Lilith Magazine Independent, Jewish & Frankly Feminist Wed, 13 Oct 2021 21:26:15 +0000 en-US hourly 1 47319318 When Jews Carry Out a Pogrom Wed, 13 Oct 2021 19:08:18 +0000

There was a pogrom on Simchat Torah. 

Just a few short weeks ago, as I celebrated with my community in Jerusalem, and Jews around the world danced joyously with the Torah, the physical embodiment of our highest values—a pogrom. 

And I am filled not with terror but with shame, and pain, and deep sadness. 

Because this was not the familiar scene from throughout centuries in which Jewish women, men and children cowered in fear as fervent antisemites overran shtetls, desecrated synagogues, and violently attacked the defenseless Jews, while state officials at best looked away and at worst incited the rioters and enthusiastically rampaged alongside them. 

Instead, it was dozens of Israeli Jews who assaulted a Palestinian village in the South Hebron Hills of the West Bank. They smashed cars, ransacked living rooms, and wounded at least twelve Palestinians—including a three-year-old who was hospitalized with a fractured skull—while villagers sat terrified in their violated homes. Israeli soldiers were present but did nothing to stop the attackers, and even arrested a Palestinian for throwing stones at those who invaded their village. 

Leah Solomon

My shame, sadness, and pain are not directed primarily toward the mob that committed these acts of terror. I am devastated and enraged by the harm they caused Palestinians for the ostensible crime of steadfastly existing on their land, and they must be held personally accountable. But I also know that in every society there will be individuals who commit horrific violent acts. 

No. My heartache is toward the rest of us who are deeply committed to Israel and the Jewish people. 

I believe nearly every Jew I know, if they knew about this story, would condemn the perpetrators’ actions. We value kindness, justice, and morality. We are appalled by such acts of terror.

But most of us look at this and see a problem of individuals, who have distorted Jewish teachings to support their vile acts. And this ability to see only a “violent and dangerous fringe,” as Foreign Minister Lapid tweeted, allows us to distance ourselves from the perpetrators and evade any sense of complicity in their attacks. We enable ourselves to say, as Lapid indeed said, that “this isn’t the Israeli way and this isn’t the Jewish way.” We reassure ourselves that we are not to blame. 

But we all share in the blame, and we are all responsible. 

Because this story cries out to us to recognize that the issue is not a few extremists but rather our powerful and intertwined political, educational, military, religious, and social systems which enable and embolden the Jews who committed this hate-filled crime; which consistently reinforce the notion that the status quo in the West Bank, as harmful as it may be to Palestinians, is critical to maintain Jewish security; and which thereby allow us to feel justified in perfunctorily condemning these individuals and quickly looking away.

Our Jewish institutions in both America and Israel help cultivate a reality in which this can happen when we exclude or flatten Palestinian voices within our communal discourse, or worse, demonize Palestinians as the other, the eternal enemy, rather than striving to understand Palestinian perspectives and lived experience.

Our Jewish leaders help enable this behavior when we allow ourselves to be thrust into zero-sum, us-and-them narratives which perpetuate the idea that nearly anything can be justified for the professed sake of Israel’s security, rather than engaging with Palestinians as the people with whom we must learn to build a shared future in this land.

And our collective unwillingness to hold the Israeli government accountable on a systemic level enables such attacks by sending a clear message that we accept the ever-changing status quo in which the Israeli government and military are the sole sovereign authority over millions of stateless Palestinians, whose basic rights, dignity, and security are dependent on a state in which they have no voice and in which extremist Israeli Jews can act against them with near impunity. 

Just one week earlier, Jews around the world recited the words of the Yom Kippur confession: “Ashamnu, bagadnu… we have trespassed, we have betrayed…” We stood as a people and declared our collective responsibility for sins that our fellow Jews commit, even if we ourselves never personally engaged in such acts. 

It is far past time for those of us who support Israel with our voices, our time, our money, our votes, or our love to embrace our collective responsibility for addressing the harms in which we are implicated. Continuing to support the underlying systems that enable these devastating acts is to accept that they will happen again. We have the breathtaking privilege of living in an era with a sovereign Jewish state. That privilege brings with it extraordinary collective responsibility. We must all work proactively toward a future in which every inhabitant of this holy land – including both Jews and Palestinians—is able to live in security, in justice, and free of fear.

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Photos: Marching for Abortion Justice Mon, 04 Oct 2021 16:26:11 +0000

On Saturday Oct 2, 2021, hundreds of thousands of women, feminists, and allies marched for Abortion Justice from the streets of Washington D.C. to the Supreme Court of the United States, and at sister rallies across the country. Their goal was to defend and demand reproductive freedom for all and to speak out against new legislation in Texas that would deny the right to safe and legal abortion as guaranteed by Roe v Wade. Along with the D.C. rally, organized by Women’s March, the women’s rights organization that spearheaded the largest single-day demonstration in U.S. history in 2017, over 650 events took place across all 50 states.

Counterdemonstrators also showed up:

Protesters showed up across the country. Here are some from a small town in upstate New York, Narrowsburg, shot by Editor-in-Chief Susan Weidman Schneider.

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Violence, Loss and Healing—Emily Barth Isler’s “Aftermath” Fri, 01 Oct 2021 20:19:00 +0000 I love showing a roadmap to forgiveness in the book. In a story that shares more than enough examples of how life can be horribly unfair and sad, I want kids to see examples of how things can go well or be done helpfully. How things can go right.


After her brother’s death from a congenital heart defect and a move to new town, twelve-year-old Lucy finds herself in an awkward position; she’s the new kid in a grade full of survivors of a shooting that happened four years ago. Lucy feels isolated and unable to share her family’s own loss, which is profoundly different from the trauma of her peers and she struggles through her days. This is the jumping off point for Emily Barth Isler’s brave and important debut novel Aftermath (Carolrhoda Books, $17.99) which aims to makes the unfathomable understandable to a young and tender audience. Isler talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about how she came to write the book, the discussions she hopes it will spark, and the way in which it fits into the larger framework of Jewish thought and teaching.

YZM: What drew you to the topic of gun violence and why is it especially relevant now? 

EBI: I grew up very aware of guns, but not in the way many Americans do. My grandfather, Alan Barth, was a very well known activist and his editorials for the Washington Post helped convince President Lynden B. Johnson to sign the Gun Control Act of 1968, which regulates gun ownership, into law. I remember being in his house as a child, seeing mementos like photos of guns and fake guns—all reminders of what our family believed to be true: gun access should be controlled.

YZM: My grandfather died shortly before I was born. We never got to meet. Even more than his gun control legacy, I grew up in the sadness of having lost someone very important to me before I even had the chance to live. It was something that shaped me so deeply. Missing him is still large in my life.

EBI: All these things played into my writing of AfterMath. I have been watching our nation’s struggle with school shootings since I was a teenager, when Columbine happened. And I’ve lived in fear ever since. First, I feared for myself. Now I fear for my children.

YZM: How did you make it appropriate for the young readers you’re hoping to reach? 

EBI: This was a constant balancing act. I believe in not writing down to kids—they are more savvy and aware than we think they are, always! But at the same time, their hearts are tender and their brains still developing. I thought a lot about my experiences with my own kids, and the things we talk about at home, the way I frame things for them when we have hard discussions. 

I also consulted a ton of experts! It was so important to me that I got this right in this book, so I talked to a few therapists, teachers, to people who work for gun violence prevention advocacy organizations, to several pediatricians, to other parents, to anyone who would read the book and give me feedback! And my editor, Amy Fitzgerald, is such an expert at this. She really helped me find that balance between being completely honest and being age-appropriate. I owe her so much.

YZM: Lucy’s mother references the Holocaust, comparing its survivors to those of the shooting in Queensland.  Do you think these two groups can be compared and if so, how and why? 

EBI: I think it’s common for people outside trauma to assume that its victims are “damaged” or “ruined” by it. I’m a trauma survivor myself—not of gun violence, but of physical abuse while I was in high school—and for a long time, I didn’t tell people about it because I didn’t want anyone to think I was “damaged.” Learning more about trauma, going to therapy, and getting to know my husband’s grandparents, Jews who both lived in Germany before the Holocaust and were lucky enough to escape and survive, helped me see that trauma doesn’t have to damage us. In fact, it can make us stronger, give us more perspective, sometimes help us appreciate aspects of life we might not have noticed before, and allow us to have a more nuanced portrait of humanity.

I thought a lot about all the horrors that people saw in concentration camps, the traumas of being separated from their families, from losing loved ones, from losing precious years of their lives while hiding, only for them to find ways to begin again, to move forward, to find joy. I’m not at all saying that the way to get over a traumatic experience is to simply “get happy”—it’s infinitely more complicated than that, of course. But I think it’s good to see that it’s possible to eventually find joy and peace and new chapters. 

I’m also not saying that trauma isn’t a big deal just because there are silver linings, but I know that learning about the horrors of the Holocaust in Hebrew School from a very young age taught me that even those who have overcome horrible circumstances can still find ways to live happy, full lives. And maybe that we can all learn something from them.

I’m just one person, and yet I can give you so many examples of mass shootings that were somehow connected to my life, geographically or personally. But the point is that it doesn’t require these personal connections for a mass shooting to feel devastatingly close and personal to me.

YZM: Jews have recently been targeted in mass shootings, most notably the tragedy at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. What do you think is the responsibility of Jews in terms of the activism to end such gun violence in America?

EBI: Every minority or underrepresented group in America is probably feeling this stress more than ever in recent years. I think Judaism teaches us that we must always help the oppressed. Sometimes, we’re included in that group, “the oppressed,” and sometimes we’re not, but in this case, yes, Jews have been targeted, and the fear is real. 

There are many examples of Jews in America joining forces with other minority groups struggling, whether it’s supporting the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, amplifying voices of women, speaking up for the Black Lives Matter movement, or speaking out against AAPI hate. Of course, not all Jews do this, and even those of us who already do can, and should, do even more. I think the teachings of Judaism encourage us over and over to help the oppressed, to condemn the oppressor. According to the Torah, we’ve been the underdogs, the enslaved, the out-armed, the stranger in a strange land, and instead of this making our hearts harden, it should serve to make us empathetic towards everyone else suffering, and encourage us to help.

I could tell you that the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting felt personal to me—and it did—because not only was it a Jewish congregation, it was the community where my mother was born and where her cousins became Bar Mitzvot, where my great aunts and uncles were married. But the truth is, every mass shooting feels personal to me. There was also one at the mall in my hometown, and one at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, MD, somewhat near to where my own dad was a news reporter for his whole career. I’m just one person, and yet I can give you so many examples of mass shootings that were somehow connected to my life, geographically or personally. But the point is that it doesn’t require these personal connections for a mass shooting to feel devastatingly close and personal to me. Every single one does. Every time this happens, if it’s at a school, a mosque, a church, a grocery store…every time, it feels too close, too real, too wrong. 

And so preventable. Other similarly-situated countries do not have this problem. It’s so incredibly American. My ancestors came to this country to seek freedom from violence; my grandfather, Harry Dobkin, came in 1918 from Russia to get away from pogroms. My grandmother, Florence Dobkin, lost all her cousins in the Holocaust because they stayed behind in Hungary whereas her father came to the U.S. My other grandparents’ families and my husband’s grandparents all came here from Germany at various times for the freedom to live safely and in peace.

Ending gun violence is part of that bargain. America took us in when we needed refuge, and now, we all must collectively seek refuge from within it. 

At the Passover Seder, we tell the story of the Jews being enslaved, begging for freedom, and then wandering in the desert, but we tell the entire story as if WE each were there, personally. “When I was a slave in Egypt,” we say. Obviously, none of us alive today, nor even our most distant of relatives, was actually personally enslaved in Egypt, but we pass the values in the story on to our children through empathy and belonging. This transfers to the way I think about “others.” There are no others. We are all part of humanity. If someone is suffering, we are all obligated to help. 

Jewish tradition also tells us that whoever saves one life saves the whole world. It’s so simple when you think of it that way—how can you not want to help protect as many lives as possible with this perspective in mind? It’s not “whoever saves one Jewish life,” it pertains to any life. 

YZM: How is Lucy’s decision to forgive Avery and continue to be friends inherently Jewish? 

EBI: I love showing a roadmap to forgiveness in the book. In a story that shares more than enough examples of how life can be horribly unfair and sad, I want kids to see examples of how things can go well or be done helpfully. How things can go right. Parents can change. Teachers can be really helpful and caring. Friends can forgive after messing up. 

People make mistakes. Everyone reading this book is going to make a mistake in the near future—humans just do. I wanted to show that Lucy learns that it’s okay to forgive someone if you want to.

I definitely learned this from Judaism. Every Yom Kippur we go to temple and collectively take responsibility for our whole community’s mistakes and transgressions. Together, every year, we ask for forgiveness. We ask for the chance to try again, which is what Avery asks Lucy for. And we forgive each other, when it’s healthy and possible to do so (I have to leave space for the times and instances where forgiveness isn’t healthy or productive). 

I also think of the Passover Seder when I think about this. “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” There’s always a space at the table. Technically, in the book, it’s Avery’s table that Lucy sits down at, but in the more practical sense, it’s Lucy who invites Avery to be part of her life. 

I think Lucy’s whole friendship with Avery is very Jewish in that she is offering space at the table to someone who has historically been excluded. She welcomes the stranger, even when she, herself, is also a stranger. Even once she learns why Avery is an outcast, Lucy doesn’t let other kids’ actions change her feelings about being Avery’s friend. She sees that she’s in a unique position to offer friendship to someone who is so desperately lonely, and she does. And later, she forgives Avery’s mistakes and gives her a second chance. I can’t think of anything more inherently Jewish than that!

YZM: Does this statement: “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it,” from Pirkei Avot relate to AfterMath, either in terms of the book’s content or in our responsibility as readers and Jews?

EBI: Absolutely. I thought about that quote from Pirkei Avot many, many times while writing the book. When it got really difficult to revise it because the material was heavy, I’d think of it. When it was hard to sell the book because a lot of people didn’t want to deal with this “tricky topic,” I thought of it. I come from multiple places of privilege, and a strong feeling from my family of journalists—grandfather and my dad—that words are the most powerful things, and telling stories is the best way to reach people. If I was going to have a platform, it had to mean something. 

I think fear is a very useful tool in life. The things we’re scared of tell us what’s important to us. While I happened to be, as I mentioned before, born into a family that valued ending gun violence, that doesn’t mean I am any less scared of someone I love being affected by it. You can work hard for a cause and still have it terrify you. Writing about it, writing about the fear of losing someone I love, is a powerful way to process that fear, and also to do the work from that phrase from Pirkei Avot. I don’t have the solution to the gun violence crisis in America, but I know I’m obligated to try and make the world better—tikkun olam. And I know that writing about it—and reading about it, and talking about it—is a great start.

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I Didn’t Go to Services This Year, But… Fri, 01 Oct 2021 15:06:00 +0000

The holiday season is officially over. And this year, I didn’t go to High Holiday services because even though I took the day off, a slew of meeting invites showed up in my Inbox anyway, and, apparently, I don’t have any boundaries.

I didn’t go to services because if I didn’t go to the meeting that day we’d have to wait a week to hold it, and a whole lot of other things would have to be put on hold, and it might hold my super hard-working team back a lot, and I might collapse under the weight of all the work that needs doing and the guilt around delaying everyone else’s. 

I didn’t go to services this year because every time I logged on to Zoom services I immediately grew restless and twitchy and grief-triggered and I ended up shopping for hoodies on Lululemon.  

I didn’t go to services this year because there were only in-person services for people who were already members of the synagogue and who had been doubly vaccinated, and I am not a member. Instead, I paid $72 for a guest membership to not access a Zoom link. I have never been a member of a synagogue of my own volition or on my own steam, even though I am probably more Jewish than I am anything else – gendered, queer, scholarly – and it’s clear in retrospect that I probably should have gone to Rabbinical school. 

I didn’t go to services because most of the fun of attending is seeing people you’ve known your whole life but never see except for once a year, and running around to find them during bathroom breaks, and lingering outside catching up until well after the services has finished. I didn’t go to services because turning off a zoom and being thrust into silence is the exact opposite of that lingering.

I didn’t go to services because it was hard to face the mortality of the aging population of my family’s shul, who stared down at the zoom controls confusedly on a pantheon of computers located in the dens of the homes I traipsed through in my youth. It was hard to see who is alone now, in front of the Zoom screen. 

But also, I did go to services a little.

I logged on for the half hour between meetings on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, which coincided perfectly with the Haftarah, in which Hannah bears her soul to the monk at Shiloh; he mistook her for a drunken woman when in fact the grief at her infertility had made her desperate and unhinged. I thought about all the miracle, last-chance babies my friends and fam had this year, how the stay at home of COVID seemed to provide the space needed to procreate with slightly more quiet if not more peace. And I thought of all these sisters following Hannah’s lead, and the just, long-haired Samuels their children will grow up to be, born of a grief that’s given way to surprise, and the risk of relaxing into joyousness. 

I did go to Kol Nidrei, I even logged on a few minutes early and was treated to a livestream of the sanctuary where the choir and the scant few members who were able to make it in person kibbitzed with each other and found their seats and located their prayer books and unwrapped talits. Several hundred of us gazed at the lucky few with sheer delight, observing others do that thing we used to do way back when.

I did sing out the sins and the shortcomings of my year. I did recall the vows, prohibitions, oaths and consecrations that I took in 5781, and these I did repudiate, render undone, abandoned, cancelled, null and void. My vows are no longer vows, my prohibitions no longer prohibitions, my oaths no longer oaths.

I did spend Yom Kippur switching between Zoom services and Leonard Cohen albums, and making a lot of apple cake. 

I did one more thing, too. I invited all of my neighbourhood pals to my backyard to light a Havdalah candle and eat that apple cake. I did watch my children and all their friends and my friends’ faces alight in the glow of the candles, as we adults who knew the words sang the Havdalah, marking the difference between the kodesh and the chol, the sacred from the everyday. I did watch the community we’ve formed out of being a family and loving our neighbours come together in the space we’ve cultivated to hold them. 

One final thing that I did: I stepped firmly into the newness of this new year, unburdened of last year’s ordeals, ready to embrace the fates sealed for me in the book of life. 

Dr. Rachel Berger is a queer femme, a parent of twins, a historian of the body, and a lover of walks living and teaching in Tiohtià:ke/Montreal, where she is Associate Professor of  Modern South Asian History at Concordia University. She writes about these topics, intergenerational trauma, critical Jewish parenthood, and queer life in academic and non-academic venues. Come find her on twitter @slantgirl or on instagram @rachel_of_montreal.

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What Magic Is Ours? Thu, 30 Sep 2021 21:09:56 +0000 You can’t make a voodoo doll, I repeat. It isn’t our magic to use. I think of the magic that should be ours to use, instead. The faith we should have in our mezuzot and our medicine. A magic based on belief in the good. ]]>

You can’t make a voodoo doll, I say, and begin pulling straight pins – one, two, four, arms, legs – out of the thick spool of white thread. The button eyes clatter to the table. It’s against our religion, I say, firm in protest. 

This is the third voodoo doll I’ve disassembled. All of them made from bits of my sewing kit. I don’t really sew. I just feel obligated to keep a well stocked sewing kit: this is one of the things I was brought up to do. My spools of thread are neatly aligned; tubes of needles securely fastened; my pincushion sprouts not even a dozen spikes. I’ve done so little home-keeping over the past year, though we have all kept ourselves at home. 

My son wrinkles his face in consternation and pounds on the table. This doesn’t make sense to him. He gestures toward my kitchen. Toward my plants, my nettles and herbs, my tinctures and remedies, the jars of honeys and syrups shining like stained glass as the sun descends. It is nearly dinner time; I haven’t cooked anything, again. He would like to know: How is voodoo against our religion? 

I say, God doesn’t want us to practice this type of witchcraft. I’m choosing my words carefully. It’s in the Torah. I think. I say, a voodoo doll is like an idol. It’s a representation of an actual person. Also, I say, it belongs to someone else. It’s someone else’s magic. Not ours. We can’t just use someone else’s magic.

What magic is ours, though, these days? Our cantillation and incantations seem to have lost the power they once held over me. Once upon a time, standing for the call to prayer on any given Saturday transported me. Once, as Rosh Hashanah rolled in, night overtaking day, the year and season changing all at once, I felt the opening of the gates, the potential for judgement and release, as keenly as the desperation I feel for breath after spending too long under water. The communal recitation of sin and repentance felt real, in those days: the cycle was one of renewal. Now, there is no renewal.

Now, there is no renewal: only motherhood, too little sleep, not enough nourishment, daily and weekly enactments of the person I am meant to be. I take the last pin out of the spool of thread, line them all up together, wind the skein again. You are a witch, my child says, the accusation one not made with hostility but with logic. If I am a witch, surely he can make a voodoo doll. Again he points out the essential oils, the talismans (pure superstition; I am easily taken in by anything that promises protection from the evil eye). 

I am not even a very good witch, though. I do what I am supposed to do. I brush my hair, put on a skirt, paste a smile to my face, and go to services, where there is no more magic. I wait for it: I wait for the wave, for the moment that I will be pushed under, for the breathless panic of being thrown down-shore by the sudden rip of the tide. I hope that my grief will stop, or will overtake me: that I will be snatched from the barren place where I live now, where loss waltzes in periodically without so much as announcing its arrival, and shakes the edges of my tables, knocking everything out of alignment. One day, I hope, this disruptive force will take me one way or the other. In or out. No more in between.

The pins roll on the table. They won’t stay together. 

You can’t make a voodoo doll, I repeat. It isn’t our magic to use. 

I think of the magic that should be ours to use, instead. The faith we should have in our mezuzot and our medicine. A magic based on belief in the good. 

Old Jewish ideas about magic rely on an understanding that there is something like a middle world, a place not part of the material world where we spend our daily lives, and not quite part of the spirit world. This is where one might – theoretically, if it were permitted – be able to conjure from. This is where angels and demons traverse, where protection from the evil eye might be acquired. This is where the last lines of El Malei Rachamim come from, the lines that promise our deceased beloved will be protected by the Master of Mercy forever, that hidden behind El Malei Rachamim’s wings, the beloved’s soul will be tied to the rope of life forever. Do we ever really lose them, then? Or do they just linger in the in-between place, waiting for us, or waiting for something else?

This is where I spend much of my time now, I think: in the in-between. Unable to bring myself to cook a decent meal, or to sew the holes in the children’s stuffed animals, or to venture back into the virus-soaked world, I try to remember the words to the psalms and fail. I have not sung the psalms since the pregnancy I lost – the particularly bad one. We’ve moved, now, many times, leaving behind community after community. Sometimes, I think, we don’t belong anywhere. Lately, I struggle to sing the morning prayers and simply sing, over and over, Baruch she’amar v’hayah ha’olam; baruch hu. Baruch omer v’oseh. Blessed is the one who spoke, and the world came into being. Blessed is the one who speaks, and who does. These words echo against all the echo words, and drown them out. These words become the only words. 

The ambiguous grief of the past eighteen months has sparked a rehearsal of personal, collective, national loss, the same way that an anxious brain will begin, at the moment sleep is meant to descend, to replay every wretched thing it can recall. I am parched. The water has left me. Or I have left the water. In the in-between, I distrust the water. I distrust my own eyes; I barely see my living children, the ones in front of me, asking for a spell that will bring their mother back. 

I stick the pins into the pincushion and my child scowls.

Bread, I say. And water. We don’t make dolls. 

Ta’aniyot 5:9: This is the rite observed by the people as a whole who cannot endure more. In contrast, the rite observed by the pious of the earlier generations was as follows:4 A person would sit alone between the oven and the cooking range. Others would bring him dried bread and salt. He would dip it in water and drink a pitcher of water while worried, forlorn, and in tears, as one whose dead was lying before him.

“This is the rite observed by the people as whole who cannot endure more”. In contrast. The contrast refers to an explanation many verses earlier, a description of collective calamity and collective response by a people who cannot endure more. We tell ourselves, we cannot endure more. We can endure more. The collective informs the individual response. We turn to our collective response to understand our solitary grief: bread, and water. 

In compensation for taking his pins, his buttons, his spool of thread, I bring out the bowl – twice a hand-me-down, gifted at my wedding, the bowl I use only for the most special of things, striped in blue and purple and brown and grey, the sea that flows through the world and through me and through my children wrapped in its colors – and the flour, and the yeast. The salt and the sugar. The eggs and the oil. And the water. I haven’t done this in months, but I know that pushing my hands into the dough is its own magic. The pins won’t stay together, but the dough will. 

A round loaf, I say. You can measure.

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Photos: Standing With the Women of Afghanistan Thu, 30 Sep 2021 18:47:00 +0000

Last Saturday, September 25, 2021, women’s rights groups worldwide took to the streets in a day of global solidarity, demanding action for women in Afghanistan. Women of the world, from over 85 countries, rose, roared and raged—calling upon governments, the UN Security Council, and regional entities to: 

Refuse to recognize a Taliban government, which has no legitimacy beyond the brutal force it commands, and which terrorizes the people of Afghanistan, girls and women in particular and to defend women’s rights, which are under threat in all countries, and uphold the principles of equality and secularism as the backbone of the protection of these rights + a host of other concerns including to the country. ensure the safe passage of women and men, human rights defenders, journalists, police officers, public employees, athletes, and LGBTI+ people who wish to leave the country who wish to leave the country.

 NYC’s event took place at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, in sight and sound of the United Nations as the UN General Assembly met. Testimonies from Afghan women on the ground and from the RAWA (Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan) were read by Afghan activists In NYC, such as Afghans for a Better Tomorrow, Afghan Hands and Afghan artists, as well as by American activists Jodie Evans and Medea Benjamin of Code Pink.

The event was led by Afghan activists and artists Fatima Rahmati, Leeza Ahmady, Farah Arjang Vezvaee, Matin Maulawizada (co-founder Afghan Hands), Halema Wali (Afghans for a Better Tomorrow), poet Wazina Zondon, Sonita Alizada, along with women’s rights activists V (formerly Eve Ensler) (founder of V-Day).

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‘The Dressmakers of Auschwitz’—Jewish Women’s Resistance and Heroism Wed, 29 Sep 2021 15:49:00 +0000

In the early 1940s, twenty-five young female inmates of Auschwitz—mostly Jewish—were chosen to design, cut and sew beautiful clothes in a dedicated salon for elite Nazi women. Their skills kept them alive and their stories are now told in The Dressmakers of Auschwitz (Harper, $17.99). Novelist and costume historian Lucy Adlington talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about this little known chapter in the larger saga of the Holocaust, and what it can tell us about both the depth and the scope of Nazi depravity. 

YZM: How did you first uncover this story? And how did you go about finding the women who had been employed in this ghastly setting?

LA: There are so many voices, faces and memories lost to history. It is thanks to a remarkable Jewish scholar named Dr. Lore Shelley (née Weinberg) that it’s been possible to trace the history of the dressmaking salon in Auschwitz and the identity of many of the dressmakers. Young Lore was deported from Germany to Auschwitz where she eventually found work in the SS admin block, sharing a dormitory with the elite dressmakers as well as 300 other inmate secretaries and servants, all forced to work for the SS to survive. Many decades—and multiple academic degrees later—Lore Shelley reached out to survivors for their testimonies, realizing that it was a matter of urgency to record their stories. Among the stories are three accounts by women of the dressmaking salon, called the Upper Tailoring Studio. This was a start for my research, but it was almost a dead-end for a while. In most cases I only had maiden names, first names or nicknames to trace. Remarkably, it was fiction that helped on my journey towards fact. I wrote a YA novel called The Red Ribbon—an imaginative response to what little I knew of the sewing workshop. It reached a wide readership, and caught the attention of survivors’ families in Israel, Europe and the USA. They were swiftly in touch, generously sharing photographs and memoirs. Can you imagine how extraordinary this was? I was overwhelmed, particularly when I first made contact with the last surviving seamstress of the salon in 2019—a bright 98-year-old named Mrs. Kohut, who was more than willing to talk of her experiences and her friends from the camp.

YZM: Had these women told their stories before? What was it like both for them as witnesses and for you as the listener/researcher?

LA: “You listen!” commanded Mrs. Kohut as we sat together during my visit to her home in California. She’d kept silent about Auschwitz while her children were small, hoping to protect them from knowledge of the horrors and from antisemitism in their home country of Czechoslovakia. Eventually she agreed to record her testimony for the Shoah Foundation. Two other dressmakers from the salon did the same. Three women sent hand-written or typed testimonies to Dr. Lore Shelley. 

Understandably there was some reluctance from survivors to revisit traumatic memories, yet they faced this, believing it was vital for the truth to be told. When they were first interviewed about their Holocaust experiences for the Shoah Foundation, there was no emphasis on the significance of sewing fashions for the camp commandant’s wife; of how much this revealed of Nazi policies and privilege. The dressmakers wanted to honor memories of pre-war family life; to remember those who were lost as well as how some survived. Now I sense that the second and third generations of survivor families are proud that their mothers, aunts and grandmothers are to be honored too. They may seem ‘ordinary’ in the vast scope of history, but their lives and fates will now be shared with a worldwide audience.

It has been both harrowing and humbling for me to be part of such an endeavor. Being immersed, daily, in such disturbing, such intimate, such devastating stories gave me a vital reminder that history isn’t only facts and analysis: it’s people

My biggest regret as a historian is that I began this book too late to speak with the other seamstresses in person. ‘She should have come ten years ago,’ said Mrs. Kohut after my first visit. I suppose it’s a universal problem: by the time we’re old enough to know what to ask our grandparents and parents, it’s often too late. However, it’s never too late to rescue memories from oblivion, and to save and share the stories we can.

YZM: You’ve said that the removal of Jews from the fashion industry and clothing trade was not an accidental by-product of antisemitism but rather an intended goal. Can you elaborate?

LA: At first, a connection between fascism and fashion seems bizarre, almost unbelievable. But the Nazis not only understood the power of clothing imagery in politics—think of the iconic uniforms at mass rallies—they also appreciated the business side of clothing. In short, they knew the textile trade was a major part of the German economy, and they wanted all the profits for themselves. State-sanctioned antisemitism was the perfect tool for seizing Jewish assets in the fashion and clothing industries, from department stores and weaving factories, down to bolts of fabric and sewing machines. The acquisition process was known as ‘Aryanisation.” It was legal robbery. In my collection of vintage clothing I have a pretty apple-green dress with a floral pattern. The label stitched inside reads ‘ADEFA.’ ADEFA is an acronym for a German federation dedicated to eliminating Jewish talent from the clothing industry and to acquiring Jewish assets by whatever means necessary. The federation urged shoppers to shun Jewish-made goods from Jewish shops, and to buy only from German (Aryan) suppliers. The apple-green dress looks so lovely, and so innocent, but it is saturated with antisemitism. The dress has a story to tell, even if we don’t now know who made it, who sold it, who bought it, who wore it… and if they ever spared a thought for the victims of these aggressive Aryanisation policies.

YZM: Let’s talk about the ways in which the appropriation of Jewish businesses and goods was both a “glorified shopping spree” and an “orgy of consumerism”.

LA: “I intend to loot, and to loot thoroughly,” said Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering, speaking of Nazi expansion across Europe and beyond. His wife Emmy seemed to have no objections. Like many SS wives she enjoyed the perks of ‘gifts’ from anyone looking to gain favor with Hitler’s cronies. It wasn’t only treasure-hoarding elite Nazis or greedy business operators who profited from appropriation. Jews were vulnerable to their neighbors and former colleagues, who eyed up Jewish goods and shops, and muscled into take what they wanted. Worse would follow. Deportations of Jewish people were specifically encouraged by Nazis and their allies, so that Jewish homes and belongings could be taken over or auctioned off. 

Those deported took only what they could carry. On arrival at concentration camps and extermination centers this too was taken from them—suitcases, handbags, prams and purses…and the very clothes they were wearing. Thousands of camp inmates labored to sort the plunder and bundle it up. Valuables were boxed up and sent straight to Berlin (minus the gold, currency and jewelery pilfered by SS at the camps). Clothing and personal items were freighted back to Germany to be distributed to civilians in need—keeping the population semi-sweet during long years of war-economy shortages. Everyone benefited except the actual owners of the goods. In Auschwitz the commandant’s wife, Hedwig Hoess, calmly filled her house with plundered furniture, artwork, soft furnishings and clothes. Whatever she wanted was hers for the taking, or the making, by work kommandos of slave laborers, including the group of prisoner seamstresses who sewed for her.

YZM: Dressmaking was a financial resort for so many women because it required little equipment and could be done within the confines of home; did this have particular importance for Jewish women?

LA: When fascist governments decreed that Jews could not own or run businesses, and that they could not study at university or practice their trades, this inevitably led to great distress and economic hardship. In Slovakia Bracha Berkovič and Irene Reichenberg—two of the young women who would end up sewing for Hedwig Hoess—were both bewildered and worried when their fathers lost their businesses this way, and when their own vocational training plans were also ruined. Irene’s father was a shoemaker. He continued to eke out a subsistence working discretely from home, until deportation. Bracha’s father was a tailor. He resolved to teach his children tailoring skills so they’d have something to fall back on. Bracha, Irene and their friend Renée took clandestine sewing lessons. “I decided to learn to sew a little bit,” said Irene. What a fateful decision. 

Dressmaking and sewing are often overlooked in economic histories, and yet they are a fundamental element of household management and a vital source of income, particularly during war. Jewish women had to be thrifty and resilient to support their families in such desperate times. There are countless tales of knitters unravelling old woolens to make them up into new garments to sell; of embroiderers embellishing textiles as so earning money from their skills; of seamstresses crafting clothing out of any fabrics they could find. Once deported to ghettos and concentration camps, many traditional female skills were considered surplus to requirements: the Nazis required labour to support their war efforts. Sewing was one of the ways women could earn daily bread and a ‘right to life’. Despite Nazis announcing that the German clothing industry would be ‘Jew-free’, they were still happy to distribute clothes and uniforms stitched by Jews…and to enjoy the enormous profits from these textile enterprises.

YZM: What distinguished the twenty-five women in the Upper Tailoring Studio? What, besides their skill with a needle, kept them alive?

LA: There were thousands of seamstresses imprisoned in Auschwitz between 1942 and 1945—most there for the ‘crime’ of being Jewish, according to Nazi laws. Some were from distinguished couture houses; some had run salons of their own. The women chosen to sew in the SS fashion salon weren’t picked because they were the best or the most illustrious. They were saved because of luck and loyalty. Luck gave Jewish dressmaker Marta Fuchs the chance to work at the Hoess villa, making clothes for all the commandant’s family. Loyalty meant Marta was determined to salvage as many friends and family members as possible from the hell of hard labour and the threat of the gas chambers. Clever and compassionate, Marta constantly pushed for more dressmakers in the salon Hedwig Hoess established for herself and other SS wives. Marta’s sister was married to one of Irene’s brothers, so Irene eventually came to sew. Irene then mentioned her friend Bracha. Bracha put in a word for her sister Katka…and so it went. Within the salon the women had clean uniforms, not filthy rags. They still had dire food, but they did not have to fight for it. Marta even evolved the salon into a hub for resistance, linking with the camp underground. Essentially, the dressmakers were reminded that they were human beings, not ‘vermin’ as the SS termed them. They had meaningful work, camaraderie and a chance to hope.

YZM: Describe the aftermath of that experience for those who survived it. Did the bonds they forged last past the war years?

LA: The dressmakers held together as long as was humanly possible, bound by love and loyalty. They supported each other during the horrific Death March from Auschwitz, and in subsequent concentration camps. Those who survived travelled homeward together after liberation. Together they searched for relatives—usually in vain. They salvaged dignity and independence together. They acquired sewing machines and began dressmaking work again together. Inevitably marriage, and the search for safe havens outside of Europe, meant their bonds were stretched—but they never broke. There were letters, telegrams, phone calls; eventually Skype and emails. Whenever possible, the dressmakers gathered for reunions, where they laughed and chatted like schoolgirls according to those who saw them together. They supported each other during divorces, bereavements, wars, restitution battles, medical troubles and mental trauma. And now their families are also joined by the bonds woven in that infamous dressmaking studio.

YZM: What light does the story of these women shed on the larger story of the Holocaust? What remains of the studio and how is it viewed and understood today?

LA: The history of these dressmakers of Auschwitz is important because it centers on a particularly female experience and gives credit to the skills of fashion design and sewing. It raises issues of complicity of bystanders and perpetrators, such as German shoppers and SS wives in the Third Reich. It shows how greed was a significant motivator for Nazi plunder and atrocities. It is proof that there was Jewish resistance in many forms, and innumerable acts of quiet heroism.

The building that housed the Upper Tailoring Studio is still standing. It is a Polish vocational college, just across from the Auschwitz main camp. When I wrote to the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum archives enquiring after documentation about the salon they said nothing remains in the archives: the SS had a bonfire of evidence before their retreat in January 1945. Beyond the testimonies gathered by Dr. Lore Shelley there is almost nothing known about the fashion workshop. Until now.

The most important aspect of my book is that it gives voice to women who were supposed to be silenced by genocide. Dr. Lore Shelley wrote of survivors: “We all should have testified long ago, but I believe it is never too late.” This book is the dressmakers’ testament.

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More on the “Jewish Jane Austen” Tue, 28 Sep 2021 19:23:44 +0000

Lost Ladies of Lit is a book podcast hosted by writing partners Amy Helmes and Kim Askew. Guests include biographers, journalists, authors, and cultural historians discussing lost classics by women writers.

On the heels of Josh Lambert’s Lilith feature on Emma Wolf, the podcast dug into her life and work. Wolf, the first American Jewish writer to be published by the most important presses of her time, lived a life of privilege in upper-middle-class San Francisco society at the turn of the 20th century. Sarah Seltzer, executive editor of Lilith Magazine, joined Kim and Amy to discuss the once-popular author and her debut novel of 1892, Other Things Being Equal, which tackles “the marriage plot” — with an interfaith twist. 

Listen below, and find the transcript and link at the podcast’s site.

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Embodying Eve Sat, 25 Sep 2021 13:00:00 +0000 This origin story of Adam & Eve has been used to punish, to instill regret, to sever us from one another. What if it's also our salvation?


The story of Adam and Eve and the exile from Eden lies at the heart of our mythic consciousness. The ways we interpret this story fundamentally shape how we see ourselves — flawed from the get-go; how we characterize the more than human world — conniving and shrewd; how we understand the act of eating — dangerous; how we see women — responsible for the downfall of humanity. 

This origin story has been used to punish, to instill regret, to sever us from one another, from the natural world and from ourselves. Our foundational story of transgression is one that casts women and snakes and the fruit of trees and the intuition of the body as responsible for our downfall. What if, instead, they are our salvation? Let us re-encounter this story of our mythic origins so that we may begin to heal these fractures and repair these ruptures.

To re-encounter and re-interpret the stories that have shaped us is perhaps the ultimate act of teshuva.

These stories — personal or collective — become so ingrained in us that they come to dictate our future without our conscious knowledge or consent. These stories are implicit contracts we have made and are bound by. It is these stories that form the foundation of our laws, our policies and our relationships. There is nothing more Jewish than evolving our telling of a particular story — be it of our childhood, of our relationship to nature, of the founding of a nation — as our consciousness grows. 

At the start of this new year, may we reclaim our mythic story of how we as humans began, as a step towards reclaiming all those stories in our lives that need retelling. May we feel not only the permission — but the imperative — of this sacred act. And may this break through the rigidity that has kept these stories in place for too long.

Rather than transgression and punishment, perhaps what the story of Eve has to teach us is this:

Attune yourself to the small signs of new life,
red and ripe on the branches;
allow yourself to follow what you find pleasing to your senses
and resonant as sources of wisdom for your soul;
share what you find generously with your companions.
Discover that what you need is all around you and within you,
in every moment — in your body, in the land,
in your interrelationships within the web of creation. 

As this past year ends, may we heed the wisdom of the snake as we slough off the layers of self that no longer serve us and turn the quality of our attention towards what’s waiting underneath to emerge. As the new year blooms, may we embody the courage of Eve as we step out of our places of comfort and privilege, opening our eyes ever-wider to the complexity of the world. And may we know that the earth is waiting to receive the old stories we have to shed, and that our job is to — with reverence and gratitude — let these stories decompose back into the dust of the earth from which they came, so that new stories — new life — may blossom.

Rabbi Adina Allen, co-founder and Creative Director of Jewish Studio Project, is a spiritual leader, writer and educator who believes in the power of creativity to revitalize our lives, transform Jewish tradition, and aid in the work of positive social change.

Art by Pat Allen.

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What Would it Look Like to Create Safe, Inclusive Spaces for Jews of Color? Fri, 24 Sep 2021 18:42:12 +0000 We need faith-based spaces where the participants are not seen as the ‘other.’ Spaces where we are not told ‘you don’t look Jewish’ or asked, ‘no, where are you really from?’


It was the Spring of 2005. I had just arrived in the Midwest and was so excited for what I thought was my dream job: the Director of Youth Services for a Jewish nonprofit. But, what started as a dream turned out to be a nightmare.

Out of 50 staff members, I was the only Jew of Color (JOC). Microaggressions from colleagues, interrogations of my Jewishness by program participants, and outright racism from staffers throughout the organization made every single day a monumental challenge. The janitor—the only other Black employee in the entire organization—routinely checked in on me during his rounds because I was often hiding in my office crying. Not only did the experience ultimately turn me off from wanting to work in the Jewish community, but it also left me not wanting to be in the Jewish community. It was four years of hardship, pain, and healing. My desire to reenter the community only came when I finally developed a close friendship with another Black Jewish woman, who reinvigorated my Jewish engagement. 

That first professional experience was daunting. Afterward, I felt I had to redefine my entire career plan, which was initially embedded in my faith. This shift, similar to my re-immersion into Jewish life, took several years. It was only during a year of service with AmeriCorps VISTA on a university campus in Connecticut that I was able to finally realize what I actually wanted to do with my life. That year of service led to a master’s degree, which then led to a career in higher education where I discovered a love of advising emerging adults. In my work, we would hone in on identity development and I would help guide them to also discover their professional and personal goals. 

It means that even as we sing camp songs, daven, do community service, bake challah and celebrate chagim with joy and love, we still also expereince exclusion, invisibility and marginalization.

This need all stemmed from my time at that nonprofit. That disheartening experience of my first job and the triumph of finding my professional purpose came together in work I am now doing at Avodah—an organization that runs a year-long service corps for early-career professional Jewish leaders. To see young JOCs not having to endure a similar first professional experience is exactly what excites me about the launch of a new program, the JOC Bayit

For many of its participants, the JOC Bayit will be their first time engaging in Jewish community space without being othered as a racial or ethnic minority. In interviewing potential Corps Members, I asked an applicant why they had chosen to apply to the JOC Bayit. They responded that they have loved all their Jewish experiences at camp, in a high school youth group, and on their university campus, but they had only ever been the only Jewish person of color in those spaces. Then, they stopped and paused and said, ‘well, you know what I mean.’ 

As Jews of color, many of us know exactly what that means. It means that even as we sing camp songs, daven, do community service, bake challah and celebrate chagim with joy and love, we still also experience exclusion, invisibility and marginalization. 

My hope is that for these young people, the experience of being in community with other Jews of color will be much like that friendship with another Black Jewish woman that restarted my Jewish journey. That they will get to be – maybe for the first time – their wholly authentic self, in community that embraces both their racial and Jewish identities. A Juneteenth Seder, tamales for Shabbat dinner, or adding a Malida offering to a Tu B’Shvat ritual may be some of the ways that this manifests in the JOC Bayit. But it will also be the discussions that they have at their nightly dinners or during programming that examines methods of social change or what’s Jewish about social justice. 

Unfortunately, not everyone is attuned to the challenges of being both Jewish and a person of color. When learning of opportunities or programs specifically for JOCs, many white Jews object on the grounds that it is exclusionary or even racist. Suggesting a JOC-centered space is racist is difficult to take seriously for many reasons. Creating spaces where people of  similar backgrounds and experiences can learn and grow together provides them with safety and inclusivity — especially for those who are often marginalized in majority-white and majority-white Jewish spaces, to grow and form community.

Even at predominantly white colleges and universities, there is an incredible amount of research that shows how BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, & People of Color) students are more engaged and have higher retention and graduation rates when they are part of BIPOC spaces and are able to form meaningful connections with other BIPOC students and BIPOC faculty and staff. And women’s colleges, too, report more alumni positions of leadership and power than alumni from mixed-gender institutions. As JOCs,–we are seeking spaces that allow us to exist as our whole selves in a community where the “typical” Jewish experience may bear little resemblance to our own. 

We need faith-based spaces where the participants are not seen as the ‘other.’ Spaces where we are not told ‘you don’t look Jewish’ or asked, ‘no, where are you really from?’ Many folks will say that JOCs are new to them or that they haven’t met us at their synagogues. But we are not new – and those questions can hurt. I think of my own experiences at a shul where I attended Shabbat services every week, taught Hebrew school and was the youth group advisor. Yet, I was still asked on a regular basis why I was there. It will take time to rewrite a different story about who we are, in all our glory and richness as a diverse faith and people. Until then, creating the space for JOCs to freely be Jewish is critical. There is much work to do to make sure that we can become the best version of who we already are. 

Readers can learn more and apply to the Avodah JOC Bayit here.

Jennifer Turner is Avodah’s New York City Service Corps Program Director and the Program Director of the JOC Bayit. She is passionately committed to sparking a lifelong love of service and commitment to social justice in emerging adults. Prior to joining Avodah, Jennifer was the Student Activities Coordinator at SUNY New Paltz and was prior the Civic Engagement Coordinator at University of Bridgeport. Jennifer is also a four-term AmeriCorps VISTA alum. She holds an M.S. in Counseling from University of Bridgeport and a B.L.S. in Politics and Religion from the University of Memphis. Jennifer lives in New York with her dog, Zora. In her free time, she enjoys traveling and entertaining friends.

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