Sisterhood Blog

5 Reasons 'Seinfeld's Elaine is Feminist Icon

By Elissa Strauss

This week marks the 25th anniversary of Seinfeld, the mostly loved but sometimes reviled sitcom about nothing. In honor of this milestone, the Sisterhood would like to pay our dues to the character of Elaine Benes, whose spunk and guile was given shape by the most enduring cast member, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss. Elaine was an unlikely shero for the generation of women who grew up on the show and today, as we look back, it feels fair to crown her as an official feminist icon. Here are five reasons why.

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The Mikveh in My Backyard

By Johnna Kaplan

The site of the Chesterfield synagogue

I’m walking towards a wooded lot almost hidden by what passes for a busy intersection in rural eastern Connecticut. The road has no shoulder, so I try to stay as close as possible to the curb. This is not a place designed for pedestrians, and I wonder what passing drivers are thinking about me as I head up the hill away from the one gas station, the one store, and the one motel.

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When Lucy Aharish Couldn't Take It Anymore

By Moran Sharir

Lucy Aharish // photo by Tali Shani for Haaretz

(Haaretz) — Lucy Aharish, the Arab-Israeli television host, woke up. Her awakening came a bit late and was not exactly aimed at the right target, but that’s not the important thing. The important thing is that on Monday, the news anchor awoke from a long coma.

The previous day, Benzi Gopstein – a merry Israeli trouper from Kiryat Arba in the West Bank – was a guest on the current-affairs program she hosts on Channel 2 (“Sihat Hayom” – “Talk of the Day”). Gopstein expounded his doctrine about Arabs’ place in Israeli society (according to him, they have none) and argued with the members of the panel, with the elephant standing right there in the room – in this case, the program host, an Arab woman, who sat there, doing a slow burn until she reached boiling point.

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There's a Shark in the Mikveh

By Deena Yellin

Perplexed souls seeking enlightenment about what to expect when taking a dip in the mikveh have generally found a limited variety on the shelves of Judaica stores and libraries: On the one hand, there are a myriad of volumes devoted to the halachic intricacies of family purity, and then there are the numerous works extolling the ritual for enhancing marriages and providing spiritual renewal.

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Listen to Israeli and Palestinian Mothers

By Elissa Strauss

Mothers of the slain Israeli teenagers // Getty Images

In moments like this the most powerful voices, the ones most likely to incite empathy and spark reconciliation, are not those of politicians, or military leaders or long-time activists. They are the ones of parents, most often those who have lost their children, who remind us, all too viscerally, that the personal is the political and the political is the personal.

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When Reb Zalman Met the Dalai Lama

By Joy Levitt

The Dalai Lama speaks during a visit to Germany. / Getty Images

It was, and will always remain, one of the most mysteriously significant experiences of my life. In 1990, eight of us travelled to Dharmsala, India at the invitation of his Holiness the Dalai Lama under the auspices of the Nathan Cummings Foundation. The Dalai Lama wanted some simple information he thought we Jews possessed: how to survive diaspora.

I went on this trip filled with anxiety and trepidation. I was a young mother with huge responsibilities at home and totally unsure whether I had anything at all to offer. But this was not the case for Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, my fellow traveller. He knew exactly why he was there. He and the Dalai Lama were brothers, soul mates; you only had to be there in the library witnessing Reb Zalman’s teaching and you’d have seen it immediately.

Each of us brought a teaching that we hoped would be helpful to the Dalai Lama in his quest to keep his people together in India and beyond as they waited to return to Tibet, then and now under the control of China. Naturally, I worried as much about what to wear as what to teach. But not Zalman. He knew exactly what to wear when meeting royalty and he showed up for our first session in full Hasidic regalia, streimel, kapota, the works. I wore a pants suit.

Zalman chose to teach the esoteric tradition in Judaism. Taking his allotted hour, he simply captivated the Dalai Lama with the breadth and depth of his knowledge of Kabbalah, which the Dalai Lama seemed to have studied a bit. As I remember it, the Dalai Lama was focused on Zalman in an extraordinary way, listening to every word as though it held great significance.

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Is Lady Liberty Jewish?

By Chana Pollack

The Statue of Liberty in 1936. International News / 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.

With her right arm raised heavenward, it’s easy to imagine that the Statue of Liberty, built in 1886, stands in mid-harbor, vowing to remember Jerusalem, lest her right hand wither. In truth, Lady Liberty is not technically a Jew. Her father was a Freemason; the sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi called her “Libertas” after the Roman goddess of freedom. He also wanted her to resemble the goddess Isis, the Egyptian queen of heaven, hence the crown of sunbeams.

Bartholdi was helped by fellow French artists Gustave Eiffel and Eugene Viollet-le-Duc who assisted with Lady Liberty’s inner foundation construction. Perhaps it’s her long term domestic partnership with acclaimed Sephardic Jewish New York City poet and activist Emma Lazarus, (or at least with her sonnet “The New Colossus”) that makes Lady Liberty seem like a philo-Semite. And Lazarus wouldn’t have been the first American Jew mesmerized by her spiritual largesse.

The froy mitn fakl as she’s sometimes nicknamed in Yiddish, “the woman with the torch,” inspired German Jewish refugee immigrant Manfred Anson’s menorah with each branch and the shamash a tribute to her. Lady Liberty’s folded robes and sandals, evoke a reimagining of the early practical, but still fashion-forward Israelite look during the 40 years of biblical wandering. Her zaftig figure, bottle curls, ample lips and nose, her sturdy, heymish interior beckoning you in, along with her serious dedication to mentshlekhkayt un gerekhtekayt — “humanity and justice” — her task of enlightening the world, all seem like a familiar package. She doesn’t have a weight problem, she comes from solid stock. And coupled with the Lazarus poem naming her “mother of exiles” she offers to all a tower of female strength. A Jewish mother for the tempest tossed. With her own set of broken chains lying at her feet, she identifies with you, and the troubles you’ve seen. She is a confident multi-tasker, providing a watchful eye and a warm welcome.

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Taking Photos of Chained Women

By Tova Ross

Aviva Klein

For the past several months, the subjects standing before Aviva Klein’s camera have not been the usual assortment of musicians, celebrities and fashion labels who hire her for their album artwork or style shoots, but agunot, women who are chained in marriages they no longer wish to be a part of thanks to a halachic structure where one gender holds the power. Klein, who lives and works primarily in Manhattan, recently funded an Indiegogo campaign to raise $5,000 to continue her photography project that began with a grant from The Schusterman Family Foundation. She spoke with Tova Ross about her work and why she felt compelled to set aside time from her career taking pictures of celebrities like Beyonce, T.I. and Questlove and for fashion companies like Lanvin and Nike to taking photos of* agunot*.

Tova Ross: If your professional background is in the music and celebrity industry, then why photograph agunot now?
Aviva Klein: In late 2013, I received a micro-grant from the Schusterman Foundation to “make something happen” in the Jewish community. The organization didn’t specify what it should be, exactly, just that those who receive its funding do something impactful that will effect a meaningful change within the Jewish community. I chose to incorporate my photography skills as a way to tell a story of something I thought needed more attention and awareness. When I did some research and learned that one of the most pressing issues our Jewish community faces today is the plight of the agunot, I was drawn to it right away.

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Why Secular Americans Can’t Get Enough of 'Srugim'

By Elissa Strauss

Since the Israeli sitcom Srugim ended two years ago it has gained a following of devoted fans here in the States thanks to its availability on streaming services like Hulu and Amazon. In my circles the show is passed along like a chain letter or a gift. “You must watch,” one tells the next, “it is sooo good.” And it is.

My personal Srugim revelation happened this spring. During this time my husband was doing a considerable amount of traveling for work, which meant that I was in need of something to fill some of the time gap between my child’s bedtime and mine. And then along came Yifat, Hodaya, Reut, Nati and Amir,four national religious singles in their 30s living in Jerusalem and trying to figure it all out in between, and during, their weekly Shabbat dinners. I finished the entire series in under six weeks. My mom, in three.

This week, Slate’s television critic Willa Paskin wrote a love letter to the series, rousing up old fans and inspiring new ones with her endorsement. She frames the show as a Jane Austen-style marriage plot, a throwback to the stories of yore when marriage was a precursor to sex. When referring to an episode in which an unrequited crush evolves into a coitus-free sleepover followed by the caddish guy, a type all too familiar to the secular crowd, vanishing the following day, Paskin writes: “Turns out, nothing revitalizes Sex and the City plot points quite like chastity.”

Indeed, the chastity is a big part of what makes this show feel fresh and exciting. Though it isn’t just because the moment before a big kiss is steeped in a tension that is hard to replicate after the lips lock (to be clear, this is not what Paskin argues), but because there is so much more at stake in every aspect of mating for these characters than there is for those who populate our networks here in the States. Srugim has given us something new.

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When SCOTUS and Hasidic Courts Look Same

By Frimet Goldberger

Adam Jones / Global Photo Archive

On Monday, the Supreme Court took the position of so many dayanim (a judge in a religious court, but in the Hasidic world, also a man who rules authoritatively on everyday halachic questions) and rabbis across the world in symbolically declining women reproductive autonomy. (I use the word “symbolically” because the decision will not necessarily affect many women, if any at all.) By ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Woods, the five ovary-free men essentially said a person’s religious convictions trump a fertile women’s need for sanity.

These five justices, who magically grew long beards and sidelocks while I heard the news, played the part of the quintessential Hasidic dayan who is generally the person to grant or deny a religious woman the ability use birth control. Their decision evoked memories of yesteryear — of a time when I, too, believed a righteous, ovary-free man, is entitled to rule on whether and when my ovaries should be producing tiny human souls.

Just like every Hasidic woman, I anticipated joining the motherhood club soon after marriage, when my ovaries would respond to my husband’s little swimmers. The year was 2004. I was two months shy of my 19th birthday and was married for six months when two bright blue crossed lines appeared on the pregnancy stick. I was ecstatic; having a child signified entry into the adults’ club. It was a rite-of-passage for us young Hasidic girls, and one of the greatest milestones in a Hasidic women’s life after getting married.

When I brought home my 7.3-pound bundle of joy, I struggled with postpartum depression and the usual challenges of first-time motherhood. My husband and I decided to wait some time for baby number two. But the conventional methods of “waiting” were unthinkable to us naïve and impressionable youngsters. We knew that the halacha was not in favor of birth control, and that only a third party — a learned man who spent his days poring over canonical texts — could make decisions about our family planning. And so my husband made his case to the grand dayan of Kiryas Joel. Rumor had it that he was lenient and dispensed a heter (religious permission) easily when presented with a proper sob story.

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When Torah Is Too Hot for Schoolgirls

By Uri Heilman

Lukas Kranach the Elder

(JTA) — For some Hasidim, the Torah is too hot to handle.

A recently published Bible study guide in use in a Hasidic village in suburban New York omits certain risque passages and entire passages of the Book of Genesis, according to Israeli scholar and blogger David Assaf of Tel Aviv University.

The censored chumash, or Bible, was printed for Beit Tziporah, a girls school in New Square, a village of Skverer Hasidim in New York State’s Rockland County.

For example, the chumash edits out a section at the end of Genesis 19 in which Lot’s two daughters get their father drunk and sleep with him so they can get pregnant. The chumash also omits the entire first two parshas, or Torah portions, of Genesis, cutting out the story of the world’s creation, Adam and Eve, Noah and the Tower of Babel, beginning instead at the story of Abraham.

Is this because the first two portions are about non-Jews?

Among other omissions in the chumash: The story of Onan, who spilled his seed rather than impregnate Tamar; Judah’s sexual encounter with his daughter-in-law Tamar disguised as a prostitute; and Potiphar’s wife’s attempted seduction of Joseph.

Meanwhile, other seemingly risque stories are left in, such as the tale of Dina’s rape, Assaf notes.

To be fair, this edition clearly is intended as a study guide, rather than a full account. Each of the verses intentionally leaves one word blank, for the girls to fill in from memory.

I suppose the girls aren’t expected to commit to memory the wholesale passages that have been omitted.


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You Can Do it In a Skirt

By Talia Weisberg

Cross-country skiing in a skirt / Courtesy of youcandoitinaskirt.wordpress.com

As someone who identifies as an Orthodox feminist but still (mostly) follows the dictates of tznius, or modesty, I often find myself feeling marginalized. Among the women who dress the way I do, I am judged for my progressive views; among those with views more like mine, I am judged for the way I dress.

Consequently, when someone in an Orthodox feminist forum linked to the website You Can Do It In A Skirt, I was one of its few supporters. “Anything you can do, I can do it in a skirt,” the site’s tagline proclaims. It features photos of skirt wearing Orthodox girls and women doing physical activities that most would do in pants: riding a horse, swimming, cartwheeling, running a marathon, hanging upside down on monkey bars, and jet skiing.

Although other Jewish feminists on the Internet (or on that particular forum, at least) seem to be unimpressed with this website and its accompanying message, I think You Can Do It In A Skirt is important. It debunks the myths that Orthodox women are coerced into wearing skirts, and that their garb prevents them from living life to the fullest.

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The Illusion of Choice in Israel

By Avital Norman Nathman

A banner of the Israeli pro-life group Efrat in 2012. The text reads: “Eventually, birth will determine our existence as a Jewish state.” / Wikimedia Commons

The United States seems to be in a constant battle over reproductive health rights — take this week’s Hobby Lobby ruling — particularly in regards to abortion. Both federal and state courts are wrapped up in cases challenging everything from personhood amendments, to waiting periods, mandatory ultrasounds, bufferzone laws and more. With more restrictions, the closing of clinics around the country and increased difficulty in obtaining easily accessible, affordable, safe abortions, it can feel as if the U.S. is moving backwards in terms of reproductive rights. So it’s no wonder that looking out to Israel, there’s a tendency to exalt their more liberal policies.

In Israel, when it comes to abortion, here is no limit on the age of gestation, no parental consent policy for minors, and abortion services are now mostly covered for all women up to the age of 33. These policies far exceed what the U.S. has to offer. Yet there is one hurdle that pregnant Israelis have to face, that the US has not — yet — implemented: a termination committee.

While the policies are incredibly liberal, being able to access them is not up to the person seeking the abortion. They have to answer questions about their circumstances before being approved. The committee is also responsible for deciding the method used. Is this illusion of choice worth it? Is it still easier than obtaining an abortion in the states?

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First Woman in Her Job, Toronto Rabbi Yael Splansky Has Big Plans

By Michael Kaminer

Copyright Mark Blinch

The Toronto Star headline seemed almost comically anachronistic: “Holy Blossom Temple official appoints a female as senior rabbi”.

But that was the news in Toronto last month as Canada’s largest reform temple named Rabbi Yael Splansky, 43, as its spiritual leader — a first for a major congregation in Canada’s largest city.

“While there are many female rabbis leading smaller congregations or working as associates at large temples,” The Star noted, “the larger synagogues with the bigger congregations and incomes were out of reach.” Holy Blossom serves 2,000 families.

The announcement from Holy Blossom makes official a role Splansky had occupied for more than a year; she’s been employed by the temple since 1998. Splansky will inherit a synagogue in transition. A major renovation is set for its 1938 building in north Toronto, and Splansky plans to expand programming to embrace all life stages, almost literally from cradle to grave.

The Forward’s Michael Kaminer caught up with Splansky, a mother of three boys, from Toronto.

**Michael Kaminer: How have you felt about the news coverage around your appointment? That Toronto Star headline caught my eye. **

Yael Splansky: They say, “All press is good press.” I am grateful for any invitation to call attention to synagogue life in general and to my synagogue in particular. The headline caught my eye, too, of course. I would like to be known by more than my gender, but in a traditional Jewish community like Toronto, the decision to appoint a woman to this senior position is newsworthy.

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Hobby Lobby Puts Women in Second Class Status

By Sarah Seltzer

Getty Images

Today’s ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Woods’ right to deny employees contraception coverage is a disaster both for women and religious minorities. Essentially the decision says that “closely-held” corporations – 90% of American businesses – can choose to exempt employees from contraception coverage, and only contraception coverage. The decision created an illogical barrier between women’s reproductive health care and other kinds of care, adding stigma to contraception and essentially reducing women to second class citizens.

As Ruth Bader Ginsburg writes in a blistering dissent, “the Court’s expansive notion of corporate personhood… invites for-profit entities to seek religion-based exemptions from regulations they deem offensive to their faith,” adding later that, ”working for Hobby Lobby or Conestoga, in other words, should not deprive employees of the preventive care available to workers at the shop next door.”

Ultimately, there were several issues at play.

Whose religious freedom supersedes whose. Employers or their employees? A Jewish or atheist or Muslim woman who is allowed by her own faith and conscience to use hormonal contraception should be free to both do so, and be insured for it without being stopped by her employer who thinks, against scientific fact, that emergency contraception is abortion (it’s not). The uses of contraception are many, from simple birth control to severe pain management and more, and reasons a woman chooses to take the pill or another method should be private, not subject to interrogation by her employer.

Whether health insurance is salary. In America we include health insurance as a benefit that comes with salary, like vacation time and 401(k). This means the employer should be no more able to limit what health insurance covers than whether salary goes to kosher or non-kosher beef, whether a 401(k) is saved or squandered, or whether vacation is spent in Israel, Istanbul or Ibiza.

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Why Cheaper Weddings Are Often More Fun

By Elissa Strauss

The fact that I absolutely love weddings often comes as a surprise to those who know me. This is very likely due to the fact that I have very little interest in wedding planning.

To be blunt, I don’t think most of what usually woman, but increasingly men, occupy themselves with during the planning process really matters. Should you use succulents or flowers for the centerpieces? Should she wear a strapless gown or cap sleeves? Should they walk down the aisle to classical music or classic rock? Should they have a signature cocktail, and if so, what should it be?

Brides and grooms of summer 2014, it’s time to hear the hard truth. Nobody really remembers these things. What they do remember, if all goes well, is the good feeling of watching two people in love declare their commitment to one another in front of family.

Unfortunately, now that weddings have transformed from a party to performance art, brides and grooms are all too often distracted by the line at the photo-booth, the rapidly melting ice sculpture or the fact that the canapés are a little soggy, or whatever other minor detail they have been spent the last year obsessing over. Meanwhile, their guests are just happy to be together, talking, eating, drinking and dancing and really don’t worry about such things – unless of course the clearly preoccupied couple gets in their way. We don’t go to weddings for a great meal or to gawk at the centerpieces, we go to celebrate people we love, and if they don’t look like they are having a good time then it is hard for us guests to have one too.

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Does Buffer Zone Ruling Protect Sidewalk Speech or Harassment?

By Sarah Seltzer

Pro-life demonstrators outside the US Supreme Court following oral arguments in the case of McCullen v. Coakley, in Washington, DC, January 15, 2014 // SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

This week’s Supreme Court decision in McCullen vs. Coakley struck down the fixed-distance “buffer zone” around abortion clinics in Massachusetts. Irin Carmon wrote “The ruling disappointed abortion rights advocates, but it did not surprise them,” noting that when the court agreed to take the case in the first place, pro-choicers were worried.

The law that has been struck down originated after a gruesome, fatal clinic shooting in Brookline. On Twitter, the hashtag #protectthezonebegan to swell with stories from clinic escorts and former patients, detailing menacing, violent harassment they and visitors to clinics had experienced, justifying why a buffer zone was necessary. All this evidence — much of which can be found in Erin Matson’s [wrenching Storify(]https://storify.com/erintothemax/experiences-with-clinic-defense-and-clinic-escorti) — is important. It’s true that harassment of abortion patients is both frightening and out of control.

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Pepi Littman, Yiddish Drag King

By Chana Pollack

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.

The image of early 20th century itinerant member of the Broder Singers (and Yiddish drag king) Pepi ‘Peshe Khane’ Littman (1874-1930) seen here as ‘the griner bucher’ (the inexperienced bachelor) calls to mind the bawdy Yiddish saying: es zol dir dunern in boykh un blitsn in di hoyzn (may you have thunder in your belly and, — more importantly perhaps — lightning in your pants.)

Electricity was precisely what Pepi brought to the then nascent field of Yiddish women performers: either in drag as a young hasidic man costumed in a long black satin coat, high peaked silk yarmulka, white knee-socks and breeches, or as a dandy bachelor, sumptuously filling out a handsomely tailored three piece suit. Pepi was a charming transgressive star delivering original Yiddish lyrics and drawing fans from literary circles, including those based around the “grandfather” of Yiddish literature, Mendele Moykher Sforim.

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Are 'No Body Talk' Summer Camps Good for Girls?

By Elissa Strauss

At Eden Village, a Jewish organic farm summer camp in Putnam Valley, New York, there is a firm house rule against body talk. Campers are to refrain from talking about their appearances or the appearances of others, and this includes commenting on clothing too, so no telling Rachel her flip-flops are cute.

As described in a recent New York Times article about the rise of “no body talk” summer camps, the boys and girls who attend Eden Village are encouraged to welcome the Shabbat by complementing one another’s shining souls rather than the way they look. The bathroom mirrors are adorned with sayings like “don’t check your appearance, check your soul.”

The camp directors said that adopting the rule felt obvious. “This is good,” Vivian Stadlin, who founded the camp with her husband Yoni six years ago, told the Times, “This is powerful. This is magical.” She spoke about how free the kids feel to explore their identities, including how they dress, in this judgement-free setting.

Eden Village camper Rachel Steinig, a 14-year-old high school freshman from Mount Airy, Pa., who is returning for her third season this summer, said that she feels like the body talk ban pushes her fellow campers to pay more attention to who she is as a person. “Your dress isn’t really you, it’s just something you bought. But whether you are a good friend, that’s truly you,” she told the Times.

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The Dead Mothers Club

By Chanel Dubofsky

Molly Shannon in ‘The Dead Mothers Club’

This morning on the train, I started reading “The Goldfinch,” Donna Tart’s enormous novel that won the Pulitzer this year. Five pages in, you learn that Theo, the protagonist, has a life that’s been separated by the “dividing mark” of his mother’s death, Before and after. This would ring familiar to anyone with a dead mother, or a dead parent, or a sick parent or friend. The moment before the death, in hindsight, seems like it was lived by an entirely different person, someone who’s now unrecognizable.

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