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The Lilith Blog

January 9, 2020 by

After She Lost Her Father, She Found Him

Screen Shot 2020-01-06 at 5.01.31 PMIn More Than Words (Putnam), Jill Santopolo’s newest novel, Nina Gregory faces a double loss—the death of her beloved father and the shattering of her illusions when she discovers that he wasn’t at all the man she thought he was. Santopolo talks with Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about what she and her protagonist share—and what they don’t.

YZM: Your mother is Jewish and your father was Christian; how did that shape your characters? 

JS: In my novel, More Than Words, two of the main characters have parents from different places with differing traditions. Nina’s mother’s family is from Greece and her father’s family is from Wales, and Rafael’s mother’s family is from Ireland and his father’s family is from Cuba. Nina and Rafael connect, at one point in the book, when they talk about what it means to feel that duality of identity. That experience, of dual identity, is something that I felt growing up–and still feel today–and the conversation they have was inspired by one that I had with my husband, whose background is the same as mine but reversed. Even though I’ve written many other books, this is the first time that I wrote about that experience, and even though Nina and Rafael’s dual identities don’t match my own, the essence of what it feels like to have a family that’s not simply one thing or another is the same.  

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The Lilith Blog

January 8, 2020 by

The Power of Humor for Smashing the Patriarchy

Screen Shot 2020-01-06 at 5.04.48 PMMost attorneys don’t moonlight as a humorists, so Lori B. Duff’s new collection of essays,  If You Did What I Asked in the First Place (Deeds Publishing), may just be a first of its kind.  Duff talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about her unusual professional pairing. 

YZM: How do the jobs of lawyer and comic coexist in your life?

LBD: I feel sorry for lawyers without a sense of humor. I feel like those two things are the Yin and Yang of my life. They balance each other out. The law can be so harsh. No one thinks, “I’m having the best day of my life. I think I’m going to go see my lawyer.”  People come to talk to me professionally when they are at their lowest: when someone has died, when their marriages are breaking apart, or when they are in financial trouble. When you focus on those things for 40 or more hours a day, you start thinking the entire world is tragedy. It’s important to balance that by thinking about the opposite of tragedy, which is comedy. When you add to that the maxim that comedy is tragedy plus time, they are natural partners.    

YZM: What are the unique features of women’s humor? Jewish humor? Jewish women’s humor?

LBD: Women’s humor and Jewish humor both tend to be self-deprecating. Women and Jews both, in American society, tend not to be in positions of power. They are both groups that have traditionally been excluded from — to quote Broadway’s “Hamilton” — “The Room Where it Happens.” Historically, we haven’t been allowed to be members of the Country Clubs and smoky back rooms where real power sits. That’s the tragedy. The genius of comedy, if you can make it work, is taking tragedy and holding it up to a funhouse mirror so it’s no longer scary, but rather funny. Like the “Riddikulus” spell in Harry Potter that takes something horribly frightening and turns it into something ridiculous. In this way, women, and Jewish women in particular, can take their status as second-class citizens and instead of whining and crying about it, they can make it funny.  It’s a good way to be heard: People listen to jokes more than they listen to complaints, even when the substance is the same. Things are better than they were, of course. We have three female Supreme Court Justices now and female CEOs, and no one will say out loud, at least, that they won’t let Jews in their clubs. But the world is still based on who you know more than what you know, and finding a way to be heard when your granddaddy didn’t know someone else’s granddaddy to get a foot in the door is tough.  Humor can do that.

YZM: Who are your role models in the legal world? How about in the world of comedy?

LBD: I’d be lying if I said I didn’t admire the heck out of Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Those are obvious choices, though. I’m equally impressed with people who make waves on a smaller scale.  I’m friends with the first female attorney in the county where I live. Imagine how scary that must have been! We’re still waiting for the first female Superior Court Judge, which seems stunning in 2019. As for comedy, I am in absolute awe of people like Carol Burnett and Erma Bombeck. They seem somewhat old-fashioned now, but they were such groundbreakers. No one had ever done what they did before. They had tremendous talent and ovaries and no role models whatsoever. It’s hard to imagine them in 2019 as subversive, but that’s what they were in their own time.  

YZM: Do you plan to follow up with another book?

LBD: Of course! I’ve already got enough material for another book of essays, but I think I may wait a little bit before putting it together. I’ve got the outline and about 25 percent of a novel written, and the idea for a sequel put together in my head. I also have the research done for a book tentatively titled, “The Plain English Legal Guide for Writers.” What I really need is a month in a cabin somewhere all by myself and I can knock it out. I type about 100 words a minute, and I write in my head all the time. By the time I sit at the computer, it’s just a matter of transcribing what is already written, so it doesn’t take long to do. The trick is being left alone with nothing else pressing, which is no small task.  

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The Lilith Blog

January 7, 2020 by

How Women Can Get Over Our Fear of Asking for Money

“People will go to jail for things they believe in, but they’re often afraid to ask someone for money,” Marjorie Fine says. This is why she travels the country, teaching grassroots, social justice activists the ins-and-outs of raising money from both foundations and individual donors. For women in particular, asking for money and raising it can provide unique challenges, making Fine’s expertise particularly useful.

Fine learned her craft as a development staffer at a host of organizations: The National Council of Jewish Women, The North Star Fund, the Unitarian Universalist Veatch Program at Shelter Rock, The Center for Community Change, and the now-defunct Reproductive Rights National Network.

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The Lilith Blog

January 7, 2020 by

The Fake Abortion Clinics That Mislead Patients

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You’re well aware of the dire state of reproductive justice in the United States. You know that recent legislative moves such as the so-called “Heartbeat Bills” and the reduction of funding for Planned Parenthood severely threaten the lives of all folks capable of pregnancy or experiencing health conditions that affect the female reproductive system. 

But there’s another threat to reproductive justice which works in tandem with these laws. Because even as abortion access gets choked by a million restrictions, Crisis Pregnancy Centers proliferate.

CPCs, also known as “fake abortion clinics” or, euphemistically, “Pregnancy Resource Centers” are essentially anti-choice hubs of misinformation. Often located in close proximity to an abortion-providing women’s health center such as Planned Parenthood, they aim to reach pregnant, option-seeking people before they make the choice to terminate. Many are religiously affiliated. However, as nonprofit organizations, they are also eligible to receive Title X funding.

In New York City, CPCs must adhere to legal guidelines intended to ensure that visitors are aware that they are not entering an abortion clinic, or even a medical center. New York City Local Law 17 requires these offices to display disclosure statements in both English and Spanish, advising visitors that they do not employ licensed medical professionals, and thus conveying that they will be receiving social services, but not medical services. However, Centers outside of NYC are entirely unregulated, as they are not technically medical centers or businesses. Even so, they can and do interfere with the health of their “patients.”

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The Lilith Blog

January 6, 2020 Mónica Gomery

How Singing (Yes, Singing!) Can Create Radical Jewish Accessibility

LMPS_Philly-13There’s a Hasidic story about a man who lived in Poland, renowned across the country for the fervor of his prayers. So stirring was his reputation that the Baal Shem Tov decided one day to travel great lengths to see this spiritual power for himself. After making a long journey, he found a shepherd boy standing on a hilltop, holding a prayerbook and calling out letters one by one. “Bet! Reish! Vav!” he cried out, on and on, and then, “Master of the Universe, this is all I can do. You know how the prayers should be pronounced. Please, arrange the letters in the proper way.”

When I first heard this story, I recognized myself in it, and countless people I know: those of us for whom Jewish education and Jewish life has not always been accessible. Those of us filled with a hunger to express ourselves, to cry out in prayer, and to contribute, who didn’t start out knowing how to piece the letters together —metaphorically or literally.  I’ve devoted my adult life and my rabbinate to creating spaces where people like me, like this fabled shepherd boy, can access Jewish tradition and thrive. Because, as this story reminds us, brilliance and creativity aren’t dependent on literacy. God receives us as we are, judging not our level of knowledge but rather the depths of our hearts. And as it turns out, one key to finding that space is through music.

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The Lilith Blog

December 31, 2019 Dove Kent

Can We Cut Off Antisemitism at its Roots?

526493DB-2386-4875-B9FD-82A2A5AD1A07On the antisemitic attack in Monsey:

Last night I had a dream that it was finally time to harvest the root vegetables. In the dream, they had been left too long in the ground, and they were starting to rot.

I woke up, dressed, and went outside to harvest. I wasn’t too late. The first radish, round and bright and pink, allayed my fears. I spent the morning digging up the roots, rinsing them clean, putting them into containers to store. Then I checked the news.

Hasidic Jews in New York attacked with a machete inside their Rabbi’s home on Chanukah. The ninth antisemitic attack in New York during this week. Visibly Jewish people bearing the violent brunt of the story told about all Jews: that we are the ultimate source of people’s suffering. And that by harming us, killing us, that suffering will be alleviated.

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The Lilith Blog

December 31, 2019 Liba Vaynberg

On Christmas, and Confusion

Passing. There’s no time like the holidays for it. Passing plates. Passing on obligations and invitations. Passing by the Salvation Army jingles and tourists gawking at Macy’s holiday window displays. And passing by all the trees, wrapped up and dreaming of living rooms.

Suddenly, nothing is secular, so everything is secular. I usually don’t listen to music through headphones—music was made for orchestras and turntables and studios and theaters and speakers. But in December, I do. It’s cold, it’s lonely, and there’s a whole catalogue of carols written to address the temperature and the accompanying existential squall. And all the best songs were written by Jews, of course. So, I put in my headphones and join my ancestors and pass.

When I was in fifth grade, I wrote a report about Irving Berlin. I chose him randomly—I browsed the biography shelves after my immigrant parents, who had waited to get the internet until it became necessary, dropped me off at the library. I remember opening a book and seeing a menorah on the first page and reading something about his Russian roots. Perfect, I thought. He’s just like my dad, this’ll be easy. White Christmas meant nothing to me at the time—I didn’t see it until this year and only because I’ve been consumed by religious inversions recently. 

Hanukkah wouldn’t exist without Christmas. It’s been plucked out of scriptural obscurity and magnified to give Jews something to do. Or rather, something to buy, should we not succumb to the cheerful Christmas monolith. I don’t mean to deride the monolith—I mean to define it. I mean to trace its edges and describe its shape in a way that only certain kinds of outsiders can. Jews occupy a particular intersectional niche: we are frequently able to pass and comment both from the inside and the outside on what we see.

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The Lilith Blog

December 27, 2019 by

After Loss, a Devotion to Those Afflicted by AIDS

Not long after nurse and public health activist Elena Schwolsky’s husband, Clarence Fitch, died of AIDS in 1990, she left her job at a Newark, New Jersey, pediatric AIDS clinic, enrolled in graduate school, and went to Cuba to study the island’s AIDS treatment protocols and meet people living with the virus. The result of her six-month stay is the recently released Waking in Havana: A Memoir of AIDS and Healing in Cuba (She Writes Press).

Both deeply personal and deeply political, the book is a reflection on the challenges of living with HIV/AIDS and what it means to deliver humane medical care. The impact of the US embargo on Cuba and the collapse of the Soviet Union are part of the story, but Schwolsky’s focus never wavers from the individuals who are working to eradicate the disease. Likewise, people living with the virus are front-and-center in her moving, and often surprising, account.

Schwolsky sat down with Eleanor J. Bader in mid-December to discuss Waking in Havana, her ongoing AIDS work in Cuba, and the pervasive and persistent misconceptions about the island that continue to be promulgated.

Eleanor J. Bader: After working in a pediatric AIDS clinic and losing your husband to the virus, what made you want to do a deep dive into Cuba’s AIDS crisis?  

Elena Schwolsky: I did ask myself if I really wanted to put myself in a Cuban sanitorium, where every resident had the virus and would likely get sicker and sicker. But Clarence had been on the frontlines and it somehow felt comforting to share in this work. It seemed like an important battle. I also think that I had survivor’s guilt.  The universe had given me a pass and I felt committed to using my life in a way that had meaning.  It gave me an identity, and the camaraderie in the AIDS service community had an urgency that bound us together. Plus, I was curious and wanted to see how the epidemic was handled in a different place.

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The Lilith Blog

December 26, 2019 by

A Jewish Girl’s Summer Among New England WASPs

It’s 1987 and Eve Rosen, a young aspiring editor, abruptly leaves her lackluster job in New York City and decamps to Cape Cod. Once there she becomes the assistant to a well-regarded older male writer and is ushered into the kind of heady literary life she’s only been able to dream about. Author Karen Dukess talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about The Last Book Party (Henry Holt), her witty and tender debut novel.

YZM: Does Eve feel intimidated by the largely non-Jewish crowd she finds herself in withkaren dukess that summer? 

KD: Eve is definitely intimidated by this crowd, but the aspect of their difference from her own background that most unsettles her – and also attracts her – is not that they are not Jewish, but that they are writers and artists. Eve believes that if she had been born into a literary world instead of the conventional, upper-middle class, professional world of her family, her path to becoming a writer would be smoother. She’s comfortable with people like her parents who read The New Yorker (or just subscribe and let it pile up) but she is intimidated by people who write for The New Yorker. Everything about this crowd is “other” to Eve – they are accomplished, sophisticated and worldly in a way that Eve yearns to be. That they are mostly WASPy is just one more factor of difference.

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The Lilith Blog

December 19, 2019 by

Maiden, Sorceress and Stepmother on Stage, Yiddish-Style

Image courtesy of National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene

Image courtesy of National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene

I was a little skeptical when I learned that the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene—the company that brought us the excellent Yiddish “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Hannah Senesh”—was going to present “The Sorceress,” an operetta that was the first formal Yiddish theatrical production in America.  Written in 1878 by Avrom Goldfaden, it centers on an innocent young woman suffering at the hands of a devious stepmother and her cohorts, led by the evil title character, traditionally played by a man, as it is here. 

I suspected it would not be feminist. But, I thought, maybe the director and others who restored the play (a massive effort) and created this version find ways to make demeaning stereotypes more palatable for modern audiences.  

Or did the play (“Di Kishemakherin” in Yiddish) actually already depict strong Jewish women in a powerful and provocative way? Was it feminist in 1878 and is it feminist in 2019?

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