Sisterhood Blog

If Ruth the Moabite Had Sought Israeli Citizenship

By Renee Ghert-Zand

If the current Israeli government were in power back in biblical times, there is a good chance that there would actually be no State of Israel today in need of governing. This is the message of a simulated correspondence between the Israel Religious Action Center and Israel’s Ministry of Interior, written by Anat Hoffman, IRAC’s executive director and chairwoman of Women of the Wall.

In the fictional exchange, posted on IRAC’s website — an exchange more fitting in style to Purim than this week’s holiday of Shavuot — Hoffman petitions Interior Minister Eli Yishai on behalf of Ruth the Moabite, who seeks legal status in Israel. Hoffman asserts that Ruth (whose megillah Rut is read by Jews on Shavuot) is the widow of a Jewish man; entered Israel legally with her mother-in-law, Naomi; chose to align herself with the Jewish people, and has a sponsor in the upstanding citizen Boaz, who intends to marry her.

Predictably — at least for anyone who follows the politics of Israel and Jewish pluralism — the Interior Ministry denies Ruth’s request for legal residency status and orders her deportation back to Moab. She will not be allowed to reapply for re-entry into Israel until she has embarked upon and competed a wild goose chase in search of impossible-to-procure documents to prove her Jewishness.

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Meeting Our Grown Children Where They Are

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

There is a beautiful piece in yesterday’s New York Times travel section, an essay by House & Garden editor Dominique Browning on her attempt to forge a new relationship with her two young adult sons as they travel together by train across the country.

It is an apt piece for this time of year, the season of graduations and preparations for new leave-taking — on summer adventures, on gap-year journeys and to college, where Boychik is headed in September. It is a season of secular ceremonies, the high school graduation I will soon attend among them, with young people in caps and gowns wending their way toward adulthood. There ought to be a Jewish ritual to mark this liminal moment for our sons and daughters and, more to the point, for us.

But in the meantime, there is Browning’s essay, in which she gracefully writes about the challenge of meeting your young adult children as they are, so that you can still be in a relationship with them. A relationship different than the one marked by, as she puts it, “molding, scolding or holding,” which is generally the approach for the first 18-plus years of their lives.

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On Jewesses Embracing Their 'Slutty' Reputation

By Elissa Strauss

The rise of Slutwalks — anti-rape marches that started as a reaction to a Canadian cop’s comments that dressing slutty encourages sexual assault, and have since spread across the world — has incited a debate on the use of the word “slut.” Some, like Gail Dines and Wendy J. Murphy over at the Guardian, rail against the term, because the “term slut is so deeply rooted in the patriarchal “madonna/whore” view of women’s sexuality that it is beyond redemption.”

Meanwhile Chloe Angyal at Feminsting defends the use of the term by activists, explaining that the term “Slutwalk” has been incredibly successfully in getting women “angry and active and inspiring them” to take no more BS. The debate is a good one, but, all in all, it is nothing new to Jewish women who have long been subjected to stereotypes about their sexuality. I’m with Angyal, on Team Sluts — and here’s why.

For generations J.A.P.s were seen as asexual and/or frigid, a stereotype that provided much fodder for Jewish humor. Take for example: “What’s a Jewish American Princess’ favorite position? Facing Tiffany’s.” Or: “A Jewish American Princess’s husband was making love to his wife when suddenly, to his intense surprise, she wiggled and let out a short cry of delight. ‘My God, honey!’ he exclaimed. ‘What happened?’ ‘It’s wonderful,’ she said. ‘I finally decided that those curtains would look much better in peach.’”

But then, over the past decade or so, we have been relocated to the other side of the spectrum and now are considered, well, kinda slutty.

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Decoding Rihanna's 'Man Down' Message

By Elana Maryles Sztokman

Getty Images
Rihanna accepting a Billboard Music Award in May.

Rihanna has finally stood up to abuse. Well, maybe not in real life, but certainly in her art — and in a somewhat disturbing way. The pop star’s latest release, “Man Down,” depicts Rihanna shooting a man in cold blood. Only towards the end of the video does the story unfold about the man sexually assaulting her the day before.

Parents groups are upset. The Parents Television Council called the clip “disturbing,” and asked BET to stop airing it. Rihanna has responded that the song is important to her because it constitutes “a voice for so many that aren’t heard” — that is, victims of sexual violence.

Coming from Rihanna, this is a particularly powerful message. She has a history of being battered by her then-boyfriend Chris Brown, whom she initially returned to despite the violence, until finally breaking up with him. Moreover, her hit song “Russian Roulette,” which I analyzed here, presents a profoundly disempowering messages to victims, advocating the stance of passively, of standing still and waiting to die while one’s boyfriend holds a gun.

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V.S. Naipaul Just Doesn't Understand Jane Austen

By Sarah Seltzer

Not this again. After the success of “Bridesmaids” seemed to finally sound the death knell for the whole “women can’t be as funny as men” canard, we’re right back to hearing “women can’t write like men.” The culprit this time? Acclaimed novelist V.S. Naipaul, who dissed all women writers, and said none were his match. He even declared that his own editor churned out, in his words, “feminine tosh.”

Naipaul, prodigiously talented as he is, has not only earned my wrath with these blanket generalizations he shot off in an interview, as reported in the Guardian, but also for his singling out of Jane Austen for criticism, thereby raising both my feminist and Janeite hackles (and these are, essentially, my two main sets of hackles):

In an interview at the Royal Geographic Society on Tuesday about his career, Naipaul, who has been described as the “greatest living writer of English prose,” was asked if he considered any woman writer his literary match. He replied: “I don’t think so.” Of Austen he said he “couldn’t possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world”.

He felt that women writers were “quite different”. He said: “I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me.”

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Earth to the Egyptian Army: Non-Virgins Can Be Raped

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

One of the most bizarre and horrifying stories to come out of the protests earlier this year in Cairo’s Tahrir Square was the headline that the Egyptian authorities, had, for some bizarre reason, conducted ‘virginity checks’ on female protesters who were detained by the military.

The accusations were part of an Amnesty International report, which said the women were beaten, strip-searched and given electric shocks. They were told that those who were not found to be virgins would face prostitution charges. The 17 women who were detained at the height the protests that led to the resignation of Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak were tried in military court and released on March 13. Some of them received one-year suspended prison sentences.

The part about “virginity checks” sounded too strange to be true, which is why the military authorities probably thought they would get away with their repeated denials of the women’s descriptions of the invasive examinations by a doctor and a nurse. But now, a military official — an unnamed “senior Egyptian general” — has come out and confirmed it in an interview with CNN. The jaw-dropping part is that the confirmation didn’t happen because the general confessed it with any kind of regret or apology; instead, he did so in order to defend the practice and offer his explanation.

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Virginity Checks, Virginity, Tahrir Square, Egypt

Just How Important Is Gender?

By Renee Ghert-Zand

On one hand, the sex of a baby appears not to be important. At least it’s not for the Toronto couple that has been in the news lately for refusing to reveal their baby’s gender. On the other hand, expectant couples seemingly obsessed with their unborn child’s sex are now having “gender cake” parties, as Marjorie Ingall reported on Tablet.

According to Ingall, these parties culminate a process in which the mother’s obstetrician hides a note with the baby’s gender inside a sealed envelope, which is passed on to the bakery, where either a blue or pink cake is baked and covered in a neutral color fondant (or basic icing, if you’re less fancy). Once the couple excitedly cuts the cake at a prenatal shower, the gender cat is out of the bag — or, in this case, out from under a thick layer of sugary goo.

Personally, I preferred finding out my three children’s genders only once it was the umbilical cord that was cut, and when it was the babies themselves who were covered in a different kind of goo.

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Poignant Words From Accuser in NYPD Rape Case

By Sarah Seltzer

More than two years ago, a young woman came forward about a pair of police offers who had been called to escort her from a taxi to her home because she was too drunk to make it alone. She said the officers came back to her apartment and that she came to consciousness to find one of the men raping her.

We still don’t know her name, but we know a lot more about how she feels after the ordeal of pressing charges against the two officers in a rape case that was watched around the country. The idea that law enforcement officials would take advantage of the person they were charged to protect caught the attention of many, as did the video footage showing the cops returning several times to the woman’s apartment, and recordings of a bogus 911 call they allegedly placed in order to put themselves at the scene.

The offers were fired and convicted of lesser charges; but the jury’s “not guilty” verdict on the rape charges prompted widespread shock, difficult conversations about how society views rape and even an impromptu rally.

Last night, the alleged victim, 29 and now living in California, released a statement that was utterly compelling and shed light on her ordeal.

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Calling on Men To Boycott Homogenous Panel Discussions

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

It’s time for male leaders in the Jewish community to step up and boycott invitations to participate in conferences and panel discussions when women are not part of the main lineup.

Nathan Guttman’s recent Sisterhood post details the absence of women from the main stage at AIPAC’s recent annual policy conference, and even suggests which pro-Israel female political heavyweights could have been invited to speak during plenary sessions. Rabbi Joanna Samuels made a similar point last year; her post also mentions the absence of female speakers at the previous year’s AIPAC conference.

The magazine Good points to the same problematic issue, calling on the white men, who most often populate these panels, to boycott them until they become more diverse. The Good story focuses on an upcoming panel discussion on “The Future of Media,” which is being conducted under the auspices of the website “I Want Media.” On that panel there is but one woman, The New York Observer’s editor in chief Elizabeth Spiers, speaking along with half a dozen men.

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On Raising Asian-Jewish Children

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Kim/Leavitt Family
Kim and Leavitt, with their son, Ari.

The recent Forward article “Raising Children on Kugel and Kimchi, and as Jews” centered on a new study that found that many families in which one parent is Jewish and the other is Asian are raising their children as Jews. The research was conducted by a married couple of sociologists, Helen Kim, who is of Korean descent, and Noah Leavitt, who is Jewish. Having written a post for The Sisterhood about the stereotypes about Jewish men and Asian women that are found in popular media — a post that garnered quite a few pointed comments — I was eager to get a behind-the-scenes look at Kim and Leavitt’s methodology and findings. The researchers spoke recently with The Sisterhood.

Renee Ghert-Zand: How did you end up choosing the specific 37 couples that ended up being the sample in your study?

Helen Kim: We worked with Be’chol Lashon. They helped us send out a screening survey. There were waves of responses. We recruited people based on where they were in the queue of 250 or so responses as they came in. We also chose couples so there was a wide range of different demographic variables: ethnicity, religious affiliation and religiosity, kids or no kids, age. For instance, we didn’t want to have an overrepresentation of Chinese-Americans.

The age range of your sample was large. What were the major differences between older couples and younger ones?

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Prime Ribs: Farewell, Oprah; the (Haredi) Queen of the Petit Four; Gender-Bending

By Gabrielle Birkner

Jews may have long ago perfected the art of over-sharing, but it was Oprah who turned millions of other Americans onto the concept. She signed off Wednesday, after 25 years of hosting her wildly popular television talk show.


Haaretz profiles Efrat Libfroind is an ultra-Orthodox mother of six — and Israel’s reigning queen of the petit four.


A Toronto couple is attempting to keep the gender of their baby, named Storm, a secret.) They told friends via email, “We’ve decided not to share Storm’s sex for now — a tribute to freedom and choice in place of limitation….” About two years ago, The Sisterhood’s Debra Nussbaum Cohen came out against a similar gender-bending experiment.


Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has confirmed the nomination of Israel’s first female major-general, Orna Barbivai. Of Barbivai’s appointment, opposition leader Tzipi Livni said, “There is no rank that is too heavy for a woman’s shoulders, and there is no doubt that Brig.-Gen. Barbivai was appointed because of her talents.”


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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Orna Barbivai, Oprah Winfrey, Iris Rainer Dart, Efrat Libroind, Christine Lagarde, Cell Phones

On Defying Odds, and Staying Faithful

By Jordana Horn

Getty Images
Actor Jon Hamm plays the serial cheater Don Draper on Mad Men.

My husband and I, having missed “Mad Men” as it was on the air, have watched all four seasons of the show on DVD. At first, we tried to keep track of the number of Don Draper’s sexual partners. We eventually lost count. Don had a pretty diverse sex life, particularly for a suburban husband (until recently) and father of three. But apparently, that makes sense. After all, recent stories in the news — Arnold Schwarzenegger’s love child with his housekeeper, former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s alleged sexual assault on a Sofitel housekeeper — are only riffs on an age-old theme. Eliot Spitzer, Mark Sanford, Newt Gingrich, Bill Clinton. And the list goes on, and on and on. People, and apparently mostly men, cheat on their partners.

Moving beyond mere anecdote, statistics are equally, if not more, troubling. In “NOT ‘Just Friends,’” a book by Dr. Shirley Glass, the author states that “at least one or both parties in 50% of all couples, married and living together, straight and gay, will break their vows of sexual or emotional exclusivity during the lifetime of the relationship.” Yes, that’s right — all of the stories of tawdry encounters in hotel rooms don’t even begin to address the more sticky area of emotional infidelity and disloyalty to a partner. It all adds up to a grim picture.

Really, infidelity stories are absolutely everywhere. I challenge you to find a single television show, or month of a newspaper, in which there is no mention of someone (so often a man) cheating on a spouse or partner. The deluge of disloyalty can make you wonder: Is every guy out there unfaithful? I’ll stand up in defense of men and say, no.

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JTS Ordains Its First Openly Gay Rabbi

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Courtesy of Rachel Isaacs
Rachel Isaacs

Rachel Isaacs has known, for as long as she can remember, that she wanted to be a rabbi. But Isaacs, who on May 19 became the first openly gay rabbi of either sex to be ordained by the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, knew by the time she was in college that she wouldn’t be able to become a Conservative rabbi because JTS, at the time, did not ordain gay clergy.

When the Conservative movement changed its policy five years ago, after nearly two decades of painful and divisive debate, Isaacs was in her first year of rabbinical school at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion — and deeply immersed in her studies there. “I loved my teachers and classmates and couldn’t imagine being someplace else. I was happy for the [Conservative] movement but was unsure what it meant for me personally,” she said.

After returning to the U.S. from Israel, where she learned in yeshiva and began her studies at HUC, she moved to Brooklyn and joined the Park Slope Jewish Center, a Conservative synagogue with an openly lesbian rabbi (Full disclosure: I’m a PSJC member.) “My thinking shifted. It was a living expression of the Judaism I believed in and wanted to foster as a rabbi. It’s a community that is progressive and traditional and has an openly lesbian rabbi. The more I was at PSJC, the more I thought ‘this is what I want to do.’ “

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Women Largely Absent From AIPAC's Stage

By Nathan Guttman

It was an impressive line-up of speakers, by any standard. Organizers of the annual AIPAC policy conference, which ended Tuesday in Washington, managed to book the President of the United States, Prime Minister of Israel and top Republican and Democratic leaders of Congress.

But there was an obvious omission from AIPAC’s stage: a woman.

Women politicians and experts were featured speakers at the smaller breakout sessions and in closed-door meetings throughout the conference, but none as keynote speakers at the plenary sessions — those mega-gatherings in which all AIPAC’s 10,000 delegates get together to listen to leaders pledge their friendship to Israel, and address the current state of relations between the U.S. and the Jewish state.

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Babes in Boyland: The Sisterhood Goes to Hollywood

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Getty Images
Jewish actresses Roseanne Barr and Fran Drescher

Jewess with much attitude (and talent) Roseanne Barr wrote in this recent New York magazine article about the rampant sexism that exists in Hollywood even two decades after she tried to take down those barriers with her television show “Roseanne.”

Barr rightly takes credit for developing and starring in “television’s first feminist and working-class-family sitcom (also its last).” Now, as she points out in the piece, “all over the tube you will find enterprising, over-medicated, painted-up, capitalist whores claiming to be housewives. But I’m not bitter.”

Roseanne is the kind of feminist who leads some to think feminism is always preceded by the word “angry,” but she’s also the kind of woman who makes the kinds of waves that change things, at least a little. She’s also the kind of feminist who has embraced plastic surgery, though the photo of her with the New York magazine story shows a woman who appears to look her age.

Looking her age puts her at odds with many of the women I saw this past weekend on a jaunt to Los Angeles.

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The Right's Latest Target: Girl Scouts

By Sarah Seltzer

Columbia Pictures

The Girl Scouts have long been synonymous with wholesome American girlhood, with their cookies and their uniforms and their appearance in a late ‘80s movie with Shelley Long. But recently they’ve come under attack because some affiliates have decided that young girls on the cusp of puberty might want to know the facts of life, based on science, evidence, and individual choice — the of healthy, judgment-free ethos that Planned Parenthood promotes.

The problem is that Planned Parenthood, once championed by the likes of the Bush family and Richard Nixon, is now public enemy #1. After efforts to defund and discredit the storied institution have taken root, suddenly the health provider has become a pariah. And now those opposed to Planned Parenthood using a single brochure from the organizations to make the case that the Girl Scouts possess a “radical feminist” mission to corrupt the young women of America. And, what, turn them into tolerant, self-assured, confident young women in charge of their own sexuality? Heaven forbid.

The scandal du jour comes courtesy of two former Scouts, the Volanski sisters, now being backed up by several major anti-choice organization after they started a blog dedicated to exposing the Scout’s supposed secret agenda. According to The Daily Beast’s Alizah Salario:

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Teaching Haredi Women To Succeed in Business

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Batya Kenanie Bram
Batya Kenanie Bram

Batya Kenanie Bram, a former Israeli government spokeswoman, said she was looking for a new challenge. The working mother of three wanted to do something that she thought would have more direct social impact. Drawing on her natural business acumen and her formal academic training — she has a master’s degree in political science and public administration — she began teaching Haredi women in Jerusalem to start and maintain small businesses.

Kenanie Bram said it has been deeply fulfilling to help the women with whom she works understand that to be a good wife and mother and a productive and profitable entrepreneur are not mutually exclusive pursuits. She spoke recently with The Sisterhood.

Renee Ghert-Zand: What does your work with these Haredi women entail?

Batya Kenanie Bram: The program I am involved with is an initiative of the Ministry of Commerce. It involves courses on how to start a business from theoretical, legal and tax perspectives. We work on self-empowerment and we evaluate personal strengths and weaknesses using models from the business world. We also cover marketing, presentation skills, negotiation skills, and the basics of business planning. The women also require ongoing coaching, and sometimes just someone to talk to, because their regular environment doesn’t provide the support and stimulation they need to advance.

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When Pseudo-Science Is Used To Bolster Racist Beauty Standards

By Sarah Seltzer

There’s almost too much awful male behavior to write about this week, from the sexual assault allegations against Dominique Strauss-Kahn to the admission by Arnold Schwarzenegger to fathering a love child to this gag-worthy article about the rise of dude editors.

But a very special prize for awfulness has to go the folks at Psychology Today. The magazine published an article about black women’s perceived attractiveness that hearkened back to the era of racism being justified by science. Seriously, the next thing I expected to see was a piece called “Phrenology: Why It Still Matters.”

Not only did Psychology Today decide to print this offensive article but instead of apologizing for the subsequent uproar, they insisted that it had been good and healthy to air the discussion so everyone could understand how upsetting and loaded this issue was — as if black women don’t already know. This is an example of both utter cluelessness about the nature of racism and also a classic Internet fail: When you smear an entire group of people on the web, it’s always a good idea to apologize profusely and abjectly first, try to have a teachable moment later. And also: Don’t tell said group of offended people that they should be thanking you for offending them.

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Reaching Out to Our Muslim Sisters

By Renee Ghert-Zand

irshadmanji.com
Irshad Manji

On the heels of America’s most-wanted terrorist being eliminated in Pakistan by U.S. Special Forces, the woman who was once dubbed by the media as “Osama Bin Laden’s Worst Nightmare” made a statement that I found haunting. Islamic reformer Irshad Manji made the scary point in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal that President Obama was wrong in saying that “Bin Laden was not a Muslim leader.” What should be keeping us up at night, according to Manji, is the fact that he actually was a legitimate Muslim leader in the eyes of many.

“Bin Laden and his followers represent a real interpretation of Islam that begs to be challenged relentlessly and visibly,” she wrote in the op-ed, which was excerpted from her soon-to-be-published new book, “Allah, Liberty and Love” (Free Press).

So what does this have to do with Jews? It has to do with us because Manji and other reformers have reached out to liberal Jews and Christians in search of allies in this challenge. Although she sees this ijtihad (a religious-intellectual struggle fueled by independent thought) as primarily the responsibility of Muslims, she calls on us to support and partner with those brave Muslims willing to engage in it.

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The Semiotics of Skirts and Swimsuits

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

swimoutlet.com

In Tablet magazine, Dvora Meyers recently wrote a brief meditation on her conflicted history with skirts and some of their Jewish cultural connotations.

I enjoy reading the semiotics of skirts, a fun game to play where I live, which is close to Crown Heights and equidistant from Williamsburg and Borough Park. Young women from Crown Heights wearing form-fitting, knee-length denim skirts and leggings underneath while they jog or bike to and from Prospect Park is a common sight. In communities where the subtleties of a woman’s choice of clothing are scrutinized for indications of how frum she is, the difference between a knee-length, close-fitting denim skirt with a slit and a baggy, to-the-floor denim skirt telegraphs at least something of her personal values.

Reading Dvora’s piece reminded me of the odd sight of orthodox Muslim women swimming in full burqua in the warm water springs at Sahne one hot summer day when we were last in Israel on vacation. But “burqinis” seem to be a growing fashion even here in America. When I recently went to a favorite swimming supply website to buy goggles, I was surprised to see a new, “modest swimwear” category right next to the usual Speedo and Tyr tank suits.

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