Sisterhood Blog

Amy Winehouse Brought Out The Jewish Mother In Us All

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

Ben Stansall, AFP via Getty Images
Amy Winehouse’s parents, Janis and Mitch Winehouse, after her death.

Amy Winehouse embodied every Jewish mother’s greatest fear.

We Jewish parents are, after all, obsessed with our children living up to their potential. We accept our offspring’s God-given limitations. But when there is a child with seemingly limitless possibilities for creativity and success, as Winehouse’s tremendous musical talent offered her, it is particularly achingly painful to watch them follow the well-worn celebrity path to self-destruction and death.

And so it was with Winehouse, almost from the very beginning. A first listen to the edgy jazz featured in her iconic album “Back to Black,” with her enchantingly world-weary voice, convinced us we were listening to an updated recording of an African-American legend like Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holiday. But no – that voice belonged to a painfully skinny Jewish London waif with a retro beehive hairdo and sailor tattoos. We were fascinated, and unreasonably proud that she was Jewish and grew up with Friday night dinners at her grandmother’s London home. Let’s face it – we’re suckers for members of the tribe who are both successful and cool. Even when they are clearly addicted to drugs and alcohol. Jewish websites and blogs which fancied themselves young and hip faithfully chronicled every Winehouse foible – every arrest and on-stage collapse, every inappropriate relationship – and of course, every award and hit record.

She was a hot mess, and she was our hot mess.

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Orthodox Women Overcome Barriers at Kolech Conference

By Elana Sztokman

courtesy of Hannah Kehat
Kolech Founder Hannah Kehat

This year’s conference of Kolech, Israel’s Orthodox feminist forum, grappled with cutting-edge issues around homosexuality, the place of transgender women in Orthodoxy and the shared lifestyles of Muslim and Jewish religious women.

At the conference, which took place in Jerusalem earlier this month, the panel on homosexuality included an Israeli lesbian who was raised Orthodox, a woman who was born male into an Orthodox family and an Orthodox woman whose son is gay. Rabbi Dr. Haviva Ner David, who has written extensively about her family’s journey with her gay brother, said “I was pleasantly surprised to see that this session was included in the conference and was afraid because of its relatively radical nature that it would not be well attended. I was even more pleasantly surprised to see that the room was packed when I got there and that the audience was supportive, sympathetic, and respectful to the panelists.”

It seems that the community is working to put an end to issues that have been silenced in the past.

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Prime Ribs: Eschewing 'SlutWalks'; Defending 'Sister Wives'

By Gabrielle Birkner

In light of an email tirade in which Tea Party congressman Allen West called Democratic National Committee chairwoman (and proud Jewess) Debbie Wasserman Schultz “vile,” and wrote that she has proved that she is “not a Lady,” The Daily Beast’s Michelle Goldberg pulls back the curtain on what she sees as West’s history of misogynistic behavior.


As much as journalist Rebecca Traister wants to embrace the new phenomenon known as the SlutWalk — in which scantily clad women take to the streets in hopes of taking the sting out of the moniker “slut” — she writes, in this New York Times magazine piece, that the gatherings seem “less like victory than capitulation (linguistic and sartorial) to what society already expects of its young women.” (Listen to a recent Yid Lit podcast featuring Traister here.)


JTA’s Sue Fishkoff — who in September will become editor of the Bay Area Jewish newsweekly j. (Mazel tov, Sue!) — writes about the unforeseen complications of non-Jewish mothers raising Jewish children.


Our Sisterhood bloggers have long mulled the appeal of having “Big Love”-style “sister wives.” In this recent New York Times op-ed, law professor Jonathan Turley defends the polygamous marriage of the Utah family that stars in the reality series “Sister Wives,” and calls state laws banning plural marriage examples of “unacceptable government intrusion.”

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Erotica Writer Rachel Kramer Bussel Talks Sex and Feminism

By Chanel Dubofsky

Anya Garrett
Rachel Kramer Bussel

Rachel Kramer Bussel is among the most well-known and prolific contemporary Jewish writers of erotica. Her work has appeared in more 100 anthologies, as well as in numerous online and print publications. She is a senior editor at Penthouse Variations, a contributing editor at Penthouse, and is the series editor for the “Best Sex Writing” anthologies. Her latest editing endeavor is “Obsessed: Erotic Romance for Women,” released earlier this month by Cleis Press. She spoke recently with The Sisterhood about stereotypes of Jewish women in the bedroom, why she doesn’t see feminism and submissiveness as mutually exclusive, and the good advice that she says applies to both writing and sex.

Chanel Dubofsky: Do you think Judaism — religiously, culturally — influences your work?

Rachel Kramer Bussel: I do think some of the best sex and best relationships I’ve had have a spiritual, though not necessarily religious, component, but I don’t know that Judaism directly influences my work. I have my own struggles with religion and faith, and am not the biggest fan of organized religion … but I think what Judaism has taught me is to always question the world around me and to believe in my own answers — just as much as any dogma.

What do you think about the stereotypes about Jewish women and sex that pervade mainstream culture — stereotypes like the JAP and the Jewish mother?

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Haredi Perspectives on Birth Control, Abortion

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

News of the Obama administration’s anticipated adoption of a health panel’s recommendation that birth control be considered preventive care and therefore paid for by insurance companies is being widely welcomed by those concerned with women’s health.

It came to mind when I read this advice seeker on the fascinating website Unpious.com. A Haredi woman in her 20s (and already a mother of five) writes, plaintively, of her terror that she might be pregnant with a sixth child. She writes that she and her husband, though Hasidic, are comfortable using birth control whether or not they have the rabbinic permission known as a heter.

While the rest of the world, Jewish and otherwise, looks at Hasidic communities where six, eight or 10 kids are the typical progeny in each family and assumes that birth control is verboten, it is not.

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On Abortion and Contraception, a Different Kind of Logic

By Sarah Seltzer

I closely followed Debra Nussbaum Cohen’s piece about the inherent contradiction between anti-abortion and anti-contraception stances – stances which are often held by the same folks. Her logic is impeccable: Debra is 100% right that contraception is a rational middle ground, that opposition to family planning is absurd whatever your stance is on the morality of abortion, and that making birth control more widely available is sound public policy.

Just this last weekend, while spending time with friends who are scientists, I engaged in a similar discussion about the seemingly self-cancelling bent of the anti-choice movement. If they truly believe every abortion is murder then why, why, don’t they hand out condoms? Why do they cut childcare funding and lobby against maternal health provisions? And at the heart of it all, why not be pragmatic rather than dogmatic? Why do they work for an environment which will create more unintended pregnancies and by rational extension, more trips to the abortion clinic?

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Would a Government Ministry Help Israeli Women Get Ahead?

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

Wikimedia Commons
Likud MK Gila Gamliel

The proposal sounds pretty good on the surface – a Ministry of Women’s Affairs in the Israeli government, dedicated solely to promoting the issues, concerns, and interests of Israeli women and improving their status in society.

Likud MK Gila Gamliel, who recently unveiled the proposal for creating such a ministry, is convinced that it can only do Israeli women good and she is confident that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is behind her. She told the Jerusalem Post that “the decision on whether to create a ministry for women must come from the prime minister, but I believe we are heading in the right direction. I am pretty sure that the first chance he has, he will take up this issue.”

Gamliel, an up-and-coming ambitious young Likud party member and Netanyahu loyalist, currently holds the position of deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office for the Advancement of Young People, Students and Women (a job she is apparently considered triply qualified for because she is both young and female, with a background in student leadership. ) Something of a political prodigy, she was elected to the Knesset twelve years ago at age 29, and has been there ever since, except for three years, when Likud’s poor showing in the elections knocked her off the Knesset list. She returned to the parliament in 2006.

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Introducing 'The Kittel Collection'

By Jacqueline Nicholls

The kittel is a simple white garment that is traditionally worn by a groom on his wedding day, by men on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Seder nights, and as a burial shroud. In this space, over the course of the next several months, I will use the kittel to explore the many ways that clothing is used as a metaphor for meaning and identity within Jewish tradition and literature.

The first such piece examines the ways that so much of the traditional Jewish modesty (tzniut) literature transmits the message that a woman’s body is something shameful and something that must be locked away — while, at the same time, grotestquely sexualizing the female form.

View a video about the project below:

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The Anti-Contraception, Anti-Abortion Paradox

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Creative Commons

When I was a young adult and ready to start on the birth control pill, I found that its cost was not covered by my health insurance. Paying the retail price was onerous. It didn’t seem right that insurance wouldn’t cover contraception, though it did cover the cost of giving birth and possibly even abortion. It just didn’t make any sense.

Now, finally, the federal government is ready to rectify the situation, and make contraception more economically accessible to women and men by requiring health insurance to cover its cost.

According to this news story, the Institute of Medicine, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, is recommending that health insurers be required to pay for contraception so that there is no cost to the consumer as part of “preventive health services.”

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Communal Lessons From 'Harry Potter'

By Leah Berkenwald

Last weekend the eighth and final Harry Potter movie hit theaters. In the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling created a magical alternate universe. Neither a utopia or dystopia, her magical world is fraught with real-world complexity. Reflecting on this groundbreaking series and its allegorical world, there are four important progressive lessons for the Jewish community to take away.

1) Women belong everywhere men belong

One of the most obvious and delightful characteristics of the Harry Potter series is gender equity, pure and simple. In J.K. Rowling’s magical society, witches and wizards are equal. The Ministry of Magic (their governing entity) is equally mixed, as is the magical sport of Quidditch, which women not only play, but play together with men on co-ed teams (More on gender equity in Quidditch at Ms. Magazine.) While the main villain, Voldemort, is male, his number two is a woman—the cruel and twisted Bellatrix LeStrange. Even the stay-at-home-witches and homemakers, like Molly Weasly, are written as feminist role models.

And of course, there’s Hermione Granger, the main female character, who is intelligent, studious, courageous, sensitive and principled—a far cry from the way girls are usually included as “the token girl one” or a undeveloped love interest. She is, undoubtedly, one of the best feminist role models out there (especially compared to the sad range of alternatives like the Disney princesses or Twilight’s Bella Swan).

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Leah Berkenwald is the online communications specialist at the Jewish Women’s Archive, and a contributor to its Jewesses With Attitude blog, which cross-posts regularly with the Sisterhood.


Low Hopes for 'Jewtopia': The Movie

By Elissa Strauss

Getty Images
Jennifer Love Hewitt

We have long bemoaned the fact that female Jewish characters on screens big and small get the short shrift, and that our high points were still decades ago when Barbra took on Fanny Brice and Yentl.

Well, the upcoming film version of the long-running off-Broadway comedy “Jewtopia” will not likely makes things any better. As our Shmooze blog noted, Jennifer Love Hewitt and Ivan Sergei have signed on for an adaption of the show, which chronicles the story of two friends, a Jew and a Gentile, who pursue women from one another’s religion.

What draws the gentile to the Jewess? A desire for a woman who will make his decisions for him. What draws the Jew to the gentile? Someone who won’t remind him of his roots. So there is an overbearing Jewish American Princess and an accommodating shiksa. Gee, where have I heard that one before?

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After Leiby's Murder, Teaching Our Kids To Be Street-Smart

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

The details of the murder last week of 8-year-old Leiby Kletzky are heart-rending. It was an act of evil that recalls the first time in modern memory that a stranger abducted a child off the streets of New York City. That child was also a young Jewish boy, Etan Patz, who had, like Leiby, begged his parents to allow him to walk alone, in that 1979 case to the school bus stop. This week, Leiby was trying to walk home from day camp.

There has been a plethora of coverage of Leiby Kletzky’s murder, including this New York Times piece about the ultra-Orthodox community’s tendency to view Jews as “safe,” and non-Jews (or those who appear not to be Jewish) as dangerous.

As Etan’s father, Stanley Patz, told Clyde Haberman this week, “children are vulnerable.” Most children Leiby’s age, especially in the ultra-Orthodox community, don’t understand the danger that strangers — even Jewish ones — can present. One of the nice things about children in Haredi communities is that, protected from television news and reality garbage (since most Haredi families do not have televisions), they have the sweetness of childhood on them for as long as possible.

There is also that “double standard” that Joseph Berger writes about in The Times.

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Prime Ribs: Zumba to 'Hava Nagila'; Facebook as Lifesaver

By Elissa Strauss

On Slate, Deborah Copaken Kogan tells a moving Jewish mother story for the digital age, about how sharing her son’s strange symptoms on Facebook saved his life.


Among those in favor of beatifying WWII-era Pope Pius XII is a nun now making the case that the pontiff ordered her convent to shelter 114 Jewish women from the Nazis, the AP reports.


Deborah Hirsch writes for JTA about how the increasingly popular “Zumba” exercise classes have spawned de-facto Sisterhood groups. Some instructors even incorporate “Hava Nagila” into their routines, Hirsch writes.

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Male-Only Economics Conference Raises Difficult Questions

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

What if you were a woman entering a business conference in order to hear speeches the mayor of a city, a government finance minister and the CEO of a major bank, but were turned away at the door because you were female and the audience was limited only to men “for modesty reasons”? One might expect such a thing to happen in Saudi Arabia or Iran. But it happened last week in Jerusalem.

Women expressed anger, frustration and disgust after they were barred from entering a “management forum” held by ultra-Orthodox newspaper Hamodia. Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and Bank Hapoalim CEO Zion Keinan were among those speaking at the conference.

It wasn’t only secular women — but also Orthodox businesswomen — who were turned away, and complained about the treatment. One told Ynet that it was “humiliating and incomprehensible.” The event was not advertised or promoted as an exclusively single-sex affair.

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Andy Samberg: Jewish Feminist

By Naomi Zeveloff

Getty Images
Andy Samberg

Four years ago, when “Saturday Night Live” comic Andy Samberg wore a National Organization of Women shirt to a Spike TV event, feminists wondered whether he was just ribbing us. Best known for the satirical rap videos he produces with his comedy trio, The Lonely Island, Samberg trades in dick jokes and fake vomit — not in feminist theory. So when Samberg said that his sartorial choice was “totally sincere,” in an interview with Nerve.com, even the most accommodating among us had a difficult time believing him.

But now, with the recent release of The Lonely Island’s new album, “Turtle Neck and Chain,” it’s safe to say that Samberg was, in fact, sporting his feminist bona fides at the Spike show. I’d even go one step further: Andy Samberg is the first Jewish feminist male comedian.

Samberg gets the feminist moniker not because of his portrayal of women — in fact, most ladies in his videos are stereotypical hotties with zero personality — but because of the way he depicts men. Samberg holds a mirror to the most loutish of American males, rendering Peeping Toms, self-righteous belligerents, and cocksure ladies’ men with heavy-handed mockery. The fact that Samberg so brutally lampoons sexist men and yet remains extremely popular among the “bro” cohort is a testament to his dexterity. Samberg is doing what feminists have asked of their male allies forever: Instead of marching alongside women, Samberg is talking to other men.

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Breast-Feeding Isn't Always Best

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Samantha Appleton/Official White House Photo
First Lady Michelle Obama advocates breast-feeding over bottle-feeding.

When I was a new mother bottle-feeding my oldest son more than 16 years ago, I had to endure the rude stares of other mothers at the pediatrician’s office waiting room. If I — someone who opted against breast-feeding for a number of personal preference and health reasons — thought that experience on the Upper West Side in 1994 wasn’t pleasant, I would definitely feel uncomfortable giving birth in Israel now.

As a signatory to the World Health Organization’s International Code of Marketing of Breast-Milk Substitutes, Israel is set to follow through on its commitment to promote the breast over the bottle, including the banning of marketing of breast milk substitutes.

As in the U.S., where First Lady Michelle Obama has spoken out in favor of breast-feeding as a means of preventing childhood obesity and where the IRS recently ruled that breast pumps and other nursing supplies qualify for tax breaks, Israel appears to be encouraging women to consider the advantages of making the natural choice. The way I see it, however, Israel is poised to take steps beyond public education, crossing over into coercion territory.

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In the DSK Case, a Silver Lining?

By Elissa Strauss

Getty Images
Strauss-Kahn, after being released from house arrest, with his wife, the journalist Anne Sinclair.

The sexual assault case against the former I.M.F. chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn seems to have all but unraveled. The credibility of the hotel chambermaid who accused DSK of forcing her to perform oral sex and attempting to rape her has been called into question by the defense team, which says that the accuser has been inconsistent in her account of the alleged assault, spoke some damning words to her boyfriend after the incident, and lied on her asylum application. The Manhattan District Attorney’s office is said to be considering dropping the case.

While we still don’t know what went on that afternoon — John Eligonin in The New York Times goes through three possible scenarios based on the evidence — we do know that DSK has a history of being a lothario and there is still something fishy about what happened in his luxury hotel suite, even if it wasn’t outright assault.

But the fact that there is a big chance DSK will walk away from these charges does not mean that this case has been a total loss for the way sexual violence is spoken about and acted upon overall.

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On the Death of Leiby Kletzky, z''l

By Lenore Skenazy

It is with an actually, physically aching heart that I report to you the death of an 8-year-old Brooklyn boy, Leiby Kletzky, who disappeared from a short, solo walk yesterday and was later found in a dumpster. Here is the story.

I bring it up because it seems to prove that the incident that kicked off Free-Range Kids — my letting my 9-year-old ride the New York City subway alone — was foolish, or worse. At the time I said that I felt this was a reasonable and safe thing to do, because I believed in my son, my city and my own parenting. Despite the sorrow I feel even in my joints, I still do.

There are horrible people in the world. There always were, always will be. There were horrible people in the world even when we parents were growing up, and our own parents let us play outside and walk to school and visit our friends on our bikes. Our parents weren’t naive. They knew that we live in a fallen world. They also knew that they had a choice: Keep us locked inside for fear of a tragic, rare worst-case-scenario, or teach us the basics — like never go off with a stranger — and then let us out. They let us out.

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On the Air, Jewish Women Talk Ambition, Sports, Circumcision

By Gabrielle Birkner

The Sisterhood, of course, isn’t the only place where “Jewish women converse.” The blog also co-produces with Lilith magazine a Women’s Roundtable podcast. And Forward editor Jane Eisner co-hosts with Rachel Sklar The Salon, a Jewish Channel television show that brings together Jewish women with a wide range of perspectives.

On the latest Women’s Roundtable, the life and legacy of pioneering feminist E.M. Broner, the San Francisco ballot measure that would outlaw circumcision and misbehaving (male) politicians are the topics that Lilith editors Susan Weidman Schneider, Rabbi Susan Schnur and Sonia Isard join me to discuss.

Meanwhile on the bat mitzvah edition of The Salon, the panelists explore some of the subjects that have been hot recently on The Sisterhood, including the Orthodox basketball star who wears her religious observance on her sleeves and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s views on women and ambition. They also weigh in on the Anthony Weiner sexting scandal and the implications for the Jewish community of New York’s new same-sex marriage law. Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly; Michelle Goldberg, a columnist for The Daily Beast and Tablet, and Ilene Beckerman, the author/illustrator of “Love, Loss and What I Wore” talk with Jane and Rachel.

Listen to The Women’s Roundtable here.

And watch the trailer for 13th episode of The Salon below:


How Did We Get From Betty Ford to Marcus Bachmann?

By Sarah Seltzer

In Curtis Sittenfield’s novel “American Wife,” Laura Bush is re-imagined as Alice, a sympathetic and fairly liberal librarian, traumatized by accidentally causing the death of her high school crush in a car accident, suffering through a secret abortion and later swept off her feet by her cowboy politician husband. Throughout her loyal marriage to this political monster, Alice quietly holds true to her own views while publicly standing by her man — eventually breaking free in a rather tepid climax, to say that she thinks its time to end an unpopular war.

The novel enthralled me in many ways, but its final section, which took place during the presidency, just couldn’t penetrate my own political stances. How could someone with this woman’s sensibilities and convictions, trauma or none, shut herself up and quietly support such a man? Alice’s interesting narrative voice seemed to die once her husband inflicted atrocious policy on his own people and the world, and maybe that was Sittenfield’s ultimate point, but the novel fell flat to me from this moment forward. Alice lost my sympathy, so raw and sore was my anger at the entire Bush clan — fictionalized or real.

This fascinating character lingers in my mind as progressive women nationwide mourn the death of former First Lady Betty Ford, who, in her own way, was one of our own. She was one of ours despite her fealty to her unremarkable Republican husband, who is remembered primarily for pardoning Nixon and telling New York, essentially, to “drop dead.”

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