Tag : judaism

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

Did Alzheimer’s Turn My Husband Into An anti-Semite?

Plenty of Jews who “marry out” ask their new partners to convert. I wasn’t one of them. Yet I’m deep-in-the-bone and dyed-in-the-wool Jewish. My parents were card carrying Zionists from the Midwest who’d met at Habonim, a Zionist youth group. My father dropped out of the University of Michigan in 1949 to go to the newly formed state of Israel.

“Israel?” said his mother, clearly not keen on the idea. “What’s in Israel? Sand, s—- and flies.”

My mother disagreed. Barely 17, and as starry-eyed with the dream as he was, she followed him there. They lived first in a kibbutz and later on a moshav; my brother was born in the first and I in the second, making me a sabra, with a Hebrew name and Israeli birth certificate. My parents left Israel when I was a year old, but the country loomed large, almost mythical, throughout my childhood, even though I didn’t return until I was 18. When I did, it felt like a homecoming.

But when I fell in love with my husband, it was his very non-Jewishness that made my Jewish girl’s heart flutter. Born and raised in Portsmouth, NH, he was a Yankee through and through, part of a big, extended Catholic family, most of them
still in the area.

The first Christmas we knew each other, he brought me to his boyhood home, a charming white house. He raved about how the backyard had been filled with lilacs in the spring; I could almost imagine their scent. We passed his Nana’s house on State Street, where he’d stop by; together, they did the Jumble in the newspaper while he ate a generous slice of the incomparable apple pie she’d baked. Then there was the Whipple Elementary School, the pond where he’d learned to skate, his father’s sporting goods store on Market Street, where it had been his job to string the tennis racquets and dust the stacked boxes of model airplanes. Molson’s, the drugstore/ luncheonette, was gone, but he wished I’d been able to taste the ice cream Mr. Molson churned in the basement—vanilla, chocolate, peach, and his favorite, coffee.

We drove along the coastline—all 18 miles of it—and he introduced me to his cousin Bobby, who had a lobstering business. As a teenager, he’d worked for Bobby during the summers, and in the years before sunscreen was as much a requisite as toothpaste, he told me his skin burnt as red as those poor lobsters when thrown into pots of boiling water. Further up the coast was where his family would rent a cottage for a few weeks in August; he and his siblings dug for clams along the shore and his mother cooked them in a pot right on the beach. A few years later, as a budding artist, he went there on his own, setting up shop on the boardwalk and drawing portraits of passers-by. We visited the cemetery where his relatives were laid to rest: grandparents, uncles and aunts—most memorably to me the one called Elspeth.

I came back from that visit in love with Portsmouth—and with him. His New England upbringing seemed to have been lifted straight from a Norman Rockwell illustration. Its wholesomeness and its divergence from my own spoke to me. I didn’t need or even want him to be Jewish—I wanted him to be just who and what he was.

The attraction of opposites was reciprocal. If there had been any Jews during the years he lived in Portsmouth, they must have stayed on the sidelines, for he didn’t know them. So, to him, I was an exotic creature—dark-haired, fast-talking, hands
always moving. If his R.P.M. was 16, mine was 78—on a slow day. He loved the Yiddish words I tossed lightly in his direction—gatkes was a particular favorite—and the world they conjured. He could listen to my grandmother’s endless (and endlessly
repeated) stories about the “old country” with true and rapt interest; basking in his attention, she dubbed him “a prince.”

We each fell in love with the way the other was not like us—vive la difference. And it was those differences that carried us happily through our life together. When we married, it was—by mutual agreement—in a civil ceremony, but we celebrated
Pesach and Rosh Hashana with my mother. When our son was born, it was he who urged the bris rather than the purely medical circumcision offered by the obstetrician. I took to his holidays, Easter and most especially Christmas, which I celebrated with all the suppressed longing that only a Jewish girl can have.

We raised our children with a sense of respect for each of our backgrounds; for them, there was no sense of “other” but a strong sense of “both.” I occasionally experienced flack from other Jews who criticized my decision to intermarry, and
especially for not giving our children a more tangible Jewish education. I brushed them off. We were happy. Case closed.

And then, in his seventies, my husband received a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, a development that changed his life—and mine. As a spouse-turned-caretaker, I struggled with my new role, trying to frame it within the positive. He still knew me, and he still knew the kids. He was still moved—transported even—by the kind of art
he’d always loved. He still took photographs, his life’s work, although he no longer used the Leica that had practically been another limb, or spent hours in the darkroom developing them. He still loved coffee ice cream.

Between my reading and my discussion with his doctors, I knew what to expect: the repetition, the disorientation, the agitation, the sun-downing. I steeled myself against his occasional outbursts, the paranoia and delusions—I was having an affair with the contractor who redid our kitchen, I had tried to poison him, I was stealing his money, I was planning to leave him.

None of this was even remotely true, but reason didn’t have any purchase against the erosion taking place in his mind. I found I could either try to distract him—a phone call to one of our children might help—or wait it out. The moods always
passed, as did his memory of them. “I said that?” he’d ask incredulously. “I didn’t mean it. I’m so sorry.”

But then there was a night on which, in the middle of such an episode, he uttered these words: “You know what the problem is? It’s that you’re a Jew and Jews are a vile people—you’re from a vile race.”

It was the most shocking thing I’d ever heard him say, and for a moment, it seemed to upend everything I thought I knew about him. About us. It was also, in a strange, dark way, kind of…funny. After all, it was a little late to be bringing it up now; the Jewish card had been played early on—from the beginning, in fact.

He went on in this vein for a while and then something in his mood turned; his anger lifted, forgotten. But I couldn’t forget. The other insults, the accusations had been easier to disregard. These words were insidious, heat-seeking missiles aimed right at my heart. What if on some inchoate level, he’d always felt this way? Wasn’t that the old warning? He says he loves you now, but the first time you have a fight, it’ll be dirty Jew. That won’t be us, I had smugly thought. Well, now it seemed that it was.

And that wasn’t the last of it either. On several other occasions, he’d start in on those same accusations, using the same or similar language. Of course I knew that though it was his voice I was hearing, those weren’t his words. They were lines from
a script deeply embedded in our culture and written by the disease, the one that had taken up residence in his brain and was inexorably reshaping it.

But knowing that didn’t entirely diminish their power to wound. Instead, they dredged up every anti-Semitic taunt I’d ever heard: Christ-killer, big nosed, greasy, greedy, money-loving, money-grubbing. Their venom made me question my faith in who we’d been together, and the life we’d made. What if I’d been wrong about all of it, and that there was—and always had been—some deep and yawning chasm between us? What if, as Tom Lehrer had sung back in the 1960’s, “…the Catholics hate the Protestants/the Protestants hate the Catholics/the Hindus hate the Muslims/and everyone hates the Jews”?

Then, for reasons not readily understood, the attacks—at least the anti-Semitic ones—stopped. At the recommendation of his neurologist, his medication was increased, and his moods became less volatile. I learned to see some of the triggers—a touch of impatience in my voice, for instance—and to control them.

We are, for the moment, on safe ground. Or safe enough. He can still laugh at a Yiddish phrase; I’m still the Queen of Christmas. But as has been made clear to me, this disease has only one direction, and that direction is down. I can only hope I’m strong and resilient enough to be remain the loving wife I’ve always tried to be, and the loving caretaker I’ve had to become. Part of that will mean stopping my own ears to the hateful words that can threaten to undo it all.

 

Yona Zeldis McDonough’s most recent novel is Not Our Kind,
written under the pen name Kitty Zeldis. She’s been Lilith’s
Fiction Editor since 2000.

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The Lilith Blog

October 12, 2020 by

Reflections on Sukkot During the Coronavirus

So.

I don’t know about you, but I never thought we’d be here.

Saying goodbye to Sukkot, the grand festival of rejoicing, the time when we celebrate harvest, honor abundance, and pray for the rains to come.

And yet, we are. still. in. this. mess.

Last week, I walked the eerily empty streets of Jerusalem. It was an evening that would otherwise be packed with shoppers, tourists, visitors, hawkers, strangers, every kind of colorful human. There would be people buying their palm-branch-and-citron Lulav and Etrog sets from outdoor markets while tourists enjoy a late-night ice cream or beer and outdoor buskers strum their music to contribute to the overall din of joy.

Instead, there were just a few of us, approaching the stray stalls that were open to sell the season’s necessities, a sukkah plank here, a Lulav there; while the produce stands tried to get rid of their last vegetables and the buses stopped running at 9pm. It was dystopian, it was sad, it was infuriating.

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The Lilith Blog

October 12, 2020 by

The Struggle of Finding Shelter as an Orthodox Woman

Sukkot is supposed to be the holiday of rejoicing.

And yet for me, a particularly difficult time, as a single woman.

Usually, it’s the week before Sukkot that I put a call out to ask the internet to help me build a sukkah or find one – and then, sometime during the actual week of the holiday I spill my guts and explain why the week brings about so much heartbreak.

I even wrote a poem about it once

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The Lilith Blog

October 8, 2020 by

Clamor in the Desert: A Shelter for Anyone Who Feels Forlorn

We are living in uncertain times. In Argentina, my home, the flights are almost totally suspended and the feeling of confinement and distance becomes more evident.

I am an artist born in this country to Auschwitz survivors. Their story of exile and loss of their homeland, their language, their culture, marked my life and of course my art. I always felt some responsibility to try to renew and make their ancestors’ culture live in their new chosen land. That choice was obviously by default since they arrived in Argentina clandestinely as refugees. 

Thus, borders, migrations and exiles, human rights, and the mother tongue have always been an essential core in my artistic concern, since I consider that art has the gift, but also the commitment to transmit and contribute to the formation of culture and popular thinking. 

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The Lilith Blog

October 5, 2020 by

Stuffed with Abundance and Gratitude

What better way to celebrate the abundance of the harvest than by stuffing vegetables with an abundance of meat, rice, vegetables and fruits! No wonder stuffed foods are a traditional favorite for Sukkot, the festive fall holiday, for Jews from around the world. 

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The Lilith Blog

September 29, 2020 by

Harbor From the Holocaust: The Jews of Shanghai

By Aileen Jacobson

In 1941, Laura Margolis, the American Joint Distribution Committee’s first female field agent, was sent to Shanghai to help the nearly 20,000 Jews who had fled there to escape Nazi Germany’s persecution. In an audacious move, she negotiated with the Japanese officials who controlled Shanghai and was able to secure funds (partly from Russian Jews and other communities who had found shelter in China in previous generations) to build a hospital and expand a soup kitchen. She saw to it that the neediest refugees got at least one meal a day to keep after they were forced, in 1943, into a mile-square area known as the “Shanghai ghetto.” The thousands of Chinese people who already lived there stayed.  

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The Lilith Blog

September 23, 2020 by

Reflecting on the Protests in Portland

Portland is one of the whitest cities in America, with an extremely racist history. So who would have ever thought we would be the city to watch during the modern-day civil rights movement?

The murder of George Floyd changed our country, and it changed Portland. So much so that this week, along with Seattle and NYC, we were designated an “Anarchist jurisdiction” by the Attorney General just this past Monday.

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The Lilith Blog

September 22, 2020 by

Black Jewish Women Artists You Should Know… Rebecca S’manga Frank

Art–whether it be dancing, painting, drawing, film–creates a space for self-examination, helping us to envision possible futures, and better versions of ourselves. And the Jewish month of Elul is traditionally an opportunity for introspection before the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Recognizing the power of art to be transformative, Lilith is highlighting Black Jewish women artists in this time leading up to and through Elul. On Lilith’s platforms you’ll have a chance to experience, share, and celebrate their work.

You can also participate by letting us know (at info@Lilith.org) Black Jewish women creators we should include!

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September 14, 2020 by

Lilith Votes: How I’m Feeling (Spoiler: Not Great!) as a First-Time Feminist Voter

August 18th marked the centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave some women–white women–the hard-won right to vote in the United States, and I feel disappointed.

As a first-time voter, radical feminist, and survivor of sexual assault, I’d anticipated that this election would be more hopeful than it is. In 2016 I felt the possibility that women would have a more significant say in government and that our voices would be heard. Hillary Clinton was predicted to win the election, which would have been an historic validation. But Donald Trump became president, and the past four years have been even worse than anticipated. From the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the defunding of Planned Parenthood, women’s voices and bodies are being left in the dust.

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