Sisterhood Blog

Debbie Friedman's Enduring Gift

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

debbiefriedman.com

Soon after Debbie Friedman died about a year ago — her first yartzheit is later this month — I heard about the version of “Shalom Aleichem she penned and shared, but never had a chance to record.

Now, I love the “original” tune with which many of us are familiar. I used to sing it to my youngest child to soothe her when she was an infant and toddler, holding her and stroking her back as I rocked in my mother’s rocking chair. She loved it and would request it by name, as soon as she was old enough to say the words.

Nonetheless, Debbie’s “Shalom Aleichem” has come to be our family’s new tune.

My son, who had a special relationship with Debbie, returned from her memorial service about a month after she died (I was just starting to pierce the fog of grief at that point, and couldn’t bear to go) with it to share with our family. Over the next few weeks, he taught it to us as we sat down to Shabbat dinner.

We have sung it ever since, and we share it with everyone we can.

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On Teaching Talmud and Sex Toys

By Elana Sztokman

Jennie Rosenfeld

Dr. Jennie Rosenfeld is equally at home teaching a page of Talmud and showing women how to use a vibrator. Dr. Rosenfeld, 31, who co-authored the book “The Newlywed’s Guide to Physical Intimacy,” which the Sisterhood weighed in on here, is also an Orthodox Jew, and her expertise in sex education is aimed at an Orthodox audience. The book, which the Jerusalem resident wrote with sex therapist David Ribner of Bar-Ilan University, explores the most intimate topics with no restraint, topics such as female orgasm, masturbation, and varieties of sexual positions. She spoke recently with The Sisterhood.

Elana: Sztokman: Why did you decide to write this book?

Jennie Rosenfeld: My work at The Tzelem Project, which I cofounded in 2005 with Koby Frances in order to address sexual education in the Orthodox community, convinced me of the need for such a book. … Running training conferences for chatan and kallah [grooms- and brides-to-be] teachers and rabbis, hearing the questions that were asked, I saw the need first-hand: Seeing the outpouring of people that came to our conferences, wanting to learn from medical and mental health professionals so that they could do a better job at preparing their students, seeing the way that often the teachers don’t know anything about sex beyond their own experiences, and speaking to young couples who simply weren’t given enough information or accurate information about how to begin their sexual relationship. This was the real tragedy for me.

What were the greatest challenges in writing about sex for the Orthodox community?

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Prime Ribs, Israel: Home Births; 'Shiksa Song'

By Renee Ghert-Zand

By now, you’ve probably never seen the video of Yisrael Beiteinu Knesset Member Anastasia Michaeli throwing water in the face of Raleb Majadele, an Arab-Israeli member of the Labor party. But you probably haven’t seen Noy Alooshe’s artful remix of it:

And you may not have seen a commercial that shows where Michaeli might have gotten her inspiration for the move that got her suspended from the Knesset for a month.


Meanwhile, comedians Yochai Sponder and Manny Malka, have gotten 400,000 views on their “The Shiksa Song” on YouTube. It’s a send up of the religious cultural wars in Israel and features some scantily clad Brazilian dancers.


The Israeli Health Ministry has decided to delay implementing proposed restrictions on home births.

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Sh— Jews Say to (Non-White) Jews

By Erika Davis

franchesca.net
Franchesca Ramsey, in a still from “Shit White Girls Say to Black Girls”

The “Shit Girls Say” videos, which The Sisterhood’s Elissa Strauss weighed in on here, have been an online phenomenon with spin-offs including “Shit Guys Say” and the most spot-on, “Shit White Girls Say to Black Girls. “ (Nuggets include: “Jews were slaves, too; you don’t hear us complaining about it all the time” and “you guys can do so much with your hair” and “not to sound racist, but…”)

As I watched this video for the fourth time, I realized that someone should make a video called “Shit White Jews Say To Black Jews.” It would include statements like:

You’re Jewish?”

“Where should I put my dirty dish?”

“Are you someone’s nanny?”

I thought it was just me, but when I asked other Jews of Color, they told me they’ve heard things such as:

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Jay-Z Decreases Stigma of Miscarriage

By Elissa Strauss

Getty Images
The happy parents of Blue Ivy

This was a big week for the Knowles-Carter family. First, as you have likely heard, Beyoncé gave birth to a baby girl named Blue Ivy. Second, for those of us pushing for more open and honest discussion about the reproductive process, new daddy Jay-Z became a hero.

Like many musicians before him — check out Slate’s round-up of post-natal hits — Jay-Z released a song about his child. Entitled “Glory,” the single begins with the rush of euphoria felt by the new parents. “The most amazing feeling I feel/Words can’t describe the feeling, for real/ Baby I paint the sky blue/ My greatest creation was you, you: Glory.”

But then Jay-Z moves to a darker place. “Last time the miscarriage was so tragic/We was afraid you’d disappear, but nah, baby, you magic/So there you have it, shit happens.” With those lines, Jay-Z adds more to the miscarriage conversation than anyone else in recent memory. Here he is, explaining out loud, in verse, the pain and fear that miscarriages bring. And in a rap song! Among the many tropes associated with the genre, fomenting dialogue about reproductive issues is not one of them.

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How 'Modesty' Turns Women Into Sex Objects

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Getty Images
In certain ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhoods, saying thank you or owning an expensive baby carriage can be considered ‘immodest.’

William Kolbrener has a compelling new essay in the Forward about the culture of silence between men and women in his Haredi Jerusalem neighborhood. In it, he notes the deep disrespect for women and girls to which it leads, as illustrated by the arrogant way a man clucks his tongue at Kolbrener’s daughter and her friend as he waves them to the back of the bus. It is also glaringly clear in the abuse hurled by multiple men at young girls in Beit Shemesh, including Na’ama Margolese, as they have endeavored to do nothing more than walk to school.

But there is another point missing from all of the discussion of the new vigilance on modesty and the backlash against it. The extreme focus on distancing from women turns them into sexual objects. There is something perverse about the obsession with female dress of these “guardians of modest,” and I don’t mean perverse just in the sociological sense. These men are so focused on sublimating their own sexual impulses that they see women only as sexual objects, whose images and very personhood must be contained to the point of invisibility.

And it is internalized all too quickly by too many religious women.

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Women-Only Fertility Conference Is No Answer

By Elana Sztokman

Pressure against the Pu’ah to abstain from holding a conference for men only on fertility and Jewish law seems to be working. As of this morning, 9 out of 10 Israeli doctors scheduled to speak had withdrawn. In addition, the Ethics Board of the Physicians’ Union announced that from now on doctors will not be allowed to participate in medical events or conferences in which women are excluded, either as speakers or patients. This is an enormous victory by any social activism standards.

A roundtable of 30 social justice organizations convened by the New Israel Fund over the past few months to address the exclusion of women seems to be largely responsible for this success. Dr. Hanna Kehat, founder of the religious women’s forum Kolech, brought the Pu’ah conference to the attention of the other members of the roundtable — and several member organizations helped activate pressure. (Full disclosure: I also sit on the roundtable, representing The Center for Women’s Justice. Everything reported here is with permission).

Lili Ben Ami and Limor Levy Osemi, of the Lobby for Equality Between the Sexes, have been particularly influential in achieving the support of the physicians’ Ethics’ Board, and have been speaking to doctors, Knesset members and members of the media. Mickey Gitzin, director of Be Free Israel, which promotes civil equality, has also been encouraging doctors not to cave into Haredi pressure.

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Challenging Fatherhood's Low Standards

By Chanel Dubofsky

Getty Images
Novelist Michael Chabon has written about the double standard.

It is worth noting that for the the majority of my childhood and adolescence, I did not have a vagina. I had what my mother referred to as “front of me. ” (as in,”You shouldn’t wear underwear to sleep so you can air out the front of you.”) I spent a lot of time being confused about what “the front of me” was, how it worked, what it could do. Clarification around what my lady parts were was something I brought to myself, but it was accompanied by fear and shame. It was not the introduction to living in a body that I would wish for a girl, or anyone, for that matter.

Matthue Roth’s piece, ‘The C-Word,’ was published recently on Kveller, and it has kept my brain addled ever since. First, there’s the issue of the word cunt, which Roth hopes his “baby proto-feminist girl” will use. It’s not just that the word makes me want to hide under the bed; for me, it has always been a word I associate with violence and misogyny. While there are words and institutions that as feminists we can reclaim, “cunt” seems entirely too far gone for me.

Ultimately, teaching your kids to use the correct words to refer to their body and bodily functions is something that every parent should do, regardless of the gender identity of the parent. We need feminist men (like Roth, who owns the label) to do this because of the power that men hold in society, and this especially needs to be modeled inside religious communities. My concern is that whenever a man does this, he’s regaled as being the best father and the best human being ever, instead of doing what he should be doing. The standard for parenting remains incredibly low for men, and impossibly high for women.

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Female Flash Mob Takes on Beit Shemesh

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

Who can blame the women of Beit Shemesh for wanting to cut loose? Times have been tough: They’ve been in crisis mode since the opening of school and ultra-Orthodox extremists began harassing the girls at the Orot Banot school. Not to mention the ongoing issues of increased gender segregation on buses, separate sidewalks in parts of town and harassment in the streets of Haredi areas if their dress is deemed insufficiently modest.

And ever since the story of the harassment of school girl Na’ama Margolese hit Israeli television, they’ve also had to cope with the glare of the media spotlight on their community.

So with the goal of generating positive energy and showing the world that they are unbowed in the face of religious extremism, a group of Beit Shemesh women, primarily from the Modern Orthodox community, began a campaign on Facebook to create a female “flash mob” in their community. On the morning January 6, 250 women came together in the center of town to dance joyously in unison to the triumphant upbeat lyrics of “Don’t Stop Me Now” by Queen.

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In Israel, Remembering Who I Used To Be

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Courtesy of the Author
Debra Nussbaum Cohen, with singer/songwriter David Broza.

Jennifer Bleyer’s recent Sisterhood piece about the unexpected pleasures of her so-called “mama furlough” reminds me how much I have enjoyed my annual week, alone in my house, when my husband takes our kids camping.

I recently took the next step toward remembering who I used to be. For the first time in nearly 18 years of parenting, I took a pleasure trip — by myself.

My New York Torah study group, which has been meeting for about 15 years but I joined just this year, has a sister group in Jerusalem. There is a joint annual retreat to focus, in depth, on whatever we are studying, which this year is the work of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. When it became clear that the retreat would be in Israel, I thought the answer was simple. I wouldn’t go. For so many reasons.

Financial, for one. We are preparing for Girlchik’s bat mitzvah, and putting away each available shekel to finance what I hope will be a lovely afternoon party.

There is also the serious challenge of being visually impaired.

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Prime Ribs: Porn, 'Portlandia' and Prom

By Elissa Strauss

Pornhub.com wants Melissa Rivers to star in an adult film, and the XXX site believes it would be the first-ever adult film to feature “a sexy Jewish American Princess,” TMZ reports. Apparently Pornhub missed Complex.com’s list of the “50 Hottest Jewish Women,” which featured its share of adult actresses.


Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, of West Virginia, tells Forbes that she doesn’t think being nice is a feminine weakness, and that it can actually help you get ahead.


Carrie Brownstein, former Sleater-Kinney front-woman and star of hit comedy series “Portlandia,” was the subject of two well-deserved profiles, in The New York Times, and in The New Yorker.

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Haredi Women Publicly Denounce Extremists

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Getty Images
In Jerusalem last week, Haredi men and boys dressed in concentration camp garb.

Two prominent Haredi women are boldly, and publicly, speaking out against ultra-Orthodox extremists, who advocate extreme gender segregation, and who, in recent days, have rioted against police in Beit Shemesh and protested in Jerusalem the “exclusion of Haredim” by donning yellow stars and concentration camp uniforms.

Ruth Lichtenstein, publisher of New York’s Haredi daily Hamodia on Wednesday wrote and signed a strongly worded editorial titled “It’s Time To Act.” In it, she describes coincidentally visiting Jerusalem during the protest, and being horrified by “pre-meditated cynicism, the fringe group to which he [a father who dressed his son to look like the boy with the yellow star and upraised arms in an iconic photo from the Warsaw Ghetto] belongs has desecrated an iconic symbol for their own ends.”

She goes on to warn against the serious dangers of dismissing these protesters as crazy people, writing:

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At Gynecology Confab, No Women Allowed

By Elana Sztokman

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.

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The Accidental Breastfeeding Activist

By Gavriella Lerner

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”?

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Siddur: 'Thank God for Making Me a Woman'

By Elana Sztokman

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.

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Anorexic Teens Get (the Reality TV) Treatment

By Chanel Dubofsky

Getty Images
Tracey Gold

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.

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The Mama Furlough: My Glorious Week Alone

By Jennifer Bleyer

Courtesy of Jennifer Bleyer
The author and her daughter, Yael.

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:

YEEEEEEEEAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!

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.

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What 'Provocative' Justifies

By Elana Sztokman

Getty Images
Men in Beit Shemesh call for the segregation of women.

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.

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Prime Ribs: Israel Edition

By Renee Ghert-Zand

With all of the news out of Beit Shemesh, here are some “Prime Ribs” you may have missed:

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.

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How 'Sh— Girls Say' Changed My Life

By Elissa Strauss

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?”

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