Sisterhood Blog

How Halacha Plays a Role in Breeding — and Treating — Eating Disorders

By Jenny Merkin and Chanel Dubofsky

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.

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Sleep-Away Camp for Yiddish-Speaking New Mothers

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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.

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Why Christian Women Are Sporting Jewish Jewelry

By Elissa Strauss

Getty Images
Sarah Palin in Israel.

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.”

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The Feminist Debate Over France's Burqa Ban

By Elana Maryles Sztokman

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.

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When Domestic Abuse Leads to Murder

By Elana Maryles Sztokman

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.

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Insisting That Young Girls Dress Like Children — Not Kardashians

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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.

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On Giving and Accepting the Compliment ‘You Look Great’

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

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.

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Q&A: Joyce Antler on 'Women's Liberation and Jewish Identity'

By Chanel Dubofsky

Schocken Books
Antler’s 1998 book, ‘The Journey Home’

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?

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The Looming Government Shutdown, and the War on Women's Health

By Sarah Seltzer

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.

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Go Ahead — Tell Me I 'Look Great'

By Elissa Strauss

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.

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At August Ivies, a 'Hostile Sexual Environment'?

By Sarah Seltzer

A federal complaint against Yale by a group of students, accusing the university of creating a “hostile sexual environment,” is making big news this week. The substance of the accusation is that by failing to take instances of public and private harassment and assault seriously, the university is violating Title IX.

The press coverage has been fairer than I expected, more willing to hear the women’s side of the story. But maybe that’s because of this sort of thing: When a “Good Morning America” reporter went to campus to investigate the charges, she was interrupted by a loud sexist slur, as Jezebel noted. In the face of that type of incident, it’s hard to say the young complainants are overreacting.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. When I was an undergrad at Harvard, reporting for our campus paper that students had recently filed a federal complaint against the university alleging that its sexual assault policy, which required third-party evidence to press charges internally, violated — you guessed it — Title IX. Eventually, the university had to respond to a number of different kinds of internal and external pressure about this awful policy with some fairly sweeping changes, although I’m sure not all is perfect now.

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The Jewish Mother’s Guide to College Admissions

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

I have just emerged from what has felt like the most stressful experience of my adult life. Those of you whose children are high school seniors know exactly what I’m talking about: the college admissions process.

Though untold numbers of people go through it each year, the process remains opaque and an emotional rollercoaster. So bubbeles, that none of you should suffer the sphilkes and tsuris my friends and I endured through this year-long process, I am here to offer my Jewish Mother’s Guide to College Admissions.™

This year, most competitive schools saw a significant increase in applicants. This article lays out the statistics clearly.

College admissions is, let’s face it, a huge industry. Colleges market themselves to your kid, the College Board charges plenty for all those iterations of the SAT your kid feels pressured to take, you shell out big dough on test prep, on traveling to visit colleges and on college application fees, and at the end of the day you are left to hope and pray that your child will be admitted to a college that will be a good fit for him, and one you can actually afford.

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Facing Down Infertility — With the Help of Graphic Art, Immersion

By Linda K. Wertheimer

Phoebe Potts
A selection from ‘Good Eggs’ (click to enlarge).

Her eyes twinkling behind oval glasses, author Phoebe Potts led seven of us into the kitchen of the education center at a suburban Boston community mikveh. She lit a piece of paper on fire in the sink, and then urged us one at a time to toss our slips of paper into the flame. On that slip of paper each of us had written what got in the way of our voice — as writers or artists. Then, we symbolically destroyed what Potts refers to as our “internal mugger.”

Welcome to the irreverent, frank, poignant, and often hilarious world of Phoebe Potts, the 40-year-old author of “Good Eggs. ” The graphic memoir, published last year, chronicles her attempts to find a mate, to deal with depression, to come to terms with her Jewish faith (she is a child of an interfaith marriage) and, especially, to navigate a painful battle with infertility.

Why so much humor, asked a participant at Potts’ free writing workshop held Sunday at the Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters community mikveh and education center in Newton, Mass. “It’s part of the Jewish gestalt. If we didn’t laugh, we’d cry,” Potts said.

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Prime Ribs: Israel Edition

By Elana Maryles Sztokman

The women’s basketball team Elitzur Ramle won the Eurocup championship for the first time in Israel’s history in a 63:51 victory against French team Arras. Star player Shay Doron who was also the first Israeli woman to play in the WNBA, said the team was “ecstatic” about the win. Despite the incredible triumph, women’s sports in Israel remain largely under-reported and under-attended, lamented Ramat Gan council member Israel Zinger who was at the national championship and found few public officials there. Needless to say, that wouldn’t be the case had the men’s team been up for the European championship.


Gila Klein is running for the head of the teachers’ union under the campaign slogan, “Revolution! After 107 years of male authority, it’s time to go from ‘mazcal’ [male director general] to ‘mazcalit’ [female director general].” Despite the fact that teaching is undoubtedly one of the most female-dominated professions, the inverse pyramid has held fast even here. That is, the higher up on the ladder, the more men dominate women. Elections for head of one of the most powerful unions in Israel are set for this week, and we’ll see if there will indeed be a gender revolution.

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Social Justice, Diversified

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

JFFJ
Community Organizing Residents, from left, Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann, Dinu Ahmed, and Kate Smallenburg.

Nearly all of those who have already applied to this year’s Jewish Funds for Justice Community Organizing Residency are women. And last year, which was the program’s first, 14 of the 16 people selected for the interfaith program were women. Overall six Jews, six Muslims and four Christians made up the group.

COR pairs Community Organizing Residents with houses of worships and non-profit organizations, where they are tasked with doing social justice work on a grassroots level. In the program’s first year, that included labor organizing, getting out the vote for the midterm elections, trying to prevent home foreclosures, and working on various immigration and refugee issues. Residents receive a stipend during the six-month program.

Why the gender imbalance among applicants, The Sisterhood asked COR’s director.

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Why I Hate Hearing 'You Look Great'

By Elana Maryles Sztokman

“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. Regardless, I hate it because it reminds me how much people are constantly looking at each other and judging others’ entire lives based on thinness, youthful appearance and shallow versions of beauty.

I thought of this last week as someone remarked to me that she had seen my daughter and that my daughter “looks great.” My first thought was, duh, of course she looks great; she’s an active 13 year-old and has a beautiful spirit and she looks exactly how she should look. My second thought was, why are you observing and judging my daughter’s appearance? What are you looking for? What are you expecting to see? And what does “good” even mean? Does it have any meaningful interpretation at all?

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Prime Ribs: Gwyneth and Kabbalah; Knesset's 'Shiksa' Debate

By Elissa Strauss

Apparently a love for Kabbalah runs in the family. Contact Music is reporting that in an upcoming episode of “Who Do You Think You Are?” Gwyneth Paltrow discovers that her great-great-great grandfather was a master of Kabbalah.


In other celebrity Kabbalah news, The Kabbalah Centre has apparently sent out an email to its members explaining that it has formally ended its relationship with Madonna’s charity, Raising Malawi, which the IRS is rumored to be investigating and is being sued by villagers.


The Knesset Ethics Committee is set to debate the use of the word shiksa, a generally derogatory term for a non-Jewish woman. (Reread a Sisterhood contributor’s plea to curb the use of that word.)


Gloria Steinem gives an icon-worthy interview to BlogHer, in which she discusses ways to get girls interested in feminism, and the very real existence of a professional “maternal wall.”


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The Passover Cleaning Season Is Upon Us

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

You know Passover is around the corner when a) you’ve finally finished the last of the chocolate-filled wafers from Purim mishloach manot and b) your friends start kvetching — on Facebook and in person — about the cleaning they have to do.

I despise cleaning, and my cleaning lady of several years quit last week because she’s going back to school. Still, I’m not worried about it, probably because Boychik and I have just emerged from the college application process and no amount of crumb-searching and scrubbing can compare with that roller-coaster of stress.

In fact, I’m sort of looking forward to doing the cleaning it this year. It’s probably because I am again holding to the guidelines of Rabbi Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg, Rosh Yeshiva of Jerusalem’s Yeshivas Torah Ore. On this website he urges women to do what is necessary to abide by the halachic requirements of ridding one’s abode of chametz, but not to go overboard.

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On Comparing the Mommy Wars to the Middle East Conflict

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

Since motherhood and the Middle East are what I’m all about these days, the first paragraph of a recent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal jumped out and bit me. Virginia Postrel writes, “Motherhood, it seems, is the Middle East of social controversy. Alliances may shift, new dogmas and leaders may arise, tactics may change, but the fundamental conflict resists resolution. Despite the efforts of would-be peacemakers, impassioned partisans continue battling to claim all the territory as their own. My way, they declare, is the one right way to be a good mother, a real woman, a fulfilled human being.”

Luckily, Postrel immediately addresses my main objection to the metaphor, by quickly pointing out that: “Fortunately, nobody dies in the mommy wars.” Yes, indeed, that is very fortunate. Happily, nobody gets maimed, tortured, traumatized or held prisoner in the mommy wars either.

Let’s put the relative seriousness and ramifications of the two conflicts aside — because after all, a wounded ego is not really comparable to a wound caused by gunshots or bomb blasts. But is there any real basis for a comparison, even a flip one, between the sniping that goes on between Israelis and Palestinians and the back-and-forth between stay-at-home moms and working mothers?

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The 'Back Up Your Birth Control Campaign' at 10

By Chanel Dubofsky

Without getting graphic about it, I remember the moment the condom broke.

It was my senior year of college. I felt eerily composed as I drove, later that same night, to campus health services to get the so-called morning-after pill. I can’t believe how calm I was; it’s completely contrary to my personality, but somehow, my brain managed to get quiet and I saw the solution.

The fact that I knew about emergency contraception (EC) was the result of having access to correct information about it — what it is, where I could get it, how it would work. I knew I needed to use it within 72 hours, and that it was safe, effective and readily available. I had no trouble getting it; there were no strange looks, derisive comments or accusations. No “conscience clause” was invoked. I also am white, was over the age of 18 and went to a large university in the Northeast. I was given two pills — one of which I took that night, the other the next day. I don’t remember any significant side effects, and a few weeks later, I got my period.

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