The Jewish Observer – Ahead of Its Time

I recently reread a 2015 Haaretz article by Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt entitled, Inside the World of ultra-Orthodox Media: Haredi Journalists Tell It Like It Is that had an interesting interview with Mishpacha magazine’s news editor Binyamin Rose. In the article, Rose justified the exclusion of women’s images in his magazine by saying – 

“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.”

The good news is that Mishpacha doesn’t have to be the first to introduce women into Orthodox magazines – there has already been a trailblazer in this arena – The Jewish Observer, an Orthodox magazine published by Agudath Israel of America from 1963-2009. Since The Jewish Observer already set this precedent, maybe it will be easier for magazines such as Mishpacha to reverse their policy about including women’s photos in their publications.  

Below are examples of photos from The Jewish Observer (keep in mind that the early years of the magazine had mostly text content and very few images in general, and due to the photo quality you have to squint to see some images).  

I love seeing these photos; even the advertisement drawings.  They bring to life what women and girls of these previous generations were like and what sorts of things they did, what they thought, what they bought, and what styles they wore. I only wish there were more images to look through. 

Just think of the vital history that’s already been lost and that continues to be lost every day since ultra Orthodox media has eliminated female images! It’s not only the images, but once you cut out the image, the magazines tend to cut out the women themselves.  

For example, in 1985 The Jewish Observer did a cover story on Selma Mayer, known as Schwester Selma.  She was the head nurse at the original Shaare Zedek Hospital on Jaffa Road in Jerusalem for nearly 50 years. For many years she was the right-hand assistant of the hospital’s founding director, Dr. Moshe Wallach. It’s hard to imagine how an ultra Orthodox paper would profile such a woman today, without using any photos.  Most current magazines probably wouldn’t run large stories on modern day heroines – precisely because of the picture problem. Hence, women are being left out of Jewish history in a major way.

Along those same lines, based on The Jewish Observer’s trend in photos, because women are left out of the general narrative, these female-free publications morph into “men’s magazines,” written from a man’s lens, even though they are marketed as family publications.  This means that women aren’t portrayed as autonomous individuals, but solely as daughters, brides, wives, and mothers.  The lack of complete coverage paints a false picture that the only roles for females in Orthodox society are as children or as whatever relationship they are to a boy/man – because women are only discussed and visually represented (in drawings or blurred photos) in these capacities. 

The evolution of these photos from 1964-2009 is quite remarkable.  The heyday decades for women’s photos seem to be from the mid 70s to the mid 90s.  The turn of the century marked the gradual erasure of women from The Jewish Observer.  If anyone knows of a major public prohibition against women’s photos from a prominent rabbi or organization from the turn of the century, please enlighten me.  Perhaps competing publications started that banned female images and The Jewish Observer felt they had to follow suit or lose revenue?  I hope you find these images as interesting as I did.

Edited to add – here is an anonymous letter to the editor from 1992 criticizing The Jewish Observer for publishing photos of females in its pages.  The anonymity speaks volumes, as this female-free policy seems to have no direct attribution to any Torah authority (if there is a direct attribution to be made, he/they don’t make it easy to find their names or quotes).

-letter hat tip Fred MacDowell on Facebook

Photo Essay of Female Images Published in The Jewish Observer 1964-2009

-compiled by Sharon Shapiro, 2017


Hillary Clinton has gone where no woman has gone before – the cover of Yated!

hillary yatedYes, that’s really her arm – and her sleeve is threatening to slide above her elbow!

Things are getting more complicated by the minute for the Haredi press.  It was bad enough that the Treasury Department announced new designs earlier this year for several bills that will incorporate women, including Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony and Eleanor Roosevelt.  Ultra-orthodox men will now be forced to carry around pictures of women in their wallets, and even fondle their faces as they attempt to find the proper currency to purchase a Shmiras Einayim sefer from their local Jewish book store – exchanging the forbidden photos with all the shame and excitement of young adolescents swapping issues of old girlie magazines stolen from the corners of their father’s closets.

However, with the looming prospect of the first female American President being elected this November, some of the papers that have historically shunned showing images of women will now have to rethink their policies.

Right now most of those papers have written stories about Hillary Clinton either eschewing a photo all together, or showing loosely related images of her surroundings.

An example is this recent photo of her supporters that appeared in Mishpacha magazine accompanying a story about her strategic DNC acceptance speech:

hillary1(note the signs don’t even have her name on them)

Or another photo from the same publication of her husband Bill Clinton when Hillary finally clinched the nomination as the Democratic Presidential candidate:

hillary2Indeed, if Hillary wins, it will most likely appear as if Bill Clinton has won a 3rd Presidential term in the Haredi press, as his face will likely be switched out for hers wherever possible.

Ari L. Goldman of the Columbia Journalism Review writes that:

In interviews, the editors of four major English-language ultra-Orthodox publications, three of them published in New York and one in Jerusalem, said that they are reevaluating their no-women policy in light of the Clinton candidacy, but would not make any final decisions alone. As with all important decisions, they will take the question to the boards of rabbinical advisors with whom final authority over the publications’ content rests. One of the editors, a rabbi himself, said that a Clinton victory could spell a change in the longstanding no-women policy in his paper and the others. “I think we’re going to have to rethink it,” Rabbi Yitzchok Frankfurter, the executive editor of Ami Magazine, told me. Not to do so, he said, “would be disrespectful.””

This is a big statement coming from a publication that has a well-known policy not to use any photos of women, and has been accused of cropping women out of photos for its publication.

Goldman goes on to say:

All of the editors said that the practice of not using women’s photographs started with the Israeli papers, which set the standard. Most of them said that the vast majority of their subscribers read other publications with pictures of women, but that they declined to use women’s pictures out of fear of alienating the more observant segment of their readership.

The adoption of this standard has led to some foibles that garnered worldwide media attention.  For example, in an excerpt of Goldman’s CJR piece, OnlySimchas reprints a photo from 2011 when Di Tzeitung, published in Brooklyn, digitally removed then Secretary of State, Mrs. Clinton, from a picture of the White House situation room on the night of the military operation that assassinated Osama bin Laden:

hillary3Goldman says, “While the editor of Di Tzeitung apologized for manipulating a White House photo, which is a violation of the licensing agreements, Rabbi Frankfurter of Ami defended his stance, saying that cropping is “done routinely by most papers and magazines.

Also shown in the OnlySimchas excerpt is a photo that circulated among Haredi publications that cropped out Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, from a long line of world leaders at the huge rally in Paris after the murder of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists:

hillary4Goldman writes, “But continually cropping out President Hillary Clinton might prove too much even for Rabbi Frankfurter. “We would be locking ourselves out of a lot of opportunities,” he said. “We couldn’t even run photos of the White House Hanukkah party.”

Interestingly, the publishers and editors of two prominent Haredi newspapers with a no-women photo policy are women themselves, Ruth Lichtenstein is the publisher of Hamodia and Shoshana Friedman is the editor of Mishpacha.

Goldman concludes:

Friedman, who at 36 is the youngest of the editors I interviewed, said that being a woman editor who doesn’t run photos of women sometimes puts her in an uncomfortable position. “Every now and then, I get a letter from a reader who asks, ‘Why don’t you run pictures of women? I want my daughter to have role models in life. I want her to see that women can achieve great things.’ ”

Friedman added sadly: “For these women I don’t have a good answer.”

If Clinton is elected President, and the Haredi press does relax its no-women photo policies, It remains to be seen if only she, as Commander in Chief, will be given a special dispensation to be shown in photographs, or if a more liberal policy will be given to all women.  For example, if there is a photo of “President Hillary Clinton” beside German Chancellor Angela Merkel, will Merkel still be cropped out?  Or maybe the Haredi newspapers will alter their policies based on the woman’s religion – choosing not to publish photos of Jewish women, but conceding to publish photos (or partial photos) of non-Jewish women?  For example, if Hillary Clinton is standing beside Ayelet Shaked, Tzipi Livni, or Miri Regev the Jewish politicians would be cut out, but Clinton would remain in some form?  Would a policy like this continue to preserve the modesty and sanctity of the bas Yisroel?

It will be interesting to see what creative solutions they come up with – or which publications might abandon their no-female policies all together, following the lead of the historical Yiddish newspaper, Der Tog, which was published between 1914-1971, and became the first Yiddish newspaper to include female journalists on the editorial staff.

Wikipedia says:

Adella Kean-Sametkin wrote about women’s issues, and Dr. Ida Badanes, about health matters; the popular fiction writer Sarah B. Smith was also a regular contributor over many years.[15] Before making her mark as a poet, Anna Margolin (pseudonym of Rosa Lebensboym) distinguished herself as a reporter and editor for Der Tog, contributing a column, “In der froyen velt” (In the women’s world), under her actual name, and articles about women’s issues under various pseudonyms, including Clara Levin.

Often accompanying stories written by women were photographs of women.  The blog, From the Vault, said,

One page from a May 1952 edition of Der tog that has been cut out in its entirety—“In der velt fun froyen” (“In the World of Women”), a section for female readers, formerly edited by the well-known Yiddish poet Anna Margolin—is studded with photographs of international beauties in the latest bathing costumes and eveningwear. At the bottom is a society snapshot: “a khasene in holivud” (“a wedding in Hollywood”), with the actors Ronald Reagan and Nancy Davis “vinshen zikh mazl-tov” (wishing each other mazl-tov) following their wedding ceremony. (Note that the editors misidentify the couple: it is the Reagans in the center and William Holden with wife Brenda Marshall on the outside, not the other way around.)

hillary5From the Vault also shares another photo of the newly elected “Mame fun der velt” (Mother of the World), Chilean First Lady Rosa Markmann (right), on a visit to the just-completed headquarters of the United Nations from that same 1952 issue:

hillary6As a humorous aside, the headline near the photo is “an article by one Sarah Koenig (a past incarnation of today’s NPR broadcaster, alike in name and journalistic rigor?) headlined “Fete froyen zaynen oft gliklekher in leben” (“Fat Women Are Often Happier in Life”). The piece contains such surprising evidence as “Fete froyen zaynen oykh mer religyez geshtimt un hoben lib tsu geyn in shul davnen” (“Fat women are also more religiously inclined and enjoy going to shul to daven”) and “Di statistik hot bavizn, az tsvishen fete menshen bikhlal zenen faran mer gut hartsige, vi tsvishn dine menshen” (“Statistics have shown that among fat people generally, there are more goodhearted people than among those who are thin”), a claim that the writer juxtaposes to the assertion that overweight people’s higher blood pressure necessitates their having a calmer disposition. The piece ends by comforting the reader with the assertion that though the number of plump women is great among Jews, the proportion of overweight Italian women is greater, and anyway, “Iz do zehr fil froyen vos di diklikhkayt past zey, un fete froyen kenen zayn sheyn un reytsnd” (“There are many women whose stoutness suits them, and fat women can be beautiful and alluring”).

My understanding is that Der Tog is the great-grandfather publication of the modern day Alegemeiner Journal.  Though it was founded by businessmen and intellectuals, and not a religious publication, the fact that it was in Yiddish and intended for Jewish audiences means that in the early 20th century, a time when there wasn’t a dearth of American Haredi newspapers being published, odds are the religious community made up a nice portion of its readership.  That probably came to an end in 1953 when laid off Der Tog editor, Dr. Aaron Rosmarin founded Der Yid, and hired a Satmar editor named Uriel Zimmer, which then established Der Yid as the religious and anti-Zionist alternative to Der Tog.

Will Hillary Clinton be the revolutionary figure to finally break past the no-women photograph barrier in Haredi publications?  Will she be a one-time anomaly, an exception to the rule, if her image does get published?  It remains to be seen, both literally and figuratively.

Love Yourself

Woman hugging herself in front of wooden structure

Young girl, you’re going to have to love yourself. You’re going to have to know your own worth in a time when other people are going to put a price tag on you. You’ll be labelled, bar coded, and put on a shelf with your expiration date clearly marked for discerning consumers. You will become a commodity for other people to examine, speculate on, and haggle over. Young girl, you’d better know who you are and stay firm in that knowledge, despite others trying to redefine you.

I was once you, young girl. I couldn’t have anticipated how all of the lessons I had learned, all of the skills and education I had acquired, and all of the friendships that I had made didn’t really make a difference in preparing me for dating. There seems to be two different sets of self-esteem in a woman’s life – one in her life apart from men and one in her life among them. Girls who grow up in a female centric world are unprepared for the emotions and vulnerability they face when they enter the world of dating. The tools needed for non-romantic relationships, often aren’t the necessary equipment required for romantic ones.

Part of this is because of the buildup. Most little girls don’t grow up with the elders in their lives opining, “Someday, Im Yirtzeh Hashem, you’re going to make a friend!” The end goal of your life isn’t described as being single with many close family ties and female friendships to enrich your existence. Even though I didn’t grow up frum, I grew up with a set of old fashioned values and expectations that didn’t differ much from the orthodox world.

As a young girl, I had a list of accomplishments I wanted to achieve. For example, I wanted to graduate from high school, I wanted to graduate from college, I wanted to write a great novel, I wanted a job to make my own money, I wanted hair that didn’t frizz in humidity, and I wanted a boyfriend. There were lots of other things I wanted, but those are the ones that come immediately to mind.

My mother only seemed to have two main objectives for me – to get married and have babies. Any other pursuit I engaged in was just biding my time until I achieved the ultimate status of “wife” and “mother” (God forbid the “mother” come before the “wife”). When it came to sex, my mother only had one piece of wisdom to offer, “Good girls wait until after marriage, bad girls don’t. The best girls continue to wait even after marriage.” I added that last sentence in myself for the benefit of my daughter.

The point is that even though I didn’t grow up in the orthodox community, and additionally I had other cultural examples of dating from my non-Jewish friends, at home I was given a very strict upbringing when it came to boys. My parents only allowed me to date when I was old enough to consider marriage prospects, and of course, those prospects had to be Jewish.

With all that waiting for dating (going through public high school without ever going out on a real date is a rare thing), I was more than ready to start dating in college. I had no idea that the people skills and maturity I thought I had developed over eighteen years would not even begin to prepare me for the vulnerability and judgement I felt upon entering the dating world.

Maybe it was the unintended message I received that this was “the big show.” While I wasn’t part of the shidduch world, where 23 years old is over the hill for a woman, I still had the sense that college was going to be my only chance to meet my future husband. When you live in the secular world as a Jew, it’s sometimes like being on a lonely deserted island, at least if you have the goal to marry another Jew. The only Jews I knew were overwhelmingly a good 40+ years older than me – relatives or friends of my family. Where did all the young Jews hang out? In my case, they were at the Hillel on my college campus.

At the first Hillel gathering I attended, there was a bevy of bespectacled Jewish near sighted hunks. Bingo! While there were more kippot than I’d ever seen in one room outside of shul, they were guys my own age and of my own tribe – it was an anthropological wonder for a girl usually known for being the only Jew in the room among her other friends. Additionally, I met some great girls who became my closest friends in college, and who turned out to be much steadier companions than the boyfriends who came and went like a revolving door.

I was ill prepared for how my self-worth seemed to become totally dependent upon how whatever boy I was dating at the moment saw me. If he liked me, I liked me. If he didn’t like me, I didn’t like me. All through my childhood and teen years, I had been given subtle messages that the sign of a woman’s worth is her husband. A valuable girl will get a valuable guy – smart, handsome, educated, white collar, financially well off. A lesser girl will get a lesser guy – not so handsome or smart, a blue collar job that doesn’t pay well, possibly abusive.

Basically, a woman’s status in life is determined by her husband’s position in life – her individual worth is developed from a young age for the purpose of eventually getting the best mate, and after that, her ultimate value is determined by who picks her. As in the orthodox world, in the secular world, a girl who comes from money can use that asset to compensate for other areas in which she may be lacking (e.g. beauty, thin figure, middos, charm, and intelligence). I didn’t come from money.

The best thing I ever did was to take an almost two year break from dating during college to get my head together. Not only did I start soaring academically, but my friendships began flourishing. I had a more active social life than when I had been dating and revolving my life around being available “just in case he calls.” When I decided to take my break, I honestly didn’t even know who I was anymore. All I knew was what different failed relationships had told me about myself – and that wasn’t me. I let people outside of myself tell me my flaws and my attributes. I let people outside of myself tell me I wasn’t good enough.

I can only imagine how much more painful this judgement is when it’s not being brought down by just one person (the guy), but by an entire committee (the shadchan, the guy, the guy’s mother, the references). I had been asked out by a few guys who I would never have considered going out with for various reasons. However, when someone unsuitable asks you out on random impulse, it doesn’t necessarily say anything bad about you that this type of person asked you out (e.g. my freshman year, a non-Jewish guy in my English class who wore combat boots and a mohawk asked me out. No offense to him, he was a sweet guy, we just weren’t a match). He was just trying his luck on a whim.

However, when it’s a committee that makes a cold and calculated decision that you only deserve to be set up with the “lesser guys” because you are a “lesser girl” that can be soul shattering. What are the reasons for being lesser? The reasons can range from being poor, having a health condition, having parents or siblings with a health condition, getting on the wrong side of an influential rabbi or school administrator, any hint of scandal surrounding your family, being any shade darker than a Miami tan on New York winter white skin, being Sephardic instead of Ashkenazic – any of these reasons or more could be why a girl’s resume is placed in the subbasement of Shidduch Central Inc..

Add into the mix that ultimately, the girl usually takes a passive role in dating proceedings with a guy she likes. Sure, a girl can put the kibosh on future dates with a guy she didn’t enjoy going out with. However, it’s usually the guy who has a stack of resumes to choose from, and initiates a date. Even if a girl wants to go out with a guy a second time, all she can do is indicate her interest to the shadchan, but it’s his final decision to call again or not.

Many orthodox guys in the shidduch system could have several different dates per week if they wanted. Many girls can go months waiting by the phone for a shadchan to call them with a suggestion. The girl has the right of refusal, but if the girl hasn’t had a dating opportunity in months, she will feel compelled to go on the date, even if he doesn’t sound ideal. The boy doesn’t feel this pressure of having few options to choose from. It’s not as big of a deal to him to pass up on one date as it is to her.

In my day, dating was like that in the secular world too. Sure, there were some aggressive girls who took the bull by the horns and asked guys out, but for the most part, if you liked a guy who didn’t seem to notice you, all you could do was throw hints and hope he caught them. Even if he did ask you out once, the proper etiquette was for him to say he would call you as you said your goodbyes, and all you could do was hope that he actually would. To call him before he called you reeked of desperation.

Young girl, you’re going to have to build walls, be chutzpadik, and fight for yourself. If you want a type of guy that you’re not being set up with, you need to wander outside the system. Girls need to band together and form unofficial networks, sharing basic information about guys that didn’t work out for them, but might be well suited for another. Don’t underestimate the number of people who have simply dropped out of the shidduch system in disgust, but who are still single and looking. Girls need to find mentors who volunteer to make matches not for money, but for the mitzvah. There are people in almost every community who devote chesed hours to setting up singles, hosting small events, and spending time getting to know the singles they are trying to set up.

Part of the problem is that some matchmakers have such an overabundance of female resumes, that the personal touch is lost. Don’t take an impersonal system personally. You are more than a dowry, or a dress size, or your mother’s gallstones, or where you went to camp when you were 10. Know yourself – don’t let others introduce you to who they think you are. Decide for yourself, and defend yourself if others try to change your truth. Love yourself and you will find another to love.

Preaching to the choir

choirWhen I started this blog, I started it for an audience of one. I wanted to reign in the tangled yarn of my thoughts into one solid skein that I could hold, turn over, or unravel and rewind if I had to. Along the way, I’ve encountered those who vehemently disagree with my opinions and those who validate my viewpoints and make me feel like maybe I’m not as crazy as I think I am. Sometimes these assenting or dissenting voices come from the same person depending on the topic.

I’ve made some mistakes along the way. Sometimes I overstated my case, or was too quick to judge. Sometimes I felt that an injustice or some form of discrimination needed to be called out, and since no one else was speaking up, I would be the one to do it. Giving voice to the voiceless, and all that jazz.

I still don’t know which has more merit – being the one to bring attention to disturbing circumstances, or being the one who recognizes injustice, but sits back and waits for someone else to speak up. It’s much easier to merely click a like button than actually be held accountable for bringing the situation to light.

I do believe in the concept of what goes around comes around, because I’ve seen it and experienced it. You can call it karma, divine retribution, or less ominously, the world mirroring back to you what you have shown to others for the benefit of self-reflection. Recently I was shown that mirror through the trials and tribulations of social media, and I’ve taken heed.

For the most part, I’ve been preaching to the choir. While I’m very grateful that there is a like-minded choir to preach to, what I have realized, is that people only change if they want to change. Anyone who is opposed to my opinions will remain opposed, no matter how eloquently I attempt to make my case. People turn a deaf ear to viewpoints they consider treif. When an argument is dismissed as being born from secular culture, it is invalid, and therefore, no consideration for change is merited.

Additionally, many of us won’t practice what we preach when it comes to compassion toward hot button social issues such as child abuse, people going off the derech, homosexuality, the shidduch minefield, drug and alcohol abuse, inclusion of people with mental or physical health issues, women’s rights, etc. Words cost nothing, but actions can cost a great deal.

As fast as many of us are to step up on our social media soapbox and condemn discrimination and injustice in our society, many of us would be equally fast, for example, to squash a shidduch suggestion for our child with someone who has experienced sexual abuse, a chronic health issue, or a sibling who is gay. Sometimes an issue we can be tolerant about from afar, is an issue we can’t abide by close to home.

Conversely, continuing the shidduch example, there are sometimes valid considerations for not wanting a child to marry someone who, for example, has an extensive history of drug addiction and relapse, or a history of medical non-compliance for severe mental health issues. Not wanting a child to be subjected to that kind of uncertainty and tumult isn’t being discriminatory, it’s simply being a concerned parent. The devil is in the details, although such considerations might also be labelled intolerant by the social media peanut gallery.

It makes me wonder about our current culture of online lynching. Social media is the new Wild West, and frontier justice is alive and well. So many viral condemnations are started by the dissemination of partial truths and half told stories. There’s no doubt it’s entertaining to watch the sparks fly and the responses flood in at a dizzying pace in the name of public outrage. However, once the storm subsides and interest wanes, was anything actually accomplished? When the old outrages are buried under the weight of the new ones in our Facebook feeds, can we justify the harsh words read and written by claiming they promoted change? Most of the time, the only thing accomplished was machlokes and gossip.

Again, those who were already sensitive to the general issues being publicized will continue to be sensitive to those wrongs brought to light. Those who were unaware, and willfully so, will continue their backlash against those who try to shine a light on perceived injustices. Change has to be initiated by the individual’s own desire to change. Those who aren’t open to it won’t do an about face because of online shaming – especially if they feel that their position is God’s position. Adding religious righteousness into the mix only intensifies someone’s unwillingness to see another side, particularly if they feel that the other side is unquestionably against halacha or mesorah, which are one and the same in many Orthodox minds.

Since starting this blog and monitoring the Jewish news and social media, I have seen the same issues come up repeatedly over the past few years. Often, the same controversial spiritual and community leaders are called to task over their latest rantings or proclamations. Nothing really changes though – despite their detractors there are always more followers continuing to support even the most provocative of spiritual gurus. On an individual level, I’m sure some people have shifted in their thinking. I know I have. However, on a communal level, I haven’t seen a universal shift.

I know that change happens slowly. For example, there is a growing call to report sexual abuse cases to the police in Orthodox communities, even in communities where such reporting was practically unheard of only a few years ago. Rabbinic leaders are changing their minds on how to handle abuse cases in light of new information on how sex offenders often re-offend and how permanently scarring such abuse is to victims.

Another example of change is how women are slowly, albeit controversially in some cases, taking up leadership roles in Orthodox religious life. It is getting to the point where any Orthodox religious body that speaks out against advancements for women or scorns the idea of women in positions of spiritual leadership will be swiftly condemned, and so the language and tone coming from Orthodox clergy is getting tamer – even if the basic message of resistance is essentially the same.

Nothing happens overnight, yet that is exactly what social media users demand – instant satisfaction. I readily admit to subconsciously hoping for immediate resolution to the social ills I’ve dwelt upon. It’s not possible. Many of the problems that plague our communities took decades to develop. They won’t instantly disappear with the rantings of one angry person, or even several angry people, no matter how quickly a viral post spreads.

So this leaves me back to where I started – back to an audience of one – which is the only audience that really matters anyway. It’s appropriate that I should be examining my own heart, writing to detangle my thoughts, and thinking about where I stand on societal and spiritual issues. However, writing or ranting about my views online has a limited long term impact. It’s actions and not words that matter most. As 2016 approaches, I hope that I can have a greater impact by doing rather than saying. The audience might be smaller, but the results of offline actions have a better chance of yielding long term results. Words are important and have their place, but sometimes words come too easy. As they say, nothing worth having ever comes easy.

Scarlett A

scarlett aEarlier this year my daughter had to read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s, The Scarlett Letter. Published in 1850, it is written in sufficiently old-timey English to initially be a daunting read for the average American high schooler. The historical setting and speech patterns also give the impression that the plot portrays a dated cultural phenomenon of publicly shaming people for private consensual relationships.

My daughter had to write a paper about The Scarlett Letter, and one of her main themes was the double standard by which the persecuted protagonist, Hester Prynne, was treated as opposed to the father of her child, Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, who ultimately fell prey to the judgement of his own conscience. She wondered at the difference in character between Hester and Dimmesdale, with Hester braving jail and humiliation rather than exposing her paramour, versus Reverend Dimmesdale letting Hester take the fall for both of them.

The other day someone emailed me the link to a website that alerts the Orthodox community to women who are committing halachic adultery because, in the author’s opinion, they don’t have a kosher get. Apparently, some people think it’s a public service to warn the community about women who received a get under suspicious circumstances, and publicize the fact that any children from their subsequent marriages should be considered mamzerim.

There are probably other such websites out there, and I don’t choose to give them any publicity by linking to them, however, it’s a fine line to walk. On the one hand, I wonder if I should even mention these types of controversies, for fear of spreading further gossip. On the other hand, I don’t see anyone speaking up in defense of the women being named as (halachic) adulteresses.

I know there are people in my life who would say no one is speaking up for these women because they are willfully doing something wrong. However, as women subject to release from marriage by men (whether husbands or rabbis), are we doubting the validity of the get, the rabbis, or the women? If a rabbi releases a woman from marriage through get or annulment, why isn’t that sufficient, and why is it her fault if other people don’t recognize her status as an unchained woman? If she went through the proper channels, how can that not be enough?

Just as converts are sometimes put in the unfortunate position of being pawns in their conversion rabbi’s missteps, rendering other rabbis to pronounce his conversions invalid, will women who receive a get or annulment have to live in fear that their single status might be unduly revoked at any time – even after they have remarried and had children with their second husband? Will their children be condemned to the unfortunate status of mamzer because of politics, the backlash against feminism (which is seen as a driving force behind the movement to free agunot), or a recalcitrant husband with good connections?

It irks some prominent rabbanim that American Jewish women have the option of filing for divorce in civil courts. They feel that all custody and financial settlements should be decided by a beis din, and any settlement decided and enforced by civil law on a woman’s behalf is akin to blackmail. They feel that some husbands give a get under duress in exchange for their wives going easier on them in civil court. Therefore, some have questioned the validity of such religious divorces where the husband’s hand was forced in order not to lose custody, property, or pay exorbitant child support or alimony as ordered by a civil court. In fact, some men are encouraged to withhold a get until such matters are negotiated to their satisfaction or the wife agrees to renegotiate a civil settlement that’s already been decided in her favor.

In any event, there is a sense of irony that in 2015, Jewish women still face wearing a Scarlett A, just as women did in the mid-17th century Puritanical Massachusetts Bay colony that Nathaniel Hawthorne described. Interestingly, in the stories being spread about these willful Orthodox women flouting halacha by refusing to remain agunot (instead choosing to accept the release offered to them by respected rabbanim, who might later have second thoughts when pressed by their colleagues), we usually don’t hear a peep in their defense from their second husbands, nor is the second spouse usually implicated in the scandal. Of course, the first husband, who in most cases was a get-refuser, is portrayed as the cuckolded victim. It’s the woman who is the scheming vixen and the men who are the casualties of her wily machinations.