Tag : interview

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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April 8, 2014 by

Ayelet Waldman on chance, and obsession

Folded into Ayelet Waldman’s illuminating new novel, Love and Treasure, is enough provocative material to fuel Jewish and feminist discussions for months to come. Paternalism and tenderness in the early days of psychoanalysis, the loosening of attitudes and corsets for progressive women of the European upper classes, the emergence of first-wave feminism and the suffragist movement. And: art and jewelry looted by the Nazis, controversies over the founding of the State of Israel, the tight family lives of Syrian Jews in the Diaspora. Ayelet Waldman talked to Susan Weidman Schneider just before the book’s publication. 

LILSp14 ayelet waldman

sws: So, in 2013 a young New York lawyer goes to Budapest to return a necklace her Jewish grandfather took from the Gold Train — filled with valuables that had belonged to Jews in Hungary when the Nazis rounded them up in 1944. Was it thinking about the lives behind those watches and rings and lockets that spurred you? What triggered this broad-sweep historical novel?

aw: I was a Holocaust-obsessed teenager, but I was not familiar with the specific history of Hungary — and had no idea about this train! Here’s the real story of how I came to this. One of my dear friends became ambassador to Hungary just when I was starting a new novel. I wanted to visit and deduct it from my taxes so googled “Hungary, Holocaust, art.” The Hungarian Gold Train was my first hit. As soon as I read that Wikipedia entry, I knew this was my story.

I found that when one goes to a foreign country to research a novel, it is very helpful to have a friend who is the U.S. ambassador. A brilliant feminist historian in Budapest, Judith Acsady, told me that if I was interested in the pre-WWI period I’d have to read this amazing women’s newspaper. I spent a week in the archives of the Budapest main library with a young graduate student in women’s history translating for me material about the suffragists. The whole book just landed in my lap then — from women not being allowed out without an escort to creating a women’s movement in just a few years! “A big hat is a kind of imprisonment,” wrote Rosa Schwimmer, the Jewish feminist leader — and she also wrote a critique of the dowry system as sexual slavery of women — side by side! So impressive!

There’s a whole archive of Rosa photos in the New York Public Library. That the 1913 Seventh Congress of the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance in Budapest was photographed is incredible!

sws: After WWII, the novel spools back to the early years of the 20th century, and enmeshes us in the facts and the drama of the suffragist movement in Eastern Europe, which was fueled in part by Rosa Schwimmer and her secretary, Gizella Weisz, a Jewish dwarf from an illustrious family of scholars and performers. 

aw: Later, Gizella and her family were both tortured and saved by Mengele in Auschwitz.

sws: Then you have the disaffected Israeli guy, Amitai, from a large Syrian Jewish family of art dealers. He has been pretty immune to the history of the Holocaust, and feels resistant even to the State of Israel, but he’s also on a search for looted art.

aw: Israel. I even made aliyah myself once for 6 months. I had a boyfriend who was a Syrian Jew — his parents were sent by Youth Aliyah to live on a yekkish [German Jewish] kibbutz. I visited them. Those Germans on the kibbutz were as German as I had ever experienced.

My Israeli publisher, before they bought this book, said, “Seems a little anti-Semitic.” Of course my British publisher said, “It seems a little pro-Israel.”

sws: Characters in the book talk about how post-Shoah Zionists used the survivors to move world opinion — and the British — to help form the State of Israel.

aw: I used actual quotes. When an Israeli character in the book says of the Holocaust survivors that “They are garbage,” I pulled the quotes from letters of Ben-Gurion. I knew I couldn’t write this without being accused of anti-Zionism, so I quoted directly. The idea that those who survived could only have survived by evil means, that they were broken and ruined by their experience and also evil…. They needed the boatloads of survivors, and especially children — to be fired upon — and the British would be forced to turn over Israel.

sws: Nothing ties up totally neatly in this book. Ilona, a young Hungarian woman who survived the camps, manages to get smuggled into Italy, then to pre-state Israel. We never hear about her again.

aw: I wanted to mirror the sense of the fragmented stories — especially regarding the Holocaust. You can never really know the truth when people have vanished and their stories have vanished. You can only imagine — and some of it is wrong. I wanted readers not to know—mirroring the sense I had in doing my research that some isn’t knowable. 

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April 7, 2014 by

Jewish Woman, Muslim Man, and What This Unlikely Literary Pairing Produced

Bosnia_List_CoverA Jewish woman collaborates on a book with a Muslim man?  Sounds like the start of a joke—except that it’s anything but.  When writer and teacher Susan Shapiro was forced to undergo physical therapy for an injured back, she met a young therapist whose personal story soon had her riveted.  She drew it out of him, page by page, and the result, The Bosnia List, just published in March by Penguin.  Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough talks to Shapiro about this highly unlikely pairing and the unexpected insights it yielded.

YZM: What initially drew you toward Kenan Trebincevic?

SS: I tore two ligaments in my lower back and Kenan was my physical therapist.

One day, he told me to do leg lifts and went to help another patient. As a journalism teacher I always carry a stack of student papers. The exercises were boring so I took out papers to grade. Kenan got annoyed I wasn’t paying attention to the workout. He looked over at the essays and asked sarcastically “What I did on my summer vacation?” in his Eastern European accent. I said, “Actually, my first assignment is to write three pages on your most humiliating secret.”

He laughed and said, “You Americans. Why would anyone do that?”

I said, “It’s healing.” And I added also that my students want to get published in the New York Times and write books. That night he emailed to see if I was okay, which I thought was very menschy. I sent him a poignant piece my student Danielle Gelfand published in the New York Times about how she and her mother, a Holocaust survivor, eat bacon cheeseburgers on Yom Kippur, as a way to cope with her father’s suicide on that day 17 years earlier. I think that piece inspired Kenan.

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March 20, 2014 by

“I Wanted to Be Pat Boone’s Daughter.”


When Sue William Silverman and I met to discuss her new memoir, The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo Saxon Jew, she played “Exodus” for me on her iPhone. (Boone actually wrote the lyrics for the theme song for the movie Exodus, which lyrics he titled “This Land Is Mine.”)

Me: It sounds really…generic.

Sue William Silverman: Everything about Pat Boone is generic. That’s why I loved him, I could make him into anyone I wanted him to be.

Silverman’s memoir is a story of among other things, evolving identity, of wishing your reality wasn’t yours in the most profound way, of doing whatever it takes to escape it and become yourself.

Lilith: The Pat Boone Fan Club opens with a quote from James Baldwin:

 “Identity would seem to be the garment with which one covers the nakedness of the self: in which case, it is best that the garment be loose, a little like the robes of the desert, through which one’s nakedness can always be felt, and, sometimes, discerned. This trust in one’s nakedness is all that gives one the power to change one’s robes.”

Can you comment on why you include this?

Sue Silverman:  To me, this quote conveys the complexity of identity, which is what I explore in the book. How, when, and why do we change our identity? What parts of ourselves do we reveal? 

For me, growing up in a troubled, incestuous family, I lost a sense of my true self, including a sense of my Judaism. Throughout the book, I tumble through various identities: I tried to pass as Christian; I tried being a kibbutznik, picking apricots in Israel; as a hippie, I tramped cross-country in a VW camper; I vacationed in Yugoslavia with a boyfriend who, it turned out, was anti-Semitic; I married – and divorced – two Christian men.

More than anything – and this is the heart of the book – I wanted to be Pat Boone’s daughter. I wanted that very Christian, squeaky-clean 1960s pop star to adopt me. Why? Because my father sexually molested me growing up.

But why Pat Boone? For hours, as a young girl, I gazed at photos of him and his beaming, golden family in fan magazines. If Pat Boone could raise four daughters, couldn’t he raise me, too? In my child-mind, he was the ideal of what a father should be: someone nurturing, caring, safe.

So the identity I most wanted was that of Pat Boone’s fifth daughter!

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March 18, 2014 by

Busting Open the Good Mother Myth

Good Mother Myth - image of bird and cracked eggThe good mother. She bakes her own challah and breastfeeds, is impeccably groomed while holding down a career or volunteer job, nurtures her family 24-7–and in today’s world, she is also spiritually attuned and a strong, independent woman.

Of course, she doesn’t exist. Avital Norman Nathman, a writer and mom living in Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley, has edited a collection of essays tackling this new spin on an old myth from many perspectives, introducing readers to a passel of moms who do not fit the mommy mold, and are confronting their own Good Mother Myth myth by writing their truth. Whether they struggle with mental illness, gender roles, or community expectations, the dozens of voices collected in “The Good Mother Myth” create a mosaic that is so much richer and interesting than any perfect mom could be. Nathman spoke with Lilith on one of this winter’s many snow days about media myths, policy changes, and hearing from a panoply of moms.

Sarah Seltzer: Tell me about the genesis for this collection.

Avital Norman Nathman: I’ve been writing about parenting and motherhood for a while now, in addition to my other areas of interest. And being immersed in that topic, I was hyper-aware of how the mainstream media framed their stories and discussion surrounding motherhood. Motherhood would either been seen as this sanitized ideal that we’d all supposedly aspire to or various stories would be co-opted and used as cautionary tales. i.e. “You don’t want to end up as this BAD MOM,” working the fear and judgment. 

SS: So why did you decided to do it as anthology of multiple voices instead of just yours!

ANN: It all kind of came to a head for me when Time Magazine came out with their now infamous “Are you MOM ENOUGH?” cover featuring the mother nursing her toddler (while he stood up on a chair. Yay shock value!). It felt superficial, especially when there are so many legitimate and pressing issues facing mothers and families. But those aren’t controversial or sexy enough to merit the big headlines, I guess.

So, I started thinking about a book where I would write about motherhood, not necessarily without a filter, but without intentional framing. Allow stories that just “were” so to speak. The more I started thinking about it, the more I realized that if I used only my voice, I wasn’t doing much to change the current dynamic. Hence the idea to make it an anthology.

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February 27, 2014 by

Winning Any Office (or Male-Dominated Environment)



Rebecca Sive was a cofounder of the Jewish Fund for Justice, one of the founding organizers for EMILY’s List and was included in the book Feminists Who Changed America: 1963-1975. This is still only a small part of her résumé, but Sive has taken her knowledge, experience and passion for women’s rights and penned the book Every Day Is Election Day: A Woman’s Guide to Winning Any Office, from the PTA to the White House” called by Publishers Weekly “a clear and persuasive roadmap to female political success.”

Sive’s book is both down-to-earth and invigorating as it champions women to move forward and gives concrete details on how to do so. She also supplies real-time advice from a host of powerhouse women in the worlds of politics, business and philanthropy. While her book is angled toward politics and running for office, Sive’s advice can be used in any other male-dominated environment.

Danica Davidson, a journalist whose writing on women’s rights and women’s issues has appeared in “Lilith,” “Ms.,” MTV and CNN, interviewed Sive.

Danica Davidson: How did you first get involved in feminism?

Rebecca Sive: I became a feminist after reading Sisterhood Is Powerful and The Dialectic of Sex while in college. In different ways, each was eye-opening, informative and inspirational. Although I had always been independent and a leader, these books put a face and a politics on my views, interests and political commitments.

My mother and father had taught my sister and me to be independent and to do good, so it was a relatively short step to becoming a feminist activist with these goals, once I learned about the women’s movement (around 1971). Before joining the American Jewish Committee — after graduate school — and co-founding the Jewish Fund for Justice several years later, I was a college and graduate school feminist activist.
I led a campaign (pre-Roe v. Wade) to provide contraception services at my college (Carleton College) health clinic. Before we succeeded — after organizing and running a campus-wide campaign — women students had to travel to a Planned Parenthood clinic 40 miles away. (Needless to say, it seemed that whatever the boy students needed was available!)

At the American Jewish Committee, I organized various women’s projects whose goals were to further collaboration among Jewish women and women of other ethnic groups. All the projects had a feminist focus. Among the projects was the Illinois Women’s Agenda, a coalition of over 70 organizations, including Jewish women’s organizations, such as the National Council of Jewish Women. This was the first modern women’s-movement-era coalition to advocate for economic security, women’s reproductive autonomy and other issues in the state. (An article I wrote about it is in this book: The Roads They Made: Women in Illinois History).

Another project was an exhibit on Illinois women’s history for the U.S. Bicentennial, which led to the re-appearance of a Jewish woman, Hannah Shapiro Glick, who started the historic 1910 garment workers’ strike in Chicago.

The Jewish Fund for Justice (JFJ) was an idea of Heather Booth’s and Si Kahn’s and maybe a couple others. We met for the first time at the Midwest Academy in Chicago, which hosted many progressive gatherings (and where I was trained by Heather as a community organizer). All of us had considerable social justice organizing experience. We knew the history of the American Jewish community’s commitment to social justice and wanted to institutionalize it among like-minded donors at a time — the Reagan era — when conservatives were trying to dismantle civil rights achievements.

DD: How do you think being Jewish helped shape your beliefs on social justice, feminism and leadership?

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The Lilith Blog

February 20, 2014 by

Print is Dead

FigTreeBooks_LogoPrint is dead, or so the pundits have been telling us. And yet, in this electronic age when reading matter has been whittled down to fit on a smart phone, along comes Fig Tree Books, a brand new print publisher whose focus is the Jewish American experience. A blend of original titles and revered classics, Fig Tree is the brainchild of Fredric Price, a drug developer, and it will be launching in early 2015. Lilith’s fiction editor, Yona Zeldis McDonough, talks to Fig Tree senior editor Michelle Caplan about Fig Tree’s goals, ambitions and how this “nimble” imprint plans to take advantage of “the new normal.”

YZM: Can you talk about the decision to start a new publishing company at a time whenever everyone is bemoaning the decline of print in general and books in particular?

MC: My publisher, Fredric Price, has had a successful entrepreneurial career developing drugs for rare diseases. While he has no professional background in publishing, he is an avid reader and has established two longstanding groups that read and discuss Jewish books and essays. He decided to focus his efforts toward creating the new home for the best fiction of the American Jewish experience. All of the changes that have occurred in publishing in the last several years create a window of opportunity for a small, focused, nimble imprint like Fig Tree Books. We can take advantage of the new normal because we do not have a pre-existing structure, organization or operating method that is struggling to adapt to the new publishing environment. Fred feels that the publishing industry is ripe for the same type of approach that he used when developing, marketing and selling “orphan” drugs. Rather than following the industry in trying to develop blockbuster drugs for highly visible illnesses like hypertension, he built very successful businesses by focusing on drugs for small populations. While Jews represent a small fraction of the American population, we are a significant percentage of the purchasers of literary fiction.

YZM: What drew you to this editorial position at Fig Tree?

MC: Fred has responded to the need for a publisher to champion emerging and unique voices and created a place where writers about the American Jewish experience can launch their work into the world with visible celebration and support. I have spent most of my career as a freelance editor, consultant and ghostwriter of fiction, creative non-fiction and film scripts. I’ve mentored both aspiring and established writers and I believe Fig Tree will be the home of American Jewish fiction writing for the 21st century. We will have a combination of original works plus what we call re-released classics, books that were previously published and are now out of print but are relevant and exciting to readers today.

YZM: What is the significance of the name Fig Tree?

MC: Our name is inspired by a letter from George Washington to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island in 1790, in which he says “May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.” We feel that this event in American history captures the spirit of our democracy in which Jews and other previously religiously persecuted groups have flourished. The wisdom of our first president set the stage for a milieu of tolerance and acceptance, enabling Jews to thrive, and we could think of no better metaphor for the beneficence of the Jewish Experience in America.

YZM: Will there be any particular emphasis on writing by Jewish American women?

MC: We are interested in publishing novels of excellence that deal with the American Jewish experience and are agnostic as to an author’s gender, age, race and even religion. It is a rich mosaic that can be approached by anyone with a gift for writing and a topic that appeals both to Jews and others. We certainly do hope to attract beautifully written books by women writers. Our editorial staff is comprised of women with a keen eye for quality writing.

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The Lilith Blog

February 4, 2014 by

What DID Nora know?

Nora_viewfinderLinda Yellin is a funny lady. To wit, her new novel, What Nora Knew,“ is crammed with snappy one-liners, snarky apercus and a whole lot of good-humored sass. Whether intentionally or not, Yellin has joined ranks with Ephron in turning out a particular kind of humor, one that is specific—if not unique to—Jewish women.  She talks to Lilith Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about concealed vibrators, the  enduring appeal of rom-coms and the nuances that separate the funny girls from the boys:

Yona Zeldis McDonough: You have a background in advertising; how did you transition to writing fiction?

Linda Yellin: I’m sure there are people who’d say advertising is fiction, but that theory aside, my first novel was ninety percent true. So it was only sorta-fiction. I changed all the main players’ names to keep my relatives from getting mad at me. I didn’t want to get un-invited to the family seders.

The next book, The Last Blind Date, was a memoir, so that was technically non-fiction. But I guess none of my cousins got offended because they’re still speaking to me. What Nora Knew is a novel, although Nora Ephron and her movies and insights are real, so I guess I’m still transitioning into writing fiction.

YZM: Your protagonist, journalist Molly Hallberg, has had some pretty entertaining assignments: learning to dance like a Rockette and sneaking vibrators through security scanners. Any of these drawn from real life experiences?

LY: Absolutely. Molly and I have a lot in common. Most of her assignments are ones I’ve done for MORE magazine. Including one where she spends a day wearing kegel underpants. (One-inch silicone plug in the crotch…you can figure out the rest.)

The vibrators was my favorite assignment. There were three of them – all “disguised” like cosmetics: a lipstick; a mascara; and a blusher brush. I stood in line at the Family Court building in New York thinking: it’ll be really great for the story if I get busted for doing this. (Security guard: “Would the owner of the vibrating mascara please step out of line?”) But all along I was praying that I’d pass through. When it got down to story-versus-mortification, I was more afraid of mortification. Molly Hallberg’s braver than me.

YZM: What Nora Knew is an homage not only to Nora Ephron but to the whole Hollywood tradition of romantic movies. Can you say more about that? 

LY: There are certain constructs and expectations in romantic movies. We probably know from the get-go who the heroine will end up with, but if you care about the characters, you want to travel along with them and root for their success. Whether it’s Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, or Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal, or Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper – romantic comedies are journeys with happy endings, and who doesn’t love that? And who doesn’t love Nora Ephron’s romantic comedies?

YZM: Do you consider Ephron a quintessentially Jewish humorist and if so, why?

LY: Her humor is quintessentially relatable, so it also covers Christianity, Buddhism, Atheism; you name it. But there is a wry, sardonic point-of-view in all of Nora Ephron’s writing that certainly feels Jewish. An oy-vey-can-you-believe-this quality. It’s the same one I grew up with while my aunts and uncles and cousins were debating life over corned beef and smoked fish.

YZM: How would you describe the differences between male and female humorists?

LY: Subject matter. Our humor leans toward relationships and emotion. Guys tend to vamp more on guy-stuff. Sex, sports, things that explode. Don’t hold me to this opinion, though. For sure, there’s a PhD candidate out there whose doctoral thesis would totally disagree.

YZM: What, in the end, did Nora know? 

LY: Plenty. That’s why it was so much fun to write this novel.


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