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Tag : Jewish

April 20, 2020 by

Writing Outside the Frame

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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April 20, 2020 by

Gender-Related Pay Inequity in Jewish Organizations? •

On average, women working full time in the U.S. are paid just 80% of what men in comparable positions are paid. Sadly, this gender pay gap also exists within Jewish institutions, and at similar rates. The leadership of the Reform movement has created the Reform Pay Equity Initiative to correct this injustice. You can access their information for employers and employees, including education resources, best practices, and comprehensive tools to help close the gender wage gap.

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The Lilith Blog

August 13, 2019 by

Are There Lessons in Quiet Judaism?

Back in junior high school, the girls had to participate in an extracurricular sports team, and my friend Sheila and I played junior-varsity outfield. Sheila was slightly less awful an athlete than I was, and we shared a mutual strategy: since most of our classmates couldn’t hit the ball too far, playing outfield meant that all you had to do was stand around and pretend you were interested in the game. The Phys Ed teachers only paid attention to the athletic girls, which meant Sheila and I could stand near each other and talk about important things, like boys and that cute new social-studies teacher.

There was a small Jewish community in our suburb. In the first community my family had lived in, on the other hand, we were the only Jewish family on the block. And it was a very long block. My parents were quiet about our faith, and told me when I was still a little girl that some people didn’t like Jews and that sometimes I might hear mean comments directed to me. Both my mother and father suffered terrible anti-Semitism in their youth—my father in particular was the object of hideous physical violence that left his face scarred forever—not in Nazi Germany, but right here in America. So they did not deny being Jewish, but were quiet about it, although the mezuzah proudly hanging on our front door might have given things away to our neighbors.

Sheila was Jewish too, and we talked about it sometimes, especially about The Diary of Anne Frank, which staggered us both. We knew about the Holocaust, which took place just before we were born, and we knew that, although Judaism had to go underground at certain times—much in the way the Franks and the Van Daans and Dr. Dussel were hidden in the attic—it was a religion and a people of survival. So we smiled with pleasure when we found out that the young actress who played the Norwegian-American Dagmar Hansen in the television series “Mama” was really Robin Morgenstern, not Robin Morgan. And on the ball field one day, waiting for fly balls that never came our way, Sheila asked if I was still a Girl Scout.

“Yes, I am.”

“Do you read The American Girl?” The Girl Scouts’ monthly magazine featured articles about young women who earned merit badges by picking up neighborhood trash and knitting socks for the poor. It also featured short stories about slender, blonde-haired, blue-eyed girls named Krissy and Gwen and Mary. My friends and I hated our dark, curly hair and dumpy body types and longed to look like them.

“Yes, I do.”

“Did you see it? The name?” We smiled at each other. One of the stories featured a heroine named Shayna, which we knew meant pretty girl. Shayna Punim, the name our grandmothers called us. And this Shayna was more than just a pretty girl; she was a clever girl who sneaked into a story about bland, conforming Middle America.

A few years later, being Jewish became fashionable. Girls flaunted Stars of David to let the Jewish boys know we were available. We bragged that all the best doctors and lawyers were Members of the Tribe, and although the lives of people in books by Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud and Saul Bellow bore only superficial resemblance to our own, they came to define Jewish society in America. We celebrated our leadership in arts and culture, science and medicine, moral righteousness and the quest for social justice. It was an extended moment and lasted many years, but I suspect I’m not alone in thinking that things are changing now. The newspaper columnists and talking heads on television, the young physicians who treated me during a recent hospitalization, the authors of newly-published fiction about coming of age in America are less often Jewish than they are African American, Latinx, or Asian. 

That’s as it should be in a country that is increasingly diverse and conscious of different experiences and opinions. Nevertheless, friends who are leaders in the Jewish community worry about the global rise of anti-Semitism, a turning away from Israel, and a general erosion of the centrality of the American Jewish community in the lives of many American Jews. I’m aware of this too, of course, but what gives me confidence in our people’s endurance is that, as my friend Sheila and I recognized as young girls, Jews don’t always have to make a bold fuss about who we are. Like Shayna, we come through.

After retiring from a career in public relations, Kathryn Bloom went back to school and received a PhD in literature from Northeastern University in 2018. She now teaches at several Boston-area institutions and writes critical articles and essays for a variety of publications. 

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The Lilith Blog

April 30, 2019 by

In the Shadow of Notre Dame

Back in the 1970s when I was a graduate student in Paris, I started a couple of traditions for myself. Now, each time I’m in the city I spend some alone time just sitting in the left-bank’s Square René-Viviani just across from Notre Dame Cathedral, and each time I leave Paris I stand on the Petit Pont, toss a coin into the Seine, and promise to return. And return I do, time and again, for short periods and long to the city that has become my second home.

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April 2, 2019 by

Poetry: Brisket Wars

The oven preheats to 325. Mama prepares the brisket.

In the warming kitchen, she follows her recipe for the meat

as her mother and grandmother had, tenderly

placing the slab in a roasting pan, pointed-fat

side up, sprinkled with onions, salt, garlic; bloody-

flat side down, hiding the family’s rough-cut


history. Mama proclaims the piece is prime, first cut.

She buys from Irv the butcher. His koshered brisket

promises a sacred knowledge. He throws a bloody

extra chunk into our package already leaking from juicy meat.

He winks at me, thick arms hovering, fat

cheeks quivering, and hands our purchase over tenderly.


At the Formica table, I smooth Doris Day paper dolls tenderly.

Bad luck to tear thin skin. Along dotted lines I cut

evening gowns for figures that never fatten.

Mama brags to her two sisters that she makes Cleveland’s best brisket.

I prod stringy strands, forklift a bite of gristly meat,

chew hard until I can swallow without gagging on the bloody


legacy. Mama and her sisters escape Poland, its bloody

pogroms in 1938. Batya, the elder, uses bone broth to tenderize,

and horseradish to spice up her beef. On Shabbos she meets

Mama and me for cake and coffee. At 13, Batya cuts

out patterns 8 hours a day for a seamstress. Batya advises brisket

should be choice, not lean; do not trim the saddle of fat.


That layer makes the dish delish. My tongue’s slick with fat.

Mama whispers her papa beats Batya bloody

when she refuses to hand over her wages. They only eat brisket

on Passover. He gambles the money away even when Batya tenders

her living. Doroshke, the younger sister, doesn’t cut

her schooling short. She’s his pretty favorite. But her meat’s


dry, tasteless, tough. Mama and Batya for once agree. Meetings

over. Done. All gone. No leftover recipes for how to cleave a fatted

calf or breed a better beast. I move far, order take-out, and try to cut

the cord clean, but can’t staunch the bleeding.

No recipe to dress wounds that remain so tender.

Mama worries who’ll marry me if I can’t make a decent brisket.


You can’t overcook brisket. Stick it in the oven and the meat cooks itself.

Men like a little fat to grab hold of as long as it’s tender. Learn to make

the bloody recipe. Be generous. Brisket’s a forgiving cut, a very

                 forgiving cut. 


Lilith Poetry Editor Alicia Ostriker comments: Part of what charms me about this poem is that it is a sestina, a complex form: six stanzas of six lines plus a final triplet, all stanzas having the same six words at the line-ends in six different sequences that follow a fixed pattern, and with all six words appearing in the closing three-line envoi. You get special points for end-words that have double meanings. Sestinas are hard to write but easy once you get the hang of them—just like cooking a good brisket. Originally used for refined topics such as romantic love, a sestina can be used even for the nourishing tragicomedy of multigenerational Jewish family life. So the poem uses a recipe, and is itself a recipe—for celebrating survival. The details, of course, are what make it so delicious.

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The Lilith Blog

September 20, 2018 by

Sorry Brett Kavanaugh: Religious Women Use Birth Control

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Before the big story of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings switched to an alleged attempted sexual assault from his youth, he had already earned women’s groups’ ire: he quoted a right-wing religious talking point, calling birth control “abortion-inducing.”

I’ll share a secret with you: that argument pushed by groups like Priests for Life, the group Kavanaugh quoted during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings last week, has nothing to do with the reality of what religious women do. They use birth control.

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The Lilith Blog

August 15, 2018 by

The Book That Teaches Children About a Jewish Prima Ballerina

An Unlikely Ballerina

Young Lily Marks loves to stand on her tiptoes. When her parents notice there’s weakness in her legs, her doctor suggests dancing lessons to strengthen them, and Lily falls in love with ballet. But can this fragile girl ever become a serious dancer? When the famous ballerina Anna Pavlova comes to town, Lily just has to meet her. Maybe Pavlova—small, delicate, and Jewish like Lily—holds the key to Lily’s future. Fiction Editor (and lifelong balletomane) Yona Zeldis McDonough talks to author Krystyna Poray Goddu about her informative and charming new picture book.

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