Celebrating 40 Years in Print

An Interview with Lilith Editor-in-Chief Susan Weidman Schneider

This year, feminist Jewish magazine Lilith is celebrating 40 years in print. On March 26, there will be a celebration at Brandeis University, where Lilith’s archives of manuscripts, photographs, letters, cover art, notes, drafts and much more can be viewed by the public. The celebration will feature a panel that will include Keshet Executive Director Idit Klein. The Sunday afternoon panel is free and open to the public with pre-registration. The email to RSVP is warnke@brandeis.edu. (Learn about Lilith’s namesake here.)

In the past 40 years of Lilith, what has changed in the kind of articles Lilith publishes?

In Lilith‘s early years, we felt that there was a lot of diagnostic work to be done. Initially it was: Here’s what’s wrong with the patriarchy. Here’s where Judaism is still patriarchal. Here’s what’s keeping out participants in Jewish life who would enrich it. Through the years, we have taken a more nuanced view. Not that there aren’t things that still need to be changed, but we see — and seek out — opportunities to amplify the voices of diverse women. Lilith evolved into, among other things, telling the personal stories behind the news, the particular narratives that underlie the headlines, the life experiences that are the engines driving change. We look at the deeper stories, do long form journalism, have published a batch of investigative reports, and look at the ways that enrichment can take place. Along with this, the magazine has been a locus for the stories of outliers, for example, women who felt that they were being squelched by the patriarchy or ignored by the hegemonic Ashkenazi narrative. Lilith has become a safe space for many women’s first-person stories, and it’s a pretty broad range. It includes women who were hidden as children during the Holocaust, women who are talking about abuse in their families for the first time, women who are differently-abled, who speak about having their desires go unrecognized in a lot of ways. We’re often told that in Lilith‘s pages readers meet those who are like — and also unlike — themselves, and for our readers that has been tremendously important. The stories that we’ve broken have driven change. Stories about rabbinic sexual misconduct, abuse by people in power, women’s philanthropy, the Jewish stake in reproductive justice and more. Lilith sees the importance in addressing macro changes in Jewish life and smaller scale shifts in people’s consciousness and in the lives of our readers.

What do you think the biggest accomplishments for the Jewish feminist movement have been in the past 40 years? What are some of the pressing concerns that still need to be addressed?

I certainly think that one of the accomplishments has been the development of not only respect, but also a deep appreciation for diversity and how enormously important it is. Diversity of every sort: class issues, issues around race, and sexuality and gender identity. Intersectionality is a word that Lilith has used for decades. We’ve always characterized the magazine as operating at the intersection of Judaism and feminism, and of course that remains true if you look at any of the political or legislative issues that are embroiling us all right now.

At the moment, there’s a fresh kind of political activism. In the current climate, we’re looking at legislative issues more explicitly than we ever have before. In the past, there was a certain temerity about addressing political issues in the larger framework. Not to say that there weren’t Jewish women’s organizations active in judicial issues. For example, many of these organizations stood up to Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court, and there were many judicial issues for which Jewish women were tremendously active, including in Canada, where, through efforts of Jewish feminists, the laws were changed that put pressure on Orthodox men to give their wives a get (divorce document). Now, we’re seeing that Jewish women, in concert with other groups, are pressing for dramatic change along the social justice spectrum. We’ve always done that, but not with nearly the same kind of energy that we’re seeing now.

Can you speak about the stories written by members of the LGBTQ community?

If you go on to our website under the “anthology” section, there’s a curated selection of LGBTQ articles, with the description: “Lilith magazine amplifies the voices of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer-identified Jews, and their allies. From the ordination of lesbian rabbis to the complicated story of becoming a woman as an adult for the first time, here’s the Lilith lens on building inclusive communities that fit a multiplicity of identities.” Lilith was one of the first places in the Jewish world to address trans issues. Our first set of articles on trans Jews, told in their own voices, appeared now almost 20 years ago. Among those early articles is teaching on what the Talmud has to say about the existence of five genders.

READ: Orthodox Judaism and LGBTQ Issues

In our 40th anniversary issue (Fall 2016), Tamar Prager revisits a piece of hers that Lilith published 10 years earlier. Where the issues 10 years ago for Tamar and her wife Arielle (pictured at their wedding on the cover above) revolved around how to get the Orthodox community to recognize their lives and for them to feel more comfortable within that universe, there’s been a kind of sea change for them and for the world. Now, as Tamar writes in our Fall issue, they’re focused on what kind of education and life they want for their sons, and what kind of community they want to build. Whereas before it was “recognize me,” now it’s “I don’t want to be a token, I want full participation in a complex Jewish life.” I think that that is the case for most Lilith readers in various aspects of their lives.

What sorts of things will people find in the archives?

They will be able to view the many, many generations of editing that articles go through, as well as notes from Lilith meetings and board meetings. They can see the process of how a small women-directed nonprofit created itself in the 1970’s, a process which was very different from what it would be like today. There are the notes and letters that we’ve received over the years from readers, who say, “I never knew until now that there was anybody who’d experienced something like what I’ve experienced.” And then there’s the hate mail, which is interesting in and of itself, of course. It’s a pretty open and transparent archive.

Can you talk about the 40th anniversary celebration and how you formed the panel?

The event will be an opportunity to hear from people who, in some ways, represent the different facets of Lilith’s 40-year history. Rabbi Susan Schnur, one of Lilith‘s masthead names for 30 years, is going to speak both about her articles and what Lilith has meant to her. Rachel Kadish, who started as a Lilith intern when she was still a Princeton student, and whose third novel is just out, is going to speak a little about transforming life experiences into fiction. Lilith has been one of the few periodicals not dedicated to fiction to publish fiction regularly throughout its whole history. Lori Lefkovitz, Director of the Jewish Studies Program at Northeastern University, has written extensively about gender issues in Jewish texts and will tie this work into how we model Jewish thinking for a next generation. Idit is going to highlight both the changes that have take place within the Jewish world for LGBTQ people, and, I hope, speak about Lilith‘s role as the publisher of landmark articles in that passage.

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