Sisterhood Blog

Fighting the Israeli Macho: A Gchat with Elana Sztokman

By Chanel Dubofsky

Copyright Ingrid Muller

Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman, the former executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, is a leading writer and thinker on topics of feminism, Judaism, Israel and orthodoxy. Her first book, The Men’s Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World, won the 2012 National Jewish Book Council Award in the area of Women’s Studies. Her second book, Educating in the Divine Image: Gender Issues in Orthodox Jewish Day Schools (co-authored with Dr Chaya Rosenfeld Gorsetman), won the 2013 National Jewish Book Council award in the area of education and identity.

Next month, her latest book, The War on Women in Israel: A Story of Religious Radicalism and the Ravaging of Freedom, will be released by Sourcebooks. In a recent piece for the Atlantic, “Gaza: It’s a Man’s War,”, Sztokman, who lives in Modi’in, Israel, looks closely at the impact of sexism in Israeli society, particularly in the context of the current Gaza war.

Chanel Dubofsky caught up with Sztokman, who said that her book was born on this blog, The Sisterhood, where she started posting stories about gender segregation in 2009, via Google’s instant messaging service gchat.

Chanel Dubofsky: Set the scene for us regarding feminist activism in Israel.

Elana Sztokman: There is a lot of entrenched macho in Israeli culture. The challenge is the way in which that macho intersects with religion and the (secular) business and political establishment’s support of religious radicalism for their own needs and interests. It’s easy for men across the spectrum to throw women under the bus for the sake of coalition, business or money. Women are fighting this reality, to raise awareness that protecting women’s rights is a basic part of democracy, and to introduce different thinking about the role of religion in Israeli society and politics. There is no separation of religion and state in Israel, which means that religious groups have had tremendous political influence over the years. Religious (male) Elana’s wordsleaders have gotten away with lots of very anti-democratic stances and policies vis a vis women. It’s an uphill battle, but there is definitely a growing consciousness that we are witnessing now, and there is something exciting on some level in watching a real feminist movement grow from the ground up.

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How Parenting Came to Be a Group Effort in Israel

By Avital Norman Nathman

The author (left) and her son in the Dead Sea, Israel. / Copyright Avital Norman Nathman

There’s a certain sense of overwhelming fatigue that comes from spending hours traipsing along the streets of Tel Aviv under the hot summer sun. Even my mother, who accompanied my almost 8-year-old son and me on this outing and can truly shop till she drops, started flagging. After walking a few blocks in the wrong direction, we reoriented ourselves and grabbed the No. 19 bus, which would take us back to my uncle’s apartment in Rishon. I was exhausted. My mother was exhausted. My son? Still running high on his seemingly endless supply of energy. It must have been the three extra falafel balls he scarfed down at lunch.

I pulled out a notebook and pen, hoping they would keep him occupied on our 40-minute ride. The bus quickly filled up, and the seat next to him, the one across from me, was taken by an older woman who looked kindly at him. Over the next 40 minutes they formed an unlikely bond as she gave him sweets and he showed her the math tasks he’d given himself. They chatted — a mixture of halted Hebrew and English — until she got off, a few stops before us.

“I made a new friend,” my son told his grandfather later that day. “I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.”

Welcome to Israel.

The following day we decided to do it all again, because one cannot get enough of shopping in Tel Aviv — at least according to my mother. Not wanting to be too much of a burden, we had my aunt drop us off at a bus stop somewhere near Tel Aviv on her way to work. We managed to get on the right bus, but weren’t quite sure when our stop was coming up. My mother and I tried to keep an eye out for it, but an excited boy who wanted to point out every last thing made it difficult. The bus rapidly filled up the closer we got to Tel Aviv. It stopped in Yaffo, and I was fairly certain the time had come to debark.

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She's a Bird. She's a Plane. She's Ilanit.

By Nirit Alderman

(Haaretz) — A woman named Ilanit, wearing a black bodysuit, is suspended on a rope and swinging in the air. During a routine tour of the roofs of Tel Aviv, she notices a man standing on the roof of a nearby building. “This is Nahid Abdallah-something, the second most wanted man in Jenin,” Ilanit calls out. She and Nahid begin to fight, and Ilanit kicks him off the roof to his death. But then she sees that his twin brother, Fahid, the most wanted man in Jenin, is standing on a nearby roof.

Several chapters from “Ilanit, the Spider Woman from Reut,” the comic book by Boaz Kadman, have been published in recent years on various platforms. Now they are being published as a book, with all the old stories appearing beside several new ones. Published a few weeks ago, the book will be on sale at the traditional annual comics fair, which opens Wednesday at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque. The fair, which is part of the 14th annual Animix Animation, Comics and Caricature Festival, runs until Saturday.

haaretz/tomer applebaum
Boaz Kadman

The excerpt cited above is taken from the first chapter of the book, “Ilanit vs. the Explosive Twins,” the first story in the series, which was created about a decade ago. “I sorted through comics I had bought many years before and I saw that they spoke in so many cliches,” Kadman says in an interview in Tel Aviv. “Then, one day, I read an interview in the political supplement of the newspaper, and the interviewee kept repeating himself, speaking in awful cliches about the historical connection to the Land of Israel — and suddenly it looked like a comic to me. What motivates the superheroes is always one very simple thing, ‘the war on crime,’ and political talk in Israel is the same. There’s something ridiculous about political texts and superheroes.” In that same moment, Kadman decided that his next comic strip was going to star political cliches alongside cliches about superstars. At the height of the battle between Ilanit and Fahid on the roofs of Tel Aviv, both contenders take a short breather. “Terrorism against Israeli citizens is a war crime,” Ilanit says, and Fahid retorts, “You’re continuing the occupation. You strengthened the desire for revenge. Settlements are terrorism.”

Kadman, who was born in 1971, enrolled in the Midrasha School of the Arts at Beit Berl College when he was 25. “I did comics about Joseph Beuys, for example, a prominent artist who was always being mentioned to us, and to me he’s something comic, really exaggerated. I did excerpts from his autobiography in Bazooka comics format and called it Bazooka Beuys.” Between 2003 and 2004 Kadman published several works in the A4 Booklets of the well-known cartoonist, illustrator and comic book creator Dudu Geva. For two years Kadman had a comic strip in the art magazine Studio, and then moved to Time Out magazine. In 2001 he began editing Plan B, an alternative comics magazine, with Guy Lavie. Plan B was published every few months, and several days later it changed its format and became an online blog.

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Meet Sue-Ann Levy, Toronto's Gay, Right Wing Columnist

By Michael Kaminer

Photo by Michael Peake/Toronto Sun

Sue-Ann Levy doesn’t sound like the devil, which a 2012 headline in a Toronto publication, The Grid, suggested she might be.

In fact, the woman who picked up the phone to chat with the Forward’s Michael Kaminer has a sweet, chirpy voice and an endearingly cheery manner. But these qualities belie the Toronto Sun investigative columnist’s steel spine. An out lesbian and relentless advocate for Israel, Levy’s also a dogged reporter whose scoops on municipal corruption and cronyism have made her both an idol and a punching bag.

Detractors have pounced on her more outrageous actions, like her 2012 tweet implying Barack Obama may be Muslim. Enemies have called her “an Internet troll, but in real life.” But those jabs just seem to stoke her. “Either you love me or you hate me,” she told the Forward from the home she shares with her wife, interior designer Denise Alexander, and dachshunds Kishka and Flora.

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Those Boys on Gaza Beach Remind Me of My Brother

By Sarah Seltzer

Sarah Seltzer with her twin brother as children.

I have a twin brother who, as a kid, frequently ran around outside with a ball and his friends — usually in New York’s parks. Woe to the teachers at our Jewish day school who denied them gym or recess: they acted up extra-rambunctiously when they were cooped up. One of the cardinal lessons of my childhood was this: If you don’t let kids run around, everyone suffers. So that, in part, explains why the boys on the beach in Gaza proved my breaking point — boys who had been shut in for over a week and just wanted to kick a ball around, for a blessed few hours, and feel the air.

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Where Are the Women Leaders in Wartime?

By Elana Sztokman

Gender democracy activist Anat Thon-Ashkenazy holds a 1325 pin in support of the UN resolution to bring women leaders into negotiations.

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them,” Albert Einstein famously quipped. Yet, when it comes to the current crisis in Israel and Gaza, the same minds that created the problems seem to be the ones charged with resolving them. And those minds almost exclusively belong to men.

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Israel's 'Men's Only' Bomb Shelters

By Elana Sztokman

Getty Images // There was gender mixing in this shelter in Tel Aviv, unlike one in Ashdod.

While people all around Israel have spent the past two weeks scrambling for cover during rocket attacks, it seems that in some places, only men’s lives are considered worth protecting. In the Ashdod rabbinate building, the bomb shelter has a sign on it reading “For men only,” and women who happened to be in the rabbinate during recent raids were not allowed into the bomb shelter. Thus reports MK Stav Shaffir, whose staffer happened to be at the rabbinate this week when all this was taking place.

Orit, an Ashdod resident who was also in the rabbinate this week with her husband, told Yediot Ahronot about the “insult of trying to impose gender segregation on us even at times like this,” and her shocked discovery that the “women’s” shelter was just a regular room, with windows and plaster walls and no indications of protection from rocket attacks. Her husband added that gender segregation has reached “insane proportions, and are now at the point of risking women’s lives. The rabbinate is basically saying that it’s important to them to save men’s lives, but women can die or pray or hope for a miracle. It’s just unbelievable”.

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A Gaza Mother Amid the Airstrikes

By Eman Mohammed

Eman Mohammed with her daughters, Lateen and Talia

As a photojournalist, stepping into war isn’t a dilemma for me. It is my instinct to grab my cameras and run out to document the man-made misery, the horrors of war, each and every time hoping humanity will get the lesson.

But nothing prepared me to understand how to raise children in a war zone — not even having been a child in one myself.

I grew up in Gaza. When I was in school, I spent my days walking to and from class, avoiding the streets that were normally targeted by airstrikes. On my summer holiday, I stayed indoors for fear of meeting the same fate as the families who dared to visit the beach and were killed by missiles while they enjoyed their barbecue.

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When Lucy Aharish Couldn't Take It Anymore

By Moran Sharir

Lucy Aharish // photo by Tali Shani for Haaretz

(Haaretz) — Lucy Aharish, the Arab-Israeli television host, woke up. Her awakening came a bit late and was not exactly aimed at the right target, but that’s not the important thing. The important thing is that on Monday, the news anchor awoke from a long coma.

The previous day, Benzi Gopstein – a merry Israeli trouper from Kiryat Arba in the West Bank – was a guest on the current-affairs program she hosts on Channel 2 (“Sihat Hayom” – “Talk of the Day”). Gopstein expounded his doctrine about Arabs’ place in Israeli society (according to him, they have none) and argued with the members of the panel, with the elephant standing right there in the room – in this case, the program host, an Arab woman, who sat there, doing a slow burn until she reached boiling point.

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Listen to Israeli and Palestinian Mothers

By Elissa Strauss

Mothers of the slain Israeli teenagers // Getty Images

In moments like this the most powerful voices, the ones most likely to incite empathy and spark reconciliation, are not those of politicians, or military leaders or long-time activists. They are the ones of parents, most often those who have lost their children, who remind us, all too viscerally, that the personal is the political and the political is the personal.

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The Illusion of Choice in Israel

By Avital Norman Nathman

A banner of the Israeli pro-life group Efrat in 2012. The text reads: “Eventually, birth will determine our existence as a Jewish state.” / Wikimedia Commons

The United States seems to be in a constant battle over reproductive health rights — take this week’s Hobby Lobby ruling — particularly in regards to abortion. Both federal and state courts are wrapped up in cases challenging everything from personhood amendments, to waiting periods, mandatory ultrasounds, bufferzone laws and more. With more restrictions, the closing of clinics around the country and increased difficulty in obtaining easily accessible, affordable, safe abortions, it can feel as if the U.S. is moving backwards in terms of reproductive rights. So it’s no wonder that looking out to Israel, there’s a tendency to exalt their more liberal policies.

In Israel, when it comes to abortion, here is no limit on the age of gestation, no parental consent policy for minors, and abortion services are now mostly covered for all women up to the age of 33. These policies far exceed what the U.S. has to offer. Yet there is one hurdle that pregnant Israelis have to face, that the US has not — yet — implemented: a termination committee.

While the policies are incredibly liberal, being able to access them is not up to the person seeking the abortion. They have to answer questions about their circumstances before being approved. The committee is also responsible for deciding the method used. Is this illusion of choice worth it? Is it still easier than obtaining an abortion in the states?

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Debating My Boyfriend Over Israel's Orthodox Rule

By Noga Gur Arieh

Noga and her boyfriend

When I imagined my wedding day as an Israeli Jew, I envisioned choosing one of the alternatives to the Orthodox process. It would be a non-religious or a Reform ceremony, in which my partner and I would be treated as equal, a ceremony in I could express my love, and not stand as an empty, smiling vassal. To my disappointment, I recently learned that my partner does not share this wedding-day vision of mine.

Not long ago, we attended a wedding, and during the ceremony, I spelled out my dream to him. Then, in what turned out to be a part discussion/part argument, he told me he was not willing to skip the traditional Jewish Orthodox wedding. I explained the humiliation I feel just by thinking about all the processes I would have to go through as a Jewish woman. He said he was sorry I feel this way, but that he must put his foot down: tradition is important to him, and he was raised to respect it. The thought of this matter threatening to break us up sometime in the future was unsettling, but I just couldn’t see myself choosing his path.

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Fashion For a Cause in Tel Aviv

By Ben Sales

Courtesy of Reuth // A model at the Tel Aviv show

(JTA) — Israel is known for many things — startups, falafel, an often intractable territorial conflict — but fashion has never been one of them. A T-shirt, jeans and sandals is considered proper attire both at the workplace and at weddings. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gained notice early in his tenure simply for wearing a tie in public. At the Knesset, at least, lawmakers aren’t allowed to wear Crocs… unless they’re navy or black.

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Avoid Bad Rabbi? There's an App for That

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

An Israeli couple at their wedding

(Haaretz) — When Israelis want to be warned of traffic jams ahead they check Waze, the popular crowd-sourced GPS. When they are planning their vacation, they look at hotel ratings and reviews on Tripadvisor to make sure their trip is smooth. So why shouldn’t they have the benefit of crowd-sourcing when it comes to planning their journey into matrimony? That’s what Rabbi Seth Farber — and Rate the Rabbinate was born.

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'Preeminent' Jerusalem Educator Deborah Kallen

By Chana Pollack

Forward Association

Deborah “Devora” Kallen was Jerusalem’s preeminent progressive educator. Raised in an Orthodox Jewish family in Boston, Massachusetts with seven siblings (including her brother, philosopher Horace Kallen) Kallen chose to reside in Palestine in 1920 with the goal of establishing the Parents Educational Association School there.

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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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