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Elana Sztokman
Award-winning feminist author, anthropologist, educator, coach, publisher, and activist

Women I’m reading during war

It’s not easy to get through a book these days. Incessant distractions and anxieties driven by both external events and internal chatter do not make for an easy time for reading. Who has the energy to sit back and relax? But maybe that’s when we need it most.

Plus, there are a few titles that have attracted my interest, some directly war-related and others less so. I tend to scatter my books around my puttering. I have one in the kitchen, one by the couch, one in my bag, and the biggie by my bed — that would be Barbra Streisand’s new 800-page memoir, My Name is Barbra, which gives me a certain joy and inspiration and the belief that anything is possible with a fearless, creative Jewish girl from Brooklyn at the helm. Thankfully, the book will keep me occupied for a while.

To acknowledge the role of books in my life, tonight, I will be speaking at the Jerusalem book launch of Iconic Jewish Women, the new book by former MK and head of the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women, Dr. Aliza Lavie. This is actually my first speaking event that is not exactly October 7 related since the war started. Although maybe it’s all related. The book is aimed at providing models of female courage and leadership for bat mitzvah girls, and I think we could all use some of that. This feels especially true considering the unbearable absence of women from decision-making regarding this bloody war. There are no women on the war cabinet, no women on the negotiating team now in Qatar, and no women with power over the events that are affecting so many of us. Meanwhile 19 women remain hostages, enduring all kinds of things we don’t want to think about too much, and all of whom are assumed to be pregnant by now. So I’d say this is as good a time as any to remind people of the need for women’s perspectives and leadership.

Taanit Agam, Taanit Daniella, Taanit Carmel, Taanit Naama, Taanit Karina….

This week, on Ta’anit Esther, women will be fasting on behalf of the 19 women still being held hostage. It’s the least we can do.

In addition, the Shalom Center has launched the “Chapter 9 Project“, which re-imagines the ninth chapter of Megillat Esther, the one Jews tend to skim over after the more colorful aspects of the Purim story. This is the one where, after the evil decree against the Jews was dissolved and Haman removed from power, there was a war, and Jews killed 75,000 people. Artists, writers, and poets are asking whether this is something that we Jews should be proud of and celebrating, and how that is connected to Israel’s current activities in Gaza. Perhaps we should be weeping on Purim instead of celebrating — especially this year.

Taanit Esther is also traditionally International Agunah Day, in which we as a community take note of the pain and suffering that our halakhic system causes women — especially abused women whose husbands want only to control and own them. The halakhic system empowers the most violent and abusive men with eternal power over the women in their lives. This situation has not significantly changed in generations, despite the endless cries of women. So at least one day a year, we should remember that — another painful reckoning with our history, culture, and deeply-embedded patriarchy.

******

Back to books. So I thought this week is a good time to share some books I’m reading by women — books mostly related to the war, to women, and to our culture. And a few others. Most of these I have not finished, so don’t consider this a review. It’s just a sharing of whose words I’m looking at to nourish my soul right now.

Books for wartime

Isabel Kershner, The Land of Hope and Fear.

Kershner has been covering Israel for the New York Times for several decades. She brings humanity and compassion to her writing, and perspectives that I deeply appreciate. And in a field of study that is overwhelmingly male-dominated, in which even writers who admitted that the accusations of sexual harassment against them are true and whose books rely almost exclusively on male interviewees (or women described by their bodies), it is refreshing and necessary to put Kershner’s book on top of our list.

Marral Shamshiri and Sorcha Thomson, She Who Struggles; Revolutionary Women who Shaped the World.

This book is a collection of essays about social movements around the world led by feminist activists. Although many Jews and Israelis have targeted “feminists” as the enemy since October 7, I think that it’s important to remember that feminism is larger than the current discourse would have us believe. We need to understand the relationship between feminism and other forms of oppression. Sorcha Thomson writes a lot about Palestinian women, and it’s very important to see those perspectives.

Sharon Brous, The Amen Effect

Well, this may not look like a book about war, but I would consider it a spiritual guide to get through these awful days. I received it as a gift from a friend in Chicago with whom I often share grapplings. I haven’t finished the book yet — it’s the book that is in my bag, mostly because of its size but also because it is good to savor in sips.

Kelly Hayes and Mariame Kaba, Let this Radicalize You: Organizing and the Revolution of Reciprocal Care 

This book has a very similar idea to Rabbi Brous’ book — about the meaning and power of human connections, collectivity, and compassion. Whereas Brous is speaking as a religious leaders, these authors speak as activists. And remarkably they come up with almost the same conclusions, about the connections between mutual care and social change. I deeply identify with this message.

Books about Women

Susan Weidman Schneider and Yona Zeldis McDonough, Frankly Feminist: Short Stories by Women from Lilith Magazine

Full disclosure: I love Susan Weidman Schneider. She has been a role model for me for many years, someone who lives and breathes feminist values in person as well as in professional relationships. As the longtime editor of Lilith, she has also encouraged me and supported my writing and my life journey in a million ways, and for that I am eternally grateful. This book, a product of her life’s work and her golden spirit, is just a gift to humanity.

Kate Manne, Unshrinking: How to Fight Fatophobia

At this point in my life, I will read anything Kate Manne writes. She is one of the feminist writers who I feel like best expresses what so many women try to describe about our experiences. Her book Down Girl is essential reading for anyone trying to understand misogyny and patriarchy. This new book, which came out a few weeks ago, tackles fatophobia, and is very personal — for her and for me. Well, the personal is always political, isn’t it? I haven’t started reading it yet, but I’m eager.

Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist

Same with Roxane Gay, another favorite feminist writer who I follow religiously, although I haven’t read all her books (yet). I recently ordered this one, long overdue. I feel like, as Jewish feminists face challenges to our sense of feminist sisterhood, I thought this book would provide some insight and inspiration to some of those deliberations. Also on my kitchen pile — will get to it soon.

Fiction

Sarah Seltzer The Singer Sisters

Just received this book a few days ago. Sarah is also a Lilith person, and as such has my undying respect. Excited to read this.

 

 

 

 

 

Haviva Ner David, To Die In Secret

Haviva is a prolific writer covering several genres — and, full disclosure, has been a very dear friend for the past 30 years. Her previous novel, Hope Valley, offered a new perspective on Israeli culture and society from the perspective of women living the land. I’m eager to see what she does with this book.

 

 

 

And the music

Finishing off with a word about Barbra.

Music sustains me, especially during hard times. When I need soothing or healing or release, I go to music. During this war, my go-to has been Beyoncé. (When I most needed to detach from reality, I learned the line dance to Texas Hold ‘Em. Hamevin yavin….). Reading Barbra Streisand’s memoir has been grounding for me not only because of her music, and not only because she is a Jewish girl from Brooklyn like me. But mostly because she — like Beyoncé, actually — is a visionary creator who is entirely connected to her soul and spirit. Everything she has produced (again, like Beyoncé), is a work of art that emerged from the depths of her being. She continued on her path despite haters who told her to change her name, to change her nose, to accommodate to what others wanted of her. She never did. Even as a 21-year-old first time recording artist, she chose to take full control over her music (again, as does Beyoncé), so that she can do what SHE believes in and what SHE wants, rather than what the Men of the World think she should do.

I want whatever she’s having. Whatever they are having. These powerhouse feminist women.

If this war is every going to end, we need women like this to take control and to form a new reality based on vision, creative thinking, and compassion.

That’s where I am.

About the Author
Dr Elana Maryles Sztokman, two-time winner of the National Jewish Book Council Award and winner of the Gourmand Award, is a Jewish feminist author, activist, educator, researcher, indie-publisher, coach, consultant, and facilitator. She is the founder of the Jewish Feminist Academy (www.jewishfeminism.org) as well as Lioness Books and Media (www.lionessbooks.com) She writes and speaks widely about culture, society, gender, and equality. She has been involved in many causes, is one of the founders of Kol Hanashim, the new women's political party in Israel, and was Vice Chair for Media and Strategy for Democrats Abroad-Israel from 2016-2021. Follow Elana's newsletter, The Roar, for news and updates, at https://elanasztokman.substack.com/ or contact her at elana@jewfem.com
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