Cross-country skiing in a skirt / Courtesy of youcandoitinaskirt.wordpress.com
As someone who identifies as an Orthodox feminist but still (mostly) follows the dictates of tznius, or modesty, I often find myself feeling marginalized. Among the women who dress the way I do, I am judged for my progressive views; among those with views more like mine, I am judged for the way I dress.
Consequently, when someone in an Orthodox feminist forum linked to the website You Can Do It In A Skirt, I was one of its few supporters. “Anything you can do, I can do it in a skirt,” the site’s tagline proclaims. It features photos of skirt wearing Orthodox girls and women doing physical activities that most would do in pants: riding a horse, swimming, cartwheeling, running a marathon, hanging upside down on monkey bars, and jet skiing.
Although other Jewish feminists on the Internet (or on that particular forum, at least) seem to be unimpressed with this website and its accompanying message, I think You Can Do It In A Skirt is important. It debunks the myths that Orthodox women are coerced into wearing skirts, and that their garb prevents them from living life to the fullest.
Noga and her boyfriend
When I imagined my wedding day as an Israeli Jew, I envisioned choosing one of the alternatives to the Orthodox process. It would be a non-religious or a Reform ceremony, in which my partner and I would be treated as equal, a ceremony in I could express my love, and not stand as an empty, smiling vassal. To my disappointment, I recently learned that my partner does not share this wedding-day vision of mine.
Not long ago, we attended a wedding, and during the ceremony, I spelled out my dream to him. Then, in what turned out to be a part discussion/part argument, he told me he was not willing to skip the traditional Jewish Orthodox wedding. I explained the humiliation I feel just by thinking about all the processes I would have to go through as a Jewish woman. He said he was sorry I feel this way, but that he must put his foot down: tradition is important to him, and he was raised to respect it. The thought of this matter threatening to break us up sometime in the future was unsettling, but I just couldn’t see myself choosing his path.
America’s Got Talent
Dear Tina Orlian (Former Sword-Swallower),
I would like to begin my letter by thanking you for allowing your son, Josh Orlian, to entertain us on America’s Got Talent the other night.
As every good Jew, I watched your 12-year-old son, whom your family has embraced as Naughty Josh in these cute Instagram photos, shock the judges and audience with lewd jokes about the size of his penis and his parent’s sex lives.
One of the better lines came when Josh related that he came back from circus camp and asked to learn the trick of sword swallowing, which you immediately dismissed. “So I was upset and went to talk to my dad about this. He said ‘I’m not surprised; your mother has not been interested in sword swallowing since we got engaged.”’
I watched you calm his nerves before the show, assuring him that tatty and mommy will laugh, even if no else does. I watched you shep Yiddish nachas while sitting in the audience, and gloat when the four naughty judges voted him through to Vegas, where I am sure he will perform more brilliant vulgar jokes related to his man parts and his parents’ sex lives. I particularly enjoyed your second blurb before he went onstage, in which you said that your little schmekel has never done anything public before, but you always laugh at his jokes, because, you know, you’re his mother.
Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles in ‘10 Things I Hate About You’
I would be remiss if I let 2014 whoosh by without pausing to commemorate the 15th anniversaries of three of the most seminal coming-of-age stories of our time. I’m referring, of course, to “She’s All That,” “10 Things I Hate About You,” and “Never Been Kissed”: the trifecta of teen movies from 1999, a banner year for helping to perpetuate the misinformed fantasies of hormonal adolescent girls throughout the world.
I had forgotten about this momentous anniversary until my friend Frimet Goldberger, who regularly illuminates what it’s like to find your way in the world after an insular Hasidic upbringing, wrote about her regret at never getting to attend a prom, “that quintessentially American rite of passage.”
Two weeks ago, the rabbis of Lakewood, N.J. called a gathering of female educators to provide words of encouragement in the area of — what else — tznius, or modesty.
Among the many dire tznius issues discussed, the rabbis suggested that women cut their wigs shorter to make them less provocative to — whom else — men.
“When you get out of the mikveh, you should put on make-up and lotion for your husband,” the kallah teacher instructed. “He will be waiting for you.”
This was my last “kallah lesson,” two weeks before my wedding, and my kallah teacher was finally talking about sex — or at least a watered-down version of it.
Every engaged-to-be-married Orthodox girl attends kallah (Hebrew for bride) lessons before her wedding to learn about the Jewish laws of Taharat HaMishpacha — family purity. The Torah forbids intimacy between a husband and wife during, and a short time after, the woman’s menstrual cycle. A woman who is menstruating is called a niddah, which literally means separated, referring to the separation between husband and wife.
After waiting for a period of five to seven days for the menstrual cycle to end, the woman is required to keep another seven “clean days” in which she checks herself daily to ascertain her cleanliness. After the seven clean days, the woman can go to the mikveh, the ritual bath, and resume sexual relations with her husband.
Thinkstock // One Orthodox Rabbi has strongly condemned Zumba classes.
In recent years, a slew of savvy Orthodox rabbis have taken to condemning women for everything they do. Their brilliant speeches can be found on YouTube and other websites, and have made their rounds on social media. The topics of their impassioned speeches run the gamut: from life challenges to laziness to Zumba to healthy dating — most of which include, at some points, women and their inherently provocative nature.
One such famous rabbi — let’s call him the Zumba Rabbi — is Rabbi Zecharia Wallerstein, the founder of Ohr Naava, a Torah center for women and girls, ostensibly for those who are at risk. Rabbi Wallerstein, a true tzadik bestowed with unparalleled wisdom by God, uses his pulpit, err stripper’s pole, to preach to women about sexism and racism, condoning both.
Orthodox Jews often make poor decisions when talking about sex with young people, particularly regarding discussing (or not discussing) nocturnal emissions and masturbation with boys.
I recently attended a question and answer session at an Orthodox institution in which a rabbi was asked how and when, if at all, a Jewish father should talk to his sons about those two subjects. Before he could answer, a rebbetzin warned “There are children here!” (The youngest person in the room was two months shy of his bar mitzvah. I can think of no person who needs such information more urgently than a 12-year-old boy.) Then the rabbi said he didn’t know and would probably ask his own rabbi when his children grew older.
Sheitels, or wigs for Orthodox women, come in different colors and styles to match women’s preferences — they are short and neat, long and wavy, matronly and sexy. Maintaining the freshness and vibrancy of a sheitel requires a skilled sheitel makher, a wig stylist. It’s a demanding job that calls for loads of patience, talented hands and a predilection for chatting about everything — from the weather to the people you know who are currently pregnant — all while standing over someone’s head. It’s also demanding because women want to look their finest even when they cover their hair or shorn heads. The color, length and quality are all important factors in ordering a sheitel, and the sheitel makher plays a central role in this decision-making process.
I never seriously considered becoming Orthodox. I like shrimp too much and Florida is way too hot for wigs. But I was tempted twenty years ago by one phone conversation. The Orthodox woman who coordinated the chevra kadisha (burial society) I participated in was calling to request my assistance at a taharah, ritual preparation of a body. Obviously, these events cannot be scheduled in advance. Often, frantic calls such as this one are placed to recruit volunteers at the last minute.
“Can you come now? We really need you.”
“I’m sorry, but I can’t,” I said. “My husband is out-of-town and I have no one to babysit my daughter.”
A long period of silence followed. Struggling to understand my response, she said, “You don’t know anyone?”
My predicament was so unfathomable to her, she must have assumed I was lying.
“Really? No one?”
“No,” I admitted sadly.
There is a rumor going around that Orthodox feminists are just Conservative Jews in disguise, or perhaps in denial.
I’ve heard this idea in many settings. I was at a dinner last year honoring Jewish feminists when a woman at my table — a Conservative rabbi and prolific writer whom I greatly admire — reproached me. “Why do all you Orthodox feminists think that what you’re doing is so amazing?” she demanded. “The women in the Conservative movement have been fighting these battles for 40 years. You are just barely catching up.” Last month, my dear friend Hillary Gordon echoed similar sentiments in a blog post she wrote about my recent book event in Jerusalem. “Why can’t the Orthodox recognize that other women have come before them and fought the same fight?” she asks. “Why is it that because it was done by Conservative or Reform Jewish women it is not legitimate according to the Orthodox?” Almost the exact same line appeared a couple of weeks ago in the comment section of Frimet Goldberger’s blog post about Orthodox feminists. Frimet dared to write that Conservative Judaism is not an option for her, to which a commenter replied, “Do I detect some judgementalism in those words?? ….Is there a suggestion here that the Conservative observance of Shabbat is less ‘full’ or somewhat deficient from the more authentic Orthodox one??”
Editor’s Note: This article is a response to Avital Chizhik’s article which called for Orthodox feminism to seek to open the minds of women, not just to emulate the ritual practice of men.
(Ha’aretz) — Dear Ms. Chizhik,
I - a high-school student - write to you from a community in which your proposals for “real empowerment” have already been implemented.
In the Modern Orthodox day schools I have attended all my life, I have been “educated for the sake of education and not simply vocation.” I have been “taught to hold [myself] with dignity and confidence, encouraged to speak and build and succeed, entrusted with the best of secular knowledge, history, literature, sciences, politics.” I am a religious woman who “speaks proper English and Hebrew, and identifie[s] as [a] citizen of a greater society.” I have, because of my education, become “tolerant and unafraid of the outside,” and I “turn to the world with an unwavering confidence in [my] own faith and strength.”
A few months ago, I was at the Kotel with my family. When I was leaving the site, a woman stopped me. She grabbed one of the knotted white fringes dangling from under my shirt and, in Hebrew, exclaimed “Tzitzit!? But this is forbidden!” No, I told her, it is permitted according to all major codes of Jewish law. “Forbidden!” she insisted. I again told her that it was permissible. Still visibly upset, she exclaimed “But you’re a girl!” “Yes, I know,” I responded with a calm smile. “I know.”
Despite having worn my tzitzit for almost six months now, I’m still a little bit surprised when people stare at me. After almost six months, I’m used to the fringes, and seeing them against my jeans seems natural. However, what to me has begun to feel like simply an extension of who I am — a religiously-observant, seventeen-year-old Jewish feminist — is also a political statement. I am one of the relatively small number of women who considers herself commanded in this mitzvah, because I believe in both the obligatory nature of Jewish law and its inherent egalitarianism.
Editor’s note: This post is the third in a three part series answering the question, “How should Jewish feminism change in 2014 to be more effective?” Read the first post here and the second post here.
It’s no secret that women have a hard time supporting one another. Sure, we’ll bring each other lasagnas and casseroles when we’re sick, and we’ll give each other warm hugs as we listen to one another kvetch. But real support, the kind where we stand behind one another and say, “This woman is my leader; I trust in her vision, and I am willing to follow her,” well, not so much. As Facebook Chief Operating Officer and “Lean In” author Sheryl Sandberg has pointed out, when women are successful, we all tend to attribute their success to luck or to pluck rather than to intelligence and worthiness. The more women have ambition and vision, the less they are considered likable, by women and men alike. When a woman does well, she tends to hear things like, “You must be lucky,” or, “You’re obviously persistent,” as opposed to, say, “You’re a skilled, intelligent visionary.” We tend to be more comfortable with women as soft, submissive and servile than we are with women of power.
According to the BBC, a quiet revolution is taking place among ultra-Orthodox women in Jerusalem. They have discovered the power of mascara.
There are, of course, numerous strict restrictions on these women when it comes to their appearance. They must wear modest clothes — no elbows, no collar bones — cover their heads, and many even cut off their hair. And yet, whether it is pressure from the secular world to look a certain kind of pretty or some deep-rooted desire in women to beautify oneself, they are heading to the beauty salon.
No, your eyes aren’t deceiving you. Up there amid all the sports stars, movie actors and underwear models, those are the faces of Jewish Orthodox feminists gazing down at you from a billboard in Times Square on Wednesday.
For one day only, the countenances of five individuals who have advanced the cause of Orthodox feminism will be flashed on a screen above the entrance to the W hotel on the southwest corner of 47th St. and Broadway. The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance is behind the spectacle.
“JOFA is proud to be able to mark the important achievements of Orthodox feminism in this quintessentially New York way,” said JOFA executive director Elana Maryles Sztokman. “If you’ve made it to Times Square, you know that you’re doing something important.”
Timing will be key to seeing the billboard, as it will flash only once per hour at exactly 20 minutes past the hour on November 13. JOFA supporters will convene near the TKTS steps in Times Square at noon to look up at the billboard en masse and celebrate the achievements of the figures portrayed.
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
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 — comprised of essays from writers and submissions from readers — will appear on The Sisterhood blog this week. This is the third post in that series. —Abigail Jones
Many of the essays in this moving series about Jewish women and mourning are about exclusion. I have a story about inclusion.
It begins in early February 2005. Just two weeks earlier, our family had celebrated the bar mitzvah of my nephew, the youngest grandchild on that side of my family. My parents were both quite ill by then, but still with us, and our small tribe of relatives gathered close in the way that lingers inside for sometime afterward.
Which is why the call from my cousin was so jarring. I can’t recall the exact words, only the horrifying message: R. was dead.
Over the next week, the Forward will be collecting impressions and recollections from women about their role in Jewish mourning rituals. To share your story, click here.
Catching a glimpse of your rabbi discreetly sneaking out of the room as you begin a eulogy for your grandfather is a little disconcerting.
Two months ago, I lost my first grandparent, my maternal grandfather. We were very close.
As preparations for the funeral began, my mother asked me if I would say a few words at ceremony. I had been expecting this; I’m the oldest grandchild, and the one most easily able to write a speech on deadline (occupational hazard).
Then my mom called again. The rabbi officiating the funeral — an Orthodox Sephardi rabbi in Montreal — was against me speaking. Or rather, he felt uncomfortable with a woman speaking in public.
My initial reaction, I’m a little ashamed to say, was relief. I hate public speaking. My knees get wobbly, my voice cracks, and chills take over. It’s something that I have actively strived to avoid doing for as long as I can remember. But as the words sunk in and my stomach lurched, I knew I would always regret not speaking at my grandfather’s funeral.
I asked my mom to find a way.
Everything comes easier for me when I have a bit of intellectual stimulation, and exercise is no exception. Recently, as I pushed through another grueling post-baby workout, my trainer, sensing that I was in desperate need of distraction, told me something interesting. An Orthodox Jewish woman had recently complained to her that some of the women in her shul were purposely dressing frumpier and frumpier. This woman claimed that she and some of her friends were discouraged by the new trajectory of modesty that likely stems from increasing efforts to shield the seductive female body from the penetrating male gaze. (Yes, I said penetrating.)
Apparently modesty glasses haven’t yet made it to Los Angeles, and so women are taking long skirts, long-sleeved shirts, and high necklines to the next level of unfashionable. No longer is it good enough to wear modest clothing that fits. It would seem that modesty, according to this story, is also about looking as unattractive and sometimes even as slovenly as possible.
I wondered, could this be true?