November 23, 2020

Jewish Feminism: From Brandeis to the World

By Amy Powell

Rivka Cohen, Naima Hirsch and Alona Weimer’s journey from Orthodox girlhoods where they grew up without discussing bodies and sexuality to editors of a successful book modeled after the Vagina Monologues runs straight through Brandeis. 

In October, HBI hosted these young alumni, along with Jordyn Kaufman, one of the many contributors to Monologues from the Makom: Intertwined Narratives of Sexuality, Gender, Body Image, and Jewish Identity as they read some of the poetry and prose in their book. They shared their stories of exploring Jewish feminism at Brandeis and the ways they found the community they needed to allow these ideas to blossom and grow, enabling them to continue to form this sort of community among other young Jewish observant women after leaving Brandeis. The courageous book they created together continues that work, opening an avenue for ongoing dialogue and the breaking of taboos. Monologues is also edited by Sara Rozner Lawrence, Sarah Ricklan, and Rebecca Zimilover.

Rivka Cohen

I wouldn’t be who I am today or the feminist I am today if it weren’t for Brandeis so it feels really incredible to be back here,” said Cohen ‘17. She pointed to specific things at Brandeis that jumpstarted her journey within Jewish feminism. One pivotal point was becoming a gabbai at the Orthodox minyan. “I understood it to be an inherently feminist role and I fought together with others in the community to increase women’s participation in Orthodox services and in the larger Jewish community.” 

The religious feminist journey continued as she and some of the others in this community ultimately co-founded JFAB, The Jewish Feminist Association at Brandeis, and one of the co-sponsors of the Monologues event at HBI, along with Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, Brandeis University Creative Writing and Brandeis Alumni Association. 

“On a more personal note, my time at Brandeis also intersected with my struggle with my sense of sexuality. I didn’t have much sex ed growing up in the Orthodox community and I even ditched portions of sex ed at the Brandeis orientation because didn’t think it applied to me,” Cohen said. “It was only during my sophomore year, during Vagina Week, which is the week leading up to the Vagina Monologues, that I decided to attend an event with a sexologist who spoke about sex with an openness and positivity I had never heard before. But, I was still deeply entrenched in the Orthodox community. The tension between my feminism and Jewish approaches to sexuality were stark and difficult to navigate.”

Naima Hirsch, now in her first year at Yeshivat Maharat, graduated from Hunter College, but spent three formative summers at Brandeis, two with the high school program BIMA and one in 2018 with HBI in the Gilda Slifka Summer Internship program. 

Naima Hirsch

“When I was an intern at HBI, I wrote a short poetry chapbook called Daughter of the Tribe. The eight weeks that summer was an incredibly formative experience for me both as I explored my identity as a Jewish women, as a feminist, as a writer.  I’m really grateful to HBI for giving me the experience and the language to be here today. I think it’s a big stepping stone for me to be here today,” said Hirsch. 

The pieces they read detailed important turning points in their lives and issues that were hard to discuss in their communities. Jordyn Kaufman’s prose, Built Up Bravery, detailed the awkwardness of getting her period and not discussing it with anyone, even her mother. 

Jordyn Kaufman

Alona Weimer

Weimer ‘18  wrote about “Falling in Love with Tefillin,” as she watched a friend grapple with his own readiness for prayer in the act of wrapping his tefillin. She described the moment later as taking place during a casual shacharit service in the Shapiro Lounge during her time at Brandeis. “To be an observant Jew and a feminist, there is always some grappling with ritual and the embodiment of that ritual. … This project lets us describe and name all the ways we have been grappling with ritual, sexuality and all the ways our bodies interact with Judaism,” Weimer said. 

Rivka Cohen read an excerpt from her prose, “Touching Boy,” and how she broke shomer negiah (the practice of not touching a member of the opposite sex) for the first time. Other themes in the book deal with masturbation, LGBTQ issues, ritual, prayer and a general lack of openness about sexuality. 

The writing draws important connections between tznius (modesty), sex education, and vulnerability to sexual assault, and between emphasis on the body and the silencing of women’s voices, said Lisa Fishbayn Joffe, HBI director.  Some of the themes deal with boundaries and the way that the education they received did not teach some of the writers how to create their own boundaries with regard to consent, she added.

Joffe praised the book for stimulating intergenerational and important conversations around these subjects.  “It has been my pleasure to follow this project from an early stage. I found this work, and the collaborative process for creating it, truly inspiring. This brave collection explores the tension between religious norms and the lived experience of young Jewish women. Through the lens of poetry and prose, contributors engage with the complex impact of gendered codes of modesty on Jewish women from adolescence through to motherhood.  

Amy Powell is the assistant director of HBI. 

Exercise Your Right to Vote

By Lisa Fishbayn Joffe

HBI is proud to be a sponsor of Jewish Women Vote, a program to encourage Jewish women to use the franchise that generations of Jewish women have fought hard to secure for themselves and others; and part of the VoteDeis Campus Coalition, a nonpartisan Brandeis coalition supporting voter registration and voting. 

Jewish women have been part of the ongoing struggle for women’s right to vote in the United States since the turn of the 20th century.  In 1851, Ernestine Rose, a Jewish woman who immigrated to the U.S. after fleeing an arranged marriage and successfully suing her husband for the return of her inheritance, spoke at the Second National Women’s Rights Convention, calling for women to be given full political, social and legal rights. Rose persevered in this work, in the face of antisemitic criticism of her in the popular press and antisemitic hostility towards Judaism in the discourse of the suffrage movement, which identified the Jewish bible and traditions as the source of patriarchal notions of women’s inferiority. When it came time for states to vote on the question of women’s suffrage, historian Pamela Nadell notes that women’s advocacy in their own community meant that men in Jewish neighborhoods turned out en masse to vote in favor of women’s enfranchisement. 

Jewish women’s involvement in this secular struggle was entwined with movements to secure Jewish women’s equality in their Jewish lives as well. Historian Melissa Klapper (2007 HBI Scholar in Residence), notes that Jewish women’s success in securing the right to the secular vote in the U.S. in 1920 gave them the skills and awakened the desire in them to seek greater equality in access to ritual participation, leadership roles and under Jewish law, struggles that continue to this day.

Today, the struggle to vote continues evidenced by long lines, the pandemic, and reports of interference in the election by foreign players. In addition to being part of the Jewish Women Vote coalition, HBI is part of the VoteDeis Campus Coalition, a nonpartisan Brandeis coalition supporting voter registration and voting. That campaign includes a series of videos from members of the Brandeis community. Be inspired by a sampling of the community’s reflections on voting (below), and join Jewish women from across the country to reflect on what this right means to you.

Anita Hill, University Professor of Social Policy, Law, and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies

Early suffragists blame male lawmakers, jurors and judges for the unfettered physical and sexual abuse men wielded against women.

Winning the right to vote for women was their antidote to sexual assault at home, on the streets and in workplaces.

Unfortunately, in their passionate pursuit of personal and political autonomy, few white activists consider how Native, Brown and Black women’s oppression under colonialism, immigration law and slavery figured into the solution suffragist sought.

As we struggle today to eliminate blind spots that have weakened our claim to universal personal and political autonomy, abuses borne by diverse individuals of all genders because of their gender continue at shocking rates.

We can’t wait another one hundred years.

We must use the franchise to ensure both our political and personal equality and we must deploy our votes to enact laws and elect representatives that will, in the words of abolitionist and feminist crusader Sarah Grimke, ‘Get our brethren to take their feet off our necks.’

ChaeRan Freeze, Frances and Max Elkon Chair in Modern Jewish History

As long as I reside on stolen native lands, I vote because I care about Indigenous sovereignty, sacred sites in traditional culture, the epidemic of murdered and missing women and girls, the right of native children to grow up in their own communities, and environmental rights.

I am painfully aware that this country has long suppressed Indigenous vote and political participation even as native matrilineal traditions inspired the white suffragists and their struggle for the 19th Amendment a century ago.

The fight for the right to vote is still unfinished.

For me voting, is a powerful way to protect the lands and lives of the very people in whose homelands I dwell as a guest.”

 MJ Ibrahim, ’23, MLK Scholar at Brandeis University

Now even though I myself am not eligible to vote as I’m not a US citizen or permanent resident,this election cycle will dictate whether or not my family and I will remain in the United States and continue the life we’ve been building over the past five years or we would be deported back to Iraq where we are going to be facing persecution and potential execution due to ethnic and religious clashes as well as political instability.

Sabine von Mering, Professor of German and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (dressed as a polar bear)

Hi! I’m Sabine von Mering. I’m a professor at Brandeis and also a climate activist and here is why I vote.

First of all, elections are decided by those who vote.

Secondly, I’m a naturalized citizen in the United States and I still remember what it was like when I didn’t have the right to vote so to me voting is a privilege that I take very seriously.

And finally, as a climate activist I understand that I can do a lot to address the climate crisis.

I can reduce my carbon footprint. I can put solar panels on my roof. I can drive a tiny electric car and go vegan, but ultimately the big decisions are made by the people we elect.


Lisa Fishbayn Joffe is the Shulamit Reinharz Director of HBI. 

Jewish Women vote, presented Friday, October 16 at 3:30 p.m. EDT, features Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, Rabbi Sandra Lawson, Rabbi Mira Rivera, Abby Stein, And Rabbi Isaama Goldstein Stoll, is a nonpartisan, pluralistic celebration of Shabbat and voting. Register today!

Jewish Women Vote is presented by the National Council of Jewish Women, Hadassah, and Jewish Women International and co-sponsored by Alpha Epsilon Phi, B’nai B’rith Girls, Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, Jewish Women’s Archive, Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York, Jewish Women’s Funding Network, Keshet, Lilith Magazine, NA’AMAT USA, Sigma Delta Tau, Women of Reform Judaism, Women’s League for Conservative Judaism, and Women’s Rabbinic Network.





Welcoming a New Year from HBI

Shana Tova from Our Director

By Lisa Fishbayn Joffe

As we head into a new academic year and a new year on the Jewish calendar, HBI wishes you a year of good health, warm relationships and meaningful engagement with stimulating new ideas. 

Through these last difficult months, HBI has created new ways to connect and support scholarship at the intersection of Jewish Studies and Gender Studies by taking our programs online. We’ve hosted Virtual Conversations of novels and memoirs by Jewish women, opened our Institute Seminar to guests from all over the world, and hosted visiting scholars and research associates in our virtual institute.

When the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic made a residential program on the Brandeis campus impossible, HBI saw an opportunity to transform the Gilda Slifka Summer Internship Program  into a virtual experience. Students, faculty and staff worked to create a new model that allowed our student interns from Brandeis and across North America to learn about Jewish Women’s and Gender Studies, make important connections to our faculty, guest lecturers, and each other, and to produce excellent work. Here is what one of our interns said:

“I do not exaggerate when I say that this summer changed my life and completely transformed the ways that I relate to my Judaism. I know with certainty that my future as a Jewish woman would look very different had I not had the opportunity to meet so many incredible people and pursue such exciting opportunities through the HBI… From thinking critically about my relationship to traditional liturgy and ancient texts to engaging in dynamic conversations on Jewish history and the challenges that await modern Jewish feminists, I can clearly picture now what a Jewish feminist future could look like and what my role is in shaping it.”

We welcome you to join us and explore what new scholarship about Jewish Women’s and Gender Studies can mean in your life by registering for our exciting program of fall events.

Some highlights include:

HBI is proud to host a book launch of Monologues from the Makom: Intertwined Narratives of Sexuality, Gender, Body Image, and Jewish Identity (Ben Yehuda Press, 2020), featuring original work from young Orthodox women in the spirit of The Vagina Monologues, edited and written by a team which includes former HBI interns and students.

In the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, join us and poet and liturgist Marcia Falk, for a reading from her book The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season (HBI Series on Jewish Women for Brandeis University Press, 2014)

Be Well and Shana Tova v’Metukah.

Lisa Fishbayn Joffe is the Shulamit Reinharz Director of HBI. 


Opening the Heart for Rosh Hashana with Marcia Falk’s Prayers

Editor’s Note: On Wednesday, Sept. 23 Marcia Falk will discuss and read from her book, The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season, published in the HBI Series on Jewish Women. The session is designed for those seeking to connect more deeply with their Judaism, and for all those in search of a contemplative approach to these challenging times. Register or learn more here

Here are reprints of five prayers from Falk’s high holiday liturgy, taken from  The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season.


Opening the Heart

Opening the Heart At the year’s turn, 

in the days between, 


we step away from what we know into the spaces we cannot yet name. 


Slowly the edges begin to yield, the hard places soften,

the gate to forgiveness opens.



We use it—wisely or not. We fill it and mark it. We try to stop it,

but there is no end to it. And yet, we never have enough. 


It is a circle, and it is a line. Moving forward, day by day,

year by year, we come round and round again. Again the 

spring, again the fall—but every leaf a new one, every fall

a new shape falling. 


Always starting, never finished, we live always in the



No time, we say, we have no time. Yet we have all the time in the world. 

And there is no time like now.


Kol Nidrey: All Vows

All vows— all promises and pledges—


that we have made to ourselves 

and that no longer serve

 for the good—


 may their grip be loosened


that we be present of mind and heart

to the urgency of the hour. 


Beneath Shekhinah’s Wings (during Yizkor service)

Like an eagle stirring its nest, hovering over its young, taking them up on widespread wings, lifting them to its breast. —Deuteronomy 32:11 

She hovers over us, 

her fledglings— 


the bereaved, 

the brokenhearted— 


lifts us to her, 

takes our sorrow. 


In the depth of her shade: 


Kaddish: Beauty of the World 

Praise the world— 

praise its fullness 


and its longing, 

its beauty and its grief. 


Praise stone and fire, 

lilac and river, 


and the solitary bird 

at the window. 


Praise the moment 

when the whole 

bursts through pain 


and the moment

when the whole 

bursts forth in joy. 


Praise the dying beauty 

with all your breath,

and praising, see 


the beauty of the world 

is your own.

The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season (HBI Series on Jewish Women) by Marcia Falk, makes a great holiday gift or addition to your Jewish library. To purchase a personally inscribed copy of the book ahead of the event, please email Marcia Falk with “Purchase Days Between” in the subject line. 

TV Family Tree: The Racial Roots Behind Jewish Media Stereotypes

By Jonathan Branfman

They crack us up, they make us proud, and sometimes they embarrass us: the neurotic Jewish men and domineering Jewish women of American TV evoke complicated feelings for many Jews. From lovably bawdy Jewish women like Fran Drescher and Tiffany Haddish to castrating terrors like Debbie Wolowitz; from cute “nice Jewish boys” like Seth Rogen to emasculated losers like George Costanza; these TV Jews shape how non-Jewish Americans view Jews, and how Jews view ourselves. 

While many American Jews know and love/hate these media stereotypes, most of us don’t know the racial history behind them. Today’s “common-sense” notion that Jewish men are neurotically feminized and that Jewish women are masculinized (aggressive, domineering, sexually overpowering) descends from about eight centuries of racial anti-Semitism. Tracing this history can be tricky because scholars debate when precisely the modern notion of “race” emerged and when it was first applied to Jews. By the fourteenth century, though, European Christian art and writing had begun to depict Jews as bodily different from gentiles, introducing patterns that would later shape anti-Semitic racial pseudo-science…and American TV. By the sixteenth century, this imagery depicted Jews not only with swarthy skin, curly dark hair, and beaked noses, but also with “deviant” Jewish gender and sexuality. For instance, medieval Christian Europeans commonly claimed that Jewish men menstruate as punishment for crucifying Jesus, and that Jews had originated the “sin” of sodomy before spreading it to Muslims and Christians. Centuries later, Nazi propaganda similarly alleged that homosexuality was a “Jewish disease” by which Jews sexually corrupted white Christians. 

Like many generations of one family, stereotypes about deviant Jewish gender have taken different forms and meanings from the 14th century to today, and from Europe to the Americas. But across all these times and places, the notion that Jewish men are emasculated, Jewish women are “too masculinized,” and both are sexually perverse has bolstered the belief that Jewishness is a bodily difference, not only a religious faith. For instance, accusations of abnormal Jewish gender and sexuality were central to 19th and early-20th-century ideologies that cast Jews as a separate race of “Orientals,” “Semites,” “Hebrews,” or “Asiatics.” Although American society largely reimagined Ashkenazi Jews from a separate race to a variety of “white ethnics” in the 1950s, long-rooted ideas about Jewish gender deviance still contribute to the ongoing ambivalence about Jewish racial status. Partly because of these gender and sexual stigmas, the sense lingers that even a Jew whose driver’s license says “white” and who often benefits from white privilege may still not fully “be white,” or at least not so white as other (gentile) white people. 

Today’s Jewish media stereotypes like the aggressive “Jewish American Princess,” overbearing “Jewish mother,” and emasculated “nice Jewish boy” are all variations on this long lineage of anti-Semitic racial-gendered-sexual imagery. This history doesn’t mean that all of today’s TV strong Jewish women and nebbishy men are automatically anti-Semitic images, though some are. Jewish performers—and especially Jewish women comedians—have often harnessed these old gender stigmas to laugh back in the face of anti-Semitism, racism, sexism, and homophobia. The point is rather that today’s American Jews inherit a bundle of gendered and sexual stereotypes without understanding why. Learning the history behind these stigmas can help us all better make sense of the Jewish gender stereotypes that confront us in our homes and on our screens.

It may sound abstract to say that beliefs about Jewish gender, sexuality, and racial status overlap, or that today’s Jewish media stereotypes descend from an eight-hundred-year history. To make these ideas more concrete, an especially clear and hilarious example is the award-winning Comedy Central series Broad City (2014-2019). Broad City stars its co-creators Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer as exaggerated versions of their millennial Jewish selves, enjoying wild romps around New York City. Racial stereotypes about Jewish gender deviance form a vital but little-noticed engine that drives Broad City’s success. From the opening moments of Broad City’s pilot, its protagonists call themselves “Jewesses,” an outdated racial term for Jewish women. While the word “Jewess” might strike many American Jews today as oddly archaic, few now remember its specific gendered and sexual meanings, which play a prominent role in Broad City’s humor. The term “Jewess” and its role on Broad City thus exemplify how American Jews inherit a racial history we don’t recall, and how learning this history can help us to understand ourselves and our media representation. 

By calling themselves “Jewesses,” Broad City’s leading ladies resonate with a once-popular stereotype called “the beautiful Jewess.” The roots of this hypersexual character stretch back to a Spanish folktale from 1292, about a Jewish woman who sexually enthralls a Christian king. By the eighteenth to twentieth centuries, this Jewish female figure evolved into a stock character across British, European, and American literature, art, and media, known variously as the belle juive (French), judía fermosa (Spanish), bella ebrea (Italian), shöne Jüdin (German), and prekrasnaia evreika (Russian). Using her dark Eastern features to titillate white Christian men, the beautiful Jewess combined hypersexuality with exotic racial ambiguity. Beautiful Jewesses often appeared as tragic victims awaiting salvation by white gentile heroes, as in plays like The Merchant of Venice (1596), novels like Ivanhoe (1820), operas like La Juive (1834), and films like Romance of a Jewess (1908). Yet, Jewesses could also be threatening femmes fatales luring Christian men to ruin, just like the biblical Jewess, Judith, who seduces the Assyrian general Holofernes only to behead him. Similar to stigmas on today’s drag queens, the beautiful Jewess stood accused of possessing an exaggerated femininity that was just a deceitful veneer, concealing her true “masculine” sexual aggression. As American society began to envision Ashkenazi Jews as white in the mid-20th-century, though, this racially exotic image of the Jewess was increasingly replaced by tropes of the domineering “Jewish American Princess” or “Jewish mother,” stereotypes that are compatible with viewing Jews as white, but that still imply something physically off about Jews.

Broad City’s millennial leading ladies not only reintroduce the older term “Jewess” to American screens, but also harness the “beautiful Jewess’s” image of deceptive hyperfemininity: they instrumentalize the notion that Jewish women conceal aggressive masculinity beneath seductive, exotic façades. Broad City’s comedic appeal often depends on almost meeting dominant norms of proper, sexy femininity, but then aggressively refusing those norms in order to mock sexism. In the pilot episode, for instance, Ilana tries to make some cash by posting a Craigslist ad for half-naked housekeeping, with the headline, “We’re Just Two Jewesses Tryin’ to Make a Buck.” When she and Abbi get a response, the john tries to worm out of paying them—in other words, he tries to draw free sexual and housekeeping labor from them, as men often expect from women. Instead of accepting this exploitation, the two “Jewesses” ransack his apartment to take payment in clothes and alcohol, pivoting the situation back onto their own terms to get what they want from the john. Throughout Broad City, similar cases of socially critical comedy show Abbi and Ilana riotously refusing to act like “proper ladies,” and laughing at anyone who would pressure them to appear passive, pleasing, or beautiful for men’s enjoyment, while actively reminding the audience that they are “Jewesses.” Perhaps the most spectacular example of this seductive-yet-masculinized “Jewess comedy” comes in the episode “Knockoffs,” when Abbi straps on a dildo to peg (anally penetrate) her male partner, and then brings the dildo to Ilana’s grandmother’s shiva, where the sex toy sparks an unexpected lesson for the older Jewish guests about pegging and about questioning gender stereotypes. This storyline actively links Abbi’s gender transgressions with her Jewishness, as multiple characters describe her as a “Jewess” throughout the episode. And with her strap-on, this “Jewess” flips dominant gender expectations in her own bed while encouraging other women to do the same.  It is precisely this kind of socially critical comedy that has won Broad City such an impassioned fandom and feminist acclaim.

By revamping anti-Semitic “Jewess” stereotypes to mock American sexism on 21st-century TV, Broad City exemplifies how very old racial, gendered, and sexual ideas about Jews continue to shape present-day pop culture. If you’d like to learn more about these histories and how they structure American media, the reading list below offers a great starting point. Whether we know these histories or not, they powerfully shape our lives today. 

Jonathan Branfman is an HBI Scholar in residence and a visiting professor of English and Jewish Studies at Cornell University. 

Read Topic of the Week for additional resources and readings. 

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