Tag : adolescent girls

June 25, 2020 by

Powerful Adolescent Girls

Tragedy, courage, chance, loss and healing, fear and hope— women who survived the Holocaust as youngsters are telling their stories for young readers. Four Perfect Pebbles by Lila Perl and Marion Blumenthal Lazan (Greenwillow, 1996); Parallel Journeys by Eleanor Ayer (Atheneum, 1995); Hiding to Survive edited by Maxine B. Rosenberg (Clarion, 1994); and The Holocaust Lady by Ruth Minsky Sender (Macmillan, 1992) are recent examples. These join memoirs such as Aranka Siegal’s Upon the Head of the Goat, Johanna Reiss’s The Upstairs Room; Esther Hautzig’s The Endless Steppe and Judith Kerr’s fictionalized autobiography When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, in documenting, with great spirit, this terrible chapter of human history, which we read about in The Diary of Anne Frank.

Young readers apprehensive about this subject can approach it with some of their most beloved novelists. In Judy Blume’s Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself (Bantam, 1977) Sally, in 1947 Florida, is certain that an elderly neighbor is Hitler in disguise and determines to help capture him. In Jane Yolen’s The Devil’s Arithmetic (Puffin, 1990), a bored Hannah Stern opens the door at her family seder in Brooklyn, circa 1990, to step into a Polish shtetl in 1942 on the eve of a Nazi roundup.

Several authors who are not Jewish also write about the Holocaust. Anti-Semitism, these authors are saying, is not only the problem of Jews, but of those who hate them, and of those who witness that hate. Eve Bunting’s picture book Terrible Things (Jewish Publication Society, 1989) is an allegorical treatment. Novelist Lois Lowry in Number the Stars (Dell, 1989) tells of brave ten-year-old girlfriends in Denmark, one from a righteous gentile family who helps her family and others escape the Nazis. And Laura Williams tells of a thirteen-year-old Hitler Youth group member who discovers her parents are hiding a Jewish family—Behind the Bedroom Wall (Milkweed, 1996).

It’s no surprise that a post-Holocaust generation of powerful adolescent Jewish girls are portrayed in fiction set in Israel. Feminism (females are human) and Zionism (Jews are human), are woven seamlessly in Israeli author Gila Almagor’s Under the Domim Tree (Simon and Schuster, 1995). The female protagonist shares the growing pains of young survivors at a residential school who, having lost the important grownups in their lives, learn to be family to each other. In Nessa Rapoport’s Preparing for Sabbath (Biblio Press—currently out of print), a religious teenage girl in the maelstrom of the 1970’s searches for love and spirituality in the Holy Land. And Lynne Reid Banks brings us, in Broken Bridge (William Morrow, 1993), a young Canadian immigrant to Israel, Nili, who explores complicated issues of Israeli- Arab co-existence through her controversial decision to keep a secret.

Historical fiction of an earlier period, not to be missed, includes Miriam Chaiken’s I Should Worry, I Should Care (Harper, 1979), set in Brooklyn; Karen Hesse’s A Time of Angels (Hyperion, 1995), set in the 1918 worldwide flu epidemic; and Johanna Hurwitz’s The Rabbi’s Girls (Morrow, 1982) set in the 1920’s in the American Midwest. Real life role models spring from biographies such as Betty Friedan: Fighter for Women’s Rights (Enslow, 1990) by Sondra Henry and Emily Taitz, Our Golda (Viking, 1986) by David Adler, and Molly Picon: A Gift of Laughter (Jewish Publication Society, 1990) by Lila Perl.

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April 20, 2020 by

The Books that Taught Me to Love My Body Hair

When I begged my mother to teach me to shave my legs, I was nine years old. “Your body hair is normal,” she said, “And it’s not healthy to worry so much about it now.” That was easy for her to say. Her pale legs never had visible hair to my eyes, whereas my legs looked more like my father’s, and my older sister’s, legs descended from my father’s people, from women like my mustachioed grandmother. My legs were as pale as my mother’s, but the hair that grew on them was blacker than the hair on my head and filled me with shame whenever a classmate pointed or laughed as the playground grew warmer and shorts became the clothing of choice for the nine-year-old set. 

Still, she taught me as best she could. And she taught me to shave my armpits, while she was at it, standing in her three-quarter bathroom, with our feet raised onto the closed toilet lid. 

I remember this in the hazy way of memory with import but without emotion. It is not a happy memory, but not sad, either. It is simply a recollection of an event. The same cannot be said of the day my so-called “best friend” held me down on her bathroom floor and shaved my rear, laughing that I had “a hairy butt,” and that no boys would want to make out with me if I didn’t “fix it.” I was 12. 

The fact that hair grew anywhere aside from my scalp and my eyebrows was an offense, and even those hairs grew thick and unruly. During sleepovers, fellow well-meaning tweens attempted to pluck the hairs along the ridge of my eyelids, and I struggled not to flinch as my eyes watered from the pain. I wanted so badly to look like them, to fit in with them, to not be my grandmother’s child, not my father’s child. I wanted to be the blond-haired nymphs of storybook illustrations. I wanted to be the models in magazines. I wanted to be everything I was not. But I was a Jewish girl with mountains of unruly black curls, breasts and hips erupting from my body in unwanted rounds, thick- calved, short, covered in hair that felt as thick as a pelt, unacceptable. 

Just as strong as the memory of being shaved and humiliated is the memory of my first reading of The Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley, when I was 13. Early in those pages, a teenaged Morgaine lies nude beside a man, and he plays with the fine black hairs on her thighs. On her thighs! I had never believed that having such hair was allowed, let alone capable of being the source of desire. I had to set the book down and breathe for many minutes before I could continue. The hair on my body, that had so shamed me through my early adolescence, was supposed to grow. 

How was I to know this was normal? I had never seen a woman with hair on her thighs. In every trip to the beach or pool, every hypersexualized close-up in television or film, every Calvin Klein ad in a magazine, no woman had ever displayed hair on her thighs. 

I stopped shaving. I embraced my body hair. I was fortunate that this coincided with the Lilith Fair, and a world in which women appeared in new magazines with hair under their arms and on their legs. In my school and on MTV they were usually the source of ridicule, yes, but those women didn’t seem to care. I went to my first rock concert, Ani Difranco, and the women around me had hair on their bodies, and with the thickets of their armpits and shins visible, they danced in the grass without shame. When I slipped off my overshirt and raised my arms in the air, hair visible beneath, nobody flinched. Nobody heckled. I was simply a girl in a crowd of girls and women, still darker and thicker and hairier than most, but at that moment I was all I had ever wanted. I was just like any other girl. 

Puberty however, does not stop only because you make peace with some parts of it. As I neared the end of my teen years, the dreaded mustache of my grandmother began to make its appearance. I plucked, when I could tolerate the pain, and covered up with makeup when I thought I might be seen. I walked aisles of bleaching products, hair removal creams, women’s razors, and loathed myself both for wanting to try them and for being unable to spare the expense. 

And then a college professor assigned War and Peace. As I read, again I experienced that thunderclap understanding, of being seen, the awareness that my whole life I had been lied to about what was natural, what was beautiful, and what was real. Tolstoy described his ingenue, his lovely young romantic lead, as having a beautiful black mustache. 

Though my affection for both writers, Zimmer Bradley and Tolstoy, has been greatly diminished by learning the details of their deeply problematic lives, I still owe them my gratitude. That I came to a place in my life where the validation of men does not consume my self-esteem is thanks to these glimpses of bodies untouched by the modern expectations of sexuality. 

I could be a woman with hairy legs and arms, with thick brows and a mustache, and I could be beautiful. 

So when my daughters beg me to teach them to shave their legs and their armpits, I will teach them. But I will also read The Mists of Avalon and War and Peace with them, and walk before them to the pool with my legs covered in black hair, with the dark corners of my upper lip unplucked, despite their second-hand adolescent shame. 

For now, while they are small, I spin around after the shower, my towel barely obscuring my lumpy, short, puckered, scarred, frizzy, hairy, perfect body, and I say to them, “Doesn’t it feel good to know how beautiful we are?” 

Lea Grover is a work-from-home mother, writer, and member of the RAINN Speakers Bureau 

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