Earlier this month, my social media feeds were full of comments about the recent Pew Study, A Portrait of Jewish Americans. Even more than the actual study though, it was the New York Times article about the findings that generated the most conversation, with its telling headline, “Poll Shows Major Shift in Identity of U.S. Jews.”
While the results emphasize that American Jews are proud to declare their identity, the more negative takeaways were captured in the second paragraph of the Times article:
The intermarriage rate, a bellwether statistic, has reached a high of 58 percent for all Jews, and 71 percent for non-Orthodox Jews — a huge change from before 1970 when only 17 percent of Jews married outside the faith. Two-thirds of Jews do not belong to a synagogue, one-fourth do not believe in God and one-third had a Christmas tree in their home last year.
I found this especially interesting because at the time I was reading the just-released book “My Basmati Bat Mitzvah” by Paula J. Freedman. “My Basmati Bat Mitzvah” follows the spiritual and social journey of 12-year-old New Yorker Tara Feinstein as she prepares for her Bat Mitzvah (or Bas Mitzvah as her Yiddish grandmother and Indian-born auntie refer to it).
And therein lies the rub: Tara likes to embrace both her Jewish and Indian identities, complete with chilis in matzo ball soup and a converted sari synagogue-party dress. But this also creates problems, as she deals with classmates who say she is not “really” Jewish, even though her Indian mother converted to Judaism before she was born, and that she is worshipping idols because she keeps an elephant statue from her grandfather in her room. As Tara wonders, when it comes to her Bat Mitzvah: “Was I about to become more Jewish, or less Indian?”
My favorite Young Adult novels when I was a young reader were the ones that I now think of as “my summer of death and kissing” novels. Sound morbid? It’s not, really. It’s about a certain kind of melancholy grandeur. The way I see it is: If art, like life, boils down to sex, death and family, then the best YA novels are the ones that describe initiation into the complexities of all three.
One of my most dog-eared in that category was Madeline L’Engle’s “A Ring of Endless Light,” where our heroine learns about death, dolphins and boys, and the other was Judy Blume’s “Tiger Eyes,” where our heroine encounters death, canyons and boys. This latter novel, my favorite by Blume, has now been made into a feature film by Blume’s son Larry — remarkably, the first feature adaptation of a Blume novel — with his famous mom’s collaboration on the screenplay. It arrives in theaters and on-demand TV on June 7.
“Tiger Eyes,” which I’ve probably read upwards of six or seven times, is told from the perspective of Davey, a teenager in Atlantic City, who must face life without her father after he is murdered tending his 7-Eleven store and her family relocates to Los Alamos. Davey is aided in her grieving process by Wolf, an older boy she meets in a canyon (only this week did a friend of mine point out the Freudian implications of the canyon) who is also losing his father to illness.
Sexual dysfunctions within relationships are more common than ever today, with an estimated 40% of women and 30% of men suffering from sexual dysfunctions, according to a new study from the Robert Wood Johnson Medical school. Many women experience pain during intercourse, which could relate to conditions like vaginismus, dyspareunia, and vulvodynia, while common male sexual dysfunctions include premature ejaculation, erectile dysfunction and other disorders related to anxiety.
In many Orthodox circles, the essence of a couple’s life revolves around having children. Sexual dysfunctions within a relationship could hurt, and possible even cede, the reproductive aspects. Couples seeking counseling might shy away from the subject, a topic not necessarily widely addressed, and with the laws of family purity weighing in, the pressures seem to tack on.
Rabbi Daniel Schonbuch, a marital and family therapist from Brooklyn who specializes in Orthodox couples, has just released a new book, “Getting Closer,” which offers a glimpse of sexual dysfunction issues — from painful intercourse to erectile dysfunction to desire disorders — within the Orthodox community. He discusses marital intimacy using an approach called Emotionally Focused Therapy to help Orthodox couples through difficulties in intimacy, which can be the underlying issue of much of marital stress. The Sisterhood spoke with him about his new book and some of the unique issues the Orthodox community faces.
Our lives can change in an instant, which is exactly what happens to Rahel bat Yair, a 17-year-old girl about to be engaged to be married. Mere minutes after her father’s enemy arrives at her home as she gets ready to meet her betrothed, the sheltered teenager is forced to flee and assume a new identity. Her journey is dangerous — even brutal — but it is also expansive.
Rachel is the protagonist of Janice Weizman’s debut novel, “The Wayward Moon,” which was recently named a finalist for the Midwest Book Award. In the novel, Weizman, the founder and managing editor of The Ilanot Review, transports us to what is now Iraq in the 9th century, the Golden Age of Islam — an unusual period for a Jewish historical novel with a female heroine.
The Sisterhood asked Weizman how she accurately evoked her novel’s historical setting, how the book is a reclamation of women’s history and the challenges of writing from a Medieval perspective when you live in a post-Enlightenment world.
Rebecca Kanner’s new novel, “Sinners and the Sea,” imagines the experiences of that woman. In a recent interview with The Sisterhood, Kanner, who is based in Minneapolis, talked about the book.
THE SISTERHOOD: Rebecca, I understand that your interest in Noah’s wife can be traced to your early education in a Jewish day school. Please tell us about that.
I attended Talmud Torah Day school as a child. The women of Genesis were very present for me, especially Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, because my teachers added them to the Amidah each morning. I got to begin each day with these women. They were the teachers and friends of my youth.
As an adult I was surprised to find that I couldn’t remember any details about Noah’s wife. I went back and read the story of the flood, and saw that she was only mentioned in passing. She was never even named. Without a name, it’s hard to talk about her, or even to think about her. I wanted to bring her to life. If she raised her family amongst sinners and brought them through the flood to the new world, she performed a great task and surely had a story to tell.
It’s no surprise to voracious readers of female-authored fiction that the magical realism genre has flourished by the pens of the fairer sex. Readers with some enthusiasm for the genre may associate it with women of color in particular. For example, there’s Isabel Allende and Laura Esquivel, following in the Latin American tradition of Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Alice Walker and Toni Morrison incorporating folklore into African-American fiction.
It isn’t hard to think of Jewish men who weave mysticism and fantasy into their works, either — Isaac Bashevis Singer, Jonathan Safran Foer, Bernard Malamud and Franz Kafka. But the Jewish women of this genre are not as well known, though they are certainly present. Jewish studies and comparative literature students — you’ve got an enormous body of work to sift through from around the world to create compelling academic theses, and for everyone else, there’s a place on the couch waiting for us to curl up with one of these fabulous stories.
Here’s a list of eight female Jewish authors and their Jewish-themed magical realism novels, with just a bit about each book. This list is not comprehensive, of course, so please share your favorite authors in this deep and growing category.
Elissa Strauss is right to note that VIDA’s third annual count of male vs. female bylines in “thought leader magazines” created a reaction that, at first, amounted to a giant shrug. Over the past few years many writers, Elissa most notable among them, have asked editors to respond to “The Count.” Most did not take action. The pie charts showing bylines by gender at major publications haven’t really budged.
Now, the question is: How do we make them change? This widely-circulated interview with editors from Tin House and Granta, two publications that have shifted their “counts,” indicates that it’s actually not that hard. Spend more energy focusing on asking women to submit. Check in on your numbers periodically. As Tin House editor Rob Spillman noted, “These are all simple solutions. What I found interesting was that we had all assumed that we were gender balanced, when in fact we weren’t. Now, with a concerted effort, we know that we are.”
I’m often that person who gives books to children as gifts. They probably groan when they open them, but I’m usually out of earshot by then. As a kid, I was thrilled when a relative made a tasteful selection for me. There are a few more nights left of Hanukkah, so if you’re in need of a gift for a girl with at least a passing interest in Jewish culture — or just a gift for no particular occasion at all — here are eight suggestions culled from a 1980s girlhood spent devouring the local public library. All of them were written by Jewish women and some of them do, inevitably, deal with complex and painful themes, but none feature characters who send text messages. Did I leave out your favorite? Add to the list in the comments section below.
1) “Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself”
Judy Blume, ages 9 and up
“Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret” gets all the girly attention — and it, too, carries a Jewish theme — but “Freedman” is Blume’s Jewish masterpiece. Picture a ten-year-old New Jersey girl in 1947, whisked to Miami with her family (including her Yiddish-speaking and avid Forward reading Bubbe) so her brother can recuperate from Nephritis. She imagines her next-door neighbor to be Adolf Hitler in disguise — a side-effect of having a severely over-protective and paranoid mother. Sally is clever, yearns for glamour, and is always eavesdropping on the grownups. I may have signed letters I sent from summer camp in 1993 with the valediction “Love, and other indoor sports,” as cribbed from Sally’s own correspondence, even though I had no idea what that meant.
Jami Attenberg is the author of “Instant Love,” “The Kept Man,” “The Melting Season” and, most recently, “The Middlesteins,” which Interview magazine called “juicy, delicious, dark smorgasbörd of a novel. (It is that and more.) “The Middlesteins” is the story of a Midwestern Jewish family’s relationships, realizations and appetites. Attenberg spoke with The Sisterhood about loving her characters, connecting to the past, and writing a Jewish book.
THE SISTERHOOD: Whenever I read your books, I have the experience of things being revealed in such a clever and graceful way. I see so much in “The Middlesteins.” It’s about missing each other in spite of being present in each other’s lives. It’s about how much we don’t know about people we love. And it’s about ritual, surprise and hunger. What does “The Middlesteins” mean to ou?
JAMI ATTENBERG: Oh gosh, it’s about so many things. When I look at my favorite parts of it now, I go back to the bits that were about passion and excess. So I love all the eating scenes, for example. I wrote all those with love. But also it’s about communication, or lack thereof. The hard conversations we don’t want to have — and often don’t have - are hovering around the edges of this book for me. For such a loud culture, we often remain too silent.
I’ll be transparent here. I’ve read “The Melting Season,” “The Kept Man” and “Instant Love,” all ravenously, and I’m curious as to what brought on, well, the surge of Judaism. It’s so present throughout your new book. I know that as a writer it’s complicated; sometimes you get attacked by characters, sometimes they creep in slowly. How did you decide to follow this particular thread?
“A Wedding in Great Neck:” Family Mishegas Arrives Just in Time for the Nuptials
Yona Zeldis McDonough’s new novel “A Wedding in Great Neck” takes place over the course of a single day, as a Jewish family gathers for the lavish wedding (to a handsome Israeli) of Angleica, the aptly-named youngest daughter who at least appears to be the apple of the family’s eye.
In the fabled locale where Gatsby’s (and P. Diddy’s) parties epitomize American aspiration, the clan begins to fray at the edges while the band and photographer set up and the sky threatens rain. Among McDonough’s memorable characters are teenage Justine, whose surface anti-Israel fervor may mask more serious problems; divorced father of the bride Lincoln, desperate to make good after years of alcoholism, and matriarch Lenore, a bra-fitting expert who decides to take this one day to “fix” everything up for the troubled generations below her: kids, grandkids, great grandkids and more.
In an email exchange with the Sisterhood, McDonough discussed the inspiration behind Lenore, her novel’s structure, and gender in the literary world.
I have read wedding novels and novels that take place in a single day, but never both at once! What gave you the idea to combine them?
I had recently read — and was very impressed by — two other books that took place in a single day. One was the masterpiece “Saturday,” by Ian McEwan, which I thought was truly epic in its scope and depth. The other was Helen Schulman’s well-done and deeply moving “A Day At the Beach.” I was intrigued by the formal problems posed by creating a novel whose story unfolded in a day and I thought a wedding would offer a strong enough armature on which to base a plot structure of that kind.
Like many Americans, particularly those who share my gender, I’ve spent a good deal of my spring and summer immersed in new books by (and mostly for) women. But I want to take a break from buzzing about the erotic novel “Fifty Shades of Grey” and the creepy thriller “Gone Girl” to talk about two other notable books of the year. Because Cheryl Strayed’s memoir “Wild” and Caitlin Moran memoir-meets-manifesto “How to Be a Woman” are both gifts to literature and feminism.
These two tomes have become the literary equivalent of viral sensations. They’re passed from reader to reader, though now, of course, “Wild” has the added bonus of Oprah’s resurrected book club to give it serious commercial heft. They are both excellent reads — page-turners with substance, full of confessional detail and wondrous writing in divergent styles. Each book demonstrates the power of personal narrative as feminist testimony, and together they reveal two aspects of feminism that aren’t strictly political in nature: the deeply compassionate, soul-searching side and the powerfully saucy and defiant one.
“Wild” is the story of Strayed’s long summer hiking the Pacific Crest Trail — of her journey rebuilding her life literally one step at a time after wallowing in dangerous drug use and casual sex in the wake of her mother’s death. In my mind, Strayed’s memoir joins Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild” as a seminal contemporary account of human interactions with nature; it’s a female constructive yin to that book’s male nihilistic yang. Strayed’s descriptions of losing her toenails, being caked in dirt and dehydrated, and feeling her body transform during grueling hikes are all memorable for their vivid physicality. You feel what she feels. At the same time, she chronicles her grief and slow reintroduction to the pleasure and pain of life, and these moments are as deeply emotional and raw as it gets. Strayed, who for a period of time wrote the anonymous advice column “Dear Sugar” at The Rumpus, told Bitch magazine that everything she is and does is informed by her feminism, including promoting her book.
With her new book, “Rav Hisda’s Daughter: Book 1, Apprentice,” Maggie Anton, author of the “Rashi’s Daughters” trilogy, unearths a different chapter of Jewish history, giving readers a peek into what life may have been like for a Jewish woman in 3rd century Babylonia. Weaving together research on the religious life and culture, the sociology and even the statecraft of the era, the book follows the youngest child of famed Rav Hisda (or Chisda), who is one of the Talmud’s central rabbinic characters.
Anton’s curiosity was piqued early on in her own study of Talmud, which began in 1992, when she discovered the young daughter of Rav Hisda, who in Bava Batra 12b is described as sitting on her father’s lap. Two of his students, Rava and Rami bar Hama, stand in front of them, and Rav Hisda asks which of the boys she wants to marry. She replies “both,” and according to the Talmud, the fact that Rava said he wants to be the last she marries (which is indeed what happens) is evidence of children possessing the gift of prophecy.
“I thought ‘what a girl, what a story!’” Anton told The Sisterhood. “In 1995, when I wanted to write a novel about women and Talmud, I decided to write ‘Rashi’s Daughters’ because I thought it was easier to research 11th century France than 3rd century Babylonia. But in the back of my mind I thought, ‘what was life like in those times?’”
My Dear Sweet Daughter:
We’ve come a long way in making our place in the synagogue. When I was a little girl I once told my grandfather—my very old-fashioned Abuelo — that I wanted to be a rabbi. “That,” he said to me, “is very ugly.” He said the word in Spanish—fea.
I despaired. The bima, the Torah, even the dynamic fervent prayer — you know, the kind that comes with the feeling you have full access to God — would never be mine.
I was 11 then and having a bat mitzvah at 13 like you did was not an option for me. I would have to wait another thirty years to become a bat mitzvah. But in the intervening years between my childhood and my adult bat mitzvah, women made miraculous strides in Jewish life. For example, we don’t think twice about a woman being a rabbi. I remember the hoopla when the first women were ordained as rabbis in the Reform and Conservative movements. The first happened in 1970. The latter took place in 1985 when I coincidentally worked at the Jewish Theological Seminary. There was a lot of divisiveness over the decision to ordain Rabbi Amy Eilberg. It was still fea to a lot of people.
Last month, The Sisterhood’s Elissa Strauss wrote post called “In Magazine Journalism, It’s Nowhere Near the End of Men,” using her own survey of magazines to show that male bylines still win out in terms of sheer numbers. And now there’s some serious research to back up her personal accounting. These numbers from VIDA, an organization that promotes women in literary arts, show that in essentially every single literary magazine, book review section or literarily inclined magazine, male bylines considerably trump female ones, as do reviews of books by men.
There’s been lots of excellent discussion of this on the Internet. Laura Miller essentially said that the problem is a matter of male readers not taking female writers seriously. Meanwhile Ruth Franklin of The New Republic crunched some more data to find that there are fewer books being published by women than by men. Even worse, publishing is an industry dominated by women. A friend of mine who works in the industry says she’s been banging her head against the wall all week in the face of these numbers.
So what gives?
In “Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt Robert Gottlieb,” Robert Gottlieb trims away the fat from the storied life of the legendary actress, who was born Jewish and who was later baptized a Roman Catholic. Gottlieb presents a peppy and concise biography rooted in facts and recorded accounts. The book, the debut title in Yale’s Jewish Lives series, looks at the people and places central to Bernhardt’s rise. Read the Forward’s review here.
Novelist Elisa Albert has edited a book of literary essays on the complicated relationships among siblings. In “Freud’s Blind Spot,” writers such as Erica Jong and Julie Orringer examine the powerful yet often complicated bond between brothers and sisters. (Elisa Albert will be a guest on an upcoming Yid Lit podcast.)
• The newly translated “The Life of Irène Némirovsky: 1903-1942,” (Knopf) by French writers Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt, tells the life story of the author of the posthumous bestseller “Suite Francaise.” The biography covers Némirovsky’s childhood in Russia, her adulthood in her adopted country of France, and her death at Auschwitz. Philipponnat and Lienhardt focus much of their attention on her personal relationships with her family, as well as her development as a writer.
• After Wall Street Journal reporter Katherine Rosman’s mother died, she decided to use her reporting skills to try to better understand the person she had lost. The result is “If You Knew Suzy: A Mother, a Daughter, a Reporter’s Notebook” (Harper), for which Rosman went on a cross-country trip to cull stories from her mother’s friends and acquaintances. The book is at once an honest and funny inquiry into her mother’s life, and an exploration of the bigger questions of life and death.
• “Shifting Sands: Jewish Women Confront the Israeli Occupation” (Whole World Press) features essays from 14 Jewish writers — all of whom are deeply troubled by Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. The book also features a preface by Haaretz columnist Amira Hass and a foreword by anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan; it also contains maps and a timeline — revealing the contributors’ distinctly left-wing perspective on the conflict.
Beginning this month, The Sisterhood will feature a monthly roundup of book recommendations for our readers. We will include books that are geared toward Jewish women, along with other women’s-interest titles that we believe will be of interest to Sisterhood readers.
• A diverse group of writers share their feminist “aha” moments in the new anthology “Click: When We Knew We Were Feminists” (Seal Press), edited by J. Courtney Sullivan and Courtney E. Martin. For contributor Elisa Albert, the click came when she was cast as Vashti in her Jewish day school’s Purim-themed musical review; for Salon.com’s Rebecca Traister, it came while she was reading Katie Roiphe’s controversial treatise on date rape.
My son, Shai, was born on January 21, 2007 and two days later, in time for our arrival home from the hospital, a heavy cardboard box arrived in the mail. University of Nebraska Press had sent me 20 copies of my first book, “Houses Of Study: A Jewish Woman Among Books,” which I had been writing for much of my adult life. Here it was, in hardcover. My first thought was to give one as a gift to our friend Alicia, who had served as our doula at our daughter’s birth in 2004, and had attended Shai’s birth as well.
How connected the book was to birth — its last section seemed unwritable until I had given birth to my first child, Priya, and had learned to be a mother to her. Getting married to Ori helped the book along, but having a child seemed like the natural conclusion to years of mulling, living and writing. We write books to those living next to us, breathing our air with us, but we write and we read, also, to imagine that messages travel down through the generations.
Here was my book, which had been waiting for a baby to be born to be ended and, apparently, had been waiting for another baby to arrive to begin circulating.
And yet: A book is so different than a child.
Here’s a situation that harkens back to flipping through children’s magazines in my pediatrician’s office waiting room: What’s the difference between these two pictures?
Lucinda Rosenfeld’s “I’m So Happy For You” (Back Bay Books, July 2009) and Laurie Graff’s “The Shiksa Syndrome” (Broadway Books, October, 2008) may have hit shelves more than a year apart, but the novels sport practically identical covers: The posteriors of youngish women with longish fingers crossed behind their backs suggesting inner cores of mischief and chicanery. Both cover girls are dressed in fiery colors (reds and oranges) and are standing in front of cooling robin egg blue backgrounds.
“Sometimes it just sort of happens,” said Caroline Sill, Laurie Graff’s publicist at Random House.
Though the jackets were designed by different teams, they both boldly scream chick lit, despite what’s inside. Sill agrees that the books are quite different in nature, and says Graff was also comforted by that fact.
Rosenfeld’s publicist at Little Brown, Sabrina Callahan, said that the twin covers are likely a coincidence, and offered that women’s fiction cover art tends to rely on a specific look.
What look? Girl-friendly dismemberment with mystery? No frilly, insulting pinks here, rather, a motif still meant to send men running in the other direction, despite heady blurbs or glowing reviews. Men might even enjoy reading these books, but we’ll never know thanks to these covers that practically beg them not to buy.