By Eliana Rudee
(JNS) In a quintessential “only in Israel” moment, nearly 60 women (and a few dozen men) gathered on a breezy mid-April evening under the Nachlaot stars, sipping good Israeli wine and talking about the intersection of Zionism and feminism.
The “Wonder Women + Wine” event was held by “Wine on the Vine,” a flagship project of The Israel Innovation Fund (TIIF), a nonprofit with a vision to “reignite the Zionist spirit and meet the needs of Jewish civilization in the 21st century by connecting people around the world through the vibrancy and creativity of contemporary Israeli culture.”
In addition to hosting panel and wine-tasting evenings in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, “Wine on the Vine” partners with elite wineries and Israeli NGOs, offering a way for Israel lovers and wine lovers alike to support both by planting a grapevine at a leading Israeli winery for $18 (a chai in Hebrew, representing “life”).
“The idea is that you are supporting something physical and planted in the land of Israel through proxy, and doing a mitzvah,” said Deb Houben, sommelier and assistant director of “Wine on the Vine.”
Houben’s personal connection to wine, which she says parallels the land of Israel, is through its infiniteness and liveliness. “There’s always something new to taste. No wine, even within the same bottle, is experienced the same,” she said. “Wine is the eretz of my life, my connection to the land,” maintained Houben, who immigrated to Israel from the United States and has been working in the wine industry since 2007.
But as with all things “alive,” she added, there is always work to be done. Houben argued that within the global wine industry, and even in Israel, many women have knowledge of the field, but few actually make wine. She estimates that out of the 300 or so winemakers in Israel, fewer than a dozen are women.
So to highlight women’s role in the wine industry, the evening featured a panel of four female Zionist leaders who are making social change in Israel, connecting their ability to do so with the land. As they spoke about their work, guests sipped wines from MAIA and Tulip wineries.
Tatiana Hasson, director of outreach and engagement for TIIF, led the panel and maintained that Israel and feminism to her “means reaching potential.” She said “in Israel, anything I want to accomplish I am able to, and everyone around me pushes me to do just that.”
Grappling with change in their lives
One of the panelists, Karen Brunwasser, is a Jerusalem civic activist and one of the founders of the Jerusalem Season of Culture, an award-winning independent arts organization created to strengthen the city as a more vibrant, pluralistic and creative urban center. According to Brunwasser, she didn’t start thinking about how being a woman in Israel affected her life until she became a mother. “Our head funder is a woman, the board is headed by other female philanthropists, our director is a woman, and our artistic director is another woman. I am surrounded by girl power,” she exclaimed.
However, she acknowledged that it is difficult to maintain her public and social career while also being a mother. “It affects my career and the way I want to affect change,” she said. “It’s a dilemma I haven’t figured out how to reconcile.”
According to Brunwasser, while the feminist revolution has taken women part of the way, “to go the rest of the way, it is necessary to prepare women for the dramatic change that will come in their lives,” especially when they begin to have children. While some women are not leaning in because it comes at a heavy personal cost, if that is their choice, then that is great, she told the guests.
Another panelist, attorney Yael Rockman, serves as executive director of Kolech, an Orthodox feminist movement in Israel. She actively defends the rights of Jewish woman who have been denied a get (religious divorce) by recalcitrant husbands or have endured sexual harassment, especially by rabbis. She has found tribulations within Israeli society, which she says is largely male-normative, with much of the culture based on the army and the male worker.
Rockman maintained that women in the religious sphere go “back and forth with some gains and some losses,” and although they cannot participate politically in Israel’s religious parties, she maintained that women are “starting to take a strong role in changing haredi society.”
Still, she sees no contradiction with the blending of feminism and Zionism – “only challenges” that she said could be reconciled, especially in Israel, where so many complexities dual at once. Through her advocacy for women’s involvement in Judaism, Rockman learned that “if I want to get something, I need to do it myself,” and “if you feel strongly about something, you can create a change.”
A third panelist, Lauren Fried, is passionate about using food as a mechanism for social impact, particularly in relation to community-building, vocational development and interfaith dialogue. She currently works in partnership with the Tel Aviv education department to develop a culinary training program for youth at risk, which can be replicated in other vulnerable communities across the country.
Similar to the wine industry, Fried found that male chefs also dominate the food industry. She spoke of feeling excited when she thought she found an Israeli female chef named “Sharon,” only to learn that in Israel, Sharon is also a man’s name. “I have yet to find my favorite female chef,” she said.
Connecting people to wine
The final panelist, Lital Roth, is director of customer relations for Tulip Winery, responsible for the Visitors Center. “I have the privilege to combine my two great loves – wine and people,” she said. “Guiding groups, and welcoming both new and regular guests to the winery, along with working with Kfar Tikva residents and excellent wines, is what gets me out of bed every morning with a smile.”
Roth maintained that she fell in love with wine at the ripe age of 8 years old (yes, you heard that right), and although she saw that there were more male winemakers in the global wine industry, her passion was “connecting people to wine.”
She added that “being a Zionist and feminist means making the choice to be an activist – a person who cares about things and acts on what you care about.”
Roth decided to question the patriarchal industry when she was once told that in order to be a better wine marketer, she had to wear makeup to work. Another once told her: ”You can work in marketing, but wine-making is very physical, and you won’t be able to do it as a woman.”
However, she has found that women’s roles in winemaking are starting to change. And, she added, with a nod to scientific evidence, “women have a better palate.”
Of course, many naysayers exist who reject the possibility of feminist Zionists, saying that true feminists cannot politically support Israel. But the panelists waved that away; what they say and what do show pride in being both feminist and Zionist, undermining this mischaracterization.
In Israel, affirmed Houben, the two are natural together: “Israel is a land of opportunity for women, and for everyone.”
“I discovered wine here in Israel, and my wine career was unexpected,” she continued. “But in this young country; anything is possible. I came here free to be another version of myself. Wine solidified that for me.”