Sixty years ago on September 19, my mother went into labor. Unluckily for her, it was Erev Shabbat and Kol Nidre night. As virtually all of the obstetricians in Philadelphia were Jewish — even the most secular would have been in synagogue — a retiree was brought in to deliver me. The good doctor had been enjoying a quiet Friday night at home with drink after drink; it was said that the delivery room reeked of liquor from his breath.
I was delivered with great difficulty as Mum was 39 years old. Nine days later, on September 28, my mother suffered a horrific hemorrhage at home. By the time she arrived at the hospital, she was, for all intents and purposes, clinically dead. Her blood pressure was nearing zero over zero.
What had happened? Evidently the thoroughly inebriated retiree had forgotten to remove the placenta.
Earlier this month, my social media feeds were full of comments about the recent Pew Study, A Portrait of Jewish Americans. Even more than the actual study though, it was the New York Times article about the findings that generated the most conversation, with its telling headline, “Poll Shows Major Shift in Identity of U.S. Jews.”
While the results emphasize that American Jews are proud to declare their identity, the more negative takeaways were captured in the second paragraph of the Times article:
The intermarriage rate, a bellwether statistic, has reached a high of 58 percent for all Jews, and 71 percent for non-Orthodox Jews — a huge change from before 1970 when only 17 percent of Jews married outside the faith. Two-thirds of Jews do not belong to a synagogue, one-fourth do not believe in God and one-third had a Christmas tree in their home last year.
I found this especially interesting because at the time I was reading the just-released book “My Basmati Bat Mitzvah” by Paula J. Freedman. “My Basmati Bat Mitzvah” follows the spiritual and social journey of 12-year-old New Yorker Tara Feinstein as she prepares for her Bat Mitzvah (or Bas Mitzvah as her Yiddish grandmother and Indian-born auntie refer to it).
And therein lies the rub: Tara likes to embrace both her Jewish and Indian identities, complete with chilis in matzo ball soup and a converted sari synagogue-party dress. But this also creates problems, as she deals with classmates who say she is not “really” Jewish, even though her Indian mother converted to Judaism before she was born, and that she is worshipping idols because she keeps an elephant statue from her grandfather in her room. As Tara wonders, when it comes to her Bat Mitzvah: “Was I about to become more Jewish, or less Indian?”
Last week I attended the funeral of a girl who was my age, 39. Jodi and I grew up together. We lived next door to each other as children, from when I moved into my house right before kindergarten until we left for college. For me she will always be that little girl that I played with for hours on her swing set, trying to break a Guinness Book World record for time spent on a swing. We were inspired by a “Brady Bunch” episode, and we played on the swings until it got dark and our parents called us in.
Jodi’s funeral was right before the days of Awe, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which are all about remembering and memories. As Dara Horn recently wrote in the New York Times, one of the central prayers in the Hebrew liturgy of the Day of Remembrance describes God as an ideal reader: “You remember all the forgotten things. You open the Book of Memories and it speaks for itself, for each person’s hand has signed it.” As she wrote, both prayer and fiction allow us to recreate, to re-live, to re-animate the past. Remembering is acting like God and, in essence, it is what a writer does. Remembering, or telling stories about our memories, I realized after my friend’s funeral, is the only way we can mourn — and the only way we can comfort mourners.
Content warning: The author has requested that there be a content/trigger warning as this piece talks about sexual abuse and rape.
You tell your editor you’ll write a piece about forgiveness and sexual abuse — about surviving being both sexually molested and raped, and then forgiving your abusers. And you’ll write it for Yom Kippur. When you pitch this story, first in spring and again in summer, you are certain you know what you’re talking about. You have no doubts. No unwavering concerns that this could be anything other than easy.
When Rosh Hashanah nears, you panic. Who are you to use words like “forgiveness” alongside your survival story when that word may not necessarily ascribe itself to any other survivor’s story? There is no right or textbook way to heal. Survival is as personal and intimate as that which was taken. I would know; I was sexually abused in high school and date raped in college. So finally, I forced myself to take a deep breath and write myself into understanding.
I started a new Word document. I cut and pasted links to articles about sexual abuse and forgiveness, but I knew I’d never read them. I didn’t need someone else’s thoughts to validate my truth. I’ve been in therapy. In college, I produced “The Vagina Monologues” and the V-Day Campaign. I’ve been publicly sharing my story through activism and art for over a decade. I listen as other survivors — women, men, genderqueer alike — share their stories. I’m not supposed to struggle with this anymore; I’m supposed to be certain in my healing.
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.
A little over a month ago, I began an experiment in what I thought of as Doing Jewish Things. I wondered, if I observed certain customs or ventured into areas of Judaism I had previously ignored, would it have any discernable impact on my life? Would I feel better, more engaged, less inexplicably guilty about not doing stuff no one was pushing me to do anyway?
As the weeks went by I lit candles on Shabbat, made Gefilte fish, fasted on Yom Kippur, and bought my first ever tanakh. Then I tried to come up with a unifying theory of Doing Jewish Things and what it all meant.
The candles unexpectedly made me wish for an idyllic and meticulously scheduled family life, a life that was not only the opposite of my own but probably not even attainable outside of mommy blogs and Instagram feeds with deceptively shiny finishes.
The Gefilte fish was an enjoyable foray into traditional cooking methods that I do not particularly want to repeat. The fasting got me thinking about whether I should try that new 5:2 diet plan and, in retrospect, provided a mental connection to other Jews across the world. The tanakh, which I haven’t sat down and read any of yet, remains an important book I’m eager to peruse when I have the time. But how all of that fit together, I couldn’t really say.
But while I was contemplating this, the Pew Research Center came out with a study of Jewish Americans, and it seemed every Jewish American I knew was talking (and writing, and tweeting) about nothing else.
New York City just launched an offensive on yet another modern plague: low self-esteem in girls. The city started a new public health campaign aimed to encourage girls, aged 7 to 12 years, to challenge the unattainable notions of beauty foisted upon them by pop culture and advertising.
The campaign, which consists mostly of ads on public transportation, was the brainchild of Samantha Levine, the mayor’s deputy press secretary. Levine said she was moved to start the project after learning that 80% of 10-year-old girls report being afraid of being fat and most girls’ self-esteem drops at age 12 and doesn’t improve until 20. The Sisterhood spoke with Levine about what she hopes the campaign will achieve and why we need to redefine beauty.
We can now add something else to the long list of things that are not kosher enough for the Haredi authorities in Israel: rape crisis and mental health hotlines.
If you are the victim of sexual abuse or are having an emotional crisis and have signed up for your cell phone service’s “kosher” plan, then you’re don’t expect to be able to anonymously reach out toll-free for help. According to an investigative report by Ynet, a body called the Rabbinical Committee for Communications has threatened to hurt mobile service providers’ business if they do not block the ability to dial these hotlines on “kosher” phones. It seems that so far, the providers have acquiesced to the rabbis’ demands.
The user of a regular cell phone (one that has not subscribed to a kosher plan) can dial toll free to the rape crisis center (1202 for women, 1203 for men) and to the ERAN emotional first-aid hotline, as well as to the country’s other emergency numbers (police, fire, ambulance, etc.). Kosher phones allow calls to the other emergency numbers, but block ones to the hotlines.
When my oldest daughter had her bat mitzvah, one of my proudest moments did not occur during the ceremony, though she certainly invested time and hard work in preparing. It came early Sunday morning when we were deciding what to do with the leftover food from our huge Shabbat Kiddush. My daughter suggested that we bring it to a shelter for women and children that she had volunteered at with her school, the Heilicher Minneapolis Jewish Day School.
This was a truly meaningful statement: My daughter embraced her role as an adult Jew who is able to see herself as capable of making the world a better place. That morning, before her bat mitzvah party, we delivered the food to grateful recipients at the shelter.
Something similar happened a few days before my second daughter’s bat mitzvah. We took a walk and stopped to talk with an older neighbor. She told us that she always made blintzes on Shavuot but hadn’t been able to this year. Without prompting, my daughter went home and selected some of the blintzes that she and her older sister had made themselves to share with our neighbor.
This is the fourth post in a series by Johnna Kaplan exploring aspects of Jewish life outside of her own experience.
Last week I opened an Amazon box containing a Stone Edition Tanach. It is the first tanach, or tanakh (or Bible, or Old Testament, or whatever you want to call it), I have ever had.
There’s no particularly good reason why before this moment I never owned the book that’s so central to the history and practices of the Jewish people. It’s certainly not due to an aversion to books, which I accumulate to an embarrassing degree. You could say that if the Jews are the people of the book, I am the person of all the books but that one.
My first encounter with a Bible story involved several illustrated children’s books, school library cast-offs that I quickly conflated into one large volume in my head. They told tales of different peoples, from Roman myths to Native American creation stories to Scandinavian folklore. One of them had a Jewish section; I vaguely recall dramatic drawings of figures like Moses. There was something about those stories that seemed important somehow, but not alive. I ignored it, and all the others, in favor of the bits about ancient Greeks, which grabbed me instantly.
Still, I knew somehow that the biblical stories were different than the others. Although they bored me, I was aware that they were “mine.” But I didn’t directly encounter them again until I grew old enough to become obsessed with musicals, and learned every word of “Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat.”
Women were caught in the crosshairs of the government shutdown this week, which, as this much-shared stunt photo of a group of eight white male Republicans demonstrates, appears to be as much about testosterone and saving face as it is about helping America move forward.
Look into the causes for this week’s shutdown, and you’ll find dogged conservative opposition to women’s healthcare. And look at the current and future impact of the impasse — you’ll find women’s lives, particularly poor women and moms, will feel the brunt of the pain that the shutdown brings.
Of course, this giant mess is essentially a continuation, or maybe a culmination of the status quo: a several-years-long attack on public workers (largely women) and on reproductive health care. It would probably shock me more to hear that women and their health care were not being held hostage in a budget-related fight in D.C., but that doesn’t make the results any less devastating.
Seeing Tina Fey in a spoof of “Girls” on the season premiere of Saturday Night Live wasn’t just exhilarating because Our Lady of Feminist Comedy (pardon the Catholic reference) had returned, but because it also reinforced a world-order in which age and experience yields wisdom, both in humor and in life.
In the skit, Fey plays Hannah’s new roommate, Blerta, an Albanian widow whose past-life of war and poverty makes her a perfect foil for the solipsistic millennial dramas that fuel the show.
Some bon mots from Blerta:
When asked whether Hannah’s aloof ex, Adam, is good enough for her: “You will never do better than this man. He is strong like ox. You are weak and strong and dress like baby.”
After finding out that Jessa had sex with a cab driver without getting paid: “You are unpaid prostitute. You are lower than dog.”
And to the show’s resident JAP and logorrhoea sufferer Shoshana: “Don’t speak. If you speak, they will know you are simple, and if they know you are simple they will drown you in river.”
I was sipping Champagne and presiding over witness signatures on a marriage license under the shade of a redwood tree as the sun started dropping over the ocean below the Santa Cruz Mountains.
The newlyweds (my friends) and their families exchanged embraces and congratulations following the heartfelt wedding ceremony I had just officiated. The only catch: It was during the time I would’ve normally been standing in synagogue, feeling a little woozy during Neilah as the effects of fasting came on strong.
When my friends asked me, months earlier, if I would get ordained and officiate their wedding — for which I was instructed to leave religion and spirituality out entirely — I deliberated for a few days. I’m not an observant Jew; I don’t keep kosher or observe Shabbat, and I celebrate holidays only selectively. But Yom Kippur is a day I have taken off of work, fasted and gone to synagogue every year of my life. To go to a wedding instead seemed like it would be perhaps too dramatic a leap toward secularism on too important a day.
If you’ve been anywhere near a Canadian newspaper or news website in the last week, then you’ll know that a scandal involving author and English professor David Gilmour has been dominating the headlines. The dustup is in response to remarks Gilmour made discounting Canadian, women and minority writers.
I asked some Canadian Jewish writers and literature professors for their takes on the controversy, which has not only taken up many column inches, but also led Gilmour’s fellow academics to distance themselves from him, and students to stage protests.
But before we get to the commentary, here is a summary of what led to the brouhaha.
It’s called “Meet My Rapist.”
The short satirical film is a response to Kahnweiler’s own rape, which occurred almost eight years ago, when she was 20 years old and studying abroad in Vietnam. In the video, Kahnweiler plays herself. After she runs into her rapist at the farmer’s market, she can’t shake him. He appears to be following her — more like, haunting her — everywhere she goes: on a job interview, on a run with a friend, to dinner with her parents, to her psychotherapy session. Kahnweiler feels she has to take cues from everyone else as to how to relate to her rapist. However, that changes by the end of the piece.
Kahnweiler spoke with the Sisterhood about the realization that catalyzed her to make the video, her use of satire in dealing with the subject of rape, and how “Meet My Rapist” relates to her understanding of herself as a young Jewish artist.
As I listened to friends and family begrudgingly make decisions about Hebrew school for their kids this year, I started a conversation on my personal blog about alternatives to the typical after-school programs. As I mentioned, I was not asking on behalf of my own family.
My kids go to a non-Orthodox day school, attend shul every week and live in a home that I’ve described elsewhere as “Reformadox”. I was asking for new ideas on behalf of my friends and as a concerned member of the larger Jewish community. I felt that, with so many disgruntled customers out there, there had to be some newer, experimental models to try.
I heard from families in various cities who belong to Reform or Conservative synagogues, but send their kids to a Chabad-run religious/Hebrew school program on Sundays, meeting the call of Jews who want their kids to experience a Jewish education, but not at the expense of the taking over the family’s schedule for the week.
Some families in the North Shore suburbs of Chicago said they dropped out of their synagogue’s Hebrew school for a newer organization run by an Orthodox couple called Jewish Family Experience. Rabbi Yehuda Polstein and his wife, Mashi Polstein, run their own school which, like Chabad’s supplemental school, meets on Sundays. JFE, as the group’s members call it, is based on another popular program in Cleveland called Jewish Family Experience, commonly referred to as JFX. At JFX in Cleveland, entire families meet on Sundays for Jewish education. I heard from parents in both cities who raved about the passion for Judaism their kids felt and the depth of knowledge the kids and parents learned during the once-a-week sessions.
Miss America 2014 Nina Davuluri made headlines this past week — not just for taking the crown on Sunday night, but also because of a racist backlash that occurred after she won. The American-born Indian woman representing New York was accused of being “Miss Al Qaeda,” a terrorist, Arab, Egyptian and everything in between. Davuluri rose above the controversy, embracing her platform issue: “Celebrating diversity through cultural competency.”
But if Miss America is really about embracing diversity, why hold the Pageant during the High Holy Days?
In its 92 years, Miss America has had one Jewish Miss America, Bess Myerson. Myerson, who was also Miss New York, was Miss America 1945. New York is known for firsts; it not only had the first Jewish Miss America and the first Indian Miss America but also the first African-American Miss America, Vanessa Williams, in 1983. Clearly the Pageant isn’t opposed to non-Christian contestants (Davuluri is Hindu), or winners for that matter. But the 20/20 special that aired before the live contest showed contestants praying to Jesus for an injured Miss Florida. Meanwhile, recent Miss Americas, like 2011’s Teresa Scanlan, have been outspoken about their evangelical faith.
Comic and writer Katie Halper says that “she wouldn’t be alive without Camp Kinderland,” the 90-year-old leftist, secular Jewish summer camp in the Berkshires. When Kinderland came under attack by right-wingers following their discovery that an Obama nominee for the Department of Labor had sent her kids, Halper realized that she had set the story straight. The Sisterhood spoke with Halper about how she ended up at Kinderland, her movie “Commie Camp” and why she believes children should be taught about social justice.
THE SISTERHOOD: Commie Camp, huh? Katie, are you a communist?
HALPER: I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of The Communist Party. The title is tongue and cheek, but in all seriousness, I definitely have ideas and values that are socialist. I think lots of people do. They just don’t realize it.
In late August, The Sisterhood launched a series examining the role of women in Jewish mourning traditions. Grieving for a loved one is fiercely personal; doing so as a woman, guided by Jewish laws and rituals, can be comforting or restricting, depending on one’s experience. We asked you, Sisterhood readers, to share your stories. Many people responded. Some women felt marginalized, even alienated, by their limited roles in the mourning process. Others felt invigorated and strengthened, and found deep comfort in community. What resulted was a portrait of Jewish female mourning. This series, which includes essays from writers and submissions from readers, will appear on The Sisterhood blog this week. —Abigail Jones
The following stories from Sisterhood readers are just a sample of the many we received. They have been edited for style and length.
I stand on the other side of the mechitza. I have no desire to do otherwise. So when my father passed away a few years ago, I would have been more than happy to shed my tears out of view and among the company of just other women — steadied by their collective strength, strengthened by the knowledge that afterward they would be there for me, bringing a hot meal and a solacing word.
But it was not to be.
A Reform clergyman was going to officiate at the funeral. I knew what that meant. During the eulogy, he would talk mostly about how my father loved ice cream and poker — which was true, but not the point. A Jewish hesped (eulogy) is a time to speak about the good deeds that the deceased has done — the mitzvos, the charitable causes they believed in and supported, the simple acts of kindness they did in a way that was uniquely their own.
I felt that someone needed to speak about that. So I did give a hesped. But inside — behind my inner mechitza — I was crying, both for my father and our traditions, whose wisdom and beauty have become buried under so many layers of misunderstanding and neglect.
—Libi Astaire, 59 years old
This is the third post in a series by Johnna Kaplan exploring aspects of Jewish life outside of her own experience.
I have always felt compelled to fast on Yom Kippur — just not compelled enough. Usually I either forget what day it is until it’s too late or simply give up at the first hint of dizziness. This year, I determined to fast properly. Well, almost.
6:00 a.m. I begin by cheating and drink some water. Water is not allowed on Yom Kippur. But Yom Kippur, as I’ve always understood it, is pretty good about recognizing the spirit rather than the letter of its laws. It’s clear that you do not have to fast if, for example, you are sick. I am not sick, but I know I will not be able to last 25 hours without a sip of water. (Come to think of it I might be sick. I could have some horrible disease that just hasn’t been diagnosed yet.)
8:30 a.m. There really isn’t any point in getting out of bed if you can’t have coffee, is there?
9:00 a.m. I realize I’ve been conflating fasting with all sorts of other Yom Kippur observances, such as praying and not showering. I feel much better when I remind myself that it’s acceptable to pick and choose. In fact it’s possible that Judaism and Jewishness in any form might not have survived if some picking and choosing was not inherent the start.