Sisterhood Blog

Leah Vincent on Prioritizing Human Dignity

By Sarah Breger

On February 8, B’nai Jeshurun will hold a day of learning to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Judith Plaskow’s groundbreaking book, “Standing Again at Sinai.” In the lead up to the event, The Sisterhood is asking participants questions on issues surrounding feminism and Judaism. Here, Leah Vincent, author of “Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood,” discusses gender equality as an authentically Jewish value.

Lean Vincent

What’s the one thing we can do to advance gender equality in Judaism?

One thing we can do to advance gender equality in Judaism is challenge the myth that patriarchy represents a more “authentic” Judaism. Judaism has always evolved in response to its context. To paralyze Judaism in anachronistic gender inequality, is, ironically the “less authentically Jewish” act.

Judaism was built on then-progressive laws that prohibited shaming, hurtful speech, and sanctified extreme compassion, thoughtfulness and the empowerment of oppressed minorities. It is, at its core, a religion that prioritizes human dignity. A religion that is a natural champion for gender equality.

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One Woman Remembers Auschwitz on Return

By Wiktor Szary

Getty Images

(Reuters) - “The trains were jam-packed,” recalled Susan Pollack. “Old people, young, mothers, many children. My mother, brother and I. No one spoke.”

“It was hot, no air to breathe. Stench, moaning, that was the atmosphere. I think we were about 80 in the cattle wagon. When we arrived - and we didn’t know where we’d come to - when the doors finally opened, whoa, hallelujah, fresh air.”

The year was 1944, and Pollack had arrived at Auschwitz, deported from Hungary among a wave of Jews sent to their deaths.

Seven decades later, Susan, now 84, was one of around 300 survivors of the Nazi German death camp who made the trip from their adopted homes to commemorate its liberation by Soviet troops on Tuesday. Unlike many others, she was returning for the first time.

The trip from London, where she now lives, to Krakow, southern Poland, near the site of the camp, was no less daunting than the original one, said Pollack, whose surname was originally Blau before she married. She spoke to Reuters by phone before leaving London and again on arrival.

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Seeing the Holocaust Through Eyes of Women

By Sarah Breger

Ravensbrück. Photograph via Wikimedia Commons.

From sexual violence to pregnancies to “camp sisters,” women’s testimonies provide a more comprehensive view of the Holocaust. Beginning with her seminal “The Jewish Women of Ravensbrück Concentration Camp” Rochelle G. Saidel, founder and executive director of the Remember the Women Institute, has dedicated her life to making sure these stories are heard. On International Holocaust Remembrance Day, The Forward’s Sarah Breger speaks with Saidel on the importance of including women’s stories in the Holocaust narrative.

Sarah Breger: What prompted you to research women’s narratives in the Holocaust?

Rochelle Saidel: In 1980, I went to Ravensbrück concentration camp for JTA. I had only just discovered that this big concentration camp for women existed. WhiIe there I asked a question that seemed rather sensible to me — were there any Jewish women in this camp? Because it was in East Germany there was no evidence there had been any Jewish women in the camp. It was a communist shrine. After doing some research, I discovered that there were about 20,000 Jewish women [out of 130,000] there. I started working on this Jewish women of Ravensbrück concentration camp project which later became a book.

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Why Studying Women in the Holocaust Is Important

By Myrna Goldenberg

Jewish women in Budapest, October 1944. Photograph via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1998, Commentary editor, Gabriel Schoenfeld, railed against the emergence of scholarship on women in the Holocaust, thereby bringing this still nascent field to the attention of readers, many of whom were academics. Schoenfeld was dismissive of feminist perspectives of the Holocaust, but he was, in fact, just as distraught over the growing number of university courses on the subject, which, he thought, would eventually “normalize” the horror of this catastrophic break in the values of the Western world.

In the 1980s — nearly two decades earlier than Schoenfeld’s rant — feminist scholars, led by Joan Ringelheim, asked the key question about the Holocaust that they had asked of other fields, namely, where are the women? There had been volumes of Holocaust memoirs by women from 1946 on, but not even a handful stayed in print. Volumes devoted to the history of the Holocaust seldom if ever referenced women. Photographs from the Nazi archives showed more men than women except when the photographs were of women who were stripped naked on their way to mass graves or to the gas chambers. Apparently, naked women were not ignored.

Women’s Studies scholars and feminist historians reflected on Polish-Jewish historian Emmanuel Ringelblum’s remark in his 1958 “Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto” that “the story of the Jewish woman will be a glorious page in the history of Jewry during the present war. And the Chajkes and the Frumkes will be the leading figures in this story.” He also pointed out the heroism of nurses as “ the only ones who save people from deportation without [asking for] money.” So, a few determined historians began to scour archives for material about “the Chaijkes and the Frumkes,” seeking out women survivors to hear their stories. Articles about women in the Holocaust sparked interest in out-of-print memoirs — especially those written right after the war. Many were republished, leading other women survivors to wrote their own memoirs.

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Elissa Strauss On Studying the Talmud While Female

By Sarah Breger

On February 8, B’nai Jeshurun will hold a day of learning to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Judith Plaskow’s groundbreaking book, “Standing Again at Sinai.” In the lead up to the event, The Sisterhood is asking participants pressing questions on gender and Judaism. Here Forward columnist Elissa Strauss talks about connecting to the Talmud for the first time.

Elissa Strauss

Is there a specific moment when you realized gender matters to you as a Jew?

I’m thrilled to be able to say this happened at a good moment, rather than a bad one, and was a surprise. It was when I was studying Talmud for the first time as a not particularly religious, cohabiting (read: unmarried and sexually active) woman and felt like it was mine to wrestle with and be inspired by. This was in my first year as a fellow at LABA: A Laboratory for Jewish Culture, a Jewish house of study for culture-makers at the 14th Street Y. I now co-direct the place so, needless to say, I fell in love with these texts and feel so grateful for all who came before me that challenged the idea that only one type of person could study these texts in one kind of context.

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Are Rape Fantasies Kosher?

By Sarah Breger

Podcasts hosts Dov Linzer and Bat Sheva Marcus.

Does Jewish law allow practicing the Kama Sutra? Is it a mitzvah to use a vibrator? What does the Talmud say about sexual fantasies?

It turns out, quite a bit.

The recently launched podcast, “The Joy of Text,” covers topics not usually discussed by your local Orthodox rabbi.

Hosted by sex therapist Dr. Bat Sheva Marcus (recently deemed the “Orthodox Sex Guru” by the New York Times) and Rabbi Dov Linzer, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School (YCT), the monthly podcast aims to have a “frank yet sensitive discussion of sexuality from a particularly Orthodox Jewish perspective.”

Sponsored by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance and YCT, future episodes will include topics such as pornography, sex toys, role play and sex before or outside of marriage.

“I think that this podcast will be of interest to a very wide audience,” says JOFA Executive Director Dr. Sharon Weiss-Greenberg. “The podcast is meant to demystify sex — both in general discussion and within the framework of halacha, which is far more accommodating than most people are aware of.”

Listen to the first episode below:

Nancy Kaufman On (Not) Reading from the Torah

By Sarah Breger

On February 8, B’nai Jeshurun will hold a day of learning to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Judith Plaskow’s groundbreaking book, “Standing Again at Sinai.” In the lead up to the event, The Sisterhood is asking participants questions on issues surrounding feminism and Judaism. Here, Nancy Kaufman, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, discusses not being allowed to lein for her bat mitzvah.

Nancy Kaufman

Is there a specific moment when you realized gender matters to you as a Jew?

When I became a bat mitzvah. I belonged to a large conservative synagogue in Brookline, Massachusetts and was told that my bat mitzvah had to be on Friday night and I would not get to read from the Torah like the boys did on Saturday morning. The year was 1964. I was pretty outraged and just didn’t get why I could not read from the Torah or, for that matter, have an Aliyah on Shabbat morning. To this day, I do not know how to read from the Torah and it is still something I want to learn and maybe even have a B’nai mitzvah!

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Retracing Ancient Jewish Threads

By Menachem Wecker

Gail Rothschild

The Three Fates famously spin, measure, and cut cosmic threads, which makes one of literature’s greatest scenes even more poignant in its reversal of that natural order. Penelope ingeniously outwits suitors hoping to usurp her husband Odysseus’s role when he doesn’t return from the Trojan War. Suspecting that her husband still lives, Penelope promises the nogoodniks eating and drinking away her estate that she will select a husband only after completing a mourning shroud. Each night, however, she surreptitiously unweaves the day’s work.

The deconstructionist act of unweaving is exactly how Brooklyn-based artist Gail Rothschild came to see her work after exhibiting four or five major sculptures a year at museums and universities across the country for years. Her projects, she says, tended to address the environment or feminist or labor history, and she tailored each piece for the particular community it was made for. But she came to question whether her views on art and social activism were correct and decided to seek answers in temporary solitary confinement in her studio — which, among other things, placed her on a path that would lead to mining Jewish history.

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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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