Live from the Lilith Blog

September 24, 2015 by

Jewish Thrifting

I’m on high alert even before I walk through the door, fully charged and primed for action. For the next couple of hours, I will ignore phone calls, texts and emails, morphing into the Bionic Woman, with no need to sit, eat, drink or use the restroom.  I am about to embark on what for me is a quasi-scared endeavor: pawing through the schmattes in the National Council of Jewish Women’s thrift shop on East 84th Street in NYC. I love thrift shops of all denominations, but as a Jewish woman, I derive a certain extra bit of nachas from the thrift shops run, and frequented by and most essential of all, donated to by my foremothers, the women of my tribe.

I make these visits with some regularity and with the exception of socks, pantyhose and underwear, depend on them to purchase all of my clothing. I buy nothing new. Why should I? Sadie, Mollie, Esther and Bunny and their pals have already provided me with everything I ever wanted—and more. A long, black cashmere coat from Saks, an Ungaro jacket in maroon quilted velvet, a heavily encrusted purple silk skirt, all beading and sequins, from Ralph Lauren—these are only a few of my thrift shop finds.

There are practical reasons to switch to thrifting: it’s economical and allows me to afford clothes that I would otherwise only dream of.  And I believe we have an almost moral imperative to buy secondhand: there is too much stuff in the world and we have an obligation to reuse it. 

But even without these incentives, I would still be a Second Hand Rose, for reasons that are less quantifiable but every bit—at least to me—compelling. I feel strange kind of tenderness and pity for all the abandoned and discarded garments, and am endlessly curious about their former owners. Who bought those wide black pants trimmed in feathers and where did she go in them?  That pleated navy jumpsuit with the gold trim? The powder blue suede miniskirt?  Each has a story to tell and oh, what a story it must be.  In my imagining those stories, it’s as if I have been able to resurrect not just the garments, but the women who wore them.

I should add here that I come from a venerable line of thrifters. My mother had the bug, and so did my grandmother, Tania. Well into her eighties, Tania worked as a volunteer at the thrift shop of a Jewish charity in Miami when Collins Avenue and Lincoln Road were still the province of elderly, Ashkenazi Jews who traded the harsh winters of the north and east—in my grandmother’s case, it had been Detroit—for the sunny climes of Southern Florida. My grandmother traveled an hour by bus to get to this thrift shop, and she was given advance pick of the donated merchandise, which is how I came to own the exquisite silk scarf with the lush pink and coral flowers splattered all over it.  The name Hermès meant nothing to Tania, but she had a keen eye and the heavy silk, glorious pattern, and hand rolled edges spoke to her of quality.  “I thought you would like it,” she said.  “And if you didn’t, that was okay too—it only cost $2.50.”

But to get back to the National Council thrift shop, its cousin, the Chai Thrift in Brooklyn, and that wonderful synagogue thrift shop on Long Island, whose name and town elude me now, though I can still tell you what I found there.  Here are my roots, here are my people. The ladies, like my grandmother, may now be gone.  But what they gathered and cherished, their cunningly styled evening bags, fur coats, palazzo pants and cocktail dresses, represent a group portrait, a patient construction of self that continues to live on, at least for those of us with the eyes to discern it. 

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September 21, 2015 by

Holy and Unholy Tweets

 The upcoming week is a sacred one for both Jews and Muslims.  Tuesday night ushers in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement that is the climax of the 10 Days of Awe and is the holiest day of the Jewish year.  Traditional Yom Kippur observances include a full day of fasting followed by communal break-the-fast meals.  Many congregations run food drives to assuage the hunger in their communities that is neither voluntary nor holy.  

 Wednesday night ushers in Eid al-Adha, the 4-day Festival of Sacrifice that marks the willingness of Ibrahim to sacrifice Ishmael and God’s ultimate substitution of a sheep for the son that was a gift to Ibrahim (the Jewish version of this story is known as the Binding of Isaac).  Eid al-Adha marks the end of the Haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that observant Muslims are required to make at least once in their lifetime if they are able; observances of Eid al-Adha, also known as the Greater Eid, include communal meals, the exchange of gifts, and donations to the poor. 

 This close proximity of Jewish and Muslim holy days is a welcome counter to the close proximity of bigotry that has plagued Jews and Muslims during this past week.  On Tuesday, in Irving, Texas, Ahmed Mohamed, an intellectually ambitious and adventurous ninth-grader, was taken into police custody for bringing to school a clock that he had made; the clock, a sign of his inventiveness and smarts, was mistaken for a device of terror.  Despite official denials, Ahmed’s Muslim heritage and his name surely contributed to the decision to handcuff first and ask questions later.   Displaying an ability to serve as educator-in-chief and to use social media for the common good, President Obama tweeted “Cool clock, Ahmed. Want to bring it to the White House? We should inspire more kids like you to like science. It’s what makes America great.” 

 On Wednesday, Ann Coulter, one of our chief provocateurs for the common bad, was nonplussed by the support for Israel expressed by several Republican candidates toward the end of the debate on September 16th.  Shocking even those of us who are acutely aware of diverse forms of contemporary anti-Semitism, she tweeted “How many f—ing Jews do these people think there are in the United States?”  Of course, the Jewish tradition of responding to insult with humor became general across the Twitterverse.  Referring to the missing letters in “f—ing,” Yair Rosenberg usefully noted, “The best part of this tweet is how Ann Coulter censored the language to avoid offending people.”  AJ Jacobs matched stats from the Kinsey Institute on sexual activity with Jewish demographic info to compute how many Jews have fornicated in the last month and how many were likely doing so while Coulter was tweeting. 

 Less funny was the unambiguous hatred that proliferated in replies to her tweet and with the hashtag #IStandwithAnn.  These tweets ranged from “the Jewish community does not care about Americans” to resurrected charges of deicide to a hideous image titled “Swindlers List,” which featured a photo of Obama framed by a black star of David overlaid with the words “Rothchild’s Choice”; photos of Jewish male staffers (e.g., Rahm Emanuel, Larry Summers) are positioned at each point of the star.  Coulter, like officials in Irving, Texas, went into denial mode.  Notably, she tried to deflect any anti-Jewish meaning to her tweet by ascribing anti-Semitism to Hispanics and Mexican immigrants, a.k.a. “foreigners.” 

 My favorite answer to Coulter’s f—ing question came from Jennifer Weiner, who tweeted  “You’re about to hear from all of them.”  May 5776 be a year when all Jewish feminists are heard from, when we say “no” to anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, when we say “no” to those who use social media to play pernicious games of divide and conquer.  May 5776 be a year when we say “yes” to the hard but necessary work of building and sustaining progressive alliances across ethnic, racial, and religious fault lines.   May our 140 character messages and our longer-play writing help us to connect diverse religious and secular traditions that might make for a more peaceful world. Shanah Tovah and Eid Mubarak.  

Helene Meyers is Professor of English and McManis University Chair at Southwestern University.  You can follow her at @helene_meyers

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September 16, 2015 by

End-of-Year/Start-of-Year Improvements

During these Days of Awe (and contemplation), here is some reading we hope will guide your introspection and prepare you for the new year.

by Leah Koenig
“Rosh Hashanah always sneaks up on me. Every year I tell myself that I’m going to engage in serious self-preparation for the holiday…But nearly every year, I find myself in synagogue on Erev Rosh Hashanah, feeling slightly bewildered and attempting a crash course in tshuvah.”
by Maya Bernstein
“Jews around the world are involved in spiritual preparation, returning to God, returning to the selves they wish to be. So, I feel, it is an especially fitting time for me to return. Except that I’m returning to work.”
by Rabbi Susan Schnur with Marcia Falk
Guided by the poems of Leah Goldberg, Malka Heifetz Tussman, and Zelda, liturgist Marcia Falk and Rabbi Susan Schnur create a new vision of spiritual turning that focuses on water…and women in conversation.
Did the biblical heroine Hannah, mother of Samuel, whose story we revisit each Rosh Hashanah, suffer from anorexia nervosa?
by Modesty Blasé
“I have been thinking about my tombstone. Every year, during these days surrounding Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur I get a little nervous.”
by Barbara Stock
“On Rosh Hashana I drove alone to Lake Michigan to perform tashlikh. But I left the lake feeling that I needed to return, so I went again the next day. Oddly, something was still missing for me. On the day before Yom Kippur, I found myself at the lake again.”


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September 10, 2015 by

Challenging Sexist Conversion Practices

Still from “A Tale of a Woman and a Robe”

Even before Jews around the world began reeling from the scandalous case of Barry Freundel, an Orthodox rabbi in Washington D.C. who frequently and secretly videotaped women immersing naked in the mikvah, the ritual bath next to his synagogue, a bold Orthodox independent filmmaker, Nurit Jacobs-Yinon, was trumpeting exposing in Israel another case of abuse of rabbinic power and the mikvah.  Five years ago, she was stunned to see an ad seeking religious men to serve as a Beit Din, the court of three required to certify conversions at the mikvah.  An Israeli feminist, Jacobs-Yinon knew little about what women faced as they went through conversion’s final step of ritual immersion.  But with Israeli law making it impossible for immigrants, like those from the former Soviet Union, to marry unless they could prove Jewish descent on their mother’s side or undergo conversion, she realized the significance of this issue even for secular Israelis.  An estimated 75 percent of converts are female, and typically those certifying their mikvah immersion are male.

What Jacobs-Yinon discovered about the violation of female converts’ dignity and modesty as the women, covered only by a robe, immersed before the men shocked and angered her. It led her to make “A Tale of a Woman and a Robe: Ritual Immersion of Female Converts” and to invitations to testify in the Knesset.

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August 20, 2015 by

The Talmud and “Female Viagra”

pillsThere are passages from the Talmud which are incredibly sex positive. And while admittedly there are some which are less so, I like to focus on those which support sexual activity within a marriage as a critical component of a healthy relationship. In a passage in Ketubot, the tractate which deals with issues pertaining to marriage, it is clear that the rabbis would not, or could not, conceive of a sexless marriage, to the extent that if a vow to abstain from sex lasted more than a week or two, the partners needed to either absolve the vow or divorce.  What I’d like to think is that those passages support  the idea that sex is not just about what happens in the bedroom between two people, but rather it is a powerful glue that, in the best of circumstances, shapes the relationship adding an element of intimacy, shared secrets, fun and enjoyment.

And ultimately, if you can ignore the recent rather vituperative discourse on the development of a drug to boost sexual desire in women, that should be the focus of our discussion.

Flibanserin, or Addyi, the first female sexual dysfunction drug to be approved by the FDA, shouldn’t be compared to Viagra, (although it constantly is) because it doesn’t work anything like Viagra. Viagra brings blood to the genitals. Flibanserin works in the neurotransmitters of the brain. If successful it will raise Dopamine levels, or allow pleasurable impulses to transmit more easily in the brain. Drug trials have shown those women who take the drug are more receptive to sexual stimulation and have more satisfying sexual activities. I like to think of it as helping you feel your sexual hunger.

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August 3, 2015 by

How Rainbow Jews Threaten a Black and White Haredi Worldview

It is tempting to read Yishai Schlissel’s terrorist act at the Jerusalem Pride Parade, which we now know claimed the life of Shira Banki, a 16-year-old marcher, as confirming the opposition between the religious and secular realm. The common adjectives used to describe Schlissel are ultra-Orthodox or haredi.  That oft-repeated descriptor not only reflects but also shapes the unfortunate reality that many in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community zealously guard homophobia as an essential and eternal value sanctified by Torah.  Those who decried the stabbings committed by Schlissel but nonetheless referred to the Pride Parade as “the abomination parade” represent such zealous homophobes. Of course, the language of abomination is biblical language used to describe any number of transgressions.  However, an anti-historical reading of Leviticus 18:22, the passage that declares it an abomination for men to lie with one another as they would with a woman and implicitly renders lesbians invisible and even unthinkable, is the proof text that continues to be used to justify homophobia. 

Even Israeli security forces assume the secularism of marchers and the homophobia of the haredim.  According to Haaretz, “In security briefings before the event, there were clear instructions to stop any ultra-Orthodox person nearing the inner circle of the parade, with police instructed to ask them to identify themselves and state their business at the parade. Moreover, police were asked to pay special attention to any possible Haredi masquerading as a secular Israeli.”  When we assume that ultra-Orthodox or haredi Jews are necessarily and eternally homophobic, we forget that ultra-Orthodoxy has a history and presumably a future, one not written on stone tablets.  Even more importantly, such a reductive narrative belies the possibility and the experience of queer ultra-Orthodoxy. 


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July 23, 2015 by

Remembrance (On Visiting the Jewish Museum Berlin)

This poem is one of three in Lilith’s “Tisha B’Av Poetry” series, marking the annual day of lamentation that commemorates the tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people. Each poem evokes loss and mourning in its own way. (This year Tisha B’Av—the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av—begins Saturday evening, July 25.)  

Remember me.
My un-lived life,
lives un-lived after me.

All those.

Make my unmade journey.
Sing my unsung song.
Name the future after me.
Unsay the tongues of blood,
the hiss of zyklon B.

Write on walls of air
my testimony.
Say I was here.
I was the last.
Remember me.

Leaven me in the wilderness of loss.
Feed me on apples, cinnamon and wine.
See in the bowls of family spoons
my legacy,
the faces of my unborn line,
children unthought
before the thought was mine.
Sew me a Yellow Star to shine
on leaves, on butterflies on skin,
stitch it in the lining of the mind.

Remember me—
for all that I was not,
all that I might have been.

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July 22, 2015 by

Forgotten Things

This poem is one of three in Lilith’s “Tisha B’Av Poetry” series, marking the annual day of lamentation that commemorates the tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people. Each poem evokes loss and mourning in its own way. (This year Tisha B’Av—the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av—begins Saturday evening, July 25.)  

Apples, small and cold, in the refrigerator for the family to eat on Saturday afternoons.

Books filling every corner of their apartment
the living room, the study and the balcony enclosed specifically to hold more
books that opened up every inch of me.

Cancer, his and hers.
Torn skin and coughed up breath.

Dears, never names, always an impatient tender dear
ringing out between the walls.

Elegance, snuffed out by dependency and the smell of age.

Fridays in New York City.
New books at Barnes & Noble with Saba and sneaking tastes of dinner behind her back. 

Dani and Dahlia, Helena and Cynthia, unknowable parts of us.

Husband covering her broken mind with his; her skin too.
Until it is too late.
He is gone and she is naked.

Inertia – moving with time, moving forward.

Jewelry – the pearls and small diamonds she used to adorn her body.
Clothes decorated with buttons and zippers
instead of those that went on and came off too easily.

Keys, hundreds of keys, my grandfather collected secretly
to doors she didn’t even know were locked
to doors she didn’t know existed.

Language, pieces of speech: English, Yiddish, Russian, Polish, Hebrew.
All the lands, all the tongues, all the thoughts that were once hers.

Movies every Saturday night.
The whole family crowded into Saba’s study with
the red leather couch and black armchair, the footrest
and their favorite classic films passed from one generation to another.

Numbers for the years with my grandfather
for the years lived in that apartment
for all the happiness it had contained.

Orchids, bright yellow, their petals dropping on the coffee table.

Potato Kugel for Shabbat dinner.

Quarters on the bus and the ferry when she, me, and Saba went to see the Statue of Liberty. 

Rooms, pink bedrooms with white doors
that she would shut gently at night
so she could get undressed with no one watching.

Seashells in a little glass case in the bathroom
that I pretended were from when she was a young girl on Coney Island.

Toilets and privacy and independence – the most basic parts of herself.

Umbrellas in the rain, feeling the air on her skin
and knowing she is still part of something.

Va Bene, our favorite restaurant.
The pasta e fagioli and tartufo she loved.

Walking, just walking.

X-rays of her knee, torn ligaments and the pain.
All she could feel when she fell was the pain.

You, Savta, the way you were
the person I can almost no longer remember
only when I think hard enough, when I think like this –

Zigzagging through the darkest side of memory.

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July 22, 2015 by

The Call of Shattered Glass

This poem is one of three in Lilith’s “Tisha B’Av Poetry” series, marking the annual day of lamentation that commemorates the tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people. Each poem evokes loss and mourning in its own way. (This year Tisha B’Av—the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av—begins Saturday evening, July 25.)  

The whole world heard it—Kristallnacht’s
shattered cities, stores, lives. For most,
deafness and paralysis. Yet one petite
woman with dark eyes, her own Lalique
and Baccarat still untouched, gazed beyond

her beveled windows, imaged each
orphaned face, heard each small voice
calling. Paying any price to bring them
out of Germany, Czechoslovakia, Austria—
each child a jewel added to the Rothschild

collections. Mme gathered them into her
own Chateau de la Guette until Paris fell,
buying a hotel in the south, moving them,
feeding and schooling them in La Bourboule.
Leaving money for them when she, herself,

had to flee for her life, enough to bring
them out over the Pyrenees to Spain,
to fishing boats that would take them
to America. Tiny charges implored to say
only oui or non and smile when questioned,

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July 16, 2015 by

Forgiveness Means Taking a Wrecking Ball to the Hard Crusts We Build Around Our Hearts

I’m knee-deep into what promises to be a fifty-plus gig book tour. After spending seven years writing, revising, and trying to publish my debut novel, Washing the Dead, I’m out of my house. Out of my office. Out of my pajamas. And, often, out of my comfort zone.

I’ve fretted about each reading. Will anyone show up? What if they do? What if I get a heckler? What if we don’t sell any books? What if we run out? The list goes on. Gratitude is the only thing that grounds me. Some bookseller, librarian or book-club host has believed in my novel enough to want to share it with his/her community. He or she has gone to the trouble of spreading the word via social media or flyers or Paperless Post evites. And if that’s not enough, they’ve researched my work in order to write introductory remarks, and in many cases put out a delicious spread. Dayenu!

Hiccups do occur during my readings. Sirens blare, children cry, audience members use their outdoor voices while guessing my height, and readers give away the ending to the mystery my character is trying to solve. I now carry a hankie because reading aloud makes me schvitz, Albert Brooks/Broadcast News style. Who knew?

A friend recently asked me if I was growing tired of the podium, and I answered “not yet,” because something amazing and exhilarating occurs at every event, big and small. I’m also still stunned that people would devote their time and brain space to my novel, a story about Barbara Pupnick Blumfield’s quest to find her way back home. After years of exile from her Milwaukee Orthodox Jewish community, Barbara’s former rebbetzin invites her to perform a tahara (the ritual of preparing the body for burial) on the mentor who nurtured her after Barbara’s mother abandoned the family. And so begins her long journey back to her religious community, her mother’s love, and the piece of herself she’s unwittingly withheld from her teenage daughter. In order to return home, Barbara must solve the mystery behind her mother’s disappearance from the family, and it’s for this reason the book has been called a spiritual page-turner.

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