The Lilith Blog

August 15, 2019 Noa Wollstein

“Ask For Jane” Tells the Abortion Story You Never Heard, But Should Have

For those of us born at the tail end of the 20th century, a world without legal abortion is tough to imagine. Bluntly showing a society in which unwanted pregnancies can quickly become death sentences and where even talking about abortion can lead to jail time, newly released biopic “Ask for Jane” makes sure we know exactly what this world looked like.

The film, directed by Rachel Carey and released one short year after Lilly Rivlin’s documentary “Heather Booth: Changing the World,” tells the story of the Jane Collective, an underground, illegal abortion service run out of Chicago between 1968-1973. Created by a college student who connected pregnant women with abortion doctors through her dorm room phone, the “Janes” developed into a volunteer network dedicated to providing safe abortions to women at the lowest possible cost. In 1971, after discovering that one of their “doctors” faked having a medical license, a number of the Janes even became “abortionists” themselves, doing the procedure for whatever price each woman could afford to pay. The makeshift clinic was eventually raided in 1972 and led to the arrest of seven volunteers who would become infamous as the “Abortion 7.” Despite facing up to 110 years in prison, the Janes continued helping pregnant women while out on bail. All charges against them were dropped shortly after abortion was made legal nationwide. In the final years before Roe v. Wade was decided, the Janes provided 11,000 women with safe abortions.

Far from devolving into partisanship, “Ask for Jane” stresses that the right to abortion is imperative for every woman regardless of whether she is Democrat or Republican, Catholic or atheist. All women can find themselves pregnant when they don’t want to be. All women are on the losing side of the war. The film shows teenagers, rich Park Avenue wives, low-income workers, survivors of rape, college students, women of color, mothers—every imaginable type of woman in the clinic waiting room. Speaking at a talkback following a screening of the film in Manhattan, creator and star of “Ask for Jane” Cait Cortelyou pointed to this diversity as the most important aspect of the movie. “I was interested in humanizing those stories,” she said, “because I feel like a lot of the conversation has gotten away from the individuals who are affected by the policies that are made.”

Yet, beyond reinforcing the necessity of safe, legal abortion for all women and introducing audiences to a badass activist group that is ignored in high school history class for the sake of covering more white guys, “Ask for Jane” distinguishes itself by representing a brutal and holistic picture of women’s reproductive welfare that extends far past abortion itself.

The lack of knowledge surrounding sex, for instance, is consistently cited as a major cause of unplanned pregnancy throughout the film. One of the characters—all of whom are fictionalized—works at a Catholic high school where she smuggles sex ed pamphlets to students, raging that abstinence-only education leaves kids clueless and at risk. Today that simple fact remains true, with those schools and states teaching girls to keep their legs closed having higher teen pregnancy rates than their condom-wielding, pill-popping counterparts.

The overwhelmingly patriarchal nature of society at the time (today too, let’s be real) further stands as a clear impediment not only to women’s autonomy but also to their general health. A newly engaged character asks an elderly, male gynecologist for a birth control prescription. He refuses to give her one on the grounds of her unmarried status. Luckily, he assures her, if she returns with a husband who will give his permission, she can get the pill. Similarly, a pregnant mother of two learns that a tumor in her abdomen can be removed, but she runs the risk of losing her baby in the process. Though she immediately agrees to the surgery that will save her life, it’s not up to her. As the legal owner of her body, her husband gets to decide whether she lives or dies.

Today, in the midst of the most virulent wave of anti-abortion legislation since Roe v. Wade, “Ask for Jane” serves as a reminder that such a vicious restriction as the outlawing of abortion does not emerge in a vacuum and cannot be fought in isolation. Rather it is a by-product of a society run by and for men that considers the purpose of women to be childbearing. Period. Women are denied education regarding their own anatomy and safe sex. They are refused birth control. Men decide what women may or may not do with their bodies. It’s not just that abortion is illegal, it’s that all of society is built for women to have kids—whether they want to or not. And if there is a push to take us back to the days of criminalized abortion, there is a push to restore the larger social order that came with it, something that must be fought with the same fervor as anti-abortion legislation itself.

“Ask for Jane” is not a movie for viewers to leave behind in the theater with sticky floors and popcorn containers. Rather, it is the motivation for burnt-out activists to keep fighting in the face of crushing opposition. It is the hope that all women will unite on this issue and fight for the protection of legal. It is the source of anxiety propelling the idle to action, turning “heartbeat” bills and abortion-provider deserts from headlines on our phones to a bleak reality accessible even to those who never lived in a United States that criminalized abortion. And, most importantly, it is the game plan, reminding us to direct our energies not only to abortion, but to the availability of birth control, comprehensive sex ed, and the abolition of patriarchal culture. To keep the fight for women’s reproductive health on track, movies like “Ask for Jane” are crucial. In the words of Gloria Steinem herself: “It is a movie that should be seen by every American.”


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August 13, 2019 by

Are There Lessons in Quiet Judaism?

Back in junior high school, the girls had to participate in an extracurricular sports team, and my friend Sheila and I played junior-varsity outfield. Sheila was slightly less awful an athlete than I was, and we shared a mutual strategy: since most of our classmates couldn’t hit the ball too far, playing outfield meant that all you had to do was stand around and pretend you were interested in the game. The Phys Ed teachers only paid attention to the athletic girls, which meant Sheila and I could stand near each other and talk about important things, like boys and that cute new social-studies teacher.

There was a small Jewish community in our suburb. In the first community my family had lived in, on the other hand, we were the only Jewish family on the block. And it was a very long block. My parents were quiet about our faith, and told me when I was still a little girl that some people didn’t like Jews and that sometimes I might hear mean comments directed to me. Both my mother and father suffered terrible anti-Semitism in their youth—my father in particular was the object of hideous physical violence that left his face scarred forever—not in Nazi Germany, but right here in America. So they did not deny being Jewish, but were quiet about it, although the mezuzah proudly hanging on our front door might have given things away to our neighbors.

Sheila was Jewish too, and we talked about it sometimes, especially about The Diary of Anne Frank, which staggered us both. We knew about the Holocaust, which took place just before we were born, and we knew that, although Judaism had to go underground at certain times—much in the way the Franks and the Van Daans and Dr. Dussel were hidden in the attic—it was a religion and a people of survival. So we smiled with pleasure when we found out that the young actress who played the Norwegian-American Dagmar Hansen in the television series “Mama” was really Robin Morgenstern, not Robin Morgan. And on the ball field one day, waiting for fly balls that never came our way, Sheila asked if I was still a Girl Scout.

“Yes, I am.”

“Do you read The American Girl?” The Girl Scouts’ monthly magazine featured articles about young women who earned merit badges by picking up neighborhood trash and knitting socks for the poor. It also featured short stories about slender, blonde-haired, blue-eyed girls named Krissy and Gwen and Mary. My friends and I hated our dark, curly hair and dumpy body types and longed to look like them.

“Yes, I do.”

“Did you see it? The name?” We smiled at each other. One of the stories featured a heroine named Shayna, which we knew meant pretty girl. Shayna Punim, the name our grandmothers called us. And this Shayna was more than just a pretty girl; she was a clever girl who sneaked into a story about bland, conforming Middle America.

A few years later, being Jewish became fashionable. Girls flaunted Stars of David to let the Jewish boys know we were available. We bragged that all the best doctors and lawyers were Members of the Tribe, and although the lives of people in books by Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud and Saul Bellow bore only superficial resemblance to our own, they came to define Jewish society in America. We celebrated our leadership in arts and culture, science and medicine, moral righteousness and the quest for social justice. It was an extended moment and lasted many years, but I suspect I’m not alone in thinking that things are changing now. The newspaper columnists and talking heads on television, the young physicians who treated me during a recent hospitalization, the authors of newly-published fiction about coming of age in America are less often Jewish than they are African American, Latinx, or Asian. 

That’s as it should be in a country that is increasingly diverse and conscious of different experiences and opinions. Nevertheless, friends who are leaders in the Jewish community worry about the global rise of anti-Semitism, a turning away from Israel, and a general erosion of the centrality of the American Jewish community in the lives of many American Jews. I’m aware of this too, of course, but what gives me confidence in our people’s endurance is that, as my friend Sheila and I recognized as young girls, Jews don’t always have to make a bold fuss about who we are. Like Shayna, we come through.

After retiring from a career in public relations, Kathryn went back to school and received a PhD in literature from Northeastern University in 2018. She now teaches at several Boston-area institutions and writes critical articles and essays for a variety of publications. 

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August 12, 2019 Yona Zeldis McDonough

Rewards of a Vintage Clothes Junkie

I’m a hard-core shmatte addict, and nothing makes me happier than pawing through someone else’s discarded clothes, looking for treasures.  My hunt takes me from the high end (Housing Works, and the string of charity shops that used to line Third Avenue in Manhattan) to the low (flea markets and the humble-but-reliable Salvation Army) and everything in between.  So I was especially eager to check out the once-a-year blowout sale at Marlene Wetherell, one of my favorite vintage dealers in Manhattan.   I found myself attracted to a black leather-trimmed wool pants-and-tunic combo that didn’t exactly wow me on the hanger but was so soft and comfy that I decided to give it the proverbial whirl.  That’s when the wow became apparent.  The seeming effortlessness of it was deceptive—it was as comfy as it had looked, but also pulled together, polished and very chic. The pants fit like a dream and two pieces could be worn together or separately, belted or not.  The top allowed for layering, expanding its seasonal range.  Clearly the thing had to be mine, so home with me it went.

After it had been introduced to some of the other pieces I imagined pairing it with and had settled happily in my closet, I was curious about the designer, Roberta di Camerino, whose name wasn’t one I knew. I did a bit of Google sleuthing and that was how I found the fascinating story of a can-do Jewish woman who used adversity to spur an illustrious career in fashion.  Here’s her story, some of it in her own words.   

Born Giuliana Coen in 1920, she was part of a wealthy Venetian family. Her grandfather owned a pigment factory, where young Giuliana became intrigued by the process of color matching, perhaps setting her life on its course (the factory would later become the atelier for her fashion house).  At 18, she married Guido Camerino, and in 1943 the couple was forced to flee to Lugano to escape the looming Nazi menace. It was there that Camerino had her aha! moment:

“I was a refugee in Switzerland and I was forced to sell my bag, a leather bucket bag that I bought in Venice. That day I went home with all my belongings in a scarf. The next day I was searching for an economic bag,  but I couldn’t find anything fashionable at a reasonable price. So I thought: what if I reproduce with my own hands that bag?

“I bought leather, a ball of string, a curved needle. Briefly I sewed my old bucket bag. I didn’t know I was triggering a mechanism that could change my life forever. The next week a policeman on a train arrested me for smuggling. I discovered that the lady who bought my old bag…was the one who denounced me. I bumped into her after the sale and she saw my new bag,  identical to hers: so she went immediately to the nearest police station, accusing me to smuggle leather Italian goods into Switzerland’s market.  The misunderstanding was soon cleared up, but that event changed my life. The press was interested too and I received a lot of job offers. So I began to sew bags.”

Talk about turning lemons into lemonade.  When the war ended in 1945, Camerino and her husband returned to Venice and settled in their house at Campo Santa Maria Formosa. She then hired a few leather artisans to get started. But the conventional model of a handbag bored her; instead she was eager to create something fresh and original.

“Bags until then were strange objects. Too severe and without colors. There was only one rule to follow: the color of the bag must match with the color of the shoes. So I thought: what if I designed colorful and glamorous bags, that didn’t follow the rules anymore? At Vogini (a high end store in Venice), we put on display a soft leather bag, that could be closed with a double fold: at the time we didn’t know we were doing avant-garde accessories. We had to invent something:  a bag should always be a container, maybe more elegant, but surely more outstanding. It was hard to reinvent an object, so closed in its traditions, into something new, then finally the idea came: I had to add something to the leather. I thought I had to create something important.”

She decided to name the fledgling company—as well as herself and later her daughter—Roberta after a film starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.  The song Smoke Gets in Your Eyes was the last song that Giulliana Camerino danced to before she had to leave her home for Switzerland and she said she adopted the name as a memory of earlier happier times.  She added her husband’s surname, Camerino, to complete it.

By 1947 Camerino’s company had expanded to 10 artisans. It was also the year she became friends with Coco Chanel. “When we met in Paris for the first time, I gave her two bags. She was so enthusiastic that the same night, at dinner, she wore one of them. That night she told me something I would never forget. My husband had just called me from Venice, telling me that the market was full of my bags’ fakes. I called Chanel crying, telling her that I was puzzled and I preferred to stay in my hotel’s room for the night. She laughed out loud and she told me: ‘It’s amazing, there you go! You’ll cry the day they won’t copy you anymore!’”

By 1950, the growing company needed to find a bigger location. Camerino opened her factory near a school-laboratory in Venice, called Zitelle, and part of its goal was to help dropout girls find employment.  Her line was beginning to command attention. When Stanley Marcus, the founder of the “Fashion Award,” came to Venice, he visited her factory as well as another artisanal laboratory at Bevilacqua, where antique looms were used to produce high quality velvet for ecclesiastical dress. It was a fortuitous coincidence because Camerino had intended to use that just that kind of precious velvet to create a new type of bag.

“Velvet fascinated me, because of its vibrant colors. Night  blue, deep red, bottle green.  They matched perfectly.  I spent hours and hours searching for the best way to make this brand new fabric work. I sketched a bag, and then another and another one….the essential design of a doctor bag inspired me so much, more than other bags’ shapes. I remembered some boxes set and jewelry boxes..I thought about small buckles and belts…It was a long process…at the end the idea: we had to make a figured velvet for my bags. We could weave buckles and all the other decorations: I mean they would be part of the bag, but they would be an illusion, a trompe-l’oeil.”

Out of this process her most famous bag, the Bagonghi, was born.  It was made of colorful velvet, and had an odd shape inspired by Bagonghi, which was the name of the dwarf clown Camerino had seen at the circus as a child. In 1956, Camerino won a Neiman Marcus Fashion Award in recognition of the success and influence of her handbags. Her cut-velvet bags featured brass hardware made by Venetian craftsmen, and were carried by celebrities such as Grace Kelly, Farrah Fawcett and Elizabeth Taylor.

She continued on in this innovative vein, using densely patterned and colored fabrics that in the past been used only for clothing.  As early as 1946, she had created a bag patterned with a trellis of R’s, foreshadowing the famous G’s used by Gucci.  In 1957, she was using woven leather well before Bottega Veneta made the technique its trademark.  And in 1964, she made a handbag with an articulated frame that was later reproduced by Prada.

By the mid 1960’s, she branched out into clothing, and the black ensemble I’d bought was probably from a few years later, sometime in the 1970’s. Some of her fabrics were woven on antique looms, which helped support local industry in post-war Italy. The first Roberta di Camerino fashion show, held in Venice in 1949, was remembered as a quite an elaborate spectacle.

Camerino was keenly aware of how the needs of the modern women had evolved.  She wanted to use fabrics that didn’t wrinkle, and designs that were extremely wearable and easy, but also exceptional.  “Time has changed.  Housemaids, who helped women to get dressed, didn’t exist anymore. And then it was very difficult  to match the right T-shirts with that kind of suit or with those jackets.  Not to mention traveling.  How many times did you happen to forget that specific accessory? So my ideal dress had to solve all your problems: I imagined it as a T-shirt, in which you could slip easily and get ready in one go. For many years I sketched tromp-l’oeil on velvet and one day I decided to apply this unique method also on my dresses. On them I sketched everything a woman should need to feel herself well dressed: buttons, a belt, lapels and the blouse beneath them and even the last buttonhole of the sleeve was undone, just like the most elegant men did. And then a huge variety of prints, which made the history of the tromp-l’oeil.”      

In 1980 Camerino closed her fashion house and turned to the lucrative licensing deals for ties, scarves, aprons, and wallpaper. Exhibits of her work—at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Fashion Institute of Technology—soon followed. 

In 1996 the Roberta di Camerino label was revived, and began to re-issue the handbags, which were sold through New York  and other department stores, including Neiman Marcus, which had been the first American story to carry her line.  The Sixty Group acquired the label in 2008, and at that point, many of the licensing deals were terminated.

On May 10, 2010, di Camerino became ill, and she died in Venice that night; she was 89. The Mayor of Venice, Giorgio Orsoni, remembered her as a friend, entrepreneur and an active promoter of Venice and Italian-made goods, especially during the Italy’s struggling post-war years.

I’m not sure why I find it so important to know all this. But I do. Helena Rubinstein, another powerful Jewish entrepreneur, said that for a woman, the act of applying cosmetics was akin to the construction of an identity with which she could face the world.  I believe the same can be said of our clothes. And if that’s the case, then understanding the vision that gave rise to a particular garment and the context in which it was made becomes an integral part of that identity.  I haven’t worn my Roberta di Camerino pants ensemble yet.  But when I do, I hope it will project a bit of the fortitude and grace that helped her create it.

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August 8, 2019 Rachel Kadish

Toni Morrison Gave Me Permission to Be a Mother and a Novelist

During this week of tributes to Toni Morrison, I’ve written elsewhere about my gratitude for ways Morrison opened the windows of my writing life. I had the good fortune to study with Morrison in college, and she served as my advisor for my senior thesis. Toni Morrison was the first person to encourage me to write about my own background, essentially giving me the permission I was hesitant to give myself to write about my Holocaust-survivor family’s stories. I had the privilege of her advice and support as I took the first steps of learning how to grapple with history on the page.

As if that weren’t gift enough, there was yet another sort of permission she offered, though I didn’t feel its impact until years after I’d graduated.

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August 7, 2019 by

The Extraordinary Bravery and Short Life of Hannah Senesh Come to Life in the Revival of a Valuable Play

By all rights, Hannah Senesh should be as widely known and beloved as Anne Frank. Both were young Jewish women who confided their dreams and struggles during the Holocaust to their diaries in bright and sharply observed entries. Both their stories are moving and inspiring, revealing a steadfast spirit and a lively intelligence.

Some people may know her poems, one of which—”Eli, Eli,” has become a poignant liturgical standard. Some may remember Senesh’s story of extraordinary courage, and now more people will, thanks to a play that just opened at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York. “Hannah Senesh,” which includes music, dance and songs based on poems Senesh wrote, brings the young idealist to urgent life.

She emigrated from her native Hungary to Palestine in 1939 and, a few years later, volunteered to parachute behind Nazi lines to save other Jews, an arduous and dangerous venture. She was part of a Jewish contingent in a larger British plan to rescue downed English fighter pilots, after which the Jews could attempt their own rescues.

In the play, we first meet Hannah at age 13 and stay with her during the next decade of her eventful life. She starts out as a giddy teenager, announcing she’s a vegetarian as she waves around a stick of celery and tries to figure out how to modify the frilly pink party dress her mother has bought her so that it is more to her liking.

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August 6, 2019 Steph Black

Escorting at an Abortion Clinic is Praying with My Feet

I often come up against a presumption by those on the left that being religious and politically progressive are incongruous But the fight for reproductive freedom and the Jewish values by which I choose to live my life are one and the same. These values have spurred me into action. Recently, I officially became a trained clinic escort with the Washington Area Clinic Defense Task Force because of my Jewish values.

Clinic escorting, also called clinic defending, is the act of guiding patients from their vehicles and into a clinic that provides abortion care. But escorts also serve as the eyes and ears of a clinic: keeping a lookout for suspicious activity, watching for anti-choicers breaking the law or trespassing, and signaling to the world that we will not be intimidated, bullied, or harassed out of providing care for those who want it. On some days, clinics can face crowds upwards of hundreds of protestors. 

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August 1, 2019 by

Making “Black Hat”: Director Sarah Smith Tells All

As a Lutheran growing up in Minnesota, Sarah Smith had no way to anticipate that she would one day direct a film about a gay-curious Hasidic man living in Los Angeles. But her award-winning film,” “Black Hat” zeroes in on Shmuel [played by Adam Silver], a married father, whose wife and kids are visiting out-of-state relatives. Suddenly footloose, the devoutly observant Shmuel allows himself a brief foray into gay L.A. where he meets Jay [Sebastian Velmont], a man who lives without the constraints of community expectations. What ensues is tender, provocative, and open-ended, a tiny glimpse into a world that is all-too-often exoticized and ridiculed. In a short 14 minutes, the film—written by Phillip Guttmann, produced by Yaniv Rokah, and co-produced by Loriel Samaras and Guttmann—tells a compelling and fresh story.  Eleanor J. Bader spoke to Sarah Smith by phone in June.

Eleanor J. Bader: Were you familiar with ultra-Orthodox or Hasidic Jews before directing “Black Hat”?

Sarah Smith: I first came to New York from a suburb of Minneapolis to attend New York University and stayed in the City for nine years. At first, I felt some culture shock, but by the time I directed the film, I had familiarity with the community. From 2002 to 2006, I worked as a writers’ assistant at the now-closed JC Studios in the Midwood section of Brooklyn. While there, I’d encountered many Hasidic and Orthodox people and had learned a little bit about them.

EJB: A number of recent feature films have introduced Hasidic life to mainstream audiences. How does “Black Hat” fit into this genre?

SS: There are a range of films about Hasidim. Some condemn the community and others just tell a story. Disobedience falls into this latter category.

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July 29, 2019 Sarah Groustra

How I Got My Town to Offer Free Menstrual Products

This article was originally published on Jewish Women, Amplified, the blog of the Jewish Women’s Archive.

Last year when I was a senior at Brookline High School, I wrote an op-ed in the student-run newspaper about the stigma and cultural shame surrounding menstruation in our society. The article caught the attention of local legislator Rebecca Stone, who took action to combat some of the concerns I voiced in the piece. This past May, Brookline became the first municipality in the country to provide free menstrual products in every public restroom.

Ms. Stone’s response to my original article, as well as the public support for the (now passed) warrant, goes beyond anything I could have imagined. Among many things, this experience has renewed my faith in the power of storytelling.

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July 22, 2019 Lynne Peskoe-Yang

An Israeli Official Called My Family a “Second Holocaust” — and I Felt Relieved

In a recent meeting, the Israeli Minister of Education, Rafi Peretz, called my family part of “a second Holocaust.” According to three sources present, the new Netanyahu appointee told the Cabinet, in response to a presentation on demographic trends among American Jews, that the rate of intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews in the United States was the moral equivalent of our people’s greatest trauma in recent memory. 

When I read his comment, I braced myself for a wave of indignation. Instead, I felt relief.

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July 16, 2019 by

“Failed Self-Abortion With a Wire Hanger”: A Letter from a Namesake to an Ancestor

Dear Jennie, 

Despite our shared name, your life and death were clarified for me only in college, when I started to develop a vocabulary for seeing the world through gender, power, class, suffering and solidarity. I began to realize that the way my family had passively glorified your story as one of dire poverty alone missed several crucial, intersecting points—your gender, the drive to control the female body, autonomy, motherhood, the value of a life, and the devastation of death and desperation. No one mentioned until recently, at least to my knowledge, that you likely struggled with depression. Me, too.