When Helen Sieger died on the day before Passover this year, at just 57 years old, in a hospital used for inmates of Riker’s Island, it was a sad end to a life with many sad chapters.
Helen — or Chayie — Sieger’s story was well-known in Haredi circles in Brooklyn. But when her saga became the subject of a New York magazine feature story in 2003, she became a household name.
After nearly a quarter-century of being a dutiful wife to Chaim Sieger, mother to a son and a daughter, and part of Brooklyn’s Bobov Hasidic community, when her husband remarried without granting her a Jewish divorce, she sued him and the rabbis who, she alleged he bribed, in civil court. The rabbis had provided Chaim Sieger with a heter meah rabbonim, permission from 100 rabbis allowing her to re-marry without granting his wife a Jewish divorce, or get.
In 1995 Chayie Sieger did something Bobov women had almost never done: She left her husband, who according to the New York magazine story, was a serial philanderer and gambler, to move to her father’s home a few doors down.
The LGBT–oriented Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in Manhattan, led by openly gay Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum — a Sisterhood 50 selection — was front and center in the fight to get same-sex marriage legislation passed in New York state. (Kleinbaum also made headlines when she put her arm around an ultra-Orthodox man protesting the legislation, and was spat on repeatedly.) Two of CBST’s most active members, Rose Ann Herman and Jake Goodman, spoke with The Sisterhood about the implications of bill’s passage for the Jewish community and beyond, and what’s next for LGBT activists.
Elissa Strauss: First off, congratulations! How do you feel?
Jake Goodman: It’s an amazing feeling to know that, in terms of marriage, all New Yorkers are finally equal. It seems like such a simple, obvious thing, but clearly, it is not.
Rose Ann Herman: I am indescribably happy for all the young people out there whose lives have been validated by our state; I adore the Republican senators who showed real leadership and courage, and voted for what was right, and beautiful and good.
Can you speak a little about the efforts of the Jewish community in getting this law passed?
My daughter is graduating high school today. This is a huge moment in life — probably more for her than for me, although I’m not sure — and the mass of thoughts and emotions are a bit overwhelming.
The moment Avigayil was born, I was born as well. Her entry in the universe was transformative for me, as she turned me from person into parent — a permanent alteration, a complete reconfiguration of all one knows to be true in the world. This tiny, spectacular creature who has, at different times, kept me up at night (more recently than one might think), sent me running and chasing, challenged some of my most basic beliefs and completely unhinged me, has also taught me how to love unconditionally, how to stretch beyond the limitations of my experience and how to imagine a different world. Somehow, despite the fact that she came out of my body a mere 18 years ago, her vision of life is completely her own, her identity proudly independent and strong. I am in awe of her entire person, and her continued presence, the blessed intertwining of our journeys, has been nothing short of a divine gift.
There is something profoundly sad for me, too.
Adding to the various portrayals of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas that are part of San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum’s current “Seeing Gertrude Stein” exhibit, reviewed recently in the Forward, are a set of paper dolls of the two women.
The paper doll set was created by the museum in honor of the city’s Pride celebrations this past weekend. The CJM joined forces with SFMOMA and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, marching as “Museums for Pride!” in the Pride Parade. The museums urged the public to come see staff dressed as Stein, Toklas and others from the avant-garde set.
The CJM produced the special set of paper dolls to hand out during the event. As a teaser, the museum released five images on Facebook on Saturday, with the accompanying description: “Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas were a distinctive couple, and they developed a style of dressing all their own. Alice favored a more feminine look, and Gertrude embraced androgyny as she did in other aspects of her life. We created paper dolls celebrating the many outfits of Stein and Toklas for San Francisco’s Pride event, and these are a few of their looks.”
Unfortunately, it’s not unusual to read about violent acts of anger and vengeance by extremist Jewish settlers against Palestinians. Such attacks are part of what seems like an endless cycle of revenge in the territories where one side attempts to attack what they view as injustices. But what is unusual was the recent news that four young women were arrested for allegedly setting Palestinian cars on fire in Hebron.
This one gender barrier that women definitely shouldn’t applaud being crossed.
In fact, most of the suspects appear to be girls, not yet women. Only one Yaska Weiss, 20, of Kiryat Arba, was identified in the press as her co-conspirators were minors. Police theorize that the acts were part of what Jewish extremists call a “price tag” policy — presumably forcing Arabs to pay a price for attacks against Jews.
Until now, women have almost never participated in Jewish vigilante violence against Palestinians. In the very Orthodox social fabric of the territories, the women were busy keeping the house, raising the babies, and supporting the family, and holding the communities together. They have vocally and assertively defended such actions, but there has been little evidence of them having participated in it.
I met Esther Broner close to 20 years ago, when I was a newbie religion writer, and was awed by the power of the Jewish feminist rituals like the feminist Seder, which was then starting to become mainstream (though is most popular now in its neutered form as “women’s seders,” lest anyone be offended by the term “feminist”).
Esther, along with writer Letty Cottin Pogrebin, who remembers her dear friend in this Forward appreciation, was kind to me at a time when I was inexperienced and insecure. Often it’s the small kindnesses extended by the most accomplished people that are the most memorable.
Esther wrote 11 books, including “Bringing Home the Light: A Jewish Woman’s Handbook of Rituals,” (Council Oak Books, 1999) a distillation of her approach to new rituals.
“If I could know that my daughters were the last sacrifice on the road to peace between Palestinians and Israelis, then I would accept their loss,” wrote Izzeldin Abuelaish, the Gazan obstetrician-gynecologist specializing in infertility following the killing of three of his daughters and a niece by an IDF tank shell that hit his family’s home in the Jabalia refugee camp in the final days of Operation Cast Lead in 2009. The tragic incident took place while Abuelaish was reporting live from Gaza by telephone for an Israeli news broadcast.
Despite knowing that his daughters have not been and will not be the last sacrifice, Abuelaish has nonetheless been able to forge ahead on that road better than most. “Urged on by the spirits of those he lost, his belief in medicine and his deep faith in Islam, Abuelaish offers practical ways of bridging the gaps between two peoples he believes have more similarities than differences,” wrote Canadian author Jonathan Garfinkel in his review of the doctor’s book, “I Shall Not Hate,” in The Globe and Mail last year.
One major way in which Abuelaish, 57, is bridging the gaps and working toward a more peaceful Middle East is through his Daughters for Life Foundation, which he has established in memory of his late daughters. This year the foundation is distributing its inaugural set of awards, 35 of them at 10 universities in Israel, Egypt, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. In Israel, the awards will go to students at Haifa University and Ben-Gurion University, where the first three awards were presented earlier this month.
The head of Wimbledon, which began this week, is asking for less grunting from female tennis players during their matches. In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, Ian Ritchie, the chief executive of the All England Lawn Tennis Club, conveyed that tennis umpires were becoming more uncomfortable with the increasing length and volume of the sounds accompanying tennis serves, called grunts. He believes greener players have an “education problem” about the issue.
There are many international tennis tournaments each year, and a number of these are high profile, but it seems that women tennis players are publicly scolded for grunting only when Wimbledon rolls around; the Sisterhood first wrote about this phenomenon nearly two years ago. Then, it was Russia’s Maria Sharapova who was being criticized for the decibels her grunts reached (yes, officials measure). Now, it’s Victoria Azarenka of Belarus who is being reprimanded.
Azarenka says the grunts improve her game. Perhaps it is emblematic of the power of her serve; perhaps it works against her competitor’s concentration.
Whatever the reason, it seems that there is more heat focused on female players when it comes to these noises than their male counterparts. After all, there are men who grunt, too.
Ah, women and ambition. If I could untie this knot, I’d be on national tour with my bestselling self-help book.
Elissa, in this Sisterhood post, is right, of course, that the issues brought up by Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg in her recent speeches, as vital as they ar, (and as much as I felt personally touched and invigorated by them), are missing a piece — that is, social and political will to improve women’s lives by making paid maternity leave mandatory, by passing anti-discrimination and sick leave measures that would allow women to charge ahead while also caring for kids, aging relatives, and ourselves without getting penalized. Added to this, of course, are the unspoken social rules which affect women’s psyches and the perception of our behavior — rules about when it’s acceptable to look out for oneself first, when it’s acceptable to value advancement over loyalty, when it’s acceptable to demand more of your family, your friends, your boss.
And the missing piece that I’m referring to is the same piece that’s been long absent in media coverage of women’s advancement in the workplace and the never-ending “mommy wars.”
I read with great interest Jordana Horn’s Sisterhood post about the public fascination with high-profile downfalls. That’s partly because I approach scandal from the opposite direction. I don’t think it’s helpful to quash talk about a topic that clearly interests people. I think it’s more helpful to ask why we — the public and the media — are so incredibly seduced by Anthony Weiner and the like, and the tawdry circumstances they’ve created.
Jordana, one of the things that piqued my interest about your post is the way that your opening argument, effectively, spreads potential gossip. While you don’t name the famous man “everyone knows” is guilty of philandering, you share news of his illicit behavior anyway. Being the naturally curious person I am, I’m still trying to figure out the protagonist of your story. So instead of diminishing our interest in gossip and scandal, you are in fact cultivating it.
That brings me to my second point. Why are we so interested in these sordid tales of people who have nothing to do with us? The thing is, these people — whether it’s the man Jordana alludes to, Weiner, Arnold Schwarzenegger or John Edwards — have everything to do with us.
Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg’s recent Barnard commencement address has become one of the most popular of the season. It has been linked to a quoted all over the Internet; the Forward excerpted it and so, too, did The New York Times. And right on.
Sandberg gave a no-nonsense, no apologies plea for feminine ambition. She reminded the class of 2011 that despite gains in education — she said that women have been 50% of college graduates since 1981 — men still run the world:
Of 190 heads of state, nine are women. Of all the parliaments around the world, 13% of those seats are held by women. Corporate America top jobs, 15% are women; numbers which have not moved at all in the past nine years. Nine years. Of full professors around the United States, only 24% are women.
Sandberg’s two main pieces of advice to remedy gender inequality are for women to “think big” and believe in themselves, and to not prematurely curtail our ambitions because of the work/life choices we might have to make down the line when we have children.
For the past few days, I’ve been planning to write about a young woman from the “Teen Mom” series on MTV and her apparent suicide attempt. I’ve been pondering this genre of “teen fertility reality TV” for a long time, particularly whether there’s a genuine educational benefit and how that benefit might weigh against the toll the instant celebrity takes on the young, troubled women who are its stars.
But I kept getting sidetracked from this line of thought by reading my fellow Sisterhood bloggers’ incisive thoughts on the fallout from the Anthony Weiner scandal and feeling like I should weigh in, too.
I particularly appreciated the opinion that the media’s behavior throughout this week has been appalling. Perhaps the most egregious example of this was at Nancy Pelosi’s press conference last week, when she was discussing the budget, unemployment and other crucial issues. When she announced she wouldn’t be answering queries about Weinergate, the major networks stopped their feeds. These networks clearly demonstrated their priorities about which moral crisis mattered to them — the one facing a single hapless congressman versus the one facing most of the country.
For several weeks, it appeared that Naama Shafir’s shoulders would stand between her and an opportunity to play basketball on an international level as part of Israel’s national team. But in the end, she was able to take to the court.
Shafir, the Orthodox Israeli basketball star whom the Forward profiled here, has overcome numerous challenges in making the most of her athletic talent without sacrificing her religious observance. But after the young player has managed to accommodate the Sabbath and kashrut laws at the University of Toledo for nearly three years, she ran into trouble in Europe because of her unwillingness to take off her T-shirt.
In her career as a U.S. college player, it hasn’t bothered officials that Shafir wears a T-shirt underneath her sleeveless jersey, covering her shoulders in order to maintain her personal level of modesty. But playing as a member of the Israeli national team, she was told that international basketball regulations require uniforms to be uniform.
Today is the day that women in Saudi Arabia are taking to the streets — behind the wheel of their husbands’ cars, that is. June 17 is the day selected by women’s rights activist Manal Al-Sharif for women to get out there and protest the kingdom’s ban on women driving. Last month, after Al-Sharif posted a video of herself driving, she was arrested and jailed for nine days.
Today, women nationwide are expected to be driving in protest “to see if they get thrown in the clink en masse,” wrote New York Times Op-Ed columnist Maureen Dowd.
Even billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, known as “the Arabian Warren Buffet” for being the country’s richest man, is calling for a lift of the ban, Dowd wrote. After all, he told her:
We’re not calling for diplomatic relations with Israel. We’re just asking for ladies to drive the car. Please, give me a break. Even in North Korea, women can drive. It’s a joke. The issue of women driving can happen tomorrow morning because it’s not really an issue at all. Frankly speaking, we need strong political leadership to do it and get it behind us. What are we waiting for?
Just an hour north of New York City, the Hasidic enclave of New Square bans women from driving or even walking on the same side of the street as men, as Andrew Tobin wrote in last week’s Forward. Steven I. Weiss wrote in these pages back in 2005 about when New Square’s rabbis formalized their community’s custom of banning women from behind the wheel.
There is a particular apartment building in Manhattan that has a well-known “secret.” Everyone knows it — the residents know, the local dogwalkers know. And the doormen know best of all, because, late some nights, they’re the ones who let in the famous man, who steps into the elevator. In doing so, this person steps out on his significant other with his other significant other.
This is non-fiction, but I’m not going to say who this person is. I’m not going to speculate as to why he’s engaging in behavior that, if not self-destructive, is at least sketchy. But why? Doesn’t the public deserve to know about this guy’s duplicitous behavior, and stage a Salem witch-style trial in the unblinking eye of Internet gossip sites?
Is there a point at which we can say, ‘Enough’? Truthfully, I’m a bit sick of the whole prurient news scandal cycle…in no small part because it’s not really news. I wrote about this as early as the Clinton-Monica mess — i.e., that our generation tends to be surprised that other people are surprised by the misconduct of politicians, famous figures, what have you. It’s not that these people have a free pass of some sort — these people do crappy things, and their wives and partners have their hands full.
To cut, or not to cut, that is the question. At least, that seems to be the dilemma du jour as residents of San Francisco gear up to vote this fall on a proposal to legally ban circumcision of males under the age of 18. Leaders in the Jewish and Muslim communities, along with others who want to protect parents’ right to circumcise their infant sons for either religious or health reasons, have been up in arms, giving interviews to Jewish and mainstream media, starting groups like the Committee for Parental Choice and Religious Freedom, and denouncing the creator of Foreskin Man and his nemesis Monster Mohel.
Drowned out by all this frantic activity is the growing voice of Jews who oppose circumcision and brit milah. I’m not talking about the generally older, secular Jews involved in anti-circumcision campaigns in San Francisco and other parts of the country. I’m referring to young, Jewishly committed couples who are calling into question the religious legitimacy of bringing a male child into the covenant by surgically removing a part of his sexual organ.
Naomi Wolf is really getting on my nerves. It feels terrible to say that because she has made some key contributions to feminist consciousness over the years. Her first major book, “The Beauty Myth,” outlining the litany of damaging effects of the beauty industry on women and girls’ self-image is a classic that has indelibly impacted feminist thinking about body and commercialization of femininity. Her analysis of the female imagery of “The Angel in the House” offers some of the most useful insights in trying to understand women’s battles for self-expression and empowerment — especially religious women.
That said, I think she may really be losing it. I started to think this last year when she wrote a delusional essay glorifying the sexuality of repressed Muslim women who wear Victoria’s Secret under layers of hijab. She had some similar commentary about Orthodox women as well, which made her sound like some kind of cross between a rabbi preaching at a frat house and a repentant stripper. Cover up and you’ll find your spiritual salvation, was more or less her message at the time. She says all this, by the way, while wearing revealing clothes, globs of make-up, and Fran Drescher-worthy hair.
Her latest essay takes the cake. “A wrinkle in time: Twenty years after ‘The Beauty Myth,’ Naomi Wolf addresses The Aging Myth”, published recently the Washington Post, is a retrospective on her writing that comes across less as feminist scholarship and more like a ditsy celebration of the middle-age cocktail party.
The Spring 2011 issue of Bridges: A Jewish Feminist Journal is expected to be the last for the publication, which has been alive and rabble-rousing for 21 years. The journal began back when Adrienne Rich, Elly Bulkin and Ruth Atkin, members of the Feminist Task Force of the New Jewish Agenda, proposed expanding the Task Force’s newsletter into a journal. The result was Bridges, whose stated mission is to imbue Judaism with the values of the feminist and LGBT movements. Since then, Bridges has become a place for readers to engage with their activist and Jewish identities.
Over the years, issues of Bridges have focused on such topics as health care, feminism and our fathers, and Jewish women of color. The 31st and final issue — the journal’s contract with the Indiana University Press is up — placed past contributors, such as professor Susannah Heschel, writer and activist Elana Dykewomon, and poet Alicia Ostriker, in conversation with one another.
Each conversation is an illustration of the personal as political: For example, Yavilah McCoy, an advocate for Jewish multiculturalism, and musician Miri Hunter Haruach,, in “African American Jewish Women—Life Beyond the Hyphen,” talk frankly about the challenges of race and gender faced in both Jewish and feminist spaces. And lesbian activist Elana Dykewomon and performance artist Jyl Lyn Felman, in “Forward and Backward: Jewish Lesbian Writers,” deliberate on the notion of being outsiders as Jewish lesbians.
The Satmar community’s Central Rabbinical Congress last week banned tank tops, among other women’s popular warm-weather wear. Of course, the hipsters and the Latinos who live in the neighborhood, alongside the Satmars, probably can’t read the Yiddish posters that Hasidim hung on light posts throughout the area to promulgate the ban.
We’re not sure if the ban is targeted at Hasidic women who, in a recent fashion trend in other Orthodox communities (though perhaps not Williamsburg), have taken to wearing spaghetti-strap dresses and other immodest wear over long-sleeved tee shirts.
The rabbinic powers-that-be over at the CRC probably would have been happy to have the women who had planned to ride in the naked bike ride through Williamsburg on Shabbat wear anything at all — even tank tops. The ride, organized by the organization “Times Up,” was put on to protest “indecent exposure to toxic pollution.” The ride was scheduled to conclude with a party at the Times Up headquarters in the neighborhood, which is the New York City home base of the Satmar Hasidic community.
It did not feel like a compliment when someone told me that I was the “prettiest” rabbi he had ever seen. Nor did it feel like a compliment when a congregant said he was really impressed with me although he always thought “ima” — Hebrew for mother — “did not belong on the bima.”
I experienced many of these backhanded compliments during my 18 job interviews. But the most frustrating moments of the search was when I was asked, over and over again, how I planned to manage motherhood along with the demands of being a rabbi.
During rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary, I served at five congregations — including a synagogue that Newsweek has deemed one of the “25 most vibrant congregations in America” — as a part-time assistant rabbi, and received two prestigious fellowships, including a Wexner Graduate Fellowship. And having graduated on time, maintaining an “A” average all the while having two children within two years, I expected that being a woman would not interfere with my ambition to serve the Jewish community as a rabbi. Yet, congregations were still concerned with how motherhood might interfere with my ability to do the job. When I asked my male colleagues with children if they were asked the parenthood question, not one responded that they had.