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You’ve come a long way, baby

But women still have far to go

 
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Photos courtesy gloriasteinem.com

With feminist icon Gloria Steinem coming to town, The Jewish Standard reached out to area women in politics, business, and Jewish communal service. Here, each of them weighs in on women’s issues.

Now 76, Gloria Steinem has had second thoughts about posing as a Playboy bunny in 1963.

“I never should have done it,” said Steinem, who will speak in Teaneck on Sept. 21 for the National Council of Jewish Women.

An investigative journalist at the time, she became a bunny for several weeks to research the working conditions of the costume-clad women, chronicling her findings in a two-part series in Show magazine.

While the adventure put a temporary damper on her professional life — “I was taken less seriously as a writer,” she told The Jewish Standard — it nevertheless cemented her reputation as a champion of women’s rights.

Steinem said she is frequently invited to speak to Jewish groups. The writer, lecturer, and activist chalks that up to having shared values.

“I hate to generalize,” she said, “but with that proviso, I think the emphasis on social justice … has probably created a situation where Jewish women may be disproportionately represented in the women’s movement.”

Still, she added, as with all women, the amount of discrimination faced by Jewish women “depends on the part of the Jewish community they’re coming from.”

Gloria Steinem will speak at the opening meeting of the National Council of Jewish Women, Bergen County Section on Sept. 21. The event will take place at 12:30 p.m. at Temple Emeth, 1666 Windsor Road, Teaneck. For more information, call the NCJWBCS office at (201) 385-4847 or visit the website, www.ncjwbcs.org.

At the NCJW Bergen County Section’s opening meeting of the year, Steinem will speak about the role of religion in women’s lives. Particularly, she said, “the extent to which religion has not been equal to spirituality, which emphasizes internal authority.”

She will also talk about “one part of history that has not fully come out — the experience of Jewish women in the Holocaust and the entirely female concentration camp, Ravensbrück.”

The mistreatment and sexual exploitation of Jewish women has not been written about sufficiently, she said.

“What we need to understand is that the sexual exploitation of women is an inevitable part of genocide. If we had understood that and had the information about this during the Holocaust, we might have been prepared for Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur.”

Steinem, who has been active in feminist and social justice causes since the mid-1950s, will also encourage attendees at the Sept. 21 meeting to learn more about their own family history.

“I have found in my own experience that the feminists in our own families are often unknown to us,” she said.

Raised in Toledo, Ohio, she was always proud of her grandmother, Pauline Perlmutter Steinem, known to her as a progressive educator in the Toledo community.

“But they didn’t tell me she was a suffragist who addressed Congress,” said Steinem. “It’s interesting for each of us to look back at our own foremothers.”

She added that one of the things she has most appreciated about feminist seders is the practice of recognizing one’s foremothers and asking questions that reflect their experience.

For example, she said, “We ask, why were our foremothers sad on this night?” The answer? “Because they could prepare the feast but not participate in the ceremony.”

Despite gains made by women over the years, much remains unequal, said Steinem, adding that she will know that women have achieved full equality “when I go to Central Park and see black babies being cared for by white men who are well-paid; when I see erotica instead of pornography; and when I see more fathers who are involved in caring for and nurturing their children.”

The major obstacle to this scenario, she said, “are the systems of male dominance; the idea of a hierarchy — being born into a group where one group eats while the other cooks.”

She acknowledged that the word “feminism” has encountered some resistance, but suggested that those who are troubled by it “look it up in the dictionary.” (The American Heritage College Dictionary, for one, defines feminism as “Belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.”)

“The main problem,” she said, “is that the word has been demonized” by people such as Rush Limbaugh. “But more women consider themselves feminist than Republican.”

“You can’t have democracy without feminism.”

Steinem said young women today are not less feminist but are simply angered by different issues than were women of the last generation.

“They’re mad on the basis of what inequality they experience,” she said. For example, they may be upset about “no sex education in the schools, birth control not paid for by insurance, or pharmacists not filling their prescriptions.”

Often referred to as the poster child for the women’s rights movement, Steinem agreed that there are no longer recognizable feminist superstars.

“We all knew each other then because there were so few of us,” she said, explaining her celebrity. “Now there are many more,” including leading members of Congress. “We’re not as isolated.”

As for the term “post-feminist,” she called it “an invention of The New York Times.”

“It means they’re trying to declare it over. There are two stages of resistance. The first one is saying that something is not necessary — that it goes against nature. The second is to say it used to be necessary. Time magazine has said we were dead 27 times.”

Her own involvement in feminist issues was spurred by “being born female,” she said. Discriminated against as a journalist — “not given important political assignments even when I was more qualified,” being relegated instead to clothing, food, and fashions — she soon learned the value of sharing her experiences with other women, who were going through the same marginalization.

The activist still spends a third of her time on the road as an organizer and lecturer. In addition, she remains actively involved with the Women’s Media Center, co-founded in 2005 with writers/activists and Robin Morgan. According to its website, the group works with the media “to ensure that women’s stories are told and women’s voices are heard.”

A co-founder of Ms. Magazine, which she describes as “still the only national magazine owned and controlled by women,” Steinem said the journal is important because it covers issues “you can’t find anywhere else. It covers connections.” For example, she said, “You can exactly predict the degree of militarism [in a society] by the degree of child abuse. We don’t disconnect the human experience.”

The media are important, she stressed, because “what we see in the media shapes what we think is normal or possible.”

She’s particularly troubled by the media’s role in sexualizing women and in linking young girls’ self-esteem with physical appearance. While the Women’s Media Center has initiated a project to address this problem, Steinem said others can take action by boycotting offensive media outlets as well as their sponsors.

“We can speak out against it, and we can use it to educate,” she said. “I don’t think you can say, ‘Don’t play with a Barbie doll,’” but you can show a young girl that in real life, the doll can’t even stand up.”

She believes that some things have definitely improved. Pointing to “the power of naming,” she noted that “domestic violence,” “sexual harassment,” “reproductive rights,” and other such terms “are all new words” that have succeeded in raising awareness of these issues.

She also credits now Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with “changing women’s ideas,” allowing them to conceive of a female president.

“I didn’t think she could win [the presidency], but she won in the sense of allowing people to imagine,” said Steinem.

What does she tell young girls today?

“I tell them to trust their own instincts and feelings; to do what they love; to look for the wisdom already inside them.”

While much remains to be done, Steinem calls herself an optimist. “Hope is the way we plan, look forward,” she said. “It’s important to be hopeful.”

 

More on: You’ve come a long way, baby

 
 
 

Women’s work

Barbara Kaufman, former president and now program chair of the National Council Section that will host Gloria Steinem Sept. 21, said the group is “always interested in finding speakers who share the same point of view we do — pro-women, pro-children, pro-families.”

She pointed out that the Bergen County Section, with some 1,200 members, is one of the largest contingents in the 100,000-member national volunteer organization.

 
 

‘Jewish woman to watch’ tells how she succeeded in business

Yanina Fleysher, named by Jewish Women International in December as one of 10 “Jewish Women to Watch,” came to the United States from Moldavia, then in the Soviet Union, when she was 12. Today, at 43, she runs a thriving custom-jewelry business based in Cedar Grove and was recognized in National Jeweler magazine last year as America’s best jeweler in the couture category.

How she got her start is a little bit sad and a little bit funny.

 
 

Women heads of Jewish federations

Ruth Cole, the president of the State Association of Jewish Federations, supplied the following information:

• There are two female executive directors, out of 12, of Jewish federations in New Jersey — Gerri Bamira of the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County and Diane Naar of the Jewish Federation of Somerset, Hunterdon, and Warren Counties.

• In the country, there are 54 female executive directors out of 157. This number reflects the fact that there are, in some cases, acting co-executive directors. For example, in Washington, D.C. there is a female acting executive director.

• If the numbers are broken down by city size, the statistics are as follows:

 
 

The concrete ceiling

Women in Jewish communal life

After some 23 years in Jewish communal service, Judy Beck would still encourage young women to enter the field.

“I would tell them it’s a fantastic career,” said Beck, former director of the Synagogue Leadership Initiative of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey. “But I’d also say it’s not really a field that will lead them to a top position in an agency.”

In fact, said Beck, while she hopes that the young women she’s mentored over the years would be the leaders of the future, “I don’t know if they’ll be able to.”

 
 
 
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Stay tuned for the return of comments

 

Jersey City Boy

Mayor Steven Fulop tells his story — and his immigrant parents schep naches

The story of the new mayor of Jersey City is a goulash — a rich, highly seasoned, aromatic stew, full of disparate ingredients that somehow blend together.

This variant is kosher.

And for added authenticity, it’s Hungarian.

Steven Fulop’s story is both as deeply American and as fully Jewish as one person’s story could be — it is our own 21st-century version of the great American dream.

Cooking alongside it is the story of Jersey City, the state’s second largest, with a century-long history of corruption and bossism that Mr. Fulop is well positioned to turn around.

Mr. Fulop’s story starts with his grandparents. All four were born in Transylvania, the heavily wooded, mountainous, lushly beautiful region that has changed hands between Hungary and Romania. As this story begins, it still was part of Hungary. World War II came late there; his mother’s parents, the Kohns, were taken from the ghetto toward its end. His grandfather, Alexander, went to a transit camp, and his grandmother, Rosa, was on one of the last transports to Auschwitz in April 1944.

Her story is so painful that when her son-in-law, Arthur Fulop, tells it, his eyes fill, even though it is a story he has been telling for decades.

 

Take my kidney. Please…

Local cantor is living donor for beloved congregant

It’s fairly easy to say “I hope you feel better” to a sick friend.

It’s much harder to put your kidney where your mouth is, but Cantor Eric Wasser of the Fair Lawn Jewish Center did.

On February 19, he donated a kidney to his friend, Harvey Jaffee of Garfield.

Mr. Jaffee was in what his doctors “were starting to call end-stage kidney failure,” he reported. He now has a functioning kidney and will be able to resume his life, and Cantor Wasser will be able to return to his. Both, they say, feel enriched and ennobled (if temporarily weakened) by the experience.

Mr. Jaffee’s kidneys had been failing for some time, and he had trekked from doctor to doctor as he tried to get on the registry for a transplant. The screening process is extraordinarily thorough. “It’s one of the most daunting things in the world,” he said. “They send you to doctor after doctor, to check every orifice you have — and some that you don’t. Sometimes I was seeing four or five doctors a week.

 

Women and tefillin

May women wear tefillin?

A Teaneck rabbi should have died rather than permitting two female students to wear tefillin at the Orthodox yeshiva high school he heads, according to a new responsum issued this month by Yeshiva University’s leading authority of Jewish law and posted on the Rabbinical Council of America’s website. At issue was a decision by Rabbi Naftali Harcsztark, principal of the SAR High School in Riverdale, N.Y. The students, one of whom is from Bergen County, come from Conservative families.

In his Hebrew-language letter opposing Rabbi Harcsztark’s decision, Rabbi Herschel Schachter, who serves as one of two halachic advisors for the Orthodox Union’s kashrut division, said that because of Orthodoxy’s conflict with the “heretical” Conservative and Reform movements, such changes to traditional Orthodox practice must be resisted as strongly as were the anti-Jewish decrees of King Antiochus.

 

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The case of the family tree

Local rabbi solves genealogical mystery

Move over Sherlock Holmes. There’s some pretty good detective work going on right here in Bergen County.

Putting together clues and puzzle-like pieces of information, Rabbi Benjamin Shull has solved what he jokingly refers to as his “semi-obsession” — the search for more branches on his family tree.

In the process, he has discovered previously unknown relatives, uncovered a direct link to a renowned Lithuanian rabbi and Musar activist, and come into possession of a beautiful, illuminated honest-to-goodness family tree.

Rabbi Shull, the religious leader of Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake, has written a memoir, “Uprooted,” detailing his journey.

His story begins in the early 1990s, at the cemetery in Philadelphia where his father’s family is buried.

 

The little house in the big woods

Artist’s family remembers growing up in Fort Lee

The three children grew up in the middle of the woods.

There were acres of land all around the house; waterfalls tumbled from the rocky hills and splashed down in their rush toward the mighty color-shifting river far below. There were trees to climb, trails to blaze, rocks to scale. For half of the year, glorious canopies of trees shaded their view; when the leaves fell, the children could see the river, and the ships that steamed silently upriver to unload and then headed back south again, out to sea.

It was a perfect pastoral scene, the backdrop for a bucolic 19th-century childhood.

Then pull the camera back a bit. You’ll see that the river is the Hudson, the time the second half of the 20th century, and the town is Fort Lee.

 

The essence is to wake us all up

Ikar founder Rabbi Sharon Brous and local leaders talk about building a living Jewish community

Rabbi Sharon Brous radiates intensely concentrated passionate hummingbird energy in almost tactile waves.

It is hard to imagine how anyone could have done what she did — created and maintained a Jewish community that has grown wildly, attracted devoted members, brought disaffected Jews back to Judaism, juggled the tensions between tradition, innovation, accessibility, and fidelity — but once you meet her, you can see that if anyone could have undertaken that impossible-sounding feat, it would have to be her.

Ikar, the Los Angeles synagogue that Rabbi Brous imagined and shaped 10 years ago, is now a 580-plus family shul, with a 150-child preschool, a multigenerational membership, and a growing future. Rabbi Brous has garnered so much recognition and so many awards almost off-handedly — on the Forward’s 50 most influential Jews for years! On Newsweek’s Top 50 rabbis list for years, once as number one! Giving the benediction at Barack Obama’s second inauguration! — that it is hard to realize that she is only 41.

 
 
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