Author Archives: Yona Zeldis McDonough

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August 29, 2017 by

The Unsung Jewish Woman Who Helped Found Planned Parenthood

Fania Mindell, 1917, outside of a courthouse in New York, NYThe name Margaret Sanger will forever be linked to Planned Parenthood; she was the engine and the driving force behind the organization that was once seen as radical and transgressive—and may in fact seem so again in the very near future since many Republicans are rabid to defund Planned Parenthood using any justification possible. But when I began researching the history of Planned Parenthood for a project of my own, I learned that there are two other lesser known names associated with the founding of this irreplaceable organization: Sanger’s sister, Ethel Higgins Byrne, and an unsung Jewish woman named Fania Mindell.

Mindell was born in Minsk, Russia on December 15, 1894. She emigrated to Brooklyn, New York in 1906 with her family. She was an accomplished artist, and became a set and costume designer for Broadway theaters in New York, and her theatrical interests extended to translations of dramatic materials from Russian to English. Her version of Maxim Gorky’s play, “Night Lodging,” was performed at the Plymouth Theater in 1920; Edward G. Robinson was among the performers. A woman of many interests and talents, Mindell was also the proprietor of Little Russia, a small boutique in Greenwich Village, just off Washington Square, which featured curios from Russia, but her true passion was for feminist and progressive causes.

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August 24, 2017 by

The Communist and the Communist’s Daughter: An Interview with Jane Lazarre

lazarre interview imageIn a letter to his baby grandson, Bill Lazarre wrote that “unfortunately, despite the attempts by your grandpa and many others to present you with a better world, we were not very successful.” Born in 1902 amid the pogroms in Eastern Europe, Lazarre dedicated his life to working for economic equality, racial justice, workers’ rights to name just a few of his goals. He was also dedicated to his family, especially his daughters, whom he raised as a single father following his wife’s death. In this highly nuanced and sensitively written book, Jane Lazarre weaves personal memories with documentary materials—such as her father’s massive FBI file—to tell his fascinating history as a communist, a Jew, and a husband, father, and grandfather.

Soon after immigrating to the United States as a young man, Lazarre began a long career as a radical activist. He held leadership positions in the American Communist Party, fought in the Spanish Civil War, organized labor unions, and testified in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee where he refused to name names. He was convicted of sedition, and resisted the FBI’s efforts to recruit him as an informant. Through periods of heroism and deep despair, Bill Lazarre never abandoned his ideals or his sustained faith in the fundamental goodness of people.

His daughter Jane—a novelist (an excerpt from her novel, Inheritance, appeared in Lilith), essay writer, teacher—weaves her own story into the one she writes about him. She examines the nature of memory, grief, love, and conscience while detailing the sacrifices, humanity, and unwavering convictions of the exceptional man who shaped her.

Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough posed some questions to Lazarre about the impact she hopes her book will have and its relevance in our own politically turbulent time.

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August 8, 2017 by

One Jewish Mother’s Account of the Prison Industrial Complex

chainlink-690503_1920The call, when it came, was more of a puzzle than an alarm. I had wandered downstairs on a lazy Sunday morning in July to find a message on the machine: an automated operator from the Legacy service announcing that there was a collect call from—and here the voice switched to that of my then-21-year old son—and I could press one to accept or two to deny. I’d been asleep when the call came in so accepting was a moot point. Besides, why was my son calling collect? He’d gone out the night before with both cash and his credit card.

I checked his room; he wasn’t in it, but I was still not alarmed. He’d probably decided to stay in the city. But as eleven inched toward noon, I began to feel some concern. I phoned him—no answer—and then started going down a list of friends. During this time, I received two more collect calls, both courtesy of the Legacy phone service; this time, I anxiously pressed one to accept, but as soon as I did the line went dead. When I first Googled and then called Legacy, a customer service rep said, “Ma’am, that call is coming from a jail; you have to have set up a credit card account with us in order to accept.” My first thought was, Jewish boys don’t get put in jail. Then the panic exploded, a fireball in my chest.

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May 19, 2017 by

Handbag History: How Judith Leiber Came to Create Her Famous Purses

cropped watermelonThe impetus for Judith Leiber’s game-changing minaudières, exquisite mini-handbags, came not from a carefully thought-out and executed design plan, but from a blooper. Let’s go back to the beginning though: born Judith Peto and raised in Budapest, the fabled handbag designer first studied chemistry in London (to prepare for a career in cosmetics) and then apprenticed at the Hungarian Jewish firm of Pessl, where she learned to cut and mold leather, make patterns, frame and stitch handbags. She was the first woman graduated to master craftswoman, and the first woman to join the Hungarian Handbag Guild in Budapest.

When the Nazis put her country in a chokehold, the company was shut down, but Judith was able to escape the war and, in 1947, moved with her husband, American-born Gerson Leiber, to New York. She soon found work with the fashion house Nettie Rosenstein and rose steadily through the ranks. Mamie Eisenhower wore a Leiber-designed Nettie Rosenstein bag to the presidential inauguration, putting Leiber squarely on the fashion map. After 12 years with Rosenstein, Judith went out on her own, forming Judith Leiber handbags in 1963.  She created some 3,500 handbags in such materials as leather, suede, needlepoint, fur and Lucite. But the bags that arguably made her name and her reputation were the jewel-encrusted minaudières that Leiber began making in the late 1960s when an order of gold-plated brass frames arrived damaged; in order to salvage them, she used rhinestones to cover the discoloration. The rest is handbag history, as the current Museum of Art and Design exhibition Judith Leiber: Crafting a New York Story (April 4, 2017 to August 6, 2017) can attest.

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May 9, 2017 by

This Jewish Cowgirl Never Got the Blues

Photo courtesy of the Witte Museum

Question: What do Sandra Day O’Connor, Georgia O’Keefe, Patsy Cline, Annie Oakley and Frances Rosenthal Kallison have in common? Answer: They’re all inductees in the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame. And Kallison, who died in 2004 and was inducted posthumously, was the first Jewish woman ever to join these ranks.

A third-generation Texan and the only child of Mose A. Rosenthal and Mary Neumegan, Kallison was born in 1908 and grew up in Fort Worth, riding the horses that hauled her family’s furniture wagons. According to Hollace Ava Weiner, writing in the Western States Jewish History, “The city’s Jews were mostly haberdashers, liquor distributors, saloonkeepers, livery men, tailors, grocers and junkmen, although three of the founding fathers operated legitimate theaters.”  

Young Frances went to synagogue first in a horse and wagon and then, because her mother was one of the first women in Fort Worth who learned to drive, a Studebaker.

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April 20, 2017 by

Maira Kalman’s Mother’s Closet Looks Nothing Like Yours

IMG_2659Long before Martha Stewart and Marie Kondo showed up on the scene, there was Sara Berman (1920-2004), an avatar of order who might have taught even those two domestic goddesses a thing or two. Berman, mother of artist Maira Kalman, is now the subject of an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that will run from March 6 through September 5, 2017. Or rather, it’s Berman’s closet, recreated by Kalman and her son Alex, that is the subject; the artfully arranged and preternaturally tidy shelves and hanging rods offer us a privileged view of Berman, literally, from the inside out.

Nestled in between a spacious and low-slung room designed and decorated by Frank Lloyd Wright and the ornate dressing room of Arabella Worsham-Rockefeller, the closet represents Berman’s life from 1982 to 2004, when, as a divorced woman, she inhabited a studio apartment at 2 Horatio Street in Manhattan. Shoes, clothes, linens, beauty products, luggage, and other necessities are organized and arranged with unerring precision, exactitude and love. From this collection, humble and yet somehow sacred, we can read between the lines of the story outlined in the wall notes composed by Kalman and her son:

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February 6, 2017 by

Reclaiming the Character Lilith–for a Young Audience

Illustration by Arna Baartz

Illustration by Arna Baartz

Lilith, this publication’s namesake, doesn’t seem the most likely subject for a children’s book. And yet Monette Chilson, an award-winning writer whose work “celebrates the feminine in God and God in the feminine” has chosen to examine and explain the mythological figure for a young audience. Chilson, author of Sophia Rising: Awakening Your Sacred Wisdom Through Yoga has also contributed to numerous anthologies as well as yoga publications. Her quest along spiritual paths led her to feature the character of Lilith in this book, where her haunting, elegant text has been paired with Arna Baartz’s lush and colorful illustrations.

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January 30, 2017 by

“The Fortunate Ones” — An Excerpt from Ellen Umansky’s New Novel

Screen Shot 2017-01-30 at 12.55.08 PMBack in summer 2011, Lilith published Take the A Train to Scotland, from a novel-in-progress by Ellen Umansky. The novel, now called The Fortunate Ones, has undergone a sea change (Umansky says that the section that appeared in Lilith did not make it into the final version of the novel) and is poised to make its debut on February 14.

The story begins in 1939 in Vienna, and as the specter of war looms over Europe, Rose Zimmer’s parents are desperate to flee. Unable to escape themselves, they manage to secure passage for their young daughter on a kindertransport, and send her to live with strangers in England. When the war is finally over in 1946, a grief-stricken Rose attempts to build a life for herself. Alone in London, she becomes increasingly focused on trying to retrieve a bit of her lost childhood: the Chaim Soutine painting her mother had held precious.

Many years later, the painting finds its way to America. In modern-day Los Angeles, Lizzie Goldstein has returned home for her father’s funeral. Newly single and unsure of her path, she carries a burden of guilt that cannot be displaced. Years ago, as a teenager, Lizzie threw a party at her father’s house with unexpected but far-reaching consequences. The Soutine painting that she loved and had provided lasting comfort to her after her own mother had died was stolen, and has never been recovered. This painting will bring Lizzie and Rose together and ignite an unexpected friendship that excavates painful and long-held secrets. Below is an excerpt from The Fortunate Ones:

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January 13, 2017 by

This Groundbreaking Lawyer-Turned-Novelist Has Just Published a New Series

The name Linda Fairstein looms large in both legal and cultural circles, in particular for her groundbreaking work as a prosecutor of sex crimes in New York City. After graduating with honors from Vassar College and the University of Virginia School of Law, she joined the Manhattan District Attorney’s office in 1972 as an Assistant D.A. She was promoted to the head of the sex crimes unit in 1976, where was a pioneer in both the perception and the prosecution of rape. Fairstein, who left the District Attorney’s office in 2002, mined her extensive legal background to write a series of crime novels featuring Manhattan prosecutor Alexandra Cooper (begun in 1996 and still going strong), as well as the 1993 nonfiction book Sexual Violence: Our War Against Rape in which she examines society’s sexual attitudes, reflects on myths about sexual violence, and traces the evolution of rape laws.   

Now the lawyer-turned-novelist has channeled her considerable talents in yet another direction, with the introduction of Devlin Quick, a 12-year-old protagonist who seems equal parts legendary girl sleuth Nancy Drew and the kind of bright, inquiring girl Fairstein must herself have been. 

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December 27, 2016 by

Across the Gender Lines: Writing Historical Fiction that Appeals to Boys and Girls

Screen Shot 2016-12-22 at 4.43.34 PMI’ve always thought of myself as a girly-girl writer. Although I’ve 10 biographies for kids that appeal to both boys and girls—many of them in the popular Who Was series—my real love is girl-friendly stories; no fewer than five of my children’s books have the words doll or doll house in their titles. I’m also especially partial to stories involving Jewish girls, as the protagonists of The Doll With the Yellow Star, The Doll Shop Downstairs and The Cats in the Doll Shop will attest. If there was a problem here, I failed to see it and would have been happy to keep spinning my Jewish maidele stories as long as there were audiences for them.  

But a chance meeting with an editor from Boys’ Life produced the first crack in my frilly, feminine facade.

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