Tag : q&A

The Lilith Blog

April 23, 2020 by

A New Translation of a Yiddish Comic Gem

If you crossed Helen’s Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary with Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts, you might end up with Diary of a Lonely Girl, or the Battle Against Free Love (Syracuse University Press, $19.95) written by the Yiddish writer Miriam Karpilove and recently translated by Jessica Kirzane. Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough talks to Kirzane about how she stumbled upon this singular writer and why her work still matters today. 

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November 6, 2019 by

Jennifer Weiner: An Opinionated Monarch of Women’s Fiction

Jennifer Weiner  Photo © Andrea Ciprian Imecchi

Jennifer Weiner
Photo © Andrea Ciprian Imecchi

A bestselling novelist, Jennifer Weiner is also a New York Times opinion columnist and an activist on behalf of sneered-at categories of women’s literature as well as feminism, body-size inclusivity, and female pleasure. Lilith’s digital editor Sarah Seltzer caught up with her shortly after the release of her new novel, Mrs. Everything, which follows Midwestern sisters Jo and Bethie from the 1950s through the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

S.S.:Your book reads as a tribute to Baby Boomer women and what they endured. What can later generations learn about America from their stories?

J.W.: I’m not sure younger women know just how bad or how restrictive things were for their mothers and their grandmothers—that women couldn’t get their own credit cards or their own mortgages; that a woman was expected to want a husband and a family, and to put her career and her own professional ambitions off to the side; that LGBTQ people could either live in a handful of big cities or in the closet, and couldn’t marry or have families. It’s easy to forget where we came from (especially when there’s someone with a huge megaphone talking about making America great again). I think that history and fiction can both serve as a crucial reminder that it wasn’t great for everyone, and it especially was not great for women.

What resources did you turn to for your research?

Last week I met with a lot of smart Hollywood people, and one of them made me so happy when he said Mrs. Everything reminded him of The Women’s Room by Marilyn French. That—along with Rubyfruit Jungle—was one of the books of my mother’s that I’d read as a young teenager, and that I re-read for Mrs. E. If you haven’t read The Women’s Room…it’s the story of an unhappily married woman named Myra (whose husband is symbolically named Norm). Myra’s husband leaves her, she goes to Harvard, where she re-invents herself as a feminist and learns, as do my poor Jo and Bethie, that there are no easy happy endings for women of that era, no matter how they chose to live their lives.

That same executive also asked what I read for research. I told him that, in addition to lots of newspapers and magazines (which are all, thank God, online or available on microfilm), there were great memoirs and oral histories: stories from black soldiers in Vietnam, stories from Jewish women in the Civil Rights movement, stories about the Newport Folk Festival. I read advice books and child-rearing books to know what voices Jo and Bethie would be hearing in their ears One of my favorite sources was a book called Going South by Debra L. Schultz [previewed in Lilith in Fall 1999]. Another great book was Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The scene where Jo and Shelley have lots of ideas for actions and get told to cook dinner instead? Not fiction.

Any unexpected similarities between the lives of women in the 1950s and 60s and our own time?

One thing that surprised me was how progressive and supportive women’s magazines were. I was expecting magazines from that era to be full of diet tips and how-to-get-a-man advice—and there was some of that, of course. But the diets were actually pretty reasonable; and, along with the getting-a-man/throwing-a-party tips, there were also stories about how to be an exchange student, or an interview with a young woman who’d moved to New York right out of high school to try to make it on Broadway. There was something wonderfully subversive about those magazines, and how they were almost Trojan horses, encouraging independence and free thinking in between the fashion tips.

How many times have you read Little Women?

More times than I can count.

Neither Jo nor Bethie has satisfying choices in tangling with patriarchal forces. Do young women today have a somewhat wider horizon?

A wider horizon, yes. A perfect, trouble-free path? No.

I think that young women today have many more options, but it feels like with all of those choices has come an equal amount of judgment: Oh, you’re not having kids? What’s up with that? Or: Oh, you spent all that time and money on your graduate degree, and you’re not working? How come? It still feels, to me, like women are damned if they do, damned if they don’t, and still, in many cases, stuck working twice as hard to get half as far (and it’s worse, obviously, for non-white, non-straight women).

Your tender treatment of Jo’s same-sex attraction has drawn notice. How can mainstream fiction and TV help spread acceptance of different sexual and gender identities?

This is going to feel like a basic answer, but I’ll quote Lin- Manuel Miranda: love is love is love is love is love. I just tried to write Jo’s sex scenes the same way I write sex scenes where it’s a man and a woman, with the same specificity and attention to details. I think that’s what all mainstream fiction and TV should be doing when writing or portraying the “other”—just treat them like people, and get the details right.

In a recent N.Y.Times op-ed, you described your mother’s lack of enthusiasm for your budding identity as a novelist. How has that influenced your work process?

LOL. I think my mom’s indifference made me try harder, because I wanted to impress her, and show her that, in spite of her skepticism, I was, indeed, capable of writing a book! It’s interesting, because I now have two daughters, and I feel like I’m always encouraging them, and telling them how wonderful and great they are and how they can do anything. Every once in a while, I’ll stop and think, “Is this really helping? What if I’m not giving them anything to prove?”

mrsevYou’ve said that women are the primary consumers of fiction, and that you wish that would change. What do you think men have to learn from reading fiction? What can we all learn from fiction that we may not be able to glean from non-fiction?

Fiction lets you see the world through different eyes. I think about the books that I read as a young woman, from Rubyfruit to Daddy Was a Number Runner to Down These Mean Streets to Mama by Terry McMillan, and how it made me think about all the ways that the world was different for gay women, or people of color. Nonfiction gives you the facts; fiction gives you the color, the texture and the nuance and the feeling of what it’s like to be in that skin, in that moment. It is invaluable, and I wish that everyone in the world read more of it.

How can we adjust our perceptions of what “serious” or “real” literature is?

It’s hard, but I think we need to try to look past the covers, past the labels, past the pastel shades or the “chick lit” or “beach read” appellations, and just consider our own experience of the story. Did this move me? Did it teach me something? Did it open my eyes? Do I want my own mother or sister or daughter to read it? That, to me, is “serious” literature.

You write a lot about family relationships, and as we know, some qualities feel common to (or stereotypical of) Jewish families. How has your own Jewish upbringing shaped your characters and the conflicts they face?

I absolutely think that my Jewish identity has shaped my characters and the stories I tell. Obviously, I write about Jewish people, with all of the specificity that goes along with that—the food, the holidays, the rituals—but, beyond that, I write about outsiders, about people who live on the fringes and both long for and resist the mainstream. I think that being Jewish informs those characters, because being Jewish means that you’re eternally on the outside.

The sisters’ family faces exclusion and teasing because they are Jews and immigrants, while they also uphold white privilege. Why is it so important to be able to understand both these ideas at the same time?

Understanding a problem is the first way to change it. If we can understand privilege, we can start to dismantle it. And as [white] Jews, we’re uniquely positioned, in that we both enjoy white privilege and also feel the exclusion of being the other. My hope is that duality gives us empathy. We can understand and be allies to people on the outside, while also understanding how people with privilege might not always see it, or want to share it, or let it go.

You have talked about our society’s resistance to female pleasure: do you feel a responsibility to women to dismantle this resistance in your writing? As the mother of daughters; do you notice any overlap between your parenting and your writing in your efforts to spread a positive message about female pleasure?

I wrote a piece for the Times once about how everything I learned about pleasure, I learned from fiction, and romance novels. Mass media, TV and movies, told me that women’s bodies existed for male gratification and that it was my job to conform to the male gaze. Fiction taught me that women’s pleasure mattered too, and that women had the right to enjoy their experiences. Because of that, I always try to have an R-rated sex scene in every book I write. I want the women who read my work (and the 12-year-olds sneaking my books out of their mother’s shelves) to know that pleasure is their right and their due.

Should feminists be more involved in thinking about pleasure-based consumption: both promoting porn and erotica we see as positive and pushing back against derogatory content?

When I was a young woman, it was the heyday of the anti-porn feminists like Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin. They argued that male-gaze-centered pornography hurt women (a legitimate argument), and they joined forces with far-rightwing groups to shut down magazines like Hustler (a problematic alliance).

When I got a little older, it was the era of Do-Me, sex-positive feminism, a kind of cool-girl feminism where you were supposed to be totally okay with porn and you’d watch it with your boyfriend, where you knew what you wanted in bed (a good thing!) and had casual hook-ups, if that’s what you wanted. But somewhere along the line, sex got “porn-ified,” and leached of some of its meaning.

I hope we’re approaching an era where there is a balance; where feminists promote positive, empowering, inclusive fantasies that don’t cater to the male gaze; where there’s not pressure for women to consume media with which they aren’t comfortable or conform to fantasies or ideals that don’t feel good to them.

You’ve spoken out about body positivity, and you started the #weartheswimsuit social media movement in 2016, encouraging women to enjoy the water regardless of self-image in a swimsuit. What got you to your own place of projecting confidence?

I always tell women to fake it ‘til they make it. If you’ve been bombarded with images of beautiful equaling thin and white and young since you were old enough to crawl in front of a TV screen, you don’t shake that overnight. Loving yourself is a journey and everyone has bad days. So if you’re not feeling great about yourself and the urge is to beat yourself up, restrict your eating, call yourself every kind of name, stop and think: how would you feel if you heard your daughter, or any young woman in your life, talking to herself like that?

The other thing that’s tremendously helpful is filling my social-media feed with women who are strong and confident and happy, and not necessarily young and white and skinny. Following someone like Lizzo can solve a LOT of problems. (And if you need a place to start, go to @jenniferweinerwrites on Instagram, and see the female models, athletes, yoga instructors, actors and musicians I follow and get to see every day!)

What is the most dangerous threat to positive body image in girls and young women right now?

My two-word answer is President Trump. When the president of the United States calls women “fat pigs” and “slobs,” (and then jokes, oh, no, ha ha ha, I only say that about Rosie O’Donnell), that does damage. He’s giving men a permission slip to laugh at certain kinds of female bodies; he’s giving women marching orders to hate themselves. When a woman comes forward with a credible, specific accusation about his behavior, and the President’s response is a sneering “she’s not my type,” that does damage…and I can imagine thousands of women, all over the world, cringing back into themselves, thinking, If they don’t believe her, they’ll never believe me. I think that women are doing a good job of pushing back at the misogyny that seeps out of the White House every day.

You’re outspoken on a number of issues. Do you think your Judaism has influenced your activism?

I was brought up in a progressive Jewish household, where we talked all the time about Tikkun Olam, and how it was our job to repair the broken world. That has influenced my adult life a lot. I hope that my books have helped to fix what’s broken, I hope that my activism about women’s literature and the lack of respect it receives, and women’s bodies, and the lack of respect some of them receive, has helped to do that work as well. My Judaism shaped who I am, and it informs every single thing that I do.

Lilith interns Arielle Silver-Willner and Noa Wollstein contributed to these questions.

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November 5, 2019 by

The Hazards of Working in the Jewish Community

Sarah Seltzer asks Hannah Dreyfus how she exposed inappropriate behaviors by powerful men.

Sarah Seltzer: When we began to see the #MeToo onslaught, did you have any idea what was coming in the Jewish community?

Hannah Dreyfus: After the Weinstein story, it flitted across my mind: “Hah, I bet the Jewish community has its share.” I had friends employed at Jewish nonprofits, and I’m aware of their structure: often men as the top executives and women filling the ranks. Donors and boards interconnected with one another. All the factors that lead to potential abuses; people who are at the bottom of this power system are dispensable. The Jewish community is tightly knit and loyal and deeply connected—all wonderful things—but it makes unearthing and facing problems difficult. I had done a large investigative story into cases of alleged child sexual abuse in Baltimore and that gave me the credentials I needed to report on #MeToo. I didn’t seek the stories. They found me.

S.S.: In the last two years, every feminist journalist I know has been overwhelmed by more tips in her inbox than she could possibly follow through on. What can you tell readers about the rigorous process to verify what actually makes it into print?

H.D.: Any story that you see, whether it be the New York Times or the Jewish Week, is the tip of a huge iceberg that we will never see. There are so many sources who don’t want to speak, or who do speak and then decide they don’t want their stories told. The people who are most harmed are the least likely to come forward.

S.S.: Have you gotten pushback with the idea that a Jewish figure’s abuse is an internal community problem and not something that needs to be exposed like dirty laundry?

H.D.: I think that’s the reason that a lot of Jewish communities have a problem with journalism in general; because of its perceived potential to exacerbate the external forces of antisemitism. There is always the potential for antisemitism, but that does not relieve our responsibility.

S.S.: The mission of fostering “Jewish continuity” is loaded and problematic, because it uses a “greater good” to swallow up individual pain. So what can journalism do that workplace investigations or lawsuits cannot?

H.D.: Anybody who is speaking to a journalist has been failed by many people. Journalism is that final check on power. I think: I’m glad to be available to do this story, but I wish I didn’t have to. I wish that somebody had taken these complaints seriously before they escalated. I wish that small boundary-crossing patterns had been paid attention to so that stories didn’t have anything to do with rape. I wish that somebody who was on the chain of command had decided not to say “Oh, I know that guy, it’s just the way he acts, and he’s got his heart in the right place.” Those are the small incremental failures that lead someone eventually to a very drastic and almost self-sacrificial step of speaking out in public.

S.S.: People often don’t understand what victims go through before, during and after speaking out.

H.D: Women who are further along in their careers and who are established and prominent, who—you might think— would have less at stake by speaking out, are less likely to speak to me. I’m finding an increased willingness to speak in women in their 20s and 30s. In older generations there is an entrenched feeling that this is a shameful incident that is somehow their fault. In younger women there’s a slightly shifting attitude. “This is not my fault, I don’t deserve to be treated this way, and I will speak out, because this is not something that I need to accept.”

S.S.: Have you felt supported as a journalist at a small paper, somewhat on your own, doing this work?

H.D.: I am very proud of my publication for trusting me and for taking on incredible risk as a community newspaper. And I think it will have placed the Jewish Week firmly on the right side of history. The decision to publish these stories was a brave decision. And the people who are most at risk are, once again, young women in our community who are not highly compensated, who get entry-level positions at organizations doing fundraising, and a career path forward that relies on being seen as a cooperative, loyal, agreeable, likable employee. I have faced intimidation personally and had moments when I came home and said “What was I thinking when I decided to do this?” And the only thing that keeps me going in those moments is a feeling of responsibility to the survivors.

S.S.: We talked recently at Lilith about collateral damage. When planning is dominated by prominent male influencers who are later exposed as outright misogynists, it’s not just the victims who suffer personally and directly from this behavior. The community suffers too.

H.D.: I’ve spoken to so many women who have started off going into Jewish nonprofit work who want to do good for the community, and then when they get into the first fundraising meeting and someone makes a pass at them they’re confused. And then when they go to the first conference where they’re supposed to be exchanging ideas and somebody makes a comment about their dress—and I’m giving you examples of the things that aren’t even egregious—they feel betrayed. People leave the Jewish community because they didn’t bargain for that; they didn’t know that they had to sacrifice their dignity in the process. That’s the tremendous loss for the community. Conferences [to discuss workplace equity and safety] are good, summits are good. Still, if you have skeletons in the closet that you haven’t looked at, all the talk in the world is not enough. I challenge people to think about something you are not facing, or you are downplaying, or that you might know about, even if it doesn’t directly affect you. And see if there’s anything you can do. I’m supposed to be a backstop. In a functioning system, in a system that’s really being reliable to its constituents, I wouldn’t have a job.

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July 9, 2019 by

Lilith Asks Natalie Blitt

How is The Truth About Leaving (Amberjack, $15.99), about an American girl and an Israeli boy new to their senior class, different—for you—from your previous writing for young readers, The Distance from A to Z and the other novels?

Funny enough, The Truth About Leaving was the first novel I wrote. I finished a very rough draft in November 2011 and it’s taken almost eight years for it to find a home and make it into print. That said, this book has been rewritten dozens of times, so I feel like it’s both my first book and my second, fourth, eighth, twelfth, etc. etc. It has changed radically in that time, but it’s still the first story I needed to write badly enough that I actually did it.

Do you consider The Truth About Leaving your first novel with explicitly Jewish material?

Definitely. My other novels have Jewish characters and scenes with Jewish content, but this one is the only one infused with Jewish/Israel content. However, I think if you asked my main character, Dov, he’d say that Israel has a big role in the story, not Judaism. And I’m quite sure Lucy would agree.

In the beginning, Lucy and Dov are paired in an English class where each is assigned to bring in a poem that responds to the poem the other brought in. (Brilliant pedagogy!) They share poems by William Butler Yeats, Yehuda Amichai, Emily Dickinson and William Carlos Williams, among others. Are you a poet too, besides being a novelist? Do you have thoughts about bridging commercial and literary genres?

Hmmm. Interesting question! I love poetry—many of the poems were ones I’d grown up reading in an old hardcover poetry collection that I inherited/stole from my dad, while a few were some from my childhood. And as for being a poet, I have a whole file of bad poetry I wrote in college, but that’s about it. Though here’s a secret: the poem that Lucy writes for Dov is a poem I wrote back then…

There are many literary precedents for unlikely romances— Shakespeare, Jane Austen come to mind. Can you say more about the particular unlikeliness of the love story of Lucy and Dov? And do you have an opinion about happy endings?

Unlikely romances are the best kinds of romances! If it was easy for two people to fall in love and be together, nobody would learn anything about themselves. I love the tension that is created when two people who seem so different are able to make enough room inside to accept and love the other. And personally, I’m all about happy endings. There’s too much unhappiness and failure in the real world, I like the idea of being able to offer a vision of something that seems unlikely but actually works. One important element though: it was really important to me that Lucy and Dov needed to change and grow in order to be together. I don’t believe in solutions that come from one person understanding the other and changing.

Can you tell us more about the protagonists’ moms—who are notably not easy people?

Oh the moms! I get so many strong reactions to the poor moms. (Unlike the grandmas, Amy and Megan, who seem to have their own fan club.) I feel strongly that if I had changed the moms into dads, nobody would have blinked an eye. But when a mom tries to be selfish? The whole world freaks out. Now, Lucy’s mom in particular clearly doesn’t see the cost of her decisions, but I would argue that without watching what her mom did and went through, Lucy couldn’t have made her decision about her future. To me, Lucy’s mom isn’t bad or good, she’s a person who is making choices for herself, despite the consequences. When I was writing the book, Lucy’s mom was the character I identified with most as I hid from my children and family to get more words in. I was very aware that I was missing out on so many things, but I really felt like writing this book in particular was something I couldn’t give up either.

The love interest in this midwestern private high school is a visiting Israeli student. How did you choose “which” Israel to present, which harsh realities to share?

Of all the choices I had to make in this book, this was the easiest. I wanted this to be as realistic a portrait of an 18-year-old Israeli boy as a no-longer-18-year-old North American woman could write. I wanted Dov to be Israeli like my nieces and nephews who live there, and Lucy to see Israel through the news as I did at 18. I wanted the reader to see the clash between those two Israels take place in their encounters. Dov’s view of Israel isn’t devoid of wars and terrorism, but it also isn’t defined by them. And that’s the Israel I wanted Lucy to experience. There are many children’s books and young-adult novels that deal with the conflict and war. I wanted to write a different kind of story about Israel.

Tell us about the title, The Truth About Leaving. What does it mean?

Ah! So, funny story: this book has actually always been called The Truth About Leaving, but I didn’t know why it worked, I just knew it did. And then one day, a few weeks a er the book came out, I realized that the book really does seek to answer the question of what does it mean to leave or stay. It was like subconsciously, I knew it was the right title but I needed my brain to catch up with my subconscious to figure it out. Being any more specific would be vaguely spoilery.

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The Lilith Blog

July 1, 2014 by

Golden Words: Q&A With Author, Editor, Activist Nora Gold

Nora Gold (source: NoraGold.com)

Nora Gold (source: NoraGold.com)

Nora Gold’s recently published Fields of Exile, a pathbreaking novel about anti-Israelism in academe, was picked by The Forward as one of “The 5 Jewish Books to Read in 2014,” and has received enthusiastic praise from many quarters.

But this is not the first time Gold has received acclaim for her work; Marrow and Other Stories won a Canadian Jewish Book Award, and was praised by Alice Munro. And Gold’s story, Yosepha, appeared in the spring 1985 issue of Lilith.

Gold is also the creator and editor of the online literary journal Jewish Fiction.net, a blogger for “The Jewish Thinker” at Haaretz, and Writer in Residence and an Associate Scholar at the Centre for Women’s Studies in Education at OISE/University of Toronto. She and Lilith’s fiction editor Yona Zeldis McDonough discussed the role ideas play in the creation of a novel, the meaning Zionism continues to have in the Diaspora and the siren song of the short story.