Archive for September, 2010

This post is cross-posted at JWA

An interesting article popped up on the side of The New York Times today–an article about the lack of knowledge among Americans about religion, including about their own. The article discussed the fact that on average, Americans were only able to correctly answer 50% of the questions on a recent survey by the Pew Research Center on the teachings and history of major world religions.

The first thing that stood out to me was the fact that even after controlling for differing levels of education, atheists, agnostics, Jews, and Mormons answered more questions correctly than all other religious groups. The results gave no explanation for this, but I speculate that perhaps fringe groups are forced to think more about religion since the religion they belong to is not the norm–that for many people in this country their religion is not what differentiates them from the majority, and so religion in general is not a frequent topic of thought or discussion. However, I know that for me, at least, being Jewish is something that differentiates me for other people, and so I spend time thinking about my Judaism and relating it to other religions (this blog is a good example of that.)

What I find particularly interesting about the results of the survey is the lack of knowledge that Americans have about the role religion plays and is allowed to play in regards to governance. While 89% of people knew that a teacher cannot lead a class in prayer, only 36% knew that a school can offer a comparative religion course. To me, a comparative religion course seems innocuous, at worst, and incredibly useful, at best, so it’s rather surprising that people expect it not to be allowed. In addition, only 23% of Americans knew that a teacher can read from the Bible as an example of literature in a classroom; that seems to me something that people should be aware of, especially so that people can make sure that there is a line drawn in school between a reading of the Bible as literature and as a holy text.

It worries me how little people in this country seem to know about religion. I’m no expert, but I think it is important to understand at least some basic things about other people’s religious beliefs, especially when dealing with politics. The recent Park51 fiasco exemplifies the visceral reactions people have in relation to religion, and this survey shows how those reactions are very often based on little knowledge or facts. Consequently, often instead of having educated discussion, people simply devolve into having shouting matches–and nothing ends up getting fixed.

A recent opinion piece in The Washington Post makes a really good point about this, and suggests at least a partial solution: the author argues that all political candidates should be forced and expected to talk about their respective religious beliefs, and how their beliefs will affect them as political leaders. In an age when people know very little about each other’s religions, including their own political leaders (you’ve all probably heard about Obama the Muslim), the American people should try to change that and not leave their knowledge of their political leader’s religious views up to chance–it’s too much of a risk. Asking candidates about their political views may not change the fact that Americans are not particularly educated about religion, but I believe that doing so could prevent Americans from buying into unfounded religious claims about their political leaders. Moreover, it has the potential to encourage dialogue predicated on the idea of increasing our knowledge about religion rather than the assumption that we all know everything, which, the survey shows, is definitely untrue.

We live in a multicultural world full of different religions–it’s time to openly talk about religions, their differences and their nuances, rather than ignoring them, so that people can actually become knowledgeable. Religion has a huge effect on people’s lives, and I believe that just as part of being an educated citizen is having an understanding of the demographics of our country and the ideals it was founded on, so too should be having at least a basic of religion and the role it plays in this country and its people’s lives. Doing so has the potential to make us all more tolerant and understanding citizens.


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There is a fascinating article in Monday’s New York Times about girls in Afghanistan who are referred to as “bacha posh,” literally translated to mean “dressed up as a boy.” The article describes the unquantified but seemingly (from discussions with Afghans from multiple generations) large number of girls whose families dress them up as boys at a young age and present them to society as boys. The families do it for many reasons, especially shame at not having a male son and the need for a child to be able to work to help support the family. The bacha posh, unlike a regular girl, is allowed to work outside the home and have significantly more freedom in public, and finds it easier to attend school and get an education.

I found the article to be fascinating. I was really surprised by the the idea that Afghanistan, a country that is typically associated with traditional mores and standards, would have so many people willing to engage in what is essentially cross-dressing. But apparently it has been going on for generations—the article mentions a woman in 1900 who dressed up as a man in order to guard a harem, playing a role than neither men nor women were allowed to do.

The article also raises many issues about gender identity: girls raised as boys are usually turned back into girls when they hit puberty, and are then left to struggle between who they are used to being and who they must be. In the article, a fifteen-year-old girl whose parents initially proposed that she become a bacha posh explains how she never wants to go back—that nothing in her feels like a girl. It makes me think about the idea of gender perfomance, Judith Butler’s idea that gender is not inherent but rather a creation of society:

Because there is neither an “essence” that gender expresses or externalizes nor an objective ideal to which gender aspires; because gender is not a fact, the various acts of gender creates the idea of gender, and without those acts, there would be no gender at all. Gender is, thus, a construction that regularly conceals its genesis.”

I haven’t studied the concept enough to have a sure opinion about it, but this article certainly points towards the idea that gender can be changed based on society’s expectations of someone; a girl whose parents decided for her that she would be a boy takes on the societal roles of a boy and learns to love playing the role of a boy. If that can happen, which it appears it does, then it would seem that gender could be an arbitrary thing that is separate from a body’s physical elements and function. A few personal stories cannot be taken as definitive, of course, but it is really interesting that these girls continue to want to act like and function as boys even when allowed or forced to return to their lives as girls.

Part of what makes the article so interesting and sad is the way it describes the difficulties that women in general face in Afghanistan, from being beaten by husbands to needing a husband’s explicit permission to run for political office, to the constant social pressure to have a girl and the subsequent exclusion and disappointment at bringing a girl into the world rather than a boy. One of the most poignant things I read about was the fact that many girls wish they could have stayed boys, but could not: when they hit puberty, they have to publicly go back to being a girl, get married, become a wife, and are thrust into the foreign and confusing world of womanhood. I find this quote from the article, a reflection of a bacha posh after having formally gone back to being a woman, to be incredibly sad: “Still, not a day goes by when she does not think back to ‘my best time,’ as she called it. Asked if she wished she had been born a man, she silently nods.” It’s sadness lies not just in the woman’s own personal struggle, but in the fact that Afghanistan is a place where women do not want to be women—that there is a place where women clearly feel that their lives would be better as men. That’s something for all of us to think about and remember: that even as feminism in the Western world grows and thrives, there are a lot of women out there without the privileges we have.

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This post is cross-posted at JWA

I wanted to write this post about women and Yom Kippur, as I often have done for other Jewish holidays, on topics such as what roles women should play during the holiday, stories about women associated with the holiday, etc. But I searched, and was kind of surprised that I found nothing in particular to write about.

There were no particular women to be found in the Torah and Haftorah readings for the day. The morning Torah reading is about the Kohen Gadol’s (high priest) Yom Kippur service in the temple, and the afternoon reading is about forbidden sexual relationships (a topic for a different time)–neither features anything particularly special for women. Similarly, there is nothing to be found in the Haftorah portions: the morning Haftorah is from Isaiah, and talks about sincere repentance (like fasting), while the afternoon Haftorah is from Jonah, and talks about how through repentance, the people of Ninveh were able to prevent themselves from being destroyed (and, you know, a whale.) None of these readings are about specific women or their roles. But the thing is, these stories aren’t really about men, either; sure, the prophets and the high priest were male, but when you step away from one of them, you’re not left with a lasting impression about the specific males, but rather about the messages of the story. There’s no Abraham or Isaac here–just repentance, repentance, repentance.

On Yom Kippur, it’s not just the stories that don’t differentiate between men and women. Women have the same prohibitions as men throughout the holiday: no food, no drink, no sex, no leather shoes, and no creams/oils. While there are exceptions for women in labor or who just gave birth, even pregnant women are supposed to fast (but encouraged to stay in bed if going to synagogue would cause them to feel ill.)

So, I’m didn’t end up writing about women today. Or men, really. I think maybe that’s because Yom Kippur, often regarded as the holiest day of the year, is not about women or men or gender–it’s about people. People repenting, people trying to step back from earthly habits and objects–we’re supposed to be like angels–and people trying to look at themselves from outside of their normal selves. And maybe a part of that is stepping away from gender lines and the way we normally associate ourselves with female or male roles, and instead just thinking about who we are as people.

I wish you all an easy and meaningful fast.

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This week I was introduced (a little late) to Diesel’s “Be Stupid” ad campaign.  It’s really best seen, rather than described, so I would highly recommend watching this video and getting an idea of what the ads are all about.

Now, at first, the video seems to be encouraging people to follow their dreams, which is always nice, I suppose. But the video quickly devolves into a criticism of society’s “smart” people, who apparently don’t take risks, or have any good ideas (except, of course, for Diesel, the company that thought of the “Stupid” concept), and seem to just represent people interested in following a traditional career path rather than, you know, sticking their heads into mailboxes.

If you look at the actual ads in the campaign, you will soon discover that apparently “stupid” means, in fact, being oversexualized and usually naked. I’m not exactly sure where they got their definition of stupid from, but according to Merriam-Webster it means “given to unintelligent decisions or acts.” Now, while running around naked, or flashing a security camera certainly is an “unintelligent decision,” the ad campaign has taken stupid decisions and glorified them by making it appear that being stupid is equivalent to having friends who will be willing to have sex all the time and run around naked with you.

For this, two of the ads have been banned in Britain. One ad featured a woman flashing a security camera, while the other had a picture of a woman in a bikini taking a picture of her genitalia. The British Advertising Standards Authority said that the ads could encourage “anti-social or irresponsible” behavior and that the bikini one could cause “serious offense to many adults”, and banned the ads from public posters. Now, I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say that I believe the ads should be banned, but they certainly have caused quite the controversy.

One thing I find interesting is Diesel’s response to the complaints about the ads. According to the above article, the company responded to complaints about the bikini ad by saying that it “portrayed a very strong and unexpected image of femininity, aligning it with typically masculine themes.” Perhaps they’re referring to is the lion awkwardly lurking behind the girl taking a picture of herself as a “masculine theme,” but other than that, I can’t think of what is particularly masculine about the ad. The fact that she’s taking an inappropriate picture in the middle of daylight? That doesn’t seem masculine to me, just stupid–which, I guess, fits with the name. Just as Diesel has taken liberty with the meaning of “stupid” in an attempt to make it a symbol of counterculture and creativity, it also seems to have created its own gender paradigm in an attempt to prove that they are subverting it.

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Shanah Tovah

Only two days ago did it hit me that tonight is Rosh Hashanah. Besides the fact that it’s coming relatively early (secular calendar) this year, I’ve just been wrapped up in starting school and applying to college and just regular life that I had kind of forgotten about it. And now I want to rectify that, because I love Rosh Hashanah and so many of its strange but beautiful traditions, from enjoying apples, honey, and sweet challah in the hopes of a “sweet” year, to saying a blessing on fruit because they are the first fruit of a new year. I ‘ve always felt especially moved by Tashlich, the tradition when people symbolically “throw” their sins into a moving body of water as a way of getting rid of them–I find it a kind of comforting reminder that with a new year comes another chance to do things better.

One of the things I think makes Rosh Hashanah special is the strange effect it has over typically non-religious people: on the High Holidays, people who never go to synagogue flock to it. There’s something about the High Holidays that seems to give people a sense of urgency, a feeling that this time they should and can get it right. I liked the way that this article in Tablet describes it: just like on the secular new year, we are supposed to try to make ourselves better, but unlike on the secular new year, Rosh Hashanah is predictably cyclic–and that predictability makes people feel that while maybe they can’t lose 10 pounds by next year, hopefully by the next time they have to repent they’ll be a slightly better person. The emphasis on the life being cyclical reminds people that repentance too is a part of life–that very single year, people read the same text, spend two days painfully picking apart our sins, apologizing for sins that we, or the collective we, have committed, praising God, and that hopefully it will slowly turn us into better people. I think it’s important that Judaism emphasizes repentance as something expected and significant, because doing so makes people feel that there is always still a chance for them to be better, even if they haven’t been perfect before; to me, who somehow (maybe naively) believes that people really can shape who they are, it resonates.

And now a brief word about the role of women in Rosh Hashanah. Both the Torah and Haftorah readings for Rosh Hashanah are about barren women and God giving them children. On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the Torah reading starts with Sarah, who had been barren until a very old age, giving birth to Isaac after God “remembers” her and her prayers. The Haftorah reading is about Hannah, a barren woman who, after intense emotional prayer (she is many times held as a model of what personal prayer should consist of), is able to have a child; she goes on to name him Samuel, which means “God heard.” Both of these stories are supposed to represent the way that God listens to prayer, and because infertility was/is regarded as such a sad and painful experience for women, God ridding a woman of her infertility powerfully conveys the extent to which God can listen and remember all of us.

Finally, here is something that I personally have found to be meaningful over the high holidays: 10Q. The site has you reflect on and answer one of ten questions each day for the Ten Days of Repentance, and then stores them for you until next year when you are once again allowed to read your answers. I discovered it last year, and sometime last week I got an email with last year’s answers. Not only was I surprised and interested by how much my thoughts have changed over the course of a year, but reading my reflections from last year helped me to get into the spirit of reflection for this year. It’s not too late to register (it’s totally free) and answer the questions, and I’d highly recommend doing so.

Shanah Tovah–I hope the next ten days prove to be meaningful for all.

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A Goodbye Post

This is, clearly, long overdue. It’s been a while since I’ve blogged on this Jewish feminist creation. Life is very busy and exciting right now. I started college and I’m in the midst of the angst and fun of freshman orientation. Between preparing for college and being here, it’s been difficult to keep up with the Jewish feminist sphere as well as to blog in general.

That is why, after a truly rewarding and teaching eight months of blogging and learning, I will now say goodbye. The experience of blogging on Jewish feminism has been so rewarding because every time I wrote a post, I learned something new. Every time I read anything that could relate to this blog, my practices of Judaism and feminism grew stronger. I am so grateful for the readers that allow this blog to have a purpose. I am grateful to the commenters who transform Jewish feminism into an evolving discussion. I am grateful to the JWA for allowing our readership and commenters to expand and for showing me a new side of Jewish feminism. I am grateful to Dina because without her, this blog would not continue and would not have survived.

That said, in order for this blog to continue, we need more bloggers. If you are interested, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE email us at fromtherib@gmail.com. I might not be writing, but I intend to keep reading. Thank you for this rewarding experience.

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This post is cross posted at JWA

The end of summer marks the beginning of a relatively short but tumultuous season for the high school student: the college application process. The Common Application went up August 1, and with it came a slew of essays that students across the country must finish by January. Topics range from choice of major to hobbies to why you want to go to a particular school. I’ve been slowly working my way through them, and I found myself trying to answer the question of what activities I plan to pursue at college.

I had not expected that question, and decided to look through a list of clubs and organizations at one of the schools for which I was applying to get a better idea of what is out there outside of basic things like sports and Hillel. In my search, I and stumbled upon a group that seemed so obvious that I was surprised I hadn’t though of it before: Students for Choice. Some campus pro-choice groups affiliate themselves with the Feminist Majority Foundation, others with NARAL Pro-Choice America, and others are unaffiliated, but I realized (happily) that all of the schools to which I am applying have some kind of pro-choice organization, and that it is natural and incredibly likely that I will join and take on some kind of leadership role.

Why does this matter to anyone but me, you’re asking. Here’s the thing: lots of organizations have an impact on college campuses, but I think that pro-choice groups in particular are relevant at this point in time. From a New York Times magazine article about how the difficulties involved in training and recruiting abortion providers to a New York Magazine article about how today’s younger generation is significantly more pro-life than the generation before it, often it seems that my generation just doesn’t care as much as our parents did about abortion. Some people say that it is because of a growing feeling of distance from the urgency of Roe v. Wade, and I’m inclined to agree with them—if I think about the people my age that I know who are pro-choice, it is not usually an active thing, but just another issue like caring about the environment or gay rights. When the Stupak and Nelson amendments came along earlier this year with provisions that many people said were trying to restrict access to abortion, none of my friends talked about it at all.  Now, my experience is anecdotal, and should not be trusted to represent all of America. However, it makes sense to me that a generation of girls born knowing that they have access to birth control and abortion would not feel as passionately about protecting that right as one that had to fight for it to begin with.

There is a long history of pro-choice Jewish activists in America, from Gloria Steinem (her father was Jewish) to Sonia Pressman Fuentes and Betty Friedan, two of the founders of the National Organization for Women (NOW), which since the sixties has worked towards advancing women’s wellbeing, including securing their reproductive rights through access to birth control and abortion. But just as in the general population, there seems to be a growing anti-choice sentiment among the Jewish community, exemplified by the fact that In Shifra’s Arms, a specifically Jewish crisis pregnancy center based in the DC area, and Friends of Efrat, an organization dedicated to “saving” children in Israel, have come into existence. Seeing the shift within the Jewish community hits even closer to home.

So that’s why it is so important to have pro-choice groups on college campuses: even if young people can take their right to choose for granted at this very moment, they shouldn’t. Yes, women can get abortions legally in America, but that is not the end of the story; from crisis pregnancy centers that try to mislead women away from getting an abortion to intimidation and violence towards abortion providers, there are still plenty of problems with abortion in America today. Not to mention the idea that down the road, there is always the terrifying prospect of abortion being banned again. So that’s why I believe that it’s important for me to join a pro-choice group when I go to college: because reproductive rights are important, because I want to make sure that abortion stays legal and safe for women, but also because I want my peers to learn to appreciate and want to protect the rights that we have been lucky enough to have been born with.

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