October 7, 2014 by Yona Zeldis McDonough
For me, writing a novel usually begins with a character tapping me on the shoulder and whose insistent whisper in my ear urges to me to get the story down, and to get it right. But for my most recent novel, You Were Meant for Me, inspiration came to me in a different way: an actual news event in which a man found a newborn infant on a subway platform and eventually ended up adopting him.
The story would not leave me, and I found myself returning to it again and again in my mind. What had driven that baby’s mother to leave him not in a hospital, police or fire station—safe havens, all—but on a subway platform? And what random stroke of luck or divine intervention averted all the horrific ends to this tale—and there could have been so many—and instead turned it into one of salvation and grace? As I mulled over these questions, it occurred to me that the story was working on another level as well, one that was both mythic and archetypal. The foundling, the infant abandoned and rescued, is motif that occurs over and over in literature and can trace its roots as far back as the Bible. Wasn’t Moses himself a foundling, set in the ark and concealed in the bulrushes by Yocheved, whose fear for his life was so great that she was willing to give him up to save him? And wasn’t Moses rescued by the most unlikely of saviors, an Egyptian princess who found and then raised him as her own?
October 3, 2014 by Helene Meyers
My high-school educated mother came of age in the days when “gentleman’s agreements” limited Jews’ access to higher education, housing, and the professions. One of her formative experiences was an interview at what we would now call a major telecommunications corporation. A clerical position with a decent salary, benefits, even vacation, it was a “good job” for a woman with limited education. However, there was one catch: she had to work on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. She didn’t have a great deal of formal education but she was no dummy–she knew that this was a less than subtle way to keep Jews out of that particular workplace. Having been raised in an Orthodox household, she also knew that the choice offered was no choice at all.
We rightfully celebrate that Jews now have full access to higher education, housing, and the professions. But I wonder if we fully appreciate how, at the holiest time of the Jewish year, Jews are still routinely, subtly and powerfully required to make choices between their Jewishness and their wholesale belonging in various professional, communal, and organizational worlds. Look at all sorts of calendars (and our rationalizations for them) and you have an important Jewish story in the 21st Century.
One place to start might be an international body, the United Nations. For some odd reason, the Jewish High Holidays are not on their list of official holidays. Of course, Christmas and Good Friday grace that list; Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha were happily and rightfully added in 1998.
September 29, 2014 by Liana Finck
Introducing Excuse Me Mondays, a new illustrated advice column about minutiae. Installments will be posted here every other Monday. It is launching just in time for Yom Kippur, when we question our own behavior, and it will live, we hope, a long, happy, beady-eyed, neurotic life.
Liana Finck’s graphic novel is called A Bintel Brief. She writes and draws a monthly column for The Forward and her cartoons appear irregularly in The New Yorker. She often thinks about the age-old question: fight, or flight?
September 3, 2014 by Maggie Anton
(Wait, doesn’t the Torah say something about not allowing a sorceress to live?)
It does indeed. “You shall not tolerate (let live) a sorceress,” is the way the Jewish Publication Society translates Exodus 22:18. Or you may have seen the King James Version’s “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” Even knowing these lines, the most astonishing thing I learned while researching ENCHANTRESS: A Novel of Rav Hisda’s Daughter was how prevalent—even ubiquitous—sorcery was among the same people who gave us Talmud and Midrash.
Early on, I came across information about Babylonian “magic bowls.” Unearthed under homes in what is now Iraq, the land where the Talmud was created, these were common items of household pottery inscribed with spells to protect the inhabitants from demons and the Evil Eye, believed to cause illness, unsuccessful pregnancy and other misfortune.
Undoubtedly of Jewish origin, the incantations are written with Hebrew letters, quote Torah, and call upon Jewish angels and divine names. Some quote Mishna and the rabbinic divorce formula. And that’s not all. Archaeologists have found, wherever our people lived during the first six centuries of the Common Era, Jewish amulets, curse tablets, and magic manuals.
September 2, 2014 by Modesty Blasé
Eighteen year-old girls in New York, London and Paris are packing their suitcases. Slightly worried that their suitcases are overweight, they are even more worried that they will return overweight from their year abroad in Israel, in a religious seminary, or midrasha, in Hebrew. Across Israel (well, actually mainly across the affluent areas of Jerusalem) the doors of the academic Jewish year 5775 will open in the first week of September, 2014. A well-groomed cohort of young women will immerse themselves in an intense year of advanced Jewish studies complemented by extensive touring and volunteer work. I’d argue that ‘sem’ as these places are affectionately referred to, is a microcosm of contemporary Orthodox life and are a powerful tool for the socialization of young women.
The competition to attract girls is fierce and for a seminary to succeed, it needs to have a strong brand, an effective marketing campaign and a strategic business plan. Parents who are paying an average of $20,000 USD for 10 months (this covers fees, accommodation and some food) need to be convinced that the seminary is going to cater to their daughter educational, social and emotional needs. Further, in Orthodox circles where gender relations are more circumscribed, some parents are often concerned that the choice of sem will influence the type of boy their daughters will be introduced to for potential marriage. Therefore, in loco parentis for the year, each seminary must establish its credibility to attract its clientele and online fora can be helpful.
Recent allegations regarding improper behavior towards young women by Rabbi Aaron Ramati and Rabbi Elimelech Meisels highlights some of the difficulties parents face when choosing a seminary. Other than knowing students who went to a particular seminary, the first place to look is at their website. These sites consistently show groups of attractive, slim and smiling young women in certain poses – there’s the group hug on a tree top or during water sports, the girl poised with a pen over her notebook, girls helping in a range of charities and teachers with beatific grins. However, for a more pointed analysis, one must look to the curriculum.
August 28, 2014 by Sarah M. Seltzer
I wonder if I’ll talk to my children about the summer of 2014 the way my parents now speak to me of 1968. I wonder, too, if the stories I will relate will be even worse. A world on fire, I’ll tell them. Simmering oppression and fear rising to the surface, often with violence, from the first bright mornings of June through the dog days of August. And even those of us who were insulated personally from tragedy by miles or oceans or other, unseen borders, felt exposed: we sat beside our various screens, watching bloody images and words of hatred stream by until our fists clenched, reflexively. And then when we returned to our own lives with their petty disappointments and worries, those small shadows had larger shadows across them.
The disappointment and fear began with the Supreme Court decisions this June. Hobby Lobby, a Christian-run corporation, was bestowed permission to discriminate against its employees, putting religious liberty and reproductive health at risk. How could this happen today, we asked, after decades of the sexual revolution? But of course it had been happening, slowly for years, as corporations became legally ascendant and reproductive rights backslid. We read Anton Scalia’s decision, which singled out women’s healthcare, with mouths agape, and heeded Justice Ginsburg’s prophetic warning that this was opening the door for more discrimination.
In July our newsfeeds exploded with war in Gaza and rockets over Israel, with social media sending us gruesome images of death, destruction and terror. Online and at dinner tables we viciously argued with our own relatives about rights and wrongs abroad, and about where our Jewishness compelled us to stand. “The rhetorical war accompanying the military war – which has drastically increased interpersonal hostilities and decreased my number of friends – is so very unsettling. I feel like we’re doing this all wrong,” wrote Elana Sztokman on this blog. These wars both continued until this week, limping towards a ceasefire with more dead along the way.
August 19, 2014 by Yona Zeldis McDonough
Philadelphia-based humorist and freelance writer Stacia Freedman has a knack for one-liners and her snappy new novel, Tender is the Brisket, is peppered with them. The recession must have ended while I was on the crosstown bus, reflects one character. Adorable was the term Katya used to describe things that were too small for her, be they apartments, diamonds or men.
The author of numerous feature articles and essays, Friedman has tried her hand at writing for film and television and pursued graduate studies in screenwriting. In Tender is the Brisket, as well as her earlier book, Nothing Toulouse, she hones in on women writers who are, in her description, “on their way up, down and sideways.” Lilith Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough recently caught up with her and her witty aperçus on topics as diverse as Jane Austen, Nora Ephron and The Lucy Show.
YZM: How did you made the leap from nonfiction to fiction?
SF: I actually started out as an aspiring TV and film comedy writer without any serious literary ambitions. I didn’t want to be Jane Austen. I wanted to be Nora Ephron. After five years in the “biz” in LA, I returned east and started taking freelance writing gigs. I wrote humor pieces for newspapers, features for magazines, anything that paid the bills. But I never gave up The Dream. I kept churning out comedic screenplays, plays and eventually novels. After all these years, it’s gratifying to discover that there is an appreciative audience for my style of social satire. And if one of my novels were to be adapted to TV or film? That would be fine!
August 12, 2014 by Elana Sztokman
I remember when I fell in love with Zionism. It was 9th grade at the Yeshiva of Flatbush, the course on Zionism with the legendary Yotav Eliach. Yotav was a great teacher – clear, impassioned, relevant, and totally unconcerned with things like attendance and grades. He would just sit there, sometimes eating his pizza, and talk. He made everything seem so easy, neat and uncomplicated, and he gave us purpose and identity. He taught us that Zionism Is Jewish Nationalism, that Jordan is really Palestine, that there is no such thing as a Palestinian nation, that self-determination is a smokescreen, that anti-Zionism is just a reincarnation of anti-Semitism, that Jews have always lived in the land that we now call Israel, that there are Jewish responses to claims about Deir Yassin, and more. It was like preparing for an AIPAC convention, or for being Israel advocates on campus – in fact both AIPAC and Israel advocacy were important parts of my life so many years ago.
For me, Yotav’s class was a big part of the reason why I decided to live in Israel. By the time I was 16 I was telling people that I planned on making Aliyah, and in fact I was here by the time I was 23, married with a baby. Everything seemed right.
So in some ways, I’m still that Zionist and part of me still loves what Yotav did for me. I’m still living in Israel where I pay mortgage and taxes, conduct my life in Hebrew, argue with taxi drivers, and watch my kids serve in the army. And parts of the narrative about why Jews need and deserve a state of our own in this space still stick with me. I get emotional at Zionist events, I feel a thrill seeing my children in uniform, and I get excited by things like Israeli doctors saving victims of a tsunami. Still, with all that Israel pride, many aspects of Yotav’s Zionism have been replaced in my consciousness by a different kind of Zionism, as I started asking questions about truth and illusion, about polemics versus reality, and about the difference between having justice on your side versus having compassion on your side. Something was missing from the Brooklyn Zionism I was brought up on – even if that is, in some ways, the same Zionism that Prime Minister Netanyahu practices, along with a majority of Israelis today. I found cracks in the narrative that wore down the pretty montage. Perspectives seemed muted. The story was too effortful, as if we were taught to answer the questions before we had a chance to ask them.
August 8, 2014 by Leah Kaminsky
This week in Sydney, teenage youths boarded a bus full of Jewish primary school children and yelled ‘Heil Hitler!’ and ‘Death to Jews’, threatening to cut the children’s throats. My mother fled to Australia after WWII, as a refugee from Bergen Belsen. Aged 21, she was the sole survivor of her family and wanted “to get as far away as possible from anti-Semitism.” She always upheld Australia as a safe sanctuary; a tolerant and multicultural society. She encouraged me to train as a doctor, and I worked in Israel for 10 years, through two Gulf Wars and two intifadas, with patients from all faiths – Baha’is, Christians, Muslims, Jews and Druze – focusing on what binds rather than divides us. I have been horrified—and at the same time silenced–by all the hate-mongering and polarization of views around the world in the wake of the latest horror in Gaza. Perhaps naively, I never thought it would reach the quiet shores of Australia, where I chose to raise my children.
July 17, 2014 by Talia Lavin
Political pundits of the world, pay attention: while you’ve been trying to make sense of the bloody conflict in Israel and Gaza, an unidentified group of women in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, has identified its cause—and laid out a solution.
Or, as the web page blares in all-caps: “AS WAR RAGES IN THE HOLY LAND… IS THERE ANYTHING ELSE WE CAN DO TO HELP OUR BROTHERS IN THEIR TIME OF NEED?”
Project EDEN (standing for, bizarrely, “Eat ice cream, while helping Defend Eretz Yisrael Now) is a local initiative with grandiose goals: inspired by “talks of the Rebbe,” the Chabad-affiliated project aims to single-handedly “influence the safety of the Yidden [Jews] in Eretz Yisrael [the Land of Israel]” and provide “sure-fire protection.”
So how, exactly, do these dairy-product enthusiasts plan to hold Hamas missiles at bay from faraway Brooklyn?
By policing women’s bodies, of course.
The unidentified brain trust has begun a “Tznius [modesty] campaign for girls” – and don’t worry, it has “great prize incentives, in the merit of the safety of Israel.”
“Every girl who comes to day camp dressed in Tznius attire (i.e. clothing which keep necklines, elbows, knees and feet covered at all times) will receive an EDEN card,” according to COLLive.com, a Chabad-affiliated community news website.
Eight EDEN cards are redeemable for ice cream and entry in a $100 raffle—and, of course, the eternal knowledge that flashing your elbows has not caused Jews to die in the Middle East.
The group is soliciting donations to spread this project to as many summer camps as possible, lest even a single prepubescent girl in Crown Heights be unaware of the lethal power of her knees, feet, and collarbones.
It’s kind of an ingenious system, once you accept the premise that female bodies are capable of such massive destruction. (No wonder governments worldwide have such a vested interest in controlling them.) It combines ice cream and summer fun with punishing modesty standards and a veritable blitzkrieg of collective guilt. One wonders, if this were implemented more widely, what the next Iron Dome defense system would look like: perhaps a series of opaque, but breathable, literal iron domes for females to wear from the moment of birth? (The dimpled elbows of toddler girls have long been underestimated in their potential for causing death.)
Clearly, as Israeli troops enter Gaza, modesty is needed as never before: not prayers, not kindness, not good deeds or mutual understanding, and certainly not carefully considered compromises from politicians in positions of power. The way to “help our brothers in their time of need,” apparently, is to suppress every inch of skin their sisters possess.
And then give them some ice cream.