Posts from the Field

Posts from the Field

November 18, 2010 by

Reporting Back: The National Museum of American Jewish History

This past weekend, I attended the opening of the National Museum of American Jewish History. I have to admit, I was blown away. Unfortunately, I did not attend the gala with Bette Midler and Jerry Seinfeld, however I was lucky enough to attend the Only in America opening ceremony, which included speeches from Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, Governor Ed Rendell, and Vice President Joe Biden. Having the Vice President attend to celebrate the museum made it even more exciting. While many of the speakers discussed the significance of the museum’s location at “the most historic square mile in America,” Governor Rendell shared how his commitment to the museum came from a promise he made to his father as a young child. Though his parents chose not to give him a formal Jewish education, his father told him “I never want you to forget that you are Jews, I never want you to forget your heritage… the struggles Jewish people have taken for thousands of years.” The opening ceremony also included the affixing of the mezuzah, 50 shofar blowers who helped kick off the ceremony, and the Philadelphia Singers who led the crowd in Shehechiyanu and Irving Berlin’s G-d Bless America.

The museum itself was quite impressive! Our open house tour began at 3:00pm, and the two and a half hours was definitely not enough time to explore. With its four floors, the museum’s layout is similar to the Holocaust museum beginning at the top floor. Most of my knowledge of American Jewish history involves the emigration of Eastern European Jews in the late 1800s to the mid 1900s. [Editor’s note: learn more about the history of Jewish women in America with a special peek into our Summer 2010 article, “What’s in that Diary?”] I was fascinated to learn about the Jews who emigrated during the 1600s to early 1800s and role that Jews played in colonial life. I was stunned when I came across a covered wagon. All those years that I played Oregon Trail, I never realized that there were Jews who made the same journey out west. Another exciting exhibit was the model home from the 1950s that gave visitors a look into mid-century Jewish family life. It even included a television that played classic Jewish TV moments, like Sammy Davis Jr.’s commercial for Manischewitz wine and clips from The Goldbergs.

Unfortunately, just as I approached the section dedicated to feminism on the second floor, the docents quickly started escorting everyone out. Luckily the museum will be open to the public on November 26th and I’ll be able to resume my tour!

–Jill Finkelstein

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Posts from the Field

November 15, 2010 by

On Israel and Aggression

Krauss I’m a third-generation born New Yorker. Aggression in random interpersonal relations has never been my issue. I have been known to slap the hood of an anxious cab that barely skidded to a stop, to icily and brutally reject late-night propositions on subway platforms, to push as good as I got pushed. And then, I moved to Israel for a year.

Part of my sudden feeling of meekness is surely just that my Hebrew isn’t great, and I’ve been learning a new city.

But here, on the streets of Tel Aviv, I’m no longer the aggressive one. Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore. We’re not even on Broadway.

Look, it’s not that everything you’ve heard about all Israelis being hyper-aggressive is true. There are people here who avoid public confrontation, who respond to a yelling shuk vendor by shrinking away or allow the ever-present bicycles to roll over their toes unremarked upon. It’s just that there aren’t very many people like that. At all. And, it’s worth noting, there doesn’t seem to be much of a gender bias for who gets included in such a group.  (more…)


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Podcasts, Posts from the Field

March 16, 2010 by

A Reading from Naomi Replansky

Bronx-born poet Naomi Replansky, now 91 years old, reads her poems in this exclusive Lilith podcast.

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She has published the collections Ring Song (Scribners, 1952; a National Book Award finalist), Twenty-One Poems, Old and New (Gingko Press, 1988), and The Dangerous World: New and Selected Poems, 1934-1994 (Another Chicago Press, 1994), with more work being brought out by David Godine in the coming year. Grace Paley described Replansky’s poems as “a music for which readers of poetry have been lonesome for years.”

Replansky puts her oral poetry influences in chronological order: “Mother Goose to begin with. I once wrote, ‘Mother Goose/ Was my metrical muse.’ When I was 10 or 11, it was Kipling’s ballads (‘For they’re hanging Danny Deever in the morning’). At 13 or 14, it was the profound experience of hearing Marian Anderson singing spirituals on the radio, in particular, ‘Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child’. From age 15-17, it was reading the English and Scottish ballads. All this was of course in addition to other poetic influences, with different kinds of verbal music.”

Replansky’s deep, rich voice faithfully conveys the colors and nuances of her poems, whether those poems are her most intensely sorrowful or
mischievous and ironic. The seven poems read here showcase her impressive range, and the tones she strikes—verbal, emotional, and intellectual—are remarkably full and varied, particularly in such a short reading.

–Patricia Grossman

Patricia Grossman’s new novel, Radiant Daughter, is forthcoming from Northwestern University Press.


Posts from the Field

January 21, 2010 by

Breast Cancer Advice Refusenik

In the wake of the recent controversy and confusion over proposed new guidelines cutting down on how often one should have a mammogram to screen for breast cancer, “Be Vigilant!” seems to be the rallying cry for women. Here, in a Lilith web exclusive, is one contrarian view of some commonly held wisdom. The opinions reflect the experience of this writer only, so… be vigilant and question even what you are about to read! It’s good practice for dealing with other medical matters, too.

Jewish women, as a group the best-educated females in the western world, are also among the most sophisticated medical consumers. We represent a pretty privileged cohort, with access to information and (because we tend to live in urban areas with many specialists) often access to the best medical care as well. We have to remember to use our smarts, be attentive to our own bodies and ask a lot of questions.

Breast-Cancer-Advice Refusenik

Judith Beth Cohen

I had four maternal aunts who died of breast cancer before age 50, so it’s not surprising that I began obsessing about cancer at an early age. When a friend was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 26, I decided it was time to start having yearly mammograms and to examine my breasts diligently every month. At 30, a doctor told me, “You have lumpy breasts,” and my fears skyrocketed. I consulted with specialists with comforting names like Dr. Cope and Dr. Love. Dr. Cope assured me that I did not have breast cancer, but he could not promise that I never would. “Maybe when you’re 80,” he said. I felt reassured. Dr. Love extracted fluid from my breasts and the lumps disappeared like magic; I left her office in a happy, lump-free daze. The years passed; my luck seemed to be holding. In November of 2006, it finally happened: I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was 63, a long way from 30; not as old as 80.

I had a mastectomy in December. Since I’d spent years fastidiously monitoring my breasts and had helped three close friends through breast cancer, I thought I knew all about this disease. But when personally confronted with breast cancer’s complexities, I was shocked to feel very much at sea. I found that much of what I was told, and read about, was wrong for me. I needed to summon my own voice, trusting it above the flood of institutional givens that so often were presented as the One True Way. I feel called upon to challenge the following “truths” that I heartily disagree with. You can disagree too. Use your strengths, trust yourself, and figure out what’s right for YOU.

1. Your annual mammograms will diagnose breast cancer. Mine didn’t. Don’t be lured into feeling safe; screening mammograms never claimed 100% certainty, even though I always wanted to walk out of my annual mammogram and think, “Phew! Safe for another year!” Despite the current controversy about the usefulness of annual mammograms, I would never forgo this annual procedure. You have to be in touch with your body—literally. Mid-year I felt a very vague, tingling sensation and insisted (it wasn’t easy!) on an ultra-sound. My primary-care physician said she felt nothing. On the ultra-sound, though, a tiny black dot showed itself. The radiologist did a needle biopsy and said, “Don’t worry. It’s tiny, just .03 centimeters. It’s just a nuisance.” I will never forget those words. It turned out to be 1.3 centimeters, it was invasive and it had begun to move. (!) Given that we do not know the biology of my cancer, I don’t know if it was there at the time of the screening mammogram—but you need to be aware even if the doctor is blowing you off!

2. A mastectomy is devastating. Not for me, though Paid clinical trials show that the majority of women find the prospect of having a body part surgically removed can be psychologically traumatic. The only hard part for me was the one night I spent in the hospital. A week later I went to Mexico for a winter vacation. For me, at least, a prosthesis is fine! You stick it in the pocket of your bra and it feels like real flesh; it even has a nipple. Many of us stuffed socks or tissue into our bras when we were young, and today it’s impossible to find bras that aren’t padded, so why is having a fake breast such a horror show? Having one breast has not spoiled my sex life, nor has it affected my exercise or activity level. My husband’s comment: “It doesn’t matter to me at all—I’ve never cared that much for breasts.”

3. Breast reconstruction is the way to go. My (wonderful female) surgeon automatically scheduled me to see a plastic surgeon even before the mastectomy, so that both procedures could be done at the same time; this is very common. Breast reconstruction is viewed as a huge advance for women, especially in light of how devastating it can be for women who are undergoing prophylactic mastectomy because they are carriers of the BRCA gene; who would decline it? Well, I did decline it, and felt like a very bad patient. I’m athletic; athletic women can give up more than they think, though mastectomy is very different now than it was for friends of my mother who had radical mastectomies in the 1950; the same with changes in reconstruction.

[Editor’s note: The American Cancer Society website,, discusses risks and benefits of different kinds of breast reconstruction.]

4. Chemotherapy makes you sick. The day after chemo I felt fine, because I’d been pumped full of steroids. The anti-nausea drugs worked, and I never vomited. I got mouth sores, but there was an easy remedy. I was even able to give myself the injections – at home – to raise my white cell count, something I’d been told I couldn’t do. Six months after chemo I was trekking the hills of northern Thailand.

5. Join a cancer support group. I felt pressure to see a social worker at the hospital for individual counseling and to join an ongoing support group. And then I thought, duh, I have four close friends who have had breast cancer – that IS a support group….

6. Don’t hide your disease. I got a lot of advice of the Alcoholics Anonymous genre: Be out there! Tell people what you’re going through! And this fits with my natural temperament. But I wish someone had told me that not going public might also be a good idea. I hated having everyone treat me like an invalid. I hated that everyone at work knew. I do not call myself a “breast cancer survivor.” I feel it trivializes survivorship. Plus, who knows if I’m a survivor?

7. Jewish genes are the worst. Man oh man, everyone told me this, and I believed it. When I did get cancer, it turned out not to be the genetic kind, despite my four dead aunts. Late in the game, my oncologist told me that new studies have shown that the highest percentage of BRCA mutation is found in non-Jewish Hispanic women. (Geneticists think that Jews expelled from Spain who landed in Latin America tended to marry within particularly tiny, hermetic communities, deeply narrowing the gene pool.) So, okay, these women descend from Jewish stock, but they don’t know it. When I learned about other groups with bad genes, it lightened my load.

8. Cancer makes you a better person. The ubiquitous Think Positive movement doesn’t work for me. I totally agree with Barbara Ehrenreich here (author of Bright-Sided:How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America). I need to hear the truth: Cancer is a pain, it required a ton of my time, resources and energy. And it may shorten my life. If anything, cancer has made me a worse person. I suffer fools less, and I’m less tolerant of bullshit. Those things aside, I’m pretty much the same as I was pre-cancer. Aging has made me a better person, maybe, but not cancer.

Bio: Judith Beth Cohen has written a novel, Seasons (The Permanent Press). Her short stories and articles have appeared in The Women’s Review of Books and in numerous literary publications.


Posts from the Field

July 3, 2009 by

Choices and Values

I went to an Orthodox day school. School was closed on Yom Tov as a matter of course.We all brought kosher lunches to school. No parties were held on Shabbat. Keeping mitzvot was just what was done. The halakha was kept through a mixture of school rules and social pressure.

My kids attend public school. Our home is kosher and we keep Shabbat. My kids don’t have the same level of facility with Jewish texts that I have by virtue of eleven years in Orthodox day school. I often regret that.

On the other hand, when I was keeping Shabbat and Yom Tov as a kid, there was no other choice. My kids are choosing to miss lovely events, like the senior camping trip that was held over Shavuot, or parties given by good friends. They have to struggle each year to make up all of the work that they inevitably miss during the month of Tishrei.

Our kids see exactly what they are choosing to give up, by choosing to do Jewish. My regrets at their lack of facility with say, Talmud, is mitigated by their continuing, even as adolescents and young adults to make thoughtful Jewish choices.

Not all of their choices are strictly halakhic. Those choices though, are made with thought. They, much more than my classmates in my Orthodox day school, are thinking about why they are doing the mitzvot each and every day. That too has it’s value.

–Sarah Jacobs

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Posts from the Field

June 25, 2009 by

Thank You Notes Teaching Middot

We drove our youngest to camp yesterday. The night before he left he finished the last of his thank you notes for his March Bar mitzvah.

I was struck, as I have been, as each of my three kids have gone through this Emily Post exercise in American etiquette, just how this formality can deepen the values we hope out kids learn as B’nai Mitzvah.

With each of my kids I laid out the basic rules. The first is that no one owed them a gift. The specific gift needed to be acknowledged or commented on. The second was that each gift was given because of a relationship. The note needed to acknowledge the relationship which caused the gift giving.
It’s easy for a kid, who may be getting large cash gifts from friends or relatives with deep pockets, to be less than appreciative of a small gift from a little old lady on a fixed income. I would mention that this gift was proportionally a huge gift on the part of the giver.

I felt that my message was getting through my son would ask me before he began a note, “Tell me about _____. How do we know them?” I could then explain how _______ was friendly with my parents when they were a young married couple, or was my mother-in-law’s favorite cousin, or was the person who gave his his favorite baby toy.

As my son has slogged through the process, which has been often difficult for him, he was rewarded by the large number of people who have mentioned that unlike most Bar-Mitzvah thank you notes which get tossed in the trash as soon as they are read, my son’s notes have been kept. The notes have given my son an additional opportunity to get to know the circle of people who surround our family. They have also given our circle the opportunity to see our kid for who he is in his glorious quirkiness.

–Sarah Jacobs