Sisterhood Blog

Observant Women Break Taboos On Facebook

By Suzanne Selengut

A screenshot of the popular “I’m a ‘religious’ feminist and I too have no sense of humor” Facebook page

When Efrat, 36, a Modern Orthodox lawyer from Tel Aviv, recently got promoted, several male colleagues made the same comment: “Why don’t you smile anymore? Since you got promoted, you always look so serious.” Annoyed at having to deal with remarks that she felt would never have been made to a man in her position, she turned to Facebook to share her frustration and ask for suggestions for a good retort.

She is not alone.When Israeli women want to vent about sexism in their lives, especially within religious institutions, they head to a Facebook group called “I’m a “religious” feminist and I too have no sense of humor,” which has become the most popular forum for Israelis to discuss and celebrate their dual identities as Jews and feminists. With 8,389 members, the group is known for the political and religious diversity of its members (“from settlers to members of B’Tselem,” according to Michal Bergman, one of its earliest members). It includes many notable Israelis including MK Tsipi Hotovely, Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem Rachel Azaria and prominent journalists Emily Amrousi and Sara Beck, among many others.

And to think, it all started with a sexist joke.

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Selma and the Dangers of Jewish Entitlement

By Chanel Dubofsky

illustration by Lior Zaltzman

In Leida Snow’s recent piece for the Forward, “’Selma’ Distorts History by Airbrushing Out Jewish Contributions to Civil Rights,” she asserts that the filmmakers and writers deliberately omitted the role of Jews in the Civil Rights Movement. (Snow doesn’t seem to have ideas as to why.)

I’m going to draw an uncomfortable parallel here. (As in, it may make the reader uncomfortable.) There’s this thing that happens on the internet, and in real time, when people of color or women or queer folks, etc, are trying to have a discussion in a space, and men/straight/cis/white people demand to be included, and when they’re not, they claim exclusion/reverse racism/sexism. Let’s refer to this phenomenon as “What About the Menz?”

Because of the complicated relationship between Jews, white skin privilege and power, this isn’t the most perfect parallel, but when it does work, it’s disturbing. Jews have been certainly been excluded from historical narratives (in particular, Jews of Color), and the result of anti Semitism is that we are constantly looking over our shoulders. That’s real.

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One Jewish Mother's International Custody Fight

By Cnaan Liphshiz

Beth Alexander with her twin sons.

(JTA) — In an apartment in the Austrian capital, Beth Alexander is deleting hundreds of photos of her 5-year-old twin boys from Facebook.

In one picture, Benjamin and Samuel are laughing as they hold a toy. In another they are waiting to be served lunch in their native Vienna.

The ordinary snapshots are the kind uploaded by countless mothers all over the world. Yet Alexander, a British-born modern Orthodox mother in her 30s, is barred from displaying them by order of an Austrian court, which in November ruled in favor of her ex-husband’s motion claiming the photos violated the twins’ privacy.

“Removing these pictures is painful to me,” Alexander told JTA this month in an interview via Skype. “They allow my family back in Britain to sort of keep in touch with the boys and they show that despite all that has been said about me, I’m a good mother and the children are happy when they are with me.”

The injunction is the latest in a series of legal setbacks that have left Alexander with restricted access to her boys and declared barely fit to be a mother – rulings that have led to mounting international criticism and claims of a colossal miscarriage of justice.

Leaders of the British and Austrian Jewish communities have spoken out about what they consider to be a highly unusual case that has unfairly limited Alexander’s maternal rights. Her case even made it to the floor of the British Parliament, where lawmakers last year described it as a Kafkaesque situation that has wrongly maligned Alexander as mentally ill and an unfit mother.

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Sleater-Kinney's New Album Is No Victory Lap

By David Meir Grossman

Photograph by Brigitte Sire

As is the cases with any band reunion of this caliber, the question of Sleater-Kinney’s permanence is in the air: are you back, or are you back? Lead singer Corin Tucker, guitarist Carrie Brownstein and drummer Janet Weiss let the medium be the message. If No Cities to Love is any indication they’re not back just to tour, and they’re not back to save the world. They’re here to save you, specifically from your loneliness. They’ve produced an album too ambitious, too embedded in the spirit of community and too full of hope for the future to not stick around.

To reach those heights, they’ve got to start low. “Price Tag”, the album’s opening song, asks the listener to imagine a world without them. It’s bleak. Like that part in The Incredibles where heroes have been made illegal and are forced to work like the rest of us, Tucker details a life of drudgery in harsh sarcasm: “The bells go off, the buzzer coughs, the traffic starts to buzz. The girls are stiff, the fabrics itch, the fit’s a little rough”. Her voice rises sharply, kicking into the upper echelon of truth that became her trademark as the band dominated the alternative scene in early 2000’s: “But I suck it in!” In summing up the hellscape that has been the last ten years, Sleater-Kinney treats the listener to one final horror: “It’s 9 AM, we must clock in, the system waits for us.” Weiss’ drums are relentless, Brownstein’s guitar flails, Tucker’s voice is tense, the life-or-death stakes are clear. It’d be too obvious to say this is just about the recession: the song is reminiscent of The Corin Tucker Band’s 2012 single, “Groundhog Day”, where Tucker straight-up asked “Is our generation living in a deep rut?” On No Cities, she finds her answer and is determined to change it: “We never checked, we never really checked the price tag! When the cost comes in it’s gonna be high!”

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A Political Tipping Point for Ultra-Orthodox Women?

By Elana Sztokman

A poster for the group promoting haredi women political candidates, ‘Lo nivcharot; lo bocharot,’ which means, if we can’t be elected, we will not vote for you.

There is a new feminist revolution happening in Israel, and it is emerging from one of the most surprising places: Ultra-Orthodoxy.

Over the past two years, ultra-Orthodox or haredi women have been organizing around feminist issues. They began with a campaign during the 2012 national elections, when a small group of women led by haredi journalist Esti Shushan and others formed a group called “Lo nivcharot; lo bocharot” (LoNiLoBo), which means, if we can’t be elected, we will not vote for you. It was a call to the haredi political parties to allow women to run on their lists. The LoNiLoBo group petitioned the High Court of Justice to declare it illegal for a political party to prohibit women from running — but unfortunately they lost, and the religious parties seemed no worse for wear, considering their election results.

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Israel Gets Its First Ultra-Orthodox Women’s Party

By Allison Kaplan Sommer (Haaretz)

Ruth Colian, head of the new party. // Tomer Appelbaum/Haaretz

The first-ever Israeli political party dedicated to ultra-Orthodox women, was unveiled Monday.

Heading the party, called “B’Zhutan: Haredi Women Making Change” is Ruth Colian, 33, a veteran social activist and feminist who declared that this was a “historic” step in a mission to “guarantee representation in the Knesset for ultra-Orthodox women.”

At a Tel Aviv press conference, looking determined but nervous, Colian made the announcement flanked by two other young women who had accepted invitations to run on her list in the upcoming elections - Noa Erez and Keren Muzan.

She said that her party’s goal was to represent “all women” particularly the underprivileged and single mothers who “have suffered at the hands of politicians who have run for office again and again promising to help and make their lives better and nothing changed” and who live on meager paychecks and face empty refrigerators, and those who suffered from domestic abuse or are struggling against the religious establishment.

“There are many walls of fear for Haredi women within their communities. They have nowhere to turn in the Knesset.”

As examples of the failure of the current male representation in the ultra-Orthodox parties to represent the interests of women in their community, Colian noted the absence of ultra-Orthodox male MKs in Knesset sessions on breast cancer, despite the fact that the disease is twice as likely to strike Haredi women. A major part of the problem, she says, is the inability to raise public awareness for early detection because the topic is considered “immodest.”

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Anti-Rape Activist Emma Sulkowicz Gets SOTU Invite

By Anne Cohen

Getty Images

22-year-old Emma Sulkowicz made headlines this year when she protested Columbia University’s decision not to expel her alleged rapist by carrying her dorm mattress around with her. All over campus. All the time.

Now, Sulkowicz (sans mattress, sadly) will be attending the State of the Union address along with New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand, the New York Daily News reports. President Obama is expected to expand on his plan to offer all Americans two years of free community college. But Sulkowicz’s presence shows that college tuition isn’t the only issue at stake on the nation’s campuses.

“I hope he will also talk about working with our bipartisan coalition in Congress to make campuses safer, too,” Gillibrand told the Daily News. “I hope the President will seize this opportunity to shine a national spotlight on the need to flip the incentives that currently reward colleges for sweeping sexual assaults under the rug.”

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Angela Merkel Got Erased — Don't We Have Better Things To Worry About?

By Tova Ross

My friends and family find it alternatively bizarre and comical that I so eagerly consume an array of ultra-Orthodox publications whenever I visit my hometown of Flatbush, Brooklyn. But I think it’s edifying to learn what other people — especially Jews — who who hold opinions and convictions different than my own are saying. In almost all these publications, I notice the absence of images of women. It’s nothing new: not publishing images of women, even young girls, is a longtime standard policy of Haredi publications, which zealously adheres to the directive of modesty, so much so that they surpass what Jewish law calls for or probably originally intended. Welcome to ultra-Orthodoxy, ladies and gentleman.

The front page that launched 1,000 news articles.

So I was surprised when Haaretz published a story on how Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany, was erased from a photograph of the unity march in Paris this past Sunday by the ultra-Orthodox newspaper HaMevaser. Well, maybe not surprised to learn that Haaretz ran a story on something gone awry in the Orthodox world, but I was certainly taken aback to read this “hot take” from the writer: “It is rather embarrassing when, at a time that the Western world is rallying against manifestations of religious extremism, our extremists manage to take the stage.”

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Luise Rainer's American Way

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.

Perusing the Forverts’ Art Section of December 8, 1940, scanning past images of important personalities that appeared on the Forverts’ radio station WEVD in a ‘Salute to America’ pageant was the intense radiant face of German Jewish immigrant actor Luise Rainer. Seated beside two glasses of water carefully balanced on a tray, Rainer faced the microphone, eyes raised towards the man across from her. His hand remains authoritatively on the desk they share for the broadcast, and one assumes he was the director. Her hand gracing the pages of a script and her full lips parted midway in speech, easily draw our attention but it’s her deeply stirring intimate gaze across the photo emulsion that captivates, refusing to release us.

“Salute to America” was described in the accompanying English caption as a “patriotic broadcast saluting the American way of life.” The Yiddish text alongside it, excitedly, yet philosophically, described the show as a ‘salute to American democratic principles and the country’s general democratic character.’

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Bess and the Jews: A Defining Moment?

By Susan Dworkin

In the wake of Bess Myerson’s death and all the talk about her rise and fall, it’s worthwhile to remember a moment when her fate turned with ours, and her future really began.

Immediately post World War II, many of our families were just beginning to understand the enormity of the Holocaust. They knew it was bad; but ovens? mass graves? everybody? My mother walked up and down the living room, softly beating her chest, her face drenched with tears as she slowly comprehended that she and her children were remnants of an annihilated people.

Myerson, 1957

Into that living room comes a ray of hope, in the tall gorgeous shape of a beauty queen. People said that Bess Myerson’s victory as Miss America in 1945 pierced the grief of the Jews, rekindled some of their joy, showed them that they were still young and beautiful and alive. Mazal Tov! they yelled as she glided down the runway with her crown and scepter. “Mazal Tov to all of us!” was what they meant.

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Gap Between Israeli and American Jewish Feminism

By Avigayil Halpern

illustration by Lior Zaltzman

Growing up in West Hartford, Connecticut, at every Shabbat meal in my home, my father would make kiddush and my mother would make hamotzi, the blessing on the challah. For me, this is part of the fabric of what Shabbat feels like, and it has always felt strange for me to be a guest in homes where the male head of house did both rituals. “Ima makes hamotzi” was a fact, entirely unrelated to personal or familial feminism. This year, that assumption changed.

I’m currently spending a year studying at Ein HaNatziv, a midrasha, or Israeli religious seminary for post-high school women, that is known for being feminist and progressive. Ein Hanatziv is among very few Israeli midrashot which teach Talmud to their students, and which have an infrastructure to assist girls in the process of entering the army (It’s not common for religious Israeli girls to enlist; more often, they perform National Service). Teachers at the midrasha include many learned female role models, as well as men who support expanded ritual opportunity for women; many years, students organize women’s Torah readings (though without constituting themselves as a minyan) with the faculty’s encouragement and support

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Don't Write Off France Just Yet

By Symi Rom-Rymer

Jews and Muslims from the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding march in Paris. Photo courtesy of Samia Hathroubi

As an American and as a Jewish woman who has lived in France and spent time with its wonderful Jewish community, the events of last week hit particularly close to home. As I scoured my Facebook page Wednesday and Thursday, looking for updates from friends and colleagues, my blood ran cold as one horrific report followed another. I cannot not help but remember being in Lyon, France in the wake of the September 11th attacks and the outpouring of support I received from strangers when I mentioned that I was from United States. ‘We are all Americans,” some French firefighters told me when I stopped one day to purchase a hat with twinned French and American flags that they were selling as a show of support to their American counterparts.

Today should be our turn to return the support. Yet such a simple statement of solidarity is not easily found among many in the Jewish community in the United States. When news broke about the hostages being held in the kosher supermarket in Paris, I began to hear rumblings on social media about rampant French anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic acts perpetrated by French Muslims. At one point on Friday, I overheard a conversation between two women at a synagogue in Washington, DC, in which Holocaust comparisons were frequently invoked. In yet another response to the attacks, an American Rabbi likened Jews to the canary in the proverbial coal mine.

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Orthodox Paper Edits Angela Merkel Out of Paris March Photos

By Sarah Breger

Ultra-Orthodox Israeli newspaper, HaMevaser caused a stir yesterday when it edited out two female world leaders from a photograph of the march for Charlie Hebdo in France. In the original photograph, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini appear marching in the front line of world leaders.

But on HaMevaser’s front page the women vanish:

For anyone familiar with the newspaper, this is not surprising — its policy is not to publish photographs of women and regularly edits them out of images.

In 2011, a similar scandal occurred when the ultra-Orthodox Der Tzitung photoshopped Hillary Clinton out of the photo of U.S. leaders receiving an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden.

At the time Elana Maryles Sztokman wrote in the Sisterhood:

The photoshopping of Clinton is indeed part of the larger Orthodox phenomenon of removing women from public spaces, silencing women’s voices, covering women’s bodies, and pretending women don’t exist. This is about creating a woman-free world, enabling men to walk through the universe knowing that they will never have to encounter a woman.

Make Space for Transgender Jews at the Kotel

By Joy Ladin

illustration by Lior Zaltzman

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

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

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

By Rachel Gordan

Norman Lamm, Yeshiva University

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

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

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Why Couldn’t My Two Bubbies Love Each Other?

By Marla Brown Fogelman

illustration by Lior Zaltzman

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

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

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

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Unlikely Orthodox Superstar Finds Her Voice

By Elana Sztokman

Shayna Rehberg performing on Kochav Nolad. Screenshot via

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

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

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

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Transgender Woman Barred From Kotel — Both Sections

By Marcy Oster

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

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

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

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

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

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Lizzie Stark's ‘Real Steps to Survival’

By Seth Berkman

Courtesy of J.R. Blackwell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Tiki Krakowski

Screenshot vis YouTube

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

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

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

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

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

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