Female Israeli soldier called to Torah at military synagogue

An Orthodox female Israeli soldier was called up to the Torah during holiday services on a military base in what was being called a first.

At Simchat Torah services last week at a base in Haifa, the soldier received an aliyah from the gabbai, a civilian employee of the military, according to Kipa, a Modern Orthodox Hebrew-language Web site. The site said it was the first time a woman has been called to the Torah in a military synagogue.

Many of the men participating in the service were Orthodox and part of the Hesder Yeshiva program. While they were upset or uncomfortable with the situation, they decided not to prevent the soldier from having her aliyah in order not to embarrass her.

According to Kipa, the soldier, who is training to be a navy intelligence officer, graduated from a major national religious women’s seminary and participated regularly in services on the base.

Israeli military bases operate according to traditional Orthodox Jewish law, which does not allow women to be called to the Torah.

A spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces told Kipa in a statement, “Following the incident, an inquiry was initiated to clear the air and to clarify policies regarding such occurrences in the future.”

German Jewish activist voted sexiest female politician

A 25-year-old Jewish woman has been voted Germany's sexiest female politician.

Marina Weisband, 25, a leading member of the “Pirate Party Germany,” took first place in a Playboy online poll with 29 percent of the votes. According to the Bild Zeitung newspaper, 1,000 people took part in the poll.

Coming in second was the Left Party politician Sahra Wagenknecht, with 28 percent of the vote.

Weisband came to Germany with her family from Ukraine in 1994, in the wave of Jewish emigration following the fall of the Berlin Wall and. the collapse of the Soviet Union. She joined the Pirate Party – a progressive liberal party that promotes Internet freedom – in 2009 and served as its executive director from May 2011 to April 2012. During her tenure, she reportedly took on the issue of anti-Semitism and right-wing extremism among some party members.

Weisband now is pursuing a PhD in psychology. She has not ruled out a return to political activism but will not run as a candidate for the Bundestag this year.

The Bild newspaper notes that Germany's chancellor, Angela Merkel, age 58, got only 3 percent of the Playboy vote.

Women head three major parties in Israel’s elections

For the first time in Israel’s history, three of the major parties are headed by women. The Labor party headed by Shelly Yacimovich is expected to become Israel’s second-largest party, Hatnuah headed by former Foreign Minister Tzippi Livni is set to win seven seats, and the dovish Meretz and Zahava Gal-On is projected at five seats in the 120-seat parliament.

Because the front-runner, the joint slate of the Likud and Yisrael Beytenu ((Israel is Our Home), is only expected to get about 35 seats, Prime Minister Netanyahu will be turning to all of these parties as potential coalition partners.

“It’s an amazing advancement,” Dr. Galit Desheh, the executive director of the Israel Women’s Network told The Media Line. “Two of these women have an amazing record promoting women’s rights and issues.”

The two she was referring to are Yacimovich and Gal-On. Livni is not seen as focusing on women’s issues, although she has begun to do so more of late.

Yacimovich, 52, was a popular journalist before entering politics in 2005. She has reinvigorated the Labor party by focusing on social and economic issues, and gotten tens of thousands of young people to join. Of the first 22 candidates on Labor’s list, seven are women.

Gal-On, 56, of the dovish Meretz party, has been especially active on women’s rights issues. A Knesset member since 1999, she has led the committee that fights the trafficking of women. Desheh ays she is the single most active Knesset member on women’s issues.

In contrast,  Livni, 54, is not seen as a major advocate of women’s rights. She has started a new party called Hatnuah, the Movement, after she lost the leadership of Kadima, a centrist party, in recent primaries. Livni, a former intelligence official, has focused on foreign policy.

In addition to these women, Asma Agbarieh – Zahalka, 39, heads the Da’am Workers Party, a socialist party that focuses on employment issues in the Arab sector of Israel. It is doubtful that it will receive enough votes to enter the Parliament.

There are currently 24 women in the current Knesset and that number is expected to rise substantially. Even parties headed by men have placed women in prominent slots. Netanyahu’s Likud which is running on a joint slate with Yisrael Beytenu, has put seven women in the top 30 slots. Yesh Atid, a centrist secular party headed by popular journalist Yair Lapid, has three women in the top 10.

In the past, the quickest route to politics in Israel was the army. Generals were revered and most of Israel’s prime ministers (with the notable exception of the sole woman, Golda Meir) had illustrious military careers. Now that is changing.

“We are seeing that some generals are not even getting elected, and yet journalists are having great success,” Dr. Gideon Rahat of the Israel Democracy Institute told The Media Line. “This opens the door for women because there are more women journalists.”

Women are active in Israel’s labor force. While only 28 percent of Arab women in Israel work outside the home, (due to cultural factors which encourage women to stay at home with their children), about 80 percent of Jewish women have paying jobs. Israel has good day care and laws that encourage women to work. That said, women still earn between 17 and 30 percent less than men.

The Israel Women’s Network's Desheh says the three priorities for women are personal security, improving conditions for female workers and women’s health. As more women serve in the Knesset, it is likely that women’s issues will come to the fore.

“Research shows that men and women in the Knesset have different legislative behavior,” Rahat said. “This is a new stage in Israeli politics.”

Jewish lawmakers introduce act to curb international violence against women

Three Jewish Congress members introduced legislation that seeks to curb international violence against women.

U.S. Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), Howard Berman (D-Calif.) and Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) are the lead sponsors of the International Violence Against Women Act of 2012 that was introduced Thursday.

The legislation would provide funding to gender-based foreign assistance programs and establish the Office of Global Women’s Issues within the State Department.

“It would give the U.S. State Department new tools ranging from health programs and survivor services to legal reforms to promoting economic opportunities and education for women,” said a statement from Schakowsky’s office.

Jewish Women International welcomed the initiative, calling it “an opportunity for the U.S. Congress to demonstrate its commitment to building a safer and more secure world.”

A number of Jewish groups are backing a Democratic version of the renewal of the Violence Against Women Act passed recently in the Senate that enhances protections for LGBT and Native American communities and preserves statutes that extend legal status to illegal immigrants who report abuses. The groups oppose the Republican version passed in the House, which dilutes the protections for illegal immigrants and removes the enhancements for the LGBT and Native Americans.

Is HBO’s ‘Girls’ about young women’s struggles, or some women’s privileges?

“Girls” begins with the conversation that many parents of 20-somethings dream of having someday real soon with their floundering children: No. More. Money.

This is what the parents of 24-year-old Hannah Horvath, played by series creator, director and writer Lena Dunham, tell her over dinner. She is two years out of college working as an unpaid intern at an indie publishing house living in a crappy apartment in Greenpoint, Brooklyn with a roommate while being heavily subsidized by her professor parents.

Sound familiar? It should. Over the last half-decade, countless articles have chronicled the exploits and failings of the Millennials, the generation whose experience is being represented on this show. And as many accounts have noted, this cohort has had a more difficult time than previous generations finding jobs and adult identities, with some remaining dependent financially on their sympathetic Boomer parents. Hannah’s own father, when confronted by the pathetic sight of his daughter, high on opium tea, mumbling on the floor, declares to his wife, “It’s hard for me to watch her struggle.” He is undoubtedly echoing the sentiments of many a parent who has mailed a check to his post-college child.

But watch them struggle we will, and it won’t be pretty. However it’s a particular type of struggle and not one that is very easy to get behind. “Girls” is not the story of underdogs, the children of immigrants or even a young adult from a middle-class background struggling in a recession that has been particularly hard on recent graduates. It follows four daughters of upper-class privilege—Hannah, Marnie, Jessa and college student Shoshana. These young women are not encountering institutional barriers to success but their own too-fortunate upbringings, which reinforced the idea that the lives and careers that awaited them were special and meaningful. They were not expecting boring nine-to-fives where no one saw them as unique snowflakes who have lived enough to write memoirs, as Hannah is doing while her parents foot the bills. (Hilariously, hers seems to be about six pages long, as befitting a 24-year-old who hasn’t been a child soldier, battled a life-threatening illness or escaped from a cult.)

One blogger humorously suggested that the series could be renamed “First World Problems.” And in that, you can detect the majority of the criticisms of the program. After being feted by nearly every major critic before its April 15 premiere on HBO, the backlash, which was predictably fierce, has largely been about the white privilege of the characters, how the problems of the characters are hardly representative of Millennial women with student loans, or from the lower socioeconomic strata, or who work multiple jobs to make ends meet. Which is to say, most of them.

Add to this casting decisions—in addition to Dunham, who is Jewish and the daughter of artist Laurie Simmons, the other three women are from equally if not more prestigious backgrounds – that make the cries of “class/racial privilege” seem even more credible. The other three leads in the pilot are played by Allison Williams, the daughter of NBC News anchor Brian Williams; Zosia Mamet, progeny of the famed playwright David Mamet; and Jemima Kirke, the daughter of the drummer of the rock band Bad Company. While all four are quite good in their parts—the acting throughout is naturalistic—the choices do seem a little culturally tone deaf. It’s one thing to watch a show about privilege. It’s quite another, more uncomfortable thing to watch one cast entirely comprised of its beneficiaries, which is then touted through its marketing and via interviews as representing all women.

While white privilege and class privilege are certainly nothing new on television—“Two and a Half Men” is a show about white male privilege if ever there was one—it is not entirely unfair to criticize “Girls” on these grounds, either. Unlike “Men” and many of the female-centric comedies that premiered this fall, which merely aim to be funny, “Girls” seems to aspire to do more than get laughs. It aims to be a realistic depiction of young women today. And this generation, which has been frequently called “multiracial,” helped elect President Obama and protested economic inequality en masse at Occupy Wall Street. Some awareness of these “facts on the ground” would be welcome, especially when one chooses to set it in Brooklyn, which is actually only one-third white.

While I definitely subscribe to the write-what-you-know camp (hello—I primarily write for Jewish publications), I guess I’m disappointed that Dunham seems to “know” so little of New York, much less the world. Thus far, her work, which also includes the semi-autobiographical feature, “Tiny Furniture,” has betrayed a stunning lack of curiosity about other strata of the city in which she was born and raised.

I really wanted to like this show. Not am I only part of its target demographic (albeit at the tail end)—I’m 29, I live in Brooklyn (in addition to being born and raised here) and have a creative career—but I loved the idea of a woman like Dunham, at the age of just 25, being given unprecedented creative control over a series. And perhaps because I and many others like me had been hoping for more, we were bound to be disappointed.

Over at Jezebel, Dodai Stewart writes, “If ‘Girls’ was merely a terrible show with zero potential, none of this would be up for discussion. Part of the problem is that the creator, Lena Dunham, and the premise—a kind of more realistic ‘Sex and The City’—have so much potential.”

And she’s right—there is actually stuff to like about “Girls.” The female characters aren’t total caricatures. They don’t fit neatly into archetypes—the creative one, the smart one, the prim one and the slut—as they did on the show’s predecessor, “Sex and the City.” The dialogue felt natural even if a bit too much of it referred to social media. (We get it—kids these days narrate their lives on Twitter and don’t use their phones as phones.) It was also squeamishly entertaining to watch the least sexy sex scene I’ve ever seen on television. It was a nice change of pace from the highly stylized iterations we typically see on TV where everyone’s always having fun and no one’s head accidentally hits the headboard. And in this television season where writers have used “vagina” as a punch line, as though the term in and of itself was humorous, Dunham actually lands a vagina joke that is legitimately funny.

Are bad sex and vag jokes enough to get me to tune in to future episodes? Well, while I’m inclined to give the show another shot and see how Dunham and Co. develop the characters, unfortunately I’m part her target demographic. This means I don’t have a subscription to HBO. Ultimately, “Girls” might be for the parents of post-collegiate girls who want to see how their retirement savings are being spent.

Israeli military chief apologizes for gaffe

The chief of Israel’s armed forces apologized for joking about boycotts by some religious soldiers of female entertainment troupes.

During an inspection of Golan forces Tuesday, Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz was asked by Defense Minister Ehud Barak about the duties of several female soldiers standing nearby.

“They sing during recesses. We bring them over during recess to sing,” Gantz quipped as television cameras rolled.

Barak responded by pointing to one of his civilian aides and saying, “She can sing. She’s not in uniform.”

That drew a bawdier joke from the local commander, Col. Ofek Buchris: “As long as she’s not in uniform, but she’s wearing clothes, it’s OK.”

The exchange, aired on national television, touched a nerve given the military high command’s efforts to curb complaints within the ranks that performances by conscripted female singers offend Orthodox Jewish sensibilities. The controversy has flowed into a wider debate as to the growing influence of religious soldiers in the armed forces.

Gantz exacerbated the affair by telling reporters who observed the Golan repartee that they should not publish it.

The Israel Defense Forces issued a statement Wednesday saying Gantz “clarifies that his remarks were made jovially and that the interpretation appended to them contradicts the chief of staff’s outlook and his record of advancing women in the IDF.”

“The chief of staff has further emphasized that he apologizes before anyone who took offense at his words.”

Elevate more female rabbis into leadership roles

On a recent trip to Berlin with a dozen other Conservative rabbis, we made certain to stop at the apartment building that Regina Jonas once called home. I had never heard of Jonas, but to the four female rabbis in our group she was a hero.

In 1935, she became the first woman in the world to be ordained as a rabbi. My colleague, Rabbi Gesa Ederberg, hosted our group at her beautiful Berlin synagogue during our visit and doubled as a knowledgeable tour guide. We also had the opportunity to meet with rabbinical students at the Abraham Geiger College, where in 2010 Rabbi Alina Treiger became the first woman to be ordained in Germany since Jonas.

Today there are hundreds of inspiring, smart and passionate female rabbis who have followed in the steps of Regina Jonas.

As another “rabba” will soon be ordained, American Jews are just getting used to the idea of female rabbis in the Modern Orthodox world. However, in the more progressive streams of Judaism, female rabbis have been on the scene for decades and are now part of the fabric of everyday Jewish life. In fact, one funny anecdote demonstrates that for some of the youngest members of the Jewish community, female rabbis are the only form of rabbi that exists.

A female colleague tells the story of introducing her 5-year-old son to a male rabbi. He reacted in shock and said, “But Mommy, I thought only ladies can be rabbis.” Out of the mouths of babes.

In Newsweek magazine’s recent ranking of the top U.S. rabbis for this year listed many more women at the top. Among these superstar rabbis were women who are leading institutions and large congregations, as well as highly sought-after authors and entrepreneurs who have launched their own communities.

Like other professions in which women were once not welcome to join, the rabbinate has been forced to learn how to accept female rabbis into the ranks. Certainly this acceptance is most challenging for the oldest generation of rabbis who came of age in the old boys network—a rabbinate sans women. Rabbis now in their middle age were the first to welcome women into the profession, but also have memories of the controversy that took shape around the seminary doors opening. But for younger rabbis—I include myself in this cohort even though my doctor tells me I’m aging a bit each day—there have always been female rabbis, and we wouldn’t want it any other way.

I recall the first time I jumped into a New York City cab and noticed that my driver was a woman. I did a double take, but then things progressed as usual. She got me to my destination, I paid the fare and her tip, said thanks, and was on my way.

Not so with female rabbis, however. There are noticeable differences between the sexes, and we shouldn’t pretend they don’t exist. Having women as rabbis has added immensely to all aspects of Judaism, and female rabbis have helped shape the conversation.

Female rabbis have added beautiful new rituals to our tradition. They have introduced spiritual rituals that most men wouldn’t have dreamed up, like prayers for fertility, teachings at the mikvah and meaningful customs following a miscarriage.

Female rabbis have brought naming ceremonies for our daughters to the meaningful level of the brit. They can relate to the teenage bat mitzvah girl in ways that male rabbis never could or would never even try. Their commentary on the Torah and Talmud is fresh, and they can provide voices to the hidden personas of the many female characters of our rich text that have been missing for generations.

When I was in rabbinical school, I gained new perspectives from my female peers who at the time numbered just one-third of the student body. I cherish the wonderful professional and personal relationships I have with our female rabbis in town. They offer so much to our community, and I feel sorry for the previous generations who missed out on the female rabbinic voices.

Many women might yearn for the day when we no longer use the term “female rabbi” or when the Forward doesn’t publish a list of the top 50 female rabbis. But we should embrace the changing face of the American rabbinate. Men and women are different creatures, and so, too, it is in the rabbinate. It will only be to Orthodoxy’s benefit to welcome more women into rabbinic leadership roles. Regina Jonas would be proud.

(Rabbi Jason Miller is the director of Kosher Michigan, a kosher certification agency, and president of Access Computer Technology, a tech support and social media marketing company.)

Women journalists to speak to changing Middle East

The protests sweeping the Middle East are driven by a second revolution — the empowerment of Arab women.

“The visibility of women as change mobilizers, political leaders and activists, followers and supporters, has never been as high as today,” Nadia Al-Sakkaf, editor-in-chief of the Yemen Times, the country’s pioneer English-language newspaper, wrote in an e-mail.

Al-Sakkaf, herself one of the women she describes, will speak March 31 at Leo Baeck Temple, together with another newswoman, Felice Friedson, president and CEO of The Media Line (TML), based in Jerusalem.

In Yemen, one of the icons of the youth protests is a woman, Tawakul Karman, who, with six other women, has been staging freedom protests weekly for the past three years, Al-Sakkaf reports.

In Tunisia, too, where the regional wave of protests started, women were also on the front lines from the beginning, but in Egypt, and even more so in conservative Libya, they have remained largely in the background.

But even in the two latter countries, women have provided protesters with food, blankets and emotional support. Some have been so creative as to bake bread and cookies inscribed with such phrases as “get out” and “game over.”

“In some isolated cases,” Al-Sakkaf writes, “women have poured hot water from their windows on security men, who were attacking the protesters.”

Al-Sakkaf worked her way up from reporter to top job on the Yemen Times and has broken major stories, such as the exploitation of child brides in her country.

She holds degrees in computer science and information systems management, perhaps not surprising in a society in which women are frequently better educated than men, said Friedson in a phone call from Israel.

The American-Jewish woman and her husband, Michael, founded TML in 2000 and now have a staff of 10 full-time and 12 part-time correspondents covering the Middle East.

In 2000, she established the Mideast Press Club to bring Israeli and Palestinian journalists together, and created quite a stir when she brought a group of Palestinian reporters to the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, for the first time.

The two newswomen will discuss the current democracy movement throughout the Middle East and the role of women, joined by Senior Rabbi Ken Chasen of Leo Baeck Temple.

The program will start at 7 p.m. There is no admission charge, but advance reservations are recommended; e-mail {encode=”rsvp@leobaecktemple.org” title=”rsvp@leobaecktemple.org”} or call (310) 476-2861.

First black female rabbi to leave congregation

The first African-American female rabbi will leave her congregation this summer.

Rabbi Alysa Stanton’s contract with Congregation Bayt Shalom in Greenville, S.C., was not renewed, the Forward reported Thursday.

“We felt Rabbi Stanton has brought a lot of gifts to the congregation, but we felt she wasn’t a good fit for the direction we’re going,” board president Samantha Pilot told the Forward. “I can tell you with certainty that race—I never heard that come up once during her tenure or now. It’s a non-issue.”

Bayt Shalom is a small Conservative congregation that also is affiliated with the Reform movement.

Stanton said she will serve out her contract, which expires at the end of July.

Stanton, 47, a convert and mother to an adopted teenage daughter, was ordained at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in June 2009, and took up her full-time pulpit shortly thereafter.

The former Pentecostal Christian converted 20 years ago while in college. She is a trained psychotherapist who specializes in trauma and grief.

Erin Stern: The nice Jewish girl who got really buff [SLIDESHOW]

If you imagined the typical Jewish physique, bodybuilder is probably not what would come to mind. In pop culture, Jews are skinny and bespectacled like Woody Allen, or chubby and unshaven like Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill. Sometimes the rare tough and rugged Israeli shows up, fighting terror and being macho. But big, buff and tan — that’s something you rarely see. So how did a nice Jewish girl end up becoming a champion in the sport of hulking supermen like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ronnie Coleman?

In Erin Stern’s case, it all started with three centimeters.

Three centimeters is not a long distance to travel. It’s barely more than an inch. Take one footstep and you’d blow right by it. But for Stern, the three centimeters she couldn’t travel changed her life forever.

A Junior All-American at the University of Florida, Stern had been competing in events like the pentathlon and heptathlon since high school. Her high-jump numbers were good enough that she set her sights on the Beijing Olympics. All that stood between her and the team trials were a few short centimeters. She kicked her training into overdrive, and her numbers improved, but she was falling just shy of what she needed.

“I’m a little short for a high-jumper,” says the statuesque 5-foot-8 Stern, chuckling. “I gave it my all, but I couldn’t make the last three centimeters.”

Dejected, Stern was forced to give up on Olympic high jumping.

“I was extremely bummed,” she said.

By rights, Stern’s athletic journey should have ended there, three centimeters short of glory.  She had a promising career in real estate to fall back on, and her college years were over. It was time for a transition. But she’d been a track star for so long that it felt weird to have no focus, no goal to reach for. That’s when a friend suggested she try competing in Figure competitions.

Stern grew up in a family of athletes. “My father played football at C.W. Post and Adelphi University, and my mother would run three miles a day,” she says.

She started riding horses in competitions at a young age and later developed a passion for running, just like her mother, which led her to her track career.

Stern was raised in a Jewish household. She attended religious school and had her bat mitzvah during Passover.

“I’ll never forget having to read the long haftarah,” she said. “ I had to do the service all in Hebrew. My sister was lucky — by the time her bat mitzvah rolled around, we’d joined the Reform temple, and she got to do a lot of the prayers in English.”

Erin Stern’s Fitness Tips

Starting your own journey toward becoming a fitter Jew isn’t as hard as training for a contest like the Olympia. 2010 Figure Olympia champ Erin Stern offers a few simple changes you can make to get yourself on the road to a healthier life today.

“The No. 1 rule is don’t make excuses. People always make excuses for why it’s too hard to work out or take time to be healthier.  I suggest making appointments for fitness, just like you would for a business meeting or a lunch with a friend. Make an appointment to walk or lift some weights. That way, there’s no excuse not to have the time.”

“Another thing I like to follow is the 90/10 rule — eat well 90 percent of the time so you can enjoy yourself the other 10 percent.  Don’t deny yourself that nice cheat meal on Saturday night; eat right the rest of the week and you can have it with no guilt.”

“Eat five meals a day. You should have breakfast, lunch and dinner, plus two snacks in between. Snacking is really important in terms of controlling your insulin spikes. If you have two healthy snacks in between meals — almonds, an apple, string cheese, Greek yogurt or veggies — you won’t get to the point where you’re so hungry you overeat.”

“Work out with a friend; it makes you accountable. You’re less likely to skip that after-work trip to the gym if you know your friend is there waiting for you and counting on you.”

“Pick a class that fits you — there are so many on the market these days, from yoga to spinning to pole dancing to Krav Maga. There’s a class out there for every fitness level and every taste, so find one that speaks to you.”

“If you’re training for a contest, or just want to keep track of your weight loss, take progress pictures. You see your body every day, so it’s hard to notice changes. If you take a picture in the same outfit, in the same spot, once every week, you’ll be able to notice the changes you’re making much easier.”

Stern’s last piece of advice for people looking to live healthier: “Start now.  Don’t wait for the new year. Set your goals, print them out, hang them on your wall, and make a plan to get fitter and healthier today.”

Her parents stressed both Judaism and athletics as important pursuits.

“Everything is connected,” Stern said. “It’s important for us to take care of ourselves physically, spiritually and mentally.”

And while some of Stern’s impressively chiseled physique can be attributed to genetics and to the prodding of her parents, it took a lot of hours in the gym to build a body worthy of taking the stage in a Figure competition.

Figure competitions are a spinoff of bodybuilding. Introduced a decade ago, Figure emphasizes muscle tone and shape over the big, bulky physiques of bodybuilding. Beauty also factors in.

“It’s like a pageant with muscles,” Stern said, laughing, perhaps at the slight absurdity of a haircut factoring in after months of grueling training.  

At a friend’s prodding, in 2008 Stern decided to enter a National Physique Committee (NPC) Figure show to try her luck.

“I didn’t prepare much for my first contest. I had watched some YouTube videos, so I knew what to expect, but I was very nervous. I felt at home on the track, not on the stage,” she said.

Stern’s worries were for naught. She won the show and found herself on a whole new athletic path.

Stern may be the most successful Jew in the history of the sport, but she’s not the first. Dan Lurie was a five-time runner-up for the Mr. America title back in the 1940s.  Mike Katz was featured alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger in the classic bodybuilding film “Pumping Iron,” but he never placed better than fourth at the Mr. Olympia competition. The Olympia itself was founded in 1965 by Joe Weider, a bodybuilder and entrepreneur who along with his younger brother, Ben, grew up a poor Jewish kid in New York’s Lower East Side. With just $7, Weider founded the publishing empire that would later grow to include Shape, Men’s Fitness and Flex magazines. Held in various cities for most of its first three decades of existence, the Olympia has been staged in Las Vegas since 1999.

Stern made her Olympia debut in 2009 and was named Rookie of the Year after placing sixth.  She returned home to Florida, ready to get in even better shape for the next year. Stern refers to her method of training as F.A.S.T.

“It stands for Functionally Aesthetic Strength Training,” she said. “I’m probably the only Figure girl who trains like I train. I don’t have a trainer or a dietitian.”

Stern’s unusual training methods are a big reason for her fast climb up the ranks in the sport. By the time the next Olympia rolled around, Stern was ready to go for the title.

“The whole week going into the show is tough. You’re dialing it in,” she said. “You’re focusing on your diet. You cut out all the salt because you don’t want to retain water. I visualized the win in my mind. I’d go through my poses at home, practice how I’d walk out on stage.”

On the day of the show, Stern paraded onto the stage with the other competitors.  Her biggest competition was Nicole Wilkins-Lee, a button-nosed blonde from Michigan who’d captured the Olympia title the previous year.

During the preliminary round of the show, Stern and Wilkins-Lee were called out together in a tiny group of two to pose for the judges. That’s when Stern knew she was “either in first or second place” on the judges’ cards. Unfortunately, she’d have to wait until the next day to find out whether she was a winner or a runner-up.

After avoiding the urge to snack during the next 24 hours, Stern waited nervously on the finals stage as the runners-up were announced. Eventually, it came down to her and Wilkins-Lee. The bright lights shone down on Stern’s spray-tanned face as she awaited her fate, her body full of nerves, a little like when she had her bat mitzvah years before.

Stern’s nerves were short-lived. The judges announced the first runner-up: Nicole Wilkins-Lee. “I thought I was going to cry tears of joy and faint at the same time. It was just like I’d dreamed,” Stern recalled. She was presented with a “big plastic check” for $28,000. “It’s just like what the men get, except without an extra zero at the end,” Stern joked, referencing the $200,000 prize this year’s Mr. Olympia, Jay Cutler, walked away with. But the money didn’t matter to Stern — it was the feeling of joy at winning a title, of accomplishing her goal, of making it those last few centimeters.

Since her win, Stern’s been very busy enjoying her newfound fame. She’s graced the covers of magazines like Oxygen and expanded her online training business to help women from around the world build better bodies. She’s traveled to expos across the country to make appearances, and she’ll be in Los Angeles at L.A.’s Fit Expo in January.

Stern is looking forward to getting more involved in the business side of fitness. “I don’t want to compete forever,” she said. She’s more interested in inspiring others and in encouraging people to live healthy lifestyles. And maybe she’ll encourage other Jewish women to take more control of their health and to pick up some weights. Young Jewish women may not decide that bodybuilding is for them, but Stern is a shining example of how being a buff Jew is no longer an oxymoron.

Find more photos like this on EveryJew.com

They also serve: Rabbis’ spouses prove as diverse as roles they fill

Just before the High Holy Days last year, I was sitting in synagogue when I was struck by the star power of its rabbi. When he spoke, everyone listened, transfixed, as if the words he offered were revelations — inspiring, challenging and healing all at the same time.

At the end of his sermon, the congregants erupted in applause. I could hear them whispering about him all at once.

“He’s amazing,” several said.


“I love him!”

That’s when the cantor’s wife, who was sitting next to me, tapped me on the shoulder.

“You know,” she whispered under the din of temple chatter. “I’m waiting for the story about what it’s like to be married to someone in the clergy.”

That’s when I began wondering about the people rabbis go home to at night, the people who don’t just love the rabbi, but who also know the rabbi.

For as long as rabbis have been arguing Talmud, their wives have been at home preparing Shabbat dinner.

Yet that image, along with expectations for clergy spouses, has evolved. For one, they’re no longer all women. They’re no longer always hovering in the background; they’re not even always a different gender from their partner.

Modern rabbis’ spouses don’t fit into any single mold.

” title=”David Light”>David Light balances comedy writing with care of his two daughters; ” title=”Bruce Ellman”>Bruce Ellman brings his psychology training to benefit his temple; Marjorie Pressman served as a fiery force throughout her now-retired husband’s pulpit career; and ” title=”Marjorie Pressman”>Marjorie Pressman put it, “I didn’t marry a rabbi. I married the man I fell in love with.”

And that’s the thread that binds these seven people together.

At the heart of all these stories and all their struggles, are simple, powerful love stories.

All the

Student on track to become first black female rabbi

Alysa Stanton-Ogulnick isn’t particularly interested in being a standard-bearer.

She’s proud to be black, proud to be a woman and proud to be a 45-year-old single mother who raised her adopted child on her own.

And when she says that next year, following her ordination as a Reform rabbi, she will become the first black female rabbi, the huge grin on her face lets folks know she feels pretty good about that, too.

But Stanton-Ogulnick, who is studying at the Cincinnati campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), didn’t set out to be the first. It just kind of happened, like so much else in her life.

“If I were the 50,000th, I’d still be doing what I do, trying to live my life with kavanah and kedusha,” she said, using the Hebrew words for intentionality and holiness. “Me being first was just the luck of the draw.”

Stanton-Ogulnick — she’s still getting used to the second part of her hyphenated last name, the product of a recent marriage — was recently in San Francisco for a conference of ethnically and racially diverse Jews and Jewish communities sponsored by Be’chol Lashon, an organization that supports their efforts to enter the Jewish mainstream.

That’s something the future rabbi knows a great deal about — as a woman, as a convert and as a Jew of color. She’s had to fight for success and acceptance in a world that wasn’t always welcoming.

“At this conference there are people from all over looking for their identity,” Stanton-Ogulnick said. “Maybe I can help them on the path by breaking down barriers.”

That’s among her goals as a rabbi, she says: breaking barriers, building bridges and giving hope.

Like many rabbinic students now, Stanton-Ogulnick is on her second career. She came to the rabbinate as a licensed psychotherapist specializing in grief and loss issues.

Stanton-Ogulnick has worked with trauma victims in Colorado for the past 16 years, at the same time becoming more active in Denver’s Temple Emanuel. She has served the synagogue as a para-chaplain, religious-school teacher and cantorial soloist.

Raised by Pentacostal parents, Stanton-Ogulnick spent her childhood and young adulthood as a spiritual seeker, making the rounds of various Christian denominations before finding her home in Judaism. She converted more than 20 years ago.

“People look at me and ask if I was born Jewish,” she said. “I say yes, but not to a Jewish womb. I believe I was at Sinai. It’s not as if one day I scratched my head and said, hmm, now how can I make my life more difficult? I know — I’ll become Jewish!”

Stanton-Ogulnick made her choice to join the Jewish community as an adult, well aware of the difficulties that might arise. Her daughter Shana, now 13, didn’t get to choose; she was dipped in the mikvah (ritual bath) as an infant.

The year they spent in Jerusalem, Stanton-Ogulnick’s first year as an HUC-JIR student, was the most difficult. Shana, then 7, faced daily prejudice at school.

“She was beat up, and once was literally kicked off the bus,” her mother said with quiet anger. “We’d been in Israel three months and her only friend was a cat.”

One day, Shana came home from camp beaming because one of the other children held her hand.

“‘Nobody ever holds my hand, Mommy,’ she said to me,” Stanton-Ogulnick recounted. “I said, ‘Why?’ She said, ‘Because I’m shochor,'” or black.

“Ani lo tov, ani lo yafah,” the little girl told her mother, using the Hebrew for “I’m no good, I’m not pretty.”

Even telling the story now, six years later, Stanton-Ogulnick shakes her head.

“Sometimes I’ve been in tears with what I have put this child through,” she says.

Stanton-Ogulnick relates some of the difficulties of her life’s journey in a monologue she created last fall called “Layers.”

First performed at a conference of Reform religious-school educators in October, the piece opens with her standing on stage with her head in a noose, a shocking evocation of slavery. The monologue deals with her journey to Judaism and other major changes in her life, including a recent weight loss of 122 pounds.

Pulling out an old picture of herself at her former weight, Stanton-Ogulnick shakes her head again. Is she really no longer that person? Is she really about to become a rabbi?

It’s all so remarkable, she muses.

At the end of one performance, she says, a woman came up to her in tears, saying, “You told my story, thank you.”

“It’s those moments,” Stanton-Ogulnick said. “Even though the journey is long and the path difficult, if I can provide someone with a little hope and a sense of purpose, it’s worthwhile.”

It’s experiencing those moments that she is most looking forward to as a rabbi, whether she ends up in a pulpit, working as a chaplain or in some other position.

“That moment, that ‘a-ha, I’m not alone’ that comes when I’m talking with a congregant or an individual struggling with something and I’m helping them find a solution,” she said, “that a-ha moment is what it’s about for me.”

Grandma’s Secret

There is no person on this planet more concerned with my
single status than my grandmother. No phone conversion with her is complete
without several highly unsubtle prods about finding a
suitable Jewish female companion.

Try as I might to steer our discussions as far away from
marriage as possible, Grandma has a way of looping us back to her favorite
subject. Just the other day I had her on the phone in order to get some cooking
tips as I prepared an omelet. As yet another golden yolk turned brown on my frying
pan, she offered her best culinary advice: “Why don’t you find a wife who can
make it for you?”

As much as I love my grandmother, her single-minded
obsession with my romantic life is fraying every nerve in my body. It isn’t
just the one-track phone conversations, either. Nearly every Jewish human being
Grandma meets she grills –Â in search of an unattached female family member or
friend to set up with me. While her intentions are good, it has become
difficult to question the standards with which she seeks my mate, because she
apparently doesn’t have any. Then she gets angry because I refuse to call an
18-year-old ultra-Orthodox girl whose first language is Yiddish and happens to
live in another state.

But just when it seemed there was little hope of getting
Grandma off my back, some help came from an unexpected source. I had taken on a
project with an uncle of mine to transfer our family tree, which traces my
ancestors back to the 17th century, to a computer program that could more
easily accommodate updated information. It was a fascinating exercise that gave
me personal statistics on hundreds of family members — including Rose Flatow,
my grandmother.

As I perused her file, an alarm went off in my brain. I
noted that 1944 was when she married my grandfather, who died 20 years ago.
Recalling that she is 92 years old, I realized something I had never thought to
question before: the age my grandmother got married. It was 33 — two years
older than I am now.

My next thought was euphoric: What better way to get her to
ease up on me than to point out the simple fact that she was pressuring me to
accomplish what she herself had not done? Grandma was a hypocrite, and though
it might put me out of the running at the Grandson of the Year Awards, I
planned on holding that over her head for as long as I could.

For our next phone call, I was ready to pounce. Seconds
after her first reference to marriage, I retorted, “Gee, Grandma, that’s
interesting coming from you considering you were 33 when you got married.”

Disclaimer: This may sound like a disrespectful way to talk
to a 92-year-old grandmother, but Grandma actually enjoys a good verbal
sparring match. A woman who describes “doing time” at a nursing home in Long
Beach, N.Y., entirely in prison metaphors without a trace of humor begins to
act like a hardened lifer after a while.

“Have it your way,” she responded. “I just hope I’ll still
be around for the wedding.”

The guilt that comes with having your grandparent play the
Age Card might humble an ordinary soul. Not me. As her most formidable Scrabble
competitor, I recognized it in the same way as when she would play a 10-point Z
tile without bothering to align it with a triple-word score: a last-ditch

Intrigued by her defensiveness, I pressed on in search of more
information. As ordinary as it is today for a woman to be married in her 30s,
it was distinctively rare when she came of age. I wanted to uncover why.

There is nothing my grandmother loves more than reminiscing
about her younger days, but nudging her nostalgic riffing in the direction of
her dating life was terra incognita for me. Like many Eastern European Jews,
Rose Silverstein grew up in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn and the Lower
East Side of Manhattan. She was the youngest of seven siblings, five of whom
were brothers. She “kept company” with some of their friends, she admitted, but
doesn’t remember being too enthralled with any of them.

“If they asked you on a date, fine, and if they didn’t call,
well, who gave a damn,” she said.

Probing further, I learned Grandma took a dim view of men
during the Depression. While she held down a job as a secretary at the Parks
Department, she saw many of the unemployed men she encountered as lazy and
passive; how could they ever support her, she wondered? Many never went to
college, but she attended night school to get her degree even though her father
frowned upon it. Sometimes she attracted the wrong kind of attention: When a
drunken coworker chased her around the office one too many times, she had her brother,
Louie, give him a stern talking-to.

Listening to her travails, I felt chastened. She had bona
fide sociological trends to support her reasons for late marriage; I could not
compete with that. Just the same, I was glad to get to know Grandma not as a
grandmother but as a woman with whom I shared common ground. Growing up we tend
to assume our grandparents were pretty much born at the age of 65.

Her story has a happy ending. She met Sam Flatow on a beach
in Far Rockaway. He asked her if she minded watching his things while he went
for a swim. She watched them until he returned and promptly stepped into his
shoe and crushed the eyeglasses he forgot he had hidden inside.

I’m pretty sure I won’t be able to top stomping on a glass
should there be any foreshadowing of a Jewish wedding in my own future. Â

Andrew Wallenstein writes for the Hollywood Reporter and serves as a weekly commentator on National Public Radio’s “Day to Day.” His work was included in the recently published “Best Jewish Writing 2003” (Jossey-Bass).
He can be reached at awally@aol.com.

Aunt Coca’s Ghost

Did you have an Aunt Coca? My auntie, to
whom I am not genetically connected, was a lady we kindly invited to family
gatherings because she was alone. It was silently understood that she was an “old maid,” one of those
unfortunate women who did not marry and have children.

My Aunt Coca, from my child perspective, was an “old” woman.
A distinguished blonde lady, a member of the adult clan who clumsily pinched my
cheeks and brought gifts. What seemed old then, is close to home now. Like her,
I am an unmarried, 40-year-old woman, and I sometimes painfully feel the same
loneliness and single-woman stigmas as she did.

My four closest girlfriends are also not married. One of
them is 38 — but we still love her. Another has returned to the chevra (group)
after going through a divorce and becoming a single mom. She at least has a
record of having “sealed the deal.”

In our achievements and independence, we are very different
from Aunt Coca, who I believe spent her life working as a secretary. I am
reminded of our professional competence as we sit for our weekly Coffee Bean
& Tea Leaf shot of friendship. Our skills are varied: a lawyer, a doctor, a
writer, another lawyer and a high-tech wiz.

Our chevra was bonded and sealed through our 20-year
adventures in Los Angeles single Jewish life. In our 20s and 30s we all dated
many men, had some near-misses, attended young leader retreats, Shabbatons,
traveled to exotic destinations and busily became ensconced in Los Angeles
Jewish life.

As we chat and interrupt each other, I think of our common
denominators besides being 40: we are smart, kind, interesting and always
chasing those extra 10 (or 15) zaftig pounds. Our exchange does not have
commercial breaks:

“Jewish men are looking for playboy bunnies who read Torah.”

“Los Angeles is not Kansas City! There are so many women who
look fabulous here. Anyway they want women in their 20s to have a family.”

“Bull, they are just dirty old men”

We exchange JDate horror and victory stories. My friend
Debbie, who was not even looking (she had a top-level marketing job), got
married to a great guy through JDate.

Our PalmPilots sit on the table as we pick them up to
proactively pencil in social opportunities to be aware of: “Makor has a 40-50
singles group.” “What’s their Web site?” “Are you going to The Federation
leadership event?” “Too young. The guys are looking for 20-year-olds.” “LACMA
has free concerts on Fridays.” “MOCA has a singles group.” “It’s 20-something.”
“Did you go to Friday Night Live?” “The UJ has a 39 cutoff for their discussion
group.” “I am taking bridge lessons.” “The Fountain Theatre has a great play.”

We network activities for an hour. Our loneliness, though
populated with (diminishing) marriage prospects according to researchers, is
densely populated with friendships, philanthropic involvements, cultural
activities, family events, the gym, our pets and occasional nights at home.

Midweek I met my friend Elliott in the magazine area of
Barnes & Noble. By his own admission, he is a Jewish prince who fears
commitment. His (generally blonde) relationship attempts fail regularly and he
lives on antidepressants, while attending every single event listed (and not
listed) to find his muse. Though my friends and I would probably fit his needs
better than his relationship résumé, he would never consider dating a woman
like me. “Kind” is not one of the criteria he seeks in a woman. He wants a
young, beautiful, successful, slim, amazing, funny, superlative fit.

I leave Elliott and feel angry at men like him. Of course,
there are lot of good men who are more real, but it does certainly seem like
there are many Elliotts around. What’s a girl to do? Have fun and enjoy life
anyway, is my answer. I do feel shame not being married, but I do not feel
desperate or bored. There are times when I feel that I live on another planet
from my Valley friends, who are consumed with diaper and carpool concerns.
Mostly, my throat tightens and I feel particularly single at family Shabbat
dinners and holidays. My brothers have supplied the grandchildren, not I, the
Jewish daughter brought up for marriage. Luck? Fear of commitment? Who knows?

Am I that different than my Aunt Coca? Is the organized
Jewish community life aware of the great number of mature singles —
particularly women? Is anything being done on a community level to integrate us
into a fulfilling role other than being an alien in a synagogue world dedicated
to family life? I hope that Jewish leaders and rabbis will hear our message as
they look at Jewish life today and tomorrow.

It sometimes feels like the Orthodox community is making a
more concerted effort to reach out to older singles. Some question their
motives, but the consistency of their outreach voice is undeniable. My friends
and I often trek to Pico-Robertson to experience Shabbat with Jewish families
and feel the warmth of community sharing.

My options are different than Aunt Coca’s. To address my
ticking biological clock, I could adopt or consider other options. I can enjoy
the benefits of independent life and choose other ways to contribute socially
than by having a family and children.

However, tonight I finish my fun
Scrabble game on PlaySite.com and then switch to JCupid to see if their Web site has more
options than JDate.

Five days to the next girlfriend caffeinated meeting.

Annabelle Stevens is a writer and the public relations director at Gary Wexler + Associates | Passion Marketing for Issues and Causes. She is the mother of the infamous Black Jacquie the cat.

Funny Girl

Is it harder for nice Jewish girls in the world of stand-up comedy? Yes.

Is it impossible? Nothing’s impossible, shayna maydele, if you put your mind to it.

I’m sitting here wearing my new necklace. Bought it for myself, cause I deserve it! It’s a thin gold chain with a charm dangling on my upper chest that reads “single” in ’70s-style, almost psychedelic letters. It’s “Sex and the City” meets B’nai B’rith luncheon. It defines me. A female. A female comic. A Jewish female comic trying to make it in Los Angeles.

Unlike most female comedians in Los Angeles, I’ve had the luxury of running my own comedy rooms for a while now, and perform regularly in a supportive, safe haven where women are encouraged to explore their “funny.” My shows, titled “She-She Comedy,” encourage women to express themselves: find humor that’s universal and innovative, not necessarily self-deprecating and/or ego-deflating.

Then I go out in the real world, and it just ain’t the same.

I have been the only female comedy writer on a television writing staff, so I know what it’s been like to be the chick among the cocks. But I’ve never done it in front of a full audience, until tonight.

I head out to see one of my favorite headliner comedians (whom I will call “H” in order to protect the innocent — me — from getting future work). H runs an improvised rant show just for kicks at a local comedy club on Sunday nights. His guests are only high-profile celebs.

Tonight, he is co-starring with two comics whom I emulate and would never dream of sharing the stage with. I’m psyched, ready for an excellent evening of alternative comedy.

Little do I know how alternative it would actually be. Turns out the female comic doesn’t show. So when H jokes “There aren’t chick comics in the crowd, are there?” I can’t help but call out saucily, “Right here!”

“Who the hell are you?” H retorts.

“Lesley Wolff!” I shout out with all the confidence of Dame Judi Dench.

“So?” he says.

Somehow my reputation has not preceded me.

“I did Bob’s last film!” (Bob is the other comic sharing the stage, and although I only volunteered as an extra to help my friend who wrote the screenplay, I think that counts.)

He pauses. Unruffled, I run up toward the stage like a winner on “The Price Is Right,” thrilled with the dreamlike opportunity before me: working out my comedy chops with two of my favorite male comics.

H isn’t sure what to do and keeps me at arm’s length. “Now you stay there, Missy,” he says. I see the skepticism in his eyes. What is he afraid of? That I’m a woman? A sassy, outspoken Jewish woman? Was it my outfit? I didn’t “look” funny? I grin at him with anticipation, like a child having to pee.

“I know her,” Bob, his special guest, calls out. “Let her come up.”

The lack of trust and encouragement coming from H is thicker than blood.

Now, I know what it’s like to run a show, and if you don’t know the talent it could get hairy, but there seems to be a distinct gender variable involved. At least that’s what it feels like to me. Is it harder to give blind trust to a female comic? I think so. I myself might even hold the same prejudice.

While he keeps me at bay, H warmly invites a nebbishy Woody Allen-type up on the stage with open arms. “I like you,” he says to the guy. “You remind me of me at your age.”

Then he turns to me. I’m sitting there awkwardly with a smile plastered on my face. “You, I’m not sure of,” he says.

I wink playfully at H to alleviate the palpable tension. My bag of tricks is pretty shallow and I think this is a good icebreaker.

“Don’t wink at me!” H snaps. “I’m a married man and that makes me feel uncomfortable.”

Is he kidding? The tone of his voice doesn’t indicate it so. This isn’t going to be easy. I try my next trick.

“You were supposed to do my ‘All Jew Review!’ show,” I say. Maybe Judaism will be our bond.

“Like hell I was!” he replies. So he’s not about to do the mitzvah of giving me support. I surrender.

The show starts, and after my first round of improvising, H’s worries are alleviated. I’m good. If nothing else, I’m sure of that. I’ve grown up telling funny, ad-hoc stories to make it through the other not-so-funny stuff. I’ve mastered that.

The tension dissipates and the audience kicks back, relaxes, has a great time. I think they were on my side from the beginning.

The show is a success. I pulled my weight. Of course I did.

Yet after all is said and done, I still didn’t feel like I was embraced as a female comic as much as I would have if I were a guy. The words “Prove it, funny girl,” keep echoing in the back of my mind.

Then it hit me — it really hit me — that for the first time the only person I really had to “prove it” to was myself.

A Trivial Pursuit

You don’t plan to become a trivia writer, it just happens. The next thing you know, you’re a one-woman trivia carnival, packing up your trunk of battered almanacs and dictionaries and moving on to the next show.

"Goodbye, guys," you say, because you’re often the only female on the team. "And who stole my Bartlett’s?"

This was the case last Friday, as I wrapped up a five-week stint on my fifth game show since moving to Hollywood.

What is "career stagnation"? You are correct.

I’ve never met a trivia writer that wants to be a trivia writer. Some of us want to be screenwriters, others comedians, sitcom writers, novelists. We’re like actors who came here to play Hamlet and end up playing the bellhop in "Hotel Sodom 6." Trivia is our porno. We tell ourselves we’ll never do another one; we’ll never go back, but the lure is too much. Game shows beckon.

The money is pretty decent. And technically, we’re still in show business, working on studio lots with producers and television executives. Words we write do appear on television. We may be on the slag heap of Hollywood writers, but at least we’re making a living.

Everyone’s path is different, but here’s how I accidentally became a trivia writer. A comedian friend recommended me for a job on a comedy game show, I wrote a sample of jokes and questions and was hired. The joke-writing aspect of that job rescued it from the taint of trivia.

After that, I began getting referred to other shows, "straight" Q&A type shows. I was usually broke at the time and thought, "it’s only a month" or "it’s only four months." I was always grateful for the work, but felt a little like I was entering what my dad calls the Dr. Faustus Pawn Shop, where you sell your soul and hope they pay you enough to buy it back.

What is a typical day in the life of a trivia monkey? You get a quota, meaning you have a certain number of questions to write each day. Topics vary from the "meat and potatoes" categories of science, history and geography to the "chick" categories for which I’m usually brought in — pop culture, art, fashion — although, for a chick, I do write my fair share of sports questions. Nicknames are my bread and butter. If you see a question about "White Chocolate" or "The Mailman," it was probably mine.

In game show argot, some questions get "killed." They aren’t interesting enough, they’re too hard or too easy. A question might be deemed "too Jewish" or "too female" or even "too ethnic." An example of this was a recent big-money, multiple-choice question I wrote asking the surname of the title character in the best-seller, "Tuesdays With Morrie." The answer: Schwartz. The verdict: too Jewish for network prime time.

There are speed demons who finish their quota and run off to meetings or auditions. Others practically move in, sleeping on the office couch and toiling in the trivia mines until all hours, fueled by Red Bull, Red Vines and takeout. Either way, trivia is nothing if not draining.

As in all jobs, there are those who have been institutionalized, who get defeated when a question dies, crying, "My questions are like my children." This is just sad. Still, losing perspective can mean gaining dignity. If you think about how silly the shows are, how small our part is in them, how trivial trivia can be, you will be paralyzed staring at a list of state mottos and wanting to hoist yourself out of the window of the writers’ room.

Wait. There are no windows. Game show security is so stringent these days that writers are usually sequestered in windowless rooms. All documents that aren’t used are shredded. Tensions run high, and the people at the top take it very, very seriously. See above adage about losing perspective to gain dignity.

Cheesy trivia books and "fun fact" Web sites are frowned upon. Even at our low level, we strive to think our occupation requires some modicum of creativity. Never, ever let anyone see you with Trivial Pursuit cards. That is the last refuge of trivia scoundrels.

Occasionally, while crafting a question about Rodin or "Road Rules" or Rhode Island, a debate will break out in the room. We’ll put down our quotas for the eternal question about which of us will "make it out."

I maintain the grudgingly positive attitude that I’m lucky to have a skill that pays the bills and doesn’t involve saying, "Hello, I’m Teresa. Do you have a moment to answer a few questions about your long-distance plan?"

If you want to feel that you matter, that you have something to say, that your life has meaning, you can’t always find that where you work. For some things, you’ve just got to phone a friend.

Teresa Strasser is now on the Web at www.teresastrasser.com . She will be appearing in “The Teresa Monologues,” April 28 at the University of Judaism. For tickets and information, call (310) 440-1246.

Couscous for the Soul

Pauline Bebe, France’s first and only female rabbi, was in town last week, soaking up not only the winter California warmth but our spiritual rays, too. Dark-haired and soft-spoken, Bebe, 36, is a leader in a growing Jewish liberal revival that is now spreading rapidly through Napoleon’s homeland. But in a nation that is still startled by a newspaper headline reading “Moi, femme juive et rabbin” (I, woman, Jewish and rabbi), she’s got her work cut out for her.

For many of us, French Jewry is little more than an off-road adventure during a trip to Paris. Even assimilated Jews get a kick seeking out a pastrami sandwich in the Marais or attending High Holy Days services in the ancient Orthodox synagogue where, amid intermittent anti-Semitic attacks, gendarmes guard the gates. Most of the time, France represents hostility to Jews, siding with Arabs against Israel and hiding terrorists.

But France contains the world’s fourth-largest Jewish community, and 200 years ago, its Jews were the first to balance Jewish identity against citizenship in a modern state. France was, of course, the home of the great Talmudist Rashi and the birthplace of modern sociology (once derided as a “Jewish science”).

Today’s French Jewish society is culturally diverse, equally Ashkenazi and Sephardi. When I asked the Sorbonne-educated Bebe how a Jewish mother makes chicken soup, she replied, “Couscous.”

As French Jews go, so, in a way, do we all. And today they need our help.

With a Jewish population nearing 700,000, only 5 percent of French Jews are affiliated with any community organization or practice. American Jews talk about the loss of the current generation to intermarriage or disaffection, but our community participation is at the 50 percent level. For Bebe and her American-born husband, Rabbi Tom Cohen, for the French to reach 50 percent participation in two decades will be miraculeux.

But before the miracle can occur, the weight of modern history must be lifted. Of course I mean the Shoah.
“I have that history in my own family,” began Bebe, as she kept one eye on her 5-month-old son Elon, and an ear on two other youngsters in the next room.

“My grandfather, Paul Nathan, was in engineering school when he was told to register with the police. He was proud of his country, his family had died for his country. He never thought that by signing a piece of paper, he would endanger his life.”

The infamous history of France under Vichy echoes throughout Bebe’s congregation. France didn’t wait for Hitler to begin its own assault on its Jews. More than 80,000 Jews were deported from France to Germany and Poland, where many were killed.

And yet, while the police cooperated with the Gestapo, many individuals, including police, took enormous risks on their behalf.

“My grandfather was out riding his bike when a policeman warned him that he better leave,” she said. Bebe’s mother and father, like thousands of French Jews, were hidden by Catholic families in the south of France throughout the war.

“I asked my in-laws why they stayed,” Tom Cohen told me. “But it was far more complex than American Jews believe.”

After the war, Jewish life ended. There were few Jewish schools. Today’s synagogue-goer is making up for lost time, feeding a hunger suppressed for two decades. Though Bebe’s role as first female rabbi initially caused a stir, she is the rare member of Generation J, a Jew with knowledge. There are 200 families in her synagogue, 80 students in her religious school.

“The true tradition of Judaism is being open … and we are building its home in Paris,” reads the brochure for Bebe’s dream, the Jewish Community Center in Paris. Combining a synagogue, school, library and cybercafe, the center will be “a home filled with spirituality, where every step of the cycle of life can be celebrated with emotion, a home where it’s good to enter and linger a while.”

This is where we can help. With the help of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, a building campaign has begun for the first French JCC. You can become an associate member of this new institution.
But that’s not all. Bebe says that many French Jews are still uncertain about taking the first step. A generation that grew up in Jewish ignorance needs mentoring and friendship.

“When you’re in Paris, don’t only visit the Orthodox shul, visit us,” she says (e-mail Paris@judaisme-liberal.com). “I can tell them that Reform Judaism is the largest movement, but that’s only a rabbi talking. Our congregants need to see you, to know that liberal Judaism is observed all over the world.”
When in Paris, get some Couscous for your soul.

Beyond the Glass Ceiling

When word got out last week that Janet Engelhart had been named executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Rhode Island – making her the only woman professional at the helm of one of the 40 largest federations – she received a flood of phone calls.

Most were colleagues and friends offering congratulations. But more than five – and the ones that Engelhart found most touching – were from young women professionals at Jewish organizations asking her to be their mentor.

As Engelhart’s sudden popularity illustrates, female role models are in short supply, both in the Jewish federation world and at the highest tiers of other Jewish organizations.But a new initiative – the first effort launched by a new federation system offshoot, the Trust for Jewish Philanthropy – is seeking to change that.

With a $1 million seed grant from Barbara and Eric Dobkin, New York philanthropists known for their support of Jewish feminist causes, the project aims to help the organized Jewish community “identify, attract, recruit, advance and retain women in management and executive positions.”

The initiative – called Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community – capitalizes on another concern that has seized the attention of leaders throughout the Jewish world: the growing shortage of qualified Jewish communal professionals.

By recruiting women more aggressively, the reasoning goes, the pool of candidates will effectively double.Jewish organizations, say the initiative’s proponents, have trailed the business world and other nonprofits in advancing women and have created a climate in which mid-level women professionals believe they must leave the field in order to advance.

“Virtually every profession and industry has moved more quickly and more effectively on opening opportunities to women at top levels than the Jewish communal world,” said Louise Stoll, chief operating officer of the federation system’s national umbrella, United Jewish Communities (UJC).

Hired in 1999, Stoll is the first woman to hold so high a position in the federation world.

Shifra Bronznick, a consultant who helps facilitate change at not-for-profit organizations and is widely credited with designing the new initiative, points out that women hold 51 percent of all CEO posts at foundations and are growing more visible in the corporate world.

In contrast, only two of 40 major national Jewish organizations, excluding women’s organizations, are run by women, according to Bronznick.

Before Engelhart’s hiring in Rhode Island, only one other woman had held a top position at a federation of that size, and it is believed that a woman has never been the top executive at any of the 19 largest federations in North America.

The new initiative seeks to persuade leaders of national, regional and local Jewish organizations to make hiring women a greater priority.

Specifically, it will create a talent bank to identify potential women candidates from within and outside the Jewish community, assist organizations seeking to recruit women, track which organizations are more successful than others at hiring and retaining women, and establish a training program for both male and female senior management candidates.

It is not clear why women are so poorly represented in top Jewish professional circles.

While there is much talk of glass ceilings and some talk of old boys’ networks, few blame the inequity on overt sexism. Indeed, many Jewish organizations say they would like to hire more women but have difficulty finding enough qualified female candidates.

However, UJC’s Stoll said that “resistance has been very strong” to accommodating women at top levels and that it is common to hear comments such as, “I can’t send a woman to deal with that solicitation. He’ll do better with a man.”

But some women in the field – while supportive of the new initiative – suggest that it is not necessarily discrimination that dissuades women from seeking top positions.

Shula Bahat, acting executive director of the American Jewish Committee, which she said has made recent strides in recruiting women for top lay and professional roles, said she knows of several situations where women were considered for executive jobs but took their hats out of the ring to leave more time for family.Ironically, the concern about the dearth of women in top posts comes at a time when other Jewish spheres are reporting a shortage of men.

A recent study found that with the exception of the Orthodox world, women participate more in adult Jewish learning than men. Another study – on Jewish teens – found that boys are less likely than girls to join youth groups or attend religious school while in high school.

Some have speculated about a “feminization” of Jewish life, saying that as Judaism has become more open to women, it is being devalued by – and abandoned by – men.

The new initiative’s backers say they are not worried this will happen in the upper echelons of Jewish organizations.

“I think that when wonderful leaders head up institutions, everyone wants to be a part of them,” Bronznick said.

Raising Boys

This past year, Toys R Us was excoriated for proposing and, in some instances, constructing separate “Boys World” and “Girls World” sections. But public outrage quickly forced the 707-store retailer to abandon this gender-based marketing concept, which it euphemistically referred to as “logical adjacencies.”Twenty years ago, I would have vehemently condemned Toys R Us’ discriminatory actions, perhaps even joining the ranks of the politically correct protesters. Girls, I would have argued, have as much right to play with a Tonka truck as boys with a Little Tikes vacuum cleaner. And not only a right, a need.Twenty years ago, I was single, childless and clueless.

But I had come of age in the late 1960s and 1970s, witnessing the birth of the pill, Ms. Magazine and Helen Reddy’s hit song, “I am Woman,” watching a total upheaval of traditional sexual roles, rules and expectations.

By the early 1980s, I had seen Sally J. Priesand ordained as the first female American rabbi, Sandra Day O’Connor appointed as the first female United States Supreme Court justice and Sally Ride launched into space as the first American female astronaut. And I firmly believed the slogan – before I met my husband, Larry, of course – that a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.

The truth is that the feminist movement, especially during the last 30 years, has brought women unprecedented and very necessary civil rights. It has increased our pay, our sense of confidence and our reproductive options. Clearly, in the words of Bob Dylan, “the times they are a-changin’.”

Changing so much that by late 1983, married and pregnant, I envisioned raising my first son in an idyllic, egalitarian environment. I would teach him to be vulnerable and sensitive, to share his toys graciously with his playmates and to assist me joyfully and willingly with household chores. My future daughter-in-law, whoever she might be, would sing the praises of my parenting skills.

Then Zack was actually born – and I watched the powers of the Y chromosome unfold before me. I watched him hide his favorite toys before a friend would come over. And even more horrific, in our then-adamantly pacifistic, weapon-free home, I watched him fashion guns out of Legos or pieces of toast. Or shoot with a pointed forefinger and raised thumb.

In 1987, Gabe was born. As a toddler, he transformed his cute, cuddly Care Bears into deadly weapons to hurl against his older brother. Later, he used his artistic skills to draw guns and forts and armed castles. Then, in 1989, with the birth of Jeremy, I learned the true meaning of the word risk-taker. Barely walking, he regularly climbed atop the kitchen table and marched across it. Worse, before he learned to swim, he jumped fearlessly into the deep end of swimming pools. He also wrapped Levolor cords around his neck and headed for electrical outlets with letter openers.

By the time my fourth son, Danny, arrived in 1991, my feminist outlook had flip-flopped. I had accepted the reality of innate, intrinsic and God-given gender differences, differences not easily altered by well-meaning and enlightened parents and parenting manuals, differences fundamentally immune to social and cultural influences.

The Talmud agrees. “It is the way of man to subdue the earth, but it is not the way of a woman to subdue it.”

My friend Doug Williams also agrees. Recently comparing our respective hormonally charged home environments, Doug, the father of three daughters, said, “At our house, we have talking, talking, talking. Everything has to be processed.””Come to our house,” I offered. “We have punching.”

“Boys are just hard-wired a certain way,” my husband, Larry, says. And studies confirm this. Males have 10 to 20 times higher testosterone levels than females as well as lower levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that reduces confrontational and impulsive tendencies.

Overall, men are more competitive, aggressive, physical and prone to taking risks.That’s why, with four boys, we have plastic surgeons on call.And that’s why females, who have been trying for the past several decades to remake males in our image, to make them more communal, cooperative and compassionate, have been unsuccessful. Indeed, no matter how much we ask our husbands and sons to talk about their feelings, how often we ask them to process and not necessarily solve problems or how many pink polo shirts we buy them, biology trumps behavioral influences, nature trumps nurture.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t passionately and unequivocally believe in equal civil, social and religious rights for males and females.

It doesn’t mean that I condone rude, offensive, outlandish or inappropriate behavior. Or that I ever accept the excuse that “boys will be boys.”

But it does mean that no matter how generically, unideologically or “illogically adjacent” Toys R Us arranges its thousands of toys, my sons, every time, will make a beeline to the weapon aisle.