Sisterhood Blog

It's Okay To Be Ambivalent About Woody Allen

By Elissa Strauss

On Saturday, Woody Allen’s adopted daughter Dylan Farrow published a letter in the New York Times in which she claims that her father sexually abused her at age seven. She calls upon Allen’s famous friends to not dismiss her story, and says that Allen is “a living testament to the way our society fails the survivors of sexual assault and abuse.” The letter is emotionally devastating, and has quickly ignited a torrent of renunciations and judgement from all sides.

One of the things that rose up is the outcome from the initial charges brought against Allen by his then-partner Mia Farrow (with whom he adopted Dylan). According to a New York Times story from the time, a doctor on the case found numerous inconsistencies in Dylan’s statement, and said he believed they were false. This was part of a six-month investigation into the case by the Connecticut State Police, who never ended up filing charges because they felt as though they did not find enough evidence to support Dylan’s claim.

I don’t bring this up to cast doubt on Dylan, or acquit Allen. Just to remind us all that we still don’t know what happened. And we don’t have to make up our minds about it. Instead, we are free to remain ambivalent about all parties involved, and about Allen’s work.

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Garson Romalis, Canada's Abortion Doctor

By Renee Ghert-Zand

The world has lost a Jewish man who was a champion of women’s rights. His name was Dr. Garson Romalis, and he was a member of my extended family.

I knew Gary as my cousin’s husband, but the rest of the world knew him as a staunch advocate of women’s reproductive healthcare and a woman’s right to choose. An obstetrician-gynecologist, he pioneered the provision of safe abortions to women in the Canadian province of British Columbia in the early 1970’s, a couple of years after abortion was legalized in Canada.

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Those Limelight-Seeking Orthodox Feminists

By Frimet Goldberger

It’s probably because I’m female — and Orthodox to boot — that, much as I try, I find it hard to relate to Jewish men who feel religiously unfulfilled unless they keep the center stage to themselves, and the women out of their club.

Rabbi Avi Shafran, the high-profile Haredi spokesman for Agudath Israel, implies in this humble-braggy and borderline sexist Forward post, that Orthodox women with spiritual wants that include more egalitarianism — especially in communal settings like synagogues — only seek to be in the limelight. This, he claims, he cannot relate to because “I just don’t like being on display.” Additionally, his wife and daughters “never looked to the synagogue for validation and fulfillment.”

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'Having it All' as an Ex-Hasidic Woman

By Frimet Goldberger

Lean in, Sheryl Sandberg, another feminist bites the dust and realizes she can’t “have it all.”

This epiphany came as I boarded a Delta flight from Montego Bay to JFK two weeks ago. My husband and I took a weeklong trip to magnificent Negril Beach, or what I like to call Paradise, Jamaica, to celebrate two momentous occasions — our 10th wedding anniversary and my graduation from Sarah Lawrence College. We spent our days basking in the warm Caribbean sunshine, drinking one too many strawberry daiquiris, and reveling in the freedom of being unplugged from everyone and everything. What resulted was a week of epic discoveries about myself and my family, as well as the realization that, in pursuit of personal ambitions, my priorities may have shifted. Somehow along the way, I went from being family-first to career-first.

The fierce drive to get places, to transcend the limits of my predestined path in life as a stay-at-home mom, is something I have been struggling with ever since I left Kiryas Joel, the Hasidic enclave in upstate New York where I grew up. I use the word “struggle” not to derogate ambition, but rather to explain why I find it increasingly difficult to find a work/life balance as a girl who became a mother before she was ever a woman.

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Sarah Silverman Ends 'Are Women Funny?' Debate

By Elissa Strauss

“Okay, last night I was visited by Jesus Christ, like the Jesus Christ. And he told me he was really bummed by all these people who use my name for intolerance and oppression.”

And so begins Sarah Silverman’s latest viral video, in which Christ comes to Sarah’s living room to tell her that she has been chosen to deliver his message about personhood. “Fertilized eggs aren’t people. People are people. But people who believe fertilized eggs are people are people too, and you have to love them, and you’re not better than them.”

Silverman then goes on to explain that the lines between religion and state have been increasingly blurred over the past fifty years, and how women are paying the price for the ongoing erosion of our reproductive rights.

I love this woman.

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Throwback Thursday: A Yiddish Actress of Many Names

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.

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The State of the Uterus

By Sarah Seltzer

As the President spent his Tuesday prepping for a crucial State of the Union Address, Congress was busy passing yet another sweeping anti-abortion bill, this time H.R.7, a bill designed, primarily to further restrict insurance coverage of abortion, particularly for women with fewer means.

It was part of another banner week for attacks on women’s and reproductive health, which included Mike Huckabee doubling down on the message that the Democrats, because they have pushed for women’s health coverage under the ACA, seek to make women “helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing for them a prescription each month for birth control because they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of government.”

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ScarJo's Other SodaStream Problem: The Sexist Ad

By Elissa Strauss

No matter where you stand on Israeli politics, it’s hard not to see Scarlett Johansson’s decision to become a spokesperson for SodaStream as a bold choice.

Unfortunately, this boldness didn’t make its way into the commercial itself. Instead, the ad relies on the most cliche, ickily retro advertising tropes imaginable.

If you are reading this you have probably have already seen the spot. If not, spare yourself the 33 seconds and allow me to summarize. We meet Johansson on a set, where she is wearing a full face of make-up and a crisp, white robe. She runs through the environmental and health benefits of the product, and then, changing gears to a more girlish voice, says “if only I could make this message go viral.”

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Chava Willig Levy on Independent Dependence

By Anna Goldenberg

Georganne Garfinkel

A few years ago, Chava Willig Levy went to a concert at Carnegie Hall. Having contracted polio at the age of 3, the 62-year-old lecturer and writer uses a motorized wheelchair. “Let the wheelchair pass,” a man a few steps in front of Levy and her friend said to his companion, as the former two left the concert. “You mean, ‘Let the lady in the wheelchair pass,’” Levy replied. “Well, you’re part of it,” the man replied — to which Levy retorted, “No, it’s part of me.”

Her memoir, “A Life Not With Standing,” which she published last December on CreateSpace, is filled with anecdotes such as this one. It offers a refreshingly honest and humorous look back at her eventful life. Levy grew up in an Orthodox family in New York City and now lives in Five Towns, in Long Island’s Nassau County, with her husband and children. She describes how she found her education — from segregated classes for disabled children to completing a Bachelor of Arts degree in French literature at Yeshiva University, and a Master of Arts in counseling psychology at Columbia University — as well as her career giving lectures and workshops on big matters of (Jewish) life, such as love and marriage, exasperation and miracles and disability.

Levy talked to the Forward’s Anna Goldenberg about her dating experiences, the role of God as a co-pilot in her life and why she loves it when children stare at her.

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Sex Therapy and the Holocaust

By Naomi Zeveloff

The fact that Dr. Ruth Westheimer, arguably the most famous sex therapist alive today, is also a Holocaust survivor always struck me as nothing more than a surprising coincidence. Survivors went on to occupy a range of professions — why not sex therapy, too?

But it turns out that enduring trauma — or at least living among the traumatized — can be a source of insight into the role erotic expression plays in rebuilding a healthy life.

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Leah Vincent's Journey

By Curt Schleier

Leah Vincent’s new memoir, “Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood,” has a happy ending. But the rest of the book has a different tone.

Born Leah Kaplan, Vincent grew up in Pittsburgh, the daughter of a prominent yeshivish (black hat) rabbi. She was one of 11 children in a household she describes as both strict and unloving. As a teenager, Vincent began to question some the community’s beliefs and traditions, expressing a desire to go to college, exchanging letters with a male friend and purchasing clothing deemed inappropriate by community standards.

When her parents discovered her deeds, they were afraid that her reputation would sully the chances of her sisters finding suitable husbands, and they cut ties with her. She was set adrift, unprepared for life alone.

She entered into relationships with drug addicts and a much older married college professor. She also began to cut herself, and was briefly confined in a psychiatric facility.

Ultimately, she went to and excelled in college, married and built a positive life. Vincent spoke to the Forward’s Curt Schleier about her upbringing and the seemingly increasing number of formerly ultra-Orthodox.

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I'm Observant — and I Wear Tzitzit

By Avigayil Halpern

A few months ago, I was at the Kotel with my family. When I was leaving the site, a woman stopped me. She grabbed one of the knotted white fringes dangling from under my shirt and, in Hebrew, exclaimed “Tzitzit!? But this is forbidden!” No, I told her, it is permitted according to all major codes of Jewish law. “Forbidden!” she insisted. I again told her that it was permissible. Still visibly upset, she exclaimed “But you’re a girl!” “Yes, I know,” I responded with a calm smile. “I know.”

Despite having worn my tzitzit for almost six months now, I’m still a little bit surprised when people stare at me. After almost six months, I’m used to the fringes, and seeing them against my jeans seems natural. However, what to me has begun to feel like simply an extension of who I am — a religiously-observant, seventeen-year-old Jewish feminist — is also a political statement. I am one of the relatively small number of women who considers herself commanded in this mitzvah, because I believe in both the obligatory nature of Jewish law and its inherent egalitarianism.

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Untold Story of Jewish Feminist Pioneers

By Elissa Strauss

Historian Melissa R. Klapper recently won a National Jewish Book Award for “Ballots, Babies, and Banners of Peace: American Jewish Women’s Activism, 1890-1940.” In the book, Klapper, a professor of history at Rowan University in New Jersey, shows us that decades before Steinem and Friedan became households names, Jewish feminists were already working to make the United States a fairer, more just society.

The Sisterhood recently spoke with Prof. Klapper about the birth control battles of the 1870s, the Jewish push for suffrage, why peace was once considered a women’s issue and the Jewish women activists you really should know about.

THE SISTERHOOD: Why did you decide to write this book?

PROF. KLAPPER: From my early days as a graduate student in American women’s history, I was disturbed by the near absence of Jewish women from the larger narratives of American women’s lives and history, with the possible exception of the labor movement. Even historians who acknowledged the outsize role American Jewish women played in second-wave feminism didn’t seem to have much interest in the earlier activism of American Jewish women. So I thought it would be interesting to explore their participation in the great women’s social movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and to make the case that both the American Jewish community and first-wave feminism were transformed by Jewish women’s activism.

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Dawn Zimmer, Thorn in Chris Christie's Side

By Julie Wiener

(JTA) — Eight years ago Dawn Zimmer was a stay-at-home mom and freelance photographer.

Now, the 45-year-old Democrat, elected the first Jewish mayor of Hoboken, N.J., in 2009, made the front page of The New York Times.

Since last week, when she accused Gov. Chris Christie’s lieutenant governor of trying to make Superstorm Sandy recovery funds contingent on her backing a real-estate project favored by the administration, Zimmer has been in the spotlight. Coming on the heels of revelations that the governor’s aides blocked access to the George Washington Bridge as payback to another Democratic mayor, Zimmer’s allegation has prompted an FBI investigation.

The Times article, which focuses on Zimmer’s political ascent and reputation both for honesty and not always being “the easiest person to bond with,” does not mention the mayor’s Jewish identity. However, other articles about her have noted that she converted to Judaism several years ago.

A 2010 piece in the Hudson Reporter said the Unitarian-raised Zimmer and her husband, Stan Grossbard, agreed when they were dating to raise their children Jewish but that Zimmer felt uncomfortable converting just for marriage.

However, a few years after their two sons (now 12 and 13) were born, Zimmer and Grossbard, who runs a family diamond-and-jewelry business, took an introduction to Judaism course at the Hoboken Synagogue. The family now sets aside Friday nights for family time. They are also frequent donors to the synagogue.

We think it is safe to assume the governor will not make the guest list of Zimmer’s son’s upcoming bar mitzvah.


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First African American Hebrew School Grad

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.

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: archives, Throwback Thursday, #ThrowbackThursday, Jewish

Maybe You Shouldn't Call that Baby Cute

By Elissa Strauss

I call babies cute. Most of the time it is because they are actually quite cute, and occasionally because it is the polite thing to say.

Calling babies cute is second-nature for most of us. It is what the spit-up splattered parents want to hear, and in those pre-personality early months there is really nothing else to comment on but the little one’s appearance.

Once kids get a little older though, many of us find ourselves commenting on boy’s personalities or intelligence, while still making sure to tell little girls how cute — specifically pretty — they are. For awhile now we have been discussing how girls internalize these messages, but now we are starting to realize how much parents do too.

As Lisa Bloom wrote a few years ago on the Huffington Post, the standard icebreaker in our culture for talking to little girls is commenting on how they look. The issue here is that “teaching girls that their appearance is the first thing you notice tells them that looks are more important than anything.”

And the (female) kids are not alright. Bloom points out that close to half of all three- to six-year-old girls worry about being fat, 15 to 18 percent of girls under 12 now regularly wear make-up, and a high number of bright, successful college women say they’d rather be hot than smart.

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Roe at 41 Marks a Time of Limited 'Rights' and Access

By Sarah Seltzer

Roe v. Wade turns 41 today. The past few years have witnessed the landmark Supreme Court, decision, which legalized abortion in 1973, become reduced to a shadow of itself, as state after state passed restrictions which winnowed down the ability to access abortion.

We have covered these developments again and again at the Sisterhood. The logic goes like this: add in waiting periods and parental consent laws, harass or restrict rural clinics out of existence and don’t allow insurance-covered abortion for those on public assistance, and what remains is a “right” that’s a right in name only for many who seek abortion care.

Jewish women have long been at the forefront of pro-choice activism over decades of feminist foment, from before Betty Friedan right through our current age of digital feminism. Today Ilyse Hogue, the new leader of NARAL Pro-Choice America (and one of the Sisterhood’s 2014 Jewish Women to Watch), has written a feisty op-ed in Politico called, “2014: The Year the Pro-Choice Crowd Fights Back.” Hogue notes that three years of anti-choice overreach is finally creating a backlash. “In 2013, we saw a movement starting to embody the old adage that the best defense is a good offense,” she notes, referring to grassroots efforts in states like New York to enshrine abortion rights more fully. Still, she writes, “It will take time for this shifting momentum to result in a full sea change.”

Hogue also writes that voters have wised up, and know that economic security and social issues can no longer be pried apart by politicians.

Gone are the days when conservatives could marginalize abortion access as a social issue and claim elections hinge on economic matters, especially with women driving the margin of victory in so many elections. Women in this country know that our economic security depends on our ability to decide when and with whom we have families.

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Cyber Bullying on Jewish Sites

By Caroline Rothstein

While bullying is sadly not new, cyber bullying can often seem like the cruelest playground. I have been writing for the Sisterhood since March of last year, and I have been bullied in the comments section below several of my articles.

As a professional writer, performer and advocate I have been subjected to public commentary for years, since I began sharing and publishing work online. Years ago, I was called an “ugly rhinoceros Jew face” on one of my YouTube videos. In 2012, a video of me performing my poem “Fat” about my experience having and recovering from an eating disorder went viral after Lady Gaga tweeted it. Amidst the endless affirmations, accolades and messages of gratitude from viewers who felt moved or inspired by my story, there were many negative comments, like “Go on a actual diet,” “Your are an unhappy fat chick!” and “In all seriousness though, you and anyone who supports Rothstein are the cancer that is killing this world.”

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Avital Norman Nathman on 'Good Mother Myth'

By Chanel Dubofsky

In “The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood To Fit Reality” (Seal Press, 2014), editor Avital Norman Nathman asks the question: “What does it mean to be a good mother?” Contributors, including Joy Ladin, Jessica Valenti, Sarah Tuttle Singer and Jennifer Baumgardner reflect on the realities of motherhood and combat the myth of the “Pinterest perfect” mother.

Norman Nathman’s writing places a feminist lens on a variety of topics, including motherhood, maternal health, gender and reproductive rights, and has been featured in Bitch magazine, Kveller, The New York Times, CNN, RH Reality Check and more. In addition to her blog, The Mamafesto, Avital has a regular series, “The Femisphere,” for Ms. Magazine’s site, as well as a regular feminist parenting column, “Mommie Dearest,” for The Frisky. Follow her on Twitter at @TheMamafesto. The Forward’s Chanel Dubofsky talked to Norman Nathman about her projects.

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My Jewish Wedding Felt Like an Intermarriage

By Hillary Berkowitz Nussbaum

I was supposed to be a low-maintenance bride. I am usually “the easygoing one.” Our florist would disagree. As I stood in front of his 20 foot refrigerator and pointed to every type of flower, telling him which to put in our arrangements, and which should, under no circumstances , even come near our venue, it was clear that “easygoing” was long gone.

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