Live from the Lilith Blog

February 28, 2018 by

Why I Am Observing International Agunah Day

Painting of Esther by Edwin Long, 1878.

Painting of Esther by Edwin Long, 1878.

In a luxurious bedroom in an elegant estate somewhere in Iran thousands of years ago, a woman lies on a velvet chaise. Bedecked in jewels and the finest silks, she’s trapped. In a marriage to a man she never chose, forced to play to his whims and go only when she is summoned, she has no agency in her life. Her gilded cage is the only life she knows.

In Israel, America and throughout the world today, in spaces far less luxurious, women are similarly trapped. The first woman is a Queen, Esther of the story of Purim, trapped in an unwanted marriage with the king of Persia; the others are women around the world. But no matter how silky the sheets, the pain is still paramount.

When Purim approaches, our conversation centers around the miraculous shift from despondency to hope; from mourning to joy. The term used in the scroll of Esther is wonderfully alliterative: “Venahapoch hu!” And it flipped over. Turns right around. We talk about Purim as being topsy turvy, and that’s why it’s traditional to dress in costume, make irreverent plays (Purim shpiels) and even ridiculous words of Torah (Purim Torah). It’s about, to quote my senior year high school essays, highlighting the absurdity of the issue. The Jews were a minority people, on the verge of cultural genocide. An unpredictable plot twist occurs—a queen (female! Of all people!) obtains a place of power, and then the gallows that were intended for Mordechai were used to hang his enemy instead.

In the world we live in now, where so much is absurd and inane, I’m praying that the energy of Purim helps us turn things right side up.

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February 27, 2018 by

Iraqis in Pajamas: Why the Personal Is No Longer Political

I wanted the cohesion of community
But the price was conformity
“Conformity”

3-raw-healing-power“Conformity” is the first song I wrote that fused original English lyrics with ancient Hebrew text, in an ironic punk rock rendition of “Eli eli lama,” an Iraqi song for Simhath Torah. I had just come home from a small, progressive, observant Jewish gathering in someone’s home, where right upon entering, I’d been introduced as an Iraqi Jew. Then, I’d been barraged with rapid-fire questions about where I’d grown up, which Middle Eastern synagogues I’d attended, who my family was, and which Iraqi Jews I knew. I excused myself within 20 minutes, making up something about a heavy work load, and I left with an overwhelming sense of agitation and frustration. Why, I wondered, are observant Jews so obsessed with these kinds of questions, as opposed to being interested in questions about who I am—or, for that matter, just saying hello and letting me enter a space quietly?

Jews, I mused, are tribal by nature, defined not by our individuality, but by our relationship to others in the clan. Jews like to peg each other at the outset in an eager attempt to forge bonds of connection. The impetus is a desire to be welcoming, to cultivate an immediate sense of belonging. The problem is that there are numerous false assumptions inherent in the particular line of Jewish questioning, such as the assumption of the Nice Jewish Family. For those whose lives do not fit this or other pan-Jewish narratives, what is meant to be warm and embracing actually feels intrusive and alienating—to the point of casting Jews out.

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February 26, 2018 by

Jane Yolen Shares Why She Set Her New Novel During the Holocaust

mapping the bonesNearly 30 years after the publication of The Devil’s Arithmetic and Briar Rose, award-winning author Jane Yolen returns to World War II and captivates her readers with the authenticity and power of her words. Influenced by Dr. Mengele’s sadistic experimentations, Mapping the Bones follows twins Chaim and Gittel as they travel from the Lodz ghetto, to the partisans in the forest, to a horrific concentration camp where they are forced to work in a munitions factory. Filled with brutality and despair, this is also a story of poetry and strength in which a brother and sister lose everything but each other. Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough asks Yolen about the inspiration for the novel, and about the connection between fairy tales and one of the darkest period in history.

YZM: What drew you to writing about the Holocaust again, this time for a slightly older audience?

JY: Actually, it had more to do with a breakfast with the editor in which we both spoke about wanting to do another fairy tale novel together, but only Hansel & Gretel drew me for some unfathomable reason. As we spoke about the fairy tale, and I said that at the end the witch was pushed into the oven… we looked at one another.

We are both Jewish and the word hovered between us. Because if two Jews are talking to one another and the word “oven” is not part of a conversation about food, it points in only one direction. The Holocaust. So I began to talk about the possibilities of the story, and she said to me, “I have goosebumps all over. If you write me two pages of what you just said, I will take it to the committee.”

So, not being an idiot, I did—though reluctantly. I’d already written two Holocaust novels—The Devil’s Arithmetic and Briar Rose. The last thing I wanted to do was immerse myself for years once again in the horrors of the Holocaust. But then I remembered something Elie Wiesel said about my first Holocaust novel—that soon everyone who had been in the war and survived would be gone and all we would have left would be stories. And I wanted to honor his memory, and the memory of all the people who died in the camps, so I had to go back again.

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February 23, 2018 by

So You Want To Bake Some Hamantaschen…

IMG_1192

My mother, Zora Weidman, made superb hamantaschen. Divine hamantaschen. Excellent at any hour of the day or night. Full disclosure: especially tasty when eaten while reading in bed.

The dough is cookie-ish, not soft, not brittle, and described in the recipe card’s title as “(or roly-poly) dough”—roly-poly being a kind of, umm, rolled-up Winnipeg pastry.

IMHO, my mum’s hamantaschen’s special power was its filling, a mixture of prune, walnuts and citrus peel (likely a combo of orange and lemon) put through one of those large, menacing-looking cast aluminum grinders one cranked by hand. Modern update: I use a Cuisinart, but the mixture comes out a tadgooier than I remember; in Mum’s there were still little distinguishable morsels of nuts, prunes and peel.

Ok, the Sacred, Secret Hamantasch Recipe, transcribed directly from the handwriting of my dear late mother’s recipe card.

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February 22, 2018 by

Meet a “Tomato Rabbi” Fasting Against Sexual Harassment

Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster holds a megaphone as she stands outside a protest of Wendy's.

Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster holds a megaphone while protesting Wendy’s.

Six-and- a-half years ago, in fall 2011, a group of 17 rabbis traveled to Immokalee, Florida, to meet with the women and men who work in the area’s tomato fields and hear, first-hand, about their ongoing campaign to win justice and respect from the growers who employ them. Since then, 10 delegations—of rabbis, cantors, and lay religious leaders—have visited Immokalee. The trips were sponsored by T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights and participants have become staunch supporters of efforts by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ to improve wages and end the sexual exploitation and harassment of female farmworkers.

Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, Director of Programs at T’ruah and a longtime supporter of the CIW, spoke to Eleanor J. Bader about the Coalition’s upcoming “Freedom Fast;” her decision to participate in the five-day, liquids-only, hunger strike; and the Jewish imperative to support human rights.

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February 21, 2018 by

Why Dozens Are Fasting To Get Wendy’s To Address Sexual Harassment

Screen Shot 2018-02-21 at 1.40.35 PMFrom March 11th to 15th, Lupe Gonzalo, a leader of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, will be on a liquids-only “Freedom Fast.” The goal? To pressure Wendy’s, the only major fast food restaurant chain to refuse to adopt regulations to protect farmworkers from sexual harassment, wage theft, and other unfair labor practices in the tomato fields of southwest Florida. Gonzalo will be joined by dozens of workers and their families, as well as allies from diverse religious and secular communities, all of them united in demanding respect for the workers who plant our crops and harvest our fruits and vegetables.

The protest will take place at the Park Avenue office of Nelson Peltz, Wendy’s board chair and a founding partner of Trian Fund Management, a New York City-based investment fund. According to Forbes Magazine, the 74-year-old Peltz has a net worth of $1.51 billion; in addition to Wendy’s, he is at present on the boards of Proctor & Gamble, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and Sysco Systems.

To date, he has refused to negotiate with—or even meet—members of the CIW or supporters of the organization.

Gonzalo recently spoke with Eleanor J. Bader about the CIW, the upcoming hunger strike, and the progress that has been made since the Coalition was founded in 1993.

Patricia Cipollitti, National Co-coordinator of the Alliance for Fair Food, a consumer group, provided Spanish-to-English translation for the 90-minute interview.

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February 20, 2018 by

My Ex is Jewish. I’m Not. So Why Am I Raising My Children Jewish?

jewish-2445887_1920Elijah looks like a small man in an oversized suit as the rabbi hands him the Torah. My son presses it against his chest and right shoulder. His 12-year-old arms aren’t long enough to wrap fully around this sacred book. He hugs it tightly as he steps off the bima toward the congregation.

My eyes follow my firstborn through the crowd. There’s a part of me that wonders on this chilly Saturday morning what we’re still doing here at this temple. I feel proud of this boy and also uneasy and alone as I witness him completing a path that jogs so far from mine. This coming-of-age ceremony solidifies that our religious paths will never meet.

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February 19, 2018 by

Is Midge Maisel a Bad Mom? A Feminist Query.

mrs maisel lilithIn a recent essay, Rebecca Solnit recalls a Q&A section of a talk she once gave on Virginia Woolf during which the main preoccupation of her audience was the question of whether or not Woolf should have had children. She describes her frustration, writing that “After all, many people have children; only one made To the Lighthouse and The Waves, and we were discussing Woolf because of the books, not the babies.” 

I thought of that anecdote recently while reading a blog post criticizing the Golden Globe-winning show The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel for its depiction of the titular character’s approach to motherhood. [SPOILERS AHEAD.] The show follows Miriam “Midge” Maisel as her aspiring stand-up comedian husband unceremoniously leaves her, and as she comes to the realization that she’s actually the one in the relationship with the talent for comedy. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is reminiscent of that other mid-century period piece, Mad Men, not just because of the fashion and social mores, but because of a deliberately delayed reveal. Just as we only find out that Don Draper is married with children at the end of the first episode, we spend most of the first episode of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel watching Midge and her husband cavorting downtown and returning to their Upper West Side classic six late at night; we only find out that they have children two-thirds of the way through. This is a harbinger of things to come because it turns out that Midge’s parents, who live in the same apartment building, frequently watch the children, often overnight. This enables Midge to, as blogger Jordana Horn points out, “have very, very little to do with her children.” That the children are mostly out of sight bothers Horn because “Midge’s happiness and sense of self seem to derive almost entirely from her escape from the expected roles of a 1950s housewife and mother.”

Because I am a nerd medievalist, Horn’s perplexity that a show about a woman who is a mother does not focus on her motherhood reminds me of modern reception of what many consider to be the first autobiography in the English language, The Book of Margery Kempe.

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February 16, 2018 by

Please Join Me in Sending a Gender Email!

email-marketing-3012786_1920As I walked down the hallway of my daughter’s pre-school classroom, I heard a strange noise. “Clip-clop, clip-clop, clip-clop.” What was that noise coming from my daughter’s classroom? I looked in the door, thinking it would be a hand-made musical instrument or a child knocking blocks together in a certain rhythm. I was dismayed to look in the door and see the noisy culprit – high heeled shoes on the three-year old girls. The girls were walking slowly and gingerly around the classroom, trying not to fall because of the shoes. Clip-clop, clip-clop, clip-clop. The three-year old boys, in contrast, were moving around the room with ease and comfort.

I was then motivated to write what I now call my “gender email.” I’ve sent it to the schools and camps that my daughters go to, asking them to think critically and intentionally about how gender plays through for students/campers.

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February 15, 2018 by

Wrestling with the Gender Politics in Mi Sheberach

One night as I was leaving the Westchester Reform Temple, the synagogue where I am a cantor, I received a frantic text message from a dear friend, who has a five-year-old son named Noah. “At Greenwich hospital,” the text began, “Noah accidentally poked a hole in the inside of his cheek late this afternoon while playing with a magic wand.” She continued her text message in texting shorthand: “Rushed him to the hospital…got quick help…already repaired with surgery…just millimeters and it could have been much worse.”

Thanks to the quick actions of his mom, Rachel, he made it to the hospital, into the emergency room, and in and out of surgery in record time, and I am happy to report that he is now just fine. Yes, so many of us know this cascade of events, having taken loved ones to emergency rooms, and we are relieved when a loved one is safe and continues the course of recovery. Of course we know that is not always the case, and our hearts hurt for those who have lost loved ones to accidents or other causes, but in this case, we can feel thankful that Noah’s time in the operating room and the hospital was brief and that he came through with flying colors.

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