Criminals. Troublemakers. Attention seekers. These are just a few of the names that Women of the Wall have been called. I’ve met these women. I’ve prayed with these women. And you know what? I call these women discrimination-fighting superheroes with the guts to stand up for the human right to pray.
As an OTZMA participant and a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, I am blessed to have the opportunity to intern with this social advocacy group and experience the magic. Women of the Wall seeks to achieve the rights of women to conduct prayer services, read Torah while wearing tallitot or tefillin, and sing out loud at the Western Wall. Their quest is to change the current status quo that prevents women from doing so — and to educate Jewish women and the public as well as empower Jewish women to take control of their religious and prayer lives.
At Rosh Hodesh Iyar, the first of the month, I prayed in the women’s section of the Kotel. Surrounded by a couple hundred women pushing up against me with their prayer books, I didn’t feel claustrophobic at all. I enjoyed feeling close to them. I like feeling part of a team — one united army of women from all different branches of Judaism with the common goal of freedom in prayer.
Yet the Kotel was swamped with photographers, reporters and police officers watching us as if we were plotting evil. Orthodox men stood on chairs in the men’s section screaming at us to pipe down and to stop the racket. They stared us down as if we were parasites.
As Women of the Wall members and supporters prepare to welcome the Hebrew month of Sivan on Friday morning, with Rosh Chodesh services in Jerusalem, its U.S. allies are getting ready to again demonstrate their support by doing the same. Solidarity services are scheduled for New York, Washington D.C. and Chicago.
In Jerusalem, meanwhile, opposing group Women for the Wall is gathering approbations from strictly Orthodox rabbis and hoping to rally women to also turn out in numbers for Rosh Chodesh services at the Kotel.
On Friday, just a few days before the holiday of Shavuout, which celebrates the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people, Women of the Wall will not read from a sefer Torah, as they had planned. It is a concession made to Israel’s attorney general, Yehuda Weinstein, during a meeting on Tuesday at which he agreed not to appeal an April 24th district court ruling that women praying in tallit and tefillin “does not disturb the public order.”
The views of Weinstein and others appeared to shift rapidly this week.
I will never forget the day I joined the Israel Defense Forces. It was five years ago, and I remember 18-year-old me, kissing you and Dad goodbye and boarding the bus that would take me to a month-long boot camp. You hugged me close and shed a tear, and I remember thinking you were weird. I could not understand why you were getting all emotional when you’d probably see me that very same weekend, or in the worst case, the weekend after that. I had no idea why you made such a big deal out of me starting my mandatory IDF service, all the more due to the nature of my service, which had me sleeping at home almost every day.
Now, Mother, I understand.
My little brother is now an IDF warrior, and I finally see what hid behind that tear. I saw it the day he went on that bus to boot camp to start his mandatory service — the helplessness that you and all the other mothers who kissed their children goodbye felt. Not because you won’t see your baby boy for two weeks, but because that day you were forced to let go of your natural grip of your child.
Women of the Wall has in recent months attracted lots of press and public support, from Members of Knesset to rabbis and laypeople, particularly since police stepped up arresting women leading Rosh Chodesh services at the Kotel. Women of the Wall then ramped up its own efforts to illustrate that current policy there — which prohibits women from praying wearing tallit or tefillin or with a Torah scroll — is discriminatory. Now there is an additional party to the conflict: a new group called Women for the Wall.
Women for the Wall — abbreviated as W4W — was co-founded by Ronit Peskin, a 25-year-old mother of three, who opposes Women of the Wall’s goals and approach. On its website, Women for the Wall describes Women of the Wall’s efforts as “political battles” turning the Kotel into “a media circus”: They “do not belong at a place such as the Kotel. Their monthly activism threatens to turn this holy place into a site for a media circus rather than prayer, and is disruptive for all that come there to pray peacefully and connect to G-d.”
Our lives can change in an instant, which is exactly what happens to Rahel bat Yair, a 17-year-old girl about to be engaged to be married. Mere minutes after her father’s enemy arrives at her home as she gets ready to meet her betrothed, the sheltered teenager is forced to flee and assume a new identity. Her journey is dangerous — even brutal — but it is also expansive.
Rachel is the protagonist of Janice Weizman’s debut novel, “The Wayward Moon,” which was recently named a finalist for the Midwest Book Award. In the novel, Weizman, the founder and managing editor of The Ilanot Review, transports us to what is now Iraq in the 9th century, the Golden Age of Islam — an unusual period for a Jewish historical novel with a female heroine.
The Sisterhood asked Weizman how she accurately evoked her novel’s historical setting, how the book is a reclamation of women’s history and the challenges of writing from a Medieval perspective when you live in a post-Enlightenment world.
Hungry for a nice steak? An advertisement for the Israeli restaurant Angus Meat may just turn your stomach.
It features an attractive, skinny woman, photographed naked with her body marked up like that of a cow chart on a butcher’s wall. Body parts are labeled: shin, shoulder, foot. Her bottom is labeled “fat.” The banner line overhead reads, in Hebrew, “Do you ever have the desire to bite a choice piece of meat?”
The full-color magazine ad promotes a pair of Angus Meat restaurants, one in Haifa and the other in Nes Ziona.
“It’s disgusting. In this day and age? They should know better,” said Nancy Kaufman, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, when shown the ad. Kaufman said she plans to send it to friends in Haifa, to see if there is any kind of local reaction to the image. “I hope they can organize a protest,” she said.
Once, I went to a job interview on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in a fancy office building. On my way out, I noticed a Weight Watchers office on the same floor. I was so provoked by yet another message that people should be skinny — that if you are skinny, you are in control and will get everything you deserve, because skinny equals all things moral, happy and good. But in that moment, I held back. I didn’t even take out the Post It notes and marker I carry around in my purse so that I can place notes on advertisements in the subway that are sexist, racist and homophobic. Instead, I growled, then kept walking.
A recent New York Times article profiled the United States introduction of Slim Peace, a nonprofit organization that brings Israeli and Palestinian women together around the universal theme of weight-loss support. The group has plans to expand around the country, meeting in the context of eating well, losing weight and learning about Israeli, Jewish, Arab and Palestinian cultures.
My reaction to this project is complicated. I don’t want to yell like I did at that Weight Watchers office — or at the weight loss ads that populate the margin of my Facebook page. But there is something deeply wrong here.
President Obama’s visit to Israel was nothing less than inspiring. He met with many people, enjoyed Israeli music, was inspired by Israeli innovative high-tech technology, and made an inspirational, heartwarming speech in front of young students who applauded his every word. If any of us doubted Obama’s obligation to Israel in the past couple of years, our doubts dissolved over the past few days.
But as perfect as his visit was, one thing bothered me: Where was Michelle Obama? A few weeks ago, it was reported that the First Lady would probably join her husband on this historic visit. But when President Obama stepped down from his plane and waved to the crowd, I noticed that the woman by his side, well, wasn’t… When asked, he replied that Michelle wanted to come but felt obligated to stay with their daughters.
Of course eyebrows were raised at the First Lady’s absence. Some argued that it was not important because it was Obama’s presence in Israel, not Michelle’s, was all that mattered. I disagree. She was needed here, right by her husband’s side.
Yityish Aynaw made history in late February when she became the first Ethiopian-born woman crowned Miss Israel. The momentous occasion made news in Israel and abroad, immediately turning the international spotlight on the 21-year-old former military officer and aspiring model from Netanya.
UPDATE: Miss Israel Titi Aynaw met Barack Obama at state dinner. More photos and full story to come.
The beauty queen, whose first name aptly means “a view to the future” in Amharic, has even caught the attention of America’s President, Barack Obama, who invited her to meet him at a dinner hosted by President Shimon Peres on Obama’s first official state visit to Israel, in March.
The Forward’s Renee Ghert-Zand recently spoke by telephone with Aynaw, who goes by the nickname Titi. Ghert-Zand asked her about her aliyah to Israel at age 12, her views on racism in Israeli society, how she plans on representing her country and what she’s planning on saying to Obama. The interview was conducted in Hebrew and is translated here.
It appears that Ophir Ben-Shetreet’s suspension from her religious girls high school for singing in public on Israel’s “The Voice” has had no effect on her performance. Ben-Shetreet has beat out 11 other competitors on mentor Aviv Geffen’s team to reach the show’s second season final round, which will be broadcast live next Saturday from Tel Aviv’s Nokia Arena.
Equally exciting is the fact that it will be an all-female final, with 17-year-old Ben-Shetreet trying to outperform three other young women. The others finalists are: Rudy Bainasin, a 22-year-old military officer who made aliyah to Israel from Ethiopia as an infant; Lina Makhoul, a 19-year-old Christian Arab who works in retail and volunteers with the Magen David Adom, and Dana Tzalach, a 22-year-old professional makeup artist who speaks openly about her struggles with her weight.
Right now, the women behind Women of the Wall are concerned about more than the chance of being arrested for wearing a tallit at the kotel on Tuesday. As they prepare to come out in large numbers for Rosh Hodesh Nissan, both at the Kotel itself and at solidarity rallies in New York and other American cities, they are also worried about what appears to be a possible incitement to violence against them.
This past weekend, pashkevilim, or traditional black and white text-only wall notices, were found posted in Haredi neighborhoods in Jerusalem. They called on people to “Save the Western Wall from trampling and desecration at the hands of a group that calls itself of “Women of the Wall.” Male and female worshipers were encouraged to go to the Kotel at 7 a.m. on Rosh Hodesh (the time for which the Women of the Wall service has been called) to protest against Women of the Wall. “Whoever cares about the place from which the divine presence never shifts, should come and protest and cry out!”
Women of the Wall responded Sunday to these posters in a press release. “Though there were no rabbis signed or taking responsibility for this call, as is customary on pashkevillim, it would seem that someone anonymous has an interest in opposing Women of the Wall’s prayer, despite the relative quiet of the last few months,” the statement said. “Aside from police detainments (43 detainments of women in six months), the prayers at the Kotel have gone undisturbed lately, and the Purim celebrations proved that without violent opposition or police intervention, the Jews present are quite capable of tolerance and sharing the holy space.”
The Tel Aviv Labor Court recently ruled that an Israeli religious school cannot fire an unmarried teacher for becoming pregnant by in-vitro fertilization. The decision has sparked a lot of discussion. For me, it highlights the contradictory expectations put on Jewish women, especially those who choose to live and work in Orthodox communities.
The court ruled that it was illegal for the ulplana (religious girls’ high school), where the teacher had worked for eight years, to fire her for not upholding the school’s values by exposing the students to alternative family models. “The right to be a parent, the freedom to work and human dignity and liberty” are superseding, according to the court’s decision.
The court ordered the school to pay the teacher, who was dismissed in 2009, NIS 250,000 ($67,500) in compensation.
To be clear, the school had no halachic objection to a single woman becoming pregnant by IVF (there are rabbinic rulings in favor of it), but rather to the supposedly unacceptable example the teacher would set for her students. The rabbinic authority consulted by the school declared that while teachers who are divorced or “spinsters” are not optimal role models, they are merely unfortunate and have done nothing negative. However, a single woman who becomes pregnant does “contravene our Torah outlook,” according to the rabbi.
On Wednesday, 21-year-old Yityish Aynaw was crowned Miss Israel for 2013. The occasion marked the first time an Ethiopian Israeli had won the national beauty pageant.
Despite the landmark moment, I have to be honest: I was more excited when Pnina Tamano-Shata, a lawyer and member of the Yesh Atid party, was recently elected the first female Ethiopian Member of Knesset.
I am obviously far more into brains than beauty. But not everyone is, and rather than hate on this breakthrough moment for Israeli women of color, it would be far more productive to look at the positives associated with Aynaw’s achievement.
Author and activist Sarah Schulman is one of the most prominent voices in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) world. She’s also a prominent voice in the Jewish world. Therefore, it makes sense that her new book, “Israel/Palestine & the Queer International,” would be embraced by both the Jewish and queer communities, right? Not quite.
Schulman, an out lesbian whose plays and nonfiction pieces about the early days of the AIDS crisis are credited with raising awareness about the disease, was booked to speak at New York’s LGBT Community Center earlier this month. However, the center rescinded its invitation to Schulman following a complaint from an activist group called Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QAIA). Playwright and performer Dan Fishback, a previous recipient of the Six Points Fellowship, took to his blog to complain about the rescinded invitation. He wrote an open letter to Glennda Testone, the LGBT Community Center’s Executive Director, criticizing her and the Center for trying to avoid political argument by silencing Schulman.
In August, my family and I left Ann Arbor for a yearlong stay in Jerusalem. Ann Arbor is hardly a place devoid of intellectual and cultural ferment. Yet coming to Jerusalem was, for me, the chance to enter into a different ferment of ideas in a different language: Jewish ideas in Hebrew.
At the summer’s end, I devoted myself to locating optimal places to study. As a mother of three young children, I needed places close by with meeting times largely aligned with the school day. I did not know in August what I know now: that when choosing such places carefully, I was choosing them not only for myself, but for my children as well.
In Jerusalem, you rarely have to walk more than a block to locate a synagogue or a place to study Torah. And the places to study are far more varied than most American Jews can imagine. The last five to 10 years have seen a serious increase in the number of Israeli Jews across the religious spectrum engaging in the study of traditional Jewish sources. The place where I have chosen to spend the most time studying is Elul, a Beit Midrash around my street corner. Its name draws upon the rabbinic ideas: “Elu v’elu divrei elohim hayim,” which means “these words and those words are both those of the living God.” Elul is devoted to inclusive study for both secular and religious Jews, and everyone in between. (The new Knesset member Ruth Calderon, whose remarkable opening speech to the Knesset last week has already been viewed more than 175,000 times on YouTube, is one of the founders of Elul.)
The teenager arrested on Rosh Chodesh Adar at the Western Wall for wearing a prayer shawl on Tuesday convinced Jerusalem police to withdraw their 15-day ban on her returning to the Kotel. She plans to go to the Kotel on Monday to chant from the Megillah with other members of Women of the Wall in celebration of Purim.
Hallel Abramowitz-Silverman, 17, who is comedian Sarah Silverman’s niece, went to the Kishle police station on Tuesday with her parents and a lawyer for Women of the Wall, bearing a letter requesting that she be able to retract her signature on the ban. Originally, she signed it as a condition of her release on Feb. 11, when she was arrested along with nine other women at the Kotel.
“I was nervous, and I didn’t realize [signing] it would mean missing Megillah reading,” she said in an interview with The Sisterhood. Being held at the police station that day “was a very hard couple of hours.”
The only reason she agreed to sign the statement to begin with was that her mother was leaving Israel on a trip later that day and they were afraid that she’d miss her flight if they did not.
On Monday, 10 women were detained for participating in prayers while reading from the Torah and wearing religious garments at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. There are many wrongs in this event, but unfortunately, it will probably happen again until a major change occurs.
Israel is by definition a Democratic Jewish state. Ever since it was determined as such in 1948, the Orthodox rabbinates have held a lot of power. As a case in point, marriage and divorce can only be legal if performed by the official rabbinate of Israel. This means that some parts of the law discriminates against women. For example, if a husband dies before he and his wife have brought any children into the world, his brother must marry the widow — unless she approaches the rabbinate of Israel and requests a “Halitsa” ceremony. This biblical rule still exists in 2013.
I was born and raised in Israel, and unfortunately this means that although I disagree with the Orthodox rules that apply to all Israelis, I have learned to live with them. When it is my time to be married, I must take part in Orthodox ceremonies I do not agree with, such as the Mikveh, being “purchased” by my husband through a Ketubah, and more. This harsh reality cannot be changed, and I have reluctantly learned to accept it. But what I still cannot live with are the small things some very dark people with lots of power believe they are allowed to do.
Last week, Israel passed a long-debated bill that would ban extremely thin models from being used on runways and in photo shoots. The law states that models must have a body-mass index (BMI) of 18.5 or more — for example, a model who is five foot eight must weigh at least 119 pounds. For context, supermodel Kate Moss, who helped popularize the “heroin chic” look of the early ‘90s, is five foot seven and reportedly weighs about 114 pounds. Israel’s own Bar Refaeli, who has a curvier bikini-model figure, is five foot eight and reportedly weighs in the 125 to 130 pound range.
Many feminists are hailing Israel’s law as a huge step forward for the fashion industry. However, I’m not one of them.
Most of the other laws or public agreements aimed to combat the overuse of extremely young or thin models have not worked. Last year, Vogue magazine vowed that it would not use any models under the age of 16 in any of its editions around the world, but they’ve broken their own rule multiple times since then. American designer Marc Jacobs has also violated rules about paying models for their time and was caught paying some models ‘in trade’ (aka free clothes) and not following labor laws, but he has not been sanctioned in any way by the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA). Perhaps that’s because he is a board member? Spain passed a similar BMI-based law in 2006, and Australia wrote its own legislation in 2010. But Spain, Australia and Israel are all second-tier fashion countries when it comes to worldwide attention and corporate dollars. In order to make real structural changes, the four fashion capitals of the world — Paris, Milan, London, and New York — will have to step up. Simply passing laws about models will not change the real, underlying issues of body image, health and labor exploitation.
This year, I knew a month in advance what I would be doing to mark November 25 as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. I am affiliated with a variety of feminist organizations, plus I am a graduate of Barnard College and a university faculty member in gender studies, but this year I was made aware of the upcoming date not thanks to my participation in any of these communities. Instead, I was alerted thanks to an announcement by Rabbi Benny Lau, the renowned Israeli scholar, teacher and rabbi of the Ramban Synagogue in Jerusalem.
To me, the simple fact of this announcement is extraordinary. First of all, the well-known, highly influential rabbi of a longstanding Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem has made it his business to know of such a date. In other words, he has put himself in communication with the world of feminist activism and global reform efforts organized by the UN. This is not simple for Orthodox rabbinic authorities who often fear affiliation with secular movements will call their authority into question. Second, it is not simple for Israelis who often come under the condemnation of such organizations. Yet HaRav Benny, as he is known to his students and congregants, has chosen to publicize such a date to his community, thus bringing it under the rubric of the norms and demands of a life structured by the teachings of Torah and halakhah, Jewish law.
Is it too much to ask for some sexism-free Israeli political analysis? We all know that politics can get rough and tumble, and that Israeli pundits are not known for verbal restraint. But still, does a columnist have to throw gratuitous sexist remarks into an article on the Labor Party slate just because, well, just because?
Lest anyone think that sexism in Israel resides only among the ultra-conservatives or ultra-religious, allow me to bring a very recent example from Haaretz, Israel’s left-leaning newspaper of record (so to speak). The paper published a piece by senior political writer Yossi Verter on November 30 (an abridged version was republished in the English edition on December 2) on the various figures who made it last week into the top 20 spots on the Shelly Yachimovich-led Labor Party list for the upcoming Knesset elections. The article was titled, “On the way to the opposition: Shelly and Labor’s new Yachimoviches.”
From the headline, it sounded like a straightforward political analysis piece. The sub-headline seemed to give the same impression: “Labor’s new and colorful list looks good, but the chances for internal harmony or joining the new government are next to nil.” Then came a second sub-headline: “And also: some advice for the new member Merav Michaeli.” I was a bit suspicious, but I figured I’d give Verter the benefit of the doubt.