Readers Respond

Oh Those Breasts!

I FOUND YOUR [breasts] articles [“How Jewish Women Feel about Their Breasts,” Spring 2001 ] strangely one-sided (pun intended). Is the typical Jewish breast larger than average? And are we Jewish women truly all struggling with a conditioned yearning for something more compact and athletic?

As for myself, I will confess to wasting perhaps years of my life longing for a rear-end, thighs, hips, belly, midriff and upper arms that were smaller and firmer My breasts, however, have almost always been a consolation to me. They are a trusty erogenous zone, they were a deeply satisfying means of nourishing my babies, and they continue to be the one part of my body that seems to garner approval for being soft, round and large.

The woman in Song of Songs, whose breasts are compared to clusters of grapes, and to twin fawns of a gazelle, ends her poem by proudly affirming that her breasts are “like towers.” Please tell me she was not the last Jewish woman writer to take pleasure in her bust!
by Lise WeisbergerSkokie IL

Wow! I WAS REALLY impressed with this past issue. Both Hanne Blank’s [“Breasts: Notes Toward a New Cartography”] and Sarah Blustain’s [“One Woman’s History of her Breasts”] essays really hit close to home for me. They are the voices of young women speaking the truth about the complex relationships we have with our own bodies in this very body-centric culture.

Our bodies, especially our breasts, are intimate parts of ourselves, and yet they are forced to be so public. As soon as we walk out the door, we are forced to acknowledge how “others” feel about our bodies (because they WILL let us know!). Luckily, more and more of us are defining for ourselves what is beautiful and what is sexy. More and more, we are not letting others define our bodies for us.
by Rivka Solomon, Boston MA

I APPRECIATE THAT young Jewish women want to explore their “breast consciousness.” But the focus on “Boobs” [the cover line] struck a different chord for me. Maybe it’s because I’m 56 years old. Maybe it’s because my mother, my sister, and two of my best friends all were diagnosed with breast cancer in the prime of their lives—as were so many of our brilliant feminist leaders, including Gloria Steinem, Audre Lorde, June Jordon, and Blanche Weisen Cook, to name just a few.

Audre Lorde urged us to gather the courage to challenge what we learn is “normal,” meaning the “right” color, shape, size or number of breasts. But I was most inspired by the vision she shared almost two decades ago of an army of one-breasted women descending on Congress and demanding that the use of carcinogenic, fat-stored hormones in beef feed be outlawed. There is so much breast cancer among young women today because of what has been done to the environment—and what it is doing back to us.

I resonate with the sentiments of Amy Bloom, who says she misses “the way it used to be” before the breast cancer epidemic— breasts for beauty, love, milk, and life.
by Harriet Lerner, Topeka KS

SANDER GILMAN’S ARTICLE on the Venus of Willendorf and Ernst Bruke’s diagram of the “perfect” female breast were wonderful [“Did You Know the Venus of Willendorf was Jewish,” Spring 2001]! In spite of the horrible consequences of such theories, I found myself laughing and drawing cartoons on the supposed geometry of female anatomy.

Did other readers catch the transition from Bruke’s 90°—angled breast to a Magen David? Sister artists —let’s see what we can do with that awful diagram!
by Rose Ann ChasmanChicago, IL

I WAS VERY DISAPPOINTED in your recent issue’s articles on “Boobs”. It seemed to me that all of the articles were very negative and selfhating. NONE mentioned the normal function of breasts—to nourish a baby.

Breasts are functional organs, not merely decorative or sexual objects. The miraculous, marvelous milk they produce provides the newborn with immunologic function and optimal nutrition for the critical months of infancy and early childhood. There is emerging data on the importance of breastfeeding in prevention of chronic illnesses in adult life as well. The physical closeness of normal breastfeeding promotes optimal emotional bonding—essential for the development of a psychologically healthy human being.

Supporting breastfeeding as normal and essential to the health of our children is a woman’s issue. Women who are employed outside the home often are discriminated against when they try to maintain breastfeeding. Family/childbirth leaves are woefully inadequate, more so in the USA than in other countries. Women are asked to leave stores and restaurants or breastfeed their babies in the bathroom, even though it is legal to breastfeed an infant wherever it is legal for the mother and infant to be; more legal protection for breastfeeding is still needed.

There are a number of references to breastfeeding in the Torah and Talmud. Perhaps you could write a POSITIVE article about breasts and breastfeeding to counter your recent negativity.

I am proud, as a Jewish woman, a pediatrician, and a mother, that my breasts are the marvelous, functional, organs that they are. My body carried and birthed my children and my breasts and loving arms nurtured them. My four children have become wonderful healthy young Jewish adults.

Jewish women should be proud of their breasts, not ashamed of them!
by Linda L Shaw MD, Altoona PA

Jewish Mothers, Gay Sons

THE ARTICLE “JEWISH MOTHERS and Gay Sons” [Spring 2001 ] quoted Cornell psychology professor Ritch Savin-Williams as saying, in essence, that it is easier for young girls to be lesbians than it is for young boys to be gay WRONG!

On top of having second class status for being female, lesbians have to deal with fear, hatred and violence from men because our existence challenges the patriarchal status quo. Where was this guy when I was going through hell? Where is he now, when I am careful where I go at night? If only I had known that I had it so good!
by Corinne Sabo, San Antonio TX

Feminism & Judaism in Poland Today

WHEN I READ SHANA PENN’S article “Democracy in the Balance: Jewish Feminists Rally for Tolerance in a Post- Communist World” [Winter 2000], I was pleasantly surprised that it was so deeply insightful.

I know firsthand how difficult it is to translate the complexity of issues emerging in Polish democracy into a language to comprehensible to American readers. What is considered socially acceptable discourse in public debate in Poland often differs from the same type of discourse here.

Living and working in Czestochowa for two years in the mid-90s, I gained an appreciation of the historical and emotional complexities of Polish culture in addition to its richness. Reading this article, I felt a sense of joy that someone was giving voice to these complexities, because the end result is a cross-cultural bridge.

The article left me with a sense of optimism about a culture opening up and a sense of urgency feeling the situation is indeed “in the balance.” As Shana Penn said, “Although these feminists dare to speak, their position remains precarious.” I’ve been contacting friends in Poland and feminist organizations to see what contribution I might make. It would be wonderful if others found ways to use the bridge this article has created to support these courageous and spirited feminists.
by Laurie Wagner, Oakland CA


As AN AMERICAN Jewish woman who has been living and working in the Jewish community in Poland for the past seven months, I feel it is very important for me to comment upon Shana Penn’s article.

I am a volunteer for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s Jewish Service Corps, an organization that has been deeply involved in developing Jewish life in post- Communist Poland. I work closely with the Jewish community in Warsaw, and Jewish leaders around Poland.

First, I would like to give the author credit for her description of the debate in the synagogue on Jewish life in Poland. It is critical to show the world that these discussions are happening in Poland, that indeed a Polish Jewish community exists and it is “silent no more.” Her examples of anti-Semitism and anti-women sentiments do represent a reality that exists in Poland today. But many of her comments pertaining to the Jewish community are irresponsible and inaccurate.

My personal practices do not lie in the Orthodox movement, but I value many of its traditions, beliefs, and methods, and, first and foremost, I understand why people embrace it. I think that Penn demonstrated great intolerance and a lack of understanding about Orthodox Judaism.

Penn was completely off-base when describing the activities of Bejt Warszawa, the new liberal group. I met Cyndi Culpepper, the woman rabbi from the United States who led services in the liberal synagogue for the High Holy days. I attended morning services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and, in my opinion, she was not timid nor too pedagogic. In fact, my favorite part of the experience was that she brought so much music to the service. Also, Rabbi Culpepper’s background as a convert to Judaism from Catholicism was a source of common ground, as many people here grew up surrounded by Catholic tradition. Moreover, because Rabbi Culpepper was so well received, she is returning to Poland to lead Pesach seders and workshops.

There are a number of strong, independent women in the Polish Jewish community. While they seek out a place for themselves, they also realize that the community needs to stick together if it wants to survive and succeed.

Unfortunately, the few good points made by Penn are difficult to take seriously because of the extremist view she presents and the gross over generalizations that she maizes. She also does not seem to have a clear understanding of the demographics, history, and current challenges of the Jewish community in Poland. If I ever thought I was becoming something of a feminist, after reading Penn’s article I know that I would never want to be associated with that movement which sounds as intolerant as it accuses its attackers to be.
by Stacey Nolish, Warsaw Poland

Shana Penn replies: 
As a concerned American volunteer, Stacey Nolish has a responsibility to listen with sensitive ears to the grievances of the disenfranchised Jewish women, who dared to express their needs, as I reported. I would have liked her to state whether her views represent the Joint (whose decades-long work is respected in Poland) or simply herself Fortunately, the Warsaw Jewish community responded with greater care toward the women’s concerns than Nolish considers valuable. Both the Jewish magazine Midrasz and the Gemeinah (Warsaw’s Jewish religious community center) organized discussions on Judaism and feminism in the months following the incidents in my report. According to Nolish, if voices of dissent do not offer “balanced” perspectives, then feminism itself should be rejected.

Nolish did not attend the problematic Rosh Hashana evening service at Beit Warszawa, which I described in my piece. I question why she thinks she can negate the objections voiced by the Polish Jewish feminists who attended that service and were disappointed in its lack of warmth, music and spiritual embrace. There was no transliterated or Polish-language prayer text, no discussion and, from the Polish Jews I interviewed, a perception of patronizing attitudes by the American hosts.

The cultural differences that she misses exist both among different groups of Polish Jews (Holocaust survivors, communists, the descendants of both, Polish Jews, Jewish Poles and Poles of “Jewish origins,” feminists, misogynists, traditionalists, liberals, etc.) and also between American Jews and Polish Jews.

Why persuade people who have just broken free of an authoritarian system to stick together in order to survive, if this means living without courage or honesty? The Jewish feminists and the community that they have created are teaching an important lesson in Poland today: to continue to respect dissent.

In Rachel Josefowitz Siegel’s review of Tangled Lives: Daughters, mothers. and the Crucible of Aging [Spring 2001], the sentence describing the conditions of the author’s mother’s life should read “She takes us into the exhausting, demeaning, and inhumane working conditions inflicted on her mother as a garment worker and the indignities of the pre-welfare, prelabor- union world of the working poor.”

Coming Out as Jews in a Retirement Home

THANK YOU FOR SENDING your “Miriam’s Cup” ritual for Passover. At the retirement community where my mother lives. there are many Jewish people, some of them not “admitting” they are Jews, some completely without family, some not well enough to leave for holidays. All of them are cut off—in one way or another— from active participation in Jewish life.

Last Rosh Hashanah, I gathered those I knew of mostly my mom’s friends. at one large table in the dining room, and brought in an enormous pot of chicken soup, my grandmother’s candlesticks, raisin challah, gefilte fish. horseradish, apples and honey, and wine and grape juice. We had a wonderful time, told stories, talked about the New Year, etc.

For Flanukkah. we ended up with more than 40 people. I got the families of four of the other women involved and we were thrilled to have one fifteen-year-old girl participating. The girl lit the candles and burned her fingers. This gave every one of the old women the opportunity to advise her about how to make the hurting stop. One Holocaust survivor, in late early-stage dementia, came out of her shell to tell me that I wasn’t singing the prayers right. She then led the prayers herself.

I prepared song sheets using a photocopy machine that enlarged everything 300%. I’d provided the chef with a zillion boxes of latke mix and talked with him about how to make them. He served them half cooked, and the group divided between those who wanted to march into the kitchen and cook them “correctly” and those who wanted to thank him for trying. We got the rest of them cooked “right” and he came out and made a speech and everyone cheered him.

I have to cut rituals pretty short, because sitting very long is painful for many of the residents. because many of them have limited attention spans, and because the serving staff has to clean up and go home. But each time I do something like this, the group of Jews who “come out” grows larger.
by Susan Koppelman Tucson, AZ