Posts Tagged ‘feminism’

An emerging feminist filmmaker (who happens to be my daughter)

January 7, 2013

Normally Daughter is not thrilled about being a subject of this blog. But for once she asked me to include something of hers!

During the fall, for one of her freshman film classes at NYU, she produced the following montage.

She has had almost 1,000 viewers on Vimeo without doing any promotion. She’d like more views! So… if you feel like it, please share this link on your Facebook page, or with friends who might be interested etc. The link is

I’m very proud of her. Not just the production quality, but the ideas. I’d say something about the feminist apple not falling far from the mother tree, but there is altogether too much fruit associated with this issue already. :-)

The upside of being a biking widow

April 3, 2012

We’re entering the time of year when I become a biking widow — meaning that Sam is in training for a monster ride over the summer, and thus as likely to be found pedaling up Tunnel Road or over Mount Diablo as spending time around the house.

This is not so bad. I’d rather be a biking widow than a Sunday-afternoon-football widow. And today I discovered a bright lining to this cloud.

I replaced our back door lock!

Note the before and the after pictures:

This may not seem like a big deal, but I am just about the least handy person around. I’m a major feminist in theory, but not so much in practice when practice involves changing tires, finding studs in walls, or doing anything that involves power tools.

(In my egalitarian defense: I’m terrible at sewing too.)

A few days ago, the knob fell out of our back door. Sam said he would “get to it” this coming weekend. However, this coming weekend involves not just his bike training regimen but also hosting two Passover seders with a total of 43 people, so I figured maybe I should just deal with this now. Today I went to Ace Grand Lake Hardware with the pieces of the defunct knob/lock, bought a replacement set, and installed it myself!

Granted, there was no drilling, sawing or electric motors involved. I had to unscrew and then re-screw a total of four screws.

But I still feel like Superman and Martha Stewart combined.

One pathetic step for womankind, one big step for Ilana.

Israeli women flash mob for their rights

January 9, 2012

If you’re one of my more tech-savvy readers, you know what a flash mob is — when a group of ordinary people come together, in what appears to be spontaneity but has in fact been orchestrated via cell phone, Facebook etc., and perform a group dance or dramatic action in a public spot. There are some great examples on YouTube of people doing this in places like Grand Central Station. It’s fun to watch the looks on the faces of passersby as they try to figure out what’s going on.

Here’s a video of a flash mob last Friday in Beit Shemesh by a bunch of Israeli women standing up for their rights! (Thanks to the Jewish Chronicle online.)

Beit Shemesh, an otherwise pretty ordinary city between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, is the latest hot spot in the ongoing clash between the ultra-Orthodox and modern-minded women in Israel. Signs had been hung in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood instructing women not to walk on the same pavement as men, to dress modestly and not to loiter by the local synagogue. Girls as young as eight and nine are regularly harassed, spat upon and called “prostitutes” by local ultra-Orthodox men as they walk to school.

This particular flash mob is not great as far as choreography goes. (For better choreography, see the classic flash mob doing Do Re Mi in the Antwerp train station.) But I love the spirit behind it and the statement it makes.

Plus, who’d ever have guessed that a song by Queen would become a political statement fro women’s rights in the Middle East?

Nerds and bimbos on the silver screen

October 6, 2010

This blog post is about my gratitude to Entertainment Weekly

Okay, so I don’t read Entertainment Weekly. I don’t watch TV shows about celebrities or read magazines about Hollywood. When I’m on the treadmill at my gym, I’m about 10,000 percent more likely to be reading a New Yorker story about the influence of the right-wing, billionaire Koch brothers on American politics than a story about the movie business. 

But I did go see The Social Network over the weekend. 

I enjoyed it, although that’s not the point here. Directed by Aaron Sorkin of West Wing, it’s a well-plotted, intelligent story of the rise of Mark Zuckerberg from nerdy Harvard sophomore to billionaire founder of Facebook. The plot is great, acting is great, main characters are fascinating, and it can spur all sorts of date-night conversation about values, friendship, and cutthroat business decisions, as well as about the line between fact and fiction in this kind of looks-real-but-could-be-totally-made-up drama. 

But the women. 

This was my second response as I came out of the movie theatre, after the above thoughts. 

All the women in the movie are bimbos, with the exception of the college girlfriend whose dumping of Zuckerberg eventually leads to the creation of Facebook.

The women in the movie are minor characters, and they spend all their time taking clothes off, giving blow jobs, snorting coke, getting drunk, and hanging on the arms of guys with status. Busloads of gorgeous girls stripping at frat-type parties. Clubs full of gorgeous girls getting drunk. Houses full of gorgeous girls partying and having sex. 

And this is a story that takes place at Harvard, for God’s sake, in the 2000s. And in San Francisco and Palo Alto

Those are all places that are pretty close to my own orbit. I was at Harvard, although it was 30 years ago. And I’ve reported  about Silicon Valley, although I’ve never lived the culture of a Web 2.0 start-up. There are certainly ditzy, shallow women in all these places (and ditzy shallow men ready to exploit them!), but I’ve never seen that as the dominant culture. 

In fact, it has always seemed to me that if you are a non-ditzy, non-shallow woman, Cambridge and the Bay Area are two really good places to be. 

So my first reaction was horror: My God, I hope that isn’t the reality for young women in their 20s today.  

Followed by a spurt of self-censorship: Oh, Ilana, there you go on your feminist horse again. 

Really, I felt predictable. Repetitive. Boring. I don’t know whether I was more fed up with Hollywood, or with my own reaction. It seems like I have spent my entire adult life going to movies and being angered by their depictions of women. 

At a certain point, you just stop getting angry. You get used to it — like smog, like trash in the streets. You don’t even see it. Or you see it, but get sick of pointing it out over and over again. It becomes much more interesting to talk about whether the portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg is accurate or not. 

But then a friend posted a link to this Entertainment Weekly story on her Facebook page. 

(Is this getting circular or what? Facebook posts about movies about Facebook? And then of course I’ll promote this blog entry on my Facebook page, so it will be a Facebook update about a Facebook post about a movie about….) 

In any case, EW reporter Jennifer Armstrong wrote:

Without sifting through the backstories of Zuckerberg and company for strong female figures, it’s hard to know what the filmmakers could have done differently while still hewing to some version of the truth. And it’s clear that they’re showing us, for better or worse, how women function in these particular boys’ worlds, which, apparently, is as objects to be conquered with fame and fortune. The Social Network certainly provides, if nothing else, strong evidence that we still need feminism, that we need to inundate boys with it in particular — and that we need to nurture math and science skills in girls more than ever before, so they have as good a chance at changing the world as these guys did.

Armstrong raised exactly all the right feminist points about The Social Network. I found myself cheering. I found myself saying, “Yeah! Now why didn’t I write that?” 

So here I am, writing it. 

And feeling unexpectedly grateful to Entertainment Weekly.

And telling myself to remember: Trust your instincts. Don’t self-censor. When it comes to the way our culture continues to objectify women, it may be necessary to be boring and predictable, to repeat the same critiques, angrily, over and over and over.

In praise of Philippa Gregory

August 25, 2010

This week I tore through the newest novel by one of my favorite contemporary authors, Philippa Gregory.

A lot of other people apparently did too. Her new book The Red Queen started its published life in the number two slot on the N.Y. Times Book Review list of hardcover best-sellers, just below the third Stieg Larsson book. Meanwhile, her prior novel The White Queen is number 22 on the Times’ paperback trade best-seller list.

Gregory certainly has sales. But I don’t think she’s gotten the literary attention she deserves. Like Stephen King for so many years, I suspect that her popularity leads critics to assume that her work is hackneyed or formulaic.

But it’s not. 

Gregory does a superb job at personalizing history, writing about the sweeping conflicts of the Plantagenet and Tudor courts through the eyes of women. If you gave me a traditional history text listing all the Henrys and Edwards and Richards who took the throne, and the Warwicks and Nevilles and Buckinghams who plotted against each other, my eyes would glaze over. But when Gregory carries you into the life of a young girl in court circles, whose marriage(s) are part of those power struggles, it all becomes vivid and makes sense. 

Her books are history, not romance, despite their popularity among romance fans. They’re all about “who gets the throne” rather than “who gets the man.” 

But they are history through women’s eyes. She shows the terror of being married off for political reasons at the age of 14, the frustration of being an ambitious woman stuck in a rural estate during times of upheaval, the crushing pressure of being a queen unable to produce a male heir to the throne. 

Gregory and her publisher never use the “f word.” But her books are deeply feminist in that they call attention to the lives and experiences of women, which have too often been ignored by male chroniclers of the great and powerful. 

She’s not a showy writer. She’s not someone who stops you in your tracks with the brilliance of an unexpected metaphor. But she’s psychologically nuanced and has an eye for small details, both of historical setting and human interactions. For me, a good historical novel needs grit and garbage as well as gowns and armor. 

Here is Gregory writing in The Red Queen about 14-year-old Margaret Beaufort, newly married for political reasons to a distant cousin in a castle in the hinterlands of Wales:

I flush and look down at my plate, heaped with overcooked and unrecognizable bits of game. They hunt better than they farm in Wales, and every meal brings some skinny bird or beast to the table in butchered portions. I long for fast days when we have only fish, and I impose extra fast days on myself to escape the sticky mess of dinner. Everyone stabs what they want with their dagger from a common plate, and sops up the gravy with a hunk of bread. They wipe their hands on their breeches and their mouths on their coat cuffs. Even at the high table we are served our meat on tranchers of bread that are eaten up at the end of the meal. There are no plates laid on the table. Napkins are obviously too French; they count it their patriotic duty to wipe their mouths on their sleeves, and they all bring their own spoons as if they were heirlooms, tucked inside their boots. (P. 29)

Now, with The Red Queen, Gregory’s done something new (for her) and impressive. She’s built the entire novel around an unsympathetic, power-hungry character who shows no self-awareness. Fourteen-year-old Margaret’s childish piety and family loyalty harden into an unquestioning conviction that God has destined her son for the throne of England. She’s kind of a 16th century English version of an Al-Qaeda partisan. If Margaret Beaufort didn’t murder the two little princes in the palace, according to Gregory, she sure as heck would have done so if she had the chance.

And Gregory pulls it off. I liked Margaret Beaufort, and I was appalled by Margaret Beaufort. I kept reading to see if she would triumph, and also with a horrific fascination to see the train wreck that would happen with her triumph. It’s not an easy thing to build a successful novel around a character whom neither you nor your readers like.

But she does it. 

I would love to see a New York Times Magazine profile of Gregory, like the ones they’ve done of Margaret Drabble and James Patterson.

Swimming, soccer and unintended legacies

August 19, 2010

NPR had a discussion the other day about kids who can’t swim, and why. One of the speakers noted that the biggest predictor for non-swimming kids was… parents who don’t know how to swim. 

Not a huge surprise, when you think about it. But it started me reflecting about my own family, and what capabilities or limitations we pass on to our kids.

My dad was a pretty strong athlete. He swam, went to a gym, and played a weekly tennis game all the time we were growing up – played tennis, in fact, until recently sidelined by bad knees in his 80s. As a kid, he played baseball and stickball and a bunch of other sports. 

My mom, meanwhile, didn’t play any competitive sports as an adult. Living in Manhattan, she walked a lot so she was in good physical shape. But she thought of herself as a klutz. Didn’t dance, didn’t play tennis, didn’t ride a bike except very occasionally when we would do a short family ride in Central Park. 

 The one sport that I do remember her enjoying and doing on a regular basis was … swimming. 

And I swam. From a very young age. My brother and my sister did too. 

I was terrible at baseball, volleyball, tennis. Any sport where you could be picked last for a team, I was picked last. But I swam and dived and water-skied and even passed a Red Cross Junior Life Saving course. 

My mother talked about herself as a klutz, and I grew up thinking of myself as a klutz. 

My mother talked about herself as tone-deaf, and I grew up assuming I couldn’t sing. 

On the other hand, my mother swam – and I swam like a fish. 

So I draw a couple of thoughts from this. One is how much more I was influenced by my mother’s example than my father’s, at least in physical endeavors and self-image. 

The other is how easy it is for all of us, mothers and fathers alike, to unwittingly transmit our own limitations and self-doubts to our children. 

The mom who talks constantly about feeling fat and needing to diet. The mom who laughs self-deprecatingly about how she never understood math. The dad who jokes about how he’s such a bad cook that he’d even burn water.

They think they’re talking about themselves — but their kids are listening and learning.  

With sports and body image, at least, I’ve tried to ensure that Becca didn’t inherit  my weaknesses. Of course I got her swim lessons at a very young age. We enrolled her in a gymnastics class in preschool. We started her in soccer in 1st grade – and she continues to play soccer even now, going into her junior year in high school. 

Becca's 1st grade soccer team // Photo credit: Ilana DeBare

Now, Becca is far from the best on her team. She’s opted for teams that require two days of practice each week rather than five. She’s not a kid who would ever be in the running for a soccer scholarship to college. 

But she’s playing. At age 16, long past the age when statistically most girls drop out of their soccer teams. That makes Sam and me proud. 

Playing soccer means she thinks about her body in an active, utilitarian way, not just the ornamental or objectified way that our society pushes on girls. She exerts herself. She sweats. She feels capable. 

There have been studies showing that teen girls who participate in team sports are safer, healthier and have higher self-esteem than those who don’t. I recall one anecdote from when I was researching my book on girls’ schools – a middle-aged male partner in a law firm who said he could always tell which young associates had played team sports as girls. The clue? They were more resilient: They might lose a motion or case, but they would pick things up the next day and soldier on, rather than give up or berate themselves. 

By making it to 16 and continuing to love soccer, Becca is far beyond me as a teen. Probably beyond me as an adult too – despite my gym workouts and my Czech bike trip venture, I’ll always hold that image of the klutzy last-kid-picked inside me. 

Are there other areas where I have passed on my Achilles’ heels to her? I’m sure of it. But let’s save those for another day. At least in the area of sports and fitness, I think I’ve spared her an unwanted legacy.

Torah pin-up girls for justice

August 8, 2010

I’ve written before about how outrageous  it is that Jewish women are not allowed to worship equally at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the most holy site in Judaism.

Kowtowing to ultra-Orthodox Jews, the Israeli government prohibits women from chanting Torah at the Kotel (wall). Last month the police went a step further and arrested one of the leaders of Reform Judaism in Israel simply for holding a Torah in the vicinity of the Wall.

JTA, a Jewish news service, reported that:

The chairman of the Women of the Wall was banned from the Western Wall for 30 days after being arrested for holding a Torah scroll at the site.

Jerusalem police arrested Anat Hoffman on Monday morning following the monthly women’s Rosh Chodesh prayer service. She was … ordered to stay away from the Kotel for the next 30 days.

According to the organization’s account, Hoffman, holding the Torah scroll, was leading about 150 women from the women’s section of the Western Wall in a procession toward Robinson’s Arch, where they are permitted to use the Torah scroll. Police tried to remove the Torah scroll from Hoffman’s arms and arrested her for not praying according to the traditional customs of the Western Wall.

“Not praying according to the traditional customs of the Western Wall” — a crime! Pretty depressing. But here’s the good news:

Hoffman’s group, Women of the Wall, has launched a cool, creative support campaign that can involve all of us — even as far away as Oakland, California.

WOW  is asking Jewish women around the world to take photographs of themselves holding, chanting or studying Torah, and then send those photos to the Israeli government.

Apparently the Israeli media tend to portray Women of the Wall as a handful of wacko extremists. The campaign is intended to show that, far from being a tiny minority, these brave activists speak for the vast majority of Jewish women around the world. WOW’s goal is to collect 10,000 photos by the time of Simchat Torah (Oct. 1), the holiday when we start the annual cycle of reading through the Torah.

I was delighted to find that my congregation, Temple Sinai, was on top of the WOW photo campaign even before I managed to get to this blog. On Friday during services Rabbi Andrea Berlin explained the issue, and afterwards congregant Dawn Kepler snapped pictures of Sinai women with the Torah.

Recognize anyone in the following photos?

Temple Sinai board member Janine Bloch // Photo credit: Dawn Kepler

My daughter Becca becomes a Bat Mitzvah, 2007

Yours truly // Photo credit: Dawn Kepler

Yeah! I’ve got six months to go until my Bat Mitzvah date. But I can still be a Torah Pin-Up Girl For Justice. (My term, not WOW’s. Don’t wanna get them in further trouble.)

You can too. Check out the WOW site, take part in services at your local shul, and send in your own Torah Pin-Up Girl photo.

And hey…  it makes a pretty good Facebook profile photo too.

Orthodox Judaism not ready for a “rabba”

March 11, 2010

 The Reform and Conservative branches of Judaism have ordained women rabbis for more than 20 years — Reform since 1972, Conservative since 1985. But the rabbinate remains strictly off-limits for women in Orthodox Judaism.

Last year, a politically progressive Orthodox rabbi in Riverdale (the Bronx) ordained a woman named Sara Hurwitz. Rather than call her a rabbi, he gave her the newly-invented title of Mahara’t, or Manhigah Hilchatit Ruchanit Toranit, “Leader in Halakha [Law], Spirituality and Torah.”

But most people had no idea what a Mahara’t was. So early this year, Hurwitz’s mentor rabbi said she could start calling herself “rabba,” the feminine word for rabbi.

Photo of Sara Hurwitz from the Riverdale Press. Credit: Karsten Moran.

And the Orthodox establishment clamped down.

You can read the whole story in an excellent article by Rachel Barenblat in an online magazine called Religion Dispatches : Sara Hurwitz’s ‘Rabba’ Title Sparks Orthodox Jewish Condemnation | Sexuality & Gender | ReligionDispatches.

Barenblat is a poet and rabbinical student in the Jewish Renewal movement who writes a great blog called The Velveteen Rabbi.  About the rabba controversy, she writes:

“…in the Orthodox world, ordaining women remains a radical move—perhaps because Orthodoxy is a culture in which men and women assume divergent gender roles in largely separate social spheres. The mainstream Orthodox viewpoint holds that God created men and women to be different according to divine purpose…. Within that paradigm, for a woman to choose a position of communal leadership serving people of both genders is seen as immodest at best, and at worst an inversion of the divine order.

“Of course Orthodoxy isn’t monolithic on this or any other issue. There have long been voices within Orthodoxy arguing for the ordination of women, among them Orthodox rebbetzin Blu Greenberg, who’s been outspoken on the need for Orthodox women’s ordination since the 1980s. Though Orthodox gender rules preclude women leading mixed-gender worship, the role of rabbi includes many other functions which women can perform even within an Orthodox framework—and there’s nothing in halakha (Jewish law) which explicitly prohibits women’s ordination.

“A small handful of women have been ordained within the Orthodox world, though they’ve responded to their groundbreaking role in a variety of ways. Mimi Feigelson was ordained in 1994, but doesn’t use the title “rabbi” out of respect for the social structure of Orthodoxy. (She currently teaches at the American Jewish University in California.) In 2006, Rabbi Haviva Ner-David was ordained by Ari Strikovsky in Tel Aviv. (For more on her journey, I recommend Life on the Fringes (JFL Books), her memoir published in 2000.) And now there’s Rabba Sara Hurwitz, or Mahara”t Hurwitz, as the case may be.

“Most of the Jews I know assume that women’s ordination will become an accepted part of Orthodox practice someday…. Surely this is just another glass ceiling which, once broken, will seem ridiculous in retrospect.

“But the brouhaha over Sara Hurwitz’s brief stint with the title Rabba shows that the use of any variation on the title “Rabbi” to describe a woman is still largely unthinkable within a mainstream Orthodox framework. Maybe by the time my infant son grows up, my female Orthodox rabbinic colleagues will be called rabbi just like those of us in the other denominations… but I’m not holding my breath.”

Read the Torah, go to jail

December 22, 2009

Talk about religious persecution: Did you know that there’s a country where it’s illegal for Jewish women to wear a tallit (prayer shawl) or read from the Torah?

Yup. You guessed it. Israel.

I just have time for a quick post today, but wanted to share a New York Times story about a new wave of protests by women seeking equal rights to worship at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

You can read it here.

Israel started out as a  fairly secular, socialist-oriented state back in 1948. But over the years, both Labor and Likud parties have relied on small religious parties in order to form coalition governments. And so the Orthodox Jewish minority has come to wield great power in Israel over things like who is considered Jewish, how people are allowed to get married, which religious schools and institutions get government funding, and (yes) whether women are allowed to worship equally at the most holy place in Judaism.

This isn’t new. Orthodox men have spat on and stoned women who tried to pray at the Wall for decades. The Times reports that 20 years ago, a group of Israeli feminists took the issue to the Supreme Court and were told that — even though it is legal for women to pray as they want elsewhere in Israel — women wearing tallitot and reading from the Torah at the Wall was not in the interest of public order. Instead, they were given a separate area on the back of the bus — oops, I mean around the corner in a little archeological garden.

Recently there seems to be a renewed drive by religious feminists to claim a place by the Wall. Last month a 28-year-old Israeli who is part of the Conservative movement in Judaism was the first woman arrested at the Wall for wrapping herself in a tallit. The police accused her, according to the Times, of acting provocatively and upsetting public order.

Now other women seem to be rallying around the issue too…