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Hava Negia

After a long period where my reading consisted of scripts and books on theory and not much else, I’m returning to the piles of books I currently have out from the library. One of my current reads is The Men’s Section by Elana Maryles Sztokman. I haven’t finished the book yet, so I can’t write a proper review, but I do want to address one of the topics that Sztokman has only touched lightly so far.

I’m talking about negia.

Negia (alternately spelled negiah/negiyah) is the Jewish concept of touch. More specifically, negia laws refer to the halachic concepts of physical contact between the sexes. In Orthodox Judaism, men can be shomer negia and women can be shomeret negia, both of which basically mean “watch your touching.” Those who make this choice do not come in contact with members of the opposite sex unless they are related to them by blood or marriage, and usually will refrain from touching others in public. Observance levels run the gamut from merely no physical contact (handshakes/dancing/hugging/kissing) to avoiding any chances of contact such as sharing a bus seat (I have a story about that), an airplane row, or even standing close to the opposite sex in a crowded room or while posing for a photograph. Negia rules do not apply to babies and small children. Arbitrary contact is permitted, such as if fingers touch when passing something at the dinner table. And of course, accidents happen; one time, I was at a Chabad house, standing and talking with someone with one hand on a chair and one on my hip, and the rabbi’s wife walked right into my right arm (the one that was resting on my hip) by accident. I felt so guilty for standing with my elbow in her way, but she said not to worry, that it was her own fault for not watching where she was going.

Even though I grew up Orthodox, negia was never a huge factor in my life. At my synagogue, it was a non-issue; if someone was shomer negia, which some probably were, it never became an issue, and most people greeted each other with a handshake or a hug, regardless of gender. Even as a teenager and young adult, I would greet my mother’s and grandmother’s female friends with a hug.

In high school, the rules of negia became a little blurry. According to school rules, touching the opposite sex was not banned, but it wasn’t promoted either. I remember dancing with girls in school plays, but still, I got yelled at more than once for walking arm-in-arm with a female friend through the halls or for hugging a girl in the presence of a teacher. Some students chose to become more observant, negia included, and that was okay, but my school never made a statement outright about the matter one way or the other. Still, they sent me and others mixed messages over whether it was appropriate or not.

After high school, I definitely became more aware of negia. In college, I made more than a few faux-pas by reaching to hug a girl who was indeed shomeret, so I began to assume everyone was. One time, though, a girl who I thought was shomeret gave me a hug, and when I asked her, she said “Me? Shomer?” So I began the habit of asking girls if they were shomeret when I met them, and every single time I did so, I got a laugh or a confused look. Only once did I actually ask a girl that question and she answered in the affirmative. Talk about bad negia-dar.

This brings me to my first question…why don’t I become shomer negia?

It would make things a lot easier; I would be following halacha. I would chop my time saying hello and goodbye to people in half. I wouldn’t feel obligated to shake a woman’s hand or hug a woman I didn’t like. I wouldn’t have to worry about getting someone else’s germs on me. I wouldn’t have the awkward handshake, or too-long hug. I would still have the awkward eye contact thing, but I guess I don’t have a choice on that one. I’d be at less of a risk of getting makeup or food on me. It would also be something that might make people more interested in me, asking me why I made that life choice or thinking of me highly for having strong convictions. On the other hand, though, it would totally ruin my dating life. Plus, I would miss the physical contact. Studies have shown that people who lack physical contact in their lives are sadder and die sooner. And it sure would make ballroom dancing tough.

Although touch means different things to different people, I feel that as humans we have evolved to the point where contact between the sexes shouldn’t be so much of an issue. If a person feels that he/she wants to be left alone, then that’s perfectly fine, but for the rest of us, we can control ourselves in public situations.

That brings me to my second question…would I ever become shomer negia?

Answer: highly unlikely. I don’t really care what other Orthodox Jews think about me. I’ll continue to assume that people are shomer in public, Jewish situations, unless she makes the first move, but in the vast realm of my life, refraining from physical contact with the opposite sex would not be in my best interest. As an academic and a conference-goer, some women might be taken aback should I offer the man in the conversation a handshake and not them; or, if I turn down a handshake, it could lead to an awkward moment. Plus, I have too many wonderful female friends who I like to hug. And if it meant that I could never ballroom dance again (or, only with another man), I’d say no, thank you.

Maybe if I could get a loophole for professional activities and activities such as dance where contact is required for a purpose…

Yeah. No.

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I Write The Songs That Make the Whole World Sing…Except the Ladies

After looking back on some recent posts where due to time constraints, post-length constraints, tiredness, or otherwise, I did not have a chance to express all of my thoughts on a particular subject. So tonight, I’d like to come back to tzniut, a topic I discussed in “A Modest Proposal”, only move away from skirts to sopranos in an exploration of another element of tzniut: kol isha, or “the voice of a woman” as it is said that the voice of a woman can inspire men to do bad and think impure thoughts.

First, let me preface by saying that even among the Orthodox, there remains no hard-and-fast rule. Some institutions, like my high school, allowed it, but gave the men the option of leaving the room (quietly) or not attending at all. Others, such as at another Jewish school, allowed girls to sing in a choir, with the function being that no individual voice could be discerned from the others, or allowing “mixed singing” of a choir of boys and girls singing together, with the intention that the boys’ singing could “cancel out” the harmful effects brought about by a woman’s singing. (Some religious schools who wanted to take it even further would schedule performance events featuring girls/women singing for only other girls/women, which didn’t really help their case other than the necessity of establishing a woman’s space). Other groups only permit the singing of women in prayer, or singing z’mirot around the Shabbos table. And in the most ultra-Orthodox homes, sometimes women are scarcely heard at all. And then there’s the issue of recorded voices; since voice-recording devices are rather recent in the scope of human history, there’s the issue of separating the image of the woman from the voice. If I can’t see who’s singing, how do I know who it is? How can I even picture her? How do I know that the girl moving to the beat is actually singing, or if it is indeed an African-American gospel singer providing the vocals, C + C Music Factory?

Let’s look back at the Talmudic roots here. The main two Talmudic passages dealing with this issue are in Berachos 24a and Kiddushin 70a. The former talks about the sin of uncovering a woman’s nakedness, and as the rabbis conjecture their thoughts on what this might mean, Rav Shmuel references Song of Songs 2:14, “…for your voice is sweet and countenance comely,” to back up his opinion. Um…okay, so women’s voices are sweet. In case you haven’t read it, Song of Songs says a lot of things about women, and a lot of it is allegory, referring to the relationship between God and the Jewish people. So there’s that. In the latter, the former is explained in more detail and is boiled down to the recitation of the sh’ma prayer, which is arguably the holiest in Jewish worship. Here, it is discussed that the holiness of the sh’ma prayer cannot be recited while a woman sings, for that could interrupt the man’s focus while in prayer, because he might imagine her naked. Okay, I’ll give you that one. But if all a man can think about is a woman naked while he prays, I think he might have voices in his head that are more dominant than the voice of a woman. But then, Rav Hai Gaon remarks that if a man can focus on his prayer to the point of blocking out the woman’s voice from distracting him, then the fact that the woman is singing makes no difference.

So there’s not too much to go on here, except that a woman’s voice may expose her and may distract a man. I don’t see enough for a case to be made here, especially not in modern times. Yes, there are female singers that are intentionally sexy, but it’s seldom that the sound of their voice turns a man on, especially if he’s never seen a picture of her; if you’ve never seen a picture of Marilyn Monroe, “Happy Birthday Mr. President” might not have any sexual meaning to you, after all it’s just another version of a song popularly sung at birthday parties. The birth of the music video and MTV has increased the level of sexuality for some female singers (Britney’s “…Baby One More Time”, Christina’s “Genie in a Bottle”, Rihanna’s “Umbrella”, J.Lo.’s “If You Had My Love”, to name a few), but not everyone has seen those videos, and not everyone immediately thinks of a music video whenever they hear a song (well, except Beyonce’s “Single Ladies.” You’d have to be living under a rock to let that one miss you) They think of the first place they were when they heard the song, a commercial for footwear or candy or soda that it was the tune to, or how Jamie killed it last week at the karaoke bar. Finally, not all female singers transmit the message of sex through their music. Finally, for every singer whose image and vocals, when combined, are primarily about sex, there are five female singers whose music doesn’t particularly emit the same emotion, whether it’s by the purpose of the singer or their presentation style. In fact, in the preceding paragraph, I named six singers whose vocals/imagery have been known to inspire sexual thoughts in men (and women), so now I’m going to name 30 current female singers (young and old) whose lyrics and image are not always sexual in nature, yet are successful and feminine, nonetheless.

Adele. Alicia Keys. Anne Murray. Aretha Franklin. Avril Lavigne. Barbra Streisand. Bonnie Raitt. Candice Glover. Carly Simon. Carole King. Corinne Bailey Rae. Cyndi Lauper. Esperanza Spalding. Florence Welch. Imogen Heap. Janelle Monae. Jennifer Hudson. Kelly Clarkson. Lily Allen. Loretta Lynn. Martina McBride. Mary J. Blige. Miranda Lambert. Norah Jones. Reba McIntire. Sara Bareilles. Susan Boyle. Taylor Swift. Tori Amos. Wanda Jackson….I think that’s 30.

On the flip side, there are also some male singers whose voices are traditionally thought of as backing vocals to hookup sessions. What about Lionel Richie? Marvin Gaye? Justin Timberlake? And then there’s the epitome of sexually impure thoughts, “Careless Whisper,” by George Michael. Don’t believe me? Ask Jenna Marbles.

Probably the worst case I’ve ever heard for kol isha was after my high school’s production of Hello, Dolly!. The next day, people were talking about in class, and one of my classmates (who I’ll call Yitzy) said the most asinine thing I’ve ever heard:

“When I saw Dolly at the top of the staircase, and she turned around to sing the first words of “Hello, Dolly” over her shoulder at the audience, I knew the meaning of kol isha.”

What a cop-out, if I ever heard one. So the pretty girl in the body-covering red dress sang on key and in character, and you got turned on. That’s your problem (or a problem in your pants), not hers. Stop blaming the ladies, men, and look at yourselves. But not in public.

In conclusion (and I do have one), I think that kol isha is severely outdated and quite misogynistic. I’d like to think that we’ve come further in time, to a place where men can control their baser instincts, and where a woman’s voice does not automatically summon the devils of lust. And not every man finds every female singer, no matter how sexy her image or music, attractive. It really serves no purpose other than to suppress someone’s voice just in case it might arouse someone else, which, again, doesn’t solve the problem of the perpetually horny man. Blaming it on all women is not fair to either sex.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, listen to Barry Manilow, and think dirty thoughts.

In other news, shout-outs to my first hits from Benin (bienvenue, Lauren!) and Azerbaijan (xoş gəlmisiniz, Zahid!). I don’t know how much having two friends give you hits for just logging on from their home countries because you asked, but I also got my first visitors from Venezuela (bienvenidos!) and Senegal (bienvenue!), two countries where I know no one. I know that this post materialized in full on the morning of February 18, but my internet went out at 12:54 AM, after I had done a bunch of edits but hadn’t pressed the update button, but I’m hoping that I continue my uptick of hits just the same…

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Book Review: Mary Russell, The Blessings of a Good Thick Skirt

Greetings from Munster, Indiana, where I am on the first leg of my trip back home, hopefully arriving tomorrow evening. I drove myself and my dad three hours and ten minutes to this Hampton Inn in the Indiana-based suburbs of Chicago. 10-11 hours to go tomorrow, and I hope I get to relax for most of it.

What do you know, I finished a book. I initially got it for a project and it came all the way from UW-Milwaukee. Since it’s due in January, before I get back, if I wanted to read it for pleasure I either had to a) hurry it up and read it in one day, or b) return it to the library, sadly never to reenter my hands, a title forgotten among the legions of books I have yet to read.

So in a turn toward the nonfiction market, I present The Blessings of a Good Thick Skirt, by Mary Russell.

Cover of "The Blessings of a Good Thick S...

The Blessings of a Good Thick Skirt‘s interesting and unusual title comes from a quote from Mary Kingsley, a nineteenth-century woman traveler to Africa. It is quite appropriate, given that the book is about female adventurers. I’m not talking about suffragettes – these were women who risked their reputations and their lives to pursue their dreams of travel and exploration, most of them doing so in a time when it was not considered ladylike to travel unaccompanied, without a man. There are an immense number of women travelers mentioned, but I’ll give you the highlights:

The book begins with the story of Egeria, a fourth-century pilgrim to Jerusalem. The theme of women exploring in the name of religion comes up a lot, with the great Hester Stanhope coming to mind, traveling through the Middle East dressed as a man. Over in Tibet, you had Annie Taylor who just wanted to live her life cloistered away in a city where she could just be religious and not have to worry about anything else, and the sad story of Susie Rijnhart, a Canadian adventurer who lost everything in Tibet, including her husband and son, but found her way back home to Canada and then had the courage to go back AGAIN – and of course, she didn’t make it this time. These were the first two Western women to see Tibet, a feat in and of itself.

The only sections I didn’t care for were the ones on mountain climbers and on more contemporary women, women that the author knew personally when she wrote the book in 1986. It just didn’t seem fair to group her friends with the likes of Mary Kingsley and Hester Stanhope.

What I always find interesting are not the women who survived the dangers, but the women who died exploring, making them legends up until the moment of her death. Everyone knows about Amelia Earhart and her fateful round-the-world journey, but few know of her frenemy Amy “Johnnie” Johnson (not to be confused with the original Pink Ranger, Amy Jo Johnson) who set some flying records of her own. Later, her plane crashed into the Thames Estuary in England under mysterious circumstances and her body was never recovered. Alexine Tinne, who did some crazy exploration in Africa, getting further than anyone of her time, dragged her mother, her aunt, and two maids along with her – all of whom died somewhere along the way. Stupidly brave Alexine went back to Europe, and, nonplussed, moved on to her next mission: crossing the Sahara. As the story goes, she was killed by a Tuareg member of her party, stabbed in several places, and left to die in the desert. Her body was never found. Mary Kingsley was buried at sea, in the South African waters on which she died. Therein lies the lesson I took from the book. You get the feeling that these women didn’t do it just for the fame, the money, the notoriety – but because they were passionate about the world around them, and because “it was there.”

But then, there’s Sophie Heath, a flash-in-the-pan aviatrix from the 1920s who survived risky flights and stunts only to die of injuries she sustained after falling down the stairs of a bus in London.

Oh well. Stabbings in the Sahara, somersaults on an airplane wing, slippery steps on a bus – we all gotta go sometime.

But if that last thing happens, make sure my obituary includes all my adventures, and make some up to impress the world. It doesn’t matter what they are, as long as they’re earth-shattering. Surprise me.