Sisterhood Blog

Jewish 'Sister Wives'

By Leah Berkenwald

tlc.discovery.com
Members of the cast of ‘Sister Wives’

I returned home from my cousin’s wedding Sunday night, happy and exhausted with barely enough energy to flop onto the couch and turn on the TV. That is how I found myself watching the two new episodes of TLC’s “Sister Wives,” a reality TV show about a modern polygamous family. I think the expected feminist response to a show about polygamy is a negative one, summed in this post on Jezebel: “Sister Wives Talk Like Soul-Sucking Stepford Zombies.” It’s easy to condemn the show, and “the lifestyle” (as they call it) but after watching the first few episodes, I found myself pondering polygamy and its presence in our history as Jews. After all, my biblical namesake was a sister wife.

When it comes to bible study, I am only familiar with the basics. But even I know that polygamy features prominently in the stories of our patriarchs and matriarchs. The story I know best is that of Jacob, who married both Leah and Rachel. (This story is expanded in the midrash told by Anita Diamant’s “The Red Tent.”) Rachel, the woman Jacob married for love, gave birth to Joseph and eventually died in childbirth with her second child, Benjamin. Thanks to polygamy, Jacob was able to father the 12 sons (and one daughter). The sons would then go on to father the 12 Tribes of Israel with his wife Leah and their hand servants, Bilhah and Zilpah. It’s hard to ignore the centrality of polygamy, or “plural marriage,” in our own cultural heritage.

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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.


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Deborah Tannen on Why It's So Much Harder To Be Sisters Than Friends

By Hinda Mandell

georgetown.edu
Author Deborah Tannen’s book on sisters is now available in paperback.

The paperback version of Deborah Tannen’s latest book “You Were Always Mom’s Favorite: Sisters in Conversation Throughout Their Lives”, is just out from Ballantine Books. In this interview, conducted over email, Tannen — a Georgetown linguistics professor, who has studied the quirks and patterns of the “New York Jewish conversational style”— explains why women feel competitive with their female siblings, and what they can do about it.

Hinda Mandell: It seems like Jewish mothers represent such an iconic symbol in both Jewish and broader American culture. Yet when I think of sisters in Jewish culture, the only thing that comes to mind is the biblical story of Rachel and Leah, and Jacob’s love for the younger sister. I know that the Ten Commandments instruct us to “Honor thy mother and thy father,” but why is it sometimes hard for two sisters to treat each other with respect?

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The (Male-Only) Social Network

By Sarah Seltzer

Everyone’s talking about “The Social Network”, the movie chronicling the founding of Facebook. It was the weekend’s #1 movie and is an Oscar favorite It’s also attracted notice for its (non) portrayal of women. Feminist writers have weighed in thoughtfully, explaining that the movie’s women are mere props, that the creators of the film loaded the story with more misogyny than actually existed in reality, that female programmers and businesswomen were ignored, and mostly that the shallow images of women as mindless groupies undercuts the otherwise subtle, well-drawn aspects of the film.

I have to agree. Like most viewers, I loved “The Social Network.” First of all, as someone who was at Harvard when the movie took place, I thought it captured certain aspects of our bizarre, anachronistic undergraduate life and, by extension, the larger Northeastern privileged “striver” academic milieu, with an uncanny accuracy. I particularly liked the way the brilliant, eccentric (Jewish) Facebook founder — Mark Zuckerberg, a character who bears little resemblance to his real-life avatar — simmered with resentment towards the remaining WASPy scions who walked to same halls that he did with an easy, jovial entitlement he couldn’t possess.

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A Pink Ribbon Is Not Meaningful Social Activism

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Istock
A pink ribbon — the least we can do?

A dear, and shockingly young, friend of mine was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer last year. She has undergone chemotherapy and surgery, and is now dealing with radiation and a second round of chemo in advance of more surgery.

I’d do anything I could to support her and the scientific work that might one day make breast cancer less common.

But I’m not much of a ribbon-wearer, so still won’t be adding a pink ribbon to the lapel of my jacket this month, which is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. And when I saw the headline of Chanel Dubofsky’s Sisterhood post, “Why I Hate Breast Cancer Awareness Month,” it grabbed me like a mammogram grabs, well, you know what it grabs.

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Rebecca Traister on Women in Politics, Jews' Duty to Feminism

By Allison Gaudet Yarrow

Sarah Karnasiewicz
Rebecca Traister

Despite what you think you know about the 2008 presidential election, the recently released book “Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election That Changed Everything for American Women” (Free Press) by Salon.com senior writer Rebecca Traister, proves there is still much to learn. Allison Gaudet Yarrow asked Traister about her thoughts on the bitterness toward women during the election and about Jewish women’s duty to feminism.

Allison Gaudet Yarrow: Your book chronicles how the 2008 election reinvented women and power. What changed?

Rebecca Traister: Our sense of how women could behave in public and political life. Suddenly so many more models for public femininity are possible.

Why do American women want our female leaders to be better versions of ourselves, but when they’re not, we’re their harshest critics?

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Why I Hate Breast Cancer Awareness Month

By Chanel Dubofsky

pinkribbonshop.com
A screenshot featuring some merchandise for sale at The Pink Ribbon Shop. (Click to enlarge)

Dear Breast Cancer:

I am aware. It’s not because of the extremely effective marketing, with the pink ribbon campaigns. It’s because I lived in your house, and you lived in mine.

It seems that my mother’s breast cancer was just bad luck, and not genetic. Even if my mother didn’t have one of the genetic mutations for breast cancer most common in Ashkenazic Jewish women — and didn’t pass that gene onto me — I’m a woman, and one in eight of us will be diagnosed with the disease in our lifetime. That means that I should feel moved to light a candle and walk around a track with a lot of other people. I should love October, I should welcome a chance to spread more “awareness” of breast cancer.

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The Competitive Sport of Barking at Torah Readers

By Elana Maryles Sztokman

One of the great sporting events in Orthodox synagogues is correcting the layners — i.e., the Torah readers. The cantillations on the Torah are an intricate, lovely cultural heritage, one of our most treasured. But they are also difficult to master, require practice and are performed in front of an unmarked scroll — that is, no vowels, punctuation or cantillations marks. It is very hard to layn well, and understandably, mistakes happen. But forgiveness does not. In most Orthodox synagogues, although there are generally two people standing at the podium for the purpose of correcting the layners, more often than not, corrections are barked from all across the sanctuary, like a real spectator sport.

Orthodox boys are inducted into this practice at the tender age of 13, when the message of “Now you are a man” conflates with the experience of being barked at and then being expected to just, well, keep going. As one man told me in the context of research I conducted on Orthodox men, boys learn that to be a man means not to cry, not to get upset, and not to even feel the experience of an entire congregation barking at you. You just keep performing. Orthodox girls, however, are not inducted into this emotionless performance, and that has some interesting repercussions.

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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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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Women of Valor, RCA, Rabbinical Council of America, National Council for Young Israel, Jewish Women Watching, Eshet Chayil

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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