Monday, November 29, 2010

Shining Stars of Davida: Jeanette Rankin

The media is still buzzing over the results of the midterm elections and how women fared in them. Less than a century ago, women were never a factor in Congress. Jeanette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress, opened the door for women to enter politics in the United States and worldwide.

Jeanette Rankin (sometimes spelled Jeannette) was born on a Montanan ranch on June 11, 1880. She helped her parents run the ranch and raise her five younger siblings, which gave her the confidence that she could take charge and lead, a mindset she continued to go by in her later years.

While enrolled in Washington University, trying to find her calling in life, she learned about the suffrage movement and got involved in First-Wave Feminism. She joined the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and helped the campaign for Washington women to get the vote. After the successful campaign ended in 1910, she went back to Montana and rallied Montanan women to fight for their rights. They won enfranchisement in 1914.

Rankin’s work in the suffrage movement set the stage for when she decided to run for the House of Representatives in 1916. Despite fears from leading feminists that a loss would be a blow to the movement, she ran as a Republican on a platform that was pro-suffrage, pro-social welfare, and anti-war. Her family supported her congressional bid, as her politically savvy brother Wellington was her campaign manager and her sisters helped her campaign. Many fellow suffragists also gave her their backing. On November 10, 1916, the votes came in. Papers originally reported that she had lost, but they were wrong: Jeanette Rankin was rightfully elected as the first woman in Congress.

After Germany declared war on April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson called a congressional session to decide whether or not America should enter World War I. This was one of the most important decisions in Rankin’s life. Friends, family, and suffragists told her to vote for the war to keep hopes of reelection alive, save her battles for times when she could win, and keep the women’s movement from suffering from a worse reputation. Rankin knew she had to listen to heart, though. When it was time for her to vote, she broke 140 years of congressional tradition when she commented as she voted: “I want to stand by my country but I cannot vote for war. I vote no.” She was joined by the minority of congress members, 374 for and 50 against.

Her decision was greatly criticized by her home state and suffrage movement. A Montanan paper described her as “a dagger in the hands of the German propagandists, a dupe of the Kaiser, a member of the Hun army in the United States, and a crying schoolgirl,” and NAWSA stated that “Miss Rankin was not voting for the suffragists of the nation - she represents Montana.”

Despite the suffrage movement’s desire to distance themselves from her, she remained an ardent feminist during her congressional term, creating the congressional Committee on Woman Suffrage. She also managed to pass a resolution in the House on a constitutional amendment allowing women the right to vote, but it was defeated in the Senate.

After her term was over, Rankin ran for the Senate. Despite her pro-war measures votes and new pro-war planks in her platform, she lost the election. After biding her time with pacifism for several years, in 1939, Rankin saw Adolf Hitler rise to power in Germany and knew that America would want to enter the war ripping apart Europe. She knew that she could not let this happen, so she ran for the House of Representatives again, once more as a Republican from Montana. Her platform was similar to her original one, minus the pro-suffrage plank; women across the country became enfranchised in 1920, when the Nineteenth Amendment was passed. “No one will pay any attention to me this time. There is nothing unusual about a woman being elected,” she said at her second election. It was true; dozens of women had been elected to Congress between her first and second terms, and there were ten other women in Congress at the time.

While in Congress, as she expected, she had to vote on American participation in World War II. She was the only person to vote on both the first and second World Wars. She voted no again, once more giving a commentary as she gave her vote: “As a woman, I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else.” She stood alone, as she was the only person who voted against the war this time. Her previously middling popularity plummeted, with newspapers all across the country rebuking her harshly and individuals sending her hate mail. She had to leave the session escorted by police to protect her from furious bystanders.

Rankin stayed out of the spotlight, continuing her work in pacifist and social fields, until 1968, when she organized a march 5,000 strong on the Capitol to protest the Vietnam War. It became known as the Jeanette Rankin Brigade, culminating in the presentation of a peace petition to House Speaker John McCormack of Massachusetts.

Jeanette Rankin died on May 18, 1973, when she was considering running for a third term to protest the Vietnam War. Without Rankin’s achievements, women would have never been able to shrug off the shackles of typical feminine roles and go on to fight for the right to high-powered careers in business, law, and government. Jeanette Rankin paved the way for women to aspire to rise from the duties of the kitchen to the highest level obligations of the White House.

I dub Jeanette Rankin an inductee into Shining Stars of Davida - strong women and men who make feminists proud.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Star of Davida Interviews Rachel Kohl Finegold

There has been a lot of controversy recently over whether Orthodox women can enter the rabbinate. The Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements have allowed for women rabbis for decades, but Orthodoxy is only now discussing whether rabbis' gender should matter. Several Orthodox women have become groundbreakers and pursued positions in Jewish leadership despite the controversy. One such woman is Rachel Kohl Finegold, who Star of Davida had the immense honor of interviewing.

Talia bat Pessi: Did you aspire to be a rabbi or enter Jewish leadership when you were a kid, or did you fall into it?
Rachel Kohl Finegold: I very much fell into it. From what I’ve seen, most women of this generation haven’t gotten into this by design. It’s just an expression of who we are. I was always a leader and always liked learning and teaching, but I didn’t want to be a teacher. I figured out in college that I wanted to be a non-classroom educator and was looking at Hillels and high schools to get involved with. When a congregation popped up, I thought it was a nice way to work with so many different populations at the same time, and to also be teaching. It all happened by accident.

Does your family - parents, husband, children - support you?
Definitely. Everyone’s Orthodox but pretty liberal-minded. My father jokes about his daughter the rabbi, but in a very supportive way, and my mom says she wants to be me when grows up - she didn’t have these kind of opportunities in Crown Heights, she didn’t open a Gemara until she was an adult. I couldn’t do any of this without my husband - we jokingly call him a rebbetzin (rabbi’s wife). He’s a rabbi too, but not a pulpit rabbi, more of a philosopher and educator. It would be impossible without him behind me.

Why become a rabbi rather than settling with another religious role?
I’m not actually a rabbi - it’s a male role in Orthodoxy, and I have no desire to be a man. Women should express leadership in feminine way, since there are blatant differences in Judaism between men and women. I just want to be leader - that’s who I am. Being a rebbetzin is just being an extension of my husband - it’s not about me, it’s about him, and who I chose to marry isn’t my career path. I’m not angry, but talking to a lot of older women of previous generations, I see that they had to really fight for the ability to open a Torah or learn Gemara and have women’s tefilla (prayer) groups, but no one ever told me no. I didn’t lain (read from the Torah) at my bat mitzvah, but I got to speak in front of the shul (synagogue) - the tone is very different for me and my age bracket. I grew up in eighties and nineties and it’s evidence - I didn’t fight. A lot of women sound angry, but we have nothing to be angry about, and it’s important to realize that. We’re not trying making a statement by entering Jewish leadership, we’re just being who we are.

What exactly do you do as rabbi in your shul?
As I’m the education and ritual director, I basically am the second-in-command. I run the adult education and youth programming and help run the mikvah, plus more of the “rabbi-type stuff,” like giving shiurim (Torah lessons) and giving the sermon once a month (switching off with the rabbi). I also function as a general religious role model and host people in home - it’s like being assistant rabbi under another title. Everyone sees me differently, however they feel comfortable.

If you pasken halakha (rule on Jewish law), which women are usually not allowed to do, how do you go about doing so?
Right now I don’t, but people will ask me sometimes for specific information like, “I used a dairy knife on meat - what should I do?” It’s not really psak (a ruling) - it’s just specific information. It’s a fine line, but an important line. I’m currently enrolled in the Yeshivat Maharat program because I want to feel confident that whatever psak I give is right. If I’m not sure then I ask the rabbi, and I’ll always do that, but it shouldn’t always be a matter of finding other people and wanting to double-check.

Do you find that being female adds or detracts from your role as rabbi, or is it neutral?
I play piano - no one would ask me how I play piano as a woman. It’s the same difference when it comes to women in Jewish leadership. There are moments where it’s advantageous, like when we have a bar or bat mitzvah and we ask the family to stand together and I can stand with women on women’s side of the synagogue and we celebrate, or when I say the mi sheberakh (prayer for healing) for a bat mitzvah girl - life cycle events. When I teach chatan (groom) and kallah (bride) classes it’s different coming from a woman, or at the mikvah, there are things that women can do things men can’t. Other times it feels like I have to be better than men in Jewish leadership, because I’m doing something women haven’t done much of in the past. The perfectionist in me doesn’t want people to think I’m just doing this because I’m a woman and that I’m not great at this.

What advice would you give to other women who want to follow your lead and pursue positions in the religious field?
Stay true to who you are, if this is a true expression of you and if you want to serve the Jewish people then you’ll find a way to make it all work. That’s ultimately what carries women in Jewish leadership forward - we just want to serve the Jewish people.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

NO, E. Lockhart!

Since I’m known as a radical feminist, one of my friends suggested the book The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart to me. The book was okay, about a girl who tries to infiltrate an all-boys secret club at school and defeat sexism all around. I vaguely remember the plot and don’t even remember how it ends, so you can see how much of an impact it had on me. Even though I was lukewarm about Frankie Landau-Banks, when I saw other books by E. Lockhart in the library, I took them out.

One was called Fly on the Wall: How One Girl Saw Everything, about a girl named Gretchen who gets turned into a fly on the wall of the boys’ locker room. In the locker room, she sees many things, and one is that the boys’ locker room is much bigger and more luxurious than the girls’. After she becomes human again, she approaches the principal and asks about the unfairness. When the principal explains that the school was built before Title IX and they can’t physically expand the girls’ locker room, Gretchen asks if the boys and girls can switch locker rooms. The principal agrees. After she leaves the principal’s office, she thinks to herself, “I’m Gretchen Yee, advocate for equal opportunity.” NOOOOO!!!! That is NOT equal opportunity! The girls getting a bigger locker room than the boys’ isn’t equal rights, it’s sexism at work!

People assume that when women get more rights than men, that’s what feminists are looking for - to trump men and become the dominant sex. NO!!! Completely not! Just as there’s a prohibition of adding to a mitzvah (commandment), since God’s word is exactly what we must adhere to and adding to it would really be detracting from it, we cannot “add” to the women’s movement. We want and need equal rights, not less rights or more rights. We don’t want a bigger locker room, nor a smaller locker room; we want one of an equal size and with the same amenities.

While E. Lockhart’s offense was grave (I'm counting it as bad as Lady Gaga's comment that feminism and man-hating are the same thing), I don’t think she meant it in a bad way; she writes her books with feminist leanings, so I have to give her the benefit of the doubt and assume that she is really a feminist and meant well. While I won’t dub her an inductee into Black Holes of Davida, E. Lockhart doesn’t have far to go.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Women in Prayer: Part 12, Shemoneh Esrei

Traditional prayer has been criticized by feminists as being male-centric. They’re right; prayer is dominated by mentions of the Patriarchs and mitzvot (commandments) that only apply to men. However, it can be easily be reclaimed by women and turned into a feminist connection to God.

And for slanderers let there be no hope; and may all wickedness perish in an instant; and may all Your enemies be cut down speedily. May You speedily uproot, smash, cast down, and humble wanton sinners, speedily in our days. Blessed are You, God, Who breaks enemies and humbles wanton sinners.

וְלַמַּלְשִׁינִים אַל תְּהִי תִקְוָה, וְכָל הַמִּינִים כְּרֶֽגַע יֹאבֵֽדוּ, וְכָל אוֹיְבֵי עַמְּךָ מְהֵרָה יִכָּרֵֽתוּ, וְהַזֵּדִים מְהֵרָה תְעַקֵּר וּתְשַׁבֵּר וּתְמַגֵּר וּתְכַלֵּם וְתַשְׁפִּילֵם וְתַכְנִיעֵם בִּמְהֵרָה בְיָמֵֽינוּ. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ,ֹ שוֹבֵר אֹיְבִים וּמַכְנִֽיעַ זֵדִים

This brakha (blessing), called Birkat HaMinim, prays that the enemies of the Jews will be cut down and stop making problems for the Jewish community. Shemoneh Esrei literally means eighteen in Hebrew, as when it was first written, there were eighteen brakhot (blessings) in it. However, Birkat HaMinim was later added to Shemoneh Esrei to pray for the enemies of the Jews’ destruction.

There are a lot of people who challenge the secular and Jewish feminist movements. Organizations like the National Organization for Women (NOW) have whole walls of shame ( dedicated to bringing sexist media to light, and run campaigns against sexists in politics and government. I personally thought it was inspired to send Alan Simpson, the current co-chair of the president’s Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, baby bottle nipples when he said that Social Security is “like a milk cow with 310 million tits!”

Jewish feminists also have enemies. The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) definitively ruled against Orthodox women’s ordination in late April 2010. Anat Hoffman, leader of Women of the Wall, was arrested for holding a Torah scroll at the Western Wall due to her sex. Every day, Jewish women are barred from reaching their full potential within Judaism. My Torah teacher has a scary brilliant mind. She can literally quote whole portions of the Torah from the top of her head, and she understands them on so many different levels. Why should she be a teacher while her husband is a rabbi?

When we say this brakha, we should pray that the people who threaten the feminist movement are unsuccessful in their plans. As the Jewish feminist watchdog group Jewish Women Watching says, sexism is a sin, and we need to make that clear to those who oppose us. The gains that feminists make are precious; every decision made in our favor, legal or religious, is a gem. We have worked too hard to let those who oppose us win.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Lady Gaga: Feminist? Sexist? Both?

Most celebrities are easy to label as “feminist” or “sexist.” Mel Gibson: sexist. Geena Davis: feminist. Tom Cruise: sexist. Uma Thurman: feminist. But Lady Gaga completely baffles me.

I was never into Lady Gaga, but when she did a free concert near me, I listened to both her CDs. Her voice is amazing, but I find her performance art distracting, since she doesn’t need the gimmick that it provides. When I listened to her second album The Fame Monster and heard the upcoming single “Dance in the Dark,” I had to wonder if Lady Gaga was a feminist or not. It hadn’t occurred to me before. Then it hit me that Lady Gaga is a woman who shows her skin and doesn’t care what people think about her, so I assumed she was a feminist. With a song like “Dance in the Dark,” about a woman who feels uncomfortable with her body so she only “dances” (a euphemism for sex) in the dark, and then mentions deceased strong women in history, how could I not assume? Then when I heard the songs on her other album, The Fame, and heard lyrics like “I do not accept any less / Than someone just as real as fabulous” and “Can’t sleep with a man who dims my shine,” I continued to assume.

So I did research about the ever-fascinating Gaga. And found her nude photo shoot. And heard her say, in response to being described as a feminist, “I’m not a feminist. I hail men, I love men.” I cringed. Except then I found another interview where she said to the reporter, “I’m getting the sense that you’re a little bit of a feminist, like I am, which is good. I find that men get away with saying a lot in this business, and that women get away with saying very little…In my opinion, women need and want someone to look up to that they feel have the full sense of who they are, and says, ‘I’m great.’”

So nu, is Lady Gaga feminist or sexist?

I think Gaga is a lot more feminist than she thinks she is and claims to be. I think that most people, especially women, have feminist tendencies, even if they won’t admit it or don’t realize it. How many women out there, other than Schlaflyites, don’t want equal pay for equal work? I think Gaga wants her rights within the music industry. She doesn’t want a double standard to be applied to her, and that’s exactly what the feminist movement is all about: getting equal rights. We don’t want to be held up to a higher or lower standard. We want to be judged equally. And that’s what I think Lady Gaga’s after.

I’m reluctant to put her in the Shining Stars of Davida, since she did equate feminism with man-hating, and the only way to make up for that one is to shout “I AM A FEMINIST!” from the rooftops. I’m also reluctant to put her in the Black Holes of Davida, since she did say that she’s a little bit of a feminist, and that slightly makes up for the feminism = man-hating comment. So for right now, I’m just keeping my eye on her next album and waiting to see if she ever calls herself a feminist. Imagine what good it could do for this generation’s teens to hear Lady Gaga, their idol, call herself a feminist…

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Women in Prayer: Part 11, Shemoneh Esrei

Traditional prayer has been criticized by feminists as being male-centric. They’re right; prayer is dominated by mentions of the Patriarchs and mitzvot (commandments) that only apply to men. However, it can be easily be reclaimed by women and turned into a feminist connection to God.

Restore our judges as in the earliest times and our counselors as at first, remove from us sorrow and groan; and reign over us - You, God, alone - with kindness and compassion, and justify us through judgment. Blessed are You, God, the Ruler Who loves righteousness and judgment.

הָשִֽׁיבָה שׁוֹפְטֵֽינוּ כְּבָרִאשׁוֹנָה וְיוֹעֲצֵֽינוּ כְּבַתְּחִלָּה, וְהָסֵר מִמֶּֽנּוּ יָגוֹן וַאֲנָחָה, וּמְלוֹךְ עָלֵֽינוּ מְהֵרָה אַתָּה, יְיָ, לְבַדְּךָ בְּחֶֽסֶד וּבְרַחֲמִים, וְצַדְּקֵֽנוּ בְּצֶֽדֶק וּבְמִשְׁפָּט. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, מֶֽלֶךְ אוֹהֵב צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט

This brakha (blessing), called Din, asks God to reinstate the Jewish justice system. In the times of the Beit HaMikdash (Temple), the Sanhedrin was the official Jewish court. Nowadays, we have batei din (religious courts) to preside over Jewish issues. The only way we can have a true Jewish rulership is to have the Sanhedrin ruling, and we ask God to give us the justice that the Sanhedrin will provide.

Agunah is one of the harshest issues that Jewish women have to deal with. Agunah, literally meaning “chained,” refers to the situation where a husband refuses to give his wife a get (divorce papers). In Jewish law, a divorce is only granted when a get is given from husband to wife. This law was originally intended to protect women from the quickie divorce procedures of the ancient world. While its intentions are good, its ramifications are not. Men use the fact that a woman cannot get remarried without a get against them, often to extort money, but often just to be coldhearted. Batei din can’t technically force a man to give a get, but they have much more power than what they currently exert. Savta Bikorta videos bring some of these painful agunah stories to light. The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) is extremely active in agunah aid.

At the 2010 JOFA conference, Blu Greenberg (the creator of JOFA and author of the Jewish feminist bible On Women and Judaism: A View from Tradition) led the session about agunah and proposed several ways to remedy the issue. The easiest way to avoid agunah is for couples to have a prenuptial agreement made with a clause that the husband must give a get. Since it’s difficult for secular courts to get involved in cases of agunah, a prenup makes it easier for them to intervene.

Among several other suggestions, the one I feel would be the most effective was to have the divorce laws amended. Judaism is a fluid religion, and has redefined so much of what it says in the Torah. The Talmud expounded all the laws of divorce from one verse! The rabbis understand that a husband must give his wife a get by his own free will from the part of the verse that says, “And he wrote her a bill of divorce and presented it into her hand” (Deut 24:1). There are so many ways rabbis can interpret this short phrase; they have chosen to interpret it in a way that benefits men and leaves women in the dust. Why can’t husbands be forced to give a get? Why can’t there be a time limit allotted from when a couple is separated to when a get is given? Why can’t a shaliah (messenger) be appointed when a husband is absent?

During the brakha asking God for justice, we must pray that agunot are given the justice they deserve. While many things are being done to help lift the plight of agunot, nothing can be done without the will of God. In order to ensure that agunot are redeemed, we must keep them in mind and do everything we can to unchain them from the bleak situation they are in. There is a specific prayer for agunot, but in the brakha dedicated to obtaining justice and a Jewish justice system, we should keep our chained sisters close to our hearts.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Inconsistent People Annoy Me

I have one teacher for three different courses in school, and she is really quite sexist (the teacher discussed in my previous post about Abigail). Honestly, I’m not entirely sure what to make of her; one week she’ll tell us how women lawyers can’t have happy marriages (yes, believe it or not, she actually said that), and the next week she’ll reference the feminist movement as a good thing. But since the sexist comments outnumber the feminist ones, I’m counting her in the sexist party. But if she’s going to be a sexist, I want her to be a consistent, logical sexist.

She was teaching us about a portion of the Talmud discussing Rabbi Halbo's statement that a home has no blessing if a husband doesn’t respect his wife. Rabbi Halbo said in another part of the Talmud that if a person witnesses a Torah being ripped, he or she has to rip his or her clothes two times - one for the rip in the parchment, one for the rip in the letters. The reasoning behind this is that a letter depends on the parchment to be seen; the letter is the active, the parchment is the passive. My teacher connected this to men’s and women’s roles in Judaism. According to her, men are supposed to be the active, seen spouse; women are supposed to be passive and behind the scenes, supporting the man in their lives in all his endeavors. She then connected to this to Rabbi Halbo’s original concept of a home with no blessing because God gives blessings in secretive, passive ways; if a husband doesn’t give respect to the wife who acts passively, God will not give gifts in The Holy One’s usual, passive way.

My teacher then began explaining that Eve was made from Adam’s rib because the rib is hidden, a “behind the scenes” body part. “Two people can’t be king,” she explained. “It won’t work. One person must be active and go outside the home and get all the credit. An actor can’t go onstage if no one is behind him, if not then there will be no play!”

Earlier in the day, we had been learning Jewish history by reading a page of the Talmud with this teacher. (I had actually learned the portion of the Talmud in my middle school, which I found ironic, since this right-wing teacher doesn’t believe in girls learning the Talmud. Another thing I don’t really understand about her is that she’ll teach us portions of the Gemara. How does she justify that?) The time period in discussion is the era directly after the destruction of the second Beit HaMikdash (Temple). The nasi (leader) of the Jewish nation, Rabban Gamaliel II, had embarrassed a colleague, Rabbi Joshua, several times, and the people asked him to step down because of it. They appointed Rabbi Eleazar ben Azaria in his stead. After a day, Rabbi Joshua forgave Rabban Gamaliel, and the congregation was in a quandary as to whether they should take back Gamaliel and fire Eleazar or not. The decided to compromise and the two co-officiated: Eleazar decided on the halakha (Jewish law), Gamaliel enforced it, and the two switched off lectures.

Two people can’t be kings, hmm? Two people can’t work together, in unison?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Women in Prayer: Part 10, Shemoneh Esrei

Traditional prayer has been criticized by feminists as being male-centric. They’re right; prayer is dominated by mentions of the Patriarchs and mitzvot (commandments) that only apply to men. However, it can be easily be reclaimed by women and turned into a feminist connection to God.

Sound the Great Shofar for our freedom, raise the banner to gather our exiles and gather us together from the four corners of the earth. Blessed are You, God, Who gathers in the dispersed of the people Israel.

תְּקַע בְּשׁוֹפָר גָּדוֹל לְחֵרוּתֵֽנוּ, וְשָׂא נֵס לְקַבֵּץ גָּלֻיּוֹתֵֽינוּ, וְקַבְּצֵֽנוּ יַֽחַד מְהֵרָה מֵאַרְבַּע כַּנְפוֹת הָאָֽרֶץ לְאַרְצֵֽנוּ. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, מְקַבֵּץ נִדְחֵי עַמּוֹ יִשְׂרָאֵל

This brakha, identified as Kibbutz Galiot, prays that the Jews should be speedily restored to their homeland, Israel. Jews can only reach their full potential when living in Israel. “If that concentration of the cunningest brains in the world were going to be made in a free country (bar Scotland), I think it would be politic to stop it. It will not be well to let the race find out its strength. If the horses knew theirs, we should not ride any more,” Mark Twain wrote in his essay "Concerning the Jews."

Throughout the women’s movement’s history, there have been dozens of splits within feminist organizations. The American Equal Rights Association (AERA), created in 1866, split in 1869 into the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) and American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) over support for the Fifteenth Amendment. They merged in 1890 to the more-familiar National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). After women’s suffrage was passed in the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, NAWSA was renamed the League of Women Voters. The National Woman’s Party (NWP) was a splinter group from NAWSA that actually got the Nineteenth Amendment passed. That’s only in America! British and other feminist movements also had dozens of internal breaks.

The feminist movement is still fraught with infighting. Radical feminists pull their hair out over conservative feminists, who hate separatists, who wish that moderate feminists would just choose already, and…well, you get the point. Nobody gets along anymore.

As we say this brakha, we should pray that the feminist world will unite. We all have one common goal: elevate women’s status in society. We’re all fighting for the same rights. The feminist community just needs to sit down, talk over the factions’ differences, and start fighting together. One huge army fighting for the same purpose is better than a bunch of small battalions who fight against each other when they’re really on the same side.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Gender Separation on Buses: Yes, It's Really True

When my school was headed to a hotel for our annual Shabbaton, or weekend dedicated to celebrating Shabbat (Sabbath) together, everyone boarded the bus and started laughing. “They sent us kosher buses!” my friends said. I saw a curtain separating the front from the back of the bus. I was, I’m embarrassed to say, completely clueless as to what a kosher bus was, or why a curtain made it so. What were they talking about, kosher buses?

So I did my research and discovered that very right-wing bus services in Israel (and America) offer buses that have separate seating for men and women - women in the back, men in the front. I don’t have to convince people how upsetting this is, or make parallels to the civil rights movement and the separation there had been between races before gains were made to enfranchise African-Americans. It makes me feel ashamed of the Orthodox Jewish community for acting in such a reactionary way.

Honestly, I think the separation of genders has gotten blown out of proportion by the ultra-Orthodox community because of what I call the outfrummingness factor. The word frum in Yiddish means observant, and I define outfrummingness as the desire of people to act “frummer,” or more religious, than others. While the aspiration to be closer to God and do more mitzvot (commandments) is noble, its manifestation in outfrummigness cases is anything but. The men of the ultra-Orthodox community want to “prove” to others how frum they are, so how do they do it? Subjugate the women who are already beneath them anyway.

Obviously not every ultra-Orthodox person has the outfrummingness factor and not every ultra-Orthodox man is a sexist pig, but right now I’m talking about the ones who are, and who have been making it into the news recently.

Nonetheless, there has recently been increased pressure on women to act and dress with tzniut (modesty). The gender separation on buses is just another way the ultra-Orthodox men are enforcing tzniut among their women. If a man can’t see her, then she’s definitely being modest, right? (I don’t want to address tzniut in its entirety right now, since I’m working on another blog post about it, and I don’t want to ruin all the fun.) These men are taking it so extremely that they are physically and verbally threatening those who oppose gender separation on buses.

I commend the women and men who are fighting this outrageous violation of women's rights. So far protesters have gotten the Israeli courts to rule that it is illegal to set up public gender barriers. The Transport Minister Yisrael Katz appointed a Supreme Court-ordered committee that decided that gender segregated buses should not be allowed, but Katz so far has done next to nothing, advocating voluntary separation.

I just find it interesting that one of the groups that support gender separation on buses call themselves the Sikrikim. The second Beit HaMikdash (Temple) was destroyed because of sinat chinam, baseless hatred for other people. When the Romans who would end up destroying the Beit HaMikdash surrounded Jerusalem, the sages of the time wanted to speak with them and negotiate a peace treaty. The Sikarikim were an extremist group at the time who refused to allow for peace and wanted to fight for the Beit HaMikdash, killing other Jews in order to do so, even burning a twenty-one year food supply stockpiled in Jerusalem so that they would have to fight, resulting in the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash. I just find the current Sikrikim interesting for naming their group after such a reviled faction in history.