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Tag : Jewish Women

April 20, 2020 by

LGBTQ Jewish Hero of Color Poster •

Rabbi Sandra Lawson is a veteran, a vegan, a weightlifter, one of the first queer women
rabbis of color, and Associate Chaplain for Jewish Life at Elon University in North
Carolina. “One of the things I want the larger Jewish community to understand is
that rabbis today are a diverse group. Many are people of color. Many are not straight.
Many might be married to non-Jews. My difference, my diversity, is helping people
become aware of that.” Keshet’s LGBTQ Jewish Heroes poster series is available to
synagogues, day schools, JCCs, and other Jewish institutions to demonstrate their commitment to LGBTQ equality and visibility.

keshetonline.org/resources-and-events/lgbtq-jewish-heroes

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April 20, 2020 by

Prayer, Your Way •

The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance’s goal is to expand spiritual, ritual, intellectual and political opportunities for women within the framework of a Modern Orthodox interpretation of Jewish law. Their resources can help you discover where women can say kaddish, join women’s prayer groups, find “partnership” minyanim (for women and men) and hear women read from the megillah on Purim.

jofa.org/prayer-compass

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The Lilith Blog

February 24, 2020 by

You Are Your Name

You are your name. In India, where I’m living for seven months as a Fulbright scholar researching the relevance of archaeological relics today, I’m constantly reminded of this. 

“My daughter’s name is Zianna, it means bold and strong,” an acquaintance tells me.

“My name is Arushi, it means first ray of the sun,” says another new friend. 

“My name is Pormishra, a god. It means, a god,” says a waiter.

“I am Suraj, the sun,” says another. 

When I respond that my name is Elizabeth, Indians often say, “Oh, the queen. You are a queen.” Glad to dissuade them of any connection between my name and India’s former colonial rule, I tell people, “Actually, Elizabeth is a Hebrew name, it means house of God: beit means house; el means God.”

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The Lilith Blog

February 19, 2020 by

Becoming an Abortion Doula

Earlier this year, Lilith asked me what my pro-choice New Year’s resolution was for 2020.

Without hesitating, I knew what my answer would be: I would become an abortion doula, who guides folks through the procedure. It is a very straightforward and simple goal on the surface, especially since I had already sent in my application to become a trained doula with the DC Doulas for Choice Collective (DCDC).

But there’s a lot of meaning to this choice. I’ve wanted to be an abortion doula for years, since I learned what it meant. Like a birth doula, an abortion doula is someone who is dedicated to guiding the patient through the abortion procedure. This can include answering their questions, remaining with them during the procedure even if they are under anesthesia, and remaining with them in the recovery room. It can mean acting as an advocate, getting water or snacks, praying with the patient, or just chatting about the Bachelor. Being a doula can take a lot of forms, but my primary goal is to support the patient with whatever they may need at any given moment.

Why go this extra mile in support of patients? Because I’m not only pro-choice, but I am pro-abortion and pro-access. That means going beyond supporting someone’s right to choose to terminate a pregnancy but fighting to remove the barriers that may prevent them from doing so.

I do not believe that abortion is a necessary evil, but a moral and social good. It’s what has led me to become not only a doula but a volunteer in other ways as well. I am a clinic escort with the Washington Area Clinic Defense Task Force (WACDTF) and I walk patients to and from their vehicles among anti-choice protestors who can be loud, in the way, and occasionally violent. I am also a volunteer with the DMV Practical Abortion Support Network, DAPSN, an organization that provides rides or walks to and from a patient’s hotel and the clinic and housing, all for free.

Washington, D.C. is one of the few areas in the country where someone can get an abortion throughout pregnancy, so there are hundreds of folks who travel from often very far states to access care here. Many of those folks rely on abortion funds to pay for their travels and expenses but can’t afford to bring someone with them. That’s where DAPSN and DCDC come in. Our job is to be the stand in for folks who cannot be with the patient.

This work is very different than fighting a political campaign. I am a proud volunteer with NARAL Pro-Choice America where I sit on their all-volunteer Action Council. I show up to protest whenever I can. I have even spoken out at the Supreme Court and been arrested for civil disobedience over abortion. But this year, I want to focus on the patients who make the choice to obtain abortion care. Often, lost in the noise of the political struggle to keep abortion safe and legal are the patients themselves who have to navigate complicated TRAP laws, legalese, and financial barriers to receiving care but who are human beings and moral agents like the rest of us, and who deserve a friendly face and sympathetic ear during their medical procedure.

It is easy to forget that the fight for abortion means fighting for real people, with jobs and families and social lives. They have names and faces, beyond a statistic. These are the people I am committing to supporting and getting to know.

Since my resolution was published, I successfully made it through the interviews and will begin my training in March. This year, I will not only fight for the right to abortion access, but hopefully sit with people and be their support as they exercise that right.

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November 5, 2019 by

A Woman of Valor Who’s Single

Edreifus birthrightrika Dreifus is a generous soul on the overlapping writerly and Jewish internet. Her monthly e-newletter, “The Practicing Writer,” and its weekly supplements provide valuable resources for writers. On Fridays, she also publishes a roundup of Jewish literary news in her Machberet (Hebrew for notebook) blog.

One of the delights of these sources is that Dreifus shares her own writing process, including rejections and successes. Like her 2011 short story collection Quiet Americans, Birthright, her new collection of poetry (Kelsay Books, $17), is one of those successes. These accessible meditations on being a Jewish woman, a Zionist, a critical consumer of social media, and a witness to violence committed and averted reflect a soul dedicated to repairing the world with smarts, spirit, sincerity, and a bit of snark.

With any such gathering of poems, there are those that you move through quickly and those that speak to you with an intensity that causes you to linger and to reread. For me, “A Single Woman of Valor,” a revisioning of Proverbs 31, falls into the latter category. Here—and elsewhere— Dreifus uses Jewish textual traditions to champion the diversity of Jewish women’s lives and to value those who, by choice or circumstance, are not wives and mothers.

Being such a champion of self and others comes “After years of self-doubt, and therapy” and with the sometimes sad recognition that her mortality will represent, as she puts it in the title of another poem, “The End of the Lines.” Yet, in “This Woman’s Prayer,” she clearly and explicitly affirms her own divine self-worth with the words, “Blessed be the One/who made me me.”

Just as Dreifus values her own unique being made in the image of God, so does she employ a midrashic impulse to revalue and reassess those Biblical foremothers who have found themselves on the margin of tradition. In “The Book of Vashti,” Dreifus powerfully gives voice to Esther’s predecessor: “I was cast out/the royal stage cleared for another/whose name would live on in light/while mine receded./ Until now.” And in “The Price of Lilith’s Freedom,” she imagines the namesake of this magazine embracing her “liberation from . . . unequal coupling” and asserting that, despite the “pain, loss, grief,” she would “take that deal again.”

In a series of Israel poems that includes “The O-Word,” “Questions for the Critics,” and “Pharaoh’s Daughter Addresses Linda Sarsour,” Dreifus poetically exposes double standards when it comes to discussing the Occupation, the death drive that seems to animate disproportionate criticism of Israel, and a tweet by a leader of the Women’s March that declared Zionism “creepy.” The awareness in “The Smell of Infection” that social media can sometimes be likened to a tooth needing root canal leads to “Sabbath Rest 2.0,” which entails keeping the “Sabbath free from Facebook and Twitter.”

Birthright ultimately reminds us that we are an amalgam of still-relevant old stories as well as new technologies. Dreifus’ poetry is a worthy read, as is her Twitter feed.

Helene Meyers is the author of Identity Papers: Contemporary Narratives of American Jewishness.

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November 4, 2019 by

That Was Not My Plan!

Art by Liana Finck

Art by Liana Finck

I’m in the car jammed between my two- and three-year old boys in their bulky car seats. My in-laws are driving us to a playground in our new city, Los Angeles, and my cell phone rings showing an incoming call from my GP. The news isn’t good. My second-opinion cancer surgeon has found something new—an aggressive tumor that throws into question all of the conversations and thinking and agonizing my husband and I have been doing for the last several weeks.

One second I had a mess of stage-zero cancer in my right breast, a noninvasive kind also known as DCIS (Ductal carcinoma in situ). The next second it was DCIS plus something else entirely: an invasive and especially aggressive tumor outside the milk ducts. The shorthand for the type of tumor was “triple positive,”—much more dangerous and frightening than “noninvasive stage-zero”— and I was in shock.

“Not my plan!” I screamed in my head.

In those days, when things didn’t go my older child’s way, he would cry, “That was not my plan!”

Ahh. The Plan, with its many transitions. After six years of major personal and professional transitions, I met my husband-to-be, Benjamin, the very week I started a new job in a new field; then, three months later, after years of working in an unrelated field, came his epiphany that he wanted to become a rabbi; we got engaged, planned our wedding, got married, and planned the next steps with careful intent. He started rabbinical school with a first year in Israel (I stayed in N.Y.), we moved house, we had two beautiful and exhausting boys 18 months apart (unplanned: I struggled with postpartum depression with the first one), and my husband launched a non-profit organization in the midst of our first son’s birth.

It was finally time to take a freaking breath.

The most recent transition had involved a high-stress job placement process for Benjamin in his new career as a rabbi. There was heartache when he didn’t get the offer we had hoped for, followed shortly thereafter by euphoria when an unexpected opening led to an offer at a wonderful synagogue in Los Angeles.

There was also my job: I had been offered a continuing position in L.A. with my New York employer, only to find out, a few weeks before the move, that the arrangement wasn’t going to work out. I scrambled to negotiate a severance package, and realized I’d have to look for work within a month of moving.

Not my plan.

We arrived in L.A. in the summer of 2016. The transition was intense. Also great. And exhausting. And lonely. There we were, using the GPS just to get to the supermarket, with no easy access to public transportation, no babysitter, no friends or nearby family for relief.

Unplanned for, we were caught between old and new cities, old and new career, friends and no-friends. Our boys were between toddlerhood and childhood, between worlds really, with only us to tether them.

I was between being a regular private person and being in the very public role of rabbi’s spouse in a community where neither of us had any history.

By almost any measure, these whiplashing shifts presented a lot to process and adjust to.

Then came the sharp pain in my chest on August 21st, less than five weeks after we

touched down in Los Angeles, and a week before my 43rd birthday. The pain was followed by an emergency room visit, two rounds of antibiotics, then, a few weeks later, ultrasound, a mammogram and a painful biopsy, all of which culminated, one sunny day in September, with the DCIS diagnosis.

Not my plan.

This was days before the High Holidays. I visited my second opinion doctor between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. While I awaited the results of those biopsies, I sat in a pew and my husband sat on the bimah. Rather than the annual theoretical contemplation of mortality, I was dialing in to very real contemplations of whether I might, in the next number of months or years, live or die.

Even in that terrifying moment, I felt the melodrama, as if I were starring in a Jewish-themed Lifetime Original movie: new rabbi and family join a community far from home. His spouse gets breast cancer and the congregation pulls together to make the family’s first awful months as un-miserable as possible, thus cementing a bond that would last for years. Which, in fact, is pretty close to what happened, unplanned.

How did I get through? Oddly, I don’t remember ever feeling depressed. I felt sad and scared and low and miserable for chunks of time. I remember having a diminished tolerance for my children when they were demanding and whining, or sometimes when they just wanted to play. 

I know depression and how it slithers in and quietly attacks, boring its teeth into all your soft bits. I experienced depression for a couple of years in my early 20s after my 24-year-old sister died suddenly of a brain aneurysm. Then again after my father died suddenly when I was in my mid-30s. Then again after my first son was born and the exhaustion and shock of taking care of a newborn rattled my body and brain for months.

Perhaps because of those devastating experiences, the cancer seemed to me, perhaps irrationally, something I could tackle. My mind always returned to the thought that nothing could be worse—not cancer, not a million simultaneous transitions— than the two worst events in my life, the sudden deaths of my sister and father.

When some of the people I grew close to remarked on my relatively upbeat attitude through six rounds of chemo, a double mastectomy, and the many weeks of daily radiation treatments that followed, I would explain by telling about those earlier losses. But we were also buoyed by waves of emotional, spiritual, financial and culinary support. Friends and family from afar visited throughout the year, and our congregation set up a “meal train” to bring our household extraordinary sustenance four nights a week for seven months.

I found a support center devoted to cancer. In addition to free lectures, gentle exercise classes, and family programs, there were dozens of support groups targeted to specific cancer diagnoses. Mine was made up of badass women of every age with stage 1 and 2 breast cancer. These women, many of whom became friends, shared their struggle with delayed diagnosis, botched surgeries, residual pain, unsympathetic doctors, dreadful side effects, unsupportive spouses, and having to couch-surf all through cancer treatment because of poverty. 

Cancer wasn’t not my plan, but I came to see that while I had an invasive, life-threatening tumor, in so many respects I had it easy. 

I had Benjamin, who with incalculable and selfless love and care supported me every single day, no matter how exhausted from our kids’ sleeplessness and his own new-job and new everything fatigue. He organized the kids, mobilized visitors, brought me delicious snacks, encouraged me to take walks, or lie down, or do whatever I wanted to do. All of this in spite of his own very intense emotions about what we were going through. I know with certainty that I could not do the same; he has an extraordinary capacity to be self-reflective without loitering too long in his own psychological goo.

Then there was media, no small part of my survival. I binged on dystopian fiction: audiobooks of 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale, TV series like Cold War-era The Americans and any dark British mystery series I could get my hands on.

I did punctuate the bleakness with some levity in the form of The Great British Baking Show, Project Runway and Downton Abbey, but mostly I wanted dark. I wanted to swim in other people’s problems. Gratitude with a pinch of schadenfreude.

My dark mood was not purely about my own circumstances. I started my chemo infusions the day before Donald Trump was elected. I now had the shock of that political and social bomb to contend with. I tried to process what had happened to our country. I tried to understand how so many could have voted for him. I tried not to catastrophize. When, later that week the worst of the chemo side effects hit—exhaustion, diarrhea and a generalized awfulness that I called the gaping yaw, it felt like a days-long fever dream.

One thing I did not do was turn to the Internet for solace, help, connections or information related to cancer. I didn’t research the diagnosis, or seek alternative medical paths, or arm myself with the latest statistics and thinking. I found that I was able to be an advocate for myself even without that.

Some women in my support group found all the data grounding and empowering. I found it overwhelming and unhelpful to learn about all of the things I could have or should have done differently to reduce my risk—and which might not have made a difference at all—like get a mammogram sooner, have children earlier, breastfeed for longer, eat less fat, take different birth control. The Web was aswarm with all the ways in which my choices may have contributed to my illness. I’m not proud of not wanting to educate myself more. It’s just where I was.

Once I was diagnosed and had a plan (I went with the second-opinion doc’s approach), life began to feel somewhat knowable again. It would be awful for sure, but if all went according to plan, the worst of it would be contained to roughly one year. Despite the aggressive nature of the tumor, the prognosis was good, because there was a targeted therapy to treat the very attribute that made it aggressive. (Five years earlier, before the treatment was available, things would not have been so relatively rosy.)

The first three of six rounds of chemo were the worst. The gaping yaw took hold and made me want to put myself into suspended animation until the symptoms subsided. It was a challenge to interact, to eat, drink or enjoy anything. It was one of the tightest, chokingest places I’ve ever been.

By the fourth round, I was doing acupuncture and taking medical cannabis (a combined THC and CBD tincture). The two together made a world of difference. My symptoms were far milder and I had more energy. I was starting to come out of that choking narrow place. Mitzrayim. I don’t know a whole lot about the Bible, but this I knew. I knew it from 42 years of seders and from my husband’s commentary. Mitzrayim, the narrows where the Hebrews were held captive, and from which they emerged to a better place.

I emerged with no more cancer, a more practiced parent, a humbled and grateful Angelino.

Elizabeth S. Bennett leads the content strategy team at Capital Group, a global investment manager.

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November 4, 2019 by

Lean on Me: Muslim & Jewish Sisterhood at Auschwitz

 

Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom Jew and Muslim at Auschwitz.

Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom Jew and Muslim at Auschwitz.
Photo by Nazli Chaudhry

Not your usual Holocaust learning experience—eight days with 50 American Muslim and Jewish women in Berlin, Warsaw, Krakow and Auschwitz in July. We were with the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, a grassroots American organization with the bridge-building goal of bringing Jewish and Muslim women together to get to know each other and stand up together to hatred. (Note: membership has more than tripled since Trump’s election.) Our resource person for the trip was Mehnaz M. Afridi, associate professor at Manhattan College, director of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Interfaith Education Center and author of the book Shoah Through Muslim Eyes.

In Berlin, we were fêted and entertained at a mosque, starting with the sound of a woman’s voice reciting from the Koran, then dinner with Muslims and Christians involved in community projects. We worshipped at the remains of one of the great Berlin synagogues (now headed by a woman rabbi) and saw the building where Regina Jonas once lived; she was the world’s first woman ordained as a rabbi, and she was killed at Auschwitz.

We went through a thousand years of Polish Jewish history at Warsaw’s new POLIN Museum, where we got into a fight with our Polish guide who told us that the Poles had suffered as much as the Jews. Jan, a Jewish Pole, then told me that three million Christian Poles were killed by the Germans. When I shared this with our group, Afridi doubted that number. (“Maybe only 500,000.” Seam- ingly, she falls into the same fallacy she points out in her book, that Muslim countries deny or diminish the Shoah by saying, “Only a million Jews were killed by Hitler.”) I was learning how complicated things are, and how hard it is to change mindset. Statistics remain problematic, but historians have little doubt that indeed between two and three million Polish Christians died during World War II, the large majority from German repression and occupation.

SOSS Building Bridges trip to Berlin and Poland at Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

SOSS Building Bridges trip to Berlin and Poland at Berlin’s Memorial to
the Murdered Jews of Europe.
Photo by Nazli Chaudhry

In Warsaw, we visited the city’s one synagogue that survived the war. A beautiful, still-functioning Orthodox synagogue, with an American rabbi from Ohio who knows our trip’s co-leader. In a country with few Muslims, this synagogue is where we met the Tatar Muslim who’d come from Bialystok to speak with us. Muslim Polish history goes back 700 years, but it’s a thin thread. As one academic put it, Poles fear Muslims without ever having met one— a case of “Platonic Islamophobia.”

A decade ago, this lack of diversity among visitors to Auschwitz left future SOSS co-founder Sheryl Olitzky feeling the need to bring people who didn’t look like her—brown, black, non-Jewish, openly LGBTQ —into the post-Auschwitz conversation. And so we were heading for Auschwitz with Olitzky and her SOSS co-founder, Atiya Aftab. And our busload of Muslim and Jewish SOSS members were brown, white, and some first-generation Americans.

But first, Krakow’s old city, undamaged by the war. Its Jews deported, its buildings preserved, Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter, is now awash in tourism thanks to “Schindler’s List” film locations. Klezmer music, chicken soup and cholent served up by non-Jews. And the unnerving sight of jitneys advertising tours to Auschwitz. I felt I was in Hitler’s planned museum of the extinct race. But now our dining room at Klezmer-Hois Restauracja was filled with Jewish and Muslim women taking selfies. And at the local JCC, we saw proof of a small, reborn Jewish community.

Finally, Auschwitz and Birkenau. Concentration and extermination camps—an endless expanse in the blazing heat. As we left the bus, one of my Muslim sisters said to me, softly, “We’re here to support you.” I was surprised, and touched.

After hours plugged into headphones listening to our knowledgeable, restrained Polish guide, we reached the small building where we stood in a circle for a memorial service with Jewish and Muslim prayers. This was where many of us spoke the names of family and friends’ family members murdered in the Shoah.

Walking back to the bus, in the shade of a small grove of trees, I came upon a cluster of Muslim women from our sisterhood gathered in afternoon prayer, their bright colored head scarves standing out against the green leaves. I was riveted by this image without cliché—Muslim women at prayer in Auschwitz. And I did feel supported.

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July 9, 2019 by

Addiction: Jewish Women Caught In The Crisis

Screen Shot 2019-07-02 at 2.44.47 PM

From the spiral ramps that frame New York’s Guggenheim Museum, thousands of small, white sheets of paper—each containing what looked like a prescription for OxyContin—came down like snow. In the lobby several people lay on the floor, staring vacantly at the domed glass ceiling some 90 feet up. Many more stood and chanted, “Sacklers lie, people die.”

The protesters had gathered earlier this year to call attention to the museum’s financial ties to the Sacklers, whose pharmaceutical company makes the powerful painkiller OxyContin. The Sacklers are prominent Jewish philanthropists, and as such their name appears on an arts education center at the Guggenheim, the medical school at Tel Aviv University and a staircase at Berlin’s Jewish Museum. Dozens of U.S. states have sued the Sacklers’ company, Purdue Pharma, claiming deceptive marketing tactics and wrongful drug deaths; earlier this year, the company settled a lawsuit brought by the state of Oklahoma for $270 million. (Under pressure, several cultural institutions, including the Guggenheim and the Jewish Museum, have said that they will no longer accept donations from the Sackler family.)

Opioids—including but not limited to OxyContin and its generics—killed more than 47,000 Americans in 2017. More men than women die from addiction, but the balance is shifting. Earlier this year, a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report found that since 1999 opioid overdoses were up a staggering 492% among women ages 30 to 64.

The widespread use of these drugs beyond the depressed rural enclaves where they’ve made headlines, together with the Sacklers’ connection to the crisis, means the opioid epidemic—and addiction more broadly—can no longer be relegated to the status of “someone else’s problem.”

For a long time, “there was a sense that Jews don’t do this,” said Rabbi Ellie Shemtov, a New Jersey rabbi who has written Torah commentaries connected to the 12 steps used in addiction recovery. “Opioids are changing that because more and more people know someone who has been through this,” said Shemtov, whose former husband died of alcoholism in 2010.

Women make up about one-third of the residents at Beit T’Shuvah, the 140-bed drug treatment facility and Jewish congregation in Los Angeles, according to its founder and clinical director, Harriet Rossetto. In recent years, she’s observed an influx of affluent Jewish women who became addicted to prescription opioids following medical procedures. “Because the brain doesn’t differentiate between physical pain and psychic pain, all of the sudden they felt a lot better that they ever felt,” she said. “They kept refilling that prescription and at some point when the doctors stopped giving it, a lot of people got into heroin.”

At the same time their substance abuse is more likely than that of their male counterparts to be shrouded in shame and secrecy. Women often use in the privacy of their homes, and keep their addiction even from those closest to them—lest they be seen as “falling apart.”

“In American Jewish culture, there’s the pressure to succeed, to be the best, to look the best—there’s perfectionism,” Rossetto said. “If you feel that you don’t measure up, and you’re always comparing [yourself ] to other people, I think that’s part of the wound people feel.”

In an effort to dismantle the stigma around addiction, Lilith recently spoke to five American Jewish women in recovery—women driven to abuse prescription drugs or street drugs or alcohol by past traumas, by life transitions, by physical pain, or by casual use that became a physical dependency. Women who sought treatment amid pregnancies or overdoses or realizations that their addictions were leading nowhere good. Their stories are familiar; indeed, they are our stories.


 

Rachel Schwartz

As her marriage was dissolving, Rachel Schwartz turned to prescription painkillers, and then to a street drug that would dismantle her life as she knew it.

“Once I found meth, nothing else mattered,” Schwartz explained. As she got high, she would cry, feeling “the guilt, the remorse, the pain, and the shame” of her addiction to the dangerous stimulant. But as soon as she came down, those feelings gave way to the familiar question: What do I have left to sell so I can buy more meth?

“Every other concern, including food and water, goes away,” she said. “All the people you love, you can’t see them. All you care about is getting that bag of drugs.”

Schwartz never expected her life path would have led to such a dark and despairing place. She had grown up Jewish in Westchester County, New York, and attended Camp Ramah and Brandeis University. She had moved to Colorado, finished college, gotten married, and worked as a technical recruiter.

And yet, here she was, desperate for her next high. Even if it meant going without meals. Or stealing from friends. Or pawning her mom’s jewelry.

“I’m a good person, but it made me do deplorable things,” she said.

Schwartz was 28 when she started using drugs, as she was divorcing. At first, it was opiates, which she had been prescribed following dental surgery. Realizing she had a problem, she spent some $20,000 to send herself to a fancy rehab facility in Belize, replete with horseback riding and personal training.

Following rehab she moved, temporarily, to Houston, Texas, to be with some of the friends she had met in Belize. It was there that she’d relapse, and try meth for the first time.

“After my divorce, I was on a mission of self destruction—it was purposeful,” she said. “I had shamed my family; I had shamed his family. It was easier to just obliterate myself.”

And she almost did. Once hooked on meth, Schwartz struggled to hold down a job. She once spent a week in jail, locked in a cell for about 23 hours a day after her desperate parents called the cops on her for stealing. When they dropped the charges, Schwartz moved back in with her drug-addicted boyfriend and began using again. A few weeks later, she found out she was pregnant.

This time around, she was determined to get clean, and stay clean. For her son. For herself. She detoxed not at a resort-like rehab, but alongside other drug-addicted pregnant women, some of them homeless and almost all of them enduring painful withdrawal symptoms.

Her son is now a healthy 9-year old. 

“He knows mommy is sober,” she said of her son, whom she co-parents alongside her son’s father, also a recovering addict. “He grew up going to AA meetings.”

Schwartz managed to rebuild her career in recruiting. She made financial amends to those from whom she had stolen to buy drugs, and three years ago, she bought a home near Boulder.

“I had always felt like I could never do life on my own as a single woman,” said Schwartz, now 46. “Getting sober and being a single mom was me facing my worst fears.” As hard as that has been, Schwartz said the process “has reminded me how strong I am.”


 

Emma B. 

Casual recreational drug use is common among some subsets of young teens. For Emma B (we are not using her full name because of her age) an early dependency on pills would result in a nearly fatal overdose of the powerful opioid fentanyl. (In 2017, fentanyl and drugs similar to it claimed 28,000 American lives.)

Emma was 14, a high school freshman in Los Angeles, when she started abusing prescription drugs: “Adderall for studying, Xanax for coming down,” she recalled. “Maybe drink on Xanax for going out. If I just wanted to hang out, I’d do opiates. If I wanted to get fucked up, I’d mix it all.”

She could buy them from a dealer or bum them from a friend, noting, “Especially among private schools in West L.A., drugs were easy to access.” At Tulane University in New Orleans, where she enrolled after high school, she continued to use—in part to calm her anxiety, she said.

As a young woman, she was particularly vulnerable. “It’s easy to get taken advantage of ” by male addicts, intent on stealing money and drugs, she said. “Especially at a Greek-heavy school, you have to be on guard,” and that’s more challenging if you’re under the influence.

Plus, it was hard to know what was really in the pills she’d been sold. That was the case several months back, when she took what she thought was OxyContin, a powerful painkiller in its own right, but which had been laced with the far more potent synthetic opioid fentanyl.

By the time her housemate found her unconscious, next to a space heater, Emma’s left thigh had been badly burned. She was rushed to the hospital, where she remained for about a week—detoxing, being treated for the burn, and being closely monitored because she had flatlined before she was revived. “They had to do a lot of tests to make sure my heart was in good condition and my brain was fine, that it wasn’t too deprived of oxygen,” said Emma, now on a medical leave from Tulane.

Her parents, who had flown out to New Orleans to be with her, brought her back to Los Angeles and moved her into Beit T’Shuvah (Hebrew for “House of Repentance”), the L.A. addiction treatment facility and Jewish congregation. When she spoke with Lilith in the spring, she had been living at Beit T’Shuvah for five months, and expected to remain there for at least two more months. The treatment program there incorporates Jewish spiritual practices, which Emma said “is a cornerstone of many people’s recovery,” though not her own.

Emma, who considers herself culturally Jewish but is not observant, said that the 12-step work she’s done through Beit T’Shuvah has encouraged her to connect to something greater than herself (putting faith in a higher power is Step Two). Key to staying clean when she’s back at school—she is an English major and an aspiring magazine writer—will be attending 12-step program meetings and “finding something more tangible to believe in because I don’t think I’ve fully defined what my higher power is yet.”



Erin Khar

For Erin Khar, of New York City, developing a spiritual practice, and ultimately converting to Judaism, has been pivotal to her recovery from heroin addiction.

In her forthcoming memoir, Strung Out (Park Row Books, 2020), she writes about the night when, inside a Beverly Hills mansion, she shot up for the first time, and then lost her virginity. Khar had just turned 13.

Khar then struggled with addiction on and off for the better part of a decade, and almost no one in her life knew. Nor did they have reason to suspect that she was using. She was a straight-A student at a suburban Los Angeles prep school, a horseback rider and a cheerleader. When, at age 23, Khar was caught with drugs—by her then-fiancé—many who loved her, especially her parents, “were in such denial that this could really be my problem.” It seemed so unlikely.

Meanwhile, Khar was eager to name her problem. “I wanted to say, ‘This is what’s wrong with me. I’m an addict’,” she said. But there was more to it. She had been sexually abused as a child, and had struggled with suicidal thoughts since she was 8. Heroin, she said, was symptomatic of early trauma, of mental illness and of a primal fear “that if anyone knew about this, they wouldn’t love me.”

Khar tried to stop many times over the years, but always relapsed—until, that is, she found out she was pregnant, got clean, and has stayed clean ever since. Her son is now 15, and an accomplished ballet dancer.

“When my son was born, it felt like a switch flipped,” said Khar, now an editor and advice columnist for the website Ravishly. “I loved this baby more than I hated myself, and thatlaid the foundation for living without drugs, and regulating my emotions, for showing up in my life.”

She went to therapy and went on psychiatric medication that helped stabilize her mood. She also developed a spiritual practice, involving meditation, Kundalini yoga, and ultimately Judaism—her now-husband’s faith, to which she converted in 2014. (She is the daughter of a Swedish-American mother and an Iranian-born father, and grew up in a secular home where some Christian holidays were celebrated.)

Her journey “came full circle with Judaism because it provided a way to connect with my spirituality, with community, with tradition, with my family unit,” said Khar, 45, who now also has a 2-year-old son. Being part of a spiritual community, she said, may help ease the loneliness, isolation and lack of self-worth that drive so many people turn to drugs in the first place. For Khar, her adopted faith helps root her, and the Jewish imperative to repair the world “is very important for recovery because we build self-esteem when we are of service to others.”


Chani Lisbon

The ready availability of kiddush wine provided early exposure to alcohol. Right away, Chani Lisbon liked how it made her feel; only years on did she understand she had a problem.

Lisbon was 15 when she would often find herself around her married sister’s Shabbat table—drinking alcohol with boys from a local yeshiva.

Lisbon, now 37, grew up in Los Angeles, where her father was an emissary with Chabad-Lubavitch, the Hasidic movement known for its Jewish outreach efforts. She is one of 11 siblings (including half-siblings).

After high school she attended a religious seminary in Brooklyn, and later went to work in Manhattan’s famed diamond district. It was then that she realized that her relationship with alcohol looked different from that of her peers. Drinking wasn’t recreational, said Lisbon: “I needed it. I couldn’t go to the movies without alcohol. I couldn’t go to the grocery store without a buzz.” She spent her work day counting the number of hours left till she could leave work and have a drink. Grey Goose vodka, she said, “became a friend.”

“I don’t know if I was born an alcoholic,” she said, “and I don’t spend time wondering about it because it doesn’t really matter. I just know that I am one.”

Lisbon is a Brooklyn-based stand-up comedian now, though she rarely addresses her alcoholism in her act. But she does get personal, talking about her sexuality—she is single, has dated men and women, and identifies as queer—and her struggles with anxiety and an autoimmune condition that makes her hair fall out. “I was diagnosed with TMJ,” she’ll tell the crowd. “Too Much Jew.”

In all seriousness, trauma and pain were at the root of her addiction, she said. When at 25 she went, at a friend’s invitation, to a local support group for those who struggle with drinking, she could not imagine going a day without alcohol, “but by the grace of a power I don’t even understand, I was able to get sober,” Lisbon has said onstage.

It’s one day at a time—sometimes, an hour at a time—but she has been sober for more than 11 years.

Jen Simon

The trials of new motherhood, compounded by postpartum depression and anxiety, led Jen Simon to try one pill, prescribed to her for back pain and severe menstrual cramps.

At first, Percocet provided Simon, a stay-at-home mother in New Jersey, welcome relief of her physical and psychic pain. At the time, her baby was waking up every 45 minutes or so, and this went on for months. The sleep deprivation took its toll. Percocet, though, made everything feel more tolerable. It didn’t make her feel “high,” but rather “just a more relaxed, better version of myself.”

That was in the beginning, before one pill a day turned into six pills a day, turned into 10 pills a day, from six different doctors writing prescriptions. “If any of them had looked at my medical history, they would have seen drug-seeking behavior.” But none of them did, she said.

Two years in, Simon finally told her husband and her mother that she was addicted to painkillers. Her mom flew in to help as she detoxed on the couch, a process Simon described as “kind of like the flu, but more terrible.”

As soon as her mom left town, Simon relapsed, telling no one. She managed to quit when she became pregnant with her second son, but as soon as she was offered medication to treat pain following his Caesarean birth, “I was like, ‘Hooray, my body is mine again,” and Simon became hooked once more. She continued to use in secret for the better part of three years after her initial detox at home.

The end came into sight only when she realized that the medications she had been prescribed, and those she was stealing from other people’s medicine cabinets, were no longer providing relief. She needed more pills, stronger pills. She knew she had a choice to make: get help or get a dealer. If she chose the latter, if she went from Percocet and morphine to OxyContin, “how far away could heroin be?” she wondered, noting that heroin had always been a red line for her.

That’s when she finally admitted to her husband and her parents that she was still struggling. Detox, rehab, individual therapy, group therapy, opioid blockers to curb cravings, antidepressants, and participation in an intensive outpatient program followed. So, too, did an essay she wrote in the Washington Post, titled, “I’m a stay-at-home mom. I’m an addict.”

A contributor to the Jewish parenting site Kveller, Simon recalled the supportive feedback she received when she wrote previously about her struggles with postpartum depression. Still, she feared that opening up about addiction was something that would drive people away.

“I thought I was going to lose friends, left and right, that people would abandon me,” Simon, 42, said. “I didn’t know if they’d let their kids play with my kids anymore.”

Instead, her circle has grown—as strangers, some of whom she now considers friends, have come forward. She now runs a secret Facebook group for some 90 moms struggling with addiction. This is me, women in the group tell her. I felt so alone until I saw this.

Gabrielle Birkner is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor. She is the co-founder of Modern Loss, and she is the co-author of Modern Loss: Candid Conversation About Grief. Beginners Welcome (Harper Wave, 2018).

Art: Deborah Wasserman, “Plurabelle,” www.deborahwasserman.com 

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The Lilith Blog

February 21, 2019 by

Baking Torah into the Challah

 As my mother drove a car full of kids to elementary school, I sat in the backseat, creating dough. The blue mixing bowl on my lap didn’t protect my clothes and the vehicle from a light layer of flour, and the practice was probably not the most sanitary, but the Friday was busy, and 7:30am was the only time for dough prep.

Challah, a staple of Shabbat, holiday tradition and Jewish cuisine, plays many roles: a rushed ritual in the back of a moving vehicle; the perfect bookends for a deli meat sandwich; a piece tossed across the family table; the loaf the dog can’t seem to get enough of. For Vanessa Harper, challah has become a space for shaping and sharing Torah.

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The Lilith Blog

December 13, 2018 by

7 Jewish Feminist Highlights of 2018

I don’t need to tell readers of Lilith that parts of this year have been soul-crushing for Jewish feminists.  In 2018 we mourned those massacred at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, and many of us gnashed our teeth about antisemitism in our own feminist movements.

But Jewish feminist hope, grit, and creative resistance were also part of 2018. As the secular year winds down, let’s remember and celebrate all that has healed and nourished our souls. Here’s my annual list of 7 Jewish feminist highlights (7 being the number associated with creation and blessing in Jewish tradition):

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