Sexual assault cases don’t occur in a vacuum, even when they are so egregious that they defy the imagination. For example: the recent Cleveland story involving the long-term imprisonment and rape of three local women by an alleged perpetrator who comes across as a complete sadist. Coverage of this story has been rife with speculation, yet there are few answers available — partly due to the survivors’ understandable desire for privacy.
We can’t examine the details yet, obsessing as we so often do. But we can examine ourselves.
As I noted when I wrote about sexual assault in the military (a scandal which continues to evolve), these kinds of crimes occur in a rape culture. Rape culture doesn’t mean only that there’s a high incidence of sexual assault, but also that sex is treated as a commodity, one for women to withhold and men to take, a commodity that also comes to represent women’s entire value and worth. Pure or defiled. Virginal or slutty — so slutty that consent is implied, not sought.
On June 16, three young Orthodox women will receive a title that no woman (or man) before them has ever held: maharat (short for Manhiga Hilchatit Ruchanit Toranit, which means leader in Jewish law, spirituality and Torah). The graduation of the first class from Riverdale’s Yeshivat Maharat, which trains Orthodox women to be spiritual leaders, has sparked some controversy in the Orthodox community. But, beneath the debates are three women in their late 20s and early 30s who are dedicated to the study of Jewish text and finding a role for women in traditional Judaism.
My former college classmate, Ruth Balinsky Friedman, is one of these women. This summer, she will become a member of the clergy at Ohev Sholom, The National Synagogue in Washington, D.C. I spoke with her about her decision to become a maharat, what it’s like to follow in her father’s footsteps and her thoughts on women’s prayer at the Kotel.
In a recent post on Slate’s DoubleX, Katherine Goldstein provides tips for female summer interns on what exactly is appropriate to wear to a workplace. The advice on how to avoid looking like a “skintern” includes avoiding see-through anything, concealing undergarments and leaving the four-inch heels at home. Goldstein ends the post by telling women that by following these rules and focusing on impressing everyone with their “hard work” and “keen intellect” they will be sure to break the glass ceiling.
Was this sexist?
Sure, this is set of codes and rules that only apply to young women, or more specifically, their bodies. It told them that some parts of their bodies are considered vulgar and that wearing a pair of high platform heels might give others the wrong idea about their, well, purity. It is putting the responsibility on them to cover up, instead of on men to stop gawking. As another DoubleX contributor put it a few months ago in response to a call for longer skirts at a middle school, “If you don’t want girls judged by their hemlines, stop judging them by their hemlines.”
This year, like other years, I am doing nothing special (read: nothing at all) for Shavuot. It is not, as Marissa Brostoff recently noted in Tablet, not hugely popular as Jewish holidays go. Every year I see Shavuot on the calendar and think, What’s that one again? And then I remember, That’s the one about the Torah. And cheese.
Coming from a secular background, all-night Torah study isn’t really my thing. Cheese, however, is totally my thing. Or was, until a few months ago, when I figured out that cheese (along with some other types of dairy food) was responsible for my skin’s return to a state of teenage agitation. Sad as it made me, I decided to seriously limit my intake of dairy. To paraphrase an overused motto, nothing tastes as good as clear skin looks. But this development gave my non-celebration of Shavuot a new significance. What if I was one of those Torah-studying, special-dairy-meal-eating Jews? I wondered. What would I do then?
Been wondering what’s behind all those artisanal chocolate bars cluttering check-out lanes and tattooed women knitting booties for the babies permanently strapped to their chests? Or, as the show “Portlandia” so acutely captured in one of its most hilarious skits, the undeniable urge that crafty young folks have to put a bird on it?
So has journalist Emily Matchar.
In her new book “Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity,” Matchar examines why women in their 20s and 30s are increasingly passing up the corner office and even the corner bar, à la Carrie Bradshaw, for all things domestic. She investigates the rise of do-it-yourself everything — things like attachment parenting, crafting, homeschooling and raising chickens in the backyard — and how it is a symptom of the disillusionment young people, mostly women, feel with the institutions that they had once hoped to rely on. These institutions include workplaces that fail to be family friendly, public schools that fail to educate our children and a food system that fails to provide us with affordable, healthy and sustainable food.
This week, we’re treated to something everyone’s been waiting for this season of Dancing with the Stars: Aly Raisman’s parents. They became mini-celebrities during the Olympics as they freaked out excitedly during her performances, and though they’ve been in the audience a lot during “Dancing With the Stars,” this is the first time they’ve appeared in one of Aly’s pre-recorded segments.
This week we were down to five contestants, but oddly Aly’s entire segment was about how she came in fourth place a bunch of times and it was really depressing. Could it be a giant sign asking America to make sure she lasts until at least third? The show certainly pulled out all the stops this week, with Shawn Johnson (a previous “DWTS” champ), Gabby Douglas, Kyla Ross, and walking meme McKayla Maroney all showing up to talk about how awesome Aly is.
As soon as this week’s first dance — a crowdsourced Afrojazz selection — comes up, I realize why Aly needed all that support this week.
A few months ago, a friend from college told me about her miscarriage, which happened between her first and second child.
“It’s so common,” she said. “I just think people should know that.”
After this friend’s disclosure, another friend told me she had had the same experience. And then another. Miscarriages are common, which was something I knew theoretically, but not in a way where I could attach the experience to a face. It made me wonder how many of my other friends had had miscarriages and just never said anything — because of the pain, the shock and the fear of sharing it with people. Suddenly, it felt like an avalanche: women telling stories of miscarriage so that people would know that it really did happened, so they would feel less alone, and so silence didn’t perpetuate stigma.
The personal piece actress Angelina Jolie published today in the New York Times should put to rest any question as to her seriousness. Say what they will about her in the tabloids, it is clear from her sharing that she has recently undergone a preventative double mastectomy that she is a woman of conviction.
Convinced that she has a better chance of living a long life without her natural breasts (she has had a series of three surgeries, the last being reconstruction with implants), Jolie has gone where most, if not all, other Hollywood actresses would not. I guess it’s hardly surprising given that she, as UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador, has already readily traveled to dangerous places.
Jolie carries the BRCA1 gene mutation, common among Ashkenazi women. Her mother also died of cancer at age 56. And so Jolie, only 37, decided to not wait to see if she would eventually develop breast cancer herself. She wrote that doctors originally told her she has an 87% risk of breast cancer and a 50% risk of ovarian cancer. “My chances of developing breast cancer have dropped from 87% to under 5%. I can tell my children that they don’t need to fear they will lose me to breast cancer.”
Could it get any worse? On June 2nd Bravo will debut a new reality show titled “Princesses: Long Island,” starring half a dozen spoiled women in their late 20s, all of whom are Jewish, according to the show’s publicist. If the series can be judged by the promo, they will give the already-offensive term Jewish American Princess a bad name.
The promo starts off with some woman who sounds like the love child of Fran Drescher and Joan Rivers screaming, “Guess what I have? Manischewiiiiiiitz!” and moves into a scene of bikini babes jumping into water when one girl screams “I think I broke my vagina bone!”
The stereotyping comes fast and furious: One girl says “My farklemptness is making me shvitz” and then another, who appears to be sitting in a limo, says, “Hasidic Jews, how do they get their curls so perfect?” At a bar, one of the characters says in a thick Lawng Oyland accent, “Are you guys Jewish?” Then someone named Erica drunkenly sings “Hava Nagila,” before falling flat on her face.
One of my clearest memories from childhood is peeking around the doorway from the kitchen to the den as my mother ironed and watched “Days of Our Lives.” A couple lay in bed, the woman in a negligee, the man bare-chested, a patch covering one eye. I was a little scared — what if he lifted the patch! — but more than that, I was totally enthralled, both by the scene and that I was watching television at all.
My parents placed strict limits on what shows my sister and I could watch. Had my father known that we were sneaking peeks of soap operas, he would have been massively displeased. The knowledge of just how illicit my action was, combined with my immediate fascination with these people and their stories, left me wanting more.
Over the next several years, my mother gradually allowed my sister and me to watch soaps with her during school vacations. Maybe she was bored, maybe she was tired of coming up with ways to entertain us, or maybe she simply wanted to carve out some time to do what she wanted. But whatever the reason, I was too happy to bother thinking about it too deeply. I couldn’t get enough of the outlandish plots and intricate family trees, and eagerly listened to all the backstories that my mother could offer.
This past week, the true extent of the problem of rape and sexual assault in the military came to light, and the numbers were stark and ugly. A new Pentagon report found that nearly 26,000 members of the military were sexually assaulted last year — a 35% increase from 2010. The numbers sent shock waves everywhere, prompting furious editorials from major papers and a particularly angry-sounding President Obama at a press conference saying, “I have zero tolerance for this,” and vowing a top-down culture change.
Easier said than done, of course. The Los Angeles Times editorial board notes the deepest irony in the case, which is that a major point person in the military was caught, so to speak, with his pants down.
Motherhood is easy.
Okay, it isn’t really, but doesn’t it feel so good to hear that it might be? That it could be? That, maybe, it should be? Those words, together, motherhood and easy — just writing them allows me to breath deeper. It gets me thinking that, maybe, things really are all right.
Like many new mothers, before I had my first child I was kind of terrified about becoming a parent. This is partially because taking care of children is legitimately quite hard and partially because most of the discussion surrounding motherhood these days is about how difficult it is and how much sacrifice it requires.
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.
Remember the good old days, when everyone hated prom? Okay, maybe everyone didn’t hate it, but for a long time there was a deep and widespread cynicism of this (forced) rite of passage— and those who took it too seriously were considered out-of-touch or uptight. (See basically every high school movie from the last 25 years.)
Well, luckily for local florists and limo drivers, and unluckily for all of us who prefer our teens a little angsty and anti-establishment, prom has a made a major comeback.
The reports from this prom season have been rife with tales of teenagers really loving — and spending big money on — prom. The New York Times had a story on teenage boys seeking out increasingly complicated and expensive ways to ask dates. Some are even paying companies upwards of $400 to help them with their “prom-prosals.” Even boys at Jewish high schools are getting into the spirit, as evidenced by the elaborate prom-posal by Jake Davidson of Milken Community High School in Bel Air, CA. in which he asked actress and model Kate Upton via Youtube. The video earned him a 2.5 million hits and a “no thank you” from Upton.
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.
May, I recently found out, is Jewish American Heritage Month. (It also happens to be Mental Health Month and National Salad Month.) I don’t know how the existence of JAHM eluded me until now; it was first proclaimed by President George W. Bush back in 2006. (Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Senator Arlen Specter introduced the resolutions in Congress.) Even the fact that this year’s White House reception recognizing the month was a victim of sequestration did not bring Jewish American Heritage Month to my attention.
I normally take a rather cynical view of “history months.” I don’t like the idea of confining any group’s history and heritage to a 30-day period, implicitly excusing the ignoring of that group for the rest of the year. As I recall, schoolchildren see a pre-packaged theme curriculum (2013’s is “Jews in Entertainment”) as a signal to dismiss a topic they might otherwise have engaged with. But when I typed “Jewish American” into my browser’s search box, the first suggested result was “Jewish American Princess” and the third was “Jewish American Princess Jokes.” Could a special month for American Jews make things any worse?
Recently, Elissa Strauss wrote a post about how most of our clothes are likely made in sweatshops. I thought of the issue again as I woke up each morning this week to see the death toll rise in the gruesome wake of the collapsed clothing factory in Bangladesh. It’s now 700.
In the ashes of this unsafe factory where Western companies had contracts, many American Jews will naturally see the long shadow of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, a product of companies’ decades-long “race to the bottom” away from safety standards and minimum wages. We inevitably remember the dead women lying on the street and the brave young women who organized and agitated in the wake of horror to get safe labor laws on the books — and unions recognized. But this calamity in Bangladesh also brings to mind a more recent pain: there was the image of the wall of “missing” workers outside the factory which so vividly recalled the missing person posters that plastered lower Manhattan after 9/11.
The tawdry spectacle of “get” refusal and extortion in Jewish divorce has made the rounds in both Jewish and secular media for decades. But the Jewish community now faces an historic opportunity. We have within our hands the data on which to base a plan of action to alleviate the plight of “agunot” and a tool to drastically cut the future risk of chained women.
A 2011 survey of agunot in the U.S. and Canada, co-sponsored by the Orthodox Union (OU), Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA), Jewish Women International (JWI) and Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), revealed 462 cases of agunot between 2005 and 2010. While the survey understates the problem due to some right-wing organizations’ refusal to respond, the results clearly outline the case for a clarion call to action.
Most agunot are under 40 years old. They have children yet little money, and are unaware of even the limited resources available to them. During the survey period, religious courts considered just half of reported cases, and contempt of court citations were infrequently issued against recalcitrant husbands. When a case did go to rabbinical court, some agunot were required to forgo financial payments or custody of their children in exchange for a get.
Sometimes I wish every week was Shiva with its unending support and ongoing hours, and days, of continual storytelling. For when loved ones die, the narratives we share help keep them alive. Shiva is the week before we must dance with reality, when the debate over how long it is supposed to take to reach acceptance in the stages of grief is not a spectrum, but a staunchly understood cavernous, amorphous abyss.
But all too often after Shiva, we forget. People are still mourning, but we forget. After the rugelach, fruit platters and babka have been laid on the kitchen counter and carried to the dining room table, then eaten, we forget. After the family members deepest in mourning — their loved one so recently a breath away — have cried, wailed and sat stunned in shock, we forget.
My brother, Joshua, died in October 2002, nearly 11 years ago. He was struck by a car while walking down a sidewalk in the Chicago suburbs; a senior from his high school pulled an illegal U-Turn and an elderly man struck Joshua, then 15, in an attempt to avoid collision with the teenager. The car flung Josh’s body into the side of a store building. Immediately left unconscious, he died the next morning in the Intensive Care Unit.
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