Sisterhood Blog

When I Was Fired for Being Pregnant

By Renee Ghert-Zand

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.

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Rabbi: Choose Death Over Hearing Women Sing

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

israel ministry of foreign affairs
Female IDF soldiers.

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.’ ”

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Blu Greenberg Q&A: Not Enough Change

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Courtesy jofa
Orthodox Feminist Pioneer Blu Greenberg

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?

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Major Lecture Series Excludes Women Speakers

By Gail Twersky Reimer

courtesy jwa
JWA Executive Director Gail Twersky Reimer

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.

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Looking Past Fashion for Social Messages

By Elana Sztokman

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).

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A Mother Laments Her Son's Combat Goal

By Haviva Ner-David

courtesy Haviva ner-david
The author with her son, Adin.

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.

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Katie Roiphe Gets (Part of) it Right

By Elissa Strauss

courtesy Katie Roiphe
Writer Katie Roiphe

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

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



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



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Israel's Gender Wars: A Week of Changes

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

Adi elkin & mayrav goldberg
Women sang against repression.

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

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

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

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Sarah Silverman's Funky Family Fairy Tale

By Judy Bolton-Fasman

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

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

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

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

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Rabin, Rachel and Modern Orthodoxy's Confusions

By Elana Sztokman

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

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

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

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

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Torah Study Devalued When We Bribe Our Kids

By Beth Kissileff

courtesy MidrashManicures.com
Midrash Manicure for Chayei Sarah

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

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

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

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Katie Roiphe's Sexual Harassment Problem

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

NYU
Writer Katie Roiphe

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

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

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

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

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Gabby Giffords Dreamed of Becoming a Mother

By Gabrielle Birkner

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

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

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

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

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


Protesting Paucity of Women on Israeli News

By Renee Ghert-Zand

courtesy Anat Saragusti
Protest organizer Anat Saragusti

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

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

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

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Girls Celebrating Bat Mitzvah, Around the World

By Judy Bolton-Fasman

courtesy Indiana University Press

My Dear Sweet Daughter:

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

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

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

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These Women Should Be in the Forward 50

By Kate Bigam

courtesy ACLU
ACLU President Susan Herman

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

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

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

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Israeli HMO Puts Only Boys on Kids' Stickers

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

iStock

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



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

Sounds innocent enough. So what’s the problem?

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

Girls are invisible.



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

By Nancy K. Kaufman

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

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

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

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

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Prime Ribs: Is Sexy Anne Frank Costume Kosher?

By Elissa Strauss

Ray Comfort, Christian evangelist comparing abortion to the Holocaust.

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

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

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

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American Jewish Pioneer With Lessons for Today

By Judy Bolton-Fasman

courtesy Anna Solomon
Author Anna Solomon

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

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

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

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