Author Archives: Susan Weidman Schneider

Live from the Lilith Blog

May 10, 2011 by

Lilith’s Contemporary Salons for Smart, Savvy Jewish Women

Cross-posted with eJewish Philanthropy.

How do women move from diagnosing what’s wrong with the world to taking action to improve it?

I had ample opportunity to mull this over when I attended the National Council of Jewish Women’s triennial convention in Dallas earlier this month. When I’d been honored by them three years ago as a Woman Who Dared, I was down with the flu, and wasn’t able to appear, so this time I wanted to catching up in person with the representatives of the only self-styled “progressive” Jewish women’s organization.

The gathering proved a useful primer on the political and legislative issues women face right now, with reproductive rights, pay equity and the task of bringing in more women as judges and elected local officials at the top of the agenda. Then there was the challenge of expanding the base and drawing in the dollars needed to move the agenda forward. In a session on women’s giving, the NCJW presenters set forth many of the tenets Lilith has written about, chief among them that women tend to get to know a cause before writing a check or clicking “Donate,” and that we like to give and to work in concert with other women. A new study from Princeton on women undergraduates puts it well: “Women seek, and benefit from, affiliation with other women.”

This is one reason I was at the NCJW convention – to tell the attendees about the success Lilith has had in bringing women together for smart talk under the rubric of Lilith salons – now 90 strong across the country and in Canada and other places too, many of them in conjunction with Women of Reform Judaism. (more…)

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Live from the Lilith Blog

June 24, 2010 by

In case you thought all Jews were safely in the pro-choice camp…

When I visit the small towns in rural West Virginia that are an easy drive from where I live in Washington, DC., I have the sensation of entering an alternate universe. It’s one where I wouldn’t want to stop for too long, since among other indications that I’m in alien terrain are the churches with fake miniature graveyards set up on their front lawns, featuring signs saying things like “We mourn the thousands of babies put to death each year by abortions.”

So you can imagine how appalled I was to learn, when I opened the current issue of the Washington Jewish Week, that Christians aren’t the only ones using manipulative anti-choice rhetoric on abortion. A Jewish anti-choice organization is now rearing its head, too. It’s mission? To provide “Jewish unplanned pregnancy assistance.” And they don’t mean they’ll accompany you to Planned Parenthood. According to the front-page story, the goal of this so-called crisis pregnancy center is to encourage Jewish women who find themselves unintentionally pregnant to continue the pregnancy and either keep the child or relinquish it to adoption. Erica Pelman, its founder, says she has been doing in-person outreach to college students, and to high schoolers at a local Hebrew day school.

The website of her year-old organization, named “In Shifra’s Arms” for the midwife in the Passover story who saved firstborn Jewish sons from being put to death, puts out inaccurate information about abortion risks, including reiterating the utterly disproven hypothesis that abortion increases a woman’s risk of breast cancer—as if someone coping with an unplanned pregnancy doesn’t have enough to worry about.

The site advises on how one can “overcome abortion pressure” and avoid “the emotional risks” of abortion without ever mentioning the psychological consequences of giving up a child for adoption, or the constrictions of having one’s schooling derailed for life. Instead, the organization offers to help young women with an unwanted pregnancy find an internship so they can “lay low” [sic] and not be “embarrassed” by having to attend their college classes with a big belly. Oh—and another wonderful offer—to show them how they can use elastic waistbands to create maternity clothes! Brilliant! And so helpful! What about education for the young mothers? What about financial support for the children? Childcare? Medical care?

There is plenty to find fault with in “crisis pregnancy centers,” which are often really disinformation centers, but this one rankles especially, because their website and Pelman’s comments to the Washington Jewish Week don’t mention the fact that one of Judaism’s strengths is the value placed on life, especially the lives of those already alive—namely, the mothers-to-be. Unlike religious strictures that, say, tell a Catholic woman that the fetus has rights that supersede that of the mother, Judaism privileges the person who is already born.

Not only does Pelman use the rhetoric of right-wing Christian anti-choicers, but she actually admits that she gets her training from them.

The fact is that Jews are overwhelmingly pro-choice. And even the most observant Jew can find support in Jewish law for having an abortion if her physical—or mental—health would be impaired by carrying a pregnancy to term. Will In Shifra’s Arms sway large numbers of Jews away from these core pro-choice beliefs? Unlikely. But while Pelman worries about young women choosing abortion because they are “embarrassed” to be pregnant and unwed (as opposed to being concerned about their futures, or their health, or their relationships), her new project is itself an embarrassment—at least in part because it is so callow and so shallow as to pretend it can help shape the future of women when it appears to have neither the resources nor the expertise to do so.

What this group has done is make me less smug. Next time I see the mini faux tombstones in front of a church I’ll remember that Jews, too, are adopting the techniques of the right, including promising more than they can deliver, to influence women’s reproductive choices.

-Susan Weidman Schneider
Editor in Chief

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Live from the Lilith Blog

March 5, 2010 by

Our Bodies–As We See Them, and As Others Do

This season has seen a crazy explosion of outdated and limiting images of women, often specifically Jewish women. Is it the recession? Does economic anxiety cause people to unleash these thoughts?

In its December issue, Details magazine, that laddie mag for men in a state of arrested development, ran a feature entitled “The Rise of the Hot Jewish Girl.” It touted the joys of Jewish women’s bodies—as if there were one single body type for everyone who identifies as a Jew. “Big natural boobs” were among the lusted-after characteristics all Jewish women are thought to possess, and the Details website (not to drive any traffic there, dear reader) lists Queen Esther, Theda Bara, Betty Boop and La Stresiand as part of our sexual (and embodied) inheritance. In fact, it’s an old trope. In literature, Jewish women for centuries have been viewed the other—seen by non-Jews as exotic, desirable, or dangerous. Sometimes all three at once. You can imagine where this is all going, without even reading the article, which fetishizes Jewish women’s bodies in a way that harks back centuries. Old bias in new clothing. Or no clothing.

Oh…and the illustration for the magazine piece featured the bare back and scantily-pantied bum of a headless, limbless torso, a Jewish star tattooed above the panty line.

I am not making this stuff up, I swear. And there’s more.

The past few months have seen nasty characterizations I thought we’d washed out of the culture 20 years ago. It’s an appropriate time, what with the new decade and all, to take a look at the parallels between then and now.

Then: Jewish women (I’m talking 1980s here) were characterized as JAPs (no insult intended towards Asians; as you’re well aware, reader, the sobriquet Jewish American Princess is the root of this acronym). The JAP was in those days reviled in cartoons, books, greeting cards and everyday teen talk and adult slang. A Jewish female too young to be a Jewish Mother (though she might indeed be a mother) and immature enough to be completely preoccupied with herself, she was characterized as demanding. Materialistic. Spoiled. Never mind that she’s not that different from a lot of other well-educated middle-class females. This stereotypical Jewish woman is blamed for wanting to marry a doctor, blamed if she wants to become a doctor. Too passive, and also too aggressive. Not much room to maneuver there.

Now: the stereotype has been reborn, but in different clothing. Literally. You’ll discover in the Voices section of this issue that “Coasties” are Jewish women from New York or LA, reviled on YouTube and on their Midwestern campus for dressing alike in popular brands and spending too much of “Daddy’s money.” (Please, please make sure to note the assumption that all spending money comes from fathers, not mothers.)

And also now: the New York Observer, an otherwise respected, often reliably hip weekly newspaper, publishes a straightfaced report about “cheetahs”—sexually assertive and desperately marriage-deprived New York women in their late 20s or 30s who are described as taking routine advantage of drunken men, having sex with them and then not even having the decency to leave before morning. Women—Jewish women at least—have in the past been reviled by comedians and disgruntled lovers for being frigid or uninterested in sex. Here, women are reviled for acting too boldly on their desires. Not much room to maneuver here either. The cheetah is posited as the “younger niece” of the cougar, that predatory woman who pursues men younger that she is. Please pause here to note that the animal imagery for women has shifted. Women used to suffer poultrification—we were called chicks, mother hens, old birds. But no one is afraid of poultry. But these big cats, at least in real life and not just as metaphors, are fearsome: cheetahs, cougars, jaguars. What’s coming next?

Lilith offers, as usual, an antidote to these demented and actually rather scary projections about Jewish women’s bodies, motives and desires. Taking you in entirely different directions, in these pages Lilith looks in a nuanced way at what some Jewish women think—and experience—about their bodies and their relationships. From breast cancer and gender dysmorphia and cutting to the holiness of how we feed ourselves, and how we care for the body when life has departed.

As all of us––Lilith readers and writers alike––strive to tell the truth, and hear the truth, about Jewish women’s lives, here’s a toast to a decade of continued development. L’Chaim. Happy 2010.

–Susan Weidman Schneider

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Live from the Lilith Blog

December 2, 2009 by

Feminist Family Values

In our current state of economic crisis and rampant anxiety about how women’s issues are faring (not well) in the debates over health care, it seems to us useful to look again at what to expect in a feminist-friendly universe. Some of the optimism in this piece, which first appeared in Summer 2008 now sounds, alas, premature (for example, about same-sex-marriage legislation). But the rest of it–a call to understand what feminist family values are all about–rings very true in light of today’s legislative and social justice battles.

(A version of the following appeared in the Summer 2008 issue of Lilith Magazine, and on the NCJW Website, as part of their online journal.)

One of our first responsibilities to ourselves, to our daughters, and to our future in this election season is to turn on our internal GPS when we hear the word “family” bandied about by politicians of every stripe. Generic rhetoric about “families” — as in “Rising food prices will cause families to suffer” — obliterates individuals, a disservice to each of the persons affected as well as to our communities.

Seeing “family values” through a feminist lens means valuing both the many different kinds of families and the individuals within them. Genuine family values are indistinguishable from the vision we have, as feminists and as Jews, for a better world. Feminism is all about choices and improving the world. Feminism is a family value.

The “classic” nuclear family — two parents, male and female, and their biological offspring — represents only a small fraction of today’s households. When we speak of families, including Jewish families, we’ve got to see in our mind’s eye the myriad ways family identity is now forged. Today, we may live in households that are single-parent, gay, lesbian, interfaith, international, interracial, intergenerational, and even — increasingly — single-person, not to mention families of long-term companions, adopted children, or half-siblings. We don’t have to look far to see that real people form real families of almost every imaginable configuration. Our feminist family values acknowledge and welcome this diversity.

And then there’s marriage. A whole spate of research shows that the happiest marriages are those in which there is greatest parity between the partners. Makes perfect sense. When the spouses are earning at par and have fairly equal educations, there’s less strife over which partner has the greater value, whose time is worth more, which one can “afford” to take time off work to accompany a child to a game or an elderly relative to the doctor. Yet feminist gains and feminist family values can be undone by our own outdated language. Don’t you still sometimes hear a parent mention that a father was “babysitting” his own children? Yikes! Do we say a mother is babysitting? Fascinatingly, several recent studies have found that gay unions have more relationship satisfaction, because some of the inequality in opposite-sex relationships is missing.

Feminist family values have to take into account the microeconomics of marriage. In many heterosexual couples, the man is still earning more, despite decades of women’s-movement work on pay equity issues, so it’s urgent that we recognize the value of unpaid work. Some women, if they take time out of the paid labor force to raise children, make sure that the family budget includes a mechanism for keeping up her 401(k) payments and other perks of paid employment that will ease her re-entry into the workforce down the line. Other couples find other ways to recognize and reward the huge contributions — and often sacrifices — of the stay-at-home parent.

Economic protection in our homes is only one part of acting on our values. Without physical and emotional safety, no family is secure. Too obvious to state this? Obvious maybe, but child abuse and violence against women persist — sowing the seeds for similar behavior through the generations. Children who are victims of sexual or physical abuse — or who witness such abuse — are far more likely than others to grow up to be abusers, and even if they’re spared this fate, new studies show that they’re at great risk for a range of debilitating psychological disorders in adulthood. When lawmakers and clergy take action against abusers, they’re also expressing those feminist family values.

It’s a feminist value to take responsibility for shaping the next generation and honoring our elders. It’s time to acknowledge the often unpaid work of caregiving in families, whether for children or parents. Acting on this value, we need to press for legislation that acknowledges the work of people taking care of family members. Other countries — like Canada — provide up to a year’s parental leave, at nearly full pay, for a father or mother of a new child, biological or adopted. Other kinds of family leave include time off to care for elderly or ill relatives. While US legislation catches up with our values, we ought to be pressing Jewish institutions to be models for such compassionate and family-friendly policies. Women and men working in Jewish organizations, for example, are surprised and delighted when they find out that paid parental leave is part of their benefits package. Unfortunately, the surprise is too often in the other direction — even at agencies that tout the importance of Jewish continuity and family life.

In many two-parent households, income from both adults is needed to keep the family afloat. Ask around, and you’ll see how vigorously we still have to lobby employers to offer flex-time, or job-sharing, or fewer evening meetings, so that people can be both workers and parents without shredding themselves to pieces. There’s good news from workplaces that demonstrate that they value families and the parent-employees who support them: lactation rooms and on-premises nurseries, for example. Such office perks, unfortunately, are available only to the privileged few. For many millions of others, what would help the most is legislation to raise the poverty level, so that people -— yes, families — teetering on the brink of poverty can take advantage of the kinds of government benefits that help children escape a cycle of poverty and help their families survive.

Family-friendly employee benefits don’t stop at the office. Employers who hire household help can be part of the solution, not the problem. Feminist values — like human values — mean ensuring that nannies, housekeepers, and other household workers are remunerated and treated fairly. After all, paid caregivers have families to support, too. Fair wages, delineated hours and responsibilities, paid sick days, vacation time, and Social Security payments are all part of being a responsible employer. Those who cast aside these fair practices help sustain what Katha Pollitt has called “patriarchy lite.”

What goes on under our own roofs is what women talk about most when we speak frankly among ourselves. But we don’t shape our lives in a vacuum. Public policy plays a role in family happiness; just look at the number of long-term gay and lesbian partners who can now be legally married, thanks to state legislation like that enacted in California this June. Other legislation, like equal pay for work of comparable value, an early feminist goal, still presents challenges. Despite the passage of anti-discrimination legislation, educated women in traditionally female fields (the usual: teaching, social work, nursing) are not valued as much as their counterparts in other professions. Ensuring that this urgent and under-remunerated work is rewarded with benefits and higher wages is yet another important way that we can express our feminist values.

Let this be the season when feminist family values prevail, in homes and in the workplace, in the courts and in our language, in our lives and on the ballot.

–Susan Weidman Schneider