Author Archives: Chana Widawski

The Lilith Blog

November 26, 2013 by

A Lady and Her Bicycle

book.122182807_stdI couldn’t believe it — I had jumped into the pages of National Geographic. I had sprung myself across a rickety makeshift bridge, gaping at a raging river in the highlands of West Papua, Indonesia, and there I stood, mesmerized by a procession of men wearing nothing but feathers in their hair and koteka, gourds, on their penises. 

I stood in the misty rain, alongside my Papuan guide whose teeth were red as blood from chewing betel nut, praying that I wouldn’t catch fleas from sleeping in the round straw hut where I would be bunking with the village’s women, children and pigs. That night I sat around the hut’s lung-choking smoky fire exchanging shy stares and smiles with the Dani women and children, as we each grabbed fingers full of cooked sweet potato greens, slurping them noisily into our mouths. Rather than stressing about the rat scurrying around the edges of the hut’s rounded walls, I focused on the young girl making a bilum, a string bag for carrying anything from babies, to newborn pigs, to hundreds of pounds of sweet potatoes.

I couldn’t believe I was there. Me, a young Jewish woman from Rochester, New York. I had somehow managed to become a person who cycled the crowded streets of Cambodia, biked the mountains of northern Thailand and was now in a remote village worthy of National Geographic. It was intoxicating.

So you can imagine my excitement when, back in my New York humdrum life, I stumbled upon a book about Annie Londonderry, the first woman to cycle around the globe. And no, she didn’t do it in the 1990s. It was the 1890s! Obsessed with everything bicycle and energized by travel stories, particularly those of intrepid women, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy of her biography Around the World on Two Wheels: Annie Londonderry’s Ride. When I learned that Annie Londonderry’s real name was Annie Cohen Kopchowsky, that her first language was Yiddish, and that she lived with her peddler husband, kids and extended family in a crowded tenement in Boston’s West End, I was entranced.

When Annie set out on this epic journey as a novice biker at age 24 in 1894, it was because two wealthy men were betting whether a woman could fend for herself and earn $5,000 while cycling the world in 15 months. Much was happening in both the women’s movement and the bicycle craze, and Annie was zealous about cycling her way out of the traditional woman’s role. She happily reinvented herself with an exciting new identity, found lots of sponsors, and gained both freedom and fame. 

  • No Comments

The Lilith Blog

April 22, 2013 by

Green? Or Greeneh?

Photo via Library of Congress Flickr stream

As Earth Day rolls in this week, I’ll enjoy the extra attention devoted to the Earth and our environment, from movements to stop fracking and ban disposable plastic water bottles, to maximizing our public space and making it “green.” Likewise, each April we mark Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, timed to commemorate the active organizing and resistance of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

While the themes of Earth Day and Holocaust Remembrance Day shape who I am and how I embrace the world, I appreciate our calendar’s call to action on each. Later this week I will ride my bicycle to meet with 11th graders at a public high school in Brooklyn, where I will have the opportunity to share my father’s experience of survival during the Holocaust. Together we will explore the power of personal stories and the influence they have upon our own identities. And what ideal timing to do so, the weeks of Earth Day and Yom Hashoah. I feel honored during this time to share my own story–of being “green”, and also “greeneh.”

Growing up, green was the color of the aluminum siding on our house and of our painted garage, teeming with a full assortment of scrap—wood, metal, plastic, heavy paper and anything else that might somehow serve a future purpose. Green was the color of the lawn I often mowed, watered only when needed and early in the morning. My Girl Scout uniform was green. And so were the glasses filled with warm tea left out every morning for me and my sisters, the intentional love-filled leftovers from the big stove-cooked pot of tea our Dad filled his Thermos from each day before heading to his job at Gleason Works in our boat-sized American-made Chevy Impala, which he could fix himself.

Green was a shade of envy, too. Envy of the kids whose sandwiches were packed in throwaway Ziploc bags instead of bulky Tupperware that had to be schlepped home. Envy of all the other moviegoers, who got to socialize while waiting on line for buttered popcorn while we rustled through an over-stuffed tote to access a re-used plastic bag full of white kernels, air-popped at home. Envy of my friends whose families hired plows to remove their snow while we bundled up in hand-me-down snowsuits and shoveled all day.