The ProsenPeople

Research and the Power of Bashert

Monday, May 26, 2014 | Permalink

Last week, Steven Pressman wrote about a recent visit to Vienna and bringing an extraordinary act of quiet heroism to light. He is the author of the recently published book 50 Children: One Ordinary American Couple's Extraordinary Rescue Mission into the Heart of Nazi Germany and has been blogging here for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I'm not a great believer in fate, but I certainly have encountered more than a few instances of bashert—that lovely Hebrew word signifying things that are meant to be—during the research and writing of my book and the production of the documentary film that preceded it.

For example, I'll never forget one of my visits to the Jewish Museum in Vienna, which resulted in a very powerful moment of bashert. The museum has two locations—the main building and a sort of annex that is located on the Judenplatz—Jewish Plaza—not far from the Israelitsche Kultusgemeinde, the official organization of Vienna's Jewish community. I was there on a weekday afternoon, and the museum was nearly empty. As I wandered through the building, however, I recognized an American whom I had met a few days earlier at the Vienna airport after we had both flown in on the same short flight from Berlin. We renewed our acquaintance at the museum, and this fellow, Marty Keller, introduced me to his cousin, Steve. We began talking, and they mentioned that both of their fathers had left Vienna as children not long after Nazi Germany had taken over Austria. Marty had come to Vienna for a conference, and Steve had come along after the two cousins thought they'd try to learn a little more about their fathers' childhoods.

At that point, of course, I mentioned that I was in Vienna for some research about the rescue of fifty Jewish children in 1939. They both looked at me with identical shocked expressions on their faces. While they didn't know much about the precise circumstances and details of their fathers' escapes from Vienna, Steve said the episode I was describing sounded familiar. That's when I reached into my coat pocket and unfolded a copy of a photograph of the fifty children on board the ship that brought them to America. I had gotten into the habit, for no readily apparent reason, of carrying around the photo wherever I went during my research. I had also been filling in the names of each of the children whenever I was able to clearly identify them. At this point in the project, there were still several children whom I could not match with a name.

Steve immediately pointed to one of the older and taller boys standing in the back row in the photograph. "That's my father, Robert!" he told me. We talked for a few more minutes at the museum and made plans to get together the next day for coffee. I filled them in on more details about the children's rescue, and Steve later sent me more information about his father, who had passed away many years ago. I was able to fill in another name on that group photo.

And then there's the painting of Rosa Jacobs, and how it wound up hanging in our living room in San Francisco.

As part of my research into the backgrounds of Gil and Eleanor Kraus, I was always interested in finding out as much as I could about Gil's work as a lawyer in Philadelphia in the 1920s and 1930s. At the time of the rescue mission in 1939, Gil had a law partner named Edward Weyl, and I learned at some point that Eleanor had a niece who had married into the Weyl family. After more digging, I finally was able to get in touch with one of Edward Weyl's sons. Unfortunately, however, he didn't have much information to offer about his father's legal partnership with Gil, which is what I was mostly interested in.

"But I do have something here that might be of some interest," Don Weyl told me. "I think I have a painting that belongs to your wife." The painting, by the fairly renowned America painter Gladys Rockmore Davis, was an elegant portrait of Eleanor Kraus' mother, presumably done sometime in the 1930s. On the back of the painting, along one of the edges of the wooden frame, Eleanor had written in ink that, upon her death, the painting was to be given to her niece Jane, who was Don Weyl's mother. And when Jane died, Eleanor had also written, the painting was to be passed along to Eleanor's granddaughter, Liz Perle. Don, however, knew nothing about Liz, and certainly had no way of finding her after his mother passed away. At least not until I called him one day, out of the blue, asking about his father's long-ago connections to Gil Kraus.

Rosa Jacobs now looks down at us, in her original wooden frame, with my wife's name on the back scrawled out in ink decades ago by her grandmother. Liz can now gaze up at her great-grandmother. And while I still don't necessarily believe in fate, I certainly have come to recognize the power of bashert.

Steven Pressman was born and raised in Los Angeles and received an undergraduate degree in political science from the University of California's Berkeley campus. He spent many years as a journalist, working for a variety of publications in Los Angeles, Washington DC, and San Francisco. He is the director and producer of the HBO documentary film "50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus" which led to his new book. Steven and his wife, Liz Perle, have two grown children and live in San Francisco.

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New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, May 23, 2014 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

Find more of the latest reviews here.

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Vienna: A Stroll Through a Haunted City

Wednesday, May 21, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Steven Pressman wrote about bringing an extraordinary act of quiet heroism to light. He is the author of the recently published book 50 Children: One Ordinary American Couple's Extraordinary Rescue Mission into the Heart of Nazi Germany and will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I was in Vienna earlier this month to talk about my book and to show the documentary film I made at the U.S. Embassy's Amerika Haus cultural center. During my research for this project, I had previously made two separate trips to Vienna but hadn't been back to the city since the fall of 2010. It was a beautiful morning—bright sunshine, brilliant blue skies, a warming spring day—and I took a long walk to revisit some of the places I'd gone to before, all of which figured, one way or another, in Gil and Eleanor Kraus' rescue mission.

I first stopped at the Kunstlerhaus, a nineteenth century artists' exhibition hall that, in the spring of 1939, was the site of the Entartete Kunst—Degenerate Art—exhibit, which had traveled throughout Germany and Austria since its original opening, attended by Hitler himself, in Munich in 1937. Gil and Eleanor came to see the exhibition a day or two before they left Vienna with the fifty children. Coincidentally, I had attended only a couple of weeks earlier a fascinating and disturbing exhibition of some of that same "degenerate" art at the Neue Galerie in New York City. Suddenly it struck me as I walked past the Kunstlerhaus that I had gazed upon several of the very same paintings that Gil and Eleanor had viewed 75 years earlier.


Degenerate Art Exhibit

After passing by the elegant Bristol Hotel, where Gil and Eleanor stayed while they were in Vienna, I made my way up Kartnerstrasse, one of the city's fashionable shopping streets (as it was in 1939) and walked past the massive St. Stephen's Cathedral. A few minutes later I found myself on Seitenstettengasse, the street where the offices of Vienna's Jewish community are located today as they were when the Krauses were here. This is where Gil and Eleanor met with the parents and interviewed the children hoping to come to America. Not long before the Krauses arrived, the Nazis raided these offices, arrested Jewish community leaders and took control. During my visit, two armed police officers maintained a vigilant watch at one end of the street. A synagogue adjoins the Jewish community office, as it did in the 1930s. But the police are now stationed here to guard against anti-Semitic attacks, rather than to help carry them out as they did during the Kristallnacht riots of November 1938.


Stadttempel is the main synagogue of Vienna, Austria

As I continued my stroll through Vienna's inner city, I tried to imagine a time when these same, cobblestoned streets were teeming with Jews—lawyers, shopkeepers, merchants, journalists, writers, doctors—all of whom had contributed to the rich vibrancy of this once great cultural capital of Europe. In the 1930s, just like today, Vienna's lovely green parks were lined with wooden benches. By 1938, little plaques had been affixed to the benches announcing they were reserved for Aryans. By the time that Gil and Eleanor arrived, Jewish children and adults alike were no longer even allowed in the parks. On this warm spring day, I'm free to take a seat on those same wooden benches. But the echoes of that once-thriving Jewish culture have vanished into silence. Only a tiny sliver of a Jewish community exists now in Vienna, and that earlier world is gone forever. I slowly made my way back to my hotel, passing yet another row of empty benches. Without warning, my eyes moistened with tears. I was surrounded only by ghosts.

Steven Pressman was born and raised in Los Angeles and received an undergraduate degree in political science from the University of California's Berkeley campus. He spent many years as a journalist, working for a variety of publications in Los Angeles, Washington DC, and San Francisco. He is the director and producer of the HBO documentary film "50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus" which led to his new book. Steven and his wife, Liz Perle, have two grown children and live in San Francisco.

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Rock and Roll, Religion, and Leonard Cohen

Tuesday, May 20, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Liel Leibovitz wrote about how Leonard Cohen became his personal savior. His newest book, A Broken Hallelujah: Rock and Roll, Redemption and the Life of Leonard Cohen, is now available. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

With very few exceptions, the story of American popular music in the last five decades is largely a story of decline. After a brief and fiery decade, the Sixties, in which every kid who flocked to California or downtown Manhattan with a guitar case and a hungry heart seemed to turn into Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, or Lou Reed, things took a turn for the worse. Take away Springsteen, the Ramones, and the Notorious B.I.G., and you’re left largely with years and years of bloated stadium schlock, screechy garage noise, or confections too sweet for the musical palate of anyone older than 12.

What happened? How did a scene that produced so many masterworks in such a short time fade away? There are several feasible explanations, from the changing economics of the music business to the ravages wrought by technology, but one of them in particular deserves much closer attention: the reason American music has sucked so badly for so long may be, first and foremost, theological.

You don’t have to be a scholar of either religion or rock n’ roll to realize how much the two have in common. All you need to do is spend some time with, say, the Doors. If you look at the long-haired, bare-chested Jim Morrison striking a Christ-like pose in the band’s most iconic image, and if you listen to the way its four musicians race one another to ecstasy, creating songs that are so white-hot with passion they nearly fall apart, you realize that the Doors were about more than putting out albums and prancing on stages. They were about, to paraphrase their most famous song, breaking on through to the other side, transcending above reason and unlocking a higher mystical sphere of human consciousness.

The Doors were hardly alone: Recording Revolver, the Beatles’ 1966 album, John Lennon told his studio technician he wanted to sound “like the Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetan monks chanting on a mountain top,” while the Beach Boys’ Carl Wilson quipped that “our influences are of a religious nature” and Lou Reed dove into the work of the German philosopher Oswald Spengler and his theories of Christianity’s decline. For a host of socioeconomic and political reasons, much of this profoundly religious nation’s spiritual yearnings—newly released from traditional forms of worship like church attendance—were expressed instead by guitar, bass, and drums. Rock was how young people worshipped, and they were every bit as devout as their ancestors.

They were also in for a very big disappointment. The salvation the rock gods of the 1960s promised was immediate and complete and orgasmic. If organized religions advertised redemption as a life-long process, the shabby saviors with their musical instruments argued that it could be achieved in a four-minute song, aided by sex and drugs and abandon. Which, of course, is much more than mere humans are capable of: soon, the heady stirrings that Morrison and Hendrix and Joplin and the others aroused, inflamed by songs that shredded guitar strings and words that devolved into howls, turned tragic, with a slew of young corpses announcing the end.

With so many of rock’s messiahs now departed, the scene experienced a crisis of faith. Instead of going deeper, bands went louder, cultivating all of the genre’s rituals but none of its profundity. And fans reacted in kind, viewing the music now not as a spiritual pursuit but as just another consumer good. Rock’s immense promise appeared on the verge of being extinguished.

And then we started listening to Leonard Cohen.

He was 33 when he decided, in 1967, to abandon his career as a poet and pick up a guitar. He was a decade older than his peers, and shared nothing of their fervor. Cohen never believed in breaking on through to the other side. His idea of redemption was a thoroughly Jewish one, trusting not in instant transcendence but in the slow and painstaking personal journey we each must take to realize that being alive wasn’t that great, but it sure beat the alternative.

Instead of songs full of beats and life and promise, he sang softly and slowly about the fragility of existence. “There’s a crack in everything,” goes one of his better-known lyrics, “that’s how the light gets in.” Cohen’s was a wise and mature theology, but fans found it depressing. He was always well-received in Europe, but remained relatively obscure stateside, with no chart-topping albums or sold-out stadium tours.

But he persevered, and, eventually, a new generation of musicians, weary of rock’s narrowing spiritual scope, embraced Cohen as their rabbi and worked his ideas into songs. Nick Cave, the Pixies, R.E.M., Beck, and U2 are all big fans and disciples. Their music reflects the master’s. It is about hope and suffering. It is passionate but sober. It is committed in its explorations of fundamental human emotions without once trying to whip these emotions into a frenzy. And it has given us not only a renaissance for Cohen himself—his most recent album, released in 2012, was his first ever to crack Billboard’s top ten chart—but also a great rock revival. And the only thing to say to that is Hallelujah.

Liel Leibovitz writes for Tablet Magazine and teaches at New York University. He is the author of A Broken Hallelujah: Rock and Roll, Redemption and the Life of Leonard Cohen and Aliyah as well as the co-author of Fortunate Sons, Lili Marlene, and The Chosen Peoples. He lives in New York City.

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Growing to Love Hebrew School

Tuesday, May 20, 2014 | Permalink
This week, Lauren Grodstein, the author of The Explanation for Everything, A Friend of the Family, and Reproduction is the Flaw of Love and the story collection The Best of Animals blogs for The Postscript. Her latest book, The Explanation for Everything explores the complicated question of the existence of God and the role of religion. Here, she shares a little about her own experience with Hebrew school. 

The Postscript series is a special peek "behind the scenes" of a book. It's a juicy little extra something to add to a book club's discussion and a reader's understanding of how the book came together. 

Because I was sentient as a child, I loathed Hebrew school. I don’t know what yours was like, but mine amounted to four weekly hours of soporific instruction by teachers who clearly longed to be elsewhere. Our classroom walls were mint-green cinderblock, our classroom windows looked out onto a concrete plaza, and even after I learned to pronounce Hebrew letters I never found out what any actual Hebrew words meant. Meanwhile, in the corridors, the same mean girls who bullied me all day doubled down in Hebrew school, bullying me just a little extra before pick up, homework, and bed. 

So you’d think, considering how miserable the experience was, I wouldn’t inflict it on my own precious son, for whose pleasure I would gladly swallow nails. But you’d be wrong. I love Hebrew school now, and I especially love his Hebrew school, and I’ve come to believe that, done right, there’s no better way to create a Jewish community for kids and their parents than to participate in a welcoming and joyful Hebrew school. 

But it’s not an easy thing to put together, especially in an age of diminished resources and busy families. This kind of Hebrew school has classes taught by knowledgeable, informed, and friendly teachers, who understand that kids (especially secular ones) don’t always want extra school at the end of the week, but who will go if the experience is rewarding. This sort of school looks for ways to integrate Jewish learning into everyday experiences instead of separating it into something we only think about during designated hours. And this sort of school remembers that Judaism is often as much about community as it is about faith. My son’s school, housed in a multi-use art space in Philadelphia, doesn’t have much in the way of facilities or even chairs, but it does have enthusiastic teachers who love kids, love Judaism, and are willing to have fun with both. 

A good Hebrew school also requires involvement from parents. The one I attended as a kid, at least from my perspective, was a place where students were dropped off twice a week and picked up again two hours later. The parents’ participation seemed to amount to writing checks and booking Bar Mitzvah dates. Therefore, not only was Hebrew school boring, but it was totally separate from the rest of our lives, even from our family life. My family’s Jewish rituals only incidentally incorporated Hebrew school lessons – I might know a few extra things about Chanukah come winter – but it was never fully a part of our family’s discussions or religious practice. 

My son’s Hebrew school, on the other hand, is coordinated by a group of loud, smart and funny parents who are actively committed to their sense of Jewish belonging. For the first time in my life, I am part of a faith community bigger than my own small family. So many of my own religious experiences have left me feeling embarrassed (for not knowing more) or left out (since everyone else seemed to know each other before they walked in the door). I take responsibility, of course, for not having better educated myself, and for not having better socialized myself – but still, I’ll never forget going to Shabbat services during my first week as an undergraduate and slinking out in shame after having been given the stink-eye for singing something wrong. 

This Hebrew school sings a different tune. People are welcomed no matter how much or how little they know about Judaism, no matter their social circles or lack thereof. The kids there represent diverse ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, attend fancy private schools or overcrowded urban ones, come from interfaith households and LGBT households and old-school heteronormative Jewish households too. None of which matters. Everyone is welcomed in with a spirit of kindness, and a dedication to a larger cause. 

But here’s what’s weird: despite how much fun it is, and how kind the teachers are, my son is not nearly as into his Hebrew school as I am. What can I say? He’s five, and he’d rather be outside playing soccer or inside drawing on the furniture than going to Philadelphia on Sunday afternoons. I, on the other hand, clearly adore his Hebrew school, and hope that one day he knows how lucky he is to be part of it . And if that doesn’t happen, then I hope one day his own children introduce him into a community that he can make his own.

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Bringing to Light Quiet Heroism

Monday, May 19, 2014 | Permalink

Steven Pressman is the director and producer of the HBO documentary film "50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus," which led to his new book, 50 Children: One Ordinary American Couple's Extraordinary Rescue Mission into the Heart of Nazi Germany. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I feel extremely fortunate to have been able to tell this very dramatic, and heretofore almost completely unknown, Holocaust rescue story that came to a successful conclusion 75 years ago this month.

I say that it was "almost" completely unknown because, in a sense, the story of Gil and Eleanor Kraus, the Philadelphia Jewish couple who carried out the rescue mission of fifty children from Vienna, was basically hiding in plain sight for many of those 75 years.

My wife, Liz Perle, is one of four grandchildren of the Krauses—and she had long been aware, at least generally, of what her grandparents had done in the spring of 1939. More importantly, in terms of my being able to piece together this extraordinary story, Eleanor Kraus had typed out an account of the mission some years after it had taken place. Liz had an onionskin copy of her grandmother's private memoir—and that remarkable document provided me with an essential blueprint for writing my book.

What I really loved about this project was having the opportunity to dig so much deeper into this story, considerably beyond Eleanor's personal account. The main focus of the story, of course, remains on this brave and courageous couple who overcame immense obstacles, both in the United States and in Nazi Germany, in their effort to save a group of children and bring them to safety in America.

But doing justice to the quiet heroism of the Krauses also required me to tell a much broader story about cultural, social, and political conditions that existed throughout the 1930s both in America and in Europe during the rise of Nazi Germany. In order to accomplish this, my research quite literally took me around the world—from Philadelphia and Washington, DC, to Vienna and Berlin—and eventually to Jerusalem. That's where I came across an astonishing stash of documents (originally located in Vienna but moved to Israel in the 1950s) that provided even more graphic proof of Gil and Eleanor's heroic actions. Tucked away in a set of dusty archives at Hebrew University were thousands of pages of family questionnaires filled out by Jewish families in Vienna who, by the late 1930s, had become increasingly desperate to escape from Hitler's grasp. Included among those documents were the families with children hoping to be chosen by the Krauses for the journey to America.

While sifting through this trove of documents, I came across a two-page, handwritten list of the fifty children eventually selected by the Krauses. My wife, who had joined me on the research trip, held up those pages in her hand and instantly recognized her grandmother's distinctively elegant handwriting. It was a moment of astonishing discovery and an intensely personal family connection that I will never forget.

Steven Pressman was born and raised in Los Angeles and received an undergraduate degree in political science from the University of California's Berkeley campus. He spent many years as a journalist, working for a variety of publications in Los Angeles, Washington DC, and San Francisco. Steven and his wife, Liz Perle, have two grown children and live in San Francisco.

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Saved by Leonard Cohen

Monday, May 19, 2014 | Permalink

Liel Leibovitz writes for Tablet Magazine and teaches at New York University. His newest book, A Broken Hallelujah: Rock and Roll, Redemption and the Life of Leonard Cohen, is now available. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Some people find Christ in their darkest hour. Others turn to Allah. But if you’re a Jew, young, and in trouble, your best bet is Leonard Cohen.

I was thirteen when I accepted the singer as my personal savior. I grew up in a beachside suburb of Tel Aviv, Israel, the spoiled child of a wealthy family. One afternoon, I came home from school, tossed my backpack on the floor, and raided the fridge in search of lunch when someone knocked on the door. It was the police. Three detectives politely forced their way in and informed me that my father—the jovial bon vivant whose hobbies included fast cars, fine hotels, and fat foods—had just been arrested. He was caught red-handed, the lead detective told me matter-of-factly, and confessed to being the Motorcycle Bandit, a brazen criminal who had hit up more than 20 banks in just a few months and whose antics made him a folk hero to many.

And, just like that, life as I knew it ended. I was no longer the child of privilege; I was now the son of the most notorious criminal in a country too small to keep secrets or award privacy. Our house filled up with visitors, and I remember my mother commenting bitterly that it felt like a shiva, the traditional Jewish mourning ritual in which friends and relatives gather to keep the bereaved company.

If the adults had appropriate words of condolence at their disposal, the adolescents, my friends, did not. Like teenaged boys everywhere, they had received no training in the art of empathy, and did not know how to console one of their own in the face of such strange trauma. Instead of words, then, they did what teenaged boys everywhere do and offered mixtapes.

Most of these were dross, catchy pop concoctions that went down easy and left no lasting impression. But one stood out. It contained an assortment of songs by Leonard Cohen.

I barely spoke English then, but Cohen’s words pierced right through the language barrier. They didn’t peddle in sentiment. They weren’t thick with bravado. They spoke a difficult but liberating truth. When I listened to “The Sisters of Mercy” for the first time, for example, I shuddered at the line about those “who must leave everything that you cannot control / It begins with your family, but soon it comes down to your soul.” It didn’t feel like a song lyric; it felt like an insight plucked from some higher realm, telling me to persevere, suggesting that things were tough but not hopeless. Alone in my bedroom, after all the well-wishers had left, I played the tape over and over again. It was the only thing that gave me comfort.

It took me twenty years of growing up and another four of listening intently to Cohen’s music for a book I was writing about him to understand just what I had found so reassuring as a wounded youth. Other artists were better at capturing raw emotion, at stirring the bloodstream, at washing you over with happiness. But then you took off your headphones and walked back out into the world, and the thin mist of feelgood soon evaporated. Like over-the-counter medicine, music was way too weak to fight back the symptoms of life in such an imperfect world. To cure true afflictions, you needed something stronger.

How strong? Consider the following lines, from Cohen’s song “Anthem”: “Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There’s a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.” We’ve no better distilled version, perhaps, of Cohen’s ideas than this, and no greater proof that what the baritoned bard is offering isn’t just entertainment but theology. A scion of several renowned rabbis, he believes, like the Jewish sages of old, that redemption is funny business: the messiah, goes the old Jewish adage, will only come when all Jews are kind and pious, but when all Jews are pious and kind, they would no longer need the messiah. There’s enormous wisdom in this cosmic joke. It tells us not to wait for someone else to swoop in and save us. It says, sadly, that we’ve no right to expect divine grace, and that the only thing we have, the only thing we need, is ourselves: with enough hard work, and a little bit of love, we all could transcend even the darkest of fates.

That’s the spirit that animates Cohen’s greatest songs. It’s also the spirit that saved me. After my father’s arrest, religious relatives suggested I partake in their practices, but I found little inspiring in the certainties of religious orthodoxy. Cohen showed me another way to worship, one that understood that because we humans are so imperfect, every hallelujah we mutter comes out broken but is no less holy or joyous for it. It’s not an easy idea to comprehend. It’s not immediately appealing like “all you need is love” or “give peace a chance.” But it has made Cohen, at 80, the closest thing we have to a prophet, and it had made me, at 13, find the strength to carry on.

Liel Leibovitz is the author of A Broken Hallelujah: Rock and Roll, Redemption and the Life of Leonard Cohen and Aliyah. He is also the co-author of Fortunate Sons, Lili Marlene, and The Chosen Peoples. He lives in New York City.

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New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, May 16, 2014 | Permalink

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10 Ways You Can Promote Gender Equality in Your Local School

Friday, May 16, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman wrote about seven places where religious radicalism threatens women's well-being in Israel and ten inspiring ways that women are fighting for justice in Israel. Today, she and Chaya Rosenfeld Gorsetman, co-authors of Educating in the Divine Image: Gender Issues in Orthodox Jewish Day Schools (The Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, 2013), write about ways to promote gender equality in your local school. They have been blogging here this week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Gender messages are all around us. From images in schoolbooks to images on bus ads, from conversations on the train to those on the big screen, from clothing conventions learned at school or on Fifth Avenue – everywhere we turn, we are subsumed in messages about what it means to be a “correct” or “normal” woman or man. Just this week there has been a heated debate on our Facebook feeds about whether there is room in our society for women to express anger without being dismissed for not being perky enough. Gender is everywhere.

In our research, we have been especially interested in how these gender messages get transmitted in Jewish educational institutions. Schools are big parts of our adult lives – as parents, community members, and former students ourselves. And certainly schools are a big part of our children’s lives. Events taking place in school today are likely to impact our culture for years to come For that reason, we have found it useful to examine the gender messages in schools, and to provide people with tools to ask the important questions about their educational settings.

Here are some useful questions for parents, teachers, students, lay leaders, and other interested members of the community to ask about the educational institutions around you:

1. Whose photos are on the walls? When you walk into a school (or synagogue, or JCC), take a look at the portraits hanging on the walls. Are there an equal number of men and women? If photos are male-dominated, find out why. For example, is it because only school presidents’ photos are displayed and the school has never had a female president? If that is the case, see Question 2. Take note also of the gender make-up of artwork displayed, or of historical figures displayed. If women and girls are underrepresented, start a conversation about it with the school staff and leadership.

2. Who are the lay leaders? Are women represented in lay leadership? Has your school ever had a female president? Are women encouraged to join the lay leadership – prepped in the “pipeline” for future roles as leaders?

3. What does the mission statement say about gender? Mission statements often give strong clues about the values and energies of the school leaders. If a mission statement dedicates a paragraph or more to its relationship with the State of Israel, for example, chances are this was the result of many hours of discussion on the topic, and an express commitment to the issue. Many schools, however, have little if anything written in their mission statements about commitment to gender equality. This may mean that it has never been discussed at length, or that it is not a high priority. Find out the history of your school and its commitment to this topic.

4. Who are the student leaders? Is there gender equality in student government? Do girls and boys have equal opportunities to become leaders? Flip through recent yearbooks and check for gender equality in leadership of clubs and councils. Where do boys stand out and where do girls stand out? For example, is there a place for girls in areas such as chess, the A-V club, or computers? Is there a place for boys in art, poetry, and dance? Find out what kinds of experiences students have had when they challenge gender expectations. For example, what happens when a girl wants to join the A-V club? Also, do girls’ sports get the same attention as boys’ sports – and the same funding? Try to find out from students what kinds of experiences they have had in this regard.

5. Who represents the school at public events and assemblies? In one coeducational day school, a parent was surprised to find out that the school’s model seder had only boys on stage. When she inquired about this with the principal, he told her that it wasn’t “intentional” – each class was told to select a representative, and every single class happened to choose a boy. Check to see if there is equal representation and equal opportunity in public activities.

6. Who leads ritual and prayer? Even in early childhood, prayer and ritual are a significant part of students’ experiences in Jewish schools. In many cases, even in kindergarten, children receive the message that the boys’ job is to lead while the girls’ job is to choose songs or distribute papers. In upper classes, gender differences in expectations around ritual are further exacerbated. In many schools, boys are expected to pray more frequently or for longer periods than girls, boys are expected to come to school earlier than girls, boys’ prayer facilities are nicer than girls’, and boys receive more attention and training in areas related to prayer. Take note of the gender messages around prayer, and find out how these messages affect students’ attitudes towards prayer – and towards gender.

7. What kinds of roles are boys and girls given around Shabbat? Another gender-laden Jewish topic is Shabbat. In many schools, the “Ima shel Shabbat” [Shabbat mother] and “Abba shel Shabbat” [Shabbat father] are fixtures from early on. In some schools, the girl is expected to bring baked goods while the boy is expected to recite the Kiddush. What are the messages around these gender-segregated demands? How do they affect families that do not fit neatly into this “standard” gender model – such as single-parent families, blended families, or single-sex families? How do girls feel knowing that they have no reason to learn to recite blessings? How do boys feel learning that the meaning of being a boy is to always lead girls?

8. What adjectives are used to describe boys and girls? Take note of how girls and boys are described in newsletters, websites, report cards, and public events. Often girls are commended for being “caring,” “kind,” or “giving,” while boys are praised for their “intelligence,” “ingenuity,” and “courage.” Take note of gendered adjectives in your school, and start a school discussion about it.

9. Whose pictures are in the newsletter and website – and what are they doing? Similarly, whose photos appear on the school’s website and other materials? And in what capacity? Are girls shown in the same kinds of active, energetic, and intelligent roles as boys? Are girls shown engaging in sports, math, science, and leadership? One camp that we worked with had almost no photos of girls on its website. But when we pointed it out to them, they took note and made changes. Today, the site shows photos of girls everywhere, including doing sports and teaching.

10. Are there men on the educational staff, and in what positions? Teaching is a female-dominated profession, which has repercussions for status and salary. What makes it worse is the inverted pyramid – that often the few men on staff are quickly advanced and promoted. It is not uncommon to see a staff meeting that is almost exclusively female, with the only man in the room constituting the boss. Do dynamics like this exist in your school setting? How do women feel about the gender make-up of the staff?

We hope these questions are helpful. For more information and insights, you can read our book, or feel free to contact us for consultation or to find out how we can help you along in this important process:

Chaya Rosenfeld Gorsetman is clinical associate professor of education, Stern College for Women, Yeshiva University.

Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman is former executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA). She is the co-author, with Chaya Gorsetman, of Educating in the Divine Image: Gender Issues in Orthodox Jewish Day Schools (The Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, 2013), winner of the 2013 National Jewish Book Award in Education and Jewish Identity, author of The Men’s Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World (Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, 2011), winner of the 2012 National Jewish Book Council Award in Women's Studies, and author of the forthcoming The War on Women in Israel: How Religious Radicalism is Stifling the Voice of a Nation(Sourcebooks, 2014).

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10 Inspiring Ways That Women Are Fighting for Justice in Israel

Wednesday, May 14, 2014 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman wrote about seven places where religious radicalism threatens women's well-being in Israel. She is the author of the forthcoming The War on Women in Israel: How Religious Radicalism is Stifling the Voice of a Nation (Sourcebooks, 2014). She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

In my previous post, I described seven frightening trends of religious radicalism in Israel threatening women’s well-being and in some cases women’s lives. Despite this dire report, there have also been some inspiring actions by women’s groups and other social activists fighting for human rights and change in Israel. The most interesting developments are those that come from religious feminist groups, fighting for change from within the religious world. But the work of religious feminism is tremendously bolstered by social activist NGOs working on a variety of fields. Below are 10 examples of inspiring campaigns by Israeli NGOs to reclaim women’s rights in the face of religious threats:

1. Segregated buses. IRAC (Israel Religious Action Center) and Kolech (The Religious Women’s Forum) led a lawsuit against the Ministry of Transport, which eventually made gender segregation on buses illegal. Today, every bus has a sign saying that women can choose to sit where they want. Bus drivers comply because they know they can be fined a month’s salary if their buses are found to have segregation. Today there are less than 50 segregated lines left, down from over 150 in 2011.

2. Women’s faces on Jerusalem streets. The campaign of an NGO called “Jerusalemites” to hang faces of women around the city forced businesses to change their policy of showing women’s faces on billboards in Jerusalem. Even the Jerusalem municipality has restored women’s faces to many of their printed materials, such as this year’s brochure for the Jerusalem marathon which showed women’s faces for the first time in several years.

3. Gender segregation on the streets. Another IRAC lawsuit is pending against the Netanya Hevra Kadisha on behalf of a woman who was excluded from delivering a eulogy at a funeral.

4. Rock throwing in Beit Shemesh. Beit Shemesh resident Nili Phillip is leading a class-action suit against the municipality of Beit Shemesh to hold them accountable for the fact that women are being hurt by rock throwing Haredi men. It is up to the municipality, they argue, to take down signs saying women cannot be on certain streets and to protect women. The lawsuit is pending.

5. Women’s voices on the radio. Kolech and IRAC are in the midst of a 100 million NIS ($30 million U.S.) lawsuit against the broadcasting authorities to protest the practice of the Kol Berama radio station to exclude women’s speaking and singing voices. Kol Berama is at risk of losing its license. The lawsuit may also pave the way for similar actions in other areas.

6. Civil marriage and divorce in Israel. Several organizations are pushing for civil marriage and divorce in Israel—including The Center for Women’s Justice, New Family, Hiddush, and Be Free Israel, among others. The Masorti Movement is also pushing to have non-Orthodox marriages recognized as valid. Public sentiment is undoubtedly increasing in support of this movement and the possibilities are encouraging.

7. Women as directors of rabbinical courts. ICAR is also promoting a bill to change the current law that says that the executive director of the Rabbinical Courts—an administrative position, not a rabbinic one—has to be an ordained rabbi, meaning an Orthodox rabbi. This excludes women as well as non-Orthodox Jews. Changing this law would open up at least one position of authority to women.

8. Challenging the abortion panels. MK Zahava Gal-On (Meretz) is spearheading legislation to make the abortion panels obsolete.

9. Challenging the rabbinical courts’ jurisdiction over conversion. The Center for Women’s Justice is awaiting a decision on their appeal to the High Court of Justice challenging the right of the rabbinical court to overturn conversions.

10. Reform in the “services” of the Religious Ministry. The Religious Ministry has responded to public pressure by beginning to institute reforms in the way the clerks of the Religious Ministry relate to the public, including allowing for some free market competition by allowing people to choose which city to register for marriage in. Although these proposed reforms contain some problematic elements as well (such as a proposal to make it an arrestable offense for non-Orthodox rabbis to perform weddings!), the fact that there is any proposed reform on the table points to the impact of social pressure and the fact that this entire issue is arguably in the midst of major transition.

There is still much work to be done in Israel to protect women’s basic rights and to curtail the onslaught of radical religious ideas, but the work of these wonderful NGOs, especially the work of religious feminist groups, leaves me inspired.

Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman is former executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA). She is the co-author, with Chaya Gorsetman, of Educating in the Divine Image: Gender Issues in Orthodox Jewish Day Schools (The Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, 2013), winner of the 2013 National Jewish Book Award in Education and Jewish Identity, author of The Men’s Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World (Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, 2011), winner of the 2012 National Jewish Book Council Award in Women's Studies, and author of the forthcoming The War on Women in Israel: How Religious Radicalism is Stifling the Voice of a Nation (Sourcebooks, 2014).

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