Monday, April 29, 2013

Jewish Feminism From the Heart

I found feminism long before I realized its principles could and should be applied to Judaism. After I discovered the Jewish feminist blogosphere and read Blu Greenberg’s On Women and Judaism, I began to identify as an Orthodox feminist. That is, I am a feminist with a foot in both the secular and Jewish worlds: I advocate for equality in the workplace as well as the synagogue. I believe that God loves all creations and wants all of them, regardless of gender or sex, to have an active role in the world and actualize their potential.

The more Orthodox feminists I meet, the more I am awed by their true dedication to connect to their Creator through following halakha (Jewish law), improve the Orthodox and Jewish communities, and make God accessible to every Jew. Meeting women and men like this, whose religious feminist acts come from their hearts, make me feel blessed to be part of the Jewish feminist community.

A few weeks ago, I got into a conversation with a friend at my right-wing high school about women laying tefillin (phylacteries). Traditionally, only men lay tefillin, but there is no reason why women cannot. This friend couldn’t quite understand why a woman would want to lay tefillin. “But only men are obligated to wear them!” she said, extraordinarily frustrated. “Any woman who wears tefillin is just doing it to make a statement!”

It is undeniable that there are some women out there who do things like laying tefillin solely as feminist protest. I take ginormous issue with these women, and to be honest, they seriously piss me off. I believe that doing a mitzvah (commandment) just to make a statement is a perversion of God’s Torah. It’s using Judaism to further you own personal agenda, and the concept makes me sick. Someone who does that ruins tefillin for those women who lay it for legitimate reasons. Nobody has a right to do that.

However, I have yet to personally meet or so much as hear of a woman who lays tefillin as a form of feminist protest. The only women I know who lay tefillin do so from their hearts. As of the moment, I can think of two legitimate reasons a woman would lay tefillin: because she believes that the nature of women’s status in halakha has changed and they are indeed obligated to lay tefillin, or because she feels it genuinely brings an additional layer to her avodat Hashem (worship of God) and tefillah (prayer). While I take issue with someone who does a mitzvah like tefillin solely to make a statement, as long as there is some element of doing the mitzvah for the mitzvah’s sake in it, I don’t have a problem with it.

So are there women out there who lay tefillin and perform other traditionally-male mitzvot just to make waves? Unfortunately, yes. But these women do not define Orthodox or Jewish feminism in the slightest. I am happy to say that they are by far the minority. So next time you meet a woman who lays tefillin, don’t just assume she’s making a statement. Ask her why she does it. You may be surprised to hear her response.

Friday, April 26, 2013

In the Wake of Anti-Street Harassment Week

Earlier this month, women and men across the globe commemorated International Anti-Street Harassment Week. Whether it was through tweetchats, webinars, self-defense classes, sidewalk chalking, leaflet campaigns, or numerous other activities, Anti-Street Harassment Week marked the raising of the world’s consciousness against street harassment, an insidious form of sexism that is too often ignored by society.

Now that Anti-Street Harassment Week is over, those of us who understand the negative implications of street harassment and want to eradicate it for good face a dilemma: what do we do now? What can and should we do to keep up awareness and fight against this social phenomenon during the rest of the year?

I believe that it is imperative not to lose the momentum that we gained during Anti-Street Harassment Week. We can’t just throw out our leftover leaflets and stop going to those self-defense classes we signed up for. Everything we did and all the gains we made will have all been for nothing if we let activism fall to the wayside and ignore the pressing need for eliminating street harassment.

We also have to continue to schedule events like sidewalk chalkings and Take Back the Nights. Although it’s certainly easier to encourage attendance and participation during a week dedicated to awareness of street harassment, it’s imperative that we organize them anyway. After all, street harassment happens every day, and its victims are just as horrified by it during Anti-Street Harassment Week as during the rest of the year.

Another thing that we, as activists, must do is to talk about street harassment and share our stories about it. The most effective way to raise awareness on any issue is to speak with our best friends and grandfathers and third cousins and hairdressers and people we see once in a while in the dog park about it. That way, we spread knowledge of this issue as far and wide as we can. Many people who have experienced street harassment don’t even know that it has a name, and are therefore incapable of recognizing the extent of how problematic it is. Once we’ve raised the consciousness of those who have suffered at the hands of street harassment, we’ve got ourselves a veritable army of women and men who want to make the streets a safe place for every individual. I truly cannot wait until this day arrives.

Monday, April 22, 2013

She is Bat Yisrael

She is Bat Yisrael, a Daughter of Israel. She is representative of every Jewish woman, living and dead and not yet born.

Bat Yisrael was the Jewish women of yesterday, the women who influenced the future of Judaism. She was the Matriarchs, giving future women the strength to uphold God’s word. She was at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, whether in person or in spirit. She was the women documented in the Prophets and Writings, as well as every woman forgotten by male-dominated history. Bat Yisrael was every woman who has shaped the rich past of the Jewish people, whether a revolutionary like Sarah Schenirer or an average Jewish housewife dedicated to taking care of her family. She was called Bas Yisroel in the dark ghettos of Eastern Europe, Bat Yisra’el in the lush kibbutzim of Israel. It doesn’t matter how you say her name. All that matters is that she has one.

She is the Jewish women of today, from rabbis leading Reform congregations from the pulpit to Hasidic rebbetzins leading their communities’ women from the sidelines. She is secular, Haredi, Reconstructionist, Modern Orthodox, post-denominational, and everything in between. Her clothing adheres to the strictest interpretations of tzniut (modesty) and she wears a bikini top and denim cutoffs. She lives in the ultra-Orthodox enclave of New Square and the predominantly Protestant fields of Kansas and in the secular neighborhoods of Tel Aviv. She prays fervently at the Western Wall, skirt swaying in rhythm with her body, and she wears traditionally male tefillin (phylacteries) and tallit (prayer shawl) while she prays with Women of the Wall. She eats from the fruit of her hands; sometimes that fruit is triple-washed to get rid of all the non-kosher bugs, and sometimes it is not.

She is the Jewish women of tomorrow, those that will continue time-honored traditions and add their own, pray the prayers that the Sages wrote and add their own heartfelt requests to their Creator. She will delve into the sacred texts and create new interpretations, discover that Judaism is truly a timeless religion. She will be able to accomplish so many things that modern-day Jewish women (and men) are not able to even dream of.
She is Bat Yisrael because she is both woman and Jew. Call it an accident of birth, call it a God-given mission; it doesn’t matter. Her status as Jew and her status as woman qualify her as Bat Yisrael. Regardless of her practice, the title of Bat Yisrael cannot be taken from her. You can try, but you won’t succeed. The Egyptians tried to enslave her. The Greeks tried to assimilate her. The Spanish tried to expel and burn her. The Nazis tried to exterminate her. None of them succeeded. And neither will you. Because she is Bat Yisrael.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Women’s Entitlement to Equal Pay: A Primer

Marcia S. Cohen, speaking about equal pay
 I recently attended an event called Women’s Entitlement to Equal Pay: A Primer. It was a side event to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, which happened from March 4 - 15. The main speaker was Marcia S. Cohen, Esq., PA, who mainly practices labor and employment law with a concentration in employment discrimination and sexual harassment. The event was moderated by Jerin Arifa, Chair of the National NOW Young Feminist Task Force, Chair. The event was cosponsored by The Women and Gender Studies Program at Hunter College and Young Feminists of NOW. You can read my notes on the event here.

I really enjoyed this event. I’ve written several research papers about Second Wave Feminism and early feminist gains, so I had prior knowledge about things like the Equal Pay Act (EPA), Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, and the history of employment and wage discrimination at large. Since I wrote a paper about the history of NOW, I was particularly familiar with the information presented about NOW’s involvement in trying to abolish much of this discrimination, especially in the 1960s and 1970s.

I had always wondered exactly how employers got out of paying female employees less money, when there are laws like the EPA on the book. I figured there must be loopholes, but was ignorant of them until Cohen delineated all of the bogus exceptions there are to the EPA. One of them is an exception based on any factor other than sex. “Employers get very creative with [that] exception,” Cohen said with a laugh. I can only imagine how right she is.

One of the audience members mentioned that one of the many reasons for the wage gap is that women, upon beginning a job, don’t negotiate for a higher salary than the one they’re given, while men usually do. This is because women are cultured to be more submissive and passive, while men are encouraged to be assertive. I had no idea this was such a huge factor in pay inequality. I have to admit that when Cohen proposed a hypothetical situation - you get your dream job and they offer you a set salary, do you ask for more? - I never would have asked for higher pay. “Don’t just accept the offer,” she urged. Although I’m still several years away from entering the workforce, I will definitely keep this advice in mind when I do get job offers, with God’s help.
Jerin Arifa (on right) with two attendees

Another thing that really stood out to me was when Cohen mentioned several proposed bills that would have greatly helped attain pay equity, but were defeated in Congress by one party. It really frustrates me that the Democrats and Republicans can’t get together and just work for the greater good. Members of Congress just need to get over petty party differences and vote on what’s fair.

The process to report unequal pay, once a woman realizes that she’s receiving a lower salary to perform the same work as her male coworkers, also struck me. There are several steps, which can be spread out over a span of several years, and still come out completely fruitless - discrimination is found in only 6% of reported cases. This just shows that we are really in need of a new system, one that discovers inequity when it’s there and can actually help women who are victims of unfair employers.

Because this event did have a sort of negative tinge to it, Cohen and Arifa encouraged everyone in attendance to share their thoughts on equal pay and any positive stories about women’s advancement. This was an excellent idea, since it allowed us all to keep everything in focus and remember that the world isn’t just a bleak place where pay discrimination against women is rampant.

Cohen mentioned that when he was president in the 1950s, Eisenhower urged Congress to pass a bill narrowing the wage gap - he called it “simple justice.” Unfortunately, we are still about 23 cents away from attaining this simple justice. It is so important that we support our sisters who are victims of pay discrimination, and do everything in our power to end this pernicious social and economic trend.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Star of Davida Interviews Jennifer Lee

Don't forget to submit an entry to the Second Annual Star of Davida Essay Contest!
Modern-day feminists owe a large debt to the activists of the Second Wave, those women and men of the 1960s and 70s who fought for equal rights. They changed our culture, whether they were fighting against sex-segregated help wanted ads or organizing consciousness raising groups. Unfortunately, the women’s liberation movement has been largely forgotten by our society, even by self-identifying feminists. As a women’s history geek, this fact always really upset me. Independent filmmaker Jennifer Lee decided to reverse this ignorance and resurrect the stories of the Second Wave in her new documentary Feminist: Stories from Women’s Liberation.

Lee was inspired to make Feminist when a female coworker asked her, in a whisper, “Are you a feminist?” “I thought that was shocking, because we were both editors in the film industry and wouldn’t have had those jobs if not for the feminist revolution,” Lee said. “I tried to think of something to tell her, to prove why feminism is so great, but I had no stories at my fingertips.” To discover these stories, she took it upon herself to find the feminists of the Second Wave and film them discussing their memories.

Feminist explores the main events of the women’s liberation movement from 1963-1970, as told by numerous activists of the era. Lee was actually the last person to interview Betty Friedan, who is widely considered the mother of Second Wave Feminism, before Friedan’s death in 2006. When looking for activists to interview, Lee first found Sonia Pressman Fuentes, my mentor, who worked at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and was a cofounder of the National Organization for Women (NOW). “From there it snowballed, one woman’s story led to another,” Lee said.

Stories are the integral part of the film. I have really appreciated the art of storytelling ever since this summer, when I went to Genesis at Brandeis University, an academic summer program for Jewish high school students. Within Genesis, I took a mini-course called Tell Me a Story, where we explored the significance of storytelling and how to preserve stories, especially those from women and other silenced minorities. Filming Feminist taught Lee these same lessons about stories. “It’s important for women to pass down these stories. If you have a memory of looking at female help wanted ads [in the 1960s] and only seeing jobs like babysitter, manicurist, and clerk, but you had a degree as a CPA that you couldn’t use because you couldn’t look at the male column, that feeling of limitation is significant and needs to be remembered….as girls grow up, they need to know that this existed,” Lee explained.

I totally agree that it’s so important to preserve their stories for the sake of the next generation. “This is part of American history,” Lee said. While taking AP European History, it frustrated me that women’s history was treated as a completely separate entity, developing in a vacuum away from mainstream history. We cannot treat women’s history like this. “Feminist history is…woven into our country now and we need to talk about it and remember it and feel proud of it,” Lee said. The fact that there is now a documentary available about this epoch in history is such an important step in the right direction. The significance of such a film is painfully clear when we consider the backlash to feminism ever since the Second Wave began.

I have to admit that I was actually surprised when I first heard that this film’s name is Feminist. I was surprised because feminist has become such a reviled term in today’s society, and my first thought was that it’s pretty brave to brand a film with the word. “We should be proud of the word feminist. Our lives would be completely different if it wasn’t for what the women’s movement accomplished, by a lot of these women in the film,” Lee said about it. “To be proud of that movement and the word feminist will help us get to where we need to be, to understand the foundation you’re standing on because we stand on it every single day.”

Feminist: Stories from Women’s Liberation is a truly inspiring, joyful film, and I strongly recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about the history of the women’s rights movement. Screenings of Feminist will be listed on the website (, from film festivals to local screenings in schools, colleges, and for organizations. You can also email Lee at if you want to schedule a screening near you! It will be available for download and DVD in the fall, and educators can receive a supplemental educational DVD.

We must preserve the stories that are resurrected in this film. For our daughters. For our sons.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Blog For Equal Pay Day - What Would You Do with $11,000?

Don't forget to submit an entry to theSecond Annual Star of Davida Essay Contest!

Today is Blog for Equal Pay Day. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act (EPA), legislation that President Kennedy signed into law to help narrow the wage gap between men and women. (I recently attended a discussion about the EPA, which you can read here.) Unfortunately, despite laws like the EPA, American women still make only 77 cents to every dollar the white man earns. That’s a loss of approximately $11,000 every year, about $900 a month.

The National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), which is coordinating this blog carnival for equal pay, has asked bloggers to say what they would do with their $11,000 in lost wages.

As an Orthodox Jew, I am religiously obligated to give ma’aser, one-tenth of my annual income to charity. There are so many worthy organizations out there doing amazing work on behalf of humynkind that could definitely benefit from a $1,100 donation. I recently donated some ma’aser money to Yeshivat Maharat’s Meah Campaign. Yeshivat Maharat is an institution that trains Orthodox women as spiritual leaders and halakhic authorities, so I was happy to help them further this goal with my donation. Another organization that I plan on donating my ma’aser to is ORA, the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, which helps divorcing couples resolve contested Jewish divorces (cases of agunah). I also like to donate to Misaskim, an organization that helps families who are sitting shiva when a loved one dies. When my father died in October, Misaskim made the entire experience so much easier - all we had to do was make a quick phone call, tell them what we needed, and everything was waiting for us when we came home from the funeral. I cannot begin to sing Misaskim’s praises, and would love to give them $1,100 or more.

There are an infinite amount of things I could do with the remaining $9,900. Honestly, a better question would probably be what I can’t do with the money.

I could, theoretically:

  1. Put the money in a spending account and use it on petty expenses for the next four years, while I’m in college. (Thankfully, as I will be receiving extensive financial aid, I will not need to use it for tuition.) As I’ll probably enroll in a grad program or law school after I graduate college, I could also use this money during that period of time, if I don’t spend all of it.
  2. Put the money in the bank and let it collect interest until it’s time to put a down payment on a house or car, or on a wedding, if I choose to have one.
  3. Pump some money into this blog. Considering I’ve never had the funds to spend on Star of Davida, I’ve never put myself into a situation where I would have any blog-related expenses, so it would be an exciting avenue to pursue.
  4. Treat my mother to a really nice vacation. Since I’m leaving home in August and probably won’t live with her again, it would be really nice to have some time together during a trip somewhere. We’ve always loved travel, and a vacation together would be such a wonderful experience before I go to college.
  5. Buy a top-of-the-line, high-quality laptop. I will need one for school, and have yet to purchase one because of the price tag.

An additional $11,000 a year could go a long way in my house. I imagine that any average American would greatly benefit from a windfall like that. What’s so unfair is that this money shouldn’t be considered a windfall - it should be considered an expected income. It is imperative that women receive the same pay as men. How can we expect women to gain true equality if they receive 23 cents less than their male counterparts?

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

My Name is Not Baby

Don't forget to submit an entry to the Second Annual Star of Davida Essay Contest!

My name is not Baby. I have not been an infant for about 17 years, and my preschool days happened long ago. I am not an immobile, helpless being incapable of taking care of myself, dependent on others to ensure that my basic needs are met. I am, if not a grown woman, getting to be a young adult. Certainly not a baby.

My name is not Shorty. Yes, I am a mere 4”11, and I have always been happy to be a short person. However, my height or the pride I take in it does not determine what nickname I go by. Even if it did, you are a stranger, and have no right to be so familiar with me.

My name is not Bitch. The last time I checked, I was human, not canine. And while I may exhibit aggressive behavior upon occasion, I don’t think I can be categorized as “a malicious, spiteful, or overbearing woman” (as defined by Merriam Webster).

My name is not Smile For Me. Why should I smile for you? What right do you have over my expression of my own emotions? If I’m having a really crappy day, why should I smile to make you feel satisfied? Even if I’m having the best day of my life, I’m not going to smile simply because you want me to. My lips, my teeth, my feelings. My decision to do what I want with them.

My name is not Sexy. I am flattered that my physical appearance appeals to you, but please, find a non-threatening way to express your interest, if you must articulate it at all.

My name is Talia. It’s a name that means a lot to me, since I’m named after my grandfather. He passed away about seven years before my birth, and it was really important to my mother to memorialize her cherished father through her child. Since his name was Naftali, she feminized it into Talia. That is my name, and I invite you to call me by it.

My name is not Baby or Shorty or Bitch or Smile For Me or Sexy. And for the record, neither is any other woman’s.