The Wednesday Five: Nuns in Trouble, Sonia Rykiel’s Bombshell, and the Power of Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s ‘Veep’

This week, our blogs wondered how nuns got controversial, mused on recent news about brainpower and aging, and giggled at TV’s newest fictional vice-president. 

  •  Ever wish you’d been a fly on the wall to learn the secrets behind famous creative partnerships like Rodgers and Hammerstein, John Cage and Merce Cunningham, or Mike Nichols and Elaine May? Cartoonist Nicole Hollander was: “My personal favorite was the collaboration between Billy Wilder and A.I.L. Diamond (Some Like It Hot).”  At her blog Bad Girl Chats, Hollander turns to WVFC’s Roz Warren, whose recent Salon essay “Will Write for Crab Cakes” describes the dynamic with her humor-writing partner Janet Golden. Continuing a conversation Golden began last fall for us, Warren reflects on their differences: “I spend my evenings reading magazines; Janet prefers movies. She’s happily married; I’m happily divorced. But we’re both opinionated and fairly clever, and neither of us is afraid to fall on her face when reaching for a joke.” Click over for the rest and for photos of the pair, with Roz in her Bad Girl Chats T-shirt.
  • When WVFC ran our Parkinson’s Update on Monday, some of us had no idea that the illness affected designer Sonia Rykiel, someone we mentioned last month during Fashion Week. We first learned the unhappy news from Hayley Phelan at, who explains that Rykiel is revealing this in a new memoir, N’Oubliez Pas Que Je Joue (in English, Don’t Forget It’s a Game). It features the designer’s reflections on the disease that has plagued her for more thab a decade. “Though the 81-year-old designer appeared increasingly frail in public, it seems that very few knew of her struggle with Parkinson’s. Indeed, Rykiel said she had attempted to keep it a secret for as long as possible.” There’s more at the link, including a cover image for the book and Phelan’s thoughts about the future of the line.
  • Bridget Crawford, at Feminist Law Professors, zooms in on a story that has mesmerized us: the Vatican’s recent rebuke of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the largest organization of U.S. nuns, for its members’ tendency to focus on social-justice issues instead of areas such as abortion and homosexuality. Crawford cites a letter to The New York Times that asks, “How can there ever be too much focus on poverty and economic injustice?” before getting to  what many of us felt: “It is baffling that the Vatican would condemn women religious for public statements that ‘disagree with or challenge the bishops, who are the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals,’ [when] the bishops were responsible for the systematic cover-up of sexual abuse of children.” She predicts, as we do, that Catholic congregations will rally around those working to help them every day: “Advantage, Sisters.”
  • We were surprised and pleased to see all of the New York Times Magazine this past Sunday devoted to “It’s All in Your Mind,” a special issue on keeping your brain healthy. The medical librarian who runs Happy Healthy Long Life agrees: “It’s chock full of news you can use, now!” including “Can Running Make You Happier?” and “How Exercise Leads to a Better Brain.” Click over to see what else she recommends, with fuller descriptions and links.
  • Ms. Magazine gives us the 411 on HBO’s new satire Veep, in which Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays a Washington insider and half-reluctant VP. “The job is not all it’s cracked up to be for Selina, with awkward public appearances, tricky political agendas and the president ignoring her,” writes Kerensa Cadenas, adding that “Veep does make explicit that many of the things Selina deals with in office are colored by the fact that she’s a woman. Considering that only 90 women serve in Congress–17 in the Senate and 73 in the House–it’s great to see a cultural representation of a woman in as powerful a position as vice president. Although the show is played for laughs” Cadenas adds, “many of the issues Selina deals with are practically ripped from the headlines.” Given that Veep is the brainchild of In the Loop creator Armando Iannucci and contains the hilarious Dreyfus, we suspect it’ll be at least as feminist as our fave Mad Men.

Letty Cottin Pogrebin on 37 Years of the Feminist Seder

Author Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a founding editor of Ms. Magazine, photographed in January 2012 in her home office in New York.

Nobody needs three seders. God seems to think two are enough. Yet this Sunday, the third night of Passover, I will attend a third seder— a feminist seder—for the 37th year in a row, because I have come to feel that the holiday is incomplete without it.

Why is this night different from all other nights?

Because on this night our service is drawn from the feminist Haggadah written by the late Esther Broner with Naomi Nimrod, which includes lines like, “We were told that we were brought out of Egypt from the house of bondage, but we were still our fathers’ daughters, obedient wives, and servers of our children, and were not yet ourselves.”

On this night, we become ourselves.

Photo: The Bilerico Report

On this night, 20 or so women sit on pillows on the floor at a seder “table” spread with all the traditional foods and symbols, except that there’s an orange on the seder plate—a feminist rebuttal to the rabbi who once said, “A woman belongs on the bimah [platform in a synagogue where the Torah is read] like an orange belongs on the seder plate.”

On this night, after each of us introduces herself by her matrilineage (“I am Letty, daughter of Ceil, daughter of Jenny, alias Shayndel”), we bring into our midst the mothers and grandmothers who cooked and served but never reclined, and the millions more women in the texts and history of the Jewish people who are unseen, unsung, and unnamed.

On this night, we all recline. We wash each other’s hands. We ask the Four Questions of women. One year one question was, “Why did my brother get a fancy bar mitzvah in a hotel ballroom when I got a little kiddush [blessing over the wine] and sponge cake in the synagogue basement?” We recite the Plagues of Women—of which there are always more than 10— and we speak about the Four Daughters, female archetypes who yearn to know about their past.

On this night, not one but two goblets stand at the center of our table—Elijah’s cup, heralding our ultimate redemption and filled, as always, with wine, and Miriam’s cup, symbolizing sustenance and filled with water, the source of life.

Our Haggadah (order of service) gives proper credit to Moses’s sister, Miriam, the prophetess who led the Israelite women across the Red Sea with timbrels and with song.

According to a famous midrash (rabbinic commentary), when the Pharaoh condemned Jewish babies to death, Miriam’s father lost all hope for the future and stopped cohabiting with Miriam’s mother. Though only 7 years old, Miriam argued for life. She convinced her parents to stay together and to continue having children. The result was the birth of Moses.

Moreover, it was Miriam who placed her baby brother in a basket in the bulrushes, and when the Pharoah’s daughter found him, it was Miriam who put forward the baby’s own mother as his wet-nurse. The traditional telling of the Passover story barely mentions Miriam, but on this night we thank her for transgressing the boundaries of female submissiveness. We bring her to life, this rebel and visionary, for without Miriam there would have been no Moses.

A Women’s Seder: Esther Broner, at center raising a cup, celebrates seder at the home of Bea Kreloff and Edith Isaac-Rose. To her right are Edith Isaac-Rose and Adrienne Cooper, to her left are Letty Cottin Pogrebin and Martha Ackelsberg. (Via The Forward: )

Besides Miriam there are other boldly disobedient women to whom we owe the life of Moses and the destiny of the Jewish people.  We honor Shifrah and Puah, the midwives who, by delivering Moses, violated the Pharaoh’s order to murder all first-born Jewish sons; and Yocheved, Moses’s mother, who gave up her baby so that he might survive; and Batya, the Pharaoh’s daughter, a righteous Gentile who disobeyed her father’s decree and adopted a Hebrew boy who’d been marked for murder.

At the feminist seder, we don’t praise good girls, we praise rebellious women, wise women, quiet heroines, and brash leaders. We laud scholars of the rabbinic period, entrepreneurial women of the Middle Ages, modern women suffragists, union organizers, martyrs of the Holocaust, anti-war protestors, civil rights workers, poets, stalwarts of the women’s movement.

Typically, a small group of us (the “Seder Sisters”) starts the planning process about two months ahead. We choose the seder’s theme (the topic about which all participants will speak in turn) and we hand out food assignments. (In 1979, according to my notes, Gloria Steinem brought the Manischewitz wine and Bella Abzug, the fiery Congresswoman in the wide-brimmed hats, brought the chicken.)

In 1990, our theme was “Omission, Absence, and Silence,” by which we meant men’s silencing of women and women’s self-censorship.  Another year it was “Our Mentors,” a nod to those who had influenced our development as women or as Jews. On the seder’s seventh anniversary, we talked about the power of sevens in our faith tradition and in our lives.

One of my favorite themes was “Our Personal Chametz”—the stuff women have to get rid of before we can “pass over” into freedom.  As each participant called out her chametz (self-deprecation, loneliness, passivity, jealousy, obsession with body image, shyness, fear of failure) she poured a little grain whisky from a beaker into a large pan and when the pan was full, we set the liquid aflame, symbolically burning the behaviors that hobble us and hold us back.

This year’s theme, “Honoring our [Seder] Mothers: Shaping and Reshaping the Future,” will, I’m sure, inspire encomiums to different women who mothered us into being, but foremost among them will be our beloved seder leader and co-founding seder mother, Esther Broner, who died in June.

Writer, playwright, social-justice activist, inventor of rituals, Esther was not just the co-author of its Hagaddah, she was our spiritual guru, the creator of our seder order, the high priestess who sat at the head of the table in her long white robe and embroidered kippa (skullcap), who blessed us with her sparkly wands and whispery incantations, who led us out of mitzrayim (Egypt, the narrow place) and made us feel strong and whole.

At the end of every seder, we always stand in a circle, wrap ourselves in a motley-looking rope of tied-together lavender fabric scraps which we call “the sacred shmatta,” and sing a song of peace.  After Bella died, we added two rituals to bring her presence into our circle: We put a big-brimmed hat on an empty chair and we sing “Tayere Malke” (Dear Queen), the Yiddish drinking song she loved.

This year, I’m not sure what ritual we will devise to honor the irreplaceable Esther—maybe we’ll pull up a second empty chair and put Esther’s embroidered kippa on it. Then again, the entire enterprise is her memorial, for without Esther I doubt that our seder would have survived 37 years. From now on it’s up to us to keep alive her proud affirmation that Passover is also about us.

At a feminist seder in 1983, Phyllis Chesler unfurls what would become known as the “Sacred Shmatta”. The Sacred Shmatta was used to bind the women together. (Photo:


The Wednesday Five: Erica Jong’s New Book, Tenant Confessions, and Bonding with the Feminist Hulk

June 29, 2011 by  
Filed under Humor, Newsmakers, Tech

Image: Markus Schoepke, Flickr

This week’s blog tour is more fun than we planned between Feminist Hulk, Erica Jong’s new collection of sex memoirs, and a geek-festival of a Ford Motor Co. tour.

  • We’ve fallen in love with the blog of Texas writer Ruth Pennebaker, and we thought it perfect for WVFC when she headlined a post “This is What Maturity Looks Like.” What follows, of all things, is a bemused meditation on the ethics of renting: “I admit it. In our long history together, my husband and I weren’t always the most conscientious tenants. When we were young and foolish — which was almost four decades ago — we did have a few disgraceful episodes involving urine ice cubes and a bogus newspaper ad for a 1957 Chevy with overhead cams for $75 […In any event] We grew up, got married, became semi-respectable, and now we kind of see the error of our youthful ways after we’ve finished falling down from laughing about them. That was what made me so proud of us when we spent our 10 months in New York City last year. I realized we’d finally become mature when we completed without incident what was probably an illegal sublet….” Click over to hear the story, and more from the acclaimed Texas Observer columnist.
  • Want a free peek inside the U.S. auto industry? Ronni Bennett at Time Goes By did when she was invited on a special tour of Ford Motor Co., and says it was a blast. She came back full of fun facts: “Who knew the company has a smell lab in which they test for and correct offensive odors from components? Or that there is an entire department devoted to studying and developing the sound of horns for different kinds of vehicles which includes, in addition to safety, incorporating cultural influences that inform Ford about the audio preferences of people in different countries?” Click over to see photos, including one demonstrating tricks the company is learning from film animators.
  • Speaking of animation, Ms. Magazine’s blog welcomes the newly beloved Feminist Hulk, who’s been delighting many of us on Twitter for over a year. (Sunday’s tweet: HULK HAVE CONFLICTED RELATIONSHIP WITH FREUD. IMPORTANT, INFLUENTIAL, BUT SOMETIMES A CIGAR IS JUST A SEXIST CREEP.) Now, Ms. features an interview with Feminist Hulk and its creator, J. Asked about how to stay amusing while “smashing the gender binary, J concedes that “a lot of Hulk’s core beliefs, like his feelings about the gender binary, need to be constantly reiterated for new followers, but they need to be expressed in new enough ways that the long-standing followers don’t get bored. It’s a tricky balance, one I continue to work on.” Hulk adds that “FEMINISM NOT ABOUT SIMPLY REVERSING PATRIARCHY’S TERMS. IT ABOUT RETHINKING THE ROLE THAT PRESCRIBED GENDER PLAYS IN REINFORCING PATRIARCHAL STRUCTURES. THAT NOT MEAN CATEGORIES ‘MASCULINE’ AND ‘FEMININE’ DO NOT DEEPLY IMPACT DAILY LIFE, BUT THAT ANY SYSTEM WHICH GRANT LEGIBILITY TO ONLY SOME LIVES DO INJUSTICE TO ALL LIVES.” When not channeling Judith Butler, Hulk comments on baking scones, Sarah Palin and poetry. Go look.
  • We’ve often found our Wednesday Five items at Feminist Law, but this week they let us in on a secret: a list of some of the best feminist attorney blogs. It’s worth bookmarking — not just for celebrities like Mad Law Professor Patricia Williams and Katherine Franke, also seen at the NY Times, but such handy blogs as  Linda Beale’s tax law blog A Taxing Matter. The investors among us, for example, might find Barbara Black’s Securities Law Blog a useful supplement to our finance guru Jacqueline Darien. It’s a long list; please tell us in comments below which others we should be keeping track of.
  • Just before President Obama was delivering news last week about Afghanistan, Afghan women were in Washington to offer insight on the situation there. Gayle Tzemach Lemmon at Foreign Policy’s Afpak Blog checked in with them: “Until now, support for women in Afghanistan has been seen largely as a women’s rights issue. Afghan women themselves, however, see their involvement in their nation as a security issue — and not just for themselves. In their view, the battle to contribute to their families and get their girls educated is also in the interest of the international community and all those who want to see a stable, more secure Afghanistan that draws on the talents of all its citizens.”
  • Is Erica Jong still flying? If you haven’t been keeping up with the author of the 1976 Fear of Flying, you might want to check out this interview at Westword, where Amber Taufen asks Jong about her new book Sugar in My Bowl. Jong notes that some of her contributors didn’t agree to write about sex without asking their partners: “Women are very careful. Women are not Anthony Weiner! They’re very careful, and they think it’s their obligation to hold the family together, and I think that sometimes kind of causes women to not want to write about their personal lives. So it moved them to ask permission.” The results, however, she found surprising: “First of all, how hard it was to write frankly about your life. But the other thing was that when I coaxed people and got them to write, they came out with astonishing stuff. I have in this book Liz Smith talking about sex during World War II in a very tender way. Many people wrote against type, they didn’t write the things they usually write, and that was wonderful.” And because Westword didn’t borrow clips from Jong’s Youtube channel, see below for another glimpse of the book. Do you agree with the authors about Oprah’s term “vajayjay”?