Live from the Lilith Blog

Live from the Lilith Blog

July 27, 2017 by

Breaking the Taboo: Women Who Regret Motherhood

Orna Donath, an Israeli sociologist, anthropologist and author of Making a Choice: Being Childfree in Israel, has come out with a new study titled Regretting Motherhood. Applying a feminist lens, it interviews Jewish Israeli women who, as the title indicates, regret becoming mothers and discuss the ramifications of their regrets. Donath shows the difference between not wanting to be a mother and not liking children; the women in the study often talk about their love for their children and what they do for the sake of the children’s well-being, while saying that if they could go back in time, they would not want to be mothers. This groundbreaking study tackles a rarely discussed subject, often left unmentioned because of obvious taboos. Donath told Lilith why she decided to write about this aspect of women’s reproductive rights, the stigma around women who don’t want to be mothers, and how she sees the possibility of a positive paradigm shift.

Danica Davidson: Before Regretting Motherhood, you were already writing about reproductive rights and deciding not to be a mother. Why did you decide to write a book from this angle? 

Orna Donath: At the end of my first study (it was conducted between 2003-2007 about Israeli-Jewish women and men who do not want to be parents), I was left with one sentence that kept troubling me and that is the certain promise towards women mostly: “You will regret it. You will regret not being a mother.” It was hard for me to leave it at the dichotomous determination that decisively pins regret to being a non-mother by threatening women with regret as a weapon, while at the same time simply excluding any possibility to think of regret following motherhood.

 Since I was sure that there are women who regret becoming mothers, I decided then to write my Ph.D. about it (which later on turned out to be the book Regretting Motherhood). I didn’t want to learn about regretting motherhood “only,” but to study the relationship between society and emotions, and the political usage of them as well.

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July 26, 2017 by

Dear Chelsea Clinton: Clara Lemlich was a Communist—and a Jew

Clara Lemlich c. 1910

Clara Lemlich c. 1910

This summer, former first daughter Chelsea Clinton released her new children’s book, She Persisted: 13 American Women Who Changed the World. In it, she profiles, among others, the Jewish labor organizer and Communist Party activist Clara Lemlich with these words: “After her family fled poverty and the threat of violence in Ukraine for a new home in New York City, Clara Lemlich got a new job working in a garment factory. She wrote that the factory’s conditions made women into machines, and so she persisted, organizing picket lines and strikes that ultimately helped win better pay, shorter hours, and safer working conditions for thousands of workers—both women and men.”

I wrote this open letter in response.


Dear Chelsea Clinton,

I write to inform you that Clara Lemlich—leader of the Uprising of 20,000 garment workers in 1909, queen of my heart, featured in your new children’s book—was a Communist and a Jew. 

She did not flee generic “poverty and the threat of violence in Ukraine,” as you write; she fled an anti-Semitic pogrom in which 47 Jews were killed, 592 were injured, and 700 Jewish families’ homes were destroyed. Later Clara would become a union leader of thousands of immigrant Jewish factory girls in New York City whose lives and work experiences were intimately defined by the same anti-Semitic violence that she had survived. Her famous speech rousing those young women to strike, quoted in your book, was delivered in Yiddish, not English. Little girls reading your book deserve to know this history, which you neglect to mention: Clara Lemlich was a Jew. 

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July 25, 2017 by

The Rabbi in the ER

To enter the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., you must first be screened by security.

The entryway is darker than that of many museums. To the right begins the journey through the hallowed spaces of history. But one important piece of history hangs on the wall in the entryway. It is a large photo of a young man in a uniform. The plaque beneath it reads:

While protecting visitors and colleagues, Special Police Officer Stephen Tyrone Johns was fatally shot on June 10, 2009, by an avowed anti-Semite, Holocaust denier, and racist. Officer Johns’s outgoing personality and generous spirit endeared him to all who entered this museum, which was created to confront the very hate that took his life. His sacrifice shall never be forgotten.

I was the Director of Spiritual Care at George Washington University Hospital when Stephen Tyrone Johns was brought into the emergency room. His life would end that day, and mine would never be the same.

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July 20, 2017 by

Planned Parenthood Saved My Life. But the Story Doesn’t End There.

Hi. My name is Ali Walensky. On December 15th, 2016 I was diagnosed with stage 2B breast cancer. As of June 15th, 2017, I was declared cancer free. The Lilith article I’m featured in focuses on my advocacy for an incredible organization called Planned Parenthood. Planned Parenthood was the first place I went to for a breast exam. They also wrote all of my prescriptions for any tests I needed and checked in on me the day after I was diagnosed. It’s impossible for me to overstate how much Planned Parenthood has helped me and how they truly saved my life.

Most women my age aren’t too concerned about breast cancer. It’s usually something that affects women who are at least twice my age, but breast cancer is something that’s been on my mind for a while now. My family has a history of the BRCA 1 gene mutation. This mutation gives a person anywhere from a 65-89% chance of developing breast and ovarian cancer as well as a higher chance of other cancers such as skin and pancreatic. My mother, her two sisters, my first cousin, and (as I would come to find out) my sister and I all have this mutation. Not only that, but my grandmother and her two sisters, who were all BRCA negative, are all breast cancer survivors. Ashkenazi Jewish women are also at a higher risk of developing breast cancer. I knew and accepted the fact that it would happen to me some day, I just didn’t think it would be so soon.

From January to April of this year I had six chemotherapy infusions. If the side effects of chemo weren’t enough to deal with, I had a decision weighing on my mind: surgery. My options were a lumpectomy with radiation afterwards, a unilateral mastectomy, or a bilateral mastectomy. Many people in my life thought my decision would be easy. Get the bilateral and then you don’t have to worry about a reoccurrence or continue to get screened. With my genes and luck cancer was bound to happen again. But let’s back up for a second. I’m 25 years old. Opting to get my breasts cut off, breasts that I’ve had for fifteen years and proudly grew myself, is not a simple decision for me. There is a trend now of young BRCA+ women opting for a double mastectomy before they’re diagnosed to make sure they don’t develop breast cancer. They have every right to make that decision if they feel that’s the best option for them. But this is the problem that I kept coming back to: Even without breast tissue a person still has a 1-3% chance of developing breast cancer. I had a big decision to make.

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July 20, 2017 by

Cannibal Mermaids, Dybbuks, Golems, and Lilith Herself: Feminist Retellings of Jewish Folktales

I saw the Polish film “The Lure” in the West Village a few months ago. The story riffs on The Little Mermaid in a very unexpected way. Ariel is no longer a fork-wielding dilettante, but instead has morphed into two sharp-fanged, angel-voiced, flesh-eating mermaids, who sing, dance, and devour their way through Communist Poland’s underground nightclub scene.

I often find myself thinking about types of feminist reclamation, both the kind that equips traditionally submissive women with sharp fangs and the kind that turns sharp-fanged monsters into powerful protagonists. These reclamations are not always completely triumphant. After all, the fundamental nature of a “reclamation” is that something must be re-made: essentially, changed. Still, having feminist retellings is far better than leaving the stories in their original forms, where the woman’s voice is often left out entirely. 

Aside from Lilith, one of the central Jewish folkloric figures reclaimed by feminists is, surprisingly, the dybbuk. Traditionally, this creature was a formless ghost who possessed women and was often blamed for  their “hysteria.” It rose to prominence throughout the Jewish Diaspora, popularized among the Eastern European Jews in folk rituals and literature. S. Ansky’s play “The Dybbuk,” or “Between Two Worlds,” which had its Yiddish-language premier in Warsaw in 1920, tells of a woman possessed by her dead suitor’s spirit; the play has been lauded as a nostalgic portrayal of disappearing shtetl life.  Its voiceless heroine, Leah, dies at the end, consumed by the spirit within her. It’s the story of a female whose body is possessed by a masculine spirit, and about the often violent subjugation of the female voice. But it’s more a blunt depiction of the problem than a triumphant feminist redemption.

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July 18, 2017 by

Losing God in Jerusalem

shadows-1779415_1920While living in Jerusalem, I lost God. I never lost the belief in God, mind you, but rather, God’s presence. And that is far more unsettling. 

I would wander the streets of the most intensely spiritual city in which I had ever lived, searching. I shunned the obvious places—the hip-happening shuls, the austere Western Wall, and even the sanctuary of my own seminary. God, the still small voice that usually rested in my soul, would not be in any of those spots. I had to pursue the less obvious.

I sought out Hadaya. His small shop in the below ground part of the Cardo had room for two folding chairs and small table with a pitcher of water and two plastic cups—but almost no space for his wares. Hadaya was a jeweler who made, among other items, a special ring engraved with the words gam zeh ya-avor, “this, too, shall pass.” When buying one of these rings, Hadaya would tell the story of King Solomon and his most trusted servant, Benaiah. The King sent Benaiah to find a ring that would make a sad person happy and a happy person more subdued. Benaiah wandered the earth, searching and searching. He never found the ring, and instead had one made with the words, gam zeh ya-avor. It did exactly what the King had requested. Hadaya made me his special ring, with a small ruby. As I had it done on a Friday, Hadaya added to the inside of the ring’s band an engraving of the Jerusalem skyline.

Which brings me back to that City and my searching. The ring brought me hope and possibility. But it didn’t bring me God. 

I went to parks on Shabbat mornings to watch dogs fetch tossed balls and to hear children squeal when the dogs returned. Sometimes, the children fetched the balls and the dogs squealed when the children returned. Returned. The dogs came back. So did the children. Why couldn’t God?

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July 14, 2017 by

This Website Helps Progressive Female Candidates Run for Office

Eliza Cussen was on her way to see “Wonder Woman”, and listening to an episode of her favorite podcast, “Call Your Girlfriend.” This one focused on women in politics (or the lack thereof). Like many would in this situation, she was wondering: what can I do?

Right then, she decided to create what is now Project Sheila, an organization dedicated to helping female politicians launch campaign websites. Cussen has been interested in web design for most of her life, and was working as a digital communications specialist when she had the idea. She saw that although she did not have significant funds to donate to campaigns, she could use her expertise to help in another way. She put out a call to friends in her network, asking if anyone needed help with web design, and received several requests right away. Around three weeks later, Project Sheila went live.

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July 13, 2017 by

Stop Asking “Why Are You Still Orthodox?”

photo for sztokman articleRecently, at the #HUC #HealingHatred conference, Shira ben Sasson Furstenburg gave a talk about the connection between religious extremism and sexism. She talked about how pretty much all major religions equate “more religious” with notions of control over women’s bodies. This is an idea that I talk and write about a lot, so I listened intently. 

During the question and answer period, the very first question was addressed at her: Why are you then still Orthodox?

Before she responded, Shira said, “You realize that you are asking a very personal question, even though this panel was not a personal one.” She then proceeded to answer anyway, talking about the importance of fighting for change from “within”—a comment that drew applause. 

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July 10, 2017 by

Embroidering a Jewish Life

God Counts the Stars, 2015, Rachel Braun. Scan by Philip Bookman.

God Counts the Stars, 2015, Rachel Braun. Scan by Philip Bookman.

Embroidery has been part of my life for over two decades; it is a core Jewish practice for me and an entry point into sacred texts. I design Judaic embroidery, starting with words from Torah or liturgy, then elucidating and interpreting the words with needle and thread. But before I discovered my embroidery passion, I’d thought about needlecraft only in limited ways.

In college, some 40 years ago, I read an article about Colonial quilt-making for an anthropology class. The author wondered why Colonial women would commit to such a painstakingly slow production process. Indeed, needlecraft is very laborious! Designing and stitching an embroidery canvas can take me easily 150 hours.

The author’s hypothesis was that usually women were responsible for repetitive production processes which had temporary outcomes, living under a tyranny of iterative tasks. Women cooked and fed their families; hunger returned anew. We laundered clothing; those garments became soiled. We cleaned; dirt arose again in every corner. Quilting, the author concluded, allowed women to participate in permanent material culture, establishing and recording their presence. Perhaps not as physical as barn-raising (and not as well paid?), but still valued. 

In my adult life, I’ve become aware of the impermanence of traditional female tasks, though my responses to the feeding-laundering-cleaning conundrums of Colonial women may have differed. Raising four children, I cycled through three basic lentil recipes at dinner and taught my kids to use the washing machine. As for cleaning, my mantra became “as long as the kids don’t get cholera, the house is clean enough.” They didn’t, and it was. 

Book Cover-1But I do embroider—vigorously, creatively, spiritually. Am I, as was alleged for our Colonial quilters, seeking immortality in material culture? That premise seems a bit specious: what we call women’s work (and what that treatise I read in college alleged was impermanent) is indeed permanent work: a long-term investment in the continuity and culture of humanity, as stabilizing as building a barn. But material culture has its purpose—useful, beautiful, necessary, communal. My framed embroidery pieces adorn the walls of my home and shul, and I dream that one day they will be passed to future descendants, or even considered museum-worthy. Just in case they aren’t, I’ve made a dive at immortality by sharing them in a book, Embroidery and Sacred Text (2017).

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July 7, 2017 by

“Marvin’s Room” Explores Sisterhood and Caregiving

0264r2_Celia Weston and Lili Taylor in MARVIN'S ROOM, Photo by Joan Marcus 2017-1Why are women expected to be caregivers—for their children, their parents, and sometimes for other relatives as well—while men are not?

That is not the question being asked by “Marvin’s Room,” a 1990 play by Scott McPherson now making its Broadway debut in a beautifully calibrated and engrossing production. Nevertheless, the question may occur to women in the audience. 

The comedic drama, directed by Anne Kauffman, explores the relationship between two sisters who became estranged some 20 years earlier, when one stayed home to care for their dying father and his ailing sister while the other departed to pursue different paths, eventually becoming a single mother of two boys and a candidate for a degree in cosmetology, which she hopes will lead to a more affluent and fulfilling life. After the caregiver discovers she herself has leukemia, she reaches out to her sister and nephews as possible bone marrow donors, and they come to visit. The story is told with a lot of wry, absurdist humor about such subjects as awkward doctor visits, painful backs and encounters with costumed actors at Disney World.

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