Author Archives: Eleanor J. Bader

The Lilith Blog

July 15, 2019 by

Belladonna Founder Rachel Levitsky on Poetry, Politics, and What Comes Next

Rachel Levitsky calls herself a “lesbian, commie, poet, and polemicist who makes things.” And she does: Levitsky has written three full-length books and nine chapbooks herself, teaches undergraduates, and is the founder of the Belladonna Collaborative, a 20-year-old feminist avant-garde literary salon and publisher of experimental, multi-gendered, and linguistically bold titles.

Among Belladonna’s releases are award-winning texts from writers including LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs (Whiting Award) and Beth Murray, whose posthumous book of poems, Cancer Angel, won the 2016 California Book Award. Levitsky sat down with Eleanor J. Bader in Belladonna’s office.

Eleanor J. Bader: Have you always been a poet?

Rachel Levitsky: When I was a child my dad told me not to be a poet. Writing poetry was not an occupation in the Levitsky consciousness. I did not come out as a poet until 1994.

LevitskyEJB: Do you know why your father had this attitude?

RL: My parents seemed to value invisibility. My mother had been born in Germany and came to the US as a toddler in December 1939. Her uncle survived Auschwitz, but no one in my family was willing to talk about any of this and I always wanted to know more.

EJB: Is this why you became interested in history?

RL: Maybe. I was a history major as an undergraduate at the State University of New York (SUNY) in Albany and got a Master’s in American Social History. My focus was labor. My thesis looked at the way the cigar industry in Binghamton, NY became segregated by gender.

EJB: But you chose to pursue activism.

RL: I wasn’t interested in pursuing further academic study in History. I plunged into activism in New York City, joining ACT-UP and WHAM!—Women’s Health Action and Mobilization.

My job at the time was with the Home Program of the Bond Street Homeless Center run by Catholic Charities. Every night, five of us would load into a van and drive around Brooklyn trying to convince mentally-ill, chemically-addicted people to come to the Center’s drop-in program.

I did this work in 1991 and 1992, until I got a job teaching adult basic education classes for the Consortium of Worker Education (CWE), an educational organization that serves union members. In 1993-94 I taught English in Mexico. When I came back to the US, I returned to the CWE and eventually got a full-time job running an English as a Second Language program at the Painters and Finishers Apprenticeship program in Long Island City.

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The Lilith Blog

May 29, 2019 by

Restorative Justice in the Classroom: An Interview with Cassie Schwerner

It’s been six months since Dr. Cassie Schwerner became the Executive Director of the 37-year-old Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility in New York City and she has many items on her organizational to-do list. The group’s mission – to promote equity in public schools through reliance on restorative justice over suspension for rules infractions; increase social and emotional learning in the classroom; and inspire honest, well-facilitated discussions about the impact of race on everyday interactions — is enormous, but Schwerner says she’s up to the challenge. 

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The Lilith Blog

May 8, 2019 by

Deborah Ugoretz Heals Wounds with Paper Cuts

unnamed-1Visitors to the Red Hook, Brooklyn, studio of artist Deborah Ugoretz are greeting by a poster-sized crossword puzzle with the words: “Why didn’t I do more/What more can I do/ Why not do more” in large black letters.

Ugoretz says that she made the piece shortly before the 2016 presidential election. Called My Favorite Crossword Puzzle, this piece contains some squares to remind viewers of the problems that continue to plague planet earth: age discrimination, apathy, child abuse, drug addiction, poverty, racism, human trafficking and overdevelopment, among them.

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The Lilith Blog

April 25, 2019 by

Revisiting the Turmoil of the Late 60s, In Fiction

51kNv-Ay6ZL._SX312_BO1,204,203,200_-1Nicole Burton’s sweeping first novel, Adamson’s 1969, (Apippa Publishing Company) tells the story of Henry Adamson, a young British immigrant to the U.S. whose arrival coincides with some of the most dramatic political movements and events of the late twentieth century.

It’s 1969, the year of Woodstock, numerous massive anti-war protests, multiple plane hijackings and growing pushback against repressive gender norms. And Adamson—he prefers to be addressed solely by his surname—pays attention to each unfolding event as he is trying to finish high school and figure out the college application process, all of it done without parental counsel.

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The Lilith Blog

March 27, 2019 by

Standing Up for Immigrant Families, One Case at a Time

When New York Law School professor Lenni B. Benson created the Safe Passage Project in 2006, she did not anticipate that the number of unaccompanied minors trying to find asylum in the United States would skyrocket, going from 16,067 in 2011 to 41,456 in 2017.

But it has, causing tens of thousands of children to be taken into federal facilities where they will face formal removal proceeding that require them to appear before a judge and explain why they left home.

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The Lilith Blog

March 22, 2019 by

Disability Rights Activist Emily Ladau on How to Make Feminism Include Everyone

While sipping tea in a funky, independently owned café in Babylon, New York, disability justice activist-writer Emily Ladau suddenly makes an unexpected confession: “I have a fraught relationship with feminism,” she says.

It’s not ideological. 

Ladau is pro-choice, pro-ERA, pro-LGBTQ equality, and supports equal pay for work of equal value. But as someone who uses a wheelchair, she has frequently felt excluded. “I don’t think feminists who are not disabled identify with me, even though I identify with them,” she explains. “Feminist groups often ignore the fact that disability intersects with every other marginalized identity.”

Changing this—not just within the women’s movement but in the world at large—is Ladau’s passion and, as editor of Rooted in Rights (rootedinrights.org), she and other writers work tirelessly to expose—and push back against—the many ways in which the disabled are belittled, condescended to and all too often completely ignored.

Ladau and Lilith’s Eleanor J. Bader met in late February to discuss how she became an outspoken advocate and educator.

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The Lilith Blog

February 13, 2019 by

What It’s Like to Help Immigrants at the Border Right Now

When Hillary J. Exter retired in February 2018, after nearly 40 years as a public-interest lawyer, she knew that she wanted to spend at least some of her time working on immigration issues. This led her to the New Sanctuary Coalition.  As a volunteer, Exter has accompanied people to ICE check-ins and court dates, including bond hearings for those in detention, and for about six months has participated in the Coalition’s weekly pro se immigration clinic where she has provided information to those women and men who are not represented by counsel.

In early January she traveled to the Tijuana-San Diego border and worked with other volunteers to give information and solace to the thousands of asylum-seekers who are hoping to enter the US.

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The Lilith Blog

January 30, 2019 by

From Yesterday’s Institutions for the “Feeble-Minded” to Today’s Prisons

Anne E. Parsons was a teenager when her mother told her that her grandmother had had a sister named Ruth who’d spent 40 years at the Delaware Colony for the Feeble-Minded at Stockley, an enormous residential hospital in Georgetown, Delaware.

“Aunt Ruth was not a secret, but, at the same time, the family did not speak openly about her,” Parsons told Eleanor J. Bader in a recent telephone interview. “It wasn’t until I was an adult that I understood the weight of what it must have been like for both Ruth and for my family.”

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The Lilith Blog

January 17, 2019 by

Dancing as Politics: Interview with Hadar Ahuvia

When Hadar Ahuvia took a World Dance class as an undergraduate at Sarah Lawrence College, she recognized that she could not properly investigate other cultures until she had a better understanding of her own. Her parents had been born and raised on the kibbutz Beit Hashita, and her grandparents had helped found the Israeli state, and so she began to untangle the roots of the Israeli folk dances she’d grown up with. She found Bedouin, Druze, Palestinian, Yemenite, and Mizrahi influences on those childhood dances, and began to use them to choreograph her own.

Ahuvia’s most recent piece, “Everything You Have is Yours?” explores her Israeli American identity and addresses cultural appropriation. What’s more, the dance, nominated for a 2018 Bessie Award for Outstanding Breakout Choreography, gives Ahuvia a platform to address her own conflicted relationship with a state she sees as an occupying presence.

Ahuvia now lives in Brooklyn, NY and sat down with Eleanor J. Bader in late November to discuss the challenges inherent in creating and performing dances that are simultaneously entertaining, provocative, and politically impactful.

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The Lilith Blog

January 8, 2019 by

The Feminist Who Illustrated “The Wisdom of the Fathers”

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When artist Jessica Tamar Deutsch was finishing her studies at the Parsons School of Design, she decided to illustrate the famous collection of rabbinic wisdom, Pirkei Avot—typically translated as The Ethics of the Fathers—as her senior thesis. It was 2013. Her colorful 128-page effort was then shopped around to every publisher of Jewish texts that Deutsch could find. Rejections piled up. Some bristled at her depiction of pants-wearing women holding the Torah. Others disliked seeing men with their heads uncovered. And still others did not want to take a chance on something they saw as little more than a religious-themed comic book.

 

Thankfully, Deutsch reports, a small-but-growing Philadelphia company called Print-O-Craft decided to buck the trend and The Illustrated Pirkei Avot: A Graphic Novel of Jewish Ethics, was released in April 2017. To date, nearly 4,000 copies have been sold.

Deutsch sat down with Eleanor J. Bader on a chilly December morning to discuss the book, art, and the creative process.

Eleanor J. Bader: Since the release of The Illustrated Pirkei Avot more than a year-and-a-half ago, you were named one of Jewish Week’s 36 Under 36 in 2018 and are currently doing a Fellowship with LABA, at the 14th Street Y in Manhattan. Can you tell me more about your current projects?

 Jessica Tamar Deutsch: I’m presently illustrating two different books. One is being written by Rabbi Jon Leener and will introduce children (and adults) to Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. It’s sort of a Rebbe Nachman 101. The protagonist is a five-year-old girl named Esther.

The other book is being written by Rabbi Simcha Weinstein and is the story of his Jewish journey.

I also design Ketubot, Jewish marriage documents. This includes interfaith couples and incorporates new traditions where women make a Ketubah for their spouse instead of being the one to receive the document. I love when people make up their own customs. I work with each couple to find meaningful texts but I don’t do the actual calligraphy. I have friends who are amazing scribes so when I make art that I want hand-lettered, I gladly collaborate with them.

Lastly, I’m the resident artist at the Lab Shul. It’s been exciting and an education for me to work with communities that practice Judaism differently from one another.

EJB: You’re juggling a lot! What’s your project for the LABA fellowship?

JTD: The idea is to explore the Hebrew word for truth, emeth.

I recently completed a three-day training to become a doula, to help in the delivery room and be a calm support to the person having a baby. Fellowship funding allowed me to pay for the training and I intend to get more instruction before I begin this work. At the same time, I’m learning about death rituals in Judaism and am working with the Chevra Kadisha, the Jewish Burial Society, in Park Slope, Brooklyn. The idea is to be in these two book-ended moments simultaneously and see what happens. I hope to make art from these experiences but I am not yet sure what form the project will take.

EJB: Have you always made art?

JTD: I think you can safely say that I’ve been making art practically since I exited the womb! Before I even went to nursery school, I made a collage by cutting my hair and arranging the strands on paper–and I’ve always painted.  In elementary school I became obsessed with Renaissance paintings.

My maternal grandparents were in the textile business so growing up I was around fashion, color, and fabrics. When I got to Parsons, I began with the intention of studying fashion design, swapped over to fine art for a semester, and finally completed my BFA in illustration. Along the way I took several sewing classes but, for me, sewing was soul-wrecking. I’ve always loved drawing best. 

EJB: By combining your love to Judaism with your love of painting and drawing, you’ve figured it out.  

JTD: I think so!  I grew up modern Orthodox in New Rochelle, New York, and was one of those kids who absolutely loved Judaism. In fourth grade I had a cheder-style teacher who taught Torah as a song. Judaism became music to me.

EJB: Have you always been a fan of graphic novels?

JTD: As a kid I read Archie, and I’m only now learning about some of the greats. 

When I was at Parsons, I’d walk by a store on my way to class called Forbidden Planet. I discovered a book there called Blankets by Craig Thompson. I bought it and remember thinking to myself, ‘This is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.’ In it, Thompson described growing up in middle America, in a religious Christian family, falling in love and experiencing heartbreak for the first time, and then moving to New York City. This spoke to me. 

The art I like best tends to make the everyday look sacred and Thompson did that. It was eye-opening to find his work.

EJB: How about your relationship to feminism?

 JTD: People have asked me why, as a feminist, I made a book about male wisdom. It’s a good question, but I think we have to deal with things we find uncomfortable in our traditions.

I think that some of the discomfort comes from the progress of Jewish feminists, something I benefit from. People my age can’t relate to a time when only male voices were canonized. 

Rabbi Eve Posen and Lois Sussman Shenker have written Pirkei Imahot: The Wisdom of Mothers, The Voices of Women as a feminist response to the Pirkei Avot. It’s fabulous. They’ve written it in the way you would construct a Mishnah, by turning to powerhouse women for advice. The people who are making new Mishnahs today are keeping Judaism alive.

EJB: How did working with the Hebrew text affect you?

 JTD: What I love most about Hebrew is that it is a playful language and the ways my publisher and I interacted with my manuscript allowed us to title it The Illustrated Pirkei Avot. Perkei means chapters of collections and avot can be translated as fathers, but it can also be translated to mean important things; the book can be called a collection of the most important teachings or the most important wisdom, instead of Ethics of the Fathers. 

EJB: How has your feminism come up against the realities of different Jewish communities?

 JTD: I often assume that what I am up to is considered unconventional, but I may be wrong about this.  I was speaking at the Sixth Street Synagogue in Manhattan’s East Village about the book and there was a man there, dressed in black and white, with peyes. After I spoke, he came up to me and said it was inspiring to him to hear a woman deal with Mishnah in a serious way. That’s change happening.

 Still, there are things in Judaism I don’t want for future generations. For many women, diving into Jewish texts can seem daunting, I am disheartened when women assume they must rely on male teachers. We forget that the Torah is something manageable, something they can learn. When women role models aren’t present as clergy, it’s difficult for women to see themselves in a direct relationship with Torah. They may miss an opportunity to develop their own study skills or learn from someone who might have a better understanding of their lived experience. When I want to learn something, I go to a text, and on my own, try to find an English translation and then wade in.At the same time, while I’m grateful to have supportive male colleagues and teachers, I often have to deal with being the only female voice in a particular space. it can wear me down and feel lonely.

EJB: So, how do you handle it?

JTD: I’ve started writing something I call The Torah of my Kishkes: The Diary of a Twenty-Something-Year-Old Jewess. It’s the place I put my thoughts on Jewish practice, the disappointments, joys, and hopes for the future. It’s been the best way I’ve found to deal with the knots in my heart. I also make sure to take care of myself by running, doing lots of yoga, seeing friends, and playing music. In addition, I’m now taking a dance class for the first time.

EJB: What is your favorite art-making activity, something that you do for pleasure? 

JTD: I love being outdoors with my sketchbooks. Sketchbooks are the best. There is no expectation or judgment when you use one. 

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.

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