Introducing Abby Stein by Judy Bolton-Fasman

The first thing that Abby Stein wants the world to know is that she did not leave her ultra-Orthodox community solely to become a woman. Since she came out this past August, Stein has been garnering attention as the transgender ex-Hasid. Although she acknowledges that the two events in her life are “intertwined,” she says her initial leave taking from her Hasidic sect “had to do with beliefs. I was done with Judaism, and for over a year, I had nothing to do with it.

AbbyStein

Abby Stein

Stein chronicles her transgender experience and her religious transformation on her moving blog, The Second Transition. In one of her first posts she wrote, “[t]here is something amazingly relieving about ‘knowing’, knowing and coming to terms with the reality I have been trying to run away from for years — I am a girl.”

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A New Year’s Resolution at the Wall by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Hallel Abramowitz-Silverman has a fervent wish—to see her younger sister Ashira celebrate her bat mitzvah at the Wailing Wall—the kotel. At just eighteen years-old, Hallel is one of the very public faces of Women of the Wall (WoW). For nearly a quarter of a century, the group has been advocating for women to pray as they see fit at the Wall—whether it be wearing tallitot—prayer shawls—or tefillin, or both. The founder of the group, Anat Hoffman, has consistently said that WoW’s goal is not to desegregate the Wall, but to make it a venue for all Jews.

Hallel Abramowitz-Silverman

Hallel Abramowitz-Silverman

In the coming new year Hallel, who lives in Jerusalem, has her work cut out for her. The Israeli government has approved a plan set forth by cabinet secretary Avichai Mendelblit that effectively exiles women to pray “according to their custom” only in the Robinson’s Arch area, a small 400 square-meter space near the southern end of the Wall. Israel’s leading daily newspaper, Haaretz, reports that the proposal departs from Natan Sharansky’s plan to set aside an egalitarian space at the Wall. It also snubs a court ruling, which effectively allows women to read Torah and wear tallitot and tefillin at the Wall

In the interest of full disclosure, I have loved Hallel since the moment I met her. Two years-old at the time, she was an adorable, mischievous tot with outsized glasses that matched her outsized personality. As passionate as I am about the issues attached to WoW, I am equally fascinated by how a young adult grows up to become an outspoken activist. I recently sat down with Hallel while she was visiting Newton. Upon her return to Jerusalem she will serve two years in the Israeli army. College is on the horizon as are opportunities she’ll seek out to help people in Africa.

As Hallel explains, “I’m from an activist family.” She and her family moved to Israel in 2006 from Newton where Hallel had attended the Jewish Community Day School. The family first settled on Kibbutz Ketura in the Arava desert and then moved to Jerusalem three years later where Hallel just completed high school. Her interest in WoW was piqued.

 

 

When I heard that women were not allowed to pray their own way at Judaism’s holiest site, I decided to go and pray with WoW. That was in Adar—last March just before Purim. I fully understood what was happening to Jewish women at the Wall when I saw the violence and the cruelty fellow Jews did to one another. All of this was happening in a Jewish country because Jewish women wanted to wear a tallit.

 

 Hallel has clear role models for her activism. Her father Yosef Abramowitz is an advocate for global solar power through his company Energiya Global. Abramowitz’s own fight for social justice goes back to his days at Boston University when he urged the administration to divest its investments in companies doing business in South Africa. He was also a student leader in the Soviet Jewry movement in the early ‘80s. Hallel’s mother is Rabbi Susan Silverman, who is an international advocate for adoption and has written a memoir about the spirituality of adoption. Rabbi Silverman is one of the faces of WoW, and she and Hallel were among the ten women arrested at the Wall for refusing to take off their tallitot.

 

The women were eventually released and Hallel got to work on brokering a solution for all women who worship at the Wall. “I knew I couldn’t see my nine year-old sister get spat on again. Nor could I allow another friend to get hit with a rock.” She took her fight to the Israeli Parliament and to the press. She wrote an open letter to Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet refusenik and a member of Israel’s cabinet, who was appointed by the prime minister to find a way for peaceful prayer at the Wall. “I am a stakeholder in your decision,” Hallel wrote to Sharansky. “In other words, I am a Jew. A Jew who prays with other women at the Kotel.”

Among Hallel’s solutions was to establish a tri-chitzah. Derived from the word mechitza or divider, Hallel suggested that,

 

 

It only seems fair to divide the Wall into three equal sections; men, mixed and women. And since there is no Jewish ritual for which men get arrested then clearly equality mandates that there should be no Jewish ritual that should land any woman in prison.

Although women have been granted the right to wear tallitot at the Wall, the future for a pluralistic Judaism there is dubious in light of the Mendelblit plan. Yet Hallel is optimistic. “We are a colorful circle among a sea of monochromatic black and white,” Hallel notes. “After the first month it was legal to wear our tallitot, two [ultra-Orthodox] seminary girls came up to me and said we really appreciate what you are doing. If I had a doubt in my mind, it was squashed. I need to keep fighting for these girls.”

 

 

 

Praying With the Women of the Wall by Judy Bolton-Fasman

What passes for contraband at the Kotel—the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site—both saddens and flummoxes me. If you are a woman praying on the postage-stamp sized real estate relegated to us at the Wall, you are forbidden to wear a tallit—a traditional prayer shawl or tefillin—the leather phylacteries worn during morning prayer. If you are a woman attempting to pray at the Western Wall, you must do so quietly, unobtrusively, so that even God must cock an ear to hear your petitions.

Once a month a group of women gather together at the beginning of the new Hebrew month—Rosh Chodesh—to reclaim their rights to practice Judaism as they see fit. They are known as Women of the Wall and the most risqué thing they do is to wear religious garments that have escaped a guard’s notice or been handed off to them by men. True, these women are from the more liberal branches of Judaism. Many of them, though not all, are Americans. There’s also inevitability to these gatherings. The women pray wearing a prayer shawl or phylacteries while Israeli police officers cool their heels waiting to arrest them after the service. Arrest at the Wall, interrogation at the police station, and then dismissal of all charges. That’s the drill.

So why was this past Rosh Chodesh ushering in the month of Adar different from previous months? Two reasons. Included among the group of 200 who came for the monthly assembly were some of the paratroopers who recaptured the Wall from Jordanian control in 1967. And this time Rabbi Susan Silverman, a close friend and mentor of mine, and her daughter Hallel, were arrested at the Wall. Along with eight other women they cycled through the usual arrest, interrogation, release rotation with the caveat that they not return to the Wall for two weeks. That means that they will be back just in time for Rosh Chodesh Nisan, the month during which Jews will celebrate Passover, the quintessential holiday of freedom. This irony of timing is obvious, but too tempting not to point out.

Rabbi Susan Silverman and Hallel Abramowitz-Silverman at the Western Wall

Rabbi Susan Silverman and Hallel Abramowitz-Silverman at the Western Wall

 

The question of who is a Jew in Israel has been superseded by the dilemma of how a Jew can pray at Judaism’s holiest site. When Rabbi Silverman was arrested she told the media that her detention was tantamount to “spitting at Sinai.” Specifically, the people spitting at Sinai are the ultra-Orthodox who, with Israeli taxpayer’s money, run the Western Wall Heritage Foundation. The Wall, which belongs to Jews all over the world, is managed by 15 men who presumably have or had mothers

What makes this fight for the right to congregate and pray all the more poignant is that Women of the Wall is not advocating for egalitarian prayer per se. As Anat Hoffman, the group’s chairwoman recently told the Forward, “Women of the Wall is fighting for a change in the ‘women’s section’ at the Kotel. The organization’s petition to Israel’s Supreme Court, filed six weeks ago, would dismantle the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which controls the space.”

This is an important distinction. Women of the Wall understands that the prayer areas in front of the Wall will remain bisected for the foreseeable future. The men’s side will be boisterous and celebratory while the women silently pray. All the women are asking for is the right to wear traditional Jewish garb if they choose, as an expression of their faith.

I don’t think we can stand idly by anymore in a world where a woman’s tallit is confiscated at the Kotel. We cannot stand for women being arrested because they choose to outwardly demonstrate their covenant with God. A prayer rally is being planned in New York City on Rosh Chodesh Nisan, which falls on Tuesday, March 12. It’s time for Jewish women all over the world to stand in solidarity with our sisters in Israel who will risk arrest and humiliation at the Wall that morning.

It’s time for the Jews of Boston to plan a rally too. Perhaps we can commemorate Rosh Chodesh on the steps of our synagogues or temples. Or maybe it’s as simple as attending a morning minyan that day with kavanah or the intention that things must change for our daughters and the daughters of those 15 men who have hijacked the Western Wall in the name of a God who surely must disapprove of their misogyny.

 

 

Tefillin Barbie and Me

The other day I was in my rabbi’s office for what she and I like to call my 10,000-mile tune-up. And there she was on a bookshelf in a plexi-glass frame—a super hero ready to wrap and unwrap at a moment’s notice to redeem the world—my old friend Tefillin Barbie.

Tefillin Barbie is modest and learned and devout. She wears a long denim skirt. Her sleeves are below her elbow. She wears a head covering and is draped in a tallit—a prayer shawl. And, of course, the most notable thing about her is that she wears tefillin. Prominently, proudly and naturally.

I know all the feminist arguments against Barbie, but I can’t help myself, I’ve always loved Barbie. She came into my life when I was six-years-old and bedridden for three months. My aunt sent me a Barbie along with the doll’s extensive miniature wardrobe. I kept her outfits in a black patent leather wardrobe created just for her clothes. I spent hours dressing Barbie in ball gowns, tennis skirts and my favorite—a bridal gown.

Over the years Barbie’s outfits have used over 105 million yards of fabric. She has owned over a billion pairs of shoes. Through it all it never fazed me that Barbie was blonde and tall and I was not. She measured an impossible 36-18-38, but I attributed that to the fact that she was a doll.

A few facts about Barbie and her creator. Ruth Handler invented Barbie in 1959 and named her after her own daughter, Barbara. Ms. Handler went on to co-found the toy company Mattel. Barbie was not her only significant invention. Recovering from a mastectomy in 1970, Handler discovered the need for a suitable prosthetic breast and invented Nearly Me, a prosthesis close in weight and density to natural breasts.

Barbie has had over eighty careers ranging from a rock star to a presidential candidate who focused on educational excellence and animal rights. She has served in every branch of the military and was a medic in Operation Desert Storm. In addition to being a devout Jew, Barbie is also black and Hispanic. Forty-five nationalities claim her as their own. She has been present at diplomatic summits and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. And now she is a baal koreh—a woman who reads Torah.

I’m not surprised that Tefillin Barbie’s inventor is a soferet—a woman scribe who is trained and certified to write holy texts by hand. According to the Jewish Women’s Archive Jen Taylor Friedman is one of six soferot (plural of soferet) in the world. She has a workshop in her native Southampton, England handwriting an entire Torah for a congregation in St. Louis..

Discovering the occupation of this late incarnation of Barbie led me to do a bit of research on soferot. I learned that the first woman soferet was certified in October of 2003. A congregation in Seattle underwrote the cost of training additional soferot in order to be the first synagogue in the world to have a Torah exclusively hand calligraphed by women. Additionally, women metalwork artists are creating the breastplates, crowns and a clasp for the Torah.

All of this wonderful female energy sent me on a virtual journey that ended up at the Jewish Women’s Archives site where I came upon an entry for Joan Snyder’s lithograph “Our Foremothers.” Serendipity. I have a copy of Snyder’s print hanging in my living room, a gift from my mother-in-law. She thought it was my destiny to have it because the name Judith is so prominent among the Jewish women’s names that Snyder commemorates. Snyder uses shades of red and pink—the colors of blood and tutus—to write names like Hagar, Leah, Rachel and Sarah. She pairs these iconic names with those of her mother, daughter and life partner.

People have two reactions to the print—some are mesmerized and others think it’s the work of a child. “Did Anna make this?” more than a few people have asked me. Snyder’s presentation is both basic and profound. The listing and mixing up of these name reminds me that at some point in a woman’s life she has been cast out like Hagar. She has been adored like Rachel. Taken for granted like Leah or not taken seriously like Sarah. Our foremothers are not simply archetypes. They are us and we are them.

So where does this newest incarnation of Barbie fit in with our own mothers and sisters and foremothers? For one thing she’s an all-American girl who is at ease with every aspect of Jewish ritual. I’m envious of her. A couple of years ago I went to the World Wide Wrap at my synagogue where I was the lone adult among a group of bored pre-teens. I didn’t get a lot of support for trying to learn how to wrap tefillin as a grown woman, so thank God for Tefillin Barbie. When I look at her I remember that nothing in Judaism is off limits to my daughter and my nieces.

Here’s another fun fact about Barbie. Every second of every day a Barbie is sold somewhere in the world. And here’s a wish inspired by Barbie’s sales numbers. Every time that a Jewish girl comes of age, may she be comfortable in her own body and wrapping her own tefillin.

 

 

 

The Modesty Wars by Judy Bolton-Fasman


Dear Chaya Mushka:

I read that your name is the most popular one among young Lubavitch women. It’s the name of the late Chaya Mushka Schneerson, wife of the fabled Lubavitcher Rebbe. Anywhere you turn in a Bais Yaakov seminary there’s a Chaya Mushka.

I admire the Lubavitch movement for many reasons, not least of which is that my children will soon set off into this great big world. Who knows if they’ll go hiking in Peru, ashram hopping in India or honeymooning in New Zealand? What I do know is that there is likely to be a Chabad outpost nearby to help them be Jews when they most need it. Even a post-modern, skeptical Jew like me can’t help but admire your movement’s dedication and organization. You’re like MasterCard, for heaven’s sake; you’re everywhere I need you to be.

In that spirit, your sisters in Israel – and anywhere else there is oppression of Jewish women – need you, Chaya Mushka. It isn’t just that they’re relegated to the back of a public bus in Israel or even New York. They are the victims of a so-called modesty movement.

Scene from “The Black Bus,” Anat Zuria’s documentary about the plight of haredi women.
We all know that modesty is crucial to an observant woman. Skirt hems and sleeve lengths must cover most of her body. I try not to be judgmental. I know that sometimes we get into situations that are not of our making. Sometimes these dilemmas are as suffocating as a locked trunk. Not many of us are Houdinis, so we do the best we can to survive. But this time, we must speak out.

I’m not asking the Chaya Mushkas of the world to desegregate the public bus lines in Israel singlehandedly. I want you to do something much more long term. I want you to tell your sons that obsessing about a woman’s modesty is, in fact, wantonly sexualizing her.

And if you can manage to see one film this year, watch “The Black Bus,” Anat Zuria’s documentary about the plight of haredi women. Better yet, view it with your sons and daughters. The film, which centers on two young women who have left their haredi communities, will probably make you uncomfortable. But I sense you’ll recognize a bit of yourselves in Sara Einfeld and Shulamit Weintraub. They fled their Gur Hasidic families. I realize your world is more expansive than that of the Gurs. Yes, you follow strict guidelines in dress, behavior and food. But you are educated women, the dream progeny of Sara Schnerir, a seamstress who lived in the late 19th century and founded the Bais Yaakov seminaries.

Equality is a slippery word between us. You think you’re exempt from certain commandments because motherhood is a higher calling. I think that’s a convenient excuse to exclude you from Jewish ritual. But let’s leave equality out of our discussion for the moment and talk about human dignity. You may not completely empathize with Sara and Shulamit as you watch “Black Bus.” But Sara writes a popular blog in Israel called “The Hole in the Sheet” that’s a window into your sisters’ lives in haredi communities. At one point, Sara interviews a former Hasid who tells her that he was taught to be disgusted by women. Not only would he avert his eyes when he saw a woman on the street, he would order women old enough to be his grandmother to wear a scarf over their wigs when they entered the synagogue.

Shulamit takes pictures on the busiest street in Meah Shearim in Jerusalem. The women react to her camera as if she’s pointed a gun at them. No one wants to talk. No one wants to be seen. One woman hides behind the stroller she’s pushing. Off camera she tells Shulamit that she rarely leaves her home, and when she’s in public she tries to use side streets.

Chaya Mushka, you have more authority than I do to tell these men that this is not the Torah of their fathers or their mothers.

I want to leave you with two thoughts. The first is about a siddur from 1471, which replaces the traditional prayer recited by women – “Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, Master of the Universe for creating me according to Your will” – with this: “Blessed Are You Lord our G-d, Master of the Universe for You have made me a woman and not a man.” Clearly, this is a response to the prayer said by observant Jewish men: “Blessed are You for not creating me a woman.” Maybe a woman commissioned this medieval Italian prayer book, I don’t know. But I think the degree to which women have been recently degraded is strictly the depraved interpretation of a few cruel and insecure contemporary haredim.

The second is a picture I recently saw in The Jerusalem Report. Someone caught haredi girls frolicking in a public fountain in Jerusalem. Despite their teachers’ warnings to stop, the girls continued playing. The picture captures the pure joy of simply being a young woman.

Remember that image of your younger sisters when you refuse to step to the back of the bus.