Jewfem Blog

Seriously, 92Y - You Might Be Ready For Ari Shavit’s Come Back, But We Aren’t (or, why Jewish orgs are still hiring admitted sexual predators)

 As the world continues to shake with revelations of sexual abuse in the most high-profile corridors of power and the #MeToo realization that it is nearly impossible to find a woman who has not been affected by sexual harassment, some members of Jewish communal leadership seem to be living in a cave. I knew this was true. Still, it’s shocking to meet this reality head on. When I learned this week that the 92nd Street Y is advertising admitted sexual predator Ari Shavit as their keynote speaker to mark Israel’s 70th anniversary, it became unambiguously clear that the insulated, powerful, and tone-deaf Jewish boys’ club is still running the show, to the detriment of women and all victims of sexual assault.On the most basic level, this decision ignores women as consumers. The idea that women and sexual assault victims would be horrified by this choice apparently did not occur to the organizers. That we would never come to an event like this doesn’t seem to matter. Whoever the victims of sexual abuse are – women and men alike – we are irrelevant. We are not even considered as potential attendees. It is a stunning dismissal of victims from the community. It reminds me of how every time I click on a link on a browser that pops open a window for call girls, I face the reality not only of the commodification of women’s bodies but also of the default assumption that all consumers are at least perceived to be men. In fact, the dominant assumption in so many areas of business and communal life is not only that a typical consumer is male, but that he is a heterosexual male who has no problem with the sexual objectification of women. It seems that these same dark forces controlling my internet browser are also making decisions at the 92Y. All they see is men, particularly ones who have no problem with sexual abuse. Read more: https://forward.com/opinion/390179/seriously-92y-you-might-be-ready-for-ari-shavits-come-back-but-we-arent/

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The pretty face of the Jewish boys' club

  I was ambushed yesterday. And it left me shuddering. And it gave me a deeply distressing glimpse into the workings of the Jewish boys’ club. The ambush had a very pretty mask. And it is terrifying. A guy asked me for a meeting for networking. He had all the trappings of being a Nice Guy – he had an easy smile, gentle voice, clean cut appearance, beard and knitted kippah, and a generous use of flattery. I should have recognized this. He did all the classic, effective getting-to-know-you stuff: He said he knows my work, he has read my research, he is a Reform rabbi and studied at HUC and is interested in my current experiences there, he knows my husband, his wife knows my husband, and wouldn’t it be great to connect. It all sounded so normal. I said I don’t have a lot of time these days, so he suggested coming to my school and meeting me during my tight one-hour lunch break. I said okay. After ten minutes of smiling and chatting, he uttered a sentence that began, “The real reason I wanted to meet you with such urgency.....” That should have been a red flag. If I have an agenda for a meeting, I put that agenda up front. If someone asks to meet for one reason but actually has a totally different reason, that could be a sign of manipulation. It isn’t always. After all, if someone wants to ask me for  something easy and innocuous like a recommendation or an introduction, then it is fine to bring that up at the meeting and not in advance. But if you want something big from another person and want to take their much-needed one free hour for that request, you had better be honest about that. So what was the urgency? “I got a call from a colleague I know,” he began, “a man who is concerned because his name appears on a list of men in the Jewish community who are accused of sexual abuse.” The backstory is this: In one of the groups online dealing with sexual abuse since the #MeToo movement, some people decided to create an anonymous sheet for collecting women’s experiences with sexual abuse in the Jewish community. This initiative came out of the realization that the only reason why the Harvey Weinstein story came out at all was because of a sheet like this in which women were able to post anonymously about their experiences of sexual abuse. Within a matter of days, certain names came up frequently, and then some reporters decided to dig further into those names, which eventually led to the New York Times story. The reason why this was so crucial in that movement is victims are very reluctant to come forward. Their lives were ruined once by their abusers, and coming forward means that they may have their lives ruined once again. Think Anita Hill.  This is not speculation or an exceptional incident. This is...

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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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Rabbi Tamar Elad Applebaum used her Friday night sermon to talk about #MeToo. Wow. #GamAni

“If we can’t talk about sexuality and sexual abuse in the synagogue community, then where can we talk about it?” That is how Rabbi Tamar Elad Applebaum explained her choice on Friday night to dedicate her sermon at her Kehilat Zion minyan in Jerusalem to the topic of #MeToo and sexual abuse. I was so captivated by her talk – as I think everyone in the packed sanctuary was – that I almost forgot where I was altogether. “With all due respect to the Toldot,” she opened, almost apologizing for the fact that she was about to discuss the topic she wanted to discuss rather than the topics traditionally mandated by the Torah portion of the week, in this case Toldot, “the entire Torah is ours, and we need to be able to live by all of it and talk about what we need to talk about.” She is courageous, I thought, perhaps a premonition for what was about to come.    “I want to talk about Eve,” she began, “and why she spoke to the snake, and why she touched the Tree of Knowledge.” Many commentators have remarked that while God told Adam and Eve not to eat from the Tree, Eve actually touched it, and things went downhill from there. A popular midrash says that Eve had added an extra restriction for herself, imagining that God said, "Don't touch the tree" rather than "don't eat." The snake then tricked her pushing her into the tree – and then when nothing happened, he said, “You see? You can touch, you can eat.” But Rabbi Applebaum brought us another midrash that tells a different story. This particular midrash, which is found in Breishit Rabbi and attributed to Abba Bar Koria, says that Adam and Eve had just had sex for the first time, and Adam fell asleep. That’s when Eve went looking for someone to talk to, and found the snake. “Why was she looking for someone to talk to?” Rabbi Elad Applebaum asked us. “Because Adam wasn’t there. He was sleeping. He wasn’t there for her when she needed him.” She then went on to read more deeply into this scenario. “Imagine this. Her first sexual encounter. She was confused, she didn’t understand. Maybe something didn’t happen the way it was supposed to. maybe she was hurting. It wasn't good. We don’t know. Adam went to sleep. She is having a difficult time. What just happened?” The midrash, and Rabbi Applebaum, were connecting the story of eating from the forbidden fruit with the first sexual experience of humanity. That is hardly a stretch. The innuendo is all over the text. Still, the details of this explication were new for me.   “What I’m about to tell you, you won’t find in any midrash”, she said. “It comes straight out of the texts of my life.” I was already entranced. Because I know that those absent texts, the ones of women’s actual lived lives, are usually the ones that speak to me...

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#MeToo Israel Round-up #GamAni

Here is a quick round-up of the #MeToo movement in Israel from the past few days:* Alex Giladi, the head of Keshet, has been accused of rape by at least two women. In a very Harvey Weinstein-esque description, women were apparently told that if they want to get a meeting, they have to speak to "it" -- he would say this while standing naked in front of them. So we know what "it" is. Anyway, Giladi hasn't denied this, and has "stepped aside" from his current role but has not suffered any consequences of these revelations. * Haim Yavin, the famous news anchor, has been accused of making similar propositions to Neri Livneh. Haim Yavin has that same "clean cut" image that we have seen in other alleged sexual predators, the Bill-Cosby type of father-figure style that makes people reluctant to believe he would do such a thing. * Ehud Barak apparently helped Weinstein cover up -- not literally, but figuratively -- his actions by connecting him with the Mossad. What does it tell us that Israeli security agents were being used to help a rich rapist, with zero interest in the victims? There are layers of patriarchy here and we have only begun scratching the surface of what this means. * Gabi Gazit has been accused by Dana Weis of sexual harassment, where he would kiss her on the lips without permission. He has not denied these allegations and in fact sort of bragged that "One day, people will be telling stories about me from 45 years ago." This was actually just 15 years ago.  * Yoram Zak of Big Brother (a Keshet production....) would routinely send the women on his staff explicit sexual notes and comments, like an entire email all about the erection he had because he thought about how beautiful they all are. The emails don't lie. As opposed to the others here, he has apologized and said that he is embarassed by what he wrote then and has changed. He says he understands now what he didn't understand then, that this is wrong.  * MK Yael German has joined the ranks of the testimonies by sharing that she was sexually assaulted by her gynecologist.  * The late Tommy Lapid, who everyone knows was crass and gross -- though some considered those qualities endearing in the man -- has been posthumously accused of attempted rape of journalist Sylvie Keshet in London in 1063. His son Yair points out that we can't ask the father what really happened. True. So we'll just leave this there.  * An unnamed senior executive in the tax authority sexually harassed his colleagues and was fired for "medical reasons" rather than face the consequences.   If I missed a story on this, please share so I can add it.  To stay up to date on these stories, follow the Gender-in-Israel-List on Facebook#GamAni

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From Weinstein to Trump to the Talmud: Lessons on being a woman in this world, then and now

Don’t embarrass important men. Don’t ruin things – for others, for yourself. And anyway, maybe what you think you experienced didn’t really happen. Maybe you’re just making it up. Let’s move on. There is important work to do, important issues to discuss. Let’s not waste time on these trivial matters. On your personal agenda. Enough with that. The sexual assault allegations against high profile men that have been coming to light – Weinstein, Ailes, Cosby, Trump, etc etc etc – have been shedding light on some of the many ways in which our society uses, silences, and shames women. Women are too frequently seen as sex objects or servile –  no matter how talented, smart or accomplished we are. When we speak up, we are often not believed. We need sixty other women to say the same thing before our stories are taken seriously. And when we do speak, we are often encouraged to stay silent for the sake of the project, the business, the community, the greater good, whatever. Anything but our own needs and our own well-being. But these dynamics are hardly new. I am discovering as I reopen the centuries-old Talmudic tomes that form the basis of Jewish and arguably Judeo-Christian thought, that the subsuming of women’s needs and desires is an old practice. We have been thrown under the bus for a very long time. This week, I read a passage in the Jerusalem Talmud about spirituality that I was keenly interested in. I am a lifelong student of comparative religion, and this passage, which discusses the character traits of the person deemed most fit to communicate with God, addresses topics that are often on my mind. What does it mean to be a spiritual being? What concepts of leading a good life or being a good person are universal? I suppose I am searching for an understanding of humanity that crosses cultural boundaries. This text speaks to that, so I was engaged. And then came the bit about women, and I stopped short. The passage (JT Taanit 1;4) brings a series of anecdotes about practice of fasting for rain. When there was a drought in ancient Israel, the religious leadership would call for fasting in order to speak to God – first individuals would fast, and then if things didn’t improve, the entire public would fast. So the Talmud asks the question: Who are those righteous individuals who can speak to God and get the job done? The answers are given via a series of stories with men who are deemed to have qualities of righteousness, and some of these answers are surprising. The first story is about a man who refused a request for money because the funds in question had been set aside for tithes. The rabbis were so impressed with his commitment to charity that they said, “You should pray for rain.” That is nice and makes sense. It is about generosity, honesty and integrity, considered here to be the basis of a...

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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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