Photo by Nir Keidar/Haaretz
(Haaretz) — When I first heard about Rabbi Barry Freundel’s arrest on grounds of voyeurism, I was upset, but not horrified. If the allegations are true, I thought, we have a case of a sick man who couldn’t control his sexual urges. Sad. Especially since he carries a title that would make us expect he should know better.
But then I heard how he allegedly carried out his crime: Placing hidden video cameras in the mikveh, the ritual bath, to watch his female conversion candidates practicing their nude immersions. Horrifying! I cried when I heard this. The ultimate abuse of male rabbinic power, yet an unsurprising symptom of a patriarchal system that sexualizes and objectifies women in so many ways. A prime example is the exclusively “women’s mikveh”, where all know that women are going to immerse in the nude to purify themselves for sex, but where men make the rules.
Twenty-three years ago, I was a creative writing student living in Washington, D.C. and took a part-time job running one of the (if not the) first mikveh located in a Conservative synagogue, Adas Israel. It was the only mikveh in Washington, D.C. Yet Freundel told his congregants not to come to our mikveh, but rather to travel to Silver Spring, Maryland, to a mikveh that was located in an Orthodox synagogue there. This too was upsetting but not horrifying. An expression of Orthodox Jewish distrust of and disrespect for anyone not Orthodox, especially liberal Jewish rabbis and institutions.
But Freundel always wanted his own mikveh, which is probably one reason he did not want to acknowledge that there was a perfectly kosher mikveh already existing in Washington, D.C. A few years ago I heard that his dream had come true; there was now an Orthodox mikveh in D.C., and he was its rabbi.
We know that sexual predators are not created overnight but rather develop patterns over time. If the accusations about Freundel are true, I wonder if even back then he was plotting this extreme abuse of his rabbinic power and fantasizing about the women’s bodies he would have access to once he had his very own women’s mikveh.
It’s time for Simchat Torah, but I don’t feel much like dancing. A promise I made long ago has been broken.
In the summer of 1986, I wrote what many consider the first piece about non-Orthodox women using the mikvah. Published in Lilith Magazine, in “Take Back the Waters” I proposed a feminist re-appropriation of mikvah and all its symbolism. I suggested that the mikvah no longer be considered the domain only of married women; its rationale not only to make us “kosher” for resumed sex with our husbands but to mark important moments in our female lives: first menstruation, menopause, lactation. After that article I started taking women to the mikvah for all sorts of experiences: after chemotherapy, after marital infidelity, after rape. I went before my ordination and again after shloshim for my sister. I wrote other articles and suggested many times that mikvah be considered “spiritual therapy.” I found myself on panels with psychologists speaking about how helpful mikvah could be for these non-traditional uses.
In effect, I promised women that the patriarchy which controlled our bodies and the mikvah itself could be overturned with our good feminist intentions.
This week proved me wrong.
Rabbi Barry Freundel, a once-highly respected Orthodox rabbi, is accused of peeping at women through hidden cameras in the mikvah. Much has been said and written already about all this.
Let me add my voice in this direction: we must continue to see this travesty not as an isolated incident but as a result of a system which continues to both sexualize and desexualize women concurrently, and all within the name of Jewish law.
Courtesy Leigh Shulman
I was recently e-mailing with a woman I know and told her how I planned to take a couple days off for Rosh Hashanah. I haven’t been to synagogue in years, but I do mark the holiday by spending time with family.
“You’re Jewish?” she asked surprised, immediately mentioning the ultra-Orthodox crowd in Brooklyn who screamed at her for wearing shorts in their neighborhood. “Then you’re one of the only Jews I’ve ever liked.”
She’s not the first to say this to me, and I’m sure she won’t be the last. Yet every time, it signals the end of a friendship. When I hear people say that they don’t like [fill in the blank] Jews, it makes me very uncomfortable. In part because I cannot serve as a representative of all Jews. But even more so, because I have to wonder where they draw the line between the Jews they like and the ones they don’t like.
I grew up Orthodox and spent a year in an ultra-Orthodox community in Israel where I lived a with people from different sects of Hasidism. There are many reasons I’m not observant anymore, not least of which the limitations, segregation and misogyny you’ll find in many of those communities.
So, yes, I understand why people often look at Orthodox communities with distaste. They’ve had stones thrown at them or people shout at them for transgressing an observance about which they knew nothing.
Still, I always say that how those people choose to observe, treat women and talk to other people is not a function of Judaism. It is instead the reactions of individuals making specific choices and then using “god wants” as an excuse to act like shitty human beings.
Candy Schulman outside her childhood home in Brooklyn // Courtesy of Steve Schulman
My temple I went to as a child looked exactly the same: a modest, two-story red brick building facing a fenced-in concrete schoolyard. The same Jewish star on second floor, encasing a menorah. Often when we return to our childhood memories, everything looks smaller than we’d remembered. My temple hadn’t changed, even though I had.
It was my annual nostalgic excursion back to Brooklyn — not the hipster Brooklyn I no longer recognized, not the Williamsburg where I accompanied Grandma Regina to visit her Hasidic relatives. It was the other Brooklyn, at the end of the subway line near Coney Island. My old neighborhood wasn’t classy enough for an official name, like nearby Gravesend. “It’s between Brighton Beach and Sheepshead Bay,” I’d say. My street jutted landmarks like Shore Parkway and Suicide Hill.
Singer Neil Sedacka grew up down the block. My next-door neighbors were concentration camp survivors; I tried to avoid staring at the numbers tattooed on their arms. My father was a first generation American who attended Cooper Union for free, became an engineer, and later left the field because of anti-Semitism. He was the son of a widow in Oceanhill Brownsville, an immigrant from Prussia who spoke six languages, earning money by cleaning houses and knitting sweaters.
At Shuly Wigs in Boro Park, Brooklyn / Martyna Starosta
The sole purpose of Taxonomy of the Sheitel was to inform you, dear perplexed reader, of the various Orthodox wigs and what each signifies. The intention was not to opine on the reasoning behind wigs and its relevance today.
However, as was expressed in the vibrant comments section of the article, readers wished to know more about the history of wigs: whether or not women wore wigs in biblical times (not to be confused with Talmudic times), and why it is common practice among pious women to cover their own hair with someone else’s natural-looking hair. Doesn’t it defeat the entire perceived premise of the Halacha, modesty? What about the issue of misogyny, the feminist asks? Isn’t it a form of patriarchal control to demand that a woman cover her hair, and what more, because this sensual part of her body is to be kept for her husband’s eyes only? And do all Orthodox and/or Hasidic women shave their heads and don a wig?
The short answers are: There is no evidence that women wore wigs during biblical times. The Halacha is not completely clear on the reasoning, outside of stating that hair on a married woman is considered nakedness and therefore, naturally, needs to be covered up. While debatable and indeed the subject of much controversy, we feel that a woman cannot be considered controlled unless she herself feels she is being controlled. And no, most Orthodox women do not shave their heads; only a select few Hasidic sects, like Satmar and Skver, require married women to shave their heads. Even then, many women covertly grow their own hair, defying their community standards and risking expulsion.
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.