Sisterhood Blog

Why Jewish Feminists Should Care About the Murder of David Kato

By Elana Maryles Sztokman

Getty Images
At the funeral of murdered activist David Kato, mourners pay their respects.

While the world has been watching in nervous anticipation as the situation in Egypt unfolds, other events on the African continent worthy of our attention seem to be eluding the public eye and miss out on a much-needed outcry — especially from Jewish feminists.

David Kato, a Ugandan teacher and outspoken gay rights activist, was murdered last week in his home. This happened right after Kato won a lawsuit against a local tabloid magazine, Rolling Stone, for publishing his photo and name under a banner calling for the execution of 100 LGBT leaders. “Hang them!” the headline read.

Richmond Blake and Rafaela Zuidema interviewed Kato a couple of weeks ago, and wrote about it on The Huffington Post:

A fast talker with emphatic hand gestures, Kato launched into harrowing stories of a transgender friend who was denied medical care after being gang-raped and a fellow LGBT activist who died from what Kato suspected to be poisoning. In defiance of such tragedies, Kato made himself one of the most visible and outspoken LGBT leaders in Uganda and was unceasing in his efforts. … “There aren’t many people now who are willing to stand up and say they support LGBT rights, but I believe we can find those who are open-minded and show them this is a matter of basic human rights,” Kato said confidently.

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On Tweenage Girls Joining Facebook, Wearing Makeup

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

When I saw this blog post, about attempts by some ultra-Orthodox authorities in Israel to ban Facebook from Haredi homes because the ubiquitous social media site “greatly damages families,” I thought it just another example of the community’s ongoing effort to build the shtetl walls high enough to control people’s behavior.

Then I read this week’s New York magazine cover stories on pornography. Now, New York mag is one of Boychik’s favorite quick reads and I usually pass it along to him after hubs and I are done. But this issue? No way. Next week, he turns 17, and there is no way I’m putting this smut in front of him. The main story is about how social media are contributing to the over-sexualization of teenage girls, and how even 12-year-olds are getting bombarded with hyper-sexual, emotionally disconnected online come-ons. It’s accompanied by pictures of young women in come-hither poses in what appear to be teens’ bedrooms. That there’s a qualifier under the photos — “All models are, by the way, over 18” — doesn’t make it much better. The stories are grotesque and neither well-written nor particularly insightful, and not (attn: New York magazine editors) what I subscribe to New York for.

Bad as that was, it was compounded by the story I woke up to in the Wall Street Journal’s Personal Journal. That article on the front page is about new makeup being marketed to tweenage, and even younger, girls. It includes “before” and “after” shots of a fresh-faced 8-year-old who looks twice that old with the makeup on.

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Debbie Wasserman Schultz Takes On Bill That Would Redefine Rape

By Sarah Seltzer

house.gov
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of South Florida.

I’ve spent the week reporting on the all-out assault against abortion access that’s happening state-by-state in America right now. It’s a scary scene, demonstrating how quickly many lawmakers will move against women’s bodily autonomy once they gain power.

But on the national level, the most headline-worthy move against women has been a new bill in Congress, H.R. 3, the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act” or as NARAL calls it, “Stupak on Steroids.” which would not only strip existing abortion funding, it would redefine “rape” as forcible, leaving most instances of sexual assault in a gray area when it comes to abortion funding. In other words, the government can essentially analyze your rape to determine whether it’s worthy of abortion funding. Irin Carmon at Jezebel has an excellent analysis of why this language, even if it was accidental in intention or not really meant to be codified into law, is dangerous just in its existence. Several bloggers have started a #DearJohn Twitter campaign to draw attention to the bill (the John in question being Speaker of the House Boehner).

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'Graphic Details' Q&A: Sarah Lightman

By Leah Berkenwald

“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, which crossposts regularly with The Sisterhood, is interviewing each of the artists about their work and their experience as a female, Jewish graphic artist. Today we spoke with Sarah Lightman who co-curated the exhibit with Michael Kaminer. Her “Dumped before Valentine’s” series is featured in the exhibit.

Leah Berkenwald: How did you get into cartooning?

Sarah Lightman: Well, firstly I have to admit; I’m not what everyone would consider a ‘Cartoonist’. I make a visual diary of my life that fits more into comics than any other art form and I have found myself very welcome and comfortable in the world of comics.

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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.


Breaking the Drywall Ceiling: Israel's Contracting Pioneer

By Elana Maryles Sztokman

For the first time in Israel’s history, the Association of Contractors and Builders in Rishon Lezion elected a woman as its chair. Ofira Golomev, who is set to replace outgoing head Pini Malcha, expressed satisfaction about this development, and noted the historical significance of her appointment. “History was made this week,” she told reporters, “a radical change.”

Although women take up many administrative positions, this is the first time that a woman has held this senior position in any of the local branches, a fact that highlights just how rampant gender disparities are in Israeli working life. Golomev, an attorney by profession, works with the building department of Rishon Lezion and has been influential in advancing many building projects. She recently sat on the national committee that investigated the treatment of evacuees from Gush Katif, and she was also a member of the managing committee of the Nature and Parks Authority.

Established in 1949, the Association has 1,500 members and is recognized as the official representative of Israel’s building industry. In practice, it is a very powerful group in Israel that has a strong influence on building and construction practices around Israel.

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Gabrielle Giffords's Husband Faces a Choice That a Woman Would Not

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Getty Images
Rep. Gabrielle Giffords hugs her spacesuit-clad husband Mark Kelly in 2008.

Representative Gabrielle Giffords’ husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, is facing a big decision: As Giffords begins a long rehabilitation after being shot in the head earlier this month, should he take the helm of the space shuttle Endeavor when it takes off in April on a two-week mission to the International Space Station, or not?

According to this New York Times story, the politician’s husband has long been preparing to captain what may be the last space shuttle flight and, were he to continue on in that role, would have to focus on intensive training from this point forward.

What fascinates me is that he’s even considering it. A woman, were she in his space-boots, would be expected to put taking care of her husband first and set aside her professional ambitions. Our culture wouldn’t even tolerate a woman’s ambivalence about it, let alone serious consideration of proceeding.

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Where’s the Concern for Women’s Morals in ‘Conscience Clauses’?

By Sarah Seltzer

A small case in Iowa seems representative of what’s happening in regards to women’s bodies these days. A woman, suffering from uterine bleeding, needed a medication to stop the bleeding. Her nurse called in a valid prescription, but things didn’t go smoothly. As Irin Carmon at Jezebel reports, when the nurse spoke to a pharmacist at an Idaho Walgreen’s, the pharmacist “demanded to know whether the patient had had an abortion, which the nurse refused due to privacy laws. When the nurse asked for a referral, the pharmacist hung up.”

It was a shocking story, and showed how many “pro-life” activists are more concerned with shaming women and feeling smug than actually saving life (although to be fair, even some who call themselves anti-abortion activivsts were appalled by the pharmacist’s callousness). While legal action was sought by Planned Parenthood, which employed the nurse, it’s not clear at this point that the pharmacist directly violated broader so-called “conscience clauses” in place in Idaho, even though the patient’s life was potentially in danger.

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Don't Let Men Get the Last Word

By Elana Maryles Sztokman

Last night, I had a real moment of despair. I found myself thinking, in order for women to thrive, we really do need, as Virgina Woolf said so long ago, a room of one’s own.

This moment took place in an unlikely venue, in a room almost of our own, as it were. It was a meeting of my local municipality’s women’s council, a volunteer political group composed of the most innovative, intelligent and hard-working women who support the professional work of the Mayor’s Advisor on the Status of Women. This should be the place where women can take charge and set a real social and political agenda. But all it took was one man in the room to dominate in order for all the women’s ideas to get lost.

When I first saw the man in the room, I thought, this is really progressive — a man has joined the women’s council to support women’s work. Last year, he presented a plan to create a sort of administrative center for women’s small businesses, or at least that’s what I thought it was. Turns out, he is merely promoting himself as all-around consultant and adviser to women looking to start a business. As self-serving as it is, it would have been okay had he demonstrated even the slightest respect for women. But he did not.

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'Black Bus' Looks at Women Who Left Hasidic Life

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

In the movie “The Black Bus,” — a selection at the New York Jewish Film Festival — filmmaker Anat Zuria uses the Haredi-run “mehadrin buses” as a metaphor for the lives of two young women who have broken away from their Hasidic communities in Israel.

The movie introduces us to a young woman, photographer-law student Shulamit Weinfeld and re-introduces us to another, Sara Einfeld, a young mother who left the Gur Hasidic community with her two very young children a few years ago. Einfeld gained much attention for her blog “A Hole in the Sheet,” though the blog now seems to have disappeared.

“Black Bus” is a close look at the price paid by women who leave their Hasidic communities. Weinfeld and Einfeld are unable to have contact with their parents or siblings or friends. Even as they explain — to the filmmaker, to Haredi Jews who come to talk with them in the movie — why staying in the community was impossible, you see how much pain they’re in. Particularly heartbreaking are scenes where Einfeld’s young son asks why they can’t go visit his grandmother, and one in which a visitor catches a glimpse of scars where Einfeld cut herself on her inner arms. In the movie, which was originally made for broadcast on Israel television, Weinfeld has left her community just weeks before, after breaking free of an engagement that her parents forced her into. Her sense of abandonment by her parents, and her vulnerability, is heartrending.

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Prime Ribs: 'Bra-gate'; Ultra-Orthodox Women in the Army; Circumcision and Cervical Cancer

By Elissa Strauss

The Israeli army approves enlistment of 10 ultra-Orthodox women.


Teenagers are turning toward plastic surgery to avoid bullying.


The most liberal Orthodox Jewish rabbinic organization in the United States rejected a proposal to admit women.

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What 'Funny Girl' Could Teach 'Black Swan' and 'Country Strong'

By Elissa Strauss

The fact that “Black Swan” and “Country Strong” are both movies about women who are ravaged by fame is hardly a spoiler. Anyone who has seen the films’ trailers — Natalie Portman’s bloody back and Gwyneth Paltrow’s teary battles with the bottle — gets a sense of how these characters’ quests for beauty and success quickly becomes poisonous.

As an alternative to these ravaged women, I would love to take this opportunity to recommend that everyone watches, or re-watches, Funny Girl. Yes, its a bit schmaltzy, a tad long, and, well, a musical, but it still, over 40-years later, manages to be one of the most inspiring portrayals of female ambition I have ever seen.

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'Graphic Details' Q&A: Michael Kaminer

By Leah Berkenwald

What began with a 2008 story about autobiographical comics by Jewish women in the Forward has developed into a touring museum exhibit. Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women is the first exhibit to explore what co-curator Michael Kaminer calls a “unique and prolific niche of graphic storytelling” by Jewish women. The exhibit features the work of 18 Jewish women artists, some of which is being seen by the public for the first time.

We at JWA were taken with this project. We spoke with Michael Kaminer, co-curator and author of “Graphic Confessions of Jewish Women,” the Forward article that started it all. This is the first in a series of interviews; we will be posting weekly interviews with the artists and samples of their work.

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'Devora's' All-Woman Production Pushes the Feminist Envelope

By Elana Maryles Sztokman

There is a moment during the performance of the play “Judge! The Song of Devora” when you’re not entirely convinced that this is, in fact, an all-women production. When Sisera, the legendary 12th century Canaanite general described in Judges (chapters four and five) appears on stage played by the inimitable Yael Valier of Efrat, the performance is so convincing as the womanizing, megalomaniacal warrior, that you can momentarily forget that a woman is playing the part. Valier, bursting with charisma, nuance, personality, humor and expressiveness, has the wonderful acting gift of letting you forget for a moment where you are.

Rebecca Kowalsky
Yael Valier as Canaanite general Sisera in “Judge! The Song of Devorah.”

“Judge!” an original play written by Valier and director Toby Klein Greenwald of the religious theater group “Raise Your Spirits”, tells the story of how the biblical heroine Deborah led the Israelites to victory over the Canaanites and provided the Israelites with forty years of peace, their first extended period of calm since Joshua led the people into the Promised Land. Deborah is also the only recorded woman leader of the ancient Israelites, and as such the story raises provocative issues about gender, leadership and Jewish life — then and now.

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Hadassah's Leadership on Madoff, Fundraising and Growth

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Hadassah: The Women’s Zionist Organization of America, has just voted in a new national president, so we thought it would be a good time to check in with the venerable but embattled organization.

Left, Hadassah’s outgoing president, Nancy Falchuk and incoming president Marcie Natan.

Hadassah recently agreed to pay $45 million to settle with the court-appointed trustee in the Bernard Madoff bankruptcy. The settlement was first announced on December 9, 2010. After investing $33 million over the two decades before Madoff’s Ponzi scheme collapsed in 2008, Hadassah withdrew $137 million. Hadassah raises money in the U.S. and internationally to fund Hadassah hospital and other projects in Israel. The group’s Madoff problem, coupled with the recession, led Hadassah to lay off about one third of its staff in 2008 and 2009, and to undergo a restructuring over the past two years.

Read a Q&A with incoming national president Marcie Natan and outgoing national president Nancy Falchuk after the jump.

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Why My Mother Spent Her 89th Birthday at a West Bank Checkpoint

By Rachel Biale

My mother recently celebrated her 89th birthday in a most unusual place for a party — the Tayasir Checkpoint, situated in the northeastern West Bank, halfway between Nablus and Jenin.

Sivan Shadmon
The author’s mother, who spent her 89th birthday at Tayasir Checkpoint in Israel’s West Bank.

Barren hills, not yet softened by the green grasses that grow in winters with good rainfall, crowd around an intersection of two roads. One road is open to cars with Israeli license plates, like the one my mother traveled in with her friend Yudit, as well as those of the settlers who live in nearby Jewish outposts. The other road, which heads toward Nablus or Jenin, is open only to Palestinian vehicles. On the Palestinian section of the road is what I refer to here as a “checkpoint,” but the Hebrew term, “machsom,” or barrier, describes it more accurately.

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The Life of Hannah Senesh — on View

By Elissa Strauss

“Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame/Blessed is the flame that burns in the secret fastness of the heart/Blessed is the heart with strength to stop its beating for honor’s sake/Blessed is the match consumed in kindling fame.”

These words were written by Hannah Senesh, just before she entered Hungary on a ultimately fatal mission to rescue Jews during World War II. That Senesh lived up to her poetic edict explains why she’s widely remembered as a Jewish heroine nearly 70 years after her death.

Hannah Senesh in a Hungarian army uniform as a Purim costume

Senesh’s story is the subject of a show at the Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York, which is the first major museum exhibition to focus on Senesh’s life; the exhibit, on view through August 7, tells her story through her personal artifacts, diary, and poetry.

Senesh was a Hungarian-born Jew who immigrated to what is now Israel at age 18 and roughed it on an early kibbutz, before joining the British Army on a special mission. Her unit was ordered to parachute into Yugoslavia and then cross into Hungary. There, she would help the Allies set up escape-routes, bring aid to trapped Jews, and attempt to help those Jews escape. Unfortunately, Senesh was captured on the border of Yugoslavia and Hungary, where she was interrogated by authorities who wanted to extract information from her. Senseh refused to talk, and was subsequently tried for treason and executed by firing squad on November 7, 1944. She was 23.

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On Becoming Comfortable in the Kitchen

By Chanel Dubofsky

Recently, I had dinner with K, a friend from college. We sat in her spacious one-bedroom apartment, where she lives alone, and we drank wine and ate steak, and talked about when we were 20-years-old, living in a tiny apartment in Amherst, Mass., thinking about whether or not we could afford to include fresh broccoli with our box of pasta.

I remember a lot of things about that apartment — the TV that didn’t work, the roommate who wore homemade skirts over her pajama bottoms, the dinner parties, my introduction to kale. It was also the first time I realized the repercussions of having never been taught to cook. K and my other roommates dealt with food with confidence; they had things like knife skills and knew the difference between baking soda and baking powder.

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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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