Lilith is now in Montclair. On May 6, about 15 women from Bnai Keshet gathered at the Montclair home of Jessica Siegel for a text-based discussion about women’s relationships through the lens of the Passover seder. The group, including women in their 30s as well as grandmothers and everyone in between, was led by synagogue member and Jewish educator Shoshana Silberman, author of A Family Haggadah.
It is one of more than 100 Lilith women’s salons across the country that began in 2005 with a group in Princeton. Silberman, who lived in Princeton before moving to Montclair last fall, was a member of that group almost from its inception. The Montclair group is among the newest — this month’s was just its second gathering. At the first, held on March 4, they discussed names and naming.
Susan Weidman Schneider, founder and editor of Lilith Magazine — the independent, Jewish-American, feminist quarterly publication founded in 1976 — called the Princeton group “the mother ship of salons.” It, along with a salon in Houston, are the longest-running Lilith salons, she said.
“We always loved the idea of a salon,” said Schneider in a phone interview. “Who doesn’t want great conversation with smart, savvy women sitting around the living room? It’s delightful.” In March 2005, when The Jewish Museum in New York launched an exhibition, “The Power of Conversation: Jewish Women and their Salons,” the moment had arrived. “Salons were a staple of upper-crust Jewish life in the 18th and 19th centuries,” said Schneider. “Many women were closed out of university education and participating directly in politics. The salons were how they shaped the issues of the day.
“It was an opportunity for intellectual growth and self-expression for women who were smart and educated.”
And, she said, “we decided it would be marvelous to launch these with the Lilith brand.”
While some Lilith salons, like Bnai Keshet’s, are synagogue-based, others, like the one in Princeton, bring together Jewish women from around the community. There are also salons organized through Women of Reform Judaism as well as National Council of Jewish Women, and a few on college campuses.
The only requirement is that participants subscribe to Lilith Magazine, which also provides trigger questions to help facilitate discussion with each issue, along with ancillary reading material.
‘Power of conversation’
The conversation in Montclair — which began in small groups and then extended to the larger group — was based on “Let’s Take Five: Passover, Kaleidoscopically,” a series of articles from recent issues of Lilith Magazine. In each, set at Passover, the writer examined a particular relationship — with a sick mother, an adopted daughter from China, an abusive stepfather, elderly relatives, even with Passover cleaning.
The women discussed how to let go of certain relatives when they are no longer at the seder table, and how to include new family members; they talked about what to do when you are alone on Passover, with no seder to go to. They discussed cancer as hametz, crumbs as hametz, and spiritual and physical hametz. They raised the incongruity of all the work involved in preparing for a holiday about leaving Egypt so quickly there was no time to prepare.
While some women grieved that their children would not have the memory, as they had, of Yiddish conversation flowing from generations of women preparing gefilte fish, others pointed out that little is lost by discarding a service consisting of one man buzzing through the Haggada in a foreign language with no discussion or interaction.
Like many Rosh Hodesh groups before it, this Lilith salon opens and closes with its own rituals. The women opened with singing of “Hinei Mah Tov,” introduced themselves using their names and those of their mothers and grandmothers, and closed with chanting blessings over spices from the Havdala service, so that everyone “takes something of the experience away with them,” as Silberman put it.
But it is decidedly not a Rosh Hodesh group. The salon, said Schneider, is “less spiritual than a Rosh Hodesh group. It’s more democratic than a book club, where one person leads the discussion and stays on topic, and it’s far more participatory than a lecture or class. It’s about the power of conversation. Salon conversations go wherever the participants want to take them. In that sense, it’s an opportunity for women to get to know each other in a free-flowing way.”
Silberman organized the Montclair group with a steering committee of three other women of different ages and interests to serve as both a sounding board and a draw for a diverse group. They are Lauren Meyer, the synagogue’s adult education chair; Jessica Siegel, who hosted the evening; and Magda Schaler-Haynes, who said she used to read Lilith with her mother.
“It’s really important to reach not only a multi-age group,” said Silberman, but also women who are “single and married, gay and straight.
“We want an inclusive group not because it’s politically correct, but because it’s enriching.”
As one woman concluded, regarding the seder, but could perhaps be said of Lilith salons, “One thing I love best about Passover seders is that each one is different. Every time, it’s a different experience, even if the exact same people are sitting around the table.”