Sisterhood Blog

No Saintly Mother

By Elissa Strauss

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Becoming a mother didn’t make me nicer. More compassionate? Yes. More sensitive? Sure. But nicer. No.

During the few months in which I was “trying”, I started involuntarily responding to pregnant women with a snarl. Then there was the period of time following my son’s birth when my concern for other people, places and things all vanished to make room for my singular devotion to him. I’d say my low was being sullen at my sister’s bachelorette party, wholly incapable of shifting gears to easy-going and festive from the war-like intensity of early parenthood. And then there was the time a girl named Pippa hit my son with a toy in the pediatrician’s waiting room. I can’t tell you how good it felt when she later tripped and fell flat on her face.

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Will Millennial Moms End the Mommy Wars?

By Elissa Strauss

Welcome to motherhood, millennials. According to a new report from the parenting website BabyCenter, the newest crop of moms, ages 18-32, are rejecting the helicopter parenting they experienced as children and are opting for a more relaxed approach.

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The Bad Economics of D.I.Y.

By Elissa Strauss

As Emily Matchar pointed out in her book “Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity,” a growing number of women have been taking up old-school activities like canning, baking, sewing and whatever else their mothers used to pay people to do.

This D.I.Y. boom is seen as a feminist move by many of its champions. They believe they are reclaiming traditional women’s activities on their own terms, and saving some money and the environment while they are at it.

Others see this return to labor-intensive domestic tasks as a step-backwards for women. Some even read it as a sign that women have been pushed back into the home because of the failure of public institutions and workplaces to adequately support their non-domestic ambitions.

No matter what side you fall on, I doubt there is one woman out there who hasn’t, at least once, been made to feel inadequate by a crazy D.I.Y. friend. You know the one who baked her daughter a beautiful birthday cake, or sewed her son a non-brand superhero costume instead of grabbing that plastic Spiderman get-up from the rack at Rite Aid, and then posted pictures of it on Facebook.

Well good news for all us birthday cake and Halloween costume buyers out there. It turns out that while doing-it-yourself might be fun and tasty, it is not always the wisest move for those of us looking to make the most of our personal and professional lives.

As Catherine Rampell explains in the New York Times magazine:

Embracing the D.I.Y. ethos is (wrongly) perceived as evidence of thrift or even moral virtue. A personal chef is the sort of luxury people associate with hedge-funders, Europeans with several surnames and oil sheikhs. Still, you need not be an heiress to benefit from paying for a personal assistant or gofer of some kind. From an economist’s perspective, it’s similar to taking out student loans: an investment in your future earning potential. Yet few outside the field see it that way.

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No, It Really Does Smell Like Roses

By Elissa Strauss

Thinkstock

It’s official. Everyone is a Jewish mother. Well, insofar as every mother has an inflated sense of the absolute kvell-worthy perfection of their children.

In a recent Christian Science Monitor story about why we want to eat our babies (more on that in a minute), they refer to a study that found that mothers rank their babies poop as less disgusting than other’s number two. How’s that for unconditional love?

This preference for their poop is linked to the ways in which mother’s initial connection to their babies is largely through our noses. A new German study has found that the smells of newborns elicit “activation in the women’s’ brains’ reward circuits.” This is the same circuit that feels pleasure when we eat truffle fries or smoke a cigarette — the addictive one. Not all smells trigger this circuit, explained one of the study’s authors, “only those associated with reward, such as food or satisfying a desire, cause this activation.”

They found far more activity in these reward circuits in mothers vs. non-mothers and determined that the sensation moms get when sniffing their baby feels a lot sniffing a favorite food. And this, my friends, is why we say things like, “Oy, look at those pulkes, I just want to eat them up.”

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Amy Klein's Fertility Struggle

By Elissa Strauss

Michal Solomon
Amy Klein

This summer journalist Amy Klein, a former Forward reporter, began chronicling her fertility journey in weekly posts for the New York Times’ Motherlode blog. Klein spoke to the Sisterhood on why she decided to write about what was long a private struggle, the negative feedback she has received and the support she is, and isn’t, getting from the Jewish community.

THE SISTERHOOD: Why did you decide to write about your journey to conceive?

AMY KLEIN: Since I was young, I’ve been journaling my life privately to help work through what I’m going through as well as to catalog what’s happening in my life.

I’m a memoirist as well as a journalist, so I often publish stories about my life — I had a singles column about my dating life, I wrote about having a stem-cell facelift, and had a Modern Love story chronicling my visit to a Jerusalem rabbi who predicted exactly when I’d eventually meet my husband.

Regarding our journey to have a baby, the Times actually approached me about writing a weekly IVF column after I submitted “Baby Envy” to the “Motherlode” blog.

I think there’s so much that people don’t know about fertility — that I didn’t know about before I started this. Things like freezing your eggs to having trouble conceiving, to ovulation to IVF and miscarriage. It all seems so shrouded in mystery.

I hope that by sharing my story it will shed light for others who are contemplating having children later in life, or help people of all ages going through what I am, showing them that they’re not alone.

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Where's the Jewish Helping Hand?

By Joanne Seiff

Joanne Seiff
Writer Joanne Seiff with her twins.

Recently, there was a tragedy in Winnipeg. A mom and her two young children died, possibly because of postpartum depression. The news unfolded slowly, in a compassionate way. The children, found dead, were the beginning; several days later, the mother’s body was found in the river. In the days and weeks that followed, Winnipeg jumped into conversation about new moms, mental health and what we should do better.

It’s no surprise that many moms suffer from blues or feel isolated after giving birth. Some new parents have family to lean on, but not all of us do. Our families may be thousands of miles away or unable to help. This isn’t necessarily anyone’s fault. But the conversation about new mothers mattered to me.

When I learned I was pregnant with twins — while living far away from my family — I saw the wider Jewish community as an extended family. Perhaps I could find help. I asked the Jewish Child & Family Services office for advice before I gave birth. I asked two different synagogues if they had any kind of “helping hand” committee in place that might offer support after the birth. What I discovered was that in Winnipeg, the Jewish community had nothing in place to help expectant or new moms. I was disappointed, because I’d hoped to find a caring, supportive Jewish community in my new city.

I’d felt that support elsewhere. When my mother-in-law died, I was in my mid-20s. I was teaching an adult education class at a Reform congregation in Durham, North Carolina. My husband and I attended a Conservative congregation. My students called to offer us condolences. The rabbi at the Reform congregation (not our own), did a shiva call. We were struggling. It was an awful time, but these gestures made me feel less alone.

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Childless Does Not Mean Clueless

By Erika Dreifus

Getty Images
Christine Quinn

As if back-to-school season and the High Holidays weren’t enough to command our attention and energies, here in New York we’re anticipating mayoral primary elections (slated for September 10). Last week’s campaign developments, as noted in Kate Taylor’s “Trailside” column in The New York Times, included the following: “Two Democratic front-runners, Bill de Blasio and Christine C. Quinn, on Wednesday got into an ugly dispute over whether Mr. de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, had suggested that Ms. Quinn could not understand the problems of parents because she did not have children herself.”

Of course, there’s more to the story — including corrections to the Maureen Dowd column, also for The Times, in which McCray’s comments appeared. Regardless of McCray’s original remarks or intent, the situation spotlighted something familiar to some of us who don’t have children: the claim that we simply don’t understand the lives of parents. More important for The Sisterhood’s purposes, it has provided an occasion to counter that claim: In truth, some of us are childless (or childfree, or however you choose to describe the situation) at least in part because we understand the lives of — and the pressures faced by — contemporary parents.

We understand quite well.

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Why Women Just Can't Get It Right

By Elissa Strauss

Thinkstock

Women. We can’t do anything right, can we?

Choose not to become a mother, like the Sisterhood’s Chanel Dubofsky, and others view you as selfish. Chose to become a working mother and you are seen as selfish. Or, choose to become a stay-at-home parent and, yep, you are seen as selfish.

Over the past few years Chanel has written about her desire to be childfree. She has, rightly so, challenged the idea that motherhood is inseparable from womanhood — a notion that goes far, far back to Eve, whose name, given to her by God, means “mother of all things.” So from, like, biblical days until the latter part of the 20th century (i.e. basically forever), women have been valued based upon their ability to make and raise children. This has been especially true in Jewish communities where the ancient commandment to be fruitful was perceived as all the more urgent following the Holocaust. In short, not having children was, and still largely is, a major no-no.

Okay, so this must make me one of the good girls, right? Because I have a baby. A son! And I love him, so, so, so much.

If only it were that easy. You see, theoretically women having kids are good, but in practice, not so much.

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Yes, Really, I'm Sure I Don't Want Kids

By Chanel Dubofsky

Chanel Dubofsky
Sisterhood contributor Chanel Dubofsky.

In her recent Time Magazine piece, “Having It All Without Having Children,”, Lauren Sandler spoke to women and couples about their decision not to have children in the context of social pressure and statistics (19% of women aged 40-44 have no children, which is almost double the percentage from 30 years ago, according to the U.S. Census Bureau) as well as the expectations and “cultural noise of motherhood.” The magazine’s cover drives it all home: It’s a photo of two smiling, relaxed white people in matching bathing suits, as if to say, “When you don’t have kids, you have time to lay in the sun and match your bathing suits.”

When I’ve written about being childfree in the past, I’ve often been asked to clarify that I’m not talking about reproductive challenges like infertility. Often, the two are confused. Talking about infertility is a taboo, and so is the idea that a woman might choose not to reproduce because she doesn’t want to. While couples and individuals encounter reproductive challenges and sometimes choose to remain childless, that is a different reality and a different conversation. When I talk about being childfree, I’m not talking about something that I wish I had that I don’t. I’m talking about a choice I’ve made, which should always be a choice and not as an assignment. I’m talking about what it means to not want something that women are expected to want. And I know I’m not the only one.

Responses to Sandler’s piece included this chat between two Yahoo writers, Sarah B. Weir and Beth Greenfield, both mothers, who admitted their own suspicions and frustrations in regard to childfree women. Upon hearing that her husband’s colleague, a woman in her early 30s, definitely doesn’t want kids, Weir said, “I immediately went to ‘selfish, narcissistic.’ What is that about?” Greenfield admits “to being perplexed when I’ve met women, throughout my life, who say they don’t want to,” but also questioned her own motives when she got pregnant: “Was it a good decision for the world, which is overpopulated? Or was it just a good and selfish decision for me?”

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Parenting Gone Wild

By Elissa Strauss

I didn’t want to write about Amy Sohn’s story “Modern Mothers’ Turn to Scratch an Itch,” in the New York Times’ Sunday Style section. Any “trend” piece about a handful of wealthy women whose idea of work/life balance is leaving their kids with their husbands at the summer vacation house during the week as they frolic around the city in “metallic lace and satin mini” or “[rack] up a bill as big as it would have been for a family of four” while eating alone at a sushi restaurant seemed like it just isn’t worth thinking too hard about.

But then the story continued to gnaw at me for the rest of the weekend. I found myself increasingly annoyed by the, albeit seldom employed, model of parenting exalted by this piece.

As Sohn points out, spending the week alone in the city and the weekend with family up in the country used to be the norm for men. This was particularly true for Jewish families who spent their summers in the Catskills. Now I don’t think these moms are necessarily “bad mommies” just because they enjoy a little time off. Nor were the fathers necessarily bad dads if they did too. What gets me is how they justify their enjoyment.

It seems as though all of these mothers have absorbed an all-or-nothing attitude towards parent-rearing, one that dictates that kids should always come first and the only way to escape it is to escape them completely.

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Opting Back In Reveals the Perils of Opting Out

By Sarah Seltzer

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When women stay home with the kids, men may start to view them differently. That’s one of the many takeaways from Judith Warner’s revelatory second look at the “opt-out generation” a decade later, published this weekend in the New York Times Magazine. A particularly noteworthy quote came from the spouse of one of the women profiled, seeming to indicate that his wife’s self-esteem was not a value he cared for. “Once she started to work, she started to place more value in herself,” said Mark Eisel of his ex, Sheilah O’Donnel, a housewife who had opted back in, “and because she put more value in herself, she put herself in front of a lot of things — family, and ultimately, her marriage.”

Bryce Covert neatly unpacks the hidden thesis in Warner’s article at her blog at the Nation, writing “that the actual circumstance of having a wife stay home changes men from being egalitarian to being far more traditional …” both at home when they expect a level of caretaking their partners may not have signed up for, and at the office where research has confirmed their views, colored by their own family structure, “take a turn for the sexist.”

The question I always ask at moments like this is what came first, the chicken of women spending more time at home, or the egg of home-based caretaking work being devalued by society? This attitude also explains why domestic workers and health aides aren’t treated as the hard-working, skilled laborers they are.

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The Inconvenient Truth of Having a Career and Kids

By Elissa Strauss

Thinkstock

Judith Warner has a new New York Times magazine piece on the opt-out fallout. She looks at the lives of women who, armed with prestigious degrees and high-powered jobs, decided to leave their careers behind in order to become full-time caretakers a decade ago. (Many would call them stay-at-home-moms but I won’t, because I find the term, with it’s passive “stay,” pejorative. As much as you might like to, you never “stay” anywhere when you are home chasing kids all day.)

I recommend you read Warner’s piece in full because the reporting is excellent, as are the issues she raises. Still, like all good writing on work-life issues, it left me with more questions than answers. The one nugget of insight Warner took away from looking at these families is that husbands need to do more to demand work-life accommodations from their bosses in order for our work culture to change. She says this is no longer so much a gender issue, but an economic one, because these days parents need two salaries to survive, but they also need two jobs that allow them to parent.

Otherwise, we are left with the inconvenient truth about life in a world in which both men and women want a career and a family. This is the fact that someone needs to watch the kids and, in most circumstances, it is probably best that at least a quarter of the time that person is a parent.

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Motherhood in the 'Lean In' Era

By Gabrielle Birkner

When Ronit Sherwin moved to Delaware in 2011 to become executive director of the University of Delaware Hillel, she decided to enroll her now three-year-old twins in a daycare program at a well-established Jewish organization. But as a single mother and her family’s sole breadwinner, she couldn’t afford the $2,200 monthly bill for nearly 10 hours a day of childcare for her daughter and son.

“I couldn’t buy groceries if I had to pay that,” Sherwin, 40, said.

She explained her situation to the daycare provider, and was assured that she would be given time to pay off any outstanding balance. As an in-kind contribution, Sherwin offered to teach a class at the organization housing the daycare.

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Stop And Smell the... Boredom?

By Nina Badzin

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This is the fourth and final post in a Sisterhood series by Nina Badzin on gadgets, family and work.

Turns out I’m not the phone-addict I thought I’d become during the first months of my iPhone experiment.

To recap: Before Passover, I decided to stop living as a slave to my phone. I’d heard about others’ attempts at unplugging and even about one writer’s Internet-free year. In most cases, the experiments failed because the change was too drastic. Less phone time sounded reasonable, but my rules still required practice.

Some Forward readers insisted that strict Shabbat observance would solve my phone problems. As I reported in late April, I didn’t find that improving my Shabbat habits had any positive influence on the rest of the week. (However, I would love for some Shabbat observant readers to tell me whether they are less addicted to their phones on Sunday through Friday due to their 24 hours off the grid. Do you not look at a text during dinner on a random Wednesday? Are you not staring at your phone on the subway or in line at the grocery store? Let me know in the comments below.)

My phone-free progress has not come from big blocks of time. Rather, as debut author Natalia Sylvester noted when she couldn’t use her phone during an international vacation, it’s possible to do more of what you want when your spare moments are no longer spent staring into your phone. I loved Sylvester’s advice to “collect these moments. Spend them wisely. Watch them stack up like change rescued from underneath the couch cushions, piled high in a clear glass jar that astounds you with how much it holds once it’s full.”

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In Praise of Kate's Postpartum Bump

By Elissa Strauss

Getty Images

While most of the world was thrilled to get a glimpse the new royal baby, I was getting teary-eyed about something else — Kate Middleton’s postpartum bump.

Among the many luxuries afforded to the Duchess of Cambridge for her debut as a mother was a hair and make-up team to assure that her tresses were shiny and smooth and her complexion dewy. These magicians, whoever they are, did a marvelous job of erasing any signs of fatigue and physical stress that pregnancy and labor, no matter who you and your vagina married, brings on. Well, everything except the bump.

The fact that you still look quite pregnant for a couples of weeks after you give birth is something I failed to understand before I had a baby. Shortly before my due date I sent my sister links for non-maternity dresses I could wear to the bris, wondering if I should get a small or medium. If I could time-travel my way back to that Gchat, I would write rows and rows of “hahaha’s” just so we got the point. (I wrote more about the perils of dressing during and after pregnancy here.)

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Royal Baby, Royal Motherhood?

By Jennifer Lipman

Getty Images
Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge and Prince William, Duke of Cambridge with their newborn son.

He’s not yet two days old, only weighs 3.8 kg and doesn’t even have a name. Yet Baby Cambridge, third in line to the throne and pronounced beautiful by his doctor, is currently occupying the world’s attention. Kate, it seems, has done her job.

Throughout British royal history, the existence of the heir and the spare has been of the utmost importance. Queen Victoria may have presided over the industrial revolution, but she was also celebrated for being a mother of nine. Henry VIII divorced and beheaded two wives and divided the church all because he wanted a wife to give birth to a son. As the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I’s failure to marry and procreate plunged the political classes into crisis mode.

But whereas once the lack of an obvious heir put the country’s future stability at risk, that’s hardly the case today. The Queen is head of state, but her duties are ceremonial; uncertainty about the next monarch would not send the markets into a spasm. Theoretically, had William chosen to stay celibate, it wouldn’t have mattered (except to legions of wannabe-princesses): The royal line would have gone in another direction, but the U.K. would have been just fine. But that’s only in theory. We all know that had Kate not done what every pundit and gossip magazine had demanded since the first slice of wedding cake was snaffled — had a child, stat — she would have been seized on as a failure, not quite guilty of treason, but not far short.

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The Real Problem with Baby Wigs

By Elissa Strauss

Thinkstock
Would you put a wig on your baby?

Now, why would a parent put her baby girl in a wig? Besides wanting me to laugh at her, that is.

According to the manufacturers of “Baby Bangs,” it is to allow your baby girl to have “a beautifully realistic hairstyle in a snap.” For $25 you can buy a customized hair extension attached to a bedazzled headband “arranged in the cutest most adorable elfish coiffure!”

And according to Callie Beusman over at Jezebel, it is due to the gradual erosion of the age limit for exposing little girls to “daft and absurd gender policing.”

So the princess dogma is starting at such a young age that a newborn’s natural (downy-headed) state is somehow undesirable? Is the window of time during which a woman’s physical appearance isn’t subjected to constant scrutiny and held up to strict standards going to narrow so much that all fetuses will need beautiful virtual makeovers (if so, I’m really adept at them so you can email me on my work account for the hook-up)?

Thankfully, “Baby Bangs” have, as the more clear-headed among us would hope, taken a lot of heat. There seem to be enough good people out there in America right now that agree that our babies don’t require such enhancements to be beautiful.

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For Siblings, How Close Is Too Close?

By Danielle Leshaw

Danielle Leshaw
The writer’s seven-year-old daughter, Ruthie, and 10-year-old son, Zev.

Two weeks ago, The New York Times Motherlode blog featured an essay I wrote in anticipation of my children attending overnight summer camp for the first time. Zev and Ruthie, ages 10 and seven respectively, leave this week for Camp Kimama, near Netanya, Israel — and they’ll be sleeping in separate spaces for the first time.

As always with blog posts, there’s a host of fascinating comments. Some are incredibly supportive and acknowledge the remarkable relationship our children have with one another: “I think it’s an awesome sibling bond your kids have!” one reader wrote in the comments section.

Early on, my husband and I intentionally strived to create a connection of love and strength between brother and sister. And we’ve succeeded, using a variety of methods, mostly of the attachment sibling variety — from tandem breastfeeding to having them share a sibling bed. Bedtime rituals are common in our house, from the sh’ma to simple expressions of gratitude and love. I consider this one of my greatest accomplishments as a parent. My son and daughter are each other’s greatest advocates. They are each other’s most hilarious audience. And of course, they annoy one another and cut deep like nobody else can. But they love being together and simply wanted to share camp in every possible way. As one commenter stated in the clearest of terms: “I think there is nothing wrong with that.”

However, some sentiments expressed in the comments section made me want to jump off the nearest bridge or strangle the commenter.

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Breaking: Fathers Want to Father

By Elissa Strauss

Thinkstock

On Monday, the New York Times ran a now heavily criticized story about working moms whose lean-in fantasies involve baking cookies and softball games instead of professional achievements. The article mostly focused on one woman, Sara Uttech, an agricultural association executive who is more interested in flexible scheduling and sick leave than promotions.

For mothers like Uttech, “the ultimate luxury for some of them, in fact (though not for Ms. Uttech), would be the option to be a stay-at-home mother. ‘I never miss a baseball game,’ said Ms. Uttech, uttering a statement that is a fantasy for millions of working mothers (and fathers) nationwide.” Unfortunately, fathers remained, literally and figuratively, parenthetical throughout the piece, leaving readers with the old-fashioned notion that, when it comes to the house and kids, mom is on her own. When fathers are left out of the work/life conversation it sends the message that it shouldn’t be their concern.

Thankfully, some dads have begun to speak up about this on their own, and what they are saying sounds a lot different than what the Times was saying with all those parentheses. Believe or not, fathers actually want to father.

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Curing My iPhone Addiction

By Nina Badzin

Nina Badzin
Nina Badzin reads with her children.

This is the third post in a Sisterhood series by Nina Badzin on gadgets, family and work.

As I reported last month, I’ve made some progress in cutting my iPhone time in half. I started charging my phone in the kitchen instead of my bedroom, which eliminated any phone use in the early morning and during the last moments of the night. (And by “moments” I mean an hour, which is true for many late-night smartphone abusers.) I increased my iPhone-free time on Shabbat and stopped placing my phone on the table when I’m out with friends or family at restaurants and coffee shops.

Progress! Right? From the way I brag about my new habits you would think an awards reception was in order. Unfortunately, my progress has stalled since implementing the aforementioned measures. While I have not backtracked on the changes I made, what’s happening is something I like to call The Spanx Effect.

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