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:
We learned from the cover story of the past Sunday’s New York Times Magazine that there is a debate raging in developmental psychology and neuropsychology circles as to whether there is a new stage in human development called “emergent adulthood.” Some might call it “prolonged adolescence,” but apparently, a lot of people are asking a variation of the question “What Is it About 20-Somethings?”
The jury is still out as to whether the fact that so many young people in their 20s are not yet financially independent, settled on a career, or in long-term, committed romantic relationships is a definitive indication that humans are not cut out to assume the responsibilities of adulthood until they reach the age of 30.
Whether or not you completely buy the new theory, this re-thinking of the timing of the true onset of adulthood has not only biological, social and economic implications, but also religious ones. If brain imaging research has found that the human brain does not finish its major growth and hardwiring until approximately age 25, then what are we Jews doing declaring young people adults at the age of 12 or 13?
I’m interested that Debra and Elana chose to focus on the housecleaning dimension of the balebuste role that Elissa describes aspiring to in her youth. I thought balebuste meant homemaker, not cleaning lady.
Working at a marriage for many years, and watching it grow and change while raising children gives Debra and Elana different perspective. I don’t need to visit their homes to know that they likely have me beat in the arena of domestic expertise. They’ve been at it longer. Elissa and I are newer to this, and I imagine that vantage allows us to approach the homefront differently. I have yet to abandon my wide-eyed optimism or my dreamy naïveté about house making. Perhaps I’ll feel differently next decade. Maybe I won’t.
Usually, they aren’t given a name. They make do with an initial. If a newspaper publishes a photo of them on the way to or from the courthouse, it is blurred, blotted out with enlarged pixels. As though they were the ones who had done something wrong. The identities of women who go through sexual abuse are usually not revealed. Often, this is their choice, which must be respected, but the choice is indicative of social assumptions.
Photographer Alicia Shahaf decided to counter this tendency in project called “Heroines,” showing portraits of women who have been sexually assaulted. Thus far she has photographed about 20 women. Each of them looks straight at the camera. They do not hide, they are not ashamed.
Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, “Freedom,” arrives this week with considerable fanfare, but also a little bit of backlash. Although the author is not a Jew, one of his characters is, and he has a place in the cool crowd of literary writers than includes many Jewish writers such as Michael Chabon, Jonathan Safran-Foer and more recently, Gary Shteyngart.
But the glowing reviews and attention the book garnered also provoked a little bit of anger, which Jewish writers have weighed in on both sides. It began when bestselling author Jodi Picoult criticized The New York Times Book Review for its undue attention to the aforementioned group of writers to the exclusion of more mainstream, popular titles — many of them written by women. She asks:
How else can the Times explain the fact that white male authors ROUTINELY are assigned reviews in both the Sunday review section AND the daily book review section (often both raves) “while so many other writers go unnoticed by their critics?”
In attempt to counter those who accuse them of being extremists, Women of the Wall — composed of women who gather once a month for a prayer service at the Western Wall — recently asked women around the world to send in photographs of themselves reading from or holding a Torah. The campaign’s goal: Get 10,000 women to send these images (via the organization’s website), along with a letter of solidarity, to political and religious leaders in Israel.
The letter implores: “We ask you to open your eyes and see what is ordinary every place else in the world: women embracing Torah, reading from the Torah, rejoicing with the Torah and learning from the Torah. We ask that you see and be blind no more to the injustice of religious oppression.”
The campaign follows the June arrest of Women of the Wall chair Anat Hoffman for the crime of “praying with a Sefer Torah,” according to a spokesman for Israeli police. Hoffman insisted that she was not praying with the Torah, but rather holding it as she walked from the Kotel plaza to the section of the wall where the group is allowed to hold its service.
Already, women from around the world, daughters, mothers and grandmothers, alone and in groups, have sent in pictures of themselves with a Torah, to show their support for Women of the Wall.
Watch a slideshow featuring some of the images that have come in:
“Hey Gurrrlll, how you doin’?” Part Brooklyn homegirl, part Wendy Williams, it’s the way I’ve lately greeted my nearest and dearest girlfriends. I’m going for affectionate and ironic — what with it coming out of the mouth of a white woman edging into middle age, even if as a naturalized citizen of Brooklyn I can stake some legitimate claim to Brooklyn-ese.
Nonetheless, the semiotics of “girl” are an interesting topic, as the layered implications of this loaded label continue to evolve. As with all things language related, these implications are culturally specific, and so Nettie Feldman’s recent Sisterhood post about the sharp annoyance she feels at being called “girl” by her male colleagues in Israel is as much about what it means in the context of Israel’s culture as anything else.
Because it’s so run-of-the-mill for women in Israel to be addressed as “maideleh” or similar, as Nettie suggests, it reflects the fact that it’s a culture where chauvinism remains entrenched. The issue is really about what calling a grown woman “girl” suggests: that in the Israeli workplace, there is a gender power imbalance and that men feel quite secure in the dominant position. Things today in the U.S. — at least in my blue state world — are quite different.
The Sisterhood Digest:
According to protocols from former Israeli President Moshe Katzav’s recent trial for rape and other sex crimes, Katsav “saw women that were subordinate to him as a reserve from which he chose sexual objects,”. The defense has called the accusations “blood libel.” A verdict in the case is expected this fall.
A Lebanese medical aid ship carrying all women is planning to set sail for Gaza on Sunday, in an attempt to break Israel’s blockade of the strip.
Writing in Tablet, Eddy Portnoy has a jewel of a story about a 1906 riot, during which tens of thousands of Jewish mothers took to Lower East Side streets to protest … tonsillectomies.
Call it the-morning-after-the-morning-after-the-morning-after-the-morning-after-the-morning-after pill — or call it ella. Either way, the new drug has won FDA approval, and is expected to hit U.S. pharmacies this fall.
Free tickets are still available for “3 Alicias 3” — an evening of performances by composer and klezmer fiddler Alicia Svigals, poet and critic Alicia Ostriker and singer, songwriter and violinist Alicia Jo Rabins, who plays with the bands Golem and Girls in Trouble.
The Forward is sponsoring “3 Alicias 3,” alongside Manhattan’s Sixth Street Synagogue, where the event will be held at 7 p.m. on August 24. The artists will perform solo and as a trio; they’ll also participate in a panel discussion on Jewish women in the arts, and the relationship between poetry and song. For more information, click here.
The first 10 Sisterhood readers to email me get in free; otherwise, the cover is $8.
P.S. - I’ll be bartending.