Powerful Jewish women who made history
The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day (on Monday, 8 March) is #ChooseToChallenge, which conveys the message that people with power need to stand up against gender inequality.
Here are a few women who chose to challenge gender stereotypes. They will be remembered for being some of history’s most daring, influential, and noteworthy Jewish women, who left their mark on the world.
Who can forget Golda Meir? Born Goldie Mabovitch in 1898, she was Israel’s fourth prime minister, and the first woman to be elected leader of Israel. Hailing from Kiev, she and her family emigrated to the United States (US) in 1906, where they settled in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She emigrated to British Mandate Palestine in 1921 with her husband, Morris Myerson, and settled in Kibbutz Merhavya.
Later elected to the executive of the Jewish Agency, Meir was active in fundraising to help cover the costs of the Israeli War of Independence, and became one of the state’s most effective spokespeople.
In 1948, David Ben-Gurion appointed Meir a member of the provisional government. A few days before the declaration of independence, he sent her disguised as an Arab on a hazardous mission to persuade King Abdullah of Jordan not to attack Israel. The King, however, had already decided his army would invade the Jewish state following the British departure.
Ben-Gurion would call her “the best man in the government”, and she is portrayed as being strong-willed and straight-talking. Meir was minister of labour and foreign minister for the Labor Party before coming out of retirement in 1969 – at the age of 70 – to lead Israel as prime minister.
Gertrude Elion was a Nobel Prize recipient, biochemist, and pharmacologist who helped to develop medicine that treated leukaemia, malaria, AIDS, and kidney transplant rejection.
Born in 1918 in New York City, Elion was an avid reader from the start, and graduated high school at 15. While furthering her education at Hunter College, she lost her beloved grandfather to stomach cancer, leading her to choose chemistry as “a logical first step in committing myself to fighting the disease”.
Elion received her Bachelors in chemistry from Hunter College in 1937, but found work opportunities scarce for a woman chemist. After several unfulfilling jobs, she entered graduate school at New York University, receiving her Master of Science in chemistry in 1941. She found work as a quality control chemist at Quaker Maid Company, and then later as a research chemist at Johnson & Johnson. Elion finally found a rewarding and challenging career in 1944 as a research chemist at Burroughs Wellcome, a noted pharmaceutical company.
Although she never completed her PhD, Elion’s biochemical work resulted in chemotherapies for leukaemia, immunosuppressive drugs for kidney transplants (azathioprine), treatments for gout, lupus, and severe rheumatoid arthritis, and the important antiviral drug acyclovir used to treat herpes. She received a Nobel Prize in 1988, and 20 honorary doctoral degrees.
Rabbi Regina Jonas
Rabbi Regina Jonas broke the religious mould, becoming the first woman to be ordained as a rabbi in 1935. Born in Berlin in 1902, she displayed a passion for Jewish history, Bible, and Hebrew in high school. Many people supported Jonas’s interests, among them the Orthodox rabbis Isidor Bleichrode, Felix Singermann, and Max Weyl.
Jonas pursued her studies, submitting a thesis on whether women could hold rabbinic office in 1930. The paper is the first known attempt to find a halachic basis for the ordination of women.
She didn’t follow the reform movement, which was willing to achieve modernisation by abandoning halacha, but wanted to deduce gender equality from Jewish legal sources.
She continued to pursue ordination, and after receiving it in 1935, she was employed in Berlin as a “pastoral-rabbinic counsellor” in its welfare institutions and even delivered sermons in more liberal shuls.
In 1942, Jonas and her mother were deported to Theresienstadt, and even there, she continued preaching and counselling. Tragically, they were later deported to Auschwitz in 1944, where it’s believed they were killed on the day of arrival.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Affectionately known as RBG, this diminutive and soft-spoken US Supreme Court justice (who died in September 2020) was a voice for gender equality and the rights of workers. She ruled on a landmark case that made same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states of the US. She was the second female Justice in the US and the first Jewish female to hold this position. She served 27 years on the nation’s highest bench.
When she began her career in law, women were treated worse than men. They were restricted by law, barring them from jobs, rights, even jury service. By the time she became a judge, she had made many changes to women’s rights.
In 1996, she overturned the men’s only attendance at Virginia Military Institute in the US.
Hailing from Brooklyn, she attended Harvard Law School with her husband, Marty, and was one of nine women in a class of more than 500. The dean asked her why she was taking up a place that “should go to a man”.
She was an academic star, but she battled to find work because law firms weren’t interested in taking on a woman even though she was recommended for a Supreme Court clerkship.
Her mentor managed to get her a clerkship in New York by promising a judge that if she didn’t work out, he would find someone else. That was her beginning.
Ginsburg – who died at 87 – was a woman who defied stereotypes.
Emma Lazarus left her mark in the literary sphere. Born in 1849, she was one of the first successful Jewish American authors, part of the late 19th century New York literary elite and recognised in her time as an important American poet. She later wrote bold, powerful poetry and essays protesting the rise of antisemitism and arguing for Russian immigrants’ rights, and even called on Jews to unite and create a homeland in Palestine before the term “Zionist” had even been coined.
Famous lines from her poem, The New Colossus, are displayed on the Statue of Liberty and still welcome newcomers to America: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free.”
Hedy Lamarr, often touted as the most beautiful woman in the world, was not only famous, but Jewish and scientifically gifted to boot. Born Hedwig Kiesler in Vienna in 1914, she was given her new surname by Louis B Mayer when she signed with MGM (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) in 1937.
Although she achieved international fame as a Hollywood movie star, Lamarr wasn’t satisfied with acting. Between takes in her trailer and staying up all night at home, she practised her favourite hobby: inventing.
It is said that while the 26-year-old Lamarr was thriving in Hollywood in September 1940, Nazi U-boats hunted down and sank a cruise ship trying to evacuate 90 British schoolchildren to Canada. Tragically, 77 of them drowned in the frigid North Atlantic.
Lamarr, at this point a Jewish immigrant from Nazi-occupied Austria who had made America her home since 1938, was outraged. She fought back by applying her engineering skills to the development of a sonar submarine locator to protect Allied torpedoes from German U-boat fire. The system was called “frequency hopping”, in which torpedoes would “hop” between frequencies to avoid detection. Ingenious though her invention was, the US navy chose, for reasons unknown, not to implement her design. Although it did patent it, it never went further in the war effort.
The existence of Lamarr’s invention became known only in recent years, proving there was more to her than her beauty. In addition, the principles of her work are now incorporated into modern Wi-Fi, code-division multiple access, and Bluetooth technology, and this work led to her being inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014.
SA’s unique connection to Israel makes Israelis feel at home
Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut are generally tough days for Israelis in the diaspora as it isn’t easy to experience them properly thousands of kilometres away from Israel.
But in South Africa, many Israelis say it’s easier.
“The first few years in South Africa, I was amazed at how similar Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut felt to how it is in Israel,” says Israeli ambassador Lior Keinan. “I made a point of visiting different communities and schools on Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut. It felt so familiar. They played the same songs and danced the same dances. It was a relief.”
Liat Amar Arran, the local Jewish Agency representative and the director of the Israel Centre, agrees. When she moved here, she thought these particular days would be when she would be most needed with her “personal stories and sense of connection” with Israel. “Instead, I met a community that was already strongly connected and was very involved in commemorating and celebrating Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut. It was amazing.”
For South African Jewry, Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut showcase their connection with Israel.
“Yom Hazikaron is an incredibly important day when we commemorate those who fell protecting Israel. Without those who have given their lives to keep am Yisrael [the people of Israel] alive, we wouldn’t feel protected here in South Africa,” says South African Zionist Federation National Chairperson Rowan Polovin. “It’s really important to realise exactly what the people of Israel have gone through to keep Israel alive.”
For Israelis living here, it’s a lot more personal.
“Being here on Yom Hazikaron has extra special meaning for me,” says Keinan. “I’m fortunate that none of my family has been killed in action. However, one of my best friends who I studied with in high school was killed in the second Lebanon War. Ashi Novik was a South African who moved to Israel. So now, for me to be an ambassador in South Africa, I can look at the memorial of all the South Africans who paid the ultimate price for Israel, and I see the name of my high school friend. When I light a candle for him personally and all those whose names are on the memorial, I feel like I’m closing the circle. I knew him in the past, and now I’m here honouring his memory.”
Habonim Dror Southern Africa shaliach Lior Agiv says learning to appreciate Yom Hazikaron has been a process.
“As a young child, these days of Zikaron and Atzmaut always seemed to be something amorphic. Hearing my father’s stories of all the wars he had taken part in, watching these series and movies on TV, it all remained a bit abstract. As I grew up and my army chapter was getting closer, I started to wonder more about the meaning of these days.
“All these feelings grew much stronger after my army days near Ramallah. Since then, every year, no matter where I’m located, I honour these days by lightning a neshama candle for my fallen friends and try to deepen my knowledge of our wars and fallen ones.”
Batya Shmueli, also a shaliach in South Africa, says, “I was born on the African continent in Ethiopia, and at the age of 11, my family fulfilled our dream of returning to Jerusalem. Returning to Africa as an Israeli to do a mission with my family is closing a huge circle. We will connect with our brothers and sisters and remember the loved ones who fell and sacrificed their lives in various wars for the sake of the people of Israel and future generations,” she says.
“Independence Day is a day in which we stop for a moment and look at the fact that we have a state and a home for the Jewish people,” she says.
Arran says that everyone in Israel knows someone who has been killed, which is why Yom Hazikaron is felt so keenly. “My good childhood friend, Ariel, was killed in the army,” she says. “My brother-in-law lost his entire unit in a helicopter crash. Everyone knows someone that has been killed.”
Lee Salama, a Habonim shaliach in Cape Town, says, “In officer boot camp in the IDF [Israel Defense Forces], we have a saying, ‘We have to realise that in order for us to be able to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut, there were people who had to die.’ And then we have this beautiful transition to Yom Ha’atzmaut and celebrating life.”
Says Polovin, “Yom Ha’atzmaut is an incredible celebration of everything Israel has accomplished in its very short 73 years. No matter where you look, Israel is a ‘light to the nations’ showing the way. Whether it’s technology, medical advancements, or even showing the world how to recover and rebuild from the coronavirus pandemic, Israel is at the head of the pack.”
Says Keinan, “The beauty of going straight from the sombre day of Yom Hazikaron to the happy day of Yom Ha’atzmaut shows us that from great pain and sorrow can come the greatest joy. The suffering and pain, and the joy and celebration, are really just two sides of the coin.”
Demystify death for children
Death is part of life, yet it remains a taboo topic, especially when it comes to children. Yet, with COVID-19 bringing death to our doorstep, it’s vital that parents and children are comfortable with talking about it, says social worker Carin Marcus.
Marcus spoke at a recent event hosted by Nechama Bereavement Services. In introducing her, Nechama Director Rebbetzin Avigail Popack said Marcus had been touched by death from a young age as she lost her father in the Helderberg plane crash. She went on to specialise in counselling in the fields of oncology, palliative care, grief, loss, crisis management, and bereavement.
“We need to demystify death. It’s an unavoidable reality,” said Marcus. “Instead of seeing death only through the lens of fear and vulnerability, we can see it as an amazing teacher that makes us appreciate life and its impermanence.”
The pandemic has been a time of loss and trauma, she said. In addition, games like Fortnite are full of death. It means that children need to have the language to talk about it in a way that suits their developmental stage. “The golden rule is to trust your gut … you know how much information your child can handle.
“Children aren’t homogenous. We need to unpack the capacity they have. Children up to the age of two or three don’t have the concept of death, but they can pick up on an atmosphere and environment, even if they don’t have the language.” This is why it’s important to be aware of the atmosphere one creates around these children if someone has died, Marcus said.
These children may experience a “double loss” when they are older and don’t have a memory of the person who died when they were a baby or toddler. It means that as adults, we have to develop a “memory” of sorts. The child can still form a relationship with who the person was, even if they are gone.
Children from the ages of three to six start to understand the life cycle, but the world is still magical to them. They may “lack an understanding of permanence. So, if they hear that granny has gone to Hashem, they may still expect her to come back,” Marcus said.
Older children have more concrete thinking, and will understand that the person isn’t coming back. They may feel grief, displayed in regressive behaviour, separation anxiety, or struggling to sleep. They start to understand the universality of death, that “it can happen to me”.
Most adolescents need to be included fully in discussions and rituals around death, as they are at the stage where they need to feel included and are contemplating bigger questions about life and death.
No matter how old the child is, “the information we use must be honest and factual”, Marcus said, pointing out that euphemisms often create confusion for children. For example, if you say, “They lost their granny,” a child may say, “Well, why don’t they just go find her?” And if you say, “Granny’s soul is with Hashem,” a child may confuse it with sole (the fish). If we say, “She is up in heaven,” children may expect to see her in the sky, or when they go on an aeroplane. So, we must be careful with the language we use. “Even for adults, it’s hard to use the proper words, but we need to do so,” Marcus said.
We must use moments of life and death to develop skills. For example, if the child’s school has a farmyard and a rabbit dies, instead of rushing to replace it so children don’t notice, use the moment to acknowledge feelings and develop a ritual around death. Looking at the seasons and nature – the way leaves fall off the trees, or how animals and pets die – are also ideal opportunities to discuss the impermanence of life.
Even though it’s scary, parents need to impress on their children that no question is out of bounds. In addition, let children guide you in how much information you give them. “It’s like building a Lego city – one block at a time. As they develop, they will learn more.”
Parents need to be role models and show that it’s okay to cry or grieve, that these are “natural responses to life”, explain why they are sad, and that they will be okay.
Parents can describe grief like a wound. At first, it’s raw and open, but as time passes, it heals – the scar is still there, but it’s less painful. They can also explain the idea of the body and the soul by putting their hand in a glove – when the hand leaves the glove, the soul has left the body. In explaining death, give factual information about how the body shuts down and no longer works and that they cannot come back to life.
It’s also important to explain what a cemetery is, and to emphasise that it’s a serene place, unlike the scary cemeteries depicted in stories or films. When it comes to funerals, explain to children what will happen, and leave it up to them to decide if they want to attend. If not, there should be no guilt.
It’s meaningful to allow children to describe heaven as they imagine it, Marcus said, and this can evolve as they get older. It’s also important to engage children in rituals of remembering. In addition, if their friend has had a family member who has died, it’s important to emphasise that they shouldn’t be scared of that child.
One of the hardest moments as a parent is when a child asks, “Will you die?” The best way to respond to this is that everyone dies, Marcus said, “but I hope to live long, and I’m trying to stay healthy so that I can”. It’s also vital to assure a child that death is never their fault. An even harder moment is when a child asks if they will die, or says that they don’t want to die. “You can promise that you will do everything to help them be healthy and live a long life. Help them focus on the present, and the fact that they will achieve all their dreams.”
Sometimes, people want to wait to tell a child that someone has died, Marcus said, but the risk is that someone else might tell them – and in the wrong way. Rather, “try not to delay, but find the right moment. In therapy, people often say they never forget how they were told someone had died. It’s a moment they hold onto, and it’s very painful if it’s not by a person you trust.”
While adults often feel they are “drowning in grief”, children are more resilient and “jump in and out of puddles” of sadness. “I always think of life like the Shabbat box that the kids bring home on a Friday and return on a Monday. We need to treat life like that. It’s a gift, but we’re eventually going to give it back. So treasure it while we have it.”
Lockdown opens world stage for determined teen
Like many other teens, 15-year-old student Jevan Sifrin found himself with too much time on his hands under the hard lockdown last year. But instead of spending endless hours watching Netflix, he decided to use the time to improve his fitness.
That little decision has led to astounding opportunities, showing that committing to a goal can take you places you never imagined.
“Jevan went from being bored to being selected to attend an acting programme in New York or Los Angeles this year, and potentially setting off to New York for modelling and acting next year as well,” says his mother Taryn Sifrin.
He started working out during lockdown because “I had been playing rugby at school and at Pirates Rugby Club, and I was motivated to work out to become bigger and do better at rugby after lockdown. I also had a lot of time on my hands,” he says.
“Jevan starting training with calisthenics. We helped to equip a home gym for him, and he trained for hours every day, totally self-motivated,” says Taryn. “Calisthenics is training using your own body weight, and anyone can do it, anywhere,” says Jevan.
“He decided to start an Instagram account featuring his training and fitness videos, and was eventually noticed by a scout for talent agency 33 & Me in Illovo.
“We scheduled a meeting for January when we were back from holiday. They were so impressed with his interview and look, they signed him up immediately and scheduled his first portfolio photoshoot,” says Taryn.
“It was there that he was noticed by Elsubie Verlinden, who is a director at the agency, and she suggested that he audition before directors of the New York Film Academy and apply to attend their summer holiday acting programme in July/August. He had a great audition, and we were informed that he had got into the programme and can choose to attend either in Los Angeles or New York. We have applied for New York. This is a huge achievement, and we are so grateful to Elsubie for arranging his audition.”
“It’s a three-week acting programme taught by lecturers who have taught many famous graduates in the field,” says Jevan.
He has also been accepted to perform in the International Art Talent Showcase in September, which is judged by a large panel of influential people mainly from New York. If he makes it through that, he will be back in New York in June next year for acting and modelling.
“I would never have imagined that working out during lockdown would’ve taken me this route,” says Jevan. “The first goal was to train for rugby, then aim to become a Navy Seal one day, or to go international with my calisthenics training. I would never have believed it would take me on the modelling and acting path.”
Fitting in training isn’t easy for a busy teen, but he makes it a priority. His daily routine begins with a cold shower, a healthy nourishing breakfast, and then he goes to school. He does most of his homework at school, so when he comes home, he can eat lunch and weight train for about two hours. He then researches and practices monologues, model walks, and poses. Then he does calisthenics and goes for a run for about an hour. “Most of the auditions are online these days, which helps save time,” Jevan says. “I can catch up school work on the weekends.”
His audition with the New York Film Academy “was nerve wracking and scary”, he says, “but I thrived under the pressure, and did my best. Normally, directors come out here from New York to interview potential candidates, but this year, we had to do it on Zoom. I’m hoping to be able to get to New York to attend the course in person, but if not, I’ll be able to do it online.”
His ultimate goal is to attend the New York Film Academy after school, learn all about film and the entertainment industry, and hopefully be able to play his dream role, the Joker.
His advice to other teens wanting to reach similar goals is “to work harder than others, do the same thing every day – eat, train, and focus the same way every single day. If done for hours consistently, it will bring success.”
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