Sisterhood Blog

3 Women on Top (and How They Got There)

By Martyna Starosta

Women On Top from Jewish Daily Forward on Vimeo.

“It was a shock to come into a prominent leadership position in the Jewish community and realize that the Jewish community was behind all of those other systems,” remembers Ruth Messinger who was named to lead American Jewish World Service in 1998.

I interviewed Messinger about gender equality in Jewish not-for-profits and contrasted her voice with the insights of two younger women who had just become CEOs this year: Naomi Adler who is heading the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, and Stosh Cotler, who was recently named head of the social justice organization Bend the Arc.

All three women believe the Jewish community is still lagging behind the general population when it comes to gender equality in the workplace, despite paying lip service to equal treatment.

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Keeping Orthodox Girls Dancing in Dark

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

(Haaretz) — It’s like homecoming weekend for Orthodox Jewish kids in Israel, minus the football game. The young members of the religious youth movement/scouting movement Bnei Akiva spend a full month preparing for what can only be described combination of a pep rally and a color war, culminating in a big ceremonial performance. It is called “Shabbat Irgun” – literally translated, that means “Organized Shabbat.”

The kids love the tradition. The parents – the ones that I know – have a love/hate relationship with it. (On one hand, the intense planning keeps their children engaged in wholesome activity and away from television and the computer; on the other, it can be demanding on the families of active movement members and distract kids from schoolwork.)

But this year, some parents have a bigger problem with the annual festivities: They are up in arms about an element of the big final show that has become traditional in some Bnei Akiva branches across the country – girls performing dances onstage in the dark with the use of ultraviolet light.

In these dances, the girls are dressed in all black – with parts of their body in white – feet, hands and face, creating an undeniably cool effect that makes their jazz and hip-hop moves visually interesting and dramatic. The black background makes it seem as if their white body parts are somehow floating in space.

The fun effect also, conveniently, completely hides the girls’ bodies, presumably making it possible for those who are so Orthodox that they wouldn’t dance in front of men to do so, allowing men – fathers – who wouldn’t allow themselves to watch teenage girls dance remain in the audience.

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The Bat Mitzvah Girl Who Made Kotel History

By Rita Kashner

Bat mitzvah girl Sasha Lutt reads from a tiny Torah scroll smuggled into the Kotel / Haaretz

I am sitting in front of my computer, talking via Skype with three women in Israel — Irina Lutt, her 12-year-old daughter Sasha, and Shira Pruce — who are kicking back after a day of school and work. Sasha made history at her bat mitzvah last week when she became the first female to read Torah at the Western Wall in 25 years. The fact that she’s a celebrity doesn’t seem to have registered with her. “You made the New York Times!” I tell her. She looks quizzically at her mother; she has never heard of the Times.

Shira, who is translating for us and trying to get Sasha to eat something, is director of public relations for Women of the Wall (WOW), the organization that has been fighting for a quarter century to secure the rights of women to pray at the Kotel. She and Irina know what a hard-won victory this bat mitzvah was for WOW and for the rights of women in Israel.

To begin with, they had to smuggle in a tiny Torah, because women have been aggressively and sometimes violently blocked from reading Torah at the Wall. Surrounded and sheltered by a circle of women, Sasha had to use a magnifying glass to read the text. She shrugs off my comment that this must have been tough. “I knew it really well,” she says.

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After Mikveh Scandal, Make Us Feel Clean Again

By Elyse Goldstein


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.

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We Are All (Fill in the Blank) Jews

By Leigh Shulman

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.

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So Many Ways To Segregate Women in Synagogue

By Esther Zandberg

The women’s section in Tel Aviv’s Heichal Yehuda Synagogue./Photo by Haaretz/Adva Naama Baram

(Haaretz) — Where are you for the High Holidays? If “you” refers to Orthodox Jewish men, then you get to pray in the main sanctuary, which you will enter through the main entrance. Once inside the sanctuary, you will be full participants in the service, able to see and hear all that goes on, spending the time with your sons and younger daughters.

Once your daughters reach the age of seven, they will go from “us” to “them,” a threat to your delicate souls. Then they will be ushered into the women’s section, where they will continue a centuries-old tradition of gender-based segregation, to put it in modern terms.

Women usually enter through a side entrance and find themselves in the less attractive section of the synagogue. At best, they may be on a separate level. At worst, they may be either pushed into a stifling corner or given an area that is open from every direction, such as a corridor, or a room that is occasionally used for storage. Once inside the women’s section, you will be seated behind a divider, far away from the prayer service – the very reason you are here. In many cases, you will not be able to make eye contact with the congregation below or follow the service in your prayer book because you can hardly hear it from where you are sitting. Happy holidays.

Exemplars of segregation, exclusion

A photographic exhibition of women’s sections in dozens of synagogues in Israel and abroad by architect and photographer Adva Naama Baram, entitled “In the Women’s Section,” opened last Thursday for the High Holiday season at the Architect’s House Gallery in Jaffa. Baram photographed women’s sections of various types, sizes, locations and designs that are exemplars of the pattern of segregation and exclusion. The 27 photographs in the exhibition, whose curators are architects Rivka Gutman and Eran Tamir-Tawil, speak for themselves.

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Hasidic Rock Band Takes to Stage — No Men Allowed

By Gabe Friedman

Bulletproof Stockings // Facebook

It isn’t everyday that Arlene’s Grocery hosts a show for women only. But that’s what will happen Thursday night when the all-female Hasidic rock band Bulletproof Stockings takes the stage at the iconic Lower East Side venue.

The modesty prohibition of kol isha states that Hasidic women cannot sing in front of men. The group — led by Perl Wolfe, 27, and Dalia Shusterman, 40 – has had trouble booking gigs restricting male attendance in New York City after forming in Brooklyn a few years ago. The manager of Arlene’s Grocery was hard to convince at first, but she warmed up to the idea after seeing how devoted Wolfe and Shusterman were to gaining fans. They hit the streets to promote the show and got signatures from women who promised to see them play.

“We did take a little bit of a risk on them,” the venue’s manager, Julia Darling, told the New York Post. So far there have been no complaints. The Post notes that Arlene’s male employees are exempt from the ban.

The band says their style is influenced by blues, jazz, rock, and even classical music. Wolfe’s piano playing is front and center.

Thursday’s show will be filmed by the Oxygen Network for their upcoming series “Living Different.”

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The Fight Against 'Immodesty Signs' in Beit Shemesh

By Nili Philipp

Nili Philipp (third from right) and other residents outside the Beit Shemesh court house / Courtesy of Nili Philipp

Beit Shemesh has featured prominently in the news over the past several years as a hot spot for violations against women and girls, from the Orot school scandal to several highly publicized assaults against women, to routine harassment of women in the city’s streets.

But June 16 marked a new phase in the struggle for gender equality in Beit Shemesh, three years after I was attacked by a Haredi man who threw a rock that hit me in the head as I cycled along a main thoroughfare, and two years after a mob of Haredi men attacked Vered Daniel, who was holding her infant in her arms at the time, alleging that she wasn’t dressed sufficiently modest, which prompted three other religious women and myself, all residents of Beit Shemesh, to demand that the city address the increasingly frightening attacks against women and girls.

With the help of our lawyer, Orly Erez Likhovsky from the Israel Religious Action Center, we sued the Beit Shemesh municipality for 100,000 shekel (29,200 US dollar) after they repeatedly ignored our pleas to remove the large and imposing illegal signs that harass and threaten women in public areas of the city. The signs loom over main commercial centers and are signed by the local leading Haredi rabbis, ‘requesting’ that women dress modestly. The signs also define modest dress: long sleeves, long skirts, high necklines, no pants, nothing tight. Other signs instruct women to avoid walking or lingering on certain sidewalks, public city sidewalks that were built and maintained with taxpayers money. Not coincidentally, in these very same areas where the illegal signs hang, women deemed insufficiently modest have been habitually harassed, threatened and attacked, lending strength to the thesis that one law violation abates another.

We had several reasons for requesting that the city remove the signs. First, the signs are illegal and intimidating. Their harassing message is an invasion of privacy and freedom. Second, they promote an atmosphere of anarchy by blatantly violating the rules of the State with the tacit approval of the municipality. Third, we wanted a clear public statement that violations of women’s rights wouldn’t be tolerated.

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Secrets of the Sheitel Stylists

By Frimet Goldberger

Gneshe Bron of Wigs by Gneshe / Martyna Starosta

On the Wednesday evening before Passover, Gneshe Bron sent out the last freshly washed and styled sheitel from her salon, Wigs by Gneshe. She swept the tan linoleum floor clean of hair, washed the styling table and chair and plopped down on the black leather couch to breathe a sigh of relief.

“There is nothing like the feeling of sending out that last wig and closing shop for Pesach,” she said.

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Sexy for Soldiers

By Sarah Seltzer

Facebook

When I read the story of Israeli women sending sexy photos off the to IDF to wish them luck and boost morale, my reaction was more of a bemused shake of the head than anything akin to the outrage, confusion, and energy-draining sorrow I’ve been experiencing while reading a lot of recent war-related stories.

The same can be said for my response to the tale of the observant women in New York who are campaigning for an Israeli victory by holding a modesty contest at home, convinced that immodesty brings bad events to brethren abroad. Good luck covering those elbows for your cause, ladies. As Talia Lavin writes, her tone laced with irony, “The way to “help our brothers in their time of need,” apparently, is to suppress every inch of skin their sisters possess.” She even suggests an Iron Dome over women’s flesh.

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The Male-Led Campaign To End Female Stereotyping in Hollywood

By Emily Shire

Robert Shepyer

The supportive girlfriend. The doting mother. The devoted daughter. These simplified roles are too often the only options for women trying to catch a break in Hollywood.

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When Women Bully Other Women

By Elissa Strauss

Thinkstock

The road to the corner office isn’t an easy one for a woman. There is the glass ceiling to break, and then the maternal wall to mount and then, if you get that far, there are glass cliffs to avoid. Oh my!

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Where Are the Women Leaders in Wartime?

By Elana Sztokman

Gender democracy activist Anat Thon-Ashkenazy holds a 1325 pin in support of the UN resolution to bring women leaders into negotiations.

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them,” Albert Einstein famously quipped. Yet, when it comes to the current crisis in Israel and Gaza, the same minds that created the problems seem to be the ones charged with resolving them. And those minds almost exclusively belong to men.

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Can a Maxi Skirt Bridge Cultural Divide?

By Elissa Strauss

Mushky Notik (left) and Mimi Hecht (right) created Mimu Maxi

Together, sisters-in-law Mimi Hecht and Mushky Notik run Mimu Maxi, a fashion label the creates clothes that are both modest and chic. The women, members of the Crown Heights Hasidic community, came up with idea for the company when struggling to find something stylish to wear for themselves.

Since opening two years ago, the business has found a customer based in not just other tznius women, but also Muslims and Christians who are looking for a more fashionable way to live a traditional lifestyle. Everything was moving smoothly until last week when a collaboration involving a lime-green maxi-skirt with a hijab-wearing Muslim style-blogger ignited a firestorm on their Facebook page. The Sisterhood’s Elissa Strauss spoke to Hecht about what happened and how fashion can be a great uniter during a time when many feel more divided than ever.

Elissa Strauss: Okay, first tell me a little bit about what you do.

Mimi Hecht: Mushky and I started designing two summers ago when, instead of bemoaning the trials and tribulations of trying to find modest, trendy pieces, we took matters into our own hands. We share a very similar aesthetic for oversized, comfortable menswear and pieces that are easy to “live in.” We don’t have an ideal customer — we just love seeing how so many women of so many backgrounds have embraced what we’re doing. If there was a “favorite” customer, it would be the ones that tell us “I started dressing modestly because of you, thank you for making it easier!”

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Why Women Are the New Gatekeepers of Modesty

By Frimet Goldberger

Getty Images // Ultra-Orthodox women in Israel

Who are the gatekeepers of the conservative religious ideal of tznius, or modesty? This question has been argued and parsed on social media and on blogs in recent years as radicalism in the ultra-Orthodox communities has taken on new and more visible forms.

A common misperception is that rabbis and male community leaders are fueling the radical surge. But are Haredi women indeed victims of a patriarchal culture that puts extreme and outsized emphasis on tznius? Are Hasidic and Yeshivish women merely oppressed by fanatical males fervently trying to control their flock of subservient women?

Yes and no.

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On Jewish Women and Facial Hair

By Chanel Dubofsky

Thinkstock

The first time I thought about facial hair was in high school, when a boy, whom I considered a friend, informed me that I had more hair on my upper lip than he did. I didn’t do anything about it then — it had been enough of a fight with my mother to let me shave my legs, and even when I was allowed to, going above the knee was still always out of the question.

When I mentioned this to my friend Julia, whose family is Sicilian, she told me that her mother wouldn’t let her do anything about her facial hair, either. (She was once referred to as “Chia Pet” by the boys in her middle school.) “The people from the hairiest cultures don’t want you to shave,” she said, shaking her head.

By college, I had become a tyrant about getting rid of mine. I burned the hair on my chin with a chemical in an attempt to eradicate it and it had left a weird scab. At a gynecologist appointment at Student Health Services, my doctor said, “If someone’s hurting you, you can tell me.”

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Mothering My Jewish Mother

By Sarah Seltzer

Sarah Seltzer

Last week, a few days before Mother’s Day (and my mom’s birthday, which always falls at the same time of year), I stood on the street near Morningside Park in Upper Manhattan with my mother, venting and kibbitzing. I was on my way home from work, she had biked up to say hi. I was cranky, she was eager to see her daughter. It had been a warm day but a breeze was beginning to blow in, and she looked at me. “Let’s keep walking,” she said. “You’re getting cold.” “I’m fine,” I replied. “Mom you’re getting cold! Just say it!”

“Fine,” she said. “But it would make me feel better if you zipped up your sweatshirt.”

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Why Women Are Gaga for Hillary

By Elissa Strauss

There’s been a sea change in the way the public feels about Hillary Clinton since her run for president in 2008. Back then we had respect for Clinton and knew she is competent and trustworthy, but we didn’t deem her worthy of the same giddy excitement as her then-competitor President Obama.

Now, six years later, we are gaga for her. We LO-OVE Hillary. The Daily Beast has a story about Hillary super-fans, women who cover their cars or bodies with her face or spend their days tracking her every move on their blogs. They might be more expressive than others, but the nearly $6 million already raised by the “Ready for Hillary” Super PAC suggests they are not alone.

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Let's Talk About Incarcerated Women on Passover

By Sarah Seltzer

Thinkstock

During Passover it’s our obligation to think about all the people who are in chains who should be free — whether they are Jewish or not. Today, as I sit at my desk longing to munch on anything but another matzo sandwich (how oppressed my taste buds are!), I’m thinking not just about frightening instances of anti-Semitism at home and abroad, but also about two innocent women who are unfairly caught up in America’s frightening, ballooning criminal justice system. I would like to see more Jewish groups, energized by the Passover message, engage with our terrifying “prison-industrial complex,” particularly the way that system targets marginalized groups.

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Why HBO's 'Doll and Em' Deserves To Be Renewed

By Elissa Strauss

A recognizable portrayal of mid-30s to early 40-something women on TV is a rare thing. When we do see women of this age they tend to have incredibly intense jobs like “Scandal’s” Olivia Pope or “Homeland’s” Carrie Mathison or they are, well, a character on “Sex and the City.”

This is what makes the new HBO series “Doll & Em,” which just concluded its first and possibly last season, such a rare treat. The show is about a pair of friends who see middle-age around the corner and try their best to figure out what that means for themselves as individuals and as best friends. There are no terrorists or presidential scandals or even rows upon rows of suitors to choose from, just the regular horrors of coming to terms with your life decisions and the feeling of not youngness that particularly afflicts women around this time.

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