March 23, 2018

Humility as an Intersectional Practice

Editor’s Note: Judith Rosenbaum is the executive director of the Jewish Women’s Archive and a member of HBI’s study group “Dialogues on Feminism, Anti-Zionism and Anti-Semitism.” The group discussed many of the issues of this blog in the March 14th session.

Reprinted with permission from the Jewish Women’s Archive. You can read the original article in its entirety here.

L-R: HBI Director Lisa Joffe, JWA Executive Director Judith Rosenbaum, WSRC Scholar Ruth Nemzoff, and University of New Hampshire Professor Marla Brettschneider discuss Feminism, Anti-Zionism, and Anti-Semitism.

By Judith Rosenbaum

I have a love/hate relationship with theory. Sometimes theory is beautiful, describing realities we’ve caught brief glimpses of but haven’t quite been able to wrap our minds around until we had language and structures to capture them. Theory can provide the illumination and clarity that seems to bring order to the universe.

And sometimes theory fails us. It can be too precise, too rigid, too sure of itself. This messy world often resists or challenges our theories, escaping their ideological confines to run roughshod over what we thought we knew.

The messiness of the world and the limits of intersectionality as a theory have re-asserted themselves once again in the events surrounding Women’s March leader Tamika Mallory’s embrace of Louis Farrakhan and refusal to publicly condemn his anti-Semitic and anti-LGBTQ diatribes. As someone who generally finds insight in the theory of intersectionality—a concept coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw to describe the way identity and power structures are always more complicated than we realize—I was saddened and discouraged to see its glaring blindspot when it comes to antisemitism.

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The LGBTQ Jewish Anthology

By Violet Fearon

There is a tendency to closely associate LGBTQ identities with the modern era, as enormous strides in visibility and acceptance have been made in the past few decades. This was certainly Noam Sienna’s experience: growing up in a “very accepting Jewish community” in Toronto, he felt welcome, but also “like my identity as a queer Jew was seen as innovative or novel.”

This worldview was turned upside-down when, while an undergraduate at Brandeis, Sienna attended a talk by Peter Cole on his book, The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain (Princeton University Press, 2007). After Cole discussed the medieval homoerotic poetry of Jewish scholars like Yehuda haLevi and Shmuel haNagid, Sienna was struck by the sudden possibility that there was a vast history of LGBTQ Jewish topics that had been neglected or obscured in his own Jewish education; he wanted “to learn about Jewish history in a way that respected all the facets of my identity.”

A decade later, Sienna—now a doctoral candidate in Jewish history at the University of Minnesota—is publishing a groundbreaking work with the support of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, tentatively titled: The LGBTQ Jewish Anthology: a Reader of Primary Sources from the Talmud to Stonewall. Over his years of research, Sienna has shifted from a simple desire to share these primary historical sources with others to a hope that they will serve as “raw material for further work.”

But The LGBTQ Jewish Anthology is not meant just for academia. Sienna hopes “people will take all the stories in this book and use them to write other books and articles, incorporate them into college courses or classroom activities, design summer camp programs or synagogue lectures with them, make films and write poems and paint pictures about them.”

The entries in The LGBTQ Jewish Anthology are varied; about one third of them have never before been published in English. In totality, they form a collection of documents relating to a wide variety of same-sex relationships and homoerotic desires, transitions between and across gender identities, and ambiguity in how bodies are gendered. As an example, Sienna relates a particularly compelling entry: the story of Esther/Jacques, the first recorded Jew in Canada. Born Esther Brandeau in early 18th-century France, as a teenager they chose to live as Jacques La Fargue, a Christian boy. After traveling around Europe, Esther/Jacques reached present-day Quebec; but when their birth identity was revealed (and they refused to convert to Christianity), Esther/Jacques was deported back to France.

The story of Esther/Jacques reveals the uncertainty inherent in exploring these texts. As Sienna explains, “one way to read this source would be through a trans lens, looking at Esther/Jacques as someone who understood themselves to be a different gender than they were assigned at birth. Another way would be to imagine why else Esther/Jacques might have chosen to live as a man: to pursue marriage or partnership with a woman? To seek new professional, economic, or social opportunities? To leave a restrictive or oppressive family life? Some combination of all the above? All these readings are possible, and they can all co-exist.”

A tempting question arises: which interpretation is the truth? But Sienna steers us away from that line of thought, and towards a more complex perspective. “I’m not suggesting that I know the “true” story of Esther/Jacques’ life,” says Sienna, “but I do believe that reading their story alongside our own contemporary experiences and identities adds a richness and depth that had been previously ignored.”

In  The LGBTQ Jewish Anthology, Sienna has assembled a rich historical exploration of the intersection between Jewish and LGBTQ identities. His work documents the persecution faced by LGBTQ Jews (multiple entries concern individuals who died in concentration camps, who not only faced harsh treatment from Nazis, but were socially ostracized by other prisoners; other entries document the execution of Jews convicted of sodomy by the Inquisition, and the difficulties faced by gay and lesbian American Jews in the McCarthy Era), but also the outpouring of creativity which emerged from this pain. The many examples of poetry, drama, memoir, art, and midrash presented in the book all celebrate the richness of LGBTQ Jewish identity, and the important (and unacknowledged) role that LGBTQ lives and experiences have played throughout Jewish history around the world.

More personally, Sienna himself views his own queer identity as “inseparable” from his Jewish identity. Being queer and Jewish have both directed him in similar ways:  “towards a social orientation that pays particular attention to individuals and communities left marginalized and vulnerable; towards an appreciation of ancestry and family, both biological and chosen; and towards building a safer and more loving world for all people.”

Sienna’s anthology will be published in the fall of 2018 through Print-O-Craft Press, but pre-orders will begin within the next few months. For information, sign up at

Learn more about the HBI Research Awards.


Violet Fearon, a freshman and Humanities Fellow, is the HBI student blogger.

Noam Sienna, Brandeis ’11, is a Jewish educator, artist, and doctoral candidate in Jewish history at the University of Minnesota. His anthology of LGBTQ Jewish history is slated for publication in 2018. He received a 2016 HBI Research Award in their newest category, LGBTQ Studies.

GetReady: A New Solution for Agunot

By Layah Kranz Lipsker

At 1:30 a.m. a few days ago, my neighbor, a single mother of four, was finally granted a get and is now able to move on with her life. For three years she was an agunah, a woman “chained” to a marriage that is over. She was a victim of get abuse, the deliberate withholding of a Jewish divorce. As the director of the Boston Agunah Taskforce at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute (HBI), I have worked with both men and women who are victims of this unique form of domestic abuse. To be able to say “mazel tov” to my neighbor was truly gratifying.

The day before Purim, which marks the fast of Esther, has been designated as National Agunah Day. Get abuse affects women from every affiliation and background, as women seek a Jewish divorce for both personal and religious reasons. In the Orthodox and Conservative movements, one cannot remarry without a get. Withholding a get is a violation of Jewish law, but while a rabbinic court can issue a summons to a recalcitrant spouse, it has little power to enforce its rulings. We have seen the devastating effects of get abuse on women and children in the Boston area and throughout the Jewish world. Secular courts, in past divorce hearings, have deemed get abuse a controlling behavior.

On our educational website,, we receive and respond to questions about Jewish divorce. This was a recent question that came our way:

“My x-husband left me with over $500,000 in unpaid income taxes which I did not know about. He left the country and lives in Israel. I was left with the children and had to file Chapter 7 Bankruptcy. We were granted a civil divorce in 2009. Now he wants me to pay him $25,000 for him to give me a get. What can I do? I want to be re-married in a Jewish ceremony. Where can I turn?”

Rabbi Aryeh Klapper, a Taskforce member and rabbinical judge at the Boston Rabbinical Court, was able to respond within 24 hours and offer support, education, and tailored advice. The feedback we receive from the women we help online, those we help in person at the Boston Rabbinical Court, and others around the country inspires us to continue to work on behalf of both men and women who are suffering from get abuse.

The Agunah Taskforce at the HBI has contributed much to the conversation around Get abuse and solutions that can work. In addition to research and scholarship on the issue, the Taskforce hosted “A Case Study Conference on Solutions to the Agunah Problem” in May, 2017 to bring together lawyers, rabbis, scholars and activists to work through proposed remedies from a civil and halakhic perspective. One result is the launch of a new solution, GetReady, which can help couples avoid get abuse by adding a clause to their civil divorce agreements requiring get compliance. The draft language we are recommending was created by our advisory team of legal scholars, lawyers, and rabbis and we have seen it work in several cases in the Boston area. Within the Orthodox community, the most comprehensive solution thus far is the halachic prenup requiring get compliance, which is effective if signed before the marriage. However, the vast majority of Jewish couples do not sign it.

The Taskforce is also working with the Muslim community. The withholding of a religious divorce affects both Muslim and Jewish women. Working with religious leaders and lawyers in the Muslim community, the Taskforce will be making recommendations to State Senator Cynthia Creem (D-Newton), on legislative action to help assure women the right to a religious divorce in Massachusetts.

As we mark International Agunah Day, the day before Purim, we are reminded of the power of individuals to stand up for the values they believe in and to fight injustice. Queen Vashti and Queen Esther were feminists before such a word existed, refusing to be content with roles that diminished their light. Jewish women suffering from get abuse need our support, and our community needs to work together until better solutions are found.

If you know of someone considering divorce, please encourage them to visit and to ask a question or learn more about GetReady. The ability to begin again and create a life of meaning is a central tenet of a spiritual life. A get can be a healing form of closure and it should never be denied.


Layah Kranz Lipsker is the director of the Boston Agunah Task Force at HBI.

The Boston Agunah Task force is generously funded by the Miriam Fund of CJP.

Let’s Treat Women as Less than Men: My Response to Rabbi Kelner

By Rivka Neriya Ben Shahar


Last week, a video surfaced that reminded us once again that Jewish and Israeli feminists still have work to do. Rabbi Yosef Kelner, one of the rabbis in Eli mechina, a training course for Modern-Orthodox male students preparing to undertake army service, told his students unbelievably chauvinist things about women as part of a special series of lessons about marriage.

Rabbi Kelner said that women “are weak-minded. They just babble, that’s it,” that education is turning them into “girlillas,” and that “women were less intelligent than men,” saying, “just because they send them en masse to universities they’re suddenly all great geniuses? No!”

He also attacked them religiously, saying they don’t have spirituality. I don’t really know where to begin, but I would invite him to my shul, Shira Hadasha in Jerusalem (he will not come, obviously, like most of my family members), to meet women with so much spirituality that he could get some to bring back to his yeshiva.

But I still ask myself: why did he say these things? He had a goal, and I think that I figured it out.

In the 1950s, the Ultra-Orthodox community needed to create a huge change in girls’ education. Because of the agreement between Ben Gurion and the rabbis, Ultra-Orthodox men were—and are—not allowed to work until they take part in the army service. They became a “society of scholars,” a term coined by Prof. Menachem Friedman to describe the Ultra-Orthodox men who stay for many years in the yeshiva and don’t work.

Who would marry such men? Rabbi Avraham Yesha’ayahu Karelitz, known as Chazon Ish, who helped chart the course of Ultra-Orthodox Judaism in the period between the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel, and Rabbi Avraham Yosef Wolf, a dean of the Beit Ya’akov teachers seminary, had a great idea: They would tell the young women that they should have an agreement with the men like the one that Yisachar had with Zebulun.  In that story, it was agreed that the Zebulun tribe would work while the Yisachar tribe studied Torah. They would share income in this world, for the promised of shared benefits in the next world.

The rabbis made a similar deal with the young Ultra-Orthodox women, telling them that they should be the breadwinners in this world to enable their husbands to study Torah. In turn, they would both be rewarded in heaven. This strategy has worked. For more than 60 years, the young Ultra-Orthodox woman’s dream is to marry a yeshiva bocher and enable him to study.

I have thought a lot about this question: How could a community “produce” brides for specific groups of men? For example, how could Israeli society educate young women to agree to marry men that will stay in the army for 20 years? For a long time, it was considered a great honor, but more recently, the IDF has realized that they need to pay a higher salary to the standing army if they want them to be able to attract spouses and support families.  In this case, secular Israeli society is thinking about the reality of this world.  The poor Ultra-Orthodox community is still talking about the paycheck for the next world.

The Eli mechina needs to find a solution for another problem. Their students have one year in the mechina, and then they serve in the army for at least three years. Many of them stay longer. The young women in the Modern-Orthodox community, the potential brides of these young men, usually go to universities and get at least a B.A. degree, and many have M.A. degrees.  How could these men, with high school educations and long service in the army, live with the fact that the women that they will marry are going to be much more educated than them? Rabbi Kelner has the solution! He teaches the men that the women are not really smart, that their minds are shallower than men’s minds, they are not really multitasking, that they go to the universities “just to spend their time,” and if they get Nobel Prize or become famous thinkers they are mutations.

It’s a clever idea. If you can’t be higher than someone else, just make her/him lower than you. Rabbi Kelner can’t stop the young women from studying, from pursuing their professional and academic careers or spiritual development, so he tells the young men that all of these developments are not important. Great! Such a nice way to help your students to have a good family life. Rabbi Kelner, like the Ultra-Orthodox, needs to “produce” a group of young people that can find a match in specific situation.

I must respond to one “fact” that Rabbi Kelner mentioned.  He said that according to statistics, women are more likely to have car accidents in American intersections, because when they want to turn, it’s hard for them to understand that somebody else is also using the road. Maybe Rabbi Kelner would tell me that cars are “man tools” and women are not supposed to drive. U.S. transportation statistics, however, show that women have less accidents, and less serious accidents. The data is not in his favor.

One thing I know for sure, next time my students ask why we need to talk about feminism and claim that everything is fine nowadays, I’ll suggest they watch this amazing talk.

Rivka Neriya Ben Shahar, Ph.D. is a Helen Gartner Hammer Scholar in Residence at HBI.  

HBI Awards $52,000 in Research Funds

By Amy Powell

“The LGBTQ Jewish Anthology: A Reader of Primary Sources from the Talmud to Stonewall” and “From the Gay Synagogue to the Queer Shtetl: Normativity, Innovation, and Utopian Imagining in the Lived Religion of Queer and Transgender Jews” are two of the 20 proposals given HBI Research Awards for the coming year. They were both awarded in HBI’s newest category, LGBTQ Studies.

Each year HBI selects awards that expand our thinking about Jews and gender. The anthology project, considered the first of its kind, was awarded to Noam Sienna, Brandeis ’11, now of University of Minnesota. The latter proposal was awarded to SJ Crasnow of Rockhurst University, a Jesuit school in Kansas. In total, HBI awarded $52,000 to the 20 different research projects from universities in the U.S., Israel and Hungary.

The other research awards divide into sub-categories: History, Israel and the Yishuv; Families, Children and the Holocaust; Diaspora Studies; Judaism; Gender, Culture, Religion and the Law; Biography; Film and Video; and Arts.  The awards show the range of support offered by HBI to nurture the careers of junior scholars and aid those who are already established in the field of Jews and gender.

To choose the competitive annual research awards, HBI works with its Academic Advisory Committee, comprised of 160 experts and academics from 52 schools in eight countries. These advisors read the proposals and comment over a review period. The process culminates with a day-long meeting at HBI each December to discuss the best proposals. Final decisions are made by Prof. Sylvia Barack Fishman, HBI’s co-director and chair of the AAC, along with Lisa Joffe, director of HBI and also director of the HBI Project on Gender, Culture, Religion and the Law, and HBI Assistant Director Deborah Olins.

Fishman explains that, “by supporting the most excellent researchers and artists who focus on Jews and gender, HBI has played a critical role in building the fields of Jewish women’s and gender studies.”

AAC members have praised the HBI for offering awards that support the mission of developing fresh ideas about Jews and gender. “As opportunities dry up, particularly for people in the humanities, it’s an extraordinary help. If not for this award, the field would have different terrain,” said AAC Member Ellen Golub, also a past recipient.

Lilach Rosenberg-Friedman, who recently published Birthrate Politics in Zion: Judaism, Nationalism, and Modernity under the British Mandate, was both a scholar-in-residence at HBI and recipient of multiple research awards, including one in this cycle for “Outmarriage between Jews and non-Jews in Mandatory Palestine and in Israel (1920-1968): National, Ethnic, Social and Gender Aspects – A View from Below.”  She believes that the connection with HBI was her “breakthrough as a researcher.”

At a recent launch event for her book she said, “The combination of financial and moral support from HBI was an injection of encouragement and a significant catalyst to my academic advancement. My links with HBI have grown even tighter as the institution has continued to support me.”

Professor Jonathan Sarna, the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History and Chair of the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program at Brandeis University said, “These awards have been of great importance in providing assistance and offered publicity to those working in the field of women and gender studies, they have provided encouragement and recognition to those entering the field, and they have nurtured a generation of scholars.”

Fishman, also the Joseph and Esther Foster Professor of Judaic Studies, noted that the “sustained relationships between HBI and Research Award recipients add up to far more than the sum of their parts. In reunions in the United States and Israel, Research Award recipients have testified how profoundly their relationships with HBI–and with each other–have nurtured and transformed their professional lives.”

For a complete list of HBI Research Awards as well as for the criteria and an application for next year, visit HBI’s web site.

Amy Powell is the assistant director of HBI.

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