Wednesday, May 23, 2012

An Interview with Chaya Kurtz (of XOJANE fame)

Chaya Kurtz became an instant celebrity yesterday when she published an article entitled "What Women's Media Needs to Know about Chassidic Women," a say-it-like-it-is account of all that is misunderstood and ultimately "awesome" about being a Chassidic woman. Here she responds to accusations that she whitewashed issues in the Chassidic community and also gives honest advice on what Jewish women can do to experience Judaism happily and withstand the "obnoxiousness" of the outside world.

As a Chassidic-and-proud woman, I felt "Bravo!" when I read Chaya's article. Of course, I have more thoughts about this complex topic, which I will be posting later today.

Thank you Chaya for heeding the responsibility of your article and taking the time to answer my questions! <3, Mimi

(Photo provided by Chaya Kurtz. Photo credit to Shneur Menaker/David Zimmand)

The Chassidic woman who wants you to know she is not oppressed

If you could put it in one sentence, what was the main message you wanted to convey with your article?
Criticizing all of Orthodox Judaism based on liberal bias is bad for the Jews; we (especially the women) are not what "the media" thinks we are.

Were you surprised with how your piece seemed to have struck a chord? Why do you think it went so viral?
Yes, I am surprised. I think it went viral because it is different. I work in web publishing and I know that content that is successful (meaning sharable) has to offer something new and different. It also has to be worded/presented in a way that is entertaining. I know that I am an entertaining writer. What I find really interesting is despite the anti-internet rally, so many non-Lubavitch religious Jews read this article and commented on it. That, I think, really speaks to their personal agency. These people are still sharing content and reading content on the Internet. 

How would you respond to accusations that you whitewashed a lot of issues in the Chassidic community? 
Why does every article about Chassidic/Orthodox Judaism need to be about the bad stuff? I think people are used to reading the bad stuff. You know what? For many people, our lives are fulfilling and not bad at all. It's about time that some positive words get spoken about the positive aspects of this lifestyle. I didn't sit down to write about the shady underbelly of Crown Heights. There are plenty of bloggers who already do that. I told the truth as I experience it, and as many women I know experience it.

Can you think of any areas of Chassidic life that many women do experience in a "imprisoned" way?
What does it mean to be imprisoned? When it is all rules and no joy. When you have the restrictions but none of the pleasure of learning and feeling connected to G-d. But if things are positive in your home and you are working on yourself and connecting to G-d as best you can, then this lifestyle feels great and not limiting. 

Do you think that all Chassidic woman are attracted to beards? How do you reconcile the possibility that some don't with the fact that they don't always have a choice?
How is it possible that there is a "shidduch (matchmaking) crisis" when you claim that women don't have a choice? I say this humorously, but I also mean it: First the buzz was that there is too much choice in shidduchim and therefore a "shidduch crisis." Now the buzz is that women are being forced into marriage. Also, not all religious guys have beards. Many trim their beards. Many shave their faces with electric razors. Beards are not ubiquitous. They are stereotypical, but there are plenty of guys who trim their beards. 

What can/should a Chassidic woman do if she is not experiencing Judaism as beautifully as you describe? 
The idea is joy. Without it, the yoke of heaven feels pretty heavy. Start at home. If your home is a place of kindness, happiness, Torah, singing and good food, you'll withstand the obnoxiousness of the outside world a lot better. I acknowledge that there is nastiness and harshness in some communities. Unfortunately, our communities are tainted by some nasty influences. Happiness starts at home. The home is the basis of Jewish life. Make your home a kindness-only zone; learn some Torah every day; talk to Hashem. They call it avoda ("service") because it takes effort. Nobody is going to take charge of your happiness except for you.

There are a lot of "gross" mikvahs, some in the heart of Chassidic communities. What do we do about that? 
Those are mostly for men. Women's mikvahs tend to be nicer. I think if the mikvahs are underfunded and not well cared for, it would behoove the communities to raise money to improve the mikvahs. The commandment of mikvah is so crucial to Jewish family life. It should be done in a beautified way. An inspiring example of this is the Chabad of Alpharetta, GA. They prioritized building a beautiful mikvah over having a beautiful shul. I mean their shul is nice and is a wonderful place, but it is a temporary building. What got the permanent building was their mikvah, which is gorgeous. I would love to see more communities follow their lead. 

Your thoughts on Deborah Feldman? 
She is a talented writer. She writes in a compelling way. I think she has a great career ahead of her. 

In retrospect, is there anything else you wish you would have included in the article? 
I think I would have identified myself as a Lubavitch Baal Teshuva (person who has "returned" to Judaism). It would have strengthened my argument. I chose this lifestyle and even though I sometimes feel pulled by the "old world," I stick with it. The idea that there are people who actually choose to become religious and are not "forced" into it by their parents could have added some juice to what I said. Also, the biggest criticism of the piece was that I did not identify myself as a Lubavitch BT. I hear that it needed to be stated, although pretty much everybody figured it out anyway.

Why do you think there is so much recent public/media interest in Orthodox Jews? 
When has there not been? The rest of the world finds us fascinating. Anything fascinating generates clicks and page views. People love to hate Jews. So file a sensational story about Jews, and it is going to sell. This is a very old story. 

How do you think the world will finally come to understand Judaism?
You want an honest answer? When Moshiach comes, they are going to understand. Until then, I think we have the same old battle we've always been fighting.  

What do you see in your future as a voice on Jewish women's issues?
I have an odd place of having a degree in Women's Studies, a career as an editor and I am also a Lubavitcher. I have a very critical perspective on gender. It took a lot for me to shift the way I look at things from Western feminism to a Torah perspective. I think I'd like to write longer, more in-depth articles on the subject. This piece was just a blog post. You can't fit the whole megilla into 700 words. I think at this point it would be worthwhile for me to invest some time in writing something more substantial.

Any closing thoughts?
I love Jews. I love Mitzvoth. I love Torah. I hope that people will see that there is freedom inside of Torah. Now the challenge is actually living Torah. But Hashem doesn't ask of us anything that we can't do.

17 LadyMama voices:

Rivki said... [Reply to comment]

Thanks for this, Mimi! Chaya, I loved your article! Thank you for putting a positive Orthodox take out there. We need more of it. Keep up the great work, ladies!

Anonymous said... [Reply to comment]

Rock on, sister! Re: the internet rally, yes, I am one of those non-Chabad religious internet users. My takeaway from the important event was to pay more attention to how and how often I am online. Universal, no? I took several measures to do just that and I'm thrilled I did. It does not prevent me from accessing and sharing quality content.

Evelyn Krieger said... [Reply to comment]

Chaya, you're a great writer. Good for you for focusing on positivity. I don't think anyone should be telling you what to write about. It isn't your job to go exposing every problem in the orthodox world. We should all start with ourselves, then work outwards.
Hope to read more of your work.

Rochel baskin said... [Reply to comment]

I really enjoyed this much better then the article, tho the article was good this is more real and down to earth!

Esther said... [Reply to comment]

Chaya u are a great writer, thank for posting this article and answering so nicely this questions
Mimi very well asked questions :)

Esther said... [Reply to comment]

Chaya you are a great writer, thank you for posting the article and answering so nicely this questions :)
Mimi very good questions u asked

Anonymous said... [Reply to comment]

@RivkiYou're all so annoying.

Sina @ the kosher spoon said... [Reply to comment]

Chaya, I think your answers to the well thought-out questions were poignant and clear. You did a great job expressing your perspective and I think that this post should go viral!
I would love to read about your shift in perspective from modern feminism to Torah values. I think it's something all Jewish women (BT or not) can relate to!
Thanks Mimi, for writing about this.

Yam Erez said... [Reply to comment]

Let me begin by saying that Kurtz writes like a demon and I mean that as a compliment. I also want to say that commenting on xoJane is a huge *patchkerai*, so I came here. Renewing my driver's license was quicker and easier. So...

1. I actually think it was disingenuous of Kurtz NOT to mention that she's a *baalat tshuva*. I picked it up immediately, but many readers don't realize the irony in the fact that while Kurtz is university-educated, no girl born into the community will be, certainly not to major in women's studies at a liberal arts college. So she *davka* chose a lifestyle that precludes this for her own children. I call disingenuous.

2. If the Jewish woman's role is to nurture the next generation, then how come the women didn't attend the *asefa* and the men weren't home watching on TV?

3. There was a no. 3, but I can't go back to see your post without leaving this page, and I can't recall, so I'll break here.

Yam Erez said... [Reply to comment]

Oh yeah, I know what no. 3 was: I see CHaBaD as sleep deprivation. Either it's a *yom tov*; or a simcha (with an average of six kids per couple, there's always either a circumcision, bar mitzva, or wedding; and on top of all that are all the CHaBaD extras like *melave malka* (so you can't God forbid just relax after *havdala*) and every *muntik und dunerschtik* it's the memorial day of some rebbe or one of their wives, which means an all-nighter, in addition to the ordinary duties of running a multi-child household. Ergo, sleep deprivation, which to me says "cult".

Yam Erez said... [Reply to comment]

Oops. Sorry. Forgot to check "e-mail followups" before.

Daniel W said... [Reply to comment]

Since you so generously mentioned Georgia in your Mikva response, I'll use that as the basis of my comment.

Lubavich Chassidim are simply not in the same bucket as the rest of the ultra-orthodox world. My wife was born and raised in Atlanta (and we live there now) and has such a wonderful world view of Lubavich because of the Chabad families here who went to school with her, who were her best friends, who were not afraid - and are still not afraid - to be a part of the community around them and engage them.

But that's the limit - you can and did write beautifully about the Lubavich lifestyle, but I don't think it's representative of the communities who shun all of those kinds of interaction. Who would get away with using the word "crappy" in an article or talking so openly about sexuality? When your handbook includes reaching out to unaffiliated Jews and engaging them, you need the biggest vocabulary possible, but absent that you are left with communities full of women who simply can't speak out.

Your status of a Ba'alat Teshuva should make no difference, and I feel sad for the world for all the people who seem to look down upon you somehow because of that. Atlanta has such a large BT community that we see no difference at all between an FFB and a BT. But it is absolutely a major point that you speak for Chabad Lubavich and NOT for the untra-orthodox communities of America and beyond.

Michelle said... [Reply to comment]

I know my voice is quite small and unique but I just wanted to share my thoughts regarding "when the world will come to understand Judaism."

I am not Jewish, I was raised Catholic. But I do have a profound respect and appreciation for Judaism. Ms. Kurtz remarks: "If your home is a place of kindness, happiness, Torah, singing and good food, you'll withstand the obnoxiousness of the outside world a lot better."
How can one not respect this way of life? (and yes I know there is more to it!). I have dozens of secular Jewish friends, but I have also known Orthodox women (mostly via work). I have been so impressed with their commitment to their familial and spiritual lives. They were also exemplary professionals with remarkable credentials. I know it's not easy-- most had young and quickly expanding families. In fact, we all faced similar issues as women in this modernizing world. I think that we were good friends (as far as workplace friendships go). I will say that a a couple times, there was a lot of surprise from one or two that I knew, well, anything about Judaism (on one occasion, there was shock when I wished her a good Sabbath). Perhaps that is a sad reflection on society at large that the expectation of my knowledge would be so low, but at the time I was a little offended.
Maybe I don't understand Judaism fully or "know" it as my own Truth, but I have made a considerable effort to educate myself and I can fully appreciate that, although it's not how I choose to live, there are many values and traditions that I *profoundly* respect... not to mention the incredible history and contributions to society made by generations of Jews.
I don't know if my understanding meets criteria for "true understanding," and in this crazy world, it seems human beings are not on the right track towards understanding each other. But I just want to say that there are people out there, like me, who care and are making an effort.

Anonymous said... [Reply to comment]

Thank you, Michelle. As an Orthodox Jewish woman, I would like to say I have tears in my eyes while reading your thoughts. Please know your opinion is validated and appreciated. May others learn from your respectful ways.

Der Shygetz said... [Reply to comment]

Oh yeah, I know what no. 3 was: I see CHaBaD as sleep deprivation.

LOL. I seriously hope you are joking.

What you describe is life in any large and close-knit Jewish community. In Williamsburgh Satmar, there is far more going on every night than in Crown Heights-Chabad because the community is much bigger.

Those of us who live outside the major Chabad centers hardly have the kind of life you describe. One simcha a month is typical for where I am, and I think we have 150 families.

And melave malka is not a very big deal in Chabad unless someone hosts one because a family yahrtzeit happens to fall on a motzoei Shabbos. (It is much bigger in other Chassidic communities.)

Commemorations of Chabad figures? Hmm..a dozen a year at most, with only three or four really considered mandatory.

Besides, no one forces anyone to go to a simcha or event.

Anonymous said... [Reply to comment]

This interview is robotic and only frum people who barely ever read anything would think that Chaya is a great writer.


Yam Erez said... [Reply to comment]

Der Shygetz, first of all, thanks for actually taking the time to reply as opposed to just more Cheerleading for Chassidut. I'll reply point by point:

1. "In Williamsburgh Satmar, there's far more going on every night than in Crown Heights-ChaBaD because the community is much bigger."

Doesn't this actually support my point, i.e., CH is less sleep deprived than Williamsburgh?

2. Even one simcha month is a lot when you add to it all the chagim and even three mandatory all-night study sessions a year.

I still call built-in, constant low-level (or higher) fatigue.