Sisterhood Blog

Katie Roiphe Gets (Part of) it Right

By Elissa Strauss

courtesy Katie Roiphe
Writer Katie Roiphe

Katie Roiphe’s call in the New York Times for more tolerance for risqué behavior and dirty jokes at work inspired a pretty unanimous dismissal in the feminist blogosphere. (DoubleX, Jezebel, Pandagon, Feminisiting, and here on the Sisterhood.)

In her piece, Roiphe declares that our limited tolerance for the capacious concept of sexual harassment, which could refer to anything from demanding sex for a job to commenting on someone’s dress, might turn our workplaces to drab, cautious environments.



I agree that Roiphe went too far. That said, I am still going to go against the tide here and admit not only that her piece made me think, but also that she made a few good points.



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Israel's Gender Wars: A Week of Changes

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

Adi elkin & mayrav goldberg
Women sang against repression.

It was small, low-key and the participants numbered in the hundreds, not the thousands. But a crowd of Israeli women took to the streets to speak out — or, more accurately, sing out — against the continuing attacks by religious extremists on women’s right to be seen and heard freely in the public square.

The November 11 action was a long time coming. Too long. As Sisterhood readers know, for months the situation has become increasingly disturbing. There has been: bus segregation, harassment of schoolgirls in Beit Shemesh, streets free of females in Mea Shearim during Sukkot, soldiers walking out on ceremonies that include women singing in the IDF and women soldiers being excluded from Simchat Torah celebrations, in addition to disappearing and defaced images of women on Jerusalem billboards. None of it is new.

Astoundingly, until now, no Israeli women’s organization took the initiative to organize a public event of any kind to express the anger and frustration of Israeli women at these developments. So the 11-11-11 singing protest, created single-handedly by intrepid blogger Hila Benyovich-Hoffman, and promoted on her Facebook page, finally brought some objection to the public square was sorely overdue.

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Sarah Silverman's Funky Family Fairy Tale

By Judy Bolton-Fasman

BU Daily free press
Comedian Sarah Silverman and her sister, Rabbi Susan Silverman, getting silly.

Once upon a time there were two Jewish sisters. One grew up to be a Reform rabbi and the other one of America’s more profane comics. These two sisters — Rabbi Susan Silverman and Sarah Silverman — could not be both more different and more alike. The sacred and profane mingle in their DNA, which led, in a recent joint appearance, to them exploring their genetic predisposition for “Jewiness.” Sarah says she’s “Jewy beyond my control,” while Susan says she is “attracted to the glamour of Jewiness.”

And so it went for over an hour on November 8 when the two women appeared together at Boston University’s Center for Cultural Judaism and Department of Religion. The duo’s appearance was officially billed as “Sister Act: Growing up Jewish in New Hampshire and Making the Best of It.”

The Silvermans grew up in Manchester, where they claimed they were more in the minority as Democrats than as Jews. But as children, they fended off their fair share of anti-Semitic bullies. They recalled being accused of deicide with insults hurled at them at school. Sarah said that she’d tell kids, “If I killed your God, think about what I could do to you.”

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Rabin, Rachel and Modern Orthodoxy's Confusions

By Elana Sztokman

Getty Images
Yitzkah Rabin, Bill Clinton and Yasir Arafat in 1993

I spent the anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination at a mother-son learning event at my son’s yeshivah. Well, it wasn’t officially a Rabin memorial event; it was more like the not-Rabin event. It was advertised as an evening to commemorate the yahrtzeit of Rachel — the matriarch, not the poet.

Yes, she’s been dead a long time, much longer than Rabin, and for most of those three millennia or so since her demise, her yahrtzeit has gone unnoticed. But seeing as it coincides with the Rabin thing, religious educational institutions in Israel have suddenly rediscovered her, finding in her a wonderful way to assemble the masses without having to make a statement one way or the other about their position on Rabin, Yigal Amir, or the intersection of politics and religion in Israel.

When my son texted that he actually wanted me to come to this event (he knows about my poor attendance record at these kinds of things), I was actually quite excited. Not so much about memorializing Rachel, but about the fact that my son wanted to be seen in public with me. That’s a coup in the world of parenting teens.

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Torah Study Devalued When We Bribe Our Kids

By Beth Kissileff

courtesy MidrashManicures.com
Midrash Manicure for Chayei Sarah

Why do we need to tell our kids that they can’t do important things for their own sake, but only to get some kind of reward? The notion of manicures for middle school girls in a Jewish school disturbs me on a variety of levels.

Since Elana Sztokman wrote so well about why they are a setback for women, I want to focus on the notion that girls will not be interested in studying Torah unless they get the prize of doing their nails out of it.

The assumption that kids won’t want to study Torah, engage in doing either ritual or ethical mitzvot without some kind of ulterior motive, cheapens the enterprise of these things. Why can’t we just say to our kids, this is our text and heritage and helps give our lives meaning and we need to study it? Midrash manicures seems to be telling these Westchester young ladies, “if you study this, then you get to do your nails.” Learning Torah, in this scenario, is something to be finished to get to the main focus: the manicure. What does that say about the value of study?

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Katie Roiphe's Sexual Harassment Problem

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

NYU
Writer Katie Roiphe

In a New York Times opinion piece, Katie Roiphe writes of her longing for the good old days when sexual harassment in the workplace was just the way things were. Ah, for those not-so-long-ago days when, as she writes, there were:

colorful or inappropriate comments, with irreverence, wildness, incorrectness, ease.

But whose ease was it? It was certainly not the women’s when they were objects of their male superiors’ and co-workers’ unwanted sexual attention.

This is no new trope for Roiphe, who seems to pride herself on being contrarian on American culture and sexual ethics. In 1994, as a doctoral candidate at Princeton, she wrote “The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism” and had it excerpted as “Date Rape’s Other Victim” in the Times in 1993. In that piece she excoriated “rape-crisis feminists” for denying female sexual agency when it comes to being assaulted.

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Gabby Giffords Dreamed of Becoming a Mother

By Gabrielle Birkner

Scribner
The cover of “Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope.”

In the months before she was shot in the head and critically wounded, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, had been undergoing fertility treatment with hopes of becoming pregnant via in vitro fertilization. That’s one of the revelations in “Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope,” the new memoir that the Democratic congresswoman wrote with her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, and veteran journalist (and former Bintel Brief guest columnist) Jeffrey Zaslow.

To coincide with the book’s release, Giffords, who in 2007 became Arizona’s first Jewish congresswoman, granted her first interview since the shooting to ABC News’ Diane Sawyer; it airs tonight at 10/9 Central, and a preview can be seen here.

Whether or not the three-term congresswoman will realize her dream of becoming a mother remains to be seen. The couple has two frozen embryos in storage at Walter Reed Naval Medical Center. In “Gabby,” an exclusive excerpt of which was published in this week’s People magazine, Kelly writes that it is “still possible for us to have a child together, though given Gabby’s injuries, we’d probably need to go through a surrogate.”

For now, according to the excerpt, Giffords focus isn’t on having a baby or on her political future; it’s on getting better.


Protesting Paucity of Women on Israeli News

By Renee Ghert-Zand

courtesy Anat Saragusti
Protest organizer Anat Saragusti

Women are being kept out of public space in many ways in Israel. We have heard lately about women missing from advertising posters and newspaper ads in Jerusalem, and about female soldiers being marginalized from military activities for fear of offending Haredi men. Now, there is an additional — related and unrelated— focus on the lack of women presenting and analyzing televised news.

On Thursday evening, a group of Israelis kept their television sets off in protest of the lack of women on news programs. “Turn Off the TV — Return Women To The Screen!” is an initiative organized by Anat Saragusti and Vered Cohen-Barzilay, both of whom work in the fields of social change and human rights. The two set up a Facebook page for the event, and 255 people committed to “attending.” The cause is being supported by both women and men, including Haaretz former editor-in-chief Dov Alfon.

“The picture is totally masculine. We have all gotten used to it and haven’t even stopped to ask ourselves why it is so,” Saragusti and Cohen-Barzilay wrote in their invitation to the protest. “No more!…There should be women speaking about security! Women speaking about the economy! Women speaking about foreign policy! They should give their opinions, explain and analyze and expose us to women’s reality, as well.”

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Girls Celebrating Bat Mitzvah, Around the World

By Judy Bolton-Fasman

courtesy Indiana University Press

My Dear Sweet Daughter:

We’ve come a long way in making our place in the synagogue. When I was a little girl I once told my grandfather—my very old-fashioned Abuelo — that I wanted to be a rabbi. “That,” he said to me, “is very ugly.” He said the word in Spanish—fea.

I despaired. The bima, the Torah, even the dynamic fervent prayer — you know, the kind that comes with the feeling you have full access to God — would never be mine.

I was 11 then and having a bat mitzvah at 13 like you did was not an option for me. I would have to wait another thirty years to become a bat mitzvah. But in the intervening years between my childhood and my adult bat mitzvah, women made miraculous strides in Jewish life. For example, we don’t think twice about a woman being a rabbi. I remember the hoopla when the first women were ordained as rabbis in the Reform and Conservative movements. The first happened in 1970. The latter took place in 1985 when I coincidentally worked at the Jewish Theological Seminary. There was a lot of divisiveness over the decision to ordain Rabbi Amy Eilberg. It was still fea to a lot of people.

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These Women Should Be in the Forward 50

By Kate Bigam

courtesy ACLU
ACLU President Susan Herman

As it does every year, The Forward recently published its Forward 50 — and just like every year, the list is short on women. Forward editor Jane Eisner notes the lack of female names on the list, saying “it also could be because we weren’t looking in the right places” for women worthy of inclusion on the list. I’ve got a few names in mind:

Idit Klein (Executive Director, Keshet) Boston-based Keshet is a national grassroots organization that works for the full inclusion of LGBT Jews in Jewish life. Last summer, with a grant from the Schusterman Foundation, Keshet merged with Jewish Mosaic, another Jewish LGBT organization, to strengthen its overall reach. They’ve since launched Do Not Stand Idly By: A Jewish Community Pledge to Save Lives, a Jewish response to the bullying of homosexual youth.

Kat Dennings (Actress, “2 Broke Girls”) Forget Natalie Portman; she’s been around forever. It’s fresh, new faces like Kat Dennings that are making a mark on current culture. The 25-year-old Dennings, who once told the Jewish Journal that she is “a billion percent Jewish,” has starred in films like “40-year-Old Virgin” and “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.” This season, she’s making waves as Max, a tough, Brooklyn waitress on CBS’s new hit comedy “2 Broke Girls.” She recently told Rolling Stone, “I want to bring the sitcom back.”

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Israeli HMO Puts Only Boys on Kids' Stickers

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

iStock

Any parent will tell you that there is no easier way to motivate young children than rewarding them with a sticker for good behavior. The sticker can have anything on it — puppies, kittens, smiley faces, hearts, flowers — as long as it is colorful and cheerful, kids will work to earn it. 



The Israeli government’s largest HMO, Clalit, decided to use stickers in clinics for the ultra-Orthodox population to motivate stickers for children undergoing examinations and medical procedures. The design they chose were photographs of real kids on them, accompanied cheery slogans like “Get Well Soon!” “Good boy!” and “Good girl!” as well as one with a blessing for healing the sick. 

Sounds innocent enough. So what’s the problem?

Reflective the disturbing trend of eliminating female faces from the public sphere in ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem, the stickers only have pictures of boys. 

Girls are invisible.



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We Won't Sit in the Back of Jerusalem's Bus

By Nancy K. Kaufman

Courtesy NCJW
NCJW Board Member Leslie Sternlieb at the front of a Jerusalem bus.

One issue I never quite thought I would experience in 2011 is bus segregation. I am not referring to blacks and whites, because, after all, this is not 1960 in Mississippi. I am referring to the gender segregation of men and women on buses with routes originating from the predominately Orthodox neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo in Jerusalem.

With a group of women visiting Israel on a National Council of Jewish Women study tour, I recently rode the buses to experience firsthand what it is like to be a woman and assume you must “go to the back of the bus” when you board bus No. 56 or No. 40.

This now illegal activity started in 1997, when public transport companies began to operate special bus lines for the Haredi public, beginning with two lines in Jerusalem and Bnei Barak. Called “Mehadrin” (extra kosher) lines, women would board the bus through the rear door and men would board through the front door. Women who objected to these rules would be subjected to harassment and intimidation and, in some cases, physical violence.

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Prime Ribs: Is Sexy Anne Frank Costume Kosher?

By Elissa Strauss

Ray Comfort, Christian evangelist comparing abortion to the Holocaust.

Producers of “180,” a short documentary that compares abortion to the Holocaust and has been viewed 1.5 million times on YouTube, are now lobbying to show their film in high schools, reports the Washington Independent. The Religion News Service writes that Ray Comfort, the man behind the film, was born to a Jewish mother and gentile father, but had no religious practice until he became a born-again Christian in his 20s. Sadly, teen idol Kirk Cameron from the 1980s sitcom “Growing Pains” is involved with the project, too, through his evangelical ministry outreach with Comfort.

Here’s a conversation you probably would never believe actually happened if it weren’t for the links attached here. Bloggers at The Gloss debated whether or not it was a good idea to dress up as a sexy Anne Frank for Halloween. Yep!

Scientists suggest that all women, and not just Ashkenazi Jews, should have genetic testing before pregnancy, reports Time.

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American Jewish Pioneer With Lessons for Today

By Judy Bolton-Fasman

courtesy Anna Solomon
Author Anna Solomon

The opening scene of Anna Solomon’s new book “The Little Bride” is one of the most harrowing that I’ve read in a novel.

The reader meets 16-year-old Minna Losk in a dank basement where she is ordered to undress and then inspected like an animal. Orphaned at 11 and sent into indentured servitude to a cousin in Odessa, Minna — who is the ultimate survivor — applies to Rosenfeld’s, an agency sending Jewish brides in Russia to Jewish men who have gone ahead to settle in America. Minna is matched (a generous description of the transaction) with Max, a pious man twice her age and father of two sons who are his new wife’s contemporaries

“The Little Bride” captures a lesser-known chapter of Jewish American history, giving it a dramatic arc replete with a love triangle. Some 8,000 Jewish immigrants settled in the vastness west of the Missouri River at the end of the 19th century.

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Egyptian 'Virginity Check' Victim Sues Military

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

Getty images
Egyptian woman protesting in Tahrir Square in March.

There’s a new female heroine in the Arab world. A brave 25-year-old Egyptian marketing manager named Samira Ibrahim is suing the Egyptian military for the trauma she experienced during their so-called ‘virginity tests’ she suffered while being held in a military detainment center.

Ibrahim was part of the group of 17 women arrested in Tahrir Square on March 9 when they were demonstrating at the height of protests against the Mubarak regime shortly after Hosni Mubarak stepped down.

While in custody, the women were beaten, strip-searched and given electric shocks, and violated sexually, while being told that those who were not found to be virgins would face prostitution charges. The women’s mistreatment at the hands of the military officers was documented by Amnesty International. The women were released five days later and some of them received one-year suspended prison sentences.

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Midrash Manicures: A New Low in Girls' Jewish Ed

By Elana Sztokman

courtesy MidrashManicures.com
A ‘Midrash Manicure’ for Parshat Lech Lecha

At the risk of creating another line in the sand between feminists, I am going to weigh in on the midrash manicure thing. This phenomenon is, in my opinion, a new low in girls’ Jewish education. I cannot even believe I’m writing an essay that has the words “midrash” and “manicure” in the same sentence. This is a serious regression into some of the most damaging ideas about how girls learn.

There are many ways to make Torah and Judaism interesting, relevant, engaging and creative. Art forms such as music, painting, dance and drama in Torah learning are wonderfully expressive ways to connect to tradition and text. As my friend Ken Quinn says, the Temple was undoubtedly a very sensual place, full of sights, colors and smells. Torah and Judaism do not have to be the overly cerebral experiences that they so often become. Art and creative expression are vital tools for learning.

There is a huge difference, however, between providing a gender-neutral, intellectually challenging artistic learning experience and girls painting their nails. It doesn’t matter how “fun” manicures are, or how bonding it supposedly is for women, or how egalitarian it presumably is because manicures are so cheap (which they’re not, by the way, if you get them every week, or if they go with pedicures or special designs, or if you do them anywhere else other than Manhattan, like in Israel, where they cost a fortune; plus the fact that when women are still making 77 cents on the dollar to men’s salaries, any added financial burden of adhering to social standards of feminine beauty is just added gender inequality).

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Female Haredi Filmmakers Struggle To Make Movies

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Yifat Prestelnik Films
Tikva of “The Dreamers.”

Secular Israeli documentary filmmaker Efrat Shalom Danon made “The Dreamers” as a way to better understand her sister and a close friend — both of whom are artists who became Haredi. She wanted to better grasp the conflicts these women live with in trying to express themselves creatively while operating within the strict confines of ultra-Orthodoxy. So she made a film about Haredi women making films for Haredi women.

In an interview conducted in Hebrew (and her first with the foreign press), the first-time director explained that filmmaking by Haredi women has grown in the past several years, with one specialized film school for them in B’nei Brak, another in Jerusalem, and also film electives being added to the curriculum of Haredi women’s seminaries. “There are about six films being made by Haredi women every year now,” Shalom Danon said. “Some are even considered relative blockbusters.”

These films, however, need to be put in perspective. First, they do not play in movie theaters, which are off limits to the Haredi sector. Instead, they are shown only to female audiences during holidays, when the films’ producers are able to rent event halls for screenings. Second, the films must be solely for educational purposes, and they are produced with the permission and under the strict supervision of rabbis. “You have a conflict. On one hand, you are an artist. On the other, you are a Haredi woman. You don’t have creative freedom,” a mentor tells Ruchama, one of “The Dreamers’” two main characters.

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A Rabbi and a Minister Respond to 'Personhood'

By Elissa Strauss

Banner in front of U.S. Supreme Court during 2010 pro-life march.

Pro-lifers are having a busy month. There is the Personhood amendment set to pass November 8th in a general election vote in Mississippi, with support from Democrats and Republicans, which would define human life as legally beginning at fertilization. This would render all abortions and morning-after pills illegal, and, according to some, could result on bans of certain birth control pills and in-vitro fertilization.

And just a few weeks ago the House of Representatives passed the “Protect Life Act” which would prohibit women from receiving coverage for abortion from any federally-funded insurance policy, and, potentially, abortions in federally-funded hospitals even if the women have a life-threatening condition.

The Personhood movement, as well as the anti-choice movement, in general, says that they are trying to comply with divine law, as opposed to civil law, and rely upon portions of the Christian and Hebrew Bibles to make that claim. But when I decided to take a look at the texts they say inspire these “divine” laws, I couldn’t find one place that unequivocally said that life begins at conception. Befuddling! And so I decided to email two smart women who know this stuff way better than I do, Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights–North America, and Reverend Chloe Breyer, executive director of the Interfaith Center of New York, to help clear up what exactly these portions do and don’t say about when life begins. Well, it looks like some Mississippians could use a Sunday school refresher course before they go using their divine interpretations to change our civil laws. Not that Americans are supposed to be using divine law to inspire civil laws anyway (See: Constitution).

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Gimme Shelter: An Artist's Response to Homelessness

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

courtesy Heather Stoltz
A sukkah crafted from the stories of the homeless.

Heather Stoltz discovered quilting and fiber art in an unconventional way. Then again, approaching things unconventionally isn’t anything new for her. With a degree in mechanical engineering in hand, she went on to pursue a Master’s Degree in Jewish Women’s Studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

We met soon after that, as Arts Fellows at Drisha, a center for women’s Torah study in Manhattan. Since that time she’s been integrating her love of Jewish texts and values with her art. She now has a compelling new art/social justice project that will be on view at synagogues and churches in the coming months.

The project is called “Temporary Shelter” and was born out of her interactions with homeless people.

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The Women of Jerusalem Find Their Heads

By Renee Ghert-Zand

courtesy Yerushalmim
An “Uncensored” campaign poster.

When Sandy Bar lost her head, many Jerusalem residents decided that enough was enough. The actress and model, who is featured in Israeli fashion company Honigman’s ads for its new winter line, was suddenly reduced to a hand holding a purse. The public could see Bar’s face, framed by her long dark hair and adorned with large sunglasses, in the ads posted in Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities. But in Jerusalem, she was represented by a disembodied appendage.

This head chopping has prompted two kinds of responses among Jerusalemites. Some have taken to social media to circulate photos showing the difference between the two ads. One has even made up a “missing” poster for Bar’s head. “Lost: Sandy Bar’s head. Last seen at the entrance to Jerusalem. Finder should call the following phone number immediately,” it says.

Activists with the Yerushalmim civic non-profit organization, who have been tracking the disappearance of women’s images from Jerusalem’s public spaces for the past several months are taking a different tack. As part of its “Uncensored” campaign, they are inviting women to be photographed for posters that Yerushalmim members have begun hanging from balconies in the center of the city.

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