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.
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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