Sisterhood Blog

The Case Against the Sheitel

By Elana Maryles Sztokman

“Do you like the blond better? With or without the ponytail?”

Wig-shopping is the new initiation into religious life for women, writes Tali Farkash, a Haredi columnist for Ynet who alternates between defending religious life and kvetching about it. If women used to accompany brides to the mikveh in order to welcome them ritualistically into the club of married women, she says, today a trip to the sheitel macher, or wig-maker, is the thing to do. Farkash, who recently accompanied her friend to get a wig, is still recovering from the experience.

Her friend sat “right there on the seat of honor at the sheitel macher’s,” Farkash writes, “surrounded by relatives whose job it is to say ‘That looks so nice on you!’ and to elegantly avoid the obvious questions about the net in front that presses on the forehead, or the sadistic job of the comber. There is something bittersweet about sitting on the waiting couch as a support, witnessing the metamorphosis… from permitted hair to forbidden hair.”

The sheitel is undoubtedly one of the strangest customs of modern Jewish life. No matter how many perky rebbetzins try to write funny or pedagogical blogs to rationalize this practice, there is no way to make this normal or sane. “Every attempt to take the discussion out of the religious-halachic loop is doomed to failure,” Farkash writes.

The language of human morality has no way to make sense of this. That’s not to say people don’t try.

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Hollywood's Women Problem

By Elissa Strauss

While we have been busy looking at women in magazines, Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University has been tracking the rather sluggish growth of women in Hollywood. The Center just released its annual report, “The Celluloid Ceiling: Behind-the-Scenes Employment of Women on the Top 250 Films of 2010” and the numbers are dismal.

According to the report, women made up just 7% of directors, 10% of writers, 15% of executive producers, 24% of producers, 18% of editors and 2% of cinematographers. That means roughly that only 16% of Hollywood bigwigs are women — sadly, a 1% decline from 1998.

In her report made public on the Women’s Media Center website, Lauzen writes that some industry insiders explain this disparity by saying that fewer women are interested in working in film, but she says that simply isn’t true and has film school enrollment to back her up. Others explain the lack of women by suggesting that men are, well, better, as evidenced by their bigger box-office success. Lauzen says men earn more at the box office because their films get bigger budgets, and that studies show that films with similar budgets, regardless of who makes them, fair similarly at the box office.

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'Graphic Details' Q&A: Miriam Katin

By Leah Berkenwald

Miriam Katin
A page from Katin’s “Eucalyptus Nights,” featured in “Graphic Details.”

“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 Miriam Katin, author of “We Are On Our Own,” a story of a mother and her daughter’s survival in WWII and a number of other other works.

Leah Berkenwald: How did you get into cartooning?

Miriam Katin: I am doing comics and it is different from cartooning. I think. During my work in animation I met artists who did comics and I felt that with this method, much drawing and not much text, I can tell my stories.

How does your Jewish identity influence your work?

In every way since all my work is coming from being Jewish. My place in history, relationships, my faith or the lack of it etc.

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The Devastating Toll of America's Lack of Paid Parental Leave

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

If you have a career, being a mother in this country costs you — in promotions and salary, and, because of a near total lack of legally mandated parental leave, in physical and emotional health as well. This is a well-known reality for every working mom I know, and now the international NGO Human Rights Watch has published a comprehensive look at the breadth and depth of the problem, and notes that it also has a negative impact on the economy.

The report, titled “Failing Its Families,” which can be read in its entirety here, says that the U.S. is one of just three countries in the world — alongside Papua New Guinea and Swaziland — that lack paid maternity leave.

The report continues:

The parents interviewed for this report recounted serious harms related to the meager policy supports for US working families. They described struggling with the lack of paid leave, and reported negative effects on their careers, on family finances, or on their children’s health. Many also confronted inflexible workplaces after leave, including with respect to requests for flexible hours or reduced schedules, and concerning pumping breast milk at work.

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What a White House Study on Women Says About Birth Rates, Salary Gaps

By Elissa Strauss

The White House released a comprehensive report today on the state of women in America, the first report of its kind in nearly 50 years. The information in the report isn’t new, but rather a compilation of a wide-range of studies that together provide an aerial view of the progress, and lack of progress, made by women over the past five decades.

I broke it down into good news and bad news. I am starting with the good. (Note: Good news, to me, means an increase in life choices and opportunities available to women. I am not, for example, saying fewer children is good news; but that more women feel that they can choose whether or not to have children is definitely a positive change.)

Here’s the good news:

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Eve Ensler's V-Party Revolution

By Dan Friedman

Getty Images
Eve Ensler

Eve Ensler is working towards nothing short of a non-violent global revolution.

A “Schumpeter” column on February 19 in The Economist (“The Art of Management”) called on managers in the business sector to learn from the art world how to think creatively about markets (Damien Hirst), products (Titian), communications (Orwell) and dealing with prima donna “clevers” in their employ (“Entourage” anyone?). Eve Ensler, talking about her most recent book, “I Am an Emotional Creature” at Jewish Book Week in London was advocating a more radically creative way of thinking about business and governance — the V-Party.

For the past decade there has been an annual V-Day, where Ensler’s famous “Vagina Monologues” has been performed in multiple venues around the world. Every year more places put on performances, most of the proceeds from which go to the local communities for women’s charities. The last couple of years the spotlight has been on the “City of Joy” — a leadership training facility for abused women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Although this is the apotheosis of Ensler’s activism — “vagina warriors” training centrally to end violence, traditions of mutilation and to take up leadership positions in a fragile society — it is by no means the extent of it. Her energy (and that, in itself, is remarkable, not least in the face a serious illness last year) is globally distributed, even as her literary gifts are most impressive when concretely focused. For Ensler her incipient V-Party might just be one way to move people who are committed to ending violence and oppression from informal leadership to elected positions.

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In Israel, Lesbians in Prime Time Are Having Their Moment

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

Tune into what is now the highest-rated program on Israeli television, “Big Brother,” and you will encounter a female character never been featured before on local screens. Her name is Frida Hecht — a heavy-set, outspoken, recovering heroin addict with a crew cut. She’s a lesbian, and about as far out of the closet as it is possible to get.

A Tel Aviv restaurant owner, Frida does not hesitate to assert herself, cheerfully acknowledges her flaws and limitations, and is outspoken about the more bourgeois residents of the “Big Brother” house and their “empty materialistic lives that are all surface and no content.”

Declaring that she is unafraid of being voted off of the show by viewers, she has no problem taking positions that are unpopular with the audience. Early in the show, she insisted on taking the house copy of the Bible in to the bathroom with her, saying that she needs to read something while on the toilet, and that is the only book in the house. When Yoram Cohen, an Orthodox resident of the house was offended by her bringing the holy book into the bathroom, Frida stood her ground and a screaming match ensued. More than 2,500 viewers then signed an online petition calling for Frida to be voted out of the house as a result of her behavior. But her sympathizers outnumbered her enemies, and Cohen ended up being the one voted off the show.

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Jewish Men Stand Up for Reproductive Rights

By Sarah Seltzer

I was among some 6,000 reproductive-rights advocates who attended a rally for women’s health over the weekend to stand up for Planned Parenthood and a woman’s right to choose in the face of the most dangerous political assault on women’s rights we’ve seen in years. The signs in the crowd were witty, the long and varied list of speakers and performers was impressive — with young women, reproductive justice advocates and women of color well-represented and kicking butt. Kathleen Hanna of the famed Riot Grrl musical movement even spoke about her own experiences going to Planned Parenthood in her early days as a struggling musician.

But one of the coolest things about the rally was the strong showing of male allies on stage and on the ground in Manhattan’s Foley Square. On stage, a group of Jewish male New York politicians made a series of completely impassioned, fiery speeches that shocked me with their urgent tone. Congressmen Eliot Engel, Jerrold Nadler, Anthony Weiner and Senator Charles Schumer were four of a number of wonderful speakers.

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A Hadassah Cookbook for a New Generation

By Jordana Horn

Universe
Koenig’s forthcoming cookbook

While Forward “Ingredients” columnist Leah Koenig may be a self-taught cook, she has certainly made the most of her education. She is currently an acting associate editor at Saveur magazine, and is the former editor-in-chief of the food and sustainability blog The Jew and the Carrot, which is now a joint project of the Forward and Hazon. She is also the author of “The Hadassah Everyday Cookbook: Daily Meals for the Contemporary Kitchen,” due out March 8. I recently interviewed Koenig about writing a cookbook that is affiliated with a venerable women’s organization, cooking trends in two-career households and what makes this cookbook different from most other Jewish cookbooks on the market.

Jordana Horn: How did your affiliation with Hadassah come about?

Leah Koenig: My mom is a longtime Hadassah member and active in our local chapter in Chicago, so I’ve always felt like Hadassah was, by extension, a part of my life and my Jewish experience. Needless to say, I was really excited and honored to be asked to work on this project. It seemed like such a perfect opportunity to share my love of seasonal cooking and Jewish culture with readers, while working within the framework of this timeless organization.

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In Conflict Reporting, Being a Woman Can Be an Advantage

By Judith Matloff

The only time in my conflict reporting career that I received different treatment from the guys occurred in Johannesburg in 1993. Our Reuters bureau was finally — finally! — being outfitted with flak jackets to cover the violence surrounding the end of apartheid. Since a big part of the job involved driving into townships filled with men pointing assault rifles, I was very happy to receive body armor at long last.

What a surprise, though, when I opened the box. My flak jacket was red. The guys’ were blue.

“That’s because you’re a girl,” one of the cameramen joked. Everyone chortled. I left it at that.

Fortunately the gender distinction was never made in terms of assignments. I was chosen to cover the worst tumult on the Durban coast. The civil wars in nearby Angola and Mozambique were my turf. My superiors routinely dispatched me at 4 in the morning to report on massacres. I worried about sexual assault, every woman [war correspondent] does, just as I feared being shot dead like some of my male colleagues had been. But if my bosses feared I would be raped, they didn’t say.

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Regardless of Ethnicity, Women Still Chase Barbie Beauty

By Elissa Strauss

In “Ethnic Differences Emerge in Plastic Surgery,” a New York Times story published last weekend, writer Sam Dolnick explains how different ethnic groups now tend be in pursuit of one particular type of procedure.

Dolnick writes: “As the demand for surgical enhancement explodes around the world, New York has developed a host of niche markets that allow the city’s many immigrants to get tucks and tweaks that are carefully tailored to their cultural preferences and ideals of beauty. Just as they can find Lebanese grape leaves or bowls of Vietnamese pho that taste of home, immigrants can locate surgeons able to recreate the cleavage of Thalía, the Mexican singer, or the bright eyes of Lee Hyori, the Korean pop star.”

He goes onto to explain that Dominicans want buttock lifts, Koreans want slimmer jaw lines, Iranians want smaller noses, Italians want slender knees, Russians want bigger breasts, and Chinese want double eyelids.

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'Get-o-omics': The Economics of Agunot

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

That there are Orthodox Jewish men who hold a get, or Jewish divorce decree, over their estranged wives’ heads out of spite and to extort money from the women’s families — making the women agunot — is a sad reality. The creators of a new documentary film, “Women Unchained,” hope to shed new light on this seemingly intractable issue, and create communal pressure for change.

“Women Unchained” follows six Orthodox Jewish women in their quest to receive a get, or Jewish divorce, from their husbands. The film, directed by Beverly Siegel and co-produced by Leta Lenik, will have its world premiere in Jerusalem on March 7 at the Orthodox Union’s Israel Center and on March 8, International Women’s Day, at Jerusalem’s Cinematheque, as part of the Women and Religion Mavoi Satum Film Festival. “Women Unchained” will have its first U.S. showings at the Pittsburgh Jewish Film Festival on March 27 and at the Rockland County Jewish Film Festival on March 31. The filmmakers and experts on the issue will take part in panel discussions following the screenings.

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How Long Should Israel's Former President (and a Convicted Rapist) Spend Behind Bars?

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

Wikimedia Commons
Moshe Katsav

Imagine for a moment that Monica Lewinsky had not been so enthusiastic about pursuing a sexual relationship with President Clinton, that he had pursued her against her will, and had imposed himself on her physically.

Now imagine that the Lewinsky affair had opened a Pandora’s Box of women from various stages of Clinton’s career coming forward and accusing him of levels of sexually abusive behavior — ranging from unwanted fondling to outright rape. Add to that imaginary scenario that the wheels of justice had turned, the women were found to be credible and the machinations of Clinton’s cronies to silence or intimidate them self-incriminating, and that, four years later, the former President was convicted in a court of law of rape.

Even if it was proved beyond a reasonable doubt that he behaved criminally, wouldn’t Americans feel a pang at the prospect of seeing the man who held such a lofty post and once represented their nation to the world, dressed in a prison jumpsuit and led into a cell?

That is the prospect the Israeli public faces as the sentencing of former President Moshe Katsav is imminent. His sentencing will take place on March 8, which, coincidentally, is International Women’s Day and attorneys are in court this week making their arguments on sentencing.

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New Yorker, Harper's, NYRB and TNR Editors on the Dearth of Female Bylines

By Elissa Strauss

After my post last month about the gender disparity in magazine publishing, which was followed by VIDA’s much more thorough and ultimately conclusive study, I, perhaps naively, expected to see a comment or two from the publications about the roots of this imbalance. Then weeks passed, and, well, basically nothing.

For a while I thought that perhaps it was time to give this up. They had all likely seen the numbers; I didn’t want to come off whiny. But then my curiosity remained, and I figured it couldn’t hurt to ask.

I sent out emails to the editors at The New Yorker (27% female bylines overall in 2010 according to the VIDA study), The New Republic (16%), The New York Review of Books (15%), Harper’s Magazine (21%), and The Atlantic (26%), asking them if they would be willing to talk with me about the dearth of female bylines. A few days later I received on-the-records responses from all those publications except for the Atlantic. (Full responses are below.) The overall message from the editors, delivered with varying degrees of passion, was an agreement that things need to change. There was not much in the way of explaining why things are the way they are — with one honest and admirable exception from The New Republic — and no comment on whether they receive and/or reject more pitches from women, nor on whether or not having more female editors might do the trick. Mostly their message was that they could, and should, do better.

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Does Generation Y Have a Union Problem?

By Sarah Seltzer

Getty Images

Jewish women have a long and storied history in the American labor and worker’s rights movement, from Emma Goldman to Rose Schneiderman to Betty Friedan (yep, she was a union rabble-rouser first) and beyond. This excellent article at the Jewish Women’s Archive gives a partial overview of Jewish women’s involvement in the movement: the good, the bad and the ugly. And our presence in the movement continues today: arguably one of the most visible and controversial union leaders in our country, Randi Weingarten, is herself a Jewish woman.

I grew up in a pro-union household. We sifted through clothing at stores, looking for that UNITE! label, honked whenever we passed workers on strike, and did our best never to cross picket lines. But this practice wasn’t widespread, even among friends and classmates on the Upper West Side, people who embraced other liberal causes wholeheartedly. It’s true that my generation has birthed some of the most successful student labor activists in decades — bringing college administration after administration to the negotiating table from the 90s through today to increase worker wages on campuses and demand that apparel come from non-sweatshop factories. But as a wider group, we’re pretty apathetic about unions. My college-educated peers have entered the education reform movement in droves, a movement sees unionization of teachers as enemies, not allies. And particularly among that educated group in my generation, there is a growing disconnect between our comfortable lives and the working-class forbears whose pensions and insurance plans helped us achieve that comfort.

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The Implications of Defunding Planned Parenthood

By Sarah Seltzer

It’s finally happened. Earlier this afternoon the House voted 240 to 185 to deny all federal funding to Planned Parenthood. Even worse, this was a vote to end all Title X funding — that’s the funding that is devoted to providing preventive health and comprehensive family planning services to low-income families. Planned Parenthood currently receives zero federal funding for abortion, thanks to the Hyde Amendment. So while ostensibly done in the name of anti-abortion policy, today’s amendment sponsored by Representative Mike Pence of Indiana, was really an all-out attack on poor women’s health care.

As Planned Parenthood Federation of America president Cecile Richards said in an email to supporters today:

Minutes ago, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to bar Planned Parenthood from all federal funding for any purpose whatsoever. That means no funding to Planned Parenthood health centers for birth control, lifesaving cancer screenings, HIV testing, and other essential care.

Or as the Awls’ Choire Sicha summed it up more sarcastically: “240 Politicians Come Together in Support of Teens Having STDs.”

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Unmoored by Unemployment

By Chanel Dubofsky

I left the country for the first time when I was 23. I stood in line to board the plane, trying to stifle my panic attack, certain that I and everyone else on the flight was going to die, such was my intense fear of flying back then. I thought about turning around and running, regardless of the fact that my luggage was already on board and that I’d look like a maniac in front of everyone. In the end, I remember this sense of calm coming over me, a feeling of well being and security and comfort that on some level, I have yet to feel again. I think a lot about that feeling these days. I’m starting to wonder if I imagined it.

I’ve been unemployed/underemployed/searching for a job for almost nine months now, and to say the least, my consciousness has been shifted. In the past, I’ve believed that all the different parts of myself — the writer, the feminist, the Jew, the educator, the vulnerable, angry motherless child — could not just coexist, but grow each other, make each other stronger. These days, this whole person business seems like a myth. I’m having trouble focusing. I’ve actually stopped following the news. (Apparently there’s been a revolution in Egypt and some white men are trying to redefine rape?)

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Our Rack: The History of Childbirth, and the Rise of the Girlie-Girl

By Elissa Strauss

Harper
‘Ugly Beauty’

NON FICTION

In “Ugly Beauty: Helena Rubinstein, L’Oréal, and the Blemished History of Looking Good,” Ruth Brandon tells the story of Rubinstein, a self-made cosmetics tycoon who came from a poor Polish-Jewish background, and her battle with L’Oreal founder and Nazi collaborator Eugène Schueller, who acquired her company. The book delves into their lives, and includes one particularly delicious anecdote about how Rubinstein purchased a whole Park Avenue building, after being told that she could not move in because she was Jewish. “Ugly Beauty” also takes a look at gender politics, and the ways in which they are informed by the cosmetics industry.


Medical journalist Randi Hutter Epstein takes into account both science and superstitions for her new book, “Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth from the Garden of Eden to the Sperm Bank.” The book plumbs medical advances, the shift in attitudes toward reproduction and the ethical questions that today’s high-tech options present. Hutter Epstein also looks at the way in which gynecology has been impacted by numerous taboos and cultural beliefs surrounding childbirth.

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The Attack on Lara Logan

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

Getty Images
CBS News’ Lara Logan.

In what can only be described as a case of terrible timing, I wrote my previous post reporting on how joyous and safe women were feeling in Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the Egyptian protests. The post appeared only hours before CBS News made public the brutal attack on journalist Lara Logan in the square.

The description of her attack, as released by CBS, was horrifying on many levels. The New York Post reported: “‘60 Minutes’ correspondent Lara Logan was repeatedly sexually assaulted by thugs yelling, ‘Jew! Jew!’ as she covered the chaotic fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo’s main square Friday, CBS and sources said yesterday.”

Interestingly, the cries of “Jew! Jew!” were not in the initial description of the event released by CBS.

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On Elon's Indictment and Other Religious Leaders Facing Charges

By Elana Maryles Sztokman

Several Israeli religious leaders have been in the news recently — and not for their piety. Here’s a quick roundup:

• Rabbi Motti Elon is being formally indicted for sexual offenses against two former students, both of whom were minors at the time of the alleged acts, in 2003 and 2005. Meanwhile, in what may either be an ironic twist or perhaps a meeting of the minds, Elon has apparently been teaching classes at the home of former Israeli president Moshe Katsav, who was recently convicted of rape and other sexual offenses. One cannot help but wonder what lessons they are learning together.

• Israeli police issued an arrest warrant against Kiryat Arba chief Rabbi Dov Lior for incitement because of a book he wrote that apparently advocates the murder of non-Jews. Although his supporters are furious and calling the arrest politically motivated, his detractors say that even this arrest is not enough to stop the perceived increase in racist attitudes in the religious community in Israel. This arrest warrant comes on the heels of such events as the rebbetzins’ anti-Arab dating petition, the rabbis’ anti-Arab renting petition, and the refusal of the Emmanuel religious girls’ school to heed Supreme Court directives and allow Sephardic girls to enroll in their school.

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