November 19, 2019

Ending Gendered Hebrew, Expanding Jewish Identity

By Rachel Levy

In the Fall of 2017, Eyal Rivlin—an Israeli born Hebrew professor at Colorado University at Boulder—received an email from a student asking to matriculate into a Hebrew class. At the bottom of the student’s email, in the signature line, Rivlin noticed “they/them” pronouns, indicating that Lior Gross, his new student, did not identify within the gender binary. In Hebrew, nearly all words are conjugated in a feminine or masculine form, depending on the gender of the speaker. Unlike in English, where “they/them” is gender neutral, Hebrew has a masculine “they”—אתםֹ—and a feminine “they”—אתן, leaving no pronoun option for Hebrew speakers who identify outside of the gender binary. 

“There’s a need that hasn’t been met because of the belief that it cannot be done,” said Rivlin, who consulted with colleagues in Israel on the best way to include Gross in Hebrew class. Some colleagues suggested that Rivlin’s student could switch off from male conjugations to female conjugations every other sentence, while another recommended that the student speak with the gender they were assigned at birth. The responses from his colleagues reiterated the problem; everyone was seeing the need, but no one had a solution that truly honored individuals who identified outside of the gender binary. “I figured either we do what’s done in Israel or create a new way to evolve the language,” said Rivlin. Ultimately he responded to Lior’s email saying, “‘How do you want to do this in Hebrew?’”

“I loved how excited he was to be an ally to non binary people,” said Gross. “When we began working together, I naively thought this was a little thing that we were doing so I could participate in Hebrew class. It wasn’t our intention to lead a large revolution.” 

But, it became clear that the Hebrew language was in dire need of exactly that. After a year of using Rivlin’s Hebrew classroom to experiment with different conjugations and grammatical structures, Rivlin and Gross officially launched the Nonbinary Hebrew Project in October 2018. Throughout the process, they received overwhelming support from the CU Boulder faculty and Program in Jewish Studies. It was quickly shared by Svara—a traditionally radical Yeshiva that organizes Queer Talmud Camp that Gross has attended for multiple summers—and it went viral.

“We were going for a structure that holds both masculine and feminine,” said Rivlin about the new structure, “something that would feel organic to Hebrew so it wouldn’t create a sense of alienation or foreignness.” The current grammar and systematics of Nonbinary Hebrew can be found on their website which labels this linguistic addition “a tool for that liberation.” 

In addition to the liberation that it offers Hebrew speaking members of the gender-queer community, nonbinary Hebrew has promising implications for everyone. Currently, there is a rule in Hebrew stating that groups should be addressed in the masculine plural if at least one male is present. Many feminists have pointed to the default masculine “as problematic,” said Rivlin, noting that nonbinary Hebrew could instead be used “to address large groups,” and even change “the way that Knesset meetings are held.” 

Habonim Dror North American (HDNA), a Labor Zionist youth movement is another community that is tackling the issue of binary pronouns in Hebrew. In 2015, they passed a proposal called “Revolutionizing the Hebrew Language” at their biennial Veida. Gross was a camper for seven summers at Habonim Dror’s Camp Moshava, and was a mentor to the camper who spearheaded this change.

HDNA’s version of nonbinary Hebrew differs from Rivlin and Gross’ in the way that they conjugate singular pronouns, but “works really well in HDNA settings” according to Gross, who “used the work that they had done as precedent.” 

During the summer of 2019, Gross attended a workshop on nonbinary Hebrew hosted by This is Not an Ulpan, a Hebrew and Arabic learning educational project in Israel. “It’s really important to have an Israel based team and a diaspora based team to address the different needs for Hebrew use,” said Gross. While the Nonbinary Hebrew Project has gained some traction in the United States, movement has been slower in Israel. 

The Academy of Hebrew, the authority on how Hebrew is used in Israeli governmental agencies, plays a major role in creating precedent for changes made to the language. Rivlin said that when the Academy heard of his and Gross’ efforts, the response was that it was “too complicated” and “could not be done.”

Others share these concerns as well. Dr. Joanna Caravita, a professor, researcher, and scholar of Hebrew at the Five College Consortium (Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke and Smith Colleges and the University of Massachusetts Amherst) sympathizes with the Academy’s resistance to Nonbinary Hebrew, saying “Pronouns are so basic and essential that they are so hard to change.” Caravita wrote her M.A. thesis on the modernization of Hebrew and Arabic, and specifically on the priorities of the people who were doing it. She noted in an interview, “Language is social and that’s one of the concerns that I have with the Nonbinary Hebrew Project, that it has to be more widely accepted and used by a social group before it can be really enacted.”

When asked about those who might be wary of nonbinary Hebrew, Gross said that they understand where it comes from, “As a people who carry a lot of fear around change because of our trauma, it makes a lot of sense why there is a lot of skepticism,” but they also see the advantage of acting. “This is a big chance to take a leap of faith and say that this is something that needs to change.”

Rivlin added, “This is about adding another option for those who need it. It’s not for tables and chairs (which also take on gendered adjectives in Hebrew), it’s for people — to give them more of a place in the community and to expand the tent to say ‘you’re welcome here’ by using language that honors that.”

Gross graduated from CU Boulder in December of 2018 with a masters in ecology. Since graduating, they have spent time in both Israel and the United States, “following up on all my passions at the same time.” These passions range from Svara’s Queer Talmud Camp to researching soil and farming in Israel to maintaining the Nonbinary Hebrew Project’s website and continuing to improve upon it with their mentor and life long friend, Professor Rivlin.

The work that Rivlin and Gross have done with the Nonbinary Hebrew Project has been expansive for nonbinary folk in finding their voice in Hebrew and in the Jewish community. While both commented on the project’s incompleteness, it is obvious that their “chutzpah” has opened a long overdue dialogue on the topic of gender inclusivity in Judaism. Rivlin reminded us that Hebrew, like all languages, constantly evolves. He and Lior see the Nonbinary Hebrew Project as the next step in the Hebrew Language’s evolutionary journey. 

Rachel Levy is a rising senior at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor and a HBI Gilda Slifka summer intern


Never Again Para Nadie

By Rachel Levy

Growing up, I remember waiting on two important talks from my parents: the sex talk and the Holocaust talk.

I had heard vaguely of both, but only understood them as topics that I would learn more about when I was mature enough to understand their magnitude. When the sex talk finally did happen it was short, uninspiring, and I quickly repressed it. However, when I got the Holocaust talk—or talks, as they more realistically were—I felt as if I was being handed down a powerful legacy that came with the responsibility to always remember and never forget.

The Holocaust talks began with stories and trinkets from my grandmother who was fortunate enough to immigrate to the United States from France in the 1940s. We would sit on the couch of her home in Long Island and leaf through a scrapbook full of photographs, papers, and notes that represented the childhood she never got to have and the family members that I would never have the chance to meet.  My formal Holocaust education began in the 7th grade when my Jewish day school and Temple Sunday school individually determined that 12 years old was mature enough to understand its magnitude.

My peers and I collectively shuddered at The Boy In The Striped Pajamas, held our breath for Anne Frank and her family as we read excerpts from her diary and applauded each and every Holocaust survivor that visited us during that year. The following year, my 8th grade class and I visited Yad Vashem in Israel, and as I matured, my understanding of the Holocaust expanded and deepened.

I believe that the goal of all of these Holocaust talks was to foster Jewish trauma so that we could harness it for the power of good. I thought that when we were learning about the Nazi Regime and the rise of a ruthless dictator, that our lesson was to be wary of certain strains of charisma in leadership; when we learned about the yellow stars that Jews were made to wear, I thought that our lesson was that differences between humans can be wielded to create fear and separation and when I learned about the concentration camps, I thought that the lesson was that all humans deserve to be treated with dignity.

My Holocaust education was important because it gave me a litmus test by which to recognize injustice: Are my leaders concealing evil behind charisma? Is difference being constructed in a way that disenfranchises people and creates inequality? Are humans being treated with dignity? 

On July 2, I marched in protest with 1,000 other Jewish activists to let ICE know that it does not pass my litmus test. We marched together to clarify for members of the Jewish community and all people who are following this discourse that “concentration camp” and “never again” need to be recognizable beyond the context of the Holocaust. We marched together to honor the memory of the Holocaust by calling out injustice and taking action to prevent a similar atrocity from occurring again.

Frankly, what I view as significant and scary is that the people who helped design my Holocaust and Jewish education curriculums are too preoccupied with prioritizing and sanctifying their own trauma to recognize it when it happens to other groups. The divisiveness in the Jewish community over the comparison of the U.S. detention centers to the concentration camps of the Holocaust has become a distraction from acknowledging the blatant disregard for human dignity. 

One of the most poignant and effective quotes from the Holocaust is this, “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.” (Martin Niemöller)

Never Again means Never Again for anyone.

Rachel Levy is a rising senior at University of Michigan Ann Arbor and a HBI Gilda Slifka summer intern


Meet the 2019 HBI Gilda Slifka Interns

By Rachel Levy

Karolina Kusto (she/hers) is a graduate student at the University of Warsaw, where she is pursuing a Masters in American Studies. For her undergraduate thesis, Kusto wrote about Assimilation in America in the 1960s, and since then, her interest in American Jewishness has grown. This summer, Kusto will be working with Laura Jockusch, Albert Abramson Assistant Professor of Holocaust Studies at Brandeis, who is doing research on the Trials of Stella Goldschlag, a Jewish informant for the Gestapo during the Holocaust. In addition to her work with Professor Jockusch, Kusto will be pursuing her own research on the re-appropriation of Jewish gender stereotypes—particularly JAPs and Jewish mothers—through the popular television shows, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. While Kusto is neither American nor Jewish, she is looking forward to learning more about American Jewish culture from her fellow interns and is excited to explore Massachusetts. 

Rachel Levy (she/hers) is a rising senior at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor where she is majoring in Sociology, with a concentration in Health and Medicine, and minoring in Judaic Studies. She will be working with Amy Powell, HBI’s Assistant Director and blogging on HBI’s Fresh Ideas Blog about contemporary issues involving Jewishness and gender. Levy is interested in learning more about how to make Jewish spaces more accessible and inclusive for people of all genders, and for her independent research project she will be studying how Hillels across the United States create opportunities for Jewish students to engage with their gender identities in Jewish ways. She is excited to gain experience doing research in the Jewish social sciences and to meet and learn with the scholars at HBI. 

Sarah Mandelblatt (she/hers) is a recent graduate from Boston College where she received a BA in English, concentrating on Creative Writing, and supplemented her degree with coursework in Biology and Classics. This summer, she will be working with Brandeis WSRC Scholar Janet Freedman to study the use and abuse of language in social justice movements through Freedman’s ongoing research project, The Words to Say It. Mandelblatt loves to explore her identity with a pen and paper. During her time as a Gilda Slifka intern, she is planning to produce a series of creative short stories that discuss the varying narratives of what it means to be a Jewish woman. As a native Pittsburghian, Mandelblatt has found herself contemplating her Jewishness in new ways after the October shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue and hopes to continue to learn more about her Jewish identity through her time at HBI.

Sara Marcus (she/hers) is a recent graduate from Yeshiva University where she earned degrees in English and Communications. During her time at HBI, Marcus will be assisting Shayna Weiss, the Associate Director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies with researching the spatial imposition of Orthodox Jewish norms in non-religious spaces in Israel. Additionally, Marcus is looking forward to researching how power is maintained and held by religious women in conservative communities. Her research may include—but is not limited to—an analysis of the roles of Chasidic rebetzens and prominent female religious scholars in medieval ages. She is excited to learn more about Judaism, womanhood and their intersection this summer; both from scholars as well as her peers.

Leah Trachtenberg (she/hers) is a rising Junior at Brandeis University where she studies Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and minors in Social Justice/Social Policy and Women and Gender Studies. This summer, she will be assisting Brandeis WSRC Scholar Penina Adelman in researching the story of Eve for her fictionalized family memoir, Rebels in the Family. Additionally, Trachtenberg will be working on her own research; comparing Isaac Bashevis Singer’s folktales to his stories published in Playboy magazine. She hopes to uncover the ways in which Bashevis Singer’s portrayal and perspective on sexuality differ between these two works.

Lily Schmidt Swartz (she/hers) is a rising senior at Brandeis University where she is majoring in Politics and Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, and minoring in Business. Swartz is originally from Los Angeles and attended an all girls Orthodox day school which informs her independent study project for this summer. Her research will revolve around the ways in which the Orthodox community manages and supports victims of pre-marital sexual abuse and assault, and whether or not there can be improvements made to the system. Additionally, she will be working with retired HBI co-director and NEJS Professor Sylvia Barack Fishman on a new project where she is analyzing relationships between Jews of Israel and the Diaspora. Swartz is a former student of Professor Fishman and took her class in “Sociology of the American Jewish Community.” She is excited to continue learning with her this summer. 

Shaina Kaye (she/hers) is studying Social Sciences at Delgado Community College in Louisiana and is considering pursuing a BA in Psychology. This summer at Brandeis, she is working with HBI director Lisa Fishbayn Joffe on a new project that is focused on women who choose to leave cultural minority communities and the pathways that they take to do so. In a similar vein, Kaye will also be working on her own to create a community chapbook—a pamphlet of stories—about her journey as a Queer and Orthodox Jewish woman to discover her sexuality beyond the norms and expectations that her community placed on her. She hopes that this chapbook will help other young women who are on similar paths of discovery in realizing that there is no “right” way to have a relationship with one’s body. Kaye is excited to build relationships with her fellow interns this summer who are similarly committed to answering questions of self and purpose.

Eliana Padwa (she/hers) is a rising junior at Brandeis University where she studies History and Teacher Education. Padwa hopes to become a history teacher for middle or high school aged students, and her passion for education is reflected in her research placement this summer. She will work with Jonathan Krasner, the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Associate Professor of Jewish Education Research at Brandeis on his oral history project that focuses on the experiences of women teachers in Jewish day schools from past to present. Padwa is excited to learn about the social science research process and to improve her interview and oral history skills. Additionally, she will be researching Jewish academic journals and examining how women have been represented by them over time. On campus, Eliana helps to publish the Brandeis Judaic Studies Journal, and she hopes that this research will not only enhance her publication knowledge, but also provide some historical context for where women have been and are currently in the Judaic narrative.

Rachel Levy is a rising senior at University of Michigan Ann Arbor and a HBI Gilda Slifka summer intern. 

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


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, 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.

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