Copyright Ingrid Muller
Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman, the former executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, is a leading writer and thinker on topics of feminism, Judaism, Israel and orthodoxy. Her first book, The Men’s Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World, won the 2012 National Jewish Book Council Award in the area of Women’s Studies. Her second book, Educating in the Divine Image: Gender Issues in Orthodox Jewish Day Schools (co-authored with Dr Chaya Rosenfeld Gorsetman), won the 2013 National Jewish Book Council award in the area of education and identity.
Next month, her latest book, The War on Women in Israel: A Story of Religious Radicalism and the Ravaging of Freedom, will be released by Sourcebooks. In a recent piece for the Atlantic, “Gaza: It’s a Man’s War,”, Sztokman, who lives in Modi’in, Israel, looks closely at the impact of sexism in Israeli society, particularly in the context of the current Gaza war.
Chanel Dubofsky caught up with Sztokman, who said that her book was born on this blog, The Sisterhood, where she started posting stories about gender segregation in 2009, via Google’s instant messaging service gchat.
Chanel Dubofsky: Set the scene for us regarding feminist activism in Israel.
Elana Sztokman: There is a lot of entrenched macho in Israeli culture. The challenge is the way in which that macho intersects with religion and the (secular) business and political establishment’s support of religious radicalism for their own needs and interests. It’s easy for men across the spectrum to throw women under the bus for the sake of coalition, business or money. Women are fighting this reality, to raise awareness that protecting women’s rights is a basic part of democracy, and to introduce different thinking about the role of religion in Israeli society and politics. There is no separation of religion and state in Israel, which means that religious groups have had tremendous political influence over the years. Religious (male) Elana’s wordsleaders have gotten away with lots of very anti-democratic stances and policies vis a vis women. It’s an uphill battle, but there is definitely a growing consciousness that we are witnessing now, and there is something exciting on some level in watching a real feminist movement grow from the ground up.
Elana Sztokman is leaving the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance after a year and a half as executive director.
“It is a mutual parting of the ways,” she told the Forward. She would not elaborate on the reason for her departure, saying that her separation contract prohibits her from talking about the split.
Sztokman said she is exploring next steps, but would not go into detail about what the future holds for her. “There will be news, god willing in the coming months, about new directions for Orthodox feminism and Jewish feminism,” she said.
She will be leaving the organization in three weeks, but will remain on in a consultancy role.
Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance was founded by pioneering feminist Blu Greenberg two decades ago.
Nearly every month, it seems, there is troubling news relating to the status of women in Israel. Late last year it was women forced to sit at the back of public busses, and then Haredim attacking schoolgirls in Beit Shemesh for being insufficiently modest. In October the leader of Women of the Wall was arrested and allegedly mistreated by police for leading others in prayer at the Kotel. And recently, according to the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, Knesset candidate Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan declared that the agunah issue is caused by women’s groups trying to besmirch the rabbinical courts, rather than by husbands who refuse to divorce their estranged wives.
JOFA brought together some of the women involved in confronting these issues, both in the U.S. and Israel, for a roundtable discussion on November 28 in midtown Manhattan.
Israeli feminist leaders Hannah Kehat, founder and executive director of Kolech: Religious Women’s Forum and Susan Weiss, founder and executive director of The Center for Women’s Justice participated, along with Americans Nancy Kaufman, director of the National Council of Jewish Women; JOFA founder Blu Greenberg and Forward Editor-in-Chief Jane Eisner.
The strangest part of Monday night’s panel discussion of my new book, “The Men’s Section,” about partnership synagogues, or Orthodox congregations in which women play key roles in leading communal prayer, wasn’t that the four-person panel was made up of all men.
All-male panels are so common — to wit, I passed by a poster at Harvard this week announcing an economic conference with no female speakers at all — that Joanna Samuels of Advancing Women Professionals has been asking Jewish men to take a pledge not to sit on all-male panels. (Several of the men on my book panel said that they had taken the pledge and actually felt odd sitting on this all-male dais at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute.)
The really unusual part for me was that, although all the speakers are accomplished men with very impressive resumes and professional and communal achievements, their speeches had nothing to do with their expertise. Rather, they each talked about their feelings about partnership synagogues and the discussion centered on their own journeys in Jewish communal and religious life. In fact, Marc Baker, of Minyan Kol Rinah in Brookline, Mass. opened by saying, “I’m not used to talking about myself in this kind of forum.”
The men were used to talking about ideas; they were not used to talking about themselves.
I have been reading Passover reflections on womanhood, liberation and the holiday’s meaning by Elana Sztokman here at the Sisterhood and by Elyssa Cohen at Jewesses with Attitude. It seems that for so many of us, Passover serves as a time of reflection and rebirth, a call to free ourselves from dismal patterns of indifference and habit.
Although I’m still recovering from a food, wine and company coma after two Seders, Passover always gives that a charge of new energy, an urge to shake off winter sloth. I have dozens of recollections of Passovers past inspiring me to seek out new opportunities, to volunteer, to rededicate myself to activism or self-improvement, to make my own meaning out of the holiday.
But why does a holiday in which we extol a God I don’t believe in and glorify, with qualification, some troubling events (the slaying of the first born, and the “drowning of our oppressors”) mean so much to me, and so many Jews from a wide range of backgrounds?
When I was an 18-year old yeshiva student, my friends and I would ask every teacher we had to give us a talk on our favorite topic. And it wasn’t sex. It was head-covering. Considering that the prevalent issue on our minds was marriage, we were desperate to get some expert advice on how to make the biggest choice of our lives: hat or wig, leave out the ponytail or stuff it in — or for some, like me, to cover or not to cover.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin taught at Midreshet Lindenbaum, what was then called Brovender’s, where I spent the summer of 1988. I knew that his wife did not cover her hair — neither did Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s wife, by the way, and neither does Rabbi Norman Lamm’s wife, and neither does my mother.
Nevertheless, in this setting, the gap year in Israel, promoted in the Orthodox day school world as the pinnacle of religious development, none of those women seemed to matter.
It’s a story of a Sisterhood post done good.
Last month, Elana Sztokman, a regular contributor to this blog, proposed a model for infusing Orthodox day schools with the kind of feminist values that have informed partnership synagogues and have advanced women’s leadership roles within Orthodoxy.
The buzz that her blog post generated secured her a spot as a featured speaker at the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) conference, taking place this weekend in New York. (Sisterhood contributor Rebecca Honig Friedman previewed the conference here.)
Elana spoke with me today in the Forward studio about her vision for Orthodox day school education and the often-troubling messages that Orthodoxy sends to boys and men — topics on which she’ll be presenting this weekend.
Listen to the podcast:
New posts by two of the bloggers I frequently check in on — a young woman whose nom de blog is Material Maidel and Elana Sztokman – focus on food and Pesach.
Material Maidel, who writes that she recently moved to New York area from “out of town,” is, I would guess from her posts, in her mid-to-late 20s, and from a strictly Orthodox — perhaps Chasidic — family (the hint being that they keep the stringency of “non-Gebrokts” for Passover — thus not mixing matzah with any liquid whatsoever. I find it hard to imagine the holiday without my husband’s excellent matzah brei and matzah ball soup, so thankfully we don’t hold by the custom).
Sztokman is Israel-based, also Orthodox though perhaps more on the ‘modern’ end of the spectrum, and on her blog, is consistently thoughtful and insightful on all sorts of issues pertinent to Jewish women.
During the holiday’s intermediate days, she wrote about “Orthodox women, Passover and body image:”
This is the life of the typical religious woman at Passover. Spend an entire week in the kitchen, trying to create a non-bread area of the kitchen while feeding kids who are on vacation and still hungry and still want cereal and pasta, cooking for a series of massive dinner parties that take place over anywhere from one to three days without using any takeout and without being able to even shop for extra eggs along the way, then sitting for Seder and fulfilling the obligations to eat and eat and eat — in which, for a woman, this is the first time she has sat down in days, making eating the most relaxing activity available — and then waking up the next morning to fit into the brand new high fashion expensive but body covering while body flattering outfit, and doing the same for the daughters. Talk about pressure. But for a woman, it is all pressure around the body.”
She goes on to discuss modesty and “the male gaze” to which women are subjected, she says, whether they are covered or not. It is a provocative piece worth considering.
Material Maidel — MM to her friends and readers — is less ruminative and far more lighthearted as she chats about looking for love and other pursuits of a modern but religious young woman.
Not quite “Sex in the Shtetl,” but nearly. See her blog here. Her newest post, “Passover Pounds,” is also about Chag HaMatzot and the matzah itself.
She’s a fun read, after deep diving into Sztokman’s essay. Look back to earlier posts for some of her adventures in dating.