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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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April 14, 2016 by

The Empty Seder Plate

empty seder plateI cook the way I speak Spanish, which I describe as a “kitchen Spanish.” My accent is intact, but my fluency comes and goes. I learned the basics of the language from the women in my mother’s Cuban family, whom I watched as they peeled and fried and roasted their way to an improvised repertoire of Cuban infused Sephardic Jewish food. I think of the ropa vieja that my Abuela—my grandmother—made. She sautéed shredded beef in tomato sauce, onions and garlic. The dish was then studded Sephardic style with raisins—small bursts of sweetness swimming in an oily broth. A gift from one culture to another.

Abuela’s cooking genes bypassed my mother to be inherited by her younger sister, Tia. But my mother could not abide Tia doing anything better than she did. Mom anointed herself the prettier sister. “All of my cousins wanted me to be in their weddings,” my mother bragged. “I had a beautiful figure,” she said outlining the shape of an hourglass.

My mother eventually vanished into a mental illness that blurred my teen years with fear. “No one will believe you,” she once said to me when I threatened to expose her after she threw a milk bottle at me and bloodied my head. These days a crippling arthritis mires her in loneliness and maroons her in a wheelchair. But before that she was, as my father used to say, crazy like a fox. As a child I intuited that my mother was not so much smart, as she was wily. I would learn much later that she pretended to have a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Havana.

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April 13, 2016 by

Passover: Freedom for Women NOW—Not 3000 Years Ago

"Passover," Arthur Szyk, 1948. Yeshiva University Museum.

“Passover,” Arthur Szyk, 1948. Yeshiva University Museum.

There is no holiday that brings out the screaming in my head as much as Passover.

There are two sets of noise that take hold of my brain at this time of year: the pre-Pesach (Passover) trauma and the Seder night trauma. Or as I have come to experience it, the trauma created by women’s stuff, and the trauma created by men’s stuff.

Growing up, the pre-Pesach anxiety began as soon as Purim was over. We were only allowed to eat from a pre-determined collection in the kitchen, we were on a schedule around what rooms were already sterilized, and my mother’s mood went from the usual cold and cranky to the downright hostile. Nothing was ever right, we walked on eggshells, and life was insane and frenetic. Although I often wonder how many of my traumas are from religion and how many are from my particular family, in this particular case I have come to learn that this kind of thing was going on not only my own house but also in many Jewish homes around the world. Even women of privilege engage in the panic. (I’ll never forget the time, years ago, when a mother frantically came to pick up her daughter from a play date around a week before Pesach, saying, “Hurry, I have to rush home and watch my cleaning lady do the kitchen.”) Pre-Pesach insanity, it seemed, was the Women’s Way, no matter how you celebrated the holiday.

I’ve been living in Israel for over 20 years, and it is still astounding for me to watch how this culture takes over Jewish women’s lives, no matter what kind of religious observance they adhere to during the year. Conversations in shops, on the street, and online, revolve around Jewish women of all backgrounds managing the minutia of obsessive cleaning, shopping, and cooking. There seems to be an uncontrolled lust for women comparing themselves to one another—who started cleaning and cooking earlier, who is having more guests, who is more efficient, who is more creative, and ironically also who has more time-saving hacks. Facebook doesn’t help, by the way.

Growing up in Orthodox Brooklyn, I found this pre-Pesach cleaning-cooking-hosting-mania was compounded by the other assault on women’s bodies: clothing shopping. Our job, as religious girls, was not only to manage the kitchen, but also to look gorgeous as we did it. We prepared our shul and Seder outfits meticulously and expensively, down to the last perfectly-matching accessory. But let me tell you something: there is nothing quite as dysfunctional within the female experience as surrounding yourself with copious amounts of food and then forbidding yourself from eating it. Women’s and girls’ table conversation, once we finished serving, invariably revolved around calories, points, fat content, carbs, gluten, GI, cellulite, whatever. (Each year, the measures for what we should or shouldn’t eat changed, led by trends announced by The New York Times. This added to women’s competition not only over who was thinnest, but also over who was the most in-the-know about how to effectively lose weight.)

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April 12, 2016 by

Gayle Kirschenbaum, “Accidental Therapist” for People Who Don’t Get Along With Their Mothers

It’s almost Passover—a time of renewal, of course, and a time to reflect on themes of freedom from enslavement.

There is a special Haftorah for the Shabbat before Passover. It’s the conclusion of the book of Malachi, and its last passage urges familial reconciliation—with a dire warning: “That you may turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the hearts of children to their parents, lest destruction smite your land.”

I approach an interview with documentarian Gayle Kirschenbaum with these things on my mind. Her newest film, the feature-length “Look at Us Now, Mother,” has won multiple awards on the festival circuit and is currently playing in New York, Los Angeles, and Boca Raton (see here for future screenings); it moves on to Kirschenbaum’s native Long Island in time for Mother’s Day. The film examines Gayle’s often-fraught relationship with her mother, Mildred, and her attempts to heal from familial pains of the past. The project evolved from a short documentary of Gayle’s called “My Nose” (2007), in which Mildred tries to convince her daughter that she dearly needs a nose job and Gayle agrees to go with her for consults with a few plastic surgeons—as long as she can film the process. (The conclusion: No one but Mildred finds Gayle’s nose to be any kind of problem.) 

“I never bought into my mother’s criticism—of my nose, my hair, my behavior. I didn’t take it personally, but I wanted to know why it happened,” Gayle says by phone from her apartment in New York (with Mildred, who’s in town from Florida for film screenings, by her side). “It didn’t affect my self-esteem, but it affected my feelings about loving and being loved. And I was always looking for answers. I knew I had to forgive her.”

After “My Nose,” “I saw the need to make the feature film,” Gayle says. “I felt I became an ‘accidental therapist’ for the people dealing with their own issues with their parents and families.” 


Photo by Gerald Kirschenbaum

Look at Us Now Mother” is not what most would call an easy ride. There are photos of young Gayle—usually in formal dresses—gazing up at a glamorous mother who doesn’t seem to know she’s there. (“I’d be dressed up in these things,” Gayle recalls now, “and then break out in rashes!”) There is film footage of her trying unsuccessfully to climb onto her mother’s lap. There is a blistering recollection of Mildred’s parental behavior from one of Gayle’s close childhood friends. There is even footage of current-day Gayle working with her mother in family therapy.

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April 7, 2016 by

The Shadow of Zaha Hadid

Zaha Hadid via Knight Foundation

Zaha Hadid via Knight Foundation

I was sitting at my office desk, Thursday morning, March 31, multitasking as usual; checking my email, drafting plans for my sister’s apartment renovation in Tel Aviv, logging data into my bookkeeping software, and (I confess) checking Facebook once in a while. I scrolled through the feed of vacation photos, op eds and political comedy when I suddenly caught my breath – Zaha Hadid had died of a heart attack, age 65.

I’ve been thinking about Hadid’s death since its startling appearance in my Facebook feed. Had you asked me on Wednesday who my architectural heroes were, I probably would not have mentioned her name. She was amazing, but my role models are smaller, more approachable, perhaps more like I want to see myself when I grow up. I might have mentioned Carlo Scarpa, whose buildings I insisted on visiting on a recent trip to Verona and Venice. Or maybe I would have noted Jeanne Gang, whose work is both intelligent and poetic. Zaha, I would have said, was too unique and too brilliant. She imagined things no one had ever seen, and she was able to make these fantasies become physical realities. I could not see myself in her.

Nevertheless, I keep thinking about her, staying up late, reading admiring obituaries, snappy stories calling her a “diva” and online posts from young students. If she was not my hero, why does her death matter so much?

I remember the awe I felt when I first encountered her winning entry for the Peak Leisure Club in Hong Kong (1982). I was studying architecture at the Technion in the early 1990s, still busy with an Israeli version of a functional modernism. Hadid’s drawings were anything but functional. The design was a stunning composition of exploding forms, bold colored surfaces soaring from the cliff, projecting a future of spaces that could not yet be build.

Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre in Baku, Azerbaijan

Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre in Baku, Azerbaijan

Later, when I came to New York, I attended her lectures and went to hear her reviewing her students’ studio presentations. By then, it was 1998; the world of design and computers was catching up to her vision and we were all making computer models of curved spaces, soon to be manipulated, optimized and constructed. Hadid was one of the driving forces in the evolution that emancipated buildings from orthogonality, flatness and the ancient distinctions between walls, floors and roofs. In Hadid’s buildings, surfaces were free to fold, curve, twist and bend, creating a continuity of spaces, which –like other rejected binaries–celebrate life on a spectrum.

In the 20 years that passed since I first saw Hadid, much has changed. After years of creating unbuilt work, Hadid had become an international trailblazing architect, with a staff of 400 and innovative, large-scale projects around the globe. She was the first woman to receive the Pritzker Prize (2004), and the first Muslim too. She received the Stirling prize two years in a row (2010, 2011) and she was made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in 2012.

So why am I thinking about her so much? Perhaps Hadid’s death is particularly upsetting because, as Thomas de Monchaux wrote in The New Yorker, architects tend to flourish later in life, making Hadid’s death at age 65, with only 10 years of constructed buildings, all the more premature. Or perhaps, as the New York Times article suggested, it was her singular position as the greatest female architect that amplified her death as a personal loss to me as a woman architect.

But alongside my admiration, and slight envy of Zaha Hadid, I hear a small ugly voice whispering in my head. This voice says, “she was too big for life and so she died.” It is true, I admit, that she defied so many social norms, being ambitious, creative and successful, and choosing not to marry or have children. This, the ‎Trump-like-misogynist voice in my head says, was too much; the universe could not maintain this kind of female presence.

I hate this voice and can’t believe it resides within me. How is it possible that after years of thinking, lecturing and writing about women in architecture, questioning the current gender roles, a voice like this still persist and haunts me from within my own mind?

A century after Freud, we accept that we are not masters of our minds, which contain layers of biological and cultural residue. This heritage includes the treasures of creativity and the transcendences of spirituality along with misguided misogyny, cruel racism, and infantile envy, leftover voices of a past that still echo within us. Perhaps, my ugly internal voice resenting Hadid’s success is a reminder that we are still on the journey to women’s equality, and that the structures that need to be changed are internal as well as external. 

Healthy mourning is achieved, Freud writes in Mourning and Melancholia, when the deceased loved one is internalized, and becomes part of who we are; in his enigmatic words, “Thus, the shadow of the object fell upon the ego….”

Zaha created complex and magnificent buildings. May the shadows of these objects fall upon us.

Esther Sperber is the founder of the award-winning New York-based firm Studio ST Architects. Born and raised in Jerusalem, she also lectures and writes on architecture and psychoanalysis.


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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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