Allison Josephs sits in her bathroom in a green facial mask, relaxing in dark blue towel-turban and peeling cucumber slices off her eyes.
“Dear Jew in the City,” she recites. “My friend just told me that Orthodox people consider women dirty when it’s their time of the month. And that’s just so horrible — I mean, it’s a natural bodily occurrence. How could they make it into something so negative?”
Josephs, 30, is single-handedly trying to “re-brand” Orthodox Judaism, and in doing so has just finished broadcasting her first season of “Jew in the City,” a Web series (JewintheCity.com) that attempts to dispel negative myths often associated with religious Jewry and give it a hipper, more modern cast.
Many of these myths Josephs herself firmly believed as an adolescent, before she made the gradual switch from Conservative Judaism to Modern Orthodoxy during high school and her college years at Columbia.
Among other questions, her series of two-minute Webisodes explores whether or not Jewish women are considered dirty during menstruation, whether woman in Orthodox Judaism are treated as inferior and the idea that Orthodox couples are never sexually intimate. The infamous “hole in the sheet” is one of her favorite topics.
“I’ve gotten asked that question by so many people,” said Josephs, who wears a trendily highlighted sheitel, chandelier earrings and a perfect manicure in most of the videos. “I wanted to handle the question in a modest way, but not dealing with the question doesn’t help either.”
In that particular episode, Josephs makes clear that Orthodox Jews are certainly not sexually “oppressed” and explains that “knowing someone in the biblical sense” is actually one of the holiest mitzvahs in Judaism. She surmises that the “hole” myth probably arose from a pair of tzitzit hanging on a clothesline, because tzitzit resemble a sheet with, well, a hole in the middle for the head.
A few episodes later, a Barbie doll named “Blossom Russo” shows up to ask Jew in the City whether or not Orthodox Jewish tradition encourages sexism, followed by an appearance by Mayim Bialik, the title actress of the early ‘90s hit series “Blossom.” Bialik studies with Josephs at Partners in Torah, an outreach group that assigns mentors to Torah students, and she also has become Orthodox.
“Modern Orthodoxy has changed so much in the last 15 to 20 years,” Bialik told The Jewish Week. “We need people like Allison to show how multifaceted [Orthodox Judaism] is. I didn’t know about this whole world until she introduced this to me. The more that this kind of [updated] message can get out to people, the more accepted we will be.”
In addition to her work at “Jew in the City” and Partners in Torah, Josephs is the mother of three children in Manhattan. Bialik describes her as “one of those powerhouse women who can do everything.” Josephs filmed her first video a few years ago, but eventually decided to put together professional-quality Webisodes, accompanied by blog posts, articles and responses to viewer questions.
Josephs has thus far financed the project herself. “Running something like this, there are so many different hats to wear, and although I wear hats sometimes, the fundraising hat just isn’t my best,” she said.
Josephs says she gets questions about Orthodox Jewish rituals from people all over the world and from every background, including liberal Jews, gay and lesbian Jews, and Christians and Muslims interested in converting to Judaism.
“The Internet is so interesting,” Josephs marveled. “I feel like who the heck am I? But with the power of Facebook, Twitter, blogging and YouTube, you can get ideas out to literally the other end of the world.”