April 27, 2016 by Leeron Hoory
Ayelet Tsabari’s award-winning debut book, The Best Place on Earth (Random House 2016), is an illuminating collection of stories about the lives of marginalized members of Israeli society. The stories are mostly about the lives of Mizrahi Jews, many of them descendants of Jews who came from Yemen, Tsabari’s country of origin. In a review, Publisher’s Weekly notes that “Whereas David Grossman and Amoz Oz have been adept at writing about a narrow segment of Israeli society, Tsabari’s first collection is rich with many stories from across all of Israel—and beyond.”
In “The Poets in the Kitchen Window,” a high school boy is passionate about poetry, but without a role model, it doesn’t occur to him to take this interest seriously until his sister gives him a book of poetry by an Iraqi Jew. In “Brit Milah,” a grandmother travels from Israel to Canada to visit her daughter, who has recently married a Canadian and has just given birth to a boy. When she finds her daughter chose not to circumcise her grandson, she is filled with rage, betrayed beyond speech, and is forced to grapple between the abandonment she feels and her love for both her daughter and her new grandson.
The story “Invisible” features Rosalynn, a caretaker from the Philippines, who develops a romantic relationship with her younger Israeli neighbor. The relationship provides each of them solace at the same time that it’s disorienting, and it ends before it fully starts.
The Best Place on Earth, which won the Sami Rohr prize in 2015, deals with the human capability to overcome social conditioning and the ways in which we nevertheless often fail at this.
Born in Israel, Tsabari moved to Canada in her twenties and lives in Toronto with her husband and daughter. (The collection was originally published by HarperCollins, Canada in 2013.) Lilith spoke with Tsabari about her book’s recent release in the U.S., Mizrahi identity, and writing this novel in her second language.
April 26, 2016 by Yona Zeldis McDonough
It is the summer of 1941 and Abe Auer, a Russian immigrant and small-town junkyard owner, has become disenchanted with his life. So when his friend Max Hoffman, a local rabbi with a dark past, asks Abe to take in a European refugee, he agrees, unaware that the woman coming to live with him is a volatile and alluring actress named Ana Beidler. Ana regales the Auer family with tales of her lost stardom and charms and mystifies Abe with her glamour and unabashed sexuality, forcing him to confront his own desire.
As news filters out of Europe, American Jews struggle to make sense of the atrocities. Some want to bury their heads in the sand while others want to create a Jewish army that would fight Hitler and promote bold, wide-spread rescue initiatives. And when a popular Manhattan synagogue is burned to the ground, the characters begin to feel the drumbeat of war is marching ever closer to home.
Lilith’s fiction editor, Yona Zeldis McDonough, talks with debut novelist Kim Brooks about how she finds hope even in the most hopeless of stories.
YZM: What inspired you to write The Houseguest?
KB: I began writing not long after I read Daniel Mendelssohn’s The Lost, about his struggle to uncover the specific fates of his family members killed in Europe during the war. One part in particular stayed with me. Mendelssohn reflects at one point that we always think of the Holocaust as something that happened, when really it never stops happening, because our present is shaped by the negative space of what was destroyed. In an alternative present where the Holocaust never happened, he thinks about how he’d grow up going to Eastern Europe every summer to visit the cousins that were never born, the ones who would have been born to his murdered relatives. I’d never thought of it in that way, but through this expression of sadness and longing, it occurred to me that there’s a way in which American Jews are cultural orphans, a way in which we live with the shadow of what’s not there. That was the moment, if I had to pick one, when I became focused on (or obsessed with) this question of the American experience of the Holocaust.
April 25, 2016 by Sharon Goldman
Several times a month I stand on a small stage, acoustic guitar slung across my chest, singing songs I have written to a couple of dozen attentive listeners.
I could not have imagined that scene 23 years ago, when I was an intern at Lilith and about to get married to a man who had attended my Modern Orthodox yeshiva high school on Long Island.
Editor Susan Schnur interviewed me for an article about the handmade quilt we used as our chuppah. Family and friends had lovingly decorated squares and we stitched them together at a quilting bee the week before the wedding. I stood in a poofy ’90s wedding dress under that quilt with my soon-to-be husband, while a rabbi I knew through the Jewish Theological Seminary, where I was working on a Master’s degree in Jewish literature, conducted the ceremony. In a few years, I assumed, I would be moving forward with the settled-down life that seemed the fate of most I knew—kids, house, synagogue sisterhood, PTA.
Two decades later, my life could not be more different. I am a singer-songwriter and performer. I have no children. I do own a house and am married, but not to that man with whom I stood under the chuppah quilt. He and I divorced—complete with a get—nine years later, and since 2008 I have been married to a man who is not Jewish.
April 21, 2016 by Helene Meyers
On April 5, JTA (the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, a Jewish news agency) issued a mea culpa for their list of the 25 Most Influential People on Jewish Twitter. Their original list included only 3 women, and a Times Of Israel piece by Jeremy Burton called them on it.
JTA recalibrated the list by excluding those who belong to the Jewish organizational world (which they identified as “a world that has been shown to be largely dominated by male leaders,” i.e., a boys club) and ended up with 8 women, “a more respectable showing.” But most importantly, they seemed to really get it. They admitted that they should have noticed that women were missing in action on the list, and they didn’t try to dodge Jewish accountability even as they rightly pointed out that the Jewish world is far from the only narrowly male realm (I’m an academic; believe me, I know lots about boys clubs, otherwise known as administration and boards of trustees).
Andrew Silow-Carroll ended this “response to the response” to JTA’s Jewish Twitter Ranking with “So we agree with Burton’s overarching message. The Jewish community still has a lot to do in order to address a gender gap in positions of influence. It’s an issue that goes way beyond the confines of Twitter.” As a feminist academic who spends way too much time legitimizing Jewishness to my non-Jewish sisterhood, I was energized by a major Jewish news service validating feminist work.
Fast forward to the day before the New York presidential primary. My inbox contained a listserv message from Steven Cohen, a social scientist whose work I admire a great deal and cite, though I don’t always agree with him. He included a link to a piece he wrote for JTA as a Jewish supporter of Bernie Sanders. After clicking on the link, I realized that his piece was part of a series titled “Ahead of NY Primary, Jewish Supporters Make the Case for Each Candidate.”
Even before I reached the op-ed on Trump, I had the sensation of being sucker punched. While Steven was for Sanders, Stuart wrote for Clinton, Nick supported Cruz, Bradley rallied behind Kasich, and Jason opined for Trump. Yes, all the invited Jewish op-ed writers were men.
April 19, 2016 by Yona Zeldis McDonough
The essays in the new collection True Crimes: A Family Album by Kathryn Harrison were written over a period of 10 years and for different publications. Yet as a collection, they have a strong coherence. Both serious and surprising, these essays capture the moments and impulses that shape a family. In “Keeping Vigil,” Harrison reflects on the loss of her beloved father-in-law, and how he managed to repair something her own father had broken. In “Holiday Lies,” she describes the uneasy but necessary task of lying to her children about Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, withholding certain truths to protect their innocence. In “Mini-Me,” she writes about how the birth of her youngest daughter—who used to pry open the author’s eyes—finally allowed her to understand her own mother’s complicated attitudes about parenting. And in “True Crime,” Harrison writes for the first time in almost two decades about her affair with her father, and how she has reckoned with the girl she once was. Lilith fiction editor Yona Zeldis McDonough asks the author, best known for her tell-all autobiography The Kiss (1997) some questions.
YZM: Was this your unconscious goal all along—to have these disparate essays form a whole—or did the idea for the collection grow out of what you had written?
KH: Pulling together essays for the first collection, Seeking Rapture, taught me how to assemble the second. In each case, the first issue to address was content. For the first, when I reviewed all the short pieces I wrote between 1992 and 2002 I saw that what I’d suspected was true: All the better essays were driven by unconscious need—not in response to an editor’s idea. For Seeking Rapture I kept perhaps 50% of the pieces I’d written; it came out in 2003. From that point forward, I wrote only what I couldn’t help writing. Essays that were completely personal, completely me, without anyone else’s input—for the first draft anyway.
By 2014, I had a baker’s dozen that felt complete; they hung together—thematically—as a chapter in a life, because they were all written during that chapter. The next challenge was to sequence the parts so they came together in a narrative arc. The collection doesn’t have a plot, not the way a novel does, but it is assembled with the intention of creating an emotional arc: conflict, rising tension, crisis, denouement. This was difficult, and I don’t know how I did it, or how to judge how successfully I did it. I know only that it took a lot of effort for something accomplished intuitively.
April 14, 2016 by Judy Bolton-Fasman
I cook the way I speak Spanish, which I describe as a “kitchen Spanish.” My accent is intact, but my fluency comes and goes. I learned the basics of the language from the women in my mother’s Cuban family, whom I watched as they peeled and fried and roasted their way to an improvised repertoire of Cuban infused Sephardic Jewish food. I think of the ropa vieja that my Abuela—my grandmother—made. She sautéed shredded beef in tomato sauce, onions and garlic. The dish was then studded Sephardic style with raisins—small bursts of sweetness swimming in an oily broth. A gift from one culture to another.
Abuela’s cooking genes bypassed my mother to be inherited by her younger sister, Tia. But my mother could not abide Tia doing anything better than she did. Mom anointed herself the prettier sister. “All of my cousins wanted me to be in their weddings,” my mother bragged. “I had a beautiful figure,” she said outlining the shape of an hourglass.
My mother eventually vanished into a mental illness that blurred my teen years with fear. “No one will believe you,” she once said to me when I threatened to expose her after she threw a milk bottle at me and bloodied my head. These days a crippling arthritis mires her in loneliness and maroons her in a wheelchair. But before that she was, as my father used to say, crazy like a fox. As a child I intuited that my mother was not so much smart, as she was wily. I would learn much later that she pretended to have a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Havana.
April 13, 2016 by Elana Sztokman
There is no holiday that brings out the screaming in my head as much as Passover.
There are two sets of noise that take hold of my brain at this time of year: the pre-Pesach (Passover) trauma and the Seder night trauma. Or as I have come to experience it, the trauma created by women’s stuff, and the trauma created by men’s stuff.
Growing up, the pre-Pesach anxiety began as soon as Purim was over. We were only allowed to eat from a pre-determined collection in the kitchen, we were on a schedule around what rooms were already sterilized, and my mother’s mood went from the usual cold and cranky to the downright hostile. Nothing was ever right, we walked on eggshells, and life was insane and frenetic. Although I often wonder how many of my traumas are from religion and how many are from my particular family, in this particular case I have come to learn that this kind of thing was going on not only my own house but also in many Jewish homes around the world. Even women of privilege engage in the panic. (I’ll never forget the time, years ago, when a mother frantically came to pick up her daughter from a play date around a week before Pesach, saying, “Hurry, I have to rush home and watch my cleaning lady do the kitchen.”) Pre-Pesach insanity, it seemed, was the Women’s Way, no matter how you celebrated the holiday.
I’ve been living in Israel for over 20 years, and it is still astounding for me to watch how this culture takes over Jewish women’s lives, no matter what kind of religious observance they adhere to during the year. Conversations in shops, on the street, and online, revolve around Jewish women of all backgrounds managing the minutia of obsessive cleaning, shopping, and cooking. There seems to be an uncontrolled lust for women comparing themselves to one another—who started cleaning and cooking earlier, who is having more guests, who is more efficient, who is more creative, and ironically also who has more time-saving hacks. Facebook doesn’t help, by the way.
Growing up in Orthodox Brooklyn, I found this pre-Pesach cleaning-cooking-hosting-mania was compounded by the other assault on women’s bodies: clothing shopping. Our job, as religious girls, was not only to manage the kitchen, but also to look gorgeous as we did it. We prepared our shul and Seder outfits meticulously and expensively, down to the last perfectly-matching accessory. But let me tell you something: there is nothing quite as dysfunctional within the female experience as surrounding yourself with copious amounts of food and then forbidding yourself from eating it. Women’s and girls’ table conversation, once we finished serving, invariably revolved around calories, points, fat content, carbs, gluten, GI, cellulite, whatever. (Each year, the measures for what we should or shouldn’t eat changed, led by trends announced by The New York Times. This added to women’s competition not only over who was thinnest, but also over who was the most in-the-know about how to effectively lose weight.)
April 12, 2016 by Pamela Rafalow Grossman
It’s almost Passover—a time of renewal, of course, and a time to reflect on themes of freedom from enslavement.
There is a special Haftorah for the Shabbat before Passover. It’s the conclusion of the book of Malachi, and its last passage urges familial reconciliation—with a dire warning: “That you may turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the hearts of children to their parents, lest destruction smite your land.”
I approach an interview with documentarian Gayle Kirschenbaum with these things on my mind. Her newest film, the feature-length “Look at Us Now, Mother,” has won multiple awards on the festival circuit and is currently playing in New York, Los Angeles, and Boca Raton (see here for future screenings); it moves on to Kirschenbaum’s native Long Island in time for Mother’s Day. The film examines Gayle’s often-fraught relationship with her mother, Mildred, and her attempts to heal from familial pains of the past. The project evolved from a short documentary of Gayle’s called “My Nose” (2007), in which Mildred tries to convince her daughter that she dearly needs a nose job and Gayle agrees to go with her for consults with a few plastic surgeons—as long as she can film the process. (The conclusion: No one but Mildred finds Gayle’s nose to be any kind of problem.)
“I never bought into my mother’s criticism—of my nose, my hair, my behavior. I didn’t take it personally, but I wanted to know why it happened,” Gayle says by phone from her apartment in New York (with Mildred, who’s in town from Florida for film screenings, by her side). “It didn’t affect my self-esteem, but it affected my feelings about loving and being loved. And I was always looking for answers. I knew I had to forgive her.”
After “My Nose,” “I saw the need to make the feature film,” Gayle says. “I felt I became an ‘accidental therapist’ for the people dealing with their own issues with their parents and families.”
“Look at Us Now Mother” is not what most would call an easy ride. There are photos of young Gayle—usually in formal dresses—gazing up at a glamorous mother who doesn’t seem to know she’s there. (“I’d be dressed up in these things,” Gayle recalls now, “and then break out in rashes!”) There is film footage of her trying unsuccessfully to climb onto her mother’s lap. There is a blistering recollection of Mildred’s parental behavior from one of Gayle’s close childhood friends. There is even footage of current-day Gayle working with her mother in family therapy.
April 7, 2016 by Esther Sperber
I was sitting at my office desk, Thursday morning, March 31, multitasking as usual; checking my email, drafting plans for my sister’s apartment renovation in Tel Aviv, logging data into my bookkeeping software, and (I confess) checking Facebook once in a while. I scrolled through the feed of vacation photos, op eds and political comedy when I suddenly caught my breath – Zaha Hadid had died of a heart attack, age 65.
I’ve been thinking about Hadid’s death since its startling appearance in my Facebook feed. Had you asked me on Wednesday who my architectural heroes were, I probably would not have mentioned her name. She was amazing, but my role models are smaller, more approachable, perhaps more like I want to see myself when I grow up. I might have mentioned Carlo Scarpa, whose buildings I insisted on visiting on a recent trip to Verona and Venice. Or maybe I would have noted Jeanne Gang, whose work is both intelligent and poetic. Zaha, I would have said, was too unique and too brilliant. She imagined things no one had ever seen, and she was able to make these fantasies become physical realities. I could not see myself in her.
Nevertheless, I keep thinking about her, staying up late, reading admiring obituaries, snappy stories calling her a “diva” and online posts from young students. If she was not my hero, why does her death matter so much?
I remember the awe I felt when I first encountered her winning entry for the Peak Leisure Club in Hong Kong (1982). I was studying architecture at the Technion in the early 1990s, still busy with an Israeli version of a functional modernism. Hadid’s drawings were anything but functional. The design was a stunning composition of exploding forms, bold colored surfaces soaring from the cliff, projecting a future of spaces that could not yet be build.
Later, when I came to New York, I attended her lectures and went to hear her reviewing her students’ studio presentations. By then, it was 1998; the world of design and computers was catching up to her vision and we were all making computer models of curved spaces, soon to be manipulated, optimized and constructed. Hadid was one of the driving forces in the evolution that emancipated buildings from orthogonality, flatness and the ancient distinctions between walls, floors and roofs. In Hadid’s buildings, surfaces were free to fold, curve, twist and bend, creating a continuity of spaces, which –like other rejected binaries–celebrate life on a spectrum.
In the 20 years that passed since I first saw Hadid, much has changed. After years of creating unbuilt work, Hadid had become an international trailblazing architect, with a staff of 400 and innovative, large-scale projects around the globe. She was the first woman to receive the Pritzker Prize (2004), and the first Muslim too. She received the Stirling prize two years in a row (2010, 2011) and she was made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in 2012.
So why am I thinking about her so much? Perhaps Hadid’s death is particularly upsetting because, as Thomas de Monchaux wrote in The New Yorker, architects tend to flourish later in life, making Hadid’s death at age 65, with only 10 years of constructed buildings, all the more premature. Or perhaps, as the New York Times article suggested, it was her singular position as the greatest female architect that amplified her death as a personal loss to me as a woman architect.
But alongside my admiration, and slight envy of Zaha Hadid, I hear a small ugly voice whispering in my head. This voice says, “she was too big for life and so she died.” It is true, I admit, that she defied so many social norms, being ambitious, creative and successful, and choosing not to marry or have children. This, the Trump-like-misogynist voice in my head says, was too much; the universe could not maintain this kind of female presence.
I hate this voice and can’t believe it resides within me. How is it possible that after years of thinking, lecturing and writing about women in architecture, questioning the current gender roles, a voice like this still persist and haunts me from within my own mind?
A century after Freud, we accept that we are not masters of our minds, which contain layers of biological and cultural residue. This heritage includes the treasures of creativity and the transcendences of spirituality along with misguided misogyny, cruel racism, and infantile envy, leftover voices of a past that still echo within us. Perhaps, my ugly internal voice resenting Hadid’s success is a reminder that we are still on the journey to women’s equality, and that the structures that need to be changed are internal as well as external.
Healthy mourning is achieved, Freud writes in Mourning and Melancholia, when the deceased loved one is internalized, and becomes part of who we are; in his enigmatic words, “Thus, the shadow of the object fell upon the ego….”
Zaha created complex and magnificent buildings. May the shadows of these objects fall upon us.
Esther Sperber is the founder of the award-winning New York-based firm Studio ST Architects. Born and raised in Jerusalem, she also lectures and writes on architecture and psychoanalysis.
April 5, 2016 by Hanna R. Neier
Dottie’s got a great job in Manhattan. She blows her salary on the latest fashions, escapes to the country with her friends when the city is stifling, and is in love with her boyfriend of three years. Her mother’s a stay-at-home, spends her life pushing her kids to make the most of theirs and dreams of her young political days when life used to mean so much more.
It’s a timeless story—could be happening right now. Only it’s happening in 1935. And Dottie’s pregnant. And so is her mom. And neither is very happy about it.
Jennifer S. Brown’s debut novel, Modern Girls (NAL/Penguin, April 5, 2016), handles timeless issues of women’s choices, setting it for added drama in the Jewish world of the Lower East Side before World War II. Lilith sat down with the author to talk about mother-daughter drama, having it all, and what makes a Modern Girl.
HRN: This story has some classic relationship drama—mother-daughter dynamics, lovers who can’t commit. Why set it in Lower East Side, New York in 1935? What was the inspiration?
JSB: When I was pregnant with my first child, I went through the genetic testing common for Ashkenazi Jewish women. I asked my father for our family’s medical history, and I was shocked when he told me, “My grandmother had uterine cancer. They thought it was because of that botched abortion, but I’m pretty sure abortions don’t cause cancer.” I started turning the idea over in my mind, playing with it. Why would a married woman during the Depression not want a child? How are her issues different from an unmarried woman? Starting from there, the novel began to take shape.