March 27, 2023

Journey and Freedom: Learning to Share our Stories

By Shula Mola

The last time I tried to draw a butterfly, my little daughter asked if there were butterflies in Ethiopia. So clumsy was what I drew that she imagined that maybe I had never seen a butterfly.

Even though my own daughter cannot recognize my attempts at art, I didn’t let that fact stop me from applying to the Full Disclosure Workshop, an innovative program sponsored by the Jewish Women’s Archive (JWA) that weaves together story collecting, artistic representation, and community celebration to honor the lives of Jewish women and to encourage them to reflect on themes and influences that have shaped their lives. 

Shula Mola, wearing a white coat, is standing my a plaque outside The Temple in Atlanta.The JWA organized this two-and-a-half- day workshop at The Temple in Atlanta, GA,  for women who are interested in the oral history of women. All the work was with our hands, but based on ideas and themes that arose from the stories.

To prepare for the workshop, the facilitators, Sheila Miller and Barbara Rosenblit, sent us a detailed letter asking us to bring all kinds of personal items that express who we are. They also asked us to bring portrait photos of ourselves. In fact, by collecting the objects for the workshop, we started the workshop even before we arrived.

As a workshop facilitator in my professional field, I recognized that it was a genius idea to introduce the women to an internal dialogue even before the meeting began. When we arrived, I was in a circle with 11 women that I immediately realized were carefully selected to complement one another. From my own experience,  I know that the composition of the group is a necessary condition for the success of any process. In the opening circle, the task was to present ourselves through an object from our life.

I brought a dark-skinned Barbie doll with spots on the body from vitiligo, a disorder that causes skin to lose pigment. The doll was brought to the US by my older daughter, Noam, 21, for her younger sister, Ma’ayan, 11 in Israel.  From the beginning, I loved this doll and was amazed by the depth of my daughter’s thought that she not only selected a dark-skinned doll which is hard to find in Israel for her brown-skinned sister but also chose the one with the spots on the skin.

It is Women’s History Month right now, where the achievements of women in society are celebrated, and the challenges that remain are noted.  As I considered this, I found myself dealing with the issues of journey and freedom, two concepts that I poured into my workshop project. These are themes of my personal story, what I wanted to address in my art. “Journey” is something that folds in itself, a dream, of course, to reach Jerusalem, in my case as an immigrant to Israel from Ethiopia. But, a journey is also a picture of the future that is possible, a horizon, even if blurred, that is full of curiosity and sometimes full of fear.

The word “freedom” holds a lot of emotions. It is a feeling of victory that suggests physical, intellectual, and mental movement without limits. It suggests that obstacles will exist, but only to be overcome.

As we sat around round tables, the organizers gave us each an empty box and invited us to create with the box. With Shula Mola looking at the samples of art made by participants, boxes with cut out photos and images pasted inside and out.the help of the accessories, we were asked to depict our own “outside and inside.” The moderators showed us examples and projects they had done in the past. Their motto throughout the session was “everyone has a story” and “everyone can make art.” I believed in them from the beginning –  when I saw examples, I knew I could do it too. The idea I started working on was around the same themes I presented in the opening circle of the workshop, “journey and freedom.” 

I started with the imagination of the girl I was in Jerusalem and continued to think about landmarks and contexts of the actual journey to the Land of Israel. I significantly invested in the question: “How can I express this fully?” Ultimately, I decided to work with a collage of pictures and words. It was a bare emotional and cognitive process, but also full of dialogue with the new friends who were with me at the table and the presenters who moved between tables to feel the situation, answer questions, encourage and help. 

I realized many things about myself during the journey of this personal creation. One major thing has strengthened my understanding of myself is that I hardly separate between my “outside and the inside.” I was constantly in motion between the personal, social, and  political.

On the third day of the workshop, we introduced ourselves through the creation. I realized that I was uncomfortable, in part because it was such an intimate project, and in part because I was afraid that I would not be understood in English, due to my own language barriers. Though I lead others through oral histories and intimate portraits of themselves, I realized that this was the first time I engaged in such a revealing process myself. 

Shula Mola's box made at the Full Disclosure workshop, inside viewFrom this, I learned about the importance of staging and the leadership of the presenters who made it possible to share in this way. Each one was so involved and honest in their process and, at the same time, sensitive and curious to hear what the other had to say. The language they used and the composition of the groups they built, made it possible for everyone to share in a deep and meaningful way.

As I revisit the reasons for bringing the Barbie, I want to say that when my little daughter decided that she was too old for her dolls, she passed them on but chose to keep the one with the stains. I told the group: “What is special about this doll is that she is present in the space with “stain on a stain.”  

“It isn’t easy to be a presence in her color, yet look how she stands with open shoulders and her chest forward like this (I demonstrated to them with a body movement). The doll seems to say to us : ‘I am fully present in the space, it doesn’t matter if I’m black and I even have a stain.’ My daughters are present like that, and they know that they deserve to move freely and confidently in any space.”

Perhaps this is a triumph of both journey and freedom. 

I am grateful for the opportunity not only to acquire a tool for my work in documenting the stories of the Beta Israel community in Israel, but also to go through an empowering process of observing and sharing my story with others. Of course, the motto I took is “everyone can make art”.

Shula Mola Head shotDr. Shula Mola, an HBI Scholar in Residence and is working on, “An Oral History of the Women of Enkash – The Zar and the Mergem Gojo (Blood Hut) as Spaces for Resistance.” She was named one of Israel’s 50 most influential women in 2022 by Israel’s leading economic newspaper. 

Listen to Dr. Mola’s seminar at HBI on “Formation of Blackness In Israel: The Case of Ethiopian Jews.”


Defining the Jewish Woman in an Era of “Peak TV”

By Samantha Pickette

Editor’s Note: Join us on Monday, March 13, to hear Samantha Pickette on her new book, Peak TV’s Unapologetic Jewish Woman: Exploring Jewish Female Representation in Contemporary Jewish Comedy. Details below. 

When looking back at the history of Jewish women in television comedy, the sheer lack of Jewish female characters is striking, if not totally surprising considering American pop culture’s complicated relationship with Jewish femininity.  By comparison, contemporary TV comedy offers an embarrassment of riches, both in terms of the sheer number of series with Jewish female showrunners and in terms of the diversity of the Jewish female protagonists that appear on these series. How did we get from Molly Goldberg and Rhoda Morgenstern to Rebecca Bunch and Midge Maisel?

In this moment of Peak TV, it seems that the lucky combination of myriad platforms with seemingly unlimited content, more diversity on- and off-screen,  an interest in “niche” storytelling, and ample opportunities for self-representation have led to a reframing of television’s Jewish woman, one that emphasizes her humanity, interiority, well-roundedness, and, perhaps most strikingly, her clear and unapologetic connection to Jewish culture, outside the realms of stereotype or self-hatred.

For a long time, the gold standard of Jewish female representation on TV, and one of the few Jewish mother characters not meant to inspire fear, mockery,  was Molly Goldberg from Gertrude Berg’s The Goldbergs, and Rhoda Morgenstern—the unlucky female schlemiel who acts as the more relatable, less perfect ethnic foil on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. The idea of Rhoda, a Jewish woman, as the most relatable and human character on a sitcom was a novel one considering the archetypes of Jewish femininity that permeated popular culture during the network era; Rhoda stood out in a cultural landscape dominated by images of young Jewish women as superficial Jewish-American Princesses (JAPs) and undesirable Ugly Ducklings and older Jewish women as Sophie Portnoy-esque Jewish Mothers.  Rhoda’s characterization offered something new to the television landscape:  a Jewish woman defined outside the realm of classical archetypes of Jewish femininity, rendered human and relatable because of, rather than in spite of, her personal, professional, and romantic struggles.  At the same time, however, Jewishness in both The Mary Tyler Moore Show and in its subsequent spinoff, Rhoda, lacks overt cultural specificity—her Jewishness is not a religion or even an ethnicity, but rather a set of broadly-defined cultural stereotypes.  Rhoda is “Jewish” because she has a New York accent, a sardonic wit, and darker hair and wider hips than the non-Jewish Mary.

The juxtaposition between the novelty of Rhoda Morgenstern’s explicit Jewishness and the nebulousness of what thatblue on blue cover of Peak TV's Unapologetic Jewish Woman Jewishness actually communicated to audiences provides a case study that contextualizes the Jewish woman’s role in television comedy during the network era (1950s–mid-1980s) and cable revolution (mid-1980s–early 2000s).  Vincent Brook argues that during this time period, television programming was characterized by a “ghetto mentality” where producers “began adopting quotas for Jewish characters…they rationed you:  one Jewish character a year.”  Even in the 1990s, which saw an exponential increase in the number of Jewish characters on television with thirty-three sitcoms with Jewish protagonists airing from 1989 to 2001, Judaism on television was, for the most part, stereotyped, trivialized, or whitewashed in an effort to appeal to mainstream audiences.  As a result, Jewish women, to an even further extent than their male counterparts, rarely appeared on prime-time network television—a fact made obvious by the nearly 20-year gap between Molly Goldberg’s final appearance on The Goldbergs and Rhoda’s premiere, and the subsequent 15-year gap between Rhoda’s finale in 1978 and the appearance of Fran Fine (Fran Drescher) on the 1993 premiere of CBS’s The Nanny, the next network sitcom to feature a Jewish female main character.

When they did appear, they often fulfilled stereotypical supporting roles—the hysterical Jewish Mothers on NBC’s Seinfeld (1989-1998) and Mad About You (1992-1999), for example, who not only stood in the way of their nebbish sons’ happiness, but who were often compared unfavorably to those sons’ non-Jewish partners —or, like Rhoda Morgenstern, were hyper-assimilated to the point where their Jewishness functioned as little more than a collection of undesirable behaviors—the neuroticism of Monica Geller from Friends (NBC, 1994-2004) and Grace Adler from Will & Grace (NBC, 1998-2006), the icy detachment of Lilith Sternin on Cheers (NBC, 1982-1993) and Frasier (NBC, 1993-2004), the superficiality and co-dependence of Friends’ Rachel Green, and the excessive anger and brashness of Susie Greene from Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO, 2000-present).  The rare religious rituals shown further served to reinforce cultural stereotypes about “demanding” Jewish women:  on Sex and the City (HBO, 1998-2004), for instance, PR maven Samantha Jones clashes with a 13-year-old “brat mitzvah beast,” whose rich father is throwing her a million-dollar bat mitzvah party; in a later season, the wealthy, prudish Charlotte York’s conversion to Judaism is framed simply as a natural transition from her “Episcopalian princess” past to a Jewish Princess future.

The paradigm of Jewish femininity asserted by the series of the network era and cable revolution provides a singular image of the Jewish woman, one that revolves around Jewish difference, hyper-assimilation, a disconnect from religious observance, and an adherence to the Jewish Mother/JAP tropes that render her “too Jewish” even when other markers of Jewishness are absent.  Even when she deviates from this paradigm—seen through Rhoda’s schlemielization, or Fran’s softening of the classic JAP, for instance—she ultimately upholds the conflation of Jewish female identity and the inability to act like a “normal” (i.e. non-Jewish) woman.  Jewish femininity, therefore, is embarrassing, unsuitable, vulgar, excessive, and comic in its inherent deviation from social convention.

image of an old style televisionContemporary Jewish television comedy, then, is characterized by a marked attempt to present Jewishness (and Jewish femaleness) as it is, rather than relying on Jewish tropes leftover from network-era sitcoms that emphasize Jewish difference, hyper-assimilation, and a disconnect from religious observance as hallmarks of a singular Jewish-American experience.  As the Pew Research Center’s most recent survey of Jewish Americans suggests, American Jews are, as a whole, a “culturally engaged, increasingly diverse group” whose connection to Jewishness is mostly informed by cultural and ethnic practices rather than religiosity.   Ultimately, even in an “awkward phase” of American-Jewish identity in which American Jews are figuring out what being Jewish means to them, often by establishing their own cultural, religious, ethnic, and ancestral definitions across gender, generational, and denominational lines, the Pew data confirms that “Jewish identity matters” to the vast majority (~75%) of American Jews, and that Jewish engagement itself is becoming an individualized process.

In the case of series like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (CW, 2014-2019) and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amazon Prime, 2017-present), these changes operate largely on generational lines; if CXG’s self-named JAP Rebecca Bunch and Maisel’s burgeoning stand-up comic/single mother Midge Maisel embody versions of Jewish femininity that rehabilitate conventional archetypes defining Jewish female behavior, their positive difference juxtaposes the “too Jewish” behavior of the parental generation, whose adherence to midcentury conceptions of Jewish otherness subsequently undermines Rebecca and Midge’s relative progressivism.  Series such as Broad City (Comedy Central, 2014-2019) and Difficult People (Hulu, 2015-2017) push the work of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel one step further, moving beyond classical Jewish stereotypes altogether and reframing Jewish femininity in general, and Jewish female precarity specifically, through the lens of the fun-loving, sex-positive, schlemielized, and proudly Jewish Unapologetic Jewess—an archetype that presents a GenX/Millennial approach to adulthood, womanhood, and Jewishness that emphasizes individual meaning-making, choice, and freedom from restrictive gender expectations.  Transparent (Amazon Prime, 2014-2019) and Grace and Frankie (Netflix, 2015-2022) both build on Broad City and Difficult People’s positive reconception of the young Jewish woman by redefining Jewish motherhood through a gendered inversion of the Jewish family and of Jewish ritual itself.

In many ways, the images of Jewishness and Jewish femaleness disseminated in contemporary television comedy confirm the Pew Research Center’s sociological sketch of American Jewry.  While most Jewish female protagonists on mainstream comedies are not traditional or particularly observant, Jewish engagement—and, more specifically, imbuing Jewish holidays/religious festivals with individualized rituals that foster a personalized connection with Judaism—permeates Jewish television in the Peak TV era.  Transparent’s Pfefferman family holds an impromptu Passover Seder while on a cruise, with a makeshift Seder plate featuring saltines (matzah), wasabi (bitter herbs), and charoset made of nuts, raisins, and vinegar from the ship’s salad bar.  Broad City’s Abbi and Ilana sit shiva for Ilana’s grandmother, try (and fail) to go on a Birthright trip, make connections with a Holocaust survivor, and struggle to fast on Yom Kippur.  Rebecca Bunch attends a family bar mitzvah.  Grace and Frankie try to convince a rabbi to perform the interfaith marriage of their ex-husbands, Robert and Sol.

At the same time, even the least religiously inclined television Jews assert their Jewish identities through overt, intertextual references to secular Jewish culture.  Rebecca Bunch peppers her conversations with Yiddishisms and Hebrew phrases, Jewish cultural signposts, and self-deprecating Jewish humor.  Billy and Julie attend Yiddish poetry readings, talk in detail about dybbuks, mock people who own a surplus of Judaica, and confront the hypocrisies of endemic antisemitism head-on; as Julie quips before a matinee of the musical Annie, “Isn’t it funny how FDR is a total hero in this play even though in real life he let millions of Jews die?”  Abbi and Ilana attempt to “retire” to South Florida after falling in love with Ilana’s late grandmother’s Jewish retirement community.  Girls’ Shoshanna attempts to lose her virginity to a man she first met at Camp Ramah.  Holocaust remembrance and an ambivalence about Israel formulate major storylines on Transparent and Broad City, while Difficult People, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and The Sarah Silverman Program. Simply put, the Jews of contemporary television comedy represent the majority of American Jews as outlined by the Pew survey results:  not religious, but engaged enough with Jewish tradition to seek out Jewish religious ritual when they find it meaningful; connected to Jewish identity through food, popular culture, literature, humor, and a sense of shared ethnic heritage; aware of historical antisemitism yet unafraid to share their Jewishness with others.

The Jewish women featured in contemporary TV comedy share little in common with their historical counterparts, but they also share little in common with each other.  The most significant change offered by the female-driven comedy series of the past decade, then, is a diversification of television’s Jewish woman that eschews the idea of a singular model of Jewish female identity in favor of a varied spectrum of character traits, backgrounds, family dynamics, and relationships with Jewishness and Judaism.  The common threads that tie these post-network Jewish women to each other—a positively framed unruliness that emphasizes subjectivity and originality, an unapologetic connection to Jewishness/Judaism unobscured by coding or self-consciousness, outward-facing humor rooted in action rather than in self-deprecation, open sexuality, and a defiance of gender norms—ultimately come together to serve two important functions.  First, they undermine historical representations of Jewish femininity, complicating and, in many cases, bypassing altogether the Jewish Mother/JAP cul-de-sac of Jewish female representation in order to establish new tropes.  Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, they humanize the Jewish woman by individualizing her.  This reconception of the Jewish woman as representing only herself allows for more complex, nuanced representation that leaves room for character flaws, comic mishaps, and precarious choices without communicating blanket messages about what “all Jewish women” are like.

In this “Peak TV” moment, when television is meant to reflect life back at the audience, it stands to reason that television representations of Jewish women should get more and more diverse and nuanced to reflect the landscape of how actual Jews (and actual Jewish women) experience Judaism; the mechanics of the television industry have opened the door for more representation, and that increased representation indicates a desire on the part of Jewish content creators to move beyond classical popular culture tropes of Jewishness—hyper-assimilation, coded Jewishness, stereotypes, cultural whitewashing—and towards a less self-conscious, more complicated, and “culturally narcissistic” version of Jewish representation that engages more meaningfully with Jewish culture in many forms.  The progress made in the past decade towards reframing the Jewish woman on television suggests further variegation in the decades to come, and with that, perhaps the addition of even more multi-layered, socially conscious, and female-driven storytelling that will continue to hone contemporary Jewish comedy and broaden the scope of the television medium by revealing a myriad of Jewish female characters representing an abundance of Jewish femininities.

Samantha Pickette is an assistant professor of Jewish studies, and the assistant director of the Schusterman Center for Jewish studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the former HBI Gilda Slifka Summer Internship academic adviser. 

Join us Monday, March 13, at 6 pm for extended hours and Borcht Belt reminiscent snacks and music in the Kniznick Gallery to view Dirty Dancing: Revisiting the Catskills by artist Marisa J. Futernick.

Stay for the 7 p.m. ET start of Peak TV’s Unapologetic Jewish Woman: Exploring Jewish Female Representation in Contemporary Television Comedy by Samantha Pickette, online and in-person in the Liberman-Miller Lecture Hall at Brandeis University.

Books on sale at the event, $50, cash or Venmo.

All events are free and open to the public. Visit our website for more information on upcoming events.

HBI Celebrates 25 Years: A Message from the Director

By Lisa Fishbayn Joffe

head shot of Lisa Fishbayn JoffeThis past summer, HBI held a workshop in conjunction with the art exhibition, Seven Species, Three Generations. As we experimented with weaving and collage under the tutelage of Mia Schon and Charlie Dov Guterman Schön, the conversation flowed amongst the women around the table. Ronnie Levin, BA ‘73, MA ‘78, and a “Friend of HBI,” told us how apt it was for us to be meeting in the Epstein Building, now home to the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute. She recalled that in 1972, she and nine other women had gathered in this space, then the home of the Brandeis Facilities garage, for a class on car repair taught by the university’s mechanic. That may have been the first women’s only class taught at Brandeis, but Levin and her peers continued to demand women’s studies offerings. The creation of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, now entering our 25th year, is in part the fruit of this advocacy a half century ago. 

Levin’s story really is an HBI story in that something seeded long ago came to fruition many years later in diverse and creative ways. This was evident in December when more than 1,200 Jewish Studies scholars came together in Boston for the annual Association for Jewish Studies Conference. I was delighted to see many HBI research affiliates, alumni of our Gilda Slifka Summer Internship, and scholars who were supported through the HBI Research Award program or the collegial environment of our Scholar in Residence program presenting exciting new work and important reflections shaping the future of the field of Jewish studies.

Joy Ladin

Many of this semester’s programs also highlight work supported by HBI during the research phase that has come to fruition. For the opening session of the Sandra Seltzer Silberman Conversations Series on Wed., Jan 25 at 7 pm, we will  learn with Joy Ladin, widely published essayist and poet, literary scholar and author of Shekhinah Speaks. Ladin’s new collection of compelling poetry, supported by a 2018 HBI Research Award elucidates and channels the voice of the Shekhinah, Judaism’s feminine aspect of G-d. We will follow with on Wed., Feb. 15 at 7 p.m. with Pnina Lahav, Professor of Law Emerita and winner of Israel’s Seltner Award, and the Gratz College Centennial Book Award, for her remarkable feminist biography of Golda Meir, The Only Woman in the Room: Golda Meir and Her Path to Power, in which Lahav explores the myth of how a lone woman surrounded by men makes it to the top. We will also celebrate the release of the newest book in the HBI Series on Jewish Women, Sculpting a Life: Chana Orloff between Paris and Tel Aviv, the first book-length biography of sculptor Chana Orloff (1888-1968), with author Paula Birnbaum on March 15 from 7 to 8 pm. 

Samantha Pickette and Rachel B. Gross, both former HBI interns and now published scholars and professors will be presenting on their latest research and publications. Drawing on themes she honed at HBI as a graduate intern and later working for the program as the Intern Academic Adviser, Pickette, now at University of Texas at Austin, presents Peak TV’s Unapologetic Jewish Woman: Exploring Jewish Female Representation in Contemporary Television Comedy on March 13 at noon. She will analyze the ways in which contemporary American television, Broad City, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, establish new versions of the Jewish woman and a new take on American Jewish female identity that challenges the stereotypes of Jewish femininity proliferated on television since its inception. 

Gross, now an HBI Scholar in Residence and associate professor at San Francisco State, will present, Preaching the Promised Land: Mary Antin’s American Religions on March 28 at noon, exploring Mary Antin’s variable and dynamic approaches to religion. As a political campaigner, a Zionist, a member of an intentional Christian community, a devotee of the Indian spiritual leader Meher Baba and more, Antin’s political and spiritual explorations tell us about the possibilities of early 20th-century American Jewish identities. 

We will also hear from novelists, Rachel Barenbaum and Elizabeth Graver, both of whom used their semesters as Scholars in Residence to complete research on Jewish women’s lives to write novels. Barenbaum will offer a sneak preview on Jan. 23 at noon of her next book, Lady Killers: Jewish Female Assassins in late 19th Century Russia, a collection of six short stories, each portraying a separate Jewish female assassin from the Russian Revolution including women who ran safe houses, built and planted bombs and planned various assassination attempts against the Czar. Graver will speak May 3 at 7 pm in the final program this semester of the  Sandra Seltzer Silberman Conversations Series. She will discuss her newly released book, Kantika, a dazzling Sephardic multigenerational saga based on the life of her grandmother, that moves from Istanbul to Barcelona, Havana, and New York, exploring displacement, endurance, and family as home.

A series of eyes with all different color pupils in the shape of an eye

Work by Gil Yefman

There are so many more programs to explore. Visit our Upcoming Events page to register and learn more about our Studio Israel programs with Gil Yefman Thurs. Feb. 9 at noon, and Zoya Cherkassky on Thurs. March 30 at noon; our seminars with Scholars in Residence Shula Mola on the Formation of Blackness In Israel: The Case of Ethiopian Jews on Mon., Feb. 27 at noon, Sivan Rujuan Shtang on Mizrahi Feminist Art: A Multicultural Imagination on Mon. March 6 at noon, and with Edith Pick, HBI Research Associate, on Gender Perspectives on Jewish Diaspora Organizations, on Mon. April 3 at noon. 

Many of these programs are available through the generosity of our donors and Friends of HBI. Contributions of any size help to fund research positions, research awards, student internships, and public programs. I am grateful to all our supporters, including our Friends of HBI. If you became a friend of HBI during the depths of the pandemic, I invite you to renew your support or become a new Friend of HBI  this year by making a sustaining annual gift of $180 or more. To discuss gifts in honor of our 25th anniversary, please reach out to me or contact Amy Powell. I hope to see you at these events online and in person. Please join us and feel free to spread the word about our work.


Lisa Fishbayn Joffe 

Dr. Lisa Fishbayn Joffe is The Shulamit Reinharz Director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute.

Become a Friend of HBI or make a gift of any amount here. 

Visit HBI’s Scholars at AJS

HBI is proud of our current scholars in residence and research associates who will be presenting at the 54th bookshelf in the HBI library with booksannual conference of the Association for Jewish Studies, Dec. 18-20. This conference, the largest annual gathering of Jewish Studies scholars in the world, will feature more than 1,200 attendees and 190 sessions along with programming, awards ceremonies and a major book exhibit of leading publishers. 

Below are the sessions featuring HBI’s affiliates, including our director, Lisa Fishbayn Joffe, our visiting scholars in residence and our research associates. Join us for a session if you are registered for #AJS22. Please check your conference program for session locations and updates. 


Session 5, Monday, December 19, 2022 8:30-10:00 am


Chair: Sara Ronis, St. Mary’s University, Texas, HBI Scholar in Residence

Bringing the Bible to Babylonia: The Bavli’s Infusion of the  

Mesopotamian landscape with Biblical narratives 

Omer Shadmi, Haifa University 

Saving Face with David: Echoes of b. Sanhedrin 107a-b in Tafsīr and Late  Midrash 

Madeline Wyse, University of California – Berkeley 

Tractate Kuttim and the Emergence of Jewish Dhimmitude, Eliav Grossman 


Chair: Keren R McGinity, USCJ, HBI Research Associate

“I Could Not Live a Double Life”: Giora Manor, the Kibbutz, and the  Dynamics of the Transparent Closet, Dotan Brom, Tel Aviv University

Sidney Franklin’s Verónica Pass: The First American Bullfighter and His  Construction of Queer Jewish Masculinity, Emily Robins Sharpe, Keene State College

The first Hungarian transgender children’s book? Gender nonconformity  in Jewish author Zsuzsa Kántor’s Szerelmem, Csikó (1973), Bogi Perelmutter, University of Kansas

“There is No Prize at the End of the Movement”: Alon Karniel’s Queer  Choreographic Structures as Jewish Diaspora, Hannah Kosstrin, The Ohio State University)

Session 3, Sunday, December 18, 2022 2:30-4:00 pm 


Moderators: Anna Hajkova, University of Warwick

Gregg Drinkwater, University of Colorado, Boulder 

Discussants: Rafael Balling, Stanford University

Aleksandra Gajowy,University of College Dublin

Carli Snyder, City University of New York, Graduate Center

Max Strassfeld, University of Arizona, HBI Scholar in Residence

Mir Yarfitz, Wake Forest University Department of History

Session 4, Sunday, December 18, 2022 4:15-5:45 pm


Chair: Yoel Kretzmer-Raziel, Achva Academic College

Constructing Corpses: The Babylonian Talmud and the Fetal Dead 

Sara Ronis, St. Mary’s University, Texas, HBI Scholar in Residence

The Animalization of Illness in Rabbinic Literature: Models of Illness and Rabbinic Subjectivity, Shulamit Shinnar, Columbia University

“Torah scholars who are similar to women, but act mightily like men;” Once again on construction of rabbinic masculinity Roni Shweka, Bar Ilan University

Session 4, Sunday, December 18, 2022 4:15 pm – 5:45 pm 


Discussants: Mara Benjamin, Mt. Holyoke College,  

Marla Brettschneider, University of New Hampshire, HBI Research Associate

Julie E. Cooper, Tel Aviv University

Session 5, Monday, December 19, 2022 8:30-10:00 am


Chair: Sara Ronis, St. Mary’s University, Texas, HBI Scholar in Residence

Bringing the Bible to Babylonia: The Bavli’s Infusion of the  

Mesopotamian landscape with Biblical narratives 

Omer Shadmi, Haifa University 

Saving Face with David: Echoes of b. Sanhedrin 107a-b in Tafsīr and Late  Midrash 

Madeline Wyse, University of California – Berkeley 

Tractate Kuttim and the Emergence of Jewish Dhimmitude, Eliav Grossman 


Chair: Marsha Dubrow, The Jewish Theological Seminary of America

“Call Forth My Southern Blood”: Performing Confederate Jewish  Womanhood, Heather Nathans, Tufts University

Cosmopolitanism and Cochin’s Jewish Women, Bindu Malieckal, Saint Anselm College, HBI Research Associate

Contributions to a Mizrahi Women’s Living Archive in the Face of Israeli  Ethnonationalism, Ilise Cohen 

Session 7, Monday, December 19, 2022 1:15-2:45 pm


Chair: Julia Sharff, The University of Toronto

Miriam Karpilove and the Yiddish Middlebrow

Jessica Anne Kirzane, The University of Chicago

Mary Antin as American Religious Seeker

Rachel B. Gross, San Francisco State University, HBI Scholar in Residence

Jessie Sampter: A Poet to Forget? Sarah Imhoff, Indiana University

Respondent: Laura Leibman, Reed College

Session 8, Monday, December 19, 2022 3:00-4:30 pm


Moderator: Max Strassfeld, University of Arizona, HBI Scholar in Residence

Discussants: Rachel Adelman, Hebrew College

Esther Brownsmith, MF Norwegian School of Theology, Religion and Society

Tyson Herberger, University of Southeastern Norway

Jane Nichols, Yale University

Madadh Richey, Brandeis University 

Session 10, Tuesday, December 20, 2022 8:30-10:00 am 


Chair: Michal Raucher, Rutgers University, HBI Scholar in Residence

Jewish Nationalism and Religion: The Hebrew Bible and the Formation of the “New Jew” 

Yitzhak Conforti, Bar-Ilan University

Shabbat According to their Halacha: Worship Rituals and Secular Observance Amongst Israelis on the Weekend, Stav Shufan, Bar Ilan University

Educational Prayer in Mandatory Jerusalem: The Case of the Evelina de Rothschild SIDDUR for Girls , Rueven Gafni, The Department for Eretz-Israel Studies, Kinneret Academic College)


Chair: Keren R. McGinity, USCJ, HBI Research Associate

Distinctively Jewish? Personal Names of American Jews, Sarah Bunin Benor, Alicia Blumenfeld Chandler, Wayne State University

Hebrew, French, and “Integration;” Confronting Community Change through Language Practices in a Luxembourgish Synagogue, Anastasia Badder, The University of Cambridge

Multilingualism and Identity Construction in the Ukrainian Jewish community during Russia’s War against Ukraine, Renee Perelmutter, University of Kansas

Thinking Strategies of Bible Study, Ehud Tsemach, Stanford University

Session 11, Tuesday, December 20, 2022 10:15 am – 11:45 am 


Chair: Norma Baumel Joseph, Concordia University

“A Distinctly Jewish Form of Domestic Violence”: Transformations in Jewish Communal Discourse Around Domestic Abuse and Get Refusal,  Lisa Fishbayn Joffe, Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, Brandeis University

 “It was Humiliating”: Orthopraxy and power in stories of Get Abuse in Canada

 Deidre Butler, Carleton University,  Betina Appel Kuzmarov, Carleton University

“Scheming Woman, Clever Man: Rabbinic ambivalence towards abusive behavior in Jewish marriage and divorce” Mari Masha Yossiffon Halpern, University of Toronto, HBI Graduate Student Research Assistant

Compiled by Mara Lebovitz, Brandeis ‘24 and Amy Powell, HBI Assistant Director

‘A selfish, egocentric, jealous and unimaginative female’: Self-doubt among geniuses of the 20th century

(Opinions expressed are those of the writer, Lauren Hakimi.) 

By Lauren Hakimi

Grace Paley thought no one would read her stories. Sylvia Plath “felt sick” when she read back her work. Had I never visited the Smith College archives as part of the 2022 Gilda Slifka Internship Program, I might not have known about the widespread self-doubt among some of the geniuses of the 20th century. 

After visiting the Jewish Feminist Archives at Brandeis, all the HBI interns were excited to visit the Smith College archives. The day my fellow intern Miranda Hellmold Stone, a Smith student, suggested the idea, I went home and looked through the library website. I found a Grace Paley interview I could read, partly because it seemed interesting but also because I sensed that identifying a source for my summer project on Paley would bolster our argument when we pitched the Smith trip to our supervisor. I was equally excited, if not more so, about seeing the documents of Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf and Gloria Steinem. 

Our time in the archives was limited to a couple of hours. Still, what I managed to read demonstrated the uphill battle faced by women whowould turn out to be some of the best writers of the 20th century. The insecurity these women felt about their work is blatantly tied to their gender, and to discrimination against it.

“I put off writing in a way, because when I thought of stories, I thought of stories about women,” Paley, who began writing in the 1950s, said in the interview transcription I read at Smith. “But it seemed to me that nobody would read it. I thought, women’s stuff, they’re not going to read women’s stuff.”

In a journal entry she wrote in 1951, at age 18, Plath wrote, in all capital letters, “CAN A SELFISH EGOCENTRIC JEALOUS AND UNIMAGINATIVE FEMALE WRITE A DAMN THING WORTH WHILE?” As she wrote in the third person and used “female” as a noun, her wording suggests a misogynistic voice that has embedded itself in her head. Her early diaries are full of passages like this.

Plath compared her mind to “a wastebasket full of waste paper; bits of hair, and rotting apple cores” — surprising, since, at the time, mindlessly scrolling down Instagram until you desperately have to use the bathroom had not yet been invented. 

At one point, she even questioned the value of her existence at all, writing, “I think I am worthwhile just because I have optical nerves and can try to put down what they perceive. What a fool!” 

(I found these quotes in Plath’s published journals, not the Smith archives, but the Smith archives have a vast collection of her writings where she surely expresses similar sentiments.)

Of course, both Paley and Plath were geniuses, and despite their concerns, many people would read their work. Paley, for her part, influenced the short story, writing semi-autobiographical and extremely funny stories where, critics would complain, nothing actually happened. And Plath wrote The Bell Jar, one of the greatest novels in the history of American literature. Why were they so insecure? To what extent did that insecurity hinder them, and to what extent was it necessary to their success?

I believe self-doubt can be a good thing; while general doubt is the basis for scientific advancement, perhaps self-doubt is the basis for personal growth or the growth of a writer. Thus the saying that a good writer is someone never satisfied with their work. 

But self-doubt can also be crippling, as Paley described. It takes a certain ego for someone to take up space with her words. Plath, despite all her hair bits and apple cores, certainly had such an ego. Writers are notorious for this — for being both insecure and egocentric at the same time. This combination — possibly the result of extremely high standards rooted in the basic knowledge that one really can be a great writer — must be why writers have a reputation as being so annoying to work with or have as friends. 

Surely, no insecurity could have stopped women like this — forces of nature — from putting pen to paper. When somebody was the kind of writer they were, the words must have almost forced themselves out, no matter what risk they posed to the person speaking them. Writing is the means and ends of life, patriarchy or not. But then, if that were true, no great writer would commit suicide — as Plath did.

As multiple interns had expressed interest in Plath, Maureen Cresci Callahan, an archivist at Smith, who guided our exploration of the archives, brought out the typewriter the author had used as a college student. 

picture of Plath's Royal typewriter

Courtesy of the Sylvia Plath Collection, Smith College

I’d never written on a typewriter before. Two of my fingertips grazed its buttons, half-fearing that touching them might lead to the spontaneous combustion of all the world’s paper. Overcoming that fear, I tried typing a few words on it, but for some reason, whatever I wrote failed to materialize into an era-defining novel translated into at least 32 languages.

The typewriter had all the same letters as my own keyboard at home. I was surprised, as if I’d expected Plath to have access to some secret bonus letters that brought her thoughts to life. She had no such thing. No magic wand, no invisibility cloak, no secret telephone where God could reach her and whisper the words into her ear. She really just had this boring old typewriter. The boring old typewriter, and her mind.

One of the pieces of advice Paley gave aspiring writers in 1970 was that they didn’t have to be writers. She quoted a poem by Paul Goodman in which a man needs a new ship but says he is too tired to work for it. The shipbuilder responds:

“No one asks you, either,”/he patiently replied, “to venture/ forth./Whither? why? maybe just forget it.”

No one asked Plath to venture forth; no one asked Paley. In the end, we are all just unimaginative females sitting alone before a blank page. It is up to us to drag the truth from out of our hearts and shape it into art. A little bit of selfishness and egocentrism can only help with this noble cause.

Lauren Hakimi wearing a brown shirtLauren Hakimi is a writer and journalist with bylines in JTA, The New York Jewish Week, The Forward, Lilith magazine and more. She was a 2022 HBI Gilda Slifka Intern and is now the associate editor of New Voices magazine. Find her on Twitter @lauren_hakimi. 


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