Photo from Pixabay.

As a Woman

As a woman, I don’t vote for women just because they’re women.
As a feminist, I don’t vote for women just because they’re women.

As a woman, I don’t march just because something is called a “women’s march.”
As a feminist, I don’t march just because something is called a “women’s march.”

As a woman, I am offended when other women claim to speak for me.
As a feminist, I am offended when leftist feminists try to tell me what to think.

As a woman, I chose to stay home and care for my son when he was young.
As a feminist, I knew that this was my choice, that feminism means freedom for women to make these choices.

As a woman, I would never do anything to advance my career that undermines my self-respect.
As a feminist, I know that feminism is not a free ride: along with rights comes personal responsibility, including the responsibility to say no in difficult situations.

As a woman, I don’t keep silent about immoral behavior, no matter what the consequences.
As a feminist, I know that silence equals complicity.

As a woman, I love being a woman. I am offended by theorists who claim that we are all gender-fluid, that my femininity is a social construct.
As a feminist, I believe in biology, not trendy theories.

As a woman, I am against all restrictions on women that are not personal choices.
As a feminist, I find it hypocritical that leftist feminists never speak out against the restrictions on Muslim women that often are very much not personal choices.

As a woman, I don’t feel oppressed living in the United States.
As a feminist, I know that oppression and patriarchy exist in other countries, countries often ignored by leftist feminists because those nations don’t fit their political narrative.

As a woman and a writer, I have been bullied by both the left and the right, by women as well as men.
As a feminist, I know that bullying is a sign of weakness and insecurity. I have taught my son that no level of bullying is acceptable, and that the only way to respond to bullies is to walk away.

As a woman, I am inspired by strong, sexy women like Gal Gadot.
As a feminist, I know that being comfortable with my sexuality fuels my strength as a woman.

As a woman, I know that Israel is one of the most feminist countries on earth: Israeli women rise to incomparable positions of power in every field.
As a feminist, I know that Zionism and feminism have historically been prominent pillars of liberalism: efforts to demonize Zionism stem from bigotry, not liberalism or feminism.

As a Jewish woman, I love the ritual of lighting candles every Shabbat, of bringing the light into my heart and releasing it into the world through singing the blessing.
As a Jewish feminist, I may not support some of the restrictions placed on women in Judaism, but I respect a woman’s right to choose, as long as it is a choice.

As a woman, I think it’s well past time to take back the word feminist from people on both the right and the left who don’t understand what it means.
As a feminist, I know that if you don’t think women should be controlled — by either the left or the right, by men or other women — then you are indeed a feminist.

As a woman, as a feminist, as an individual, I think for myself, thank you.

Karen Lehrman Bloch is a cultural critic and curator. Author of “The Lipstick Proviso: Women, Sex & Power in the Real World” (Doubleday), her writings have appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic, The Wall Street Journal and Metropolis, among others.

From left: Cannabis Feminist co-founders Jackie Mostny, Galia Benarzi and Jessica Assaf. Photo courtesy Cannabis Feminist

The Jewish feminists who are rocking the cannabis world

On a recent Sunday afternoon in Venice, yoga-toned locals sipped cucumber lemon water and perused an assortment of cannabis wellness products arranged on silver platters in a private backyard. Freshly cut sunflowers decorated the display tables, where female representatives from organic brands like The Budhive, which makes THC-infused honey drops, talked to potential customers about the calming effects of their microdosed hard candies.

If this sounds radically different from the experience of stepping into an L.A. medical marijuana dispensary — where products can be locked behind glass display cases, and male budtenders might not know what to recommend for, say, menstrual cramps — that’s because Jessica Assaf, the half-Israeli co-founder and CEO of Cannabis Feminist, has made it her mission to bring an ethos of health, wellness and, most of all, femininity to her year-old collective.

At community events like the one in Venice, called “bake sales,” Assaf, 27, and her co-founder, Jackie Mostny, a veteran of the Tel Aviv startup scene, serve as informal cannabis ambassadors, educating new users — women, in particular — about the physical and mental health benefits of the plant. Bake sale goers can trade in pink tickets for products, all selected and tested by Cannabis Feminist. They range from a Medicine Box dark chocolate truffle designed as a sleep aid, which sells for $20, to Assaf’s $40 private label facial oil made with rosehip extracts and cannabis oil sourced from Humboldt County.

“We’re not promoting psychoactivity,” said Assaf, who began her career as an activist for toxin-free beauty products. “We’re promoting cannabis as a powerful plant compound for the skin.”

What sets Assaf apart from other “ganjapreneurs,” thousands of whom have flocked to Los Angeles in recent years to get in on the so-called “Green Rush,” is her sales model. Taking a page from Tupperware parties, Assaf, a Harvard Business School graduate who credits cannabis use with improving her self-esteem, is pairing cannabis products with the peer-to-peer, in-home sales approach that enabled American housewives to earn their own money.

In 2016, legal sales of cannabis products in North America reached $6.7 billion, with California accounting for 27 percent, according to a report by Arcview Market Research, a leading publisher of cannabis industry data. By 2021, sales are expected to top $22 billion.

The budding industry also claims the highest number of female bosses of any U.S. business sector. A recent survey by Marijuana Business Daily found that 27 percent of executive-level jobs in cannabis businesses are occupied by women, down from the previous two years, but still higher than the 23 percent in American businesses as a whole. That gives Assaf, and many others of her ilk, reason to believe that by getting in on the ground floor and helping to shape their industry — never mind the local government policies that guide its development — they are building what could become the first multibillion-dollar industry run by women.

What’s also possible? Cannabis could become the first multibillion-dollar industry run by Jewish women.

It’s no secret that Jews have long played an outsized role in the cannabis sector, starting with the fact that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the plant’s psychoactive compound, was first identified in 1964 by Israeli scientist Raphael Mechoulam who, along with his team at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, went on to discover the human endocannabinoid system.

In recent years, Israel has emerged as a global leader in medical cannabis research, filling a void created by U.S. law that classifies cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug — the same category assigned to heroin and LSD — that makes research exceedingly difficult to conduct.

While no data is available to indicate how much of the cannabis industry is made up of Jews, it’s clear that, as with the garment business of the early 20th century, Jews comprise such a significant proportion of the industry that it has become closely identified with the tribe.

“The cannabis industry as a whole is so welcoming, and it’s been phenomenal to find all these badass Jewish women who are so cool, smart and driven. It’s all about collaboration.” — Molly peckler

Given the prevalence of Jews and women in weed, it’s no surprise that, in Los Angeles, poised to become the largest legal cannabis market in the world, Jewish women are staking their claim — and in the process, forming a kind of sisterhood of mutual support and cooperation.

Like Assaf, Catherine Goldberg, 28, a cannabis events producer and social media marketer based in West Hollywood, moved to Los Angeles from the East Coast in the last year to work in cannabis, as did Molly Peckler, a professional matchmaker who came here with her husband from Chicago to grow her cannabis matchmaking service, Highly Devoted. “The cannabis industry as a whole is so welcoming, and it’s been phenomenal to find all these badass Jewish women who are so cool, smart and driven,” Peckler said. “It’s all about collaboration.”

Indeed, collaboration is Assaf’s guiding principle with Cannabis Feminist, which grew out of a Women’s Circle she hosted at her home last fall. New to L.A., the Bay Area native put out a call on Instagram for women to gather in her Venice Beach living room to discuss their relationship to cannabis. Forty people showed up.

Assaf recently trained her first two Cannabis Feminist consultants, both culled from her monthly Women’s Circle, to sell the collective’s selection of products to their friends in exchange for a percentage of sales. Down the line, Assaf envisions an all-female team of cannabis wellness consultants who not only will recommend medicinal products, but also deliver them on demand.

To enact her vision for a women-run cannabis empire, Assaf has been pursuing outside investment. Cannabis Feminist’s first angel investor was co-founder Galia Benarzi, a Tel Aviv-based tech entrepreneur who recently orchestrated the largest crowd-sale of a virtual currency to date.

“One of the coolest things about Cannabis Feminist is that it actually has a feminine work culture,” said Benarzi, who mentors Assaf and Mostny from Tel Aviv. “This can mean the way we talk about conflicts when they arise, how we hold space for each other’s ideas, or the way we think about revenue shares.

“For me, coming from such a male-oriented work life, it’s really been a breath of fresh air.”

Is this Orthodox rabbi a feminist?

When word got out that Rabbi Simcha Krauss was coming to Los Angeles to teach a series of lessons on how to resolve the problem of agunot — women “chained” to their marriages because their husbands refuse to give them a get, or religious divorce — the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC) sent a letter to the Orthodox community discouraging attendance.

Signed by the president of the RCC, the letter called into doubt the legitimacy of the International Beit Din (IBD) Krauss founded in 2014, in Riverdale, N.Y., calling the court’s decisions on agunot “non-halachic” and “invalid.” 

 “Rabbanim are advised to warn prospective applicants to this ‘International Beit Din’ that recognized Batei Din throughout the United States do not accept the IBD piskei din and the gravity of what that implies,” the RCC’s letter stated, referring to judgments of a religious court.

The campaign against Krauss and his Beit Din has played out both in the press and behind closed doors since the court’s inception, and reveals a larger power struggle within the Orthodox community between the prevailing establishment and the emergence of progressive voices and practices. Although not openly stated, the hushed subtext of this internecine conflict has everything to do with the rights and roles of women in Orthodox Judaism.  

Just over two years ago, with the backing of Charedi rabbis in Israel and Orthodox supporters in the U.S., Krauss founded the International Beit Din in order to help women circumvent a legal system in which only men have the power to grant a divorce. 

“The way Jewish law is established, because the husband is the one who creates the marriage, he is the one who has the final word about giving a get. And that can lead to a terrible misuse of Jewish law, because the get can sometimes become a whip that the husband uses over his wife,” Krauss, 79, said when I met him last week at Kehillat Yitzchak on Beverly Boulevard.

According to halachah, if a husband refuses to give a get, his wife remains anchored to the marriage and cannot remarry or have legitimate Jewish children. This imbalance of power has led to legal manipulations on the part of the husband that Krauss plainly calls “extortion” — situations in which husbands demand lump sums of money from their wives, or pressure them to surrender spousal support and/or parental rights, in exchange for a get.

 “Extortion is a falsification, a frustration, a corruption of Jewish law,” Krauss said. 

For the past 40 years, Krauss has served as a pulpit rabbi, a Religious Zionists of America leader and taught at a Jerusalem yeshiva during a decadelong stint in Israel. He speaks with the courage of his convictions, but in person has the presence of a kindly Jewish grandfather — he wears smudged spectacles and has gentle eyes. Born in Romania in the late 1930s, Krauss claims to hail from 17 generations of rabbis, which makes his progressivism even more surprising. But he insists his methods are not modern and that there are ample precedents in the Torah for helping agunot.  

 “The Gemara is full of quotations that, because of the severity of agunot, the rabbis were meikel (“lenient”) so much so with women that they put it in the category of ‘anybody who saves an agunah is involved in pikuach nefesh — saving a life.’ Which means, if I know I can help save a woman from being an agunah, by even desecrating the Shabbat, I am allowed to do it. And rabbis are on record saying that.”

In Krauss’ view, Jewish courts have failed to fairly address divorce cases in which women are held captive by their husbands — sometimes for decades. “Therefore, we came up with an idea that if you look into the history of this marriage, you can sometimes find a few entry points to find a way of permitting the woman to remarry even if [her husband] doesn’t give a get.”

The concept proposed by Krauss’ IBD essentially is the practice of annulment, which is not common in Jewish courts. The IBD will undertake a review of the circumstances of the marriage in order to determine if it is valid or invalid. Perhaps the witnesses at the wedding were not kosher, or the husband deceived his wife during courtship, failing to disclose mental illness, impotence or homosexuality.  

 “I’m not speaking to you of cases that may happen once in a million years,” Krauss said. “I’m speaking about things that are known in the literature, with precedent, that other rabbis have done — the g’dolim, the greats of the generations have done — for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years.” 

So why is Krauss being treated as some rogue rabbi, out to upend Jewish tradition? Though he has the endorsement of some prominent rabbis in Israel, not a single Orthodox rabbi in the U.S. has supported him publicly. And even when he “frees” an agunah, not every rabbi will accept his decision and remarry her.

 “Generally, I think that when there is a move to change the status quo, there is always pushback,” said attorney Esther Macner, founder of the nonprofit Get Jewish Divorce. Macner helped coordinate Krauss’ five appearances in L.A. last week. “I think there’s a natural desire on the part of the established batei din to centralize and preserve their power.”

But preserving their power is linked inextricably to limiting the power of women. 

I asked Krauss if he considers himself a feminist.  

 “Would I consider myself a feminist?” he mused, a little off guard. “I don’t know. But I think that feminism has a legitimate message. I don’t think that femininsm is treif. And I don’t think that if you brush me as a feminist, I would get insulted. We have a lot to learn from all kinds of people.”

Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

Ultra-Orthodox feminism: Not a contradiction in terms

I am an ultra-Orthodox feminist. And no, that’s not a contradiction in terms. Furthermore, my identity and the social processes that my colleagues and I are leading, aren’t merely personal journeys and struggles: We may just hold the key to the future of Israeli society.

The Israeli ultra-Orthodox (Charedi) community is changing. These changes are mostly happening under the radar, away from the shrill headlines. A new generation of Charedi social activists is slowly emerging, inspired not only by the beauty of Jewish tradition, but also by values of individualism and equality. Charedi feminism is part of this trend, which also embraces integrating Charedi men into the Israeli workforce and society.

Charedi feminism is mostly focused on gaining equality of opportunities, opinions and representation. In this sense, it plays out quite differently from religious Zionist feminism, which is rooted in Rav Kook’s approach that, “The old will be renewed and the new will be sanctified” — in other words, recognizing the authenticity of modernity and the need for religion to be integrated into every layer of life. On the other hand, the Charedi world is built on the Chatam Sofer’s famous line that, “Anything new is forbidden by the Torah” and its consequent opposition to anything that smacks of change.

Ironically, this enables, rather than prevents, Charedi feminism. One of the central tenets of Charedi life is separatism. That separatism plays out not just as a physical separation of Charedi communities from the outside world, but also through internal cultural mechanisms of separation between religious values and other values. Torah study, the joy of the Charedi lifestyle, the value of learning without concern for material gain — these and other Charedi values are considered pure and separate from the outside world, with no attempt to integrate them. While that sounds draconian, the advantage of this system is that it leaves vast areas that can be considered simply “secular” or “mundane” — like getting a secular education or going out to work. These areas can be separated from Charedi values, without the baggage of needing to integrate them into one synthesized worldview.

So this mechanism of separation is actually what has opened the window for these groundbreaking recent developments. If you make a total separation between the value of Torah study and its communities of dedicated scholars on the one hand, and the harsh reality of poverty and the economic necessity of earning a living on the other, then it becomes acceptable to encourage Charedi women to go out to work. We just compartmentalize: When we need to, we close off our “holy” compartment, and open up the one marked “secular,” where there’s room for earning a living and even enjoying it. This philosophical understanding has created a new generation of middle-class Charedim whose members use it to take part in Israeli society without feeling that they are compromising their values.

These so called “New Charedim” thus effectively live in two worlds simultaneously. One is value-laden and spiritual, full of beauty and daily wonders but also cloistered and isolationist; the other is pragmatic, anchored in Western values, and collaborates with the rest of Israeli society.

Things aren’t perfect. In the areas where people fear that the secular can blur with the holy, there are still barriers. A Charedi woman can talk about earning a living, but not about a career; a Charedi man can go to college to learn a profession, but to study Torah through the prism of academic scholarship is still utter heresy.

What about the New Charedim’s attitude to Zionism? Charedi society has in recent years developed an Israeli and even a Zionist identity. Charedi Zionism isn’t the same as classical religious Zionism, and doesn’t talk in terms of the holiness of Israel or messianic redemption. Charedim are voting in greater numbers in the elections, and though Charedi members of the Knesset play increasingly active roles in government, they still mostly avoid taking on full ministerial appointments. You see Charedi families having barbecues on Yom HaAtzmaut, but you won’t find Charedi synagogues where they sing Hallel thanking God for the State of Israel. The Zionism that the Charedi community has adopted is, ironically, a secular Zionism of symbols and cultural identity.

And the same goes for Charedi feminism. It’s a secular feminism. It’s focused on secular areas such as representation and equal opportunities. The hot potato issues of mainstream religious feminism, like the equality of women in prayer, aren’t even on the radar screen of Charedi feminism.

I pay a price for my split existence. It’s not easy — sometimes even impossible — when the gaps between the isolationist Charedi worldview and modern society get bigger and bigger. But there are more and more people like me in the Charedi world. You won’t believe what kind of magic has been brewing there recently. You won’t believe how honestly we want to be an inseparable part of this people. There are more and more seeds of hope.

My colleagues and I are paving a critical path for Israeli society. The Charedi communities aren’t going away. If Israel is to survive, then we all need to find a way to enable us to participate in Israeli society.

Racheli Ibenboim is a leading Charedi feminist activist and heads Shaharit’s Charedi programs. She is the founder and director of Movilot, a program that places Charedi women in high-quality jobs through internships.

This is the first in a series of essays by writers connected to Shaharit (, an Israeli nonprofit that brings together activists to re-imagine local and national politics. Shaharit’s leaders come from across the religious, political and ethnic spectrum of Israeli society, and work together to create policy and strategy built on open hearts, forward thinking and shared vision. 

Where have you gone, Betty Friedan?

Betty Friedan was a twentieth-century American revolutionary who, in word and deed helped empower women everywhere. She was author of The Feminine Mystique (1963), founded the National Organization of Women (NOW), and “mother” of Second Wave Feminism that transformed the U.S.

What would have this feminist leader thought of the recent 653 to 80 vote by the  National Women’s Studies Association to join the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement? The resolution condemned Israel for “injustice and violence, including sexual and gender-based violence, perpetrated against Palestinians and other Arabs in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, within Israel and in the Golan Heights.”

The resolution contained nary a word about the Palestinians’ current “stabbing Intifada,” most of whose victims have been Jewish women and children. Nor was there a single whereas about last summer’s unprovoked massive rocket onslaught launched from Gaza’s Hamastan using or about terror tunnels burrowed into Israel proper. Not a syllable about Palestinian curriculum and media, including cartoon anti-Semitism, venerating suicide bombers and enlisting youngsters into a culture of death.

What would Betty Friedan, that spunky Jewish housewife and mother who devoted her book and life to fighting what she called in the 1950s “the problem without a name,” have thought about American feminists who “include out” Israeli women targeted by terrorists from their movement?

Gil Troy’s book, Moynihan’s Moment—about how then U.S Ambassador, Daniel Patrick Moynihan spearheaded the fight against the adoption of the infamous 1975 UN “Zionism Equals Racism” resolution—contains a chapter focusing on Friedan’s realization that her fight for the feminist cause and commitment to Zionism were “indivisible.”

She was not an outspoken Zionist until 1975 when she attended the International Women’s Year World Congress in Mexico City, where she was shocked by the unholy trinity of “anti-Americanism, anti-Semitism, and anti-Zionism” among the delegates. In her article, “Scary Times in Mexico City,” Friedan recounted how dissenting voices among American delegates had their microphones turned off and their speeches shouted down. Israeli prime minister’s wife, Leah Rabin, was booed and boycotted, as the “Declaration on the Equality of Women” became one of the first international documents to label Zionism as a form of racism. For those of us who later experienced the same tactics at the UN’s Anti-Racism Conference in Durban in 2001, just days before 9/11, Friedan’s account reads like a piece of our own history.

Friedan declared that there a “larger never-ending battle for human freedom and evolution. Women as Jews, Jews as women, have learned in their gut, ‘if I am not for myself, who will be for me (and who can I truly be for). If I am only for myself, who am I?’” Back in New York, she formed an Ad Hoc Committee of Women for Human Rights in which Margaret Mead, Nora Ephron, Lauren Bacall, Beverly Sills, and Gloria Steinem, among others, joined her battle against the the odious “Zionism Equals Racism” resolution which the UN finally repealed in 1991.

The anti-Israel, anti-Jewish forces prevailed again at the 1980 International Women’s Conference in Copenhagen—where delegates met in a hall festooned with a larger-than-life portrait of Ayatollah Khomeini! —but at Nairobi in 1985 Friedan and her allies succeeded in ensuring “every reference to Zionism was gone.”

Later as the head of delegation of American Jewish women who participated in a US/Israel dialogue, entitled “Women as Jews, Jews as Women,” organized by the American Jewish Congress, Friedan inspired the founding of the Israel Women’s Network.

Friedan never wavered in her commitment to the welfare and rights of Jewish and Israeli women, though of course she also wanted justice for Palestinians in their own state, living side-by-side in peace with Israel.

In 2015, the landscape has changed. The remarkable thing is not that American feminists are passionate in their commitment to justice for Palestinian women and men. We all should be. What’s extraordinary is their blindness to the rights of Jewish women in Israel to live free from terror in their own nation.

Such moral blindness has consequence beyond the Israel/Palestinian divide. Missing is the outrage when dealing with Muslim arranged marriages, “honor” killings, and other forms of misogyny and discrimination.  Where are the resolutions for courageous Arab and Muslim women fighting for a new day for their daughters and sisters when they are threatened by repressive regimes and oppressive mullahs?

There is nothing feminist about the National Women’s Studies Association embrace of the anti-peace and morally bankrupt BDS campaign. That narrative was forged by some of the most reactionary, anti-democratic and male-dominated regimes.

It’s hard to say whether the outcome of that vote would have been different if feminist giants like Betty Friedan and Bella Abzug were around today. But one thing is certain. They would not have allowed the hypocrisy to hide behind the mask of Feminism.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is Associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Historian Dr. Harold Brackman is a consultant for theSimon Wiesenthal Center

Feminism isn’t kosher

Fierce debates this month over women clergy represent the most fractious internecine conflict in the Orthodox Jewish community in a generation. After the progressive movement known as Open Orthodoxy ordained its first women, denunciations by centrist and right-of-center Orthodox rabbis alike were inevitable.

Written and verbal critiques of the ordination of women have largely focused on its propriety in the halachic (Jewish legal) system. But the halachic arguments miss the most important reason advocacy of women’s ordination smells treyf (not kosher): Open Orthodoxy seems largely motivated by the ideology of a certain f-word.

And feminism is not Jewish. 

Feminism has a well-developed set of beliefs, the most important of which run counter to our tradition. It’s not sufficient to bandy about platitudes like “feminism simply means women are fully human” or “anyone who thinks women are equal is a feminist.” Doing so grossly oversimplifies a sophisticated Weltanschauung by defining it as something with which nearly everyone – including Crown Heights Hasidim – would agree. If everyone is a feminist, then feminism is meaningless.

Here, I will not address specific practices and ideas by Orthodox Jews who identify as feminists, like prayers purged of supposedly sexist language and the mantra “if there’s a rabbinic will, there’s a halachic way.” Writers before me have demonstrated well why those are bogus. Instead, I will show how three core feminist beliefs are incompatible with the Torah’s worldview: 

• Gender is a construct. Feminists have long embraced Simone de Beauvoir’s radical idea that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” Women and men, they believe, are socialized from infancy into preconceived, arbitrary, hierarchical, pernicious roles. Gender differences don’t exist; they are learned. With enough educational, social, and political effort, our sexist society can let go of its gendered baggage. 

Yet in Judaism maleness and femaleness are real, and men and women are not interchangeable. The rights, responsibilities, expectations, and roles assigned to each are different, though the sexes are equally valuable. Contemporary Jews who complain of “unfair” Jewish laws (broadly speaking, only men can be witnesses and only men can initiate a divorce) must understand that such halachic differences are hardwired into the system, and cannot be overcome by declaring that gender is only in our heads.

• Women control their own bodies. “Reproductive rights” dominate today’s feminist agenda. Women supposedly must be the sole decision-makers regarding contraception and abortion because they are the ones who undergo the ordeal of pregnancy. No man – and certainly no law – may overrule a woman who feels contraception or abortion is best for her.

Nobody has reproductive rights in Judaism, though. To delay or cease procreation, a couple must ask a rabbi for permission. He considers the circumstances of both the wife and the husband and consults the sometimes-complicated Jewish laws on the subject. If he determines that halacha forbids contraception in their individual case, the woman cannot veto her rabbi’s ruling. Similarly, Jewish law is not “pro-choice.” There are times when abortion is prohibited (a pregnancy whose existence threatens no one) and times when it is required (to protect the life of the mother). Here again, couples approach rabbis. The woman may not simply choose to terminate a pregnancy.

• Heterosexuality and homosexuality are equivalent. As early as 1971, the National Organization for Women declared “a woman’s right to her own person includes the right to define and express her own sexuality and to choose her own lifestyle.” Since then, the feminist embrace of LGBT rights has only accelerated, with special emphasis on “marriage equality.” 

But Judaism’s prescription for opposite-sex bedroom and family life is consistent, running from the second chapter of the Torah (“A man shall leave his father and his mother, and cleave to his wife, and they shall become one flesh”) through Leviticus, the Talmud, the rishonim (earlier halachists), and the acharonim (later halachists). Our faith tradition cannot abide any change to the Torah’s demand for heterosexual behavior.

If you doubt that those three beliefs are central to feminism, ask any feminist outside of the Orthodox world whether a movement rejecting even one of them, much less all of them, could legitimately be called feminist. Or try asking a ”Jewish Orthodox Feminist” to denounce all three. Good luck.

Nobody should be blamed for trying to harmonize powerful ideologies which speak to them. For those who grew up in or chose traditional Judaism, the beauty and power of that lifestyle is difficult to drop. And for citizens of the modern West, no good person could dispute women’s basic equality and reproductive and sexual autonomy. But given the vital feminist planks listed above, anyone who insists they can articulate a formula that makes Judaism feminist – and feminism Jewish – doesn’t really understand either.

None of this means women’s roles in Judaism cannot expand. Perhaps the greatest Jewish innovator of the early 20th century was Sara Schenirer (), who founded the Bais Yaakov network of schools educating Jewish girls in Tanach (Hebrew Bible), halacha, Jewish history, and Hebrew, and well as secular subjects. Though pioneered by Schenirer’s insight, dedication, and perseverance, the change operated with the blessing of the greatest rabbis of her day. Feminism had nothing to do with it.

Some Open Orthodox Jews have argued, implausibly, that their ordination of women isn’t actually about feminist ideology. But feminism has been the engine driving their movement’s approach to women’s issues. Most of the women clergy associated with the Open Orthodox Yeshivat Maharat seminary explicitly identify as feminists. Its dean, Rabba Sara Hurwitz, told Buzzfeed last year she “embraces” the term. Others, like Maharat Rori Picker Neiss list “Orthodox feminist” on their Twitter profiles. The seminary’s scholar in residence, Rabba Anat Sharbat, says the school’s leadership program is “halachic but also social and emotional and feminist.” 

I don’t know if Orthodoxy will ever ordain women rabbis. But if it does, the change will to develop organically – explored and embraced by the generation’s leading rabbinic authorities as an expression of precepts ensconced in the Torah all along. If Judaism wishes to continue providing authentic responses to the needs of today’s women, it needs feminism like a fish needs a bicycle.

The essential lesson of Chanukah is to shield Judaism from foreign contamination. Change within Orthodoxy regarding women’s learning and leadership must come from within, based on values and texts and ideas with ancient pedigrees. We needn’t rush to accommodate a value system that’s only a few decades old in which the dirtiest word is literally “patriarchy.” 

Abraham was a patriarch. So were Isaac and Jacob.

I’m sticking with them, thank you very much.

David Benkof is Senior Political Analyst at the Daily Caller, where this essay first appeared. Follow him on Twitter or E-mail him at

Why does a shul need a Maharat?

A recent opinion piece in the Washington Jewish Week by Barbara Zakheim praised her Orthodox congregation (the National Synagogue in Washington, DC) for hiring a Maharat, a female spiritual leader. She describes herself as “ECSTATIC!!” (formatting hers) about the role the Maharat, Ruth Balinsky Friedman, has been playing in her shul.

The reasons Zakheim gives: Maharat Friedman is knowledgeable and humble. She shows female Jewish leadership, shares words of Torah, and answers religious questions – especially those relating to family purity. She leads women-only discussions, and helps comfort female mourners.

And, Zakheim is quick to add, she is “delighted” that she doesn’t “ever feel that our Maharat is a feminist or leading a feminist movement.” She’s just an example of how the existence of increasingly educated Jewish women “warrants female leadership along with that of men.”

If all of that is true, why does the shul need a Maharat in the first place?

All the roles Zakheim describes have been played by Jewish women for centuries – by rebbetzins,mikvah ladies, and older relatives. Despite Zakheim’s protestations, the reasons the title Maharat exists in the first place are explicitly feminist.

The Open Orthodox segment of the Jewish community that has been pushing for women’s ordination (at first with the title Rabba, then Maharat) is not interested purely in having women answer halachic questions and comfort mourners. That’s nothing new. Even roles that have not been consistently played by women – such as giving divrei Torah to mixed groups – do not require any change in the nature of ordination.

Incidentally, Zakheim is wrong about whether Maharat Friedman is a feminist. In a 2013 interview with the Web site, she said, “I would assume people classify [me and my classmates] as feminists. I would infer that people believe that we are the next step in putting [Orthodox] women in the public sphere and encouraging women to take positions of spiritual leadership within the community. I absolutely identify as a feminist.”

Supporters of the Maharat movement want to demonstrate to the world that Judaism ascribes equal (not equally valuable – equal) status to women and men. As Zakheim put it, Maharat Friedman is “a shining example of overall female leadership for my granddaughters, who also attend my synagogue. They are growing up witnessing that female spiritual leadership is normal… This also applies to the male children in our community, for whom a Maharat is now the norm.”

That represents, precisely, a feminist agenda – and one that is alien to traditional halachic Judaism. Showing young boys that a woman can not only play a feminine leadership role, but also be just as “official” as a male clergyman is not a goal contained in any of our religious texts. It is simply Western political feminism grafted onto traditional Judaism, and does not deserve to be called Orthodox.

Zakheim concludes that she looks forward to “the time when every modern Orthodox community hires a Maharat or the equivalent and reaps the benefits of their leadership as the National Synagogue does today.”

Anyone who supports an Orthodoxy wedded to our tradition rather than infused with foreign and possibly ephemeral value systems should be anything but ECSTATIC!! should her wish come true.

David Benkof is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter (@DavidBenkof); or E-mail him at

Torah portion: Remembering the journey

Many in the latest generation of women rabbis don’t think of themselves as feminists. For them, being a rabbi is a birthright; they grew up with women rabbis. They have little sense of what it took to get to this point. For those of us in the first generation, that is a bit frustrating. 

Moses had the same problem, as can be seen in this week’s Torah portion. The second generation of Israelites is camped on the plains of Jericho, overlooking the Promised Land. Moses tells them about the great exodus, the miracle at the sea, the epiphany at Mount Sinai. 

Moses wants to provide a little historical perspective. They weren’t at Sinai. They don’t remember much of the journey. Moses knows that for them to succeed in the Promised Land, they need to remember what it was like in the past. 

I am particularly attuned to this sort of disconnect, having just returned from an extraordinary trip organized by the American Jewish Archives (AJA) and the Jewish Women’s Archives (JWA) to honor the memory of Rabbi Regina Jonas, the first woman to be ordained a rabbi. She was born in Berlin in 1902 and independently ordained in Germany in 1935. Called Frau Rabbinerin Jonas (Miss Rabbi Jonas), she struggled to be accepted.  She worked as a community rabbi, teacher and pastor, and, as the situation in her country began to worsen, she was called upon by Jewish communities to fill in for their rabbis who had emigrated. In 1942, she was deported to Terezin, where she worked with Viktor Frankl to bring comfort to fellow prisoners. In October 1944, she was murdered in Auschwitz.

Although some survivors of the Holocaust, including important rabbis and leaders, knew her, they didn’t talk about her. It wasn’t until the Berlin Wall fell and her papers were discovered in an East Berlin archive that her story began to emerge. 

A highlight of our very emotional trip was a panel in the social hall of the Centrum Judaicum in Berlin’s New Synagogue, the first major synagogue to house a liberal congregation there and to have mixed choir and organ. This was the spiritual home of the famous composer Louis Lewandowski and where Albert Einstein played his violin. The small congregation is led by Rabbi Gesa Ederberg, who was ordained in 2003 at the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem. 

On the panel were the first women ordained as rabbis by their respective movements. Rabbi Sandy Sasso, ordained in 1974 in the Reconstructionist movement, quoted a Mary Oliver poem: “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell the story.” She was joined by Rabbi Sally Priesand, ordained in 1972 by Hebrew Union College-Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR); Rabbi Amy Eilberg, ordained in 1985 by Jewish Theological Seminary; Rabbi Jacqueline Tabick, ordained in 1975 by Leo Baeck College; Rabbi Alina Treiger, Germany’s first modern woman rabbi, ordained at Abraham Geiger College in Berlin in 2010, on the 75th anniversary of Jonas’ ordination; and Rabbi Sara Hurwitz — who connected remotely from Jerusalem because Ben- Gurion Airport was closed briefly as a result of escalating conflict with Gaza — was ordained in 2009, the first woman ordained by an Orthodox institution. Each told her story. Also present were other European women rabbis serving in Germany and Poland, as well as the first woman rabbi in Israel, Rabbi Kinneret Shiryon. I was part of the delegation of women and men from the United States — rabbis, Jewish scholars, lay leaders.

The next day we traveled to Terezin, where we dedicated a plaque to the memory of Rabbi Jonas as part of the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad and HUC-JIR.   

Why didn’t those survivors who knew her tell her story? Were they ambivalent about her because she was a woman? Were they just so focused on surviving the trauma of the Shoah that her story didn’t matter? We’ll never know. Her story came to light only after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when her papers were discovered in an East German archive. We saw those papers. There are just a few, really, with a handful of pictures and a copy of her thesis, titled  “Can a Woman Be a Rabbi According to Halachic Sources?” The papers include an ordination document written on behalf of the Liberal Rabbinic Association by its leader, Rabbi Max Dienemann. Terezin has a few of her papers as well, including a handwritten list of topics she lectured on in Terezin, such as women in the Bible, women in the Talmud, and Jewish holidays and beliefs.  

Each of us women rabbis has given talks with those same titles … under such different circumstances.

Not just the pioneers, but also each successive generation of women rabbis stand today on her shoulders. She was totally alone, independently ordained, unsupported by most of the Jews around her. But we have one another, and the support of our movements and so many women and men. Women have come from the margins into the center and have transformed the Jewish world. We must urge our successors to preserve the story of our journey. 

Meanwhile, the AJA and the JWA are trying to determine the date of Jonas’ death so we can say Kaddish for her. It is most likely the day she arrived at Auschwitz, or the day after. At Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, we will read her name every year on her yahrzeit

Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell the story.  

It was true for Moses. It is still true for us.

A version of this piece appeared first in the Times of Israel. 

Artist Siona Benjamin brings Hindu and Muslim motifs to portrayals of biblical outcasts

In the space of a single painting, Siona Benjamin juxtaposes feminism, Indian mythology and Jewish imagery.

On a three-foot canvas, she’ll paint a portrait of a blue-skinned figure, usually a character from the Bible, with nods to Persian miniatures, Talmudic fables and Vishnu gods. Often there's a message in Arabic.

“I want people to realize there can be a universal message in Jewish art,” Benjamin told JTA. “I didn’t want to just be a Jewish artist, explaining my culture in my paintings, because it’s deeper than that. I’m a Jewish woman of color and a feminist with Islamic and Hindu influences, and they are all a part of me.”

Benjamin, 52, was born in Mumbai and her artwork combines the various influences in her life. Her favored subjects are biblical outcasts, and she aims to redeem them by presenting an alternative narrative.

In her home studio in this northern New Jersey township some 15 miles west of mid-Manhattan, Benjamin is wearing a modern version of a shalwar kameez, the traditional Indian dress of blossomy pants and tunic top. Her shelves are lined with books about Islamic leaders, Asian art and Jewish sacred texts. Doodles of Bollywood pop art and Buddhist statues serve as inspiration. But it has taken Benjamin years to grow comfortable with all the diverse elements of her art.

“I’m trying to use my Jewish heritage as a vehicle to create a universal message for their stories,” Benjamin said. “People think they know a full story, just like they see me as an Indian Jew and believe stereotypes. But there is so much more to these characters.

“If you look at biblical characters, there are deeper stories than what meets the eye. And I paint them blue because I’m redeeming myself through them, too.”

Benjamin grew up in the suburb of Bandra, the product of a wealthy family who enjoyed a comfortable and privileged life with cooks, servants and chauffeurs. As a child, she was envious of Indian friends who had large, boisterous families. Benjamin was an only child whose family lived mostly in Israel and the United States.

A ninth-generation Indian Jew, Benjamin's parents sent her to Catholic and Zoroastrian schools. Surrounded by this multireligious influence, Benjamin often found herself wrestling with questions of self-identity. Her mother lit an oil lamp every Friday for Shabbat, but she also believed in the Zoroastrian God Ahura Mazda and practiced Buddhist meditation.

At 24, Benjamin left India for America to pursue an education in fine arts, but found herself feeling even more lost and lonely.

“At that point, I was ashamed of being so different, of fitting into so many categories,” Benjamin said. “I spent so many years wondering what I was going to paint: Jewish themes of my ancestors or Buddhist ideas from my childhood? Where was home? Was India home to me? Or Israel? Or America? I think the estranged characters in the Bible felt just as confused as I was because I belong nowhere.”

Benjamin eventually drew comfort from her embrace of the Bible's lost characters. She paints characters such as Lilith, the mythological first wife of Adam, or Vashti, the dethroned queen from the Book of Esther. Benjamin often uses their stories to highlight feminist themes. Their faces are presented usually in blue in a nod to Benjamin's Indian heritage, which typically presents its gods in blue hues.

In one painting, Benjamin paints Sarah hugging Abraham's handmaiden Hagar as a suicide bomb explodes behind them. In another, Benjamin portrays Lilith wearing a prayer shawl and worshiping God as she catches fire.

Benjamin’s artwork has exhibited in museums across the United States, Europe and Asia, but she is most excited about an upcoming project featuring the Indian Jewish community, which she fears is slowly disappearing as its members immigrate to Israel.

Following the 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai, in which a Chabad rabbi and his wife were among the murdered, Benjamin said many people approached her with questions about the city's Jews and what they looked like. In the course of several trips, Benjamin took photographs. Her project, a photo collage of Indian Jews titled “Faces: Weaving Indian Jewish Narratives,” will go on display at the Prince Wales Museum in Mumbai in September.

“Siona’s work has been recognized as extraordinary in the contemporary art world, in that she combines Judaism with a Persian-Muslim stylistic departure,” said Matthew Baigell, an emeritus art history professor at Rutgers University who has authored several books on American Jewish art.

Baigell has written that contemporary Jewish art is experiencing a “golden age,” and he points to Benjamin's interpretive paintings as one example.

“She’s provided one-of-a-kind perspective on female characters from the Bible,” he said, “and is part of a group of artists who are not afraid to expose their Judaism in a creative way.”

Leading feminist theologian to be ordained … at last

In the first few weeks of Rachel Adler’s rabbinic internship at Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC), Rabbi Lisa Edwards had a hard time introducing Adler. For decades, Edwards had quoted Adler; she had taken classes with Adler and had been deeply influenced by Adler’s acclaimed works on Jewish feminism and feminist theology.

“It felt ridiculous to be introducing Rachel as a ‘student’ rabbi,” Edwards said. “I couldn’t do it without laughing, and I would have to explain why I was laughing. So, somewhere along the way, ‘scholar-in-residence’ evolved as a secondary title.”

Adler, who is 68 and a professor of Jewish religious thought and feminist studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), will be ordained as a Reform rabbi at the college on May 13.

David Ellenson, president of HUC-JIR who served as Adler’s advisor when she earned a doctorate in religion in 1997, calls Adler “arguably the leading feminist theologian in the entire world.”

“She has taught the Jewish community in virtually an unparalleled way for almost 40 years, from the time of her earliest writings in the 1970s to the present day. … Many of the changes that have occurred in Jewish life that have allowed the community to be inclusive of women have been a result of Rachel Adler’s efforts,” he said.

“Rachel will now officially become what she has been and was destined to be — a rabbi among the Jewish people,” Ellenson said.

Adler has no plans to change her career path once she earns the title of rabbi. But she said that becoming a rabbi finally closes a circle that began for her at Jewish summer camp in Wisconsin in 1960, when a visiting scholar told her the Reform movement would soon begin ordaining women and he thought she would make a good rabbi (HUC admitted the first female rabbinic students in 1968). Adler liked the idea, but by the time she graduated from Northwestern University in 1965 with a degree in English literature, she had become more observant and was married to an Orthodox rabbi.

“I just kind of put that to the side and said, ‘well, that is something you don’t get to do,’ ” Adler said in an interview recently at her Pico-Robertson-area apartment.

But she continued to study Jewish thought, and she evolved as an important Jewish feminist thinker, gaining international attention with her 1971 publication of “The Jew Who Wasn’t There: Halakhah and the Jewish Woman,” in Davka magazine, as well as her 1972 publication for “The Jewish Catalog” of “Tum’ah and Taharah: Ends and Beginnings,” a treatise on family purity laws that she later recanted.

While Adler began her critical studies from within an Orthodox framework, she soon moved leftward and outside of Orthodoxy, though she has always maintained that halachah, Jewish law, could not be ignored.

Adler divorced in 1984, and in 1986 she enrolled at HUC-JIR to work on a doctorate.

“I thought about becoming a rabbi, but I decided the Jewish people needed me to become a theologian and didn’t really need me to become a rabbi,” she said. Her book, “Engendering Judaism: An Inclusive Theology and Ethics” (Jewish Publication Society, 1998) based on her doctoral thesis, won the 1998 National Jewish Book award in Jewish thought.

Over the years Adler has taught countless students in both formal and informal settings, with Talmud classes still taking place at the dining room table where she now sits, stroking her cat, a blue tabby named Dagesh.

“For a while I’ve been kind of a half-rabbi — a shadow rabbi — and I thought it would be a nice completion to become a rabbi for real,” Adler said.

Tall with multihued gray hair swept back from her face and large silver earrings, Adler appears to be by nature shy and introverted, and she answers questions about herself haltingly. But she takes any opening to digress into tales of midrash, Talmud or Jewish thought, becoming engaged and amused with the sources as they unfold into the conversation.

Her son, a Conservative rabbi in Chicago, is married to a Reform rabbi, and Adler plans to help her daughter-in-law, who is pregnant, lead services over the High Holy Days. Adler remarried in 1987 and divorced in 2005.

She was raised in Chicago and has master’s degrees in English literature and social work, which fulfilled her chaplaincy requirements as she studied for ordination.

The fact that she has long taught many of the classes rabbis are required to take to complete ordination helped her complete her coursework in two years, rather than five. She also completed a number of classes through independent study and continued to teach for most of that time, with one semester off as a sabbatical.

For her required internship, Adler chose to work at BCC, a congregation of 225 members located on Pico Boulevard near Fairfax Avenue that serves the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities.

“It was one of those experiences that makes you less arrogant, because you realize that everyone has a story and a set of experiences, and everyone has a portion of Torah to teach,” Adler said. “I learned that there are so many different lives and so many different contexts, that I can’t just take out a premade set of expectations and lay stuff on people. I have to think about how people can learn something, and what is something that is crying out to be learned by those particular people.”

Edwards admits that, at first, she wondered how much time Adler would be able to offer to the congregation, but she said she was quickly amazed at how invested Adler became in synagogue life, teaching classes, but also leading services and delivering sermons that were both deep and peppered with humor.

Since her internship began last May, Adler has been attending Shabbat services at BCC nearly every week so she could get to know congregants.

In turn, the congregants soon learned that beyond being a formidable intellect, Adler is approachable and cares deeply about them. Edwards said Adler often picked up on needs or nuances that she had missed, and she empowered congregants to develop religiously.

“People are often struggling with the existence of God, or at least with their own relationship with God, and Rachel makes that very approachable. She gives you permission to struggle, and yet you have this sense that she is strong in her belief,” Edwards said.

On a recent Monday afternoon, Adler taught a Talmud class at BCC to about a dozen students. They studied a text that dealt with demons, doves, Elijah, and the purpose and context of prayer. As they studied together, Adler adeptly elicited questions on the text and honored the students’ thoughts by citing rabbinic sources that echoed their ideas.

Her strength as a teacher flows not from charisma or animation — she speaks slowly and evenly, carefully choosing each word and taking time to respond — but rather from her vast knowledge, which she employs to make points that touch on her students’ lives. The discussion turned to questions of who has been demonized, and who is to say who may pray where, questions pertinent to LGBT Jews.

“I think dealing with an LGBT congregation, there is an immense need for hopefulness, and there is an immense need for teaching people the possibility of redemption, because for some people the world has been very evil indeed,” Adler said.

It is that sort of insight, and the ability to connect traditional sources to contemporary needs, that has given Adler the power to influence so many. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, a professor of Bible at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles and editor of “The Torah: A Women’s Commentary” (URJ Press: 2007), said she came to HUC in Los Angeles in part because she knew Adler was here. A talk by Adler in the early 1980s in Denver was the first to awaken Eskenazi to the idea of revealing women’s voices in Jewish texts.

“Women moved from being absent to be being empowered to find our voices. We discovered that in rabbinic literature we do have a voice, and in the Bible we do have a voice. People were not paying attention to it, but Rachel was paying attention, and she got all of us to pay attention.”

Eskenazi, who is older than Adler, is also working toward ordination.

“When you are an academic, the expectation is that you are intellectually and scholarly savvy, and an expert in your field,” Eskenazi said. “But I feel that teaching Torah or teaching Tanach [Bible] is part of living a certain kind of life and needs to be part of a larger sphere of application, and the role of a rabbi really speaks to that integration.”

Dvora Weisberg, director of HUC-JIR’s rabbinical school in Los Angeles and an associate professor of rabbinic literature, was ordained last year. She said she had wanted to be a rabbi since she was a teen, but at the time the Conservative movement was not yet ordaining women. She instead got her doctorate in Talmud and rabbinics, and, like Adler, now felt ready to be a rabbi.

“For a long time, for women like us, there were issues that were beyond our control — such as which schools were ordaining women — and then family issues, responsibility to children. Or you have career issues, like trying to get tenure and the need to be publishing,” Weisberg said.

“I think Rachel and Tamar and I have come to a place in our lives where we want to do this, and we don’t want to wait any longer.”

Opinion: Hadassah feminists

Amid all the boozing, smoking and jumping from bed to bed in “Mad Men,” there’s a certain 1960s persona that’s missing from the popular TV show — and that’s the sort of dedicated young woman who devoted herself not just to her husband and family, or even to her work, but to causes.

The type who may have been a stay-at-home mom, but nevertheless spent virtually all her time working — in service to her community. In Judy Wilkin’s case, that cause was Israel, and Hadassah. That’s who Wilkin was and still is — a Beverly Hills champion of Hadassah for 50 years, a member of a group dubbed Elana, originally just 12 women who met in 1962, all of them legacies of their mothers’ involvement in the volunteer Women’s Zionist Organization of America.

I caught up with Wilkin last Friday morning; she was baking for a family wedding coming up but answered her phone to tell me, “This is a good day!” Not because it was about to be Shabbat, or in view of the upcoming nuptials, but because it was, in fact, the day of the 100th birthday of Hadassah’s founding in New York by a small group of women led by Henrietta Szold. And there’s another anniversary celebration coming up, too, Wilkin noted — the 50th for Elana, scheduled for March 4, this Sunday afternoon, at the Culver Hotel in Culver City.

It’s clear, even after her five decades of active involvement, how much joy Wilkin derives from Hadassah; her words spill out fast and furious as she remembers the day when a group of about 12 newlywed women in their 20s met and were told they would be founding a new Beverly Hills Hadassah chapter. Some, unbeknownst to them, were already members — signed up as lifetimers by their mothers, sometimes almost at birth. The idea, initially, was to create a social group, but with a purpose. One early charge was to sell $1 tickets to a Hadassah luncheon — and anyone who sold 18 tickets got a free lunch for herself. “Some of us could afford the full $18, others just $10 or had to raise it all,” she said. And it was a foray into fundraising that would pay forward.

There were lessons that came with their charge, an education in what Hadassah did — and still does to this day. “We learned about youth in need, because we sold our tickets through our knowledge,” Wilkin told me. In the early years, one focus was on teen survivors of the Holocaust living in Israel; later they worked to help Ethiopian refugee children there, and now they’re helping a wide range of Israeli at-risk teens. Over the years, they also learned to raise money for Hadassah’s extraordinary medical services, both at Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Center at Ein Kerem and the Hadassah University Hospital at Mount Scopus. And they learned how to be community leaders.

Being part of Elana, Wilkin said, “taught us how to speak up — how to speak in public, how to chair committees.” In addition to her work for Hadassah, Wilkin became a PTA president at her children’s schools and a board member of the academic decathlon, while others have served as docents at the Skirball Cultural Center and the Hammer Museum, among many local organizations and cultural institutions.

I asked Wilkin how her membership in Hadassah differed from, say, involvement in a synagogue, and she explained that Hadassah involves a great deal of exposure to people who, while all Jewish women, nevertheless can represent great diversity. “It’s interdenominational — we have Democrats, Republicans, observant and non-observant,” she said. But one thing they make sure of: “We are non-political.”

Starting with those $1 donations, the Elana group has gone on to raise more than $4 million over the years, and today about 300 women are on the books as Elana members, Wilkin told me, with many offshoots into other groups for different ages, including younger women. It’s just one of a variety of Hadassah groups that exist locally. There are currently 7,300 members of Hadassah in the greater Los Angeles region, and 300,000 nationally, a number that gives the organization considerable clout in its advocacy on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

I asked Wilkin what Hadassah is doing to enlist those younger women, at a time when so many work full time, whether mothers or not. She said that Hadassah has formed groups specific to the interests and needs of many particular cadres, including for young professionals, such as a nurses council, where lectures offer continuing education hours, and a medical professionals council. There are also very active groups specifically for Iranian women, and a new group is forming for Iraqis.

“I always say that Hadassah members were the first feminists,” Wilkin said, and she calls herself a “professional volunteer.”

“We were a feminist organization before the word was invented.”

I have to admit, I was a bit in the dark about Hadassah — not its good deeds, but about what might be in it for me. But hearing Wilkin talk about the friendships she’s formed over the years, the book groups, movie groups and other social activities that have developed out of that first involvement, I felt a little jealous. So I went to the Web site to look into what it costs. It’s very reasonable, only $212 for a lifetime membership; I signed up.

If it sounds like I’m won over, it’s because of Wilkin’s subtle salesmanship — all learned through Hadassah. It’s also been her ticket to witness history. In 1959, Wilkin’s Hadassah-member mother brought her to Israel to look at a hole in the ground that would become the world-renowned medical center. Now, she said, she’s looking at a huge new tower, the Sarah Wetsman Davidson Hospital Tower at Hadassah Medical Center, opening as part of the centenary celebration this year, and Sunday’s event will benefit the mother-child center there.

Hers is a story with none of the “Mad Men” decadence, but it’s a pretty good yarn, never-

Elizabeth Taylor as feminist

M. G. Lord is a cultural critic with a sharp eye for the hidden meanings in American pop culture.  Two of her previous books, for example, considered the enduring influence of the best-selling doll in the world (“Forever Barbie”) and the semiotics of rocket science (“Astro Turf”). 

Now Lord has turned her attention to yet another iconic figure in “The Accidental Feminist: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness and We Were Too Distracted by Her Beauty to Notice” by M. G. Lord (Walker & Company, $23). 

The book raises Taylor from the realm of parody — remember John Belushi in drag choking on a chicken bone? — and seeks to install her in the pantheon of groundbreaking feminist heroines. “Feminism may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the name Elizabeth Taylor,” Lord allows. “But it might if you share your definition with writer Rebecca West: ‘I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is. I only know that people call me a feminist when I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.’”  By that standard, Lord points out, Elizabeth Taylor deserves a badge of honor: “[She] has been called many things, but never a doormat — not in life and not on the screen.”

Thus does Lord announce the goal of her winning new book — she invites us to ponder the sometimes sensational details of Taylor’s real life, but she also offers a deep reading of Taylor’s film roles, which Lord calls an “under-the-radar challenge” to the assumptions and conventions about women in the 50s and 60s. “[M]any of her roles — the great and the not-so-great — surreptitiously brought feminist issues to American audiences held captive by those violet eyes and that epic beauty,” Lord argues.

“The Accidental Feminist,” like all good film history and film criticism, will send the reader back to Netflix or TCM for a fresh viewing of some old favorites. “ ‘National Velvet’ is a sly critique of gender discrimination in sports,” Lord points out. “A Place in the Sun” “is hard to view as anything other than an abortion-rights movie.” “Suddenly, Last Summer” “portrays the callousness of the male medical establishment toward women patients.” And “The Sandpiper” “pits goddess-centered paganism against patriarchal monotheism.”

Lord concedes that actors inhabit characters that are created and shaped by screenwriters and directors, but she insists that Taylor herself was the source of something crucial that can be seen and heard in the finished work. “Taylor spoke directly to our ancient aft-brain — our amygdala — the repository of love, hate, fear, and lust,” she argues. The way Taylor delivers a line written by someone else “hones in on that aft-brain,” Lord insists, “[l]ike a heat-seeking missile.”

Indeed, Lord is fascinated by what she calls “a vast disconnect between [Taylor’s] shallow tabloid persona and the seeming depths of her real-life self.” Even if the book is not a biography, the flesh-and-blood Elizabeth Taylor can be glimpsed in these pages. But Lord’s admiration for Taylor does not blunt her critical tools: “[Midcentury fans required stars to be moody, unreliable, and petulant,” she writes. “During the making of ‘Cleopatra,’ Taylor worked hard to satisfy them.”

More than once, in fact, Taylor’s own life was the occasion for melodrama or hilarity or both. When Taylor converted to Judaism after marrying Eddie Fisher, the crooner’s former wife, Debbie Reynolds, pointedly “flaunted her Christianity” and penned a book that advised young girls “how to be thin, popular, and keep a boy’s mind off kissing.” One of her tips: “[G]irls should talk to Jesus.” Before he fell in love with her, Richard Burton was contemptuous of his co-star — he dubbed her “MGM’s Little Miss Mammary” — and admired only the salary that she commanded.

“The Accidental Feminist” is built around Elizabeth Taylor’s filmography, and so the account of her life after retirement from the screen is brief and bittersweet.  “When I look back on the last decades of Taylor life, I cannot help but think of Virginia Woolf — not just Taylor’s 1966 movie but to the writer to whom its title alludes,” concludes Lord. Woolf called on women “to stand apart, in a Society of Outsiders, daring to oppose the majority for justice’s sake,” according to Lord.  “In 1985, when Taylor joined the fight against AIDS, she entered into a true Society of Outsiders.”

At one point in “The Accidental Feminist,” Lord considers the brief and troubled marriage of Elizabeth Taylor and Nicky Hilton in 1950.  It’s just a passing reference, but it reminded me that Taylor prefigures the cult of celebrity that is now hard-wired into American pop culture. The whole point of Lord’s book, however, is that Taylor can and must be distinguished from Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian precisely because she possessed much more than celebrity and sex appeal, and her life adds up to much more than fifteen minutes of fame.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs at and can be reached at

Feminism, revisited: Gloria Steinem meets Mona Eltahawy

When an e-mail arrived in my inbox recently announcing a public conversation between Gloria Steinem and Mona Eltahawy, I knew I had to be there, even though it was scheduled for midday on a Thursday across town at UCLA’s Hammer Museum. The juxtaposition of these two women was irresistible — the iconic Steinem, who at 76 has become a seasoned philosopher while remaining as vital as when she helped launch the feminist movement some 40 years ago, and the much younger but equally brave Egyptian-born Eltahawy, whose daring in challenging the Muslim Brotherhood got her ousted from the Saudi-owned newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat.

Eltahawy, 44, lives in New York and continues to write for many esteemed publications worldwide; her work has also appeared on this newspaper’s op-ed pages as a voice for progressive feminism in the Arab world.

Two generations, two worlds, both persevering in a fight for women’s rights that, despite some progress, seems never-ending.

An overflow crowd greeted the pair like rock stars as they walked onto the Hammer’s stage. And for 90 minutes the two conducted a wide-ranging conversation about work, life, sexuality and oppression that was filled with equal parts optimism, humor and anger. Steinem’s advocacy began in the 1970s, notably when, as a journalist, she went undercover to expose the life of Playboy Bunnies. She went on, among her many accomplishments, to co-found Ms. Magazine, which was initially widely dismissed, including by TV anchor Harry Reasoner, who predicted it wouldn’t last for five issues. Ms. is now nearing its 40th anniversary.

“I’m in feminist heaven,” Eltahawy proclaimed at the start, as she questioned Steinem on how she remains optimistic over the long run. “Optimism is not associated enough with feminism,” Eltahawy said.

“I’m a hope-aholic,” Steinem responded. “Hope is very precious because it leads to action.”

In Steinem’s long career, action has meant standing at the front lines of protests, acting as a spokeswoman and standing up to insults from men and women alike who don’t agree with her, even those abroad who call feminism an “American export.” For Eltahawy, action has meant promoting the notion that one can be both Muslim and a feminist, including by publicly leading Muslim prayers, an act traditionally forbidden to women.

They talked about the changing world, how the success of the revolution in Cairo’s Tahrir Square has inspired similar protests around the world, from Libya to Wall Street, and now in cities and towns throughout the United States.

Eltahawy, who identifies as a progressive Muslim, said Egypt’s revolution went beyond what was visible to all. “It wasn’t just a revolution in Tahrir Square,” she said. “It was a revolution in all homes, against the patriarchal system.” She told a story of a young Nubian woman whose parents tried to forbid her from going to the protests: “You are not a man,” they told their daughter. “But she went anyway,” Eltahawy said.

“As progressive Muslims, at the core of our beliefs is equality,” she said, describing how she is baffled by Muslim women who support fundamentalist Islamic laws. “I believe the face veil should be banned,” she said. “They don’t believe in women’s rights, except the right to cover their faces.”

Steinem responded with moderation: “It’s possible,” she said, “that without the veil, the women couldn’t go to school at all.”

Eltahawy’s family lived in England for most of her childhood, until her parents moved to Saudi Arabia when she was a teenager. She said she was raised Muslim, but not strictly traditionally, adding that she is now much more liberal than her parents and that her feminism was formed, in large part, in response to the restrictions on women in Saudi Arabia. Steinem’s father was Jewish, her mother was not, and she was raised without religion. She now calls herself a “pagan,” inspired by a trip down the Nile, where she witnessed how the ancient Egyptians incorporated nature into their worship.

The pair enthused over the Occupy Wall Street movement, dismissing pundits who say it has no center and applauding the members’ efforts to give voice to the disenfranchised. Steinem spoke of her admiration for the method the New York protesters have developed to get around rules against amplified sound by repeating, as a group, anything a single speaker says. “It’s poetry,” Steinem said. “It brings tears to my eyes.”

Added Eltahawy: “As an Egyptian, I just wanted to say, ‘Here’s pizza for everyone, on me.’ ”

Both women’s message is of assuming one’s own power, and that can come from many sources: “The power to make people laugh is power,” said Steinem, who once was the only female writer on the news-comedy show “That Was the Week That Was.” “Laughter is the only free emotion,” she added. “You can compel fear, but you can’t compel laughter.”

Eltahawy’s strongest message came when she remarked, “Challenging the traditional notion of masculinity and femininity is better for both genders,” explaining her belief that feminism can also be liberating for men, freeing them from stereotyping along with women.

Steinem’s profound grace and stature came through when, in response to a young woman in the audience, she said, “My really big advice for a young feminist is not to listen to me, but to listen to yourself. Do what you love. I’m just here to support you and not to dictate in any way.

“Just make sure you have company,” she added. “Human beings are communal creatures; you need people around you who make you feel smart, not dumb, and who support you.”

So what does all this mean for the Jewish community? Well, despite Jewish women’s progress over the past 40 years, along with the rest of the Western world, a recent study by The Forward showed that among Jews, women are still underrepresented at the top level of communal leadership and those who are heading large organizations tend to be less well-paid than their male counterparts.

Next weekend, on Oct. 30, the National Council of Jewish Women/Los Angeles (NCJW/LA), along with Hadassah Southern California and NA’AMAT USA/Western Area, will present the first of what is hoped will be an annual Jewish Women’s Conference for Southern California, at the NCJW/LA offices on Fairfax Avenue. The day’s events will include workshops and panels, and I’ve been invited to moderate one of them. I hope you’ll join in this effort to evaluate and learn about how today’s women are leading and aspiring within our community, both here and in Israel.

Jewish Women’s Conference, Southern California, Oct. 30, 8:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., NCJA/LA Council House, 543 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. Tickets: $36, students $18. For more information or to become a sponsor, call (855) 592-7218 or e-mail

Feminist writer E.M. Broner dies at 83

Jewish feminist writer E.M. Broner, perhaps best known as the co-author of “The Women’s Haggadah,” has died.

Broner, a longtime professor of English at Wayne State University, Sarah Lawrence College and other schools, died June 21 in New York at 83. The cause of death was multiple organ failure, her daughter Nahama told the Times.

“The Women’s Haggadah,” first published in Ms. magazine in 1977, was an early feminist interpretation of the Passover seder. It has been used by numerous women’s weders and inspired similar re-imaginings of other Jewish rituals.

Broner hosted women’s seders at her Manhattan home starting in 1976, The New York Times reported. Among the well-known Jewish feminists and writers who attended were Grace Paley, Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug and Letty Cottin Pogrebin.

In 1994, Broner published “Mornings and Mournings: A Kaddish Journal,” a chronicle of the year she spent trying to say Kaddish for her father in an Orthodox synagogue in New York.

Broner also was a prolific writer of spiritually infused, Jewish-themed fiction. One of her most popular books was “A Weave of Women,” released in 1978, which told the tale of abused women living together in Jerusalem in the early 1970s and creating new feminist rituals.

Rabbis launch campaign for Women of the Wall

A group of North American rabbis has launched an online campaign to support women who want to pray at the Western Wall with Torahs and prayer shawls.

The 28 rabbis, calling themselves Rabbis for Women of the Wall, sent a letter Monday morning to seven Israeli leaders urging protection for those women.

The letter, signed by the presidents of the Reform, Conservative, Renewal and Reconstructionist rabbinical associations, was sent to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, opposition leader and Kadima Party head Tzipi Livini, Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky and Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.

It calls upon the officials, as well as Jerusalem’s mayor and police chief, to “provide protection to Women of the Wall as they pray at the Kotel … rather than harassing them.”

The letter also calls on the Israeli officials to “find appropriate and safe venues at the Kotel for Jews who are not comfortable with women leading worship or holding the Torah or reading from it to enjoy their practice of Judaism unhindered, and physically separated from other designated portions of the Kotel where women are allowed to lead worship, wear a tallit, wear tefillin, hold the Torah and read from the Torah.”

For more than 20 years, members of Women of the Wall have fought, and lost, legal battles in Israeli courts seeking the right to pray with Torahs and prayer shawls at the Western Wall. They have faced physical and verbal attacks from haredi Orthodox men and women at the site.

The group has been permitted to pray at an alternate site, Robinson’s Arch, at the southern end of the wall.

Q&A With Gloria Steinem

Gloria Steinem, founder of Ms. Magazine, is a social and political activist and among the foremost leaders of the women’s rights movement in America. In town recently to honor the retirement of Rabbi Sheryl Lewart from Kehillat Israel, Steinem spoke about the feminist myth of Superwoman, why men should take on equal parenting responsibilities and why reproductive freedom should be a fundamental human right.

Jewish Journal
: Besides being a forerunner of the feminist movement, are you aware Wikipedia has given you the distinction of being ‘one of American history’s most important women’?

Gloria Steinem: That’s very impressive. I looked up affirmative action once in Wikipedia, and it said, ‘a measure by which white men are discriminated against,’ and I got so mad.

JJ: You first made a name for yourself as a journalist by going undercover as a Playboy bunny. Does it bother you that your beauty has played a role in your success?

GS: First of all, the basic problem is that women are assessed by how we look, whether we look conventionally pretty or conventionally not pretty. The problem for all women is we’re identified by how we look instead of by our heads and our hearts.

JJ: Would you deny that physical beauty has qualities that have helped you?

GS: It has inherent qualities, but some of them are bad and some of them are good. And incidentally, I am now 75 years old, and yet I’m still being asked those questions.

JJ: I’d be flattered if I were 75 and being asked those questions.

GS: No, you wouldn’t. Trust me.

: How has your perspective shifted as you’ve aged?

GS: Age brings a freedom. When you’re young, you’re much more subject to the idea of what feminine is or how you should look or how you should behave.

JJ: Early feminism wrestled with the fact that women were forced to choose between a career and marriage. Today, women have more choices,  but they struggle to ‘do it all.’ Is this what feminism was supposed to be?

GS: If I had a dollar for every time we tried to kill off the myth of Superwoman in Ms. Magazine, I’d have a lot of money.

JJ: I know loads of women who are still under the impression that feminism encourages that myth.

GS: It’s not possible; you can’t be both full time outside the home and full time inside the home. That idea came from the resistance to feminism. What feminism has been saying consistently for 30 or 40 years is that job patterns need to change so that both parents of small children — men and women — can have a chance to lead a full life. And that men need to become as responsible for raising small children as women are. As long as women have two jobs and men have one, it will never work.

JJ: So it is misunderstanding feminism to assume it’s about women having more opportunities and choices. It’s really about transformational change.

GS: We’re the only modern democracy in the whole world without a national system of child care and health care; that’s ridiculous.

JJ: Does it disturb you that issues like abortion rights are still being debated in the 21st century?

GS: It’s not surprising at a deeper level, if you consider that the whole reason for patriarchal cultures is to control reproduction. I find it very encouraging to realize that only 5 percent of human history has been like this. The Native American cultures on this continent, most of them, were matrilineal, and some women were the chiefs. Societies were about balance.

JJ: How does Nicholas Kristof’s book ‘Half the Sky,’ which has some startling statistics about the number of women suffering from atrocities like genital mutilation and sex slavery, fit in with the feminist agenda?

GS: What Kristof and Sheryl [WuDunn], his wife, are reporting on is the women’s movement — the women’s movement has been multinational and international from day one, because we always understood that our problems were not that dissimilar. The goal in all those countries is reproductive freedom as a fundamental human right.

JJ: Maureen Dowd wrote a column last year about recent studies that suggest women have become unhappier since the birth of the feminist movement. More choices equals more stress. 

GS: Why is Maureen Dowd an authority just because she’s a female? She’s a very smart person and a good writer, but her trademark is being against everything.

JJ: Even so, many women do feel burdened by a guilt that comes from their inability to devote themselves entirely to either their career or their family.

GS: Guilt is a way of getting a group to conform; you get them to oppress themselves by making them feel guilty. In the earlier stages of feminism, women were told they could not be whatever it was they wanted to be. After women became those things anyway, then society said, ‘All right, you’re now a lawyer or a mechanic or an astronaut — but that’s only OK if you continue to do the work you did before — if you take care of the children, cook three meals a day and are multiorgasmic until dawn.’


>: What have been the major costs of feminism, in your opinion?

GS: What’s the cost of freedom? What’s the cost of self-determination? The cost is growing up, but to remain a child when you are an adult is much more painful.

JJ: Without children of your own, has your credibility ever been challenged in the debate over balancing career and parenthood?

GS: The important point here is that men ask that question. Men have to ask, ‘How can I combine career and family?’

JJ: It seems unrealistic to move society toward that balance in a country that is career-centric and capitalist.

GS: I think people have started. Because it turns out that raising and socializing baby humans is a lot more interesting than most of what goes on in the workplace.

JJ: How have Jewish women contributed to the feminist fight, as compared to other women?

GS: For many years, the anti-feminist movement accused feminism of being a Jewish plot to destroy the Christian family.

JJ: Was your desire to pursue feminist justice at all inspired by your Jewish background?

GS: My mother, who was not Jewish, was always very clear about the importance of the Jewish tradition and respect for the Jewish tradition. She really tried to stress that, and she loved her mother-in-law, adored her mother-in-law [who was Jewish]. You know the passage [in the Torah], ‘Wherever I shall go, you shall go?’ That was always how I knew it was a woman speaking to a woman — because of my mother.

JJ: Do you feel you’ve failed at anything?

GS: I haven’t written nearly enough.

JJ: Any regrets about feminism?

GS: Yes, we’ve been much too nice.

Ms. magazine’s ad rejection elicits strong response

The American Jewish Congress (AJCongress) is ramping up its protest against Ms. magazine’s rejection of its pro-Israel advertisement.

In a campaign launched Sunday, AJCongress urged people to write, call or e-mail the prominent feminist publication to “register your complaint at their anti-Israel bias.”

It also has enlisted the support of high-powered Jewish feminist speakers, several of whom were to appear at a news conference Tuesday.

The ad in question features photos of three prominent Israeli women leaders and the phrase “This is Israel.”

AJCongress leaders claim Ms. rejected the ad because of its bias against Israel — a charge the magazine’s executive editor hotly denied.

“We only take mission-driven advertisements,” Katherine Spillar said last Friday.

“Because two of the women were from the same political party, we understood it as political endorsement,” she said. Ms. “does not get involved in the domestic politics” of other countries.

AJCongress President Richard Gordon called that argument “specious,” noting that in any parliamentary democracy, the foreign minister and parliament leader are going to be from the same party.

Gordon also noted that none of the women are running for office, and the ad does not suggest support for either of their parties.

He pointed out that Ms. ran a cover story about Jordan’s Queen Noor in 2003, and a story in its most recent issue about Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, under the headline “This is What a Speaker Looks Like.”

Gordon said the only difference he sees between Pelosi and the three women featured in the AJCongress ad is that Pelosi is not Israeli.

“Ms. magazine obviously is trying to create a legal fiction after the fact to cover their bias at the time of the incident,” he said.

Spillar said Tuesday that it is “unfair and untrue” to allege that Ms. magazine is anti-Israel. She said the magazine is running a two-page profile of Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs Tzipi Livni, one of the three leaders pictured in the AJCongress ad, in its Winter 2008 issue, which hits newsstands Jan. 29.

In a faxed statement, Spillar wrote that the magazine has covered the Israeli feminist movement and the country’s women leaders in 11 articles in its past 16 issues.

But the AJCongress ad was “inconsistent” with the Ms. policy of not being politically partisan, and the slogan “This is Israel” in the ad “implied that women in Israel hold equal positions of power with men,” whereas “Israel, like every other country, has far to go to reach equality for women.”

Speaking later to JTA by phone, Spillar said she “puts the U.S. in the same category as Israel” in terms of having far to go to achieve full gender equality. But the AJCongress ad “was almost a country ad, and we don’t take country ads.”

Harriet Kurlander, the director of AJCongress’s Commission for Women’s Empowerment, said that when she originally tried to place the ad, a magazine representative told her that the magazine “would love to have an ad from you on women’s empowerment, or reproductive freedom, but not on this.”

In other conversations with magazine staff members, Kurlander said she was told that publishing the ad would “set off a firestorm.”

Kurlander said the magazine should admit its “cover-up” and “simply print the ad.”

Among the Jewish feminists speaking out on the issue is Blu Greenberg, the founding president of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. Greenberg said that by not accepting the ad, Ms. is “aligning itself with the political far left that wants to delegitimize Israel altogether on the stage of world opinion.”

“I wish I could believe that we’re overblowing it, but I’ve been in numerous situations where I’ve seen the same thing — this total excoriation of Israel,” she said. “That’s what we’re all feeling right now.”

Susan Weidman Schneider of Lilith magazine said she was “very surprised” by the refusal of Ms. to run the ad. But Schneider said that after speaking to the magazine’s publisher Monday, she believes the ad was likely rejected “out of a place of ignorance” and was not intended as “a willful slap in the face to Israel.”

Weidman Schneider said she considers Spillar’s argument “possibly an ex post facto explanation.”

She said she told publisher Eleanor Smeal that in retrospect, Ms. would have done better to suggest to the AJCongress that the group shape an ad reflecting a broader range of women’s advancement in Israel if any perceived partisanship in the original ad was the impediment.

But beyond the fracas surrounding the actual ad, Weidman Schneider said she is disturbed by the “vitriol” she has seen on Jewish and feminist blogs over the past few days relating to the incident.

“I didn’t expect the depth of anti-feminist sentiment that this incident has stirred up,” she said, noting that she has read comments referring to “femiNazis” and others suggesting the feminist movement is inherently anti-Israel. “I felt quite chilled.”

Books: Interest grows in neglected 19th-Century female author Amy Levy

“The Romance of a Shop,” by Amy Levy, edited by Susan David Bernstein (Broadview Press, $15.95).
“Reuben Sachs,” by Amy Levy, edited by Susan David Bernstein_(Broadview Press, $15.95).

Oscar Wilde adored her, calling the young writer “a girl of genius,” while modern critics, in their flippancy and an attempt to articulate who this virtually unknown Victorian author was, have coined Amy Levy the “Jewish Sylvia Plath,” referring to both her precocious talent and her early, tragic demise. Levy committed suicide by charcoal asphyxiation at the age of 27. And yet, to most, her life and work remain unknown.

Born in November 1861 into a middle-class, Jewish, London family, Levy, the second of seven children, received a progressive education in school and in synagogue. She attended Brighton High School, founded in 1871 by feminists Emily and Maria Shirreff, and later went on to Newnham College, one of two women’s colleges in Cambridge University, where she also happened to be the first Jewish student. Her family belonged to the West London Synagogue of British Jews, a pioneering institution for the Reform movement that paved the way for acculturated Jewish practices of the Diaspora.

Levy’s extraordinary interior life is echoed by the circles in which she moved — Victorian London’s intelligentsia. Along with Wilde, she cultivated friendships in the reading room of the British Museum with Olive Schreiner, Clementina Black and Eleanor Marx (daughter of Karl), among others.

In the past few years, there has been an uptick in interest in Levy’s work, including the publication of a biography in 2000, a conference held in 2002 in London specifically on her work and scholarship tied to it and, most recently, the annotated editions of Levy’s two novels, “The Romance of a Shop” and “Reuben Sachs.”

Published this year by Broadview Press and edited by Susan David Bernstein, a professor of English, Jewish and women’s studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, these well-culled editions of Levy’s otherwise out-of-print novels include an assortment of other pertinent writings.

“Her work revises, critiques and updates Victorian representations of women and of Jews,” Bernstein said, also noting that Levy’s writing can be seen as a precursor and most likely an influence to such modernists as William Butler Yeats and Virginia Woolf.

Perhaps, though, one thing is certain: Levy’s writing illuminates not just the terrain of Anglo-Jewish life but also the Victorian notion of the “new woman” — the equivalent of today’s feminist.

Originally published in 1888, Levy’s first novel, “The Romance of a Shop,” is built on what was, at that time, a radical premise: Four sisters, ranging in age from 17 to 30, are left to tend to themselves and to one another after their widower father’s death and their resulting loss of financial security. He’s left a legacy as a photographer who owned a studio, and the young women — instead of accepting the various offers of house and home from distant relatives and then sadly having to separate — open a shop as photographers in their own flat, joining the working world and essentially the romance of being young women making their way in an urban environment.

“Despite its nod to the conventional happy ending of marriage and children in the epilogue,” Bernstein noted, “the vision of a woman with a husband, children and a career was a radically unusual one for a mainstream novel in Levy’s day.”

Levy’s feminist leanings developed early in her girlhood (it’s been noted, too, by many scholars that she was most likely a lesbian). Biographer Linda Hunt Beckman saw Levy’s feminism “revealed in drawings of a woman on a soapbox with a sign saying, ‘Votes for Women!'” Levy’s proto-feminism was no less pronounced in her nonfiction: “What woman engaged in art, in literature, in science,” Levy wrote in an essay, “has not felt the drawbacks of her isolated position?”
But if it was confusing to be a woman in the Victorian era, it was equally obfuscating to be a Jew — especially one who felt the tug of acculturation.

Levy’s work specifically takes to task their portrayal in fiction.

Her second novel, “Reuben Sachs,” which many argue was written in reaction to George Eliot’s “Daniel Deronda,” revolves around the relationship between two cousins, Reuben Sachs and Judith Quixano. But it was her subtle commentary on “materialistic values and preoccupations of the middle-class London Jewish community,” as Meri-Jane Rochelson, associate professor of English at Florida International University, put it, that raised the ire of many critics.

“[Levy] apparently delights in the task of persuading the general public that her own kith and kin are the most hideous type of vulgarity,” one reviewer wrote in The Jewish World in 1889. “She revels in misrepresentations of their customs and the modes of thought.”
At a moment in the beginning of “Reuben Sachs,” the protagonist’s mother and sister sit “in the growing dusk, amid the plush ottomans, stamped velvet tables, and other Philistine splendours” of their drawing room. Reuben, upon returning home late, enters the house and asks, “Why do women always invariably sit in the dark?”

Levy had the courage not to be one of those women — a contribution that, at times, may have isolated her. In her essay, “Middle-Class Jewish Women of To-Day,” written in 1886 for The Jewish Chronicle, she asks, “What, in fact, is the ordinary life of a Jewish middle-class woman?”

Levy’s extraordinary work certainly brings readers closer to understanding just what it was at that time.

Jessica George Firger is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. This article originally appeared in the ‘Borat’ laughs across the U S and A — in Hebrew

Robot Dances Off With Award

Don’t have time to shlep to a museum? Too tired to remember if the free museum day is the first or second Tuesday of the month? Want to conquer a large, overwhelming exhibit in small, 15-minute intervals? Then bring the museum to your desktop and browse at your own pace.

The Jewish Women’s Archive has launched “Jewish Women and the Feminist Revolution,” an inspirational and evocative online exhibit. It’s an innovative way to introduce today’s generation of Jewish women to the pacesetting leaders who paved the way before them.

“‘Jewish Women and the Feminist Revolution’ brings the story of Jewish feminism into the story of American feminism for the first time, connecting their histories in a landmark project,” curator Judith Rosenbaum said.

The brightly colored site is easy to use and fun to surf. Complete with video clips, documents, posters, flyers, photographs, art, radio news reports and first-person statements, the exhibition explores Jewish women’s significant contributions to the American and Jewish feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s. How did these times change the lives of Jewish women, and how did Jewish women create change during the times?

The site organizes material by themes, timeline, people and medium and covers topics like women’s health, female rabbis, sexuality, arts, education and spirituality.

The exhibition features artifacts from the private collections of 74 notable women, including Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg; Gloria Steinem, pioneering activist and founder of Ms. Magazine; and feminist artist Judy Chicago.

Also featured are three Los Angeles women: Rachel Adler, feminist theologian and professor of modern Jewish thought and Judaism and gender at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion; UCLA history professor Ellen DuBois, feminist author and scholar of 19th century women’s history; and Reform Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, director of the Pennsylvania Council of the UAJC and founding director of the American Jewish Congress Feminist Center in Los Angeles.

The exhibition can be found at


Feminist Desktop Revolution

Don’t have time to shlep to a museum? Too tired to remember if the free museum day is the first or second Tuesday of the month? Want to conquer a large, overwhelming exhibit in small, 15-minute intervals? Then bring the museum to your desktop and browse at your own pace.

The Jewish Women’s Archive has launched “Jewish Women and the Feminist Revolution,” an inspirational and evocative online exhibit. It’s an innovative way to introduce today’s generation of Jewish women to the pacesetting leaders who paved the way before them.

“‘Jewish Women and the Feminist Revolution’ brings the story of Jewish feminism into the story of American feminism for the first time, connecting their histories in a landmark project,” curator Judith Rosenbaum said.

The brightly colored site is easy to use and fun to surf. Complete with video clips, documents, posters, flyers, photographs, art, radio news reports and first-person statements, the exhibition explores Jewish women’s significant contributions to the American and Jewish feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s. How did these times change the lives of Jewish women, and how did Jewish women create change during the times?

The site organizes material by themes, timeline, people and medium and covers topics like women’s health, female rabbis, sexuality, arts, education and spirituality.

The exhibition features artifacts from the private collections of 74 notable women, including Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg; Gloria Steinem, pioneering activist and founder of Ms. Magazine; and feminist artist Judy Chicago.

Also featured are three Los Angeles women: Rachel Adler, feminist theologian and professor of modern Jewish thought and Judaism and gender at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion; UCLA history professor Ellen DuBois, feminist author and scholar of 19th century women’s history; and Reform Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, director of the Pennsylvania Council of the UAJC and founding director of the American Jewish Congress Feminist Center in Los Angeles.

The exhibition can be found at

The Lady Vanishes

I’m sitting between the two most different women imaginable here at Temple Emmanuel in Beverly Hills: a matronly lumpish type who is well past her 50s, unmade up with short, graying hair and long triangular earrings — her only testament, of sorts, to fashion; and on the other side of me, a plasticized lady of the same indeterminate age, wearing a black leather miniskirt and crocodile skin yellow boots and an expression on her face — if one can call the pearly botoxed look an expression — of disbelief and shock.

We three strangers are sitting in the way back of the temple, in that second room they open up only for special occasions like the High Holidays or this Writer’s Block event featuring Maureen Dowd, who is being interviewed tonight by Aaron Sorkin, “West Wing” creator and more relevantly, for this evening, Dowd’s ex-boyfriend.

Thousands have turned out on this late November evening to hear the redheaded New York Times columnist talk about her new book, “Are Men Necessary?: When Sexes Collide” (Putnam), which had been recently excerpted in The New York Times Magazine.

About three-quarters of the people in the audience are women — for the most part, women in their late 30s and older; in other words, not the generation of women Dowd is writing about in this book when she says they are turning back the clock on feminism, reverting to traditional gender roles, rejecting all that the women generations before them — probably like the women in this audience — had fought for.

It’s an odd setting for this type of discussion: Hanging over the stage are the two tablets of Moses bearing the Ten Commandments in Hebrew. My eyes rest on Lo Tin’af — Thou Shalt Not Covet (thy neighbor’s wife) — as Dowd and Sorkin, flanked by the Israeli and American flags, talk about matters far from holy.

Well, talk is an exaggeration. Spar is more like it. Sorkin, an expert TV writer (“he’s the guy who put the president we wish we had in the White House,” as he was introduced) is self-admittedly no expert interviewer. But still, he cannot get Dowd to straightforwardly answer many questions about her book. Actually, he can hardly get a word in edgewise.

In person, Dowd is like her columns: a coy, witty one-liner queen.

“That’s why I wrote this book,” she explains. “Because when you cover the White House, you never get to write about sex.”

She says how Bush Sr. didn’t know what a bikini wax was and our current president didn’t realize “Sex and the City” was a TV show. But beyond these witticisms, it’s hard to get at the depth of what Dowd is trying to say.

Each time Sorkin tries to ask her a question — Does she think men aren’t necessary? Is feminism really over? — she, Jewishly, answers a question with a question, and interrupts with a question of her own. Why is Sorkin one of the only men in Hollywood who can write a strong woman character (like C.J. Cregg on “The West Wing”), Dowd wants to know. Why are there never any compelling roles for women on the screen, she asks. Compelling questions, for sure, but not ones we’ve come for tonight. Nor is Sorkin getting what he wants, as he tries to turn the interview back on the subject herself. Yes, we’re in Hollywood — OK, Beverly Hills — but just for once could we not discuss the industry? Can we discuss Karl Rove and Presidents Bush and the topic at hand, “Are Men Necessary?” and its subtext, “Is Feminism Over?”

But Dowd practically won’t let that happen.

Which leads me to question her original theory, that men don’t like smart women, that men only want to marry their secretaries and assistants, that men want to go back to the 1950s. Maybe men don’t like women like her. Women who interrupt. Women who talk over them. Women who have to prove how smart they are in the most succinct way possible. Women who make mean and snarky comments — women who are more than challenging: These are women who need to win. Always.

That’s why the woman next to me — the plastic surgery one, the one who probably looks less like a feminist than the plastic surgeon who recreated her, is shaking her head in frustration. Her manicured nails are tapping her folded arms, a defensive posture as she nods her head, tsk tsk tsk. We don’t speak but we catch eyes, and then I turn to my right and see the short-haired woman with the same expression on her face: We are all united in our antipathy, three women of different generations, economic backgrounds and certainly fashion sense. We thought we’d be united here tonight in a rallying call to revive feminism, to get back in touch with our values, to take back the night, to be empowered, but instead it’s just another celebrity event, interesting but insubstantial, a possible role model — oh how we wish Dowd could be who we hoped her to be — fallen from on high.

Sure, at the end of the Q & A — where many Qs are asked and not many As are given — there will be a line snaking out the door of the temple to sign books and get a smile from the famous columnist. Sure, many women on their way out are glad they got to eavesdrop on such a private public conversation. But right now, in the middle of the event, the three of us are all crossing our arms, tapping various parts of our bodies. That is, until Ms. Beverly Hills stands up, pulls down her leather skirt and excuses herself past us. She’s leaving in the middle, and barely glances at the stage — Dowd, Sorkin, Ten Commandments and all — on her way out.


Still Smarting

By Sunday evening, single women across America were trying to slit their wrists by inflicting a hundred little paper cuts from the Sunday New York Times Magazine, featuring an article by Maureen Dowd, “What’s a Modern Girl to Do?”

Feminism is over, Dowd writes, men only want to date non-challenging, non-career-oriented women, and women are willingly returning to traditional gender roles.

If “Sex and the City’s” Carrie Bradshaw were writing this article, she’d type in her familiar courier font: “Sometimes I wonder … are men threatened by smart, successful women?”

But Carrie’s era has ended, apparently, says the real-life (non-sex) op-ed writer Dowd, pictured in the Oct. 30 magazine in an austere black suit paired with fishnet stockings.

“So was the feminist movement some sort of cruel hoax? Do women get less desirable as they get more successful?” she laments.

I felt like I was listening to my father, or my rabbi — if I still had one (a rabbi, not a father) — with this return to men as providers, women as caretakers and never the twain shall meet.

Dowd’s basic theory posits that “The Rules” — that once-silly guidebook on how to entrap a man, which is now read nonironically, as in The Torah of dating — was just the beginning. The end, a decade later, is women in their 20s who go to law school planning to drop out to get married, women who won’t call a guy because men don’t like to be chased and men marrying nurturers like their secretaries because they don’t desire a challenging woman (like “the boss”). Which leaves some smart, successful women wondering, alone, where they went wrong.

It’s not that Dowd said anything particularly new. It’s just that, well, the thing is … a lot of it is true. I wish I could deny it; I wish I could say that feminism is safe and Dowd is bitter. And that the people she quotes are a small random selection; and that plenty of people find an equal partner; and my friends and I will too someday (soon). But I’ve had too many recent experiences that suggest otherwise:

  • At a recent Sukkot meal I met a single guy, an educated artist-intellectual who was becoming religious. What he found lovely about religion was the “traditional roles that people — women — played in terms of family,” he said, before stopping when he saw the look of horror on my face.
  • My friend’s father recently came out to visit from New York. The man’s a professor at a prestigious university and married to a woman who is also a professor at a better university and who makes more money than him. After I spent the whole night trying to charm him silly, he told his son, “She’s going to have trouble meeting a man. She’s too smart.”
  • I was recently rebuffed by a guy who said, “You’re the type of woman I could bring home to my parents, but my problem is I’m only attracted to stupid, simple women — women whom I’d never socialize with or bring home to my parents.”

He’d go out with these bartenders, dancers — secretaries — for a few months till conversation ran dry and he couldn’t stand the sight of them any longer and then flee like an escaped convict to socialize with the likes of me — people in his “class.” It was not a question of looks.

“You’re just too smart for me,” he said sadly.

Look, I’ve tried dating down. My last two boyfriends were by no means my intellectual equals; they weren’t threatened by my brain, but they weren’t particularly interested either. Or interesting, really. I chucked them in hopes of finding my intellectual equal, my soul mate, the man I can ask advice from and discuss everything with — from literature to politics to religion to child rearing, to even this stupid New York Times article.

But I hear that he’s off dating his secretary, his physical therapist, his nanny, his cook — all the nurturers we thought we could hire while we provided the intellectual stimulation, which he apparently prefers to get from “The Daily Show.”

Look, maybe we can’t have it all — the perfect career and the perfect man and the perfect family — and if I could do it all over again, maybe I’d do some things differently: Maybe I wouldn’t have done all that I’ve done if I had known the price for independence is … being alone.

Maybe. But maybe not.

Dating for women of my generation has always been about the conflict of being yourself vs. behaving like someone else in order to get the prized man. But what kind of guy would I get if I behaved like someone else? Who would I be? What kind of we would there be if I weren’t me?

The women of the generations before me, well, maybe they were lucky. Lucky without feminism, lucky to be in the haven of their traditional roles. And maybe that’s the happy fate that also awaits the women of the future.

What is a Modern Girl to do, Ms. Dowd? Sadly enough she doesn’t answer that question, so I guess this is one article I’m going to have to write on my own.


Sarah’s Tent to Fete Feminist Scholar

Driving down Wilshire Boulevard about 35 years ago, Savina J. Teubal saw the bumper sticker that changed her life.

“It was one of those ‘Question Authority’ bumper stickers that were popular in the early ’70s,” she recalled. “Up until that point, I had been aware of the injustice in other people’s lives. It hadn’t occurred to me to ask questions about my own life.”

The 79-year-old Teubal considers herself a prime example “of what you can become if you do question authority.” A feminist scholar and innovator of Jewish ritual, Teubal will be honored on Aug. 28 by Sarah’s Tent, the organization she founded to promote creative Jewish spirituality.

The event, which will include an appearance by musician Debbie Friedman, will also kick off two initiatives in tribute to Teubal, who is ill with lung cancer. In Teubal’s name, Sarah’s Tent will both endow a chair for feminist Jewish scholarship at the Academy for Jewish Religion and present an annual Jewish Women Achievement Award. For Teubal, the chair is particularly important, “because there’s loads of feminist writings now, but not enough of them get taught,” she said.

Teubal has been hailed as being consistently on the cutting edge of feminism and spirituality. Whether it’s her books about the biblical Sarah and Hagar, or initiating The Mikveh Ladies ritual, which consisted of women gathering for honest, life-affirming discussion in her Santa Monica hot tub, Teubal “has always been so grounded in both scholarship and creativity,” said Marcia Cohn Spiegel, a writer and community activist.

“She’s also so encouraging and nurturing to other people,” she added. “What she’s done to push Jewish women forward is extraordinary.”

Born in Manchester, England, Teubal grew up in Buenos Aires. Her family belonged to an affluent, tight-knit community of Syrian Jews, and Teubal described having “an Arabic upbringing at home and a British upbringing at school.”

With her three older brothers, she received private Hebrew lessons, and remembers the day her father asked the tutor how his children fared.

“The teacher went into some rapture on an essay I had written about Abraham, and I remember my father saying, “Never mind the girl,'” she recalled.

Teubal’s parents did not allow her to attend college or pursue a career, so to leave home, she married and moved with her husband to England in 1953. That same year, she published a book of short stories in Spanish, the product of writing for years in her parents’ house.

“Writing was the one thing no one could stop me from doing,” she said in her crisp British accent, while sitting on the living room couch in her Santa Monica home.

While in England, Teubal and her husband divorced, despite her father’s threat to cut her off. To support herself, she worked as a chauffeur for several years, before relocating to Mexico and then to the United States. By the time she arrived in Los Angeles, “it was the 1960s, and my life took off,” she said.

Teubal dove headfirst into the “feminist revolution” and eventually became active in Beth Chayim Chadashim, the world’s first gay and lesbian synagogue. Increasingly, she found herself interested in religion and the ancient Near East.

To finally obtain a college education, Teubal enrolled in a university-without-walls program; she received her doctorate from International College at 41. This allowed her to be mentored by Rutgers scholar Raphael Patai, while doing coursework in Los Angeles.

Taking her dissertation a step further, Teubal published “Sarah the Priestess: The First Matriarch of Genesis” in 1984, followed by the 1990 “Hagar the Egyptian,” reprinted in 1997 as “Ancient Sisterhood: The Lost Tradition of Hagar and Sarah.”

She broke ground writing about biblical women long before Anita Diamant’s novel, “The Red Tent,” made the best-seller lists. But Teubal also helped develop new Jewish rituals. Most notably, her Simchat Hochmah, which she created in 1986 in honor of her 60th birthday, celebrated the transition from adult to elder. It has been adopted by women all over the country and became the subject of a documentary.

“I was upset with the way people treated old age, as if death doesn’t happen in America,” she said.

“Savina has dedicated her life to understanding and freeing women from the limitations that have been imposed upon them,” said Rabbi Miriam Glazer, a literature professor at the University of Judaism who’s known Teubal for 25 years. “She’s also a true, independent scholar who has the courage to go where her imagination leads her and the academic discipline to follow through.”

After years of informally gathering people together for Shabbat services, study sessions and experimental rituals, Teubal co-founded Sarah’s Tent with Rabbi Judith Halevy in 1994. The organization has attracted both men and women to classes, retreats and holiday celebrations. In the past few months, Teubal has received an outpouring of phone calls and e-mails from its members.

“I didn’t realize how many people I influenced until I got sick,” she said.

“I can look back and feel very proud of what I’ve done,” said Teubal, who is currently at work on a novel about the biblical Bathsheba. “Had I followed some other, more traditional path, I wouldn’t have been able to free my imagination.”

Sarah’s Tent will honor Savina J. Teubal on Sunday, Aug. 28, at 6:30 p.m. at Kehillat Israel, 16019 Sunset Blvd., Pacific Palisades. Tickets are $36. For more information, visit

Mixed Marriage, Mixed Message

"Double or Nothing: Jewish Families and Mixed Marriage" by Sylvia Barack Fishman (Brandeis, $24.95)

"Sort of Jewish," "Jewish and something else," "might as well be Jewish" are some of the ways people describe their Jewish identity in Sylvia Barack Fishman’s significant new book probing the religious character of mixed-marriage households, "Double or Nothing: Jewish Families and Mixed Marriage."

One of her findings that may be widely discussed relates to households that mix Christian and Jewish customs: She finds data to support the "greatly diminished likelihood that children from these households will unambiguously identify as Jewish as adults," as she says in an interview from her office at Brandeis University. Fishman, a professor who directs the program in Contemporary Jewish Life and co-directs the Brandeis-Hadassah Institute, recognizes that people who condone the incorporation of those practices will not like her findings.

"Double or Nothing" is based on a study Fishman conducted, sponsored by the American Jewish Committee. She analyzes data from 254 interviews, conducted between 1999 and 2000, with 68 mixed-married, 36 inmarried and 23 conversionary families in Denver, New Jersey, Atlanta and New England, along with focus groups with teens growing up in interfaith families.

Much previous research in this field has been quantitative studies and surveys. As she writes, this is "one of the first systematic qualitative studies of the full range of mixed-family types: Jewishly identified, two religions, secular or no formal religion, overtly Christian and principled nontheists."

The author of several books including "Jewish Life and American Culture" and "A Breath of Life: Feminism in the American Jewish Community," Fishman points to statistical studies showing that about half of all marriages involving a Jew have been marriages to non-Jews. But unlike those Jews who married non-Jews 50 years ago, those intermarrying today "do not necessarily have an agenda of leaving the Jewish community," she writes. And unlike earlier mixed marriages, in which it was usually the wife who was a Christian and she often converted, "very few of the non-Jews marrying Jewish men and women today convert into Judaism."

She asks, "Will the blessings of American openness cause Jewish culture to be virtually loved out of existence in 21st century America?"

Among the interrelated issues Fishman looked into was the process by which intermarried couples determine the religious character of their household, how they talk about it and negotiate, the personal meaning of their choices, how they thought about dating, the planning of the wedding, the impact of having children, children’s views of their parents religious decisions and how they construct their own identity and more.

The findings she cites as major include the notion that many mixed-marriage couples started talking about how they would deal with religious differences early on, as soon as their dating became serious. Before her study, she notes, most observers assumed these conversations took place much later. Another finding is that during the marriage, the Jewish spouse tends to be empathetic, guilt-ridden about depriving the Christian spouse of his or her practice.

"Sometimes the Jewish spouse might volunteer to bring Christian holidays into the Jewish household," she says.

Also, she points out that Jewish spouses and their families are often very "reticent or squeamish about pushing too hard toward conversion," and that not pushing too hard can be read as not-caring about the issue by the non-Jewish spouse.

"Many say that if they were asked, they might have considered it," she added.

Another aspect Fishman thinks of as groundbreaking is that many of the non-Jewish spouses talked about their attraction to Jewish culture and family life, and were drawn to the image of a Jewish home, full of warmth, passion about ideas, argument, everyone knowing each other’s business.

"One of the amusing things," she says, "is that social patterns that seem unattractive to the Jewish partner can seem attractive to Christians."

She finds that a triple-pronged approach can be effective in reinforcing Jewish life for both inmarried and intermarried families. The three prongs are formal and informal Jewish education over many years; the Jewish vitality of the home, with lots of Jewish connections and parents passionately involved in some aspect of Judaism, whether religious or cultural or Israel-related; and a Jewish peer group for kids, particularly teenagers.

"This model adds up to more than its parts," she says.

Interestingly, almost every person interviewed expressed the sentiment that he or she was not typical, but given the pattern of responses, the individuals interviewed had much in common with each other.

The title uses a gambling metaphor to highlight the question of whether intermarriage is, as some believe, a potential net gain, creating more "Jewish" households: If the children raised in these homes identified as Jews and went on to create Jewish homes of their own, the community would experience a population increase. Others see intermarriage as a diminishment of the community.

On the book jacket, a figure balances a die tenuously on the tip of his finger. As for her own opinion, Fishman hedges her bets: She asserts that when households follow the three-pronged model, the possibility of stable equilibrium exists.

"You’re gambling with the Jewish identity of children when you don’t have that model," she says.

Whether it’s double or nothing depends on "how we respond, whether the American Jewish community will be able to summon the communal will to meet this challenge" — to create connections for Jewish families to their own Jewish heritage.

The book intersperses comments from the respondents into the text, which makes for interesting, accessible reading and also humanizes these much-discussed issues. Fishman also shows how interfaith families are depicted in American literature, film and popular culture; she also looks at the issue in Jewish societies historically.

Are there policy implications?

"I believe very much in putting money and brilliant minds and outstanding talents to work in creating programming for teenagers and young adults. These are the critical, underserviced years," she says.

She’d like to see formal and informal programs provide positive peer group experiences: "It would make a difference. Nothing is going to prevent intermarriage because we live in an open society — and all of us are intensely grateful that we live in an open society."

"We can make a difference in the proportion of Jews who marry non-Jews." And, she adds, "We can give Jews the tools they need in order to create Jewishly vibrant households, regardless of who they marry."

In the end, she emphasizes the urgency of Jewish education and calls for excellence in offerings — for children, teens and adults. The author points to studies that show that mixed-married families who seek out Jewish education are looking for intellectual and experiential depth in their studies. She says that inmarried, conversionary and intermarried families all benefit from high-quality education — "one of the most effective strategies for transmitting knowledge of and attachment to Jewish civilizations and their heritage to the next generation of Jews"

In this age where intermarriage rates are so high, why does she care so much?

"I have found the Jewish way of life to be very beautiful and very sustaining as an individual, as a mother and grandmother. Judaism has been the rock of my life. We live in a culture where people worry about saving the whales. I think we should all be concerned with saving this beautiful and rich culture, not as a fossil but as a rich heritage."

About her own religious life, she explains that she grew up in religiously observant household in Sheboygan, Wis. She has always been observant and describes herself as modern Orthodox.

"I am fascinated and engaged by Jewish texts — all kinds of historical texts, ranging from biblical through rabbinical to modern Jewish literature," she says. "I’m also fascinated by Jewish people and am very fortunate to be involved with a profession that allows me to look at material that I find especially fascinating and engaging in a systematic and scholarly way."

She is now working on two new research projects and isn’t thinking yet about books. One study focuses on teen Jewish education, funded by the AviChai Foundation, and the other is on conversionary households, sponsored by the American Jewish Committee.

Market Yourself Into Marriage

Why are you single?”

The woman who recently hurled this accusation at me, I suppose, intended it as a compliment: how could someone as ________ as me not have a husband? We were both attending a baby shower for a mutual friend, and I hadn’t seen this woman since our mutual friend’s wedding; now she planted herself in front of me and spit out a question many of my friends probably want to know the answer to, but are too classy to ask:

“So, why are you single?” she said again.

I suppose I could have come up with a number of snappy comebacks (“Why are you married?”), but instead I smiled politely, as if I agreed with her assessment that since that I am of no obvious defects (club foot, third eye, running sores) I, too, am mystified (!) that I possess no husband or serious boyfriend. So in the name of maturity (and because I’m not quite sure the answer isn’t “because I want to be single”), I simply shrugged and replied, “I just haven’t met the right guy.”

If only I had read Rachel Greenwald’s new best-seller, “Find a Husband After 35 Using What I Learned at Harvard Business School,” I could have told this woman what Greenwald writes in the opening of her 311-page book: “Why are you still single? It doesn’t matter.”

“I think that women can get stuck on trying to analyze why,” Greenwald told me by telephone from her home in Denver. “I encounter this a lot — women who love to sit about and talk about it. They go to therapists, talk to friends — but procrastinating and stalling is [their] problem,” said Greenwald, who will be speaking in Los Angeles on Oct. 21. “I think they get into a rut.”

Why you are single doesn’t matter. What matters, Greenwald writes, is what you are going to do about it.

A Harvard MBA who worked as a marketing executive at Evian and Carolee Jewelry, Greenwald, 39, proposes that what women do is devote the next 12-18 months of their lives to her “Simple 15-Step Action Program” and market themselves down the aisle.

Her figures shout epidemic: There are 28 million single women over the age of 35 in this country, compared to 18 million men of the same age. The disparity grows when you figure that men can date younger women; and when you add the ugly facts that for women over 35 the biological clock is nearing its final hour, “Finding a Husband” can even send a pre-35-year-old reader like myself into taking Greenwald’s “Program” seriously.

American Jews tend to marry later than the general population, according to the recently released National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS 2000-1). The largest gap between Jews and non-Jews marrying is in the 25-34 age range, followed by the 35-44 age range. Meanwhile, when it comes to fertility, nearly twice as many Jewish women between the ages of 30-34 are childless (54 percent), as compared to their non-Jewish counterparts (28 percent). And while the gap narrows at the 35-39 age range (16 percent), it never really closes, even at the 40-44 age range (7 percent). What all this means is that whatever the “unmarried/fertility epidemic” is for American women, it’s even more so for their Jewish subsection.

Perhaps these latest NJPS figures will force the Jewish community to consider the state of marriage and fertility a crisis, just as it did with assimilation in its 1990 study, when dozens of organizations directed funding to combat the assimilation over the last 10 years. If not, unmarried Jewish women will have to rely on secular matchmaking tactics like “The Program.”

“You, the reader, are ‘The Product,’ and ‘The Program’ is a strategic plan to help you market yourself to find a future husband,” Greenwald writes. The Program requires you to package, brand and advertise yourself, as well as conduct market research, employ event planning and perform quarterly reviews to your dating life, just as any successful company would create, plan and launch a new product — from toilet paper to cars — into the marketplace.

We’ve come a long way, baby. Having fought for decades against the objectification of women, The Program urges us to reobjectify. See Step No. 3: Packaging: “Packaging may be the most underappreciated marketing tactic. Surprisingly, packaging can be more important than the product itself…. Given all the competitive products [i.e., other women] on the shelves, your package must stand out and be appealing enough to prompt a first-time purchase…. I wish I could tell you that your inner self is what really counts — and later in a relationship it is what counts most — but the truth is that how you look makes all the difference in getting noticed in the beginning.”

Like everything else in our capitalist society — religion, politics, education — finding a husband comes down to good marketing.

“Finding a Husband,” No. 7 on The New York Times Best-Seller List, with press from People to “The Today Show” and a movie development deal from Paramount, speaks to the current national debate between feminism and its backlash: On the one hand we have Laura Kipnes’ thoroughly modern “Against Love,” a treatise arguing against monogamy and for adultery. On the other hand, there is Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s “Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children” on the epidemic of childlessness due to women’s devotion to their careers.

Exemplifying the tensions between feminists past and present, last Sunday’s New York Times Style section featured “Out of Step and Having a Baby,” an essay by Molly Jong-Fast, daughter of feminist Erica Jong (“Fear of Flying”) who wrote that she was bucking the trend of all her 35-45-year old friends, and having a baby quell horror at age 24.

As the ’90s-defining show “Sex and the City” comes to a close with a “happy” ending likely for most of the characters, no one has successfully answered the question of whether women can have it all or what they must choose between.

To her credit, Greenwald, a happily married (to a fellow Jew) mother of three, does not bother with the question of what feminism has wrought. She neither blames women for their careers or hang-ups or lives or whatever has kept them single for so long, nor does she see marriage as the panacea for all women.

“This book is not trying to suggest that women need a husband at any means, but it’s addressing a subpopulation who have already decided they want a husband,” she said.

So what does one have to do to snag a husband? Basically, The Program suggests enlisting everyone you know — and she means everyone, from your hairdresser to your grandmother’s neighbor — to help you find “someone wonderful” (the main criteria in searching for a man; The Program requires you to “cast a wider net” and rethink “requirements” such as type, age, height, location, occupation and religion). Not only do you have to advertise this with forthright requests such as a “Flag Day/ Halloween/Secretary Day letter:

“Dear Sandy: Are you still enjoying your new job? It sounds wonderful! I have a special favor to ask you. This year, I would like to find someone special to spend my life with. Do you know any single men you could introduce me to? I would truly appreciate your help….”

But with less direct gambits for promoting your “personal brand,” those three main positive and distinct adjectives about yourself that set you apart as a quality, marriageable woman. You should tell a co-worker, “When I lived in Argentina…” thus letting the co-worker know that your brand is “international woman.”

Like many bestsellers such as “The Celestine Prophesy,” or “Dr. Atkins New Diet Revolution,” “Finding a Husband” is not meant to be a literary work; yet with its detailed charts and do and don’t lists, it certainly succeeds in helping women expand their social network, thus increasing their odds of meeting “someone wonderful” (not to mention of meeting “someone horrible” as well).

Greenwald recycles some old advice (don’t make the first move) but with a modern twist (unless you can make it seem like it’s not the first move or only once in any given relationship) and even tailors it to the modern age (she says that if you only take one thing from the book, it’s that you should join an online dating service). She can be exasperating (men love feminine women with long hair and nice — but not too nice — nails) and crafty like her predecessor, “The Rules” (discuss sports figures, sign up for a woodworking class where all the men are and flirt with them during the break). Her Program certainly seems tiring — imagine being “on” for a year, accepting all dates and projecting an “upbeat” attitude all the time. Yet whatever you think of The Program, don’t call it desperate.

“I never use the word desperate. I call it proactive,” Greenwald said.

But do Jewish women really need to be more “proactive?” Greenwald said she noticed from her research that

“Jewish women are a lot more likely to embrace this program because it’s proactive and assertive,”

“A lot more Jewish women have chutzpah,” she said, and I believe it. But to paraphrase “Sex’s” Carrie: “Sometimes I wonder … is Jewish chutzpah a good thing?”

Case in point: A male friend of mine who was dating a non-Jewish woman said that what he found most attractive was that “she doesn’t have that emotional and physical aggressiveness that many Jewish women possess.”

Indeed, if you looked around your egalitarian synagogue this High Holiday season, you might have seen those intermarriage statistics in the form of the blonde bombshell or the “Asian Shiksa” phenomenon. I don’t mean to imply that WASPS and Asian women are docile, but perhaps they might be a bit less, ahem, “proactive” than Jewish women — myself included.

Of course we Jewish women are not solely at fault for our unmarried status — despite what Jewish mothers say, Jewish men are not all princes — but I don’t know that a no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoner, leave-no-stone-unturned campaign to get a Jewish husband is the right path to take.

The real question is, why should we have to? Why should we resort to such emergency measures when we belong to a community that is supposed to take care of the “convert, widow, the orphan?” (Exodus 21:1-24:18). Unlike pure capitalism, which reveres individualism, Judaism sanctifies matrimony, as it says in Genesis 2:18, “It is not good for man to be alone.”

Indeed, if the Jewish community is so family oriented, and if belonging to it means that you are taken care of by the larger family and you are never really alone, shouldn’t the one to be more proactive in this singles epidemic be the community? I’m not only talking about the usual suspects such as synagogues and organizations, but the building blocks of the community itself: the family unit, the couple and the individual who comes up to you at a baby shower and asks, “So, why are you single?”

It is here that Greenwald’s interests and those of the Jewish community might diverge.

Julie, a 47-year-old Jewish Wall Street exec who hired Greenwald as a marriage consultant, had searched all her life for a male counterpart: a smart, successful Jewish investment banker. One day she went to return a broken cell phone at RadioShack and, one year later, married the non-Jewish manager.

So when Greenwald advises you to commit to The Program above everything, does that mean above your religion as well?

Greenwald paused thoughtfully on the phone before she answered.

“If finding a Jewish husband is very important to you, then I certainly hope you can achieve that — so that’s Plan A, and you should give it your best shot,” she said. Giving it your best shot means exploring all possibilities — including dating outside your city and state and preferred professions and age ranges.

“This is something that Jewish women don’t often think about,” she said.

But, if all that fails, and every shadchan and yenta in the community can’t find a suitable boy for you, “you move to Plan B,” she said, noting that it’s not all black and white: some men, like the RadioShack manager, may convert (although in a different chapter she writes, “The only way you can ‘change’ a man is if he’s in diapers.”); some may decide to raise the children Jewish, and for other intermarried couples, “there are people who fall in love and religion will always be an issue,” she said. “I think that God would sometimes choose happiness for you than staying in your religion.”

While “Finding a Husband After 35 Using What I Learned At Harvard Business School” may serve as a wake-up call to single Jewish women — and men, who are welcome to do The Program — it should ring a loud-and-clear clarion call to the Jewish community at large.

Because “The Program” may deliver us results we do not want: fewer unmarrieds, more intermarriage. Perhaps it is time to seriously focus on our own “Programs” and “market” our own Jewish singles, divorcées and widows. Some organizations do, for sure, but not enough have, not in our segregated society of “families” and “singles.”

For if you listen to the message of this book, and you note the shrinking fertility rates in the Jewish community (NJPS puts it at 1.9 — below the necessary replacement rate of 2.1 percent), you can hear the cry of the growing unmarried Jewish population. And if you listen real close — in their cry, you will hear your own.

Rachel Greenwald will be speaking and signing books on Oct. 21, at 7:30 p.m. at Borders Books and Music, 1360 Westwood Blvd. For more information call (310) 475-3444.

A Gentler Orthodox Feminism

Where others saw three Orthodox women in groundbreaking careers and stylish hats, Rachel Pollack, 17, perceived something more. She had found role models.

“This is something I might want to pursue,” said the bright-eyed Ramaz senior after sitting through a session with the world’s first — and only — congregational interns at last weekend’s Third International Conference on Feminism and Orthodoxy at the Grand Hyatt Hotel. At the session, the female interns, who perform some roles of assistant rabbis, discussed their own salary and status — as well as why, more than two years after the revolutionary appointments, only two synagogues employ such women.

For Pollack, struggling with issues of religious identity, the session hit home. “I want to know I could have an opportunity like this,” she said.

But the Ramaz student was among just a few dozen of the 2,000 participants in the two-day conference, sponsored by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), on hand to hear the frustration that sometimes crept into the voice of Julie Stern Josephs, a congregational intern at Lincoln Square Synagogue.

A title can make a difference, Josephs acknowledged to the small audience in one of 11 concurrent workshops offered on Sunday afternoon.

In her pastoral duties, she said, “When the rabbi comes, it’s ‘the rabbi came to visit,’ when I come, it’s ‘Oh, it’s just Julie.'”

That only a small group learned of the interns’ internal struggles seemed part of a larger pattern at this year’s feminism conference. In sometimes subtle ways, the JOFA organizers appeared to be striving for a gentler, kinder gathering than those held in 1997 and 1998. The more provocative issues were often not broadcast before an audience of hundreds, but tucked away in smaller workshops.

“The whole tone of the conference is much more positive this year,” said Ronnie Becher, an organizer. Becher admits it’s “absolutely disconcerting” that only a handful of the more than 800 Rabbinical Council of America rabbis offered free invitations showed up. But still, she says, this year, “We’re on the map. Our issues are clear. We’re a proven force. A proven entity.”

In many respects, the conference — which blends two worlds some consider as incompatible as oil and water — built on the successful ingredients of the first two. Like the previous gatherings, many participants left energized by the discovery of a like-minded community, dedicated to broadening women’s roles within the confines of Orthodoxy and adherence to halacha, or Jewish law. This sense of kinship was particularly strong for women from outside of the New York metropolitan area.

In her upstate synagogue, Sharon Strosberg, for example, felt unwelcomed when she tried to recite “Kaddish” for her parents. “I’m just amazed to see that there are so many Orthodox women willing to stick their necks out here,” said Strosberg, a first-time participant who attended with her 18-year-old son, Joshua.

Representatives from Australia, England, Holland and Spain, as well as Israel, reported on progress and setbacks, in seeking to advance change while adhering to rabbinical guidelines.

At times, however, the conference seemed to be deliberately pulling back, downplaying the more explosive issues. The devastating issue of agunot, or women trapped in bad marriages without a Jewish divorce, was tackled in many conference sessions. But unlike the two previous feminist conferences, the issue was not spotlighted at a plenary gathering.

In what was heralded as one of the more significant sessions devoted to agunot, Rabbi Adam Mintz of the Lincoln Square Synagogue discussed current techniques to help women in this plight, while Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat, Israel, explained how hafgaat kiddushin, or annulment of marriage, might be employed at a future rabbinic court in Israel.

“There is enormous precedent for a very compassionate and understanding halacha that allows for a bet din [rabbinic court] to annul a marriage if the situation warrants it,” said Rabbi Riskin, who says he has taken only the initial steps toward creating this central agunah court.

Will it be established this year? Rabbi Riskin looked heavenward and rolled his eyes. “I ask for women-power to help.”

On the Lone Prairie

When I consider author Sara Davidson’s now-so-public love affair with a cowboy who didn’t know about Anne Frank, I can hear my mother saying, “Honey, you could do so much better.”

To which Davidson’s response would surely be, “Show me how.”

Davidson’s new fictionalized memoir, “Cowboy,” about a UC Berkeley/Columbia-educated Jewish girl who “dates down in class,” quickly reached the best-seller list, thanks to a barrage of publicity that focused on the inappropriateness of the relationship. When we talked this week in her Santa Monica home, where a brown saddle sits near the front door, Davidson carried the self-satisfying aura of a woman whose bet had paid off.

Davidson wrote “Cowboy” over three years, on spec, after quitting her job as chief writer on “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.” She had no literary agent or publisher willing to take her on. “I couldn’t get a free-lance writing job,” she told me. She has no illusions about the commercial nature of her business, and even appreciates Maureen Dowd’s put-down of the book as “Cowboy Feminism.” “It’s just ink at this point,” Davidson said of Dowd’s New York Times Op-Ed piece. And it sells books.

I wouldn’t be adding to the hype for “Cowboy” but for one thing. Sara Davidson is visiting territory that I have been loathe to mention myself: the sorry mating habits of ambitious, high-living Jewish women in this post-feminist era.

It’s just an awful cheat, I have to say. Here we are, so highly evolved that we’ve quit our therapists and man our own barbecues, and what do we get: the thrill of a bed and a life on the lone prairie. Garrison Keillor, in this week’s issue of Salon, likens the supply of single, “well-read men over 40” to a rare specie of mountain goat. I think he’s being generous. Among Jewish men, the odds are — well, you know them yourself.

As feminists, we used to say that a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle. But, on second thought, maybe fish do like to pedal.

Sara Davidson’s solution to the problem life on the lone prairie was to go where few Jewish women treadeth — a cowboy poetry festival in Elko, Nev. Her affair with the fictional “Zack,” a man many inches shorter and 10 years her junior, followed two marriages to Jewish men. She had been dating a television producer, the kind of guy you’d expect for a woman who grew up in the Fairfax district. But the relationship just didn’t work.

“I censored myself constantly,” said Davidson, who once rode ponies on La Cienega. “I was always worried he would go away.”

With Zack, everything “works” just fine. He clips her toenails and gives her a back rub and likes to comfort her when she’s down. Moreover, he gives up his rural life for her, just as women used to do for men, and he only whines about it once. In short, there’s none of the competition between them that’s killing relationships these days. Think “A Star is Born,” except Norman Maine is part of the publicity tour.

Still, “Cowboy” often reminds me of the old Jewish joke my parents tell: Behind every successful man there’s a woman…who thinks he’s an idiot. In this case, the woman is in front of the man, and she calls him “a yokel, an insolent yokel.” She grieves that even if she’s paying all the bills, she’ll never get him to a better restaurant than Polly’s, the pie place in Santa Monica. And he’s not successful at all; he can’t even pay his own bills.

Nevertheless — and here’s the rub — he is still a man. A strong, silent, knowing man who turns her life around. It’s an old-fashioned romance, after all.

Is this really what (Jewish) women want? And is this really the best we can get?

The children’s part of the story doesn’t work out so well. Sara’s children detest Zack, not only as children always do the new male in Mommy’s life, but as something of an affront to cultural values that they’d been raised by. If they eventually accommodate to him, we’re left puzzled and grateful there’s a Jewish dad somewhere close by.

Which brings us to Anne Frank, and to us. Davidson uses her cowboy’s ignorance of Anne Frank as a metaphor for the cultural, ethical and class differences between herself and him. This presumably unbridgeable gap is too quickly smoothed over for my taste, resolved by time and love. Sara continues to make Sabbath dinner while Goff, Zack’s real name, participates in her children’s bar mitzvah services and Passover seder. Very nice. Still, when she calls him her “partner,” I’m wondering why this particular partnership works, while ones with men from her own background did not, and what she’s censoring in herself in order to make yet another relationship work.

Somewhere in the brave world to come, post-feminist men and women will come together more easily, and neither will have to cut off huge parts of themselves to find comfort and love. Seldom will be heard a discouraging word…. Home, home on the range.

Marlene Adler Marks, senior columnist of The Jewish Journal, is the author of “A Woman’s Voice: Reflections on Love, Death, Faith, Food & Family Life” (On The Way Press). Her e-mail address is

Her website is

Her e-mail address is wmnsvoice@aol.comHer book, “A Woman’s Voice” is available through

Other Voices

The evening following the final session of theSecond International Conference on Feminism and Orthodoxy, I attendeda small family dinner and celebrated the wedding of a SatmarChassidic couple. Among the guests were men with long curledpayot (it’spronounced “payyes” there), and some wearing shtreimels (the fur hat worn bysome Chassidic men). All of the women’s heads were covered with wigs,and some even wore a small pillbox hat atop it, according to thedecree of their respective rabbis. The women were elegantly (butmodestly) attired in unrevealing clothing and were segregated fromtheir men by tall walls. While the men sang joyously, the womengossiped. When the men rose to dance, most of the women werevicariously reveled by staring at them through the cracks in thewall. (Of course, it is forbidden for the men to watch the womendance, and not one single male deigned to take even a quick”peek.”)

The contrast between the ideas expressed anddebated at the conference just a few hours earlier and the interestsof those 60 Chassidic family members at the dinner could not possiblyhave been greater. What could the Orthodox feminists offer thefervently Orthodox?

Indeed, I discovered that only one person at thedinner had even heard of the conference, and she was under themisconception that the reason for the event was because women wantedto change the Torah.

Wishing to debunk that fallacy, I wondered how Icould possibly communicate to these women the concerns of those 2,000attendees at the conference. When I finally told them of thefeminists’ concerns about the agunah issue (the fate of a womanunable to obtain a Jewish divorce unless she accedes to the demands,including extortion, of her husband), I saw a glimpse of recognitionon the faces of these Chassidic women. It was obvious that they, too,suffer from this indignity.

When I mentioned the issues of domestic violencediscussed at the conference, the women at the dinner told me shockingstories of incest, pederasty, and sexual and physical abuse of thewomen in their own insular community — the very heart of Boro Parkand Williamsburg. Now we were speaking a common language.

Indeed, the conference did address issues ofgender bias in the language of prayers and traditional texts, thehalacha of women’s tefillah (prayer) groups, the expansion of women’sroles in the synagogues, et al. But these concepts were as foreign toChassidic women as a visit from a Martian.

Similarly, the subjects covering Talmudiceducation for high school girls would have been useless in the Satmarcommunity, where the girls’ schools do not even allow textual studyof the Pentateuch and the Commentaries, let alone the Talmud. Thesessions on rabbinic ordination of women and the eliminating of kolisha (women’s singing voices, which Orthodox men may not hear) wouldbe equally alien to such fervently Orthodox women.

But the sessions on domestic violence and theplenary conference on the agunah would have been lauded — notnecessarily because all would agree on the solutions proposed, butbecause all women in the Orthodox world can identify with theseconcerns, whether or not they wear a wig, cover their arms, or danceat segregated celebrations.

The commonalities, rather than the differences ofideology, were the central focus of the conference. There was trulysomething for everyone. The standing-room-only sessions attested tothe success of the endeavor. The attendance doubled from last year’sconference, which further proved that the identification of feminismwith Orthodoxy was no longer perceived as an oxymoron.

Has the concept of feminist Orthodoxy reached thelevel of the mainstream? It is highly unlikely that Chassidic womenor traditionalist Orthodox women will ever embrace that terminologyand adopt it as their own. But feminism, in and of itself, iscertainly not defined equally in the world. Traditional women’ssightline-impaired Orthodox synagogues may alienate some ModernOrthodox women, yet, to others, this type of separation creates asource of spiritual comfort. While some are offended by the sexistlanguage in prayers, others embrace it purely for its rich tradition.While some demand acknowledgment of women’s roles in the tradition byadding the mother’s name during various celebrations or honors,others are content to accept the status quo.

However, the impatience with rabbinicfoot-dragging on the resolution of the agunah problem, and thefrustration with rabbis insensitive to the plight of battered womenis a uniting force that fuels the movement.

As further attestation to the success of theconference, mainstream Orthodox rabbis, not previously identifiedwith the feminist cause, spoke at the conference and discredited someof the many myths of meta-halacha. One couldn’t help but laugh when arabbi described how a synagogue, during the middle of this century,was forbidden by its rabbi to use electricity (on the weekdays)because electricity had never been used in his grandfather’ssynagogue.

It would be a gross exaggeration to imply that allthe goals set at last year’s conference had been achieved. But theprogress made was tangible and substantial. Women’s voices arebeginning to be heard in the search for halachic solutions to variousproblems affecting women. Two Modern Orthodox synagogues have hiredfemale “congregational interns,” whose job descriptions closely mimicthose of an assistant rabbi as counselor and teacher (one of themeven gives sermons from the pulpit). For the first time in Israel, agroup of women are about to receive certification to interpret thelaw (to become a posek) in the area of Niddah (ritual purity) — awelcome innovation to women who are reluctant to address these highlyprivate issues to a male rabbi.

But the most significant progress reported hasbeen the single new solution to the agunah issue. Rabbi EmanuelRackman, whose courage to withstand the enormous rabbinic oppositionwas lauded even by those who disagreed with him, described themethods used by his year-old beit din — of annulling the marriage onfraud grounds, thus eliminating the husband’s power to extort for aget (Jewish divorce). Not surprisingly, this beit din has beensubjected to enormous criticism, and there has been no other beitdin, to date, to follow suit. (As one fervently Orthodox rabbi wasreputed to privately admit, if they freed all women who were beatenby their husbands, there would be too many divorces.)

The most vocal opponents in the fervently Orthodoxrabbinic community were invited, but refused to attend theconference.

The forum did provide the opposing voices of twoModern Orthodox rabbis. One feared the “annulment” solution, claimingthat it would place all marriages in jeopardy. Instead, he lauded theJerusalem beit din, which reputedly freed “tens” of women a year bythreatening to jail or withhold drivers’ licenses from recalcitranthusbands. (Of course, this rabbi neglected to mention that theestimated 5,000-plus agunot in Israel would have to wait as long as500 years for their freedom at the pace of the Jerusalem beit din.)Another rabbi’s objections to the annulment solution was his concernthat this “quick” progress, without the “process” of enlisting thesupport of many other Orthodox rabbis, is doomed to failure. But whatappears to rabbis as being too hasty in resolving painful women’sissues is seen as slow motion to Orthodox feminists.

If there could be a short summation of thistwo-day conference, it would be the urgent need for Orthodoxfeminists to repair the world (tikkun olam) — so that 51 percent ofthe Orthodox population (that is, the women) is not shoved silentlyinto the realm of passivity in the face of oppression; so that womenwho wish to pray in a tallit and read the Torah at the Western Wallmay do so; so that religious women scholars will be taken equallyseriously with their male counterparts in areas of education,interpretation of halacha, and spiritual quest; so that Jewish lawwould no longer sanction a man’s right to withhold the get or allowhim to extort his wife for a Jewish divorce; so that the limits ofhalacha are stretched to ensure that Orthodox women need not feelthey are more valued contributors to the secular world than they areto the religious one.

Finally, it was perceived that only the feministOrthodox appeared to have the courage and the ability to reach out tothose on the religious right and the religious left, and they’re theones who appeared to be the torchbearers for tikkun olam between theOrthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist. Whether thesegoals are attainable in the near future, or indeed ever, willprobably be the subject of the next International Conference onFeminism and Orthodoxy.

Alexandra Leichter is a family law attorney inBeverly Hills and is a member of the Modern Orthodox Westwood VillageSynagogue.

A Liberal Feminist Meets ModernOrthodoxy

The second International Conference onOrthodoxy and Feminism was held at New York’s Grand Hyatt Hotel overPresidents Day weekend. For liberal women like me, such conferencesare a thrill even from a distance. Two thousand women attended,double the number at the pioneering event a year before. There werepanel discussions on every controversy facing the religiouscommunity, including the legal status of the agunah (the deserted wife who isdenied divorce), single women and rabbinic ordination. The big newsof the year concerned the newly created post of female “intern” –one who is “EBS” — everything but smicha (ordination). Next year,organizers promise that the conference will fill Madison SquareGarden.

But when I say that liberals are excited by suchOrthodox events, it is not a simple matter of gloating that the firesof feminism are finally catching on. The traditional movement knownas Modern Orthodoxy has been a steady source of inspiration to thosein Judaism’s progressive ranks. The old days of ridiculing religiousbelief are gone. Instead, we eye Modern Orthodox life with jealousy,trying to duplicate the aspects of it we want for ourselves:close-knit community, beliefs worth fighting for, an ambitiousstandard of integrity. Though our interpretations of Torah mightdiffer, on day-to-day Jewish goals, Modern Orthodox and liberals arenot so far apart as you might think.

This week, I spoke to leaders of Shirat Chana, thewomen’s prayer group based at B’nai David-Judea in the largelyOrthodox Pico-Robertson area. Shirat Chana is part of the nationalWomen’s Tefillah Network, which organized the conference at the GrandHyatt. As the only branch of the network on the West Coast, ShiratChana is a controversial, if noble, experiment within Orthodoxy, anapparently successful melding of two competing goals: inclusion ofwomen and halachic control over their prescribed roles.

“I’m not the least bit interested in feminism,”Alissa Rimmon told me. Rimmon, a nutritionist and mother of fourgirls, was raised in a Conservative home. “I go to Shirat Chanabecause I enjoy the learning. I like to hear women talk aboutbringing prayer and mitzvot into their lives. And I love to havewomen get together and lifting up their voices in song.”

The women’s group of about 50 participants startedlast May on Shavuot. It meets monthly, during mincha (afternoon)services. (The next meeting will be held on Purim, March 12.) Theypray, read and interpret Torah, sing and offer each other guidance onmatters of spiritual importance, such as visiting the sick. They willcelebrate their first bat mitzvah in a few months. For a generationof women educated in Jewish schools, Shirat Chana provides a chancefor direct participation in prayer service. The women are devoted toit, and proud.

“The basic idea is that we have more educated,skilled and capable Jewish women now than ever before,” B’nai David’sRabbi Yosef Kanefsky told me. “And it behooves us in the Orthodoxworld to give them the opportunities for Jewish self-expression. Todo otherwise is capricious.”

As mild as Shirat Chana’s goals seem, within theB’nai David-Judea community, Shirat Chana was initially suspect as aradical political statement. Kanefsky, 34, moved to Los Angeles fromthe Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, where one of the first women’stefillah groups started 20 years ago. He modified and somewhatnarrowed the Riverdale model to fit his new shul.

The women of Shirat Chana are not a minyan –“that’s 10 adult men,” I was told repeatedly. They are notegalitarian. And they don’t meet Shabbat morning, in order that thelarger community’s worship stays intact.

However, Rabbi Kanefsky made it clear that evenif, under his halachic interpretation, women reading Torah”technically does not qualify as a public reading,” it hasextraordinary benefits.

“The women are connecting to the parchment, theink, the scribal art, the scroll and the music of the Torah in theway we do as Jews,” Kanefsky said. “They have more than my approval.It’s a very powerful experience, a ‘Sinai-like’ experience and a verypositive thing, with wonderful benefits and outcomes.”

Certainly, he is right. Kanefsky and the ShiratChana women may not concur with me about whether a woman is part of aminyan and, hence, entitled, in the absence of men, to say the”Borchu.” But one thing we all agree upon is that for Jews, men andwomen, the experience is primal, and as close to the spiritual sourceas a Jew can get.

“For me, this is not about feminism; it’s aboutreading Torah,” says Julie Gruenbaum Fax, the group’s lay leader. “Iwas in day school my whole life. But I never saw an open sefer Torahuntil four years ago, when I joined a tefillah group. It changes yourrelationship with the tradition when you do it yourself.”

Of course, the limits on Shirat Chana wouldn’tsatisfy me. They are not intended to. Modern Orthodoxy has oneunderstanding of Jewish law; progressive Judaism has its own.

But when all the legalisms and rationales areover, we’ll both be reading Torah. And how we got there won’t matterat all.

Marlene Adler Marks is senior columnist of TheJewish

Journal of Greater Los Angeles. Her e-mailaddress is Join her on Sunday, March 8, when herConversations series at the Skirball Cultural Center continues withessayist and commentator Richard Rodriguez.


February 20, 1998Spinning theWeb


February 13, 1998How Do We DoIt?


February 6, 1998One by One byOne


January 30, 1998TheDaughter


January 23, 1998Babysitters NoMore


January 16, 1998FalseAlarms


November 28, 1997As AmericanAs…


November 21, 1997The ThirteenWants


November 14, 1997Music to MyEars


November 7, 1997< FONT SIZE="+2">Four Takes on50


October 31, 1997ChallengingHernandez


October 24, 1997CommonGround


October 17, 1997Taking Off theMask


October 10, 1997Life’s a MixedBag


October 3, 1997And Now ForSomething Completely Different


September 26, 1997An OpenHeart


September 19, 1997My BronxTale


September 12, 1997 — Of Goddesses andSaints


August 22, 1997 — Who is Not a Jew


August 15, 1997 — A LegendaryFriendship


July 25, 1997 — A Perfect Orange


July 18, 1997 — News of Our Own


July 11, 1997 — Celluloid Heroes


July 4, 1997 — Meet theSeekowitzes


June 27, 1997 — The Facts of Life


June 20, 1997 — Reality Bites