Tag : Susan Weidman Schneider

January 20, 2015 by

Susan Weidman Schneider on Sarah Wildman’s “Paper Love”

An emerging genre of books seeks to reconstruct lives of people who vanished during the Holocaust. As the ranks of survivors themselves are dwindling, this probing is left to children, grandchildren, and sometimes even to strangers driven to know, from fragile clues about the lives lost, the facts and the feelings of those they’ve never known.

Paradigmatic of this search is the page-turning new memoir-cum-historical-uncovering by journalist Sarah Wildman, Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind (Riverhead Books, $27.95). The person Wildman searches for is in fact no girl, but a doctor in her twenties. Valerie Scheftel was a medical-school colleague and the “true love” of her grandfather, who left her in Europe when he managed to escape to America in 1938.

What Wildman discovers about Valerie (“Your Valy” she signs her letters) reveals a woman very much of her time. On the one hand, Valy’s proud professional life as a doctor — she had come alone to Vienna to attend medical school — was not constrained because she was a woman, but because she was a Jew. On the other hand, it was likely her female role as a good daughter that trapped her; after the Anschluss, it seems Valy cannot or will not abandon her mother to flee with her lover.

Wildman’s detective work is both provoked and aided by the cache of letters discovered in a filing cabinet after her grandfather died, letters from those left behind in the Hades that Europe had become, begging for a recommendation, for the funds for passage to America, for intervention with professional organizations that might issue a life-saving invitation to work in the United States. The letters lay bare the horrible poignancy of how little money it would have taken to save those lives — Valy’s included. But a penniless new immigrant himself, Karl Wildman couldn’t manage even those modest sums.

Karl started a small-town medical practice in the face of anti-Semitism, married an American Jewish woman from an established family, and presented himself as a man of high culture and good spirits, living an identity both authentic and also — at the same time — crafted so as to keep the Holocaust years at a remove. Wildman unpacks, thanks to the letters, what her grandmother termed a “carefully curated history.” Inheriting this legacy, tracking Valy in Berlin, Vienna and the Czech Republic while gestating “a little Jew” in her own womb, Wildman describes herself as very much a 21st- century Jew.

Paper Love is a real-life rendering of the quest undertaken in several recent works of fiction; Ayelet Waldman’s Love and Treasure, a novel in which a grandfather’s wartime past is unearthed via a piece of jewelry, is one example. It’s not surprising that these quest books are coming one after another now. So much wrenching uncertainty about lives that ended with no known concluding chapter, so many stories untold, so much that can’t now be retrieved except through fiction or the kind of empathic reconstruction of a life that Wildman assays here in her deeply compelling account of what likely happened to Valy. 

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January 20, 2015 by

Evolving from Bystander to Rescuer

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights — with a focus on Jews, on women, on hunger and trafficking, on oppressed minorities around the world — is Canada’s first national museum outside of Ottawa, the country’s capital. It opened in September in the Canadian prairie city of Winnipeg, thanks to energetic advocacy from Gail Asper, daughter of the late media mogul and philanthropist Israel “Izzy” Asper, who had dreamed it up. She managed to bring this dream to life despite skepticism from Canada’s eastern establishment and vociferous opposition from non-Jewish groups who felt their own struggles would be insufficiently represented.

Note the preposition in the museum’s name. This place isn’t just “of” human rights, examining past struggles, but has a mission to educate visitors about their rights — including the rights of all people to love, literacy and physical safety. Exhibitions make strong points about women’s suffrage, freedom from fear of rape and of violence at home, children’s right to schooling, racial and marriage equality and the history of marginalized ethnic groups in Canada, including the aboriginal people known as “First Nations.”

For marshalling bipartisan political support for the museum’s role and raising the millions needed for its planning and construction, Gail Asper has been awarded the Order of Canada, a signal honor, and wears its signature small pin every day, along with two different pins created to celebrate the museum. “I’d like to be able to wear my own brooches one day,” she joked in a recent conversation. “I haven’t had a free lapel in 9 years.”

On the day it first opened to the public, Asper set down her bright yellow knapsack for a conversation on a sunny bench outside the museum. The formal opening a couple of days earlier had some of its speeches — including her own, which she delivered (customary in Canada now) in both French and English — nearly drowned out by First Nations and anti-abortion-rights protesters. Though the museum was ringed with police, no one discouraged or shushed these shouts. “People who feel their rights are being violated can become bullies,” said Asper.

Asper is no stranger to facing bias herself. When the Museum was under construction, signs were defaced with language like “Die Jew,” she said. “The police were notified, and the incident was never repeated.” The museum’s non-Jewish supporters also got hate mail, with threats “that were horrible, threats with graphic, gross images. But it shows we have work to do.

“There are four participants in a human rights violation. There’s the perpetrator, the victim, the bystander and the rescuer. Our job at the museum is to convert bystanders to rescuers.”

Asper predicts a crucial role educating teenagers. “Adolescents are at a terribly important moment. In grade nine I stood by while someone was being bullied. The victim tried to laugh it off, and I could see what was going on, but I did nothing. I was in a position of power and I didn’t take action. I still think about this.

“You have to exercise your muscles as a human rights defender. Someone who at age 15 comes through the museum will be a future CEO or teacher or general in the army. You have to get into shape to stand up. To help teenagers, teachers across the country are getting human rights tool kits, like at Yad Vashem,” the world center for Holocaust research and remembrance in Jerusalem.

Paramount for Asper is this educational vision for the museum, and its chorus of first-person voices in the interactive multimedia exhibitions provide wide-ranging testimony, sometimes shocking. She uses herself as an example of how shielded many of us are. “I didn’t know about the Acadian Expulsion. I had never been taught it,” she said, referring to the people who were forced out of Nova Scotia and shipped to England, France and the Thirteen Colonies in the mid-eighteenth century.

“I didn’t know about Nellie McClung,” an early twentieth-century suffragist and activist for women’s labor rights, “and she was from Winnipeg! Women were ‘persons’ regarding their responsibilities, but not with regard to rights. I was in my late 20s, and a lawyer, and I did not know any of this. I am annoyed when female politicians say ‘I’m not a feminist’. It’s time for people to realize how much of a struggle this has been.”

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January 20, 2015 by

From the Editor

This has been an extraordinary season of news on every front, including (but not limited to) several stories that have had particular resonance for women and for media. Among them: Rolling Stone magazine’s much-discussed coverage of campus rape, followed by an ugly round of victim-bashing after parts of the story were challenged; the resignation of almost the entire staff of the 100-year-old New Republic magazine and the subsequent round of discussions on how a venerable print brand can keep its balance in the roiling mix of digital media sources, and the fact that for many people social media feeds have become the most consistent news feeds.

The impact of stories like these loom large for Lilith readers, and some are unprecedented in content and scale. Our national conversation about race, the Barry Freundel mikveh scandal, and the rise of women politicians in Israel and the U.S. as preface to the next round of elections are just three of them. All are subjects Lilith has covered, in print and on the Lilith blog — and we will continue to write about them with this magazine’s characteristic nuance.

Lilith magazine launched in 1976 with two founding missions: to use the power of independent media to gain greater access for women (and greater value for women’s concerns) in the Jewish world, and to speak with a Jewish voice on urgent women’s issues. I think Lilith’s tagline says a lot about our approach. “Independent, Jewish and frankly feminist,” Lilith charts Jewish women’s lives with exuberance, rigor, affection, subversion and style.

Yet at the same time as mega-stories are breaking, and are being bruited in the office, online, and in Lilith salons, there are smaller-scale, more deeply personal narratives that lurk beneath the surface, stories that are huge in the lives of the women they affect but don’t always make it into the headlines. These, too, are Lilith’s beat: the regrets of some people who have never had children; the strong feelings of those who take justifiable umbrage at the assumption that every woman wants to be a mother; and the challenges faced by same-sex female couples looking for a sperm donor. In this issue, for example, Ilana Kramer probes the experiences of gay and lesbian couples wanting to have children and deciding if the other-sex biological parent will be someone they know, or a stranger.

When we edit a story like this one, we’re very conscious of who’s left out. What about a single woman wanting to have children? Where does she turn for a sperm donor? What about couples trying to have a child, whether by birth or adoption, who are tripped up by financial or personal or bureaucratic stumbling blocks? Fertility challenges are a nexus where the personal, the political and the communal all intersect.

Those for whom infertility can bring, monthly, the bitter taste of disappointment wrestle with how they will have children when the standard method of conception fails them. We hear how the heartache, frustration and economic toll can be as overwhelming as the physical challenges. So the article here about a couple who manage to conceive after only two cycles of trying, in a wonderfully low-tech D-I-Y fashion — using not costly high-tech medical interventions but a simple syringe and a jar of sperm kept warm on a bicycle ride home — can trigger pain for some readers. A story hugely validating for some, and a source of curiosity-fulfillment for others, may for one cohort just spur sadness.

Perhaps because women and men today are older when they are ready to consider having children — and hence less fertile — this cohort appears to be growing. (And you’ve heard the perpetual outcry about the dropping birthrate among non-Orthodox Jews.)

Here is one possible source of succor for people who might need help in creating their families. Assuaging at least some of the financial problems and the feelings of exclusion from a community full of ubiquitous Instagram or Facebook photos of other people’s kids lighting Hanukkah candles or making challah, would be a fund to help Jews afford the high cost of adoption or assisted reproduction. The cost of one cycle of IVF can be $15,000. Some Hebrew Free Loan societies offer interest-free loans for adoption and fertility treatments, but these sums will barely cover one round of treatment, and often many rounds are necessary. Plus, a loan has to be repaid. Especially for a single woman — who may lose income once she’s taking care of a child — an outright grant would be more effective in enabling her to become a parent.

So here’s a modest proposal. Jewish women’s foundations, now funding projects to empower women and girls in many communities, could spur the creation of a national fund to help defray the costs of fertility interventions. Perhaps a percentage of each contribution to these community foundations could be earmarked for such a fertility fund. After all, for about a century, there has been a fund for Jewish women’s education, and for decades there has been much-needed funding for reproductive-rights work. There will be challenges to creating and managing any fund that makes grants to individuals, but San Francisco’s Hebrew Free Loan Society says it well: the process should be “personalized, confidential, and respectful.”

Then the small-scale stories become a larger story, played out under a bigger tent.

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October 7, 2014 by

From the Editor

Maybe you’re like me and you’ve tended to see economic justice in terms of fair labor practices, access to good health care, fresh produce in urban food deserts, affordable housing. Big goals with big consequences. Beyond carrying bills in a pocket to give tzedakah graciously or nervously on the street, what small (or larger) potential acts of the pocketbook have escaped our notice?

Well, you’ve heard the chatter about doing good while buying more stuff. The manufacturer who promises to give a new pair of shoes to a poor child for every pair of its brand you purchase. The company that pledges to donate to breast cancer research an undisclosed portion of its profits from the pink item you’ve just acquired.

Like the rest of us, I figure that I make choices every day—every waking hour, practically—that reflect my values. A lot of these choices are made reflexively, because I’ve practiced them so many times that they’re inadvertent habits. The food I eat—or avoid. Whether I run the water while brushing my teeth or turn off the tap. Which charity solicitations I open and consider vs. which ones I put immediately into the recycling bin. You too?

But there’s another order of choices that feel new to me, a fresh kind of economic consciousness I’ve been thinking about thanks to two women whose actions are worth emulating—and expanding on. These two rabbis have recently been modeling, through their own actions, a different tzedakah. They’re good at remembering that tzedakah comes not out of the idea of charity—giving alms to the poor—but from the root tzedek, righteousness.


This righteousness takes a slightly different approach to economic justice, one that involves putting our bodies where our dollars go.

Rabbi Susan Talve, whom you’ll meet in this issue, decided with her St. Louis congregants in August to go into the nearby suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. First they went to support the protests that closed streets after a black teenager was shot and killed by a police officer. And then, some of them decided to patronize the businesses hurting from the protests. Lunch in a Ferguson coffee shop. An appointment at a Ferguson hair salon. Via what I’ve been naming to myself a tzedakah of intent, Susan Talve and the people she leads are doing what they’d do anyway—having a meal, getting a haircut—but are deciding very consciously where they’re going to purchase these services, the same way we consciously decide what impact we want when we allocate our charity dollars. Doing good not just by spending money loosely connected to a good cause (that pink-ribbon purchase) but by thinking about what ancillary good can come of the purchase—including the benefits of being geographically selective and alert.

Rabbi Rachel Isaacs is the rabbi of Beth Israel Congregation of Waterville, Maine, and Jewish chaplain of Colby College. Waterville is a town where the main street has been suffering the etiolating effects of cheap-goods big box stores on its outskirts, with a concomitant shrinking customer base for local goods and services, and this means the quality of life is likely to diminish for all the residents. No one loves a sad and empty main street, not the hurting merchants and not the populace when they realize that their town square is empty. (Remember the Lorax; timing is all, in these matters.)

After she delivered a High Holiday sermon a few years ago about the benefits of local shopping, Rachel Isaacs’ congregants noticed that she practiced what she preached. First, it was Talmud study group in a local coffee house, since “everybody wants coffee anyway,” which was followed by regular meetings of Thai and Torah, and then Torah on Tap. Now when Isaacs meets with her congregants for study groups, she schedules her adult-education classes over a meal in one of the local restaurants. “Everyone needs to eat,” she told me (over breakfast is a non-chain Manhattan diner), “and we want to get together to learn, so why not build in this added support for a local place that really benefits from our presence?”

Of course there will be those who argue that economic determinism is what shapes how a once-flourishing village can devolve into a dusty downtown. If the small local stores would only carry better goods at cheaper prices, if the café served tastier food, customers would come, so goes this argument. But Isaacs is making sure, in a small and significant way—a way many of us can pretty easily emulate—that Waterville’s spine doesn’t crumble in the meantime.

Teach a woman to fish. Then go to her local restaurant and order the fish. 

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July 15, 2014 by

Susan Weidman Schneider on the processes of making change.

Gloria Steinem, who just celebrated her 80th birthday, wrote to congratulate Lilith a few years ago on one of our own landmark anniversaries. She praised the magazine for doing its groundbreaking work “with anger and delight.”

“Lilith creates a voice where there was silence; it saves what is good within the patriarchy while transforming what is destructive; it offers scholarship for argument and women’s personal voices for enlightenment; and it does all of this with anger and delight, good writing and humor,” she wrote.

At the time, I was charmed by the fact that anger was on Gloria Steinem’s approval list, and charmed also that in Lilith it was paired with wit. Somehow that took the curse off anger. I’ve always held fast to the idea that the ways in which we work for change matter. And I’ve never believed anger works as a teaching tool. As reviewers have pointed out, the light tone of the new romantic comedy “Obvious Child,” with its straightforward portrayal of an unmarried woman’s uncomplicated abortion, can do more for abortion rights than outraged op-eds. Could be.

But now, in the wake of recent news out of the U.S. Supreme Court, I’m ready for just plain anger. The righteous kind. And we don’t even have to dress it in wit.

It’s not often that an issue arises where you can feel equal outrage as a woman and as a Jew. June’s U.S. Supreme Court decision that some corporations have the right to deny employees contraceptive coverage under their health insurance plans means that one religious group—Christians who believe that contraception methods equal abortion—has the right to foist its beliefs on the bodies—on the health—of a whole nation of women. It’s enraging.

Here is the scathing dissent written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

“Would the exemption…extend to employers with religiously grounded objections to blood transfusions ( Jehovah’s Witnesses); antidepressants (Scientologists); medications derived from pigs, including anesthesia, intravenous fluids, and pills coated with gelatin (certain Muslims, Jews, and Hindus); and vaccinations[?]…Not much help there for the lower courts bound by today’s decision.”

Our collective response to this decision to have corporations control women’s bodies has got to be anger, staying true to our own feelings and not masking them.

As I look through Lilith’s archives at our coverage of abortion rights, contraception, and laws affecting our bodies (and hence our minds) I notice a change of tone through the years. First it was diagnostic and hortatory: Here’s what’s wrong, and here’s how you should fix it. Righteous anger was a staple, and writers hoped it would help move the needle, help push for positive change and more rights for women.

Then, anger began to be replaced by nuance. In almost every Lilith article or blog post now, we as editors encourage writers and thinkers to probe how deeply they can go in exploring all sides of a story. We want readers to understand motivation, to ask the many what-ifs. In fact, we pride ourselves on nuance.

But in the case of the recent news, why delve into the motives of the justices who decided that it was OK to deny an entire class of people—women—the insurance coverage for drugs or devices they need? The five male justices seem to have accepted as truth the misunderstanding of the plaintiff, the Hobby Lobby crafts corporation. They were looking to limit contraception access based on a religious belief that abortion is wrong, and that the medicines and devices used for contraception actually cause abortions—a misunderstanding of how contraceptive drugs and IUDs work in the first place. (Disappointingly, some right-wing Jewish religious organizations filed an amicus brief in favor of denying coverage.)

Lilith has written from time to time about the schism between Christian and Jewish dogma on matters of reproduction. But I can’t think of a case where that difference is highlighted quite so starkly. The damage to women is obvious. The damage to Jews includes the setting of a bad precedent —that the religious beliefs of one set of Americans has the power to affect the way others practice their religion.

Women living—and voting—in the United States are horrified, are at risk, and are angry at the decision made by five men. It’s a decision that will likely bring bad news and bad consequences to women, who now have fewer rights than corporations do. The horror —and the accompanying anger —are justified.

At one of the gatherings marking Gloria Steinem’s birthday, Letty Cottin Pogrebin remarked that “Well-behaved women won’t change the world.” I don’t expect that by getting mad we’ll get even—whatever that would mean in a world where men do not need contraceptives. But we can get results. Especially at the polls, and especially in our local communities. When women’s needs are denied en masse, righteous anger can be a tool to shape election outcomes and the court cases to come. 

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Live from the Lilith Blog

May 8, 2014 by

Counting the Omer Through Poetry

Barley sheaves (Wikimedia Commons)

Barley sheaves (Wikimedia Commons)

Lilith editor in chief Susan Weidman Schneider asks, “Is counting a women’s preoccupation? Counting days before one’s period, counting the months of pregnancy, counting the years til menopause. Perhaps counting the Omer, the days between Pesach and Shavuot, can become a time when the counting provides another kind of embodied pacing.”

Harvard Divinity School student Molly Moses has a unique approach to counting and contemplating the Omer, which she’s shared with us.

Molly Moses: Counting the Omer through Poetry

The Omer is a 49-day period–a period of seven weeks–leading from the second night of Passover to the holiday of Shavuot, which today serves annually to commemorate God’s giving of the Torah to Israel. (The word “omer” itself refers to the measurement of barley offered up at the Temple on the first day of this period.) Both Leviticus and Deuteronomy relate a commandment to count these days. Some people choose to enhance their counting with reflection and self-cultivation in preparation for receiving the Torah. Rabbi Karyn Kedar’s new book “Omer: A Counting” offers a spiritual guide. 

Like Advent and Lent within the Christian tradition, the counting of the Omer, for me, is a practice in mindful, measured anticipation. Having benefited from short courses taught by Alicia Ostriker and the KlezKanada Poetry Retreat team of Adeena Karasick and Jake Marmer, I decided to write a poem to mark each day of the Omer last year. Drawing inspiration from poet Hank Lazer’s experimentation with form, I decided that each line would have the same number of words as the number of the day. My two other rules were that I could not write in advance and that I could not edit afterward; day-ness became both a discipline and a meditation. The resulting poems varied in quality as well as content, reflecting both my passing thoughts and the ebbs and flows of time and energy resources. I often used kabbalistic concepts associated with each day as prompts, making heavy use of Rabbi Jill Hammer’s “Omer Calendar of Biblical Women.” In what is now an annual practice, my Omer poetry has acted as a deeply personal, yet public journal, a way to make myself externalize thoughts on–and thus to keep wrestling with–God, doubt, truth, beauty, ritual, human relationship, and other experiences of daily life that, without the encouraging structural rigor of this time period, I find hard to record and contemplate with diligence.

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April 8, 2014 by

Ayelet Waldman on chance, and obsession

Folded into Ayelet Waldman’s illuminating new novel, Love and Treasure, is enough provocative material to fuel Jewish and feminist discussions for months to come. Paternalism and tenderness in the early days of psychoanalysis, the loosening of attitudes and corsets for progressive women of the European upper classes, the emergence of first-wave feminism and the suffragist movement. And: art and jewelry looted by the Nazis, controversies over the founding of the State of Israel, the tight family lives of Syrian Jews in the Diaspora. Ayelet Waldman talked to Susan Weidman Schneider just before the book’s publication. 

LILSp14 ayelet waldman

sws: So, in 2013 a young New York lawyer goes to Budapest to return a necklace her Jewish grandfather took from the Gold Train — filled with valuables that had belonged to Jews in Hungary when the Nazis rounded them up in 1944. Was it thinking about the lives behind those watches and rings and lockets that spurred you? What triggered this broad-sweep historical novel?

aw: I was a Holocaust-obsessed teenager, but I was not familiar with the specific history of Hungary — and had no idea about this train! Here’s the real story of how I came to this. One of my dear friends became ambassador to Hungary just when I was starting a new novel. I wanted to visit and deduct it from my taxes so googled “Hungary, Holocaust, art.” The Hungarian Gold Train was my first hit. As soon as I read that Wikipedia entry, I knew this was my story.

I found that when one goes to a foreign country to research a novel, it is very helpful to have a friend who is the U.S. ambassador. A brilliant feminist historian in Budapest, Judith Acsady, told me that if I was interested in the pre-WWI period I’d have to read this amazing women’s newspaper. I spent a week in the archives of the Budapest main library with a young graduate student in women’s history translating for me material about the suffragists. The whole book just landed in my lap then — from women not being allowed out without an escort to creating a women’s movement in just a few years! “A big hat is a kind of imprisonment,” wrote Rosa Schwimmer, the Jewish feminist leader — and she also wrote a critique of the dowry system as sexual slavery of women — side by side! So impressive!

There’s a whole archive of Rosa photos in the New York Public Library. That the 1913 Seventh Congress of the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance in Budapest was photographed is incredible!

sws: After WWII, the novel spools back to the early years of the 20th century, and enmeshes us in the facts and the drama of the suffragist movement in Eastern Europe, which was fueled in part by Rosa Schwimmer and her secretary, Gizella Weisz, a Jewish dwarf from an illustrious family of scholars and performers. 

aw: Later, Gizella and her family were both tortured and saved by Mengele in Auschwitz.

sws: Then you have the disaffected Israeli guy, Amitai, from a large Syrian Jewish family of art dealers. He has been pretty immune to the history of the Holocaust, and feels resistant even to the State of Israel, but he’s also on a search for looted art.

aw: Israel. I even made aliyah myself once for 6 months. I had a boyfriend who was a Syrian Jew — his parents were sent by Youth Aliyah to live on a yekkish [German Jewish] kibbutz. I visited them. Those Germans on the kibbutz were as German as I had ever experienced.

My Israeli publisher, before they bought this book, said, “Seems a little anti-Semitic.” Of course my British publisher said, “It seems a little pro-Israel.”

sws: Characters in the book talk about how post-Shoah Zionists used the survivors to move world opinion — and the British — to help form the State of Israel.

aw: I used actual quotes. When an Israeli character in the book says of the Holocaust survivors that “They are garbage,” I pulled the quotes from letters of Ben-Gurion. I knew I couldn’t write this without being accused of anti-Zionism, so I quoted directly. The idea that those who survived could only have survived by evil means, that they were broken and ruined by their experience and also evil…. They needed the boatloads of survivors, and especially children — to be fired upon — and the British would be forced to turn over Israel.

sws: Nothing ties up totally neatly in this book. Ilona, a young Hungarian woman who survived the camps, manages to get smuggled into Italy, then to pre-state Israel. We never hear about her again.

aw: I wanted to mirror the sense of the fragmented stories — especially regarding the Holocaust. You can never really know the truth when people have vanished and their stories have vanished. You can only imagine — and some of it is wrong. I wanted readers not to know—mirroring the sense I had in doing my research that some isn’t knowable. 

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April 4, 2014 by

Disability Oppression

With this issue, Lilith launches a project focusing on the experiences of Jewish women with disabilities. In over 36 years of cutting-edge publishing, Lilith has crafted a feminist lens for examining how gender and dis/ability intersect in the Jewish world. Now, with this new project, we intend to deepen and complicate
the coverage of this important subject.

Media reports tend to focus on the work and words of caretakers — for an autistic
child, a parent with Alzheimer’s, a spouse with chronic illness. These stories are important, but they do not give agency to the disabled person herself. Now, we need to accelerate change, shifting the frame to the women themselves, so that they can deliver the facts about their own experiences.

Susan Nussbaum’s witty, alarming, punchy and compulsively readable debut novel, Good Kings Bad Kings, has just been issued in paperback; it won the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, created by Barbara Kingsolver. The book is set in a nursing home for young adults with disabilities, and they narrate their lives in their own voices, chapter by chapter. The reader also meets those who harm them, through venality (for-profit nursing home operators, for example) or through ignorance (underpaid and ill-trained attendants, for example). But even with their mobility challenges, these youngsters are able to mobilize themselves in order to drive changes in their own circumstances and to agitate for justice. Nussbaum, a wheelchair user since the 1970s after a car hit her on an icy Chicago street when she was 24, has witnessed — and agitated for — changes in the ways people with disabilities are treated, and she was selected by Utne Reader in 2008 as one of “50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World” for her work with girls with disabilities.

Nussbaum has plenty to say. Like, “Access, in the architectural sense, is already covered by the ADA and other laws. Talking about acccess is often a distraction from the broader impact of disability oppression.”

And: “The New York Times revealed what a shamefully bad job NYC did in evacuating people with disabilities during Sandy. And in Katrina, people in nursing homes in New Orleans were simply euthanized.”

Susan Nussbaum talked about her book and her background with Susan Weidman Schneider, in person in New York, by phone from Chicago, and finally by email. 

LILSp14 susan nussbaum in article

Susan Weidman Schneider: You’ve written, in an author’s note at the end of the book, about how urgent it is to have disabled people not be “othered” — my word, not yours — in order to render their reality accurately. You’ve observed sharply how disabled people in fiction are always either villains or victims, and that there’s never more than one in every work. I want to quote you directly:

I used to wonder where all the writers who have used disabled characters so liberally in their work were doing their research. When I became a wheelchair-user in the late seventies, all I knew about being disabled I learned from reading books and watching movies, and that scared the shit out of me. Tiny Tim was long-suffering and angelic and was cured in the end. Quasimodo was a monster who loved in vain and was killed in the end, but it was for the best. Lenny was a child who killed anything soft, and George had to shoot him. It was a mercy killing. Ahab was a bitter amputee and didn’t care how many died in his mad pursuit to avenge himself on a whale. Laura Wingfield had a limp, so no man would ever love her.

Susan Nussbaum: Disabled characters are shown as the only character with a disability — as if we totally live in a non-disabled world — the one lone character in a sea of others.

What do you think about Far from the Tree, the book by Andrew Solomon about parents raising children who are very much unlike themselves, typically because the child has a disability?

I haven’t read the newest Solomon book. I did read most of Noonday Demon [about depression], and really admired it.

The whole idea of exceptionality feels unnecessary to me, and plain wrong. Another in a long line of euphemisms that serve only to frame disability as abnormal. I don’t really mind that he groups disability in with LGBT, but children born of rape? Whatever.

I am not generally attracted to books that reflect on the responses of parents to disabled children, or children who are marginalized for whatever reasons they deviate from “normal.” It always seems to confer a kind of martyrdom on the parents, who themselves are viewed as loving their children “in spite of” the disability. I don’t doubt the great love and dedication of the parents. I’m sure it’s all a very compelling and beautifully rendered read, and probably does speak to many parents in a profound way. But I’m sooo tired of hearing from doctors or social workers or other “experts” about the disability experience. I’ve heard it all before and it has very little to do with my reality. I want to hear about disability from disabled people.

LILSp14_nussbaum bookThe disabled teen and young adult characters you’ve created in your novel describe their own circumstances, relationships, dreams, wants. None of this comes to the reader through the lens of the “abled.” Pointedly, in your notes at the end of the novel, you remind readers that “When African-American characters were written only by white writers, or LGBT characters were written mostly by heteros, and women were written largely by men, culture in America was, in a way, simply a reflection of the imaginings of a privileged segment of the population.”

Like when African-American writers started to accurately represent that experience, white writers had to look at how they had represented black characters in the past. The more disabled people enter the cultural milieu and write about the experience of being disabled — for real — that will change. And other writers will get these ideas….

What is an example of something that gets elided or denied —  or just not noticed — when non-disabled writers are creating the characters or writing the non-fiction pieces about people with disabilities?

I made sure to have sexually active people with disabilities, because everyone is sexual. People writing about disabilities are usually not disabled, so we are often written as non-sexual characters. This is perpetuated in so many ways by the dominant culture — certainly in books and movies that do a very poor job of representing the experience of real disabled people. So it was important for me to write about disabled characters who are fully sexual people . Because that’s the truth. 

Your characters seem confidently sexual. And in the book sexuality is loving, and real, between consenting partners. There’s also a sexual predator, an evil “caregiver” employed by the nursing home. But even aides and employees who have warm feelings for their “patients” can’t act on their better instincts because of overwork, and the greed and corruption of the nursing home owners.

In real life, occasionally we see news items about the progressive nursing home movement that talk about acknowledging and respecting the sexuality of the residents.

Let’s put that aside for now… “progressive” nursing home movement?

 OK. So tell us who has been reading your immensely compelling, funny, startling book?

The best is that the disabled community is embracing it. There’s a whole disabilities studies community in academia — and they are really taking it up, assigning it all over the place. This is very encouraging to me, waaaay beyond what I ever imagined, since the book world is very competitive. Winning the PEN/Bellwether prize made the difference between relative obscurity and getting out there. 

You’re Jewish, but there’s no overtly Jewish character in the novel. What about in your plays? 

They all have disabled characters. I exploited my own experiences. I am an atheist and I have a strong anti-religion point of view. But a very strong people point of view. I am very big at getting beyond what separates us to what unites us.

You know, I did write a one one-woman show, “Meshuganismo” — about Jewish women who fall in love with  Latin men. That had a very inherent Jewish sensibility to it. 

The voice of the teenaged girl Yessenia — wry, poignant, edgy and very self-aware — is the first one a reader hears when the book opens. She’s talking about the school she went to before she landed in “juvie.”

I went there on account of I am physically challenged, and they send the people which have challenges to Hoover. They send people with physical challenges, but also retarded challenges, people been in accidents like brain accidents, or they’re blind or what have you. I do not know why they send us all to the same place but that’s the way it’s always been…I am in tenth grade and I been in cripple this and cripple that my whole sweet, succulent Puerto Rican life.

When you spoke about the novel recently at Rodeph Sholom in New York City, you mentioned that you yourself have an adopted daughter who is disabled.

Yes, I adopted a daughter. I already knew her very well when I adopted her; she was a teenager. She, too, has a disability. The reason I was so interested in maintaining the relationship with her forever is that she is really quite extraordinary — very funny, very tough. It’s unusual to have that be an innate quality. Today she has a great job, she’s got a wonderful political consciousness. She’s married — happily — to a guy I like a lot. And that’s it. 

What was your own family like as you were growing up?

I came from a privileged background — middle class. My mother was a liberal Democrat. She died 10 years ago of Parkinson’s; it really strip-mined her personality. She was a pistol, who started out doing public relations and then did a lot of local political work for candidates, like McCarthy — Eugene McCarthy, that is.

My dad was an exterminator for years, and then became an actor. My mother had always worked and so she could fill in financially until he started to make money; he worked as an actor and still does.

What about the Jewish piece?

My parents were both atheists, but they still felt it was important to give us — my older brother, sister and me — a sense of cultural identification. Much of it was to please the grandparents, who never seemed particularly religious either, but I think felt that being a Jew was crucial to their experience, and their place in history. We celebrated Passover and Rosh Hashanah for a number of years. We also did a Hannukah thing — kind of a one-night stand as opposed to eight nights — but that was because it was an opportune way to remind us why we weren’t getting a cool tree and a million presents.

Religion has always felt unnecessary to me. It never worked for me, even in a metaphorical sense.

 It’s hard to describe to what extent my Jewish heritage informs my identity. I have a Jewish sensibility, whatever that is. I try to be responsible, to question and struggle with my own biases, to contribute to humanity — not Jewish humanity but all people. I deeply long for an integrated life — to live and work with people of all races and ethnic backgrounds. I’m not looking for ways to set myself apart. We live in such a fractured, frightened, segregated world. I hope for something better.

The Vietnam War was very politicizing. I have an older brother and sister who were both involved in the anti-war movement and the women’s movement. I followed suit. I was always a political person, you know? At an early age I seemed to have a perspective on power — who had it and who didn’t.

You do understand the workings of power, and you describe yourself an activist for disability rights since a little while after your accident. In your book you portray — in riveting, page-turning scenes — how a for-profit nursing-home business actually measures all they do against their bottom line, and not against the good they could do for the people they’re serving.

When I became disabled, there was no disabilities rights movement in Chicago. When a place doing disability rights work opened soon after, I joined. It was a transformative experience. The other employees were all disabled in one way or another and they understood every experience I’d had as a disabled person — no accessible bathrooms, no curb cuts in the sidewalks, no accessible public transportation. We would laugh about the kinds of things…the reactions we had from people. We were some of the first disabled people who took to the streets in 1979 and 1980.

You were an actress before the accident. Then you became a playwright. Were you bitten by the theater bug because of your father?

Yes, it seems so. I loved the idea of pretending to be someone else.

But you’ve said you were angry at the theater.

I was pissed because no one would produce my latest play. It just broke my spirit temporarily. It was a play about girls with disabilities who went to a segregated, all-disabled school. I just knew their voices very well. I worked with girls for a long time — that’s how I met my daughter. I really loved that work, loved these people. Many of them I keep in touch with on my Facebook page. The play was kind of a wonderful piece — and it did not get picked up.

Sounds a little like “A Chorus Line”?

I wish it was like Chorus Line! My play takes place during one long day, the day they graduated from high school. They are all really good friends, with one alpha female. You see the conflicts with the girls, then you see them at home. One of the girl’s mothers is in prison. All sorts of things. Like the novel, at the end you see that there’s a future for some of these girls. And for others, whom you’ve fallen in love with, you worry that maybe there is none. No matter what they do they may not survive in this world. 

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April 3, 2014 by

From the Editor

Wait for it. There’s a lot in this issue about bringing sex into our conversations. People with disabilities, for example, and why they get portrayed as non-sexual beings — with notable exceptions in Susan Nussbaum’s new novel. The danger of silence around teen sex, for another example (and kudos to the Orthodox rabbi who recently told parents and educators how to talk to Orthodox teen boys about wet dreams and not feeling sinful…). All good.

But how about that other subject we don’t address? Women have mostly stopped talking about our friendships. This is a sea-change for feminists! This is under-examined fallout from the lean-in era, buried in all the high-octane chatter about work-life balance.

After a recent, long-overdue, much-postponed lunch with a close friend — one with whom I’ve exchanged confidences, earth-shattering feminist insights and birthday gifts for 35 years — I began to worry about how significantly our work lives have foiled our friendships. Every week is strewn with missed opportunities for seeing this woman, though she and I never really talk about why.

Think of how often we say to friends — people we actually like — “I’d love to, but I’m on deadline. I’d love to, but I’m drowning in work.” Women caring for young children find themselves in mandatory chats with contemporaries in the playground, at the soccer game, wherever, that give rise to closeness. And for women living in Sabbath-observant worlds, where Shabbat enforces many occasions for women-to-women socializing, the work-driven diminution of contact with close women friends may not feel as profound.

But many others of us feel we have pulled the plug on our friendships. When we cheer women’s advancement in the workplace, and see women accelerating into a career trajectory, we almost never calculate the cost in blown-off book club gatherings, coffee dates, drinks-and-dinner strategy sessions about politics large and small. One of the hidden losses in the lives of many women right now is the loss of time for female friends.

As the cycle of our work lives has expanded to 24:24 and 7:7, even the interstitial moments for conversation have shrunk concomitantly. A women in her forties confesses to me that she and her friends connect around midnight, via email and text messages, while their children and partners are all sleeping. The only women whose lives we catch up with regularly seem to be our Facebook friends. Seriously, some weeks I know more about people to whom I am barely tangentially connected than I do about the sturm-und-drang in the lives of my actual BFFs.

The loss is more than personal. Not only is our delight diminished when work drives us away from our friends, but so is the movement for change that women’s collective energies spur. In the early days of second-wave feminism, a lot of passion, analysis and intellectual energy went into acknowledging and honoring the bonds women feel for one another, our commonalities (whether of aspiration or oppression) and the ways that sisterly efforts were going to make the world a better place. 

That was then. This is now.

Recognizing the power of face-to-face connections in this digital era, some women are discovering a new path to consciousness raising and female friendships. These are the women loving their Lilith salons, gathering in people’s homes every three months or so, around the country, to see how their own lives are refracted through the pages of the magazine. These salons (see the inside back cover for details) are a forum for intergenerational contact and conversations, for honoring the relationships of the women in the room and for encouraging the possibilities of pleasure in the moment and social change down the line.

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Live from the Lilith Blog

June 25, 2012 by

A Journalistic Room Of One’s Own

Cross-posted with The New York Jewish Week.

Thirty-five years of ‘amplifying women’s voices.’ An interview with longtime Lilith editor in chief, Susan Weidman Schneider.

In a feat of journalistic longevity, Lilith: The Jewish Women’s Magazine, has been around for 35 years now.  Along the way, the quarterly has sought to merge the wider women’s movement with the world of Jewish feminism. On the occasion of its 35 anniversary, The Jewish Week asked Lilith founding editor Susan Weidman Schneider to reflect on the issues that have animated the magazine’s coverage.

The Jewish Week: The early days of Lilith must have really been heady, as you were trying to take the lessons of the wider feminist movement and translate it into the Jewish realm. What was it like starting out?

Susan Weidman Schneider: It’s still heady! Our daily conversations with our interns and writers and editors over lunch at Lilith’s conference table and at Lilith salons are all about taking gender justice, in all its forms, into the Jewish world. Lilith’s tagline says this explicitly: “independent, Jewish & frankly feminist.”

In the beginning we were asked persistently, “Is feminism good for the Jews?” The answer now seems self-evident. Women have energized Jewish life and practice everywhere, from big organizations to the more intimate settings of our own families. Let’s take text as one example. For decades, women in mainstream congregations, small havurot, on college campuses, and in their own kitchens have been writing new liturgies, referring to the feminine aspects of God, and using imagery from women’s bodies and experiences; many of these are now published between hard covers in widely used prayer books; women have expanded the possibilities of prayer and ritual, highlighting the elasticity of Judaism.

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