Sisterhood Blog

Communal Pressures To Get a Get

By Jenny Merkin

I come from a family where halacha is championed alongside the freedom and power of the individual. It is a hard balance to forge, and it is one that comes with contradictions and hurdles. Recently in the news was the story of a Capitol Hill staffer who would not grant his wife a get, or a Jewish divorce decree. On the one hand, I find there to be something sacred about the untouchable nature of halacha. On the other hand, I cannot support a belief system that allows for women’s freedoms to be taken away without any real repercussions according to the law.

I emailed a New York Times article about the divorce dispute to a friend, who subsequently expressed his dismay that the Orthodox belief system could survive with such an edict intact. I argued that at least the Orthodox community is taking measures against those men who refuse their wife a get. At present, a common communal response against a man who leaves his wife an agunah, or a chained woman, is social pressure and threats of being ostracized, in addition to other halachic creations like prenuptial agreements and inserting minor mistakes in the wedding ceremony that could allow grounds for a halachic divorce without needing a get.

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Knesset Feminists: Meet the Women Who Left Labor with Barak

By Elana Maryles Sztokman

This has been an interesting week for Knesset women. And when I say “interesting,” I am possibly referring to the famous Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” These are interesting times for women MKs for sure.

The first bit of news was that the new renegade party of Ehud Barak has two women in it. That may not sound like a lot, but when you consider that Barak’s party only has five people (including himself), you realize that the new party holds an all-time Knesset record of 40% women! That’s double the proportion of the rest of the Knesset, which has 23 women out of 120, or 19%.

Of the two women in Barak’s new party, one, MK Orit Noked, the newly appointed Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, has been blasted by her supporters for joining with Barak. Noked is supposed to be representing the kibbutz movement, and kibbutz leaders are understandably fuming at her for not even dropping a hint about her plans, never mind consulting with them about the move. Now, the kibbutz movement, which has historically been the mainstay of the socialist left, is being represented by a member of a self-proclaimed centrist party that is in coalition with some of the most right-wing parties in existence in Israel.

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Sonia Peres, Reluctant Political Wife, Passes Away

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

Sonia Peres, wife of Israeli President Shimon Peres, died January 20 as she had lived — quietly and privately, as far as she could get from the spotlight enjoyed by her gregarious, political husband. She was 87.

She died in her modest apartment in suburban Ramat Aviv, far from the grandeur of the presidential residence. The Peres marriage, particularly in its later years, always seemed to be a terribly sad story. The relationship was not scandal-ridden, but it seemed that two very good and well-meaning people were terribly mismatched: Sonia clearly hated public attention as intensely as Shimon craved it.

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(Jewish) Mothering on My Own Terms is the Converse of “Tiger Mothering”

By Renee Ghert-Zand

I had decided that I was going to stay out of the “Tiger Mother” fray, but a visit to the local public library made me change my mind.

If the number of holds at the library on Amy Chua’s “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” (83) as compared to those on Wendy Mogel’s new parenting book, “The Blessing of a B Minus: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Resilient Teenagers” (7) is any indication, then the answer to Allison Kaplan Sommer’s recent post asking whether Chinese mothers leave Jewish mothers in the dust would be a resounding “yes.” And that worries me.

In fact, Kaplan Sommer referenced a Jewlicious post that mentioned Mogel’s book. Being that it was Jewlicious, Mogel’s main point about the importance of letting kids screw up, learn from their mistakes, and find their own way (within reason) was humorously paraphrased for maximum satirical effect. I, on the other hand, am dead serious about following Mogel’s sage advice, given the fact that it is possible — if not probable — that the kind of pressure put on kids by the kind of parenting advocated by Chua has contributed in some way to the recent cluster of teen suicides that has plagued my over-achieving community of Palo Alto, California.

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Youth Groups Take On LGBT Bullying

By Elana Maryles Sztokman

When “Dan”, a 16-year-old boy from the center of Israel left for school on Tuesday morning, he told his mother that everything was fine and he was okay. That afternoon, Dan committed suicide.

Dan’s mother had no idea how bad his situation had become, she told the Army Radio in an interview last week. The most significant clue into Dan’s state of mind was the computer screen that Dan left on. It showed his Facebook page, which contained some of the taunting messages that his friends had sent him that day. “I’d kill you,” one message read, “but it’s wrong to be cruel to animals”.

Reports emerging from the school — an elite institution that is most actively recruited by the Air Force — paint a horrifying portrait. According to YNet, Dan was mocked, humiliated, beaten and turned into a regular object of scorn. While many students are claiming that it was all “nothing,” that the media is blowing events out of proportion, some other students have expressed deep shame. “Everyone picked on him because he was small”, a girl told reporters.

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In Magazine Journalism, It’s Nowhere Near ‘The End of Men’

By Elissa Strauss

Whenever I see “best of” lists, award finalists and even table of contents, I can’t help but immediately scan them to see how women fared. Because of this little tic, I find myself regularly complaining to my husband about the lopsided male-to-female ratio in the bylines of the highbrow magazines we receive, which include The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and The New Republic. He often tells me I am being a bit neurotic, and that women are, overall, pretty well represented.

But after months and months of my informal surveys I was pretty sure I saw a pattern, so I decided to take a look at the numbers. A quick calculation of all non-cultural criticism stories in these three magazines over the past year shows that women trail men when it comes to bylines. The New Republic scored the worst, with only 13% of its stories penned by women. The Atlantic had 22% and The New Yorker (where I didn’t take in account fiction or Talk of the Town, in addition to criticism) had 30% of its stories written by women. (I didn’t take into account cultural criticism because that is an area in which women are generally well represented.) Over the past year, The New Republic had 138 men and 21 women listed on its tables of contents, The Atlantic had 100 men and 29 women, and The New Yorker had 170 men and 73 women.

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Do Chinese 'Tiger Mothers' Leave Jewish Mothers in the Dust?

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

For those of you not plugged into the ongoing chatter in the parenting blogosphere, the buzz over the past week has been the great debate over Chinese so-called Tiger Mothers.

It seems that Yale Law Professor Amy Chua’s piece in the Wall Street Journal struck a chord to which no writing or blogging mother could remain indifferent.

The piece was an excerpt from her book, which has since rocketed up the Amazon charts titled The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.

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How Debbie Friedman's Once Controversial Music Became Canonical

By Joanna Selznick Dulkin

The Jewish world lost a great light with the untimely death of Debbie Friedman on January 9. She was an inspiration to multiple generations of song-leaders and Jewish musicians, congregants, campers, students, friends, rabbis, cantors and educators. Her impact on Jewish music and worship has been so widely felt across the Jewish spectrum, across movements, across generations and across oceans that it leaves a massive, gaping, black hole —dense with energy and aching with potential.

Debbie’s music provided the soundtrack to my childhood, whether it was her “Alef Bet” in Hebrew school, “Im Tirzu” and “Not By Might” at camp, or “Miriam’s Song” and “T’fillat HaDerech” at NFTY conventions. I sang Debbie’s “L’chi Lach” at my confirmation, at my high school graduation and again at my college baccalaureate. She was a personal mentor to me at a crucial period in my life when I was “coming up” in the song-leading world, and helped me land my first job when I moved from California to New York to work as a freelance Jewish musician in the years before cantorial school.

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The Women of the New York Jewish Film Festival

By Elissa Strauss

Eccentric and sure-footed Jewesses populate some of the non-fiction films at this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival, which runs through January 27 in New York City. This group includes two pretty young women who choose to leave behind the ultra-Orthodox communities of their youth, a documentarian who chronicles her dating life, a grieving mother who battles to cremate her daughter in Israel, the plucky writer and activist Grace Paley and Israeli teens who talk politics with their Palestinian and Arab-Israeli counterparts. 
Here are the films in which these women appear:

A new documentary about the writer and activist, Grace Paley, above, is featured at the New York Jewish film festival.

My So-Called Enemy begins in July 2002, when 22 Palestinian, Israeli and Arab-Israeli teenage girls go to the United States to take part in Building Bridges for Peace, a leadership program that teaches young women about peace-building and conflict resolution. A suicide bombing that takes place while the girls are overseas forces them to speak earnestly about how living in a war zone affects their daily lives. Director Lisa Gossels then follows six of the attendees over the course of seven years as they reconcile their experiences at camp with the harsh realities of life during and after the second intifada, with Gal, an Israeli in Tel Aviv, and Rezan, a Palestinian Christian in East Jerusalem.

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Taking on the Rabbinate — on YouTube

By Elana Sztokman

Vered Shavit did everything she could to avoid the Israeli rabbinate. When she got married in 2005, she flew all the way to Cyprus for a civil ceremony, then had a Reform ceremony in Israel and never registered in Israel as married. But it didn’t matter. Despite everything, when she and the man decided this year to get divorced, she had to do it with a get, at the rabbinate.

“I didn’t want to get married in an Orthodox way because the religious institution is not a part of my life, and it is far from my beliefs and ideals,” Shavit, 37, told Ynet. “It seems weird for me that people that have nothing to do with religion and its traditions suddenly have to connect to it for their wedding. It seems extremely fake.”

It’s worse than that. It’s a dangerous intrusion of a state-backed religious fundamentalism into people’s private religious lives and personal practice. It’s downright frightening.

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Remembering Debbie Friedman: Showing Up and Being Present

By Joy Levitt

I hadn’t spoken to Debbie Friedman in many weeks and had only seen her once since she moved back to California. Still, I had to try. I sent her an email asking if she was coming to New York anytime soon, that I needed her. Ten minutes later, she emailed me back. “Is it Deb?” she asked. I’ll never know how she remembered that my cousin, whom she had seen at many Healing Services that she and I led together at the JCC in Manhattan, was ill. I’ll never know how she knew that my cousin was dying. I only know that everyone who knew Debbie has a story like this.

She got on a plane about four weeks ago and came to New York. Despite the fact that she was struggling herself physically, she came up to Mamaroneck and led an exquisite healing service for 70 people in my cousin’s living room. My cousin was fully present for the service — her sons and husband and father held tightly by her music, her spirit and the community in the room that felt so grateful to be there and give voice to their love.

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In Giffords's Assassination Attempt, Misogyny Exposed

By Sarah Seltzer

It’s been a roller-coaster week of emotions in the wake of the Gabrielle Giffords shooting that horrified the nation last Saturday. On Wednesday, Sarah Palin confused and appalled Jewish groups by claiming that she was the victim of a “blood libel,” — a particularly curious choice of words, given that Giffords is Jewish. The same day, President Obama used the power of his oratory to attempt to bring hope and unity to an angry, bewildered nation. Obama urged us to join together and avoid recriminations, and he was right in sounding that note. But without directly pointing fingers I think we do have to interrogate our national character and ask why so many of us were shattered, but not surprised, about Saturday’s events?

When I first found out about the shooting, it was through a breaking news alert on my phone. Not near a computer, I had no idea if the shooting was a random rampage, a targeted attack, a product of a lone psycho or an ideologue. As the daughter of baby boomers traumatized by the wave of political assassinations of the ‘60s, and as a political writer who fretted about all the violent potential in the last two years — semiautomatic guns at political rallies, leaders spewing hatred tinged with menace, budget cuts and job loss cutting off help to the desperate and mentally disturbed — I saw a pot primed to boil over.

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Watching Sunsets, Davening Mincha, Celebrating Trees

By Elana Maryles Sztokman

I was talking to my friend Paul the other day about Hawaii. The conversation took place during a rather mundane, everyday stressful event (grocery shopping with kids) so it’s possible that at that particular moment, Hawaii seemed even nicer than usual. Nevertheless, when Paul asked me how my recent trip to Hawaii was, all I could think about was the sunset.

“For many people on Maui, life revolves around the sunset,” I told him. It’s true. When I would make appointments — I was invited by the Jewish Congregation of Maui to consult on education and development — people would ask to time them before sunset so we could talk and watch the sunset at the same time. Once, when I asked for directions near the beach, the response was, “Soon everyone will be coming out to watch the sunset, so I’m sure someone will be able to help you.” Facebook pages of Hawaiians are replete with sunset photos, and conversations often involve comparing tonight’s sunset with those of previous nights.

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On Broadsheet's Demise

By Elissa Strauss

Last week Salon announced that Broadsheet, a trailblazer for feminist blogs like this one, and breeding ground for great feminist writers like Rebecca Traister, and Tracy Clark-Flory, was being shut down.

Salon’s executive editor Kerry Lauerman explained:

No feature in Salon’s history kicked up the amount of righteous dust and ad hominem rage as Broadsheet, which debuted in 2005 and filed its last regular post on Dec. 21. We’re immensely proud of the role it’s played raising intensely important questions about women’s issues in politics, pop culture and way beyond. For much of the last year, Broadsheet has been a one-woman show performed by Tracy Clark-Flory. She’s done a terrific job, but it’s time for her to move on to focus her attention on stories that she’s most interested in — analyses and reporting on sex, love and relationships — and stop running Broadsheet.

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The Poetry of Being an Expectant Father

By Jake Marmer

Jake Marmer, who writes about poetry for the Forward, is an excited father-to-be. He shares what it’s like to be an expectant dad in this piece of performance poetry, titled “Kicks”:

Marmer is working toward his Ph.D. in comparative literature at CUNY Graduate Center and developing the Jazz Talmud Project, which combines poetry and music in neo-Talmudic performances. His next performance is tonight at the Cell Theater. Information is at www.jakemarmer.wordpress.com.


Questioning Debbie Friedman's Private Life

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

I am disgusted by what someone who goes by “DLevy” has written about Debbie Friedman on the Jewschool blog, breaching basic standards of dignity and respect, and what people are sending around the Twitterverse. As Debbie’s funeral is livestreamed, people watching and posting comments are conjecturing about whether her partner will be named.

I’ve been asked to respond to this, or else never would have discussed it publicly, because Debbie would not have wanted her personal life bandied about. The privacy and dignity with which she lived her life – all aspects of her life – should be respected, not tossed aside to satisfy someone else’s prurient curiosity or politics.

Debbie was not in the closet. Neither did she ride floats at a gay pride parade. She was, quite simply, a private person. She did not shout from the rooftops. She responded to alienation and injustice through the music she wrote that changed the way we pray.

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Some Scholarly Looks at Women's Hair Coverings

By Elana Maryles Sztokman

Jewish women’s head covering is once again in the news, a heated topic among rabbinic men who are obviously not afraid of a little invective when it comes to women’s bodies.

The latest item is an incendiary letter by a Canadian Haredi rabbi named Shlomo Miller. Miller was responding to a scholarly article by Rabbi Michael Broyde in the journal “Tradition” that demonstrates that head covering is not a commandment written in stone, as it were, but “merely” a rabbinic prohibition that evolved over generations and therefore has room for interpretation and flexibility.

Miller, in response, said of Broyde’s article that “all the lengthy diatribe therein is nothingness and an evil spirit,” and proceeded to compare him to “Acher,” a notorious heretic in Jewish history. So much for reasoned debate.

Broyde’s article was actually written more than a year ago, making Miller’s reaction a bit late in coming. Nevertheless, whether because Miller is a religious celebrity or because his language was so harsh, it seems that Miller’s letter is buzzing the Orthodox Jewish blogosphere.

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Sending Our Prayers Higher for Debbie Friedman

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

As our previous post noted, Debbie Friedman is seriously ill and needs our prayers. She has a special place in my heart, as she does in the hearts of countless others, because Debbie is an extraordinary person with extraordinary gifts and an extraordinarily generous spirit, and she has made a remarkable impact on our lives. No one else, besides Shlomo Carlebach, has changed modern Jewish worship the way Debbie has.

With her music, written over the past 40 years or so, Debbie bridges heaven and earth. She takes text straight out of Torah, the writings of the Prophets and the prayer book, and sets them to music that is brilliant in its simplicity. The melodies are easy to learn, and the refrains usually perfect to sing in rounds. It joins those singing together in community and elevates their spirits. It’s hard to overstate the impact of being at one of her feminist seders or healing services. As you sing you can stop thinking, and just be in the prayer-songs. Your desperation, fears and sadness ride up on the wave of her powerful music and you feel connected to God, as well as to everyone singing with you. When you finally do stop singing, you find that your soul has been soothed.

Debbie, who has described herself to me as “a vessel” for God’s power, has long tried to bring that experience to as many people as she can, going to the bedside of anyone seriously ill and bringing them comfort when little else can.

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Mi Shebeirach for Debbie Friedman

By Leah Berkenwald

Fifteen years ago today, Debbie Friedman gave a sold out concert at Carnegie Hall, commemorating 25 years as one of the Jewish community’s most beloved singers. Yesterday, Friedman was hospitalized for pnemonia. JTA reports that she is currently sedated and on a respirator.

Debbie Friedman began recording on her own label in 1972 and has since recorded 20 albums that have sold over 200,000 copies. Today, her music is sung in synagogues across the U.S. and has become so widespread that, for many, it is thought of as “traditional.” Her “Mi Sheberach” prayer for healing has become the fastest adopted liturgical melody in both the Reform and Conservative movements. This week, we sing the “Mi Sheberach” for her.

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.


Court: Israeli Women To the Back of the Bus … on a Voluntary Basis

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

Is there such a thing as “voluntary segregation”? Apparently, the Israeli Supreme Court thinks so, according to its disappointing ruling today regarding the ongoing controversy on gender-segregated bus lines in the ultra-Orthodox community. (Previous Sisterhood posts on bus segregation can be found here, here, here, and here.)

The bad news for women’s advocacy groups and others unhappy with females being relegated to the back of the bus is that the segregated lines were not banned completely.

Instead, the Court, while acknowledging that state enforcement of segregation is illegal and speaking out strongly against it, upheld the Transportation Ministry’s official policy in which “everyone may sit wherever they want on the bus, even in “mehadrin” lines, and drivers must work to prevent passengers from being forced, through violence and other means, to sit elsewhere. However, should passengers decide to voluntarily sit according to gender, it will be permissible.”

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