Sisterhood Blog

Alice Walker Isn't Welcome — And Rightly So

By Erika Dreifus

getty images
Alice Walker

Alice Walker, the BDS advocate who last summer refused to authorize a Hebrew translation of her Pulitzer-winning novel “The Color Purple,” and who more recently sought to persuade singer Alicia Keys to cancel a performance in Israel, is quick to try to silence others. But now, Walker is declaring herself a victim of censorship.

According to a report in Inside Higher Ed that quickly went viral Friday morning, the University of Michigan has withdrawn an invitation that was extended to Walker “to speak at an event marking the 50th anniversary of the university’s Center for the Education of Women.” The article cites a posted statement from the center’s director, Gloria D. Thomas, which reads in part: “I decided to withdraw our invitation because I did not think Ms. Walker would be the optimum choice for the celebratory nature of our 50th anniversary event.”

From my vantage point, Ms. Thomas’s decision is valid and important. If I were a student, instructor or staff member at the University of Michigan, I sure wouldn’t be comfortable “celebrating” alongside Walker. Unfortunately, the matter doesn’t end there.

Predictably, and fueled by Walker herself, cries of censorship have ensued — as have unsubstantiated claims that the invitation was rescinded at the behest of unnamed “donors” who control the “purse strings.” (I haven’t yet seen anyone go so far as to insert the adjective “Jewish” before “donors,” but it’s early yet. I should also disclose that I am related to a Michigan alumnus who is a generous donor to his alma mater, but to my knowledge has no connection with this center.)

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Words Drove Hadassa Margolese Away

By Renee Ghert-Zand

JTA
Hadassah Margolese walks her daughter, Na’ama, to school in Beit Shemesh after the girl was harassed by ultra-Orthodox men.

Somehow, I did not put two and two together.

I read Hadassa Margolese’s post (in Hebrew) on the Maariv website back in May about her negative — even traumatizing — experience at her local mikveh (ritual bath) in Beit Shemesh, Israel. Then, recently, I read several Facebook posts she wrote about her family’s move to a new home. However, I didn’t realize until Tuesday that these two things were related. I finally made the connection when I read this JTA article about how Margolese, a reluctant activist, was driven out of Beit Shemesh not by the Haredim she had previously stood up to (when they harassed and intimidated her young daughter over her dress), but rather by her fellow Modern Orthodox neighbors.

Coincidentally, I also read on Tuesday a new e-book by Allison Yarrow, titled, “The Devil of Williamsburg,” about the notorious Nechemya Weberman sex abuse case. It’s all about how Brooklyn’s Satmar Hasidic community covers up everything from minor misdoings to major crimes, routinely shunning community members who dare shine a light on them.

One can’t exactly compare the reporting of crimes like rape and child abuse to the writing of a column about nasty mikveh ladies who over-scrutinize you and don’t give you enough privacy. But, from what I understand, there seems to be a trickle-down effect happening. It’s no longer just Haredi Jews who are hounding and ostracizing those who air dirty laundry in public.

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Israel's Unlikely 'Feminists of Zion'

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Getty Images
An ultra-Orthodox protestor clashes with an Israeli police officer during a prayer service held by Women Of The Wall on May 10, 2013 in Jerusalem.

The cover story, titled “The Feminists of Zion,” in the new issue of The New Republic is required reading for anyone looking for a comprehensive introduction to the war against women playing out in Israel wherever extremist Haredi Jews hold sway against the images or presence of women — or even little girls — in public.

The article is written by former Sisterhood contributor (and current Haaretz columnist) Allison Kaplan Sommer and Slate senior columnist Dahlia Lithwick. It uses the story of one national religious (modern Orthodox) resident of Beit Shemesh, Nili Phillip, who in 2011 was stoned by Haredim while riding her bike, as the frame for a discussion of both the larger issues and many of the specific ways in which Haredi pressure has been brought to bear on women’s visibility and safety.

The well-written, exhaustively reported piece looks specifically at the unlikely alliance between Phillip and other modern Orthodox women — most of them reluctant to embrace the feminist label — and the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center. IRAC began to work with Orthodox women’s groups in 2008, filing lawsuits that challenged rules requiring female mourners to stand separately from their male relatives in government cemeteries, and in some places barring women from eulogizing. As TNR’s article states, IRAC filed suits against Haredi radio stations, operating with government licenses, that barred women’s voices on the basis of modesty, and has subsequently gone on to file small claims court cases against bus companies and drivers for failing to uphold Israeli laws requiring gender segregation to be voluntary. Three of the six women on whose behalf IRAC sued were Orthodox.

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Jane Katz, 70, Sweeps at Maccabiah Games

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Jane Katz
Maccabiah gold medalist Jane Katz

When Jane Katz said she was swimming for the gold at the 19th Maccabiah Games, she wasn’t kidding. The 70-year-old Masters champion, who has participated in every Maccabiah Games since 1957, came home to New York laden with 13 medals.

Katz won each of the 11 individual Masters level swimming events she entered, and also earned a gold medal as a member of the US team in the women’s freestyle relay, and a silver medal in the medley relay.

The lifelong athlete and promoter of aquatic fitness held a banner and marched directly behind Team USA flag bearer, Olympic gold medal swimmer Garrett Weber-Gale, in the Maccabiah’s opening ceremony at Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium. She also participated in the inauguration ceremony for the new state-of-the-art pool at the Wingate Institute in Netanya, where the games’ swimming competitions were held. As part of those festivities, Katz, wearing a swim costume with both American and Israeli national symbols, performed a synchronized swimming routine choreographed to Hatikvah.

Back in New York and still on a high from her wins, Katz spoke with the Forward’s Renee Ghert-Zand about her 14th consecutive Maccabiah experience — her most successful one yet.

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Swimming for Maccabiah Gold at 70

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Jane Katz

There are over 900 American athletes competing at the 19th Maccabiah Games currently taking place in Israel. Among them is swimmer Dr. Jane Katz, who broke a record before even getting in to the pool. Katz, 70, is competing in an amazing 14th consecutive Maccabiah Games. While many Jewish athletes have been coming to the “Jewish Olympics” for many years, only Katz can date her first appearance back to 1957.

Katz, who grew up on the Lower East Side and still lives in New York, was just 14 years old at her first Maccabiah Games. At that time, she could never have imagined that she’d still be at it 56 years later. She swam in the open competition as long as she could, and then she served as a coach or manager for four games. When Masters level competition (age 35 and up) was introduced in 1985, she got back in the water — where she has been ever since. At these games, she plans on swimming an ambitious 13 events over three days in the women’s 70-74 age group.

Katz has made a splash far beyond the Maccabiah movement. She has been teaching water fitness at City University of New York since 1964 and is a professor at John Jay College in the Department of Physical Education and Athletics. She is an American and world champion Masters swimmer and synchronized swimmer, and has received many awards and recognitions, including her induction to the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 2011.

She spoke with the Forward’s Renee Ghert-Zand, sharing her memories from her first Maccabiah Games and thoughts on how being part of the Maccabiah movement has influenced her life.

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Eggs and Hatred Won’t Kill Prayer at Kotel

By Jennifer Maggin

Jennifer Maggin
Jenn Maggin (center) with Julie Womack (left) and Maya Glasser.

When I woke up last Monday morning, I ditched my cozy blankets and jumped out of bed before sunrise to join my fellow Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion students as we set out on a holy mission. Heading over to the Kotel for Rosh Hodesh with Women of the Wall, we knew we were striving for social justice — that we would chant our prayers and pray with all of our heart. That day, we would work toward liberating the Kotel once and for all.

This Rosh Hodesh Av, we joined women and men praying with tallitot, kippot and tefillin as we celebrated the beginning of a new month. I felt like I was floating on a hammock of happiness while being surrounded by my HUC classmates who share the same dream of becoming Reform rabbis, cantors and educators and improving the world through Judaism. As we begin our new journey toward becoming Jewish leaders, we think about the long journey Women of the Wall has taken, and how far we have come toward freedom of prayer.

As I proudly wrapped myself inside my white and blue tallit, without panicking over the possibility of being arrested, I remembered to appreciate the feeling of freedom and security that used to be missing in action from the Kotel. Passionate and persistent women like Anat Hoffman and Lesley Sachs suffered as they got detained, arrested and harassed repeatedly. Because of their dedication and perseverance, it is now possible for my classmates and me to lock away our fears and proudly wear tallitot.

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Should Halacha Take Precedence Over Women's Health?

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Thinkstock

In a story from the operating theater of the absurd, Israel’s Channel 2 news reported on July 8 that a woman was denied a scheduled D&C for a missed abortion because of an arcane aspect of halacha. The report is in Hebrew, but there is a related English language blog post in 972 Magazine.

According to the report, a woman in her second month of pregnancy was wheeled into an operating room at Assuta Hospital in north Tel Aviv for a procedure to remove the fetus which had died inside her, but which the woman had not naturally miscarried. Just as the procedure was about to begin, the OR director rushed in and announced that it could not proceed. The reason was that this particular operating room did not have an adjoining small room designed to prevent Cohanim (descendants of ancient Israelite priests) from becoming ritually impure through contact with the dead. Apparently, abortions and D&C procedures must be performed only in operating rooms with an adjoining room that supposedly captures the soul of the dead fetus and prevents it from exiting to the hospital corridor and possibly contaminating a Cohen.

The article was accompanied by a photo of the sign affixed to the doors of all the operating rooms “kosher” for such procedures. It says, “In this place, the doors are equipped with a system to prevent ritual impurity of Cohanim. When the light above the door is on, do not open the door. Please wait patiently until the light has been turned off.”

The woman was told she would have to come back the next day for a rescheduled procedure in one of the sanctioned operating rooms.

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Praying: A Mitzvah, Not a Crime

By Jennifer Maggin

Jennifer Maggin
Jennifer Maggin at the Kotel on May 10, 2013.

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.

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'Dragging' Israel To End Women's Segregation

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Getty Images
A woman holds her baby as members of the religious group ‘Women of the Wall’ pray at the Western Wall on April 11, 2013.

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.

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Happy Mother's Day To My Israeli Mom

By Noga Gur-Arieh

Talia Garber
Journalist Noga Gur-Arieh

Dear Mom,

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.

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Women for the Wall Takes On Women of the Wall

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Women for the Wall

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.”

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The Wayward Moon

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Yotzeret Publishing

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.

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Nauseating Ad Shows Woman as Meat

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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.

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Weight Loss Key To Israeli-Palestine Relations?

By Chanel Dubofsky

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.

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We Missed Michelle Obama

By Noga Gur-Arieh

getty images
Michelle Obama

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.

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Q&A: Miss Israel Titi Aynaw

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Meeting Mr. President: Miss Israel Titi Aynaw meets her ‘role model.’

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.

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'Voice' Contestant Heads to Finals Despite Controversy

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Ophir Ben-Shetreet

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.

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Threat of Violence to Women of the Wall Event

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Women of the Wall
One of the pashkevilim found in Haredi neighborhoods in Jerusalem.

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.”

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Unmarried Pregnant Teacher Wins Court Case

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Thinkstock

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.

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First Ethiopian-Israeli Wins Miss Israel

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Miss Israel, Yityish Aynaw

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.

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