Sarah Seltzer with her twin brother as children.
I have a twin brother who, as a kid, frequently ran around outside with a ball and his friends — usually in New York’s parks. Woe to the teachers at our Jewish day school who denied them gym or recess: they acted up extra-rambunctiously when they were cooped up. One of the cardinal lessons of my childhood was this: If you don’t let kids run around, everyone suffers. So that, in part, explains why the boys on the beach in Gaza proved my breaking point — boys who had been shut in for over a week and just wanted to kick a ball around, for a blessed few hours, and feel the air.
Gender democracy activist Anat Thon-Ashkenazy holds a 1325 pin in support of the UN resolution to bring women leaders into negotiations.
“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them,” Albert Einstein famously quipped. Yet, when it comes to the current crisis in Israel and Gaza, the same minds that created the problems seem to be the ones charged with resolving them. And those minds almost exclusively belong to men.
Welcome to Throwback Thursday, a weekly photo feature in which we sift 116 years of Forward history to find snapshots of women’s lives.
In June 1951, Frieda Barkin Hennock was nominated for to a federal judge position in the Southern District of New York. Her nomination warranted coverage in the Yiddish Forverts. The headlines themselves seem to shep nakhes (take pride) noting the fact that “Miss Hennock” was Polish born, a not entirely subtle way to tell readers that she was undzers, she’s one of us — a Yiddish speaking immigrant from the old country.
Mushky Notik (left) and Mimi Hecht (right) created Mimu Maxi
Together, sisters-in-law Mimi Hecht and Mushky Notik run Mimu Maxi, a fashion label the creates clothes that are both modest and chic. The women, members of the Crown Heights Hasidic community, came up with idea for the company when struggling to find something stylish to wear for themselves.
Since opening two years ago, the business has found a customer based in not just other tznius women, but also Muslims and Christians who are looking for a more fashionable way to live a traditional lifestyle. Everything was moving smoothly until last week when a collaboration involving a lime-green maxi-skirt with a hijab-wearing Muslim style-blogger ignited a firestorm on their Facebook page. The Sisterhood’s Elissa Strauss spoke to Hecht about what happened and how fashion can be a great uniter during a time when many feel more divided than ever.
Elissa Strauss: Okay, first tell me a little bit about what you do.
Mimi Hecht: Mushky and I started designing two summers ago when, instead of bemoaning the trials and tribulations of trying to find modest, trendy pieces, we took matters into our own hands. We share a very similar aesthetic for oversized, comfortable menswear and pieces that are easy to “live in.” We don’t have an ideal customer — we just love seeing how so many women of so many backgrounds have embraced what we’re doing. If there was a “favorite” customer, it would be the ones that tell us “I started dressing modestly because of you, thank you for making it easier!”
Often, when a member of a marginalized group achieves fame in an area in which her group lacks representation, she becomes an icon. This is nearly inevitable, and continues to happen today to women like Lena Dunham and Hillary Clinton.
Being an icon definitely has its perks. People love you. They want more of you and what you do. And they’ll pay.
But it also has it drawbacks. Icon status forces a person into symbol-status. No longer does who they are and what they do just represent them as individuals, but also the whole underrepresented group that identifies with them. Before long they are expected to be all things to all people, and somewhere in that process the focus on their work and message either becomes skewed or disappears.
Getty Images // There was gender mixing in this shelter in Tel Aviv, unlike one in Ashdod.
While people all around Israel have spent the past two weeks scrambling for cover during rocket attacks, it seems that in some places, only men’s lives are considered worth protecting. In the Ashdod rabbinate building, the bomb shelter has a sign on it reading “For men only,” and women who happened to be in the rabbinate during recent raids were not allowed into the bomb shelter. Thus reports MK Stav Shaffir, whose staffer happened to be at the rabbinate this week when all this was taking place.
Orit, an Ashdod resident who was also in the rabbinate this week with her husband, told Yediot Ahronot about the “insult of trying to impose gender segregation on us even at times like this,” and her shocked discovery that the “women’s” shelter was just a regular room, with windows and plaster walls and no indications of protection from rocket attacks. Her husband added that gender segregation has reached “insane proportions, and are now at the point of risking women’s lives. The rabbinate is basically saying that it’s important to them to save men’s lives, but women can die or pray or hope for a miracle. It’s just unbelievable”.
Eman Mohammed with her daughters, Lateen and Talia
As a photojournalist, stepping into war isn’t a dilemma for me. It is my instinct to grab my cameras and run out to document the man-made misery, the horrors of war, each and every time hoping humanity will get the lesson.
But nothing prepared me to understand how to raise children in a war zone — not even having been a child in one myself.
I grew up in Gaza. When I was in school, I spent my days walking to and from class, avoiding the streets that were normally targeted by airstrikes. On my summer holiday, I stayed indoors for fear of meeting the same fate as the families who dared to visit the beach and were killed by missiles while they enjoyed their barbecue.
Deborah Meghnagi Bailey and her family
Here’s a scene from my life last week: It’s 9:30 pm. I’m lying on my bed, fully dressed, talking to my husband, who is ready for bed. We weren’t supposed to be here, tonight. We were supposed to be in the Galilee, in a beautiful cabin with its own private pool and Jacuzzi, with a massage chair in the bedroom and a hammock rocking gently in the garden outside. We escape there once a year, without the kids. It’s an oasis of calm and relaxation and peacefulness.
We’ve been looking forward to our getaway for a year. We were supposed to leave this morning. But last night, rockets were fired toward Tel Aviv. We live in Jerusalem, not Tel Aviv, and we haven’t been attacked yet, but there’s always the first time, so how can we leave our boys? What if it happens while we’re away? My mother-in-law is babysitting, and competent as she is, she’s never lived here through sirens, and how can one person get two kids to a shelter downstairs within 90 seconds, if they’re asleep when the siren goes off? We live in an older apartment, so we don’t have a secure room. The building’s shelter is not far, just eight steps down and across the hallway, but still.
Avital Norman Nathman and her son on a recent trip to Israel
I am my father’s daughter. That means I am incredibly passionate, equally stubborn and some might even say hot-headed. You can just imagine how my teen years went as I came into my own — lots of slammed doors, shouted ultimatums, and threats from both of us.
For the most part though, we see eye to eye on many issues now. Just the other day my father forwarded me a breaking news email from the New York Times regarding the Supreme Court’s Buffer Zone decision. My father’s cool like that — he sends me emails about abortion and supports me in my reproductive health work. What transpired was a calm and interesting back and forth about freedom of religion, speech and where one person’s rights ends and another’s begins. Somehow we can discuss certain hot button issues without devolving into shouting matches and tears.
But not all issues.
It fascinated me, when the Hobby Lobby decision came down, to see Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Samuel Alito debating the potential ramifications of the case via their dissent and decision, respectively. Alito declared his surety that allowing companies to exercise religious domination (essentially) over their employees would not lead to all kinds of discrimination, and that only certain kinds of women’s reproductive healthcare would be affected.
Ginsburg held an opposing view, warning the court that it had entered a “minefield” of slippery-slopes. If any sincerely-held religious beliefs can be grounds to apply for a health insurance exception, she noted, then soon enough we could be hearing from business owners who sincerely believe that God tells them to do more than discriminate against women’s health: discriminate against Jews, or gay people, for instance.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.