Sisterhood Blog

Lucy Gherman's Winding Career in Yiddish Theater

By Chana Pollack

Forward Association

Lucy Gherman had a long and winding career in Yiddish theater but it was likely her role as the long-suffering mother in the Yiddish film “A Brivele Der Mamen” (“A Letter to Mother”) that made her known for the ages. (She is pictured in the photo above, second from left, in a still from the film.) Themed around a family’s dislocation in the years leading up to WWI, the film was produced by Joseph Green. It was released in America the month Hitler invaded Warsaw in 1939. The film’s title song, long familiar to Yiddish theater goers, and was later reinterpreted by Israeli musician Chava Alberstein during Israel’s 1973 war. The song depicts a mother left behind in Eastern Europe reminding her son who has left for America to remember to write her a little note — no matter how many he’s already written her. It will ease her loneliness and pain. The film has also been released as “The Eternal Song.” It featured a script by Forverts writer Moyshe Osherowitch and scenes filmed depicting the exterior of the newspaper’s original building at 175 East Broadway.

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Louisa Solomon of The Shondes Talks Censorship

By Sarah Seltzer

Shondes.com // Louisa Solomon of The Shondes

Louisa Solomon is the feminist lead singer of The Shondes, a punk-rock band (think “Bruce Springsteen meets Bikini Kill,” she jokes) with openly queer members. The Forward once said she had “ a talent for androgynous sass.” Although the group espouses punk’s rebellious ethos and sometimes touch on geopolitics in their lyrics, they’re not explicitly political. “Most of our songs are about the power of friendship, hope, surviving heartbreak. We aren’t terribly polemic,” Solomon told me during a Friday afternoon gchat. “We are a rock band, we try to write anthems that help people survive, and we regularly invoke Judaism!”

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Shameful in Beit Shemesh

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

(Haaretz) — It was as frightening as any terrorist attack, recounted the young woman assaulted in broad daylight at a bus stop in Beit Shemesh last week.

But in fact, it was probably worse.

After all, one might presume that if an Israeli Jewish woman had been attacked by a Palestinian in the middle of the street, the bystanders around her would have rushed to her assistance, or at the very least, hastened to call the police. But that’s not what happened when this 25-year-old woman sitting at a bus stop with a toddler on her lap was verbally and physically assaulted by an ultra-Orthodox man last week who cursed at her and screamed that she wasn’t dressed modestly enough.

No one, she said, came to her aid or called for help, when he pulled her by her hair and threw her on the ground.

The attack was reported in the print media, but the young woman who was attacked at a bus stop in the haredi neighborhood of Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet went on television this week and related the full harrowing story herself. Her face was blurred on camera, but her story was clear and detailed, and painted a troubling picture of life in Beit Shemesh only a few weeks after its ultra-Orthodox mayor was reelected. The event turned the national spotlight on Beit Shemesh once more, has reinvigorated the struggle of a group of Beit Shemesh women to fight against intimidation in their city through the legal system, and revived discussion of whether coexistence is possible in Beit Shemesh or whether the non-haredi population would be wise to either pack their bags or divide their city in two, that is attempt to formally secede from the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods.

The woman was sitting at a bus stop with her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, dressed in a skirt with her head covered, when she was accosted by a haredi man. “He put his face right in front of mine and shouted “Slut! You weaken men!” she said in her Channel 2 news interview. “I was completely frightened by him, and I screamed.”

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Sara Netanyahu, Israel's Marie Antoinette

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

Haaretz Illustration

(Haaretz) — Oh, Sara, Sara, Sara.

First there was your nanny way way back in 1996 - a young South African girl named Tanya Shaw, who told the press that you were a nutty clean freak, a screaming shrew and accused you of firing her on the spot for committing the sin of burning soup and of having burly security guards drag her out of the Prime Minister’s residence after examining her suitcase to make sure she hadn’t stolen anything.

You called her crazy - or at least your husband, the Prime Minister did. His office issued a statement saying the young woman “showed indications of acute instability” which was why she was “removed.” and that “the Netanyahu family regrets the au pair’s severe condition and her imagined and false claims, and will do everything possible to help in her rehabilitation.”

Then, in 2010, there was your maid Liliane Peretz, who went a step further than complaining and filed suit against you in labor court. She said that during the six years she worked for you, you shouted at her, humiliated her, overworked and underpaid her - and insisted that she change clothes during the working day to remain hygienic enough for you. Your letter to the court said her claims were “fabricated” and that Peretz received nothing but “warmth and love” from you. The battle between you was ugly - and finally resolved in 2012 with an out-of-court settlement. No one knows how much money Peretz was given to stop her attacks but one can presume she no longer feels underpaid.

In both cases, your husband’s public relations team managed to launch impressive smear campaigns against the two women - you didn’t come out of the incidents looking very good, but neither did they.

But the news that broke Wednesday - the details that leaked of the lawsuit by Meni Naphtali, who managed the Prime Minister’s residence for 20 months and who’s suing you and Prime Minister Netanyahu for a million shekels in compensation - looks like a whole new ball game.

Three strikes and you’re out?

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Women Read the Megillah

By Miriam Kresh

A staging of King Ahasuerus and Queen Esther in an 1865 photo by Julia Margaret Cameron // Wikimedia Commons

From Haifa to Dimona, women are gathering to unfurl the Megillah and let Queen Esther’s voice come through. The feeling, for me and every woman who participates, is that a woman’s reading brings the Megillah alive in a new way. When a woman reads the text, she gives the audience time to savor the dramatic elements in the story. It comes together like a novel. Esther was taken by force from her home with Mordechai and brought, essentially a slave, to Ahasuerus’s palace. By her beauty and strength of character, she rose to be queen. And who was Mordechai to her, anyway? Some commentaries say they were married, sacrificing their love to work for Jewry in secret.

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Israeli Beauty Queen Fights for Women

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Israeli beauty queen Doron Matalon is a firm believer that good things can come from bad experiences. As a soldier in December 2011, she was sexually harassed by an ultra-Orthodox man on a Jerusalem bus. Now, as the first runner-up in the recent 64th Miss Israel pageant, she plans to use her newfound fame to help advance the fight for women’s rights in her country.

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Not Becoming a Rabbi Was the Best Decision of My Life

By Chanel Dubofsky

Thinkstock

There are a lot of things that I’m never going to be: a morning person, someone who remembers to check the weather report. A rabbi. It’s especially good that I am not this last thing, because it would have been the biggest mistake of my life.

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Haredi Wives to Sara Netanyahu: 'Be Our Esther'

By Frimet Goldberger

Mazal Tov! Sara Netanyahu has been crowned Queen Esther of Israel.

Eighteen wives of Haredi Members of Knesset penned a letter to Mrs. Netanyahu urging her to use her powers as Queen of the Israeli empire to influence her husband, Benjamin Netanyahu, Emperor of all Israelis. According to Israel National News, the women pleaded with Mrs. Netanyahu to appeal to her husband to strike down a pending law being drafted by a Knesset committee. This law is set to criminalize Haredi non-enlistment in the IDF, further exacerbating the tension between Haredim and the general public.

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ScarJo's Other SodaStream Problem: The Sexist Ad

By Elissa Strauss

No matter where you stand on Israeli politics, it’s hard not to see Scarlett Johansson’s decision to become a spokesperson for SodaStream as a bold choice.

Unfortunately, this boldness didn’t make its way into the commercial itself. Instead, the ad relies on the most cliche, ickily retro advertising tropes imaginable.

If you are reading this you have probably have already seen the spot. If not, spare yourself the 33 seconds and allow me to summarize. We meet Johansson on a set, where she is wearing a full face of make-up and a crisp, white robe. She runs through the environmental and health benefits of the product, and then, changing gears to a more girlish voice, says “if only I could make this message go viral.”

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Israeli Government To Subsidize Abortion but Not Birth Control

By Elissa Strauss

As conservative politicians continue to chip away abortion access around the United States, the Israeli government has decided to foot the bill.

According to Haaretz, in 2014 Israel will begin to pay for abortions for women between the ages of 20 and 33 under any circumstance and they hope to pay for all abortions in the future. Previously, Israel covered the costs of abortions for women of all ages in the case of medical emergencies, rape or sexual abuse.

Women who seek to terminate their pregnancies will have to appear before a state committee in order to receive the funding, which the new rule will raise from 16 to 24 million shekels, or around $6.9 million dollars a year.

Health officials say they expanded funding because they heard that “a large group of women between 20 and 40 who for various reasons – financial or reasons of secrecy – do not terminate pregnancies.” Yeesh, can you even imagine a government worrying about the fact that not enough women in their country are having abortions? I can’t.

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Pressure for Mastectomies

By Tamar Fox

The recent New York Times story about breast cancer in Israel focused, in part, on the low percentage of women who undergo the surgery after being told they’ve tested positive for BRCA1 or 2, which indicate a much greater risk for breast cancer. The story suggests that this is in part because doctors in Israel are reluctant to recommend women get mastectomies, because the (mostly male) doctors in Israel are sexist, and don’t want women to remove their breasts. The article also mentions how the Times op-ed written by Angelina Jolie about her own double mastectomy sparked a lot of debate in Israel, and caused many women to start thinking about and asking for the surgery.

Implicit in the article is a message that high risk women like myself are told over and over again: get a double mastectomy to save your own life. Angelina Jolie did it — why shouldn’t Israeli women? (Other things Angelina Jolie has done: have six children, wear a vial of blood around her neck, wear black rubber pants at her first wedding.)

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A 10-Year-Old's Take on Pew

By Danielle Leshaw

I gave my 10-year-old son, Zev, the Pew survey on American Jews. The entire thing. One Sunday afternoon at our kitchen table.

It all started the night before, when an undergraduate student at Hillel at Ohio University, where I am a rabbi, told my son during our Sabbath dinner that he recently found out he is Jewish. My son (pictured below) asked this student for clarification. He wanted to know more about this just-discovered identity; it was as if the student had found Judaism underneath the bed in his dorm room, or at the bookstore while buying books for class. The student replied: “My mom informed me that her parents were Jewish. So it turns out that I’m Jewish!”

Later that evening, back at the house, my son wanted to talk. Or rather, he wanted to monologue.

“Judaism,” he began, “is not just inside you like a dormant virus.” I turned to my husband with a look of desperation on my face. My son continued: “I don’t think it’s waiting there for you to realize it exists, or for you to coax it out, or for it to be teased out by some long-lost relative. In fact,” he asserted, “Judaism does not exist if you’re not practicing it.” He went on to claim, basically, that there is no such thing as an inherited Judaism. To the horror of grandparents everywhere, my son actually proclaimed that a person “isn’t just Jewish because their parents or grandparents are Jewish.” I took a gulp of my Shabbat wine and grabbed my computer. The Pew survey and my son had collided. My 10-year-old was talking about many of the same things we’d all been debating since the Pew survey had come out. I had the hysterical urge, on the Sabbath no less, to find out how he would respond to the Pew questions. I Googled around, and eventually found it: the 40-page survey of U.S. Jews.

Ima, why are you asking me all these questions?” he wanted to know the following afternoon. I fed him ice cream to keep him seated. It was a long survey. By page 12, even I wanted out. I wondered how the hell anybody stayed on the phone for such an exhaustive list of questions, many of which, had I been asked, I would have said, “Well, if you asked me yesterday, I would have said one thing, but since you’re asking me today, I’m going to say something totally different.” Because even I, a rabbi, don’t feel Jewish in exactly the same way each day.

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A Vision for a New Western Wall

By Elyse Goldstein

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.

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Gender Gap in Israel, U.S. Grows

By Elissa Strauss

The World Economic Forum recently published their annual Global Gender Gap report causing many of us to wonder, once again, why the heck we don’t move to Northern Europe or Scandanavia where the maternity leave flows like water and affordable childcare is as easy to find as a Starbucks.

For this report, researchers look at how women are doing in four key areas: health and survival, education, politics and economic equality in 136 countries. The top ten countries for women, in order of smallest gender gap to largest, are: Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Ireland, Denmark, Switzerland, Belgium, Latvia and the Netherlands. This year the US ranked 23 and Israel came in at 53.

In the health and survival category, Israel ranked 93 and the US ranked 33. (Remember, the lower the number the better of women are doing.) In educational attainment, Israel ranked 83 and the US ranked 1. In the economic participation and opportunity category, Israel came in at 56 and the US came in at 6, and in the political empowerment category Israel came in at 57 and the US came in at 60.

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Split in Women of the Wall Widens

By Maya Shwayder

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.”

Getty Images
Women of the Wall gathered at the Kotel in May.

“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.

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More Than A Fashion Statement

By Elissa Strauss

Joanne Ginsberg

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.

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I'm No Pew Survey Poster Child

By Sarah Seltzer

Sarah Seltzer

Until recently, I was a poster-child for the kind of attrition from Jewish life that the recent Pew Study, subject of so much angst in the media, describes. I eschewed nearly all organized Jewish activities in the decade after my first Hillel dinner at college, which I fled screaming.

Okay, I wasn’t quite screaming, but I certainly didn’t go back to more Hillel dinners.

An early stint at Jewish day school — supposedly a guarantee of future involvement in religion — hardly indoctrinated me. Instead, it put me in an odd position: It gave me affection for many of the customs and ideas that are associated with Judaism, but it also turned me off of hyper-organized religion forever.

There was a level of competition and sanctimoniousness involved in the religious part of the synagogue and day school experience that I never wanted to replicate. I loved being a Jew, but not listening to people brag about having the Rabbi over for shabbat, about being Jewisher than thou.

Pew Survey! Click Here! Click for more on the survey.

It’s true that, over time, I also became an atheist. But I would argue that my non-belief alone wouldn’t have kept me from practicing religion — I enjoy prayer and ritual and find them meaningful. Rather, what I disliked was the condescension that the allegedly more pious offered towards the less.

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Blotting Out Female Bodies From Textbooks

By Elissa Strauss

haaretz

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.

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Anat Hoffman, Women of the Wall Denounce Latest Plan

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Getty Images
Anat Hoffman

People like to frame Women of the Wall’s struggle in terms of Jewish religious pluralism. That approach is mistaken, and a confluence of events this week reminds us of that fact. WoW’s fight is for women’s rights, civil rights and equal rights.

It occurred to me how important it is to regard WoW’s struggle in this light as I watched its chairwoman Anat Hoffman in her latest videotaped plea to supporters. She stood yesterday in front of the Kotel announcing a WoW sit-in in response to Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett’s announcement of the completed construction of a large platform for non-Orthodox prayer at the southernmost portion of the Western Wall (in the Robinson’s Arch compound). Calling the platform a “sunbathing deck,” WoW denounced the plan to move all non-Orthodox prayer away from the main Kotel plaza.

WoW is fighting for women to pray any way they choose (including in egalitarian fashion, wearing kippot, tallitot and tefillin, and praying and reading Torah out loud) at the main Kotel area — which is where Orthodox Jews pray without being subject to violent taunts, egg and chair throwing, and arrest.

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Why Alice Walker and Michigan Are Both Wrong

By Sarah Seltzer

Getty Images
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker.

Alice Walker and the University of Michigan Center for Education for Women — which disinvited her from a speaking engagement at its 50th anniversary celebration, as the Sisterhood’s Erika Dreifus recently wrote about, then later re-invited her to speak at a public forum on campus — are both misguided. It was foolish of Alice Walker to boycott an Israeli publisher because of her anger at Israel’s occupation. But it was wrong, also, for the Center to rescind their invitation because of Walker’s support of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel.

How can I stand against them both? Easy. Because I believe academic, cultural and intellectual boycotts in almost all circumstances (with some obvious exceptions) are lazy. They embody people’s fear of having their own opinions challenged by the deep nuances and multi-faceted nature of reality, of art, of the world of ideas. Art is a vehicle for revealing the grey areas of human existence. We should share it as widely as we can, and welcome the way it interrogates us and our dogmas.

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