Sisterhood Blog

The Lesbian Rabbi Battling Israeli Racism

By Judy Maltz (Haaretz)

Noa Sattath. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi

Noa Sattath seemed destined for a career in high-tech. But all that changed when, upon completing her military service, she told her friends and family she was gay.

“I came from the privileged parts of Israeli society, and this act of coming out connected me to the whole issue of minority rights,” she reflects. “It made me realize my future was in social change.”

Today, 15 years later, Sattath is completing her fifth year as director of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), the advocacy arm of the Reform movement in Israel. Although officially affiliated with one movement, IRAC sees itself as representative of all the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism in their common struggle for full recognition in Israel.

Her career in social activism began in a different arena, though. In 2006, Sattath was appointed executive director of Jerusalem Open House, the first LGBT community center in the capital, where she had been active since coming out. It is probably one of the few places on Earth, she acknowledges, where Palestinian lesbians and ultra-Orthodox Jewish homosexuals can meet under one roof.

As the driving force behind the first Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem, she first gained public recognition as a social activist while working there. But after running the community center for two years, Sattath decided she wanted to move on. “It was important for me to look at social justice from a bigger perspective, and I felt Israeli-Palestinian relations was where it was at,” she recounts.

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No, We Didn't Let Barry Freundel Happen

By Bethany Mandel

Not unsurprisingly, given that I’m a victim, I’ve read almost everything printed about the Barry Freundel case since it first broke back in October. I have made myself available for interviews not because I want to be known as the woman whose rabbi taped her naked, but because I think it’s important for reporters to understand the nuances of Orthodox Judaism, of conversion, of the community in Washington D.C.

Stories like these are “bad news for the Jews,” and it’s important to for the Jewish community to be clear that things like this happen not because of inherent issues with Judaism, but due to the flaws of some human beings who practice it.

It was with extreme frustration that I read Jay Michaelson’s latest column in this very paper on the case. Michaelson seems to believe that prominent members in the Kesher community should have seen Freundel’s recently exposed flaws more clearly.

He asks, “How can some of our community’s leading (if self-appointed) cultural sages lionize and valorize someone who, in fact, they didn’t really know that well?”

Juxtapose this question with a statement from Michaelson’s last column on Freundel (in which he blamed “burnout” for Freundel’s transgressions) “Those of us who knew, or thought we knew, Rabbi Barry Freundel — recently arrested for spying on women in the mikveh, with a mountain of evidence suggesting his guilt — are still in shock. As much as I disagreed with many of his halachic positions, I always thought he was one of the good rabbis, the ethical ones.”

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Combining Forces to Battle Breast Cancer

By Sara Tatelman

Illustration by Lior Zaltzman

Dozens of Torontonians have gathered to nosh on latkes and blintzes at a downtown café’s weekly Yiddish cabaret. Tables are squeezed close together, and as the performance winds down, my college roommate and I start chatting with our neighbors.

The two women and their pre-teen daughters are out celebrating the girls’ birthdays, and as we move past pleasantries, I learn the women are distantly related but became close when they had breast cancer at the same time. One had a right and the other a left mastectomy. The women joke they can fill a bra only by combining forces.

Sharon Soer’s mother is a second cousin of Annette Cohen’s aunt Aviva’s husband. The women sometimes saw each other at family functions and their kids went to the same schools, but they only became friends in the summer of 2013 when they underwent treatment a few months apart. And just as Annette’s left and Sharon’s right breasts complement each other, the women’s personalities do too. Since meeting, they’ve helped each other cope with mastectomies, radiation, chemotherapy, weight gain, hair loss and having to confront their own mortality while their kids were still in grade school.

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Israel's Police Sexual Harassment Problem

By Elana Sztokman

Israel police officers by Mark Probst via Wikimedia Commons.

There has been an earthquake in the Israeli police force, and the institution may never be the same again. No less than three senior police officers have been accused of sexual harassment in the past two weeks, including one who is now under house arrest, and the story is not over yet. This may be bad news for these men, but it is great news for women.

Two weeks ago, The Police Investigations department of the Justice Ministry announced that the Deputy Police Commissioner Nissim Mor is being investigated for crimes of sexual harassment and indecent acts against a female police officer subordinate to him. He allegedly used his seniority to take advantage of her. Apparently several other women have started to come forward with similar allegations of sexual harassment against him. The officer was released to house arrest and subsequently fired by Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino.

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Bulimia Comedy Conquers TV's Last Taboo

By Sarah Breger

Are eating disorders the last taboo on TV? Los Angeles-based filmmaker and comedian Jessie Kahnweiler thinks so and is setting out to change that with “The Skinny,” an episodic series based on her struggles with bulimia.

“Every movie I see depicting eating disorders makes me want to barf,” writes Kahnweiler on the project’s Kickstarter page. “Aside from the occasional Lifetime movie there are no television shows out there authentically exploring eating disorders in a way that is both raw and vulnerable.”

Kahnweiler is no stranger to using art to tackle difficult, personal topics. Her 2014 viral short “Meet My Rapist,” was a response to Kahnweiler’s own rape, which occurred when she was 20 years old and studying abroad in Vietnam.

“The Skinny,” is being produced by Jill Soloway’s Wifey.TV and follows a feminist comedian living in LA who struggles with bulimia. It also starts the great Ileana Douglas.

Watch a teaser here:

Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the Reluctant Feminists

By Susan Reimer-Torn

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Image via Flickr/Creative Commons

At the trial of Dominique Strauss-Kahn in Lille, the brilliant, left-leaning economist, referred to as DSK and once considered a “world savior,” stood before the world accused of aggravated pimping.

Although the charges are likely to be dismissed, the DSK scandal triggered the most significant shift of French consciousness around gender issues since the publication of “The Second Sex. ”

In the 1980s and 1990s during François Mitterand’s 14-year presidency, DSK was a leading socialist economist. French women who worked for the Socialist Party at that time, described a behind-the scenes libertarianism that corresponds in detail to all that DSK calmly described at his trial.

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Lessons of a 'Mockingbird'

By Ruth Andrew Ellenson

Ruth Andrew Ellenson with her grandmother, Lillian Douglas Andrew, in Lynch Station, Virginia.

When the news came this month that a manuscript by Harper Lee had been discovered and would be published in July, it was not without controversy, but I immediately called my 93-year-old grandmother, delighted to share the news. For us, and countless other readers of the approximately 40 million copies of ”To Kill A Mockingbird” in print, the discovery of “Go Set A Watchman” brought unambiguous joy.

My most prized possession is my grandmother’s original hardcover copy of ”Mockingbird” with her name, Lillian Douglas Andrew, inscribed in precise cursive on the inside cover. A voracious reader her entire life, she still counts it as her favorite book (and so do I). Our love of Scout, Atticus, Boo Radley and their story navigating racial injustice, moral bravery, familial love and human kindness in a small Southern town in the 1930s has always been a shared passion.

The improbability of the novel’s suddenly found sequel is as unexpected for me as having a grandmother from Lynch Station, Virginia — a town not unlike the fictional Maycomb, Alabama where Lee’s book is set. Reading the book as a child, I didn’t comprehend that it was a meditation on justice against the backdrop of the nefarious legacy of racism in the South. I thought it was a book about my grandmother as a little girl.

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Frances Adler’s Theatrical Heritage

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.

Daughter of Jacob P. Adler, founder of American Yiddish theatre and scion of his own dynasty of thespians, Frances Adler acted in both Yiddish and English for over five decades —frequently appearing as her father’s leading lady. It was a role perhaps especially suited to the Yiddish patriarch and daughter — she was Portia to his Shylock, and in a more romantic pairing — Desdemona to his Othello. She is described as having been extremely striking and slight, with the talent to set herself apart from her clan. She performed with leading actors of the day including Paul Muni and Yiddish theatre giants Rudolph Schildkraut and David Kessler. Frances was known for a dramatic range that ran the gamut from Yiddish theatre classics such as Jacob Gorden’s “God Man and Devil,” to a later role in “The Files,” Jean Paul Sartre’s 1943 adaptation of the Greek Electra myth.

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The Eshet Chayils of Facebook

By Shoshana Kordova

Courtesy of Shoshana Kordova

There’s a photo of an apron that’s been popping up in my Facebook feed recently, an apron worn by a woman with her head cropped out of the frame, an apron with big black letters that say: “Eshet F*CKIN chayil” (asterisk included).

When I first saw it I just laughed, struck by the intended dissonance between the F-word (okay, most of the F-word) boldly inserting itself into the middle of the Hebrew term for “woman of valor,” written in Hebrew letters. But unlike most funny-ish Facebook photos, this one stuck in my head after I scrolled down. What exactly was this headless woman trying to say?

In traditional Jewish households, “Eshet Chayil” is probably most familiar as a song many families sing at the Friday night dinner table, just before kiddush. The words are a collection of verses from Proverbs that purport to describe the perfect woman: the most selfless and tireless balabusta of them all, who knows her way around a distaff and spindle at least as well as some of the moms in my Facebook feed know their way around fondant. The eshet chayil described in these passages is the woman behind the man, the one performing the labor that nets him food, clothes and glory (all he does is sit around among the elders of the land, being “known in the gates”).

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Where High Fashion Meets Modesty

By Sahar Shalev (Haaretz)

Adi Heyman

At first glance, the fashion blog “Fabologie” looks no different than masses of other fashion blogs, with surveys of collections by luxury labels like Chanel, Celine and Burberry, a piece on the five best items of the season, a post on the military fashion trend and, of course, photos of women from various fashion shows and red-carpet events. But look just a little closer and you see that this blog is something quite different.

“Meet autumn’s chic-modest go-to: oversized knit + midi skirt,” writes the blogger, inviting readers to a special event at Rebecca Minkoff’s flagship store in Soho, New York, where a percentage of the proceeds will be donated to Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. “What better way to kick-off the Hanukkah season than retail therapy laced with benevolence?,” she asks.

There is also a piece about the modest and fashionable looks worn by various celebrities recently, and another one on the weekly Torah portion in which she urges readers to discover a new appreciation for all the aspects of our lives (including shoes!).

Welcome to the blog of Adi Heyman, an Orthodox Jew who has become the avant-garde of modest but lively fashion, and is introducing a new kind of fashion discourse in which the word tzniut (modesty) is a keystone. Heyman’s blog is aimed at modern Orthodox women who want to look fashionable without deviating from the strict rules of tzniut: knees, elbows and clavicles covered. The blog has already become a model for others of its kind, and Heyman herself is sought after by fashion magazines and blogs on street fashion, which photograph her frequently – in maxi dresses or midi skirts, in blouses with sleeves that cover the elbows, and in a blonde wig (with brown roots).

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Inspiring 'Em Way Down in Dixie

By Larisa Thomason

It’s easy to look at the struggle for justice in the Deep South through the lens of Hollywood dramas like ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ or ‘Selma.’

Things are a bit trickier when the battles are real — but that’s exactly what Rabbi Elizabeth Bahar faces every day at Temple B’nai Sholom in Huntsville, Alabama.

Whether it’s standing up to bullying in schools (imagine your classmates leaving Holocaust jokes on your cell phone) or for immigration reform (who knew that could affect Jews in a small Southern city?), Bahar has made a rabbinic career out of standing up for the “strangers in our midst,” those who are isolated or in danger.

“It’s not an easy job, but tikkun olam isn’t supposed to be easy,” she said. “I’m not expecting a pat on the back for just doing my job.

That’s what makes her so inspiring.

And guess what? When couples found themselves locked out of the marriage clerk’s office across Alabama as a judicial fight over gay marriage raged, fellow leaders of faith knew just where to turn.

Bahar’s temple opened its doors to Wedding Week so all couples — gay or straight, religious or otherwise — could join in matrimony.

“Our leadership was united: it was just the right thing to do,” said Bahar, 34. “That’s my job as rabbi.”

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Sara Netanyahu's Jackie O Moment

By Sarah Breger

Screenshot vis Youtube

In one of the most entertaining campaign video so far, Sara Netanyahu channels Jackie Kennedy and takes the Israeli public on a (virtual) tour of the prime minister’s residence. Set to a soundtrack that includes Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River” and the House of Cards credits theme, Sara leads TV home makeover star Moshik Galamin around her Jerusalem home making sure to point out the fraying rugs, peeling paint, jammed windows and even a bouquet of dead flowers. “This looks like the kitchen of a Romanian orphanage from 1954!” Galamin exclaims upon seeing the dated kitchen.

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Where Are the Queer Spaces for Jewish Women?

By J.E. Reich

During the periods I’m single, I anticipate with a well-practiced dread for when my mother will rally me to finally meet a nice Jewish girl. There is always the plea for a JDate account, the rare slip of the name of so-and-so’s daughter who my mother thinks is gay and who might be single (and who definitely lives in New Jersey), and the breakneck onslaught of commentary about how it can’t be that hard to meet a lesbian who happens to be a member of the tribe. (“You live in Brooklyn,” she’ll say, as if this is the elixir for her woes.)

Although I am ardently vocal about my reluctance to exclusively date Jewish women — the inherently survivalist practice seems discriminatory in the wake of social progressivism within the last half century — doesn’t mean I’m not open to it. So every time I have this conversation with my mother, my endnote is this: I rarely date queer Jewish girls because there isn’t a particular place — or what is commonly referred to as an LGBT-friendly “safe space” — where I can actually meet them.

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Being a Good Listener Left Me Alone on Valentine's Day

By Rachel Delia Benaim

Lior Zaltzman

Many people might be weirded out that their blind date took them to a two hour lecture on monsters and mythical creatures at Brooklyn’s Morbid Anatomy Museum. I loved it.

It was afterwards when I actually had to start talking to my date that things turned south rather quickly.

He had been talking a lot when he picked me up from work- a real gentleman I must say- to travel to Brooklyn for our date, but at first I didn’t think much of his babbling. He was a ball of energy — he covered everything from local NYC politics to his favorite childhood memory within our first half hour together.

This was my first time on a blind internet date, and I have to say, it could’ve been worse. Jordan, as I’ll call him, had a shadchan, an Orthodox matchmaker, contact me via Facebook messenger. Her message read that there was an eligible bachelor, Jordan, who had read one of my articles and was interested in pursuing a relationship with me. He asked the matchmaker to look for me on YUConnects and SawYouAtSinai, two Orthodox online dating sites, but alas I didn’t have a dating profile on either of them. She knew it was presumptuous, but she was wondering if I wanted to go out with him, or if I wanted to know more.

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A Monster Love Story

By Judy Bolton-Fasman

I met my first boyfriend Monster by way of the Hebrew Home for the Aged when I was sixteen and he was eighteen. His great-grandfather had a room across the hall from my grandmother. My mother and his grandmother were often the only relatives visiting the retirement home. They started talking about this and that and soon planned to fix up their children.

Monster’s grandmother brought his high school picture for my mother’s inspection. A portrait really — retouched in rosy-cheeked pink and framed in a heavy dark wood. He was exactly the kind of boy she had in mind for me and for her. Monster’s grandmother saw the proofs of my high school yearbook picture — raw and unfinished and scarred with acne. Monster called anyway.

Rugby-shirted, tall with dark curly hair, he was was the handsomest, most grown up boy I had ever seen. He asked if my big sister was home when he picked me up. That first date lasted eight years.

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Rivke Basman Ben-Haim's Credo

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.

Yiddishland the world over celebrates poet Rivke Basman Ben-Haim’s upcoming 90th birthday next week at Tel Aviv’s Leyvik House. Arriving in the newly founded state having survived the agonies of Kaiserwald and Stutthoff concentration camps, the Vilna born Basman was among the ten young writers belonging to the emerging artistic literary elite of Israel’s Yiddish writers known as “Yung Yisroel.” Founded in early post-war Israel, with the nascent state still unsure what to make of a language they clearly hoped would remain in the diaspora — it was up to their Tel Avivian father figure, noted Yiddish poet of world reknown, Avrom Sutskever to guide them through their Israeli inner-diaspora.

A distinctly cultivated individual, exuding Central European warmth and charm under Mediterranean skies, Basman is recollected by fellow Yiddish writer and current Forverts editor Boris Sandler, as having brought a unique ‘womanly warmth and an intimate coziness’ to the mostly male Friday night gatherings of Yiddish writers in the 1990s at Leyvik House.

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Black German Woman Discovers Grandfather is Nazi Villain

By Avner Shapira (Haaretz)

Photo by Sven Hoppe

In the mid-1990s, near the end of the period during which she lived in Israel, Jennifer Teege watched Steven Spielberg’s film “Schindler’s List.” She hadn’t seen the film in a movie theater, and watched it in her rented room in Tel Aviv when it was broadcast on television.

“It was a moving experience for me, but I didn’t learn much about the Holocaust from it,” she tells me by phone from her home in Hamburg, mostly in English with a sprinkling of Hebrew. “I’d learned and read a great deal about the Holocaust before that. At the time I thought the film was important mainly because it heightened international awareness of the Holocaust, but I didn’t think I had a personal connection to it.”

Indeed, it was not until years later that Teege, a German-born black woman who was given up for adoption as a child, discovered that one of the central characters in the film, Amon Goeth, was her grandfather. Many viewers recall the figure of Goeth, the brutal commander of the Plaszow concentration camp in Poland – played in the film by Ralph Fiennes – from the scenes in which he shoots Jewish inmates from the porch of his home. But Teege, who had not been in touch with either her biological mother or biological grandmother for years, had no idea about the identity of her grandfather.

The discovery came like a bolt from the blue in the summer of 2008, when she was 38 years old, as she relates in the memoir “Amon,” which was published in German in 2013 (co-authored with the German journalist Nikola Sellmair), and is due out in English this April under the title “My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me: A Black Woman Discovers Her Family’s Nazi Past.”

Teege is scheduled to visit Israel next week to take part in events marking the book’s publication in Hebrew (from Sifriat Poalim), at the International Book Fair in Jerusalem, the University of Haifa and the Goethe Institute in Tel Aviv.

She opens her book by describing the 2008 visit to a library in Hamburg to look for material on coping with depression. While there, she happened to notice a book with a cover photograph of a familiar figure: her biological mother, Monika Hertwig (née Goeth). She immediately withdrew the book, titled “I Have to Love My Father, Right?,” and which was based on an interview with her mother.

“The first shock was the sheer discovery of a book about my mother and my family, which had information about me and my identity that had been kept hidden from me,” Teege says. “I knew almost nothing about the life of my biological mother, nor did my adoptive family. I hoped to find answers to questions that had disturbed me and to the depression I had suffered from. The second shock was the information about my grandfather’s deeds.”

Thus Teege embarked on a long personal journey in the wake of the unknown family heritage. But in the first half year after the discovery at the library, she relates, “I lapsed into silence, I slept a lot and I wasn’t really functioning. Only afterward did I begin to analyze the situation and try to understand the characters of my mother and my grandmother. I only started to learn more about my grandmother at the end. Today I understand that I went through the process step by step, peeling away layer after layer. But in the first months I had no idea what to do.”

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Dazzled by Sara Netanyahu

By Benny Ziffer (Haaretz)

Illustration by Eran Wolkowski/Haaretz

I went to Jerusalem last week to meet the First Lady, Sara Netanyahu. I was hoping to get to the bottom of the serious case of Sara-phobia that has overtaken the country. For a long time now, she has occupied a completely disproportionate role in the public discourse. Whenever I mention her name in conversation, my interlocutor will automatically pull out some recycled bit of derogatory gossip, always presented as having come straight from the source, and recount the story in a near-ecstatic state of excitement and without the humor typical of gossipers: “Get this, I once waited on her table, and she left without paying!” or “I swear, I was their neighbor and I could hear her shouting through the window!”

The phenomenon is familiar from the world of popular religion, in which people will attest, with utter certainty, to the miracles worked by some ordinary Joe or to having seen the Virgin Mary, and their stories quickly gain unstoppable momentum. It was with this same utter certainty that men were once accused of heresy and women of witchcraft, and the mob was not satisfied until the “guilty” parties were burned at the stake.

In “The Barber of Seville,” Rossini has the villainous Don Basilio sings the “La Calunnia” aria, about the calumny that begins as a little breeze, a whisper, a hiss, that softly enters people’s ears, heads, brains, where it spins and grows until it comes out of their mouths full-force and flies off from there, now a mighty thunder, a tempest that causes you to freeze in terror as the sound of cannon fire reverberates in the air, leaving the humiliated victim to be trampled by the masses and killed.

And then a man steps out of the masses to proclaim: I met this woman, the object of all this gossip, and I found her to be very pleasant and hospitable and unusually feminine, by Israeli standards. If I hadn’t been too shy about it, I would have told her that she was an attractive woman. The two hours in the company of this woman that everyone loves to hate flew by, as when you find yourself entranced by a good actress playing a classical role of a queen or a great woman. She played the part for me in a way that left me agape. I found Sara Netanyahu to be someone who has a major presence. Somebody for whom I would gladly trade any number of dull and self-righteous men and women from our public and political sphere.

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Mayim Bialik Insists 'I'm Not Anti-Vaccine' — But Is She?

By Anne Cohen

Mayim Bialik really, really wants you to know that she is not anti-vaccine. The actress took to Facebook on Tuesday to dispel what she called the “hysteria and anger” around her stance on the controversial subject.

The “Big Bang Theory” star and proud science nerd (she has a Ph.D. in neuroscience) has been accused to be rooting for the anti-vaxxer camp. In a post for Sisterhood published last week, Bethany Mandel pointed out that the Bialik had posted an angry rebuttal to a pro-vaccination piece on her Facebook page. The post was deleted only hours later.

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Is 'Gett' a Realistic Portrayal of Israeli Divorce?

By Rachel Levmore

Viviane (Ronit Elkabetz), Carmel (Menashe Noy) and Shimon (Sasson Gabay) in GETT. Courtesy of Music Box Films

At first glance the subtitle of siblings Shlomi and Ronit Elkabetz’s new film “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem” seems odd. The film, after all, is about the divorce proceedings for Viviane (Ronit Elkabetz) and her husband (Simon Abkarian). But by the end of the film you see how apt the subtitle is — like many women seeking divorces in Israel Viviane finds herself, her conduct, her motives, her obligations as a wife, her faithfulness, her very essence as a woman on trial.

As a rabbinical court advocate many people have asked if what happens on screen, proceedings of the Israeli Rabbinical Courts are usually closed to the public, is accurate. The answer is yes.

I have witnessed all of what took place in the film Gett. What is unlikely is that all of the incidents would be concentrated in one specific woman’s case. Nevertheless, it is probable that one or more of the troublesome situations will arise in any given woman’s plea for freedom. Note—any woman, who unilaterally sues for a Jewish divorce, having previously married in an Orthodox ceremony whether in Israel or the Diaspora, may find herself a victim of get-refusal.

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