Monday, August 29, 2011

NWLC's Pregnant and Parenting Students Conference Call

I recently attended a conference call through the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) titled “Know Your Rights: A Conference Call for Pregnant and Parenting Students.” It was moderated by Melanie Ross Levin, NWLC’s senior outreach manager, and the two presenters were Jeannette Pai-Espinosa (president of the National Crittenton Foundation) and Lara Kaufmann (NWLC’s senior counsel).

You can read my full notes here, or listen to the actual call here. In short, the conference call discussed the rights that pregnant and parenting women have with regard to education. Lara Kaufmann explained how Title IX protects students, faculty, and staff at schools with federal funding from sex discrimination and how it applies to pregnant and parenting students. Jeannette Pai-Espinosa introduced her organization, explaining how it provides trauma-informed services to pregnant and parenting women. Afterwards, the two answered questions that participants sent in.

I’m not pregnant or parenting, nor do I have any intention to be either while I’m still in school, but I nonetheless found the conference call absolutely fascinating and really enlightening. I knew that Title IX did more than protecting women’s rights in athletics, but I had no idea that it was the basis of pregnant and parenting students’ right to equal education. It also never occurred to me that a pregnant student should be treated like a student with any other temporary medical condition, since that’s in essence what pregnancy is.

Ms. Kaufmann mentioned several common violations of Title IX relating to pregnant and parenting students, and answered many questions about them, too. She stressed the fact that schools have to work with pregnant/parenting students in order to best accommodate their needs, whether it’s dragging their feet regarding makeup work or properly counseling students for the future.

I was surprised that nobody mentioned the recent case in Arkansas, where a teen mother who was valedictorian was forced to share the title, presumably because she is a black single parent. On one hand, I can understand that a school wouldn’t what to recognize a pregnant or parenting student (that goes for girls and boys), since an administration wouldn’t want to seem like it’s encouraging students to have unprotected sex. However, a GPA and subsequent honor shouldn’t have anything to do with a student’s personal life.

Melanie Ross Levin asked all the participants in the call to take action to ensure the pregnant and parenting students are given the rights they deserve. One way to do this is for organizations to sign the NWLC petition in support of the Pregnant and Parenting Students Access to Education Act of 2011. This bill, originally proposed in 2009, will greatly even the playing field for pregnant and parenting students. (You can read more about it here.) The petition will be sent to the bill’s sponsors, Jared Polis and Judy Chu. Your organization can sign on here. If you don’t have an organization to sign on, you could always write to Reps. Polis and Chu independently.

I dedicated one of my first posts to Fraydel bat Faigel zikhrona l’brakha (may her memory be blessed) an amazing woman who was actually thrown out of law school because she became pregnant (while married, mind you). In previous generations, it was totally accepted for employers to fire women because they were pregnant. That’s why I think it’s so great that pregnant and parenting women have advocates, and are fighting for their right to have an education. If women with children can’t get a good education, they can’t get good jobs, and they can’t make great salaries, so they can’t afford to go back to school, so they can’t get a better job…etc. Isn’t it easier to stop the vicious cycle before it starts?

Friday, August 26, 2011

DWS For President!

As an Orthodox Jewish feminist, I have a foot in two worlds. “What comes first, though?” someone once asked me. “Are you a feminist who happens to be a Jew or a Jew who happens to be a feminist?” I responded that I am both; I can’t choose which is more important to me, my religion or feminism. They are equal parts of my identity. It can, however, complicate who I support politically. The only candidate I’ve encountered so far that meets all of my criteria is Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and I would definitely back her if she ran for president.

The Middle East Crisis will definitely be a deciding factor in the 2012 presidential election. As a Jew, Israel is very close to my heart, and I will only back a candidate who supports Israel with every fiber of his/her being. Debbie Wasserman Schultz states emphatically on her website that she is “a staunch supporter of the State of Israel and her citizens’ right to live in peace and security.” Many politicians, especially liberals, criticize Israel, but Wasserman Schultz understands that Israel and America have a symbiotic relationship that must be valued. She also knows that it is possible to have peace in the Middle East; however, both the Israelis and Palestinians have to be truly willing to make honest negotiations.

While it doesn’t look like women’s issues will be a major aspect of the upcoming election, it is very important to me personally. As a woman, feminist, and human, I will only support a candidate who wholeheartedly believes that women deserve equal rights. Wasserman Schultz advocates for equality in the workplace, and voted for the Paycheck Fairness Act.

As a female, I closely analyze candidates’ opinions on women’s health. Reproductive rights are the core of any truly feminist candidate, and Wasserman Schultz fits the bill: she supports women’s right to have access to birth control, and is pro-choice. Because I am Jewish, breast cancer awareness is especially important to me; the risk of contracting the illness is 32% higher for Jewish women than those of the general population. Wasserman Schultz is a breast cancer survivor who has supported legislation that educates girls and women about their bodies, especially regarding breast health and early detection.

She also supports gay marriage and wants the Defense of Marriage Act repealed. LGBTQ rights are extremely important to me, since I believe that every human being deserves the same treatment under the law. I spent numerous hours campaigning for the passage of the gay marriage bill in New York, and I will happily back a candidate who supports it, too.

Debbie Wasserman Schultz represents everything that I’m looking for in a presidential candidate: pro-Israel, pro-women’s health, pro-choice, and pro-LGBTQ rights. I know it’s an odd grouping of political positions, but I’ve always been a little unusual in my views. I know that Wasserman Schultz isn’t running for president any time soon, but I look forward to the day that she does.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Star of Davida Interviews Susannah Heschel

As someone who wants to pursue a PhD and hopes to teach feminist theory during her retirement, I greatly respect women and men who teach at the university level. One such woman is Susannah Heschel. In addition to being a Jewish Studies professor at Dartmouth University, Dr. Heschel is an ardent feminist. She has written several books, including On Being a Jewish Feminist, and contributed to dozens of feminist publications. Star of Davida had the honor of interviewing this amazing woman.

I know you must get this a lot, but do you feel that you’re living out your father’s legacy?
I’ve never thought of it that way. I think he was Jewish in way that’s different than most people think and are, so I do feel influenced by him in that respect.

What was your inspiration to get involved in feminism?
I think that if you’re born a woman with a mind and an independent spirit and a sense of courage, you’re a feminist. I took myself seriously, so I felt that it wasn’t right that I should be excluded from things that are important, both religiously and secularly.

I understand that it was suggested that you become a rabbi. Why didn’t you become one when the option became available to women?
I did look at the Reform movement, but I didn’t feel that I was a Reform Jew. I’ve never even been to a service, but I do admire the Reform movement. At the time I was young and hadn’t been exposed, and it didn’t seem right for me. Then I started graduate school and I loved what I was doing, and I felt that I was intellectually suited for academic work, that it was asking the kinds of critical historical questions that were appealing and interesting to me. At the same time I’ve always had moments when I wish I’d become a rabbi.

Why did you pursue a PhD in Religious Studies?
I’m interested in religion and religious thought and its history, the history of biblical scholarship and why scholars construct the text the way they do. I started understanding why the Bible was constructed the way it was, like why the Protestant scholars that shaped the field of Hebrew Bible studies was significant. I love the prophets, and I’m sure that was because of my father and the civil rights movement, so that was my interest originally. When I studied the prophets on an academic level I realized the scholarship on the prophets was a problem, sometimes they were called hysterics or epileptics or people incapable of love or that they have nothing to do with Judaism, that they were just precursors to Jesus, things like that. I was learning in a university not religious area.

Is this in any way a feminist issue?
Very much. It was always clear to me. When I was a child I used to say to people, God doesn’t want me to sit behind a curtain, men want it - it just seemed so true to me. Things get constructed for women that serve men’s interests. The issue for me was who controls the discourse. It doesn’t matter if rabbis say something positive about women, what matters is who are the rabbis, who’s doing the talking. We hear only men talking, not women, and that’s a problem. The issue is who’s having the conversation.

You’ve written two books about the connection between Jesus and Judaism in Germany, and anti-Semitism in general. Why do you think this is such an important topic to explore?
It’s important to understand the roots of our scholarship and our academic thinking, and to try to examine what’s logical and what needs to be altered so we can make advances in our knowledge. I think scholarship is very much linked to culture and our self-understanding. Everything I’ve been saying has a feminist agenda, to expose discourse and understand where the biases come from so we can move beyond them.

What are some ways to move beyond the biases?
Recognition is very important, and articulation, but the other thing that has to do with it is the emotional valence. For example, if we come across something anti-Semitic, we can be serious about it and examine its roots and implications, but we also have to pull the sting out. It can be through shame or humor, there are different approaches one can take to change attitudes. When I published my book on Jewish feminism, beforehand I got really angry about stuff said about women. When Mortimer Ostow, a very sexist theorist on anti-Semitism, gave the keynote at Conservative conference about status of women, what he said was horrible and I paced for days, I was so enraged. Then I published my book and I went around lecturing, and when I would quote him and people would laugh at him. I found I could make people laugh with how ludicrous his sexism was, and that’s changed things for me.

So I understand that you were just on a sabbatical. What were you doing with your time?
I’m writing book on the history of Jewish scholarship on Islam.

I knew that you were involved in Jewish-Islamic relations, since you convened a series of four international conferences of scholars in the fields of Jewish studies and Islamic studies. What do you think the most important thing you learned from them is?
There are quite a few things. Comparing feminist work in Islam and Judaism, there are some good techniques and arguments that are used by Muslim feminists that could be helpful to Jewish feminists. One example is the understanding that God in Islam isn’t beneath anything and not associated with anything, God is one and at the top, and if you try to associate something with God that’s called heresy. One Islamic feminist argument is that if you say men are above women then you’re saying men are like God, and that would be heresy. Another thing that stood out to me was the issues raised by migrations, what do Muslims do when they to a different country, how do they take identity with them and make a new one, what’s to be preserved and what’s to be changed? It’s a problem that Muslims and Jews face. For Jews in Diaspora, things have been quite diverse - Jews in Ottoman Turkey practiced Judaism differently than those in the US.

At the Women’s Liberation and Jewish Identity conference in March, you said that patriarchy isn’t Jewish. I can see many people disagreeing with that. What do you mean by that?
I say it’s not Jewish because we don’t have a monopoly on it. It’s within the culture we live in and we as Jews have adapted to it, we’ve swallowed it.

I only recently found out that it was your idea to put an orange on a Seder plate to represent solidarity with Jewish homosexuals. What inspired this? Why an orange?
First of all, I wasn’t raised with biases against gay people, my parents had gay friends. It was just normal to me, it wasn’t an issue. No one made a particular distinction. In the era of AIDS, when I grew up, people were saying such terrible things about the gay community, and I felt that we needed to speak out. This was my way. Oranges have segments and are attached, they’re all linked into one whole, one community. We’re all together and we can’t eliminate, we can’t just take out one piece. At the Seder, everyone would take a piece of orange and we’d all say the brakha (blessing) on the fruit together. In the moment of a religious occasion, that’s where you say something like that, not just at a lecture. Then we’d spit out the seeds of homophobia.

Do you have any words of advice for the next generation’s feminists?
First of all, feminism is about women. Of course there are lots of issues about Jewish life and fairness and equality and so forth that need to be addressed and changed, but this is a movement about women and women’s rights, and the battle isn’t over. I’m still invited to conferences where I’m the only woman speaking, and my colleagues still have conferences and research projects where all the participants are men. Exclusion and patronizing issues still exist, even at the senior level. It’s hard because in my generation, there aren’t a lot of professional women. We’re still figuring out how to act and what it means to be a professional. Some women my age are inappropriate in professionalism either because they’re silly or very cold because they think that’s the only way to hold their own. It’s a problem. A lot of men of my age cohort never had a woman professor and never confronted feminist issues, and it’s hard for me to work with them. I feel my work is better received by younger scholars in my field. On one hand I’m glad because it gives it extra life, but it makes me sad about men of my generation. We’ve all had these experiences. There are men who act inappropriately in the workplace and also others who are so nervous that they will be inappropriate that they avoid women. I count the number of women who contributed to an editing book, who are thanked in the acknowledgements in a book, and if I see a certain field with too many men, I tell them that it’ll die because there are too few women - women are half the PhDs nowadays. Everyone who writes about my father are men and the conferences about him are dominated by men. It really annoys me and I don’t know what to do about it, but I feel really offended by it.

How can we fix the problems?
We have to talk about it, pressure people, and recognize that this is the issue. Men should be part of the solution, they should speak about it as well. It’s hard to determine how to do it sometimes - do we shame people? Do we make it a joke? Once I went to people at a conference I was speaking at and told them that I was the only woman there, and if they didn't get more women speakers I would wear a burqa. They did get more women, but I shouldn’t have been the only one saying that. We have to agitate, make sure people are aware.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

My Darling Readers

I love you all, my darling readers. When I first created Star of Davida, I figured I’d get a couple hits after a few months, and that would be really awesome. I never thought people would actually read this blog, and certainly not comment on it. (I certainly never thought that people on the caliber of Maggie Anton or A Mother in Israel would.) So I love you all for reading, and commenting. Even when your comments aren’t so nice, like the following dear reader’s.

youre f**king r****ded. first of all hop off your feminist bulls**t because NOONE GIVES A FLYING F**K! two C U Next Tuesday is calling A DUDE a c**t and your having problems with the song because of its title you dont deserve to be graced with keshas amazing music thank you very much. We R Who We R is great for dancing i hate when people call songs with hot dancing beats party songs but its also inspirational to be whoever the f**k you wanna be and do you sooo.... GROW A PEAR is fighting for best song on the record with Blow the track is f**king incredible Kesha does not want a guy thats a p***y no one does she phrased very frankly so that NO ONE is confused. shes telling a story andd dont tell her to tell it. its very cute and funny and is f**king great. and you forgot to review the Bilboard Remix. and Cannibal is freaky but open your mind just a little its about being a maneater getting what you want etcetera the delivery isnt great but its a good track and i feel the message its

I’d like to address this comment on a piece-by-piece basis. (For the record, my original post on Ke$ha is here, and my second post, which this comment was towards, is here.)

youre f**king r****ded. first of all hop off your feminist bulls**t because NOONE GIVES A FLYING F**K!

In only seventeen words, Dear Reader manages to show some great character traits. I must have missed the newest MLA handbook, because I wasn’t aware that capitalization and punctuation was optional. Her* vocabulary is absolutely amazing (the f word twice! Aren’t her parents proud of her?), and she’s extremely sensitive towards the mentally challenged. It’s clear she’s a big friend of feminism, too.

*I'm calling Dear Reader a female just because it's easier. Dear Reader could be a he, I don't know.

two C U Next Tuesday is calling A DUDE a c**t and your having problems with the song because of its title you dont deserve to be graced with keshas amazing music thank you very much.
Dear Reader, have no fear. I understand what “C U Next Tuesday” is saying. (I know that Ke$ha lyrics can be almost on the level of Shakespeare, but I think I managed to analyze them correctly.) If I can’t appreciate the fact that the song uses the worst word in the book, maybe I can’t appreciate Ke$ha’s music, either. Aw, darn. I know I’m missing out on something real special there.

We R Who We R is great for dancing i hate when people call songs with hot dancing beats party songs but its also inspirational to be whoever the f**k you wanna be and do you sooo....

I’ll accept this point, since I know that Ke$ha wrote this after she heard about Tyler Clementi. While “We R Who We R” sounds like an annoying party song (and evidences that Ke$ha has the same MLA handbook as Dear Reader), it does have its positives. Nonetheless, it’s not particularly feminist.

GROW A PEAR is fighting for best song on the record with Blow the track is f**king incredible Kesha does not want a guy thats a p***y no one does she phrased very frankly so that NO ONE is confused. shes telling a story andd dont tell her to tell it. its very cute and funny and is f**king great.

Well, at least I’ll die knowing that Dear Reader likes songs that completely degrade womankind. (Seriously, all you feminist folks reading this. Read the lyrics for yourself, and tell me if I’m right or what.) As I believe I stated in my original post about the song, wanting a man that can support you is certainly a worthwhile message to impart to girls* (especially with current domestic violence statistics), but saying that “I just can’t date a dude with a vag” IS NOT THE WAY TO SAY IT. She can tell her story all she wants, but not by insulting a man by calling him a woman.

*I’m not trying to ignore homosexual girls here, but Ke$ha is singing from a heterosexual point of view.

and you forgot to review the Bilboard Remix.

Yeah, I know. I mentioned “Animal” in my original Ke$ha post, and didn’t see the point in talking about it again.

and Cannibal is freaky but open your mind just a little its about being a maneater getting what you want etcetera the delivery isnt great but its a good track and i feel the message its

Again, Dear Reader, I understand what it’s saying. God graced me with the ability to analyze Ke$ha songs. And it’s still a freaky song that I don’t like.

Please, readers, don’t be put off by this post. I love it when you comment, and I promise I won’t be mean to you and rip your comments up like this, unless they’re as inane as this one.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Shining Stars of Davida: Kirsten Gillibrand

Kirsten Gillibrand is one of the 17 women in the Senate. Originally a member of the House, she became a senator when she was appointed to fill Hillary Clinton’s vacated Senate seat. While I didn’t really care one way or another at the time, as I’ve become more involved in the feminist and political worlds, I’m really happy that Gillibrand has the power that she does.

Above all, Gillibrand vehemently supports Israel, believing that the American-Israeli bond must remain whole and that America should protect Israel from its enemies. She supported Israel in the Gaza War, and is endorsed by AIPAC. She once said that “[Misleading UN] findings should not be used as ammunition against [Israel], a nation that has been forced to protect its families and children from Hamas attacks.” In 2010, she supported a $2 million fund to preserve the U.S.-Israel Energy Cooperative Agreement in the FY2011 Energy and Water Appropriations Bill.

Gillibrand is also very much a feminist. She is pro-choice, believes that women and girls deserve access to reproductive health care, and is against the Stupak-Pitts Amendment. If that’s not enough for you, she’s endorsed by NOW, Planned Parenthood, NARAL, and EMILY’s List.

Like pretty much everyone in Congress, Gillibrand is concerned about creating jobs and bolstering the economy. She believes that one of the best ways to reach that goal is to help women attain an equal economic status to men. She supported the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, (the first bill that Obama signed into law), which extends the amount of time workers have to file a lawsuit for pay discrimination. Gillibrand is also one of the most vocal supporters of the Paycheck Fairness Act, a bill that will make it a lot easier for victims of pay discrimination to sue their employers (among many other things). She advocates for small businesses and work flexibility, holding roundtable discussions to inform women about small business ownership and introducing the Family Work Flexibility Act, which will give a tax credit to businesses that allow their employees to telecommute.

The gender gap in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) continues to persist. This not only hurts women, but all of society, because there is a severe lack of math and science teachers. Gillibrand has introduced several bills to encourage more women to go into the sciences. They include the National STEM Education Tax Incentive for Teachers Act, which gives a tax credit to STEM teachers who work in low-income schools; the Undergraduate Scholarships for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Act (US STEM Act), which provides 2,500 undergraduate scholarships to low-income students who are interested in STEM; and the Roosevelt Scholars Act, which encourages students in mission-critical fields like medicine, law, and information technology to pursue a federal government job.

Because child care is important to working families, Gillibrand, along with Senator Barbara Boxer, are working to increase the benefits that the Dependent and Child Care Tax Credit provides. She also wants to give tax breaks for offices that have on-site child care or help their employees find it elsewhere, and tax credits to people who work in child care.

Gillibrand also created Off the Sidelines, an organization whose mission is to get women off the sidelines and involved in government and politics. Off the Sidelines believes that “more women need to embrace the fact that their voice matters and that they can make a difference,” whether from their living room or the Oval Office. The website encourages women to vote, talk about the issues, volunteer, run for office, mentor, and raise money. The whole organization is really awesome, and I think it’s great that it’s able to get so much publicity.

I dub Kirsten Gillibrand an inductee into the Shining Stars of Davida - strong women and men who make us feminists proud.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Girls and Computers

I love computers. I always have. When I was pretty little, I even remember drafting editions of a newspaper on Word (the 97 version!). I loved even the most rudimentary paint program, and the Internet was a continual source of amusement and information (when I wanted it). Now, I’m extremely Web-connected. Like most teenagers of this era, I really couldn’t live without a computer or Internet connection anymore.

I was recently reading the National Council for Research on Women’s Balancing the Equation: Where Are Women and Girls in Science, Engineering, and Technology? (2001), a really cool publication that presents data about how women are doing in the sciences, from kindergarten to industry work. The research is a little bit old, but it’s still a great, really enlightening report. As I was reading, I was surprised to see the statistic that only 20% of students taking AP computer science are female, and this huge gender gap is attributed to the fact that girls feel uncomfortable in the “boyish” computer sciences.

This piece of information really shocked me. Computers were always a big presence in my life, and I always felt in my element working on them. I first learned how to use one in preschool. I remember working on the paint program pretty often and getting annoyed when my turn was over. Throughout elementary school, we had computer classes once a week, and my entire class looked forward to our time on the computer, even if we had to work on school stuff. Most of us had computers at home when we were younger, so we all felt extremely comfortable online. Once we got into the middle school years, we did more heavy-duty work on the computers at school. Everyone in my class had a PC or Mac at home, so we all felt relaxed with computers, especially when laptops became a popular school item. Now in high school, a lot of girls come from a no-computer background, but most of my classmates feel comfortable with them.

Balancing the Equation not only contains information and statistics about women and girls in the sciences, but also gives suggestions on how to fix the inequalities that persist. One of the solutions given to stop girls from feeling shy when it comes to computers is to have girls-only computer labs.

I went to a Modern Orthodox elementary and middle school, so we were coed up until fifth grade, and then we were separated by gender in most classes until graduation. As a result, I was only in a computer lab with boys when we were younger, and the work wasn’t terribly difficult or intimidating in any way.

If my classes had been coed in middle school and I had been in a computer lab with boys. Would I feel the same way towards computers as I do now? Would I feel so comfortable with them? Would I have ever taught myself basic HTML and Flash? Would my friends dislike computers?

It’s an interesting question slew of questions. I just hope that upcoming generations of girls won’t have to deal with them.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Boo on Breastfeeding

My mom wasn’t able to breastfeed me. She blamed it on the fact that she was older when she gave birth, but she found out recently that because she has thyroid issues and a C-section, there was snowball’s chance in heck that she would be able to nurse. She tried for six weeks, but milk absolutely refused to come out.

That didn’t stop her sister, the card-carrying La Leche League member who nursed her son years after he had teeth, from torturing her about it, though. “How can you just let that bond that you create between your baby and you while you breastfeed go? Don’t you know that breastfed babies are smarter? And healthier! Because they have to suck harder, their faces get more developed and they become prettier, too!”

Okay. Personally? I think it’s all a load of garbage. I have no idea why the feminist movement thinks it’s liberating or whatever to breastfeed your child. To me, it’s one of the least liberating things a woman can do. She is literally shackling herself to her child for the first six months of his or her life, forcing herself to be on call 24/7 to feed the baby. It doesn’t matter if mommy’s a high-powered attorney who has to be in court tomorrow. She still has to wake up at three in the morning to nurse the baby.

To me, most of the pros of breastfeeding are cons or downright lies. I’ll only address the ones by darling aunt ever said to my mother, though, because I’d be writing a book about it if I didn’t limit myself.

Breastfeeding creates a bond between mother and baby: Please explain to me how having a baby tucked under your breast, out of sight, creates a bond. What if you’re in public and nursing with your baby under a blanket or sheet? How exactly does covering your baby up and keeping him or her completely out of your sight forge a bond? When a mother bottle feeds, she’s holding her baby in her arms, facing her child. Doesn’t it create a stronger bond then?

Breastfed babies are smarter: Oh, for the love of God. Not to toot my own horn here, but I’m pretty dang smart. I have an eight-page résumé, have won more competitions and contests than I can count, and when I took the SATs at age twelve, I scored so high that I was offered a one-course scholarship to NYU. You think if I had been breastfed my résumé would be nine pages by now?

Breastfed babies are healthier: I’ll use myself as an example again. After sixteen years of life, I’ve had one ear infection and one case of strep throat. Those were the only two times I’ve ever been on antibiotics. I’m rarely ever sick (thank God), and next to never take off school days for health reasons. So I guess if I had been breastfed, I never would’ve gotten that strep throat. Darn, I knew I shouldn’t have pooped in my mother’s womb and forced her to get that Caesarean. Blast those bad thyroid genes, too.

Breastfed babies are prettier: I’m not even gonna dignify this one with a response, it’s so stupid.

Let’s not forget all the cons of breastfeeding: the fact that a mother has to be up every two or three hours to feed the baby, both feeding and pumping can be extremely painful to do, it can be really awkward in public, weaning can be very difficult, plus dozens of other reasons.

Formula is extremely expensive, yes; I’m not going to deny it, because it’s fact. Especially once you have to buy the special non-allergenic ones. Considering the fact that breastfeeding is free, and all the related accoutrements are tax deductible at this point, formula prices skyrocket in comparison.

I know this article is extremely extreme. I wrote it like that purposely, because I daresay that someone like my aunt would write an ever stronger article for the opposite cause.

To be honest, at the end of the day, I feel that women should be able to breastfeed or formula feed - whatever floats their boat and makes the most sense for their situation. When with God’s help I have a daughter of my own, I have no idea what I’ll do. I’ll think about it when I have to. Whatever I end up doing, it’ll still annoy me that the IRS will give tax breaks on $50 breast pumps that can last as long as needed, but not on 32-ounce $30 baby formula that disappears pretty quick.

Tonight begins Tisha B'Av, the fast day that commemorates the destruction of the first and second Temple. May everyone have a meaningful and inspiring fast.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Shining Stars of Davida: Adele

I think we all know that the media can greatly sway the public, for the good and bad. Part of the bad is how television, magazines, etc. have made a beauty standard that girls and women feel the need to conform to, leading to a plethora of women who feel uncomfortable with their bodies. There’s one pretty powerful woman in the music industry who hasn’t felt bad about her body: Adele.

Adele was born to a single teenage mother in London in 1988, and started singing at age four. She went to The BRIT School for Performing Arts and Technology, where she was classmates with to-be performers Leona Lewis and Jessie J. After some of her music was posted on MySpace in 2006, she was contacted by XL Recordings, and signed with them quickly. It didn’t take long for her to become wildly successful, with her songs topping the charts and going multi-platinum. Her music was introduced in America in June 2008. The endeavor seemed like a failure until October, when she performed on the episode of Saturday Night Live Sarah Palin was on. By February, the album went gold in America. She has since become ninth richest British singer under 30.

I think that it’s absolutely amazing that Adele, who has this amazingly successful career, isn’t the typical size 2 celebrity. She says that she’s a 14/16, and is happy with that and has no intentions to change it. It really thrills me that there’s a singer who doesn’t conform to today’s beauty standards, but is still perfectly content with the way she looks. Jenny Craig commercials with smiling, thinner-than-before celebrities always kind of annoy me. I mean, I’m happy that they’re able to make themselves happier by losing weight. My mom lost 110 pounds, and I know how much it can mean to a person. But did Valerie Bertinelli really feel that the only reason she took control of her life was because she lost 40 pounds? And is thinning really just the only thing in the world that matters to Jason Alexander? It’s these “your weight defines who you are and if you’re overweight you’re a horrible person with a horrible life and you need to pay us to fix it for you” ad campaigns that tick me off.

And this is why I love Adele. She’s an absolutely amazing role model for girls today: she shows that you can be successful, have this great career, sing amazingly, and be beautiful while being a 14/16.

It kind of bothers me that Adele has to be praised for being the average American and British dress size (14), though. Why can’t we all just accept the fact that most women out there aren’t the super-skinny people we see on TV (like Jenny Craig commercials) and magazine ads? Why can’t we a view a 14/16 as beautiful? We use to be able to do that; Marilyn Monroe, the iconic sex symbol, was far from the size 2 celebrity that everyone seems to love nowadays.

Yeah, I know that the only reason beauty standards exist and are perpetuated is because people want to make money off of people’s insecurities. Ms. Craig is extraordinarily wealthy. So are Ms. Nutrisystem and Ms. Weight Watchers and all the other creators of diet programs. Let’s not forget the Ms. Atkins Diet and Ms. South Beach Diet and Ms. 17 Day Diet and all of those fad diets that are popular for five minutes, either.

I love Adele. I hope she never feels the pressure to lose weight; if she does choose to slim down, then I hope it’s her choice and her choice alone, not the choice of a manager or anyone else.

I dub Adele an inductee into the Shining Stars of Davida - strong women and men who make us feminists proud.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Star of Davida Interviews Michelle Cameron

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 Michelle Cameron, the author of The Fruit of Her Hands: The Story of Shira of Ashkenaz, a richly dramatic fictional story of Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg's wife, Shira, a devout but rebellious woman who preserves her religious traditions as she and her family witness the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe.

I understand that you were inspired to write The Fruit of Her Hands after learning that you descend from Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg. What inspired you to research your family history?
It was actually sheer chance. I had finished promoting an earlier work (In the Shadow of the Globe, a verse novel fictionalizing Shakespeare’s life and loves) and was looking for a new project. A distant cousin of mine had created and published a comprehensive family tree, and I turned to it to see if I could find out more about the woman I was named for. As I opened the book, a story that my mother always told me - that we could trace our family tree back to the 1200s - was borne out. There was a brief, intriguing article about my 13th century ancestor, Meir of Rothenberg, that inspired me to look him up on Google. The more I read about him, the more I realized I had the makings of a wonderful novel.

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?
Definitely not raised with Torah and Talmud - I come from a very secular family! My knowledge in Torah comes from completing my high school studies in Israel, where Torah is a required subject. I would never have studied Talmud at all if it weren’t for the novel. It became such a central part of the plot that I knew I had to find someone to introduce me to it. Lucky for me, the associate rabbi at my synagogue was willing to help.

That’s really cool that you lived in Israel. How long were you there?
14 years. I was 15 when my parents moved there.

What inspired the move?
To Israel? My parents were firm Zionists who had tried to move there back in 1949. My father couldn't get work at that time (he was a chemical engineer). He was able to in 1973 (an auspicious year for a move)!

Back to the US? Professional concerns again. I was working as a writer in English and my husband (also a native American) as a lighting technician in films and TV. There seemed to be more we could do in the US.

Why did you choose the pasuk (verse) from Eishet Hayil to name the book after?
Ah, title hell! The original title of this novel was Daughter of Faith. Including the world “daughter” in a historical novel was trendy for a few years, though I really didn’t do it deliberately. My agent didn’t like that title and asked me to come up with a new one. After intense consideration and several flawed titles, I came up with Shira of Ashkenaz, which both of us really liked. So that was the title that was submitted to various publishing houses.

But when my editor accepted the novel, one of the first things she asked for was a new title for the book. She wanted something poetic or evocative, and was definitely open to something from Torah or Talmud. Eishet Hayil was an obvious place to look - but of course, naming the novel “Woman of Valor” would have been a cliché. I liked the symbolism inherent in Fruit of Her Hands, and my editor liked it as well. I rewrote a couple of places in the novel to make the title a natural extension of the story. However - soon after the book was published - I discovered that “the fruit of her hands” is a catch phrase for fundamentalist Christian woman who believe in being subservient to their husbands. Not at all what I intended! I can only hope that any woman who reads the novel thinking it will be a fundamentalist tract will have her eyes opened…

Why did you name the main character Shira? Was it a common name in the 1200s?
No, Shira definitely wasn’t a common name in the 1200s. But I first attempted to write another verse novel (similar to In the Shadow of the Globe). After I had written that book, I thought I had found my genre, and that everything new I wrote would be in the long poetic narrative format. But the material refused all my attempts to write that way. I tried a variety of different short formats - letters, diary entries - but the material insisted on being a historical novel.

Of course, when I was writing poetry, the name “Shira” - which means poetry or song in Hebrew - was completely fitting. By the time I realized I had a novel on my hands, I had been thinking of Shira as Shira too long - and couldn’t change the name.

There’s a big contrast that in the middle of terrible persecution, Talmud burnings etc., Jewish life thrived and a lot of halakhot (Jewish laws) were codified. Why do you think this irony was able to happen?
I talk about this a lot when I go on speaking engagements about the novel. Researching and learning about so many Jewish atrocities, you really do begin to wonder how we as Jews survived to this day. As I pondered this, I often considered what my two characters - Meir and Shira - taught me about the quality of Jewish life. Meir and his contemporaries, of course, kept Judaism thriving through their concentration on study and their desire to codify their customs and practices so that anyone, anywhere could remain a Jew, no matter where circumstances forced him or her to go. The women, on the other hand, helped the traditions stay alive through their care of their households and their love of their families.

Several times in the book, characters long for peaceable Judeo-Christian relations. Is this an important issue to you?
Oh, absolutely! One of the wonderful things about writing this book has been my readers - Jews and Christians alike - saying that they never knew about what Jewish life was like during this era and letting me know that it made a difference to how they perceived the long history of hatred and persecution. I really feel that it is only through mutual knowledge of our histories and our traditions that we will finally be able to live in peace with one another.

Do you describe yourself as a feminist?
Well, yes and no. Unlike my husband, who grew up in the 60s and strongly identifies with the women’s movement, it’s not the label I would usually use to identify myself. But I clearly live as a feminist, with or without the label.

Do you view The Fruit of Her Hands as a feminist work?
Well, yes. Shira was created deliberately as a strong woman and frankly, as an exception in her time. Her personality came about as a reaction to what I discovered about her husband. There is a two-volume publication that collects all of Meir’s letters (the fragments that exist). In there, I discovered a man who was very much a product of his age, who embraced the anti-woman philosophies of that period, particularly when it comes to allowing women to take part in religious ritual. I wanted someone who could debate with him - not necessarily win the arguments, because that would be anachronistic - but at least raise the issues.

I also understand that you wrote another book, By the Waters. Could you tell me a little more about that?
That novel is currently looking for a publisher and I hope to have good news in that regard soon. I was inspired by Psalm 137, which Shira recites as she watches the wagons loaded with volumes of Talmud move past her, heading for destruction. By the Waters, which takes place between the burning of the First Temple and the construction of the Second, is an intergenerational novel about conquest and exile, assimilation, longing for home, and the creation of a new form of Judaism.

If you're interested in reading The Fruit of Her Hands: The Story of Shira of Ashkenaz for yourself, you can purchase it here.

I also want to say that this is my 100th post!! To celebrate, here's a list of the top 100 feminist books and top 100 feminist movies.