The Lilith Blog

September 13, 2019 by

The Relevance of Grace Paley in the Trump Era

In the late spring of 2016, writer Judith Arcana began to reckon with the probability of Donald J. Trump ascending to the US presidency. “As I watched the emergence of Brexit in the United Kingdom, I was electrified,” Arcana told Lilith’s Eleanor J. Bader in mid-August. “I understood how—and why—Donald Trump could become president.”

This conclusion frightened her; nonetheless, Arcana found solace in thinking about activist-writer Grace Paley (1922-2007), the subject of her 1993 biography, Grace Paley’s Life Stories. “Grace’s life is a model for us right now, in the streets and on the page,” Arcana wrote in the Preface to the recently-released second edition of the book (Eberhardt Press). 

Indeed, it’s impossible to read Grace Paley’s Life Stories and not be inspired by her energy, optimism, and fortitude. Add in her literary output—essays, poems, and three short fiction collections—The Little Disturbances of Man (1959); Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1975), and Later the Same Day (1985)—stories that showcase the everyday interactions of working-class men, women, and children, and it is clear why Paley’s work remains relevant years after her death.

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September 11, 2019 by

South America’s Jewish Prostitutes (Sex Slaves, Really)

It was shocking—and horrifying—to learn that more 100,000 Jewish women from Eastern Europe had been forced into sexual slavery in South America by other Jews willing and eager to exploit them.  Talia Carner’s new novel, The Third Daughter (HarperCollins) dramatizes this disgraceful chapter in Jewish history, and she talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about the very contemporary impact this story continues to have.

YZM: How did you come to this subject?

TC: I had first become aware of the magnitude of global and historical sexual exploitation at the 1995 International Women’s Conference in Beijing. An aging Filipina with an operatic voice cried to high heavens about her enslavement by the Imperial Japanese Army during WWII as one of thousands of girls and women captured in the Pacific Rim. Then a teenager, she had been imprisoned in a “comfort station” to serve the soldiers’ sexual needs.

The plight of kidnapped women forced into sexual slavery touched me deeply, and in my head it was narrated by the Filipina’s haunting voice. In subsequent years I read about sex trafficking and attended presentations by UN-affiliated NGO’s in New York City, where I live.

A snippet of the history of girl victims lured from beleaguered Eastern European Jewish communities to South America had come to my attention through Hebrew literature. My interest was reawakened when I stumbled upon a short story by Sholem Aleichem, “The Man from Buenos Aires,” (now in my own translation on my website). I googled the subject and was appalled to learn how much information was hiding in plain sight about Zwi Migdal, the legal trafficking union. Yet, the estimated 150,000 to 220,000 Jewish women exploited by its members had been forgotten, lost in the goo of history. 

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September 10, 2019 by

Why Molly Wernick is an Advocate for the Separation of Church and State

By Chanel Dubofsky

When Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement from the US Supreme Court in June 2018, fear, panic, and dread rose up in the throats of pro-choice Americans.  The precarious position of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision protecting a person’s choice to have an abortion, was one that people had been well aware of since before the election of Donald Trump in November 2016, but Kennedy’s retirement provided the opportunity to appoint another anti-choice justice who could eviscerate Roe if and when the time came. 

For Molly Wernick, who oversees Community Engagement initiatives for Habonim Dror Camp Galil in Southeastern Pennsylvania, the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh, Trump’s choice to replace Kennedy, meant the transformation of  abortion debate, from “something that didn’t threaten my life and future to something that did.” Her response came in the form of an article for Medium, written the second day of Rosh Hashanah 2018, in which she wrote about learning that she and her husband were both carriers of Tay Sachs disease, an inherited, degenerative condition which leads to death in children, typically by about the age of four. In a post-Roe America, Wernick reflects, she, as a person of privilege, would be able to access an abortion, which isn’t the case for many others. As a result of the article, Wernick told Lilith, people came forward to tell their stories of abortion and miscarriage, stories they had kept secret until then, out of a sense of shame. 

But there’s another element to the abortion rights conversation, and that has to do with the separation of church and state.  “It’s also a slap in the face to my own religious freedom,” says Wernick. While the Christian belief that life begins at conception controls the anti-choice actions leading to abortion legislation, Wernick points out that that’s not what the Jewish view of abortion is. “For the first 40 days of gestation, a fetus is considered “mere fluid” (Talmud Yevamot 69b), and the fetus is regarded as part of the mother for the duration of the pregnancy,” wrote Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, on Twitter in May 2019. (Read the entire thread, it’s a great 101 on Judaism and abortion.) Restricting, and attempting to ban legal abortion altogether on the basis of Christian interpretation, explicitly violates the First Amendment, which protects freedom of religion. 

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“Someone else’s religious doctrine is impacting my life and how I plan my family,” says Wernick “I can’t believe Jewish communities are staying silent.” 

Let’s be clear: individual Jews, as well as certain Jewish organization like the National Council of Jewish Women, have spoken, and continue to, speak out against proposed bans of all abortions after six weeks of pregnancy (which are in effect total abortion bans, since many people who can get pregnant may not even know they are pregnant at six weeks), and other anti-choice legislations.  Where, wonders Wernick, is the Federation movement, which was founded on the premise of protecting Jews from forces wishing to violate the separation of church and state? What can be done to stop Christian lawmakers from acting upon Jewish bodies? 

Wernick has done a lot of thinking and strategizing around potential legal recourses, and she has created a graphic depicting the steps Jewish organizations can take to address this direct violation of religious freedom. For example: a court case could be brought by a Jewish organization seeking to support a member who has had their religious freedom violated by not being able to access abortion care. In order for this to happen, however, a person would have to know that her rights are being violated––so familiarize yourself with the abortion laws in your state, as well as those that dictate access to contraception. (Do you live in a place where pharmacists can refuse to fill your birth control prescription based on their religious beliefs?) One also needs to have access to a Jewish organization willing to take action, even if that means the organization may risk losing donors or congregants. Ironically, Wernick might turn out to be the ideal person to bring a case based on religious freedom, since she may one day find herself terminating a pregnancy because of Tay-Sachs. “It’s the only silver lining,” she says. 

Want to take action now? Familiarize yourself with the abortion laws in your state, and what it would take to access an abortion: distance, cost, time off from work, and more. T get further acquainted with what Jewish law says about abortion, check out Danya Ruttenberg’s Twitter thread, as well as My Jewish Learning. How do your state and local representatives vote on abortion, and how will that affect how you vote? “We need to remind representatives that they actually work for us,” says Wernick. And finally, remember that change requires mobilization, so talk to your friends and family and use that collective energy to make an impact.

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September 6, 2019 by

Supporting Social Entrepreneurs

By Jamie Allen Black, CEO, Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York

When Tamar Menasseh grew frustrated with the gun violence ripping apart her neighborhood on Chicago’s Southside, she did not pack up and move. Instead, she pitched a lawn chair, set up a bar-b-que, and invited neighbors to join her for a meal. After her model of community gatherings helped to lower tensions it evolved into Mothers Against Senseless Killings, which has outposts in several states, including on Staten Island, N.Y.

The sexual assaults Evie Litwok witnessed as an inmate in two federal prisons gave her purpose upon her release. Today, Litwok runs Witness to Mass Incarceration, an organization that was commissioned by the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate sexual violence against incarcerated LBQT+ women and provides people just released from prison with suitcases filled with basic supplies to help them get started on the outside.

While we can only speculate about whether the world would be a better place if women were in charge, what is clear is that many women are adept at turning their personal experiences into unique professional ventures. Based on our 20-plus years of experience funding women-led organizations, The Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York knows that not only could women solve some of the most intractable problems around the globe, but that more attention – and funds – must be designated to make these efforts successful.

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September 5, 2019 by

Does Leonard Cohen Embody Jewish Men’s Fantasy Fulfillment? An Exhibition and Documentary Film Provide Clues

By Nora Lee Mandel

When Canadian poet and singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen died November 7, 2016 at 82, eulogies reverberated with “mystical,” “mysterious,” and “celestial.” A new documentary, Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love (Roadside Attractions), and the exhibition Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything, up until September 8 at New York’s Jewish Museum, demonstrate that Cohen, like so many male artists of his and previous generations, fit a pattern of an archetypal Jewish men’s fantasy fulfillment. His muse, Norwegian Marianne Ihlen, was a blonde gentile goddess; a disparaging Yiddish word for the type is no longer PC.

Photo of Marianne Ihlen and Leonard Cohen from the film, "Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love." Courtesy of Roadside Attractions.

Photo of Marianne Ihlen and Leonard Cohen from the film, “Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love.” Courtesy of Roadside Attractions.

Iconoclastic as he was, Cohen fit the pattern. Irving Berlin was inspired by fair-haired socialite Ellin Mackay to pen “Always” in the 1920s, and more love songs after they married. In the 1960s, Marilyn Monroe posthumously influenced her husband, Arthur Miller to write After the Fall. Diane Keaton was Woody Allen’s icon of golden non-Jewish women in Annie Hall and other 1970s films. This trope is so familiar that Albert Brooks satirized Sharon Stone as The Muse (1999) with flaxen tresses.

For the new Leonard Cohen film, director Nick Broomfield rediscovered home-movie-like footage from the 1960s by the late documentarian D.A. Pennebaker, where Marianne smiles, sails, and swims off the Aegean island of Hydra: “The sun bleached my hair, so in Greece I was very blonde…Leonard did the writing. I ran and did the shopping and brought food. I was his Greek muse, who sat at his feet. He was the creative one…I would say ‘I am an artist. Love is an art’. I was living.” After the luminescent Judy Collins initiated his performing career, Cohen’s road manager and record producer chuckle at how audiences seemed mostly women, particularly blondes, and that Cohen relayed them to his hotel room.

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August 30, 2019 by

Does Judaism Permit Abortion? Depends Who You Ask.

By Arielle Silver-Willner

Recent threats to abortion access in the U.S. have provoked national discourse regarding reproductive justice–What does it mean? Whom does it affect? How can it be implemented? These questions have extended to Jewish communities, and create the opportunity for lively, comprehensive discussions. 

Addressing both Jewish tradition and the current sociopolitical climate, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) hosted a panel this July in Manhattan to address these questions among others. In Orthodox communities, the subject of reproduction is often governed by the halachic law, which instructs Jews to “be fruitful and multiply.” Thus, contraception and abortion are somewhat contentious subjects. However, the JOFA panelists– professor of Judaic Studies Dr. Elana Stein Hain, lawyer Gail Katz, and ObGyn Dr. Susan Lobel– seemed to agree that, at the very least, safe and legal abortion should be available if the pregnant person’s life is at risk. Stein Hain explained that Jewish texts declare the pregnant woman’s life “takes precedence over the life of the fetus.” Thus, clearly, Judaism does accept the termination of a pregnancy in certain circumstances. What these circumstances are, however, is less clear. Laughing, Stein Hain noted, “in true Jewish fashion, [it] depends who you ask.” 

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August 29, 2019 by

Why We Protested Amazon on Tisha B’Av

By Rabbi Salem Pearce

A few Sundays ago, I found myself browsing in the recent nonfiction section of an Amazon retail bookstore in midtown Manhattan. I picked up Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, by John Carreyou, the Wall Street Journal reporter who uncovered the massive fraud perpetrated by Theranos and its founder and CEO, Elizabeth Holmes. I’ve already listened to a podcast and watched a documentary on the same topic, but I am am fascinated by corporate chicanery. (Plus, Elizabeth Holmes went to my high school in Houston, Texas.) I was so absorbed in making a note on my phone to buy the book that I almost didn’t notice the group of people, holding signs above their heads, slowly and silently filling up the store. I scrambled to put the book back on the shelf. It was time to turn my attention to another Silicon Valley startup behaving badly.


Photo Credit: Gili Getz

Photo Credit: Gili Getz

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August 27, 2019 by

Choose Your Night Cheese

Lactose intolerant or not, we all love cheese. Especially as a late night treat! Use this guide to help you decide which cheese fulfills your snacking needs.



Rebecca Katz is your average white, Jewish, twenty-something who likes to talk and draw about food, privilege, television, and her period. After six years away, Rebecca has returned home to Brooklyn and lives just three blocks away from where she grew up. Take a look at more of her comics at

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August 26, 2019 by

A Twist on Doctor-Patient Confidentiality

Radiologist and debut novelist Heather Frimmer tells the story of a mother planning her daughter’s wedding just as she receives a diagnosis of breast cancer in her new novel Bedside Manners. Frimmer talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about how her medical training shapes her life as a writer.

YZM: How did your own training as a doctor influence the writing of this novel? 

HF: I work full time as a radiologist specializing in breast imaging. I interpret mammograms, discuss results with patients and perform breast biopsies. 

Joyce’s story was inspired by the thousands of breast cancer patients I’ve had the honor of caring for. I used my observations to make Joyce’s journey as authentic and emotionally resonant as possible. Some of the events in Marnie’s story were inspired by or loosely based on situations either I or my friends experienced on the wards during training. I wanted to explore the doctor-patient relationship from both sides. Choosing both a mother and daughter as the protagonists allows the characters to witness and experience both sides of the relationship alongside the reader.

YZM: Why did you make Marnie a surgeon rather than a radiologist? 

HF: I would have loved to make Marnie a radiologist, but I knew it wasn’t the right choice. Radiologists stare at computer screens in dark rooms while drinking endless cups of coffee—the opposite of dramatic. Making Marnie a surgeon allowed me to put her in more precarious and emotional situations and raise the stakes for her a lot more. 

YZM: The men in the novel respond very differently to the news of Joyce’s cancer than the women; care to comment? 

HF: That’s such an interesting observation. This wasn’t a conscious choice, but I think the difference comes from my personal experience. The men in my life tend to underplay their emotional reactions, only getting upset in the most dire of circumstances. The exception to this rule would be my wonderful husband who wears his emotions on his sleeve without shame.

YZM: During the course of the novel, Marnie struggles with her decision to marry a non Jewish man.  Were you making a larger statement about intermarriage between Jews and Gentiles? 

HF: My goal was not to be prescriptive about intermarriage, but rather to raise questions so readers can think about the issue for themselves. Spouses will inevitably differ in countless ways and learning to negotiate those differences is crucial for a successful marriage. As an obsessive reader, if I can remain happily married for nearly seventeen years to someone who reads less than one book a year, then anything is possible. The keys are open communication, dedication, and acceptance on the part of both partners. 

YZM: Do you think you’ll use your medical background in writing your next novel? 

HF: I am finishing edits on my next novel which follows a male neurosurgeon with an addiction to pills who makes the decision to operate on his sister-in-law’s brain. The story explores how this decision affects not only the course of both of their lives, but of their entire family as well. I love the way my publicist describes this book—” a complex tale of addiction, love, and survival on the operating table.” While this novel does take place in the world of medicine, it strays much further from my area of expertise. This one required a lot more research to get the details right. 

YZM: What’s one question that you wished I’d asked but didn’t? 

HF: I like credit to the authors who have inspired me to become a writer.  Lisa Genova, the author of Still Alice and Every Note Played, along with several other wonderful novels, has been my major inspiration. I love how the way she uses her expertise as a neuroscientist to explore the details of a specific neurologic disease, its emotional ramifications and the ways the disease impacts everyone in the patient’s sphere. I’d be hard pressed to pick a favorite—her books are all that good. 

I also deeply admire Jennifer Weiner’s writing—I faithfully read her novels the day they are released. The way she can make a story hilarious and compulsively readable while addressing serious topics is truly admirable. Her newest novel, Mrs. Everything, just came out in June and is her most ambitious novel yet. She’s truly outdone herself with this one. 


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August 22, 2019 by

In Tennessee, Fighting Back as a Jew Against the Abortion Ban Hearing

By Laurie Rice

On August 13, testifying against the comprehensive abortion ban being considered by the state legislature…

To the Senate Judiciary committee—thank you for having me here today. I am honored to speak before you. My name is Rabbi Laurie Rice. I have been an ordained rabbi for 18 years. A graduate of Northwestern University, I received my Masters of Hebrew Letters and rabbinic ordination from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. I serve on the Ethics Committee for Alive Hospice and as an Ambassador for the Amend Program through the YWCA, which works to end domestic violence in Tennessee by helping men and boys become better versions of themselves.   

In the summer of 1996, I moved to Israel for my first year of rabbinic school. I lived in Jerusalem, with others studying to become rabbis, for our first of five years’ study towards ordination. That year, I met the man who two years later would become my husband. To be honest, when we went for our pre-marital counseling, we were each asked how many children we wanted to have. My husband said five. I said one. We had some things to talk about!  

I said I wanted one child, but really I wasn’t even sure about having any. I was only 28. But then one day, not long after, I was ready. And when that happened, I couldn’t have a child fast enough. I was so excited to be a mom, and I couldn’t wait for my husband to be a father. I knew he would be amazing.

It didn’t take us long to get pregnant, much to my husband’s dismay. We were on our way. We bought the necessary prenatal vitamins, said goodbye to wine and raw fish, and visited the doctor for all the prescribed appointments. And then, at 22 weeks, we learned that our fetus wasn’t growing as it should, and it turned out, after a series of tests, that our fetus was a triploid, meaning it had 3 sets of every chromosome where a healthy fetus has two. I hoped this meant our baby would be bionic, but what it really meant was that our fetus would likely not come to term, and if it was born it would not make it even one year.    

We. Were. Crushed. We were given two choices. To go forward and see what happened. Or to have a second trimester abortion. I sobbed. Day in and day out, I sobbed. I sobbed about the baby I would not mother. I sobbed about the dreams that died in that very moment. And I knew right away that I wanted to have the abortion. Because I wanted to have a baby. I wanted to be a mother. And I couldn’t do that until we could start over and try again.     

This is not a debate between those who are for abortion and those who are against it. No one I know is FOR abortion. If a woman finds herself in a situation in which abortion is a consideration, she is in distress, and the alternative is most often either mentally or physically impairing. Or both. The debate over abortion is, in fact, a debate over a woman’s right to choose—but in our great nation today, that right has become primarily a matter of faith. 

As I am in the business of faith, allow me to say a little more about this. When Alabama Governor Kay Ivey signed into law one of the nation’s most restrictive abortion bans, she invoked her faith. She said, “To the bill’s many supporters, this legislation stands as a powerful testament to Alabamians’ deeply held belief that every life is precious and that every life is a sacred gift from God.”     

In January, the speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates, Kirk Cox, cited the Book of Psalms when he came out against a proposed bill that would lift restrictions on abortions. He quoted Psalm 139: “You knit me together in my mother’s womb. You watched me as I was being formed in utter seclusion as I was woven together in the dark of the womb. You saw me before I was born.”   

Let me tell you how I, a rabbi, read the scripture. I, too, believe that every life is precious and a gift from God.  

However, while my Christian colleagues and friends understand a fetus to represent human life, the Jewish tradition, the foundation of Christianity, does not believe that the fetus has a soul, and it is therefore not a life, as it is written in Genesis: “And God breathed the soul of life into human, and they lived.” Furthermore, Judaism refers to the fetus in Hebrew as a rodef, a pursuer. The rodef or fetus only exists because it feeds off the mother. In fact, if the presence of the fetus puts the mother’s life in danger, abortion is condoned. The wellbeing of the mother takes precedence. Existing life takes precedence over potential life, and a woman’s life and her pain take precedence over a fetus.   

But the strongest argument in our Bible for permitting abortion comes from Exodus, Chapter 21, verses 22-23: “If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take a life for a life.”  

 The words “gives birth prematurely” could mean the woman miscarries, and the fetus dies. Because there’s no expectation that the person who caused the miscarriage is liable for murder, Jewish scholars argue this proves a fetus is not considered a separate person or soul.

 Jewish law is also helpful when discussing abortion. The Talmud, our compendium of Jewish law, explains that for the first 40 days of a woman’s pregnancy, the fetus is considered “mere fluid” and considered part of the mother until birth. The baby is considered a nefesh, Hebrew for “soul” or “spirit” once its head has emerged, and not before.   

Furthermore, Jewish tradition and scholars have also acknowledged a pregnant woman’s potential “great need” to terminate a pregnancy. It is clear that in Jewish law an Israelite is not liable to capital punishment for feticide…. An Israelite woman was permitted to undergo a therapeutic abortion, even though her life was not at stake…. This ruling applies even when there is no direct threat to the life of the mother, but merely a need to save her from great pain, which falls within the rubric of a “great need.”  

Now you might be saying, “I really hope she stops quoting scripture and makes a point!” Christians and Jews could go back and forth all day long on the interpretation of scripture, because interpretation cannot be objective by the very definition of the word “interpretation.” Throughout history, scripture has been used to legitimize all kinds of evil and depravity, such as the decimation of Jews in Europe, and the right to enslave black people here in this great nation. I can tell Christians that they are interpreting scripture incorrectly, and they can say the same about me. Can any of us truly know what it is that God wants? Who among us is so full of hubris to say that we know? In a nation founded as a wellspring for all faiths, races, and creeds, do we really want to allow for one religious group to prescribe rules and decisions for all, based on one particular interpretation of scripture?  

That is not America. America is about religious freedom, is it not? There is no doubt that faith informs each of our views on a variety of subjects, but that’s exactly what they are—personal views, not something for everyone else to comment or legislate on.  

If this hearing is about the constitutionality of this particular bill banning all abortion, ask yourself: Are you prepared to admit that you prefer an America that is not based on religious freedom? Are we, the great state of Tennessee, prepared to join the march in making that declaration?   

True religious freedom, if you value that, is a shield to protect all religions, and it is never a sword to discriminate. My tradition, the Jewish tradition, teaches that women don’t have abortions they want. I can promise you that I did not want a triploid fetus. (And Senator Bowling, since you brought up the issue of percentages, noting that only 1% of pregnancies derive from a situation of rape, allow me to point out that only 1-2% of pregnancies result in a triploid abnormality. If you are the 1% with a triploid, or the 1% who is raped, then it’s 100% for you. Period.) I did not want to learn at nearly 6 months of pregnancy that I would likely not give birth to a live baby, and that if I did it would most certainly die within the first year. Women do not have abortions they want. They have abortions they need.  

To ban abortion is to blatantly diminish the rights of women to advocate for what they need. How many of you men would honestly feel comfortable with your same rights diminished?   


Laurie Rice is the co-senior Rabbi of Congregation Micah in Brentwood, Tennessee. She serves alongside her husband, Rabbi Philip “Flip” Rice. When not leading and pastoring to her community or taking on a variety of social justice issues, she runs miles on the roads and trails of Nashville and hangs out with her kids.

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