Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Of Aharon Friedman and the sexism of Jewish divorce

Recently the case of Michigan Congressman Dave Camp's aide, Aharon Friedman's refusal to grant his wife, Tamar Epstein, a get (a Jewish divorce) for over four years has been making headlines as a result of pressure from the Orthodox Jewish community and the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (an agunah is a woman who is "locked," unable to remarry because she cannot get a divorce from her husband or his death cannot be proven as in case of those killed in action with no body returned). There have been cases of women who have been "chained" to their husbands for upwards of ten years because according to Jewish law, the divorce has to be granted freely by the husband to the wife.

While I appreciate the efforts that have been made to free this woman from her husband and marriage, I'm dismayed that once again we're missing an opportunity to discuss what the real problem is. It's not that some men can be controlling jerks, refusing to give gets for a variety of manipulative reasons. It's that Jewish law doesn't recognize the wife's autonomy. It won't give her a divorce based on her wishes. She is still beholden to her husband and the wishes of rabbis. What these rabbis and Orthodox activists are doing with their online campaigns, petitions and protests outside the homes of recalcitrant husbands are merely short-term solutions. It doesn't address the inherent inequality that has landed the women in this unfortunate situation to begin with.

All of this--the problem of agunot, issues of abortion and birth control--are all part of the same larger problem that religious authority figures have with women acting autonomously over their own lives. I was taught that these laws were originally formulated to "protect" women from being wantonly cast aside by their husbands at a time in history when a woman was entirely dependent on a man to survive. However that is no longer the case, and anyway that sort protectionist bent is deeply steeped in misogyny. Just as the GOP wishes to shield women from tough, complicated decisions about their lives and bodies, Orthodox rabbis, even the most liberal ones, are trying to protect us from making decisions about our relationships. By not arguing for equalizing women's status in Jewish law so that when she walks into court  to sue for divorce, she can get one without "permission" from her soon-to-be ex-husband, they are merely perpetuating the status quo, which denies women equal rights. The protests and communal blacklisting still reinforce women's subordinate status, that she needs the backing of big strong men to achieve her ends.

I've always been proud that Judaism, unlike Christianity, has always held divorce as an option, that it has been sympathetic to human nature, realizing that sometimes people outgrow each other, that some relationships aren't meant to last for all time. (I'm also proud that Jews were early pioneers in the underground contraceptives industry--I'm a godless, feminist liberal, after all.) But society, for the most part, has caught up and surpassed more traditional forms of Judaism. My mother was able to go to civil court and divorce my father (though the decision to do so was mutual) without his say so. But in Jewish court, he had to be the one to grant her the document that would free her from their union. Forget progressive--how is that even current?

The discussion we should be having is not how we can twist this man's arm into granting his wife of a divorce, how we can create prenups that fine a man for not giving his wife a get. Those are merely band-aids, covering up what really ails the community.  We should be talking about how we can change the law so a woman can walk into court with her held high and walk out with a divorce in her hand that she didn't have to beg for, that she didn't have to be granted. That would be real progress.

Friday, February 24, 2012

The dancer as athlete

The New York Times produced this wonderful video about the athleticism of dancers, interviewing an Alvin Ailey pro, which can also be instructive for fans of gymnastics. (Ailey, I just learned, wanted to be a gymnast and had the muscular upper body build of one.)

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Rhoda Janzen on faith

I've been rereading Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, a memoir in which Rhoda Janzen writes about her religious upbringing and returning home to her parents during a time of need. Recalling a conversation she had with her fiercely religious brothers, who couldn't fathom their sister's unwillingness to take her husband's name, she wonders aloud to her mother, who is cheerily depicted throughout, how her brothers had ended up so much more conservative than her parents. Her mother, insisting that her sons will mellow, wisely observes:

"When you're young, faith is often a matter of rules. What you should do and shouldn't do, that kind of thing. But as you get older, you realize that faith is really a matter of relationship--with God, with the people around you, with the members of your community."

Hailing from a very rule oriented religious background and having mellowed with age (yes, this is me, mellow!) I thought this was a lovely sentiment about faith.

And because we're talking about Mennonites and I'm a ten-year-old boy inside, here's Weird Al's video for "Amish Paradise." (I know--Mennonites are not really Amish.)

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Feminist Men

Over at the Good Men Project, Emily Heist Moss writes about how men belong in the feminist movement, not merely to bolster the women and show solidarity, but to speak for their own interests and desires that feminism can address. To Moss, feminism is a movement that can help men, who according to her while "not oppressed" are "restricted."

My feminism (and like I said, it's a big tent and I don't speak for anyone but myself) is about abolishing heteronormative and sexist gender assumptions to allow people to reach their full potential, both inside and outside the workplace, as diversely talented, multi-faceted human beings. By my definition, men and women can both benefit from a feminist agenda.

Last week, I wrote something similar over at The Anti-Girlfriend in a post about my attempts to learn how to dance salsa and be led. 

But there's a freedom to having an independent woman afoot. If you constantly have to be strong for a woman then you aren't really given the opportunity to ever be vulnerable. Just as women have the desire to be strong and powerful, men also sometimes want to be able to let their guards down, to know the next turn to make on a car trip or the next step to take in a dance class. Or perhaps I'm reading too far into this.

I also embedded this clip of Joss Whedon expressing this sentiment much more eloquently (relevant part starts around 5:25 but the whole thing is really good). 

Though right now the front lines have been fighting the battle for our bodies and reproductive rights, which are a cornerstone to feminism (if we don't have ownership over those factors then all of the other dreams of feminism fall apart), it is important to also emphasize that men should be merely more than allies--they, too, benefit from being part of a society that includes emancipated, full actualized women.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The fury that they had in 66

This past week in American politics has been particularly upsetting one for women and feminists everywhere. From Congressman Issa's hearing about contraceptives that didn't include any women to Virginia passing a law that that would require a woman to get a transvaginal ultrasound without her consent before getting an abortion in the first trimester, I've been alternating between shaking with anger and frustration to occasional tears, wondering how this could be happening in 2012. In short, it has not been a good week for women's rights.

The severity of my emotional reaction surprised me. The right wing assault on abortion rights and women's health has been ongoing for years and though this week past week has been particularly bad, none of this is new. And I've lived my entire life in "blue" states and liberal, coastal cities where I have had unfettered access to birth control and basic women's health services so I can't make the claim that any of these measures has impacted me personally so I couldn't help wondering about the depth of my rage--why was I so angry?

Obviously, I feel a certain solidarity with other women out there who have seen their rights infringed upon. And of course there is the convincing slippery slope argument--that though my rights in New York feel secure, it doesn't mean they will remain so and can be endangered by the legislative actions taking place in the more conservative precincts of the country.

Still, these explanations seem to fall short and I was struggling to articulate my feelings to myself and others on the matter. And then I read one of the smartest things I've seen thus far about this whole mess by Sara Robinson on Alter Net called, "Why Patriarchal Men Are Utterly Petrified of Birth Control--And Why We'll Still Be Fighting About It 100 Years From Now."

In the piece, Robinson describes the mass availability of contraceptives as one of the great revolutions of the 20th Century and one that has nullified the social contract that existed between men and women for thousands of years--that women, bound to their biology and reproductive organs, would bear and raise kids and men would get the freedom to do everything else. She writes:

For the first time in human history, new technologies made fertility a conscious choice for an ever-growing number of the planet's females. And that, in turn, changed everything else. With that one essential choice came the possibility, for the first time, to make a vast range of other choices for ourselves that were simply never within reach before...Contraception was the single necessary key that opened the door to the whole new universe of activities that had always been zealously monopolized by men--education, the trades, the arts, government, travel, spiritual and cultural leadership, and even (eventually) war making.

When I read this, I understood the reason I was so filled with anger, why I couldn't stop ranting about these injustices. The debate, at its core, is not about abortion, birth control or even sex--it's about reminding women where we belong. It's about a group of men who grew up expecting to be masters of the universe being unable to handle the fact that they are now in competition for jobs, careers, prestige, etc. with fifty percent of the population. Though these lawmakers and clergy are using the language and rhetoric of abortion and birth control, they are actually (and not so subtly) trying to remind women about their "proper place," trying to turn the clock back on the women's rights movement, trying to get us to accept their very narrow definition of womanhood.

Understandably, this makes me mad. I have been fighting this battle for most of my life, before I knew words like "birth control," "abortion," and "feminism." Growing up in an Orthodox Jewish community, I was frequently made aware of my limitations that were based on my biology, not on my ability and desires. And though we were encouraged to do well secularly, we were always reminded that being a wife and mother were the most important roles we would play. For Career Night, the school would invite graduates to speak about their professional lives only if they were also married with kids. Heaven forfend that we hear from a woman with just a rewarding and successful career. What sort of message would that send?

That it is possible for a woman to go through life without wearing the mantle of "mother" and "wife." To endorse such a message would disruptive to the patriarchal setup of Orthodox Judaism. Because if a woman never married and had kids then all of the reasons given for not permitting her to participate in time bound commandments wouldn't be applicable. She could participate in thrice daily prayer sessions with a minyan because she doesn't have a baby with needs to address.

More recently within the Jewish community, discussions of women's roles and place have taken on the form of modesty debates--what they're wearing, where they sit--but it's all the same discussion, really. In controlling the way women dress and where/how they appear in public, the rabbis are trying to limit their choices in life, just as Republican politicians are doing by putting contraceptives out of reach. Different sides of the same, very old coin.

Robinson puts it in even stronger words:

They are, above everything else, desperate to get their women back under firm control. And in their minds, things will not be right again until they're assured that the girls are locked up even more tightly, so they will never, ever get away like that again.

Yet even before these news stories blew up last week, I was already thinking about my anger at the patriarchy. I was having a contentious argument with someone more religiously observant, who urged patience in regards to the role of women within Judaism. "Patience," I practically spat. "Why should anyone have to be patient when it comes to waiting for your rights, what you're supposed to have?" Only a person already possession of their rights can urge others to sit tight and just wait as though the thing you're waiting for is your food at a restaurant or for a train. But how can you insist that people remain patient while being denied equality?

Growing up, I remember hearing my mother discuss the Civil Rights movement and though she expressed admiration for Martin Luther King, Jr., she had unkind things to say about more militaristic elements involved in the struggle, singling out the two black athletes who raised their fists at the Olympics for condemnation for expressing their anger.  I was young and didn't question what she said. Yes, I thought, they should've been more patient with the system and not been as angry.

However as I got older and started to realize just how misogynistic traditional Judaism was and how desperately I wished to see change, I understood their anger. I recognized just how righteous it was. They had been deprived of their rights for hundreds of years and were being forced to be patient, contenting themselves with scraps from the institutional table.

Now I'm not at all claiming that the situations between the two groups are remotely similar--I'm a woman who has benefited from white privilege and private school education her whole life (kindergarten through graduate school) and I was able to leave the community and find a life where rabbinic misogyny cannot touch me. But I can understand the anger and frustration of being told to wait for what you know you're entitled to, to having to listen to specious arguments as to why you shouldn't have it that are not based on your integrity, abilities and hard work but on facts of your biology. I know how infuriating it can be to hear people urge you to wait patiently and demurely for equal, just treatment.

While anger is not an effective strategy to create social change, I don't wish to rid myself of it either. We should be mad, not patient, and use our frustration and sense of injustice to work even harder for our rights.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Random invocation of Soviet gymnastics

File this under totally random.

Today on New York Magazine's Daily Intel blog, Noreen Malone invoked Soviet gymnastics while discussing another iron-fisted Martha--Stewart (not Karolyi). Stewart's dog, Genghis Khan, who made it to the finals of the Westminster Dog Show (aka the world championships of dog competitions).

The pair talked about her teenage-Soviet-gymnast level expectations for the dog ("If he wants to back to the Garden, he has to continue to show...he has a lot of stuff to do"), Khan's strong, apparently ethnic-solidarity-based relationship with Malachy ("They're two Asian dogs! They're Chinese!"), and more, including the chow chow's pre-Garden meal at the Plaza.

I think the two Marthas--Karolyi and Stewart--would greatly approve of each other.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Everything I know about classical music

Today on Facebook I cheekily wrote, "Everything I know about classical music, I've learned from being put on hold" after waiting to speak to my medical insurance customer service about a snafu in billing. (And by "snafu" I mean they sent me a bill for something I shouldn't have to pay for.)

I was mostly trying to be glib and funny when I wrote that because in reality, most of my classical music knowledge comes from another non-traditional source: gymnastics floor routines. Just as I learned the republics of the former Soviet Union by the gymnasts they "exported," I learned about pieces of music that weren't played on Top 40 radio from the routines of gymnasts. Here are a few of my favorites.

In the Hall of the Mountain King (performed by Ludivine Furnon):

The Rite of Spring (performed by Olga Strazheva)

Carmen (performed by Svetlana Khorkina)

A little Gershwin (performed  by Olesia Dudnik)

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Has a montage ever made you fall in love with a gymnast?

Gymnastics fans love to make montages of clips from the sport--if it's a training video, the backing track will be "hard" rock and edgy (cue Evanescence and "Bring Me To Life"). There are also montages of favorite skills, hardest skills, profiles of favorite gymnasts, etc. The list goes on and on.

If I'm watching a compilation of skills, I'm typically rapt, testing my gymnastics IQ, trying to see if I can identify all of the gymnasts that appears in five second increments. (I get it right about 80 percent of the time.) However I tend to shy away from the shmaltzier ones, the ones that pair soft music with slow moving images of switch ring leaps and Serious faces from Tough Times. 

Which is why I am so surprised by how much I've enjoyed this montage made for 2008 Olympic All-Around Champion Nastia Liukin's comeback to training and competition.

I have watched it at least half a dozen times since first stumbling upon it and not because I am a huge Nastia supporter. Though her talent was certainly undeniable and I don't grudge her any of her competitive results (including her well-deserved Olympic crown), I found myself more in the Shawn Johnson camp. Also, I found Nastia's post-Olympic persona rather grating. I cannot fault her for wanting to make money off of her victory but I found some of the marketing tactics (as well her fashion sensibilities) to be rather crass. 

So when she announced her comeback to training in late 2011, I wasn't particularly enthused. I know that if she can get her bars back to their previous level, she can make a huge contribution to the team, which is noticeably weak in this event. But I certainly wasn't celebrating her return.

However, watching this video, devoid of the post-Beijing pageantry and questionable styling choices, made me remember why I had anxiously awaited her ascension to the senior ranks after watching her as a junior in 2004. The grace and elegance (despite the hand form on leaps); those amazingly open and flexible shoulders on bars; the singular focus. The closeup on her taped ankle reminded how much she struggled with that ankle injury, making her 2008 success all the more remarkable. I was touched by clips of her with her father and was impressed by the snippets shown of her training as she tries to regain her form.

And maybe, just maybe, Ellie Goulding's sappy remake of Elton John's "Your Song" wormed its way into my cold, cold heart.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Stella D'oro Swiss Fudge Cookies

In this week's New Yorker, Ian Frazier writes about the strike that ultimately led to the demise of the Stella D'oro factory bakery in the Bronx. Frazier takes a look back at the history of the company and there is an interesting little anecdote about the role Jews played:

Their less sweet Italian baked goods soon found a market; in the country of cookies-and-milk, they specialized in subtler snacks for coffee or tea. One of their wise early moves was to make their cookies "pareve"-- without any dairy products, for Jews who keep kosher. This refinement added a large and loyal following.

I was one of those Jews Frazier is referring to. I ate Swiss Fudge cookies every Shabbos. This snack almost always came after a meat lunch. My family's tradition was to wait six hours between meat and dairy so ice cream was out. This cookie is so important to the Jews that I even blogged about this dessert for National Dessert Day over at Tablet.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

On not having a child in my early twenties

The girls I went to high school with are lovely (and this is certainly not true of all of them), I do sometimes feel this way.

funny facebook fails - Failbook: Escaping a Cult
see more epicfails

(h/t to a friend who has a respectable job and therefore cannot be associated with this site.)