This is the third entry in an ongoing series exploring Jewish feminism.
I want to answer the question of “what Jewish feminism means to me” in two ways: First, about how I learn from it both substantively; and second, on a meta level, in terms of how all of us enrich the Jewish conversation through our differences.
First, I cannot imagine my concept of God, as it stands now, without the input of Jewish feminists. As a young gay man, it was all too easy for me to understand God as a (male) friend, as a (putatively male) spirit, and even, alas, as a (highly male) father or judge. I did not “naturally” experience God as wombful (rachamim), as immanent in the breezes, trees and flowers, or as the endlessly circling and spiraling cycles of the natural world. To be sure, I had some vague experiential inklings of these mysterious forces, but they always seemed apart from my Judaism.
It was only as I came to appreciate the egalitarian and progressive elements of Jewish feminism and, later, its radical earth-based and potentially revolutionary elements that I saw how incomplete my earlier understanding of God had been.
Jewish feminism also means, for me, refusing to give one’s own preferences, or even the mandates of tradition, a veto over justice. For example, I still resonate more with traditional liturgical language than with some gender-neutral revisions of it, but my preferential “resonance” is, I think, much less important than ensuring our theological discourse does not perpetuate oppression.
The investigative news site ProPublica hosted a session Monday on women in the newsroom at the Tenement Museum, a Lower East Side institution dedicated to telling the story of immigrant life in New York.
Unfortunately, the venue wasn’t the only thing that felt retro about the event. The topics covered — the dearth of women in editor positions, the shabby family leave policies at most newspapers, the fact that women are pushed to cover “soft” news like education while their male colleagues get the investigative scoops — are things that women in media have talked about for decades upon decades upon decades. When will the American news media have its “come to Jesus moment,” as ProPublica writer Nikole Hanna-Jones termed it, and cover and employ women of color? Something tells me we’ll be having this same conversation for years to come.
The most refreshing thing to come out of the panel was a discussion of how female reporters can use sexism to their advantage.
When we talk about bat mitzvahs, we tend to focus on the more absurdist elements of the day, like our regrettable sartorial choices and tales of general teenage awkwardness. We get so caught up in the puffy sleeved pink skirt suits and the fact that Ron Greenberg decided to do “Love Shack” in the karaoke booth with Jessica even though you asked him first, that we fail to consider how truly progressive this ceremony once was.
The bat mitzvah was a major achievement for early Jewish feminists who, caught up the fervor of the suffragette victory of 1922, decided to claim the right of passage as their own. Now, in light of bat mitzvah’s 90th anniversary, the JCC in Manhattan is hosting an exhibit about ceremony, as well as a concert and performance this Thursday night dedicated to the ceremony.
The show is headlined by Girls in Trouble, led by singer/songwriter Alicia Jo Rabins, and will feature performances by comedian Judy Gold, performance artist Glenn Marla, writer Deborah Feldman, and actress Sam Mozes.
The Sisterhood spoke with these women about their sometimes funny, sometimes boring, and sometimes empowering experiences up on the bima. Feel free to share your bat mitzvah story in the comments section below.
We’ve become used to the gender roles in conventional war. The brave male soldiers march off to the battlefield, the women and children remain back at home, protected in their domestic routines. Or, in the alternative scenario, when the horror of war comes to civilian neighborhoods, life grinds to a halt, and the family huddles together for safety, fathers and mothers joining together to protect their children.
But this week, as the back-and-forth volleys between Israel and terror elements in Gaza stretched past the Purim holiday and the weekend into the work week, affecting more than a million citizens in southern Israel, there is a different reality. It is so different that Israel’s Homefront Command has coined a new term: “Emergency Routine” — a middle ground between a “State of Emergency” and business as usual.
In this so-called emergency routine situation, work goes on as usual – because the state doesn’t want the local economy to grind to a halt. However school is cancelled, because, even if a school is built with missile-proof materials, nobody wants to see a direct hit on a school full of children, and children are vulnerable as they walk or ride the bus to school. And so the question being asked in households across southern Israel, is ‘who’s going to stay home with the kids?’
I never met Marie Colvin, the intrepid war correspondent who was brutally murdered by Syrian army shelling. But I used to fantasize about being like her. Scratch the surface of any journalist and you’ll find someone who was once intrigued by the vision of living dangerously, moving from trouble spot to trouble spot, always in the middle of the action, bravely shining a light on injustices across the world. The classic foreign correspondent swashbuckler icon may be male, but since there have been numerous examples of women in battle zones.
I have incredible respect and admiration for friends and colleagues who cover not only the Arab-Israeli conflict from the comfort of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv offices, but hop in and out of Egypt, Libya, Lebanon and Iraq, despite the ongoing dangers. I’m not one of them. It is a rare creature who has the ability to run towards danger and risk, and not away from it.
My friend Stephanie, a television correspondent who has been covering the Arab Spring across the Middle East is one of those brave people. I interviewed her long-distance — she is currently on the Lebanon-Syrian border, covering the bloody Syrian crackdown on anti-government protesters. We agreed that I would not fully identify her or the news organization she works for, in order to protect her safety and allow her to speak freely about her experiences.
Allison Kaplan Sommer: You knew Marie Colvin. What was she like?
This is the second entry in an ongoing series about Jewish feminism.
It’s difficult to be “for” something I have never lived without.
I don’t remember a bimah without women. When I was growing up, my mother was the cantor at our makeshift shul on Fire Island, so my Jewish practice always had a female face. I don’t remember learning Judaism without women because some of my most formative Jewish teachers — Miri Kubovy, Mychal Springer, Jennifer Krause and Angela Buchdahl — were strong, scholarly women. I have only known integrated, egalitarian Judaism, just as I have only known an egalitarian home — my parents’ and now my own.
Radical as it may sound, I never really experienced sexism, just as I didn’t encounter anti-Semitism. I know both still fester, and that they were once controlling and insidious, but thanks, in significant part, to the work of my mother and her compatriots, we live in a different world now.
Coming this Sunday, to the intellectual and spiritual fountainhead of the Conservative movement, the best and brightest women (and men) in the movement will be talking about….clothing.
As Renee mentioned in this post, JTS will be hosting “What to Wear?” on March 11. It is an event billed as “An All-Day, Multifaceted Exploration of Women’s Clothing and Its Relationship to Religion and Culture.”
Much about the program sounds interesting: an interfaith panel, with Christian, Muslim and Jewish participants, on head covering and modesty; another panel, of female rabbis, looking at the messages sent by what they choose to wear; an examination of clothing in the Talmud, and an inter-generational session delving into the loaded topic of clothing and bat mitzvah.
Perhaps uniquely, JTS is able to bring together people from across the Jewish world, from Modern Orthodox to Reform, and from other faiths, and bring an intellectual perspective to bear on current cultural issues. And that’s great.
But something about this event seems more wrong than thrift store shoes on Carrie Bradshaw’s feet. My issue with “What to Wear?” isn’t the content, but that it’s happening at all.
“We are all sluts now” is the rallying-cry in a post Sandra Fluke vs. Rush Limbaugh world. By smearing one young woman with that word for advocating contraception coverage, Rush attacked everyone who uses birth control, 99% of women in America. He also chose a victim who was not already in the public eye and who was white, educated, wearing a nice suit jacket and doing her civic duty.
Limbaugh’s comments, coming on the heels of the Komen controversy and the all-male birth control panel controversy, and a full-on assault on reproductive rights for women all across the spectrum has inspired a long-awaited backlash. As one of my favorite professors and novelists wrote on her Facebook page, “the sleeping tigress awakes.”
I’m so glad it’s awake. But I want that tigress to stay awake even as Congress moves away from the birth control front and the Rush furor dies down. Because as many of us relentless feminist types have pointed out, this war on women didn’t start in 2012. It started in 1976 when the loathsome Hyde Amendment passed, barring federal funding of abortion for women on Medicaid. It accumulated over the years with chipping-away here and siphoning there, spiking during 2011’s record-setting year for restrictions. This war has slammed poor rural women in particular but also targeted poor urban women.
Today is Purim — the day that we are commanded to retell the story of how a Persian Queen helped save her fellow Jews from annihilation.
It’s also International Women’s Day.
So it’s no coincidence that a group that opposes the Iranian regime, and its efforts to obtain nuclear weapons — an organization backed by the American Jewish Committee, the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York and other Jewish and non-Jewish groups — chose this day to convene Iranian ex-pats for a panel discussion on “The Role of Women in the Struggle for Iran’s Future: From Quiet Resistance to Digital Activism.”
Despite the event’s title, and despite widespread speculation about a possible strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, the panelists — author Roya Hakakian, broadcast journalist Solmaz Sharif and blogger Arash Abadpour — spoke only briefly about women’s activism and the nuclear threat. They lingered instead on the question of why Iran, whose Green movement was a precursor to the Arab Spring, has yet to see a revolution the likes of Egypt, Libya and now Syria.
This is the first entry of an ongoing series exploring Jewish feminism.
Why am I a Jewish feminist?
Because if you’re a woman, you’re either a feminist or a masochist.
Because if you’re a Jew, you’re obligated to pursue justice and treat each person — man and woman — with perfect dignity, for all of humanity is created in the image of God and filled with divine sparks.
In other words, I’m a feminist because I’m a woman and a Jew.
Anyone seeking religious justification for the women’s movement struggle against sex discrimination and gender violence need only recall the words of the ancient sage, Hillel, who famously summarized the entire Torah (while standing on one leg) saying, “Do not do unto others what you would not have done unto you.” This terse distillation of fundamental Judaic ethics could serve as the rallying cry for every feminist organizer from Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Ernestine Rose, and Emma Goldman to Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, and the feisty young feminists of the 21st century.
Purim is a holiday that is about women’s power, in its different forms.
Thinking about the roles of Queen Vashti and her successor Queen Esther in the Purim story highlights some of the dilemmas that women have faced throughout history. I therefore think it’s particularly apt that Ta’anit Esther is International Agunah Day, the day the marks the harrowing struggle of “chained women,” or women denied divorce.
Vashti and Esther were both married to a man, the same man, for whom women were objects to be adorned and used. This was arguably the prevailing culture at the time, but there are also gradations in the exploitation of women. (To wit, someone visiting the planet for the first time who puts on MTV would believe that our culture is no better today than it was then.) Moreover, King Ahasverus was particularly adamant in his use of women’s bodies to claim his own power. He summoned Vashti specifically “to show the peoples and the princes her beauty; for she was fair to look on,” he chose his next queen based on a beauty contest, and declared that peace in his entire kingdom was a function of women’s submission, that “all the wives will give to their husbands honor, both to great and small… that every man should bear rule in his own house, and speak according to the language of his people.”
Interestingly, Vashti and Esther dealt with the king differently. Vashti was defiant.
Over the last couple of months there has been a lot of attention paid to the unfortunate case of Tamar Epstein, an Orthodox woman who has been trying to get a Jewish divorce decree, or a get for more than four years from her husband Aharon Friedman. Though he’s already her ex-husband in all matters civil and fiscal, he is still her spouse in the eyes of her faith, and this leaves Epstein unable to remarry in the Jewish tradition, and move on with her life.
“He is thus inflicting great emotional abuse upon her,” wrote Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, the spiritual leader of Ohev Shalom — The National Synagogue, in Washington D.C., on the Huffington Post. He and other Jewish leaders have been calling on Friedman’s boss, Michigan Rep. Dave Camp, to reprimand or fire him since other efforts at communal coercion, including blacklisting, picketing and shunning, have failed. (See this recent Sisterhood post on the subject.)
However, if withholding a get constitutes abuse, if the husband is indeed brandishing a psychological weapon and threatening his wife with it, then the question that should be asked: How did the gun get into his hand?
The answer is clear: It was put there by Jewish law, the rabbis who formulated it, and the rabbis who refuse to amend it.
A funny thing happened in my house the other day. And by funny, I mean dismaying and somewhat depressing. My two-year-old daughter came home from preschool talking about a Bad Man. When we hear this Bad Man’s name, she told me with wide-eyed gusto, we make a lot of noise to scare him away.
As she excitedly recounted the Purim story, I realized I’d approached a rite of passage in modern Jewish parenthood that’s right up there with wincing at a bris and trying to make Hanukkah something more than a tsunami of presents. It was, of course, the dilemma of how to teach kids our often difficult and scary religious tales, of which Purim is probably the most difficult and scary.
And I’m not talking about the whole minefield of problems like the sexism in the Vashti scene, the valuation of female beauty in the Esther thread, and the bloody revenge levied against the Jews’ enemies — to say nothing of the super scary part about the genocide plot, which was thankfully left out of my daughter’s introduction to the holiday. No, at this point I just mean the simple idea of there being Bad Men, like Haman. Of course, there are bad people in the world. But is that something that toddlers who have never heard of them need to learn?
The Kittel Collection is a series of clothing pieces that explores the different ways clothing is used as a vehicle for meaning and identity within our tradition and literature. The kittel is a simple, white, garment used as a burial shroud, and customarily worn by men on various Jewish holy days. Each month, The Sisterhood showcases, and looks at the meaning behind, a kittel from my collection. View images of this month’s kittel, the Liar’s Kittel, after the jump.
A few years ago I co-hosted a Purim party that invited the guests to “Come as you’re not. Whatever you think you are, whoever that is, come as your opposite, come as your nemesis.” It was great theme. Shy retiring types came as drag queens and flamboyant Prince Charmings. Buttoned-up lawyers came as hippies. And there were many nuns and priests. It gave people existential angst — “…but who aren’t I…?” — in the run-up to Purim. The party theme tapped into our secret desires for how we want to see ourselves.
In Bereshit, some of the characters use clothing to manipulate and trick others. They change the roles they have been given, so that their realities can be altered: Jacob dresses up as Esau, fools his father into blessing him, and gains the inheritance he always wanted. Jacob’s sons use Joseph’s torn and bloody coat to spin the story that Joseph is dead in order to receive their father’s love and attention. Tamar disguises herself as a prostitute and Judah sleeps with her, and she gets pregnant, all without him realizing her true identity. She transforms herself a childless widow into reclaiming a life for herself.
Like all women, the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Carol Ingall, a professor of Jewish education, and Shuly Rubin Schwartz, a professor of American Jewish history and a dean, ask themselves “What to wear?” Their realization, after talking to female colleagues, of the pervasiveness of “this constant negotiation,” as Ingall puts it, led them to delve into this seemingly quotidian query. The result is a daylong program of interdisciplinary, inter-religious and inter-generational exploration of women’s clothing and its relationship to religion and culture.
“What to Wear: Women, Clothing, Religion” will take place March 11 at JTS, and will feature a panel discussion on head coverings in Jewish, Catholic, and Muslim tradition; a talk by Forward columnist Jenna Weissman Joselit, of George Washington University, about how clothing helped Jewish women assimilate into American society, and wide-ranging sessions on everything from stripping in the Bible to clothing and Jewish stereotypes.
Among other highlights, Stefanie Siegmund, who chairs the Jewish gender and women’s studies program at JTS, will explore with attendees what clothing had to do with Christian-Jewish relations in the late 16th century. That “is the time of Shakespeare, and of the Italian comedies, as well as of the publication of many books of manners and customs, and legislation on who could wear what,” she wrote in an email. “Men and women were very self-conscious of the parts they played in the social hierarchy and also of the power of what they wore to change the way they were seen and treated.”
Crossposted from Haaretz
Canadian women did it, American women did it and even Singaporean women did it. Soon Israeli women will do it, too: This month will see Slutwalks (Mitzad Sharmutot in Hebrew ) in Tel Aviv (on March 16) and in Haifa a week later. A third Israeli Slutwalk will take place in Jerusalem next month.
The first Slutwalk was around a year ago in Toronto, prompted by a policeman said at a crime prevention safety forum that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.”
His remarks reflected a very commonly held view that a woman who dresses in what is considered sexy attire is basically asking to be assaulted or harassed.
Women, fortunately, are no longer willing to accept this attitude. Following the march in Toronto, over the year many other Slutwalks were held all over the world, where some of the participants were scantily clad. The marchers’ message is clear: We will wear what we please, we do not need to apologize for our sexuality, and it does not matter what you think of what we wear or what you think we mean: When we say no, it means no.
It’s supposed to be the guys who get turned on by images. We ladies are more evolved, more sensitive, more verbal, less dependent on pictures to trigger our fantasies.
Or are we? After all, young girls are are the bulletin board queens. In our teenage bedrooms, many of us taped up pictures and posters of our idols and role models. In the past, there were “‘hope chests,” and even now, some women clip pictures for their dream wedding for when the time comes. When the female-centric book “The Secret” came out six years ago, ‘vision boards’ were all the rage. They were supposed to hang in front of our desk, right in our line of vision, with pictures of our goals — our dream job, our dream house, inspirational phrases — so that what we were working to accomplish stayed in front of our eyes all days. And let’s not forget the hobby of scrapbooking. Have you ever met a man who scrapbooks?
Now some young genius has come up with Pinterest, which is rapidly becoming the next big thing on the Internet. I’m talking, Pinterest lets you maintain virtual ‘boards’ on different topics and ‘pin’ links onto them. The official term is “theme-based image collections.”
In what appears to be a first for social media, Pinterest is being pioneered by hip college students nor techie young geeks. Women rule the Pinterest universe, at least for now.
I got into writing and journalism to elevate other people’s voices. I find it demoralizing that I have to fight to get my own heard. I shouldn’t be surprised: my high school newspaper was sexist; my college newspaper was sexist. I decided to be a professional freelancer in part because I simply didn’t want to deal with being the “office feminist” in a newsroom that I assumed would be a hostile environment.
On one level, reading those skewed numbers blows my mind; on another, I want to shout “of course!” After all, the simple belief that women should have the same social, economic, and political opportunities as men, is treated by some today as compromising one’s “objectivity.” Even for male journalists, taking active steps to combat sexism probably jeopardizes their reputations as detached and scrutinizing (or they think it does, and that’s their excuse).
So VIDA, an organization that promotes women in literary arts, put out another count on the gender disparity at “thought leading” magazines and things don’t look great. Women are still far outnumbered by men in terms of who gets published and who gets reviewed in places like The New Yorker, The Atlantic and The Nation.
Last year I spoke with some of the editors of these magazines about this issue and most of whom said they are trying to change things. David Remnick of The New Yorker said “we’ve got to do better.” Unfortunately none of the editors seemed to actually have done much to make it better. But then again, neither did I.
I never bothered to pitch any of the magazines on the VIDA count last year. This wasn’t because I didn’t think they would pay attention to me because of my gender, but rather because they don’t seem to be much interested in covering the things I like to write about. I am talking about topics like gender, sexuality, culture and the intersection of the three.
The latest salvo in the war on women came from the microphone of the notoriously crass and offensive talk radio host Rush Limbaugh. Even for someone who offends as regularly as Limbaugh, his latest comments were beyond the pale.
Limbaugh has launched an attack on Sandra Fluke — the young Georgetown law student whose testimony about contraception coverage was encouraged by Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi. After being rejected by Rep. Darrell Issa as “unqualified” — Issa notoriously assembled an all-male panel to discuss the issue— Fluke spoke simply and straightforwardly to Democrats on the Hill about the problems caused by a lack of contraceptive access and coverage on campus, including severe repercussions for those who needed the pills to address medical conditions.
For this, she’s been called a “slut” and a “prostitute” by Limbaugh.