Steven M. Cohen of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. The sample had 1,790 respondents representing a 60 percent response rate out of a total sample of 3,026 members with analysis limited to the 1,353 respondents living in the US or Canada.

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When Being Black Is a Family Secret

By Susan Reimer-Torn

Lacey Schwartz at the age of 2 with her mother, Peggy, in an image from “Little White Lie.”

When Lacey Schwartz was accepted at Georgetown University, it was a dream come true. It also blew the lid off a tightly-guarded secret.

Along with her admission, the high school senior from Woodstock, New York received an invitation to join the Black Student Alliance. She had chosen not to check an ethnicity box on her application, but she did include a photo.

The acknowledgement that she was black ran counter to a lifelong assumption: Schwartz was raised as the biological daughter of her mother and her father, two white Jews with Eastern-European origins. The invitation led to a process of inquiry that revealed a hidden truth: Schwartz was the daughter of her mother and her mother’s long-time black lover.

The young woman’s undaunted deconstruction of an explosive family secret inspired the autobiographical documentary Little White Lie. The film is the result of Schwartz revisiting her life with an ever-present camera to record startlingly frank encounters in a home, larger family and community where once there had only been denial. The film chronicles the process of dismantling a false identity and reconstructing a new one.

Reached by phone in a recent interview, Schwartz explains why her story speaks to so many. “My case is particular in its details. But lots of people feel a gap between the person they are raised to believe they are and who they sense they might be.”

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5 Things Jewish Women Will Do in 2015

By Sarah Breger

Lior Zaltzman

In 2014 we saw everyone from Beyoncé to Joseph Gordon-Levitt embrace feminism, a video clip titled “10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman” spark a debate about street harassment, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg become a cultural icon. As 2015 begins here are five trends to look out for.

Funny Women Will Get Funnier

From Jenny Slate in her film “Obvious Child” to Lena Dunham’s publication of her memoir “Not That Kind of Girl,” this has been a great year for Jewish women in comedy. But some of the most feminist comedians are poised to reach new audiences and acclaim in 2015. “Inside Amy Schumer” provided what might have been the best TV scene of the year with her sketch “A Very Realistic Military Game,” highlighting the issue of sexual assault in America’s military. Schumer is set to raise her profile in 2015, hosting the MTV movie awards, writing and starring in a Judd Apatow-directed movie, and executive-producing a pilot for Comedy Central starring fellow comedian Rachel Feinstein. Similarly, the co-stars and creators of “Broad City,” Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, managed to both embrace and subvert female stereotypes in the show’s first season. The show is back in January, and as the two women strengthen their comedic voices this ode to female friendship will soar to new heights.

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WATCH: Helen Mirren in ‘Women in Gold’

By Sarah Breger

Helen Mirren stars in the true-story of Maria Altmann, a Jewish refugee forced to flee World War II Vienna, and her fight to reclaim her family’s artwork stolen by the Nazis. The movie revolves around one painting in particular, the portrait of Altmann’s aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer, painted by Gustave Klimt and considered to be the “Mona Lisa of Austria.” Rounding out the cast is Ryan Renolyds, Katie Homes and Orphan Black’s Tatiana Maslany.

‘Women in Gold’ is due out April 3.

Racheli Ibenboim Is Galvanizing the Haredi Women Vote

By Ben Sales

(JTA) — Racheli Ibenboim acts as if she’s in a rush, repeatedly checking her phone before hurrying off to her next appointment exactly 30 minutes after the current one begins.

The way Ibenboim tells it, she’s not just trying to keep up with a tight schedule but with a rapidly changing world.

Two years ago, her campaign to include women in haredi political parties failed. But times may be changing. This year, the Hasidic mother’s effort has garnered national attention and 5,000 supporters on Facebook since it relaunched less than a month ago.

“During the last two years, haredi women have been in academia, have gotten employment, are getting senior positions,” said Ibenboim, 29. “We’ve had discussions on haredi women that have never happened before.”

In a campaign called “No female candidates, no female voters,” Ibenboim is urging haredi women to boycott Israel’s haredi parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, in the March Knesset elections unless they include female lawmakers. Neither does so now.

The effort, which Ibenboim terms a “protest,” has received wide coverage — some of it critical — on haredi websites, newspapers and radio programs. But like many activists pushing for social change, Ibenboim sees it as a positive sign merely that people are talking.

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Picturing Mary, History's Best-Known Jewish Woman

By Menachem Wecker

Nicolò Barabino’s 1884 mural “Faith with Representations,” at the National Museum of Women in the Arts

An exhibit about the Virgin Mary, which is curated by a Florentine priest, makes the case that the mother of Jesus must be understood, at least in part, as a Jewish woman.

That the Christian messiah’s mother was born in a Jewish home is one of several seeming contradictions with which the Gospel of James wrestles, wrote Miri Rubin, a history professor at London’s Queen Mary University, in the “Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea” exhibit catalog.

Speaking at a press preview of the exhibit, on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts until April 12, curator, Msgnr. Timothy Verdon, a priest and director of Florence’s Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, reminded reporters that Mary is also relevant to Jews and Muslims. (“If anything,” he said, Mary has “a more fascinating place in the Koran than her son does.”)

“Mary is, after all, a daughter of her people,” he said. “The way the Christian gospels describe her, she is the fullness of all that the Jewish scriptures propose as significant and courageous and noble in womanhood.”

Both religious and non-religious viewers can benefit from seeing the exhibit, according to Verdon; religious people “certainly will remain deeply moved by these images,” and secular viewers can relate to “our universal experiences as daughters and sons of women.”

Not much is known of Mary’s life, but, according to apocryphal texts, she was raised in the Jewish temple, where she later married, and was thus aware of Jewish rituals. She and Joseph brought the infant Jesus to the temple and offered a sacrifice “in obedience to Jewish ritual law,” Verdon writes in the catalog. And in his woodcut of Jesus’ circumcision, which foreshadows the crucifixion, Albrecht Dürer “counts on his public to know that she [Mary] was brought up in the temple and understands its rites,” Verdon wrote.

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Learning to Love Christmas, Eggnog and All

By Marla Brown Fogelman

Photograph via Flickr/Creative Commons

As an Orthodox Jew who believes in the world to come while participating pretty fully in the world at large, I will admit that there are certain things I like about Christmas aka “the holiday season.” I like the festive spirit, the Starbucks sweet and spicy Christmas blend coffee, and the colorful lights illuminating the short, dark December days. 

Most of all, I appreciate that, at this time of year, people feel called on to practice random or even willful acts of kindness and generosity such as donating money and toys to the needy or allowing someone with fewer items to go ahead of them in the supermarket.

Yet I didn’t always feel this way.  As a Jewy little girl Jewish girl growing up in less-than-Jewy Wilmington, Delaware, I wasn’t very happy with Christmas. I dreaded having strangers on city buses ask me what I wanted Santa to bring me, I was embarrassed that we were one of only two houses on the block with a wreathless door, but most of all, I hated having to stand up in front of my non-Jewish elementary school classmates and talk about Chanukah.

How could our waxy-candled menorahs and our measly little chocolate gelt and dreidels, compare with their large evergreens, lawn reindeers, and big, important gifts? 

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Why Merav Michaeli Is Upbeat About the Israeli Left

By Derek M. Kwait

Photograph via flickr

Merav Michaeli, the Israeli journalist and women’s rights activist-turned-Knesset member for the Labor Party, is a sign of hope for a progressive future in Israel. Last Tuesday, she tried to convince an exclusive crowd of worried Jewish leftists gathered in an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side that there was hope for the upcoming elections and for the future of a democratic Israel. The talk was sponsored by the progressive Zionist organization Ameinu, and also included journalists, professors, high-ranking members of the New Israel Fund and Encounter, along with representatives from Hillel, Habonim Dror, and others. What followed was a passionate, sometimes heated, and surprisingly optimistic discussion of the future of the Jewish State and the role American Jews can play.

*The first question asked was about the nationality bill, the controversial proposed law to officially declare Israel the “Nation-State of the Jewish People.” This question proved an easy one—since there is no Knesset, there will be no nationality bill. When there is a new Knesset, its makeup will likely be so different that it won’t even be proposed again.

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Orit Struck's Delusional 'Feminist' Win

By Sara Hirschhorn

Photograph via Flash90

Orit Struck may be a leading figure in the Tekuma [Revival] bloc of the Bayit Ha-Yehudi [Jewish Home] party in Israel, but it appears feminism “struck out” in its latest turn at electoral bat. This week, the ultra-hawkish faction of the right-wing party withdrew its threat to abandon Natfali Bennett for a new ultra-Orthodox Zionist movement. Struck celebrated the decision as a victory for feminism, since she would have been forbidden as a woman to run in the new party. Yet, more likely, this was yet another backroom deal amongst male politicians.

Struck is an unlikely feminist heroine in recent Israeli political history. A sabra, she grew up in Jerusalem and became a “baalat teshuva” as a teenager, gravitating toward religious Zionism. For the past 30 years she has lived in the Jewish enclave in Hebron, where the 54-year-old mother of 11 made her reputation as a firebrand extra-parliamentary political activist. In 2013, she was elected to the 19th Knesset in the tenth spot (of 12) of the Jewish Home list, joining female colleagues Ayelet Shaked and Shuli Mualem.

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How Does a Therapy 'Junkie' Say Goodbye to Shrink

By Janice Eidus

“The prognosis is very poor,” she told me that night over the phone.

Joan, my therapist at the time, had keeled over while painting in an art class. “If she lives,” Barbara explained to me, as she’d been explaining and would continue to explain over the phone to Joan’s patients all night, “she won’t ever be able to practice therapy again.”

Disbelieving, I asked Barbara if I could see her for a session to discuss my sudden loss of Joan. During the week, waiting for my session with Barbara, I kept clutching my stomach as if I’d been kicked there. A part of me felt that I couldn’t go on without Joan in my life. I’d been seeing and working with her for 20 years on a weekly basis. I often referred to her as “my good mother,” as opposed to my own mother, who wasn’t actually “bad,” no evil Queen trying to goad me into eating the poisoned apple—just distant and depressed.

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Jessie Kornberg Brings Justice to Los Angeles

By Julie Sugar

Courtesy of Jessie Kornberg

If you haven’t yet heard of the public interest law firm Bet Tzedek — the time has come.

On December 1, Los Angeles attorney Jessie Kornberg was appointed as the organization’s next president and CEO. The San Francisco Bay Area native was chosen after a four-month search and will be the first woman to hold that position. Bet Tzedek (Hebrew for “home of justice”) was founded 40 years ago to give legal assistance to Holocaust survivors and other seniors. Today, Bet Tzedek has about 60 employees and almost 2,000 pro bono volunteers providing legal support to the needy of all backgrounds in Los Angeles. In 2013 alone, the organization contributed more 53,000 hours to about 15,000 people.

On a national and global level, Bet Tzedek’s Holocaust Survivors Justice Network has trained attorneys around the world in how to aid survivors, helping thousands obtain reparations.

The Forward’s Julie Sugar spoke with Kornberg, 32, about Bet Tzedek’s work and Kornberg’s own pursuit of justice throughout her career.

Julie Sugar: Was there a moment during the interview process when you thought, “This is the organization for me”?

Jessica Kornberg: I very much felt that way going into it. I never thought I would get it! I’ve always been a huge supporter of Bet Tzedek and have been connected to the organization for many years, as a peer and a donor and as an admiring observer.

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