I have been reading Passover reflections on womanhood, liberation and the holiday’s meaning by Elana Sztokman here at the Sisterhood and by Elyssa Cohen at Jewesses with Attitude. It seems that for so many of us, Passover serves as a time of reflection and rebirth, a call to free ourselves from dismal patterns of indifference and habit.
Although I’m still recovering from a food, wine and company coma after two Seders, Passover always gives that a charge of new energy, an urge to shake off winter sloth. I have dozens of recollections of Passovers past inspiring me to seek out new opportunities, to volunteer, to rededicate myself to activism or self-improvement, to make my own meaning out of the holiday.
But why does a holiday in which we extol a God I don’t believe in and glorify, with qualification, some troubling events (the slaying of the first born, and the “drowning of our oppressors”) mean so much to me, and so many Jews from a wide range of backgrounds?
These are not pity-party hats. From the looks of these colorful and whimsical head coverings, it would appear that the pity party is over and that the empty ice cream containers and cried-into tissues have been thrown away. Whoever is wearing these cloches, chapeaux, bonnets and berets is holding her head high in the face of adversity.
On display at the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto, Calif. through April 27 are 25 hats made by the members Plexus Art Group for one of their own— Roni Mentzer, who is battling a recurrence of breast cancer. “I’m going to lose my hair again when the chemotherapy starts,” Mentzer told her 12 fellow artists. “Those hats and uncomfortable wigs are so boring. Let’s create works of art. Let’s show the world beauty!”
The members (twelve women and one man) of this San Francisco Bay Area artists’ group embraced the challenge, as they have other projects that address social and political concerns that affect them and their community. Their exhibitions aim to raise awareness, as well as funds to support like-minded organizations.
Passover always makes me wonder whether life is meant to be hard. This thought starts rearing its head often before Purim, when those who take seriously the mission of spring cleaning are already on schedules of windows, curtain, light fixtures, and the drawers in the corner of the closet that have not been touched since last year. The call of disciplined labor continues in increasing volume until the days immediately before the holiday when you can measure the stress levels of passersby by the bags under the eyes and the bags hanging off the wrists. As my friend Nehama Zibitt Blumenreich wrote on Facebook, “Tell me how we got from a celebration of freedom to indentured servitude.” Our culture is almost saying, you haven’t really marked Passover unless you’ve actually suffered.
This nagging thought about the place of suffering in our human mission found expression in a discussion I had with my children the other day about matzo. I asked them whether the matzo represents slavery or freedom. After all, in various places in the Torah, matzo is described as the food we ate while we were slaves in Egypt, and alternatively as the food we ate when we were escaping hastily with barely the clothes — and bread — on our backs. So which one is it?
If matzo represents need, then we’re saying that our ideal life is one of comfort and ease, a nice warm French baguette, metaphorically speaking, that fills your nostrils and your stomach with its expansive softness. But if matzo represents freedom — a freedom from the bloated puffiness of materialism, a life with all excess and extravagance removed — then the ideal life is one of simplicity rather than comfort and pleasure.
On a recent Friday, Karen Lakin, an English teacher who made aliyah to Israel from Connecticut with her husband and two teenage children in 1984, invited me to a café on the Giv’at Ram campus of the Hebrew University to meet the others in her breakfast club. Eight of its nine members were in attendance, including six Jews and two Christians, one of whom is an Arab, originally from Kfar Qana near Nazareth, who now lives in Beit Safafa, Jerusalem.
For the past quarter century, the women have been meeting every Friday for brunch at a café somewhere in the city, no matter the weather or the security situation. The women also have a book club, share an opera subscription, eat Shabbat and holiday meals at each other’s homes, and celebrate birthdays and American Thanksgiving together every year.
Since most of them don’t have many relatives in Israel, they quickly became each other’s family. “In fact, it’s closer than a family, because we chose each other,” said Arlene Yaakov, who is originally from New Jersey and who, in June 1967 at the outbreak of the Six Day War, took the first Israel-bound plane she could catch out of the U.S. so she could volunteer on a kibbutz. “I drove straight through from Los Angeles to New York to get on that plane,” said Yaakov, a tour group coordinator.
Newsweek magazine, this year in conjunction with its sister publication The Daily Beast, has just published its annual list of America’s 50 “most influential” rabbis. It’s Newsweek’s fifth such list but the first time that a woman — writer Abigail Pogrebin — has been directly involved in the selection, which no doubt explains why the number of women on the list has more than doubled. This year, 13 women made the list; that’s up from 6 last year.
The Newsweek list has come under fire in years past for including a paucity of women and for ranking rabbis at all (though, to be sure, rabbis who make the list often include their ranking in their official bios, and I’ve heard a few of them mention the distinction when being interviewed about something totally unrelated).
Interestingly, six of the seven women who were new to the list were on The Sisterhood 50 last year — a list compiled by Sisterhood editor Gabrielle Birkner in response to the shortage of female rabbis mentioned. Pogrebin says that she had The Sisterhood 50 “very close by, always,” when working on Newsweek’s rabbi rankings. “Other lists are instructive and their own snapshot of a perspective,” she told The Sisterhood. “I wanted to very much consult what was already out there, and some of those lists were intended to be a corrective.”
I was reading on the subway last week and missed my stop. The beautiful irony here is that I missed the stop because I was reading Carolyn Heilbrun’s biography of Gloria Steinem, while on the way to the “Women’s Liberation and Jewish Identity: Uncovering a Legacy of Innovation, Activism and Social Change,” a two-day conference at NYU. Sponsored by NYU’s Goldstein-Goren Center for American Jewish History, the Jewish Women’s Archive, the Spencer Foundation’s Special Initiative on Civic Learning and Civic Action and Brandeis University and convened by Dr. Joyce Antler, the conference brought together 40 Jewish women who participated in the women’s liberation and Jewish feminist movements beginning in the late 1960s.
Speaking on a panel on the next generation of feminist activism, Dr. Judith Rosenbaum, Director of Public History at the Jewish Women’s Archive, described the conference attendees as “my bookshelf come to life.” For me, it seemed like walking through a field of landmines; anyone I talked to, ran into the bathroom, stood next to in the line for coffee, was a woman who had shaped my feminist theory and identity. Needless to say, I spent two days sweating profusely.
Many homes will have oranges on their Seder plates come the first two nights of Passover, starting Monday evening. And there will also be lots of different versions of the story explaining why we put it there.
Now Rabbi Andrew Sacks, head of the Conservative movement’s Israeli branch of the Rabbinical Assembly, has laid the debate about the origins of the practice to rest with a Facebook post — excerpting an email he received from Susanna Heschel.
Maayan Madar won the title “Miss Gedera” in her local beauty pageant. And then she was kicked out of school. The 18-year old, who is finishing 12th grade in a state religious high school in Israel, was told by her principal that her participation in the pageant went against school rules. Most importantly, the principal reportedly said, Madar wore a strapless dress.
“I don’t think the school has the right to interfere in my personal life,” Madar, who is now a local celebrity, told reporters this week. “And anyway, before I entered the pageant, I made sure that there was no swimwear competition, and that the dresses were not low-cut.” In fact, Guy Harari, the pageant producer, said he arranged in advance with the head of the municipal council of Gedera Yoel Gamliel —himself a religious Zionist man — that the pageant would not have “immodest” components out of respect to the large religious community in the town.
Her parents are incensed about the principal’s actions, and Madar is worried about her future. She was meant to matriculate in a few months, and she is not sure what will happen to her next. The Ministry of Education has come out in support of the principal but said in an official statement that it is still “investigating the matter”.
Passover is a time for storytelling. One of the main purposes of the holiday is to allow one generation to tell the next generation the story of how we came out of Egypt and journeyed from slavery to freedom. There are many children’s books that engage young minds by going beyond the telling found in the traditional Passover Haggadah to engage young minds. In choosing among the possible additions the Seder, we have focused on books that celebrate the diversity of Jewish families and those that introduce the themes of Passover in new or particularly engaging ways:
A newcomer to the Passover scene is the colorfully appealing “Afikomen Mambo,” by Joe Black and illustrated by Linda Prater. Sold together with the book is a CD with performance by Black, who is well known for his music. Geared to the 3–7 set, this playful combination of illustration and song, do exactly what the Afikomen is meant to do — pique the interest and engagement of the younger set so they stay awake until the end of the Seder. Somewhat puzzling is the plethora of children and the paucity of adults seated around the table. From the looks of it, one set of parents has invited a whole brood of young ones to join in the Passover fun. But at least everyone looks happy doing the Afiokmen Mambo.
Miri Ben-Ari, the Israeli “hip-hop violinist” who has played with Jay-Z and Alicia Keys and who recently was honored by Michelle Obama at the White House this week, has single-handedly turned the violin into a cool instrument.
It’s wonderful to have a glamorous female role model who has mastered music. While “Tiger Mother” Amy Chua may have had the energy to stand over her daughters for hours of practice and turn them into virtuosos, we weaker-willed Western moms are always looking for ways to motivate our daughters to take up a musical instrument and practice diligently.
And now we can point to Ben-Ari, in her designer dresses and with her glamorous celebrity lifestyle. Presumably, it works much better than attempting to get them excited about playing in some boring old symphony.
Eating disorders are famously misunderstood.
Earlier this week, The New York Times shed some light on them in an article detailing the high rates of these illnesses among American Orthodox Jews. The writer, Roni Caryn Rabin, reports on the various pressures Orthodox girls face, and looks at whether eating disorders might be the result of these pressures. She writes that, in some cases, those disorders seem to be symptoms of their desire to stave off menstruation to postpone marriage, the hope of losing weight with the ultimate goal of reaching the chuppah, or of their lack of time to develop a sense of self in a home filled with many siblings.
It’s the topic that the Forward has written extensively about in recent years.
While Rabin’s piece focuses on the American Orthodox community (though she doesn’t make completely clear whether she is referring to the Modern Orthodox community, the ultra-Orthodox community or Orthodoxy’s entire spectrum), the consequences of control, power, socialization and media impact everyone. Attempts to avoid acknowledging important psychological issues run rampant in most societies. In order to promote healing, the therapeutic approach must be holistic, and must not ignore the religious context.
Reading this article on Slate, reminded me how misplaced our priorities sometime seem to be — with new moms rushed home and right back into their physically and emotionally demanding lives. A week after giving birth to my youngest, a decade ago, I was back at work (though my boss at the time allowed me to work from home for the next few weeks).
The Slate piece writes of the Latin American postpartum custom of la cuarentena, or “the quarantine,” which despite its unpleasant name and the folk customs associated with it, keeps the new mommy and baby in confinement for 40 days, optimally waited on by extended family members. The article says it sounds “like a hedonist’s dream,” until the new mother being interviewed elaborates. “Food, sex, and rest are subject to a constellation of taboos and prescriptions. Sex is a no-no.” But who wants to — or is able to — have sex soon after having a baby anyway? “Rest is mandated and traditionally facilitated by female relatives, who take over errands and chores. Foods are divided into the approved (carrots, chicken soup) and the forbidden (spicy and heavy fare).”
It reminds me of the Haredi custom of sending women from the maternity ward to a kimpeturin heim, or convalescent home for new mothers. They’re found in sizeable Haredi communities, where couples often have six, 10 or more children, and postpartum new mothers go for anywhere from a few nights to two weeks to recover from the birth.
Well, it looks like Sarah Palin has made room in her wardrobe for yet another surprising sartorial choice: A Star of David necklace.
On her trip last month to Israel, during which she met with Prime Minister Netanyahu and visited sites like the Kotel, Palin was seen sporting a sizeable silver Magen David. According to David Brog, the Jewish director for Christians United For Israel — see the Forward’s story on the organization here — Palin’s choice in jewelry is an increasingly common one for American evangelical Christians.
“When I saw Sarah Palin with the star I didn’t think twice,” Brog told The Sisterhood. “It didn’t occur to me that this was odd. For me, it was a not at all uncommon site.”
Brog said he has noticed an increasing number of Christian women donning Jewish jewelry, including chais and chamsas, since he began working for CUFI five years ago. He said they often purchase the jewelry at churches or Christians sites, real or virtual. (See, for example, the Holy Land Marketplace, which sells “messianic and Christian products made in Israel, helping the Jewish people.”) Also, churches often host “Israeli Market Place,” arranged by Made in Israel, an organization that provides “much needed financial and spiritual support to the people of Israel by helping Israeli artists, manufacturers, and stores sell their goods throughout the United States.”
The burqa ban went into effect in France this week, and feminists are torn about what this means for women, religion and freedom.
On one hand is the oppressiveness of enforced, excessive female body cover in the name of religion. Islamic custom, not unlike Jewish custom, has historically placed supreme emphasis on covering the female body as a sign of piety. Whether or not layers upon layers of fabric bring about closeness to God is less of an issue than the extreme gender disparities involved. The picture of Muslim couples walking down the street in the Middle East heat, for example, in which the men are wearing whatever they please — jeans, shorts, tank-tops, flip-flops, whatever — while the women with them are in long black robes (often walking paces behind), is a living, visceral illustration of absolute gender discrimination. Add to this the fact that men are making all the rules, and female powerlessness becomes readily apparent. And add to all this the underlying rationales, which are filled with rhetoric of wife-ownership, distrust of women and outright misogyny, and it becomes abundantly clear why the burqa and all other Muslim customs of women’s body cover are bad for women.
Less than a year after she was married, Inbal Chen, a 29-year old woman from Kiryat Motzkin, Israel, was killed last week — and her husband is the prime suspect.
If Inbal’s husband is found to have committed the crime, and it’s still very much a matter of if, it would be the third case of uxoricide, or wife-murder, in Israel since February. In this case, like in so many others, neighbors said they saw no external signs that something like this would take place. In fact, the couple’s wedding video was circulating on the Internet before the murder took place, and afterwards was used as further “proof” that the couple seemed perfectly “normal.”
Wife-murder is the most extreme form of spousal abuse, and almost always comes as an escalation, not as a first abusive event, according to Jewish Women International, a wonderful organization that runs domestic abuse education programs for community leaders, clergy and the general public. Abuse tends to build up gradually, beginning with verbal and emotional abuse, and only afterward physical violence. It is not entirely unheard of, however, for the first act of physical abuse to be a murder attempt.
Jennifer Moses wrote a recent and much-discussed Wall Street Journal essay titled “Why Do We Let Them Dress Like That?” It opens with the writer listening in on a clutch of 12- and 13-year-old girls in the ladies room at a bat mitzvah party as they discuss other girls. The girls are, as you might expect, dressed in too-short dresses, long earrings and Kardashian-esque eye makeup.
It was a different bat mitzvah party than the one I recently attended where a 13-year-old guest wore what appeared to be 6-inch stilettos and a skirt so tight and short that she literally couldn’t sit down without giving the 7th-grade boys even more to see than she had planned. But it could have been any one of a countless number of such parties where the girls dress like hookers.
Now, I’m no advocate of the Jewish burqa look either. On the way to do some pre-Passover shopping at Pomegranate today, I saw this store, “Tznius Princess,” where the wedding gowns in the window had more fabric than Carol Burnett’s take on Scarlett O’Hara’s in “Gone with the Wind.” I’ve written here about turning to Mormon shopping websites in my attempt to find dresses that are neither overly bare nor overly burqa-esque for my daughters to wear.
Over the past 24 hours, I have been conducting an unintentional experiment in the “you look great” debate between Sisterhood contributors Elana Maryles Sztokman and Elissa Strauss.
Elana’s post begins with the declaration:
You look great” is one of the conversation starters that I most despise. When someone says that to me, it always feels like what they are saying is that the last time they saw me I looked terrible. Or is it that they are surprised to see me not bed-ridden or comatose? Or, maybe, they simply have nothing interesting to talk about other than our superficial appearances.
Elissa, in her response, begs to differ, viewing the compliment as “a real sign of confidence and camaraderie.”
My gut response was to agree with Elissa. This is mostly because I am someone who hands out the “you look great” compliment quite often. My philosophy is that if you are genuinely thinking something positive about someone, whether it involves their appearance, their intelligence or their accomplishments — why not tell them and make them feel good rather than keep it to myself? My “you look greats” are never mindless flattery.
I first read the Joyce Antler’s book “The Journey Home: How Jewish Women Shaped Modern America” as an undergraduate, deep in the thrall of Jewish feminist academia. It was an enormously important part of my uncovering and understanding what Antler calls “the cultural chain” of my identity as a Jewish woman activist.
Joyce Antler is the Samuel Lane Professor of American Jewish History and Culture at Brandeis University, where she teaches in the American Studies Department and Women’s and Gender Studies Program. She authored or edited 10 books, including “You Never Call! You Never Write! A History of the Jewish Mother.” She is the co-author (with Elinor Fuchs) of the prize-winning documentary drama “Year One of the Empire: A Play of American Politics, War and Protest,” which was performed off-Broadway in 2008.
Beginning today and running through tomorrow, Antler is convening a conference called “Women’s Liberation and Jewish Identity: Uncovering a Legacy of Innovation, Activism and Social Change,” sponsored by NYU’s Goldstein-Goren Center for American Jewish History, the Jewish Women’s Archive, the Spencer Foundation’s Special Initiative on Civic Learning and Civic Action and Brandeis University. The conference will bring together 40 Jewish women who participated in the women’s liberation and Jewish feminist movements beginning in the late 1960s; the participants include Susannah Heschel, Evelyn Torton Beck, Gloria Feldt, Jaclyn Friedman, Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz and Susan Weidman Schneider. I spoke recently with Antler about her hopes, intentions and motivations behind this unique conference.
Chanel Dubofsky: What was your inspiration for convening this conference?
If the government shuts down today, we’ll have come to a new zenith of institutionalized misogyny in American government — a level of disregard for women that is so powerful it might bring that government to a halt. Even if it doesn’t and a deal is reached, the fact that women’s health was the last thing standing in the way of an agreement for over 24 hours is both alarming and telling.
As I and others have been noting during the past two days, the negotiations to settle on a budget and a avoid a catastrophic government shutdown (which still could happen in the next few hours) almost entirely boiled down to the issue of Planned Parenthood funding.
While many had predicted that the House GOP’s drive to strip the institution of its family-planning federal funding under Title X — the Hyde Amendment currently prevents it from receiving abortion funding — would be easily killed in the Senate, they underestimated, in my opinion, the sheer level of hatred for women’s bodily autonomy by some members of the D.C. legislative corps.
While it would be impossible to deny that too much attention is put on women’s appearance, I still find it overly cynical to write off “you look great” as a violation, as my fellow Sisterhood contributor Elana Maryles Sztokman wrote in recent post.
Elana explains that the common use of this phrase among girlfriends reveals a deep-seated instinct of women to scrutinize one another to see how they measure up. For her, being told she “looks great” can mean she didn’t look great before. Or it can mean that looking great is the only thing that matters.
Well for starters, where I come from, Los Angeles, a place where good looks are paramount, the real mean girls, or frenemies or whatever you call these competitive jealous types, most certainly do not gratuitously throw around this phrase. Instead, the better a friend looks, the longer and more profound the silence. When somebody does say, “you look great,” it is a real sign of confidence and camaraderie.