Sisterhood Blog

Rav Yosef's Wife Shows Some (Gasp!) Hair

By Elana Sztokman

The Yosef family photo that is circulating in Israeli media.

The portrait of Rav Ovadia Yosef’s family that hit the web this week was surprising not only because it is rare example of the rabbi without his characteristic dark glasses and long dress. Most surprising is his wife’s apparel: her hair, neck and collarbone are all exposed.

There has been some speculating as to why the rabbi “allowed” his wife to dress this way, some six decades ago when he was chief rabbi of Egypt. However, according to the Jewish Women’s Archives, Yosef has always had something of a mixed record on women’s issues from an Orthodox perspective. On the permissive side, he ruled that women should have a bat mitzvah ceremony, can be radio broadcasters and even wear pants under certain circumstances. On the restrictive side, he has also made some outrageous statements, especially on the hair-covering issue, having announced several years ago that women who wear hair-like wigs instead of scarves and hats will burn in hell — or at least in the world to come — along with their sheitels.

Still, I think that this mixed record is not as interesting as the evidence of historical evolution. It is clear that the way his wife covered her hair back then is considered unacceptable today by his family and followers. In other words, times have changed, as tends to happen.

This point that rules of body cover have gotten more restrictive over the years should sound obvious to most of the American Orthodox community. A browse through the photo archives of any Orthodox synagogue in America will undoubtedly reveal bare-headed rebbetzins — even in sleeveless tops and short skirts. The Young Israel congregation in which I grew up used to line the lobby hallway with such photos. Today the neighborhood is dominated by black hats and wigs.

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Occupy (Working) Motherhood

By Deborah Siegel

Wikimedia
Susan B. Anthony

Susan B. Anthony was born 192 years ago today; we share a birthday. I am 43. The late great suffragist once said: “Our job is not to make young women grateful. It’s to make them ungrateful so they keep going.” Much of my Jewish practice these days is about gratitude. But in light of our shared birthday this week, I’ve decided to dwell on some serious ingratitude.

I grew up in the 1970s listening to “Free to Be You and Me,” and singing joyfully that “Mommies Are People.” Who would have guessed, now that I’m one of those people, that the dilemmas my own working mother struggled with would become mine? In middle school, when I’d call home sick my mom would try to talk me into returning to class, so that she wouldn’t have to leave work or find a sitter. I’m pretty sure that’s what I’d do, too.

These days, the lack of affordable quality childcare options, combined with the continual calculation of income-to-babysitter-hours ratio, continues to make working parenthood — let’s face it, working motherhood primarily — a challenge, even for those of us who’ve got it good.

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Prime Ribs, Israel Edition — Minding the Gap

By Renee Ghert-Zand

With Zahava Gal-On’s recent election to the leadership of the left-wing Meretz party, women are now heading three major political parties in Israel (There’s also Shelly Yachimovich of Labor, and Tzipi Livni of the opposition party, Kadima.)


Minister of Culture Limor Livnat announced the formation of a new incubator to support filmmaking by women in the Haredi sector. The Sisterhood reported on one such film, “The Dreamers,” last year.


Female engineers at Google in Israel recently held one of their “Mind the Gap” conferences encouraging girls to pursue math, science and technology education.

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On the 'Redemption' of Chris Brown

By Sarah Seltzer

Getty Images
Chris Brown

Like Elana, I was riveted by the Grammys Sunday. There were so many narratives, from the tragic passing of Whitney Houston to the triumph of Adele. But also like Elana, there was one narrative I could seriously have done without: the “redemption” of Chris Brown a mere three years, and zero signs of genuine contrition, since the night he seriously beat his then-girlfriend, Rihanna.

Since then Brown has worked hard to advance the narrative that he has been somehow victimized — and childishly trashed his dressing room at “Good Morning America” when the host dared to ask him about the incident.

But then he sold a lot of records, and he was welcomed back with open arms.

Now let me be clear: I do believe that we are all human, that it is possible to make up for past mistakes, even grave ones. I also note that other known abusers — many of them — have showed up on that Grammy stage (or similar Oscar and Emmy and ESPY stages) and been feted, some deservedly at the end of their careers, some ill-advisedly.

But what so disturbed DV advocates and women, I think, was how unquestionably, how uncritically and how soon Chris Brown was asked back to that stage.

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Rihanna, Whitney, Madonna and Adele

By Elana Sztokman

Getty Images
Adele with her six (count them!) Grammys.

This year’s Grammy Awards were punctuated by some striking gender messages worth noting.

First was the appearance of Chris Brown, convicted woman-beater, greeted with the kinds of cheers usually reserved for returned astronauts or war heroes. The poster child for how to beat women and still be a rock star won a Grammy for Best R&B Album, and the cameras did not even bother hinting at Brown’s dark side by, say, cutting to Rihanna, his 2009 punching bag, and reminding the audience whom they were cheering. Even worse were some of the tweets of the evening: @_anniegregg tweeted, “He can beat me up all night if he wants,” as did dozens of others, like @carmnem who said, “I wish chris brown would punch me.” Pretty frightening stuff. So much awareness about issues of domestic violence.

Against this backdrop was the tribute to Whitney Houston, who died the day before the award ceremony. It is fascinating to me how her untimely death keeps being referred to as a story about how drugs can ruin one’s life. (New York Times, for example.) Yet the fact that she, like Rihanna, lived the life of an abused woman has emerged as a sort of secondary threat. While we don’t yet know how Whitney Houston actually died, the fact is, three women a day die at the hands of their intimate partners in the United States, according to NOW. Living with an abusive poses at least as many dangers to a woman’s health as substance abuse. It just seems odd to me that Houston’s death has become a kind of gender-neutral story about drugs rather than a story about a life completely ruined by a dangerous relationship.

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When We Wished We Were Whitney

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

Getty Images
Whitney Houston, center, with Bobby Brown and former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, in 2003.


Back in the 1980s, Whitney Houston was the girl who had it all: devastating looks, an incredible voice, impeccable show business connections. Her success seemed predestined. Whitney spent her childhood singing in church choirs and nightclubs along her mother Cissy Houston. Dionne Warwick was her cousin and Aretha Franklin, her godmother.


In her definitive 2006 Salon piece on Houston, Rebecca Traister wrote:

 “Many female stars are motivated to present themselves — or others choose to represent them — as rebel bad girls who defy prudish expectation and wholesome good looks by staying out late, drinking too much and sneaking off to bathroom stalls with Wilmer Valderrama. Back in the mid-’80s, Houston was defying a different set of cultural expectations — the ones applied to black girls — to a much different effect. She was presented to us as youthful feminine perfection: all sugar and spice and poofy dresses, a solid rearing in the church, a close family.”

While we mere mortal young women were struggling to get a foothold in the world, we were finishing high school, trying to make it through college, slaving away at our entry-level jobs, Whitney was breaking the color barrier on MTV, recording hit after hit, climbing the charts, collecting awards and accolades, and then becoming a movie star.

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Was Contraception Move a Master Stroke?

By Sarah Seltzer

Like many other feminist political junkies this morning, my emotions were sent back and forth.

At first I was dismayed by the announcement that President Obama had agreed to a compromise (or was it an “accommodation”) on his smart policy that would have required employers, even most religiously affiliated ones, to consent to employee insurance plans that included free contraception.The Catholic Church has been raising a huge fuss about this — and the media has largely taken its side — and so the fear was this would be a full capitulation.

But when the plan was revealed, many began to realize that the “accommodation” might have in fact been a master stroke by the administration, at least politically speaking. The new rule will allow women at these institutions that object to contraception coverage to get that coverage, free of charge, directly from insurance companies.

Jodi Jacobson broke it down moments after the announcement:

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Sexy Photo Shoot Mocks Haredim

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

LiveJournal

Israeli fashion magazine BelleMode is publishing a provocative spread in its February issue, featuring sexy young women wearing see-through clothes on what appears to be a gender-segregated bus in Israel.

Blogger Kung Fu Jew, better known to his friends as Ben Murane, wrote about it on Jewschool, and it was picked up by Gawker, which titled it “Sexy Israeli Photo Shoot Mocks Ultra-Orthodox Women Haters.”

The Jewschool post has a link to a Russian-language website that has a bunch of photos from the shoot, and a Hebrew-language “behind-the-scenes” video.

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Bill Targets Israeli 'Johns'

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

Update, February 12, 2012

Visiting a prostitute in Israel is expected to become a crime in coming days, after a bill that will make the use of sexual services in Israel illegal passed the Ministerial Committee for Legislation on Sunday. According to the Jerusalem Post: “The bill, which was also supported by a large number of Knesset members from across the political spectrum, will be brought to a vote in the plenum on Wednesday and is likely to pass without any hitches now that it has full government backing.”


It’s tough to admit, but Israelis just don’t get very worked up about prostitution. In a country with a long laundry list of worries concerns, it seems like the most benign of practices, and an inescapable fact of life. This nonchalant attitude stems from the fact that neither selling one’s body nor purchasing sexual services is a crime in Israel.

The practice of “pimping” and the business of running brothels are illegal. But when I lived in a very respectable neighborhood in Tel Aviv in the 1990s, a ground-floor apartment in my building held the ‘clinic’ of a female doctor and an unspecified specialty. The same landlord who rented the apartment to me, an upstanding lawyer, also rented out the apartment that housed the clinic. The patients made their way in and out very furtively. You didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out what was likely going on in that clinic and what kind of ‘ailment’ was being treated. But no one seemed to be bothered.

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The Real Husbands of Salt Lake City

By Naomi Zeveloff

Getty Images
Mitt Romney

In my piece, published this week on Salon, I wrote about Mormon gender roles being highly prescribed, with men defining themselves “in contrast to women but also against other men in the secular world.” From the outside, Mormon family norms might seem like a throwback to the 1950s, and Romney certainly garners his fair share of “Leave it to Beaver” comparisons. In Mormon culture, men are the primary breadwinners; many women work part-time, if at all. Couples marry young and start large families early.

In Ogden, Utah, the heavily Mormon town where I grew up in, many of my high school friends have two children and several others are starting on their third. We’re in our late 20s.

But taking a closer look at Mormon families, the 1950s comparison seems utterly incongruous in some ways. Unlike the conservative, aloof, idealized man of the 1950s, Mormon men are taught to be gentle and to interact in good faith with “love unfeigned.” If a Mormon man must issue a word of criticism, he should be specific, and do it in a way least likely to drive the other person away. Family is central in the Mormon tradition. Women are supposed to be the nurturing, loving caretakers, and their husbands the providing protectors. In this way, both Mormon men and women have an enormous stake in the domestic sphere; ideally, both rule over hearth and home.

To be sure, growing up in Utah I witnessed enormous amounts of sexism. Mormonism is an explicitly patriarchal religion.

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Mossad Daughter Keeps Me Glued to 'NCIS'

By Lilit Marcus

Getty Images
Cote de Pablo plays Ziva David

This week marked the landmark 200th episode of the CBS procedural “NCIS.” The drama is about a team of agents at the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. (In one early episode, they’re described as “the Internal Affairs of the Navy.”) Led by Special Agent Jethro Gibbs (Mark Harmon), the team members balance their personal lives with the often-grisly cases they’re working on — with the scales usually tipping in the direction of their careers. “NCIS,” despite being one of the nation’s highest-rated shows, has an older demographic and therefore escaped the pop-cultural obsession that celebrates the likes of “Glee” and “Grey’s Anatomy.”

I discovered “NCIS” on a rainy, aimless vacation day, and it has been my secret shame ever since. One of the reasons I’m so attached to the show is Special Agent Ziva David (Cote de Pablo), a former Mossad agent who joined the team in the third season. Despite being unevenly written, Ziva was always compelling: She was tough, fearless and, often, tender. As the layers began to peel away, we learned more about Ziva’s history: Her father, Eli David (Michael Nouri), was the director of Mossad and often placed his work ahead of his family life, even after Ziva’s sister Tali was killed in a Hamas attack. Ziva eventually gave up on repairing her relationship with her father and chose to begin a new life in America, becoming an American citizen and a full member of the “NCIS” team.

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The Birth Control Wars

By Sarah Seltzer

wikimedia commons
Target: The Pill

Online feminism’s victory in the Susan G. Komen/Planned Parenthood controversy — and the victory for gay marriage in California — shouldn’t obscure another fight over cultural issues that’s gearing up: birth control is going to be the hot topic in the coming days.

This battleground is the tussle over whether religiously affiliated institutions should be mandated to provide the same insurance as everyone else — that is to say, insurance that defines contraception as preventive care. At stake, practically? Whether religious institutions that are not houses of worship, but charities and institutions of learning that employ people of all faiths, will have to insure their female employees with health plans that include birth control.

Here, in The Hill, is a description of the plan from HHS:

Most healthcare plans will be required to cover birth control without charging co-pays or deductibles starting Aug. 1, the Obama administration announced Friday.

…Churches, synagogues and other houses of worship are exempt from the requirement, but religious-affiliated hospitals and universities only get a one-year delay and must comply by Aug. 1, 2013.

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Fleischer, Komen — and an Alternative?

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Getty Images
Reproductive rights activists in Seattle show their support for Planned Parenthood.

Not to flog a whimpering horse with a frayed pink ribbon, but since the Komen defunding of Planned Parenthood story broke last week, and the organization got whiplash from social media-fueled opposition before standing down and agreeing to rescind its ill-advised policy, more Jewish players in the story have emerged.

It turns out that Ari Fleischer, a fellow Jew, long-time friend and fellow Republican of Komen CEO Nancy Brinker, was secretly involved with interviewing candidates for the Komen vice president position filled by anti-abortion former political candidate Karen Handel. In an interview with at least one candidate, according to the blog Think Progress, he focused on how Komen should handle Planned Parenthood, which provides a range of reproductive health services, including breast exams and abortions.

Think Progress, which broke the story of Fleischer’s involvement, is a progressive policy-focused blog. The Washington Post then interviewed him further about his role in the debacle here.

Fleischer, of course, was President George W. Bush’s press secretary and since leaving the White House founded Ari Fleischer Sports Communications, a press management firm which counted Tiger Woods among its clients after the golfer’s public acknowledgement of his sex addiction.

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Charities, You're Leaving Money on the Table

By Dorothy Lipovenko

Pickings in a mid-winter mailbox are slim: The holidays are over; it’s too early for spring catalogs, and a property tax bill that will raid my bank account hasn’t yet arrived. No better time for an envelope to get noticed.

So why did a Jewish non-profit that does good work come away empty-handed after grabbing my attention with its nice brochure?

Strike one: The appeal for funds was addressed to my husband, despite a previous donation, made in both our (different) surnames.

Strike two: The letterhead shows an all-male board.

Strike three: There was no reply to my email explaining why my wallet would be closed.

Did I expect a response? Not really. What did I hope to accomplish, except to deliver a message: You’re leaving money on the table.

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Dignified in Pants

By Elana Sztokman

istock

Just because I wear pants, it doesn’t mean I lack dignity. Or self-respect. Or even modesty.

Which is why I find pieces, like this one, suggesting that dignity for a woman means excessive body-cover, so offensive.

When rabbis or anyone else claim that women need to cover their skin, their elbows, ankles and necks for the sake of “dignity” or “self-respect” or “protecting sexuality,” what that means is that people who dress like me are not dignified. We are overly sexualized. We might as well be walking naked on the subway platform. But It is just not true.

My body is mine alone, and I project that in my clothes. Not floor-sweeping skirts, not scarves to my forehead or necklines that choke. No, I wear pants, sometimes jeans, sometimes shorts and, yes, sometimes even sleeveless tops. I wear clothes that are comfortable, that feel good, that let me move and sit on the floor or in a chair, that enable me to ride a bike or climb a tree if I so choose, that let me wear my hair in a ponytail or in a scrunchie or even just down. Ultimately my hair is mine alone, as are my elbows, my neck, my ankles and skin. Before I look in a mirror, I look inward and ask myself how I feel about my body at this moment, and I let my inner voice of self-respect guide me.

In addition Gavriella Lerner’s assertion of choice followed by an admission that she does what she believes is expected of her according to halacha is a classic Orthodox non-sequitur. As in, I choose to do what I’m told.

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Women's Exclusion, Closer to Home

By Gabrielle Birkner

Loyal readers of The Sisterhood know well about the battle over women’s exclusion that is pulling Israeli society apart at its seams. But the problem extends beyond Israel, as our editor, Jane Eisner, wrote in her recent editorial, “Where Are the Women?” Here in the American Jewish community, the issue isn’t just about pay and promotion, Eisner explains. “Too many public discussions, events and programs hosted by the Jewish community have few or no women participating,” she writes.

In an effort to upend the status quo, she enlists Forward readers, writing:

To more fully address this issue, the Forward is reaching out to you, our readers, to send examples of the absence of women in your own communities to feedback@forward.com, which we will publish for further debate. And we will hold ourselves and our colleagues accountable, too.

Eisner discusses the effort in the most recent episode of “The Salon,” The Jewish Channel show she hosts with Change the Ratio founder Rachel Sklar. Panelists, this month, are The Israel Project’s Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, The National Council of Jewish Women’s Nancy Kaufman, and New York Times Magazine columnist Gaby Dunn.

Watch a video clip below:

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Super Bowl Team To Honor Its 'Jewish Mother'

By Leah Berkenwald

jwa.org
The program from Myra Hiatt Kraft’s funeral.

According to tradition, football players wear a patch with the Roman numerals of the Super Bowl — this year is Super Bowl 46, or XLVI — on the left side of their chests. This year, the Patriots will be wearing it on the right side; the left is already occupied by a patch honoring Myra Hiatt Kraft, the wife of team owner Robert Kraft; she died of cancer at age 68 last July.

The daughter of one successful businessman, Jacob Hiatt, and the wife of another, Robert Kraft, Myra Kraft was a dedicated and inspired philanthropist. The Krafts were generous benefactors of Israeli institutions and of Brandeis University, her alma mater, but they also endowed a professorship of comparative religion at the College of the Holy Cross. From 1983 to 2011, Myra Hiatt Kraft served on the board of the Boston Boys and Girls Club and, in 1995, became the first woman to chair that board. She also ran the New England Patriots Charitable Foundation.

After Myra Kraft’s death, the Patriots dedicated the season to her memory. They have been wearing patches with her initials, MHK, over their hearts ever since. A piece on the Boston NPR affiliate WBUR, called Myra Kraft a “Jewish mother” to the team. Pats defensive lineman Vince Wilfork told WBUR that Myra befriended many of the players, asking about their families and making sure they were feeling okay. “We both enjoyed each other,” Wilfork said. “My friends were so different. Lot of guys want to talk about football, but with her it really wasn’t about football. She wanted to know how you are as a person.”

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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.


Komen Folds, but the Race Isn't Over

By Jane Eisner

Getty Images
Thousands take part in Komen’s Race for the Cure.

We just heard that the Susan G. Komen board of directors reversed course and will continue funding Planned Parenthood after all. “We want to apologize to the American public for recent decisions that cast doubt upon our commitment to our mission of saving women’s lives,” Founder and CEO Nancy G. Brinker said in a statement released from Komen’s Dallas headquarters.

It was a stunning admission by an organization that was bombarded with angry complaints over the move to drop Planned Parenthood — supposedly because of a change in Komen’s grant-making criteria. But the political motives were just below the surface, and it was difficult not to come to the conclusion that Komen cut off Planned Parenthood because it is the women’s health organization that the right now loves to demonize.

This abrupt turn-around was surely caused by the fury unleashed on the Internet, and that is both a civic wonder and a scary thought. Since I was one of the ones infuriated by Komen’s initial decision — expressed in this editorial — I’m relieved and proud that the voices with whom I agreed had this kind of impact.

But will I feel so thrilled if the subject was something I abhorred? If the fury was unleashed in a less inviting direction?

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How Planned Parenthood Became a Liability

By Sarah Seltzer

It’s been quite a week (yet again) for the politicization of women’s health. As Debra Nussbaum Cohen and a Forward editorial noted, the Susan G. Komen foundation pulled its money form Planned Parenthood.

The money, of course, is not the issue. Planned Parenthood has already raised a chunk of what it lost from Komen from outraged supporters, and Komen’s reputation will tumble with many of its own former supporters after this. What was lost here, instead, was a sense of trust. This was a betrayal of the the idea that women’s breast cancer screenings need not be politicized.

But that ship had already had sailed with Komen, a case study in the danger of letting nonprofits get too entangled with corporate interests. “Big Pink” as many call the world of breast cancer awareness behemoths like Komen, has entrenched interests and they sadly don’t always line up with women’s. As Mara Einstein writes at the Ms. Magazine blog:

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David Cross, Arrested Forgiveness

By Jane Eisner

Getty Images
David Cross

Is there a statute of limitations for how long a grown man should hold a grudge against his father?

I have asked myself that over and over ever since I read the Talk of the Town in the Jan. 23 issue of the New Yorker — the one entitled “Moving Day,” about the actor and comedian David Cross and his move from the passé (in his eyes) East Village to a spacious apartment in Brooklyn with a “ridiculously big” walk-in closet and a dead-on view of Ellis Island.

“My dad went there with his family when he came over from England, shortly after World War Two, I think,” he’s quoted as saying.

All true. His father was a young boy when he left England with his mother to join his older brothers and his sister in New York. I know this because that sister was my mother.

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