The ProsenPeople

Back into the Beyond

Wednesday, August 03, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Leigh Stein talked about domestic abuse in the Jewish community with Sarah Rothe, direct services coordinator at Shalom Bayit of the Bay Area. Leigh is guest blogging for Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

My memoir, Land of Enchantment, is about an abusive relationship I experienced in my early twenties, and the death of my ex-boyfriend Jason in a motorcycle accident, just a few weeks after I saw him for the last time and finally felt strong enough to stop answering his phone calls. From 2007 to 2008, we lived together in New Mexico, whose state nickname is the “Land of Enchantment.” This is a poem I wrote in 2009. I was on vacation in New Mexico, by myself, and Jason called out of the blue, as if he knew I was there, though there’s no way he could have known. Our lives always seemed destined to collide; I couldn’t see then how, and if, I would ever really be free of him.

My favorite thing to do in New Mexico is drive by
the places where we were once in love with each other.

Most animals would never do this. If you gave a chihuahua
the keys to your car and said, Go, it would not drive

along to its memory, that broken record, that cheap
date. Chihuahuas do not build shrines to mistakes.

They do not gauge their success based on what they said
they would be doing in five years five years ago. Last night

I read that three chihuahuas saved a three-year-old
girl from a mountain lion, and there's yet another

trait that differentiates me from said animal.
I read about the women buried in a mass grave

on the West Mesa, how a dog discovered the bones
of Michelle Valdez, and now the people who call

the police hotline can only offer premonitions.
Whenever I read anything, I'm sure it is about me.

I'm also sure the worst things to happen are those
we could never imagine, and so it is unlikely I will be

threatened by a mountain lion tonight, or thrown
in an unmarked grave by a man who has hired me for sex.

My favorite thing to do in New Mexico is drive
and try to describe the landscape in my mind,

so if some day I go blind, I'll still be able to visit
the terrain by chanting terra cotta yonder yonder

like a spell cast by a magic student who has no
idea what she's doing. Like a prayer to the party

responsible. The only thing we ever had in common
was making the choices that would net the best stories and

when you called, I was back where we started, watching
the sun crown the hills. I was going to ask if for the past

two years you've been living in your memory, too, but you
interrupted to say you'd enlisted, and here it was, the unimaginable

I'd never imagined, a premonition of violence, a reason
to drive until I was out of range, off the map.

Leigh Stein’s work has appeared in Allure, Buzzfeed, Gawker, The Hairpin, Poets & Writers, Slate, The Toast, and xoJane. Leigh is currently on tour with her new book, Land of Enchantment, for the 2016 – 2017 season through the JBC Network.

Related Content:

Interview with Sarah Rothe, Direct Services Coordinator at Shalom Bayit

Monday, August 01, 2016 | Permalink

Leigh Stein is the author of the novel The Fallback Plan, the poetry collection Dispatch from the Future, and a new memoir, Land of Enchantment, out this week from Plume. With the release of her book, Leigh is guest blogging for Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

My memoir Land of Enchantment is about an abusive relationship I experienced in my early twenties, and the death of my ex-boyfriend in a motorcycle accident just a few weeks after I saw him for the last time and finally felt strong enough to stop answering his phone calls. While it’s easy to think that intimate partner violence is something that happens to other people in other communities, the reality is that one in four Jewish women will experience physical, psychological, or sexual abuse in her lifetime. I recently spoke with Sarah Rothe at Shalom Bayit, an organization in California that is working to end domestic violence in Jewish homes.

Sarah is a licensed clinical social worker who works one-on-one and in groups with clients in the Bay Area Jewish community who have experienced relationship abuse.

Leigh Stein: Can you tell me a little bit about the background of Shalom Bayit's founding?

Sarah Rothe: Shalom Bayit was founded almost 25 years ago, as a women's collective. Naomi Tucker was one of the founding members. She had been working in the domestic violence field and really wanted to reach out to the Jewish community, especially to combat the myth that there isn't domestic violence in the Jewish community. The organization has evolved over the years: today we provide direct individual counseling, and we have a helpline that's free and confidential. We offer support groups throughout the Bay Area, serving nine counties, that incorporate Jewish spiritual healing, focusing on holidays and rituals from a lens of feminism or anti-violence.

LS: I think there’s this myth across all communities that domestic violence doesn’t happen to us, it happens to others. Why do you think that is?

SR: There are a variety of reasons for that myth. I think some of it is socioeconomic stereotypes: people tend to believe that this is a problem of a family that's very disadvantaged or may have issues with addiction. All of those things could be true in the Jewish community, but it’s not usually a stereotype of a Jewish family. There's also a stereotype of Jewish men as more learned, less macho. That tends to be a trope, right? Even in the media, the Jewish guys tend to be nerdier, skinnier, and women are domineering Jewish wives who boss people around. That's not necessarily true in real families, but it's perpetuated in the media.

I think also there's this idea that someone who is a stand-up community member can't be doing this at home, in private. Unfortunately, that's not true at all. It's hard to reconcile that idea of a respected member of a community exerting power and control and dominating at home, possibly committing physical violence toward their partner.

LS: What's the hardest part of your job?

SR: The hardest part is helping women feel that they're not alone, and also combatting the shame in one's experience. Because it's a small community and everyone knows each other, it can be hard for them to come for help.

The size of the community is blessing and a curse. We have a Rabbinic Advisory Council with 80 signed on, agreeing to collaborate actively with us, and we have a sermon campaign. There are some synagogues that don't participate—there is sometimes a lack of larger support in a synagogue, or even in the community's interpretation of the Talmud or Jewish texts, if its leaders or constituents are pushing the idea of maintaining a marriage no matter what—but others take it to heart and are very vocal about women's rights and non-violence.

LS: What's the most rewarding part of your job?

SR: Seeing people move towards healing and the relief that they get when they connect with us and feel held. Especially around the holidays. We do a Chanukah adopt-a-family program, which is anonymous on both sides: a family or a congregation or a temple school class takes on a family, or an individual leaving an abusive relationship. That's a really tangible way to feel the community cares for these families.

LS: And what was the evolution or impetus to create a program for young adults?

SR: Unfortunately, statistics show that young people are even more at risk for abusive relationships than adults. Our focus is not just responding after the crisis, but providing prevention; our mission is to foster the social change necessary to eradicate violence in the Jewish community. Treatment can help, but to work toward eradicating it, we need to educate the next generation before they get into these relationships.

LS: Although my memoir is about a heterosexual relationship, I don't want to reinforce the common misconception that domestic violence only affects women in heterosexual relationships. Is there anything you'd like to add from your extensive experience working with the LGBTQ community in particular?

SR: Domestic violence happens at the same rates in all communities, whether that's Jewish or Christian, heterosexual or LGBT. I think there are additional barriers to speaking up about abuse if you are not in a heterosexual relationship. So much research on domestic violence came out of the feminist movement in terms of battered women, and that can be alienating if that's not your experience. The whole movement is now trying to redirect and scale to support the LGBT community. Domestic violence can happen between two women and it can happen between two men. It can be harder to get into a shelter, as most support women with children—some don't take single women at all without children. There are very, very few shelters for gay male victims. And there are so many additional barriers to calling the police if you're a man who's been abused, because of stereotypes.

There are also additional layers of shame, if you have to come out about your sexuality, if you're not already out, at the same time as coming out about your abuse. One of my female clients was abused by a female partner (outside the Bay Area) and the police refused to document it as domestic violence. They named it as some kind of other assault or altercation, but didn't acknowledge that it was a relationship with her partner, which affected her ability to get services and recourse later.

LS: I think one of the hardest things to understand about this topic is that to an outsider it seems so clear. Why does she stay with that guy? Why doesn't she leave? But on the inside of a relationship, it's extremely complex and potentially dangerous. Do you have any advice for friends or family members who are concerned that someone they love might be in an abusive relationship?

SR: My advice is usually to support and listen to that friend, and validate their experience. Listen to what they're sharing and remind them that it's not their fault. A lot of times, abusive partners will tell the people they hurt, "I wouldn't have exploded, if you hadn't pushed me..." And those being abused often start to believe that is true.

Healing starts with hearing "You never deserve to be abused like this, no matter what you've done. There are resources out there to help you.” But don’t push. Your support should not be contingent upon their leaving the relationship. Leave it up to your friend, who has maybe not been able to make decisions because of the dynamic of control in their relationship. Let them decide for their own future.

Leigh Stein’s work has appeared in Allure, Buzzfeed, Gawker, The Hairpin, Poets & Writers, Slate, The Toast, and xoJane. Leigh is currently on tour with her new book, Land of Enchantment, for the 2016 – 2017 season through the JBC Network.

Related Content:

The Comedienne

Friday, February 17, 2012 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Leigh Stein wrote about the Jewish ghost of Santa Fe and revealed one of her early aspirations: to "Be Anne Frank." She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

One of the strange things about having your first book come out is that you think you’ve written one thing, and then everyone decides you’ve written something else. I guess I don’t mean en masse, but I did think I had written kind of a sad, quiet novel, and now I’m getting pegged as the funny girl.

You know who was really the funny girl?

If you said Fanny Brice you’d be right.

I grew up on musical theater the way other people grow up on sports (some of my greatest triumphs were in competitive opera singing), and watched Barbra Streisand movies like an acolyte. Forget Julie Andrews (who I’m sure is very nice)—I loved Barbra: her voice, the twinkle in her eye, her nose. I’m not exaggerating when I say that watching her sing “I’m the Greatest Star” in Funny Girl changed my life.

Funny Girl is based on the life of Fanny Brice, who sang for the Ziegfeld Follies, acted on Broadway and in film, and played Baby Snooks on the radio for years. She made a life and career out of contradictions—a Yiddish “dialectician” who never knew more than a hundred words of the language, a skinny girl who couldn't dance and yet sang for the glamorous Follies, an independent woman who married three times.

In his biography of the performer, Herbert G. Goldman quotes Fanny on her dual nature: “Self-aware and self-perceptive, Fanny once said she had always been aware of 'two people within me. Almost like a mother and child. I have felt like I was my own mother, and when I would think about Fanny, I would always think about myself as a child.'”

What makes Fanny such a great talent is exactly this duality, between mother and child, serious and playful. Barbra has it too, on film. Maybe it’s a Jewish thing. Although critics wrote mainly about Fanny as a comedienne, one of her greatest hits was “My Man,” which she always sang with her eyes closed, no doubt imagining her first husband, Nick Arnstein. It sounds soulful to me when I listen to it again now, and I think I know why Fanny sang torch songs—because those were the moments when she got to stop playing the funny girl.


Leigh Stein's debut novel, The Fallback Plan, is now available. Leigh is a former New Yorker staffer and frequent contributor to its “Book Bench” blog. She lives in Brooklyn, where she works in children’s publishing and teaches musical theater to elementary school students.

The Ghost

Wednesday, February 15, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Leigh Stein revealed one of her early aspirations: to "Be Anne Frank." She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning

My fascination with New Mexico began in 2007, when I moved to Albuquerque sight unseen to write my first novel, The Fallback Plan. The state is nicknamed “The Land of Enchantment,” and that’s one of the reasons I moved there, from the less exotic “Land of Lincoln.” In general, I found the people there to be very open to talking about unsolved mysteries—ghosts and disappearances, aliens and conspiracies. A neighbor told me that the Sandia Mountains were partly “fake,” built by the government to hide missiles near the air force base. Another said he’d seen la llorona in the shallow waters of the Rio Grande.

So I don’t generally associate the American Southwest with the Jewish Diaspora, but I do associate it with ghosts. And last spring, I went back to the Southwest on a kind of working vacation, to soak in some sunshine and work on a new book project, which is partly set there. I took a tour in Santa Fe and learned about one of the city’s most famous ghosts, a German Jew named Julia Staab, who died in 1896 and now haunts La Posada Hotel.


This painting hangs in her room at the hotel. It is assumed to be Julia, but 
could be one of her descendants, as it wasn’t painted until 1939.

Julia was the wife of Abraham Staab, who emigrated at age 15 to escape military conscription and life in the ghettos, later becoming a wealthy merchant who made his fortune as a contractor for the U.S. army. Because of the lack of eligible (Jewish) wives in the area, he returned to Germany and convinced Julia Schuster, age 16, to marry him. As the story goes, Julia was reluctant to agree to a life in the Wild West, but eventually consented.


At first, the couple lived on Burro Alley in Santa Fe. I took this picture there in 2008.


By most accounts, Julia was sickly, and suffered from depression. She was also famously beautiful. Abraham built her a mansion north of the Plaza, in the French Second Empire-style, which stood in stark contrast to the adobe homes surrounding it. The third floor was devoted to a ballroom, where they hosted the best parties in Santa Fe.


Staab mansion in the 1880s

Julia had seven children, some miscarriages and at least one stillborn, who is buried in the family plot. They say that after the death of her youngest, she was so grief-stricken she couldn’t eat, she couldn’t sleep, and after two days of this she looked in the mirror and her hair had turned from black to white.

There were no more parties. Julia would not leave the house. In town, Abraham made excuses for his wife’s notable absence. Rumors circulated that she had gone mad.

No official mention is made of Julia until years later, when a brief notice of her death at age fifty-two appears in the local paper. No cause is stated.

The mansion is now a resort hotel: La Posada. Guests who have stayed in Julia’s suite have reported that the bathtub will fill with water on its own. (One rumor of her death is that she drowned there.) In the restrooms on the first floor, her face has appeared in the mirror. A hotel bartender has reported glasses flying off the shelves.

I am drawn to Julia’s story for a number of reasons. First, her history is in some ways a composite of my own ancestors’, half of whom are German Jews

who became merchants in the U.S. in the nineteenth century, and half of whom are Scotch-Irish pioneers who became homesteaders on the Kansas plains. I sympathize with her displacement, imagining what it must have been like to arrive in arid New Mexico for the first time, an experience I also had as a young adult. If anything, Jewish history is one of exile, and the Staabs’ story is a fascinating tale of Jews carving a new life in the American Southwest. Finally, Julia’s story is so poignant to me because even now she is in exile, unable to return “home.”

But only if you believe in ghosts.

For more information on the Staab family, there is an interesting (and brief) memoir in the archives of the Center for Jewish history, accessible here.

Leigh Stein's debut novel, The Fallback Plan, is now available. Leigh is a formerNew Yorkerstaffer and frequent contributor to its “Book Bench” blog. She lives in Brooklyn, where she works in children’s publishing and teaches musical theater to elementary school students.

The Diarist

Monday, February 13, 2012 | Permalink

Leigh Stein's debut novel, The Fallback Plan, is now available. She will be blogging here all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Before I’d settled on acting or writing, my greatest aspiration was simply to “Be Anne Frank,” and when I was twelve, I auditioned for the title role in a community theater production of the Goodrich and Hackett play. I’m pretty sure I was one of the few, if not the only, Jew(s) to audition (in a town known for its Evangelical Christian college), and I thought I had it in the bag. All they had to do, I thought, was look at my last name and cast me immediately, to lend credibility to their production.

At callbacks, it was between me and one other Anne. I wore a plaid skirt and a pale sage cardigan with tiny rosebuds around the collar. I parted my dark hair on the side. While the other Anne smiled and laughed and generally behaved like she was at a food court in the mall, I delivered my lines with gravitas. I looked at the imaginary sky with longing. I was sarcastic, but never silly. I never let myself forget that Anne was a victim of the Holocaust, and it was my job on stage to honor that fact. More than anything, I felt I deserved to be Anne because I knew her so intimately after reading her diaries.

Shocker: the other Anne got cast. “But you look so much like her,” the director told me on the phone, as a consolation prize. “It was really tough.

The only thing I could console myself with was the fantasy that after I died, God would rectify this injustice by allowing me to play the role in Heaven. (It’s funny that I imagined this and not, you know, actually meeting Anne there in the afterlife.)

One of the reasons I loved Francine Prose’s recent book, Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife, is because it tells the fascinating and fraught history of the theatrical adaptation. Reading it fourteen years after that fateful audition was a revelation: it wasn’t my fault that I was wrong for the part of Anne. It was the play’s fault. The play reinvents Anne as some kind of Jewish Polyanna. Prose really hits the nail on the head when she compares the insightful diarist with her characterization:

On the page, she is brilliant; on the stage she’s a nitwit. In the book, she is the most gifted and sharp-sighted person in the annex; in the play, she’s the naïve baby whom the others indulge and protect. For all her talk about being treated like a child and not knowing who she was, Anne saw herself as an adult and the others as children. In the drama, those relations have been reversed.

Years after I first read her diary, Anne is still an inspiration to me. Prose’s book is an excellent account of her aspirations as a writer (Anne hoped her diaries would be published, and revised scrupulously), and I recommend it highly. I also can thank Prose for leading me to this twenty-one second video, the only video footage known to exist of Anne, in which we see the young diarist briefly from a window, flickering, alive.


Leigh Stein's debut novel, The Fallback Plan, is now available. Leigh is a former New Yorker staffer and frequent contributor to its “Book Bench” blog. She lives in Brooklyn, where she works in children’s publishing and teaches musical theater to elementary school students.