Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a legendary figure in the women’s rights movement, has embarked on a new crusade on behalf of sick individuals and the people who care about them.
Her new book, “How To Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick” (PublicAffairs) pinpoints the awkwardness and inadequacy that many people feel when trying to comfort their sick and bereaved loved ones. “Illness is friendship’s proving ground,” she writes. Yet why do so many of us fail that basic test?
Pogrebin, 73, came up with the idea for a book about “illness etiquette” while she was being treated for breast cancer at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan. In the waiting room, she conducted dozens of interviews with her fellow patients about the ways their friends and family both supported and failed them during their illnesses. These interviews, plus Pogrebin’s reflections on her friends’ responses to her own diagnosis, make up the backbone of the book, a “dos and don’ts” of comforting the sick that includes her mantras: “act and ask” and “ask and act.”
Pogrebin talked with the Forward’s Naomi Zeveloff about her policy of total transparency, her relationship with her mother and Judaism’s conflicting messages on caring for others.
NAOMI ZEVELOFF: Why are people inadvertently insensitive to their sick friends?
LETTY COTTIN POGREBIN: We don’t really get beyond a kind of basic illness etiquette in this culture. We say things like, “I’m sure you’ll be okay” or, “God only gives you as much as you can handle,” or all the clichés that you and I have probably said and have certainly heard that aren’t helpful. You say them because you are at a loss for words; you are afraid of being too positive because that is fake. But you are afraid of being too honest; how dare you ask questions about their test results or symptoms?
My bottom line in this book is to hope that there is a new illness etiquette that simply goes straight for the candor and says from the minute someone is diagnosed and they tell you about it, that you ask that you can establish a policy of absolute honesty. You say to your sick friend, “Tell me what you want and what you don’t want, because if I am going to have to guess I am going to get it wrong and it may become burdensome to you.”
For example, Jewish people are taught to visit the sick, bikur cholim. But what if bikur cholim is in conflict with Hillel, who says do not do unto others what you would not have done unto you? What if you don’t want to be visited because you are in a funk and the idea of seeing anyone is anathema or you are feeling hideous or you are oozing and strung up and in bandages and you don’t want to be seen? If you have established this honesty policy you won’t visit inappropriately. The person won’t feel they have to receive you because otherwise it looks unfriendly. You will be on a plane of absolute sincere communication from the start.
We all expect makeup to do exactly what it promises, right? A woman in Monsey, N.Y., has filed a lawsuit in federal court against cosmetics giant Lancome saying that its “24-hour foundation” doesn’t last for 24 hours, which she needs to make it in full makeup through Shabbat.
Rorie Weisberg is charging, in her lawsuit, that Teint Idole Ultra 24H, a pricey purportedly pore-perfecting product, doesn’t live up to its promise. And she needs it to last through Shabbat so she can look her best at her son’s June bar mitzvah, the lawsuit states.
Now this is a lady who does her homework; her son’s bar mitzvah isn’t until next month and already she has done trial runs of her makeup. And for the fastidiously frum there are specific rules about wearing makeup on Shabbat. There are several companies that manufacture makeup specifically formulated to allow observant women to look fabulous without contravening Jewish law. Shaindy Kelman started one of them, ShainDee Cosmetics, — whose tag line is “look beautiful and follow halacha” — two decades ago.
St. Patrick’s Day was yesterday, but I feel like it’s been here for weeks. Perhaps because there’s a commercial void between Valentine’s Day and Easter, this Irish Catholic feast day has permeated America so thoroughly that you’d think it was a national holiday. The muffins and bagels at the supermarket have been dyed green since early March, and the seasonal aisle overflowed with green beads. My wall calendar, on which each month is printed in a different, seemingly random, color, March is a cheery green. Amazon.com decorated their homepage with a shamrock; click on it and you’re taken to a page full of Irish-themed products. There are shamrocks on the streets of my city, too — they’re stenciled there to mark the parade route, but the paint is permanent so they remain there all year — to no one’s objections. And everywhere, I keep noticing the catch-phrase, “Everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day!”
What amazes me, as a member of another minority group familiar with historical marginalization, is how strange and wonderful it is that everyone wants to be Irish. The Irish and the Jews have both “made it” in America. A Jewish or Irish individual can now achieve virtually anything anyone else can. But what the painted shamrocks on the streets remind me is that personal equality does not always extend to the group. Imagine a holiday in which all Americans were repeatedly told that on that day, they were Jewish too. I don’t think very many would be thrilled about it.
A prayer rally is being planned for Rosh Chodesh Nissan on March 12 to provide a way for Jews in New York to stand in solidarity with Women of the Wall, who will be praying at the Kotel that same morning.
The rally, billed as “Wake up for Religious Tolerance: Rosh Hodesh Nissan Solidarity Minyan in Support for Women of the Wall,” comes on the heels of 10 women being arrested at the Kotel Feb. 11 for praying while wearing prayer shawls. They were released a few hours later.
“The goal is first of all to have a really uplifting extraordinary Rosh Chodesh prayer service, and at the same time draw attention to those who can’t have that same experience because of the interference and harassment and arrests happening in Israel,” said Conservative Rabbi Iris Richman, one of the event’s organizers.
Shacharit [morning] prayers will be led by Cantor Shayna Postman, who works at Town & Village Synagogue in Manhattan. “She’s a woman davenning, but we are expecting to involve all four denominations in the service,” Richman said. Rabbi Robin Fryer Bodzin, who is known as one of the “Kotel 10” since being arrested on Feb. 11, will lead Hallel.
Being single can be disheartening, but probably not for the reasons coupled people think. It’s less about doing every little task by yourself or living in fear of dying alone and unloved. It’s more about absorbing society’s sneaky, sometimes blatant reminders that, as a single person, you don’t fully exist. You are a faded black and white photo while married people, or people on the marriage track, live in full glossy color.
Last week, this reminder came courtesy of an article on New York Magazine’s The Cut blog about the newest trend in bragging: “the stand-alone engagement ring photo op.”
While 26 people were being massacred at an elementary school in Newtown, I was 50 miles away in Hartford, talking on the radio about the eccentricities of Connecticut. Town nicknames, historical tidbits, “Nutmeggers” vs. “Connecticutians,” that sort of thing. The show was over at 10:00 am ET; I have no idea when the first fragmentary reports made it onto the air.
On my way home, I stopped briefly to talk to my mom on the phone. “There was a shooting at a school in Newtown,” she told me. “Sandy Hook.” Though I write about Connecticut frequently, my awareness of Newtown was primarily geographical. I knew it was an hour and a half from where I live and 40 minutes from where I grew up — New England countryside meets New York suburbia. “Like, a real shooting?” I asked.
I kept driving, checking Twitter updates at every stoplight, and the news slowly spun out like a spool of evil thread, and with the rest of the state I abandoned what I had planned to do that day and sat, numb, switching between channels live-streaming the horror, watching as the world watched us.
Connecticut spent that day, and the following days, in a sort of collective daze. (I am not sure we’re out of it yet; the flags have been raised to full staff and they look out of place there.) But my focus on my home state was interrupted and complicated from the beginning by nagging Jewish thoughts.
Something important has gone unnoticed amid the chatter about the titillating revelations of an affair between four star General David Petraeus (he of the name worthy of the leader of ancient Greece’s military forces, never mind the United States’) and his fawning biographer, Paula Broadwell.
And that is the fact that there was a tremendous power imbalance inherent in the relationship between Petraeus, who on November 9 stepped down as head of the Central Intelligence Agency as a result of his affair coming to light, and Broadwell, a lieutenant colonel in the army reserves.
New York Times columnist Frank Bruni astutely observes journalists’ tendency to describe the women in these all-too-familiar tales as the temptresses who no man could truly resist. He points out that The Washington Post wrote of Broadwell’s “form-fitting clothes” and The Daily Beast of her “expressive green eyes.”
When the tree crashed against the house and spilled its leafy branches across the driveway, it came to a crunching stop on top of my car, taking down power lines along the way. I couldn’t get very close in the dark confusion of the storm, but the next day, after a man with a chain saw cleared me a path to the driver’s side door, I removed all my belongings in preparation for the inevitable towing and demolition of the vehicle.
I leaned carefully onto the seat — the interior was strewn with broken glass — and unwound from the rear-view mirror the little Traveler’s Prayer that I’d hung there years ago when the car was still new.
In preparation for Storm Sandy, I’d gone to my parents’ house, about 75 miles away from where I live on the same Connecticut coastline, so I could help them in the powerless days we knew would follow. Now we were trapped — literally, by the fallen trees and wires — in their house, and I was unable to help anyone, even myself. We could only wait.
When we finally got out, we found a very New England scene, with wrecked suburban yards and people in puffy vests standing on line at Dunkin Donuts for hot coffee. But inside my family’s house it seemed that, along with our unwilling regression to a less complicated way of life, we had somehow become more Jewish.
This post is the ninth in “Feminist, Orthodox and Engaged,” a series by Simi Lampert on love, sex and betrothal in the life of a Modern Orthodox woman.
The number one lesson I’ve learned from planning my wedding is: This is not my wedding. Sure, I get to wear the ivory gown and the invitations have my name on it, but the wedding is only a fraction about me and what I want. I’m not even sure how the Bridezilla creature was invented; whatever bride actually forced the wedding party to bend to her own personal will must surely only exist in the fantasies of frustrated brides everywhere.
It’s common to read (and receive, from well-intentioned or simply thoughtless friends) articles on why and how weddings should be limited in both expense and size. Every few months, it seems, newspapers regurgitate the topic with a selection of new words and ingenious ideas for cutting costs. But I don’t see the average cost of weddings — not to mention Jewish weddings, outsized only by Indian fares — getting glower, in spite of the plethora of brilliant suggestions published by every news-source ever. As a bride, I get it.
I spent half of my wedding-planning months scheming how my fiancé and I could elope. Not only would it be easier, we argued, but it would be so much cheaper. A quick trip to Atlantic City, a cute hotel on a beach, no fuss. When we presented the idea to our parents, half (but only half) jokingly, they played along. Sure, they said, why not? You’ll save us money and headaches! Inevitably one of the siblings would jump in: “But you’ll bring us along, too, of course.” They couldn’t imagine not being present at our wedding. And if they had to come, then our closest friends had to come, and if we were inviting our friends, then relatives would be hurt … and so it was just a case of giving a mouse a cookie — they’ll want milk and, eventually, a wedding invitation.
Pickling cucumbers, cultivating yeast for Challah, sewing tallit … these hebraic homesteading projects are certainly not for everyone. But most Jews would agree that plenty of our traditions instill a cool-before-it-was-cool “Do It Yourself” aesthetic. This is a culture that often made do with very little and did it all behind closed doors, or within a tight-knit community. Historically, the center of Jewish life was the home, not the synagogue. And so we present to you a list of eight reasonably simple Jewish DIY projects. You can totally do this stuff. I promise.
1. Make a Family Tree
What Jewish family hasn’t played at least one round of Jewish Genealogy? You can go two routes: decorative or academic. If you’re only going to go a couple of generations back, you can fit you findings on a beautiful piece of art to hang in the home.
But if you’re willing to do some digging — uncovering Ellis Island papers, Shtetl Yizkor books and other primary sources of your family’s story — I guarantee that other members of your family would like to be involved in your findings. The venerable JewishGen is a good place to start. Once you’ve got some basic data, consider entering it to an online or printable template (reputable template sites include MyHeritage.com, Wikitree.com and Geni.com), so that it can be safely stored and shared. Be careful of sharing sensitive personal information on these sites, however, and take advantage of relevant privacy controls.
2. Create your own Chuppah
It can cost up to $1,000 to rent a decorated freestanding Chuppah from a wedding planner or florist. If you decide to make your own, it won’t be free, but it won’t cost nearly that much. For inspiration, head to the photo-sharing social network of choice for dreamy brides: Pinterest. Then check out this set of instructions for a simple, freestanding Chuppah. And here are instructions for an equally attractive version that’s designed to be held aloft by four friends.
If you’re into chopping down your own branches, this one is for you.
After watching two long debates in which the only “women’s issue” raised was in the context of two men’s faith, I had little hope going into last night’s town hall.
And wow, was I surprised. The evening felt like all women, all the time.
A strong, enthusiastic and even charming Barack Obama emerged out of whatever metaphysical funk was keeping him down last time (maybe he had some of what Joe Biden was having?). Of his own volition, he referred to his support of — and his opponents’ threatened cuts to — Planned Parenthood not once, twice or three times, but four times at least. As I jokingly tweeted, no one would have ever suspected “Planned Parenthood” to be the reference that got viewers engaged in a debate drinking game sloshed!
And Obama also got passionate talking about the women’s issue nearest to his heart, women’s pay equity, describing the women in his family working hard and the glass ceiling his grandmother hit. In fact, by framing everything from contraception and abortion to the pay gap in terms of the economy and family values, he was as animated speaking about reproductive rights as I’ve ever heard him.
On a recent Sunday evening in Jerusalem, 25 married couples gathered to have both partners in each pair sign a “mutual respect contract.” The contract was created by three Orthodox rabbis at the behest of Mavoi Satum, a Jerusalem-based organization devoted to combating abuse of the Jewish divorce process.
If the couple decides to divorce, the mutual respect contract is brought to family court, which adjudicates the couple’s secular divorce and shares it with the rabbinical court overseeing the religious divorce, also known as a get. The contract stipulates that if either member of the couple delays the divorce process by more than six months — if the woman refuses to accept a get or the man refuses to grant it — then the recalcitrant spouse must pay the other $1,500 a month or half his or her salary, whichever is greater.
It sounds similar to the pre-nuptial contract (which can also be signed after a couple is already married) created and promoted by the Orthodox group the Rabbinical Council of America. That contract, which can be seen here, requires that if a couple separates, the husband pay his estranged wife $150 a day until a Jewish divorce is granted. If his wife refuses to appear before the Beth Din of America, then his obligation ends.
The contract has been considered controversial by some rabbis, who believe that any financial inducement for a man to give his estranged wife a get is tantamount to coercion, and therefore invalidates the Jewish divorce.
But Rabbi Shlomo Weissman, director of the Beth Din of America, the rabbinical court connected with the RCA, which adjudicates divorces, put it another way: “It provides an incentive for the get to be given earlier rather than later,” he told The Sisterhood. “It creates an obligation on the part of the husband to support his wife so long as they are married under Jewish law but not living together.”
If there is one thing I regret on my journey to Jewish adulthood, it’s that I passed up the opportunity to go to sleep away camp. Why do I lament this more than forgetting to fast on Tisha B’av? More than not spending a year in a yeshiva? Because while I was taking ceramic classes at my local JCC each summer, thousands of my peers were learning how to French kiss at Jewish sleep away camp.
Those of you wise enough to have attended camp know that it isn’t just about the tennis, hiking and campfires. It’s about girls, guys and raging hormones — about a period of discovery and letting loose with other members of the tribe. Still, not everyone is hooking up, let alone enjoying or even embracing this culture. Scattered between the campers making out in mess halls and going to second base in the dugout are girls and boys who feel alienated by the hookup culture of Jewish sleep away camp.
I was lucky enough to peek behind bunk doors and learn about the Jewish sleep away experience through a series of interviews with several camp alumni. While hookups in the woods, bunks and basketball courts abounded, an underbelly of pressure, exclusion and isolation also reared its head.
As soon as Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney announced Rep. Paul Ryan as his pick for vice president, critics pounced on the all-too-familiar spectacle of two white men in suits campaigning side by side. The stark contrast to 2008’s groundbreaking race — a black nominee! a female GOP veep nominee! — stood out to women’s and feminist groups, and not just because a woman wasn’t on the docket.
Most of the posts I read about Ryan from my fellow feminists arrived in the form of lists, as though the only way to organize and channel our collective feelings of inchoate rage was to calmly enumerate all of the reasons we don’t like this guy. The pro-choice, pro-women group EMILY’s List struck first, sending out an email almost immediately with its own catalog of reasons Ryan was “bad for women,” including his votes against food stamps and abortion.
Feministing produced another take on the Ryan listicle, and Jezebel went even further with its highlighting of “nine depressingly kooky facts” about the soon-to-be veep nominee, including not just those troubling votes and budget proposals but his avowed worship of Ayn Rand, his crackdown on protesters at a town hall and the illustrative fact that his budget cuts slash so many programs for the poor and elderly he has actually attracted the disapproval of the usually Republican-friendly Council of Catholic Bishops.
Blogger and self-proclaimed “man-titty media pundit” Sarah Wendell posts witty and wicked reviews of romance novels at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, and has also written two books about the genre. The Sisterhood caught up with her to talk “trash,” sex and David Beckham in his underwear, plus what she really wants to know about “50 Shades of Grey.”
THORNBURGH: Your website is called Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. Are the romances really trashy? And are the women who read them actually smart?
WENDELL: No, and yes! Smart women read and write romance, and that has been true for a really long time. They’ve taught me amazing things about women, about history, about feminism, and about language.
There are a lot of reasons why romance as a genre is dismissed. Plain old, everyday, garden-variety sexism. This is a genre that’s written by and actually read by women, and most of the editors and industry professionals are also women. It’s a women-dominated genre and a women-dominated profession and for that reason alone it becomes an object of ridicule.
But on top of that, to quote Nora Roberts, romances contain what she calls “the hat trick of easy targets: emotions, relationships and sex.” Any combination of those three is a ripe target for ridicule as well. We don’t value emotions and we don’t value outward displays of them. And that’s what romance deals in. It doesn’t hide what it is. If you look at a romance novel, you know that’s a romance novel.
Dear Teen Me:
When you were growing up in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, it was easy to have a skewed view of love, especially with all those pop love songs you listened to — and inevitably dreamed would come true. If only there had been a meeting for you like the one I went to last week, dedicated to healthy teenage relationships. If only the adults around you had understood what I know now: that some consider teen dating a public health issue.
Today, the Boston Public Health Commission has a program called Start Strong, currently the largest funded national initiative aimed at preventing relationship violence and abuse among young people by promoting healthy relationships. Start Strong’s mission is powerful in its simplicity: “Stop teen dating abuse before it starts by using older teens to educate pre-teens.” To emphasize that message, the Commission has sponsored a co-ed gathering of teens for three years running called Break-Up Summit. This year, the event took place at Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts, and focused on cheating as a catalyst to unhealthy relationships turning violent.
This kind of initiative didn’t exist when you were growing up — when boys were boys and girls were expected to be nicer than nice. My generation directly reaped the rewards of the Women’s Movement. Still, for many us, sexual liberation was steeped in guilt and bewilderment at how far we could go and, simultaneously, how badly a relationship could end.
To anyone conscious of the paucity of women in positions of visibility and influence in the Jewish world, the lineup for the 10th anniversary celebrations of the Natan fund struck a startling note.
The Natan Fund, a relatively small but influential philanthropy organization, which was started by hedge fund managers in 2002, is having two panel discussions — one each in September and November — with a total of eight speakers and two moderators. All but one of the people on the dais, who include prominent investor/philanthropists Boaz Weinstein and Michael Steinhardt, will be male.
The only woman speaking is Blu Greenberg, who with her husband Yitz Greenberg, is “a mentor” to the Natan Fund, said Felicia Herman, the organization’s executive director. The Greenbergs’ late son J.J. helped start Natan under the aegis of the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life, where he was an executive. It is named for J.J., whose Hebrew name was Natan, a form of the Hebrew word for “giving.”
Other speakers at the fund’s 10th anniversary events, billed as conversations, are investors David Einhorn, Stanley Druckenmiller, Greg Mondre and George Rohr. Also speaking is Joseph Gitler, the founder of Leket Israel, one of Natan’s original grant recipients. The moderators are New York Times columnist David Brooks and Jeffrey Goldberg, a columnist at The Atlantic, who are both members of the fund.
I’ve been summoned to give wedding advice. Well, I along with 156 other wedding guests. Two of my friends are marrying each other in Upstate New York. And while they’ve known each other since their Hebrew School days they’ve only begun dating as adults. It’s all very sweet and loving and good.
This week they sent out an email to their wedding guests letting us know about a Quaker tradition that will be incorporated into their Jewish wedding: Before the blessing of the rings, guests will be able to offer well-wishes and advice to this couple, based on the religious tradition of “witnessing.”
I want to be a part of this ritual. But as an unmarried person I felt that any advice I could offer would be tempered by my marital status. After all, isn’t the best part of advice that it comes from someone else’s lived experiences?
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