Every area pertaining to religion and state has been defined in recent years as a battle between secular and Haredi Jews. That has been the accepted view in Israeli society: Ultra-Orthodox and secular are the two camps, and they fight. Shabbat, kashrut, the so-called hametz and pork laws: All the battles have been portrayed in black and white, with everything seen as clear-cut.
But Israeli society is more complex than that. There are a lot more shades of gray, and many more people who define themselves in a more nuanced manner, whether they affiliate themselves with religious Zionism, are traditionally observant or formerly Orthodox, or identify with one of the other Jewish streams — Conservatism or Reform, among others. This complexity began to find expression in the last municipal elections in Jerusalem, when essentially all of the non-Haredim found themselves aligned in one camp, opposite the ultra-Orthodox. We called ourselves “pluralists.”
This past month, the main front in relations between religion and state in Israel has centered around the exclusion of women from the public domain.
Miriam Zoila Perez has worked in the reproductive justice movement for more than seven years, She is the founder of Radical Doula, a blog that covers the intersections of birth activism and social justice from a doula’s perspective. You might also know her from her work at Feministing.com, where she is an editor. Her writing has also appeared in The Nation, RH Reality Check, Alternet, The American Prospect and she is a frequent contributor to Colorlines.com. She was chosen as a 2010 Lambda Literary Foundation Emerging LGBT Voice in Non-Fiction. She received a 2009 Young Woman of Achievement Award from the Women’s Information Network and a 2010 Barbara Seaman Award for Activism in Women’s Health from the National Women’s Health Network.
Chanel Dubofsky: For the folks who don’t know, what’s a “radical doula?”
Miriam Perez: There is no official definition of a radical doula. To start, a doula is a person who provides emotional support to people during childbirth. Different than a midwife or an obstetrician, a doula is kind of like a birth coach. They work with the person in labor, and their partners or support people, to make the experience as good as possible. Things like massage, position suggestions, as well as other physical support techniques and emotional support. It’s a role that has been popularized in recent decades to deal with the realities of hospital birth.
“His main premise is that young people will tune out educators if their real concerns are left in the shadows.” In the end, that perhaps was the most important line of all in the recent New York Times Magazine article, “Teaching Good Sex,” by Laurie Abraham.
The article described a course given by a beloved teacher in the Friends’ Central school in Philadelphia. What was unique about his curriculum (and for those of us in the field of sexuality it is a bit horrifying that it is unique, but really it is), is that his curriculum is not solely focused on safety — how not to get pregnant and what is a bad idea sex-wise — but also on how to incorporate sexual pleasure into one’s life. He also makes a point to answer the various complicated and messy questions the students have as honestly as possible.
So I’m a fan.
I would guess, though, that educators from institutions that consider themselves value-based (Jewish day school teachers for instance) may have had a knee-jerk, negative reaction to the article. Many probably feel that classes that focus on the joy and the pleasure, as well as the concerns and dangers, of sex might “send the wrong message.” The fear is that if you focus on pleasure and give out too much specific information, you are tacitly suggesting that teenagers run out and have indiscriminate sex.
It’s hard to take your eyes off of matchmaking maven Patti Stanger on her show Millionaire Matchmaker. As she selects women to date her millionaires (or occasionally men to meet a female millionaire, or men for a gay millionaire), zinging critiques of their hair color, weight or attire, she is usually bracketed by Rachel Federoff, the company’s eclectically-styled VP of matching and her new husband, coo Destin Pfaff. Federoff and Pfaff have a young son, Sin Halo.
The Forward spoke with Federoff about what it’s like to work at Stanger’s side, and how being Jewish is part of her life.
Debra Nussbaum Cohen: How and when did you develop your fabulous personal style?
Rachel Federoff: It has always been inside me but came out in junior high school. That was such a metamorphosis period. I was always trying to be like the trendy cookie cutter friends of mine but it wasn’t working and wasn’t me. I finally realized that I needed to be myself and express myself in my own way. I don’t like to label my style but I would call it a cross between Rockabilly/Vintage and Punk, it’s usually called Psychobilly.
“A Woman’s Opinion is the Miniskirt of the Internet.” That is the title of an op-ed piece in Britain’s “The Independent” that a friend of mine recently sent me. It is by Laurie Penny, a 25-year-old writer known by many for her blog, “Penny Red,” and is about the horrific hate mail she receives on a daily basis for speaking her mind on political matters.
My friend thought I would be interested in reading the piece after she had seen that I had posted on my Facebook wall the following quote from Winston Churchill: “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something in your life.” I had added the comment that I would try to remember these words every time I got hate mail in response to something I wrote.
While I have not been attacked in ways as vicious and vitriolic as Penny has, I have been labeled a racist (for examining the growing phenomenon of Asian women marrying Jewish men), a Haredi-phobe for shedding light on misogynistic practices among some ultra-Orthodox, and a child rapist for defending parents’ rights to have their infant sons circumcised. In addition, one crazy read something I wrote as a memorial to Steve Jobs and concluded (erroneously) that I am super-rich. H e felt it necessary to use that as a reason to cast nasty aspersions on everything I published in the Forward for the several weeks following.
American-Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy has been freed after being beaten, arrested and interrogated by security forces in Cairo. Eltahawy, 44, has reported that she was also sexually assaulted during her 12-hour detention. She is in Egypt covering the violent protests in Tahrir Square and its environs. Eltahawy is the first Egyptian journalist to have lived and worked for a western news agency in Israel, and she continues to be a columnist for The Jerusalem Report.
Early Thursday morning Cairo time, Eltahawy tweeted that in Tahrir Square it was “Pitch black, only flashing ambulance lights and air thick with gas.” Three hours later, she tweeted, “Beaten arrested in interior ministry.” She was able to do so because, although her own phone had been lost during her beating, an activist lent her his phone so she could get the tweet out. His phone battery apparently died right after that.
It was only after Eltahawy tweeted, with what turned out to be a broken left arm and a broken right hand, “I AM FREE” around 2:00 PM Cairo time, that she was able to get out more about what had happened to her. She tweeted that she had been detained by riot police of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (who have control over Egypt’s political transition) and sexually assaulted. “Five or 6 surrounded me, groped and prodded my breasts, grabbed my genital area and I lost count how many hands tried to get into my trousers,” she wrote.
Yona Zeldis McDonough is a Brooklyn-based award-winning children’s author who also has a successful career as a fiction writer for adults. Many know her by the picture books she has created together with her mother, the celebrated self-taught artist Malcah Zeldis. This month, her newest children’s chapter book, “The Cats In The Doll Shop” has been published. It is a sequel to “The Doll Shop Downstairs,” the fictional story of a Russian Jewish immigrant family with three young daughters living above their doll shop on the Lower East Side of Manhattan during WWI.
Zeldis McDonough spoke with The Sisterhood about writing for different audiences, her identity as a Jewish writer, and the new book and how it goes against the grain of current popular children’s literature.
Renee Ghert-Zand: Not many authors write for adults and children. How did you end up writing successfully for both audiences?
To walk a mile in another woman’s shoes, Nancy Kaufman of New York recently boarded a gender-segregated public bus in Jerusalem.
The CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women took a “freedom ride” with a group of colleagues while recently visiting Israel to experience what it’s like to be a woman and assume that one must move to the rear of the bus on designated routes, while men sit up front.
Kaufman took a front seat, netting what she says were “very dirty looks” from men who boarded. She also recounted the comment of a female passenger (in Hebrew) to a woman in the Council entourage: “You should be ashamed of yourselves. Why don’t you take care of your own prostitutes and drugs and do not worry about us.”
For the first time in 12 years there is no woman on the committee responsible for appointing judges to Israel’s rabbinical courts, after the Israel Bar Association failed to elect a woman as its members’ representative. This is being viewed as a tremendous blow to promoting the rights of women who must face these courts in divorce cases.
The 12 religious courts across Israel are desperately in need of reform on critical family law issues, most importantly, divorce. Such reform won’t happen with the election of the two new members of the committee, Asher Axelrod and Mordechai Eisenberg. Not only are both of the new members male, but Eisenberg is Haredi, and both are closely associated with, and have received the endorsement of, Haredi political parties.
Women’s advocacy and religious rights groups are furious at Bar Association leaders for the political wheeling and dealing with ultra-Orthodox parties that led to this development. The two Bar Association representatives join Israel’s two chief rabbis, two senior rabbinical judges, two government ministers and two Knesset members on the committee, all of whom are presently male.
In a naked display of solidarity, 40 Israeli women recently took off their clothes to support an embattled young Egyptian woman who is under fire for posting a nude photograph of herself online.
The Egyptian woman, Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, 20, posted the picture and allowed it to be put on Twitter in order to protest sexism and the oppression of women in Egypt. She told CNN that she did it because:
I am not shy of being a woman in a society where women are nothing but sex objects harassed on a daily basis by men who know nothing about sex or the importance of a woman. The photo is an expression of my being and I see the human body as the best artistic representation of that…
In Genesis, when Jacob sees Joseph’s coat covered in blood, and thinks that his precious son is dead, he tears his clothes and begins to mourn. The act of tearing, keriah, is encoded in Jewish law as part of the ritual of mourning —whether expressing personal grief for a loved one or a national grief for the people’s destruction.
The act of tearing, of destroying clothes, is a visceral action full of rage and violence, physically expressing some of the many strong emotions one feels when one is bereaved. I also see it as making a symbolic break in personal identity. As a mourner, you are no longer the person you were. Something has shifted, something has ruptured in your life, and the experience of loss and grief can have a profound effect on identity. And so your clothing, that which represents your old self, is destroyed.
Grief can be also be a very lonely experience, isolating and alienating, and affects personal relationships and engagement with the world. For me, this is beautifully expressed in a piece called ‘Widow’ by the artist Susie MacMurray. There is something compelling and attractive about the shimmering silver, and yet up close you realize that this effect comes from rows and rows of large sharp pins sticking out of the leather dress. It is prickly and dangerous.
True confession time. Even as I have been writing here at The Sisterhood regularly about the struggles of women in places like Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh, with their issues of gender segregation and the disappearance of their images from public space, personally I have felt pretty far removed from the situation.
The town where I live, Ra’anana, feels like something of an oasis from the religious-secular tug of war that happens in other Israeli communities. We have an unusual demographic make up. Our small city has a solid non-Orthodox majority, with a substantial minority of Orthodox Jewish families, estimated at about 25 percent, nearly all “national religious,” or modern Orthodox. Haredim in Ra’anana, though they exist, are few and far between. The town is a magnet for immigrants from Western countries: South Africa, the U.S., Canada, France, England, Argentina are only the biggest sources. We have Orthodox and non-Orthodox residents from nearly every country in Europe and South America. As a result, our Orthodox population tends to be tolerant of their less observant neighbors, and the non-Orthodox population is extremely respectful of those who observe mitzvot. With many Orthodox women from abroad in jeans and uncovered hair, you can’t always tell who is who. We also have a critical mass of residents who identify as Conservative and Reform Jews, also uncommon in Israel. In short, Ra’anana is about mixed and as ‘live and let live’ as predominately Jewish cities in Israel go.
I’ve always felt that the local spirit was embodied nicely in the building where I take Pilates classes. The three-story building has storefronts on the ground floor, and the side entrance leads to the stairwell. Upstairs, there is a large Chabad center where prayer and study takes place. Downstairs, is a dance studio, where a different kind of learning happens: girls and women — Orthodox and non-Orthodox — learn ballet, jazz, hip-hop and take Pilates classes. That the men heading to study Torah at Chabad and girls in leotards and dance gear could amicably share space, to me illustrated the harmony in the community.
An op-ed piece in the Huffington Post by a 17-year-old Jewish high school student brought up some suppressed memories. This was not only because she wrote about the issue of paid maternity leave, but also the fact that she goes to a New York Jewish day school at which I once worked — and where I was treated badly because I asked for that benefit.
Emma Goldberg (the daughter of Forward senior columnist J.J. Goldberg and Advancing Women Professionals’ founding President Shifra Bronznick) wrote that she was surprised and worried to see her teacher at the Abraham Joshua Heschel School return to work only four weeks after having given birth. Apparently, the teacher, like many other women, could not afford to go without a salary for more than a month. Consequently, she spoke with the school’s administration about its maternity leave policy, did a lot of research on the topic, and wrote a strong piece calling for longer paid maternity leaves in all workplaces.
As much as it heartening to see a Jewish teenager so aware and so activist on this issue, it is also disheartening to see that nothing has changed in the close to 20 years since I was a young woman trying to concurrently build a career and a family. At least Goldberg, as a high school senior, is already aware of the uphill battle working mothers face and knows where she might be able to seek help or support when she herself reaches the point at which she needs to take maternity leave. In this regard, she is in a better place than I was when I was in my late 20s.
Listen to a woman soldier sing in a military ceremony or face a firing squad? Tough decision, eh?
One Orthodox rabbi has declared that male religious soldiers who are true to their faith should choose the latter.
In a radio interview quoted in Ha’aretz, Rabbi Elyakim Levanon, rabbi of the West Bank settlement of Elon Moreh, said that if the army continues to stand firm on insisting that all soldiers attend official events with women singing, the time will soon approach “in which rabbis will have to say to soldiers ‘you have to leave those events even if there’s a firing squad outside, and you’ll be shot to death.’ ”
In 1997, Blu Greenberg chaired the first International Conference on Feminism & Orthodoxy. About 400 attendees were expected and more than 1,000 showed up, hungry for a community of other women committed to both traditional Jewish life and their own religious potential. The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, which was born of that first gathering and had Greenberg as its founding president, has run six more conferences and now claims some 5,000 members worldwide.
JOFA is honoring Greenberg, along with past president Carol Kaufman Newman and key funder Zelda Stern, at a dinner in New York City on November 20th. The Sisterhood spoke with Greenberg about what has changed for Orthodox Jewish women since JOFA began — and what hasn’t.
Debra Nussbaum Cohen: Of issues on JOFA’s agenda, where has there been the most change, and the least?
While attending a Jewish Funder’s Network conference 15 years ago, I received a monograph on Jewish social justice. The powerful essay, written by Leonard Fein, lifelong champion of many social justice issues, had a major flaw. It did not refer to a single woman activist.
When I challenged Fein on this, he responded with a question: “Where would I go to find out about such women?” I knew at that moment that I needed to create the Jewish Women’s Archive to make certain that in the future no one could ask that question or use it as an excuse. Everyone would know where to go to find out about Jewish women, past and present. Since 1996, they have been going to JWA.
Yet once again, it seems Fein did not know where to go. I recently received an email announcing a new JCC lecture series titled “Hot Buttons, Cool Conversations” at Boston’s Leventhal Sidman JCC. Initially the description that appeared on my screen drew my interest:
discuss hot issues, ask questions, and add to the conversation with notable experts in their fields as we tackle politics, faith, economics, Israel, and culture through a Jewish lens.
But as I scrolled down I felt an increasing sense of discomfort with what I was reading. The discomfort quickly turned to disbelief and profound disappointment. All nine speakers in this series conceived by Leonard Fein are male.
While my son’s religious yeshiva recently invited mothers to an evening of mother-son learning, my daughters’ mixed-gender school decided to hold an event for women that revolves around “styling.” The flier reads: “Dear community chaverot (meaning either female members or female friends), you are invited to a unique evening on the subject of ‘Style Together’ ….”
Some apparently famous fashion writer/stylist will be lecturing on the subject of “How to use fashion to transmit social messages,” followed by tips on dressing for image and personality or whatever. The flier is brightly adorned with silhouettes of tall skinny young women wearing flared mini-dresses and high heels, with flowers in their hair. How fashion sends social messages, indeed.
I can imagine the protests already, before I’ve even started explaining why this is so upsetting to me:
What’s the big deal? It’s just a fun evening. Don’t we all want to dress well anyway? Isn’t this useful information? Practically every school has fashion-show fundraisers, so how is this different? Come on, why are you being such a stick in the mud? This is why people say feminists are too serious. Let women have their night out. It’s just a night for women to get together and bond — like going for manicures
(Suddenly midrash manicures don’t look so bad — at least they have a midrash component).
The hardest thing about moving to Israel from the United States has been dealing with the fact that by moving here I have put my children in physical and moral danger. Of course I know that danger lurks everywhere — car accidents, cancer-causing pollutants, violent criminals. When I am in a mall in Israel with my kids I worry about them being blown up, whereas when I am in a mall with my kids in the U.S. I worry about them being abducted. Different place, different dangers. I know that.
Is living in any country morally neutral? America was built on the backs of slaughtered natives; when I lived in New York, I regularly had to walk by homeless people. When I lived in Washington, D.C., the line between black D.C. and white D.C. reminded me of East and West Jerusalem. Growing up in suburban New York, I went to an Orthodox Jewish day school and summer camp; I did not have non-Orthodox Jews in my social circle, let alone non-Jews. Though we had some Christian white neighbors, there were no blacks, Asians or Hispanics and certainly no Muslims.
While I am unhappy with the segregated reality in Israel, at least there are some Muslim and Christian Arab kids in my children’s school, and we send the kids on Arab-Jewish interfaith summer programs. We live in Lower Galilee in a highly Palestinian and Arab-Israeli-populated area, so interact daily with Arabs. My children learn Arabic in school, and we make an effort to socialize with Arabs. My kids are, without a doubt, less Arab-phobic than their peers in Jewish day schools in the U.S.
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.
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.