Tag : book excerpt

April 2, 2019 by

Taking on the Boys’ Club

Years ago a friend of mine came to visit Los Angeles. During the course of conversation he mentioned that one of my long-time client organizations, with which I was still deeply involved, was going to be changing its entire mode of operation.

“I hadn’t heard anything about that,” I said.

“…Oh, I’m sure they’ll tell you soon. It was just a small group of us they told while we were at [insert the name of your favorite Jewish conference] a month ago.”

“I was also at that conference,” I said. “When did that happen?”

“Oh, it was after hours, while a group of us were in the hotel hot tub,” he said, naming a group of about five men of varying ages and ranges of Jewish professional experience, half of whom had less direct connections with the project than I did.

ESTHER D. KUSTANOWITZ, “Dismantling the Jewish Organizational Boys’ Club, One Hot Tub at a Time,” in eJewish Philanthropy.

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July 15, 2014 by

Religion and Gender in the Israeli Defense Forces

When twenty-five-year-old Shani Boianjiu served as an infantry instructor in the Israel Defense Forces, her job occasionally involved having to touch other soldiers—teaching her students how to hold a gun correctly, how to lie on the ground in position, or how to protect themselves from enemy attack. Although this was an acceptable part of the job and made her an excellent instructor, it also caused problems for certain soldiers, specifically religious ones.

In an essay in the New York Times in September 2012, Boianjiu described the first time this happened. She was teaching a soldier to sit correctly in the field. “I came up behind him and put both hands on his shoulders, gently shaking him. I wanted to explain, ‘Look how easy it is for me to shake you out of position,’ but I couldn’t, because the soldier was yelling at me like he was on fire. I couldn’t make out what he was saying, but he was still in training and I was shocked by his disobedience. I thought maybe he was confused, so I bent down in the sand and grabbed his foot, moving it so that his toes pointed forward. If anything, he screamed louder. It was only when the drill ended that I caught what he was saying: ‘I observe touch.’ What this meant was that he couldn’t touch or be touched by girls or women. I was his superior and trainer, but I was also a girl.”

Female soldiers have made tremendous strides in the IDF over the past two decades. According to the IDF spokesperson’s office, women make up 33 percent of the IDF, female officers with the rank of colonel doubled from 2 percent in 1999 to 4 percent today, and the percentage of female officers with the rank of lieutenant colonel has grown by 70 percent in the last decade, from 7.3 percent in 1999 to 12.5 percent today. Moreover, over half of all soldiers in officer courses are women. During the last three years, an average of 55 percent of all staff officers in the Officers’ Training Course were women, an average of 53 percent of those OTC graduates went on to become officers in combat support positions, and an average of 3 percent of all combat officers were women. Perhaps most significantly, in March 2011, the IDF appointed Brigadier General Orna Barbivai as the first-ever female major general.

From the statistics, it’s clear that women are still a small minority of officers, but their numbers are rising. But as a country with mandatory conscription since its founding in 1948—the only country in the world in which women are also subject to this conscription—these advances for women are significant. Gone are the days when women in the army are relegated to jobs of making coffee and typing men’s memos. Also, even though, according to the IDF, some women only serve in 69 percent of the 93 percent of all roles that are open to them, they are present in far more areas of the Israeli military than ever before.

But as Shani Boianjiu’s example shows, women’s advances are also potentially problematic for religious men. And this could signal the beginning of a troubling trend for women in the army. 


Reprinted with permission from The War on Women in Israel: How Religious Radicalism is Smothering the Voice of a Nation (Sourcebooks, 2014). 

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July 15, 2014 by

Cut Loose

Cut Me Loose, a memoir by Leah Vincent


Leah Vincent, sent away from her Pittsburgh, crowded, ultra-Orthodox family after a tempestuous early adolescence, describes her solo life at age 17 on the margins in New York Citya crucial turning point in her transformative journey from ultra-Orthodox daughter to Harvard-educated author.


 There is little room for the single girl in Yeshivish life. For 
a woman, the rhythm of observance is tied to family. One is either a daughter or a wife. When my sisters had lived in New York, they’d spent Shabbos and holidays with friends from seminary who had family in New York. My sisters were extroverted girls who attracted new relationships like magnets. I had no friends from seminary, and I was not bold enough to make friends with strangers or approach distant cousins and ask if I could join them for a meal.

The worst part of the loneliness was how it compounded my boredom. Television, of course, was forbidden. I did not belong to a shul; as a girl without a husband or father on the other side of the mechitza, I was not expected to attend services. When I got home from work, I ate a slice of pizza or an apple for dinner, said my evening prayers slowly, showered for as long as I could stand, and then lay in bed in my nightgown, baking in the heat, worrying about my future as the moments dragged by.

… What’s next, I wondered. If there is no world of dating and marriage waiting to pull me in, why am I here?

Each day I went through the motions of my job and then counted the long hours of the evening, alone in my apartment. I said the Shema prayer every night before sleep, but heaven seemed unresponsive.

I was always hungry. My minimum-wage check barely covered the rent, the phone bill, and the electric bill. On too many Thursdays I was left with just a slice of bread, a bottle of ketchup, and a few pieces of American cheese. I baked grilled cheese, chewing each piece dozens of times to make it last. I melted cheese and ketchup in a pot on the stove to make a gooey soup, which I choked down. I squeezed the ketchup into circles on my palms and lapped it up. I made a “salad” of bread and cheese and garnished it with ketchup.

In my father’s parables, holy men were always scraping together pennies for weddings or Shabbos food. Poverty and spirituality seemed synonymous. As a child, wearing hand-me-down clothing and living with broken furniture just made me feel proud of our family’s devotion to God.

But there was no spiritual superiority in mixing hand soap and water in an empty shampoo bottle and hoping the resulting mixture would leave my hair shiny and clean. There was no magic in stuffing ribbons of toilet paper into my socks at work to smuggle home. There was no God in the dry taste of stale bread for breakfast, lunch, and then dinner. 

After a few weeks, I picked up the phone and called my mother. “It’s Leah.”

“Hello. Hold on—One second, Boorie Tzvi! Everything okay?”

“It’s very hectic now. Okay—”
“Mamme,” I cut in before my mother could hang up.

“Things are tough. You know. Even with my job, it’s hard.
 I don’t always have money for stuff, for food and stuff.” My instinct was to hide the choke in my voice, but I let it go. I wanted my mother to see the evidence, to understand how lost and overwhelmed I was feeling. “Could you help me, maybe?”

“Come on,” my mother said. “Stop being melodramatic, Leah. It’s not like you’re starving. You’re a grown-up now. You have to learn to stand on your own two feet.”

“I know,” I said, wiping my eyes on the back of my hand, ashamed of my outburst. “But it is—it is hard. I’m finding it hard.”

“We’ll see.” My mother sighed. “I just don’t know what happened. It feels like it’s one thing after another with you. You were always such a well-behaved girl. How did you become who you are now? I tell you, sometimes I think you must be possessed by a dybbuk. I don’t know how else to explain who you have turned into.”

A chorus of shouts rose behind her.
 “I’ve got to go now,” she said. “The children need me.”

A dybbuk? The diagnosis shocked me. Yeshivish Jews were not quick to speak of mystical things, let alone claim possession by a foreign evil spirit. That was the domain of the Hasidim. It was unsettling to hear my mother borrow such a foreign explanation.

If my mother thought I was possessed, then my prayers and stringencies had been for naught. There would be no thrilling conversations about someone’s son or nephew or cousin. There would be no examination of the life of some boy, of the schools and camps he’d attended, friends and neighbors, family, good deeds, personality. A possessed girl. I was marked forever.

A few days later, a twenty-dollar check arrived in the mail. I had hoped for a more robust salvation, but I was grateful for the slice of pizza, jar of peanut butter, bag of apples, bottle of shampoo, and six cans of tuna my mother’s money bought.


Excerpt from Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood by Leah Vincent. Published by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday Jan 21, 2014. Used with permission.


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