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Unearthing the Gems of Feminist Scholarship

Where can you find Hasidic girls, feminist theologians, and Israeli settler women all being discussed? At the Jewish Feminist Research Group, sponsored by Ma’yan: The Jewish Women’s Project of the JCC on the Upper West Side, in Manhattan. Open to the public, each monthly meeting of the JFRG (co-sponsored by the Jewish Women’s Studies Program at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the CUNY Center for the Study of Women and Society, and Hebrew Union College) offers a peephole onto the work of Jewish women scholars—well-known academics and graduate students alike—with responses from other experts. Among recent speakers:

Judith Plaskow (professor, Manhattan College.) In “Decentering Sex: Rethinking Jewish Sexual Ethics,” Plaskow explored the ethics of sexual behavior. For Plaskow, to “decenter” sex means to create a new Jewish feminist sexual ethic by including texts that deal not only with sexuality but also with ethical relationships, community and social justice. For example, she cites: “Be kind to the stranger, for you were strangers in Egypt” as a line that invites even the marginalized to form new Jewish sexual norms.

Ayala Fader (doctoral candidate, NYU), “Practicing Style: Cultural Diacritics of Difference in a Hasidic Community in Boro Park, Brooklyn.” Fader argues that modesty, language choice and education are all related in Boro Park. Hasidic girls resist the communal language choice of Yiddish by speaking English among themselves. This is tacitly tolerated while deviance in modesty regulations are not. The girls generally accept this, partly because of their own ambivalence to the “modern” world. The community justifies its allowance of this deviance by claiming that in speaking English, girls reproduce the practices of their mothers. This choice also reinforces the difference between males and females. (Elite Ben Yosef, a doctoral candidate, Hofstra University, compared the Hasidic girls to African-American children who resist white culture by speaking Black English in school.)

The number of Jewish feminist scholars is burgeoning and chances are you can find one near you who might want to give your group an advance look at her research. To find out about past and future presentations at Ma’yan, call 212-580-0099; e-mail susan@mayan.org or go to www.mayan.org. To find scholars near you, contact Professor Hasia Diner, co-chair of the Women’s Caucus of the Association of Jewish Studies, at hrd1@is4.nyu.edu.

(Susan Shapiro is a program associate at Ma’yan and coordinator of the JFRG.)