The ProsenPeople

Abortion, Birth Control, and the Complexity of Halacha (Jewish Law)

Wednesday, July 17, 2013 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Melissa R. Klapper wrote about 5 American Jewish women you've (probably) never heard of. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I recently came across a copy of the June 28 issue of The Jewish Press. The Jewish Press is an Orthodox Jewish weekly periodical out of Brooklyn that has a political agenda with which I could not disagree more. When I saw the headline “Time for the Halachic View on Abortion to Be Heard,” I groaned inwardly and prepared to be outraged. Imagine my surprise when the article, by Yori Yanover, the senior internet editor of the publication, turned out to be a call to traditional halachic voices to distance themselves from Christian anti-abortion activism and to express more forcefully in the public arena the nuanced rabbinical approach to the difficult topic of abortion. While I do not at all appreciate Yanover’s description of both liberal Jewish groups and evangelical Christians as “the crazies,” I think it is extremely important that a publication like The Jewish Press is reminding its audience that even the strictest interpreters of Jewish law consistently approached abortion from the perspective of protecting the viable life of the mother over the potential life of the fetus. The rabbis, Yanover points out, historically did not consider abortion to be murder.

Just to be clear, traditional rabbinic rulings neither condone nor promote abortion. Yanover cites the 1990 Rabbinical Council of America statement that abortion should not be an option except in “extreme circumstances and in consultation with proper Halachic authority,” but he gives equal space to the part of the same statement that rejects endorsement of legislation that would prevent abortion in those cases. Given the greater rights of the living human being–the mother–Jewish law would even allow late term abortions if the fetus poses a mortal danger to her.

This article caught my eye not only because of its source but also because of the questions that persistently came my way when I was writing my recently published book Ballots, Babies, and Banners of Peace: American Jewish Women’s Activism, 1890-1940 (NYU Press, 2013). The book includes two chapters on the history of American Jewish women’s involvement in the early birth control movement. I have repeatedly been asked what the “Jewish position” on contraception was during the early 20th century. Naturally, there was no single position. All of the denominations struggled to formulate a response. The Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis turned down an invitation by the Catholic church to issue a joint statement of blanket condemnation but did not officially endorse birth control for some years after beginning to discuss the issue. The Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly followed suit shortly thereafter. And the Orthodox Union preserved a telling silence, officially neither approving or disapproving of contraceptive practices that the organization saw as best left to individuals making decisions in consultation with rabbinic authorities. There is plenty of latitude within halacha for birth control, which apparently comes as a surprise to those who want to see all religious people of all faiths as equally fundamentalist. I find myself agreeing with Yanover that extremists on both the right and the left could learn something from the history of Jewish institutional and legal responses to the complexities of the intersections of reproductive rights and religion.

Check back all week for more from Melissa R. Klapper.

The Difficulty of Naming Cats...and Characters

Tuesday, July 16, 2013 | Permalink
This week, Anne Cherian, the author of The Invitation blogs for The Postscript on how to find the right names for her characters. The Postscript series is a special peek "behind the scenes" of a book. It's a juicy little extra something to add to a book club's discussion and a reader's understanding of how the book came together. 

To "host" Anne at your next book club meeting, request her through JBC Live Chat

TS Eliot famously wrote, “The naming of cats is a difficult matter,” and where once I had thought it was charming doggerel, I discovered its general truth when I was writing my novel, The Invitation. I had the entire plot in my head, and knew my four characters, but had no idea what names to give them. I was so desperate that I even Googled common Indian names, only to stare at hundreds and hundreds of names – in a country of billion, what did I expect?   

So I sat down and thought about the characters, hoping they would name themselves. One male character, I knew, would come from a rich family, and would have gone to all the right schools. In the novel he is described as a “colossus, able to prosper anywhere in the world, east or west.”  So I suddenly thought, Jayant, which means victorious in Hindi, and which, handily, can be shortened to Jay, a western name that is easy for my readers. The question the novel raises? Is Jay, indeed, victorious? The other male character is his foil, born to a poor family in a village, who pulls himself up via his brains. He would have to be very tough to withstand the discrimination he would encounter in India, which, like England, is class-based. Vikram means strength, and again, can become Vic, and in this case, also provided me with the name of his computer company, VikRAM Computers. I confess that I know nothing about computers; I am aware, however, that ram isn't just a male sheep.

All that remained were the two girls. One, I had always known, would be from Kerala, my father’s homeland. Most people from there have a baptismal name reserved for school, and a ‘pet’ name used by family and close friends. Lali goes against tradition by using her pet name alone; indeed, her baptismal name never appears in the novel. Such a character, I thought, would continue to be rebellious, and so it makes sense that Lali marries Jonathan, a Jewish doctor. The last character is based on girls I knew who came from Goa, all Catholics, of Portuguese descent--except that my character isn’t rich. Some people, like her, try to off-set poverty by using anything to make themselves look good, and she even uses how she was named. When her mother was pregnant with her, her father kept telling everyone that this time, after four girls, he was finally going to have a son and had already picked out Francis, the name of some forefather who may or may not exist, since the family likes to show off their Portuguese ancestry. When she turns out to be another girl, he simply changes the ‘i’ to ‘e’ and so Frances, from her very beginnings, has a story about herself, and as the novel shows, also starts her life being a disappointment and is constantly trying to appear better than she is. 

Mourning the Loss of a Non-Jewish Parent

Tuesday, July 16, 2013 | Permalink

Gayle Redlingshafer Berman is co-author, with her husband Harold, of Doublelife: One Family,Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope, the first true-life account of "an intermarriage gone Jewish." She is also an internationally acclaimed singer, and has performed and conducted throughout North America, Europe and the Middle East. Gayle and Harold will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

"Ima, Aunt Angela is trying to reach you. I know it's grandma! I want to go to her funeral!" My 13-year-old son was home manning the phone in Efrat while I was busy teaching piano to American girls at a school in Jerusalem. My mother had been ill for many years with dementia, that terrifying disease that steals the memory and dignity of its victims. Long before we had made Israel our home 3 1/2 years earlier, each day we had expected the call from Illinois telling us that her body had given up the fight. That moment had apparently arrived. Not having my sister's U.S. number in my Israeli cell phone, I simply continued teaching my piano student.

Soon my cell phone rang. I was sure my sister was indeed calling to tell me that what my son had suspected was true. I told my student, "I'll be right back," knowing I could handle what I had been anticipating for years. "Dad died this morning!" I couldn't believe my ears! No, she meant "Mom," my head screamed! "Dad?" I yelled! "Yes, Dad."

As people at the school heard my screaming, they gathered around me, offering tea, love and support. The memories flooded my mind – those late nights I fell asleep in the car and Dad carried me into the house; those years Dad let me keep horses on precious farmland which could have yielded thousands of dollars; the day I told Dad with trepidation that we were moving to Israel, to which he said simply, "You're free to live wherever you want," and then launched into a diatribe for the next 30 minutes about how the world is so cruel to Israel and doesn't understand that she needs to defend herself! He wept when he told me he just couldn't leave Mom to attend my son's, his grandson's, bar mitzvah, just two months before my sister's phone call. Even though Mom had already been in a nursing home for four years, he would not travel, feeling she needed him and I also think fearing the inevitable would happen while he was gone.

How does a Jew mourn the loss of a parent when that parent was not Jewish? After I finished the phone call with my sister, I asked a rabbi where I teach, and my husband (who was attending an unveiling the moment I called him) asked a rabbi where he works. Both felt that, even though I would not actually sit shiva, I still needed the catharsis that sitting shiva provides. Maybe, they each suggested independently, I could announce an opportunity for friends to visit me at my home, even if just for a few hours.

We chose Friday morning, two days later. After that morning, I understood fully why Jews sit shiva. The cleansing that immersed my soul that morning was the beginning of my healing process. Over 40 people, friends and neighbors in Israel who had never met my father, came to show their support. They sat and listened intently as I told stories about my parents. They blessed me, that I should be comforted with all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. Some invited my family for Shabbat meals while I traveled the following week for my dad's funeral. After they had all left, I was exhausted, but I felt renewed. I felt closer to my dad. I felt 100% certain that I had made the right decision several years earlier when I decided to become a part of the Jewish people.

Find out more about Gayle and Harold here

9 Jewish Book Covers to Cool You off on a Hot Summer Day

Tuesday, July 16, 2013 | Permalink

Dreaming of water on this hot summer day? So are we. A few covers to cool you off:


Bonus: Kiddie Corner

 

Top 5 American Jewish Women Most People Have Never Heard Of

Monday, July 15, 2013 | Permalink
Melissa R. Klapper is a professor of history at Rowan University in Glassboro, NJ. Her newest book, Ballots, Babies, and Banners of Peace American Jewish Women’s Activism, 1890-1940 (NYU Press), is now available. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

One of the biggest pleasures in writing American Jewish women’s history is discovering the immensely talented, hardworking, committed women whose activities and beliefs and organizations shaped not only the American Jewish past but the whole social, cultural, political, and religious world we live in today. I decided to begin each of the five chapters of my new book, Ballots, Babies, and Banners of Peace: American Jewish Women’s Activism, 1890-1940 (NYU Press, 2013) with a biographical sketch of one of these women. All of them were renowned during their own lifetime for their significant contributions to social and political movements; alas, few are known today. For each chapter I had literally dozens of fascinating women upon whom I could have focused. Here are those I ultimately chose to profile.

1. Maud Nathan (1862-1946) took pride in her heritage as the daughter of an elite Sephardic Jewish family. Married to her cousin Frederick Nathan, she was involved in multiple organizations and causes in New York, including the National Consumers’ League and the National Council of Jewish Women. Nathan, a gifted speaker and parliamentarian, earned especial fame for her suffrage activism on both the national and the international stage. She believed that Jewish women had a special civil responsibility that could best be demonstrated through social reform and political participation.

2. Rose Heiman Halpern (1881-1976) immigrated to the United States in 1902 already politically active. After marrying William Halpern, she gave birth to six children in rapid succession and became involved with the American birth control movement from the founding of the first clinic in 1916. Halpern grew close to Margaret Sanger and became an exemplar of a woman who not only used birth control to shape her own life but also remained committed to activism on behalf of the cause for decades.

3. Fanny Fligelman Brin (1884-1961) practically ran the world from the Minneapolis home where she lived with her husband Arthur Brin and three children. Involved in many Jewish and secular causes, she believed especially passionately in world peace, and as a committee chairwoman and then president, she solidified the National Council of Jewish Women’s prominence in the women’s peace movement. Brin earned tremendous recognition in her day and was named one of the most prominent clubwomen in America on a list that also included Eleanor Roosevelt.

4. Hannah Mayer Stone (1893-1941) started her professional life as a pediatrician but made her distinguished reputation in the birth control movement as the longtime medical director of the American Birth Control League. She and her husband, physician Abraham Stone, also pioneered marital counseling. Stone published numerous articles based on clinical contraceptive research, and her untimely death met with an outpouring of appreciation from her colleagues in the birth control movement and medical community.

5. Rebecca Hourwich Reyher (1897-1987), an iconoclastic thinker from her adolescent years, played an active role in the suffrage movement and then threw herself into the peace movement. As a journalist she successfully supported herself, her husband Ferdinand Reyher, and her daughter, and she worked to expand working women’s rights and power. An absolutist, Reyher did not recant her pacifism during World War II and refused to do any war work, directing her time and skills instead to helping Jewish refugees in the United States and Dominican Republic.

          

Check back all week for more from Melissa R. Klapper.


New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, July 12, 2013 | Permalink
This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:



  Find more of the latest reviews here.

West and Schwartz, Dreaming at the Movies

Friday, July 12, 2013 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Ilan Mochari wrote about The Who and Jewish summer camp and the autobiographical elements in his novel, Zinsky the Obscure (Fomite Press). He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

When it comes to 20th-century Jewish authors, it’s Bellow, Roth, and Salinger who generally grab headlines. But their immediate predecessors—Delmore Schwartz and Nathanael West—worked in an era that will always captivate me. The term “bygone time” gets tossed around a lot, but to read Schwartz and West is to truly step into a different America—the America of the 1930s—than the one that Bellow, Roth, and Salinger chronicled.

For one thing, World War II had not happened. For another, the television had not yet taken over as a standard domestic appliance. But the movies and radio were in full swing, forever altering the way we consume words, images, advertisements, and stories. Schwartz and West had to compete with these newfangled media. In one of my favorite passages from Miss Lonelyhearts, West, through the prism of that novel’s narrator, laments how the noun dreams has lost its aura in this new era:

“Although dreams were once powerful, they have been made puerile by the movies, radio and newspapers. Among many betrayals, this one is the worst” (39).

Almost as bad, for West’s narrator, is the way consumerism and vanity have encroached upon dreams as a once-sacred trope:

“Guitars, bright shawls, exotic foods, outlandish costumes—all these things were part of the business of dreams. He had learned not to laugh at the advertisements offering to teach writing, cartooning, engineering, to add inches to the biceps and to develop the bust” (22).

There’s no way to prove that Schwartz had these passages in mind when he wrote his legendary story, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” two years later. But if the title is merely an unwitting homage to Lonelyhearts, the thematic overlaps are too powerful to ignore. To wit: Schwartz’s entire story takes place not only in a movie theater, but also in a theater that is the setting of a dream the narrator is having.

The movie depicts the clumsy courtship of the narrator’s parents. The theatergoers are all along for the romantic ride, with the exception of the narrator, who disturbs the other patrons with his protestations: “Don’t do it. It’s not too late to change your minds,” he shouts at the screen, after his father proposes to his mother. Naturally, the theatergoers wish he would just shut up and let them enjoy the film. They’ve paid good money to see it (thirty-five cents, in 1935).

In many ways, Schwartz and West set the stage for The Catcher In The Rye (1951), in which Holden Caulfield spends many a paragraph ridiculing the implausible idealism of mainstream American films. All of that—the march against phoniness—is generally credited to Salinger, and for good reason: His contrarian novel cracked the mainstream, giving vent to hypocrisies that most readers felt but never expressed. But let us remember that when it comes to the movies—and their corruption of dreams—West and Schwartz were there first.

Ilan Mochari's novel, Zinsky the Obscure (Fomite Press), is now available. He is Chief Writer for The Build Network and a contributor to Cognoscenti, the online magazine for Boston's NPR News Station. Read more about Ilan here.

July 2013 Jewish Book Council Staff Picks

Thursday, July 11, 2013 | Permalink
What we're reading this month:

Carolyn: The Art Forger (B.A. Shapiro) | Naomi: Herzog (Saul Bellow)
Mimi: The Invisible Bridge (Julie Orringer) | Emma: Jerusalem (Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi)
Carol: The Golem and the Jinni (Helene Wecker) | Miri: May We Be Forgiven (A.M. Homes)

A Word on Who I Am

Wednesday, July 10, 2013 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Ilan Mochari wrote about the autobiographical elements in his novel, Zinsky the Obscure (Fomite Press). He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

A few months ago I finished Pete Townshend’s autobiography, Who I Am. I can’t say I was surprised to read the following:

“We shared our house with the Cass family, who lived upstairs and, like many of my parents’ closest friends, were Jewish. I remember noisy, joyous Passovers with a lot of Gefilte fish, chopped liver and the aroma of slow-roasting brisket” (11).

Why was I not surprised? As a lifelong fan of The Who, I’ve often felt there was something ineffably Jewish in their themes and melodies. I’m thinking in particular of the devotional litany from Tommy:

“Listening to you, I get the music / Gazing at you, I get the heat / Following you, I climb the mountain / I get excitement at your feet / Right behind you, I see the millions / On you, I see the glory / From you, I get opinions / From you, I get the story.”

In the way it builds, in the way it deifies, in the way it mounts and repeats, it has always reminded me of Ein Keloheinu and Adon Olam.

And here’s my confession: I like singing this part of Tommy. A lot. As in, every day. As if it’s a prayer I can’t live without. It owns me. Even though I’m a secular cat. Even though I’d hesitate to call myself spiritual.

I have often wondered why Tommy has such a grip on me. My best guess? I think it stems from my six summers at B’nai B’rith Perlman Camp in Starlight, Pennsylvania.

BBPC was a place where you could get in serious trouble—you’d get “docked” from canteen or a team sport, and you’d get a dozen “dead arms” from your counselor—if you didn’t sing with the proper levels of respect and passion. It didn’t matter what the song was. It might be the “Birkat Hamazon”; it might be “The Circle Game”; it might be your color war team’s anthem.

This mild form of cultural hazing left a mark. To this day, I get annoyed at Passover when not everyone is pulling his weight on “Echad Mi Yodea.” And I get annoyed at music shows when the lead vocalist isn’t “bringing it” with everything he has.

And it all has to do with the belief—cultivated at BBPC—that singing is not to be done in a half-assed manner. It doesn’t matter if it’s the Passover table or a stadium concert. Sing it like you mean it, or don’t sing at all.

That last sentence is The Who in general, and Tommy in particular.

And so here I am, more than 20 years past my summer camp days. I’m an adult who almost never goes to temple. For all intents and purposes, I’m an atheist. But when I sing songs from Tommy, I feel like I’m regaining a precious piece of my childhood puzzle. It might not be a piece that belongs, strictly speaking, to the Jewish tradition; but it belongs to a lesson that I first learned in a Jewish setting. It is a lesson about passion, and a lesson about effort. And it is a lesson that has stayed with me, ever since.

Ilan Mochari's novel, Zinsky the Obscure (Fomite Press), is now available. He is Chief Writer for The Build Network and a contributor to Cognoscenti, the online magazine for Boston's NPR News Station. Read more about Ilan here.

Book Cover of the Week: La Famille Middlestein

Wednesday, July 10, 2013 | Permalink
Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

A little foreign edition book cover love today. Presenting the French cover of Jami Attenberg's The Middlesteins:



Find book club discussion questions for The Middlsteins and Jami's blog posts for the Visiting Scribe here.

View past "Book Cover of the Week" posts here.