Last week, feminists launched a flurry of actions demanding the inclusion of abortion rights as a topic tackled by trendy TED talks. A representative from TED, interviewed by Jessica Valenti for her column in the Nation, had deemed the subject too political and controversial. This admission was followed by a petition from NARAL and general online outcry (digital feminism! it works!) which then prompted a lot of backpedaling from TED. So far, so good. We’ll just have to wait and see whether abortion-themed talks emerge from the slick-wisdom factory of TED in the future.
Editor’s note: This post is the third in a three part series answering the question, “How should Jewish feminism change in 2014 to be more effective?” Read the first post here and the second post here.
It’s no secret that women have a hard time supporting one another. Sure, we’ll bring each other lasagnas and casseroles when we’re sick, and we’ll give each other warm hugs as we listen to one another kvetch. But real support, the kind where we stand behind one another and say, “This woman is my leader; I trust in her vision, and I am willing to follow her,” well, not so much. As Facebook Chief Operating Officer and “Lean In” author Sheryl Sandberg has pointed out, when women are successful, we all tend to attribute their success to luck or to pluck rather than to intelligence and worthiness. The more women have ambition and vision, the less they are considered likable, by women and men alike. When a woman does well, she tends to hear things like, “You must be lucky,” or, “You’re obviously persistent,” as opposed to, say, “You’re a skilled, intelligent visionary.” We tend to be more comfortable with women as soft, submissive and servile than we are with women of power.
Editor’s note: This post is the first in a three part series answering the question, “How should Jewish feminism change in 2014 to be more effective?”
This past year was an extraordinary one for digital feminism. Debates and ideas that originated on the feminist Web became national news, as the generation of activists weaned on blogs and social media began to ascend into the mainstream ranks in media and activist organizations. Thousands of voices joined together in online campaigns, both planned and spontaneous, and sometimes quite radical. (A black feminist critique of white feminism! A Texas filibuster in favor of abortion rights!) Today, nakedly feminist content appears everywhere from The Huffington Post to The New Republic, and mainstream websites don’t relegate that content to a single beat writer or to a feminist subsection.
The question going into 2014 is, what do feminist activists do with this power? My hope is that digital feminism can leverage its newfound mainstream visibility to provoke even deeper and more nuanced conversations, and that we can transcend the Web’s tendency to force us into opposing camps. I hope it’s the year we take online feminism’s spirited debates and expand them to create dialogue that leads to common ground and to action. Our work is needed more than ever. We face persistent problems: a war on the working poor that affects mostly women, a continual erosion of reproductive rights and sexist messages from the media.
In the past 20-some years, women have “taken back” many things from the patriarchy. These include lipstick, the words “lady” and “slut,” and knitting. But there is one last thing feminists have yet to re-appropriate, and that, according to a new essay in Elle magazine, is dieting.
In this month’s magazine Marisa Meltzer writes about her struggle to reconcile her desire to lose weight and her identity as a feminist. She said she felt she had to keep her recent diet a secret, even as it made her physically feel much better, because no smart, enlightened woman would do such a thing.
“I fear that instead of fighting for a world where all bodies are admired,” Meltzer wrote, “I’m pandering, reshaping my body to make it acceptable to the world around me.”
According to the BBC, a quiet revolution is taking place among ultra-Orthodox women in Jerusalem. They have discovered the power of mascara.
There are, of course, numerous strict restrictions on these women when it comes to their appearance. They must wear modest clothes — no elbows, no collar bones — cover their heads, and many even cut off their hair. And yet, whether it is pressure from the secular world to look a certain kind of pretty or some deep-rooted desire in women to beautify oneself, they are heading to the beauty salon.
On November 4, I celebrated the 25th anniversary of Women of the Wall with over 600 women at the Kotel — a joyous event that went off with little of the usual chair-throwing, whistle-blowing and megaphone-enhanced cursing that the group normally endures during its monthly prayer protests. Two days later, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman donned a tallit and celebrated his acquittal on corruption charges at the Kotel.
I was struck by the juxtaposition. For 25 years this group of pious, multi-denominational, serious women have tried to gain the right to pray at the Kotel with tallit, tefillin and Torah, and have only recently won the tenuous right to the first two but not the third. Lieberman can swagger right up to the front with his kippot-clad guards and be sure he will be welcome.
I wish I could feel that the stones themselves are imbued with holiness. But the mechitza (the partition between men and women) has slowly moved to the right — both physically and metaphorically — from half the Western Wall being open to women to only 12 meters compared to the 48 for men. Presidents and popes place their little notes in the crevices without being briefed about or taking note of what happens on the other side. Scores of evangelical tourists squeeze their way through to the front trying to soak in the Jewish vibe while praying for their own messiah to come back and redeem them and the place. Shas leaders preen for the press and pray there for success in their next campaign. There are separate entrances, and now a “men’s only” upper plaza where women cannot even tread. And day after day both male and female Haredim pray there for the restoration of the priesthood, the Temple and the sacrifices, taking up the spaces closest to the stones. Those prayers and subsequently the stones which absorb them do not speak to me, or for me. Instead they have become a symbol of an encroaching public misogyny, an ultra-Orthodox legal hegemony and a manufactured emotional tourist-industry “high-point-of-your-trip” site that is part primitive and part Disney.
I can think of a hundred other places in Israel where I feel more spiritual. Give me instead a trip to the Ramon Crater, a hike to the top of Masada, a sunset in the Galilee, an afternoon at Yad Lakashish watching 90-year-olds in Jerusalem create Judaic art, a Friday night singing “Lecha Dodi” at the port in Tel Aviv. Give me instead the countless Jerusalem synagogues where on any Shabbat the harmonies of men and women move me to tears.
That does not mean I do not fully support Women of the Wall. I understand those for whom the Western stones are the only stones which have historical memory and the weight of tradition. In my dreams, like them, I want a Western Wall where every Jew feels welcome, nurtured and valued. I want an apolitical wall not used to garner religious votes. I want a spiritual wall where harmonies are welcome and I can pray a silent Amidah with my tallit over my head. But that Kotel does not exist. The stones have been sullied and I think we need new “old” ones.
Women of the Wall is at a critical crossroads. Some members believe that the Western Wall can still have power for women, and that, if they fight hard enough, women’s prayer will one day be welcome there. And some of them know this is not possible, will never be possible, and in the meantime the right to don tallit and tefillin is hanging by a thin thread. This second group feels we have been given a historic opportunity to create and renew, and represented by the board of Women of the Wall, has agreed to move its monthly service over to the southern part of the Western Wall. There you can stand above fallen Herodian stones that are as old as the stones of the Western Wall. But this site doesn’t have the optics of the main part of the wall, the backdrop of the iconic paratrooper liberation photo of 1967.
A subset of Women of the Wall leaders and supporters, who disagree with a plan to compromise on where the group can pray at the Kotel, has doubled in size from 10 to 21. Women of the Wall is a feminist group pushing to be able to sing, pray aloud and wear ritual garments typically worn by men at the women’s section of the Kotel.
The subset group announced last week that it rejected a plan put forth by Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky and conditionally accepted by Women of the Wall that would expand Robinson’s Arch, an area of egalitarian prayer.
The group released an open letter on Tuesday clarifying its dissent of the Sharansky plan and declaring that, “We are committed to our dream and to the work needed to fully realize and sustain it.”
Signatories include Rabbi Susan Silverman and Dr. Phyllis Chesler.
The dissenters wrote:
“The government proposes making structural changes at Robinson’s Arch to create a site to which all whose prayer practice is not tolerated by those who now control the Kotel will be relegated, leaving the Kotel permanently and officially in the hands of a segment of Jewry that suffers the presence of other Jews only on its terms. Regrettably, the Israeli government is yielding to intimidation, threats, and violence as the basis for policy making, rather than upholding the equality of rights of all citizens in public space that is enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.”
Rabbi David Saperstein, Director and Counsel of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and longtime supporter of Women of the Wall, told the Forward that the Reform movement officially supports the Sharansky plan, and that dissent like this was not uncommon in Judaism. “It’s not that we don’t think there’s a legitimate argument on the other side,” he said. “It’s a respectful difference.”
“Good moral caring people can differ on strategies and tactics, and how to achieve common goals, in this case, equal treatment of women at the wall,” Saperstein said. “Each of the locations has different strengths, and each of the locations has drawbacks. It seems that significant majority are willing to embrace the Sharansky approach.
“We’re sympathetic and appreciative of the majority of Women of the Wall who think that opening a larger area of the wall to be accessible to all people, all Jews, is most effective way of addressing need of having egalitarian, pluralistic, access to the Wall,” he said.
In an email to the Forward, Chesler wrote: “It occurs to me that we are not the dissidents. We are sticking to our fundamental and foundational principles. We are, oddly, the traditionalists and the current WOW Board have departed from our tradition. We hope we can get them to change their mind and come back to basics.”
Stay tuned for more updates on this developing story.
I’m thrilled to introduce myself as the new editor of the Sisterhood blog. As the deputy culture editor of the Forward, I’ve been covering gender and Judaism for the past two years, writing about topics like halachic infertility, Hasidic feminism and transgender Jews.
But my path to the Sisterhood actually began long before my time at the Forward. In middle school English class, I was given an assignment to instruct my peers on a topic of my choosing. Initially, I thought I would “teach” my classmates why girls are better than boys. (My logic at the time was that girls can grow up to have babies, an argument that today strikes me as rather sexist.) But in the end, I decided to go with a less controversial lesson: How to insult someone in Yiddish. (“Gai kaken oifen yam” or “Go poop in a lake” is still my favorite.)
From a tender age, it would seem, I was ruminating on gender and Judaism and the interplay between the two. Now, some two decades later, I finally have the opportunity to share my views in the public sphere. (I guarantee they’ve evolved beyond “girls are better than boys.”)
Of course, I’ll be joined by a talented bevy of freelance writers who will share their personal stories, analyze breaking news and, in the words of founding Sisterhood editor Gabrielle Birkner, “break ideas” on the blog. Speaking of Gabi, I have some big shoes to fill. Gabi and Abigail Jones, the immediate past editor, populated the blog with thoughtful prose and meaningful series, like “What Jewish Feminism Means to Me” and “Women in Mourning.” I am indebted to both of them — and their hard work and vision — as I helm the blog moving Forward.
Last week Malala Yousafzai charmed Jon Stewart’s, and therefore America’s, socks off when he interviewed the Nobel Peace Prize contender about her new book, a memoir about her experience as an education advocate and a victim of the Taliban.
Yousafzai, 16, was all conviction and grace when explaining to Stewart that she knew she was a target of extremists long before they shot her in the head, but had decided that it would not be worth fighting back.
“If you hit a Talib, then there would be no difference between you and the Talib,” she said. “You must not treat others with cruelty…You must fight others through peace and through dialogue and through education. … I would tell him how important education is and that I would even want education for your children as well. That’s what I want to tell you now do what you want.”
As touching as Stewart’s interview with her was, and it was touching, it did overlook a big part of what makes Malala Malala, and that is her religion. Yousafzai is a Muslim, and sees the potential for reform within the context of Islam, and not, like other prominent feminists from Muslim countries, outside of it.
Rafia Zakaria has a powerful essay on Al Jazeera America about why it is important that Yousafzai’s fans in the west don’t overlook the fact that Malala is a practicing Muslim. She says that for “Muslim girls and women around the world [her story] is more than just a tale of survival. … [It] is proof that feminism, or the desire for equality through education and empowerment, is not the terrain of any one culture or faith.”
Zakaria compares Yousafzai to Somali-born Dutch author Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose memoir “Infidel,” about her journey from a repressive Muslim family in East Africa to the freedom she found in Netherlands, became a New York Times best-seller and turned her into an international celebrity. Hirsi Ali’s message was that Muslim women can only be free when they renounce their faith and cultures.
Yousafzai, on the other hand, offers a different model for reformation, one that better resembles the battles being waged by millions of Muslim girls, who long for emancipation too. “Their victories,” writes Zakaria, “lie not in renunciation but in resistance and reclamation of faith, culture and public space.” She ends her essay by urging Western feminists to take note of their blind spots that might lead them to believe that renunciation is the only way.
”The tradition of narratives that hold up the medieval backwardness of abandoned countries and pivot invasions on liberating their hapless women is a strong one, but it is built on the historical edifice of colonial subjugation. A Western feminism that asks Muslim women to leave their traditions at the door is fundamentally disempowering.”
While I can’t say for sure if there is widespread trend among Western feminists to ask Muslim women to “leave their traditions at the door,” I do know that talk of Yousafzai ’s religion was largely absent from the media coverage of her in the States. Because of this, we lost our chance to hear her speak not just as a feminist crusader, but of someone who has managed to negotiate her religious traditions with how she thinks the world should look. As Jewish feminists have long known, and still know, this isn’t a simple task.
I can only hope that this is just the beginning of Yousafzai-fever and that we will still have our chance to hear more specifics about how she makes her observance of Islam and cultural traditions and her activism fit together. All feminists, religious or not, would surely benefit.
Content warning: The author has requested that there be a content/trigger warning as this piece talks about sexual abuse and rape.
You tell your editor you’ll write a piece about forgiveness and sexual abuse — about surviving being both sexually molested and raped, and then forgiving your abusers. And you’ll write it for Yom Kippur. When you pitch this story, first in spring and again in summer, you are certain you know what you’re talking about. You have no doubts. No unwavering concerns that this could be anything other than easy.
When Rosh Hashanah nears, you panic. Who are you to use words like “forgiveness” alongside your survival story when that word may not necessarily ascribe itself to any other survivor’s story? There is no right or textbook way to heal. Survival is as personal and intimate as that which was taken. I would know; I was sexually abused in high school and date raped in college. So finally, I forced myself to take a deep breath and write myself into understanding.
I started a new Word document. I cut and pasted links to articles about sexual abuse and forgiveness, but I knew I’d never read them. I didn’t need someone else’s thoughts to validate my truth. I’ve been in therapy. In college, I produced “The Vagina Monologues” and the V-Day Campaign. I’ve been publicly sharing my story through activism and art for over a decade. I listen as other survivors — women, men, genderqueer alike — share their stories. I’m not supposed to struggle with this anymore; I’m supposed to be certain in my healing.
Two new feminist t-shirts entered the world this past month and I am not sure which will incite more scandal, considering the context.
One is a tight, black, short-sleeved v-neck tee that has “’Daughters of Israel, Do Not Dress Provocatively” printed across it in Hebrew. This is the same language women find on signs posted around religious neighborhoods of Jerusalem warning them to not show too much skin.
This shirt was the brainchild of Jerusalem-based Joanne Ginsberg, who came up with the idea after being harassed for her “provocative” dress a few summers ago. She was wearing long sleeves, a long skirt sandals and a head scarf.
New York City just launched an offensive on yet another modern plague: low self-esteem in girls. The city started a new public health campaign aimed to encourage girls, aged 7 to 12 years, to challenge the unattainable notions of beauty foisted upon them by pop culture and advertising.
The campaign, which consists mostly of ads on public transportation, was the brainchild of Samantha Levine, the mayor’s deputy press secretary. Levine said she was moved to start the project after learning that 80% of 10-year-old girls report being afraid of being fat and most girls’ self-esteem drops at age 12 and doesn’t improve until 20. The Sisterhood spoke with Levine about what she hopes the campaign will achieve and why we need to redefine beauty.
Today, the Jewish world mourns a great loss: Rav Ovadia Yosef, a spiritual leader of the Sephardic community and founder of the Shaas Party has passed away.
The Baghdad-born rabbi, who died at the age of 93, will be remembered as an active political player and major Torah scholar. And although not all of his views towards women were progressive, his efforts towards helping Jewish women is something not to be overlooked. Indeed, he was heavily involved in permitting more than 1,000 agunot — literally, women chained — to remarry after the Yom Kippur War.
While Rabbi Yosef was serving as Tel Aviv’s Chief rabbi in 1973, he was approached by IDF General Mordechai Piron regarding a serious problem: nearly 1,000 women were left in a state of limbo. Their husbands had not returned from the battlefield, but there was no way to confirm their deaths. Without obtaining evidence of death, or a get, a religious divorce, these women were left as agunot — “chained” and unable to remarry.
In her new book “Wonder Women,” Barnard president Debora Spar claims that, despite what feminists have long-argued, women do have inherent differences from men when it comes to workplace behavior.
As Spar explains in an excerpt in Salon:
In the wake of the financial crisis of 2008, however, a renegade, slightly retrograde view has started to emerge. What, some observers have wondered publicly, if women in the workforce don’t behave exactly like men? What if women leaders, in particular, don’t lead exactly like men? And what if those characteristics, rather than consigning women to domestic chores, actually made them highly prized members of social organizations?
Clearly, this is dangerous ground to tread. Because if it’s acceptable to claim that women are different in a good way, then it’s just a hop, skip, and jump back toward defining them as different in a bad way. If we attribute any particular characteristics to women as a group, aren’t we just reducing them to the same sorts of social stereotypes that feminism so successfully toppled?
Spar refers to a group of studies to prove this point, including research by Georgetown University professor Deborah Tannen who found that “men in group settings strive generally to preserve status, while women try to gain intimacy and closeness,” as well another set of studies that suggests “organizations run by women tend to be more cautious than those run by men.”
In late August, The Sisterhood launched a series examining the role of women in Jewish mourning traditions. Grieving for a loved one is fiercely personal; doing so as a woman, guided by Jewish laws and rituals, can be comforting or restricting, depending on one’s experience. We asked you, Sisterhood readers, to share your stories. Many people responded. Some women felt marginalized, even alienated, by their limited roles in the mourning process. Others felt invigorated and strengthened, and found deep comfort in community. What resulted was a portrait of Jewish female mourning. This series, which includes essays from writers and submissions from readers, will appear on The Sisterhood blog this week. —Abigail Jones
The following stories from Sisterhood readers are just a sample of the many we received. They have been edited for style and length.
I stand on the other side of the mechitza. I have no desire to do otherwise. So when my father passed away a few years ago, I would have been more than happy to shed my tears out of view and among the company of just other women — steadied by their collective strength, strengthened by the knowledge that afterward they would be there for me, bringing a hot meal and a solacing word.
But it was not to be.
A Reform clergyman was going to officiate at the funeral. I knew what that meant. During the eulogy, he would talk mostly about how my father loved ice cream and poker — which was true, but not the point. A Jewish hesped (eulogy) is a time to speak about the good deeds that the deceased has done — the mitzvos, the charitable causes they believed in and supported, the simple acts of kindness they did in a way that was uniquely their own.
I felt that someone needed to speak about that. So I did give a hesped. But inside — behind my inner mechitza — I was crying, both for my father and our traditions, whose wisdom and beauty have become buried under so many layers of misunderstanding and neglect.
—Libi Astaire, 59 years old
In late August, The Sisterhood launched a series examining the role of women in Jewish mourning traditions. Grieving for a loved one is fiercely personal; doing so as a woman, guided by Jewish laws and rituals, can be comforting or restricting, depending on one’s experience. We asked you, Sisterhood readers, to share your stories. Many people responded. Some women felt marginalized, even alienated, by their limited roles in the mourning process. Others felt invigorated and strengthened, and found deep comfort in community. What resulted was a portrait of Jewish female mourning. This series — comprised of essays from writers and submissions from readers — will appear on The Sisterhood blog this week. This is the second post in that series. —Abigail Jones
I lost a friend a few months ago. Cheryl was only 52 years old. Cancer ripped her from us. It is all so unfair. She had so many years to go. In the intervening months, I have thought a lot about female friendships and loss. I watched myself from a distance speak at her funeral, an out-of-body experience where a small voice kept saying, “Sit down. This cannot be happening.”
I had a hard time taking Cheryl off my speed-dial. It was like ripping off a band-aid really quickly, but inside where it really hurts — a bruise to the soul that stubbornly won’t heal. We did carpool together, ate Shabbat and holiday meals together, raised our kids together. So often, I find myself just about to call and tell her something and then I remember, once again, that she is no longer here. That momentary re-living of loss becomes another small stab at the heart. As the writer Anais Nin once observed, “Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it’s only by this meeting that a new world is born.”
Cheryl lost a close friend and neighbor a few years before we moved to the area. At the time, she said, ‘How come there is no shiva for friends?” And now I am asking myself that same question for her.
As if back-to-school season and the High Holidays weren’t enough to command our attention and energies, here in New York we’re anticipating mayoral primary elections (slated for September 10). Last week’s campaign developments, as noted in Kate Taylor’s “Trailside” column in The New York Times, included the following: “Two Democratic front-runners, Bill de Blasio and Christine C. Quinn, on Wednesday got into an ugly dispute over whether Mr. de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, had suggested that Ms. Quinn could not understand the problems of parents because she did not have children herself.”
Of course, there’s more to the story — including corrections to the Maureen Dowd column, also for The Times, in which McCray’s comments appeared. Regardless of McCray’s original remarks or intent, the situation spotlighted something familiar to some of us who don’t have children: the claim that we simply don’t understand the lives of parents. More important for The Sisterhood’s purposes, it has provided an occasion to counter that claim: In truth, some of us are childless (or childfree, or however you choose to describe the situation) at least in part because we understand the lives of — and the pressures faced by — contemporary parents.
We understand quite well.
I actually must thank Sam-the-Bar-Mitzvah-video dancer and his family for their voyeuristic and strategically-posted video of the burlesque dance routine that’s been making blogosphere news. They have certainly given us Rabbis fodder for our high holiday sermons.
But while many of us are busily typing up diatribes against the excess, the lavishness, the expense and the lack of Jewish focus, and while we are all right in our musings about so many of the wrong messages Sam’s scantily-dressed dancers gave off, I hope we don’t miss seeing it through one more lens: the feminist one.
Imagine you are one of the 12- or 13-year old girls watching the performance, whether live or on the video. What do you see?
You see a riff on all those music videos with hot girls shaking everything they’ve got around a male lead singer (this time a Bar Mitzvah boy). You see a 13-year-old boy hungrily adored by female dancers the age of older sisters, or worse yet, mothers. You see that “women” — in the form of the Ritual Rockettes — want that boy. You see that one guy can satisfy 20 girls. And that they all desire back. You see a boy being welcomed into a gaggle of females vying for his attention. They wait for him and on him. And you no doubt imagine yourself, the skinny, awkward, gawky tween, hoping to be one of those women soon — hoping to have a man to allure the way those women are not-so-subtly alluring and admiring Sam.
Somehow, I did not put two and two together.
I read Hadassa Margolese’s post (in Hebrew) on the Maariv website back in May about her negative — even traumatizing — experience at her local mikveh (ritual bath) in Beit Shemesh, Israel. Then, recently, I read several Facebook posts she wrote about her family’s move to a new home. However, I didn’t realize until Tuesday that these two things were related. I finally made the connection when I read this JTA article about how Margolese, a reluctant activist, was driven out of Beit Shemesh not by the Haredim she had previously stood up to (when they harassed and intimidated her young daughter over her dress), but rather by her fellow Modern Orthodox neighbors.
Coincidentally, I also read on Tuesday a new e-book by Allison Yarrow, titled, “The Devil of Williamsburg,” about the notorious Nechemya Weberman sex abuse case. It’s all about how Brooklyn’s Satmar Hasidic community covers up everything from minor misdoings to major crimes, routinely shunning community members who dare shine a light on them.
One can’t exactly compare the reporting of crimes like rape and child abuse to the writing of a column about nasty mikveh ladies who over-scrutinize you and don’t give you enough privacy. But, from what I understand, there seems to be a trickle-down effect happening. It’s no longer just Haredi Jews who are hounding and ostracizing those who air dirty laundry in public.
When women stay home with the kids, men may start to view them differently. That’s one of the many takeaways from Judith Warner’s revelatory second look at the “opt-out generation” a decade later, published this weekend in the New York Times Magazine. A particularly noteworthy quote came from the spouse of one of the women profiled, seeming to indicate that his wife’s self-esteem was not a value he cared for. “Once she started to work, she started to place more value in herself,” said Mark Eisel of his ex, Sheilah O’Donnel, a housewife who had opted back in, “and because she put more value in herself, she put herself in front of a lot of things — family, and ultimately, her marriage.”
Bryce Covert neatly unpacks the hidden thesis in Warner’s article at her blog at the Nation, writing “that the actual circumstance of having a wife stay home changes men from being egalitarian to being far more traditional …” both at home when they expect a level of caretaking their partners may not have signed up for, and at the office where research has confirmed their views, colored by their own family structure, “take a turn for the sexist.”
The question I always ask at moments like this is what came first, the chicken of women spending more time at home, or the egg of home-based caretaking work being devalued by society? This attitude also explains why domestic workers and health aides aren’t treated as the hard-working, skilled laborers they are.