Lines of Communication

Rape Findings Skewed?
I found myself feeling very uncomfortable with the conclusions in the article on “Why Jewish Women Get Raped” (Interview with Pauline Bart, #15). Here was yet another suggestion that a woman is a victim and a Jew is a victim as a result of an ethnically determined inability to react physically to imminent danger.

I think it’s stretching an analogy to compare the Holocaust to rape-avoidance strategies.

And to make sweeping generalizations about the unique vulnerability of Jewish women based on approximately one-fifth (18) of an already small sample of women (94) seems manipulative—as if the need to present an article with a “Jewish” slant was more pressing than a general article on Bart’s findings on rape.

My own experience as a Jewish female raised in the suburbs for over 20 years then living alone in a large city for another 15 leads me to suspect that “street smarts” is an essential issue, one which has less to do with ethnic background and everything to do with social class. A woman (Jewish or not) raised in the comfort and safety of a socially homogeneous community learns no violence-avoidance strategies until or unless she is later exposed to an environment demanding them. Of the 18 Jewish women Bart interviewed, how many of them actually were raised in a heterogeneous community (that is, in an urban setting) as compared to the non-Jewish group?

I have to think that both “natal” community and the social conventions of being raised a proper middle-class girl certainly shape responses to danger more than ethnic content. Perhaps the 18 Jewish women in Bart’s studied group all shared these demographics, perhaps Jews share these conditions disproportionately. Perhaps the article should have been titled “Why (These 18) Jewish Women Got Raped.”
Sharon Lieberman Evanston IL

Thank you so much for your article on “Jewish Women & Rape.” I consider myself a strong feminist and hoped I was raising my daughter to be the same. She is very verbal and articulate, but when she was raped last summer, age 14, she seemed strangely passive.

But after reading your article, lightning bolts began exploding for both of us. So thank you very much for helping us work through a horrid experience with a lot more understanding.
(name withheld) Seattle WA

Pauline Bart Responds:
I am pleased that Ms. Lieberman took the time to write her questions. I, too, thought that social class would be an important variable and measured it using father’s, mothers’, husband’s (if relevant) and own occupation and education. The only variable that predicted rape avoidance was mother’s education, which is paradoxical because it is the women with highly educated mothers who are most likely to avoid rape when attacked. Seven out of the eight women with mothers with postgraduate education avoided rape and no Jewish or Black woman with a mother with a B.A. or higher was raped when attacked.

I, too, thought that street smarts would be an important variable. Unfortunately the question I asked, “When you were growing up did you live in a dangerous neighborhood?”, utilized to get at that variable, was invalid since there was little agreement among respondents as to what constituted danger. (For example whites considered Hyde Park dangerous and Blacks considered Hyde Park safe, presumably because their comparison points differed.) I did not ask whether they grew up in rural, suburban or urban areas, but only how long they had lived in the place where they were assaulted.

Outcome-rape or rape avoidance resulted from a combination of situational and background variables, Ethnicity was one of the background variables. I am certainly not speaking about biological predispositions (except insofar as tallness is associated with rape avoidance and Jewish women were less likely to be five foot seven or over).

I have always had a “Jewish slant” in my research; this was not LILITH’s extrapolation. In fact, Chapter 6 is titled “Ethnicity and Rape Avoidance: Jews, White Catholics, and Blacks.” I presented it at the World Congress on Women in Haifa (1985) and it resonated with the Jewish women there.

It is usually the non-Jews who are surprised because they think of Jewish women as “aggressive.” I point out that physical aggressiveness is not valued or encouraged in Jewish homes, and it is this type of “aggression” that is effective in rape avoidance. In my study Jewish women were much less likely to have had parents who told them to fight back when they were in physical fights than were women in other ethnic groups, particularly Black women.

Furthermore, a reading of the cases of Jewish women shows an apparent qualitative difference between Jewish women and other women, and some Jewish women themselves speak of their need to be nice and helpful, qualities which may sound good in the abstract but are dangerous in the world we now live in.

Ms. Lieberman is correct of course in pointing out the limited nature of my sample. However Diana Russell, in Sexual Exploitation, drawing on a much larger randomly drawn sample of San Francisco households, also found that Jewish women were disproportionately likely to be sexually assaulted. She did not distinguish between rape and attempted rape.

Because of sample size I could not control for all the possible variables simultaneously; but l felt obligated to present this data so that Jewish women would, if they so desired, change the socialization of their girls and take self-defense themselves. I was chagrined when I learned that the rabbi in the city had raised my children in was against these implications because he did not think women should be trained to be independent of men for protection. It would have been irresponsible for me not to make the data I had available.

In Slopping Rape: Successful Survival Strategics we have an appendix containing all the women studied, with the relevant demographics including ethnicity. We also have an index by case number. I encourage those of you who are interested in exploring this issue further to make a list of Jewish women’s case numbers and learn their stories by looking them up in the book. But I particularly encourage others to build on this exploratory study as well as upon Diana Russell’s study, so that we can have a larger data base and thus refine our analysis.
In sisterhood, Pauline B. Bart

Mikvah—Feminist Mitzvah

I was very interested in your recent article on mikvah (ritual bath necessary before a religiously observant woman can resume sexual relations after her menstrual period) (“Reclaiming the Waters #15), though my perspective is very different from that of Rabbi Elyse Goldstein.

Mikvah always seemed to me to be the most “feminist” of mitzvot, once it is freed from the idea of the menstrual taboo and interpreted within a feminist context, albeit within a heterosexual marriage as well:

Mikvah stresses familiarity with one’s own body because of the importance of attention to the menstrual cycle. One is forced to get in touch with one’s rhythms and cycles, discharges and fertility—”my body/myself,” so to speak. And, although Rabbi Goldstein’s experience was apparently enhanced by her friends’ presence, the privacy in which most women observe mikvah can heighten the spiritual aspect of this most physical mitzvah—that of each woman’s relationship to God.

Because a mikvah is a uniquely female place and a uniquely female mitzvah, it creates a community of Jewish women, an instant sisterhood. Each woman who observes mikvah, from the Chassidic to the most “modern,” is linked not only to her contemporaries, but to her fore-mothers and descendants as well.

Celibacy, which has received much recent attention (by Germaine Greer, among others) is also an aspect of mikvah which can be viewed positively. Enforced celibacy for part of each month can refresh and intensify a resumed sexual relationship, particularly among long-married couples.

Our mikvah, at 71-11 Vleigh Place, Queens, NY, is not run by “male rabbis with…their own denominational territories to protect.” It is run by the women of the community with the help and support of rabbis and laymen, who reject “sheitl (wig) advertisements” as appropriate waiting-room literature and instead have a library and information on breast self-examination. We also offer educational programs on Jewish issues as well as women’s and health issues.

While Rabbi Goldstein’s ideas and innovations are interesting, and I hope she is successful in her quest to “take back the water,” some of us find deep meaning in mikvah the way it is and has always been.

Rabbi Goldstein’s tone and hostility to the Orthodox is somewhat offensive, and I hope she can open her mind enough to see both her way and ours as meaningful forms of religious expression.

Renee Septimus Jamaica Estates NY

Elyse Goldstein’s article on the mikvah is the best statement on that much misunderstood institution since the one published almost 20 years ago by Rachel Adler.

Rabbi Goldstein proposes that women take over the mikvah and make it over into a uniquely feminine institution. I think this idea can go a step further. Since men also use the mikvah, especially as part of their spiritual preparation for Shabbat, a visit to the mikvah could become a way of making a connection with the female aspects of Judaism.

Just as many women may feel that they are making use of masculine traditions in the synagogue, men using the mikvah can somehow be given the experience of a better understanding of the feminine through kavonnot or in some other way.

The practice of this kind of very physical spirituality might find a new role in Judaism among non-Orthodox men and might have a salutary effect in increased understanding between Jewish men and women.
Rabbi Philip J. Bentley Temple Or-Elohim Jericho NY

Information in the fourth paragraph of “Remembering Laura Z. Hobson” (issue #15) should have been attributed to Publisher’s Weekly, September 2, 1983. The publication date of The Trepassers is 1943, not 1945; the last sentence of the fourth paragraph should read: “As she said in a 1983 interview with Sybil S. Steinberg, ‘I take a part of my life and create a whole other creature around it.'” LILITH regrets these errors.  

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