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.
In Texas, turning progressive ideals into action can be an uphill battle, especially with a legislature that just last weekend voted to impose severe restrictions on women’s healthcare. Laws on the books here in our state include a 24-hour waiting period before terminating a pregnancy, requiring a sonogram or a trans-vaginal ultrasound to be performed. Last month, people across the country came together in solidarity with Texas as our State Senator Wendy Davis held a 13-hour filibuster to temporarily block SB 5, a new law that makes no exceptions for abortion in the case of rape or incest after 20 weeks, and lacks an adequate exception to protect a woman’s health, including upon detection of fetal abnormalities later on in pregnancy. Despite that effort, and amid public protests, the bill was renamed HB 2 and passed on Saturday, July 13, during a special session; Governor Rick Perry signed it into law the following Thursday. With the rest of country bearing witness to what some are calling the biggest victory for opponents of abortion in the past decade, activists in Texas are not giving up the fight and plan to challenge the bill’s constitutionality.
As co-chair of the NCJW Texas State Advocacy Policy Network, I work with other women across the state on issues that impact women, children and families. When it came to what was originally called SB 5, NCJW offered testimony to legislators during a hearing on June 21 and again on July 8, speaking out for women who have no voice — as it is our Jewish responsibility to speak out for them.
On Tuesday, June 25, the night of Senator Davis’ filibuster, members of the Jewish community and the Austin section of the National Council of Jewish Women bore witness to Senators Davis’ poise and endurance as she spoke out for us all. Her own personal story — a single parent struggling to make ends meet, the story of so many across Texas — explained how lives will be endangered under SB 5. Rural and poor women in Texas will have virtually no access to safe and legal abortions since excessive regulations for abortion clinics in SB 5 will in fact close all but five of them. Poor women — women without resources to make several trips to a distant clinic — may be forced to seek unsafe abortion options, with many of them perhaps losing their lives as a result.
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.
I have a few choice words for Susan A. Patton, the infamous “Princeton Mom,” but I fear my ugly language would cause her to clutch her pearls so tightly it might cut off the oxygen to her brain. Then again, maybe that’s what she needs to smarten up.
Earlier this year, Patton sparked outrage and, we can only assume, mortifyingly embarrassed her two sons when she wrote in the newspaper of her beloved (I cannot stress that word enough) alma mater the Daily Princetonian. Her essay, “Advice for the young women of Princeton: the daughters I never had,” had at its core one simple message: Ladies, grab a Princeton man (any fellow stumbling out of an eating club in a garish orange-and-black polo will do) and marry him! Quick! Marry him before you’re lost in a world of non-Princeton grads that will never fulfill you, neither intellectually nor romantically, and you die alone, yearning for Ivy League loving.
There are over 900 American athletes competing at the 19th Maccabiah Games currently taking place in Israel. Among them is swimmer Dr. Jane Katz, who broke a record before even getting in to the pool. Katz, 70, is competing in an amazing 14th consecutive Maccabiah Games. While many Jewish athletes have been coming to the “Jewish Olympics” for many years, only Katz can date her first appearance back to 1957.
Katz, who grew up on the Lower East Side and still lives in New York, was just 14 years old at her first Maccabiah Games. At that time, she could never have imagined that she’d still be at it 56 years later. She swam in the open competition as long as she could, and then she served as a coach or manager for four games. When Masters level competition (age 35 and up) was introduced in 1985, she got back in the water — where she has been ever since. At these games, she plans on swimming an ambitious 13 events over three days in the women’s 70-74 age group.
Katz has made a splash far beyond the Maccabiah movement. She has been teaching water fitness at City University of New York since 1964 and is a professor at John Jay College in the Department of Physical Education and Athletics. She is an American and world champion Masters swimmer and synchronized swimmer, and has received many awards and recognitions, including her induction to the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 2011.
She spoke with the Forward’s Renee Ghert-Zand, sharing her memories from her first Maccabiah Games and thoughts on how being part of the Maccabiah movement has influenced her life.
When the Oreo became kosher 15 years ago, the kosher-keeping world may have thought the milestone would be the climax of kosherization. As of yesterday, they would be wrong.
Trigg Labs, the vanilla-sounding brand behind Wet sexual wellness products, has apparently spent the last two years undergoing a koshering process, according to the Herald Online, and has now received official kosher certification. In other words, the United States finally has kosher “personal lubricants,” pushing any demands for kosher Skittles out of the spotlight. Under the supervision of the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC), almost all Wet products are now kosher certified — just don’t look for the kosher symbol on your bedside bottle of lube.
“We don’t put the symbol on the bottle,” explained Rabbi Yosef Caplan, Assistant Director of Kashrut Services at the RCC, in a phone call. “The product has a back-up letter.”
Now, why would a parent put her baby girl in a wig? Besides wanting me to laugh at her, that is.
According to the manufacturers of “Baby Bangs,” it is to allow your baby girl to have “a beautifully realistic hairstyle in a snap.” For $25 you can buy a customized hair extension attached to a bedazzled headband “arranged in the cutest most adorable elfish coiffure!”
And according to Callie Beusman over at Jezebel, it is due to the gradual erosion of the age limit for exposing little girls to “daft and absurd gender policing.”
So the princess dogma is starting at such a young age that a newborn’s natural (downy-headed) state is somehow undesirable? Is the window of time during which a woman’s physical appearance isn’t subjected to constant scrutiny and held up to strict standards going to narrow so much that all fetuses will need beautiful virtual makeovers (if so, I’m really adept at them so you can email me on my work account for the hook-up)?
Thankfully, “Baby Bangs” have, as the more clear-headed among us would hope, taken a lot of heat. There seem to be enough good people out there in America right now that agree that our babies don’t require such enhancements to be beautiful.
When I woke up last Monday morning, I ditched my cozy blankets and jumped out of bed before sunrise to join my fellow Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion students as we set out on a holy mission. Heading over to the Kotel for Rosh Hodesh with Women of the Wall, we knew we were striving for social justice — that we would chant our prayers and pray with all of our heart. That day, we would work toward liberating the Kotel once and for all.
This Rosh Hodesh Av, we joined women and men praying with tallitot, kippot and tefillin as we celebrated the beginning of a new month. I felt like I was floating on a hammock of happiness while being surrounded by my HUC classmates who share the same dream of becoming Reform rabbis, cantors and educators and improving the world through Judaism. As we begin our new journey toward becoming Jewish leaders, we think about the long journey Women of the Wall has taken, and how far we have come toward freedom of prayer.
As I proudly wrapped myself inside my white and blue tallit, without panicking over the possibility of being arrested, I remembered to appreciate the feeling of freedom and security that used to be missing in action from the Kotel. Passionate and persistent women like Anat Hoffman and Lesley Sachs suffered as they got detained, arrested and harassed repeatedly. Because of their dedication and perseverance, it is now possible for my classmates and me to lock away our fears and proudly wear tallitot.
I’ve already blogged here at the Sisterhood about my childhood proclivity for Disney Princesses. Perhaps it won’t surprise you, then, that I was also an unabashed doll player. Barbies, paper dolls, American Girl dolls, Madame Alexander. You name it; I played it. Guided by the imaginations of a few close friends sitting together on someone’s rug (and inspired by a handful of accessories), our dolls fought and got dressed. They escaped the Nazis, went on shopping sprees and struggled with poverty. They pined away in fairy-tale cottages. They worked at factories and organized for better conditions (I was a budding agitator) and battled evil and feuded over men and wore pink dresses to skate in the Olympics. I have to admit that I remain nostalgic for the hours upon hours we enjoyed of pure creativity and inventiveness and license to live in our heads.
As innocent as it all seems, and often was, dolls contribute to beauty norms that are as restrictive as kids’ imagination are free. Certainly, I can remember that an era came around when I started looking at myself in the mirror and realizing I didn’t look anything like my dolls, particularly those leggy, skinny, busty Barbies. I stopped growing taller around the time I stopped having the inventive capacity to sustain epic doll-playing sessions, after all. And with these twinned shuddering halts, my initiation into the more painful aspects of American womanhood began. Dustin Hoffman, in a video clip that’s gone viral, cried after auditioning for Tootsie, confounded by one day of being subjected to female beauty standards. Yet many of us have to live with them for a lifetime, and their effect on us begins before we even realize 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.”
In a story from the operating theater of the absurd, Israel’s Channel 2 news reported on July 8 that a woman was denied a scheduled D&C for a missed abortion because of an arcane aspect of halacha. The report is in Hebrew, but there is a related English language blog post in 972 Magazine.
According to the report, a woman in her second month of pregnancy was wheeled into an operating room at Assuta Hospital in north Tel Aviv for a procedure to remove the fetus which had died inside her, but which the woman had not naturally miscarried. Just as the procedure was about to begin, the OR director rushed in and announced that it could not proceed. The reason was that this particular operating room did not have an adjoining small room designed to prevent Cohanim (descendants of ancient Israelite priests) from becoming ritually impure through contact with the dead. Apparently, abortions and D&C procedures must be performed only in operating rooms with an adjoining room that supposedly captures the soul of the dead fetus and prevents it from exiting to the hospital corridor and possibly contaminating a Cohen.
The article was accompanied by a photo of the sign affixed to the doors of all the operating rooms “kosher” for such procedures. It says, “In this place, the doors are equipped with a system to prevent ritual impurity of Cohanim. When the light above the door is on, do not open the door. Please wait patiently until the light has been turned off.”
The woman was told she would have to come back the next day for a rescheduled procedure in one of the sanctioned operating rooms.
Two weeks ago, The New York Times Motherlode blog featured an essay I wrote in anticipation of my children attending overnight summer camp for the first time. Zev and Ruthie, ages 10 and seven respectively, leave this week for Camp Kimama, near Netanya, Israel — and they’ll be sleeping in separate spaces for the first time.
As always with blog posts, there’s a host of fascinating comments. Some are incredibly supportive and acknowledge the remarkable relationship our children have with one another: “I think it’s an awesome sibling bond your kids have!” one reader wrote in the comments section.
Early on, my husband and I intentionally strived to create a connection of love and strength between brother and sister. And we’ve succeeded, using a variety of methods, mostly of the attachment sibling variety — from tandem breastfeeding to having them share a sibling bed. Bedtime rituals are common in our house, from the sh’ma to simple expressions of gratitude and love. I consider this one of my greatest accomplishments as a parent. My son and daughter are each other’s greatest advocates. They are each other’s most hilarious audience. And of course, they annoy one another and cut deep like nobody else can. But they love being together and simply wanted to share camp in every possible way. As one commenter stated in the clearest of terms: “I think there is nothing wrong with that.”
However, some sentiments expressed in the comments section made me want to jump off the nearest bridge or strangle the commenter.
On Monday, the New York Times ran a now heavily criticized story about working moms whose lean-in fantasies involve baking cookies and softball games instead of professional achievements. The article mostly focused on one woman, Sara Uttech, an agricultural association executive who is more interested in flexible scheduling and sick leave than promotions.
For mothers like Uttech, “the ultimate luxury for some of them, in fact (though not for Ms. Uttech), would be the option to be a stay-at-home mother. ‘I never miss a baseball game,’ said Ms. Uttech, uttering a statement that is a fantasy for millions of working mothers (and fathers) nationwide.” Unfortunately, fathers remained, literally and figuratively, parenthetical throughout the piece, leaving readers with the old-fashioned notion that, when it comes to the house and kids, mom is on her own. When fathers are left out of the work/life conversation it sends the message that it shouldn’t be their concern.
Thankfully, some dads have begun to speak up about this on their own, and what they are saying sounds a lot different than what the Times was saying with all those parentheses. Believe or not, fathers actually want to father.
Sisterhood contributor Elissa Strauss wrote this week about how overjoyed and moved she was by Friday Night Lights character Tami Taylor — well, at least actress Connie Britton’s — return to the scene to boost Planned Parenthood in Texas after the Wendy Davis filibuster.
I, too, have obsessed and enthused about Tami (and Britton) for years. The moment, in that television series, when Tami stands up to the anti-abortion forces in her town and loses her job as a result is one of the most tragic and triumphant plot arcs in television history. For Elissa and myself, and many other young pro-choice TV fans, Tami — a flawed character, but a brave one — is a talisman of sorts.
All the talk of Davis and Britton reminds me that it’s important for a movement to have heroines, both real and fictional. It’s a given that heroines and leadership can be complicated. Because feminism is egalitarian in spirit (at least theoretically), we frown upon the way the media elevates some activists over others. In particular, the outside world tends to choose the slim, blonde, white cisgender ladies as spokespeople for a diverse movement in which most of us are really thinking for ourselves, not as one. That is a serious problem. And then those of us who are tempted to fall into a pattern of adulation for specific leaders lose our ability to be self-determined in our advocacy (i.e. “if Gloria Steinem says it, it must be right!”)
On a quest to explore the age-old Jewish tradition of finding a “nice Jewish boy” or “nice Jewish girl,” I recently wrote about my own partnership for the Sisterhood, as well as the experiences of a few single Jewish friends. But I wanted to understand, more deeply, how being with a Jewish partner — which feels so innate to me — is not an indigenous need for others.
What is it like when two parts of one partnership grow up in two different households with two different understandings of god or gods or neither? How do couples create one household with space for this plethora of ways in which to interpret both the tangible and intangible? To answer these questions, I turned my attention to interfaith couples.
Andrew and Jennifer Walen, of Baltimore, Md., are committed to building community, both within their relationship and beyond. Andrew, Founder and psychotherapist at The Body Image Therapy Center, grew up in a reform Jewish family where religion was generally tossed to the side as something to be chuckled at. Meanwhile, Jennifer, who works in development at the Baltimore Community Foundation, was raised a Southern Baptist in Texas. Her church mentors taught her to think, which ironically prepared her to embrace the diverse world into which she was flung as both an undergraduate in Boston and a graduate student in Nashville, where she studied religion and the Hebrew bible — and ultimately met Andrew.
“I got really weirded out,” Andrew said about the first time he learned Jennifer was Christian. He had dated other non-Jewish girls in Nashville who broke up with him because he was “Jewish and going to hell.”
Growing up, two things were clear: I had to go to an Ivy League school and I should marry a “nice Jewish boy.” My partner of four years is a nice Jewish boy from Long Island; he is my longest and most serious relationship. Before Jonathan, my foremost relationships lasted three months each. The first was with my best guy friend from growing up (not Jewish) whom I was dating at my Bat Mitzvah. The second was during my sophomore year of college; he was three years older, Jewish and an assistant coach for my college’s men’s tennis team.
To me, finding a nice Jewish boy was crucial to finding a lifelong partner. All but one of my longest crushes and infatuations were Jewish. When I daydreamed about twentieth dates, and creating a home, and standing under the Chuppah, I could never envision anything realistic with a non-Jew. Whether this was based on my parents’ urgings or my own innate desire, is still unclear.
The “What Would You Do if You Weren’t Afraid?” Tumblr is the latest project from Lean In, the global community born out of Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg’s book of the same title. The blog is inspired by studies showing that although women are graduating college with higher GPAs than their male peers, they are avoiding leadership roles and report being afraid to speak up. In response, the Lean In team asked women in and around New York City to tell them what they would do if they weren’t afraid.
So far, many of the answers are about work. Women report that they would “use their voices more in the workplace” and “ask for more money.” They would also quit their jobs and pursue more creative lives. They’d use the word “artist” and “writer” to describe themselves. Another trend are women who say that if they were not afraid they would live alone, travel alone and even leave the house alone at night. Others would call themselves feminists and speak undeterred about their political beliefs.
If you haven’t already, it’s worth taking a stroll through the blog; it is troubling and illuminating, and says a lot about the priorities of a capitalist society. A job, for example, should look a particular way: 9 to 5, at the very least; in an office; with a certain dress code; in a corporate culture (even for non profits), and with a salary at a certain level. It’s hard to take the leap that comes with living outside of this paradigm — it often means being without steady income and health insurance, as well as pushing back against assumptions about productivity and legitimacy.
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.
After years of cajoling, protesting, advocating and pleading from women’s health advocates, Plan B, the most commonly-used brand of emergency contraception, has been released from legal limbo. Hopefully this morning after pill will now be able to spend the rest of its days in the friendlier, more accessible haven of the pharmacy shelf rather than behind the counter.
This victory only came after Edward Korman, a Reagan-appointed judge, slammed the Obama administration for stonewalling and politicizing the issue after the FDA’s recommendation that the pill be available to women regardless of ability to furnish proof of age. The administration, loath to appeal the ruling further and alienate its base, caved.
I’ve been following the story here at the Sisterhood, continually baffled that a supposedly pro-science administration would embrace the conservative position on an issue of reproductive health. Should we credit this moment to the Obama administration finally seeing the light or, more cynically, should we note that the administration has done the right thing the very week they are under fire for the NSA snooping scandal?
Esther Goldberger’s fashion philosophy sounds almost sexy: “We should enjoy our clothes to the point we forget we’re wearing them.”
But designs for Dellasuza, her three-month-old Montreal clothing label, take a less sultry approach. An Orthodox convert from Brazil, Goldberger creates clothing that fits specifications for tzniut, or modesty — with what she calls a “trendy” twist.
“We value your femininity while maintaining your mystery,” Dellasuza’s Web site promises.
Tzniut standards can vary, but the most widely accepted rules mean covered arms, legs and torsos. “All women and girls, married or unmarried, must cover all parts of their main body (torso) plus parts of their arms and legs when in public or in the presence of individuals outside their immediate family,” writes Rabbi Pesach Eliyahu Falk in “Modesty: An Adornment for Life,” considered an authoritative treatise on the subject.
Goldberger’s entering a crowded category. Sites like Tznius.com, KosherCasual, ModestWorld, and Leelach hawk modest clothing that ranges from nouveau-Amish to neo-Jersey Shore. Dellasuza’s web site touts a range of simple, patterned shells and dresses from about $50. An unscientific survey of women at Forward HQ, however, deemed the designs “awful,” but Goldberger’s seeing orders from around the world.
With summer approaching, the Forward checked in with Goldberger about modesty, comfort, and style.