Sisterhood Blog

Babes in Boyland: The Sisterhood Goes to Hollywood

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Getty Images
Jewish actresses Roseanne Barr and Fran Drescher

Jewess with much attitude (and talent) Roseanne Barr wrote in this recent New York magazine article about the rampant sexism that exists in Hollywood even two decades after she tried to take down those barriers with her television show “Roseanne.”

Barr rightly takes credit for developing and starring in “television’s first feminist and working-class-family sitcom (also its last).” Now, as she points out in the piece, “all over the tube you will find enterprising, over-medicated, painted-up, capitalist whores claiming to be housewives. But I’m not bitter.”

Roseanne is the kind of feminist who leads some to think feminism is always preceded by the word “angry,” but she’s also the kind of woman who makes the kinds of waves that change things, at least a little. She’s also the kind of feminist who has embraced plastic surgery, though the photo of her with the New York magazine story shows a woman who appears to look her age.

Looking her age puts her at odds with many of the women I saw this past weekend on a jaunt to Los Angeles.

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The Right's Latest Target: Girl Scouts

By Sarah Seltzer

Columbia Pictures

The Girl Scouts have long been synonymous with wholesome American girlhood, with their cookies and their uniforms and their appearance in a late ‘80s movie with Shelley Long. But recently they’ve come under attack because some affiliates have decided that young girls on the cusp of puberty might want to know the facts of life, based on science, evidence, and individual choice — the of healthy, judgment-free ethos that Planned Parenthood promotes.

The problem is that Planned Parenthood, once championed by the likes of the Bush family and Richard Nixon, is now public enemy #1. After efforts to defund and discredit the storied institution have taken root, suddenly the health provider has become a pariah. And now those opposed to Planned Parenthood using a single brochure from the organizations to make the case that the Girl Scouts possess a “radical feminist” mission to corrupt the young women of America. And, what, turn them into tolerant, self-assured, confident young women in charge of their own sexuality? Heaven forbid.

The scandal du jour comes courtesy of two former Scouts, the Volanski sisters, now being backed up by several major anti-choice organization after they started a blog dedicated to exposing the Scout’s supposed secret agenda. According to The Daily Beast’s Alizah Salario:

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Teaching Haredi Women To Succeed in Business

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Batya Kenanie Bram
Batya Kenanie Bram

Batya Kenanie Bram, a former Israeli government spokeswoman, said she was looking for a new challenge. The working mother of three wanted to do something that she thought would have more direct social impact. Drawing on her natural business acumen and her formal academic training — she has a master’s degree in political science and public administration — she began teaching Haredi women in Jerusalem to start and maintain small businesses.

Kenanie Bram said it has been deeply fulfilling to help the women with whom she works understand that to be a good wife and mother and a productive and profitable entrepreneur are not mutually exclusive pursuits. She spoke recently with The Sisterhood.

Renee Ghert-Zand: What does your work with these Haredi women entail?

Batya Kenanie Bram: The program I am involved with is an initiative of the Ministry of Commerce. It involves courses on how to start a business from theoretical, legal and tax perspectives. We work on self-empowerment and we evaluate personal strengths and weaknesses using models from the business world. We also cover marketing, presentation skills, negotiation skills, and the basics of business planning. The women also require ongoing coaching, and sometimes just someone to talk to, because their regular environment doesn’t provide the support and stimulation they need to advance.

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When Pseudo-Science Is Used To Bolster Racist Beauty Standards

By Sarah Seltzer

There’s almost too much awful male behavior to write about this week, from the sexual assault allegations against Dominique Strauss-Kahn to the admission by Arnold Schwarzenegger to fathering a love child to this gag-worthy article about the rise of dude editors.

But a very special prize for awfulness has to go the folks at Psychology Today. The magazine published an article about black women’s perceived attractiveness that hearkened back to the era of racism being justified by science. Seriously, the next thing I expected to see was a piece called “Phrenology: Why It Still Matters.”

Not only did Psychology Today decide to print this offensive article but instead of apologizing for the subsequent uproar, they insisted that it had been good and healthy to air the discussion so everyone could understand how upsetting and loaded this issue was — as if black women don’t already know. This is an example of both utter cluelessness about the nature of racism and also a classic Internet fail: When you smear an entire group of people on the web, it’s always a good idea to apologize profusely and abjectly first, try to have a teachable moment later. And also: Don’t tell said group of offended people that they should be thanking you for offending them.

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Reaching Out to Our Muslim Sisters

By Renee Ghert-Zand

irshadmanji.com
Irshad Manji

On the heels of America’s most-wanted terrorist being eliminated in Pakistan by U.S. Special Forces, the woman who was once dubbed by the media as “Osama Bin Laden’s Worst Nightmare” made a statement that I found haunting. Islamic reformer Irshad Manji made the scary point in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal that President Obama was wrong in saying that “Bin Laden was not a Muslim leader.” What should be keeping us up at night, according to Manji, is the fact that he actually was a legitimate Muslim leader in the eyes of many.

“Bin Laden and his followers represent a real interpretation of Islam that begs to be challenged relentlessly and visibly,” she wrote in the op-ed, which was excerpted from her soon-to-be-published new book, “Allah, Liberty and Love” (Free Press).

So what does this have to do with Jews? It has to do with us because Manji and other reformers have reached out to liberal Jews and Christians in search of allies in this challenge. Although she sees this ijtihad (a religious-intellectual struggle fueled by independent thought) as primarily the responsibility of Muslims, she calls on us to support and partner with those brave Muslims willing to engage in it.

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The Semiotics of Skirts and Swimsuits

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

swimoutlet.com

In Tablet magazine, Dvora Meyers recently wrote a brief meditation on her conflicted history with skirts and some of their Jewish cultural connotations.

I enjoy reading the semiotics of skirts, a fun game to play where I live, which is close to Crown Heights and equidistant from Williamsburg and Borough Park. Young women from Crown Heights wearing form-fitting, knee-length denim skirts and leggings underneath while they jog or bike to and from Prospect Park is a common sight. In communities where the subtleties of a woman’s choice of clothing are scrutinized for indications of how frum she is, the difference between a knee-length, close-fitting denim skirt with a slit and a baggy, to-the-floor denim skirt telegraphs at least something of her personal values.

Reading Dvora’s piece reminded me of the odd sight of orthodox Muslim women swimming in full burqua in the warm water springs at Sahne one hot summer day when we were last in Israel on vacation. But “burqinis” seem to be a growing fashion even here in America. When I recently went to a favorite swimming supply website to buy goggles, I was surprised to see a new, “modest swimwear” category right next to the usual Speedo and Tyr tank suits.

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How 'Bridesmaids' Caters to Men

By Jordana Horn

Universal Pictures

“Super-intelligent, female-centric comedy” seemed to be the consensus among the reviews of “Bridesmaids” I read. So I was excited to see it. In my excitement, I managed to ignore the fact that most reviews spoke of a “super-intelligent, female-centric comedy” in the same way they would reference “a person with four heads who can fly” — as in, wow, how bizarre, who’d have thunk it?

So I went into the film, having successfully convinced my husband to see it with me, ready and excited to like it. I’d already fallen in love with Kristen Wiig from her brief cameo in “Knocked Up” — and there was no doubt in my mind that she could easily pull off a starring role.

And, doing a turn that was part Wiig, part Amy Adams and part Meg Ryan, she ‘proves’ that she can. At her worst, she’s certainly no more offensive than your generic good-looking Hollywood picture-anchor (have any of us really been floored by the acting chops of, say, Matthew McConaughey?), and one scene in particular made me laugh with genuine surprise and pleasure. If you see the film, I’m talking about the scene involving her attempts to catch the attention of a cop with a radar gun. But other than that, watching “Bridesmaids” was, at times, just plain frustrating.

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Gay, Female and Seeking a Home in the Orthodox Community

By Rebecca Schischa

Courtesy of Miryam Kabakov
Miryam Kabakov

The Hebrew Institute of Riverdale was the first Orthodox synagogue on Miryam Kabakov’s “You Are Not Alone” book tour. Kabakov, founder of the New York Orthodykes and the editor of the 2010 book “Keep Your Wives Away From Them: Orthodox Women, Unorthodox Desires“ — an anthology of 14 essays by Orthodox (or Orthodox-leaning) women who identify as lesbian or LGBTQ — said the book tour is about hearing women’s stories and continuing the discussion that the book started. (Check out our recent podcast with Kabakov here.)

Rabbi Steven Exler, a member of the Hebrew Institute’s rabbinic staff, also thanked the audience for “heeding the call that this is an important conversation to be had.”

Alongside Kabakov at the May 16 event were contributors to the collection. They included the pseudonymous Ex-Yeshiva Girl with her “radical queer politics” and the lawyer Elaine Chapnik, each of whom read from their essays. Also taking part in a spirited Q&A was Chani Getter, a lesbian mother-of-three and a former member of the Hasidic community.

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The Modern Orthodox Case for Gender Segregation on Public Buses

By Elana Maryles Sztokman

Rahel Jaskow

The practice of gender segregation on public buses in Israel has received new and unexpected support from American Modern Orthodoxy. The Rabbinical Council of America journal Tradition recently published an article by Rabbi Dr. Yehuda “Ronnie” Warburg entitled “The Practice of Gender Separation on Buses in the Ultra-Orthodox Community in Israel: A View from the Liberal Cathedral” that justifies gender segregation in the name of multiculturalism.

The essay is characteristically Modern Orthodox in that it uses academic sources to bolster a halachic argument. Warburg, described as “a dayyan in Chassidic, modern Orthodox and Yeshiva communities in New York and New Jersey,” quotes feminists such as Susan Moller Okin in his analysis of Rav Moshe Feinstein’s ruling regarding whether men are aroused by sitting next to women. The essay is perhaps surprising, or perhaps not; to bring academic arguments about gender only to reject them as merely one subjective perspective, while Feinstein’s words are taken as incontrovertible, seems to me a bit disingenuous.

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Q&A: Novelist Haley Tanner on Love After Death

By Allison Gaudet Yarrow

Gavin Snow

Haley Tanner’s debut novel, “Vaclav & Lena” (Dial Press), is about love without questions, hesitation or limits. This love flourishes between two Russian-Jewish immigrant children in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn: Vaclav dreams of becoming a magician, like Houdini, and casting the fragile Lena as his assistant. Tragedy temporarily unhinges this plan, and when the two children become teenagers, they are forced to reconcile their pasts and decide how they’ll embark on a future together. Tanner intimately knows the love and struggle that Vaclav and Lena share: She wrote this book while living with the man who would become her husband and, soon after, die of melanoma. Tanner says that the loveliness and lightness in the novel is his. She spoke recently with the Forward.

Allison Gaudet Yarrow: What was your Jewish upbringing like?

Haley Tanner: We had a terrible time in the Conservative synagogue that we belonged to, where we were products of intermarriage, which didn’t make sense to us, because we were a Jewish family. Rosh Hashanah was the first holiday that we ditched synagogue. We went camping in the woods, [with] silver candlesticks, a white tablecloth, brisket and apples and honey. It became the most meaningful holiday.

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On Schwarzenegger's Infidelity — and the Lies We Tell Ourselves

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Getty Images
Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver, in happier times.

About three weeks ago, my dad died. We soon learned that there were things about his life that were the opposite of the way he had presented them. Nothing enormous, but it is still shocking and saddening. I recently visited with a friend who told me that when her father died, decades ago, his will revealed the presence of a young son that neither she nor her siblings (who were already grown) knew anything about.

This came to mind today, when it was made public that Maria Shriver separated from her husband, actor and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, after he admitted to fathering a child with a longtime member of their household staff. And I wondered: How could Shriver have been married for 25 years to the man now dubbed by “The Sperminator” by the Huffington Post, and not have faced up to the rumors of sexual misbehavior that have long dogged the son of a Nazi stormtrooper? Could Shriver, who has always appeared so smart and savvy, really have been that blind?

But perhaps this is the wrong question. Because the truth of these stories really centers on the lies we tell ourselves.

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What Leads to Sexual Assault

By Elissa Strauss

The sexual assault and attempted rape charges against I.M.F. chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn — he’s pleaded not guilty — got me thinking: What propels men who most certainly know better to engage in the type of morally repugnant behavior, such as that which the French politician stands accused?

How much is it a matter of class or race? His alleged victim, an immigrant from North Africa, is a chambermaid at a Manhattan hotel. And maids have long been vulnerable to sexual assault and intimidation due to the solitary nature of their work and the little respect the profession is given — due in part to it being “women’s work.” Though while race and class are no doubt part of the power hierarchy that propels one human to try to have his way with another, they don’t alone tell the whole story.

You see, Tristane Banon, a young journalist, novelist and daughter of a Socialist Party official, is also alleging that DSK attempted to rape her, back in 2002.

In a culture in which predatory sexual encounters and sexual assaults are so prevalent, what’s to blame?

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Prime Ribs: Girls in Pink; Women in Denim

By Elissa Strauss

Sholom Aleichem’s granddaughter, Bel Kaufman, discusses teaching Jewish humor and storytelling at age 100. (And be sure to read this recent Forward piece on Kaufman.)


The Smithsonian writes about the emergence of gender-specific baby clothes in the 20th century.


“Who are you calling grandma?” asks the New York Times. And “why is my retired mom more fun than I am?” asks Slate’s Jessica Grose.


Over at Tablet, Dvora Meyers examines the importance of jeans skirts for the young and the modest.


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Hello, France: Welcome to Israel's Katsav-ian Nightmare

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

Getty Images
Dominique Strauss-Kahn

The French public is wrestling with the arrest a man who sat proudly on the top of the ladder of prestige and privilege, who is supposed to represent their country to the world and bring it pride.

Instead, they are wallowing in the sordid details of his alleged sexual attack on a maid in a $3,000-a-night New York hotel room, and the possibility that he had previously taken advantage of his status and privileges to exploit women. The New York Times reports on the “soul-searching” taking place among the French:

The arrest in New York of one of France’s leading global figures and a possible next president, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, on charges of attempted rape produced an earthquake of shock, outrage, disbelief and embarrassment throughout France.

That description sounds very familiar to Israelis, who have been carrying around that particular cocktail for several years now, when the rape charges against former President Moshe Katsav were first announced in 2007.

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What Photoshopping Women Out of Photos Is Really About

By Elana Maryles Sztokman

I have this pet peeve about women sending emails from their husbands’ email accounts. Although this was probably more of a common phenomenon towards the beginning of the e-mail era, I still get emails like this, and it drives me crazy.

The hiding of women behind men is not as uncommon as we would perhaps like to believe. I remember getting a sales call a few months ago from a carpet-cleaning agency in which the saleswoman (!) said to me, “Would you like to go ask your husband if it’s okay?” Or like the time I got really angry at our mortgage bank for calling me up to tell me that they have a present for my husband’s 40th birthday. How exciting, I said to them — and what about me? I had turned 40 just two months earlier. This clerk went searching around her papers and said she’s sorry, that only my husband’s information is listed in the computer. I signed the mortgage papers, too, I tried to tell her. But there I was, deleted as an entity by someone punching information into a machine. All these situations are the same, really: It’s all about women’s invisibility.

I thought about this amid this week’s brouhaha over Der Tzitung’s notorious erasure of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from the iconic photo of the national security team getting an update on the bin Laden raid.

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The Rise of the Unhappy Mommy Narrative

By Elissa Strauss

Stephanie Rausser
Ayelet Waldman: The woman who began the conversation on maternal ambivalence.

So where have all the happy young mothers gone? Did you never really exist? Or are you afraid to speak up these days against the chorus of people insisting that young children bring far more stress and trouble than happiness?

Either way, I never hear from you anymore.

Over the last few years, as my husband and I have been moving towards starting a family of our own, the only word that seems to be rising up from the cave of early motherhood seem to be “help!”

The current conversation had its unofficial start when Ayelet Waldman peeled the curtain up on maternal ambivalence in a now-infamous New York Times essay in 2005, and then later her 2009 book “Bad Mother.” When I first read Waldman on motherhood I thought, bravo — it’s about time moms speak frankly and with some nuance about motherhood.

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When the Gov't Won't Call It Rape

By Jordana Horn

CBS newswoman Lara Logan — who, as The Sisterhood has reported on here and here,spoke out recently about her experience being sexually assaulted (stripped, beaten and raped with the hands of a large group of men) while covering the protests earlier this year in Egypt’s Tahrir Square. She said she was coming forward in order to assert the rights of women. But if that is the case, then there are so many stories here that are not being followed, ranging from the culpability of her employer to Egypt’s societal attitudes toward women to laws in the America that would deem that Logan had not, in fact, been raped.

Let’s start with the last one. Ms. Magazine notes that the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report (UCR), defines forcible rape as “the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will.” But the definition of “forcible” rape “excludes most rapes,” Ms. reports. “It leaves out oral, anal and statutory rape; rape with an object, finger or fist; incest; and, for many police departments that misinterpret the definition, women raped while under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol are excluded, as well as unconscious women and those with physical or mental disabilities. That means our national dialogue on rape is diluted; it’s based on bad numbers and faulty reporting–and that leaves women like Logan to be ignored.”

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My Daughter's Favorite (Fictional) Orthodox Heroine

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

(click to enlarge)

It’s not every day that a comic book heroine is an 11-year-old Orthodox Jewish girl. So when Rockerchick received the book “Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword” (2010, Amulet Books) as a birthday present, I took a look and was quickly entranced by the story of Mirka, a girl with a rebellious streak who lives in a place called Hereville.

Hereville, which the Forward first wrote about here, is also home to a bewitched giant pig and an evil troll (whom Mirka outsmarts with her Jewish-girl seichel). The setting exists somewhere between Anatevka and Boro Park. It is a place where families are close and siblings are irritating, where children sometimes encounter bullies on their way home from school, and where the tantalizing scent of baking challah lets everyone know that Shabbos is on its way.

The story is the creation of cartoonist Barry Deutsch, who lives in Portland, Ore., but is busy speaking at Jewish schools and comic shows across the country. He recently spoke with The Sisterhood about how a 41-year-old single, childless guy raised in a family in which ham was on the menu and synagogue was visited only on the High Holy Days, came to write about a young, frum heroine.

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Face to Face With Gilad Shalit's Mother

By Elana Maryles Sztokman

Getty Images
Aviva and Noam Shalit inside the protest tent set up outside of the Prime Minister’s residence. (click to enlarge)

Aviva Shalit strikes me as a broken woman. The mother of captured IDF soldier Gilat Shalit, she is often seen on the news as the quieter one of Gilad’s two parents. Noam, the father, is outspoken, calmly articulate and level-headed as he fights to bring Gilad back home. Aviva rarely speaks in public, but when she does, it’s with the passion of motherhood and citizenship that marks her pleas to the Israeli leadership to find a solution for her son’s release.

Yesterday, I saw her in person — the first time in Gilad’s nearly five-year captivity that I spent more than a fleeting moment at the Gilad Shalit protest tent outside of the Prime Minister’s house. I decided to go, on Israel’s Independence Day, after watching the heartbreaking footage of Yoel Shalit being forcibly removed from the Yom Hazikaron ceremony on Monday by a dozen security and police officers. The poor boy is doing everything in his power to help his brother, I thought, and at this moment it just seems like the whole world is standing in his way. So when Noam Shalit responded to that event by saying that the family was considering intensifying their actions, and was planning on spending Independence Day at the tent, I thought, the least I could do was show my support by spending a few minutes in the tent with them.

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A High-Profile Call for Marriage Equality in Israel

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

The fight for marriage equality in Israel now features a catchy new video starring real-life couples that are unable to marry legally in Israel.

Celebrity power never hurts when it comes to calling attention to a political cause, and the newly premiered video has received media attention due to the participation of actress Hanni Furstenburg, actor Amir Faye Gutman and their respective partners. To the tune of “Hava Nagila,” they and other couples unsuccessfully attempt to celebrate — exchange rings, break a glass, embrace — within the confines of a tiny picture frame, illustrating the tight limitations of Israel’s existing marriage laws.

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