This Purim, for the first time in more than three decades, I wore my wedding dress. It was a strange experience.
The idea was born out of desperation. My husband and I only began thinking of costumes for the Megillah reading and Purim spiel we attend every year just hours before it was due to begin, and because it was Shabbat, we had no chance to purchase anything. My usual backup, a beautiful kimono he bought me on a business trip to Japan, seemed inappropriate this year. While I want to express solidarity with the grief-stricken country, this didn’t seem the way to do it.
My second backup, a long, embroidered Arab dress and white hijab from Jordan, also was problematic. An expression of solidarity with Middle East women protesting for freedom? A worthy feeling, but this year the outfit could also be interpreted as something far less sympathetic. So, that was out, too.
As a last resort, my husband went to the basement to retrieve my wedding gown, last worn nearly 31 years ago (our anniversary is in a couple of days).
As I prepared for the beginning of the perennial Purim question of “Esther vs. Vashti” at the same time as I delved into Jane Eyre-mania, I began to think about how women are always pushed into dichotomies. I wondered cynically how soon someone would write about the new Brontë films by declaring Jane Austen passé. I didn’t have to wait long. This article about the “Battle of the Bonnets” in the Washington Post is a witty and sharp look at women’s cultural obsessions and it contains some great literary observations. But the headline, and the “battle” premise, rankles.
It always seems to me that when it comes to women who take different paths there’s a meme out there that there’s only room for one. Virgin or whore, Esther or Vashti, Austen or Brontë. Yes, the two most famous Brontë sisters, Charlotte and Emily, and Jane Austen took divergent approaches to writing about the “woman question.” Austen was sort of an Esther, using her brilliant wit to dazzle readers but containing steely critique of the system under her perfect prose, while the Brontës, Vashti-like , seethe with rage at women’s unfortunate lot and churn with a desperate desire for escape.
These women were writing in different styles, and in completely different cultural eras. Why not just appreciate the fact that both of those approaches worked so well that readers can’t get enough of them even today?
As International Women’s Day flooded the social scene with events celebrating women’s political, economic and social advancement, my own personal empowerment took place in a flood in the bathroom.
My adventure began unexpectedly at 2:30 on a Friday afternoon — when else do emergencies happen, really? — when I walked into the bathroom and stepped into a two-inch puddle of water. I might have chalked it up to shower spray, except that there was also brown water on the toilet and a few inches of dirty water in the bathtub. Clearly there was a problem.
As loath as I am to admit this, my first thought was, predictably, about the man in my life. (To put it in perspective, the fact is my husband worked as a plumber for our first few years of marriage, so it’s not necessarily a gender thing, just a professional thing. Or so I keep telling myself.) But my spouse of nearly 20 years happened to be away last week, and there I was at home a few hours before Shabbat with my 15-year-old son and 7-year old daughter facing a flooded bathroom.
In her new book, “The Secret of Chanel No. 5: The Intimate History of the World’s Most Famous Perfume,” Tilar Mazzeo reveals the complicated — and often scandalous — history of the world’s bestselling perfume. Mazzeo looks at the psychology and physiology of scent, how Coco Chanel’s personal experiences made their way into the fragrance, and the perfume’s unlikely success during WWII, when production was moved to New Jersey, thanks to a deal with the Jewish Wertheimer family. The Sisterhood spoke recently with Mazzeo about her book, how the famous fragrance paved the way for the celebrity scent boom of the last decade, and Chanel’s not so subtle Jewish problem.
Elissa Strauss: Why did you decide to write this book?
Tilar Mazzeo: This book grew out of my interest in wine actually. In many ways there’s a similarity between wine and perfume, and I began wondering, what makes a great perfume? And of course that led me to Chanel No. 5, which is one of the masterpieces of modern perfume history.
One week from today marks 100 years since the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. It’s often called “the fire that changed everything,” because the 146 deaths that it caused — its victims were mostly Jewish and Italian immigrant women — became a catalyst for much of the labor activism that helped bring about sweeping workplace safety reforms. If you haven’t already, check out the Forward’s website devoted to the fire’s legacy — complete with more than a dozen original pieces, multimedia, and 25 translated articles published in the Yiddish Forward in the fire’s immediate aftermath.
In the weeks leading up to this somber anniversary, our friends at the Jewish Women’s Archive’s Jewesses With Attitude blog put together an important series to honor the “Top 10 Jewish Women in Labor History.” Among those who made the list are Clara Lemlich and Rose Schneiderman, driving forces behind the “Uprising of 20,0000,” in which garment workers went on strike to protest workplace abuses, and Fannia Cohn and Lillian Wald, who helped provide educational opportunities for workers and their families. “From the ashes of the Triangle fire, these women took up the battle to make sure a tragedy like this would never happen again,” said Ann F. Lewis, who chaired the Jewish Women’s Archive’s inaugural luncheon last weekend.
There’s a fascinating new article on Tablet about an Israeli couple seeking legal permission to use the posthumously extracted sperm of their son to produce a biological grandchild. The article, by columnist Michelle Goldberg, is a thorough look at the intersection of reproductive technology, reproductive ethics and the changes in cultural values and Israel’s legal system.
The story centers on what remains of Ohad Ben-Yaakov, who was not married and not in a relationship when a work accident left him in a coma that would ultimately claim his life at age 27. “If we were entitled to donate the organs of our son why are we not entitled to make use of his sperm in order to bring offspring to the world?” Ben-Yaakov’s parents, Mali and Dudi Ben-Yaakov, ask in a Haaretz article cited by Goldberg.
The Ben-Yaakovs donated Ohad’s organs. But bringing a new life into the world is different than sustaining existing endangered ones, of course. And using a dead son’s sperm in the absence of any instruction from him is different than doing so with his consent
The oil from the Hanukkah donut-fry had barely cooled before talk of our hamantaschen bake-fest began. Baking is my way of expressing devotion, particularly as single woman in her mid-40s for whom being an aunt is the closest I will come to Jewish motherhood. Before my sister gave birth to the first of her two daughters six years ago, enduring the stories of my friends’ “adorable” nieces was torture. While feigning interest and donning a wan smile I couldn’t understand why they cared so much about their sibling’s kid.
Now that I am an aunt I have become one of those people I used to mock, telling tales of my nieces’ own adorableness and showing photos constantly. The girls have infused my life with a depth of feeling I still don’t comprehend, and I am determined to plant the baker’s seed in them both. When I was a child my mother would snap, “Food is not love!” whenever I’d complain about whatever she’d served for dinner. I disagree.
Purim is just around the corner and, in my house, that means my children have been super-glued into their costumes for about three weeks. My 6-year-old son, a dinosaur fan, has been wearing his T-Rex hat and roaring at the baby non-stop. My 3-year-old daughter has been wearing her poofy, pink princess dress and tiara, alternately calling herself Cinderella or Queen Esther. My daughter in a princess dress is not all that unusual. She has a few “savta bought” (obviously) tutus she loves to twirl around in, but having just read Peggy Orenstein’s “Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture,” both the Cinderella talk and the Queen Esther talk are giving me pause.
It occurs to me, as my son reenacts the Purim story (complete with a jump off the chair for Haman’s hanging), just how similar the two stories are. Two motherless girls, their true identity a secret, rising far above their circumstances by virtue of their great beauty to land the prince/king. I see its merit as a captivating story, but as providing an enduring Jewish role model?
I actually spent the past hour playing sheitel-macher — combing out a long, blond wig, much the way Tali Farkash described in the article that sparked this blog-debate. See my post here and Rabbi Broyde’s response here I was doing it for my 7-year old daughter because tomorrow is “wig day” in school. No, they are not training the girls to be good married women. It’s just Purim.
It’s quite funny, really. The wig is a fantastic tool for playing with identity, for stepping out of social norms and boundaries and stretching one’s reality and liberation. People use Purim to be who they are not “normally” allowed to be — v’nahafoch hu — and it is great fun. If society allowed us to play dress-up a little more, we might be a jollier people. But now that my daughter is finished giggling about her costume and gone to bed, I have returned here to this very serious debate about whether wigs somehow make women more religious. It’s so funny that it makes me want to cry.
Michael J. Broyde opens his piece with an assertion that I am “mistaken in [my] critique of the wigs that many married Orthodox women choose to wear” — not that he disagrees with me, mind you, rather that I am simply wrong. Rabbi Broyde then goes on to offer several assertions I believe do nothing to rebut my basic argument. In fact, he perfectly demonstrates what I was trying to say.
In The Sisterhood post “Does Generation Y have a Union Problem?” Sarah Seltzer wrote about the apathy she sees in her peers when it comes to supporting the labor movement, and how she hopes that the protests in Wisconsin will serve as a wake-up call. I agree with Sarah that there is overall less enthusiasm among Gen Y about unions than in generations past, but I don’t think it is merely a case of apathy.
For starters, I feel inclined to point out that when I worked as a consultant on a few organizing campaigns for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), I met droves of passionate and bright Gen Yers who were committed to the trade union movement as a vehicle for social justice and maintaining our ever-shrinking middle-class. These young men and women, many of whom came out of the anti-sweatshop movement that has spread on college campuses over the past decade, work hard and long to ensure that working mothers get health care for their families and janitors receive adequate protection from the hazardous chemicals they must use on the job.
Elana Maryles Sztokman, in her recent Sisterhood blog post titled “The Case Against the Sheitel,” seems to be mistaken in her critique of the wigs that many married Orthodox women choose to wear. Sheitels are a model of how Jewish law is supposed to function and change. We will know that the Arab world has modernized when they, too, favor sheitels over headscarves.
Let me explain. Many religious communities, including traditional halachic ones, have deep-seated concerns about matters of modesty. Sure, these concerns seem quaint to some of my students — students with their belly buttons out for display, students who comfortably endorse sexual activity as a form of recreation. As one of them said to me, “Sex to us is like food to Jews; we use it to celebrate, and variety is the spice of life.” But the simple fact is that how one dresses and what one shows frequently does serve as a signal of how one is prepared to act.
Hasidic families in the United States are about to reach a crisis of sorts. Many Orthodox Jews, including Hasidim, will only use certain dairy products, including a type of infant formula that’s only available as an import from Israel — and now it’s no longer available.
Let me explain. There’s a certain kosher stringency, called chlolov yisroel, that many Orthodox families abide by. Only two types of formula, Materna and Similac, manufacture acceptable versions. Similac is ridiculously expensive — look, here’s a 32-oz. package for $42.99 — and so Materna, which is shipped here from Israel, is a relative bargain at $10 or so a case.
Or it was until this week.
“Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women” is the first museum exhibit to explore this unique niche of autobiographical storytelling by Jewish women. The touring exhibit, sponsored by the Forward, features the work of 18 Jewish women artists. The Jewish Women’s Archive — whose Jewesses With Attitude blog partners regularly with The Sisterhood — is interviewing each of the artists about their work and their experience as a female, Jewish graphic artist. This week’s interview is with Ilana Zeffren, an acclaimed Israeli cartoonist. Zeffren’s Sipur Varod, her graphic autobiography as an Israeli lesbian, is widely regarded as a breakthrough comic. Much of her work is available on her Flickr photostream.
Leah Berkenwald: How did you get into cartooning?
Ilana Zeffren: I got into comics after a dramatic break-up with my first girlfriend. After I stopped sobbing, I realized that what happened was actually kind of funny and ridiculous, so I made a comics strip about it. When I did it, I realized how much this medium that combines words and illustrations suits me. A short while after this comics was published, I got an offer to draw and write a graphic novel and I’ve been doing comics ever since.
How does your Jewish identity influence your work?
There’s a young Orthodox woman named Dina Mann whose hilarious new YouTube video has gone viral. In it, she impersonates a mamish chasidishe woman who takes a trip to Miami and is surprised at the pool when men arrive. You can watch Mann’s video here.
For those who want to fully appreciate the Miami trip video but aren’t conversant in Yiddish, here’s a version of “Chaye Surie’s” video with English subtitles. One question though: Is liquor really called “Bronfman,” as in the Seagrams family?
And, since frum women making spoof videos appears to be a burgeoning cottage industry, here’s a response to Dina’s Miami trip video by “Danielle.” She impersonates a rebbetzin who takes issue with the idea that “Chaye Surie” would even be so un-tzniusdik as to go swimming — or discuss the color of the flowers on the black shoes she bought for her trip.
One out of every four Israelis had their lives put on hold this week — those impacted by the strike of the government-employed social workers. The strike is a desperate, last-ditch effort to bring some measure of human dignity to the dedicated workers who are saving people’s lives on a daily basis. And significantly, both the striking workers and those whose lives are most deeply impacted by them are overwhelmingly women.
The professional lives of social workers are among the most taxing in society. They deal with the most harrowing cases of violence, abuse, poverty, drugs, crime and more. Their job is to help people function under the direst of circumstances, to believe in people’s abilities to change, to grow, to rehabilitate, and to build a better life, and to keep fighting to help people even when the rest of society has written them off. They go directly into the pit where most of us would not dare.
My mom handed me a copy of “Jane Eyre” when I was 10, after she had finished re-reading it herself. Despite some rough going at first, I pushed my way through it and have a distinct memory of finishing it behind my prayerbook in the women’s section of an Orthodox synagogue in Rochester, N.Y. At the very moment that a family friend a few years my senior became a bar-mitzvah, my eyes popped open at the destruction of Thornfield, the death of Bertha, Edward Rochester’s maiming and Jane’s return. I still consider myself lucky to have read the book before I had any inkling that there was a madwoman in the attic.
As a child reading the book, I was puzzled as to why Jane loved Rochester — mostly because he was described as not handsome. But Rochester’s soul, which Jane Eyre finds beautiful, is a subject of much more debate than his appearance. A few writers this week, inspired by the umpteenth film adaptation, have written about the less savory aspects of Rochester’s personality. Jessica Winter at Slate writes, “our hero is, objectively speaking, a bit of a creep.” Edan Lepucki at The Millions goes as far as to list all the reasons for that creep-factor, while Sadie Stein at Jezebel says says, “Rochester is weird, manipulative and borderline sadistic.”
Aviva Braun, a social worker and psychotherapist specializing in eating disorders in young women, and Rabba Sara Hurwitz, a pioneering Modern Orthodox spiritual leader at New York’s Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and Yeshivat Maharat, are teaming up for an event that will focus on body image from feminist, therapeutic and Torah perspectives. The event — aimed at bat mitzvah-age girls through college age women, and their parents — will take place at 8 p.m. Saturday, March 12, at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. There will also be a screening of “Hungry to be Heard,” the Orthodox Union-produced documentary about Jewish adults struggling with eating disorders.
“Judaism supports the notion that our bodies are sacred,” Hurwitz told The Sisterhood. “Philo, a Jewish philosopher said, ‘The body is the soul’s house. Shouldn’t we therefore take care of the house so that it will not fall into ruin?’ We have an obligation as a community to help foster a positive body image in our own selves and in our children.”
Braun spoke recently with The Sisterhood about the specific challenges of treating eating disorders in the Orthodox community, Braun’s use of a feminist therapeutic model and her forthcoming book that is part memoir, part recipes.
Two courses are underway to teach the teachers of Orthodox brides, grooms and married couples how to better prepare their students for healthy sex lives.
In Israel, a course for male teachers of grooms is currently being held at the Puah Institute and in New York, a course for female teachers of brides will be held for the second time by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.](http://www.jofa.org/).
According to this article the Puah course, run in conjunction with Bar-Ilan University, is training marriage counselors and rabbis to address sexual problems among married Orthodox Jews. The JOFA course is titled “Demystifying Sex & Teaching Halakha: A Kallah Teacher’s Workshop,” and is being held in conjunction with Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School and Yeshivat Maharat. March 13th-16th.
But as I wrote in this New York Times piece, there has been a growing embrace, in recent years, of the need to address — or even prevent — such problems.
Crossposted from Haaretz.
At 32, Likud’s Tzipi Hotovely is the youngest Knesset member; she was raised on religious Zionism. An attorney by profession, she takes part in right-wing ideological battles. But she also wears another hat as head of the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women. In the run-up to International Women’s Day today, a series of bills designed to benefit Israeli women were proposed — and most of them shot down — by the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee. She spoke recently with Mazal Mualem.
Mazal Mualem: Is this a happy day for Israel’s women?
Tzipi Hotovely: The trend is always one of improvement, though there is still a lot of progress to be made in women’s rights, and we’re still far from the equality we seek. We’re in the midst of a week in which the social workers’ cries have been heard; their struggle reflects the sad situation of women’s salaries, as more than 90 percent of social workers are women. This can be seen also in other professions staffed by women such as teaching and childcare. In professions in which women are dominant, salaries are much lower, and public battles are fainter because, I’m sorry to say, women are still considered secondary wage-earners.
The work world creates the dilemma of career versus family for many women. This is one of the goals of the committee I head: to provide relief for working women by making daycare more accessible to more sectors of the population. It hasn’t yet happened, unfortunately, and as long as childcare expenses are higher than salaries, we’ll see more women staying home.
Once upon a time, baby clothes printed with pithy phrases extolling cuteness referred to the cuteness of the baby. But on a new crop of cheeky onesies that I discovered while out shopping for my nephew, it is all about the mommy.
With phrases like “If you think I’m cute, you should see my mommy,” on Amazon and “My Mom’s a Fox,” at Target, these onesies direct your eyes to the attractive little number pushing the cart, not the one in it. There is even “She’s not a cougar, she’s my nana,” at the Los Angeles boutique Kitson.
I can’t help but find it all a bit gross. (Not that grandma can’t be sexy, but does she really need her new grandson to advertise it on his tiny chest? A time and a place, ladies, a time and a place.) At Walmart you can customize a onesie or fleece romper with a “cute” relative’s name. Their example is “If you think I am cute, you should see my Aunt Barbara.” Looks like the cult of female hotness has struck again, this time with a strange Freudian twist.