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Don’t Know Much ’bout Orthodoxy

Reports about a religious woman running for office reveal a media blind spot: Orthodox women

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(Collage Tablet Magazine; original photos Women of the Wall, Mindy4Senate, and Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
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For the past month, the New York press has been mesmerized by a 22-year-old Orthodox woman running for state Senate in New York. It’s a story, as journalists would put it, with a lot of color, not least because Mindy Meyer’s campaign has been distinguished by its marked lack of professionalism. Her ostentatious hot pink website with its risqué soundtrack, her frequently missed interviews, and awkward campaign videos even led one outlet to dub her a “Snooki-esque figure,” after the infamous reality TV star of Jersey Shore.

The simplest explanation of the amateurish nature of Meyer’s candidacy is that she is an amateur politician. But writing in Newsweek/The Daily Beast, Allison Yarrow offered a different hypothesis: that “the political stories about Meyer are painful” because she is “a crash course on the complications of being a single young woman in the modern Orthodox world.”

This message seemed to resonate strongly with other journalists, like those at the popular feminist blog Jezebel, which quickly picked up the piece and highlighted Yarrow’s central point: “That no woman has emerged as a political candidate [in New York], despite the Orthodox community’s growing size and political sway, is largely a result of women in the community being relegated or elevated, depending on one’s perspective, to a domestic role—expected to dress modestly, live quietly, and draw little attention to themselves in the outside world. Some women won’t shake the hands of men,” Yarrow wrote. “Others refuse to speak in gender-mixed company, be photographed, or wear a color as flashy as pink.” Yarrow also expressed astonishment that Meyer’s candidacy had not elicited “blowback” from Orthodox leaders, dubbing her “The Unorthodox Candidate.”

But this sort of blanket generalization about Orthodox Jewish women is profoundly misleading and fails to take into account the differences within Orthodoxy—which are so vast that to ignore them is to completely misunderstand Mindy Meyer’s story. The fact that Meyer is Orthodox, unmarried, in law school, and pursuing a public career is only surprising if one is woefully ignorant of the impressive professional achievements of contemporary Modern Orthodox women.

Eliding the distinction between Modern Orthodoxy and ultra-Orthodoxy, as Yarrow does, is a common error but one that reduces the diverse Orthodox community to a set of superficial stereotypes. “There are a substantial number of Orthodox people who are not ultra-Orthodox, and while it’s convenient to lump all Orthodox people together, that’s not accurate,” explains Columbia School of Journalism Professor Ari Goldman, who covered religion for nearly two decades at the New York Times. “There is a distinction within Orthodoxy, and it’s an important one, especially when it comes to women. While these women may sit on the other side of the mehitza or may not fully participate in the life of the synagogue, they fully participate in their law firm, or their medical practice or their classroom.”

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Faye Kellerman has written 26 novels, including 19 New York Times best-sellers. Though she originally received a B.A. in math and a doctorate in dentistry from UCLA, she ultimately chose to pursue her passion for mystery-writing and has since earned numerous literary accolades. (Perhaps most notably, her protagonists were once deemed “haimish” by the Times.) Kellerman also happens to be a Modern Orthodox Jew—and she is, by her own admission, not unique. “I know Modern Orthodox women involved in medicine, dentistry, business, law, teaching at the university level, accounting, music, painting, writing—you name it,” she says. She herself has received “nothing but support” from the Modern Orthodox community throughout her own remarkable career. When asked if it is acceptable for Modern Orthodox women to pursue a serious vocation outside the domestic sphere, if they so desire, she responded simply: “Their opportunities are limited only to their limited sphere of thinking.”

Michelle Greenberg-Kobrin, the dean of students at Columbia Law School and a Modern Orthodox Jew, offers similar sentiments. Not only has the Modern Orthodox community not pushed back against her work, she says, but “I’ve been blessed with excellent mentors my entire life, male and female, who not only encouraged me, but smoothed the path before me in all sorts of ways.” Greenberg-Kobrin’s own Jewish involvement runs deep—she mentors young Jewish women professionals, both Orthodox and not, and has published legal scholarship aimed at helping agunot (Jewish women denied divorces by recalcitrant husbands).

These women and their experiences are not outliers. There are many thousands of Modern Orthodox women engaged in every form of public pursuit, from Jewish-studies professors at elite universities to press secretaries for U.S. senators. Indeed, according to the newly released UJA Jewish Community Study of New York, directed by Dr. Steven Cohen, 41 percent of female Modern Orthodox respondents possessed post-graduate or professional degrees—“a somewhat higher level of educational attainment than their non-Orthodox counterparts” and the highest among all populations surveyed, male and female. None of which should be surprising, given that a passing glance at the Ivy League and beyond reveals flourishing Orthodox communities with countless aspiring Orthodox female professionals.

Over at Yeshiva University, the institutional bastion of Modern Orthodoxy, similar trends can be observed. Last academic year, the university’s most prestigious post-graduate leadership program, the Presidential Fellowship, had 16 full-time members drawn from the previous graduating class. Half of them were women. Last week, the university granted tenure to 10 professors, the majority of them women, several of whom are Orthodox.

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Yet you’d know none of this if your only source of information was the press. “Orthodox Jews, as you may know, have a practice of strict gender separation,” asserted a writer for the Village Voice, in a piece explaining the exclusion of women from the recent anti-Internet rally at Citi Field. He appears not to know that many Orthodox Jews—Modern Orthodox Jews, that is—run coed schools like the famed Ramaz, as well as coed collegiate learning institutes, national Jewish community-building initiatives, and summer programs. Similarly, the heated controversy over gender-segregated buses in Israel and New York makes little sense if one doesn’t distinguish between Orthodox factions and their attitudes toward women. The New York Magazine blogger who glibly described these buses as “Orthodox Jews caught acting like Orthodox Jews” would be at a loss to explain why some of the most vocal opponents of such segregation are themselves Orthodox—Modern Orthodox.

It’s important to note that even as gender attitudes differ among various ultra-Orthodox sects, many women the media would characterize as ultra-Orthodox are accomplished, ambitious professionals—even as their activities often go unacknowledged by the mainstream press. “Many ultra-Orthodox women have very successful careers,” said Rechy Frankfurter, senior editor of Ami Magazine, who has never found her ultra-Orthodoxy incompatible with her work during her seven years in the field. Regular readers of Tablet know that ultra-Orthodox women can be found among the ranks of novelists, filmmakers, and entrepreneurs; regular readers of Newsweek’s simplistic coverage of Mindy Meyer, on the other hand, would be wondering how these women evaded Orthodox censure for their endeavors.

Which brings us back to Meyer and the real story about her Orthodoxy—which is that there is no story. Meyer is not some exotic specimen that has cast off communal norms to don the color pink and pursue a career in public life. She is one of many Orthodox women who have sought professional fulfillment in the secular sphere. That some journalists find her candidacy surprising says much more about their prejudices than those of the Orthodox community.

You needn’t take my word for it. Take Newsweek’s. While the current version of their article presents a list of Orthodox women who have run for or held New York state office prior to Meyer, a telling correction appears at the bottom of the piece: “An earlier version of this article incorrectly suggested that Meyer was the first female Orthodox candidate for office in New York City.”

As it turns out, it may not be the Orthodox community that has been relegating women to the fringes of public life. It’s the journalists who have been writing them out of the story.

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Great article, Yair! I was also interviewed for this Daily Beast article and I tried to convey the same message to the reporter. I gave her countless examples of successful Orthodox women – I had just written a post on the subject http://www.jewinthecity.com/2012/07/can-orthodox-jewish-woman-work but the reporter had her mind made up and proceeded with the story despite the information I gave her. When the article came out, I wanted to respond with a piece very similar to the one you wrote, but I was hesitant to start up an online spat. Kudos to you for saying everything I wanted to say. I created Jew in the City to break down so many Orthodox misconceptions and I love to see pieces like yours acknowledging how biased the MSM is when it comes to us!

    Thanks for at least trying! Try defining/explaining the variations within the ultra-Orthodox descriptor (‘yeshivish’ and ‘ba’al batish’ etc.)

Let them try to do that in Israel…..they won’t get very far….The Ultra-Orthodox here are setting the bar higher and higher.

Iris Ailin-Pyzik says:

The real problem is linguistic. We do not have a vocabulary that distinguishes between Orthodox observance types (I don’t want to say levels, because it then becomes a holier-than-thou competition), and we therefor lump them together, which is very misleading. And even if Jews had such a – for lack of a better word – rating system, no one else would get it anyway. Think of the supposed number of Inuit words for snow.

But can you just picture it? A scale ranging from “I’ll wear a burka with a stovepipe on my head” to “Judaism?”

I was an Orthodox Jewish woman who ran for the NJ State Assembly in 1999 as the Republican candidate. I later became municipal chair in my town. By the way, while I worked with many evangelical Christians in the political arena, they respected my beliefs, treated me warmly, and never tried to convert me.

Cyna Reisman says:

Perhaps Yair is not aware of the Charedi women who support their husbands in kollel. Highly educated, work in all fields, whether education, law, real estate, management administration… yeah, they have high level jobs in the non Jewish world. Never, ever discount the power of women in our world. It’s absurd.

I’m the person quoted with the comments about her and marriage

1) Mindy Meyer isn’t modern orthodox by any stretch. She’s left wing chareidi. – she went to Prospect Park for high school, then a year at a right wing Bais Yaakov Seminary in Israel before starting the all women’s Touro college program.

If you look at her linkedin (http://www.linkedin.com/pub/mindy-meyer/39/718/a12 ) – she’s also primarily worked with other orthodox jewish people as well. She hasn’t had that much experience talking with not orthodox people and working with them in general.

2) I read that UJA Fed study – I’m still curious as to the breakdown in postgraduate degree types and where they were gotten among Modern, Centerist, and Right wing orthodox jewish people. How many of them are in literature, or engineering, or research based science or social science, and how many are career based but not law nor an mba? And how many are law/mba from top 50 schools?

3) The reason the stereotype exists is that the media itself, including the Jewish media, perpetrates it. Otherwise why would the Forward hire Simi Lampert to blog about…. wedding planning … (she could write about other stuff.)

I agree that the author’s distinction between the experiences of Modern Orthodox women and Haredi women is too sharply drawn. But the larger point, that media portrayal of Orthodox women is biased and misinformed? That’s very refreshing.

As a Modern Orthodox woman who consumes a lot of secular media, I feel frustrated and baffled that reporters don’t take the time to reexamine their own assumptions. Religious women who don’t behave according to a journalists preconceived stereotypes are cast as challenging community norms, regardless of whether that has any basis in reality.

EvelynKrieger says:

Excellent article. Perhaps one reason the media doesn’t know about the number of accomplished orthodox women is that these women don’t go around wearing badges or signing their names, “Lisa Cohen, Orthodox Jew.” Even with their modest dress, it is easy to blend in. As a group, though, they could use a good publicist. Thank you, Yair, for stepping in. There are some journalists who really have an axe to grind, no matter how much evidence you give them.

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Don’t Know Much ’bout Orthodoxy

Reports about a religious woman running for office reveal a media blind spot: Orthodox women

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