Author Archives: Amy Stone

Feminists In Focus, Live from the Lilith Blog

February 12, 2014 by

Meet on Screen the First Woman Rabbi

via filmlinc.com

via filmlinc.com

How do you make a documentary about Regina Jonas, the world’s first woman rabbi, when only one photograph survives?

It helps if you’re pushed to do the deed by Elsa Klapheck, the contemporary German rabbi whose book, Fraulein Rabbiner Jonas: The Story of the First Woman Rabbi, is the definitive source on this extraordinary woman, born in Berlin in 1902 and ordained in 1935. (The book has been translated into English by Lilith contributor Toby Axelrod. Klapheck, ordained in Frankfurt, is the first woman rabbi in the Netherlands.)

“Regina” — Diana Groó calls her film “a poetic documentary” of Regina Jonas — made its U.S. premiere in January at the 23rd NY Jewish Film Festival, presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and The Jewish Museum. The 63-minute film is in English. 

Groó, 40, who seems either doomed or destined to be identified as a Jewish Hungarian filmmaker, stayed true to the hundreds of documents Regina Jonas managed to save for posterity. The poetry comes with the archival footage – going back to 1900s Berlin — combined with music and voices. British actress Rachel Weisz is the voice of Regina Jonas. Others giving life to archival material include Groó’s grandmother, 86, the same age as Jonas’s students would have been, and a survivor of four concentration camps. 

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Live from the Lilith Blog

November 15, 2013 by

Losing My Virginity: Of Romance and Property Rights

TShechter.Bridal-copy2

The filmmaker in a virginal white wedding gown.

If only Therese Shechter’s film “How to Lose Your Virginity” had been around when I was a college student obsessing about “saving it.” Freed from endless years of mental anguish, I probably would have had enough time to graduate Phi Beta Kappa and, who knows, maybe even have some good sex.

Or not. …

The film gets its US premiere this Sunday, Nov. 17, at 9:30 p.m. at the DOC NYC film festival at the SVA Theater, 333 West 23rd Street. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with director Therese Shechter and producer Lisa Esselstein.

Sixty-plus minutes of virginity, virginity, virginity makes you feel like you’ve been exorcised from ever again wanting to think about the V-word. Shechter, a nice Jewish art student from the Toronto suburbs, now a filmmaker in Brooklyn, has truly delivered a film that entertains, horrifies and instructs.

Get ready for details of America’s chastity balls (next step chastity belts?), where girls hand over their virginity to their fathers for safekeeping until dads deliver the precious commodity to the future husbands. Get ready for the TV vampire whose hymen keeps growing back again and again, forcing her to go through first-time intercourse pain for eternity. And get ready for some healthy advice from former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders. One memorable piece of government information: 50 million in tax payers’ dollars goes to fund abstinence programs in the schools that are both unscientific and ineffective. (Is it too much to hope that this will get axed in government cutbacks?) And get ready for a wildly inclusive array of women, including the filmmaker, weighing in on virginity.

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Live from the Lilith Blog

June 21, 2013 by

Orthodox Women Rabbis
by Any Other Name

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From left to right, at the June 16 Yeshivat Maharat ordination ceremony in New York: Rabba Sara Hurwitz (dean of Yeshivat Maharat), Maharat Ruth Balinsky Friedman, Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold, and Maharat Abby Brown Scheier. Photo by Joan Roth with permission of Yeshivat Maharat.

It happened! On June 16 three Orthodox women were ordained as clergy by an Orthodox religious institution.

I am not a superstitious person but I mentally spat three times to ward off the evil eye and forestall enraged Orthodox males – and females – from attacking the three women ordained with the title of “maharat” in Manhattan on the gloriously sunny June 16 Sunday afternoon. Of course such misogynist religious violence – think the physical attacks on Women of the Wall in Jerusalem –could never happen here. Really? It could but hopefully won’t.

For sure these three women will be Orthodox role models. And for sure they’ve picked up inspiration along the road to maharat from Blu Greenberg, woman of grace and wise determination. Founder of JOFA (Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance) in 1997, for years she’s been predicting we would see Orthodox women rabbis in our lifetime. Activist Rabbi Avi Weiss turned Greenberg’s words “Where there’s a rabbinic will, there’s a halakhic way” into a new kosher reality.

They certainly have pastoral powers but defining maharat remains a work in progress. They cannot count in a minyan or act as witnesses in a Jewish court or in signing Jewish documents. According to the head of Yehisvat Maharat, Rabbi Jeffrey Fox, “They are only permitted to lead services or read Torah within the framework of Halakha.” Will a rabbinic court (men only) determine the framework? 

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Live from the Lilith Blog

May 9, 2013 by

The Wall and I

Historic c Barbara Gingold, Jerusalem.

Historic c Barbara Gingold, Jerusalem.

The Wailing Wall is dead – hopefully.

Not just because the term “Wailing Wall” has long been replaced by “Western Wall” or “Kotel” for the remains of the temple mount in Jerusalem but because of the victory – hopefully not short-lived – of Israeli state justice over Black Hats with political pull.

Separate and hopefully finally equal. In the women’s section of the wall, women can now put on all the ritual accoutrements of prayer traditionally worn by men and can conduct services, read from the Torah without getting hauled off by police for offending some Orthodox males in the men’s section of the wall. 

Thank God. Or, more precisely, thank the sanity of the Israeli court system, not to be confused in any way with the beit din, the religious court where women are forbidden to give testimony, let alone judge.

The Wall and I Part One

My own relationship to the Wall goes back to the ‘60s. Heading home to New York after three years in Thailand (Peace Corps teacher then Bangkok Post reporter), I stopped in Israel. I landed in Lod (now Ben-Gurion Airport) on Shabbat – like landing in the bottom of an elevator shaft. Almost no way out.

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Live from the Lilith Blog

March 29, 2013 by

Stuttgart seder – where no Jewish feminist has gone before?

Prologue: Back in New York, the Stuttgart synagogue demands proof of our Judaism before admitting us to the seder given by the Jewish Religious Community of Württenberg (the part of Southwest Germany where Stuttgart is located).

They’re expecting an overflow and Jews get priority. Having to prove you’re Jewish in Germany? As one no-nonsense D.C. rabbi put it, “I’ve had to vouch for the Judaism of people making aliyah, but Germany?” I email a photo of our ketubah. All these years I’d been feeling guilty that I’d sold out and had two male witnesses rather than one female and one male sign our marriage contract. Now bowing to the Orthodox authorities has paid off.

Main event: Problems evaporate. All four of us are admitted to the Stuttgart Jewish community seder – my beloved and I, our raised-Catholic hostess, Christie, and 17-year-old son, Oskar. No security guards. No passport check. About 100 of the faithful are seated at long tables with the Orthodox rabbi at head table, rebbetzin at side. He’s in a kittel (white cloth robe), long white beard, black yarmulke over receding hairline. Christie, a former television newscaster, goes to shake his hand. He recoils. Welcome to someone else’s Judaism.

We get lucky. We end up with a bunch of what looks like Israeli hippies. Turns out they’re The Voca People. Oskar is impressed. We’re clueless. In performance, they’re a singing group of eight, dressed like something between all-white Smurfs and George Segal plaster-of-Paris sculptures with red lipstick. More than 12 million people have already clicked on their website. They’re all about how music needs no translation.

Back at the seder, forget Miriam’s Cup. I have no idea whether or not Miriam plays a role in the Israeli Jewish National Fund (JNF) edition of the parting of the Red Sea.

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Feminists In Focus

February 14, 2013 by

Where the Women Are (At the 22nd Annual NY Jewish Film Festival)

Life? Or Theatre?

Dutch director – male – obsessed with tragic German artist – female. German auteur filmmaker – female – honing in on interplay of intellect and sexuality driving renowned German-American political theorist – also female. Polish filmmakers – male – documenting a Polish town’s response to death camp transports but failing to get the only known survivor dropped from a train, a woman, to talk.

What do this year’s NY Jewish Film Festival offerings say about the roles of Jewish women when women and men make film? From a wide-ranging two weeks of domestic and international films, here come snapshots of three Shoah-related films: one documentary, one feature, one documentary short.

Long-time Dutch filmmaker Frans Weisz is a man obsessed with artist Charlotte Salomon, the subject of his 1981 feature film “Charlotte” and his freewheeling documentary, 30 years later, “Life? Or Theatre?”

Poor Charlotte. The shy, almost invisible, middle-class German Jew. She had one passionate relationship in Nazi Berlin before fleeing to the relative safety of a wealthy American woman’s chateau in the south of France. As Hitler destroyed European Jewry, Charlotte worked out her own life story in Leben? oder Theater? Diving into this massive work was her response to learning of her family’s hidden history of suicide, including her own mother. (Now in Amsterdam’s Jewish Historical Museum, the nearly 800 gouaches are like the storyboard for a musical, a three-part life story with acts and scenes, with tracing-paper overlays of comments and musical notations. The artist pared them down from an outpouring of some 1,300 pieces.)

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Feminists In Focus

February 6, 2013 by

Let Us Now Praise Non-Jewish Jews

Dispatches from the NY Jewish Film Festival.

(The 22nd New York Jewish Film Festival, presented by The Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, ran through Jan. 24, 2013. The Ninth Annual Brooklyn Israel Film Festival, ran Jan. 24, 26, 27. For details, visit here.)

[WARNING: If by some long shot you’re planning to see “The Yellow Ticket” do not let this review ruin the plot. Skip to “AKA Doc Pomus.”]

The jaw-dropping happy ending to the 1918 Pola Negri silent film “The Yellow Ticket” (also translated as “The Devil’s Pawn”) is that the super smart and beautiful young Jewess from Warsaw is not Jewish. She’s the love child of the distinguished medical professor whom she’s studying with in St. Petersburg. She then gets to accept the affection of her dashing Russian classmate.

But this OMG-she’s-not-Jewish ending shouldn’t make the film traif. The plot is based on a Yiddish melodrama and is believed to be the earliest film dealing with discrimination against Jews in Czarist Russia.

“The Yellow Ticket” was screened at the NY Film Festival Jan. 10, with a new score by klezmer violinist extraordinaire Alicia Svigals, with Svigals on violin and singing, and Marilyn Lerner on piano.

Amidst the pantomimed over-acting that is the hallmark of many a silent film, Negri plays the brilliant young woman with delicacy, despite the heavy-duty black eye makeup found only on a silent film star or a raccoon.

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Feminists In Focus

December 5, 2012 by

‘Fill the Void’ with Hasidic Dream Men

Park your Jewish feminist preconceptions at the door of this Israeli “insider film” on life within the world of Tel Aviv Hasidim.

“Fill the Void” (“Lemale et ha’Chalal”) made its U.S. premiere in October at the 50th New York Film Festival, following its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival, where lead actress Hadas Yaron received Best Actress award. This is the story of a young Hasidic woman pressured to marry her brother-in-law after her sister dies in childbirth.

Don’t expect the bitter tale of a teen-ager whose dreams and youth are sacrificed to an ultra-Orthodox society in need of childcare. This first feature film written and directed by 45-year-old Rama Burshtein, a happily Hasidic New York-born Israeli, is gentle, sweet and totally self-contained. The outside world remains outside the close-knit community of well-dressed Hassids with international connections. Clothed in the time warp of a vanished East European Jewry, the men wear white knee socks, silken holiday robes that anywhere else would be luxe bathrobes, and shtreimels (fur hats) the size of lampshades. The wives cover their heads with stylish turbans – silk wrappings in faux leopard prints. But the feeling is anything but antique; this is an observant way of life that’s alive and well.

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Feminists In Focus

June 25, 2012 by

Feminists in Focus: Faigele Film Festival Kvels Over ‘DevOUT’

Thank God the Jews don’t have a pope.

While the Vatican is denouncing Sister Margaret Farley’s “Just Love: a Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics” with its defense of same-sex marriage, the JCC in Manhattan is celebrating all things LGBTQ-Jew with its month-long Gay Paree. The June festivities started with the Seventh Annual Faigele Film Festival (a one-night stand of two films). Not just a JCC thing, Conservative Judaism promulgated wording for same-sex marriage ceremonies – and divorces – in time for June weddings and Gay Pride Day.

But in Orthodox communities don’t expect any openly passionate same-sex hand holding on either side of the mechitzah.

Quick cut to the Faigele Film Festival’s screening of “DevOUT,” the 37-minute video where lesbian Orthodox Jews explain why they want to be true to both their faith and their sexuality. Proof that sisterhood is powerful, the video was made by two straight women, neither of them Jewish. One Christian, one Muslim, Diana Neille from South Africa and Sana Gulzar from Pakistan won the trust of the women involved to produce the video as their 2011 Columbia Journalism School master’s project. They were quick studies. The soundtrack includes sinuously sensual klezmer music from New York’s Isle of Klezbos sextet.

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Live from the Lilith Blog

May 15, 2012 by

On the Dangerous Dykes Book Tour

This past week was a good one. President Obama finally came out in support of same-sex marriage. In contrast, homophobia still holds sway in the worlds of Orthodox Judaism, even within the enlightened academic stronghold of modern Orthodoxy — Yeshiva University (YU) and its women’s undergraduate school, Stern College, both in Manhattan.

Two days before Obama made his announcement, a crowd of more than 100 piled into the offices of JOFA (Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance) for the book tour of the anthology Keep Your Wives Away from Them – Orthodox Women Unorthodox Desires. The event was sponsored with Eshel, an organization working to build support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews in traditional Jewish communities.

You’ve got to love a book whose cover looks like a photo from yesteryear of a sweet looking dyke in drag, straight out of the shtetl. The book’s essays speak personally and halachically (according to Jewish law) of lesbian, bi and transgender sexuality within Orthodox Judaism. The book tour’s goal is to connect traditionally Jewish and Orthodox lesbian, bi, trans and queer people to each other and to raise awareness in the Jewish community about being LGBTQ and Orthodox.

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