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.

‘Real Housewives’ Get Biblical

Real Housewives of the Bible

Gucci, Prada, Fendi,…and Rivkah? Bravo’s Real Housewives may have competition from some wholesome, bible-abiding counterparts. Think less acrylic nail cat-fights, and more palms pressed in prayer.

Ty Adams, evangelical author and CEO of Heaven Enterprises, has produced a straight-to-DVD series, ‘Real Housewives of the Bible’, following six women as they face the trials and tribulations of becoming a good wife.

“Housewives” featured include Sarah, who famously struggled with infertility, and Delilah, who used the age-old tool of seduction to trick Samson.  

While Bravo’s ‘Real Housewives of Beverly Hills’ are hardly credible role models (but fabulous for a TiVo guilty pleasure), can we expect women of the Bible to provide any less drama or examples of bad behavior?

Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel, and Leah are golden examples of righteous women. But let’s be serious. Even just a preliminary rundown of Bible 101 includes Eve, Jezebel, and Lot’s daughters. If the ‘Real Housewives of the Bible’ ever want to make it prime time, they’ll need to show the good with the bad. (See Janet Rosenberg's take on Jewish women of the Bible.) Here’s hoping for an appearance of Athaliah.

 

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.