Live from the Lilith Blog

February 27, 2014 by

At Compassion’s Edge

vawaThe snow that doesn’t quite seem to stop falling this winter was also falling consistently throughout the winter of my tenth grade year of high school. As a teen, as gunmen shot in the suburbs of DC near my home and wars raged around the world, I was very bothered by the “state of things”, and I just wanted to do something about it. So, the night before Chanukah, I decided to prepare gifts for my friends at the day school I attended. I printed little cards that read:

Happy Chanukah! A Donation has been made to American Jewish World Service in your honor.

I taped a candy to each one (poorly, I recall. many of them fell off) and handed them out in school to my friends, feeling like I had done my part to fix the world that seemed so broken to me, and that didn’t seem to respect the values I grew up holding: that each person was made in the image of God, and deserves to live a life free of violence and oppression.

Early on in my college experience, though doing Jewish social change work is what continued to make my heart beat faster, I decided to begin to largely shut out issues of global justice from my consciousness. I had become simply overwhelmed by the volume of things that needed fixing around the world, and I was reminded of my high school classmates, as they had rattled off skeptical reactions to my idealistic donation-making approach that Chanukah. I would never get anything done, they had said. 

I struggled with this overwhelming feeling, because I so deeply cared about justice for everyone. But eventually, I decided that, while I wouldn’t be totally silent on global issues, I would stop seeking to be on committees that worked to solve issues thousands of miles away. There were too many stories close to me that I wanted to be a part of transforming.

Furthermore, I wasn’t able to compartmentalize all of the oppression and suffering I saw in the world, but I knew deeply and sincerely that I wanted to be a part of the team that was making the world a better place. So, in my first efforts, I was working on shifting injustices within a twenty-mile radius. I knew I could be strategic and effective on a local level, and that others felt the same way about their potential impact in jetsetting and changing the world on a much larger scale. We would each have our spheres and we would support one another in forging social change.

This year, this calculus shifted unexpectedly for me. I became a part of the American Jewish World Service inaugural Global Justice Fellowship cohort, and we were headed to the Thai/Burma border in early January. I haven’t traveled much; it’s always made me a little tense. There is something about how airplanes are precariously floating in the air, how once you get where you’re going, the food hits your tongue a little differently, and the smells and sounds recall memories that aren’t quite your own. It all feels a little uneasy and unsafe.

  • 2 Comments
  •  

Live from the Lilith Blog

February 26, 2014 by

Losing Loehmann’s

http://www.flickr.com/docjohnboy/

http://www.flickr.com/docjohnboy

It feels like everyone has a Loehmann’s story–or at least they did.

Like a hunter who proudly displays a deer head on the living room wall, offering painstaking details of the kill, many women with a Loehmann’s purchase have a novella-length story behind the find. By the end of February, 39 Loehmann’s retail clothing locations will have closed for good, seven years before the discount emporium would have turned 100. Loehmann’s, like the grand resorts and bungalow colonies of the Catskills, will become a legend in American Jewish history.

Losing Loehmann’s is like losing a well-dressed aunt. There were parts of her that exposed your deepest insecurities, especially when she forced you to undress in a room full of strangers. But the love you had for this relative made you feel at home every time you walked through the door.

The store, founded by the late Frieda Loehmann, started in Brooklyn and attracted many fans. Harriet Mandel, a very well-dressed lifelong Loehmann’s shopper, recalled going to Loehmann’s to find a metziya—a bargain, “I grew up in the Loehmann’s culture, way back to the old auto salesroom on Nostrand Ave., with sheets strung for dressing rooms, Back Room dresses for $9.99, and salespeople ‘on the lookout’ for that special item.” Mandel noted that in the early days of Loehmann’s it served a need for many immigrant European Jews, “As if Loehmann’s was waiting for these elegant women from European cities who came penniless. It was an opportunity that allowed them to dress in their tastes at prices they could afford.”

Although we have nostalgic stories of Loehmann’s throughout the decades, Loehmann’s also had the ability unleash the beast within all of us. There were numerous shopping trips where I secretly wished my sister wouldn’t fit into a skirt because I wanted it. Years ago, I was so immersed in the hunt for a dress I didn’t notice my toddler son had left his stroller. Embarrassed to say, in the same breath I alerted the saleswoman my kid was gone, I also instructed her not to put the dresses I had chosen back on the rack. I shouldn’t have been thinking about bargain hunting while searching for my missing son, later found giggling under a rack of shirts–but such was the power of Loehmann’s.

T.V. sitcom “The Nanny” compared the first few minutes of a Loehmann’s sale to the running of the bulls, and the character Fran Fine warns her charge, Gracie, at a Loehmann’s Red Star clearance sale, “You are going to see things today that will haunt you for the rest of your shopping life.” Even the (non-Jewish) humorist Erma Bombeck, titled a book All I Know About Animal Behavior I Learned in the Loehmann’s Dressing Room.

Yet when Loehmann’s announced late in 2013 that it was closing, customers tried to pay their last respects. Barbara Schwartz visited her New Hyde Park location to say goodbye to a favorite fitting room attendant, Doris, but found she wasn’t there any longer. “She stood on her feet for probably close to 50 years. She organized, hung up, and carefully loved all of her merchandise. Doris spent her life in the confines of a public open dressing room taking pure delight when she saw you looking great in a garment. I could sense her smile of satisfaction. Then, I would ask her opinion. She knew just when to encourage the purchase and why.” Schwartz also remarked, “There are stores over the years that imitate Loehmann’s, but there will never be another one. That will bring me to tears. I am both naked and crying.”

During the past decade, there were multiple news stories about Loehmann’s declaring bankruptcy. As well as subtle changes in the store. For instance, I found it suspicious every time I went to the register, the cashier always tried to sell me magazine subscriptions. Astute New Jersey shopper Helen Levine, who spent decades shopping at Loehmann’s Paramus, N.J., store noted, “When they stopped offering the extra discount on my birthday I should have seen the writing on the wall!”

The store played a role in shaping our female identity. It was in the Loehmann’s fitting room that I caught a glimpse of what I’d look like when I was post-menopausal, while I tried not to stare at women with spider veins trying on cocktail dresses. And every time we went to Loehmann’s, my mother joked that the seats outside the fitting room were made for Jewish husbands. As a child, I didn’t dream of marrying a prince; I wanted to marry the kind of guy who’d sit on the bench outside a Loehmann’s fitting room waiting for me. This image encompassed all one would want from a life partner–patience, honesty, and the mutual appreciation for a good deal.

The loss isn’t easy. Loehmann’s was a staple in American Jewish life. From the original Brooklyn location to the pilgrimage most New Yorkers made to the Bronx, you could track the Jewish neighborhoods in America by the Loehmann’s locations.

It will take time before I’m able to remove my gold Loehmann’s Insider Club card from my wallet. And where will we get our dresses for my daughter’s bat mitzvah? I’m mournful for all the years of shopping that have been taken from us. I don’t think we’ll have the same experience nestled up on the couch perusing Gilt and Zappos websites. Like Jewish delis, and the seltzer man, Loehmann’s is another part of American Jewish culture that will now live only in stories. Younger women will feel about these tales of Loehmann’s shopping experiences the way I felt when I heard my older relatives retelling jokes from Borscht Belt comedians. Even as a child, I knew I’d never really get them.

Tags:

  • 1 Comment
  •  

Live from the Lilith Blog

February 20, 2014 by

Print is Dead

FigTreeBooks_LogoPrint is dead, or so the pundits have been telling us. And yet, in this electronic age when reading matter has been whittled down to fit on a smart phone, along comes Fig Tree Books, a brand new print publisher whose focus is the Jewish American experience. A blend of original titles and revered classics, Fig Tree is the brainchild of Fredric Price, a drug developer, and it will be launching in early 2015. Lilith’s fiction editor, Yona Zeldis McDonough, talks to Fig Tree senior editor Michelle Caplan about Fig Tree’s goals, ambitions and how this “nimble” imprint plans to take advantage of “the new normal.”

YZM: Can you talk about the decision to start a new publishing company at a time whenever everyone is bemoaning the decline of print in general and books in particular?

MC: My publisher, Fredric Price, has had a successful entrepreneurial career developing drugs for rare diseases. While he has no professional background in publishing, he is an avid reader and has established two longstanding groups that read and discuss Jewish books and essays. He decided to focus his efforts toward creating the new home for the best fiction of the American Jewish experience. All of the changes that have occurred in publishing in the last several years create a window of opportunity for a small, focused, nimble imprint like Fig Tree Books. We can take advantage of the new normal because we do not have a pre-existing structure, organization or operating method that is struggling to adapt to the new publishing environment. Fred feels that the publishing industry is ripe for the same type of approach that he used when developing, marketing and selling “orphan” drugs. Rather than following the industry in trying to develop blockbuster drugs for highly visible illnesses like hypertension, he built very successful businesses by focusing on drugs for small populations. While Jews represent a small fraction of the American population, we are a significant percentage of the purchasers of literary fiction.

YZM: What drew you to this editorial position at Fig Tree?

MC: Fred has responded to the need for a publisher to champion emerging and unique voices and created a place where writers about the American Jewish experience can launch their work into the world with visible celebration and support. I have spent most of my career as a freelance editor, consultant and ghostwriter of fiction, creative non-fiction and film scripts. I’ve mentored both aspiring and established writers and I believe Fig Tree will be the home of American Jewish fiction writing for the 21st century. We will have a combination of original works plus what we call re-released classics, books that were previously published and are now out of print but are relevant and exciting to readers today.

YZM: What is the significance of the name Fig Tree?

MC: Our name is inspired by a letter from George Washington to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island in 1790, in which he says “May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.” We feel that this event in American history captures the spirit of our democracy in which Jews and other previously religiously persecuted groups have flourished. The wisdom of our first president set the stage for a milieu of tolerance and acceptance, enabling Jews to thrive, and we could think of no better metaphor for the beneficence of the Jewish Experience in America.

YZM: Will there be any particular emphasis on writing by Jewish American women?

MC: We are interested in publishing novels of excellence that deal with the American Jewish experience and are agnostic as to an author’s gender, age, race and even religion. It is a rich mosaic that can be approached by anyone with a gift for writing and a topic that appeals both to Jews and others. We certainly do hope to attract beautifully written books by women writers. Our editorial staff is comprised of women with a keen eye for quality writing.

  • 1 Comment
  •  

Feminists In Focus, Live from the Lilith Blog

February 12, 2014 by

Meet on Screen the First Woman Rabbi

via filmlinc.com

via filmlinc.com

How do you make a documentary about Regina Jonas, the world’s first woman rabbi, when only one photograph survives?

It helps if you’re pushed to do the deed by Elsa Klapheck, the contemporary German rabbi whose book, Fraulein Rabbiner Jonas: The Story of the First Woman Rabbi, is the definitive source on this extraordinary woman, born in Berlin in 1902 and ordained in 1935. (The book has been translated into English by Lilith contributor Toby Axelrod. Klapheck, ordained in Frankfurt, is the first woman rabbi in the Netherlands.)

“Regina” — Diana Groó calls her film “a poetic documentary” of Regina Jonas — made its U.S. premiere in January at the 23rd NY Jewish Film Festival, presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and The Jewish Museum. The 63-minute film is in English. 

Groó, 40, who seems either doomed or destined to be identified as a Jewish Hungarian filmmaker, stayed true to the hundreds of documents Regina Jonas managed to save for posterity. The poetry comes with the archival footage – going back to 1900s Berlin — combined with music and voices. British actress Rachel Weisz is the voice of Regina Jonas. Others giving life to archival material include Groó’s grandmother, 86, the same age as Jonas’s students would have been, and a survivor of four concentration camps. 

Tags: ,

  • No Comments
  •  

Live from the Lilith Blog

February 11, 2014 by

Who’s in the Cute Girl Network?

the-cute-girl-network-cover“The Network is a loose alliance of smart, beautiful young women who’ve come to share information about all the spazzes, dorks, tools, freaks, perverts, losers, and dumbass boys in the city and to prevent yet another awesome girl for falling for yet another lame guy.” – The Cute Girl Network

Many women – and men – find themselves in a sticky, unpleasant situation when their friends are dating people who are clearly (from an outsider perspective, at least) not worthy of them. Love is blind, and sometimes when you try to disillusion people, they just shut you out. 

The Cute Girl Network, a graphic novel by MK Reed, Joe Flood, and Greg Means, offers a hilarious solution to this problem – a network of women who prevent their members from dating undesirables by putting the word out on their unsatisfactory ex-boyfriends; in this case, getting the skateboard chick protagonist Jane, up to speed on clumsy, forgetful Jack’s past dating misadventures. It seems like the perfect solution; Jane is a fun, smart, and talented girl who would be better without a loser in her life. Only Jane doesn’t really think along those lines: “I don’t want some guy who’ll look good on a Christmas card or has a great resume. I want someone I’m gonna be happy with from day to day.”

The Network’s intrusion on Jane’s love life provides excellent food for thought on the subject of modern love and dating. When should you give someone a second chance? How much dating advice is actually helpful? How do you fall in love, without being blind?

However, more than taking a stance on whether Jane or the Network is right, the novel takes a stance on contemporary portrayals of love and romance – namely, that most of them suck.  In one memorable scene in the novel, Jane’s friends are reading aloud from “Vampyr Boyfriend,” a spot-on parody of Twilight, in which the romantic leads, stalker vampire Caleb and gothic girl Chastity, gaze intensely at each other and mope a lot.

Author MK Reed explains her frustration with contemporary love portrayals: “Messages of ‘Your ambition is sabotaging your love life!’ and ‘A Real Man will solve all your problems!’ drive me nuts. I just got married and while admittedly it’s nice, the only life problems it solved is ‘Who will go to the store when I don’t want to?’ and ‘Who will save me from choking to death in my apartment?’”

Thankfully, Reed’s own love story is a breath of fresh, realistic, air – and one that you can read in under 24 hours. This awkward, funny romance is well worth your time.

  • No Comments
  •  

Live from the Lilith Blog

February 6, 2014 by

Survivors and Liberators, Liberators and Survivors

Grandfather with BicycleA few months ago, my mother called and told me that she had found a Nazi war medal in our basement.  She had been cleaning out her house preparation for a move to the suburbs of Pittsburgh, away from the city where I had been raised. 

“How is that possible?” I asked her from my apartment in Brooklyn.  I thought of past residents of our house, of closet-case white supremacists.  But the owners before us had been a family of Orthodox Jews.  

“I’m pretty sure I’m right,” she replied, “I think it’s an Iron Cross.  It has a cross on it.”

  • No Comments
  •  

Live from the Lilith Blog

February 4, 2014 by

What DID Nora know?

Nora_viewfinderLinda Yellin is a funny lady. To wit, her new novel, What Nora Knew,“ is crammed with snappy one-liners, snarky apercus and a whole lot of good-humored sass. Whether intentionally or not, Yellin has joined ranks with Ephron in turning out a particular kind of humor, one that is specific—if not unique to—Jewish women.  She talks to Lilith Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about concealed vibrators, the  enduring appeal of rom-coms and the nuances that separate the funny girls from the boys:

Yona Zeldis McDonough: You have a background in advertising; how did you transition to writing fiction?

Linda Yellin: I’m sure there are people who’d say advertising is fiction, but that theory aside, my first novel was ninety percent true. So it was only sorta-fiction. I changed all the main players’ names to keep my relatives from getting mad at me. I didn’t want to get un-invited to the family seders.

The next book, The Last Blind Date, was a memoir, so that was technically non-fiction. But I guess none of my cousins got offended because they’re still speaking to me. What Nora Knew is a novel, although Nora Ephron and her movies and insights are real, so I guess I’m still transitioning into writing fiction.

YZM: Your protagonist, journalist Molly Hallberg, has had some pretty entertaining assignments: learning to dance like a Rockette and sneaking vibrators through security scanners. Any of these drawn from real life experiences?

LY: Absolutely. Molly and I have a lot in common. Most of her assignments are ones I’ve done for MORE magazine. Including one where she spends a day wearing kegel underpants. (One-inch silicone plug in the crotch…you can figure out the rest.)

The vibrators was my favorite assignment. There were three of them – all “disguised” like cosmetics: a lipstick; a mascara; and a blusher brush. I stood in line at the Family Court building in New York thinking: it’ll be really great for the story if I get busted for doing this. (Security guard: “Would the owner of the vibrating mascara please step out of line?”) But all along I was praying that I’d pass through. When it got down to story-versus-mortification, I was more afraid of mortification. Molly Hallberg’s braver than me.

YZM: What Nora Knew is an homage not only to Nora Ephron but to the whole Hollywood tradition of romantic movies. Can you say more about that? 

LY: There are certain constructs and expectations in romantic movies. We probably know from the get-go who the heroine will end up with, but if you care about the characters, you want to travel along with them and root for their success. Whether it’s Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, or Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal, or Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper – romantic comedies are journeys with happy endings, and who doesn’t love that? And who doesn’t love Nora Ephron’s romantic comedies?

YZM: Do you consider Ephron a quintessentially Jewish humorist and if so, why?

LY: Her humor is quintessentially relatable, so it also covers Christianity, Buddhism, Atheism; you name it. But there is a wry, sardonic point-of-view in all of Nora Ephron’s writing that certainly feels Jewish. An oy-vey-can-you-believe-this quality. It’s the same one I grew up with while my aunts and uncles and cousins were debating life over corned beef and smoked fish.

YZM: How would you describe the differences between male and female humorists?

LY: Subject matter. Our humor leans toward relationships and emotion. Guys tend to vamp more on guy-stuff. Sex, sports, things that explode. Don’t hold me to this opinion, though. For sure, there’s a PhD candidate out there whose doctoral thesis would totally disagree.

YZM: What, in the end, did Nora know? 

LY: Plenty. That’s why it was so much fun to write this novel.

 
 
 
 
  • No Comments
  •  

Live from the Lilith Blog

January 30, 2014 by

Obscenity and the Feminist Case for Free Speech

9781479876433_p0_v1_s260x420In his new book Unclean Lips (find an excerpt in Lilith’s Winter 2013-2104 issue) Josh Lambert, academic director of the Yiddish Book Center, traces the history of Jew and obscenity in America, which which has in the past been treated gingerly because of problematic stereotypes. Yet Lambert writes that in each epoch of free speech and obscenity debates, Jews have been involved for different contextual reasons relating to our status in America and the mores of the time. He talked to Lilith about feminist depictions of prostitutes, Sarah Silverman, birth control and censorship, and modern-day modesty crusaders.

Sarah Seltzer: Where did your interest in obscenity in a Jewish context came from? Was there one writer or artist who provided the doorway to the topic?

Josh Lambert: Basically it was reading Philip Roth, and finding myself compelled by his twin obsessions with Jewishness and obscenity. Then, my grad advisor asked me to read Adele Wiseman’s Crackpot, an amazing novel that not nearly enough people have read or discussed. And I felt like I had another side of the story.

SS: Crackpot! You write that it posits its prostitute protagonist, and her decision to allow her son to sleep with her unknowingly, as a feminist alternative to the Portnoy’s Complaint narrative. Do you think that the novel’s feminism mixed with its taboo subject is why it has faded while Portnoy and its ilk flourished?

  • No Comments
  •  

Live from the Lilith Blog

January 29, 2014 by

It’s Always a Scene at the Clinic

I.  At the clinic,  there is the usual bank of protesters at the curb, holding pictures of white skinned Jesus and white skinned babies, along with large crosses. They’re praying loudly in Spanish and English. It’s a scene. It’s always a scene. The protesters in the front and back, and us, in our orange vests, watching, opening doors. Sometimes people ask us if we get paid to stand there. The protesters refer to us as “Satan.”

II. H is a friend of mine who lives in Los Angeles, where he writes and makes tv shows and escorts at a clinic. We talk about how this week, the Supreme Court is taking up McCullen vs. Coakley, a lawsuit against a 2007 Massachusetts law stating that anti-abortion protesters must remain behind a yellow line painted on the sidewalk, preventing them from interacting with patients and staff entering the clinic. We talk about Occupy LA and Occupy Wall Street,  how brigades of police officers followed protesters and journalists everywhere, looking for any excuse to arrest them. H says, “Law enforcement and legal communities are not exactly clamoring to expand the liberties of those protesting against capitalism or racism, but protesters trying to destroy women’s lives is okay. It’s bullshit.” 

III. One Saturday, a young man with a hipster beard, wearing corduroys, called to a woman entering the clinic, “You don’t have to do this, you know.” P, another escort, put his body between the young man’s and hers and walked her to the door.  Later, the same young man leads a church group from Texas in a truncated version of the exorcism  prayer, which I recognize from horror movies.

IV. Sometimes, while we’re watching the protesters, we talk about why we come here, why we do this. P says it’s because he can see the result immediately- the patient needs health care, there’s this obstacle of the protesters, you get the patient to the door, you’ve done something. I say it’s because I’m angry, which is the truth, but also, it’s thicker than anger.

V. Shrinking the buffer zone, or getting rid of it all together, would mean that the young man who did the exorcism, and the folks praying on the curb, and the monks who gather at the back of the clinic and follow people who walk out down the street, could get as close to the patients and the clinic staff and the escorts as they want. This means hands that grab and push pictures of “aborted” fetuses at people who are about to undergo a medical procedure, whether that’s an abortion or a pap smear. (If you’re questioning whether or not this “counts” as an act of intimidation or violence, consider if you would want to be in the same situation. If you would like to find out how you’d feel.) In RH Reality Check’s Legal Wrap, Jessica Mason Pieko wrote, “the underlying question…. Just how much violence against women is constitutionally permissible?” 

VI. In the United States, we are not sure about women. We’re suspicious. We’re not sure if women think about things. We’re not sure if they deserve space, or trust, or agency. We’re not sure if women are human.

 

 

  • 1 Comment
  •  

Live from the Lilith Blog

January 28, 2014 by

A Not-So-Modest Proposal: Add Another Matriarch to the Mix

"Moses and Jochebed" by Pedro Américo, 1884.

“Moses and Jochebed” by Pedro Américo, 1884.

We honor four biblical “matriarchs”: Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel. And they’re important, even if we recognize them mainly, if not solely, for the sons they birthed.

But they weren’t always admirable. Take Sarah’s treatment of Hagar and Ishmael. Or Rebecca’s devious plan to trick her husband into giving their son Esau’s birthright to their other son, Jacob. True, Jacob got his comeuppance when Leah, disguised as the sister he wanted to wed, married him in Rachel’s place. As for Rachel, it’s hard to know what actions she might have taken, had she survived Benjamin’s birth. We do know that she was susceptible to jealousy.

For these reasons—plus others I’ll list shortly—I propose that we add a fifth matriarch: Jochebed.

I’m not unbiased. “Jochebed” is my Hebrew name (after my mother’s maternal grandmother). As a child, I learned that we (my great-grandmother and I) shared this name with a biblical foremother. But all I knew about the original Jochebed, gleaned from Bible Stories for Jewish Children, was that 1) she was the mother of Moses and his also-impressive siblings, Aaron and Miriam, and 2) she saved Moses’s life by setting him afloat for Pharaoh’s daughter to discover and adopt.

  • 2 Comments
  •