It’s so complicated, isn’t it, how we relate to one another in our committed relationships. And much more complicated when there’s an overlay—or an underpinning—of religious law and tradition binding you to someone you love. Or, in some cases, cease to love.
I was led to think about these, our closest chosen relationships, as I read through the dozens and dozens of issues of LILITH published since the first one came out in 1976. From the illustration on the cover of that premier issue, it looks like we expected each Jewish woman to be all things to all people—fertile mother, chicken-soup-bearing household goddess, practicing physician, religious scholar, pious worshipper, culture icon. Talk about role diffusion!
Well, the professional part is in place—just read in this issue about the experiences of Shala Erlich, the young medical doctor of “Frontier Bris.” But those interpersonal relationships, especially (dare I speak the word) love relationships, are still an arena for complexity. This season alone our office received review copies of 10 books about contemporary marriage and how to negotiate its shoals. In the Jewish world, where demographics reinforce the anecdotal evidence that Jews are marrying later if at all, marriage seems especially fraught. We limn some of the reasons on a wall panel entitled “Rethinking Our Relationships” at a new LILITH exhibit at Hebrew Union College in New York which will travel to other cities in coming seasons.
To help create the exhibition, a 25-plus years retrospective celebration of “LILITH Magazine: The Voice of Jewish Women,” I closed myself in my office and had the deep pleasure of immersing myself in those back issues of the magazine. It’s amazing how many of the stories have legs—and not just in ahead-of the-curve reporting. (For instance, when the Reform movement decided this month to admit a female-to-male transgender student to its rabbinical school, LILITH readers had some background on the situation thanks to our cover story last year on transgender Jews.) In fact, among the most powerful LILITH stories are empathic, first-person accounts of Jewish women’s lives—questioning, bold, anxious, creative, scholarly.
Testifying to the staying power of such forthright pieces— groundbreaking or heartbreaking or heroic, and sometimes all three—we’ve decided to reprint, from time to time, these useful gems. In this issue, the subject is divorce. Traditional Jewish law on divorce looks to us, in modern times, to work exclusively against the rights of women. Only a man can institute divorce proceedings, an asymmetry that gives some husbands license to delay or deny the gel, the Jewish divorce document. While there are now women and men seeking halakhic ways to modify or reinterpret this male-empowering law, two LILITH authors, one a rabbi and the other a therapist, use the moment of marital dissolution for accessing Jewish sources in remarkable and comforting ways. Independently, they re-fit familiar Jewish rituals, and create new ones, to assign a different valence to the chemistry of ending a Jewish marriage.
Marital relations play an intriguing role in another article here as well. C. Devora Hammer, who was last in LILITH’s pages as the “Stay-at-Work Mom” [Fall 2002], tells some well kept secrets about sexuality in a contemporary Orthodox marriage where the partners, who are people of their times in many other ways, hold firm to the religious strictures that mandate complete physical separation of a wife and her husband for half of every month. While the divorce experiences in this issue show how the flexibility of Jewish ritual and tradition works for those who want to rework them from a feminist perspective. Hammer tells how she came to the view that traditional Jewish laws about sex give women great power.
All these narratives derive their power from being positioned where personal experience intersects with Jewish law and custom. And as I discovered when I read through those tantalizing back issues, the same holds for many other articles LILITH has published in the magazine’s almost chai-and-a half years. The exhibition, which you can preview here beginning on page 19, journeys thorough the most compelling concerns of Jewish women since the inception of the women’s movement in the 1970s. But the show is far more than a historical retrospective, though we do have enough history at the magazine to take a long view of Jewish women’s stunning accomplishments. The themes that emerged come to viewers in 10 remarkable wall panels (and there could have been 30), designed gorgeously by LILITH Art Director Laurie Douglas. We’ve tried to suggest the complex richness of women’s explorations by highlighting on each panel the reporting and fiction and memoirs that have both spurred and reflected the flowering of women’s participation in (and reshaping of) contemporary Jewish life. Each theme also leads us into the future, and each panel (including the ones you see reproduced here in the magazine) asks its viewers to move the subject forward.
I hope you’ll do two things after sampling the panels we bring you here. One is to answer the questions the panels pose (send your answers to Lilithmag@aol.com or fax (212) 757- 5705), so that we can share them with other readers in an upcoming issue. And, two: think about where in your own community this exhibition should be on display: JCCs? A college campus? The Jewish museum or cultural center? A Jewish day school? A women’s building? Beginning in the summer of 2003, the exhibition is ready to travel. Become a partner in this venture by using the exhibition to showcase local Jewish women’s talent in readings or gallery shows or performances connected to the exhibition. We’ll help. Just call or write. And visit LILITH’s newly refreshed website: www.Lilith.org
In this world of uncertainty, the exhibition gives us all a chance to consolidate the gains of the past few decades and to think creatively about the future we want to build as Jews and as women.