It’s Thursday, and I should be making food for Shabbos right now. I’ve already posted my post for the week, and normally that’s as much as my schedule allows. But something upsetting has happened, and I feel compelled to address it.
The interview was with a 28-year-old woman, Racheli Ibenboim, who is the executive director of a large established charity, an up-and-coming politician, and an Orthodox Jew from Hasidic lineage. Sounds like it could be interesting, yes? Sadly, the interviewer focused almost exclusively on her sex life. Even though she tried to gracefully move away from that extremely invasive topic, he wouldn’t drop it. It was uncomfortable and disturbing to read.
The Forward is not a publication I normally read, as its tone is not exactly sensitive to my beliefs and culture as a religious woman. So that the Forward published a piece which was demeaning and insulting to an Orthodox woman, well, I was sadly not surprised. I would normally just sigh and move on.
But, still, something about the interview was deeply disturbing to me, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. It wasn’t until Elana Szkolman wrote this excellent response in the Times of Israel that I realized what the problem was:
The interviewer took a successful, intelligent woman and reduced her to an object of sexual fascination.
Moreover, I highly doubt that the interviewer would have asked her such probing and inappropriate questions if she wasn’t Orthodox. Would he have asked any other woman about what it was like to lose her virginity? Can you imagine another female politician being asked repeatedly about what it was like for her on her wedding night? Ridiculous!
I once read a quote by a Mormon who said that sometimes being interviewed made her feel like an exhibit in the zoo. “Hey, look at the pandas!” That type of thing. As an Orthodox Jew, I can completely relate. There are parts of my life that will seem strange to those outside my community, and there are facets of Jewish law that certainly provoke curiosity. One of the things that seems to come up consistently is how we don’t touch our husbands before we are married to them. This concept seems to really fascinate, and I can understand why. It’s very far from the current cultural norms. I get it.
But just because something is different or intriguing to some does not justify focusing an entire interview on the specifics of one’s woman intimate experiences with her husband! That’s not news! That is voyeurism. There is no excuse for such behavior, either on the part of the interviewer, or the editor who allowed it to be published.
As Sztokman wrote:
“I would have been really interested to hear about her work and her views about issues such as, say, poverty in Israel, social activism, or how she came to be a leader at such a young age.”
“Her election campaign would have been an interesting topic to ask her about as well: How does a haredi woman decide to break convention and run for political office? And how do you grapple with real threats like that? What insights do you have about the future of Israel and the dynamics of religious power in politics? I would have loved to hear a real interview exploring some of these issues. These are actual stories.”
The Forward responded to people’s concerns with this non-apology by the editor of the piece. In it, he pleads that if we only look at the artist “in context,” then it’s really not so bad.
I disagree. It really is that bad.
I am asking you to take a moment and email the Forward (firstname.lastname@example.org) to let them know that this kind of behavior is completely unacceptable. That there is nothing “forward” thinking about reducing a woman to the events of her wedding night. That hiding behind the pretext of being “edgy” and “irreverent” does not justify what they did to Racheli Ibenboim, or what it means for all women, everywhere, as we continually try to show the world that we are more than just objects of sexual fascination.