Earlier this week, Kenneth Bonert, author of the novel The Lion Seeker (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), shared some notes from the first part of his conversation with Dovid Katz about Lithuanian and the Holocaust. Today, he continues the conversation. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.
In part one, I recounted the background of Yiddish linguist Dovid Katz, who has been reporting on troubling manifestations of neo-fascism in Lithuania today. In my talk with him via Skype from Vilnius, I began to better grasp that the key to the understanding of the Shoah in Lithuania lay in the year-long Soviet occupation that preceded it, in 1940-41.
Essentially the genocide of Lithuania’s Jews was powered by an explosion of nationalist anti-Semitism that fatally conflated all Jews with the hated communists. The killing began as soon as the Soviets withdrew, when hundreds of brutal pogroms broke out. Lithuanian militia units, wearing white armbands, also started to round up and massacre the Jews, to enact anti-Jewish edicts on behalf of the new Lithuanian authority that quickly took control. As Timonthy Snyder, history professor at Yale, put it, in a 2012 New York Review of Books article, “A provisional Lithuanian government, composed of the Lithuanian extreme right, introduced its own anti-Semitic legislation and carried out its own policies of murdering Jews, explaining to Lithuanians that Bolshevik rule had been the fault of local Jews, and that destroying them would restore Lithuanian authority.”
The Nazis were popularly welcomed as rescuers, often with flowers; within weeks they had dissolved the Lithuanian’s provisional government and taken full control. Under German authority, Lithuanian volunteers continued to carry out the genocide. The Germans were so impressed with the enthusiasm of their Lithuanian killers that they used some of them to murder Jews in Poland, Belarus and Ukraine.
It must be said there were also hundreds of heroic individual Lithuanians who risked their lives to save Jews; but in general, Lithuania was about as bad a place as it could possibly get for a Jew in the latter half of 1941.
Since the accusation that "the Jews" sided with the Soviet occupiers in 1940 and somehow deserved their fate still surfaces when wading into the historical literature, it’s worth pointing out that the majority of Lithuanian Jews were in fact not communists, and that they too suffered, even disproportionately so, under the Soviets. In any case, if Soviet crimes were the real issue, than those individual Lithuanian citizens who collaborated in them, Jewish or otherwise, could have been arrested for trial by the provisional government. But that was obviously not the intent – the dispossession and elimination of an entire ethnic minority, long viewed with suspicion, clearly was, with probably a quarter of the victims being children.
What Katz has drawn my attention to, is how post-communist Lithuanian governments have not only failed to seriously prosecute their own war criminals, but have in some cases heaped honours on the very men responsible for the slaughter. Their names grace streets and parks and monuments; these days the white armbanders are often lionized as fighters for Lithuanian independence. In mid-2012 the then-government even flew the remains of the provisional government’s leader – a rabid anti-Semite whose signature helped lay the groundwork for the genocide – back to Lithuania, to give him a state funeral, complete with honour guard and archbishop in tow.
The reason behind this, as Katz sees it, is the nation’s need for symbols of resistance, especially to the Russians. The fact these so-called heroes who fought for independence also have hands dripping with innocent Jewish blood is an inconvenience that needs to be glossed over.
On the website he edits, Katz has steadily documented this move to whitewash the ugly side of the country’s past. “I regard this work to be sacred,” he said. “I believe, maybe naively, not as a Don Quixote, but in a very serious way that . . . these guys should not get away with rewriting history without opposition.”
For me, the influence of history is often an uncomfortable one. It brings the burden of old hatreds, of an upwelling of profound sadness. But for Katz, history is a kind of life force for which he is the conduit. His father was a Yiddish poet. At fifty-six now, he has spent his life working to keep the Yiddish language alive. In a way this new task of what he calls defending history, is the same process: he is speaking up for those who have no mouths, for the heaped skulls buried in the silent forests. Don’t let them forget what happened to us. Doing what he can to make sure there is a place in the record for the ghosts of the murderers to have their say, no matter how tiny and breathless their faint cries may be now to our distant living ears.
Kenneth Bonert's fiction has appeared in McSweeney's, Grain, and the Fiddlehead, and his journalism has appeared in the Globe and Mail and other publications.
Kenneth Bonert's fiction has appeared in McSweeney's, Grain, and the Fiddlehead, and his journalism has appeared in the Globe and Mail and other publications. His novel, The Lion Seeker (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), is now available. He will be blogging here this week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.
I first came across the writings of Dovid Katz while researching what happened to my relatives in Lithuania in the summer of 1941. Though my novel The Lion Seeker is set in South Africa, it tells the story of Jewish emigrants from Lithuania, still bound to that blood-soaked land during the horrors of that time. I had learned the details of how, following the withdrawal of Stalin’s forces, Lithuanians had turned on their Jewish neighbours in an orgy of mass murder that began weeks before the Germans took control, then continued under Nazi direction till over ninety-five percent of the country's ancient Jewish community was wiped out, mostly in a matter of months. In grainy black-and-white I saw the Lithuanian death squads with their white armbands; on Katz’s website I saw the same white armbands but in full colour, the photos recent and sadly real.
Katz is an American linguist who taught at Oxford. In 1999 he took a position at the University of Vilnius and began to travel all over the region, interviewing the last surviving Yiddish speakers. Ten years later he became aware of a change, something troubling in the young democracy. Fascists were again marching through the centre of the Lithuanian capital. It started with skinheads chanting the old cries of death to the Jews, but became larger and more diverse with each passing year. Sitting members of parliament and ordinary middle-class citizens have joined these parades, conferring authenticity. Other groups are routinely banned from marching, Katz says, but the neo-fascists always seem to get a permit, and have received police protection and centre stage for Lithuania’s independence day celebration. Above all, Katz says he’s seen little opposition, no popular outcry against these marches, even as they have spread to other cities.
When I talked with Katz earlier this year – an animated, amusing presence through the videolink from Vilnius, with a Rasputin-like beard and a persisting Brooklyn melody to his accent – he began by insisting that today’s Lithuania is not an intrinsically anti-Semitic society. "After living here happily all these years I don’t regard the Lithuanian people as anti-Semitic. The majority of people here, and especially the younger generation, are open-minded, non-prejudiced, interested in a better life, in travelling."
Rather, he sees the burgeoning ultra-nationalism as the result of how Lithuanian institutions are dealing with their history, or failing to. In Lithuania, unlike in, say, Germany, there has been little honest soul searching and public scrutiny of the unusually extensive role that Lithuanians themselves played in the genocide of the 200,000-plus Jewish Lithuanians.
Lithuania was proportionately the worst country for the Jews during the Holocaust, with the lowest percentage of survivors out of any country with a large Jewish community. It was a high-speed genocide carried out in the open, mostly. People - children and infants, women - were shot en masse and dumped into pits. Lithuanian volunteers did almost all the killing, Lithuanians rounded up the Jews, who were usually killed not far from their homes. A Lithuanian term zydsaudys or "Jew shooters" still endures, testament to how commonly well-known the activity was. The Jews "screamed like geese," as they were shot, said one participant, Jonas Pukas, who died in New Zealand in 1994. Survivor testimonies, like those in the recently-published Kuniuchowsky archives, detail how the perpetrators included Lithuanians from all strata of society such as the clergy and intellectuals. The writings of various historians (like Timothy Snyder, Alfred Senn, Alfonsus Eidintas, Solomonas Atamukas, Milan Chersonski), all helped to outline for me how widespread Lithuanian collaboration with, and approval for, the genocide was. Part of my research into my late grandmother's village also included watching video clips of witness testimony from elderly Lithuanians, and this too, for me, was confirmation on a micro level of what had happened more generally.
In short, if there was a polar opposite to Denmark (where virtually every Jew was saved by their fellow citizens), then Lithuania unfortunately stands out as prime candidate for that shameful distinction.
In part two of my discussion with Katz, we delve a little more into the reasons behind this.
Check back on Thursday for Kenneth Bonert's next post for the Visiting Scribe.
This year Jewish Americans will participate in an extraordinary Hanukkah celebration – they will light the first menorah candle on the evening before Thanksgiving. This has never happened before, but we came very close to it in 1888. Then, the first Hanukkah light and Thanksgiving occurred on the same day. That year, the national Jewish newspaper, the American Hebrew, dedicated its November 30 issue to the “twofold feasts.” The issue was as much “a tribute to the historic significance of Chanuka” as to “the traditions entwined about Thanksgiving Day.” The editors hoped readers would find the newspaper to be “a stimulus to the joyousness and gladness upon the observance of both.” In previous years they had described Hanukkah as a festival to thank God for the Maccabean victory, and, seeing both Thanksgiving and Hanukkah as occasions for giving thanks to God, they easily encouraged American Jews to enthusiastically celebrate both events.
But most of the time, as we know, Hanukkah occurs at a time closer to Christmas. Most years, the American Hebrew’s Hanukkah message urged its readers not to join their fellow Americans in the national festivities because it was the celebration of Jesus’ birth that enchanted their gentile neighbors. Instead, that newspaper echoed the December messages of most other Jewish publications. Jewish newspapers, synagogue bulletins, women’s and men’s club letters, rabbinical sermons, and the urgings of educators and self-styled community leaders alike urged America’s Jews to make their Hanukkah celebrations as festive as possible.
Again and again, in the years since that early American Hebrew message, American Jews wove Hanukkah’s story into their own contemporary lives in ways that reflected their changing circumstances. Those retellings kept Hanukkah’s meaning alive and relevant. They turned the simple holiday rite into an event which, like other well-loved Jewish festivals, drew families together in their own homes where they could tailor the celebration to fit their own tastes in food and décor, and to reflect their own ideas about the holiday’s significance. They could indulge their children, and be joyous.
Will we ever celebrate Hanukkah and Thanksgiving together this way again? Almost. In 2070 Thanksgiving will fall on November 27th and Hanukkah will begin the following day. In 2165, we will light the first Hanukkah candle on November 28 -- Thanksgiving Day. But for Hanukkah’s first light to occur the evening before Thanksgiving, as it does this year, is truly an anomaly we won’t see again.
Dianne Ashton is the author of five books, including the first modern biography of the education trailblazer, Rebecca Gratz (1997). She is also the co-editor of the widely read Four Centuries of Jewish Women's Spirituality (1992), which was recently published in a revised version in 2009. Read more about her most recent book, Hanukkah in America: A History,
David Evanier has published seven books and has received the Aga Khan Fiction Prize and the McGinnis-Ritchie Short Fiction Award. He was the founding editor of the literary magazine, Event, and the former fiction editor of The Paris Review. His novel Red Love was recently published as an e-book. He will be blogging here for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.
The reissuing of my novel about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Red Love, as an e-book this month is a joyful moment for me. When the book came out, the Holocaust historian Lucy Dawidowicz, a month before she died, wrote that “This is a novel that represents life and is true to history, combining imagination with the documentary record, written with bite and black humor, tempered by compassion for the betrayed sacrifices, the lives lost.” Elie Wiesel wrote that my book has “fascinating events and amazing perception.”
I remember as a small boy in Queens how the sky seemed to darken for me when I heard of the Rosenbergs' execution. It was an event I could not get out of my memory. Soon I would be drawn to the American Communist Party. I felt a kinship for these well-read, cultured and passionate souls who yearned for a kinder, more compassionate world. As I learned more about Stalin's crimes and anti-Semitism, it was inconceivable to me that these people who I so admired, who had so much humanity and love for their fellow man, revered a system that even Nikita Khrushchev admitted in 1956 was bathed in the blood of tens of millions of people. The USSR allied itself with Hitler during the Hitler-Stalin pact, murdered millions in the Gulag, destroyed Jewish life in the Soviet Union and murdered the major writers and artists who comprised the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. Yet I came to understand that for these American true believers, the Soviet Union had once symbolized paradise, where there were no such things as anti-Semitism, economic exploitation, poverty and racism. The contradiction between the sincere goodness of the people I met in the Communist Party and the justifications they presented for a totalitarian regime became for me a personal and professional puzzle to resolve.
In the 1980s I set out to write about the Rosenberg case and returned to the Communist Party milieu. I met and interviewed the living person closest to the Rosenbergs, Morton Sobell, who was tried with them in 1951 of conspiracy to commit espionage for the Soviet Union. I interviewed his wife, the late Helen Sobell, Ethel Appel, the sister of Julius Rosenberg, historian Nathan Glazer, who'd written about the case, scores of Communist Party activists, Bayard Rustin, civil rights leader and a former member of the Young Communist League, Herbert Aptheker, historian and Communist Party leader, and almost a hundred others. Since I had not lived through the Depression and the rise of Nazism in Germany and neo-fascist American movements personified by Father Coughlin and America First, I needed to understand the mindset of people like Julius and Ethel Rosenberg by searching out those who believed as they did, who had felt, like Communist leader Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, that Stalin “was the new Moses.”
I did not want to echo the viewpoint of far right writers who concluded that the Rosenbergs and their comrades were solely motivated by loyalty to the Soviet Union, not opposition to fascism. Being anti-fascist for the Rosenbergs and Morton Sobell was inseparable from being pro-Soviet at that time. I came to understand that the utopian view of the USSR deeply appealed to Jews growing up in the Depression, frightened by the seeming collapse of capitalism, gradually learning of the existence of concentration camps and of Hitler's plans for the Final Solution. The only hope seemed to be the Soviet Union, which bore the brunt of the fighting against fascism.
During the same period, I worked as a writer/researcher for the Anti-Defamation League focusing on far right and far left organizations. That experience further consolidated my understanding of the ways in which totalitarian visions interconnected. And with the help of the ADL, I traveled to Israel and Switzerland to interview the family of Peretz Markish, the great Yiddish poet and a Communist true believer murdered by Stalin and beaten to death in the prisons of the NKVD. For me the reality of Markish's fate underscored the sad paradox and irony of what Communist true believers were enduring in the Soviet Union at the same time their American counterparts were devoting their lives to celebrating “Soviet justice.”And so I set out on a journey of understanding. I concluded that I would not deny the guilt of the Rosenbergs or Morton Sobell, but I would not deny their humanity either, the facts of how American Communists put themselves on the front lines in the struggle for civil rights in the South and for better working conditions. Nor would I ignore the forces of the anti-Semitic far right on American soil that were the other side of the coin during those terrible years. And far from American shores, I would document a twentieth century that gave us both the Final Solution and the Gulag. We needed a more nuanced understanding of the Rosenbergs within the context of those terrifying times. The Rosenbergs were not the saints their supporters imagined them to be, but they did not deserve to be executed or demonized either.
When Morton Sobell confessed in 2008 that he had, indeed, spied for the Soviets and admitted that so had Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, I was not at all surprised. I knew from my meetings with Sobell in 1982 that, in the silences between his words, (and some of his actual words as well) that he was guilty. I wrote of him with compassion and affection in Red Love, and felt very fortunate that the insights I brought to my book came partly from the understanding he gave me.
I believe that Red Love is saturated with a love and understanding of my characters—even if laced with humor and irreverence—an understanding that came from immersing myself for ten years in the lives of the American Communists who experienced events and times that I never went through and who conveyed that history to me. As a result, as Lucy Dawidowicz wrote, the reader of Red Love “grieves for the many thousands whose years were squandered on false hopes, betrayed ideals, messianic delusions.”
Read more about David Evanier here.
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I was inspired to write about Rav Hisda’s daughter by a small section of Talmud. She is approximately nine years old and sitting in her father’s classroom when he calls up his two best students and asks her, “Whom do you want to marry?” Astonishingly she replies, “Both of them.” Immediately, the younger of the two says, “I’ll be the last one.” And that, the Talmud tells us, is what happened. She marries the older student and is widowed, followed by the younger.
Understandably, I was impressed. I knew if anyone were going to write this girl’s story, it would be me.
Once I decided to write about Rav Hisda’s daughter (that’s what the Talmud calls her), I confronted the problem of finding a name for her. I couldn’t use one from the Talmud since those belonged to other women. What I needed to name my heroine, and various female secondary characters, was a primary source of Jewish women’s names from 3rd-4th century Babylonia. Not that I had hopes of finding such a thing.
To my surprise, I discovered something called Babylonian incantation bowls, amulets consisting of magic spells written on common pottery, then buried under a client’s house. Particular to the Talmudic period, thousands have been unearthed in modern Iraq. The texts are clearly Jewish: Aramaic written in Hebrew letters, they call upon Jewish angels, use Jewish names for God, and quote Torah. The vast majority are written for protection from illness and other misfortunes caused by demons, curses, and the Evil Eye.
What excited me was that the incantations included the names of the clients, and their mothers’ names. Many were published, providing me with hundreds of authentic Jewish women’s names from the exact time and place I needed. So I wondered what the Talmud had to say about them, and about demons and magic in general. Amazingly, this was quite a lot.
Rabbis, including Rav Hisda, cast spells, but the Talmud is adamant that sorcery is the province of women. Not evil witches, but professional amulet scribes and healers. In one case a rabbi consults the head sorceress, indicating a hierarchy and organization. The Talmud instructs us how to find an expert sorceress and how to know if her spells are proven. I learned that Rav Hisda’s daughter herself knew enough magic to protect her husband from demons in the privy.
Which meant that my heroine was a sorceress, perhaps one who inscribed incantations bowls – since what Jewish women except those from rabbinic families would be so educated and literate? Since I had to start this novel when she was a child, to include that scene with the two students, then I would have to show how she became a sorceress and what they did.
So my book got a new, unexpected, subtitle: A Novel of Love, the Talmud and Sorcery. And I became an expert on ancient Jewish magic, a subject I didn’t know existed before.Want authentic snacks to eat at your book club meeting? Try dried fruits such as apricots, peaches, figs and dates (of course), as well as nuts like almonds and pistachios.
When I heard my friend Sylvia Rouss had published a collection of short stories, A World of Blessings, I wanted to learn more about her book as well as her publishing endeavor, Apples & Honey Press. Sylvia was kind enough to share thoughts about her creative journey with me.
Barbara Bietz: Tell me about your new collection of stories. What inspired you to create a collection?
Sylvia Rouss: As a writer, I write stories because it is a creative outlet for me, not because I necessarily seek to have a story published. Often a human interest story in the newspaper will inspire me to put “pen to paper” as a way to capture and preserve the intrinsic beauty of a reported event. In my book, the story of “The Rabbi and the Firefighters” was such a story. It demonstrated the best qualities that we as humans have by coming to the aid of another without regard for our own safety.
Sometimes I am touched by a selfless act that I am privileged to witness. “Gifts of Love” was inspired by a friend’s young daughter who decided to donate her beautiful long tresses to Locks of Love. “Jognau, the Dreamer” is a story based on the real life rescue of Ethiopian Jews. I met the Israeli Ambassador to Ethiopia who was instrumental in arranging the airlifting of 15,000 Jews from a hostile country in twenty-four hours. News accounts from the time indicated that three children were born on the flights from Ethiopia to Israel. At the urging of the ambassador, I wrote a story of one family’s struggle with the decision to go because the mother is about to have her sixth child. Several of my stories were sold to publishing houses and during the recession they experienced financial difficulties and the rights reverted to me. With so many setbacks in the children’s publishing industry, my husband and I made the decision to create our own publishing house, asked friends to join us in the business venture, and began by publishing some of my favorite stories.
BB: You tackle some difficult topics in your short stories. What challenges did you face when writing about delicate issues?
SR: I lost my father at a young age and I can still remember the parents of my friends or teachers at school who were uncomfortable acknowledging my loss. It was my friends, eight-year-olds like me, who had no difficulty expressing their feelings about something that is part of life. As a teacher, I have dealt with families who are facing difficulties in their lives. Often when there is an illness or loss in a family, a parent will ask me to recommend a book that will help them explain a difficult subject to a young child. Unfortunately, books on these topics are hard to find. Writers are afraid they are too “dark” for young readers and publishers shy away from them because there is a limited market for such stories. I decided that these topics are important and I was determined to meet the challenge in the same way my young friends did with me when my father died—with sensitivity and honesty.
BB: Can you share the journey of Apples & Honey Press?
SR: My husband, Jeff, is my biggest fan and supporter. He deals with the business side of my writing. I like to create but negotiating with publishing houses is not something I enjoy. When my husband suggested that we begin our own publishing house, I was skeptical. It was a financial risk I wasn’t sure I wanted to take. It took some convincing on his part but I recognized that many small publishing houses begin in a similar way. We are beginning with my collection of short stories and we are in the process of publishing a picture book. This story, like some of my others, had been sold at different times to four different publishing houses but the rights reverted to me. I love the story about a grandmother sharing family memories with her grandchild. If this endeavor proves successful, we hope to accept manuscripts from other writers and become competitive in the children’s book market.
BB: Sylvia – Wishing you all the best with A World of Blessings!
Barbara Bietz is a freelance writer and children’s book reviewer. She is currently a member of the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee. Barbara is the author of the middle grade book, Like a Maccabee. She has a blog dedicated to Jewish books for children at www.jewishbooksforkids.com.
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Earlier this week, Ilana Garon wrote about athletic opportunities at her Jewish day school and running the New York City Marathon. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.
Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School (or “JDS” as it was fondly known), the school my three brothers and I all attended from grades 6-12, had no football team and no swim team. Neither my brothers nor I cared about football; the absence of a swim team, however, we found frustrating. We couldn’t understand why JDS couldn’t rent pool-time from the JCC across the street. Fortunately, all of us were deep into our summer-league swim team, probably our collective favorite athletic venture of the year. We grew up in Northern Virginia, home of the illustrious Northern Virginia Swim League (NVSL), one of the largest public swimming leagues in the country. With over 100 neighborhood recreation centers fielding teams in 18 divisions, the NVSL presides over a 6-week competitive swimming season every summer, from mid-June through the end of July. The B-meets, which did not count for league standing and thus were markedly less competitive and more fun, were all on Monday nights. The A-meets, which did count, were on Saturday mornings.
Our first years in swimming, my brothers and I only did B-meets; my parents insisted that we attend synagogue on Saturday mornings. We were the only Jews on the team—my parents’ home is in the heart of the St. James Parish, featuring a large community church within a well-connected and active Northern Virginia Diocese—and our absence to the A-meets caused some raised eyebrows. I’m not sure I’d have had the impetus to question my parents’ edict alone, but Haskell, my middle brother, got feisty. He was by far the best swimmer of the four of us, and the coaches wanted him especially for Saturday meets; they knew he’d bring in points. One of them pulled us both aside. “Maybe you guys could have a talk with your parents?” they asked pointedly.
Haskell and I begged our Mom, who was the main stickler on the subject. Eventually we struck a compromise; as long as Mom didn’t have to serve as a timer or work the concession stand at Saturday meets (no problem, because they needed timers and concession workers on Mondays as well), and as long as we attended Saturday services with minimal complaining in the weekends before and after swim season, then we could attend meets during those six Saturdays. I’m sure, looking back, that it was a difficult compromise for Mom to make; I believe she understood that not only did we love swimming, but we yearned to be a part of our neighborhood community in Falls Church, VA, as well as our school community in Rockville, MD.
The memories of those summer swim meets are some of my happiest: I remember heading off to the pool just after sunrise with my brothers, having been too nervous to eat more than a granola bar for breakfast. The team would warm up together, each of us jittery in anticipation of our races. Then, when it was time to race, I remember the initial shock of diving into the cold pool again, sprinting as fast as I possibly could (NVSL races are never more than 100 meters), then anxiously slapping the edge of the pool and looking up to see how well I’d finished. Sometimes, that would result in tears; other times, in elation.
But there was a longer-lasting lesson in our summer swim team experience, which I don’t think even my mother foresaw. Many of our school friends, I realized, did not have friendships outside of the Jewish community. My brothers and I did, though—from swim team. Despite the initial hurdle of the Saturday meets, our mostly Catholic swim team friends, who all lived nearby, never made us feel any outsider status. I remember one Saturday night in particular, when I was set to drive a bunch of kids from swim team around in our family van—I believe we were going to make a series of “hits” in team’s yearly game of Super Soaker “assassination.” Mom had told us we couldn’t leave until after Havdalah. And so, when three stars were out, my brothers and I emerged from our house to find several team-members on our lawn, patiently waiting for us to fulfill our religious obligations so that we could all drive off into the Virginia twilight together.Ilana Garon is a high school English teacher and the author of "Why Do Only White People Get Abducted by Aliens?": Teaching Lessons from the Bronx (Skyhorse, 2013), as well as various articles for The Guardian, Dissent Magazine, Huffington Post, and Education Week. She is excited to have just completed the ING New York City Marathon. Ilana lives and works in New York City.