Imagine a medical conference dedicated to women’s bodies in which no women are allowed to speak or even sit in the audience. No, this is not a Victorian novel or the back room of an old-fashioned gentlemen’s club. This is Israel 2012.
For the fourth year in a row, Pu’ah, a publicly funded organization dealing with gynecology, fertility and Jewish law, or halacha, is set to hold their annual medical conference on January 11 in a setting completely devoid of actual women.
Women are excluded as conference presenters on fertility, medicine, or Jewish law, and barred from even sitting in the crowd. Over the past three years, Kolech has written petitions, gone to the media, and turned to medical professionals asking them not to participate “This year, for the first time, people are taking an interest, and maybe something will happen,” Kolech’s founder, Hanna Kehat, said.
About a month ago, I was nursing my son in the waiting room at the pediatrician’s office. A young girl who looked to be about 10 or 11 noticed a pair of little feet sticking out from under my blue floral nursing cover and innocently asked me what I was doing, and I responded that I was feeding my baby. Her eyes widened incredulously as she asked, “How do you feed a baby without a bottle?” Now, her mother was right there, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the 8.5 months that I’ve been a parent, it’s that “backseat parenting” is just not cool, so I quickly mumbled something about asking her (mortified looking) mother and left it at that.
The incident got me thinking. I felt sad for that little girl that nobody had thought to explain to her one of life’s most beautiful biological processes; I also felt dejected about the prospects of raising this country’s appallingly low breastfeeding rates.
Whenever these kinds of conversations come up, someone inevitably remarks that feeding babies is about choice, and we should not shame mothers who choose to bottle-feed. I agree. The problem is: How often does it truly come down to choice — and not a “cultural booby trap”?
Equality for Jewish women is not a 20th century invention. A siddur, or prayerbook, from the year 1471 contains an alternative text to the much abhorred “shelo asani isha” blessing that thanks God for “not making me a woman,” a text that is not only misogynistic in content but assumes that the person holding the prayerbook is male. In this 15th century book, the text reads, “Baruch she’asani isha v’lo ish,” “Thank God for making me a woman and not a man.”
According to Professor David Kramer, of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the “siddur was produced by the scribe and rabbi Abraham Farissol for a groom to give to his bride in 1471.” Farissol lived in Italy from 1451–1525. The siddur, housed in JTS’ library archives, can be viewed here.
This is a significant discovery for several reasons.
Tracey Gold played a significant role in my childhood. I found most of “Growing Pains” terribly boring and annoying, but Carol Seaver, the fictional family’s perfectly nerdy teenage daughter, fascinated me. When I saw pictures of an emaciated Gold on the cover of magazines in the supermarket, I thought they seemed completely incongruous with Carol’s sensibilities. I was terrified by her skinny arms and protruding clavicle. (At one point in 1992, Gold reportedly weighed 80 lbs.) But I didn’t understand what was happening to her — until many years later, when it was happening to women in my family and several of my friends.
If you tune in to Lifetime (you know, the so-called network for women) every Friday night at the peculiar hour of 11 p.m., you can see Gold again, older and earnest, in a new reality show called “Starving Secrets.” Each week, Gold goes on a mission to “help others battle their own eating disorders and to get them the treatment they need to save their lives.”
The opening sequence of the show is a litany of the emaciated, wasted bodies of folks with eating disorders. I feel like I’m about to watch a Holocaust documentary.
There she went, waving over her father’s shoulder. My husband pushed a loaded luggage cart outside the departure level sidewalk at JFK with one hand and carried our daughter with the other. I stood beside the car blowing kisses and watching her shout, “Bye, Mama!” until they were swallowed by the automatic doors and had disappeared into the terminal. Then, alone at the wheel, I had a Ferris Bueller moment:
When my husband suggested taking our 2-year-old daughter to Los Angeles for nine days, where he had to travel for work and his parents had offered to take care of her, the prospect seemed bizarre. I hadn’t been apart from her for more than a couple days since she was born, and in those cases, it was she who stayed home with my parents as my husband and I ventured off for a quick weekend away. I thought about going along for the trip, but entering my eighth month of pregnancy, the thought of a cross-country flight seemed as appealing as hiking the Andes in six-inch heels.
So I agreed. I was still a bit tepid about the idea, but was warming up to it as their day of departure approached. Then it came. And it was glorious.
I would like to take a moment to consider provocative women. After all, those of us who are following events in Beit Shemesh have heard a lot about this subject. A woman trying to hail a taxi in Beit Shemesh and then spat upon was called “provocative” by Haredi men around her. Tanya Rosenblit, who sat in the front seat of a segregated bus from Ashdod to Jerusalem, was accused of being “provocative” by those men who stopped the bus from proceeding on its route. Even 8-year-old Na’ama Margolese was accused of being “provocative.”
In my doctoral research, in which I spent three years in a state religious girls’ high school in Israel working on decoding girls’ identities, I came upon accusations of “provocative” in some telling moments.
One day, the school held a special “Tzniut Day” in which there was an assembly and special classes on the issue of “modesty.” (It was actually about girls’ clothing and I do wish that people would stop calling that “modesty,” as if there is anything remotely connected between body cover and humility before God.) The rabbi speaking to the class framed the issue around teaching the girls not to be “provocative” by, for example, revealing one’s upper arms.
In Jerusalem and Ramat Gan Sunday, women and men boarded buses to protest gender segregation on public transportation, and the exclusion of women from public spaces throughout Israel.
Settler “It Girl” and Israel Hayom columnist Emily Amrusi appeared on Israeli TV playing down the exclusion of women, saying that it is merely “separation” between men and women, and that the secular media has no right to tell religious women how to live.
Satirist Itamar Rose released a video showing how easily some Israeli women agreed to be hidden from view while singing Hanukkah songs for a (fake) filmed greeting to soldiers.
Earlier this month a humor video called “Shit Girls Say” hit the web. I found it mildly amusing, but not necessarily funny or cutting enough to deserve the over 7 million hits it would get in a few weeks. But then it kind of changed my life.
The shtick with “Shit Girls Say,” which began as popular Twitter handle, is calling attention to how relentlessly careful “girls” can be. In the video a woman — played by a man which adds some pop to the humor, but not as much as you’d think — delivers a series of non-sequiturs of typical things girls say.
“Can you read this and make sure it makes sense?”
“Do you know anything about computers?”
“Can you do me a huge favor?” (Repeated more than once.)
“Do I look like a doily?“
“I know, right?”
I really did want to put down “Secrets of Shiksa Appeal: Eight Steps to Attract Your Shul-Mate,” a new self-help guide, which begins with the cringe-worthy lines, “I once drove a boyfriend into the arms of a shiksa. The following pages are my attempt to make up for that.” But before I knew it I was through the 117-page book.
The premise of “Secrets,” written by a 20-something author who goes by the pen name Avi Roseman, is that Jewish women would be able to get Jewish men to marry them if only they would act more like non-Jewish women (a premise that Details and Complex magazines would surely take issue with — even if for the wrong reasons). Only she freely calls these non-Jewish women “shiksas,” with apparently no concern that she might come off sounding like a huge bigot. As difficult as it was for me, I let my late bubbe get away with bandying “shiksa” about; but I can’t allow the young Roseman to feign ignorance of the derogatory nature of the term.
The essence of Roseman’s approach is that Jewish women just aren’t good enough.
In her post on Complex.com’s year-end list of the 50 hottest Jewish women, Naomi Zeveloff warns against the persistent lust-ridden fascination with Jewish women.
Me, on the other hand — well, I am still kind of digging it.
Are men’s magazines crude and often misogynistic? Yep. Are ethnic fetishes, as Zeveloff point out, incredibly reductive? Of course. But still, I see a silver lining here.
Instead of Jewish women, broadly speaking, adapting to notions of what is hot — blond, demure, coquettish — men, as represented by these mainstream publications, have adapted to us — brunette, opinionated, funny. And I am well-aware that I am speaking in stereotypes here, but considering how much we still trade in stereotypes I believe it is sometimes worthwhile to consider how they function and evolve instead of just outright rejecting them.
Last night, Israel’s first mass demonstration in protest of the increasing waves of Haredi violence against women took place in Beit Shemesh. It was a remarkable event, in its strength and diversity. There were speakers representing a range of organizations, Knesset members from five different political parties — including three women, two of whom are heads of their respective parties — and citizens religious and secular who have become symbols of the struggle against the removal of women from the public sphere. Yet, while history was being made, the event also raised some difficult questions, such as who the demonstrators are, what are they protesting, and to whom are they addressing their demands?
Part of the demonstration was undoubtedly local. Throughout the event, there were ongoing calls from the crowd for the Haredi Beit Shemesh Mayor Moshe Abutbul to resign. “You destroyed this city,” protesters called out during a speech he made about his intentions to put violent citizens behind bars. Several speakers and many signs referred to the current plans to build 30,000 new housing units exclusively for Haredim. There is no obvious gender issue in the housing plans, and the fact that this was a theme of the event suggests that many people came to protest the seeming Haredi take-over of the city, and blamed local and national politicians for that.
Another major theme of the event was a protest of religious extremism in Israel generally.
‘Tis the season for year-end lists, and the pop culture web site Complex.com has come out with one that places them squarely in skeez territory: the 50 hottest Jewish women, a catalog of actresses, porn stars, and models with Semitic heritage.
“As a flame dancing atop a candle gives off heat, so do many of the Jewish women who’ve made their mark on pop culture over the years,” reads the web site. “No matter your faith or creed, after reading this list you’ll agree that the sexy ladies of the Tribe of Judah play second fiddler on the roof to none.”
Bad puns aside, there’s something very unsavory about the compilation, in that it’s the most recent instance of what seems to be a growing media fixation on Jewish women.
Israel’s Minister of Culture and Sport Limor Livnat was doing well for a while in her efforts to combat gender segregation. But then she, like others before her, fell into an all-too familiar trap: religious politics.
Livnat, a leading Israeli legislator recently decided to take a vocal lead protesting gender segregation in the public sphere. It was an exciting development when, during a weekly cabinet meeting mid-December, she proposed a series of governmental actions to fight such segregation. Her proposals included setting up an inter-ministerial committee to enforce equality, having the Civil Service Authority publish clear guidelines for several bureaucratic bodies, and opening up special government hotlines to field complaints about coerced gender segregation on buses and elsewhere.
Israel has a new and unlikely national heroine. She is a small, blond, bespectacled Orthodox 8-year-old girl, the daughter of American immigrants who live in Beit Shemesh. Her name is Na’ama Margolese and she was featured in a news broadcast on Israel’s Channel 2 about the ongoing Haredi harassment of the girls who attend the Orot Banot School, and about the problem of extreme Haredi control in Beit Shemesh in general.
Naama spoke on camera of her fears while walking the short distance from her home to her school, after numerous occasions when she was cursed at and even once spit on by the Haredi demonstrators. Israeli viewers watched as her mother, Hadassah, holding her hand, tried to convince her to make the short walk as she cried, whined and protested; it’s a ritual they go through every school day.
To the residents of Beit Shemesh (and to readers of The Sisterhood) the story of Beit Shemesh and the intimidation of Orot Banot girls is nothing new.
The Kittel Collection is a series of clothing pieces that explores the different ways clothing is used as a vehicle for meaning and identity within our tradition and literature. The kittel is a simple, white, garment used as a burial shroud, and customarily worn by men on various Jewish holy days. Each month, The Sisterhood showcases, and looks at the meaning behind, a kittel from my collection. View images of this month’s kittel, the Soulful Kittel, after the jump.
It’s Hanukkah, the festival of light, and this kittel focuses on the metaphorical use of light.
When God expelled Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, God clothed them in “garments of skin” to replace the fig leaves that they had used to cover their nakedness. A midrash in Genesis changes the letter ayin in the word or to an alef. With an ayin the word or means skin; with an alef it means light. And so skin is transformed into the evocative “garments of light.”
Crossposted from Haaretz
On a sunny afternoon early this week, an ultra-Orthodox woman boarded a bus in the enclave of the Gur Hasidic community in Ashdod and took a seat in the second row. The bus, Egged line 451, was headed for Jerusalem. It quickly became clear that this simple, everyday act — choosing a seat to her liking — was enough to transform her presence on the bus into a palpable challenge to the rest of the passengers. I sat down across from the woman, fearing the worst.
Not only did the woman, whose name is Yocheved Horowitz, blatantly ignore the tacit agreement among the bus’ riders to adhere to the most stringent religious practices — in this case, an unwritten rule that men sit in the front and women in the back. And not only did she not conform to the seating arrangements dictated by men — that is, those in authority. This was also a woman who, judging by her appearance, seemed to come from within the community.
A young girl who boarded the bus at one of the stops in the Zayyin quarter, where the Gur compound is situated, apparently couldn’t have imagined that an ultra-Orthodox woman would relate dismissively to the highest social stricture of segregation by sex. Even as she saw Horowitz heading for the second row, she whispered to her, as if trying to save her before it was too late, “Mehadrin, mehadrin” — a term usually employed in connection with food, but which in this case referred to the adherence on the bus to the strictest religious principles; the girl also gestured to her to sit in the back.
Let’s get something straight: I believe that the world would be a far better place, and women would be far better off, if Bravo had never invented the “Real Housewives” television reality show genre. But unfortunately for women — especially those of Orange County, Beverly Hills, New York City, Atlanta, New Jersey and Washington, DC — there is obviously some deep human need for a glimpse of the lives of the rich and ostentatious, and what better, albeit sexist, prism than the lives of the privileged women? And so the endless viewing of luxury living and staged catfighting, where men are either non-existent, or as interesting than the furniture, became a staple of American television.
Then just as nearly every successful reality series from “Survivor” to “The Voice” has made aliyah to Israel, so came the “Housewives” concept. The staged reality series about wealthy Israeli women, “HaMeusharot,” (“Wealthy Women”) and the timing couldn’t have been more unfortunate. Right around its premiere last summer, Israeli social protesters pitched their tents on Rothschild Street and the ‘tycoons’ become public enemy number one. It was as if the series premiere of Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice” coincided with the emergence of Occupy Wall Street.
You’d think people wouldn’t have been in the mood for the rich and famous. But the show quickly drew an audience and received relatively strong ratings for the financially struggling television channel that airs it.
What makes this Christmas different from all other Christmases? For the first time, I have had to explain my typically unspoken understanding that this all-encompassing holiday is not ours.
Whenever my 7-month-old daughter, Lila, and I take walks, I name and explain everything we see. In recent weeks, that has included the pretty Christmas lights adorning our neighborhood stores. My daughter is dazzled by the decorations, especially our building’s Christmas tree. It’s ironic, since Lila’s musical taste skews incredibly Jewish, from “Tree of Life” to “Oseh Shalom.” Then again, perhaps it’s logical. Lila is enthralled by shiny objects, and she’s always loved lights. She’s never seen a Christmas tree before, and it must be confusing that all trees live outside, except the one in our apartment building’s lobby. So, I do my best to explain everything in terms an infant can understand. This tree is pretty, and we can admire it, but it’s not our tradition.
Some not-so-endearing news from our favorite Jewish fashion designers: Marc Jacobs tells Vogue that he hasn’t spoken to his mother in over 20 years (my mom launches a re-unification campaign if we don’t speak for two days), and Donna Karan gets in trouble for her new ad campaign set in Haiti. Hat tip to Jezebel.
Jewish mother Jill Zarin may have dealt with her share of divas on the “Real Housewives of New York,” but she still wasn’t prepared for Queen Bee Barbra Streisand. Radar reports that shortly after Zarin posted a video online of Streisand performing at a recent benefit for the Israeli Defense Forces, she was contacted by Streisand’s lawyers to take down immediately. “Someone from Barbra Streisand’s company just called my store to tell me to take down my YouTube video or they will sue me. Is that nuts? Sorry guys. I took it down!” Zarin wrote.
The Jewish Women’s Repertory Company, which produces work with all-female casts for the Los Angeles Orthodox community, is out with a new show, “Me and My Girl.” As The Los Angeles Times notes, this is one play where the actresses get the good parts.
Before, during and after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak, women have been the focus of the protracted conflict in Egypt between grassroots protesters and the military regime. First it was the attack on CBS reporter Lara Logan, then the so-called ‘virginity checks’ on women protesters detained by the Egyptian army. And this past week the world was shocked by to the horrific photographs of female demonstrators being beaten with metal poles, kicked and stepped on and then discarded like garbage. What galvanized world opinion was one photograph that will become iconic, of the demonstrator whose black robe was ripped from her body, laid prostrate on the ground with her blue bra exposed. Max Fisher wrote in The Atlantic that:
there is something especially barbaric about this photo. The taboo of violence against unarmed women is unusually strong in the Arab world. But to watch three soldiers beat a defenseless woman with batons, their fists, and for one extraordinarily cruel soldier with his boot, is not even the most provocative part. For these men to pull her black abaya above her head and expose her midriff and chest is, for Egypt, a profound and sexually charged humiliation. And there is a certain awful irony of using that abaya, a symbol of modesty and piety, to cover her face and drag her on the street.