Monday, February 27, 2012

Jewish Women and Space

While most people don’t usually associate Jewish women with space and astronomy, they have a surprisingly rich history in the subject.

Caroline Lucretia Herschel (1750-1848) was an astronomer whose father was of Jewish descent. Raised in Hanover, she moved to England when she was 22 because her brother, the astronomer William Herschel, invited her to live with him. She happily took advantage of the opportunity and relocated to Bath. William was originally a musician and began dabbling in astronomy as a hobby. Caroline became involved in the study of the stars when her brother did, teaching herself from his notes and books.

She quickly became an astronomer in her own right. Herschel greatly contributed to the astronomy field, discovering several comets in the 1780s and 90s. Most notably, she discovered the 35P/Herschel-Rigollet comet in 1788 and the Messier 110 Galaxy in 1783. She also compiled the Catalogue of Stars, an important book in astronomical history. When she returned to Hanover after her brother’s death in 1822, she compiled a catalogue of nebulae. As a result, she won the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, the highest honor the association awards.

Herschel was certainly a groundbreaker. She actually received wages from the government for her work, a feat that was difficult for men to accomplish. Herschel was also one of the first two women to receive honorary membership to the Royal Astronomical Society. Her donations to science have been recognized: an asteroid discovered in 1888 was named after her, as well as a crater on the Moon.

The next woman to receive the Gold Medal was Vera Rubin in 1996. An American Orthodox Jew, she graduated from Vassar in 1948. When she applied to Princeton’s astronomy program, she was denied due to her gender. (Princeton didn’t accept women into this program until 1975.) She attended Cornell for her MA instead, and received a PhD from Georgetown. She went on to discover an inconsistency between the predicted angular motion of galaxies and the observed motion by studying galactic rotation curves. This became known as the galaxy rotation problem. (I’m not a science person, so I don’t really understand what this means. It sounds like it’s a big deal, so I’m assuming it really is one.)

I think it’s really interesting that the first two (out of three total) female winners of the Gold Medal were Jewish. It’s especially cool that Rubin identifies as Orthodox, since you often find that scientists reject religion.

Another famous Jewish woman in space is Judith Resnik, z”l. She was the second woman, second Jew, first American Jew, and first Jewish woman in space. When images of Resnik first came back to Earth, people were surprised to see her hair floating all over the place in weightlessness, since they were still used to the idea of astronauts as men with buzz cuts. Resnik’s career was cut tragically short when she died during the 1986 Challenger disaster.

While I have very little interest in math or science, it’s still heartwarming to see all of these amazing Jewish women who did, and to know that my peers have the chance to explore space because of their actions.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Who Are We Really Trying to Impress?

I don’t think I’m generalizing when I say that everyone wants to look good. But at the end of the day, who are you really trying to impress?

Is it some boy in school? If he’s worth the effort, he will love you no matter what your dress size is. A guy who won’t notice you until you lose weight is someone who puts way too much emphasis on physical appearance, and not enough on the things that matter. I know this sounds so cliché, but it’s really true. Guys who value girls based solely on their bodies aren’t the guys you want to be involved with. Someone who wants you to change any part of yourself, including your weight, isn’t appreciating you for what you are. There’s no reason to try to impress some dude who doesn’t know you exist. If he’s the guy you really want, he’ll have noticed you already.

Are you trying to impress your sister? As an only child, I can’t understand sibling dynamics from personal experience. However, I’ve lived in this world long enough to know that some sisters are constantly in competition with each other, especially when they’re closer in age. I really don’t think this rivalry is worth it, either. Of all the people you want to impress, your siblings should be the last on the list. They’ve seen you toddle around in diapers. You don’t need to prove anything to them.

Or is it your friends? If you feel the need to impress your friends, then it might be time to reevaluate why you’re friends with them. A true friend will love you no matter how you look. She won’t go out of her way to hurt your feelings. Of course, everyone has bad days and says things they don’t mean, but if you have a friend who constantly rags on you because of your appearance, chances are she’s not someone you want to hang out with.

I only keep in touch with two friends from middle school, one of whom is female. When I think back on it, she’s also the only friend I had at the time who never made any obnoxious comments about my appearance.

Why should you work so hard to impress others and constantly hold yourself to somebody else’s standard? The key is to worry less about how others perceive you. I don’t know if it’s possible to ever be completely indifferent to what people think about you, but we should always try.

My former school guidance counselor once said that she was talking to an older friend. The woman said to her, “When I was twenty, all I cared about was what people thought about me. When I was forty, I didn’t care what people thought about me. When I was sixty, I realized that people didn’t really think about me all that much.”

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Black Bus Driver With the Yarmulke

A while ago, my mom and I got onto a bus, not giving the African-American driver a second look as we climbed up the steps and paid our fare. On the way out, the driver had to let someone in a wheelchair onto the bus and told me to exit via the back door. When I looked at him as he spoke to me, I noticed that above his cornrows, he was wearing a blue velvet yarmulke with silver Jewish stars around the edge.

I stood there staring at the yarmulke. He can’t be Jewish. He’s black. He probably saw the yarmulke at a flea market or something and bought it because he thought it looked cool. Yeah, like that older woman I saw a while ago wearing a yarmulke on the street. No, he can’t be Jewish. He’s a bus driver. And he’s black. But I guess there are Jewish black people out there, like that family in my elementary school, Ethiopian Jews and converts and people like that. But he’s a bus driver. He can’t be Jewish…can he?

When I got off the bus, I asked my mom if she noticed. “Of course,” she said. “I think it’s so nice that he wears a yarmulke to work.”

“At first I doubted that he was even Jewish,” I said, hoping that my mom would make me feel less stupid and racist by agreeing.

“Why wouldn’t he be Jewish? He was wearing a yarmulke,” my mom said, accomplishing the opposite of what I had hoped.

Honestly, I was kind of embarrassed at myself that I had immediately dismissed the idea of a black person being Jewish. There are a lot of Jews of color out there, in both the secular world (Lisa Bonet, Rashida Jones, Rebecca Walker, and more) and the religious world (Ahuvah Gray, Aliza Hausman, etc.). Why shouldn’t a black bus driver be Jewish?

I do think that it’s absolutely beautiful that this bus driver wears a yarmulke while working, though. It is an accepted practice, even among very religious people, not to wear a yarmulke to work, which makes it even nicer that this bus driver does. I always think it’s such a kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God) when I do see professionals with yarmulke. This bus driver, who no doubt sees thousands of people a day, shows everyone who comes onto his bus who he is: I am a Jew. I am an African-American. I can be both at the same time. And that’s pretty cool.

(I know I’m probably reading into this way more than it deserves, and this bus driver probably just wears a yarmulke for the sake of keeping his religion rather than for political reasons, but still.)

In April 2011, I heard Yavilah McCoy, creator of Ayecha, speak at the Women’s Liberation and Jewish IdentityConference. I think her words are an excellent way to end off: “If Judaism is a religion of justice and not just the shtetl, we have to make room for diversity. This is a multiracial community and we have to give voice to that.”

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Girls and Their Dolls

Since I love Big Time Rush (yeah, I know I’m a dork, don’t rub it in), I watch the show obsessively. While glued to my TV and waiting for the pretty boys to come back on, I’ve noticed ads for Hearts 4 Hearts Girls doll. They seemed pretty cool in the commercial, so I decided to look into them. I wasn’t disappointed - they are really awesome dolls. There are six: Nahji from India, Lilian from Belarus, Tipi from Laos, Dell from the US, Consuelo from Mexico, and Rahel from Ethiopia.

On the website, each doll has a page giving some details of her life. What I love about it is that the site doesn’t mince words and sugarcoat things, it really tells it like it is. Nahji’s page has a picture of a woman sitting in a field, captioned “tea pickers work very hard for low wages,” and she says that she raises ducks to help her family and sews beads onto sari fabric for extra money. Each doll has a diary too, with dozens of entries about their real lives. Nahji’s first entries are about how her father is disabled, her mother is a tea picker who worked since age eight, and her sister has cleaned houses since age ten (Nahji’s age), but she wants to be educated, learn how to farm and raise ducks, and have a successful business in order to help her family and not be a poor tea picker.

I also really like that the dolls are pretty (a lot more appealing than American Girls, in my opinion). I know it’s sexist that I’m buying into societal beauty standards like that, but little girls at this point in history just don’t like to play with dolls that aren’t pretty, and the Hearts 4 Hearts Girls fulfill that requirement. What I really appreciate is that all of the dolls are pretty, but they still look realistic; the dolls all have different facial features, which is important because they’re all from different cultures. (Part of the reason I refused to play with non-white Barbies as a kid was because I felt they looked weird. I now realize my definition of “weird” was that they may have had darker skin, but they had white features. I think they look more realistic nowadays, which is a really great thing that Mattel is doing.)

And while I’m taking about dolls, I feel like I should mention Gali Girls. They’re supposed to be Jewish, coming with candlesticks and challah. The Jewish feminist community has critiqued them for boxing girls into traditional femininity and gender roles. I do agree with this, but on the other hand, I think that these dolls can really empower girls. I remember when the secular Jewish modern-day limited-edition American Girl doll, Lindsey Bergman, came out when I was younger. My mom immediately bought her for me, and I thought it was the coolest thing in the world to have a Jewish doll. I remember reading her book, which has a big subplot about her brother’s bar mitzvah, with glee. Seeing all the Jewish references really gave me such a connection to her. know young girls who have Rebecca, the official Jewish historical American Girl doll, and they absolutely love her. There’s just something special about having a doll that you can personally relate to and have a connection with, which is why I like the Gali Girl dolls. Are they perfect? No. But hey, you gotta start somewhere.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Women of Worst Cooks

As a Food Network junkie, I was really excited to hear about the new season of Worst Cooks in America. For those of you unfamiliar with the show, Chefs Anne Burrell and Bobby Flay each have to teach a team of the so-called “worst cooks in America” how to cook. I’ll miss Robert Irvine from last year, since I have a mild crush on him, but Bobby Flay is definitely a cool replacement. In the first episode alone, I noticed some women to keep an eye on as the competition progresses.

On Team Anne, there’s Melissa Rhodes from Naples, Florida, an anorexia and bulimia survivor who still struggles with a fear of food and her body. I think it’s really great that the show is featuring someone who has a hard time with food from a culinary and psychological perspective. While I don’t think that Food Network goes out of its way to ignore eating disorders, it certainly doesn’t take pains to mention them. (The only time I can remember anorexia being brought up was on an episode of Chopped, when a competitor talked about how she went into cooking as part of anorexia recovery, but it’s not like I’ve seen every episode of every show the network has ever aired.)

I think that part of the reason why there isn’t that much attention given to eating disorders is because there are much fewer women on Food Network. While I think the network tries to equalize the numbers as much as possible, there are just fewer female restaurant chefs out there, so there’s only so much they can do. (Why there are more men than women in the restaurant kitchen is a whole other topic.)

While I’m discussing this, I feel like I should mention that I find the new show Fat Chef a little offensive. I’ve never actually watched it, so my impression could be totally wrong, but the commercials are too reminiscent of The Biggest Loser, which encourages horrendously unhealthy weight loss methods. I also don’t like the title, since it sounds more like a schoolyard taunt than television show. I know that Beth Ditto, lead singer of Gossip, has called herself a “fat dyke” and has no problem with the terminology fat, but I’m not comfortable with it in this context.

Whatever the case, I’m glad to see someone like Melissa on Worst Cooks.

The show also has two apparently Jewish women: Rachel Margolin from New York, New York, and Erica Weidner from Long Beach, New York. (For the record, I’m assuming these women are Jewish based on their names, because I have no actual proof.) I guess it’s not surprising that there are a few Jews on the show, considering that the show is based out of NYC and two million of us live in the metropolitan area. I like that these women are breaking the stereotype of the Jewish bubbe who’s deft in the kitchen and always has home-cooked meals waiting for you at her house. No, not all Jewish women know how to cook! And for the record, not all women know how to cook, either!

So I’m definitely looking forward to watching how the rest of Worst Cooks goes. Until then, happy eating!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Star of Davida Interviews Sonia Pressman Fuentes

Second Wave Feminism began in the early 1960s at about the same time as the Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became effective.When Title VII (prohibiting employers, employment agencies, and labor unions from discriminating against employees and applicants for employment on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin) was enacted, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) was established to enforce it. Unfortunately, at the outset, the EEOC was not friendly to women's rights. Sonia Pressman Fuentes, a Jewish woman whose parents escaped Nazi Germany with her, was the first female lawyer at the Office of the General Counsel at the EEOC. When Betty Friedan, the author of The Feminine Mystique, began poking around the EEOC for information on women's advancement, Fuentes told her about the EEOC's inaction and urged her to create an "NAACP for women." Friedan heeded her advice in 1966, when she and 48 others, including Fuentes, established the National Organization for Women (NOW). Fuentes was extremely active during its early years, working with NOW to influence EEOC rulings. Star of Davida had the absolute honor of interviewing this amazing woman.

You say in your book Eat First - You Don't Know What They'll Give You: The Adventures of an Immigrant Family and Their Feminist Daughter that you got very involved in testifying on behalf of the 1963 Equal Pay Act. Do you know why this issue caught your attention rather than anything else (racial discrimination, etc.) you had done in the EEOC?
I wasn’t working at the EEOC when I was asked by Larry Speiser, head of the ACLU’s Washington, DC, office, to write testimony in support of the Equal Pay bill. I was working for the NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) as an attorney at its headquarters in Washington, DC, and, shortly before Larry asked me to do this, I had volunteered to be of assistance to the ACLU’s Washington office. I would guess Larry asked me to do this because I was a woman but I don’t really know. I never asked him.

Do you know why Charlie Duncan hired you for the EEOC’s general counsel’s office even though you were female? Was your gender a factor at all?
What do you mean “even though” I was a woman? I think he may have hired me because I was a woman because Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which the EEOC administered and administers, prohibits gender discrimination in employment. But I don’t know why he hired me; I never asked him. Keep in mind that I had been referred to him by his former pupil at the Howard Law School, my friend, Jacqueline Williams.

When you say that “society exacted a high price from deviants [women who didn’t adhere to the status quo],” what was this high price?
Society had certain roles it expected men and women to play and when women or men didn’t conform to those roles, members of society put pressure on them to conform to society’s expectations and, if they did not, it treated them as if they were eccentrics or freaks. An example of this is given in my memoir. When I decided to go to law school in 1954, about 3% of this country’s law school graduates were women. Law was not a profession society thought was suitable for women. Thus, when I mentioned to people that I planned to attend law school, the common response was to ask me why I would choose to do such a thing. I describe the incident where my mother took me up to a stranger in a shopping mall and asked this man if he thought “this little girl” could be a lawyer.

Did you ever feel overwhelmed at the idea of trying to eradicate sex discrimination in a world that was so unfriendly to women’s rights?
Yes, but that didn’t prevent me from continuing with the struggle.

You ask a rhetorical question, “Why was I engaged in this battle [for women’s rights] against men who had power when I had none?” Do you know the answer to this in hindsight?
I’m someone who feels compelled to do something about it when I encounter injustice.

It’s extremely cool that you such an integral part of the creation of NOW. At the time, did you have a clue how much influence you would have on history?

Were you ever afraid that your job would be jeopardized if your activity with NOW was discovered by the EEOC?
I thought it was a possibility that my underground meetings in Mary Eastwood’s apartment might be discovered by the EEOC and could jeopardize my job. But I was never “afraid” about that.

You wrote the lead decision against the airline companies’ discriminatory policies towards stewardesses - how did you get so involved in this cause? What else did you do regarding the stewardesses?
I became emotionally involved in the stewardess cases because as a woman I felt for the stewardesses and was drawn to the justice of their cause. Airlines terminated or grounded stewardesses on marriage or on becoming thirty-two or thirty-five and they had various qualifications for them, such as their height and weight. The lawyer representing the airlines was named Jesse Freidin and he was a terrific lawyer. I felt very competitive with him. But, sadly, he died before I wrote the lead decision.

I became friendly with a woman named Colleen Boland, who represented the stewardess union, and was a cofounder of NOW with me. In 1986, when Catherine East, Mary Eastwood, and I planned a 20th reunion for NOW founders in Washington, DC, I tried very hard to locate Colleen but was unsuccessful. In 1996, the Veteran Feminists of America (VFA) planned a program at Barnard College in NYC to honor NOW founders. I tried again to locate Colleen before this conference, and this time I was successful, but I was too late. I connected with Colleen’s daughter who told me her mother had lived in Cleveland (where I had lived from the beginning of 1982 to the end of 1985) but had died three months earlier. I gave a talk about Colleen at that conference, which is on videotape and is available from the VFA.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Burqas or Bikinis

Rebbetzin (rabbi's wife) Batsheva Kanievsky zikhrona tzadeket l'vrakha (may the memory of
the righteous be a blessing) was possibly one of the most amazingly spiritual women of our generation. When she passed away a few months ago, the Jewish community was crushed. While her death was a huge blow, her legacy is far from over. I recently heard Rabbi Yechiel Spero, a teacher at Baltimore’s Talmudic Academy and author of the popular ArtScroll series Touched by a Story, share an amazing story about Rebbetzin Kanievsky that I wanted to share.

According to her children, Rebbetzin Kanievsky only got upset two times in her life. One of the times was when someone arranged for her to speak with a group of girls. These girls were very modern, and they were not dressed according to the rules of tzniut (the laws of modesty in dress). She was happy to speak with them anyway, and they met her at the synagogue where she prayed three times a day, every day, outside of her home. (It's worthwhile to note that few women bother praying three times a day, since the technical law is that they only have to pray certain parts of the liturgy twice a day.)

A man walked by and he saw the girls. Horrified at their mode of dress, he started yelling at them, “How dare you come into our neighborhood dressed like that! Shame on you for talking to the rebbetzin dressed like that!”

Rebbetzin Kanievsky started crying, extremely upset, and shouted at the man, “How dare you talk to them like that! You’re being mevazeh [disgracing] a bas Yisrael [Jewish woman]!” She ran upstairs to her husband, Rabbi Kanievsky, who she never disturbed. She cried and just kept saying, “He was mevazeh a bas Yisrael, he was mevazeh a bas Yisrael!”

I think this story adequately shows that the kavod (respect) of a Jewish woman should not ever be compromised. Whether she’s wearing a burqa or bikini, if she has a Jewish soul, she deserves the same respect. If someone on the level of Rebbetzin Kanievsky had no problem speaking to women not dressed according to tzniut, then what right does anyone else have to shun women from their neighborhoods based on their dress?

Thursday, February 2, 2012

A Jewish Feminist on the 2012 Election

While I won’t be able to vote in the 2012 election (I’ll be a few months shy of 18), I still want to educate myself and make sure I know where every candidate stands on the issues that are important to me, from Israel to abortion.

Obama claims to support women’s rights, and he has done stuff to show that he’s not totally indifferent to feminism. The first bill he signed was the Lilly Ledbetter Equal Pay Act, which ensures that women can sue if they don’t receive equal pay for equal work. He also appointed Hillary Clinton as his Secretary of State, and Justices Sotomayor and Kagan to the Supreme Court. He wouldn’t expand an unconstitutional refusal clause that would deny contraceptive coverage to women who have insurance through a religiously-affiliated institution. (This is clearly not a comprehensive list.)

However, Obama has also disillusioned feminists, too. His Cabinet member Kathleen Sebelius nixed over-the-counter Plan B for girls under 16, despite the FDA’s approval. Despite the fact that he says he’s pro-choice, there have been dozens of cuts to women’s health care and abortion centers on the state level. And let’s not forget the brouhaha over the Hyde and Stupak-Pitts Amendments. (This, too, is obviously not an all-inclusive list.)

In addition to his subpar performance with women’s rights, his decisions regarding Israel have been downright outrageous. I don’t know the solution to the Middle East Crisis, but I can tell you that reverting to the 1967 borders is not it. Jews have fought and died to ensure that the West Bank is part of Israeli territory. The idea of giving it up is offensive, an affront to the memories of the thousands of Israelis who have been killed while protecting their homeland. Suggesting such a thing is just as stupid as saying that America should go back to its 1812 borders.

The Republican candidates don’t really seem to be such great friends of feminism. Newt Gingrich has proudly stated that he’s anti-abortion and wanted to defund Planned Parenthood. Mitt Romney actually claimed to be pro-choice in the past, but he now calls himself “unapologetically pro-life.” So while they’re not really on Team Woman, let’s all bear in mind that President Bush was an anti-choice Republican in the White House for eight years, and abortion is still thank God 100% legal. (I’m not trying to downplay any damage done during the Bush era, but it’s important to keep everything in perspective here.)

While the Republicans are anti-choice, they are definitely pro-Israel. Gingrich wants to bolster American-Israeli ties, realizing that Israel is America’s only true ally in the Middle East. He even went so far as to say, “I think that we’ve had an invented Palestinian people who are in fact Arabs, and who were historically part of the Arab community. And they had a chance to go many places, and for a variety of political reasons we have sustained this war against Israel now since the 1940s, and it’s tragic.” Romney feels pretty much the same way as Gingrich, adding that the reason there isn’t peace in the Middle East is because groups like Hamas have an agenda to destroy, not make peace.

So this leaves me, as a pro-Israel Jewish feminist, in a bit of a pickle. This is how I see it, in chart form, being measured in terms of bad, eh, or good:

Women’s Rights

It’s a sticky question with a difficult answer. But at the end of the day, what makes more sense - supporting bad + good or bad + eh? Obviously my mind may change by the time elections roll around, but I really think I’m gonna endorse whoever’s running on the Republican ticket.

Personally, I’m dying for Debbie Wasserman Schultz to run for president, but that’s not gonna happen anytime soon. Until then, I think a write-in vote campaign for Harry Potter will be our best bet.

For all of you New York feminists, there's going to be a really awesome conference called Sex at the Polls: Debating Women's Issues for 2012 on February 6th at 6pm at the Greenberg Lounge, Vanderbilt Hall 40 Washington Square S NY, NY 10012. RSVP The panel will be former Planned Parenthood President Faye Wattleton, conservative feminist scholar Christina Hoff Sommers, feminist blogger and litigator at Kramer Levin Jill Filipovic, and director of MergerWatch Lois Uttley. Hope to see you there!