I’ve been revisiting a lot of assumptions, spurred by two articles in this issue. The first is Sarah Blustain’s cri du coeur about her struggles to reconcile motherhood— it’s delicious pulls and its draining exhaustion—with her assumption, from elementary school onward, that her career trajectory would be the same as that of her male peers.
In years gone by I’ve written and spoken about how wonderful it would be if the Jewish community would be a leader in changing personnel policies and child-care arrangements as the outdated model of the compulsory stay-at-home mom was replaced by the two-career family (or by a family headed by a mother with a job outside the home: a one-career, female-parent-only family).
But this wouldn’t be nearly enough. We (women and men and children too) need a two-pronged approach—communal and personal—to the burn-out-or-optout dichotomy presented in the media as the only choices available to women who have careers and also children.
It’s wearying to think that the strong stance taken by Jewish feminists decades ago still requires reiteration. Nevertheless, we’ll grab the bullhorn and say it again: Jewish institutions and organizations— synagogues, community centers, federations, Hadassah, and the rest— have an obligation not just to decry falling Jewish birthrates but to assess and respond to the needs of people who might be having those babies.
We need not only Jewish day care centers in synagogues, where there is much space going unused most weekdays. We really need Jewish institutions to model family-friendly personnel policies. Jewish federations and the alphabet soup of Jewish agencies, think tanks, and so on, could spawn a revolution (and a lot of goodwill inside and outside their walls) if they were to implement—across the board—flextime, job sharing, consistent family-leave policies, on-site day care. These are the physical, structural changes, and I used to think this might be all we’d need. Wrong. We need reeducation as well. An attitude shift, not just a split shift, or the “second shift” that women work at home.
The change in attitude has got to be up close and personal. I don’t just mean those diaper-changing areas in men’s bathrooms, now ubiquitous in airports and other public places, thank God or the women’s movement. I mean more. Here’s a radical thought: Jewish organizations and institutional employers create workshops for fathers, encouraging them to see themselves as part of the solution, rather than living—unintentionally, we hope—as part of the problem in so many families. This really is the unfinished work of feminism: the personal and the political.
How about showcasing the solutions families with young children have worked out? Families where each parent willingly assumes some of the career damage raising children may entail. Families who have discovered, created or evolved ways of defusing, in real ways not just lip-service, the pain, anger, anxiety and confusion that can hang like a cloud over the experience of raising children when one parent takes the career “hit” Blustain feels like a body blow. How about modeling these families’ solutions at national Hillel conferences, at young couples’ events at synagogues, at Lamaze childbirth classes sponsored by JCCs?
The point is to change the assumptions. Women’s power suits of the 1980s—navy blue skirt and jacket, white blouse, silk bowtied scarf at the neck—have given way to less rigid sartorial styles in the office, but a lot of rigidity in gender roles—in the workplace and in many families—is still there. Maybe some of this is in the chromosomes. A nursing mother’s breast milk lets down when she hears a baby crying. OK. But should the fact that one parent is magnetically pulled toward her child mean that she (and not the baby’s lather) will lose sleep and lose momentum at work? Read and ruminate.
The second assumption-busting piece here is about young Jewish- American women who were born in Russia. We invited to the LILITH office for an evening of talk a small (and, as it turned out, lively) group in order to find out a little about a cohort that seemed to have slipped between the cracks.
“I never even knew she was Russian until her mother called one day and I heard them talking in another language!” said the Ivy League college buddy of one of our respondents. It has been 40 years since the beginning of the Soviet Jewry movement in the West, almost a quarter of a century since the first significant numbers arrived in the U.S. and Canada, and 13 years since the exodus following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Time to find out about the lives of a new cohort: smart, savvy, and making their way in America almost unnoticed. Media attention and the Jewish social-services have largely been focused on elderly babushkas living in poverty at the far edges of Brooklyn, clever criminals of both the gangster and the white-collar varieties, or on the problems of families whose post-immigration lives have been marked by alcohol abuse, violence and the disruptions caused by status slippage in a new world. Until now, nobody has asked young women from this community what their own lives and dreams hold.
Though they had never met one another before, their laughter when they recognized the common possessive behavior of their un-American mothers and the power of the older generation’s Russian “set-up network” proved how easily the bonds of landsmanschaft are forged, Join LILITH in listening in on their delighted and frank conversation.
The cover of this issue and the poem within were created by artists who are part of the same cohort—Emilya Naymark and Marina Rubin. This special focus on Jewish American women from the FSU has been made possible in part by the generous support of Mildred Weissman, who has long been a friend of LILITH, and by Shirley and Milton Gralla. Some other recent support merits special notice. LILITH has won a grant from the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, supported by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, to help make the magazine available on tape for people with visual handicaps, and to help upgrade our website. Targum Shlishi, an Aryeh and Raquel Rubin Foundation, has made a grant to LILITH also to be used, among other things, for improving the website. Please visit: www. Lilith.org. Much praise is due our web designer, Simcha Shtull; she has helped LILITH’S web material look as lovely as the print version of the magazine. One remarkable aspect of this website is that soon you’ll able to access the contents pages of all the issues of LILITH magazine ever published!
The website is only one of the ways we are expanding LILITH’S reach. Another is through an audience-development campaign we are launching with the generous support of LILITH board member Yvette Gralla. Please join Yvette by introducing others to the unique pleasures of LILITH magazine.