Sisterhood Blog

Haredi Perspectives on Birth Control, Abortion

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

News of the Obama administration’s anticipated adoption of a health panel’s recommendation that birth control be considered preventive care and therefore paid for by insurance companies is being widely welcomed by those concerned with women’s health.

It came to mind when I read this advice seeker on the fascinating website Unpious.com. A Haredi woman in her 20s (and already a mother of five) writes, plaintively, of her terror that she might be pregnant with a sixth child. She writes that she and her husband, though Hasidic, are comfortable using birth control whether or not they have the rabbinic permission known as a heter.

While the rest of the world, Jewish and otherwise, looks at Hasidic communities where six, eight or 10 kids are the typical progeny in each family and assumes that birth control is verboten, it is not.

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On Abortion and Contraception, a Different Kind of Logic

By Sarah Seltzer

I closely followed Debra Nussbaum Cohen’s piece about the inherent contradiction between anti-abortion and anti-contraception stances – stances which are often held by the same folks. Her logic is impeccable: Debra is 100% right that contraception is a rational middle ground, that opposition to family planning is absurd whatever your stance is on the morality of abortion, and that making birth control more widely available is sound public policy.

Just this last weekend, while spending time with friends who are scientists, I engaged in a similar discussion about the seemingly self-cancelling bent of the anti-choice movement. If they truly believe every abortion is murder then why, why, don’t they hand out condoms? Why do they cut childcare funding and lobby against maternal health provisions? And at the heart of it all, why not be pragmatic rather than dogmatic? Why do they work for an environment which will create more unintended pregnancies and by rational extension, more trips to the abortion clinic?

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Would a Government Ministry Help Israeli Women Get Ahead?

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

Wikimedia Commons
Likud MK Gila Gamliel

The proposal sounds pretty good on the surface – a Ministry of Women’s Affairs in the Israeli government, dedicated solely to promoting the issues, concerns, and interests of Israeli women and improving their status in society.

Likud MK Gila Gamliel, who recently unveiled the proposal for creating such a ministry, is convinced that it can only do Israeli women good and she is confident that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is behind her. She told the Jerusalem Post that “the decision on whether to create a ministry for women must come from the prime minister, but I believe we are heading in the right direction. I am pretty sure that the first chance he has, he will take up this issue.”

Gamliel, an up-and-coming ambitious young Likud party member and Netanyahu loyalist, currently holds the position of deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office for the Advancement of Young People, Students and Women (a job she is apparently considered triply qualified for because she is both young and female, with a background in student leadership. ) Something of a political prodigy, she was elected to the Knesset twelve years ago at age 29, and has been there ever since, except for three years, when Likud’s poor showing in the elections knocked her off the Knesset list. She returned to the parliament in 2006.

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Introducing 'The Kittel Collection'

By Jacqueline Nicholls

The kittel is a simple white garment that is traditionally worn by a groom on his wedding day, by men on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Seder nights, and as a burial shroud. In this space, over the course of the next several months, I will use the kittel to explore the many ways that clothing is used as a metaphor for meaning and identity within Jewish tradition and literature.

The first such piece examines the ways that so much of the traditional Jewish modesty (tzniut) literature transmits the message that a woman’s body is something shameful and something that must be locked away — while, at the same time, grotestquely sexualizing the female form.

View a video about the project below:

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: The Kittel Collection, Modesty, Kittel, Jacqueline Nichols, Feminism

The Anti-Contraception, Anti-Abortion Paradox

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Creative Commons

When I was a young adult and ready to start on the birth control pill, I found that its cost was not covered by my health insurance. Paying the retail price was onerous. It didn’t seem right that insurance wouldn’t cover contraception, though it did cover the cost of giving birth and possibly even abortion. It just didn’t make any sense.

Now, finally, the federal government is ready to rectify the situation, and make contraception more economically accessible to women and men by requiring health insurance to cover its cost.

According to this news story, the Institute of Medicine, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, is recommending that health insurers be required to pay for contraception so that there is no cost to the consumer as part of “preventive health services.”

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Preventive Care, Reproductive Rights, Contraception, Birth Control, Abortion

Communal Lessons From 'Harry Potter'

By Leah Berkenwald

Last weekend the eighth and final Harry Potter movie hit theaters. In the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling created a magical alternate universe. Neither a utopia or dystopia, her magical world is fraught with real-world complexity. Reflecting on this groundbreaking series and its allegorical world, there are four important progressive lessons for the Jewish community to take away.

1) Women belong everywhere men belong

One of the most obvious and delightful characteristics of the Harry Potter series is gender equity, pure and simple. In J.K. Rowling’s magical society, witches and wizards are equal. The Ministry of Magic (their governing entity) is equally mixed, as is the magical sport of Quidditch, which women not only play, but play together with men on co-ed teams (More on gender equity in Quidditch at Ms. Magazine.) While the main villain, Voldemort, is male, his number two is a woman—the cruel and twisted Bellatrix LeStrange. Even the stay-at-home-witches and homemakers, like Molly Weasly, are written as feminist role models.

And of course, there’s Hermione Granger, the main female character, who is intelligent, studious, courageous, sensitive and principled—a far cry from the way girls are usually included as “the token girl one” or a undeveloped love interest. She is, undoubtedly, one of the best feminist role models out there (especially compared to the sad range of alternatives like the Disney princesses or Twilight’s Bella Swan).

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Leah Berkenwald is the online communications specialist at the Jewish Women’s Archive, and a contributor to its Jewesses With Attitude blog, which cross-posts regularly with the Sisterhood.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter

Low Hopes for 'Jewtopia': The Movie

By Elissa Strauss

Getty Images
Jennifer Love Hewitt

We have long bemoaned the fact that female Jewish characters on screens big and small get the short shrift, and that our high points were still decades ago when Barbra took on Fanny Brice and Yentl.

Well, the upcoming film version of the long-running off-Broadway comedy “Jewtopia” will not likely makes things any better. As our Shmooze blog noted, Jennifer Love Hewitt and Ivan Sergei have signed on for an adaption of the show, which chronicles the story of two friends, a Jew and a Gentile, who pursue women from one another’s religion.

What draws the gentile to the Jewess? A desire for a woman who will make his decisions for him. What draws the Jew to the gentile? Someone who won’t remind him of his roots. So there is an overbearing Jewish American Princess and an accommodating shiksa. Gee, where have I heard that one before?

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After Leiby's Murder, Teaching Our Kids To Be Street-Smart

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

The details of the murder last week of 8-year-old Leiby Kletzky are heart-rending. It was an act of evil that recalls the first time in modern memory that a stranger abducted a child off the streets of New York City. That child was also a young Jewish boy, Etan Patz, who had, like Leiby, begged his parents to allow him to walk alone, in that 1979 case to the school bus stop. This week, Leiby was trying to walk home from day camp.

There has been a plethora of coverage of Leiby Kletzky’s murder, including this New York Times piece about the ultra-Orthodox community’s tendency to view Jews as “safe,” and non-Jews (or those who appear not to be Jewish) as dangerous.

As Etan’s father, Stanley Patz, told Clyde Haberman this week, “children are vulnerable.” Most children Leiby’s age, especially in the ultra-Orthodox community, don’t understand the danger that strangers — even Jewish ones — can present. One of the nice things about children in Haredi communities is that, protected from television news and reality garbage (since most Haredi families do not have televisions), they have the sweetness of childhood on them for as long as possible.

There is also that “double standard” that Joseph Berger writes about in The Times.

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Haredi, Etan Patz, Abduction, Leiby Kletzky, Murder

Prime Ribs: Zumba to 'Hava Nagila'; Facebook as Lifesaver

By Elissa Strauss

On Slate, Deborah Copaken Kogan tells a moving Jewish mother story for the digital age, about how sharing her son’s strange symptoms on Facebook saved his life.


Among those in favor of beatifying WWII-era Pope Pius XII is a nun now making the case that the pontiff ordered her convent to shelter 114 Jewish women from the Nazis, the AP reports.


Deborah Hirsch writes for JTA about how the increasingly popular “Zumba” exercise classes have spawned de-facto Sisterhood groups. Some instructors even incorporate “Hava Nagila” into their routines, Hirsch writes.

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Zumba, Prime Ribs, Pope Pius XII, Facebook, Alice Shalvi

Male-Only Economics Conference Raises Difficult Questions

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

What if you were a woman entering a business conference in order to hear speeches the mayor of a city, a government finance minister and the CEO of a major bank, but were turned away at the door because you were female and the audience was limited only to men “for modesty reasons”? One might expect such a thing to happen in Saudi Arabia or Iran. But it happened last week in Jerusalem.

Women expressed anger, frustration and disgust after they were barred from entering a “management forum” held by ultra-Orthodox newspaper Hamodia. Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and Bank Hapoalim CEO Zion Keinan were among those speaking at the conference.

It wasn’t only secular women — but also Orthodox businesswomen — who were turned away, and complained about the treatment. One told Ynet that it was “humiliating and incomprehensible.” The event was not advertised or promoted as an exclusively single-sex affair.

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Yuval Steinitz, Nir Barkat, Hamodia, Haredi, Gender Segregation, Economics, Business

Andy Samberg: Jewish Feminist

By Naomi Zeveloff

Getty Images
Andy Samberg

Four years ago, when “Saturday Night Live” comic Andy Samberg wore a National Organization of Women shirt to a Spike TV event, feminists wondered whether he was just ribbing us. Best known for the satirical rap videos he produces with his comedy trio, The Lonely Island, Samberg trades in dick jokes and fake vomit — not in feminist theory. So when Samberg said that his sartorial choice was “totally sincere,” in an interview with Nerve.com, even the most accommodating among us had a difficult time believing him.

But now, with the recent release of The Lonely Island’s new album, “Turtle Neck and Chain,” it’s safe to say that Samberg was, in fact, sporting his feminist bona fides at the Spike show. I’d even go one step further: Andy Samberg is the first Jewish feminist male comedian.

Samberg gets the feminist moniker not because of his portrayal of women — in fact, most ladies in his videos are stereotypical hotties with zero personality — but because of the way he depicts men. Samberg holds a mirror to the most loutish of American males, rendering Peeping Toms, self-righteous belligerents, and cocksure ladies’ men with heavy-handed mockery. The fact that Samberg so brutally lampoons sexist men and yet remains extremely popular among the “bro” cohort is a testament to his dexterity. Samberg is doing what feminists have asked of their male allies forever: Instead of marching alongside women, Samberg is talking to other men.

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Saturday Night Live, Jorma Taccone, Feminism, Comedy, Andy Samberg, Akiva Shaffer, Turtle Neck and Chain

Breast-Feeding Isn't Always Best

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Samantha Appleton/Official White House Photo
First Lady Michelle Obama advocates breast-feeding over bottle-feeding.

When I was a new mother bottle-feeding my oldest son more than 16 years ago, I had to endure the rude stares of other mothers at the pediatrician’s office waiting room. If I — someone who opted against breast-feeding for a number of personal preference and health reasons — thought that experience on the Upper West Side in 1994 wasn’t pleasant, I would definitely feel uncomfortable giving birth in Israel now.

As a signatory to the World Health Organization’s International Code of Marketing of Breast-Milk Substitutes, Israel is set to follow through on its commitment to promote the breast over the bottle, including the banning of marketing of breast milk substitutes.

As in the U.S., where First Lady Michelle Obama has spoken out in favor of breast-feeding as a means of preventing childhood obesity and where the IRS recently ruled that breast pumps and other nursing supplies qualify for tax breaks, Israel appears to be encouraging women to consider the advantages of making the natural choice. The way I see it, however, Israel is poised to take steps beyond public education, crossing over into coercion territory.

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In the DSK Case, a Silver Lining?

By Elissa Strauss

Getty Images
Strauss-Kahn, after being released from house arrest, with his wife, the journalist Anne Sinclair.

The sexual assault case against the former I.M.F. chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn seems to have all but unraveled. The credibility of the hotel chambermaid who accused DSK of forcing her to perform oral sex and attempting to rape her has been called into question by the defense team, which says that the accuser has been inconsistent in her account of the alleged assault, spoke some damning words to her boyfriend after the incident, and lied on her asylum application. The Manhattan District Attorney’s office is said to be considering dropping the case.

While we still don’t know what went on that afternoon — John Eligonin in The New York Times goes through three possible scenarios based on the evidence — we do know that DSK has a history of being a lothario and there is still something fishy about what happened in his luxury hotel suite, even if it wasn’t outright assault.

But the fact that there is a big chance DSK will walk away from these charges does not mean that this case has been a total loss for the way sexual violence is spoken about and acted upon overall.

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Sexual Assault, France, Dominique Strauss-Kahn

On the Death of Leiby Kletzky, z''l

By Lenore Skenazy

It is with an actually, physically aching heart that I report to you the death of an 8-year-old Brooklyn boy, Leiby Kletzky, who disappeared from a short, solo walk yesterday and was later found in a dumpster. Here is the story.

I bring it up because it seems to prove that the incident that kicked off Free-Range Kids — my letting my 9-year-old ride the New York City subway alone — was foolish, or worse. At the time I said that I felt this was a reasonable and safe thing to do, because I believed in my son, my city and my own parenting. Despite the sorrow I feel even in my joints, I still do.

There are horrible people in the world. There always were, always will be. There were horrible people in the world even when we parents were growing up, and our own parents let us play outside and walk to school and visit our friends on our bikes. Our parents weren’t naive. They knew that we live in a fallen world. They also knew that they had a choice: Keep us locked inside for fear of a tragic, rare worst-case-scenario, or teach us the basics — like never go off with a stranger — and then let us out. They let us out.

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Murder, Leiby Kletzky, Free-Range Kids, Kidnapping, New York City

On the Air, Jewish Women Talk Ambition, Sports, Circumcision

By Gabrielle Birkner

The Sisterhood, of course, isn’t the only place where “Jewish women converse.” The blog also co-produces with Lilith magazine a Women’s Roundtable podcast. And Forward editor Jane Eisner co-hosts with Rachel Sklar The Salon, a Jewish Channel television show that brings together Jewish women with a wide range of perspectives.

On the latest Women’s Roundtable, the life and legacy of pioneering feminist E.M. Broner, the San Francisco ballot measure that would outlaw circumcision and misbehaving (male) politicians are the topics that Lilith editors Susan Weidman Schneider, Rabbi Susan Schnur and Sonia Isard join me to discuss.

Meanwhile on the bat mitzvah edition of The Salon, the panelists explore some of the subjects that have been hot recently on The Sisterhood, including the Orthodox basketball star who wears her religious observance on her sleeves and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s views on women and ambition. They also weigh in on the Anthony Weiner sexting scandal and the implications for the Jewish community of New York’s new same-sex marriage law. Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly; Michelle Goldberg, a columnist for The Daily Beast and Tablet, and Ilene Beckerman, the author/illustrator of “Love, Loss and What I Wore” talk with Jane and Rachel.

Listen to The Women’s Roundtable here.

And watch the trailer for 13th episode of The Salon below:


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: The Salon, Susan Weidman Schneider, Susan Schnur, Sonia Isard, Sheryl Sandberg, Naama Shafir, Michelle Goldberg, Julie Schonfeld, Ilene Beckerman, E.M. Broner, Circumcision, Anthony Weiner

How Did We Get From Betty Ford to Marcus Bachmann?

By Sarah Seltzer

In Curtis Sittenfield’s novel “American Wife,” Laura Bush is re-imagined as Alice, a sympathetic and fairly liberal librarian, traumatized by accidentally causing the death of her high school crush in a car accident, suffering through a secret abortion and later swept off her feet by her cowboy politician husband. Throughout her loyal marriage to this political monster, Alice quietly holds true to her own views while publicly standing by her man — eventually breaking free in a rather tepid climax, to say that she thinks its time to end an unpopular war.

The novel enthralled me in many ways, but its final section, which took place during the presidency, just couldn’t penetrate my own political stances. How could someone with this woman’s sensibilities and convictions, trauma or none, shut herself up and quietly support such a man? Alice’s interesting narrative voice seemed to die once her husband inflicted atrocious policy on his own people and the world, and maybe that was Sittenfield’s ultimate point, but the novel fell flat to me from this moment forward. Alice lost my sympathy, so raw and sore was my anger at the entire Bush clan — fictionalized or real.

This fascinating character lingers in my mind as progressive women nationwide mourn the death of former First Lady Betty Ford, who, in her own way, was one of our own. She was one of ours despite her fealty to her unremarkable Republican husband, who is remembered primarily for pardoning Nixon and telling New York, essentially, to “drop dead.”

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Michele Bachmann, Marcus Bachmann, First Ladies, Betty Ford

Be Ima — The Bima Can Wait

By Chasya-Uriel Steinbauer

I don’t have time to write this blog because I have an infant on my lap. But I am driven to write because I do not hear my voice represented in the discussions about motherhood and the rabbinate.

Recently Rabbi Jill Levy, who was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary, wrote on The Sisterhood about how reluctant many congregations are to hire female rabbis, especially those with young children.

I greatly suspect that during rabbinic job interviews when Rabbi Levy and other mothers are asked how they plan to manage motherhood along with the demands of being a rabbi that the real question being asked is this: Why are you choosing a career in the rabbinate over being with your baby?

I don’t think congregations are concerned with how motherhood might interfere with a mother’s ability to do the job as rabbi; rather, I suspect congregations are concerned with hiring someone who is obviously allowing a rabbinic job to interfere with motherhood. And I have to agree. I would rather see at least one parent at home full-time with her/his baby or toddler — ideally the birth mother, unless the child is adopted. This is what is best for the baby.

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Motherhood, Rabbinical School, Jill Levy, Jewish Theological Seminary

The Pregnancy Lessons That Prepared Me for Parenthood

By Melissa Langsam Braunstein

“Parenthood is the ultimate on-the-job learning experience,” my father commented a few months ago. “You simply can’t learn to be a parent without doing it.”

I believe that. Having recently experienced baby boot camp, I have learned a ton. Now, as the mother of an infant, it seems an appropriate time to reflect on some of the unanticipated lessons I learned during the course of my pregnancy. Each lesson may have been an inconvenience at the time, but taken together, they should make me worthy of a Parenting Master’s degree.

Everything Is Relative, Even Pain

I have been a regular coffee drinker since taking high school physics. As any coffee drinker who fasts on Yom Kippur knows, it hurts to go without. Over the years, I have periodically worked to reduce my caffeine intake, and the effects are typically painful.

Last fall was the big one, though. Newly pregnant, my favorite morning ritual was suddenly making me nauseated, which forced me to revise my plan to slowly taper down my coffee intake. I went cold turkey instead. Yes, in a normal world, two weeks of non-stop withdrawal migraines would have been unspeakably awful. However, my all-day morning sickness was so intense at the time, it managed to dwarf all the headaches. So those withdrawal headaches felt more like background noise. This experience taught me that all things — including pain — are truly relative. Also, even an addict can be reformed for the sake of her baby.

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How Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg Breaks the 'Girl Executive' Mold

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Barnard College/Asiya Khaki
Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg

The lead story in the current issue of The New Yorker is a compelling profile of Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg.

Ken Auletta wrote the wide-ranging piece on Sandberg, who is Jewish, and includes a bit about her recent speech to the women graduating from Barnard College, which also got attention in Elissa Strauss’ recent Sisterhood post.

Auletta’s piece is an incisive look at one of the most powerful women in American business today and why she doesn’t have more company at the highest corporate levels. He analyzes some of the factors women face in business — from blatant sexual advances to more subtle forms of discrimination.

He quotes Marie Wilson, founder of The White House Project, who points out that Norway requires public companies to have at least 40 percent of their directors be men, and 40 percent women. That government can and should create realities that benefit both men and women is an important point, though one Sandberg has little control over.

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Sheryl Sandberg, Feminism, Facebook, Executives, The White House Project

The Jewish 'Crisis Pregnancy' Center's First Year

By Emily Kadar

About a year ago, Washington Jewish Week reported on a new crisis pregnancy center (CPC) called In Shifra’s Arms. Unlike the vast majority of CPCs, which are typically funded and run by Christian organizations or churches, In Shifra’s Arms strives to serve women in the Jewish community.

I expressed my concerns about In Shifra’s Arms in a post last year. Crisis pregnancy centers target young women using the language of choice, and often deceptively present themselves as a comprehensive medical and psychological resource, when in reality they operate with a specifically anti-choice agenda. I was especially upset to learn that In Shifra’s Arms was advertising at University of Maryland and visiting Jewish day schools while also presenting false information about abortion on their website and in their literature.

In Shifra’s Arms is now in the news again, with a wire story picked up by Washington Post, Huffington Post, and others. Somewhat misleadingly titled “Crisis pregnancy group reflects Jewish divide on abortion” (84% percent of American Jews support legalized abortion in all or most cases, according to the 2007 Pew Religious Landscape Survey, numbers that hardly reflect a deep divide), the article detailed the operation and evolution of the organization during its first year. Encouragingly, the organization’s website has taken down links to “resources” that falsely claim abortion causes breast cancer or suicide after receiving criticism from the blogosphere (that’s us!).

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This post originally appeared on Jewesses With Attitude, the blog of the Jewish Women’s Archive, which cross-posts regularly with The Sisterhood.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: In Shifra's Arms, Reproductive Rights, Crisis Pregnancy Center, Abortion



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