The first thing I did when I finished reading Rabbi Dr. Haviva Ner David’s new book, “Chana’s Voice” is to set out to learn how to bake challah. Haviva’s writing is like that; she inspires you to open your heart and approach yourself to new possibilities. For Haviva, baking challah is one of three stations on her journey through Judaism and gender, the other two being sex and Shabbat. In order to begin my quest I called my friends Dr. Ariella Zeller and Chaim Kram who, like Haviva, bake challah every Shabbat in an entirely egalitarian way (Ariella’s job is the white bread, Chaim’s job is whole wheat; In Haviva’s house her husband Jacob has taken over the challah-baking entirely). As my friends taught me their tricks of the yeast, we discussed feminism, food, and Haviva’s book.
The experience of sitting in my friends’ kitchen preparing for Shabbat while exploring gender issues felt like the perfect reaction to Haviva’s book, and in fact to her entire life work. It was communal, conversational, relationship-centered and real. Haviva’s vision for Judaism and the world, as chronicled in this book, is a personal voyage through significant Jewish symbols and stations, one that for Haviva is swathed in courage, integrity, and an authentic search for meaningful connection to God within the fundamental parameters of human dignity and equality. “She took us on her journey,” my friend Ariella said after she read and loved the book, “and I felt like I was completely with her.”
The book uses the theme of “CHaNaH”, an acronym for the three commandments supposedly “given” to women – Challah, Niddah (menstruation) and Hadlakat Nerot (Shabbat candle-lighting). From the title alone, which implies a rather retro, essentialist, difference-oriented feminist approach with echoes of anti-feminist apologetics, I would not have picked up the book. Yet, the book itself is exactly the opposite of what the name implies. Haviva’s message is about embracing the values in the so-called “women’s” mitzvoth and creating a world in which men are taught to embrace those values too – whether that means men baking and immersing, or reinventing wedding ceremonies. For Haviva, the journey is about looking for the value in what has traditionally been “women’s culture” and bringing it out into the wider world.
Read more: http://blogs.forward.com/sisterhood-blog/213828/baking-challah-with-haviva/?#ixzz3QPv7q9ZF...
[Crossposted from Huffington Post] Israeli women are shaking up the political system in their country in some intriguing and even exciting ways. With national elections set for March, it seems that election fever has provoked a tsunami of women's readiness for change, especially around women's issues. Across parties, in groups with different religious and ethnic make-ups, bubbles are forming that indicate that finally women are fighting back against the all-boys' club that has characterized Israeli politics for so long. Energies are coming in from many new and exciting directions, and the language of social change for women is everywhere.
The most obvious indication of change comes from the sheer number of women holding top spots in their parties. The Labor-Hatnua party, which is currently the only party with a realistic chance of overthrowing the Netanyahu government, has Tzipi Livni as co-chair and thus potential prime minister -- which would make her the first female prime minister in Israel since Golda Meir was elected, the only woman PM in Israel's history, in 1969. Moreover, three out of the top four slots are held by women. And even more exciting, two of them, Shelly Yachimovich and Stav Shaffir, have had careers as active feminists. The lesson from Golda is this: it's not enough to just aspire to have women in power. We need women with a feminist consciousness to bring change for women at large.
Feminist women have been causing movement in several other parties as well. It goes without saying that Meretz, headed by the indomitable Zehava Galon, has been front and center on women's issues from the start, and the only party with 50-50 on gender on their lists. But other parties are starting to get the message. Deputy Jerusalem mayor Rachel Azaria, a staunch activist on behalf of women's rights, announced that she is joining the new Kulanu party of Moshe Cachlon, at number four on the list. The fact that Cachlon actively sought her out suggests that he is wooing the feminist vote. On the other side of the spectrum Aida Toma, an Arab feminist activist, is now number two on the Arab Hadash party list, indicating that there, too, feminism has become a selling point. Tensions still exist, though, feminist activist Batya Kahana Dror also announced that she was running for the Jewish Home party -- currently the only religious party that allows women on its list -- but she had to drop out following an interview in which she veered from the party's extreme right wing national agenda and suggested "practical solutions" to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Feminism, it seems, is not quite as averse to right-wing religious radicals as the idea of a diplomatic solution. The party now has two women in its top ten slots, one of whom, Shuli Muallem, has partnered with women in other parties on feminist legislation. (The top woman in the party holds positions on minorities in Israel that I do not view as having much social value, feminist or otherwise.) Still, in terms of actual female representation,...
There is a new feminist revolution happening in Israel, and it is emerging from one of the most surprising places: Ultra-Orthodoxy.
Over the past two years, ultra-Orthodox or haredi women have been organizing around feminist issues. They began with a campaign during the 2012 national elections, when a small group of women led by haredi journalist Esti Shushan and others formed a group called “Lo nivcharot; lo bocharot” (LoNiLoBo), which means, if we can’t be elected, we will not vote for you. It was a call to the haredi political parties to allow women to run on their lists. The LoNiLoBo group petitioned the High Court of Justice to declare it illegal for a political party to prohibit women from running — but unfortunately they lost, and the religious parties seemed no worse for wear, considering their election results.
The LoNiLoBo group gained traction during the 2013 municipal elections when four haredi women ran for spots on municipal councils in four different cities — Jerusalem, Petach Tikva, Elad and Safed. This time, the women were noticed. They received threats and curses from rabbis and haredi political leaders, and one — Racheli Ibenboim, who ran in Jerusalem on the Bayit Yehudi party list — had to pull out because of the threats. Nevertheless, one of the women, Shira Gergi of Safed, won and became the first haredi woman to sit on a municipal council. In fact, she became the first woman to sit on the Safed council in over 20 years.
Since then, the LoNiLoBo group has been growing and expanding, with over 5,000 likes on its Facebook page and coverage on every major news outlet in Israel. The impressive young powerhouse Racheli Ibenboim even quit her job as Executive Director of a major NGO in Israel to work on what she called taking care of her feminist identity.
This week, the haredi feminist movement reached a new milestone with the formation of the first ever religious women’s political party. Ruth Colian, a 33-year-old activist and mother of four who had run for a seat in the Petach Tikva municipality, held a press conference on Sunday in which she announced the formation of “U’Bezchutan” — literally, “in their [women’s] merit” — to run in the coming elections. Even the secular feminist movement does not currently have its own party. (There have been three attempts in Israel to advance a Women’s Party in Israel: in 1979, led by former MK Marcia Freedman; in 1992 led by Ruth Reznik, and in 1999 led by Esther Herzog. All times, they failed to meet the electoral threshold, but impacted the elections in different ways ).
The formation of a women’s party is a very different political strategy than forming an advocacy group to get religious parties to allow women on the lists. This approach takes the movement for social change outside of the existing systems and suggests that change for women can only come when women have a “room of their own.” If the LoNiLoBo movement says that haredi women have faith in the parties of their religious sector...
Courtesy of Blue Thread Communications
[crossposted from The Jewish Week]In the many communal conversations about shifting Jewish identities and trends -– swelling ultra-Orthodoxy, burgeoning indie-groups, religious escapees, religious returnees, denominational switching and more –- one of the missing narratives is of those who leave religion but then come back in another way. It’s a version of Jewish identity that requires years or decades to truly understand and appreciate, and may apply to thousands of Jews, though we wouldn’t know because such a trajectory does not (yet) have a name. It’s a story about those who leave their religious lives because of abuse or tyranny or a need for freedom and independence, yet still cling to aspects of the heritage that they never really intended to leave behind. It is a story of longing and pain that holds up a mirror to the complexity of Jewish life
This is the story that Susan Reimer-Torn tells in her beautifully-written memoir,“Maybe Not Such a Good Girl: Reflections on Rupture and Return” (Blue Thread Communications). It is a story that spans forty years and an oceanic divide. It is an evocative and intricately-woven narrative about a free-spirited, dancing Orthodox teenage girl who escapes the confines of her strictly unbending father’s house and creates a new, completely secular Jewish life in France. Yet during that self-imposed exile, the author never escapes what she calls sehnsucht, a soul-yearning. Her Saturdays in France are filled and yet empty. She discovers that there was something in what she shed all those years ago that she wants back.
When Reimer-Torn finally returns to New York after 22 years, she finds herself seeking out a Jewish experience that will fill those aching holes in her spirit. She begins attending services at Bnai Jeshurun (BJ) on the Upper West Side, as well as a lunchtime Talmud class in a skyscraper in midtown. She expertly weaves together the textual learnings, childhood memories, current experiences and deep reflections on meaning, identity and relationships. Her writing is artistically mastered and redolent, and the reader feels the sehnsucht along with her.
“I come to BJ services dragging my weighty baggage: In the beginning there was total childhood devotion, then reckless adolescent rebellion,” she writes. “After fierce loyalty and spiteful betrayal, can I possibly come to the center? After all that has come to pass in childhood and adolescence, might I now cobble together such a thing as a happy Jewish adulthood?.... What exactly are the risks? Some part of me is drawn to this midlife wager, while another is deeply suspicious. Then there’s another part of me — cautious, observant, curious and baffled — that has agreed to go along for the ride.“
The bible, the midrash and the Talmud all come alive around the pains of relationships and childhood hurts. During the journey, in which we meet a whole cast of colorful characters, some alive and many no longer, Reimer-Torn develops a relationship with biblical scholar Avivah Zornberg, and she describes her classes and their...
Shayna Rehberg is an unlikely superstar. A 30-year-old religious mother of four originally from Texas and now living in Safed, Shayna walked onto the stage of Israel’s popular singing competition show, Kochav Haba [Next Star], donning her headscarf and long skirt, and made it to the next round following a rendition of Alanis Morisette’s “Ironic”. She impressed the judges perhaps less with her singing — which at times was lilting and commanding and at other times withdrawn and fragile — and more with her life story. She told the judges, and thousands of viewers, that she had stopped singing for ten years because of religion.
“This is like coming out of the closet,” Judge Harel Skaat sympathetically told her, adding that it was no different from his own experience of coming out as gay. “You’re coming out of a cage, even if it’s a self-imposed one.”
This exchange with Harel Skaat was not only beautiful for its empathy, but also incredibly revealing and insightful about the dynamics of being an Orthodox Jewish woman.
The powerful idea that emerged from this exchange is that the custom of women not singing hurts women. It’s a restriction, like Ariel’s curse in The Little Mermaid, of silencing not only voice but also passion and even personality. Singing is a vital expression of life. Music has profound spiritual and emotional meanings. A life without singing can be a deeply painful one, especially for a person who has a special voice. Orthodox Judaism would never consider imposing such a rule on men. It would never enter anyone’s mind to say that a man who loves singing should stop singing. And yet, this is what Orthodoxy does to women all the time.
In her interview, Shayna said, “I decided that kol isha is not erva” — that is, that the halakhic description of women’s voices as causing sin is wrong. This was such an inspiring model of empowerment. It is a close-up view of what it means for women to talk back to their culture. I don’t know if the audience realized how hard this is. To be hearing for years — for your whole life, perhaps — about what women’s bodies and voices are or aren’t, and then to wake up and decide that your culture is wrong, well, that’s an incredible moment of awakening.
There are a few more interesting points to this performance worth harping on. One is about her marriage. When one of the judges asked her what she had to overcome in order to be able to sing, her response was a shocking, “I filed for divorce.” The implication here, even though not stated explicitly, is that her husband was not letting her sing. This was not surprising for me to learn, even if the public admission had some of the audience booing. But this was also a huge admission of truth. I belong to several different online forums for religious women, and there are constant posts in the style of, “I would...
(cross-posted from Lilith)
Last month, the Israeli government announced that it is establishing a team to formulate a working plan to advance UN Resolution 1325 in Israel—the resolution that calls for women’s equal inclusion in all aspects of decision-making, especially around issues of peace and security.
The team will be comprised of senior representatives from almost all government offices, including the Foreign Ministry, the Defense Ministry, the Ministry for Internal Security, and the perhaps more obvious Welfare Ministry and Education Ministry. It will be headed by Vered Swid, the Director of the Office for Gender Equality of the Prime Minister’s Office (until recently titled The Office on the Status of Women) and will also include academics, researchers, and representatives from NGOs working on issues of gender, equality and social justice.
The purpose of the committee, according to the announcement, is to ensure that Israel complies with UN Resolution 1325. This means ensuring women’s representation in all areas of decision-making, promoting women’s safety and security, and redefining “security” to include a more holistic understanding of women’s lives.
Women’s groups have been working tirelessly for seven years to reach this moment and have faced sometimes daunting obstacles. “This is the first time that the government has committed to an action plan on gender, a tangible working plan with timetables, targets, and measurable objectives that can be evaluated and followed up on,” said attorney Anat Thon Ashkenazy, Coordinator of 1325 Israel on behalf of Itach-Maaki Women Lawyers for Social Justice, which has spearheaded this initiative for the past seven years. “It is also the first time that all the various discussions on gender have been connected – women’s representation, women’s security, and gender mainstreaming. That’s the essence of Resolution 1325, that all these issues are tied together.”
Also significant is the list of participants in the process. This is the first time that gender is seen not as an issue of concern to the ministries of welfare and education alone, but rather as demanding the attention of all ministries. Until very recently, these ministries did not believe that they are part of the gender problem. Member of the Knesset Aliza Lavie, who heads the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women, which has been advancing this initiative, received a response from the Ministry of Defense earlier this year saying that they did not understand what their office has to do with gender.
There is quite a lot for them to learn. The negotiations over the recent Gaza war, for example, took place with zero women around the table–not even Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, whose official job title was to be head of negotiations. Prime Minister Netanyahu found a way to replace her with his own male representative. (Could this manipulation have anything to do with Livni’s powerful campaign to replace him in the upcoming elections? I wonder.)
The gender problem cuts across the board in Israel. A 2014 state comptroller’s report found that women fill less than one third of all senior management positions...
I'm honored to be included on the Forward's list of top ten women worth reading (Thank you Batya Ungar-Sargon!)
It's been an amazing 2014, full of intense writing, debate and community building. Some of the highlights for me were:
* Creating the Facebook group for people who are FEDDD UPPPP with the status of women in Orthodoxy (FEDDD UPPPPP: Feminist Forum For Empowerment and Exchange to Discuss, Debate, Defuse and Unpack Unfair and Uncompassionate Patriarchal Practices and Paradigms in Positive and Proactive ways...) that now has nearly 1800 members and has become an amazing place of support and collegiality (a virtual conscious-raising group)
*Covering the awful Freundel scandal ("the pervert with the pulpit") and helping be a part of a community-wide conversation to change power structures and control of wommen's intimate lives in the religious Jewish world
* Launching my new book, The War on Women in Israel, and going on a great book tour (two actually) around the United States to talk to people about this important topic
* Doing an interview on the Brian Lehrer show on NPR :-) (And thanks to all the other interviews as well -- NPR Chicago Jerome MacDonnell, Voice of Israel, TLV, The Jewish Channel, etc)
* Weighing in on the terrible war in Israel, and coming out with my own story of political evolution, from yeshivah girl to feminist peace activist at Lilith (expect more on this in 2015)
* Winning the National Jewish Book Council for my previous book, Educating in the Divine Image, with my colleague and co-author Dr Chaya Gorsetman (my SECOND JBC award.... wow)
* My El Al experience with haredi men on Tablet that went viral (who would have thought.....)
* My commentary on Kallah Teachers that also went viral
* Joining the board of the amazing El Halev with Yudit Sidikman (more on this in 2015 too)
* Helping my husband, Jacob Sztokman, provide 275,000 hot nutritious meals to children in the slums of Mumbai, 1000 each day prepared by 140 women in a women's empowerment cooperative. Read more about Gabriel Project Mumbai here
Thanks everyone for the great conversation and for all the important work in trying to make the world a better place for women (and MEN!)
Have a great 2015!
I had a great round of talks in the US, starting with a lecture at the Standard Club in Chicago, followed by a talk at the JCC of Greater Washington, and finishing up with a talk at Moishe's House on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, which you can read about on the Jewish Book Council blog by Nat Bernstein. Thanks to all the hosts and attendees and to all those who bought the book :-)
Meanwhile, here is a link to Part I of an interview I did for the NPR show WorldView with Jerome McDonnel.
Sometimes a family outing is just a family outing. And sometimes a family outing becomes a whole other thing.
So last Friday, my daughters and I decided to go on little trip before Shabbat to see a natural water spring around 20 kilometers away. One of my daughters brought a male friend along, and off we went, climbing 100 meters up the side of a mountain to find this lovely site. The place was not too crowded – though I noticed that we were the only females there. Some 20-30 teenage boys were enjoying the spot along with their beers, cigarettes and nargilla. (That's so Israel, I thought, where the place for such adolescent hangouts is a beautiful nature spot that the boys are genuinely enjoying.) We were all having a lovely time swimming and laughing. Until a religious man showed up.
The man, in his forties or fifties, wearing a black velvet skullcap and sporting a beard, looked at us and began holding little conferences with some of the boys, while obviously looking at my girls with side glances. My daughter whispered to me, “He’s going to ask us to leave in a minute.” Sure enough, the man called over my daughter’s friend – apparently the “man” of our group, even if he is only 17 – and started talking to him. I called out, “What’s the issue?” If they are going to be talking about me, I wanted the courtesy of at least being part of the conversation.
“He wants you to leave so he can do his ritual dunk before Shabbat,” my daughter’s friend said. Apparently this man used this particular spring as his own private mikveh.
“There’s plenty of time before Shabbat,” I said, directly to the man. “Don’t worry.”
This got him at least talking directly to me. “Just climb up the mountain and stay there for 15-20 minutes so I can have the spring,” he said, not as a question.
I was sitting on the side of the spring at the time, next to my daughter who I don’t see often enough, really enjoying the moment, as well as the feel of the cold, natural water on my ankles and calves. I had just walked straight up the side of a mountain to get here, and there was no way I was getting off my spot to continue climbing and sit in the hot sun in a spot with no water.
“We’ll be leaving soon,” I responded, looking at my daughter’s watch. “Another 15 or 20 minutes and we’ll be done.” He walked away and puffed on the nargilla while he watched us. My daughter whispered, “You know he’s going to be nudging us in 10 minutes to go.” We left the spring, as promised, 15 minutes later, a little bit before I was really ready. (We hadn’t even eaten our sandwiches yet that the kids had spent time making.) But Shabbat was indeed coming and I still had a lot of things to do....
[Published on JTA] MODIIN, Israel (JTA) — With the news that Rabbi Barry Freundel, a prominent Orthodox rabbi, has been arrested for peeping at the naked bodies of his female congregants through a secret camera in the mikvah, or Jewish ritual bath, many disturbing questions are being raised about the implications of his suspected transgressions: Does it matter that Freundel is an Orthodox rabbi? Is he just a regular (alleged) creepy pervert? Or did his position of power — and the culture surrounding it — contribute to the acts of which he stands accused?
Did Rabbi Barry Freundel’s position of power — and the culture surrounding it — contribute to the acts of which he stands accused?
On the one hand, there are some really lovely and good-hearted Orthodox rabbis who have nothing to do with Freundel and abhor the entire story; they do not deserve to be demonized by association. One bad apple — or rabbi, as it may be – shouldn’t spoil the whole basket. Furthermore, there are sex offenders in pretty much every culture, religion, ethnic group and social class. Violence against women is ubiquitous, unfortunately, so perhaps the particulars of the offender’s social context are not relevant.
On the other hand, one cannot help but notice the multiple layers of power, authority and gender hierarchy involved in this story. After all, the scene of the alleged crimes was a mikvah, where women are naked, exposed and reliant on a system of intricate rules about their bodies that have been determined by men. Jewish women traditionally use the mikvah to immerse — fully nude — following menstruation or during conversion, and in some cases to mark significant life events. The practice of ritual immersion is usually overseen by female attendants, except in the case of Orthodox conversion, when three male rabbis also must be present to give approval.
If the allegations against Freundel are true, they confirm the worst suspicions about the status of women in Orthodoxy: that the all-male rabbinical clubs support their own members in their efforts to control women’s bodies all the time. Freundel, after all, is suspected of using his authority to grab what he wanted from unsuspecting women.
Moreover, Freundel may have targeted female converts — the subset of mikvah-goers who are most at risk of abuse. These very women often do not have enough security in their social position or Jewish knowledge to question the strange demands made by rabbis in the shower room. Thus the scandal raises disturbing questions about the social structures that give men like Freundel unfettered power over Orthodox conversion. (Freudel himself has been extremely active on the conversion issue in recent years, maintaining control of the Rabbinical Council of America’s Conversion Committee and speaking widely as an expert on conversion.)
Read more: http://www.jta.org/2014/10/21/default/op-ed-what-the-freundel-scandal-says-about-orthodoxy-1#ixzz3GoGXgpwA...