Friday, August 30, 2013

"I'm Not a Boy"

I'm not including a picture with this post because I could not find any pictures of women making kiddush.

Every Shabbat (Sabbath), I volunteer at the kids’ group at my shul (synagogue). After we finish the service, Shabbat lunch is served. Traditionally, kiddush is made over wine or grape juice before the meal begins. The rebbetzin (rabbi’s wife) who runs the group at my shul always has a kid make the kiddush. Although this brakha (blessing) is traditionally reserved for the patriarch of the family, the rebbetzin allows both boys and girls to say kiddush.

During the summertime, the number of participants at the group tends to dwindle. A few weeks ago, when there was a particularly small turnout, the rebbetzin was hard-pressed to find a kid willing to make kiddush. She approached her two younger grandsons, neither of whom wanted to say kiddush. She then turned to her 8-year-old granddaughter. “I’m not a boy,” her granddaughter pouted, refusing point-blank to ever consider making kiddush.

Hearing her say “I’m not a boy” really hurt me. I don’t even know why it took me by surprise. I know her family well, and even though her parents are Modern Orthodox, they’re not terribly interested in feminist issues. I’m sure she’s only ever seen her grandfather, father, or other men doing kiddush. But still, it hurt me to know that she was shutting herself out of Jewish ritual simply because of her sex.

Now that I think about it, my rebbetzin’s granddaughter isn’t alone. When I was a kid, I also wouldn’t participate in religious actions because I was a girl. I guess it’s something that I do now, too. Growing up, I never even considered laying tefillin (phylacteries) or wearing a yarmulke (skullcap). Why would I? Those were things reserved for men. I had certainly never seen a woman doing either. Even now, when I have the independence to lay tefillin or wear a yarmulke, I don’t.

Why? Well…because I’m not a boy.

At the end of the day, I guess that’s just what it boils down to, whether you’re 8 or 18 or 80. Normative halakha and Orthodox society obligate only men in tefillin and yarmulke. If I was a boy, I would have been laying tefillin since my bar mitzvah and wearing a yarmulke since my hair was cut at age three. But I’m not, so I don’t.

It should be noted that this is a two-way street, impacting men as well as women. My female friends and I grew up knowing that we would never lay tefillin or wear yarmulkes, and my male peers were raised knowing that they would never light candles to herald the beginning of Shabbat or bake challah.

I felt so sad and upset when I heard my rebbetzin’s granddaughter say “I’m not a boy.” Should it hurt me that I’m saying the same thing? After all, it is pretty hypocritical of me to lament the fact that she refuses to defy religious gender norms while I stay safely within their boundaries. When all is said and done, I guess I’m not too different than my rebbetzin’s granddaughter. She wouldn’t make kiddush because she’s not a boy, and I don’t lay tefillin or wear a yarmulke because I’m not a boy. 

In order to end my hypocrisy, should I stop questioning these norms, or should I just go ahead and defy them?

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Video: Disney Princesses for Equal Pay

Economic security for women has always been an issue close to my heart. I've commemorated Equal Pay Day, attended discussions about equal pay and congressional budget deals, and interviewed a woman who played an indispensable role in helping American women gain pay parity. I've written about the topic several times, from what I would do with all that lost salary money to the feminization of poverty to the impact that raising the minimum wage would have on women. Now, you don't have to listen to my views on the importance of equal pay for women. Hear it from a Disney princess!

Monday, August 19, 2013

Jewish Women and Photography

Ever since the advent of the modern camera, photographers and photojournalists have showed the world unique perspectives on everyday occurrences as well as world-altering events. Many Jewish women have distinguished themselves in the field of photography, capturing precious moments on film.

Diane Arbus is one of these Jewish women. She and her husband worked together in commercial and fashion photography before she got involved in photojournalism in the 1950s. Her work was quickly noticed by the art world, and she was awarded a prestigious Guggenheim fellowship to develop her craft. Arbus’ photographs were revolutionary, forcing society to acknowledge the existence of marginalized and unusual people. One of Arbus’ most famous photographs, "A Young Brooklyn Family Going for a Sunday Outing, NYC 1966," portrays a family with their developmentally disabled child; another of her photographs, "A Jewish Giant at Home with His Parents in The Bronx, NY 1970" shows a family with their son, who suffered from gigantism. Arbus’ photography is straightforward and honest, drawing in the viewer to look closer. The international arts community took notice of her photographs, prompting her to be the first American photographer featured at the Venice Biennale, a major contemporary art exhibition. Her career was cut short when she died in 1971, but she has been celebrated posthumously through several traveling exhibitions of her work. Although Arbus’ portfolio has not expanded in several decades, she has left a legacy that still remains strong.

Nan Goldin is another Jewish woman renowned for her photography. She was introduced to the magic of the camera when she was only 15 years old, but it didn’t take her long to learn the ins and outs of photography. Five short years later, in 1973, Goldin had her first solo show featuring photographs she took of the Boston gay and trans communities. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, her work focused on the post-punk, drug, and gay subcultures in major urban cities. Goldin’s most famous photography collection, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, chronicles life in the Bowery’s hard-drug subculture. Her early career was defined by stark photographs pondering the love, gender, and sexuality and exploring cultural attitudes towards dependency and obsession. Goldin’s work shifted gears in the 1990s, when she began to photograph skylines and landscapes as well as scenes of parenthood and family life. She was admitted to the French Legion of Honor in 2006, a true tribute to her photographic talent. Goldin received the Hasselblad Award, granted to photographers in recognition of major achievements, and the Edward MacDowell Medal, which is given to individuals who have made outstanding contributions to the arts, in 2012.

A third Jewish woman who prefers to be behind the camera is Annie Leibovitz. She snapped her first photo in the Vietnam War-era Philippines when her father, an Air Force colonel, was stationed there. After studying painting in college and developing her photography skills on a kibbutz in Israel, Leibovitz started working as a staff photographer for Rolling Stone. By 1973, she was named the chief photographer of the magazine. In the 1980s, her cutting-edge usage of lighting and bold colors made the arts world take notice of her work. Leibovitz has become famous for photographing celebrities like the Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson, Queen Elizabeth II, the Obama family, Lady Gaga, and even John Lennon a mere five hours before he was shot and killed. Her photographs of these world-famous individuals are personal, catching intimate moments with their subjects and exposing their lives to the viewer. Leibovitz’s works have been exhibited throughout the US; she was even the first woman whose photography was featured at the National Portrait Gallery. She has also received international recognition, including the UK Royal Photographic Society’s Centenary Medal and Honorary Fellowship and the status of Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France.

Photographers like Arbus, Goldin, and Leibovitz paved the way for contemporary young Jewish women aspiring to capture the moment through the camera. Their legacy will always stay in the hearts and minds of people around the globe, their photos stirring the hearts of simple people and arts aficionados alike.

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Prevalence of Violence Against Women

If so much as one woman in the world experiences violence based on her gender, that's one too many. Unfortunately, many more than one woman - one in three in the world - have been victims of violence. This fact is absolutely unacceptable. As a society, we must decry violence against women and stand up against it. Those of us who understand how terrible and unacceptable violence is must teach men not to victimize women and to encourage other men to do the same. We must teach women that they deserve more, that they have an inherent right to a life without violence. Because that's the truth.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Shining Stars of Davida: Eydie Gorme

Eydie Gorme was America’s 1960s singing sweetheart, one of the most famous singers of the era. Although the world knew her as Eydie Gorme, she was born as Edith Gormezano in the Bronx. Her parents, Sephardic Jews from Turkey and Sicily, raised their daughter bilingual, speaking Spanish and English in the home. After graduating from high school, Gorme worked as a translator for the United Nations and took night classes at the City College of New York.

Gorme may have worked in translating, but her dreams lay in show business. She sang and recorded for a few years until 1953, when she caught her big break: auditioning for what was then called The Steve Allen Show. She was hired for a two-week run, but ended up staying on for years as the program evolved into The Tonight Show. While performing on the show, she met fellow Jewish singer Steve Lawrence. The two got married in 1957.

Their marriage marked the beginning of an illustrious career as “Steve and Eydie,” a husband-wife singing duo. In 1958, they briefly starred in The Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme Show before Lawrence was drafted into the military. Gorme still performed while her husband was in the Army, but it no easy feat: a new mother, she was forced to bring her young son along to gigs.

After Lawrence was discharged, the couple was reunited as Steve and Eydie. Although they were on the music scene when rock and roll started to become popular, they only performed classics. The two won a Grammy in 1960 for Best Performance by a Vocal Group for their album We Got Us. Their biggest hit together, “I Want to Stay Here,” reached #28 on the charts in 1963. Together, Steve and Eydie starred in the mildly successful 1968 Broadway musical Golden Rainbow. In 1975, the couple received two Emmy Awards for Our Love is Here to Stay, a television special celebrating the Gershwin brothers. Three years later, they were awarded seven Emmys for Steve and Eydie Celebrate Irving Berlin. They won a Las Vegas Entertainment Award for Musical Variety Act of the Year four times, and were given a lifetime achievement award from the Songwriters Hall of Fame. In 1995, they were honored with an Ella Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of Singers.

Although Steve and Eydie were popular as a duo, Gorme was a successful singer in her own right. Her highest-hitting single, “Blame It on the Bossa Nova” (1963), sold over 1 million copies and was certified Gold. Dozens of her other songs climbed the charts, selling millions of singles and albums in total. In 1967, Gorme won a Grammy Award for Best Female Vocal Performance for “If He Walked into My Life” from the Broadway play Mame.

Gorme also achieved fame in the world of Latin music, hearkening to her Sephardic roots. In Spanish-speaking countries, Gorme is best known for her 1964 song “Amor,” a duet with the Mexican band Trio Los Panchos. She went on to release several top-selling Spanish language albums; two of them, La Gorme (1976) and Muy Amigos (1977), were nominated for Grammy Awards.

Gorme passed away on August 10, 2013, with her husband and son by her bedside. She was a Jewish woman with pizzazz, sparkling in the world of show business and distinguishing herself from every other singer.

I dub Eydie Gorme into the Shining Stars of Davida - strong women and men who make us feminists proud. 

Friday, August 9, 2013

Ending Street Harassment at HOLLA::Revolution

On July 25, I had the honor to attend HOLLA::Revolution. (You can find my notes on it here.) Sponsored by Hollaback!, a non-profit and movement to end street harassment, HOLLA::Revolution was four hours filled with speakers dedicated to making public spaces safe for women. Defined by the organization Stop Street Harassment as “any action or comment between strangers in public places that is disrespectful, unwelcome, threatening and/or harassing and is motivated by gender or sexual orientation,” street harassment is clearly an unacceptable societal phenomenon that must be stopped.

After attending HOLLA::Revolution, I have no doubt that street harassment’s days are numbered. The speakers were so fiercely dedicated to making streets safe that it blew me away. “All those creeps can smell the culture change coming,” Jamia Wilson, the event’s moderator and feminist media activist, said.

I was happy to see that this was not a women-only space. Considering that street harassment is most commonly perpetrated by men, it’s absolutely crucial for the movement to have male allies. Men made up a sizable chunk of the audience, and the two male-identifying speakers brought up excellent points about men and street harassment. I found Jimmie Briggs, the founder of the Man Up Campaign, particularly compelling; the story he shared about witnessing intimate partner violence on the subway with his daughter was really powerful.

Although I’ve always lived in New York, I don’t often take the subway. Maybe that’s why I’ve never witnessed or experienced harassment on public transportation? Even though I can’t relate to it, hearing Nicola Briggs discuss how she defended herself from a harasser on the subway was really transformative. It’s so heartening to know that someone like Briggs, who is not much taller than my 4’11”, could protect herself. “I used the power of my voice to stop an attack,” the tai chi instructor said. I was really struck by how brave Briggs is to share her experience (even on CBS news!) without shame. I don’t think I would ever have the courage to put myself out there like she did, so I really respect it.

As a history nerd, I was fascinated by Rochelle Keyhan, the founder of Hollaback! Philadelphia, who spoke about the history of street harassment. I have previously researched what street harassment was like in the days of olde, but Keyhan’s research was much more comprehensive than mine. She discussed things that I had never heard of, like how women in the early 1900s would hold their hat pins as they walked on the street to defend themselves from a harasser. “Street harassment has been part of our culture since women entered public space….We have to end this chapter of our cultural history,” Keyhan ended with.

I’m no communications expert, but I still enjoyed hearing media critic and lecturer Jennifer Pozner discuss street harassment’s portrayal by the media. It was really interesting to watch the various videos and images she showed to illustrate how the media has led men to believe that women enjoy being catcalled and otherwise harassed. Pozner focused on how songs and music videos are particularly bad culprits, and played several to prove her point. Although I was familiar with several of the songs, I had never really processed what they were about, so I appreciated being forced to think about their real meaning.

It was also really interesting to hear Beth Livingston, Assistant Professor of Human Resource Studies at Cornell University, enumerate the desperate need that community organizations have for resources on how to cope with street harassment. She conducted research among New York City service agencies, and the vast majority wanted to know how to help constituents deal with street harassment. I had always thought street harassment was largely an issue that only feminists really knew or cared about, so it was nice to hear that community organizations care about it and want to end it, too. It’s also good to know that we activists won’t have to struggle to implement anti-street harassment initiatives on the local level.

This was a street harassment-specific event, but several speakers spoke more generally about women’s issues. For example, director of Hollaback! Ottawa Julie Lalonde discussed the pitfalls of being a feminist, and how we can be more supportive of each other. She was a really fantastic speaker, and I loved listening to her.

Pamela Shifman, Director of Initiatives for Girls and Women at the NoVo Foundation, was an excellent speaker, but her presentation about the lack of funding for women’s organizations really disturbed me. Before she discussed it, I had no idea how little (less than 7.5% over the past 15 years) was allotted to women’s organizations. Now I know that I’ll just have to divert all of my charitable donations to women’s organizations, since they need it most.

Although Jill Dimond, worker-owner of Sassafras Tech Collective, did discuss her tech development work in relation to street harassment, I was just happy to listen to a woman in computer science speak. As someone who is interested in both comp sci and activism, it was so refreshing to hear a woman who is in the field (not a common occurrence) and using her knowledge for feminist activism.

All in all, I really enjoyed being at HOLLA::Revolution. I feel really fortunate to be part of the “global community of badasses,” as Emily May, Hollaback!’s founder, said about anti-street harassment advocates. I have full confidence that all of us badasses will band together, shift the social paradigm, and make streets safe for women, once and for all.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Hyde Amendment: Horrible for Women

The Hyde Amendment has faced intense feminist critique ever since it was passed. It's no wonder that people who care about women's health decry the Hyde Amendment; it jeopardizes thousands of American women who seek abortions. Not only is it dangerous in its own right, but it has spawned other laws that have put women's health at risk. It's laws like this that hold activists back from achieving full equality between the sexes.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

A Feminist's View on Pirates

Tee hee, what a cute pirate! Not.
The other day, I did an extremely informal word association with a few friends for the word pirate. Some of the associations people had were flag, parrot, ninja, and Johnny Depp. Only one person associated pirates with something negative, robbery. Interestingly, when I Google Imaged "pirate" to include a photo for this post, all of the photos that came up were cutesy or mock-creepy cartoons, Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean, or women in sexy pirate costumes.

I wasn’t surprised by the outcome of my exceptionally unscientific poll or the Google Image hits, though. Over the past few years, I’ve started to notice that society tends to romanticize pirates. I know a few families whose members have dressed up as pirates for Purim, when it’s traditional to wear costumes. Although various children’s shows have had episodes with pirate-themed plots, like the Nickelodeon show SpongeBob SquarePants, I blame Disney for sanitizing and idealizing pirates. Disney has been using pirates as its muse since 1953, when the movie Peter Pan was released. The Pirates of the Caribbean attraction at the Disney amusement parks has been around since 1967, and the film series has spawned four (soon to be five) movies since 2003. The TV network Disney Junior currently plays the show Jake and the Never Land Pirates, a spin-off of Peter Pan.

You might not understand why I’m making such a big deal about pirates. After all, you live in a Disney-influenced culture and were raised watching Peter Pan and Pirates of the Caribbean. But when you think about it, pirates are not something that should be romanticized. If you go past the surface concept of what Disney has taught you that a pirate is - a bumbling, black-bearded man with a hook for a hand and a wooden leg - you realize that there is much more to pirates than Johnny Depp, a parrot, or even robbery. Pirates throughout history have raped women, killed children, enslaved innocent people, and destroyed villages for their own pleasure and profit. Modern-day pirates are no different.

Interestingly, Disney actually nods to pirates’ tendency to exploit women in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. My mother, who went to Disneyland several decades ago, is still horrified by the memory of a raiding pirate chasing a screaming woman in the attraction. Although Disney revamped the ride in 2007 and got rid of some of the offensive stuff, it still features pirates auctioning off captured women for brides. Selling women? That’s called sex slavery and human trafficking. I have no idea whose sick mind came up with putting this into the ride, but it’s gross and misogynist and downright creepy. The fact that it’s included, though, shows that Disney isn’t completely unaware of pirates’ tendency to, you know, act like pirates.

It bothers me that the concept of pirates has been sanitized and romanticized into something it’s not. Pirates are criminals with a particularly bad track record with treatment of women who destroy others’ lives for their own benefit. Why are we watching cutesy movies about them? Why are there kitschy rides in Disneyworld about them? It doesn’t make sense. Although it doesn't make any real difference in our culture's view on pirates, I've boycotted pirate-themed entertainment, since it's just offensive to me. I wouldn't necessarily encourage others to do the same, but I would strongly recommend it. When you think twice about it, it's what makes sense.