Tags: feminism


A1 Soferim – Good Reports

I get emails like this on average twice a month:

If you have advice about what I should do with my ancient tefillin, that would be great. They were my great-grandfather’s and I would love to use them, but they are tiny, and the man I talked to at [Big Judaica Store] told me that it was likely the parchment would no longer be kosher and that there would be no way to replace it.

Memento of relative – check. Tiny tefillin – check. Female owner – check. Discouraging story from Big Judaica Store – check. General despondency – check.

So I say, go to A1 Soferim – Aharon Lichter, 212-254-1400, 473 FDR Drive on Grand St, New York, New York.

Last week’s email:

Mr Lichter is a total mensch! Not only did he check the tefilin, but he showed me everything he was doing on them and all sorts of other stuff he had around. It was fascinating. Even I could see that the writing was beautiful and not faded, & he said they were easy to check and kosher for another 50 years. I’ve had them for over a decade, but I never really thought about the sofer who wrote the words, or who selected this particular set (my great-great grandfather? Mr Lichter was nice to say that though the batim are not the best quality, the writing is so good that they must not have been cheap), or who wore them, or their trip over from Europe. It was pretty awe-inducing.

This week’s email:

I wanted to send you back a glowing report about Aharon Lichter. He was incredibly polite and kind to me, and I was so appreciative of it. While I was waiting as he checked the tefillin he was telling me all kinds of great stories and anecdotes about being a sofer. He really was wonderful. Thank you so, so much for the recommendation!

So – Aharon Lichter. Earning a reputation as a Man Ladies can Take Their Tefillin To. Glad to hear it.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.


Awww, how sweet.

The Women’s Torah Project peeps sent me a pretty pretty certificate honouring me as one of the Sisters of the Torah, “dedicated to the discovery of ancient roots and the creation of powerful futures.”

Isn’t that sweet and generous of them? As I think I’ve said before, the project organisers really are rather a special bunch. What lovies.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.


Feathers, we use them to fly

Jen and Julie, quill-wearing soferot

I’ve mentioned, from time to time, my student Julie.

Julie came to meet me one day in Manhattan a couple years ago, looking oh-so-very timid. I recognise the look; it’s the one I wear when I’m in the presence of a Great Brain, where I cannot quite believe my own temerity in bothering the August Personage with my vastly trivial affairs. Except of course I do not expect people to wear that look around me, so I made haste to be as friendly and lovely as I possibly could.

Once she realised I don’t bite, she worked hard as hard, and just shot ahead. You could see her progress from week to week, and she’s got a rare head for halakha as well. She even enjoyed learning the really hard parts with me, the bits that I’ve never learned with anyone before because they’re so convoluted it takes a particularly clear head to get through them.

That was a treat for me, an absolute treat – but Julie’s also an incredible feminist; she insisted on paying me for lessons even though I was probably getting as much out of them as she was half the time. In so doing she taught me some very important things about how getting paid and feminism interrelate.

So it was my utter pleasure to receive a phonecall a while back from the Contemporary Jewish Museum of San Francisco, who were looking for a scribe for a rather exciting exhibition, because I could recommend Julie most wholeheartedly.

And actually it’s rather lovely; people I know vaguely keep coming up to me – at shul or in the supermarket or wherever – and going “I was in San Francisco last month and…” and they tell me about how they saw Julie and how super she was, and I get to go “squee bounce I know!!!”

And she’s working her way through the Torah, slow and steady, just as you might expect; and I hear great things about how she gives presentations and talks to people and explains everything ever so clearly and nicely. All good.

So why this post today?

Because today I’m helping her and her NEXT employer write a contract, and there’s a certain bittersweet feeling when you wouldn’t have minded being in further negotiations with that project yourself! But this is the true success – when your students become your colleagues, your equals, your competition. And that is, ultimately, wholly sweet.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.


La vie soferet – fun and games at the NYPL

The New York Public Library is having an exhibition this winter, about Three Faiths And Manuscripts, or some such. Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, and their various adventures with calligraphy.

I’d link you to the relevant Library page, but the exhibition is not on the website yet, not even under “Upcoming.”

Anyway, part of the exhibition is going to be films of various calligraphers doing their various calligraphic things, and one of the calligraphers is me.

The Library is this gigantic building on 42nd St. I got out of the train at Times Square and walked across town, because I don’t do that very often and it’s sort of picturesque, in a startling kind of way. It was chucking it down with a) rain b) tourists; I contemplated taking pictures of both, but I was running a little late, so I got you that image from Wikimedia instead, and you’ll have to fill in the rain and the tourists from your imagination.

We were working in a large panelled room with large panelled doors and a large marble doorway and a lot of fancy-pants lights, some part of the museum’s setup and some part of the photographer’s kit. He was the best sort of photographer, the kind that just films and lets you get on with writing. The annoying kind keep going “Can you do that again? -Can you dip the pen again? Now can you kind of hold it like that?”. I don’t take that sort of direction while I’m writing any more; either you let me write, or I do something fake, but you don’t get to tell me how you think me doing writing should look, because that messes up the writing, and I decided some time ago that my priority is always my work and never the camera – but I didn’t have to explain that to this chap, which was a treat and a half.

The Library were most emphatic that if they had to have a lady scribe, she had to be doing something politically acceptable, so that orthodox visitors wouldn’t freak out. Personally I think that once you have a Reform scribe in your video (which they do) you’ve got no reason to exclude a female scribe, but that just goes to show that the concern is not so much Orthodox Legal Sensibilities as Icky Girl Cooties. Then again, they could have chosen to exclude me completely, so I guess I’m mostly grateful.

Anyway, that meant I didn’t do anything Torah-related for their film, nor even the mezuzot I’m presently working on, no, I wrote some of the Megillah of Kohelet.

I’m sort of writing Kohelet and thinking maybe I’ll finish it in time to read on Succot – at the present rate that doesn’t seem very likely, but we’ll see – anyway, as it turned out, I was writing this bit that day. Good for being filmed, because of the distinctive pattern.

It’s the bit – you probably remember it, it’s the only thing anyone remembers from Ecclesiastes – “a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to uproot; a time to kill and a time to heal; a time to tear down and a time to build…” It’s poetry, obviously, and the rhythm of the words is reflected in the rhythm of the layout.

Side of computer included in image for size comparison and general pleasingness of contrasting media.

I did not take any pictures of me writing, on account of, I was busy writing. But afterwards, I took a picture of the view out of the window. And I took some photos of the tourists who kept trying to come in, for amusement’s sake, but they didn’t come out so well.

Days like that are rather funny to blog. I go to whatever location it is, and set up, and do my thing as I would at home, and someone hovers around with a camera, and then they go home and cut and paste and eventually they turn it into something that is splendid video but looks most unlike how I was feeling. I guess maybe an egg feels like that when it gets made into a cake. So too with blogging – I think you’re sort of expecting to hear about the cake, and I’m more inclined to write about it from the perspective of the egg.

Thus it is that I can write a whole post about “Today I went to the NYPL to be filmed doing writing” and have no pictures of Teh Soferet Writing.
It was cool to go to the fancy-pants library, and see the pretty pretty architectural details, and swan nonchalently through doors labelled “Staff Only,” but I’m most excited about this photo of the view from the window.

Never mind, eh? When the exhibition opens, I’m sure they’ll have something online, and I’ll tell you about it then. In the meantime – this is what it’s like being an egg.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.


A Lady’s Guide to Headcoverings

Very egalitarian, my synagogue. Ladies can do practically anything on the bima. Anything that gentlemen can do. And since we’re so very egalitarian, our dress rules are egalitarian too. Gentlemen on the bima must sport headcoverings and therefore so too must ladies.

The headcovering of choice for your standard American Jewish gentleman is a kippah. Like a suit and tie, a kippah sends Messages to those who observe it. “I am a Respectable Gentleman,” it says. “I comply with a certain set of social mores. Please interact with me accordingly.”

And like a suit and tie, transporting that mode of dress wholesale across gender boundaries results in awkwardness. A suit and tie are all very well if you’re an air hostess or a waitress at a five-star establishment, maybe even if you’re in Big Business if you have a special ladyfied suit and tie, but I personally would feel like a bit of a pillock wearing them in the street. They’re just not clothes I wear.

Likewise kippot. Some ladies wear kippot and it seems to suit them just fine. I’ve got no quarrel with them. I just personally feel that in my circles, a kippah says “I am a Respectable Gentleman,” and I have no particular desire to go around saying “I am a Respectable Gentleman.”</p>

But I am on the right-wing side of my synagogue, for better or worse. Kippot in my synagogue sometimes mean “I am a Respectable Jewish Gentleman” – that’s men who wear kippot all the time – and sometimes they mean “I am in Shul, and Respectable Men Cover Their Heads In Shul.”

That is to say, “covering our heads is how we show that now we are Doing Religion.” And since egalitarianism means “now the ladies may and must do everything the gentlemen do,” we have definitively proved that Respectable Jews Cover Their Heads In Shul. Serious God Business Needs Hats, as we say. And accordingly, if the ladies are to be permitted to join in with the Serious God Business, they must cover their heads, because we know that it is not proper religion unless you have your head covered.

Happily, I am not the only lady who dislikes wearing kippot. Yes! There are other head-covering options open to a lady in the synagogue.

These fall into three categories.

1. The Respectable Lady’s Shul-Going Hat.</p>

You know. If you don’t own one, your mother does, and she wears it to weddings.

Respectable Lady Hats are no fun when it is ninety degrees out.

Orthodox Married Lady hats also fall into this category – the berets, diamente-adorned baseball caps, and headscarves beloved of the Modern Orthodox. These aren’t exactly Respectable Lady Hats, but the logic goes like this: the Orthodox wear these things all the time, and everyone knows the Orthodox are terribly authentic and do religion constantly, so these are obviously acceptable religion-indicating hats.

A sub-category here is the “Oh, hey, look, my head is covered!” Stealth Headcovering, when the hair is tied back with a wide bandana, such that a kippah-sized area of the head is covered.

2. The Feminised Kippah.

On the model of the little-round-Jewhat, but manufactured of beads, or pink material, or otherwise embellished such that no man could respectably wear it. The problem is, of course, that unless your feminised kippah has been your religion-inducing hat of choice for two decades (such things are exempt under the heading Hallowed Traditions), it is an inherently doomed exercise. After all, the point of Ladies’ Headcoverings is to replicate the kippah’s function across the gender boundary. The Feminised Kippah merely produces a kippah which no man would ever wear, thus (arguably) defeating the object entirely. Or (perhaps) accomplishing it perfectly.

3. The Doily.

Cousin to the kippah, someone at some point had the bright idea of replacing the knitted circle with a lace circle, thus accomplishing “Little Round Jew Hat For Wearing Whilst Doing Religion” and “Totes Feminine, It’s Made Of Lace” simultaneously. Brilliant.</p>

There are two ways of wearing the doily.

a). Flat, otherwise known as the “Where are the petits fours?” mode of wear. (Incidentally, I once saw a lady visiting a shul which did not supply doilies. But she obviously very much felt that it is not religion unless you are covering your head, so she improvised a doily substitute from a paper towel from the bathroom. This was not so much “Where are the petits fours?” as “Now Wash Your Hands.”)

b). Folded, otherwise known as the “Damned if I want to look like a tea-table” mode. At Events, folded doilies are frequently hot-glued onto combs. The model displayed here is the kind provided gratis by the shul and held to the head with a bobby pin. </p>

Folding renders the doily approximately the same size as a kippah, which gives it the advantage of increased authenticity. So we see that a folded doily is a) authentic religion-inducing headgear and b) feminine.

But it is still undeniably a doily. Now, maybe I feel like a pillock wearing a kippah, as it’s assuming a mode of dress more generally associated with gentlemen. But a doily is a mode of dress generally associated with a) ladies from 1950s North America b) aspidistras. You see the difficulty.

So this is my latest Absolutely Brilliant Solution To All Problems Caused By Misapplied Gender Binaries In Jewish North America. Wear a kippah, because we are not a grandmother. But fold it into quarters, because wearing a round headcovering folded into quarters is obviously a distinctively feminine act.</p>

Honestly, sometimes I amaze myself. Not only does this accomplish head-covering according to the rules of my shul, but it is obviously a profound statement about American Jewish egalitarianism. “Aha,” people will say. “Here is someone who obviously wants to challenge gender roles in dress as defined by her synagogue, but in quintessentially-feminine passive-aggressive fashion, as expressed by this highly-original act of sardonic sartorial subversion. Marvellous. By such brave acts as these the patriarchy will crumble.”

It’d be simpler to wear a suit and tie really. Or an aspidistra. If anyone wants me, I’ll be at the florist’s.

Further reading on kippot.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

shiny jen

um no...

In one course, released online in May, a quiz asked doctors to diagnose the condition of a 42-year-old working mother who takes care of three children and her own sick mother, and who had no desire for sex. (Her husband is mentioned only in passing.)

The correct answer? Schedule a follow-up visit to evaluate whether she has diagnosable hypoactive sexual desire disorder.
(NY Times)

How about, she's in a life situation where her own needs and desires have to come last of all her priorities because otherwise she will be branded by society as a Bad Mother, a Bad Daughter, a Bad Employee, a Bad Homemaker and a Bad Wife? Really, would it come as any surprise that she might not be so interested in sex? You know, sex, that thing that's about desire and gratification and enjoyment and trust and other things she's carefully schooling herself not to expect?

In other words, her libido is doing exactly what you might expect, and we should make that a medical problem and tell her she's Sick and Problematic and Needs Medicating?

This sort of thing makes me angry.

The USCJ reveals what it thinks about women

Everyone knows that to find out what kind of person your date is, look at how they treat the waiter.

That is to say, it is our unthinking actions which betray our deep-rooted assumptions, and I’m afraid I’ve got some pretty miserable assumptions to discuss here.

You may have seen, of late, reference to the Rabbinical Council of America and its gracious permission for women to occupy “appropriate leadership roles” just so long as they remember they have no business trying to be rabbis or respected Torah scholars or synagogue executives. This has garnered some indignation in feministic Orthodox circles, but at least the RCA’s honest. The Conservative Jews, nominally egalitarian in all regards, have to resort to more subtle ways of reminding us ladies what our proper place is.

The USCJ, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, sends out packets of greetings cards periodically, as a marketing thing. Cards you will be Proud to Send, the cover blares.

Oh really?

Compare the latest “Mazal Tov” cards for “A Baby Girl” and “A Baby Boy.”

The Girl card depicts a diaper-clad koala, sweetly asleep on a huge pile of fluffy pink-shaded blankets. The Boy card is a collage showing a wide-awake bear, a blue car, and the words “cute little guy.”

I accept that our society has different roles for boys and girls, and that training in those roles starts at birth. Of course cards acknowledging births are likely to reflect incipient gender training. But let’s unpack the symbolism a little bit. This, after all, is the USCJ thinking it is just speaking to the waiter – just sending us some nice greetings cards. Let’s see what it’s saying.

The little boy is wide awake – he’s engaging with you, the viewer, with his world, He already has a personality – “cute little guy” – and his “Mazal tov” is in Hebrew. And we’re associating him with a car – an expensive machine, and one which imparts freedom and independence like no other. This boy has the will, the tools, and our societal permission to do as he likes. This boy is going places.

The little girl, on the other hand, is completely passive. Not only is she asleep, she doesn’t even have control of her bowels. Her diaper-clad behind is certainly cute, but does it need to be stuck so pertly in the air? We don’t see the little boy’s behind. Princess-and-the-Pea-style, the baby girl is so delicate that she needs a huge pile of blankets – fluffy, domestic, nurturing – to sleep upon. Indeed, the blankets dominate the page – the little girl is more or less incidental.

Now, at this point you’re at liberty to say “Good grief, Soferet, aren’t you over-reacting a bit?” After all, it’s only some greetings cards. It’s only speaking to the waiter.

The problem is that the active, important little boy with his car and the passive, insignificant little girl and her heap of blankets grow up to be adults. And the USCJ nominally accords equality to men and women.

But now look at the bar and bat mitzvah cards, celebrating the child’s entry into the adult Jewish community.

The bar mitzvah card, for the young man, is heavy with Jewish motifs. A Star of David, the public symbol of Jewish identity. A tallit, the ritual garb of the synagogue, its knotted strings symbolising the commandments. And a sefer Torah, the holiest object in Judaism, representing Judaism past, present, and future, God’s connection with the Jewish people.

And the young woman? What does her bat mitzvah card show? Is it a similar collection of symbols, redolent of entry into the world of grown-up Judaism? Does it depict Torah, mitzvot, Jewish identity, participation in the community as an adult?

Does it heck. “Screw you, waiter,” says the USCJ, reminding us that whatever other good qualities they may have, we should have some serious reservations about sustaining a relationship with them.

That other flagship Conservative Jewish institution, the Jewish Theological Seminary, is perfectly happy to proclaim its commitment to traditional women’s roles – in that particular case, promoting an event where the women’s role was sexual object intended to titillate (reference, if you will, that diaper-clad behind we mentioned earlier) – so it shouldn’t surprise us that the USCJ represents an adult woman’s Judaism thus.


Pretty flowers and a ladybug. That’s your Judaism, ladies. Hope you enjoy it.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.


JOFA conference – on writing. Part 1

Fun times at JOFA yesterday.

That’s the intermittently-annual conference of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, for those not au fait with Modern Orthodox slang. I admit I was rather surprised when they asked me to present, given that I don’t identify as Orthodox, but I said as much and they were still interested, so I guess whatever I am, it’s closely-related enough that they figured the conference attendees would be interested.

I very much like opportunities to talk about my work that aren’t the standard Look At The Torah Scroll or My Life Story that constitutes 90% of the public presentation I do. Last month I was in Boston, at Tufts University, talking to undergraduates, and that was great fun – undergrads tend to be deliciously interested in thorny issues, and they’ve often just discovered the joy of tussling with a problem, puppy-like, so undergrads are one of my favourite groups to work with.

Then, as now, I was using presenting as a forum to tackle the following question: classical halakha says there’s basically no way to argue that what I do is okay. My present justification is based on emunat hakhamim – community leaders whose learning and integrity I respect seem to think it’s okay, and since egalitarian practice is in large part a matter of communal acceptance, that’s something upon which to rely.

However. When I contract to write a sefer Torah, and we specify that the sefer is to be written in full accordance with normative Ashkenazi halakha with the exception of the gender of the scribe, it’s kind of analogous to someone who provides meat, which has been selected and slaughtered in full accordance with normative Ashkenazi halakha with the exception of the species of animal. That is to say, sometimes I feel rather like unto one who performs ritual slaughter on pigs.

All this leaves me wide open to the question “So why write sifrei kodesh?”

The workshop I was presenting at JOFA attempted to give an experiential perspective on that question. I wanted to convey the manner in which writing out verses of the Torah gives you a very particular and close relationship to them.

Session blurb: If one writes a sefer Torah, say the Sages, it is as if he had himself received it on Mount Sinai. How can the simple act of writing take someone to such heights? By transcribing small amounts of text, we will explore how writing Torah can be experientially very different from reading or learning or leyning; how the pace of transcription can give one fascinatingly different perspectives on the text, and how the act of transcription can cause one to process it differently.

I’ll continue in Part 2 shortly.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.


Guestblogging at JWA – crosspost

“You know Barbie’s getting a new job,” says my friend Mimi to me. “People can vote for her new career.”

I put tefillin on a Mattel Barbie doll in 2006, unwittingly creating the Jewish icon now known as Tefillin Barbie. Tefillin Barbie has a frum-girl denim skirt, a T-shirt, the tallit and tefillin more generally worn by Orthodox men during morning prayer, and a volume of Talmud; a whimsical activity for a vacation morning, she generated a vast and wholly unanticipated amount of reaction, positive and negative.

“Hurrah,” people say. “Now we can have Rabbi Barbie!”

But why, people? Why? Barbie put on tefillin and picked up a gemara, so now she has to be a rabbi? Why can’t she be an IT engineer who prays with tefillin and learns gemara in her lunch break?

Read the rest of this post at http://jwablog.jwa.org/tefillin-barbie%27s-new-career.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.