Tag : books

The Lilith Blog

November 11, 2020 by

A Profound Posthumous Novel from a Very Late Bloomer

What does it feel like to publish your first novel at the age of 90?  That’s the question Lilith posed to Rochelle Distelheim two years ago— she was in a position to know.  Distelheim, an award-winning short story writer and Chicago native,  released her debut novel, Sadie In Love (Aubade Publishing), in 2018 and in addition to the Q & A that appeared on Lilith’s blog, we also ran excerpts from the novel, a warmly comical and deliciously wry story that sweeps us back to 1913 and the world of struggling Jewish immigrants in New York City’s Lower East Side.

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October 23, 2020 by

Holocaust Fiction Now

Over the past 18 months or so, many of the new novels received at the Lilith office have centered on the Holocaust; several, like The Tattooist of Auschwitz, marketed as potential bestsellers. This flood of fiction from women is unlike memoirs written by survivors themselves or conveyed via their daughters’ retellings. Now, a third generation, clearly affected by Holocaust experiences either in their own families or from other exposure, has moved those experiences from memoir into fiction. In the 1970s, Elie Wiesel—himself a writer of Holocaust fiction––famously argued that writers should foreswear fictionalizing the events of the Shoah. Critic Ruth Franklin takes a gentler stance in A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction, a study of immense depth and range that offers a lucid view of an often cloudy field (Goodreads).

Here, a partial list of recent novels in this challenging category.

The Takeaway Men
by Meryl Ain [SparkPress, $16.95]
“The author’s tale is sensitively composed, a thoughtful exploration into the perennially thorny issues of religious identity, assimilation, and the legacy of suffering.” —Kirkus Reviews

The World that We Knew
by Alice Hoffman [Simon & Schuster, $17.00]
“Set in Nazi-occupied France between 1941 and 1944, Hoffman’s latest (after The Rules of Magic) is a bittersweet parable about the costs of survival and the behaviors that define humanity.” —Publishers Weekly

The Things We Cannot Say
by Kelly Rimmer [Graydon House Books, $28.99]
Truth and lies in Nazi-occupied Poland in 1942 drive this tale from bestselling author Rimmer. The novel is about a Polish Christian family in the U.S. whose family secrets, unearthed in present-day America and Poland, upend the narrative that generations had come to understand as their own. (Goodreads)

They Went Left
by Monica Hesse [Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, $9.99]
“Hesse writes with tenderness and insight about the stories we tell ourselves in order to survive and the ways we cobble together family with whatever we have. When the plot twists come, they are gut punches–some devastating, others offering hope….” —New York Times Book Review

The Star and the Shamrock
by Jean Grainger [Kindle Direct Publishing, $15.99]
The story of two Jewish children fleeing Berlin during the Holocaust, a newly widowed and motherless woman in Ireland, and their unlikely connection.

The Brothers of Auschwitz
by Malka Adler [HarperCollins, $16.99]

Alternating viewpoints between two brothers separated from their families and taken to Auschwitz, this harrowing story describes how they found one another again.

The German Midwife

by Mandy Robotham [HarperCollins, $15.99]
Anke Hoff, a midwife imprisoned in concentration camp, is tasked with delivering the baby of the Führer. The impossible decision: whether to deliver the innocent child, or sacrifice it for a greater good?

Cilka’s Journey
by Heather Morris [Macmillan, $27.99]
“In the stirring follow-up to The Tattooist of Auschwitz, Morris tells the story of a woman who survives Auschwitz, only to find herself locked away again. Morris’s propulsive tale shows the goodness that can be found even inside the gulag.” —Publishers Weekly

The Light After the War
by Anita Abriel [Atria Books, $27.00]
“[Abriel] deftly sketches the postwar world from Naples to Venezuela and Australia,
with attention paid to the changed architectural and emotional landscapes. The rubble of bombed cities, the blank map of lost relatives, and the uncertainty of day-to-day survival outline the anguish of the lost generation.” —Kirkus Reviews

House on Endless Waters
by Emuna Elon [Atria Books, $17.00]
“A story of love, loss, and yearning. Lyrically phrased and often powerfully visual…this deeply felt tale offers a rewarding meditation on survival.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

The Collaborator
by Diane Armstrong [HarperCollins, $16.99]
Past and present come together in this tale of a woman trying to discover the truth
about her grandmother’s rescue from the death camps in 1944 and a Jewish journalist
who attempts to save her and thousands of others.

The Last Train to London
by Meg Waite Clayton [HarperCollins, $27.99]
This is a standout historical fiction that serves as a chilling reminder of how insidious, pervasive evil can gradually seep into everyday lives.” —Publishers Weekly

The Things We Cherished
by Pam Jenoff [Random House, $17.00]
“A skillfully rendered tale of undying love, unthinkable loss and the relentless grip of the past on the present” —Kirkus Reviews


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July 27, 2020 by

Abuse Lives On in the Jewish Canon

An announcement on social media in May that a new book, The New Jewish Canon, edited by Yehuda Kurtzer and Claire E. Sufrin, was anointing certain writers, thinkers and texts as powerful shapers of the Jewish present and future drew outrage, because at least three of the men represented in its pages have acknowledged their serious sexual misconduct.

That this compendium will elicit serious attention is clear. Here’s some of its advance publicity: “The New Jewish Canon is both text and textbook of the Jewish intellectual and communal zeitgeist for the contemporary period and the recent past, canonizing our most important ideas and debates of the past two generations; and just as importantly, stimulating debate and scholarship about what is yet to come.”

Reporter Danielle Berrin calls out what’s wrong here. It is incumbent upon any religious tradition which claims the mantle of moral authority to consider how they wish to see their most cherished values represented in the public arena. That [Leon] Wieseltier, [Ari] Shavit, [Steven M.] Cohen, and others like them are gifted men, there is no doubt. But they are also men who abused their power and committed sexual misconduct. Are their ideas worth more to us than the dignity of those they have hurt? Are their contributions to society so invaluable that we should make an onerous moral choice to promote them?

With The New Jewish Canon, we have Sufrin’s and Kurtzer’s answer. What we do not have from them is equivalent consideration for the cultural awakening spurred by the actions of these and other men. They say the book spans material published between 1980 and 2015, a few years shy of the birth of #metoo. But the concept behind #metoo is universal and timeless. Those who speak in the name of an ancient tradition should know that. As for the victims—who, despite being degraded, objectified, and abused, came out of the shadows of silence to expose a pandemic of injustice—well, disappointment is nothing new. Perhaps the next canon will be kinder.

DANIELLE BERRIN, “Canonizing Unrighteous Men: The Problem with The New Jewish Canon,” L.A. Review of Books, May 28, 2020.

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The Lilith Blog

May 31, 2020 by

Three Characters, Three Storylines, and Three Time Periods

The Book Of V (Henry Holt, $27.99) is nothing if not ambitious—three main characters, three storylines and three wildly divergent time periods—and yet novelist Anna Solomon manages to weave all three together with an effortlessness that belies the profound nature of her fictional probing. She talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about why Esther and Vashti continue to be subjects of endless speculation and fascination, and what their stories can teach us today.  

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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

A Journey of Mourning, and Exploration

All My Mother’s Lovers (Dutton, $27), the debut novel from Ilana Masad comes with a disclaimer in the dedication: “To Ima/Andi, who is not the mother in this book,” as well as a dedication to her father, in Hebrew.

The book opens with Maggie, having sex with her girlfriend, getting the call that her mother  Iris has died.

After Iris dies, Maggie returns to her parents’ house, where her brother still lives. Cleaning out her mother’s documents, she finds five sealed envelopes, addressed to men Maggie has never heard of. In her will, Iris directs that the letters be sent out in the event of her untimely death. Maggie decides to deliver the envelopes herself.

Maggie feels Iris never really understood her or approved of her sexuality, and had a very specific picture of who her mother was: dedicated to work and family, straitlaced, faithful. But during shiva, Maggie finds out that Iris was previously married to a man who abused her; only part of what Maggie doesn’t know about her mother.

Delivering the letters and talking with the men receiving them, Maggie begins
to get a bigger, more layered picture of Iris. What appears, shockingly, as a series
of extramarital affairs and relationships slowly unfolds into a more nuanced explanation of Iris and her choices. “Maggie can half recognize her, but not fully.”

How often do children, even grown children, really know their parents? This is a book that takes an unflinching look at sexuality and its role in our lives: how it builds bridges, burns them, and changes how others view us and how we relate to others. For some, it even changes the trajectory of their lives.

Jaime Herndon is a writer and editor, and is working on an essay collection.

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April 20, 2020 by

Israel’s Women on the Margins

With Israel’s political woes blanketing the news these days, it’s hard to remember
how multi-layered and complex a country it is. Its modern society was created by socialist pioneers, who struggled, somewhat successfully, to create economic and gender-egalitarian new communities. After statehood, Israel took in Jews from Arab lands and tried to integrate them, less successfully, into that developing society. More recently, Israel’s latest challenge has been absorbing hundreds of thousands of Russian immigrants with minimal, if any ties to Judaism or Jewish life. Three new academic books written and compiled by feminist Israeli academics address these particular facets of the challenges and shortcomings of the Jewish state.

When the State Winks: The Performance of Jewish Conversion in Israel, by Michal Kravel-Tovi. (Columbia University Press, $65) is a detailed ethnography. Anthropologist Michal Kravel-Tovi focuses on how and why Israel’s state bureaucracy is involved in managing the religious conversion of immigrants (mostly young women) from the former Soviet Union (FSU), mostly women because under traditional Jewish law the religion of the mother determines her child’s religion.

Kravel-Tovi engaged in three years of research from 2004–2007, during which she sat in on conversion classes, rabbinic conversion court proceedings, and ritual immersions in a mikveh. She interviewed teachers, rabbis, judges, and women who were in the process of converting through Israel’s state-sponsored Orthodox system.

Kravel-Tovi begins by describing how and why Jewish conversion has become part of what she terms “Zionist biopolitical policy” in Israel—using conversion of former FSU women to increase Israel’s Jewish population. Her focus is how the conversion candidates and the state agents—the conversion educators rabbinic court judge—handle the contradictory forces of Israel’s conversion policy. All parties, she argues, are concerned with issues of role-play, sincerity, and suspicion, demonstrating how all parties collaborate to put on believable conversion “performances.” The final chapter features the personal narratives of the conversion candidates, who must present personal statements to the rabbinic court that lend sincerity to their conversion process.

Many of the female potential converts have paradoxical Israeli-Jewish identities. While not considered Jewish according to Orthodox halacha, many grew up in Israel believing they were Jewish (and came to Israel under the Law of Return because of Jewish family connections). Invited to immigrate by the State of Israel, but then excluded from full membership in Israeli Jewish civic and religious life, most of the former FSU women find themselves in a painful no-woman’s-land labeled the harsh exclusionary Hebrew term goya (non-Jew/gentile) in Israeli society until they convert. One senior rabbi in the rabbinic conversion court compared these non-Jewish women in Israel to landmines: “…The foreign women will marry and have children, loyal citizens of Israel. It is a commandment to clear away such mines.”

In Concrete Boxes: Mizrahi Women on Israel’s Periphery (Wayne State University Press, $36) feminist anthropologist Pnina Motzafi-Haller of Ben Gurion University documents the lives of five Mizrahi women from the economically struggling development town of Yerucham, in Israel’s Negev. An activist who lived in the U.S. for almost two decades before returning to Israel, Motzafi-Haller published the Hebrew version of this book in 2012, as she wanted it to be read and discussed within Israel. The book was adapted into a play produced by the Dimona Theater, which traveled with the production around Israel for two years, dramatizing for an even wider audience the issues in Mizrahi women’s lives.

The five women featured in the book all have different approaches for dealing with the “concrete boxes” that have trapped them in Yerucham. Nurit is a single mother on welfare whose former husband was addicted to drugs; she worked many jobs to support her family. Nurit maintains dignity and finds meaning in her life through family events such as her son’s bar mitzvah. Efrat, another mother, becomes increasingly religiously observant as a way to deal with her life’s challenges. Her increased religiosity opens up opportunities for economic mobility and respectability, including a better job in a middle-class community, more than a secular education provides.

Rachel is considered a successful Yerucham resident despite her challenging background—coming from a poor family, married as a teen before finishing high school, having four children and then divorcing her abusive husband. She moves between middle-class and working-class settings, often as a representative of her community, but she is limited in her ability to juggle the different cultural nuances each group demands. Esti, “the rebel,” goes against communal norms by refusing to marry, have children or keep a job. While choosing a non-traditional path for a Mizrahi woman is freeing for her, it also leads to isolation and economic hardship. Gila, the author’s neighbor in Sde Boker grew up in Yerucham, but was able to leave her birthplace and create a middle-class, educated, professional life after leaving.

Sylvie Fogiel-Bijaoui and Rachel Sharaby have edited Dynamics of Gender Borders: Women in Israel’s Cooperative Settlements (Walter de Gruyter GmbH, & Hebrew University Magnes Press, $115)

Israel’s signature collective settlements, kibbutzim and moshavim, were based on ideals of gender equality and that of a new, egalitarian, socialist society in a new land. Kibbutzim were characterized by the communal features of formerly private domestic spaces—children’s houses, and communal kitchens, dining rooms and laundry. Moshavim were socialist agricultural communities that combined elements of individual and collective living, based on family farms. Yet, as the studies in this edited collection, show despite innovations in child-rearing practices, religious life, and labor, for women in these utopian communities, gender equality was still elusive.

The first section of the book collects women’s experiences in the pre-State period, including unique research on kibbutz mothers who wrote in secret diaries of their pain at being separated from their children raised collectively in children’s houses, pain they had to hide for fear of being seen as opposed to gender equality and the new society they were building. Another chapter explores mothers on moshavim who felt compelled to break gender constraints and fight against fascism by enlisting in British forces in the Middle East during World War II. They write of their pride in serving, but also of the sacrifice to their families and communities. On religious kibbutzim, women grew frustrated as rabbis debated whether they were allowed to wear shorts or pants while doing agricultural work, exemplifying the conflict between traditional constraints and the new, collectivist kibbutz.

In the book’s second section, we get a closer view of the period after the founding of the State. Various factors—the declining status of the labor settlement movement; the waves of immigrants from Asia, North Africa and Europe that presented many absorption challenges to Israel and the collective settlements; and Israel’s integration into the global neo-liberal economy and the processes of privatization—led to valuing individualism in the kibbutzim and moshavim. Changes arrived, but not gender equality. Articles describe how Mizrahi women immigrants integrated into moshavim, how economic and labor changes to kibbutzim and moshavim in modern times affected women, and how second-generation kibbutz mothers, rebelling against their experiences as children, pushed to make kibbutzim more family-oriented, by pressing for such “radical” changes as family meals and family sleeping arrangements.

All these books deal with people who have been on the margins of Israeli society. Together, they paint a devastating but important picture of the ways reality in Israel has failed to live up to ideals.

Susan Sapiro is a researcher and writer for nonprofits, and a book critic.

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April 20, 2020 by

A Trans Boy and His Remarkable Parents

What We Will Become: A Mother, A Son, and A Journey of Transformation
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27) tells two riveting stories of transformation, in alternating chapters of sublime prose. The first is that of the author, Mimi LeMay. Raised in an Orthodox Jewish home in Israel and the U.S., she studied for years at Gateshead Seminary, the prestigious girls’ yeshiva in England, attended college in Boston and ultimately leaves behind her religious tradition, which she found stultifying, and demeaning to women. Though we may have read narratives of this sort before, the complicated details of Lemay’s own mystery-filled childhood feel very fresh.

The second story is the journey Mimi takes with Em, the pseudonym Lemay uses when referring to her child as female. Em was born a girl, but identifies strongly as a boy from the age of two. We join the loving and hyper-alert Mimi, her husband and her two other young daughters on the difficult journey they travel to help Em become Jacob a few months before his fifth birthday.

We understand that Mimi’s ability to see her child’s pain clearly and embrace the necessity for him to be himself, despite some social opprobrium, comes from her own journey away from Orthodoxy’s religious and social constraints. “Jacob my love, it is you that have transitioned us to a life less ordinary and so much more meaningful than it ever would have been. Thank you deeply for your sacred trust.” Mimi’s intent in making public this letter she wrote to her five-year-old son (and her expansion of it into this book) is to “provide comfort and strength to another mother or father with an aching heart. To provide this message. It doesn’t get better. It gets awesome.”

But do not imagine that this is a sickly-sweet portrait where everything goes smoothly. We are allowed to witness the internal confusion and despair that Mimi experiences in both of the transition stories she tells.

For Mimi, in her religious life, it is her mother, an Orthodox woman, who feels betrayed by her daughter’s choices. Their relationship, with some unexpected twists and turns shapes Mimi’s own responses as a mother. But I was most taken by Mimi’s words about her mother in the prologue:

“I am grateful for my mother, Judith. Ours is a complex love built on a complicated past, but I have no doubt that every choice she has made for her children has been true to her strong
moral compass and deep, abiding faith… I admire her. I remain wounded by her. She is a mystery I may never solve.” This description deserves its own book.

We also meet the naysayers who disagree with Mimi’s decisions about her child. Em’s loving older sister, Ella, worries about the kids who are not nice to Em, because Em is different and gender non-conforming. There is the child at a party who says “What is THAT?” pointing to Em. As Mimi explains to her daughter and to anyone who will listen, “What you are in your heart and your mind is far more important that what you are in your body.”

Early on in the journey, Mimi learns about the extremely high rate of suicide and attempted suicide in transgender youth; a recent study found that 51% of female-to-male transgender
adolescents report having attempted suicide. This fact is always with Mimi as she navigates a largely unmapped path, along with the indicators that a child’s gender transitioning is not some mere whim; the clue is that the expression of desire to be a different gender from that assigned at birth must be “insistent, persistent, and consistent.”

And then there are moments when the path is illuminated. On a family trip to Disney World, Jacob’s sisters dress as princesses, while he dresses as Prince Charming. All the Disney characters in the park see and accept him as a boy. He is elated, and for once seems comfortable in his own skin. When he is treated as a boy, his anger, his sadness, his twitchy gestures fade away. This trip, where nobody knows their child as a girl, reinforces for Mimi and her husband that the time has come to offer Em the choice to transition socially. Em becomes Jacob, starts to present as a boy outside his home, and switches to a new, supportive school. Not every child is so fortunate.

This book could not come at a more crucial time. In January 2020, the South Dakota House passed a bill that would fine or imprison pediatricians who offer gender-affirming care for trans children under the age of 16. Since then, conservative legislators in Florida, Colorado, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Kentucky have followed suit. Gender-affirming care, which is endorsed by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the American Academy of Pediatrics, supports children and their families in social transitioning (changing names, style of dress and pronouns) and offering puberty blocker medications at puberty. These medications are a reversible intervention, one that allows teens more time to confirm their identity and not experience the anguish resulting from developing secondary sex characteristics which feel alien to them. It appears the politicians in South Dakota haven’t yet read the medical literature, which shows that these interventions save lives. Children who are affirmed are much less likely to be depressed or attempt suicide. South Dakota is ground zero for this culture war, as it was the first state to pass legislation restricting transgender students’ bathroom rights. Fortunately, that bill was vetoed by the governor, but became the model for several other states where it became law.

I predict that What We Will Become will become a classic, one of those books that changes the way we, as a society, view the transgender experience, particularly the lived experience of
very young children and their families.

Nechama Liss-Levinson, PhD., is a psychologist in private practice and the author of several articles and children’s books about developmental milestones in the Jewish family, including
When a Grandparent Dies and When the Hurricane Came. This review is dedicated to the memory of Jayme Schlenker.

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April 20, 2020 by

Big Mouth, Big Ideas

Battling Bella: The Protest Politics of Bella Abzug by Leandra Ruth Zarnow (Harvard University Press, $35) is a comprehensive, sympathetic—but never hagiographic—biography of the first woman to serve as a whip in the U.S. House of Representatives, where she represented New Yorkers from 1971–1977. While the book does not shy away from highlighting Abzug’s harsh treatment of her staff, it also notes her unflinching demand for gender parity in hiring practices of political campaigns.

In addition to noting her contributions to feminist politics and movements, Zarnow also vividly describes Bella’s formidable persona (including her iconic hats and use of the phrase “Abzuglutely.”) We glimpse Abzug’s personal life through her decision to cross gender boundaries and say kaddish for her father—in 1934, when she was still a teenager—and her devastation later in life over her husband’s death.

The book deliberately situates Abzug as “a participant in the American Left,” and frequently refers to her push for social democratic policies both as an activist and as an elected congresswoman. Abzug won office in New York City as part of a wave of New Politics Democrats who were seeking to realign the Democratic Party in a more progressive direction.
The successes and failures of New Politics Democrats have defined the political landscape in the intervening years, and it is impossible when reading this biography not to hear echoes of our current political moment through its pages.

Zarnow makes this most explicit when she notes the Democratic Party’s introduction of “unelected superdelegates with voting powers in 1984 to keep insolent challenges… in check.” In effect, these unelected superdelegates were meant to curtail the more radical candidates and policies the New Politics coalition might bring up for a vote on the convention floor (e.g. their passage of a platform plank in 1980 which called for Medicaid funding of abortion). As the author mentions, the role of unelected superdelegates again caused controversy amongst a new crop of reformers in the 2016 election and was only partially reformed as a result in 2018. As the 2020 Democratic Party convention approaches, the structural impediment used to stop Abzug and others from pushing feminist politics still partially remains in place.

While it can be ahistorical to draw oo many one-to-one parallels from the past to the present, I think it is worth highlighting a few further similarities. The cadre of New Politics Democrats who were elected to Congress in the late 60s and early 70s is evocative of the “Squad” of insurgent Democratic congresswomen who won office in 2018, as is the sense of crisis motivating them. New Politics Democrats urgently sought to end the Vietnam War and avoid nuclear Armageddon with a similar fervor to how current organizers are seeking to stave off a coming climate apocalypse. The campaign calling for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY–14) to have a committee seat on Ways and Means mirrors both Abzug’s campaign to be on the Armed Services Committee in 1971 and Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm’s campaign to change her appointment away from the Agriculture Committee in 1969. Likewise, many of the same smears thrown at Abzug are similar to attacks currently leveled by the right. Particularly startling to me were the eerie parallels to the way in which attacks questioning the legitimacy of Abzug’s Jewishness parallel the smears leveled against many millennial leftwing Jewish activists, despite the divergent positions on Zionism between Abzug and many of the activists of my generation who are similarly attacked.

The 1960s and 1970s are not the 2010s and 2020s, and Zarnow effectively relays the climate and various political currents to her readership. The author advocates for re-evaluating the 1970s “not as an era of limits but as an imaginative, expansive” period. While there may be elements to this appeal worth considering, it is nevertheless inescapable that the ultimate inability of the New Politics Democrats to win a governing majority in the 1970s led away from social democracy to the consolidation of power in a neoliberal order. After losing her Senate bid in 1976, Abzug would never again return to elected office, though she had served as a Congresswoman for three terms.

The question facing those of us who share a similar vision of the world is whether our movement can avoid the same end. While Battling Bella does not provide clear answers to this question, it does provide a thorough depiction of one of the most iconic figures of the New Politics Democrats. By studying the past upon which our present is built, we can hopefully steer the course to a better future.

Amelia Dornbush works for a union in Michigan. She has previously written for Lilith and Democratic Left.

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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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