Sisterhood Blog

Celebrating Judith, Heroine of Hanukkah

By Gabrielle Birkner

At Hanukkah time, Judah and the Maccabees get top billing. Often left out of the narratives passed down from one generation to the next is the story of Judith, who is said to have killed an enemy general and, ultimately, to have led the Israelites to victory.

Our friends and partners at the Jewish Women’s Archive have produced a video about the story of Judith, which is widely considered to be apocryphal; the video also celebrates contemporary women who bear the name of the biblical heroine: feminist writer Judith Plaskow, civil rights activist Judith Frieze Wright and comedian Judy Gold, among them. Watch it here:


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The Pope (Kinda, Sorta) Loosens on Condoms: What It Might Mean

By Sarah Seltzer

Getty Images
Pope Benedict XVI

While it seems like Jewish opinion runs the gamut on condom use and birth control, our lack of a centralized authority on such matters — and our cultural and religious tradition of debating everything to death — means there’s long been a variety of pragmatic and idealistic views on the matter, mostly leaning in favor of allowing some birth control.

But for American Catholics, the fact that the Pope frowns on condoms while 95% of laypeople use birth control, has always been a fascinating and glaring disconnect. And the outrage is particularly strong when it comes to AIDS prevention in Africa and all over the world, where condom distribution could save countless lives.

Now that the Pope has entered the world of moral relativism, saying that condom usage is still a terrible, evil sin, but in some dire situations it’s the lesser of two evils, one has to wonder what floodgates will be opened.

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Making Mom's 'Cranberry Mash': A Remembrance and a Recipe

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

It’s been nine years since my mom died, which has meant nine Thanksgivings without her. For many years before then, she would join me and Hubs and soon Boychik and then Girlchik too — she was ill already when Rockerchik was born — at our home for turkey and her famous Cranberry Mash. After Boychik, her first grandchild, was born and she needed to choose a grandmotherly appellation, she selected Grandma Peaches after a movie character. It stuck, and is how everyone in the family remembers her.

In the nine years since she died, we’ve gone to my father and his wife’s Thanksgiving dinner, which is where we’ll be this year. I’ve brought along the Cranberry Mash for the past couple of years. But this year I’ve been asked for a different side dish, so I’ll bring along a broccoli salad, and just enjoy my Cranberry Mash at home.

I love Cranberry Mash, and not just because it was my mom’s recipe. Simple to make and delicious, it makes otherwise plain Greek yogurt a yummy treat, tastes good with any poultry and is just perfect when mixed into hot cereal. I lay in plenty of fresh cranberries this time of year, when they’re plentiful and cheap. (I buy more than I need stick them in the freezer to use year-round.)

Here’s the recipe. Make some and enjoy!

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Marriage — Only for the 'Haves'?

By Elissa Strauss

In Belinda Luscombe’s recent article in Time magazine, “Who Needs Marriage? How an American Institution Is Changing,” she assess the state of marriage today, pointing out that of all the changes marriage has gone through in the last 50 years — the biggest shift being the gap between the marriage rates of rich and poor. Luscombe writes:

In 1960 the median household income of married adults was 12% higher than that of single adults, after adjusting for household size. By 2008 this gap had grown to 41%. In other words, the richer and more educated you are, the more likely you are to marry, or to be married — or, conversely, if you’re married, you’re more likely to be well off.

This is a startling statistic, one that underscores the growth of income inequality in the America in recent decades, a shift that has been met with a separate set of lifestyles and expectations for the haves and the have-nots. Marriage, as Luscombe illustrates, is for the haves, and she makes this point by citing statistics that show that married people today are more likely to have college degrees and, well, money.

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The Sex Assault Allegations Against the Man Who Could Be Israel's Next Police Chief

By Elana Maryles Sztokman

Getty Images
The accused: Uri Bar-Lev

Once again, a man in a senior governmental position in Israel is being accused of sexual assault of a subordinate female coworker. The trial of former Israeli president Moshe Katzav has not yet ended — though it seems to have faded from the headlines — and two new women have emerged with stories of sexual attacks. And, once again, Israeli women are sent the message that no matter what happens to you, think twice before you complain about it.

The man being accused is Commander Uri Bar-Lev, the Israel Police attaché in Washington. (Did anyone know that such a job even existed? What does he do? Why does the Israeli police even need an attaché in Washington? But I digress.)

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Attention Gen Y: What the F-Word Is and Isn't

By Chanel Dubofsky

facebook.com
The Reclaim the Name logo

I was voted Class Feminist during my senior year of high school. I still have the award, a certificate adorned with awesome late 90s computer graphics, tucked into the back of my senior yearbook. (There was also an award for Class Chauvinist, bestowed upon on a football player, who laughed proudly and boisterously on his way to the front of the room to accept it.)

I’m not sure what, if anything, I did to deserve that award. I had no idea that the arguments I had with a friend about abortion during class via a yellow legal pad were worthy of the attention of the high school mainstream. I certainly had feminist politics, but it was surprising to me that others considered it to be a defining aspect of my identity. In retrospect, the award feels like a joke, which, to be fair, it probably was, being a high school superlative. But making me the recipient of the title was like being referred to as the “Super Jewish”: I was doing the work so no one else would have to. Everyone else want to get as far away from the “F-word” as possible.

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Judge Kimba Wood Shows Her Cultural Sensitivity — and Feminism

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

You’ve got to love a lawyer who writes a note — laden in Yiddish and as footnoted as any legal brief — to the judge presiding over his client’s case, touting the forthcoming birth of the lawyer’s grandchild and asking for a recess from the trial so that he can be at the bris if said grandchild is a boy.

And you’ve got to love a judge —in this case federal Judge Kimba Wood of the Southern District Court of New York, who appears not to be Jewish — who responds not only with permission, but also with a desire to “balance the scales” and decides that “if a daughter is born, there will be a public celebration in Court, with readings from poetry celebrating girls and women.”

It turns out that not only is the lawyer, Bennett Epstein, about to become a zeyde. According to this blog post on the website Israel Insider, he’s also devoted to the Jewish state.

(tichel tip: Jeffrey Goldberg.)


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The Pressure To Be a 'Young Mom'

By Keren Copperman

While reading Elana Sztokman’s recent Sisterhood post about her friend who had decided to have an abortion, I found myself responding very strongly. While I’ll admit that I am stubbornly pro-choice, it is not the actual decision to have the abortion that filled me with admiration for Elana’s friend — it was her decision to be a childless, married, woman living in Israeli society.

I have had countless discussions with my female friends and peers on the societal demand placed on young Israeli woman (particularly in Orthodox circles) to get married and have a baby — and fast. I am a high school senior. It is therefore only natural that the subject of our future is constantly being discussed: With it comes the talk of diamond rings and weddings and three beautiful children (first two boys and then a girl, in that order). Now, don’t get me wrong. I too can’t help but squeal with glee when I think of myself in a lovely white gown surrounded by friends and family as I walk down the aisle. But the difference between my friends and me is that my future wedding is still very much a fantasy. I have no doubt that it will happen, but I certainly do not expect to be looking at halls or printing invitations for many, many years. I’m only 17.

That is where my frustration begins.

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The Royal Engagement: When Wills Weds Kate

By Jane Eisner

Getty Images
Kate Middleton and Prince William

They stand for everything I find abhorrent: Inherited political and religious power. Ostentatious wealth. Idleness. Scandalous behavior. Nonetheless, I can’t resist the English royals at wedding time.

At least I come by this fascination honestly: My late mother was born and raised in Yorkshire, where her family lived for generations — going as far back as Jews were allowed to reside in England. (Jews had been banished for many centuries, another black mark on the monarchy.) I lived in London as a foreign correspondent. I crave really strong English tea. My dogs are named for Jane Austen characters.

So when the news broke that Prince William had finally asked his long-time girlfriend Kate Middleton for her hand in marriage, I had the most wonderful flashbacks. There was the time in 1981 when my sister and I woke up in the middle of the night to turn on the TV and watch Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer proceed through the happy streets of London on their way to St. Paul’s Cathedral and a marriage that, we learned later, was doomed from the start. Whatever. It was a great and lavish spectacle.

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Backtracking in the Halls of Power

By Sarah Seltzer

It’s not the greatest time for women’s equality in the halls of power. First of all, as the final result from this year’s election come limping in, it’s confirmed: This is the first time in decades that women have not made strides in our representation in national government. We’ve backtracked.

How did this happen, when 2010 was supposed to be the year of the women? It’s complicated: Some feminist thinkers theorize that since the Republicans swept in running on anti-women policies, the voters who leaned in that direction might be less than thrilled by so many powerful women looking to gain office. In other words, the theory is that many of the same voters who vote for women tend to vote Democratic, thus the loss. It was also just an anti-incumbent year, and several of the strong congresswomen who won in the last few cycles ran for re-election and got pushed out by that tide.

Whether any of these theories explain the numbers or not, it’s a stinging moment for women. The U.S. ranks well behind other countries in terms of female representation in government and whatever your politics, that’s just ugly. Women’s advocacy groups are regrouping and getting ready for another round.

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Remembering the Artist Behind Ms. Magazine's First Cover

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Ms. Magazine
The first issue of Ms., illustration by Miriam Wosk (click to enlarge)

“In her art she was a perfectionist and in her life she was a realist,” wrote Sheila Balshine Romalis, of the illustrator and multimedia artist Miraim Wosk, in a letter to Wosk’s son. The letter was one of condolence, following Wosk’s recent death from breast cancer at the age of 63.

Romalis knew Wosk from their years growing up together in Vancouver’s Jewish community in the 1950s and 1960s. The two women went on to be roommates in New York in 1967, while they were both attending design school.

That was the period in which Wosk’s career took off. She began as a fashion illustrator — working for Vogue, Mademoiselle, Esquire, New York magazine, and The New York Times. Wosk is known in feminist circles for having created the cover art for the first issue of Ms. Magazine in late 1971. That colorful illustration featured a pregnant woman with eight arms, symbolizing the many roles that the modern woman juggles. Other subsequent covers she designed for the magazine showed similar multi-limbed, multi-tasking women.

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Progressive 'Housewives of God'?

By Elissa Strauss

In Sunday’s New York Times magazine Molly Worthen wrote a story about a movement of female conservative Evangelicals — women who are trying to ward off gender equality in order to live what they understand to be traditional Christian lives. The catch, though, for these “Housewives of God,” as the article is titled, is that, beliefs asides, the gender dynamic in their day-to-day lives closely resemble those of the average 21st century couple.

Whorten explains:

Many call themselves complementarians, signaling their belief that God ordained complementary — not identical or flexible — roles for men and women. To critics, “complementarian” is code for sexist patriarchy, a license to keep women muzzled and homebound. Yet spending even five minutes with Priscilla Shirer and her husband suggests that reality is far more complicated — not only at home but also in the new “separate sphere” that this theology has spawned: a subculture of Bible studies, conferences, ministries, religious retreats and literature ranging from Christian fitness books to Christian romance novels, all produced by and for evangelical women.

These complementarians are criticized by more progressive Christians for emphasizing an intrinsic difference between men and women, one that accounts for the fact that women are “destined to live a different — and subordinate — Christian life.”

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Toward a More Equitable Parenthood

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

I’m sad for Elana’s friend, the one who recently had an abortion. Not because she had an abortion, but because it was such a difficult experience and because her husband doesn’t agree with her decision not to have a child.

I’ll confess to having a laugh at Elana’s pre-Thanksgiving image, in which she describes motherhood as carving “out pieces of our identities, as if we’re a turkey lying there for all to partake in.” True, there is an objectification of motherhood. We are expected, all too often, to be fonts of unending maternal nurturance.

Our needs? They are frequently incompatible with the needs of children. I confess to still-frequent moments of frustration that I can’t get my writing done in a day, or a week or month, when this one is home with a stomach bug or that one needs to be taken for yet another blood test.

And without a doubt, American culture (I can’t speak authoritatively to Israeli culture on this) offers all the demands and virtually no support to mothers: insufficient parental leave and most, if not all of it unpaid, little support from extended family or government, and many other ways as well.

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The Synagogue as a Veiled Woman

By Elissa Strauss

Kate Milford
Kiki Smith and Deborah Gans

The Museum at Eldridge Street, a Lower East Side synagogue that was built in 1887 and holds National Historic Landmark status, recently underwent a quarter-century-long renovation, which culminated with the recent installment of a 16-foot glass window — see it here designed by artist Kiki Smith and architect Deborah Gans.

The synagogue, long an Orthodox congregation for early Eastern European Jewish immigrants to America, had no record of what the original window looked like. So the museum decided to commission something new. Gans spoke recently with The Sisterhood about synagogue architecture in America, designing for gender-segregated congregations, and how the process made her re-think sacred spaces.

Elissa Strauss: Did you have any preconceived notions about synagogue design that informed your design?

Deborah Gans: I was very interested in the fact that there is no one synagogue architecture. This, of course, has scriptural roots — the Temple in Jerusalem being the one true Temple. I love the way in which that precept combined with cultural wandering and iconoclasm has created a kind of elusive architecture. Eldridge Street is identifiable within a category of 19th century eclectic synagogues — a bit Mudéjar mixed with Gothic revival, but also a kind of Americanism.

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The Problem With 'Engaging Jewish Teenage Boys'

By Elana Maryles Sztokman

Brett Lubarsky
Members of a Moving Traditions pilot class participate in a trust-building activity.

Jewish boys apparently want a room of their own. This is the main conclusion from the new curriculum “Engaging Jewish Teenage Boys: A Call to Action,” an educational program aimed at resolving the so-called “boy crisis” in Jewish communal life. The program encourages the creation of all male spaces, such as a “Brotherhood” groups, in which boys can freely discuss life, philosophy and Jewish identity, and also play some basketball. The theory is that women and girls have been conducting Jewish ritual and consciousness-raising in all-female spaces for a while, and boys can use some of that empowerment, too.

There is no doubt that the Jewish community needs to enable boys to explore their gender and Jewish identity in safe educational environments with skilled and compassionate facilitators. While women have been grappling with Jewish meanings of femininity for several decades, there has been only scant attention given to meanings of masculinity. In that sense, it is a great idea to give boys — and men, for that matter — an opportunity to explore gender expectations and roles and conflicts in identity in order to help them form stable, balanced identities.

That said, creating all-male spaces in a tradition that is still male-dominated is problematic.

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My Good News Isn't What You Think It Is

By Gabrielle Birkner

“You’re pregnant!”

That’s the response I’ve received, over and over again, when I’ve called a friend or family member to say that I have “good news” or “big news.”

“No,” I tell them, “I’ve been nominated for a journalism award” or “Jeremy [my husband] won an Emmy” or “We bought an apartment.” To which the person on the other end of the line always seems a bit let down. Sometimes it feels as if the only accomplishment worth sharing is having a baby on the way, which we don’t; it’s as if everything else pales in comparison.

Maybe it does. I’ve never been pregnant. I wouldn’t know.

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On Not Wanting To Become a Mother

By Elana Maryles Sztokman

A friend of mine had an abortion this week. She wasn’t raped, she is not underage, and she is not experiencing a mental breakdown. She simply does not want to have children. She is not mean or cold or super-ambitious. She’s lovely and smart and funny. She just never felt the “urge.” She is 38-years old, has been married for two years, and says simply, “If the rest of my life is spent with just my husband and me, I would be really happy.”

But the decision not to have children is not so simple for a Jewish woman, especially for a Jewish woman in Israel. First of all, there is enormous family pressure. My friend’s parents do not understand her position, and they are relentless in offering their opinions on the subject. Of course, “family” also refers to distant cousins, co-workers and occasional passengers on the train who have no compunctions about asking, “So, when are you planning on starting a family?” Even the assumption of the question is that two people do not constitute a family, like there is something wrong with you. (See The Sisterhood debate about being Jewish and childless by choice here, here and here.)

Then there is the position of the State of Israel. True, abortion is legal in Israel. But in order to obtain that legal right, women who seek to terminate a pregnancy are put through the ringer. They have to apply to a committee, which usually includes a social worker, a rabbi, and perhaps a doctor, and, as if sitting before a parole board, women have to recount in gruesome and invasive detail exactly why they want an abortion.

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Ruth Madoff's Marital Bed May Be Returned

By Gabrielle Birkner

GETTY IMAGES
The bed, on the auction block.

The 10.5-carat diamond ring that once graced Ruth Madoff’s hand, and the Steinway piano that once graced her living room are likely gone for good. But the elaborately draped, four-poster bed that she slept in alongside the world’s most famous Ponzi schemer could soon be hers again — that is, if the woman who purchased it Saturday at an auction of Madoff family possessions is serious.

Tally Wiener, an Upper West Side resident who put in the winning bid for the ornate bed, told CBS-2 News: “My heart goes out to Ruth Madoff and I would be happy to give her back her bed.”

Wiener is a bankruptcy attorney, who in February 2009 wrote an article explaining the legal framework for “clawbacks,” as a means to compensate victims of Bernard Madoff’s fraud. According to this article in The New York Times, Wiener and a fellow bankruptcy lawyer attended another Madoff auction about a year ago, where they purchased “a tree stump that had been turned into an end table for $500.”

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'To Pee or Not To Pee' and Other Womanly Dilemmas

By Hinda Mandell

A critically wounded woman’s decision to become a single mother; a grandmother’s Holocaust-era story told through live action and animation; and an Incan family’s conversion to Judaism and subsequent move to Israel are among the subjects of this year’s Jewish Women’s Film Festival selections. The one-day event, organized by the National Council of Jewish Women – New York Section and its Eleanor Leff Jewish Women’s Resource Center, takes place Sunday at New York City’s Baruch College.

On offer will be eight short films about the lived experiences and aspirations of Jewish women. There will be two sessions, each featuring four films — 5 to 61 minutes each — and a Q&A with the filmmakers; a session costs $18 a person at the door.

Personally, my eye’s on the 5-minute short “To Pee or Not To Pee.” The festival describes the film as “the briefest of comedies depicting a worldwide problem with which all women can identify and have often experienced.”

And to that we can all say “Amen.”


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Are Women or Communal Structures to Blame for Economic Disparities?

By Elana Maryles Sztokman

A year after the Forward reported on how women in the Jewish communal workforce lag behind their male counterparts in pay and promotion, a new study released this week reinforces the economic discrimination against women in American Jewish communal life. “Profiling the Professionals: Who’s Serving Our Communities?” authored by Steven M. Cohen for the Berman Jewish Policy Archive demonstrates that women in Jewish communal work earn on average $28,000 a year less than men for equal work – or $20,000 a year when mitigating factors are considered. At the risk of stating the obvious, I would like to say that $28,000 is a lot of money. In Israel, that is considered a decent annual salary.

“Although women comprise about two-thirds of the professional workforce,” the report states, “their salaries, on whole, continue to lag significantly below their male counterparts. This pervasive issue remains a concern for attracting and retaining the best talent for the field.”

Economic discrimination against women is so rampant and so widely reported at this point that it’s surprising that the problem has not been redressed yet. In Israel, the problem seems to be getting worse, as women’s wages of 62 agurot for every man’s shekel has remained almost constant since the early 1980s. So the question on everyone’s minds seems to be, why aren’t women’s economic lives noticeably improving?

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