Sisterhood Blog

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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At 97, Holocaust Survivor Plays Lincoln Center

By Rachel Delia Benaim

97-year-old Emily Kessler shows off her mandolin technique / Courtesy

When Emily Kessler escaped the Nazis, she stopped enjoying the music she used to sing with her parents in pre-war Ukraine. But after 40 years, Kessler finally returned to the songs she loved so much. Since then, she hasn’t stopped.

Now, this 97-year-old Holocaust survivor will fulfill her dream of playing Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall on Monday night.

Kessler’s debut concert will be the special performance at the annual charity dinner of the Blue Card Fund, a nonprofit organization that provides support to Holocaust survivors. In her melodic voice, Kessler, who has personally been a beneficiary of the Blue Card Fund for nearly two decades, will sing the Yiddish and Russian folk songs of her childhood, and play her beloved string instrument, the mandolin.

Kessler remembers the first time she was exposed to this sort of music in her shtetl, Khmelnik, in Ukraine. “I was singing at home since I was a child with both of my parents,” she recalled. “They had very nice voices.” Kessler learned to play both the mandolin and the violin in 1927 when she was just ten years old.

“Her music expresses the ghetto, Ukraine, and losing family,” said Masha Pearl, the executive director of The Blue Card Fund, explaining why Kessler will be this year’s special performer. Pearl believes that Kessler’s music “represents both sorrow and hope.”

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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 the first lesbian, to lead 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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