Straight Talk: My Dilemma As an Orthodox Jewish Woman

Thursday, March 11, 2004, I call author (Straight Talk: My Dilemma As an Orthodox Jewish Woman) Sally Berkovic in London. We're both from Australia.

Sally praises this recent article by Aussie ex-pat feminist Germaine Greer:

I love Australia with a fierce passion that churns my guts and makes my eyes burn with tears of rage and frustration. But I would rather not be there.

For the vast majority, life in Australia is neither urban nor rural but suburban. The reality is not Uluru or the Sydney Opera House but endless, ever-expanding replications of Ramsay Street that spread out as rapidly as oil stains on water, further and further from the tiny central business districts of the state capitals.

Each street has a nature strip; each bungalow faces the same way, has a backyard and a front garden, all fenced, low at the front, high at the back. Somewhere nearby there'll be a shopping centre with fast-food outlets and a supermarket.

The other great Australian passion is relaxation and I was even less interested in that. For me to be as good as I could be, I needed the pressure of competition, the intellectual cut and thrust, so I came to Cambridge (where, needless to say, I didn't find it, but that's another story).

The real reason I won't live in Australia, even when Britain has no further use for my services, is that I love the country too much. The pain of watching its relentless dilapidation by people too relaxed to give a damn is more than I can bear. I don't know how many of my fellow expatriates feel this way, but I'll bet some do.

Sally: "I thought it was a fantastic piece. I agreed with everything she said. I couldn't live in Australia now. I've moved on."

Sally will have spent eleven years in England in June. She also spent two years in America and two years in Israel. He rabbi husband Johnathan is English. "If we could afford on Central Park West [in Manhattan], we would do that."

Luke: "Is he as feminist as you?"

Sally: "Yeah. He's certainly supportive of all the women's issues that I'm concerned about. I think for a lot of women [their feminist concerns] create too much conflict in their family life and they give up because it is not worth the tension it creates."

Luke: "What do you most want from your three girls Jewishly?"

Sally: "I want them to have the same opportunities that boys have to explore their Judaism. I want them to be able to make an informed decision about the sort of Judaism they want to have. We bring them up Orthodox. We do send them to a school that teaches the girls Mishna [Oral Law traditionally studied only by men]. It labels itself Modern Orthodox Zionist. We don't do the hard sell of you must be frum [strictly religious]...

"Every Purim there is a group of women who do a Megillah Esther reading [traditionally only men would recite this before the congregation]. Last year, I took my girls. They said, 'Oh mommy, why don't you do it?' I said, 'Oh, it's not my sort of thing. I don't have a good voice. I haven't learned the trope [the musical notes for recitation]. But this year, I did one of the perakhim [portions]. I was excited by it. I only did it because they pushed me into it. They were so proud. They were telling everyone at school that I was doing it. They were singing along with me."

Luke: "If one of them became a Conservative rabbi, would you be more happy or sad?"

Sally: "That would be her choice."

I have to hold myself back from screaming down the phone, "I know it would be her choice. I didn't ask you if it would be her choice. I want to know how you would feel about her choice. Arrrr, I'm sick of people telling me, 'That would be his/her choice.' Sheesh, we live in such a nonjudgmental age, it is hard for me to get the sort of judgmental soundbytes I need to make a compelling interview.

"I'm not a moron. I know it is her choice. Sheesh, why won't women talk honestly about their feelings? Why is there more of the woman in me than in many women? I just want to reach out, shake you, and give you a hug."

Sally: "Part of me has this fantasy that one of them will be. Or an Orthodox rabbi. It's their choice."


Luke: "But it is your emotions. Which way would they go?"

Sally: "Umm, ahh?"

Luke: "You are going to have some emotional reaction if that happened."

Sally: "I can't predict. It's too cliche to say, 'I'd be proud of whatever she does.'"

Not as cliched as saying, 'It's her choice.'

Sally: "I'd like to think that I'd be proud of whatever she chose to do, and if that's what she chose to do, I'd support her. Whether I'd be happy about it or not, I don't know."

Luke: "Do you think you would be happy if she became Aish Ha Torah charedi?"

Sally: "I don't think you can answer these questions. Whatever lifestyle she chooses, I want her to be happy. I don't want her to become an unthinking person. If she thinks she's making an informed choice, that's fine. Better Aish Ha Torah than a drug addict."

Luke: "When you think of the charedi [fervently religious] world, do you think more warmly or negatively?"

Sally: "I think parts of it are terrific (kindness, community solidarity, support for each other, I'd guess it is unparalleled and in some ways it puts the modern Orthodox community to shame). On the other hand, the levels of poverty, particularly in the Israeli charedi community, that are encouraged by not enabling people to work properly, by not giving men and women a proper education to get decent jobs, I think that's criminal. What they believe in and practice is their choice. It's not my cup of tea. I don't want to be a Hasid where women eat in the kitchen and men eat in the living room."

Luke: "Do you yearn for all Jews to become Orthodox?"

Sally: "No. That's never entered my head."

Luke: "What were the consequences of publishing your book?"

Sally: "Different parts of the book touched different groups of women. One group of women in their 50s and 60s read the bit about [women saying] kaddish [prayer for the dead]... Traditionally in England, women don't go to the cemetery. In Australia and America, they do. So these older women read that part of my book and relived those issues.

"Another group laughed at the dating and singles lifestyle stuff. A few rabbis were encouraging and invited me to speak to their communities. A few rabbis stopped me coming to their communities [to speak]. That upset me but now I can laugh about it more."

Luke: "Did you lose any friends over the book?"

Sally: "My friends who weren't in the acknowledgments were really annoyed. No, I didn't lose any friends. I didn't gain any. My friends I've had from childhood were surprised I was so open because the one complaint they always had for me growing up was, 'You never tell us anything.' Then I got all these furious letters and phone calls. 'How come you tell the whole world everything and you never told us.'"

Luke: "How did your husband react to the book and its consequences?"

Sally: "He was proud of me. He's shy but enjoyed the attention. He was more angry about the rabbis who were against me than I was. He has spent time in the charedi world. He was angry about how narrow and petty it can be. He's very into live and let live. He's the most nonjudgmental person I know."

Luke: "Were there any common themes in the reviews of the book?"

Sally: "Everyone thought I was this angry woman. And why does she bother to remain Orthodox? They completely missed the point."

Sally gathers in fervor. "I'm not angry," she says angrily. "I'm a little bit frustrated and conflicted. I would never call myself angry. While parts of the Orthodox community annoy me, there's no other community where ritual is maintained as much. The Conservative movement in England, while they have excellent rabbonim, the majority of their community is not Sabbath observant. I need a community where we share rituals. I have individual relationships with people in the Conservative community. We're good friends. We're socially friendly with two of the Conservative rabbis."

Luke: "Is it OK for an ayshet chayil (woman of valor) to be angry?"

Sally laughs: "The ayshet chayil is pretty busy. She's out in the mornings early, up late at night [working and taking care of her family]. It's fine to be angry. It depends on what you do with that anger. How did the book read to you?"

Luke: "Certain parts I enjoyed tremendously, such as your stuff on dating and your critique of Baal Teshuva [returnees to tradition] movement. It was like an Orthodox version of Sex in the City."

Sally: "I think the best part of my book was my critique of the BT yeshivot [Orthodox outreach organizations such as Aish HaTorah that specialize in bringing secular Jews into Orthodoxy]. People in kiruv [outreach] were upset by that. I replied, 'It's true to me. That's the way I see it.' I was proud of that bit. It encapsulated what I had been thinking for many years."

Luke: "I don't have an ideological stake in most of the disputes within Judaism. As long as someone can laugh, I can get along with them. I would never lead out in Jewish religious life. I prefer to observe. Some of the petty obsessions of Orthodox life make people like me give up on getting involved. It's too much bother. Let me participate in those arenas (such as Los Angeles journalism life) where I can give my all and not be nitpicked to death.

"Were you encouraged by the JOFA conference [Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance in February in New York]?"

Sally: "I was. I hadn't been in New York for six years. To go and be with a thousand people who don't think you're crazy for being interested in those issues. In terms of what was covered, I didn't feel it was ground-shattering. There was a session on sexual abuse by rabbis and community leaders. [Los Angeles has seen three Orthodox rabbis charged with sexually molesting kids within a one year span this millennia.] Rabbi Yosef Blau and two others spoke and how the Orthodox rabbis have a responsibility to deal with this. And we haven't dealt with it as well as we should've in the past and we're making amends. That was groundbreaking, just to get it on the table."

Traditionally, Orthodox Judaism and other insular groups including the Roman Catholic Church have dealt with these problems by covering them up rather than publicly admitting a problem.

Sally: "Another topic was mikveh and sexual desire. They showed the movie T'ahara [women who bathe in a special place a few days after the end of their menstrual flow before returning to their husbands to make love]. For two days you are in this bubble where this is all you talk about and you can't believe that other people aren't as passionately interested as you are."

Luke: "How often do you read Jewish journalism that is passionately interesting?"

Sally: "I find the features in the Forward interesting. I think that's the best of Jewish journalism. And the English version of Haaretz. The Jerusalem Post is weak. There isn't a huge amount.

"I've been doing less journalism. Things I'd like to write about such as corruption in the Beth Din [Jewish Law Courts]... I know it would be so difficult to get access. And the backlash. And is it really worth it? Am I willing to do it and who's going to pay me for it? Jewish journalism just doesn't pay. No matter how much money you're going to make it, who's going to print it? The Jewish Chronicle in London may print a little bit..."

Luke: "Have you had experiences of having good stories that you couldn't get printed in the Jewish press?"

Sally: "Not really. I've been pretty lame. I haven't been an investigative journalist. I've done a lot of soft features."

Luke: "Are there many feminist-friendly Orthodox shuls in England?"

Sally: "Not really. There's one Orthodox shul in London where they pass the Torah through the women's section but it is pretty marginal. It's considered fringe."

Fear Of The 'F' Word In Orthodox Judaism

Sally Berkovics writes in the Jerusalem Post:

Fear of the 'F' word in Orthodox circles often sends the community into collective apoplexy. While it may be psychologically convenient to dismiss feminism as the work of a few angry women, its reverberations are irreversible and profound.

For over a decade, the agenda of Orthodox feminists has focused on increasing participation of women in ritual life, developing opportunities for advanced Talmud study, and advocating change on the aguna issue (women unable to receive a divorce from their husbands). These changes have impacted on the nature of family life, the structure of communal institutions, the modern Orthodox rabbinate, and the ultra-Orthodox community secretly watching with intense curiosity from the sidelines.

At last week's Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) conference in New York, the stakes were raised even higher as issues addressing communal structures, rather than just personal fulfillment, were discussed.

Of the myriad topics raised, there are three in particular which are dangerously naive to ignore: There must be an acknowledgement of sexual, emotional and physical abuse by Orthodox rabbis, teachers and youth leaders, even if these comprise a minority. It's not a pleasant topic, nor one that makes an organization popular, but unless those in positions of power know that their inappropriate behavior will not be tolerated they will continue to abuse their positions for personal gain.

At least three traditional mechanisms have been misused to silence victims: directives against lashon hara (malicious gossip), the principle of mesira (not turning someone over to the civil authorities) and hilul Hashem (desecrating God's name) or, more simply put, what will the non-Jews say?

As long as the community perpetuates a damaging myth of perfection by denying these problems, abuse will continue.

The writer is author of Straight Talk: My Dilemmas as an Orthodox Woman. The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance website is www.jofa.org

Returning To Tradition

Sally Berkovic writes in her book Straight Talk:

So [in the 1970s in Jerusalem] a small team of highly charismatic rabbis positioned themselves at the Western Wall, the central bus station, and other popular tourist spots. They approached young men with backpacks who looked aimless and in need of a good meal. They challenged them: "You haven't seen the real Israel until you have had a Friday-night dinner or gone to a Torah class." Innocent recruits were offered a place to sleep for the night and a chance to attend some thought-provoking lectures about the wisdom of the Torah. Many young men found a spiritual home and cashed in their tickets to India.

The rabbis quickly realized that these wandering Jews craved the structure and discipline that religion could provide. It seemed that many of their emotional and psychological needs were chronically unmet by their families, and the hand-picked models of Orthodox homes allowed the young men to acknowledge these emotional gaps in their lives. An unspoken contractual obligation developed: we, members of the Orthodox community, will look after you, teach you, nurture your soul and provide the mystical dimension to life that you are looking for. In return, you will agree to live by the Orthodox laws of Judaism. You will study the ancient texts regularly, only eat kosher food, and observe the Sabbath.

[LF: This is exactly how and why I entered and and was ejected from various forms of charedi Orthodox outreach. The Modern Orthodox make only feeble efforts at proselytizing. It was painful to me that these warm loving pious Orthodox homes I encountered only cared about me to the extent that I would become Orthodox. These beautiful loving recruiting pious Jews had no interest in non-Orthodox Jews (except for proselytizing) and non-Jews. They were just like many Christians I have known who saw others as fodder for Christ.]

The young men were sent to various families to experience an "authentic" Shabbat, and slowly encouraged to adopt the clothing of the Orthodox. Somber suits started to replace their jeans, and as Bobby became Benzion, Paul became Pinchas and Michael become Moshe, their external features began to make them indistinguishable from the next Orthodox Jew.

But there was a missing ingredient to this new Jewish world order: the women. Only marriage would finally secure these newly-Orthodox men in the community. Tremendous social status is attached to being married, so this would help boost their egos and self-esteem. But where would these men find suitable partners? Very quickly the men discovered the painful reality that few of the ultra-Orthodox families would sacrifice their daughters to these men. Their daughters would have to marry people of their own kind. The BT [Baal Teshuva, returnee to Orthodox Judaism] is held accountable for the sins of his parents. A divorce in the family or a conversion without the proper authority was enough to sully him - not to speak of past affairs with non-Jewish women. Ultimately, a religious family wants its daughters to marry virgins, and there was no guarantee that these young men, no matter how much they repented the past, had not tasted the pleasures of the flesh.

While being a good person is an important ethical imperative in herent in the Jewish religion, for the BT women, this translates into expecting women to adopt a demure and deferential role. [BT yeshivot produced] a stream of women with the values necessary to forge generations of submissive Jewish women, ready to take out the rubbish bins and whistle while they worked.

I knew one person who was too enmeshed in the Orthodox world to make a quick clean break. He had also inherited the mannerisms and demeanor of a yeshivah bocher (student): the spotless whit ehands, gaunt body, social awkwardness, downcast eyes, general ill-defined twitching, yeshivish speech - an English sprinkled with Yiddish words and rabbinic aphorisms which sounded like a coded langugage.

The average kid just gets shunted through the [BT] system and few people bother to notice she's there. The "naughty" kids, those that refuse to become frum and refuse to take on the religious expectations, receive lot sof strategic attention from rabbis who begin to take a personal interest in them, making them feel extremely wanted and reassured. Those who become very frum (religious) and models of pious return to their Jewish heritage, are rewarded with adulation from the staff and reverence from the other girls for their commitment. They might even get offered a husband which is the supreme accolade.

...[M]any women put on large amounts of weight as they become religious. In their new, fairly guarded community, some women will fill themselves with food precisely because they cannot get physical comfort.

The most insidious teachers are the pretty ones, tilting their heads seductively with their gorgeous wigs firmly in place, their lilting voices bringing in lots of references to the Christian church to demonstrate their worldliness. The teachers with a university degree were at pains to make sure we knew they had a degree, and a couple of professors from Ivy League universities were regularly trotted out to show how you can be Orthodox, intellectual and really part of the modern world.

I am particularly annoyed when these same people profess that they don't value the secular world, but it is the secular world which gave them their titles which they use to gain credibility. I recently heard one Orthodox woman psychologist with a PhD give a lecture, and, in response to a question about women rabbis, she said that women who want the title of "rabbi" are being petty and seeking status. Let';s have a bit of honesty here: she was introduced as Dr X. It's clear how she likes to be known.

...[T]he couple with professional degrees and interesting jobs are paraded around for the benefit of the career women in the student population. These students often fear that becoming religious will force them out of their careers, so the schools find dual-professional families that prove the religious lifestyle does not impinge upon the woman's self-fulfillment.

I observed a manipulative streak in the forging of relationships between the students and the large families. If you are "special" enough to be selected to visit one of the rabbis' families, there is an extra price to pay. Rabbis who work at a school for young women recognize the potential to recruit able helpers for their wives. The rabbis seduce the students, not with kisses or God forbid, any hint of sex, but rather with words of gratitude, and offers of becoming a valued member of their extended family.

I have heard of instances...where girls were sent to the rabbis' homes to help their wives clean the house for Passover. This basically involves purging the home of any crumb of bread, and any other trace of leavened goods. It is dressed up as "good works," or "learning first-hand what a Jewish home is all about," but essentially it is cheap domestic labour.

[About the National Jewish Outreach Program run by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald:] These shock tactics are cheap and, once again, I found it disturbing tha tthe BT movement relies on the infantilization of the returnee. It creates a dependency on people in authority, who will always know more than the returnee and will use this knowledge to undermine any attempt at an individualistic expression of Jewish belief.

...[M]ost of the organizers had an air of moral superiority. They almost felt sorry for people who were not religious.

The world was divided into "us" - safe, reliable, trustworthy, and "them" - uneducated, vulnerable and ripe for the picking. People were either religious, or "not yet" religious. Relationships were not genuine or equal, rather they were fostered with this ulterior motive.

One woman confessed that her husband was not so keen on her coming [to Sally Berkovic's book club], "You are always so aggressive in bed when you come home from that book club."

Jewish Women - Cleaning Is A Mitzvah!

From a house mother an Orthodox seminary for girls: "You have to think of cleaning the floor as a mitzvah [divine commandment] - as you get ready for Shabbat on a Friday afternoon - don't think of it as a chore - think about what a holy task you are doing to welcome the Sabbath Queen.

"Girls, when you marry, do not distract your husband from the saintly task of learning - take out the rubbish bins yourself - for him, it is bittel zman [time taken from study of Torah]."

I had a girlfriend in 1993 who would do the cleaning and other chores for me so I could concentrate on learning Torah and writing my autobiography.

Orthodox Chicks Waiting To Be Dominated

Sally Berkovic writes: "While I lived in New York, I witnessed the thousands of yuppie Orthodox men and women who over-populate the streets of the Upper West Side of Manhattan after synagogue services on the Sabbath morning. The synagogue is the hottest dating scene, where the only rule is "remember the girl's phone number," as you cannot write on the Sabbath. The women look seductive - the collars of their shirts are lacy and demure, the soothing pink or coral lipstick is designed to lasso the man's interest, and as they nod their tilted heads at appropriate ten-second intervals, they can make that man feel special and desired. Many women dress in clothes designed to infantilize them - bright colors, short skirts and garish make-up. Some say it is the New York look, but I think it is about acting in a childish mode, dressing in ways that will emphasize their willingness to be dominated and treated like a child."

Orthodoxy Is Psychologically Compelling

There is a level at which being Orthodox in the modern world is psychologically compelling becaues it sets up almost impossible contradictions. I enjoy being on the margin and this feeling of straddling two worlds and being forced to reconcile 'real life' with a tradition that has endured for three thousand years is very challenging. (Sally Berkovic)

Could I Become The Bertha Pappenheim Of The 21st Century?

Sitting in shul shabbos morning, I read Sally Berkovic's provocative book Straight Talk: My Dilemma as a Modern Orthodox Jewish Woman. Nobody looks at me funny for reading a book in shul.

Shul is not like church. It's longer and more informal. On shabbos mornings, shul goes three hours. On festivals, it can go five hours.

From the inside back flap of the book: "Sally Berkovic grew up in Melbourne and has lived in Jerusalem and New York. She is currently back in Australia, with her husband - an Orthodox rabbi - and two daughters. She is a journalist and social worker... She almost always wears a hat."

I found out about Bertha Pappenheim, an Orthodox woman from the turn of the century. Sally writes:

...Pappenheim...dedicated her later life to the abolishment of white slavery and the rampant Jewish prostitution which was such a dominant social problem for world Jewry in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Bertha Pappenheim was deeply disturbed by the news that Jews were active in the white slave traffic. Young girls were being sent abroad, often unwittingly by their parents who believed their daughters would face a better future away from the poverty and pogroms that gripped Eastern Europe. They arrived clueless in countries such as Turkey, Greece and South America where well-organised gangs of pimps preyed on vulnerable women who eventually submitted to prostitution.

In 1907, Pappenheim founded Isenburg, a home which became the first place on the continent where "endangered and morally sick" Jewish girls and unmarried mothers with illegitimate children could find acceptance and care.

[Bertha's]...best known work is Sisyphus Arbeit (Sisyphus Work), published under real name, which documents the extent of Jewish prostitution she uncovered in her travels during 1911 and 1912. Amongst other diary entries, she notes a visit to a hospital for venereal disease in Budapest where all the patients were prostitutes and one third of them were Jewish. In Alexandria, Greek and Jewish prostitutes dominated the market, while in one Rumanian port four of the seven brothels were owned by Jews. In Constantinople, she recorded almost all of the traffickers, and approximately ninety per cent of the prostitutes were Jewish. One rabbi in Constantinople admitted that there was a synagogue where the prostitutes donated money so that their pimps could receive the honor of saying a blessing on the Torah.

The JFB was hampered by many rabbinical leaders who refused to acknowledge the extent of the problem (although some were actively sympathetic), and the Jewish press who were reluctant to cover the issue extensively for fear of aggravating the growing anti-Semitism in Germany.

[Pappeneheim]...considered prostitution partly as a result of the low status of women in the Jewish religion. It was not enough, they argued, to be revered as mothers and wives, Jewish women must be appreciated as individuals... The JFB [suggested] that the sexist bias of Jewish divorce laws contributed to the white slavery problem.

Bertha Pappenheim's psychoanalytic biographers have explained her interest in prostitution as a great act of sublimation. Little is known of any romantic or sexual relationships and it has been argued that her conflicts as a young woman arose from a wish to possess her father or become a prostitute, or both.