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.
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.
We all expect makeup to do exactly what it promises, right? A woman in Monsey, N.Y., has filed a lawsuit in federal court against cosmetics giant Lancome saying that its “24-hour foundation” doesn’t last for 24 hours, which she needs to make it in full makeup through Shabbat.
Rorie Weisberg is charging, in her lawsuit, that Teint Idole Ultra 24H, a pricey purportedly pore-perfecting product, doesn’t live up to its promise. And she needs it to last through Shabbat so she can look her best at her son’s June bar mitzvah, the lawsuit states.
Now this is a lady who does her homework; her son’s bar mitzvah isn’t until next month and already she has done trial runs of her makeup. And for the fastidiously frum there are specific rules about wearing makeup on Shabbat. There are several companies that manufacture makeup specifically formulated to allow observant women to look fabulous without contravening Jewish law. Shaindy Kelman started one of them, ShainDee Cosmetics, — whose tag line is “look beautiful and follow halacha” — two decades ago.
Sexual dysfunctions within relationships are more common than ever today, with an estimated 40% of women and 30% of men suffering from sexual dysfunctions, according to a new study from the Robert Wood Johnson Medical school. Many women experience pain during intercourse, which could relate to conditions like vaginismus, dyspareunia, and vulvodynia, while common male sexual dysfunctions include premature ejaculation, erectile dysfunction and other disorders related to anxiety.
In many Orthodox circles, the essence of a couple’s life revolves around having children. Sexual dysfunctions within a relationship could hurt, and possible even cede, the reproductive aspects. Couples seeking counseling might shy away from the subject, a topic not necessarily widely addressed, and with the laws of family purity weighing in, the pressures seem to tack on.
Rabbi Daniel Schonbuch, a marital and family therapist from Brooklyn who specializes in Orthodox couples, has just released a new book, “Getting Closer,” which offers a glimpse of sexual dysfunction issues — from painful intercourse to erectile dysfunction to desire disorders — within the Orthodox community. He discusses marital intimacy using an approach called Emotionally Focused Therapy to help Orthodox couples through difficulties in intimacy, which can be the underlying issue of much of marital stress. The Sisterhood spoke with him about his new book and some of the unique issues the Orthodox community faces.
According to YourJewishNews.com, Kiryas Joel’s Satmar Hasidic community has built on 283 acres on the city’s outskirts a playground that completely separates boys from girls. More accurately, the space is divided into four areas: one for fathers with their sons; one for mothers with their daughters; one for boys, and one for girls. The sections are located a considerable distance apart from one another. There are also separate walking trails for males and females.
Kiryas Joel Mayor Rabbi Abraham Wieder approved special funding for the playground, and the Committee of Modesty of Kiryas Joel, overseen by the Grand Rebbe, Rabbi Aharon Teitelbaum, is strictly supervising its operation.
The Sisterhood has covered Haredi exclusion of women from the Israeli public sphere for some time now. When it comes to the removal of women’s images from public view, we’ve seen the disappearance of women from advertisements; the photoshopping of female leaders like former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton out of news photos; the blurring of women’s and girls’ faces on memorial notices and even the erasing of a pair of women’s shoes from an innocuous photo of a family’s shoe drawer.
But now this practice has reached a high — or, rather low — point with the blurring out of the face of a woman in a Holocaust-era photo. Ynet reported that the Haredi newspaper “Bakehillah” (In the community) censored the face of Matilda Goldfinger, the woman who appears to the left of the little boy wearing a yellow star with his hands raised in the iconic photo documenting the final liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto in May 1943, following the Jewish uprising there that began on the first night of Passover that year. Goldfinger’s daughter Henka (Hannah) was killed moments after the photograph was taken.
My story about the crushing pressures ultra-Orthodox women face to raise large families touched a raw nerve. The story went live on the Forward’s web site on Monday, March 11. By that night, I was sorting through an avalanche of emails from people within and out of the community, from those who sympathized, and those who were enraged.
My words seemed to evoke a strong, visceral reaction. By Tuesday morning, there was an online response written by Rachel Freier, a Hasidic mother and practicing lawyer.
The article was a sincere but formulaic repeat of the worldview I’d grown up in, the very one that led to the nightmare I found myself in as a young, Orthodox mother. Rachel explains that orthodox women feel that it is the greatest blessing to have many children; it is our joy, our purpose, our legacy. She said Orthodox women celebrate this decision, and do not want the kind of life led by secular women, one invested only in her career and profession, something that does not bring true happiness.
I agree. I never wanted a career. I never desired a profession, nor thought it would bring me happiness.
I am not a lawyer. I am a stay-at-home mother of three children. I write my articles starting 9 pm, after my children are fast asleep. But I still do not want a large family.
Within the regimented mindset of the ultra-Orthodox world, there is a neat and tidy summation of the outside world, one that is repeated like a mantra. That wholly inaccurate mantra is that all secular women pursue full time careers, eschew children like the plague, and in the end live lonely, empty lives regretting the happiness they could have had.
All the while, they stare in envy at ultra-Orthodox women and their 57 grandchildren.
The thing about youth web culture is that kids of every background will appropriate trends to fit their own lifestyles. It’s not so easy for fashion, music or even food. But a social media meme? It’ll tear across the Internet, equally amusing to young netizens regardless of gender, race or class. And if Internet access is allowed in the home, it will even find its way to the Orthodox.
Consider the animated GIF. It’s a retro image file type from way back in the early days of blogs — a low-resolution, quick burst of video. Though the technology was popular circa 1998, it’s making a comeback 15 years later. GIFs are usually used to comedic effect. The most popular sort is the “reaction GIF,” in which one posts a video snippet of a funny facial expression (usually a pop-culture reference) to convey an exaggerated form of one’s emotional response to news. The reaction GIF trend snowballed into a series of Tumblr “microblogs” that detail the joys, disappointments and idiosyncrasies of various youth sub-cultures and lifestyles: law school, fraternities, raves, summer camps and so on.
I generally find it hard to feel as if I am part of the same Jewish people as Satmar Hasidim. Living not far from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, I see them regularly yet it’s hard to imagine feeling more worlds apart.
At the mall I encounter young women — so young that in another life I would call them girls, but for the fact that they are married women wearing wigs with scarves or hats on top, and pushing infants in baby carriages. We shop side by side but their Yiddish chatter poses a shtetle wall too high for me to surmount.
When I see a teenage Satmar girl, often leading younger siblings or cousins, all of them demurely dressed in calf-length pleated skirts and sweaters over collared shirts, I occasionally need to quell an impulse to touch her arm and say “it’s not too late to leave!” since she isn’t yet married but will be, soon. I know it’s ridiculous; for all I know these girls think similar things about my daughters.