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?
When my friend recently circled her husband-to-be, blindfolded by an opaque laced cloth, her mother and mother-in-law each holding a candle in one hand with her dress train in the other, I had a moment like many I’ve had throughout my life: I wished I were more religious.
My near envy had nothing to do with her wedding, or the seven circles custom, as many Reform and secular Jews do this while approaching the Chuppah. It had to do with my ongoing adult struggle to have a more defined sense of who I am as a Jew and what it means to be Jewish — something I presumptuously assume Jews who abide fully by Halachic law must securely know.
My religiosity is a hybrid of Eastern philosophy and Kabbalistic spirituality. Its foundation was built by the suburban Chicago Reform household and synagogue in which I grew up. The walls are sprinkled with Conservative experiences I have had and witnessed, and the windows peer into glimpses of occasional Orthodox fantasies. Most days I feel comfortable with this amalgamation. Some days, I feel like I’m not doing “Jewish” right.
The first time I fantasized about being Orthodox was in high school. My confirmation class went on a field trip to a nearby Jewish day school. I don’t remember why we were there or what we were learning, but I will never forget looking to my left and seeing a girl with long brown hair and a long red dress covering her knees, long sleeves covering her arms. I remember thinking, I could do that, I could wear long sleeves and long hems and feel closer to God. I remember thinking that’s what being more religious would do — bring me closer to God.
There are many crises happening around the world right now — coups and civil wars, Spitzers and Weiners and what-have-you. But the real serious crisis involves the old Jewish maids crying their eyes dry because no nice Jewish boys will marry them.
The yeshivish Orthodox world has been embroiled in the so-called “shidduch crisis” for years now. This crisis involves a complicated math of too many bachelorettes for too few bachelors. Traditionally, 20-something boys marry 19-something girls, which leaves 20-something girls with no options but to grow old and give up on their dreams of diapering babies and baking challah. Or, as some ardent male critics argue, the crisis stems from girls being “too picky” when it comes to choosing a mate, while young boys would tap anything.
A recent YouTube video produced by NASI, the North American Shidduch Initiative, suggests that young boys can and should marry older girls — even if the girl is four months his senior, or, God-forbid, one year and three months older (what a crisis!).
The three young yeshivish men in glossy lips and giddy smiles talk about their own reservations about the age difference — we are talking one to two year gaps, not the shidduch crisis of 40-year-old Yitzchak marrying 3-year-old Rivka. But, as two of these three men excitedly demonstrate, listening to the matchmaker paid off and they now have little wiggly toes to show for it.
Most women would do or pay anything to be that beautiful blonde in the bar, the one getting attention from all the men. And most women probably would not understand being blonde and voluntarily giving it up — covering up the blonde hair with a headscarf, voluntarily shedding the sexy outfit in favor of a long skirt and long sleeves, and wiping off all the makeup. But at least one woman, Lauren Shields of Atlanta, recently did just that.
“A lot of men approach me and start random conversations about nothing,” Shields told the Sisterhood in a recent phone interview. “Generally they’re trying to get my phone number, and that’s nice and everything, but I don’t actually want that kind of attention anymore.”
Shields, a film-editor-turned-seminary graduate, did not, at the age of 29, suddenly become a Haredi Jew or a religious Muslim. She didn’t turn Quaker or fall ill. She didn’t decide it was her responsibility as a woman to decrease men’s attraction to her by covering more skin. She was simply tired of feeling the need to dress a certain way, as dictated by society, fellow working women and her own rigorous standards.
“I had started to feel like the way I looked was not as much up to me as I would like,” Shields said. “I was starting to feel like it was a requirement to have a trendy haircut, to make sure that if I showed my arms or legs, they had to be super toned. If I showed my feet, they had to have nail polish on them. It started to feel like it wasn’t me anymore, it was me trying to look like everyone else.”
When people ask what kind of a Jew I am, I tend to answer, “just Jewish.” It’s easier than explaining the Refoconservadox-style of Judaism I practice, and by that I mean that I pray in Conservative synagogue, keep what some would call eco-kosher (which does not abide by any halachic standard for kashrut) and wear pants and tank tops as often as I wear skirts that cover my knees. I’ve often described my way of moving within the different denominations of Judaism as wrapping myself in the traditions that speak the most to me, which is interesting when contemplating how, when and why I wrap my hair.
Whenever I think of the similarities between Jewish women and black women, hair is always high on my list. Like many black women, I relaxed mine for years. Seven years ago I stopped chemically straightening it, allowing it to grow in its natural coiling, zig-zagging state. I love my hair — most of the time — and when I don’t, I wrap it in a scarf.
Wrapping my hair is less about covering it and more about putting something on my head as a physical reminder of greater spiritual power. I don’t think my hair is particularly sexual or that it’s a private thing between my partner and me, but I’m admittedly intrigued by the religious significance of married women covering their hair. Something about wearing a scarf paired with a long skirt just makes me feel more Jewish.
Rachel Garfinkle, 29, an ultra-Orthodox stay-at-home mom in Cleveland, Ohio, was married to her husband Michael in 2003. Her cousin, who also happened to be Michael’s best friend, set them up. As the norm goes in her community, they were married after five dates.
Since then, Garfinkle has looked for opportunities to make matches for others whenever she can. In the past, parents would flock to traditional ‘Yenta the Matchmaker’ types — who knew little about the single in question — to set up their daughters and sons. But now, people like Garfinkle have made a lucrative side business out of finding dates for their friends and family.
As Jewish Orthodox diaspora communities become more modernized, Garfinkle says a new era of the shidduch, a term for the matchmaking process, has emerged. Now many parents eager to find a mate for their children are seeking help from the young people in their social circles. Their knowledge of the young man or woman can offer a more personal touch to finding a potential suitor.
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.