Monday, December 1, 2014

Blogging the JOFA UnConference: Conversion, Rabbinic Authority, and Power Imbalance in Orthodoxy

On November 23, I had the honor of attending the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA)’s UnConference. Unlike its large-scale two-day conference convened every few years, the UnConference was dedicated to just one topic: ritual innovation. Every session was dedicated to discussion of the change involved in Jewish rituals: is it desirable? Is it allowed? How can we change rituals while still maintaining their integrity? How does one even go about changing innovation?

The first two sessions of the day were plenary sessions addressed to all attendees. I missed the very first session, but arrived on time for the second, titled “Conversion, Rabbinic Authority, and Power Imbalance in Orthodoxy.” Moderated by JOFA board member Laura Shaw-Frank, the panelists were Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) Executive VP Rabbi Mark Dratch, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Dean Rabbi Asher Lopatin, and Executive Director of the Shalom Hartman Institute Dr. Elana Stein Hain.

All three speakers were fabulous, and they said a lot of really interesting things about how, in the wake of the Freundel situation, there is an increased need to change how mikvaot (ritual baths) are run, transform the conversion process into a friendlier system, and reform the rabbinic power structure that affords religious leaders too much authority. The moderator introduced the panel as intended to discuss things more on the meta level, and the panelists largely kept to this theme. As a layperson, I appreciated hearing the perspective of clergy on how they wield their own power and navigate the system.

I was particularly impressed by what Hain had to say. Although I’ve heard great things about her for a while, this was my first time hearing her speak, and I was not disappointed. Because I am very goal-oriented and community-centered when it comes to activism, I was happy when Hain brought more of a pragmatic dimension to the panel. It was clear that she has her feet on the ground: in addition to loftier long-term goals about what the rabbinic power system should look like, she spoke in terms of practical, on-the-ground change and how to best help individual people and communities.

The panelists worked well together, responding to each other’s comments and building on what the others had to say. For example, when Lopatin expressed his belief that every community must have a woman religious leader, Hain fine-tuned his point: “Every Orthodox community has to involve women in any capacity that they can” in order to create long-lasting positions open to women, rather than forcing change onto a community that isn’t ready for it. Dratch then pointed out that women in high positions is not a cure-all solution, as at Freundel’s shul (synagogue), the president of the shul and the entire board of the mikvah were female.

I really appreciated that both Hain and Dratch drew on Talmudic tales early on in the panel to illustrate their points, effectively showing that change is not foreign to observant Judaism; indeed, it is an integral part of it, and has been for thousands of years. Historically speaking, the Orthodox movement itself is a change made for the sake of continuity. What happened with Freundel was a wake up call that if we want to have a healthy, halakhic (Jewish law-adherent) community, we need to institute necessary change. This panel inspired me, showing me that religious leaders understand this and will push for whatever is needed to perpetuate a vibrant Orthodoxy.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Creating Culture Change to End Street Harassment

Check our the article I wrote for Her Campus!

“Lookin’ good, ladies!” an inebriated guy in a moving car filled with his buddies yells out at me and my friends on Mt. Auburn Street by the Lampoon on a Friday night.

“Where you going?” a guy walking with his friend asks me and my friend outside the Au Bon Pain on Mass Ave on a Saturday night, making an obscene gesture.

“Smile, it’s not Monday!” a guy outside Widener Gate tells me as I walk to class on a Wednesday morning.

Catcalls. Wolf whistles. Creepy stares from guys on the street. Nearly every woman has experienced it. However, many women don’t know that this sort of behavior has a name: street harassment.

Continue reading here.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Faith and Feminism: The Panel!

Check out the article I wrote for Manifesta!

As a feminist activist and a person of faith, both feminism and religion are integral parts of my life. My faith informs how I view the world just as much, if not more than, my being a feminist does. I would not be authentic if I did not proclaim myself to be a Jew, a feminist, and a Jewish feminist.

However, the intersection of feminism and religion is rarely discussed in either community. Among feminists, religion is often perceived as a sexist institution that has oppressed women for centuries; many people of faith, meanwhile, think of feminism as a threat to their values. In order to expand this conversation, on October 23, I moderated a panel called “Feminism and Faith: A Discussion.”

Continue reading here.

Thursday, November 13, 2014


Check out the article I wrote for Her Campus Harvard!

On October 29, I walked from the MAC Quad to Memorial Church in the rain with four other Harvard undergrads while carrying a mattress.

I wasn’t helping a friend move or doing work for Dorm Crew. Rather, I was participating in #CarryThatWeight – the national solidarity day for survivors of sexual assault on campus. The idea of carrying a mattress to show support was inspired by the art and activism of Emma Sulkowicz, a Columbia University student who is carrying a mattress around her campus as a form of protest until the person who raped her is expelled.

Universities across the country participated in this action. At Harvard, students carried a mattress around the Yard in shifts throughout the day. I joined in at 8pm, so it was cold, it was raining, and I wasn’t dressed for the weather--but I didn’t care. I knew that it was worth a half hour of discomfort if it meant that I could be part of something as historic and meaningful as Carry That Weight.

Continue reading here.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Impact of Cultural Activities on Women's Assimilation

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Russia, a large portion of young Jews would attend secular reading groups. This was often a step in the path to assimilation: the events were not separated by sex, in stark contrast to most religious gatherings, and the topics of discussion were either completely divorced from religion or categorically anti-religious in nature. Young women who went to these events had more at stake then their male counterparts. In an attitude that prevails to contemporary times, Russian Jewish parents were harsher on their daughters than their sons for socializing with peers, especially non-Jewish ones, of the opposite sex. This double standard was, most likely, applied because of the dominant gender roles and expectations of the era: that women belong in the home and should not be found in the streets too often. However, Jewish parents probably also wanted to keep their daughters close to home in order to ensure Jewish continuity and exert as much control as possible over their daughters’ religious lives and future husbands.

Attending and performing in the theater were other activities that many Russian Jewish young men and women did in opposition to their parents’ wishes. As drama circles began to allow women to perform on stage in the early 1900s, an unheard of concept in previous generations, many women were attracted to the theater. It is possible that this was such a popular pursuit for young Jews because of plays’ depiction of the conflict that many felt between their religious upbringing and practice and secular aspirations and desires. These portrayals “were heavily gendered”; although both sexes’ conflicts revolved around the tension between religion and modernity and often ended in assimilation, women’s struggles had the added element of rebellion against gender roles and arranged marriages.

The public lending library also became a point of contention within the Jewish community. Although Russians began to advocate for libraries in the 1890s, it took over a decade for them to rise to popularity. This social phenomenon occurred to the dismay of Jewish religious leadership, who felt that the wide availability of secular books would lessen people’s desire to read religious texts and consequently threaten the security of the people’s religious observance. However, the availability of secular books turned out to be more dangerous for women’s religious observance, as more Jewish women than men in Russia used the public lending libraries. When the Yiddish word for to read was used about men, it was in reference to studying as for a religious purpose; however, the same word in reference to a woman referred to reading a storybook or book for pleasure. Women’s increased levels of reading was seen as problematic by the elders of the Jewish community, since it introduced Jewish women to a whole world that they had previously lacked knowledge of.

This introduction did lead Jewish women to leave religious practice. One Russian Jewish woman who lived at the beginning of the twentieth century, Sonia Ayerof, said, “After studying books on sociology, I came to the conclusion that God is a product of simple thinking and as people become more educated, they have less need for God. Soon I became a heretic and ceased living religiously. Our religious parents, understandably, were against our activity. What does a Jewish daughter need education for? Only to stray from the proper path.” 

Ayerof was not alone in leaving observant Judaism as a result of her reading. Popular literature portrayed young Jewish women who left religious life as a consequence of reading secular fiction, like Tevye’s daughter Chava in Sholom Aleichem’s “Chava.”

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Impact of Work and Activism on Women's Assimilation

Although they were barred from holding leadership positions within the community, most Russian Jewish women of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were not subject to the cult of domesticity; instead, the ideal of the working woman was championed. As most Russian Jews were members of the working class, families depended on two incomes to survive and therefore could not afford the luxury of conferring domestic roles onto women. Wives were especially encouraged to work if their incomes could support the family alone, thereby allowing their husbands to sit in the beis medrash (house of study) and learn Torah and Talmud. Women participated in all sorts of work: Rebecca Himber Berg, a Russian Jewish woman who was raised in Lithuania in the 1880s, recalled that her mother’s stepmother ran a tavern, a neighboring widow ran a kosher meat business, and many Jewish women in the community did piecework in the home. During the same time period, Rose Pesotta reports that her great-aunt owned a store and her mother served as its bookkeeper.

Women’s presence in the workforce outside of the home facilitated and routinized interactions with the world at large, giving them a sense of independence as well as a social network. Coupled with their background in secular knowledge and the understanding that Jews could not be full members of Russian society, Jewish women’s daily experiences with the outside world led many to leave the fold.

The appeal of leadership positions and influence within secular sociopolitical movements like the General Jewish Labor Union, or Bund, also attracted observant Jewish women to leave their communities and assimilate. Although active Bund leaders were overwhelmingly male, there were opportunities for women to join and shape the Bundist experience: two out of thirteen of the Bund’s founders were women, as were six of the 48 most important Bundists before 1905. Overall, women comprised approximately a third of the Bund’s membership, but they were among the most active members, serving in roles from fundraisers to smugglers. As the Bund largely opposed Orthodoxy and religious practice, women who wanted to join basically had to assimilate.

Another part of the reason Jewish women flocked to the Bund was because of its (theoretical) dedication to gender equality. People involved in the Bund championed an overall remake of social conditions for Jews, the eradication of sexism and gender roles being one facet of this remodel. Practically speaking, most Bundists did not ponder gender issues extensively, but the overall Bundist socialist agenda supported parity between the sexes. Lyrics to a popular Bund song urged singers to “see to it that all are equal.” As many Jewish women chose to leave traditional Judaism and assimilate into secular culture and politics because of their dislike of the different treatment of the sexes in the Jewish community, this promise of gender equality attracted them.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Impact of Education on Women’s Assimilation

Many Jewish women in Russia who assimilated left the religious community because they had received an extensive and formal secular education, but only a limited and informal Jewish education. Religious instruction for Jewish girls was subpar to the education that boys received; even the most preliminary form of Jewish education, the heder, was solely open to boys. As the Russian government required children to attend school, Jewish parents who sent their sons to heder or public Jewish schools sent their daughters to public secular schools or hired private secular tutors for them. As a result, Jewish girls only received the religious instruction that their parents deemed worthy to impart to them, usually learning little beyond Yiddish language and how to read the Hebrew prayers. Girls’ disparate secular and Judaic schooling gave them knowledge of the positives of the secular world, but no parallel understanding of the Jewish religion. Consequently, they had little desire to practice Jewish observance and preferred to assimilate.

Members of the Orthodox community noticed this phenomenon while it was occurring. Puah Rakovsky, an assimilated Jewish girls’ education activist who lived in Russian-controlled Poland during the late nineteenth century, wrote in her memoirs: “If both Jewish girls and boys had studied our Torah, culture, and customs; then how many thousands of Jewish mothers would have been saved from assimilation." 

To combat this acculturation, a rabbi at a Polish rabbinical conference in 1903 suggested that a religious school system for girls should be established, but nothing was done to realize this idea. Finally, over a decade later, an Orthodox woman named Sarah Schenirer established the Bais Yaakov system of schools for girls in Krakow in 1917. The Jewish community rallied behind her, finally agreeing as a whole that Jewish girls needed formal religious education. A major rabbi of the early twentieth century, the Chofetz Chaim, said of the Bais Yaakov movement shortly after its creation: “It is surely a great mitzvah [commandment] to teach girls….Because if not, the girls are likely to stray completely from the path of the Lord and transgress the foundations of our religion, God forbid.”

Interestingly, despite – or perhaps because of – the fact that Russian Jewish women of the latter half of the nineteenth century had more secular education than Jewish men, part of what led them to assimilate was the desire for even more of this education. Many Jewish girls, seeing the extensive learning that their brothers did, wanted more of an education and went out of their way to obtain it. In order to enroll in gymnasia or study privately for the exams that would allow them entry into universities, girls assimilated and left the Jewish community. Despite the anti-Semitism that barred many Jews from the institutions of higher learning in Europe, Jewish women had a huge presence at the universities, constituting a disproportionately large percentage of female students.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Comic Cons, Cosplay, and Sexual Harassment

I Google Image searched "women cosplay,"
and this was one of the less sexualized hits.
As a feminist activist, ending the prevalence of violence against women has always been of utmost important to me. As a fangirl, the ability to feel like a full member of my fandoms is integral to my fan experience. These two parts of my identity intersect when it comes to gender issues with fandom. As fandoms are simply smaller groups within our larger society, they are not immune to the sexism and misogyny that plague our culture as a whole.

For example, gender-based harassment and violence have been a social phenomenon since women have entered the public sphere. Consequently, women experience sexual harassment in the larger world as well as within fan spaces. Although the fandom community has given some attention to harassment at conventions and in video games, the conversation has largely minimized the additional layers of complexity that cosplay adds to sexual harassment.

Cosplayers come from diverse backgrounds, and each person who cosplays has his or her own unique motivations for doing so. Certainly, most women cosplay for the same reasons as men do, whether it’s fitting into a community, rejecting larger societal expectations, or creating a new identity. However, some women also have more specific, gendered reasons for cosplaying.

Some do so in order to accentuate their femininity and embrace their sexuality. “When I do my cosplays…I try to make myself feel a bit more feminine than usual. It’s a way of putting myself out there to show people I’m sexy in a certain way…If I’ve got it, I may as well do something with it,” a woman whose cosplay persona is named Black Cat said. This does not mean that women cosplayers have to be meek or passive; another cosplayer who goes by the name The Vixen Gamer states, “Lots of women love a strong, feminine, female character. You don’t have to sacrifice your femininity to be powerful.” Through cosplay, these women are taking traditional (read: patriarchal) ideas of femininity and sexuality and repurposing them into a contemporary, woman-driven definition.

On a related note, Black Cat finds that cosplaying in sexy costumes is empowering because it means reclaiming her body and appreciating it for what it is, without worrying that others believe the way she is dressed is too sexy or slutty. An oft-quoted line from the cult classic Mean Girls (2004) says that “Halloween is the one night a year when a girl can dress like a total slut and no other girls can say anything about it.” Perhaps cosplaying at conventions and other fan gatherings gives women and girls the chance to “dress like a total slut” without being vulnerable to others’ judgments.

Women also cosplay in order to claim male-created characters as their own. “Men design these characters, and if I can put it on and look accurate, I think I’m doing something right,” Black Cat said. The larger world and society is dominated by the patriarchy, and most of the people in the higher echelons of fandom are men. It’s no wonder that women, even those who don’t describe themselves as feminists, would want to claim characters with whom they identify through cosplaying them.

While probing the issue of harassment and cosplay, it’s important to remember that there is nothing inherent in cosplay that encourages harassment; men harass women regardless of what they’re wearing, as inexcusable as such behavior may be. Western culture has taught men that they may – to fit in, sometimes must – comment on women’s bodies without castigation, so they harass on a general level.

However, anecdotal evidence makes it seem that women who cosplay are particularly vulnerable to harassment. Take, for example, Mandy Caruso’s experience at 2012 New York Comic Con. While cosplaying at the convention, Caruso was sexually harassed by a group of male attendees who claimed to be interviewing her for their blog. Although she did not report what had happened to any authorities at the convention, she posted about the experience on Tumblr. The Tumblr community rallied behind Caruso: the post got 40,000 notes within 24 hours (Pahle), and currently has 50,000.

Stories like Caruso’s encouraged Hollaback!, an international organization dedicated to ending street harassment, to run a campaign with the motto “cosplay is not consent” to reinforce the idea that women must be treated with respect no matter what they are wearing. Several Hollaback! chapters have attended conventions to spread this message. (Keyhan) In 2013, Hollaback! Boston made its presence known at Boston Comic Con by walking around the convention with signs inviting women and men to talk about being harassed while in cosplay. Hollaback! Boston cofounder and site leader Britni de la Cretaz reports that many of the Comic Con attendees who saw her sign actively shared their stories or smiled in appreciation of the support and solidarity. (De la Cretaz)

Why is it that men seem to have even less respect for women’s right to their own bodies while they are in cosplay? Caruso points out that in her experience, “many people at these cons expect women cosplaying as vixens (or even just wearing particularly flattering costumes) to be open/welcoming to crude male commentary and lecherous ogling.” Male convention-goers, like men in most other situations, assume that women dress for men’s edification and not for their own sake, so they feel free to share their opinions, wanted or not.

Not every woman who is harassed at conventions is in cosplay, though. One high-profile example of this is Genevieve Valentine, a science fiction writer, who was sexually harassed at 2012 Readercon. She went public with her story on her LiveJournal. The Internet rallied around her in the same way that it supported Caruso, and Valentine embarked on a journey that would last several months to report her harasser and ensure that he received a fitting punishment for his behavior. This underscores the point that women who are harassed while in cosplay are not “asking for it” and should not have to expect harassment based on their mode of dress.

Men harassing women at conventions could be a form of gatekeeping. Men who are fans may feel threatened by women’s presence in fandom, so they (subconsciously or not) marginalize them in order to feel dominance. These men want to claim fandom spaces as exclusively their own, so they try to squeeze women out via sexual harassment.

Another reason men harass women at conventions is because look for controversy to get their names known. Because of the ease of use of blog and vlog platforms, many run-of-the-mill gamers and fans have their own YouTube channels and WordPress sites dedicated to fandom. “Some of these dudes do step over the line ‘cos they think it’ll get a few extra thousand views on YouTube,” The Vixen Gamer believes. Caruso specifically did not want to out her harassers because she did not want them to get any publicity out of the incident.

Cosplaying is an activity that many fans participate in. Although they have various reasons for cosplaying, many do so to feel like they are part of a community, to reject larger mainstream society, or to adopt a new identity. Women who cosplay may have additional motivations to dress up, including a desire to embrace their femininity and sexuality, to feel empowered, or to claim male-created characters. Unfortunately, despite activists’ efforts, many women who cosplay or simply attend conventions have been subjected to harassment. Sexual harassment is a societal trend that is symptomatic of the patriarchy, but men who harass women in cosplay and at conventions may have more specific reasons for their behavior: they believe that women are cosplaying for men’s attention, they are gatekeeping the fandom, they just don’t understand that sexual harassment is problematic, or they want to generate controversy and get publicity for their YouTube channel or blog. Overall, the issues of gender, cosplay, and harassment have a complicated but fascinating intersection. It is my fervent hope that one day in the near future, women will no longer have to worry that they will be harassed at Comic Con, or that if they are, there will be easily accessible channels to report the harassment and punish its perpetrator.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Jews and Suffrage, Part 5: Rabbinical Perspectives on Women and the Franchise

Rabbis’ opinions on suffrage were just as varied as their congregants’. As early as 1892, rabbis within the Reform movement were agitating to allow for women to become synagogue members with voting rights and the ability to hold office, as the world had progressed past the idea of women as secondary in Jewish congregations. Although the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) adopted a resolution in agreement with this sentiment, it was largely ignored for two decades due to members’ disputes over this highly controversial topic.

In 1913, Rabbi Moses P. Jacobson reintroduced the resolution, arguing that CCAR should support women’s political suffrage because Judaism has always aligned itself with advancing the cause of liberty and CCAR was the most representative organization of progressive Judaism at the time. Two years later, Rabbi Horace J. Wolf simply said that Reform women should be given suffrage because numerous states were expected to extend suffrage to their women that year. Both years, CCAR responded that individual rabbis may allow the women of their congregations to vote, but would not make an overarching policy requiring it. Wolf reintroduced the resolution in 1917 and lobbied strongly for it, going so far as to describe the exclusion of women from the franchise as “unethical and unjust,” particularly due to Jews’ history of political marginalization, and that women deserve the vote because they had demonstrated “loyalty, patriotism, and eagerness to serve their country.” Finally, CCAR adopted the resolution, giving Reform Jewish women the vote within the religious sphere before most American women could cast a ballot for president.

Throughout this back and forth in CCAR, other rabbis made their opinions on the matter of suffrage clear. Reform Rabbi Emil G. Hirsch’s 1895 prophecy that women would be enfranchised soon was about twenty years too early, but he was correct that women would eventually obtain suffrage, both within Reform congregations and national elections. The 1915 essay “Woman and Democracy” by progressive Rabbi Stephen S. Wise levies numerous arguments on behalf of enfranchising women, calling for Americans to face the reality of women’s departure from the home and the imperative to recognize women’s autonomy from men. In the wake of CCAR’s passage of the suffrage resolution, Reform Rabbi Joseph Krauskopf published an address supporting women’s suffrage on the grounds of the equalizing status of women in society. Rabbis from other Jewish denominations also came out in support of suffrage: Jewish Theological Seminary alum Rabbi Aaron G. Robison invited Maud Nathan to speak at his synagogue, and Orthodox rabbi Jacob Levinson concluded that it is permissible and even desirable to support suffrage from a religious perspective in The Equality of Women from the Viewpoint of Halakhah.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Jews and Suffrage, Part 4: Anti-Suffrage Activists

Welcome to a new series on Star of Davida, Jews and Suffrage! As you may have surmised from the title, this series will be dedicated to discussing the history of Jews in the American women's suffrage movement, from 1848-1920. Enjoy the fourth installment!

Although many Jews supported suffrage like Maud Nathan and Rebecca Hourwitz Reyher, not all of them did. Famed socialist Emma Goldman, for example, believed in women’s equality to men, but felt that extending suffrage to women would be an exercise in futility: “are we to assume that the poison already inherent in politics would be decreased, if women were to enter the political arena?”

Other “antis,” as they were called, came to the movement from more conservative mindsets than Goldman’s; Helen Lauterbach believed that women’s reproductive capabilities made them superior to men in childrearing, and they should therefore take ownership of that arena and allow men to be the decision makers who run the world. A woman identified only as Mrs. Henry Seligman who was active in both the NCJW and the New York State Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage contested suffrage on the grounds that it would bring more working class women into the voting booth, a relatively common anti-suffrage argument.

As involved as Maud Nathan was in the pro-suffrage movement, her sister Annie Nathan Meyer was part of the anti-suffrage movement. A founder of Barnard College, she felt that women would simply repeat men’s follies if they were given the vote and would not be cause for a stronger democracy. She was deeply critical of the women involved in the suffrage movement, openly accusing them of hating men and desiring to be male. Her 1904 article “Woman’s Assumption of Sex Superiority” became a cornerstone text for anti-suffragists, arguing that women’s social advancement has not mirrored their intellectual capabilities, women are too flighty to be trusted with something as weighty as the franchise, voting would bring them too far away from their intended place in the home. Particularly important to her thesis was countering the popular suffrage argument that women are more moral and can bring this superior sense of right and wrong to their political activity.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Jews and Suffrage, Part 3: Pro-Suffrage Activists

Welcome to a new series on Star of Davida, Jews and Suffrage! As you may have surmised from the title, this series will be dedicated to discussing the history of Jews in the American women's suffrage movement, from 1848-1920. Enjoy the third installment!
Many Jewish women who had worked in the factories and became labor organizers were also active in the suffrage movement, like Clara Lemlich and Rose Schneiderman. Because of their activism to improve labor conditions and unionize employees, these women held influence over working women and men, an important demographic that could easily be convinced that extending women the franchise would be for their benefit. Indeed, women like Lemlich and Schneiderman so inspired Jewish worker Olga Gross that she sold peanut brittle during her lunch hour to raise funds for a local suffrage group.

Jewish women across the country were involved in state suffrage campaigns, from influential Jewish civic worker Hannah Marks Solomons and her daughter Selina in California to high school student Berta Ratner in New York. Jewish suffragists had varying motives for their support of women’s right to the ballot. Sophie Irene Loeb, a social welfare advocate in Pennsylvania and New York, stated that her belief in the need for suffrage stems from the rapidly changing society and transforming status of woman. Belle Fligelman, a Montana native who lobbied for the Wisconsin and Montana suffrage movements and worked for the first female member of Congress Jeannette Rankin, said that the importance of suffrage was so obvious to her that she didn't realize it would need justification. Maud Nathan, a major Jewish suffragist in New York, was active in numerous causes for the betterment of society and women’s condition, and she believed that “some of the evils which these women suffer would not exist if women had the right to place their ballots in the ballot box.” Nathan cited suffrage states’ lower rates of child labor, proliferation of child education, and increase of the age of consent as proof of the efficacy and desirability of women’s suffrage. Rebekah Kohut, who was influential in education and social welfare in twentieth century New York, had a less noble (albeit relatively common) reason for supporting suffrage: seeing that immigrants of color were obtaining citizenship, she wanted “American women” to have the right to vote first.

Jewish suffragists also cited religious and ethnic reasons as their reasons for advocating women’s right to vote. Pauline Steinem, Gloria Steinem’s grandmother and an influential member of the Ohio Reform Jewish community, felt that because the equality of men and women is Divine, women should have access to the franchise. Maud Nathan urged Jewish women to fight for their right to assert their voices in the American government, because it was the only one that allowed such a assertion. She also invoked biblical heroines like Miriam, Deborah, and Esther as proof for women’s equality. Kohut cited Deborah and Sarah as her feminist inspirations, as well as the biblical commandment to honor one’s parents as a religious imperative to support suffrage.

Although there were many Jews in the suffrage movement, Nathan is arguably the most famous of them all. Raised in an Orthodox Sephardic home and descending from Jews who lived in New York during the Revolution, she attended the synagogue Shearith Israel from her childhood and even served as its first sisterhood president. She would deliver pro-suffrage speeches to Jewish audiences on the Lower East Side, which were then translated into Yiddish, as well as alongside famous and influential suffragists like Harriot Stanton Blatch and NAWSA president Carrie Chapman Catt. Although other Jewish women of Nathan’s generation struggled to find a balance between religion and activism, she was able to live comfortably in the worlds of religion and reform. Nathan was an integral part of the New York state suffrage campaign as well as the efforts to pass the federal suffrage amendment, using her oratorical and writing skills to convince the public that women’s vote would only improve the world. In the decades after the suffrage amendment was passed, Nathan spent time working in a number of other progressive causes, but she believed that suffrage was the most important campaign.

Another Jewish woman who spent her life attempting to improve society was Rebecca Hourwich Reyher. The daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants who came to America seeking refuge from the Russian government’s disapproval of their revolutionary activities, she got involved in the suffrage battle early in life. She worked for suffrage throughout the 1910s, and became affiliated with the National Woman's Party (NWP) in 1917. Reyher left college to picket the White House along with the other silent sentinels, knowingly putting herself in a position to be jailed. She remained involved with the NWP’s activism for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) even after the Nineteenth Amendment was passed, and spent time on peace work.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Jews and Suffrage, Part 2: The Jewish Communal Response

Welcome to a new series on Star of Davida, Jews and Suffrage! As you may have surmised from the title, this series will be dedicated to discussing the history of Jews in the American women's suffrage movement, from 1848-1920. Enjoy the second installment!

Although most of the major Jewish organizations eventually came out in favor of women’s enfranchisement, Jews were usually silent supporters of the cause. One reason that Jews were not more involved in the fight for suffrage was because of anti-Semitism present in the movement from its earliest days. In 1869, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s feminist magazine The Revolution referred to Jews as “a useless portion of society.” Stanton had particularly strong views on Jews. She cited Christianity's negative treatment of women as a byproduct of its Jewish roots; published essays featuring anti-Semitic statements in The Woman’s Bible, of which she was the editor; and blamed the “God of the Hebrews” for women’s unequal status in that same book. Anna Howard Shaw, a president of the National American Women's Suffrage Association, also criticized Judaism for having sexist overtones. Stanton’s daughter Harriot Stanton Blatch retained some of her mother’s prejudice, complaining that she had to convince “the biggest Jewish city to convert from its…Hebraic attitudes toward women” in a letter while she was working for suffrage in New York.

Historian Melissa Klapper states that Alice Paul, the founder and president of the National Woman's Party (NWP), was widely known to be anti-Semitic, quoting NWP member Mabel Vernon’s statement about “Alice’s antagonism for Jews” as proof. Both Vernon and Klapper’s claims are dubious, however. In the late 1930s, Paul went out of her way to rescue Jews from Europe. Klapper herself acknowledges that Paul worked closely with Jewish feminists like Rebecca Hourwich Reyher, Anita Pollitzer, and Caroline Katzenstein; Paul even wrote the introduction for Katzenstein’s history of the suffrage movement. Paul’s biographer Mary Walton said in a personal interview that “attitudes toward Jews among middle and upper class Americans in the nineteenth century well into the twentieth were colored by prejudice, and there is little doubt in my mind that Alice Paul was affected…[but] Paul never practiced discrimination, however.” Paul’s personal friend, National Organization for Women (NOW) cofounder and Holocaust escapee Sonia Pressman Fuentes, said in a personal interview that she “know[s] nothing about Miss Paul having been anti-Semitic,” and NWP member and NOW cofounder Mary Eastwood echoes Fuentes’ sentiment. Regardless, Jews perceived the suffrage movement as populated by anti-Semites, so they were often reluctant to get involved.

Even if they did not actively lobby for women’s right to vote, American Jews tended to agree that women should have more rights, including suffrage. In 1915, 75% of Jewish women on the Lower East Side reported their support of the cause. New York districts with large Jewish populations tended to vote more strongly in favor of suffrage than any other ethnic or religious group. Of the 100 districts who voted in favor of extending the ballot to women in the 1917 New York suffrage referendum election, 78 were heavily Jewish. It is important to note that election statistics are reflective of men’s attitudes, as they were the only ones able to vote. Jewish women as well as men were used to seeing both sexes toil alongside each other in factories and sweatshops, and saw no reason for people working as hard as each other to be treated differently simply because of their sex.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Jews and Suffrage, Part 1: American Jewish Organizations and the Vote

Welcome to a new series on Star of Davida, Jews and Suffrage! As you may have surmised from the title, this series will be dedicated to discussing the history of Jews in the American women's suffrage movement, from 1848-1920. Enjoy the first installment!

Many Jewish organizations actively lobbied for women’s right to the ballot. Women’s groups were particularly vocal about their support. Hadassah was proud of the fact that women who attended Zionist congresses and lived in Palestine had the franchise, and sent a telegram to President Wilson informing him of this and pressing him to support the suffrage amendment while it was being voted on in Congress in 1918. To avoid stirring up controversy, the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) never passed a resolution in favor of suffrage, but NCJW founders Hannah Greenebaum Solomon, Nina Morais Cohen, and Sadie American were ardent supporters of suffrage; most of its constituency was devoted to feminism; it supported feminist issues throughout the early 1900s; and even hosted pro-suffrage speakers at its conventions.

Although the Socialist Party was not a Jewish organization by any means, its Jewish membership was significant. The Party originally avoided engaging with what it perceived as a suffrage movement dominated by wealthy white women, but did support women’s enfranchisement as part of a general agenda of equality. As the first decades of the 1900s progressed, it became friendlier to suffrage. When the Jewish Pauline Newman ran on a symbolic campaign for secretary of state of New York on the Socialist Party ticket in 1908, her platform had a suffrage plank. By the 1910s, the Socialist Party established suffrage clubs run by Theresa Malkiel, who wrote a suffrage column in Yiddish for the Forverts and campaigned throughout Jewish neighborhoods like the Lower East Side to garner support for the cause.

Jewish socialist organizations had varying, often fluctuating attitudes on suffrage. For example, the Jewish Socialist Federation’s Harlem chapter had an entire committee dedicated to lobbying for women’s suffrage throughout the 1910s. However, the Workmen’s Circle did not come out for women’s right to vote until 1917, and earlier in the decade had actually discouraged its members from supporting suffrage because of the movement’s dedication to maintaining the economic status quo.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Jewish Feminist Preschool Education: My Experiences

If we want to create a society that values equality, it’s imperative that we teach feminist values to children from an early age. Although I have no interest in going into education, I volunteered at the kids’ group at my shul (synagogue) every week on Shabbat (Sabbath) throughout middle and high school. Once I started becoming knowledgeable about feminism in the summer before ninth grade, I began to examine the group’s feminist values and instill them where I felt they were lacking.

Created and run by the rebbetzin (rabbi’s wife) for over thirty years, the group gives kids aged six and under an introduction to Shabbat and Jewish songs as well as tefillot (prayers). My shul is Orthodox, but few congregants are observant, so this service serves the dual purpose of educating children as well as their parents. Although people at my synagogue tend to be more liberal, the rebbetzin is very traditionally minded, to the point that she once told me point-blank that a woman’s place is in the home. Despite this rather conservative mindset, I believe that she developed a relatively feminist-friendly kids’ Shabbat program.

The only part of the group that really bothers me is when we sing the song “Hashem is Here.” The song teaches children that God is everywhere, enumerating all the different directions where God is and then stating “that’s where He can be found.” When the rebbetzin isn’t there and I have to lead the group, I usually substitute “Hashem” for the “He,” since using gendered terms for God deeply troubles me. When the rebbetzin is around and I have to sing “He,” I feel bad that I’m reinforcing God as male in these impressionable children’s minds.

To my mind, his us really the only issue. The rebbetzin always encourages all of the kids, regardless of gender, to lead the group in singing songs and saying brakhot (blessings). She herself models the viability of women’s leadership, and encourages the group’s helpers (who are usually women) to do so as well.

I know that some feminist-minded young people who work at kids’ Shabbat groups feel frustrated that they have to teach children different brakhot for boys and girls. In my shul’s group, the rebbetzin glosses over the problem pretty well. When I attended the group as a child, I always thought her methodology was fair: the boys got to say a brakha over their tzitzit (ritual fringes), and then the girls got to say a brakha that was billed as thanking God for making them female. The rebbetzin frames these brakhot as equal, making both boys and girls feel pride in their special brakha. I believe this is the most feminist way possible to include sex-specific brakhot and thereby adhere to normative Orthodox liturgy.

Yes, I am aware that this arrangement is still very flawed. I know that a brakha determined by sex is insensitive towards transpeople, the brakha that the girls say can still be construed as offensive to women, and that many would be horrified that only boys are encouraged to wear tzitzit*. One could say that it would be easier to just skip over these brakhot entirely, particularly because many other prayers are left unsaid in this abridged, child-centered service. I don’t necessarily disagree; however, these brakhot are part of traditional morning prayers, and the rebbetzin wants the children to learn them. If they have to be included at all, I believe that my rebbetzin unwittingly integrated them in the most feminist-friendly way possible.

I’ve previously written about theinfamous pink Torah, and how gendered the desire to hold the sole pink Torah is. When I was volunteering at the group, it was nearly impossible to navigate the politics of which girl could get the pink Torah when. However, while I was home this summer and helping out at the group, I noticed that there was less interest in the pink Torah. I don’t really have a hypothesis for why it’s gone down in popularity; perhaps this crop of girls is just less invested in the color pink, or maybe the rebbetzin put her foot down one Shabbat when I was away. Can I dare to hope that the media is not inundating girls with an obsession with pink anymore? Whatever the case, I’m happy that there are no longer tears being shed over something as inane as a pink Torah.

Pink Torahs and gendered language aside, I really do think that the children’s program at my shul gives kids a relatively feminist introduction to Jewish prayers. Education, especially in the early years, is so vital. If we want to raise a generation of feminists, we need to educate them as such, starting right now.

*A few years ago, there was a girl who wanted to wear tzitzit. Interestingly, it was the very Modern mother who wouldn’t allow for it, and the rebbetzin who didn’t particularly care. The mother told me that the way she got her daughter to stop was by saying that nail polish is for girls and tzitzit is for boys, so she could only have one or the other. The girl chose the nail polish and that was the end of the matter. 

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Infographic: The Diversity Gap in the Academy Awards

This infographic is a couple years old, but the basic message - there are not enough women and people of color, and especially women of color, in the movie industry - still holds. I was honestly shocked when I saw how segregated the Academy is; I did not expect the racial and sexual gap to be so stark. It's a vicious cycle, with producing and directing being a boys' club that just continues to perpetuate itself in how the hiring goes and what scripts are accepted and who is cast to play what roles. One can only hope that feminist activism in the movie industry will bring more diversity, and that sympathetic people in positions of power will use their influence for good.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

On Administrative Assistants: Why “Secretary” Shouldn’t Be A Bad Word

In my senior year of high school, I was working on yearbook and often needed the principal’s approval for editorial decisions, so the office became my frequent hangout. Because I was in their workspace so much, I made friends with all of the secretaries. Getting close with school secretaries was something I had always done, though; my mother worked in secretarial positions for many years, and she always taught me to act like a mensch towards secretaries. Beyond the fact that they are human beings who deserve to be treated with respect, it’s often incredibly valuable to have a friend who can make you copies and slip you a few dollars from the petty cash stash. Secretaries are the ones who get stuff done.

And so, I have always spoken to serctearies in the same manner I would speak to any elder. I guess it’s just because of my mom’s influence, but I always go out of my way to be courteous to secretaries. When I got tagged to #feedthedeed on Facebook a few months back, I never bothered doing it. I thought it was wonderful that my Facebook friends were going out of their way to show their appreciation for secretaries, security guards, custodians, and other people with “menial” jobs, but didn’t see the need to do it myself. I treat all of the secretaries with whom I interact with politeness every day, so why do I need to take photos of it and post them on social media to prove it?

The fact that Facebook campaigns like #feedthedeed exist just come to show that my attitude is not terribly widespread. It’s no secret that secretaries are usually devalued in our society. I have always known this to be true, based off of my peers’ (and superiors’) treatment of the same secretaries who I befriended. So I guess I understand why a new euphemism for secretary, administrative assistant, has started to become popular. When I first heard it in high school, it took me a moment to get past the fancy jargon and realize that the chief administrative assistant really just means head secretary. But I don’t blame the women who worked in the school office for opting to describe their job as administrative assistant instead of secretary. If secretaries don’t get much respect in our society, maybe administrative assistants will.

But why even is there shame in being a secretary? Secretarial positions are jobs like everything else, behind a desk and answering phone calls from 9-5. Well, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that secretaries are predominantly women [find percentage]. Devaluing secretaries is part of blaming women for their own oppression, stigmatizing them for serving in submissive, low-paying positions while simultaneously blocking them from achieving higher-paying, more prestigious positions by stopping their progress (or any hopes of it) with a glass ceiling.

My default will always be to call them secretaries, but if they wish to be administrative assistants instead, then those of us on the opposite side of the desk should honor that preference. But regardless of their label, we need to stop thinking of secretaries as beneath us and start treating them as the equals they are. They’re people, and should be treated with respect by virtue of their humanity. Women especially should take pains to show solidarity with secretaries, since we are all subjects to the same oppression. A fragmented movement is a weak one. How can we hope to dismantle the power structures that keep us down if we do not fight together? 

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Cycle of Objectification at the Brooklyn Cyclones

Although I don’t really do sports, one of my friends’ dads had tickets for a Minor League baseball game, so a few of us went for kicks. We were all mildly grossed out by the amount of ten-year-old boys hanging out near the cheerleaders, but whatever, they’re kids, right? What really creeped us out were the dads who ogled the cheerleaders. We were particularly disturbed by one sitting on the aisle with his son who, when a cheerleader passed him, made an unsolicited comment to her, something like “can I friend you on Facebook?” She just gave the guy a withering look as she walked by and ignored him.

When my friends and I left the game, we had to walk past this guy to exit. I was walking alongside one friend, who the guy touched on the arm and said something like “careful how you walk up the stairs” – totally and completely unnecessary advice. Because we’re both shomeret negiah, meaning that we don’t touch guys, the immediate reaction was just to move away. I physically pulled her towards me, farther from him. We kept walking, but I, The Feminist, couldn’t let him go without saying something. “Yeah, you should probably avoid touching strange women,” I said. (I know, great comeback, right?) He responded as we walked up the stairs, but I didn’t care to pay attention and neither did my friend.

We’re all already over this guy, but I’m still like, what even was that? Why did this guy feel that he had the right to ask that cheerleader for her Facebook information, and then to touch a strange teenage girl on the arm? Well, I don’t think any of us were surprised that his son was one of the boys who was hanging out by the cheerleaders.

But that made me really sad. It’s a cycle of objectification, like father like son. Through modeling, this man is raising his son to think of women as pretty items who shake their pom-poms for men’s benefit. By asking that cheerleader for her Facebook info, he was showing that it’s okay to be interested in a woman solely based on her physical appearance, and that it’s okay to creepily ask such a woman for some sort of relationship. He violated my friend’s space by touching her on the arm without her permission, which sent the message to his son that men are entitled to unlimited access to women’s bodies. And that’s just really not okay.

No, this guy did not ruin our time at the baseball game, and we still had tons of fun. As I said before, we’re completely over him, and he really didn’t have a significant impact on any of our lives. Witnessing his exploits firsthand just made me sad that he existed, that men like him exist at all. For me, incidents like this come to prove that we need feminism now just as much as we’ve ever needed it. It’s not just about the cheerleader’s Facebook privacy and my friend’s right to personal space. It’s about men’s unthinking attitude and consequent behavior towards women, and how that needs to change.