Tag : Susan Weidman Schneider

April 12, 2018 by

Three Weddings and a Statement

Three couples unable to marry in Israel celebrated their Jewish weddings at Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan Sunday, December 3.

Because of the stranglehold the Orthodox rabbinate has over personal status—marriage, conversion to Judaism and divorce, for example—an Israeli Jew whose conversion to Judaism was not according to Orthodox standards can’t have a Jewish ceremony in Israel. Neither can a lesbian couple. Nor can an egalitarian-minded heterosexual couple who want to avoid the “man buys his wife” construct of the Orthodox ketuba, or marriage contract.

So, the rabbis at the Reform Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan joined with the Israel Religious Action Center of the Reform movement (the same people you may have seen getting arrested as they try to make Western Wall prayer services more inclusive) to create a Jewish wedding ceremony for three couples, each of whom falls into one of the “forbidden” categories.

The event, which included as officiants Reform and Conservative rabbis, was advertised as “Three Weddings  & a Statement” and drew about  1500 “guests.” As one of the rabbis present said to those watching from the pews, “You have to be partisans, not [just] witnesses.”

After the six glasses were stomped on and broken by each of the marriage partners (not just by the groom, as is traditional), all the rabbis in the sanctuary—including Modern Orthodox rabbis—were invited up to bless the couples.

Three simultaneous weddings

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April 12, 2018 by

You’ve Come a Long Way, Sister: 20 Years After Carlebach Allegations, His Daughter Hears #MeToo

Lilith’s editor in chief Susan Weidman Schneider sent out an email, subject line “and now, Neshama Carlebach weighs in.” She was writing to Managing Editor Naomi Danis and to Sarah Blustain, who reported for Lilith in 1998 about allegations of sexual harassment against famed rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, and the response from his daughter—20 years later. “Want to respond?” Susan wrote.

The daughter’s belated response brought up a slew of memories about what it was like to report on sexual harassment before #MeToo, in a community that only now is beginning to reckon with the dark side of its spiritual leader.

FROM SARAH:

I cannot tell you how this brings me  back, Susan.

In 1997 a few women—I mean a very few; were there three or four of us?—who mostly worked around a dark wooden table in a small office in New York, started to hear from women talking about Shlomo Carlebach’s unwanted sexual advances. We sat with this information for days, weeks, and with the fact of his beloved-ness in the Jewish community. I remember it as a physical weight, knowing and resisting knowing, and being afraid. At some point, I remember someone saying, maybe it was me, “but how can we not tell this story?” So we did.

The reporting was slow, the writing painful, every word weighing his spiritual legacy against a less rosy one. There was a sentence we reported that seemed an admission. Carlebach to a woman who confronted him: “Oy, this needs such a fixing.” This was told to us by a woman, not by Carlebach himself, who by then was long gone. I remember my own nausea as we considered that sentence, sourced it, knowing what it would mean to have this (almost) in his own voice. The family opposed us. They would not comment.

On the eve of publication, word went out in the Carlebach community: This must be stopped. I cannot describe fully what it was like in that office, four rooms, a pro-bono lawyer blessedly taking our calls, as the phone started to ring, all day and night. Beseeching us against lashon hara, speaking ill of the dead. Telling us this couldn’t be, or shouldn’t be. We stopped answering the phone and listened to the messages pile up on the answering machine. Hours and hours of calls, and we few in the office, listening and working both. I remember the sun went down. Eventually we shut off the phone and finished.

And now I read it again, this time written by his own daughter, who 20 years later describes the scene we worked so hard to pin down. “Oy this needs such a fixing.” This time not denied. Did she hear it herself? It’s not clear. It is vindicating but also crushing to see how easily this becomes truth, when I remember how hard it was, and how many said it was false, both before and after publication.

We were doing then what so many have done now—finding truth in multiple voices when a single voice would not be enough. But that was before #MeToo made the job of speaking up — and of reporting on such accusations—a bit easier. And it was before Noreen Malone and New York Magazine breathtakingly put 35 women on the cover talking about a different powerful man and calling out “The Culture That Wouldn’t Listen.” Neshama Carlebach writes ”My sisters, I hear you.” Keep listening.

FROM SARAH, LATER:

What I want to add is implied: that the way #MeToo has made it easier does not take away from how hard it was, and is, to go up against power and culture. Although I am relieved that the way is smoother now, that does not erase the silencing, of us as feminists and journalists least of all, and of the victims the most.

FROM SUSAN:

Thank you so much for this, Sarah. I don’t think we’ve ever gone public with all those details, have we?

It’s surprising to me how easily we can re-enter the mood of those weeks before Lilith published your brave account.

The threats and the phone calls from those who would stop the publication were frightening. We monitored all incoming calls. But we did still answer knocks at the door to our small office, and Naomi remembers opening the door to a man in a wheelchair, a Carlebach partisan, who had come to the office to beg us not to publish. I stood by, horrified to realize that people were still held in thrall to his memory.

Lori Alhadeff, mother of slain Parkland student Alyssa Alhadef

Lori Alhadeff, mother of slain Parkland student Alyssa Alhadeff, 14, pleaded with President Trump to take action against gun violence while interviewed on CNN before her daughter’s funeral. “The gunman, a crazy person, just walks into the school, breaks down the window of my child’s door and starts shooting, shooting her, and killing her… President Trump, you say what can you do? You can stop the guns from getting into these children’s hands.”

And then there was the phone call I did pick up—from a Carlebach family member—urging us not to publish and telling me not to believe the accusations; that the women speaking out were unreliable; that the rabbi attracted “garbage people” who were unstable; that their stories should not be heeded. And from another source, threats of a lawsuit against Lilith for impeding the ability of people to earn money from his music.

One man reached me on my home line in Washington late in the evening to threaten that Shlomo Carlebach would punish me from “up there” in the heavens if the magazine went ahead with the story. I began to feel queasy. My husband, seeing me blanch, had to remind me that “Lilith’s mission is not just to publish Rosh Hodesh rituals.”

Sarah, when I came into the office the next day and shared this, you were the one who said “How can we not tell this story?” And then you added, I remember vividly, “We told the women who came forward that we would publish their experiences. We have an obligation to them” not to turn away.

The aftermath of publication was hard as we struggled against more attacks, but it also bought more stories forward, and with each one we felt justified in our decision to publish, also grimly aware of the even greater scope of the misconduct. There were myriad phone calls and (sometimes) anonymous letters. One stands out in my mind, from a woman who had been a 12-year old girl at a Jewish summer camp where Carlebach was invited for Shabbat. Her group was told that a famous and wonderful rabbi would be visiting — and that the girls must be careful not to find themselves alone with him. The woman contacting Lilith was outraged on behalf of her younger self. Can you imagine asking us to make sure we avoided being alone with him? Why did the camp directors invite him if they knew this?

The most recent direct communication we had about Carlebach came this fall. A man who said he’s now in his 80s phoned Lilith’s office to say he has been feeling guilty all these years, that he’d known about Carlebach’s behavior toward women and had been a bystander, enabling the misconduct because he’d never, til now, spoken out against it.

FROM SARAH:

Yes, Susan, I still get Facebook messages from people sometimes. Someone wrote me in 2013, 15 years after the piece, saying that she wanted to add her name to the list of people he had called and touched. Like others, she said she hadn’t felt she could call him out on his behavior — a dynamic that persisted well past his death.

AND FROM NAOMI:

I remember approaching people I respected, my rabbi, my sisters, to ask what they thought of the ethical dilemma in reporting allegations of misdeeds by a dead person who couldn’t respond or defend himself.

To me, a compelling reason for Lilith to cover the story was that the women who were coming to us were ready to go to the secular press with the story if it was not going to be covered in the Jewish media. I felt sure Lilith could handle the story with more nuance, complexity and, perhaps most importantly, more compassion than anyone else. Sure enough, Sarah’s expose in Lilith made news. I remember the disapproval of some in the Jewish world that we had written ill of a dead person. And I remember a letter to the editor of New York’s Jewish Week excoriating, in the writer’s words, the “lesbian, man-hating” editors of the Lilith magazine—which kind of made us giggle. We were sorely in need of a smile in those heavy-hearted days. In the quarterly issue that followed Sarah’s article, we ran five pages of letters; this was most unusual for us, but much in keeping with Lilith’s mission of publishing voices that too often are not allowed to be heard.

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April 12, 2018 by

What Sexual Misconduct Costs a Community

Nonprofit organizations, political campaigns, social justice movements and theater productions, among others, are at risk for creating an environment where the goals are so important, the work so heady, that those who suffer the heavy weight of misogyny or prejudice in such environments are prompted to silence their outrage for the greater good.

The devastating—and, to some, surprising—quotes you read on Lilith’s cover are not unique to the Jewish community. But taken overall, they give vivid testimony to the fact that Jewish nonprofit organizations can feel like an extension of a family, and boundary violations in a Jewish workplace setting seem often to be overlooked or forgiven for the sake of the cause itself.

The disgust and anger and disillusionment we hear in those quotes mask a lot of ancillary damage. What more damage could there be? Women are giving up on promising careers because, justifiably, they feel unprotected. When they can, they’re turning away from workplaces that need their talent. In addition to the huge cost to the individual women victimized, we need to recognize the costs of losing their presence in organizations.

One example among many: When renowned playwright and theater guru Israel Horowitz was outed in November by the New York Times as a sexual predator (“Yet another Jewish man,” you’re thinking), reports revealed that many talented women abandoned promising work because Horovitz had forced himself on them. One woman told the Times, “People like this—they’re dream crushers.” 

Several decades ago, Cynthia Ozick wrote in Lilith about the Jewish “half-genius,” arguing that any pride in Jewish accomplishments must be muted by an understanding that fully half of Jewish brainpower and creativity has never had a chance for full expression—namely what we women would have produced, given the chance. Although women’s writing is now closer to being admitted into the canon than it was decades ago, there is still a grim brain drain, as you’ll read in the Lilith section that follows. You will:

  • Hear how a student’s unwelcome sexual encounter with a Hollywood director derailed her career before it even got moving.
  • Learn how schools and organizations can adjust and improve their practices so that predators will be accountable.
  • Tune in to the special, odious brand of sexual misconduct experienced by women who are pulpit rabbis.

There’s plenty of work ahead.

— SUSAN WEIDMAN SCHNEIDER

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January 20, 2015 by

Susan Weidman Schneider on Sarah Wildman’s “Paper Love”

An emerging genre of books seeks to reconstruct lives of people who vanished during the Holocaust. As the ranks of survivors themselves are dwindling, this probing is left to children, grandchildren, and sometimes even to strangers driven to know, from fragile clues about the lives lost, the facts and the feelings of those they’ve never known.

Paradigmatic of this search is the page-turning new memoir-cum-historical-uncovering by journalist Sarah Wildman, Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind (Riverhead Books, $27.95). The person Wildman searches for is in fact no girl, but a doctor in her twenties. Valerie Scheftel was a medical-school colleague and the “true love” of her grandfather, who left her in Europe when he managed to escape to America in 1938.

What Wildman discovers about Valerie (“Your Valy” she signs her letters) reveals a woman very much of her time. On the one hand, Valy’s proud professional life as a doctor — she had come alone to Vienna to attend medical school — was not constrained because she was a woman, but because she was a Jew. On the other hand, it was likely her female role as a good daughter that trapped her; after the Anschluss, it seems Valy cannot or will not abandon her mother to flee with her lover.

Wildman’s detective work is both provoked and aided by the cache of letters discovered in a filing cabinet after her grandfather died, letters from those left behind in the Hades that Europe had become, begging for a recommendation, for the funds for passage to America, for intervention with professional organizations that might issue a life-saving invitation to work in the United States. The letters lay bare the horrible poignancy of how little money it would have taken to save those lives — Valy’s included. But a penniless new immigrant himself, Karl Wildman couldn’t manage even those modest sums.

Karl started a small-town medical practice in the face of anti-Semitism, married an American Jewish woman from an established family, and presented himself as a man of high culture and good spirits, living an identity both authentic and also — at the same time — crafted so as to keep the Holocaust years at a remove. Wildman unpacks, thanks to the letters, what her grandmother termed a “carefully curated history.” Inheriting this legacy, tracking Valy in Berlin, Vienna and the Czech Republic while gestating “a little Jew” in her own womb, Wildman describes herself as very much a 21st- century Jew.

Paper Love is a real-life rendering of the quest undertaken in several recent works of fiction; Ayelet Waldman’s Love and Treasure, a novel in which a grandfather’s wartime past is unearthed via a piece of jewelry, is one example. It’s not surprising that these quest books are coming one after another now. So much wrenching uncertainty about lives that ended with no known concluding chapter, so many stories untold, so much that can’t now be retrieved except through fiction or the kind of empathic reconstruction of a life that Wildman assays here in her deeply compelling account of what likely happened to Valy. 

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January 20, 2015 by

Evolving from Bystander to Rescuer

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights — with a focus on Jews, on women, on hunger and trafficking, on oppressed minorities around the world — is Canada’s first national museum outside of Ottawa, the country’s capital. It opened in September in the Canadian prairie city of Winnipeg, thanks to energetic advocacy from Gail Asper, daughter of the late media mogul and philanthropist Israel “Izzy” Asper, who had dreamed it up. She managed to bring this dream to life despite skepticism from Canada’s eastern establishment and vociferous opposition from non-Jewish groups who felt their own struggles would be insufficiently represented.

Note the preposition in the museum’s name. This place isn’t just “of” human rights, examining past struggles, but has a mission to educate visitors about their rights — including the rights of all people to love, literacy and physical safety. Exhibitions make strong points about women’s suffrage, freedom from fear of rape and of violence at home, children’s right to schooling, racial and marriage equality and the history of marginalized ethnic groups in Canada, including the aboriginal people known as “First Nations.”

For marshalling bipartisan political support for the museum’s role and raising the millions needed for its planning and construction, Gail Asper has been awarded the Order of Canada, a signal honor, and wears its signature small pin every day, along with two different pins created to celebrate the museum. “I’d like to be able to wear my own brooches one day,” she joked in a recent conversation. “I haven’t had a free lapel in 9 years.”

On the day it first opened to the public, Asper set down her bright yellow knapsack for a conversation on a sunny bench outside the museum. The formal opening a couple of days earlier had some of its speeches — including her own, which she delivered (customary in Canada now) in both French and English — nearly drowned out by First Nations and anti-abortion-rights protesters. Though the museum was ringed with police, no one discouraged or shushed these shouts. “People who feel their rights are being violated can become bullies,” said Asper.

Asper is no stranger to facing bias herself. When the Museum was under construction, signs were defaced with language like “Die Jew,” she said. “The police were notified, and the incident was never repeated.” The museum’s non-Jewish supporters also got hate mail, with threats “that were horrible, threats with graphic, gross images. But it shows we have work to do.

“There are four participants in a human rights violation. There’s the perpetrator, the victim, the bystander and the rescuer. Our job at the museum is to convert bystanders to rescuers.”

Asper predicts a crucial role educating teenagers. “Adolescents are at a terribly important moment. In grade nine I stood by while someone was being bullied. The victim tried to laugh it off, and I could see what was going on, but I did nothing. I was in a position of power and I didn’t take action. I still think about this.

“You have to exercise your muscles as a human rights defender. Someone who at age 15 comes through the museum will be a future CEO or teacher or general in the army. You have to get into shape to stand up. To help teenagers, teachers across the country are getting human rights tool kits, like at Yad Vashem,” the world center for Holocaust research and remembrance in Jerusalem.

Paramount for Asper is this educational vision for the museum, and its chorus of first-person voices in the interactive multimedia exhibitions provide wide-ranging testimony, sometimes shocking. She uses herself as an example of how shielded many of us are. “I didn’t know about the Acadian Expulsion. I had never been taught it,” she said, referring to the people who were forced out of Nova Scotia and shipped to England, France and the Thirteen Colonies in the mid-eighteenth century.

“I didn’t know about Nellie McClung,” an early twentieth-century suffragist and activist for women’s labor rights, “and she was from Winnipeg! Women were ‘persons’ regarding their responsibilities, but not with regard to rights. I was in my late 20s, and a lawyer, and I did not know any of this. I am annoyed when female politicians say ‘I’m not a feminist’. It’s time for people to realize how much of a struggle this has been.”

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January 20, 2015 by

From the Editor

This has been an extraordinary season of news on every front, including (but not limited to) several stories that have had particular resonance for women and for media. Among them: Rolling Stone magazine’s much-discussed coverage of campus rape, followed by an ugly round of victim-bashing after parts of the story were challenged; the resignation of almost the entire staff of the 100-year-old New Republic magazine and the subsequent round of discussions on how a venerable print brand can keep its balance in the roiling mix of digital media sources, and the fact that for many people social media feeds have become the most consistent news feeds.

The impact of stories like these loom large for Lilith readers, and some are unprecedented in content and scale. Our national conversation about race, the Barry Freundel mikveh scandal, and the rise of women politicians in Israel and the U.S. as preface to the next round of elections are just three of them. All are subjects Lilith has covered, in print and on the Lilith blog — and we will continue to write about them with this magazine’s characteristic nuance.

Lilith magazine launched in 1976 with two founding missions: to use the power of independent media to gain greater access for women (and greater value for women’s concerns) in the Jewish world, and to speak with a Jewish voice on urgent women’s issues. I think Lilith’s tagline says a lot about our approach. “Independent, Jewish and frankly feminist,” Lilith charts Jewish women’s lives with exuberance, rigor, affection, subversion and style.

Yet at the same time as mega-stories are breaking, and are being bruited in the office, online, and in Lilith salons, there are smaller-scale, more deeply personal narratives that lurk beneath the surface, stories that are huge in the lives of the women they affect but don’t always make it into the headlines. These, too, are Lilith’s beat: the regrets of some people who have never had children; the strong feelings of those who take justifiable umbrage at the assumption that every woman wants to be a mother; and the challenges faced by same-sex female couples looking for a sperm donor. In this issue, for example, Ilana Kramer probes the experiences of gay and lesbian couples wanting to have children and deciding if the other-sex biological parent will be someone they know, or a stranger.

When we edit a story like this one, we’re very conscious of who’s left out. What about a single woman wanting to have children? Where does she turn for a sperm donor? What about couples trying to have a child, whether by birth or adoption, who are tripped up by financial or personal or bureaucratic stumbling blocks? Fertility challenges are a nexus where the personal, the political and the communal all intersect.

Those for whom infertility can bring, monthly, the bitter taste of disappointment wrestle with how they will have children when the standard method of conception fails them. We hear how the heartache, frustration and economic toll can be as overwhelming as the physical challenges. So the article here about a couple who manage to conceive after only two cycles of trying, in a wonderfully low-tech D-I-Y fashion — using not costly high-tech medical interventions but a simple syringe and a jar of sperm kept warm on a bicycle ride home — can trigger pain for some readers. A story hugely validating for some, and a source of curiosity-fulfillment for others, may for one cohort just spur sadness.

Perhaps because women and men today are older when they are ready to consider having children — and hence less fertile — this cohort appears to be growing. (And you’ve heard the perpetual outcry about the dropping birthrate among non-Orthodox Jews.)

Here is one possible source of succor for people who might need help in creating their families. Assuaging at least some of the financial problems and the feelings of exclusion from a community full of ubiquitous Instagram or Facebook photos of other people’s kids lighting Hanukkah candles or making challah, would be a fund to help Jews afford the high cost of adoption or assisted reproduction. The cost of one cycle of IVF can be $15,000. Some Hebrew Free Loan societies offer interest-free loans for adoption and fertility treatments, but these sums will barely cover one round of treatment, and often many rounds are necessary. Plus, a loan has to be repaid. Especially for a single woman — who may lose income once she’s taking care of a child — an outright grant would be more effective in enabling her to become a parent.

So here’s a modest proposal. Jewish women’s foundations, now funding projects to empower women and girls in many communities, could spur the creation of a national fund to help defray the costs of fertility interventions. Perhaps a percentage of each contribution to these community foundations could be earmarked for such a fertility fund. After all, for about a century, there has been a fund for Jewish women’s education, and for decades there has been much-needed funding for reproductive-rights work. There will be challenges to creating and managing any fund that makes grants to individuals, but San Francisco’s Hebrew Free Loan Society says it well: the process should be “personalized, confidential, and respectful.”

Then the small-scale stories become a larger story, played out under a bigger tent.

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October 7, 2014 by

From the Editor

Maybe you’re like me and you’ve tended to see economic justice in terms of fair labor practices, access to good health care, fresh produce in urban food deserts, affordable housing. Big goals with big consequences. Beyond carrying bills in a pocket to give tzedakah graciously or nervously on the street, what small (or larger) potential acts of the pocketbook have escaped our notice?

Well, you’ve heard the chatter about doing good while buying more stuff. The manufacturer who promises to give a new pair of shoes to a poor child for every pair of its brand you purchase. The company that pledges to donate to breast cancer research an undisclosed portion of its profits from the pink item you’ve just acquired.

Like the rest of us, I figure that I make choices every day—every waking hour, practically—that reflect my values. A lot of these choices are made reflexively, because I’ve practiced them so many times that they’re inadvertent habits. The food I eat—or avoid. Whether I run the water while brushing my teeth or turn off the tap. Which charity solicitations I open and consider vs. which ones I put immediately into the recycling bin. You too?

But there’s another order of choices that feel new to me, a fresh kind of economic consciousness I’ve been thinking about thanks to two women whose actions are worth emulating—and expanding on. These two rabbis have recently been modeling, through their own actions, a different tzedakah. They’re good at remembering that tzedakah comes not out of the idea of charity—giving alms to the poor—but from the root tzedek, righteousness.

 

This righteousness takes a slightly different approach to economic justice, one that involves putting our bodies where our dollars go.

Rabbi Susan Talve, whom you’ll meet in this issue, decided with her St. Louis congregants in August to go into the nearby suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. First they went to support the protests that closed streets after a black teenager was shot and killed by a police officer. And then, some of them decided to patronize the businesses hurting from the protests. Lunch in a Ferguson coffee shop. An appointment at a Ferguson hair salon. Via what I’ve been naming to myself a tzedakah of intent, Susan Talve and the people she leads are doing what they’d do anyway—having a meal, getting a haircut—but are deciding very consciously where they’re going to purchase these services, the same way we consciously decide what impact we want when we allocate our charity dollars. Doing good not just by spending money loosely connected to a good cause (that pink-ribbon purchase) but by thinking about what ancillary good can come of the purchase—including the benefits of being geographically selective and alert.

Rabbi Rachel Isaacs is the rabbi of Beth Israel Congregation of Waterville, Maine, and Jewish chaplain of Colby College. Waterville is a town where the main street has been suffering the etiolating effects of cheap-goods big box stores on its outskirts, with a concomitant shrinking customer base for local goods and services, and this means the quality of life is likely to diminish for all the residents. No one loves a sad and empty main street, not the hurting merchants and not the populace when they realize that their town square is empty. (Remember the Lorax; timing is all, in these matters.)

After she delivered a High Holiday sermon a few years ago about the benefits of local shopping, Rachel Isaacs’ congregants noticed that she practiced what she preached. First, it was Talmud study group in a local coffee house, since “everybody wants coffee anyway,” which was followed by regular meetings of Thai and Torah, and then Torah on Tap. Now when Isaacs meets with her congregants for study groups, she schedules her adult-education classes over a meal in one of the local restaurants. “Everyone needs to eat,” she told me (over breakfast is a non-chain Manhattan diner), “and we want to get together to learn, so why not build in this added support for a local place that really benefits from our presence?”

Of course there will be those who argue that economic determinism is what shapes how a once-flourishing village can devolve into a dusty downtown. If the small local stores would only carry better goods at cheaper prices, if the café served tastier food, customers would come, so goes this argument. But Isaacs is making sure, in a small and significant way—a way many of us can pretty easily emulate—that Waterville’s spine doesn’t crumble in the meantime.

Teach a woman to fish. Then go to her local restaurant and order the fish. 

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July 15, 2014 by

Susan Weidman Schneider on the processes of making change.

Gloria Steinem, who just celebrated her 80th birthday, wrote to congratulate Lilith a few years ago on one of our own landmark anniversaries. She praised the magazine for doing its groundbreaking work “with anger and delight.”

“Lilith creates a voice where there was silence; it saves what is good within the patriarchy while transforming what is destructive; it offers scholarship for argument and women’s personal voices for enlightenment; and it does all of this with anger and delight, good writing and humor,” she wrote.

At the time, I was charmed by the fact that anger was on Gloria Steinem’s approval list, and charmed also that in Lilith it was paired with wit. Somehow that took the curse off anger. I’ve always held fast to the idea that the ways in which we work for change matter. And I’ve never believed anger works as a teaching tool. As reviewers have pointed out, the light tone of the new romantic comedy “Obvious Child,” with its straightforward portrayal of an unmarried woman’s uncomplicated abortion, can do more for abortion rights than outraged op-eds. Could be.

But now, in the wake of recent news out of the U.S. Supreme Court, I’m ready for just plain anger. The righteous kind. And we don’t even have to dress it in wit.

It’s not often that an issue arises where you can feel equal outrage as a woman and as a Jew. June’s U.S. Supreme Court decision that some corporations have the right to deny employees contraceptive coverage under their health insurance plans means that one religious group—Christians who believe that contraception methods equal abortion—has the right to foist its beliefs on the bodies—on the health—of a whole nation of women. It’s enraging.

Here is the scathing dissent written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

“Would the exemption…extend to employers with religiously grounded objections to blood transfusions ( Jehovah’s Witnesses); antidepressants (Scientologists); medications derived from pigs, including anesthesia, intravenous fluids, and pills coated with gelatin (certain Muslims, Jews, and Hindus); and vaccinations[?]…Not much help there for the lower courts bound by today’s decision.”

Our collective response to this decision to have corporations control women’s bodies has got to be anger, staying true to our own feelings and not masking them.

As I look through Lilith’s archives at our coverage of abortion rights, contraception, and laws affecting our bodies (and hence our minds) I notice a change of tone through the years. First it was diagnostic and hortatory: Here’s what’s wrong, and here’s how you should fix it. Righteous anger was a staple, and writers hoped it would help move the needle, help push for positive change and more rights for women.

Then, anger began to be replaced by nuance. In almost every Lilith article or blog post now, we as editors encourage writers and thinkers to probe how deeply they can go in exploring all sides of a story. We want readers to understand motivation, to ask the many what-ifs. In fact, we pride ourselves on nuance.

But in the case of the recent news, why delve into the motives of the justices who decided that it was OK to deny an entire class of people—women—the insurance coverage for drugs or devices they need? The five male justices seem to have accepted as truth the misunderstanding of the plaintiff, the Hobby Lobby crafts corporation. They were looking to limit contraception access based on a religious belief that abortion is wrong, and that the medicines and devices used for contraception actually cause abortions—a misunderstanding of how contraceptive drugs and IUDs work in the first place. (Disappointingly, some right-wing Jewish religious organizations filed an amicus brief in favor of denying coverage.)

Lilith has written from time to time about the schism between Christian and Jewish dogma on matters of reproduction. But I can’t think of a case where that difference is highlighted quite so starkly. The damage to women is obvious. The damage to Jews includes the setting of a bad precedent —that the religious beliefs of one set of Americans has the power to affect the way others practice their religion.

Women living—and voting—in the United States are horrified, are at risk, and are angry at the decision made by five men. It’s a decision that will likely bring bad news and bad consequences to women, who now have fewer rights than corporations do. The horror —and the accompanying anger —are justified.

At one of the gatherings marking Gloria Steinem’s birthday, Letty Cottin Pogrebin remarked that “Well-behaved women won’t change the world.” I don’t expect that by getting mad we’ll get even—whatever that would mean in a world where men do not need contraceptives. But we can get results. Especially at the polls, and especially in our local communities. When women’s needs are denied en masse, righteous anger can be a tool to shape election outcomes and the court cases to come. 

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The Lilith Blog

May 8, 2014 by

Counting the Omer Through Poetry

Barley sheaves (Wikimedia Commons)

Barley sheaves (Wikimedia Commons)

Lilith editor in chief Susan Weidman Schneider asks, “Is counting a women’s preoccupation? Counting days before one’s period, counting the months of pregnancy, counting the years til menopause. Perhaps counting the Omer, the days between Pesach and Shavuot, can become a time when the counting provides another kind of embodied pacing.”

Harvard Divinity School student Molly Moses has a unique approach to counting and contemplating the Omer, which she’s shared with us.

Molly Moses: Counting the Omer through Poetry

The Omer is a 49-day period–a period of seven weeks–leading from the second night of Passover to the holiday of Shavuot, which today serves annually to commemorate God’s giving of the Torah to Israel. (The word “omer” itself refers to the measurement of barley offered up at the Temple on the first day of this period.) Both Leviticus and Deuteronomy relate a commandment to count these days. Some people choose to enhance their counting with reflection and self-cultivation in preparation for receiving the Torah. Rabbi Karyn Kedar’s new book “Omer: A Counting” offers a spiritual guide. 

Like Advent and Lent within the Christian tradition, the counting of the Omer, for me, is a practice in mindful, measured anticipation. Having benefited from short courses taught by Alicia Ostriker and the KlezKanada Poetry Retreat team of Adeena Karasick and Jake Marmer, I decided to write a poem to mark each day of the Omer last year. Drawing inspiration from poet Hank Lazer’s experimentation with form, I decided that each line would have the same number of words as the number of the day. My two other rules were that I could not write in advance and that I could not edit afterward; day-ness became both a discipline and a meditation. The resulting poems varied in quality as well as content, reflecting both my passing thoughts and the ebbs and flows of time and energy resources. I often used kabbalistic concepts associated with each day as prompts, making heavy use of Rabbi Jill Hammer’s “Omer Calendar of Biblical Women.” In what is now an annual practice, my Omer poetry has acted as a deeply personal, yet public journal, a way to make myself externalize thoughts on–and thus to keep wrestling with–God, doubt, truth, beauty, ritual, human relationship, and other experiences of daily life that, without the encouraging structural rigor of this time period, I find hard to record and contemplate with diligence.

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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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