November 15, 2018

HBI Launches Latin American Project with Anne Frank Event

WALTHAM – HBI’s two-day launch of the Project on Latin American Jewish & Gender Studies (LAJGS) began with a dramatic reading of Marjorie Agosín’s Anne: An Imagining of the Life of Anne Frank at the JCC of Greater Boston and followed the next day with programs in two Jewish day schools.

Credit: Josh Luckens

“The events highlighted the ongoing relevance of Anne Frank in Latin America “as a reminder of the enduring power of art, narrative, and truth as resistance to systemic instances of dehumanization,” said Dalia Wassner, director of the LAJGS, a project with the mission to study and explore of Jewish life and gender in Latin America and among Latin American Jews worldwide.

In her opening remarks, HBI Director Lisa Fishbayn Joffe noted that in a week that saw the anti-semitic slaughter of 11 Jews at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on a Shabbat devoted to welcoming the stranger and refugee in our midst, we are reminded “that we must be ever vigilant to identify and respond to those who would demonize some groups in society, who would divide us and who would facilitate anti-semitic violence against us.”  In the re-telling of the story of Anne Frank for children, Marjorie Agosín and Francisca Yáñez, offered guidance and insight into addressing this complex and delicate task of explaining terror and violence to children, Joffe noted.

Credit: Josh Luckens

The evening opened with a performance by Nisha Sajnani, director of Drama Therapy at NYU, accompanied on piano by Jan Zimmerman. Artwork from Argentine artist Sandra Mayo displayed on stage and on the way into the auditorium complemented the themes of the evening by connecting the Holocaust and periods of dictatorship in the Southern Cone. The program as a whole urged the audience to consider the ongoing impact and salience of Anne Frank in Latin America.

Francesca Colletti, New England Executive Director of Facing History and Ourselves, a co-sponsor of the event, related the program to our times. Anne’s words were resonant to so many issues of our time – displacement of children and families, injustice and even death in the face of discrimination and hate.  But the words also speak to us of resilience and hope.”

The launch of the LAJGS  project was made possible by a gift of $50,000 to HBI from former HBI director, Professor Emerita Shulamit Reinharz and former Brandeis President Jehuda Reinharz.  Shulamit Reinharz explained that the focus of their philanthropy is to fund projects that embody an important innovation on issues related to Jewish life and social justice and are led by a dynamic individual. The LAJGS project, led by Wassner, is a “perfect fit for these goals,”  said Shulamit Reinharz.

Wassner added, “Recent events in our country and around the world have highlighted the importance of promoting greater understanding of minority identities, including those of Jews, women, and immigrants. With their generous support, Shula and Jehuda Reinharz have made a foundational investment in LAJGS’s mission to generate innovative research and culture that explores the role of gender and Judaism in Latin America, and that understands Latin American Jewry as an important part of the global Jewish story.”

Credit: Gann Academy

The following day, Nov. 2,  Wassner, Agosín and Yáñez held workshops at Gann Academy and Solomon Schechter Day School. Yáñez spoke to Lily Rabinoff-Goldman’s creative writing class at Gann. She told the students that her country had suffered a coup d’etat in 1973 that ousted the democratically elected Salvador Allende, instituting instead a military dictatorship under General Augusto Pinochet that would last 17 years. She recalled the feelings of insecurity and fear she felt as a little girl who became a refugee.

In preparation for their departure, her parents asked her to pack her most beloved belongings. She recalled choosing a favorite doll, but mostly paper cutouts of beautiful color images. As she boarded the plane, her suitcase flew open causing her paper cutouts to blow away. At that moment, her family was being escorted at gunpoint, allowed to escape only due to a moment of international cooperation. Certain her cutouts would be lost, Yáñez told of her surprise when her father, mother, and brother each turned and descended the plane’s stairs, set on retrieving the youngest family member’s prized possessions. At that moment, she understood what love looked like.

Wassner thanked the event’s co-sponsors, JCC of Greater Boston, Facing History & Ourselves, Gann Academy, Hadassah Boston, Jewish Women’s Archive and Temple Beth Zion of Brookline. Earlier in the week, Yáñez spoke in Agosín’s class at Wellesley and also at Emerson College.

To learn more about the LAJGS and other upcoming HBI programs and events, visit this web page.  

The Lives of Jessie Sampter

Editor’s Note: This is one of an occasional series that looks at research sponsored by HBI through the annual Research Awards program.

By Violet Fearon

Sarah Imhoff first encountered Zionist writer and educator Jessie Sampter at the Central Zionist Archives in Jerusalem. She was initially focused on Sampter’s best-known work: A Course on Zionism. Published in 1915 as a 95-page book promoting Zionism to an American audience, A Course on Zionism was funded by the Hadassah Women’s Institute, and was re-published and expanded upon in subsequent years. A 1933 version called Modern Palestine: A Symposium had grown to over 400 pages, and included a foreword by Albert Einstein. “Jessie Sampter, I figured, would be a clear example of a typical American Zionist,” writes Imhoff. “She turned out to be anything but.”

Courtesy of Archives of Givat Brenner

Imhoff first intended to write just an article on Sampter, but “the more I read, the more I wanted to write a whole book.” The resulting work, A Queer, Crippled Zionism: The Lives of Jessie Sampter, is unusual not just in its contents, but in its structure. Rather than a traditional birth-to-death narrative, Imhoff calls her book’s genre “weird biography” in five chapters, Sampter’s life is told through a variety of different lenses, all exploring in different ways “a Zionist whose embodied experiences did not conform to Zionist ideals” and, more generally, asserting that “this conflict between embodiment and religious thought was far from unique in American religious experience.“

Imhoff’s multifaceted style of narrative suits her subject. Born in late 19th century New York City, Sampter was raised in a family of secular, second-generation German Jews; contracting polio at age 13 left her physically disabled for the rest of her life. She wrote of same sex attractions, though she did not define herself as a lesbian; she embraced Judaism, but was influenced by “theosophy, ‘Eastern’ religions, Ouija boards, and palmists”; she considered herself both an internationalist and a Zionist. In short, she lived a “category-defying life,” as Imhoff put it a life that does not suit a single, linear narrative.

The first chapter focuses on Sampter’s life in the context of American religion, challenging scholarly notions that “blurry lines between religions . . . is a contemporary phenomenon, born of the 1960s or postmodernism.“ Instead, Imhoff suggests that even in Sampter’s time, religious ideas and rituals intermingled and influenced each other, and that people did not “[have] one single religious identity to the exclusion of all others.”

The second chapter focuses on disability and the body, and how these themes interact with Zionism and religion.  “In-depth biographical attention to a women—and especially to a disabled woman—is crucial to a fuller understanding of Zionism,” writes Imhoff. Sampter’s disability starkly contrasts with Muskeljudentum ideals, and those Zionist pioneers who “praised productive bodies that worked, built, and farmed.”

Imhoff argues that examining the field of disability studies is important to Jewish history, “not merely because some Jews are disabled, but more broadly because it helps to theorize bodies with greater nuance.” In Sampter’s life and works, she grappled repeatedly with the idea of breaking down the mind-body dichotomy. “Even for the able-bodied,” Imhoff writes, “the mind-body dichotomy is never truly a stark distinction. And all the times that bodies fail to live up to norms, whether Zionist or not, can make us feel less than normal.”

The third chapter “tells Sampter’s story as a queer story,” centering on “queer kinship and queer desire.” Sampter never called herself a lesbian, but she lived in a long term domestic partnership with a woman, and “wrote of homoerotic longings.” This presents a difficulty not unique to Sampter the challenge for scholars to do “historical justice” to sexuality without using identities that the historical figures in question did not classify themselves with. Imhoff suggests that in Sampter’s case, ‘’’queer’ is a better analytical fit . . . Sampter’s biography offers a chance for us to theorize how we translate an embodied past into something legible and relevant in the present.”

The fourth chapter is about political movements, exploring how Sampter “could make sense of the gaps between the ideal and the real . . . a narrative about how someone could simultaneously espouse nationalism and internationalism, Zionism and democracy”. Lastly, the fifth chapter is “about Sampter’s afterlives” the effects her life had on others, from mid-century memorial volumes of her work, to the enduring legacy of her children’s songs, to a billboard quoting her beside a highway in India.

Sampter led her life with fierce determination and enormous dedication to her ideals. Unusually, she did not only move to Palestine, but gave up her American citizenship. She published works in Hebrew, a language she learned later in life; her writings span poetry, journalism, and philosophy. The Lives of Jessie Sampter illustrates “a life of commitment but also conflict, clarity punctuated by moments of opacity, a whole picture whose don’t pieces always fit together perfectly—in short, a compelling real life.”  

 

 

 

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

Sarah Imhoff is Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies and the Borns Jewish Studies Program at Indiana University. She writes about religion and the body with a particular interest in gender, sexuality, and American religion. She is author of Masculinity and the Making of American Judaism (Indiana University Press, 2017).  She received a 2017 HBI Research Award for the work profiled in this blog.

Anne Frank’s Enduring Message in Latin America

Editor’s Note:

We invite you to join us for the launching of HBI’s Project in Latin American Jewish & Gender Studies, as we bring the reimagining of Anne Frank’s diary in South America to the stage.

A Latin American Pen, A Global Memory: Imagining Anne Frank Today

Nov. 1, 2018, 7:30 p.m.

Riemer-Goldstein Theater, JCC Greater Boston 333 Nahanton St. Newton, MA

More information here.

Purchase tickets here.

By Dalia Wassner

To ask why the Anne Frank House is popular in Buenos Aires is to ask what Anne means to the Jews of Latin America.

While the Anne Frank House provides both a replica of “the back room” or attic where Anne was hidden for over two years in Amsterdam, it more broadly serves as a local site and resource of education about the 1976-1983 military dictatorship in Argentina. Most importantly, it serves as an ongoing vanguard against all forms of religious, ethnic, political, and gendered discrimination and violence.

Marjorie Agosín, a Chilean exile herself, is cognizant of the importance of Anne’s message in terms of Holocaust remembrance, and in its enduring applicability to subsequent instances of human rights abuses. In her 2015 book, Anne: An Imagining of the life of Anne Frank, translated from the Spanish Ana: Reimaginado El Diario de Ana Frank, Agosín writes specifically to the children of Chile living in the aftermath of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship of 1973-1998:

“In 1973, when Chile’s military junta smashed down the doors of our neighborhood to arrest women-yanking them by their hair, which would later be shaved off—when they “disappeared” them on dense foggy nights, I thought about Anne Frank. When the military junta in Argentina tortured Jews under portraits of Hitler, I thought about Anne Frank.”

Credit: Francisca Yáñez

Agosín’s words and illustrator Francisca Yáñez’s emotionally poignant drawings, provide a contemporary retelling of Anne’s story that focuses on the scant month between Anne’s 12th birthday on June 12, 1942, when her father gave her the now-famous diary, and July 6th, the date the family went into hiding in “the Secret Annex.” Intended for an audience between the ages of eight and sixteen, Agosín’s re-imagination of Anne’s diary focuses on a young woman’s experience of the very loss of freedom. Anne is not therefore simply an innocent girl, but rather a powerful witness to her own stifled life, reflecting on the dissolution of democracy in her world — a world that was essentially evicting her. The girl who is so often quoted for her enduring belief in the goodness of mankind while enduring the worst of its machinations, is adopted here by Agosín as a witness that testifies to her own doom resulting from a measurable failure of societal courage.

“Anne Frank reminds us of the power of writing to serve as a symbol of both resistance and liberty; Anne maintained an inner truth that could not be subjected to the devices of discrimination and terror,” said Héctor Shalom, Director of the Anne Frank House of Buenos Aires.  He notes that the Buenos Aires Anne Frank House events are planned in commemoration of her birth not death. It is, in fact located in a home that offered refuge to leftists during the years of Argentina’s military dictatorship.

Providing an Anne beyond the annex in Anne: An Imagining of the life of Anne Frank, Agosín delivers a writer in the making. She illuminates adolescent Anne’s blossoming feminine sexuality, and reveals the young woman’s awareness of her society’s compliance in excluding her from its schools, ice cream shops and gardens. Instead of Anne’s famous pardon, Agosín provides a resounding and enduring “j’accuse” of the failures of humanity and democracy. The reader is thus faced with the poignant testament of a young woman’s life lost.

 

Dalia Wassner, Ph.D. leads the HBI Project on Latin American Jewish and Gender Studies.

 

 

Marjorie Agosín is an award winning poet, human rights activist, author and a Professor of Latin American Literature at Wellesley College. She is also a member of HBI’s Academic Advisory Council.

 

 

A Latin American Pen, A Global Memory: Imagining Anne Frank Today will be co-sponsored with the JCC Greater Boston, Gann Academy, Facing History & Ourselves, Hadassah Boston, Jewish Women’s Archive, and Temple Beth Zion, Brookline.

*Parts of this blog were adopted from Dalia Wassner’s Introduction to Anne: An Imagining of the Life of Anne Frank by Marjorie Agosín and illustrated by Francisca Yáñez.

Fighting the Same Fights as Our Feminist Mothers

Some thoughts on sexual harassment and academic careers

By Gila Silverman

When the news broke that a well-known male scholar had been sexually harassing – and sometimes assaulting – female colleagues for decades, I was in the midst of cleaning out my mother’s home office. I was packing up her books on Jewish feminism, women in academia, and feminist pedagogy; sorting her notes from conferences and work groups on women’s connected ways of knowing, gender and moral development, and widowhood and social roles. She had often talked about how hard it was, especially in the early years of her career, to be taken seriously as a woman with a Ph.D. She had many stories about the men who ignored her ideas at meetings, and later promoted these same ideas, claiming them as their own. In the early 1970’s, she was invited to speak to a group of funeral directors in another state, who were interested in learning more about her research with widows. They later sent a letter to my father, thanking him for “allowing” her to be away from home. In her papers, I found a photo of her with a group of colleagues, sitting around a conference table. She is the only woman, and she is speaking, but most of the men are looking in other directions.

For the last few weeks, I’ve been immersed in reading the op-eds, emails, Facebook posts, and listserv discussions about harassment and gender and power in the Jewish and academic communities. I’ve been outraged, sad, confused, and physically nauseous, as we’ve learned – yet again and in such detail – about the multitude of ways in which women’s bodies, experiences, ideas, and careers have been undervalued, abused, dismissed, and belittled.

My own experience with this happened few years ago, as I was finishing my Ph.D and trying to figure out how to position myself professionally and intellectually. I scheduled a series of networking meetings with colleagues and thought leaders in my field. A colleague I had only met once or twice took the time for a long conversation, that was helpful and encouraging, full of praise for my work and my political bravery, but then veered sideways into sexual innuendo and offhand comments about extramarital affairs, went back to professional brainstorming and possible jobs and projects, and ended with a hug that was too close and too long for someone I barely knew.

I was grateful for his help, but uncomfortable. I knew that if I described our meeting, many people would have told me that I was misinterpreting ordinary behavior. Later, when I mentioned to friends that I had met with him, they confirmed my discomfort, telling me that he had a reputation for being “creepy” to women, and for verbally bullying female colleagues in public forums.

I never really followed up on our conversation, and I didn’t pursue the possible collaboration he had mentioned, though it seemed exciting and might have opened professional doors. I didn’t want to work with someone who made me uncomfortable and who had a reputation for treating women as something other than intellectual equals. I moved on.

Careers are built on a combination of skill and talent, education and opportunity, luck and determination, creativity and collaboration; they are not made or broken with a single conversation. But the Pandora’s box that was opened recently made me think about what might have happened if that day had gone differently. If I had felt more comfortable with him, would I have chosen to pursue the research projects he had suggested? Would I have made useful connections, had the opportunity to publish in higher-profile journals, been part of conversations I would have liked to be part of? And just as importantly, would I have had something interesting to contribute to those conversations, brought ideas and perspectives that weren’t otherwise represented?

I find myself wondering, how many women’s ideas have we lost to situations like these? What intellectual contributions have we missed because women’s insights were ignored or silenced or co-opted? What community-changing policies were never pursued because women walked away from professional situations that were uncomfortable or unsafe?

Building an academic career is challenging these days. The corporatization of the university, a political climate that under-values (and un-funds) education and research, and the rise in contingent positions have all been well documented. For many of us, there are the added issues of resume gaps that come from caregiving, and the constraints caused by complicated family situations. Now we can also publicly acknowledge what many of us knew in private, that there was another issue influencing our professional decisions. For far too many women, our complex professional calculations and negotiations had to include whether we felt safe with our colleagues, and how much sexual innuendo or unwanted physical contact was a deal-breaker. This is simply unacceptable. It has to change.

I am now back in my own home, unpacking my mother’s books and papers and adding them to my own library. As I’m putting away 30 years of books by and about Jewish women, I am struck by how much has changed for women since the 1970’s and how much has stayed the same. I keep coming back to Susannah Heschel and Sarah Imhoff’s recent op-ed, Where are All the Women in Jewish Studies, in the Forward, detailing the glaring exclusion of women from high-profile scholarship in Jewish Studies. I have been thinking about Rachel Kadish’s beautiful recent novel, The Weight of Ink, and the lengths her fictional 17th century female scribe must go to in order to pursue a life of the mind; I find myself questioning if we are really so different from her. I am grateful to the women who are now speaking truth to power, after silently carrying these stories for years. And I am pondering all of the complicated ways in which gender has affected my own professional trajectory.

For now, I can’t quite connect the dots between all of these things. I can only sit with my sadness and my anger andmy frustration. I can only hope that, because of the actions of so many brave women and good men, things will someday be different.

Gila Silverman, a 2017 HBI Scholar-in-Residence, is a research associate at The Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, Brandeis University, and a visiting scholar at the Arizona Center for Judaic Studies.

 

Pledging Safety in High Schools Regardless of Sexuality and Gender: The Eshel Pledge

By Lily Fisher Gomberg

Lauren Grobois loved her experience at SAR High School. She loved her teachers and the curriculum, and got along with her classmates well. So on June 12, 2018 when she shared a video testimony imploring SAR High School (among other Modern Orthodox high schools) to take the Eshel Pledge, “It wasn’t me against SAR, it was more me talking to an organization that I know listens to people and also is very caring,” said Grobois, SAR High School, Riverdale, NY class of 2014 and Brandeis University, class of 2019.

The Eshel Pledge is an explicit promise to LGBT+ students that there will be no expulsion, bullying, or reparative therapy, and full inclusion, support, and open admission at Modern Orthodox high schools. Grobois said that her motivation for sharing the pledge on social media was partly to bring attention to the pledge at SAR, but also because “I wanted queer people on my Facebook feed to see that I stand with them, and I stand with this Eshel Pledge, which is important because a lot of times queer students don’t necessarily feel like they can come out in Modern Orthodox spaces, because, even though most of their friends and most of the people around them are so welcoming and so okay with them coming out, nobody really voices that opinion.” Grobois says that she didn’t know anyone who was out of the closet in high school, but she does know of past classmates who have come out since. She also notes that since she graduated, “other students have come out, and the administration has been really great to my knowledge. In general, they’re really welcoming and I think that they understand the situation, but they have not taken this pledge… it’s important that they do.”

The pledge is now being promoted by Eshel, an LGBT+ Jewish advocacy group, but it was not directly developed by Eshel but by Micha Thau, class of 2017 at Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles, CA. Thau wrote in his 2016 article in Jewish Journal that he waited two years in “anxious fear” to come out of the closet at Shalhevet. When he did come out, his experience was much like that which Grobois described, his school and classmates were more accepting than he had expected. After a summer fellowship with Eshel, he decided to sit down with  Shalhevet Head of School Rabbi Ari Segal to create a pledge that would let LGBT+ students know that Shalhevet would accept them. Rabbi Segal even wrote a public article about inclusion of LGBT+ folks in Orthodox schools.

Shalhevet ’07 alum and Brandeis doctoral candidate Benjamin Steiner noted that “it’s probably a bold move for them [Rabbi Segal], and I applaud it.” The pledge was adopted 10 years after Steiner’s graduation from Shalhevet, but he believes that it’s emblematic of Shalhevet’s inclusivity and openness to hearing students opinions. When asked why he believed the pledge wasn’t created sooner, he said that the timing wasn’t right in 2007, “it’s sad that they didn’t have it till now, but I wouldn’t fault them for it.”

The pledge was met with enthusiasm at Shalhevet, and Eshel has decided to take it national. An Eshel representative said that the pledge is timely because “in the past two years, acceptance in the Orthodox community has grown, and schools’ policies don’t necessarily reflect that… this is authentic to orthodoxy. The alumni really believe in this, and we’re just organizing it. The students want this.” Now, Eshel is calling on students, alumni, and parents who have connections to Modern Orthodox high schools to create video testimony and ask their school to take the Pledge. Actually taking the pledge is an end goal, but the immediate goal of these videos is to create dialogue about inclusion and LGBT+ issues in the Orthodox community.     

One current Brandeis student who prefers not to be named recalls that at their Modern Orthodox high school “there was one basically one queer student, and [there were rumors that] they were asked to leave the school if they were going to be out.” They cite this perceived lack of acceptance as a reason why they personally stopped identifying with Orthodoxy. This alum is glad that the pledge is gaining momentum now, and hopes that many schools will adopt it. They are not surprised, however, at the timing in which the pledge is gaining momentum because LGBT+ issues have been “picking up momentum outside the Orthodox community for a long time, [and the pledge is] pretty much in line with how we’re progressing in queer issues… [but] Orthodoxy is always last”

The Orthodox Union didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment on this issue, but they did publish a statement two years ago when gay marriage was legalized in the United States. The statement is expressly anti-gay marriage, saying that marriage is defined in Judaism as a “relationship between a man and a woman,” but also “that Judaism teaches respect for others and we condemn discrimination against individuals.” The statement also expresses strong feelings that the civil liberties of gay marriage should not infringe on the religious liberties of any group which cannot or will not support gay marriage. In the context of the Eshel Pledge, this seems to fit in. The pledge does not ask schools to perform marriages, only to include, support, and protect their LGBT+ students. For Steiner, the most important part of the pledge is the promise of no bullying in the face of “gay expression,” and he says “I would think that even the OU would not want bullying.” Additionally, an Eshel representative pointed out that “the pledge was crafted very carefully to avoid halachic issues” and “what we’re asking is for them to say that a child expressing their identity is not a reason to be bullied or to have to leave the school.”

When asked about the future of the pledge, Grobois pointed out that “most of who this pledge is trying to improve is institutions that are basically there, and just need a bit of a push… the schools that aren’t going to accept it aren’t even the target.”

At this time, Shalhevet High School is the only school to have taken the pledge. Eshel says that there are “several schools interested in the pledge, but none have committed.” If you have a connection with an Orthodox high school, and you would like to sign the petition or make a video in support of the Eshel Pledge, please visit http://www.eshelonline.org/pledge/.

Lily Fisher Gomberg is the summer blogger for Fresh Ideas. She is a rising junior at Brandeis University.

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