The women’s section in Tel Aviv’s Heichal Yehuda Synagogue./Photo by Haaretz/Adva Naama Baram
(Haaretz) — Where are you for the High Holidays? If “you” refers to Orthodox Jewish men, then you get to pray in the main sanctuary, which you will enter through the main entrance. Once inside the sanctuary, you will be full participants in the service, able to see and hear all that goes on, spending the time with your sons and younger daughters.
Once your daughters reach the age of seven, they will go from “us” to “them,” a threat to your delicate souls. Then they will be ushered into the women’s section, where they will continue a centuries-old tradition of gender-based segregation, to put it in modern terms.
Women usually enter through a side entrance and find themselves in the less attractive section of the synagogue. At best, they may be on a separate level. At worst, they may be either pushed into a stifling corner or given an area that is open from every direction, such as a corridor, or a room that is occasionally used for storage. Once inside the women’s section, you will be seated behind a divider, far away from the prayer service – the very reason you are here. In many cases, you will not be able to make eye contact with the congregation below or follow the service in your prayer book because you can hardly hear it from where you are sitting. Happy holidays.
Exemplars of segregation, exclusion
A photographic exhibition of women’s sections in dozens of synagogues in Israel and abroad by architect and photographer Adva Naama Baram, entitled “In the Women’s Section,” opened last Thursday for the High Holiday season at the Architect’s House Gallery in Jaffa. Baram photographed women’s sections of various types, sizes, locations and designs that are exemplars of the pattern of segregation and exclusion. The 27 photographs in the exhibition, whose curators are architects Rivka Gutman and Eran Tamir-Tawil, speak for themselves.
Tzipporah, a Modern Orthodox woman living in Manhattan, just couldn’t deal with the way that people misbehaved on the New York subway. She started taking surreptitious camera phone photos of the worst offenders — men who insisted on sprawling out onto multiple seats, even when the train was packed. She began posting the pictures on a Tumblr she created called Move The F**k Over Bro.
Soon, the blog grew and Tzipporah (she requested that the Forward use her first name in order to preserve her privacy) began getting submissions and responses from all over the country and even from places as far away as China and Brazil. But she also started getting tons of hate mail. She granted her first-ever interview to The Sisterhood.
“It’s a scary and not always smart thing to do, taking pictures,” Tzipporah admits. She has faced harassment offline as well, including a recent incident when she stood up for a woman who was being heckled on the train by guys who she’d asked to move over and free up a seat. “But I think [Jewish people] have an obligation toward social justice.”
Tzipporah, who was raised by a single father, credits him for making feminism an elemental part of her life. “He encouraged me to look at women as complex individuals. He has always been really proud of me,” she says. “Raising up Jewish girls is like my favorite thing. The idea that religion is misogynist bothers me.”
We at the Sisterhood have been following Jennifer Weiner’s crusade for literary gender parity for years. Finally, the witty (Jewish) Twitter maven and fiction writer has gotten her own New Yorker profile by Rebecca Mead, complete with childhood description, literary analysis, a home visit and the immortal phrase “garotted with a pair of Spanx.”
What follows are a few connected meditations from someone who has been following the gender and highbrow/lowbrow literary debate with my lips pursed in concentration for years.
In their ongoing quest to obliterate all signs of women from public life, religious Jews in Israel have now decided that the female reproductive system is obscene and have removed it from their science textbooks.
As Haaretz reports, “the Education Ministry has asked textbook publishers to eliminate chapters on human reproduction, pregnancy prevention and sexually transmitted diseases from science textbooks used in state religious junior high schools as well as from their teacher manuals.”
Apparently several publishers have already made the changes, and the revised textbooks are on their way to the Ministry for approval. If these new versions are approved, it will be the first time religious students, of which there are 200,000, will use a different set of science books than students in secular schools. Without those chapters on reproduction, religious students will miss out on the chance to learn about the birds and bees from a scientific standpoint, unless they elect to take biology in high school.
The article doesn’t provide any direct quotes or explanations from those who requested these revisions, but it is safe to assume that it is all about that rather slippery notion of female modesty that has become a point of obsession for the ultra-Orthodox.
The cover story, titled “The Feminists of Zion,” in the new issue of The New Republic is required reading for anyone looking for a comprehensive introduction to the war against women playing out in Israel wherever extremist Haredi Jews hold sway against the images or presence of women — or even little girls — in public.
The article is written by former Sisterhood contributor (and current Haaretz columnist) Allison Kaplan Sommer and Slate senior columnist Dahlia Lithwick. It uses the story of one national religious (modern Orthodox) resident of Beit Shemesh, Nili Phillip, who in 2011 was stoned by Haredim while riding her bike, as the frame for a discussion of both the larger issues and many of the specific ways in which Haredi pressure has been brought to bear on women’s visibility and safety.
The well-written, exhaustively reported piece looks specifically at the unlikely alliance between Phillip and other modern Orthodox women — most of them reluctant to embrace the feminist label — and the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center. IRAC began to work with Orthodox women’s groups in 2008, filing lawsuits that challenged rules requiring female mourners to stand separately from their male relatives in government cemeteries, and in some places barring women from eulogizing. As TNR’s article states, IRAC filed suits against Haredi radio stations, operating with government licenses, that barred women’s voices on the basis of modesty, and has subsequently gone on to file small claims court cases against bus companies and drivers for failing to uphold Israeli laws requiring gender segregation to be voluntary. Three of the six women on whose behalf IRAC sued were Orthodox.
When the Oreo became kosher 15 years ago, the kosher-keeping world may have thought the milestone would be the climax of kosherization. As of yesterday, they would be wrong.
Trigg Labs, the vanilla-sounding brand behind Wet sexual wellness products, has apparently spent the last two years undergoing a koshering process, according to the Herald Online, and has now received official kosher certification. In other words, the United States finally has kosher “personal lubricants,” pushing any demands for kosher Skittles out of the spotlight. Under the supervision of the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC), almost all Wet products are now kosher certified — just don’t look for the kosher symbol on your bedside bottle of lube.
“We don’t put the symbol on the bottle,” explained Rabbi Yosef Caplan, Assistant Director of Kashrut Services at the RCC, in a phone call. “The product has a back-up letter.”
Like in much of the pundit world, those who opine on Israel and the Middle East tend to be disproportionately male. According to the OpEd Project, men continue to be 80-90% of key contributors to opinion forums, guests on TV talk and new shows and authors of editorials in newspapers and magazines. The OpEd Project also found that when it comes to international politics, women’s opinions only account for 13% of commentaries.
So, we created a list of nine Jewish women who we believe should be more regularly quoted, published and interviewed on Israel and the Middle East. Next time you are putting together a panel, looking for an oped or just some smart insight on all things Israel, we suggest you reach out to one of these women.
In February 1997, Ellen Jaffe Gill’ s essay on not wanting to have children, was published in Moment Magazine. In the piece, Jaffe Gill (then McClain) discussed how her decision not to have children did not prevent her from engaging fully in Jewish life. As a writer, she was in fact transmitting the covenant on her own terms.
“I don’t remember a lot of reaction to the piece in Moment,” she recently told The Sisterhood via email. “What was telling was that a few years later, I tried to write a feature story about childlessness by choice for the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles and couldn’t get it off the ground because very few peoplewould talk to me on or even off the record.”
Jaffe Gill, who entered Jewish professional life at 44 and is now a cantor and rabbinical student in her 50s, had a tubal ligation at the age of 31, “after ten years of being sure I never wanted to have a baby.”
For a very long time, I thought I wanted to be a rabbi. There are a lot of reasons why I changed my mind, but a big one is that I could not find the role model I needed — a child-free female rabbi. I knew deep down that I didn’t want to have kids, but it was so hard to say it out loud, and saying it in front of people who were committing their professional and personal lives to the Jewish community seemed impossible.
I’m super glad that these fraternity boys at the University of Maryland wrote this letter to their brothers about how to talk to Jewish women, because otherwise, I would not have known how! Also, apparently I’ve been talking to myself and other Jewish women the wrong way this entire time.
The guys’ egregious “instructions” are divided into sections, including “hometown,” “major” and “topics of conversation.” Here’s a hint of what they think it takes to talk to a Jewish woman:
If from an allowed hometown you are fine. If not, lie and say you are from an allowed area. Note: DC is a toss up area, as is Vermont.
Areas you can be from: New York, New Jersey, PA (only Philadelphia area, sorry redacted), Massachussets, Rockville/Bethesda area, Pikesville
Not Allowed Areas: The rest of Maryland (especially rural counties, looking at you redacted), Baltimore, Atlanta, anywhere in the south, Connecticut are from an allowed area. Note: DC is a toss up area, as is Vermont.
On a college major…
You are a business major or an econ major or a communication major
You want to “do something with business, maybe finance” or start your own business
Alternative 1 to that: Some science major, but you are going to med school to be a doctor (why? because both your parents are doctors)
Alternative 2: You are a crim major and plan on going to law school
In summation: No matter what, do whatever you have to do to create and maintain the aura of wealth. Sadly, this letter isn’t a joke.
Outcry from Jews in Israel and the Diaspora has led the rabbi in charge of policies at the Kotel to back down from his plan to have women arrested for saying Kaddish, says Anat Hoffman, chair of Women of the Wall.
At a meeting Thursday with Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch “assured Sharansky that, contrary to the letter [sent by Jerusalem police chief to Women of the Wall], no woman would be arrested for reciting Kaddish at the Western Wall.”
The Jewish Agency made that announcement by posting a note on its Facebook page, which was illustrated with a photo of young women praying at the Kotel.
After The Sisterhood broke the story Wednesday of the police chief’s letter indicating that women would be arrested and charged for saying Kaddish, as well as wearing a tallit, it was covered extensively by the Israeli media, Hoffman said.
I don’t even remember how I came across Christopher Scanlon’s piece about the social barriers between men and children, but reading it has made me feel all kinds of angry things. In it, Scanlon describes a situation in which he sees a little girl dangling precariously from some monkey bars, but doesn’t attempt to help her. Why? He explains:
I don’t want to put myself in a position where I could be perceived as predatory or a pervert, or make a child, or its parents feel threatened. I’ve internalized this fear so much so that even though I only wanted to help, I would have felt creepy.
When I was 10 or 11 years old, I had a male dance teacher. I can’t recall thinking it was weird, just that dancing was fun and being in class made me happy. I do remember my mother being really freaked out about it, though, and asking a lot of questions about how our teacher behaved towards us. He behaved … like someone teaching a dance class? It was stressful, being asked these questions. I felt like I was supposed to say something that wasn’t true, because the truth didn’t seem to be what she was after. The veil of suspicion never seemed to lift. I don’t remember when I left that dance class, but it was sooner than I had wanted.
It is estimated that a woman born in my country, South Africa, has a greater chance of being raped than of learning how to read. Here, 144 women report rape to the police every day — that’s six cases reported every hour. These cold statistics from the Medical Research Council (MRC) tell us that a brutal war against women rages on.
While India rose up in protest after the brutal gang rape of a 23-year-old in December, the recent sadistic rape and mutilation of 17-year-old South African Anene Booysen has seen a nation simply shrug its shoulders. Two women on different continents both endured vicious abuse, and their deaths elicited two very different national responses. The tragic deaths of both young women demand that their communities face the horror of sexual violence. Yet the response to in my country has been a state of helplessness, apathy and paralysis to implement change.
Anene Booysen, from a small town in the Southern Cape, was not only gang raped on the evening of February 1st, but had her stomach cut open, her throat slit and her intestines physically pulled out by her attackers. Left for dead with broken arms and legs, this brave woman managed to identify one of her attackers, reportedly her ex-boyfriend, before she passed.
Before Rosh Hashanah began, I did some interrogation of myself. Not the sort you’d expect; it wasn’t an intake of my spiritual behavior or of my wrong doings. It went something like this:
Chanel 1: I do not want to go to shul this year. Do I have to? I cannot deal with the gendered God crap.
Chanel 2: Of course you don’t have to. You’re an adult. You don’t have to do anything. (There are some exceptions, but shul is not one of them.)
Chanel 1: Maybe I should try harder? Maybe I shouldn’t let myself off the hook so easily? THIS IS A SERIOUS THING.
Chanel 2: It’s not that serious. Calm down.
In the end, I didn’t go to shul on Rosh Hashanah or on Yom Kippur — and this is not a post about how I feel guilty about that. It is about how every time I open a prayer book, I get insanely angry at the gendering of God. I can’t get over the fact that, as a woman, I am praying to a male God. To be clear, I don’t think it’s better to gender God as a female either. I don’t believe in God having a gender at all. It seems pretty clear to me that God is not a gendered being — that God cannot be, God is bigger than that.
Enough of my theology, though. The point is, I know a lot of women who identify as feminists and who go to shul a lot, where God is regularly identified as male. How do they deal with this? I asked some women I know, and here’s they they told me.
It’s not a joke, although it certainly seems like one.
In some ultra-Orthodox communities in Israel, shops are now selling eye glasses with lenses that intentionally blur whatever the wearer is looking at, the web site ynet reports.
The goal is to allow men to walk through their neighborhoods without having to risk getting a good look at immodestly clad women.
Entrepreneurs obtained a patent for glasses with blurry lenses for a mere 25 NIS, or a little more than $6, the site reports. Shops in Israeli communities such as Meah Shearim are also hawking removable stickers that can be affixed to prescription glasses to achieve the same goal.
Why a person who needs corrective lenses wouldn’t choose to simply remove their glasses to avoid seeing women dressed is perhaps a mystery only understood by that community.
Ido Plazental, a history and civics teacher at Ziv High School in Jerusalem, has an innovative way of raising gender awareness among his students: He addresses them all as female.
Native English speakers who are not familiar with Hebrew may miss the inventiveness of this form of speech. In Hebrew, as in many European languages, there is no such thing as a gender-neutral way of speaking. In Hebrew, you can’t say, “I’m playing with my friend” without revealing whether your friend is male (haver) or female (havera). All objects, people, pronouns and verbs must be in either male or female. This means that in order to address a group of people, “you” has to be either the male “atem,” or the female “aten,” which generally leaves one part of the group excluded.
Although some people play with the generally awkward he/she combinations, the predominant custom among most Hebrew speakers is to use the male form to address mixed groups. And while we may like to believe that when Israelis use the all-male form, they really mean to address men and women, in practice that is not always the case.
I bought 24 copies of “The New American Haggadah” sight unseen, based on the recommendation of a friend and the yiches of its creators, writers Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander. The aesthetic of the books is very Zen, very Steve Jobs: It’s light — literally, the paper seems nearly weightless — and spare, with monochromatic flying Hebrew letters.
I loved it at first touch. Then I read the first line: “You are blessed, Lord God-of-Us, King of the Cosmos, who has set us apart with his mitzvot, and instituted us to eliminate all hametz.” “Lord”? “King”? “His”? Oh no.
And then page after page of more of the same: male pronouns for God, and other words referencing a male God: king, father, etc. And the story of the four sons was the four sons, not even the four children. Women and girls are totally absent from the greatest story ever told in “The New American Haggadah.” I considered taking the books back to the bookstore.
When I was visiting Toronto recently, an editorial with the purposely provocative title, “’It’s a girl!’ — could be a death sentence” by the editor-in-chief of Canada’s leading medical journal sparked a huge controversy. There were headlines in all the newspapers about Dr. Rajendra Kale’s call in the Canadian Medical Association Journal for waiting until 30 weeks gestation to inform all Canadian parents of their unborn child’s gender.
Kale’s concern, focused mainly on the South Asian community, was to prevent abortion of females, “discrimination against women in its most extreme form.”
The doctor’s main assertion was that thousands of female fetuses were being aborted by Canadian women of South Asian descent every year. Although this does not at all compare to the millions of female fetuses aborted in China and India, he still views this as a major problem and “evil practice.” Arguing that the sex of the fetus is not relevant medical information owed to the mother, he wrote it would be advisable to shift the practice of revealing whether the baby is a boy or girl (usually done at 18-20 weeks gestation) until after it is too late to have an unquestioned abortion.
I am not a proponent of finding out the sex of a child before its birth. Throughout my pregnancies with each of our three sons, neither my husband nor I knew that we were having boys. To us, the sex of the baby simply did not matter. Although we named our second son Hillel, we paid no heed to that great sage’s determination that to fulfill the mitzvah of pru u’rvu (be fruitful and multiply) one must have a son and a daughter. Nor were we thinking about following Shammai’s teaching that one must have at least two sons.
While my son’s religious yeshiva recently invited mothers to an evening of mother-son learning, my daughters’ mixed-gender school decided to hold an event for women that revolves around “styling.” The flier reads: “Dear community chaverot (meaning either female members or female friends), you are invited to a unique evening on the subject of ‘Style Together’ ….”
Some apparently famous fashion writer/stylist will be lecturing on the subject of “How to use fashion to transmit social messages,” followed by tips on dressing for image and personality or whatever. The flier is brightly adorned with silhouettes of tall skinny young women wearing flared mini-dresses and high heels, with flowers in their hair. How fashion sends social messages, indeed.
I can imagine the protests already, before I’ve even started explaining why this is so upsetting to me:
What’s the big deal? It’s just a fun evening. Don’t we all want to dress well anyway? Isn’t this useful information? Practically every school has fashion-show fundraisers, so how is this different? Come on, why are you being such a stick in the mud? This is why people say feminists are too serious. Let women have their night out. It’s just a night for women to get together and bond — like going for manicures
(Suddenly midrash manicures don’t look so bad — at least they have a midrash component).
The New York Times recently wrote about a Jewish day school program for pre-teen girls which combines Torah study and nail painting.
In a response to the piece, Sisterhood contributor Renee Zhert-Gand wrote that she feels torn about the club, which is called “Midrash Manicures.” She explains that while she is always open to new ways of engaging students in Torah, she feels women fought too hard to study like men to now do something so gender-specific, and that this endorsement of manicures might make young girls think they need to have one in order to feel attractive. Well, I am all for Midrash Manicures, and here’s why.
I understand the instinct to think that young girls doing something “girly” like nail painting while also doing something serious like studying Torah somehow trivializes the latter. But I also think it is important for us to challenge that instinct.
It’s nice to see influential men increasingly protest the absence of women presenting at major Jewish events.
In the publication eJewishPhilanthropy.com, Shaul Kelner writes a powerful essay about his pledge to refrain from participating in any all-male panel discussions, and to make his involvement conditional on the inclusion of women.
Kelner, an assistant professor of sociology and Jewish studies at Vanderbilt University, was asked to take that pledge a couple of years ago by Rabbi Joanna Samuels, the director of strategic initiatives at the organization Advancing Women Professionals.