Tag : feminism

The Lilith Blog

April 8, 2019 by

Israel’s Trailblazing Candidates Dima Taya and Michal Zernowitzki

 

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Worlds apart, and running on the tickets of opposing parties, Dima Taya and Michal Zernowitski both plan to play a key role in bringing peace, seated at the same governmental table. In addition to running as the first Muslim women on the Likud party ticket, Dima Taya (Dima Sayyif Tayia Zidan) at 27, would also be the youngest Knesset member in Israel’s history. Another trailblazer, 37-year-old Michal Zernowitski, is the first ultra-Orthodox Haredi woman on the Labor party slate. And, while Taya is listed as number 62 on the Likud party ticket, Zernowitski  is positioned as number 21, which for a new candidate is very high.

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The Lilith Blog

April 8, 2019 by

A (Feminist) Defense of Barbie as She Turns 60

Barbie has just turned 60, a long lifespan for a toy. But then Barbie has always been more than a toy—much more.  She was the brainchild of Ruth Handler, a savvy, stubborn Jewish businessman woman (her husband Elliot was the second half of Mattel) who got the idea watching her daughter Barbara play with paper dolls. These dolls were women, and integral to their charm was the fact that they came with numerous outfits and could be endlessly redressed. Handler envisioned a plastic, 3-D version of the doll, which would have represented a significant departure from the baby-and-little-girl dolls of the period. 

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April 2, 2019 by

Words from New Feminist Picture Books

“Are you ever too scared to say something because you might be wrong?”

From Raise Your Hand, written by Alice Paul Tapper, illustrated by Marta Kissi (Penguin Workshop, $17.99). The author also came up with the Girl Scout “Raise Your Hand” pledge and patch program.

 

“On haircut day, I go first. ‘Not too much, Mama I like it swingy!’ But Jackie says, ‘More, more, more!’ So Mama cuts and cuts. ‘Stop, Mama, stop!’ I shout. ‘Now Jackie looks like a boy.’ Jackie says, ‘I am a boy!’ Mama is quiet. Finally she says, ‘Well, Jackie’s been trying to tell us that for a long time’.”

From Jack (Not Jackie) by Erica Silverman, illustrated by Holly Hatam, (Little Bee, $17.99).

 

“Temple did not like scratchy socks, whistling teakettles, bright lights, or smelly perfumes And Temple really didn’t like hugs.”

From How to Build a Hug: Temple Grandin and Her Amazing Squeeze Machine by Amy Guglielmo and Jacqueline Tourville, illustrated by Giselle Potter (Simon & Schuster, $17.99).

 

“In high school, my teacher assigned my class a book about boys on a deserted island who went wild because there were no rules. The boys hurt each other in the chaos of a land without laws. This book opened my eyes. I saw why we need laws and rules to feel safe, so that people have the freedom to grow and flourish. I did not yet know that I would end up working in law, as a lawyer and later as a judge, but I was learning why laws mattered.”

From Turning Pages: My Life Story, by [Supreme Court Justice] Sonia Sotomayor, illustrated by Lulu Delacre (Philomel, $17.99).

 

“Her parents worried. Such a life for a well-brought-up Jewish girl!”

From Hedy & Her Amazing Invention by Jan Wahl, illustrated by Morgana Wallace (Penny Candy Books, $16.95). This is the final book by the prolific author, who died in February. It’s about actress Hedy Lamarr (1914–2000), who found her way to Hollywood, where she took unwearable movie costumes home and secretly adjusted them. She liked to make things, and what she called her “frequency hopping” invention is used in many hi-tech gadgets today.

 

“Soon Gittel and her mother reached the head of the line. ‘Stick out your tongue,’ a burly man with a bristly beard ordered Gittel. ‘Blink your eyes. Show me your hands.’ Gittel did as she was told. The man nodded and then turned to Mama. ‘What is wrong with your eye’?”

From Gittel’s Journey: An Ellis Island Story, by Leslea Newman, illustrated by Amy June Bates (Abrams, $17.99).

 

“When Levi got home, Papa had tears in his eyes. ‘Why are you crying?’ asked Levi. ‘It was your first day at a new school,’ said Papa. ‘I was scared. Papa…big boys do cry,’ said Levi. ‘And that’s okay,” said Papa.”

From Big Boys Cry, written and illustrated by Jonty Howley (Random House, $17.99).

 

“Girls need to know they can break the rules.”

From Gloria Takes a Stand: How Gloria Steinem Listened, Wrote, and Changed the World bJessica M. Rinker, illustrated by Daria Peoples-Riley (Bloomsbury, $17.99).

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April 2, 2019 by

The New Questions

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A series of harassment allegations against prominent Jewish sociologist Steven M. Cohen, exposed in the Jewish Week last summer, sent the Jewish academic and institutional world reeling—not just because of the personal #MeToo stories that shocked, but because of the influence Cohen had wielded setting priorities for so many communities. He was the individual most closely connected with major Jewish demographic surveys done over the past 20 years or so—including the Pew study of “Jewish Americans” which was a hot topic in 2013. In particular, feminists have been challenging an agenda based on data from the questions asked in these massive surveys, especially their focus on intermarriage as a primary threat to “Jewish continuity.” What were the questions not being asked because of Cohen’s own biases, and those of some of his academic peers?


Why We’re Asking

As many feminist scholars have noted, the questions asked on surveys carry a bias of their own, especially when answers can only be either/or. A greater focus on qualitative, rather than quantitative results, as well as a broadening and redefining of certain key terms—like “continuity” or “support for Israel” or “observant”—could yield some fascinating new truths about what Jewish life looks like today. 

Keren McGinity is a Jewish gender historian who specializes in American Jews and intermarriage—and was the first to speak out with her own allegations about Cohen’s inappropriate behavior. She speculated with Lilith about the broader policy ramifications of this reckoning that moved from the personal to the institutional.

“I see this as a positive, the questioning of the validity of the framing for these very large community studies,” she told Lilith. “Now, it’s time to take a step back, and say ‘let’s re-think our assumptions, let’s open up the discussion so that more people can participate.’

“I think there’s almost been a trend of boiling things down, an obsession with statistics—as though numbers can explain everything,” says McGinity. “With all due credit, numbers are important—but I think of them as a frame; then one adds the qualitative body, flesh, skin.” 

One built-in problem is that surveys, by their nature, often require people to check a single box, choosing one side of a binary. “People are not simple,” says McGinity. “There are many more intriguing behaviors and spirituality and creativity that numbers simply do not capture.”

Most importantly, McGinity is one of several feminist voices calling for these urgent conversations to include more voices, a turn away from the “single expert” model to include a broader group of people from different disciplines weighing in on a given issue.

“There’s only benefit to be gained from sharing the limelight,” McGinity declared.

In that spirit, Lilith gathered a panel of feminist experts from across fields—activists, writers, educators and academics—to start asking the new questions. What would they like to learn from any new demographic surveys of Jews?

 

The Participants

APRIL N. BASKIN, the principal of Joyous Justice Consulting and also serves as the Racial Justice Director of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable. She is the Union for Reform Judaism’s immediate past Vice President of Audacious Hospitality and host of the first season of their latest podcast, Wholly Jewish. Before founding and developing the URJ’s department, she served as the National Director of Resources and Training at InterfaithFamily.

ROKHL KAFFRISSEN, journalist and playwright in New York City. Her work on new Yiddish culture, feminism and contemporary Jewish life has appeared in publications all over the world, including Haaretz, The Jewish Week, The Forward, Alma and Lilith. She conducts the biweekly Rokhl’s Golden City column for Tablet, focusing on Yiddish and Ashkenazi life in all its incarnations.

RACHEL KRANSON, associate professor of Religious Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. A specialist in the history of American Jews, she is the author of Ambivalent Embrace: Jewish Upward Mobility in Postwar America (University of North Carolina Press, 2017) and, along with Shira Kohn and Hasia Diner, the co-editor of A Jewish Feminine Mystique?: Jewish Women in Postwar America (Rutgers University Press, 2010). For many years, she has also been a Lilith contributing editor.

ESTHER KUSTANOWITZ, a contributing writer at the Los Angeles Jewish Journal and a columnist at J. The Jewish Weekly of Northern California. She was founding editor at GrokNation.com and has consulted with dozens of Jewish organizations. She is working on a book about life after loss, and is a casual scholar of Jewish references and storylines in TV shows.

SUSAN TICKER is a strategic advisor, mentor and change agent for synagogues, day schools, camps, and other nonprofits. For almost a decade, as a communal consultant at The Jewish Education Project, she guided professionals and lay leaders to develop innovative education models for all ages.

NAOMI DANIS, is Lilith’s managing editor and has been compiling the resource pages of Lilith for three decades. Her newest picture book is While Grandpa Naps.

SARAH SELTZER, Lilith’s digital editor and a writer based in New York. She has written and reported on various progressive issues this year at The Nation, TIME, Cosmopolitan, Refinery29, Jewish Currents and Jezebel.

SUSAN WEIDMAN SCHNEIDER is Lilith’s editor in chief, and one of the magazine’s founding mothers. She’s the author of Jewish and Female: Choices and Changes in Our Lives Today and Intermarriage: The Challenge of Living with Differences Between Christians and Jews; and co-authored Head and Heart, a book about money in the lives of women.

 

The Conversation

SUSAN WEIDMAN SCHNEIDER: We’re here because we know that a lot of things were not ever getting asked in demographic surveys, partly because the people who want to know certain kinds of information were not in on the planning process. Though I’ve been addicted to these surveys for many many years now, there are so many questions I’ve never seen asked. Once, for instance, Lilith wanted to know: are Jewish women remaining single through their childbearing years for longer than women from other groups? Male demographers said, “That’s impossible because of primacy of marriage in Jewish culture and religion.” So we asked: Can you just take a look at your findings through this gender lens? They looked at the data. And—surprise—found that Lilith’s hunch was true, in part because Jewish women tend to stay in school longer and postpone marriage, meaning that their “field of eligibles” might shrink, and so forth. Just one tiny example of how the picture changes when women ask the questions.

So: if you were the demographers, what would you ask?

RACHEL KRANSON: First, we have to consider who is looking for a particular piece of information, and why. As a historian, my last research project was on the ways that American Jews understood their upward mobility in the years after WWII. I looked at the sociological surveys, which told me the percentage of Jewish men who earned a professional degree or brought home a middle-class salary. This was certainly of interest to communal leaders who made decisions about allocating communal funds, or who may have wanted to celebrate the Jewish adaptation to American, middle-class norms. But as a historian, and particularly as a historian who pays close attention to gender, I could not leave it there. I had to look at more qualitative sources to discover: What did this upward mobility actually mean to people, and how did it affect their attitudes toward politics, religion, and gender? We always have to think about who is asking the questions, what are their biases, and also break it down: what are the terms they are using, and why?

APRIL BASKIN: It’s so important to have that specificity. I also think that when it comes to any studies having to do with race and ethnicity—there’s a socioeconomic valence, there’s an implicit bias when we do ask. Or we just miss it entirely. I was a respondent in a Boston survey and they didn’t even ask about race and ethnicity.

SUSAN WEIDMAN SCHNEIDER: And to get more specific: are multiracial families multiracial through adoption, through parents of different races? What was the path to forming this interracial household?

APRIL BASKIN: There’s not a lot of great data around who has Mizrahi or Sephardi heritage. Right now, when I’m doing this work, I say estimates are 10 percent, but….

RACHEL KRANSON: I want to help historians of the future understand the assumptions behind the terms we use. For instance, when we use the term, “Jews of Color,” who are we including and why?

APRIL BASKIN: Yes, so often these days we harken back to the civil rights movement. I wish I could know now, how did the support and non-support for civil rights break down demographically and denominationally?

ROKHL KAFRISSEN: I have a personal agenda in these discussions—I’m a Yiddishist and I’m always thinking about how things like language, ethnicity and heritage get erased by communal apparatus, like surveys. The Pew study in 2013 wasted time on questions like “Do you think Obama is doing a good job?” There was not one single question like: Do you identify as Ashkenazi, Sephardi or Mizrahi?

NAOMI DANIS: And the questions that relate to those ones. What languages are you speaking at home? That can tell you so much, whether it’s Spanish, Yiddish, Farsi, or Hebrew.

ROKHL KAFRISSEN: I would like to go further and know what language did your parents speak? What language did your grandparents speak? Where were they born? Given the way that demographics are changing, the majority of American Jews are going to be intermarried. We’re going to need a way to define and categorize those combined identities that are going to be the majority.

RACHEL KRANSON: A pet peeve I have that comes up in these surveys is a common fixation on households as a unit of measurement. Think about everything that gets lost! If you ask whether a household puts on a seder every year, that doesn’t tell you about individuals who make up that household. Who decides that there will be a seder? Who leads the seder? Who cooks and serves?

SUSAN WEIDMAN SCHNEIDER: “Family” is a pet peeve along with “household.” There are people who are marrying later, living alone, living in uncategorized household arrangements. 

APRIL BASKIN: Anecdotally, the non-Jewish partner in interfaith family is often the initiator of the Jewish ritual. I would like to know if that is a larger trend—that could mitigate the panic about interfaith marriage.

NAOMI DANIS: We need more lines of inquiry that ask: What are the strengths of interfaith families?

SUSAN WEIDMAN SCHNEIDER: And, being binary for a moment, does it matter in those instances if the non-Jewish partner is male or female?

ESTHER KUSTANOWITZ: And people without partners are always left out, especially if they do not have children. If this sounds like a personal example, it very much is. I went to yeshiva day school, and Camp Ramah, and I have been in the Jewish community all my life. And I have no place in the Jewish community as a single woman in my 40s. For years I’ve been hearing that there are more single women than single men, but that’s not helping. The data isn’t here, and it gets no money and attention—so the prevailing assumption remains that Jews want to get married and want to have children. But I’m not convinced that even if there was a study on 40-something Jews, the community would do something for them.

SARAH SELTZER: And beyond just single vs. partnership, how do we categorize people who are living in radical queer households? And include families? Or what about single people living with platonic roommates into later decades? How many Jews are openly polyamorous? We can assume because Jews live in urban areas, and tend to be university-educated, that they are in the vanguard of new social trends. But we don’t know if that’s the case at all.

ROKHL KAFRISSEN: I’ve started having seders in my house, with two of my friends who are queer; one of them is not even Jewish. I am not sure how I would answer if someone asked me a traditional question: “Does your household have a seder?” I’d say, “Yeah, where do we even begin?”

SARAH SELTZER: Going back to the living arrangements, it extends to observance: many millennials are not connecting to Judaism through shul or even nonprofits that might normally be tallied. Instead they’re involved in the arts, activism, informal minyans that are not affiliated, or maybe even socialist secular humanist study groups.

ROKHL KAFRISSEN: There’s an economic piece too, asking how student loan debt correlates with people not getting married and having kids. I wonder if there’s a correlation between states with the highest levels of student loan debt and the percentage of Jews in that state?

SARAH SELTZER: And how are things like student loan debt affecting people’s politics?

SUSAN TICKER: We need questions that get ahead of the curve on socialism in the Jewish community.

ESTHER KUSTANOWITZ: I’d love to know what contemporary Jews’ attitudes are towards information and media. I’m interested in where Jewish women are getting their news. Who is producing our news?

ROKHL KAFRISSEN: And relatedly, on what issues are Jews reading and engaging specifically as Jews? When are they turning to Jewish media, for instance? And what has the Jewish investment been in considering themselves as marginalized? When are they identifying with the mainstream?

NAOMI DANIS: I’d like to know where people get whatever Jewish literacy they have. From childhood schooling? Adult learning, whether formal or informal? From media?

ESTHER KUSTANOWITZ: Going back to defining the terms, I want to know who defines themselves as a Jewish feminist and what that means? And an idea like intersectionality, which we often talk about without understanding. How does feminism relate to issues like mental health and body image in Jewish families?

SARAH SELTZER: One of the findings from the Pew survey that stuck out was that more Jews viewed having a sense of humor as intrinsic to their identity than, say, synagogue attendance.

ROKHL KAFRISSEN: We need more qualitative surveys that ask questions in that vein, but don’t prime respondents to answer with something as broadly appealing as, say, having a sense of humor.

SUSAN TICKER: I appreciate the way so much of this comes down to methodology. If researchers say—as some have—you only need 39 people to respond, and once you get past 39, the data will repeat, and findings will be confirmed. If you can be that cavalier about methodology… I want to raise the question of what other biases may be at work.

SUSAN WEIDMAN SCHNEIDER: Do you think a reason, beyond logistical, that some of this hasn’t been crowdsourced—and beware the generalizations—is that Jews are such believers in expertise? But that means “leaders” are making decisions for others whose lives are very different from theirs.

SUSAN TICKER: I think a related line of inquiry is: if we hadn’t been so focused on continuity and survivalism in recent years, what questions would have been asked?

RACHEL KRANSON: I wonder if we couldn’t flip this model of having a few researchers asking a few questions. Have the researchers ask their informants, “What do you think the questions ought to be?” as we are asking tonight? There are probably pragmatic reasons this hasn’t been done, but that crowdsourcing model might generate much more creative and provocative and interesting questions.

 

New Questions from Keren McGinity

1. What does doing Jewish look like — rather than being Jewish? as with my own research, this is not about how Jewish someone is, but about how are they expressing being Jewish?

2. How do gender and gender roles play out in same-sex interfaith and/or interethnic relationships? In interfaith families, what ways do the gender of the Jewish parent and the gender of the child influence the way the child engages in Judaism?

3. What makes a successful/happy/healthy (you can add the words “Jewish” or “Interfaith” here) partnership and family? We’ve been focused on making sure that they’re Jewish, but what about making sure that they’re happy, and love each other?

4. I’d like to see a question about the longevity of partnerships that are committed to egalitarian ideals (although we haven’t fully achieved it)?

5. What does it mean to be un-partnered and single for Jews over the age of 30, 40, 50? Are there unspoken and unanalyzed advantages, benefits and joys to this lifestyle? What kind of communities do these Jews find and form and keep?

6. A question about #MeToo—for women and men who have had experiences with harassment (because all genders can be manipulated and exploited). How does this affect their engagement with communal life and ritual?

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April 2, 2019 by

Women Shake Things Up in a Major Statehouse

For decades, women in New York facing heartbreaking medical issues in the later months of pregnancy had to fly to other states for terminations, thanks to outdated abortion laws. This January, after years of lobbying, activism and voting, that finally changed.

In the November 2018 elections, New York’s legislature saw a very similar outcome to the national results: progressive women storming the gates of the state capital in Albany. Since that change of power, New York State is already a model for passing certain kinds of legislation with particular importance to women. The women legislators—veteran and newbie alike—wasted no time focusing on issues like abortion and maternal mortality.

In particular, shortly after the first 2019 legislative session opened, a landmark Reproductive Health Act was passed, codifying Roe in the state law, after years of being stalled by a Republican state senate. Ditto for a long-awaited Child Victims’ Act, which had long been kept from moving forward thanks to a toxic combination of Catholic church and ultra-Orthodox lawmakers whose communities did not want allegations of long-ago child sexual abuse in their schools and houses of worship to surface.

Anna Kaplan. Photo by Joan Roth

Anna Kaplan. Photo by Joan Roth

Several Jewish women were newly elected to this state legislature in the 2018 midterm, joining prominent Jewish female state legislators with years of experience. Their presence, plus the Democratic-majority senate, had major influence in passing these bills and others that followed.

If Roe fails to survive the conservative U.S. Supreme Court, New York’s strong support for abortion rights and reproductive justice will make the state a beacon in a dark, misogynistic universe—which helps explain the backlash that the Reproductive Health Act has received from conservatives who have lied and cried “infanticide.” The reality is different. Now, later abortions—recommended only in dire medical circumstances for mother or fetus—will be available in New York State, allowing women to receive that heartbreaking, personal care at home instead of enduring out-of-state travel.

“Today we turn the page,” said Senator Liz Krueger when the bill passed. Krueger has represented New York City’s Upper East Side since 2002, and has been lining up the ducks for this moment for 10 years in Albany.

Krueger is a powerhouse, chairing the Senate finance committee, among other roles, and a new position of influence in the fight to legalize cannabis in the state; her involvement in that issue, she told Lilith, was spurred by her longstanding concern about unjust incarcerations. 

Julia Salazar. Photo by Joan Roth.

Julia Salazar. Photo by Joan Roth.

“Every issue is a women’s issue,” she said. “So it’s better to have more women at the table. Income issues have a disproportionate effect on women at both ends of the age spectrum—from young single mothers to older widows living on one income.”

Krueger’s tireless work was applauded by a large crowd at a Town Hall rally in Manhattan in February. One of the enthusiastic participants and sign-holders announced that “Liz Krueger is a rock star!”

As is the tradition, Krueger told Lilith in an interview in her Manhattan district office, a new senator is given a promising bill to sponsor, so that she or he will have an early success. In keeping with this tradition, Krueger says she invited newly elected senator Julia Salazar to sponsor a sister bill to the Reproductive Health Act—the Contraceptive Coverage Act, which makes it mandatory for insurance to cover birth control.

Salazar herself was making waves before she won November’s primary as a young, self-identified socialist candidate who upset longtime incumbent Martin Dilan. She won a convincing victory in gentrifying North Brooklyn, despite an onslaught of negative publicity that included serious questions raised about how accurately she has represented herself and her family and religious background (she identifies as Jewish and Colombian). The fracas was so confusing it required an “explainer” on the website Vox. But Salazar’s resounding victory—and focus on issues from abortion to local, thorny tenant-landlord conflicts, to decriminalizing sex work—has meant that the debate swirling around her these days is back in the policy realm. And she’s staying true to her roots, rhetorically speaking: “Don’t forget that International Women’s Day was started by anti-capitalist socialist feminist organizers,” she reminded supporters on Instagram in March.

Linda Rosenthal. Photo by Joan Roth.

Linda Rosenthal. Photo by Joan Roth.

Also standing with Krueger and defending the R.H.A. is Senator Anna Kaplan (n.e Anna Monahemi) a Persian-Jewish-American politician from Great Neck, New York. “It was vital that abortion be taken out of penal code and put into health code because that’s what it is—healthcare,” she told Lilith. Now the New York State Senator for the 7th district, on Long Island, Kaplan was born in Tabriz, Iran. When the Islamic Revolution swept that country, her parents sent her to the United States for safety. Fostered first by a family in Brooklyn and then in Los Angeles, she eventually settled in Great Neck, a Long Island community with a large Persian Jewish population.

But though her electoral victory was solid, Kaplan told Lilith, her home community didn’t rally around her. The reason, some women in the community told Lilith, was that “she is both a Democrat and a woman.”

“That hurt a lot,” said Kaplan. “That my own community gave so little support.” Nonetheless, she swept to victory in November, and is focusing on education—which is core to her values as a Jew and an immigrant. “To me, in this country, public schools level the playing field,” she told Lilith. “I am a product of a public school, and so are my children.”

Along with Krueger, Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal, who represents NYC’s Upper West Side, is a strong progressive figure in New York politics. A fixture at city protests and events for years, she is poised to take action on issues big and small—recently working on everything from rent control to animal welfare to raising the statewide smoking and vaping age to 21. She’s been passionate about fair elections as well as menstrual equality—even hosting a tampon-a-thon at her office to collect sanitary supplies for local shelters.

For many years now, conservative men have dominated state legislatures around the country—which explains in part why so many bills that chisel away at Roe, state by state, restriction by restriction, have been passed since 2011. The importance of having strong women at the state level can’t be overstated—from issues like gun violence and abortion to fairer taxation, transit, childcare and housing and, of course, tampons. The women of the New York State legislature are targeting the maternal mortality crisis next.

Women’s lives can be directly and immediately improved when other women are in the halls of power. “It’s nice to come to the office in majority because you can actually get things done,” Kaplan told Lilith.

 Joan Roth is Lilith’s staff photographer. Shira Gorelick is a freelance writer and photographer.

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April 2, 2019 by

The Matron Saint of Israeli Feminism

Photo: Joan Roth

Photo: Joan Roth

Reading Alice Shalvi: Never a Native was like discovering a kindred spirit. From the moment I first picked it up, I carted the heavy hardbound volume around with me everywhere, stealing glances at the cover photograph of kindly, white-haired Alice smiling pensively back at me—in synagogue, where I read her book behind the mehitza; in the classroom, where I tore through a few more pages while my Talmud students learned in hevruta; and in the theater where I’d taken my children to see a play, my cell phone flashlight illuminating the page. “Ah yes, I know where you are, I have been there too,” Shalvi seemed to be saying to me wherever I toted her around.

Shalvi, whose memoir (Halban Press, $18.99) was published just before her 92nd birthday, knew the synagogues and study houses and theaters of Jerusalem intimately, though she too, as she avows, was never a native. Alice Margulies was born in 1926 in Essen, Germany, and fled to London with her parents and older brother eight years later. Shalvi had already taught herself to read in her native German by age four, and she quickly taught herself English as well so she could devour the novels of Lewis Carroll, Louisa May Alcott, E. Nesbit, and Arthur Ransome. In her primary school she was frequently asked by her teachers to entertain the class by reading aloud while the other pupils learned to sew, a skill she consequently never acquired. (And here I flipped to the front cover and smiled back at Alice, because I shared her predicament—I never learned to sew or drive or acquire any practical life skills because I was always the designated reader in the family.)

During the war, Shalvi’s family moved to a village in Buckinghamshire. When she was not performing in school plays, singing in the choir, or reading books from the lending library, she rode around the corn fields on a bicycle, learned to play tennis and cricket, and discovered British Romantic poetry: “One spring day, turning a bend, I found myself, unprepared, confronting a vast bank of daffodils. I had never before seen such an abundance of what appeared like wild flowers thronging an open space.” Years later, in Jerusalem, teaching Wordsworth’s poem about stumbling upon a field of daffodils, she was astonished to discover that her students had never heard of a daffodil. Five years ago, when substituting for my husband in the English department at Bar Ilan University, I taught this same poem and had the same experience. Like Shalvi, “only then was I made aware of the absence of this quintessentially English flower from the abundant flora of the holy land.”

Shalvi and a friend bribed a teacher with cigarettes to teach them Latin so that they could take the entry exams for Oxford and Cambridge. She was accepted to Newnham, then one of two women’s colleges at Cambridge, where she and her fellow students were expected to live cloistered lives: sex was considered “obscene, indecent, smutty,” and women had to sign out if they left the college after 8pm. Reading about Alice’s adventures in Cambridge, I am grateful that I attended this university over a half a century later, though I identified with many of her experiences: I too hung a photograph of the Kotel on my dorm room wall; I too suffered from an inadequate number of toilets (mine was across two courtyards, though fortunately my baths were not limited to a shallow five inches of water, the depth designated by a black line on the tub); I too attended Friday night dinners at the Jewish Society on Thompson’s Lane, where at the Sabbath meal (by my time, alas, this license had been revoked). As the only religious Jew in my English program, I had many experiences similar to Alice, who relates that she tried to explain the concept of simile to her classmates by citing the prayer in which the children of Israel’s relationship to God is compared to “clay in the hands of a potter”; she was dismayed to discover that few of her classmates had ever heard of this prayer. At Cambridge I also found that many of my frames of reference were foreign to my classmates, which rendered my experience there all the more lonely.

 

After Aliyah…

It was at Cambridge that Shalvi first became aware of the horrors of the Holocaust and the fate of her father’s brother’s family, all of whom were shot to death in their native Poland. “Worst of all and hardest to come to grips with, even today, was my growing awareness of a startling paradox: while the extermination of European Jewry was in progress, I was enjoying what were undoubtedly the happiest years of my adolescence, safe and secure amidst the natural beauties of rural England.” A Zionist from her early childhood, when she’d danced the hora around her family’s kitchen table, Shalvi resolved to move to Palestine: “I made the fateful decision to go there as a social worker, rehabilitate people like these youngsters, and assist them in becoming useful, committed citizens, fellow builders of a new Jewish state that, together, we would help bring into existence.” She went on her first visit to Palestine during Christmas vacation of 1947, less than a month after the U.N. vote on the partition plan but before the British withdrawal. The euphoria was evident, particularly in Tel Aviv, where “houses were shooting up, sparkling white in the bright Mediterranean sunshine that heightened the blue of the ocean with an intensity never seen in England. I’d not expected the sun to be so blinding, the sky so cerulean, the sea so calm.”

After studying social work at the London School of Economics (L.S.E.), Shalvi made aliyah, settling in Jerusalem in November 1949. She recalls a period when everyone walked around confused, unsure whether the street they were on was called Queen Melisanda or Heleni Ha-Malka. In neighborhoods like Talbiye, Katamon, and Baka—where I live now, with all modern conveniences— the streets had no names, the houses had had only plot numbers, and no one had telephones at home. In her first year in the country, she was seduced by her landlord who forced her to sleep with him when his pregnant wife was out of the house; “today,” she writes, “we’d call it rape.” Shalvi describes several men she dated as a young single woman in Jerusalem, though she never explains how she overcame the sense of unattractiveness that haunted her as a child: “My bust was too small, my hips too broad. Even had my mirror not reflected the reality… many wounding comments on my appearance… combined to instil in me both an overwhelming sense of my own inadequacy and a comparable need to compensate. Such compensation might be accomplished by academic achievement.” Surely her academic achievement was responsible for some of her confidence, but it is still hard to understand where she mustered the courage to pursue and then propose marriage to the handsome young American banker named Moshe whom she fell in love with when she first sighted him at a party for the Hebrew University. The couple set off to Paris on their honeymoon, where they bought baguettes and cheap plates and cutlery so that they could eat in their hotel room, since Moshe kept strictly kosher. “It was our first experience of keeping house together. We made abundant and blissful use of the big brass bed. We were inordinately happy. The week in Paris proved an auspicious beginning to over 60 years of compatibility and compassionate companionship.” Moshe took pride in Shalvi’s professional accomplishments and always encouraged her to excel, never feeling threatened by her achievements. He was, in every sense, just as feminist as she.

Shalvi became pregnant soon after their marriage, and she went on to have six children in 15 years: “My conception of a happy family was undoubtedly inspired by the numerous books I read that portrayed the adventures of siblings engaged in a series of fascinating activities… I envied these fictional families and perhaps unconsciously longed to replicate them in my own adulthood.” Her first pregnancy in 1951 was during a period of rationing, when pregnant women were allocated two fresh eggs a week, but she felt happy and healthy. On a visit to London she bought a book about natural childbirth and taught herself its precepts, shocking the doctors when she refused medication during labor: “It seems I was Israel’s pioneer of natural childbirth,” she muses. Her labor pangs began during an English department study session at her apartment, where members of the faculty were gathered to read Blake, and throughout her children’s early years, she and her husband remained intensely engaged in their respective professions.

Shalvi’s reflections on working motherhood are brave, candid, and—surely not just for me—deeply inspiring. She acknowledges that she was not present for her children nearly as much as they needed or wanted her to be, but she is proud of the people her children became: “I was not a source of the loving individual attention every child desires and needs. Frustrated, they sought other sources of attention and affection—friends, lovers, and eventually spouses. Today my children reproach me for my neglect but I take a certain degree of (cold) comfort in the fact that they’ve learnt from their own negative experience and that they, in contrast to me, are not only model parents but equally dedicated grandparents.” How refreshing that Shalvi can write so openly about her inadequacies as a mother, while also appreciating decisions that leave us feeling most uneasy can prove surprisingly salutary.

In one of the more private and painful moments in this memoir, Shalvi reflects on an illegal abortion she underwent in 1950s Jerusalem. She became pregnant while her older children had mumps, and her doctor informed her she had to terminate the pregnancy because infection with mumps could result in brain damage in the embryo. Shalvi reluctantly and ambivalently consented. She continues to be plagued by what she underwent in the back room of the doctor’s house: “I never told Moshe about the abortion. I fact, I told nobody. I have never spoken of it. Yet similarly, I have never forgotten it. Though I gave birth with my customary ease to three additional blessedly healthy, carefully planned, children, the thought of that unborn child still plagues me. Was it a girl or a boy? Fair-haired like Micha or dark like Ditza? As placid as Hephziba or wild, like Benzi? And would it indeed have been in some way abnormal, or might it, despite our fears, have proved no less healthy than its siblings? The questions can never be answered; the regret and guilt never fully assuaged.” Decades later Shalvi would go on to fight for increased awareness of women’s medical and psychological needs.

 

Gender Inequality, First-Hand

Shalvi learned her compassion and her concern for others from her own life experiences. When she birthed her first son, her roommate in the maternity ward of the Anglican school where Hadassah Hospital was then housed was a gaunt Kurdish woman who had just given birth to her seventh child, and had no visitors. The woman lay there miserable as all the members of the English department took their turns visiting and congratulating Alice on the birth of her firstborn: “I learned a great deal through this pathetic woman and her experience, of the overriding importance in some cultures of bearing sons, of the lowly status of females…of the contempt in which new immigrants from the Arab countries were held by the European veterans.” Shalvi went on to become instrumental in founding a “Women’s Kitchen” in a poor neighborhood in Katamon, a clubhouse for women immigrants from Arab lands. 

Though she had made aliyah with a degree in social work, Shalvi was unable to find work in her field. Instead she landed a job teaching in the English department at Hebrew University; among her students were the young Yehuda Amichai, Dan Pagis, and Dahlia Ravikovitch, who became some of Israel’s most famous and celebrated poets. Nearly two decades later, when her youngest child was a toddler, she accepted an offer to found the English Department at Ben Gurion University. Four years later, the position of university dean became vacant. “Few of the men (needless to say they were all men) whose names were mentioned [as candidates] had what I considered the necessary qualifications.” And so Shalvi submitted her candidacy. Here, as throughout this memoir, Shalvi does not come across as arrogant or brash. On the contrary, she had a realistic sense of her own abilities and a supportive husband always at her back, and she was undaunted by the possibility of failure. “But you’re a woman!” she was told by the humanities dean. “You should be ashamed of yourself,” said the incumbent she hoped to replace. She was accused of “blatant lobbying” and “shameless self-promotion,” and she did not get the job. But for Shalvi, each failure, like each success, was a learning opportunity. “My humiliating experience led to a profound change in my perception of gender equality in Israel.”

Shalvi went on to devote herself tirelessly to advancing the status of women in all sectors of Israeli society throughout the 1980s and 1990s. She served on the Namir Commission to propose legislation and administrative changes designed to improve the social, economic, and political status of women. She worked with religious feminists to campaign on behalf of agunot, women whose husbands were missing, and mesuravot get, women refused divorce. She was instrumental in founding the Israel Women’s Network, a non-partisan organization to advance women’s status. She organized an international conference of women writers in 1986 to raise the self-esteem of Israeli women authors, hosting such luminaries as Grace Paley and Marilyn French. She persuaded the head of television at the Israel Broadcasting Authority to begin designing programs for women, of which there were none. She spoke on panels with Palestinian women, searching for common ground. She was involved in a six-month in-depth investigation of human trafficking and forced prostitution. She helped raise awareness about women’s health issues, founding an information hotline that referred women to sensitive and sympathetic doctors. Just recently, when I called the national hotline of my health clinic and listened to the menu of dialing option, I was told for the first time that I could press “5” if I wanted to speak to a doctor or nurse about pregnancy or childbirth; I have no doubt that Alice Shalvi is responsible, albeit indirectly, for this development.

 

Educational Excellence for Religious Girls

And yet in spite of all her work on the national level, in Jerusalem Shalvi is perhaps best known for her tenure as principal of Pelech, a high school founded in the 1960s for ultra-Orthodox girls. From its earliest days, Talmud was part of the compulsory curriculum at Pelech; a rarity for girls’ schools at the time. (The name of the school means spindle, and is spoken derogatorily by a misogynist sage in the Talmud who contends that “Women’s wisdom is solely in the spindle.”) Shalvi first became involved in Pelech as a parent—her eldest daughter Ditza, who was unhappy in her Orthodox high school, asked her parents to transfer to the Pelech High School for Haredi Girls, as it was then known. Uneasy with the idea of sending her daughter to such a religious school, Alice climbed up Mount Zion—where the school was then housed—to check it out. She engaged one of the students in conversation, and discovered that this ultra-Orthodox girl was working on a paper on Christian symbols in the novels of Graham Green. “Christian? Graham Green? At a haredi school? This openness was beyond belief. After that I had no objections to Ditza transferring to Pelech.”

In 1974, when Ditza was still enrolled, the founders of the school announced their intention to close it down—they were uncomfortable with the “infiltration” of modern Orthodox families. One day shortly thereafter, during a visit from the Ministry of Education, the principal was asked whom the ministry should be in future contact with on matters regarding the school. Without a moment’s pause, the principal told him to be in touch with Professor Shalvi—and thus to her total surprise, Shalvi became the school’s new principal. Though the school was already catering to a more enlightened demographic, Shalvi found that her religious progressivism was often at odds with the school’s ethos; in her new role, she had to put away her elegant pantsuits and instead wear long skirts, though she was never able to bring herself to cover her hair, as many traditional Orthodox women do. When she tried to advocate for replicating the American bat mitzvah program she had witnessed on a recent trip, one of the male Jewish studies teachers caustically replied, “In an orchestra, when the violinist plays the notes composed for the violin and the trumpeter plays the notes composed for the trumpets, there is harmony. But when the violins play the trumpets’ notes and the trumpets play the notes of the violinists there is discord.” Chastened, Shalvi writes that she “learned never again to express my heretical views on the inferior status of women within the confines of Pelech.”

Even so, Shalvi continued to push the envelope in her role as principal—she hired an American woman with an expertise in Talmud to teach a course on women and Jewish law, and she brought in a commanding officer from the Israel Defense Forces to speak to her students about women’s service in the military. Ultimately, her heresy became too much for the school officials to bear, and she felt she had no choice but to resign so that the school would not lose its accreditation. Still, Shalvi remains inordinately proud of “my girls,” as she refers to her Pelech graduates, one of whom is now her own rabbi. “Surveying how feminism has affected Israeli society, one is compelled to admit that the greatest revolution has occurred in Modern Orthodoxy,” she contends. “Not only have the women themselves ‘come a long way’; they have carried their communities in their wake.”

Shalvi, who was the subject of Paula Weiman-Kelman’s documentary “Rites of Passage,” which aired recently on ABC, was tireless and tenacious in her professional and public roles. In 1990, when she was settling down for what she thought would be a quiet retirement, she was asked to head the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, which offered rabbinical training and advanced degrees in Jewish studies. Shalvi agreed and became rector and then president, a decision she later regretted: “The double burden was too heavy for one person to bear, and as I soon learned, I was totally ignorant as to the complexities of the Conservative movement in the U.S.” Even so, she acknowledges that she has “nothing but happy memories” of her days at Schechter, where she founded Nashim, an academic journal of Jewish feminist studies, and she helped create the Center for Women in Jewish Law.

Reading this memoir, I was struck by the enormous debt of gratitude that I, as a woman in Jerusalem, owe to Shalvi’s trailblazing. When Shalvi pushed for a bat mitzvah program at Pelech, such an idea was unheard of; there is no question that my daughters and their contemporaries will have bat mitzvah ceremonies. When I was pregnant, I had my pick of Lamaze classes to attend (though it was still difficult, in the early 2000s, to find a woman obstetrician/gynecologist). When I wanted to study Talmud on a high level, there was a host of institutions to choose from—some for women only, and some co-educational. And when I wrote a book about my experiences studying Talmud as a woman, the opening chapter was first published in Nashim, the journal Shalvi founded.

Feminism among religious women in Jerusalem is a funny thing; just recently, I offered a copy of Lilith magazine to a religiously observant friend my age who swims with me at the pool in the mornings after dropping off her children at school. “A feminist magazine?” she looked at me quizzically. “Sorry, that’s not for me. I’m no feminist,” she said, before heading out to teach history at the university. I wanted to call after her, “You’re not a feminist? How did you get to where you are, if not for the feminists? Why do you think you have childcare for your toddler? Why are you able to work as a mother? How did you get your maternity leave? What kind of historian are you?” But I knew my protests would fall on deaf ears. Her response is a reminder that we still have a long way to go. Alice Shalvi, having completed the memoir she began two decades ago, has taught herself to meditate and seems finally to have found tranquility: “No words are needed. No words suffice. Just as two lovers sit side by side in silence, each absorbing each other’s presence, so I sit absorbing and at the same time surrendering myself to the Divine Spirit.” There is more work to be done, but the mantle has been passed to my generation, and to my children. We are so fortunate to have Shalvi as our model, our mentor, our guiding light. 

Ilana Kurshan’s own memoir, If All the Seas Were Ink, won the 2018 Sami Rohr Prize in Jewish Literature.

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March 22, 2019 by

Disability Rights Activist Emily Ladau on How to Make Feminism Include Everyone

While sipping tea in a funky, independently owned café in Babylon, New York, disability justice activist-writer Emily Ladau suddenly makes an unexpected confession: “I have a fraught relationship with feminism,” she says.

It’s not ideological. 

Ladau is pro-choice, pro-ERA, pro-LGBTQ equality, and supports equal pay for work of equal value. But as someone who uses a wheelchair, she has frequently felt excluded. “I don’t think feminists who are not disabled identify with me, even though I identify with them,” she explains. “Feminist groups often ignore the fact that disability intersects with every other marginalized identity.”

Changing this—not just within the women’s movement but in the world at large—is Ladau’s passion and, as editor of Rooted in Rights (rootedinrights.org), she and other writers work tirelessly to expose—and push back against—the many ways in which the disabled are belittled, condescended to and all too often completely ignored.

Ladau and Lilith’s Eleanor J. Bader met in late February to discuss how she became an outspoken advocate and educator.

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March 19, 2019 by

The Chelsea Clinton Uproar and the Public Perception of Pregnancy

It’s not a great look to berate pregnant folks. It’s especially not a good look when the person you’ve chosen to yell at has only the most tangential connection to what you’re upset about. We can argue with Chelsea Clinton’s ill-considered phrasing in her Twitter criticism of Ilhan Omar, but to accuse her of being the primary agent “stoking hatred” for Muslims on social media and inciting the Christchurch massacre is…well, the kind of thing a grieving undergraduate student activist might do in the heat of the moment after 50 people have been slaughtered by a white nationalist while they pray. It’s understandable. 

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March 19, 2019 by

The Jewish Doctor Writing About Medieval Christian Spirituality

 

I met Melodie Winawer in a Brooklyn synagogue; so when I learned that she had written a novel steeped in Christian imagery and ritual, I just had to know why!  

Equally interesting was Winawer’s background—she holds degrees in biological psychology, medicine and epidemiology. Below, Winawer talks to Lilith about her fascinating dual life as doctor/novelist, her attraction to history and so much more.

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March 5, 2019 by

Honoring Monica Lewinsky

We are proud to host Monica Lewinsky as the featured speaker at the annual benefit of Project Kesher, an organization founded to bring Jewish and feminist connections to women in the Former Soviet Union and beyond. On April 9 in New York City, Project Kesher will celebrate 30 years of sisterhood and honor former board chair and global women’s health activist Barbara Glickstein. Monica Lewinsky will receive Project Kesher’s Kol Isha award for her activism against cyberbullying, and we think we are the first Jewish women’s organization to honor her powerful work.

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