Illustration by Lior Zaltzman
Dozens of Torontonians have gathered to nosh on latkes and blintzes at a downtown café’s weekly Yiddish cabaret. Tables are squeezed close together, and as the performance winds down, my college roommate and I start chatting with our neighbors.
The two women and their pre-teen daughters are out celebrating the girls’ birthdays, and as we move past pleasantries, I learn the women are distantly related but became close when they had breast cancer at the same time. One had a right and the other a left mastectomy. The women joke they can fill a bra only by combining forces.
Sharon Soer’s mother is a second cousin of Annette Cohen’s aunt Aviva’s husband. The women sometimes saw each other at family functions and their kids went to the same schools, but they only became friends in the summer of 2013 when they underwent treatment a few months apart. And just as Annette’s left and Sharon’s right breasts complement each other, the women’s personalities do too. Since meeting, they’ve helped each other cope with mastectomies, radiation, chemotherapy, weight gain, hair loss and having to confront their own mortality while their kids were still in grade school.
Photo by Sven Hoppe
In the mid-1990s, near the end of the period during which she lived in Israel, Jennifer Teege watched Steven Spielberg’s film “Schindler’s List.” She hadn’t seen the film in a movie theater, and watched it in her rented room in Tel Aviv when it was broadcast on television.
“It was a moving experience for me, but I didn’t learn much about the Holocaust from it,” she tells me by phone from her home in Hamburg, mostly in English with a sprinkling of Hebrew. “I’d learned and read a great deal about the Holocaust before that. At the time I thought the film was important mainly because it heightened international awareness of the Holocaust, but I didn’t think I had a personal connection to it.”
Indeed, it was not until years later that Teege, a German-born black woman who was given up for adoption as a child, discovered that one of the central characters in the film, Amon Goeth, was her grandfather. Many viewers recall the figure of Goeth, the brutal commander of the Plaszow concentration camp in Poland – played in the film by Ralph Fiennes – from the scenes in which he shoots Jewish inmates from the porch of his home. But Teege, who had not been in touch with either her biological mother or biological grandmother for years, had no idea about the identity of her grandfather.
The discovery came like a bolt from the blue in the summer of 2008, when she was 38 years old, as she relates in the memoir “Amon,” which was published in German in 2013 (co-authored with the German journalist Nikola Sellmair), and is due out in English this April under the title “My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me: A Black Woman Discovers Her Family’s Nazi Past.”
Teege is scheduled to visit Israel next week to take part in events marking the book’s publication in Hebrew (from Sifriat Poalim), at the International Book Fair in Jerusalem, the University of Haifa and the Goethe Institute in Tel Aviv.
She opens her book by describing the 2008 visit to a library in Hamburg to look for material on coping with depression. While there, she happened to notice a book with a cover photograph of a familiar figure: her biological mother, Monika Hertwig (née Goeth). She immediately withdrew the book, titled “I Have to Love My Father, Right?,” and which was based on an interview with her mother.
“The first shock was the sheer discovery of a book about my mother and my family, which had information about me and my identity that had been kept hidden from me,” Teege says. “I knew almost nothing about the life of my biological mother, nor did my adoptive family. I hoped to find answers to questions that had disturbed me and to the depression I had suffered from. The second shock was the information about my grandfather’s deeds.”
Thus Teege embarked on a long personal journey in the wake of the unknown family heritage. But in the first half year after the discovery at the library, she relates, “I lapsed into silence, I slept a lot and I wasn’t really functioning. Only afterward did I begin to analyze the situation and try to understand the characters of my mother and my grandmother. I only started to learn more about my grandmother at the end. Today I understand that I went through the process step by step, peeling away layer after layer. But in the first months I had no idea what to do.”
22-year-old Emma Sulkowicz made headlines this year when she protested Columbia University’s decision not to expel her alleged rapist by carrying her dorm mattress around with her. All over campus. All the time.
Now, Sulkowicz (sans mattress, sadly) will be attending the State of the Union address along with New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand, the New York Daily News reports. President Obama is expected to expand on his plan to offer all Americans two years of free community college. But Sulkowicz’s presence shows that college tuition isn’t the only issue at stake on the nation’s campuses.
“I hope he will also talk about working with our bipartisan coalition in Congress to make campuses safer, too,” Gillibrand told the Daily News. “I hope the President will seize this opportunity to shine a national spotlight on the need to flip the incentives that currently reward colleges for sweeping sexual assaults under the rug.”
The press called her a “Queen Among Thieves” and the person who “first put crime in America on a syndicated basis.” In 1884, The New York Times named her “the nucleus and center of the whole organization of crime in New York City.” During the Gilded Age, Fredericka Mandelbaum, a German-Jewish immigrant, rose to power as the country’s premier fence—seller of stolen goods. Described as “a huge woman weighing more than two hundred and fifty pounds” with “extraordinarily fat cheeks,” Mandelbaum was the head of one of the first organized crime rings and a driving force behind New York City’s underworld for more than twenty-five years. J. North Conway, who has written the new biography “Queen of Thieves: The True Story of “Marm” Mandelbaum and Her Gangs of New York,” talks with The Forward’s Sarah Breger about life in the Gilded Age, chasing the American dream and why no one has turned Mandelbaum’s life into a Hollywood blockbuster.
Sarah Breger: What brought Fredericka Mandelbaum to New York?
J. North Conway: A combination of factors including the infamous potato famine of 1848 and increasing restrictions against Jews in Germany brought Fredericka to the United States in 1850. Her husband Wolf, had sailed a few months earlier, so she was traveling alone in steerage with a new baby. She was so tall that some documents I’ve seen said she had to stoop the whole time.
SB: Why did Mandelbaum enter a life of crime?
JC: This is a story of coming to America for whatever reasons and trying to make good. Like every immigrant she was trying to make a better life for her children. She came for the American dream and it happened to be the only job she could get was in crime. And she was good at it. I couldn’t find where she learned the ropes or if she had an innate ability but she knew how to set up this criminal network. She knew enough to bribe the right people, and she knew protecting her interests meant protecting a cadre of criminals; if they went to jail, they couldn’t steal things, if they couldn’t steal things, they couldn’t sell to her, and then she couldn’t sell to other people. If you were to do a flow chart of her enterprise, it would look like a very functioning business today. As a business model you would say she would be up there with the Bill Gateses of the world.
“For me a lot of the skill is not so much in shocking the audience — it’s in building the suspense,” explained Ilise S. Carter, a professional part-time sword swallower in New York who performs under the name “Lady Aye.”
And it’s true. Most of us react with shock and amazement when we see someone sticking a sword down his or her throat. But the spectacular part only takes a couple of seconds. Most of her time on stage, Carter tries to connect with the audience and create the tension that will turn her working act into a memorable experience.
“I’m one of the world’s very few female sword swallowers,” is one of her opening lines. That’s also true. According to Dan Meyer, president of the Sword Swallowers Association International (yeah, that’s an actual organization), this rare and potentially life-threatening practice is still part of a male-dominated business. The SSAI estimates that only 15% of the few dozen professional sword swallowers are women.
What’s more, Lady Aye is a minority within a minority. Based on my research, she is the only female and Jewish sword swallower in the U.S. (But it’s difficult to confirm the exact numbers of such an offbeat occupation.)
An all-female, all-Hasidic rock band? Alright!
Throw in an all-women crowd, and you’ve got the Bulletproof Stockings show which took place at Arlene’s Grocery last night.
After several unsuccessful attempts, in which venues have backed out last minute, Bulletproof Stockings finally managed to showcase their music and let their hair down (figuratively, as all band members wear wigs, per Orthodox custom) with their fans.The five-part band played to a packed house at the rock venue in New York’s Lower East Side.
For the first time in its history, Arlene’s Grocery closed its doors to men, who were allowed in the bar outside, but not by the actual stage. The modesty prohibition of kol isha forbids women to sing in front of men. As a result, Bulletproof Stockings only performs for women.
Bulletproof Stockings // Facebook
It isn’t everyday that Arlene’s Grocery hosts a show for women only. But that’s what will happen Thursday night when the all-female Hasidic rock band Bulletproof Stockings takes the stage at the iconic Lower East Side venue.
The modesty prohibition of kol isha states that Hasidic women cannot sing in front of men. The group — led by Perl Wolfe, 27, and Dalia Shusterman, 40 – has had trouble booking gigs restricting male attendance in New York City after forming in Brooklyn a few years ago. The manager of Arlene’s Grocery was hard to convince at first, but she warmed up to the idea after seeing how devoted Wolfe and Shusterman were to gaining fans. They hit the streets to promote the show and got signatures from women who promised to see them play.
“We did take a little bit of a risk on them,” the venue’s manager, Julia Darling, told the New York Post. So far there have been no complaints. The Post notes that Arlene’s male employees are exempt from the ban.
The band says their style is influenced by blues, jazz, rock, and even classical music. Wolfe’s piano playing is front and center.
Thursday’s show will be filmed by the Oxygen Network for their upcoming series “Living Different.”
Gneshe Bron of Wigs by Gneshe / Martyna Starosta
On the Wednesday evening before Passover, Gneshe Bron sent out the last freshly washed and styled sheitel from her salon, Wigs by Gneshe. She swept the tan linoleum floor clean of hair, washed the styling table and chair and plopped down on the black leather couch to breathe a sigh of relief.
“There is nothing like the feeling of sending out that last wig and closing shop for Pesach,” she said.
Richard Dawkins / Getty Images
Earlier this week prominent atheist Richard Dawkins said some pretty insensitive comments about sexual assault on Twitter. “Date rape is bad. Stranger rape at knifepoint is worse. If you think that’s an endorsement of date rape, go away and learn how to think.”
This was a follow-up line to an earlier assessment on the social media platform that “Mild pedophilia is bad. Violent pedophilia is worse. If you think that’s an endorsement of mild pedophilia, go away and learn how to think.”
Welcome to Throwback Thursday, a weekly photo feature in which we sift 116 years of Forward history to find snapshots of women’s lives.
At a time when supporting the rights of the accused in deportation and civil rights cases frequently invited harassment, Jewish New York City attorney Carol King was a noted expert on both.
As the rose petals settle from the aftermath of the “Bachelorette” finale earlier this week, the blogosphere is on fire dissecting Jewish Bachelorette Andi Dorfman’s acceptance of Josh Murray’s proposal. The finale had all the makings of good TV: A heart wrenching profession of love and an angry confrontation between Andi and scorned bachelor Nick Viall and an appearance by Grumpy Cat.
Brenda Rosenberg, who goes by the online moniker “Brenda Turtle,” is a social media celebrity with thousands of followers. She posts photos of herself in suggestive poses, often repurposing religious paraphernalia like tefillin (phylacteries) or a tallis (prayer shawl) for the added shock value, since no Hasidic and few Orthodox women utilize those items. Many of Brenda’s fans are Hasidic men hiding behind fake virtual profiles. So when Brenda was in a tragic car accident with a few friends last week, some of her followers, operating from covert locations where the Internet is banned and where God is a swift and predictable punisher, said she deserved it. Hashem wants you back on His good side, they beseeched her.
What ensued was a mini social media firestorm, with Internet denizens arguing for and against her shtick. Some suggested she is deeply disturbed, while others said that she is young and naïve and is being taken advantage of by repulsive and perverse Hasidic men. Others, still, insisted that she is a Jewish Madonna, a misunderstood artist.
Photo by Michael Peake/Toronto Sun
Sue-Ann Levy doesn’t sound like the devil, which a 2012 headline in a Toronto publication, The Grid, suggested she might be.
In fact, the woman who picked up the phone to chat with the Forward’s Michael Kaminer has a sweet, chirpy voice and an endearingly cheery manner. But these qualities belie the Toronto Sun investigative columnist’s steel spine. An out lesbian and relentless advocate for Israel, Levy’s also a dogged reporter whose scoops on municipal corruption and cronyism have made her both an idol and a punching bag.
Detractors have pounced on her more outrageous actions, like her 2012 tweet implying Barack Obama may be Muslim. Enemies have called her “an Internet troll, but in real life.” But those jabs just seem to stoke her. “Either you love me or you hate me,” she told the Forward from the home she shares with her wife, interior designer Denise Alexander, and dachshunds Kishka and Flora.
Talia Liben Yarmush and her family
I always imagined having a large family. I was the middle child of five, and although I can’t honestly claim to have loved every moment I’ve had with my siblings, I feel immensely blessed to have them. Growing up, they were always my biggest role models. I emulated the way my older brothers spoke, I listened only to the music they listened to, and I even wore their hand-me-downs. My younger siblings were my most treasured playmates; we climbed trees in the front yard and played make-believe in the basement. My brothers and sister were allies against our parents, they were my confidantes and they were my refuge. Today, they are my closest friends. And when I need advice on something, I know just who to ask for each problem.
Six years ago, when I was hit with the shock of infertility, and I knew it would be difficult to have children, my expectations of family size changed dramatically. A little after a year of marriage, I was diagnosed with endometriosis, one of the leading causes of infertility. I had two surgeries to remove the growths inside of me, but they grew back with full force each time. My doctor was clear: in vitro fertilization was the only way I would get pregnant. I went into my first cycle of IVF without a clue I thought, This is it! I’m about to grow the family I always dreamed of! I suffered through the daily injections and the blood drawings and the vaginal ultrasounds, because I knew that in the end, I would have my baby. But after two full cycles, I was left alone with just another negative pregnancy test and I thought maybe I was asking too much. I stopped dreaming of a large family.
Joanna Rakoff’s lovely memoir, “My Salinger Year,” brings to mind an image from the Talmud in which an unopened letter stands in as an uninterpreted dream. Rakoff, a poet, novelist and founding editor of Tablet Magazine, has written a book that braids together a stint after college assisting JD Salinger’s literary agent with her coming of age story. It’s about the year that she was one of the hundreds, maybe thousands, of young women in New York City carrying tote bags bursting with manuscripts while balancing a cup of coffee from the Greek deli on her subway ride to work.
I was one of those girls too. I read manuscripts for Harper & Row, forerunner of Harper Collins, and then for GP Putnam & Sons. I was in publishing before the confusing mergers — when everyone used blue pencils to edit and typed press releases on Selectric typewriters.
When I read the story of Israeli women sending sexy photos off the to IDF to wish them luck and boost morale, my reaction was more of a bemused shake of the head than anything akin to the outrage, confusion, and energy-draining sorrow I’ve been experiencing while reading a lot of recent war-related stories.
The same can be said for my response to the tale of the observant women in New York who are campaigning for an Israeli victory by holding a modesty contest at home, convinced that immodesty brings bad events to brethren abroad. Good luck covering those elbows for your cause, ladies. As Talia Lavin writes, her tone laced with irony, “The way to “help our brothers in their time of need,” apparently, is to suppress every inch of skin their sisters possess.” She even suggests an Iron Dome over women’s flesh.
Welcome to Throwback Thursday, a weekly photo feature in which we sift 116 years of Forward history to find snapshots of women’s lives.
“Actress Gisela Werbezirk Arrives In America” announced the Forverts in a 1938 headline, with a photo of the cherubic face of the Viennese comic film and musical theater star.
The Forverts identified her to readers as a hyphenate Jew — “the German-Jewish actress” and located her amidst her fellow artists-in-exile who, it was noted, were “currently escaping Hitler’s Germany.” Leaping over what that might have entailed, the item ended by citing a forthcoming performance by Werbezirk along with “other actors rescued from Nazi barbarism.” You could catch their acts at Nathanson’s National Theatre in the epicenter of the Yiddish theatre district on Second Avenue and Houston Street in New York City — she’d truly arrived.
The supportive girlfriend. The doting mother. The devoted daughter. These simplified roles are too often the only options for women trying to catch a break in Hollywood.
The road to the corner office isn’t an easy one for a woman. There is the glass ceiling to break, and then the maternal wall to mount and then, if you get that far, there are glass cliffs to avoid. Oh my!
The queries “What is the right age to talk with your children about puberty?” and “How to prevent precocious puberty” — thanks to a friend who scared the living daylights out of me recently — have filled my Google search history of the past few weeks. You see, my daughter, who is seven, was rummaging through her mommy’s bag while sitting on the table in the orthopedist’s room last week (she broke her poor little foot, but that’s a story for another time), and pulled out a tampon.
“What’s this, mommy?” she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag.
Oh boy, how do I answer? I wondered, as I hurried to gently pry her hands loose of the mysterious thingamajig and put it back in its hiding place.
“Something, I’ll explain later,” I said.