Celebrating 35 Years of Jewish Women’s Stories

Senior Editor Susan Schnur Gives a Guided Tour

If you woke me up in the middle of the night and asked me to name a single memorable Lilith story that I’d worked on, I know what I’d pick. A manuscript that came over the transom 20-plus years ago from a woman in her late thirties who’d been born in a deportation camp in Italy, her parents having lost previous children (and spouses) in the Holocaust. The author wrote compassionately about her parents, but she also described a childhood in which she felt chronically overwhelmed by her inability to soothe them, to feel sufficient, to make her own life feel safe. The story was about her decision not to have children. “Being my parents’ only child has exhausted me,” she wrote. “I am sucked dry and empty, and terrified of this world.”

It’s not easy to edit a story like this, but I’d worked on scores of profoundly personal ones during my tenure at Lilith, so I dug in, the author and I sending queries and revisions back and forth. The manuscript stretched and morphed, first subtly, but then hugely, from the gut. No longer a pathography, it had become a vision of something entirely different. “And so against this backdrop of heavy burden, I choose to parent,” she wrote, “determined and curious.”

Some years later I bumped into this writer and her children. Her daughter was 10; her twin boys, eight-and-a-half.

Somewhere along the line, I don’t remember exactly when, I started calling Lilith my “paper pulpit” (I’m a rabbi) — and so it has been for 24 years. Writer by writer, essay by essay, helping other Jewish women tell their stories has felt to me like a sacred project. By writing, Lilith’s authors bring their real selves into daylight. By putting their writing between the magazine’s covers, they change other Jewish women; they also, I believe, perform tikkun olam on the institution of Judaism itself.

It’s hard to believe that for 35 years now, Jewish women’s personal stories have poured into our Lilith office, unsolicited manuscripts from Santa Fe, Vancouver, Beersheva, London, Knoxville and Buenos Aires. We read every submission, blessed to feel that our lives have brought us to this communal watering hole; or, you might say, brought us to a kind of “Third Temple” for Jewish-and-female pilgrims seeking to gather, testify, empathize, learn and listen.

Aware that Judaism has disenfranchised women for millennia, we feel lucky to have been born into these transformational decades wherein women are finally inside the Trojan horse. And as so many Jews everywhere struggle to find a Judaism that works for them in this fledgling century, we women, along with gays, lesbians, the transgendered and Jews of color, are aware of being the last “real” diaspora Jews; still in possession, that is, of Judaism’s age-old “outsider” eye, with the feistiness, truth-telling and vision that are its derivatives. We are writing our worlds — day by day, decade by decade — and fundamentally repurposing Judaism.

In the mail this week at Lilith, there is good stuff, submissions that are not atypical, that provide a peephole into contemporary Jewish women’s lives. In the first-person department, here’s what we got: a story from a cantor about her new vocation as a mohel; a story from a JewBu about her quest for the right Jewish mantra; a piece from a Syrian-Jewish woman about sustaining her 40-year marriage in the context of the uber-patriarchal community in which she lives; a piece from a young Australian woman about being raped in Jerusalem and navigating a Zionist-inflected trauma; a havdalah ceremony created by a group of girlfriends to honor their female mentors; and a novelty piece of sorts from a convert to Judaism who discovered, after the conversion, that she’d already been a Jew. I might as well add the two memoir pieces currently in your hands [Lilith Fall 2011], “The 500-Year- Old Rabbi” and “Guiding My Child Through Cancer.” Both are surprising portraits of what it means to be a female rabbi, and both, unsurprisingly, use relationship as their lens.

As a living genizah, this material kills. And we’re sitting on 35 years of it.

Over the last 15 or so years, the genre of memoir has reached craze proportions and the form itself has become, in some circles, a very dirty word. Daniel Mendelsohn in The New Yorker, for example, likened memoir to “a drunken guest at a wedding … constantly mortifying its soberer relatives — motivated, it would seem, by an overpowering need to be the center of attention.” “Therapeutic purges [solve] nothing more than getting a shameful secret off your chest,” he writes. And Neil Genzlinger of The New York Times penned a scathing anti-memoir piece that made the rounds. “A moment of silence, please, for the lost art of shutting up,” was his terrific opening.

Though there is no question that exhibitionist and opportunistic writers are out there, and that falsified autobiography has added to the genre’s bad name, it’s also the case that there’s a longstanding tradition of male reviewers who are revolted by women who write honestly and intimately about their lives. Susan Cheever’s memoir — no actually, Susan Cheever herself — got a vividly pathetic savaging at the hands of Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post: “professional daughter, alcoholic variety. Another chapter in the…glorification of a life that long ago lost any claim on the attentions of others.” It made me feel sorry, nebekh, for Jonathan Yardley.

The feminist scholar Carolyn Heilbrun has written about this phenomenon, noting that the work of Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, for example, was initially “dismissed [by male reviewers] as disgustingly autobiographical,” while male confessional writers, like the poets Robert Lowell or John Berryman, “did not suffer such assaults. Their themes were seen as universal truths.”

Heilbrun points out that “Many current memoirs deal with questions that society has preferred to leave unexamined.” And she has a pointed phrase — ”female impersonators” — for women who have disfigured their “real” lives in order to satisfy convention. These women’s “real” autobiographies never get lived, nor written.

It’s against an understanding of this backdrop that Lilith started publishing women’s personal essays in 1976, in only its second issue, asking 10 women (in 11 pages, a serious editorial commitment), “What choices and changes have you made to live life as a Jewish feminist?” In the introduction to the narratives, the editors insert a didactic note that in retrospect seems charmingly ancient: “We decided to ask this question since every woman is an expert on her own life.” Okay, so maybe not so charmingly ancient.

The pieces are wide-ranging and astute, but what surprises the most are the writers’ seriousness and urgency, as though they’d just been shaken awake by the poet Muriel Rukeyser’s famous couplet (from “Kathe Kollwitz”): “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?/ The world would split open.”

Rachel Adler writes about being “an [Orthodox] woman without a community,” having painfully seen the light when her rabbi informed her that she couldn’t say kaddish for her grandmother, but that “for $350, I could hire a man.” “My grandmother’s death made me a Jewish feminist,” she writes. And Evelyn Hutt Dodd writes about working up the courage to talk to her husband about their “sexual difficulties, broach[ing] the subject with mikveh in mind.” She describes setting out for the mikveh for the first time, alleviating her nerves by “having a little conversation with…the motherly, sisterly aspect of God instead of the fatherly one.” All the way through the essay you can feel Dodd’s head exploding with brand-new thoughts. “I would guess that if we observed mikveh and niddah as single women, we would respect our own bodies much sooner and therefore respect ourselves, and out of self-respect grow healthier relationships whether we choose to be married or single or straight or gay.”

Wow. Re-encountering these essays from the distance of 35 years feels great. These are our foremothers, gnawing away at it all: politics, ideology, gender, theology, religious observance, Zionism, sexuality, socialization.

These stories made me think about another Lilith piece, from just last year, about Rabbi Julie Greenberg, a woman whose family has included “a series of female lovers, two rabbinic sperm donors, two adoptions and one gay parenting partner.” Mendelsohn and Genzlinger would surely cringe at her “oversharing” (Genzlinger’s word), but we at Lilith thought that Greenberg’s willingness to trust a reporter with such sensationalizable material was brave. We believed that Greenberg had something to teach: about women breaking norms in the service of having really thought through what is right for them. Indeed, most Jewish mothers are “majority culture” on these issues — that is, heterosexual with biological children — and thus fall into conventional patterns without even imagining there might be better fits. I dunno, did you ever think you might want a “parenting partner” who was separate from your husband-slash-“romantic partner?” Or, as was the case for Jenifer Firestone (in a companion story to Greenberg’s), are you someone who braved the sacrilege of legally working out ahead of time your precise plan to be a half-time parent? We don’t think so.

As Carolyn Heilbrun points out, the objective of sharing our lives is “to tell what has not been told before, or has not been told in the public sphere by women to women.” Lilith runs stories from a place of compassion, from a place of understanding that the personal is the political is the universal. And we see it as our mission to help readers along, to challenge readers, using empathy to stretch ourselves, to strengthen the Jewish-female habit of thinking for ourselves.

And so despite memoir’s besmirched reputation in some parts, I can’t say I recall Lilith’s ever getting a personal essay that struck us as stunt-like, indiscreet, mendacious, hyperboledriven, self-worshiping, exhibitionist or pointlessly purgative (all adjectives sucked from viable memoir-bashers). Granted, nobody’s sending us manuscripts to get rich or famous. I guess that’s a good thing. What we get, on the contrary, are stories that are authentic and thoughtful, with appropriate public/private boundaries. Why should Lilith’s experience be so positive? What self-selection makes a writer say to herself, “I think I’ll send this story to Lilith magazine”?

I’d argue that the stories women send us are written from the perspective of looking for a minyan; that is, of understanding that one’s story belongs to, and requires, a community. One of the fascinating things about a minyan is that it’s often the presence of total strangers — strangers who selflessly show up in order to make a minyan happen for, say, a mourner — that permits one to recite devarim sheh-bekedushah, specific prayers that are considered “extra holy.” The kaddish, wedding blessings, taking the Torah scrolls out to read from them — you have to have 10. Milestones, grief, loss, love, joy, anxiety, transitions; for the rites of comforting mourners, you have to have 10. It’s the Jewish privileging of interdependence, the knowledge of communal embrace, that allows us to dig deeper.

Lilith’s readers are the internalized minyan that facilitate the stories written by our authors; our readers make the stories devarim sheh-bekedushah. In Judaism, there’s a value to the witnessing community; our primary spiritual experiences are plural. So I would say that a reason that Lilith doesn’t get crass or false or inflated memoir submissions is that our writers pen holier “prayers,” they dig deeper, because they’re not in it to be alone.

Especially in pre-Internet days, Lilith received a tremendous number of manuscripts from women in small towns (like “Frontier Bris,”), in cities that didn’t have feminist-shul alternatives, from women who didn’t conventionally pray, from women who hadn’t discovered like-minded Jews where they lived, who had no Jewish community — no “minyans” with whom to share their heretical-seeming thoughts. And when a Lilith editor made a phone call to accept a manuscript — always a gratifying task — the writer’s delight was generally spiritual as well as literary. There’s a minyan out there for me! Thank you for providing a place where I can speak my most sacred words, my counternarratives, for providing a homeland where Jewish feminists have my back. For Lilith writers, I would argue, the “I” feels more like a “we.” The Other within.

And as for our readers, as in a halakhic minyan, just saying “Amen” is equal in efficacy to having recited the actual prayer, to having written this author’s story, too. “Me, too, sister. Say it. So may it be.” A great deal of validation passes from writer to reader.

There are many stories through the years that I think saw the light because of this internalized minyan. To name a few: “A Childhood Without Parents” (about being orphaned in Cologne, Germany, in 1913), “And Vashti Refused: A Gay Man Finds a Biblical Role Model,” “A La Recherche du Taiglach Perdu” (about searching for particular memories in food), “Out of Africa: A Jewish Woman’s Modern-Day Exodus from Ethiopia,” “Orthodox Feminists: Desperately Seeking Dialogue,” “An Immigrant Again…This Time in a Country Called Widowhood,” “How to Hide: Instructions from a Daughter of Survivors,” “Jewish Daughters and Fathers: From Silence to Speech,” “Embroidery as Prayer,” “The Ways of Love and Rage: Duty and Intractable Sexism Fuel a Complex Caregiving History” (about the daughter of Baghdadi Jews who, as the disparaged female child, struggles with caregiving her elderly parents), “Surviving Suicide,” “All Who Are Hungry: Anorexia and the Seder,” “Rhythms of the Blood: Sex in an Orthodox Marriage,” “A Good Egg: A Donor’s Story,” “Losing a Child: How Grief Fueled Three Mothers’ Activism,” “With This Wedding, I Leave Myself Behind.” And many more deeply thoughtful pieces for which our writers knew there’d be a minyan.

The most trusting writer I ever worked with was someone who spoke with me solely by speakerphone from her psychiatrist’s office. Week after week, we wrote together for precisely 45 minutes. It was the psychiatrist who chose Lilith as the right “container” for this woman’s tale, a tale about losing everything, and everyone, as a toddler, in the aftermath of a transport to a concentration camp. This unusual method was the only way the author could walk through her story. She has gone on to significant acclaim.

Karen Propp, a Lilith author who has published two books of memoir and co-edited an anthology of personal essays, tells her students: “If you want to write a good memoir, you must be able to answer the question: Who cares?”

Writers who bring their stories to our readers — whether it’s a 13-year-old who shares that she got her first period at Pizza Hut, a 13-year-old’s mother who writes about the sanctity of the Irish claddagh on her daughter’s tallis, a 87-year-old great-aunt talking about how her mother had just wanted her father to be affectionate, that’s all, to put his arm around her at the movies (“I says to Ma, ‘So you just take his arm and put it!’ And she says, ‘Syb, but that’s not the same.’”) — they can all answer that question, “Who cares?” Their minyan is waiting for their story.

Of course, once you’re looking at half a lifetime of Jewish women’s stories, you’re seeing a developmental arc, the curve of the earth. Thirty five years is, already, history. Indeed, in our early years we saw significantly less memoir than we do now, and the submissions we saw tended towards feminist “conversion narratives,” a classic genre that starts with “once below a time” and, for Lilith writers, anyway, ends with Eve biting the apple and, poof!, becoming a feminist. Or at least becoming fahrtootzed overnight.

A classic Lilith essay by Blu Greenberg in 1982 charts the complex and cholent-slow making of an Orthodox feminist. Greenberg starts by describing her understanding of the mechitzah (the divider between the men’s and women’s sections of Orthodox synagogues) as “ancient, natural, the immutable order of male and female” and of herself as a young, single Orthodox girl too obedient to pursue her dream of “following [brilliant, extraordinary] Nechama Leibowitz to all the places she taught, to learn from her day and night.” (“I quietly knew,” she writes, “that had I been a young man wanting to study intensively with a special Israeli rebbe, every encouragement would have been forthcoming.”) Like many women in Greenberg’s cohort, she reads Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique in 1963. It terrifies her. “The essential idea, equality of women, was exciting, mindboggling… and very just,” Greenberg writes, “but it didn’t mean me. [It did not] apply to women in Judaism.” Shortly thereafter, though, wouldn’t you know, “isolated incidents [begin] to emerge as…pattern[s]” of exclusion:

Females can’t study Talmud, Greenberg’s daughter isn’t invited to sing from the bimah, only grandsons can accompany Uncle Izzie’s casket down the aisle. In 1973, Greenberg holds a Torah scroll for the first time. “Choose someone else,” she had pleaded, when, at her first female minyan, she glimpsed two female gabba’ot [prayer assistants] coming to snag her as hagba’ah. By the end of the piece, she has toughened up, but is still movingly on a long-term journey of integration.

Through the ‘80s and ‘90s, Lilith received an interesting ton of what we came to call “bubbe stories,” hagiographies set against candlelit immigrant pasts and grandmothers who gave “unconditional love” — that’s what they all gave. Mine, too. Well, one of mine. In these narratives, American-born Moms are absent. In a piece by Toby Joan Rosenstrauch [1989], she describes her grandmother at her overflowing holiday table looking out over all her progeny: “Ale fun mayn kerper aroysgegangen,” she kvells. “All of you have come from my body.” How great is that? Needless to say, these manuscripts arrive no more; the women who wrote them have become pareve American grandmothers about whom no one is writing. Yet.

The real and painful march of time now pertains to Holocaust memoirs. They first appeared on the scene abruptly, dams bursting their floodgates, literally dozens of manuscripts and books (the latter to review) pouring on our doorstep by the month, and then, 20 or so years later, just as suddenly, dried to a trickle. Stopped. I would give anything now to find these manuscripts in our mail, to push time away.

A palpably strange aspect of these memoirs was that we immediately knew the age of their authors: almost always in their sixties, sometimes in their seventies, rarely in their early eighties. Unlike men who’d survived, who often told their tales sooner, these women all started writing after they’d raised their children, lived their lives, and felt a gravitational pull to return to the horrors, to keep faith with their parents, their aborted childhoods, the shattered worlds of Before and Over There. Many were written by daughters as tributes to their mothers to whom they felt they owed their lives. Many survivors described a compulsion to dislodge a weight.

“At times I felt on the brink of insanity when I wrote about my parents, brothers, all of my family and was forced to lose them and mourn all over again,” wrote Alicia Appleman- Jurman. “When I finally finished writing I felt as though I had come out of intensive care after a painful and very dangerous operation. I realized that my family will always continue to live inside me and through me.” Writing as ordeal and as catharsis cannot be clearer.

Not reviewing each Holocaust book felt terrible. Then children’s books began appearing, written by those who’d survived as children. At one point, we gathered armloads of books and mailed them to young reviewers, ages 4 to 12. We were aghast at our library of terror; certainly non-Jewish children were not getting these Happy Meals. I made up templates for our little stringers, one question being, “How old should you be to read this book?” After reading one selection, our 10-year-old reviewer wrote, “No one is old enough to read this book.”

It is true that manuscripts that are sometimes pegged as “narcissistic” in the larger culture, about women’s troubled or literally navel-gazing relationships with our own bodies — eating disorders, piercing, tattooing, cutting — are submitted to Lilith often now; we rarely saw these in Lilith’s early years. I don’t view these stories as narcissistic. I see them as dyadic relationships forged in an ever-lonelier world in which a sense of community has disappeared: a girl’s relationship with her anorexia, a woman’s relationship with her tattoos. They remind me of the time my 5-year-old was in the car with only one plastic soldier. He ripped one leg off the soldier with his teeth and proceeded to have an all-out battle. “Who do you think’s gonna win?” he asked. “The soldier or the leg?” Some of these manuscripts make us sad, but they underscore, to my mind, a ferocious will to relatedness.

A category of manuscript that is, thankfully, evergreen and clearly moves into the larger Jewish world is that of appropriated ritual. “The New, Improved Jewish Divorce: Hers/His,” in which Vicki Hollander (1990) follows her traditional get with a ceremony of her own making surrounded by female friends is one of many stories we’ve run over the years that situates itself in the healing surround of women. Authentic and simple, these remain fresh. “I am not all alone,” Hollander says to her girl-minyan over casseroles and almond tarts. “Today marks not only the closure of my marriage, but formally recognizes how my friends have been with me through all of this.” Her Document of Transition, a bookend to the get, includes, “I stand as a Jewish woman with dignity and strength. I stand restored to a single unit as a whole and complete person…in accordance with the values of our people Israel.”

“How Do Women Define the Sacred?” (2006) felt to us an important set of personal stories that sought to name specific qualities — memory, the senses, handiwork, healing, motherhood, ancestors — that women find holy; Lilith’s intention was to bring to consciousness the vast savannas of absent liturgy that still beg to be written.

Multiculturalism and political inquiry remain mainstays: “Casting Miss Saigon’s Baby,” by Hoong Yee Lee Krakauer, about taking her 3-year-old to a Broadway open-casting for “an Asian/ American no taller than 41 inches,” “A Daughter Remembers: The Doctors’ Plot of 1953,” “Red-Diaper Daughter,” “Women in the Israeli Military,” “Identity Politics at Summer Camp,” “Young Teens Take Back the Night,” “When Our Parents Neglected Us to Save the World,” “Who Owns My Breasts?” “In the Hammam,” “Autism Moms,” “Latina Jews in New York,” “Blessings for Gender Transitions,” “Eco-Ushpizin” (about inviting eco-activists into our sukkot) — Lilith’s writers continue to blossom at new borders.

By the way, Mikki Lee, the “Chewish” (Chinese/Ashkenazi) toddler didn’t get the part of Tam in Miss Saigon. But what’s more unnerving, looking at her scrumptious little face on Lilith’s Fall 1991 cover, is that she’s now 25.

What have we learned in 35 years about Jewish women’s memoir? When the writer Stephen Dubner converts from Catholicism back to the faith of his grandparents, what shocks him most is seeing Jews kiss the Torah in shul. “It’s a book,” he marvels. “They’re not eating the Body and drinking the Blood of the Christ.”

We textify. We write. We talk. That’s what Jewish women do. We have a lot to say. We kiss words. When Sholom Aleichem created the character Tevye, he movingly fashioned a father who remains very proud of his daughters’ ability to talk, even as their choices bring him pain. “She answers me word for word,” Tevye says delightedly about Hodel as she disregards his wishes. “She doesn’t lose her dignity. Tevye’s daughters can talk!” Indeed, Tevye’s daughters are not about to endorse “a moment of silence for the lost art of shutting up.” What’s the virtue in that? As Grace Paley said, “In the grave, it will be quiet.”

Paley, also a Lilith author, the mother of all talking Jewish women, best captures the warm collective portrait of Lilith’s writers and readers talking and listening through the decades; of writers giving readers the idea to write, too; and of writing about oneself as being fundamentally an act of sharing. “People ought to live in mutual aid and concern, listening to one another’s stories,” Paley says. Most of her stories, indeed, are about talking — that’s the action — talking to rewrite the self, to think, talking as revision, talking as an act of inclusion and moral obligation. She understands that communities of support crystallize around women telling their stories. One of her many sympathetic narrators famously says, “I did owe something to my family and the families of my friends…to tell their stories as simply as possible, in order, you might say, to save a few lives.” And Paley’s characters, like Lilith’s authors, tell stories embedded in relationship; not only the relationships in their stories, but the relationships created through the telling. The truth that lies between us, not in us.

Jewish women write about their lives for the following reasons:

As Jews, we tell our stories because centuries of displacement and uncertainty have made the locus of our real lives shift to the insides of our heads. We have very rich lives in there. And because we have been taught that zachor — remembering — has saving, sometimes mythic, power. We tell our stories because we are an intimate, urgent people, children of Moses and Job who demanded very real conversations even with God, who insisted that God talk to them like a mentsch.

As women, we tell our stories because we are the keepers, the savers, the connectors, the ultimate recyclers, the memoryholders. We must put things in our stories to keep those things from ceasing to exist. We don’t believe that memory is private. We hold that the commonplace is sacred. We tell our stories to upend the history of women being silenced. We write for the silenced; we write to catch up. We write ourselves out of indeterminate identities. Those of us of Ashkenazi stock were for generations hatched from a public language, Yiddish, a populist tongue whose basic purpose was women sharing.

As Jewish women, we tell our stories because Jewish history is a catalogue of losses, and we are the keepers of memory, loss, grief and healing. We tell our stories because we are giddy with freedom, because we are very conscious that, in the long arc of Jewish history, our lives are transitional. We tell our stories because Judaism approves of self-invention, because we find everything interesting, because we believe that no lives are ordinary, because it’s responsible. Because the unheard voices of Jewish women signifies a crime.

We remove a rib from our past, from our present, and breathe life into it for the purpose of creating our own stories.