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.
Just when we thought that gender segregation in Israel had become endemic, it spread further. In addition to the segregated business conference that my Sisterhood colleague Allison Kaplan Sommer reported on here, three new fronts for gender segregation have opened up in Israel, each one bringing a new version of extremism to life here.
The first is the Jerusalem light rail, which is slated to begin operating in the coming months. According to recent reports, the Haredi community has succeeded in winning gender-segregated cars. When the idea first reared its head last year, the (secular) managers of the project surprisingly expressed favor for segregation, citing the need to “serve everyone in the city.”
The idea that misogyny deserves to be accommodated by the municipality represents a frightening intrusion of warped religious thinking into public life.
The sexual lives of religious women will be a major topic of discussion at a panel at the upcoming conference organized by the religious women’s forum Kolech. Naomi Marmon Grumet, who has conducted research on the intimate lives of religious women, will be examining the differences between Orthodox men and Orthodox women in preparation for marriage.
This is just one of many juicy subjects that will be addressed at the upcoming Kolech gathering, scheduled for July 3–4 at the Keshet School in Jerusalem. (Kolech, which was founded in 1998 by Hana Kehat, works within a religious framework to promote gender equity in Israel.) Other conference topics include feminism in the Haredi community; Jewish and Arab women fighting for tradition; gender and Judaism on the Internet; single mothers by choice; gender segregation in public spaces, and sex-ed for religious boys.
On one hand, the sex of a baby appears not to be important. At least it’s not for the Toronto couple that has been in the news lately for refusing to reveal their baby’s gender. On the other hand, expectant couples seemingly obsessed with their unborn child’s sex are now having “gender cake” parties, as Marjorie Ingall reported on Tablet.
According to Ingall, these parties culminate a process in which the mother’s obstetrician hides a note with the baby’s gender inside a sealed envelope, which is passed on to the bakery, where either a blue or pink cake is baked and covered in a neutral color fondant (or basic icing, if you’re less fancy). Once the couple excitedly cuts the cake at a prenatal shower, the gender cat is out of the bag — or, in this case, out from under a thick layer of sugary goo.
Personally, I preferred finding out my three children’s genders only once it was the umbilical cord that was cut, and when it was the babies themselves who were covered in a different kind of goo.
It seems the gender wars are trickling down…to preschool. This recent article in Slate is about a new preschool in California called “The Pink Academy” which features pink everything and no boys.
Preschool founder Donna Wood told The Santa Cruz Sentinel, in this article, “It’s about empowering girls, and they like pink right now.”
It sounds less empowering than limiting, if you ask me. Generalizations like Wood’s are troubling because they are so reductive. They offer too limited a notion of who girls are and what they can be interested in.
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.
Even at a moment when I’m still transfixed by all those photo montages of Michael Jackson’s transformation from black boy to pale-skinned, snip-nosed mutant, this story from an English-language newspaper in Sweden called The Local, caught my eye.
It’s about a young Swedish couple keeping the gender of their two-year-old child a secret. They don’t use a personal pronoun when referring to the child, in this story dubbed “Pop,” they dress him/her variously in “boy” and “girl” clothes, and frequently vary the child’s haircut so as to mix up the gender cues that hairstyles often provide. According to The Local’s story:
The parents were quoted saying their decision was rooted in the feminist philosophy that gender is a social construction. “We want Pop to grow up more freely and avoid being forced into a specific gender mould from the outset,” Pop’s mother said. “It’s cruel to bring a child into the world with a blue or pink stamp on their forehead.”
The child’s parents said so long as they keep Pop’s gender a secret, he or she will be able to avoid preconceived notions of how people should be treated if male or female.
Pop’s wardrobe includes everything from dresses to trousers and Pop’s hairstyle changes on a regular basis. And Pop usually decides how Pop is going to dress on a given morning.
These parents have misconstrued what feminism is and, worse, are imposing a rigid ideology on their poor toddler in the name of not imposing a gendered view of the world.
Now, when I had my first child 15 years ago, a son, I dressed him in all sorts of funky clothes. Lots of bright colors and patterns, along with some black leggings and turtlenecks (I am a New Yorker, after all) that would have worked on either gender. Never a dress, though. I just assumed that most of the clothes would work just fine for our next child, whichever the baby’s gender.
Out came a daughter, and the first time I put black leggings and a bold shirt on her, it just looked …. wrong. Not because she’s a girl, but because it simply didn’t suit her. This child looked best in very feminine, flowered prints. Now she’s 10 and out of the little-flowers-print-dress stage. But whatever she wears, it has girlish flair to it: A cute newsboy-type hat turned just so, or her hair up in some fun do.
Then we had our third delicious child, another daughter. This daughter’s style, like her personality, could not be more different than that of my elder daughter. Now 8, her clothing style is what I can only call (much to my reformed-prep-school-graduate chagrin) preppy. If the shorts or pants are plaid, the girl wants them.
What we choose to wear reflects who we are — one of the reasons I find it so discomfiting to see the fundamentalist Mormon girls and women in their matching prairie dresses, or orthodox Muslim women in their nearly identical face-covering burkas.
We all wear uniforms of one type or another, of course, broadcasting much about who we are and the slice of society in which we live. Here’s a Wikipedia page of categories of Jewish religious dress. Even when we dress to be wildly non-conformist, we’re conforming to some segment of societal norm. Chasidim have their uniforms, which vary significantly among the various Chasidic groups, and have subtle differentiations even within them — and Dead-heads have theirs, and we Brooklyn creative types have ours.
The problem I have with the story out of Sweden is not that they are trying to give their child the opportunity to be who he or she is, and really waiting for the child’s nature and style to emerge, but rather are imposing a rigid ideology on the poor thing.
Part of the delight of parenting is discovering who your child his. So, “Pop’s” Swedish parents, relax. Let your child pick out his/her own clothes, yes.
But forcing ungainly pronoun combinations when writing about him/her, purposely making him/her look like the opposite gender is going to do a head trip on him/her? It’s hard enough to raise emotionally healthy children in this complicated world. Don’t sacrifice his/her emotional health to an odd sociology experiment.
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