Thursday, December 29, 2011

Star of Davida Interviews Maggie Anton

The first published woman author in America was Anne Bradstreet, who published her book of poems The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America in 1650. Ever since, millions of words have been penned by women authors. Recently, historical Jewish women's fiction has become popular, with dozens of writers researching and recording the lives of Jewish women of the past. Star of Davida had the honor of interviewing Maggie Anton, the author of the Rashi's Daughters series, a trilogy which chronicles the lives of Rashi's three daughters: Joheved, Miriam, and Rachel.

I understand that you were a chemist, which is unusual for a woman of your generation. What inspired you to pursue a career in the sciences?
I was always very good in science and math in school, as well as enjoying the subjects. And it seemed that there were many more career opportunities for women there than in other fields.

I was also always intrigued by the fact that Rashi only had daughters. Do you know why they touched you so much to write a whole book series about them?
I started studying Talmud in a women’s Talmud class in early 1990s. Our teacher pointed out that Rashi had no sons, and that his daughters were reputed to be learned and wear tefillin. I was intrigued enough to do some research to see if these legends were true, and what I found inspired me to write about them.

It’s clear from reading the book that you’re very well-versed in both Torah and Talmud. Was this something you were raised with, or are you self-taught?
I was raised in a secular household, and didn’t start my Jewish studies until I married. I’ve taken many Torah and Talmud classes with some excellent scholars, but more recently I’ve studied Talmud individually with a hevruta (study-partner).

Based on your books, it seems that sex was much more openly discussed in the eleventh century. Is that true?
Sex is certainly openly discussed in the Talmud, and the 11th-12th centuries appears to have been pretty open and tolerant about these matters.

Do you know why Lilith, the real first woman who was created at the same time as Adam, became such a threatening figure for Jewish women in the Middle Ages?
I think it’s more a matter of Lilith threatening men, although a demon who attacked newborns and their mothers is common in many medieval and ancient cultures.

In Miriam, many male characters are depicted with homosexual leanings. Was “playing the game” really that common in Rashi’s era? What about among women?
Homosexuality was at least as common in Rashi's time as today, however the desire was considered normal rather than perverse. People discussed the subject much more openly then. Typical of ancient and medieval times, men didn’t seem to care or know what women did.

I had no idea that mohelot existed before the 21st century. How common was it in the 11th century? Are any mohelot from that era known by name?
None are known to use by name. It probably wasn’t too common, but the fact that rabbis complained about it shows that the practice existed.

In Rachel, the sisters co-write Rashi’s commentary on Tractate Nedarim. Do you think the argument that this is true holds water?
We know that Rashi didn’t write “his” commentary on Nedarim, yet strangely the true author's name has been lost. There are scholars who believe his daughters wrote it, which is why the author remained nameless. After a careful study of the text, it does seem to have a feminine perspective.
Do you think Rashi would be happy to see how women’s education in Talmud and Judaism has proliferated?

Do you have any other books in the works?
My next series, Rav Hisda’s Daughter, is set in 3rd-4th century Babylonia, in the household of a Jewish sage as the Talmud is being created. At the same time Rome, fast becoming a Christian empire, battles Zoroastrian Persia for world dominance. Against this backdrop, my heroine embarks on the tortuous path to become an enchantress in the society where the word ‘magic’ originated. The first volume should be out in August 2012.

I read the account of the First Crusade in Rachel soon after Leiby Kletzky’s z”l murder, which was not such great timing. How do you think the Jewish community has managed to survive, despite all of the horrific acts that have occurred in our history?
Being dispersed throughout the world, Jews could never be destroyed in its entirety. With so much animosity directed against us, we were not able to assimilate easily and tended to stay within our own communities.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Agunot and Converts

I’ve been following Heshy Fried at his blog, Frum Satire, for a couple of years at this point. It was actually the first blog I followed on a regular basis. I like Heshy because he really sees things as they are and calls it like it is. He posted this article a little while ago, equating men who deny their wives a get (divorce papers) and thereby make them into agunot (chained wives) to rabbis who won’t give converts their official conversion papers.

At first, I was highly offended by this, and all prepared to leave a scathing comment on the post. As I began writing my response, though, I couldn’t think of any argument to counter Heshy’s. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that agunah isn’t much different than unofficial converts.

In Judaism, how divorce works is that the husband has to give his wife a get. While this seems sexist and horrendous today, the law’s original intent was to protect women from quickie divorces that were popular in the ancient Middle East. (When I say quickie, I mean quickie. In one culture, all a man had to do was bring his wife outside, say “I divorce you” or something to that effect three times, and they would be divorced.) A get gives women a certain amount of money (specified in the marriage papers), as well as other rights. Today’s men have twisted this pro-woman measure, extorting their wives for thousands of dollars and rights like children’s custody, in order to give a get. Without a get, women are unable to remarry and go on with their lives. As a result, agunah has become a big issue among today’s Jews.

With Orthodox conversion, a person has to take classes about Judaism for several years. Would-be converts often have to travel or move to Israel in this process. Once done, they have to find a rabbi willing to convert them. (For men, this means circumcision and a dip in the mikvah (ritual bath). Women obviously only need to do the mikvah part.) Finding the rabbi is often extremely difficult; converts like Yisrael Campbell (star of Circumcise Me and husband of prominent Jewish feminist Avital Campbell Hochstein), who have moved to Israel in order to convert Orthodox, have struggled at this step. While Mr. Campbell found his rabbi and got his official conversion papers afterwards, many people are denied the papers. Without them, even if a person has gone in the mikvah and is a Jew according to halakha (Jewish law), he or she can’t function as a full Jew, not being able to marry Jewish or have a Jewish child.

So at the end of the day, are agunot and unofficial converts that different? Neither can function as a full Jew within society, as neither can get married nor perpetuate the Jewish nation further. Unfortunately, both are issues that get too little lip service, let alone action, from people in authority positions who could actually change them. This lack of accomplishment needs to be altered. Fortunately, there are some amazing organizations and individuals that are working for that goal.

Agunah Advocates:

Conversion Advocates:

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Star of Davida Essay Contest: Honorable Mention Jackie O

What is a woman? One’s perception of femininity matters, for whenever the strength of the feminine spirit is mistaken for a willingness to submit to falsity, power becomes ignorance. Indeed, the significance of gender expression exists in what makes freedom imperative. While humanity possesses intrinsic limitations, its paradox is transformed by faith. The masculine and the feminine exist harmoniously in feminism, as its house is called Mutuality. Delicacy becomes the living, but what presents itself is Patience. Faith in what can be accomplished by the intuition makes all the difference.

Risk-taking as it appears in tradition is one thing; faith in the presence of the spirit is another. Feminism is about ethical empowerment, and being enlightened regarding the causes of the movement has been life-changing for me. Actually, its resounding importance has been clear not only in the grief I have felt for women and minorities in their struggles for equality, but in the hope I am free to have, in the mercy of a higher power. Feminism has done so much for me; it is with gratitude that I have come to realize its accomplishments.

In my heart, discoveries are yet to be made. This is the wonder of faith. Externally, I am inspired by the work of my country’s New Democratic Party. Its recognition of common law relationships as legitimate partnerships, its recognition of the importance of making therapeutic abortion services available, and its recognition of the rights of members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community all encompass an approach which resonates with me. The ability to embrace diversity is a trait which speaks to the maternal nature of a masculine God – it is a trait which all can share in. Indeed, I believe that feminism is about empowering all individuals to tap into the inner strength they possess, and I see feminism as a key principle guiding the actions of Canada’s New Democratic Party.

Formerly, I was undecided about which Canadian political party I favoured. Thinking back to the election that took place when I was in fourth grade, I remember being intuitively in favour of the NDP. Of course, the legitimacy of a child’s intuition is often mistaken for what makes him and her impressionable, and that’s the influence of a manipulative soul. Hopefully my new-found tendency to identify as a feminist is not the result of manipulation – as I could succumb to rhetoric against faith – but the result of divine liberation. For instance, the obscurity which with I write may or may not achieve the directness I am going for, but the artistic soul with which each of us is born remains a part of what I want to achieve in solidarity with other children who see themselves in the limitless sky. Yes, I am a woman. A woman is a child just as a man is.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Star of Davida Essay Contest Honorable Mention: Lisa B

This essay by Lisa B is one of the honorable mentions of the Star of Davida Essay Contest, answering the question "How has feminism changed your life?"


Realising that she has always been somewhat different from other people in her attitude and determined to raise her children other than the way she and many of her friends had been brought up, my mother read every book on children's psychology she could get hold of before my birth and discovered her passion for the Swiss psychologist Alice Miller. Even though Miller has never been explicitely classified as a feminist, her work has been praised by several feminist scholars; the probably most important (and feminism-related) point my mother gained from reading her books was about gendered socialisation - and this was basically the first means by which feminism changed my life.

From an early age onwards, my mother ensured that I wasn‘t pushed towards a typically 'girly' way of being, so for example she forbid my all too traditional paternal grandmother to put me in flouncy pink dresses and never bought me one of these crying, puking baby dolls that ALL of the other girls from kindergarten and primary school had as she believed they were only made to prepare little girls for their allegedly natural role as mothers (I never asked for one anyway). Nevertheless, she would let me wear dresses if I wanted to and did not stop me from playing with my Barbies (which my younger brother did as well). My mother simply wanted that neither of us had to meet the expectations of certain gendered behaviour, so my brother and me enjoyed doing 'boy' and 'girl' stuff equally much during our childhood.

Growing up, I wasn't aware of how this education had shaped me - I just realised that I differed from most people/girls my age in terms of behaviour and thinking as I questioned a lot of things others took for granted. I came across the concept of feminism in my early teens which was quite a revalation as the reading I did helped me to articulate my views. That didn't earn me a lot of friends and I was frequently confronted with prejudices, but it lead to me finally having a steady character and more sophisticated opinions.


I am the result of my past. I have indeed inevitably changed over time, but many things have remained the same, even though I experience them differently, more consciously now. Wearing boys clothes isn't just a matter of comfort and taste anymore: it is a political statement. Speaking openly about my opinions, including feminist views in discussions when appropriate and directly addressing the day-to-day unfairness one encounters has become self-evident for me. And spending my money on feminist literature gives me a much greater feeling of satisfaction than buying clothes with it or wasting it on a night out. I believe that these little everyday things make the influence feminism has had on me even more visible than obvious actions like joining the feminist society of my uni; they seem to be a mere, yet logical result of my personality's changes (now that sounds highbrow!).

As Cultural Studies are part of my degree, I'm very lucky to be given the opportunity to specialise within gender related issues and write my assignments about it. The research I‘ve done so far was not only highly interesting, but made me think about even more about what feminism actually is and inhowfar I can identify with it. There is still so much to discover and my currently biggest wish is to deepen my knowledge with a postgraduate degree in Women's/Gender studies at Oxford or Cambridge.


While there isn't much to say about the present, there is even less to say about my future. Que sera sera. Will I get into Oxbridge for a Women's/Gender studies degree? Will my awareness of the importance of gender issues both in history and current every day life give me a competitive edge as a journalist or will prospective employers dismiss me and my views as being too critical/unpleasant/demanding for their output and its consumers? Will I shake up the mainstream media with my contributions or end up writing for a specialist feminist publication? I don't know. But there is one thing that I do know for sure: As long as gender matters, I will keep my interest in it and remain ambitious to challenge any stereotypes, inequalities and discriminative attitudes in its respect that make life difficult for anyone on this planet.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Theater Review: Standing on Ceremony

Yesterday, I saw the Minetta Lane Theater show Standing on Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays. The show is made up of nine short plays, all of which explore gay and lesbian relationships and marriage.

A Jewish mother desperate for her kinder to get married is at the heart of “My Husband,” written by Jewish Obie Award-winner Paul Rudnick. This play is a conversation between Gabrielle Finkelstein and her son Michael after gay marriage was legalized in New York. Gabrielle is desperate for her son to get married, mostly because she needs to compete with other liberal Jewish Democrat parents whose gay children have gotten married. I was clutching my sides from laughter during this play, partially because I actually know a Jewish mother who felt this away about her gay son.

I find it amusing that The New York Times’ review of “My Husband” completely didn’t understand it, describing it only as “a clever spoof of the collective rush to the altar and the competitive streak it can bring out in both the participants and their relatives.” The review doesn’t even use the word “Jewish” anywhere, and certainly doesn’t acknowledge the unique relationship between a Jewish mother and her children anywhere. Can only Jews understand this kind of thing?

“London Mosquitoes,” penned by Jewish Tony Award-nominated director Moises Kaufman, is a monologue from the point of view of a widower eulogizing his deceased lover. Joe begins the play by mentioning a rabbi, and ends it off by beginning the Mourners’ Kaddish (the prayer service for the dead), “yisgadal v’yiskadash shemai rabbah b’alma di v’ra…” (The text of the Kaddish actually has nothing to do with death; rather, it praises God, showing the speaker’s belief in the Holy One even at times of great emotional distress. The line Joe says means “magnified and sanctified be God’s great name in this world which God has created.”) I don’t know if I’m reading too far into it, but I interpret the fact that “London Mosquitoes” mentions Judaism at the beginning and the end shows that if a person is born a Jew, he or she will die a Jew, too; it doesn’t matter whether he or she is straight or gay.

Two of the plays focused on lesbian couples. “Traditional Wedding,” written by comedian Mo Gaffney, is a dialogue between long-married lesbians happily reminiscing about their wedding. Because they didn’t want to use the terminology “bride” or “groom,” they decided on “broom” instead, even decorating the top of their cake with two brooms. This play was very bittersweet: Liz, one of the women, describes how her father kicked her out when he found out she was gay and then wouldn’t come to the wedding, while her partner’s former Marine father attended with tears of joy in his eyes. I appreciated how this play really depicts reality, even if it’s sometimes not the reality we would like to face.

“This Flight Tonight,” by playwright Wendy MacLeod, is a conversation between two lesbians who have to fly to Iowa from California in order to get married legally. While the couple bickers and disagrees, almost deciding not to board the plane to Des Moines after all, at the end they realize that marrying in the eyes of the law is worth the effort. This play really showcases the stupidity of the fact that marriage is a state issue. It reminds me of the women’s suffrage battle, where suffragist Alice Paul butted heads with major suffragists because they wanted to pursue the right to vote on a state-by-state basis, while she thought it would be more effective to lobby for a constitutional amendment. Her idea was the one that worked at the end, resulting in the Nineteenth Amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote. I really think it would be extremely valuable for the gay community to learn from the women’s rights movement in this way, and possibly focus more effort on getting federal laws protecting marriage equality.

All in all, I greatly enjoyed Standing on Ceremony and would definitely recommend it. Get your tickets fast - it closes on December 18! Part of all proceeds is donated to Freedom to Marry, as well as other organizations dedicated to gay marriage. When you buy tickets, you’re not only guaranteeing yourself a good time, but helping gay rights!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Star of Davida Essay Contest Winner: Quin R

This essay by Quin R is one of the winners of the Star of Davida Essay Contest, answering the question "How has feminism changed your life?"

 I am a white, middle class, cisgendered, and heterosexual male. I am also a feminist.

Although I realize that this may seem no small irony, I believe that there exists no contradiction between these statements. Just because I may never suffer street harassment for wearing the wrong shade of red, or be denied access to my birth control prescription because my pharmacist is a practicing Roman Catholic, does not mean that someone I care about will not be, that I cannot know injustice when I see it, or that I will never be a victim of the oppressive gender binary. Perhaps that sounds a bit polemic, but, to me, the kind of thinking that would allow, even now, women to still be paid less than men for the same work is not only morally wrong: It fully assaults common sense. Furthermore, I should not have to experience, let alone witness, intimate partner violence first hand to realize how much it damages not only the victim, but society. If we live in a world where a woman being beaten for insufficiently pleasing her husband is viewed as a social norm or private matter, how far are we from condoning it as a social norm? But, ultimately, my feminism does not merely constitute support for reformist social policies. It is my lifestyle, my worldview, and my intellectual stimulation. I live feminism every day, from the use of “Ms.” when addressing adults, to the way I hold the door for everybody behind me, not just the smart young women with whom I go to school.

Moreover, nothing in my gaze can escape feminist analysis. I cannot even watch I Love Lucy anymore without considering the implications of the fact that Lucy can be seen being repeatedly spanked by Ricky, or that she does not have free access to a “charge plate.” Conversely, however, I have gained a new appreciation for Veronica Mars, for I now realize the barriers Veronica must break not only to gain access to hidden documents and to escape detection, but also to be taken seriously as a blonde teenage female in the middle of suburbia (and she’s on the wrong side of a class war, to boot).

Overall, though, feminist theory impassions my mind. Before feminism, I was unable to discern the subtle connections between the disparate parts of society that create the kyriarchy, or the system of overlapping oppressions that keep us all trapped, and I am finally able to engage with the otherwise monotonous works assigned in my English classes. Given enough time, I can even defend Lady Macbeth on the basis that she lives in a patriarchal society that does not allow women to be powerful in their own right, so she must live vicariously though her husband. I understand that the narrative of this essay is not focused on one particular event or component of my philosophy. But I cannot condense what has become the most basic framework for my thought process down to a neat package. Then again, I do not believe in placing ideas, or people for that matter, into neat packages. For I am a feminist.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Star of Davida Essay Contest Winner: Eliana NB

This essay by Christina P is one of the winners of the Star of Davida Essay Contest, answering the question "How has feminism changed your life?"

We all owe so much to feminism. Over the years, it has helped us gain basic human rights and the freedom to be individuals. Feminism especially affects those of us who identify as feminist. When a girl or woman first discovers that she is a feminist, her opinions and worldview start to change. For me, feminism encouraged me to stand up for what I believe in, empowered me to realize my opportunities, helped me to gain the respect of numerous people, and enabled me to find an online community of like-minded teenagers.

Feminism helped me to always stand up for what I believe in. Throughout my time as a feminist, I have learned that it is better to stand up for what you believe than to fume silently. Being a feminist has helped me to comment on the sexism that I see in society, even if it means interrupting a class or otherwise risking some embarrassment. As a feminist, I realized that it doesn’t matter what others think of you, so long as you know that you did the right thing and stood up for your beliefs.

Without feminism, I would not have nearly as many opportunities in life. Fortunately for me, both my parents showed me that I could be anything that a guy could be. For example, I love science. When I was a little kid, it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be allowed to be a doctor because of my gender. Feminism helps me to be more confident in myself, not only in my beliefs, but in general life. Thanks to feminism, I don’t see my gender as a disadvantage in difficult classes. Confidence is vital to education because it is very important to participate, discuss, and ask questions. Students who are not confident cannot understand ideas and concepts as well, because they don’t interact with the outside world as much.

Despite some societal opposition, feminism has helped me gain people’s respect. This is usually from adults (especially women) who already support feminism, whether they identify as feminist or not. However, even some people who do not support feminism respect me for speaking up for what I believe and caring about important issues. I also have gained the respect of those of my peers who support feminism and gender equality. Although I don’t know if all of my friends identify as feminists, most of the girls I discuss sexism with agree with me and have a lot to say, so feminism is a definite conversation starter.

I was happy to discover the online world of feminist blogs. It’s very encouraging to read articles written by other feminist teenagers, because it helps me know that I’m not the only one who feels this way. The internet helps girls connect with each other and helped me to learn about many issues and topics that I might not otherwise have thought about. This is different from relying on books (which are also wonderful) or other media because it gives teenagers opportunities to discuss issues which are not as applicable to adults, who control the publishing world.

My life has definitely been changed and improved by feminism. I believe that all women and girls have been positively affected by feminism, and that most of the rights we enjoy today are the result of the feminist movement. Joining the continued struggle for feminism is an important decision. A dedication to equality can have wonderful, life-changing effects. Feminism taught me to stand up for what I believe in, realize my opportunities, gain people’s respect, and connect with girls who feel similarly.