Lilith Magazine https://lilith.org Independent, Jewish & Frankly Feminist Sat, 19 Jun 2021 13:55:13 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.7.2 Beyond Exodus: A Psalm for Juneteenth https://lilith.org/2021/06/a-psalm-for-juneteenth/ https://lilith.org/2021/06/a-psalm-for-juneteenth/#respond Fri, 18 Jun 2021 17:55:24 +0000 https://lilith.org/?p=22247 As I imagine (the way I do as an artist), what freedom meant in 1865 in Galveston, while simultaneously reflecting on what it means to me today, I invite you to celebrate the freedom, brilliance, and resilience of Black people

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My Juneteenth began this year in late May when my friend Megan hit me up saying,  “Wait hold on… So literally I just learned that the entire Passover story is a lie. We need to talk about this.” 

It took a few weeks to actually talk about it. I believed Megan, but held off on my own search. 

“Is it true that Jews weren’t slaves in Egypt?” I thought aloud. “How did I miss this in all of my years at Hebrew School and Passover tables?” Evidently, this fundamental truth of my Jewish identity may not be historically true. I searched, I clicked, I read. I even asked a rabbi, “Hey, what’s up with this thing about Jews not being slaves?” I received no conclusive answers–apparently, scholars continue to debate the historical accuracy of this biblical text. 

If we were not enslaved in Egypt,  what does this mean for us as a people? (speaking as an American Jew here).

What does this mean for how white Jews have aligned themselves with Black people who were enslaved in the United States? (speaking as a Black American here).

I was managing my Jewish existential crisis fairly well when I read an email from a Jewish organization asking me to write a Psalm for Juneteenth, the holiday celebrating the emancipation of Black Americans from slavery. Clearly I had some things to consider. 

Passover is the most obvious material to reference in writing a new Psalm that speaks to the emancipation of Black people from slavery. But what does this mean for the kinship that Jews have often created with Blacks through the slavery narrative? In writing the psalm, I did not want to rely on the story of Exodus to be the bridge that connects us. Without this biblical bridge, how should white Jews celebrate this part of the Black experience without making it about themselves? (A question which we’re answering in real time).

I am a Black American, and a descendant of the Kingdom of Eswatini where my father is from. Therefore, I am not a direct descendant of American slavery. However (and this is equally important), I have inherited Black American history and inhabit my own Black history, present, and future. I am Black and I’m proud….I’m Black y’all.

Still, I felt a higher standard of specificity was important around this history of Juneteenth, particularly while using those royal and congregational “we’s.” 

As I imagine (the way I do as an artist), what freedom meant in 1865 in Galveston, while simultaneously reflecting on what it means to me today, I invite you to celebrate the freedom, brilliance, and resilience of Black people. And I invite you to celebrate and participate in the dismantling of white supremacy today and everyday. 


A Psalm for Juneteenth

Be’chol Lashon’s Liturgy: Juneteenth 2021

Clap your hands, all you nations 

Shout to God with cries of joy 

Black is Queen!

Black is King!

Black is Free!

Black is Free.

Why is this day different from all other days? 

On this day the message of freedom was no longer delayed

Galveston, Texas 1865, and Today

May I carry the message of freedom

May I receive the message of freedom 

May I stretch my arms wide, breathing deeply

May a gust of wind blow boundless through my mind

May I remember forgotten dreams

May tears escape from my eyes and evaporate skillfully on my cheek

May joyful shouts escape from my mouth as freely as birds fly into pink sky over salty water 

May I lull myself and others into a peaceful sway by singing: 

Oh Beautiful, Willow Weep For Me, The Sweetest Sound, Go Tell It On The Mountain of This Little Light of Mine…

May our teeth shine as we smile at one another

May we cook, may we potluck together, giving thanks to the God in each of us

On this day we eat soul food, infused with the spirit of freedom

On this day we relax in the spirit of freedom

On this day we dance in the spirit of freedom

On this day we laugh in the spirit of freedom

On this day we tell the story in the spirit of freedom, we spread the news!

And as we clasp hands, all you nations

Our palms transmit an inner whisper

No words of false equivalency are shared

Only the inner language of God 

Heard in silence: 

Freedom.


Rebecca S’manga Frank is a Black American Jew descendant from the Kingdom of Eswatini and Eastern Europe. She is a writer, actor, director, educator and filmmaker. Recently her work has been featured at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Society Theatre, JCC Manhattan, JCC Global, LABA New York (2021 Fellow), Elm Shakespeare Company, with Reboot for DAWN, and other artistic, religious, and/or cultural institutions.

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Prayer for the 17-Year Cicadas https://lilith.org/2021/06/prayer-for-the-17-year-cicadas/ https://lilith.org/2021/06/prayer-for-the-17-year-cicadas/#respond Tue, 15 Jun 2021 13:00:00 +0000 https://lilith.org/?p=22199 We will curse the noise when really we should bless them all—everything is as it should be.

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Originally posted on Ritualwell.

Soon
they will tunnel their way up out of the ground,
millions of them
screaming their mating song,
landing in our hair.
We will curse the noise, 
the swarming of locusts
as if it were the eighth plague,
when really we should bless them all—
their proof that everything is as it should be. 

The 17-year-cicada knows nothing of this mess we’ve made,
our firearms, our cracked ozone,
our White supremacy.
It only knows that after 17 years underground,
It is time to emerge, make ecstatic love, lay eggs,
die.

I tell my 17-year-old son,
the willful atheist,
of the days when I pushed his infant stroller
along the sidewalks of Baltimore,
their exoskeletons crunching beneath the wheels.
How I wondered what my baby boy 
would be like 
the next time they rose out of the earth
to greet us,
knowing that without fail, they would.

I tell him that maybe this is what we mean 
when we say the word
God.

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A Q&A with Novelist Ava Reid https://lilith.org/2021/06/a-qa-with-novelist-ava-reid/ https://lilith.org/2021/06/a-qa-with-novelist-ava-reid/#respond Mon, 14 Jun 2021 19:20:00 +0000 https://lilith.org/?p=22155 The Wolf and the Woodsman is a book about identity crisis, on both a micro and macro scale.

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In her forest-veiled pagan village, Évike is the only woman without power, making her an outcast clearly abandoned by the gods. Her fellow villagers blame her corrupted bloodline—her father was one of the much-loathed servants of the fanatical king. When soldiers arrive from the Holy Order of Woodsmen to claim a pagan girl for the king’s blood sacrifice, fellow villagers betray Évike and surrender.  

So begins The Wolf and the Woodsman (HarperCollins), a complex, haunting and fable-like exploration of Jewish history in Eastern Europe.  Debut novelist Ava Reid talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about how—and why—she wove these many strands into a highly original literary tapestry.

YZM: Tell us about your background. What drew you to your subject? 

AR: I actually came to Hungarian history through contemporary politics, and the politics of modern-day Hungary sort of formed the apparatus through, which I then interpreted and studied the history. I was writing a paper for one of my classes on refugees and forced migration and decided to focus on the mass exodus of Romani from Hungary to Canada. Through that, I learned that pogroms against Romani are still taking place in Hungary, driving many to leave the country.

Jews and Romani are different peoples and have different cultures and identities, but much of our history runs parallel. The persecution of both Jews and Roma is predicated upon the notion that we’re not “truly” European (in this case “truly” Hungarian), that we’re outsiders or even intruders upon the Hungarian nation-state. Other classes about the violence of state formation helped me craft the rest of the story: about a country still taking shape, struggling to define its identity, and cruelty with which groups such as Jews and Roma were excluded from that.  

YZM: You’ve said, “I wanted to write something that at least attempted to do justice to the contributions that Jews have made to Eastern European history and culture, and to write Jews in fantasy that aren’t poorly rendered as gold-grubbing goblins, or as a people defined only by their misery and oppression.”  Can you elaborate? 

AR: Jews have had a pretty rough go of it in the fantasy genre, going all the way back to Grimm. We’re allegorized as impish shysters who will beguile you into impossible bargains (Rumpelstiltskin) or as the miserable victims of persecution and violence (The Jews Among the Thorns). Classic fantasy tropes about vermin-like cabals who secretly influence royal politics have their origins in medieval antisemitism, as do a lot of motifs of human sacrifice, cannibalism, and blood-drinking. Goblins are the stereotypical fantasy stand-in for Jews—think J.K. Rowling’s take on them as hook-nosed, treacherous, greedy bankers—and even when we aren’t portrayed as malevolent, there’s a sort of inherent misery to our very existence, a rootlessness and abiding despair.

I wanted to write a book about us, about both the pain of exclusion and the beauty of the diaspora, about the thorny and complicated history that gentiles seem entirely ignorant to, or perhaps too afraid to even touch.

As the fantasy genre in recent years filled with Eastern European-inspired fantasy, I started wondering where my people were in all of this. Why don’t we belong in Russian-inspired fantasy? The Pale of Settlement comprised 20% of the territory of imperial Russia. Eastern European Jews contributed enormously to the larger culture and history. Every time I read about a fantasy character wearing a kokoshnik (a traditional Russian headdress), I think about the ancestral name of my direct maternal line, Kokoshky, and the apocryphal family stories we have about them being tailors to the tsar.

We’re seeing an upswell in diverse fantasy, fantasy that moves beyond the typical vaguely western European setting, but I never saw Jews included in any of that. I wanted to write a book about us, about both the pain of exclusion and the beauty of the diaspora, about the thorny and complicated history that gentiles seem entirely ignorant to, or perhaps too afraid to even touch.

YZM: You chose to tell this story as a kind of fable; can you talk about why you did that and what it allowed you to accomplish? 

AR: Fairy tales and folklore are incredibly valuable cultural touchstones that confer soft power, which is why they’re so contested, even in the modern era. Every nation has a national myth: in this country, we have an entire holiday celebrating the absurdly fallacious narrative of white settlers peacefully breaking bread with Native Americans; in Hungary, they have the myth of the turul (a legendary bird) leading the Magyar tribes to the “uninhabited” Carpathian basin. Folklore is used to build power or reify existing power structures.

Given that, I wanted to write a story that felt folkloric but actually turned a mirror to the viciousness and falsehoods upon which national myths are built. People always ask if The Wolf and the Woodsman is a fairy tale retelling, but it’s really almost a parody of a fairy tale.

YZM: Can you talk about your trip to Hungary in 2019, and the legacy of antisemitism? 

AR: Budapest is absolutely strewn with Holocaust memorials. Just in the course of a week, I saw the shoes on the Danube bank, a memorial for Jews who were massacred by the Arrow Cross (the Hungarian Nazi party). They were shot on the riverbank so that their bodies fell into the water and floated away. I visited the Dohány Street synagogue, the largest synagogue in Europe. Built to seat 3,000, a mere fraction of that now fills its rows on Shabbos. The Dohány Street synagogue was the historical border of the Jewish ghetto in Budapest, so while it’s not common for synagogues to be adjacent to graveyards, the Dohány Street synagogue is also the site of a mass grave—2,000 Jews, among the 10,000 who perished before the Russians liberated the ghetto. It was the only site I visited in all of Budapest that required us to pass through a metal detector.

All of this sat alongside things like fliers that advocated for the restoration of “Greater Hungary,” the territory that was part of the Kingdom of Hungary prior to the Treaty of Trianon, and encompassed parts of modern-day Romania, Slovakia, Poland, Austria, and Ukraine. This political goal is part of what drew the Hungarians to collaborate with Germany during World War II. I saw the empty, shuttered campus of Central European University, which was forcibly closed in 2018 by Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, as part of his feud with George Soros—a Hungarian-Jewish billionaire and Holocaust survivor and a favorite scapegoat of fascists everywhere.

I took a cab ride with a man who proudly sported an Arrow Cross/turul tattoo on the back of his head. The turul is one of the symbols of the Arrow Cross. These myths aren’t dead or fettered by time or history; they’re alive and they have teeth. How on earth can you write a book about Hungarian Jews, even in a secondary-world fantasy, and not take any of this into account? It’s irresponsible; it’s dangerous.

YZM: The Yehuli in the book are a representation for the Jewish ethnicity.  Can you talk about how you conceived and developed them in the novel? 

AR: This was one of the most difficult parts of writing the book, because of course you want to be respectful when dealing with real culture and history. The most important thing to me, though, was to acknowledge the complexity of the diaspora. It was painful, certainly, but we are also more than our marginalization. And when the Yehuli are offered a “country” of their own, they reject it, because Hungary (Régország) is their home. They are part of the diverse, thorny, complicated history of Hungary, and to deny that would be to concede everything to the Christians (Patritians). It would be to concede everything to the proponents of Greater Hungary, to Viktor Orbán and his followers, to the people who walk Budapest proudly with Arrow Cross tattoos. I wanted to say unequivocally, Jews belong here and always have.

The Wolf and the Woodsman is a book about identity crisis, on both a micro and macro scale.

YZM: Évike and Gaspar begin as enemies yet find much common ground by the end; was this your way of expressing optimism about the future of Jews in Eastern Europe or even in the world? 

AR: That was part of it, definitely. Évike and Gáspár are both outcasts—Évike for her Jewish heritage; Gáspár for his foreign blood—who manage to fight their way into the story, to make a place for themselves in myths and history. The book ends with the hope for the peaceful coexistence of so many different ethnic groups within Régország: the Yehuli, the Patritians, the Kalevans, the Juvvi. That’s aspirational, but it’s also, well, just reality. No country has ever been homogeneous. No nation hasn’t been the site of contested identity. The Wolf and the Woodsman is a book about identity crisis, on both a micro and macro scale. My aim was to realistically portray that, not to necessarily completely resolve it. But of course I think there’s hope for Jews: it will require a rejection of ethnic nationalism, which necessitates a peaceful sort of reconciliation of our complex diaspora past. 

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Half Day https://lilith.org/2021/06/half-day/ https://lilith.org/2021/06/half-day/#respond Mon, 14 Jun 2021 16:39:00 +0000 https://lilith.org/?p=22125 She was once again a refugee, her elegance undone by the clatter of an eggshell.

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My mother liked to say that for the Jewish housewife every day was either a prelude or a sequel to the Sabbath, and only Wednesday was a day she could call her own. Until we arrived in New York in 1941 as refugees from Belgium, every day must have been a Wednesday. From the day she married my father in Halbertstadt, Germany in May 1923 until May seventeen years later, my mother commanded cooks, cleaners, seamstresses, and nannies.All that was lost in the war.  

My earliest memories are of our seedy apartment on 97th Street on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. My mother washed  our clothes on a scrubbing board in the kitchen sink, mastered American weights and measures, found her way to the Garment district to buy lengths of tulle and felt forms to create her own hats. She carried groceries home in brown paper bags rather than use a shopping cart which she thought was vulgar. She never left the house without hat and gloves. In winter, she took me to the Metropolitan and instructed me on the difference between a Rembrandt and a Rubens. In summer, we trekked by subway and bus to the beach at Riis Park, armed with Skol suntan lotion and slabs of left-over challah slathered in butter, and hard-boiled eggs, our “go to” snack.

I wanted her to show me we were still close.

Four months after my father died, my mother remarried. We were moving to London. I was furious that so soon my mother took another husband. In the fall, I was to attend the prestigious Grammar School my stepfather’s sisters and daughters had attended, but until then I was to go to the Lycee Francais of South Kensington. Although we had spoken French in New York, and I still spoke it with my mother, it was not the sparky Parisian French of the Lycee but of a rougher cut, the French of Antwerp which to Parisian French what Brooklynese is to the Queen’s English. The only aspects of the Lycee I appreciated were French poetry and our half-day, which happened to be Wednesday. My mother made those days a time she would spend with me alone.  

At noon, I couldn’t wait to see my mother. I longed for an embrace, perhaps even a few moments in her lap, though I was far too old for that. I wanted her to show me we were still close. I wanted her to tell me that I was her mid-week respite, her Wednesday. “I’m hungry,” I declared, pointing to some darling petit fours in the window of a tea shop. “Today,” my mother declared, flipping the long scarf of her lovely new black cashmere coat over her shoulder and making sure her smart little cloche perched atop her Gibson-girl style coif was secure, “we’re going to the Burlington Arcade.” 

Soon we were walking down, quiet streets, among men in bowler hats and rolled up umbrellas, and ladies, dressed rather like my mother, sporting hats, gloves and the occasional fox boa. Two large gold-colored gates appeared, guarded by two tall men in uniform, gold buttons gleaming down the front of their long heavy wool coats. “Here we are,” my mother sighed with relief, as if she had come to the end of a pilgrimage. 

Only feet away from those guards, a silky silence enveloped us. “Look at this,” my mother whispered as she applied her kid-gloved finger to a tiny shop window, the sweetness in her voice that of a child enchanted by a doll house. Little  jade vases no bigger than my pinky rested on a black velvet cushion. “What are they for?” I asked, eager to share in her rapture. “For heaven’s sake,” my mother snarled, “they’re beautiful, that’s what they’re for.”

My mother edged to the next window. Our afternoon was already drifting towards its end. Standing at the next window in line, my mother beckoned. “Look at these,” she said, her speech more rapid as if to acknowledge how little time we had. Tiny profiles of long-necked women, their hair piled on top of their heads rather like my mother’s peered at me out of pale orange, pink and taupe backgrounds. Here and there a diamond chip twinkled in an earlobe or rested on an ample bosom. “Do you know what these are?” my mother asked, knowing I had no idea. “They’re cameos,” she said, tucking back a wisp of hair that had escaped her cloche. I wondered whether she wanted me to see the resemblance between her and the lovelies in the window.

We moved along. There were cashmere sweaters in luscious colors, tiny silver boxes with pastel-colored enamel lids that seemed to ripple like the gentlest waves at Riis Park. There were gold chains as thick as the braids I’d worn only a few years earlier, miniature portraits of beautiful men with long red curls and ruffled collars. The pavement softened. I was walking on thick rugs, I was a character in a story I didn’t know.

My mother tapped me on the forearm. She reached into the smooth leather satchel that hung off her wrist. Perhaps she had spirited some of those pink and white petit fours out of the tea shop window. She pulled off her glove, fished out something round and spread apart the tucked-in ends of a linen napkin. In her palm, lay two hard-boiled eggs in their shells. “Help yourself,” she said. 

She was once again a refugee, her elegance undone by the clatter of an eggshell.

She was no longer showing the awareness of her own beauty the way she had in front of the cameos. A tenseness was spreading through her. “This’ll do fine,” she said as she tapped the egg against the doorframe of a shop that displayed men’s ties and ascots. The sound of the cracking shell made me think of gun fire, the kind I’d seen in the newsreels during the war. At once, one of the men in uniform was upon us, “Madam,” he uttered in a chocked voice. An affront had been delivered to the decorum of the Arcade.

My mother’s charming cloche slipped to the side of her head, her long scarf drooping off her shoulder. She was once again a refugee, her elegance undone by the clatter of an eggshell. We were back in New York, too poor to eat out at a restaurant. It was no longer Wednesday, the numinous day between, but a sudden fall from the Golden Age to the Leaden. English money itself presented the baffling asymmetry of pounds, guineas, shillings, pence and farthings and made it hard for us to understand the true cost of things. (Had those petit fours really been too expensive?) It was all as illogical as the very moment we were occupying, an elegantly dressed woman, with an ordinary child eating hard boiled eggs in the Burlington Arcade. 

I don’t know if my mother ever ate her egg. We headed in silence to the other end of the Arcade and back on the street. I wanted to go home with her. I wanted to hear her sing French folk songs about lost birds and drowned fisherman. I didn’t care about beauty, I wanted her hugs. I wanted a true Wednesday, a time poised between necessity and possibility. 

My mother boarded the Northern Line, while I headed for the Bakerloo. As we parted, my mother patted my cheek. She hadn’t put on her glove again. Her hand was cold and I reached up to clasp it. Then she reached over and gave me a kiss.

All the way home, I covered my cheek with my hand. I wanted to hold on to my mother’s touch, I wanted to hold on forever to that dim rosy light, to our drifting through a dream world as fragile as an eggshell, mother and child, widow/ new bride, orphan/stepchild, in transition, unsteady in our present, uncertain of our future. That afternoon, I felt our displacement as keenly as I had felt hunger when I first made my way to meet my mother. We were in the realm of light and form, in time and out of time, a Wednesday afternoon between noon and three. 

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The Things We Don’t Say: An Interview with Julie Morgenlender https://lilith.org/2021/06/the-things-we-dont-say-an-interview-with-julie-morgenlender/ https://lilith.org/2021/06/the-things-we-dont-say-an-interview-with-julie-morgenlender/#respond Thu, 10 Jun 2021 19:11:00 +0000 https://lilith.org/?p=22149 I love how accommodating Judaism is, in ways that too often the rest of society isn’t

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Since childhood, Julie Morgenlender has been living with chronic illness. From trying to prove to doctors it wasn’t all in her head, to fighting with insurance to cover essential medical treatments, to curtailing her career, Morgenlender has lived through it all. Enlightening and powerful, The Things We Don’t Say: An Anthology of Chronic Illness Truths, chronicles some of her experiences alongside essays from a diverse group of people from around the world living with chronic illness. Here, Morgenlender talks to Hanna R. Neier about finding community, medical gender bias, and how a little Jewish compassion can go a long way.

Photo of the author.

HN: Your story alone could have made a great memoir. Why create an anthology instead?

JM: I wanted to provide a sense of community. People with chronic illnesses often feel isolated and face a lack of understanding from others. We often feel like we’re the only ones dealing with our issues. By bringing together so many voices, I hope that every reader can find at least one author, one story, with which they can identify. I also wanted this book to help loved ones gain a better understanding of what we live with, so sharing multiple stories highlights that this isn’t just one person’s experience.

How did you choose the essays?

My goals were variety and diversity, again with the hope that this would show the range of our experiences and help people find connection. I wanted an array of subjects, from medical situations to family relationships to stigmas we face. I wanted authors of different ages, races, and gender identities who had different symptoms and diagnoses. There was no way to cover every intersectional identity or every diagnosis, but the book touches on many of them.

We Jews joke a lot about Jewish guilt which tends to come from external sources—like a family member using guilt to get a desired result. By contrast, chronic illness guilt is internal.

At sixteen you were in pain, but your doctors sent you to a psychologist, claiming you were looking for attention. One of your authors had a similar experience. She explains this is common amongst women.

Gender bias in medical care is a known problem. Considering the sexism that is so prevalent in our society, it’s not surprising, but still upsetting. (To my knowledge, there haven’t been studies about sexism in the treatment of non-binary or transgender patients.) Men are often taken more seriously when they seek care for the same symptoms for which women are dismissed. If a cause of symptoms isn’t clear, too often women are told we’re imagining our problems. I have no way of knowing if I would have been taken more seriously if I had been a man, but I have my suspicions.

You write that you grew up with Jewish guilt, but that chronic illness guilt is much worse. Can you elaborate?

We Jews joke a lot about Jewish guilt which tends to come from external sources—like a family member using guilt to get a desired result. By contrast, chronic illness guilt is internal. There’s a lot of frustration and self-reproach that comes out of not being able to meet seemingly reasonable expectations like keeping a date or a promise. Because the cause is within us—within our own bodies—it feels like it should be under our control, but it’s not.

The pandemic has created a lot of shifts in our society, most notably work-from-home arrangements. How has this benefited people with chronic illness? Do you think it will push employers in the future to be more accommodating?

Many disabled employees were denied requests to work from home before the pandemic. When entire offices were sent home, they finally received the accommodations they needed. Now as offices reopen, workers are again being denied requests to continue working from home. Luckily, some offices are planning to offer remote work on an ongoing basis, which benefits disabled workers. But in both cases, people who need accommodations are just expected to go along with office protocol. Obviously, there are exceptions. I hope that employers will take note of how well remote work functioned and be more accommodating to disabled employees in the future, including the many more people who might develop chronic illnesses due to COVID-19’s long-term effects. But without the proper laws in place (and this doesn’t seem to be changing any time soon) these accommodations will be far too arbitrary.

And let’s remember the many people who were at higher risk of COVID-19 complications who were denied accommodations. Teachers, grocery store workers, and others were told they must show up in person to work. If we are to judge a society by how it treats its most vulnerable, then I believe we were failing before the pandemic, and though a light has been shined on the issue, nothing has really changed.

In Judaism, the preservation of human life takes precedence: Jews are exempt from fasting on Yom Kippur, standing for the Torah, etc. if it is threatening to their health. Thoughts?

I love how accommodating Judaism is, in ways that too often the rest of society isn’t. Our culture has survived for many years while allowing rules to be bent and broken when necessary. There is so much we could do for others by modeling that same kind of compassion: being kind when someone requests substitutions in restaurants, letting more people work from home, and broadening insurance coverage for better medical care.

The book has garnered a lot of attention especially in the chronic illness community. How do you feel about that?

While I’m not surprised that people have connected deeply with the stories, I was still caught off-guard by just how much it resonates. I have received so much amazing feedback in the year since the book came out, from folks with chronic illness who feel less alone and from loved ones who say they better understand what their family and friends are living with, and even some doctors who say they can better understand their patients. It has been humbling and rewarding.

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Hope Valley: A Novel Approach to Israeli and Palestinian Women’s Lives https://lilith.org/2021/06/hope-valley-a-novel-approach-to-israeli-and-palestinian-womens-lives/ https://lilith.org/2021/06/hope-valley-a-novel-approach-to-israeli-and-palestinian-womens-lives/#respond Thu, 10 Jun 2021 16:41:00 +0000 https://lilith.org/?p=22074 Author Haviva Ner-David talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about how she views this age-old conflict and her passionate commitment to ending it.

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The year is 2000, the setting, Galilee, where two women meet by chance. One is Tikvah, an American who has made her life on Moshav Sapir; the other is Ruby, a Palestinian artist who has returned to her village, Bir al-Demue.  At the outset, they seemed destined to be enemies, especially since the old stone house where Tikvah and her husband Alon now live once belonged to Ruby’s father.  But expectations are swiftly upended in this debut novel, Hope Valley (Bink Books). 

Author and Rabbi Haviva Ner-David (whose story Blame appeared in the Fall, 2016 issue) talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about how she views this age-old conflict and her passionate commitment to ending it.

YZM: The story takes place more than 20 years ago, and yet it seems so fresh, so relevant.  Can you talk about that? 

HND: I wish I could say that this conflict is all in the past, but it’s not. As I saw smoke and heard shots, explosions and sirens last week, at the beginning of the current crisis, I felt like I was living inside my novel. It was eerie. But that is a big theme in the novel: that history will repeat itself if we do not do the deep healing that needs to happen in order to stop that cycle. There is the backstory in 1948 and the front story in 2000, and there are clear parallels in both stories that become apparent to the reader parallels that are playing out again today, as I speak. Rioting, racist hate crimes, pointing fingers at the “other”, violent approaches to solving conflict instead of addressing the actual root of the differences on both “sides.” I personally do not see myself on a “side,” but rather in the camp of those — Palestinian and Jewish — who are active in the kind of healing work to which I am referring. 

I have been involved for years in the work of building deep and lasting relationships with my Palestinian neighbors here in Galilee. There are various levels to this. I am involved in a narrative sharing group here in my area, where we get together once a month to listen in non-judgment to one another’s narratives around the conflict. It is not a dialogue group, but rather, it is about practicing sacred listening. The idea is not to debate or argue politics, but rather to hear narratives different from our own and acknowledge each other’s pain and story, and to know that we can hold all of these truths together without one having to be right and the other wrong. Paraphrasing one character in the book: You can say you’re sorry without taking all of the blame.

I am also part of a group of priests, rabbis and imams who get together monthly to study, and also in the community around my younger children’s Hand-in-Hand school. There are a network of these bilingual (Arabic-Hebrew) multicultural interfaith schools around Israel, and the movement is growing. Schools in Israel are highly segregated. There are Arabic speaking schools and Hebrew speaking schools, religious schools and secular schools, Christian/Muslim schools and Jewish schools. The Hand in Hand schools are revolutionary in their approach to finding a way for children to learn together so that they get to know one another from an early age and are less likely to demonize the “other”. Also, through learning one another’s language, they can communicate, which makes a huge difference in building bridges.

I am heartened to see the outpouring of anti-violence rallies happening now in Israel. Joint rallies of Palestinian and Jewish Israelis. But that is not enough. It is only a bandaid on a festering wound.

These are just some of the groups and communities with which I am involved. There are others. And there are also individual friendships I have developed over the years that are not just superficial ones, but are relationships in which we can speak openly about our pain and feelings. This is so important. And that is the kind of friendship I was portraying in the novel.

But this is a more advanced level of connection that some people in Israeli society are still so far from. The first step is simply to go into the villages for basic services, like shopping and medical services. When I first moved up north from Jerusalem, I was surprised at how Jews avoided going into closer-by Palestinian-Israeli villages for errands and instead went the extra fifteen minutes to further away Jewish towns. Don’t misunderstand me. In Jerusalem, life is even more segregated. But it was easier to justify it because it was truly more convenient not to go to a Palestinian village or to East Jerusalem for these things. But here, at least on my kibbutz, Hannaton, we are surrounded on all sides by Palestinian-Israeli vllages. Some of Bedouin, some are Falache villages. It is truly more convenient to go there for basic services than anywhere else, yet I found when I moved here, that people went where they felt more comfortable rather than where it was more convenient. And there was also fear involved. But we will never feel more comfortable or overcome our fear if we don’t make the effort to cross that barrier.

Then, after that, there is the deeper healing that needs to happen that I described above. I am heartened to see the outpouring of anti-violence rallies happening now in Israel. Joint rallies of Palestinian and Jewish Israelis. But that is not enough. It is only a bandaid on a festering wound. We must look at what caused this upheaval. There is so much resentment, fear and denial on both “sides”. As a Jew, I can do my part by listening to the Palestinian narrative, acknowledging its truth and the pain Jews have caused to Palestinians. I am not afraid to use the word Nakba, the Arabic word, which means catastrophe, and is the word Palestinians use to name their tragic 1948 narrative. That history is in the novel. Both the 2000 and 1948 stories are the result of this listening, and also of much research, not only about the Nakba, but also about the Shoah, the Jewish catastrophe. I am not equating the two. As Tikvah in the novel says: There is not need to fight over who suffered more. But I am recognizing both as catastrophic events for their respective peoples. 

We need to acknowledge one another’s narratives and pain. If we don’t, history will repeat itself even after this current crisis. That is clearly a message in the book. The story in 2000 is meant to be a tikkun, a corrective, on the tragic story in 1948. Without spoiling the ending, I can say that the book is a hopeful one, because it presents a vision of the kind of healing that can happen through true connection between human beings, even if they are on different sides of the fence (a metaphor used throughout the book, as it is Ruby’s cutting of the fence that separates her village from Tikvah’s moshav, and Tikvah’s daring to go through that hole in the fence — following the lead of her dog, Cane — that leads to their meeting and eventual friendship.

YZM: Both characters Ruby and Tikvah are dealing with illness; how does this unite them? 

HND: Yes, Tikvah lives with multiple sclerosis and Ruby is in an advanced stage of lung cancer. The inspiration for the book actually came from an encounter I had one day while walking my dog in the valley that separates my kibbutz from the Bedouin village on the other side. I met Hussein, a shepherd I often meet while walking in the valley, but this time his wife was with him. I had not met her before. She was foraging. Hussein introduced us, and we started talking. She asked how old I was, and I told her, and she started crying. She told me her daughter had been my age when she died of breast cancer. As I walked home, I began to think about how if I had met her daughter, we could have become friends. And we could have bonded over our common experience of living with illness, since I live with a genetic degenerative neuromuscular disease. And that was the original spark that put the idea of the novel and the friendship into my head.

We see this often in Israeli society. In hospitals and medical clinics, people tend to get past their societally constructed differences, because they are stripped down to their basic humanity — which is our common morbidity and mortality. There is no escaping it.

There is a scene in the novel where the women are sitting together at the edge of the forest after foraging. That is when Tikvah reveals to Ruby that she has MS. Until then she had not trusted her enough to open up to her. Ruby’s cancer was more obvious because she was bald from the chemo and therefore wears a headscarf, which, at first, Tikvah assumed was for religious reasons. But Ruby is not a practicing religious Muslim. She spent years in India in an ashram, and in other places around the world, before returning to her childhood village for cancer treatments. In the scene I am describing, the muezzin sounds, and Ruby feels moved to prostrate herself. She relays to Tikvah the Buddhist teaching of letting go into the flow of life to prevent suffering. The two women prostrate themselves together, hand in hand, and that is a very strong bonding moment for them. Together, they surrender to the flow of life in a Muslim (or Jewish, on Yom Kippur) prostration posture, which is healing for both of them. 

There are other scenes, too, which I will not give away, but, yes, the theme of bonding through a shared experience with illness and facing death, was one I wanted to explore in the novel.

YZM: Tikvah’s daughter falls in love with an Arab—reality or fantasy? 

HND: Reality. My oldest daughter is partnered with a man who was raised Muslim in Jaffa. He identifies as Atheist, but his cultural roots and very strongly in Muslim Jaffa. And they are not the only mixed couple I know. They live in Haifa, which is a good place to live if you are a mixed couple, because it is a city which is fairly successfully mixed. There were riots there this past week, but people claim they were from people who came from the outside. Who knows? But the morning after the night of rioting, we went to have brunch with my daughter and her partner in the Shook, and we ate at a restaurant owned by a mixed gay couple. The Arab partner’s mother is the chef. And that is just one example.

Mixed couples and mixed breeds are a recurring motif in the novel. There are various mixed couples in the novel, and there is Cane, the dog, who is a mixed breed. I won’t give away any more than that.

YZM: You point out similarities in Hebrew and Arabic—how does this further the idea of coexistence rather than conflict between the two cultures? 

HND: First of all, Jews learning Arabic is so important and such a key to how we can connect. Our languages are similar, because we are so connected. We can see this not only in the language, but also in the sacred texts of the three Abrahamic religions. This is also a big theme in the novel. If you look at the book’s cover, you see the three Abrahamic religious symbols resting peacefully in the valley. And there is the Tree of Hope, which, legend has it, is an ancient olive tree planted by Joseph, Jesus’ Jewish father, which has three trunks whose branches form a canopy above the mixed couples who sit beneath it. 

But back to Arabic: There is a growing movement among Hebrew speaking Israelis to learn Arabic. And this is a great sign. In general, there is a growing movement of people who want to live together in peace and create what is called a shared society. The increase in learning Arabic is one manifestation of this, as is the growing number of Hand in Hand schools and so many other shared society organizations, groups and efforts. That is why, I think, in this round of escalation of the conflict, there was an outpouring of desire to stand together against the violence. And that, I hope, will be part of the tikkun, the corrective, that needs to happen here. 

There is also backlash, which is apparent from the way the elections have been going here. Israel is very divided politically and ideologically. But I do believe the shared society movement is growing, even if it is quieter than the portion of society who is not yet there.

YZM: This book presents a very optimistic picture of Israeli-Arab relations; do you still believe in that possibility? 

HND: I do. Or at least I choose to believe in it. I admit that I had my moments of doubt these past two weeks, but that was more when I looked at the general conflict and possible political solutions. But I am not a politician or a political leader. I am a rabbi and a writer. My pulpit is the mikveh, my pen and my spiritual companionship work. I deal with the spirit and the heart, and with narrative and images, and with ceremony and ritual. I am a visionary, not a realist. 

I do believe in the ability for us to all get along and share this land in peace. And I do truly believe that the answer lies in acknowledging one another’s humanity, pain and narratives. I think once we do that, the rest will follow. If there is a will, a desire, to make peace, we will find a way. But the work must be done, one human, one soul, at a time. It’s hard work to heal the collective trauma that lies beneath the surface of this conflict. 

That is why the book is told from both women’s points of view. This story cannot be told from only one point of view. It is much too complicated than that. The book is balanced, I think. Both women have growing to do at the beginning of the book. There was a clear story I wanted to tell of a Jewish woman who moves to Israel out of a Zionist ideology but who wakes up to the Palestinian narrative as — through her daughter and through Ruby — she opens her eyes to what is around her. I wanted to explore what that feels like, to discover you were only told a piece of the story, and then to have to decide what to do about that — whether to take responsibility or not. 

Early on in the book, the reader and the two women discover that TIkvah is living in the house where Ruby’s father, Jamal, grew up and left his diary. Ruby befriends Tikvah at first to get to the diary, but slowly, a true friendship forms. Tikvah does some research of her own and discovers some of the history of Jamal’s village. She had not realized a village had existed on the land where her moshav now stands and that it was destroyed in 1948. There is more she discovers about that tragic story as well, but I will not reveal it here. The point is that Tikvah has to decide what to do with this new knowledge she has gained. Will she take responsibility for what she knows? Will it change her life at all? And how will it affect how she acts moving forward? And Ruby has to learn to trust Tikvah, forgive and also take responsibility for her own people’s culpability in 1948 and in their current situation. I am told the book is a balanced and accurate portrayal of life here, which I think is so important now, when people are making sweeping statements based on a simplistic and ignorant view of the complicated situation.

When I was having one of my crisis moments this past two weeks I called a Palestinian friend who lives in one of the villages upon which the fictional village of Yakut al-Jalil (Jamal’s village) was based. Her family left in 1948 and was not allowed back in. She ended up meeting her husband in Portugal, married him and came back here to live. He is an Israeli citizen, but she is not. They have two children with twins on the way any day now, but she has yet to be granted Israeli citizenship. This pains me so much. There is so much work to be done, and she has certainly suffered because of the status quo. Yet, when I called her one day when I was having a crisis of hope, she told me she had just read the novel and how moved she was by how i wrote from Ruby’s point of view. She said that it is only until we can see things from one another’s point of view that we will be able to live together in peace. I told her I was starting to lose hope in this vision. She told me to hold onto that vision, that I must hold on to that vision, that that is my role now — to hold onto and spread that vision.

What she said reminded me of a quote from Etty Hillesum’s diary. This friend’s life and outlook was changed by Etty’s diary. It had a huge impact on her. Etty died in Auschwitz at age 29, but she writes over and over again of her faith in humanity and of a better future. This one quote came to mind:  “There is only one way of preparing for the new age, by living it even now in our hearts…”

YZM: You’ve had a very interesting path; can you tell us about your background and how it got you to where you are now? 

HND: I grew up Orthodox Jewish (and Zionist) in New York. I went to Jewish day schools and camps, where I was taught the Zionist narrative but not the Palestinian one. I was very involved in Orthodox feminism for years. I was even the first woman to publicly receive Orthodox ordination, at the same time that I earned my doctorate on the topic of mikveh at Bar Ilan University. But at some point, I realized I was no longer Orthodox, and I decided to call myself a post-denominational rabbi. When we moved to Hannaton eleven years ago, after living in Jerusalem for thirteen years, I founded Shmaya: A Mikveh for Mind, Body and Soul, which is the only mikveh in Israel that is open to all to immerse how and when they choose. We even welcome people who do not self-identify as Jewish (and of course those who do self-identify even if others don’t acknowledge their status). 

I see it as spiritual work, finding what connects us rather than what divides us, and believing that each individual has a unique and equally valid path to the Divine.

During those years, I wrote two memoirs: Life on the Fringes and Chanah’s Voice.

In the summer of 2014, during what Israel calls Operation Protective Edge, I had a religious crisis. This was a moment in history much like the one we are experiencing now, and I felt despair at seeing people fighting over religious and national differences. So I decided to study in an interfaith seminary, to get some perspective and see if there were places of connection and commonality upon which we could focus, instead of the differences. This was a transformative four years for me, and I came out with interfaith ordination and certification in spiritual direction and dreamwork, all of which I incorporate now into my mikveh work, but I also opened a spiritual companionship practice, which is thriving. Mostly via Zoom with people around the world. 

But those studies also informed my peace work in a big way. I see it as spiritual work, finding what connects us rather than what divides us, and believing that each individual has a unique and equally valid path to the Divine. 

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Rockets, Bombs and Babies: Wartime in the Maternity Ward https://lilith.org/2021/06/rockets-bombs-and-babies-wartime-in-the-maternity-ward/ https://lilith.org/2021/06/rockets-bombs-and-babies-wartime-in-the-maternity-ward/#respond Wed, 09 Jun 2021 19:06:00 +0000 https://lilith.org/?p=22130 We can birth life instead of birthing violence.

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I spent the recent 11-day war between Israel and Gaza in the maternity ward in Soroka hospital in Beersheva, I was looking after my daughter, first for a few days of labor and then following the birth of her twin girls. I was sleeping on couches, in chairs, or on a mattress on the floor, either at the hospital or at the apartment of my younger daughter who lives nearby. These were days when Beersheva was in Hamas’ crosshairs, especially at night, and sirens regularly announced incoming rocket attacks – hundreds of them – giving residents 15 seconds to find a safe room or, in the case of the hospital, a semi-safe hallway. This meant days of contraction-siren-run-contraction-siren-run to feed-siren-run-diaper-siren-run. Or, when I was sleeping out of the hospital, it meant constantly running to a neighbor’s flat, where we squeezed into a tiny bedroom and waited it out. It was an unusual way to get to know the community. 

In the maternity ward, women from all walks of life in the Negev who all had in common that they very recently gave birth, were constantly jostled  along with their newborn babies. Any woman who has ever given birth will appreciate the challenge of trying to run either during heavy contractions or during those first days of recovery. The images of all these new mothers running for cover with their newborns will stay with me for a long time. Perhaps the entire, severely anxious, experience just added one more layer of pain, discomfort and strangeness to the already arduous process of childbirth. 

Yet, despite its intensity, the experience was also oddly divorced from politics. During those 11 days I didn’t spend much time following the news – though I was living smack in the middle of it. As we stood in those hallways, the Muslim, Jewish, and Bedouin women of all ages and skin colors, were more likely to comment on the beautiful hair of each other’s babies than to even mention politics or war. I had lots of mini-chats with other women like me – mothers of mothers, the caretakers in the ward— as we shared our own experiences in this role, which is new to me. We weren’t talking politics, even as the war took place overheads, punctuating our conversations with the booms of Iron Dome. We were just people–women, mostly, especially during the night attacks, when men were not allowed to sleep over in the hospital–trying to get through this shared human experience of childbirth, with all the challenges presented at us. In that setting, it didn’t even make any sense to frame the rocket experience as particularly aimed at Jews. It was just part of the violence aimed at humanity. 

Even though I lived through a very particular location on the Israeli “side” of the war, my heart was also on the other “side”. As much as I was shaken by the constant sirens and booms and running for cover, I could not help but think about what the people of Gaza were going through, the ones without safe rooms and Iron Dome, for whom a ten-minute warning meant not that a rocket was being shot out of the sky but that a bomb was about to land in their actual home. As bad as people in Israel had it during those 11 days, the people of Gaza had it much worse, and it is going to take them a long time to recover, if at all. The families of the dozens of children who died may never truly recover. 

I am so tired of this endless cycle of violence. I have been living in Israel for nearly 30 years, and I have lost count of how many of these violent eruptions we have lived through during that time. It’s always the same. One side escalates, and the other responds with macho posturing as crowds cheer. The other side responds with more macho posturing to please their constituents, and more bloodshed. All this noise and violence that leads to the exact same place over and over. It is precisely the insanity of doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. We are living a war created inside insane minds. 

What’s more, I am tired of the rhetorical battles that accompany every one of these violent eruptions. All these words that have been repeating, over and over again, for decades. The same arguments I have been hearing since I was in high school in Orthodox Brooklyn – “they” all want to kill “us”; “they” started; for “us” it’s just self-defense; “we” are the most moral army in the world. These words go nowhere, and reflect abstract manufactured narratives more than they do real lived experiences. It is language created by men in power who are completely disconnected from the actual lives, especially of women on all sides, women who are tasked with the everyday work of sustaining life rather than destroying it. When the IDF announces that they have achieved all their “strategic targets”, that at least “half” of those killed were terrorists, ignoring the fact that many “strategic targets” were people’s homes and that the other half of those who were killed were innocent and in many cases children, I shudder at the inhumanity.

What are we doing? What have we become? All because we have an army of words to sanitize our actions. 

I feel completely unrepresented in the political discourse that surrounds me. Even though I’ve dedicated my entire life and career to Israel and Jewish life, I do not feel that “my people” are Jews, and the “enemy” are the people living in Gaza. I don’t believe that at all. No. My people are not Jews but are rather those who simply want to live life, with joy and creativity and relationships and without hurting anyone else. And the enemy of my people are those who think that a solution lays in violence. The enemy of my people are those who believe that the correct response to flying rockets over people’s homes is bombing someone else’s home. That because someone else threatens civilians, it’s okay if we kill some civilians in response. That argument is not morally sustainable. And I’m tired of hearing it justified. I’m especially tired of those ideas claiming to represent me—me as a Jew, me as an Israeli, me as a person who was running for cover. I am all those things, and yet I do not want to be bombing anyone else on my behalf. 

There are other solutions, and we have never tried them. One obvious solution is to treat Palestinians like equal human beings and address their real needs with compassion instead of with fear and hate. One way we could have avoided all this death and bloodshed would have been to force the right-wing extremists buying up land in Palestinian villages to back down. Had we taken any steps to hear the voices of the people living in Sheikh Jarrah, we could have avoided all of this. This is just one example. 

The lesson Israeli leaders should be taking from 3000 Hamas rockets in 11 days is that there may always be weapons ready to be aimed at us. Hamas clearly could have done this any time –  but until Sheik Jarrah, they chose not to. We need to be studying that dynamic instead of just planning bombastic air strikes. We may never be able to control what weapons Hamas builds or stockpiles, but we can control whether or not they want to use them against Israel. That is where our real power lies. The best way to avoid war is to reduce the amount of hate in the world. We can birth life instead of birthing violence. We have that ability, but we rarely use it. 

We need new leadership, on all “sides” of this conflict. If there is one lesson that I took from spending the war in a maternity ward, it’s this. We need voices that consider all life sacred. All life – no matter what religion, ethnicity, or skin color. That must be our starting point. It’s time for new thinking, new approaches, and new solutions. A new concept of being human first. Even for Jews.

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A Real Threat to Campus Free Speech https://lilith.org/2021/06/a-real-threat-to-campus-free-speech/ https://lilith.org/2021/06/a-real-threat-to-campus-free-speech/#respond Tue, 01 Jun 2021 20:01:00 +0000 https://lilith.org/?p=22067 Talking to Avital Norman Nathman of UnKoch My Campus.

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When Avital Norman Nathman became media coordinator at UnKoch My Campus in 2019, she knew that businessmen Charles and David [1940-2019] Koch were right-wing libertarian donors who promoted environmentally destructive policies. She did not know, however, that between 2005 and 2017 they’d also given $256 million to public and private universities—colleges that included Duke, Florida State, George Mason, New York University, Rice, and the University of Arizona. Their goal, she says? To control what students study and learn.

Nathman describes the discovery as jarring, and says that as she spoke to her new colleagues, read UnKoch’s many investigative reports, and spoke with students and faculty from across the country, she realized that the Koch Foundation, along with its allies, including the Bradley Foundation, Searle Freedom Trust, Sarah Scaife Foundation, and a hard-to-track network of well-heeled contributors to the Koch-controlled Donor’s Trust, were exerting tremendous influence over curriculum and hiring at hundreds of cash-strapped colleges and universities. As UnKoch My Campus sees it, this fits into a broader conservative agenda meant to bolster corporate influence and roll back the social progress of the last half century.

Nathman spoke to Lilith’s Eleanor J. Bader about UnKoch’s work in late April.

Eleanor J. Bader: Before joining the staff of UnKoch My Campus, you were working as a freelance journalist and had published a book called The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood to Fit Reality [Seal Press, 2014]. What made you want to stop freelancing and work for UnKoch?

Avital Norman Nathman: Freelance life can be exhilarating, but it can also be exhausting. I still freelance a bit, writing about the cannabis industry for a local New England magazine called A Different Leaf. Writing articles like these is a lot of fun, but helping to craft op-eds and tell stories, narratives, about the way that Koch money influences social policies has become a passion for me.

I love the fact that UnKoch’s work has a direct impact and is intersectional, addressing race, class, and gender. I care deeply about policies that impact maternal health and Black and Brown bodies, as well as about education, so this is a way to bring these concerns together. I get buoyed by the organizing people are doing, by students who are rising up to fight for transparency, to end undue donor influence on campus, and to promote environmental policies that will protect the earth.

We just studied the Koch Foundation’s 2019 tax forms—that’s the most recent year that is available for scrutiny—and found that in that one year alone, they distributed $112 million in donations to different educational programs. The year before, they’d donated $87 million so they’re clearly ramping up. The amount of money they’ve donated is pretty staggering but these “gifts” almost always comes with strings attached regarding hiring and curriculum.

EJB: And yet, colleges and universities are willing, and maybe even eager, to take their money.

ANN: Schools are scrambling and as things currently stand, if they want to pay staff decently and give students the education they deserve, they have to rely on outside funding. This is why we need adequate public financing of all educational programs. Some colleges are facing dwindling endowments, but many colleges simply don’t care where money comes from. I was surprised that some schools that trade on their progressive appeal, like NYU, take Koch money.

EJB: It sounds like you didn’t expect to see such a blatant lack of ethics and integrity.

ANN: I am a first-generation American on both sides and am very much a child of immigrants. My maternal grandfather came to the US as a concentration camp survivor and started a business even though he barely spoke English. The same was true for my father, an immigrant from Israel. The message I got was that you work hard, you don’t complain, and you do whatever you have to do to make ends meet. At the same time, I was raised to understand that you don’t take injustice lying down. For me, that’s Judaism. The concept of taking care of the
earth and taking care of each other was instilled in me really early.

I also knew my mom’s family story, that her dad, my my grandfather, had been in a number of concentration camps and was liberated from Dachau. My mom’s mother, my grandmother, had spent two years hiding in a bunker in the woods with her siblings and parents. My grandparents met in a Displaced Persons camp after the war, then moved to Germany where they had my mother, and eventually emigrated to the United States. This wartime experience was always in the background as I was growing up.

I still have in my mind someday doing a project, writing something, about this.

EJB: Let’s go back to your work with UnKoch My Campus. The organization has a reputation for trying to mirror its values in its workplace structure.

ANN: UnKoch My Campus has a unique work culture. It’s truly transparent. We have an executive director, Jasmine Banks, but decisions are not made unilaterally. All of us on staff—four full-timers and some part-time contractors—have a say in everything, whether it’s hiring or organizing strategy. We’re also incredibly supportive of each other as individuals. For example, I’ve been really forthcoming about my issues with severe anxiety. I don’t hesitate to
say, ‘I have to leave early today,’ or ‘I need to take a day off.’ I feel very supported. We face our struggles openly and we confront them. Conflicts and concerns get dealt with which has helped the organization grow, develop, and flourish.

EJB: Tell me about some of your ongoing or new organizing campaigns.

ANN: Sure. Right before the pandemic closed campuses, we helped students at George Washington University in Washington, DC, win a commitment from the administration to divest its endowment from the fossil fuel industry. It was a huge victory. Students there are now focusing on getting the school to address the campus’ Regulatory Studies Center. The Center is funded by the Koch Foundation and ExxonMobil. It produces comments about environmental regulations and brings guest lecturers in to talk about deregulation and the need to protect corporate interests. You won’t be surprised to hear that the Trump administration was receptive to the Center’s recommendations. The campaign to close the Center is ongoing.

We’re also working with a multigenerational group of people to oppose the Center for the Philosophy of Freedom, usually just called the Freedom Center, at the University of Arizona. The Center has been angling to get an anti-environmental, pro-corporate curriculum– and teachers–into the University as well as into public elementary schools and has been met by fierce resistance from the entire community: Students, parents, teachers, and local activists, including Raging Grannies and Raging Grandpas in their 70s, are fighting back. It is really exciting. 

At a Midwestern college, I don’t want to name the school due to the sensitive nature of the campaign, but students and faculty are working to oppose the hiring of a Koch-backed philosopher with no teaching experience whatsoever.  We’re trying to help faculty find the courage to oppose this person—and hope that this will give others the courage to speak out when or if this happens on their campus.    

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Jennifer Anne Moses on Jewish Storytelling https://lilith.org/2021/06/jennifer-anne-moses-on-jewish-storytelling/ https://lilith.org/2021/06/jennifer-anne-moses-on-jewish-storytelling/#respond Tue, 01 Jun 2021 16:32:29 +0000 https://lilith.org/?p=22079 "As children, all four of us attended a private day school modeled on the English public school, where we wore uniforms, danced around the Maypole, recited the Lord’s Prayer, and belted out the greatest hits of the Anglo-Saxon playbook..."

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The stories in Jennifer Anne Moses’s new collection The Man Who Loved His Wife (Mayapple Press) are by turn funny, sly, poignant, and intelligent. And although they range widely in tone, setting and character, they share one common trait: they are all thoroughly and profoundly Jewish.  Moses talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about her vibrant fictional world.

YZM: You’ve called these stories in the Yiddish tradition—what did you mean by that? 

JAM: Let me start by saying that nothing gets me as deeply in the kishkes as Yiddish literature, which I didn’t know from until I took “Yid Lit” in college. From then on, I was off to the races: Shalom Aleichem, I.L. Peretz, I.J., I.B. and I.J. Singer, Chaim Grade, Esther Kreitman, Dir Nister, Bernard Malamud, Cynthia Ozick, Isaac Babel.  I couldn’t get enough. The stuff just seeped into me, in my blood and bones, like some kind of (forgive the drama) divine elixir, an essential something that became a part of the way I translated the world.  

So that’s part 1. Part 2 is that Yiddish literature, no matter what the language it’s originally written in, centers not only around Jews as a particular people living in a particular sliver of time with the specific difficulties attendant to their time and place, but treats the subject with a uniquely blend of humor, tragedy, pathos, grittiness, and a certain punchiness of language which has its own distinct, Yiddish-based rhythm. Everything is suspect; everything is holy; everything is fraught; everything matters; and through it all, the characters in Yiddish literature grapple endlessly with God, antisemitism, the history of Judaism, and the meaning of being a part of a tiny, distinct, and marvelously quarrelsome people. In this literature, t doesn’t matter if you’re a Reform Jew in Louisiana, a Hasid in Jerusalem, or an atheist socialist adult child a Holocaust survivor on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The ongoing tension of inhabiting a Jewish identity (no matter how assimilated, alienated, or agnostic) is what animates. As different as the stories in my collection are from one another, they all start with this one essential struggle: what is the meaning of being born a Jew?

YZM:  The mother-daughter relationships you depict seem very fraught. 

JAM: Funny, because  by virtue of being the sole female, my daughter is hands-down my favorite child. I don’t mean this literally. My sons know perfectly well that I adore them too. Even so, you should only meet my Rose and you’d know exactly what I mean.

My own mother had three daughters and a son (I’m number two) and perhaps because from the get-go I physically resembled her to an uncanny degree, she had certain distinct ideas about who I was supposed to be. Though as a child I wanted nothing more than to fulfill them, I simply couldn’t. As for her mother—my grandmother, Jennie, after whom I was named—now there was a piece of work. Jennie was magnificent, beautiful, charming, cultured, well-read, and so controlling that the DSM should name a syndrome after her. I adored her. But she too had her ideas, largely about who her own daughters were supposed to be (and who they were supposed to marry, too.) So the sense of supposed to ran through the maternal line. A large part of my own adult life has been learning to distinguish my true self from my mother’s wishful version.

YZM: Equally fraught are relationships between sisters and even cousins—can you say more about this family discord? 

JAM: I grew up in a tremendously competitive family, where to be anything other than “the best” within the wackadoodle but perfectly understood (by those inside it) family system was tantamount to moral failure. Suffice to say that by virtue of my nature, I was constitutionally incapable of so much as aligning myself with these markers of success—and as for achieving them: it wasn’t going to happen. So there was a lot of comparison between me and my siblings, as well as between the four of us and our many cousins, particularly our Boston cousins, who all seemed to glide through life on a magic carpet made of straight A’s, good looks, and being really good at tennis.

YZM: Another theme is Jews, especially affluent ones, feeling out of place in the mostly Gentile worlds in which they have chosen to live; can you speak to that? 

JAM: I grew up in a slice of northern Virginia that was then so rural that there were more cows than there were Jews. Actually, there were more horses, too: a lot more. My father, who’d grown up in a very traditional Jewish family in a very Jewish slice of Baltimore had a vision of genteel country living, and so, along with the fields, woods, wildflowers and streams that were my backyard (front yard, too) I pretty much knew no Jews outside our own family. And we were yekkes. Not that I knew what a “yekke” was, and that’s because, by virtue of being a yekkes, I didn’t know what the word “yekke” meant. (It means German Jew.) The ideal seemed to be that we hang onto our superpower Jewish intellectual moxie while in other ways—tennis, skiing, summers in Martha’s Vineyard—inhabiting selves and lives more waspy than our all-wasp schoolmates. As children, all four of us attended a private day school modeled on the English public school, where we wore uniforms, danced around the Maypole, recited the Lord’s Prayer, and belted out the greatest hits of the Anglo-Saxon playbook, all the while wishing we too could have long blonde hair, small noses, and freckles.

YZM: Your stories are geographically diverse, set in Louisiana, the DC area, Israel, and London to name a few.  Was it a conscious decision to create a kind of Diaspora in your fiction? 

JAM: It was not a conscious decision, though what was a conscious decision was to choose stories in a wide range of intentions, including setting. 

YZM: You’re a self-taught painter as well as a writer. Have you been painting as long as you’ve been writing?  Or longer?  What, if any, connection do you see between the two? 

JAM: Longer. I picked up a paintbrush when I was a little girl, and by the time I was in the miserable pre- and early-teen years, I practically lived in the “art room” at school, where the teacher was so kind and gentle that to this day I thank God for putting him in my life. Mainly I did versions of pretty, Impressionistic landscapes. But somewhere along the line I decided that if I wanted to be smart like my smart cousins in Boston, I had to do well in school, and effectively put down my paintbrush in favor of books. It wasn’t a sacrifice: by then the urge to paint and draw had left me. Two decades later, I was living in Baton Rouge with my husband and (then) three small children, and volunteering once a week among almost entirely Black, full-Gospel Christians at a home devoted to the care of AIDS patients. Now and then patients and staff would gather in the home’s lounge to sing gospel songs, and though I longed to join in, my singing voice is rather non-fabulous.

Some of the staff asked me about my non-singing, and when I told them that I couldn’t carry a tune, they offered to pray over me, asking Jesus to grant me a singing voice. This went on for some time until one day I was compelled, as if by the force of an inner hurricane, to pick up a paint brush. I still can’t sing but to this day my paintings come out as painted versions of Gospel music–if Gospel were Torah- rather than Jesus-centered. Unlike my writing, the painting is both more innocent and almost entirely unlayered by education, and I think that’s because it bypasses my brain entirely on its way out my fingers and onto the paintbrush. As far as the connection between the two, and at the risk of sounding either woo-woo or plain old egomaniacal: when my work in either form is good–when it hits the mark—it’s because I am working as a vessel of what I understand and experience as God. I do the gardening. But God plants the seed.

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Climbing Mountains to Move Them: Allison Norlian on Disability & Film https://lilith.org/2021/05/climbing-mountains-to-move-them-allison-norlian-on-disability-documentary-film/ https://lilith.org/2021/05/climbing-mountains-to-move-them-allison-norlian-on-disability-documentary-film/#respond Fri, 28 May 2021 15:00:00 +0000 https://lilith.org/?p=22060 I hope this shows people with disabilities who may doubt themselves because of the stigmas they face in society, that they are capable of anything they put their minds to and that it influences the way non-disabled people view disability.

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Allison Norlian is a force of nature. She grew up knowing that her calling was to “speak for the voiceless,” as she puts it. Raised by a single mom alongside her sister, Becky, who has a severe cognitive disability, Norlian says she has long known that she has the strength to move mountains.

With a decade in the media landscape as a journalist and three Emmy nominations under her belt, Norlian recently began producing of documentary films. BirdMine Productions was born in 2020 as a new avenue through which to share crucial and captivating stories. Norlian’s journalism has always centered on advocating for people with disabilities — she explains that it’s her way of connecting with her sister and those like her. She regularly writes pieces that center people with disabilities for Forbes Women. Her exposé about a facility that was mistreating its disabled residents even earned her an Emmy nomination.  I recently sat down with Norlian to speak to her about her activism and her latest, most ambitious project to date.

Q: You’ve said that growing up with a sister who has a disability inspired you to do the advocacy and activism work that you do. Can you share with me about growing up with your sister, and when you realized that the world was treating her differently?

A: My sister Rebecca (Becky) is disabled. Doctors classified her as “severely cognitively disabled” and someone who presents as having a syndrome with autistic characteristics. Becky is six years older than me.  Because I was the second child, growing up with a sister with disabilities was all I knew. Although our life was different from the outside world, it was normal to me. 

I realized Becky was considered different from people outside of my family when I was in second grade. My sister is vocal but not verbal; she makes sounds and can be loud. Something Becky did was ‘stim,’ something people with autism do to decrease sensory overload.

[When] my mom then brought Becky down for lunch, Becky made noises and walked into the living room, [stimming]. My friend got scared and started crying. She wanted to go home. That was the first time I realized my family was unique, and I would need to be a voice for my sister. 

Q: You recently branched out into documentary filmmaking. Why did you make that career move? What past projects have you crafted with your production company, BirdMine Productions?

A: When I was in college, I interned five times. When I interned at Comcast Sportsnet in Philly, I met [my business partner] Kody; he was also an intern. We [both] wanted to focus on investigative stories and stories that dealt with social justice, humanitarian issues rather than breaking news and news-of-the-day type stories we were constantly forced to report on. We started to talk about someday starting a documentary production company to focus on the stories we want to tell. 

BirdMine, our company, focuses on elevating and amplifying the voices of people who are underrepresented and often marginalized in society. We focus on the stories of people with disabilities, minority communities, and anyone who feels othered. Since we started, we’ve worked on several shorter pieces, [such as] a story about how an artist with Down syndrome’s portrait of Joe Biden went viral and ultimately led him to meet the President.

Q: Your upcoming project is a doozy — scaling Mt. Kilimanjaro with disabled activist Erika Bogan and filming the climb to raise awareness to suicidal ideation in the disabled community. How did you meet Erika and get involved in the climb?

A: When Kody and I first began BirdMine, we had several different ideas for possible stories to produce. One of those stories was how people with disabilities were impacting the fitness community. [During] our research, someone recommended we speak to Erika, since she is a CrossFit athlete and races in obstacle course races in a wheelchair. I reached out and interviewed Erika over Zoom. At the very end of our hour-long conversation, as an aside, Erika casually mentioned that she was climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. 

I found it incredible that she was doing it to conquer her fears and mental blocks and challenge herself physically. Erika mentioned she was climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro to raise awareness about suicide in the disability community. Erika has suffered from depression since her accident and was even suicidal. She also has had several friends die by suicide. She wants to climb Kilimanjaro to raise awareness and save lives. 

Q: Why did Erika choose Mt. Kilimanjaro as her goal? Were there other potential goals for her project?  

More Heart Than Scars is a nonprofit that helps people with disabilities compete in obstacle course races, [and] becoming an obstacle course racer changed Erika’s life. Her More Heart Than Scars family made her realize she wasn’t alone in her battle with mental health issues.

In 2020, Joey Mcglamory, part of the More Heart Than Scars team, posted on Facebook about possibly leading a trip with a travel agency he works with to Mt. Kilimanjaro. Erika read that post, and responded that she wanted to go too. She decided she wanted to climb the mountain with a purpose though, because of several close friends [with disabilities] who have died by sucide over the last few years. 

Next up, after Kilimanjaro, in 2022, Erika hopes to reach Machu Picchu in Peru. 

Q: What do you hope the impact of this film will be, on a practical level? How do you envision that it will impact the lives of people living with disabilities? 

I hope it inspires people to take chances, and to work to find something that will provide them happiness and peace. I hope it shows people with disabilities who may doubt themselves because of the stigmas they face in society, that they are capable of anything they put their minds to, and that this film influences the way non-disabled people view disability. Lastly, I hope it educates the public about suicide in the disability community and creates some type of change where this is discussed, tracked, and taken seriously. If someone with a mental health problem or suicidal ideation watches the film, I hope they feel less alone.

To contribute to the production of Allison’s film, visit their fundraiser.

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