June 20, 2019

HBI Books Enjoy Robust Online Life

By Amy Powell

Elana Maryles Sztokman was stunned to learn that the book she co-wrote with Chaya Rosenfeld Gorsetman, Educating in the Divine Image: Gender Issues in Orthodox Day Schools, had been downloaded more than 11,000 times from the Brandeis Institutional Repository (BIR).

The award winning book, published in 2013, had a press run of 850 and another 100 e-book sales, but none of these numbers compare to the book’s online life through the BIR. For Sztokman, who passionately cares that her research be seen by the widest swath of people, this came as great news.

“This book has a very important mission. It’s about how we transmit messages about putting people into gender boxes, which can often be so painful, and which can take years or decades to heal from. I am so grateful that people are reading this and I hope that it makes people think,” Sztokman said.

Brandeis University established the BIR in 2008 as a resource for the Brandeis community to showcase, organize, share, and preserve research and scholarship in an Open Access repository. In this format, more people find the research because it comes up in Google searches, helping it find a way to interested readers, sometimes in far away lands where it was never available in print.  For example, Educating in the Divine Image, has most of the downloads from the U.S. and U.K., but there are several from Japan, Canada, France, Russia, Germany and Israel.

Sylvia Fuks-Fried, editorial director of Brandeis University Press (BUP), said that BUP and University Press of New England decided to put titles on the BIR as a way of  “giving back to the community,” but also as a way of “extending the life of this investment and building on it.”

Books that might have sold between 400 to 600 copies have had thousands of downloads over the years. It’s a way to preserve access to books that are backlisted or out of print, extending the life of the research “by making it free and available around the world.”

Since 2008, three HBI series’ have gradually added titles that are both out of print and still available. To date, there are 94,702 downloads of 18 books in the three HBI series’. That includes 10 titles in the HBI Series on Jewish Women, four in the Brandeis Series on Gender, Culture, Religion and the Law and four in the HBI Translation Series, a series not available in any other format. The titles in the Translation Series were published in their original languages in print form, but only on the BIR in English, making international research not otherwise accessible to English speakers both free and available.

Internal research shows that free downloads often drive sales.  “We know from our experience that people will find the book because of a Google search, but won’t be  happy to just download. They want to read in their armchair and they buy the book if it’s available,” Fuks-Fried said.

Lisa Fishbayn Joffe, HBI Director and co-editor of the Brandeis Series on Gender, Culture, Religion and the Law (with Sylvia Neil) and the HBI Series on Jewish Women (with Sylvia Barack Fishman), said she has received inquiries from Singapore, Malaysia and other countries where the books are not in circulation.

“Over the years, I have been contacted by people who found out about the work of the HBI because the BIR makes this work available, enabling the international reach of both our research and our backlist.”

For example, Gender, Religion, & Family Law: Theorizing Conflicts between Women’s Rights and Cultural Traditions by Lisa Fishbayn Joffe and Sylvia Neil has been downloaded 5,459 times, mostly in the U.S. and U.K., but also Japan, Russia, the Philippines, India, Canada, France and Poland. Shibuya, a part of Tokyo, is one of the top viewing cities.

Two books on menstruation, Women and Water: Menstruation in Jewish Life and Law by Rahel R. Wasserfall and Forsaken: The Menstruant in Medieval Jewish Mysticism by Sharon Faye Koren, account for 22,323 downloads, far more than their press runs or print sales. The downloads are coming from countries all over the world — mostly from Europe, but some in Asia and Australia.

“It’s fascinating to see where they are downloaded,” said Fuks-Fried. “There are many places where libraries can’t afford to buy the books or didn’t buy the books.” She views the BIR as the “gift that keeps on giving,” providing access to Brandeis research all over the world to those who may have no ability to find it or use it.

Joffe agreed. “The BIR makes this available to people who may not have access to a university library. Now, people around the world can get access to HBI books and other Brandeis research. The BIR makes the books and their topics available to a worldwide audience.”

Amy Powell is the assistant director of HBI.

Editor’s note: Converting older books to a format that can be used on the BIR costs about $1000, according to Sylvia Fuks-Fried, editorial director of Brandeis University Press. If anyone is interesting in discussing this opportunity, contact Fuks-Fried at fuks@brandeis.edu.


Sex Trafficking: History Repeating Itself

By Defne Çizakça

In February 2019, the billionaire owner of the New England Patriots and philanthropist, Robert Kraft, was charged with two counts of soliciting prostitution. The alleged crimes occurred in the Jupiter Spa in South Florida. It now seems probable that the Jupiter and related spas were involved in sex trafficking. Ten have been shut down following recent investigations. The controversial nature of the case, and the involvement of several high profile figures, has sparked a new interest in the workings of the sex trade.  

I am currently writing a historical novel that deals with the same topic, albeit in the 19th century. What seems remarkable to me is that the mechanics of sex trafficking have not changed much throughout the years. Today, just as a 100 years ago, predators start by offering women a fresh start. They target those who typically live under difficult circumstances, involving poverty and lack of opportunities. The victims may be promised love or a job, and once they accept the offer, they lose their autonomy. The traffickers take control of their money, papers and means of communication. The women who are displaced become lost to the system. The rest is abuse, and threats to loved ones, for months or years at a time, and forced sexual intercourse with up to 30 clients a day.

We are all familiar with this story, but think that it happens only to strangers, and in far away, exotic locations such as the Far East or the Balkans. What is less known, and has come to attention with the Robert Kraft scandal is that sex trafficking also happens right here in the United States, and frequently it involves American nationals as both perpetrators and victims.

Two recent documentaries should be sufficient to shed light on an industry that averages 9.5 million dollars a year. Netflix is currently airing a documentary, “I am Jane Doe,” that focuses on the American mothers seeking justice for their under age daughters who were sold on Backpage.com, a website that operated as a classified advertising platform. The documentary follows the several court cases opened against Backpage by the victim’s families. Years of investigations revealed that Backpage provided guidelines to their employees on how to edit said advertisements, proving they were aware of, and hence accountable for, the illegal activities the site hosted. Words that explicitly offered sexual services in return for money were routinely erased, for example. If the announcements in question were for children, and included key terms such as “little girl,” or “amber alert,” Backpage deleted the evidence so as to veil illegal activity. Despite ample evidence, Backpage won many cases in court. The reason therefore was section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, according to which online service providers cannot be held accountable for third-party content. The abuse of section 230 thus became a contested issue, and a new legislation that limited its use was passed in August 2017, amid opposition from internet giants such as Google. Following the changes in law, the police shut down Backpage on April 6, 2018. A 93-count criminal indictment was filed against Jim Larkin, Michael Lacey and five other Backpage executives, all of whom pleaded not guilty. The trial is scheduled for January 15, 2020.

Another recent investigation conducted by The Guardian concerns the way US prisons have become popular recruiting grounds for sex traffickers. Through interviews with prostitutes and pimps, we learn how easy it is to access information about incarcerated women through government websites, which freely provide mugshots, charge sheets and release dates to the public. The traffickers can thus pick and choose their victims from the comfort of their homes. They then groom them through affectionate letters, money and goods sent through the prison system. Upon release, the women are controlled by violence and drugs and forced to prostitute themselves. Any money they earn goes to their traffickers.

Many may argue that these cases are extreme, that we are all on the same page when it comes to sex trafficking: it is immoral and exploitative. But prostitution seems less straightforward. Can we really blame men like Robert Kraft who may think they are paying for the services of a consenting adult? What about women who freely choose the profession?

Feminism is divided on the issue. The question of whether prostitution is work, violence or both is far from clear. There are opposing camps. Some believe prostitution is never entirely consensual due to the inherent patriarchy of our society. Hence it is never a profession, but gender based violence. They call for the abolition of the sex trade entirely. Whereas others suggest a woman can freely choose prostitution or other forms of sex work as a form of employment and demand the decriminalization and/or regulation of the sex industry.

Perhaps the most sensible strategy is to listen to the prostitutes themselves. In “A Feminist Discourse Analysis of Sex ‘Work’,” Ann Weatherall and Anna Priestly interviewed some women for who felt less like victims and more like they were taking control of their lives when they engaged in sex work. Personally, I have found the testimonies of Rachel Moran, and Nikki Bell eye opening. Both women, incidentally, are in the abolitionist camp. Moran suggests that all prostitutes must disassociate from their bodies in order to work, and that the necessary habit leads to mental health issues, as well as prevalent alcohol and drug abuse in the community.

For Nikki Bell, the discussion about trafficked vs. not trafficked is a distinction without a difference. In her experience, money does not equal consent; it is still unwanted sex. She teaches a re-education course to offenders and tells them, “You are putting your wants above a very damaged human being. I hope, at least, that I have ruined your ‘Pretty Woman’ fantasy, and for those who don’t care, just know that every woman who gets in your car is disgusted by you.”

It seems that, as feminists, we must ponder these questions further, listening to both sides of the debate. But the most urgent step remains familiarizing men with the narratives of prostitutes. Can johns really be sure that the women they are paying are involved in decent work, as defined by the International Labour Organization? And if not, is the risk of abuse really worth taking?

Defne Çizakça is a Helen Gartner Hammer Scholar-in-Residence at HBI and is a writer, editor and lecturer. She is working on a historical novel about Jewish women who were trafficked from the Pale of Settlement to the port cities of Buenos Aires, Thessaloniki and her native Istanbul.

Customize Your Seder and Raise a Glass to Mrs. Cowen

By Amy Powell

The profusion of haggadot designed to create different sorts of experiences for Passover owes a debt of gratitude to Mrs. Lillian Cowen who, in 1904, became the first woman to translate a haggadah into English and to create a seder guide that offered some flexibility.

In addition to useful tools such as better translations, improved graphics, learned notes, music and illustrations, Mrs. Cowen’s haggadah had notes on what was essential and what might be skipped. She explains in the preface that she was motivated, in part, by the ways in which the blunders, typos and poor grammar inspired giggles during the seder. She sought to create a haggadah that would be read with interest and respect, but also by a wide spectrum of Jews, according to Professor Jonathan Sarna, University Professor, Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, who recently gave a talk titled, Next Year in Jerusalem in Contemporary American Haggadot.

Mrs. Cowen was onto something. Her haggadah became the most popular in the U.S. and by 1935, had distributed 295,000 copies.  As such she may have unknowingly given birth to a great tradition of diverse and special interest haggadot that we are fortunate to enjoy today.

Another haggadah that has been around for a while, since 1932 and with more than 50 million copies in print, the Maxwell House Haggadah, had shown some willingness to abandon it’s fusty image and have a bit of fun. This year, they tapped into the popular culture by issuing Midge’s Haggadah. It’s pale pink and from “1958” and adapted as the version used by the fictional Midge Maisel of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel show on Amazon. It’s available free with a purchase of Maxwell House coffee, kosher for Passover, of course. In 2011, the Maxwell House Haggadah, adopted some gender-neutral language. Rather than calling G-d a king, they used “monarch,” and changed the four sons to the four “children.”

Today, there are so many varied haggadot with more profound changes relating to gender than simply adopting gender-neutral language or adding a pink cover. Haggadot exist for a spectrum of observances, age groups and personal preferences, many with updated themes of freedom, plagues, renewal and more.

For those searching for readings and themes — and perhaps not ready to invest in new haggadot — there are many downloadable versions. HBI has compiled a few tools to help you design your own seder with an eye to HBI’s mission of developing fresh ideas about Jews and gender.

For example, JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, compiled numerous  Pesach Divrei Torah, described as “by women, for all,” in a 32-page free download titled Shema Bekolah, Hear Her Voice. This year, Kveller, a website devoted to ideas for first-time parents, interfaith parents, queer parents, adoptive parents, and everything in between” published a Haggadah for “curious kids and their grown-ups” available as a free download.  Also new to the market is the Emoji Haggadah with no words at all, but instead described as “hieroglyphics of the 21st century.”

For those who prefer a DIY version, there are resources. JewishBoston.com and The Wandering is Over Haggadah: A Seder For Everyone, has a free and downloadable, contemporary and customizable haggadot. Here, you will find readings and options on anti-Semitism, mental health, immigration, feminism, labor rights, social justice, climate change, racial justice, inclusion, Israel, LGBTQ liberation and more. The contributors include The Jewish Climate Action Network (JCAN), JCRC, ADL, Ruderman Foundation, Jewish Family & Children’s Services, Emilia Diamant, JewishBoston.com, New England Jewish Labor Committee and others.

Haggadot.com has a tool called Let’s Make Your Passover Haggadah Together, with a platform that allows you to create a custom seder, using content aggregated from more than 150 individuals, artists and 13 organizations. These can be tailored and either downloaded or printed for your seder.

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, known as the “Velveteen Rabbi,” created a downloadable haggadah, the Velveteen Rabbi’s Haggadah for Pesach, out of her desire for a seder text which cherishes “the tradition and also augments that tradition with contemporary poetry, moments of mindfulness, a theology of liberation, and sensitivity to different forms of oppression.”

Jewish Family & Children’s Services released two downloadable haggadot related to healing and wholeness: the Chaverim Shel Shalom Haggadah and the Betty Ann Greenbaum Miller Center for Jewish Healing Friendly Visitor Passover Seder.

As the four children in the haggadah remind us, it’s important to have a multitude of voices around the table asking questions and heightening our awareness of what the holiday means. For, this we may need to raise a fifth cup of wine to Mrs. Lillian Cowen.

Amy Powell is the assistant director of HBI.


Female Public Figures Claim their Voices in the Israeli Political Sphere

By Tally Kritzman Amir

The Israeli political realm is gearing up for elections, and some of the voices that dominate the public sphere are women, but not in the ways they have in the past. This year, the traditional roles of models, actresses and politicians seem both blurred and upended.

Recently model, actress and attorney Rotem Sela responded after watching a television interview where Rina Matzliah, the news anchor, questioned Miri Regev, the minister of cultural affairs. During the interview, Regev commented about the possibility of Palestinian Israelis sitting in the coalition after the elections, rather than in the opposition, where they are now, suggesting an inherent problem. The silence of Matzliah, the anchor, prompted Rotem Sela to respond on Instagram: “What is the problem with the Arabs??? Dear god, there are also Arab citizens in this country. When the hell will someone in this government convey to the public that Israel is a state of all its citizens and that all people were created equal, and that even the Arabs and the Druze and the LGBTs and — shock — the leftists are human.”

The post attracted a response, condemning her civic egalitarian position from Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu and from Regev. Netanyahu responded on Facebook, in a tone some viewed as a “mansplanation.” He wrote, “an important correction: Israel is not a country of all its citizens. According to the Nation-State Law that we passed, Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish nation – and its alone.”

Sela, however, received strong support from other female models, actresses and artists, including Gal Gadot, the actress who played “Wonder Woman,” Yael Abekasis, an actress and model, Oshrat Kotler, a news anchor, Shlomit Malka, a model and others.

The trend surprised some who tend to see models as apolitical and focused on appearance. But, in the recent political climate, models and women in the entertainment business are claiming space in the public sphere, using their platforms and public following to start controversial and politicized discussions on national identity, while enduring the harsh critique with mutual support and “sisterhood.”

The trend stands in sharp contrast to the ways that women’s presence in the public sphere has been compromised in Israel. Billboards depicting women in all sectors including fashion, politics and entertainment have been defaced. Some municipalities banned billboards showing women, a policy that was enjoined by the Israeli Supreme Court. There are fewer female candidates in the political parties in this year’s elections. This recent effort of women in the entertainment business to reclaim the space and regain a voice stands in sharp contrast to the effort to marginalize women in the public sphere, and is perhaps the backlash of this effort. It is also an effort for them to break a “glass ceiling” and be more than models, actresses, entertainers, using the public attention they draw for political purposes.

At the same time that models and actresses are exercising their political speech, female political leaders are depoliticizing their campaigns. Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked launched a provocative (and disturbing) campaign video on erev Purim, in which she uses her appearance in what seems like an attempt to promote a “perfume” called “Fascism,” while in the process promoting her political agenda about restraining the power of the Israeli Court and increasing governmentality. Minister Regev initiated an event on Israeli fashion as the main celebration of the International Women’s Day, to which she appeared in a designer dress. So while the “models” are more “political,” the “politicians” are more “model-like,” assuming stereotypical gender roles and focusing attention on their physical bodies and sexuality even when present and active in the public sphere.

Perhaps this trend stems from the fact that the political realm is so performative these days. The prominence of social media, a realm that falls on the boundary between the private and public sphere, allows women’s voices to be heard. The lines between public affairs and show business, between appearance and substance are so blurred, that performance is necessary for anyone’s message to be heard by the public. This brings out the politician in some female models, and the model in some politicians. The impact of these socially visible acts of women on the Israeli politics still remains to be seen.

Dr. Tally Kritzman-Amir is an Israel Institute Visiting Associate Professor, Harvard Department of Sociology, and a Senior Lecturer at the College of Law and Business, Israel. She is a 2018 GCRL Scholar-in-Residence at the HBI.


When Divorce is a Mitzvah

By Layah Lipsker

Getting married under a chuppah is a beloved Jewish ritual, often paired with a festive hora. It is a mitzvah performed with much joy.  Sadly, some marriages will end in divorce. There is a mitzvah associated with divorce too, but less well known, and obviously not widely celebrated.  But maybe it should be. The ritual around Jewish divorce, the giving and receiving of a get, is a mitzvah that can bring spiritual closure and remind us of one of the sacred themes of Judaism, the gift of autonomous choice and personal freedom.

We tend to think of mitzvot as happy occasions or spiritual highs.  But the word mitzvah does not mean good deed, it means commandment. A mitzvah is an opportunity to infuse life’s mundane and important moments with transcendence.  A mitzvah is a reminder that spiritual intent and meaning can inform every part of our lives, in joyous times and in challenging times. According to Kabbalah, Judaism’s rituals around death and mourning help ease the transition of the soul to its next phase, and bring comfort to the mourners.  In the same way, the mitzvah of giving and receiving a get can bring comfort and help ease this painful time of transition. The words said during the get process can be healing, as they explicitly release the couple from the vows of marriage and pronounce them available to new relationships.

In my work as director of the Boston Agunah Taskforce, I have seen women, from every background and affiliation, face a recalcitrant spouse who uses the Get to inflict pain, retain control, or negotiate a better settlement.  For five years, we have advised hundreds of women; through accompaniment to the Boston Rabbinical Court, in person and by phone, and through questions posted anonymously on our support site, getyourget.com.

Unlike a long drawn out civil process, the get process is usually quick and can bring some measure of closure at a very challenging time. Sadly, many men and women are denied the opportunity to perform this mitzvah and move on with their lives.  Get abuse, a Jewish form of domestic violence, is often part of a pattern of abuse and control that begins soon after the wedding.

Since the Taskforce was formed, as a project of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute Project on Gender, Culture, Religion and the Law, we have learned a lot about get abuse.  Contrary to the prevailing myth, get abuse is not only an Orthodox problem and women are not the only victims. Both men and women can suffer from Get abuse, although the consequences for women are much worse under Jewish law.  Get abuse is prevalent throughout our Jewish community, as either party may seek the spiritual closure a get can provide for various reasons.

But the most important thing we have learned is that couples often get bad advice about when to obtain a get.  Less religious couples tend to worry about the get only after their civil divorce is finalized. More religious couples are often told that they cannot begin their civil proceedings until after resolution in a Rabbinical court.  Both are mistaken. “GetReady” is a groundbreaking initiative of the Taskforce, encouraging couples to link the get to their civil divorce, by inserting a legal clause that helps ensure Get compliance.  The reason is simple. Rabbinical courts, outside of Israel, do not have the power to compel either party to participate in the Get process. Through legal education and public awareness, we hope to make this legal clause standard in every Jewish divorce.  In our experience, including language about the get at the beginning of a divorce negotiation, reduces the possibility of using it as a negotiating tool when tensions worsen.

Rebecca is one women who was helped through the Taskforce.  She was married for 11 years and has three beautiful boys. She suffered neglect and verbal abuse, beginning with her first pregnancy.  When she finally had the emotional and financial capacity to leave, her husband swore that he would never give her a Get, thus preventing her from ever remarrying under Jewish law.   Rebecca believed her community rabbis would find a way to free her, especially after she gave them evidence of serial affairs. Sadly, it’s been three years since the separation, and she is still an “agunah,” a woman chained to a marriage that is over while she is unable to move forward with her life.  When we met Rebecca, she had seen many rabbis, but had not filed for divorce or contacted a lawyer. We advised her to file and to include the GetReady clause. For the first time, Rebecca sees a path to a new life, and her husband has agreed in writing to giving the Get.

Sometimes divorce is a mitzvah, and our Jewish community needs to help ensure that this spiritual closure is available to every man and woman who wants it.  On March 20th, we will mark International Agunah Day. It’s time to end get abuse and make the GetReady clause standard for every divorcing Jewish couple. If you know of someone thinking about divorce, please point them to our website, getyourget.com, for more information on GetReady, or to ask a question to one of our get consultants.

Layah Lipsker is the director of the Boston Agunah Task Force, a project of HBI.

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