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April 20, 2020 by

Writing Outside the Frame

What was it like to be a politically engaged young Jewish woman in 1930s Germany?
In her ambitious historical novel, The Girl with the Leica (Europa, $18), Italian novelist Helena Janeczek explores in fiction the life of Gerda Taro, a real-life photographer and an anti-Fascist activist who died at the age of 27 while covering the Spanish Civil War. Janeczek creates a complex portrait of Taro and her friends—a group of German and East European Jews who came of age in the years leading up to World War II.

At the center of the novel is Taro (born Greta Pohorylle) whose specter haunts the three friends and lovers narrating her life. While still a teenager Taro was arrested for distributing anti-Nazi leaflets in Leipzig. Defying convention, she had several love affairs and worked as a typist. By the start of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, Taro had become an accomplished
photographer. Along with her partner André Friedmann, known as Robert Capa, she documented the war with an unflinching eye, supplying the world with jarring images of modern warfare.

And yet after her death Taro was remembered only as Capa’s partner, her work largely forgotten. The first exhibition of her photographs was organized in 2007, 70 years after her death. The novel opens with a captivating prologue featuring photographs of Spanish militiamen in moments of leisure. In the first two, a man and a woman smile flirtatiously at one another, a rifle propped in the man’s arm and his military cap. Capa and Taro, we are told, saw something of themselves in this couple when they photographed them.

These photographs can serve as a metaphor to Janeczek’s indirect approach to her subject. Instead of following the prologue with a more intimate portrait of Taro, the novel takes the reader to Buffalo, New York, several decades after the war. Buffalo is home to Dr. Willy Chardack, who’d been known in Gerda’s set as the Dachshund. Though Willy was briefly Gerda’s lover, his love for her was mostly unrequited. Now a respected researcher and family man, Chardack remembers Gerda as a fearless activist and a consummate “modern” woman, possessing “unreal, cinematic elegance”— but, surprisingly, not a photographer.

The next chapter, told from the perspective of Gerda’s friend Ruth Cerf, paints a fuller portrait of the protagonist. Here Gerda is still a glamorous socialite, but Ruth sees the ambition underneath that exterior. Remembering Gerda’s remark about a new job at the Photo Alliance, Ruth reflects: “[T]hat small woman who attracts every gaze, that incarnation of elegance, femininity, coquetterie, and no one would ever suspect that she reasons, feels, and acts like a man.”

Not long after, with Friedmann’s support, Gerda takes up photography in earnest. The recent invention of the first portable camera, the Leica, allows photographers to capture events as they happen. The young couple excels in this new type of photography, which is as thrilling as it is remunerative.

Shortly before the beginning of the Spanish Civil War the couple decides to change their names. Friedmann becomes Capa and Pohorylle becomes Taro. In Janeczek’s reimagining, the idea is entirely Gerda’s. It’s obvious that the names mask the couple’s Jewishness; but, thinking like a publicist, Gerda also chooses names that sound American and are reminiscent of contemporary celebrities.

In the ensuing dialogue the characters reflect on identity, but say little about the
Jewish identity that they leave behind. Despite being one generation away from
the shtetl, Gerda apparently doesn’t view Jewishness as central to her identity. Like
her comrade and lover Georg Kuritzkes, Gerda resists Fascism not, primarily,
because of its consequences for the Jews, but out of a universalist socialist ethos.
Such ideals captivate Gerda much more than her parents’ religion.

In the last chapter, which gives us Georg’s view, Gerda’s portrait coheres. Troubled by Gerda’s wartime photography, both Georg and Ruth try to imagine their friend on the battlefield. “I don’t understand what she felt. Hardly any fear, O.K. And then?” Ruth asks years later. And Georg reflects that “The war … changed Gerda, just as it changed everyone, civilians and, much more, the men at the front. And why shouldn’t a woman who went to the front almost every day resemble a soldier?” For Ruth, Gerda’s work represents political commitment and an ability to remain “ein Mensch.” Georg, on the other hand, affirms that Gerda “had become a photojournalist,” determined to document “the things that needed to be shown.”

While I wish that Janeczek had focused more on the historical aspects of Gerda’s life—her Jewish identity, her proto-feminism—this portrayal of reminds us that before the concentration camps forced a monolithic, tragic fate on millions of Jews, Europe’s Jews forged identities apart from ethnicity or religion, just as many do today.

Polina Kroik is the author of Cultural Production and the Politics of Women’s Work. She teaches at Baruch College, CUNY.

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April 20, 2020 by

A Journey of Mourning, and Exploration

All My Mother’s Lovers (Dutton, $27), the debut novel from Ilana Masad comes with a disclaimer in the dedication: “To Ima/Andi, who is not the mother in this book,” as well as a dedication to her father, in Hebrew.

The book opens with Maggie, having sex with her girlfriend, getting the call that her mother  Iris has died.

After Iris dies, Maggie returns to her parents’ house, where her brother still lives. Cleaning out her mother’s documents, she finds five sealed envelopes, addressed to men Maggie has never heard of. In her will, Iris directs that the letters be sent out in the event of her untimely death. Maggie decides to deliver the envelopes herself.

Maggie feels Iris never really understood her or approved of her sexuality, and had a very specific picture of who her mother was: dedicated to work and family, straitlaced, faithful. But during shiva, Maggie finds out that Iris was previously married to a man who abused her; only part of what Maggie doesn’t know about her mother.

Delivering the letters and talking with the men receiving them, Maggie begins
to get a bigger, more layered picture of Iris. What appears, shockingly, as a series
of extramarital affairs and relationships slowly unfolds into a more nuanced explanation of Iris and her choices. “Maggie can half recognize her, but not fully.”

How often do children, even grown children, really know their parents? This is a book that takes an unflinching look at sexuality and its role in our lives: how it builds bridges, burns them, and changes how others view us and how we relate to others. For some, it even changes the trajectory of their lives.

Jaime Herndon is a writer and editor, and is working on an essay collection.

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April 20, 2020 by

Israel’s Women on the Margins

With Israel’s political woes blanketing the news these days, it’s hard to remember
how multi-layered and complex a country it is. Its modern society was created by socialist pioneers, who struggled, somewhat successfully, to create economic and gender-egalitarian new communities. After statehood, Israel took in Jews from Arab lands and tried to integrate them, less successfully, into that developing society. More recently, Israel’s latest challenge has been absorbing hundreds of thousands of Russian immigrants with minimal, if any ties to Judaism or Jewish life. Three new academic books written and compiled by feminist Israeli academics address these particular facets of the challenges and shortcomings of the Jewish state.

When the State Winks: The Performance of Jewish Conversion in Israel, by Michal Kravel-Tovi. (Columbia University Press, $65) is a detailed ethnography. Anthropologist Michal Kravel-Tovi focuses on how and why Israel’s state bureaucracy is involved in managing the religious conversion of immigrants (mostly young women) from the former Soviet Union (FSU), mostly women because under traditional Jewish law the religion of the mother determines her child’s religion.

Kravel-Tovi engaged in three years of research from 2004–2007, during which she sat in on conversion classes, rabbinic conversion court proceedings, and ritual immersions in a mikveh. She interviewed teachers, rabbis, judges, and women who were in the process of converting through Israel’s state-sponsored Orthodox system.

Kravel-Tovi begins by describing how and why Jewish conversion has become part of what she terms “Zionist biopolitical policy” in Israel—using conversion of former FSU women to increase Israel’s Jewish population. Her focus is how the conversion candidates and the state agents—the conversion educators rabbinic court judge—handle the contradictory forces of Israel’s conversion policy. All parties, she argues, are concerned with issues of role-play, sincerity, and suspicion, demonstrating how all parties collaborate to put on believable conversion “performances.” The final chapter features the personal narratives of the conversion candidates, who must present personal statements to the rabbinic court that lend sincerity to their conversion process.

Many of the female potential converts have paradoxical Israeli-Jewish identities. While not considered Jewish according to Orthodox halacha, many grew up in Israel believing they were Jewish (and came to Israel under the Law of Return because of Jewish family connections). Invited to immigrate by the State of Israel, but then excluded from full membership in Israeli Jewish civic and religious life, most of the former FSU women find themselves in a painful no-woman’s-land labeled the harsh exclusionary Hebrew term goya (non-Jew/gentile) in Israeli society until they convert. One senior rabbi in the rabbinic conversion court compared these non-Jewish women in Israel to landmines: “…The foreign women will marry and have children, loyal citizens of Israel. It is a commandment to clear away such mines.”

In Concrete Boxes: Mizrahi Women on Israel’s Periphery (Wayne State University Press, $36) feminist anthropologist Pnina Motzafi-Haller of Ben Gurion University documents the lives of five Mizrahi women from the economically struggling development town of Yerucham, in Israel’s Negev. An activist who lived in the U.S. for almost two decades before returning to Israel, Motzafi-Haller published the Hebrew version of this book in 2012, as she wanted it to be read and discussed within Israel. The book was adapted into a play produced by the Dimona Theater, which traveled with the production around Israel for two years, dramatizing for an even wider audience the issues in Mizrahi women’s lives.

The five women featured in the book all have different approaches for dealing with the “concrete boxes” that have trapped them in Yerucham. Nurit is a single mother on welfare whose former husband was addicted to drugs; she worked many jobs to support her family. Nurit maintains dignity and finds meaning in her life through family events such as her son’s bar mitzvah. Efrat, another mother, becomes increasingly religiously observant as a way to deal with her life’s challenges. Her increased religiosity opens up opportunities for economic mobility and respectability, including a better job in a middle-class community, more than a secular education provides.

Rachel is considered a successful Yerucham resident despite her challenging background—coming from a poor family, married as a teen before finishing high school, having four children and then divorcing her abusive husband. She moves between middle-class and working-class settings, often as a representative of her community, but she is limited in her ability to juggle the different cultural nuances each group demands. Esti, “the rebel,” goes against communal norms by refusing to marry, have children or keep a job. While choosing a non-traditional path for a Mizrahi woman is freeing for her, it also leads to isolation and economic hardship. Gila, the author’s neighbor in Sde Boker grew up in Yerucham, but was able to leave her birthplace and create a middle-class, educated, professional life after leaving.

Sylvie Fogiel-Bijaoui and Rachel Sharaby have edited Dynamics of Gender Borders: Women in Israel’s Cooperative Settlements (Walter de Gruyter GmbH, & Hebrew University Magnes Press, $115)

Israel’s signature collective settlements, kibbutzim and moshavim, were based on ideals of gender equality and that of a new, egalitarian, socialist society in a new land. Kibbutzim were characterized by the communal features of formerly private domestic spaces—children’s houses, and communal kitchens, dining rooms and laundry. Moshavim were socialist agricultural communities that combined elements of individual and collective living, based on family farms. Yet, as the studies in this edited collection, show despite innovations in child-rearing practices, religious life, and labor, for women in these utopian communities, gender equality was still elusive.

The first section of the book collects women’s experiences in the pre-State period, including unique research on kibbutz mothers who wrote in secret diaries of their pain at being separated from their children raised collectively in children’s houses, pain they had to hide for fear of being seen as opposed to gender equality and the new society they were building. Another chapter explores mothers on moshavim who felt compelled to break gender constraints and fight against fascism by enlisting in British forces in the Middle East during World War II. They write of their pride in serving, but also of the sacrifice to their families and communities. On religious kibbutzim, women grew frustrated as rabbis debated whether they were allowed to wear shorts or pants while doing agricultural work, exemplifying the conflict between traditional constraints and the new, collectivist kibbutz.

In the book’s second section, we get a closer view of the period after the founding of the State. Various factors—the declining status of the labor settlement movement; the waves of immigrants from Asia, North Africa and Europe that presented many absorption challenges to Israel and the collective settlements; and Israel’s integration into the global neo-liberal economy and the processes of privatization—led to valuing individualism in the kibbutzim and moshavim. Changes arrived, but not gender equality. Articles describe how Mizrahi women immigrants integrated into moshavim, how economic and labor changes to kibbutzim and moshavim in modern times affected women, and how second-generation kibbutz mothers, rebelling against their experiences as children, pushed to make kibbutzim more family-oriented, by pressing for such “radical” changes as family meals and family sleeping arrangements.

All these books deal with people who have been on the margins of Israeli society. Together, they paint a devastating but important picture of the ways reality in Israel has failed to live up to ideals.

Susan Sapiro is a researcher and writer for nonprofits, and a book critic.

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April 20, 2020 by

A Trans Boy and His Remarkable Parents

What We Will Become: A Mother, A Son, and A Journey of Transformation
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27) tells two riveting stories of transformation, in alternating chapters of sublime prose. The first is that of the author, Mimi LeMay. Raised in an Orthodox Jewish home in Israel and the U.S., she studied for years at Gateshead Seminary, the prestigious girls’ yeshiva in England, attended college in Boston and ultimately leaves behind her religious tradition, which she found stultifying, and demeaning to women. Though we may have read narratives of this sort before, the complicated details of Lemay’s own mystery-filled childhood feel very fresh.

The second story is the journey Mimi takes with Em, the pseudonym Lemay uses when referring to her child as female. Em was born a girl, but identifies strongly as a boy from the age of two. We join the loving and hyper-alert Mimi, her husband and her two other young daughters on the difficult journey they travel to help Em become Jacob a few months before his fifth birthday.

We understand that Mimi’s ability to see her child’s pain clearly and embrace the necessity for him to be himself, despite some social opprobrium, comes from her own journey away from Orthodoxy’s religious and social constraints. “Jacob my love, it is you that have transitioned us to a life less ordinary and so much more meaningful than it ever would have been. Thank you deeply for your sacred trust.” Mimi’s intent in making public this letter she wrote to her five-year-old son (and her expansion of it into this book) is to “provide comfort and strength to another mother or father with an aching heart. To provide this message. It doesn’t get better. It gets awesome.”

But do not imagine that this is a sickly-sweet portrait where everything goes smoothly. We are allowed to witness the internal confusion and despair that Mimi experiences in both of the transition stories she tells.

For Mimi, in her religious life, it is her mother, an Orthodox woman, who feels betrayed by her daughter’s choices. Their relationship, with some unexpected twists and turns shapes Mimi’s own responses as a mother. But I was most taken by Mimi’s words about her mother in the prologue:

“I am grateful for my mother, Judith. Ours is a complex love built on a complicated past, but I have no doubt that every choice she has made for her children has been true to her strong
moral compass and deep, abiding faith… I admire her. I remain wounded by her. She is a mystery I may never solve.” This description deserves its own book.

We also meet the naysayers who disagree with Mimi’s decisions about her child. Em’s loving older sister, Ella, worries about the kids who are not nice to Em, because Em is different and gender non-conforming. There is the child at a party who says “What is THAT?” pointing to Em. As Mimi explains to her daughter and to anyone who will listen, “What you are in your heart and your mind is far more important that what you are in your body.”

Early on in the journey, Mimi learns about the extremely high rate of suicide and attempted suicide in transgender youth; a recent study found that 51% of female-to-male transgender
adolescents report having attempted suicide. This fact is always with Mimi as she navigates a largely unmapped path, along with the indicators that a child’s gender transitioning is not some mere whim; the clue is that the expression of desire to be a different gender from that assigned at birth must be “insistent, persistent, and consistent.”

And then there are moments when the path is illuminated. On a family trip to Disney World, Jacob’s sisters dress as princesses, while he dresses as Prince Charming. All the Disney characters in the park see and accept him as a boy. He is elated, and for once seems comfortable in his own skin. When he is treated as a boy, his anger, his sadness, his twitchy gestures fade away. This trip, where nobody knows their child as a girl, reinforces for Mimi and her husband that the time has come to offer Em the choice to transition socially. Em becomes Jacob, starts to present as a boy outside his home, and switches to a new, supportive school. Not every child is so fortunate.

This book could not come at a more crucial time. In January 2020, the South Dakota House passed a bill that would fine or imprison pediatricians who offer gender-affirming care for trans children under the age of 16. Since then, conservative legislators in Florida, Colorado, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Kentucky have followed suit. Gender-affirming care, which is endorsed by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the American Academy of Pediatrics, supports children and their families in social transitioning (changing names, style of dress and pronouns) and offering puberty blocker medications at puberty. These medications are a reversible intervention, one that allows teens more time to confirm their identity and not experience the anguish resulting from developing secondary sex characteristics which feel alien to them. It appears the politicians in South Dakota haven’t yet read the medical literature, which shows that these interventions save lives. Children who are affirmed are much less likely to be depressed or attempt suicide. South Dakota is ground zero for this culture war, as it was the first state to pass legislation restricting transgender students’ bathroom rights. Fortunately, that bill was vetoed by the governor, but became the model for several other states where it became law.

I predict that What We Will Become will become a classic, one of those books that changes the way we, as a society, view the transgender experience, particularly the lived experience of
very young children and their families.

Nechama Liss-Levinson, PhD., is a psychologist in private practice and the author of several articles and children’s books about developmental milestones in the Jewish family, including
When a Grandparent Dies and When the Hurricane Came. This review is dedicated to the memory of Jayme Schlenker.

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April 20, 2020 by

Big Mouth, Big Ideas

Battling Bella: The Protest Politics of Bella Abzug by Leandra Ruth Zarnow (Harvard University Press, $35) is a comprehensive, sympathetic—but never hagiographic—biography of the first woman to serve as a whip in the U.S. House of Representatives, where she represented New Yorkers from 1971–1977. While the book does not shy away from highlighting Abzug’s harsh treatment of her staff, it also notes her unflinching demand for gender parity in hiring practices of political campaigns.

In addition to noting her contributions to feminist politics and movements, Zarnow also vividly describes Bella’s formidable persona (including her iconic hats and use of the phrase “Abzuglutely.”) We glimpse Abzug’s personal life through her decision to cross gender boundaries and say kaddish for her father—in 1934, when she was still a teenager—and her devastation later in life over her husband’s death.

The book deliberately situates Abzug as “a participant in the American Left,” and frequently refers to her push for social democratic policies both as an activist and as an elected congresswoman. Abzug won office in New York City as part of a wave of New Politics Democrats who were seeking to realign the Democratic Party in a more progressive direction.
The successes and failures of New Politics Democrats have defined the political landscape in the intervening years, and it is impossible when reading this biography not to hear echoes of our current political moment through its pages.

Zarnow makes this most explicit when she notes the Democratic Party’s introduction of “unelected superdelegates with voting powers in 1984 to keep insolent challenges… in check.” In effect, these unelected superdelegates were meant to curtail the more radical candidates and policies the New Politics coalition might bring up for a vote on the convention floor (e.g. their passage of a platform plank in 1980 which called for Medicaid funding of abortion). As the author mentions, the role of unelected superdelegates again caused controversy amongst a new crop of reformers in the 2016 election and was only partially reformed as a result in 2018. As the 2020 Democratic Party convention approaches, the structural impediment used to stop Abzug and others from pushing feminist politics still partially remains in place.

While it can be ahistorical to draw oo many one-to-one parallels from the past to the present, I think it is worth highlighting a few further similarities. The cadre of New Politics Democrats who were elected to Congress in the late 60s and early 70s is evocative of the “Squad” of insurgent Democratic congresswomen who won office in 2018, as is the sense of crisis motivating them. New Politics Democrats urgently sought to end the Vietnam War and avoid nuclear Armageddon with a similar fervor to how current organizers are seeking to stave off a coming climate apocalypse. The campaign calling for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY–14) to have a committee seat on Ways and Means mirrors both Abzug’s campaign to be on the Armed Services Committee in 1971 and Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm’s campaign to change her appointment away from the Agriculture Committee in 1969. Likewise, many of the same smears thrown at Abzug are similar to attacks currently leveled by the right. Particularly startling to me were the eerie parallels to the way in which attacks questioning the legitimacy of Abzug’s Jewishness parallel the smears leveled against many millennial leftwing Jewish activists, despite the divergent positions on Zionism between Abzug and many of the activists of my generation who are similarly attacked.

The 1960s and 1970s are not the 2010s and 2020s, and Zarnow effectively relays the climate and various political currents to her readership. The author advocates for re-evaluating the 1970s “not as an era of limits but as an imaginative, expansive” period. While there may be elements to this appeal worth considering, it is nevertheless inescapable that the ultimate inability of the New Politics Democrats to win a governing majority in the 1970s led away from social democracy to the consolidation of power in a neoliberal order. After losing her Senate bid in 1976, Abzug would never again return to elected office, though she had served as a Congresswoman for three terms.

The question facing those of us who share a similar vision of the world is whether our movement can avoid the same end. While Battling Bella does not provide clear answers to this question, it does provide a thorough depiction of one of the most iconic figures of the New Politics Democrats. By studying the past upon which our present is built, we can hopefully steer the course to a better future.

Amelia Dornbush works for a union in Michigan. She has previously written for Lilith and Democratic Left.

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April 20, 2020 by

The Books that Taught Me to Love My Body Hair

When I begged my mother to teach me to shave my legs, I was nine years old. “Your body hair is normal,” she said, “And it’s not healthy to worry so much about it now.” That was easy for her to say. Her pale legs never had visible hair to my eyes, whereas my legs looked more like my father’s, and my older sister’s, legs descended from my father’s people, from women like my mustachioed grandmother. My legs were as pale as my mother’s, but the hair that grew on them was blacker than the hair on my head and filled me with shame whenever a classmate pointed or laughed as the playground grew warmer and shorts became the clothing of choice for the nine-year-old set. 

Still, she taught me as best she could. And she taught me to shave my armpits, while she was at it, standing in her three-quarter bathroom, with our feet raised onto the closed toilet lid. 

I remember this in the hazy way of memory with import but without emotion. It is not a happy memory, but not sad, either. It is simply a recollection of an event. The same cannot be said of the day my so-called “best friend” held me down on her bathroom floor and shaved my rear, laughing that I had “a hairy butt,” and that no boys would want to make out with me if I didn’t “fix it.” I was 12. 

The fact that hair grew anywhere aside from my scalp and my eyebrows was an offense, and even those hairs grew thick and unruly. During sleepovers, fellow well-meaning tweens attempted to pluck the hairs along the ridge of my eyelids, and I struggled not to flinch as my eyes watered from the pain. I wanted so badly to look like them, to fit in with them, to not be my grandmother’s child, not my father’s child. I wanted to be the blond-haired nymphs of storybook illustrations. I wanted to be the models in magazines. I wanted to be everything I was not. But I was a Jewish girl with mountains of unruly black curls, breasts and hips erupting from my body in unwanted rounds, thick- calved, short, covered in hair that felt as thick as a pelt, unacceptable. 

Just as strong as the memory of being shaved and humiliated is the memory of my first reading of The Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley, when I was 13. Early in those pages, a teenaged Morgaine lies nude beside a man, and he plays with the fine black hairs on her thighs. On her thighs! I had never believed that having such hair was allowed, let alone capable of being the source of desire. I had to set the book down and breathe for many minutes before I could continue. The hair on my body, that had so shamed me through my early adolescence, was supposed to grow. 

How was I to know this was normal? I had never seen a woman with hair on her thighs. In every trip to the beach or pool, every hypersexualized close-up in television or film, every Calvin Klein ad in a magazine, no woman had ever displayed hair on her thighs. 

I stopped shaving. I embraced my body hair. I was fortunate that this coincided with the Lilith Fair, and a world in which women appeared in new magazines with hair under their arms and on their legs. In my school and on MTV they were usually the source of ridicule, yes, but those women didn’t seem to care. I went to my first rock concert, Ani Difranco, and the women around me had hair on their bodies, and with the thickets of their armpits and shins visible, they danced in the grass without shame. When I slipped off my overshirt and raised my arms in the air, hair visible beneath, nobody flinched. Nobody heckled. I was simply a girl in a crowd of girls and women, still darker and thicker and hairier than most, but at that moment I was all I had ever wanted. I was just like any other girl. 

Puberty however, does not stop only because you make peace with some parts of it. As I neared the end of my teen years, the dreaded mustache of my grandmother began to make its appearance. I plucked, when I could tolerate the pain, and covered up with makeup when I thought I might be seen. I walked aisles of bleaching products, hair removal creams, women’s razors, and loathed myself both for wanting to try them and for being unable to spare the expense. 

And then a college professor assigned War and Peace. As I read, again I experienced that thunderclap understanding, of being seen, the awareness that my whole life I had been lied to about what was natural, what was beautiful, and what was real. Tolstoy described his ingenue, his lovely young romantic lead, as having a beautiful black mustache. 

Though my affection for both writers, Zimmer Bradley and Tolstoy, has been greatly diminished by learning the details of their deeply problematic lives, I still owe them my gratitude. That I came to a place in my life where the validation of men does not consume my self-esteem is thanks to these glimpses of bodies untouched by the modern expectations of sexuality. 

I could be a woman with hairy legs and arms, with thick brows and a mustache, and I could be beautiful. 

So when my daughters beg me to teach them to shave their legs and their armpits, I will teach them. But I will also read The Mists of Avalon and War and Peace with them, and walk before them to the pool with my legs covered in black hair, with the dark corners of my upper lip unplucked, despite their second-hand adolescent shame. 

For now, while they are small, I spin around after the shower, my towel barely obscuring my lumpy, short, puckered, scarred, frizzy, hairy, perfect body, and I say to them, “Doesn’t it feel good to know how beautiful we are?” 

Lea Grover is a work-from-home mother, writer, and member of the RAINN Speakers Bureau 

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January 10, 2019 by

How Books Invent Us

Screen Shot 2019-01-10 at 11.52.45 AMIn the introduction to What to Read and Why (HarperCollins, $23.99), Francine Prose recalls a family vacation during her eighth-grade summer in which she sat in the back seat of her parents’ car reading a collection of Gothic tales. Her parents pleaded with her to “just look at the Grand Canyon,” but to no avail: “I was somewhere else: near Pisa in 1823, listening to a man and woman have the type of conversations that I hoped to have someday with a handsome (and preferably aristocratic) stranger.” John Milton’s observation that “a mind is its own place” was also internalized at a young age by Pamela Paul, who writes in My Life with Bob (Henry Holt, $16) about how the books she read enabled her to inhabit two places simultaneously: “There’s where I was physically, sitting in the cat-wallpapered room I’d ambitiously decorated in the second grade or at a leftover table in the high school cafeteria—and then there was where I lived in my mind, surround- ed by my chosen people, conversing with aplomb in carefully appointed drawing rooms or roaming in picturesque fashion across windswept English landscapes.”

Prose and Paul, along with Jill Bialosky in Poetry Will Save Your Life (Atria, $24), offer us a window into “the lives we read”—Paul’s term for the parallel lives we lead through the books we read. Paul, the current editor of the New York Times Book Review, whose “life is engulfed with books,” introduces us to Bob, the nick- name for her Book of Books—a bound notebook containing a list of every book she has read since her junior year in high school. She explores how various entries in Bob offer her a window into episodes in her life—growing up in 1980s suburban Long Island in a house that was formerly a library, studying abroad in France, working in a bookstore, living independently in Thailand, surviving a failed early marriage that gave way to romance and motherhood, and working as the Book Review editor of The New York Times.

Paul’s book reads as if she wrote it by matching the narrative of her life to the various books she read at the time, whereas Jill Bialosky’s Poetry Will Save Your Life seems to work the other way, retroactively assigning poems to various life experiences. “Poetry follows me to Hebrew school on Saturday mornings when the rabbi reads from the Song of Solomon,” she asserts in a chapter about the recitation of Psalm 23 at her grandmother’s funeral. Both Paul and Bialosky’s books are bibliomemoirs, showcasing how the literature we read becomes deeply personal when it is contextualized by our experiences. In contrast, Prose’s book is primarily a collection of her book reviews and her introductions to re-issued classics, showcasing her formidable critical prowess. Even those chapters that were not originally book reviews—an essay about “ten things that art can do,” or a primer in writing clearly—essentially function like good book reviews, serving as “a way of tell- ing people—strangers—about something terrific I think they should read. Drop everything. Start reading. Now.”

Prose’s What to Read and Why, in spite of its no-nonsense title, is the most cerebral of the three. While most of the chapters focus on specific works of literature, they are laden with gems that o er us new ways of thinking more broadly about what we read and why: “To say that we try to avoid art that is depress- ing or disturbing is a back- handed compliment to its power to affect us.” Bialosky would undoubtedly agree. Several of the dozens of poems she quotes in full in her book are depressing and disturbing, serving to illuminate episodes such as her mother’s desperation as a young widow with three small daughters to support and raise, her stepfather’s abandonment, her sister’s suicide. And yet one can- not help but sense that the depth of feeling in the poems outstrips the emotions Bialosky recollects, leaving the reader wishing that Bialosky—herself a poet and a book editor— had allowed herself to dive deeper into the wreck. For this we need Pamela Paul, who offers us the deeper intimacy that we as readers crave from memoirists: we understand why only the yellow-covered Nancy Drews would do, and we too are crestfallen when her daughter initially refuses to read on in the A Wrinkle in Time trilogy, and we are tempted to start our own book of books to log our read- ing—that is, unless we already have one. (Mine is electronic and more heavily annotated. My life with E-bob, perhaps.)

Prose, Paul, and Bialosky share a sense that literature is at once a way of escaping our lives, and a guide for how best to live them. Prose describes reading as a refuge from the cares and concerns of her everyday life, and Paul speaks of the books she read a child as a “kind of secondhand rebellion, a safe way to go o the rails.” Bialosky explains where we go following that derailment: “Like a map to an unknown city a poem might lead you toward an otherwise unreached experience; but once you’ve reached it, you recognize it immediately.” None of these authors seems to have much use for self-help, finding consolation and wisdom instead in poetry (Bialosky), or in “the dark, sad memoirs of darker, sadder people” (Paul), or in the power of literature to serve as “the dri wood humans cling to when they worry, as they always have, that our species is drowning” (Prose). Presumably all three would agree with Czeslaw Milosz, whose poem “Ars Poetica?” is quoted by Bialosky to explain how poems can come to our aid:

“There was a time when only wise books were read, / Helping us to bear our pain and misery. / This, after all, is not quite the same / as leafing through a thou \sand works fresh from psychiatric clinics.”

In the golden age of self-help it is all too tempting to turn to those thou- sand works from the psychiatric clinics for advice about how to lead our lives, but all three authors recount that when they were young they looked instead to Little Women, which provided Paul with a vision of ideal family life, allowed Bialosky to believe that maybe one day she’d become a writer like Jo, and taught Prose and her generation “to grow into braver and larger human beings.”

Taken together, these books offer readers a deeper familiarity not just with a host of novels and poems, but also with three extraordinary literary guides. Paul, Prose, and Bialosky become as real to us as the characters and turns of phrase to which they introduce us: We finish these books knowing not just what they have read, but when and where and how and why. “There is something humanizing about the intimacy a book creates between the author and the reader,” Prose observes when contrasting literature with video games. “One of the things that most disturbs me about the way in which children may come to prefer electronic devices and video games to books is that they no longer know or intuit that an individual person has created the thing that is the source of their pleasure. Rather, they come to understand… that a corporation has provided them with entertainment and happiness. Thank you, Google. Thank you, Apple.” There is no such risk with any of these titles. Thank you, Pamela Paul. Thank you, Francine Prose. Thank you, Jill Bialosky. We have you to thank for the works of literature you brought into your own lives—and now into ours.

Ilana Kurshan’s memoir, If All the Seas Were Ink, won the 2018 Sami Rohr Prize in Jewish Literature.

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November 15, 2018 by

Female Friendship and Competition in a Novel of the 90s

Lilith’s Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough talks with author Catherine Hiller about her sharp, smartly observed period novel that deals with female friendship, office edition.

feud_cover_2-x_smallYZM: Why did you choose to set the novel in the 1990s?

 CH: It was a pivotal time in American life, when email, digital cameras, and cell phones were coming into common use. I wanted to dramatize the impact of these digital technologies. For instance, the book opens with Nikki opening her email at work (she doesn’t have email at home) and seeing a message and an attachment from an unfamiliar address. She idly opens the attachment to find it is a photograph of herself and two men, naked. She’d been drugged and raped on a business trip but hadn’t known she’d been photographed. 

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November 14, 2018 by

12 New Books About Contemporary Jewish Identity — All by Women!

The cover of the New York Times Book Review this weekend features a review of 5 recent books detailing the American Jewish experience — all of which were written by men. As illuminating as each of those books may be individually, and as deeply as the review engages with them, their aggregation egregiously leaves out the experiences and perspectives of approximately half of American Jews (if not more!).

Critics on Twitter immediately noted how unfortunate it is that the piece didn’t at the very least call attention to the cutting-edge academic scholarship and writing by many Jewish women, including feminists.

But the debate goes beyond academic (specialized) vs. trade (general audience) dichotomies. In 2018, it’s simply not enough to throw up ones hands and say, “There aren’t enough trade books by women!” The critic’s job is, in part, to wrestle with why trends in an industry exist, and to therefore, in this case, ask what truths five books by white Ashkenazi men might all be missing about contemporary Jewish identity.

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August 2, 2018 by

What the Lilith Staff is Reading Now

Welcome to another installment of this occasional recurring feature in which Lilith staffers reveal what books are on our nightstands, our e-readers and tucked in our bags for the commute. Share your own summer reads in the comments!

Kira Yates, Intern:

This summer I’ve decided to read two books at once: The Guide for the Perplexed by the Rambam himself, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. Though one was written in 1190 Spain and the other in 1940s Georgia, the theological treatise and the novel explore God and the actions of human kind. In his investigation of Jewish philosophy, ben Maimon seeks to prove that God does not have a body–an assertion that became a scholarly sensation across Europe. McCullers, on the other hand, tells the story of four struggling people in a small Georgia town, a reminder of what it feels like to be forgotten and in search of human connection. Published 750 years apart, these books present parallels about the human need for understanding and unity with something greater than the self. 

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