Tag : interview

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April 17, 2019 by

Golden Girls of the Silver Screen

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Well told and illustrated with charm, Renegade Women is a coffee table book for our feminist pop cultural age. It offers more than 60 informative and whimsically illustrated portraits of female movers and shakers in the entertainment field.

Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough chats with author Elizabeth Weitzman about the importance of highlighting their impressive accomplishments. 

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April 17, 2019 by

The Story of a Storyteller

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Longtime Lilith readers may remember Miryam Sivan’s name; her story Roadkill appeared in the magazine in 2003 and City of Refuge was featured in 2011.

Now she’s back with her debut novel, Make It Concrete, which is set in contemporary Israel and follows a woman who transcribes Holocaust stories. Sivan talks to fiction editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about how the past shapes and even defines the present. 

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April 11, 2019 by

A Novel Invents a Musical Masterpiece

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Lauren Belfer’s And After the Fire, is a complex, highly textured novel that moves easily between past and present to tell the converging stories of musicians and those in their orbits, centering around one imagined musical masterpiece through the centuries.

Winner of the National Jewish Book Award, Belfer talks to Lilith’s Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about the inner melody that led to this highly original and haunting story. 

Yona Zeldis McDonough: What inspired you to write about a fictional piece of music?

 

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April 9, 2019 by

A Jewish Beauty’s Journey, in Fiction

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Entertaining and witty, Susan Dworkin’s novel, The Garden Lady—chronicling a woman of notable beauty—nonetheless asks some penetrating questions about the lies we tell ourselves in order to keep going.

Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough talks to Dworkin, a feminist who worked at Ms. in its early days, about what Gloria Steinem called her “new dreams of justice” and how she’s pursued them both in this novel and elsewhere. 

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April 2, 2019 by

Are You a Woman Who Survived Concentration Camp? Or Her Daughter or Granddaughter?

We are eager to document the forced administration to women of substances that led to the cessation of their menstruation and, for some, infertility and miscarriages afterward.

In the years after the Shoah, the common and understandable medical assumption was that the cessation of menstruation in the camps was the result of malnutrition. But there is now data to refute this: both the emaciated women arriving to Auschwitz in 1944 from Poland’s ghettos and the women arriving in 1944 from Hungary, where they were not starved, all stopped menstruating immediately after arrival, regardless of differences in body mass.

Some women reportedly received injections, others were forced to ingest food or liquids which contained a similar substance. In both cases the women ceased menstruating—some for months, some for years; some suffered miscarriages or were left permanently infertile. Self-reports suggest that the younger the adolescent girl at the time she arrived in the concentration camps, the greater the long-term impact upon her future reproduction.

These interventions were conducted so routinely that this history has been unspoken and its connection to long-term effects unrecognized. Interviews with survivors indicate that they were part of the “processing” of those new female arrivals at Auschwitz (and perhaps other death camps) who were not killed immediately. Women survivors’ experience related to their subsequent fertility may also have received limited investigation because of the sensitive and taboo subject. Survivors themselves may have been reluctant to raise the issue, and earlier interviewers may not have thought to—or had the training to—ask questions that would elicit such material.

To uncover these missing stories, one of my colleagues and I are seeking to interview female concentration camp survivors and any children of survivors whose mothers may have shared with them stories about their post-Holocaust fertility challenges. While there is no cohesive, documented narrative of this particular experience, stories exist vividly in the memories of survivors who still do not know what exactly was done to them or why. We are attempting to assemble the fragments of this unknown chapter of the Shoah and to hear from women and their children. We can conduct interviews in Yiddish, English, Hebrew or French. Not only do these women’s stories deserve to be given voice, but also there may be important medical consequences for the second and third generation.

To be interviewed, contact Peggy J. Kleinplatz, Ph.D. at 613-563-0846 or Paul J. Weindling, Ph.D. at pjweindling@menbrookes.ac.uk.

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March 27, 2019 by

Standing Up for Immigrant Families, One Case at a Time

When New York Law School professor Lenni B. Benson created the Safe Passage Project in 2006, she did not anticipate that the number of unaccompanied minors trying to find asylum in the United States would skyrocket, going from 16,067 in 2011 to 41,456 in 2017.

But it has, causing tens of thousands of children to be taken into federal facilities where they will face formal removal proceeding that require them to appear before a judge and explain why they left home.

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March 22, 2019 by

A Breathtaking Novel Set on the Eve of World War I

downloadSet in the years before and just leading into World War I, House of Gold is a vast, enthralling tapestry of a novel. The story moves seamlessly from character to character and place to place, all the while picking up speed and momentum as the war looms ever closer.

Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough chats with author Natasha Solomons to ask her about what drew her to the subject and what she learned along the way. 

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September 27, 2018 by

Arizona’s Jewish Latinx Candidate Shakes Things Up

Alma Hernandez, a first-generation Mexican-American Jewish candidate for Arizona’s state legislature, earned a spot on the November ballot in a hotly-contested August primary, part of a wave of young female candidates who, in their primary victories, have thrilled prognosticators and upset the political order. With a master’s degree in public health and a deep familiarity with the woes of her Tucson community, at 25 she’s one of the youngest candidates in the country. Yet she is politically seasoned; active in campaigns as a volunteer for 11 years, she and her two siblings even made a splash as a trio: all serving as official Arizona delegates for Hillary Clinton at the 2016 Democratic convention.

Hernandez’s local race presents a fascinating microcosm of the fraught responses a progressive, Jewish, female, pro-Israel candidate elicits. Accompanying Hernandez as she canvassed neighborhoods prior to the August primary meant appreciating how her devoted team of family members and friends reach out beyond those who consistently vote Democratic to make her case to independent voters who might swing to the Dems.

“Since the age of 14, I’ve been helping Democrats get elected here, and I decided to run for office because I feel that my community for far too long has been underrepresented and ignored,” she told Lilith. “In a state where Hispanics and Latinos are the majority but still the ‘minorities’, I felt that it was time for the voice of my community to be that of the people who have actually lived here and grown up here and know the issues.

“The majority of the people in my community come from single parent households,” she said, speaking of a district that includes wealthy university neighborhoods along with trailer parks and the Pascua Yaqui Tribe Reservation. (Yaqui tribal leader Sally Ann Gonzales, running for re-election as an Arizona state representative, often campaigns alongside Hernandez.)

“There’s a lot of poverty. We have high unemployment rates.” Concerns about health care and its attendant expenses are high on this list for Hernandez. Plus, “the funding for education is always severely cut in our districts.”

Hernandez knows the anguish many in her district suffer. In her campaign radio ad, she described how, at 14, after being “brutally attacked” at school by white girls, she was exposed to the criminal justice system, where she saw first hand “how the school-to-prison pipeline is rigged against people of color and those without means.” She had fought back against her older attackers, whose assault left her with permanent injuries, yet she was the only one the school police arrested. “I feel like the dignity and innocence of my youth and teen years were stripped away from me.

“I went from being an honor student to a criminal, warned by a prison guard that I’d be there [in jail] a long time. Nothing will change what that experience did to me. If it weren’t for the support team I had at home—my parents got me out later that night—I wouldn’t be where I am. I was able to not be a statistic like they wanted me to be to be. Instead, I wanted to make sure I understood statistics, and I studied statistics so that I could help other kids in my community.” Hernandez’s widely varied activism includes speaking with at-risk youth at what she calls alternative schools. “It’s important that young people have someone to look up to. A lot of times just having that conversation can change their life.”

The fallout from that early attack has surfaced even in this race. Hernandez recently emailed that “It’s disappointing that a candidate claiming to support women doesn’t address or stop the misogyny from their supporters attacking how I look, from my facial expressions when I sit to how I speak. As someone who has lived with chronic spinal pain, “sitting up straight” and not having “resting b**** face” [sic] is not an issue of not caring but instead the pain I live with each and every single day as a survivor of an attack that has caused permanent damage.”

For Hernandez, social justice causes like women’s rights, prison reform and immigration issues are close to home. Her mother, Consuelo, born in the border town of Nogales, Mexico, still has close family ties to that region, which is only 68 miles from Tucson. Hernandez speaks movingly of the suffering of people there trying to find refuge in the United States. 

Hernandez’s mother is one of 13 siblings, and though her own father did not support her early dream of becoming a doctor (supporting her brother instead), she graduated from the University of Guadalajara with a degree in laboratory clinical pathology and became the first woman in Nogales to own her own clinic. After she married 30 years ago and moved to Tucson, she became a stay-at-home-mom. 

Hernandez identifies not only with these Mexican roots, but also with her Jewish forebears. Her mother’s father, and both his parents, “were Jews, Mexican Jews, and they came from the Cohen family; they went from being Cohens to Quinones. My grandmother [Consuelo’s mother] is Catholic, so my mother’s father is the one who—whether or not he ever practiced or wanted to talk about it—I mean, he’s Jewish because his parents were Jewish.” 

Hernandez is a Jew by choice as well as by ancestry. Although her father is Catholic, he supported her official conversion to Judaism. “My parents don’t like quitters. So my dad and mom made sure that if I was going to start something I had to finish.” She was thorough: studying with Rabbi Stephanie Aaron, at Tucson’s Congregation Chaverim, immersing in the mikveh, and adopting the names of her great-grandmothers Malka and Librada— meaning, Hernandez jokes, that she could be called “Queen of Freedom.” 

The process of conversion felt like coming home. “I never felt like I really converted into anything. Does that make sense? I always felt like it was who I was and a part of me.” Rabbi Aaron had been a mentor during Hernandez’ difficult teenage years. “We really just clicked,” she says of the rabbi. “Rabbi Aaron helped me cope in my own way. I really needed the spiritual and religious path that I was seeking. I was kind of lost and trying to figure out my life.” 

According to Rabbi Aaron, Hernandez is “genuinely devoted to the service of tikkun olam (repairing the world), intuitively understanding that to repair the world means to repair your own soul. When she learned that she is a Jew, she had to know.…[She has] incredible Sephardic Jewish roots, mainly on her mother’s side, but on her father’s side too, born out of the Mexican Inquisition, that are indestructible.” In addition, “Hernandez’s parents redefine the notion of what support for your child means.”

The culmination of the conversion process was her naming ceremony. “My family is big on milestones,” she says. So what started out as a private conversion celebration turned into “a big Mexican pechanga.” According to Rabbi Aaron, the synagogue was packed with community in support of Hernandez’s “choosing Jewish life for herself.” 

Hernandez’s later bat mitzvah was celebrated with another big party, the first held at the Jewish History Museum, where Hernandez and her father volunteer as docents. “My mom was very emotional, because it reminded her of her [Jewish] roots and her family.” Hernandez hopes to take her parents to Israel; she and her two siblings (who identify as Jews without having had formal conversions) have visited separately. 

The Jewish community has always been Hernandez’s base, through both volunteer work and employment during her teen years and beyond, including stints at the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona. Most of the financial support for her campaign comes, she said, from Jews—including from Jews all over the country whom Hernandez met volunteering at aipac, and as president of the pro-Israel club at the University of Arizona. When she receives campaign contributions in amounts like $18 and $36, Hernandez said, “You can tell they are from our community.” 

The family may be a political dynasty in the making. Hernandez’s brother Daniel, 28, is a legislator who has just completed two years in the Arizona House of Representatives and is now up for re-election. And her younger sister, Consuelo, is running for the local school board on which their father also serves. The family members all support one another’s campaigns actively, driving around by car and truck to ring doorbells. Daniel Hernandez is something of a local hero; he is the man who, as a college student and legislative intern, saved the life of Representative Gabby Giffords when she was shot at a rally in her district in 2011. 

The family is making history again this season. After having been the first Arizonan trio of siblings to be elected delegates for the 2016 Democratic presidential nominating convention, they are also, from what they can tell, the first three siblings to all seek elected office simultaneously in Arizona. “We’ve done everything together ever since, you know, we were teens. As my brother said yesterday, it’s really because we don’t have anyone else. 

“It doesn’t matter where we are, whether my sister’s in New York or my brother is in D.C., we all return home for the High Holy Days, just to be together,” she says. “We always make it happen. We add our Mexican touch to everything, including on Passover, when a friend brings a bucket with the questions asked during the Seder—in every language you can think of, so my mom usually reads them in Spanish. My mother speaks English, but she prefers to speak Spanish.” 

After living in the U.S. for 30 years and helping other immigrants obtain citizenship, Hernandez’s mother finally became a citizen herself in 2016—“in order to vote for Hillary Clinton,” says her daughter. 

“Being a daughter of an immigrant is part of the reason why I started Tucson Jews for Justice,” Alma Hernandez says. The group, launched in March 2018, wants to be a Jewish presence at rallies supporting Dreamers, gun violence prevention and health care, among other causes. Hernandez speaks of immigration as a particularly Jewish concern. “Everything that I do is because I am a daughter of an immigrant who came here from Mexico, and who knows that as Jews we’re all immigrants, and that it’s our duty to do what we can to welcome others that come here.”

Hernandez undertook Jewish studies in college and became so dedicated a volunteer at the local Jewish history museum that she was given a key. “How can you not hear the stories and read the stories [of the Holocaust] and know everything that’s happened to people and not feel something in your heart and feel like you need to do something to help others?” she asks. 

In New York’s harbor, the iconic Statue of Liberty is seen as representing a universal welcome to immigrants, with the Emma Lazarus poem at its base inviting less-hospitable places to “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” The “wretched refuse” arriving in the New York Harbor were mostly at the end of a journey from places where they had been treated harshly. At the southern border of the U.S., though, there seems to be no parallel symbol of welcome, nor even the pretense of welcoming immigrants, and Hernandez has seen that border up close for most of her life. 

“People think oh, it’s the drug dealers, oh it’s this – and I’ll tell you right now, the drug dealers aren’t going to be the ones walking the desert with their child to get here. The drug dealers have outsmarted everyone and they do a really good job of crossing the drugs over without having to put themselves in danger.” 

In May, vilification for Hernandez’s activism came from a particularly unnerving source. “I was attacked by David Duke for doing what I thought was right, helping families who are trying to seek asylum, crossing the border. They [the prospective immigrants] were waiting on the Nogales border, and my mother’s from Nogales, so for me it was very personal,” she says. “How can we not help provide food, the basic necessities which I would hope that anyone would be willing to give to any person?” she asks, her voice growing thick. “I get emotional because I don’t know how anyone can deny food or water or basic needs to any human. I’ve had family members that are Dreamers and have actually crossed the desert to get here. …I’ve had children pull onto my legs and tell me to please give them back their mom or dad. To not be able to help them, it really impacts you.“ 

News 4 Tucson reported that Duke, former Ku Klux Klan Grand Marshall, tweeted from an article describing Hernandez as “not the only Jew trying to help families crossing the border.” The kkk leader then added, “But for her the work is personal.” Duke has been a vocal white supremacist for longer than Hernandez has been alive. “He doesn’t believe in the Holocaust,” she said. “He’s a Holocaust denier, so for him to be using me as a target and the form of a joke is scary, but I’m not going to let this stop me. …We Latinos and Jews are here to stay.” 

Her ability to connect across divides may be a prime reason why Hernandez will be honored in November by the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom®, the Muslim and Jewish women’s organization. The advance announcement of the tribute reads, “Thank you for being a change agent and for being a teacher and inspiration…. You used your feet to pray as you went to the border. We would like to acknowledge your spiritual activism.” 

At times, she and her siblings have received flak from the left for being involved with right-of-center pro-Israel organizations like aipac and Stand With Us. “People try to make us choose between being progressives and being pro-Israel,” she says. “I’ve always told people no one can ever tell me I can’t be pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian and progressive. I feel as someone who really, truly cares about people, I can be all three.” 

Joan Roth is Lilith’s photographer. Susan Weidman Schneider is Lilith’s editor in chief.

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July 15, 2014 by

Female in the Lead

For Annette Ezekiel Kogan, founder, vocalist and accordionist of the punk klezmer band Golem, being the female bandleader of an all-male band is a complicated balancing act.

“I feel like I go in between worlds —I’m the sexy singer, and then I’m conducting, running the show. I’m the band mother to all the guys.” 

Annette Ezekiel Kogan (courtesy GolemRocks.com)

Annette Ezekiel Kogan (courtesy GolemRocks.com)

Kogan came to klezmer in a roundabout fashion. Inspired by her grandfather, who had immigrated to America from Ukraine, she began studying Russian as a Columbia undergraduate.Afterteaching herself the accordion, she picked
up and sang Russian and Ukrainian folk songs, to the delight of fellow students. Then, while studying Proust in a PhD program, she got interested in Yiddish and realized that she wanted to play klezmer, declaring,“Jewish music is mine.” So she decided to found her own band, Golem (named for the legendary creature of clay created by Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel in sixteenth-century Prague).

Golem played its first gig in November 2000. Over the course of 14 years and six albums, the ensemble’s music has evolved significantly.

“When I started Golem, I had no interest in original songs. I said, I’m interested in preserv-
ing the Old World through those old songs —my grandfather’s world,”Kogan said,in a recent conversation at the Lilith office.

Then the band’s music began to express juxtapositions between contemporary American-Jewish experiences and the “Old Country” of Eastern Europe. The new direction was partially inspired by the immigrant experience of Kogan’s husband, Sasha, who emigrated from Eastern Ukraine in 1992. Just as Kogan’s grandfather had spoken of pogroms in Dnipropetrovsk, Sasha’s family fled Kharkov and claimed refugee status in the United States because of their own experience of anti-Semitism in that city.

“A lot of our original songs are based on my husband’s family stories —folk songs for a new experience that’s the same as the old experience,” Kogan said. The song “Mirror Mirror,” off 2009’s “Citizen Boris,” exemplifies this blend of old and new: she based the song on both her great-grandmother’s and her mother-in-law’s experiences of immigrating from Eastern Europe. The song lyrically melds multiple generations of female longing.

“Tanz,” Golem’s new album, combines traditional klezmer motifswithrockandpunk,and makes heavy use of Russian in its lyrics, along with Yiddish and English. Singing in a Slavic language in addition to Yiddish, the band hopes to subvert the idea that the shtetl and its culture were purely monolingual.

“I think of Golem as using all the languages in the shtetl,” Kogan said.“There was no shtetl in which it was exclusively a Yiddish world. There was Yiddish and Ukrainian, or Russian, or Polish, there were Gypsies coming through —it was a very mixed world.”

A striking change in Golem’s attitudes over time is the band’s increasing incorporation of Jewish religious tradition into their music and performance. Their new song “Mikveh Bath” focuses on the quintessentially female ritual of immersing in a mikveh to purify oneself prior to marriage, and thereafter monthly prior to resuming sex. The slow, sensual song is told from the point of view of a young girl in the shtetl, immersing herself before meeting her bridegroom for the first time.

“The mikveh bath will purify me/before I lie down in my wedding bed./Will he close his eyes before we kiss? Will he run his fingers through my hair?/Will he undress in the other room/Or watch me as I say the evening prayer?”

With the tentative eroticism of its lyrics, the song recasts the mikveh ritual as an empowering expression of female sexuality.

At the same time, as a female musical performer, Kogan has also had to adapt to very traditional religious environments. When the group is hired for private events, for example, clients occasionally request that she refrain from singing, following the constraints of kol isha, an Orthodox prohibition on women singing in public. However, for public performances, the band’s policy is to reject bookings at which Annette would be barred from singing.

“The band —they get angry on my behalf more often than I do,” she says, laughing. “I’m a female leader, for sure, in all ways.”

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May 6, 2014 by

Jill Smolowe on Four Funerals and a Wedding

Jill Smolowe, author of "Four Funerals and a Wedding." (Courtesy Phyllis Heller)

Jill Smolowe, author of “Four Funerals and a Wedding.” (Courtesy Phyllis Heller)

Jill Smolowe, a journalist and memoirist, had her own annus horribilis, only hers lasted a year and a half.  In that short span of time, she endured the deaths of her beloved husband, Joe, her mother-in-law, and her own mother and sister.  Smolowe kept waiting to fall apart in the wake of such loss, and yet she didn’t. Some untapped reserve of strength and resilience kept her going, and able to find meaning and even joy again.  In this interview, she shares her hard-won wisdom about grieving with Lilith fiction editor Yona Zeldis McDonough.

YZM: What made you decide to write and publish your book Four Funerals and a Wedding?

JS: Like so many Americans, I had a set idea that grief involves specific stages. Yet I went through no denial, anger, bargaining or depression. Instead, as I lost my husband, sister, mother, and mother-in-law over a period of 17 months, my focus was on putting one foot in front of the other and figuring out how to reconnect with the joy in life. The more friends told me I was “amazing,” the more I wondered if there was something wrong or abnormal about my sorrow. Then I came across the work of George Bonanno, one of the country’s leading bereavement researchers. That’s when I learned that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five-stage cycle of grief has long since been discredited. (She intended her cycle to apply to the dying, not the bereaved.) Research from the last 20 years identifies three distinct groups: those who are overwhelmed by grief upwards of 18 months; those who recover within 18 months; and those who return to normal functioning within six months, and even within days. This last group is labeled “resilient” and–surprise, surprise–these people constitute a majority of the bereft. My book aims both to put a face on this group and to challenge misconceptions and assumptions about grief.

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