Tag : Jewish feminist authors

October 23, 2020 by

Jewish. Feminist. Canadian.

A new novel from Nessa Rapoport, 30 years after her debut novel Preparing for Sabbath, is both deeply Jewish and (wait for it) deeply Canadian. There’s very little feminist fiction worthy of this claim.

The taut story of Evening (Counterpoint Press, $26) centers on two sisters, one marking the shiva of the other in their family’s home in Toronto. Eve, the survivor, fled the chilly (in every sense), WAS Py Ontario city to find her way in New York, very slowly completing a Ph.D. dissertation and teaching at a community college (“night school” a relative calls it), and carrying on a deliberately distanced relationship with an academic so brilliant that he wasn’t even bullied at the British boarding school where his English Jewish parents sent him at age seven.

Eve returns home to observe the seven-day ritual mourning period for her sister, Tam. For the week that’s the span of the novel, the household also includes Eve’s divorced parents, her remarkably accomplished grandmother, Nana, and a constellation of characters mostly spinning out from the tight circles of Eve’s childhood and adolescence. Prominent among these is her ages-ago boyfriend Laurie, whose presence at the shiva pulls Eve into a magnetic field that’s simultaneously charged, familiar, stifling and alluring. An old ad for tourism to Canada described Quebec, the province just east of Ontario, as “friendly, familiar, foreign and near.” That line came to mind as an apt description both for Laurie and for Simon, that quiet, witty, genius professor Eve has been keeping at arm’s length for three years in New York.

The interplay between the lives of the sisters is at the core of this brief novel. Tam had been a determined, high earning, famous-in-Canada television personality, happily married with two young children. (“All the things Jewish parents revere,” Rapoport commented to Lilith in a recent Zoom call.) The cancer that ravaged Tam’s body and took her life moved slowly enough that she had time for a deathbed argument with Eve about their seemingly very different paths, an exchange so fierce that, despite their decades of sisterly closeness and understanding, there was no emotional space left in which Eve could reach out to connect again before Tam died.

None of this is a spoiler, nor is the fact that after the funeral Tam’s husband hands Eve a sealed message from Tam; even the book’s advance publicity leaks this much. The single cryptic sentence in that envelope hints that Tam’s life hadn’t been quite the carefully mapped journey Eve had always considered the obverse of her own uncharted, halting career and love life.

Rapoport’s carefully told story is about the power of family role models we emulate or resist whether we understand them accurately or not—including Nana’s own remarkable life as a Jewish woman in an Anglo-Saxon stronghold, a woman with a Ph.D. in science, a pilot’s license, a passionate attachment to her late husband and a lifelong aptitude for self-definition.

Susan Weidman Schneider


To hear more about the ideas motivating its author to spend 30 years crafting Evening, Naomi Danis and Susan Weidman Schneider invited Nessa Rapoport, herself the oldest of four sisters, for a Zoom chat along with her daughter Mattie Kahn, culture director at Glamour. Here are some highlights from that conversation.

Nessa: There’s a culture and a chemistry in a family of daughters… In the book, I wanted these two sisters to have lives of both sensuality and intellect. I also wanted to show, through Tam, the working life of successful women—that world of accomplishment and fame. Yet Tam was limited, despite her success.

I’ve been told that in AA there’s a saying, “Never compare your insides to someone else’s outsides.” The family’s assumption was that Eve would envy her sister, and I knew from the beginning that she didn’t. Actually, Tam had a lot to envy in Eve. I wanted to reveal the complex interior lives of these sisters, not that Tam’s the accomplished one and Eve’s the blurry one.

Naomi: Your book title, Evening, evokes the evening of the score between two competitive sisters and also as the end of a day (and more poignantly the end of a life), as well as the character Eve’s becoming herself.

Nessa: You saw all three meanings of the title!

Mattie: Mom, your opening sentence says: “One loves, the other is loved.” I found that very provocative.

Nessa: You can still find relationships— whatever the power dynamic— where that is the operating assumption. In the end, the book is a refutation of the opening line. Eve’s myths about her family are all upended. And Simon becomes a real human being, which is, to Eve, unsettling.

Susan: The women in this novel are already real. You describe your own grandmother in your memoir, House on the River: A Summer Journey. She bears a close resemblance to Nana in Evening. Deliberate?

Nessa: My maternal clan was a unique amalgam of being practicing, committed Jews and Anglo-Saxon Canadians. My grandmother had a patrician pity for people who didn’t see that you could be observant and also be anything you wanted to be in the world. She and my grandfather invented this confident, unparochial way of being Jewish in the 1930s, a great act of audacity at a time when Canada was extremely anti-Semitic. In everything I write, there’s a grandmother who was a pioneer professionally and Jewishly.

Susan: You once wrote the script for a short film about the ritual of not leaving the house for a full week of mourning, and Evening’s framework is a shiva. Why?

Nessa: For a while, while I was writing Evening, I thought a lot about loss and trauma. I keep on my bedside table a copy of Judith Herman’s stunning book, Trauma and Recovery. Trauma limits your emotional range. It’s a very physical, limbic state. Grief, too, lives in the body. I’m now in my 60s, and I understand that our relationship with the people who have died continues. We are not who we were when they left us. We gain amplitude and insight; we can see and change even what seems to be fixed in the past..

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October 23, 2020 by

Perilous Childbirth. Yes, Even Now.

In a small ultra-Orthodox hospital in northern Israel, pregnant women seek the Rebbe’s blessing before undergoing medical procedures, like induction of labor, or surgical birth. Recently, Dr. Chavi Karkowsky, an obstetrician who sees patients with high-risk pregnancies, attended a woman whose water had broken at 23 weeks, far too soon. She feared the woman’s rebbe would instruct her to continue the pregnancy, even if it was life-threatening. She told the woman in Hebrew, “You are the most important person in the world.” The woman smiled and replied, “That’s exactly what the Rebbe said.”

Whether or not they have a rebbe they rely upon for religious counsel, all people giving birth should have their own lives viewed as sacrosanct. Naturally, they enter pregnancy filled with hope, anticipating joy. Media, art, and most pregnancy books stoke these expectations by depicting pregnancy with a happy ending. But birth stories are almost always far more complicated.

Karkowsky’s new book, High Risk: Stories of Pregnancy, Birth, and the Unexpected (Liveright, $26.95), is a specialist’s meditation on caring for women in this life stage. Karkowsky, who currently practices in New York City, pulls back the drape veiling American hospitals to tell dramatic and tragic stories of birth and pregnancy—one pregnant patient is so debilitated by pregnancy morning sickness that she is hospitalized for weeks, another’s life is saved, and a third woman’s baby is born but won’t live.

These stories often end in cliffhangers. We are left guessing what happens to some mothers-to-be in Karkowsky’s care—one has an abnormal ultrasound, another is dosed on unneeded medication (and given too much), and a third leaves hospital care to tend to her family against Karkowsky’s advice. The incompleteness of these stories undergirds one of Karkowsky’s central points, which is that birth stories are not simple, nor are they fixed. Where they begin and end is muddy, since doctors and patients rarely see each other completely.

The book benefits from a fascinating central tension that is both personal to Karkowksy and highly political. She loves her patients, supports their bodily autonomy, and champions their ability to direct their own care. However, she also acknowledges the failings of the modern medical system she works in, one in which birthing people are often traumatized, dehumanized, and suffer more than they should. Witnessing her wrestle with these opposing realities highlights the intractability of the problems that beset hospital birth today. And yet her willingness to both personalize these problems and confront them gives me hope.

Karkowsky’s chapter about implicit bias and racism in obstetrics—which has produced a maternal mortality rate more than three times higher for Black women than white women—provides powerful testimony. Too many Black mothers are dying during and after childbirth. Curiously, we rarely hear from their doctors. Karkowsky is quick to recognize her position of power in a medical setting, not only as the doctor, but as a white woman. She describes feeling grief for the unacceptable loss of these Black women’s lives, and also shame for being part of the system through her role delivering babies. Routinely, Black women’s postpartum suffering is ignored, or their pain isn’t believed, as was the case with tennis great Serena Williams, who nearly died of a blood clot after delivering her daughter in 2017. Williams had a history of blood clots and knew what was happening, but nurses assumed that she was confused. Karkowsky describes how racism seeps into Black women’s perinatal experiences, and shapes how they relate to their doctors. Her perspective is an important contribution to the work needed to provide unbiased care for Black women giving birth.

Reading this book, I often thought that had I faced major pregnancy complications, I would have been very lucky to have looking after me a highly trained professional as thoughtful and wholehearted as Karkowsky. Some of her patients feel this way. Others don’t, and instead reject what she has to offer— technology, expertise, advice—and she recounts those tales too. They support another one of her theses, that the stories women tell about their healthcare and their own bodies are subjective, evolving, and very much their own.

Allison Yarrow is a journalist and the author of 90s Bitch: Media, Culture, and the Failed Promise of Gender Equality (Harper Perennial, 2018) and the forthcoming book, The Mother Load: How Patriarchy Stole and Controls Pregnancy, Birth, and Motherhood, and How We Can Take Them Back (Seal Press).

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July 27, 2020 by

“I Never Saw My Mother in a Clothing Store”

Bess Kalb, Emmy-nominated TV writer and New Yorker contributor, saved every voicemail her grandmother Bobby Bell ever left her. Bobby was a force—irrepressible, glamorous, unapologetically opinionated. Bobby doted on Bess; Bess adored Bobby. Then, at 90, Bobby died. But in this memoir, Nobody Will Tell You This But Me, Bobby is speaking to Bess once more:

ON THE MORNING OF MY WEDDING it occurred to my mother she didn’t have a pair of formal shoes.

My brother Leo had tried to give her money for some new clothes two whole weeks before the wedding, but she just laughed and called him a nudnik.

“You need a dress, Ma.”

“I have two dresses.”

“Come on. You need to look presentable in the photographs. They’ll be in an album.”

“All eyes will be on your Barbara.”

That’s what she called me to my brothers: “Your Barbara.”

In all my life, I never saw my mother in a clothing store. She bought her shirts and skirts from a secondhand charity shop and mended them when they ripped and that was that. She was indifferent to her appearance—everything was sacrificed for us kids. She had disdain for the Italian family next door, with the matriarch in lipstick and a fur coat heading off to church every Sunday. “Who’s it for, the Holy Ghost?”

When I was five years old, on the day of my brother David’s law school graduation ceremony, she wore her brown skirt and her stained white blouse and her ratty old hat. On her way out the door she accidentally took my father’s wool blazer, which was only about five and a half sizes too small for her. She barely noticed. The whole hour-and-a-half bus ride from Greenpoint to Morningside Heights, she sat there humming to herself, proud as anything you’ve ever seen, the circulation to her arms completely cut off.

Leo tried to say something. “Ma! You can hardly breathe in that thing.”

“What does it matter?” She laughed. “Who cares about the fit of an old lady’s coat?”

I have two words for you, Bessie: Giorgio Armani. We got to Columbia, and I’ll never forget the columns on the big white buildings and the curling bronze arches and the grandeur of it all. How the men walked around with such importance. Everyone in suits and ties and shiny shoes and carrying brown briefcases. I couldn’t imagine anyone there had ever heard of Greenpoint. I imagined them going home to their enormous apartments with endless rooms and servants who bowed and curtsied at the door.

We filed onto benches set up on the great lawn and waited with the other families—cleaner, more comfortable families. They all seemed completely at ease, bored even, fanning themselves with their programs and dreaming about lunch.

My mother was humming to herself and staring straight ahead. I saw how she was sweating from her temples. I watched the sweat form rivulets in front of her ears, down her neck, pooling in her collar. Leo noticed too. “Ma, for God’s sake. Unbutton the jacket.” She shushed him and sucked in her gut and straightened her back and jabbed him in the ribs.

We waited and we waited, and finally a man with a funny hat called out over the whole lawn, “David… Otis!”

She shot out of her seat and brought her fingers to her lips and whistled so loudly the family in front of us turned around and glared, and just as she applauded over her head, the damned jacket split under both arms. Zzzzzzppppp. Two huge tears, exposing the soaking wet blouse underneath for all of Columbia to see. I felt my face burn with such shame I had never experienced before.

But when I looked up at her, I held my tongue. She was beaming. I had never seen my mother smile like that before. I’d hardly seen her smile at all! Tears were streaming down her face as she clutched her hands together beneath her chin and repeated, “My son, my son, my son.”

Up in the distance, there was David in his long flowing blue robe, walking across the stage toward the dean, waving out at all of us and at the woman who got on a ship when she was just a girl so that one day, decades later, she could watch her child shake the hand of a kingmaker.

SO ON THE MORNING OF MY WEDDING, my mother wakes up and doesn’t have any dress shoes.

I had already gone over to Leo’s house down the block to prepare. His wonderful wife, Lily, had sewn my dress by hand. She took me to the Garment District and bought yards and yards of ivory satin, and she pinned it to her dress form and made the most beautiful gown. It was flowing with an enormous train.

And all of that was happening and my mother was standing there in front of her wardrobe. And it’s a Sunday and nothing is open but the hardware store. So she walks in and buys a can of black paint and a paintbrush. She brought them home and lined the front stoop and painted them black. Three coats, carefully applied.

The people walking by on their way to church must’ve thought she’d lost her mind. “Oh, there’s Mrs. Otis destroying some shoes. Hiya, Mrs. Otis!” She didn’t care. She fanned them dry, put them on, laced them up, and made her way to the temple an hour early.

When the wedding was over the rabbi’s secretary sent my father a cleaning bill for the synagogue carpet.

On the invoice it said, “Black footprints going up and down the aisle.”

Excerpted from Nobody Will Tell You This But Me: a true (as told to me) story, by Bess Kalb (Knopf). Used with permission.

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July 16, 2020 by

Reading The Diary

Had she lived, Anne Frank would be turning 75 in 2004. Her diary has sold millions of copies in more than 55 languages since it was first published in Dutch in 1947. Naomi Danis elicits some new reactions to the most-read book about the Holocaust.

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