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Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Sex Scandals and the Jewish City

With a scenario that could have been penned by Yiddish novelist, Isaac Bashevis Singer, a US academic has  exposed  the murder of unwanted Jewish babies in 19th century Vilna.

Delegates at a conference entitled   “Sex and the Shtetl,” heard about a court case in the city  which divulged a Jewish baby-farming operation where single Jewish mothers acted as wet nurses for wealthier women while their own babies were kidnapped and murdered.

The claim came from Chae-ran Freeze of Brandeis University who said that if  the Vilna Jewish community had built orphanages instead of pretending single women weren’t getting pregnant, such tragedies could have been avoided.

Freeze, author of the forthcoming Sex and the Shtetl: Gender, Family, and Jewish Sexuality in Tsarist Russia, added: “Many of the men who seduced these women emigrated to America, leaving them behind."

Later, Edward Portnoy of Rutgers University told the conference at  Berkeley, California that “dowry farmers,” Jewish men who married young women for their dowries, then left for the New World. Others married multiple women in Europe and sailed to New York, then sent for the women and forced them into prostitution.

“Geographic mobility, to a certain extent, shaped sexual behaviour and morality,” said Freeze. “These men didn’t have to account for their behaviour because they were leaving.”

Meanwhile, the misuse and abuse of women by the patriarchal Orthodox  community continues apace in both Britain and Israel.

In the past week, Nofrat Frenkel, a 28 year-old Israeli medical student and  Conservative Jew was arrested and interrogated  for wearing a  tallit (prayer shawl) during a women's service at the Kotel - Western Wall of The Temple in Jerusalem .  

Ms Frenkel, a member of the Women of the Wall, was later told during police detention that she had behaved “provocatively and in a way which upset public order.” During the Rosh Chodesh service, Ms Frenkel also held a  Torah scroll which had been  donated to the group by supporters.

Anat Hoffman of the Israel Religious Action Centre says in the organisation's current newsletter:

"In my 21 years of praying at the wall every Rosh Chodesh (literally first of the month or new moon), no woman has ever been arrested before on such grounds.

When I pray at the wall ...  I am not on a political or media-seeking mission.  I am simply praying.  I am seeking the right to express myself in prayer openly, to wear a tallit, and to read from the Torah at the Wall.  That is all – but in Israel, a woman’s personal desire to pray is seen as a disturbance to public peace."

Further, a public meeting in London today was devoted to the issue of domestic abuse in the Anglo-Jewish community.

Emma Bell of  Jewish Women's Aid told the Jewish Chronicle in a report published last weekend: "There's sometimes  a sense in the Jewish community of 'it doesn't happen to us', but the JWA doesn't have any evidence to show that. All we have evidence to show is that there are a lot of women in the community who are affected by domestic violence and that there is a stigma and shame attached to it."

  • Vilna or 'Vilnius' is renowned in the  Jewish world as having been "the  Jerusalem of Lithuania". Its community is regarded by those nostalgic for a strictly Orthodox  Jewish past as a beacon of  all that is good and pure in Jewish life and learning.

I must keep asking exactly what it is that our new, earnest generation of ba'alei teshuvot (returnees to Orthodox Judaism) desire? The restoration of an invented rural idyll of domestic holiness? Or the bitterly recorded life of squalor, grinding poverty and pogroms from which their great-grandparents were so desperate to flee?

My darlings: wake up, smell the coffee and DON'T HURT EACH OTHER!


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