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Susan Weidman Schneider

Rady JCC's Jewish Women’s Symposium April 9-10 2016 : Interview with keynote speaker Susan Weidman Schneider of Lilith Magazine

By Jane Enkin, March 31, 2016




“At its core, feminism is the belief that women are full human beings and should have every opportunity open to them, not limited by constraints of rigid gender roles.”  That is the simple, straightforward definition offered by Susan Weidman Schneider, founder and editor in chief of Lilith magazine.


The Jewish Women’s Symposium, April 9 and 10, 2016, at the Rady Centre, will welcome Winnipeg-born Weidman Schneider as keynote speaker. It was a delight for me to talk with her about Lilith, about feminist transformations over the years, and about her take on some aspects of Jewish women’s lives that are on my mind.


Lilith was founded in 1976.  So much has changed in the lives of Jewish women since then. In 1976, there were only a handful of women rabbis. There was a prevailing fear that the Jewish population would disappear; it was thought that with new reproductive choices, educated Jewish women would turn away from childbearing. And there were many aspects of Jewish women’s lives that were simply never discussed.


There have been many changes in women’s reproductive lives, with alternative visions of what makes a Jewish family. It turns out that educated Jewish women have chosen to embrace childbearing, on their own terms. Not every woman chooses children -- Lilith was the first magazine to examine, from a Jewish perspective, abortion issues and the stories of women who gave up children for adoption.


Women rabbis and cantors are more common in most denominations, and some Orthodox women have been ordained as clergy with titles such as Maharat and Rabba.  Recently there have been exciting new decisions for the Women at the Wall in Jerusalem.  In a traveling exhibit about Lilith magazine, one large wall panel was titled “Justifying Jewish Law—that is, Making It More Just.”  Schneider is enthusiastic about the repurposing and expanding of Jewish rituals.  Mikvah, for example, is now used by women for many significant transitions, terrible or wonderful. People are now, in several communities, using mikvah as a spiritual marker to signify healing after illness or sexual assault, to note a gender transition, to celebrate a new name or the start of a new phase of life.


“What feminism brings to religion is not just equal access but equal value for women’s experiences,” she explains. In an upcoming article in Lilith, for example, an author talks about her spiritual experience on the bima, dressing and undressing the Torah scroll as she would care for a child.  In a quietly powerful piece several years ago, an author explored “What’s in Your Tallit Bag,” about how women’s experience of spirituality in Judaism is often underexplored. One of Lilith’s specialties has, in fact, been in bringing forth new rituals and ceremonies, new ways of experiencing the Jewish holidays—like a series of articles by Rabbi Susan Schnur which point out, among other insights, that hamantashen are not actually Haman’s ears but are in fact ancient fertility pastries—triangles stuffed with seeds!


One thing that has not changed is the need for work/life balance, as women see themselves in multiple roles.  An early Lilith cover showed playing cards picturing a briefcase, a pair of Shabbat candles, a baby and a gym workout, with the title “What the Cards Hold for Jewish Women.” The challenges remain relevant in every generation. Now professionals, including those employed by the Jewish community, feel an expectation that they will work around the clock.  Younger workers are setting boundaries and finding more meaning in their lives outside of work. 


Also still relevant unfortunately is the problem of gender based violence. Lilith was the first publication to speak openly on topics such as domestic violence in Jewish families, violence in Holocaust survivors’ families, and the risks Jewish women face on dates. The touring exhibit included a wall panel called, “Uncovering the Darker Stories,” about abuse, addiction, and other troubling behaviours from which Jews were allegedly immune. Schneider believes that changes in social attitudes can make a real difference in reducing the risk of violence. “If women’s value is diminished, their safety isn’t considered worth valuing.”


The range of writers and topics in Lilith is wide. “Women are taking the study of women’s lives seriously.”  There has been huge growth in scholarly and popular writing about all areas of interest in Jewish women’s lives.  Writers explore the diversity of Jewish ethnicities and multiple identities, and use Jewish texts as sources for fiction and poetry.  New books arrive at the Lilith office every day. Some of them started as pieces in Lilith’s pages, and writers find that publication in Lilith opens doors.


Lilith’s editors, like feminists in general points out Schneider, value women’s voices, their personal truths. When the editorial team chooses an issue to examine, they present it through the views of individuals as well as through broad overviews.  For example, when they discussed the irony of popular “White Weddings” in a feminist era, they presented a kaleidoscopic view of traditions, exploring “what’s useable and what’s unforgivably sexist.”


The atmosphere in the Lilith office is collaborative.  Young interns and senior editors meet almost daily for a pot luck vegetarian lunch, bringing a range of ages and backgrounds to their work. And the magazine they produce is offered now in many forms.  There is the print magazine, a website with all back issues available digitally to subscribers, and a blog that is updated almost every day.  There are face-to-face Lilith salons in more than 100 locations, where people meet to discuss the latest magazine.  While the office provides discussion questions, salons spur lots of spontaneous conversation, which is the whole point, says Schneider.


Soon to appear on the website will be podcasts with interviews and readings by authors.  And Schneider is having fun making videos, soon to be posted on the website, as she explores the Lilith archives, recently donated to Brandeis University. She opens boxes and pulls out wonderful ephemera such as one of the first women’s Passover haggadahs, preserved since Lilith has occupied the same offices for so many years. The archives, she explains, will be useful for many different researchers, looking at the Jewish community, the history of feminism, or the ways that a small not-for-profit organization has thrived. “It’s heartening that the lessons we learned and are learning will be useful…  It’s a pleasure that these archives will have a happy home!”


As a young woman, Susan Weidman Schneider experienced Judaism and feminism completely separately, two poles far apart.  Now they are no longer polar opposites, and the Jewish community is moving away from the gender binary that restricts men and women.  As she celebrates, “Lilith has been both a witness and a spur to change.”

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