Mela Mietkiewicz, the mother-in-law of the author // Courtesy of Dorothy Lipovenko
At the top of a staircase, a pious Jewish family in pre-war Europe gazes out from a series of framed photos. A boy of bar-mitzvah age stands with two older sisters, faces too young to be so serious. Seated between their parents is another sibling of 11 or 12, sporting a chic bob with full bangs, her dress finessed with a cowl neckline and jaunty bow, fingers splayed on a book open on her lap: Czestochowa, Poland’s “it” girl.
She’s the classmate everyone wants as a friend, and many years later, the woman voted in not once, but an unprecedented twice as president of her Hadassah chapter. Indeed, had she lived to walk her eldest son to the wedding canopy, she would have been not only my friend, she would have been my mother-in-law.
Let’s face it: mothers-in-law have gotten a bad rap. Think of the mid-century stereotype, and what comes to mind is the only civilian capable, with a single phone call or visit, of raising the military’s Defcon alert. And that’s before the Borscht Belt comedians got through with her.
Even Yiddish is unkind to this woman: shviger (mother-in-law) and shnur (daughter-in-law) sound more like a vaudeville act than two women yoked by their love of the same man.
Fast-forward to the post-’60s era and the mother-in-law as a source of jokes or domestic high-jump evolved: the women they intimidated would themselves eventually face an altogether different species of daughter-in-law: the career-driven baby boomer. We kept our own names and bank accounts. The older generation didn’t quite know what to make of it, or for that matter, their sons changing diapers at 2:00 a.m.
This Mother’s Day, as always, I will feel the regret of never having met my husband’s mother. She is known to me only from pictures (a lovely Greer Garson look-alike in a passport photo) and from memories of those who circled in her orbit as a wife, mother, sister, friend. One of her contemporaries once exclaimed, on meeting me for the first time: “You are Mela’s daughter-in-law?” It was not a question so much as a declaration of the honor that was mine.
Only eight years ago the United States ranked 6th on Save the Children’s list of best places to be a mother. Since then we’ve plunged to 31st place out of 178 countries, according to their new report.
“In the U.S., the lifetime risk of maternal death has risen more than 50 percent since we launched our first report in 2000 — from 1 in 3,700 to 1 in 2,400,” said Carolyn Miles, president and CEO of Save the Children. “Today, an American woman faces the same lifetime risk of maternal death as a woman in Iran or Romania.” A woman in the U.S. is more than 10 times as likely as a woman in Estonia, Greece or Singapore to eventually die from a pregnancy-related cause.
Over the same period, the U.S. made few advances in saving young children’s lives, cutting the risk of death by 15%. Only 14 other countries made less progress.
Israel ranks 28, just three above the U.S.
Welcome to Throwback Thursday, a weekly photo feature in which we sift 116 years of Forward history to find snapshots of women’s lives.
Dan Brownstein / Susan Shapiro and her husband
You would think finding someone their bashert would ensure a lifelong friendship, not a vendetta. When I was 29, my friend Valerie set me up with “Aaron,” “a smart handsome screenwriter mensch” she said I should marry. After a tumultuous off-and-on courtship, I finally heeded Valerie’s advice. She applauded my decision, danced at my wedding, then she dumped me.
Valerie’s rejection of me was painful and confusing, since she’d been a close confidante for a decade. We first met when she was a 30-year-old acclaimed filmmaker in Greenwich Village. I was a 20-year-old NYU English grad student sleeping on a futon in a one bedroom I shared with Ellen, another Midwest Jewburb refugee. I was good at typing, proofreading, editing. Interning at Valerie’s company, Ellen came home one Friday asking, “Can you work on Valerie’s screenplay over the weekend for two hundred dollars?”
When Gail Twersky Reimer came up with the idea for the Jewish Women’s Archive, just over 18 years ago, the voices and history of Jewish women could be found in few places outside of the types of libraries and archives that only academics are excited to trawl.
Reimer wanted to create a virtual archive to elevate and illuminate the stories of Jewish women whose lives — rich, productive and important as they may have been — remained largely unknown because history was being written, by and large, by men. With the exception of a few path-breakers like Golda Meir and Barbra Streisand, Jewish women’s stories remained invisible, though they have now become a whole field of study.
I’ve been watching with exhaustion the saga of the privileged Princeton kid, grandson of Holocaust survivors, who has declared via a bratty op-ed echoing ‘round the web, that he will not apologize for his privilege. White, male, and proud. Take that, ye P.C. police, young Tal Fortgang declares.
“When you get out of the mikveh, you should put on make-up and lotion for your husband,” the kallah teacher instructed. “He will be waiting for you.”
This was my last “kallah lesson,” two weeks before my wedding, and my kallah teacher was finally talking about sex — or at least a watered-down version of it.
Every engaged-to-be-married Orthodox girl attends kallah (Hebrew for bride) lessons before her wedding to learn about the Jewish laws of Taharat HaMishpacha — family purity. The Torah forbids intimacy between a husband and wife during, and a short time after, the woman’s menstrual cycle. A woman who is menstruating is called a niddah, which literally means separated, referring to the separation between husband and wife.
After waiting for a period of five to seven days for the menstrual cycle to end, the woman is required to keep another seven “clean days” in which she checks herself daily to ascertain her cleanliness. After the seven clean days, the woman can go to the mikveh, the ritual bath, and resume sexual relations with her husband.
There’s been a sea change in the way the public feels about Hillary Clinton since her run for president in 2008. Back then we had respect for Clinton and knew she is competent and trustworthy, but we didn’t deem her worthy of the same giddy excitement as her then-competitor President Obama.
Now, six years later, we are gaga for her. We LO-OVE Hillary. The Daily Beast has a story about Hillary super-fans, women who cover their cars or bodies with her face or spend their days tracking her every move on their blogs. They might be more expressive than others, but the nearly $6 million already raised by the “Ready for Hillary” Super PAC suggests they are not alone.
Getty Images // Donald Sterling and V. Stiviano
It reads better than a soap opera, the interpersonal and romantic drama that led to the exposure and punishment (a lifetime ban!) for racist soon-to-be-former NBA franchise owner Donald Sterling. All the juicy pieces were in place: an estranged wife, Shelly Sterling, who resented V. Stiviano, the younger woman hanging out with her husband. Such was her animus that she was suing Stiviano or being a “gold-digger” and seducing her way to the Sterling’s property. That lawsuit, presumably, prompted epic revenge: Stiviano’s secret tape recording of Donald Sterling’s appalling racist remarks.
Frimet Goldberger’s children enjoy their recent family road trip. She admits being happy to get out of the driver’s seat for good.
Road-tripping is one of those overly romanticized activities we read about and want to — no, positively have to — add to our bucket lists. Get in a car — instant Kerouac. Or so we romanticize.
Mark Twain wrote in “Tom Sawyer Abroad”: “I have found out that there ain’t no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them.” To which I add, “For 18 hours, cooped up in a mid-size car with children asking, ‘Are we there yet?’ while the driver mindlessly eats chocolate and chips and bangs her head on the steering wheel to keep awake.”
Library of Congress
The whole world is officially turning into your bubbe.
From Iran to Russia to Japan and Romania, governments around the world are making your womb their business. Everyone is terrified because of the ongoing decline in the birth rate, which has dropped below replacement level and, if it continues as such, will lead to population shrinkage on a global scale.
At one point in the documentary “No Place on Earth,” Saul Stermer, now 93, who, with his family, spent 511 days hiding in two Ukrainian caves and escaped the Holocaust, smiles and says, “What a mother!” No wonder. His mother, Esther Stermer, who was 75 years old in 1942 when the Nazis came to her Ukrainian village, saved her family.
During my training to be an oral historian for Steven Spielberg’s survivors of the Shoah visual history project, interviewing Holocaust survivors, I learned that it was often the woman of the family, the mother, the wife, who recognized the Nazi peril before the husband did. Too often the men dismissed signs of impending disaster, shrugged them off with the confidence that they had lived in these homes for years like their parents before them, that they had successful businesses, lovely homes, good neighbors, that this unpleasantness would pass. But somehow the mothers knew. And the families who listened to their women and left Germany or Austria or Czechoslovakia or other countries invaded by the Nazis managed to survive.
Esther was one of these women who knew danger and who dealt with it. She warned the men in her family not to register to work for the Nazis because she realized that those Jewish men who did register were never seen again. She also told her family not to obey orders to move to the ghetto, but to hide instead.
One Sunday late last year, while on a biweekly library run with my children, I picked up an illustrated book about Anne Frank from the kids’ section.
“What’s that book, mom?” my son inquired, as he cleared the shelf of Franklin W. Dixon’s “The Hardy Boys.”
I quickly hid it between the stash of books in our library backpack, and pointed out that he missed one book in the “The Hardy Boys” series. I did not know what to tell him. How do you begin a conversation about something so elemental, something so close to home, something that is bound to give a child endless nightmares and shatter his sense of safety in the little bubble we created for him?
Turns out Hobby Lobby’s challenge of the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate, which is now before the Supreme Court, is only one part of its crusade to blur the lines between church and state.
Steven Green, president of the craft store chain, has created a bible curriculum and now a public school district in Mustang, Oklahoma, near where the company’s headquarters are based, has agreed to test it out.
Welcome to Throwback Thursday, a weekly photo feature in which we sift 116 years of Forward history to find snapshots of women’s lives.
An unsung hero of Jewish girls education in inter-war Poland, Dr. Cecylja Klaften came to New York City in 1938 as part of a fundraising effort held at Mecca Temple on West 55th Street, sponsored by aid organization United Galician Jews of America.
Alicia Silverstone has a new book out and I wonder why it is selling.
For starters, it has a impossible to remember title, the sort that only Fiona Apple can get away with: “The Kind Mama: A Simple Guide to Supercharged Fertility, a Radiant Pregnancy, a Sweeter Birth, and a Healthier, More Beautiful Beginning.”
Second, in spite of, or maybe because of, the “kind” in the title, this book will only make its readers feel like crap.
Courtesy Penka Kouneva // From left to right, Jeremy Borum, Penka Kouneva and Nathan Furst working on the Dreamworks feature “Need for Speed”
At six, Penka Kouneva was playing piano in her hometown of Sofia, Bulgaria. At 12, she was composing music for children’s theater. At 17, a song of hers won a Japanese competition for young songwriters. Standing on a stage in Tokyo, singing her song, Kouneva knew: she was going to be a musician and composer. Today, her determination and talent have helped pave her way to Hollywood, where she is a composer and orchestrator. But as a woman in a male-dominated segment of the industry, she is also experiencing what she refers to as the “celluloid ceiling” — fewer than 2% women composers scored Hollywood top 250 features in 2013.
“In Hollywood, I intuitively felt that I had to be much better than the expectation, to even have a chance to survive,” Kouneva explained over email, shortly after the closing of her Kickstarter campaign for “The Woman Astronaut,” an original score designed to show the world that a woman composer has the right stuff. (Kouneva raised $25,000 from backers, and raised $34,616 of her “stretch goal” of $40,000 — all of the funds will go toward production costs for the album.)
“The film industry or any high-risk industry across most departments views women as inferior,” Kouneva said. “In film composing the gender difference is extreme, because historically composing was considered ‘not a woman’s profession,’ and for centuries remained inaccessible to women.”
It was this very clear celluloid ceiling that inspired the theme for “The Woman Astronaut,” Kouneva explains, citing her passion for sci-fi, fantasy and the cosmos as inspirations for her musical journey. At an event honoring renowned composer Nan Schwartz, Kouneva found herself thinking about the gender imbalance, especially with films in the genres she loved most. She decided to investigate the numbers and learned that women accounted for 11% of astronauts, but less than 2% of composers for Hollywood scores.
In an interview with the Forward, Kouneva shared some of her observations on the success of her campaign and the state of the Hollywood music industry, particularly for women.
Getty Images // An Orthodox bride and groom in Jerusalem*
HalachicallyYours.org is a web site opening the lines of communication about sexuality and intimacy in married relationships in the Orthodox community. I spoke with Sarah Epstein, who has been a sex educator for four years, about her project and why sex ed is still taboo among religious Jews.
In preparing to interview Julie Zeilinger about her new book, “College 101: A Girl’s Guide to Freshman Year”, I asked some female friends of mine, all in our twenties and thirties, what, if any, books they’d been given in preparation to go to college. The answers included “What Color is Your Parachute?”, “Chicken Soup for the College Soul”, and “Oh, The Places You’ll Go”
In this small sample, none of the women I knew had read anything about the specific experience of being a woman in college before they went. Zeilinger’s book takes the opposite tack. You won’t find another book about going to college that also contains a smack down on slut shaming, bro culture and the specter of the “freshman 15.”
We live in a world over-saturated with messages about flawless skin, slim waists, perky breasts and perfectly shaped bottoms. But until my twenties, I did not know this world. My ideals of beauty were not shaped by Marilyn Monroe and Angelina Jolie; beauty standards in the Hasidic world I grew up in are radically different than that of mainstream society, and those were the standards for my formative years.