Sisterhood Blog

Why I'm a Proud Jewish Daughter of the American Revolution

By Tamar Fox

Back in 1777, in Dover, Del., my ancestor John Wheeler Meredith enlisted as a private in the American Revolutionary Army. Because Meredith was an original American patriot, and because I can document the eight generations that lead from him to me, I was able to join the Daughters of the American Revolution a year and a half ago.

Not many Jews can trace their ancestry back 250 years in America and, in my case, I can only get away with it because my paternal grandmother converted to Judaism. Her branch of the family tree is endlessly interesting to me, precisely because it’s distinct from the standard Eastern-European Jewish roots that make up the rest of my family. And that was the appeal of joining the DAR, too. Wouldn’t it be hilarious, I thought, if I — a short, loud Jewish girl — joined the blue-blooded ladies who lunch? Hijinks would surely ensue.

But hijinks are nowhere to be found.

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Prosecutors: Crown Heights Woman Was Gang Raped for Years

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Four men accused of raping a young Jewish woman from Crown Heights over a period of eight years have been indicted according to news reports. The reports say that the Jewish woman was just 13 years old when the attacks began, and that the alleged perpetrators in the case had also sold her to other men for sex. Three of the four men have criminal records.

The New York Times story details how the teacher of a class the young woman was taking at John Jay College of Criminal Justice helped convince her to turn to the authorities and report her story.

The saga began when the girl was allegedly raped by two of the defendants in a public park. But what none of the stories I’ve read so far have addressed is how this could happen for eight years to a young girl who lived in the midst of the relatively tight-knit Lubavitch Jewish community of Crown Heights without anybody knowing. It’s difficult to understand how the girl’s mother, at least, could have not known that something was terribly, terribly wrong. I hope the case prompts the men and women of the Crown Heights Jewish community to ask themselves the same questions.


Can't Find Your Knees? Try the Tznius Ruler

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

As we prepare to welcome this Fourth of July,
in case you are wondering if your hem is too high,

No need to fret, maidel,
no need to worry.

We have a helpful new tool
from Lakewood’s Jewiest Jews.

It’s a “Tznius Ruler,” with measuring markers,
designed just to help us modest girls be tznius-ier.

Because if our skirts don’t meet below-knee expectations,
outraged haredim may send expectorations.

Without this flowery ruler, isn’t it true,
I wouldn’t know where my knees are. Would you?

Tip of the tichel: Shmarya Rosenberg


Orthodox Marriage Prep on the Agenda at Kolech Conference

By Elana Maryles Sztokman

The sexual lives of religious women will be a major topic of discussion at a panel at the upcoming conference organized by the religious women’s forum Kolech. Naomi Marmon Grumet, who has conducted research on the intimate lives of religious women, will be examining the differences between Orthodox men and Orthodox women in preparation for marriage.

This is just one of many juicy subjects that will be addressed at the upcoming Kolech gathering, scheduled for July 3–4 at the Keshet School in Jerusalem. (Kolech, which was founded in 1998 by Hana Kehat, works within a religious framework to promote gender equity in Israel.) Other conference topics include feminism in the Haredi community; Jewish and Arab women fighting for tradition; gender and Judaism on the Internet; single mothers by choice; gender segregation in public spaces, and sex-ed for religious boys.

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On 'Teen Mom,' Why No Teen Mameles?

By Lilit Marcus

The third season of MTV’s hit series “16 and Pregnant” wrapped up last week. The show and its spinoff, “Teen Mom” — the third season of which begins next week —  have become cultural flashpoints, spurring national conversations about everything from sex education to body image. While “Teen Mom” participants — girls from previous “16 and Pregnant” episodes — are a fairly homogenous bunch of mostly Caucasian youth, “16 and Pregnant,” which features a different young woman in each week’s episode, has featured a much more diverse array of young women.

But in the show’s three seasons, to the best of my knowledge, a Jewish girl has never been shown. (I’ve watched all of the episodes, and none of the teenagers has identified as Jewish.) Why is that? One answer is that, simply, no Jewish parents have thus far given permission for their daughter and her story to be shared on camera. But an informal survey of Jewish girls and women presents some other theories.

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Despite Sexting Hype, the Teenagers Are All Right

By Elissa Strauss

In a recent column David Brooks tells “The Saga of Sister Kiki,” which, summarized from this Rolling Stone article, relays the tale of a wayward teen who got “mauled by the some of the worst forces of the information age,” just like Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie got “mauled by the crushing forces of industrial America.” Kiki Kannibal is a teen who posted sexually charged pictures of herself, got lots of attention, was raped, and then victimized by a teen-exploitation site.

“Kiki must have sensed the tremendous erotic capital that a pretty, vulnerable, barely pubescent girl possesses on the Internet — even if she didn’t understand the consequences of her appeal,” Brooks writes, positioning the dark cloud over what comes next.

What Brooks is missing in this column, and what is missing in a lot of the hysterical discussion about teenagers going wild, is actual proof that what happened to Kiki represents a real and growing problem. Earlier this year New York magazine wrote a similarly sensational and heavily anecdotal piece about how girls in junior high attempt to replicate for their crushes the pornographic images they see online.

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Chayie Sieger's Pioneering Life, Riker's Island Death

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

When Helen Sieger died on the day before Passover this year, at just 57 years old, in a hospital used for inmates of Riker’s Island, it was a sad end to a life with many sad chapters.

Helen — or Chayie — Sieger’s story was well-known in Haredi circles in Brooklyn. But when her saga became the subject of a New York magazine feature story in 2003, she became a household name.

After nearly a quarter-century of being a dutiful wife to Chaim Sieger, mother to a son and a daughter, and part of Brooklyn’s Bobov Hasidic community, when her husband remarried without granting her a Jewish divorce, she sued him and the rabbis who, she alleged he bribed, in civil court. The rabbis had provided Chaim Sieger with a heter meah rabbonim, permission from 100 rabbis allowing her to re-marry without granting his wife a Jewish divorce, or get.

In 1995 Chayie Sieger did something Bobov women had almost never done: She left her husband, who according to the New York magazine story, was a serial philanderer and gambler, to move to her father’s home a few doors down.

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Beyond N.Y.'s Same-Sex Marriage Bill

By Elissa Strauss

Getty Images
New Yorkers celebrate passage of New York’s same-sex marriage bill.

The LGBT–oriented Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in Manhattan, led by openly gay Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum — a Sisterhood 50 selection — was front and center in the fight to get same-sex marriage legislation passed in New York state. (Kleinbaum also made headlines when she put her arm around an ultra-Orthodox man protesting the legislation, and was spat on repeatedly.) Two of CBST’s most active members, Rose Ann Herman and Jake Goodman, spoke with The Sisterhood about the implications of bill’s passage for the Jewish community and beyond, and what’s next for LGBT activists.

Elissa Strauss: First off, congratulations! How do you feel?

Jake Goodman: It’s an amazing feeling to know that, in terms of marriage, all New Yorkers are finally equal. It seems like such a simple, obvious thing, but clearly, it is not.

Rose Ann Herman: I am indescribably happy for all the young people out there whose lives have been validated by our state; I adore the Republican senators who showed real leadership and courage, and voted for what was right, and beautiful and good.

Can you speak a little about the efforts of the Jewish community in getting this law passed?

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Reflections on My Daughter's High School Graduation

By Elana Maryles Sztokman

My daughter is graduating high school today. This is a huge moment in life — probably more for her than for me, although I’m not sure — and the mass of thoughts and emotions are a bit overwhelming.

The moment Avigayil was born, I was born as well. Her entry in the universe was transformative for me, as she turned me from person into parent — a permanent alteration, a complete reconfiguration of all one knows to be true in the world. This tiny, spectacular creature who has, at different times, kept me up at night (more recently than one might think), sent me running and chasing, challenged some of my most basic beliefs and completely unhinged me, has also taught me how to love unconditionally, how to stretch beyond the limitations of my experience and how to imagine a different world. Somehow, despite the fact that she came out of my body a mere 18 years ago, her vision of life is completely her own, her identity proudly independent and strong. I am in awe of her entire person, and her continued presence, the blessed intertwining of our journeys, has been nothing short of a divine gift.

There is something profoundly sad for me, too.

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Forget Barbie; Dress Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Instead

By Renee Ghert-Zand

SFCJM via Facebook
Alice B. Toklas, the paper doll.

Adding to the various portrayals of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas that are part of San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum’s current “Seeing Gertrude Stein” exhibit, reviewed recently in the Forward, are a set of paper dolls of the two women.

The paper doll set was created by the museum in honor of the city’s Pride celebrations this past weekend. The CJM joined forces with SFMOMA and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, marching as “Museums for Pride!” in the Pride Parade. The museums urged the public to come see staff dressed as Stein, Toklas and others from the avant-garde set.

The CJM produced the special set of paper dolls to hand out during the event. As a teaser, the museum released five images on Facebook on Saturday, with the accompanying description: “Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas were a distinctive couple, and they developed a style of dressing all their own. Alice favored a more feminine look, and Gertrude embraced androgyny as she did in other aspects of her life. We created paper dolls celebrating the many outfits of Stein and Toklas for San Francisco’s Pride event, and these are a few of their looks.”

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'Relieving Stress' or Engaging in Terrorism?

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

Unfortunately, it’s not unusual to read about violent acts of anger and vengeance by extremist Jewish settlers against Palestinians. Such attacks are part of what seems like an endless cycle of revenge in the territories where one side attempts to attack what they view as injustices. But what is unusual was the recent news that four young women were arrested for allegedly setting Palestinian cars on fire in Hebron.

This one gender barrier that women definitely shouldn’t applaud being crossed.

In fact, most of the suspects appear to be girls, not yet women. Only one Yaska Weiss, 20, of Kiryat Arba, was identified in the press as her co-conspirators were minors. Police theorize that the acts were part of what Jewish extremists call a “price tag” policy — presumably forcing Arabs to pay a price for attacks against Jews.

Until now, women have almost never participated in Jewish vigilante violence against Palestinians. In the very Orthodox social fabric of the territories, the women were busy keeping the house, raising the babies, and supporting the family, and holding the communities together. They have vocally and assertively defended such actions, but there has been little evidence of them having participated in it.

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Esther Broner's Legacy

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

I met Esther Broner close to 20 years ago, when I was a newbie religion writer, and was awed by the power of the Jewish feminist rituals like the feminist Seder, which was then starting to become mainstream (though is most popular now in its neutered form as “women’s seders,” lest anyone be offended by the term “feminist”).

Esther, along with writer Letty Cottin Pogrebin, who remembers her dear friend in this Forward appreciation, was kind to me at a time when I was inexperienced and insecure. Often it’s the small kindnesses extended by the most accomplished people that are the most memorable.

Esther wrote 11 books, including “Bringing Home the Light: A Jewish Woman’s Handbook of Rituals,” (Council Oak Books, 1999) a distillation of her approach to new rituals.

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Dr. Abuelaish's 'Daughters for Life'

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Ben Gurion University
Award recipients Ma’ayan Givoni, Amalya Ze’evi and Safa Abu Hani

“If I could know that my daughters were the last sacrifice on the road to peace between Palestinians and Israelis, then I would accept their loss,” wrote Izzeldin Abuelaish, the Gazan obstetrician-gynecologist specializing in infertility following the killing of three of his daughters and a niece by an IDF tank shell that hit his family’s home in the Jabalia refugee camp in the final days of Operation Cast Lead in 2009. The tragic incident took place while Abuelaish was reporting live from Gaza by telephone for an Israeli news broadcast.

Despite knowing that his daughters have not been and will not be the last sacrifice, Abuelaish has nonetheless been able to forge ahead on that road better than most. “Urged on by the spirits of those he lost, his belief in medicine and his deep faith in Islam, Abuelaish offers practical ways of bridging the gaps between two peoples he believes have more similarities than differences,” wrote Canadian author Jonathan Garfinkel in his review of the doctor’s book, “I Shall Not Hate,” in The Globe and Mail last year.

One major way in which Abuelaish, 57, is bridging the gaps and working toward a more peaceful Middle East is through his Daughters for Life Foundation, which he has established in memory of his late daughters. This year the foundation is distributing its inaugural set of awards, 35 of them at 10 universities in Israel, Egypt, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. In Israel, the awards will go to students at Haifa University and Ben-Gurion University, where the first three awards were presented earlier this month.

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In Defense of Grunters

By Allison Gaudet Yarrow

Getty Images
Victoria Azarenka

The head of Wimbledon, which began this week, is asking for less grunting from female tennis players during their matches. In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, Ian Ritchie, the chief executive of the All England Lawn Tennis Club, conveyed that tennis umpires were becoming more uncomfortable with the increasing length and volume of the sounds accompanying tennis serves, called grunts. He believes greener players have an “education problem” about the issue.

There are many international tennis tournaments each year, and a number of these are high profile, but it seems that women tennis players are publicly scolded for grunting only when Wimbledon rolls around; the Sisterhood first wrote about this phenomenon nearly two years ago. Then, it was Russia’s Maria Sharapova who was being criticized for the decibels her grunts reached (yes, officials measure). Now, it’s Victoria Azarenka of Belarus who is being reprimanded.

Azarenka says the grunts improve her game. Perhaps it is emblematic of the power of her serve; perhaps it works against her competitor’s concentration.

Whatever the reason, it seems that there is more heat focused on female players when it comes to these noises than their male counterparts. After all, there are men who grunt, too.


Making Work More Humane, Balance More Feasible

By Sarah Seltzer

Ah, women and ambition. If I could untie this knot, I’d be on national tour with my bestselling self-help book.

Elissa, in this Sisterhood post, is right, of course, that the issues brought up by Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg in her recent speeches, as vital as they ar, (and as much as I felt personally touched and invigorated by them), are missing a piece — that is, social and political will to improve women’s lives by making paid maternity leave mandatory, by passing anti-discrimination and sick leave measures that would allow women to charge ahead while also caring for kids, aging relatives, and ourselves without getting penalized. Added to this, of course, are the unspoken social rules which affect women’s psyches and the perception of our behavior — rules about when it’s acceptable to look out for oneself first, when it’s acceptable to value advancement over loyalty, when it’s acceptable to demand more of your family, your friends, your boss.

And the missing piece that I’m referring to is the same piece that’s been long absent in media coverage of women’s advancement in the workplace and the never-ending “mommy wars.”

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How Celebrity Gawking Reveals Our Deepest Fears

By Hinda Mandell

Getty Images
Anthony Weiner

I read with great interest Jordana Horn’s Sisterhood post about the public fascination with high-profile downfalls. That’s partly because I approach scandal from the opposite direction. I don’t think it’s helpful to quash talk about a topic that clearly interests people. I think it’s more helpful to ask why we — the public and the media — are so incredibly seduced by Anthony Weiner and the like, and the tawdry circumstances they’ve created.

Jordana, one of the things that piqued my interest about your post is the way that your opening argument, effectively, spreads potential gossip. While you don’t name the famous man “everyone knows” is guilty of philandering, you share news of his illicit behavior anyway. Being the naturally curious person I am, I’m still trying to figure out the protagonist of your story. So instead of diminishing our interest in gossip and scandal, you are in fact cultivating it.

That brings me to my second point. Why are we so interested in these sordid tales of people who have nothing to do with us? The thing is, these people — whether it’s the man Jordana alludes to, Weiner, Arnold Schwarzenegger or John Edwards — have everything to do with us.

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What Sheryl Sandberg's 'Lean In' Speech Left Out

By Elissa Strauss

Barnard College/Asiya Khaki
Sheryl Sandberg at Barnard commencement, 2011.

Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg’s recent Barnard commencement address has become one of the most popular of the season. It has been linked to a quoted all over the Internet; the Forward excerpted it and so, too, did The New York Times. And right on.

Sandberg gave a no-nonsense, no apologies plea for feminine ambition. She reminded the class of 2011 that despite gains in education — she said that women have been 50% of college graduates since 1981 — men still run the world:

Of 190 heads of state, nine are women. Of all the parliaments around the world, 13% of those seats are held by women. Corporate America top jobs, 15% are women; numbers which have not moved at all in the past nine years. Nine years. Of full professors around the United States, only 24% are women.

Sandberg’s two main pieces of advice to remedy gender inequality are for women to “think big” and believe in themselves, and to not prematurely curtail our ambitions because of the work/life choices we might have to make down the line when we have children.

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Why We Can't Get Enough of 'Teen Mom,' Weinergate

By Sarah Seltzer

For the past few days, I’ve been planning to write about a young woman from the “Teen Mom” series on MTV and her apparent suicide attempt. I’ve been pondering this genre of “teen fertility reality TV” for a long time, particularly whether there’s a genuine educational benefit and how that benefit might weigh against the toll the instant celebrity takes on the young, troubled women who are its stars.

But I kept getting sidetracked from this line of thought by reading my fellow Sisterhood bloggers’ incisive thoughts on the fallout from the Anthony Weiner scandal and feeling like I should weigh in, too.

I particularly appreciated the opinion that the media’s behavior throughout this week has been appalling. Perhaps the most egregious example of this was at Nancy Pelosi’s press conference last week, when she was discussing the budget, unemployment and other crucial issues. When she announced she wouldn’t be answering queries about Weinergate, the major networks stopped their feeds. These networks clearly demonstrated their priorities about which moral crisis mattered to them — the one facing a single hapless congressman versus the one facing most of the country.

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At Tournament, Naama Shafir Wears Observance on Her Sleeves

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

University of Toledo
Naama Shafir

For several weeks, it appeared that Naama Shafir’s shoulders would stand between her and an opportunity to play basketball on an international level as part of Israel’s national team. But in the end, she was able to take to the court.

Shafir, the Orthodox Israeli basketball star whom the Forward profiled here, has overcome numerous challenges in making the most of her athletic talent without sacrificing her religious observance. But after the young player has managed to accommodate the Sabbath and kashrut laws at the University of Toledo for nearly three years, she ran into trouble in Europe because of her unwillingness to take off her T-shirt.

In her career as a U.S. college player, it hasn’t bothered officials that Shafir wears a T-shirt underneath her sleeveless jersey, covering her shoulders in order to maintain her personal level of modesty. But playing as a member of the Israeli national team, she was told that international basketball regulations require uniforms to be uniform.

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Keeping (Saudi and Skverer) Women Out of the Driver's Seat

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Today is the day that women in Saudi Arabia are taking to the streets — behind the wheel of their husbands’ cars, that is. June 17 is the day selected by women’s rights activist Manal Al-Sharif for women to get out there and protest the kingdom’s ban on women driving. Last month, after Al-Sharif posted a video of herself driving, she was arrested and jailed for nine days.

Today, women nationwide are expected to be driving in protest “to see if they get thrown in the clink en masse,” wrote New York Times Op-Ed columnist Maureen Dowd.

Even billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, known as “the Arabian Warren Buffet” for being the country’s richest man, is calling for a lift of the ban, Dowd wrote. After all, he told her:

We’re not calling for diplomatic relations with Israel. We’re just asking for ladies to drive the car. Please, give me a break. Even in North Korea, women can drive. It’s a joke. The issue of women driving can happen tomorrow morning because it’s not really an issue at all. Frankly speaking, we need strong political leadership to do it and get it behind us. What are we waiting for?

Just an hour north of New York City, the Hasidic enclave of New Square bans women from driving or even walking on the same side of the street as men, as Andrew Tobin wrote in last week’s Forward. Steven I. Weiss wrote in these pages back in 2005 about when New Square’s rabbis formalized their community’s custom of banning women from behind the wheel.

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