Author Archives: Yona Zeldis McDonough

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December 12, 2016 by

Familial Contempt and Delicious Komish Broyt

My grandmother Tania had nothing but contempt for her mother-in-law, Toibe Breittleman. In Tania’s view, the woman was coarse, vulgar and had questionable morals. My grandfather’s mother did not have it easy. When her husband left Russia in search of the better life promised by the lady with the lamp, Toibe remained behind in their dirt-floored home with three small children to raise.  There was a single overcoat that they took turns wearing, and she freely gave the children cigarettes to help stave off the hunger pangs; my grandfather began to smoke, with her blessing, at the age of eight. Her desperation—and resourcefulness—drove her to seek  work in hotel where she met friends in higher places—gentlemen, army officers—whom she charmed and entertained in ways that were perhaps not entirely kosher.  These men supplied food, money and cigarettes and it was her rumored association with them that followed her to America and made my grandmother decide she was a “loose woman.”

Screen Shot 2016-12-08 at 4.32.38 PM

Tania, in shorts, standing with my mother who was about 11 in this photo. 

Toibe’s husband died but she managed to get along on her own. She was a mover and shaker in her small community of Detroit Jews; she organized elaborate picnics and charged people to attend; the money she raised was donated to help other immigrants like herself. She dyed and curled her hair, wore make up every day and never went anywhere without high heeled pumps. Her dressing table was filled with glass bottles of scent and aromatic unguents, and a flounced, beribboned boudoir doll sat on her bed. After buying a new dress, she would immediately cut out the neckline to expose a more daring swath of decollatage, and then, as if that weren’t enticement enough, sewed sequins all over the bodice.  When Tania, then in her twenties, purchased a rather daring pair of Bermuda shorts, Toibe ran right out and purchased an identical pair of her own.

Privately, my grandmother shuddered in horror.  Her mother-in-law was a floozy, pure and simple.  And yet she had to acknowledge that Toibe was a something of a magician in the kitchen, known for her cooking and baking—which she did in her trademark high heels.  These were skills my grandmother prized and which she had not learned from her own mother, Miriam.       

Where Toibe had been literally, dirt poor, Miriam’s life back in Russia had been quite different. Her husband, my maternal great-grandfather, was a tanner, an occupation that was considered revolting—the animal skins were softened with a mixture that contained large quantities of urine.  There were many professions to which Russian Jews were denied access but tanning was not one of them, possibly because it was so disgusting few people wanted to do it. My great-grandfather became a successful and wealthy man, and my grandmother, the second youngest of twenty-two children (Miriam was possessed of a Biblical fertility) recalled a fine house with parquet floors, crystal chandeliers, and velvet drapes. There was a piano, on which her older sisters were given lessons, and a room for dancing, for they had those lessons too. Some of her brothers went to a military academy.  Miriam did not cook for her enormous family; she had servants for that.

But this life of ease and affluence came to an abrupt and savage end when my great-grandfather left for a business trip from which not he, but his bloodied corpse returned, shrouded in a canvas mail sack. Shocked and grief-stricken, Miriam swallowed poison; my grandmother spoke of the “burns around her mouth.” But Miriam was more resilient than she knew—she did not die. Instead she rallied, intent on bringing the five children remaining at home to America. Then Revolution broke out, making Miriam even more desperate to escape.  She left her two tiny daughters—my grandmother was six, her younger sister four—while she went out to sell the contents of her home in order to book passage for the trip; she stood mattresses in front of the windows, many of them now shattered, to keep rocks and stones from being hurled in during her absence.  Silver, jewelry, crystal, porcelain—all sold, all gone.  She kept only five silver soup spoons, and tucked them deep into the recesses of her bag, where they remained until she reached America.

Tania with my uncle.

Tania with my uncle.

The polar opposite of Toibe, Miriam was prim, reserved and modest. Her gray hair was always secured in a neat bun. She wore plain, cloth coats, lace up shoes and unadorned leather handbags in two colors only, navy or black, and white blouses that she periodically boiled on the stove in bleach-laced water. For special occasions, she donned a strand of tiny red coral beads and coral earrings.

Yet my grandmother wanted to learn to cook, and especially bake, and so she had to set aside her disdain and turn to her mother-in-law. And Toibe, who was well aware of her daughter-in-law’s contempt, grudgingly said yes, which was how Toibe came to teach my grandmother to make the crunchy, twice baked cookies that were called komish broyt—almost bread. 

My meticulous grandmother was an apt pupil and may have even outdone her teacher. Her cookies, studded with walnuts and raisins, and dusted with cinnamon sugar, were thin, light, crisp and delicious.  She made them for all the Jewish holidays, brought them to Shabbos dinners, bris celebrations and shivas. When my mother lived in Israel as a young woman, my grandmother wrapped the cookies individually in tissue paper and packed them in tins that she mailed overseas, where they would arrive safely, with scarcely a cracked one in the batch. She taught my mother to make them, though my mother, more bohemian artist than balbusta, would either cut them too thick, or make what to to my grandmother would have been unthinkable alterations—chocolate chips if she had no raisins, peanuts in lieu of walnuts.  These cookies were a staple of my childhood and as a young married woman, I began to bake them too; they quickly became a favorite of my own family. 

Miriam is long gone now. So are Toibe and my grandmother Tania. The two women who rarely saw eye to eye were somehow united in the kitchen. The recipe and the silver spoons are their conjoined legacy, all that remains of a vanished world. I’ve given the recipe to my daughter Kate—she is the fifth generation of women in our family to have it—and the spoons will be hers one day too. I hope she’ll bring them along into whatever new life she makes for herself; I’d like to think that the spirits of Toibe and Tania will be watching.

 Toibe and Tania’s Komish Broyt

4 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda

4 eggs
1/2 cup orange juice
1 cup oil
1cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla

3/4 cup white raisins, plumped with boiling water for 10 minutes, then drained.
3/4 crushed walnuts
Cinnamon sugar to taste 

Mix dry ingredients first; gradually fold in wet ingredients, raisins and nuts.  When batter has been blended, refrigerate for 30 minutes.  Then use batter to form a loaf in a pan, dust with cinnamon sugar and bake for 30 minutes @ 350 degrees.  Let cool entirely and with a serrated knife cut in thin slices and bake again at 325 degrees, turning to brown evenly on both sides. Check often to make sure they do not burn. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine. 

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November 3, 2016 by

Yes, These Famous Ballerinas Are Jewish

ballerina-1734980_640Back in the 1970’s, I was part of a tribe, one of the many, pale slender ballet girls that walked the avenues—Seventh, Eighth, Broadway—where so many of New York City’s dance studios were then located. With our hair scraped back into punishing buns, and our oversized bags in which we lugged our paraphernalia, we were instantly recognizable, especially to each other, and we displayed a devotion to our art that was almost religious in its single-mindedness and its fervor. Class six days a week, sometimes twice daily in the summer; student rush tickets for performances at Lincoln Center and City Center in the evenings; high school, with its geometry exams, field hockey games and debate teams a mere blur—this was how I spent my formative years. And then, in a blink, it was over—but that is another story. Suffice it to say that although my life veered off in a different direction, my love for the beautiful rigors and rigorous beauties of that early training remained unchanged. My first novel, The Four Temperaments, was set in the ballet world I’d left behind, and even though it was written three decades later, the book became a waiting vessel into which I could pour all the passion of my past.

So when I chanced upon the New York Times obituary of the ballerina Yvette Chauviré, who died in her home in Paris at the age of 99, I read it with more than a passing interest. The obit mentioned another dancer of the period—Solange Schwarz. Solange was clearly French. But Schwarz? Could have been German. Or Jewish. Intrigued, I dug up a little more.

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October 26, 2016 by

Surviving in “The Waiting Room”

Screen Shot 2016-10-27 at 11.29.42 AMThe Waiting Room, shortlisted for the Voss Literary Prize, unfolds over the course of a single, life-changing day, but the story it tells spans five decades, and three continents. As the daughter of Holocaust survivors, Dina’s present has always been haunted by her parents’ pasts. She becomes a doctor, emigrates from Australia to Israel, and builds a family of her own, yet no matter how hard she tries to move on, their ghosts keep pulling her back. A dark, wry sense of humor helps Dina maintain her sanity amid the constant challenges of motherhood and medicine, but when a terror alert is issued in her adopted city, her usual coping skills begin to fray.

Interlacing the present and the past over a span of 24 hours, The Waiting Room explores just what it means to endure a day-to-day existence in a country defined by perpetual conflict and trauma. Author Leah Kaminsky e-chats with Lilith Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough and describes her own complicated journey across continents—and back.

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October 13, 2016 by

From Stolen Silverware to Politicos: An Interview with Michelle Brafman

These 17 luminous narratives reveal the secrets of a mismatched cast of politicos, filmmakers, housewives, real estate brokers and consultants, all tied to one suburban neighborhood. Linked through bloodlines and grocery lines, they respond to life’s bruises by grabbing power, sex, or the family silver. As they atone and forgive, they unmask the love and truth that hop white picket fences.  One of the stories, “Sylvia’s Spoon,” was a Lilith  fiction contest winner in 2006, and it’s still stunning.

Author Michelle Brafman e-chats with Lilith’s Fiction Editor, Yona Zeldis McDonough, about the stories that inform the stories.

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July 26, 2016 by

Wendy Brandmark on How Cities Have Become Characters in Her Fiction

Wendy Brandmark lives in London, but still thinks of herself a New Yorker.


Her first collection of short stories, He Runs the Moon: Tales from the Cities, charts the stories of thieves and outsiders, lost children and refugees. “My Red Mustang,” included in this collection, appeared first in Lilith’s fall 2012 issue. Brandmark talks to Lilith fiction editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about her winding journey, both on and off the page.

YZM: You’ve lived in New York, in Boston, where you were an undergraduate, in Denver, where you did an MA in creative writing, and now London. Have these different cities informed your fiction?

WB: I have always lived in cities and in the case of both New York and Denver, the city itself has an identity, a character in my fiction. I grew up in New York, in the Bronx, and I think my memories of childhood, while not necessarily unhappy, have a kind of darkness and anxiety that colors my New York fiction. It is also the city I associate most with my Jewish origins and the immigrant experience in America, both of which feature in my writing.

I lived for two years in Denver in the 1970s and never returned. For me it was an alien uncomfortable city, an odd mixture of bland and raunchy, violent and gothic. This discomfort inspired stories about outcasts and thieves, dislocation and alienation. It seems remarkable to me that some 40 years later I’m still writing Denver stories. I think there is something about my experience of the city that gives me the freedom to explore characters on the edge. I’m waiting for there to be an end to the Denver stories, but this hasn’t happened yet.

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April 26, 2016 by

Why Hasn’t This Aspect of the Holocaust Been Explored in Fiction?

HouseguestIt is the summer of 1941 and Abe Auer, a Russian immigrant and small-town junkyard owner, has become disenchanted with his life. So when his friend Max Hoffman, a local rabbi with a dark past, asks Abe to take in a European refugee, he agrees, unaware that the woman coming to live with him is a volatile and alluring actress named Ana Beidler. Ana regales the Auer family with tales of her lost stardom and charms and mystifies Abe with her glamour and unabashed sexuality, forcing him to confront his own desire.

As news filters out of Europe, American Jews struggle to make sense of the atrocities. Some want to bury their heads in the sand while others want to create a Jewish army that would fight Hitler and promote bold, wide-spread rescue initiatives. And when a popular Manhattan synagogue is burned to the ground, the characters begin to feel the drumbeat of war is marching ever closer to home.

Lilith’s fiction editor, Yona Zeldis McDonough, talks with debut novelist Kim Brooks about how she finds hope even in the most hopeless of stories.

YZM: What inspired you to write The Houseguest?

KB: I began writing not long after I read Daniel Mendelssohn’s The Lost, about his struggle to uncover the specific fates of his family members killed in Europe during the war. One part in particular stayed with me. Mendelssohn reflects at one point that we always think of the Holocaust as something that happened, when really it never stops happening, because our present is shaped by the negative space of what was destroyed. In an alternative present where the Holocaust never happened, he thinks about how he’d grow up going to Eastern Europe every summer to visit the cousins that were never born, the ones who would have been born to his murdered relatives. I’d never thought of it in that way, but through this expression of sadness and longing, it occurred to me that there’s a way in which American Jews are cultural orphans, a way in which we live with the shadow of what’s not there. That was the moment, if I had to pick one, when I became focused on (or obsessed with) this question of the American experience of the Holocaust. 

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April 19, 2016 by

Kathryn Harrison on Her Favorite Biblical Characters and the Wound of Incest

51BUn2iyMZLThe essays in the new collection True Crimes: A Family Album by Kathryn Harrison were written over a period of 10 years and for different publications. Yet as a collection, they have a strong coherence. Both serious and surprising, these essays capture the moments and impulses that shape a family. In “Keeping Vigil,” Harrison reflects on the loss of her beloved father-in-law, and how he managed to repair something her own father had broken. In “Holiday Lies,” she describes the uneasy but necessary task of lying to her children about Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, withholding certain truths to protect their innocence. In “Mini-Me,” she writes about how the birth of her youngest daughter—who used to pry open the author’s eyes—finally allowed her to understand her own mother’s complicated attitudes about parenting. And in “True Crime,” Harrison writes for the first time in almost two decades about her affair with her father, and how she has reckoned with the girl she once was. Lilith fiction editor Yona Zeldis McDonough asks the author, best known for her tell-all autobiography The Kiss (1997) some questions. 

YZM: Was this your unconscious goal all along—to have these disparate essays form a whole—or did the idea for the collection grow out of what you had written? 

KH: Pulling together essays for the first collection, Seeking Rapture, taught me how to assemble the second. In each case, the first issue to address was content. For the first, when I reviewed all the short pieces I wrote between 1992 and 2002 I saw that what I’d suspected was true: All the better essays were driven by unconscious need—not in response to an editor’s idea. For Seeking Rapture I kept perhaps 50% of the pieces I’d written; it came out in 2003. From that point forward, I wrote only what I couldn’t help writing. Essays that were completely personal, completely me, without anyone else’s input—for the first draft anyway.

By 2014, I had a baker’s dozen that felt complete; they hung together—thematically—as a chapter in a life, because they were all written during that chapter. The next challenge was to sequence the parts so they came together in a narrative arc. The collection doesn’t have a plot, not the way a novel does, but it is assembled with the intention of creating an emotional arc: conflict, rising tension, crisis, denouement. This was difficult, and I don’t know how I did it, or how to judge how successfully I did it. I know only that it took a lot of effort for something accomplished intuitively.

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March 30, 2016 by

Aviva Orenstein, Author of “Fat Chance,” Talks Fat as Feminist Issue and Jewish Women and Food

fat cahnceConfident at work but clueless at love, Claire is forty and zaftig—not a combo that she imagines can resolve the romance gap. Dealing with her father’s death and an angry teenager doesn’t make things any easier. With no help from her ex, who is distracted by remarriage to a much younger woman, Claire copes by relying on a faithful circle of friends, a wicked sense of humor, and a new interest in fitness. When she meets Rob, a beguiling, slightly pudgy man at the gym, there is an instant connection that she hopes will lead to more. Maybe, just maybe, she can haul the composure she finds at work into the gym with her…

This is the premise for a debut by attorney-turned-novelist Aviva Orenstein. Orenstein writes with verve and wit, and her decision to have an overweight character at the center of her novel practically constitutes a political act.  She chats via email with Lilith fiction editor Yona Zeldis McDonough to discuss the underpinnings of her new book, her legal background and what she hopes will be in store for sassy, smart-mouthed Claire.


YZM: Susie Orbach wrote the landmark book Fat is Feminist Issue in 1978. How do you think the idea in that title relates to Claire?

AO: I think that Claire recognizes and agrees with the assertion that fat-shaming of women raises important feminist concerns. Women preoccupied with their appearance and weight can be distracted from important political, social, and feminist issues. Claire’s intellectual appreciation of that does not always translate into self-confidence or self-acceptance.  She struggles against self-criticism and obsessive concern about appearance.  Happily, this is an area where she makes some headway over the course of the book.

YZM: Do you think Jewish women have a particularly charged relationship to food and eating?

AO: Women’s issues with food are not uniquely Jewish, but Jews’ use of food for celebration and for healing reinforce both the pleasurable and the painful aspects of food and eating. Women’s cooking is a deep part of Jewish tradition and expression of love, as when Claire makes her Grandmother’s chicken soup when Rob gets the flu. Because Jewish eating is very ritualized via the do’s and don’ts of keeping kosher, eating can feel morally laden and restrictive. Claire affirmatively eats bacon sometimes to be transgressive or to express anger at God. In fact, Claire often eats as a way of tamping down her feelings. The family orientation of eating can sometimes make enjoyment of food fraught, evoking negative family dynamics and unhappy memories of times around the dinner table.  These mixtures of pleasure and pain, indulgence and restriction explain the conflicted attitude Jewish women have around food.  Throw in pressure to be slim and to engage in self-denial, and one has a recipe for a very screwed up relationship with food and eating.

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March 3, 2016 by

Rebecca Kanner Retells the Biblical Story of Esther in Her New Novel

estherA young Jewish girl is ripped from her hut by the king’s brutish warriors and forced to march across blistering, scorched earth to the capitol city. Trapped for months in the splendid cage of the royal palace, she must avoid the ire of the king’s many concubines and eunuchs all while preparing for her one night with the monarch. Soon the fated night arrives, and she does everything in her power to captivate the king and become his queen.  Her name is Esther, and Rebecca Kanner has brought her memorably to life in this retelling of the Biblical story.

Kanner’s Esther learns that wearing the crown brings with it a fresh set of dangers. When a ruthless man plies the king’s ear with whispers of genocide, it is up to the young queen to prevent the extermination of the Jews. She must find the strength within to violate the king’s law, risk her life, and save her people.  Kanner talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about how she went about researching the novel and what she did to make the ancient text feel new again.

Q: What drew you to the subject of Esther? 

A: I was intrigued by the feat that Esther carried off—saving her people. I retold the story so that beauty and obedience weren’t her most important characteristics. I was inspired by looking at paintings of Anne Boleyn and reading descriptions of Cleopatra (as well as looking at pictures of the coins that feature her). While these women are widely believed to have been gorgeous, they were not actually pictures of traditional physical perfection. Their personalities, including both wit and charm, are what I believe accounted for much of their attractiveness. We have continued to mythologize their beauty as an explanation for their success (however short-lived it was for Anne Boleyn), instead of focusing on their intellects.


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February 23, 2016 by

Why Did Véra Nabokov Destroy All Her Letters to Vladimir?

  Letters-to-Vera-coverVéra Nabokov was half of one of the most famous—and enduring—literary couples of the twentieth century. She and Vladimir met in Berlin, in 1923, at a charity ball peopled with Russian expats like themselves. The party was a masquerade, and throughout the evening, Véra kept her face masked, a seemingly unimportant bit of behavior—except that it was not.

Véra Slonim was already aware of Nabokov’s reputation as a gifted poet who was quickly gaining prominence on the literary scene, and she rather boldly let him know of her admiration.  Their courtship was playful and passionate, and they married in 1925, when he was 26 and she 23.  For the next half century, Véra was Vladimir’s everything: first reader, editor, secretary, cook, maid, mother of his child, even protector—it was rumored she carried a gun in her purse.  She was also Jewish, a fact that forces all the other facts about her to realign into a new and surprising order.

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