Author Archives: Helene Meyers

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February 5, 2018 by

Academic Grief: A Satire

A recent memo about changes in departmental budget protocols at my university included the following:

“Items not allowed under department and program budgets: Given the tightness of budgets across campus, department and program funds should only be used for expenses related to the professional work of the department. Faculty are asked to avoid expenses that are not directly related to the mission of the department or program. A few exceptions to this rule may be allowed. For example, sending flowers to the funeral of a department member or emeritus faculty is an allowable expense. When in doubt over the nature of the expense, please consult the Dean of the Faculty for approval prior to committing funds.”

While the above is real, a faux memo follows that might provide guidelines for those funeral flowers. Even the irreligious among us should pray that cost-conscious administrators do not adopt these guidelines.  

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January 11, 2018 by

Our Bodies, Our Memories, Our Poetry: A Review of Lesléa Newman’s “Lovely”

Lovely-front-coverLesléa Newman is a woman of a certain age, and Lovely, her new volume of poetry (Headmistress Press, $15), revels in that fact. In this collection, Newman’s birth family shares these pages with her beloved. She chronicles her shifting relationship with her own body as she memorializes those who were often violently forced to leave theirs behind. While many of these poems celebrate the sensual pleasures of the past and present, Newman also fleetingly envisions a world to come.

Newman’s trademark compassion is on full display in “Home Safe.” Here the language of nursery rhymes frames the trauma of childhood sexual exploration and abuse: “Little Girl Blue/What happened to you?/Who was it? Who?/And what did he do?” Yet even as the speaker gives full voice to a little girl’s confusion and pain, she also belatedly recognizes that the boy child who overpowered her must himself also have been a victim: “Little Boy Blue,/What happened to you?/Who was it? Who?/And what did they do?”

Several poems are devoted to the life and death of Newman’s mother, the subject of a previous volume of poetry, I Carry My Mother (2015). In the prose poem “Maidel,” the foibles and wisdom of a loving Jewish mother are wittily conveyed, while the somber “My Mother Cups Her Hand” reflects the words not spoken as death becomes imminent.  

In “1955-2001: A Hair Odyssey,” Newman’s “frizz bomb/kinky head/Jew fro/ the human barometer” charts her aging process and a path to self-acceptance. The gorgeous “Blessed are the Weeds” metaphorically tells a similar story as “they are not afraid to take up space” and “they respect their roots.” More whimsical is “Your Loss: To The Lovely Butch In Front Of Me At The A&P,” which presents a femme consumer of Hungry Man Dinners as fully able to appreciate “the gluten-free, sugar-free, dairy-free yet delicious-looking pair of sticky buns” in said butch’s basket. And while very few poets could pull off turning a kasha knish into a suitable subject for poetry, Newman manages it in “Ode to a Knish Shop.” 

Reminiscent of Newman’s dazzling 2012 October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard, “That Night” is the litany of those who were murdered at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, on June 12, 2016. In this moving poem that also does the work of queer history, the bar scene is juxtaposed with the horrific death scene that unfolded: “That night the music pulsed through our veins/That night the bullets tore through our veins.” Such historical horrors give rise to “A Farewell to Arms,” a Newmanesque version of John Lennon’s “Imagine” in which bullets, pistols, missiles, stoning, torture, and snipers are no more. In this world to come, there will be “No more hatred, no more blame/No more killing in God’s name.”

The final section of the volume, titled “Nasty Women,” is an intensely personal paean to queer love. The historical “To Have and To Hold” commemorates May 17, 2004, when Massachusetts issued the first marriage certificates to queer couples “bursting with pride.” “The Coming Storm” cunningly counterpoints a meteorological disturbance with orgasmic love and passion: “Outside nasty weather/Inside nasty women.”

Lovely truly is a lovely read and a reminder that the most personal poetry can simultaneously speak to our collective lives, bodies, and histories. 


Helene Meyers is Professor of English and McManis University Chair at Southwestern University in Texas. The author of three books, most recently Identity Papers: Contemporary Narratives of American Jewishness, she is currently at work on a project about Jewish American movies. Her more journalistic work has appeared in Lilith, Tablet, Forward, Ms. Magazine Blog, the Washington Independent Review of Books, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and Inside Higher Education. Find her on Twitter: @helene_meyers


The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.

 

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December 21, 2017 by

7 Jewish Feminist Highlights of 2017

2017 has been a doozy of a year. It’s tempting to fall into despair or to become inured to news that goes from bad to worse. But we need to resist and to persist—and to do that, we need sustenance. The following have functioned as Jewish feminist manna for me this year, and I hope that Lilith readers find these 7 highlights of 2017 nourishing as well. (For those curious, 7 is the number associated with creation and blessing in Jewish tradition!) 

1) Thanks to a lawsuit brought by Renee Rabinowitz, a retired lawyer and Holocaust survivor in her 80s, El Al airlines will no longer be able to ask women to change their seats to accommodate ultra-Orthodox men. As someone who wrestled with such a request on my first trip to Israel, I am inspired by Rabinowitz’s pursuit of justice and gender equality. 

2) Jewish feminists had a banner year at the movies, with Gal Gadot playing Wonder Woman and Orthodox director Rama Burshtein showing her range with The Wedding Plan, whose comic pathos sharply contrasts with the intensity of her 2012 Fill the Void. But my favorite flick this year was The Women’s Balcony, (directed by Emil Ben Shimon and written by Shlomit Nehama) about the religious intolerance, activism, and alliances that result when a slick but nefarious rabbi inserts himself into a spiritual void. This smart movie with heart and hope tackles the issue of Jewish communities riven by gender fundamentalism.

https://www.menemshafilms.com/womens-balcony

https://www.menemshafilms.com/womens-balcony

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October 20, 2017 by

Billie Jean Beats Bobby: Watching Battle of the Sexes in Trumpian Times

Screen Shot 2017-10-17 at 4.11.23 PMIf Hillary had won, what would it be like watching feminist and queer icon Billie Jean King beat cocky Bobby Riggs in Battle of the Sexes, the film that revisits their spectacular 1973 tennis match?

As the world is—a self-professed pussy-grabber in the White House who isn’t surprised by revelations about serial sexual harasser Harvey Weinstein, employers now having the religious right to prohibit health insurance coverage for birth control, the so-called Justice Department deciding that transgender workers are not protected from employment discrimination, white supremacists marching yet again in Charlottesville—Battle of the Sexes provides some cathartic hope as well as contemporary and historical angst.  

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July 28, 2017 by

The Misogyny of Menashe

menashe posterAt the preview of Menashe at the Manhattan JCC last Thursday, director Joshua Weinstein expressed his tongue-in-cheek hope that the title character, a Hasidic widower who wants to raise his son without remarrying, will become the second most famous Jew today (the first, of course, being Ivanka Trump). Already reviews of the film are lauding the universality found in the particular. As a lover and critic of Jewish American cinema, I eagerly anticipated Menashe. A U.S. made Yiddish-language film—how much more Jewy can we get? But after watching the film, I couldn’t shake the feeling that what is being presented as universality is really old time misogyny. 

At the JCC screening, Weinstein was asked about the representation of women in the film. Although he seemingly welcomed the question, he also got a tad bit defensive. Indicating that this was “the biggest debate” in making the film, he ultimately responded that this film was “not about a woman but a widower.” Fair enough, but there ARE women on the margins of the film and most of them are cast in unflattering, stereotypical roles. Menashe’s sister-in-law, who is raising Menashe’s son, is notable only for her “bad” and unimaginative cooking. A female shopper in the store at which Menashe works is obviously burdened by her large brood of children in sharp contrast to Menashe who is desperate to keep his son and who piously considers a large family a blessing. Menashe’s wife was not particularly fruitful—she bore him only one son. Notably, he expresses relief (albeit with respectable attendant guilt) that his wife died of a blood clot after undergoing in-vitro fertilization.

Yet, when Menashe pursues a potential marriage partner so that he can regain his son, she is cast as unfeeling for being ready to be married again after only four months of widowhood. She also expresses disdain for a rabbi who advocates driving for women, suggesting that women are the real policewomen of patriarchy (to be fair, we have a VERY quick scene of one of Menashe’s nieces in the background arguing that the Ruv—Yiddish for rabbi—can’t stop her from attending college). Some might argue that Weinstein’s commitments to neo-realism compel this gender trouble; after all, the film is based on the life of Menashe Lustig, the non-professional Hasidic actor who plays the title role. However, even neo-realistically inclined directors (Weinstein is a documentarian) make choices. For me, the most telling and disturbing scene is one in which Menashe bonds with Hispanic workers complaining about their wives. Welcome to the Trump era in which the universal appeal made to a larger audience is a coalition of Hasids and Hispanics doing a version of Henny Youngman’s “take my wife, please take my wife” routine.

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June 23, 2017 by

Flying While Female on El Al

aircraft-1679200_1920Jewish feminists are celebrating the ruling that El Al airlines can no longer ask women to change seats in order to accommodate Haredi men who believe it is their religious prerogative not to sit next to women. The suit arguing that such religious accommodations are gender discrimination was brought not by a young upstart but rather by an 81 year-old Holocaust survivor, Renee Rabinowitz, with the support of the Reform Movement’s Israel Religious Action Center. According to the Times of Israel, Rabinowitz changed her seat at a flight attendant’s request but the wrongness of the request rankled her.  

Dana Cohen-Lekah, Jerusalem’s Magistrate Court Judge, was unambiguous in her judgment: “Under absolutely no circumstances can a crew member ask a passenger to move from their designated seat because the adjacent passenger doesn’t wasn’t [sic] to sit next to them due to their gender…. The policy is a direct transgression of the law preventing discrimination.” Hopefully, this ruling will end the disruptions and delays that often attend demands for gender-segregated seating.  

Renee Rabinowitz’s legal triumph reminded me of the Jewish feminist anguish that I experienced on an El Al flight several years ago.

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May 31, 2017 by

Serious Missteps in Dirty Dancing Remake

Screen Shot 2017-05-31 at 4.21.25 PMI was critically warned not to watch ABC’s remake of “Dirty Dancing”. But I’m a Jewish feminist film critic, so I don’t simply follow directions.  I also know that remakes are notoriously and often unfairly judged only in relation to the idolized original. So I wanted to see for myself the 2017 reinterpretation of this iconic 1987 film about a Jewish smart girl who discovers that she has a body as well as a mind.  

Thank the Goddess, I didn’t watch it with commercials on Wednesday night, but I did give in to movie masochism over the Memorial Day weekend, courtesy of Hulu. Much as I would just like to forget about this astonishingly bad film, I think the specific left feet of this remake demands attention through a Jewish feminist lens.  

Yes, as many professional critics and lay viewers note, the dancing is uneven at best, abysmal at worst, and I agree with the tweeter who suggested that Patrick Swayze must be turning over in his grave. Yes, the decision to have the 2017 Baby/Francis (Hannah Breslin) and Johnny (Colt Prattes) sing as well as dance doesn’t inspire confidence in the aesthetic vision undergirding this film. But it’s what the film does to Jewish smart girls and to feminist politics in 2017 that is depressingly instructive.  

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April 12, 2017 by

Cinematic Sustenance for a Jewish Feminist Exodus

zoe-francis

Arranged

Let’s face it: the U.S. today is looking a lot like Mitzrahim, the narrow straits of Egypt from which the Israelites needed to be liberated. Jews and Muslims increasingly feel the binds of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. Legislators are trying to turn bathroom stalls and doctors’ offices into new borders to police. The Statue of Liberty weeps as the Trump administration tries to make deportations, bans, and walls the law of the land.

Jon Stewart got it right when he called out the Trump presidency for being exhausting and reminded us that “the presidency is supposed to age the president, not the public.” At Passover, we ritually re-enact the journey from slavery to freedom. This year especially, we need to resist exchanging one narrow place for another. This is a moment for alliance politics, even as resistance fatigue becomes a clear and present danger. For me, beloved indie films from my recent and distant past provide sustenance; they energize, engage, and re-educate my intersectional Jewish feminist soul for the long political journey ahead.

So let me share a list of five flix worth watching or re-watching. They’re fun and/or hopeful without being fluff. All of these picks speak to the present moment as they forge identity and alliance politics in often counterintuitive ways (news flash: those two forms of politics aren’t oxymoronic, despite what the likes of Mark Lilla might have us believe; see airport protests in response to the first Muslim ban as evidence of this). May such cinematic comfort food help us to productively and empathetically cross the borders of interlocking liberation movements.

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December 30, 2016 by

Celebrating 7 Jewish “Nasty Women” of 2016

One of the many low points of this year occurred when Donald tried to diss Hillary by calling her a “nasty woman.”  Yet feminists across the country immediately rebranded his intended insult: we knew that Donald’s “nasty woman” is one who talks back to bullies, who is competent and in command of facts, and who tweets for a better and more perfect union for all of us. 

Jewish feminists in particular have lots of experience reclaiming the insults meant to silence us.  In keeping with Lilith’s tradition of praising big-mouthed Jewish women, let’s celebrate seven of the Jewish “nasty women” who made news in 2016 (7 is the number associated with creation and blessing in Jewish tradition).  May their collective work inspire us to each do our part to repair a very broken world. 

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November 22, 2016 by

Shiva Ribbons, Not Safety Pins

Taking a cue from those coping with Brexit across the pond, political fashionistas are sporting safety pins as a sign of alliance with those feeling even more vulnerable than usual after the election: immigrants, Muslims, people of color, women of all colors, lgbtq folks, to name just a few.  As Bex Taylor-Klaus tweeted, “My #SafetyPin shows I will protect those who feel in danger bc of gender, sexuality, race, disability, religion, etc.  You are safe with me.” 

The safety pin movement is, of course, well-intentioned.  It seeks to acknowledge diverse forms of privilege.  Although those who view a vote for Trump as a hate crime against the republic are all in this together, the safety pin police rightly affirm that some are more immediately affected by a Trump presidency than others, that we’re not all feeling the same sort of terror.  Yet this show of solidarity strikes me as misguided and even offensive for many reasons.  It’s not only “embarrassing” and fastens over the fact that white people overwhelmingly voted for Trump, as Christopher Keelty has argued.  It’s also paternalistic and presumptuous.  Individual promises to protect one another are largely empty when it comes to mob and state-sanctioned forms of violence against classes of people.  As history teaches us—over and over again—the kindness of strangers simply isn’t adequate when a cozy band of puppeteers that includes the likes of Stephen Bannon take control of democratic institutions and allow them to run amok.  

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