Carol Roberts Gerson, a Chicagoan mohelet who I had the honor of interviewing.
Talia bat Pessi: Did you aspire to be a doctor when you were a child, or did you fall into it?
Mohelet Carol Roberts Gerson: When I was quite young, I wanted to be a pathologist like my uncle. That went away for a long time and eventually I decided to go to medical school after working in a state mental hospital. I thought I would be a psychiatrist, but ended up a surgeon. Instant gratification won out over long term psychotherapy with uncertain results.
Why did you become a mohelet?
With a husband and daughter who are both rabbis, it seemed like the perfect melding of the two halves of my life, Judaism and surgery. It is a unique role that as a physician I am able to fulfill and is a privilege. It is a real honor to have people welcome you into their homes and trust you with their newborn. It is also a time of great emotion linking generations.
Does your family - parents, husband, children - support you?
My family supports me completely, except that my daughters say that no one they ever date will know what it is that I do. Too likely to scare them away.
Do you find that being female adds or detracts from your role as mohelet?
Women are often less threatening as surgeons in general. We tend to be more nurturing as well, which is a very good thing for a new mom and dad dealing with post-partum emotional ups and downs. A Jewish mother appreciating your little new baby may be easier for them to hand the little guy to.
Do you have an opinion on how girls should be welcomed in the Jewish community in a celebration parallel to a brit milah?
My husband has always done lovely baby naming ceremonies for little girls. Most of my ceremony is adapted from his baby naming ceremony. If you don’t have to expose your newborn to a lot of people, I would recommend not doing a brit bat (girls’ naming ceremony) on the eighth day, like necessary with a boy's brit milah, but waiting a bit longer. It is not time bound, so you have great flexibility in planning it.
What advice would you give to other women who want to follow your lead and pursue a position as mohelet?
Any physician (all Reform mohalim are physicians), whether male or female, can attend a few britot (circumcisions) with another Reform mohel/et and see if it is appealing. You have to prove that you know how to do the surgery and then apply to the Berit Mila Board of Reform Judaism to take the course offered in the religious aspects of brit milah. There is then a process after that to demonstrate you have the medical and Judaic knowledge and once that is done, you are then certified. It's a gratifying experience and I would recommend it to anyone in the medical field who is also an affiliated Jew.
Thursday, October 28, 2010
Monday, October 25, 2010
Recently, girls on the cheerleading team complained to the Bridgeport board of education about the skimpy cheerleading outfits they were given, saying that the uniforms show too much skin, especially the midriff. One team member pointed out that the outfits violate the National Federation Spirit Rules, stating that the midriff must be covered when the wearer is standing, while other cheerleaders mentioned their personal feelings towards the outfits: “I don’t feel comfortable wearing this” and “It really hurts our self-esteem” were the comments of two cheer squad members.
I really commend these girls for standing up for themselves and not being afraid of making waves, in addition to trying to break the stereotype most of us have of promiscuous cheerleaders. They didn’t want to be objectified by bringing attention their bodies rather than their athletic talent. (Some of the things cheerleaders do are amazing - I’m not terribly sporty, so I can appreciate how amazing the people who are athletically gifted are.) They succeeded in bringing this issue to the attention of the nation, and eventually got black body suits to wear underneath the objectionable outfits.
I’m also glad that they’re stomping on every stereotype of the brainless cheerleader who walks around school in skimpy outfits. These girls showed that they’re bright young women who aren’t afraid of demanding that their voices are heard.
While I’m discussing cheerleading and women’s rights, I would also like to mention the sexual assault case in Silsbee, Texas. A cheerleader, a minor identified as HS, had been sexually assaulted by three of her peers at a post-game party in 2008, two of which (Rakheem Bolton and Christian Rountree) were on the team. Bolton was sentenced to a year in jail, but the judge gave him two years of probation, a $2,500 fine, community service, and anger management courses instead.
Not only did the judge in Bolton’s case pervert justice, but so did school officials. Instead of suspending or expelling Bolton and the other assaulters, the school authorities told HS to keep a low profile and to avoid homecoming activities. HS had the courage and bravery to ignore their suggestion and continued cheerleading. When Bolton went back on the team, she refused to cheer for him, resulting in her suspension from the squad. When her parents sued, the court threw out the case. So not only does HS have to suffer from the psychological aftereffects of the assault, she can’t even be a cheerleader anymore and live as normal a life she can lead. What a horrific, misogynistic way to look at this situation.
I beg of you readers to send an email to Richard Bain (firstname.lastname@example.org), the Silsbee school district superintendent, and Eldon Franco (email@example.com), the school’s principal. I CCed them and sent this:
I think it's horrible that you not only told HS, a female student who was sexually assaulted at your school, to cheer for her attacker (Rakheem Bolton), but then kicked her off of the cheerleading squad for rightly refusing to do so. If you have any sense of decency, you will issue her an apology and reinstate her to the team. You are adding insult to injury. If she was your daughter, would you want her to cheer for her attacker?
I induct the Central High School in Bridgeport’s cheerleading squad, and HS, into the Shining Stars of Davida, and Silsbee High School and school district into the Black Holes of Davida.
Thursday, October 21, 2010
Bless on our behalf, O Lord, our God, this year and all its kinds of crops for the best, and give a [blessing/rain and dew] on the face of the earth, and satisfy us from Your bounty, and bless our year like the best years. Blessed are You, God, Who blesses the years.
בָּרֵךְ עָלֵֽינוּ, יְיָ אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ, אֶת הַשָּׁנָה הַזֹּאת וְאֶת כָּל מִינֵי תְבוּאָתָהּ לְטוֹבָה (וְתֵן בְּרָכָה/וְתֵן טַל וּמָטָר לִבְרָכָה) עַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה, וְשַׂבְּעֵֽנוּ מִטּוּבָהּ, וּבָרֵךְ שְׁנָתֵֽנוּ כַּשָּׁנִים הַטּוֹבוֹת לִבְרָכָה, כִּי אֵל טוֹב וּמֵטִיב אָֽתָּה, וּמְבָרֵךְ הַשָּׁנִים. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, מְבָרֵךְ הַשָּׁנִים
This brakha, called Birkat HaShanim, asks God to take care of us financially (the brakha refers to crops as wealth) and give us all the staples of life in a non-fraudulent way.
World hunger affects over a billion people across the globe, 915 million of them in developing countries. Approximately 146 million children, or 15% hunger victims in developing countries, are underweight as a result of hunger. 17 million children a year are born underweight because of their mothers’ malnutrition during pregnancy. Due to society’s sexist dictates, women are the primary food producers, and as a result are more impacted by world hunger. 50% of pregnant women in developing countries suffer from nutrient deficiencies, and as a result 315,000 of these women die during childbirth a year. Pregnant and nursing women require specific diets and nutrients that hunger-stricken countries cannot provide for them.
America also suffers from hunger. In 2008, 49.1 million people lived in food-insecure households; 37.2% of those homes were headed by single women. The economic crisis also hasn’t made life any easier for American women. As women have made 77 cents to men’s dollar anyway every year since 2001, the economy affects women even more than it does men. Women comprise 68.2% of low-income workers, the vast majority. More women than men suffered from the foreclosure epidemic, 32% compared to 24%. 39% of women are below the poverty line, compared to 26% of men.
When we say this brakha, we should ask God to provide food and a sufficient income to our sisters in foreign countries and closer to home. Women will continue to be oppressed as long as a large percentage of them need to worry about basic survival, whether they don’t know where to get their next meal or how they’re going to pay their mortgage. We should also pray that women should receive salaries equal to men’s during this brakha. Without equal footing in the workforce, women can’t ever hope to receive the same treatment in the world at large.
Monday, October 18, 2010
Brit milah (circumcision) is a mitzvah (commandment) that has garnered a lot of controversy over the years. Proponents discuss its health benefits; opponents call it barbaric and a violation of human rights. Despite the debate, observant Jews still circumcise their sons, keeping the covenant that God gave to Abraham in Genesis (as read above). Many secular Jews also circumcise their sons, continuing the tradition of their foreparents.
Brit milah has typically been considered a men’s mitzvah; anyone who has witnessed a brit milah can attest that the people directly involved are usually male. The Talmud in Kidushin 29a commands only fathers to circumcise their sons, even specifying that women are exempt. That didn’t stop Zipporah, Moses’ wife, from doing so.
“24 When he was on the way, at the inn, God encountered him and sought to kill him. 25 So Zipporah took a sharp stone and cut off the foreskin of her son and touched it to his feet; and she said, ‘A husband of blood you are to me!’ 26 So he loosened his hold on him; then she said, ‘A husband of blood because of circumcision’” (Ex 4:24-26).
This short portion of the Torah has been discussed at length by commentators trying to explain the vague language of the text. I could go on forever and write a five-page analysis of these three verses, but I’ll keep it short, as it’s not really the aim of this piece.
The usual interpretation is that the “he” referred to in verse 24 is Moses. Moses had just been commanded by God at the Burning Bush to ask Pharaoh to free the Jews from slavery, and was on his way to Egypt during this episode. It’s unclear why God wanted to kill Moses until verse 25, when the narrative explains that Zipporah circumcised her son. The commentators interpret this as a cause-effect: Moses didn’t circumcise his son on the eighth day from his birth, and so God wanted to kill him. When commentators question how Zipporah figured out the cause, they explain that a messenger of God engulfed Moses up to the place of circumcision. Zipporah realized that her eight-day-old son was not yet circumcised, and she took it into her own hands. Once the infant was circumcised, the messenger loosened its hold on Moses. I interpret Zipporah’s cryptic statement “a husband of blood you are to me” as an olden-day way to say “idiot;” she was an irate wife with a newborn child yelling at her husband, “You almost caused your own death, your own bloodshed - idiot!” (I haven’t found a commentator who agrees with me, but hey, you never know.)
Zipporah’s action brings up questions about whether or not a woman can circumcise a boy in a kosher brit milah ceremony. Most rabbis hold that women are indeed completely within their rights to mohelot (female circumcisers). R Johanan of the Talmud uses the example of Zipporah as proof that women are allowed to circumcise, and other major commentators agree with him. The reasoning behind the allowance for mohelot is that while a father is commanded to circumcise his son, if he fails to do so, the beit din (religious court) must do so. When it becomes the responsibility of the beit din, the Jewish community at large is also commanded to take charge of the circumcision. Women are part of the Jewish community, and even if they are not specifically commanded to circumcise the boys, they can still do so if they want to. (Just as women are not specifically commanded to wave the Four Species on the holiday of Sukkot, they are allowed to if they want to.)
Some rabbis cite that in the commandment of circumcision, it says that only one who is circumcised is allowed to circumcise others, using this as proof that women cannot perform brit milah. Other commentators use the same proof that women can perform circumcision, since women are not born with a foreskin, so it is considered as if they are born circumcised. The majority of rabbis agree with the latter interpretation, allowing women to become mohelot.
In recent years, women have embraced the ability to perform the brit milah ceremony and become mohelot. While male mohalim still outnumber the women in the profession, women are on their way to equality. When Jeanette Rankin ran for the House of Representatives in 1916, she was the first and only woman there. Women now hold 16.8% of all Congress seats. While that number is disproportionate to population of women, it’s still a lot more than in 1916. Women have made progress so far; with God’s help, we will continue.
This blog post is dedicated in memory of Feige bat Ita, my grandmother. The name Feige is the Yiddish equivalent of the Hebrew name Zipporah. My grandmother lived a well-off life in Europe before she was taken to Auschwitz. She survived the Holocaust with her husband and made a new life in America. She never described herself as a feminist, but she was always a strong woman, part of the Line we have in our family, passing down Judaism to the next generation of women. May her nishama (soul) reach the highest levels of Olam HaBa (heaven).
Thursday, October 14, 2010
Heal us, God, then we will be healed; save us, then we will be saved, for You are our praise. Bring complete recovery for all our ailments [may it be Your will, God, my god, and the God of my ancestors, that You quickly send a complete recovery from heaven, spiritual healing and physical healing to the patient (name) son/daughter of (mother’s name) among the other patients of Israel] for You are God, Ruler, the Faithful and Compassionate Healer. Blessed are You, God, Who heals the sick of God’s nation, Israel.
רְפָאֵֽנוּ, יְיָ, וְנֵרָפֵא, הוֹשִׁיעֵֽנוּ וְנִוָּשֵֽׁעָה, כִּי תְהִלָּתֵֽנוּ אָֽתָּה, וְהַעֲלֵה רְפוּאָה שְׁלֵמָה לְכָל מַכּוֹתֵֽינוּ. כִּי אֵל מֶֽלֶךְ רוֹפֵא נֶאֱמָן וְרַחֲמָן אָתָּה. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, רוֹפֵא חוֹלֵי עַמּוֹ יִשְׂרָאֵל
The brakha (blessing) of Refuah is about physical (and spiritual) healing. We are praying to God that we remain healthy, and that those we know who are sick have a full recovery.
Only healthy people can properly fight for their rights. Inez Milholland, a suffragist, campaigned with Alice Paul’s National Woman’s Party in the 1910s as part of the fight for the vote. Despite the fact that she suffered from pernicious anemia, she went on a lecture tour in the West, and collapsed in the middle of a speech. She died on November 25, 1916. Her last words were, “Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?” (In the end, they waited four years - the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in August 1920.)
In this brakha, we should pray for women’s health. The National Cancer Institute estimates that in 2010, 207,090 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer, and 20% of those cases will be fatal. In 2002, 7.3 million women used infertility services. Approximately a third of the 35,962 American women diagnosed with HIV or AIDS in 2007 died. The leading causes of death for American women are heart disease, cancer, and stroke. Despite all the health risks women face, 15% of women under the age of 65 don’t have health insurance.
Women across the globe face even worse health conditions than American women do. In Africa, 61% of HIV-positive adults are women. Between 15% and 71% of women across the globe have been physically or sexually assaulted; 1 in 5 of those assaults happened before the age of 15. Every day, 1,600 women die in childbirth, 99% of them in developing countries. As Danielle at Experimentations of a Teenage Feminist pointed out, women out of America have to deal with daily survival rather than rights.
As we say this brakha, we should pray for our own health, and for the health of women around the world. A woman has to be healthy in order to fight for her rights! Whether the right in question is suffrage, like Inez Milholland was campaigning for, or literacy, as women in Africa are crusading for, only a healthy woman can scream loudly enough to be heard. We should keep our already-sick sisters in mind for a refuah sheleimah (full recovery), and pray that those women who are still healthy remain that way.
Monday, October 11, 2010
This situation actually reminds me of a play I saw a little while ago, Abraham Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party. The play is about a gay teacher who writes Lincoln’s possible homosexuality into a fourth grade Christmas play, her subsequent dismissal, and the trial against her, plus the controversy between the opposing lawyers and the prosecutor’s son’s homosexuality. The play really explored the concepts of bigotry, especially homophobia, and how it needlessly ruins so many lives.
Terry O’Neill, the president of NOW, released a statement regarding DeMint’s chauvinistic comments saying, “[DeMint] thinks gay women and men and sexually active single women should be banned from teaching, but he said nothing about sexually active, single straight men.” Double standard much? What if his third-grade children had a single, sexually active male teacher who was living with a pregnant girlfriend - would he feel that he should be fired for his sexual activity?
Randi Weingarten, the openly gay president of the American Federation of Teachers, said, “On a personal level, as a gay woman, I am very disappointed that a senator would place more emphasis on who we are as human beings than on what we do as professionals. That is not the UNITED States of America.” Ms. Weingarten really summed it up in my opinion. A teacher’s personal life is none of anybody’s business. They teach. As long as they do their job, who cares if they’re pregnant out of wedlock or gay?
Jim DeMint also opposes abortion even in cases of rape and incest, unless it endangers the mother’s life. So if a woman teacher is raped and gets pregnant, she can’t teach anymore, but she can’t get an abortion either…makes a lot of sense.
His opponent, Inez Tenenbaum, was State Superintendent of Education from 1998-2007, and became the head of the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission in 2009. Ms. Tenenbaum is not Jewish, but her husband Samuel is, and she is actively pro-Israel. While she is pro-choice, she voted against gay marriage. (Hey, at least she’s halfway there…)
I dub Jim DeMint into Black Holes of Davida - people who let us feminists down by advocating misogyny, sexism, abuse, and other anti-woman thoughts and actions.
Thursday, October 7, 2010
Behold our affliction, take up our grievance and redeem us speedily for Your Name’s sake, for You are a powerful Redeemer. Blessed are You, God, Redeemer of Israel.
רְאֵה נָא בְעָנְיֵֽנוּ, וְרִֽיבָה רִיבֵֽנוּ, וּגְאָלֵֽנוּ גְּאֻלָּה שְׁלֵמָה מְהֵרָה לְמַֽעַן שְׁמֶֽךָ, כִּי אֵל גּוֹאֵל חָזָק אָֽתָּה. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, גּוֹאֵל יִשְׂרָאֵל
This brakha (blessing), called Geulah, is about redemptions. As we say it, we are pleading for God to see our pain and help us fight our battles, for God to free us from the exile we are in: to redeem us.
While the Jewish nation has been downtrodden since 70 CE, when the second Beit HaMikdash (Temple) was destroyed, women have been downtrodden since ancient times. They always had predestined roles and were limited by society’s expectations of them; a woman's biggest success was living up to their biological function. It was only in 1848 CE when women began demanding their rights in America, and it took until 1920 to get the basic right of equality, the vote. It was only in the 1960s when women truly began to achieve any sort of real societal equality with men. Even now, fifty years later, women are far from equal. It’s an understatement to say that women desperately need to be redeemed from the state they are in.
To be redeemed, however, we cannot depend on ourselves or anyone else to give us our rights: we can only depend on God. We must continue to beseech the Creator to enfranchise us further. If we don’t, the world will never be in a state of equality. If we do, the lives of our daughters and granddaughters can be radically different from our own lives, from our mothers’ and grandmothers’ lives. The reason I find this Women in Prayer Series so important is because our connection to God is what determines what we will get in life, and the only way we can strive for a perfect relationship with the Holy One is by praying with kavana (strong meaning). If we do not pray, we will not be redeemed.
When we feminists say the brakha, we should pray that women continue to be redeemed. If we do not ask God for redemption and depend on other sources, we will be lost. Joseph spent an additional two years in jail because he asked an intermediary to ask Pharaoh for mercy instead of depending on God wholly. This is not to say that we should expect God to give us a miracle: it's imperative that we fight hard for our rights. We just have to remember that God controls everything, both our successes and our losses. Hopefully the losses will be few if we pray to God for redemption.
Tuesday, October 5, 2010
Her first single “TiK ToK” and song “Party at a Rich Dude’s House” are just about partying and letting yourself go. I appreciate that she fosters an image of not caring what anyone thinks and sends that message to girls who listen to her - forget what the media depicts as a good girl! Act the way you want! Be who you are! Rebel! (Reminds me of the Laurel Thatcher Ulrich book Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History, and the Blu Greenberg quote “We have been nice girls long enough. We’ve made our cholent…we should take to the streets.”)
I also really appreciate Ke$ha's singles “Blah Blah Blah” and “Take It Off” and song “Kiss N Tell.” “Blah Blah Blah” is interesting because it refers to men as sex objects, the same way male performers often refer to women in their lyrics. “Kiss N Tell” also reverses the typical roles described in pop songs, with Ke$ha dumping her cheating boyfriend for “acting like a slut” and because she “can find someone way hotter / With a bigger…wow.” The single “Take It Off” has Ke$ha singing “They turn me on / When they take it off,” a concept usually not stated quite so baldly by female performers. These songs depict her as assertive and able to hold her own, traits that this generation's female teenagers would be well-advised to have. I also find the song “Boots and Boys” interesting, since it's about using men like boots, wearing them until you get tired of them. I don't know if I would label this as a feminist song on Animal, but it's nonetheless another way Ke$ha tries to talk about men the way that they've usually talked about women in songs.
Ke$ha has quite a few woman-empowering songs, and I really commend her for that, but I also commend her for keeping the album balanced. The songs “Hungover” and “Dancing with Tears in My Eyes” mourn relationships that didn’t work out. “Blind” is about letting go of an ex, and “Animal” is conversely about a relationship on the verge of working out. “Dinosaur” has Ke$ha singing about a pervy older guy hitting on her. “Backstabber” admonishes mean girls who spread nasty rumors. (It reminds me of the JWA article about gossip, and the subsequent articles about gosip on the Sisterhood here and here.) The single “Your Love is My Drug” and song “Stephen” are about wanting a guy who doesn’t necessarily want you. While “Stephen” could easily be dismissed as a painfully sexist why isn't he calling me??? OMG!!! song, I think it's a lot more than that. Ke$ha wants this Stephen guy to like her, and she's trying to get his attention by writing a whole song about him - not a terribly passive way to go about things, is it? (I don't know. I could be thinking about this too hard.)
As I stated above, I think I like this album because it has balance. There are some songs that are party songs, some with feminist leanings, and others that are just plain old I-need-a-guy-just-because songs. With a song like “Stephen” next to “Blah Blah Blah,” it’s an interesting contrast: “Why won’t you call me? / Stephen / I’m feeling pathetic” “Just turn around boy let me hit that / Don’t be a little b***h with your chitchat / Just show me where your d**k’s at.”
I also like the image that she tries to a foster, a party girl who doesn’t care what people think of her, with messy hair and smudged make up. I think it just tells girls that they can be autonomous and look how they want, without the pressures of society weighing on them.
I dub Ke$ha an inductee to Shining Stars of Davida - strong women and men who make feminists proud.