Live from the Lilith Blog

Live from the Lilith Blog

June 2, 2017 by

How This Jewish Glass Artist Juggles Work and Family

legos
The first thing I notice about artist Dena Pengas is her asymmetrical, bold, and multi-colored jewelry. At first glance, it appears as if her necklace is made of Lego pieces, but as I get closer I realize that each rectangle is, in fact, glass. The overall effect is elegant, whimsical, and wonderfully cheerful. Later, when we talk, she tells me that she hopes that this piece—one of many that she has created—will “spark nostalgia is the wearer and viewer.”

The 38-year-old Brooklyn-based Pengas recently spoke to me about her work. As the conversation moved from topic to topic, we touched upon parenthood, marriage, work-family balance, and what it means to be socially responsible in a time of backlash and retrenchment.

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June 1, 2017 by

Voices from My String Phone

Voices from my string phone pg 1

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May 31, 2017 by

Serious Missteps in Dirty Dancing Remake

Screen Shot 2017-05-31 at 4.21.25 PMI was critically warned not to watch ABC’s remake of “Dirty Dancing”. But I’m a Jewish feminist film critic, so I don’t simply follow directions.  I also know that remakes are notoriously and often unfairly judged only in relation to the idolized original. So I wanted to see for myself the 2017 reinterpretation of this iconic 1987 film about a Jewish smart girl who discovers that she has a body as well as a mind.  

Thank the Goddess, I didn’t watch it with commercials on Wednesday night, but I did give in to movie masochism over the Memorial Day weekend, courtesy of Hulu. Much as I would just like to forget about this astonishingly bad film, I think the specific left feet of this remake demands attention through a Jewish feminist lens.  

Yes, as many professional critics and lay viewers note, the dancing is uneven at best, abysmal at worst, and I agree with the tweeter who suggested that Patrick Swayze must be turning over in his grave. Yes, the decision to have the 2017 Baby/Francis (Hannah Breslin) and Johnny (Colt Prattes) sing as well as dance doesn’t inspire confidence in the aesthetic vision undergirding this film. But it’s what the film does to Jewish smart girls and to feminist politics in 2017 that is depressingly instructive.  

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May 30, 2017 by

What We Learn From Ruth: The Brazenness of Vulnerability

A 1795 William Blake painting of Naomi asking Ruth and Orpah to go back to Moab.

A 1795 William Blake painting of Naomi asking Ruth and Orpah to go back to Moab.

Judaism has no shortage of feminist heroines—it’s what we learn from them specifically that’s often puzzling to the modern day feminist. We struggle to map our knowledge of present day concerns for the everyday woman against ancient mores while witnessing the inherent strengths in those who bucked the trend.

One such figure is Ruth, a woman I’ve always puzzled over, for her wants and needs are no mystery—but to any of us raised within Judaism, they seem awkward and bizarre. Why would a Moabite princess, privileged and pampered in her position, choose to follow an Israelite widow back to a ravaged land of famine? Why would a woman choose to leave behind the only life she’s ever known to learn at the feet of an old, wise woman? It seems contrary to most of what we learn from society, really.

And it’s not normal, that’s clear. Even Naomi, the Jewish mother-in-law of Ruth, recognizes the societal trend being ignored by her devoted daughter-in-law. Though Ruth’s husband—the son of Naomi—is gone, and Naomi bids her daughter-in-law adieu with a wish to find another husband and bear children, she refuses. She chooses to follow Naomi: for your people are my people, your land is my land, your God is my God.

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May 26, 2017 by

Where Your Sense of Adventure Went

eiffel-tower-1784212_1920It’s not who I am, it’s just a sickness.

These are the words you want to protest to your five roommates in Florence, Italy, when they bring up the idea for a weekend getaway to Paris. Who says no to Paris?

Evidently, you do—when “travel expenses” mean hitchhiking and “hotels” mean couch-surfing: the trendy practice of seeking out strangers to, literally, sleep on their couches, saving greatly in dollars but risking expensive compromises to personal safety.

“Come on,” they urge you. “Where’s your sense of adventure?”

This is the reality, despite all the adventurous heroines you love and admire in books and movies: you don’t actually have any sense of adventure. At all. That’s because you have anxiety instead. 

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May 25, 2017 by

A Philanthropy Office That’s a Performance Space, Too

Puffin Foundation, Ltd. Executive Director Gladys Miller-Rosenstein and President Perry Rosenstein during renaming of E. Oakdene Ave. to Puffin Way by the Town Council of Teaneck

Puffin Foundation, Ltd. Executive Director Gladys Miller-Rosenstein and President Perry Rosenstein during renaming of E. Oakdene Ave. to Puffin Way by the Town Council of Teaneck.

Once upon a time, the orange-beaked puffin—native to the waters of the Northern United States—was on the verge of extinction. But after concerted efforts by a slew of determined people, the puffin population is again flourishing.

The founders of the Teaneck, New Jersey-based Puffin Foundation see the bird’s resurgence as a metaphor and they have made it their mission to support movements that might otherwise falter. As their website explains, the Foundation strives to “open doors of artistic expression by providing grants to artists and arts organizations that are often excluded from mainstream opportunities due to their race, gender or social philosophy.”

In practical terms, the 37-year-old philanthropy has supported a wide array of visual artists, writers, filmmakers, poets, musicians, journalists, and photographers. Among them are names that are likely familiar to Lilith readers, including Agnes Adler, Alice Matzkin, and Lilly Rivlin. Groups—and media—have also benefitted from the fund’s largesse: The Nation, In These Times, Jewish Currents, Mother Jones, Salon, and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice have received grants.

The Puffin Foundation’s Executive Director, Gladys Miller-Rosenstein, met with Lilith reporter Eleanor J. Bader in mid-May in the group’s spacious award-and-art-filled office. 

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May 24, 2017 by

When You’re a Woman and You Need to Say Kaddish

generic prayerIt was November, 2013, my first week back at work after my father’s rapid death from a fall two weeks before. On my lunch break, I was in the middle of a very crowded crosswalk on 6th Avenue, in the West 40s of Manhattan, when my cell rang. It was from my synagogue; Rabbi Felicia Sol was returning my call after I had left a voice mail message informing the “life cycle emergency” department of Dad’s death. Not being a regular attendant at Sabbath services, I was touched that she had reached out to me. I ducked into a glassed-in corporate garden on the corner of 6th and 43rd, where we spoke in the relative privacy of that very public space.

I have never been that religious a Jew; I was raised in the Reform tradition by a mother who’d been raised Orthodox and a father who’d been raised an ethnic, secular Jew. Though Reform, my mother always lit the candles and said the Sabbath blessings before dinner on Friday nights. Despite my dad’s upbringing, his wishes were for a traditional Jewish burial, complete with a cotton shroud and a shomer—a volunteer to guard the body from hospital deathbed to grave. Our family had completed the one-week shiva tradition the week before.

I told Rabbi Sol that the hardest thing at that moment was being surrounded by people going about their business. They seemed rushed and focused, certainly unaware of the heartbreaking pain and loss I felt inside, which was surely not evident on my face.

Rabbi Sol said, “That’s what saying kaddish is for.”

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May 23, 2017 by

Witness to Mass Incarceration

 

barbed-wire-960248_1920At the age of three, Evie Litwok used to watch her father pray. Every day, she would stick her arm out and he would put the leather strap around both their arms. Her parents were Holocaust survivors, and during the war her father had looked up to G-d and said, “If you allow me to live, I will honor you every day.” He kept his promise, davening daily, always with a smile. When Evie grew up, she was not particularly religious, attending temple only on the High Holidays. Yet the day she went to prison, she knew she wanted a siddur. She needed to pray. 

In 1995, Litwok was arrested for tax evasion and mail fraud. It took 12 years for her case to go to trial. She ended up in prison twice (2009–2011 and 2013–2014) as two counts of her charge were vacated and then retried. She had never imagined herself incarcerated, much less—for seven weeks in 2014—in solitary confinement.

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May 22, 2017 by

The Ring Box

better ring box imageI lived most of my life with only one grandparent—my mother’s mother. My other grandparents passed away either before I was born or while I was still too little to have many memories of them. But my grandmother loved me enough for all of them every single day. In my eyes she was pure love, pure giving, the very incarnation of what a devoted Jewish woman should be. We were close. When she passed away at age 93, I was already an adult in my mid-twenties—but that night I cried like a child.

My grandmother outlived her husband, my grandfather, by over 20 years. She was not always in good health, but she always had a smile for me and said that she was going to live to dance at my wedding. When she died before I had even come close to finding the right guy, I was broken-hearted. 

It would be another few years before I met my husband, but when we got engaged it was decided that instead of buying a new ring, I would wear my grandmother’s engagement ring. More than an “heirloom,” as my friends and family called it, the ring was a meaningful connection to the grandmother I had loved and the Jewish womanhood she had modeled for me.

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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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