Jewfem Blog

How do you sing about rape? Chanting the rape of Dina on the International Day against violence against Women, and #MeToo


I was preparing for my layning, my turn at chanting the Torah portion, when I stopped short. I could not get the words out. The melody of the chanting, the “trop”,  is joyful, uplifting, and in a major key. But I couldn’t do it. Because the words I was chanting in that normal trop were about rape – specifically, the rape of Dina by Shechem, the non-Israelite son of Ham the Hivite. V’yishkav otah vaye’aneha – And he laid her down and tortured her.  (Genesis 24;2) How do you chant about rape? How do you sing in the normal uplifting tune, as if everything is normal, when the story is about this awful violence against a girl? One more moment of being a woman entering a man's world, a reminder that everything we know and do, pretty much, was constructed by a male perspective. For thousands of years, when chanting the Torah was the realm of men’s work, these words were chanted just as all other words in the Bible. Because, of course they were. To be fair, the bible does not exactly condone the rape of Dina. On the contrary, the entire story that follows is about the rage of Dina’s brothers at such an awful thing, the vengeance they sought, and the way they suffered in the long term because of their uncontrolled anger. And while the reader is led to believe initially that their rage was about the fact that Shechem was uncircumcised and therefore impure, we soon realize that this was just a ruse. After all, every man in the town went through circumcision in order to make the rape palatable to the Israelite brothers, but the two of them massacred the entire town anyway. So, it is safe to assume that the brothers were pretty angry about what Shechem did to their sister, and not merely because his penis had a foreskin. And to be quite honest, part of me is grateful to Shimon and Levi for caring. After all, there are a lot of terrible things that happen to women in the bible that barely get noted. Most of the time, the mistreatment of women is treated as par for the course. Grabbing, silencing, using, abusing, ignoring, marrying off against their wills, covering, punishing, blaming, manipulating, hurting, selling off, and yes, raping women and girls are all in the Bible.Just the culture, the way things were done back then, or something.  We read this, we treasure these books, we chant the stories with celebration and fanfare, and move on. So at least here we have this monstrosity of a brutal massacre by brothers who seemed to be genuinely upset about their sister's rape. It’s as chivalrous as it is horrifying. For the most part, the Jewish tradition reads all these texts with the same tune. A recitation of our history for the purpose of remembering. The good and the bad. But I couldn’t do that this week. This was a big responsibility for me. I am figuring out...

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So, will you be watching any more Harvey Weinstein movies?

This is a dilemma. I loved Good Will Hunting, the Harvey Weinstein-produced movie that made the very young and then-unknown Ben Affleck and Matt Damon instant stars and Oscar winners. (Of course, watching it again not too long ago, the sexist tropes bothered me more than they did back then. Perhaps the topic for a different post… or maybe it is the same topic. Not sure.) Now that we know the truth about Weinstein – that he is likely a serial rapist, among other things – does that mean we can’t watch his movies anymore? Or The Cosby Show? Or anything by Dustin Hoffman?  Or House of Cards? Or Woody Allen (whose latest flick actually idealizes a pedophiliac relationship?!) Or Ben Affleck by the way? (When did he stop being cute?) I think of this as the Wagner dilemma. It’s the question of whether we can still appreciate great art even if it comes out of terrible people. Wagner was a Nazi-precursor, beloved by Hitler himself, whose music is apparently brilliant despite his unapologetic anti-Semitism. (I’m not much of a judge of classical music,  but I did take a few course in music appreciation over the years, and I can recall a class at Barnard where the lecturer likened a particular Wagner opera to an orgasm. I am not making this up.) Anyway, this is the dilemma. Is there a way to still hang on to the art even if the person who made it was a big, big creep? This question came up in synagogue this morning in a discussion about the Torah portion. The rabbi, Philip Nadel, asked us whether, despite everything that we know about Abraham’s life, we can still appreciate that he might have been a great leader? His question was met with boos and hisses – well maybe not literally, but that was the sense of it. To remind you, as Osnat Eldar mentioned in the sermon that I posted here last week, Abraham did some pretty awful things in his life. He pimped out his wife in order to acquire material goods and maybe influence. More than once. He was willing to sacrifice his son because God said so. He never seemed to apologize for any of it. And we call him “Abraham Our Father.” It’s a little nauseating. We do this often in our tradition. Think about David, Father of the Messiah. He raped Batsheba after pulling a Freundel by secretly watching her immerse in the ritual bath, thus impregnating her; then had her husband, Uriah, killed to cover it up by creating a battle out of nothing and placing the husband on the front line. Yes, he really did that. At least David, as opposed to Abraham, apologized, and was punished. Although he at least one son who was also a rapist. So there’s that. But, come on, Messiah! Like that.   So what do we do with our misogynistic tradition? It seems like our rabbis were very willing to so easily forgive...

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Dear Mayim: You are a victim too, #MeToo #YouToo

Dear Mayim, Let me start by saying that I’m a fan. I think you’re a fine actress and a powerful activist for issues that I care strongly about – women’s lives, parenting, and Judaism, among others. I’ve been following your social media work (more than Big Bang Theory, to be honest), and I know that you have some important ideas to share with the world, and I deeply admire your courage, your intelligence and your willingness to use your platform to make a difference in the world. So please take my comments in that context. As someone who has written hundreds of articles and three books on hot-button topics, I know what it feels like to be on the receiving end of a lot of hate. But I also know that every once in a while, there are lessons in there. Not all pushback is vicious. Some of it helps us examine our own ideas and find where we can do better. Like many other people, I read your New York Times editorial on Harvey Weinstein with great interest, which quickly turned to dismay. I wanted to learn more about your experiences with body commentary in Hollywood. But the way you conflated issues did not work. It sounded like you were saying that since you were always so cruelly typecast as the “ugly” and therefore asexual one, that this somehow protected you from sexual assault. It sounded like you concluded that since you embraced that “ugly asexual geek” label, that you are outside this whole dynamic of sexual abuse. I have a feeling, though, as someone who sometimes says things that come out wrong, that maybe you didn’t mean to say it that way. From your online response, I think I understood that you weren’t trying to say that women who dress a certain way deserve to be sexually assaulted. I think maybe you were trying to offer another angle on how sexual abuse works in Hollywood. Maybe you were trying to paint a different picture of the way women’s lives, careers and self-concept are so often molded by powerful men or dumb commentators with a following. You did not say it in these words, but I would like to suggest that you are a victim of Hollywood’s sexual abuse problem, too. You were a girl with an acting career who was told she was ugly. You were, I might add, a smart, talented, and very cute girl (I loved you in Blossom, by the way) whose face was nitpicked by every jo-shmo in the industry. And that left you with many scars. You still carry them with you. You still think that the only part you can safely play is ugly geek, even though you are still smart, talented and, by the way, beautiful. That is also a story of sexual abuse, and it is one that we need to hear. Many women and girls have every minutia of their appearance commented on, mocked, or gossiped about ad nauseum. I...

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El Halev leads the way in women's empowerment self-defense

debbie amichai at kenes

Women have never needed tools for empowerment more than we do now. As America puts an admitted sexual predator into the White House, when the hatefulness of sexism, racism, homophobia and xenophobia have been unleashed and legitimized in one of the most powerful offices in the world, as stories of violence and intimidation are starting to flood in, we need tools to help us maintain our own safety and the safety and that of our communities. In supermarkets, malls, subways and public spaces all around the world, new faces of fear are being unleashed. Just today, a friend posted a story about being attacked at her gym in New York for wearing a Hillary Clinton t-shirt. Now, more than ever, women need tools for dealing with everyday sexism and abuse, to help us ensure safe spaces for ourselves and the people we love. Enter El Halev. This phenomen organization directed by Sensei Yudit Sidikman,  is leading the way in women's empowerment self-defense and safety. El Halev ran an outstanding conference this week for educators and therapists to mark the International Day against Violence Against Women, which falls tomorrow. The conference explored approaches to providing safe spaces and dealing with trauma. People from all around Israel participated in a range of lectures and workshops providing insights and tools for dealing with physical, emotional, and sexual trauma. Sessions included samples of El Halev programs such as Freedom to Choose, Impact, the Young Lionesses, as well as crafts, bibliotherapy, and brick-breaking. Speakers also explored the role of self-defense and "Personal Safety Literacy" as key components of the broader feminist vision of gender equality and creating a world in which women and men can both thrive.  Admittedly, as the Board Chair of the organization I am possibly biased about how amazing the conference was and about the organization generally. But my feeling at the conference was really one of privilege. I felt truly honored to be part of all this. I was so excited to speak to so many people there, all of whom share this vision. The atmosphere was electric. And it is so gratifying to watch the organization -- with its incredible staff and throngs of magnetic students, instructors and parents -- to emerge as a leader in thought and in practice about women's power in the world. The truth is, I became Chair in 2014 because of my experience with the organization, not the other way around. I decided to join the board because I had taken the self-defense course, Impact, which teaches you to stave off attacks -- physical, emotional, and sexual. The course changed my life in many ways. Before I took it, I thought, I'm a pretty tough and experienced woman. I thought I knew how to say "no". I thought I knew how to set my own boundaries. But I didn't. It was only through the course that I realized how vulnerable I really felt and acted, how I participated in my own disempowerment. I am still learning...

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9 sexist memories triggered by Trump stalking Hillary Clinton at the debate

Trump stands above Clinton during the second presidential debate. One of the creepiest aspects of the second presidential debate was the way Trump seemed, from his body language, almost to be stalking Hillary Clinton. When she moved to one side, he followed. He stood behind her, often with very little distance between them, silent, frowning, looking like he was growling. Body language expert Janine Driver called his movements a pre-assault indicator and said that she was getting “really nervous” for Hillary because he was “like a dog starting to get anxious.” Screenwriter Adrienne Parks wrote in Huffington Post that this was a kind of “upstaging,” where he was trying to seize power and divert attention away from her and back to him. “This was infuriating to all of us who have ever been forced to stand our ground on the rigged white male playing field”, she wrote. “I felt the unfairness of it to the bone. This was live televised assault and battery with intent to maim, politically rape, and kill.” I was also extremely uneasy watching Hillary speak while this large, menacing creature was behind her, a person who had just promised to dedicate himself to sending her to prison. As a short person – I’m five feet tall – I have spent most of my life dealing with situations in which the men in the room loom over me. Of course most are not dangerous. But in that kind of physical imbalance, even a little ill-will can feel threatening. And in situations where men actually do have more power than women – such as Orthodox synagogues, rabbinic courts, school playgrounds, and many workplaces – the feeling of powerlessness that you get from being surrounded by men hovering over you can be very real. I asked my Facebook friends if any of them felt triggered by Trump’s body language. The resulting extensive thread offered a resounding “yes”. Here are nine situations that other women and I have been reliving as we watched Trump stand near Clinton in the menacing way he did: (1) Abusive ex-husbands. Many women I have spoken to have been reliving nightmarish situations of abuse from ex-husbands. One women told me the way her husband used to stand behind her when she stood in front of the mirror, telling her how many of her body parts are “fat”, “ugly” and “disgusting.” She has been happily remarried for many years, but Trump has been dredging up many old, painful memories and fears. “It is the accumulation of my lived abusive assaults, dismissiveness, egotistical mansplaining, sexist, misogynist, ‘women don’t know anything’ experiences as a woman all wrapped into one person,” she said about watching Trump. (2) Bulldozing coworkers. There is countless research about men bulldozing women in work situations – talking over women, dismissing women, infantilizing women, mansplaining,manterrupting, gaslighting women, and harassing women. Trump triggers many of these situations every time he talks to or about women. During the debate, he looked like every fiber in his being wanted to crush his rival. It was...

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Women choosing not to fast on Yom Kippur

I wrote a two-part series at Lilith Magazine about Jewish women who do not fast on Yom Kippur because of eating disorders and/or painful scars from abuse.  Part 1:  Choosing Not to Fast: Eating Disorders and Yom Kippur   Last year on the eve of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, Naomi Malka was busy. The High Holiday Coordinator and Mikveh Director at the Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, DC, she was preparing for a 6PM service for five thousand people and had no time to eat. For most people who observe this holiday – which, according to the Guttman Center, is the majority of Jews – the 25 hour fast is hard enough. But to start the fast already on an empty stomach and to be running around organizing and working, that is bordering on painful. But for Naomi, the challenge was even more extreme: she is also a recovering bulimic.  “My fast started without thinking about it, but by 4:30 or 5:00 the next day, I was in the room where we set up for the security guards and people not fasting, and I was in there stuffing my face,” she recalled painfully. “Imagine, it was Yom Kippur, and I was so embarrassed and humiliated and I was crying. It was a manifestation of so much stress. And then I went and threw up in the synagogue on Yom Kippur! It was just awful and I was so ashamed about it for weeks after. And that’s when I realized, I can’t fast. I can’t be healing from an eating disorder and fast as a Jew. Those two things just don’t work for me.” Jews are taught that Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the holiest day of the year. It is called in the Torah, “The Sabbath of the Sabbaths,” the day when Israelites connect with their Creator rebirth their souls through fasting and praying. But for some people, the day brings on swarms of difficult feelings – dread, trauma, shame and guilt – along with severe risk of self-harm. The idea of fasting for a whole day triggers symptoms of eating disorders and disordered eating – not necessarily the same thing – and can send people into downward spirals and unraveling. “Food’s distinct role in Orthodox Judaism makes it a prime vehicle for playing out unspoken conflicts and confusion,” Dr. Caryn Gorden, an expert in eating disorders in the Jewish community, writes in Psychology Today. “The religious regulations that demand strict observance can serve as scaffolding for the rigidity, control and deprivation characterizing restrictive anorectic eating,” as well as other disordered eating such as bulimia and compulsive eating. Indeed, Naomi Malka is not alone. I spoke with a dozen women from different Jewish communities around the world, many of whom were not ready to go public with their stories, about their decisions not to fast on Yom Kippur. Although a 1995 study found that 1 in 19 Orthodox Jewish women suffer from eating disorders—twice the number as the American community generally—the topic is still...

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Why Israel Funding Non-Orthodox Mikvehs Is a Step Forward — and Backward

Israeli lawmaker Moshe Gafni

lior zaltzman The Israeli government – currently in the midst of various financial crises like a doctors’ strike and a revolt by municipalities protesting major cuts to education – has miraculously found 10 million NIS for something that until now has never really existed. That is: non-Orthodox mikvehs. The new initiative to create non-Orthodox ritual baths is the result of a compromise of sorts in which ultra-Orthodox lawmaker Moshe Gafni, who heads the Knesset Finance Committee, pushed through his “Mikveh Law” that gives municipalities the power to ban non-Orthodox Jews from immersing in state-funded mikvehs for their own personal use. The bill is a disaster, another act of zealot control over who gets to convert to Judaism and over who gets to decide who the gatekeepers of the Jewish people are – only this time the debate takes place over the uncovered bodies of the most vulnerable members of the tribe at their most delicate, intimate moment.   YouTube Israeli lawmaker Moshe Gafni The idea that the state – any state – should be passing bills about any of this is outrageous, a violation of basic rights to privacy and the privacy of spiritual practice, and a huge stain on the State of Israel. This new jolt of funding for this new thing called non-Orthodox mikvehs, which comes from the Prime Minister’s Office for Diaspora Affairs is meant to be a salve for Jews of the world. After all, it seems to be acknowledging the legitimacy of non-Orthodox conversion. And it is real money for real facilities, which is always nice. But this actually might have the opposite effect. It is a way of marking and denoting non-Orthodox Jews as officially “other”. There is currently one mikveh in Israel that is considered by the state to be “not Orthodox” – that is, the mikveh in Hannaton run by Rabbi Dr. Haviva Ner David. Although she has a doctorate from Bar Ilan University on the Jewish law, or_halakha_, of mikveh practice and has Orthodox ordination as a rabbi, these credentials are not recognized by the state as giving her authority to run a mikveh. Read the rest at The Forward: http://forward.com/sisterhood/347527/why-israel-funding-non-orthodox-mikvehs-is-a-step-forward-and-backward/

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Olympics 2016: Religious women/secular women -- different cultures, same male sexual gaze

Some people look at this photo and see the beauty of diversity at the Olympics. Maybe. But I also see something else. I see women in two different cultures trapped in their cultures' demands about women's bodies and appearance. Opposite cultures, same problem of sexual objectification. On the right we have women athletes who, no matter what their physical and mental accomplishments, are forced to abide by rules intended to maximize their sexual appeal to gazing heterosexual males. The beach volleyball athletes have been among the most objectified, photographed from behind, valued for their cleavage and skin, commented on for sexual appeal of their skin rather than for their athletic prowess. You are more likely to come across a photo of a volleyball player's behind than one of her slamming the ball. On the left we have a different form of sexual objectification from a radically different culture, one similarly controlled and dominated by men who view women primarily as sex objects. In the culture on the left, the response to this outlook is to maintain extreme, maximum coverage for women. It is the opposite response to the same position of men believing women are primarily objects to look at, the same men controlling their culture by maintaining norms of women's body cover/uncover. Both of these women have overcome their positions as sexual artifacts to achieve a place in the Olympics. That is incredible. Doubly incredible -- like Ginger Rogers doing everything Fred Astaire did but backwards and in high heels. Women often have to work within the rules of their cultures in order to achieve their dreams for this life. Sometimes that is doable and sometimes it just isn't. So this is a picture of women choosing to abide by the rules of their cultures, no matter how sexist and misogynistic, and succeeding in overcoming these excessive obstacles in order to great things and to be great. But it doesn't address the deeper problem. In neither of these cultures are women allowed to prioritize their own comfort or desire. Women in both cultures -- secular and religious cultures -- are molded from the age of zero to be conscious of being watched and gazed upon. In neither secular or religious culture are women and girls allowed to just *be* with their bodies, to dress for *comfort*, to choose based on their own inner feelings and a sense of their own contours rather that on proscriptions of the men dominating their cultures. This is a problem worldwide, the absence of legitimacy for women's comfort and women's desires and women's body autonomy. And so with all the different types of inspiration that this picture generates, it also generates a very strong outrage that women still have to put up with this. Portrait of women in the world, 2016.     

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When are sexist jokes part of a culture of sexual abuse?

Are sexist jokes harmless? The ball-and-chain jokes about wives and mothers in laws, the comments about women's body parts, the hardy-har-har about blondes who have no brains? Are these harmless or are they actually a form of abuse?These are some of the questions that have come up since I wrote my piece two weeks ago about non-contact sexual abuse. Can jokes be abuse? But they are just so "normal"? How can that be abuse?Consider this: What some of us may have been taught is "normal": a family sits around the table for shabbat lunch. the men of the family -- father, uncle, brother-in-law, all busy telling jokes are about women, about men and sex. about women's bodies, about women's dumbness or stupidity or lack of common sense. Meanwhile, the women are serving and the men are sitting. Men get to deliver opinions and women get to be servers. The house may even have a rule that men get served first. And at the same time, girls who are too opinionated are called "provocative", or "annoying", or "chutzpahdik" or "disrespectful". And their bodies are commented on during all this. Whose skirt is too short. Which women in synagogue wore skirts that were too short. Who gained weight or lost weight. Who should go on a diet. Who should be losing weight. Who "looks great". This is what is happening in the house.Consider the experience of the 10 year old girl in all this. What is she experiencing about her body? About what it means to get attention? About what it means to be correct as a woman? What is going through her mind? What kind of relationships is she developing with her body? With her sexuality? With men? With power and voice? What is she internalizing? What kinds of relationships might she eventually have with boys and men? What kinds of body issues might she have?Now imagine this: The girl desperately wants her smart, charismatic father to love her and admire her. She wants to be in his circle. she tried having opinions but got punished for that. so she tries another tack. she makes a sexist joke. She makes the kind of joke her father would make about, say, Kim Kardashian's ass. She knows it is considered funny, even if she doesn't really get why. But she is smart enough to know how to fit in and get some attention. The father looks at her, stunned, and then laughs in pride. Later he will say that she is his smartest daughter. Almost like a boy. She is like his vicarious son. She is so smart.What has this girl internalized? Think about it. When is a joke not just a joke but part of a culture of sexual abuse? Even when there is no actual touching involved......

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On Freundel, Amanda Todd, Erin Andrews and the real trauma of video voyeurism

A few months ago, a fifteen-year-old girl named Lee was taking a shower, she thought alone. When she went to school the next day and found her classmates laughing at her, she learned that a boy in her school in Beersheba had installed a camera in the stall. Now, thanks to Whatsapp, her naked body was on everyone’s phone. She was mortified. Although the school expelled the boy and her family filed charges, the boy was returned shortly thereafter, following a debate of the Education Committee of the Knesset. And to add salt to her wounds, last week, the Israel police announced that they are closing the case. “The situation does not warrant a criminal investigation,” they told Lee’s parents. Although Lee’s lawyer says the family plans to appeal since “the boy’s actions are clearly against the law,” for Lee it is almost irrelevant. She has not returned to school.   The story, which barely made any headlines in Israel or elsewhere, is part of a phenomenon known as “video voyeurism”, a psychopathic set of behaviors the impact of which has multiplied a result of technological advances. What was once a problem of so-called “peeping toms” hiding in bushes is now a worldwide epidemic of men who use microscopic video cameras and both the regular and “dark” internet to shame victims for perpetuity. Victims can have their intimate photos or videos taken and shared with the entire world without their knowledge.   We do not yet have an effective name for the type of trauma that a girl or woman experiences when the entire world sees her naked. It is a type of trauma that did not exist in the world before the past decade. And it includes a magnitude of shame that we do not yet, as a society, fully comprehend.   Imagine going to a job interview or on a date, only to discover that the first thing Google has shown the person sitting across from you is a photo of you naked. There is a shame in this experience that, according to experts in sexual assault, can be even worse than rape. As sportscaster Erin Andrews said this week about her own experience of falling victim to video voyeurism, “Oh my God ….. I was naked all over the Internet”. She says that "every single day, either I get a tweet or somebody makes a comment in the paper or somebody sends me a still of the video to my Twitter or someone screams it at me in the stands and I’m right back to this…I feel so embarrassed and I am so ashamed.” Even with the perpetrator in prison for stalking, the impact on the victim will never be erased because, well, the internet. It is like being forced to walk around in public naked every single day.   Take for example the story of Amanda Todd, the Canadian girl who fell victim to an online pedophile. As most 12-year-olds, she enjoyed hanging out with her friends, listening to music and playing...

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