Sisterhood Blog

How Etan Changed Us

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Wikimedia Commons
Etan Patz

A renewed search for Etan Patz’s remains has concluded. Nothing was found.

The 6-year-old boy allowed to walk to his school bus in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood on a May morning in 1979 never made it. Instead, he was kidnapped, and his parents had ripped from them the chance to tuck him into bed each night and raise him to be a good boy, kind and sweet and loving.

Etan’s murder led to many things: National Missing Children’s Day, each May 25, the anniversary of his disappearance. It began a national conversation about how independent we can afford to let our children be — and that conversation continues to this day and again moved the fore, following the abduction and murder, last year, of little Leiby Kletzky, in Boro Park.

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Q&A: Deborah Copaken Kogan on 'The Red Book'

By Katharine Herrup

www.deborahcopakenkogan.com
Deborah Copaken Kogan

Every five years, Harvard graduates send their alma mater a few paragraphs (or a few pages) about their lives. These updates are compiled in what’s known as “the red book.” When it arrives in the mail, alumni not only devour it like a gossip magazine, they also use it as the yardstick by which they measure their own success.

But as Deborah Copaken Kogan reveals in her novel, “The Red Book,” that sort of relative measurement can be a blessing and a curse. The book depicts four female protagonists as Harvard undergraduates, and 20 years later, as their class reunion approaches.

Kogan spoke recently with The Sisterhood about how personal upheaval inspired “The Red Book,” the challenges inherent to working motherhood — she is the mother of three kids, ages 5 to 16 — and the person she thinks will be a “game-changer” for professional women.

Katharine Herrup: How did this book come about?

Deborah Copaken Kogan: I had just gone to my 20th reunion in 2008. Right around that time my dad had died of pancreatic cancer, my husband lost his job and we had to move our family to Harlem. So I decided to write about middle age and recession because they collided in a way that felt very visceral.

Why did you focus on female classmates?

I was born in the era of white gloves and Jackie Kennedy’s pill-box hats, but I grew up in the era of feminism. We were told we could have any job we wanted but once we hit the working world we had no infrastructure. There was no paid maternity leave or subsidized day care. The obstacles were so great as to sometimes be debilitating and I thought I couldn’t be the only one feeling this way. Then when all of us were turning 42, 43, an age when one hopes to be settled, the recession started to hit and suddenly many of us were instantaneously unsettled.

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Hamas Chief on 'Noble' Women Rabbis

By Larry Cohler-Esses

ahmed esmaill
Mousa Abu Marzook

The opportunity to interview the second-highest-ranking official in Hamas came suddenly, unexpectedly and at the very worst possible time: just before Passover. The Forward staff was shorthanded. Worse, at home, we were shifting into full Passover house-cleaning mode. I tried hard to argue for doing this any other week. But Stanley L. Cohen, the attorney for Hamas’ Mousa Abu Marzook and the midwife for this meeting with him in Cairo, relayed back that it was that week — or there would be no interview.

Ultimately, I concluded this was one of those stories that defined my sense of mission as a journalist, not to mention as a Jew who cares about Israel. So I approached my spouse, Dianne, who is a Conservative rabbi, full of apology. She stopped me in mid-sentence.

“When have you ever helped out anyway?” she asked. “Go.”

She laid down one obvious stipulation: Whatever you do, don’t miss the Seder.

So I got to Cairo late on Monday night; conducted my interviews with Abu Marzook on Tuesday and Wednesday; got back to the Cairo Marriott (a very nice place!) early Wednesday evening and left for Cairo’s international airport at midnight that same night in order to be home Thursday afternoon — the day before the first night Seder.

Abu Marzook could not believe I was leaving Cairo so fast, or understand why I’d end up divorced if I didn’t. I explained about the Seder, and about Passover, when the Jews had to…well, leave Egypt really fast. He said, “But that was 4,000 years ago when the Pharaoh was trying to kill the Jews. No one’s trying to kill you now.”

“Actually,” I said, “kind of, you guys are.” And we were off on what ended up being a five-and-a-half hour discussion over those two days.

As it turned out, he was fascinated with my wife; downright astounded, in fact, to learn she is a rabbi.

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Where 'Girls' Fails

By Sarah Seltzer

Facebook
A scene from ‘Girls’

A few weeks ago, when I wrote about the hype surrounding Lena Dunham’s new HBO show, “Girls,” I noted that there might be a forthcoming critique of the show’s “overwhelming whiteness.”

Now that the premiere has aired, the looming quibble has blown up to a full-blown controversy — and understandably so. One of the show’s writers, Lesley Arfin, responded to a piece of commentary on the show’s whiteness with an offensive tweet: “What really bothered me most about ‘Precious’ was that there was no representation of ME.” She apparently apologized and then deleted the apology and the tweet. Some web sleuthing revealed that Arfin has written and said some even worse things in the past. Meanwhile, digging into the show’s casting calls include a panoply of tired stereotypes.

Serious damage has been done to the show’s brand. These pieces by Dodai Stewart and Kendra James address “Girls” and these flaws with clear eyes and explain why we shouldn’t give it a pass just because it’s well-done and about women. Indeed, we can’t give it a pass: The failings of “Girls” come after the unmet promise of “2 Broke Girls,” which directly addressed class issues in a friendship, but whose minor characters are blatantly racist caricatures. (Notice a pattern here?)

I wonder, sometimes, if the embedded hierarchy is so intense in our culture that films and shows about women can’t get made unless they somehow reinforce other dominant power structures. I hope that’s not the case.

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Wrong, Again, on Breast Cancer

By Elissa Strauss

Wikimedia Commons
A form of breast cancer depicted on a mammogram.

A look back at breast cancer news from the past year reveals that a lot of what we thought we knew about the disease and the advocacy work surrounding it has been wrong.

First an ASME-nominted story by Lea Goldman in Marie Claire pointed out that, despite the roughly $6 billion raised annually for breast cancer research through pink cashmere sweater sets and 5k walks, there has been essentially no progress made.

Goldman writes: “Yet what many in the breast cancer community are loathe to admit, despite all these lifesaving developments, is that, in fact, we are really no closer to a cure today than we were two decades ago. In 1991, 119 women in the U.S. died of breast cancer every day. Today, that figure is 110 — a victory no one is bragging about. Breast cancer remains the leading cancer killer among women ages 20 to 59; more than 1.4 million new cases are diagnosed annually worldwide. Roughly 5 percent, or 70,000, breast cancer patients are diagnosed at a late stage, after the cancer has metastasized — that rate hasn’t budged since 1975, despite all the medical advances and awareness campaigns.”

Then there was the Susan G. Komen kerfuffle. The prominent breast cancer research and advocacy organization committed reputational suicide when it announced this past January that it was cutting off funding to Planned Parenthood. Komen, after an explosive social media-fueled backlash, ended up reversing course four days later, but the damage was done. Many previous supporters can’t move past the foundation’s politicization of breast cancer.

And now we have the latest news in the category of “you thought you knew breast cancer but…” This time, though, there is a little hope.

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Kitty Genovese on a Tel Aviv Beach?

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

Wikimedia Commons
There were many witnesses to an alleged gang rape on a Tel Aviv beach.

When I first came to Israel as an American college student in the 1980s, I was frequently drawn into long discussions comparing Americans and Israelis. Back in the old days, before cable television and the Internet, many Israelis were exceptionally defensive about being viewed as a member of a primitive Third-World culture, and eager to point out ways in which they were superior to Americans.

If, during the course of these inevitably pointless conversations, I dared to describe Israelis unfavorably — as rude or intrusive, say — I received a lecture that went something like this: “Well, we may be in each other’s faces, but at least we care about each other in Israel. You know that if you are hurt or in trouble, someone will step in to help you. In America, everyone is focused on themselves. You can be lying on the sidewalk bleeding, and no one will do anything because they won’t want to interfere and will just mind their own business.”

To a large extent, this remains the image Israelis have of themselves. That is why reports of bystanders cheering while a group of young men had sex with a woman who appeared to be mentally ill on a public beach in the heart of Tel Aviv has grabbed national headlines. It is one in a series of incidents in recent years in which people have refrained from interfering in criminal behavior — making it difficult to argue that Israeli society is more caring than any other.

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Lessons in 'One Million Hijabs' on Facebook

By Naomi Zeveloff

Facebook
A snapshot of the ‘One Million Hijabs’ page.

Is there value in having women of all faiths — women who don’t usually cover their hair — don a traditional Islamic hijab?

I ask because my Facebook feed has been filled with photos of women in hijab. Like those who wore hoodies in solidarity with Florida shooting victim Trayvon Martin, my friends are covering their hair to protest the murder of Shaima Alawadi, a 32-year-old Iraqi woman who was found near death in her living room in El Cajon, Calif., last month. Next to Alawadi’s body was a note calling her a “terrorist.”

Though El Cajon police have not determined whether Alawadi’s murder was a hate crime, women all over the world condemned the incident as one of religious discrimination. Today, the “One Million Hijabs for Shaima Alawadi” group on Facebook counts more than 17,000 “likes.”

But in recent weeks, details have come to light that suggest that Alawadi’s murder may not be the hate crime it once appeared to be. And it didn’t take long for some to cast doubt on the “One Million Hijabs” project, insinuating that it glorified a culture that condemns women to second-class status. Commenters on anti-Islamic sites called Alawadi’s death an “honor killing.”

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When Orthodox Men Get Personal

By Elana Sztokman

Brandeis University Press
‘The Men’s Section’

The strangest part of Monday night’s panel discussion of my new book, “The Men’s Section,” about partnership synagogues, or Orthodox congregations in which women play key roles in leading communal prayer, wasn’t that the four-person panel was made up of all men.

All-male panels are so common — to wit, I passed by a poster at Harvard this week announcing an economic conference with no female speakers at all — that Joanna Samuels of Advancing Women Professionals has been asking Jewish men to take a pledge not to sit on all-male panels. (Several of the men on my book panel said that they had taken the pledge and actually felt odd sitting on this all-male dais at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute.)

The really unusual part for me was that, although all the speakers are accomplished men with very impressive resumes and professional and communal achievements, their speeches had nothing to do with their expertise. Rather, they each talked about their feelings about partnership synagogues and the discussion centered on their own journeys in Jewish communal and religious life. In fact, Marc Baker, of Minyan Kol Rinah in Brookline, Mass. opened by saying, “I’m not used to talking about myself in this kind of forum.”

The men were used to talking about ideas; they were not used to talking about themselves.

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'Salon' Preview: A Feminist Icon Goes There

By The Sisterhood

Leave it to feminist icon Letty Cottin Pogrebin to spice things up. On the new episode of The Jewish Channel series “The Salon,” a conversation about the so-called “war on women” leads Pogrebin to discuss the power of the female orgasm:

And in another show highlight, fellow panelist Deborah Feldman, the author of the best-selling memoir “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots,” asks Pogrebin if she thinks her controversial book would have been taken more seriously in Orthodox circles if she were a man. Here’s her answer:

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Why Nobody Pays the 'Nanny Tax'

By Gabrielle Birkner

istock

It’s Tax Day (grumble, grumble), and Sisterhood contributor Melissa Langsam Braunstein has an opinion piece about one of the most commonly evaded taxes: the ‘nanny tax.’

Melissa, writing on the website of the National Review, wonders if more people would pay employment taxes for their nannies if it weren’t so difficult to find a caregiver qualified to work “on the books,” and if it weren’t so complicated for parents to navigate federal, state and municipal tax codes.

In their own nanny search, Melissa and her husband have interviewed more than 30 candidates who passed their initial screening questions. They’ve also done their share of homework on what they would owe the government should they decide to hire one of them to care for their infant daughter.

Melissa writes: “I’m lucky my husband is a Harvard-trained lawyer, but even he wasted hours wading through inscrutable legalese on numerous websites and calling several government offices for guidance. Why isn’t all of this information centrally organized, with the steps required to comply with the law clearly delineated? It’s as if the government is daring parents — even those who’d like to be law-abiding — to violate the law.”

She’s on to something. A central repository for this kind of information — state by state, city by city —  would certainly be useful for those families determined to hire a nanny legally. But I doubt it would make much of a difference for most parents who employ nannies and pay them under the table. Many of these parents aren’t bent on skirting the law; they simply cannot afford to hire a nanny legally.

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A Better Bat Mitzvah

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Debra Nussbaum Cohen
The author and her older daughter.

Days before Pesach we celebrated Girlchik’s bat mitzvah. Becoming bar or bat mitzvah is always cause for celebration, but hers was particularly sweet, since she had suffered a brain bleed around the time of her birth and her prognosis then was uncertain. Moments after telling me that my week-old daughter had suffered a major stroke, the hospital’s neurologist said: “It’s in God’s hands now.”

Today, thanks to hard work on Girlchik’s part, some great physical, cognitive and speech therapists, as well as God’s bountiful blessings, we were able to celebrate the bat mitzvah of our wonderfully healthy 13-year-old.

And thanks to a fascinating exhibit on the history of bat mitzvah put together by Moving Traditions, and The National Museum of American Jewish History, the topic of the bat mitzvah has been in the news lately. A recent piece on Tablet notes that “bat mitzvahs aren’t what they used to be.” To which I say: Thank God (and Jewish women) for that.

We can preoccupy ourselves with the ridiculously high hemlines and heels worn by some bat mitzvah girls. We can look to the Fort Knox-equivalent amounts of money spent by some families on over-the-top parties. Or we can concentrate on the things that have changed for the better.

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Girlfriend TV — From 'Lucy' to 'Girls'

By Gabrielle Birkner

HBO
‘Girls’

If the new HBO series “Girls” lives up to its breathless early reviews, Lena Dunham’s Hannah and her tight-knit group of self-reflective friends seem bound to join the television canon alongside Lucy and Ethel, Laverne and Shirley, and Carrie and Co.

In advance tonight’s “Girls” premiere — see The Sisterhood preview here — I spoke with Lynn Spangler, a SUNY, New Paltz communications professor and the author “Television Women from Lucy to ‘Friends,’” and Elana Levine, who teaches television history at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, about the small screen’s most iconic girlfriends and the generations they defined.

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The Feminist Case for 'Fathers' and 'Kings'

By David A.M. Wilensky

Little, Brown & Co.
A page from the ‘New American Haggadah’

No Haggadah in recent memory — or, perhaps, ever — has generated the kind of interest that the “New American Haggadah” has. When I began looking it over in preparation for a review of it, I was surprised by the unabashedly masculine way that Nathan Englander’s compelling translation refers to God. But as I thought about the issue throughout the Passover holiday, which ends tonight, it began to make a lot of sense.

I was raised in a Reform household. Our congregation had the older version of the Reform siddur, “Gates of Prayer,” the big blue one without the neutered translations. But it was the tradition there to improvise, de-gendering the English readings on the fly, often with charmingly chaotic results. Talk of the He-God makes me uncomfortable, and I sympathize with the discomfort expressed by some here at the Sisterhood with these masculine translations.

In her recent Sisterhood post, Debra Nussbaum Cohen writes about the widespread pairing of Elijah’s cup of wine with a cup of water for Miriam. In some corners of the left-of-Orthodox world, it has become downright traditional. Then she notes: “At the same time, the ‘New American Hagaddah,’ edited and translated by young literary lions Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander, seems to purposely go in an opposing direction.”

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Ann Romney, Economic Advisor?

By Elissa Strauss

getty images
Ann Romney introduces her husband.

There was a major Twitstorm yesterday, after CNN pundit and political strategist Hilary Rosen criticized Mitt Romney for referring to his wife, Ann, as his link to the struggles of working women. Rosen, speaking with Anderson Cooper on “AC360,” said: “Guess what? His wife has actually never worked a day in her life. She’s never really dealt with the kinds of economic issues that a majority of the women in this country are facing.”

Then Ann Romney opened up a Twitter account just so she could defend herself, explaining that raising five boys was hard work. Others took up Romney’s cause, insisting that Rosen was dismissing child-rearing as not “real work.”

Rosen then published a defense in the Huffington Post in which she explained that, as a mother of two, she was by no means trying to undermine the hard work that child-rearing entails or pass judgment on what kind of work is the most real. She was simply trying to point out that Ann Romney, as a woman who has never experienced any financial pressure to both raise kids and earn an income, isn’t the best advisor when it comes to figuring out how economic policy impacts women.

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It's 5:30, and Sheryl Sandberg's Going Home

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

getty images
Sheryl Sandberg

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has come out of the closet. No, not that closet, but rather the one in which she’s been hiding the fact that she leaves the office each day at 5:30 p.m. so she can have dinner with her children.

In this new video, Sandberg says that she wasn’t confident enough, until the last year or two, to admit that she leaves at a reasonable hour in order to attend to her family life. It’s amazing that even a woman as powerful as Sandberg has felt a sense of shame about it, as if she wasn’t working hard enough, though as she says in this article, clearly she is working at all hours: “I feel guilty when my son says, ‘Mommy, put down the BlackBerry, talk to me’ and that happens far too often.”

Nothing is as powerful an influence on changing a culture than seeing people in power illustrate values like this.

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Marking the Exodus With Kukush and Calamari

By Leah Vincent

istock
Calamari: Not your traditional Seder table fare.

What does the path to freedom look like?

In the Haggadah it says: “Once we were slaves, now we are free.” That transition is recounted and celebrated in a “Seder” — literally an “order” of fifteen sequential steps.

Freedom means different things to different people. My great journey to freedom was wresting myself out of my ultra-Orthodox Jewish community of origin, and into life as a secular, progressive woman. But I find that I can’t recount my path to freedom in an orderly way.

The transition to freedom is chaotic. It is sprawling and muddled and ugly and glorious and confusing and difficult. In the story of Passover, the transition includes an ancient legend of a redeemer, a young girl challenging her father, another daughter betraying her father, a detour into deeper suffering and darkness, a redeemer with a speech impediment, — and, of course, plagues, journeys out, hot pursuits, persistent courage, profound miracles, dancing, singing, complaining and new troubles. It is a mess.

While some may honor the Passover story with order that counters the pandemonium, in my home we embrace it.

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In Seders and Springsteen, Secular Spirituality

By Sarah Seltzer

Getty Images
Bruce Springsteen performs in New York on the first night of Passover.

This past weekend, the New York Times wrote about a group of Jewish Bruce Springsteen fans who rented out a room at a Madison Square Garden restaurant this past Friday night so they could participate in a Seder and still make it down to “the pit” (the general admission area) in time for their rock-and-roll idol to step out on stage to the wild cheers of thousands.

I identified immediately. My family is one of many Jewish families in the Northeast who are combining two of our most important faith-based events in one short span of time: seeing Bruce on tour, and sitting down to Seder. And that very ritualistic combination speaks to the nature of faith in a secular world: Some might decry the Seder/Springsteen juxtaposition as watered-down, or a “choose your own” form of religious indulgence. To me it represents one great aspect of our modern era, a symbol that not every meaningful experience comes with dogma attached.

I noted last year that as a secular humanist, Passover is one of a few Jewish rituals that have deep meaning for me.

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Hebrew Needs 'You' To Be Gender-Neutral

By Elana Sztokman

Ido Plazental, a history and civics teacher at Ziv High School in Jerusalem, has an innovative way of raising gender awareness among his students: He addresses them all as female.

Native English speakers who are not familiar with Hebrew may miss the inventiveness of this form of speech. In Hebrew, as in many European languages, there is no such thing as a gender-neutral way of speaking. In Hebrew, you can’t say, “I’m playing with my friend” without revealing whether your friend is male (haver) or female (havera). All objects, people, pronouns and verbs must be in either male or female. This means that in order to address a group of people, “you” has to be either the male “atem,” or the female “aten,” which generally leaves one part of the group excluded.

Although some people play with the generally awkward he/she combinations, the predominant custom among most Hebrew speakers is to use the male form to address mixed groups. And while we may like to believe that when Israelis use the all-male form, they really mean to address men and women, in practice that is not always the case.

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What Banning Facebook Is Really About

By Elana Sztokman

Facebook is forbidden among Chabad teenage girls, as The Sisterhood told you — and as the Forward reports here. This reflects a blatant double standard, the report points out, because the movement has widely embraced technology to spread its message, but refuses to allow its own youth to use these tools.

But Chabad’s double standard in its relationship to secular society is only one part of the problem. It seems to me that the story of girls being forbidden from using Facebook and other internet tools is less about Chabad’s missionary stance and more about their view of women and girls. After all, it is only girls whose school is handing out $100 fines and having mothers’ monitor their computer use.

Moreover, the practice of banning girls from the computer largely revolves around one concept: modesty. The Facebook ban is just the latest in a long string of insidious practices in the Orthodox community — not just Chabad, to be sure — aimed at restricting women’s and girls’ freedom. These practices are promoted under the term tzniut, or “modesty,” but really are nothing more than classic misogyny.

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In Praise of the New Ex-Hasidic Reality Show

By Leah Vincent

My friends and I are celebrating the news that a group of our friends — all former ultra-Orthodox Jews, or maskilim — are getting their own reality show.

We maskilim have been living on the fringes of the Jewish world, many of us navigating dramatic journeys of self-discovery as we pull ourselves free of our pasts, and try to rebuild our lives. When I left my religious family 14 years ago, I did it as a teenager, alone. But since then, a community has coalesced. Footsteps, an organization that helps cultural émigrés from Orthodox Judaism, was founded. Unpious, a website that showcases our voices, was launched. And now the momentum builds, with the publication of Deborah Feldman’s best-selling memoir, Pearlperry Reich’s television appearance (video below) and news of this reality show — all in a few short weeks.

I don’t know exactly what the TV show will cover, but I’ve got some idea. When my buddies and I get together and talk about our journeys, we’ve got plenty of stories to share about fumbling sex, our first “sin,” leaving a religious spouse behind, living secret lives beneath religious facades, visiting a strip club, choosing college over yeshiva — and that’s before we start talking about the otherworldliness of our unusual childhoods!

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