Sisterhood Blog

Should We Lighten Up About Weight?

By Elissa Strauss

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That now-infamous Vogue essay in which mother Dara-Lynn Weiss writes about putting her 7-year-old daughter on a diet — Weiss resorts to such tactics as occasionally refusing the youngster dinner, and publicly shaming her when she wanted to go off of her diet — has gotten the author a book deal and some public shaming of her own.

Over at Slate’s Double X, Katy Waldman spoke to body image expert Dr. Robyn Silverman, who said that a mother should never speak with her daughter about weight. Ever. Waldman goes on to say that it saddens her that weight loss has become so fraught a topic, especially considering that obesity is considered a health risk.

I don’t doubt that Silverman’s advice is sound, and would benefit many mother-daughter relationships. But it doesn’t seem like it should be the end goal.

In a perfect world, the one I hope my daughter will get to live in, weight-gain would not be the loaded topic it is now. It would be something you can laugh about, a matter without much significance. I grew up in a house like this. It wasn’t my mother, but rather my Salvadorean housekeeper who offered me an alternative and, frankly, empowering, narrative about weight.

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My Feminist Formation

By Susannah Heschel

This is the eighth entry in an ongoing series exploring Jewish feminism.

I’ve always felt that I was born a feminist.

Seeing injustice and protesting it as a child, my eyes were too big and my voice was too loud. The disparities were offensive: in the synagogue, at homes of my Hasidic relatives, at my Orthodox day school. There was no logic: If Judaism was wonderful, why was I excluded? Being female brought no celebration: When the elderly ladies in the women’s section of the synagogue we attended, the (not-yet-egalitarian) Jewish Theological Seminary, decided that at age 8, I was now too old to sit next to my father in the men’s section and had to move to the women’s section, their insistence was not laced with warm welcome; it dripped with disapproval, no doubt stemming from their own bitterness and resentment. To become a woman in that setting was not a moment of rejoicing and delight.

However, looking at Judaism from the margins was the best intellectual training imaginable. That was, after all, the classic position of Jews in relation to majority society and gave rise to the ambivalence that feminists, too, experience: desire for integration and acceptance battled with resentment at exclusion and the wish to remain separate and different — and unique.

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Going Gaga for 'Girls'

By Sarah Seltzer

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‘Girls’ star Lena Dunham

I’ve felt for a long time that the problem with the rise of bromance/male slacker comedy isn’t that it elevates immature dudes into leading men, but rather that it pairs them up with too tightly wound ladies. It’s what David Denby called the “slacker-striver” pairing, and it was popularized by Judd Apatow.

In short: putting women on a pedestal doesn’t help if the men are getting all the laughs. In the world of comedy, having a job and being responsible doesn’t confer privilege — getting the audience to crack up does. So let women be as flawed and wacked-out, as pot-smoking and dorky and physically goofy as the guys, let them garner the laughs as Kristen Wiig did in “Bridesmaids,” and then we’re closer to okay.

That’s why I and many others are so excited for “Girls,” the new HBO series that has received Apatow’s producing imprimatur but is almost entirely the work of “Tiny Furniture’s” Lena Dunham. The show follows a group of very young women struggling to make it in New York City, but early reviews assure us it’s nothing like “Sex and the City: The Carrie Diaries.” It’s apparently real and unglamorous and skeptical of its characters.

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When Women Fail To Thrive, Who's To Blame?

By Elana Sztokman

Getty Images
Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg urges women to stay focused on their ambitions.

The list of top earners in Israel’s publicly traded companies was published last week by Yediot Aharanot’s Mamon magazine. There is only one woman on the list: Stella Handler.

She’s the director of the cable network Hot, and Handler stands out for her gender, with a salary of 14.82 million NIS annually (approximately $4 million). That’s a lot of money, to be sure, but it’s also 30% less than the top guy on the list, mall-magnate David Azrieli, who makes the equivalent of $5.7 million a year.

According to the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index, on which Israel ranks 55th in the world, Israel has a ratio of 88:100 women to men in the economy.

Today Israeli women are getting undergraduate educations at rates on par with their male counterparts. Yet they are not making it to the top of the economy. The question is what is happening inside companies and organizations? Why are women failing to thrive?

There are two ways to address this question. One places the onus on women, and one places onus on surrounding cultures.

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Why There's No Escape From Passover Cleaning

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

Passover has always been my least favorite holiday. Those who know me well, or have simply been reading my columns and blog posts over the years, will understand why: I hate to clean.

My deep dislike of cleaning and housework knows no particular season. To me, it is the ultimate Sisyphysian waste of time, especially in a house that contains children. You put in hours of effort, you have about five minutes of satisfaction to enjoy your pristine, house, and about ten minutes later, someone has smeared ketchup on the dining room table or left their dirty socks in the middle of the living room.

But my hatred grows more intense in the weeks leading up to Passover. In Israel, it is the time that neat freaks come out of the closet, and cleaning becomes a national obsession, as everyone, religious and secular alike, aspire to a sparkling clean, perfectly organized, and utterly chametz-free home on Seder night.

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Motherhood, 'Otherhood' Inspired Adrienne Rich

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

MYRIAM DIAZ-DIOCARETZ
Adrienne Rich

Adrienne Rich has died, and a voice who provided invaluable insight to the discourse on motherhood, on feminism, on Jewish identity and on sexual politics, has been stilled.

Rich, who was 82, died Tuesday at her home in California. Described in her New York Times obituary, as “a poet of towering reputation and towering rage,” Rich was a prolific writer who authored 32 books of poetry and prose, and indefatigable political activist.

Born to a Gentile mother and a Jewish father, Rich grew to identify strongly as a Jew. When a student at Radcliffe, she married a man from an observant Jewish family, and together they had three sons. Though her early poetry had been praised by W.H. Auden, she stopped writing, for a time, when she married. It was domestic life that brought her back into writing, and into her evolving identities.

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Kadima Without Livni

By Elana Sztokman

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Kadima’s Tzipi Livni

Tzipi Livni, the incumbent Kadima chair who lost Tuesday’s party primary to former Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, is not your typical Israeli politician. She’s just not slimy enough. When she speaks, she seems to be telling you what she actually believes. In a profile of her in Yediot Aharonot last year, the worst thing people said about her was that she wasn’t friendly enough and sometimes closed her door so as not to be interrupted. So either she is too aloof or too protective of her privacy. Either way, she didn’t play the game right. Actually, that’s probably why she lost. She does not have the callousness required to win in Israeli politics.

Shaul Mofaz, on the other hand, we have a glut of guys like him in Israeli politics — men who think that they have everything coming to them because they know how to lead troops to war. What this has to do with actually running an actual country eludes me, unless you count the demands for an inflated ego and a big car, which seem to be common to both jobs.

The overabundance of generals leading our fragile nation explains a lot about the situation we are in vis à vis our neighbors as well as vis à vis ourselves: Everything is viewed as a war.

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Trayvon, and the Case for Newsroom Diversity

By Elissa Strauss

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The parents of Trayvon Martin at the recent “Million Hoodies March” in New York.

The New York Times pointed out an interesting subplot to the coverage of the terrible story of Trayvon Martin, the Florida teenager who was killed by an armed volunteer neighborhood watchman. Though Martin was shot to death on February 26, it took several weeks before it became a national story.

The reason that the story finally gained traction is due, in large part,to the Martin family’s tenacious lawyer, who worked hard to find sympathetic journalists to cover the story, as The Times explains: “Notably, many of the national media figures who initially devoted time to the shooting are black, which some journalists and advocacy groups say attests to the need for diversity in newsrooms. The racial and ethnic makeup of newsrooms, where minorities tend to be underrepresented relative to the general population, has long been a source of tension for the news industry.”

The report goes on to show how prominent black journalists and commentators eventually made this story their own, by writing about it in personal terms. Their attention was what turned this into a national story.

Sisterhood contributors have argued passionately about how diversity in media is elemental to progress and democracy. But rarely do we see a case as clear as this one to make the point.

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A Jewish Feminism for Global Challenges

By Ruth Messinger

This is the seventh entry in an ongoing series exploring Jewish feminism.

As a child in the 1940s and ’50s, I unknowingly experienced Jewish feminism before it really existed. Beginning in 1938 my mother, Marjorie Wyler, worked full-time as the Jewish Theological Seminary’s director of public relations, radio and television; it was a position she held for 55 years. My mother was way ahead of her time, not only as a public intellectual and as a leader in an institution dominated by men, but by raising my sister and me with the unshakable belief that we could do and be whatever we wanted.

I would learn decades later that my mother’s trajectory didn’t always have a silver lining: She constantly fought sexism in the workplace and was grossly underpaid. In the 1980s and ’90s, I was in the thick of my political career as a New York City Councilwoman, and as Manhattan Borough president. Sexism gnawed at the edges and chewed through the center of my work.

When I expressed an opinion, I was often dismissed as being “rude,” “pushy,” or “hysterical.” When I requested a public hearing about a piece of legislation I’d drafted, a powerful male colleague responded by saying: “Of course you can have a hearing. I can never say no to a pretty girl.” And although I was popular within the Hispanic community, I could never win the support of Hispanic women over 40. Why? Because back then, many women in the community believed that women shouldn’t work outside the home.

When I lost the mayoral election and left city politics for a new career in international development, my understanding of gender inequality acquired a global perspective.

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At Brooklyn Girls School, Facebook Is Off Limits

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

One Hasidic girls school is demanding its students remove their Facebook pages. Noncompliance means expulsion.

Beth Rivkah High School, in the heavily Lubavitch Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, is requiring 11th grade girls with Facebook pages to cancel their accounts and pay a $100 fine. That’s quite a U-Turn from the school’s position in 2010, when it was asking students to log onto Facebook. “It’s a great opportunity to do a mitzvah!” the school wrote at the time.

CrownHeights.info is reporting that the crackdown aims to restore a certain level of tznius [modesty] that had been lacking among the girls, as Facebook accounts had been cited as a contributing factor to the decline of tznius standards by many Mashpi’im [spiritual guides] and educators.

The issue of modesty and social media engagement are particularly particularly challenging for the Lubavitch community.

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Is 'Mad Men' Finally Poised To Tackle Race?

By Sarah Seltzer

AMC’s “Mad Men,” which returned last night with a two-hour premiere, is a show with a relatively small audience, but a disproportionately active one. Sometimes it feels that 99% of that viewership consists of media professionals who look forward to writing their own recaps and tweets the next morning — not to mention designing animated .gifs of the funniest scenes of the previous night’s episode. Remix videographer Elisa Kreisinger has taken the playing to a new, thought-provoking level, creating detailed remixes of scenes from the show’s seasons, including this feminist musical rendering of the women of “Mad Men”:

Mad Men: Set Me Free from popculturepirate on Vimeo.

“Mad Men” is tailor-made for the chattering classes because creator (and Member of the Tribe) Matthew Weiner uses enigmatic moments, historical events and symbolism to create buzz and speculation. Unlike other media-darling shows like “Friday Night Lights,” which is less polished, but whose characters feel like solid, lovable friends, “Mad Men” characters always feel as though they’re just millimeters beyond my grasp. I think I know what they’re up to but I’m uncertain enough that I have to check with my neighbors to confirm my reactions.

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Finding a Mate Without Getting a Facelift

By Gavriella Lerner

istock photo
Halberstam encourages young women to go to extremes to find a husband.

I had wondered whether Yitta Halberstam’s “Plea to Mothers of Girls in Shudduchim” [the process of dating for marriage], published recently in the Jewish Press, was really a Purim spoof, even if it did come out well after the holiday. Alas, no. Her suggestion that Orthodox women of marrying age should take any and all measures, including undergoing plastic surgery, to improve their appearance, is apparently one given in earnest.

As an Orthodox woman myself, that notion is beyond troubling. I have written here about the Jewish concept of modesty, which I believe is all about dignity. But raising our daughters with the message that they are more than their bodies — and then, teaching them that those bodies are all that matter when it comes to finding a mate — is the height of hypocrisy. What follows is my rejoinder to some of Halberstam’s most outrageous statements:

Halberstam writes: “Yes, spiritual beauty makes a woman’s eyes glow and casts a luminous sheen over her face; there is no beauty like a pure soul. Make-up, however, goes a long way in both correcting facial flaws and accentuating one’s assets.”

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Keeping Feminism Off the Style Pages

By Elissa Strauss

Sarah Hepola, in a recent — and ill-headlined — New York Times article explored whether feminists have and/or need a another leader like Gloria Steinem. Hepola writes that nobody has emerged to take Steinem’s place as feminist team captain, and she arrives at the conclusion that feminism has been replaced by feminisms — that feminism is now a diverse movement with diverse leadership. The Times titled the piece “Gloria Steinem, a Woman Like No Other,” but a much more indicative headline would have been something along the lines of “Does Feminism Need Gloria?”

I agree that the fact that no leader has emerged is, in many ways, a good thing — a result of a much more collective, and inclusive, approach to the women’s movement. The concept of liberation has become murkier ever since feminists fought against discriminatory laws — and won. With no central feminist agenda, we lack the need for a central spokeswoman, Hepola writes.

I like this read, but I worry it is a little too idealistic. A more depressing explanation as to why the era of name-brand feminists has passed can be found in the placement of the story.

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Why We Pay More for Deodorant

By Sarah Seltzer

Getty Images
Women pay more for health care, and just about everything else.

The debate over birth control has made many of us think about how much money we as women spend on our reproductive health care — between birth control pill co-pays, visits to the gynecologist, cancer screenings, and all the necessary pre-natal care. Because of issues attendant with our fertility and reproduction, insurance companies have regularly charged women more — a practice that’s supposed to end under the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act (but won’t, if it gets repealed).

Bryce Covert has been blogging about women and economics over at the Nation, and she breaks down the numbers here:

She writes: “A new report out this week from the National Women’s Law Center found that insurance companies have been charging women $1 billion more than men for the same coverage. In fact, in the states that haven’t banned the practice of jacking up prices for women — known as gender rating — women were charged more for 92 percent of the best-selling health plans. The difference can’t be explained by a higher cost of maternity care:…Why might insurers decide women are more expensive? Because they tend to use more services — like going to the doctor more often for regular check ups.”

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Staying the (Jewish Feminist) Course

By Blu Greenberg

This is the sixth entry of an ongoing series exploring Jewish feminism.

How I became a feminist and why I have remained one for 40 years are two different stories.

In December 1962, returning home from the lecture circuit, my husband purchased for me Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” at an airport bookstore. This was my introduction to women’s lib, as we called it then, and I shuttled between three reactions: exhilaration, wide-eyed wonder and suspicion. Throughout the next decade, I watched — and grew — from the sidelines. Incidents of inequity that heretofore would not have given me a moment’s pause were now being played against a new canvas. Intellectually, I knew that feminism was about justice.

My husband figured prominently in the process. He may eat the same breakfast every morning, but when it comes to new ideas, he is the most open, adventurous, fair-minded person I know. As a young rabbi, he was not afraid to introduce to his congregants, myself among them, the heady idea of women’s equality within the boundaries of Jewish law, orhalacha — the definition of Orthodox feminism.

But still I watched.

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How Women's-Only Spaces Change Us

By Chanel Dubofsky

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During the winter of 1996, I told a Smith College admissions officer that I didn’t believe in single-sex education.

At the time, I was telling the truth. I could not imagine any merits to not going to school with boys. I had always attended coed schools, and had never thought about how having boys in the classroom impacted me. By the time I was a teenager, I already identified as a feminist. But the notion of being in a single-sex environment led me to believe that I would be unequipped for the “real world.”

In college (not Smith, but a giant university teeming with boys), I began to consider the value of women’s-only spaces. I was spending more time in those spaces — in gender studies classes, at the Jewish women’s events I organized through Hillel, at the workshops I was taking at the campus women’s center.

It wasn’t until a few weeks ago, while traveling in Nicaragua with a group of college-aged women, as one of two female leaders on a service-learning trip — a trip organized by my employer, American Jewish World Service — that I finally grasped the real power of women’s-only spaces.

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Jewish Feminism Means Reaching Out

By Elana Sztokman

This is the fifth entry of an ongoing series exploring Jewish feminism.

What is Jewish feminism to me?

It’s a mission. A calling. An identity. A life purpose. To borrow a French term, it’s my raison d’etre. Or to borrow a Buddhist term, it’s my swadharma, the ideal that connects the work that I do in this world with my divine spark. It is the key that fires the engine in my soul. It is the spiritual ideal that wraps up my entire being reminds me that I am here on this earth because God decided that I need to be here, in this person, in this identity. Jewish woman. That is everything to me. It is all that I am.

It wasn’t always this way. This is an identity in two parts, two parts that sometimes coexist, sometimes fight, sometimes mutually empower and sometimes mutually deflect. One part, the Jewish part, I was born into, without a say in the matter, while the other part, the feminist part, I chose as an adult, following a journey that included pain, struggle and discovery. One part is ancient but the other is relatively recent — in definition, at least, though not as an ideal. One part has definitive, authoritative texts and rules while the other has a different kind of textual heritage, the writings of women creating ideas out of their own lives.

Yet both are divinely inspired. And the place where the two pieces overlap is, in my opinion, the place where the shechina rests.

The Bible’s Ruth epitomizes that place for me, the place where the core of Judaism and the core of feminism overlap and melt into each other.

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IVF Babies Denied U.S. Citizenship

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

istock
Are those eggs USDA-approved?

For American-Israeli women like me, having a baby means a trip to the U.S. Embassy. Once you are home from the hospital, and once your newborn’s Israeli birth certificate is granted and health care benefits are in order, you head to the embassy to apply for U.S. citizenship on behalf of your infant.

With the U.S. passport (replete with a funny-looking newborn passport pic) in hand, you can relax knowing you won’t face visa headaches when it’s time to take your bundle of joy to America so the grandparents can kvell.

Convenience is, of course, only one of the reasons that American parents anywhere in the world want to quickly establish the automatic U.S. citizenship granted to kids with at least one parent who is a citizen. In a post-9/11 world, American citizenship and the ability to travel freely in and out of the U.S. is not something to be taken for granted.

When I went through the process for my three Israeli-born children, my biggest worries were getting the diaper bag through embassy security and filling out the forms coherently on very little sleep. But mothers who had their babies using assisted reproductive technology, such as in vitro fertilization, are now facing a much bigger and more serious problem: Many of these children are being denied citizenship altogether.

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On Segregated Buses, a Choice that Isn't

By Elana Sztokman

Wikimedia Commons
Limor Livnat, a Knesset member who heads the governmental committed to prevent women’s exclusion.

Dr. Hanna Kehat’s mother did not ride her local bus for three years. The 78-year-old lifelong resident of the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood Mea Shearim lost her bus because Haredi extremists would stone the bus every time it rode down her street. So Egged simply stopped the route, forcing her and many of her car-less neighbors to walk distances to find a different bus.

“Women in her community are being completely neglected – they are at the mercy of the sikrikim,” Kehat told The Sisterhood, referring to one of Israel’s the most extreme ultra-Orthodox sects.

Today, however, the bus has returned to its route, thanks to one change: Police intervention.

The question about what role the government plays in protecting Israeli citizens from Haredi violence came to the fore last week, when the Interministerial Committee to Prevent the Exclusion of Women, headed by Minister of Sport and Culture Limor Livnat, released its findings. Among the most controversial conclusions of its three-month long investigation is the committee’s recommendation to support a 2011 High Court ruling that deems gender segregation on public transport a matter of “choice.”

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Insisting on a Jewish Prenup

By Hannah Scholl, Estee Goldschmidt and Marc Herman

U.S. House of Representatives
Rep. Dave Camp

In her Sisterhood post “On Agunah Issue, Pressure Rabbis, Not Rep,” Dvora Meyers takes on a grassroots campaign to pressure Michigan Rep. Dave Camp to condemn what we consider to be abusive behavior by his staffer, Aharon Friedman. In the past, Camp has called Friedman’s refusal to grant his wife a Jewish divorce decree, or a get, “gossip.” It is time for Camp to recognize this error and do what is right.

The facts of this case are not under dispute. Friedman married Tamar Epstein in April 2006. The marriage failed, and Friedman and Epstein were civilly divorced in 2010, after being separated for two years. For Epstein, an Orthodox Jew, civil divorce is insufficient. Jewish law mandates a religious divorce decree, or get, which must be consented to by both parties. But Friedman has refused thus far to give Epstein a get, and that shows a basic disregard for human decency. He’s been banned from his synagogue, and a prominent rabbinical court has issued a public declaration condemning his intransigence.

In effect, Epstein is an agunah, or a “chained woman.” She cannot remarry in a religious ceremony. And because Epstein is an Orthodox Jew, that effectively means that Friedman (also Orthodox) is deliberately preventing her from remarrying.

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