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March 16, 2018 by

This Week’s Parsha Lays the Groundwork for Post-Patriarchy

moon-182145_1920I learned about the menstrual cycle at the age of nine in the same class as a discussion on the structure of the Israelite camp in the desert. Since then, I’ve been acutely aware that the changing feminine form is not one to be proud of. There’s hiding your changing body at puberty, concealing your growing form during pregnancy, and of course, endless days of avoiding comments from coworkers about how your work ethic, emotional needs or eating habits might align with your monthly cycle.

“She must be on that time of the month,” a statement made about countless women in workplaces everywhere, sometimes in sympathy, more often than not in derision. From an ancient culture that revealed the human, female form and its ability to produce and give life through its changing cycle, we’ve become a mechanized society that requires women to perform and produce, every day of the month, with identical output day to day.

Recent shifting views and research suggests that the varying hormones of the menstrual cycle may actually prove to be beneficial to the various functions required of today’s working woman. There’s the time of month when we feel more creative, more nurturing, more independent or more productive. There’s a time to go inward and reflect; a time to step forward with power and precision; and a time to build our nest and get organized. While the industrial revolution and its impact on our workplaces means we’re often discredited for being too emotional, the fact is that these ever-changing abilities to flow with the rhythms of life have been advantages for generations.

There’s another natural form that also ebbs and flows, waxes and wanes, just as we do as human menstruators. The moon has been a focal point in Jewish text and tradition for millennia.

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March 14, 2018 Shira Small

Why My High School Class Voted to Stop Reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Depictions of Women

EverythingIsIlluminatedI love reading Jewish literature. Seeing my culture and experience come to life on the pages of a book can be meaningful and validating; it makes my idiosyncratic religious practices feel legitimate. The representation and recognition of Judaism in popular culture is crucial, but what do you do when the author gets it wrong? Or what if certain parts of your identity are illustrated perfectly while other facets aren’t done justice? I faced these quandaries when reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated this year in my English class.

Everything Is Illuminated has comfortably rested in my family’s bookshelf for many years, accompanied by other books my family read, enjoyed, then never touched again. I was excited when it was assigned in my “Immigrant Literature” class because I recognized the novel, and vaguely recalled watching the movie with my parents a few years back. Our copy was even signed by Foer, which I excitedly told my class. However, once we began reading, I noticed a peculiar and disturbing pattern: the female characters are repeatedly gratuitously objectified.

The book alternates between the present day, wherein a Jewish man, Jonathan, travels to Ukraine to explore the place his family lived pre-Holocaust, and a story set in the past, beginning in the 1700s, about Jonathan’s heritage and ancestors. One of these family members is a young girl named Brod, who grew up in Ukraine in the 1700s, and is Jonathan’s very-great grandmother.

It bothered me (and many of my classmates) that Brod, one of the only female protagonists of the book was often sexually harassed and assaulted, as well as excessively sexualized. We especially objected to the way that her character was sexualized even when it was completely nonessential to the plot. For example, in the moment when she discovers her father lying dead on the floor of her home, she randomly gets naked. Foer describes her pubic hair and her “cold, hard” nipples. She is 12 in this scene. When discussing chapters like these, we would get into in-class disagreements that felt personal and painful.

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March 13, 2018 by

What My Dislike of Book Clubs Taught Me About Feminism

reading-3088491_1920I’m not a book club kind of person. I love books, and I love clubs. I mean, I really love books. I read in the gym. I read in the bath (always have, as the history of sodden, fat books on my mother’s shelf attests). I read on my walk to work. I read at work. Sometimes I even read for work.

For some reason (who knows why?) book clubs just have not worked for me.

I’m lying. I know exactly why book clubs haven’t worked for me. It’s because I don’t work for book clubs.

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March 12, 2018 by

Sandinistas and the Upper West Side

Members of the Women's Network feed children in Tipitapa, Nicaragua. The Women's Network is run by Nicaraguan women and is aiming to become self-sustaining—and not rely on international donations.

Members of the Women’s Network provide meals for children in Tipitapa, Nicaragua. The Women’s Network is run by Nicaraguan women and aims to not rely on international donations.

For more than 30 years, social justice activist Donna Katzin has participated in a Sister City project that links Manhattan’s Upper West Side and Tipitapa, Nicaragua. The relationship has primarily involved raising money for programs that help impoverished children eat at least one nutritious meal per day. It’s a daunting undertaking, since between 25 and 30 percent of the country’s residents live on a daily income of less than two U.S. dollars.

Even more challenging, Katzin and Tipitapa Partners understand that Nicaragua’s feeding centers need to reduce their reliance on international largesse. This is why they are working with the newly formed Women’s Network/Red de Mujeres to establish a sustainable model that will feed and educate Nicaragua’s most vulnerable children into the foreseeable future.

Katzin, one of three volunteer co-chairs of Tipitapa Partners, spoke to Eleanor J. Bader from her office at Shared Interest, a New York City-based organization that helps small enterprises and emerging farms combat unemployment and poverty in Mozambique, South Africa, and Swaziland. She had just returned from a five-day trip to Tipitapa.

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March 8, 2018 by

May Her Memory Be For a Blessing: A Tribute to Cynthia Heimel

If you heard traces of a collective gasp a few days ago, it may have been related to the news that writer Cynthia Heimel had died. She was 70 years old—far below an age where her fans might have been prepared for this.

The cause of death was early-onset dementia. She had not published much at all in recent years; but she’d been prolific in the past, and it had seemed a reasonable hope that she’d just decided to turn her energies elsewhere, at least for a while.

I knew that I love Heimel’s work, and I knew that the women to whom I’ve given her books over the years (“This. You have to read this!”) love it too. But I didn’t know, until she died, how many fans she has among my acquaintances. Though she left the public eye, her trailblazing writing about everything from offices to orgasms remained and remains widely cherished. She was a humorist, and she was funny; but like the best wits, she was also profound.

An assignment to highlight some of the wisdom and advice from Heimel’s work brings with it a major problem: Her books are so absorbing that they’re hard to skim. Indeed, my friend Janet remembers poring over Heimel’s columns in the SoHo Weekly News (where she worked in the 1970s, before she became a regular columnist at The Village Voice) as someone might read Talmudic text. I’ve been wrapped up in Heimel’s writing for a few days now. So many of her insights were prescient; others were simply timeless.

Given the intimate and openhearted qualities of her work (her first book, 1983’s Sex Tips for Girls, cheerfully offers many actual, detailed, and honestly useful sex tips), Heimel came across as a very best friend; and she leaves behind masses of readers who feel personally bonded to her. I met her once, in the 1990s, and she was as amazing as I’d hoped; I only wish I’d gotten to hang with her a million times. “No human (or dog) is an island, we need each other desperately, we need to be needed desperately,” she wrote in an essay about the false equating of singlehood and loneliness. “But to listen to the propaganda, to pin all our hopes on husbands or wives and nuclear families, is self-defeating. To find love, give up searching. Just look right in front of you.” I hope she felt fully the truth of these words. We love you, Cynthia Heimel, and we always will.

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March 6, 2018 by

If You Liked “Mrs. Maisel,” You’ll Love “The Bible of Dirty Jokes”

514aylnfdNL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_In The Bible of Dirty Jokes, Eileen Pollack brings to life the vivid history of Borscht Belt comedy, Catskills resorts, and the notorious Jewish mob, Murder Inc. In a novel that reads like a cross between The Sopranos and a Sarah Silverman special, Pollack introduces us to the wisecracking, starry-eyed, endlessly generous and forgiving Ketzel Weinrach. On a reeling, roundabout hunt for her beloved brother, Potsie—gone missing in Las Vegas—she finds herself in ever stranger and more unnerving locations. Ketzel uncovers family secrets, buried bodies, and repressed memories; she also comes to see her failed comedy career and her deception-riddled marriage to the late Morty Tittelman, self-styled professor of dirty jokes and erotic folklore, in an entirely new way. Pollack talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about funny girls, both then and now.

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March 5, 2018 by

Why Sending Pizza to West Virginia’s Striking Teachers Is a Mitzvah

Teachers in San Francisco sent pizza to the picket lines West Virginia as a show of solidarity. Photo credit: Eric Blanc.

Teachers in San Francisco sent pizza to the picket lines to support the strike. Here, the moment when the food arrives. Photo credit: Eric Blanc.

Like most leftists and other concerned humans, I’ve been following the West Virginia teachers strike as closely as I can. Today marks the eighth day of their illegal strike—in West Virginia, public employees lack both the right to strike and to bargain collectively. But teachers and other public school workers went on strike anyway, because their pay ranks 48th in the country, and their health insurance premiums continue to increase. They’re promising to remain on strike until a law is passed guaranteeing them a 5% raise.

Like thousands of others, I donated to the strike fund, but it didn’t feel like this was enough—so I ordered pizza.

As a Jew, I emote with food. Bad breakup? Made it out of surgery? Had a baby? I’m on my way over with food. Whatever it is, there’s something about feeding someone that communicates everything you need to say—and, sometimes, the things you can’t say.

In my family—and I imagine, in many Jewish families just like mine—everything we do revolves around food, and most of my family memories are food-related. When I think of my bubby, I think of her in my childhood kitchen, chopping carrots with bandaged fingers; or in her apartment in Atlantic City, roasting chicken til the skin got crispy; in the morning, eating oranges, sliced into perfect, golden triangles; at lunch, tuna fish sandwiches with Jersey tomatoes.

When she saw me and my siblings, the first thing she’d ask is if we were hungry. And we were, always. And when we were done, she’d say, did you have enough to eat? My bubby wasn’t fancy, but everything she cooked tasted better than anything else. When we left, she hugged us tight and let us stuff our pockets with the candy reserved for her card games.

But feeding people is not just a kindness, it’s a mitzvah. For Jews, food is a celebration, yes, but it’s also obligatory. We’re commanded to feed ourselves and those around us—especially after the fulfillment of a ritual or an important life event. Sharing a meal celebrates our connectedness both to ourselves and to God.

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March 5, 2018 by

Post-Holiday Glee: My First Purim in Maine

Photo credit: Nina Lichtenstein.

Photo credit: Nina Lichtenstein.

Living in a place with a tiny Jewish community does not mean that celebrating holidays has any less ruach, or that the festivities are any less meaningful or in any way diminished—to the contrary! I can’t stop feeling cheerful—almost giddy—about how great my first Purim in Maine was, after recently having moved here from Connecticut. It had all the expected ingredients: Megillah reading, groggers, matanot l’evyonim (gift for the poor), hamantaschen, mishloah manot, and a festive seuda—but the different settings and all the new people I met made it feel like an exhilarating and familial discovery.

Since I moved here last summer, I have worn a tallit for the first time, had several aliyot, and felt deeply moved at a Kol Nidre service played by a cellist, while sitting next to my partner. This may not sound all that unusual, unless you’ve spent the last thirty years—the entire time since you became Jewish—in a modern orthodox shul, like me. But in all fairness to my old shul—which I consider my extended family—I should tell you that it was there that I learned how to chant the Megillah (for our annual women’s reading), and also where I have delivered several D’var Torahs over the years.

Moving to Maine has opened my eyes—and heart—to options of Jewish observance that I had not considered before.

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March 2, 2018 by

Women Need Power, Not Empowerment

Empower — to promote the self-actualization or influence of (Miriam-Webster)

If you’re living in the 21st century you must have heard about women’s empowerment. If you are a woman, you’ve probably been invited to an event or read an article on this topic. Those invitations or articles were probably full of superlatives like “personal development,” “elevation” and “work-life balance.” Empowerment is supposedly about women believing in themselves and building their confidence to advance their personal and professional goals.

What is women’s empowerment actually about?

Let’s start with the fact that ‘to empower’ is a transitive verb, meaning someone needs to empower you, it’s not really something you can do yourself.

Next, the hidden word in empowerment is of course, power. People who need empowering are those who feel powerless. When someone feels powerless, it is safe to assume that others in the situation have more power than them, or even power over them.

Regarding women, this is accurate.

Women are underrepresented in almost every political and financial institution, get paid less and are exposed to violence, harassment and discrimination — at work, on the street and at home.

Women have less power, let’s agree on that, and while empowerment may help women feel better, it’s deflecting from an important conversation. Rather than discuss why women lack power and what we can do to balance the power systems in our society, we get this fluff called women’s empowerment.

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March 1, 2018 by

Saying “No” and Saying “Yes”: Feminist Models of Change in the Book of Esther

Screen Shot 2018-03-01 at 11.45.07 AMThe last place most feminists would look for a map for transformation is the Bible. But open the Book of Esther, traditionally read by Jews on the carnivalesque holiday of Purim, and we find two contradictory models of social change.

The story turns on the unusual heroics of two women. Indeed, the overall narrative structure is characterized by twos: a hero and a villain: Mordechai and Haman; two queens: Vashti and Esther; and two words: a “no” and a “yes” (I could go on). Both women risk their lives. Vashti has the unimaginable courage to say “no,” refusing to enter the king’s chambers; Esther has the courage to say “yes,” daring to enter the king’s chambers unsummoned, ultimately saving her people by doing so.

The story begins with Vashti. King Ahasuerus, Vashti’s gluttonous drunkard husband, demands she appear before his all-male party of guests “to show the peoples and the princes her beauty; for she was good looking” (Esther 1:11). But “Vashti refuses the King’s command” (Esther 1:12).

We are not told why she refuses. But we can certainly imagine. Perhaps, the royal queen didn’t like being ordered around, or, she didn’t want to be shown off as if she was a piece of furniture, or she simply didn’t like living with her foolish husband and knew refusing him publicly would be her ticket out of the palace.

As it turns out, her radical refusal was threatening, not only to the king but apparently also to every man in the entire kingdom.

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