Jewish Shrines (BJPA Roulette)

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BJPA Roulette is a safer and more informative alternative to its Russian counterpart. It is ideal for Jewish communal procrastinators, and perhaps even for new forms of occult divination. (BJPA takes no legal, moral or spiritual responsibility for predictions derived from our Random Publication feature.) To play, simply go to http://www.bjpa.org/Publications/random.cfm and let blind fate recommend a publication.

I've just done so, and I landed on Living Room: Shrines, by Vanessa L. Ochs.

Jews, in theory, don’t make shrines; in reality, of course, we do — we just don’t talk about them. Our shrines are spiritual agents that construct our religious and cultural identities, that prompt ethical and holy response, and that foster connections between oneself and the community. Sometimes we amass photos of our ancestors to look over us, interceding with God on our behalf at the hot moments of our lives. We may assemble the Rosh Hashanah cards we received on the mantelpiece, with hopes that the wishes they have extended for a good, sweet year will come true. We may keep out various Israeli souvenirs, trinkets, and ritual objects we have collected: the Hebrew Coca-Cola can, the decoupage hamsa, the mezuzah purchased in the Cardo...

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Play BJPA Roulette:    http://www.bjpa.org/Publications/random.cfm

Helping Families Communicate in Wartime

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This week, from the J-Vault: To Find Jews in a War Zone (1915)

The Great War (later to be known as World War I) had been raging for a year, with Russia and Western Europe locked in a bloody battle with the Central powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary). Sending letters between the United States and Eastern Europe, naturally, was nearly impossible. Communication across the lines would require the participation of the belligerent governments and their militaries.

At this stage of the war, however, America remained neutral, and therefore American organizations, with the help of the US government, could obtain cooperation from governments of both sides. The Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society of America did just that:

The war has caused numberless instances, separation of parents from children, wives from husbands, and sisters from brothers, and has filled the hearts of hundreds of thousands of foreign born Jews throughout this country with terror, for among the 2,000,000 Jews now living in the United States are found persons coming from every town and hamlet in Russia, Austria, Galicia and Poland in which Jews dwell, and these are extremely anxious to know the fate of those members of their families whom they left behind...

...The Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society of America... recently organized a Bureau especially equipped for this purpose. Judge Leon Sanders, the president of the society, made arrangements with similar national organizations in Russia, Austria, Germany, England and France...

...About 800 persons have, since the opening of the Bureau, been placed into direct communication with their loved ones, and their letters and money have been forwarded to them...

..."Help us find our only son" writes a lonely mother from Philadelphia—"We have shed all our tears in vain, and have done all we could to obtain news from him who remained behind to serve in the armies of the Czar."

"We are four children" writes a group from Boston, "who supported our aged parents in Austria, by regular monthly remittances, but since the war broke out we do not hear from them."

From Galveston, Tex., comes the following: "Please help me find the address of my wife and baby because it is over a year since I received word from them. How happy I would be of you could trace my dear ones! You would be giving them and me a new lease of life."..

...Scores of similar letters are received daily by the Society from every part of the United States and Canada. Hundreds' of persons come in person to the office at 229 East Broadway to ask for word from those in whom they are interested, and every effort is made to obtain the information for which they seek.

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Rebbetzin Redux

Our new BJPA Project Assistant, Jessica Cavanagh-Melhado, was profiled today in the Forward's Sisterhood blog, for her writing (along with co-blogger Melissa Scholten-Gutierrez) at Redefining Rebbetzin.

Melissa: There is this old stereotype of a rebbetzin being a frumpy woman who stays at home, cooking with kids hanging from her skirt — and one look at our blog will tell you that that is far from who we are! A big part of what we’re exploring is how people view contemporary rebbetzins and contrast that with this Old World sterotype. I don’t think we could have dreamed it would be in the place it is not just a year and a half into it!

Jessica: There’s the new phenomenon in the traditional world of women leaders in congregations, and having to figure out the role of their spouses. Those two things together I think formed the kernel of this idea. There is a lot of ground between what women and men out there are experiencing and what the traditional notion is, and that’s really interesting. The dynamic of two friends ending up married to two guys who want to be rabbis seemed a little unlikely, given our backgrounds. It really compelled us to share our stories.

What’s your definition of feminism? Is this a feminist project?

Melissa: Feminism is about empowering women to be whoever they are, wherever they are, in a way which is fulfilling to them. It’s not about being “equal” to men; that implies that women are inherently less than men and we have to do things in a more masculine way to be the best women we can be. Choosing to be a religious working woman who dreams of being able to both work to support her family and to be able to spend the formative years of her (future) children’s lives with them is embracing feminism.

Jessica: We’re married women living in religious communities that are struggling with the role of women. This is somewhat of a feminist project, since it gives us a platform to grapple with community norms and halachic issues. Child-rearing is a feminist issue; we can’t talk about advancing women in positions of power if we don’t talk about the lack of affordable child care and helping women create balance in their home lives.

Read the whole interview here.

Kol hakavod to Jessica -- who, by the way, is not the only rebbetzin on the BJPA staff. Our fearless leader, BJPA Director Prof. Steven M. Cohen, is also a rebbetzin; he is married to Rabbi Marion Lev-Cohen.

Church and State and Social Services

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Controversy continues to unfold regarding the US Department of Health and Human Service's announcement that new guidelines will require employers who offer health coverage to cover a number of women's health services, including contraception -- with religious exemptions. Some argue that the exemption denies vital services to women who work for religious employers, while others maintain that the exemption does not go far enough.

As long as private religious groups have been involved in the provision of services, whether as agencies (directly) or as employers (indirectly, as in the current controversy), questions of freedom, regulation, accomodation and coercion have appeared difficult to resolve, with religious freedom and full provision of services to individuals locked in seemingly insoluble conflict. This week's J-Vault pick, written by a distinguished New York family court judge, explores some of these questions as they relate to adoption.

This week, from the J-Vault: State, Religion and Child Welfare (1956)

The Hon. Justine Wise Polier was born into a prominent Jewish family, the daughter of the celebrated Rabbi Stephen Wise. She made her own name, however, when Fiorello LaGuardia appointed her to a family court judgeship, making her the youngest municipal justice in the country, and the first woman in New York State to hold a judicial post above magistrate.

In her address to the 1956 Annual Meeting of the National Conference of Jewish Communal Service (later published in the Journal of Jewish Communal Service) Judge Polier argued that the state frequently intruded into private religious affairs, and frequently neglected vital needs of clients for religious purposes. Ironically, she explained, these abuses originate in a desire that the state precisely not engage in religious coercion:

There was the deep concern that the state, through its representatives, should not misuse the power to provide care for children outside their own homes in order to change their religion or engage in proselytizing. There was also the strong feeling on the part of many religious groups that they should provide for the needy children of their own faith.

The problem, said Judge Polier, was that such religious matching was being placed above quality and type of care being provided:

The state has a basic responsibility to see that every child who needs placement outside his own home shall receive the type of care which the child needs. It may under the laws of many states delegate its responsibility for providing such care to voluntary agencies, sectarian or non-sectarian. It does not have the right, in my opinion, to turn a child over to any kind of care, so long as the child is placed with an agency of its own faith, or to keep a child in cold storage till a sectarian agency has a vacancy...

...Over and over again, we find that though the social study may clearly indicate that a baby needs a foster or adoptive home, if none is available within his own religious group, rather than refer him to an agency of another faith or a non-sectarian agency, such an infant or child will be kept for weeks, months, and even years, in a hospital or shelter. We find that even when a diagnostic study shows the need of psychotherapy and individual care, if none is available within his sectarian group, the child is frequently sent off to a custodial institution in violation of all we know as to his needs...

...There are other areas where the question of the role of religion in child care must be examined. While there is little question that religion can be a significant moral and ethical force in the life of a child, it would certainly seem contrary to the American principle of religious freedom to impose and demand religious adherence and observance of children or parents without at least the consent of the parents. Yet, in recent years, in more and more children's courts, we find judges, as representatives of the state, requiring the performance of religious obligations as a condition of probation. We hear the rationale that if a child is found neglected or delinquent the parent has failed, and the judge has a right to require religious training as part of a program of rehabilitation...

...In New York City we have also been faced by the development of a policy by the Presiding Justice of the Domestic Relations Court that raises yet another question concerning religion and child care. He has decided that probation officers shall be appointed on the basis of a religious quota roughly following the religious affiliation of the children brought before the Court. This means that although the Jewish population of New York City is slightly under 30 per cent, since the percentage of delinquent and neglected Jewish children brought before the Court is roughly 5 per cent, he has decided that only 5 per cent of the probation officers may be Jewish. As a result, even though a qualified Jewish young man or woman has passed his Civil Service Examination, he will be passed over in favor of a less qualified non-Jew...

The Judge did not argue for ignoring religion in adoption:

To the extent that children can be placed in homes of the same faith, as that of their parents, this should be done, except in those cases where the parent or parents freely choose to have their children placed in a home of another faith. Americans have the right to choose and to change their faiths and those of their children. That a parent decides to surrender his or her child for adoption does not abrogate this right or transfer it to any other person, official, institution or the State.

However:

When no adoptive home of the child's faith is available for a child, it is the duty of the State and indeed of voluntary agencies to see that, in the interests of the child's welfare, he shall be placed in the best adoptive home available. No person, no religious institution, no public department, and no State has the right to say to a defenseless child, "You have no home. But because of your race or religion, you shall stay in an institution until you are 16 or 17 and then be turned out into a world in which you have no one to whom you belong." This is happening today in too many areas. It is our duty to see that such injuries to children shall not continue.

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"The World-Wide Scandal of American Marriage and Divorce Law"

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Yesterday, this blog discussed the attitude of one segment of the Jewish population toward the marriage issue du jour, same-sex marriage. 98 years ago, however, a different issue related to civil marriage captured Jewish communal attention.

This week, from the J-Vault: Remedy for the Divorce Evil: A Proposed Federal Marriage and Divorce Law (1913)

The laxity of our divorce laws has done much toward the undermining and disrupting of our homes. Agencies interested in adjusting martial differences have found themselves helpless in adjusting the case of a deserted wife and children, wherein the husband and father produced a decree of separation or divorce obtained by him in another State...

...Under the liberal divorce laws of the United States, divorce is almost optional with either of the parties and fraud has become legalized. But now that the power of amending the United States Constitution is being more actively exercised, it is a source of satisfaction that the following proposed joint resolution to amending the United States Constitution has been introduced into the House of Representatives: "Congress shall have the power to establish uniform laws on the subject of marriage and divorce for the United States, and to provide penalties for the violation thereof."...

...The difference of sentiment between South Carolina, where divorces are not granted, and South Dakota, where they are procured for trivial cause, or between New York and Massachusetts, can scarcely be compromised to enable the adoption of similar laws by the States. For a cooperative statute to be of real service, it would have to be of uniform application and force... The proposed amendment should be zealously advocated, because it offers the only practical method of doing away with the world-wide scandal of American marriage and divorce law.

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Intermarriage and Complexities of Antisemitism

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Jewish Ideas Daily recently highlighted a fascinating gem from the Atlantic Magazine in 1939: I Married a Jew, an anonymous personal reflection by a German-American woman married to a Jewish American man.

The article is an amazing read, deserving of much more detailed discussion than I have time to devote in this post, but I will say in briefest summary that the mix of sympathy for Jews as individuals and revulsion for various expressions of Jewishness which this author displays is incredible. She loves her husband and his family (unless they're all together as a family), and she will even countenance a little (not too much) Jewish pride, especially as relates to Biblical figures such as Moses, Solomon and (naturally) Jesus, but she is also very put off by Jewish cultural distinctions, favoring complete assimilation, and speaking of the world's "Jewish problem" as a product of oppression on one hand, and of Jewish (stereotypical) villainies, which she takes to be very real and very problematic, on the other.

What strikes me as so important about this article is not its being out of date, but rather its relevance to the present. If one removed the dismissive comments about Hitler being unfortunate yet not particularly unique or worrisome, and made only a little subtle revision to the terms, emphases and frames of reference, then this woman's viewpoint could just as easily have been written yesterday as in 1939. (Indeed, a few reader comments below the article reveal that some people apparently thought it was written in the present. Not that internet comments prove anything.) Modern American culture does not embrace all of the anti-Jewish views which are affiliated with traditional Christian anti-Judaism, but modern American culture certainly does share with this author a distaste for Jewish "clannishness" and particularism -- witness the ubiquity of intermarriage among Jewish characters on TV and in movies. Hollywood's usual portrayals of intermarriage assume that intermarriage is not only acceptable, but actually desirable. This perspective differs in many ways from our 1939 author, who blames the Jews for their own persecution during European history. But it shares with her the fundamental assumption that Jewish assimilation is the answer to Jewish problems. This reflexive sense that Jews are okay as long as they aren't too Jewish is very much alive in 2011.

Intermarriage as a catalyst for the exposure of uncomfortable disagreements is another element that makes this 1939 article strangely up-to-date. These marital dynamics are echoed in this recent blog post by Allison Benedikt, another deeply personal reflection centering on an intermarriage, this one from the perspective of the Jewish partner. In the post, which has prompted many strong reactions, especially from Jeffrey Goldberg, Benedkit describes her unquestioningly Zionist childhood and her transformation, as an adult, into a passionate anti-Zionist, influenced significantly by the strong anti-Israel views of her non-Jewish husband. I hasten to add that I'm not making an equation or a conflation with this juxtaposition of the two articles. By comparing them, I don't mean to equate Benedikt's husband to the 1939 author of I Married a Jew, or to equate anti-Zionism with antisemitism. But I do mean to note that in both cases, an intermarriage has the effect of forcing the couple to take a stand on an extremely divisive issue of peoplehood. Writing in response to Benedikt's piece, Julie Wiener notes that Intermarried Does Not Equal Anti-Zionist. She's right, of course, but it would be folly not to admit that a marriage across the religio-ethnic divide is more likely than an in-marriage to force a conversation on these, and other, difficult topics.

Not that conversation is a bad thing. One difference between today and 1939, perhaps, is that conversations about these feelings do not tend to occur as openly. Nobody wants to be branded a bigot, and these days Americans of all persuasions tend to throw around such labels quite freely. We seem to think of antisemitism, like other forms of intergroup hatred, as a binary, all-or-nothing phenomenon. To listen to contemporary American discourse, a person is either "an antisemite" (a noun and an identity), or else a "normal" person, who is presumably completely free of anti-Jewish bias. (The same underlying assumption could be cited with regard to homophobia, sexism, racism, etc.) Reality, of course, is much more complicated, as this 1939 article reveals. Love and hate can be present in the same person. Faulty assumptions, negative emotional reactions, and prejudices can (and usually do) coexist in the same brains with genuine love and respect for the "other" group in question. Admitting as much might allow everyone to be more honest with one another, without anyone being afraid of being labeled a bigot, and without anyone else being afraid to point out when an idea is bigoted. The trick is to be able to criticize ideas (even quite strongly) without demonizing the people who hold them (except in the most extreme and obvious cases of open hatred). That would leave space for quite a few difficult -- and necessary -- conversations.

Jewish Fatherhood

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In honor of yesterday's celebration of Father's Day, read Chaim Waxman's The Jewish Father, Past and Present, an exploration of Jewish conceptions of fatherhood from the Talmud to the shtetl to contemporary Israel and the United States. Written in 1984 for the American Jewish Committee.

Click here to download the PDF.

From the J-Vault: 41,000 Glasses of Milk

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Since this week Jews will celebrate Shavuot by eating cheesecake and other dairy delicacies, there is no better time to enjoy this gem from the Bulletin of the National Conference of Jewish Charities.

This week, from the J-Vault: Penny-a-Glass Milk Station (1914)

"It was found," wrote Philip L. Seman, "that there were many puny children that were brought by their mothers to enjoy the free open space that the [Chicago Hebrew] Institute offers the neighborhood, by means of its park and playgrounds, and to whom the opportunity of procuring such milk would prove a great service."

Besides this, the sale of milk tends to counteract the desire on the part of the younger children to purchase from the filthy wagons that are stationed near the entrance of our grounds the cheap and much-adulterated, therefore, very harmful, so-called ice cream and scrape ice balls, generally saturated with chemically colored flavors...

...One need only watch the lack of care given the average infant in the congested districts of any large city, because of the lack of knowledge that the mother has of the danger of not properly looking after the child's feeding for the first two years of its life, to see the enormous amount of good (if from no other point of view than this alone) our milk station is bound to do...

...The milk station, which has now been operated a little over a month, has grown to proportions beyond even our own expectations. We have sold over 41,000 glasses of milk the first month...

...We found many persons taking advantage of the sale of the milk and crackers, and regularly making at least one meal a day on this splendid substitute, especially during the hot summer months, for meat and other heavy foods.

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Chag Shavuot sameach!

 

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Publications on Difference at Passover

Four Cups

Across Barriers

 

Publications on the mixed, modern Seder

 

The First Cup: Mixed Marriages

Passover, a Lesson in Inclusiveness

Adam Bronfman, Kerry M. Olitzky, 2009

 

The Second Cup: Jews and Christians

Is Every Seder Kosher for Passover?

A. James Rudin, 1999

 

The Third Cup: Jews and Palestinians

Sharing Pesach with a Palestinian

Lawrence Baron, 1988

 

The Fourth Cup: Jews and Jews

Keeping Peace at the Seder Table

Sally Shafton, 1984

 

Explore many more publications about Passover at bjpa.org

International Agunah Day

Today is Ta'anit Esther, and also International Agunah Day, a day recognizing the struggles of agunot, "anchored/bound ones," Orthodox Jewish women whose husbands refuse to grant their wives a get (religious divorce), even though the two no longer live as a couple -- preventing the woman, according to traditional Jewish law, from remarrying.

A few resources: Dr. Rachel Levmore, a rabbinical court advocate and anti-get-refusal activist, has articles on International Agunah Day in both the Jewish Press and the Jerusalem Post. The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) also has a page of resources and links on the agunah issue. (In 2007 they placed this six-page advertisement in the NY Jewish Week on Ta'anit Esther / International Agunah Day.)

BJPA holdings include many publications touching on this issue. Among them are:

Cohen's Comments: The Gender Salary Gap

In this installment of our video series, BJPA Director Steven M. Cohen examines and evaluates potential explanations for the salary gap between women and men in the Jewish communal field.

He gives special mention to the work being done by Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community.

 

Mediterranean Family Size - Religious Israeli Jewish Women Win (Lose?)

Women and Demography in the Mediterranean States (2009), by Ariela Keysar, compiles and analyzes demographic data from Algeria, Egypt, Turkey, Israel, Italy, Greece, Spain, and France.

The general results were unsurprising - lower fertility is associated with women's greater participation in the workplace and educational, civil and social equality. More surprising, however, is that family size has decreased across the board, even in the most religious countries (based on questions about the importance of God and religion in people's lives).

For example, Morocco has the lowest rate of female literacy and education, and also relatively low female workplace participation, nevertheless saw the average number of children per woman decrease from 6.9 at the beginning of the '70s to 2.4 in the last couple of years. The highest current fertility rate is in Syria, which is only 3.1.

This data suggests that somehow, contraceptive technology, education, and use, is penetrating even through both political oppression and religious conservatism. Unfortunately, the scope of the article doesn't include an exploration of the cause and means for this transformation, but it certainly seems encouraging.

The article includes some reflections on Israel:

Israel is a unique example of an advanced country with a modern health system, high educational attainment of women and high level of female labor force participation (Figure 9-8), and yet a high total fertility rate of 2.8. Israeli data are for Jewish women only. DellaPergola showed major differences in fertility patterns by religiosity among Jewish women in Israel. In 2005, the most religious Jewish women had 4.7 children compared with only 1.7 children for secular Jewish women. DellaPergola attributed the large gaps to “powerful differentiation of family norms related to religious norms and religiosity.”

 It's interesting and probably unfortunate that the Israel data only seems to count Jewish women. One advantage of that is that it perhaps offers a clearer picture of the role of religious versus political/civic influences on fertility.

The religious Jewish fertility rate of 4.7 seems incredibly high, considering that no Mediterranean country (but Syria) has a rate over 3. Perhaps in this case, higher levels of women's health care and achievement actually contribute to a higher fertility rate?

For more insight, explore BJPA's resources on Jewish fertility and family size.

 

Relationship-endings and Jewish communities

American Jewish marriages end in divorce at a similar rate as American marriages in general. In her article, Rekindling Tradition as Life Partnerships End, Kathleen Jenkins uses dozens of qualitative interviews with Jewish divorce(e)s and clergy to explore how divorce affects Jewish practices, attachments, and needs.

All the participants talked about how negatively divorce impacted their home practice, shabbat and holiday celebrations. Many turned or returned to synagogue congregational life as a source of meaningful Jewish engagement. Singing, communal prayer, and various rituals that communities have developed, like a mikvah visit associated with the completion of the divorce or the recitation of kaddish for the death of the relationship, could be sources of comfort and meaning.

On the other hand, respondents also often described experiences of silence, frustration, and shame: synagogue dues not accessible to a suddenly poorer unit; activities centered around families; fear of gossip and/or anxiety around divorce making discussions of divorce feel taboo, etc.

The author points out that the transitional period after a divorce is a time of rich spiritual potential, one that Jewish communities and clergy should not overlook in terms of outreach and building communal connections. Her recommendations include ideas like explicitly including divorce in references to areas of pastoral care and not shying away from mentioning divorce in sermons; establishing and offering ritual practices associated with divorce; and diversifying synagogue activities beyond the normative family model.