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Archive for May, 2010

This right here is a shout-out to the Seventeen Magazine Project, which is self-described as an “attempt to spend one month living according to the gospel of Seventeen Magazine. This blog will serve as documentation of this endeavor, as well as commentary on the adolescent experience.”

I started reading it a few days ago, and I’ve been following it since. The premise of it is to see “what would happen if an actual teenager were to apply all of these “tips and tricks” to her life? Would it actually improve? Would she actually become cuter/hotter/thinner/fitter/healthier/more popular? Do embodying these traits even make one’s life more fulfilling?” These questions strike close to home, because I’ve been reading/subscribing to Seventeen since I was maybe 14. And while I’ve always thought of it as somewhat of a guilty pleasure, I’ve never really felt that guilty about it, or ever really thought about it as having an impact on my greater life. Yes, Seventeen is not exactly intellectually stimulating, to say the least, and yes, it does encourage girls to wear things like “tribal” prints without mention of any actual tribes (which I’m not sure is actually a big deal, because there’s only a certain an extent to which you can be politically correct for a mass market for shirts). But just like Jamie, the girl doing the project, I don’t really know any girls who read Seventeen as a life guide, or even for advice on how to deal with boys. Mainly I, and my friends, read it to look at the clothes—blatant consumerism, I know, but it doesn’t seem particularly harmful.

This is not to say that I don’t think what Jamie Keiles, the girl who runs this blog, is doing is not cool. I’m interested to see what she comes up with, even though I highly doubt it will be earth-shattering. If nothing else, it will probably show that the magazines do not really influence teenagers, except to serve as somewhat of a distraction from real life and advertising propaganda.

Either way, she’s funny and really self-aware, making it pretty amusing to read. So I’d say check it out. Plus, she’s another teenage feminist blogger!

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Tomorrow, for the first time, four women (out of 33) will compete in the Indianapolis 500! Now, I do not follow cars at all, to say the least, but a friend of mine told me about it as if it were a big deal so I decided to look into it. And who knew—it is!

So some facts about racing: 33 years ago, in 1977, Janet Guthrie, an aerospace engineer, became the first woman to compete in the 500. And in 2007, three women participated.

Interestingly, NASCAR’s Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600, a race that is also going on tomorrow, will not have a single woman driver out of their 43. Some people say that it is because of the cars’ bulkier size and the potential physical difficulties that women could encounter, although many people disagree.

Now, I know nothing about racing, but I think it’s significant that women are making their way into the racing world, albeit slowly. So I thought I’d share this piece of news. Maybe one day people will stop making “women are all bad drivers” jokes, too…

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I was reading The Forward today and I stumbled upon this, a comic created by Eli Valley. It’s about a sociologist who is asked by a customer to investigate why a Jewish girl, Melissa, has lost her Jewish identity. He goes out to investigate and discovers that like Melissa, Jews across the New York have lost their identities. Why? Melissa has lost hers because Arabs are evicted from their Jerusalem homes because of property laws, one of her friends because Israel arrested women for wearing prayer shawls, and another friend because he learned that half of Israeli teens opposed equal rights for Arab citizens: they have been turned away from Judaism because they disagree with events in Israel.

The detective concludes that if Jewish identity is to be restored, Israel must be “removed from the equation.” However, the woman who had asked him to do the inquiries tries to pay him off to conclude that “ties to Israel must be strengthened to save Jewish identity.” He turns her down, declaring that he is “a sociologist for hire,” implying that he is above accepting the bribe.

Even though I think that it kind of presents only one side of Israeli politics, I find the comic very interesting. Although I personally do not support every single decision that Israel makes, I still find that much of my Jewish identity is tied to Israel and to the fact that Israel is a homeland for all Jews. Even when I disagree with decisions in Israel, I feel that criticizing and engaging in discussions about Israel only serves to strengthen my ties to Israel.

However, I also agree with some of what the “sociologist” said—I think that if the Jewish community in America is serious about trying to engage more Jews and strengthen Jewish identity, American Jews need to be engaged on issues outside of Israel. A 2006 survey by the American Jewish Committee found that 79 percent of Orthodox adult Jews under the age of forty feel “very close to Israel,” while only 16 percent of non-Orthodox Jews under the age of forty felt that way. There is clearly a divide between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox, showing that secular Jews seem to need more to tie them to Judaism than Israel.

So what happens to Judaism now? In school, I have actually had many discussions about this in a class I take about Jews in the news—how possible is it to be a Jew without a connection to Israel? While I personally do not plan to live that way, it seems that many Jews in America do, and consequently is a reality that needs to be dealt with. I believe that Jews should be able to be Jewish without needing to be tied to Israel; Israel does need the support of the international Jewish community and cannot be abandoned, but a connection to Judaism should not only be based on a connection to Israel. While learning about Israel is one important way to establish a Jewish identity, why can’t there be other ways? What ever happened to cultural Judaism based on Jewish literature, plays, and heritage? What happened to having a unique Jewish culture?

The Holocaust happened, and the creation of Israel happened, and the culture that once was has somewhat died. But perhaps it is time for a new Jewish culture, formed by the modern Jewish thinkers and scholars that exist across the globe. Instead of saying that “ties to Israel must be strengthened to save Jewish identity,” maybe what will save Jewish identity is a reshaping of Jewish identity: a Jewish identity based around involvement in aspects of modern life—something like Jewish feminism, for example. American Jewry should not give up on trying to educate American Jews about Israel and connect them to it, but American Jewry should also not forget that Judaism can be about more than just Israel. Restoring Jewish identity may very well rest on the creation of a new type of Jewish identity that will fit with the growing secular Jewish community in America that is in need of something new to push them towards Judaism.

Correction: this is slightly embarrassing, but in the end of the comic the sociologist actually does take the money. Hence the name, “sociologist for hire.” This does not really affect the rest of the post, but I wanted to clear this up.

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For a class I am taking on the Arab-Israeli conflict, I have been reading “Peace and Love and Compromise” in Israel, Palestine and Peace by Amos Oz. And I think it’s fascinating—not just because of what it has to say about the Arab-Israeli conflict, but because so much of what he has to say can be applied other parts of life.

He starts out by quoting Genesis 13, 8-9: “Let there be no conflict between me and you or between my hersmen and your herdsmen, for we are brothers. Behold, the land is before you, please part from me. If you go left I will turn right, and if you turn right I will go left.” He goes on to say that the quote explains what peace has to be like in the real world: sometimes in order to be on good terms with someone else, people need to define their respective places because we, as humans, are not perfect and cannot always get along when forced together. In his essay, he applies this lesson to the Israelis and Palestinians, arguing that they need to set boundaries between themselves in order to make peace.

But I think this applies to more than just Israelis and Palestinians. I think we can apply it to Judaism, too. There comes to a point where denominations in Judaism simply will not agree, from issues of how to interpret Halacha to issues of modernity versus tradition, etc. And that’s okay, that’s human, and what we need to do is accept those differences by metaphorically dividing up our space. People don’t have to agree to coexist.

Another quote that I love, on the nature of his writing:

I have said on several occasions that whenver I find that I agree with myself one hundred per cent, I don’t write a story—I write an angry article telling my government what to do, sometimes telling it where to go (not that it listens). But if I find more than just one argument in me, more than just one voice, it sometimes happens that the different voices develop into characters then I know that I am pregnant with a story. I write stories precisely when I can step into several antagonistic claims, diverse moral stances, conflicting emotional positions.

I’m not going to compare my writing with Amos Oz’s, because he’s incredible. But what I will say is this: I certainly know how he feels. A lot of times writing on this blog, I come out not really knowing what I think, mainly because I end up arguing for contradicting things. And that’s because different parts of me believe different things, and because I’ve started to realize that unlike in a debate, physically writing down what is “right” is very hard. Just like he talks about in his essay, it’s easy to choose between black and white, but “the real moral challenge is to distinguish between different shades of grey.” And that’s what a lot of the issues facing Judaism today—issues about how people see themselves fitting into both the modern world and the world of Jewish tradition—are: grey.

If you can, I’d recommend reading his book of essays. It’s amazing political stuff written in the artful language of a poet.

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This is cross-posted at Jewesses with Attitude.

As I embark on my final days of high school, I am working feverishly hard (well, let’s face it – senioritis makes me say I’m going to do so) on my senior project. My project, a collection of interviews with New York Jewish women on the intersection of Judaism and feminism (how appropriate!), is an exploration of how personal identity can be shaped by external forces/movements.

I started out the project by interviewing my grandmother who is eighty-seven. When asked if she experienced anti-Semitism, she answered “all the time.” When asked if she experienced sexism, she answered, “never.” My next interview was with Sophia who is sixteen.  When asked the same question, she gave the inverse answer, experiencing sexism all the time, but never anti-Semitism.

Read the rest here.

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Today and yesterday we celebrate the holiday of Shavuot, which is the celebration of the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Because of this, the Ten Commandments are read in synagogue. Many communities also read from the Book of Ruth because Shavuot is supposedly the day of King David’s death, and he was a descendant of Ruth.

The story of Ruth is an interesting one: she is a Moabite woman who marries into an Israelite family, only to have her husband, his brother, and his father die and leave the women to support themselves. Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law, decides to return to Israel, her homeland, and urges her daughters-in-law, Ruth and Oprah, to go out and find new husbands. Oprah, Ruth’s sister-in-law, heeds Naomi’s request and leaves, but Ruth responds with the following:

“Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus and more may the Lord do to me if anything but death parts me from you” (1:16–17).

She promises to stay with Naomi, her mother-in-law, until death—to take on her faith and to embrace her people. This passage is seen as one of the first conversions to Judaism; the formal conversions that exist today in Judaism involving mikveh did not come into existence until a later period.

Personally, I find the passage to be a beautiful expression of love and a complete willingness to take on Judaism. And the fact that her conversion is simply an oath raises the issue of the problems that Judaism is having today about drawing the line between Jew and non-Jew, converts that count and converts that don’t. In an article called “Welcoming Converts to the Jewish People,” Dr. Marc Engel, rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel, a prominent Orthodox synagogue in New York, discusses how the Orthodox movement is becoming increasingly stringent with its conversion process to the point of insensitivity in some cases (like Israel’s Chief Rabbi refusing to accept conversions from the Diaspora). He writes about how only a portion of the people who want to convert are eventually allowed to convert, and how that is detrimental to Orthodox Judaism because it only accepts converts that come from Orthodoxy.

Rabbi Engel ends with an emphasis on the idea that, although historically Jews have been cautious to accept converts because, unlike many other religions, Judaism is based on the idea that the righteous of all religions will have a place in the world to come, conversion is a phenomenon that cannot and should not be ignored. He says that for the honor of Halacha (Jewish law), the Jewish community must embrace those non-Jews who make the decision to enter the Jewish community, rather than push them away: let those who wish to become Jews become Jews and enter our community. And Rabbi Richard Hirsch, Executive Director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, a Rabbi from all the way across the Jewish spectrum, agrees. He says that acceptance and outreach to converts is incredibly meaningful and important, and emphasizes that “one who converts joins the Jewish people, taking on the culture, history, traditions, and rituals of Judaism as well as the faith of Jewish religion. The operative verb here is ‘belonging.'” Just as Ruth’s pledge of faith allowed her to be accepted into the Jewish community (she went on to marry a Jew and supposedly create the line that led to King David), so should others’ pledges of faith lead to a welcoming and sense of belonging.

It’s interesting to me that the text does not explain why Ruth converted; was it for the sake of her mother, for herself, or for some other reason? Maybe the fact that no reason is given has significance in itself: it does not matter why someone wants to convert to Judaism, only that they, like Ruth, are willing to take Judaism as a religion and a community upon themselves and embrace it.

Happy Shavuot/Chag Sameach!

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Remember the scandal about Rabbi Mordechai Elon’s sexual abuse of students in Israel a few months ago? Well, apparently, even though the scandal came to light in February and he agreed to stop teaching students, videos have been released of him continuing to give lessons in Torah.

I find this whole thing to be creepy. Especially because it highlights a huge problem in the judicial system in Israel regarding the religious community— the religious Jewish population that believes that it should be subject to religious rather than civil authority. Because of this, the issue of Rabbi Elon’s potential sexual abuse was dealt with not by governmental authorities, but by Takana, a group created in 2003 to deal with sexual abuse by rabbis in religious Zionist communities in Israel. And unlike the police, Takana seems to have very little actual authority to punish Elon and prevent him from continuing to interact with students. An article in The Forward discusses this issue:

After all, if Elon in fact admitted to criminal acts in front of a group of people, shouldn’t he then be prosecuted? On the other hand, if, despite these admissions, the police are unable to prosecute, as in fact happened, for lack of sufficient evidence or because victims do not want to come forward, then what use is Takana? They have no actual power, as evidenced by their lack of impact on the police coupled by Elon’s ability to do what he wants. Yet they are busy as judge and jury, acting as if they are more skilled at dealing with sexual abuse than the entire legal system.

The problem lies in the fact that many religious Zionists feel as if they are not a part of the regular judicial system in Israel, and so will not cooperate in prosecuting Elon through that system. But clearly allowing them a separate system is not working. And although it is a tricky situation, as it is very difficult to force people to cooperate with investigations if they do not want to, these people must be incorporated into the regular judicial system. And it’s hard, especially because of the separatist attitude that is prevalent throughout many religious Jewish communities in Israel, but it must happen, both for the sake of Israeli society overall and for the sake of the people of these communities.

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