Sisterhood Blog

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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Egyptian 'Virginity Check' Victim Sues Military

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

Getty images
Egyptian woman protesting in Tahrir Square in March.

There’s a new female heroine in the Arab world. A brave 25-year-old Egyptian marketing manager named Samira Ibrahim is suing the Egyptian military for the trauma she experienced during their so-called ‘virginity tests’ she suffered while being held in a military detainment center.

Ibrahim was part of the group of 17 women arrested in Tahrir Square on March 9 when they were demonstrating at the height of protests against the Mubarak regime shortly after Hosni Mubarak stepped down.

While in custody, the women were beaten, strip-searched and given electric shocks, and violated sexually, while being told that those who were not found to be virgins would face prostitution charges. The women’s mistreatment at the hands of the military officers was documented by Amnesty International. The women were released five days later and some of them received one-year suspended prison sentences.

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Midrash Manicures: A New Low in Girls' Jewish Ed

By Elana Sztokman

courtesy MidrashManicures.com
A ‘Midrash Manicure’ for Parshat Lech Lecha

At the risk of creating another line in the sand between feminists, I am going to weigh in on the midrash manicure thing. This phenomenon is, in my opinion, a new low in girls’ Jewish education. I cannot even believe I’m writing an essay that has the words “midrash” and “manicure” in the same sentence. This is a serious regression into some of the most damaging ideas about how girls learn.

There are many ways to make Torah and Judaism interesting, relevant, engaging and creative. Art forms such as music, painting, dance and drama in Torah learning are wonderfully expressive ways to connect to tradition and text. As my friend Ken Quinn says, the Temple was undoubtedly a very sensual place, full of sights, colors and smells. Torah and Judaism do not have to be the overly cerebral experiences that they so often become. Art and creative expression are vital tools for learning.

There is a huge difference, however, between providing a gender-neutral, intellectually challenging artistic learning experience and girls painting their nails. It doesn’t matter how “fun” manicures are, or how bonding it supposedly is for women, or how egalitarian it presumably is because manicures are so cheap (which they’re not, by the way, if you get them every week, or if they go with pedicures or special designs, or if you do them anywhere else other than Manhattan, like in Israel, where they cost a fortune; plus the fact that when women are still making 77 cents on the dollar to men’s salaries, any added financial burden of adhering to social standards of feminine beauty is just added gender inequality).

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Female Haredi Filmmakers Struggle To Make Movies

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Yifat Prestelnik Films
Tikva of “The Dreamers.”

Secular Israeli documentary filmmaker Efrat Shalom Danon made “The Dreamers” as a way to better understand her sister and a close friend — both of whom are artists who became Haredi. She wanted to better grasp the conflicts these women live with in trying to express themselves creatively while operating within the strict confines of ultra-Orthodoxy. So she made a film about Haredi women making films for Haredi women.

In an interview conducted in Hebrew (and her first with the foreign press), the first-time director explained that filmmaking by Haredi women has grown in the past several years, with one specialized film school for them in B’nei Brak, another in Jerusalem, and also film electives being added to the curriculum of Haredi women’s seminaries. “There are about six films being made by Haredi women every year now,” Shalom Danon said. “Some are even considered relative blockbusters.”

These films, however, need to be put in perspective. First, they do not play in movie theaters, which are off limits to the Haredi sector. Instead, they are shown only to female audiences during holidays, when the films’ producers are able to rent event halls for screenings. Second, the films must be solely for educational purposes, and they are produced with the permission and under the strict supervision of rabbis. “You have a conflict. On one hand, you are an artist. On the other, you are a Haredi woman. You don’t have creative freedom,” a mentor tells Ruchama, one of “The Dreamers’” two main characters.

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A Rabbi and a Minister Respond to 'Personhood'

By Elissa Strauss

Banner in front of U.S. Supreme Court during 2010 pro-life march.

Pro-lifers are having a busy month. There is the Personhood amendment set to pass November 8th in a general election vote in Mississippi, with support from Democrats and Republicans, which would define human life as legally beginning at fertilization. This would render all abortions and morning-after pills illegal, and, according to some, could result on bans of certain birth control pills and in-vitro fertilization.

And just a few weeks ago the House of Representatives passed the “Protect Life Act” which would prohibit women from receiving coverage for abortion from any federally-funded insurance policy, and, potentially, abortions in federally-funded hospitals even if the women have a life-threatening condition.

The Personhood movement, as well as the anti-choice movement, in general, says that they are trying to comply with divine law, as opposed to civil law, and rely upon portions of the Christian and Hebrew Bibles to make that claim. But when I decided to take a look at the texts they say inspire these “divine” laws, I couldn’t find one place that unequivocally said that life begins at conception. Befuddling! And so I decided to email two smart women who know this stuff way better than I do, Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights–North America, and Reverend Chloe Breyer, executive director of the Interfaith Center of New York, to help clear up what exactly these portions do and don’t say about when life begins. Well, it looks like some Mississippians could use a Sunday school refresher course before they go using their divine interpretations to change our civil laws. Not that Americans are supposed to be using divine law to inspire civil laws anyway (See: Constitution).

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Gimme Shelter: An Artist's Response to Homelessness

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

courtesy Heather Stoltz
A sukkah crafted from the stories of the homeless.

Heather Stoltz discovered quilting and fiber art in an unconventional way. Then again, approaching things unconventionally isn’t anything new for her. With a degree in mechanical engineering in hand, she went on to pursue a Master’s Degree in Jewish Women’s Studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

We met soon after that, as Arts Fellows at Drisha, a center for women’s Torah study in Manhattan. Since that time she’s been integrating her love of Jewish texts and values with her art. She now has a compelling new art/social justice project that will be on view at synagogues and churches in the coming months.

The project is called “Temporary Shelter” and was born out of her interactions with homeless people.

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The Women of Jerusalem Find Their Heads

By Renee Ghert-Zand

courtesy Yerushalmim
An “Uncensored” campaign poster.

When Sandy Bar lost her head, many Jerusalem residents decided that enough was enough. The actress and model, who is featured in Israeli fashion company Honigman’s ads for its new winter line, was suddenly reduced to a hand holding a purse. The public could see Bar’s face, framed by her long dark hair and adorned with large sunglasses, in the ads posted in Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities. But in Jerusalem, she was represented by a disembodied appendage.

This head chopping has prompted two kinds of responses among Jerusalemites. Some have taken to social media to circulate photos showing the difference between the two ads. One has even made up a “missing” poster for Bar’s head. “Lost: Sandy Bar’s head. Last seen at the entrance to Jerusalem. Finder should call the following phone number immediately,” it says.

Activists with the Yerushalmim civic non-profit organization, who have been tracking the disappearance of women’s images from Jerusalem’s public spaces for the past several months are taking a different tack. As part of its “Uncensored” campaign, they are inviting women to be photographed for posters that Yerushalmim members have begun hanging from balconies in the center of the city.

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Let Girls Enjoy Their 'Midrash Manicures'

By Elissa Strauss

Rabbi Yael Buechler
Manicure Midrash for Torah portion Lech Lecha.

The New York Times recently wrote about a Jewish day school program for pre-teen girls which combines Torah study and nail painting.

In a response to the piece, Sisterhood contributor Renee Zhert-Gand wrote that she feels torn about the club, which is called “Midrash Manicures.” She explains that while she is always open to new ways of engaging students in Torah, she feels women fought too hard to study like men to now do something so gender-specific, and that this endorsement of manicures might make young girls think they need to have one in order to feel attractive. Well, I am all for Midrash Manicures, and here’s why.

I understand the instinct to think that young girls doing something “girly” like nail painting while also doing something serious like studying Torah somehow trivializes the latter. But I also think it is important for us to challenge that instinct.

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Ms. Magazine's Legacy: Q&A with Abigail Pogrebin

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Abigail Pogrebin
Letty Cottin Pogrebin marches for feminism in lower Manhattan circa 1973 with twin daughters Robin (l) and Abigail (r), then age 8.

New York Magazine’s cover story this week is an oral history of Ms. Magazine in honor of the 40th anniversary of its first issue. The article is written by journalist Abigail Pogrebin, the 46-year-old daughter of Letty Cottin Pogrebin, one of the founding editors of the magazine, which was the first exclusively written and published by women for women. Through her extensive research and interviews of both supporters and critics of the magazine, Pogrebin brings the momentous early days, months and years of the history-changing publication to life. One of the people she was unable to interview was Miriam Wosk, the artist who designed the inaugural issue’s cover, and died last year from breast cancer.

Renee Ghert-Zand: How many people did you interview for the oral history and who were they?

Abigail Pogrebin: I interviewed 35 to 40 people. It was anyone who was involved with Ms. over the 40 years, primarily in the first decade and really focusing on the first five years…I pretty much interviewed every living major participant in Ms., save a very few. Every interview was done individually by phone or in person, or both, and some by email. These are the major players, the people whose names come up over and over again. Since I grew up around Ms., I remember many of them.

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Israeli Feminist Pioneer: Q&A With Alice Shalvi

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Debbie Cooper
Alice Shalvi.

Alice Shalvi, 85, is one of Israeli feminism’s founding mothers. She has been a Hebrew University faculty member, head of the modern Orthodox girl’s school Pelech, co-founder of the Israel Women’s Network, and recipient of dozens of awards and honorary degrees. In 2007, she was awarded the prestigious Israel Prize for lifetime achievement and contributions to Israeli society.

On Nov. 2nd, she will be honored by The New Israel Fund in New York. Shalvi’s “life work towards a more just, equal and pluralistic Israel is … the embodiment of that vision in her work as a leader in social activism,” said Bruce Temkin, the NIF’s New York director.

Shalvi was raised in England after her family fled Hitler’s Germany, where she was born. She made aliyah in 1949 and soon met Moshe Shalvi (then Shelkowitz). They live in Jerusalem, have been married for 61 years and have six children, 21 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. While visiting New York before being honored, Shalvi spoke with The Sisterhood.

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Midrash Manicures Are Not Good Jewish Education

By Renee Ghert-Zand

I had heard about “Midrash Manicures” before, but it didn’t really catch my attention until it hit the big time with this recent article in The New York Times.

The story was about Rabbi Yael Buechler’s weekly Manicures Midrash club for middle school students at the Solomon Schechter School of Westchester. Kids can opt to paint their nails instead of taking one of the other electives, like the glee club, a sports writing seminar or the math club. Rabbi Buechler teaches the girls — and they are not surprisingly all girls — the finer techniques of nail polishing, as well as Jewish texts and commentaries to inspire their midrashic designs.

Never have I been so torn about an innovative educational approach. As an experienced Jewish educator, I am always appreciative of new and creative ways to engage students in Torah study. It is clear that the nail painting in Rabbi Buechler’s class is a means to an important educational end. At the same time, I am somewhat uneasy with the manicure piece of this.

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Jill Sobule's Anti-Floozy Halloween Song

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Folkie singer Jill Sobule has come out with a new anti-slutty-Halloween-costume song, which can be heard here.

Sobule, who is Jewish, composed the song about adults wearing all-too-revealing costumes. Her sentiments are all the more apt in connection with young girls wearing similarly revealing getups. This evening I saw a pair of 13-year-olds wearing shorty spandex-type shorts (the kind that usually go under cheerleaders’ skirts) with not-oversized football jerseys, and posing like they were ready for their close-ups on some “Girls of the NFL” calendar.

The mothers of some trick-or-treaters clearly ought to be doing more than looking over their candy.


Rabbinical Court Declares Woman a Witch

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

If only this could be billed as a spooky Halloween story or something from a medieval archive or from American colonial history. But no, it’s a real news story in modern-day Israel: A state court punished a woman for practicing witchcraft. The alleged hocus-pocus cost her a cool $25,000 in alimony when the value of her wedding contract, or ketubah, was reduced by half in her divorce trial. A Haifa rabbinical court recently handed down the ruling.

Some of the charges and counter-charges sound like standard divorce material. The wife claimed that her husband was having an affair. The husband said that he started seeing another woman only after his wife said that she was taking him to divorce court. In an argument that apparently holds water with some rabbis, the husband complained that his wife was derelict in her matrimonial duties because she refused to cook for him. But the rabbis forgave her for her culinary abandonment because of his affair. (Indeed, it is wise to excuse women from getting near an adulterous husband with pots, pans and an open flame. Far too dangerous.)

They weren’t as forgiving when it came to the alleged witchcraft. Although the woman denied being a witch, a failed polygraph test (which is not admissible in civil Israeli courts) led the to the conclusion that indeed she was practicing the dark arts.

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Are More Women Really on Slingshot Fund List?

By Chanel Dubofsky

iStock

The Slingshot Fund’s list of 2011-12 nominees is out. Slingshot’s mission is to strengthen innovation in Jewish life by developing next-generation funders and providing resources to leverage their impact in the Jewish community. It puts out an annual list of the community’s most innovative, up-and-coming organizations. Let’s have a look at where women land on it.

Out of the 60 organizations on the list this year, 30 are headed by women, including Rabbis for Human Rights, Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community,Be’chol Lashon, the Six Points Fellowship for Emerging Jewish Artists, the Jewish Teen Funders Network, and Seeds of Peace.

For those of you playing the “Where are the Women in Leadership in the Jewish Community” Game, this is good news. Women are heading organizations that are changing the landscape of the Jewish world, and funders are noticing.

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Singing Across Israel for Women's Dignity

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

Adi Elkin and Mayrav Goldberg
“Don’t Stop Singing.”

Good news — Israeli women are fighting back against those who would hide and silence them.

Recent developments for women in Israel have been worrisome and depressing, as readers of this blog are well aware. There has been increasing gender separation on buses and on public streets, harassment of young Beit Shemesh girls whose only crime is attending their school, trouble in the Israel Defense Forces with religious officers walking out of ceremonies in which women are singing, as well as the disappearance of women from Jerusalem billboards.

For Hila Bunyovich-Hoffman, a Tel Aviv woman who has a master’s degree in gender studies, works as a technical writer and blogs about women’s issues, it has all become too much. She decided that someone had to take action. On her Hebrew-language blog and on a Facebook event page she created, she announced a Tel Aviv street protest in which a group of women would stand in public and sing, to make their voices heard.

The tidal wave of response to her initiative has been “unexpected and overwhelming,” she told The Sisterhood in an interview.

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Brooklyn Bus Owner Denies Segregating Women

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Adam E. Moreira
Yacov Marmurstein’s B110 bus.

Yacov “Jacob” Marmurstein, owner of the company that runs the quasi-public B110 bus between Williamsburg and Boro Park, is denying that patrons are segregated by gender onboard, though he appears to be the only person unclear about the longstanding practice.

The B110 bus has long required women to sit in the back while men are up front during the trips the bus makes roughly every 20 minutes, from early in the morning until after midnight, between the neighborhoods which much of the Hasidic community in Brooklyn calls home. The buses look different from MTA buses, with dark-tinted side windows, among the distinctions. They don’t accept MetroCards but do have bus stops like any other city bus.

New York’s Department of Transportation wrote to Marmurstein on October 19th, during the Sukkot holiday, enjoining his company from continuing the practice after the story was reported by the Columbia Journalism School publication The New York World.

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Crisis Pregnancy Centers Try Converting Jews

By Sarah Seltzer

iStock

Crisis Pregnancy Centers, or CPCs, are problematic for many reasons. These centers, which are designed as sneaky alternatives to abortion clinics, have been shown time and again to give women misleading, medically inaccurate information and to almost always have a conservative Christian agenda. The number of CPCs far outweighs the number of places where women can go to terminate their pregnancies in this country.

They position themselves as offering “options” for women at a time of need, and parade out sonogram machines and staff in white coats. But they don’t disclose the fact that none of their options include abortion, and that women who want abortions will receive no help from them — and are likely to be stalled or dissuaded.

They have been known to shame and humiliate pregnant women who come to them in the most desperate situations. This cartoon by Susie Cagle was a result of her own undercover investigation of local CPCs. Her project is an excellent primer on CPCs for those unfamiliar with the topic.

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Jews Help African Nobel Winner Aid Women

By Elana Sztokman

courtesy AJWS
Leymah Gbowee with Ruth Messinger.

When the announcement was made that the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize would be given to three women, including Leymah Gbowee (pronounced LAY-muh BO-wee), some Jews were particularly proud.

Gbowee, an extraordinary Liberian activist and founder of Women Peace and Security Network-Africa (WIPSEN), who has been influential in mobilizing women for peace and bringing democracy to Liberia, has credited the American Jewish World Service (AJWS) with being one of the first organizations to believe in and to provide financial support for her work.

“AJWS is a name I will remember”, she said recently at an AJWS event. “It is an organization with a heart and a soul. I mean it – and I don’t take my words lightly.”

Ruth Messinger, AJWS’s president and CEO, says she first met Gbowee in 2003 at a breakfast in Ethiopia.

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'Wild Flag' Jewesses Keep Rockin' Hard

By Sarah Seltzer

courtesy Wild Flag
Carrie Brownstein rocks out with Wild Flag.

I recently went down to the Bowery Ballroom to see the rock band Wild Flag perform. They’re a fairly new all-female rock group consisting of two of Sleater-Kinney’s Jewish former members, Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss, and two other pioneering female rockers, Rebecca Cole and Mary Timony.

I’d been listening to their new album, “Wild Flag,” on repeat and was excited for show because their stage antics and energy are already legendary. But I didn’t know how much just seeing them launch into an aggressive rock set in person would resonate and feel like a call to arms.

After all, this is a moment when notions of power and pushing back against the status quo are at the forefront of my mind, in light of the “Occupy” movement that has seized the national spotlight and wrapped progressives up in revolutionary fervor.

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Stink Bomb Welcomes Girls Back to School

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

Facebook photo
Haredi demonstrators outside Orot Banot.

The end of the long string of Jewish holidays in the fall is normally a time for relief and celebration for Israeli parents who are weary of entertaining their children during the long weeks of school vacation.

But for the parents of girls at the Orot Banot school in Beit Shemesh, back to school marks a stressful and unpleasant return to battle. Extremist ultra-Orthodox elements have resumed their campaign to harass them into moving the school from its location on the border of their neighborhood. Earlier posts on the struggle in The Sisterhood can be found here and here.

The war over the school for Modern Orthodox girls has been taking place since the beginning of the school year. There was a period of respite from the men in black shouting curses and insults over the holidays, both because of school vacation, and because the demonstrators were busy celebrating the holiday. Hope emerged that dialogue between representatives of the school and rabbinic leaders in the ultra-Orthodox communities might bear fruit.

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