December 6, 2013 by Guest Blogger
by Jina Davidovich
I was educated to believe that “Feminism” was the F word. I was raised to think that, while women should excel in the classroom and the boardroom, they should ultimately succumb to their inextricably feminine natures and center their lives on the home. At a young age it seemed that even the rich textual tradition at the heart of Jewish practice vindicated these ideas: Eve sought knowledge and was punished with pain, Tamar was forced to seduce her father-in-law, Judah, to pursue justice, and for centuries women were prohibited from assuming any leadership positions within the Jewish community. To be honest, a structure which did not permit women to achieve success – professional, personal, and spiritual – on the same level as their male counterparts never sat well with me. Despite my deep commitment to the Orthodox Jewish community, feminism was never the “f word” for me – it connoted a different f-word: freedom. Feminism is a philosophy that raised me up and made me a human, rather than just a future wife or mother.
December 3, 2013 by Maya Bernstein
Last year, this time, I was struck with an unexpected virus, which sent me spinning. It hit me out of the blue, while I was swimming. The pool seemed to be in strange constant motion even when I was gripping the wall, as if the waters were rocking me, sending me back and forth, back and forth. It reminded me of the small pool in the motel in Santa Monica, where my family would stay when visiting my father’s parents, who had moved to L.A for the weather from the grimy, snowy Bronx. We were there in 1989, when the massive earthquake hit San Francisco, and the pool in that motel looked like someone had lifted it on one side and dropped it down, hard. Water sliding wave-like, up and down, back and forth, for hours and hours.
Now, with the gift of distance, the appreciation that it was not so bad, a case of vestibular neuritis, a relatively common infection of the inner ear, which causes extreme vertigo and can take up to 6 months to heal, I feel rather like the protagonist in Lionel Shriver’s recent story in the New Yorker, who, after a frightening experience in an African creek, “was disheartened to discover that maturity could involve getting smaller. She had been reduced. She was a weaker, more fragile girl…” This is contrary to that sentiment that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I have been feeling that perhaps becoming stronger involves admitting where one is weak. It is strange, uncertain territory for me.
When I was healing, my family spent a long-weekend away together. I was well enough to make the car journey, and to take slow walks, breathing in the cold fresh air, and to make pasta and hot cocoa. For those few days, we had no agenda other than to be together, move from inside in our PJs to outside in our boots, and back inside again. The kids watched clips of the Sound of Music over and over, and then acted out the songs in the elaborately planned productions that young children put on when they’re not being rushed off to school or sports or lessons. My illness had forced me into a strange alternative, parallel universe, moving at a radically different speed. I was on sick leave from work, couldn’t drive, couldn’t sit in front of the computer, and spent many days lying on the couch, looking out the window. That weekend, my family cautiously and kindly entered my forced, unnatural time zone, and it was unexpectedly delightful. We all lay on the couch together, watching the misty morning light turn to the bright blue of day, then wane into the lavender evening, and when our own reflections stared back at us from the glass, we turned to each other and smiled.
This year, we are heading back to the same area to celebrate Thanksgiving. Already, it is a very different trip. We are back in the time zone of the healthy. We are signing the kids up for ski lessons. We are bickering over what to bring. In these days before we go, I am preparing for a big business trip, trying to meet deadlines, checking emails at red lights, attending my children’s Thanksgiving shows, and packing up the family. The memory of sitting still and looking out the window feels as if it is somehow not my own. As if it is part of some other lifetime, some other being.
In his op-ed piece entitled The Value of Suffering in the New York Times this past September, Pico Iyer writes: “I once met a Zen-trained painter in Japan, in his 90s, who told me that suffering is a privilege, it moves us toward thinking about essential things and shakes us out of shortsighted complacency; when he was a boy, he said, it was believed you should pay for suffering, it proves such a hidden blessing.” My small suffering last year frightened me; it did shake me up. This year, I feel especially grateful for all I have. I appreciate my blessings, the stable ground they provide me, all the more for having been on momentary shaky ground. And yet, part of me misses the pace my illness and recovery forced upon me, the simple quiet of it, the clarity of my priorities coming into sharp focus. Iyer writes: “In certain cases, suffering may be an effect, as well as a cause, of taking ourselves too seriously.” This year, as I spin about of my own volition, I wonder – is it possible that my definition of healthy is all wrong? That I have been taking myself too seriously? That I have been confusing growth with strength and maturity with success?
As I prepare to pause, I realize that my challenge is to somehow re-create the quiet of sitting all day staring at the sky even as I work, mother, live. To treasure each blessed moment of whatever I’m doing, with the open heart of a dizzy head, while my head is clear. This, if I can even approximate it, will be my thanks-giving. My hidden blessing of constant fragility, cherished.
December 2, 2013 by Elizabeth Mandel
For Hanukkah, my daughters (ages 6.5, 4.5 and 1.5) are getting a range of gifts that are great for girls. These include K’Nex (my older girls just built an amazing roller coaster and are looking to expand their amusement park), a remote controlled robot kit (my eldest year old attended vacation robot camp over Veteran’s Day and filed the experience on her Things That Are The Best Ever list), Magnatiles and SnapCircuits.
Yes, these gifts are great for girls. These gifts are great for kids, and surely girls fit into that category. These toys help children learn to follow directions, teach them spatial relations and encourage fine motor skills, give them opportunities for storytelling and cooperation, engage their imaginations and their innate interests in building, and give them a well-earned a sense of pride and accomplishment. They’re also really fun, which I believe is the best kind of learning.
This gift list does not include GoldieBlox, the much-hyped “engineering for girls” toy that hit the web with a sonic boom on Kickstarter last year, and has upped its own ante with commercial that has gone viral. If you haven’t seen it (you can watch it here), it features three girls who overturn media assumptions about what girls like by building an extremely sophisticated Rube Goldberg machine using, among other things, a pink tea set.
December 2, 2013 by Danica Davidson
Sarah Lightman is an artist, curator and academic with a special interest in Jewish women creating autobiographical comics. She’s the co-curator of the touring museum exhibit Graphic Details: Confessional Comics and has just completed editing the book Graphic Details: Essays on Confessional Comics by Jewish Women, which will be published next year by McFarland. This will be followed in 2015 by her own autobiographical graphic novel, The Book of Sarah to be published by Myriad Editions in 2015. Lightman is also a director of Laydeez Do Comics, the first women’s led comics forum to focus on autobiographical comics with branches in the UK, Ireland and USA. While the concentration is on women, anyone may attend.
Danica Davidson, whose journalism on graphic novels has been published by Lilith, MTV and CNN, interviewed Lightman.
Danica Davidson: Can you tell us about Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women?
Sarah Lightman: Graphic Details is co-curated by myself and Michael Kaminer, who’s a New York-based journalist and comics collector. He wrote an article for the Jewish Daily Forward about some Jewish women comic artists he’d seen at a comics event. I read the article and realized that was exactly what I was doing in the UK, but I hadn’t found many other Jewish people doing the same thing. It was really exciting. I suggested to Michael that we make an exhibition out of his article, because I had already curated a number of shows, including a series on contemporary artists at Ben Uri Gallery, the London Jewish Museum of Art in London. Also, I’d just curated a show “Diary Drawing,” at The Centre for Recent Drawing, with Ariel Schrag and Miriam Katin. So I already knew a few Jewish comic artists but I didn’t realize there were quite so many making autobiographical comics!
The project snowballed from there, and it’s been touring for three, four years. It’s opening in Miami at the end of the month, at the Jewish Museum in Florida. The show is coming to London at the end of next year to a really great gallery called Space Station Sixty-Five. We’re going to be doing a one-day symposium about Jewish women comic artists at JW3, the new Jewish Community Centre for London, and we’re looking to do a study day as well for artists.
I just finished editing the book about the exhibition, and it’s about 400 pages. It will be published by McFarland, and it’s got essays and interviews, information and images about all the artists in the show. It’s going to be the first book ever published to focus on Jewish women in comics.
DD: What other work have you done to promote the work of women in the comics field, particularly Jewish women?
SL: When the exhibition opened in New York, I co-chaired a symposium with two New York academics, Tahneer Oksman and Amy Feinstein. I’ve just written a chapter about Diane Noomin’s comic, called “Baby Talk: A Tale of Four Miscarriages” that’s in Trauma Narratives and Herstory published by Palgrave Macmillan. None of the other essays in the collection were about graphic novels and it’s always great to bring comics to a new audience. I’ve written for websites, books and newspapers about Jewish women and comics. For example, I contributed to 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die, so I wrote about Charlotte Salomon, Ariel Schrag, Gabrielle Bell. I can make sure these women get included in collections. I also wrote about Jewish Women and Comics for the new Routledge Handbook to Contemporary Jewish Cultures(2014). Most recently I wrote for the Canadian website “A Bit off the Top” on the Israeli comic artist Ilana Zeffren.
I’m also doing a doctorate on autobiographical comics at University of Glasgow: “The Drawn Wound: Hurting and Healing in Autobiographical Comics.” I’m really interested in traumatic narratives and how people draw and visualize their lives and whether there’s potential for something called Post Traumatic Growth. It’s the idea that if something terrible happens, your life can change for the better. I’m especially interested in exploring how the creative process of making comics can make a difference.
In addition, I’m looking at how Jewish women have been written out of Jewish textual history and intellectual history, and how they’re using comics now to ensure their voices and life experiences are heard and recorded.
DD: Can you tell us about The Book of Sarah?
SL: The Book of Sarah is a project I’ve been doing since I was twenty-one or twenty-two. I called it The Book of Sarah because my namesake, the Matriarch Sarah, doesn’t have her own book, and my brother and sister are Esther and Daniel and they have the Scroll of Esther and The Book of Daniel respectively — so I had to make things fair!
I was at the Slade School of Art for my BA and MFA and I felt a bit lost. I decided I had to make work about myself and my history to help me learn who I was. At the same time I was also moving away from a more Orthodox lifestyle, because I was quite frustrated by women’s lives within it and how we were constantly asking permission from men to do things: talk in synagogues, read from the Torah. Also, I spent a year in Israel at yeshiva and I couldn’t comprehend how we only had male commentary on the texts. I wanted to know what women were thinking and how women would reinterpret the rules and stories we live by. So I decided to make my own book of the Bible and be a female commentator of my own life, rectify the silence of all those years without women’s contributions. I’ve got thousands and thousands of pages of these drawings about my life. Often they relate to Jewish moments or situations I find myself in, and I’m kind of trying to find a way to acknowledge the tension between living in a modern world and having a very traditional background.
For example, I did a series of drawings about my first year of marriage and it’s all the things I knew about in the Bible, like how a man’s not supposed to go to war the first year of marriage. He’s supposed to stay around and make his wife happy. But how does it feel to be the woman? And I want to explore the space between the inherited texts and my own lived life experiences—which included traveling and thinking about starting a family.
I make short, three-minute films with my drawings. Sometimes these are about very specific Jewish experiences, like “The Family Table,” and “The Reluctant Bride.” The latter is about feeling torn between having a traditional Jewish wedding (and finding it a deeply anti-feminist affair) and also my grandpa dying at the same time. I was caught between feeling frustrated by Jewish tradition and also finding it quite reassuring to have a set response to manage difficult times. I did another film called “Half Full, Half Empty,” where I traced my life through this half-full glass of water I draw every day. I used it as a way of knowing how my life was going and how I was feeling. If my job was going well, if my boyfriend loved me, the same glass looked full. It was amazing to use an object to tell my story for me, and that work got a great reaction. Even though it was about my life as a single Jewish woman at that time, it was really about how life has ups and downs. The object doesn’t change, but the way we look at it changes.
I like to engage with the traditional text but make sure I’ve got a feminist or alternative commentary on them. In my film “Family Table” I made a visual midrash on Psalm 133:1, “How good and pleasant it is when brothers sit together.” In my film I reference not just brothers but also sisters, mothers and fathers, grandmas and grandpas. Why should the male term cover all the other people? Why can’t the others be named individually?
The Book of Sarah will be published by Myriad Editions in 2015. I also exhibit my drawings and films in art shows and I had a show last year at Oranim College in Israel. This year I had a show in London, of The Book of Sarah, so I like to exhibit my artwork as well as collect it in this book.
DD: How did Laydeez Do Comics get started?
SL: It started because I went to a comics conference with a friend, Nicola Streeten, and it was frustrating to see all-male lineups on the panels. (It is better now but it still happens!) I was looking for a reading group about comics, and the one I went to was interested in zombies, and I wasn’t so interested in zombies. So Nicola and I decided to set something up, and it’s just been amazing. It’s expanded massively. There are about eighty people attending London branch every month. There are four branches around the UK as well as Ireland, San Francisco, Chicago. It’s open to men, it’s just run by women. There are three speakers at each event, and lots of time for discussion and questions and informal networking. It’s run in a way to make it informative and friendly. The academic world can be quite critical, hierarchical, and patriarchal, and we definitely needed an environment that’s none of that. At the beginning you get a cup of tea and a piece of cake, and at break you get tea and cake, and it just changes the environment to make it much more democratic and inclusive. If you went to a university lecture, you wouldn’t get that atmosphere.
DD: If someone is not familiar with Jewish women’s autobiographical comics, where would you recommend they start to learn more?
SL: Laydeez do Comics has got a blog, and it’s a great resource and has links to people’s books and websites. It’s a great way of seeing how much is going on at the moment. If you go to the Graphic Details website, you can see all the artists in the show and they have so many brilliant comics. I just taught a course at JW3, the new Jewish Community Centre in London about Jews and comics, and I was able to introduce people to so many works they’d never seen before. What was really wonderful was to then receive all the comics the students made in response to what they’d seen. That was beautiful, a really great experience.
November 26, 2013 by Chana Widawski
I couldn’t believe it — I had jumped into the pages of National Geographic. I had sprung myself across a rickety makeshift bridge, gaping at a raging river in the highlands of West Papua, Indonesia, and there I stood, mesmerized by a procession of men wearing nothing but feathers in their hair and koteka, gourds, on their penises.
I stood in the misty rain, alongside my Papuan guide whose teeth were red as blood from chewing betel nut, praying that I wouldn’t catch fleas from sleeping in the round straw hut where I would be bunking with the village’s women, children and pigs. That night I sat around the hut’s lung-choking smoky fire exchanging shy stares and smiles with the Dani women and children, as we each grabbed fingers full of cooked sweet potato greens, slurping them noisily into our mouths. Rather than stressing about the rat scurrying around the edges of the hut’s rounded walls, I focused on the young girl making a bilum, a string bag for carrying anything from babies, to newborn pigs, to hundreds of pounds of sweet potatoes.
I couldn’t believe I was there. Me, a young Jewish woman from Rochester, New York. I had somehow managed to become a person who cycled the crowded streets of Cambodia, biked the mountains of northern Thailand and was now in a remote village worthy of National Geographic. It was intoxicating.
So you can imagine my excitement when, back in my New York humdrum life, I stumbled upon a book about Annie Londonderry, the first woman to cycle around the globe. And no, she didn’t do it in the 1990s. It was the 1890s! Obsessed with everything bicycle and energized by travel stories, particularly those of intrepid women, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy of her biography Around the World on Two Wheels: Annie Londonderry’s Ride. When I learned that Annie Londonderry’s real name was Annie Cohen Kopchowsky, that her first language was Yiddish, and that she lived with her peddler husband, kids and extended family in a crowded tenement in Boston’s West End, I was entranced.
When Annie set out on this epic journey as a novice biker at age 24 in 1894, it was because two wealthy men were betting whether a woman could fend for herself and earn $5,000 while cycling the world in 15 months. Much was happening in both the women’s movement and the bicycle craze, and Annie was zealous about cycling her way out of the traditional woman’s role. She happily reinvented herself with an exciting new identity, found lots of sponsors, and gained both freedom and fame.
The author, Annie’s great-grandnephew Peter Zheutlin, has filled his pages with countless news articles from around the globe, many of which, however, indicate that she was at times a sensationalist, not so wed to the truth.
While it becomes clear that she didn’t cycle nearly as much as purported, and likely didn’t get into some of the scuffles she alleged, Annie most certainly demonstrated a brilliant ability to seize authentic adventures and to captivate audiences. She inspired girls and women to become increasingly independent and freethinking, using the bicycle as her vehicle.
Kudos to Annie for embracing the bike! According to Susan B. Anthony, “Bicycling has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”
Whether Annie actually cycled the globe or took steamboats and trains so she could cover more countries, hear more languages and taste more flavors, I appreciate how she quenched her thirst for adventure. We are kindred spirits, Annie and I, with a shared passion for travel, independence and the power of wheels.
In some ways, I feel like she is with me on my journeys. When I cycled the length of New Ireland, Papua New Guinea, hydrating on coconuts and rolling from village to village, Annie was surely with me. When I biked the hills of Tuscany to raise money for a domestic violence shelter, I’m sure Annie was cheering me on. And when I wave at Lady Liberty each day on my commute across the Brooklyn Bridge, Annie and her immigrant family are certainly by my side.
I’d like to thank Zheutlin for introducing us to his great-grandaunt. Annie Kopchowsky (Londonderry) and I certainly come from the same sisterhood, curious about the world, and capable of anything.
Chana Widawski, LMSW, chairs her block association, stewards her local park and leads educational travel programs around the globe. She works with survivors of abuse and violence and as a non-profit consultant.
November 25, 2013 by Patricia Grossman
There is a remarkable visual clarity in Michele Zackheim’s “Last Train to Paris,” set predominantly in Paris and Berlin during the rise and fall of the Third Reich. Perhaps reflecting Zackheim’s background as a visual artist, the novel is as adept at crystallizing small moments as it is at portraying the sweep of action during the darkest time in 20th century Europe. The story is told by Rose (R.B.) Manon, an old woman looking back at her career as a political reporter and war correspondent for The Paris Courier.
“With soaring lyricism, Zackheim limns an exquisitely haunting portrait of an indelibly scarred, yet deeply passionate, woman.” – Booklist
Rose’s cousin is kidnapped and then killed in Paris. In real life, the kidnapper was Eugene Weidmann, and the abductee was a distant cousin of yours. Was this a story you were familiar with as a child?
No, I learned about this story by accident when I was an adult. I was fascinated by Janet Flanner and had checked out her book Paris Was Yesterday, 1925 –1939. In it was an essay she wrote for The New Yorker that spoke about the murder.
The appearance of Colette and Janet Flanner in this novel is both natural and fun to read. Were their parts fun to write?
I loved making friends with Colette and Janet Flanner. Their involvement in my distant cousin’s murder makes them more life-like, less mysterious. When Flanner calls my cousin, “a grabby little American,” I’m upset. How dare she call my cousin, ‘grabby”! My response brings me a step closer to Flanner as a real human being, rather than an icon.
What first drew you to writing about the experience of a female war correspondent in 1930-40s Europe?
I wanted to create a character to narrate the story about the murder of a distant cousin and how the murder was metaphorically woven into the anxiety of the time, right before World War II. At first, the correspondent was a man; his name was Jimmy Corso. Indeed, I wrote the entire book in his voice and submitted it to my publisher. They agreed to publish it. And then for two weeks I worried. It wasn’t right and I asked them to return it.
What’s interesting to me is that I’ve always written about shy, introverted women. As an exercise, when I transcribed Jimmy Corso’s voice to that of Rose Manon, I blundered into the voice of an extroverted woman. This woman is filled with vocal passion and energy for her work and the people she loves. I like her.
Rose Manon is from a small town in Nevada a state not known for its large Jewish population. What role does internalized anti-Semitism play in Rose’s life?
Rose internalizes a Jewish coat of armor. She is outwardly courageous, but also easily hurt by criticism, and prone to self-loathing. Cleverly, she uses the emotional values of being an outsider to her advantage. Slight paranoia becomes a gauge for not always accepting what she sees at face value. Criticism forces her to evaluate what she is thinking. Over time, her self-loathing shifts, and she uneasily begins to accept herself.
At 85, Rose Manon says this about her garden after the first frost: “I’ve learned that I can revive a plant that’s on the brink—but it’s a fragile moment.” Rose may as well be describing her own hard-won strength. Can you speak about this strength—and what it cost her?
As with most strong women, the culture makes iron-handed attempts to dampen and diminish Rose. And she pays the price. Like her mother, Rose is an angry woman who doesn’t have a lot of patience for stupidity. On the other hand, she has a poetic streak that becomes more apparent as she ages. Rose tends her garden as she tends her friends . . . with great care. Yet the one relationship she cares the most about, the one relationship where she learns to love is lost . . . and there’s nothing she can do about it.
Manon went to great lengths to help friends in danger escape. Why did she, half Jewish, participate so actively in protecting others while never acknowledging she was in great jeopardy?
Rose sincerely believes that being half-Jewish will protect her from danger. She thinks of herself as an observer of the world, assigned to write the truth about what is happening. But, her feelings change with time. It takes several unpleasant incidents in her life for her to finally become aware of her own precariousness.
I haven’t encountered such an intense portrayal of the treacherous turns in a mother-daughter relationship since Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments. Over and again, Miriam seems out to get Rose. Yet even in the wake of the worst of Miriam’s behavior, Rose is loyal to her. Why?
Rose’s mother is an intelligent and curious woman whose talents do not have a chance to manifest until she’s well into her sixties. While Rose is growing up, her mother turns her rage toward the safest people, her family. This makes her both hateful and a coward. And the more hateful and cowardly she becomes, the more uncontrollable is her bitter anger.
But Rose will never abandon her mother. Every time there’s a catastrophe between the two of them, it is Rose who is the appeaser. When Rose’s father dies, she knows that her mother has no one else. This evokes compassion, along with the primordial dream that her mother will finally love her.
Rose Manon resists romantic entanglements for her entire youth, yet later falls deeply and lastingly in love with Leon, a German Jew. Why Leon?
Although she will never admit it, Leon reminds Rose of her father. Quiet, contained. Leon is confused about his feelings for Rose for a long time. Once they are threatened together on the train, they both realize that this relationship is more than they have bargained for.
Your evocation of time and place could not have sprung from nowhere. How did you manage to make your setting so true and immersive?
I started my adult life as a visual artist. Thirty years later, I began to write. My eyes are trained to see details and nuances and shadows of both light and dark. When I’m writing a book, I do a lot of traveling. I love walking down a street and taking notes about the colors and the smells and the noises. I’m a bit of a peeping tom . . . shameless about looking through windows, listening to other people’s conversations.
Patricia Grossman‘s latest novel, Radiant Daughter, will be available as an e-book early this spring.
November 22, 2013 by Anna Schnur-Fishman
A Hanukkah treasure from the Lilith archives!
Ten hanukkahs ago, when I was about four and my brother nine, my parents decided that it was time to make giving tzedakah a family project, and not just something they did on their own. They coupled this idea with another—their wish to take some of the consumerist curse off December—and instituted the following ritual. Here is the ceremony as we do it, including eight Hanukkah lessons I’ve learned from it.
Around October, my parents and brother and I begin throwing all of the tzedakah appeals that arrive in the mail into one big basket. By December it’s stuffed.
Hanukkah Lesson #1: It is amazing how many organizations need money.
A week or so before Hanukkah begins, we all sit down and sort through the envelopes, tossing out the ones that none of us really cares about. For each one that is left (maybe 20 or 25)— and any other tzedakahs we like thrown in, too—we make an index card. (As a compulsive family, we excel at activities that involve lining up cards in little rows on a table. I tend to get carried away arranging the cards alphabetically, categorically, and by the date of the appeal, but this really isn’t a necessary part of the process.)
Next, one person describes whatever organizations the others don’t know much about. This year, for example, my brother has been very involved with an orphanage in Delhi, India, so he spoke quite eloquently on behalf of his index card, waving it in the air and pressing it to his chest. Hanukkah Lesson #2: Speak out for what you believe in. We do this because we soon vote on the tzedakahs we want to give to, and because “it’s important,” as my father says every year, “to be educated voters, and to make educated decisions.” This is Hanukkah Lesson #3.
November 21, 2013 by Chanel Dubofsky
I grew up on tea. Lipton, with lots of milk and sugar. I didn’t know about the herbal kind until college, which, it turns out, I don’t actually like; everything but that sugary, almond colored tea tastes like hot, wet grass.
Yesterday I drank a lot of green tea. I spent the previous 24 hours sicker than I’ve been in a very long time. (The kind of sick you don’t want me to describe in a blog post.) The kind of sick that made me terrified of anything but dry toast, ginger ale and tea that I don’t even like.
Today was my foray back into dairy. It was fine, mostly, except for the part of my brain that was triggered by the fact that for the last few months, I’ve avoided dairy. Not because of my stomach (I am not among the lactose intolerant Jews), but because I’ve been kind of vegan-y lately.
I have a lot of qualms about veganism. There’s the class privilege piece–protein substitutes and the loads of fresh vegetables are expensive and not accessible to everyone. There’s the judgment and fat shaming piece that tends to rear its head–if only you could control yourself, if you only had your priorities straight and right, if you could only be less selfish and less wasteful.
I kept kosher for ten years. I stopped for a few reasons–I couldn’t find meaning in it anymore, I was no longer invested in halacha (it’s doubtful that I ever was, no matter how much I tried to convince myself that I wanted to be), but mainly, I was using kashrut as another way to control food, and not in a holy way. I wanted to be a person, a woman, who controlled food. A good woman.
A good woman shows everyone that she is trying, one way or another, to be better. She talks about going to the gym, how much she goes, how long she spends there. When her coworkers bring in baked goods or other treats, she will ignore them, or she will eat one and then say, “Oh, this is so bad for me!” She will say to others who do not eat it, “You have so much self control!” A good woman feels badly about her weight, no matter what it is. As long as she knows that she is not okay the way she is, she is good.
It’s this “good woman” brain, sexist and awful as it is, that comes back when I do things like tell myself I’m going to stop eating dairy. I recognize it. It’s the same thing I used to do when I kept kosher–I would never, ever eat a cheeseburger again. Look how strong I am. I am a person who does not need a cheeseburger. Even better, I don’t want a cheeseburger. I am a good woman. I have strength.
I ate a cheeseburger. I ate dairy. I’ll eat them again. I’ll eat them because I know what the bottom of that hole of “ not eating that ever again” looks and feels like. Doing that makes me hate myself, which is exactly what the sexist machine wants- to distract us from being powerful by making us believe we are never good enough. I ate it because I don’t need to be a good woman or a good Jew, I need to be a real person.
November 20, 2013 by Amanda Walgrove
Since they started making waves with their 2008 debut album, “The Red Sea,” Brooklyn’s homegrown rock band, The Shondes, have lived up to their Yiddish-inspired name. Providing anthems for everyone’s inner outsider, they’ve been shaking up the music scene with influences from Riot Grrrl, traditional klezmer music, and feminist punk rock, all wrapped into one package.
Back in 2011, I interviewed the band before the release of their third album, “Searchlights.” Now, as they spiral down from the nationwide tour of their fourth full-length album, “The Garden,” I caught up with The Shondes’ front-woman, Louisa Solomon, to learn more about writing songs for radical organizing and what it means to never give up on The Garden.
AW: Was there a Biblical influence for the song and album title, “The Garden”?
LS: In the sense that the garden of Eden is an unavoidable cultural frame for thinking about growing up, loss, disillusionment, and all of that. It’s common ground in a way for getting into all the interesting stuff inside it. But really we were thinking of a non-specific imagined garden, as a kind of holding place for parts of yourself, precious things you’ve given up but know are still out there in some form, somewhere. It begs all the questions that go along with pain and loss and growth: where does stuff go when we cast it off, and what’s it like if we try to retrieve it? It’s just an interesting landscape to spend some time in.
AW: Who are you most inspired by, musically or otherwise?
LS: I am really inspired by people who find ways to make stuff happen, against the odds, against the flow.
I am definitely inspired by my sister Claire, who, in addition to being a creative and brilliant academic and educator, is a completely genius fiction writer. Her novels read like nothing else. She is so adept at playing with form that the story never suffers for its own subversions and explorations. I think about that a lot when writing songs — how to keep experimentation in service of the song.
My musical inspirations are varied, but united by their ability to make me feel big feelings: soul, punk, some pop (though I’m picky), and anthemic rock. That’s most of what I listen to these days. I’m a sucker for a well-written song.
I’m inspired by musicians/friends in Brooklyn who are working hard like we are to write solid songs and share them with people, while making rent in an amazing city. Leda, Chris McFarland, and Laura Stevenson are all good examples.
And of course my love, New York itself, is an ever-present source of inspiration.
AW: Has your relationship with your band name – The Shondes – changed since your first record?
LS: I’ve never thought about it quite that way but what a great question. We chose it to pay homage to Yiddish and to experiences of outsiderness. When we began, our music itself was much more “outsider”-ish in superficial ways at least: our drummer was learning to play her instrument on stage, we were consciously merging super different genres, our politics were always in center stage.
We have grown to write the music we need, and it has become more accessible and more skilled. I still think of it as anthems for outsiders; we just don’t need them all to be in minor, with time signature experimentation, right?
AW: What is your songwriting process?
LS: I am the band’s principal songwriter, which means that more often than not I write the basics (lyrics and chords and structure and big ideas) and bring them to the band. Then the real magic happens in our collective process. Lots of give and take, sometimes arguing, but songs are always Better for it.
Eli usually does the principal songwriting for anything he sings lead on, and we often work together at my piano to hash out basic song ideas before taking them to the collective space.
AW: Why is it important for you to combine politics with music? Which issues are particularly crucial for you right now?
LS: “Politics” is such a funny term, right? People mean different things by it; I even mean different things by it at one time or another! In the “everything is political” sense — there’s no way for music not to be political. We exist in all these contexts and we are engaging with them, consciously or not. So I try to be intentional about the kind of music I’m offering to people, and the kind of semi-public figure I am. I would never want to ignore all that. And as someone who is really passionate about the idea of justice, of wanting a better and fairer world, I have opinions on lots of things that sometimes come across through our music, and often come across in interviews! I always want to write in a genuine way, so when my politics are showing more or less, it’s not the product of calculation. I like to think that our music might be a good soundtrack for radical organizing – I try to write the songs I need to hear to keep going and it means the world when fans tell us it’s working for them too.
The band has been particularly nurtured and embraced by the queer community, and we’ve tried to connect with queer and feminist organizers on campuses, for example, whenever possible. Our music has real resonance for people who have experienced being outsiders of one kind of another, and people who are looking for hope (aren’t we all?) But I think people who are engaged directly in organizing work are often faced with bleak landscapes, and seemingly unconquerable walls of structural oppression. It’s important to find sources of inspiration, and I feel lucky to have been able to offer some for our fans.
The band is also strongly associated with anti-Zionist and anti-Occupation work because we’ve all been involved in it at one point or another, and with a Yiddish band name, Jewish political stuff comes up a lot. Palestinian liberation feels really close to my heart for many reasons. As a younger Jewish woman, radicalizing in high school and college, I learned a lot through my engagement with it, especially about racism in Jewish communities, and about meaningful solidarity praxis. People with privilege experience opportunities at the expense of others every day, but there’s something extremely, almost cartoonishly illustrative about how that plays out with Israel. American Jews, who may have no personal relationship to Israel whatsoever have the opportunity to become citizens there, while Palestinians are disenfranchised and brutalized. The particular, undeniable injustice of that fact was very formative for me; being directly implicated made it feel particularly important to use the band as an opportunity to comment on it. That’s part of how we came to write the song I Watched the Temple Fall.
AW: What’s next for The Shondes?
LS: We are winding down our fall tour on The Garden and planning 2014 out. And as always, we are writing new material!
November 19, 2013 by Yona Zeldis McDonough
In Lisa Gornick’s haunting second novel, Tinderbox, a young nanny recently arrived from Peru rattles both the composure and professional ethics of psychoanalyst Myra Gold. But this is not new territory for Gornick, who is on the faculty at the Columbia University Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research and a graduate of the writing program at New York University. Her first novel, A Private Sorcery, revolved around Saul Dubinsky, a sensitive, dedicated psychiatrist who turns to drugs after the suicide of a patient. Gornick recently chatted with fiction editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about the ways in which the fields of literature and psychotherapy feed each other, the Jewish experience filtered through the lenses of Morocco and Peru, and the redemptive power of fire.
YZM: You are a novelist with training and degrees in clinical psychology and psychoanalysis; can you talk about how fiction writing and psychology come together (if they do) in your work?
LG: Last summer, I stayed at a bed and breakfast in Maine. Next to the main house was an enormous old barn that stretched towards the back of the property like a railroad car. It was sealed tight as a drum, but my antennae went up: inside that barn was a story. My husband watched me reading the literature about the property (the house had once been the home of the Woolworth brothers who’d raised prize harness race horses and entertained the likes of Clark Gable), examining the photographs in the album left out in the breakfast room, striking up a conversation with the current owner, and, of course, ultimately asking if he would open the barn doors for me. “She’s a writer,” he apologized to the owner. “She’s very nosy.”
Although handled with more tact and in the service of healing, nosy equally describes the psychoanalyst, also always on the alert for the moments when emotions peek out from the crevice between words and their cadence, for the pulse points in a patient’s stream of words, for the places where a gentle inquiry, perhaps just the repetition of the patient’s words, will open a door. In an essay “Analyzing and Novelizing,” I gave the much altered example of a remote scientist who, after many months of treatment, used the phrase, “When we lived in Old Millbrook,” and how it was my writerly ear that sensed the tragic story behind these seven syllables.
Freud, whose early immersion in literature and writing suggests he might with a different turn of events have become a novelist himself, was deeply ambivalent about creative writers, a subject I’ve written about in an essay “Freud and the Creative Writer.” On the one hand, he credited creative writers with having already discovered everything analysts would learn in their consultation rooms. On the other hand, he viewed creative writers as on the verge of psychosis. Putting aside these idealizing and devaluing extremes, analysts and creative writers clearly share many tools — free association, attentiveness to language, dreams. Most centrally, both work with narratives, how they are constructed and unfold, an initial tale often hiding a more complicated and taboo story yet to be told.
YZM: Myra, the protagonist, is a psychotherapist; how did you draw on your own professional experience to create hers?
LG: I feel very lucky to have trained as a psychotherapist and psychoanalyst and to have had the great privilege during the many years when I treated patients to participate in their daring to let go of the ways we all hold ourselves back. It is hard, painful but sacred work for both patient and therapist. As a novelist, our characters usually have a job or profession. I often write about psychotherapists both because it is fascinating work, but also because I know it in my bones. It lets me avoid what I hate as a reader–the sense that a character’s work is tacked on rather than part of them. One of the aspects I admire in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day is that we come to understand through the narrator not only what a butler does but how it has utterly shaped his way of seeing the world, his personality — even his gait.
YZM: In Tinderbox, there are Jewish characters from both Morocco and Peru. What drew you to these places?
LG: Although I was raised in an entirely secular way – my grandparents were Communist “fellow travelers,” not synagogue members—I have long been fascinated by the diaspora: both as a story and from a philosophical point of view. In 2000, I visited Morocco and the skeletal Jewish communities in Marrakesh, Fez, and Essaouira.
Essaouira, where part of Tinderbox takes place, is particularly fascinating because in the 19th century, 40 to 50 percent of the population of the city were Jews. For the most part, Muslims and Jews lived peaceably side by side, as they had 400 years before in Cordoba and other parts of Andalucía when the enlightened Moorish rulers had promoted a spirit of “convivienda” between Jews, Christians and Muslims. In the context of contemporary ethnic and tribally based bloodshed, it is eye-opening to realize that there have been earlier more tolerant societies: that time passing does not automatically equate with progress towards a more benign politic.
In 2003, just as I was beginning work on Tinderbox, there was an exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art of the photographs of Frédéric Brenner. Brenner spent a quarter of a century traveling to far-flung Jewish communities in forty countries, places I’d never known had Jewish communities: India, Japan, China. Seeing these photographs prompted me to think about the happenstance by which my grandparents, three of whom had emigrated from what is now the Ukraine to this country, had landed in the United States rather than in Argentina, as had my paternal grandmother’s older brothers, or in Peru, as had my paternal grandfather’s younger sister. This awareness — the sense that my grandparents might have as easily become citizens of a South American country or Canada or South Africa or Australia or any of the numerous other places to which their landzman immigrated — colored my feeling about being an American and my curiosity about Jews in other parts of the world.
YZM: The character of Eva, the nanny from Peru, is complex, mysterious and ultimately, frightening; what inspired you to create her?
LG: Many years ago, I heard the story of a young woman who worked as a nanny and housekeeper for a loving family. Witnessing the parents’ care of their child unleashed in this young woman ravenous longings for a mothering she’d never had herself. She completely unraveled, creating a Gordian knot for the family as they simultaneously attempted to help her and began to fear her. From Werner Herzog’s magnificent movie Fitzcarraldo, I was fascinated with the Amazonian city of Iquitos, Peru, a landlocked city deep in the jungle that was a boomtown during the late nineteenth century rubber trade. In the transformation from history to fiction, the young woman whose story I’d heard became Eva and she came to hail from Iquitos.
YZM: Most of the central characters are Jewish, yet each has a different understanding of what that means. Can you elaborate?
LG: Myra is more shaped by the scars of the immigrant Jewish experience of her father than by Jewish practices. At the age of 14, her father left the Ukraine, never to see any of his family again save for Misha, his debilitated and exploitative sister who became his ward. Having made his way through the years of the first world war by driving an ice truck while he studied bookkeeping at night, he landed a job as the comptroller for a kosher meat-processing plant. When Misha died, “Myra’s father appeared so desiccated that the rabbi called in for the service thought he was Misha’s father. Once he learned the truth, a light bulb had gone off for the rabbi: a match for his equally dour thirty-six-year-old spinster sister.” Myra, their sole offspring, grew up in a cold and loveless home. Her primary experience of Jewish practice was the stomach pains she suffered each year on Yom Kippur, which she guiltily survived by stashing licorice under her mattress. Spiritual questions play a large part in the monograph Myra is writing titled “The Teleology of Love,” but having been raised without a Jewish education, her one attempt to join a synagogue leaves her feeling embarrassed, “sadly aware that it was too late for her not to experience the rituals as false, or, worse, silly.”
Larry, Myra’s ex-husband and the father of her two grown children, came from a wealthy German-Jewish family. Like Myra, he also had an uncle who was a rabbi, but his own father, Max, was a successful entertainment lawyer who counted Zero Mostel and Doris Day among his clients. Larry’s parents attended synagogue on the High Holidays and celebrated the other major Jewish holidays, and his mother was involved with the local B’nai B’rith. The main spiritual influence on Larry, however, was his father’s mystical transformation in the spring of 1952 when the family visited a client of Max’s, who lived in a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and Max, “a man who until that moment had been an unadvertised atheist, felt for the first time that he had seen God–seen that the duty of mankind is to honor nature and to live in harmony with the earth and all her creatures.”
Rachida, Myra’s dermatologist daughter-in-law, is from Essaouira. Her mother is megosharim, i.e., with a family lineage that dates to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain; she considers herself of superior cultural lineage than her husband, whose family are Berber toshavim, i.e., dating from the original diaspora of Jews in ancient times. Rachida left Essaouira to escape its ravaged Jewish community, most of which has emigrated to Israel and North America, and what she experiences to be the oppressive expectations of her religious father, who she accuses of valuing her only for her capacity to produce Jewish offspring.
Eva, by contrast, has come to New York from Iquitos as part of her attempt to claim a Jewish identity. Her mother is a fourth-generation descendant of one of the Moroccan-Jewish rubber traders, many of them young graduates of the Alliance Israelite Universelle schools set up by French Jewish philanthropists to help westernize Moroccan Jews, who came to the Amazon in the late nineteenth century due to the dire economic straits of their families. When the South American rubber boom went bust shortly before World War I, most of the Moroccan-Jewish men returned to Fez or Rabat or Tangier, leaving behind the offspring they’d had with local Indian women whom they’d taken as common-law wives. In the 1990’s, many of these descendants, educated for the most part in Catholic schools and with virtually no understanding of Jewish practices, began to seek Jewish education with the hope of ultimately immigrating to Israel.
YZM: I love the use of fire in the novel as both negative and positive symbol; can you say more about this?
LG: I was in Montana and Idaho during the wildfires of the summer of 2000, and saw the peaks of the Crazy Mountains shrouded in smoke, the flames leaping across the interstate, animals fleeing to take refuge in the Salmon River. A New York City resident, I’d never known that forest fires, usually caused by lightning strikes, are part of the natural cycle of forest regeneration: fires enrich the soil and clear the underbrush of the easily ignitable tinder which in sufficient quantity can lead to larger trees burning. The Smokey Bear policy, well-intended as it was, increased fire risk by creating excess underbrush so what might have been small fires that would have naturally extinguished were transformed into the out-of-control conflagrations we’ve experienced over the past twenty years. I was deeply moved by this paradox–that we need smaller fires to prevent larger ones–and by this example of the tragedy of good intentions, a dynamic we’ve all experienced when attempts to spare someone from small pains only enlarge the risk of larger pain. Tinderbox opens with precisely this situation: a mother who says a yes to her grown son that she knows should be a no.
YZM: You are working on a collection of linked stories; tell us about them.
LG: The collection, Louisa Meets Bear, takes its title from the longest story, actually a novella, and spans fifty years in the lives of a set of interconnected characters. It opens in 1961 with a story that centers on a freak occurrence experienced by a social work student in East Harlem, and the reverberations in her own family, particularly on her daughter, Lizzy, who gets pregnant the first time she has sex. We turn then to the novella, which is about Lizzy’s cousin Louisa. Louisa has been raised in San Francisco under the lax supervision of her scientist father, who works on “the chemical directions on how to build a person,” and her boy-crazed babysitter, Corrine, who is now Louisa’s best friend and on the verge of becoming a cocaine abuser. When Louisa meets Bear, a working class boy from Cincinnati who has landed via an athletic scholarship at Princeton, she tells Corrine that he has something chugging in him that they both lack: purpose. The eight stories that make up the rest of the collection move forward from Louisa and Bear’s tangled affair to their early fifties, alighting on people they both touch: the evasive man with whom Louisa betrays Bear; the women who both men — the betrayed and the betrayer — go on to marry; Bear’s sister and her life with an ice hockey player who becomes a disabled fisherman; Corrine who has a child with a man she suspects is a drug dealer; the daughter Lizzy gives up for adoption; and ultimately–well, I’ll leave you to discover this yourself.