Merav Michaeli: Feminist first


“Feminist firebrand” Merav Michaeli, 49, first came to the attention of the Israeli public as a journalist, radio broadcaster and TV anchor. Armed with serious credentials as an activist and advocate, particularly for workers’ rights and victims of sexual assault, she deepened her fame by penning a political column for Haaretz, opining on topics from President Barack Obama’s attitude toward the Middle East to how Israel should handle ISIS. But it wasn’t until her 2012 TEDxJaffa Talk “Cancel Marriage” that she really made waves, declaring, “We must cancel marriage to make our governments rethink our economy to include child care and housework,” thus beaming out her unorthodox plan to increase female power through better policy. In 2013, she was elected a Knesset Member in the Labor Party (though she later affiliated with Zionist Union); in the Knesset, she remains a fierce advocate for women’s equality, social justice and, above all, a solution to the conflict.  

Jewish Journal: In your maiden speech to the Knesset, you talked about creating a more equal society in which women and minority groups, from Mizrahis to Arabs, have more equality of opportunity.

Merav Michaeli: I also talked about peace. It’s an essential component to that. Because when there is no peace, when there’s war, it takes over everything, and it justifies so many horrible things.

JJ: Solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of your major platforms. How much power do you have as one individual in the Knesset to make this change?

MM: I’m in the opposition, so unfortunately, we are not in power. And those in power are very busy convincing the Israeli public there is no partner [in the peace process]. 

JJ: If you were vested with all power you needed to sit down tomorrow with Palestinian leadership to try to solve the conflict, what would be your plan?

MM: Israelis are addicted to plans. But it’s an inner discussion, and it’s totally futile, because it’s among ourselves. My plan is to not have a plan. Because it’s not about what my plan is. It’s about: What is the solution that is viable and that is good for everyone? And that depends on the partners [in] this discussion. I am not a believer in knowing the right way; I think this is a very masculine sort of thing. There are multiple ways, some of which have been on the table over the years.

JJ: Can you give us some sense of what you’d propose?

MM: I’m a big believer in what used to be and formally still is the Arab League Peace Initiative. I strongly believe in a regional solution. I think the Palestinians need this kind of support. I think Israel has a lot to gain from ending the conflict with other countries the way we have done with Egypt and Jordan. Everybody knows that the region is changing so profoundly, and one of the big enemies today is this crazy, crazy Islamic terror that is the Arabs’ enemy more than it is ours. 

JJ: You have a reputation as a “feminist firebrand” because of your advocacy for women’s rights and minority rights. Where does that deep desire for social justice come from? 

MM : If you look at my family’s heritage on both sides, the political tendency skipped a generation, but my two grandfathers [were both politically active]. Every Friday over dinner, they’d have political conversations, and this is really what I was breastfeeding on, if you will, this talk about equality and rights for human beings — be they workers or Arabs. My paternal grandfather always saw himself as obligated to do something. 

JJ: Your maternal grandfather, Rudolph Kastner, was a controversial figure who saved thousands of Jews from the Holocaust by negotiating directly with Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann, which later led the Israeli government to accuse him of collaboration. He was eventually murdered, but ultimately pardoned. Did you grow up with any sense of shame about that?

MM: Growing up in the ’70s in Israel, nobody was talking about Kastner. But my mother used to tell me, “If someone tells you bad things about your grandfather, you should know that it’s not true” — from a very early age. So I knew there was a danger; she was warning me. 

JJ: In your Knesset speech, you portray Kastner as courageous, someone “unconventional” who dared to operate outside the mainstream. 

MM: I think he realized he had nothing to lose [by negotiating]. For me, the big lesson is to choose not to be a victim. I definitely inherited his nonconventional side.

JJ: What do you think is most unconventional about you?

MM: First of all, a lot. So it’s hard to choose — like the fact [that] in Israel you don’t get married and you don’t have children. I think the No. 1 thing is the language that I use in Hebrew, the feminine plural form. I’ve been doing this for 15 years already and still it’s like an issue

JJ: Where did you get the confidence to make such bold choices?

MM: I never considered it something brave or courageous; I just did what I wanted to do. Growing up, wherever [my mother and I would] walk, there [wasn’t] a single person that she didn’t see as a human being. And when you see this from a very early age, you understand that people are people are people, period. And you don’t make a differentiation. And when you grow up, you see people do make this differentiation — and I don’t mean people who are being racist; I mean the structure of the state or city or economy makes this discrimination — then you realize that it’s wrong. [Men and women] were the same; and then the system started dividing us on a gender basis. Did you expect me to just accept that? Just because I was born with certain genitals? 

JJ: In your TED Talk, “Cancel Marriage,” you denounce the institution as a form of female oppression, economically and politically, but you also express disdain for the wedding day itself and, in particular, high heels.

MM: Long [before] I was with my beloved, feminist, amazing non-husband, after I was already a long-time professional feminist, I was still insisting that high heels [are] not a means of oppression. But at some point, there’s no choice but to accept the fact that it’s one of the most effective ones ever made: It physically screws your back, your legs, it makes you unstable, it makes you unable to move forward fast in the world. And it twists your posture in a way that makes you look like you’re always ready for penetration.

JJ: Do women have to choose between being desirable or being invisible?

MM: Today, part of backlash that we’re going through now is that [women] can be smart, successful and rich on their own, but first and foremost, you have to be a sex object. How can you possibly, consciously choose to be invisible? And each one of us struggles with this on a daily basis, that you have to produce yourself. I know that I do. So, for me, I only wear black; I do not show skin; and I [never] wear my hair down. 

JJ: Isn’t that sort of repressive to female expression? Where is there room to express the sensual side?

MM: Where I choose. Only where I choose. Not in order to get legitimacy for my existence. 

JJ: You’ve been in a long-term relationship with Israeli comedian Lior Schlein. What would have to change within the institution of marriage for you to get married?

MM: I don’t want to get married. I’m in a beautiful, beautiful relationship with a wonderful, feminist, brilliant, funny, loving man and we’ve been living together for 10 years. If it ain’t broken, why fix it? 

JJ: What does being Jewish mean to you?

MM: When you ask me what it means to be a Jew, it’s the same if you ask me what it means for me to be a woman. I just am a woman. I was born a Jew; my national and personal history has to do with the fact that I am Jewish. 

JJ: Does the current state of relations between the U.S. and Israel worry you at all?

MM: A little bit. Before I came here [to L.A.], I was in Washington, and I met with several Congresspeople and Senate members, and I heard from them how difficult it is becoming to stand by Israel and represent Israel, because Israel is not doing what it should be doing in order to try and make things better. 

JJ: Why did you choose to spend your time off from the Knesset touring around the U.S.?

MM: America is a very important place for an Israeli politician. American politics is very important. So you should know the arena very well, and you should be known. The other part is building the relationship with the Jewish community in America. I want people to see that not all Israelis are [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu.

Fighting for religious pluralism in Israel


[UPDATED on Nov. 15, 2012 at 11:50 a.m.]

The arrest of Israeli feminist Anat Hoffman at the Western Wall last month sent ripples of alarm across the Jewish world, and leaders in Los Angeles will address their concerns about religious pluralism in Israel to Los Angeles’ Israeli Consul General in a public forum Nov. 26 at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills.

Hoffman, executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center and founder of the monthly prayer group Women of the Wall, was arrested Oct. 16 while leading 250 women in prayer at Jerusalem’s iconic holy site. Israeli law forbids women from wearing prayer shawls or reading aloud from the Torah at the Wall; Hoffman was arrested for allegedly disturbing the peace.

Hoffman alleges that she was handcuffed, strip-searched and dragged across the floor before spending the night in a tiny cell. Israeli police say her account is not accurate.

She was released on condition that she not pray at the wall for 30 days.

[Related: 

Jewish women: this one’s for you


Jewish women have a long-standing history of deep involvement in the American feminist movement. Betty Friedan, author of “The Feminine Mystique,” was Jewish, as is playwright and activist Eve Ensler, current leader of the international movement opposing violence against women. The connection Jewish women have to their “womanhood” is clear, so why aren’t Jewish community institutions engaging in conversations on women’s issues?

Much of the activism for Jewish women revolves around asking them to donate money rather than creating programs to address important topics that have a huge impact on their lives and their children’s lives. In an age when many women are financially independent or sole income-earners facing a challenging economy, women increasingly need and want more information, education, support and mentorship. Jewish women want to learn about women’s issues and women’s issues within Judaism. We want to meet each other. We want to learn, grow and help each other learn and grow. And we need programs to help us do so.

Interestingly, many women have dropped off the “feminist” map, openly expressing their discomfort with this word. This group includes highly successful women such as Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo!, who said, “I don’t think that I would consider myself a feminist. I think that I certainly believe in equal rights, I believe that women are just as capable, if not more so in a lot of different dimensions, but I don’t, I think, have, sort of, the militant drive and the sort of, the chip on the shoulder that sometimes comes with that.”

Similar to Mayer, many young women today fear being labeled as militant or overly angry. But at the same time, women are still earning only 77 cents to each dollar a man earns. And are we equal when, as I write this on the eve of Election Day, only 17 percent of seats in Congress are held by women, 12 percent of U.S. governors are women, and 23 percent of state legislators are women?

After the first Jewish Women’s Conference in 2011 in Los Angeles, it was clear that Jewish women had been craving programs focusing on them and their needs. Nearly 90 percent of post-conference survey respondents felt that Jewish organizations, centers and synagogues in Southern California do not or rarely create enough dialogue on women’s issues. The same high percentage of women felt that these institutions do not or rarely do a good job of connecting Jewish women to each other.

Women expressed wanting more professional networking with other Jewish women, meaningful connections with organizations participating in tikkun olam, and educational programs about women’s issues. Many expressed fears that younger generations of Jewish women are apathetic about feminism, activism and the history of Jewish women’s involvement in the feminist movement. A conference attendee in her early 20s responded, “One woman expressed her fears about the next generation being too quiet. That really stood out to me. I need to learn to find my voice on the issues that matter to me.”

Living in a far-flung city marked by traffic woes, Southern Californians face challenges finding mentors, establishing communities and making time to listen to women of different generations share their experiences and expertise. The Jewish Women’s Conference of Southern California, which has its second annual meeting on Nov. 11 at UCLA, is dedicated to creating a space for a diverse group of multigenerational women to learn from, mentor and delve into the more difficult issues that we often don’t want to face. Such topics include how we are going to care for ourselves as we age, what we need to know about our health at various periods in our lives, and how can we financially plan for our futures.

Jewish women face many more concerns than are implied by terms such as  “women’s issues” and “feminism.” The 46 speakers at the upcoming Jewish Women’s Conference, all of whom are fully donating their time, are helping to create a more empowered and inspired community of Jewish women in Southern California. It takes a community to empower one individual, and it often takes only one individual to empower an entire community. It’s time to make a collective effort to increase programs and promote topics important to women within the Jewish community.

For more information on the Jewish Women’s Conference, and to register, visit “>jewishjournal.com/womanwrites.

Palestinian reporter Asmaa al-Ghoul aims to keep thorn in Hamas’ side


She can't stay out of trouble there, but Asmaa al-Ghoul always comes back to Gaza.

A secular, feminist Palestinian journalist, al-Ghoul, 30, has been harassed by Hamas. She's also been beaten and arrested by Hamas police for protesting its Islamist policies and suppression of human rights.

But unlike most residents of the impoverished coastal strip where Hamas reigns, al-Ghoul has been able to get out, traveling as far as South Korea and spending considerable time in Europe in the course of her work. On Wednesday she will be in New York to receive the Courage in Journalism Award from the International Women’s Media Foundation.

Then she will return to Gaza City.

“I tried to stay in Europe and outside” Gaza, she told JTA in a recent phone interview from Cairo. “In Gaza there are my son and my mom. At least in Gaza I am near my home because all of my family is in Rafah,” the Gazan refugee camp where she grew up.

Al-Ghoul began her career nine years ago as a news reporter for the Al-Ayyam newspaper. But as she saw ongoing violations of human and civil rights, she had trouble keeping her opinions to herself. In 2007, al-Ghoul published a piece criticizing her uncle, a Hamas leader, for beating rival Fatah Party activists in their homes. In response, she received death threats.

Undeterred, al-Ghoul has since opposed Hamas in word and deed. She attends weekly women’s protests in Gaza City advocating for Palestinan unity between Hamas and Fatah, and has been arrested for walking with a man on a beach and for riding a bicycle — both banned by Hamas. Unlike Gaza's many religiously conservative women, al-Ghoul poses for pictures in a T-shirt and jeans with her hair uncovered.

A vocal advocate of democratic reform in Gaza, she says that Hamas’ repressive policies hinder the national aspirations of Palestinians and peace with Israel. Al-Ghoul traveled to Cairo to support the Arab Spring revolution there last year, and has been a continual promoter of a Palestinian unity government.

Reporters Without Borders in its file on the Palestinian territories says that “journalists condemning Hamas policy remain targets for intimidation, assault, unfair arrest and abusive imprisonment.”

“You cannot choose to be neutral all the time,” said al-Ghoul, who now works for Lebanon’s Samir Kassir Foundation, which advocates for media freedom. “I tried to be neutral and write about people, but then I found myself as part of the scene, so I started to blog about the government and about life in Gaza. In your blog you can be yourself.”

Although she is a fierce advocate of women’s rights, some of al-Ghoul’s most vocal opponents are religious Muslim women. She says that Gaza’s secular and Islamist camps both have strong female contingents, and that “this is healthy, to see all these voices in the same small area.”

But al-Ghoul’s criticism of Hamas does not make her pro-Israel. She recalls watching her father being beaten by Israeli soldiers in the first intifada, during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, as the rest of the family hid in the bathroom.

“I was fasting and we were crying a lot,” she said. “My mouth gets dry now when I remember that day.”

She also is quite critical of the Israeli military's Operation Cast Lead in Gaza during December 2008 and January 2009, in which 13 Israelis and approximately 1,400 Palestinians were killed.

Al-Ghoul says she eschews violence and hopes one day to see peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

“I believe in peace,” she said. “I hate war, and as a writer I cannot deal with war and revenge and blood. I don’t want to see people die again. Why should you hate the other?”

The daughter of an architecture professor, al-Ghoul remembers curling up in a small room as a child reading whatever books she found on her father’s shelf — even if they were Islamist texts.

“My father used to behave with me very liberally, discussing everything,” she said. Although al-Ghoul had both brothers and sisters, she said her father “never made a difference between us. He treated us the same.”

Now married with children of her own — an 8-year-old boy and a baby girl — al-Ghoul says she doesn’t have much time for fun or relaxation, though she called spending time with her children “the most beautiful time in the world.”

And though she is not a religious Muslim, al-Ghoul says her faith in God has helped her through hard times.

“We all have one God, so I believe in this God,” she said. “It’s very easy to be a believer. You become strong and at the same time you will see peace.”

Ultimately, though, she looks to her writing to sustain her.

“I love to express myself,” she said. “To keep myself alive in this situation, I should write more and more.”

Paula Hyman, Jewish feminist and scholar, dies


Noted Jewish feminist Paula Hyman, who served as the first female dean of the Seminary College of Jewish Studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary, has died.

Hyman died Thursday at the age of 65.

She was the Lucy Moses Professor of Modern Jewish History at Yale University, a position she held for 25 years, including more than a decade as chair of the Jewish studies program.

Hyman served as dean of the Seminary College of Jewish Studies from 1981 to 1986, as well as an associate professor of history at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Prior to that she was an assistant professor of history at Columbia University for seven years; she received a doctorate from the school in 1975.

She published extensively on topics including Jewish gender issues, modern European and American Jewish history, and Jewish women’s history as well as feminism. She wrote several books on French Jewry.

Hyman was a founder in 1971 of Ezrat Nashim, a group of Conservative Jewish women who lobbied extensively for changes in the Conservative movement’s attitude toward women, including ordaining them as rabbis and inclusion in a minyan.

She was awarded a National Jewish Book Award in 1999 and received honorary degrees from The Jewish Theological Seminary and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

Hyman regularly spent time in Israel, lecturing in Hebrew and English at the Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University and Ben-Gurion University.

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.

Chairs thrown at Women of the Wall


Two haredi men were arrested after allegedly throwing chairs at women preparing to pray at the Western Wall.

The women, from the Women of the Wall organization, had gathered Tuesday to mark the first day of the month of Nisan.

The women had not yet put on tefillin, which in the past has upset ultra-Orthodox visitors to the wall. About 10 chairs were thrown, according to reports.

The police reportedly sent about 40 officers to protect the women.

Feminist cantor retires from long-term post


In 1980, five years into her cantorate, Aviva Rosenbloom, then in her early 30s, stood before her Reform congregation at Temple Israel of Hollywood and stretched the boundaries of her role as singer and teacher to ask her congregation a difficult question: “Are women in Judaism equal?”

It was an appropriate setting for the query — the first “feminist Shabbat” at the synagogue, a service Rosenbloom not only helped create, but nurtured into the spotlight. The groundbreaking event marked the first time a group of women stood on the temple’s bimah together to lead the congregation in prayer — and the only time Rosenbloom publicly used her voice to deliver a sermon. She had sketched out her thoughts on 19 pages of handwritten notes, protesting the inequality of women in Judaism and calling it a “patriarchal religion.” That radical address still resonated 28 years later, when part of it was played during a musical celebration honoring her retirement at TIOH last May, titled, “Erev Aviva.”

“Women feel like second-class citizens in Jewish life,” Rosenbloom said in the speech. “We don’t feel like we’re really Jews, and I think that attitude should change.”

Rosenbloom’s voice, with all its mellifluous harmony, became a harbinger of change. Yet almost three decades later, her message was no less poignant; it was a reminder of how much her early vision has changed the status of women in Judaism.

The culmination of her career-long effort took place when hundreds of Rosenbloom’s fans gathered in the TIOH sanctuary at “Erev Aviva” to celebrate an artistic voice with a political impact. Friends, colleagues and fellow clergy praised her as a “champion of women,” a “trailblazer” and someone of “grace, humor, wit and passion”; the choir sang songs she had written; TIOH Senior Rabbi John L. Rosove dedicated a Torah in her honor, and Rosenbloom sat quietly in the front row as the community celebrated her 32-year legacy.

A few weeks later, Rosenbloom, 60, now Cantor emerita, reflected on her career from her new office in the temple’s former choir loft. (Chazzan Danny Maseng is now the temple’s cantor and music director, making him the temple’s third full-time cantor in its 82-year history.) When asked about the evolution of Jewish life in Los Angeles, Rosenbloom struggled for the right words; she pondered for a moment, then covered her eyes trying to focus.

“I wouldn’t know where to begin to say how Jewish L.A. has changed. There’s just too much, and it’s too huge,” she said.

If words don’t come easily to Rosenbloom, it’s because she has spent most of her life singing. As early as age 4, she jumped up on a coffee table at home and sang an Israeli folk song for her mother and father. It was the ultimate gesture from young Rosenbloom, who identified with both parents — her mother both sang and taught Hebrew and her father was a cantor — though her mother’s unexpected death when she was 10 forced her to look to her father as a mentor.

“I didn’t grow up with the advice and companionship and modeling of a mother,” Rosenbloom said. “My parental role model was my father, and my vision was more like what my father did. When I was a little girl, I wanted to be an opera singer on the moon.”

Nevertheless, after majoring in sociology at Brandeis University and becoming active in the ’60s counterculture, the anti-war activist and civil rights proponent had no idea what she wanted to do with her life — so she went to Israel.

“I felt more American in Israel than I felt Jewish, because what differentiated me from everybody else wasn’t that I was Jewish, but that I was an American Jew,” Rosenbloom said. The trip changed her life. “Israel wound up showing me who I was other than the Jewish component — mainly, that I was a singer; that my calling was music.”

“Everywhere I went they were asking me to sing,” she said.

Rosenbloom never dared to dream she could become a cantor, a role that at that time was held only by men. But Rabbi Haskell Bernat, whom she met first when she was at Brandeis and then worked with at a synagogue in Massachusetts, believed in her talent, and when he became Temple Israel’s rabbi he invited her — despite her lack of formal training — to come to Hollywood as a cantor.

“I knew I had a lot of work to do to step up to this, but somehow I knew that I could do it,” she said. “I had this sense that I belonged on the bimah.”

Rosenbloom delved into her studies and soon became the first female cantor in Los Angeles to gain full-time employment.

“There were people who were horrified,” she recalled. “I didn’t so much feel people were opposed to the fact that I wasn’t invested; they were opposed to the fact that I was young, I was a woman and I was playing the guitar.”

The move toward a more participatory worship service led by a woman was a significant shift in the style and culture of the synagogue. When she first arrived, Rosenbloom was not allowed to lead High Holy Day services in the main sanctuary because it was thought she might upset the older, more prominent members of the synagogue. And it wasn’t until that seminal feminist service in 1980 that other women began appearing on the bimah.

Since then, Rosenbloom says women’s contributions at Temple Israel and elsewhere have made worship more personal and creative and have integrated new ritual practices that reflect a woman’s experience, including annual feminist Passover seders. Part of that change also meant acknowledging that along with her demanding professional life, Rosenbloom and husband, Ben, would raise their son, Eitan, in the midst of synagogue life.

“It was difficult because whenever I was here, I wished I was with my son, and whenever I was with my son, I wished I was at the temple.”

With her retirement, she leaves behind an adoring community, as well as what she sees as a changing era in the cantorate, in which the role of a cantor as soloist is diminishing. Although she helped usher in the change to a more participatory service — or what some feel is a return to more traditional modes of davening — she regrets that it means many cantors are now doing less of the artistic performance they love.

Fortunately for her, she will now have the time and space to return to her art.

“I need to see who I am when I am not cantor of Temple Israel of Hollywood,” she said. “I need to refocus on what feeds my soul — singing and music.”

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 www.jwa.org/feminism.

 

Leaving Mitzrayim


It was my third seder of the week, but this one was unlike any other. It was a "Seder of Women’s Voices," and I felt privileged to be one of the few men in the room among a 150 or so women. At one point during the evening, the woman sitting next to me casually turned and asked me a simple question, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it for the rest of the evening. "How did you become a feminist?" she asked, and then waited expectantly for my response.

"I grew up in a home with a mother and three sisters," I said, as if that somehow explained it all. Of course, even as I said the words I realized that they barely touched the surface of the numerous forces, experiences and influences that have gone into opening my own awareness to what she meant by "feminist."

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that being someone who accepts the equality of men and women as a given, and feeling that it is important to champion the need for women’s too-often hidden voices to be heard and celebrated, has simply grown to be an unconscious expectation of my life. What other choice do we have, if we are to play a role in the messianic dreams of Jewish life? What other role model can I embrace as a rabbi, if I want both boys and girls who grow up in my congregation to feel equally empowered to experience Judaism as fundamentally their story, and their challenge to use it as a platform from which to know that they can truly make a difference in the world?

I thought of what to me is the most important idea in the Torah — that all human beings are created in the image of God. I particularly felt the power of Godliness that night in the voices of women — teaching, singing, reading, asking difficult and important questions about Jewish life in America — including why so many people are turned off and away from synagogue life, and how we might use sacred moments to inspire us to work for the liberation and equality of all.

I prayed for women who were slaves to family violence, and men who were slaves to their own passions. I prayed for women who huddled with their children in hunger to be liberated from their poverty. I prayed for women, men and children who are enslaved by sickness and disease without medical insurance or the hope of healing.

In the Talmud (Sanhedrin 106b) it is written, "The Blessed Holy One wants the heart." Embracing a life where men and women help each other to fulfill their destinies as creative, loving, expressive human beings who together can bring more godliness into the world, seems to me the only way to really open the heart to God’s presence. This week, I realized that it has been over a year since my father’s open-heart surgery. I think of that phrase from the Talmud every time I see him. God wants our hearts. But God wants them open, warm and loving.

Every year we read in the haggadah, that each of us is commanded to see ourselves as if we personally were liberated from bondage. Now I know that liberation takes many forms. For my father, "liberation from bondage" took the form of freeing his arteries from their personal Mitzrayim, the "narrow places" which had suddenly threatened his life. And as we shared the seder together, I was filled with awe and gratitude once again. Each of has our own Mitzrayim from which we need liberation. Facing our personal enslavements, and having the courage to embrace our own liberation, is ultimately the greatest challenge of every Passover.

Paula Vogel’s ‘Lolita’


Playwright Paula Vogel grew up in suburban Maryland, where the country clubs did not accept her Jewish father. She endured genteel but unmistaken anti-Semitism at Bryn Mawr.

“Because I am a Jew and a woman, I understand marginalization,” says Vogel, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “How I Learned to Drive.” “And that has been my great strength as a playwright. If one is marginalized, one understands empathy, and what it feels like to be the other.”

Vogel, 47, silver-haired and confrontational, is a lesbian feminist playwright who has made a career of writing about The Other. Her plays, always provocative and un-P.C., have tackled AIDS (“The Baltimore Waltz”), prostitution (“The Oldest Profession”), pornography and domestic violence.

Now comes “How I Learned to Drive,” about a “Lolita”-like affair between Li’l Bit (Molly Ringwald), a teen-ager, and her Uncle Peck (Brian Kerwin), a decidedly sympathetic and charming pedophile.

“I wanted to make the subject difficult and uncomfortable,” says Vogel, who has been fascinated by the issue since reading Nabokov’s “Lolita” when she was 20.

At the time, she wondered if she could tell the story from the female victim’s point of view; later, while teaching at Brown University, she met her share of victims. Students spoke to her of abuse by beloved relatives, not by strangers in trench coats.

Eventually, Vogel read medical abstracts about pedophilia; researched the histories of Playboy and the Vargas pinup girls; listened to the music of the 1960s (“There is a whole genre of ’16’ songs about girls with older men”); and compared it all to the Calvin Klein billboards of the 1990s. She read about the murder of JonBenet Ramsey. “We are trained,” she says, “to be pedophiles in this culture.”

“How I Learned to Drive,” Vogel insists, is not meant to excuse the pedophiles, but is “a gift to my students.” The story of Li’l Bit “explores how adolescents are confused by all the mixed messages,” she says. “And it provides a road map to suggest how a survivor of abuse can ‘drive’ through the trauma.”

“How I Learned to Drive” runs through April 4 at the Mark Taper Forum. For tickets, call (213) 628-2772.

Circle of Friends


I see that it’s time for the media to replay the perennial horror story known as The Dying Jew. “The Vanishing Jew,” by Alan Dershowitz, is a mea culpa over his son’s intermarriage. Elliot Abrams, the former Reagan administration official, has written “Faith or Fear: How Jews Can Survive in a Christian America,” a political argument against liberalism and in favor of blurring the lines between church and state. New York magazine’s cover story this week asks, “Are American Jews Disappearing?” and rounds up the usual Orthodox, Conservative and Reform suspects for the unsurprising reply: maybe. The Dying Jew has become our Loch Ness monster, a friendly nightmare story brought out during summer doldrums, a crime story without a real perpetrator.

But, this summer, such news does not stand alone: As the stories of Jewish extinction are being repeated, the women’s group Hadassah has announced a $1 million grant to fund a new International Research Institute on Jewish Women at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. Its purpose: to study the entire Jewish woman’s experience as reflected in spirituality and religion, the arts and media, Israel, the Holocaust, family and community. For the first time, an educational institution will study women’s lives as a special component of the Jewish people, discrete and real.

Naturally, this research institute lacks the sex appeal of the Dying Jew story (New York magazine will never put it on the cover). Nevertheless, to rewrite Virginia Woolf, even the press release announcing that Barbra Streisand is the think tank’s honorary chair constitutes, for women, true “news of our own.”

“As a Jewish woman, I have always been bothered by negative stereotypes about us,” read a statement prepared by the woman whose life is a Rorschach test of a Jewish woman’s acceptability in America. “[This] is the first institute in the world that focuses the spotlight on Jewish women.”

The Dying Jew stories prove why such a spotlight is needed. The unnoticed (though obvious) fact is that such accounts about Jewish extinction are written by men. If men see Jewish life as a trail that has come to the end, so be it. But women have another point of view.

Jewish men and women have had two distinct histories in America, a fact conveniently ignored until now. Men have held the license over the American Jewish experience; from men’s exploits (creating Hollywood) and stories (Roth, Malamud, et al.), we have learned about our success and our roadblocks. They’ve defined who we are.

How distinct is the Jewish woman’s experience? That’s a question the institute will help us answer. But it starts from the fact that women are two generations behind men in all indices: While Jewish men began to assimilate in the first generation, women held back. While men changed their names, gained jobs in banking and industry, intermarried, women stayed home, keeping the Jewish world intact. Our mothers and grandmothers were less distracted by American values, if only because they were less free to know them.

“We’re half the Jewish people, but our role in history has been obliterated,” Shulamit Reinharz, professor of sociology at Brandeis and director of the new institute, told me. “We’re not part of the people as men have always been.”

Though women have been integral to Zionism, the building of the Jewish state, and the creation of American communal organizations, J.J. Goldberg, in his 1996 study “Jewish Power,” barely mentions them.

This male domination of the Jewish experience must be questioned now before the Dying Jew becomes a self-fulfilled prophecy. Like a cancer patient who thinks he’s got a month to live, a people who are told that they are dying will no doubt act accordingly.

“There’s a real half- empty/half-full syndrome going on about Jewish life,” said Reinharz, who also heads Brandeis’ women’s studies department. If men are becoming either strident or giving up hope, she said, “women are energized.”

If I sound excited about what might ordinarily be an academic exercise, there’s a reason. Here’s the first think tank with the money to address a problem that goes back three generations: For all our education, energy and high- level employment, Jewish women continue to feel stereotyped, outcast and isolated within both America and the Jewish world; we use TV and movies as our mirror, only to find, as Streisand correctly implies, a world that seems to scorn us. But, now, through research and study, we finally will broaden the picture.

Reinharz said that the Institute’s first goal is to help Jewish women rethink themselves, and then to help men see the Jewish world more accurately by incorporating the truth of women’s lives. There will be scholars-in- residence, conferences and discussion of policy issues from a woman’s perspective.>/p>

Men may think the Jewish people is dying, but women are not taking that prophecy lying down.

Marlene Adler Marks is editor-at-large of The Jewish Journal. Her e-mail address is wvoice@aol.com.

All rights reserved by author.


SEND EMAIL TO MARLENE ADLER MARKS wvoice@aol.com

Read a previous week’s column by Marlene Adler Marks:

July 11, 1997 — Celluloid Heroes

July 4, 1997 — Meet the Seekowitzes

June 27, 1997 — The Facts of Life

June 20, 1997 — Reality Bites

June 13, 1997 — The Family Man

Clinton and the Feminists


For many Jewish women, the feminist movement hasbeen the key political event of our lifetimes. It has given us rolemodels, women of great personal power and intellectual agility, andallowed us to venture into unprecedented careers and lifestyles.Arguably, the reason so many Jewish women were drawn to feminism isthat it articulated the dream of personal freedom and the mandate ofpolitical activism contained within our own spiritual tradition, thepursuit of tikkun olam.

Having said that, the women’s movement today is,if not completely dead, at least lacking vital signs. It lacks acompelling, updated dream that can keep hope and focus alive for thegeneration of young women who reject it as old hat. The forcedresponse of feminist leaders last week to the Clinton sex scandals isonly the latest proof that our daughters are right — that feministleaders, of all people, do not know what women want.

Patricia Ireland of the National Organization forWomen, responding to Kathleen Willey’s case against presidentialgroping, suggested that Clinton may be a “sexual predator.” GloriaSteinem, writing in the Op-Ed pages of last Sunday’s New York Times,defends the chief executive as a man who committed no harassment,since, unlike Sen. Bob Packwood and Clarence Thomas, Clinton can take”no” for an answer.

“Welcome sexual behavior is about as relevant tosexual harassment as borrowing a car is to stealing one,” Steinemwrote.

These viewpoints, polar opposites though theywere, are appallingly inadequate. Ireland’s answer was merelyrhetorical overkill. But Steinem’s tortured pursuit of a legalloophole for her president — redefining sexual harassment soambiguously that even Casanova could slip through — is aself-inflicted wound, one that opens her up to charges that themovement she herself helped found is merely a shill for politicalpragmatism.

The fact is that most women have moved on frombitter sexual politics that marked its beginnings nearly threedecades ago. Male vs. female rhetoric has given way to a politics ofreconciliation between the sexes. We want an end to the sexualhostility that still seems to permeate the dating scene, theworkplace and the home.

With this background of personal regret, many ofus view the Clinton matter with a new sophistication, not because weare Democrats but because there are larger issues at stake thanbuilding a case for another impeachment.

Most women, like Americans in general, believethat the president’s private life is none of our business, and itwould be great if some feminist leaders said so. That they can’t,reveals the basic problem at the core of the current feminist agenda:its irrelevance to most women’s lives. Women’s issues today are homeissues: the decline of public education; the psychological problemsof young women, including massive eating disorders; and the spiritualdecline of community and family, including problems facing men.Feminism arose 30 years ago as a response to thwarted ambitions andpersonal desires. It was never supposed to be part of the old-boynetwork, defending or defeating friend or foe.

Many Jewish feminists, once galvanized by anational political agenda that responded to their needs, have alreadyfled the secular political fold. With the exception of abortionrights, they are turning their attention to the home. Young Jewishwomen today are reinvigorating volunteer organizations, takingcourses in Torah or attending rabbinical school. When it comes totrue domestic crisis, secular feminists are as relevant as theDaughters of the American Revolution.

There’s no doubt that the whole matter ofClinton’s sex life is unsavory. The president is no choirboy; he toyswith women’s affections in a gross and cruel way. But Gennifer,Paula, Monica and Kathleen — each of the women who have come forthwith stories against Clinton — are equally manipulative andexploitative. There’s no victim among them, and it belittles greatwomen’s causes to insist that we must respond to matters as trivialas this.

The public’s interest in this scandal is purely amatter of prurience. There is no feminist issue here, including thematter of sexual harassment. Feminists last week were trying tocapture a sense of their own centrality to the political controversy,but they are mistaken: They have no constituency.

America in the late 1990s is influenced more byspiritual issues than political agenda. The reason Kenneth Starr isuniversally loathed by the American public is that he is stalkingClinton like prey, hunting a man already mortally wounded. One wouldexpect that feminism would bring empathy to the public debate, not arewritten version of “Stand by Your Man.”

Women are tired of male-bashing; they’re exhaustedfrom partisanship. They want something more from their feministleadership than a sense that the workplace is a hostile environmentand that men are untrustworthy allies. And they want to be able todenounce a man whose sexual behavior is outrageous without bringinghim to ruin. Both Ireland and Steinem’s responses lack the basiccandor, the willingness to call Clinton foul without going for blood.Sad, indeed, for a movement whose first vision was to end politics asusual.

Marlene Adler Marks is senior columnist of TheJewish Journal. She hosts a live chat on Thursdays at 8 p.m. onAmerican Online, Keyword: Jewish Chat. Her e-mail address iswmnsvoice@aol.com


SEND EMAIL TO MARLENE ADLER MARKS
wmnsvoice@aol.com

March 13, 1998Shabbat, AmericanStyle

 

March 13, 1998The PublicMan

 

March 6, 1998Taster’sChoice

 

February 27, 1998 ALiberal Feminist Meets Modern Orthodoxy

 

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, 1997Four 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

Caught in a Maelstrom


Brenner, a 57-year-old New York-born social worker, Reform Jew and feminist, is at the epicenter of the latest halachic earthquake shaking Israel. Her downstairs neighbor is Dov Dumbrovich, the Orthodox chairman of the local religious council, who is defying a Supreme Court ruling and refusing to let her take her seat on the council.

The court last week ordered Dumbrovich to admit Brenner, who had been nominated to the council by the local branch of the militantly anti-clerical Meretz. Religious councils are not rabbinic bodies. Their role is to mediate between the religious bureaucracy and the citizen, who has to turn to the rabbinate for such services as marriage, divorce and funerals, even if he or she is not an observant Orthodox Jew. Members are chosen by the political factions represented at city hall.

Orthodox politicians accused the justices of turning the Supreme Court into “a branch of a political party,” and they vowed to force through the Knesset legislation that barred Reform Jews from religious councils. Deputy Religious Affairs Minister Arye Gamliel threatened to resign rather than publish Brenner’s appointment in the official gazette (a legal requirement). In the convoluted world of Israeli theo-politics, Gamliel is the de facto head of the Religious Affairs Ministry.

Joyce Brenner is an improbable cause célèbre. Her late father, Eli Rothman, was an Orthodox rabbi with a small congregation in Brooklyn and a deep commitment to Zionism. Brenner, now divorced and a mother of three daughters, took her master’s degree and doctorate at that pillar of Orthodoxy, Yeshiva University, where she is still a visiting lecturer. She made aliyah in 1976.

But she was a child of the rebellious 1960s as well as of the rabbi’s study. She turned to Reform Judaism as a young married woman starting a family. “It was the women’s issues,” she says. “I wanted full equality in all aspects of expressing my religiosity. It couldn’t happen, it wasn’t happening, within the Orthodox community.”

She settled in Netanya “because it’s pretty.” It was, she says, the perfect town. “My children were school-age. Here, children walk everywhere, they take their bikes, and there’s the beach. What could be nicer?”

It was her feminism that brought Brenner into politics, a feminism that, in macho Israel, had a pioneer taste to it. She was one of a group of English-speaking immigrants who founded a women’s psychotherapy center in Netanya. It has grown into a counseling service with offices in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

“Israel,” she says, “gave those of us who came in the 1970s a chance to express ourselves in a full and exciting way because these services didn’t exist here. We were taking on the issues that we all felt were very important in making a better society, feminism and a liberal Judaism.

“These were the issues that gave us a sense of contributing to Israel and of fulfilling ourselves. People like me, coming out of the civil rights movement, felt Israel was a place we could make things happen. The Reform part was the smallest part of it.”

In Netanya, she is “just a regular member” of a small Reform community. She became involved with Meretz on the local level “because they are the voice of the issues I want people to pay attention to.”

Why, with all this, does Brenner want to serve on the town’s religious council?

“There’s a lot of money disbursed,” she says, “10 million shekels (about $3 million) in a town with almost 200,000 people. Most of it is city money, and people don’t even know how it gets divided. This is a council that gives services to everybody in the locality.

“I’d like to be the address for the people who may need these services and may not know how to approach them, or are turned away by official rabbinical services. Young couples, for instance. I’d like to be the woman who helps young couples approach these services. I’d be very proud to do that.”

She would also, however modestly, like to be the women’s voice. “I can’t presume to speak for Orthodox women,” she says, “but I think Israeli women have been treated very unfairly, even within Orthodoxy. There are lots of aspects of divorce law that could be handled differently if the rabbinate would approach them differently.”

Many women end up in the feminist counseling centers. “I’ve dealt with hundreds of problem divorces,” Brenner says. “But the really tragic cases we’ve come across are incest within the ultra-Orthodox world. Young women come to us who are very scared of being ostracized within their communities. They come for counseling, but they ask the therapist not to go to their communities and not to prosecute the fathers, uncles or brothers responsible. This is not the task of the religious council, but it’s part of my commitment to change things.”

On her way to what should have been her first meeting as a member of the Netanya religious council — a meeting from which she was politely, but firmly, ejected by her downstairs neighbor — Brenner was approached by a Russian immigrant who had cut out her picture from a newspaper. He told her that the town’s large immigrant community, with all its problems of Jewish identity, was excited “that you’re going to be on the council, that we’ll have someone who will listen to us.”

Not yet, it seems.