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Tag : israel

April 20, 2020 by

Israel’s Women on the Margins

With Israel’s political woes blanketing the news these days, it’s hard to remember
how multi-layered and complex a country it is. Its modern society was created by socialist pioneers, who struggled, somewhat successfully, to create economic and gender-egalitarian new communities. After statehood, Israel took in Jews from Arab lands and tried to integrate them, less successfully, into that developing society. More recently, Israel’s latest challenge has been absorbing hundreds of thousands of Russian immigrants with minimal, if any ties to Judaism or Jewish life. Three new academic books written and compiled by feminist Israeli academics address these particular facets of the challenges and shortcomings of the Jewish state.

When the State Winks: The Performance of Jewish Conversion in Israel, by Michal Kravel-Tovi. (Columbia University Press, $65) is a detailed ethnography. Anthropologist Michal Kravel-Tovi focuses on how and why Israel’s state bureaucracy is involved in managing the religious conversion of immigrants (mostly young women) from the former Soviet Union (FSU), mostly women because under traditional Jewish law the religion of the mother determines her child’s religion.

Kravel-Tovi engaged in three years of research from 2004–2007, during which she sat in on conversion classes, rabbinic conversion court proceedings, and ritual immersions in a mikveh. She interviewed teachers, rabbis, judges, and women who were in the process of converting through Israel’s state-sponsored Orthodox system.

Kravel-Tovi begins by describing how and why Jewish conversion has become part of what she terms “Zionist biopolitical policy” in Israel—using conversion of former FSU women to increase Israel’s Jewish population. Her focus is how the conversion candidates and the state agents—the conversion educators rabbinic court judge—handle the contradictory forces of Israel’s conversion policy. All parties, she argues, are concerned with issues of role-play, sincerity, and suspicion, demonstrating how all parties collaborate to put on believable conversion “performances.” The final chapter features the personal narratives of the conversion candidates, who must present personal statements to the rabbinic court that lend sincerity to their conversion process.

Many of the female potential converts have paradoxical Israeli-Jewish identities. While not considered Jewish according to Orthodox halacha, many grew up in Israel believing they were Jewish (and came to Israel under the Law of Return because of Jewish family connections). Invited to immigrate by the State of Israel, but then excluded from full membership in Israeli Jewish civic and religious life, most of the former FSU women find themselves in a painful no-woman’s-land labeled the harsh exclusionary Hebrew term goya (non-Jew/gentile) in Israeli society until they convert. One senior rabbi in the rabbinic conversion court compared these non-Jewish women in Israel to landmines: “…The foreign women will marry and have children, loyal citizens of Israel. It is a commandment to clear away such mines.”

In Concrete Boxes: Mizrahi Women on Israel’s Periphery (Wayne State University Press, $36) feminist anthropologist Pnina Motzafi-Haller of Ben Gurion University documents the lives of five Mizrahi women from the economically struggling development town of Yerucham, in Israel’s Negev. An activist who lived in the U.S. for almost two decades before returning to Israel, Motzafi-Haller published the Hebrew version of this book in 2012, as she wanted it to be read and discussed within Israel. The book was adapted into a play produced by the Dimona Theater, which traveled with the production around Israel for two years, dramatizing for an even wider audience the issues in Mizrahi women’s lives.

The five women featured in the book all have different approaches for dealing with the “concrete boxes” that have trapped them in Yerucham. Nurit is a single mother on welfare whose former husband was addicted to drugs; she worked many jobs to support her family. Nurit maintains dignity and finds meaning in her life through family events such as her son’s bar mitzvah. Efrat, another mother, becomes increasingly religiously observant as a way to deal with her life’s challenges. Her increased religiosity opens up opportunities for economic mobility and respectability, including a better job in a middle-class community, more than a secular education provides.

Rachel is considered a successful Yerucham resident despite her challenging background—coming from a poor family, married as a teen before finishing high school, having four children and then divorcing her abusive husband. She moves between middle-class and working-class settings, often as a representative of her community, but she is limited in her ability to juggle the different cultural nuances each group demands. Esti, “the rebel,” goes against communal norms by refusing to marry, have children or keep a job. While choosing a non-traditional path for a Mizrahi woman is freeing for her, it also leads to isolation and economic hardship. Gila, the author’s neighbor in Sde Boker grew up in Yerucham, but was able to leave her birthplace and create a middle-class, educated, professional life after leaving.

Sylvie Fogiel-Bijaoui and Rachel Sharaby have edited Dynamics of Gender Borders: Women in Israel’s Cooperative Settlements (Walter de Gruyter GmbH, & Hebrew University Magnes Press, $115)

Israel’s signature collective settlements, kibbutzim and moshavim, were based on ideals of gender equality and that of a new, egalitarian, socialist society in a new land. Kibbutzim were characterized by the communal features of formerly private domestic spaces—children’s houses, and communal kitchens, dining rooms and laundry. Moshavim were socialist agricultural communities that combined elements of individual and collective living, based on family farms. Yet, as the studies in this edited collection, show despite innovations in child-rearing practices, religious life, and labor, for women in these utopian communities, gender equality was still elusive.

The first section of the book collects women’s experiences in the pre-State period, including unique research on kibbutz mothers who wrote in secret diaries of their pain at being separated from their children raised collectively in children’s houses, pain they had to hide for fear of being seen as opposed to gender equality and the new society they were building. Another chapter explores mothers on moshavim who felt compelled to break gender constraints and fight against fascism by enlisting in British forces in the Middle East during World War II. They write of their pride in serving, but also of the sacrifice to their families and communities. On religious kibbutzim, women grew frustrated as rabbis debated whether they were allowed to wear shorts or pants while doing agricultural work, exemplifying the conflict between traditional constraints and the new, collectivist kibbutz.

In the book’s second section, we get a closer view of the period after the founding of the State. Various factors—the declining status of the labor settlement movement; the waves of immigrants from Asia, North Africa and Europe that presented many absorption challenges to Israel and the collective settlements; and Israel’s integration into the global neo-liberal economy and the processes of privatization—led to valuing individualism in the kibbutzim and moshavim. Changes arrived, but not gender equality. Articles describe how Mizrahi women immigrants integrated into moshavim, how economic and labor changes to kibbutzim and moshavim in modern times affected women, and how second-generation kibbutz mothers, rebelling against their experiences as children, pushed to make kibbutzim more family-oriented, by pressing for such “radical” changes as family meals and family sleeping arrangements.

All these books deal with people who have been on the margins of Israeli society. Together, they paint a devastating but important picture of the ways reality in Israel has failed to live up to ideals.

Susan Sapiro is a researcher and writer for nonprofits, and a book critic.

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April 20, 2020 by

Displacement, Migration, Personal and Geopolitical •

In her solo show “Strangeness,” multi-media artist and actress Raida Adon explores human migration via a 33-minute video of the same name presenting simultaneous narratives of a group’s progress on foot interspersed with scenes of the artist herself in surreal situations. Exploring the emotions within the struggle to find a home, she restructures polarized stories reflecting her own complex identity as both an Israeli and a Palestinian. Born in November 1972 in Acre, Israel, to a Jewish father and a Muslim mother, Adon in her work examines her own complex biography, conflicted nations, and the relationship between two interrelated societies. Adon drew inspiration for Strangeness from footage of Palestinians in the aftermath of the 1948 War of Independence, and from pictures of the deportation of the Jews from Jaffa in 1917 by the Ottoman Empire, intertwining these collective experiences in a commentary on time and history. Complementing the film, are 12 drawings by the artist used to prepare for the video work, as well as a suitcase Adon constructed to look like her childhood home. At the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.


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March 10, 2020 by

What Purim in Israel Taught me About Inequality

When I was growing up in Israel I never looked forward to Purim. Pestering my overworked mother for a costume was bad enough, but the ritual I dreaded most was the mishloah manot—an exchange of baskets of candy and dried fruit. Wrapped in tinted cellophane and displayed on the teacher’s desk, these baskets let everyone know just how rich or poor we were. When the teacher redistributed the packets, everyone hoped to get the treasure troves that the well-to-do Ashkenazi kids brought. As for the rest of us, the immigrants and the Mizrahis, we braced ourselves for the grunts of disappointed and muttered insults with which our offerings would be received.

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February 6, 2020 by

Why We Started a New Women’s Political Party in Israel


Photo Credit: Efrat Shpruker

Every time I turn on my computer, I remember why I decided to form a women’s political party. Not alone, obviously, but with a diverse and talented group of women. Nevertheless, I am constantly reminded about what brought me here, every time the screen comes to life.

No matter how many ad-blockers I use, the ads are constant: Do I want a hot babe? Or, do I need Viagra? Or maybe I’m in the mood for a Russian bride?

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November 14, 2019 by

The Controversial Centerpiece of the Other Israel Film Festival

By Chanel Dubofsky

In 2015, Israa Jaabis’s car exploded at a checkpoint. The 33 year old Palestinian suffered first and third degree burns over 60 percent of her body and was charged with attempted murder.

It wasn’t intentional, Jaabis’s sister told Lea Tsemel, the Jerusalem lawyer at the center of the documentary, “Advocate,” directed by Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaiche. The explosion was a technical glitch, not a terrorist attack. Also, she told Tsemel, there was the fact that her sister had attempted suicide multiple times in the past. 


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November 6, 2019 by

Fiction: Diamonds and Ashes

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The water is a silk sari, pleating, unraveling beneath us, falling away. Eucalyptus trees blink in the morning sunlight. I am on a boat on the Sea of Galilee, with my aunts Esther and Hannah. With their short dark hair and stocky figures, they make it hard for me to believe that they are—were—my mother’s older sisters. 

“Can you believe this is what he tells me?” Aunt Esther gestures at the older of the crew members. The men wear black t-shirts emblazoned Holyland Sailing. “He says last year a group of billionaires are coming from Texas with the ashes of their loved ones. They mixed them with, how you say? yaholamim.

“Diamonds,” Aunt Hannah helps out. Like her sister, she has a strong Israeli accent.

“Yes, diamonds, and they throw them in the water.”

“So they are used to it, even though it is not so Jewish. People scattering ashes.”

“Really?” I ask. “Are these stories true?”

I shake my head in amazement. Tucked under my arm is the box labeled Rose Williams: Cremated Remains. Hudson and Son, Bath.

“Of course,” says Aunt Esther. “By the way, your mother’s name was Shoshana Ullmann. We never called her Rose.” History hangs in the air between us, my aunts’ skin darker than my mother’s as if 40 years of disappointing English summers had drained her of any color. She was also slimmer than her sisters, and more reserved.

For two weeks in Israel, my head has been spinning with questions. Why did my mother leave Israel when she was twenty- one? Why did she never return? Why did she distance herself from her parents? Why did she anglicize her name and deny her Judaism? Why did she make a monthly payment to her sisters? And most curiously of all, why did she request her ashes to be scattered on a lake she never visited?

My aunts have introduced me to so many cousins that I have struggled to remember which children and grandchildren belong to which aunt. I have been conscious that my white skin and cautious demeanor must seem as alien to them as their effusiveness appears to me. Now that both sisters live again in the family home, Esther (widowed) and Hannah (divorced) fill their days with family. They eat at a large dining table, served by their Arab maid Mimi, who limps slightly as she carries plates of food in. I am intrigued by her.

Mimi looks like a woman in her twenties, dark hair twisted into a bun, her nearly black eyes downcast, her brown skin smooth. Beautiful and silent. The aunts thank her for her service, but she does not reply, just nods her head slightly in response.

Wrapped around this stone house in Herzylia like a sash, the garden bursts with mangoes, pomegranates gleaming red; passionfruit and guavas concealing their moisture beneath rough skins. Banana trees with wide leaves; palms with golden dates stored high like jewels; olive trees fluttering their silver foliage and a single rose bush, its pink flowers blushing at their incongruity in this exotic terrain.

‘We grow this for your mother,’ says Aunt Esther as she shows me their garden. Aunt Hannah walks silently on.

The days spent with them have been filled with love and warmth but I have sensed that they are holding something back. We have eaten many meals together in their pleasant home: books straight on the shelves; fruit in wooden bowls; framed black-and-white photos, including one of my teenaged mother and her sisters, Mum in a short skirt and beaming surprisingly broadly. In her later work as an administrator in the hospital, she always looked smart, her skirt below her knees, her shoes flat, nothing Mediterranean about her apart from the slight Israeli accent she could not lose. Her dark hair and eyes often led to questions she just waved away with the reply: ‘I was born in Israel but left many years ago. England’s my home now.’

My aunts have opened my eyes to Israel: Jaffa, its yellow stone and bobbing boats in the Mediterranean; Tel Aviv, its busyness and sophistication a surprise to me; Ashdod, a new city gleaming with pride in the white light; Haifa, its harbor spread below us like a feast; Jerusalem, where I laid my hands on the hot, golden Western Wall; and the Druze market where I bought my father a silver coffee pot with tiny espresso cups on a matching tray.

But with all the pleasures has been a tension. Not only the soldiers carrying guns and security at every mall and train station. Not only the stories of Orthodox spitting at secular girls because of their immodest dress. Not only the way that Israelis are overtly political in a way that the British are not. My aunts scan the papers daily for news. One day while I am there the headlines tell of an Orthodox Jewish man who has stabbed a young woman in a gay pride parade in Jerusalem. A Palestinian family with a baby daughter is burned alive in their own home. Jews and Arabs live their lives against a backdrop of fear.

The tension has been closer to home, too. Hannah and Esther have been constantly bickering, slipping into Hebrew to do so, excluding me from the conversation, glancing in my direction and then looking away. They return to English when they are calmer, and I am included again.

“What kind of studies you are doing, Claire?”

“I’ve started a Ph.D. at Bath University.”

“Near your home?”

“Yes. Near where I’m living with my father.”

“We met him when we came to England once. Do you remember we came to see you when you were still at school?”

“Yes I do.” I recall, aged 14, that my mother’s two sisters briefly entered our lives.

“What you are studying?” “I’m researching literature, culture and identity.” The next morning, Esther gives me T. Carmi’s At the Stone of Losses and his words reduce me to tears. She lends me poems by the poet Rachel, “In My Garden” and “Will you hear my voice?” She takes me to see Rachel’s grave in the Kinneret cemetery, and the single, simple name on her headstone: Rachel. I place a stone on her grave.

I have been emotional on this trip, which would surprise Hugh, his ongoing complaint about me that I don’t connect. In spite of liking him, I have been unable to commit, scared of the age gap, my 25 to his 38. Worried about what kind of mother I might be. I have felt homesick here, missing Hugh, missing my father’s soft, genial kindness, missing our English garden and cottage, the honeysuckle which curls around my bedroom window. Missing my mother, who when she passed away in September, was not fighting the cancer but letting it take her at 62, submitting to it as if she felt that she deserved it.

Ours was a quiet, understated family, my sweet doctor father with rumors of an early unsuccessful marriage before my mother, which no one really spoke about. And my mother, dutiful, always supportive of me, attending every concert and play at my girls’ school tucked genteelly away in the hills. And yet when it came to the bear hugs I witnessed other families exchanging…it didn’t happen with us. My father would pat me on the shoulder if I did well; my mother would put her arms around me but almost without touching. If I asked about her past in Israel, the details were sketchy.

“I grew up in Herzylia, a lovely house with my parents who ran a pharmacy and two older sisters. I went to the army, and then a kibbutz for voluntary work and came here to study. That’s all.”

And then she would turn away, a clear signal that she didn’t want to talk about it. When I was asked my religion at school, my mother would tell me to state “No religion,” as I was brought up with no Judaism at all. We did not light candles on Shabbat; we did not go to synagogue on the High Holy Days or any days; we did not have a Chanukiah; we did not dip apples into honey on Rosh Hashanah. I learned about these festivals in school but they remained theory, not practice. At home, we celebrated Christmas modestly, a small tree with white lights and not overly lavish presents, as if she was ashamed of celebrating a Christian festival.

I learned more about her after she died. She left me money to continue my Ph.D.; she made a bequest to the Centre for Peace Studies in Jaffa, and to the Divan orchestra. She requested a humanist funeral to include music by Louis Armstrong and Bach. And most curious of all were these lines in her will: “I would like to be cremated and for my ashes to be scattered on Lake Kinneret.”

It took me months to face sorting out her wardrobe. I put her copies of Country Life magazine in a pile for recycling. I folded her clothes—the sensible skirts, the flat shoes, the beige cardigans, the long cotton nighties and white underwear—into bags for Oxfam. All the while, I fought back tears and felt that I was handling the costumes of a young actor who plays an older character, as if she had assumed a false identity. I felt overwhelmed with regret that only after she had gone had she really come to me.

And in the darkness at the bottom of the wardrobe a wooden box inlaid with purple anemones and a bag of poems she had written. I knew she liked reading poetry, especially Keats, Shelley and the Romantics but I did not know that she wrote it herself. I read her words:

Once we walked at the lake’s edge,
Purple anemones tucked in our hair
And there my dust will settle.
I am the lake. I am the fish.
I am the leaves that float.
I am a part of whatever grows.
There is no other eternity that I desire.

Even seeing the word desire shocked me. My mother, who never expressed her wishes and did not seem to demand anything, not even a biscuit to go with her tea.

I phone my father a few times. I keep in touch with Hugh, whose replies to my emails are always warmer than mine to his. Something restrains me. Would it be right to open myself like a book at its center? To let him completely in?

I think of the times we have had, watching the swans puff themselves up on the river; the meals in our favorite trattoria; the nights where I have opened myself physically to him even while emotionally I have been closed.

On the boat, the men have taken us to the centre of the lake where no shoreline is now visible, and have stilled the vessel. My aunts say Kaddish together, which they tell me is the mourner’s prayer. Then together we take the bag from the red box, our hands overlapping, and scatter Mum’s ashes on the water. They remain on the surface for an instant, then dissolve and vanish.

The tears come fast and my aunts hug me close, so that I can feel their breasts rest on mine, in no hurry to run away. “Thank you,” I whisper. “Thank you for your kindness.”

‘She is at peace now,’ says Hannah.

I finger the locket around my neck my mother gave me, her tiny photo trapped inside. I wonder why she asked to be scattered on this lake?

Esther and Hannah exchange glances. “I want to tell you,” says Esther. “You deserve to know.”

Hannah glares at her. “Esther, remember what we agree.”

“No,” says Esther. The boat has begun to sail again and the motion seems to spur her on. “I will tell you, Claire. This is your history.”

Hannah moves to the other side of the boat, turning her back to us and staring out at the water, disapprovingly.

“Your mother,” begins Esther carefully, “was very clever at school and our abba—our father—was very proud of her. He has high hopes. After the army, she does not know what job to do so she, Shoshana, goes to the kibbutz there.” And as if on cue, the community comes into view. I can see sugar-cube houses in the distance, clinging to the hills.

“When she is there she meets a young man, an Arab, Ibrahim, from Um-el-Fachem. They fall in love. He was a carpenter for the kibbutz.”

I recall the wooden box with the anemones on its lid. “What happened then?” “Abba finds out. He is very angry.”

Hannah turns to stare at Esther, calls out something in Hebrew which I don’t understand. “I have said enough.”

“Please. I need to know.”

“Your mother got….” She mimes a round stomach.

“Pregnant? My mother was pregnant?” 

“Yes. Abba, angry, come to the kibbutz, says Shoshana must not have the baby. Must get rid of it. Your mother said no.”

“My mother had a child before me? With Ibrahim?” I feel my heart thump in my chest and my legs quiver.

“Yes. A girl.”

“I can’t believe it. What happened to her?”

“She go to…how you say?” “An orphanage?”

“Yes. She is not well. And your mother sent away to England to study. Abba says she must not return. But the child is not happy in the home so we help out. Hannah and me.”

“What was the child called?”

Esther pauses. “Mimi,” she says.

The bottom of the boat collapses beneath my feet and I am falling through water.

“Mimi? The Arab girl who works for you?”

“She is half-Arab,” says Esther. “She helps us in the house and we support her. Your mother always sent us an allowance for her, too. She likes to draw.”

“Mimi is my sister?” I think of the dark-haired girl who stumbles into the dining room carrying a jug of water, a plate of watermelon.“Does she know her story, who her parents are?”

“No,” says Esther. “She does not.”

“But surely she is curious?”

Hannah is still staring at the water, searching for answers there.

“She is a quiet girl. She asked once who her parents were and we just said that we didn’t know. It’s easier that way, less complicated.”

The lake and land spin. There is nothing beneath me. I think of my parents, about my strong sense that they loved me, in spite of their secrets, their understated ways. It seems wrong that Mimi does not know who she really is.

We leave the boat and thank the crew. I wonder what they think of me: cheerful at the start, weeping in the middle; stunned at the end.

In a restaurant in Tiberias we order salad and fish. Porcelain dishes are brought to the table. They form a ceramic patchwork on the cloth: hummus, tahini, pickles, salads, yogurt, roast cauliflower with sunflower seeds, eggplant dip, chopped beetroot stained by its own juices.

We eat in silence, the sisters angry with each other. “Does my father know about Mimi?” I ask. The aunts shake their heads.

“I am pleased you told me,” I say quietly. “It is a shock, but now I know my mother’s history.”

On the last day of my visit, my aunts go shopping for gifts for me, but I ask to stay at the house. I have packing and washing to do.

Once they have gone, I walk through their garden to the small house where Mimi lives. I knock and wait, watching the olive leaves shift in the breeze. At last the door opens tentatively and she peers round the frame.

“Shalom. Salaam,” I say. “May I come in please, Mimi?”

She looks uncertain but she lets me in. Her home is functional: a wooden table and chairs, one settee, tiled floors, beautiful sketches on the walls. It strikes me that her home may be simple but her history is not. In the corner of the room is a chair and desk with a half-finished drawing upon it. Then I realize that the framed pencil drawings adorning the walls are by her: the serrated edges of shells; the outside and inside of tropical fruits; mountains delicately drawn. No portraits, only nature.

“These are really good,” I say, pointing to them, and although she does not comprehend the words, I am sure she understands the message.

Mimi goes to the kitchen, limping slightly and returns with juice for me. I take it, “Todah rabah,” I say and drink. I taste guavas and passionfruit, the sweetness I need.

I nod and smile. She seems pleased. We sit together on the sofa and I search her face for my mother’s likeness. The downcast eyes, the modesty, the translucent skin. Yes, my mother is there within her, and in a strange way, I feel my mother’s presence. I may have scattered her ashes but she is here with me.

I hold out my hand and take hers. I wonder whether she will resist and refuse, but to my amazement she even curls her small fingers upon my skin. I am surprised at how comfortable I am with her and she with me. Before, when I have had to hold hands with a stranger at a dance, or even when someone has brushed by me in a crowd, I have felt uncomfortable but not here. We sit like this for several minutes in silence and I feel that I could stay in this position forever, but I don’t want the aunts to come back and find me here.

I take the locket of my mother—our mother—from my neck and place it around Mimi’s. Our faces are so near I can feel her soft hair. The gold catches the light as she moves.

Mimi lifts her face and her dark eyes are, without doubt, the eyes of our mother. We half smile while I drown in those eyes.

She gives me one of her delicate sketches, mangoes and lemons. I convey my thanks with an embrace.

By the time the aunts return, I have packed. They have brought halva for my father and books of poetry for me, which I will treasure.

At the airport, I ask:

“Isn’t Mimi lonely?”

And Esther says no, she likes to be alone to draw. They use the money Sho—Rose—sent to buy her materials.

“May I carry on sending her that monthly allowance?” I ask, and they agree. “And may I visit you all again?’ They smile and we hug again.

On the airplane I notice my gently tanned skin, as if I am edging closer to Mimi. I text Hugh, “I love you. I want you,” switch off my phone and close my eyes, opening them again only when I glimpse through the small window the thin green skin covering England.

Tamar Hodes’ latest novel is The Water and the Wine (Hookline Books).

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November 5, 2019 by

The Closer You Get, The Farther You Are

Let’s say you are a girl born in the 1950s. Born after the greatest catastrophe to befall the Jewish people since the destruction of the Temple. And let’s say you are the eldest of four daughters and no sons, descendant— so you are told, frequently—of a lustrous rabbinic family, one that includes a revered scholar of the 17th century, Shabtai Ha-Kohen, the ShaKh.

Let’s say, as well, that you inherit the luster of this estate without the prestige that might have accrued to the eldest son of such a family in the world of Before— before the Enlightenment sheared off some of the brilliant ones to heretical ideas and ideologies; before the Nazis and the Poles and the Hungarians and the French murdered one third of the rest.

Born after that intact world but ahead of the era when women donned the garment of sacred scholarship that had not previously been their birthright, you become an ardent, mystical young woman who yearns to be closer, much closer, to God; who has an unaccountable instinct for your family’s lost authenticity, but without the sanction, power or pathway to retrieve it and bring it to life. Except, sanctioned only by yourself and the pedigree of centuries of commentators, as a writer of poems who has begun to discover her voice.

You are a seeker, in quest. But you have been given the gift of Jewish literacy and are in love with the Jewish story. Beneficiary of your parents’ commitment to a day school education, to Hebrew, to joyful holy days, the beauty of summer camp, and the miracle of Israel, you launch yourself into the world to deepen the profundity of the ecstatic and grieving communal experiences that your then-exceptional upbringing has bequeathed you.

You are not alienated. You do not feel parochial. You are not trying to escape.

You come of age at the dawn of Jewish feminism, the essential idea that allows you to claim a legacy that is only beginning to find an equal place for you; that grants you and a community of peers the confidence to defy the universalist feminism of Jewish women who reject a presumed and indicted patriarchy—a Judaism whose riches they were not given the learning to savor—in favor of the way of the biblical daughters of Tzlofchad, who appealed directly to Moses for the right to inherit their father’s portion.

And so, you do not leave. You do not become a Buddhist. You do not make the counterculture your religion or India or liberation theology. Instead of the expected Ph.D. in English literature, you drop out of graduate school, forsaking the Anglo-Saxon, Christianity-laden writing you were meant to teach someday, to embark on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

You are looking for a teacher to guide your soul, to quiet your turbulence, to meet your longing for God with a vocabulary, and—you suspect—boundaries, as your passion is consuming and, at times, terrifying. You are very alone, occasionally afraid you might go mad.

What do you find?

At every turn, your gender is an unscalable deterrent. You are not a young seeker. You are, it turns out, merely a young woman. You cannot become the talmid muvhak, the chosen pupil of an acclaimed rebbe. You cannot attend a yeshiva that teaches women advanced Talmud, for such an institution does not exist—although, decades into an unimaginable future, it will. You can scarcely be alone in a room with a rabbi or master teacher who has the knowledge and the wisdom for which you thirst. You find quirky avenues, a man who is not Orthodox to teach you Zohar privately; a class open to men, women, observant and secular Israelis given in Heichal Shlomo by a Talmud prodigy; a weekly gathering in the dining room of a gentle Bratslav hasid who opens his home in Me’ah She’arim each Thursday night to offer Likutei Moharan, Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav’s teachings, to the women of Jerusalem. You don a skirt and long sleeves to learn these eloquent, paradoxical texts at their source. (The teacher will die young, some say because he taught women.) You join a meditation group of women who speak only Hebrew to meet at night in Jerusalem’s winters in a shudderingly cold apartment where you are never sure you understand the instructions or what is meant to happen.

It is a motley education, self-assembled, that does and does not appease your hunger. You are a Canadian and a New Yorker, but your essentialist identity is: Female. You have hundreds of conversations to analyze and channel your yearning, but none can mitigate the barrier of gender.

In New York, an ocean away, women are awakening to their autonomy and ambition. The first National Jewish Women’s Conference has taken place in 1973. The air is electric with new stories, a cornucopia of women’s voices. Young women are thronging to law school and applying to rabbinical school. Your friends are entranced by vistas of possibility, for it turns out that in our own tradition, unbeknownst to us, women are permitted to put on tefillin; women are allowed to say kiddush.

In Israel, you are told, again and again: “We don’t have time for feminism. We have to worry about security.”

You meet women you deem holy, women whose faces are alight with the joy of serving their Creator. There is no doubt that they are happier than you are. Their hair, arms, and legs are covered— and they have a single prescribed path: To have many children and be the spiritual counterparts to their learned husbands. You were taught that “Jews are never too learned to outgrow the need for printed words of prayer in their hands, or the need to encircle their heads and wrap tefillin around their arm every day— because Jews require these concrete aids to link them to the ineffable.” But Jews turn out to mean male Jews. As a woman, you are told, you do not need any physical manifestation of your bond with Hashem, with God. You were taught that the task of Jews is to raise up biology to an altar of intentional holiness. But Jews turns out to mean male Jews. As a woman, you are told, you have an innate biological sanctity that is higher than a man’s, even though you cannot be a witness, or be counted in a minyan, or initiate a divorce. (Forty years later, in Modern Orthodoxy, you still can’t.)


I am a witness to the fact that life for women is exponentially better than when I was a girl, but the legislation of Jewish women’s bodies is worse. Before feminism and before Jewish feminism, we wore whatever we wanted in my Orthodox Jewish day school, including mini-skirts that were one foot long. Now to be an observant girl-woman in an Orthodox context means to be given exhaustive lists about what to wear and how to wear it, to be instructed in shomer negi’ah—no touching a boy or even being alone with him—to be stopped from singing before a mixed audience, to be told that you, in your body, as you go about your day, are the sexual temptation to men.

Who cares? a reader might wonder. Leave this traditional framework for the parity of other denominations or none— the start-up minyanim, the halakhic-egalitarian ones.

The answer depends on how much solitude a woman should be asked to endure. Because if you want a life of observance, of Shabbat, kashrut, fast days and feast days, you need a community. And if you join a community of true equality between women and men, you are less likely—sometimes much less likely—to find as well a community of observance. In current North American Jewish life, the two do not, except in a few enclaves, align.

The brochures of gap-year educational experiences will speak of pluralism, but you will be in Israel programs where you may be the only one left on campus on Shabbat. You will be part of an engaged, vital Jewish community, but you will be invited to dinner parties where the food is not kosher or that begin before Shabbat has ended. You will explain what you do and cannot do, and you will grow tired of explaining.

Why should a person have to choose between an encompassing community of practice and equality before Jewish law? Why, if an American woman’s life expectancy is 86.6, should her childbearing years—if she has children—determine her secondary Jewish legal status for all her days? Or, if she joins a community that attempts to live in the world and practice Jewish law, why should she be equal in the eyes of the law in her American daily life but not in her sacred Jewish life?

Generally, those communities where women speak actively of a life of holiness— where the quest to be close to God and discern what we are obligated to do in the name of the Name is articulated and constant and considered a sufficient reason for daily choices—are more likely to be settings whose members devote themselves to halakhah and its detailed stipulations. But the more that those communities place God’s will, as manifest in Jewish practice, explicitly at the center of their values and behavior, the more a woman like the young woman I was will have to abide by tightening strictures over her body, her nature, and her purpose.

We live in an unredeemed world, where the interpretation of Jewish law in observant Jewish life is owned by one gender that can still tolerate the cries to heaven of women who cannot leave their abusive or mentally ill husbands without paying a ransom or forfeiting their children. In mediated middle age, the young woman I was is more than ever in love with the Jewish story and the Jewish homeland. My ardor has been tempered by a complexity earned by decades of being alive, but far more by the sobriety of the chief realization of my embodied experience as a Jewish woman: The closer you get, the farther you are.

We live in the second creation story, dreaming of inhabiting the first. We live in a world man enters alone, where woman is still a part taken from the whole of him. But all of us can dream of paradise, of a universe where God creates a person first, in the divine image, and only then, and only equally, gives gender, blesses us, and sees that all is very, very good.

Nessa Rapoport is the author of a novel, Preparing for Sabbath; a collection of her prose poems, A Woman’s Book of Grieving; and a memoir, House on the River: A Summer Journey. Her new novel will be published in 2020. ©Nessa Rapoport.

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The Lilith Blog

July 22, 2019 by

An Israeli Official Called My Family a “Second Holocaust” — and I Felt Relieved

In a recent meeting, the Israeli Minister of Education, Rafi Peretz, called my family part of “a second Holocaust.” According to three sources present, the new Netanyahu appointee told the Cabinet, in response to a presentation on demographic trends among American Jews, that the rate of intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews in the United States was the moral equivalent of our people’s greatest trauma in recent memory. 

When I read his comment, I braced myself for a wave of indignation. Instead, I felt relief.

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July 9, 2019 by

Kayama Moms •

In Israel, women up to age 45 qualify for the National Health Service free in vitro fertilization for two children. Now, not only secular single women, but also Orthodox single women have overcome stigma and chosen to become mothers. Kayama, founded in 2011, aims to create a community for Shomer Shabbat (religiously observant) families of single moms by choice, offering information, tools and support to accompany them from making the decision, to conception, pregnancy or adoption and beyond. Seminars include— pregnancy/adoption procedures, fertility for 35+ women, financial planning, parenting tips conducted by doctors, rabbis, educators, psychologists and experienced single moms. They also arrange Shabbat retreats and vacations for single moms and their children. kayamamoms.org

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April 2, 2019 by

A School for Peace

Photo: Avram Hay

Photo: Avram Hay

The summer of 2018 saw a breakthrough for female recruits joining the male-dominated ranks of the combat units in the Israel Defense Forces. Some 1000 young women volunteered for combat duty, 150 more female recruits than in 2017, and up from 547 in 2012. Four (not new recruits) became the first female tank commanders, and the Israeli Air Force announced the appointment of the first female commander of a flight squadron.

Leaders from women’s organizations, and many politicians, hailed these events of breaking gender boundaries as symbols of feminist achievement and gender equality. But some viewed it differently.

Dr. Nava Sonnenschein, a veteran peacemaker and teacher of conflict resolution who has focused on Israeli-Palestinian dialogue for decades, declared that this upsurge is not the equality for which Israeli women should be striving. “Women should not barrel their way in to gain equal access to combat units,” said Sonnenschein, in an interview in Hebrew with Lilith. “Instead, they should fight to change the pervasive militarism in Israeli society.”

That’s a cause Sonnenschein has been engaged in for some 45 years, since she herself served in the IDF as a teacher at the Ein Karem Agricultural School in 1973—notably, not a combat position. In the Yom Kippur War that year, Sonnenschein lost several classmates and friends, and her impulse to pursue peace actively was sparked after she attended a memorial ceremony at her high school in Haifa. “Among the many people I knew who had been killed were my first love, Nimrod Gazit, and Muly, my cherished counselor from the HaMachanot HaOlim youth movement. I had also visited an injured friend at Soroka Hospital in Beer Sheva, and saw soldiers badly burned, with body parts hanging in the air.

“When the speakers at the memorial ceremony recited rote lines about valiant soldiers sacrificing their lives so that we could live, I felt a pit in my stomach. Was there really no alternative?”

Determined to find one, Sonnenschein co-led her first Israeli-Palestinian dialogue group utilizing a Jewish and an Arab facilitator. This was in 1974, while she was studying for a bachelor’s degree in education and art at University of Haifa, That group opened the door to a lifetime of peace work.

Alongside her peace activism, Sonnenschein has supported feminist principles. But an influx of women into combat units is not the gender segregation we should be challenging, she said.

“A border policewoman with an M16 slung over the shoulder frisking an elderly woman at a checkpoint is not the pinnacle of equality between the sexes,” asserted Sonnenschein. Nor is it the best use of that inductee’s talents. “Women should strive to promote a different sort of equality in our society: democracy, justice, and peace for all those who live in Israel and Palestine.”

Perhaps the historic exclusion of women from combat units has been a determining factor in bolstering their impulse to participate in Israeli-Palestinian dialogue. A byproduct of this exclusion has been that more women appear to have gravitated to peace work. And once engaged in dialogue, women seem to exhibit a greater ability to feel the other side. “From my vantage point, women seem to have more interactive tools to reach across the divide,” says Sonnenschein.

“IDF soldiers who spend three years policing civilians…in the West Bank begin to see the Palestinians not as people,” said Sonnenschein, speaking in Hebrew. “It’s a very difficult job. After these soldiers are released from the army, their motivation to participate in Israeli-Palestinian dialogue is greatly diminished.”

Sonnenschein knows a great deal about peacemaking. She is one of the founders of Neve Shalom-Wahat al-Salam (“Oasis of Peace”), an egalitarian community of Jewish and Palestinian-Arab citizens of Israel, located on a Latrun hilltop between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. She is also a founder and director of the country’s first and only School for Peace, located in the same community. Since 1980, Sonnenschein has taught some 70,000 Israelis and Palestinians, aged 16 to 72, how to “dialogue-around-conflict,” using a signature method she helped develop at the School for Peace.

The method is rooted in social psychology. It puts the conflict right on the table and addresses the asymmetry of power, allowing for the identity of each side to stretch to include the other.

And stretch it does. For Israeli Rachel Yanay, one of the dialogue participants interviewed for a book by Sonnenschein now out in English, The Power of Dialogue Between Israelis and Palestinians, this stretching involved an embrace of her Mizrahi identity, and changed her relationship to Palestinians.

“First of all there’s my acceptance of the Arab-ness in me; I was more prepared to acknowledge it (after the course). And then there is a different connection to the other place: now it’s not off limits, not unacceptable. It is not the evil enemy who has no connection with me. It is part of who I am. Denying that they are part of who I am is incomprehensible now. What were they before? Some kind of group that you designate, they don’t belong and they don’t have to belong, and heaven help us if they do belong because they want to kill me; they want me not to be here.”

And Ayelet Roth says “The fear hasn’t disappeared, but it has diminished. I see myself as someone who has a partner. It’s possible to take action together to influence what happens in this country.”

For Maram Masarwi, facilitating the School for Peace course provides “tools for your whole life,” she says. 

“As soon as you begin this process, it’s as though you’re beginning to see past your blindness. Then no one can tell you not to see, because you are already seeing. And you also find that you are dealing with yourself through the way you are dealing with the other.”

School for Peace staff members have taught their method in Cyprus, Northern Ireland, the UK, South Africa, Costa Rica and Kosovo. And in Sonnenschein’s decades of work in Israel and abroad, she told Lilith that she has found peace processes advance further when there is a higher proportion of women on the team. Strong empirical evidence suggests that including women in the various aspects of peace negotiations yields better results. For example, an International Peace Institute study of 182 signed peace agreements between 1989 and 2011 found that “when women are included in peace processes, there is a 35 percent increase in the probability that a peace agreement will last 15 years or more.” But everywhere women are in fact woefully underrepresented at the peace table. Between 1992 and 2011, only four percent of signatories to peace agreements were women, and less than ten percent of the negotiators at peace tables.

For Nada Matta, a Palestinian woman living in Israel who has been a facilitator of dialogue groups, the process of facilitation is “not easy,” as she says in the book. “I remember once regarding the subject of women, which is a very sensitive subject with the Jews. By the way I don’t much like to get into that, because the Jews love to latch onto it as a weak spot (of the Arab group). On the other hand, things must be addressed candidly. I remember on one occasion, something about the hijab, I think. Taking a position that is farther removed from Arab culture is not easy, and some issues are more sensitive than others.” 

Sonnenschein has observed that in the Israeli-Palestinian case, both Israeli and Palestinian women are more effective than their male counterparts at bringing the central issues to the peacemaking table and engaging in constructive discussion.

“When our courses include Palestinians from the West Bank, we feature a three- or four-day simulation of negotiating a final-status agreement between Israel and Palestine. Women are consistently greater catalysts for this process. They’re better able to see the interests of the other side. Instead of just thinking of ‘what do I lose’, they consider the needs of each side on matters like Jerusalem, borders, sovereignty and historical justice with the refugees.”

Asked if patriarchal tendencies common in Israeli and Palestinian society creep into the dialogue, Sonnenschein nodded yes.

“There are times where I listen to men from both sides sharing their views vociferously, with notably less participation from the women. When it is my turn to give feedback, I turn to the women and say, it would be great to hear your voices!”

Sonnenschein has spent nearly four decades using her voice to promote dialogue. In 2010, she was awarded the U.S. State Department’s “Women of Courage” certificate for her “tireless work in advocating for social change and coexistence.” Last June, Sonnenschein and her colleague, Harb Amara, were awarded the Institute of International Education’s 2018 Victor J. Goldberg Prize for Peace for creating and leading the Change Agents Program for Jewish and Palestinian Professionals.

“Meeting the ‘other’ in the right environment and under the right conditions can change your life and your approach,” she says. The Power of Dialogue Between Israelis and Palestinians: Stories of Change from the School for Peace (Rutgers University Press) features interviews, mostly conducted around 2008, with 25 Israeli and Palestinian graduates of the program, 11 of them women, telling how they implement what they’ve learned “to promote peace in human rights, politics, environment, social work, urban planning, civil engineering, you name it.”

Ruth Ebenstein is a writer, a historian, public speaker and peace activist. Her forthcoming memoir is Bosom Buddies: How Breast Cancer Fostered an Unexpected Friendship Across the Israeli-Palestinian Divide.

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