The Yanny/Laurel Debate and The Miracle of Shavuos

As a Jew living in the 21st Century, it’s hard to imagine that any proclamations made today outlining new Jewish laws incumbent upon us, even if uttered by the greatest gedolim of our generation or Gd him/herself, would ever be unequivocally accepted by Klal Yisroel and subsequently passed down to each new generation.

We live during a time where no singular truth is accepted by all. This refers to the truth proposed by rabbis of our generation, but also to the truth of Gd’s laws – at least in the sense that our individual interpretations of Gd’s words are what become our truth – even if the meanings we ascribe to the words of Torah aren’t universally accepted as such.

We all hear what we want to hear in 2018. Nothing could showcase this more than the current raging online debate of Yanny vs. Laurel. Some people listening to a computerized voice hear it say the name “Yanny,” while others distinctively hear the voice say “Laurel.” Each side of the spectrum is convinced that they are correct and can’t imagine that someone else could hear something that should be completely obvious (the obvious being whatever they heard).

This highlights what a miracle it was that Gd’s thunderings during Matan Torah were given and understood in every language known to the world (I believe 70 in total). Today we cannot even hear 2 words and agree, yet when Gd gave us the Torah we all heard his pronouncements with complete clarity – a feat even Google Translate has yet to accomplish.

It seems to me that one of our tasks today is to get back to that level of understanding. Not an understanding that we all necessarily agree upon – obviously the different factions of Jews walked away from Matan Torah with various interpretations of the same laws, as evidenced by the many different legitimate Jewish communities we have today.

Rather, the understanding I refer to is the common understanding that we can all be following the same Torah, yet be attuned to slightly different nuances and frequencies that are legitimately present. We can be “Yannys” or “Laurels” and still all be right. The miracle of Shavuos wasn’t just the giving of the Torah, but the giving of mutual understanding and respect.

May we merit to get back to such a place in the coming year.


Modern Orthodox Publications and Haredi Advertisers – Between A Rock and a Hard Place

The latest uproar in the saga of Women vs. Orthodox Jewish Media is taking place in the Modern Orthodox publication the North Jersey Jewish Link. The NJ Jewish Link serves a large and thriving Modern Orthodox community and has always featured photos of women and girls in its publication. In it’s current issue, however, it allowed a travel company to place an advertisement for a Pesach getaway that showed full colored photographs of all of the male speakers and entertainers, but showed a witness protection outline of the one female speaker, Lori Palatnik (a very popular international speaker, writer, and educator who is regularly featured on television, radio, and Youtube videos).

While there are people who are saying, blame the advertiser not the publication, the publication allowed such an advertisement to be printed. Modern Orthodox publications have the right to set advertising guidelines, just as the Haredi publications do. It is up to the Modern Orthodox media to take a stand against this type of discrimination and not give it a platform – even if it means losing advertising dollars! For a long time now, many savvy companies wanting to advertise in Orthodox Jewish media have been making two copies of advertisements, one copy including women and another copy not including women, so that they can advertise in all of the different Jewish publications. Of course, that costs extra money and time. Now, they have been given the green light to only make advertisements without women’s images, which will be sufficient for use in both Modern Orthodox and Haredi publications everywhere. This makes it cheaper and more efficient to erase women!


Advertisers in Modern Orthodox Jewish publications need to be told that they can’t place ads that alter women’s images, use outlines/cartoons/objects/babies/children to represent them, or leave out their photos where their male peers’ photos are used! The NJ Jewish Link and all other Modern Orthodox publications need to create an equal policy for how men and women are represented, even in their advertisements.  If they can’t survive without the money from Haredi advertisers, then they need to insist that men be given the same treatment in the ads. They will not run copy with women blurred out, made into a cartoon, a child,  profiled in silhouette, or an outline – unless the men receive the same treatment. Blur out everyone or blur out no one. Exclude all human photos or exclude no one.

Here’s the problem – publications feel like they are between a rock and a hard place. If they push back on the kind of content advertisers can submit, they risk losing those precious dollars, plus angering those with extra “sensitivities” regarding women’s photos for being anti-Haredi. If they publish advertisements like the one above, they risk angering their readership – the very audience their publications are meant to serve.

However, women against erasing women face a similar quandry. For example, Mishpacha Magazine’s news editor Binyamin Rose, in a 2015 Haaretz interview said – 

“This is how we avoid the objectification of women,” Rose answers to me in an earlier meeting. “Our policy is that we do not alter pictures as they are. If there is a woman in a photograph, we’ll simply use another picture.”

If you look at the Haredi press, the preponderance of their articles and event coverage focuses on men. If you can’t use pictures of women, and pictures are an important method of enhancing the impact of an article, it makes sense to avoid the problem all together by not writing about women – either as individuals, groups, or any entity that they are largely involved in. It’s simply easier to exclude women altogether than worry about what accompanying graphic to use alongside an article – especially when women are so touchy these days about having their pictures pixelized or being represented by a bunch of flowers! So making a stink gets women excluded and erased even more.

In the case of the Pesach program above – there is only one woman out of nine presenters – and that is a coup in and of itself! I haven’t done any research, and I’m certainly not a regular Pesach getaway vacationer, but most of the program flyers I’ve seen either don’t have women speakers at all, or maybe only one, such as the program advertised in the NJ Jewish Link.

There was a fascinating Time magazine article this January called, How Diversity Training Infuriates Men and Fails Women. The article talks about how when men feel like they are being scolded or being called racist or sexist, any prejudices they do harbor actually increase and they end up feeling like a victim of unfair judgement. Not only does this type of training not help to reverse discrimination by men in power, it actually perpetuates and reinforces it. For example:

“Perhaps more to the point is the fact that the training infuriates the people it’s intended to educate: white men. “Many interpreted the key learning point as having to walk on eggshells around women and minorities–choosing words carefully so as not to offend. Some surmised that it meant white men were villains, still others assumed that they would lose their jobs to minorities and women, while others concluded that women and minorities were simply too sensitive,” executives Rohini Anand and Mary-Frances Winters noted in a 2008 analysis of diversity training in the Academy of Management Learning & Education.

Training done badly can also damage otherwise cordial relationships. Women and minorities often leave training sessions thinking their co-workers must be even more biased than they had previously imagined. In a more troubling development, it turns out that telling people about others’ biases can actually heighten their own. Researchers have found that when people believe everybody else is biased, they feel free to be prejudiced themselves. In one study, a group of managers was told that stereotypes are rare, while another group was told that stereotypes are common. Then both groups were asked to evaluate male and female job candidates. The managers who were told that stereotypes are common were more biased against the women. In a similar study, managers didn’t want to hire women and found them unlikable.”

So here is yet another rub – people make a stink about a female speaker being represented in a disrespectful or undignified way in the event ad, and what is the most likely outcome? Next year they won’t include a woman in the program. Complaining often does more harm than good. However, not complaining lets the issue progress to the point where even Modern Orthodox publications are including offensive images meant to erase women. People who care about this issue are between a rock and a hard place.

There is a growing contingency of women and men, both Modern Orthodox and Haredi, who are getting fed up. They are tired of playing nice and being told to be patient and respect the process, when nothing changes; when the people who created the process and can also reverse it, act like their hands are tied; when the people who made the policy remain just as hidden as the women in their publications – and they like it that way. Being the publisher of a newspaper or magazine comes with a social responsibilty. If the publisher and advertisers have one agenda, and their readership has another, something’s got to give. The time is ripe for some new players in the Orthodox Jewish Media. Sometimes some good old fashioned competition is the thing that helps “speed the process along” where asking nicely and being patient won’t.

Update – the North Jersey Jewish Link has promised to publish the alternate version of the same Pesach vacation ad that includes Lori Palatnik’s photos. Apparently, as is the norm, the advertiser made two copies, and the wrong version was included. Maybe an accident, maybe testing the waters? Time will tell, but at least the NJ Jewish Link is being responsive.

Where is the accountability for deleting faces of the Holocaust?

Last night, after receiving multiple emails and phone calls outraged over the pixelation of female Holocaust victims in a Mishpacha Magazine article, Sruli Besser (a Contributing Editor at Mishpacha Magazine), took to Facebook to justify Mishpacha’s actions. He blamed the Hebrew Edition of Mishpacha Magazine, and an individual female graphic artist who inserted the already pixelated image, assuming that was the way the English version of the magazine wanted it too.

And why wouldn’t she assume that? After all didn’t Mishpacha Magazine’s news editor Binyamin Rose, in a 2015 Haaretz interview say – 

“This is how we avoid the objectification of women,” Rose answers to me in an earlier meeting. “Our policy is that we do not alter pictures as they are. If there is a woman in a photograph, we’ll simply use another picture.”

“I can only put it like this,” he says. “Based on community standards, there are constraints for our work.”

“Mishpacha isn’t going to be the first to introduce women into the magazine. If the standards were to change, it’s a subject that can be reconsidered. But I don’t like to make predictions. Today, a significant readership would object to images of women – we won’t break ranks with them.”

Obviously, Mishpacha has now started violating the policy of not altering pictures as they are. Since they changed that standard, perhaps they can change the standard of not using women’s photos too?

In terms of Besser’s response, throwing a female artist under the bus is a brilliant deflection.  First of all, it let’s all of us angry women know that it wasn’t a man who included the pixelation, but one of our own. Second of all, it gives the illusion that if a senior member of the editorial staff had seen the photo, Mishpacha wouldn’t have pixelated it. We can see by Binyamin Rose’s own words that if an editor higher up than the graphic designer had “caught” the pixelated photo before publication, in the past they wouldn’t have included it at all. However, now that Mishpacha’s policy does allow for altering photos, the same decision would have been made to publish it that way!

The only thing that is sure to change now, is that when Mishpacha searches for Holocaust photos to publish, the English version will make sure not to use a photo with women in it.  They will make sure not to pixelate female Holocaust victims by not including them at all, giving future generations the impression that the Holocaust was something that only happened to men, while the women remained safe at home. As far as pixelating photos of women in general? It seems the Hebrew version will continue to do so, but maybe the English version will be wary now.

Mishpacha is running out of people to blame for their no women’s images policy. Now they are turning against the Hebrew version of their own publication and trying to separate themselves from it. At the end of the day, it’s the English version’s decision and choice to exlude or pixelate women’s faces from their magazine! No one else’s.

Mishpacha is working hard to craft a policy acceptable to halacha? What halacha states that a woman’s face cannot be seen in a photograph? Now this trend is halacha? And who are these readers who feel uncomfortable and disrespected by seeing a tznius woman’s picture? The only people being disrespected here are the female readers. Is Besser referring to the possibility that Mishpacha will disrespect male readers by showing women’s photos? Disrespect its advertisers who wish to live in a female free society? Who is the magazine worried about disrespecting, because its doing a lousy job of not doing so.

Maybe it’s time to consider some of the players financially enabling Mishpacha to run its magazine this way, and perhaps even encouraging them to – their advertisers.

This is only a sampling of the advertisers that pay Mishpacha to showcase their products in its pages, emails, and online. Supposedly Mishpacha is afraid of losing their dollars were they to publish women’s photos. Is this true, or are these companies simply another entity for them to blame for their own home grown editorial policy? Maybe its time to ask these brands?

Bring Back Irene!

Mishpacha Magazine has chosen to show only one twin in their story about a pair of “Mengele twins,” Irene Hizme and her brother Rene Slotkin, who survived the holocaust. They pixelated Irene as well as other female holocaust victims. Women who want to put frum women back in the media are exhorting the community to #bringbackIrene so that her story and memory don’t disappear.

In 2013, a haredi publication called BaKehillah caused outrage when it censored an iconic photo prominently featuring women and children being rounded up during the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto.Mishpacha Magazine’s censoring of Irene Hizme is the very definition of scope creep. Their censorship of Irene’s images is why we should care how women are being treated in every corner of Judaism.

Only five years ago BaKehillah made news because of their extreme censorship, but no one truly cared other than momentary outrage or ridicule because they represented a small and extreme element of the orthodox Jewish population. Mishpacha Magazine doesn’t. While Mishpacha’s subscriber base might be mostly “Haredi-Lite” or “Yeshivish,” it certainly doesn’t appeal to an extreme element of orthodox society.

Many members of Mishpacha’s readership are college educated professional women who are raising Jewish families, and finding a balance between HaOlam Hazeh and HaOlam HaBa.

We now stand at the precipice. Where will we be in another five years? Will women like Irene even be mentioned, much less photographed?What kind of Jewish world do we want to live in? It’s up to us to #bringbackIrene.

Is Silence Enough?

Both the RCA (in a Facebook post) and the OU (in an email shared to a Facebook group by its recipient) have shared their opinions that their actions speak louder than words. Because these rabbinic organizations do not engage in the practice of excluding women’s images from their publications, dayenu.

When I think about other forms of abuse, and yes, attempting to eliminate 50% of the population from the public sphere is abuse, is it enough to stay silent? Even if I myself am not an abuser, does that absolve me from speaking up when I know that others are being harmed?

The Jewish community often cites this poignant quote from Protestant pastor Martin Niemoller, an outspoken activist against Hitler who spent seven years in a Nazi concentration camp –

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Kowtowing to extremists never ends well. Although remaining silent and uncritical might seem like the more diplomatic solution – as long as we aren’t part of their group or one of their targets, let them continue their madness until the movement fizzles itself out – this is a naive belief. The other naive belief is that because we, as Jews, have historically been victimized, we can never be the victimizers. It’s all well and good to read Pastor Niemoller’s words while nodding out heads and saying, “Yes! You didn’t speak up for us and in the end they came for you too!” However, are we capable of taking his lesson further to understand that we are also included in his admonition to speak up for others who have no voice – yes, even victims are responsible to speak up for their fellow humans wherever possible.

Wasn’t it only just over a year ago that the Israeli Chief Rabbinate put out a “blacklist” that rejected the conversions of foreign liberal rabbis – 77 of them from the United States, with 40% of that number being RCA members? Were there a few rabbis excluded because of individual scandal associated with them, yes. However, it was disturbing to see a possible push by the haredi Israeli Chief Rabbinate to discredit American modern orthodox rabbinic leaders. Point being, the move from the right to exclude and erase won’t end with women.

Silence on the part of witnesses is an essential element needed for criminals to get away with their crimes. Secrecy is another essential element. Harboring fugitives to help them evade confrontation and punishment also makes one culpable in their crimes. Both the RCA and OU have historically been proud “old boy networks.” Oh to be a fly on the wall of some their formal and informal meetings where the men can speak freely.

Unlike us women, I have no doubt that the members of these organizations know exactly who is behind the movement to erase women. There are probably a few proponents within the ranks of the RCA and OU themselves who support and encourage such an attitude. However, their names will never be given up – members will continue to close ranks and remain silent in support of their right wing comrades – even if they personally disagree.

Silence equals acquiescence. It means that while you wouldn’t do a certain thing yourself, you are willing to stand by and let someone else do it. It means that you have absolved yourself of responsibility toward your fellow Jew.

They have taken our voices, now they have taken our faces. Ladies, there are no knights in shining armor coming to save us. The time has come for us to save ourselves.