A new computer algorithm can predict in the early stages of pregnancy, or even before pregnancy has occurred, which women are at a high risk of gestational diabetes. (photo from Weizmann Institute)
A new computer algorithm can predict in the early stages of pregnancy, or even before pregnancy has occurred, which women are at a high risk of gestational diabetes, according to a study by researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science.
The study, reported recently in Nature Medicine, analyzed data on nearly 600,000 pregnancies available from Israel’s largest health organization, Clalit Health Services.
“Our ultimate goal has been to help the health system take measures so as to prevent diabetes from occurring in pregnancy,” said senior author Prof. Eran Segal of the institute’s computer science and applied mathematics, and molecular cell biology departments.
Gestational diabetes is characterized by high blood sugar levels that develop during pregnancy in women who did not previously have diabetes. It occurs in three to nine percent of all pregnancies and is fraught with risks for both mother and baby. Typically, gestational diabetes is diagnosed between the 24th and 28th weeks of pregnancy, with the help of a glucose tolerance test in which the woman drinks a glucose solution and then undergoes a blood test to see how quickly the glucose is cleared from her blood.
In the new study, Segal and colleagues started out by applying a machine learning method to Clalit’s health records on some 450,000 pregnancies in women who gave birth between 2010 and 2017. Gestational diabetes had been diagnosed by glucose tolerance testing in about four percent of these pregnancies. After processing the dataset – made up of more than 2,000 parameters for each pregnancy, including the woman’s blood test results and her and her family’s medical histories – the scientists’ algorithm revealed that nine of the parameters were sufficient to accurately identify the women who were at a high risk of developing gestational diabetes. The nine parameters included the woman’s age, body mass index, family history of diabetes and results of her glucose tests during previous pregnancies (if any).
Next, to make sure that the nine parameters could indeed accurately predict the risk of gestational diabetes, the researchers applied them to Clalit’s health records on about 140,000 additional pregnancies that had not been part of the initial analysis. The results validated the study’s findings: the nine parameters helped accurately identify the women who ultimately developed gestational diabetes.
These findings suggest that, by having a woman answer just nine questions, it should be possible to tell in advance whether she is at a high risk of developing gestational diabetes. If this information is available early on – in the early stages of pregnancy or even before the woman has gotten pregnant – it might be possible to reduce her risk of diabetes through lifestyle measures such as exercise and diet. On the other hand, women identified by the questionnaire as being at a low risk of gestational diabetes may be spared the cost and inconvenience of the glucose testing. (Visit weizmann.ac.il/sites/gd-predictor to access the self-assessment questionnaire.)
In more general terms, this study has demonstrated the usefulness of large human-based datasets, specifically electronic health records, for deriving personalized disease predictions that can lead to preventive and therapeutic measures.
The work was led by graduate students Nitzan Shalom Artzi, Dr. Smadar Shilo and Hagai Rossman from Segal’s lab at the Weizmann Institute of Science, who collaborated with Prof. Eran Hadar, Dr. Shiri Barbash-Hazan, Prof. Avi Ben-Haroush and Prof. Arnon Wiznitzer of the Rabin Medical Centre in Petach Tikvah; and Prof. Ran D. Balicer and Dr. Becca Feldman of Clalit Health Services.
A friend recently went through a scary time and, as a result, I did, too. His niece in Minnesota, a young mother, simply disappeared. She went out on a date and didn’t come home. Her mother was with the woman’s children. When she didn’t know what to do, she contacted police, the story was in the media and the important, informal networks of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) swung into action.
Like many friends, I tried to pass the word along about a woman who was missing. Her family needed her. My friend couldn’t sleep. He worried. I worried. The worst part seemed to be not knowing how to help, what to do and what happened. Things seemed very dangerous.
Some in the Jewish community may say, this isn’t about me. They would be wrong on several levels. First, and most apparent, your prejudice is showing. There are many Jewish community members who have ties to multiple other communities in Canada. Yes, there are indigenous Jews; as well, there are many other cross-cultural, interreligious and inter-ethnic family connections of which you may not be aware.
Second, anyone can be at risk. Missing people and human trafficking are as old as time. When Joseph’s brothers throw him into a pit and then sell him to the Ishmaelites (Genesis 37:28), they’re participating in human trafficking and slavery. They turn Joseph into a missing person. His parents go through the anguish of not knowing what happened to their child. If you’re a parent or, heck, if you’ve ever lost a pet, it’s not hard to imagine this anguish.
Rashi’s commentary says that Joseph was sold several times. According to Midrash Tanhuma, he’s sold from the Ishmaelites to the Midianites and, from there, into Egypt. This description is not unlike what happens now to women captured in wartime. News reports offer similar stories of women enslaved today – by Boko Haram or, to mention refugees closer to home, Yazidi women who were enslaved by ISIS, some of whom have found homes in Canada.
Some believe slavery is a thing of the past, tied to faraway, evil people – like the narratives I’ve heard from Canadians about the American South. People might be evil, but they aren’t far away. This is a modern issue. Once a person is being trafficked, it’s very hard to break free. She’s possibly been forcibly confined, addicted to drugs, beaten and sexually assaulted. She may be hidden, unable to get help, and brainwashed by those who kidnapped her.
There are charities that work against human trafficking, and many nongovernmental organizations do, as well. However, I was recently invited to participate in a raffle. The business offered a prize in exchange for donating to an anti-trafficking organization. I got as far as clicking through to the organization’s donation page before I saw that it did its work through a lens of Christian evangelizing. Here’s what I found: “Agape International Missions has an incredible team of staff members and volunteers who faithfully carry out our mission, day in and day out. At AIM, we believe that Christ through His Church will defeat the evil of sex trafficking, so we invite you, the Church, to join us in this fight!”
Further, if you wanted to work for them, and you’re not Christian? Too bad. Here’s what their job search info looked like: “You should consider pursuing a career with AIM if: You’re a Christian; You agree wholeheartedly with our Statement of Faith. As the foundation for all we do, our Christian faith is a uniting factor among volunteers and staff.”
Essentially, this Christian organization uses an “us” versus them narrative, in which this religiously motivated group is all good. They are out to conquer this evil that happens to faraway (non-Christian) others. Sadly, if you change the religious ideology, I’m not sure Jewish communities are much different in how we portray social action issues.
Kidnapping, human trafficking, using sex as a weapon – many people like to think these terrible things don’t happen to “us.” However, this naïve view harms victims, perpetuating the idea that these things only happen to people far away or long ago, or who somehow did something wrong to deserve it.
Joseph, according to Jewish tradition, was our relative, a part of our family. His brothers kidnapped and sold him. My friend’s niece went missing this winter. This isn’t some ancient or distant problem. Some argue that, if Joseph hadn’t been his father’s favourite, or if he’d behaved better, this wouldn’t have happened to him – this is blaming a victim.
In Joseph’s case, he lived. He was found, and he flourished over time, in Egypt. My friend’s niece came home to her mother and children after a week. It’s still unclear what happened to her. It sounds like something like human trafficking may have taken place. We (helpers outside the family) may never know.
Every time a missing person is found safe, it’s lucky – but it’s not a sure thing. Often, many hundreds of people’s efforts go into finding someone, and keeping others safe.
If you’re sent a missing person’s information, don’t judge whether or not the person is “worthy.” Send it onwards. Just imagine if your relative or friend went missing – wouldn’t you want everyone’s help, without judgment or religious prejudice?
Joanne Seiffhas written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.
Jodi Kovitz, founder and chief executive officer of #movethedial. (photo by photagonist.ca)
What began as Jodi Kovitz’s personal desire to increase the technology industry’s minimal efforts to attract women leaders is now a broad movement – #movethedial.
Kovitz was born in Calgary and moved to Toronto with her mom when she was 5, while her dad remained in Calgary. Growing up, Kovitz’s role models included her grandmother, Dr. Muriel Kovitz, who served as the first female chancellor of the University of Calgary, and who today lives in Vancouver.
“I had a very loving home and was always pushed and encouraged to be true to myself, be creative and build things,” said Kovitz. “I started my first business when I was 16, which was a greeting card company. I have always pursued entrepreneurship throughout my career, in various forms.”
After graduating from the University of Western Ontario’s Ivey Business School, in London, Ont., Kovitz worked at a consulting firm over the summer. Her mentor there advised that she do something more entrepreneurial, so Kovitz joined a tech start-up.
“I ended up meeting an amazing woman leader in banking after a couple of years,” she said. “Even though I really enjoyed myself and was getting a lot out of it … I left the start-up and went to join her at the bank, where I learned a ton about leadership. I was working specifically in HR [human resources] and leadership development.”
After going to law school and a brief stint working as a lawyer, Kovitz became the chief executive officer of the nonprofit Peerscale, a peer-to-peer group for tech CEOs.
“Peerscale is when I started #movethedial, which very much started as a passion project while I was in my other role,” said Kovitz. “But, it soon became so large that it called me to create it in a formal sense and to move into it full-time.”
Since then, #movethedial has become a global movement and a social enterprise, working to advance the participation and leadership of women in technology.
“While there’s work we need to do over the long term,” Kovitz told the Independent, “we need to ask what we can do now to better engage, include and advance either women in the ecosystem in the moment, as well as those that are just graduating, even just considering going into STEM [science, technology, engineering and math]…. It’s a multifaceted approach.”
The kick off of #movethedial in 2017 was to be a cosy 30-person event posted on social media – 1,000 people came.
Kovitz asked attendees who wanted to help. Fifty people responded, she said, “and we did a whole bunch of initial pilots and experiments. After a year, there was just so much passion and excitement that I was very fortunate to be approached by someone I’ve been friends with for a long time, who cared deeply about this mission and offered to back me … so I could start and create the vision I had … and that I wouldn’t be as afraid to take the risk as a 40-year-old single mother starting something as a full-time job. He was there, supporting me, and partnered with me in many ways, in terms of his advice and experience in building a very large-scale, global, billion-dollar business, as well as tactically helping me through things and scaling the organization.”
The organization #movethedial works with tech companies to attract and recruit women – all people who identify as women, just not people born as women – as well as advance, engage and retain women in their companies. It also works with community groups on a platform called #movethedial stories, showcasing the experiences of women technology leaders around the world.
“We’ve touched thousands of people that way,” said Kovitz. “We have an annual global summit. Last year, we had 2,802 people at our summit in Toronto, where we’d brought speakers in from around the world, and we connected our audience to one another in a really profound, magical way…. We’re creating what the future of #movethedial can look like, thinking through youth and how we can really impact … the ecosystem … and create a different future.
“What really drives me is that we can’t actually build technology solutions for everyone in the population [without including everyone in the population]. And, by the way, everything is tech, right? Banks, taxis, food … everything is tech. We can’t design solutions relevant to the masses if we don’t have representation from our population at our design leadership and governance tables. We just can’t build solutions that work for all the people.
“The urgency for me is around AI (artificial intelligence). It’s really starting to dominate how we use technology. Everything is going to, if it doesn’t already have an algorithm … and AI is taught. If all humans that teach and create AI are men, these machines will develop different patterns of behaviour and algorithms. My fear, and there’s a lot of research to back this up, is that we will build our human biases right into the solutions and algorithms, and we will never be able to undo it. For me, the urgency to create teams that reflect the population is to ensure that we don’t put our bias in forever.”
Recently, I’ve had numerous encounters with middle-aged women. This isn’t strange. I’m talking to women who are a lot like me: dealing with school-aged kids, piano lessons, finding childcare, etc. What’s remarkable is that the same conversation pops up – about work.
One friend, an author and artist, said that she does the math every time she’s invited to do a workshop or a special event. Will the cost of travel, supplies and teaching preparation be worth the return? She’s often told, “Well, we can’t afford to pay you to teach” but, when she shows up for the single event she agreed to do for payment, what happens? People surround her, saying, “Well, if we’d only known you were coming, we would have paid for you to do a multi-day workshop!”
Another woman explained that she is only now, after years of staying at home, getting back to very part-time work in her field. Why? The cost of childcare would have canceled out anything she would have earned with part-time work.
Among women who juggle a full-time job with conventional hours, there’s an acknowledgement that it’s extremely hard to manage. In some cases, their partners step up to do the childrearing and run the household. In others, there are moms who are obligated to work full-time, be “on call” as the primary caretaker and either do, or hire someone to do, all the household chores. For many, this works because everyone’s healthy and they have support from extended family. In case of illness or lack of family support? Forget it. Of course, since these women do manage it, anyone who struggles is seen as “not as capable” as a woman who “has it all.”
This is a big topic, and it’s also (surprise!) a Jewish topic. We’ve been wrestling with it forever. In Exodus, the Israelites flee Egypt and slavery. Yet, in Exodus 14:12, the Israelites are afraid and they actually suggest to Moses that it would be better to return to Egypt and slavery (work without being paid) than to die in the wilderness. Lacking faith, they struggle with how they will be fed, and manna appears for them.
The first question is, what is the value of our work? For the Israelites, they were willing to live for nothing more than food and housing, as Egyptian slaves, rather than cope with being tossed out into the unknown. They didn’t value their work, and perhaps didn’t have the confidence that things could be different. Yet, when they take that risk, miraculously, their basic needs are met.
There are no guarantees. We can offer up our work for free – in whatever professional fields we’re qualified to do so – but there’s no surety that, at the end, we’ll have any offer of full-time, paying work. I see women doing this all around me. There’s an expectation that you’ll volunteer to offer your presentation, and you’ll also tack on free teaching, writing, editing, professional-level creative work or even childcare for others’ children. (Yes, I’ve been asked to do all these things for free.)
Here’s the second question. Is the Israelites’ manna in the desert the ancient equivalent of the “guaranteed minimum income” or “basic income” concept? At what point in modern society do we decide that everyone should get enough to eat? When is it acceptable to say, “Everyone should have a warm place to live, no matter what you earn or your special needs or other health challenges”?
In the Talmud, in Berachot 17a, the sages of Yavneh say that we are all G-d’s creatures, those who learn Torah in the city and those who labour in the fields. That both kinds of people rise early. Neither one is superior. Their work has equal merit as long as they “direct his heart towards Heaven.” This includes the idea that the labourer doesn’t presume to do the Torah scholar’s work and the scholar doesn’t presume to do the labourer’s. In this gendered ancient world, this leaves out women. Then Rav Hiyya acknowledges that women are offered “ease and confidence” because they do an enormous amount to sustain Jewish learning through raising their kids Jewishly and supporting their husbands who study Mishnah.
So, even in talmudic times, work was valuable and considered important, no matter what you did. Further, a woman who is doing “traditional” things like taking care of her children’s education or her husband is owed “ease and confidence” for her efforts.
Our work has meaning. It has important economic and social value. However, sometimes, when we compare our resumés, we feel lacking; certainly if we are being asked to do work for free. It turns out that we shouldn’t be expected to work for free, because our work, no matter what it is, is equivalent and necessary.
A more modern reminder: Martin Luther King, Jr., preached that all work is crucial and deserves fair pay. He supported the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ strike. To be healthy, we need trash collection. Garbage collectors matter.
There’s also no such thing as being out of the workforce. That dinner you cooked, the snow shoveled, the cleaning you did to keep someone healthy, the child you kept safe – according to the rabbis, if you do your work with the right intention, it’s all equally important.
I was recently invited by a favourite undergrad professor of mine to submit a short bio for the Cornell University Near Eastern studies department’s alumni page. I read some previous ones – doctors, rabbis, professors and others – and felt out of my league. Then I talked about it with my husband and thought about it. Being asked to share my work experience on that forum means, like the rabbis’ view of work, mine is valuable too – and so is yours.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.
One of the family cards, produced 100 years ago, that is currently on long-term loan in the folklore department of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, on Mt. Scopus. It is from the Chaya and Chana Gitelman Collection.
Not too long ago, I was flipping through a collection of old family cards, all of which were produced 100 years ago in Eastern Europe. On the cover of one card, a young girl sits at a table writing in a notebook. Her mother stands over her, looking on. From a modern perspective, there is nothing unusual about a woman knowing how to read and write. But less than 200 years ago, this would have been considered somewhat revolutionary.
Just how revolutionary? In the article, “The History of Jewish Women in Early Modern Poland: An Assessment,” Prof. Moshe Rosman reported that, at the end of the 19th century, more than half of all Jewish girls could not read, not even in Yiddish. Rosman noted that not only was limited attention given to educating Jewish women, but that those who first wrote the history of this period, deemed it hardly worth dealing with the subject.
In early modern Poland, education for Jewish girls and women was largely designed to make them into faithful Jews who would keep female rituals. For the most part, their education was informal and conducted in Yiddish. Brenda Socachevsky Bacon states that a learned woman was an aberration and considered outside the norm. In analyzing Shmuel Yosef Agnon’s story “Hakhmot Nashim” (“The Wisdom of Women”), which was published in 1943, Socachevsky Bacon says a woman’s very presence in the beit midrash causes the men to be uncomfortable. “They view the realm of Torah study as their own, even as their own hypocritical behaviour belies their dedication to it,” she writes. “The men will not allow this discomfort to continue, even if it involves transgressing the Torah’s commandment not to embarrass another person publicly.”
Fortunately, this was not the whole story of this period. Rosman explains there were secularized school settings in which Jewish girls learned both Yiddish and European languages. The objective of these schools was modernization and general knowledge. Girls read classic European literature. In this instance, the scorn was sometimes transferred, with traditional Jewish literature viewed contemptuously.
According to Prof. Eliyana Adler (“Rediscovering Schools for Jewish Girls in Tsarist Russia”), private schools for Jewish girls were a crucial ingredient in transitioning Russian Jewry into modernity. She reports that, from 1844 to the early 1880s, well over 100 private schools for Jewish girls opened in cities, towns and shtetlach throughout the Pale of Jewish Settlement.
The educators who opened and ran private schools for Jewish girls pragmatically balanced their ideological motivations with very real concerns about funding and retaining communal goodwill. Thus, those who ran private schools offered a variety of student tracks. Rich Jews (like their wealthy Christian neighbours did elsewhere) could pay to board their children. Many schools offered weekly instruction in both music and French as paid electives.
Adler goes on to say, “at the same time, families of modest means were offered tuition payments on a sliding scale. Noteworthy, poor students were actively recruited for scholarship positions. Other schools offered less sophisticated fee scales, but clearly worked within the same framework. The rewards for having a robust student body became clear as both the government and certain private and communal bodies began to award subsidies to successful private schools.”
These private schools for Jewish girls designed Jewish studies curricula to meet the expectations of the Russian Jewish communities from which they drew their students. The curricula had to be modern and useful without being radical. Thus, efforts were made to introduce training in practical crafts; that is, crafts that could be put to use in the marketplace. In 1881, the first trade school for poor Jewish girls opened in Odessa. Thereafter, both trade schools and sections within other schools that offered more in-depth training in such skills as sewing opened with increasing frequency.
By the end of the 1890s, in Odessa alone, more than 500 girls studied in four communally funded vocational schools for Jewish girls. Jewish educators responded to the growing interest in interaction with the surrounding society by opening their private girls schools to Christian girls and by offering to teach courses in the Jewish religion in Russian schools. Prayer served as the common denominator of religious courses – the major focus of religious education was on prayer.
The teaching of Jewish history rather than simply the Torah allowed for an unprecedented degree of interpretation and even mild biblical criticism. Hebrew reading was also offered in many of the schools. Almost all Jewish girls schools offered penmanship and arithmetic.
Every private school for Jewish girls in the Russian Empire required extensive instruction in the Russian language. It was not uncommon for all general studies subjects to be taught in Russian.
Examples of the above educational transformation may be found in the bigger cities of Eastern Europe. In Plonsk (located some 60 kilometres from Warsaw), for example, toward the end of the 19th century, organizations such as Kahal Katan (literally, Small Community), educated the poorer strata of society. Also during this period, the city (which had a Jewish majority) opened a primary school for Jewish children, where some 80 pupils, mostly girls, studied in Russian. (See yadvashem.org/yv/en/exhibitions/communities/plonsk/jewish_education.asp.)
Vilna is another example. In 1915, the Association to Disseminate Education established three schools – one for boys, one for girls and one mixed – whose language of instruction was Yiddish. Also in 1915, Dr. Yosef Epstein established the Vilna Hebrew Gymnasium (high school), which was later renamed after him. The informal educational system included literature, drama, music, industrial arts and other courses. (See yadvashem.org/yv/en/exhibitions/vilna/background/20century.asp.)
According to Dr. Ruth Dudgeon (“The Forgotten Minority: Women Students in Imperial Russia, 1872-1917”), Russian women, aided by sympathetic professors, created educational institutions that evolved into universities and medical, pedagogical, agricultural and polytechnical institutes for women. Moreover, in 1916, the Ministry of Education overcame its bias against preparing women for public activity, rather than the home, and mandated the equalization of the curricula in the boys’ and girls’ gymnasia.
In the 1870s and 1880s, Jewish-Russian enrolment in the courses for women was between 16% and 21%. The imposition of quotas in the 1880s, however, reduced the number of Jewish students. But, in places where the quota was lifted, the number of Jewish women in the courses soared.
In the restricted Pale of Settlement, young Jewish women wanting to study did everything to establish residency elsewhere. The “everything” included registering as a prostitute. According to Dudgeon, one brother found out about his sister’s actions and then drowned himself in the Neva; the grieving sister, in turn, ended her life by taking poison.
As circumstances for Jews in the Russian Empire deteriorated in the 1880s, those Jews who stayed in that part of the world came to embrace new ideological solutions to the situation. In an atmosphere of violence, deprivation and brutally strict quotas in education and professions, Russian-Jewish parents wanted their children enrolled in schools where the course of study offered some hope for the future.
By the turn-of-the-century period, educators were no longer opening private schools for Jewish girls based on the old model. The schools they opened – whether they were trade schools where Zionism was taught, religiously mixed schools devoted to full acculturation, or Yiddishist schools committed to inculcating socialism – promised more than basic literacy.
In Poland, Gershon Bacon writes, “the education of Polish Jews in the interwar period was characterized … [as] the ‘victory of schooling.’ The compulsory education law of the reborn Polish republic had brought about in one generation what had eluded generations of prodding by tsarist officialdom and preaching by Jewish maskilim (people versed in Hebrew or Yiddish literature). Whether in the public schools or in the various Jewish school networks, Jewish children in Poland were educated according to curricula that deviated in almost every respect from that of traditional Jewish education. [Notably,] religious families had no objections to sending daughters to secondary schools, even though they objected to exposing sons to secular education.
“What is most striking,” continues Bacon, “are the differences in enrolment figures in institutions of higher learning. There was a much larger proportion of Jewish women students among female students as a whole (36% in 1923/1924), as distinct from the percentage of Jewish men among male students (22% in 1923/1924). It would seem that we have here but another example of a phenomenon observed in other countries, where Jewish women entered institutions of higher learning earlier and in greater proportion than their non-Jewish counterparts.” (See jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/ poland-interwar.)
So many factors about these educational statistics still need to be explored. Nevertheless, one can observe that an outcome seems to have been the creation of a modern Jewish Eastern European woman who “opened her mouth with wisdom.” (Proverbs 31:26)
Deborah Rubin Fieldsis an Israel-based features writer. She is also the author of Take a Peek Inside: A Child’s Guide to Radiology Exams, published in English, Hebrew and Arabic.
I just realized that, lately, I had unconsciously changed the way I say goodbye, particularly when I am speaking with women. As a younger person, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to say “Take care!” when parting with people. What’s more? It’s happening even when I have casual interactions. I started thinking about where my new-to-me phrase comes from and where I’d heard it before.
I was out walking my dogs when one of them (the young, spry Setter mix) kicked me in the shin. I looked down, in pain, when I saw that she, too, was surprised. She’d slipped on the slick sidewalk and certainly hadn’t meant to hurt me. A man at the bus stop remarked how icy it was, and I agreed. I said, “Take care!”
Later, my household was in bed when we heard an ominous thump outside. My husband made a joke, we laughed and went to sleep. In the morning, I saw a thoroughly smashed car, its front end bashed in. It faced the wrong way on a busy street near our home. Across the intersection, there was a truck, also facing the wrong direction, somehow wedged into someone’s yard. It was slippery, indeed.
Often the habit of suggesting people take care is aligned with another statement though, something like, “Things are more dangerous these days.” However, our Torah readings from this time of year, in Genesis, remind us that things have always been dicey out there, particularly for women and for those in positions of less power in society.
For instance, when the three strangers tell Abraham that Sarah will have Isaac, she laughs (Genesis 18:12-15). However, this is quickly followed by Abraham’s question about why she laughed and she says, “I didn’t laugh.” Why? “Because she was frightened.” Why did she lie? Well, she was an old woman. Strangers told her something ridiculous and then she was asked to take it seriously. She was afraid. Sarah wouldn’t be the first or last woman to feel threatened and unsafe. If something like this situation happened today, I wouldn’t leave until I’d said, “Take care.”
Not much further along in Genesis, Abraham bargains with G-d, asking how many people in Sodom have to be righteous for G-d to save the city. Abraham has some power here. He feels emboldened to speak out, but he also gets to stay home rather than go to Sodom to try and fix things. Instead, two angels go to Sodom.
Lot takes the angels in as his guests, but when a crowd gathers to do the visitors harm, Lot suggests an unsettling exchange. He says that, rather than let the crowd “be intimate with them,” he’ll send out his two young daughters instead. He will sacrifice his daughters to be violated by the crowd (Genesis 19:8) rather than let his male guests be endangered.
Reading Genesis, I am reminded by how these dangerous situations, and particularly ones that threaten women, are not at all new. These are issues of power, control and sexuality. In a modern political comparison: we act as though the MMIWG (missing and murdered indigenous women and girls) report and its findings are new or different. In fact, violence against women, and specifically minority women in vulnerable situations, is a bad news story played on repeat. These threats are close to home, and they remain frightening.
When I hear myself telling a friend – a single mom whose father just died – to take care, I realize who I am echoing in my head. I hear older African-American women in my Virginia neighbourhood saying goodbye to me: “You take care now, y’hear?” I hear my mom sighing as she hung up the phone (it was avocado green, with a long cord so she could cook while talking) at home when I was younger. She said goodbye with a worried expression that her friend couldn’t see, saying “Bye! Take care.”
This is the closing comment of women, all over, who know that the world can be dangerous. We’re sending out our concern to those we love. We’re acknowledging that, sometimes, we must depend solely on ourselves, because it doesn’t look like anyone (including G-d) is stepping up to keep us safe.
Sometimes, Bereishit (Genesis) offers stories to dig into. I enjoy their meaty narrative. I love interpreting what it all means. Other sections cause me to sigh just as my mom did. In a world where women still don’t have any assurance of safety from war, crowds and violence, and where those who have less power are at the mercy of the powerful, it’s hard not to feel sadness. How little things change.
This also is a continuing opportunity for social justice. We can fight for a better place for everyone. We can seek out and care for those around us, rather than choosing to discriminate or discard lives, as Lot would have done to his daughters. In the meanwhile, I’m often slipping down the icy street, worrying and wondering over how I can spread a sukkat shalom (a shelter of peace) over those I love and care for. So, I’ll say what many wise women have said before me. You take care now, y’hear?
Joanne Seiffhas written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.
At the University of British Columbia on Nov. 21, Prof. Robin Judd will speak on What’s Love Got to Do With It? Jewish War Brides and North American Soldier Husbands after the Second World War. (photo from Robin Judd)
Prof. Robin Judd noticed that a significant number of the earliest Holocaust memoirs written by women were penned by “war brides” who had married American, Canadian or British soldiers.
In the course of teaching about the Holocaust at Ohio State University, the coincidence struck her and, as happens in research, led her onto a new topic. She is nearing completion on a book about the experiences of Jewish women – and a few men – in Europe and North Africa who married Allied service personnel and moved to Canada, the United States or Britain. She will give a guest lecture on the subject at the University of British Columbia next week and the public is welcome to attend.
The lecture is titled What’s Love Got to Do With It? Jewish War Brides and North American Soldier Husbands after the Second World War, and Judd told the Independent that love certainly played a key role, but some of the other factors at play also interest her.
“What prompts individuals from radically different cultures, who may not necessarily speak the same language, what prompts them to create relationships with one another and long-lasting relationships, relationships that are going to result in marriage and then bring the civilians to Canada, Britain or the United States?” she asked.
Most of the soldiers that Judd is studying were Jewish themselves, though there are exceptions to the rule.
In some cases, the wives would arrive in the new country before or otherwise apart from their new husbands or fiancés. An entire infrastructure was in place to accommodate and integrate them.
“The war brides, particularly if you come to the United States or to Canada as a war bride, first you live with other war brides at least temporarily in a kind of war bride home or war bride camp and you travel on a war bride ship and there are particular Red Cross workers who teach English and show films and cooking classes,” she said.
If the fiancés or husbands were not yet decommissioned or were traveling with their units, the brides may have found themselves in the position of living with their new in-laws.
“These were not the spouses they were planning for their sons,” Judd comments. “And all of a sudden here you have this woman show up. You are processing stories that you are hearing about the war and all of a sudden here comes this person and you might not be able to communicate, you might not have a shared language, you might not know how to even ask questions about what this person had experienced.”
Feeling isolated and foreign, some of these women used the opportunity to express their experiences privately, to themselves, in writing.
“Some of the women that I’ve spoken to have told me that they used that time to write out their story, to put it to paper, because they needed to kind of get it out and there was no one with whom they could talk, literally,” she said. “But then, as they began to create networks, make new connections, maybe by that point their now-husbands have returned to Canada, Britain or the U.S., a number of them tell me that they then destroyed them.”
By an apparent coincidence, though, Judd concluded that it was disproportionately the women who had married soldiers who were among the first to publish English-language Holocaust memoir narratives for general readers in the 1970s and ’80s. She has a theory about this, but admits she could be wrong: these may have been some of the first women who were asked to speak about their early life and Holocaust experiences to Jewish women’s groups, federations and other community audiences, acclimating them to become among the first to put them on paper for general readers.
“But, again, I could be completely wrong,” she said.
Judd’s lecture is supported by a Holocaust education fund in UBC’s department of history to support undergraduate education on the Holocaust. The fund supports a biannual lecture, alternating years with the Rudolf Vrba Memorial Lecture, and is incorporated into an undergraduate course, History of the Holocaust, taught by Prof. Richard Menkis, who is also chair of the committee that manages the fund. The public is welcome to attend on Thursday, Nov. 21, 5-6:15 p.m., at Buchanan D217 at UBC.
Adrienne Gold is a participant in this year’s international Shabbat Project, Nov. 15-16. (photo from Shabbat Project)
FOMO: fear of missing out. Four letters that encapsulate the human hankering for absolute control, and the profound anxiety we suffer from knowing we will simply never satisfy it.
FOMO is an impulse exacerbated by social media, by scrolling through the Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat lives of others, consciously and unconsciously measuring ourselves up to their non-existent standard of living. Comparing our brats to their seraphs, our tiresome drudgery to their idyllic island getaways, our 1980s-style kitchens to their gleaming open-plan masterpieces. And, while social media does not itself cause narcissism, it certainly can help flick the switch of those tendencies latent within us. Especially those of us who suffer from FOMO by nature.
When I was a young girl, I constantly worried that I had missed something, anything that would change the tone and balance of my carefully curated life. In our family, kids came in for the night “when the lights went on” in the street. Many of my neighbourhood friends could stay out later than that, and I remember like it was yesterday sitting in my room fretting over the potential new allegiances that would be formed without me; the stories and games and fun that I would not be privy to. I would be gripped by a terror that things would not be “as I left them” and that the next day would begin leaving me in the dark.
This mindset remained with me through my teens. Wherever I was, I wondered what was happening somewhere else. Whoever I was speaking with, at whatever party, my eyes roved the room to see what else was happening, who else was there? It was as though I had internalized that whatever I was engaged in could not possibly be where the “action” was; that I was missing something that could only happen if I were not there. And this unease continued into my dating life and well into my 20s. There was no me without my agitating the universe, without my scrambling and “hustling for worthiness.”
So, imagine my horror when, many years later, I learned about Shabbat. No phone. No computer. No car. No shopping. No way! What possible benefit could there be in living 24/6 in a 24/7 world? And what if someone needed to reach me? What would I fill those gaping 24 hours with? I was a human doing, with no clue how to be. Or who to be.
Yet, in that struggle with the very idea of Shabbat came the deep epiphany that radically changed not just my world, but my psyche. In advance of this year’s international Shabbat Project, which will be taking place in cities around the world Nov. 15-16, I’m inspired to share this journey.
I was 40 when I started to keep Shabbat. (How that came about is too lengthy and labyrinthine a tale for this space.) Married with two children, deep into my career and as afflicted by FOMO as ever. Nevertheless, I was determined to do this. While the anxiety clung in the early stages of my “disconnecting in order to connect,” it was less than a year before I began to understand something that had eluded me my entire life – apparently, the world turned and ran quite nicely without my help. The control I was seeking could be found by relinquishing it. The Mishnah tells it straight when it says, “Who is rich? He who rejoices in his lot.” I learned to be still, to rejoice in my lot, to be in the moment. I felt rich.
In short, Shabbat forced me to stop trying to play God, to stop long enough to recognize that He did just fine without me. I discovered that “letting go and letting God” gave me the freedom to find value and purpose, and even joy – not in productivity but in simply being. I felt in touch with my soul and grasped in a deep sense its primacy over the body.
Over 20 years have passed since the therapeutic benefits of Shabbat first liberated me from my FOMO and gifted me perspective and clarity on what it means to be a human being; since I first tasted the indescribable spiritual delights of the Jewish day of rest.
Today, I have the pleasure and the privilege of introducing thousands of women every year to Shabbat and more. Momentum – formerly known as the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project – has, to date, taken more than 18,000 women from 27 countries on an eight-day journey to Israel to grow as people, connect to Jewish values, engage with the Jewish homeland, foster unity not uniformity, and return to take action as leaders in their communities.
As a leader on these trips, I have seen thousands of women try to make Shabbat more meaningful in some way or another. These women saw the power of what disconnecting in order to connect might do for their families, and for themselves.
Shabbat is the only mitzvah described in the Torah as a “gift.” Tragically, it’s a gift that too many of us never take the time to unwrap. I was one of them. What I didn’t understand was that ceasing to create would make me more creative, that not exerting myself would give me more strength, that being where I am, limited, constrained, here and nowhere else, has alerted me to the joy in my heart and in my life.
You were wondering about that pesky FOMO? It has become JOMO: joy of missing out.
Adrienne Gold, a participant in this year’s international Shabbat Project, was a fixture on Canadian television for more than 15 years, hosting her own daily fashion and beauty program. Today, she is a trip leader for Momentum (formerly, the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project).
Two women dancing, 1965. (photo from JWB fonds, JMABC L.13986)
If you know someone in these photos, please help the JI fill the gaps of its predecessor’s (the Jewish Western Bulletin’s) collection at the Jewish Museum and Archives of B.C. by contacting [email protected] or 604-257-5199. To find out who has been identified in the photos, visit jewishmuseum.ca/blog.
National Council of Jewish Women of Canada, Vancouver section, members. Seated, left to right, are Lisa Boroditsky, Jill Kipnis and Sandi Hazan Switzer. Standing are Heather Sirlin, left, and Jane Stoller. (photo from NCJWC Vancouver)
Members of National Council of Jewish Women of Canada, Vancouver section, have been busy close to home, not only supporting various initiatives for disadvantaged children in local schools – Books for Kids, HIPPY, Operation Dressup, and hygiene and nutrition school programs – but learning more about the Jewish history of the city.
On Sept. 8, more than 25 people participated in a sold-out walk through the “old city” of Vancouver, organized by Lisa Boroditsky, Jane Stoller and Sandi Hazan Switzer. Participants were enthralled by the stories of Harry Hammer, by the geographical and architectural details, to say nothing of the oral history of horse-drawn carts, family stores and tales of running to the bus for cheder.
NCJWC members also worked nationally, supporting successful efforts by CIJA (Center for Israel and Jewish Affairs) to get Parliament to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism; and internationally, issuing a call to action to participate in the campaign to free human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, who has been imprisoned in Iran’s Evin prison since June 2018.
In May of this year, Prof. Irwin Cotler, chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Institute in Montreal, addressed the executive of the International Council of Jewish Women on the issue of human rights. He made a compelling case for participation in the campaign to free Sotoudeh, sentenced to 38 years and 148 lashes in Iran because of her work defending women’s rights. She has been imprisoned four times since 2010.
Freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are integral to ensuring rule of law and the functions of democracy; they are fundamental principles clearly defined in international law and they are the inherent right of all people. These two democratic themes were betrayed in 2018 when, as part of peaceful protests, some women removed their hijabs and waved them like flags and then were prosecuted for this behaviour. For defending these women, Sotoudeh has been unjustly imprisoned.
The International Council of Jewish Women executive voted to support Cotler’s recommendation and Debby Altow, vice-president for Canada on this executive, circulated a backgrounder and sample letter of protest for 33 affiliates worldwide. Both email and postal addresses for United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres and UN Commissioner Michelle Bachelet, were distributed, making such protest letters easier to submit. For more about Sotoudeh and NCJW Vancouver section, visit ncjwvancouver.org.