Lilith Magazine charts Jewish women’s lives with exuberance, rigor, affection, subversion and style. The magazine features award-winning investigative reports, new rituals and celebrations, first-person accounts both contemporary and historical, entertainment reviews, fiction and poetry, art and photography.
Lilith’s Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough speaks to memoirist and novelist Kathryn Harrison about her latest foray into family history, On Sunset.
“Blending family history and mythology, anecdotes and photographs, this book is not simply one woman’s open love letter to two magnificently eccentric grandparents; it is also a testament to the enduring power of memory,” writes Kirkus.
YZM: You have written extensively—and well as memorably and beautifully—about your family, including your grandparents, in other essays. Why did you decide to focus exclusively on them now?
KH: I don’t so much decide to write a book as arrive at it. In the case of On Sunset, it’s only now, in my late fifties, with three adult children, that I am beginning to understand what it means to take on the care of a child—a newborn—at 71 and 62—the magnitude of my grandparents’ love. I never felt myself a burden shouldered for my irresponsible teenage mother.
Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough talks to Abigail Dewitt about her lyrical and haunting novel, which tells the multi-generational story of a French family and the way the Nazi occupation—and the Allied invasion—have shaped their lives.
YZM: You write so beautifully and intimately about France—what is your connection to the country?
AD: Thank you! I’m a dual citizen of France and the U.S. My mother was a young, French, theoretical physicist when she came to the States in the late 1940s to study at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study. She’d lost half her family in the D-day bombings and intended to go home after two years to re-join her three surviving siblings, but instead, she met my father and married him. Still, she was deeply committed to helping r-build France after the war, so, to make up for marrying an American, she founded the École de Physique des Houches in the French Alps. She and my father taught at the University of North Carolina, but we spent every summer in France so she could run the institute and we could know our relatives.
Sarah Bernhardt had chutzpah. This illegitimate daughter of a Dutch Jewish courtesan had already gained wide renown as the best actress of her day when she decided to take on an exceptionally high-profile, high-risk role: She wanted to play Hamlet. Not girlfriend Ophelia or mother Gertrude, but the Danish prince himself, considered by many to be Shakespeare’s most difficult and iconic character.
It was a glass-ceiling-breaking move, one among several in Bernhardt’s career, and it inspired playwright Theresa Rebeck to build a play, set in 1897, around Bernhardt’s struggles. First Bernhardt had to overcome the dismissive skepticism of some men: “It’s grotesque. If Shakespeare meant for Hamlet to be a woman, he would have named the play ‘Hamlet princess of Denmark,” Rebeck has one critic protest.
Like a lot of American Jews, I have a complicated relationship to Jewish worship. Unlike most American Jews, it got complicated enough at one point that I wrote to a dog for advice.
Now, Tango isn’t just any dog. He’s a very wise pitbull who lives with a very wise friend of mine, Margie, in St. Paul, Minnesota. And the occasion wasn’t just any holiday, but Yom Kippur 2014, when all I wanted to do was hide in my apartment for 25 hours. My friend Margie announced that her dog was starting a new career as an advice columnist (yes, this really happened). Did I want to ask him a question? I once went all the way from New York City to Hoboken to talk to a psychic. Of course I wanted to ask Margie’s dog for advice.
In this midrash, Huldah’s musings are “overheard” by Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director of The Shalom Center. The midrash was written for a class at the National Havurah Institute of 2018, led by Sabrina Sojourner. Huldah was in fact named by the Tanakh and the Talmud as one of the seven women recognized as prophets. (Many translations turn “neviah” into “prophetess,” but in the 21st or 58th century, that seems as inappropriate as “Jewess: or “poetess.”)
For biblical passages on Huldah, see II Kings 22:14-20 and II Chronicles 34: 22-28. She became the wife of Shallum, keeper of the king’s wardrobe—a prestigious and powerful role. As for the Scroll she authenticated as truly Torah, most modern scholars think it was Deuteronomy, and most of them also think that Deuteronomy was written in a Hebrew style characteristic of the time of Huldah and Jeremiah, separate from the other texts of the Five Books.
Growing up, my family loved to celebrate the holidays. Jewish, non-Jewish, it didn’t seem to matter. I delighted in making my own Halloween costumes and Valentine’s Day cards. We decorated the house with flags every year on the 4th of July, ate cherry jelly candy on Washington’s Birthday, and looked forward to my mom’s boiled cabbage and corned beef on St. Patrick’s Day, when we all wore green, of course.
There were huge family dinners on Rosh Hashanah and on Passover. I looked forward to dressing up as Queen Esther on Purim. My father’s pride and joy was our backyard sukkah, and each year I held the stakes as he wrapped them in burlap and watched as he threw cornstalks across the roof.
“What kind of doctor puts his patients on display?”
Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough recently spoke to novelist Dawn Raffel about her new work of nonfiction, “The Strange Case of Dr. Couney: How a Mysterious European Showman Saved Thousands of American Babies” which tells the real story of a doctor who revolutionized neonatal care, “a marvelously eccentric man, his mysterious carnival career, his larger-than-life personality, and his unprecedented success as the savior of the fragile wonders that are tiny, tiny babies.”
Set in a small town in Ohio and revolving around a workers’ strike at a brush factory, Lillian Hellman’s little-known play, “Days to Come,” was a resounding flop when it debuted on Broadway in 1936. Hellman, who had enjoyed great acclaim for her first play, “The Children’s Hour,” went on to even wider success and fame with her next play, “The Little Foxes.”
But at the opening night of this one, her second-born, as she called it in her 1973 memoir “Pentimento,” she stood at the back of the theater, sensed that things were going wrong, and vomited. Then she saw William Randolph Hearst and his six guests walk out during the second act. Bad reviews and a quick closing followed.