Sisterhood Blog

Updated: The Jewess of 'Downton Abbey'?

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

pbs.org
Lady Cora, played by Elizabeth McGovern.

Update:
Shirley Maclaine has just been cast as Martha Levinson, Lady Cora’s mother — and the Dowager Countess’ rival.

This is delicious news! Still, I’d have rather have seen Barbra or Goldie Hawn, an actual Jewess, play the part of a Jewish American wanna-be-princess, though I doubt Goldie would be able to overcome her tremendous Americanness.

Can’t you just imagine Babs playing one of her smart-yet-slightly ditzy roles, coming into the castle and spilling something on one of the heirloom estate-sized Oriental carpets, and then breaking into song, glorious song?

I loved Maclaine in the big screen version of Jennifer Weiner’s “In Her Shoes,” a movie that didn’t get the credit it deserved. She played the tough-as-nails grandmother character which, come to think of it, may be what got her this new gig.

And after all, Babs wouldn’t likely have gotten past the first round of negotiations because she in all likelihood would refuse to accede to the requirement, for the sake of historical accuracy, that her famous long fingernails go unlaquered.

Tip of the sheitel: Fiona Sharpe


Could Lady Cora Grantham be — gasp — Jewish? According to this piece on Tablet she may indeed be. A reader spied the fact that on PBS’ website for its hit Masterpiece Theater Classic series “Downton Abbey,” Lady Cora is described as the daughter of “Isidore Levinson, a dry goods multi millionaire from Cincinnati.”

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Why My Husband Doesn't Babysit

By Gavriella Lerner

Joe Shlabotnik

My husband never babysits — and it doesn’t bother me one bit.

Allow me to explain: Following an extended maternity leave, I’m about to return to graduate school to complete my master’s degree in English literature. Naturally, people have been asking me about what I’m going to do for childcare. But since I was able to schedule all of my classes in the evening, my husband will be home by the time I leave for school.

“Great, so hubby is babysitting!” comes the usual reply. No he isn’t. He’s parenting. And calling him a “babysitter” insults this hard and important work that he does.

It is true that the vast majority of our baby’s care and other household duties fall to me, and I think that’s perfectly fair — given that I am home while my husband is working. Though he may not have the privilege of spending as much time with our son as I do, when he is home, he does everything that I do with the baby (minus the nursing).

Jewish law and tradition support an active role for fathers.

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Missing Voices of the 'Modesty Crisis'

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

A Los Angeles-based filmmaker and acting teacher named Robin Garbose recent published this essay in Haaretz, explaining why she became Orthodox as an adult. In her piece, Garbose laments that with the current criticism of Haredi values like gender separation, “the baby is being thrown out with the dirty bathwater.”

Garbose writes about why she was attracted to Haredi life; her desire “to transcend this toxic cultural climate” in which images of women are digitally altered to become thinner, more “perfect,” in advertising of all sorts purveying products “in the hope of remedying our gross inadequacies.”

She argues:

I had an opportunity to step into the mysterious and remote world of Haredi Jews. I appreciated that tzniut (Jewish laws of modesty) shifted focus from the body to the person, from objectifying and sexualizing women to valuing inner beauty. Though I didn’t own a long skirt, I saw these ancient concepts as a refreshingly counterculture expression of female dignity.

I don’t understand how Garbose can willfully ignore the plentiful evidence that the obsession with women’s external “modesty” is not about the dignity of women, but rather its perversion: the control of women in every possible form. It even included, not long ago, spray painting out the face of the “woman” on this poster of Adam Sandler dressed in drag for his latest movie.

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Prime Ribs, Israel — Beit Shemesh Attack

By Renee Ghert-Zand

A 27-year-old woman was attacked last week while she was hanging posters on behalf of her employer. Natali Mashiah was in the Ramat Beit Shemesh neighborhood when she alleges that a group of Haredi men called her a “slut,” a “shiksa,” and smashed her car’s windshield and windows while she was inside of it. They also threw a rock at her head, punctured the tires and poured bleach inside the vehicle, she said. Police arrested three suspects at the scene.


The financial newspaper Globes is asking why social justice protest leader Stav Shaffir, recently profiled in the Forward, reportedly accepted VIP perks, such as accommodations at a 5-star hotel and an chauffeured Audi, while recently in Munich for a conference.


Knesset State Control Committee chairman Ronnie Bar-On is calling for broader implementation by rabbinical courts of a law that allows rabbinical judges to impose punitive sanctions on men who refuse to give their wife a Jewish divorce document, or a get.

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Of Hasids, Hipsters and Hipster Hasids

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Creative Commons
Crown Heights

In Crown Heights, a neighborhood that has recently seen lots of change in its population, an article on the Lubavitch website COLLive has sparked a bonfire of reaction. An anonymous “open letter,” titled “Take Back Our Neighborhoods,” urges Jewish landlords in the heavily Lubavitch and West Indian neighborhood not to rent to non-Jews, as it describes their immodest ways:

Friends, we pay a premium to live in this neighborhood, and we strive to create an atmosphere of holiness and kedusha for our children and teens. These yuppies bring pritzus [Sisterhood translation: immodesty, with overtones of whorishness] to our neighborhood. They come out at night to our restaurants and act inappropriately while waiting on line etc.



We would hope that landlords, especially the Crown Heights landlords, would put a priority on our values, but sadly the need to make money is taking precedence for them. Some young agents and landlords will specifically rent to these goyim instead of a fellow Jewish family. Sadly, some homeowners have gone so far as bringing these yuppies as tenants in their home in prime locations.

The article author points to things like suntanning gatherings on the rooftops of local buildings, at least one of which was visible to students at a Lubavitch school, and recommends forming a committee, as the Satmars have in nearby Williamsburg, “to curb this issue.”

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'Scribbling Women' Get Less Respect, More Pay

By Elissa Strauss

jenniferweiner.com
Jennifer Weiner

Female novelists might not be getting the respect they deserve, but they sure can get rich trying. This, in short, is novelist (and, disclaimer, my friend) Teddy Wayne’s response to Jennifer Weiner’s recent post about the New York Times’ persistent bias towards male novelists — an issue that The Sisterhood has been following.

Weiner found that while the Times showed some improvement in 2011, women still got only 41% of all reviews, and were far less likely to get profiled in addition to getting reviewed.

Wayne acknowledged the preference among critics for male authors, but points out that, apart from the “literary 1%,” it is much harder for male novelists to make a living than female ones.

He writes:

For the majority of male literary authors — excluding the upper echelon of [Jonathan] Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides, Don DeLillo and their ilk, plus a few younger writers like Chad Harbach who have scored much-ballyhooed advances — it’s actually harder than it is for women to carve out a financially stable writing career.

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Why We Should Care That Newt Cheated

By Sarah Seltzer

Getty Images
GOP presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich.

It’s become practically a given that public figures who espouse a strict vision of morality will likely be revealed to have participated in behavior that they now want banned. The more vehement and damning the preaching, it so often seems, the less stringent the practicing.

In this election, the allegations of hypocrisy are already becoming a major story. Rick Santorum, who may be one of the most anti-abortion politicians in history, is married to a woman who lived in a May–December relationship for years with a known abortion provider. The tale of Karen Santorum makes it sound like she lived quite the wild life in those years before marrying her now-husband, who has gone on the record saying rape victims who are pregnant should “make the best of a bad situation.”

Just this weekend Rand Paul, oblivious to the implications, refused a TSA airport pat-down as being invasive of his bodily autonomy on his way to an anti-abortion rally.

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Losing My Appetite for Orthodoxy

By Dorothy Lipovenko

Two warring factions, my head and heart, have tussled for decades over the inequality and hurt on the women’s side of the mechitzah. Always, if sometimes reluctantly, my heart wins, and I cling to the curtain folds of observant Judaism.

But events in Israel these last few months — segregated buses, ultra-Orthodox extremists jeering at little girls on their way to school, the soundproofing of the public sphere against women’s voices — have led to a tipping point. There is no more slack for me to cut.

This is certainly not the Judaism of my Young IsraelBnei AkivaNCSY years, back when I was growing up in the 1960s.

I’m demoralized, and it’s gotten to the point where my husband has asked me, nicely, to refrain from any more tales of woe at the breakfast table. When I showed this easygoing son of Holocaust survivors the recent images of Haredi protesters dressed in concentration camp garb, a darkness rarely seen crossed his face.

In my despair, I’m not about to eat a cheeseburger; however, I am rapidly losing my appetite for identifying with Orthodoxy.

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Who Is Gingrich-Backer Miriam Adelson?

By Gabrielle Birkner

Getty Images
Sheldon and Miriam Adelson

Miriam Adelson, the Israeli-born wife of multibillionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, will donate $5 million to a “super PAC” backing Newt Gingrich for the Republican presidential nomination, The New York Times reported Monday. Her gift to Winning Our Future — the group behind the 28-minute video takedown of Mitt Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital — comes two weeks after her husband gave $5 million to the super PAC, and days before the Florida GOP primary.

Just what do we know about the wife of one of the world’s wealthiest men?

She’s a Doctor: She studied internal medicine at Tel Aviv University and worked at Tel Aviv’s Hadassah Hospital before moving to New York, in 1986, to study the biology of addiction. Through her research, she became an advocate for prescribing methadone to drug addicts who have failed to stay clean. “As a physician I opted to help them, because I have a weakness for weak people,” Miriam Adelson told Haaretz in 2008. “In medicine one also considers what is less harmful: If we do not give them methadone, they will continue to inject heroin with dirty needles, and will become infected and infect others with AIDS and hepatitis, and the hospitals will be flooded.”

She’s a Mother: Miriam Adelson has four children. She and her former husband, physician Ariel Ochshorn, have two grown daughters: Yasmin Lukatz, a casino executive with Sheldon Adelson’s Las Vegas Sands Corporation, and Sivan Ochshorn, whom a website that tracks campaign contributions (yes, she backs Republican candidates) identifies alternately as a homemaker and a senior analyst for Las Vegas Sands. Sheldon and Miriam Adelson have two younger sons together, Adam and Matan.

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Why I Cover Up

By Gavriella Lerner

Courtesy of the author
Gavriella Lerner

There’s been a lot of talk lately about tsnius, or modesty, lately — with all of the news coming out of Israel. I recently came across this cartoon, showing a woman in a bikini and a woman in a burqa, each judging harshly how the other is dressed. The cartoon got me thinking how both sides pictured get it wrong.

As someone who covers her hair, and dresses modestly in the name of tsnuis, and who finds doing so to be empowering, I object to the perception that I am subject to male domination because I cover up. I also reject the notion that modesty is about keeping myself silent and making myself invisible, lest I somehow lead men astray.

While there is most certainly a sexual component — which is why you wont see me walking around in a bikini, and why I deplore advertisements depicting scantily clad women — it’s not all about sex. Yes, the sex drive is powerful, which is why Jewish laws and customs dictate that a man and woman who are not related cannot be alone together or have physical contact, and they set forth basic parameters of modest dress.

But the rest is about dignity.

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'Modern' Orthodox Org. Behind Blurred Fogel Pic

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

Advertisement for Fogel memorial in Machon Meir.

As the ultra-Orthodox leadership in Israel lurches ever rightward, we’ve learned that they don’t simply view scantily clad women or their images as unhealthily erotic. All images of women are out of bounds. Even the most modestly dressed woman, innocent little girl or feeble old lady is potential a potential source of sexual temptation for the men and therefore needs to have her honor “protected” by being covered up or erased.

Death, apparently, offers no exemption. In the weekly bulletin of the Jewish studies center Machon Meir, a publication distributed in synagogues across Israel, an advertisement publicizing a memorial service for the Fogel family, the family of five brutally slaughtered by terrorists in their home in the settlement of Itamar nearly a year ago. In the photograph of the family in the advertisement, the face of the mother, Ruth, was blurred beyond recognition. Her image was deemed too immodest for publication.

What was unique — and disturbing! — about this particular chapter in the ongoing “exclusion of women” saga was the fact that the target audience of the publication is not the ultra-Orthodox population. Machon Meir, is squarely located in the “knitted kippa, religious nationalist” camp — in other words, Modern Orthodox and highly patriotic, with strong ties to the settler movement. On its website Machon Meir brags that the Jerusalem center has “become the landing point for many new immigrants from all the countries in the Diaspora because of its value on full integration into Israeli society and the encouragement to be a part of the Israeli Defense Force.”

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Prime Ribs: New 'Yentl' Tunes; Original 'Occupier'

By Elissa Strauss

Keira Knightly talks about playing psychoanalysis pioneer, Jung patient and Holocaust victim Sabina Speilrein in the new film “A Dangerous Method.”


Skeptical of JDate’s algorithm for picking Mr. or Mrs. right? Try “J sites,” the online Jewish dating service that has good old-fashioned matchmakers do the pairing.


There is a new biography of original “occupier” Emma Goldman, the anarchist and political activist who was once called “the most dangerous woman in America” by FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover.

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After Divorce, Mom Should Not Be 'Default Parent'

By Elana Sztokman

I heard on the radio news that “women’s groups are furious” at Thursday’s announcement by Israel’s Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman that from now on women will not be automatically granted custody of children under the age of six in divorce settlements. Women’s groups are apparently planning on fighting to retain the current law that recognizes a mother as the default parent in early childhood. But I’m not sure that all feminist groups are of one mind on this issue. Some feminists may even welcome the decision; I know I do.

I had an intense argument with some feminist colleagues a few months ago about this issue. We were discussing Neeman’s deliberations around the 2005 Shnit Committee on divorce and parenthood that led up to today’s announcement. The committee had proposed eliminating the gender bias in favor of women, arguing that every case should be judged according to its own merit. A friend of mine who is a rabbinic pleader was very upset about this. She has witnessed enormous suffering of women in the divorce process in Israel, and has spent most of her career defending agunot, or women whose husbands refuse to grant them a Jewish divorce. “Custody in early childhood is one of the few areas of leverage that women have in the divorce process,” she said, “and now the government is taking that away, too.”

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Raising a Daughter, Without Adelson's Help

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

Courtesy of the author
Allison Kaplan Sommer and her daughter Naomi

Dear Ariel Beery and Erin Kopelow:

Congratulations on the impending birth of your baby girl.

When I saw your essay on Tablet questioning whether it was wise to raise a daughter in Israel at a time when “war is waged against girls and women” I understood the feeling. I had my first child when I, like you, was living in Tel Aviv, way back in 1996, just after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and during the height of terrorist suicide bombings. I, too, was worried about the place I had decided to raise kids.

You correctly point out the disturbing domination of the ultra-Orthodox establishment on the state. You knew that the rabbinate wasn’t your friend when you moved here, and that you would face problems regarding Erin’s halachic status — her mother underwent Conservative conversion during pregnancy — and that this would affect your future children. But now that a baby is on the way, that reality is upon you. Add that to the current crisis over the “exclusion of women,” the situation in Beit Shemesh, the issues over buses and women’s singing in the army and I can see why it would concern you.

I was sure that your piece was heading for a discussion of how to raise an Israeli daughter confident in both her Jewish and her female identity under these circumstances. Instead that the article was essentially a 911 call to American Jews, arguing that Diaspora leaders need to “demand” Israel “make liberalization of the rabbinate a priority.”

How?

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Roe v. Wade at 39

By Sarah Seltzer

Getty Images

Last year smashed records on reproductive rights — and not good ones. As the year that birthed the GOP “war on women” came to a close, the Guttmacher Institute tallied things up and found that of all the reproductive health and rights-related provisions enacted this year: “Fully 68% of these new provisions—92 in 24 states—restrict access to abortion services, a striking increase from last year, when 26% of new provisions restricted abortion. The 92 new abortion restrictions enacted in 2011 shattered the previous record of 34 adopted in 2005.”

These numbers are stark, vivid proof that the organized, nationwide pushback of women’s rights wasn’t just a media construction.

With so many new and varied restrictions on the books, many women — particularly poor and rural women — simply cannot obtain abortions. This combined with the stunning blow that was the Obama administration’s overruling the FDA on over-the-counter Plan B availability ended the year on a particularly sour note.

As the 39th anniversary of Roe approaches — it’s on January 22 — we need take that time to gather our forces.

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In Brooklyn, Dressing for the Back of the Bus

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Getty images
Ultra-Orthodox women and girls in Williamsburg watch the New York City marathon.

It used to be that while walking in Williamsburg, Brooklyn on a fine spring day or attending wedding in nearby Boro Park, you would see how stylish Haredi women could be. Modestly attired to be sure, with heads cloaked in hats over wigs and clothing safely reaching to above the collarbone, to the wrist and to the calf, but chic nonetheless. Many wore sharply tailored suits and well accessorized blouse-and-skirt ensembles. Skirts were often navy or black, but the blouses and jackets and suits would be pretty colors, occasionally bright and patterned.

Over the past few years, that has changed. Now even on young girls, as well as on boys and men, clothing is mostly black and white, and unremittingly drab. I’m not the only one to notice. Judy Siegel-Itzkovitch, in a “reporter’s notebook” in The Jerusalem Post about the recent Puah Fertility Institute conference, wrote: “Haredi woman and even schoolgirls have in recent years abandoned colorful dresses and coats (even housecoats), and shops in Haredi neighborhoods illustrate the darkening female wardrobe.”

I have my own theory as to why — that it is part of an ascendant culture that expects women to diminish their presence, to disappear except when absolutely necessary. But I also thought I would check with an expert. I reached out to the Forward’s “Wonders of America” columnist Jenna Weissman Joselit, a professor of Judaic studies and of history at George Washington University, whose specialty is the relationship between material culture and identity.

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Single Ladies Want Mikveh Access

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Creative Commons

The latest fight in Israel is not over where women sit on the bus or walk on the street, but about where they can immerse.

Some Israeli women are petitioning the country’s Supreme Court, asking it to reverse official directives that restrict ritual bath usage to married women, and bar women who are single, divorced or widowed.

Attorneys filed the legal papers on behalf of two separate parties, Plia Oryah and Amital Zaks, as well as The Center for Women’s Justice, and the Orthodox feminist group Kolech. The petition claims that prohibiting unmarried women from using a mikveh amounts to the violation of their religious freedom and their right to privacy.

Furious about this religious coercion, Oryah, the single, 19-year-old daughter of immigrants from New York, said “it makes my life miserable once a month.” In order to ritually bathe, she has either gone to the seashore after dark, or deceived “mikveh ladies” by disguising herself as a married woman.

“Without any regard to a relationship I would still go to the mikveh every month,” she told Haaretz. “I feel a sense of renewal. It is an amazing, wonderful experience.”

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So What If Yoga Is Just Another Exercise?

By Elissa Strauss

Creative Commons

Put down those mats everyone. Now yoga is bad.

Well, not bad, but maybe not the magic cure it has long been touted as either — at least according to two new articles.

A recent piece in the New York Times magazine outlines the health risks associated with yoga. While completely hyperbolic — one guy’s “yoga” injury comes from sitting on his knees for hours a day — we still learn that yoga can cause some serious problems and should not be the exercise of choice for everybody.

And over at New York Magazine an interview with yoga reformer David Regelin reveals that we have been doing things all wrong. We rush through poses while listening to Bjork, as the strong parts of our bodies get stronger and the weak ones get weaker. Meanwhile, teachers “have had, you know, hip replacements and knee surgery,” he says. “But they’re not going to put that out there. If you’re the fast-food industry, you don’t say, ‘I’m obese, eat my food.’”

In short, the combination of sloppy teaching and the fact that most of us can’t help but push too hard on the mat — you can take the yogi out of the competition, but can’t take the competition out of the yogi — has led to a fair share of damaged muscles and joints. This backlash is hardly surprising in a news culture obsessed with the all that is counterintuitive and shocking. (How broccoli can kill you, tonight at 8!) Honestly, I am surprised it took this long.

But these pieces got me thinking.

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How Women's Exclusion Threatens Coalition Gov't

By Elana Sztokman

Update, January 18, 11:27 a.m.: The High Court today ruled that the committee that appoints religious judges must have women on it, and that women’s representation on this and other committees must be sealed with legislation. Until the issue of women’s exclusion is fixed, the committee is not allowed to appoint dayanim, or religious judges.

While the Israeli public has been getting rightfully agitated about the exclusion of women from public spaces, there are other gender-segregated locations in Israel that are barely noticed but have far-reaching implications for all women. The Committee to Appoint of Rabbinical Judges (dayanim) is, for the first time in more than a decade (since women’s groups started protesting the issue), is an exclusively male panel. Yet the government is wringing its hands, as the coalition remains hostage, once again, to the entrenched sexism of religious parties.

The rabbinical courts are one of the most fiercely gender-segregated institutions in Israel. Women are not only forbidden from being judges — a viciously anti-democratic regulation that might go unnoticed save for the fact that every single marriage and divorce in Israel needs the approval of rabbinical judges — they are also prevented from taking administrative roles in managing the system. And the absence of women on the Committee to Appoint Dayanim is clearly a matter of convention and control rather than of religious law.

Women can and should take on at the very least ancillary role in the rabbinical courts, but it’s been an uphill battle.

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Will 'Sex Abuse Ring' Yield Vigilante Justice?

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

Creative Commons
A view of Nachlaot

Having a child fall victim to sexual assault is every parent’s worst nightmare.

In the picturesque Jerusalem neighborhood of Nachlaot, a network of alleged pedophiles has been exposed in recent months.The difficulties of relying on children’s testimony, and the initial reluctance of the ultra-Orthodox community to cooperate with officials has made the justice process difficult and painfully slow. If all of the allegations are to be believed, there are more than 20 perpetrators guilty of horrific crimes against more than 100 children, some of them young toddlers. And many of the alleged molesters are still freely walking the streets, in full view of their accusers and their parents.

Parents in Nachlaot — a mixed neighborhood with residents who range from secular to ultra-Orthodox are losing patience with the police and the justice system. Some worry that if the process does not move faster, vigilante-style action will be taken against the alleged perpetrators. With the police keeping a tight lid on the identities of key suspects, with gag orders imposed on the media, several bloggers have stepped into the breach to try to warn their neighbors, and report on the atmosphere in the neighborhood.

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