June 5, 2023

HBI Awards $52,000 in Research Funds

By Amy Powell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amy Powell is the assistant director of HBI.

Meet the Students of HBI

By Violet Fearon

This year, HBI is thrilled to have a number of students working in various positions to help the Institute’s core mission of promoting research on the intersection between Jews and gender.

Menachem Bandel is a senior triple-majoring in economics, political science, and international and global studies. Menachem was born in Miami, FL and raised in Venezuela; he now resides in Miami. He is passionate about the issues facing Venezuelans—his experience of both Latin American and US culture has opened his eyes to the importance of giving back to those less fortunate. Menachem is especially interested in his Latin American Jewish heritage; as a segment of the Jewish community that is not frequently discussed, he is eager to use his knowledge to spread awareness of the diverse cultures that Judaism encompasses.

Menachem enjoys spending time with his friends, studying Latin American and Middle Eastern politics, and baseball. He is also a teaching assistant for the undergraduate business program and works for Brandeis Escort and Safety Services. Menachem works for Dalia Wassner, HBI Research Associate and the director of the Project in Latin American Jewish & Gender Studies.

Violet Fearon is a freshman at Brandeis from Pleasantville, NY who writes for HBI’s Fresh Ideas blog. While she has not yet declared a major, Violet is interested in creative writing, film, and literature; she is also a member of Brandeis’s Humanities Fellowship Program. Outside of classes, Violet enjoys writing short stories and screenplays.


Yael Jaffe is an undergraduate at Brandeis, triple-majoring in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies; Near Eastern and Judaic studies; and sociology. After Brandeis, she plans to attend graduate school to continue studying the intersections of Judaism and gender, and ultimately hopes to work in academia. She also hopes to continue her involvement in Jewish study and community leadership. In Yael’s sophomore year, her advisor, Professor ChaeRan Freeze, introduced her to HBI. Last year, Yael helped to found the Jewish Feminist Association of Brandeis, and immediately reached out to HBI to establish a relationship between the organizations. Since then, she’s served as a liaison between JFAB and HBI. In her free time, Yael enjoys cooking, studying in the Beit Midrash, rewatching The Office, and singing with her a capella group, Company B.


Sarah Kirchick is an undergraduate at Brandeis considering either becoming an independent interdisciplinary major or majoring in psychology. Raised in Boston and California, Sarah hopes to someday work in a hospital setting as a psychologist; she is especially interested in working with developmentally delayed children, as well as patients with personality disorders, depression, and anxiety. As such, she is especially interested in the work at HBI from a psychological standpoint. Sarah enjoys art, playing with children and animals, learning new things, and tabletop games. She is a student research partner for Rivka Tuval-Mashiach, an HBI Helen Gartner Hammer Scholar-in-Residence.


Reid Kurtz is a graduate student from Anchorage, AK, helping HBI Director Lisa Fishbayn Joffe to update the syllabus for a spring semester course entitled “Gender, Multiculturalism and the Law in the Liberal Tradition.” Reid is a dual-degree student at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management, where she is getting a Masters degree in sustainable international development; she is also getting a JD from Northeastern University School of Law. Reid hopes to work as a lawyer in international development and human rights law, with a specific focus on the problems faced by immigrants and displaced persons.  In her free time, Reid enjoys reading, traveling, rewatching Parks and Rec, and spending time outside with her dog, Chela.


Rachel Snyderman is a sophomore and a prospective major in psychology with a minor in Hispanic studies. She hails from Washington, D.C. and loves to sing, bake, draw, and pet dogs. As a Jewish woman, Rachel was initially drawn to HBI because of their focus on topics impacting Jews and gender. In addition to her work for HBI, Rachel is a Peer Advocate at the Brandeis Rape Crisis Center and a member of Rather Be Giraffes A Capella and the Brandeis Reform Chavurah. She is HBI’s student office assistant.


Amaranth Weiss is a Master’s student in anthropology from Charlotte, NC. She’s currently working on a study of religious divorce in Boston as part of the Agunah Task Force Project, funded by a grant from the Brandeis Provost’s Innovative Inquiry Fund and the Miriam Fund of Combined Jewish Philanthropy.  After Brandeis, Amaranth is considering pursuit of a Ph.D., and ultimately hopes to teach. She enjoys swimming and singing, and is involved with multiple choral groups.


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


Teaching Our Children When, How to Speak Out

By Ruth Nemzoff

Several years ago, an African-American student at Brandeis asked me, “What was it like growing up white in America? My response was spontaneous.

“I wouldn’t know. I wasn’t White then. They were killing my people in Europe. Here, they were banning us from entering the country. For those here, they limited our access to universities, country clubs and upscale suburbs.” My student was stunned.

Growing up in the 40s and 50s, I was Jewish, not White. Along came the civil rights movement and then, in 1989,  Black legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” to describe overlapping or intersecting social identities and related systems of oppression, domination, or discrimination.  Her essay is titled, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.”

Suddenly I was White, along with the Irish, Italians and other ethnic groups who had previously been denoted as “others.” That is, until last week. In Charlottesville, as the Neo-Nazis marched chanting, “We will not be replaced by Jews,” I was no longer merely White. My identity could no longer be lumped with all the other people whose skin are various shades of white.

In many ways I do benefit from the color of my skin. From the less important like getting served versus overlooked at coffee bars, to the most terrifying — neither my children nor I worry about getting pulled over and murdered by police for no reason. Because I am White, there are many cases my where competence is assumed, but still others where the opposite is true simply because I am a woman. For example, people assume I like cooking when I don’t. Conversely, I have earned less than male colleagues. When I ran for the N.H. state legislature, I was accused of being a bad parent. My male colleagues were not.

I recognize that the intersection of my white skin, my gender and my Jewishness is lost to others but not to me. Identity is both what we think of ourselves as well as what others think of us. I feel a kinship with the poor white male who can’t get a job, does not have enough money, but is told he’s privileged. He does not feel advantaged.  Having come to consciousness when Jews were terrorized, I can never be without fear. Underlying my financial and educational privilege is a subconsciousness that always reminds me to be wary.

My concern now is for the next generation of Jews – particularly those who are currently attending colleges. The alt-right/Nazi protests in Charlottesville, VA with their terrifying chant, have rekindled my fears.  Some believed that anti-Semitism was a figment of the Jewish imagination or a persecution complex or even a remnant of the past. Sadly, Charlottesville showed us that it is in fact alive and well here in the United States. Even scarier, our president and many of our elected leaders are unwilling to condemn it.

So what do we do? As parents and grandparents, as mothers and grandmothers, it is our obligation to educate ourselves about the happenings on college campuses. When is intersectionality used as a blunt instrument rather than a tool for understanding? How do we admit our privilege, while still helping others to acknowledge our precariousness. We must educate ourselves and then our children to respond to untruths and more importantly, to half-truths.

One of our obligations as Jewish women is to prepare our children for their place as Jews in society. Today’s campuses have both anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. Do we and our children know Jewish history? Do they know how to respond?

Our democratic obligation is to both love and criticize our government. It may be that we need to do this for Israel also. How do we prepare our children for the “whose oppression is worse” discussions raging on campus? How do we prepare them and ourselves to move the conversation into constructive actions for all oppressions?

How do we help our children both acknowledge some of the privileges they have as one demographic and the fear they have because of another? How do we help others understand that the well founded fears of one group are not more valid than the well founded fears of another?

We all know the quote from Pastor Martin Niemoller.

“First they came for the Socialists and I did not speak out –

Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out- 

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out –

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Do we know how to speak out?  Do our children?

Ruth Nemzoff, Ph.D, is a resident scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center, Brandeis University and author of Don’t Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children and of Don’t Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws Into Family. She is the Former Assistant Minority Leader, New Hampshire House of Representatives.

A Statement in Opposition to the NWSA Resolution on BDS

By Janet Freedman

The National Women’s Studies Association, at their annual conference beginning Nov. 14, will hear arguments for and against their proposed resolution, to support an economic, cultural and academic boycott of Israel, in support of the Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) movement.

Dr. Janet Freedman, a longtime member of the NWSA as well as a member of the HBI’s Academic Advisory Board and a scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center, prepared these remarks in opposition.

FreedmanWhen I am determining how to work in solidarity with those who are seeking peace between Israelis and Palestinians, I start with a question.

Do you think that the state of Israel should continue to exist?

My support for any action on the Israeli/Palestinian issue is predicated on knowing that those involved are committed to the continued existence of the state of Israel.

I am equally committed to the creation of a Palestinian state.

The divide between the aspirations of the Palestinians and Israelis has deepened to the point of despair on both sides and throughout the world.

When I read the BDS resolution proposed for endorsement by the NWSA, and the supporting FAQs, I am deeply offended. The material in support of the resolution states:

“What is really anti-Semitic is to define all Jews with a philosophy that many find abhorrent to the traditions of social justice and universality that Judaism enshrines.”  

I am angry to have my Judaism defined for me and to be told by NWSA what is “really anti-Semitic.”

While I can convey my progressive politics in Jewish groups, increasingly, I do not feel I can express my Jewish voice within the progressive community, including NWSA, which has been one of my homes for many years. With just a few gaps, I have returned to conference after conference since the late 1970s because I want to engage in “difficult dialogues,” the theme of two recent conferences.

But, in spite of this proposed resolution, there has been little dialogue about Israel and Palestine. I am aware and saddened that the zeal with which many come to their position on BDS is often in contrast with an awareness of history, or a respect for the accuracy of the information brought to their advocacy.  Although I have read a good deal about Zionism and about the countries and political struggles in the Middle East, this has not yielded clarity, but an acknowledgement of myriad complexities and contradictions.

I feel it is important to bring knowledge, understanding and careful reflection to every action, and that it is particularly important to learn from people who are affected by the conflict every day – the Israelis and Palestinians whose familial, spiritual, economic and political pasts, presents and futures are involved. Tourists, and even those who regularly spend some periods of time living in the area cannot speak from the personal experience of Israelis or Palestinians.  From my relatively secure environment in the United States I can only imagine the terror that affects them.

The BDS movement directs our energy away from ways to find a peaceful solution that respects the humanity of both Israelis and Palestinians.  It oversimplifies to the point of gross inaccuracies. Terms such as “imperialism,” “colonizing” and other tropes distort actual history.  The rhetoric turns a complex issue into a two-sided one that erases many narratives. It equates supporting BDS resolutions with a pledge of solidarity with Palestine while placing those who question that strategy in the enemy camp, assumed to be opposed to justice and even made the objects of scorn and vitriol.  Organizing efforts have become ends in themselves, unintentionally – and sometimes intentionally – based on the spreading of rumors and misinformation to the detriment of the people who are actually involved in the daily struggle. It is anti-Semitic. I would ask those who villainize Israel while insisting they do not hate Jews to consider Audre Lorde’s words: “I urge each of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives here.”

Jews recently celebrated Simchat Torah, the holiday that marks the ending of the last reading of the Torah and the beginning of a new cycle, and invites Jews to rejoice in the source of their religious identity. I remember the time as a young child when my father and other males in the synagogue marched around the sanctuary taking turns holding the holy scrolls close to their hearts. Israel had just become a state and much of the world – including the progressive community – rejoiced with our congregation. Last month I celebrated the holiday once again. We formed a circle; now women and children as well as men held the hand-lettered sacred scroll, slowly unfurled to reveal the ancient texts that underscore the Jewish values of Torah, avodah (prayer and service to the community) and gemilut chassidim (acts of loving kindness).

My granddaughter, soon to be a bat mitzvah, joined other children also marking that milestone this year. They stood before the portion they will read on their special day and summarized their parts of the stories that shaped my life and values, the Jewish commitment to social justice – and my granddaughter’s legacy. It is the story that took the Jewish people to the land of Israel.

I am inspired by my tradition, but know that a complex history followed the events recorded in the Torah that have brought us to the present, very difficult moment.

Like other religious and political communities, the Jewish community includes fundamentalists and extremists, but it is diverse and inclusive, too. It is not always easy, but I can bring a progressive voice to Jewish settings. I can find personal affirmation, a welcoming community with whom to pray in my own way, and to express and be respected for my efforts to be progressive, feminist, pro Israel/pro Palestine/pro peace and to acknowledge and explore commitments and contradictions with other Jews.

I cannot allow the words of this resolution and these FAQs to tell me whether a “good” Jew is one who sides with those who see Israel as a demonic entity or to imply that if I do not, I do not deserve to be heard, to be seen, perhaps even to live.

I am not among those who feel that they can be Jewish without supporting the existence of the state of Israel. I know too many people who would have no home without that home.

I am shocked and offended that an academic organization that prides itself on “difficult dialogue” would adopt any sort of boycott of ideas.

We can do better than this. We must do better than this. If we do not the search for justice will devolve into a call for vengeance.

I hope you will join me in opposing the endorsement of the BDS resolution.

Dr. Janet Freedman is a resident scholar at the Brandeis University Women’s Studies Research Center and author of Reclaiming the Feminist Vision: Consciousness Raising and Small Group Practice.

The Bubbie and the Mobster

By Phyllis Karas

Phyllis Karas

Phyllis Karas

How on earth did I — a journalist, a college professor, a doctor’s wife, and a nice Jewish grandmother — become the sidekick of the real life criminal, Kevin Weeks, whose impressive resume includes five murders and who is being represented in the new movie, Black Mass, by Jesse Plemons of Friday Night Lights and Breaking Bad fame?  And, how do I reconcile all that with my Judaism?

The answer to all these questions starts in the late 1990’s after I’d finished a book about Jackie Kennedy’s marriage to Aristotle Onassis. My agent found me a low-level drug dealer, Eddie MacKenzie, who wanted someone to write his story. He was working for the infamous Irish mobster from Boston, James “Whitey” Bulger, who was on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list for 19 murders. Over the next two years, I learned a lot — about drug dealers, the Medellin cartel, leg breakers and swear words I’d never known existed. MacKenzie was a pretty likable, albeit rarely truthful character, and he liked me a lot after the book, Street Soldier: My Life as an Enforcer for Whitey Bulger and the Boston Irish Mob, got reviewed in The New York Times in 2003.

When a couple of bankruptcy lawyers called me a year later, it wasn’t exactly out of nowhere. They had come up with a way for another member of the Bulger mob to avoid wrongful-death suits. He could write a book about his major asset, his life story, and give 50 percent of his profits to the victims’ families.

Kevin Weeks

Kevin Weeks

When they told me it was Kevin Weeks, I was dutifully impressed. Weeks had been Bulger’s closest confidant, the only person reputed to have met with Bulger since he had disappeared 10 years earlier. With this book, I would be climbing way up the ladder of bad guys.

The only thing the lawyers did not tell me was that Kevin, still in jail and not due out for at least 18 months, hated MacKenzie and despised Street Soldier and everything it said about him.

To make the situation even more unpleasant, Kevin Weeks didn’t want to write his life story. He’d spent his entire adult life committing criminal acts under the cloak of darkness. Revealing his life of crime to any author, never mind a woman, he repeatedly stated, was even worse than remaining in jail for the rest of his life.

But his lawyers prevailed and I pursued him with an intensity I’d never known I possessed, ignoring his crankiness, nastiness, murderous ferocity and all-around disdain. I was determined, I have no idea why, to have my name on his story’s book jacket. Three years after my first meeting with his lawyers, Kevin was out of jail. The book about him, Brutal: The Untold Story of My Life Inside Whitey Bulger’s Irish Mob, spent time on The New York Times Best Seller List, and I was getting birthday presents from my subject.

While the Kevin Weeks who walked out of prison appeared to have no problem turning his back on his former life of crime, I was a changed woman. Things happened to me that made it impossible for me to return to my former life away from the mob. Too many experiences had altered my way of thinking. I now know more about crime — loan sharking, extortion, drug dealing, stabbings, leg breakers, the RICO Act, money laundering, bookmaking, shipments of arms, hideouts built into walls, C-4 explosives, witness protection, superseding indictments and accessories to murder — than Carmela Soprano.

For instance, I remember the day I couldn’t spend with my two-year-old grandson because I had to be with Kevin, getting photos of murder sites where he had buried a few bodies. “If nothing happens to Bubbie while she’s schlepping through the marshes tomorrow, she’ll be able to play with you on Monday,” I once told Jason.

I managed to squelch any strong feelings of guilt that accompanied my role as a Jewish biographer to the Irish mob. In truth, my Judaism often comes in quite handy for this role, especially when I introduce my criminal co-author to groups of curious readers.  As my rabbi kindly explained to me before one large gathering, nobody is completely innocent.  From a Jewish perspective, even speaking gossip is a crime.  Yet a person who rights the wrong he has committed or pays for his crime in some way, a ba’al teshuvah, is deemed more highly in God’s eyes than the person who is born perfectly and never makes a mistake. The Talmud expresses high regard for baalei teshuva with the statement, “In the place where baalei teshuva stand, even the perfectly righteous cannot stand.”  Thus in Judaism you can right your wrong, pay for your crime and return to the straight and narrow.

Whitey Bulger, shackled and wearing an orange prison jumpsuit

Whitey Bulger, shackled and wearing an orange prison jumpsuit

Our book, Brutal, has been in print for six years now. Kevin and I are once again partners in crime, or at least in crime fiction. This time we have written a fictional account of Whitey Bulger’s 16 years on the run, eventual capture, trial and sentencing, called Hunted Down: The FBI’s Pursuit and Capture of Whitey Bulger. Once again, we are spending lots of time together  promoting the book, meeting lots of new people.  Some like us, fascinated as they are with mob life; others hate us for making money from criminal acts. While I identify more with the latter, I remind myself that at least with Brutal, victims’ families are still profiting from that book, an occurrence that rarely, if ever, happens in other true-crime books.

Today, 10 years after his release from prison, Kevin Weeks, who I guess I could, with a bit of liberty, call an Irish ba’al teshuvah if he would let me, is a law abiding citizen, making an honest living in construction, living a quiet simple life, close to his two sons and his beautiful pregnant new wife Anna whom he loves dearly.

Hunted Down may not be the last book we write together.  We are nearly finished with a second piece of fiction, The Jewel Thief, based, once again, on Kevin’s nefarious deeds.  It is a weird collaboration — the former Irish mobster and the bubbie — that I will admit. But right now, Kevin is out of jail, having forsaken a life of crime. While I know we are not writing Crime and Punishment, I do think our stories are entertaining, honest, and above all, Kevin and I are not breaking any civil or religious laws.  For that, I will utter a heart-felt kinehora.

Phyllis Karas is a former adjunct professor at Boston University, former stringer for People Magazine and author of many books including the recent, Hunted Down: The FBI’s Pursuit and Capture of Whitey Bulger. Karas’ story was recently featured in The Jewish Advocate.

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