Tag Archives: women

Ink Plotz: Jewish Women and Confessional Comics

by Amanda Walgrove

Sure, the Oscars ceremony might feature more Jews than your grandmother’s Passover seder, but despite how it might seem, cinema isn’t the only visual art in which Jews are prominently represented. Featuring the work of eighteen artists, Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women is the first museum exhibit to showcase autobiographical storytelling by Jewish women in this unique sub-genre. The exhibit is now in Toronto, where it will run through April 17. In 2012, the exhibit will make its way to New York’s Yeshiva University Museum and University of Michigan’s School of Art and Design.

Jews have long been forerunners in the medium of graphic art. In the late 1960s, Eli Katz (pseudonym Gil Kane) and Archie Goodwin pioneered an early graphic novel prototype entitled, His Name Is…Savage. Art Spiegelman’s groundbreaking Maus won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for its graphic narrative depiction of Nazi Germany.

Women have been writing confessional cartoons since the 1970s, but the context has changed; the then-dominant theme of a stark gender divide has now been superseded by problems with more universal relevance. It wasn’t until journalist Michael Kaminer attended a 2008 Museum of Comic Cartoon Art Expo in New York, that he noticed a curious trend of Jewish women penning autobiographical comics.

“Catholics may confess through a screen in a box, but Jews do it in public—preferably with an audience,” Kaminer commented. By drawing their own screens, boxes, and frames, these women have found innovative ways to convey riotous humor, dramatic confessions, and relatable leitmotifs. After Kaminer wrote an article for The Forward about this unexpected trend, Sarah Lightman, award-winning artist and journalist, proposed turning the idea into an exhibit. The two joined forces to curate an impressive array of originally expressive and transformative work, proving that comics are not just for superheroes and children.

The international collection of artists is richly comprised of visual art veterans, cartoonists, graphic novelists, and comic newbies. While many of these hand-drawn pieces represent Jewish issues, others qualify as Jewish only because their authors identify as such.

In an interview with the Jewish Women’s Archive, artist Miriam Libicki revealed that her motivation to leap into graphic artistry was deeply connected with a need to retain and externalize her sense of Jewish identity. When she moved to the Northwest from Israel, she was surrounded by a group of mostly gentile friends. Ironically, her art started to become full of Jewish references. Libicki said, “Disappearing as a Jew was a horrifying and depressing idea to me, and art, without me realizing it at first, became my way to perform my Judaism, both for myself as a daily practice, and publicly, so that Jewiness was essentially linked to my public identity.” Her graphic novel, jobnik!, which centers around an American girl’s experience in the Israeli army, will be available in December 2011.

Sarah Lightman’s own series, Dumped before Valentine’s, is featured in the exhibit. While at university, she realized that her sister and brother, Esther and Daniel, had their own books in the Bible but she did not. So she began creating “The Book of Sarah,” engaging her connection to Judaism with the visual, not just the textual. It has evolved into an ongoing project full of narrative self-portraits, studies of family photographs and diary drawings. As her Jewish identity was constantly evolving, she was able to find communities of Jewish artists with whom she could share experiences. This was a perfect way to achieve her goal of contributing to Jewish life and history through culture.

Looking forward, we can keep our eyes open for upcoming work from these women as well, most of whom seem to have at least one project on the horizon. Trina Robbins, writer and “herstorian” has been writing comics and books for over thirty years and recently finished scripting a graphic novel for all ages; it tells the true story of Lily Renee Wilheim Phillips, a teenage Jewish girl who escaped the Nazis.

Michael Kaminer hopes that this unique exhibit will help people gain a new perspective on how Jews continue to reinvent comics and shape this sophisticated form of storytelling. As artists, Jews have famously found innovative ways to manifest personal definitions of Jewish identity through artistic expression. While graphic artistry may seem like an underground phenomenon, the creative outlet has proven sufficient for Jewish women who have complex stories to tell and remarkable narratives through which to confess.


The Slur That Won’t Go Away

by Kayla Green

JAP: The word has lost almost all of its taboo status, becoming something close to a knee-jerk reaction to any Semitic-looking girl wearing designer clothing or showing any other signs of wealth. The word, which connotes a long history of ugly generalizations, is often bandied about without a moment’s hesitation.

The recent YouTube sensation “Pursuit of Jappiness,” a parody of a song by rapper Kid Cudi, has racked up more than 275,000 views and proves that the word JAP still packs a punch; the video mocks the Jewish population at the University of Michigan with lines such as “When I say JAP, I don’t mean the Japanese, I mean the chicks taking pics at the frat parties, and the dudes at the Scarsdale driving range, new Beamer? Pssh, pocket change.” Lines like these create an automatic connection between Jews and money and also seek to prove the “otherness” of Jews in something as diverse as a university setting. Other stereotype-promoting instruments such as “The Official Jewish American Princess Home Page” website and the 2006 documentary Jewish American Princess still run rampant.

Ironically, post-war Jewish male writers first highlighted the concept of the JAP. Early examples can be found in Herman Wouk’s 1955 novel Marjorie Morningstar and Philip Roth’s 1959 novel Goodbye, Columbus, which featured overly indulged or  “princess-like” central characters.  The term began gaining popularity in the 1970s with the publication of several non-fiction pieces such as Barbara Meyer’s Cosmopolitan article “Sex and the Jewish Girl” and “The Persistence of the Jewish Princess,” a 1971 cover article in New York magazine by Julie Baumgold. The archetypal JAP has been described as “a sexually repressive, self-centered, materialistic and lazy female,” and as “spoiled, overly-concerned with appearance, and indifferent to sex”.

This is reflected in the Jewish American Princess Home Page, a website that introduces itself by saying, “Welcome to the unofficial open house of The Official Jewish American Princess Home Page! Come!  Sit! Help yourself to a warm bagel with a schmear of cream cheese and a nice glass of tea. Please excuse the dust and schmutz. These renovations are such a chore.” After this introduction, the website states, “You might be a Jewish American Princess if the only thing you know how to make for dinner is reservations.”

Other than the blatantly offensive nature of the term, the overall notion of attributing specific traits, qualities or preferences to a group of people renders JAP a brutal term—especially in light of the historical association between Jewish people and material wealth. From medieval times until recent history, Jews were barred from owning land and from various professions. In many cases, they were forced to be moneylenders, which kicked off the lingering stereotype of Jews with money.

JAP builds off of this legacy, reinforcing prejudices. What is really questionable is why we, individually and collectively, have become so complacent with the term being used on such a large scale. It is quite commonly used among young people in social settings; the term was even featured on a recent episode of Glee, a television show well known for promoting diversity and acceptance, proving that the word has thoroughly infiltrated popular culture.

It is commonly considered acceptable for a Jewish person to use the term—a ludicrous viewpoint, as JAP will always have the same meaning regardless of who says it. The identity of the speaker is immaterial when the word is used in a public forum. If we truly wish to become a progressive, accepting society, in which Jews receive the equal treatment they deserve, it is imperative to increase sensitivity towards the term JAP and other like expressions. It is unthinkable for a people who have suffered so greatly and overcome so much to allow—and often participate in—brutal discrimination in the land of the free.

NGOs Fail Palestinian Women at the UN

By Paula Kweskin

In April 2010, a 32-year-old woman was shot to death in a town in the northern Gaza Strip.  Several men, including her father, were arrested for the crime.  A year prior, a girl from a Palestinian village south of Qalqilya was smothered to death by her brother.  In 2005, a father murdered two of his daughters and badly injured a third for an alleged sexual affair.  In December 2008, two Palestinian girls were killed when militants’ rockets directed at Israel fell short of their targets.  Two years later, a teenage girl was injured in central Israel when Hamas militants fired rockets on her kibbutz.

Unfortunately, at the UN review of Israel’s compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in January, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) squandered the opportunity to give voice to these Palestinian and Israeli victims. Instead, they pursued a politicized, anti-Israel agenda, which excludes victims that do not fit an ideological paradigm.

In advance of the review, the Israeli government and various NGOs submitted statements for consideration regarding the women’s rights record in Israel.  NGOs and civil society actors could have highlighted discrepancies in the workplace, human trafficking, gender violence, and other obstacles facing women within Israel. (Israel asserts they are not responsible for the application of the Convention to the Palestinian Authority or Gaza, but some NGO submissions focused on these populations as well.) Notable submissions failed to mention these issues; others avoided an honest discourse on gender discrimination entirely.

One such joint NGO submission, co-authored by Palestinian NGOs Badil, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, and the Women’s Center for Legal Aid and Counseling, blames injustices suffered by Palestinian women on  Israeli “apartheid” and “occupation.”  These NGOs attribute violence against Palestinian women solely to settlers and Israeli security forces. In their distorted perspective, Israel’s security policies, not the local authorities charged with providing key services, are responsible for the lack of adequate healthcare for women in the Palestinian Authority.

Similarly, the NGOs claim, without evidence, that “cultural discrimination can also mean that girls are more likely to be withdrawn from school as a result of these [i.e. settler violence] incidents, with parents particularly fearful for the safety of their daughters.” More probable factors for students’ withdrawal, such as early marriage and societal obstacles to education, are ignored.

In a supplemental submission, Badil argues that “Israel’s repeated military incursions

characterized by the indiscriminate and excessive use of force” causes unemployment and poverty in the Palestinian Authority. The $3 billion in annual foreign aid to the PA, that could be used to improve the situation of women, is absent from Badil’s discussion.

Domestic violence was not discussed in the NGO submissions either. A 2005 survey revealed that over 60 percent of Palestinian women in the Gaza Strip and Palestinian Authority were psychologically abused by their husbands, 23 percent had been beaten, and 11 percent experienced some form of sexual violence.

So-called “honor” killings in the Palestinian Authority have increased in recent years and are treated with impunity.  According to a 1999 UNICEF report, two-thirds of all murders in the Palestinian Authority and Gaza are “honor” killings.  These crimes go unpunished and laws grant impunity to those who kill based on “family honor.” In interviews and press releases on their websites, the NGO authors have decried “honor” killings and the lack of legal protection for Palestinian women; yet they are silent when given a forum to address these problems before a UN committee.

By ignoring these realities, which do not conform to the narrative of Israeli violence and Palestinian victimization, these NGOs demonstrate that the advancement of Palestinian and Israeli women’s rights is not their aim. Rather, they hijack an international platform and the rhetoric of human rights to demonize Israel, using Palestinian women as pawns to advance a singular political agenda.  These groups have abandoned the women they purport to advocate for, and as such, have once again called into question the sincerity of their pursuit of universal human rights.

Paula Kweskin is a legal researcher at NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based research institution.

 

 

 

 

 

Jews Support Both Life and Choice

By Steven Philp

On Friday the House of Representatives passed a measure to suspend $330 million of Title X federal funding for Planned Parenthood on the grounds that tax dollars should not be granted to organizations that provide abortions. According to ABC News, votes were generally split along party lines: 240 to 185, with ten Democrats voting in favor of the bill and seven Republicans against. Debate concerning the measure was held the previous evening, including an emotional testimony by Representative Jackie Speier (D-CA) about her personal experience with abortion. Responding to a graphic depiction of the procedure by Representative Chris Smith (R-NJ), Speier explained that she had elected for an abortion at 17 weeks. She continued, “For you to stand on this floor and to suggest, as you have, that somehow this is a procedure that is either welcomed or done cavalierly or done without any thought is preposterous.” Speier then outlined how the removal of federal funding has little do with relieving the budget deficit, but rather is representative of a conservative vendetta against Planned Parenthood.

The author of the amendment, Representative Mike Pence (R-IN), argues that although the public supports legal abortions, they do not want to see their tax dollars pay for them. According to an article posted on Politico, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) agreed with Pence stating, “The time has come to respect the wishes of the majority of Americans who adamantly oppose using taxpayer dollars for abortions.” Cantor is the only Jewish Republican in the current congress. His views were echoed last month by Orthodox Rabbi Yehuda Levin, President of Jews for Morality and national spokesperson of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. In an interview with the New American given before participating in the anti-choice 38th Annual March for Life, he explained that “the traditional Jewish position on abortion is that the sanctity of the life of the unborn child and pregnant mother come first and foremost. Judaism does not sanction abortion on demand. In fact, abortion is forbidden in almost all circumstances.” At the rally he led the crowd in chanting “Defund Planned Parenthood!” He was joined by a number of religious leaders from across faith lines who oppose the use of tax dollars by organizations that perform abortions.

Yet the debate seems misplaced, as Planned Parenthood is prevented by law from using the $330 million it receives from the federal government for abortions. Instead these funds are funneled in to preventative health services including contraception, pregnancy screening and counseling, cancer screening, and HIV testing. This was touched upon by a letter sent to Congress by several branches of the Reform movement—including the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis—urging the House to vote against the amendment. Although the letter outlined the need to keep money spent on abortions apart from federal funding, it stated that “Jewish tradition is emphatic about the importance of the community providing health care for its most vulnerable residents. Supporting Planned Parenthood in its efforts to reach millions of under-served men and women helps us fulfill that commandment.” It is unfair to prevent Planned Parenthood from providing life-saving services on the grounds that the organization also allows for abortions, a non-federally funded and legal procedure. Whether one is pro-choice or anti-choice, Jews are pro-life: As the letter states, “all life is sacred in Judaism;” Planned Parenthood provides many essential services beyond this single procedure to millions of men and women each year. It should only make sense that Jews of all denominations “stand with Planned Parenthood.”

Yoo-hoo, Ms. Rivers!

by Amanda Walgrove

As she’d be the first to joke about, Joan Rivers has tough skin. While her 2010 documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, received mostly shining reviews, the film was snubbed during award season because it wasn’t “significantly relevant.” Rivers told the New York Times, “I thought it was about age, I thought it was about perseverance, I thought it was about courage, about getting up again, about women’s place in the world, and I think they’re wrong. I’m angry. Next time I’ll carry around a baby.” Since the ‘50’s when Rivers emerged in show business, she has found numerous ways to reapply herself and remain relevant. Even though the 77 year-old broad will not be added to this year’s list of Jewish Oscar nominees, retirement has never been a discussion.

The powerhouse comedienne has proven to be a resilient businesswoman in the entertainment industry. Bringing in the new year, she can be seen promoting her jewelry line on QVC, debunking wardrobe mishaps on Fashion Police, and touring her stand-up comedy routine, all while providing her own self-deprecating commentary on Twitter. Most recently, Rivers added a new project to her list: The WeTV reality show, Joan and Melissa Rivers: Joan Knows Best follows Joan as she uproots herself from her New York apartment and moves into Melissa’s Malibu home. Joan comes to stay with the intention of creating new memories with her daughter and grandson, but it doesn’t take long for her inner-overbearing Jewish mother and grandmother to emerge.

While the family dynamic and eclectic cast of characters is designed as a recipe for comedy, Joan Rivers will always be a one-woman show. Her strained relationship with Melissa provides ample material for churning out one-liners, packed with shock-value. Joan jests: “Melissa knows just how to push my buttons…which is great, until I’m on a respirator.” But Rivers has no problem meddling in her daughter’s affairs. As matriarch, she actually feels a certain entitlement to such interference. Bothered by the fact that Melissa hired the gorgeous, Swedish Dominica as a nanny for nine-year-old Cooper, Joan tries to take charge. After Melissa stands up for Dominica, Joan slyly dubs the well-endowed nanny, the “Hunchfront of Notre Dame” and personally takes her shopping for some more appropriate work attire.

A veteran in the business, Rivers has the impressive ability of keeping her comedy fresh and contemporary, but the familial conflict at the heart of Joan Knows Best is built on a strong history of Jewish humor. Whether her version of the Jewish mother is based on shtick or sincerity, Joan is indebted to her female forerunners, most notably Gertrude Berg.

Berg’s 1950’s sitcom, The Goldbergs, marked the small screen debut of the archetypal Jewish mother. Just as much of a force as Rivers, Berg was her own screenwriter and producer. She created a clothing line for housewives, published a cookbook, and wrote an advice column called Mama Talks. Like Rivers, Berg’s life produced a documentary, however, hers was posthumous. Aviva Kemper’s 2009 film Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, profiled the career and personal life of Gertrude Berg.

While the yiddishe mamme character of Molly Goldberg was an exaggerated caricature of Berg, many viewers related to the middle-class TV family. In The Paley Center’s film, Remembering Gertrude Berg, Gary David Goldberg recalled the verisimilitude of the show, stating that it was like watching a documentary. He then added, “Years later I remember watching Father Knows Best and thinking, ‘Who are these people? Nobody’s screaming!’” Here in 2011, with reality shows pervading television programming, viewers have their choice of nagging families to watch. New to the roster, Joan Knows Best serves up a combination of the formatted sitcom with plenty of impromptu screams.

Family members often accused the fictional Molly Goldberg of meddling in other people’s affairs, to which she replied, “Not mixing is not fixing.” After moving in, Joan decided to surprise Melissa by redecorating her entire living room against her will. Even though Joan was only trying to make her daughter happy, Melissa responded, “Next time you want to make me happy, let me know.” Joan chose not to acknowledge the few boundaries that existed between mother and daughter.

For a dramatic mother-daughter duo that is used to being in the spotlight, it must be easy to confuse shtick with reality. In the premiere episode, Joan gloats about her relationship with Melissa: “We’re very close. I always say we’re almost like mother and daughter.” Through the comedic portrayal of a Jewish mother, the fine line between the woman and the artist was also drawn thin while producing a sitcom. Berg once said that she played Molly for so many hours in the day that she didn’t know where Gertrude ended and Molly began.

Even though sitcoms are slowly being phased out by reality television, the universal humor of family conflict is alive and well. And so is the Jewish mother. As Joan said while redecorating Melissa’s living room: “Out with the old and in with the new. Except for me.”

Always a “Moment” Ahead of the Curve

One of the great things about Moment is that through its 36-year history, it has documented breaking trends in Jewish life with insight and forward-looking prowess.  Our last cover story, “A Woman Orthodox Rabbi?” made a splash in the Jewish community.  But a peek through our archives unveiled that Moment was ahead of the curve on the evolution of women in Orthodox Judaism.  Exactly 17 years ago, our cover story delved into the same issue, anticipating some of the breakthroughs that took nearly two decades to to come to fruition:

For your reading pleasure, InTheMoment is giving you exclusive access to this fascinating story from our archives, which is all the more enlightening in light of our last issue.  Enjoy!




Bridging the Gender Gap in Prayer – Sort Of

By Lily Hoffman Simon

The patriarchal tradition of Orthodox Judaism is being challenged all over the world. The recent controversy surrounding the ordainment of Sara Hurwitz as the first female Orthodox rabba (see Moment’s cover story) indicates the extent of this gender revolution. One recent development in the struggle is the birth of what are known as partnership minyans, which bring together males and females for synagogue services. Yet despite its progressive nature, its gender-equitable approach reinforces the presence of gender equality in orthodox circles.

A minyan in Jewish tradition refers to the number of Jewish adults necessary to conduct Jewish ritual, such as prayer or service. Traditionally, this quorum is set at 10 Jewish males of Bar-Mitzvah age. While Reform congregations and many Conservative ones tend to include women in this count, Orthodox Judaism has continued to restrict women from being included. As a result, women have been considered secondary in religious services, and are also restricted from performing other ritual tasks, such as reading from the Torah, or leading prayer. In Orthodox synagogues, and still in numerous Conservative communities, women and men sit in segregation from each other, separated by a mechitza. Often the women are seated on a balcony on second floor of a synagogue. The bima, or stage, of the service is usually placed on the male side of the mechitza, or downstairs, and as a result, women lack a clear view of, or ability to participate in, the service.

The inaccessibility facing women in a traditional Orthodox service has prompted a response by Orthodox feminists, especially through the work of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.  A solution proposed is what is called a ‘partnership minyan.’  This minyan necessitates 10 men and 10 women to be present in order to meet quorum, a development that acknowledges the importance of women while conforming with the halachic rule necessitating 10 men. Although services implementing this minyan are still gender segregated by a mechitza, the bima is usually centered before it, enabling clear sight of the service for both men and women. Women are allowed to read from the Torah, receive aliyot, and lead some parts of the prayer service.

By promoting gender equity in services, this development is a breakthrough for gender relations and representation in Orthodox Judaism.  Congregations using this model are springing up all over the US, and even in the old city of Jerusalem (like the Shira Hadasha congregation–see Moment’s interview with its founder, Tova Hartman). Much of the motivation behind these communities comes from the idea that hiding or silencing the voices representing community demographics is equivalent to lying before G-d, which is an abomination–especially during prayer. By extending the accessibility of service participation to women, partnership minyans are acknowledging traditional guidelines, yet adapting them to fit modern feminist and egalitarian principles, which are slowly infiltrating established practice of Judaism.

Although partnership minyans support gender equity both in representation and participation, they are still based on an assumed distinction between men and women. The continued use of a mechitza during services perpetuates the idea that the interaction between men and women during services is impure, leading to distracting sexual thoughts. This conception not only reinforces heterosexuality as the norm, but also tends to objectify the members of the opposite gender as merely sexual images; a concept usually applied more to women.  By reinforcing these ideas, men and women remain distinct from each other, and not necessarily equal. There is also no place for transgendered individuals (who identify as a different gender than their biological sex or do not identify with either side of the gender dichotomy) in this scheme (see Joy Ladin’s account about her transgendered experience at the Western Wall).

The remaining challenges beg the question of whether some streams of Orthodox Judaism are truly moving toward creating gender equality or simply reinforce traditional conceptions of gender. Partnership minyans represent one attempt to fundamentally shift the foundations of Orthodox patriarchy, by adapting Halacha to encourage gender equity. As our society’s conceptions of gender continues to change, patriarchal Orthodox institutions will face new and different challenges on its gender journey.