About Me

I write the biweekly “Beliefs” column for The New York Times and also report for The Atlantic, The Nation, This American Life, and elsewhere. I have four daughters and two dogs.

Read More »

My New E-Book

My Recent E-Book



Read on PC/Mac, Kindle,
Nook, iPad, Smartphones
Books I’ve Written

Site Design & Development
Tuesday
Feb252014

Jew eat yet?

Forgive the Woody Allen allusion.

My last Times column focused on some religious or observant Jews who are nonetheless non- or anti-Zionist. It can be found here, and a reply by Liel Liebovitz went up here. And then a reply to the reply, written by one of the men I featured in my original piece, went up here.

It’s all a lot more interesting than I am making it sound.

Meanwhile, the question of what is permissible speech in the Jewish community is very current. John Judis, author of a new book about the founding of Israel, was just re-invited to speak at the Museum of Jewish Heritage; his book has not pleased conventional Zionists. Judith Butler, the literary critic, will not, however, be speaking about Kafka at the Jewish Museum. And Columbia professor Rashid Khalidi will not be speaking at the Orthodox high school Ramaz.

Tuesday
Jan282014

Trans substantiation

I am coming a bit late to the Grantland “Dr. V’s Magical Putter” controversy, and you may be too: for a primer, read this searching attack on Grantland’s article, an attack published by Grantland. It is cogently argued, and in many ways persuasive, but I feel that it’s no-outing-at-any-cost conclusion dodges some pretty important questions for aspiring journalists (and in our efforts to get things right, and be ethical about it, we’re all aspiring journalists).

“Maybe it was relevant for [the author] to inform the investor that she wasn’t a physicist and probably didn’t work on the stealth bomber and probably also wasn’t a Vanderbilt cut from the same cloth as the original Commodore,” Christina Kahrl writes. “But revealing her gender identity was ultimately as dangerous as it was thoughtless.

“What should Grantland have done instead? It really should have simply stuck with debunking those claims to education and professional expertise relevant to the putter itself, dropped the element of her gender identity if she didn’t want that to be public information — as she very clearly did not — and left it at that.”

That’s all well and good ... except that it shatters the compact between reader and journalist that undergirds most lengthy profiles: that the reader can expect to learn about the profile subject’s life, including her or his past. That the journalist will not keep from the reader a big, essential, massive truth about the subject. That the journalist will be, as I put it to my students, the reader’s representative. If the journalist becomes a coy keeper of secrets, sitting on facts that the reader would very much prefer to know, then what we have is celebrity journalism, in which editors and journalists agree to all sorts of conditions, never disclosed to the reader, in order to obtain better access.

Of course, there is a difference to what Ms. Kahrl is proposing: I acknowledge that. She is saying that being out about one’s gender identity and past is a special case, and for good reasons should be the choice of the profile subject. And I myself concur, in principle, that there are all sorts of facts that a journalist should keep, or should feel free to keep, out of a piece: deeply private matters about a subject’s sex life (except when relevant), the subject’s finances (except when relevant — how I would have loved the Times, in yesterday’s story about sub-minimum wages for waiters, to ask the restaurant owners how much they earn), the arrest records of the subject’s minor children, etc.

But the fact that a subject, for the first several decades of her life, lived under a different name; with a different gender presentation; and, for a while, perhaps, in marriage to a person of the sex opposite to that subject’s sex presentation at the time — it’s just hard to see how concealing all that is possible without, in effect, lying to the reader. Unless the profiler just chooses not to delve into the subject’s life prior to a certain year.

And of course plenty of profiles pick up just one year ago, or five years ago, or whenever the subject entered public life. But many of the best profiles, my favorite ones, take me way back to the subject’s childhood, adolescence, early adulthood, skiing accident in her twenties, failed business in her thirties, aborted run for office in her forties — the whole darned life.

And what Ms. Kahrl is saying, I think, is that for transgender persons not out about their early history living under a different gender presentation, such profiles should never be written. Even when, I guess, they themselves have a relevant career history (of lying or fraud, say), that reaches back into those years.

I am not saying Ms. Kahrl is wrong, but I think we all need to think about this a lot more. It would impose — it would self-impose — a pretty severe restriction on what journalists do. And I am not sure we could limit it to the cases of transgender persons. Plenty of people enter public life — as politiians or, as in Ms. Vanderbilt’s case, ambitious, self-promoting entrepreneurs, and God bless such people — in middle age, with parts of their past they wish to keep private. Should that right to privacy be extended only to matters of gender or sex? If so, why? And if we extend it to other categories, by what criteria?

Friday
Jan242014

Sunrise, sun-get

That was the cute title This American Life gave my 20-minute spot last weekend, about the rabbis who will go vigilant (cattle prods, karate chops) in persuading Orthodox Jewish men to free their wives. (A “get” is the Jewish writ of divorce, which only a man can provide.) Listen here, at about 26:20.

Also last weekend, my Times Magazine piece about mobile phone usage in public spaces (h/t to William H. Whyte) ran, at long last. Cf. here.

Friday
Dec202013

No, Tamar Epstein did not get a get

Is Tamar Epstein free?

The Modern Orthodox, agunah-minded, and Jewish/religious/feminist blogospheres (a small and particular world, admittedly) were abuzz yesterday with the news that Tamar Epstein, whom I in the Times dubbed the country’s most famous agunah, or chained wife (that is, her husband has withheld from her a religious divorce) is now “free.” This news appeared on her Facebook page and in a press release e-mailed widely by activist group ORA, the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot.

But several people with intimate knowledge of the situation have confirmed for me that Epstein did not in fact receive a get, the writ of religious divorce. One could infer this from the wording that she is now ”free,” with no mention of a get. Rather — and I am a bit fuzzier on the details here — it seems that a beit din, or religious court, has anulled her marriage, ruling that it was never valid. Historically, traditional Judaism has recognized certain grounds for anullment, such as the witnesses to the marriage contract being invalid, or if the husband had an illness that he did not reveal to his wife at the time of the marriage.

Epstein’s supporters have for years searched for grounds for an anullment, as it has been clear that her husband — by civil law, her ex-husband, as they have a divorce — has no plans to grant a get. (He is angry about custody arrangements and Epstein’s settling with their young daughter outside Philadelphia, far from his D.C.–area home, where they lived as a family.) It seems that Epstein has finally found some grounds to persuade a beit din to annul the marriage. 

What were the grounds? Nobody is talking. One idea that has been bandied about among more progressive Orthodox rabbis is that any husband who would be cruel enough to withhold a get is, by that fact, mentally unwell — in which case he could not have made a valid marriage. Did Epstein find a three-judge rabbinic panel to agree with that reasoning? Or did they find that a witness to the ketubah, or marriage contract, is no longer leading an Orthodox lifestyle, and thus is not a valid witness? Those are two possibilities.

This declaration could prompt a real schism between some Orthodox and other, more right-leaning Orthodox Jews. If this case sets a precedent, rabbinic courts may begin “freeing” more women, who go on to re-marry, while their husbands are convinced the old marriage is still in effect. Then, the children produced by the new marriages will be considered mamserim, or bastards — a huge stigma in Judaism. The children will be shunned, the mothers will be shunned, and the rabbis who performed the women’s second marriages will be written out of some precincts of Orthodoxy.

To which those women, and their rabbis, and their male and female supporters, could say: “Who cares?” And if they have a critical mass of support, it is they, not their ex-husbands and their supporters, who will be marginalized. I once asked a prominent Orthodox rabbi how many rabbis it would take to support new, more liberal measures to free agunot. “90 percent,” he answered. “If 90 percent of Orthodox rabbis were with us, the other 10 percent could scream ‘Mamersim!’ all they wanted, but they’d fall in line.”

If anyone has more information, drop me a line at mark.e.oppenheimer@gmail.com

UPDATE: A source close to Friedman also said that no get was given.


Sunday
Nov172013

The Zen Predator of the Upper East Side

Yep, that is what I call him, and I am sticking to it. In my new ebook title published by The Atlantic Books, I describe the exploitative philandering career of Eido Shimano, 82, who for five decades has been sleeping with his students at Manhattan’s tony Zen Studies Society and elsewhere. My new book (available for only $2.99) is discussed by Andrew Sullivan here, The Daily Beast here, and Patheos here. The Atlantic ran an excerpt here, and The New Republic ran one here. Much of the evidence of his philandering can be found here.

But again, you can buy it, for Kindle or the free Kindle app on your tablet or smartphone, here.