Author Archives: Susan Weidman Schneider

Live from the Lilith Blog

July 31, 2013 by

How do we measure change?

SWS head shotRead Susan Weidman Schneider’s editorial, and so much more, in Lilith’s summer 2013 issue! 

Maybe you smoked cigarettes a long time ago. Now? Not so likely. Smoking looks retrograde even in an anachronistic setting like TV’s Mad Men. As the smoking seems retro, so too do the sexist attitudes and sexual harassment of that earlier era. Attitudes change, laws then follow suit. (No smoking in theaters or planes, in restaurants or in many public parks.)

And the Supreme Court of the United States has recognized gay marriage, overturning unjust laws that violated the civil rights of same-sex spouses. The rapid change in attitudes about LGBT issues has been remarkable. From the overt opprobrium during the 1980s AIDS epidemic to social and legal acceptance today? Less than 30 years, and a sea change.

Let’s hope that very soon the attitudes toward women in Jewish divorce law will seem at least as retro as smoking, and that legal succor will follow. As with marriage equality in secular law, attitudes have to shift for new interpretations of Jewish law to take hold. June 2013 was quite a month for attempting such change: women by the hundreds wore tallitot and prayed out loud at the Western Wall in Jerusalem; a “summit” discussed radical ways of countering divorce injustice; and whole new category of Jewish female clergy emerged.

So why can’t we cheer for these successes, however modest they may seem to some? Perhaps because we’re a little skeptical. In the wake of an Agunah Summit in late June, we’ve done an in-office retrospective on our previous articles about Jewish women “chained” in their marriages. Under Jewish law, only the husband can instigate divorce proceedings. From this inequity springs the fact that many husbands extort money or child-custody concessions from their wives in exchange for authorizing the divorce. Blu Greenberg, a prime mover behind the summit and a Lilith contributing editor, first wrote about this subject for the magazine in 1976! (Track this coverage at Lilith.org, part of the stunning archive of back issues fully searchable at our new website.) Blu’s oft-cited statement on how to change Jewish law: “Where there’s a rabbinic will, there’s a halakhic way.” Yet four decades of activism have until now yielded little to free a woman powerless to extricate herself from a bad marriage. 

  • No Comments
  •  

Live from the Lilith Blog

February 27, 2013 by

Can You Make a Marriage More Equal?

www.kengoldmanart.com

Did you see MAKERS on PBS, with those many Jewish women trailblazers–like Sheryl Sandberg, Tiffany Shlain, Marissa Mayer (and many Lilith authors)?

Alix Kates Shulman talked about her classic “Marriage Agreement.” It still jolts people after all these years!

Shulman’s iconic, and iconoclastic, argument — that a woman and man should share equally the responsibility for their household and children — was derided when it first appeared in 1970. Norman Mailer, Russell Baker and Joan Didion were shocked, affronted. The real shock is just how resonant Shulman’s take on family politics still is today.

Check out the Marriage Agreement, which we reprised in Lilith’s Summer 2012 issue, along with a new ritual for egalitarian marriage in the 21st century.

Judge for yourself how much progress women have made.

  • 1 Comment
  •  

Live from the Lilith Blog

December 5, 2012 by

When Our Shoes Hobble Our Freedoms

http://www.flickr.com/uggboy

Tell me what it is about shoes this season.

The photographs I see in the glossy ads actually scare me — 19-inch heels on 5-inch platforms. (I exaggerate only slightly.) The shoes on women’s feet would be cartoonish — if only they were in a comic strip.

Look, shoes have meaning. Just check out all the recent books about footwear. We know about foot binding. About the iron shoes along a Danube promenade as a memorial to the Hungarian Jews forced to remove their footwear before being shot. About traditional Judaism’s halitza ceremony, in which a childless widow throws a specially designated “halitza sandal” at her unmarried brother-in-law, thus releasing him from his obligation to marry her and continue his brother’s line.

  • No Comments
  •  

Live from the Lilith Blog

June 25, 2012 by

A Journalistic Room Of One’s Own

Cross-posted with The New York Jewish Week.

Thirty-five years of ‘amplifying women’s voices.’ An interview with longtime Lilith editor in chief, Susan Weidman Schneider.

In a feat of journalistic longevity, Lilith: The Jewish Women’s Magazine, has been around for 35 years now.  Along the way, the quarterly has sought to merge the wider women’s movement with the world of Jewish feminism. On the occasion of its 35 anniversary, The Jewish Week asked Lilith founding editor Susan Weidman Schneider to reflect on the issues that have animated the magazine’s coverage.

The Jewish Week: The early days of Lilith must have really been heady, as you were trying to take the lessons of the wider feminist movement and translate it into the Jewish realm. What was it like starting out?

Susan Weidman Schneider: It’s still heady! Our daily conversations with our interns and writers and editors over lunch at Lilith’s conference table and at Lilith salons are all about taking gender justice, in all its forms, into the Jewish world. Lilith’s tagline says this explicitly: “independent, Jewish & frankly feminist.”

In the beginning we were asked persistently, “Is feminism good for the Jews?” The answer now seems self-evident. Women have energized Jewish life and practice everywhere, from big organizations to the more intimate settings of our own families. Let’s take text as one example. For decades, women in mainstream congregations, small havurot, on college campuses, and in their own kitchens have been writing new liturgies, referring to the feminine aspects of God, and using imagery from women’s bodies and experiences; many of these are now published between hard covers in widely used prayer books; women have expanded the possibilities of prayer and ritual, highlighting the elasticity of Judaism.

  • No Comments
  •  

Live from the Lilith Blog

October 3, 2011 by

Are Jewish Sororities an Untapped Opportunity?

Cross-posted with eJewish Philanthropy.

I’ve been revisiting a 1997 article in Lilith entitled “Jewish Latency,” featured on the cover as “The Jews We Lose.” It’s all about a project Lilith created with the help of a grant from New York UJA-Federation to engage New York Jews in their 20s, just out of college, who found no niche in the Jewish world after having felt very empowered in their campus years.

David Cygielman, CEO of Moishe House, writing in eJP earlier this month declared that the Jewish community too often thinks of people this age as tools for solving “problems” in Jewish life; he noted that this approach “places young adults as unknowing subjects in an experiment they never signed up for.”

But ownership is the key to engaging this cohort, concluded that Lilith article.

The project the “Jewish Latency” article described started out as an idea germinated by Lilith interns, who’d been rebuffed when they approached several Manhattan synagogues wanting seats for the High Holy Days. (This was in an era predating the wonderful services offered by Rabbi Judith Hauptman and others expressly for Jews in their 20s and 30s.) Under Lilith’s mentoring, our interns and their friends decided to create their own Jewish experiences.

Themsleves just out of college, this cohort realized that in addition to finding again the kinds of Jewish leadership opportunities they’d had on campus, they wanted autonomy and agency. They wanted to own what they were willing to invest themselves in creating. The Lilith staff suggested catered Shabbat dinners. Unh unh. Instead, they did DIY potluck vegetarian. We suggested Passover programming. Instead, they hosted a baked-potato third-night seder, announcing that baked potatoes met everyone’s standards of observance. We suggested that the project be called VOICES, an acronym for I-can’t-even-remember-what. The participants renamed themselves “A Tribe Called Jews.” You get the idea.

A Tribe Called Jews came to my mind again this month as I was editing an article on Jewish sororities for Lilith’s fall issue. Lilith is now marking its 35th anniversary, and despite the huge range of subjects the magazine has covered, we’ve never before reported on Jewish women in the Greek system. It turns out that like those Jewish activists – male and female – who germinated A Tribe Called Jews, many young Jewish women in sororities feel empowered in their campus roles, then feel they’ve fallen off the Jewish map after they graduate.

The author of the forthcoming article, Shira Kohn of the Jewish Theological Seminary, spent a decade and a Ph.D. dissertation exploring what goes on in Jewish sororities. She suggests that the organized Jewish community is missing an opportunity to keep these women connected once their college years are behind them. (Here’s an advance look at the article)

Some of Kohn’s insights took me by surprise. Much of what I perceive about sororities is derived from their less-than-flattering images in popular culture. In some circles, every Jewish sorority woman falls under the shadow of the dreadful, evergreen JAP stereotype, as we discovered when Lilith ran a brief report on a newer iteration of this slur – the phenomenon of “Coasties.”

In reality, many sorority members carry out a range of Jewish social-service projects which Kohn’s duly notes. Their campus experiences – for some, a crash course in competency and community leadership – prepare them to assume roles in the wider Jewish world once they’re living out in that universe. But is anyone recruiting these young educated women? Are Jewish women’s organizations and Jewish social justice organizations flooding campuses with suggestions as to how they can stay connected and engaged after graduation? Hardly at all.

  • No Comments
  •  

Live from the Lilith Blog

August 8, 2011 by

Women Are Not Part of the Intergenerational Schism in Jewish Life

Cross-posted with eJewish Philanthropy.

eJP has reported several times on the conflicts between emerging/ startup organizations/ courting the young vs Boomers/established brands/”legacy” organizations. Here’s other news: this tension does NOT come to the fore in the world of women. Women’s legacy organizations have often been funders of, supporters of, and horn-tooters for projects initiated by younger women activists.

I’ve been thinking about this as Lilith has been welcoming, enjoying – and benefiting from – our three extraordinary summer interns, who join a distinguished roster of 150 or so previous interns we’ve selected over the years. Lilith has been a kind of graduate program (underfunded, but still…) for young Jewish feminists, almost all of whom have gone on to do wonderful, innovative work in Jewish communities, and in journalism, around the globe. These young women have been nurtured, heard, and taken seriously around our conference table.

Many aspects of the new summer issue of Lilith reflect intergenerational connection, rather than conflict. The cover story focuses on young female athletes mentored by slightly older teammates. Other reports in this Lilith issue similarly reveal the power of intergenerational ties among women, even if those connections weren’t always immediately apparent.

Martin Buber once famously declared “all journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” One of the objectives of feminism is to cultivate a heightened awareness of where we’re headed – a raised consciousness about those destinations, even if the path’s map reveals itself after we’ve arrived.

How do we connect our own stories about life’s journeys – those revealing, shaping anecdotes, often told with studied casualness, about how we left our parents’ home, or ended up in the job we have now, or chose the partner we did – with the larger universe? One of the first tenets of the Women’s Liberation Movements was that the personal is the political. Every day, feminism teaches the alert among us that our quotidian choices have implications beyond ourselves.

This July, in Vienna, the Maccabiah Games were held for the first time in a European country that was once a Nazi stronghold. The particular pulses outward, implicating the general, with seemingly small episodes offering us larger observations. The Games gave us a chance to remember the connections among Jewish girl swimmers, some in their early teens, who became role models and role breakers in Vienna in the 1930s. They banded together and made excruciatingly difficult personal choices – including boycotting the 1936 Olympics in Hitler’s Berlin. Their star quality and their athletic prowess enabled them to escape the Nazis, rescuing their families, too. They couldn’t have known their destinations when they began to train in the Danube, but their courage and interdependency led a way out.

There’s another angle on female bodies in this issue, about women looking consciously sexy while pregnant. This is clearly a privileged preoccupation in an era when so many women, even here in the First World, don’t have access to family planning or prenatal health monitoring. Challenges to abortion rights now even include the criminalization of pregnancy in some states, where miscarriage can be read as murder. Jewish women’s legacy organizations like NCJW and Hadassah, have been outspoken supporters of the right to choose when and if to bear children.

Feminism says it’s time to reassess the judgments we make up and down the age spectrum. In the back-page memoir, a woman scrutinizes her bad behavior as a young mother, and how it feels to be on the grandmother end of things a generation later. A quiet recollection, it delivering a loud message about the ways we can open our eyes to the needs – and hear the unspoken desires – of older women.

And in good news, Amy Stone reports on what led to the ordination of the first lesbian rabbi to be out of the closet for her entire education at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Poignantly, Rabbi Rachel Isaacs chose as her rabbinic mentor Rabbi Carie Carter – a woman who, in order to become a Conservative rabbi, had to keep her sexual identity hidden for years.

The late, great New York senator Bella Abzug once suggested that women carry stickers to affix to nonsexist ads, gender-neutral products and logos of corporations with a significant percentage of women on their boards, in order to affix to each example an announcement that “This Change Is Brought to You by Feminism.” I thought about Bella when New York State passed its groundbreaking legislation this summer ensuring the right of every gay and lesbian person to get married. (See Lilith’s archive of Jewish lesbian weddings.) Feminism built the scaffolding that enabled the changes at the seminary, the changes in the state, and the changes in our personal consciousness that make for tikkun olam, a better world.

  • 2 Comments
  •  

Live from the Lilith Blog

June 13, 2011 by

We Are What We Wear?

Cross-posted with eJewish Philanthropy.

We all have narratives we tell ourselves about clothes. The inherited fur you can’t wear and can’t part with; the dress from a landmark simcha, too fancy for Goodwill, too out of date for the resale shop; that ratty hoodie from Camp Ramah. And more. Please tell us your story on the Lilith blog. You know you’re not alone.

Growing up, girls were supposed to be smart and look good. Or, at least appropriate. The being smart part had some flexibility, the looking good not so much. When I left Winnipeg for Brandeis, in the early 1960s, I sent ahead my trunk full of “appropriate” clothing, all with matching shoes and bags and gloves. Uh-Oh. Not so appropriate for the guitar-strumming, songs-of-social-protest-singing, Army-Navy-store-turtleneck-wearing cohort I discovered on that Waltham campus. Part of every story of social change can be told through our changing wardrobes.

Here’s a more recent story, from just a few months ago. I’m sitting in a Lilith salon at a college campus. About 15 Jewish women students are nibbling on hummus and pita and chewing over the state of the world. The evening’s conversation, which started out about mothers – taking off from a recent issue of Lilith magazine – quickly morphed into something else: What our clothes say about who we are and the people we choose to become. A woman in black pants and shirt gives her name, then remarks that she grew up in an Orthodox community where women dress in traditional, gender-specific, “modest” clothing. “When I started to wear pants, my mother got very worried. ‘If you’re not wearing a skirt, how will people know you’re Jewish?’” (more…)

  • No Comments
  •  

Live from the Lilith Blog

May 11, 2011 by

Charity Auctions Online: Benefits Beyond Financial Success

Cross-posted with eJewish Philanthropy.

You may have noticed that the gala benefit season is in full swing, and extreme donor fatigue has set in for some. In an email last week, a friend began by moaning, “I hate these things, and rarely go. But please come with me.”

Jews aren’t alone in this suffering. The Chronicle of Philanthropy last October headlined the dilemma as “Charities Rethink Galas.” The Chronicle suggests freshening things up with a silent auction, perhaps held alongside the cocktail hour, though there may be another way out of the rubber chicken (or sushi) circuit. On May 9, Lilith, the nonprofit Jewish feminist magazine, opens its fourth online-only auction as a route to raising funds without the extreme sport of event planning.

It may seem strange that in almost 35 years as a Jewish nonprofit Lilith has not yet held a large-scale fundraising event. A couple of years ago, though, when we hosted a small spring cocktail party in Manhattan as an egalitarian way to draw in women across the age spectrum for an evening of “friendraising,” socializing and good talk, we decided to pair it with a silent auction. The offerings ranged from ritual objects and art-glass paperweights to, well, sex toys donated by a women-owned business. Vintage clothing and jewelry, autographed books, a Hazon cycling outfit, original art, Zabar’s goodies, a Miriam’s Cup, and assorted “experiences,” including a portrait session with photographer Joan Roth. And while there was terrific fun at this face-to-face gathering – held, appropriately, at the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, where women go for advanced Jewish study – we questioned whether the modest financial take was worth the trouble. Since then, we’ve learned a thing or two. We discovered, as we were in the process of cataloguing items for the face-to-face auction, that there are online sites, like BiddingforGood.com, geared specifically to assisting nonprofits manage auctions like ours exclusively online.

Starting in 2009, Lilith’s has had modestly gratifying financial success with twice-yearly online auctions using Bidding for Good. The financial benefit is no surprise, but there have been other, unanticipated lessons and outcomes beyond the auctions’ dollar value. (more…)

  • No Comments
  •  

Live from the Lilith Blog

May 10, 2011 by

Lilith’s Contemporary Salons for Smart, Savvy Jewish Women

Cross-posted with eJewish Philanthropy.

How do women move from diagnosing what’s wrong with the world to taking action to improve it?

I had ample opportunity to mull this over when I attended the National Council of Jewish Women’s triennial convention in Dallas earlier this month. When I’d been honored by them three years ago as a Woman Who Dared, I was down with the flu, and wasn’t able to appear, so this time I wanted to catching up in person with the representatives of the only self-styled “progressive” Jewish women’s organization.

The gathering proved a useful primer on the political and legislative issues women face right now, with reproductive rights, pay equity and the task of bringing in more women as judges and elected local officials at the top of the agenda. Then there was the challenge of expanding the base and drawing in the dollars needed to move the agenda forward. In a session on women’s giving, the NCJW presenters set forth many of the tenets Lilith has written about, chief among them that women tend to get to know a cause before writing a check or clicking “Donate,” and that we like to give and to work in concert with other women. A new study from Princeton on women undergraduates puts it well: “Women seek, and benefit from, affiliation with other women.”

This is one reason I was at the NCJW convention – to tell the attendees about the success Lilith has had in bringing women together for smart talk under the rubric of Lilith salons – now 90 strong across the country and in Canada and other places too, many of them in conjunction with Women of Reform Judaism. (more…)

  • No Comments
  •  

Live from the Lilith Blog

June 24, 2010 by

In case you thought all Jews were safely in the pro-choice camp…

When I visit the small towns in rural West Virginia that are an easy drive from where I live in Washington, DC., I have the sensation of entering an alternate universe. It’s one where I wouldn’t want to stop for too long, since among other indications that I’m in alien terrain are the churches with fake miniature graveyards set up on their front lawns, featuring signs saying things like “We mourn the thousands of babies put to death each year by abortions.”

So you can imagine how appalled I was to learn, when I opened the current issue of the Washington Jewish Week, that Christians aren’t the only ones using manipulative anti-choice rhetoric on abortion. A Jewish anti-choice organization is now rearing its head, too. It’s mission? To provide “Jewish unplanned pregnancy assistance.” And they don’t mean they’ll accompany you to Planned Parenthood. According to the front-page story, the goal of this so-called crisis pregnancy center is to encourage Jewish women who find themselves unintentionally pregnant to continue the pregnancy and either keep the child or relinquish it to adoption. Erica Pelman, its founder, says she has been doing in-person outreach to college students, and to high schoolers at a local Hebrew day school.

The website of her year-old organization, named “In Shifra’s Arms” for the midwife in the Passover story who saved firstborn Jewish sons from being put to death, puts out inaccurate information about abortion risks, including reiterating the utterly disproven hypothesis that abortion increases a woman’s risk of breast cancer—as if someone coping with an unplanned pregnancy doesn’t have enough to worry about.

The site advises on how one can “overcome abortion pressure” and avoid “the emotional risks” of abortion without ever mentioning the psychological consequences of giving up a child for adoption, or the constrictions of having one’s schooling derailed for life. Instead, the organization offers to help young women with an unwanted pregnancy find an internship so they can “lay low” [sic] and not be “embarrassed” by having to attend their college classes with a big belly. Oh—and another wonderful offer—to show them how they can use elastic waistbands to create maternity clothes! Brilliant! And so helpful! What about education for the young mothers? What about financial support for the children? Childcare? Medical care?

There is plenty to find fault with in “crisis pregnancy centers,” which are often really disinformation centers, but this one rankles especially, because their website and Pelman’s comments to the Washington Jewish Week don’t mention the fact that one of Judaism’s strengths is the value placed on life, especially the lives of those already alive—namely, the mothers-to-be. Unlike religious strictures that, say, tell a Catholic woman that the fetus has rights that supersede that of the mother, Judaism privileges the person who is already born.

Not only does Pelman use the rhetoric of right-wing Christian anti-choicers, but she actually admits that she gets her training from them.

The fact is that Jews are overwhelmingly pro-choice. And even the most observant Jew can find support in Jewish law for having an abortion if her physical—or mental—health would be impaired by carrying a pregnancy to term. Will In Shifra’s Arms sway large numbers of Jews away from these core pro-choice beliefs? Unlikely. But while Pelman worries about young women choosing abortion because they are “embarrassed” to be pregnant and unwed (as opposed to being concerned about their futures, or their health, or their relationships), her new project is itself an embarrassment—at least in part because it is so callow and so shallow as to pretend it can help shape the future of women when it appears to have neither the resources nor the expertise to do so.

What this group has done is make me less smug. Next time I see the mini faux tombstones in front of a church I’ll remember that Jews, too, are adopting the techniques of the right, including promising more than they can deliver, to influence women’s reproductive choices.

-Susan Weidman Schneider
Editor in Chief

  • 1 Comment
  •