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March 30, 2017 by

You May Want to Feed My Children

Screen Shot 2017-03-30 at 2.26.16 PMYesterday my twins bit each other when an argument between them escalated rather quickly into a violent row. We were sitting at the kitchen table eating breakfast, and I was just about to read aloud to them from Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s Spoon, a longstanding dinnertime favorite in our family. My husband and I had selected this book together during our “date night” out during our vacation in the U.S. last summer, when his mother watched our kids so that we could have an evening to ourselves outside of the home. We got in the car and drove straight to Barnes and Noble, where we spent our kid-free evening—um—picking out books for our kids. Spoon caught our attention immediately because of its fetching illustrations of anthropomorphized cutlery—the spoon on the cover has wide eager eyes and a friendly arm raised in greeting.

Only when we began reading did we realize that we were in the hands of a witty, word-loving wonder of a writer—which is to say that her Spoon was in our hands. The eponymous Spoon, we learn, is jealous of the knives and forks, who get to cut and spread and who never go stir-crazy. But then Spoon’s mother reminds him that only he gets to dive head-first into a bowl of ice cream and relax in a hot cup of tea, and Spoon begins to appreciate what only he can enjoy.

The book, on one level, is a simple tale about being content with one’s lot. As indeed, it seems, Amy Krouse Rosenthal was as well. Two weeks ago she had broken my heart and the hearts of thousands of other New York Times readers with her Modern Love column entitled “You May Want to Marry My Husband,” about her love of life and the love of her life, her husband of 26 years whom she would soon be parting with because she was tragically dying of terminal cancer.

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Live from the Lilith Blog

March 29, 2017 by

How One TV Show Helped Me Better Understand Abortion

Photo Credit: Robert Couse-Baker

Photo Credit: Robert Couse-Baker

There is a scene in season five of Scandal when the protagonist Olivia Pope gets an abortion. She does not tell her then-boyfriend Fitz about her decision. In fact, the entire scene happens without her saying a word. Aretha Franklin’s “Silent Night”—with words such as “all is well, all is right”—plays in the background. Though the presentation of abortion was not without a few flaws, on the whole it was incredibly powerful, and personally empowering. As I was watching the show, it occurred to me this was one of the few times I had seen an abortion on TV (another had been in an earlier episode of the same show.) Though I have never had an abortion, I didn’t realize how badly I needed to see positive depictions of the procedure until it was in front of me.

When I was a kid, I was very much a rule-follower. I had an anxiety attack over the fact that in science club we changed the color of a penny when I found out that there was a law banning defacement of US currency. My stomach actively tied itself into knots whenever FBI copyright warnings came on TV lest I should potentially violate their edicts. I got good grades and stayed out of trouble.

How I learned to break the rules is a different story for a different time, but a side effect to my non-rebellious decades is that I deeply internalized societal stigmas no matter what I might abstractly have believed politically. This manifested in many different arenas—my attitude towards drinking (others could, I couldn’t) and therapy (same)—and in my attitude about abortion.

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March 24, 2017 by

NYC Offers Domestic Workers–Documented and Undocumented Alike–An Overview of Rights and Resources

This month, New York City’s Department of Consumer Affairs released a unique document entitled “NYC Cares for Care Workers: An Overview of Rights and Resources.” The document, directed at domestic care workers (home attendants, nannies, housecleaners, etc) in NYC, outlines not only what workers are entitled to, such as minimum wage and paid sick leave, but also connects workers with resources for financial counseling, health insurance, and English classes.

The Paid Care Brochure is the result of the eight year partnership (from 2002-2010) between Domestic Workers United (DWU) and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ), during which the two groups organized domestic workers and their employers, along with members of JFREJ, to pass the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in both New York City and in the state. In addition to outlining a worker’s right to time off and overtime, the bill has specific protections for workers who experience sexual and/or racial harassment on the job. It was signed in July 2010, and was the first legislation of its kind in the country (Hawaii later passed a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in 2013). JFREJ and DWU advised the New York Department of Labor in creating the Division of Paid Care, the author of the Paid Care Brochure. “The vast majority of people who employ domestic workers want to do the right thing, so they’re asking what they can do to show that they care about their employees’ safety,” said Rachel McCullough, JFREJ’s Director of Organizing. “This is the document that outlines the protocol for respecting the work that makes all the other work possible—building a caring economy that works for everyone.”

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March 23, 2017 by

My Unexpected Journey at the Washington Jewish Literary Festival

Screen Shot 2017-03-23 at 6.00.29 PMI was particularly interested in the Washington Jewish Literary Festival this year because of its theme, “Unexpected Journeys.” It fit its title from the start. My first event of the festival, the Local Authors Panel on March 15, was also the opening event because of an unexpected late winter snowstorm that delayed the start of the festival. And in asking local Jewish authors about the festival theme, I too was taken down a surprising road. 

The moderator of the Local Authors panel was Leslie Maitland, a former award-winning reporter and national correspondent for the New York Times. Maitland opened the event by introducing herself and describing how she came to write her own book about her mother’s escape from Europe during World War II. She retraced her mother’s past both physically, by visiting the places her mother had travelled through, and intellectually, by working to research what had happened to the long-lost love her mother had been forced to leave behind.

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March 22, 2017 by

Mom’s Show

image 2 painting

Painting by Beatrice Colburn

Generic gentility once again anesthetizes the lobby and living room of The Glenridge Senior Living Community, so recently engorged with the vitality of my mother’s raucous art. The tasteful sedation of traditional furnishings harbors no evidence of its weekend transformation. 

But echoes of those giant canvases still reverberate in the ether, a hovering memory. It’s not the same, seeing Mom’s paintings back on the walls of her apartment, where we love and recognize them from the internal landscape of our gestation, not nearly so astounding as they were on exhibit in that public space.

My little mom, 95 years old, as quiet and unassuming as ever, and still painting.

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March 21, 2017 by

How It Feels When Hillel Kicks Out Your Student Group

Bnai-Keshet-Last February, B’nai Keshet was expelled from Ohio State University Hillel for participating in a fundraiser for LGBTQ refugees that was co-sponsored by 15 other organizations, including Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP)—a Jewish organization which supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Yesterday, B’nai Keshet and Open Hillel publicly called for Hillel International and Ohio State Hillel to get rid of the policies that resulted in B’nai Keshet’s expulsion and reinstate the group in a move that was reported on by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, The Forward and Haaretz

Elaine Cleary, a senior at Ohio State University and leader in B’nai Keshet, spoke with Amelia Dornbush, a one-time internal coordinator of Open Hillel who graduated from Swarthmore in 2015, about the challenges of student activism and the pain that accompanies feeling alienated from your community. The interview that follows reflects the personal experiences and perspectives of two activists who, two years apart, worked to make the Jewish community more pluralistic.

Amelia Dornbush: First things first. How are you holding up?

Elaine Cleary: You know, it’s a little exhausting. I really wish for so many reasons that Hillel had just let us do the fundraiser and stay in to begin with. I really hope that the national American Jewish community will heed our call to tell Hillel to let us back in. 

AD: How would you describe what happened with B’Nai Keshet and Hillel?

EC: So, B’nai Keshet co-sponsored a fundraiser with 15 other LBGT community groups. Because one of the co-sponsors was JVP, B’nai Keshet was kicked out of Ohio State Hillel. This was very sad, because not only did we lose the logistical and financial support of Hillel, we also lost our connection to the Jewish community symbolically and physically. This is very troubling to me as a Jewish lesbian, because I believe it’s important to have strong visible presence of queer students on campus, and I don’t think people should have to choose between two identities. 

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March 20, 2017 by

The Extraordinary Story of Gisèle Braka, a Sephardic Jew in the Holocaust

In seeking to shed light on Sephardic women from French North Africa within the greater Holocaust narrative, I searched the USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive for oral testimonies. With a collection of more than 54,000 video testimonies of survivors and witnesses of genocide, I located 20 testimonies by women born in Morocco, Tunisia or Algeria. I decided to let the women speak for themselves because it is vital that their stories exist within a greater narrative of the modern Jewish experience.

Although their stories are unique and individually important, one stood out as extraordinary—that of Gisèle Braka, née Chemama. As a young woman, this polyglot slipped through the cracks of ruthless Paris roundups, joined the Resistance, and survived the War to become an activist for Sephardic and humanitarian causes worldwide.

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March 16, 2017 by

Where Were You When the World Was Ravaged?

pollutionThe river was always there, down the street, icy in winter, rapidly flowing after the snowmelt in spring, calm and still in the summer, reflecting in its waters the overhanging trees whose colors magnificently changed in the autumn. During my childhood in a small Upstate New York town, summers would stretch into long days outdoors, as I played in fresh, sweet air. This is the Earth I knew, the Earth I took for granted.

But now I know better. I know that taking anything for granted will break one’s heart when it is threatened beyond repair. Perhaps it was my simple pleasure in being outdoors for hours on end that led to my commitment to environmentalism. Studying and teaching Torah made that commitment a Jewish imperative.

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March 14, 2017 by

Why We Need to Teach Tzedek, Not Just Tzedekah

Tzedekah pouch. Photo credit: Cheskel Dovid.

Growing up, I spent a lot of time in my Conservative synagogue—my parents prioritized Jewish learning, and so I spent two afternoons and one morning a week in Hebrew school. Nothing about adolescence has shaped me as much as those classes, where I learned an incredible amount about Judaism, the limits of liberalism, and myself.  

My biggest learning memory—outside of beginning to understand the depths of horror of the Holocaust—is around tzedakah, charity. We often did our morally obligated good deeds together as a class: volunteered at homeless shelters, delivered groceries to senior citizens, and put quarters in the tzedakah box (which is a lot when you’re in middle school!) We would talk about how we felt afterward—nervous and guilty, yet righteous—and how important it is to “give back,” both because God commands it and also just because it’s the “right thing to do.”

But many things are the “right thing to do,” including fighting for unions in the workplace, for a world without refugees, and for an economic and political system that works for all of us. Although there was intense focus on tzedakah, I don’t remember learning about tzedek, the root word of tzedekah—justice, the lifeblood of Jewish history and resistance.

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March 13, 2017 by

How Aberdeen Shaped My Jewish Feminism

Footdee, a small fishing village in Aberdeen City. Photo credit: Tallen Sloane.

Footdee, a small fishing village in Aberdeen City. Photo credit: Tallen Sloane.

I met Miriam* at Purim after the reading of the Megillah in Aberdeen, where festivities were in full swing amongst the small Jewish community in North-East Scotland. Months later, Miriam and I met again while I was conducting a series of oral history interviews as part of my work for a master’s program in folklore that brought me from the US to Scotland. My project sought to document—and celebrate—the diversity of Jewish religious expression in Aberdeenshire.

The process of conducting ethnographic research in the Jewish community in Scotland was emotional and transformative for me, as Jew and as a feminist. My contributors discussed their personal journeys towards accepting Judaism on their own terms and said that this occurred, in the poignant words of one woman, because of “the miracle that is the Aberdeen community.” Because it is small and relatively dispersed, the Jewish community in the North-East of Scotland offers space for women to explore their faith free from the teachings of the male hegemonic leadership that often dictates the definition of Judaism and Jewish identity.

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