Author Archives: Yona Zeldis McDonough

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October 20, 2015 by

Ethel Rosenberg Reimagined in “The Hours Count”

jillian cantorAlthough it’s been more than 60 years since Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed, their horrifying story still has a powerful hold on the public imagination.  As recently as August, 2015, the two sons of the couple wrote an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times that concluded with these words:

Our mother was not a spy. The government held her life hostage to coerce our father to talk, and when that failed, it extracted false statements to secure her wrongful execution. The apparent rationale for such action—that national security demanded it during a time of international crisis—has disturbing implications in post-9/11 America. It is never too late to correct an egregious injustice. We call on the government to formally exonerate Ethel Rosenberg. 

And now there is the publication of The Hours Count, a novel that focuses squarely on the last five years in the life of Ethel Rosenberg.  Author Jillian Cantor hewed closely to the facts, but added several fictional characters, including a neighbor, Millie Stein, her Russian husband Ed and her son, David, who at age three is still not talking.  Millie is the lens through which we are able to view Ethel in a wholly unexpected way: as wife, mother and friend.  Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough talked to Cantor about why she chose to write Ethel’s story and how she was able to blend the factual with the fictional.

YZM: What drew you to the subject of Ethel Rosenberg? 

JC: I came across the last letter Ethel (and Julius) wrote to their sons in an anthology of women’s letters that I’d checked out of the library. One of the last things they wrote is for their sons to always remember that their parents were innocent. Before I read this, I hadn’t thought of Ethel as a mother (her sons were six and 10 when she was executed – very similar to the ages of my own sons) or even as potentially innocent. So I did a little research, and I began to believe that she might actually have been innocent. I wanted to reimagine her as a mother, as a woman who was unjustly taken from her family.

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October 19, 2015 by

From the Lilith Slush Pile to a Sarah Silverman Film Deal

sarahsilEver since I discovered the work of Amy Koppelman winking up at me from Lilith’s slush pile I’ve kept her on our radar.  We published her short fiction a few years ago. She’s a novelist of astonishing depth and power, with a dark and haunting voice that is both lyrical and fearless. The rest of the world seems now to agree, as the film based on her novel I Smile Back, starring—yes—Sarah Silverman in a dramatic role, opens commercially later this month after being received enthusiastically at Sundance.

hesitation woundsIn her new novel, Hesitation Wounds, Koppleman introduces us to Dr. Susanna Seliger, a renowned psychiatrist who specializes in treatment-resistant depression. Skilled and compassionate, Susa is always ready to discuss treatment options, medication, and symptom management but draws the line at engaging with feelings. Her own damaged past is made present by one patient, Jim, whose struggles tear her open, revealing her latent guilt that she could have saved the people she’s lost, especially her adored, cool, talented graffiti-artist brother. Spectacularly original, gorgeously unsettling, Hesitation Wounds is a novel that will sink deep and remain—like a persistent scar or a dangerous glow-in-the-dark memory.

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October 12, 2015 by

“I Am No Victim”: Leah Lax on Living and Leaving Her Hasidic Life

leah laxLeah Lax is familiar to Lilith readers for several of her essays in the magazine, most recently the economically told life history “One Woman’s Resume.” Raised in a Reform Jewish family in Dallas,  close to her immigrant grandparents, who still ate schmaltz herring in their elegant nouveau-riche home; she says that growing up, she learned to crochet and ride a horse.  In her teens she left this life—and her neglectful parents—to become a Lubavitcher Hasid, and soon after entered into an arranged marriage. Like the others in her community, she did not own a television, read secular books, surf the Net or go to movies or restaurants.  Then after nearly 30 years—and seven children—she left that cloistered life behind.  Her memoir, Uncovered: How I Left Hasidic Life and Finally Came Home, charts the years she gave over to strict observance of religious law, from hair covering to the order of putting on one’s shoe in the morning, from compulsive pre-Passover cleaning to relinquishing all questioning.   It also reveals the secrets she harbored behind the observant façade, and the sprouting of a feminist consciousness as she came to know herself. She talks to fiction editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about her life beneath the wig—and what it was like to emerge from it, uncovered, after so long.

 

YZM: What drew you initially to Hasidic life?

LL: At first: their raw wordless melodies, the mysteries they said were hovering between the lines of our incredible texts, and the intimation that somehow this is me, too, since I was born a Jew, so that it seemed they were offering new self-discovery. I was 16—I think that alone explains a lot.

Then came Hasidic offers of the sublime, and assertions that they owned a huge Truth so old and vast it shut my small mouth, coupled with my weak will and my need to please. 

If I dig, I always see more: the homoerotic quality of Hasidic life, and their promise that, if I followed the rules, I’d always feel I belonged, something I had always craved.

 

YZM: Was Hasidic life sustaining for a time? 

LL: It was. I was barely 17 when I left my family, and received no subsequent financial support from them. Of course, I went straight to university on full scholarship and could have simply immersed myself there and grown up for a few years, but still, the Lubavitchers I had met gave me a sense of family, adult concern for my young life, structure, someone other than my damaged family to identify with, a place to go on weekends. They meant a lot.

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September 24, 2015 by

Jewish Thrifting

I’m on high alert even before I walk through the door, fully charged and primed for action. For the next couple of hours, I will ignore phone calls, texts and emails, morphing into the Bionic Woman, with no need to sit, eat, drink or use the restroom.  I am about to embark on what for me is a quasi-scared endeavor: pawing through the schmattes in the National Council of Jewish Women’s thrift shop on East 84th Street in NYC. I love thrift shops of all denominations, but as a Jewish woman, I derive a certain extra bit of nachas from the thrift shops run, and frequented by and most essential of all, donated to by my foremothers, the women of my tribe.

I make these visits with some regularity and with the exception of socks, pantyhose and underwear, depend on them to purchase all of my clothing. I buy nothing new. Why should I? Sadie, Mollie, Esther and Bunny and their pals have already provided me with everything I ever wanted—and more. A long, black cashmere coat from Saks, an Ungaro jacket in maroon quilted velvet, a heavily encrusted purple silk skirt, all beading and sequins, from Ralph Lauren—these are only a few of my thrift shop finds.

There are practical reasons to switch to thrifting: it’s economical and allows me to afford clothes that I would otherwise only dream of.  And I believe we have an almost moral imperative to buy secondhand: there is too much stuff in the world and we have an obligation to reuse it. 

But even without these incentives, I would still be a Second Hand Rose, for reasons that are less quantifiable but every bit—at least to me—compelling. I feel strange kind of tenderness and pity for all the abandoned and discarded garments, and am endlessly curious about their former owners. Who bought those wide black pants trimmed in feathers and where did she go in them?  That pleated navy jumpsuit with the gold trim? The powder blue suede miniskirt?  Each has a story to tell and oh, what a story it must be.  In my imagining those stories, it’s as if I have been able to resurrect not just the garments, but the women who wore them.

I should add here that I come from a venerable line of thrifters. My mother had the bug, and so did my grandmother, Tania. Well into her eighties, Tania worked as a volunteer at the thrift shop of a Jewish charity in Miami when Collins Avenue and Lincoln Road were still the province of elderly, Ashkenazi Jews who traded the harsh winters of the north and east—in my grandmother’s case, it had been Detroit—for the sunny climes of Southern Florida. My grandmother traveled an hour by bus to get to this thrift shop, and she was given advance pick of the donated merchandise, which is how I came to own the exquisite silk scarf with the lush pink and coral flowers splattered all over it.  The name Hermès meant nothing to Tania, but she had a keen eye and the heavy silk, glorious pattern, and hand rolled edges spoke to her of quality.  “I thought you would like it,” she said.  “And if you didn’t, that was okay too—it only cost $2.50.”

But to get back to the National Council thrift shop, its cousin, the Chai Thrift in Brooklyn, and that wonderful synagogue thrift shop on Long Island, whose name and town elude me now, though I can still tell you what I found there.  Here are my roots, here are my people. The ladies, like my grandmother, may now be gone.  But what they gathered and cherished, their cunningly styled evening bags, fur coats, palazzo pants and cocktail dresses, represent a group portrait, a patient construction of self that continues to live on, at least for those of us with the eyes to discern it. 

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July 14, 2015 by

Susan Shapiro: “A Jewish Man Who’s Never Been Married is Schlepping a Different Kind of Luggage Around”

whatsneversaid_small2Just as the topic of professor/student relationships is heating up (Harvard and other universities are now banning such liaisons), novelist, essayist and humor writer Susan Shapiro offers her own take on the highly charged subject in her captivating new novel, What’s Never Said. Lila Penn, a naïve, fatherless young woman from Wisconsin, comes to the big city to study poetry and falls, head-first, for Daniel Wildman, her distinguished professor, who also happens to be twenty years her senior. Decades after their tangled involvement ends, she arranges a meeting in downtown Manhattan. But the shocking encounter blindsides Lila, causing her to question her memory—and her sanity. Moving back and forth between Greenwich Village, Vermont, and Tel Aviv, Shapiro slowly unravels the painful history that has haunted both Daniel and Lila for thirty years. In the excerpt below, Lila’s mother encounters her daughter’s new love interest for the first time. 

 
At the book table, Lila’s mother took ten dollars to buy Cormick’s Celtic Songs of the Heartland. Before Lila could stop her, she bumped into Daniel.
 
“Professor Wildman,” Lila said, hoping he didn’t see her mom  holding his enemy’s book.  “You killed tonight.”
 
Daniel thrust out his arm. “The infamous Hannah Lerner,” he said, his eyes catching Cormick’s book slipping into her purse.
 
“The infamous Daniel Wildman.” They shook robustly.
 
“Your daughter is very special.”
 
“I appreciate your kindness to her.  She loves it here.”
 
“We love her too,” he said. “I mean, the program. She’s one of our best students.”
 
A group of aspiring authors interrupted.
 
“Your public awaits you,” Lila said, hoping nobody could tell she was into him.

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June 25, 2015 by

Young Love…and Its Aftermath

cover louisa meets bearGirl meets boy. Girl gets boy. Girl loses boy. But girl and boy do not forget each other. It is the elusive and often surprising nature of their ongoing connection that forms the backbone of Lisa Gornick’s highly acclaimed new collection of interrelated stories, Louisa Meets Bear (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, $26). Gornick, who is also a psychotherapist, is interested not only in the way things seem on the surface, but also with unseen forces that exert such powerful control over the lives of her characters. Here she chats via e-mail with Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about the assault on the novel, and why the categories for fiction matter so much less than their content.

YZM: Let’s talk about the origin and structure of these stories. Did you know from the outset that they would be linked? Or did the connections reveal themselves more slowly, as you were writing?

LG: These stories were written over the past twenty-five years, all as individual pieces intended to stand alone. Originally, there were two sets, each made up of two stories that shared characters. When I first reread the stories with the thought of putting them together into a collection, it seemed, however, that they were all connected on a deeper level—as though the characters could or should have known one another. I went back and rewrote the stories, changing what might have been five degrees of separation between characters to one degree, making timelines to map the events into a single chronology and a larger narrative. With the stories connected now, we follow characters over nearly five decades. The opening story begins in 1961 with a woman’s yearning to have work of her own, and the final story, set in 2009, while about an incident between a mother—the niece of the woman in the opening story—and a son, has as its backdrop the accommodations this mother has made to have work and love in her life.

YZM: You depict a number of absent/dead/damaged mothers here; comments?

LG: It is not an easy road for a woman who wants mature romantic love, a deep hands-on relationship with her children, and meaningful work. There are difficult choices and often irresolvable conflicts between these domains. In Louisa Meets Bear, there are mothers whose lives are marked by tragedy and then, in the next generation, daughters who have begun to find a way.

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April 23, 2015 by

Who Believes and Who Doesn’t?

faithcover

What do you believe? Why? Is faith a certainty, fixed and immutable, or is it an ongoing process, and evolution of the spirit and the soul? Who has faith and how did she get it? These are just some of the questions that began to tug at Victoria Zackheim, novelist, playwright, screenwriter and editor of five previous essay collections. As she mulled over these thoughts, an anthology began brewing. The resulting volume, Faith: Essays from Believers, Agnostics, and Atheists, showcases the work of 24 writers, including Caroline Leavitt, Aviva Layton, Benita Garvin among others, who have widely divergent views on the subject. Zackheim chatted via email with Lilith Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about the winding road she took in assembling this, her sixth collection, and also about some of the revelations she experienced along the way.

YZM: How did you come to compile this book? 

VZ: I’m not sure if there was one event—perhaps it was the composite of several—that led me along this path. What I can say is this: once the journey began, there was no turning back. The early stirrings came from questioning myself about my own faith, a curiosity to clarify what I believed. The deeper I probed, the more I needed to pose questions to friends, until I found myself engaging them in long, soul-searching conversations. Finally, the awareness that I absolutely had to explore the subject of faith and the role it plays (or doesn’t play) in my life led me to the genre that has become so prevalent in my teaching and writing: the personal essay…and then the anthology. Once that was decided, and my agent gave the thumbs-up, I sent an invitation to twenty-five gifted writers who represented a cross-section of cultures, religions, and lifestyles. I was hoping that perhaps ten would accept my invitation, and then I would continue inviting. Twenty-three accepted and the project was launched. After the proposal was completed and the book was sold to Beyond Words, essays began to arrive, I was fascinated to discover that people I was certain were atheists were believers, and a few I assumed to be believers were not.

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April 2, 2015 by

She Was Famous Almost 200 Years Ago—and Still Is!

Carol Ockman

Carol Ockman

On March 19, 2015, Sarah Bernhardt came to town. Or at least her magnificent, outsized spirit did, channeled by art historian Carol Ockman, who participated in an illuminating conversation with Jens Hoffmann of the Jewish Museum in New York. The conversation was part of an ongoing series in which the subjects of Andy Warhol’s Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century (1980) will be “interviewed” by prominent experts. Ockman assumed the persona of Bernhardt (1844-1923), who was arguably the most famous actress of all time; she also sculpted, painted, and generally lived her life on a scale most spectacular. (For more about the Divine Sarah B., see “When She was Good, She was Very, Very Good and When She was Bad, She was … Jewish.”) Using slides to augment her remarks, Ockman spoke from the inside out about fame, film, a woman’s role and Jewish identity. Later, Lilith Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough asked Ockman about her long history with the fabled diva.

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January 12, 2015 by

Three Minutes in Poland

9780374276775_p0_v2_s600When Glenn Kurtz happened upon an old family film in a closet of his parents’ home in Florida, he was intrigued. The film was shot by his grandfather, David Kurtz, during a trip he and his wife made to Europe in 1938—right on the eve of destruction.  Kurtz’s initial interest grew into an almost spiritual quest, one in which he was determined to piece together as much as he could about the Polish town of Nasielsk—and the people who inhabited it.  The result is the sweeping account in his book, Three Minutes in Poland, both a reverent attempt to document a lost history and a fervent desire to animate it once more.  Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough chatted with Kurtz by e-mail.

YZM: How did you research this process of historical reconstruction?

GK: I worked on the book for more than 4 years, though in some sense, the research continues to this day. The images preserved in a photograph or in a film are preserved in a very peculiar way. They are both extraordinarily specific (individual people in a particular place at a specific moment), and at the same time utterly enigmatic. If you don’t already know what or who you’re looking at, the information in the image immediately becomes general, unspecific, and almost mythological (or in the case of old photos and films, nostalgic). Instead of seeing, say, “Chaim Nusen Zwajghaft, gravestone carver in Nasielsk in August 1938,” we see “prewar Polish Jews.” The general description is not inaccurate. But it does not convey information on the same scale as the image itself. It makes the image less specific. 

When I first discovered my grandfather’s 1938 home movie, I knew almost nothing about it. I didn’t even know the town in Poland that appears in the film. The great difficulty, then, was to unlock the information contained within the images.

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January 8, 2015 by

Found in the Lilith Slush Pile

snafuOver a decade ago, Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough received a story called “Roadkill,” submitted unsolicited. The story dealt with the plight of Ella, a 30-ish Israeli woman who accidently hits a dog while driving. The dog’s last moments and subsequent death are woven in with other losses, and other sorrows; altogether it was a haunting, powerful work that appeared in the Spring 2003 issue. Ever since then, McDonough has followed the career of the story’s author. Now spelling her first name with a “y,” Miryam Sivan lives in the Galilee but writes in English. Sivan’s new collection, Snafu, contains “Roadkill,” “City of Refuge” (which appeared in the Spring 2011 issue), and 10 other bristling, animated and highly intelligent stories. McDonough recently caught up with Sivan, who was happy to share her thoughts on “street Hebrew,” the role of dogs in our lives, and the tricky, shifting dance—or sometimes battle—between the sexes.

YZM: Tell me about living in Hebrew and writing in English.

MS: I just gave a talk about this…. it’s not a simple phenomenon for a number of reasons. When a Jew moves to Israel, she returns not only to her people’s ancient homeland, replete with many wonderful and seriously challenging dimensions, but she also “returns” to Hebrew. Since I don’t write in Hebrew, I experience myself as an artist-outsider.  And this creates a kind of dissonance, since I am a Jew in Israel. I belong and don’t belong, simultaneously.

Years ago a German colleague of mine asked me if I was an Israeli writer or an American one. I honestly didn’t know how to answer. Finally I asked him why I had to choose…. why couldn’t I be both? A hybrid — an American writer who writes about Israel, an Israeli writer who writes in English?

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