Tag Archives: Feminism

Jew of the Week: Beate Sirota Gordon

The Woman Who Wrote Japan’s Constitution

Beate Sirota Gordon helped draft the Japanese constitution, and transformed Japanese society, when she was just 22 years old.

Beate Sirota (1923-2012) was born in Vienna, the daughter of Russian-Ukrainian Jewish immigrants. When she was five years old, her father, a popular musician, accepted a position to teach music at what is now the Tokyo University of the Arts. The family moved to Japan, where Sirota studied in German and American schools. At 16, she went to college in California and got a degree in languages, speaking English, German, French, Russian, and Japanese fluently. When World War II broke out, Sirota was one of just a handful of (non-Japanese) people in America who could speak Japanese, and went to work for the Office of War Information. Her main job was to monitor Japanese radio signals and translate their broadcasts. During this time, she had no contact with her parents who were still living in Japan. As soon as the war ended she volunteered to go to Japan as a US Army translator, hoping to find her parents (she did). She would become the first civilian woman admitted to the country. In 1946, the Americans started working on a new constitution for Japan and Sirota (the only woman on the committee) was tasked with writing the section on civil rights. She made it a priority to ensure that Japanese society would finally allow equality for all, especially better conditions for women who still had no rights in the country. Sirota personally drafted Article 14 (“All of the people are equal under the law and there shall be no discrimination in political, economic or social relations because of race, creed, sex, social status or family origin…”) and Article 24 (“Marriage shall be based only on the mutual consent of both sexes and it shall be maintained through mutual cooperation with the equal rights of husband and wife…”) Despite reservations from both the Japanese and American negotiators (who felt she was giving Japanese women more rights than even American woman had), Sirota eventually convinced her counterparts to include the clauses. She is therefore credited with being the central force for bringing social equality and women’s rights to Japan.

During her time working on the constitution, Sirota met her future husband, Lt. Joseph Gordon. They returned to the US and settled in New York. After briefly working for TIME magazine, Sirota pursed her passion for art, music, and dance. Meanwhile, she worked at the Japan Society helping Japanese students and immigrants (one of whom was Yoko Ono). Sirota played a large role in introducing Japanese (and Asian) music and art to the West. By 1970, she was Director of Performing Arts for the Asia Society, and began to travel all over Asia to remote communities in search of traditional art forms. She would then invite these artists on tours to the West. All in all, Sirota organized 39 tours in 16 countries. In the US alone, her shows were seen by 1.5 million people in 400 cities. She also made five films and multiple television programs about Asian art, and recorded 8 albums of music. For all of her tremendous work, Sirota received dozens of awards, including the prestigious Order of the Sacred Treasure from the Japanese government. In Japan, two films have been made about her life. In 1995, Sirota published a memoir in Japanese, followed by an English version in 1998, titled The Only Woman in the Room. Today, she is one of Japanese greatest feminist icons.

In Memory of Lori Kaye, 60, “Who Thought of Others Before Herself”

A Mystical Map of Your Soul

Words of the Week

Until now you have focused on what you need from God; it’s about time you asked, “What is needed of me?”
– Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1813)

Jew of the Week: Rabbi Akiva

The Greatest Rabbi of All Time?

An illustration of Rabbi Akiva in the 16th century Mantua Haggadah

Akiva ben Yosef (d. 135 CE) was born in Israel to a poor family in the last years of the Second Temple, possibly the grandson of converts to Judaism. Despite being unlearned and impoverished, he fell in love with Rachel, the daughter of one of Jerusalem’s wealthiest men (and his employer). Rachel agreed to marry Akiva on the condition that he would eventually go to study. Her father rejected her choice, and the couple lived in extreme poverty. Finally, aged 40, Akiva enrolled at the yeshiva of Lod, without even knowing the Hebrew alphabet. He returned home only twelve years later, but upon nearing the door of his home, overheard his wife say to a neighbour that if it were up to her, her husband would study for another twelve years. Akiva thus went back to Lod for another dozen years, by the end of which he had become a renowned rabbi with some 24,000 students. This time, he returned home to a huge procession and an adoring crowd. His wife tried to get through and was blocked by his students. Rabbi Akiva famously told them: “Leave her alone, for what is mine and yours, is hers.” His father-in-law recognized the huge mistake he had made, and ended up leaving his fortune to the sage. Rabbi Akiva is credited with setting the foundations of Judaism as we know it. He completed the codification of the Tanakh, and commissioned Aquila of Sinope to produce a new accurate translation of the Torah into Greek – an indispensable tool for the Jewish majority at the time. He helped to quell a number of heretical movements, and ensured the survival of traditional Judaism in the face of the new Christian sect. Some even see him as one of the earliest feminists: it was Rabbi Akiva that banned the practice of separating women from society during their days of menstruation. He also spearheaded the abolition of both slavery and capital punishment in Israel. Rabbi Akiva taught that the most important Torah principle was loving your fellow, and unraveled new techniques in Torah interpretation. (One legend has it that God showed Moses a vision of Rabbi Akiva’s future classroom, and it was so deep that Moses did not understand any of it and began to cry!) Rabbi Akiva also participated in the Bar Kochva Revolt in an attempt to re-establish an independent Jewish kingdom and rebuild the Holy Temple. Unfortunately, the revolt failed with catastrophic results. All of Rabbi Akiva’s students perished. The rabbi was able to find five new students and transmit the Torah to them before his own cruel death at the hands of the Romans. This act is sometimes credited with saving Judaism from extinction. One of those five students was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the traditional author of the Zohar, and the first to publicly reveal the vast mystical dimensions of Judaism. (These teachings he learned from Rabbi Akiva, who was such a great mystic himself that the Talmud states he was the only sage to ascend to the Heavens and return to Earth unscathed.) Rabbi Akiva set the stage for the compilation of the Mishnah, and its eventual evolution into the Talmud. His kindness was legendary, as was his love for Israel – both the nation and the land. He died defending both, being flayed with iron combs by the Romans. He prayed until his last breath, which stunned both his executioner and his students, who asked how he was able to praise God at such a moment. His reply: “All my life I was worried about the verse, ‘[to love Him] with all your soul’ …And I said to myself, when will I ever be able to fulfill this command? And now that I am finally able to fulfill it, I should not?” He then recited the Shema, and just as the last word “echad” left his lips, his soul departed his body. Some scholars title him “the father of Rabbinic Judaism”.

Secrets of the Pesach Seder

Words of the Week

One of the gifts of Jewish culture to Christianity is that it has taught Christians to think like Jews… Any modern man who has not learned to think as though he were a Jew can hardly be said to have learned to think at all.
– Lord William Rees-Mogg

Rabbi Akiva’s Tomb in Tiberias, Israel