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September 3, 2014 by

Jewish Women’s Surprisingly Prominent Role in Ancient Jewish Magic

02_Enchantress-667x1024(Wait, doesn’t the Torah say something about not allowing a sorceress to live?)

It does indeed. “You shall not tolerate (let live) a sorceress,” is the way the Jewish Publication Society translates Exodus 22:18. Or you may have seen the King James Version’s “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” Even knowing these lines, the most astonishing thing I learned while researching ENCHANTRESS: A Novel of Rav Hisda’s Daughter was how prevalent—even ubiquitous—sorcery was among the same people who gave us Talmud and Midrash.

Early on, I came across information about Babylonian “magic bowls.” Unearthed under homes in what is now Iraq, the land where the Talmud was created, these were common items of household pottery inscribed with spells to protect the inhabitants from demons and the Evil Eye, believed to cause illness, unsuccessful pregnancy and other misfortune.

Undoubtedly of Jewish origin, the incantations are written with Hebrew letters, quote Torah, and call upon Jewish angels and divine names. Some quote Mishna and the rabbinic divorce formula. And that’s not all. Archaeologists have found, wherever our people lived during the first six centuries of the Common Era, Jewish amulets, curse tablets, and magic manuals.

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September 2, 2014 by

A Modest Year in Israel: When Young Women go to “Seminary”

Eighteen year-old girls in New York, London and Paris are packing their suitcases. Slightly worried that their suitcases are overweight, they are even more worried that they will return overweight from their year abroad in Israel, in a religious seminary, or midrasha, in Hebrew. Across Israel (well, actually mainly across the affluent areas of Jerusalem) the doors of the academic Jewish year 5775 will open in the first week of September, 2014. A well-groomed cohort of young women will immerse themselves in an intense year of advanced Jewish studies complemented by extensive touring and volunteer work. I’d argue that ‘sem’ as these places are affectionately referred to, is a microcosm of contemporary Orthodox life and are a powerful tool for the socialization of young women. 

The competition to attract girls is fierce and for a seminary to succeed, it needs to have a strong brand, an effective marketing campaign and a strategic business plan. Parents who are paying an average of $20,000 USD for 10 months (this covers fees, accommodation and some food) need to be convinced that the seminary is going to cater to their daughter educational, social and emotional needs. Further, in Orthodox circles where gender relations are more circumscribed, some parents are often concerned that the choice of sem will influence the type of boy their daughters will be introduced to for potential marriage. Therefore, in loco parentis for the year, each seminary must establish its credibility to attract its clientele and online fora can be helpful. 

Recent allegations regarding improper behavior towards young women by Rabbi Aaron Ramati and Rabbi Elimelech Meisels highlights some of the difficulties parents face when choosing a seminary. Other than knowing students who went to a particular seminary, the first place to look is at their website. These sites consistently show groups of attractive, slim and smiling young women in certain poses – there’s the group hug on a tree top or during water sports, the girl poised with a pen over her notebook, girls helping in a range of charities and teachers with beatific grins. However, for a more pointed analysis, one must look to the curriculum.

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August 28, 2014 by

Is There Any Take-Away from This Long, Anguished Summer of Bad News

I wonder if I’ll talk to my children about the summer of 2014 the way my parents now speak to me of 1968. I wonder, too, if the stories I will relate will be even worse. A world on fire, I’ll tell them. Simmering oppression and fear rising to the surface, often with violence, from the first bright mornings of June through the dog days of August. And even those of us who were insulated personally from tragedy by miles or oceans or other, unseen borders, felt exposed: we sat beside our various screens, watching bloody images and words of hatred stream by until our fists clenched, reflexively. And then when we returned to our own lives with their petty disappointments and worries, those small shadows had larger shadows across them.

The disappointment and fear began with the Supreme Court decisions this June. Hobby Lobby, a Christian-run corporation, was bestowed permission to discriminate against its employees, putting religious liberty and reproductive health at risk. How could this happen today, we asked, after decades of the sexual revolution? But of course it had been happening, slowly for years, as corporations became legally ascendant and reproductive rights backslid. We read Anton Scalia’s decision, which singled out women’s healthcare, with mouths agape, and heeded Justice Ginsburg’s prophetic warning that this was opening the door for more discrimination.

In July our newsfeeds exploded with war in Gaza and rockets over Israel, with social media sending us gruesome images of death, destruction and terror. Online and at dinner tables we viciously argued with our own relatives about rights and wrongs abroad, and about where our Jewishness compelled us to stand. “The rhetorical war accompanying the military war – which has drastically increased interpersonal hostilities and decreased my number of friends – is so very unsettling. I feel like we’re doing this all wrong,” wrote Elana Sztokman on this blog. These wars both continued until this week, limping towards a ceasefire with more dead along the way.

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August 19, 2014 by

Tender is the Brisket

71DqiaiNVuLPhiladelphia-based humorist and freelance writer Stacia Freedman has a knack for one-liners and her snappy new novel, Tender is the Brisket, is peppered with them.  The recession must have ended while I was on the crosstown bus, reflects one character.  Adorable was the term Katya used to describe things that were too small for her, be they apartments, diamonds or men.

The author of numerous feature articles and essays, Friedman has tried her hand at writing for film and television and pursued graduate studies in screenwriting.  In Tender is the Brisket, as well as her earlier book, Nothing Toulouse, she hones in on women writers who are, in her description, “on their way up, down and sideways.” Lilith Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough recently caught up with her and her witty aperçus on topics as diverse as Jane Austen, Nora Ephron and The Lucy Show.

YZM: How did you made the leap from nonfiction to fiction?

SF: I actually started out as an aspiring TV and film comedy writer without any serious literary ambitions. I didn’t want to be Jane Austen. I wanted to be Nora Ephron. After five years in the “biz” in LA, I returned east and started taking freelance writing gigs. I wrote humor pieces for newspapers, features for magazines, anything that paid the bills.  But I never gave up The Dream. I kept churning out comedic screenplays, plays and eventually novels.  After all these years, it’s gratifying to discover that there is an appreciative audience for my style of social satire. And if one of my novels were to be adapted to TV or film? That would be fine!


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August 12, 2014 by

My Political Evolution

Elana Sztokman-E (1)I remember when I fell in love with Zionism. It was 9th grade at the Yeshiva of Flatbush, the course on Zionism with the legendary Yotav Eliach. Yotav was a great teacher – clear, impassioned, relevant, and totally unconcerned with things like attendance and grades. He would just sit there, sometimes eating his pizza, and talk. He made everything seem so easy, neat and uncomplicated, and he gave us purpose and identity. He taught us that Zionism Is Jewish Nationalism, that Jordan is really Palestine, that there is no such thing as a Palestinian nation, that self-determination is a smokescreen, that anti-Zionism is just a reincarnation of anti-Semitism, that Jews have always lived in the land that we now call Israel, that there are Jewish responses to claims about Deir Yassin, and more. It was like preparing for an AIPAC convention, or for being Israel advocates on campus – in fact both AIPAC and Israel advocacy were important parts of my life so many years ago.

For me, Yotav’s class was a big part of the reason why I decided to live in Israel. By the time I was 16 I was telling people that I planned on making Aliyah, and in fact I was here by the time I was 23, married with a baby. Everything seemed right.

So in some ways, I’m still that Zionist and part of me still loves what Yotav did for me. I’m still living in Israel where I pay mortgage and taxes, conduct my life in Hebrew, argue with taxi drivers, and watch my kids serve in the army. And parts of the narrative about why Jews need and deserve a state of our own in this space still stick with me. I get emotional at Zionist events, I feel a thrill seeing my children in uniform, and I get excited by things like Israeli doctors saving victims of a tsunami. Still, with all that Israel pride, many aspects of Yotav’s Zionism have been replaced in my consciousness by a different kind of Zionism, as I started asking questions about truth and illusion, about polemics versus reality, and about the difference between having justice on your side versus having compassion on your side. Something was missing from the Brooklyn Zionism I was brought up on – even if that is, in some ways, the same Zionism that Prime Minister Netanyahu practices, along with a majority of Israelis today. I found cracks in the narrative that wore down the pretty montage. Perspectives seemed muted. The story was too effortful, as if we were taught to answer the questions before we had a chance to ask them.


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August 8, 2014 by

Dear Fish in My Daughter’s Aquarium



This week in Sydney, teenage youths boarded a bus full of Jewish primary school children and yelled ‘Heil Hitler!’ and ‘Death to Jews’, threatening to cut the children’s throats. My mother fled to Australia after WWII, as a refugee from Bergen Belsen. Aged 21, she was the sole survivor of her family and wanted “to get as far away as possible from anti-Semitism.” She always upheld Australia as a safe sanctuary; a tolerant and multicultural society. She encouraged me to train as a doctor, and I worked in Israel for 10 years, through two Gulf Wars and two intifadas, with patients from all faiths – Baha’is, Christians, Muslims, Jews and Druze – focusing on what binds rather than divides us. I have been horrified—and at the same time silenced–by all the hate-mongering and polarization of views around the world in the wake of the latest horror in Gaza. Perhaps naively, I never thought it would reach the quiet shores of Australia, where I chose to raise my children.


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July 17, 2014 by

In Wartime, a Surreal Modesty Contest

PICTURED: The #1 existential threat to Israel's safety.

PICTURED: The #1 existential threat to Israel’s safety.

Political pundits of the world, pay attention: while you’ve been trying to make sense of the bloody conflict in Israel and Gaza, an unidentified group of women in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, has identified its cause—and laid out a solution.


Project EDEN (standing for, bizarrely, “Eat ice cream, while helping Defend Eretz Yisrael Now) is a local initiative with grandiose goals: inspired by “talks of the Rebbe,” the Chabad-affiliated project aims to single-handedly “influence the safety of the Yidden [Jews] in Eretz Yisrael [the Land of Israel]” and provide “sure-fire protection.”

So how, exactly, do these dairy-product enthusiasts plan to hold Hamas missiles at bay from faraway Brooklyn?

By policing women’s bodies, of course. 

The unidentified brain trust has begun a “Tznius [modesty] campaign for girls” – and don’t worry, it has “great prize incentives, in the merit of the safety of Israel.”


“Every girl who comes to day camp dressed in Tznius attire (i.e. clothing which keep necklines, elbows, knees and feet covered at all times) will receive an EDEN card,” according to, a Chabad-affiliated community news website.

Eight EDEN cards are redeemable for ice cream and entry in a $100 raffle—and, of course, the eternal knowledge that flashing your elbows has not caused Jews to die in the Middle East.

The group is soliciting donations to spread this project to as many summer camps as possible, lest even a single prepubescent girl in Crown Heights be unaware of the lethal power of her knees, feet, and collarbones.

It’s kind of an ingenious system, once you accept the premise that female bodies are capable of such massive destruction. (No wonder governments worldwide have such a vested interest in controlling them.) It combines ice cream and summer fun with punishing modesty standards and a veritable blitzkrieg of collective guilt.  One wonders, if this were implemented more widely, what the next Iron Dome defense system would look like: perhaps a series of opaque, but breathable, literal iron domes for females to wear from the moment of birth? (The dimpled elbows of toddler girls have long been underestimated in their potential for causing death.)

Clearly, as Israeli troops enter Gaza, modesty is needed as never before: not prayers, not kindness, not good deeds or mutual understanding, and certainly not carefully considered compromises from politicians in positions of power. The way to “help our brothers in their time of need,” apparently, is to suppress every inch of skin their sisters possess.

And then give them some ice cream.

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July 9, 2014 by

On Mothers, Sisters, Narrative and War

 My twin sister, my little sister, and my best friend are all in Israel right now.

“Should I cancel my aliyah anniversary party Friday?” my twin just asked on Gchat. “So few people RSVPed…”

“I don’t know about the protocol for parties in the middle of a rocket war,” I answered.

Israel's Iron Dome defense system (Wikimedia Commons)

Israel’s Iron Dome defense system (Wikimedia Commons)

“Don’t be melodramatic,” she said.

I have tried not to be. My younger sister, who is twenty; my twin sister and her husband, a former IDF officer and current reservist; my older sister’s husband, another former officer and current reservist; and my best friend are all in Israel, for vastly differing reasons, and there are rockets flying everywhere at cross-purposes, but I am trying not to be melodramatic.


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July 2, 2014 Olivia Spencer

Can a Non-Jewish Spouse “Step Away” From Jewish Fears?

 << I’m lucky that I could step away from it if I wanted to. It’s no secret that Jews are still subject to racial prejudices and abuse – something that will never be directed at me – only to the people I love.>>

  “Mummy…MUMMY…I’m Jewish!”  My four-year-old daughter has just returned from nursery and is prancing around the kitchen looking for something to do, expertly avoiding her younger brother, who is trying to get her to ‘read’ him a story.

  “Yes darling. You are.”

  “And my brother’s Jewish.  And Daddy’s Jewish.  And you’re Jewish.” 

  “No, I’m not Jewish.  Daddy is, but I’m not.” 


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July 2, 2014 by

Your Guide to the Hobby Lobby Case and Its Crushing Consequences

Thousands of women may now face restrictions on access to contraceptives. (Wikimedia Commons)

Thousands of women may now face restrictions on access to contraceptives. (Wikimedia Commons)

Curious–or confused–about the fallout from Sebelius vs. Hobby Lobby, a case decided this week by the Supreme Court with potentially massive consequences for women’s health in the United States? Here’s a Lilith-curated roundup of articles on the subject, discussing consequences for religious minorities (including Jews); Ruth Bader-Ginsberg’s dissent on the ruling; and the fallout for women’s reproductive (and medical) choices in the United States.