Posts Tagged ‘feminism’

Feminism on trial

A dedicated reader commented on my recent post about the flap caused by Natalie Portman thanking her fiance at the Oscars ceremony for giving her “the most important role in her life.”  His view of what he calls “modern” feminism in the US appears to be a composite of stereotypes of women who, the story goes, value wealth and career success above family, masculine appearance above femininity, and arrogance above God-fearing modesty.  The stereotypical modern feminist, in the picture painted by my reader, is a short-haired, artificially flat-chested, pro-abortion, plain-faced woman averse to commitment.  I have known and seen many radical feminists in my time, and have never seen one who embodies all of these characteristics. Andrea Dworkin’s radical feminist credentials are unparalleled, but her hair has never been short.  The only women I know who make their bustlines smaller are those who undergo surgical reductions, which reduce their chance of breast cancer and chronic back problems.  Abortion is seen as a difficult choice for women, but a choice nonetheless, and one which is permissible in certain circumstances by halacha.  Make-up, too, is a choice.  And nearly every feminist I’ve known or known of has been in a committed relationship (granted, sometimes it’s been with another woman, but that didn’t make the short list of the stereotypical feminist.)  These stereotypes may have sprung from small grains of truth, but they are far from reflecting my experience of feminism in the US.  (I was a full-time American before I made aliyah, went to a women’s college, and took my share of women’s studies classes there.)  I understand that the impression this reader and probably many others have of this brand of feminism is negative, but since one of my little dreams in this blog is to get people to think and question, rather than just say, “Right on, Shimshonit!”, I’d like to spend a little time on this topic.

The way women are supposed to look in the modern world is worth examining in a historical and sociological context.  Anyone who pays any attention to the history of art knows that the image of the ideal woman has changed over time.  In the ancient world, fertility goddesses were  full-figured.  Egyptians created goddess images of lean, long-legged, small-breasted women, but the Greeks filled this image out a little more.  Once Western art caught up to the Greek (we’re skipping the Medieval era here), women filled out again, reaching the Rococo period when beautiful women were positively zaftig.   At the turn of the 20th century, Aubrey Beardsley starved his women back down to pencil-thin, and by the 1920s, the image of the short-haired, flat-chested, boyish-looking woman in low-cut, sleeveless, high-hemmed dresses was shocking at first, but nonetheless became an ideal, if not a norm.  Mae West and later, to a smaller degree, Marilyn Monroe (who was not as plump as some would claim, since sizing standards changed, making numbers smaller for the same size) gave women a slight reprieve, but then Twiggy came on the scene, and that was the end of the normally-proportioned  supermodel.  Whether slender and athletic, like Elle MacPherson or Brooke Shields, or half-starved and sleep-deprived, like Kate Moss, thin became the rule, and has been rigidly enforced by photo-altering software (which was once used to slim down magazine photos of a plump, peachy Kate Winslet, to her outrage).

Shape has undergone changes over the ages, as have other features.  In my college days, women with impeccable feminist cred would often refrain from shaving their legs.  When I traveled to Germany after college on a six-month world tour, this was how I looked, and with my reasonably well-accented German, I passed for native with more than one unsuspecting person.  (I was even told in a youth hostel that I couldn’t possibly be American, since I didn’t have smooth legs, lots of make-up, and big hair.  It turned out the extent of this person’s knowledge of America was from “Dynasty.”)  I heard once that in France at least, the only women who shaved their legs until recent decades were prostitutes.  Now, of course, smooth skin is expected of a well-groomed woman, regardless of profession.  If the women chosen as supermodels are anything to judge the ideal female by, even skin, large eyes, and full, colored lips are the marks of beauty.  So let’s tally it up for a moment; what sort of creature sports soft, smooth, perfect  skin, wide eyes, and bright red lips?  A baby.  (Isn’t that what they call women in rock ‘n’ roll and blues songs?  And ask her, “Who’s your daddy?”)  Take away the fat and add lots of long hair, and you have the ideal woman.  Don’t have those features?  Then Botox, collagen, make-up, plastic surgery, laser hair removal, diets, drugs, and pricey hair treatments await.  Personally, I like to keep people’s expectations of my daily appearance low, so I avoid that stuff and only take out the make-up (some of which is left over from my wedding 11 years ago) for weddings and bar mitzvahs.  I think people should look at a woman with eyes more interested in seeing what’s in her soul than what’s on the surface.

The point of my post, which I hope didn’t get lost in the bit of ranting I did, is that feminism is a good thing, but only when it’s channeled toward healthy choices for each individual.  It’s decidedly NOT good if it’s used to make women feel guilty (either for staying home or for going back to work after having a child) or to condemn their choices.  It’s not a stick to beat women with who either try to make the most of their appearance, or don’t spend excessive amounts of money on cosmetics and time in front of a mirror.  It’s not the sole address of who’s responsible for unwanted pregnancy.  (There was someone else involved, remember, but he doesn’t have to face society’s scorn because it doesn’t show on him and he isn’t the one who has to choose the path his life will take, with or without a baby.)  It’s what’s responsible for relieving women’s honorifics of their tie to marital status (something that has never affected men).  If women hadn’t fought hard for the right to vote, it would never have been offered them willingly by men.  Without feminism, women would still be considered chattel in society.

I was grateful for Rav Averick’s support of women who choose motherhood.  I’ve been viewed as a wastrel and a shiftless layabout by dozens of people since choosing to be the primary caregiver in my children’s lives.  (Apparently, unless one is being paid to care for children, it doesn’t carry the same merit.)  But I also thought his criticism of Wildman’s piece was harsh in its condemnation of the inevitable questions that come up when women see other women hold up motherhood as the ideal state.  That hearkens back painfully to the 1950s (and later) when motherhood was considered by society to be the fulfillment of womanhood, and the only desired result of a woman’s higher education, marriage, and (temporary) career.  It’s inevitable that comments like Portman’s will provoke a response from feminists.  But I found the substance of the feminist buzz and reactions to Portman’s comments to be full of willful misunderstandings and overreactions to her words.  The whole thing, on both sides, was in bad taste, as is so much of what passes for news and commentary.

Feminism took women out of the private sphere and gave them the opportunity to become actors in the public sphere.  It gave them the vote, the chance to hold office, to influence policy, to own property and enjoy full rights as citizens.  One of the things women have attempted to do is to secure the right to keep others out of their personal decision-making.  When a public furor erupts over a woman’s stated preference for a public, professional life (as happened to Sarah Palin) or for motherhood, the public reaction seems to be the same, to excoriate the woman for doing what she’s doing, and not doing what she’s not.  When people finally look at a woman — as they would look at any man — and judge her based on the quality of what she’s doing rather than on what they think she supposed to be doing, then feminism will finally have succeeded.


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I pay little attention to Natalie Portman on the average day.  Her all-out neurotic performance in “Black Swan” left my stomach churning, and I had to put the window down in the car on the way home to battle the nausea.  I guess that means she did a good job.

It was after seeing the movie that I discovered she was pregnant, the father being the choreographer from the film.  I have no strong feelings about this; it’s someone else’s life, and I have no comment on her intended intermarriage (they are reportedly affianced) or premarital parenthood, except to my own children.

However, I recently saw an article in the online Jewish newspaper, the Algemeiner, by an Orthodox rabbi who was reacting to some media turbulence caused by Portman’s thanking of her fiance for giving her “the most important role in her life,” i.e. that of impending motherhood.  My tendency would be to hear that speech with an “Awww, isn’t that sweet?” and move on.  But not surprisingly, there are others who can’t let something like that pass without debating it down to the last letter.

Rabbi Moshe Averick’s piece, entitled “The Natalie Portman ‘Motherhood-gate’ scandal; should we laugh or cry?”, takes to task the author of an article critical of Portman, Sarah Wildman (whose  “A Woman’s Greatest Role?” appears in the online Forward).   A career writer, Wildman shares her struggle to work through her pregnancy, through her labor even, and resume writing post-partum as soon as possible to prove to her sexist twit of a boss that women can do everything men can, AND have babies.  The reactions to Portman’s comment quoted in Wildman’s article descend into the feline, with one writer suggesting her garbage man would also have made a suitable stud for Ms. Portman’s greatest role, and another asking, “But is motherhood really a greater role than being secretary of state or a justice on the Supreme Court? Is reproduction automatically the greatest thing Natalie Portman will do with her life?”

Rabbi Averick objects to Waldman’s “wearisome (albeit sincerely written) example of what has become a cliché in feminist literature: agonizing, hand-wringing, and occasional breast-beating regarding the motherhood vs. career conflict.”  Hokey though it sounds to some people, parenthood does take over one’s life, for good and ill, and because women’s biology often forces them to choose (at least temporarily) between motherhood and career, I think the debate about those choices is inevitable and, much of the time, consciousness-raising.

I have said it before, and I’ll say it again:  I think far too much attention is paid to the private lives of entertainers and athletes.  Their wealth, fame, and the scrutiny they’re under by the press make their lives anything but normal, and such people should not be held up as examples of anything to anyone, except wealth, fame, and subjection to press scrutiny.  It is also worth noting what Rabbi Averick says, that “While some dramatic presentations may very well contain meaningful messages, films and plays essentially convey distracting and entertaining illusions. Pregnancy, motherhood, and child-rearing are not entertaining illusions. They are as real as it gets.”

I fear what has happened in the wake of Portman’s speech is the same thing that happened when my alma mater (a women’s college) asked alumnae for stories about full-time mothering for a feature in the college’s alumnae magazine.  There, too, a storm broke out between women who had chosen career over family, who had continued to work and put their children in day care, and women who had chosen to shelve their careers in favor of full-time motherhood.  Never mind that those at-home moms had had their experiences and stories ignored by the magazine for decades in favor of features about career, awards, travel, and public service.  At the same time that my college’s magazine tries to stay in step with prestigious co-ed colleges (where mention of family probably makes the editor grumble, “We’re an alumni magazine, not Good Housekeeping!”), it does bother me a little that making a women’s college magazine so much like that of a co-ed’s implies that family life is un-feminist, that women don’t care any more about talking about their families or hearing about others’ families than men do (although it may be true), and that staying home and having children is dull and a shameful squandering of professional opportunities opened up by the women’s movement.  It all comes down to what we choose and how we feel about it.  My mother chose to stay home rather than pursue a career in nursing and never looked back.  Now when she and my father meet a dual-physician couple, these ignorant young women turn to my mother, assume she’s also a physician (not realizing how rare it was to find a woman in medical school back then), and ask her what her specialty is.  (I tell her to say rug-braiding, book-mending, and grandmothering, which really ARE her specialties.)  On the other hand, my mother-in-law continued to practice medicine and hired nannies to take care of the Cap’n and his brother.  (That was the right decision for all concerned, by the way.)  Thanks to the more strident elements in the anti-feminist movement, she is still haunted by her guilt for having worked outside the home all those years.

One of the most telling parts of Wildman’s article is where she asks, “If motherhood is the most important role, have we negated everything else we do? Does a woman who does not become a mother never reach an apex? What if motherhood isn’t happening — because a woman has decided to skip it or because she can’t have children? What then? Is there no important role?”  The answers, of course, are no, no, other things, up to her, and of course there is, dummy.  Done.  If Natalie Portman thinks motherhood is the most important role she’ll ever play, it is, so live with it.  She wasn’t talking about anyone else when she was up making her speech; she was talking about herself.  (I’m sometimes tempted to create an ad campaign aimed at catty chatterers, cranky feminists and other disgruntled people: It’s not always about YOU.)

I’ve been a feminist since I was a child, and will be one until the day I die.  But my feminism is about having choices, about doing as much as we can (though not always at the same time), and about confining our criticism to those who would keep us down, not to women who make different choices, or have more luck or talent or opportunity.  Women, unlike men, have been given (by God, not by men) the biology and the brains to have both children and a career.  Those who choose one or the other, or both, are to be commended, not criticized.  By the end of Wildman’s article, her words and tone seem to be more that of a woman who has already embarked on motherhood saying, “Just wait; she’ll see what it’s really like.”  Why, yes, she will, as mothers always do.  It’s exhausting and exhilarating, difficult and profoundly life-changing.  The best of luck to her.

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One of the many Yahoo groups to which I belong is the Digital Eve group.  A chat list for women professionals in Israel, it usually has job listings for positions I am unqualified for, and requests for advice I cannot give.  But today someone (probably a Yale alumna) posted a link to this very interesting article from the online Yale Alumni Magazine.  Written by Fred R. Shapiro, the magazine’s (male) quotations columnist and editor of The Yale Book of Quotations, it addresses the misattribution of many quotations by women to more famous men, as well as crediting other famous quotations to the women who penned them, whose names are either naturally in the background (such as screenwriters), were once famous but are no more, or never appeared on the page in the first place.

Shapiro amends the record of attribution to several quotations, including the following: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” (Evelyn Beatrice Hall, not Voltaire); “Now I know why nobody ever comes here; it’s too crowded” (Suzanne Ridgeway, not Yogi Berra); and “If you make it here, you make it anywhere” (Julie Newmar, not Fred Ebb, author of the lyrics to the song, “New York, New York”).  He also provides the names of the authoresses of quotations such as “No time like the present” (Mary de la Riviere Manley), “Twinkle, twinkle little star” (English sisters Ann and Jane Taylor), “Laugh and the world laughs with you; / Weep, and you weep alone” (Ella Wheeler Wilcox), “Oh, no. It wasn’t the airplanes. It was Beauty killed the Beast” (screenwriter Ruth Rose), and “E.T. phone home” (screenwriter Melissa Mathison).

The book Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations gets a thorough historical review, which turns up what Shapiro calls a “shadowy editorial provenance.”  In other words, most of the content was lifted from a British book entitled Handbook of Familiar Quotations From English Authors (which helps explain why only 5% of the books quotations are of American origin), and the compiler of the Handbook from which John Bartlett borrowed so heavily was one Isabella Rushton Preston, a 43-year-old Londoner.

The Oxford Book of Quotations, too, originally had a female editor, Alice Mary Smyth, whose name was left off the title page of the first edition (1941).  (Though it has been widely believed that Bernard Darwin edited the first edition, his contribution has been shown to have been limited to the introduction to the volume.)

Shapiro points out that while three of his senior research editors were women, as a male editor of a book of quotations, he remains a novelty—a man.

(Hat tip: Caroline T.)

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I know this week has been the “something borrowed” week here at Shimshonit.  Once the dust has settled in my life, I vow to get back to some original content.  In the meantime, however, I have found lots of cool stuff I’m eager to share, including the following.

A friend posted this YouTube video of an original song by Reina Del Cid on Facebook.  After listening to some of her other songs, I think it’s typical of her thoughtful lyrics and edgy guitar chords, but sweeter and more vulnerable, better balanced (voice/guitar-wise) than most others, as well as being a more appealing video.  She’s honest, fresh-faced, brainy, and geek-lovely.  What a find.

(Thanks, Rachel!)

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A few months ago, Rabbi Avi Weiss of Riverdale conferred rabbinical ordination on Sara Hurwitz.  It created something of a furor at the time, which has since seemed to die down (at least in the Orthodox circles I inhabit).  I gave the matter some thought at the time, and wrote a post about it.

I knew Hurwitz was not the first woman to apply herself to the same rigorous study as men do everyday with the goal of smicha in mind.  I’ve had a copy (signed, it turns out—it seems the  Cap’n and I met her years ago) of Haviva Ner-David’s Life On the Fringes: A Feminist Journey Toward Traditional Rabbinic Ordination on my shelf for at least a decade now, and never seemed in the mood to read it.

Then Yom Kippur came around.  The Cap’n buys me a seat in shul every year, but for years I have lacked the sitzfleish for anything more than shofar blowing or neilah.  The rest of the time I’m home, dispensing snacks and drinks, making sure the kids don’t put each other’s eyes out, and alternately davening alone or reading a book of Jewish interest.  Scanning the shelves for a book I hadn’t read yet, and still in a feminist reading mode after Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room (which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago), I took down Ner-David’s book at last.

Boy, have I missed out all these years.  It is an honest, learned, deeply thoughtful exploration of one woman’s attempt to navigate her feminism and commitment to traditional Judaism simultaneously.  From her decision to wear a tallit katan and pray with a tallit gadol, to laying tefillin, to deciding to pursue her studies toward smicha, Ner-David feels much of the same incongruity between her sense of her worth as a woman in the secular world and her second-class status in the Orthodox world that I do.

Now before anyone’s blood pressure goes through the roof at my calling women “second-class,” understand me first.  That does not mean that women are not valued, or that their contributions to the preservation of Jewish tradition are not important, or that they all should feel oppressed every single day.  But to be honest, many of the customs that limit women’s participation in prayer, in donning ritual objects, and in pursuing ordination, are socially and culturally constructed rather than rooted in Jewish law.  And there is incontrovertible evidence that women are not counted as fully human, as fully endowed with the rights that men enjoy.  Where a man says a blessing every morning for not making him a woman, a woman’s comparable blessing is to thank God for making her according to God’s will.  Women cannot serve as witnesses in the majority of legal cases in Jewish law.  Women are legally “acquired” in a kinyan, or exchange, in marriage.  And a woman cannot divorce a man without his consent.  (It works in the reverse as well, but many more women are refused a divorce than men, leaving them unable to remarry and often subjected to blackmail, extortion, and long term emotional abuse.)  There are apologetics for each of these situations, and I’ve heard most of them.  Some women don’t buy them and leave, heading for the more liberal Jewish movements that have rewritten them or done away with them altogether.  And some like me stay, but don’t like them much and hope for a way to be found to soften, reframe, or solve them altogether within the boundaries of Jewish law.

Ner-David describes her life as a child growing up in an household typical of those headed by Orthodox Jews who came of age in the 1950s, where kashrut in the home was a given, but where most women did not cover their hair, families often ate out at non-kosher restaurants (ordering fish or other permitted species of food), and mixed dancing at simchas was not the cue for the rabbis to walk out of a wedding reception (something I witnessed in the 1990s).  Her parents expected to pass on their tradition to their children, but Ner-David could not escape the irony that while she relished the time spent studying Talmud with her father, she could never be a rabbi, while her elder brother—to whom the doors of the rabbinate were wide open—had no interest in learning.  She shares her doubts about God and religion as a teen, gives an account of her bout with anorexia (which she connected to her struggles with her parents over religion), her own gradual return to traditional Judaism, and the choices she makes for herself and her children as an adult and parent.  (Her strong desire for her gan-aged daughter to wear a tallit katan, while it is halachically acceptable, seems to me to border on pressure rather than an invitation.  This is one of my few reservations about this book.)

A feeling of homelessness seems to permeate her journey, where she moves from a feeling of alienation as a teen to outright rejection of Judaism as a young adult, to a new discovery of the beauty and awe of tradition (in concert with her husband, whom she met in college), to a struggle to find a place that is right for her where the form that her faith and devotion takes is often received with confusion and even hostility by other traditional Jews.  Yeshiva University’s ignoring her application to their rabbinical seminary, the refusal of the women studying at Drisha Institute in New York to study in hevruta with her, and her rejection a few years later when she applied to a program that trains women to answer questions about taharat hamishpacha (laws of family purity)—all because she had the audacity to dedicate herself to Torah study on a level usually reserved for men—are some of the examples of reactions she gets to her views of Judaism.

What is in question throughout the book is Ner-David’s intentions.  What is she trying to achieve?  Or, more accurately in the minds of her critics, what is she trying to prove?  Is she on a power trip?  Does she seek glory and titles for their own sake?  Is she the one who is actually hostile to Jewish law, culture, and society?  Ner-David, well-versed in the sources, gives the reader thorough discussions of the texts and poskim relevant to each of her topics (e.g. mitzvot, halachah, chuppah, tumah and taharah, and Torah learning).  She explains why she has made the choices she has, and accepts that other women make other choices according to their and their communities’ interpretations of the laws and customs.  (I read with interest her discussion of why she covers her hair, and while her decision is informed by many of the issues that lead other women to cover their hair, it still doesn’t persuade me to cover mine.)  It is clear to me that her pursuit of Jewish learning is both for its own sake and with a goal in mind: to put that learning to its full potential use.  This is not scorned when a man (even a mediocre man, or a power-hungry man, or a man with limited interpersonal skills) does it, but Jewish learning for women, while it has improved immeasurably in quality and access in recent years, still seems to be viewed as accessory to wifehood, motherhood, and livelihood.

After reviewing the sources regarding women’s Torah study, she relates an incident in which she was serving on a panel in Israel discussing feminism and Orthodoxy.  On the panel with her is Rabbi Seth Farber, a young Orthodox rabbi who describes himself as a feminist.  (It’s 1997; Farber later goes on to found the organization ITIM which helps would-be converts to Judaism and others in Israel navigate the swamp of the Israeli rabbinate.)  After describing her vision of where Orthodoxy might go to allow greater participation by women, she asks Rabbi Farber directly, “Why, if there is no halakhic barrier to women becoming rabbis, are Orthodox rabbis today denying women the right to become rabbis?  Why are you against giving s’micha to women who study the same texts as male rabbinical candidates?”  Rabbi Farber answers that authority, not a piece of paper, makes someone a leader, and that women must first gain that authority and respect.  He tells Ner-David that she is doing a disservice to the Orthodox feminist movement by seeking smicha now, and that in doing so she deflects attention away from the really important issues and giving the opposition easy ammunition to discount the cause.

I’m sure many people would agree with Rabbi Farber, and it gives Ner-David pause as well.  But on considering this point, I must say I am still not convinced.  Does he suggest that women are not currently deserving of respect and authority?  My Orthodox shul in Newton had many well-respected female teachers of Torah, women were invited to give divrei Torah to the whole congregation on Shabbat (at the conclusion of the morning service), and two very competent women served as shul president during my time there.  What is left for women to do?  And to say that Ner-David has not chosen her timing well is hard to support.  Would he have told Alice Paul or Susan B. Anthony that they were doing women a disservice by lobbying for women’s suffrage before men were ready for it?  I would venture to guess that as difficult as it is for men to let go of power, women would still be sitting around waiting for an invitation to vote if they hadn’t advocated for themselves back then.  As for deflecting attention away from “the really important issues,” I fail to see how that is so.  Some of the really important issues of the day include finding a solution to women trapped by their husbands in failed marriages, spousal and family abuse in the Orthodox world, rabbinical intransigence in conversion, and the increasing estrangement of many rabbis in the Israeli rabbinate from the needs of the society they’re supposed to serve—none of which would be hampered by consideration of women’s merit to become rabbinical leaders.  (In fact, I think that by making women rabbis, some of these problems could well be solved more efficiently than by leaving them up to the men currently in charge who seem unable to come up with any solutions.)

Despite the many walls and glass ceilings Ner-David encounters, her doggedness in pursing what she believes is a natural, gradual, rational evolution in Orthodoxy toward greater opportunities for women is inspiring.  In a world where one so often reads about rabbis who shun any public life for women at all, who persecute those who disagree with them (or worse, write them off as non-Jews), and who view as seditious any challenge to their own practices which they are convinced are pure Torah miSinai, Ner-David’s portrait of her teacher, Rabbi Aryeh Strikovsky, is of a man firmly rooted in Torah, whose goal is to make the Torah available to everyone, including those in liberal institutions (Reform and Conservative), religious and secular, men and women.  Regarding the latter, Rabbi Strikovsky quotes Rabbeinu Tam who points to Devorah, a judge who ruled during the period of the Judges in Israel.  He asks, “What was Devorah’s position?  First, she was a leader of the people.  Second, she adjudicated matters of law: Torah law, Jewish law, halakhah.  If a woman can reach this level of learning and leadership ability, of course she can receive s’micha.”  Rabbi Strikovsky is not a political man.  “His agenda,” Ner-David writes, “is driven purely by the pursuit and dissemination of Torah knowledge and values as he understands them, and he will not be limited by other people’s sociological baggage.”  This, of course, points to the question one could just as easily ask those who oppose women’s ordination: “If Jewish history and Jewish sources point to women’s proven ability to be leaders in the Jewish world, isn’t refusing them that opportunity politically motivated?”

My parents-in-law belong to a Reconstructionist synagogue.  It’s always jarring to my mother-in-law to visit us and attend our shul, where she and I sit on the women’s side of the mechitza and the action—the davening, Torah reading, all the speaking parts—happens on the other side.  I can still remember how it felt when I attended my first Orthodox services.  When she whispers to me, “This is a big boys’ club,” I know how she feels.  But I still can’t feel comfortable with the choices liberal Judaism has made in response, dispensing with serious engagement with Jewish texts, paring down the Hebrew service to a few memorized utterances whose meaning no one understands, and devaluing core Jewish practices like dietary laws and Shabbat observance.  There has to be a way for a feminist Orthodox Jew to live her life without denying either her feminism or her Orthodoxy.  I owe women like Ner-David, Blu Greenberg, and the many learned women who support and organize the JOFA and Kolech conferences in America and Israel, women much more learned and dedicated than I am right now, my admiration and gratitude.

This book was published in 2000.  It’s now ten years later.  Where is Ner-David now?  She and her family relocated from Jerusalem to Kibbutz Hannaton the Galilee, where she is instrumental in reviving the kibbutz and inviting progressively-minded Jews to move there and create an open, observant Jewish community.  She teaches at the Conservative Yeshiva and is the founder of Reut: The Center for Modern Jewish Marriage.  She writes articles for publication, which can be accessed at the ZEEK website.

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A couple of months ago, the Cap’n and I went to an event at the new, beautiful AACI (Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel) offices in Talpiot.  Besides offices, event and conference rooms, and a small radio studio, the AACI has a very good English library.  They receive donations from patrons, and duplicates or books they don’t want end up on a 5 shekel shelf outside the library.  After attending our event, we browsed the shelf and among the books I selected was Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room.

Published in 1978, The Women’s Room seems to be in the same class of feminist literature that gave rise to The Second Sex and The Feminine Mystique.  French’s book is a novel, but full of lengthy musings and speeches about feminist theory and the power struggles and relationships (sometimes indistinguishable from one another) between men and women.  It begins with the bum rap women have when they enjoy themselves in public in the company of men, giving them a “reputation.”  It then moves on to the bum rap women get when they marry and become housewives, supporting their husbands in their careers, cooking and cleaning, and rearing children without any help.  (This IS the early 1960s, after all.)  Then it’s about suburban life where couples host parties, everyone drinks too much, dances in a skanky way with other people’s spouses, and watches each other’s marriages crumble.  The principal character in the novel, Mira, is at the center of all of this feminine travail and disappointment, and the second half of the novel follows her into her post-divorce life as a graduate student at Harvard.  Introducing her circle of women friends (with a few occasional male hangers-on), French charts Mira’s loneliness, eventual discovery of a wonderful man, his proposal that she put her career on hold, follow him to Africa (for HIS career), and have his baby, and return to loneliness when she refuses.  Meanwhile, her friends’ marriages (if they’re straight) and relationships (if they’re lesbian) crumble again, not because they’re bored, isolated housewives this time, but because they’re busy graduate students with close friendships outside their marriages and potentially budding careers which could further challenge their partners’ hegemony in the traditional marriages they’re in, or further unsettle their fragile relationships.

The thing that stands out most in this novel is the overwhelmingly unsatisfied need of these women to be regarded as equals in their relationships, and feel loved and fulfilled.  And while the cover of the book paraphrases a comment by critic Fay Weldon, that “this novel changes lives,” I’m not sure the women’s lives change so very much.  They enter marriage with high hopes of happiness, but leave them emptier than they were to begin.  Instead of feeling loved, honored, and cherished, they emerge after divorce poor, battered (sometimes physically), saddled with children they don’t always want and certainly cannot afford, and emotionally devastated.

I found it fascinating to read about this era in women’s history, and appreciated that one of French’s characters points out that the notion of a woman who stays at home, jobless, to take care of house and children began fairly recently in human history (in the Victorian era.  As an experiment, it clearly failed to give women the sense of contentment or fulfillment it was expected to.  It was also extremely depressing to see that no visible progress was made over the two decades or so covered in the novel between men and women in the novel.  There were a few good men, lots of mediocre, pathetic, or bad ones, and dozens of women who seemed deluded enough to depend on them for their own self esteem.  When the men loved them, they loved themselves; when the men became angry with them or lost interest, the women felt worthless.  French doesn’t directly present this as the point of her novel, but it’s the one I walk away with.

This is a radical feminist work.  That means that the women in it find themselves hoping to change the society around them, failing, and resolving to reject it or isolate themselves from it entirely.  Liberal feminism, which I find more palatable, works more slowly to change the system within its boundaries rather than advocating tearing the system down and starting over again—which is as impossible as it is dramatic.  (Feminists in Orthodox Judaism works in much the same way as liberal feminists, hoping for slow change that will endure over time.)  French’s characters see the world we live in as a man’s world, and watching how they constantly give power to men in their lives, and feel too numb, nervous, or helpless to resist that power, one can see how it got to be that way.  Men in their world are the source of support, justice (or injustice), order (or disorder), love (or apathy or hostility).  Of what are the women the source?  Not much.  They are the domestics, the brood mares, the not-quite-human beings who make it possible for men to go through their days completely focused on work, money, possessions, sports, and the fellowship of the ruling class, i.e. other men.  It’s a dance between women and men that never comes to an end, at least with the end of the novel.  Mira refuses to have more children, so her soulmate (who was never really her soulmate after all) goes to Africa without her, marries his secretary, and has a family.  She accepts a small-time teaching position in Maine, walks on the beach alone, and believes everyone else thinks she’s crazy.

Happily, at the end, not all of the women end up dead or in mental institutions (though a couple do).  Most find interesting jobs doing what they love, what they’re good at, and what they believe will help change the world for the better.  What is less obvious is whether they have learned to love themselves for who they are, or whether their jobs have just replaced their men (or women) as a source of love and regard for themselves.  Because it became clear to me that the love they got from others was the love they should have felt for themselves all along.

Despite the fact that the emotions and many of the events in the novel are true to life, I think the conclusions of most of the women are not true.  (This is where my liberal feminism clashes with their radical feminism.)  This world is NOT a man’s world, no matter how much it may feel like it.  As long as women allow it to be, it will operate as one, but it is women’s responsibility NOT to cede power to men that they do not earn or deserve.  Women must assert themselves in this world, entering whatever professions they choose, fighting back against male aggression, expecting and insisting on equality and fairness from bosses, partners, and children, and living as they think women should live to set an example and give inspiration to their own daughters and other women.  Fortunately, life in the 2000s looks different for women.  Women are better represented in government, business, academia, and other professions.  One corporate wife in the late 1990s actually sued her husband for the equivalent of “back wages” as part of their high-profile divorce settlement, walking away with tens of millions of dollars (something Mira in the novel tried, but was laughed at for attempting).  A young woman sued the Citadel for excluding qualified women, successfully challenging a federally funded institution for its sex discrimination.  Women’s basketball and soccer, while not given the air time men’s get, exist and attract increasingly interested fans, thanks to Title IX.  Rape is a crime, even when carried out against wives, prostitutes, and women the rapist knows.  Men in this generation cook, clean, do laundry, and care for children much more than they did in the past.  Women still do the bulk of the housework and delay or retard their careers to rear children, while men still make more money for similar work than women.  But women continue to push back and move forward, and slowly we are moving toward an era worthy of the best men and women, where everyone can show their quality and feel their worth.

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My mother recently forwarded an email she’d received from a friend of hers.  It reviews some of the incidents that led to the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution granting women the right to vote.  Since this year is the 90th anniversary of women’s suffrage in America, I think it’s worth looking at that momentous occasion again (with my text rather than the rather sparse explanations that accompanied the photos in the email forward).

The United States was founded on the principle expressed in the Declaration of Independence that “Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.”  Yet despite this, women were not seen as “the governed,” and therefore their consent was not required.  Many western territories, upon becoming states, included women’s suffrage in their constitutions (including Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado).  But in the rest of the country, women’s suffrage was virtually nonexistent.

In 1850 was convened the first National Women’s Rights Convention.  Attendees were faced with the task of finding answers to the following questions: Should the movement include or exclude men? Who was to blame for women’s inequality? What remedies should they seek? How could women best convince others of their need for equality?

Many of the women who worked for women’s suffrage were also active in the anti-slavery movement.  After the Civil War, the desire for black men to vote both joined and competed with the movement for women’s suffrage.  Frederick Douglass believed that black male suffrage should be fought for first and supported the Fifteenth Amendment granting all men the right to vote regardless of race.  Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony opposed the Fifteenth Amendment unless it were revised to include women.

There were also differences of opinion within the women’s suffrage movement on how to push for the granting of the right to vote.  One organization, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (headed by Stanton and Anthony), lobbied individual states to grant women suffrage.  Another, the National Woman’s Party (led by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns), pushed for a constitutional amendment to grant women the right to vote on a national basis.

When President Woodrow Wilson declared that World War I was a war for democracy, women challenged him to make America a true democracy by enfranchising women.  He eventually made pro-suffrage speeches, and his support for the cause was followed shortly by passage of the Nineteenth Amendment which granted women through America the right to vote.  But not without a fight.

The photos below illustrate some of the scenes and people involved in the struggle for women’s suffrage.  The year 1917 saw some of the darkest hours of the women’s struggle.  According to Snopes (which asserts that the email circulating the Web is true), the NWP’s picketing demonstrations in front of the White House were met with increasingly severe measures by the government.  Beginning with arrests and fines of $25 for obstructing traffic, the police began rounding up the women and imprisoning them overnight, and later for up to three days.  When the women refused to pay the fines and were obviously undeterred by the night in jail, the government resorted to stiffer punishments.  On July 14, six women were arrested and sentenced to 60 days in Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia, where “conditions were abysmal.  Prison cells were small and dark, with fetid air, and the food was infested [with mealworms].  Moreover, [the cells] were infested with a variety of animal life.  Alice Paul recalled that among the women imprisoned with her ‘was one whose shrieks nightly filled the jail as the rats entered her cell.’”

November 14, known as the “Night of Terror,” saw the arrival of a new crop of arrested suffragists at Occoquan.  While the women waited in a holding room for processing, the superintendent burst in with a posse of guards and proceeded to order the women to their cells.  Here is the account given on Snopes of the treatment of the women by the guards:

The scene was one of bedlam, intentionally disorienting.  Suffragists feared for their lives and the lives of their compatriots.  May Nolan, a seventy-three-year-old Floridian with a lame leg that she had to take pains to treat gingerly, was literally dragged off between burly guards, each of whom held an arm, despite her assurances that she would go willingly and despite the pleas of other suffragists to refrain from injuring her leg.  Dorothy Day had her arm twisted behind her back and was purposefully slammed down twice over the back of an iron bench.  Dora Lewis was thrown into a cell with such force that she was knocked unconscious.  For several frantic minutes her companions believed that she was dead.  Alice M. Cosu of New Orleans was also thrown forcefully into her cell.  Cosu suffered a heart attack and repeated and persistent requests for medical attention for the obviously stricken woman went unanswered by the authorities throughout the long night.  Lucy Burns, who had been arrested once again on November 10, shortly after completing her previous sixty-day sentence, was identified by [Superintendent] Whittaker as the ringleader for the group.  She was manacled to her cell bars, hands above her head, and remained that way until morning.  Later, her clothing was removed and she was left with only a blanket.

The purpose of the email is to remind women of the efforts and sacrifices made for us by our grandmothers and great-grandmothers.  Without their courage and conviction, it’s unlikely that American men would have thought of granting women’s suffrage on their own initiative.  A review of history—including the “rule of thumb” law, women’s legal status as chattel, droit du seigneur, and the notion even today that women have smaller brains and are less intelligent than men—should persuade even the most apathetic woman that the gift of suffrage is not one to be squandered.

There is a facetious (or not-so-facetious) expression: “I don’t vote for politicians; it only encourages them.”  On the other hand, what does NOT voting do?  In the 2005 Iranian elections, a large proportion of the Iranian population stayed home.  They were fed up with the current system and decided to protest by not participating in the election.  Now look who they got.

I encourage everyone to view the photos below and take inspiration from these brave souls.  And VOTE!  (Early and often…)

Dora Lewis, knocked unconscious when a prison guard flung her into her cell

Lucy Burns, manacled to her cell bars on the “Night of Terror”

Alice Paul.  When she embarked on a hunger strike, they tied her to a chair and force fed her until she vomited. This went on for weeks until word of her treatment was smuggled out to the press.  Prison officials transferred Paul to a sanitarium in the hope of having her declared insane (and thus removing her from the helm of the suffrage movement).

Pauline Adams, sporting the prison garb she wore while serving a 60 day sentence.

Edith Ainge, of Jamestown, New York

Berthe Arnold, CSU graduate

Helena Hill Weed, Norwalk , Conn., serving 3 day sentence in D.C. prison for carrying banner, ‘Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.’

Conferring over ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution at National Woman’s Party headquarters, Jackson Place, Washington, D.C.  Left to right: Mrs. Lawrence Lewis, Mrs. Abby Scott Baker, Anita Pollitzer,  Alice Paul, Florence Boeckel,  Mabel Vernon (standing, right).

Those interested in videos on the subject might be interested in the documentary “Not For Ourselves Alone” about the partnership of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  The 2004 HBO movie “Iron Jawed Angels” about the NWP’s battle for suffrage, starring Hilary Swank and Frances O’Connor, also looks good.  I love what the sanitarium doctor evaluating Alice Paul for insanity tells the prison officials who have brought her there:

“Courage in women is often mistaken for insanity.”

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Never look back

I was talking with friends the other day—two women in their 40s, a few years older than I.  One has four children, the other six or seven (I forget; the youngest is still nursing, and the eldest is in the army, or beyond).  The one with four has been feeling down lately, seeing and feeling the signs of aging in herself.  As she sighed and admitted she’s finding it difficult to “put that foot in the grave” (her expression), I laughed.

But I don’t agree, and I don’t feel that at all.  Yes, statistically speaking, I am probably at about the half-way point in my life.  In other words, it may have taken me THIS LONG to figure out who I am and what I want (though in some ways I’m still finding out both of those things), but I have another 40-something years to enjoy the fruits of my labors.  At 42, I’m having more fun than I’ve ever had (on a day-to-day basis).  My stress level is blessedly low, I can stop wondering what sort of person I would marry (I know now), and I have the best kids I could ask for, and the number I want.  I don’t let people step on me anymore, I don’t take offense as easily as I used to, I have a religion and way of living that I think has truth and holiness to it and enriches my life, I live in the only country in the world I want to live in, and while paying our bills every month is much harder on the Cap’n’s new Israeli salary, he and I are very much a team in finding ways to economize.  My intelligence has slowly combined with experience to turn into wisdom, I recognize subtlety, irony, and nuance better than I did when I was young, and I’m not afraid to look foolish in front of others.  I like myself much better as I am now than I ever did when I was younger.  I feel more formed, more complete.  Some insist that a youthful face and body are a lifelong ideal; I don’t agree.  I think one gets those things when one is a harsher judge; later on, when the face wrinkles and the body goes soft, one doesn’t care as much (or at least, one shouldn’t).  After having a baby, a friend of mine said she discovered for the first time that form should really follow function in importance.  I agree; I’d rather drive a car with some dents and scratches that purrs like a kitten than a hot rod with no power steering, the muffler gone, and an engine that cuts out.

I’m still too young to be ornery.  (I hope I never get to the stage where I’m as cranky and bitchy as Barbara Bush or Helen Thomas.)  But I am through caring about things that don’t matter.  In graduate school, in a seventeenth century English literature class, I read the most wonderful poem by Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea (1661-1720), one of a generation of largely forgotten women who in their own time enjoyed fame, fortune, and admiration for their poetry.  A sufferer of depression (“spleen,” it was called in her day) and childless, Finch was nonetheless happily married.  The following poem describes her lack of concern at the onset of aging.  (Finch calls herself by another name in the poem—“Clarinda”—, a common seventeenth century poetic conceit.)

Clarinda’s Indifference at Parting with Her Beauty

Now, age came on, and all the dismal train

That fright the vicious and afflict the vain.

Departing beauty, now Clarinda spies

Pale in her cheeks, and dying in her eyes;

That youthful air that wanders o’er the face,

That undescribed, that unresisted grace,

Those morning beams, that strongly warm, and shine,

Which men that feel and see, can ne’er define,

Now, on the wings of restless time, were fled,

And evening shades began to rise, and spread,

When thus resolved and ready soon to part,

Slighting the short reprieves of proffered art

She spake—

And what, vain beauty, didst thou e’er achieve

When at thy height, that I thy fall should grieve,

When did’st thou e’er successfully pursue?

When did’st thou e’er th’ appointed foe subdue?

’Tis vain of numbers or of strength to boast,

In an undisciplined, unguided host,

And love, that did thy mighty hopes deride,

Would pay no sacrifice, but to thy pride.

When did’st thou e’er a pleasing rule obtain,

A glorious empire’s but a glorious pain.

Thou art indeed but vanity’s chief source,

But foil to wit, to want of wit a curse,

For often, by the gaudy signs descried,

A fool, which unobserved, had been untried;

And when thou dost such empty things adorn,

’Tis but to make them more the public scorn,

I know thee well, but weak thy reign would be

Did none adore or prize thee more than me.

I see indeed, thy certain ruin near,

But can’t afford one parting sigh or tear,

Nor rail at time, nor quarrel with my glass,

But unconcerned, can let thy glories pass.

A friend in high school, after a particularly bad day, wailed, “But these are supposed to be the best days of our lives!”  I said, quietly, “No, that’s college.”  Her eyes widened.  “Oh,” she said, her hope restored.

But I was wrong.  Perhaps for some college days are the best of their lives.  But what does that say about the rest of your life?  All downhill?  No, there has to be life after college.  And after 30.  And after 40.  What’s the alternative?

One of the most inspiring things I’ve read is about prima ballerina Wendy Whelan, born in the same year as I was (1967).  While nearly all other dancers her age are retired, or (if they’re lucky enough to be still in the dancing world) choreographing and teaching, Whelan is considered to be in her prime now.  Her strength and stamina, for which she is renowned, are matched by maturity and artistry lacking in many younger dancers.  In other words, she was good when she was younger; now she’s great.

And so, I say, with the rest of us.  No, ladies, let us vow to bid the frippery and folly of youth adieu, without regret. Bring on the second (and, I hope, better) half of life!

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Too skinny to model?

When I was a junior in high school, there was a girl in my class who was obsessed with modeling magazines.  She would walk around the dorm showing the other girls the latest photos in Vogue and Elle, admiring the models and clearly feeling dissatisfied with her own girlish figure.  After the summer, she came back to school – or at least someone said that scarecrow walking around was she.  I didn’t recognize her at all, and she wasn’t at school 24 hours before the nuns called her parents and told them to come collect her.

I never saw her again.  (I hope she recovered.)  But when I was getting my teaching degree, one of my professors, a middle school math teacher, told us his 8th grade girls threw their lunches in the trash.  “Don’t their moms pack stuff they like?” we clueless 20- and 30-somethings asked him.

I don’t always understand the obsession with weight that accompanies beauty.  Health, it seems to me, should be more important: a glow in the face, good grooming, attractive hair style, and clothes that flatter the unique figure of the wearer.  I’ve only seen a handful of girls thin enough to model, and they are rarely pretty enough to pull it off.  On the other hand, the girls I’ve known who I found the most appealing (and were never hurting for male company) had pleasing features (even if they weren’t beautiful), good color, and normal figures (within a wide range).

So imagine my delight at discovering that a modeling agency executive is leading a crusade to require Israeli models to pass a health exam which requires a minimum body mass index (BMI).  Adi Barkan, in tandem with an MK, successfully submitted legislation to the Knesset requiring modeling agencies to use BMI as a condition for employment.  Following the recent death of an Israeli supermodel (who succumbed to anorexia with a weight of under 60 pounds), over 30 Israeli CEOs have agreed to comply with this legislation, and will require models to be screened for health every three months.  France and Italy also support this new model employment policy.

While in reality, this policy may result in models the size of Q-tips rather than toothpicks (the exact BMI figure is 18.5, the low end of “normal range”), and airbrushing and other photo tinkering may continue to make models look thinner as well as more even-featured and “perfect” (the ban is on photo editing models “to extremes”), if models begin to look a little more like human beings and less like what the Allies discovered when they liberated Auschwitz, that will be a good thing for everyone.

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A couple of years ago, there were a few posts on Jameel’s blog about Bat-El Gaterer, a young religious Israeli woman who competed in the 2008 Beijing Olympics in Tae Kwon Do.  Many of the writers in the comments section wrote to praise her hard work and pride in representing Israel at the Olympics.

But a few people sounded more concerned about a religious girl wearing pants than why she was wearing them.  I’ve had a few conversations about modesty on my blog, and the push and pull between what is the general practice where I live, what is practical in view of the weather here, and what is comfortable and/or reasonable given the level of activity.  It’s an ongoing struggle to get 6-year-old Peach to wear the required three-quarter sleeves to school in hot weather.  (Fortunately, school is now out and they’re off to camp in short sleeves.)  I myself continue to favor skirts over trousers the majority of the time, though for comfort and warmth in the winter, I still have a couple of pairs of L.L. Bean’s wide-leg jeans.

But this conversation about Bat-El Gaterer, stale though it was, still bothered me.  Someone pointed out that women successfully fenced in long skirts.  (Now THAT’s a cool sport.)  Women also entered archery competitions in full femme-regalia (hoopskirts, corsets, tight-fitting bodices, bustles—the works).  But for the majority of sports, long skirts just aren’t practical.  Since the essence of many sports is flexibility, skirts get in the way—with speed, skirts make serious drag; and in sports where being upside down is a factor, such as gymnastics … well, you get the idea.

The implication behind the view that religious Jewish females must always wear long skirts is that participating in sports where long skirts are an impediment is unseemly.  This attitude of some in the Jewish world troubles me.  Girls are already excluded from the rituals of synagogue Jewish life.  They cannot become Orthodox rabbis (or at least not in the mainstream of Orthodoxy).  And the majority of their functions in Judaism—lighting candles, mikvah, Shabbat and holiday meal orchestration—take place in the privacy of the home or behind closed doors.  In converting to Judaism, I accepted this status quo within the framework of Jewish practice.  Outside that framework, however, I think a little more flexibility would not be amiss.

Years ago I was doing some Jewish learning with other members of my synagogue community in the US.  We were studying some of the interpretations of halacha that govern the design of the worshipers’ areas at the Western Wall, and someone observed that the rabbinate has turned the Western Wall into an Orthodox shul.  Another person moaned, “They’ve made the whole country into an Orthodox shul.”  I don’t think turning our entire lives into an Orthodox shul is a very good idea, least of all for girls.  While we should never abandon our sense of obligation to keep mitzvot and view the human body with respect, we should also bear in mind that giving both boys and girls opportunities to play and participate in sports is important for the promotion of good health, teamwork, sportsmanship, agility and physical development, self esteem, healthy body image, and time management.  Adopting the view that girls may not change out of their long skirts into pants, leotards, shorts, shorter skirts, or swimsuits dooms them to inactivity and a sense of modesty so oppressive that it is bound to make them feel ashamed of their own bodies—not, I hope, the goal of the long skirt.

The sense of empowerment and self esteem that dance, soccer, martial arts, and other sports create for girls is essential to a girl’s healthy development.  And girls with good self esteem are better prepared to perform well in school, find gainful employment, and cultivate healthy relationships (including marriage).

I did not watch Bat-El compete in Beijing, but I did attend 5-year-old Banana’s Tae Kwon Do exhibition, featuring her kiddie class as well as at least 100 other older kids showcasing what they’ve learned.  Boys and girls alike demonstrated their considerable skills in kicks, punches, no-handed cartwheels, and leaps for kvelling parents, siblings, and grandparents.  Looking at Banana’s potential, and thinking of the strength, endurance, and joy I’ve received from hiking, swimming, running, soccer, basketball, volleyball, tennis, dance, and all the other physical pursuits I enjoyed as a kid and as an adult, I wouldn’t deny those things to any girl, religious or not.

My favorite comment from the thread for “Frum Olympian Girl Who Kicks Boys” was from Benji Lovett, who said, “Hopefully she will inspire other fighters to become religious women.”

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Years ago, a high school classmate of mine forwarded me an email from a friend of hers listing some principles of women’s self defense.  I had learned and taught in the self-defense world for several years at the time, and summoned some wisdom from my experience to write her a response.  In the interest of disseminating more accurate information about assaults against women, and what women can do in response, I am posting my letter to my classmate below.  On the one hand, I hope it is helpful to women (and men).  On the other hand, I hope you find no use for it at all.

I was interested to receive your email about self defense strategies for women. I took a self defense class in 1993 in Boston at Impact/Model Mugging, which has chapters throughout the U.S. and in several other countries besides (Canada, Switzerland, Germany, and Israel).  After 25 hours of learning verbal and physical techniques, and using them with full-impact on a padded male “assailant” (instructor), I decided to become an instructor myself.  I trained for a year and a half, and taught women to fight to a knock-out against unarmed assailants, multiple assailants, and assailants with edged weapons and guns.

I agree with some of the information in your email, particularly that most attackers do not use weapons, look for someone who won’t fight back, and are deterred by a woman who puts up her hands and uses her voice to set limits (doesn’t scream; YELLS, like at a dog tearing up her flowerbeds).  Some of the other stuff I found problematic.  Most women do (and should) choose a hairstyle based on comfort and what suits them and their appearance, not whether they present a likely target or not.  Same thing with clothing.  And who can avoid going through her purse, using public restrooms, or being out in the early morning?  The basic point that comes through, though—that women should be as alert and attentive as possible while out in public—is most crucial; these other details should be less important to women.

A year or so ago, a friend of mine asked me for ten key points of women’s self defense.  The following is what I wrote:

The Ten Commandments of Women’s Self Defense

(in chronological order)

1.  Believe that you are worth fighting for. Some women will fight for others: their spouse or their children.  What happens when we’re alone?  We are all worth fighting for—even when we are sick, tired, or feel bad about ourselves.

2.  Decide in advance whom you’re going to fight. Sometimes situations come up which you might not expect: having to fight someone you trust, someone who is supposed to take care of you, someone you love. Decide in advance whether there are situations in which you would choose NOT to fight.  An urgent situation is not the time to stand and think.  Try to envision as many scenarios as you can, such as fighting against your boss, your clergyman, your male relatives, other women, or even children.

3.  Have a plan. Leave yourself room for escape from every situation possible.  Where are the exits?  Whom can you call in an emergency?  Where can you find safety?

4.  You are responsible for your own feelings, not anyone else’s. Women often believe (or are told) that if they fight, they will only make the attacker mad.  Think about this: What kind of person goes around attacking people?  The attacker is already angry!  You are not responsible for the attacker’s feelings—just your own.

5.  Breathe. For women, this is often the first thing to go in an assault.  The way to prevent it is to start yelling.  One need not scream like in the movies; yelling works better.  Yell at the attacker to stop.  Yell at him to go away.  Yell out a description of him if he is harassing you in a public area.  If he’s a stranger, yell out that you don’t know him (especially if he is trying to make it look like a domestic dispute).  Or simply yell NO!  And don’t stop yelling until the fight is over.

6.  Set clear boundaries. Some people do not realize when their behavior poses a threat.  Others are deliberately testing us to see how far we will let them go.  Even with those we love, whom we allow to get close to us, we have the right (indeed, the obligation) to set boundaries that are comfortable for us.  Tell the person to stop.  Tell him to go away.  If he is too close, tell him to take a step back. Tell him you are uncomfortable with what he is doing.  Start in your normal speaking voice.  If he raises the intensity or volume of his voice in response, respond to him, matching the intensity of his voice.  This is not a shouting match; you are simply standing by your boundaries.  If he does not respect your request, repeat one or two phrases (e.g. “Back off!”  “Go away!”) until you sound like a broken record.  Eighty percent of potential assaults end with the women setting a clear verbal boundary.

7.  Sound authoritative, rather than questioning. Many women talk in such a way that the pitch of their voice goes up at the end of a sentence.  In a verbal confrontation, this makes you sound uncertain of what you are saying.  Practice speaking in a voice that goes down at the end of the sentence.  (Pretend you’re giving commands to a dog; this helps.)  Then practice doing it as your voice gets louder.  Your voice should communicate unflinching firmness.

8.  Fight through the fear. Sometimes setting boundaries does not have the desired effect; sometimes a confrontation leads to a fight.  Women who successfully win fights against assailants are not superheroes.  They are ordinary women who feel just as afraid during the attack as we would.  The key to coping with fear that can sometimes paralyze us is to use it in the fight.  Turning that powerful emotion into fighting fuel rather than letting it shut us down can empower our fights. Use this in tandem with breathing (#5).

9.  Target sensitive areas. Beating your fists on his chest like they did in the movies is a waste of time.  Pinch together all five fingertips of one hand and go straight for the eyes. If he’s behind you, jab your elbow in his face or solar plexus.  Ram your knee up between his legs, as if to lift him by the testicles.  If he is on his knees, plant your knee in his head.  If you are both on the ground, get on your side as if you are doing leg-lifts, stabilize yourself with your arms, and use your top leg to kick target areas (head and groin).  In the fight, do not look at his eyes or pay any attention to what he says; just look for whatever target is easiest to hit.

10.  Don’t stop fighting until the end. When is a fight over?  When he flees or when he’s unconscious.  (This is why the head target is so important).  If he begs for mercy, yell at him to leave. After all, you were the one attacked.  If he does not leave, keep fighting.

One last thing to remember is that 80% of attacks are by lone, unarmed assailants.  These statistics fly in the face of many of the media’s representations of attacks.  Even an assailant who uses a weapon is usually just trying to make the assault go more smoothly; he does not always plan to use it.

If I were to add an 11th point to this list, it would be the following: don’t let yourself get tied up, and don’t let yourself be transported.  This is in response to the fact that some men do, indeed, try to transport a woman to a location that is safer or more convenient for the man, and invariably more dangerous for the woman.  Start fighting BEFORE he gets either of these advantages.

Of course I support the idea of women taking defense courses, and the more hands-on, the better.  But even from the course I taught, I know that a woman who just came to a graduation/demonstration was able to walk away with enough knowledge and determination to knock out a man who attacked her in a public park weeks later.

I could go on ad nauseum about this because it’s one of my favorite things. I just wanted to acknowledge your service to friends in forwarding your friend’s email, and add my two cents to it.  It’s important, and not enough can be done to protect oneself and other women.

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I read with interest Viva Hammer’s article in the April 16 Jerusalem Post entitled “Every hour a kiss” in which she addresses issues of physical touch according to Jewish law.

In the course of the article, she describes an incident in which a manager at work, to illustrate a point, rubbed her shoulder, put an arm around her, and squeezed her hand.  She found herself at a loss for what to do.  “If I make a fuss, I risk my job.  If I do nothing, I am being violated and demeaned.”  She chose the latter.

I occasionally found myself in a similar situation when teaching in a Catholic high school.  I have attended many church services, both Catholic and Protestant, and have always been irritated by an inexplicable part of the service where, like Jesus’s disciples, the congregation is enjoined to exchange the “sign of peace.”  This usually results in bedlam as the congregation breaks frame in the service and turns to one another, hugging, shaking hands, chattering, and—gulp!—kissing.  (Hey, wait!  Wasn’t it a kiss that Judas supposedly gave Jesus as part of the Romans’ sting operation?  How can that be the sign of “peace”?  Oh, never mind.)  On one particularly memorable occasion, the vice principal, a middle-aged man who visibly enjoyed working in a nearly all-female environment (what old-fashioned types might call a “hen-house”), turned from his seat in the pew in front of me to give me the “sign of peace.”  I drew back immediately, shooting him a look that clearly warned him off trying to hug or kiss me.  Clueless about what an Orthodox Jewish woman permits and is permitted for physical touch, and undaunted by my long sleeves, skirt, and snood (THOSE were the days!), he asked, “May I?” and without waiting for a response, reached forward, grabbed my shoulders, and planted a wet smacker firmly on my cheek.

I burned with rage, and felt utterly disgusted.  Had I not made it clear that I didn’t want to be touched?  Shouldn’t a respectful co-worker honor my refusal to be kissed?  But this man was either so randy, or so stupid, he just didn’t get it.  (Or didn’t WANT to get it.)  The part that stung the most was that I’m a self-defense instructor; if I’d wanted to, I could have hopped over the pew and, with an elbow to the face, a knee to the groin, and a knee to the head, knocked him out cold in about 3 seconds.  But that would have been an even greater disruption to the already chaotic service than the love fest sign of peace already was.

Viva Hammer outlines the strict interpretation of shmirat negiah, with which she is most comfortable.  I am not always so consistent.  There are men for whom I make exceptions to the rules.  I kiss my uncle and close friends in my parents’ generation on the cheek.  I hug my best friend’s husband, who is also a dear friend.  I do not as a rule touch unmarried men or teenage boys.  The one guiding principle for all of these situations is a sense of comfort and clear permission on both sides.

I once read a wonderful article on touch by Yael Resnick, creator of Natural Jewish Parenting (once a print magazine, now available online).  In sum, her rules for touch among children are the following: Is the touch 1) modest? 2) gentle? and 3) wanted?  If all three conditions are met, then the touch is permissible.  If the answer to any of those questions is “no” then the touch should be forbidden. For those of us a little less strict about negiah, I think these rules apply very nicely.

Living in Israel where most people I know are familiar with the rules of touch makes it much easier to avoid unwanted contact.  (It also doesn’t hurt that I’m a middle-aged married woman surrounded by shrieking children.  There are more appealing objects to touch, to be sure.)  No more church services, no more kissy-poo “signs of peace”, and no more overbearing administrators.  And in my ornery old age, I think I have fewer inhibitions about doling out the old one-two to someone who doesn’t understand that killer looks mean business.

Not modest?  Not gentle?  Not wanted?  POW!  POW!  POW!

Ahhh.  Much better.

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I once knew a girl in school named Susan Smith.  While I didn’t envy her the ordinariness of her name, I did envy the fact that anyone could pronounce it.

Not mine.  While I think Schnitzengruben is pronounced exactly like it’s spelled, not everyone can manage it.

And since I got married, I have tripled the confusion the public encounters with my name.  People still struggle a bit with Schnitzengruben but living in Israel, I’ve found that Jews do better with Germanic last names than most white-bread Americans.

I have also kept my maiden name (though clearly Crunch is easier to pronounce) which confuses traditional people who believe every married woman carries her husband’s name, and stymies computer systems like that of the Benjamin Library in Beit Shemesh, where I used to live.  Here was the conversation between me and the librarian who was registering my family’s membership in the computer’s system:


“Shimshonit Schnitzengruben.”

“Husband’s name?”

“The Cap’n.  His last name’s Crunch.”


“My last name is Schnitzengruben.  My husband’s is Crunch.”

“But you can’t do that.”

“I already did.”

“No, I mean that doesn’t work in our system.  You have to have one last name per family.”

“Are you telling me I have to change my name legally in order to have a membership at the Benjamin Library?”


“I’ll tell you what.  Put us all down as Schnitzengruben.”

The librarian’s eyes bugged out at this point.

“You heard me.  Put my husband down as Cap’n Schnitzengruben.  Your computer can handle THAT, can’t it?”

The librarian sucked her breath in through her teeth but did as she was told.  (GOOD girl.)

So not only are people confused by my gorgeously mellifluous last name, they cock up the honorific too.  While any woman chutzpahdik enough to keep her own last name after marriage should automatically be called “Ms.,” I understand that people meeting me for the first time don’t necessarily know that I’m going by my maiden name.  So when they call me “Mrs. Schnitzengruben,” I sometimes smile sweetly and say, “That’s my mother.  Call me Ms. Schnitzengruben.”  Or when they REALLY don’t know me and call me “Mrs. Crunch,” I have to go back a generation and tell people that’s my husband’s grandmother.  (His mother is a physician and didn’t go to medical school for four years to be called MRS. Crunch, thank you very much.)

But all this salad of names and honorifics quite frankly tires me out.  Feminism made some inroads here and there, but where names are concerned, I think it has only served to confuse people.  I know people are doing their best, and once they get to know me they USUALLY get it right.  Because once they get to know me, they are allowed to call me Shimshonit, which simplifies things immeasurably.

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Hell and beauty

I just finished rereading C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters.  I didn’t love it the first time and was no more thrilled with it a second time.  But one part caught my eye this time around.  In Chapter 20, the demon Screwtape writes his nephew Wormwood, a novice demon, offering advice on how to tempt his “patient” through sexual desire.  Screwtape launches into an interesting aside about the contributions Hell and its minions have made to human impressions of beauty.

In a rough and ready way, of course, this question is decided for us by spirits far deeper down in the Lowerarchy than you and I.  It is the business of these great masters to produce in every age a general misdirection of what may be called sexual “taste”.  This they do by working through the small circle of popular artists, dressmakers, actresses and advertisers who determine the fashionable type.  The aim is to guide each sex away from those members of the other with whom spiritually helpful, happy, and fertile marriages are most likely.  …As regards the male taste, we have varied a good deal.  At one time we have directed it to the statuesque and aristocratic type of beauty, mixing men’s vanity with their desires and encouraging the race to breed chiefly from the most arrogant and prodigal women.  At another, we have selected an exaggeratedly feminine type, faint and languishing, so that folly and cowardice, and all the general falseness and littleness of mind which go with them, shall be at a premium.  At present we are on the opposite tack.  The age of jazz has succeeded the age of the waltz, and we now teach men to like women whose bodies are scarcely distinguishable from those of boys.  Since this is a kind of beauty even more transitory than most, we thus aggravate the females’ chronic horror of growing old (with many excellent results) and render her less willing and less able to bear children.  And that is not all.  We have engineered a great increase in the licence which society allows to the representation of the apparent nude (not the real nude) in art, and its exhibition on the stage or the bathing beach.  It is all a fake, of course; the figures in the popular art are falsely drawn; the real women in bathing suits or tights are actually pinched in and propped up to make them appear firmer and more slender and more boyish than nature allows a full-grown woman to be.  Yet at the same time, the modern world is taught to believe that it is being “frank” and “healthy” and getting back to nature.  As a result we are more and more directing the desires of men to something which does not exist—making the role of the eye in sexuality more and more important and at the same time making its demands more and more impossible.  What follows you can easily forecast!

Yes, Hell is still busily tampering with the human mind where beauty is concerned.  Actress Kate Winslet corroborates Screwtape’s observation that the human body in “art” is a fake, and condemns the pressure on women to conform to the fashionable figure.

If one is full-figured (i.e. normal), it’s a comfort to know that they STILL sell corsets.

This piece is written for women “blessed with a boyish figure,” and consists of suggestions for clothing to counteract that boyish figure, making it appear more rounded and feminine!

The advice for those with boyish figures must be out of date, though, because based on the pictures of Hollywood actresses on this website, those flat chests are fast-disappearing (as is the planet’s supply of push-up bras and silicone).  And talk about women’s chronic horror of growing old—even dear J.K. Rowling, who I always cheered for looking like a real, normal woman, has shelled out some of her considerable fortune in an attempt to look more glamorous.  Doesn’t talent count for anything these days?

And for the matrons among us, there is even a “mommy makeover.” Just think—I can go from slumped, stretched, deflated baby-maker to, well, still pretty matronly.  Just not AS matronly.

Indeed, it would seem that Hell still has a firm grip on humans where beauty is concerned.  Whatever happens, it seems the mantra is still, “It’s more important to look good than to feel good.”  Or to do good, or to think good, or to BE good.

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A bus joke

As some of you may be aware, one of the great debates in Israel these days is over “mehadrin”–or sex-separated–bus lines.  Some have bitter memories of Black Americans riding in the back of the bus, of the Montgomery (Ala.) bus boycott, and of Rosa Parks.  On these controversial bus lines, women are required to sit in the back of the bus.  Some say the haredi women want it this way, and others see it as absurd to insist that men and women be separated while riding for a short time on a city bus.  While proponents insist that the separate seating is voluntary, more than once a woman has been beaten and/or thrown off the bus by men for not complying with the separate seating “suggestion.”  (So much for shmirat negiah.)

This all makes even more therapeutic and amusing the joke my friend Daniel told me a few weeks ago:

A scantily clad woman gets on a mehadrin bus line and sits down next to a haredi man.  The man is embarrassed and irritated, but just turns in his seat to avoid looking at her.  (This is how you can tell it’s a joke, said Daniel.  They don’t beat the crap out of her.)  The next day the same woman, similarly dressed, gets on and sits down next to the same man.  He sees a pattern forming, and the next day when she sits down next to him, he hands her an apple.

“What’s this for?” she asks.

He answers, “The Torah says that when the serpent handed Eve the apple, she realized she wasn’t wearing any clothes.”

The woman shrugs her bare shoulders and puts the apple in her purse.

The next day the woman gets on the bus, sits down next to the haredi man, and hands HIM an apple.

“What’s this?” he asks.

With a smile, she answers, “The Torah says that when Eve handed the apple to Adam, he realized he had to go out and get a job.”

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Women rabbis

An interesting thing turned up in my email inbox last week.  It was a forward of what appears to be an article (of unknown origin) detailing the recent ordination of a woman by an Orthodox rabbi in New York.  Here is the article as it appeared in the email:

New York Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah Of America Condemn Rabbi Avi Weiss Over Woman Rabbah

New York – Rabbi Avi Weiss has conferred “semikha” upon a woman, has made her an Assistant Rabbi at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale where she carries out certain traditional rabbinical functions, and has now given her the title of “Rabbah” (formerly “Maharat”). He has stated that the change in title is designed to “make it clear that Sara Hurwitz is a full member of our rabbinic staff, a rabbi with the additional quality of a distinct woman’s voice.”

These developments represent a radical and dangerous departure from Jewish tradition and the mesoras haTorah, and must be condemned in the strongest terms. Any congregation with a woman in a rabbinical position of any sort cannot be considered Orthodox.

Rabbi Simcha Bunim Ehrenfeld

Rabbi Yitzchok Feigelstock

Rabbi Dovid Feinstein

Rabbi Aharon Feldman

Rabbi Yosef Harari-Raful

Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky

Rabbi Aryeh Malkiel Kotler

Rabbi Avrohom Chaim Levin

Rabbi Yaakov Perlow

Rabbi Aaron Schechter

On so many levels, I don’t know what to make of this.  In the interest of making clear my total confusion, let me break it down.

Let me start with Rabbi Avi Weiss.  The leader of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, he occupies a space on the far left of the Orthodox spectrum.  Dedicated to Torah and shmirat mitzvot, he has long pushed the envelope where women’s participation in prayer is concerned.  Where many modern Orthodox shuls have a women’s tefillah group once a month or so (and even those are frequently controversial), HIR has a women’s Shacharit (with chazarat hashatz) every Shabbat morning.  The women daven and leyn with skill and precision, and for a modern woman in the Orthodox world, this is a great source of inspiration.  From his comment in the article regarding his ordination of Sara Hurwitz, it is clear that he believes the voices, abilities, and contributions of women to Jewish life are invaluable.

On the other hand, I find Rabbi Weiss himself problematic in many ways.  He marches to his own drummer where the limits of halachah are concerned.  This can be inspiring (if a little jarring), but it also endangers his work by making him an outlier rather than a leader.  He is admired by some disgruntled Conservative Jews who would like to see more Orthodox rabbis recognize them and their own (frequently conflicted and inconsistent) practice of Judaism as on a par of legitimacy with Orthodoxy.  They appreciate his efforts to bring Jews of different denominations together and applaud his apparent disregard for what other Orthodox rabbis think of him.  While I am uncomfortable with the antagonism that exists between the various movements in Judaism, and I think that what many Orthodox rabbis (other than Rabbi Weiss) do today is motivated by arrogance, chauvinism, and satisfaction of their high power needs, Rabbi Weiss still somehow doesn’t inspire my confidence.  I once heard him speak and found his talk more self-congratulatory than enlightening.  I like to think that Rabbi Weiss has made this move out of a sincere belief that it is the right one for his community and for Judaism, but I really don’t know him well enough to know.

Then there’s the issue of promoting a woman from the title of “maharat” to “rabbah.”  While the term rabbah (the feminine of rav) should be familiar to most people, the title maharat is an acronym for manhiga hilchatit ruchanit toranit, a “leader in Jewish religious law, spiritual matters and Torah.”  (Article about Sara Hurwitz as a maharat here.)   I’m a big fan of calling things what they are, and if Sara Hurwitz has completed the entire course of study required of a man, and has assumed the responsibilities a rabbi would assume, I don’t see why she shouldn’t be called a rabbah.  I’ve heard a number of shiurim in the past year or so about hakarat hatov, recognizing a debt one owes to another, and if Hurwitz is putting in the hours and meeting her obligations to the community, that must be acknowledged.

On the other hand, I still find myself uncomfortable with this ordination.  I would like to see Orthodox women continue to be appreciated as being different in many ways from Orthodox men (we still go through pregnancies, breastfeed, and shoulder the bulk of the household and child-rearing responsibilities) even as our status continues to advance in Orthodoxy.  I don’t know if there are any explicit texts that forbid a woman outright from becoming a rabbi, or if it’s really the power of tradition and implicit assumption that has held sway from time immemorial.  If I’m uncomfortable with seeing a woman ordained, it is mostly because I’ve never really seen one.  (Haviva Ner-David, whose book sits unread on my shelf, completed a similar course of study, but now writes that she and her family have moved to the Galilee to revive a nearly-extinct Masorti kibbutz.)  And the fact that I’ve never seen one is probably something that has been clung to by the Orthodox world in order to ensure that I will be uncomfortable if I ever do.  It’s cyclical, you see.

Yes, this is a dramatic departure from Jewish tradition.  (So is my eating kitniyot at Pesach, I grant.)  But I’m not afraid to ask, “Is that a tradition worth hanging on to?”  That’s not a question I hear Orthodox Jews ask very often.  Tradition to most Jews is sacrosanct.  Naming children for deceased relatives (if you’re Ashkenazi) or grandparents (if you’re Sephardi), doing tashlich on Rosh Hashana, and drinking Mogen David at Pesach (when you know it’s the most disgusting wine out there) are powerful traditions that otherwise-discerning people cannot imagine discontinuing.  These are not halachic imperatives; they’re just things people do.  So if there is no halachic imperative to keep women out of the rabbinate, is that something that should be preserved for all eternity?

And then, of course, there are the “Gedolei HaTorah” who felt obligated to react to Rabbi Weiss’s decision to ordain a woman.  Members of Agudath Israel of America, these rabbis are the heads of some of the most prominent haredi yeshivot in America.  One can hardly expect haredim to keep silent in the face of what they would consider a direct assault on the Torah, so their reaction is both natural and expected.  But short of shrugging my shoulders, I have no real reaction to their condemnation, except perhaps to thank them for making me aware of an item of news in the Jewish world that I might have missed otherwise.

Orthodoxy changes over time.  Not all Orthodox Jews accept these changes, of course, but it doesn’t alter the fact that such changes do take place.  Sometimes congregations aren’t ready for dramatic change.  Sometimes they split over proposed changes.  And sometimes indignant congregants stay, frown disapprovingly, but eventually fail to notice the change as it becomes the custom of the place.  The combination of general societal change and challenges to common practice from within Orthodoxy will, like water dripping on stone, slowly alter what are to many people firmly-held beliefs and practices.

I have no doubt that the traditional prohibition to ordaining women will one day be eroded.  As I said, I’m not sure how I feel about this.  I don’t believe in excluding women because they’re women.  But I also have some concerns about the ripple effect of women’s ordination.  When women become rabbis, will they be taken seriously as such?  Probably over time.  When women become rabbis, will salaries and status of rabbis go down?  Based on what has happened in medicine, teaching, and other previously male-dominated fields, it’s very likely that they will.  And when women become rabbis, will men stop showing up to shul?  This is stickier, because men are commanded to pray as a group.  And having a woman rabbi will not mean she will be leading services—her status as a woman on the other side of a mechitza (no matter how low or transparent) remains in place.  But a sociologist I know once pointed out that if the men aren’t in charge, they don’t show up.  What will happen when there’s a woman in (partial) charge remains to be seen.

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With three daughters, I’m keenly aware of the heavy marketing aimed at young girls by Disney and whatever products they slap the sluts princesses’ faces on.  (Dolls, nightgowns, notebooks, games, toothbrushes, even toothpaste for heavens sake!)

Those tarts princesses sell more merchandise than I can guess at.  But where, may I ask, are the Disney fathers?  Granted, they’re all probably pear-shaped, gouty, pock-marked, and shamefully weak.  But it’s just plain sexist to have the young nymphets get all the attention, especially when all they do is scrub floors, get yelled at and left out of parties, go to sleep for 100 years, get run off the castle grounds, or given away to the crone next door for a handful of salad greens.  What about all those fairy tale dads?

Well let’s see.  There’s Rapunzel’s dad who is so worried about her pregnant mom and her gestational food cravings that he barters away his unborn child to give his wife just one more salad.  While he has no right to make the executive decision to give up their child, he does acknowledge the rights of the living over those of the unborn.  (How very modern of him.)

And then there’s the miller, father to the nameless waif whose purported ability to spin straw into gold gets her into trouble in “Rumplestiltskin.”  Millers were notorious drunkards, and meeting the greedy young king on the road (whose personal philosophy seemed to be, “You can never be too rich or have too much gold”) is too much temptation for him.  Since he’s a souse and a loser, no doubt he believes he can give his daughter a better start in life if he recommends her in some way to the king.  The fact that humans had never managed to turn anything but gold into gold doesn’t matter.  Leave getting out of that mess to the girl.  She’s managed this far, and with a father like me.  Hiccup!

But most dads are just clueless.  Or spineless.  There are the fathers of Snow White and Cinderella.  Both marry gold-digging hags the second time around (“trophy wives,” perhaps?), and are too absorbed in their own affairs to pay much attention to what happens to their first wives’ daughters.  Child-rearing being women’s work and all, they retire to their counting-houses, or wherever neglectful fathers usually retire to in order to let their new wives work their wicked wills on their defenseless daughters.  The fact that Snow White’s father may well have partaken in a meal of liver and lungs believed by the queen to be Snow White’s doesn’t bode well for her being missed around the palace.  But hey—she gets taken in and duly enslaved by a pack of neglectful dwarves, so all’s well that ends well, right?

And Hänsel and Gretel’s father is even worse.  He marries a scheming cow just like the others, but instead of spending all his time in the potting shed, he’s lying in bed next to her as she plans the children’s deaths, and ends up agreeing to her plans!  Thankfully, of course, she dies of a black heart within the month, his children return home to him laden with gold and jewels (and only a few cavities to show for their harrowing experience), and all is forgiven.

No, I think we’re giving dads short shrift in the toy industry.  I think in addition to the $10 whores princesses, these fairy tale fathers should be merchandised too.  If they’re plump, trim ’em down.  If they’re pocked, smooth out their skin.  If they’re too old and gray, give them Botox and Grecian formula.  But put aside your bias toward sexpots females and add these men to the fairy tale toy pantheon.  Girls will love playing with them.  And burying them alive.  And burning them.  And throwing them down ravines.

It’s all good, clean fun.

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Who does motzi?

In Newton, Massachusetts, where the Cap’n and I adopted most of our practice and traditions for keeping Judaism modern Orthodox-style, we observed that in about half of the families we knew, the lady of the house said the blessing over the challah on Shabbat (“motzi”).  Kiddush was nearly always said by the male head of household (though in at least one household I observed, the woman said kiddush for one of the meals), and in a few households, the male head also said motzi.

In our house, I have continued to say motzi on Shabbat.  This is not generally the practice among the English-speaking families we know in Israel.  In fact, I may only have seen one other household in the three years we’ve been here where a woman says motzi.  But to us it makes sense.  We both contribute to the running of the household and the creation of the Shabbat meal.  The Cap’n makes kiddush since he does nearly all of the shopping (and grape juice is definitely something we buy rather than make at home).  I make motzi since I do nearly all of the food planning, prep, serving, and clean-up.  (The Cap’n makes the phone call when we invite people for a meal.)  While I rarely make my own challah, it’s symbolic to me of the home-made part of the meal, for which I deserve full credit.

I imagine there must be many reasons for the man to make both kiddush and motzi.  Men get most of the speaking parts in Judaism (remember the wedding ceremony?), and this is another speaking part.  There is a tradition that a person should say 100 brachot a day, and since this is probably more binding on a man than a woman, this gives him an extra bracha to say.  In some households, I suppose the man is considered the founder of the feast, even if his responsibility for it began and ended with earning the money toward it.  (This doesn’t hold up in many families today, but families today look less like they did 100 or more years ago, when these practices get cemented into tradition.)

That’s how we do it, anyway.  If anyone has more accurate information on why men do both in most households, feel free to share it.

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All-girls education

I promised in a comment exchange on yesterday’s post to write about single-sex education, and here it is.

Until 11th grade, I attended mostly public, co-ed schools.  I liked school, was a good student, and both because of my success in school and because I was one of the older students in the class, I was often viewed as a leader in my class.

But over the years, I began to notice trends that I didn’t like.  I noticed that girls were often much more concerned with what they looked like (hair, make-up, clothes) than they were with their subjects in school.  Many wouldn’t raise their hand and participate in class.  At the same time, boys were louder, even if they weren’t as smart as the girls in class.  Most of the kids who misbehaved and disrupted the class were boys.  And it was impossible to ignore that a significant amount of the emotional energy of both boys and girls went into trying to appear favorable in front of the opposite sex.  I had friends of both sexes, but often found friendships with boys to be less stressful.

In 11th grade, I opted to try boarding school for my last two years of high school.  I was disgusted with the class sizes, budget cuts, and lousy faculty at my local public high school, and my parents were agreeable.  I applied to a small co-ed prep school and a slightly larger all-girls prep.  I got into both, but because I believed I should cultivate more friendships with other girls, I chose the girls’ school.

I was pleased with my choice.  There were girls I had nothing in common with, just as there had been in public school.  But in general, there was a greater feeling of comradery among my classmates (though I was given to understand that my class was kinder than average for the school).  I loved that there were no boys at the school, so bad-hair days were a source of mirth rather than humiliation.  Spirits ran high at the school, and pranks and fun were around every corner.  The faculty was of a high caliber, and they were there entirely for us girls.  I fell in with a group of girls who were also good students who called themselves the Geek Clique.  We were not the prettiest, or the wealthiest, or the most socially elite, but we stuffed the top slots in the class ranks and had a wonderful time.

I had a similar experience in college, where I chose a large state university because it was cheap, and ended up pining for the more intimate, serious atmosphere of a women’s college.  (I transferred to a women’s college in the middle of my sophomore year.)  And I had similar experiences in Jewish learning and graduate school, starting in co-ed and ultimately choosing all-women’s settings.

Early in our marriage, the Cap’n brought home a book from the library entitled All Girls: Single-sex education and why it matters by Karen Stabiner.  It was a fascinating read, and while I was already sold on all-girls’ education, the Cap’n lacked my first-hand experience and learned a good deal about the issue from the book.  In the end, we both hoped our girls would have access to that education at some point in their lives.

I know most of the criticisms of all-girls’ education.  It’s not the real world.  What are boys supposed to do if the girls go off and learn at all-girls’ schools?  Aren’t girls from all-girls’ schools at a grave disadvantage when it comes to functioning in the world of men?

First of all, school is about as far from the real world as anything can be, and it doesn’t matter whether boys are there or not.  The purpose of school is not to recreate the read world; it’s to do something to prepare children for it.  (Or, if you’re really cynical, to keep kids occupied while their parents are at work.)  School isn’t like a job; there’s no pay (except grades), no practical skills taught that could help one make a living.  In my view, it doesn’t really matter that it’s not the real world; the goal is to create the best environment possible for children to learn.  By eliminating some of the factors that distract or interfere with learning (such as the pressures that accompany the presence of the opposite sex), one gives girls the best chance at succeeding in school.

Never fear; there are not nearly enough all-girls schools to siphon off a significant portion of the female population, denying the boys what many claim is the “civilizing factor” that girls provide in co-ed schools.  There are enough parents and adults who remain convinced that co-ed school is more like the real world to keep all the girls from fleeing such schools.

And no, girls from all-girls’ schools are not at a disadvantage when functioning in the world of men.  Having been nurtured in an environment which is created for them—for their style of communicating, for their needs, for their extra-curriculars, for their ways of learning—they emerge with confidence, strength, and assertiveness.  They are accustomed to hearing female voices—voices which are often shouted down in the world of men.  They are in a better position to scrutinize the world and if they find it lacking, see where it needs to be improved.

I believe that girls educated in all-girls’ or all-women’s institutions see the world differently.  When I began graduate school in a large New England campus, I couldn’t help but notice that a large portion of the campus was dominated by a stadium.  And this stadium, I knew from attending women’s colleges that didn’t have them, was two things to the college: a large money-maker for the institution, and a monument to men’s sports (i.e. testosterone).  There were sports halls where women’s sports were held, but it doesn’t take a Ph.D. sociologist to notice that the sports most people (especially men) turn out for are played by men.  I couldn’t help but think how primitive that is, how gladiator-like.

I have women friends who totally reject the value of girls’ education.  If they had the option, they would probably send their girls to co-ed schools all their lives.  (Religious education in Israel, however, rarely offers this as an option.)  But I believe these women are unusual in their personalities.  They are intellectual power-houses, outspoken, and blissfully unaware of some of the pressures girls feel when in school in co-ed environments.  They are not typical, in my opinion.

I no more think of myself as putting my daughters at a disadvantage by giving them single-sex educations than I do by changing Bill’s diapers.  It is true that in the real world there will be no one to wait on him hand and foot like I am now.  But it doesn’t change the fact that he needs this kind of care and nurturing now to prepare him for the challenges of the real world, just as it will be nice when Banana gets to girls’ kindergarten next year and doesn’t answer the question, “How was your day?” with “Good—no one hitted me, no one kicked me, and no one pushed me off a chair.”

Whether we will make the decision to send Bill through an all-boys track, or keep him with girls as long as possible remains to be seen.  I imagine it will depend on his personality, how he socializes with other children, and his own desires.

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Fourth child

After bringing three girls into the world, there seems to be an impression that the Cap’n and I had a fourth child in order to have a boy.

In my grandparents’ day, boys were valued more than girls. (I often got this feeling even in my day, as well.) I have a letter my grandmother wrote to her parents from college in which she reported that one of her classmates’s siblings had recently given birth to a little girl. But my grandmother was all too happy (in a feline sort of way) to report that she had trumped THAT piece of news: her cousin had given birth to a BOY.

It always annoys me when strangers presume to understand a couple’s motivations in having a child. Some people seem to think that a couple is yotzei (fulfilled their obligation) once they have a child of each sex (I think this exists officially in Judaism), and that their sole motivation in procreation is toward that end. It rarely dawns on strangers or casual acquaintances that a couple could choose to have a fourth child because they want four children.

Israeli society is still like this, unfortunately. Boys elicit a hearty Mazal tov! while girls get you the equivalent of “Better luck next time.” And nothing is more maddening than the look of disbelief and skepticism in the hearer’s eyes when I say we would have been just as delighted had Bill been a girl. (Not least because I’ve always wanted to name a child Wilhelmina Delphinium Crunch.) The way they see it, after all the brachas strangers gave me on the street that Beans should be a boy, the fact that she was a girl was the luck of the draw (oh well, it has to happen sometimes). But people who think like this are the same people who probably think Peach and Banana were similar failed attempts at a boy, and that Bill is the first successful product of our union (at last).

And people wonder why girls have low self esteem.

In truth, the first child I could have whose sex would not necessarily be seen as the motivator would be my fifth. *Sigh*

Well, I have a message for such people: Families whose children are all boys often get dreamy-eyed when the subject of girls comes up. In our experience, families whose children are all girls never seem to pine for a boy. Whether this is because the latter families are conscious that such facial expressions are hurtful to their daughters, or because they are grateful that their daughters will have a choice about going into the army or not, or because we fortunately live in a time when it’s not unheard of for the groom’s family to contribute to the wedding costs, I don’t know.

All I’m saying is that each child is an individual: mild or wild, fiery or calm, sweet or sassy. Each of my children could just as easily have ended up the opposite sex and still had the same personality. They’ll encounter different challenges as girls or boys, but they’ll still be my children, and they’ll still be wonderful people.

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