Bringing the women back to Ramat Beit Shemesh

This past October, in Jerusalem, pictures of actresses from the satirical television program 'Eretz Nehederet' were defaced on billboards throughout the city.

By ALAN ROSENBAUM
December 23, 2017 15:13
Orthodox Jewish women at the Western Wall

Orthodox Jewish women at the Western Wall. (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)

Sitting at her kitchen table in Ramat Beit Shemesh Alef, Kerry Bar-Cohn exudes energy, laughter and a wicked sense of humor, as she describes her witty poster campaign aimed at restoring images of women to the public sphere in Ramat Beit Shemesh. Over the past several years, as Haredi extremism has increased, pictures of women have largely disappeared from local magazines, ad circulars, banks and health clinics in the city.

Perhaps the most glaring instance of male-only advertising in Ramat Beit Shemesh, Bar-Cohn says, is the display outside a senior adult development that is being built in the area. The wall outside the building site, which covers almost an entire city block, depicts pictures of senior adult men exclusively, playing with young boys, alongside two or three images of fully clothed young girls. There are no images of senior adult women.

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“The sign really makes everyone a little sick, and we all laugh,” says Bar-Cohn. “I thought it would be funny if we put a picture from The Golden Girls [the 1980s American comedy series starring four senior women] on it.” She created a sign with a picture of the actresses, with the words “Shana Tova from the Golden Girls” emblazoned across the front. Encouraged by the positive response from fellow Ramat Beit Shemesh residents, Bar-Cohn continued her comedic crusade and prepared a second sign portraying Gal Gadot, the Israeli actress renowned for her starring role in Wonder Woman, modestly clad, with the words “Have a Wonderful Shabbat” at the bottom.

Since then, Bar-Cohn’s campaign has continued, with humorous posters posted almost every week in different areas of Beit Shemesh and Ramat Beit Shemesh. One featured Clara Peller, the woman from the iconic 1984 Wendy’s Restaurants advertising campaign, who criticized the competitor’s burgers with the plaintive cry of “Where’s the beef?” Bar-Cohn’s version features the same photo with the title, “Where’s the Women?” Still another poster, titled “Women’s Day of Empowerment,” spoofs a typical women’s lecture series poster, and includes a picture of a male speaker, with women wearing burkas.
Extremists protests as Beit Shemesh takes down modesty signs (The Protest Group of Extremist Haredim)

Bar-Cohn feels that humor can effect change.

Chany Fulda, a resident of Ramat Beit Shemesh Alef for the past 10 years, does not consider herself a hard-liner. She says the disappearance of women from advertisements and images “makes us nervous, because we have no idea where it is going.” She is very much in favor of Bar-Cohn’s methods.

“What Kerry is doing is unique, in that she is able to convey a message in a way that is extremely positive and non-threatening and she doesn’t bash anybody or make fun. People are most receptive to this type of approach. Nobody wants to be criticized.”

“Change,” she says, “can happen in a few ways. One way is by legal methods, but another way is to change public opinion and I think that the posters have that effect. It drums up the grassroots.”

Some city residents are not as supportive. Beryl Tritel, an individual and marriage therapist and longtime Ramat Beit Shemesh Alef resident, says, “I don’t really see how these posters are going to do anything except create more strife within the Jewish community. The women they are trying to empower aren’t interested in the empowerment that these posters are trying to encourage… These posters do not increase feelings of Ahavat Yisrael [love of one’s fellow Jew] which is really what Klal Yisrael [the Jewish people] needs right now.”

While her posters often elicit chuckles and laughter from passersby, the erasure of women from the public square, Bar-Cohn says, is no laughing matter. Bar- Cohn, who is a chiropractor, Jewish children’s performer, tap-dance instructor and motivational speaker, says that removing women “lowers girls’ expectations of themselves, and what they can do with their lives. It objectifies women. It makes tzniut [modesty] about not asserting yourself.

Kerry Bar-Cohn in front of a poster from her campaign to bring back posters featuring women to the streets fo Ramat Beit Shemesh

“I’ve spent so much time building girls up,” she remarks, “doing women’s projects, spending energy – and pulling girls out of the media is taking away all the work that I am trying to do.”

Bar-Cohn, who says that the motivational speeches that she gives to girls’ seminary students are intended to help them “be ‘fab’ in every way,” recounts that one seminary head told her that “girls need to hear that they make a difference. This generation doesn’t feel like they make a difference.” Says Bar-Cohn sarcastically, “Well, I wonder where they’re getting that one from.”

Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll, co-founder of Chochmat Nashim (The Wisdom of Women), an organization that highlights areas of injustice in the Jewish community and stirs opportunities for social change, writes often about the phenomenon of erasing women. Jaskoll, who has lived in Ramat Beit Shemesh Alef for 10 years, says that Bar-Cohn’s posters are a “pro-active way of saying ‘this isn’t normal.’” Ignoring the situation, she says, is worst of all.

“When you don’t protest something, there are two things that happen. One, it becomes the norm, and two, people don’t know why, or how bad it is getting.”

Jaskoll says that there is little chance that the posters will change the hearts and minds of extremist elements. There is a better chance, she says, of creating an impression among those who are passive, and who think that not showing women “is no big deal.” When people see the posters, they say, “You’re right. It’s just not normal.”

Bar-Cohn’s work has inspired other Beit Shemesh women to create Hebrew posters of prominent women. Famous personages such as Hannah Szenes, killed by the Nazis after parachuting into Yugoslavia to save Hungarian Jews; 20th-century biblical scholar Nechama Leibowitz; and the biblical matriarch Sarah have all appeared on posters designed to spread the message of the importance of women throughout Judaism and Jewish history. The group even ventured outside the world of Jewish women, and produced a poster of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani activist for female education, and the youngest Nobel Prize laureate.

Rena Hollander, a lawyer and one of two female members of the Beit Shemesh city council, has lived in Ramat Beit Shemesh Alef for 18 years, and notes that the city has very few women in top positions.

“Ever since Moshe Abutbol became mayor in 2008, a bunch of women in public positions left. Having just two women out of 19 on the city council bothers me very much.”

Hollander has been active in women’s issues for many years, and has helped in the creation and preparation of Hebrew signs that show the faces of prominent women. “We want to show the faces of women in the 21st century as respectable women who do things.” Echoing the words of Kerry Bar-Cohn, she says that showing women is important for the next generation of women. “We want girls to walk in the street and say ‘Wow, look at this woman – she did this!’”

The women’s poster campaign is loosely organized within a WhatsApp group of 10 to 15 women, who, plan, create and hang the signs in Ramat Beit Shemesh, as well as in Beit Shemesh, once they have been printed. Bar-Cohn has contributed her own funds to the process, and they have received donations from others. The group has created a GoFundMe page for contributions, and hopes to be able to create larger posters that will make more people aware of the importance of keeping women in the public sphere.

While Bar-Cohn and others are actively working to keep women’s faces in the local Ramat Beit Shemesh media, they note that the problem of the removal of women’s images is not limited to their neighborhood. Binah magazine, a Brooklyn-based publication that touts itself as “the weekly magazine for the Jewish woman” with a circulation of 180,000 readers, published an article on Bar-Cohn in 2012, about the “Rebbetzin Tap” series of children’s DVD’s that she had created. The magazine would not include her picture, or insert her CD into the publication. Says Bar-Cohn of the removal of pictures of women, “It’s not even a Ramat Beit Shemesh issue to me. This is a really bad trend.” Bar-Cohn says that one of the dangers of not showing women’s images is “that we made tzniut mean not showing my face.”

While Bar-Cohn and her compatriots are combating the erasure of women’s images with their sign campaign, progress has been made on another “sign” front. In early December, the High Court of Justice ordered the city of Beit Shemesh to remove all modesty signs which dictate how women must dress, as well as areas where they may or may not walk. The court threatened to jail city officials if the signs were not permanently removed, and the signs were indeed taken down last week – though flyers with the names of the women who brought the lawsuit, along with their phone numbers, addresses and identity card numbers, have been posted around the city. Already, these women and their families have received threats and the police have been informed.

This past October, in Jerusalem, pictures of actresses from the satirical television program Eretz Nehederet were defaced on billboards throughout the city. On some billboards, the women’s faces were torn out; on others, they were spray-painted black. Several days later, a 26-year-old Haredi male was arrested for destroying the signs. In late November, the Bank of Israel released new designs for the NIS 20 and NIS 100 shekel bills, which feature pictures of acclaimed Hebrew poetesses. The NIS 20 bill has the image of the poetess Rachel, and the NIS 100 bill has the image of Leah Goldberg. In its news coverage of the new bills, Yated Ne’eman, the daily newspaper that serves the Haredi Lithuanian community, printed images of the bills, but deleted the images of the women from the images in the news story.

How long will Bar-Cohn and the other Ramat Beit Shemesh women continue with their campaign to restore women’s images to the public sphere? “As long as I feel motivated,” says Bar-Cohn. “I have other ideas, too,” she says with a trace of mischievousness. Kerry Bar-Cohn hopes that her humorous posters will communicate the message that women’s faces cannot – and should not – be erased.

“Maybe someone can hear the message like this where they couldn’t hear it before.” She muses, “Sometimes, people disassociate from what they see as ‘angry feminists.’ This is not an angry feminist.”

Kerry Bar-Cohn may not be angry, but she is determined.


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