Author Archives: Helene Meyers

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April 21, 2016 by

The Narrowness of Media Boys Clubs: A Primary Passover Story

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On April 5, JTA (the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, a Jewish news agency) issued a mea culpa for their list of the 25 Most Influential People on Jewish Twitter. Their original list included only 3 women, and a Times Of Israel piece by Jeremy Burton called them on it.

JTA recalibrated the list by excluding those who belong to the Jewish organizational world (which they identified as “a world that has been shown to be largely dominated by male leaders,” i.e., a boys club) and ended up with 8 women, “a more respectable showing.” But most importantly, they seemed to really get it. They admitted that they should have noticed that women were missing in action on the list, and they didn’t try to dodge Jewish accountability even as they rightly pointed out that the Jewish world is far from the only narrowly male realm (I’m an academic; believe me, I know lots about boys clubs, otherwise known as administration and boards of trustees).  

Andrew Silow-Carroll ended this “response to the response” to JTA’s Jewish Twitter Ranking with “So we agree with Burton’s overarching message. The Jewish community still has a lot to do in order to address a gender gap in positions of influence. It’s an issue that goes way beyond the confines of Twitter.” As a feminist academic who spends way too much time legitimizing Jewishness to my non-Jewish sisterhood, I was energized by a major Jewish news service validating feminist work.  

Fast forward to the day before the New York presidential primary. My inbox contained a listserv message from Steven Cohen, a social scientist whose work I admire a great deal and cite, though I don’t always agree with him. He included a link to a piece he wrote for JTA as a Jewish supporter of Bernie Sanders. After clicking on the link, I realized that his piece was part of a series titled “Ahead of NY Primary, Jewish Supporters Make the Case for Each Candidate.”

Even before I reached the op-ed on Trump, I had the sensation of being sucker punched. While Steven was for Sanders, Stuart wrote for Clinton, Nick supported Cruz, Bradley rallied behind Kasich, and Jason opined for Trump. Yes, all the invited Jewish op-ed writers were men.

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December 22, 2015 by

7 Jewish Feminist Highlights of 2015

2015 is leaving us with too much violence and a world that needs much repair.   For me, the hateful murder of Shira Banki at the Jerusalem Pride Parade in August and the National Women’s Studies Association’s noxious BDS resolution were two Jewish feminist low points of this secular year.  But other, joyous moments have helped me keep the faith that Jewish feminism can and does make a difference by doing the work of tikkun olam in Jewish worlds, in feminist movements, and in the world entire.  So in keeping with that spirit, I offer my top 7 Jewish feminist moments of 2015 (and, of course, 7 is the number associated with creation and blessing in Jewish tradition!). 

1)   Rebecca Goldstein, who has embodied and given literary life to “mind-proud” women throughout her career, was awarded the National Humanities Medal.  If you haven’t yet read The Mind-Body Problem, Mazel (winner of the National Jewish Book Award), or 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, treat yourself to the words and the worlds of a brilliant writer. 

2)   Another one of my sheroes, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Supreme Court Justice and graduate of Brooklyn’s James Madison High School (my alma mater), was recognized with the Radcliffe Medal, given “to an individual who has had a transformative impact on society.”  This “tiger justice,” of course, was a key vote in the landmark decision legalizing gay marriage.  And the publication of Notorious RGB (and the upcoming film version of this legal titan’s life starring Natalie Portman) is a sign that intelligent life and popular culture can and do coexist. 

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September 21, 2015 by

Holy and Unholy Tweets

 The upcoming week is a sacred one for both Jews and Muslims.  Tuesday night ushers in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement that is the climax of the 10 Days of Awe and is the holiest day of the Jewish year.  Traditional Yom Kippur observances include a full day of fasting followed by communal break-the-fast meals.  Many congregations run food drives to assuage the hunger in their communities that is neither voluntary nor holy.  

 Wednesday night ushers in Eid al-Adha, the 4-day Festival of Sacrifice that marks the willingness of Ibrahim to sacrifice Ishmael and God’s ultimate substitution of a sheep for the son that was a gift to Ibrahim (the Jewish version of this story is known as the Binding of Isaac).  Eid al-Adha marks the end of the Haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that observant Muslims are required to make at least once in their lifetime if they are able; observances of Eid al-Adha, also known as the Greater Eid, include communal meals, the exchange of gifts, and donations to the poor. 

 This close proximity of Jewish and Muslim holy days is a welcome counter to the close proximity of bigotry that has plagued Jews and Muslims during this past week.  On Tuesday, in Irving, Texas, Ahmed Mohamed, an intellectually ambitious and adventurous ninth-grader, was taken into police custody for bringing to school a clock that he had made; the clock, a sign of his inventiveness and smarts, was mistaken for a device of terror.  Despite official denials, Ahmed’s Muslim heritage and his name surely contributed to the decision to handcuff first and ask questions later.   Displaying an ability to serve as educator-in-chief and to use social media for the common good, President Obama tweeted “Cool clock, Ahmed. Want to bring it to the White House? We should inspire more kids like you to like science. It’s what makes America great.” 

 On Wednesday, Ann Coulter, one of our chief provocateurs for the common bad, was nonplussed by the support for Israel expressed by several Republican candidates toward the end of the debate on September 16th.  Shocking even those of us who are acutely aware of diverse forms of contemporary anti-Semitism, she tweeted “How many f—ing Jews do these people think there are in the United States?”  Of course, the Jewish tradition of responding to insult with humor became general across the Twitterverse.  Referring to the missing letters in “f—ing,” Yair Rosenberg usefully noted, “The best part of this tweet is how Ann Coulter censored the language to avoid offending people.”  AJ Jacobs matched stats from the Kinsey Institute on sexual activity with Jewish demographic info to compute how many Jews have fornicated in the last month and how many were likely doing so while Coulter was tweeting. 

 Less funny was the unambiguous hatred that proliferated in replies to her tweet and with the hashtag #IStandwithAnn.  These tweets ranged from “the Jewish community does not care about Americans” to resurrected charges of deicide to a hideous image titled “Swindlers List,” which featured a photo of Obama framed by a black star of David overlaid with the words “Rothchild’s Choice”; photos of Jewish male staffers (e.g., Rahm Emanuel, Larry Summers) are positioned at each point of the star.  Coulter, like officials in Irving, Texas, went into denial mode.  Notably, she tried to deflect any anti-Jewish meaning to her tweet by ascribing anti-Semitism to Hispanics and Mexican immigrants, a.k.a. “foreigners.” 

 My favorite answer to Coulter’s f—ing question came from Jennifer Weiner, who tweeted  “You’re about to hear from all of them.”  May 5776 be a year when all Jewish feminists are heard from, when we say “no” to anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, when we say “no” to those who use social media to play pernicious games of divide and conquer.  May 5776 be a year when we say “yes” to the hard but necessary work of building and sustaining progressive alliances across ethnic, racial, and religious fault lines.   May our 140 character messages and our longer-play writing help us to connect diverse religious and secular traditions that might make for a more peaceful world. Shanah Tovah and Eid Mubarak.  


Helene Meyers is Professor of English and McManis University Chair at Southwestern University.  You can follow her at @helene_meyers

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August 3, 2015 by

How Rainbow Jews Threaten a Black and White Haredi Worldview

It is tempting to read Yishai Schlissel’s terrorist act at the Jerusalem Pride Parade, which we now know claimed the life of Shira Banki, a 16-year-old marcher, as confirming the opposition between the religious and secular realm. The common adjectives used to describe Schlissel are ultra-Orthodox or haredi.  That oft-repeated descriptor not only reflects but also shapes the unfortunate reality that many in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community zealously guard homophobia as an essential and eternal value sanctified by Torah.  Those who decried the stabbings committed by Schlissel but nonetheless referred to the Pride Parade as “the abomination parade” represent such zealous homophobes. Of course, the language of abomination is biblical language used to describe any number of transgressions.  However, an anti-historical reading of Leviticus 18:22, the passage that declares it an abomination for men to lie with one another as they would with a woman and implicitly renders lesbians invisible and even unthinkable, is the proof text that continues to be used to justify homophobia. 

Even Israeli security forces assume the secularism of marchers and the homophobia of the haredim.  According to Haaretz, “In security briefings before the event, there were clear instructions to stop any ultra-Orthodox person nearing the inner circle of the parade, with police instructed to ask them to identify themselves and state their business at the parade. Moreover, police were asked to pay special attention to any possible Haredi masquerading as a secular Israeli.”  When we assume that ultra-Orthodox or haredi Jews are necessarily and eternally homophobic, we forget that ultra-Orthodoxy has a history and presumably a future, one not written on stone tablets.  Even more importantly, such a reductive narrative belies the possibility and the experience of queer ultra-Orthodoxy. 

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July 6, 2015 by

Communal Mourning: “Dylann Roof Acted Alone, But He Did Not Stand Alone”

In many Reform congregations, it is customary for the entire congregation and not just those who are halachic mourners to stand while saying Kaddish.  This deviation from traditional practice is designed to provide community for those who are actively mourning: no one who mourns should stand alone.  And this practice also acknowledges a communal responsibility to say Kaddish for those who have no one to do so. 

Such a communal approach to mourning might guide us as we continue to come to grips with the atrocity that was committed in the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.  All people of conscience, whether that conscience is derived from religious or secular traditions, need to stand with the family and friends of the victims of that terrorist attack.  We need to remember the names of those who met their death simply for praying while black : Depayne Middleton Doctor, Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, The Reverend Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons Sr., Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, and Myra Thompson. 

And part of our communal responsibility is to acknowledge that although officials believe that Dylann Roof “acted alone,” he did not stand alone.  Based on what we currently know, Roof did not have active collaborators in this terrorist plot.  But he communicated online  with white supremacists, his father bought him a gun, his roommate listened to him make plans to “start a civil war,” those who knew him in high school heard him make racist jokes and wrote them off as “Southern Pride” and “strong conservative beliefs.”  His home state of South Carolina flies a Confederate flag at its Statehouse and judging from his Facebook page, he was inspired by the apartheid history of South Africa and Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia).   Vigils and services designed to promote solidarity across racial and religious lines were disrupted by bomb threats.  In the chilling manifesto that Roof likely wrote, he took aim at Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and Jews; although his anti-Semitic complaint is that the Jews “network,” his ideology of hate is advanced by new technologies.  Dylann Roof did not and does not stand alone.  And thus those of us of conscience who did not personally know Depayne, Cynthia, Susie, Ethel, Clementa, Tywanza, Daniel, Sharonda, and Myra must be sure that their immediate mourners and communities are not standing alone. 


Helene Meyers is Professor of English and McManis University Chair at Southwestern University.  Most recently, she is the author of Identity Papers: Contemporary Narratives of American Jewishness , which includes a chapter on the color of white Jewry.  She is currently writing a book on Jewish American cinema.    

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June 1, 2015 by

“Félix and Meira”: Flawed Flick Worth Watching

“Félix and Meira,” directed by Maxime Giroux, is a slow film, at times excruciatingly so. Its box office sales are unimpressive, and I watched it in Austin, Texas, in an almost empty theater. While it won Best Canadian Feature Film at the Toronto Film Festival, it is getting decidedly—and deservedly—mixed reviews. Yet it is one of those flawed films that gets under your skin in good and stimulating ways. 

Meira, a.k.a. Malka, is a religiously and sensually restless Hasidic woman. Although she’s supposed to fulfill the commandment to be fruitful and multiply (bearing six to fourteen children is the norm in her community), she gives birth to one daughter and then surreptitiously takes birth control pills. Although her husband disapproves, a recording of Wendy Rene’s “After Laughter” rather than Jewish prayer feeds her soul. And as she holds her daughter, she draws miniatures with intensity. Her sketching attracts the attention of Félix, a secular single man who has been estranged from his father for a decade but returns home as the patriarch lay dying. Félix, too, sketches both his ideal and broken world. A relationship develops between these two lonely people that spans not only the Montreal neighborhood that they initially share, but also Hasidic Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Venice.

Hadas Yaron, who plays Meira, is as arresting here as she was in the visually stunning “Fill the Void.” Her eyes become a vehicle for conveying a complex narrative of conditioned feminine modesty, desire, confusion, and grief. Refreshingly, mothering is neither exalted nor degraded here. Although Meira does not want a brood and is often shot hunched over the carriage she pushes through the grey, wintery streets of Montreal, she also derives much joy from her daughter. Her husband tells Félix that if she and he go off together, his daughter will grow up without a mother. However, Meira thwarts that scenario with a photo shoot that we retrospectively understand as a plan for her daughter’s passport. 

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January 16, 2015 by

Keeping the Sabbath Post-Hyper Cacher

762px-נרות_שבתI’m writing this to honor the memory of Yohan Cohen, Yoav Hattab, Phillipe Barham, and Francoise-Michel Saada, the French Jewish men who were shopping at the Hyper Cacher in Paris and were murdered by terrorists. Note that I’m not identifying the murderers by name, nor their purported political or religious agendas; there already is and will continue to be plenty of virtual ink spilled on them. No, this is a piece of mourning and an effort to understand and articulate the profundity of the grief that many Jews around the world are feeling right now.

As a feminist, I’m a firm believer in the quotidian and what it signifies. Who does the dishes, who cooks the meals, who buys or bakes the bread, who talks and who is silenced, whose daily lives and deaths are worth recording speak volumes about the world and its values. Traditional Judaism also places great faith in the quotidian. What is often categorized by Jews and non-Jews alike as stringent rules and regulations (or, even less charitably, as obsessions of observance) is fundamentally a world view that the rhythms of daily life and bodies matter and should not be taken for granted. That’s why there are prayers associated with such mundane activities as awakening to a new day, going to the bathroom, baking challah, and consuming food mindfully. Regard for the seeming trifles of everyday life is one of the many places where Judaism and feminism can and do meet.

As the siege at Hyper Cacher (in English, super kosher) unfolded, those who know the rhythms of Jewish time understood that this market would be full of people preparing for the sabbath. They would be shopping for the food that would grace sabbath tables, paradoxically doing the seemingly mundane work that enables a respite from the quotidian and hopefully reaffirms the connections between the trifles of everyday life and the transcendent.

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October 3, 2014 by

Jewish Calendar Talk

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My high-school educated mother came of age in the days when “gentleman’s agreements” limited Jews’ access to higher education, housing, and the professions.  One of her formative experiences was an interview at what we would now call a major telecommunications corporation.  A clerical position with a decent salary, benefits, even vacation, it was a “good job” for a woman with limited education.  However, there was one catch: she had to work on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  She didn’t have a great deal of formal education but she was no dummy–she knew that this was a less than subtle way to keep Jews out of that particular workplace.  Having been raised in an Orthodox household, she also knew that the choice offered was no choice at all.

We rightfully celebrate that Jews now have full access to higher education, housing, and the professions.  But I wonder if we fully appreciate how, at the holiest time of the Jewish year, Jews are still routinely, subtly and powerfully required to make choices between their Jewishness and their wholesale belonging in various professional, communal, and organizational worlds.  Look at all sorts of calendars (and our rationalizations for them) and you have an important Jewish story in the 21st Century. 

One place to start might be an international body, the United Nations.  For some odd reason, the Jewish High Holidays are not on their list of official holidays.  Of course, Christmas and Good Friday grace that list; Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha were happily and rightfully added in 1998.

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April 23, 2013 by

Yentl, Me, and 1983

imagesYesterday, April 22, Barbra Streisand received the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Chaplin Award.  In announcing the award on behalf of the Film Society, Ann Tenenbaum cited Yentl as representative of Streisand’s achievement, a “milestone film.”   Yentl was the first flick to have an American woman serve as writer, director, producer, and star.   But Yentl also was and is a milestone film because it gave voice, loudly and unrelentingly, to the frustrations and longings keenly felt by a generation of smart, mouthy Jewish women.  Born of the old world, Yentl spoke to new world Jewish feminists. 

Of course, long before Yentl, Babs had become an icon for Jewish women.  A great deal of attention has been paid to the ways in which Streisand made Jewish beautiful.  While some of us don’t regard her being featured on the cover of Playboy in 1977 as a compliment, her refusal of nose and surname changes have always been cause for kvelling.  The drama of her hair from wild Jewfro to WASPY wisps and back again in The Way We Were struck some of us as a form of talking back to culturally dominant standards of beauty (and I know that I’m not alone in thinking that she was more beautiful before her makeover in The Mirror Has Two Faces).  Those of us who hail from Brooklyn, Babs’s old stomping ground and the site of her recent Barclays Center homecoming, also felt the power of identification born of Jewish geography.  But Yentl was different.  That milestone film indirectly projected on-screen the experience of a generation that was confronting and transcending the impediments to living a full intellectual and spiritual Jewish life.

Yentl came out in 1983.  Just a year earlier, I had been a college senior.  The director of Hillel, who was also my academic advisor, recommended that I attend an institution where I would be likely to find a nice Jewish husband who would give me the Jewish children I had a responsibility to bear to counter the genocidal work of Hitler.  I refrained from cursing this kosher pig out loud, but I left that office feeling at odds with my tribe and wondering whether feminism and Jewishness might be another marriage I didn’t want–or worse, couldn’t have.  

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September 24, 2012 by

Memory and Teshuva: A Review of October Mourning

Leviticus 18, which deems men lying with men an abomination, has traditionally been part of the Yom Kippur service. Many congregations today opt for a substitute for this oft-quoted but underhistoricized text that has contributed to diverse forms of religious and secular homophobia. Whether we reject, historicize, or transform the meaning of these words that have hurt, we should relish opportunities to communally atone for complicity with traditional and contemporary forms of hate. Lesléa Newman’s October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard, scheduled to be released on Erev Yom Yippur, is a “historical novel in verse” that inspires cultural memory and teshuva.

This slim but powerful volume of poems is divided into four parts. The prologue, a single poem titled “The Fence,” gives voice and perspective to an inanimate object, an innovative feature of this collection reminiscent of the talking bus and washing machine in Tony Kushner’s Caroline, or Change. After Matthew Shepard’s persecutors beat him, they tied him to a fence and left him for dead. This poem personifies the fence, clearly identified with the victim, before it became part of a hate crime: “will I always be out here/exposed and alone?”

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