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May 7, 2014 by

A Personal Lens on the News from Ukraine

On May 2nd the southern Ukrainian city of Odessa saw its first major outbreak of violence since the turmoil in Ukraine began a few months ago. A Ukrainian-unity rally led to clashes between pro-Ukrainian protesters and pro-Russian separatists, and several hours of street violence ensued. The two sides hurled cobblestones, bricks and Molotov cocktails at one another.  A raging fire that ignited the city’s Trade Union Building killed 31 people. Bloodied bodies lay in the city center, on Kulikovo Street. 

Odessa, which sits on the lip of the Black Sea, has long held a unique place in the hearts and minds of those who inhabit, or study, the Former Soviet Union. From its founding in 1794, the city’s thriving role in commercial trade attracted a cosmopolitan and multiethnic populace. The city became famous, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, for its humor, earthiness, and vibrant commercial endeavors—both legal and illegal. Due to Catherine the Great’s liberal policies towards Jews in the city, Odessa also attracted a massive—and largely secular—Jewish population. Its reputation for secularism led rabbis of the time to state that the fires of hell burned around Odessa. Poetry and prose in Hebrew, Russian and Yiddish shot out from Odessa’s many presses at the start of the 20th century, penned by the likes of Bialik and Babel; dubbed “The Gate to Zion” in the nineteen-teens, the city was a hotbed of Zionist idealism.

The author with a statue of Isaac Babel in Odessa. (Talia Lavin)

The author with a statue of Isaac Babel in Odessa. (Talia Lavin)

I first visited Odessa in the summer of 2011, working as a volunteer tour guide in the city’s cramped but charming Jewish museum. Pursuing the ghosts of literary men I studied and loved, I walked alone through cobbled streets lined with lindens, practiced my fledgling Russian and swam in the Black Sea off Odessa’s shining cliff-lined beaches. Cafes and bars in the central streets were filled at all hours with revelers drinking sweet Crimean wine.

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May 6, 2014 by

Jill Smolowe on Four Funerals and a Wedding

Jill Smolowe, author of "Four Funerals and a Wedding." (Courtesy Phyllis Heller)

Jill Smolowe, author of “Four Funerals and a Wedding.” (Courtesy Phyllis Heller)

Jill Smolowe, a journalist and memoirist, had her own annus horribilis, only hers lasted a year and a half.  In that short span of time, she endured the deaths of her beloved husband, Joe, her mother-in-law, and her own mother and sister.  Smolowe kept waiting to fall apart in the wake of such loss, and yet she didn’t. Some untapped reserve of strength and resilience kept her going, and able to find meaning and even joy again.  In this interview, she shares her hard-won wisdom about grieving with Lilith fiction editor Yona Zeldis McDonough.

YZM: What made you decide to write and publish your book Four Funerals and a Wedding?

JS: Like so many Americans, I had a set idea that grief involves specific stages. Yet I went through no denial, anger, bargaining or depression. Instead, as I lost my husband, sister, mother, and mother-in-law over a period of 17 months, my focus was on putting one foot in front of the other and figuring out how to reconnect with the joy in life. The more friends told me I was “amazing,” the more I wondered if there was something wrong or abnormal about my sorrow. Then I came across the work of George Bonanno, one of the country’s leading bereavement researchers. That’s when I learned that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five-stage cycle of grief has long since been discredited. (She intended her cycle to apply to the dying, not the bereaved.) Research from the last 20 years identifies three distinct groups: those who are overwhelmed by grief upwards of 18 months; those who recover within 18 months; and those who return to normal functioning within six months, and even within days. This last group is labeled “resilient” and–surprise, surprise–these people constitute a majority of the bereft. My book aims both to put a face on this group and to challenge misconceptions and assumptions about grief.

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May 1, 2014 by

Protecting Anne Frank

Anne_FrankI’ve never been able to keep a diary. When I was young, I often tried over and over again; I made New Year’s resolutions to write every day, bought beautifully decorated journals, kept pens on my bedside table in the hope that they would remind me to jot down my thoughts just before sleep. I always had a penchant for writing, but there was something about the commitment to a notebook, something about being accountable to an object that always kept me from harnessing a routine.

In eighth grade, we were assigned to read The Diary of Anne Frank, a ritual for most (if not all) American children. I was eager to delve into the mind of the girl who, for me, had become the face of the Shoah, that famous photo – eyes looking upward, thick hair perfectly pinned, a hopeful smile spread across her face – forever imprinted in my memory. I read hungrily, turning each page with an expectation to find something extraordinary, something that I was not expecting.

While undeniably astute for her age, I recall my disappointment and discomfort in the realization that this girl was just like me. She had a crush, she had fears, she had questions about growing up, she had problems with her mother. When we discussed the book in class, I felt panicked; as the only Jew in my class, it suddenly felt as if my classmates were reading my diary, were reading my personal thoughts and fears and talking about what themes they found in my writing, what interesting tidbits stood out. But it isn’t meant to be read like this, I thought. This is her diary. I felt invasive, sad, and protective of this girl who had lived in a different place and a different time. This girl whose thoughts had become America’s gateway into Holocaust education.

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April 23, 2014 by

To Dye, or Not to Dye? That Is the Question

http://www.flickr.com/scottbillings

http://www.flickr.com/scottbillings

It began predictably enough: the first gray threads I found in my hair when I hit my thirties.  The threads soon turned to ribbons, but I had just had a baby (my second) and was in no shape to deal with it. Gray was interesting, I reasoned. Gray was subtle, intellectual and hip.  Soon enough the baby became a toddler and her older brother started kindergarten.  I woke up one morning and decided that the gray was not intellectual, not subtle and definitely not hip.  Gray was just—old.

I mounted my campaign.  First in my arsenal was a series of home treatments that took their inspiration from reruns of “I Love Lucy.” There was the Five Minute Color Solution. It worked all right; it just looked like I had looked like I dipped my head in large vat of shoe polish. I dumped it and moved on to various mousses and gels that stained the grout in my bathroom shower, more towels and pillowcases than I care to think about and left ominous drops, black as primordial ooze, on my dining room floor. Forget the do-it-yourself route. I needed professional help.

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April 10, 2014 by

Passover Midwives, Birthing Change

417px-The_Childhood_of_MosesIt was Friday morning March 27, 1964. It was the morning of the first Seder, exactly 50 years ago, that the news broke. The New York Times ran a story with the headline, “Thirty-Eight Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call Police.”  The story, of course, was about the brutal attack and murder of Kitty Genovese in Kew Gardens, New York, a criminal act that was reported to have been either seen or heard by dozens of neighbors, some of whom were quoted as saying they just “didn’t want to get involved.”

The story, written by reporter Martin Gansberg at the urging of his Metropolitan Editor, A.M. Rosenthal, opened a floodgate of soul-searching and recriminations as we suddenly viewed ourselves and our society as apathetic, disconnected and uncaring. An entire branch of social psychological research developed around the various issues that could explain and change the “bystander effect.”

Though in the years that followed, further investigative reporting countered the initial story of complete lack of responsiveness (some neighbors had indeed called an unresponsive emergency number, and one or two had yelled at the attacker from their windows), the main bones of the story still stood as a symbol of a dark side of human relatedness. And the case of Kitty Genovese is still taught today in most colleges and universities as a cautionary tale of the existence of individual callousness and indifference.

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April 8, 2014 by

FlashThink

flashthink.cartoon@gmail.com

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April 8, 2014 by

A Hand Through the Mechitza

Wikimedia/Peter van der Sluijs

Wikimedia/Peter van der Sluijs

My family is hitting the b’nai mitzvah circuit hard these days. Our daughter is in seventh grade, and we’ve been spending our Shabbats visiting various local synagogues to celebrate our friends’ simchas.

When we travel to the modern Orthodox synagogue, the men and women are separated by a mechitza, a partition made of wood and plexiglass. I grew up in a synagogue with a mechitza, and I never thought much about this gender segregation until my first semester in college, when Sandra Bartky and Andrea Dworkin opened my eyes to the myriad ways women were marginalized. I rejected the Orthodox rationale that women did not need to perform rituals in the synagogue because we are more spiritually evolved or that our energies are best directed toward keeping the dietary laws, educating the children, and lighting the Sabbath candles.

My feelings about mechitzas lasted until four years ago, when I brought my daughter to a modern Orthodox synagogue for her first time. Our friend, Debbie, and her husband had invited us to their son’s bar mitzvah. Debbie is a dynamo, one hundred layers deep, and sings like a cross between Sheryl Crow and the lead Dixie Chick. In the months leading up to the simcha, she shared her sadness about not being permitted to participate in the service. I felt her hurt.

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April 7, 2014 by

Jewish Woman, Muslim Man, and What This Unlikely Literary Pairing Produced

Bosnia_List_CoverA Jewish woman collaborates on a book with a Muslim man?  Sounds like the start of a joke—except that it’s anything but.  When writer and teacher Susan Shapiro was forced to undergo physical therapy for an injured back, she met a young therapist whose personal story soon had her riveted.  She drew it out of him, page by page, and the result, The Bosnia List, just published in March by Penguin.  Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough talks to Shapiro about this highly unlikely pairing and the unexpected insights it yielded.

YZM: What initially drew you toward Kenan Trebincevic?

SS: I tore two ligaments in my lower back and Kenan was my physical therapist.

One day, he told me to do leg lifts and went to help another patient. As a journalism teacher I always carry a stack of student papers. The exercises were boring so I took out papers to grade. Kenan got annoyed I wasn’t paying attention to the workout. He looked over at the essays and asked sarcastically “What I did on my summer vacation?” in his Eastern European accent. I said, “Actually, my first assignment is to write three pages on your most humiliating secret.”

He laughed and said, “You Americans. Why would anyone do that?”

I said, “It’s healing.” And I added also that my students want to get published in the New York Times and write books. That night he emailed to see if I was okay, which I thought was very menschy. I sent him a poignant piece my student Danielle Gelfand published in the New York Times about how she and her mother, a Holocaust survivor, eat bacon cheeseburgers on Yom Kippur, as a way to cope with her father’s suicide on that day 17 years earlier. I think that piece inspired Kenan.

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March 26, 2014 by

Being That Girl—Plus Three

http://www.flickr.com/dmhergert/

http://www.flickr.com/dmhergert

“Are we on vacation?” asked my 3 year old suddenly—and gleefully—during one of our many housebound days. I could have construed his question as a very sweet one. After all, the last two and a half months have been almost entirely devoted to playing Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride and card games, to building puzzles and baking muffins, to watching “Brave” on the couch and “Frozen” in the theater, and, once, to a short bout of sledding (after a long bout of wrapping ourselves in layers of winter gear). Then again, it could be construed as a delusional question as many questions of 3 year olds are (but five minutes earlier, he studied the Greek yogurt with honey I set before him and asked gravely, “Will it taste like shawarma?”).

Actually, the last ten weeks (but who’s counting?) of snow days, snow days, no power days, potential snow days, holidays, weekends (I know those pop up regularly, but they seemed to have popped up more often than usual recently), and illnesses ranging from vomiting to diarrhea to vomiting and diarrhea to colds with fever to ear infections, have been (in my less than sweet opinion) the antithesis of vacation. When I chose to parent my three kids alone for half a year, I hardly could have imagined what was to ensue. I thought I was staying stateside for a logical reason: my husband’s job in England began in January, and it seemed to make sense that the kids and me—as I teach–finish out our school year without disruption.

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March 25, 2014 by

Why I Did Not “Like” Philip Roth’s New York Times Interview

Phillip_Roth_-_1973Last week, while scanning through my Facebook newsfeed for its usual mix of engagement announcements, serious news and Buzzfeed lists, I noticed that several of my male Jewish friends had shared the recent interview Philip Roth gave to Daniel Sandstrom, the editor of the Swedish newspaper, Svenska Dagbladet, reprinted in the New York Times Book Review. “If even one of you reads this absurdly perfect Q&A with Philip Roth, my entire engagement with social media has been worthwhile,” someone posted. Other men “liked” it. No one mentioned the troubling and decidedly imperfect parts of the interview about misogyny.

“In some quarters it is almost a cliché to mention the word ‘misogyny’ in relation to your books. What, do you think, prompted this reaction initially, and what is your response to those who still try to label your work in that way?” Sandstrom asks. Roth responds: “It is my comic fate to be the writer these traducers have decided I am not. They practice a rather commonplace form of social control… In some quarters, ‘misogynist’ is now a word used almost as laxly as was ‘Communist’ by the McCarthyite right in the 1950s — and for very like the same purpose.” –for the same purpose? As Roth must be aware, the McCarthyite right was responsible for silencing, imprisoning and disenfranchising its victims. Surely Roth could not be comparing the intent of his feminist critics with McCarthyites. But as a friend of mine said, why should I be surprised by this response? To mention the word “misogyny” in relation to Roth is a cliché for a reason: because he refuses to acknowledge the possibility of problematic content in his work.  It’s worth noting that Roth often gives flippant or provocative responses in interviews. But the idea that Roth views feminist criticism as erroneous and “ a rather commonplace form of social control” is surprising nonetheless.

I have enjoyed many of Roth’s novels. I have even appreciated the more controversial sections of his novels concerning stupid, sexually manipulative and emotionally unstable seductresses—the thought that these descriptions were offered from the point of view of a faulted protagonist eased my sense of guilt as a feminist reader. As Roth himself says in this interview:

“Whoever looks for the writer’s thinking in the words and thoughts of his characters is looking in the wrong direction… The thought of the novelist lies not in the remarks of his characters or even in their introspection but in the plight he has invented for his characters.”

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