Tag : Rebecca Honig Friedman

The Lilith Blog

November 11, 2008 by


Last Tuesday, as I flipped between channels, I was endlessly enthused by the number of people over 65 giving live interviews on television, and the number of people of all ages invoking their parents and grandparents.

Seeing older people acting as crucial sources of perspective in an election year, not as cute and endearing characters led onto camera or into stump speech anecdotes just to win our hearts over, was moving, orienting, and a joy.

Americans lending their life experience included veterans of the Civil Rights Movement, the average citizen who remembers the time before the Voting Rights Act, and the average citizen who remembers someone who remembered it. One station’s anchor reported (spontaneously, it seemed) on his phone call with his mother just after the race was called. A famed presidential historian was on air – and described her grandmother’s childhood. The 67-year-old Congressman John Lewis from Georgia, a leader of the Civil Rights Movement, was, as always, a fount of stirring comments, but equally stirring to me were the leading questions of his interviewers: “I was just gonna ask,” one interrupted, “who it makes you think of, what are some of the names, what are some of the faces flying through your head right now?” It was the hugest night of the last four years, and it wasn’t the History Channel, but he was being invited to reminisce freely, the value of listening to him self-evident.

The names and faces flying through his head were Martin Luther King, President Johnson, President Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, the “countless individuals that stood in those unmovable lines in Selma,” and those young people who gave their lives for the cause.

Before Tuesday, I had never calculated that my parents were 16 years old when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated – I had never integrated the timeline of Civil Rights history with the timeline of my family history…to figure out when it was that, as my father proudly reports, my immigrant grandmother passionately encouraged him to join the movement.

Last night I heard a lecture by Kenyan-born author Ngugi wa Thiong’o. He said he remembered two things when the race was called last Tuesday. First, he imagined the first African captured and taken to America, and second, he remembered the story of an African-American man who, when Obama won the Democratic nomination, ran to the graveyard of his parents and grandparents. He had not expected or planned to do that, Ngugi recalled, but when the moment came, he just “wanted to be with them.”

In a way, I think we’ve all “run to the graveyard of our parents and grandparents” with this news in our hearts – in honor of them, in honor of those buried around them; out of elation, gratitude, and nostalgia; with questions; for information, confrontation, and celebration; to be sobered, to be reminded, to be made grateful, to relate the news, to receive a blessing, to herald a new day, to recall the old days – just to spend time with the soil in which they were buried.

As Jews, we know that history is always relevant, reliving it an imperative, and as women, we can be confident that the stories less aired have just as much to teach. Maybe we, as a nation, are too scared to take the long (and wide) view sometimes, but a shared, popular, primetime willingness and excitement to do so is one of the many phenomena of this election that I hope sticks around through January and beyond.

–Anna Schnur-Fishman

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The Lilith Blog

November 10, 2008 by

Out with "the Sarah Palin," in with "the Marie Antoinette?"

The new hair of Orthodox married women?

The most recent garment-related decree of Rabbi Yosef Sholom Elyashiv, of modesty courts fame, has given us a great new marketing idea for Orthodox women’s fashions. In a recent talk, R. Elyashiv announced that contemporary sheitels, as wigs worn by married Orthodox women are often called, are not an acceptable way to cover one’s hair in accordance with the tradition for married women. A woman who wears one, R. Elyashiv said, is considered as if she is going bareheaded, reports Yeshiva World News. Given that wearing sheitels — often pricey, designer models — is common practice amongst married women in many Orthodox communities, this pronouncement is a big deal.

It’s not the concept of wearing a wig that R. Elyashiv considers problematic, though (indeed, a Talmudic discussion deems them acceptable as a form of head covering); rather, it’s that today’s wigs, “contemporary” sheitels, look too much like real hair.
(Rabbi Elyashiv’s talk (in Yiddish) can be viewed online here. )

Not everyone agrees with the controversial ruling. Hirhurim’s Gil Student, for one, explains some of the relevant halacha and why he disagrees with R. Elyashiv. For once, though, we can see R. Elyashiv’s point — that “covering” your real hair with even nicer looking hair misses the point of the matter — and we appreciate that in this instance he blames both women and their husbands equally for allowing the offending practice (after all, one reason the Gemara says wigs are okay is because they make women more attractive to their husbands.)

But sheitel-machers and wearers need not fear. In forbidding only “contemporary” sheitels, R. Elyashiv has left open a huge and untapped niche in the sheitel industry, and we smell a huge opportunity here for the fashion-forward Orthodox woman: vintage and vintage-style sheitels.

If “contemporary” is the problem, go for old. If real-looking is the problem, go for over-the-top. No one said sheitels can’t be pretty or interesting, just that they can’t look to much like your real hair. (I’m reminded that an unmarried friend once suggested she might cover her hair with a clown wig when she gets married. One wonders if that would pass muster…)

R. Elyashiv did not specify when exactly the “contemporary period” of sheitel-making began, but we figure if you stick to pre-Victorian styles, you can’t go wrong. And looking to high fashion from previous centuries and other countries would be a great source of inspiration. After all, Marie Antoinette was a style icon of 18th century French fashion, and she had some of the biggest wigs around. (“Let them eat sponge cake!”) By comparison, the Sarah Palin wig that made a splash last month is plain and school-marmish. Even with the matching Kawasaki 704 glasses.

Come to think of it, men wore wigs back then, too. Maybe we could start thinking about replacing kippot with, say, an English barrister’s wig. It wouldn’t look any more out of place than a streimel.

–Rebecca Honig Friedman

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October 2, 2008 by

The Holy One, Blessed be S/He?: Cracking the Tetragrammaton

Here’s some food for thought as you ponder your relationship with God over the next week and a half of High Holiday atonement: what if God is neither a He nor a She nor an It, but a S/He?

Rabbi Mark Sameth, a pulpit rabbi in Pleasantville, NY and Biblical-linguistic sleuth on the side, believes he has cracked the code to the pronunciation — and meaning — of the inscrutable name of God known as the Tetragrammaton. And what it means, he contends, is “He-She.” As an article about Sameth’s findings in the Lower Hudson Journal puts it:

God thus becomes a dual-gendered deity, bringing together all the male and female energy in the universe, the yin and the yang that have divided the sexes from Adam and Eve to Homer and Marge.
“This is the kind of God I believe in, the kind of God that makes sense to me, in a language that speaks very, very deeply to human aspirations and striving,” Sameth said. “How could God be male and not female?”

Now lest you think that Sameth is some Bible-Code-nut, take heed that his findings were recently published in the CCAR (Central Conference of American Rabbis) Journal, the Reform movement’s foremost theological publication, in a paper called “Who Is He? He Is She: The Secret Four-Letter Name of God.”

Sameth cracked the secret by, get this, reading backwards. If you look at the four letters of the tetragrammaton, in Hebrew, “yud – hey – vav – hey,” and read them backwards, you get the sounds “hu,” meaning “he” in English, and “he,” meaning “she” in English. Sameth explains it thusly in his CCAR piece:

…this unpronounceable Name Yud Hay Vov Hay has, in fact, always been unpronounceable for the simple reason that it is written in reverse.
The explicit Name of God is not Yud Hay Vov Hay but rather it is Hay Vov Hay Yud vocalized with a shuruk and a chirik; its two syllables become the sound equivalents of the Hebrew words hu and hi, which would be rendered in English as He-She.
Counter to everything all of us, except our Jewish mystics, have grown up believing, the God of the Torah is not a “he.” HaShem, the Tetragrammaton, Shem Ha-Meforash, the explicit, ineffable, four letter Name of God is the conflation of the Hebrew pronouns for “he” and “she.”

Sameth’s reading, then, gives us a conception of a God that is not only hermaphroditic but also dyslexic. How inclusive! (OK, cheap shot.)

The obvious technical problem with Sameth’s reading is that there’s a missing letter “aleph” at the end of each of those words. Still, one could easily explain that away by saying that the “aleph” is merely a placeholder and is not necessary when the word is attached to its counterpart. To back up his reading, Sameth presents evidence from the Torah and the mystical/Kabbalistic tradition for conceiving of God as male and female. Perhaps the most basic and compelling support he presents is the story of Creation of Adam:

Zachar un’keiva bara otam. Male and female God created them.
The text seems to be saying (and the rabbis understood it this way) that the earth-creature—the Adam—was created by God as an inter-sexed being; it, we are told, is male and female. … What the rabbis were less willing to discuss openly was the extent to which this dual-sexed earth creature—created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God—is, in its balanced, conflated gendering, the image of God.

To support the backwards reading of God’s name, Sameth presents a litany of what amounts to circumstantial yet compelling evidence, clues in Biblical literature that encourage such a reading — clues that become clear only after the backwards reading has been discovered:

And we realize now that the secret was almost revealed by the author of the Sefer Raziel, where, as one of twelve permutations of the four letters, the Tetragrammaton appears in reverse. We realize now that the secret was almost revealed by the thirteenth-century Torah commentator Rabbeinu Bachya, who makes note of every four-word cluster in the Torah whose rashei teivot, or initial letters, spell out the Tetragrammaton in reverse. … That the ineffable Name is pronounced in the opposite direction from which it is written enables us to make sense of our abbreviation of the four-letter Name as Hay chipchick, rather than Yud chipchick. That the ineffable Name is pronounced in the opposite direction from which it is written enables us to make sense of the Talmud’s statement in Masechet Shabbat that “Hay Vov is the Name of the Holy One Blessed be He.” That the ineffable Name is pronounced in the opposite direction from which it is written allows us to make sense of the Talmud’s statement in Masechet Kiddushin: “Not the way I am written am I pronounced.” That the ineffable Name is pronounced in the opposite direction from which it is written enables us to make sense of the Psalmist’s kavannah, spiritual intention: shiviti YHVH l’negdi, “I have equalized the four-letter Name of God [not l’fanai, before me, but l’negdi] opposite me.” Indeed, this was the very verse about which the thirteenth- century Castilian kabbalist Joseph Gikatilla wrote that the “whole secret is hinted at” therein.

None of it proves anything in particular, but he certainly makes an interesting case.

I’m both surprised and not surprised that this particular news story hasn’t gotten much press in the Jewish media. On the one hand, the claim of figuring out the Tetragrammaton is a huge theological story (Sameth is adamant, by the way, that he is not advocating anyone actually pronounce the name or read Torah differently based on his findings). The key to God’s name? That’s HUGE! But on the other hand, we don’t tend to go in much for the nuances of theology. Whether I conceive of God as male or female, neither or both, will it make me any less hungry when I’m fasting on Yom Kippur? Probably not.

But who knows? I actually find Sameth’s argument confusing. Insomuch as we conceive of God in anthropomorphic terms, it makes sense that S/He is both male and female. Yet I’ve always tried, in my adult life, to think of God as outside of the realm of sex and gender (superhuman, if you will).

However, the crux of what Sameth is trying to get across with his theory of the He-She God is a challenge to the archetype of male-centered religion, which is what much of organized religion has been over the last thousands of years or so, and, Sameth tells me, is still how many people think of religion today. The He-She God concept — as rooted in the most sacred name of God, His/Her essence if you will, allows people who have always been turned off by what they might have conceived of as a male-dominated religious tradition and a male-centered view of God, to connect with God in a different way. And it allows us, also, to conceive of ourselves, as created in the image of God, as neither wholly male nor wholly female but a bit of each. It creates a view of gender and sexuality that is much more open and fluid. Sameth puts it thusly:

What the mystics called “the secret of one” is the inner unification of the sometimes competing, sometimes complementing masculine and feminine energies that reside within each of us, regardless whether we are male or female. The Torah presents us with earthly role models in that regard: androgynous “he” matriarchs, and nursing kings. And yet, an act that draws those energies together with proper spiritual intention has consequences, according to our mystics, beyond the earthly realm. Such an act is called an act l’shem yichud, an act for the sake of God’s unification. For God, according to our tradition, is and at the same time is not Her/Himself yet One.

Rabbi Mark Sameth’s article appears in the Summer 2008 issue of the CCAR Journal, which can be purchased through the CCAR. The LoHud.com article about Sameth’s theory is no longer available for free online viewing, but it is posted in its entirety, along with some interesting commentary, on the Failed Messiah blog.

–Rebecca Honig Friedman

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August 20, 2008 by

The Saber vs. The Pen: Jewish Women in the Olympics

Like most everyone with a television set the world over, I too have been watching the Olympics — and getting more excited about sports and my country than I expected to be. When an article mentioning U.S. Fencing Team member Sada Jacobson, who is this year’s silver medalist in the women’s saber competition and who just happens to be Jewish, caught my attention (Jacobson “was honored in 2002 by the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame with the Marty Glickman Award,” according to her bio), I found myself wondering how many other, non-Israeli Jewish women are competing in this year’s Olympics.

But when I bunkered down to tally up the Jewish-sounding names on the U.S. team’s website, it soon became obvious that my method was so inaccurate as to be worthless, and that the task, in general, is rather petty. (Not to mention that there are A LOT of Olympians and I have better things to do with my time.) What would be the point of saying there are such-and-such-number of Jews on the team? Am I so insecure about the athletic capabilities of Jewish women that I have to do a head count to prove that we, too, can be Olympians?

These questions run much deeper than the Olympics, though. We, Jewish journalist and civilians alike, often try to claim Jews who’ve made it into the mainstream spotlight (Adam Sandler’s “Hanukkah Song,” anyone?). But does it really matter that Regina Spektor went to a Jewish day school? That Seth Rogen mentions his Jew-fro in “Knocked Up?” That Sacha Baron Cohen was spotted at an Upper West Side synagogue on the High Holidays or that he spoke in Hebrew instead of Kazhak all through the “Borat” movie? And do I really care that Amy Winehouse (God help her) got married under a chuppah?

The answer, I find upon some reflection, is yes.

And here’s why. Secular, pop-culture has for so long been white-washed of any ethnic markers. The movies and TV have generally been an equalizer, creating a common American culture of assimilation. Many early American films, like “The Jazz Singer,” for example, dealt with the tension between the younger generation’s assimilation and their parents wanting them to hold fast to their tradition — and assimilation usually won out. Hence actors and performers changing their ethnic-sounding names to more zingy, “American”-sounding monochres with marquee appeal. And actors today, or a generation ago, still do this. (Hello, Winona Ryder?) In the last decade or two, ethnic practices were brought into media as a politically correct nod to multi-culturalism. But the pop-Jews mentioned above, and numerous other Jewish blips in pop culture that have come up lately, have come about organically, from people’s honest connection to their culture and their willingness to flaunt it, or at least talk about it. And seeing those examples of famous people who’ve “made it” in mainstream culture still clinging to their Jewish identity makes us all feel, at least subconsciously, a little prouder of our own roots, and like we, too, can be super stars, whether or not we go to High Holiday services.

And that’s OK.

Now, how to get out of this cultural diatribe and back into the Olympics? Oh yes. Sada Jacobson. Surely Judaism has little if nothing to do with her and other unaccounted for Jewish Olympians’ athletic prowess. But the point we can take away from this is that their being Jewish didn’t hold them back. Clearly there are many Jews who value athletics, but as a community, athletics for the sake of athletics is not a particularly valued pursuit, particularly not for women (and, no, spending 45 minutes on the treadmill three times a week does not an Olympic runner make).

One need only look to the sports leagues in Jewish day schools, where the cool sport that gives team members the most social capital is boys’ gym hockey (no ice, not even a field, just gym). And there is no equivalent hockey team for girls.

But it needn’t be that way. True athletics is not about running around a gym getting sweaty. It’s about form, skill, discipline and dedication – values that can be transferred to any task – physical or intellectual. So I call on all the yeshiva girls out there to go out and show the boys up: pick up a pair of ice skates and a hockey stick and start practicing for a girls’ ice hockey league, by far more impressive and more difficult than gym hockey.

Or, better yet, pick up a saber and start a fencing team. Because, while as a writer I hate to admit it, sometimes the sword really is, if not actually mightier than the pen, at least mightier-seeming, and seeming mighty is sometimes the key to being so.

–Rebecca Honig Friedman

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August 6, 2008 by

Jewish Women Leaders: Mourning One's Loss, Watching Another On the Rise

Let’s face it. It’s hard for women to rise to the top in the Jewish world. Whatever the reasons, only a handful of women sit at the highest echelons of major Jewish organizations. And so we mourn the loss of June Walker, former head of Hadassah who spent this last year as Chair of the Conference of President of Major American Jewish Organizations, not just for the many contributions to the Jewish community but for the example she set for Jewish women, and the doors she opened.

Walker was only the second woman in the Conference of Presidents several-decades-long history to hold the position of Conference of Presidents chair. As the JTA notes, the nomination was “something of a departure for the Presidents Conference, the main communal umbrella body on foreign policy, which in recent years has been headed by prominent businessmen.” In contrast to the Wall street businessman, Walker was “a respiratory therapist, former college professor and health-care administrator,” and “a longtime community activist.”

In other words, she rose to power in the Jewish world not because she wielded her checkbook, but because she was smart, dedicated to the community, and hard-working.

Aged 74 at her death, Walker was born at a time when women had to fight even harder to climb the professional ladder: “Walker went a long way beyond the housewifely routines inculcated by her mother,” notes the JPost, “who insisted that women should ‘iron their husbands’ underwear.'” Regardless of whether she did or did not follow her mother’s directive, it didn’t stop her from rising above the station such a sentiment would seem to advocate for women.

Even a seven-year battle with cancer didn’t sideline Walker from pursuing her duties for Hadassah, the Conference of Presidents and various other Jewish organizations. In the weeks before her death, she attended the 94th National Hadassah convention, presided over a meeting of the Conference, and attended various other events.

But as we mourn the loss of this remarkable woman, we can also take heart in, and keep our fingers crossed for, the rise of another strong female Jewish leader — Tzipi Livni. Currently the front-runner to succeed Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert when he steps down in September, Livni would be the second woman to ever hold the position. But she still has a hard-fought battle ahead of her — and part of that fight will no doubt revolve around her being a woman.

Like Walker, Livni is well-respected and even well-liked, but in a race for Israel’s top political position, the question facing her is, is she tough enough? To help beef up her “toughness” factor, Livni has hired former aides to “warrior-politician” Ariel Sharon to help run her campaign, reports the Telegraph.

But her main competition in this political contest, former defense minister Shaul Mofaz, has hired the “New York based Republican political consulting firm of Arthur Finkelstein, most recently known for the ‘Stop Her Now’ campaign against Hillary Clinton.” We can only assume that means he’s gearing up for a no-holds-barred attempt to use Livni’s gender against her in his campaign. And it could work:

Naomi Chazan, a former member of the Knesset, or Israeli parliament, said that the leadership of Ms. Meir, who served from 1969 until 1974, was an exception rather than the rule, and had opened few doors for female successors. “She (Ms. Livni) is going to be attacked, subtly and not-so-subtly, because of her gender,” she said.

But if anyone has shot at overcoming gender biases and proving she is tough enough for the position, it’s a woman who served as a Mossad secret agent, the “daughter of Jewish guerrilla fighters” who “was told war stories in her childhood by Menachem Begin.”

Both Begin and Sharon, Livni’s role models, were tough-as-nails men who ultimately fought for peace. That’s just the combination Livni is now offering Israel, with a record devoid of corruption, and it’s just the combination Israel needs.

–Rebecca Honig Friedman

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July 24, 2008 by

The Israeli Prisoner Swap and the Hadassah Convention

The Zionist Women’s Organization, Hadassah, had its annual convention last week in Los Angeles. Plenty of noteworthy goings on went on there. But that will have to wait for another post.

Right now I’m more interested in what happened at last year’s convention in New York. Having attended the closing brunch of the convention, I posted my thoughts about Hadassah then, but I didn’t post about the most moving — and tragic — part of the event, when captured Israeli soldier Ehud Goldwasser’s mother, Miki, and his newlywed wife, Kamit, addressed the audience, on what happened to be his birthday, pleading for help to get Ehud and the three other missing soldiers back. Fortunately I still have my half-finished draft of the post, titled “Mother-In-Action: Ehud Goldwasser’s Mother Raises Her Voice.” In the last few weeks her words have become both more and less relevant, more and less tragic.

Miki Goldwasser related how when she first learned that her son was missing, she had to be sedated, kept calm by pills just to be able to function. Such is the shock a mother feels at losing a child. But she also shared that she soon came to her senses and realized that being sedated was not going to solve anything: “No more pills,” she said, “from now on, I’m fighting!”

And that’s what she did, traveling around the world, talking to Jewish audiences and world leaders, begging them to do anything they could to put pressure on Hezbollah to release her son and the other missing Israeli soldiers.

Well, now her fight is over. The remains of Goldwasser and fellow captive soldier Eldad Regev were returned to Israel last week as part of a prisoner swap with Hezbollah that’s been making headlines for weeks.

I have heard family members of missing soldiers speak before and I recall them always saying something along the lines of, ‘We just want to know whether he is alive or dead. Not knowing is worse than knowing he is dead.” But Miki Goldwasser never said that. She seemed convinced that if she fought hard enough, she would see her son alive once again. We now know that he was killed in the initial attack over two years ago. In hindsight, this makes her efforts all the more tragic.

And yet, was the fight worth any less than if she had gotten her son back alive? Of course not.

It makes me sick to think of the unevenness of the “swap” — Israel returning five Lebanese prisoners, one a multi-murderer, alive, and the remains of many others, in exchange for the remains of two Israeli soldiers. Yet in the end, the exchange of bodies is a sick business, pure and simple. Life and death are both transcendent. Neither can be quantified, and there is no such thing as an equal exchange.

And there are still Israeli soldiers missing. Negotiations over the release of Gilad Shalit, who has been held hostage by Hamas and its allies for over two years, appear to be at a standstill.

As the fast of Tisha B’Av approaches, historically a very bad time for the Jewish people, author Lisa Alcalay Klug is spearheading “a campaign to focus our collective energy, thoughts and prayers on bringing about [Gilad Shalit’s] freedom.” Klug writes in a Facebook message:

In your own way, whatever way that is, please put your mental and spiritual attention on bringing about his safe return–alive–to his family, his country and his people. This year, Tisha B’Av falls on August 10th. When/if you fast, in addition to the traditions of the day, please also have in mind the safe return of a live and well Gilad Shalit.

The power of collective fast and prayer is believed to have saved the Jewish people from genocide during the time of Queen Esther.
The redemption of the captive is one of our most compelling missions as a people and as brethren on this planet. Years ago, our collective efforts brought Natan Sharansky from bondage into freedom–mishibud l’geulah. Together, we can redeem Gilad Shalit.

Spread the word!

–Rebecca Honig Friedman

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July 11, 2008 by

Jewish Women Artists Emerge at Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Photographic Account

Given my last Lilith post, you might think the above image is of Barbie dolls. But, in fact, those are models — modeling fashions by up-and-coming and eccentric designer Levi Okunov at the Museum of Jewish Heritage’s 3rd annual Emerging Jewish Artists showcase, which featured several stand-out female artists.

Catie Lazarus with the evening’s prize,
a “schlep” bag containing a can of Meshugge-Nuts.

Co-sponsored by the Young Friends of the Museum and emceed by the very funny comic Catie Lazarus, the event was another in a long line of exciting programs being held at the museum, and a chance to see some talented artists — many of them women — before they hit it huge.

The evening opened with a great short set by the four-person “punk klezmer” ensemble Luminescent Orchestrii, including an original tune whose refrain went, “Who put the pudding in the punim?” You gotta love any band whose members came together “through their love of Balkan and Gypsy music.” But seriously, their eclectic mix of influences melded together well, and, at least as far as attire went, it was the bands’ female members, Sarah Alden and Rima Fand, who put the punk in punk-klezmer.


Eve Lederman telling a story, because
that’s what professional storytellers do.

But the real stars of the evening were emcee Lazarus and fabulous storyteller Eve Lederman, co-author of Letters From My Sister: On Life, Love and Hair Removal. Lazarus kept the show moving along and the audience laughing (along with her jokes, not at her). My favorite lines were when Lazarus referred to the New York Times wedding page as “the Jewish sports page,” and when, while discussing ridiculous-sounding Upper East Side names for children, she said, “Just name the child Visa, it sounds slightly ethnic.”
Next to Lazarus’s energetic comedy, Lederman’s demeanor was calm and quiet, perhaps a deliberate device to make the audience listen all the more closely. And with a perfectly-timed delivery and impeccable writing, her tale-telling was a real treat. Her first story was about her one-time, same-sex sexual encounter with her best friend (a blond bombshell who I witnessed being accosted, loudly, in the bathroom by an overzealous audience member — “Are you the one from the story? Can’t miss you, a tall blond in a roomful of Jews!” — Oy.) The second story was about the aging owner of the Orchard Corset Shop, an old-time Lower East Side bra shop, and her Hasidic son who helps run the store. Orchard Corset is also the subject of Lederman’s documentary “A Good Uplift.”

The work of another talented female storyteller, filmmaker Pearl Gluck (“Divan”), was showcased as part of the big finale, Okunov’s fashion show. An excerpt from Gluck’s in-progress film about the designer kicked off the Okunov part of the night. Gluck’s work has taken a special interest in formerly-Hasidic rebels like the 21-year-old Okunov, who, endearingly, still pronounces clothing as “cloything.”

As much as the evening was about celebrating emerging artists, it was clearly also an opportunity to showcase the Museum of Jewish Heritage and attract a wider audience than the usual Jewish-museum-goers. I, for one, think it worked, bringing together a variety of Jews and non-Jews.  Case in point: At the cocktail hour after the performances, one of Okunov’s African-American models, hobnobbing with the artsy Jewish crowd, suggested Okunov design a bra made of kippot. How strange and strangely satisfying it was to tell her that one already exists.

In real life, the models looked more like robots — or human hangers — than dolls. Not a little disturbing.–Rebecca Honig Friedman

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July 8, 2008 by

Knees and Shoulders: Even Modesty Should Have Its Limits

Modesty is in.

So proclaims a recent Newsweek article, “Girls Going Mild(er)”, that notes an emerging movement to encourage girls to dress modestly. And, right in line with this trend, is a line of dolls that encourages modest Jewish values in Jewish girls. While this trend certainly has its positive points, it also must lead one to ask, how modest is too modest?

Newsweek reports that a slew of websites and clothing companies are catering to

…a growing movement of “girls gone mild”—teens and young women who are rejecting promiscuous “bad girl” roles embodied by Britney Spears, Bratz Dolls and the nameless, shirtless thousands in “Girls Gone Wild” videos. Instead, these girls cover up, insist on enforced curfews on college campuses, bring their moms on their dates and pledge to stay virgins until married.

Not surprisingly, many of these modesty-promoting organizations are rooted in religion, and one of the major proponents of this movement is an Orthodox Jew, Wendy Shalit, who has written books encouraging modesty.

Now a trend of modesty may seem all well and good, but the pressing question is, as Jennie Yabroff asks in Newsweek, “[I]s the new modesty truly a revolution, or is it merely an inevitable reaction to a culture of increased female sexual empowerment…?” Put another way, if we consider scantily-clad, uber-feminine, style-obsessed celebrities like Britney Spears and Paris Hilton representatives of a first wave of the post- (read: anti-)feminist backlash, is modesty merely its second wave, a reactionary movement taking women back into the kitchen (barefoot and pregnant)?

To show the potential of this movement to be just that, I want to consider the modesty trend in light of a true story that a friend related to me recently.

His relative from Israel, a young woman, came to New York for a visit and, like most Israelis visiting the States, wanted to go shopping. She was taken to the discount downtown department store Century 21 and headed to the lingerie department to look for bras. After picking out her selections, she went to the fitting room to try them on but was told that she could not try bras on in the fitting room. So she did the logical thing: she left the fitting room and proceeded to strip, trying the bras on in the middle of the store, for all to see.

While this is not the way most of us would behave in the situation, and not behavior we would consider modest, I can’t help but admire this woman’s moxie. The story reminds me that the opposite of being modest is being bold, and that a little or a lot of boldness is often required to get what you want. And so, when I think about the focus on teaching our daughters to be modest, I worry that what starts with encouraging them to cover their bare shoulders will end with encouraging them to stifle their opinions, desires and ambitions.

Take the Jewish-values line of Gali Girls dolls referred to earlier. It’s a nice idea to have a line of dolls that model Judaism for young girls — dolls that they can relate to and that can be used as a tool with which to teach Jewish ritual and values in a fun and natural way. Plus, the line of historical Gali Girls, which come with books about them like American Girl dolls do, sound really interesting (there’s one about a girl in a Jewish community in China).

But what’s not as nice is the internet video ad that sells the Gali Girls as a modest alternative to the scantily clad Barbie-type dolls that are teaching young girls to dress inappropriately. The problem with that message is twofold (at least). First, implying that dolls, rather than everything else in popular culture, are the culprits encouraging girls to dress inappropriately is just plain silly. Second, the idea of limiting Jewish girls’ play only to the realm of Jewish girls and women is (and here’s where the Orthodox world is going to disagree with me) potentially damaging to Jewish girls and the women they will one day become.

For all the criticism of Barbie dolls as being bad role models for girls, it’s been my experience that children don’t look to inanimate dolls as role models; rather, they use dolls to act our their own imagined stories and games, which can be taken from wherever. For example, while my own childhood Barbie games tended to involve the stuff of the romantic comedies and teenage dating movies I watched as a kid, I remember playing with a more religious friend whose Barbie games revolved around Jewish weddings. Barbie was the kallah and Ken was the chattan. Same dolls, very different storylines.

The point is, it doesn’t necessarily matter what the intent of the doll-makers is — children will use the dolls for their own purposes, based on their own experiences or their own wild imaginations. The Gali Girls may come with Shabbat candles to light but they can just as easily be used to act out the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, or even a Brittany Spears video, or — God forbid — the story of Mary and Joseph.

However, that said, I wonder how much limiting children’s play only to dolls with such a specific and modest intent as the Gali Girls might also make the scope of their imagination more modest. The one good thing about Barbie is that she can do everything. She’s a rock star, a news anchor, a mom, an athlete, a beauty queen and everything in between. Though it may be subtle, the plethora of Barbies out there shows little girls the variety of possibilities for their own lives. Even the American Girl dolls teach kids about aspects of American history and culture that are different from their own.

Whether it’s Gali Girls or not (and I really have no problem with the dolls themselves), the idea expressed in that video ad of limiting girls’ play only to dolls that look and act just like they do, or like their Bubbe thinks they should, is just another way to shelter religious girls and stifle their potential ambitions for their adult selves.

Not to mention making something that’s supposed to be fun and expansive — playtime — just plain dull.

–Rebecca Honig Friedman

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The Lilith Blog

June 18, 2008 by

Are Women Really Taking Over Judaism, And Is That So Bad?

The general consensus on these questions appears to be Yes, women are taking over Judaism, and Yes, that is bad. But I’m having trouble working up concern over this supposedly dire state of affairs.

A new study confirms these assertions social-scientifically, reports the Jewish Exponent, showing that among the most liberal strains of Judaism (Reform, Reconstructionist and Renewal), significantly more women and girls are actively participating than are men and boys, who, one theory goes, are being alienated by women’s takeover:

Some are calling it the feminization of liberal Judaism, but few say so out loud.
“It’s not politically correct,” says Brandeis University sociologist Sylvia Barack Fishman, whose new report “The Growing Gender Imbalance in American Jewish Life” gives statistical muscle to anecdotal evidence that’s been piling up for several years in liberal Jewish circles.

Even if Fishman’s report is on-target, as someone who focuses so much on Jewish women’s achievements, I can’t help but find the “feminization of Judaism” a point of pride rather than worry.

And yet, despite what Fishman’s numbers may say, I remain unconvinced of the general takeover. Because when you look at the numbers on various lists of influential Jews, you’d still be hard-pressed to find one that’s dominated by women:
Take the umbrella organization the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, for example. Though it now has a woman at its healm (you go, June Walker), she is one of the few women among the heads of its member organizations. The breakdown is similar in the Forward’s last “Forward Fifty” feature, which included only 17 women (and that’s, given such lists in the past, a decent showing). And even NY Jewish Week’s 2008 list of “36 Under 36,” a measure of the younger generation’s Jewish innovators, includes more men than women (though the numbers are far more equitable than most such lists). So it’s hard to take the claim of women’s domination that seriously.

And anyway, the suggestion that women’s supposed domination is a “crisis” is downright offensive. Rabbi Rona Shapiro put it very well in her 2007 op-ed in the Forward, “The Boy Crisis That Cried Wolf,” excerpted here:

…Thirty-five years ago — when women were not ordained as rabbis, when girls in the Conservative movement celebrated a bat mitzvah on Friday night, when Orthodox girls did not receive an education remotely comparable to that of their brothers, when women were not called to the Torah for aliyot or allowed on the bimah at all — where were the headlines proclaiming a girl crisis?
Given the history of women’s exclusion within the Jewish community, approaching equality should be something to celebrate, not a crisis in the making.
More insidious is the assertion made by some boy-crisis advocates that men are retreating from active engagement in Jewish life because women now dominate it. This characterization simply smacks of backlash.
Women have maintained their involvement in a Judaism dominated for centuries by men, but the minute women get a toehold in leadership, men pick up and leave? Pollack, the boys’ development researcher heading up Moving Traditions’ major new initiative, refutes the inherent sexism of this argument, insisting that women’s leadership is not responsible for boys’ retreat from Jewish life.
“Boys haven’t found a way to” adapt to the sharing of power with girls and women in Judaism, he argued, “because men haven’t found a way to change.” If Jewish men, young or old, are turned off by women’s leadership, then our commitment to justice requires that we call this what it is — sexism — and work to change the attitude instead of accommodating it.
Men and women need to work together to address discrimination against women in the Jewish community, as well as men’s perception of Judaism’s irrelevance to them. We need to prepare our daughters to be both strong leaders who are well armed against the sexism they will face in the media and employment and mothers who are able to raise young men who share an interest in their sisters’ achievements, have full access to their feelings and are engaged by Jewish life.

I agree with Shapiro’s arguments, and think they are extremely important to the discussion of this issue. But, admittedly, she does ignore — as I have been until now — the most practical problem the numbers disparity presents, which is the other “crisis” making headlines, the “singles crisis.”

Fishman sees both as crises of continuity:

Fishman said that as Jewish men outside the Orthodox fold become increasingly estranged from religious and communal life, the more likely they are to marry non-Jewish women, her report suggests. And because women usually set a home’s religious tone — even if non-Jewish women are open to raising Jewish children — they’ll rarely do so because they are not encouraged by husbands who are “ambivalent at best, if not downright hostile to” Jewish tradition, she explained.
She concluded that this crisis is leading to a continuity issue that will not be resolved until liberal Judaism finds a way to engage its boys and men.

But I think Fishman’s concern over continuity is premature, and her spin on the problem, from the male perspective, seems besides the point. Rather than counting the babies who aren’t being born — an unproductive and rather silly task — we should be focusing on the more immediate issue — those Jewishly committed women who are having trouble, right now, finding Jewishly-committed men with whom to partner.
That is a point of concern, not because of the babies they’re not having, but because of the frustration and dissatisfaction they’re feeling.

–Rebecca Honig Friedman

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June 2, 2008 by

And Speaking of Israeli Culture…

One of the bands raising the temperature in Israel and making waves in America right now is Habanot Nechama, a group of three super-talented women, all of whom have careers in their own right, making beautiful music together. I was privileged to attend one of their recent American tour concerts, at the Highline Ballroom (up-and-comer Chana Rothman opened with a beautiful set), and was wowed. Their ultra-tight harmonies, often-quirky sensibilities, multi-lingual lyrics, and comedic inter-song banter set them apart from the pack. And there’s nothing “girl groupy” about them, just three strong women creating really powerful music together.

So since it was recently Lag B’Omer, the day in the the counting of the Omer [the mourning period between Passover and Shavuot] when music traditionally becomes acceptable again, thought I’d share some YouTube clips of Habanot Nechama. These were obviously taken from someone’s cell phone, but bear with the shaky camera and horrible lighting. It’s all about the music anyway.

“Lovers” a.k.a “Meah Achuz Or,” Habanot Nechama, at a concert commemorating the 12th anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s death.

“So Far,” Habanot Nechama

–Rebecca Honig Freidman

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