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December 22, 2016 by

Why Hanukkah Makes Me Sad

lonelyEver since I realized that I would be spending each day of Hanukkah with my parents this year, I’ve been trying to get excited about the holiday. As a family of three converts (who all converted at different times for different reasons… it’s a long story), this is the first time that all of us will have been together as Jews celebrating the holiday for its duration. And yet, I’ve been having a difficult time working up the same kind of enthusiasm as when we’ve been able to spend the High Holidays or Passover together.

I can’t shake the sense that it all feels artificial in a way, a manufactured celebration.

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December 21, 2016 by

The Misogyny of the MatzoBall


CW: Please note that this post contains references to sexual assault. 

The first time I realized that my body was, literally, up for grabs I was 18. It was September of my freshman year of college, and I was attending Wesleyan’s infamous Sex Party. The Sex Party felt oddly like a high school dance, but with harder drugs, women in lingerie, and even less concern for anything bordering on consent. I was tipsy, and anxious, still adjusting to my month-long foray into adult living. I remember my friend motioning to me to walk outside onto the large back porch, when all of a sudden there was a man standing in front of me with a crew cut, squeezing my breasts. What alarmed me most about this moment was the look in his eyes—calm, casual, matter of fact, as if he were merely picking up something he had dropped, something that had always belonged to him. Moments later, he was gone. He never spoke to me, and I never saw him again—a fact that always surprised me, given that we would spend four years living on the same tiny college campus.

Seven years later, I remain haunted by that moment and by the extent to which my body will never totally belong to me.

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December 20, 2016 by

New Study Shows Abortion Has No Negative Impact on Mental Health

Photo by Charlotte Cooper

Photo by Charlotte Cooper

In 1988, then President Ronald Reagan charged Surgeon General C. Everett Koop with the task of creating a report declaring a link between abortions and decreased mental health quality. Koop didn’t deliver on the study; instead, in 1989, he sent Reagan a letter which stated that “the available scientific evidence about the psychological sequelae of abortion simply cannot support either the preconceived notions of those pro-life or those pro-choice.” Koop recommended that in order to assess the actual effects of abortion on women’s mental health, a long and comprehensive study needed to be conducted.

The notion that having an abortion will destroy you emotionally didn’t begin with the Reagan administration, and it didn’t end with Koop’s assertion that there was not enough data to prove it. Anti-choice folks claim the existence of “Post Abortion Traumatic Stress Syndrome,” indicated by guilt, anxiety, avoidance of children and pregnant women, numbness, depression, suicide, etc, after having an abortion. Although neither the American Psychological Association nor the American Psychiatric Association has acknowledged Post Abortion Syndrome as being real, that hasn’t stopped the anti-choice movement from perpetuating the myth of it, particularly in crisis pregnancy centers.

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December 19, 2016 by

We Were Really Jewish. And Had a Christmas Tree.

Screen Shot 2016-12-19 at 2.58.06 PMIt’s been more than 65 years, but through the mists of time. I remember its smell of evergreen as if it were yesterday. 

Our apartment living room on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.  A tiny blue wooden table where, to the joy of my tiny brother and me, my mother had placed a tiny Christmas tree. 

Eventually we moved to the suburbs, where we had a bigger Christmas tree with presents underneath.

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December 16, 2016 by

The Benediction I Gave for the White House Hanukkah Party

isaacs photoThank you, Mr. President, Mrs. Obama. It is such an honor to be here today to teach, bless, and represent Waterville, Maine in the White House. Adam HaRishon, the first human, stood, shivering in the dark, frigid expanse. The days were becoming shorter, dimmer, colder in a way he had never experienced before, and he wondered: Is this what the world will always be? Our rabbis teach us that Adam prayed for eight days, and when the winter solstice passed, the days became longer, lighter, and warmer once again. Hanukkah is a festival that teaches us that it is always darkest before the dawn, and it is not foolish or naive to hold onto hope.

Of course, because Hanukkah is a Jewish holiday, we do not agree on a singular reason for why we celebrate. Hanukkah also teaches us about the necessity of rebellion. The Maccabees refused to accept tyranny, and were willing to sacrifice everything in order to retain their integrity as faithful Jews. They knew the injustice of dictatorship, and the danger of one human sovereign undermining the primacy our laws. As Jews, our faith is rooted in a legal system based on the foundational belief that all human beings are created equal, and created equally in the Divine Image.

We know the values and example we inherited from the Maccabees are not so different from the legacy we inherited from the mothers and fathers of the American Revolution, who fought for religious freedom, and to achieve the promise of a democratic republic free from tyranny.

In their honor, at this moment, let us engage in the work of hanukkat hamedinah, and hannukat haezrachut, rededicating ourselves to our nation and to the challenges and privileges of citizenship. The battle for the soul of our nation will not be won with swords, or muskets, or verbal daggers. Because as Jews we know the spiritual is political and the political is spiritual. We will illuminate our country by widening our hearts, and establishing richly Jewish homes in all parts of our great nation, sharing the sparks of Torah with all Americans.

Chag Urim Sameach. Happy Hanukkah.

Rabbi Rachel Isaacs delivered this benediction at President Barack Obama’s final Hanukkah party.  

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine. 

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December 15, 2016 by

A Poem for Vayishlach (“Dinah Speaks”)

A Poem for Vayishlach (“Dinah Speaks”)

After my brothers killed my husband and his father
and all the men of my new city,
after they took me forth and claimed
everything—and everyone—that remained
for their own,
they returned home with their new treasures,
and with me.
Our father spoke to them in dismay;
to me, he said nothing.

And here I’ve passed all the years since.
No more gallivanting.
I stray from my father’s tents
only to companion those whom my brothers
captured and spoiled,
whose suffering surpasses mine by far.
To them alone, I speak.
I am sorry, I say.
I am so very, very sorry.

Erika Dreifus writes poetry and prose in New York. Visit her online at and follow her on Twitter @ErikaDreifus, where she comments on “matters bookish and/or Jewish.”

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine. 

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December 14, 2016 by

You’re the Chief Procurement Officer of Your Life

Screen Shot 2016-12-08 at 3.20.50 PMA large screen shows a small girl whose skin shimmers. She is standing outside of a “rat hole” mine for mica. “The sparkle in lipstick, in nail polish” comes in part from her labor, Justin Dillon, founder/CEO of Made in a Free World, announces to the Jewish women philanthropists.

Another story mentions a five-year-old boy who works diving for fish. If he surfaces too quickly, to breathe, he is beaten on the head with a wooden oar. 

Dillon is speaking about slavery and human trafficking to the Lions of Judah, Jewish women philanthropists from around the world who are gathered at their conference, “Hear Us Roar” in Washington, D.C., in 2016. Susan Stern, past chair of National Women’s Philanthropy of the Jewish Federations of North America, describes the participants to the speakers in this session as “the top women philanthropists in the world. They happen to be Jewish.” 

“There are huge profits from slavery, so charity alone won’t make a dent,” said Dillon, who has been tasked by the government to “purify the government supply chain,” making sure that none of its suppliers use trafficked labor, “making sure that there isn’t slave labor going into farming the fish. You are the chief procurement officer in your life — with every transaction think about who makes what you’re buying.” Stern added that the atrocities of human trafficking and sex trafficking were very profitable because of the demand for consumer sex and ever cheaper consumer goods.

Lilith asked, “How can intervention occur? What do you say if you suspect that someone brought in by a third party to clean your house or rake your leaves might be a labor slave?” Susan Stern replied, “I ask in the nail salon: ‘Where do you go at night? Do you ever go to the movies?’ in order to give people an opening to say a little bit about their lives.” Stern also suggested hotline stickers in “every synagogue bathroom, every summer camp bathroom, because camping brings in foreign counselors and you want to make sure they’re protected.”

 Amelia Dornbush also contributed to this article. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine. 

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December 12, 2016 by

Familial Contempt and Delicious Komish Broyt

My grandmother Tania had nothing but contempt for her mother-in-law, Toibe Breittleman. In Tania’s view, the woman was coarse, vulgar and had questionable morals. My grandfather’s mother did not have it easy. When her husband left Russia in search of the better life promised by the lady with the lamp, Toibe remained behind in their dirt-floored home with three small children to raise.  There was a single overcoat that they took turns wearing, and she freely gave the children cigarettes to help stave off the hunger pangs; my grandfather began to smoke, with her blessing, at the age of eight. Her desperation—and resourcefulness—drove her to seek  work in hotel where she met friends in higher places—gentlemen, army officers—whom she charmed and entertained in ways that were perhaps not entirely kosher.  These men supplied food, money and cigarettes and it was her rumored association with them that followed her to America and made my grandmother decide she was a “loose woman.”

Screen Shot 2016-12-08 at 4.32.38 PM

Tania, in shorts, standing with my mother who was about 11 in this photo. 

Toibe’s husband died but she managed to get along on her own. She was a mover and shaker in her small community of Detroit Jews; she organized elaborate picnics and charged people to attend; the money she raised was donated to help other immigrants like herself. She dyed and curled her hair, wore make up every day and never went anywhere without high heeled pumps. Her dressing table was filled with glass bottles of scent and aromatic unguents, and a flounced, beribboned boudoir doll sat on her bed. After buying a new dress, she would immediately cut out the neckline to expose a more daring swath of decollatage, and then, as if that weren’t enticement enough, sewed sequins all over the bodice.  When Tania, then in her twenties, purchased a rather daring pair of Bermuda shorts, Toibe ran right out and purchased an identical pair of her own.

Privately, my grandmother shuddered in horror.  Her mother-in-law was a floozy, pure and simple.  And yet she had to acknowledge that Toibe was a something of a magician in the kitchen, known for her cooking and baking—which she did in her trademark high heels.  These were skills my grandmother prized and which she had not learned from her own mother, Miriam.       

Where Toibe had been literally, dirt poor, Miriam’s life back in Russia had been quite different. Her husband, my maternal great-grandfather, was a tanner, an occupation that was considered revolting—the animal skins were softened with a mixture that contained large quantities of urine.  There were many professions to which Russian Jews were denied access but tanning was not one of them, possibly because it was so disgusting few people wanted to do it. My great-grandfather became a successful and wealthy man, and my grandmother, the second youngest of twenty-two children (Miriam was possessed of a Biblical fertility) recalled a fine house with parquet floors, crystal chandeliers, and velvet drapes. There was a piano, on which her older sisters were given lessons, and a room for dancing, for they had those lessons too. Some of her brothers went to a military academy.  Miriam did not cook for her enormous family; she had servants for that.

But this life of ease and affluence came to an abrupt and savage end when my great-grandfather left for a business trip from which not he, but his bloodied corpse returned, shrouded in a canvas mail sack. Shocked and grief-stricken, Miriam swallowed poison; my grandmother spoke of the “burns around her mouth.” But Miriam was more resilient than she knew—she did not die. Instead she rallied, intent on bringing the five children remaining at home to America. Then Revolution broke out, making Miriam even more desperate to escape.  She left her two tiny daughters—my grandmother was six, her younger sister four—while she went out to sell the contents of her home in order to book passage for the trip; she stood mattresses in front of the windows, many of them now shattered, to keep rocks and stones from being hurled in during her absence.  Silver, jewelry, crystal, porcelain—all sold, all gone.  She kept only five silver soup spoons, and tucked them deep into the recesses of her bag, where they remained until she reached America.

Tania with my uncle.

Tania with my uncle.

The polar opposite of Toibe, Miriam was prim, reserved and modest. Her gray hair was always secured in a neat bun. She wore plain, cloth coats, lace up shoes and unadorned leather handbags in two colors only, navy or black, and white blouses that she periodically boiled on the stove in bleach-laced water. For special occasions, she donned a strand of tiny red coral beads and coral earrings.

Yet my grandmother wanted to learn to cook, and especially bake, and so she had to set aside her disdain and turn to her mother-in-law. And Toibe, who was well aware of her daughter-in-law’s contempt, grudgingly said yes, which was how Toibe came to teach my grandmother to make the crunchy, twice baked cookies that were called komish broyt—almost bread. 

My meticulous grandmother was an apt pupil and may have even outdone her teacher. Her cookies, studded with walnuts and raisins, and dusted with cinnamon sugar, were thin, light, crisp and delicious.  She made them for all the Jewish holidays, brought them to Shabbos dinners, bris celebrations and shivas. When my mother lived in Israel as a young woman, my grandmother wrapped the cookies individually in tissue paper and packed them in tins that she mailed overseas, where they would arrive safely, with scarcely a cracked one in the batch. She taught my mother to make them, though my mother, more bohemian artist than balbusta, would either cut them too thick, or make what to to my grandmother would have been unthinkable alterations—chocolate chips if she had no raisins, peanuts in lieu of walnuts.  These cookies were a staple of my childhood and as a young married woman, I began to bake them too; they quickly became a favorite of my own family. 

Miriam is long gone now. So are Toibe and my grandmother Tania. The two women who rarely saw eye to eye were somehow united in the kitchen. The recipe and the silver spoons are their conjoined legacy, all that remains of a vanished world. I’ve given the recipe to my daughter Kate—she is the fifth generation of women in our family to have it—and the spoons will be hers one day too. I hope she’ll bring them along into whatever new life she makes for herself; I’d like to think that the spirits of Toibe and Tania will be watching.

 Toibe and Tania’s Komish Broyt

4 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda

4 eggs
1/2 cup orange juice
1 cup oil
1cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla

3/4 cup white raisins, plumped with boiling water for 10 minutes, then drained.
3/4 crushed walnuts
Cinnamon sugar to taste 

Mix dry ingredients first; gradually fold in wet ingredients, raisins and nuts.  When batter has been blended, refrigerate for 30 minutes.  Then use batter to form a loaf in a pan, dust with cinnamon sugar and bake for 30 minutes @ 350 degrees.  Let cool entirely and with a serrated knife cut in thin slices and bake again at 325 degrees, turning to brown evenly on both sides. Check often to make sure they do not burn. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine. 

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December 11, 2016 by

This Bestselling Author Talks Judaism, Activism and Her New Book

Screen Shot 2016-12-06 at 5.22.41 PMNew York Times bestselling author Caroline Leavitt’s new book, Cruel Beautiful World, shows a family of Jewish women living through the cruelty and beauty of the world in 1969-1970. High schooler Lucy runs away with an older man, her sister Charlotte experiences the outside world in her time at Brandeis, and their guardian Iris discovers new love in her eighties. Against this intimate portrait of family, there is also a background of women’s rights, political upheaval and war.

Leavitt has written about Jewish women’s lives in fiction before, and now with Cruel Beautiful World, she speaks to author Danica Davidson about autobiographical elements, Jewish literature and the lives of Jews and women now compared to 1970.

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December 10, 2016 by

Their Poultry Is Kosher. Shouldn’t Their Labor Practices Be?

“For us, Kashrus means aiming higher,” declares the website of the Birdsboro Kosher Farms. “We take no shortcuts and accept no excuses.”

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), however, begs to differ. On September 2, the government issued citations to Birdsboro Kosher Farms for two willful and eight serious safety and health violations. This followed an investigation that began in April after a worker’s thumb was amputated.

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