Jewfem Blog

Orthodox women, Orthodox men: Never the twain shall meet?

Brandeis University Press authors win 2013 National Jewish Book Awards By Dana Trismen February 7, 2013 Section: Arts, Etc.   Brandeis University Press has recently boasted a series of successes, with two authors nominated as winners of the 2013 National Jewish Book Awards. Anita Shapira’s “Israel: A History” won in the history category, while Elana Maryles Sztokman earned a win in women’s studies for “The Men’s Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World.” Brandeis University Press is a member press of the University Press of New England (UPNE), which publishes in various fields, the majority of which are related to Jewish culture, thought and Israeli studies. Yet, the published books cover diverse subjects and viewpoints on topics such as politics, history, gender and philosophy. While their focus may be on the Jewish experience, their “goal is to illuminate subjects of all stripes with intelligence, curiosity and care,” according to the University Press website. “My book was published by the Hadassah Brandeis Institute, an organization at Brandeis University led by Professor Shulamith Reinharz and Professor Sylvia Barack Fishman, that focuses on scholarship in issues of gender and Judaism,” Sztokman said. Originally granted a research scholarship, she then submitted a proposal to be published, a request that was granted. “The people at HBI are phenomenal,” she said. “[They are] wonderful scholars and really incredibly supportive of emerging voices. I feel really lucky and privileged to have received their support.” Sztokman’s book, “The Men’s Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World,” examines gender identities of Orthodox men. “I wanted to know, when Orthodox Jews say things like, “Be a Man,” or “Today you are a man” (said at every bar mitzvah on the planet), what do they mean?” she said. “What does it mean to be an Orthodox man?” Her research drove her to interview many Jewish men, especially ones who belonged to synagogues called ‘partnership synagogues.’ These are places that have found a compromise between feminist ideals and Jewish law, allowing gender equality. “The men in these synagogues are deeply engaged in this gender struggle,” she said. The idea for her book came to her during a conversation she had with an Orthodox Jewish man. She remembers him saying, “I could never go to a synagogue like that, because if women are doing everything, what’s left for men to do?” Sztokman decided this was actually an important point. “He was articulating something very poignant about society,” she said. “When women step into roles that were once exclusively owned by men, the men suffer from a crisis of identity. They no longer know how to define themselves as a man.” This drove Sztokman to write a book that addressed what men were going through, instead of exclusively focusing on women in this movement. “We have to pay attention to how men deal with this if we are going to successfully create equitable, compassionate communities,” she said. Sztokman is very aware that Orthodox Judaism creates strict gender divisions. Men are allowed public actions...

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Is this about the exclusion of women, or hatred of haredim?

Israeli women are stirring. For the first time in Israel’s history, we are witnessing a mass women’s protest movement using some fascinating and inspiring tools of civil disobedience. This sudden eruption of sentiment for gender equality is perhaps simply late in coming, a generation or two behind its American counterpart from the 1960s and 1970s. Or perhaps it is not merely a late arrival but an entirely different animal. It is both similar to and vastly different from feminist revolutions that preceded it, a product not only of the universal need for equality but also of the particular, local cholent that we call Israeli society. The movement is in some ways fueled by classic feminist spirit, but in some ways driven by diverse and perhaps dubious motives that may have little to do with women’s issues. To be sure, the grass-roots activities of nonviolent protest that are emerging from dozens of corners around Israel would make Gandhi proud. In response to segregation on buses, for example there are now “Freedom Rides”, organized by IRAC, in which small groups of men and women ride buses and sit unsegregated. In response to soldiers’ refusal to listen to women sing, a group called “Be Free Israel” organized an event called “Singing for Equality” in which the weapon of choice was women’s voices in song. In response to the destruction of pictures of women on billboards, the New Israel Fund organized an activity called “Women should be seen and heard” in which women are hanging photographs of themselves on balcony posters. This is in some ways a classic movement of civil disobedience, one that women in Israel have never really tried before, and it is truly budding from the ground up. The energy is phenomenal, and it feels like quite an exciting time to be a woman in Israel. Women are finally speaking up and being heard. Politicians from all corners are responding with initiatives, bill proposals and provocative statements of support.  Things are happening, and they are starting with the voice of the people. It is significant, however, that thus far all the targets of protest are practices are haredi.  Perhaps this is because the practices in question are so very backward and anti-democratic that they seem to cross all boundaries of normalcy. An event last week, for example, in which the Ministry of Health held an award ceremony and refused to allow one of the recipients to appear on stage to receive her award is beyond ludicrous. There is a real sense that practices being promoted as “sensitive” to the religious world are simply relics of the dark ages. That government officials regularly capitulate to such demands for “sensitivity” sparks a justified outrage, as if an entire ethos of democracy, civility, and human rights is being sold off to the most outrageous religious fanatics. Perhaps this is catching on as a movement because people relate not so much to the gender issue but to the fear of widespread religious coercion. Indeed, some of...

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