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June 29, 2015 by

What Motivates an Activist?

As a five-year-old girl, activist/journalist/playwright/lawyer Cynthia L. Cooper was unfamiliar with the word feminist and, like most of her peers, knew nothing about human rights or social justice. But she knew what was fair, which is why she took umbrage over privileges that were extended to her brothers, but not to her.

“I remember it as a moment of outrage when my brothers got to play baseball and I didn’t,” Cooper told Lilith. “I was also as good as or better than the boy down the street. It made no sense to me that he was able to join Little League and I wasn’t.”

It’s been many decades since this affront, but Cooper’s affinity for the excluded remains ironclad, and whether she is writing articles about the current spate of sexual attacks on college campuses, books—on themes as disparate as wrongful criminal convictions, the abuses of the Bush/Cheney administration, or tenants’ rights—or plays about sexual violence, reproductive justice, the Holocaust, or women in sports, her passion for equity is evident.

Cooper grew up in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, and learned her family’s history through stories that were told by the adults. There was her dad’s chronicle of moving from Lithuania to Reading, Pennsylvania, and her mom’s coming-of-age in tiny Dawson, Minnesota, where hers was the only Jewish family for many miles.  “My grandfather, my mom’s dad, owned a general store,” Cooper begins. “Their family was isolated in terms of Judaism but they were nonetheless central to the community. I heard many accounts of how, during the Depression, my grandfather gave people food if they needed it.” His generosity, she continues, was near-legendary, in one instance prodding him to buy a farm that was being foreclosed in order to protect the destitute people living on this land from being evicted. “I absorbed the message that you should do things for other people,” Cooper says. “That was Judaism for me; you do something bigger than yourself.”

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June 25, 2015 by

Young Love…and Its Aftermath

cover louisa meets bearGirl meets boy. Girl gets boy. Girl loses boy. But girl and boy do not forget each other. It is the elusive and often surprising nature of their ongoing connection that forms the backbone of Lisa Gornick’s highly acclaimed new collection of interrelated stories, Louisa Meets Bear (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, $26). Gornick, who is also a psychotherapist, is interested not only in the way things seem on the surface, but also with unseen forces that exert such powerful control over the lives of her characters. Here she chats via e-mail with Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about the assault on the novel, and why the categories for fiction matter so much less than their content.

YZM: Let’s talk about the origin and structure of these stories. Did you know from the outset that they would be linked? Or did the connections reveal themselves more slowly, as you were writing?

LG: These stories were written over the past twenty-five years, all as individual pieces intended to stand alone. Originally, there were two sets, each made up of two stories that shared characters. When I first reread the stories with the thought of putting them together into a collection, it seemed, however, that they were all connected on a deeper level—as though the characters could or should have known one another. I went back and rewrote the stories, changing what might have been five degrees of separation between characters to one degree, making timelines to map the events into a single chronology and a larger narrative. With the stories connected now, we follow characters over nearly five decades. The opening story begins in 1961 with a woman’s yearning to have work of her own, and the final story, set in 2009, while about an incident between a mother—the niece of the woman in the opening story—and a son, has as its backdrop the accommodations this mother has made to have work and love in her life.

YZM: You depict a number of absent/dead/damaged mothers here; comments?

LG: It is not an easy road for a woman who wants mature romantic love, a deep hands-on relationship with her children, and meaningful work. There are difficult choices and often irresolvable conflicts between these domains. In Louisa Meets Bear, there are mothers whose lives are marked by tragedy and then, in the next generation, daughters who have begun to find a way.

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June 17, 2015 by

Truly How Majestic: In Memory of Bonna Devora Haberman

When I think of Bonna Devora Haberman z”l, I picture her leaping into the air on Yom Kippur afternoon, her face pale but beaming as she gathers everyone within arm’s reach into a circle for a triumphant chanting of Mareh Kohen, the liturgical poem about “truly how majestic” was the look on the high priest’s face when he successfully exited the Holy of Holies. Bonna was very proud of her Kohanic lineage, and even though she sometimes came late to shul, she never missed Birkat Kohanim – when she and her husband and children would get up to bless the congregation from beneath their tallitot, breathing new harmonies into the ancient biblical text.

When I wasn’t davening with Bonna – we participated in the same minyanim both at Harvard Hillel and in Jerusalem – I would often see her jogging in the early mornings with her husband Shmuel and their dog Sumsum. Bonna rarely stood still. A self-avowed “textual activist,” she was also always active, always on the go, never content to let anything be. At the funeral her husband Shmuel—always the quiet one in their relationship, Matthew Cuthbert to her Marilla—told the story of how he first met her in college in Ottawa at an Israeli dance class, where Bonna, too, was spinning circles around him. At one point he sat her down and asked her to tell him her dreams. “I dream of a large barn and a community of women, dancing, reading books, busy with organic farming, discussing ideas, and caring for children.” A community of women was not exactly what Shmuel had in mind, but Bonna had given him his opening. “Where will all the children come from?” he asked, feigning innocence. “Well, a few men will be allowed once in a while,” Bonna conceded. Then she asked Shmuel his fantasy, and he said he wanted to retire with her to a desert island. Bonna was quickly dismissive. “We can’t,” she said. “There’s too much in this world that needs fixing.”

Bonna insisted that Dayenu must end with Tikun Olam, because only when the world was healed would it truly be enough. For her, that was what building the Temple—the actual last line of Dayenu—was about. It was what drove her to help found Women of the Wall, a monthly Rosh Hodesh group where women donned the garments of ritual prayer and read from the Torah at the Kotel. And it was what inspired her brilliant writing about the Beit HaMikdash, including her profoundly bold and radical essay “The Yom Kippur Avodah in the Female Enclosure,” which I reread every year on Yom Kippur and which has inspired so much of my own writing and thinking about eroticism and the Talmudic sages. For a while Bonna became, for me, the embodiment of that essay, as if that one piece comprised the entirety of her identity; each time I’d run into her I’d buttonhole her with further questions and new ideas inspired by her words.

But Bonna was so much more. When she wasn’t writing she was fighting sex trafficking around the globe, pushing for gender equality at the Kotel and in Jerusalem, informally counselling young women about natural childbirth, caring for Mother Earth, and staging theater performances with Israeli and Palestinian women to solve the conflict in the Middle East. One of her sons said that she understood her name to be Bonna DvarYa – that is, a builder of the words of God. Just as the midrash in Breishit Rabba relates that God used the blueprint of Torah to create the world, Bonna looked to Torah for inspiration to repair the world. Another one of her sons said that Bonna, particularly in her last few months of illness, never wanted to sleep. “I’ll have enough time to sleep in the grave,” she insisted. But her son was not so sure. He assured us at the funeral that he has no doubt his mother has already staged a revolution in heaven.

And he is probably right. I can just imagine Bonna taking the angels by a storm, gathering them in a circle for a frenzied recitation of Mareh Kohen in which it is the angels who are analogized to the priests rather than vice versa. I will miss her presence in shul, especially during Birkat Kohanim – but regardless of what she is up to in heaven, I have no doubt she will still be shining her blessing upon us.

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June 15, 2015 by

This Artist Teaches Woman Power

“Evening’s Flight,” Archival Pigment Print. © Sara M Novenson 2012

“Evening’s Flight,” Archival Pigment Print. © Sara M Novenson 2012

The first thing you notice when looking at Sara M. Novenson’s paintings are the colors: Rich and vibrant, the blues, pinks, purples, reds and yellows invite you to peer closely, and whether you’re perusing her Great Women of the Bible series or her landscapes, the limited-edition work is striking. What’s more, most of Novenson’s art is bordered by hand-painted Hebrew letters—excerpts from the Psalms as well as blessings—that remind us to appreciate the miracle of creation.

Collectors of Novenson’s work include actor Fran Drescher, the late musician Frank Zappa (1940-1993) and the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York and she has had exhibitions throughout much of the world. Novenson has also run her own gallery on Santa Fe, New Mexico’s famed Canyon Road since 1996.

A reviewer, writing in the Santa Fe Focus, describes her creations as “dazzling,” with “life-inspiring rays of sun and people shimmering with power and beauty.” But most notable, the reviewer wrote, is “the female energy and spirituality” each painting exudes.

This, Novenson told Lilith, is exactly what she intended. In fact, her Women of the Bible series aims to imbue viewers with a better understanding of female power, and whether they’re seeing images of Deborah, Esther, Hannah, Judith, Leah, Miriam, Naomi, Rachel, Rebecca, Ruth or Sarah, she hopes they’ll walk away feeling “empowered from both within and without.”

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June 10, 2015 by

Coming-Out Stories, the Talmud’s POV on Gender, New Rituals, and More

The Lilith archive includes first-person coming-out stories, memoirs of “crossroads” experiences, the Talmud’s surprising POV on gender identity, and new rituals, ceremonies, and liturgies. 
Dive in!

Why We’re Not Getting Married 
by Martha Ackelsberg and Judith Plaskow

Fall 2004
“We fully believe that gays and lesbians should have the right to marry, and we celebrate the fact that a significant barrier to our full citizenship has fallen. But we’re not getting married. “

Coming Out in the Orthodox World: Our Lesbian Wedding
by Tamar A. Prager

Summer 2006
Here’s how one lesbian couple—wanting the blessings both of their parents and of Jewish tradition—melded Judaism and their gay identity.

What’s a Nice Jewish Girl Like Me Doing in a Man’s Body?
by Joy Ladin

Winter 2009-2010
The complicated story of becoming a woman gives a whole new dimension to Rabbi Hillel’s famous creed, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”

What to Call the Rabbi’s Lesbian Partner?
Fall 2012
by Mel Weiss
“I’d thought once that the issue of what to call myself as a grown-up would be settled once I discovered the word ‘Ms.’”

“Coming Out” in the Jewish Family
by Carla Cantor

Summer 1989
As many lesbians discover, being true to oneself has a price… Jewish families have both a harder—and an easier—time accepting gay children.

Gay Rights are a Natural Extension of Jewish Feminism
by Alice Sparberg Alexiou

Spring 2005
“This is the idea that I grew up with: that Judaism should be fully accessible to all of us.”

Being Out as a Jew in Lesbian Circles
by Melanie Weiss

Summer 2006
In some settings, it’s more acceptable to be gay than to be Jewish. 

Two Lesbian Women and Their Pretty Straight Wedding 
by Susan Sapiro

Winter 1997-1998
What distinguished this ceremony from many other gay and lesbian weddings is that Michelle and Aimee are halachically committed Jews.

Transgender Jews: A Special Section
On gender in Eden, the Talmud’s 7 genders, the rituals and policies of transgender Jews, and how synagogues can become more comfortable spaces for trans people.

Gender in Genesis by Gwynn Kessler
What the Talmud Says about Gender Ambiguity by Alana Suskin
In the Image of God by Danya Ruttenberg
Shul Matters by Micah Bazant
“Today I am a Man” Takes on New Meaning by Danya Ruttenberg

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June 1, 2015 by

“Félix and Meira”: Flawed Flick Worth Watching

“Félix and Meira,” directed by Maxime Giroux, is a slow film, at times excruciatingly so. Its box office sales are unimpressive, and I watched it in Austin, Texas, in an almost empty theater. While it won Best Canadian Feature Film at the Toronto Film Festival, it is getting decidedly—and deservedly—mixed reviews. Yet it is one of those flawed films that gets under your skin in good and stimulating ways. 

Meira, a.k.a. Malka, is a religiously and sensually restless Hasidic woman. Although she’s supposed to fulfill the commandment to be fruitful and multiply (bearing six to fourteen children is the norm in her community), she gives birth to one daughter and then surreptitiously takes birth control pills. Although her husband disapproves, a recording of Wendy Rene’s “After Laughter” rather than Jewish prayer feeds her soul. And as she holds her daughter, she draws miniatures with intensity. Her sketching attracts the attention of Félix, a secular single man who has been estranged from his father for a decade but returns home as the patriarch lay dying. Félix, too, sketches both his ideal and broken world. A relationship develops between these two lonely people that spans not only the Montreal neighborhood that they initially share, but also Hasidic Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Venice.

Hadas Yaron, who plays Meira, is as arresting here as she was in the visually stunning “Fill the Void.” Her eyes become a vehicle for conveying a complex narrative of conditioned feminine modesty, desire, confusion, and grief. Refreshingly, mothering is neither exalted nor degraded here. Although Meira does not want a brood and is often shot hunched over the carriage she pushes through the grey, wintery streets of Montreal, she also derives much joy from her daughter. Her husband tells Félix that if she and he go off together, his daughter will grow up without a mother. However, Meira thwarts that scenario with a photo shoot that we retrospectively understand as a plan for her daughter’s passport. 

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May 29, 2015 by

Voyeurism and the Yeshiva Girl

Madonna has got me thinking about Barry Freundel. To be honest, Madonna often gets me thinking about body, sexuality, and women’s power. I consider Madonna one of the most body-empowered women out there. She has full command of her body, and uses it as her artistic canvas. She can do anything she wants with it, put on any item of clothing and pose in any position, and the effect is one of power and ownership. I frequently find myself wondering whether she represents an ideal of body empowerment, whether on some level I should be teaching my daughters to admire and emulate her for her complete ownership of her life and seeming ability to do anything she wants. (Of course, then the Orthodox voice in my brain usually kicks in and reminds me of how far Madonna is from anything familiar to me in my own relationships with my body.)

Anyway, knowing this about Madonna, I was surprised to discover a few months ago that she took to twitter to express her anger that a photo of her was leaked without her permission. The photo was an unpolished image of her in bra and underwear, apparently in a dressing room. “This is a fitting photo I did not release,” she wrote. “I am asking my true fans and supporters who respect me as an artist and a human to not get involved with the purchasing trading or posting of unreleased images or music.” The reason I was surprised at her reaction was because the week before, she had done a topless photo shoot for a French magazine. It was a strange juxtaposition to me, that she would upset about this photo of her in her underwear when just days before the entire world just saw her undressed. 


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May 28, 2015 by

New Morning Prayer for Women

Blessed are You, Shekhinah,
Ruler of the Universe,
Who did not make me a man.

Blessed are You, Shekhinah,
Who gave me the strength to bear children
endurance to raise them
shrewdness and fortitude to earn a living
initiative to shop for my own clothes— or start my own business
flexibility to pick up my own socks
efficiency to boil an egg and brew coffee simultaneously  
creativity to sew a quilt
stamina to cook an entire Seder—
on my own.

Blessed are You, Shekhinah,
Who has made me like the Matriarchs,
Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel,
who possessed the power of binah
intellectual and emotional insight
distinguishing between
what appears to be true
and what is actually true.

Shekhinah, save me from Nice Jewish Men.
Give me the judgment to recognize
(the chutzpah to avoid)
the Type-A man my parents adore:
who can pass the Bar Exam in three states,
but cannot shop for his own suits—
who can shoot a birdie on the golf course,
but whose underpants always miss the hamper.

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May 18, 2015 by

Excuse Me: Things People Said to Me in McGillacody, VT

Welcome to another edition of Excuse Me, an illustrated advice column about maddening things. Installments will be posted here every other Monday. Need advice? Send your questions to


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May 6, 2015 by

After Months Online, the Fun of Face-to-Face

The freezing-over of America over the long winter had an effect (in some places) of bringing people together for warming, indoor gatherings. At least that is how I see the significance of an event that took place on a recent night in icy Manhattan. It was the first in-person meeting of people belonging to a certain Facebook group dedicated to exploring the status of women in Orthodox Judaism. Or, as I like to call it, the FEDDD UPPPPP MMMMEETTT UPPPP.

 Okay, so I should probably explain the group name. When I started the group nearly a year ago, on a kind of half-whim following a long and energizing walk, I called it, “I’m also fed up with the way women are treated in Orthodoxy.” I called it that because, well, I was feeling fed up at the time. Actually, I was also really curious how many people felt the same way. The group was a bit of a sociological experiment for me. I really wanted to know how many people out there had sort of had enough. I mean, so much of public discourse in Orthodox life is dominated by men in power who have a particular agenda in labeling feminists as “marginal,” “minor” and “insignificant.” And religious feminists have never really engaged in any kind of real impact study to try and assess or measure their ideological reach. I realize that starting a Facebook group is hardly scientific. It’s also about as low-budget as you can get. But it seemed like a good idea at the time. I was really just curious how many people out there were not just identified as feminist but also really burning about it. To distort the proverb, it was like putting out some honey and seeing how many bees would show up. 

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