Jewish women explain Jewish masculinity
It started out as a joke, a bit of black humor, in response to outrage over an event that featured two rabbis in Brooklyn speaking about the role of the Jewish woman. The title of the rabbis’ talk this past August was “The Greatness of a Jewish Princess.” “It was just so absurd,” said Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll, co-founder of Chochmat Nashim, “the latest in a long line of men telling women what to do and how to behave.” For Keats Jaskoll and her colleague Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt it was the last straw.
In protest, Chizhik-Goldschmidt, who is an editor at The Forward and a rebbetzin in New York, created a parody of the Jewish princess event poster that featured the two women speaking about “The Secrets of Jewish Masculinity.”
According to Keats Jaskoll, “The poster went viral and people said, ‘You have to do this!’ People were really into it.” She came to see that an actual event with this title and with two women speakers was actually a great way to get their message across, using the community’s own culture to make their point.
Once the announcement for the November 19 event in Teaneck, New Jersey, went live, the feedback, according to Keats Jaskoll, was “phenomenal! We had at least 20 people sign up the first day.”
The pair received an unanticipated reaction from outside the Jewish community. “The most interesting thing was what we heard from Muslim women,” she noted. “They said, ‘We should
do this for our community. Hijabs for men! Mind if we steal your ideas?’”
Keats Jaskoll came to understand that, “I have more in common with religious Muslim women, as opposed to men in my own community. That was the most surprising outcome.”
At press time, more than 60 people were registered for the event, which featured meat and beer. “It’s very important to feed people,” Keats Jaskoll noted.
More importantly, the Secrets of Jewish Masculinity event gives Keats Jaskoll and Chizhik-Goldschmidt an opportunity to “discuss the importance in the Jewish community for men and women to work together.” Keats Jaskoll anticipated “a lot of conversation and women talking about what they see is really lacking in the Jewish community.”
She quoted a commenter who expressed respect for the fact that the two women staged an event without first asking for rabbinic approval. “You know, Shoshanna, I’m amazed. You didn’t wait for someone to invite you. You just made an event and people are coming.”
To Keats Jaskoll, that feedback was surprising. “I was shocked at the comment. To me, it’s a natural thing. There’s a need in the community and let’s do it. We don’t need to wait for other people to invite us and tell us it’s okay to speak. We don’t need a rabbi from Yeshiva University who is half our age to say it’s okay.
“If you feel that there is something to say, do it. We need every single person in this community who has something to contribute to be speaking. We need everyone to make our community as good as it can be,” she enthused.
This event is part of a larger speaking tour that Keats Jaskoll, in her role as co-founder of Chochmat Nashim, has undertaken to help spread the organization’s message. “Chochmat Nashim advocates for a healthy Jewish community where women are seen and heard, where we speak about damaging policies in Orthodoxy and in Israel.
“WHEN WOMEN are not involved in policy-making decisions, when they don’t have a seat at the table, women are harmed,” she elaborated. “We work hard to show our issues have nothing to do with Jewish law. Women are being held hostage and no one is taking it seriously enough.
“What are the issues that Judaism is facing? How can we identify them and change them without affecting what is sacred to us, without violating Jewish law?”
Keats Jaskoll emphasized that the issues she and her Orthodox colleagues fight against have nothing to do with violating Jewish law. Often, the issues reflect distortions of the law.
What Chochmat Nashim does in general, and Keats Jaskoll does whenever she speaks in Jewish communities, is to help her audience understand their role in improving things for the Orthodox community. “People want things to be better,
, but they don’t know what they can do. We show the issue, show a positive action and give individuals roles to affect change.”
Keats Jaskoll left for the US on November 16. Besides the Secrets of Jewish Masculinity event, she has stops in seven communities and a number of Jewish schools. By the time she returns home to Beit Shemesh, she hopes to have reached 400 or 500 people with her passion and message.
She is already planning another tour for May 2020, and she and Chizhik-Goldschmidt have been asked to offer the Secrets of Jewish Masculinity program in Israel.
In all that she does, from social media advocacy to speaking tours to work with Chochmat Nashim, including the regular podcasts she does with fellow Chochmat Nashim co-founders Anne Gordon and Rachel Stomel, Keats Jaskoll focuses on highlighting the issue of “erasing women and why it’s damaging.”
In an opinion piece Keats Jaskoll published in The Times of Israel in 2017, she wrote, “This practice began in the most insular Orthodox communities over the past two decades, and has now become the dominant practice of Orthodox publications, to the great dismay of Orthodox women everywhere.
“Entire magazines are devoid of women. There are children’s books, textbooks, comics, and advertisements in which no mothers and no daughters are represented. Beautifully illustrated Shabbat zemirot booklets have grandfathers, fathers and sons; there are no grandmothers, mothers or daughters. I even have an illustrated Megillat Esther sans Esther.”
She titled the op-ed, “Who needs rabbinic leadership? A call for Orthodox organizations to heed the voices of the women they cannot see.” In it, after including multiple examples of the extent to which erasing women has changed the culture, she calls on rabbis to put a stop to it.
“Without question, this policy of removing nearly all images of women and girls from Orthodox publications alienates Jewish women from those who represent Torah. To be clear, the same women that the OU [Orthodox Union] and RCA [Rabbinical Council of America] respect for their place in tradition, find themselves excluded by the extreme changes to that tradition, and cannot all remain committed to views that, in fact, are not tradition.
“I urge the established Orthodox leadership, in the form of the venerable institutions of the OU and the RCA, to take a stand against this damaging practice of disappearing images of modest Jewish women from Orthodox publications, and stand up for the dignity of Jewish women.”
IN HER presentations, Keats Jaskoll speaks about how this issue of erasing women has expanded way beyond the most insular Orthodox communities. “In Israel, it happens because we all live together and businesses here want [to avoid offending their Orthodox clients.
As a result] banks and health clinics don’t picture women. It affects everyone in the country.”
According to Keats Jaskoll, erasing women has escalated to a matter of life and death. “We see that haredi [ultra-Orthodox] women, who are most erased, have higher death rates from cancer. They don’t know what mammograms are. They are trained not to speak about their body parts. Women’s health is not discussed in the haredi media.”
Regrettably, it’s not only a problem in Israel. “We get letters from England, Australia and the US from women who are saying ‘I see this happening in my community.’”
In another The Times of Israel post from just two months ago, Keats Jaskoll forthrightly answered those women who say that they would never want to have their pictures on display in public.
“It’s not about you and it’s not about me,” she wrote. “It’s not even about faces on posters at all. It’s about women being seen and heard so that our needs are met, so that our concerns are heard, so that our diseases can be named, so that our health matters, so that when we are abused it’s an outrage, so that when we voice issues people listen, so that our opinions count. This doesn’t happen if we are invisible, if we are silenced.”
Responding to her critics who claim that she is shining a light on what should be an internal issue, she answers boldly and without equivocation, “To me, people who are more worried about people seeing our dirty laundry than cleaning our own laundry are not my audience.”
CHOCHMAT NASHIM founders (from left) Rachel Stomel, Anne Gordon and Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll.
KEATS JASKOLL speaks at a Chochmat Nashim event in Jerusalem.
THE PARODY poster that actually became an event; it was a response to ‘The Greatness of a Jewish Princess,’ a talk given by two rabbis.