Tag : reviews

January 26, 2021 by

The Loved Ones She Leaves Behind

Florence Adler Swims Forever (Simon & Schuster, $25.99) is a poignant title for a
book about a woman who drowns in the first chapter. Yet it’s the perfect title for
Rachel Beanland’s new novel, telling the interwoven stories of the loved ones the
titular character leaves behind.

This book pulls us immediately into its vibrant setting, Atlantic City, summer of 1934, halfway through the Great Depression, a city on the cusp of change. Enter Florence, an independent college student who’s returned home to train in pursuit of her dream to swim the English Channel. One day in June, she snaps on her red bathing cap, dives into the crest of a wave, swims almost to the horizon, and inexplicably drowns.

Those left behind to grieve Florence tell their stories in alternating chapters, focusing especially on the women, who reflect Florence in strength and determination. First, we meet Esther, Florence’s mother, who sets the plot in motion. In the rescue tent, standing over Florence’s
still-dripping body, Esther devises a plan to keep Florence’s death from her other
daughter, Fannie, who is hospitalized through the final months of a precarious pregnancy. There could be no public funeral, no shiva. “Fannie can’t know,” Esther says, or she might lose the baby.

Gussie, Fannie’s daughter, is spending the summer with her grandparents while
her mother is restricted to bedrest. She idolizes Florence, the strong, smart, epitome of what a woman can be. Even at age seven, Gussie tries to be strong through the long summer that follows Florence’s death, tries to keep the secret, tries to make sense of the adult world. Anna, a refugee from the rise of Nazism, is a guest sharing Florence’s bedroom, while pursuing every narrowing opportunity to bring her parents out of Germany. Drawn into helping Gussie keep the secret, Anna has secrets of her own. Eventually she determines to step into
one of Florence’s bathing suits and learn to swim. How this might aid her efforts to
save her parents remains to be seen.

Of course, there are men in this story, too, and they carry their own secrets.
There’s non-Jewish Stuart, the lifeguard who may or may not have been Florence’s beloved. And there’s Isaac, Fannie’s ne’er-do-well husband, whose secrets revolve around risky get-rich-quick schemes. The man who ties all these stories together is Joseph, the family patriarch, Esther’s husband, father of Florence and Fannie. Joseph tries to solve everyone’s problems with his loving guidance and the hard-earned cash from his mom-and-pop bakery. But what secrets does Joseph carry, about Anna, her mother, and his own European youth?

The character Florence Adler is loosely based on the author’s great-great-aunt
Florence Lowenthal, who drowned off the coast of Atlantic City in 1929, and the novel’s plot mirrors the family’s real-life decision to keep the tragic news from the author’s great- grandmother as she suffered through a difficult pregnancy. Truth doesn’t always guarantee believable fiction, and some readers might question Esther’s decision to protect one daughter, Fannie, at the expense of properly mourning another daughter, Florence.

But this story is a paean to its time. Beanland’s attention to the details of Atlantic City’s Jewish community in the1930s—its shuls and cemeteries, bakeries and burial societies—and to the details of women’s lives in that era—from bathing costumes to nosy hospital matrons—captures the reader. She makes us feel as if we are there, mourning Florence, making
decisions that we might not make today. And she reminds us, as Joseph comes to understand, that, after her death, Florence “was to be found in the people
who loved her most.”

Elizabeth Edelglass is a book reviewer and writer whose fiction has won the Lilith short story contest.

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January 26, 2021 by

Truths from Private Spaces

As an undergraduate Jewish studies major, I stuffed my brain and bookshelves with the literature of Jewish feminism: Nice Jewish Girls: A Lesbian Anthology, On Being a Jewish Feminist, Joining the Sisterhood: Young Jewish Women Write Their Lives, Yentl’s Revenge: The New Next Wave of Jewish Feminism, Like Bread on the Seder Plate: Jewish Lesbians and the Transformation of Tradition. These books lit up my curiosity, my politics, and my indignation. Now, Monologues from the Makom: Intertwined Narratives of Sexuality, Gender, Body Image, and Jewish Identity (Ben Yehuda Press, $14.95) confronts the taboos of sexuality and women in the observant Jewish community through first-person poetry and prose. It deserves a space among the classics.

Monologues is composed of truths that until now, have been spoken about in dorm rooms, synagogue bathrooms, camp bunks, and on Shabbat afternoon walks, but have never been rounded up and presented to the world. While religious expectations—modest dress, not touching the opposite sex until marriage, observing the laws of ritual purity, dominate the text, the reality is that all women will recognize themselves in these pages.

You don’t have to have spent years in a Modern Orthodox Jewish day school to know that consent is a rusty, if not completely unknown, and even threatening concept to many. You don’t need to have experienced pregnancy or sexual assault. What we do collectively understand (even if we don’t quite know it) by virtue of walking around in our gendered bodies, is shame, and the work inside this anthology succeeds in facing it, cracking it open, and looking at its insides, all in the name of undercutting its power and letting the air out of tightly held secrets, and ultimately, assuring readers that they are most definitely not alone.

“My community preaches acceptance and love and that women have no place in Simchat Torah.” writes Jennifer Brenis in her poem, “Synonyms.” In the piece, Brenis articulates another experience that women know well: gaslighting. What we say happened didn’t happen, we’re overly sensitive, paranoid, fragile. What’s close and dear to us is used as ammunition. The authors in Monologues have spent their lives in Jewish communities; they build and sustain and fight for them, they have followed the rules. Yet all around them are voices telling them that while they’re allegedly vital to these communities, they’re not completely part of them, and the experiences they’ve had in them aren’t real, and what happens to them is their own fault. The anonymous writer of “Shame” wonders if her sexual assault would have happened her skirt hadn’t been short, and if perhaps “Orthodoxy is right and I should not be intimate with members of the opposite sex because this is what happens.”

Girls are taught to be good—don’t be (too) sexual, too aggressive, too loud, too
smart. If you’re Jewish, don’t talk about anything that could be seen as damaging, disloyal to the community, even when it’s the truth. It’s an exhausting order, not just tired, but stodgy and irrelevant. Between the pages of Monologues are testaments to the fact that telling the truth is radical, and so is Judaism. These writers know that telling the truth not only restores power to the truth teller, but has the potential to bring new energy to structures that could use some redemption.

Chanel Dubofsky is a writer based in Brooklyn, NY.


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January 26, 2021 by

Abortions Every Day: The Feminist Literature of Norma Klein

About three years ago, when I was a senior in high school, I embarked upon a project that I don’t expect to finish anytime soon. Some people read books to be trans-
ported or to feel empathy. I read for those reasons, too, but I also read to conduct
research. Since high school, I’ve actively sought books that I believed would help me answer the question of how I can be a woman in a world that makes being one practically impossible. My plan was to keep reading books until I found an author or character whose womanhood I could emulate perfectly. In the past three years, I’ve read well over 100 books by female authors. My project continues.

In the summer before I went to college, my research led me to a book that in turn led me to Norma Klein, a writer whose scandalous young adult novels of the seventies and eighties earned her a spot on a list of most-banned authors. As she was praised for her precocious feminism, I made it my business to get a hold of her books even though they were mostly out of print. Once I got them, I swallowed them up one after the other after the other. Fortunately, Klein wrote more than 50 books before her premature death at age 50, some of which are for children but most of which are for teens or adults.

No matter how much I read, I never got a straight answer from Klein about how to be a woman. Her female characters, intelligent young (mostly Jewish) women whose families can somehow afford apartments in Manhattan, make decisions with which I often disagree. But while Klein’s feminist literature may not signify an end to my research journey, it offers consolation by presenting characters who, despite being flawed and despite living in a society that is broken, manage to turn out OK, surviving on ruthless introspection and politically incorrect humor.

Take, for example, the teenage heroine of Domestic Arrangements (1981), nicknamed Rusty for her deviant red hair. Rusty’s parents are cheating on each other, she can’t decide whether she actually enjoys sleeping with her boyfriend, and her appearance is constantly commodified by men who can’t resist ogling her. Her parents offer conflicting advice. (She says of her father, “Daddy is a socialist, sort of, meaning he worries about how many poor people there are in the world and feels guilty that he isn’t poor.”)

Rusty is only one of many Norma Klein characters who is sexually active and, like the rest of them, her sexual activity leads to more complicated issues. What should she do if she doesn’t find sex enjoyable? What if she’s annoyed that her boyfriend is so obsessed with it? Is she too young for sex, or have the times changed? If this were any other author, the topic probably wouldn’t be considered to begin with, and even if it were, it might turn out to be a cautionary tale about the fates that await adventurous young women—I think of the Mean Girls scene where the coach says to the high school students, “Don’t have sex, because you will get pregnant and die!” But Rusty doesn’t get pregnant or die. Instead, she finally says to her boyfriend one day when he begins touching her, “I just don’t feel like it.” Before, she says, “I just figured I sort of had to, that you’d be mad if I didn’t… But now that it’s gotten really good, I like the idea of it being special.”

The heroines of Klein’s novels almost always have sex and almost always don’t die. They get pregnant sometimes, but not as a cautionary tale. Some who get pregnant get abortions, and others don’t. In “Pratfalls,” a novella featured in Love and Other Euphemisms (1972), a young woman divorces her husband and enrolls in clown school. When Rachel gets pregnant despite her tipped uterus, she is encouraged to get an abortion because of the stigma surrounding unwed mothers, but she decides against it. In order to make it clear that her decision to have the babies (they end up being twins, of course) has nothing to do with fear of abortion, she asserts delightfully, “I would have an abortion every day in the week… I believe women should have the right to strangle their newborn babies with their bare hands if they feel like it.” She’s not sure who the twins’ father is, but one of the possible fathers is Black and the others are white. At the hospital, when her Black ex-husband asks on the phone “what color” the children are so he can find out whether he’s the father, Rachel wants to mess with him and says “Gee, Edward. I’d send you a swatch, but they’re a little young for skin grafting.” The story ends soon after, but her lighthearted sense of humor suggests that Rachel will end up OK, tipped uterus and single status notwithstanding.

American Dreams (1987), one of the last books Klein published before her passing, follows four characters from their college graduation to middle age. The comedy in this novel isn’t as natural as in Klein’s other novels. The jokes seem out of place next to a scene where an Ashkenazi Jewish immigrant parent says to her child, “If you knew what we know, you wouldn’t want to get out of bed in the morning” and where one of the main characters ends up getting murdered. The twisted humor of this novel is captured when one of the main characters has finally found an editor to publish his short story: “‘You have captured all the sordidness and anomie of city life,’ the editor writes. The writer is confused: “he sent the sordid one somewhere else!” Despite the trauma present in the novel, and despite the fact that life doesn’t turn out like any of the characters expect it to, the characters mostly end up OK—a gay man who used to be suicidal now lives more-or-less happily with his partner in Paris, and a man and woman who divorced both find love again. But the tone of the novel is sad, and the humor forced. How could Norma Klein, the queen of witty banter, write something so sad?

But then again, maybe that’s what Klein’s humor was for all along. Without it, Rusty may not have been able to stomach the creepy comments she got from men, and Rachel might have surrendered to the idea that she couldn’t have kids out of wedlock. And even if they were still able to do what they wanted, they might not have been able to do it as joyfully without their humor. So, how can one be a woman in a world where it’s practically impossible? Nobody knows. But Klein shows that whatever path a woman does take, she’s going to need a sense of humor, even if and perhaps especially if she’s forcing it. And she wants us to believe that everything’s going to be OK—that we won’t be punished for our curiosity, though it might change us for the better.

Lauren Hakimi is a student at CUNY Hunter College, where she studies history
and English literature.

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January 26, 2021 by

A Comedian’s Memoir that Delivers the Laughs

I recently decided to take a break from my fourth rewatch of Rachel Bloom’s CW musical dramedy Crazy Ex Girlfriend to read her new memoir, I Want to be Where the Normal People Are. Boy am I glad I did. Mark Twain famously said, “Comedy is tragedy plus time.” For Bloom, comedy is tragedy plus time-travel plus an original musical that crams the narrative arc of
your life into ten pages.

The book includes interactive sections like “Pull Down Your Pants and Let’s Compare Traumas” as well as Harry Potter fan fiction and excerpts of erotic poetry from her childhood journal. A personal favorite of mine was her middle school op-ed entitled “Inside Jokes Can Leave Many Outside,” which details the potentially detrimental effects of “this unavoidable part of our teen culture.”

In addition to being hilarious, Bloom is frank and insightful when reflecting on her adolescence, toxic relationships, and mental health. She describes her OCD in a way that was both fiercely resonant and fiercely funny. Though Bloom talks about feeling less alone when Crazy Ex Girlfriend fans sing along to her more vulnerable lyrics from the show, I was the one who felt less alone when reading this book. I recognized myself in the angst of her journal excerpts, and the deliciously earnest op-ed recalls many a self-righteous internal monologue of my own.

Bloom’s honesty is key to her comedy. She pulls no punches and spares the reader no details, from her adolescent masturbation habits to pictures of the imprints the shapewear she wore to different award shows left on her skin. In addition to being laugh-out-loud funny, these reflections add a radical feminist twist to the comic memoir genre. There’s also something inexplicably Jewish about the way Bloom shares her bathroom habits and her disdain for Spanx.

Of course, Bloom needed no help writing this book. Her comedic writing skills are on display throughout her series and musical sketches. But Bloom’s book does have ghost writers of sorts— the earlier versions of herself. Through journal excerpts, old poems, and op-eds, she shows readers the different young Rachels who taught each other to build the comedy mastermind that we currently know and love.

Abigail Fisher is a sophomore at Wesleyan University and a Lilith intern.

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