Sisterhood Blog

An African-American Jewish Journey

By Anita Diamant

Yavilah McCoy

Water has no color, and yet it contains the rainbow. Transparent and reflective, water reveals the myriad shades of cloud, sky, and light; the rosy glow of dawn, the orange burst of sunset. The soul has no color, and yet it imbibes the flavors, melodies, and histories of humanity. Intangible and sacred, the soul is never generic; each one tells its own story and sings its own song.

Yavilah McCoy’s African-American family has, four generations and counting, been on a journey into Jewish living. Along the way, she and her ancestors transformed and enriched the Jewish community in ways that are only starting to be felt on a broader stage. In “The Colors of Water,” a theater piece with music, Yavilah recounts her family saga — and sings its beautiful songs — in her own powerful voice

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Anita Diamant, a best-selling author, is the founder and president of Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Community Mikveh and Education Center. This was originally published on Jewish Women’s Archive’s Jewesses With Attitude, blog, which crossposts regularly with The Sisterhood


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Prime Ribs: Will Israel Ban the Burqa?

By Gabrielle Birkner

Israel is mulling a ban on face veils.


The editor of the online Jewish women’s magazine 614 is out with a new book about how single women can stay sane in our wedding-obsessed culture — not to mention our reproduction-obsessed faith.


Abstinence-only sex education is dead. Long live abstinence-only sex education?

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Kvelling in Brownstone Brooklyn — and Beyond

By Gabrielle Birkner

deborahkolben.com
Deborah Kolben, editor of Kveller

Kvelling (or boasting) about their children — “She aced her nursery school entrance interview, my little genius!” — is one of the things Jewish moms and dads do very well. So it’s fitting that a new website for parents of young Jewish children went with the title Kveller. The site is part service, with information on why Jews frown on baby showers and a guide to Jewish baby names. And it’s part lifestyle magazine, with lively essays on adventures in parenting and a Jewish celebrity parent gossip column. I recently interviewed the site’s editor Deborah Kolben — full disclosure: she was my colleague at the late, great New York Sun — about her vision for Kveller, the site’s focus on Lower Manhattan and Brownstone Brooklyn, and why she thinks it will appeal to parents like her.

Let’s begin at the beginning. How did you come up with the name Kveller?

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Is Eshet Chayil a Hypocritical Prayer?

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

At Shabbat dinner in traditional Jewish homes the hymn “Eshet Chayil,” meaning “Woman of Valor,” is sung to the woman who runs the household. It concludes with the line “Give her of the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates.”

According to the mysterious group Jewish Women Watching, — the organization’s members remain anonymous “to focus attention on the issues, not ourselves,” according to the group’s mission statement — leaders of Orthodox organizations in the U.S., and leaders of the State of Israel, are hypocritical because they presumably sing this even as they deny women the ability to serve in positions of religious leadership, not allowing them to enjoy the “fruit of their hands.”

“Religious Jewish women devoted to Torah, worship, and communal leadership are victims of constant sexist backlash,” said JWW in a press release the group distributed as the High Holy Days began. The release went on to say, “In this season of reflection and repentance, JWW calls on mainstream Orthodox leaders to do teshuvah [repentance], atoning for their actions that suppress valorous women.”

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Why the Tefillin Barbie Minyan Gives Me the Creeps

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Jen Taylor Friedman
Torah Scribe Jen Taylor Friedman gave Barbie a new look.

The first time I saw Tefillin Barbie, — the brainchild of Torah scribe Jen Taylor Friedman — she was on the back of the stub of an entrance ticket to the Jewish Museum Berlin. She wasn’t on my ticket stub, but rather on that of my companion. But seeing that I just had to have her, I arranged for a quick exchange. My colleague didn’t seem to mind — he wasn’t as taken by the photo of Tefillin Barbie as I was.

It’s a bit hard to say why exactly it was love at first sight for me. It couldn’t have been nostalgia; I was not exactly a big Barbie fan when I was a girl.

I think in large part, it probably had something to do with my having recently seen Tiffany Shlain’s film, “The Tribe,” which uses Barbie (based on the German “Lilli” doll) as a symbol for 20th century Jewish American identity and acculturation. Perhaps, when I laid eyes on Tefillin Barbie, while standing there in the once-Nazi capital, I heard her proudly say, “Look at me! I survived! I am a beautiful woman, a beautiful Jewish woman. And I have gone on to do great things, such as changing ways in which we Jewish women see ourselves and our roles in the Jewish community.”

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Play Ball on Yontif? Ask My Mother

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Boychik, as a rabid Yankees fan, usually avoids discussing the Mets (or Red Sox) unless they’re losing to his favorite team, but he was so amused by the recent tale of Mets rookie first baseman Isaac Benjamin “Ike” Davis, that he shared it with me.

Davis, whose mother is Jewish, and who identifies himself as “culturally Jewish” but not religious, was asked by Mets management if he would play on the Friday night of Yom Kippur and he, winning a spot in the Great Jewish Sons Hall of Fame, told them to ask his mother. She indicated that she preferred he not play on Yom Kippur, but left the decision to her 23 year-old-son.

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Another Jewish Flame for Mad Men's Don Draper?

By Sarah Seltzer

Getty Images
Actress Cara Buono, who plays Dr. Faye Miller on ‘Mad Men.’

Actress Cara Buono, who plays Dr. Faye Miller, psychologist and new paramour for Don Draper on “Mad Men,” has been making the interview rounds recently as her character’s role expands. Despite her cool blond exterior, Dr. Miller is a girl from the neighborhood, and she may even be a Jewess.

Some have noticed the distinctly Yiddish origins of a particularly salty kiss-off Dr. Miller shouted from a payphone as well as the New York ethnic accent that slips out when she’s heated or vulnerable. We know her dad is a candy-store owner with Mafia connections, and that like Don, her chic exterior hides a less privileged past. So of course, we’ve been wondering: Is she really a Jewish girl, or did she just have Yiddish-speaking neighbors in the borough of her youth?

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Audio Slideshow: 80 Years of Feminist Art

By Gabrielle Birkner

Shifting the Gaze: Painting and Feminism at the Jewish Museum in New York — reviewed here in the Forward — features canvases, and a few sculptures and decorative objects, influenced by several waves of feminism over the past 80 years. The exhibit’s curator, Daniel Belasco, spoke recently with The Sisterhood about the Jewish Museum’s history of acquiring self-consciously feminist artwork, and gives a virtual tour of some of the show’s stand-out works.

The slideshow is best viewed in fullscreen mode.

Inspiration: Feminism from Jewish Forward on Vimeo.


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Paying Off Recalcitrant Husbands

By Elana Maryles Sztokman

The High Court in Israel has come down with a decision that formally recognizes the right of the rabbinical court to use charity funds to pay off recalcitrant husbands who are blackmailing their wives in exchange for agreeing to a divorce. That is, the Beit Din is not only supportive of the blackmail process in theory but fully enables it.

This is a process in which the woman says, “I want a divorce,” the man says, “I’ll give it to you for a price,” and the rabbis say, “We’ll pay some, and the woman will pay the rest.” The money comes from a not-for-profit fund controlled by the Beit Din that is called, outrageously enough, The Aguna Fund. Just thinking about our rabbinical justice system in action gives me a migraine.

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A Feminist Victory ... on 'America's Next Top Model'

By Rebecca Schischa

Getty Images
Tyra Banks, host of ‘America’s Next Top Model’

A shameful admission from a proud feminist: I’ve been watching the latest season of the reality show competition “America’s Next Top Model.” I know, I know, I ought to be ashamed of myself, but there’s something about this show that is so far removed from day-to-day life that I just can’t help myself.

Of course I try to assuage my guilty conscience by providing a running feminist commentary as I’m watching, but I can’t deny the blatantly obvious: I’m still one of the consumers who’s caught up in this warped perception of feminine beauty.

And yet, there is a small feminist victory in all this — and it has nothing to do with the inclusion this season of a Modern Orthodox contestant.

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Prime Ribs: No Women on Main Street; Is Birth Control 'Preventive'?

By Gabrielle Birkner

In the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim, attempts to ban women from the main street during Sukkot has prompted protests.


The “lactivist” community is calling for a boycott of Old Navy because the retailer is selling “Formula Powered” onesies. As Deborah Kolben points out on Kveller, Jewish tradition “recognizes that breastfeeding is both a burden and a blessing.”


Beginning this week, federal regulations require health insurance companies to provide free preventive health services — but those preventive services do not include free birth control, at least not yet.

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My Gossip Diet

By Elissa Strauss

Getty Images
Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears (click to enlarge)

For the past two weeks, during the Days of Awe, I have gone completely without celebrity gossip — no TMZ, no US Weekly, nothing. I know, it sounds like a sacrifice Cher from the movie “Clueless” would make, a tiny act of self-denial in an otherwise frivolous life. But the abstention actually proved quite revelatory, allowing me to see just how deep I had sunk into the ocean of useless information.

My habit evolved slowly. First I just read the cover of tabloid magazines if I happened to be waiting in line at a drugstore or airport bookstore. Then I started flipping through them. After that, I started checking the celebrity gossip websites once or twice a week as a reward for a busy day or strenuous effort. Once or twice a week somehow turned into to daily habit, which then turned into a few times a day, which was the case for the previous year — until a couple of weeks ago.

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Jewish Women and the Art of Over-sharing

By Michael Kaminer

Miss Lasko-Gross
This self-portrait of Miss Lasko-Gross will adorn the logo of ‘Graphic Details.’ (click to enlarge)

Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women, an exhibit opening October 1 at San Francisco’s Cartoon Art Museum, almost ended before it began.

About two years ago, as I was walking through the Museum of Cartoon and Comic Art’s annual expo at the Puck Building, I noticed a lot of tables where young women artists with Jewish last names were presenting their work. Most of the cartoons were confessional, raw and pretty revealing. They were also beautifully rendered, sharply written, and completely engaging.

A few days after interviewing seven or eight of the cartoonists for a story on Jewish women cartoonists for Jewish Living magazine, the publication folded. Luckily, the Forward’s arts and culture editor accepted the pitch. After the article ran I received an email from a doctoral candidate named Sarah Lightman, who is researching autobiography in comics at the University of Glasgow. Had I considered turning the story — “Graphic Confessions of Jewish Women” — into an exhibit of some kind?

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The Allure of Orthodoxy

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

When I was a student at Tel Aviv University, during my second year of college, I spent a number of Shabbatot and holidays with new friends — young women who had, like me, grown up in the States, and were now newly Orthodox — who were learning how to be religious at Neve Yerushalyaim yeshiva in Jerusalem’s Har Nof neighborhood.

Reading Elana Sztokman’s recent post about how good it felt to be counted in a minyan for the first time brought some of those memories back, though in a kind of reverse way.

I know how it feels to be attracted to the other side of Jewish life. I’ve always been fascinated by and attracted to deep religious experience and the meaning it brings to those who aren’t satisfied skating on the surface of life.

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Paycheck Fairness Doesn't Mean Doom for Gender Relations

By Sarah Seltzer

Christina Hoff Sommers, noted (Jewish) anti-feminist gadfly and provocateur, is back, this time arguing on the New York Times’ Op-Ed page against one of the most common-sense pieces of legislation before Congress: the Paycheck Fairness Act.

The bill, a sort of companion to the Lilly Ledbetter Act, would shore up previous equal pay measures and ensure transparency for employees concerned about gender discrimination. The Times editorial board itself supports its passage.. But Sommers does not.

Her contention is that differing life paths explain the persistent pay gap between men and women —which is certainly something feminists agree on, at least partially. She pays lip service to feminist contentions that social pressure and gendered expectations often lead to a disparity in workplace attitudes, ambitions, and choices. But she then uses that acknowledgement to dismiss the possibility of any lingering gender discrimination and claims that the act’s passage will lead to a bonanza of lawsuits. In her words it “would set women against men, empower trial lawyers and activists, perpetuate falsehoods about the status of women in the workplace and create havoc in a precarious job market.”

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A Mikvah Lady Turned 'Lice Lady'

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

As soon as the phone call came from my daughters’ school yesterday, the itching started. My knees, my shoulders, my scalp, it all itched, because the Lice Lady, doing one of the several school-wide checks she is periodically brought in to do, had found the little buggers in my girls’ hair.

Turns out, my itching wasn’t just psychosomatic. I had ‘em too, as did my son. So last night, after stripping all of the beds in the house and starting what has felt like 100 loads of laundry, off we went to one of the Lice Ladies of Brooklyn, Shayna Brown.

The living room of Mrs. Brown’s modest apartment, where she has raised nine children, who now range in age from 31 to 7 years old, had been turned into a nit-picking salon.

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How Rav Yosef's Daughter Is Educating Her Father's Flock

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

Just before Yom Kippur, The Sisterhood linked to this article in Haaretz profiling the life and work of Adina Bar-Shalom, founder of the Haredi College of Jerusalem. She is the eldest daughter of Shas leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, and her valiant work is bringing higher education to both men and women in the rapidly expanding and increasingly impoverished Haredi population in Israel, so that they can better support their families.

By chance, while collapsed in my post-break-the-fast food coma, I switched on the television and there was Bar-Shalom, the focus of a segment in a three-part documentary on Haredi life called “Haredim.”

The activities of the petite bespectacled woman were accurately described in the Haaretz piece. But the article failed to convey, as the film did, just how daunting — and exhausting — her mission is, and the courage strength of personality she must possess in order to accomplish it.

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Asking Fewer People for Forgiveness

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

For many years now, since I learned about the practice of mechila, or asking for forgiveness, I’ve taken it seriously, using the weeks leading up to the High Holy Days to reflect on the ways in which I know I’ve fallen short. My personal al chet, or confession, is a long one — as I think about a comment that inadvertently hurt someone’s feelings, about things I’ve said in heated moments at home, and about my enduring quest to develop more patience.

My practice has been to ask those to whom I’m closest what I may have done in the past year that hurt them, and then, whether they enumerate some of those things or not, to ask them to forgive me. It’s been a healing ritual and I am grateful for this interlude in the Jewish calendar, which calls for reflection and repentance, as a chance to be more conscious about my behavior.

But this year, somehow, I’m just not feeling it. I don’t feel like being “the good girl,” and asking for forgiveness from some of the people in my life.

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Prime Ribs: Haredi Women in High-Tech; Artificial Ovaries

By Gabrielle Birkner

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s eldest daughter, Adina Bar Shalom, is helping to train Haredi women for jobs in Israel’s high-tech sector.


Meanwhile, secular Israeli women have a higher rate of workforce participation than do women in any other developed country, Haaretz reports.


In a discovery that could help women undergoing cancer treatment preserve their fertility, scientists have created the first artificial human ovary that can grow and mature human eggs.

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Where Women of All Shapes and Sizes Do the Hula

By Elana Maryles Sztokman

One of the most life-altering events I experienced in Maui was going to an Uluwehi Guerrero concert. Uluwehi, or Ulu as he is known to his friends, is a beloved Hawaiian folk artist who is dedicated to preserving not only Hawaiian language and music but the entire Hawaiian culture and heritage. Leslie Granat, a fabulous Jewish philanthropist and businesswoman — a Brooklyn-bred Maui resident and one of the major sponsor s of Ulu’s concert — told me that if I could go to only one Hawaiian concert in my life, this should be it.

Indeed. Ulu, a massive man with a captivating voice and gentle presence, sits at the back of the stage surrounded by a row of ukulele players on his left, other string instruments on his right, a 40-person choir to the side, and dozens of hula dancers in front of him. He tells stories – ancient and contemporary – about every song, while dancers dressed in hula skirts, leis, and peony hairpieces fill the stage with their dances. Every bodily movement matches not only the music but also the words — with hand motions for birds, for trees, for relationships, and even for a hilarious fly-swatting song.

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