April 26, 2019

Customize Your Seder and Raise a Glass to Mrs. Cowen

By Amy Powell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amy Powell is the assistant director of HBI.


Female Public Figures Claim their Voices in the Israeli Political Sphere

By Tally Kritzman Amir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


When Divorce is a Mitzvah

By Layah Lipsker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MFA Acquires Three Pieces from HBI 2018 Artist, Tamar Paley

By Amy Powell

Tucked between the exodus of students at the end of the academic year and before the hum of the summer programs, May 23 started as a slow day. Things got considerably more interesting when curators from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts accompanied by Brandeis professors, visited HBI’s Kniznick Gallery Exhibit, Tamar Paley | A Fringe of Her Own: A Collection of Ritual Objects for Women.

That day kicked off a journey that saw the MFA’s acquisition of three pieces from the 28-year-old Paley’s collection in her first American exhibition, a notable accomplishment for an artist at any stage of her career. It was also a first for HBI, the host of 11 prior exhibits that showcased artists whose work represented HBI’s mission of fresh ideas about Jews and gender.

“The HBI exhibition has been an amazing career starting point, an experience that led to opportunities and growth that otherwise I probably would not have achieved this early in my professional life,” Paley said.

The timing, it turns out, was not a coincidence. Earlier that year, the MFA, in an effort to boost their Judaica collection, hired new curator from Israel, Simona Di Nepi, now the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Curator of Judaica. Di Nepi joined colleague, Marietta Cambareri, Senior Curator of Decorative Arts and Sculpture and Jetskalina H. Phillips Curator of Judaica.

The Exhibit

Paley, a jewelry artist who lives and works in Israel, focused on a complete reimagining of three basic Jewish ritual objects: tzitzit, tallit and tefillin, typically worn by men. Tefillin, traditionally seen as dark leather straps around the arms and head were transformed into sacred jewelry, beautiful silver cuffs, holding prayers that are meaningful to women and delicate necklaces that put the prayer close to the heart. With a growing need to provide a feminine interpretation of patriarchal religious practice, Paley’s work offered a reshaping of traditional patriarchal forms from using materials, text, and symbolism that acknowledge the physical and spiritual experiences of women in Judaism.

Di Nepi explained, “Contemporary Judaica is a key area of the MFA Judaica collecting plans. The fact that these Judaica objects are made by a young woman is significant in itself, as it shows that Jewish ceremonial art is not merely something of the past, but is actually occupying the minds and time of young artists.”  The MFA acquired A Sign Upon Your Hand arm bracelet, Hamavdil neckpiece and Between Sacred and Not pendant.  

Paley met with many students and public groups during the exhibit and found the process informative for her development. “These encounters challenged my opinions and what I thought I knew about my work and the subject matter. It is always so interesting to hear people’s interpretations of your work, and how it relates to the viewer.”

HBI selected Tamar Paley as the 2018 artist by a jury comprised of the directors of HBI, the Kniznick Gallery curator, Susan Metrican, and members of an Arts Advisory Board. Each fall, HBI accepts exhibition proposals through an open call that seeks work that speaks to HBI’s mission. The opportunity provides selected artists with a four-month exhibition at Brandeis University at the Kniznick Gallery, along with exhibition support, public programming, and an exhibition catalog.  

“We are thrilled to see MFA recognize this important art and the ways that it showcases HBI’s support of research and creativity at the intersection of Jewish studies and gender studies,” said Lisa Fishbayn Joffe, the Shulamit Reinharz Director of HBI.

HBI’s next exhibit, One Foot Planted | Ayelet Carmi & Meirav Heiman, opens Thursday, February 28. Through video works, it explores the impact that politics and conflict have on Israeli women in times of crisis. Both the ritual of processing the Israel Trail and counting the Omer become ungendered and labor-intensive sites of communication between bodies, land, machines, and the movement of time itself, explained Metrican.

Preparing and Delivering the Art

To prepare Paley’s art for delivery to the MFA, Metrican turned to the Brandeis archivists for assistance. Surella Seelig, Outreach and Special Projects Archivist, wrapped the work carefully, using special paper and boxes. Then, HBI delivered the work to the MFA’s basement staff entrance where we met with the appropriate staff who accepted the work. MFA staff explained that the work would be reviewed by experts in textiles, metals and other areas as it was accessioned.

In 2013 the MFA acquired the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Collection, a transformational gift of Judaica comprising 120 decorative and ritual objects. Now, the Museum’s holdings of Judaica feature pieces from the 18th through the 20th century from Europe, North Africa, Asia, Israel, and America — including metalwork, works on paper, textiles, ceramics, sculptures, and paintings. Schusterman also supported the gift of objects with funds for conservation, documentation, photography, and display.

Di Nepi noted that while Paley’s work is not yet on display “we are already using her collection for students’ visits and discussions about feminist Judaica,” including a recent visit from Brandeis students.

Ellen Smith, Director of the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program and professor of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, who toured with the curators, noted that “Di Nepi has a specific vision evolving for building the Judaica collection, and it’s exciting to see they are focusing on contemporary Jewish artists as well as more historic pieces.”

Jonathan Sarna, Director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies and University Professor, Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History, lauded the “highly important role Brandeis plays, through the Rose, HBI, and Schusterman, in introducing Israeli artists to the world.”

Amy Powell is the assistant director of HBI.


Advancing the Rabbinic Prescription for Transgender Health Care

By Rabbi Mike Moskowitz and Joshua D. Safer, MD, FACP

Doctors and Rabbis are asked a lot of questions; it’s a big part of the job. We certainly don’t have all of the answers and so we continue to listen, research, and expand our understanding of the issues.  And, we have our own questions to help us get closer to the information that shapes our responses to the people who are asking for guidance. There can be no contradiction between science and religion when they both manifest the truth of the Divine intention. The struggle for that knowledge, and its application, is an ongoing and humbling process.

However, there are still many in both the medical and the Jewish communities who don’t yet understand gender identity and transgender experiences. They insist: “It can’t be that G-d put someone in the wrong body. G-d doesn’t make mistakes. It’s sacrilegious to change the body that G-d gave you,” and so on. No one would say this about a heart defect, deviated septum, or inflamed appendix – in part because the Torah teaches us in this week’s portion: “ורפא ירפא ” and be healed. The Talmud explains that this is the scriptural permission given to physicians offering treatment to change something that G-d has created.

Similarly, the wicked Turnus Rufus asked of Rabbi Akiva: If your G-d is a lover of the poor, why then does G-d not provide for them? R’ Akiva argues that the inequality experienced by many in this world doesn’t exist for us to sustain, but rather for us to change. G-d presents inequality as an opportunity for us to be in partnership, to heal the divide and emulate the Divine by supporting others.

Turnus Rufus replies that by changing the differential that G-d constructed, we are going against the Divine will and angering G-d. In response, R’ Akivah shares an interesting parable: To what is this similar? It is analogous to a king who, angry with his child, confines them to prison and orders that no one give them anything to eat or drink. Someone then disobeys and provides for the child’s needs and when the king hears about it, the king sends the person gifts in thankful recognition. R’ Akivah continues: We are all that child to G-d. When we improve the lives of those who are suffering, it brings pleasure and joy to G-d.

G-d, as our parent, wants us to support each other and make sure that we are all provided for.

We demonstrate to G-d that we see ourselves as G-d’s children when we take care of humanity as we would our immediate family. As a society, we have a responsibility to meet the needs of all, including our transgender siblings. We must make resources available, including all of the resources of modern medicine, whenever needed. It is not only permitted to provide transgender medical procedures, but we are obligated to do so when necessary.

The author of the Code of Jewish Law puts an additional responsibility on doctors to be available to help those in need of their services. He writes (Bais Yosef Y.D. 336): Any doctor who is competent in practicing medicine is obligated to heal and if they hold themselves back from providing treatment, it is considered as if they are a murderer.

Physicians are obligated to learn the optimal treatments for their patients and to continually extend their knowledge in the hope of ever greater good. Indeed, the scientific mission of the medical community is to develop an increasing appreciation of the complexity of life over time which can then result in better care of fellow human beings.

For many decades, physicians erroneously believed that transgender people suffered from a mental health disorder which required a mental health treatment. Over the past decade or so, the medical community has grown to recognize that gender identity contains a substantial biological component which cannot be altered by externally. There are simply some individuals for whom one part of their biology –  their gender identity – is not aligned with another part of their biology – their visible anatomy.

Although the specific biology of gender identity remains an unknown, the current medical approach that is most successful and the standard of good medical care for transgender individuals is to customize treatment to align their visible bodies with their gender identities. Failure to appropriately treat a transgender individual who seeks medical help would be a violation of a physician’s professional oath.

Jewish Law expects that rabbis rely on the medical opinions of doctors in order to accurately render a response to medical questions. The commentaries are also sensitive to concerns that some Jewish patients might have regarding constantly evolving and new perspectives in the medical profession. The rabbis teach “Don’t say that since medicine is just a vocation one shouldn’t listen to medical advice because perhaps it will only make the situation worse. It is in response to this that the Torah permits and mandates us to follow the guidance of doctors. One who is punctilious with this is praiseworthy” (Aruch HaShulchan 336.1).

We, rabbis and doctors, must continue to ask questions so that we may better answer the questions we are asked. Some may find it challenging and unfamiliar to respond to new understandings about gender identity, transgender experiences, and treatments.  But, it is our obligation, as the field of transgender medicine progresses, to also advance the rabbinic prescription for quality transgender health care.

 Rabbi Mike Moskowitz is a Scholar-in-Residence inTrans and Queer Jewish Studies at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York. (Pronouns: He/Him)





Joshua D. Safer, MD, FACP is Executive Director, Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery, Mount Sinai Health System and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai

New York, NY


To learn more about God and Torah from a transgender perspective, join HBI on Thursday, Feb. 7 at 5 p.m. for a lecture and book talk by Joy Ladin. See details, here.


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