Jewfem Blog

For Tisha B’Av, I’m reviving an article I wrote years ago on in the Jerusalem Report on gender in the book of Eichah. When the people of Israel are in pain, such as when there is destruction and devastation, that should not serve as an excuse for us to scapegoat. The redemption of the Jewish people, as we well know, depends on our ability to treat all human beings with equal dignity -- that means actively and energetically demonstrating respect for humans of every gender, class, age, physiology, ethnic group, intelligence...and on...B’mhera b’yameinu amen…. Carrie Goller, Sad Woman,

Etka Holtzberg, a tiny, bubbly, flirtatious, white-haired, slightly hunched over 87-year old woman, is one of the most incredible people I have ever met. She has experienced nearly all that the Jewish people have been dished out in the twentieth century – shtetl, poverty, death, Siberia, Holocaust, Israel, war, terror, kibbutz, disease – and has not only survived, but continues to radiate an enviable joie de vivre. Incredibly, of the four children whom she brought into this world, only one is still alive, though severely injured following the Yom Kippur War. Her first child died in infancy, her second child, Meri, was killed in a 1972 El Al hijacking, her third child, Zachi, died ten years ago from Cerebral Palsy, and her fourth child, Avi, now in his fifties, was nearly killed patrolling the northern border. Etka’s husband and mother both died in July 1974, while Avi lay in the hospital. “I feel strong,” the 4’9” Etka smiles broadly as she inches her head to my face. She can barely see, she needs a device to hear properly, and she has major heart issues. But she tenaciously lives on her own, does her own cooking, makes her own dolls, borscht and jam, and, perhaps a bit frightfully, still zooms around kibbutz in her electric scooter. I suppose if you’ve been living in one place for 59 years, you don’t really need to see in order to get around. “I haven’t had an easy life, but I know that everything I have endured has made me a better person.” I supposed Etka has lived out the adage that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but I think that she must have been something special to begin with in order to endure the particular travails of this life. Etka was born in 1921 in Poland, or White Russia, the area where, my grandfather used to tell us, was sometimes Poland and sometime Russia, depending on where they placed the border when you woke up in the morning. My maternal grandmother, Ruth Ebner Schmeltz, was Etka’s first cousin. Etka’s mother was all of 22 when Etka’s her father died suddenly. Etka was not yet two years old, and already a big sister. After some twists and turns in which it became clear that her mother could not look after her girls, Etka eventually landed in an orphanage. “Of all the things I went through in life,” she said, “there is none that damaged me quite as much as the first year in that place.” Nearly a century later, childhood pains remain fierce. “Sure, I was fed, I had someplace to sleep,” she says softly, “but there is nothing quite as horrible as living without love.” Etka spent eight years at the orphanage, and as a teenager, was on her own in pre-Holocaust Russia. At some point she was imprisoned in Siberia, but eventually made her way after the war to Palestine, where she met her soon-to-be husband, Azriel. In 1949, they moved to...

I asked my son to name his ten favorite stars, he could only think of men. I asked my husband the same question, and henamed seven men and three women. Better, I suppose, but still troubling. Men not only dominate our visual culture and ourconsciousness, but they also continue to dominate the economic aspects of popular culture. According to the Forbes richest celebslist the top ten earners among the acting elite are men. Not only that, but the total amount that these actors are making is nearlytwice the amount that the top ten actresses are making. Perhaps art imitates life after all?

[This article appeared in the Jerusalem Post Op-Ed, July 31, 2008] Yesterday, the women of Israel suffered a major setback in divorce reform as Shas blocked the “Divorce finances bill” using a coalition threat. This bill would reverse a very damaging law that requires that the man serve his wife a get before any financial settlements can be made. This system promotes the use of the get as blackmail, since women are unable to receive any financial rights — not even NII (Bituach Leumi) payments reserved for single mothers — until after the get is served. Shas MKs threatened the coalition by saying that this new bill would break up families. Indeed it will — it will enable women to obtain their sought out freedom from abusive husbands. But for Shas, it is clearly more important to keep women imprisoned at all costs. Keep the blackmail in place, they argue. It seems the status of women in Israel is regressing to the Middle Ages. According to the Israel Women’s Network, there are approximately 10,000 agunot/mesuravot get (women denied divorce) in Israel. In my view, this is likely an understatement. After all, there is not a single agunah who is not also an abused spouse. Understandable — a man who uses the get as a threat against his wife, who holds her freedom over her head often for years or decades, does not get this way overnight. Abuse is gradual, let to fester through repeated patterns of verbal and emotional violence. According to a Haifa University study, 1 out of every 7 women in Israel is in an abusive relationship. We can all do the math. That’s a lot of women likely to become an agunah. What is truly horrifying about this situation is that Israel remains perhaps the only western (presumably) country in which abused women are left hanging. In other parts of the world, evidence of abuse in marriage are automatic grounds for divorce. Here in Israel, abusive men are given the ultimate power over their wives. They can hold the get over their wives’ heads and keep them chained forever. This is what makes Shas’ actions so terrifyingly repugnant. When Shas MK Nissim Zeev yelled, “Do you know how many cases people opened in the Bet Din (Rabbinical court) and then closed because they managed to get to shalom bayit (peace in the home)?” he effectively advocated this backwards, damaging system. Abused women should never be sent back to do “shalom bayit”. It can cost the woman her life. This bill is vital because it can enable women to achieve at least financial freedom while they are struggling to escape from an abusive life. This kind of financial freedom — which unlike the get itself is not dependent on ancient halakhic rules that determine female passivity in the process — can enable a woman to get on with many vital aspects of her life. She can set up a new home, become financially independent, and free herself from potential...

Women's organizations are teaming up with liberal rabbinic groups for a landmark initiative to create an alternative religious court. This is an attempt at grass roots pressure to bolster real reform in the religious apparatus that chains women, converts, immigrants, non-Orthodox Jews, and others, and holds the entire country hostage to an antiquated system of political protektzia marketed as religiousness. It may in fact be the only way to break the haredi stranglehold on Israeli society. Yair Sheleg reported on it last week's Haaretz in Hebrew. For more details, contact Mavoi Satum -- This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

I have a confession that may shock even some of my feminist friends: I do not pluck my eyebrows. I can hear the gasp screaming through cyberspace. Actually, I remember well the first time a hairdresser stared intently at my face and said, “You need your eyebrows done, right?” At first I didn’t even know what she was talking about (naive me). But then, she took out a piece of dental floss, rubbed her saliva on it, twisted it elaborately around her fingers and starting approaching my face, saying, “Here, I’ll show you.” Yeah right. I bolted from there like Superman on his way to save Lois. (Skipped the haircut too) I remembered this story as I read Ynet’s “Great Beauty Survey” that came out yesterday.

Watching Barack Obama wearing a yarmulka and laying wreath at Yad Vashem should be a thrill. I mean, he may be the next US President, and he's in Israel, identifying with Jewish history. I should be excited. I think it's my post-Hillary depression. I really wanted her to win -- I don’t think I even realized how much until she officially dropped out. I sense the entire America is watching women like me – the post-Hillary dejected ones. They want to know whether we will suck it up and vote for Obama or be small-minded and vengeful and vote for McCain. With Hillary out of the race, pundits can go back to classifying us as enablers or delilahs, convenient female roles that demand little depth or independent thought. Yeah, I’m a little depressed.

The announcement by Education Committee Chair Michael Melchior that that the State of Israel is opening a new stream of education – neither State nor State Religious but sort of “Jewish value-oriented” – is the kind of news that has the potential to change Israeli society. I’m not being melodramatic. It’s really true. Finally, the majority of Israelis who are ill-defined and uncomfortable in the way they are identified from the age of four may yet have some reprieve. The government is saying to them, NO, you’re not all crazy, all three million of you. We are going to help you fit in.

Like many other women, I imagine, I have a love-hate relationship with Madonna. Some days I find her liberating and inspiring, while at other times, well, I guess I'm just jealous. For sure, Madonna gets women thinking and talking about themselves. But recently, I must say, I have been just a little disappointed.

[This article appears in the latest issue of the Jerusalem Report, in the Up Front column] I promised myself I would not choose the color of the napkins. At my son’s bar mitzvah, I said to myself, I would not let myself be relegated to the role of event planner, the one who designs invitations and calls the caterer. I wanted  something more – I wanted to be part of the content, to participate in a meaningful way, and to be part of my son’s inner life as he goes through this momentous occasion. In practice, escaping socialized roles was harder than I imagined, particularly at such a gender-laden moment.