Could Beit Shemesh Happen Here?

Conversations about of the place of Jewish law in the regulation of public space will always, naturally, be radically different in Israel than in America. But isolated American Haredi communities can and do pose similar problems.

A case in point: Rethinking Secularization Theory: The Case of the Hasidic Public Square.

Kiryas Joel is a legally recognized municipality about fifty miles northwest of New York City composed almost entirely of Satmar Hasidic Jews... The community operates according to a strict code of halakhic observance and modesty norms... and total social segregation from the surrounding towns and villages of Orange County is considered essential to the preservation of the community... Inasmuch as Kiryas Joel is a community that brooks little dissent or deviation from the norms enunciated by its religious leaders, it fits into this tradition of illiberal religious groups in the history of American religious sectarianism.

Also on the subject: Sh'ma's February 2007 issue on Haredi Judaism.

Sex Classes: 1926, 2011

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Yesterday, in the New York Times Magazine, Laurie Abraham profiled the graphic, frank and nonjudgmental Sexuality and Society class offered at Philadelphia's Friends' Central School. Abraham noted that "this sex-ed class may well be the only one of its kind in the United States."

Yet a look back at sex ed in earlier generations shows that some progress has occurred.

This week, from the J-Vault: The Status of Sex Education for Children (1926)

"In early days," explains Rachelle J. Yarros, "many of the ancient peopje worshipped sex as they did other mysterious forces which they did not understand."

In the more modern Christian world, the same fear has led to asceticism, the basis of which is a feeling that the sex impulse is essentially evil and must be suppressed.

Let us be honest with ourselves and frankly ask this question: How many of us received from our mothers or fathers intelligent explanations of sex or reproduction ? You all know what falsehoods we were told and what chaotic ignorance existed in our minds...

...The more intelligent are beginning to realize the danger of complete ignorance and to feel the need of giving sex information to the child sometime, somewhere, somehow, but they fear that this knowledge, if given not "exactly in the right way" may awaken excessive sex curiosity and lead to disastrous experimentation... I wonder whether this is not simply another manifestation of our own sex taboo...

...The real problem of sex behavior among human beings arises primarily from the fact that they are ready to mate and may have the impulse to do so long before they are psychologically and socially fit. With animals no such problem arises, because they mate strictly according to impulse and pay the penalty, nobody registering the consequences. The human animal has evolved so far from this stage that the primary impulse of sex is not a satisfactory guide to behavior...

...As to the institution of marriage, which has more or less fostered certain ideals of sex relationship and greater protection and care for progeny, it, too, becomes a very important matter for the consideration of those who are interested in all phases of social hygiene. Some radicals claim that the institution of marriage is a failure or that it has outlived its usefulness. I am a radical myself and admit that all is not well in marriage, but am inclined to believe that the institution is not wholly to blame for the problems that now confront us.

Click here for more.

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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.

Random Publication of the Day: Beach Mechitzah

In the spirit of enjoying the summer while it lasts, a little beach reading:

The Rise and Washout of a Jewish Beach (Lionel Sasson, Sh'ma, 1978)

Rabbi Lazar Kahanow of the Young Israel of Long Beach Synagogue... approached members of the city council with an idea to attract Orthodox residents during the summer months. He asked if it was somehow possible to modify one of the city's twenty eight beaches so that there might be separate bathing areas for men and women. He explained that "lighdy attired men and women bathing together is a'violation of the Orthodox laws of modesty." He stated that at least one thousand of the city's residents have been disenfranchised from the beaches by the presence of mixed bathing. He cited the city of Boston which built separate bathing facilities for men and women which are utilized chiefly by the large Irish Catholic population...

...The City of New York, bowing to public pressure, recently unofficially designated a part of Riis Park in the Rockaways for nude bathing. The segregationists' viewpoint was that if the nudists could have a nude bathing beach, it was downright obscene not to permit others a place to bathe in modesty...

...Local controversy, much of it within the local Jewish population had dampened Rabbi Kahanow's plans. There was fear that vigilantes, who could only be asked voluntarily to leave since the beach remained a public one, would invade the women's section. The males feared that their section might become a loitering place for homosexuals. Outside J.D.L. factions threatened that they would come to keep the peace. Others voiced fear that the beach would become a target for antisemitism. Rabbi Kahanow maintained that if the congregants ignored the invaders and trouble makers, the trouble would leave the way it came...

...At 8 o'clock on Thursday, June 30, a small yellow bulldozer from a private contractor rambled onto Lincoln Beach and started digging out sand from
under the boardwalk to create a new beach entrance. Few realized what was going on until Rabbi Kahanow appeared on the boardwalk to give his blessings to the construction. Alex Safer, a local builder and advisor to the Rabbi, explained the drawing card aspect of the project to one irate bystander concluding vehemently, "We are not moving, we are going to fight." Replied the bystander, "Mentals or the religious, so what's the difference?"...

...When installation was nearing completion, Tom Daly, Asst. to the Chief of Lifeguards, arrived to inspect the proceedings. Upon wishing the Rabbi well, he insightfully pointed out that unless holes were cut into the fence to relieve water pressure that would build up with the pounding of the waves, the wall would be knocked down. The Rabbi protested saying that additional holes would subtract from the privacy of the fence. After some discussion the fence foreman decided to cut small 1" holes into every other slot. For this he needed a small generator which he insisted on the Rabbi procuring. Several phone calls later the Rabbi announced that one could be borrowed from the city. The fence installers boarded their truck saying they were going to get the generator and were never seen again...

...Hostility increased as more fence went up. Shouts of 'Tear it down," and "Burn Fort Zion," brought patrol cars much of the day. City Council President Harvey Weisenberg, unaware that the beach was actually being built, was alerted by numerous phone calls at his residence and came for a first hand look. Waved to from the beach, he yelled back angrily, "No, no, no, not here." For a moment it looked as though he was going to descend to the beach and tear it down board by board. At City Hall complaints jammed the switchboard...

...The tide started rising at four o'clock. A weak low pressure front clouded the skies and started sending in small swells. On the beach a lone patron chatted with the lifeguard while the crowd on the boardwalk became larger and more belligerent. At four thirty five a loud cracking sound was heard. All heads turned to the middle of the beach where the first waves from the incoming tide had reached the stockade. Like wind whipping through wheat, the fence swayed with every passing wave. The bulge of the wave traveled from one end of the fence to the other, the pieces popping out to permit the flow of water. The bottom of the fence loosened first, the nails pulled out from the wooden piling. The wood sections flapped in the wind for a second before the next wave pulled them down. Large holes appeared in the fence as sections dropped into the water and floated in the surf. The crowd cheered. At the breaker line the ominous humps of several outside large waves could be seen building. They moved in with tremendous speed. The first ones shook the remaining wall. The middle ones crashed into the piling with tons of water. By the last waves the wood was smashed to splinters...

Click here to download the full article.

Like games of chance, but feeling risk-averse? Try BJPA Roulette: click here to get to a random publication. (You can always access this feature by clicking "Random Publication" under the "Publications" tab in the header section of BJPA.)

What does masculinity have to do with religiosity and inmarriage?

The liberal Jewish community is grappling with the question of attracting and retaining men and boys, both as participants in religious life and as spouses for Jewish women (who are less likely to marry out and tend to marry out older, if they do at all).

This blog covered one response a couple of months ago: Moving Tradition's Campaign for Jewish Boys. One core aspect of their Brotherhood program is engaging Jewish boys in thinking about, amidst American ideals of masculinity, antisemitic stereotypes of the feminized Jewish man, and a patriarchal text and study-based religious tradition, what it means, to them, to be a Jewish man.

But what is really the relationship between internalized conceptions of masculinity and men's patterns of out-marriage and religious participation?

On Homespun Wisdom, Jamila asks: What do Jewish Women, Chinese Men, and Black Women have in Common? Referring to Sylvia Barack Fishman's 2008 work Matrilineal Ascent/Patrilineal Descent, she writes:

An article I read about the feminization of the Jewish church makes the Jewish religious community sound eerily similar to the black church community: more women than men; women lamenting the loss of men to the community, imploring them to ‘come home and have babies’; men who are disdainful of ’their’ women and have become avoidant of religion in general.

This is fascinating to me. My (not all that expert) impression is that the history and politics of masculinity in the African American community are very different, even radically different from that of the Jewish community -  and yet the outcome, at least with regards to out-marriage and religious participation, is quite similar.

One possibility is that despite their apparent differences, there are some important fundamental similarities between African-American and Jewish masculinity. Another is that conceptions of masculinity are perhaps more tangential to the issue of men's religious and romantic orientations than one might have thought.

Jamila's hypothesis about the common denominator among Jewish women, Chinese men, and Black women is:

"Who dates out, the men or the women, has a lot to do with who the culture puts more pressure on–the boys or the girls–to carry that culture in the future."

While my impression is that traditionally, the Jewish community has done its best to put plenty of pressure on everybody not to marry out, thinking more closely about how that pressure is gendered might be helpful. Jamila makes a connection between that pressure and the fact that Judaism has been a matrilineal religion - but it seems to me that factor could go in both direction. In a way, Jewish women are more free to marry out because they don't need to reproduce with a Jewish man to have Jewish children.

On the other hand, women have done and continue to do (despite wonderful progress) most childrearing work. Liberal Judaism has let go of many of the traditional modes of more or less mandatory men's involvement in the religious life and religious education in which boys participate: heder, shul, yeshiva etc (modes which incidently also at least periodically relieve women of some of the burden of childcare for boys).  It makes sense that the gap in Jewish continuity work created by the loss of those traditional forms of childcare/education would have naturally shifted over into women's general basket of childrearing responsibilities. Especially since Jews too are immersed in a broader culture that has all too often placed near complete accountability for children's welfare, morality, and behavior on mothers.

I think that increasing the childrearing expectations placed on Jewish men (and increasing their ability to fulfill them by instituting and advocating for more family friendly workplace conditions: flextime, paternity leave, etc) could only help in encouraging men to value and transmit their own heritage to their children.

From the J-Vault: Girls Gone Wild

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This week from the J-Vault: The Delinquent Girl (1914)

Writing in the Bulletin of the National Conference of Jewish Communal Service, Mrs. Julius Andrews (her own first name is not listed) discusses wayward girls in Boston's juvenile justice system.

Statistics show that only about 10 per cent, of the Boston juvenile cases from 1906 to 1911 were girl offenders... But the wayward and stubborn girls are more difficult problems— only too often indicating immorality...

...Girls congregate on the streets, in low dance halls and other commercialized amusement places—free from public interference. It is in such surroundings that many of our young people, seeking diversion from miserable home conditions, begin their downward careers. In an investigation of recreational opportunities in Greater Boston, a pretty young girl naively informed us that she went to the public dances twice a week and wished she could go every night. When asked by the manager of the store whether she was escorted, she said, "No, we dance with any fellow who asks us."

Of course, the dalliances Mrs. Andrews discusses go far beyond dancing, and she notes that although it takes two to tango, society does not dole out its disapproval equally:

When the inevitable harm has been done we ostracize the girl, making reformation almost impossible, while the boy or man, if charged with his share of responsibility, easily escapes by paying a small penalty... Until the law holds man and woman equally guilty and all sex offenses are consistently punished, we shall not be able to control immorality.

Obviously the term "sex offenses" in this usage is not referring to rape and molestation, as we would use the term today -- or at least, it is not exclusively referring to sexual violence. Consensual premarital sex, it seems, is also included under the umbrella of "sex offense."

Interestingly, years before the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, which secured the right of women to vote in the United States, delinquency is already being blamed (in this case, by a woman) on women's rights:

In speaking to the superintendent of a well-known maternity home for unmarried mothers in regard to the causes which were responsible for girl immorality, she said: "The freedom and privileges allowed girls during the past fifty years were now bearing fruit. They had influenced for good and for evil. The mentally strong girl had benefited and is today our best standard of American womanhood, but the weaker girl and many of foreign parentage, not understanding the ethics of such freedom, fall easy preys to what is presented to them as American privilege and liberty."

Download the full publication...

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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:

Links for International Women's Day

Happy International Women's Day!

Celebrate by browsing our holdings on the topics of "Women" and "Gender". Or dip back into our March 2010 newsletter on women in Jewish leadership roles, or our January 2011 newsletter on the changing Jewish workplace.

In the Jerusalem Post, Rachel Levmore reminds us that this day "is used as a platform for what is known in Jewish tradition as cheshbon hanefesh - a combination of account-taking and reflection." In eJewish Philanthropy, Naomi Less examines "Gender Balance in the Spotlight".

Not everyone is celebrating; Haaretz reported that the Israeli cabinet "will not support any of the bills presented before the Ministerial Committee for Legislation on Sunday in honor of International Women's Day".

Want to get involved? American Jewish World Service provides this resource page, including ways to get involved in their work on behalf of women in the global South. You can also find an International Women's Day event near you by clicking here.

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.

 

Layers Upon Layers

This article by Akiva Novick about Israeli Haredi "Taliban Women" who cover themselves (and their daughters) from head to toe seems, at first glance, to be simply a portrait of a small, radical fringe group well outside the mainstream of Israeli Haredi society. But there are a number of elements of the story which offer glimpses of much larger problems within Israeli Haredi society, far beyond the confines of this small group.

It is troubling enough that anyone feels the need to invent a new restriction upon Jewish women being seen. Such a move, as a sudden, contemporary innovation, takes on a very different flavor from a Muslim woman's decision to follow an ancient practice which has been in her family, or at least her faith, for many generations. (This is not to take a position regarding Islamic discussions over modesty standards; it is only to assert that this Haredi fringe group is doing something entirely different since they are not operating on the basis of a well-established custom.) And it is good to read in the article that the majority of Haredi society opposes this new, restrictive decision.

But the manner of some of the opposition is equally troubling on its own. "'Taliban women' and their daughters are outcasts on haredi streets," Novick writes:

They encounter looks of disgust, bullying and constant humiliation. M., a member of the anti-Zionist Hasidic movement Toldos Aharon... has seen young men come up to these women trying to pull off their head covers. "There are guys who will approach a woman and say things like: 'You look like a suicide bomber' or 'I guess your face is ugly if you keep it hidden.' There are also those who spit on them and curse at them, or just badger them with cameras so they'll run away."

 Yes, there's no better way to stand up for the dignity of women than by cruelly bullying women. How nicethat we can also pull in a stereotype of all Muslim women who dress a certain way as being terrorists.

Speaking of terrorism, I am also troubled by the "Taliban women" label itself, implying an equivalence between women who are seeking to start a new custom within a religion to a regime which used extreme violence to enforce their restrictive dress code against all women in the territory they controlled.

Novick goes on to write that some of the Haredi opposition to this trend comes from the mere fact of its being an innovation:

"We can accept young girls who returned to their faith as long as they accept the rules and speak Yiddish," said [a Haredi] businessman. "What worked for our fathers for hundreds of years still works today, and no newly-religious person can change that."

Yes, this new light-of-day-phobic dress code is in the same category as the terrible transgression of speaking modern Hebrew instead of Yiddish. But wait! There's more...

A Neturei Karta delegation approached haredi rabbis and presented them with findings regarding the "Taliban women." They said these women refused to have sexual intercourse with their husbands or take off their head covers even when they walk around the house or in the mikveh.

Now here is Neturei Karta, a different radical fringe group, a group which often seems to have no objection at all to Holocaust denial or genuine terrorism. But women holding back sexually from their husbands? This is unacceptable. (Paging Aristophanes?)

So let's recap: some women want to restrict women from being seen, but they are being opposed violently by men who insult them by way of stereotyping Muslim women as terrorists. Some of these men are upset that the women are doing anything new (Heaven forbid), and others are upset because they are withholding sex from their husbands. All these crimes, to some of the men in question, are worse than Holocaust denial or terrorism, which is to say equal to the crime of not speaking Yiddish, but don't worry, because to some others they are only as bad as the Taliban.

To be clear, the above paragraph is a gross oversimplification. It is unfair, and is meant to be tongue-in-cheek. But like the voluminous clothing worn by the women in this story, the story itself is many-layered and heavy. I wish I could conclude it was not worthy of attention. Too often the media tends to play up negative aspects of the Haredi world, and downplay the positive sides of living in an insular community. I would like to avoid jumping on the bandwagon of criticizing Haredim. Orthodox Judaism has many interpretations, and includes many conceptions of gender which are a far cry from the impulse on display in this group. See, for just one example, this 1995 article by Rivkah Myers Shifren, which argues that traditional (Orthodox) gender roles in ritual do not in any way constitute degradation or "inequality" for women.

But just as an observer of Orthodoxy would be unwise to ignore the liberal/traditionalist perspective represented by Myers Shifren, it would be unwise to ignore this group of far-right Haredi women, small though the group may be -- and it would be even less wise to ignore the larger issues and questions indicated by the reactions to that group from the Haredi mainstream.