Often, when I take a moment to remind myself what I’m grateful for, I think about my grandmothers. My life is so much different than theirs were – although in some ways still very much the same. I cannot help but stop in awe at the opportunities that I have that they probably would have loved to have.
I especially think about my paternal grandmother, Beatrice Maryles Fink, z”l, who was a woman ahead of her time. She was one of a handful of Orthodox Jewish women who, in the 1930s, studied at Hunter College on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and received bachelors’ degrees. A few years ago, a friend of mine told me that her mother was part of that group as well, the ones who used to walk over the bridge from Brooklyn to get to college. They were as religious as they were serious about their secular learning, and despite many contrary stereotypes, they had no problem attaining advanced degrees while remaining fervently Orthodox. My grandmother’s degree was in math, of all things. Like I said, a woman ahead of her time.
Her problems came when she dated. She used to tell us stories about how she hid her achievements from her dates, so as not to intimidate men by appearing, heaven forbid, smarter than them. In the end, she married my grandfather, Cantor David Maryles, z”l, who apparently was proud of having a smart wife. She was “old” at the time of their wedding (26 years old, I believe), and also taller than him – a big taboo in those days as well – but he did not seem to have been bothered. In every photo I’ve seen of them together, he looks deliriously happy.
The story unfortunately did not have such a happy ending. My grandfather died at the age of 39 of leukemia, leaving my grandmother to care for five boys under the age of 12. She lived with her father-in-law for many years, working part-time as a bookkeeper to try and make ends meet. My father, who at 12 was officially the “man of the house”, also helped support the family from the time he became bar mitzvah. Wealthy they were not. From what I understand, it was more like just scraping by. So much for the power-woman with a degree in math who could conquer the world.
Still, my grandmother held on tenaciously to her own intellectual dignity. She found every opportunity to take classes, and had fascinating contributions to make to every conversation, always commenting on social trends and human behavior. I think that it’s her imprint that made me interested in sociology so many years later. Her idea of a great birthday present was always a book. I still have a shelf at home lined with books that she gave me, all of them inscribed to me in her impeccable handwriting. I did not read most of them at the time, just as I did not appreciate her while she was still alive and in sound mind. I’m terribly ashamed today that I did not give her then the respect that she deserved.
Yet, so much of what I do today is with the feeling that Grandma Bea is sitting on my shoulder watching me. I feel a deep commitment to the mission of making the world a safe place for women like her – for all women really, but especially for those smart, creative, independent-minded women who have an original voice, passion and ideas. I want to ensure that there are empowered spaces for women like my grandmother to thrive, to create, to speak, to emote, and mostly to feel completely alive and equally valued members of society. If my grandmother were living in the world that exists today, I can only begin to imagine the great things that would have come out of the fabulous workings of her mind.
So what am I grateful for today? I’m grateful for my life, where I have freedom and opportunities that I wish my grandmothers had. I am grateful for all the work that the feminist movement has done over the past two generations, making the world a better place for women. I’m especially grateful for religious feminists who have fought tirelessly against often fierce, aggressive and at times mean-spirited opposition, who never gave up the struggle to ensure that religious women are seen, heard, and valued. Feminists have enabled me to get to the place where I am today, where I’m working, speaking, writing, and thriving. And I’m able to do all these things while building a loving family, with a spouse and children who, like my grandfather, are proud and happy to have a smart woman around. That is not something I want to take for granted, ever.
Certainly the work of feminism is not done. In some ways, women today continue to struggle with many of the issues that they struggled with generations ago: social expectations around femininity and motherhood; a stoic religious leadership that is often so reluctant to acknowledge women’s real needs; entrenched sexism in communal and social institutions. These battles are hardly over.
Still, there is so much to be grateful for. I wish my grandmother were here to see all this, to read my books, to talk to me about my dissertation in sociology of education – to have written her own dissertation – and to do things like go to a partnership minyan or attend the JOFA conference. I wish I could hear her thoughts about it all. I wish she would have had some of the opportunities that I have had. Perhaps my life is in some ways an extension of hers.
And, if I listen closely, I can hear my grandmother’s voice talking in my ear over my shoulder. I’m mostly grateful that she is still with me all the time.
Earlier this month, Hadassah Braun Margolese wrote a blog here at The Torch describing her anguish about not being able to immerse in the mikveh, the ritual bath, alone. As a result of Hadassah’s struggle, MK Aliza Lavie proposed a Knesset bill to rectify this situation. Dr. Naomi Marmon Grumet, a leading activist in the area of mikveh reform, responds below to these series of events and offers a glimpse into the experiences of immersing women.
MK Aliza Lavie and ITIM have put forward a bill in the Knesset that will make it illegal for mikveh attendants to question women about their religious practice. Let me describe where this is coming from.
Last week we held a lecture at The Eden Center. Afterward someone mentioned the bill, and a few women instantly responded with stories from the last month — of attendants asking when and how many bedikot (internal checks to assure there is no bleeding) the woman did, and whether a woman had done a hefsek (internal exam which officially marks the end of bleeding) (the attendant claimed that she can’t say “Kasher” if the woman hasn’t done these because she will get Divine retribution for wrongly sanctioning the immersion); a woman was asked if her freckles are make up or permanent – and the attendant tried to rub them off; and another questioned about her choice of birth control and interrogated regarding whether she had taken out the NuvaRing or not. Unfortunately, among the 850 officially employed mikveh ladies in the country, not all are sensitive to how these things might offend, and where they overstep the woman’s personal authority. Many attendants feel that it is their responsibility, rather than a woman’s, to decide what is appropriate — and can refuse entry because of a woman’s personal status or the psak she chooses to follow.
From the discussion in the Knesset (which I attended), the bill is intended to prevent attendants from being able to turn someone away (it’s a public institution in Israel), and from asking questions like if/when she did a hefsek, her marital status, and more, which are insensitive or intrusive.
The proposed legislation is welcome, but unless it is accompanied by a deep educational process I fear it will be met with resistance from the mikveh attendants, who will likely see it as an attempt by a secular government to intrude in their holy work. Legislation cannot make people more sensitive; education can, and education can also help them to understand the underpinnings of this law. The mikveh attendants need to understand that the bill is not a threat nor an attack of their Avodat Kodesh (holy work), but rather an attempt to respect the privacy and dignity of thousands of women who come to the mikveh with different priorities, yet consider their immersion as vitally important in their lives.
A little background might be helpful. Most of the mikveh attendants are Haredi. They grew up in an educational system which devalues personal autonomy and places ultimate value on strict adherence to authority. Their own self-perception as well as their perception of their roles in the mikveh and vis-à-vis the women who enter are often dramatically different from those whom they are paid to service. Education can help them to be made aware of the feelings and sensitivities of the other side, whose concerns are so far from their own that they just don’t relate to these things as a problem. (I believe that it is the awareness of the complexity of this problem and respect for the difficult work attendants do which prompted MK Lavie and Itim to phrase the bill in a way that calls to task the rabbis who oversee the mikveh, and not the attendants themselves).
Education can also help to begin the process of transforming the concept of a mikveh attendant from a halakhic gatekeeper to someone who facilitates a woman’s experience. More than that, attendants have the rare opportunity to witness (and, as appropriate, extend a hand) to things that would otherwise go unnoticed – whether signs of abuse, a growth on a woman’s back, or fertility challenges and miscarriage.
An education program like this already exists and has been implemented in a number of locales for the mikveh attendants, with great success. The Eden Center has developed a course which has been extremely successful in extending that kind of sensitivity. Attendants learn skills of communication and become very aware of different needs, learning to accept women from across the religious spectrum. At the same time, we give the attendants general knowledge and tools for identifying abuse and domestic violence, postpartum depression, breast health and infertility, as well as issues of physical, emotional and sexual health, so they can be community resources. We also point out that while some women love being asked a checklist of items re: preparation, others just want to be left alone to do their own thing. And through the program, we have seen incredible change. When we explain the complexity of feelings that come from a range of women and different life situations, they begin to understand their piece in making all women feel comfortable and respected in this most precious institution.
We hope to bring this program to communities throughout Israel– and even to the Diaspora — because we see how effective it has been in helping women in need get sensitive assistance, and helping attendants understand their job in completely new ways.
The conversation about mikveh reform will continue at the 8th International JOFA Conference, December 7-8 at John Jay College. Sign up today!
After 28 years of marriage (BH!) Adam Dicker and I signed a post-nuptial agreement this past Saturday night at the home of our friends. My daughter and her husband, whose joint aufruf I wrote about in September, signed a similar prenuptial agreement before their wedding this past August.
The Post-Nup celebration was attended by approximately ten couples, and one couple who had signed a prenup also came for support. The purpose of this signing ceremony was to raise awareness of the agunah issue and, of course, to protect all those women who signed.
This past June, JOFA founder Blu Greenberg convened the Agunah Summit in New York City to implement halachic solutions to the Agunah crisis. Rabbinic authorities have followed up with increased support for existing solutions, as well as for new and creative follow-up strategies. Recent articles about agunot have appeared in the press, and there are many thousands more agunot who we do not know about. Tamar Epstein, an agunah who grew up in our suburban Philadelphia community and is currently living here, is a constant reminder that this is an unacceptable phenomenon within the Jewish community.
Let’s all band together in support of those seeking to implement halachic solutions to both prevent the agunah situation and to free those for whom it is too late to sign any pre- or post-nuptial agreements!
Blu Greenberg will be speaking about the agunah issue at the 8th International JOFA Conference on December 7 and 8 at John Jay College. Register today!
As an Orthodox Jew, feminist activist, and first-year college student, I’ve got a pretty full schedule to balance. I’ve previously written about how being a feminist has influenced my perspective on being an undergrad, but I have yet to explore how being Orthodox impacts both my feminism and collegiate career.
Being a feminist in a patriarchal society is no simple mater. However, so far, I’ve found college to be a pretty conducive place for feminism and other social equality movements. There’s a sizable feminist community at Harvard, every member of which is absolutely fabulous and truly dedicated to making the world a better place for women and men alike. Numerous gender-related events occur every week, from screenings of documentaries like 12th and Delaware to speeches by New York Times columnist Gail Collins. All of the upperclass feminists I’ve met have strongly encouraged me and other first-years to get involved in activist work; my first semester of college hasn’t even ended, and I’m already on the board of an on-campus feminist organization and write for the college’s feminist magazine. Even in groups that are not specifically gendered or activist-oriented, I have found and fostered several feminist-friendly spaces.
Not everybody I meet on campus is as involved in gender issues as I am. Although I have encountered some insensitivity or misunderstanding when I’ve espoused feminist ideals or used the word feminist, the typical reaction is a few respectful questions about what exactly feminism is. Consequently, I’ve had some really interesting, eye-opening conversations with a varied group of people about gender issues. Continue reading
The following is adapted from the drasha (sermon) delivered by Rori Picker Neiss at Bais Abraham Congregation, St Louis, MO on November 17, 2013, Shabbat Parshat Vayeitzei. Rori serves as Director of Programming, Education and Community Engagement at Bais Abraham as she completes her studies at Yeshivat Maharat.
I used to think that the Torah was a story of God, and, as such, was a story of heroes, of bravery, and of goodness. Perhaps that is how my teachers had wanted me to see it. I learned of the heroism of Noah, who saved humanity from total extinction. I learned of the bravery of Abraham, who argued with God in defense of the wicked people of Sodom and Gemorrah. I learned of the never-ending compassion that God displays towards the Jewish people.
The Torah is not a story of God, though; it is a story of humans. While humans can be heroic, brave, and good, they can also be corrupt, oppressive, and depraved.
There is one story in the Torah in particular that we often slide right past. It is a story we do not like to teach in schools, and one we often do not want to discuss openly. It is a story that is not easy to tell, but one that we need to tell. It is a story of corruption, of oppression, and of depravity. Continue reading
A new partnership minyan was recently formed in Hampstead in North-West London. Here, two of the founders, Beverly Paris and Dr. Miri Freud-Kandel, provide some insights into what made the first meeting such a success. The next minyan is planned for Chanuka — details can be found here. To sign up for the JOFA partnership minyan Googlegroup, click here.
“It was lovely to hear so many women’s voices”
1 x Sefer Torah
50 x folding chairs (begged, borrowed & not quite stolen)
1 x large family living room graciously shared
70+ people aged 6 months – 70 years
100 x donuts, pastries & very fine coffee
Boundless energy & tremendous good will
In the wake of the current discussion of the Gital Dodelson case (about which I know nothing more than what has been written in the New York Post), I thought I would take the opportunity to discuss the origins of the agunah/mesorevet gett problem in our time as I understand them.
Divorce in Jewish law, like marriage, is a private ceremony that works along the model of contracts. Whatever the benefits of such a system may be, the Achilles heel has always been the possibility of igun. In order for a couple to be divorced a man is required to give his wife a gett, so if the man is unavailable or unwilling to do so, this leaves a woman stranded as married yet not married—chained to a dead marriage and a lost or recalcitrant husband, unable to move forward with her life.
Igun Then and Now
Through various epochs of Jewish history, the problem of women stuck in dead marriages has expressed itself in different ways. Throughout most of history, the agunah problem was minor and usually involved husbands who were lost in battle or at sea, or they died on business trips. In the period before long distance communication was a reality and documentation of travelers and deaths was haphazard and imprecise at best, the possibility that a woman’s husband could die on a trip and she never know about it was a serious one. In the Geonic period, there was a small but real attrition to Islam, where, once converted, the men would not participate in a Jewish religious divorce. Continue reading
Recently, the Ritual Committee of my congregation, Kehillat Yedidya in Jerusalem, asked its members whether we might occasionally allow Kabbalat Shabbat to be led by a woman. The question, spurred by requests from the daughters of several members and raised at a specially convened and very well-attended Seudah Shelishit before Rosh Hashanah, has set off a lively debate in the community, at times bordering on acrimonious.
People have threatened to leave the community if this change is adopted, or suggested that those in favor of it go elsewhere if that is what they want to do. Even the left–right political debates that have occasionally wracked our community have rarely been so divisive. Where it comes to politics, people want the other side to shut up; Where it comes to the debate over Kabbalat Shabbat, they want them to leave.
In a community like ours that pioneered the lengthwise partition and the customs of passing the Torah through the women’s section, women dancing with the Torah on the holiday of Simhat Torah, women’s Torah readings, women standing before the whole community to give divrei Torah and read the Megillot, and girls singing Shirat Hakavod, why is this particular question so divisive? Continue reading
Join us in Times Square today (Wednesday) as JOFA celebrates five of the thousands of women and men raising their voices every day for Orthodox Feminism. We will be meeting at 12:00 Noon at the Southeast corner of 47th and Broadway to watch the exciting new JOFA Times Square billboard. And there will be free coffee too!
The billboard will be promoting the 8th International Conference on Feminism and Orthodoxy. The conference, set for December 7-8 at John Jay College, will feature 40+ packed sessions, panels, musical performances and workshops. Topics include: Men’s role in feminism, slut-shaming, single mothers by choice, LGBT issues, hair covering, new rituals, women’s leadership and lots more – something for everyone who is interested in the intersection of religion and gender in the Jewish community.
I have two issues with the title of this blog post. For one thing, I should not have to ask permission from anyone for the right to immerse in the mikveh, the ritual bath, alone. Second, Rabbi? Shouldn’t a woman be the supervisor of a women’s mikveh? If I have a question regarding the mikveh, why should I have to turn to a man to plead my case?
There is a deeper issue here. Why should I have to plead my case at all? It is ridiculous that I need permission to immerse alone. Yet, this is how it is many mikvaot: without permission, the attendant will not allow me into the mikveh waters. Immersion in the ritual bath is an important mitzvah for me. But that’s precisely what it is: a mitzvah for me. This mitzvah is not for the rabbi, or the mikveh attendant. If I would like to immerse on my own, I should be able to, without questions, or strange facial expressions in response.
Even more baffling is where these rules come from. In certain communities, women are not allowed to immerse alone without the rabbi’s permission, but in other places in Israel, women are allowed to immerse on their own, no questions asked. How does that work? Who decides where and when women can be trusted on their own and when they cannot?
This entire question of immersing alone exacerbates for me what is already a challenging practice. For nearly 11 years, I have disliked going to the mikveh — in fact, I have dreaded it. Sometimes, the attendant has made it worse, such as once when the attendant asked me to dunk over twenty times, constantly changing positions. Or when I was told that I have to remove makeup from under my eyes when I was just tired. Or just the visceral experience of being watched as I walk in and out of the water. No matter how many times I am told that the attendants are not “really” looking at us, I cannot get past a profound discomfort. Even when mikveh attendants are nice, I don’t want them in the room with me when I immerse. I am just not comfortable having another person in the room with me when I am undressed.
The entire day of the immersion I am worried about who the mikveh attendant will be. Will she ask me questions? Will she insist on having me use bleach to remove stains from my nails? Will she insist that I still have make-up on? Will I have to cut my nails shorter? Will she look at me when I walk up and down the stairs, or will she only watch me once I am in the water?
Yes, the mikveh attendants are mostly nice. But even when they are “nice”, the experience is still incredibly uncomfortable and unsettling for me. All I am asking for is for the right to perform this mitzvah on my own, as I wish, without being watched as I am naked and vulnerable and having a private moment. This is my mitzvah and nobody else’s, and yet I have not been allowed to own it.
This changed when I discovered a mikveh where women are allowed to immerse alone. I found it on Facebook in a group called Advot, which is a round-table of women trying to make changes in mikveh practices in Israel. When someone in the group posted photos of the mikveh in her town. I replied that I would be happy to go to that mikveh if I could immerse alone. That night, I took a three hour drive for the experience of being able to immerse alone, to make the ritual and the body experience mine and only mine.
The desire to immerse without being observed by an attendant should be respected in the mikveh. Women should have the right to make that decision for ourselves, without having to beg a rabbi or anyone else.
I will be joining a conference organized by Advot on November 13 in Israel on the subject of women’s experiences of mikveh, so that we can speak about what needs to change. Let’s all talk about. It’s the only way to make the change.
The upcoming 8th International JOFA Conference will be highlighting new approaches to mikveh, with Rori Picker Neiss and Sarah Mulhern. Join us at John Jay College, December 7-8, for this memorable and important event. For more information go to http://jofa2013.sched.org