Yona Zeldis McDonough is a Brooklyn-based award-winning children’s author who also has a successful career as a fiction writer for adults. Many know her by the picture books she has created together with her mother, the celebrated self-taught artist Malcah Zeldis. This month, her newest children’s chapter book, “The Cats In The Doll Shop” has been published. It is a sequel to “The Doll Shop Downstairs,” the fictional story of a Russian Jewish immigrant family with three young daughters living above their doll shop on the Lower East Side of Manhattan during WWI.
Zeldis McDonough spoke with The Sisterhood about writing for different audiences, her identity as a Jewish writer, and the new book and how it goes against the grain of current popular children’s literature.
Renee Ghert-Zand: Not many authors write for adults and children. How did you end up writing successfully for both audiences?
To walk a mile in another woman’s shoes, Nancy Kaufman of New York recently boarded a gender-segregated public bus in Jerusalem.
The CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women took a “freedom ride” with a group of colleagues while recently visiting Israel to experience what it’s like to be a woman and assume that one must move to the rear of the bus on designated routes, while men sit up front.
Kaufman took a front seat, netting what she says were “very dirty looks” from men who boarded. She also recounted the comment of a female passenger (in Hebrew) to a woman in the Council entourage: “You should be ashamed of yourselves. Why don’t you take care of your own prostitutes and drugs and do not worry about us.”
For the first time in 12 years there is no woman on the committee responsible for appointing judges to Israel’s rabbinical courts, after the Israel Bar Association failed to elect a woman as its members’ representative. This is being viewed as a tremendous blow to promoting the rights of women who must face these courts in divorce cases.
The 12 religious courts across Israel are desperately in need of reform on critical family law issues, most importantly, divorce. Such reform won’t happen with the election of the two new members of the committee, Asher Axelrod and Mordechai Eisenberg. Not only are both of the new members male, but Eisenberg is Haredi, and both are closely associated with, and have received the endorsement of, Haredi political parties.
Women’s advocacy and religious rights groups are furious at Bar Association leaders for the political wheeling and dealing with ultra-Orthodox parties that led to this development. The two Bar Association representatives join Israel’s two chief rabbis, two senior rabbinical judges, two government ministers and two Knesset members on the committee, all of whom are presently male.
In a naked display of solidarity, 40 Israeli women recently took off their clothes to support an embattled young Egyptian woman who is under fire for posting a nude photograph of herself online.
The Egyptian woman, Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, 20, posted the picture and allowed it to be put on Twitter in order to protest sexism and the oppression of women in Egypt. She told CNN that she did it because:
I am not shy of being a woman in a society where women are nothing but sex objects harassed on a daily basis by men who know nothing about sex or the importance of a woman. The photo is an expression of my being and I see the human body as the best artistic representation of that…
In Genesis, when Jacob sees Joseph’s coat covered in blood, and thinks that his precious son is dead, he tears his clothes and begins to mourn. The act of tearing, keriah, is encoded in Jewish law as part of the ritual of mourning —whether expressing personal grief for a loved one or a national grief for the people’s destruction.
The act of tearing, of destroying clothes, is a visceral action full of rage and violence, physically expressing some of the many strong emotions one feels when one is bereaved. I also see it as making a symbolic break in personal identity. As a mourner, you are no longer the person you were. Something has shifted, something has ruptured in your life, and the experience of loss and grief can have a profound effect on identity. And so your clothing, that which represents your old self, is destroyed.
Grief can be also be a very lonely experience, isolating and alienating, and affects personal relationships and engagement with the world. For me, this is beautifully expressed in a piece called ‘Widow’ by the artist Susie MacMurray. There is something compelling and attractive about the shimmering silver, and yet up close you realize that this effect comes from rows and rows of large sharp pins sticking out of the leather dress. It is prickly and dangerous.
True confession time. Even as I have been writing here at The Sisterhood regularly about the struggles of women in places like Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh, with their issues of gender segregation and the disappearance of their images from public space, personally I have felt pretty far removed from the situation.
The town where I live, Ra’anana, feels like something of an oasis from the religious-secular tug of war that happens in other Israeli communities. We have an unusual demographic make up. Our small city has a solid non-Orthodox majority, with a substantial minority of Orthodox Jewish families, estimated at about 25 percent, nearly all “national religious,” or modern Orthodox. Haredim in Ra’anana, though they exist, are few and far between. The town is a magnet for immigrants from Western countries: South Africa, the U.S., Canada, France, England, Argentina are only the biggest sources. We have Orthodox and non-Orthodox residents from nearly every country in Europe and South America. As a result, our Orthodox population tends to be tolerant of their less observant neighbors, and the non-Orthodox population is extremely respectful of those who observe mitzvot. With many Orthodox women from abroad in jeans and uncovered hair, you can’t always tell who is who. We also have a critical mass of residents who identify as Conservative and Reform Jews, also uncommon in Israel. In short, Ra’anana is about mixed and as ‘live and let live’ as predominately Jewish cities in Israel go.
I’ve always felt that the local spirit was embodied nicely in the building where I take Pilates classes. The three-story building has storefronts on the ground floor, and the side entrance leads to the stairwell. Upstairs, there is a large Chabad center where prayer and study takes place. Downstairs, is a dance studio, where a different kind of learning happens: girls and women — Orthodox and non-Orthodox — learn ballet, jazz, hip-hop and take Pilates classes. That the men heading to study Torah at Chabad and girls in leotards and dance gear could amicably share space, to me illustrated the harmony in the community.
An op-ed piece in the Huffington Post by a 17-year-old Jewish high school student brought up some suppressed memories. This was not only because she wrote about the issue of paid maternity leave, but also the fact that she goes to a New York Jewish day school at which I once worked — and where I was treated badly because I asked for that benefit.
Emma Goldberg (the daughter of Forward senior columnist J.J. Goldberg and Advancing Women Professionals’ founding President Shifra Bronznick) wrote that she was surprised and worried to see her teacher at the Abraham Joshua Heschel School return to work only four weeks after having given birth. Apparently, the teacher, like many other women, could not afford to go without a salary for more than a month. Consequently, she spoke with the school’s administration about its maternity leave policy, did a lot of research on the topic, and wrote a strong piece calling for longer paid maternity leaves in all workplaces.
As much as it heartening to see a Jewish teenager so aware and so activist on this issue, it is also disheartening to see that nothing has changed in the close to 20 years since I was a young woman trying to concurrently build a career and a family. At least Goldberg, as a high school senior, is already aware of the uphill battle working mothers face and knows where she might be able to seek help or support when she herself reaches the point at which she needs to take maternity leave. In this regard, she is in a better place than I was when I was in my late 20s.
Listen to a woman soldier sing in a military ceremony or face a firing squad? Tough decision, eh?
One Orthodox rabbi has declared that male religious soldiers who are true to their faith should choose the latter.
In a radio interview quoted in Ha’aretz, Rabbi Elyakim Levanon, rabbi of the West Bank settlement of Elon Moreh, said that if the army continues to stand firm on insisting that all soldiers attend official events with women singing, the time will soon approach “in which rabbis will have to say to soldiers ‘you have to leave those events even if there’s a firing squad outside, and you’ll be shot to death.’ ”
In 1997, Blu Greenberg chaired the first International Conference on Feminism & Orthodoxy. About 400 attendees were expected and more than 1,000 showed up, hungry for a community of other women committed to both traditional Jewish life and their own religious potential. The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, which was born of that first gathering and had Greenberg as its founding president, has run six more conferences and now claims some 5,000 members worldwide.
JOFA is honoring Greenberg, along with past president Carol Kaufman Newman and key funder Zelda Stern, at a dinner in New York City on November 20th. The Sisterhood spoke with Greenberg about what has changed for Orthodox Jewish women since JOFA began — and what hasn’t.
Debra Nussbaum Cohen: Of issues on JOFA’s agenda, where has there been the most change, and the least?
While attending a Jewish Funder’s Network conference 15 years ago, I received a monograph on Jewish social justice. The powerful essay, written by Leonard Fein, lifelong champion of many social justice issues, had a major flaw. It did not refer to a single woman activist.
When I challenged Fein on this, he responded with a question: “Where would I go to find out about such women?” I knew at that moment that I needed to create the Jewish Women’s Archive to make certain that in the future no one could ask that question or use it as an excuse. Everyone would know where to go to find out about Jewish women, past and present. Since 1996, they have been going to JWA.
Yet once again, it seems Fein did not know where to go. I recently received an email announcing a new JCC lecture series titled “Hot Buttons, Cool Conversations” at Boston’s Leventhal Sidman JCC. Initially the description that appeared on my screen drew my interest:
discuss hot issues, ask questions, and add to the conversation with notable experts in their fields as we tackle politics, faith, economics, Israel, and culture through a Jewish lens.
But as I scrolled down I felt an increasing sense of discomfort with what I was reading. The discomfort quickly turned to disbelief and profound disappointment. All nine speakers in this series conceived by Leonard Fein are male.
While my son’s religious yeshiva recently invited mothers to an evening of mother-son learning, my daughters’ mixed-gender school decided to hold an event for women that revolves around “styling.” The flier reads: “Dear community chaverot (meaning either female members or female friends), you are invited to a unique evening on the subject of ‘Style Together’ ….”
Some apparently famous fashion writer/stylist will be lecturing on the subject of “How to use fashion to transmit social messages,” followed by tips on dressing for image and personality or whatever. The flier is brightly adorned with silhouettes of tall skinny young women wearing flared mini-dresses and high heels, with flowers in their hair. How fashion sends social messages, indeed.
I can imagine the protests already, before I’ve even started explaining why this is so upsetting to me:
What’s the big deal? It’s just a fun evening. Don’t we all want to dress well anyway? Isn’t this useful information? Practically every school has fashion-show fundraisers, so how is this different? Come on, why are you being such a stick in the mud? This is why people say feminists are too serious. Let women have their night out. It’s just a night for women to get together and bond — like going for manicures
(Suddenly midrash manicures don’t look so bad — at least they have a midrash component).
The hardest thing about moving to Israel from the United States has been dealing with the fact that by moving here I have put my children in physical and moral danger. Of course I know that danger lurks everywhere — car accidents, cancer-causing pollutants, violent criminals. When I am in a mall in Israel with my kids I worry about them being blown up, whereas when I am in a mall with my kids in the U.S. I worry about them being abducted. Different place, different dangers. I know that.
Is living in any country morally neutral? America was built on the backs of slaughtered natives; when I lived in New York, I regularly had to walk by homeless people. When I lived in Washington, D.C., the line between black D.C. and white D.C. reminded me of East and West Jerusalem. Growing up in suburban New York, I went to an Orthodox Jewish day school and summer camp; I did not have non-Orthodox Jews in my social circle, let alone non-Jews. Though we had some Christian white neighbors, there were no blacks, Asians or Hispanics and certainly no Muslims.
While I am unhappy with the segregated reality in Israel, at least there are some Muslim and Christian Arab kids in my children’s school, and we send the kids on Arab-Jewish interfaith summer programs. We live in Lower Galilee in a highly Palestinian and Arab-Israeli-populated area, so interact daily with Arabs. My children learn Arabic in school, and we make an effort to socialize with Arabs. My kids are, without a doubt, less Arab-phobic than their peers in Jewish day schools in the U.S.
Katie Roiphe’s call in the New York Times for more tolerance for risqué behavior and dirty jokes at work inspired a pretty unanimous dismissal in the feminist blogosphere. (DoubleX, Jezebel, Pandagon, Feminisiting, and here on the Sisterhood.)
In her piece, Roiphe declares that our limited tolerance for the capacious concept of sexual harassment, which could refer to anything from demanding sex for a job to commenting on someone’s dress, might turn our workplaces to drab, cautious environments.
I agree that Roiphe went too far. That said, I am still going to go against the tide here and admit not only that her piece made me think, but also that she made a few good points.
It was small, low-key and the participants numbered in the hundreds, not the thousands. But a crowd of Israeli women took to the streets to speak out — or, more accurately, sing out — against the continuing attacks by religious extremists on women’s right to be seen and heard freely in the public square.
The November 11 action was a long time coming. Too long. As Sisterhood readers know, for months the situation has become increasingly disturbing. There has been: bus segregation, harassment of schoolgirls in Beit Shemesh, streets free of females in Mea Shearim during Sukkot, soldiers walking out on ceremonies that include women singing in the IDF and women soldiers being excluded from Simchat Torah celebrations, in addition to disappearing and defaced images of women on Jerusalem billboards. None of it is new.
Astoundingly, until now, no Israeli women’s organization took the initiative to organize a public event of any kind to express the anger and frustration of Israeli women at these developments. So the 11-11-11 singing protest, created single-handedly by intrepid blogger Hila Benyovich-Hoffman, and promoted on her Facebook page, finally brought some objection to the public square was sorely overdue.
Once upon a time there were two Jewish sisters. One grew up to be a Reform rabbi and the other one of America’s more profane comics. These two sisters — Rabbi Susan Silverman and Sarah Silverman — could not be both more different and more alike. The sacred and profane mingle in their DNA, which led, in a recent joint appearance, to them exploring their genetic predisposition for “Jewiness.” Sarah says she’s “Jewy beyond my control,” while Susan says she is “attracted to the glamour of Jewiness.”
And so it went for over an hour on November 8 when the two women appeared together at Boston University’s Center for Cultural Judaism and Department of Religion. The duo’s appearance was officially billed as “Sister Act: Growing up Jewish in New Hampshire and Making the Best of It.”
The Silvermans grew up in Manchester, where they claimed they were more in the minority as Democrats than as Jews. But as children, they fended off their fair share of anti-Semitic bullies. They recalled being accused of deicide with insults hurled at them at school. Sarah said that she’d tell kids, “If I killed your God, think about what I could do to you.”
I spent the anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination at a mother-son learning event at my son’s yeshivah. Well, it wasn’t officially a Rabin memorial event; it was more like the not-Rabin event. It was advertised as an evening to commemorate the yahrtzeit of Rachel — the matriarch, not the poet.
Yes, she’s been dead a long time, much longer than Rabin, and for most of those three millennia or so since her demise, her yahrtzeit has gone unnoticed. But seeing as it coincides with the Rabin thing, religious educational institutions in Israel have suddenly rediscovered her, finding in her a wonderful way to assemble the masses without having to make a statement one way or the other about their position on Rabin, Yigal Amir, or the intersection of politics and religion in Israel.
When my son texted that he actually wanted me to come to this event (he knows about my poor attendance record at these kinds of things), I was actually quite excited. Not so much about memorializing Rachel, but about the fact that my son wanted to be seen in public with me. That’s a coup in the world of parenting teens.
Why do we need to tell our kids that they can’t do important things for their own sake, but only to get some kind of reward? The notion of manicures for middle school girls in a Jewish school disturbs me on a variety of levels.
Since Elana Sztokman wrote so well about why they are a setback for women, I want to focus on the notion that girls will not be interested in studying Torah unless they get the prize of doing their nails out of it.
The assumption that kids won’t want to study Torah, engage in doing either ritual or ethical mitzvot without some kind of ulterior motive, cheapens the enterprise of these things. Why can’t we just say to our kids, this is our text and heritage and helps give our lives meaning and we need to study it? Midrash manicures seems to be telling these Westchester young ladies, “if you study this, then you get to do your nails.” Learning Torah, in this scenario, is something to be finished to get to the main focus: the manicure. What does that say about the value of study?
In a New York Times opinion piece, Katie Roiphe writes of her longing for the good old days when sexual harassment in the workplace was just the way things were. Ah, for those not-so-long-ago days when, as she writes, there were:
colorful or inappropriate comments, with irreverence, wildness, incorrectness, ease.
But whose ease was it? It was certainly not the women’s when they were objects of their male superiors’ and co-workers’ unwanted sexual attention.
This is no new trope for Roiphe, who seems to pride herself on being contrarian on American culture and sexual ethics. In 1994, as a doctoral candidate at Princeton, she wrote “The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism” and had it excerpted as “Date Rape’s Other Victim” in the Times in 1993. In that piece she excoriated “rape-crisis feminists” for denying female sexual agency when it comes to being assaulted.
In the months before she was shot in the head and critically wounded, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, had been undergoing fertility treatment with hopes of becoming pregnant via in vitro fertilization. That’s one of the revelations in “Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope,” the new memoir that the Democratic congresswoman wrote with her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, and veteran journalist (and former Bintel Brief guest columnist) Jeffrey Zaslow.
To coincide with the book’s release, Giffords, who in 2007 became Arizona’s first Jewish congresswoman, granted her first interview since the shooting to ABC News’ Diane Sawyer; it airs tonight at 10/9 Central, and a preview can be seen here.
Whether or not the three-term congresswoman will realize her dream of becoming a mother remains to be seen. The couple has two frozen embryos in storage at Walter Reed Naval Medical Center. In “Gabby,” an exclusive excerpt of which was published in this week’s People magazine, Kelly writes that it is “still possible for us to have a child together, though given Gabby’s injuries, we’d probably need to go through a surrogate.”
For now, according to the excerpt, Giffords focus isn’t on having a baby or on her political future; it’s on getting better.
Women are being kept out of public space in many ways in Israel. We have heard lately about women missing from advertising posters and newspaper ads in Jerusalem, and about female soldiers being marginalized from military activities for fear of offending Haredi men. Now, there is an additional — related and unrelated— focus on the lack of women presenting and analyzing televised news.
On Thursday evening, a group of Israelis kept their television sets off in protest of the lack of women on news programs. “Turn Off the TV — Return Women To The Screen!” is an initiative organized by Anat Saragusti and Vered Cohen-Barzilay, both of whom work in the fields of social change and human rights. The two set up a Facebook page for the event, and 255 people committed to “attending.” The cause is being supported by both women and men, including Haaretz former editor-in-chief Dov Alfon.
“The picture is totally masculine. We have all gotten used to it and haven’t even stopped to ask ourselves why it is so,” Saragusti and Cohen-Barzilay wrote in their invitation to the protest. “No more!…There should be women speaking about security! Women speaking about the economy! Women speaking about foreign policy! They should give their opinions, explain and analyze and expose us to women’s reality, as well.”