I’m not one to frequently applaud the approach to female modesty in the ultra-Orthodox community. Particularly during the hottest days of an Israeli summer, seeing Haredi women perspire under layers of clothing, wigs, hats, and heavy wool stockings makes me sweat in sympathy.
And over the past years, we’ve seen the birth of the Jewish burqa-wearers, embracing the most uncomfortable of severe Islamic restrictions — a fully covered body and a veil over the face.
That is why I was pleased, even inspired, after seeing the photos in the Israeli press of the men of the Hasidic Bratslav sect setting off on their annual pilgrimage to the grave of their spiritual father, Rabbi Nahman. Tucked under their hats were black cloths covering their faces, that they were wearing for the airplane journey so as not to defile their vision with unclean images.
Prime Ribs From the Week’s News:
• There were no mini-skirts or corsets — or men — at this recent Jerusalem fashion show, featuring tsnius clothing for observant Jewish women.
• The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles this summer launched a blog all about mah jongg — the tile game that has long been a favorite pastime of Jewish women of a certain age. Blogger Elaine Sandberg takes on such pressing mah jongg issues as “the ‘trauma’ of finding a hand” and the “savvy discarding” of tiles — and she ends each post with “May the tiles be with you.”
• At a time when American colleges are graduating more women than men, a Washington Post blogger explains why “women’s colleges are not passé.”
I’m enjoying this thread on gossip that Sisterhood contributor Sarah Seltzer has taken up has taken up, because I love talk and I love information. And when you combine the two it’s likely you’ll cross the border into the realm of gossip. Does this mean that by extension I also love gossip? Sometimes I do. Other times I most definitely do not.
The High Holy Day liturgy takes on the issue of gossip — it includes “For the sin that we have committed before You in judging our neighbor/ And for the sin we have committed against You in slander and idle gossip” — so it’s a fitting time to reflect on the power of talk and its effects on others.
Libi bamizrach va’ani b’sof ma’arav. “My heart is in the East, but I am in the farthest West.” Those were the sentiments of Yehuda Halevi, the Jewish-Spanish physician and poet who lived in the 11th and 12th centuries.
They are also mine.
However, while for Halevi, “East” represented the Land of Israel, for me it symbolizes both that and my other cultural home — New York City. When you live on the western edge of the North American continent, as I do, both seem very far away.
Recently, a friend announced that she was not attending High Holy Days services this year. It was not a sign of protest but rather of resignation. Having attended services last year with a toddler, there was no way she was going to try this year with two small children. Even when a congregation offers tot services and babysitting options, the thought of getting to synagogue for Rosh Hashanah with small children can be daunting. But skipping services does not mean giving up on the meaning of the holiday — and here are some ways to do that:
As a 21st-century version of the balebuste, Sisterhood contributor Elissa Strauss wrote of the joys of being an organized, industrious wife. Although Strauss’s balebuste inclinations were recognized when she was still a little girl, one may argue that she officially entered the ranks of true balebuste-hood when she became a wife. (Other Sisterhood contributors weighed in on embracing or rejecting the balebuste moniker here, here, and here.)
In fact, my 1968 version of Leo Rosten’s “The Joys of Yiddish” defines a balebuste as “the wife of a baleboost or An excellent and praiseworthy homemaker, A female owner, A female manager, A bossy woman.” Furthermore, Rosten goes on to explain that — like Strauss — he was most impressed “as a child, by the obsession with cleanliness in our household, and the scorn with which untidiness was castigated.”
My own model of the quintessential balebuste is a rather untidy, creatively chaotic 29-year-old single Jewish woman: My daughter, Lara.
Amy Alkon, the witty syndicated advice columnist behind “The Advice Goddess,” thinks rudeness has reached epidemic proportions.
Alkon opens her book “I See Rude People” with a description of being subjected to a stranger’s decibel-crushing cell phone conversation. And woe to the person who shouts out his phone number within earshot of Alkon. She’s at the ready to take down that number and call him back to tell him how rude it is to be conducting loud personal conversations in public spaces.
The L.A.-based Alkon is an advice columnist for the 21st century — grappling with the intricacies of what constitutes polite behavior in these chaotic and unprecedented technological times. “People are basically the same as they always were,” she told The Sisterhood during a recent phone interview. “Technology enables rude people to disseminate rudeness faster and more effectively.”
During a recent visit to New York, Rabbi Daniel Sperber — to date the best-known Orthodox religious authority to back the idea of Orthodox women’s ordination — spoke with The Sisterhood about the evolution of Jewish law.
Sperber — a Talmud professor at Bar-Ilan University and the author of, most recently, “Women and Men in Communal Prayer: Halakhic Perspectives” and “On Changes in Jewish Liturgy: Options and Limitations” — gave his imprimatur to the ordination of Maharat Sara Hurwitz last year. When Hurwitz’s mentor, Rabbi Avi Weiss later changed her title to “rabba,” they faced a wave of opposition from the Rabbinical Council of America. The RCA ultimately negotiated an agreement with Weiss, who backed away from the new title and pledged not to use the term “ordination” at Yeshivat Maharat, which Weiss founded.
Natalie Angier doesn’t like to be called, “Ma’am.”
The honorific was the subject of this recent article that Angier — a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer and the author of several books including “Woman: an Intimate Geography” — published last weekend in The New York Times.
The article’s subtitle reads, “Defenders of the honorific say it is meant to confer respect. So why are some women rebelling against the term?” The answer, according to Angier’s piece, is because the moniker makes them feel flattened, generic, de-sexualized, or just plain old and fat. Some women feel that this ostensible sign of respect really indicates that its user wants to create distance, to not really engage with you as an individual.
But I am a bit tired of all this ado about nothing.
Alma Heckman’s JWA post about snark, yentes and gossip sent me on a further etymological treasure hunt for the roots of the word “gossip” — which as Heckman notes, went from positive, genderless connotations to a positive female one before arriving at its current incarnation. Gossips in England were once a group of women, a sisterhood of aunties, if you will, who enforced morality and the social order in local areas. That was before the concept was twisted and turned into something negative.
There’s no question that gossip remains gendered, and maybe with reason. We have long lived in a society where it’s easier for men to initiate direct confrontation or indicate disapproval.
Women who do so are labeled shrewish — or worse. So the notion of having to vent or share information through backchannels is one that women may have historically had to embrace. Of course, with Mama Grizzlies running around being blunt and proud and men like TMZ founder Harvey Levin and gossip blogger Perez Hilton taking charge of snark, these lines are getting blurred. The gendered connotations haven’t faded, but we remain faced with a divide between healthy and unhealthy chatter.
When striptease-as-exercise first appeared on the fitness scene, nearly a decade ago, I was positive that it would be a flash-in-the-pan fad. So I just ignored it, and haven’t paid it much attention since. But then, just the other day, while checking out the on-demand exercise classes on cable, I saw that one of my options in the dance category was “Urban Striptease.” Come on, Time Warner Cable! I then discovered that in addition to this class, there was an entire category of workouts titled “Sexy for Summer,” under which there were classes such as “Sexy Chair Routine” where it was recommended that I “use the unique combination to flirt!” Combination of what — sexy and chair? — I wasn’t sure.
Well it looks that while I was busy ignoring striptease-as-exercise, the genre has become increasingly popular, spreading around globe. Just this past week, newspapers in Mumbai, India, Antioch, Calif.,, Tampa, Fla., and Bristol, England have written about the arrival of these workouts, which can involve stilettos, feather boas, and “sexy pouts.”
I’ve been summoned to give wedding advice. Well, I along with 156 other wedding guests. Two of my friends are marrying each other in Upstate New York. And while they’ve known each other since their Hebrew School days they’ve only begun dating as adults. It’s all very sweet and loving and good.
This week they sent out an email to their wedding guests letting us know about a Quaker tradition that will be incorporated into their Jewish wedding: Before the blessing of the rings, guests will be able to offer well-wishes and advice to this couple, based on the religious tradition of “witnessing.”
I want to be a part of this ritual. But as an unmarried person I felt that any advice I could offer would be tempered by my marital status. After all, isn’t the best part of advice that it comes from someone else’s lived experiences?
In late August of 2005, when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, I was lying in a hospital bed in Boston getting nasty medicine through an IV line and receiving all nourishment through another tube. I was feeling pretty sorry for myself until I turned on the generally useless TV and saw what was — and was not — happening in New Orleans. The images of desperate people on rooftops, the misery at the Superdome, water flooding into Charity Hospital made me wonder if my illness and the treatment I was receiving for it were causing me to have delusions. Alas, the devastation was all too real.
It never occurred to me then that the Jews of New Orleans were suffering. If I was even aware that New Orleans had a large Jewish community with deep roots in the region, I assumed that Jewish homes, synagogues, schools were all on high ground, safe from the toxic water that was wrecking African-American neighborhoods. This was not the case as you can see from these pictures on Flickr, collected as part of “Katrina’s Jewish Voices” (KJV), the Jewish Women’s Archive project to document the Jewish community’s experience during and after the storm. While Jewish New Orleans was spared the near-total annihilation of the Lower Ninth Ward, Jewish families were displaced, homes flooded, synagogues destroyed, Torahs damaged beyond repair.
It’s 3:30 a.m. and I’m getting dressed. We have to leave right now in order to arrive by sunrise. I put on warm socks and grab sweatshirts because, even though it’s August in Maui, the mountain peak we’re headed to is freezing. I’m finding it hard to imagine being cold, but I’m covered and we’re off.
We get to the foot of Mount Haleakala at 5 a.m. The stars are still out, but the park ranger tells us we’re late, that the site is already crowded, that next time we should plan to arrive 30-45 minutes earlier. We drive in zig-zags up the side of this mountain, rumored to be the steepest slope in the world. At 9,000 feet high, my breath feels funny, and I can see lights from distant islands. Hawaiians claim that Haleakala is taller than Mount Everest, when you take into account that part of it is under the ocean. When we arrive at our destination, we are standing on top of layers of clouds, resting inside the crater of a dormant volcano. It feels like we are, literally, standing on the top of the world.
While the Jewish community has long wrung its collective hands over the plight of agunot — “chained” women, stuck in unwanted marriages because their husbands refuse to provide them with Jewish divorce papers — little is known about who and how numerous these women are. That is why Barbara Zakheim, founder of the Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse of Greater Washington, decided to embark on what is believed to be the first comprehensive survey on the state of the agunah in North America. The Sisterhood recently interviewed Zakheim about the survey’s methodology, its goals and what the Jewish community can do to erradicate the problem of agunot.
What compelled you to spearhead this effort?
Two catalysts: 1). The cancellation of the proposed rabbinical conference on agunot that was to take place in Israel in 2007. 2). Attendance at several Jewish Women International (JWI) and Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) conferences, where the agunah situation was always discussed but no tangible progress seemed to be made.
What’s your sense of how widespread the problem is?
This weekend we lead up to the 5th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which struck New Orleans on the morning of August 29, 2005 killing more than 1,700 people and displacing hundreds of thousands. There is a lot to digest and discuss this year as we consider the storm, the response, and the efforts to rebuild still underway.
Five years ago, watching these events unfold, the Jewish Women’s Archive decided that we had something to offer. JWA had the resources and expertise to capture the story of the Jewish communities of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. We conducted oral history interviews and created an online collection of documents and images from people across the country that were affected by the storm. This project is called “Katrina’s Jewish Voices.”
As fellow Sisterhood blogger Chanel Dubofsky wrote here, today marks the 90th anniversary of the passage of the 19th amendment, which gave American women the right to vote. And we have a great Jewish woman, Rep. Bella Abzug, to thank for making this day a holiday. Back in 1971, at Abzug’s urging, Congress declared August 26 “Women’s Equality Day.” Read the text, and context, of the declaration here:
It’s also a day to express our admiration for our foremothers in the first and second waves of the women’s movement. And it’s a day to take pride at we’re accomplishing today: young feminists, activist groups at the intersection of gender, race, class and the environment, feminist writers, artists and musicians, and large women’s organizations alike. It’s also a time to take stock of where we need to go.
On my mind today is our struggle to maintain reproductive rights not just in name, but in reality — for all women, regardless of geography. With more restrictions becoming law and clinics being shuttered by aggressive politicians and protesters, the idea that it’s “easy” for women to access abortion care — not to mention other other kinds of crucial reproductive health care, including prenatal care — is becoming more absurd.
I almost never answer the door unless I’m expecting someone or something. I live in New York, and you can’t be too careful.
But the other day, uncharacteristically, I did answer it. When I opened the door, there was a young woman who asked if I’m voting on September 14, and then handed me a pamphlet for a candidate. I had forgotten completely about the impending election, which adds a delicious layer of irony to this post.
It’s Equality Day, and this year it commemorates the 90th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the United States. Let that number register for a moment. Women have been voting in this country for fewer than one 100 years.
Gertrude Berg left this world at the age of 68 on September 14, 1966, two months to the day before I entered it. I’d like to think that maybe our souls met one another in a possible netherworld between life and death. I imagine that the departed Berg whispered something in my fetal ear — planted a seed — that would come to fruition exactly 43 years later, when I sat down last September at my laptop and wrote my first blog post as a first step on the path to a new career in journalism.
Actually, I thought it was Berg’s dramatic alter ego Molly Goldberg, and not Berg herself, who was my muse. After all, it was Molly’s photo that I put on my blog’s header. It was in homage to Molly, the quintessential Jewish mother, that I assumed the persona of “The Gen X Yiddishe Mamme.”
However, since recently reading Berg’s 1961 memoir, “Molly and Me” (co-authored by her son Cherney Berg), and viewing Aviva Kempner’s documentary film, “Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg!” — the DVD was released this week, and is reviewed here — I realized that I have even more to learn from and be inspired by Berg than I do the Jewish uber-balebuste character she inhabited for nearly 30 years that “The Goldbergs” ran on radio and TV. (The radio version was called “The Rise of the Goldbergs.”)
For those of you weren’t there to hear the breathtaking performances by poet Alicia Ostriker, klezmer fiddler Alicia Svigals and violin-wielding songstress Alicia Jo Rabins — who played solo and as a trio at the yesterday’s Forward-sponsored “3 Alicias 3” — here’s a taste of what you missed: