May 13, 2021

Pressing Feminist Agendas: New Reports from the Field

Editor’s Note: HBI is hosting Pressing Feminist Agendas: New Reports from the Field to launch Issue 37, dedicated to the study of Jewish feminist ethnographies. The conference is Wed, May 12, 12:30 pm EST. Register Here

By Amy Powell

The Hadassah-Brandeis Institute will host Pressing Feminist Agendas: New Reports from the Field to launch the latest issue of Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies and Gender Issues, at a virtual conference on Wed., May 12. The conference will feature short talks from several of the issue’s authors and artists.

Nashim #37The work collected in the current issue of Nashim, titled Jewish Feminist Ethnographies connects along the theme of the “pressing feminist agendas, expressed in attention for example, to intersectionality in women’s lives, systemic inequalities of power, and the movement from marginalization to empowerment,” wrote Consulting Editor Vanessa Ochs, a professor of religious studies and a member of the Jewish Studies Program at the University of Virginia.

Vanessa Ochs

Vanessa Ochs

 

Underscoring these themes, Ochs noted that many of the contributors to this issue completed their papers while facing issues unique to the pandemic — teaching remotely for the first time, caring for children or elders, in a “fearful time without precedent,” an accomplishment to be “lifted up and celebrated.”

Work to be presented on May 12 includes: 

  • The “Vulnerable Hero” and His Wife: PTSD and the Shifting Dynamics of Gender and Care in Contemporary Israel by Keren Friedman-Peleg, a senior lecturer in the School of Behavioral Science at the College of Management – Academic Studies, Israel. She is the author of PTSD and the Politics of Trauma in Israel: A Nation on the Couch  (Hebrew, Magnes Press, 2014) and (English, University of Toronto Press, 2017)

 

  • They Must Join Us, There is No Other Way,”: Haredi Activism, the Battle Against Sexual Violence, and the Reworking of Rabbinic Accountability by Michal Kravel-Tovi,  an associate professor of socio-cultural anthropology at Tel Aviv University. She is the author of When the State Winks: The Performance of Jewish Conversion in Israel (Columbia University Press, 2017, 2020) and co-editor of Taking Stock: Cultures of Enumeration in Contemporary Jewish Life (with Deborah Dash Moore; Indiana University Press, 2016).  

 

  • Milk Sisters: Forging Sisterhood at Kohenet’s Hebrew Priestess Institute by Cara Rock-Singer, an assistant professor of Religious Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she is affiliated with the Mosse/Weinstein Center for Jewish Studies, the Holtz Center for Science and Technology and the department for Gender and Women’s Studies. 

 

Judith Margolis, art editor of Nashim, will interview Joan Roth, who contributed In Search of Jewish Women: My Travels into Light, a photo essay about Jewish women living far from the familiar centers of modern Jewish life. The work features women in Ethiopia, Yemen, Morocco, the former Soviet Union, eastern Europe, South America, Bukhara and India.  Joan Roth’s photographs have been published, exhibited and collected worldwide, starting in the 1970s. The work featured in Nashim was previously published in her book Jewish Women: A world of Tradition and Change (Jolen Press, 1995). 

 

Other work in Nashim includes: 

  • The Chinese Unicorn, in memory of Irene Eber, by Kathryn Hellerstein
  • Creating Jewish Mothers: A Feminist Ethnographic Investigation of the Mothers Circle of Coastal Virginia and the Interfaith Parents Circle, by Amy Milligan
  • Two Poems by Janet Heller
  • A Mother’s Prayer (poem) by Shirley Adelman
  • Water Wears Away Stone: Caring for Those We can Only Imagine by Sarah Zager 
  • Gender, Language and Territory: The Tsushtayer Literary Journal in Galicia and the Contributions of Yiddish Women Writers by Anastasiya Lyubas

There are several book reviews:

  • From Left to Right: Lucy S. Dawidowicz, the New York Intellectuals, and the Politics of Jewish History (Wayne State University Press, 2020) by Nancy Sinkoff, review by Dana Herman
  • The Obligated Self: Maternal Subjectivity and Jewish Thought (Indiana University Press, 2018) by Mara Benjamin, reviewed by Benjamin Pollack
  • Chava Rosenfarb: Confessions of a Yiddish Writer and Other Essays, (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019) edited by Goldie Morgentaler and reviewed by Anastasiya Lyubas.

Amy Powell is the assistant director of HBI.

Register here for Pressing Feminist Agendas: New Reports from the Field

Wed, May 12, 12:30 pm EST. Obtain your copy of Nashim: Jewish Feminist Ethnographies here. 

Passover: Achieving the Ideal

By Wendy Amsellem and Mike Moskowitz

If Purim is the holiday of making do, then Passover, by contrast, is about achieving the ideal. The Jews are in a sorry state at the start of the Purim story – dispersed among the nations and isolated from one another. While we celebrate the foiling of Haman’s evil plan by the end of the megillah, the Jewish people are still scattered in exile and potentially vulnerable to the next tyrant once Esther and Mordechais’ influence wanes. On Purim, the people celebrate by sending gifts of food to one another because they cannot actually be together. While Esther has used her sway with the King to great effect, at the end of the book she is still married to a foreign king whom she did not choose, and the rule that every man dominates his wife is still very much the law of the land.

On Passover, the Israelites don’t just demand better conditions for their servitude. Instead, they emerge as free people, heads held high, bedecked with the finery of their oppressors, as they sing their way to liberation. On Passover, there are no compromises. Moses demands (Exodus 10:9) that not a single Israelite, neither young nor old, neither female nor male, be left behind.

When the rabbis describe the Exodus, they highlight gender equality as a striking feature. Both women and men receive reparations from the Egyptians. Both women and men rejoice at the splitting of the sea. It is specifically in the merit of the righteous women (Talmud Bavli Sotah 11b) that all of Israel is redeemed. This gender parity is further highlighted in the laws of the Seder night. Even though halakhah generally releases women from time-bound obligations, women are commanded to fully participate in the Seder. Women and men are both obligated to eat matzah, to drink four cups of wine, and to retell the story of the Exodus. 

Shifting from a posture of coping to one of change requires leaning (pun intended) into different aspects of being human. The name for the first human, Adam- אדם, famously has its roots in “from the earth” אֲדָמָ֔ה (Genesis 2:7) – literally grounded in the reality of the present and limited to whatever is available at the moment. However, Adam- אדם also has its source in the word אֶדַּמֶּ֖ה which means to imagine (Hosea 12:11). We as the descendants of Adam have the power to aspire to and achieve a better world than the one in which we currently exist.

A third meaning of אדמה is related to the word לדמות, to compare. Isaiah 14:14 teaches:

אֶעֱלֶ֖ה עַל־בָּ֣מֳתֵי עָ֑ב אֶדַּמֶּ֖ה לְעֶלְיֽוֹן׃ 

I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be comparable to the Most High.

The phrase אֶדַּמֶּ֖ה לְעֶלְיֽוֹן reminds us that we, as people, should always be reaching for the ideal and striving to be Godly.  

Reordering society begins by questioning the current status quo. We start the seder with the Four Questions because questions themselves bring about change and highlight the unique aspect of being human: to ask (מה and אדם have the same numerical value of 45) and answer. By engaging in this humble process of discerning what is essential and true and what is false and fantastical, our understanding of reality is transformed. 

Wisdom,  חכמה – chochma, comes from the power of questioning כח מה (Mesach Chachma). Throughout the year we strive to be talmidei chachamim, students, and practitioners of wisdom. On the night of Passover, when we recite Mah Nishtanah – the asking itself changes and affects change differently.

Visioning requires us to know where we are so that we can plot a path forward. We prepare for the Passover experience by searching for bread with the light of a candle, in all of the cracks and the crevices, to really understand our point of departure. The seder, meaning order, is a lesson in restoring the wholeness and equity of this broken world, as a model for a sustainable year-round version.

The wise child of the Haggadah asks: “What are the testimonies, decrees, and ordinances which Hashem, our God has commanded you?” The child wants to understand the rules, presumably so they can understand how these laws apply to the world today. The parent’s answer is not about legal specificity. Instead, the answer is, “Do not eat anything after the Passover sacrifice!” We want the child to understand, and linger over, the taste of freedom. Questions are sometimes best answered by experience.

What is the taste of freedom? If we were to prepare for the needs of the world the way we prepare for the Passover seder, what would the world look like? How can we achieve it? When do we know to settle for improvements and when to start anew in pursuit of perfection? As we reflect on this time in the Jewish calendar, may we appreciate the small steps that have been taken to ameliorate oppression, but may we also be bold enough to imagine and then to achieve complete liberation.

Rabbi Wendy Amsellem teaches Talmud and Halakha at Yeshivat Maharat and is the Director of the Beit Midrash Program. (Pronouns: She/Hers)

Rabbi Mike Moskowitz is a Scholar-in-Residence in Trans and Queer Jewish Studies at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York. (Pronouns: He/Him) He will be teaching gender and sexuality at Brandeis this summer in the Genesis Pre-college Program. 

 

Jewish Women Passing During the Holocaust

By Gavi Klein

Editor’s note: The HBI Research Award program awards grants annually to support research or artistic projects in Jewish women’s and gender studies across a range of disciplines. In 2021, HBI gave out 16 awards totaling $62,000. This is one in an occasional series on past research award recipients and their ongoing work. 

Most known stories about Jews hiding during the Holocaust focus on the physical act of hiding. Hana Green, 2019 Hadassah-Brandeis Institute Research Award recipient, finds the narratives of non-physical hiding an equally important and largely unaddressed issue.

“In brief, my research centers on assessing the experience of Jewish women who passed as ‘Aryan’ by assuming false identities and hiding in plain sight,” Green said. She is using her research award to understand more about what she has found to be a gaping hole in the historical studies of the Holocaust: specifically the “passing” of Jewish women. While her research has been stalled, temporarily, due to the closing of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in light of the pandemic, Green already has some extensive ideas on the topic, in part thanks to her work in the past two years at the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University.

Initially, Green wasn’t looking at the impact of Jewish women passing during the Holocaust, but more broadly at womens’ experiences during the period overall. She says, “Early on in my research I worked with diaries and oral testimonies of Jewish women both in hiding and those passing ‘in plain sight.’ I was astounded by these experiences and as I began to look deeper, I realized that there was little specific research on passing more broadly.” From there on, Green’s research proceeded with a singular focus on Jewish women who passed as Aryan in Germany and Austria during the Holocaust. 

Part of what initially drew Green to this topic was the lack of research around what she saw as a poignantly significant issue. “I think that largely, passing narratives have been subsumed alongside those of hiding and resistance,” she says. “They’ve been primarily incorporated within these other narratives because of how deeply entangled they are (passing was a form of hiding and was, I argue, an active act of resistance) and because of the fluid nature of passing.” The distinctions between narratives of passing and narratives of hiding and resistance are key, Green notes, and she intends to use her research to draw conclusions on the impact of these distinctions later down the line.

Until then, Green has explored other accounts of passing, and the revealing nuances within those accounts. For one, she has delved into the complexities that family dynamics played in narratives of passing. “I’ve come across both individuals who passed by themselves, as well as individuals who passed with either a partner, friend or other family member,” she says, “Many of the individuals I’ve studied have commented on the often painful decision to leave family members behind in ghettos or when transport orders arrived.” Often, only one or a few family members of a given family unit were able to access the proper documents to “legally pass,” and as Green notes, were forced to face the heartbreaking decision of whether or not to leave their family behind.

Family is only part of it, however. Green’s research mostly centers on women’s experiences of passing and the role of gender in those experiences. “For a long time it was contended that women were more successful in both hiding and passing,” she notes. She goes on to explain that the physical markers of Jewish men (circumcision) and the stereotypes of them, in addition to sexual politics, tended to make it easier for a woman to pass. She is still learning whether or not women were actually more successful at passing, or more likely to have attempted to, but even though her research centers on women, “studying the experiences of Jewish women who passed will also play a role in understanding this survival mechanism more broadly, and thus inform the study of male passers.”

Green’s studies have a far reach; while she delves primarily into the Holocaust, her findings have echoes even farther back in history, with noted parallels to Crypto-Jews and Conversos in the Spanish Inquisition. In more recent times, she draws connections to modern American Jewish history and American Jews concealing their Jewish identity in order to bypass occupational discrimination or academic quotas, such as changing their appearance to appear “less Jewish” or anglicizing their surnames. Green’s work in a past project on the Inquisition notes several uniting qualities of passing both then and during the Holocaust: “passing as an act of resistance, the impact of appearance and aesthetic on one’s ability to pass, the impact of racial conceptions in each instance of passing, the effect of one’s relationship to Judaism and Jewish practice, the complexities of Jewish identity construction and malleability, and the centrality of antisemitism in the Jewish experience.” She goes on, “While, at their core, each of these examples of Jewish passing were unique, these key common threads appeared in each instance and entwined them together to form distinct lines of continuity and crossover which, I argue, contribute to the creation of a longer, shared practice of passing as a Jewish response to persecution.” Many of these qualities also seem to also draw in modern-day American Jewish experiences as well, though in a notably different and less immediately threatening political and social environment.

Green’s project highlights fascinating connections between the present and the past and how they intersect in ways that remain timeless. “This research may be helpful to the broader study of questions related to identity fluidities, ambiguities, and transformations,” Green says, “Perhaps even more significant, this investigation may provide fruitful commentary on passing experiences more broadly—across race, ethnicity, social class, gender, sexuality and beyond.”

Hana Green is a Ph.D. student studying Holocaust history at Clark University’s Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies in Worcester, Massachusetts, where she holds a Claims Conference Fellowship.  She received a Research Award from HBI for this work in 2019. 

Gavi Klein, Brandeis ‘21, American Studies, is an HBI student blogger. 

 

Queering Sacred Texts: Reclamation and Resistance Through Midrash Making

By Aliyah Blattner

Editor’s note: Aliyah Blattner was a 2020 HBI Gilda Slifka summer intern. Applications are open now for the 2021 summer internship. More information is available here. Deadline is March, 15, 2021. 

I remember reading midrash as a child at my Schechter day school. While we explored the stories of the Tanakh through the eyes and words of the rabbis, my teachers emphasized the power of midrash as a testament to the dynamic, ever-evolving nature of the Jewish tradition. If the foundations of our culture were built upon centuries of thoughtful debate and discussion, then anyone could find meaning and personal power in the sacred texts we studied, even us as modern, American children. However, the midrash we read and studied was mostly a Rabbinic period’s “greatest hits” list. Instead of portraying the liveliness of Jewish storytelling practice, the midrash we were exposed to was predominantly based in perspectives that were as removed from our lives as the biblical stories they were intended to make accessible. 

Additionally, like many of the most essential aspects of Judaism, the influence of patriarchy impeded upon my ability as a young girl to feel connected to the interpretations and explanations of the stories that we elevated in the classroom. I found myself pushing back against many of the rabbis’ writings, unable to help myself from noticing the glaring absence of women from the tradition of midrash making. How could I celebrate the power in questioning and reimagining ancient texts if the innovative interpretations we glorified felt equally inaccessible to me as the biblical stories they were meant to unpack? I found myself seeking out new ways to find myself in the textual legacy of the Jewish tradition.

I largely came across midrashei nashim, or women’s midrash, by accident. As a poet, I often write on biblical themes, and am fascinated by the relationship between divinity, queerness, and womanhood as it appears in the Tanakh. I also am an prolific reader of Jewish feminist poetry, much of which focuses on elevating the stories of women in the Torah. But I never saw my work or the work of these poets as “midrash making.” We were just women who happened to reimagine Jewish texts in our creative works. In my mind, this was distinctly different from the ancient rabbis of the sixth century who penned the midrashim I read as a child. This disconnect is not random. As someone who did not see Jewish women in leadership roles (religious or otherwise) until much later in life, I understand why I never conceived of women being capable of shaping Judaism in the same ways as the male rabbis of the past. It was not until this summer, through my work as a Gilda Slifka intern, that I began to perceive what I (and the inspirational women rabbis, scholars, and artists) had cultivated from the 1960’s to present day as a legitimate form of midrash.

I would describe the experience of reading feminist midrash as the moment when one learns that their favorite book has been missing its most important pages. While you can enjoy the story without all its chapters, that incomplete experience can never compare to reading the novel in its entirety. Feminist midrash makers strive to reinterpret the Tankah through a feminist lens to fill in the gaps left behind by Jewish misogyny. These women recognize the danger of allowing men alone to debate the meaning of the Torah without engaging with other perspectives and they champion the importance of female interpretations of religious texts to expand upon and complicate the ways that women related to their Judaism. Feminist midrash aims to enhance and build off the Tanakh by providing readers with access to a different perspective that serves to enrich the text and make a more whole Judaism. It’s about giving women a voice in a centuries-old conversation from which we’ve largely been excluded and as an avid reader (and aspiring maker) of midrash, I have discovered an entirely new way to relate to my Judaism through queerness and womanhood. 

One of my favorite evolutions of midrashei nashim has been the proliferation of midrash that roots itself in LGBTQ+ perspectives and experiences. Unlike the writings of cisgender, straight women in the 1970s and 1980s who centered their own voices and lenses as the “truest” forms of feminist midrash, queer Jews aspire to re-envision the ways that we understood and related to Judaism by both queering biblical characters and unpacking the Tanakh in radical ways. While early women’s midrash works toward uplifting the stories of biblical women by giving them voice and agency, queer midrash draws into question the fundamental categories and norms that underpin ancient texts, challenging the ways that Jewish tradition reinforces arbitrary standards, binaries, and understandings of human existence.

One of the first pieces of queer midrash I ever read was acclaimed poet and professor Joy Ladin’s quintessential “Wrestling Till Dawn,” which reinterprets the classic tale of Jacob wrestling with the angel through a transgender lens. She depicts Jacob’s struggle as a battle with both a higher power and his own gender identity. When Jacob ties with the messenger in Parashat Vayishlach, dawn breaks, and Jacob is renamed Israel, or “the one who wrestles with God.” From this struggle, Israel emerges with a renewed understanding of both himself and the way that he fits within the world as a Jewish person. Additionally, Ladin draws from the biblical Hebrew to advocate for a trans context for Jacob’s actions, citing the description of him “limping on his hip” as a coded reference to his body’s physical relationship with gender. 

While Ladin’s interpretation of this story functions to reveal the way that trans experiences and perspectives enrich the ways that we interact with sacred texts, her words also serve to achieve a greater goal. She reveals that while queer midrash, on a surface level, can be written to portray biblical characters as queer themselves, she celebrates how a queer lens can reveal hidden meanings within the text and provide contemporary queer Jews with both a voice in the canon and a path toward liberation through biblical narratives.

In a way, I would characterize the process of writing midrash as a distinctly queer act. When the rabbis were presented with a normative and seemingly irrefutable text, they chose to read between the lines, ask questions, and challenge the assumptions that underpinned the words of God. By expanding upon and going beyond the text through innovative interpretations, Torah scholars relied upon the text itself to reveal answers to the questions that bothered them. As a queer woman, navigating the nuances of my identity, in many ways, reminds me of the methods that the first midrash makers utilized to understand and interpret the Tanakh. We both understand the danger in blindly accepting the truths we are given and seek meaning in the act of questioning as a form of resistance and an expression of love for the complexity of the human experience. 

I believe that queer midrash provides us with an incredibly important lens through which to better understand the Jewish tradition. If women’s midrash pushed to fill the proverbial second half of the shelf, queer midrash is an extension of that legacy, adding more voices into the conversation to achieve a more whole tradition. When we treat rabbinic midrash as irrefutable truth, we undermine its value and compromise the ability of midrash to provide modern readers with the insights and questions necessary to learn from and grow through the study of the Tanakh. Furthermore, we limit the scope of Jewish tradition because only certain members of our community can find themselves in traditional texts or feel entitled to critique our culture. To that end, in order to bring queer Jews into the conversation, it is essential to treat midrash as the tool of reclamation and resistance that it has been for generations of queer Jews. If the radical act of questioning is foundational in Jewish culture, then we must also embrace queerness and the diverse experiences and perspectives of queer Jews into our religious traditions as a celebration of our collective ability to wrestle with sacred texts in our everyday lives.

Aliyah Blattner is a sophomore at Brown University and was HBI 2020 Gilda Slifka summer intern. 

Welcome to HBI’s Spring Semester

By Lisa Fishbayn Joffe

The new spring term begins here at Brandeis this week. While we are still in a virtual world, we continue to offer a full roster of programs. This semester, I am looking forward to teaching, “Jewish Feminisms” to a new generation of students who are passionate about Jewish women’s and gender studies. Our expanded online offerings to the public will run through the spring with a full roster of events that include explorations of gender, race, and Israeli art through Studio Israel; meetings with authors of important new works in Jewish studies scholarship, memoir and fiction through HBI Conversations; explorations of the experience of Latin American Jewish women in programs from our  Latin American Jewish Gender Studies Project; the launch of the spring issue of our journal Nashim on Jewish Feminist Ethnographies; and the opening of our online art exhibition, The Fez as Storyteller, by Iraqi-American artist, Camille Eskell. 

Scholars in Residence

This term we welcome two virtual scholars in residence. Please join us at the Institute Seminar to learn more about their work,  and that of other HBI affiliates and invited guests.

Conceiving Motherhood: The Reception of Biblical Mothers in the Early Jewish Imagination

Sari Fein is a Ph.D. candidate in the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies Department at Brandeis. Her areas of interest include Hebrew Bible, Judaism and Christianity in late antiquity, and women’s and gender studies. Sari’s dissertation is on the reception history of biblical mothers in early Jewish art and literature. During her residency, Sari will be working on chapters on the afterlife of Rachel in Lamentations Rabbah, and the many lives of the “Mother of Seven” in 2 and 4 Maccabees, and rabbinic literature.

The Crooked and the Straight: Queer Theory and Rabbinic Literature

Gwynn Kessler is an Associate Professor in the Department of Religion and the Director of the Beit Midrash at Swarthmore College. She received her Ph.D. in Talmud and Rabbinics, with a specialization in midrash, from the Jewish Theological Seminary. She is the author of Conceiving Israel: The Fetus in Rabbinic Narratives (UPenn, 2009) and co-editor with Naomi Koltun-Fromm of A Companion to Late Ancient Jews and Judaism (Wiley Blackwell, 2020). She is currently working on her second monograph that uses queer theory to examine rabbinic constructions of gender and the body. 

Research Awards

We are also pleased to announce the recipients of the 2021 HBI Research Awards which recognize and support new work that will make an important contribution to the field of Jewish women’s and gender studies. With the help of evaluations by our Academic Advisory Committee, HBI supported 16 outstanding projects from various disciplines. You can see the full list of award winners here. Congratulations to previous award winner Nancy Sinkoff, whose book From Left to Right: Lucy S. Daw­id­ow­icz, the New York Intel­lec­tu­als, and the Pol­i­tics of Jew­ish His­to­ry was honored with a 2021 National Jewish Book Award in the category of biography. 

Wishing you all a healthy and productive spring.

Warmly,

Lisa

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

Protected by Akismet
Blog with WordPress

Welcome Guest | Login (Brandeis Members Only)