A Controversy over Girls

When a magazine is written for young girls, by young girls, with the intention of “empowering girls,” is it a feminist magazine? That question was at the heart of a debate earlier this summer between Leah Caras, founder of Yaldah magazine (“Girl,” in Hebrew), and readers of Tablet, an “online magazine of Jewish news, ideas and culture.”

The dispute began on August 17, when Tablet published a profile of Yaldah (‘Young and Modest’) by Irin Carmon. Carmon, who writes regularly for Jezebel.com and has a prolific online presence, offered a cautiously complimentary appraisal. She acknowledged Caras’ remarkable achievement in single-handedly stewarding a mini-media empire (which she founded at the age of 13), but also highlighted the inherent contradiction in the magazine’s mission: that of education and empowerment versus the preservation of modesty and “innocence.” Yaldah sidesteps all controversial issues: boys, sex, drugs, loss of faith — anything which might challenge Jewish Orthodox norms of modesty and mitzvot. “Sometimes,” Carmon observed, “parents and children seem so united in the pages of the magazine that it’s hard to tell the difference between them.”

Caras’ response to the coverage was initially positive; she thanked Tablet graciously and effusively in the comments section online, and reiterated that Yaldah was not just for Orthodox readers but for all Jewish girls (though there do not seem to be non-Orthodox girls featured). FreiFem, a blogger at unpious.com, commented next: “This magazine’s emphasis on modesty and its refusal to address any real issues of teenage life, is irresponsible and sickening.” A wave of Yaldah supporters rushed forth in enthusiastic defense of the magazine, and debate ensued. Was Yaldah a feminist publication? Why not? Should it even matter? Does Yaldah have a responsibility to educate its readers about the “controversial” stuff of adolescence and adulthood, when the media is already saturated with such content?

Though Caras doesn’t describe herself or her magazine as feminist, she’s attempting to reconcile Torah observance with an ethos of female independence and empowerment. That’s a very precarious and challenging path to walk, as many Orthodox women can attest. Caras is passionate about the ability of Jewish girls to change the world and achieve their dreams, but what if your dream is to be a hedge fund manager, or a neurosurgeon, or a navy pilot? How do you achieve those things without, say, wearing pants, or working on Shabbat, or shaking a male colleague’s hand? These are all behaviors a “modest” Orthodox girl or woman would likely eschew. Carmon is right to apply a critical lens to Caras’ endeavor—not because the magazine has a moral obligation to explicitly address “controversial” issues such as sex (Yaldah’s readership is as young as eight), but because Yaldah doesn’t engage with the challenges and difficulties of being an empowered, Orthodox female adult. The magazine talks the talk of empowerment, but does it walk the walk? There’s the rub: if your mission is to empower young Jewish girls, you need to educate them about how to apply these ideals in the real, secular, often-sexist, sexualized world. Then, hopefully, we’ll see some female, Orthodox, head-covering neurosurgeons. I, for one, would stand up and applaud.