Sisterhood Blog

Criticizing 'Slutwalks' and Again Judging Women For What They Wear

By Sarah Seltzer

Getty Images via AFP
Women at a “Slutwalk” in London in June

As a loud defender of Slutwalks, I’ve been disturbed by the recent turn the critique of the new grassroots movement has taken, from within the feminist movement and here on our own Sisterhood blog.

I was actually pleasantly surprised, during the first wave of Slutwalks earlier this year, by how much the mainstream media seemed to be getting the message of the walks, which is, in essence, that “she was asking for it” is never an appropriate response to rape.

No, the message is not “we’re sluts and we’re proud!” No, not “it’s great to be a slut!” No, the message is not exclusively “we’re reclaiming sluthood.”

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Separate-Gender Jewish Activities: It's Good To Have Rooms of Our Own

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

I have to disagree with Chanel Dubofsky’s Sisterhood post in which she contends that new interest in Jewish men’s clubs reflects male anxiety about a supposed women’s takeover of Jewish organizations and life. I think it’s great that a non-Orthodox Jewish organization is making progress in engaging Jewish men. The goal is to have everyone involved.

As far as I can tell, there hasn’t actually been a women’s takeover of Jewish organizations. As illustrated in this New York Times article a few years ago, and this more recent article in the Forward, it is true that, among teenagers, programming in the non-Orthodox community has attracted more female participation than male. And the Reform movement, for one, has been working to achieve more parity.

As important as egalitarian access to Judaism is to me, we also need separate-gender spaces (as the title and subject matter of this blog reflect). It is not anti-feminist to recognize that there are differences beyond the physical between men and women, and that we tend to develop most close friendships with those of the same gender. There is something to be said for the safer space of being with others of the same gender.

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Reform, Moving Traditions, Men's Clubs, Conservative, Egalitarianism

The Misogyny of Mass Murderers

By Sarah Seltzer

Getty Images via AFP
Norwegian Terror Suspect Anders Behring Breivik

Last year, after the horrible mass murder targeting Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, I wrote about the misogyny and obsession with masculinity that underlies this and other such violent acts. Later, more information was revealed about shooter Jared Lee Loughner and his pervasive fear of women in power.

The same sort of thing seems to have influenced the alleged killer in Norway, Anders Breivik. As Michelle Goldberg writes at The Daily Beast in a really thorough article parsing the mass-muderer’s manifesto to find the hatred of women right on the surface of his ideology.

Rarely has the connection between sexual anxiety and right-wing nationalism been made quite so clear. Indeed, Breivik’s hatred of women rivals his hatred of Islam, and is intimately linked to it. Some reports have suggested that during his rampage on Utoya, he targeted the most beautiful girl first. This was about sex even more than religion.

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The New Men’s Clubs: Just Another Name for Fear of Women’s Power

By Chanel Dubofsky

Let’s talk about Jewish men, shall we? Let’s talk about them as though they were a singular entity, a borg, if you will. Let’s erase individual proclivities-emotions, sexualities, demonstrations of what it means to be a man. And while we’re at it, let’s do the same to women, and we’ll make everyone nervous about how much space women are taking up in Jewish communities, even if it’s not actually true.

People who believe in the myth of the Jewish Lady Takeover will now proceed to name a handful of Jewish women who have reached senior status in their organizations. They’ll say that liberal denominations are ordaining the ladies like nobody’s business, and that this means the men are being crowded out. Go ahead, insist that I’m wrong. It doesn’t make it true. It doesn’t mean that women who graduate from the rabbinical schools of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Hebrew Union College and the Jewish Theological Seminary are getting jobs, or if they get those jobs, that they’re going to be able to keep them, because of issues of pay and child care.

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'Slutwalks' Limit Vision of Sexual Empowerment

By Allison Gaudet Yarrow

SARAH KARNASIEWICZ
Rebecca Traister

Slutwalks — the organized marches of mostly women to combat “slut-shaming” and sex crime “victim-blaming” — are happening all over the world.

Sparked by the comment of a Toronto police officer at a York University campus safety information event in January, who mouthed off that a woman was raped because of her clothes, the Slutwalks are finally receiving a deserved measure of scrutiny. Rebecca Traister’s uncertainty and discomfort about these rallies, which she shares in this week’s New York Times magazine, resonated with me, but I don’t believe her critique of the walks goes far enough.

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Israeli Woman May Be Jailed for Refusing Divorce

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

According to this story in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the rabbinate there has threatened to jail a 59-year-old woman if she continues to refuse to accept a religious divorce, known as a get, from her husband.

The news report says:

The woman, who lives in the center of the country, is refusing to accept the divorce from her husband because of an ongoing property dispute between the two. “I won’t take the get under any circumstances, even if they take me to jail,” the woman told Haaretz Monday. “I’m made of steel, you can’t break me.”

Usually the shoe is on the other foot, and we read about men refusing to grant their wives a divorce or extorting a payoff in order to do so. The power to grant a divorce, according to an Orthodox reading of Jewish law, rests only in the hands of the man. But the woman must accept the divorce, as much as she must accept the marriage contract handed to her under the wedding canopy.

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Amy Winehouse Brought Out The Jewish Mother In Us All

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

Ben Stansall, AFP via Getty Images
Amy Winehouse’s parents, Janis and Mitch Winehouse, after her death.

Amy Winehouse embodied every Jewish mother’s greatest fear.

We Jewish parents are, after all, obsessed with our children living up to their potential. We accept our offspring’s God-given limitations. But when there is a child with seemingly limitless possibilities for creativity and success, as Winehouse’s tremendous musical talent offered her, it is particularly achingly painful to watch them follow the well-worn celebrity path to self-destruction and death.

And so it was with Winehouse, almost from the very beginning. A first listen to the edgy jazz featured in her iconic album “Back to Black,” with her enchantingly world-weary voice, convinced us we were listening to an updated recording of an African-American legend like Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holiday. But no – that voice belonged to a painfully skinny Jewish London waif with a retro beehive hairdo and sailor tattoos. We were fascinated, and unreasonably proud that she was Jewish and grew up with Friday night dinners at her grandmother’s London home. Let’s face it – we’re suckers for members of the tribe who are both successful and cool. Even when they are clearly addicted to drugs and alcohol. Jewish websites and blogs which fancied themselves young and hip faithfully chronicled every Winehouse foible – every arrest and on-stage collapse, every inappropriate relationship – and of course, every award and hit record.

She was a hot mess, and she was our hot mess.

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Orthodox Women Overcome Barriers at Kolech Conference

By Elana Sztokman

courtesy of Hannah Kehat
Kolech Founder Hannah Kehat

This year’s conference of Kolech, Israel’s Orthodox feminist forum, grappled with cutting-edge issues around homosexuality, the place of transgender women in Orthodoxy and the shared lifestyles of Muslim and Jewish religious women.

At the conference, which took place in Jerusalem earlier this month, the panel on homosexuality included an Israeli lesbian who was raised Orthodox, a woman who was born male into an Orthodox family and an Orthodox woman whose son is gay. Rabbi Dr. Haviva Ner David, who has written extensively about her family’s journey with her gay brother, said “I was pleasantly surprised to see that this session was included in the conference and was afraid because of its relatively radical nature that it would not be well attended. I was even more pleasantly surprised to see that the room was packed when I got there and that the audience was supportive, sympathetic, and respectful to the panelists.”

It seems that the community is working to put an end to issues that have been silenced in the past.

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Prime Ribs: Eschewing 'SlutWalks'; Defending 'Sister Wives'

By Gabrielle Birkner

In light of an email tirade in which Tea Party congressman Allen West called Democratic National Committee chairwoman (and proud Jewess) Debbie Wasserman Schultz “vile,” and wrote that she has proved that she is “not a Lady,” The Daily Beast’s Michelle Goldberg pulls back the curtain on what she sees as West’s history of misogynistic behavior.


As much as journalist Rebecca Traister wants to embrace the new phenomenon known as the SlutWalk — in which scantily clad women take to the streets in hopes of taking the sting out of the moniker “slut” — she writes, in this New York Times magazine piece, that the gatherings seem “less like victory than capitulation (linguistic and sartorial) to what society already expects of its young women.” (Listen to a recent Yid Lit podcast featuring Traister here.)


JTA’s Sue Fishkoff — who in September will become editor of the Bay Area Jewish newsweekly j. (Mazel tov, Sue!) — writes about the unforeseen complications of non-Jewish mothers raising Jewish children.


Our Sisterhood bloggers have long mulled the appeal of having “Big Love”-style “sister wives.” In this recent New York Times op-ed, law professor Jonathan Turley defends the polygamous marriage of the Utah family that stars in the reality series “Sister Wives,” and calls state laws banning plural marriage examples of “unacceptable government intrusion.”

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: SlutWalk, Naomi Chazan, Emma Lazarus, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Allen West

Erotica Writer Rachel Kramer Bussel Talks Sex and Feminism

By Chanel Dubofsky

Anya Garrett
Rachel Kramer Bussel

Rachel Kramer Bussel is among the most well-known and prolific contemporary Jewish writers of erotica. Her work has appeared in more 100 anthologies, as well as in numerous online and print publications. She is a senior editor at Penthouse Variations, a contributing editor at Penthouse, and is the series editor for the “Best Sex Writing” anthologies. Her latest editing endeavor is “Obsessed: Erotic Romance for Women,” released earlier this month by Cleis Press. She spoke recently with The Sisterhood about stereotypes of Jewish women in the bedroom, why she doesn’t see feminism and submissiveness as mutually exclusive, and the good advice that she says applies to both writing and sex.

Chanel Dubofsky: Do you think Judaism — religiously, culturally — influences your work?

Rachel Kramer Bussel: I do think some of the best sex and best relationships I’ve had have a spiritual, though not necessarily religious, component, but I don’t know that Judaism directly influences my work. I have my own struggles with religion and faith, and am not the biggest fan of organized religion … but I think what Judaism has taught me is to always question the world around me and to believe in my own answers — just as much as any dogma.

What do you think about the stereotypes about Jewish women and sex that pervade mainstream culture — stereotypes like the JAP and the Jewish mother?

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Haredi Perspectives on Birth Control, Abortion

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

News of the Obama administration’s anticipated adoption of a health panel’s recommendation that birth control be considered preventive care and therefore paid for by insurance companies is being widely welcomed by those concerned with women’s health.

It came to mind when I read this advice seeker on the fascinating website Unpious.com. A Haredi woman in her 20s (and already a mother of five) writes, plaintively, of her terror that she might be pregnant with a sixth child. She writes that she and her husband, though Hasidic, are comfortable using birth control whether or not they have the rabbinic permission known as a heter.

While the rest of the world, Jewish and otherwise, looks at Hasidic communities where six, eight or 10 kids are the typical progeny in each family and assumes that birth control is verboten, it is not.

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On Abortion and Contraception, a Different Kind of Logic

By Sarah Seltzer

I closely followed Debra Nussbaum Cohen’s piece about the inherent contradiction between anti-abortion and anti-contraception stances – stances which are often held by the same folks. Her logic is impeccable: Debra is 100% right that contraception is a rational middle ground, that opposition to family planning is absurd whatever your stance is on the morality of abortion, and that making birth control more widely available is sound public policy.

Just this last weekend, while spending time with friends who are scientists, I engaged in a similar discussion about the seemingly self-cancelling bent of the anti-choice movement. If they truly believe every abortion is murder then why, why, don’t they hand out condoms? Why do they cut childcare funding and lobby against maternal health provisions? And at the heart of it all, why not be pragmatic rather than dogmatic? Why do they work for an environment which will create more unintended pregnancies and by rational extension, more trips to the abortion clinic?

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Would a Government Ministry Help Israeli Women Get Ahead?

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

Wikimedia Commons
Likud MK Gila Gamliel

The proposal sounds pretty good on the surface – a Ministry of Women’s Affairs in the Israeli government, dedicated solely to promoting the issues, concerns, and interests of Israeli women and improving their status in society.

Likud MK Gila Gamliel, who recently unveiled the proposal for creating such a ministry, is convinced that it can only do Israeli women good and she is confident that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is behind her. She told the Jerusalem Post that “the decision on whether to create a ministry for women must come from the prime minister, but I believe we are heading in the right direction. I am pretty sure that the first chance he has, he will take up this issue.”

Gamliel, an up-and-coming ambitious young Likud party member and Netanyahu loyalist, currently holds the position of deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office for the Advancement of Young People, Students and Women (a job she is apparently considered triply qualified for because she is both young and female, with a background in student leadership. ) Something of a political prodigy, she was elected to the Knesset twelve years ago at age 29, and has been there ever since, except for three years, when Likud’s poor showing in the elections knocked her off the Knesset list. She returned to the parliament in 2006.

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Introducing 'The Kittel Collection'

By Jacqueline Nicholls

The kittel is a simple white garment that is traditionally worn by a groom on his wedding day, by men on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Seder nights, and as a burial shroud. In this space, over the course of the next several months, I will use the kittel to explore the many ways that clothing is used as a metaphor for meaning and identity within Jewish tradition and literature.

The first such piece examines the ways that so much of the traditional Jewish modesty (tzniut) literature transmits the message that a woman’s body is something shameful and something that must be locked away — while, at the same time, grotestquely sexualizing the female form.

View a video about the project below:

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: The Kittel Collection, Modesty, Kittel, Jacqueline Nichols, Feminism

The Anti-Contraception, Anti-Abortion Paradox

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Creative Commons

When I was a young adult and ready to start on the birth control pill, I found that its cost was not covered by my health insurance. Paying the retail price was onerous. It didn’t seem right that insurance wouldn’t cover contraception, though it did cover the cost of giving birth and possibly even abortion. It just didn’t make any sense.

Now, finally, the federal government is ready to rectify the situation, and make contraception more economically accessible to women and men by requiring health insurance to cover its cost.

According to this news story, the Institute of Medicine, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, is recommending that health insurers be required to pay for contraception so that there is no cost to the consumer as part of “preventive health services.”

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Preventive Care, Reproductive Rights, Contraception, Birth Control, Abortion

Communal Lessons From 'Harry Potter'

By Leah Berkenwald

Last weekend the eighth and final Harry Potter movie hit theaters. In the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling created a magical alternate universe. Neither a utopia or dystopia, her magical world is fraught with real-world complexity. Reflecting on this groundbreaking series and its allegorical world, there are four important progressive lessons for the Jewish community to take away.

1) Women belong everywhere men belong

One of the most obvious and delightful characteristics of the Harry Potter series is gender equity, pure and simple. In J.K. Rowling’s magical society, witches and wizards are equal. The Ministry of Magic (their governing entity) is equally mixed, as is the magical sport of Quidditch, which women not only play, but play together with men on co-ed teams (More on gender equity in Quidditch at Ms. Magazine.) While the main villain, Voldemort, is male, his number two is a woman—the cruel and twisted Bellatrix LeStrange. Even the stay-at-home-witches and homemakers, like Molly Weasly, are written as feminist role models.

And of course, there’s Hermione Granger, the main female character, who is intelligent, studious, courageous, sensitive and principled—a far cry from the way girls are usually included as “the token girl one” or a undeveloped love interest. She is, undoubtedly, one of the best feminist role models out there (especially compared to the sad range of alternatives like the Disney princesses or Twilight’s Bella Swan).

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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.


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Low Hopes for 'Jewtopia': The Movie

By Elissa Strauss

Getty Images
Jennifer Love Hewitt

We have long bemoaned the fact that female Jewish characters on screens big and small get the short shrift, and that our high points were still decades ago when Barbra took on Fanny Brice and Yentl.

Well, the upcoming film version of the long-running off-Broadway comedy “Jewtopia” will not likely makes things any better. As our Shmooze blog noted, Jennifer Love Hewitt and Ivan Sergei have signed on for an adaption of the show, which chronicles the story of two friends, a Jew and a Gentile, who pursue women from one another’s religion.

What draws the gentile to the Jewess? A desire for a woman who will make his decisions for him. What draws the Jew to the gentile? Someone who won’t remind him of his roots. So there is an overbearing Jewish American Princess and an accommodating shiksa. Gee, where have I heard that one before?

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After Leiby's Murder, Teaching Our Kids To Be Street-Smart

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

The details of the murder last week of 8-year-old Leiby Kletzky are heart-rending. It was an act of evil that recalls the first time in modern memory that a stranger abducted a child off the streets of New York City. That child was also a young Jewish boy, Etan Patz, who had, like Leiby, begged his parents to allow him to walk alone, in that 1979 case to the school bus stop. This week, Leiby was trying to walk home from day camp.

There has been a plethora of coverage of Leiby Kletzky’s murder, including this New York Times piece about the ultra-Orthodox community’s tendency to view Jews as “safe,” and non-Jews (or those who appear not to be Jewish) as dangerous.

As Etan’s father, Stanley Patz, told Clyde Haberman this week, “children are vulnerable.” Most children Leiby’s age, especially in the ultra-Orthodox community, don’t understand the danger that strangers — even Jewish ones — can present. One of the nice things about children in Haredi communities is that, protected from television news and reality garbage (since most Haredi families do not have televisions), they have the sweetness of childhood on them for as long as possible.

There is also that “double standard” that Joseph Berger writes about in The Times.

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Prime Ribs: Zumba to 'Hava Nagila'; Facebook as Lifesaver

By Elissa Strauss

On Slate, Deborah Copaken Kogan tells a moving Jewish mother story for the digital age, about how sharing her son’s strange symptoms on Facebook saved his life.


Among those in favor of beatifying WWII-era Pope Pius XII is a nun now making the case that the pontiff ordered her convent to shelter 114 Jewish women from the Nazis, the AP reports.


Deborah Hirsch writes for JTA about how the increasingly popular “Zumba” exercise classes have spawned de-facto Sisterhood groups. Some instructors even incorporate “Hava Nagila” into their routines, Hirsch writes.

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Zumba, Prime Ribs, Pope Pius XII, Facebook, Alice Shalvi

Male-Only Economics Conference Raises Difficult Questions

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

What if you were a woman entering a business conference in order to hear speeches the mayor of a city, a government finance minister and the CEO of a major bank, but were turned away at the door because you were female and the audience was limited only to men “for modesty reasons”? One might expect such a thing to happen in Saudi Arabia or Iran. But it happened last week in Jerusalem.

Women expressed anger, frustration and disgust after they were barred from entering a “management forum” held by ultra-Orthodox newspaper Hamodia. Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and Bank Hapoalim CEO Zion Keinan were among those speaking at the conference.

It wasn’t only secular women — but also Orthodox businesswomen — who were turned away, and complained about the treatment. One told Ynet that it was “humiliating and incomprehensible.” The event was not advertised or promoted as an exclusively single-sex affair.

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Yuval Steinitz, Nir Barkat, Hamodia, Haredi, Gender Segregation, Economics, Business



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