OyChicago articles

‘Women Unchained’

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‘Women Unchained’ photo

Actress Mayim Bialik, narrator of "Women Unchained."

Women's rights issues such as abortion and birth control are prevalent in the news these days, but there's one issue in the Jewish community that's not getting nearly as much attention.

Beverly Siegel—a producer of award-winning documentaries for commercial and public television, corporate clients, and Jewish organizations—is working to change that.

Women Unchained—produced by native Chicagoans Siegel and Leta Lenik—is an important new documentary about the experiences of modern-day agunot, women whose husbands refuse to grant them a Jewish divorce. The Chicago premiere of Women Unchained will take place Sunday, March 11 at Spertus. The film is narrated by actress Mayim Bialik (of Blossom and The Big Bang Theory) and features an original score by Grammy-winning guitarist C Lanzbom, lead singer of Soul Farm.

Women Unchained follows six women in their quest to receive a get, or Jewish divorce, from their husbands. The film interviews leading women's rights advocates, rabbis, and experts in Jewish law. It explores the state of women's rights in Judaism and details "get-o-nomics," outlandish extortion schemes levied against some women.

According to Siegel, in ancient times, an "agunah" was typically a woman whose husband was lost at battle or at sea, with no proof of his death. In the modern era, an agunah is generally a woman whose husband's whereabouts are known, but, "holding out for money or vengeance, he just refuses to give her a 'get.'"

"When I would tell people what I was working on, I was frequently struck by how many women would respond, 'my aunt had that problem,' or 'my cousin's friend had that problem,' she said. "Most people knew someone. At first it was uncanny; then it got scary."

A recent study revealed that there have been 460 women identified as agunot in America in the last five years, but Siegel said this number is vastly understated, since it does not include women who "paid the price" for a get, or got help from women's organizations who did not participate in the study.

"Get" the word out 
The issue was brought to Siegel's attention when her friends, Darryle and Michael Gillman of Lincolnwood, struggled to help their daughter get out of a marriage.

"It took my friends a lot of advocacy and work and pain, and ultimately a lot of money, and they finally got a get for their daughter." So they came to her, hoping to raise awareness of the problem of get refusal.

A year later, when Siegel decided to move forward with the project, she, Darryle Gillman and other women in the modern Orthodox community founded a not-for-profit organization, "The Agunah Project, Inc." to raise funds. Women Unchained was funded by contributions from individuals in Chicago, Florida, and New York, as well as by a grant from the Jewish Women's Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago, an independent program of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.

Meanwhile, Lenik, who lives in New York, had a friend going through a similar situation, raising eight children on her own. They also discovered that two filmmakers, including then-Evanston resident Jacky Comforty, had started documentary projects on this subject but then quit, and Siegel and Lenik were able to incorporate their work into the film as well.

"Get" the facts 
While many think this is an issue that only affects the Orthodox community, Siegel said, in fact, if a child of a woman who does not have a proper get decides to become more observant or chooses to move to Israel, it could complicate things for that child when he or she chooses to get married. "It's a women's-rights issue but it's not as narrowly confined to just the Orthodox community as you may think," she said. "It's something that all Jews really need to understand and know about."

While the goal of the project was to raise awareness about this issue, it was also to advocate for solutions. One solution that Siegel says has great promise is for couples to sign pre-nuptial agreements and for rabbis in the Orthodox community to refuse to perform marriages without them. "There a lot of work to be done," said Siegel.

Women Unchained, which premiered in March 2011 as the opening film of the Women and Religion Film Festival in Jerusalem, will be shown at Spertus: Chicago's Center for Learning and Culture, Sunday, March 11 followed by a panel discussion.

The panel will led by Emily Soloff, associate director for Interreligious and Intergroup Relations for the American Jewish Committee. In addition to Siegel, the panel will include eminent authority on halakha (Jewish law) and av beis din (head of the rabbinical court) of both the Beth Din of America and the Chicago Rabbinical Council, Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz, and international women's rights lawyer, Sharon Shenhav, both of whom are interviewed in the film.

This program is the Norman Asher Memorial Lecture and the Alex and Klara Tulsky Symposium for 2012. Addressing pressing challenges facing the American Jewish community, it reflects the vision and communal interests of the donors of these long-standing endowed Spertus programs. Tickets for the screening and panel discussion are $18 ($8 for students) and can be purchased online at spertus.edu or by phone at (312) 322-1773. For more information, visit spertus.edu.

"Women Unchained" is distributed by the National Center for Jewish Film.  For further information about the film or to arrange a screening, contact www.jewishfilm.org or call (781) 736 8600.

Pocketing the past

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Why do we go to Israel? What exactly is it that draws us there?

On the airplane, somewhere between Madrid and Tel Aviv, these were the questions I penned in my journal. For the next ten days, I tried my best to write every new word, every smell, and every question. For some I expected answers, and for others, I thought it best to watch and wonder.

Traveling to Israel with Shorashim is like taking a crash course in contemporary Jewry. The minute we stepped off the plane, classes began. We were immersed in the subjects of cultural Judaism, historical and modern Zionism, and contemporary Israeli life. Fortunately, we had an excellent guide and a group of six amazing Israelis who not only acted as tutors, but as companions and friends.

Like many others in our group, I was coming to Israel with my own, somewhat dissolute, Jewish background. I knew that part of the reason Birthright exists is to reestablish and redefine the importance of this Jewish narrative. Knowing this, I tried my best to expect little and anticipate much. I took pages of notes and hundreds of pictures, and I tried to ask the right questions.

It is amazing that such a small piece of land has been the focus of Western history for the past 3,000 years. As we bussed from Tel Aviv to the Golan Heights to Jerusalem to the Negev, and back again, I tried to pay attention to why. The trailhead for the hike by the Jilabun in the Golan Heights winds its way through old, shelled-out Syrian barracks, then working its way into a valley with waterfalls, cool shade and other natural wonders. Some of the hottest temperatures in Israel are recorded near here, though Israel's only ski resort is just a short drive away.

The same went for our hike in the Negev at Ein Avdat. Ibex wandered the cliffs high above. The water at the base of the canyon was cool and calm. The soil for miles in all directions is dry and arid, though through experimental agricultural projects, Israelis have found ways to cultivate the land and make it fruitful.

Perhaps the most significant moment on the trip was the morning we woke up at 3am and drove to the base of Masada, which starts at Dead Sea level and stretches an astounding 1,400 ft. into the air, though it only makes it a few hundred feet above sea level.

We made it to the peak just in time for sunrise, which was contemplative and misty. The Dead Sea glimmered to the east, and we all suspected some profundity in our accomplishment of having made it to this point. A few of those in our group decided to pocket a few rocks from the mountain to commemorate the moment. Noting this, our guide paused and said: "It is okay for you to take a piece of this land, but by doing so, you are making a promise that you will one day return these stones to where you found them."

For a moment I hesitated, but as I looked again over the ancient ruins, which symbolized the stories and memories of our ancestors, I picked up a stone and stowed it away in good faith. One day, I will bring it back. I'm not sure how or when. I'm not even sure why. Maybe it's compulsion. However, what I now understand – and what I didn't understand before – is that this place and time will forever be a part of me and who I want to be.

Registration for birthright trips is closing soon!! To register, visit: http://www.israelwithisraelis.com/

Local experts dish out their best relationship advice

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The rabbi, the therapist, and the matchmaker. No, this isn't the start of a bad joke. In honor of Valentine’s Day, we asked some local experts for their take on tough relationship conundrums that are on the minds of Jewish Chicagoans—married and single.

The rabbi

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Rabbi Abe Friedman is a rabbi at Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago.

The therapist

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Lili Gray, LCSW, is the director of Adult, Family and Child Services at Jewish Child & Family Services' Arlington Heights Office.

The matchmaker

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Barbie Adler, based in Chicago, is the founder and president of the leading matchmaking firm Selective Search.

Q. What do you recommend to single frustrated Jews looking for their match who have tried the Jewish social scene and Jewish dating sites—and still haven't found the one?

The rabbi: Forget about looking for your "match," and find other Jewish singles who are interested in things that you like doing. Sometimes the pressure created by "singles" events can be counterproductive; instead, look for other activities where you are likely to meet Jewish singles but where the focus is on something else—synagogue, classes, arts and culture, sports. Connect with new friends around shared interests, and see what other relationships might emerge from there.

The therapist: Instead of focusing on the dating scene, focus on yourself, and tending your own garden first. Take classes or attend programs related to your own hobbies and interests, where you will naturally be meeting people who have common interests—including someone who may be your match or know the perfect match for you. Focus on the inside, rather than the outside. At a bare minimum you will be more interesting and happier—and that is attractive to others.

The matchmaker: Don't give up. Your Jewish life partner is out there. Take it upon yourself to create a love life game plan. Determine what's working and what's not working. What can you do different or what can you do better? Are you hanging out in the same places huddled with the same people expecting to meet new people? Mobilize your friends to invite like-minded Jewish singles and host a joint dinner party. Also—very important—if you have high standards in your future mate, be your best in return. That means emotionally and physically be the best version of you. If you are still mending your heart over your ex or you haven't taken care of your body in a while—take the time to first be happy with yourself and then put yourself online and not before... Keep the faith. Your one and only is out there—don't be discouraged because your friends have coupled up sooner than you have. Your time will come—be happy, invest in yourself, and all else will follow.

Q. And for people recently back in the dating scene after years in a relationship, where do they begin?

The rabbi: Date yourself. If there's something you would do, if only you had a date—see a movie, try a new restaurant, go to a concert—do it anyway. At the very least, you'll get out and have a good time; but more than that, you'll be getting back in touch with the things you love most—the same things that will hopefully attract your next partner.

The therapist: You are just out of relationship, one that just ended for whatever reason. This is a good time first to spend reflecting—what happened in last relationship? (Remember to look at what you BOTH did, not just your partner.) Assess who you are right now and what you have to offer a partner. And, if you waved a magic wand, who is your perfect match? Now look if there is a gap between what you want, and what you offer, and if so, what might you change in you? Looking at ourselves is the thing we have control over, where we can make ourselves the best potential partner we can be. And don't forget to wonder if there was anything you could have done differently, that you can learn from in future relationships.

The matchmaker: Embrace the fact that this will be an incredible new exciting chapter in your life. You just went through a heavy rainstorm and it's now time for the sun to shine in your personal life again. Even the most amicable divorce is still a major stressor to overcome. Make sure you take the time to heal. Then rediscover yourself and things that make you happy. Take a temperature read of the person you are today and write down what you know you need in your encore love. You aren't the same person when you got married—so your criteria of who he/she is may be different. Once you feel you are at your best—it's time to date! [In addition to using dating sites,] get out there and meet new people. Let your interests and passions guide you. Don't wait to be invited to a party—host the party! Very important tip: Both men and women will lace up their shoes and run for the hills if they detect that you are a hater of the opposite sex. When you meet someone that has potential, show them just how amazing you are. Be quick to smile, laugh and show your passion for life, friends, and family.

Q. How do you help a friend who's in a bad relationship?

The rabbi: One of my wife's friends was once engaged to a man that her friends could not stand. When my wife asked me what she could do to stop her friend from marrying this guy, I told her she should express her concerns once, and then let it drop—her friend was going to do what she was going to do, and the best thing the other friends could do was to protect the friendship so that if things did go sour, she would still have her friends for support. A few years later, when the friend's marriage fell apart—in the worst possible ways—the same friends who were against the marriage in the first place helped her rebuild her life. And no one said, "I told you so."

The therapist: Giving advice is problematic, if a friend is not asking for it. He or she may complain, but not actually ask for help. The best thing to do is to listen and be there when they want to talk. If someone is asking for advice—you need to be careful. If you speak negatively of a partner, and they stay together, your friendship might suffer. Perhaps the best response is "My opinion is that I care about you, I can see you are hurting, and I want to be supportive in whatever you decide to do."

The matchmaker: Adhere to the golden rule—be the friend to others that you want someone to be to you. Come from a place of love and compassion and be honest with your friend. Let your friend know if they are truly happy, you are happy but you keep witnessing or hearing unhealthy patterns in their relationship and you wouldn't be a friend if you didn't express your concern. Be careful not to judge or overstep your boundaries. Everyone has to make their own choices—if you don't like the person but your friend does, all you can do is be there for your friend but careful as your friend may not be ready to hear it and it could backfire and place a fracture on your relationship with your friend.

Q. How do newlyweds meld their own Jewish traditions with those of their spouse's family?

The rabbi: My mother likes to tell the story of the first Shabbat dinner she made after she and my father got married. Everything was set just right, and she brought the chicken from the oven, set it on the table, and sat down. Then the two of them stared at each other over the chicken for ten minutes until they figured out that my mother's father always cut the chicken in their house, while in my father's house his mother did it—so each of them were waiting for the other to serve the food. The moral of the story: you don't know what you don't know, but clear communication—and a good sense of humor!—will go a long way.

The therapist: Hopefully the newlyweds talked about this before they got married! The Chuppah Project is program JCFS offers where couples can come together, so they've talked through the important stuff before marriage. There are lots of stresses and unspoken expectations in marriage, which is why it's better to talk about it before the big date. With the Chuppah Project, you will: 1. Clarify expectations of marriage; 2. Learn healthy communication; 3. Address differing family and religious traditions; and 4. Think about the Jewish aspect of your marriage. And if you didn't talk in advance? Just call and you can go to therapy. Couples therapy doesn't always mean a big problem. It can be around these kinds of day to day issues that are pretty normal to be struggling with in a new marriage.

The matchmaker: It's important to talk about what traditions mean the most to each of you. Then, the secret sauce is compromise. Give thought to what you and your spouse love about your Jewish traditions and talk through how you can celebrate and honor both of your sacred traditions as well as make a new tradition of your own. For success with melding family traditions like whose family will we be with for Passover, etc. take out the Jewish calendar at the beginning of the year and map out what holiday is more important to your family vs. your spouse's family and try to incorporate the calendar to make everybody happy. Manage your expectations and let both families know you are trying the best you can.

~Compiled by Cindy Sher with Cheryl Jacobs and Stefanie Pervos Bregman.

Laughing at the darkness

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Laughing at the darkness photo

It's writers like Shalom Auslander who challenge us—as readers, as Jews, as human beings. Who take something that seems so cut and dry and complicate it, make us think. His memoir, Foreskin's Lament, about his Orthodox Jewish upbringing and his complex relationship with God, established him as a powerful, controversial, and comedic writer.

In his newly released debut novel, Hope: A Tragedy (Riverhead), Auslander makes us laugh and cringe at the same time, and pushes the boundaries in a work he has called "a comic novel about genocide."

Solomon Kugel, a neurotic, yet optimistic Jewish compost salesmen moves to upstate New York with his wife and son for a fresh start—a place without history—hoping to leave the past behind. Kugel's mother, who is near death and has rewritten her own personal history to include surviving the Holocaust though she was born after the war ended, moves in. And when Kugel hears tapping in the middle of the night, much to his dismay, he discovers an ancient woman hiding in his attic, typing away on a lap top, claiming to be none other than Anne Frank. The story unfolds as Kugel struggles to keep his family together, remain hopeful for his son, all while dealing with the tragic history that he has to live with—literally.

Auslander, who grew up in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Monsey, New York, has published articles in Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, Tablet, and The New Yorker. He is a regular contributor to the Public Radio International program This American Life. His short story collection, Beware of God, was published in 2005.

Auslander will visit Spertus, Chicago's center for Jewish learning and culture, for two programs in February. In advance of his trip, Oy!Chicago talked with Auslander about his foray into novels and what to do when you find Anne Frank hiding in your attic:

Oy!Chicago: This is your first novel. Why this? Why now? 
Shalom Auslander: I was exhausted with talking about reality after Foreskin's Lament and I thought it would be fun just to do some fiction. There's this rule in fiction that the main character has to have this fatal flaw, at least that's what the Writer's Digest books all tell me, I thought it would be funny if could turn something that was generally thought of as positive like hope, into a flaw.

As I was writing [Kugel's] character and letting him talk about the things he had hopes for, one of them turned out to be not dying in a gas chamber and I thought, oh that's interesting. It wasn't until very late in the writing process that Anne Frank even appeared…If you're going to take this leap and try and get away from all of your past and start over, what's the worst thing that could happen? Well, the worst thing that could happen is that you could take your mother with you and the second worst thing is that you could find Anne Frank in the attic—sort of represents all of the bad shit of history.

You call your book "a comic novel about genocide." How do you make such an oxymoronic concept work so well? 
I think what you're describing is black comedy…I think the blacker the world gets the more we have to laugh at it. But to me, life is a black comedy—we're born, we don't know why, we don't know where we came from, we are aware that we die. We're on a planet that doesn't seem to really want us here that much…and we fall in love and then we die. I don't know how else to look at life other than a black comedy.

It's very easy for someone to just go oh that's awful, or be offended, but when you can get through to somebody, [who can] then reserve that [initial reaction] until you're through, you'll see that what I'm doing is I'm laughing at the darkness. I'm not laughing at people who suffered or the Holocaust or anything else—though I'm sure others will say I am. It's laughing at the idea that [tragedy] happens over and over again and we're very ill equipped to either stop it or deal with it, but we have to.

In the book, there's this recurring theme that hope is a flaw, it's what's wrong with the world. Do you think that's true? 
It was a lot of fun to give voice to that perspective and let someone say something that you think is horrible or wrong but make a really good argument for it…that part of what leads to all the sadness and disappointment is that we expect far too much from the world around us. The idea that everything is going to work out okay generally makes us want to kill each other when it doesn't. As for me though, I have two little boys—I can't go embracing that.

The other theme is this idea of how we deal with our past, with our history. Do you think that is just a Jewish problem? 
If the world my parents and rabbis described to me as everyone just hating the Jews existed, it would suck for Jews but it'd be kinda happy for the rest of the world, but it doesn't actually come to that at all. I used the Holocaust because it's my point of reference for THE WORST BAD THING THAT EVER HAPPENED, but if I were Armenian it would be discussing the Armenian Genocide, if I were African perhaps it would be slavery, it could be WWI, it could be anything. There's no shortage of horrors in the past and the real question is Jew or otherwise, what the fuck can we do?

How much of you is in Solomon Kugel? 
Part of me is Kugel, hoping that you can just move into the woods and start over. Part of me is Anne Frank, that some mornings I wake up and I just don't want to leave the house—the world seems such a horrible place on such a regular basis that I'd rather just lock all of us up in the attic and use my iPhone to order food and download movies for the rest of our lives. And then there's a part of me that I've moved away from but that is also like Mother—I came from the idea that paranoia and fear will be your greatest protector. If we're just frightened enough then it will never happen again. If you expect the unexpected then it won't be unexpected when it happens. 

On Saturday, Feb. 11 at 8 p.m., Auslander will be the guest of honor at a special Spertus reception. On Sunday, Feb. 12 at 2 p.m., Auslander will present the winner of Moment Magazine's memoir writing contest and discuss personal influences on his work, including the quirks of faith and family.  

Tickets for either program may be bought online at spertus.edu or by calling (312) 322-1773.

Auslander's books will be for sale at these programs.
(Please note that these books and programs contain adult content.)

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