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April 5, 2016 by

Jennifer S. Brown, Author of “Modern Girls,” Talks Mother-Daughter Drama and Choosing Abortion in the 1930s

51-I+IuhXML._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Dottie’s got a great job in Manhattan.  She blows her salary on the latest fashions, escapes to the country with her friends when the city is stifling, and is in love with her boyfriend of three years.  Her mother’s a stay-at-home, spends her life pushing her kids to make the most of theirs and dreams of her young political days when life used to mean so much more. 

It’s a timeless story—could be happening right now.  Only it’s happening in 1935.  And Dottie’s pregnant.  And so is her mom.  And neither is very happy about it. 

Jennifer S. Brown’s debut novel, Modern Girls (NAL/Penguin, April 5, 2016), handles timeless issues of women’s choices, setting it for added drama in the Jewish world of the Lower East Side before World War II.  Lilith sat down with the author to talk about mother-daughter drama, having it all, and what makes a Modern Girl.      


HRN: This story has some classic relationship drama—mother-daughter dynamics, lovers who can’t commit.  Why set it in Lower East Side, New York in 1935?  What was the inspiration?

JSB: When I was pregnant with my first child, I went through the genetic testing common for Ashkenazi Jewish women. I asked my father for our family’s medical history, and I was shocked when he told me, “My grandmother had uterine cancer. They thought it was because of that botched abortion, but I’m pretty sure abortions don’t cause cancer.” I started turning the idea over in my mind, playing with it. Why would a married woman during the Depression not want a child? How are her issues different from an unmarried woman? Starting from there, the novel began to take shape.

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April 4, 2016 by

I’m Denominationally Conflicted. Are You?


I’ve been “denominationally conflicted” for a while now—and I suspect I’m not the only one whose intellect doesn’t match her emotions when it comes to Judaism. While I believe fiercely in egalitarianism (although I did not have a bat mitzvah, I loved reading from the Torah for three of my siblings’ bar and bat mitzvahs), my heart doesn’t soar in the Conservative shul to which my family belongs to the way it does in ultra-Orthodox settings. 

My attempts at understanding the disconnect between what I believe and what I feel have yielded only vague hypotheses. Sometimes I think it’s the women-only spaces created by gender-segregated services which appeal to me. Maybe it’s something evoked by the accents, the intonation, the melodies, the mannerisms, the motions. It could also be the cozy, communal feeling of being outsiders together which comes with a recognizable dress code and a set of habits and traditions often viewed by gentiles and secular Jews as mysterious and unsettling. 

As a kid, I spent my summers at a girls-only Lubavitch sleepaway camp in the Pyrenees Mountains in France. Whereas at home I adhered to no dress code whatsoever, in camp we all wore opaque wool tights, ankle-length skirts, long-sleeved shirts that covered our collarbones, and close-toed shoes.  Buttons and zippers were frowned upon. “When a door is open, you want to peek inside,” instructed one of our counselors, “So too buttons make men want to peek inside.” I was nine years old, but I recognized immediately that this was a creepy thing to say, and filed it under the category of “things to report to my parents when I get home.” (However ridiculous I considered the counselor’s ideas, however, it does not escape me that I’ve remembered her exact words for all these years—clearly they made an impact.) 

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April 1, 2016 by

Maybe They Won’t Let Me Back In

6CF5A4506EAfter the attacks on Brussels, after Paris and Madrid and 9/11, travelers everywhere are having second thoughts, and many worry even about waiting on line at immigration and customs in New York because they know they’re a soft target. But I can’t remember a time when coming home didn’t fill me with dread. Even before seeing the signs for Citizens and Non-Citizens, my mouth feels like I swallowed dirt. No matter how warm or cold the area, the sweat starts to form little round beads on my forehead, and my stomach feels like birds are inside fighting. The trembling is the worst. I’m scared the officers will see that my hands are shaking and think I’m suspicious.

I try to calm myself. I’m not carrying anything illegal. I’ve never been arrested. I’m a proud American, New York City-born and bred. My parents were American-born, too.

I know practically nothing about my grandparents, not even the towns in Russia where they came from. My father’s parents, and my mother’s father, died before I was born. But I knew Grandma Fanny, and I had been told how hard it was for her to come to America. Could that be why coming home feels so fraught?

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March 31, 2016 by

What Two Frank New Documentaries Tell You About Women’s Lives

Two mature Jewish women artists premiered their latest and deepest plumbing of private lives at the Museum of Modern Art’s Doc Fortnight 2016: An International Festival of Nonfiction Film in NYC in February.  Always intriguing, the 15th annual series showcases recent documentary films from around the world that, per the curatorial selection committee, push the boundaries “between contemporary art and nonfiction practices and reflect on new areas of documentary filmmaking.”  Natalie Bookchin’s “Long Story Short” and Beth B’s bio-doc of her mother Ida, “Call Her Applebroog,” both attracted large appreciative audiences of family, colleagues, and fans.

Media artist Natalie Bookchin brought “Long Story Short,” a powerful project she had just finished editing after several years of filming—and listening closely to—diverse individuals at eight service organizations on the West Coast, including homeless shelters, food banks, adult literacy programs, and job training centers. 

dominic angel and lolita

Bookchin gives intimate screen time to over 100 people usually hidden in plain sight—those struggling in poverty.  Women, men, old, young, middle-aged, veterans, unemployed, single parent, homeless, ex-con, with HIV, most African-American and Latino (none apparently Jewish) in the Los Angeles and Oakland areas, they all face her laptop’s camera for video blogs.  She takes the next, extended step from the brief Story Corps interviews heard on NPR and the captioned photographs of Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York portraits.   

Starting in the midst of the recession and last presidential election, she asked each participant: “What do you think people should know about you?” In their own words, her respondents express their feelings—many of them heartbreaking—on their childhoods and how they got to this difficult point. Encouraged to share what “I usually don’t tell people,” they all stress that “rich people don’t understand” how hard life is without a job, a phone, or an address. Women are especially frustrated that the certifications and degrees they’ve worked hard to achieve neither protect them from being laid off nor help them get any higher up the ladder. But they are proud of “being creative” with whatever they can afford, like improvising curtains in a shelter.  

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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 21, 2016 by

Fair Labor Lawyer: Bessie Margolin’s Journey from New Orleans Orphanage to Supreme Court Advocate

bessieNot every biographer has the keen advantage of having met her subject. Marlene Trestman, author of Fair Labor Lawyer: The Remarkable Life of New Deal Attorney and Supreme Court Advocate Bessie Margolin (LSU Press, March 2016), was lucky enough to not only have known Margolin but also to have been mentored by her.

From Margolin’s childhood in the New Orleans’ Jewish Orphanage to her Supreme Court advocacy and behind-the-scenes work at the Nuremberg trials, Trestman lets the reader glimpse Margolin’s character, and her sometimes scandalous love affairs which give added dimension to this fascinating historical figure.

Trestman, former Special Assistant to the Maryland Attorney General, is a notable attorney in her own right who was fostered at age 11 by the same Jewish agency that took care of Margolin. Recently, the biographer talked to Hanna R. Neier about Margolin’s struggle with gender inequality, the life of a Jewish orphan in New Orleans, tikkun olam and the Supreme Court.


HRN: Why did you want to write Bessie Margolin’s story?

MT: It’s a bit of a stretch to say I “wanted” to write Bessie Margolin’s story. Instead, as one of the most influential women attorneys of the 20th century, she deserved to have her story written, and I felt I had a duty to find someone who would write it. It took me years before I decided that I could do justice in telling her remarkable story. Margolin and I shared common childhood experiences, albeit separated by 50 years. From 1913 to 1925, she grew up in New Orleans’ Jewish orphanage, which closed in 1946. In the mid-1960s, I became an orphan whose foster care was supervised by the agency that earlier had run the orphanage. We both attended Isidore Newman School, which had been founded to educate Jewish orphans. These shared experiences prompted our meeting, and we stayed in close contact throughout my years in college, law school, and into the start of my career as a government lawyer. She was a generous mentor and powerful role model for me, and we had both received life-changing social services and educational opportunities from two wonderful New Orleans institutions.


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March 15, 2016 by

My Fair Trade Lady: A Trip to Guatemala to Meet Judaica Creators

Why is Fair Trade a women’s issue? And why, furthermore, is it a Jewish women’s issue? 

While women are routinely mocked for shopping ‘til we drop, there is truth in female shopper stereotypes: we are responsible for 85% of household purchases, even of products used by men. How do we Jewish women use our purchasing power for social good, raising our purchases from the merely material to mitzvah-territory?

The fair trade movement marries shopping to social justice, guaranteeing fair, reliable wages, gender equity, healthy working conditions, and environmental stewardship. By spending more to assure that the people who create our products are justly treated and compensated, we are following the edicts of Rambam. This famous scholar ranked tsedakah; buying fair trade is at the top, since it helps the poor escape destitution. When I first explained the concept of fair trade coffee to my son Zach, he pointed out its opposite: “unfair trade”, where workers are squeezed and powerless. 

This past February, I traveled to Guatemala with 10 other women and two men on Fair Trade Judaica’s annual trip visiting artisans who, remarkably, create beautiful Judaica. In fact, their Judaica lines have been so well received that the craftswomen are expanding them.

While many Jews have supported Fair Trade through their individual purchasing, Ilana Schatz created the Fair Trade Judaica movement. On a honeymoon trek to Nepal with her husband, David Lindgren, she shopped for a replacement for her worn-out tallit. She met a weaver whose work she loved and commissioned a new prayer shawl.

Ilana Schatz, founder of Fair Trade Judaica. Photo by Betsy Teutsch.

Ilana Schatz, founder of Fair Trade Judaica. Photo by Betsy Teutsch.

When she put it on back home in Berkeley, Schatz felt suffused by the spiritual connection to her tallit’s creator and the satisfaction of knowing her tallit helped the weaver support herself. Seven years later, Fair Trade Judaica has become a portal for fair trade Jewish ceremonial objects as well as outreach and education in the Jewish community about incorporating fair trade purchasing into our individual and communal practices.

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March 9, 2016 by

(81-Year-Old) Actor-Singer-Comedian D’yan Forest Is Bawdy, Energetic and on the Road

1When D’yan Forest stood on stage at the Gotham Comedy Club in New York City for the first time, she had no idea if anyone in the audience would laugh during her six-minute set. But they did.

That was a decade ago, when the actor-comedian-singer-chanteuse was 71. “I was scared of heckling,” Forest admits. “I was afraid no one would want to listen to an old Jewish woman.  Before this experience, I’d spent decades singing on stage. In fact, I’ve been performing since I was a child, but when people laugh and applaud at a comedy club, well, I get naches, great pleasure, from it.”

Forest’s smile widens as she sits back in her chair to discuss her life’s trajectory. Born in 1934 in Newton, Massachusetts—one of the few Boston suburbs that welcomed Jewish residents—she describes her family as “conservative Republican.”  Nonetheless, by the time Forest was eight or nine, her mom had become an adherent of Jewish Science, a spiritual movement that emphasizes the role of affirmative prayer, divine healing, and the importance of maintaining a positive attitude. At the same time her mother loved to throw large parties and tell off-color stories and jokes to her friends and neighbors. Unbeknownst to the adults, young D’yan would eavesdrop from the home’s second floor.

Forest found the narratives alluring—even when she did not fully understand them—and something inside her clicked.

Still, despite these occasional forays into impropriety, the era’s gender boundaries were rigid, and Forest—whose birth name was Diana Shulman—understood that she was expected to marry “a nice Jewish boy” when she came of age.  So she did. After graduating from Middlebury College, where Forest was the only Jewish female, she accepted a proposal from an ambitious young attorney.  The liaison lasted for four years. “He did not know how to pleasure a woman,” Forest laughs. “I was a stupid virgin when I met him. If I had fooled around before marriage I would have known not to marry him.”

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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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March 1, 2016 by

What Does a Star Do After Winning the Academy Award for Best Actress?


Natalie Portman in "A Tale of Love and Darkness."

Natalie Portman in “A Tale of Love and Darkness.”

What does a star do after winning the Academy Award for Best Actress?

In a relatively short time, Natalie Portman went from her Oscar win for ”Black Swan” in 2011 to starring in, directing and co-writing the film version of Amos Oz’s autobiographical novel “A Tale of Love and Darkness” (2015). 

Her personal appearance, along with a crowd of paparazzi, brought a red-carpet buzz to the closing night of the 25th Anniversary New York Jewish Film Festival in January.

For those of us who track the successes for women in film, what a tour de force. Portman, who was born in Jerusalem and has dual US-Israeli citizenship, certainly did it her way.  She had major control over the script, which she insisted be in Hebrew with English subtitles. She stars as Fania, Oz’s mother, who came to Mandate Palestine with romantic ideas from her privileged childhood in Poland. With a disappointing marriage in a harsh reality, she pours out her passion and gift for storytelling on young Amos. 

But where were the other women filmmakers? With two weeks of films from around the world, from countries large and small, and subject matter in all shapes and sizes, I counted six female directors of feature films to nine males. Most surprising, for shorts, only three women directors to 11 men. For retrospective picks including guest selections, only one woman director (the recently deceased Chantal Akerman) to nine men. (Not to overly weight the statistics, I counted as one the male directing team of two men.)  And surely the selection process is not biased against women. Aviva Weintraub, associate curator of the Jewish Museum, is the long-time director of the festival, which is presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Jewish Museum. Plus, women are well represented on the selection committee. 

When I asked Weintraub if there were more women directors today than 25 years ago, she said she hadn’t counted, but probably yes. Clearly this issue is beneath the radar, even as the issue of sub-par status for women and minorities comes up regularly, dragged over the carpet at this year’s Academy Awards.

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