December 9, 2015 by Eleanor J. Bader
It’s ubiquitous: Go to any abortion clinic in the United States and you’ll likely see protesters out front chanting the Rosary, holding pictures of Jesus, or screaming about God’s love of fetal personhood. Sometimes affiliated with a local parish, the protesters rant, rave, berate, and cajole, and even if they don’t stop the woman from entering the clinic and having the procedure, they work overtime to get inside her head. Given this pervasive presence, it’s not surprising that most Americans assume that all religions oppose abortion and the use of contraceptives. But they don’t. And never have.
A Time to Embrace: Why the Sexual and Reproductive Justice Movement Needs Religion, a new report written by the Westport, Connecticut-based Religious Institute, corrects this misimpression and briefly traces the history of religious support for birth control, and later, abortion, LGBTQ rights, and the freedom to marry. The report also provides an insightful overview of how and why this support has waxed and waned over the past 85 years.
“Protestant and Jewish clergy were centrally involved in the early days of the birth control movement,” the report begins. In fact, in the 1930s, numerous denominations passed resolutions in support of contraception and formed the multi-faith National Clergyman’s Council to support its promotion. Rabbis, ministers and lay religious leaders also got involved in the American Birth Control League, the precursor of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Then, in 1967, a group of 21 clergy—19 ministers and two rabbis—publicly announced the formation of the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion (CCSA), a well-vetted referral network that grew to include 1,400 professionals and helped more than 100,000 women secure a safe, if still illegal, abortion. These preachers, the report continues, were outspoken risk-takers who openly touted breaking an unjust law. And they prevailed.
December 7, 2015 by Amy Stone
Perhaps it was her persona—a young woman utterly pure, idealistic and determined—that convinced Avraham Shapira to entrust Mor Loushy with the 200 hours of soldiers’ interviews from the Six-Day War, tapes that had remained in his closet for nearly 50 years. The tapes, sealed by the Israeli Army, hold the voices of kibbutzniks recorded immediately after the ’67 war, expressing their sadness and pain at what they felt was an uncomfortable turning point for Israel. Their voices undermine the mythic triumphalism of the Six-Day War.
Shapira and Amos Oz—the young kibbutznik who grew into the eloquent novelist— tapped into the raw anguish soldiers fresh from victory could not speak about to wives, lovers, friends. Within months, Shapira had transcribed the tapes into The Seventh Day: Soldiers Talk about the Six-Day War. The Israeli Army censored 70 percent, but even the highly redacted publication created a sensation. But gradually the reaction faded. Pride in the David vs. Goliath heroics triumphed as an essential part of the Israeli mythos.
Over the decades, Shapira was approached by those who would make the tapes public, but, in the words of Loushy, now 33, “he continued to protect the intimate conversations.”
In her 20s at the time, with only one film to her credit as director, Loushy pursued the keeper of the tapes. “I wouldn’t take no for an answer,” she said in a Skype interview from Tel Aviv. When she finally approached Shapira at a university lecture, he was ready to trust her, and invited her to his kibbutz. He handed over the tapes, giving her total freedom to create her documentary. It took her three years.
December 3, 2015 by Roberta Elliott
Hineni: Day One, Vienna
Each person who is here in Vienna helping the Syrian refugees transit through Austria has his/her own story. Karin, a fourth-grade teacher, lives in the neighborhood of the Westbahnhoff, the West Train Station where Caritas, the Catholic refugee service, has set up a major assistance operation. She tells me she first started volunteering weeks ago when she couldn’t sleep at night knowing that she was warm and comfortable while refugees only blocks away were cold, displaced, and needed her help.
Tim is in charge of the food station next to the tracks where trains arrive from Lower Austria jam packed with refugees. He greets me in English through a thick German accent, glad to see me, a fellow American. Though he was born in Germany, he has fully embraced being an American, even though he only lived in Queens for 12 years before marrying an Austrian woman and moving to Vienna. He wants no association with anything German – except his grandparents. He is here because they hid Jews during the war, and he wants to fulfill the expectations he imagines they would have of him were they still alive. Not only does he volunteer for Caritas most days, but he has rented the apartment next to his to house an Iraqi refugee and her children. “My grandparents hid Jews for years. The least I can do is put this woman up for a year while she waits for her husband to join her.”
November 30, 2015 by Emily Moore
During this season of bounty and harvest, Emily Moore offers up some great autumnal food culture—and delicious seasonal recipes.
The afternoon was as rainy as the autumnal Pacific Northwest offers, with buffeting breezes whisking dollops of rain off the 50-foot Douglas firs and onto our barely waterproof hats and jackets. The area was perfect, finally encountered after hours driving potholed back roads seeking a forested bench that held our quarry, secreted in the thick, soggy duff beneath towering trees. As evening darkness became our quiet companion, our eyes quickly swept the gloomy ground studded with fallen leaves, patiently urging our golden prizes to appear.
“Wait, c’mere, is this one?” I heard my partner call as I tripped over yet another shadowy log. Running over and making out a lovely, upright yellow form peaking out from the fallen branches, I shrieked in delight, “Yes, yes, yes it is! Our first chanterelle!”
We only found a few more fresh, musky-smelling specimens that evening before the lack of a flashlight sent us back to the car and the trip home to civilization. But something about our methodical search through the deep forest reminded me of my great-grandmothers’ pursuit of the same foraged food in the woods of Poland and the Ukraine, many decades ago, listening for the sound of hoof beats that might mean the beginning of another pogrom or an attack by the soldiers of the czar. Wild mushrooms have been, of course, popular foods among all European and Middle Eastern cultures for millennia, but for the centuries when Jews all over Europe could not own property, raising poultry, foraging and collecting the fruits of pasture and forests were a normal part of seeking survival. Women, as the leaders of Jewish households. were the main foragers in extended families.
Skill in recognizing and collecting edible wild mushrooms was part of all cultures during the millennia when hunting and gathering prevailed as a predominant method of gaining food. The Jews, having been around for many millennia, have had cultural, social, culinary and even early spiritual connections with different fungi, some very pleasant and aromatic (the culinary connections), others ringing with vitriolic anti-Semitism and still others bespeaking shadowy mythic spiritualism.
The “Jews ear” or “Judas ear” mushroom (Auricularia auricula-judae) is a little mushroom that grows on tree bark, sticking out from the tree’s truck in rusty pink-brown colonies that look very much like groups of little veined ears! The name “Jew’s ear” apparently was a contraction over time from “Judas ear”, so-named because, according to Christian legend, after Judas Iscariot reputedly betrayed Jesus he hanged himself from the branch of an elder tree, which species often supports communities of the edible fungi. It is also been popularly cultivated in China for 1,000 years where it is left to grow dark with maturity, picks up the names “black ear” or the familiar “wood ear” and is often eaten in soups and lightly cooked dishes, and used in medical applications.
November 25, 2015 by Rabbi Deborah R. Prinz
The complex flavor profile of sumptuous chocolate has finally made it to Hanukkah gelt. Cookbook author and Jewish food expert, Leah Koenig, hunts out only “top notch chocolate, products that put the chocolate first.” Koenig, who has savored several gelt tastings, looks for a high ratio of cocoa solids to the other products. For Koenig that means, “more flavor than sweet.”
Additional palatable chocolate gelt choices include ethical ingredients that are certified Fair Trade. Fair Trade standards prohibit the use of child and slave labor, a problem particularly in cocoa sourced from West Africa. Ashira Abramowitz’s project for her Bat Mitzvah at Kol Haneshama synagogue in Jerusalem seeks to insure that Strauss, the biggest chocolate company in Israel, sells only Fair Trade chocolate. To support Ashira’s campaign to bring Fair Trade chocolate to Israel, sign her petition. Ashira learned about Fair Trade from her older sister, Hallel, who traveled with American Jewish World Services to Ghana. There Hallel learned about child slavery on cocoa farms. Hallel returned to Jerusalem a committed Fair Trade consumer.
Ashira reported the following to me in an email on November 24, 2015, just moments after her first formal conversation with the Strauss company about the issues:
I spoke with Daniela Prusky-Sion who is the International Corporate Responsibility Manager at Strauss Group. She was very friendly and assured me that they are using ethical chocolate but that their corporate social responsibility essentially ends at the suppliers of the cocoa … I spoke about the importance of not supporting child slavery, especially for Passover chocolates. She thanked me for wanting to help and wished me Mazal Tov on my Bat Mitzvah. Ashira invited Strauss Company chairwoman, Ofra Strauss, to her Bat Mitzvah where challot with Fair Trade chocolate caramel bars mixed in will be served in tribute to Ashira’s childhood favorite. Fair Trade Chanukah gelt will also be distributed.
November 24, 2015 by Yona Zeldis McDonough
Smart yet tender, funny yet deep, The Book of Faith, is a sly, witty send-up of squabble-filled synagogue politics deftly penned by Elaine Kalman Naves. At the heart of the novel are Faith, Rhoda and Erica, three bosom buddies, not young but not old either, affectionately known as the Three Graces. When Rabbi Nate announces that he wants a new building to house their congregation, he sets the community into a small uproar, and each of the women—well-drawn, sympathetic and complex—have a role to play in advancing or impeding the conflicting agendas that emerge. Will Rabbi Nate get his heart’s desire? Can Erica appease the whims of a rich and unpredictable donor? What does Rhoda learn and what becomes of Faith? Below is a teaser; you’ll just have to read the book to find out more.
Erica backed out of her driveway on Saturday morning in some haste. It was five past ten—she would have to hustle to make it. Since Faith’s investiture as president, this had become their routine. Instead of lingering over the fat Saturday paper, catching up on phone calls, or doing the groceries, they were off to shul together.
Erica had learned to be on time for these outings; Faith was starchy if kept waiting. “On time,” though, meant a calibrated degree of lateness. Services started at ten, but being there for Mah tovu, the first of the morning prayers, showed greater eagerness for religion than Faith deemed necessary. On the other hand, she considered arriving after 10:20 bad form for her new presidential status. A decorous entrance before the Amidah, the standing prayer, was just right.
Erica pulled up in front of Faith’s brick and stone split-level on Rosedale, just as Faith, who’d been watching for her from inside, came sailing down the stairs.
“A new outfit?” Erica asked her as she buckled up.
“Rhoda and I found it on sale at BCBG. It was a steal.”
November 19, 2015 by Yona Zeldis McDonough
Ellen Wallenstein’s astute and tender eye falls gently upon this group of over-80s, all photographed in the natural light of their homes or studios. The subjects, several of them notable Jewish women, skew towards artists and intellectuals, all born at the beginning of the last century. “Known as the ‘Greatest Generation’ and coming of age between the two World Wars, the effect of this generation’s contribution is evident in their creative work, which includes books, poems, paintings, photographs, plays and performances,” notes Wallenstein. “My photographs are meant to celebrate these individuals and to inspire admiration by future generations.”
November 18, 2015 by Amy Stone
Barely 48 hours after the Paris reign of terror, it feels like a Jew-centric indulgence to show up for Sacred Rights Sacred Song‘s “A Concert of Concern,” billed as “a musical experience to support Israel’s modern Jewish democracy.”
But when Sunday’s New York area premiere changed course to open with full-throated, full-orchestrated ringing tones of “La Marseillaise,” tears came to my eyes. This was the right place to be—in the darkened main sanctuary of Ansche Chesed. The Upper West Side Conservative synagogue had opened its doors for this call to action to us New York Jews.
With the timing of “A Concert of Concern,” I expected an outpouring of Jews—and others—feeling the need to come together to be healed by music with a call to action for democracy. We would find strength and comfort with others to stand up against extremism in the name of religion.
So where was everybody? Barely 50 people were scattered around the dramatic darkness of the sanctuary, the bima bathed in light, two giant six-branch menorahs (symbols of the Jewish State) flanking the 18-person chorus; full orchestra below, under the baton of Cantor David Tillman, silver-haired, in black suit, small knitted yarmulke. (By their headgear you shall judge them.)
Sacred Rights Sacred Song (punning on “rights”) is the creation of lawyer-mother-religious activist Francine M. Gordon. She alternates between giving the facts on the ways that Israel’s Jewish democracy falls short, especially for women, and joining the chorus in music composed to inspire American Jews to push for change in Israel.
She quotes David Ben-Gurion, founding prime minister of Israel, declaring that the State of Israel “will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed or sex; will guarantee full freedom of conscience, worship, education and culture.”
November 16, 2015 by Susan Brownmiller
On an overcast afternoon in October, I went with a friend to Madison Square Garden to watch Maccabi Tel Aviv play an exhibition game against Armani Milan. Exhibitions, or “friendly games,” do not count in a team’s standing. Exhibitions entertain folks who have no other way to see the teams; they are performed for charities; and they give new players on the roster time to adjust and strut their stuff.
I like basketball, and I love Israel. My Facebook posts are often about Israel, occasionally about sports, and mostly about feminist issues. The Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, an organization which aims—among other things—to reach unaffiliated secular Jews, had emailed me an invitation to celebrate Israel by cheering for Maccabi Tel Aviv in New York. Tickets ranged from $500 for courtside to $30 for the bleachers. My friend Evan, also a feminist and a sports and Israel fan, took a look at the seating chart and suggested we buy $100 tickets. (Oh, how I yearn to sit courtside at the Garden once in my life.)
Tel Aviv and Milan play in the EuroLeague, the wildly popular European equivalent of our NBA. Maccabi Tel Aviv won the Euro championship several times, prompting boycott/divest/sanctions activists for Palestinians to win notoriety by disrupting Israeli matches. These activists even tried–and failed—to get Israel banned by the EuroLeague. Nothing involving Israel is ever out of bounds, apparently.
Outside the arena on the appointed Sunday, some Hasids in 18th-century garb invited me to shake the lulav and etrog. Huh? I recognized the palms and fruit but was unaware that this was the last day of Succoth. I shook my head no politely.
Our seats, when we finally found them, were right above the press box; the binoculars in my bag could have stayed home. A bunch of Israelis in front of us unfurled a huge Star of David banner for waving; they promised to sit down when the action started. Some native New Yorkers behind us were gushing about “Dragon.” Who or what was “Dragon”?
We all stood up to sing the national anthems. I held my own for “The Star Spangled Banner.” Next came “Hatikvah.” Despite childhood lessons three times a week at the East Midwood Jewish Center in Brooklyn, plus Jewish summer camp in the Poconos, the only lines I recalled were Kol ‘od balevav penimah at the beginning and the rousing Eretz-Tziyon viyerushalayim at the end. I was mortified by how much in between I‘d forgotten. But hearing the beautiful “Hatikvah” float over Madison Square Garden was thrilling. Exalting. A smattering of Milan fans in the house raised their voices shyly for the Italian Anthem.
Tel Aviv was in yellow and blue. Milan was dazzling in red and white dotted with sparkles—I guess that was the Armani touch. From the first toss I sensed trouble: Milan scored an easy five points. True, I am a worrywart with a critical mind but I am not an ignoramus about basketball. I’d played it at summer camp, chafing under the sexist rules of the era that didn’t let girls dribble—one bounce was the limit. Decades later I used to watch the Knicks on TV. I know about defense, turnovers, two-pointers, three pointers, fouls and free throws, rebounds and assists, jump shots and dunks. I know the fourth quarter can be a twist of fate.
Milan’s players were taller and quicker. They completed their passes. Their layups seldom bounced off the hoop. To my horror, Tel Aviv seemed hesitant on offense and kept turning over the ball. “DE-fense, DE-fense,” I shouted. Do I have to tell Israelis about “DE-fense”?
And “Dragon”? An 18-year-old from Croatia, Dragan Bender is a tall, lanky, fluid, undeniably adorable power forward for Tel Aviv whom the NBA is scouting. EuroLeague teams can have a few players who aren’t nationals on their rosters. Some are starting their careers, like the hottie Bender, while others—Americans from the NBA—are stretching their careers as long as they can. Maccabi Tel Aviv employs some aging Americans.
Tel Aviv lost, 72-76. Two days earlier in Chicago they beat Milan in a squeaker. If ever there was a venue outside Israel where an Israeli sports victory would have been greeted with pandemonium, it was Madison Square Garden. “Next year,” someone said.
I’ll be there. And I’ll know all the words to “Hatikvah.”
Susan Brownmiller is an American feminist journalist, author, and activist best known for her 1975 book Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape.
November 12, 2015 by Joy Ladin
When we think about the achievements of feminism in the US, we usually think about how feminist political activity has changed, and continues to change, the status of women. But in demanding that American Jewish communities and institutions reconsider women’s place and status in them, Jewish feminists have also laid the groundwork for inclusion of transgender Jews by teaching the Jewish world to think about gender.
Marshall McLuhan said that whoever discovered water, you can bet it wasn’t a fish. Before feminism, in most Jewish communities, gender was like water to fish: an invisible, omnipresent medium that permeated every aspect of Jewish identity, from family life to religious practice to social roles to institutional priorities. Jewish families and communities automatically sorted their members by gender, assigning them radically different roles, responsibilities, resources and possibilities; everywhere, Jewish tradition, ritual, liturgy and sacred texts assumed and reinforced the idea that gender divisions were a natural part of Judaism and Jewishness.
American Jewish feminists were fish who discovered water. Though their names and writings were rarely mentioned in the upstate New York Jewish world I grew up in, the work done by Judith Plaskow, Esther Broner, Rivka Haut, Alicia Ostriker and so many others prompted even our backwater congregations to think about gender rather than to assume it, and to recognize that the automatic gendered allocation of roles (the most public, of course, went to men, and the most laborious largely were given to women) was not an inherent, unchangeable aspect of synagogue life, but choices we were making every day. As women in our communities started to question those choices and work toward changing them, everyone, even those defending traditional gender roles, found themselves thinking and talking about gender – and realizing that different members of same community often had very different ideas about what it means to be a Jewish man or a Jewish woman. Feminist theory, queer theory, and gender studies were never mentioned, but as synagogue members debated whether women could be rabbis and presidents, and whether omnipresent male pronouns needed to be changed in prayer books (do we really have to buy new prayer books?) and policy statements (isn’t it clear that “man” means “everyone”?), they were learning that maleness and femaleness and the language and customs that go with them are not fixed by biology or divine decree, but, like so much else in Jewish life, are subject to negotiation.
Thanks to the work of Jewish feminists, Jewish communities across the United States found ideas of gender multiplying like frogs in Pharaoh’s bed. Gender divisions were becoming a source of controversy, disruption, an endless font of inequity and grievance. Many non-Orthodox congregations responded by eliminating gender distinctions in ritual, institutional roles and prayers, creating forms of Judaism and Jewishness that don’t require Jews to be defined as, or to define ourselves, as male or female. (I saw how far we had come when my young son, who grew up with Sheila Peltz Weinberg as his rabbi, asked me one day if men could be rabbis too – a question that demonstrated both how much feminism had changed Judaism, and how hard it is to overcome our tendency to think of Judaism as bound up with and divided by gender.)
Thanks to feminist work, American Jews are now used to thinking about, debating and redefining gender, and developing ways of being Jewish that don’t depend on gender. For transgender Jews – Jews who don’t fit traditional definitions of male and female, either because our gender identities don’t match the sex of our bodies, or because we don’t identify as male or female at all – feminists’ ground-breaking, and often back-breaking, work is a gift that keeps on giving.
Thanks to feminist defiance of traditional definitions of what it meant to be a Jewish woman, Jewish communities wrestling with inclusion of transgender members already know that gender is not just a matter of communal practice, but also of individual self-definition. By insisting that Jewish women need not be bound by traditional feminine gender expression – that women may come to shul in pants as in skirts or dresses, may be carpenters or insurance adjusters or stay-at-home moms, may be gay or bisexual as well as straight – feminists have prepared Jewish communities for members who don’t fit communal ideas of maleness and femaleness.
Similarly, by explaining how alienating it can be for women when male pronouns are presented as universal (“The Jew is a man who…”), a practice that was once the rule in Jewish public speech, feminist thinking has prepared Jewish communities to consider how gendered language sounds and feels to transgender Jews, to understand that language that assumes that everyone is either male or female can inadvertently wound or exclude – and to translate this understanding into thoughtful revisions of liturgy, prayer, and institutional policies. Jewish feminists have shown us what assumptions and practices we need to reconsider, what policies we need to re-examine, and even what committees we need to form, when our communal understanding of gender grows. They have also taught us that in many cases we can avoid hurt feelings and extra committee meetings by eliminating gender distinctions altogether, turning our synagogues and institutions into places that are safe, respectful, equitable and inclusive for everyone, whether we identify as male, as female, or in ways that don’t fit traditional terms at all.
I remember when debates inspired by feminist protest about the roles of women were dismissed as wasteful distractions, irrelevant to and disruptive of the spiritual and religious life of the Jewish people. But Jewish feminists have demonstrated that rethinking gender in Judaism can enrich our understanding of God and Torah. They’ve shown us that conceptualizing God in masculine terms associates God with oppressive patriarchal social systems and misogynist social practices, and thus reflects not God’s nature but human nature, a form of mental idolatry that reduces the incomprehensible mystery of the Divine to narrow human terms. By shattering this idol – by demonstrating that representing God as male is a choice rather than a theological necessity – feminists have prompted liturgists and theologians to recognize and build upon the many other ways Jewish tradition represents God, including images that associate God with femaleness, such as prophetic references to God as “crying out like a woman in childbirth,” and passages that portray God as beyond gender, as the disembodied Source of Creation.
But feminist challenges to the association of God with masculinity have changed more than theology and liturgy. Because Jews believe that human beings are created in the image of God, freeing our conceptions of God from the limits of human gender expands our conception of what it means to be human as well as what it means to be God.
When we insist that God is male, we define women as a lesser form of humanity, in which the image of God is blurrier, less perfectly realized, than it is in men. When we recognize that God, who existed before humanity was a glimmer in God’s eye, who will still be there after the universe itself has vanished, cannot possibly be just male or female, we recognize that everyone created in God’s image is also vaster, more complicated and more mysterious than any gender can encompass. And when we realize that neither God nor humanity fits within the terms of gender, we recognize that being male or female is not essential to being human, an insight that helps us see that transgender people too are created in the image of God.
When Jewish feminists began to challenge the association of God with masculinity, they demonstrated the limitations of all the readings of Torah that depend on that association, and invited all Jews to “stand again at Sinai,” as the title of Judith Plaskow’s ground-breaking book put it: to rethink, reinterpret and reimagine the Torah in new ways. This prompted a flood of readings highlighting the roles of women and the politics of gender in traditional Jewish texts, and inspired an extraordinary outpouring of new midrash, reimaginings of the Torah in story and song, picture and dance, that help us recognize in the Torah a dazzling array of voices, perspectives and possibilities that traditional male-centered readings marginalize, exclude and erase.
The Jewish feminist challenge to stand again at Sinai has empowered transgender Jews to re-read Torah from our own perspectives, to articulate how these ancient texts look to those who, like God, exist beyond the usual categories of male and female, and to highlight aspects of the tradition that speak to transgender experience – like the midrash that imagines that Abraham and Sarah were childless because they were neither male nor female, and that God transformed them sexually so that Sarah could become pregnant – and to create midrash of our own.
As a transgender Jew, I benefit every day from the wisdom, work and courage of Jewish feminists. Without them, the idea of a Jewish world that welcomes all Jews, regardless of gender identity and expression, would seem like a Messianic dream. Thanks to them, in congregations and communities across the U.S., that dream is beginning to come true.
Joy Ladin, Gottesman Professor of English at Yeshiva University, is the author of National Jewish Book Award finalist Through the Door of Life: a Jewish Journey Between Genders. A former Lilith cover girl, she has spoken and published widely on Jewish and transgender identity. www.joyladin.com