Friday, June 28, 2013

Mark Your Calendars: 2013 JOFA Conference

From December 7-8, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA)’s 8th International Conference of Feminism and Orthodoxy will be taking place in Manhattan at John Jay College (524 West 59th Street, New York, NY). This year’s conference theme is “Voices of Change.”

I was privileged to be able to attend the last JOFA Conference in 2010, and I absolutely loved it. Hearing all of the speakers discuss various Jewish and Orthodox feminist topics lit a fire within me, and fueled my activist work. One of my first-ever published articles was a piece about my reflections on the conference.

On Saturday night, after Shabbat on December 7, there will be “An Evening of the Arts,” which will feature the voices of women artists and performers with displays of music, poetry, story, and song. I’m really looking forward to attending this part of the conference, since it’s always inspiring to see Jewish women who find new ways to express themselves through the arts. As someone who has interviewed several Jewish women performers, I always love to hear about new ones, so I hope that the Saturday night program will introduce me to some new artists.
Sunday December 8 will feature a full day of lectures, workshops, films, and panel discussions with leading Orthodox feminist scholars, networking opportunities, and action-oriented programming to help participants bring JOFA’s message back to their communities. There will even be special programming for educators, teens, and college students. I’m really looking forward to this whole day of the conference, since I know that all the speakers who are presenting will be amazing and inspiring.

For more information or to get involved, email

For breaking news and conference updates, as well as all-around Jewish feminist inspiration and information, follow JOFA on Twitter or like us on Facebook

I hope to see you at the conference!

Monday, June 24, 2013

Phineas and Ferb and Feminism

I adore the Disney show Phineas and Ferb. Unlike most shows currently aired by Disney, it’s brilliantly written, the plotlines are hilarious, the humor is sophisticated, the music is actually beyond amazing (I have numerous songs memorized), and the characters are all well-developed and funny. The depiction of female characters in Phineas and Ferb is a mixed bag, but overwhelmingly feminist.

The basic plot of every episode is that stepbrothers Phineas Flynn and Ferb Fletcher, circa age 10, create some extraordinary (and possibly dangerous) invention, and their 15-year-old sister Candace Flynn tries to bust them with their mother. Throughout the series, Candace is consistently shown as extremely single-minded, with her only goal being to bust her brothers. A common subplot involves her boyfriend, Jeremy, with whom she is constantly trying to please (despite Jeremy’s genuine insistence that he loves Candace for who she is). As a whole, Candace is a pretty one-dimensional character, with little substance outside of her relationship to either Jeremy or Phineas and Ferb. Although her perseverance is excellent - she tries to bust her brothers in every single episode, despite all of her previous failures - she would be much more of a feminist character if she channeled her strengths into developing interests outside of boys or her brothers.

Isabella Garcia-Shapiro, Phineas and Ferb’s friend, also has her flaws. Isabella is known for walking into the boys’ backyard and saying her trademark line, “Whatcha doin’?” Although I always eagerly await Isabella’s arrival in the backyard and say her line along with her, it seems unfair that she’s content to go along with Phineas and Ferb’s plans rather than spearheading her own projects. Her on-screen appearances do make it clear that she has a pretty rich off-screen life, though, since she’s a Fireside Girls troop leader with lots of friends who has earned what seems like hundreds of patches. I also suppose that the show is called Phineas and Ferb, not Isabella, so the writers have no need to introduce plotlines with Isabella as the main character. Nonetheless, I would love to watch a few episodes that focus more on Isabella’s capabilities.

In general, Isabella is a feminist character who is significantly more three-dimensional than Candace is. She exhibits the importance of multiculturalism, as she is half Mexican and half Jewish and leads a racially diverse Fireside Girls troop. As the head of her Fireside Girls troop, Isabella shows Phineas and Ferb fans of both sexes that girls can handle leadership positions with grace. Isabella and her troop members often shake gender stereotypes when they participate in activities that are not considered typically feminine, like building a plane or watching a comet in an observatory.

Another main female character in the series is Phineas and Ferb’s mother, Linda Flynn-Fletcher, a stay-at-home mom who never sees any of her sons’ inventions, despite Candace’s efforts otherwise. In the 80s, she was a one-hit wonder, Lindana, whose song “I’m Lindana and I Wanna Have Fun” is most likely patterned after Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” She’s supposed to be the typical American mom, who bakes pie for her kids and goes bowling with her husband. I’m not sure if it’s fair to label Linda as a feminist character, but she is certainly feminist-leaning, as she encourages Phineas and Ferb’s friendship with kids who are from various ethnic backgrounds and befriends their mothers herself.

The show goes out of its way to showcase non-typical family situations. Phineas and Ferb’s family is blended. Isabella is half-Mexican, half-Jewish. Another character, Dr. Doofenshmirtz, is divorced, and his wife pays him alimony. Fans never meet either Buford’s father. Considering that most kids’ shows stick rigidly to the male-female parent paradigm, it’s inspiring that Phineas and Ferb breaks the norm like this.

All in all, Phineas and Ferb teaches kids to harness their potential, follow their passions, and do something worthwhile with every moment - all of which are feminist goals. As the entire cast sings at the end of my favorite episode, “Carpe Diem” - “Cuz every day’s a brand new day / You gotta carpe diem.”

Thursday, June 20, 2013

All I Want is Equality

Yes, that is what feminism is all about. Equality for women. No, we feminists are not asking for better treatment under the law for women. Anyone who does is not truly a feminist. The word feminism may come from the root word female, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a movement to raise women’s status above men’s. It means that it’s a movement dedicated to raising women to men’s political, economic, and social level.

Because let’s face it: women have a long way to go to reach that level of equality. In the US, a rape culture prevails, and women are blamed for their own sexual assaults. In the Congo, a violent civil war is fought on women’s bodies, with the threat of rape constantly looming over every woman in the country. The Middle East is rife with honor killings of women who have done some perceived wrong to “dishonor” their families. In Asia, female fetuses are aborted and infants are murdered simply because they have two X chromosomes.

It’s an undeniable fact: all over the world, women are subjected to horrendous injustice, whether physical gender-based violence or cultural inequality or both. Anyone who claims that feminism is dead, and that fighting for women’s equality is outdated and irrelevant, could not be more wrong. Women still need that boost. Women are still second class citizens, whether by actual legal standards or by cultural and societal norms.

And that is why we need feminism. We need to elevate women from their unfairly low status to fully-functioning members of society. If we do not, if we stand idly by as women are exploited and subjected to gross injustice, then we are wasting half of the world’s resources. All we feminists want is to be able to harness those talents of half the population in this world, and ensure that every human being can reach his or her full potential, regardless of gender or sex.

All I want is equality. And one day, I am confident that feminists and their allies will attain that goal, and the world will be a fairer place. I don’t know if I’ll be alive to see it, or even if my daughters or granddaughters will be. But I believe that if we sow the seeds of feminism now, if we imbue the right values into the next generations, the world will be a more equitable place one day.

Monday, June 17, 2013

A Return to Chivalry?

In the typical scenario of street harassment, the perpetrator is a man. As a result, in order to end the occurrence of street harassment, men must be sensitized to this issue. It is imperative that activists make men aware of the impact their words and actions have on female passersby, as well as teach men about women’s inalienable right to walk on the street without being subjected to harassment.

I recently shared this sentiment with a few girlfriends, in context of a conversation about street harassment and activists’ efforts to encourage men not to harass women. “So should chivalry be brought back from the dead? If men begin to act chivalrously to women, won’t that be the end street harassment?” one of my friends asked.

The concept intrigued me, as I had never thought about this link before. Is chivalry the opposite of street harassment? I suppose that it is, in a way. Street harassment is when men use their words and actions to make women uncomfortable and violated; chivalry is when men go out of their way to ensure for women’s safety and do everything for her benefit.

So does that mean anti-street harassment activists should champion a return to chivalry as the solution to the issue? Personally, I don’t think that this is a wise course of action. Chivalry is a relic of the olden days, when women were considered second-class citizens that needed protection by men, the stronger sex. There’s no place for chivalry in modern society, where women are considered men’s equals.

Anyway, in almost every situation in life, I believe in the validity of the golden mean. There’s no need to go to either extreme; the middle road is often the most practical and desirable path. Chivalry is on one side of the spectrum, while rampant street harassment is on the other. The most practical, middle path is all about championing common decency. Women just want men to be polite and to respect their personal space. Although I can’t speak for all of womankind, I know that I’m not looking to be put on a pedestal and fawned over. I don’t want men to put their coats on puddles in the street for me to cross. I’m just looking to cross the street without getting catcalled.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Cinderella, Her Stepmother, and Alternative Lifestyles

Once upon a time, there was a grandmother named Sarah. Every day, she would read her beloved granddaughter, Rachel, a book. One day she chose Cinderella, that hallmark of fairy tales and children’s stories. Rachel’s mother Rebecca, who is Sarah’s daughter, noticed her mother’s choice of story. Later in the day, Rebecca asked Sarah not to read Cinderella to Rachel anymore. The end.

In the above story (names have been changed), Sarah is my mother’s best friend, Rebecca is her right-wing Orthodox daughter, and Rachel is Rebecca’s daughter as well as the sweetest four-year-old to be found, may God keep her. Now, why is it that Rebecca didn’t want her daughter exposed to Cinderella? I wish I could say it’s because of the questionable feminist implications of the story, or the undue importance of physical beauty that the story stresses. Alas, that’s not it. 

The reason Rebecca didn’t want her daughter to know the Cinderella story? Because it talks about a stepmother.

When my mother told me that Sarah told her this, the sheer stupidity of it floored me. It didn’t take me long to appreciate the extraordinary irony in the situation, since Rebecca’s parents have been divorced since she was a kid (although neither ever remarried). However, what bothered me most about this wasn’t the inherent irony, but the fact that Rebecca is actively denying her daughter the opportunity to hear about alternative lifestyles.

Since the family is pretty religiously conservative, it would be unfair to expect them to expose their daughter to lifestyles that may be religiously questionable. However, there is absolutely no religious issue with a widow/er or divorce/e remarrying and giving his or her children a stepmother/father. In fact, it’s a religious obligation for a woman whose husband died without having children with her to remarry his brother.

So why is Rebecca so reluctant to expose her daughter to the concept of a religiously acceptable family lifestyle, albeit an alternative one? Honestly, I don’t know. But I can guess. And my conjecture is a fear of anything different.

It’s understandable to be wary of the unknown. However, everyone knows someone who’s divorced or widowed. It’s very far from being a rarity or uncommon occurrence in this world. We don’t live in a vacuum; throughout life, we meet all sorts of people from all different backgrounds. As a result, we have to teach our children that lifestyles other than the one they lead exist. If a little one is raised in a household where there are two heterosexual parents who have never been divorced or widowed, s/he needs to hear about one-parent households and same-sex parent households and blended families and so on. If a child isn’t exposed to alternative lifestyles, s/he won’t be able to comprehend them when s/he does finally encounter them. This is what leads to bullying and bigotry and baseless hatred.

To avoid this unfortunate fate and foster tolerance and understanding among children instead, it is imperative that we expose them to alternate lifestyles. Children, by nature, are innocent and accepting. They don’t have the prejudices and biases that adults possess, since they haven’t had as much time in this world to absorb them. Because of this, we must teach them not to be afraid of people who lead different lifestyles. They’re also people. They just live in a different way. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

There are many legitimate objections a parent can have to Cinderella. The mention of a stepmother, however, is not one of them. I wish I could say that Rachel’s story has a happily ever after and Rebecca has seen the light regarding alternative lifestyles, but that’s just not how the plotline went down. I just hope that Rachel is able to learn beyond what her parents are willing to teach.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Why Should Women Be Rabbis?

Whenever I talk with my friends about feminism, women entering the rabbinate nearly always comes up. “But why do they have to be rabbis?” my friends often ask. “Why can’t they just be rebbetzins [rabbis' wives]? Or do something else with their lives? I just don’t get the point,” they say.

The point is to give women the opportunity to synthesize their leadership skills and love of Judaism. If a woman has the ability and desire to lead a Jewish community and does so within the parameters of halakha (Jewish law), why should she be held back? It is a waste to let women whose talents would be best utilized in the clergy pursue a different career path.

Additionally, it’s crucial that children see women in leadership positions within the religious sphere. If we want to inspire young girls to develop a deeper connection to God and improve their religious performance, they must be shown that their participation in the religious world matters. Seeing members of their own sex in the synagogue leadership will certainly make that clear. Boys also need to see women in leadership roles. It is imperative that they are be able to recognize that women’s contributions matter, even if they’re on the other side of the mehitzah (divider between the sexes). How can we expect men to respect women if they’ve never been raised to do so?

It would be a busha (embarrassment) to stifle the voices of half of the Jewish population. In a world where assimilation is on the rise, it has never been more important to ensure that those Jews who want to be heard can be. History has silenced womankind enough. In this enlightened day and age, how can we continue to commit this heinous crime?

Women in leadership positions also make women feel more comfortable and willing to ask questions about sensitive religious topics. I know a breast cancer survivor who is an active member in her Jewish community, but is not extremely religious. She told me she was scheduled to have surgery when a halakhic question arose. She felt extremely awkward explaining the situation to a male rabbi, so she was reluctant to call one for advice. She then remembered that there was a woman rabba at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, an Orthodox synagogue. She called Rabba Hurwitz for halakhic advice, and everything was easily resolved. (Thank God, she’s doing well now.) Had this woman not had a Rabba Hurwitz to call, she could have gone through the halakhically questionable operation without rabbinic advice and felt guilty about it for the rest of her life, or spoken to a male rabbi and felt embarrassed. Women shouldn’t have to make that choice, especially when the solution is so simple.

Although my friends usually come into the conversation unable to comprehend why nice, frum (Orthodox) girls would want to enter the rabbinate, I certainly hope they leave the discussion slightly more enlightened. They don’t have to agree with me at the end of the day; Judaism is very fluid, and no two people must come to the same conclusion regarding the interpretation of halakha. I just hope they can understand why women may want to choose the rabbinate or a religious leadership role.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Jewish Women in STEM: From Europe to America

Although the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields have been dominated by men throughout the past, there have been numerous Jewish women within the scientific field. Interestingly, a number of these women lived in pre-World War II Germany, and were forced to escape the country in the early 1930s to avoid Nazi capture.

One example is Lise Meitner, who has been described as the German Marie Curie. Born in 1878 to a Jewish family in Vienna, she went on to accomplish many firsts in her life. Her earliest achievement was receiving a PhD in physics from the University of Vienna, the second woman to do so. Although German theoretical physicist Max Planck did not even allow women to attend his lectures, he was so impressed by Meitner that he took her on as his assistant. While under Planck’s tutelage, Meitner became the first female full professor in physics in Germany. The Nazis disregarded her 1908 conversion to Christianity, and she was forced to flee from Germany. While taking refuge in Sweden, she, along with nuclear chemist Otto Hahn, co-discovered nuclear fission, which made nuclear warfare possible. Although Hahn was recognized with a Nobel Prize, Meitner did not receive any distinction for her share of the work. She is a prime example of how women’s accomplishments are routinely ignored by both the scientific community and the world at large. Although she did not get the Nobel Prize, her life’s work was recognized when element 109 was named meitnerium in her honor.

A Jewish woman mathematician born in 1882 was Emmy Noether. She was raised in an intellectual home, as her father was a famous mathematician. Noether , like Meitner, pursued a doctoral degree, but in mathematics. For several years, she taught university courses without receiving pay due to her sex. Mathematician David Hilbert took her on as his assistant at the University of Gottingen, where she taught courses in his name. After the Nazis dismissed all Jewish professors in 1933, she continued to teach math out of her home. Realizing that Germany was no longer a safe place for Jews, she accepted a position at Bryn Mawr College and moved to the United States. Happily, her contributions to mathematics were recognized, unlike Meitner’s fate. Albert Einstein said that Noether was “the most significant mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began,” as she revolutionized the theories of rings, fields, and algebras. Noether’s Theorem has become a fundamental tool of modern physics and calculus. Innumerable amounts of her students were inspired by her groundbreaking teachings to revolutionize algebra and number theory even further, furthering Noether’s legacy.

The founder of mammalian developmental genetics was another Jewish woman of this era, Salome Gluecksohn-Waelsch. Born in 1907 in Danzig, Germany, she dreamed of moving from Europe to Palestine. She decided to study biology, since she felt it would be practical knowledge for life in the Middle East. Although she received a doctorate in 1932, she was unable to find work due to her sex and religion. A year later, she realized that it would be unwise to remain in Nazi Germany, and fled to America. Her husband, a biochemist, found a position at Columbia University. Unfortunately, her sex doomed her to a job as an unpaid laboratory assistant. Although she published a groundbreaking paper on mouse embryology and genetic mutations in 1938, she worked at Columbia for 17 years without ever becoming a faculty member. When the Yeshiva University-affiliated Albert Einstein College of Medicine was established in 1955, she joined the faculty there. Her genius was finally recognized, and she became the chair of the genetics department by 1968. Glueckson-Waelsch was given several awards for her research, including the National Medal of Science and an honorary life membership of the New York Academy of Sciences.

I have no interest in science or math, and cannot even pretend to comprehend the contributions that Meitner, Noether, and Glueckson-Walesch made to physics, mathemathics, and genetics, respectively. However, I do understand that these women paved the way for modern-day girls to enter STEM fields. They were able to succeed, despite the fact that they were women in an era of kinder, kuche, and kirche and Jews in an anti-Semitic country that they were forced to flee. It is imperative that we remember these women, the groundbreakers who opened STEM open to girls today. We owe them everything.