Journalist, blogger (and Sisterhood contributor) Dvora Meyers is out with her first book, a self-published collection of six essays titled, “Heresy on the High Beam: Confessions of an Unbalanced Jewess.” In the essays, Meyers, who was brought up Orthodox, examines her childhood and young adult years through the lens of her obsession with gymnastics — both as an athlete and a spectator.
Meyers shares with her readers her triumphs and hardships at the gym and at home in Brooklyn, where she was raised by her mother following her parents’ divorce. After undergoing back surgery for severe scoliosis, Meyers returned to gymnastics for a time. Eventually, however, as Meyers began to shed her religiously observant lifestyle, she also found a different physically demanding activity to love: break-dancing.
Meyers spoke with The Sisterhood about writing “Heresy on the High Beam,” what she learned from the process, and the role gymnastics still plays in her life.
Renee Ghert-Zand: At what point did you decide to write a memoir, using gymnastics as a lens to examine your life?
Dvora Meyers: It started off very innocently. I was starting grad school and I was trying to figure out what to write for my first workshop. It just struck me that at 23, I was as obsessed with gymnastics as I’d ever been. I didn’t do the sport anymore, and I wasn’t that good. But I started to have this sense that the strength and ferocity of this obsession could imply something deeper. My professor said to me, “You’ve got this whole Potok thing, but about gymnastics.”
I decided more recently that at some point I was going to have to look them over, finish them, fix it, put it out there in some form. A month or so before I turned 29, I decided I didn’t want to go into my 30s with this project anymore. I just wanted it out there and I could move on.
Yesterday on XOJane, my favorite site for a good ol’ fashioned hate-read, there’s a first person post from Chaya Kurtz, a Chassidishe married woman, who writes in the response to the waves of negative press the Orthodox community has received in the wake of the gathering of 40,000 ultra-Orthodox men at Citi Field this past Sunday in order to protest the internet. Most notably, women were not allowed to attend the rally and this fact has resulted in charges of misogyny directed at Orthodox Jews.
Chaya is here to tell us that it aint so. She’s a married, Orthodox woman with a degree in women’s studies (no less) from a large, liberal university. And she’s totally happy with her life, and would like to disabuse the masses about the perceived misogyny in Orthodox Judaism.
Some of the things that she insists on, I won’t quibble with. Yes, I certainly hope that ultra-Orthodox women find their husbands attractive and it’s unfair to suggest that they wouldn’t. I would never suggest that a hipster male is fundamentally unattractive just because I don’t find him appealing so on that point, Chaya, we definitely agree: Attraction is in the eye of the beholder.
But even within that section, there’s already a problem. She writes: “In the Jewish marriage contract, one of the conditions of marriage is that a husband is obligated to sexually satisfy his wife.” While this is all well and true, there’s a part she left out — that in that same contract, he acquires her, like she’s a possession. You see, women are a protected class within Orthodoxy. Yes, you have to treat them right, but they are still subordinate. Don’t believe me? Read the last six months of articles in the general press about agunot.
The strangest part of Monday night’s panel discussion of my new book, “The Men’s Section,” about partnership synagogues, or Orthodox congregations in which women play key roles in leading communal prayer, wasn’t that the four-person panel was made up of all men.
All-male panels are so common — to wit, I passed by a poster at Harvard this week announcing an economic conference with no female speakers at all — that Joanna Samuels of Advancing Women Professionals has been asking Jewish men to take a pledge not to sit on all-male panels. (Several of the men on my book panel said that they had taken the pledge and actually felt odd sitting on this all-male dais at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute.)
The really unusual part for me was that, although all the speakers are accomplished men with very impressive resumes and professional and communal achievements, their speeches had nothing to do with their expertise. Rather, they each talked about their feelings about partnership synagogues and the discussion centered on their own journeys in Jewish communal and religious life. In fact, Marc Baker, of Minyan Kol Rinah in Brookline, Mass. opened by saying, “I’m not used to talking about myself in this kind of forum.”
The men were used to talking about ideas; they were not used to talking about themselves.
Facebook is forbidden among Chabad teenage girls, as The Sisterhood told you — and as the Forward reports here. This reflects a blatant double standard, the report points out, because the movement has widely embraced technology to spread its message, but refuses to allow its own youth to use these tools.
But Chabad’s double standard in its relationship to secular society is only one part of the problem. It seems to me that the story of girls being forbidden from using Facebook and other internet tools is less about Chabad’s missionary stance and more about their view of women and girls. After all, it is only girls whose school is handing out $100 fines and having mothers’ monitor their computer use.
Moreover, the practice of banning girls from the computer largely revolves around one concept: modesty. The Facebook ban is just the latest in a long string of insidious practices in the Orthodox community — not just Chabad, to be sure — aimed at restricting women’s and girls’ freedom. These practices are promoted under the term tzniut, or “modesty,” but really are nothing more than classic misogyny.
Hasidim, and even more “garden variety” Orthodox Jews such as myself, are a people apart, and we will always seem strange against the backdrop of 21st century America. With all the press coverage over the last few weeks, I can’t even count how many of my classmates have asked me if I have any hair under my hat or if I shave it off. For the record, I keep it long. Still my answer doesn’t do much for the weirdness factor. But I guess we’ve been the weird ones for 4,000 years or so; it’s nothing new.
The portrait of Rav Ovadia Yosef’s family that hit the web this week was surprising not only because it is rare example of the rabbi without his characteristic dark glasses and long dress. Most surprising is his wife’s apparel: her hair, neck and collarbone are all exposed.
There has been some speculating as to why the rabbi “allowed” his wife to dress this way, some six decades ago when he was chief rabbi of Egypt. However, according to the Jewish Women’s Archives, Yosef has always had something of a mixed record on women’s issues from an Orthodox perspective. On the permissive side, he ruled that women should have a bat mitzvah ceremony, can be radio broadcasters and even wear pants under certain circumstances. On the restrictive side, he has also made some outrageous statements, especially on the hair-covering issue, having announced several years ago that women who wear hair-like wigs instead of scarves and hats will burn in hell — or at least in the world to come — along with their sheitels.
Still, I think that this mixed record is not as interesting as the evidence of historical evolution. It is clear that the way his wife covered her hair back then is considered unacceptable today by his family and followers. In other words, times have changed, as tends to happen.
This point that rules of body cover have gotten more restrictive over the years should sound obvious to most of the American Orthodox community. A browse through the photo archives of any Orthodox synagogue in America will undoubtedly reveal bare-headed rebbetzins — even in sleeveless tops and short skirts. The Young Israel congregation in which I grew up used to line the lobby hallway with such photos. Today the neighborhood is dominated by black hats and wigs.
The most surprising part of the story about Rav Aharon Bina’s alleged emotional abuse of his students at Netiv Aryeh comes from the reactions: It is astounding to see how many people apparently knew this has been going on but continue to sing his praises. This entire episode raises some difficult questions about what is really going on in the yeshiva world.
The Jewish Week article, written by Jewish media veteran Gary Rosenblatt in collaboration with courageous young Yeshiva University journalist Yedidya Gorsetman, catalogues a series of abusive behaviors that Bina allegedly carried out for decades against his students at Netiv Aryeh and before that at Yeshivat Hakotel. (Bina left Hakotel when he was fired by his successor — none other than Rabbi Motti Elon, who was recently indicted for indecent acts against his male students).
Bina reportedly yelled, mocked and systematically disparaged students — some students more than others — as part of his approach of psychological manipulation to gain obedience. Parents, students, and former students describe traumas incurred, and even violence at his hands, which in some cases turned the boys away from Judaism altogether.
Reading the comments on the story and blog posts about it this week, I have found that Bina’s defenders fall into one of two categories: those who deny that this happened, and those who knew but claim that it is part of Bina’s special “methodology” that is based on his love.
A Los Angeles-based filmmaker and acting teacher named Robin Garbose recent published this essay in Haaretz, explaining why she became Orthodox as an adult. In her piece, Garbose laments that with the current criticism of Haredi values like gender separation, “the baby is being thrown out with the dirty bathwater.”
Garbose writes about why she was attracted to Haredi life; her desire “to transcend this toxic cultural climate” in which images of women are digitally altered to become thinner, more “perfect,” in advertising of all sorts purveying products “in the hope of remedying our gross inadequacies.”
I had an opportunity to step into the mysterious and remote world of Haredi Jews. I appreciated that tzniut (Jewish laws of modesty) shifted focus from the body to the person, from objectifying and sexualizing women to valuing inner beauty. Though I didn’t own a long skirt, I saw these ancient concepts as a refreshingly counterculture expression of female dignity.
I don’t understand how Garbose can willfully ignore the plentiful evidence that the obsession with women’s external “modesty” is not about the dignity of women, but rather its perversion: the control of women in every possible form. It even included, not long ago, spray painting out the face of the “woman” on this poster of Adam Sandler dressed in drag for his latest movie.
Two warring factions, my head and heart, have tussled for decades over the inequality and hurt on the women’s side of the mechitzah. Always, if sometimes reluctantly, my heart wins, and I cling to the curtain folds of observant Judaism.
But events in Israel these last few months — segregated buses, ultra-Orthodox extremists jeering at little girls on their way to school, the soundproofing of the public sphere against women’s voices — have led to a tipping point. There is no more slack for me to cut.
I’m demoralized, and it’s gotten to the point where my husband has asked me, nicely, to refrain from any more tales of woe at the breakfast table. When I showed this easygoing son of Holocaust survivors the recent images of Haredi protesters dressed in concentration camp garb, a darkness rarely seen crossed his face.
In my despair, I’m not about to eat a cheeseburger; however, I am rapidly losing my appetite for identifying with Orthodoxy.
In 1997, Blu Greenberg chaired the first International Conference on Feminism & Orthodoxy. About 400 attendees were expected and more than 1,000 showed up, hungry for a community of other women committed to both traditional Jewish life and their own religious potential. The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, which was born of that first gathering and had Greenberg as its founding president, has run six more conferences and now claims some 5,000 members worldwide.
JOFA is honoring Greenberg, along with past president Carol Kaufman Newman and key funder Zelda Stern, at a dinner in New York City on November 20th. The Sisterhood spoke with Greenberg about what has changed for Orthodox Jewish women since JOFA began — and what hasn’t.
Debra Nussbaum Cohen: Of issues on JOFA’s agenda, where has there been the most change, and the least?
Jessica Cavanagh-Melhado and Melissa Scholten-Gutierrez are the authors of Redefining Rebbetzin.com, a blog featuring the perspectives and experiences of both women as they make the journey “from wives to rabbis’ wives.”
In the blog, they are confronting the stereotypes and expecations that come with the title of rebbetzins, and they write on a variety of Jewish subjects, especially issues surrounding feminism and women’s issues. Scholten-Gutierrez is a social worker, educator, writer, mentor and mikveh advocate. Cavanagh-Melhado is currently pursuing a double master’s in non-profit and public administration and Jewish studies at New York University.
Chanel Dubofsky: What concept of rebbetzin are you interested in exploring/dispelling?
Melissa: There is this old stereotype of a rebbetzin being a frumpy woman who stays at home, cooking with kids hanging from her skirt — and one look at our blog will tell you that that is far from who we are! A big part of what we’re exploring is how people view contemporary rebbetzins and contrast that with this Old World sterotype. I don’t think we could have dreamed it would be in the place it is not just a year and a half into it!
This year’s conference of Kolech, Israel’s Orthodox feminist forum, grappled with cutting-edge issues around homosexuality, the place of transgender women in Orthodoxy and the shared lifestyles of Muslim and Jewish religious women.
At the conference, which took place in Jerusalem earlier this month, the panel on homosexuality included an Israeli lesbian who was raised Orthodox, a woman who was born male into an Orthodox family and an Orthodox woman whose son is gay. Rabbi Dr. Haviva Ner David, who has written extensively about her family’s journey with her gay brother, said “I was pleasantly surprised to see that this session was included in the conference and was afraid because of its relatively radical nature that it would not be well attended. I was even more pleasantly surprised to see that the room was packed when I got there and that the audience was supportive, sympathetic, and respectful to the panelists.”
It seems that the community is working to put an end to issues that have been silenced in the past.
It’s not every day that a comic book heroine is an 11-year-old Orthodox Jewish girl. So when Rockerchick received the book “Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword” (2010, Amulet Books) as a birthday present, I took a look and was quickly entranced by the story of Mirka, a girl with a rebellious streak who lives in a place called Hereville.
Hereville, which the Forward first wrote about here, is also home to a bewitched giant pig and an evil troll (whom Mirka outsmarts with her Jewish-girl seichel). The setting exists somewhere between Anatevka and Boro Park. It is a place where families are close and siblings are irritating, where children sometimes encounter bullies on their way home from school, and where the tantalizing scent of baking challah lets everyone know that Shabbos is on its way.
The story is the creation of cartoonist Barry Deutsch, who lives in Portland, Ore., but is busy speaking at Jewish schools and comic shows across the country. He recently spoke with The Sisterhood about how a 41-year-old single, childless guy raised in a family in which ham was on the menu and synagogue was visited only on the High Holy Days, came to write about a young, frum heroine.
Eating disorders are famously misunderstood.
Earlier this week, The New York Times shed some light on them in an article detailing the high rates of these illnesses among American Orthodox Jews. The writer, Roni Caryn Rabin, reports on the various pressures Orthodox girls face, and looks at whether eating disorders might be the result of these pressures. She writes that, in some cases, those disorders seem to be symptoms of their desire to stave off menstruation to postpone marriage, the hope of losing weight with the ultimate goal of reaching the chuppah, or of their lack of time to develop a sense of self in a home filled with many siblings.
It’s the topic that the Forward has written extensively about in recent years.
While Rabin’s piece focuses on the American Orthodox community (though she doesn’t make completely clear whether she is referring to the Modern Orthodox community, the ultra-Orthodox community or Orthodoxy’s entire spectrum), the consequences of control, power, socialization and media impact everyone. Attempts to avoid acknowledging important psychological issues run rampant in most societies. In order to promote healing, the therapeutic approach must be holistic, and must not ignore the religious context.
Does Orthodoxy make women girly?
That is the essence, I believe, of Israeli religious feminist Chana Pinchasi’s argument in an opinion piece in Ynet. In lamenting the absence of religious women in positions of public leadership in Israel, Pinchasi asked, “Why don’t we have a Keren Neubach, Shelly Yachimovitch, or Ilana Dayan? Why isn’t there a religious woman with a clear, polished, elaborate and committed ideological voice at the center of the public discourse? I mean the voice of a woman who does not deny her femininity but also does not play with it, and for whom it is not obsequious. The type who is both a mother and professional and has a critical public voice that you may not agree with but you cannot help but respect.”
I have been wondering the same thing. Although, to be fair, judging by Ynet alone, Pinchasi herself has a strong voice, as do Rivka Lubitch and Chana Kehat and a few others. But it seems to me that religious women are socialized into putting ourselves last, into fitting into social expectations, into not being too loud or too disagreeable, and into not really breaking out of the rules too much.
When I was a student at Tel Aviv University, during my second year of college, I spent a number of Shabbatot and holidays with new friends — young women who had, like me, grown up in the States, and were now newly Orthodox — who were learning how to be religious at Neve Yerushalyaim yeshiva in Jerusalem’s Har Nof neighborhood.
I know how it feels to be attracted to the other side of Jewish life. I’ve always been fascinated by and attracted to deep religious experience and the meaning it brings to those who aren’t satisfied skating on the surface of life.
It seems that sex is on everyone’s minds this week. (“Just this week?” The cynic replied.) It’s not just on The Sisterhood that sexuality in Jewish life became a focus, but also elsewhere on the Jewish Web.
Asimon, “Israel’s Women’s Site,” for example, announced that in honor of “May is Masturbation Month,” they are holding a raffle to give away a free vibrator. Meanwhile, on Unpious.com, a rather funny post about financial pressures and family planning turned into a talkback debate about women’s sexual pleasure.
The recent Rabbinical Council of America decision to exclude women from the rabbinate brought to mind the 2004 film “Mekudeshet: Sentenced to Marriage,” a documentary about women stuck in the divorce process in Israel.
There is one particularly heart-wrenching scene that has been playing over in my mind recently. “Rachel,” a 30-something Orthodox mother of four who tried to get a divorce from her philandering husband for more than five years, had enough. “He is living with another woman!” she screamed at the apathetic judges, right before they kicked her out of the courtroom. “He has a new family, he has moved on with his life, and you cannot do anything to help me?” The court staff violently removed her, as she wailed down the hallway. “Stay away from this religion,” she cried. “This religion is terrible.”
Rachel, a radio producer for an ultra-Orthodox radio station, wearing an elegant sheitel and modern but appropriately Orthodox clothes, is smart, savvy and put together, calm under pressure and able to manage a powerful career and busy family as a single mother. In other words, she was perfectly ultra- Orthodox until that point. She, like other smart religious women, was betrayed by the system that she dedicated her life to. The rabbinate caused her to come undone. Rachel hasn’t just come undone, but she is done with Orthodoxy. In fact, all the women who were documented during the making of this film underwent the same transformation: they start out religious, and they end up walking away.
Women cannot be Orthodox rabbis. That much is clear in the resolution passed unanimously at the annual conference of the Rabbinical Council of America, held at the Young Israel of Scarsdale April 25-27. But that is all that’s clear in the resolution, which can be read in its entirety here.
On the one hand, the resolution applauds as a “significant achievement”:
The flowering of Torah study and teaching by God-fearing Orthodox women in recent decades.
On the other, it says that “due to our commitment to sacred continuity”:
[W]e cannot accept either the ordination of women or the recognition of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title.
The Rabbinical Council of America, the main umbrella group for centrist Orthodox rabbis, just released its position statements, which were adopted this week at its annual conference. Here’s what the RCA had to say about women’s spiritual and executive leadership within Orthodoxy:
The flowering of Torah study and teaching by God-fearing Orthodox women in recent decades stands as a significant achievement. The Rabbinical Council of America is gratified that our chaverim [members] have played a prominent role in facilitating these accomplishments.
We members of the Rabbinical Council of America see as our sacred and joyful duty the practice and transmission of Judaism in all of its extraordinary, multifaceted depth and richness — halakhah [Jewish law] hashkafah, tradition and historical memory.