My latest on women’s leadership

My latest piece, on women’s leadership in light of the Jill Abramson situation, is now up at The Jewish Week! You can read the opening below and follow the link for the rest of it.

The conversation about women’s leadership has flared up again, both inside and outside the Jewish world, after the abrupt dismissal, with minimal explanation, of the New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson.  She was the first woman to hold that position, and she serves as a cautionary tale for those of us “leaning in” hard and for those who argue that leaning in is all it takes.

As a lifelong feminist, Jewish communal leader, and incoming Executive Director of the Jewish Women’s Archive, I’m encouraged that we’re talking about this, because it indicates a growing recognition of the essential role of women’s leadership in building a strong community.

But I’m also frustrated, because the hand-wringing seems to pay scant attention to the structural obstacles to women’s leadership, highlighting instead issues of women’s confidence and ambition.

Read the rest at The Jewish Week.

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Making Women’s History

My latest piece, on Women’s History Month, has been published on the Huffington Post. You can read the beginning below and the rest here.

I’m a scholar of women’s history, so you’d think March — the official Women’s History Month — would be the highlight of my year. You’d be wrong. As I (and many others) have written about before, it’s insufficient to devote one month a year to the story of more than half the population, and problematic to ghettoize women’s history as if it isn’t integral to our understanding of all history.

But you’d also be right. Because a governmentally-proclaimed Women’s History Month presents the opportunity — one that I gleefully embrace — to engage people in the work of making women’s history. By “work” I don’t just mean study. Sure, it’s great for teachers to use March as a time to focus on women’s stories in their classrooms. But women’s history also suggests a model for radically shifting our understanding of history from an academic subject to a worldview, and even a social justice imperative.

Read the rest at the Huffington Post.

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Business Card Blues

My latest piece, on work identity and unsettledness, has been published in Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Ideas. You can read the beginning below and the rest here

The other night, as I tucked my 7-year-old daughter into bed, she turned toward me and asked a question that pierced through the sweet hugs and kisses with a mixture of curiosity and accusation: “Ima, I know you’re working on a lot of different projects, but what are you going to BE?”

My daughter is perceptive beyond her years, and apparently I’m not very good at hiding my own struggles with questions of work and identity. I gave her what I thought was a reasonable response — truthful, while acknowledging the uncertainty she had sensed: “Well, I’m not going to be just one thing: I’m your mom, and I’m also a teacher, and a writer, and a historian…”

She didn’t buy it, and truthfully, neither did I. I felt more comfortable when I had a title that fit on a business card, and a business card to put it on.

But a year ago, I chose to leap into the unknown, away from a job I’d held for more than a decade.  Read the rest at Sh’ma.

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Reflections on the BRCA legacy

I’m delighted that Tablet magazine published my latest piece! You can read the beginning below and the rest at Tablet. 

I was 5 years old when my mom first got cancer.

One of my earliest memories is of lying in my parents’ bed, watching my mother stand naked in front of the mirror on the bathroom door. Brow furrowed, she is feeling her left breast; she says, “There’s something here.” I can’t help but wonder about the authenticity of this memory. Why would I—so young at the time—remember this particular moment, which I had no way of knowing would be the turning point of our lives? But the memory’s authenticity is cemented by one mundane detail: I can see the crack in the mirror, running from the corner to the center. This is the only memory I have of my mother with two breasts.

In the 33 years and five recurrences between my mother’s first cancer diagnosis and her death, she was always very open about her illness (far too open, I thought as a teenager). Yet she refused for many years to undergo genetic testing to see if she carried BRCA, the genetic mutation disproportionately found in Ashkenazi Jews that can cause breast cancer—despite the fact that her mother, too, had been diagnosed with the disease as a young woman. Read the rest at Tablet

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On language and reframing (or, I finally weigh in on “leaning in”)

Language is powerful, and tricky, too. It gives us shorthand phrases – like “lean in” or “opt out” – that enable us to represent entire arguments and worldviews with just a couple of words. But the power of these phrases is dangerous; their weight digs grooves that frame the debates in which they are implicated, making it difficult to free ourselves from the terms in which we’re accustomed to thinking.

Courtesy of

Courtesy of

Like most people following the news over the past few months, I’ve been thinking about what it means to “lean in” (and it’s counterpoint, “opt out”) and the assumptions and judgments inherent in the terms. Sheryl Sandberg coined “lean in” to signify a more passionate commitment to career ambition and leadership; it’s meant to carry a positive connotation (though in my experience is referenced drily and with some cynicism/resentment by many women). And opting out, of course, refers to women choosing to leave the workplace to become stay-at-home mothers. Both place work at the center, with action defined by one’s orientation toward career (and notably placing all the agency in the individual with little to no regard for the social context for these actions).

But as someone in the midst of career transition, I find myself wondering why this debate is necessarily framed around work. I’ve recently left my job of more than a decade in order to invest time and energy in figuring out what I want to do next. At first glance, this might look like opting out, but I prefer to see myself as leaning in, in a broader sense – not into a specific workplace or leadership position but rather into an exploration of my passions and desired directions, which after all are necessary fuel for that “lean in” drive. True, I’m not working full-time or earning a significant salary right now, but I’m deeply engaged in questions of how to create a meaningful, sustainable career, as one component of a meaningful, sustainable life. And believe me, this process takes effort worthy of “lean in” recognition.

Similarly, I look at my friends who are not working outside of the home (or working very part-time), and in some cases I see women who have not rejected work or career but rather have actively chosen to “opt in” to a particular vision of family life. Though it may look like they have embraced a traditional family model, I know that many of them are striving to create something that is actually counter-cultural for our achievement-oriented Northeast community – a life that is not defined by public accolades or by the assumption that the more frantic your life is the more important you must be. And most of them view this period as one stage in a lifetime of varied work.

Ultimately, it’s the in/out binary that does us the greatest disservice. As we’re learning through new career trends including flex time, telecommuting, “encore” careers, the rise in small entrepreneurialism, etc., many of us will live lives in which work is ongoing but not linear, with different phases of irregular intensity. In aiming for that elusive “work/life balance,” we do best when we remember that work is neither in opposition to “life” (as that pesky slash might suggest) nor is it necessarily always at the center (as the in/out binary suggests).

What happens if we shift the language? An article in last Sunday’s New York Times Styles section explored how “lean in” has become such common parlance that it is now applied widely beyond Sandberg’s intention. This “off-label use” can undercut the phrase’s precision and power, but perhaps it can also help reframe the debates around work, family, and balance so that we can imagine “leaning in” as an invitation to explore broader and more varied definitions of success than Sandberg’s corporate model. That’s something I could lean into.

Posted in Feminism, Women, work | 3 Comments

A meditation on the paper trail


My mom’s home office, before I began the cleaning and organizing process. It looks better now.

For the past few months, I’ve been spending one day each week at my parents’ house, going through the voluminous papers and books my mom left behind when she died in December 2011. A well-known professor of Jewish Studies and a pioneering Jewish feminist, she was tremendously productive. She was also tremendously messy. The good news is that Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library on the History of Women wants to archive my mom’s papers. The bad news is that unearthing the materials to be archived requires a process best described as an archeological dig, with which I, the remaining historian in the family, have been tasked.

As you might imagine, this task is an emotional one. Sitting on the floor of her office, surrounded by teetering piles of papers, I’m both surrounded by her presence – her handwriting, her books, her mail – and acutely aware of her absence. I’m both overwhelmed by her productivity and impact – obvious in the materials documenting her many projects, the letters she received from students, her awards – and struggling with the existential slap-in-the-face reminder that no matter what you accomplish, the tangible things left are dusty papers, books, and photos. And then there’s the frustration that she left such a mess for someone else (me) to clean up.

My mom, May 1971

It’s hard for me to assimilate it all, so often I focus on the mess. “How did she let it get this way?” I complained to my aunt. She replied simply, “You know how driven she was. I think as soon as she finished one thing she wanted to just move right on to the next.” This explanation comforted me, somehow. My mother had incredible determination and energy, pressing on with her ambitious schedule and projects despite many bouts of cancer. Pausing to pick up the papers that had amassed around her would have slowed her down, and she didn’t want anything to break her stride.

People who knew my mom often comment that it must be such an interesting project going through her papers. Truthfully, at this point I find more trash than treasures. But the treasures are in there (usually on the floor, or buried in an old tote bag), and when I’m in the quotidian groove of the project – familiar to me from many months spent in archives researching my dissertation – it’s a sudden sliver of delight to come across something personal: a photo of my mom at age 24; a letter she wrote to Hannah Arendt asking her to contribute an article to a book on Jewish feminism; a New York Times article from 1977 on new Jewish baby naming ceremonies for girls in which she’s quoted (and I’m mentioned).

202468_10150959721201901_1360527625_oInevitably, and bittersweetly, I’m learning new things about my mom from the relics I find. From the freshman English papers I found (in a drawer with her bathing suits, obviously), I learned that even in 1965 she was thinking about feminism and women’s education. From an old ID and some letters from 1971, I discovered that she did not initially keep her maiden name but briefly used my dad’s last name when they were first married. From the boxes of old senior essays, I learned she kept copies of every thesis she directed, and she directed a wide-ranging many.

In the months after she died, I frequently picked up the phone to call her, momentarily forgetting she was gone. That impulse faded as we passed the one year mark, but it flared again yesterday when I was looking through some old letters. Not having answers to the little questions (You were friends with Carole Vance in graduate school? Who was Naomi’s old boyfriend whom she described as a “pedantic, dried up man”? Where did you stay in Jerusalem in 1968 – the address doesn’t make sense to me) is frustrating, and I realize that I miss the texture of the kibbitz-y conversations we used to have. But not having answers to — or, more realistically, the opportunity to be in conversation about — the big questions (How did you accomplish all this? What can you tell me about how to negotiate the ongoing work/family dilemmas?) – that is the tragic loss.

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Women, pluralism, and compromise

Many years ago, when I was a feisty 16-year-old, I had a meaningful experience at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. No, it wasn’t a religious awakening or a spiritual vision. Rather, it was a new understanding of the power of compromise.

My friend Ayelet and me, August 1992, my second time with Women of the Wall.

My friend Ayelet and me, August 1992, my second time with Women of the Wall.

I had come to the Western Wall (the Kotel in Hebrew) to join a group called Women of the Wall (WoW) in morning prayer, celebrating the beginning of a new Hebrew month. Initially, I was ambivalent about participating: the group, adhering to Jewish religious law to comply both with the Orthodox ruling over the Kotel and with the practice of some of the group’s members, was women-only. They did not put on their tallitot or tefillin (ritual garb traditionally worn only by men) until the second half of the service, which was held in an alcove removed from the actual holy site of the Wall; furthermore, the group did not consider itself a minyan (quorum), which meant that it could not recite certain prayers that traditionally are only said when ten men are present.

From my perspective as a young feminist who held a general policy of not praying in sex-segregated space, these compromises were too much. But intrigued by this group of women, their monthly near-civil disobedience, and the violent protests they had faced, I trooped along.

That summer morning, the light and the atmosphere were sunny and peaceful, and I found that despite my ideological opposition to some of the policies held by Women of the Wall, praying with them was moving and sweet. More importantly, I learned a big lesson that day: the willingness to bend one’s ideological rigidity and compromise can sometimes lead to new, meaningful encounters.

Lesley Sachs and Rachel Cohen Yeshurun, of Women of the Wall, being detained by police officer at the Kotel. Rosh Chodesh Kislev 5773 (Nov. 15, 2012).

Lesley Sachs and Rachel Cohen Yeshurun, of Women of the Wall, being detained by police officer at the Kotel. Rosh Chodesh Kislev 5773 (Nov. 15, 2012).

Many more years have passed since that sunny day in Jerusalem than I had been alive at the time. Almost more shocking to me, Women of the Wall – after years of court battles – continues to face monthly reprisals for their peaceful prayer. They are now regularly detained by the police stationed at the Wall for the crime of wearing – or even carrying! – prayer shawls.

This week brought a new attempt at a resolution: Natan Sharansky (former Member of Knesset and current head of the Jewish Agency) proposed an arrangement in which a separate archeological area of the Wall would be made an egalitarian space where men and women could pray together. Like all compromises, it’s imperfect. It leaves the current public area in front of the Wall unchanged; the egalitarian space would be separate and not visible from the rest of the Kotel. It would require significant renovations to the area, and there is no guarantee that the Knesset will approve funding for this purpose. It will be years before this compromise could actually be fully implemented. But both the rabbi with jurisdiction over the Wall and WoW are willing to work with the proposal.

Again, my feelings are ambivalent. Some days I wonder why I care about this issue. I don’t even like the Kotel. I find it fetishistic, almost idolatrous. I would probably never go there except to pray with WoW. Israel struggles with so many bigger obstructions to religious pluralism, like the ultra-Orthodox legal chokehold over marriage, divorce, and conversion. But even I, with my distaste for the Kotel, can’t deny that it carries enormous symbolic weight, and the fact that women cannot pray freely there undermines their equality and rights in Israel more generally.

Today, something interesting happened. As expected, five women were detained at the WoW prayer service. But the court then ruled that they were not disturbing public order, releasing them and rejecting the police’s request that they be barred from the Wall for three months. In what WoW called a “groundbreaking precedent,” the judge also declared that it was the ultra-Orthodox protesters who were disturbing public order.

Truth be told, I think I needed to hear it again: compromise can make space for new opportunities.

Posted in Current events, Feminism, Israel, Women | 2 Comments