November 23, 2020

Jewish Feminism: From Brandeis to the World

By Amy Powell

Rivka Cohen, Naima Hirsch and Alona Weimer’s journey from Orthodox girlhoods where they grew up without discussing bodies and sexuality to editors of a successful book modeled after the Vagina Monologues runs straight through Brandeis. 

In October, HBI hosted these young alumni, along with Jordyn Kaufman, one of the many contributors to Monologues from the Makom: Intertwined Narratives of Sexuality, Gender, Body Image, and Jewish Identity as they read some of the poetry and prose in their book. They shared their stories of exploring Jewish feminism at Brandeis and the ways they found the community they needed to allow these ideas to blossom and grow, enabling them to continue to form this sort of community among other young Jewish observant women after leaving Brandeis. The courageous book they created together continues that work, opening an avenue for ongoing dialogue and the breaking of taboos. Monologues is also edited by Sara Rozner Lawrence, Sarah Ricklan, and Rebecca Zimilover.

Rivka Cohen

I wouldn’t be who I am today or the feminist I am today if it weren’t for Brandeis so it feels really incredible to be back here,” said Cohen ‘17. She pointed to specific things at Brandeis that jumpstarted her journey within Jewish feminism. One pivotal point was becoming a gabbai at the Orthodox minyan. “I understood it to be an inherently feminist role and I fought together with others in the community to increase women’s participation in Orthodox services and in the larger Jewish community.” 

The religious feminist journey continued as she and some of the others in this community ultimately co-founded JFAB, The Jewish Feminist Association at Brandeis, and one of the co-sponsors of the Monologues event at HBI, along with Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, Brandeis University Creative Writing and Brandeis Alumni Association. 

“On a more personal note, my time at Brandeis also intersected with my struggle with my sense of sexuality. I didn’t have much sex ed growing up in the Orthodox community and I even ditched portions of sex ed at the Brandeis orientation because didn’t think it applied to me,” Cohen said. “It was only during my sophomore year, during Vagina Week, which is the week leading up to the Vagina Monologues, that I decided to attend an event with a sexologist who spoke about sex with an openness and positivity I had never heard before. But, I was still deeply entrenched in the Orthodox community. The tension between my feminism and Jewish approaches to sexuality were stark and difficult to navigate.”

Naima Hirsch, now in her first year at Yeshivat Maharat, graduated from Hunter College, but spent three formative summers at Brandeis, two with the high school program BIMA and one in 2018 with HBI in the Gilda Slifka Summer Internship program. 

Naima Hirsch

“When I was an intern at HBI, I wrote a short poetry chapbook called Daughter of the Tribe. The eight weeks that summer was an incredibly formative experience for me both as I explored my identity as a Jewish women, as a feminist, as a writer.  I’m really grateful to HBI for giving me the experience and the language to be here today. I think it’s a big stepping stone for me to be here today,” said Hirsch. 

The pieces they read detailed important turning points in their lives and issues that were hard to discuss in their communities. Jordyn Kaufman’s prose, Built Up Bravery, detailed the awkwardness of getting her period and not discussing it with anyone, even her mother. 

Jordyn Kaufman

Alona Weimer

Weimer ‘18  wrote about “Falling in Love with Tefillin,” as she watched a friend grapple with his own readiness for prayer in the act of wrapping his tefillin. She described the moment later as taking place during a casual shacharit service in the Shapiro Lounge during her time at Brandeis. “To be an observant Jew and a feminist, there is always some grappling with ritual and the embodiment of that ritual. … This project lets us describe and name all the ways we have been grappling with ritual, sexuality and all the ways our bodies interact with Judaism,” Weimer said. 

Rivka Cohen read an excerpt from her prose, “Touching Boy,” and how she broke shomer negiah (the practice of not touching a member of the opposite sex) for the first time. Other themes in the book deal with masturbation, LGBTQ issues, ritual, prayer and a general lack of openness about sexuality. 

The writing draws important connections between tznius (modesty), sex education, and vulnerability to sexual assault, and between emphasis on the body and the silencing of women’s voices, said Lisa Fishbayn Joffe, HBI director.  Some of the themes deal with boundaries and the way that the education they received did not teach some of the writers how to create their own boundaries with regard to consent, she added.

Joffe praised the book for stimulating intergenerational and important conversations around these subjects.  “It has been my pleasure to follow this project from an early stage. I found this work, and the collaborative process for creating it, truly inspiring. This brave collection explores the tension between religious norms and the lived experience of young Jewish women. Through the lens of poetry and prose, contributors engage with the complex impact of gendered codes of modesty on Jewish women from adolescence through to motherhood.  

Amy Powell is the assistant director of HBI. 

Exercise Your Right to Vote

By Lisa Fishbayn Joffe

HBI is proud to be a sponsor of Jewish Women Vote, a program to encourage Jewish women to use the franchise that generations of Jewish women have fought hard to secure for themselves and others; and part of the VoteDeis Campus Coalition, a nonpartisan Brandeis coalition supporting voter registration and voting. 

Jewish women have been part of the ongoing struggle for women’s right to vote in the United States since the turn of the 20th century.  In 1851, Ernestine Rose, a Jewish woman who immigrated to the U.S. after fleeing an arranged marriage and successfully suing her husband for the return of her inheritance, spoke at the Second National Women’s Rights Convention, calling for women to be given full political, social and legal rights. Rose persevered in this work, in the face of antisemitic criticism of her in the popular press and antisemitic hostility towards Judaism in the discourse of the suffrage movement, which identified the Jewish bible and traditions as the source of patriarchal notions of women’s inferiority. When it came time for states to vote on the question of women’s suffrage, historian Pamela Nadell notes that women’s advocacy in their own community meant that men in Jewish neighborhoods turned out en masse to vote in favor of women’s enfranchisement. 

Jewish women’s involvement in this secular struggle was entwined with movements to secure Jewish women’s equality in their Jewish lives as well. Historian Melissa Klapper (2007 HBI Scholar in Residence), notes that Jewish women’s success in securing the right to the secular vote in the U.S. in 1920 gave them the skills and awakened the desire in them to seek greater equality in access to ritual participation, leadership roles and under Jewish law, struggles that continue to this day.

Today, the struggle to vote continues evidenced by long lines, the pandemic, and reports of interference in the election by foreign players. In addition to being part of the Jewish Women Vote coalition, HBI is part of the VoteDeis Campus Coalition, a nonpartisan Brandeis coalition supporting voter registration and voting. That campaign includes a series of videos from members of the Brandeis community. Be inspired by a sampling of the community’s reflections on voting (below), and join Jewish women from across the country to reflect on what this right means to you.

Anita Hill, University Professor of Social Policy, Law, and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies

Early suffragists blame male lawmakers, jurors and judges for the unfettered physical and sexual abuse men wielded against women.

Winning the right to vote for women was their antidote to sexual assault at home, on the streets and in workplaces.

Unfortunately, in their passionate pursuit of personal and political autonomy, few white activists consider how Native, Brown and Black women’s oppression under colonialism, immigration law and slavery figured into the solution suffragist sought.

As we struggle today to eliminate blind spots that have weakened our claim to universal personal and political autonomy, abuses borne by diverse individuals of all genders because of their gender continue at shocking rates.

We can’t wait another one hundred years.

We must use the franchise to ensure both our political and personal equality and we must deploy our votes to enact laws and elect representatives that will, in the words of abolitionist and feminist crusader Sarah Grimke, ‘Get our brethren to take their feet off our necks.’

ChaeRan Freeze, Frances and Max Elkon Chair in Modern Jewish History

As long as I reside on stolen native lands, I vote because I care about Indigenous sovereignty, sacred sites in traditional culture, the epidemic of murdered and missing women and girls, the right of native children to grow up in their own communities, and environmental rights.

I am painfully aware that this country has long suppressed Indigenous vote and political participation even as native matrilineal traditions inspired the white suffragists and their struggle for the 19th Amendment a century ago.

The fight for the right to vote is still unfinished.

For me voting, is a powerful way to protect the lands and lives of the very people in whose homelands I dwell as a guest.”

 MJ Ibrahim, ’23, MLK Scholar at Brandeis University

Now even though I myself am not eligible to vote as I’m not a US citizen or permanent resident,this election cycle will dictate whether or not my family and I will remain in the United States and continue the life we’ve been building over the past five years or we would be deported back to Iraq where we are going to be facing persecution and potential execution due to ethnic and religious clashes as well as political instability.

Sabine von Mering, Professor of German and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (dressed as a polar bear)

Hi! I’m Sabine von Mering. I’m a professor at Brandeis and also a climate activist and here is why I vote.

First of all, elections are decided by those who vote.

Secondly, I’m a naturalized citizen in the United States and I still remember what it was like when I didn’t have the right to vote so to me voting is a privilege that I take very seriously.

And finally, as a climate activist I understand that I can do a lot to address the climate crisis.

I can reduce my carbon footprint. I can put solar panels on my roof. I can drive a tiny electric car and go vegan, but ultimately the big decisions are made by the people we elect.

 

Lisa Fishbayn Joffe is the Shulamit Reinharz Director of HBI. 

Jewish Women vote, presented Friday, October 16 at 3:30 p.m. EDT, features Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, Rabbi Sandra Lawson, Rabbi Mira Rivera, Abby Stein, And Rabbi Isaama Goldstein Stoll, is a nonpartisan, pluralistic celebration of Shabbat and voting. Register today!

Jewish Women Vote is presented by the National Council of Jewish Women, Hadassah, and Jewish Women International and co-sponsored by Alpha Epsilon Phi, B’nai B’rith Girls, Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, Jewish Women’s Archive, Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York, Jewish Women’s Funding Network, Keshet, Lilith Magazine, NA’AMAT USA, Sigma Delta Tau, Women of Reform Judaism, Women’s League for Conservative Judaism, and Women’s Rabbinic Network.

 

 

 

 

Sukkot: Imagining the Framework for a Better World

By Wendy Amsellem and Mike Moskowitz

This is the week in the Jewish calendar when we shift focus from repentance and introspection into the world of action. We move from the preparations and reflections of Elul, and the fasting and praying on Yom Kippur, to the immediate building of our sukkot. We try hard to live up to the ideals of our newly penitent selves and to persevere in the goals we have recently set. One of the best ways to prevent falling into old patterns and habits is to step away from our familiar structures and systems, and to reposition ourselves anew in the sukkah.

An important step in creating a better society (and sukkah!) is having a clear sense of what we are trying to construct. Sometimes it is hard to imagine the possibilities. When I (Wendy) was a student, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg told us that during her first year of law school, in 1956, she and the handful of other women in her class were asked by the law school dean to justify taking the place of a man at Harvard Law School. Justice Ginsberg explained that at that point in her life she had not yet fully discovered her feminism and she was fearful of sounding too aggressive. She told the dean that she had come to law school to better understand her husband’s career and that maybe one day it would lead to a part-time job. When we heard this story, we were deeply moved that Justice Ginsburg herself could not foresee how her career would develop.

In a 2016 essay in the New York Times, Justice Ginsburg reported that school children visiting the Supreme Court often asked her, “Did you always want to be a judge, or more exorbitantly, a Supreme Court justice?”  Ginsburg noted, “To today’s youth, judgeship as an aspiration for a girl is not at all outlandish.” Things which are hard to imagine today can swiftly become commonplace. Justice Ginsburg taught us that it is important to challenge the assumption that the way things have been is itself a justifiable reason for them to continue that way, even if we are not sure what the replacements will be.

As the people of Israel traveled through the wilderness, they also did not know from day to day where they were going. The Babylonian Talmud (Sukkah 11b) explains that we dwell in sukkot to commemorate the “Clouds of Glory/Clouds of Dignity”(annanei hakavod) that protected the Israelites in the wilderness and directed them on their journey. Bavli Taanit (9a) teaches that there were three miracles that God performed for the people of Israel in the desert. God provided the people with water, manna, and clouds of glory. Our rabbis ask why it is only the cloud that merited having a festival or scriptural commandment to remember it?

Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai (1724-1806) explains that the clouds of glory are evidence of God’s special love for us. Food and water are basic necessities, but the clouds of glory provide comfort and honor to people living in a wilderness. Maimonides explains (Laws of Shabbat 2:3) that the laws of the Torah provide mercy, kindness, and peace “רַחֲמִים וְחֶסֶד וְשָׁלוֹם” and so God’s kindness to us in providing clouds of glory is memorialized each year in the commandment to build a sukkah. It is not coincidental that the numerical value of peace (שלום) is the same as the phrase mercy and kindness (רַחֲמִים וְחֶסֶד) because one is dependent on the other. In our evening prayers, we ask that God spread out over us “God’s Sukkah of Peace.” By creating structures that advance dignity and not just survival, we help to build God’s Sukkah of Peace.

The three gifts that God gave the Israelites in the desert are associated with their three leaders (Taanit 9a). The water was provided in the merit of Miriam; the manna in merit of Moshe; and the clouds of glory are in the merit of Aaron. Aaron was a person who valued dignity, peace, and love. According to the rabbis, Aaron was a perennial peacemaker, rushing to settle quarrels and promote affection between spouses, friends, and enemies. We are taught (Avos 1:12) to be disciples of Aaron; love peace, pursue peace, love creations, and bring people closer to the Torah.

The Sukkah then is not only a commemoration of God’s love for us, but also of Aaron’s values of collegiality and peace. As we remember one of our more contemporary leaders, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg z”l, we recall that she too valued collegiality and friendship. Justice Ginsburg had clear and strong ideals but she was famous for cultivating warm friendships with colleagues who held dramatically different opinions about law and society.

Aaron, as the Kohen Gadol, also was also instructed to wear garments of honor and dignity, as part of his job description, Exodus 28:2. Aaron used his dignified position not to seek more power for himself, but to pursue peace in the world of action. He was successful in orchestrating resolutions because people felt how deeply he cared about them. Aaron understood that peace, not money or power, was the greatest blessing. The commentators point out that the phrase “good grace” has the same numerical value as “Kohen”, 75, because that is the essence of the priestly role; to extend the divine presence to the people, not to hoard or exploit it.

King Solomon wrote in Proverbs (22:1), “A good name is preferred to wealth, and good grace (chein) is better than silver and gold (נִבְחָ֣ר שֵׁ֭ם מֵעֹ֣שֶׁר רָ֑ב מִכֶּ֥סֶף וּ֝מִזָּהָ֗ב חֵ֣ן טֽוֹב׃). Proverbs reminds us that what we may see as our “permanent” acquisitions are really external to who we are and often quite temporary. There is a false grace that is superficial and fleeting, but the good grace is empowering and instills a sense of responsibility for the greater good to prevent injustice. The first letter of the first four words of the verse which spell “נשמר – to guard”  allude to this.

The Talmud (Bavli Sukkah 2a) tells us that we must leave our permanent houses and move into temporary homes. But later, (Bavli Sukkah 28b) advises us that for the seven days of Sukkot we should make our sukkot into our permanent houses. One way to understand this apparent contradiction is that we must look at socially constructed privileges as temporary and external, and utilize the time in the sukkah to remember that we were dehumanized in Egypt and God reminded us of our worth. The festival of Sukkot is a time to plan for a better model that prioritizes human dignity as essential. Then, we can then make the temporary permanent by disrupting the systems that perpetuate injustice and protections for the entitled at the expense of those who are truly afflicted.

The struggle to take our resources and use them for the greater good is observed by the Talmud in Shabbat 104a through the order of the Hebrew alphabet. “If we do acts of loving kindness to those in need (gimmel and daled) then God (heh and vav) will sustain (zein) and provide good grace (chet tet). The rabbis point out that if we misuse those resources selfishly then it is the root of evil and sin (cheit ‘חט).

Building a more just and equitable society is complicated, difficult work. It requires us to re-examine fundamental assumptions about how our communities work and to be willing to dismantle structures of injustice. The way forward is not always clear, but as we build our sukkot we can begin to imagine setting up the framework of a better world. In his eulogy, Chief Justice John Roberts remembered, “Ruth used to ask, ‘What is the difference between a bookkeeper in Brooklyn and a Supreme Court Justice?’ She would answer: ‘One generation.’” Our actions, to continue the struggle for equality and dignity for all, will make what comes next possible.

May the memory of Ruth Bader Ginsburg be a blessing in that it motivates us to be agents of graceful change.

 

 

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)

 

Welcoming a New Year from HBI

Shana Tova from Our Director

By Lisa Fishbayn Joffe

As we head into a new academic year and a new year on the Jewish calendar, HBI wishes you a year of good health, warm relationships and meaningful engagement with stimulating new ideas. 

Through these last difficult months, HBI has created new ways to connect and support scholarship at the intersection of Jewish Studies and Gender Studies by taking our programs online. We’ve hosted Virtual Conversations of novels and memoirs by Jewish women, opened our Institute Seminar to guests from all over the world, and hosted visiting scholars and research associates in our virtual institute.

When the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic made a residential program on the Brandeis campus impossible, HBI saw an opportunity to transform the Gilda Slifka Summer Internship Program  into a virtual experience. Students, faculty and staff worked to create a new model that allowed our student interns from Brandeis and across North America to learn about Jewish Women’s and Gender Studies, make important connections to our faculty, guest lecturers, and each other, and to produce excellent work. Here is what one of our interns said:

“I do not exaggerate when I say that this summer changed my life and completely transformed the ways that I relate to my Judaism. I know with certainty that my future as a Jewish woman would look very different had I not had the opportunity to meet so many incredible people and pursue such exciting opportunities through the HBI… From thinking critically about my relationship to traditional liturgy and ancient texts to engaging in dynamic conversations on Jewish history and the challenges that await modern Jewish feminists, I can clearly picture now what a Jewish feminist future could look like and what my role is in shaping it.”

We welcome you to join us and explore what new scholarship about Jewish Women’s and Gender Studies can mean in your life by registering for our exciting program of fall events.

Some highlights include:

HBI is proud to host a book launch of Monologues from the Makom: Intertwined Narratives of Sexuality, Gender, Body Image, and Jewish Identity (Ben Yehuda Press, 2020), featuring original work from young Orthodox women in the spirit of The Vagina Monologues, edited and written by a team which includes former HBI interns and students.

In the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, join us and poet and liturgist Marcia Falk, for a reading from her book The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season (HBI Series on Jewish Women for Brandeis University Press, 2014)

Be Well and Shana Tova v’Metukah.

Lisa Fishbayn Joffe is the Shulamit Reinharz Director of HBI. 

 

Opening the Heart for Rosh Hashana with Marcia Falk’s Prayers

Editor’s Note: On Wednesday, Sept. 23 Marcia Falk will discuss and read from her book, The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season, published in the HBI Series on Jewish Women. The session is designed for those seeking to connect more deeply with their Judaism, and for all those in search of a contemplative approach to these challenging times. Register or learn more here

Here are reprints of five prayers from Falk’s high holiday liturgy, taken from  The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season.

 

Opening the Heart

Opening the Heart At the year’s turn, 

in the days between, 

 

we step away from what we know into the spaces we cannot yet name. 

 

Slowly the edges begin to yield, the hard places soften,

the gate to forgiveness opens.

 

Time

We use it—wisely or not. We fill it and mark it. We try to stop it,

but there is no end to it. And yet, we never have enough. 

 

It is a circle, and it is a line. Moving forward, day by day,

year by year, we come round and round again. Again the 

spring, again the fall—but every leaf a new one, every fall

a new shape falling. 

 

Always starting, never finished, we live always in the

Between.

 

No time, we say, we have no time. Yet we have all the time in the world. 

And there is no time like now.

 

Kol Nidrey: All Vows

All vows— all promises and pledges—

 

that we have made to ourselves 

and that no longer serve

 for the good—

 

 may their grip be loosened

 

that we be present of mind and heart

to the urgency of the hour. 

 

Beneath Shekhinah’s Wings (during Yizkor service)

Like an eagle stirring its nest, hovering over its young, taking them up on widespread wings, lifting them to its breast. —Deuteronomy 32:11 

She hovers over us, 

her fledglings— 

 

the bereaved, 

the brokenhearted— 

 

lifts us to her, 

takes our sorrow. 

 

In the depth of her shade: 

Home.

Kaddish: Beauty of the World 

Praise the world— 

praise its fullness 

 

and its longing, 

its beauty and its grief. 

 

Praise stone and fire, 

lilac and river, 

 

and the solitary bird 

at the window. 

 

Praise the moment 

when the whole 

bursts through pain 

 

and the moment

when the whole 

bursts forth in joy. 

 

Praise the dying beauty 

with all your breath,

and praising, see 

 

the beauty of the world 

is your own.

The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season (HBI Series on Jewish Women) by Marcia Falk, makes a great holiday gift or addition to your Jewish library. To purchase a personally inscribed copy of the book ahead of the event, please email Marcia Falk with “Purchase Days Between” in the subject line. 

Protected by Akismet
Blog with WordPress

Welcome Guest | Login (Brandeis Members Only)