Susan Weidman Schneider
The covers of Lilith magazine fill the walls of Susan Weidman Schneider’s office. They tell much of her story: Decades of commitment to the causes of Jewish women. The variety is dizzying: Orthodox to atheist, political to psychological, 1976 to the present. Through her editorship of Lilith, her books, her writings in other publications and her activism, she has participated in and documented nothing less than a revolution in Jewish women’s lives.
Born in Winnipeg, Canada, on March 17, 1944, Susan Patricia Weidman joined a community in which her family had been active in Jewish and secular spheres for a century. Her father, Sydney Herbert Weidman, was born in Winnipeg on January 20, 1904, and worked as a wholesale grocer in his family business. Her mother, Zora Zagrabelna, was born in Winnipeg on March 16, 1908. Zora, who attended heder and university in an era when many girls did not, acted with Yiddish theater troupes, directed plays, had a radio show and wrote plays for young adults. The family, which also included Weidman Schneider’s older brother Martin (b.1930), lived in the ethnically diverse North End of Winnipeg, where Schneider attended Hebrew day school (grades K-2), public school (grades 3–11), private high school (grade 12) and afternoon Hebrew school.
During childhood, Weidman Schneider was active in her synagogue, in Jewish youth groups, Zionist causes and Yiddish culture. However, Winnipeg was a small community, and by the time she was seventeen, she was ready for a change. She headed for Brandeis University. The year was 1961 and it was Brandeis that “was really my political awakening,” she recalls. Two months after her arrival there, her father died.
After graduating, Weidman Schneider moved often, teaching and writing. She was married in 1969 to Bruce Schneider, a doctor, with whom she moved to Washington, D.C., to Eagle Butte—an Indian reservation where her husband took a job—and to New York. The first of their three children, Benjamin, was born in 1969. Not long after, the family spent part of a year in Israel. There Weidman Schneider saw a society, as she describes it, that expected women to work but paid them less than men and gave them fewer promotions. It set her on course to thinking seriously about Jewish and women’s issues.
Her second child, Rachel, was born in 1973, after their return to New York. The following year, she joined a handful of women to found Lilith, named for Eve’s predecessor in the Garden of Eden who was expelled for wanting equality. The feminist movement and the feminist press (including Ms. Magazine) were beginning to become active, but they were not focused on religion. As Weidman Schneider recalls: “‘Why not just walk away from a patriarchal religion altogether?’ was what many of us were told.” At the same time, the Jewish communal world and press were not at all open to feminism.
With Lilith, Weidman Schneider and her colleagues wanted to raise the idea that the sexism of Jewish religion, history and contemporary life posed a challenge to Jewish women. At the same time, she wanted to show that this challenge was not inimical to the existence of women as Jews. And she wanted to explore the ways in which Judaism could change on behalf of its women. As she wrote in the editorial of the magazine’s premiere issue, in Fall 1976, “As women we are attracted to much of the ideology of the general women’s movement; as Jews, we recognize that we have particular concerns not always shared by other groups. How do we reconcile our sense of ourselves as worthy individuals while identifying with a religious and social structure that has limited women’s options in the synagogue, the home, and the community at large?”
Weidman Schneider has carried the mantle forward since then, serving as editor in the quarterly magazine’s Manhattan offices from 1976, while giving birth to her third child, Yael, in 1982. During that time she has served as the magazine’s primary fundraiser and intellectual motor, as well as mentoring the many young women who have worked for her.
She never shied away from controversy. In the 1970s many of her efforts focused on making change in Jewish institutional life, arguing for the ordination of women as rabbis and the reorientation of Jewish women’s organizations away from social events—house tours and bowling parties—and toward serious concerns. In the 1980s she stirred ire by highlighting domestic violence and incest in the Jewish community and an epidemic of JAP-baiting on college campuses. In the 1990s, she caused a stir writing about Jewish women and money: how they feel about it, how they inherit it and how they differ from men in donating it to charity.
Throughout, she has written and published other writers on intermarriage, Jewish women’s leadership, domestic abuse, Orthodoxy and feminism; the development of Jewish women’s rituals; problems for women rabbis; Jewish marriage; fertility; lesbian issues; the treatment of converts to Judaism, and more. She has given hundreds of lectures over the years and appeared on television shows including the Oprah Winfrey Show, Good Morning America, and others.
Weidman Schneider has expanded these interests three times into books: Jewish and Female: Choice and Changes in Our Lives Today (1984), a comprehensive guide to women’s equality in Jewish life; Intermarriage: The Challenge of Living With Differences Between Christians and Jews (1989); and Head and Heart: A Woman’s Guide to Financial Independence, co-authored with Arthur B. C. Drache (1991). Jewish and Female was written at a time when Jewish women and the Jewish community “were on the cusp of changes both magnificent and huge—the total enfranchisement of Jewish women,” Weidman Schneider notes. “The audiences I addressed when I went on book tours were immensely gratifying. Everyone wanted to tell her own story. Women told me the book was life-changing.”
In addition to Lilith, Weidman Schneider was a key player in the launch of U.S./Israel Women-to-Women and participated in the creation of many other Jewish projects and organizations. She and Lilith Magazine have been honored with many awards from the Jewish and journalistic communities. These include: a variety of Independent Press Association (NY) awards (to Lilith); the Hadassah Myrtle Wreath Award (1986); the American Jewish Congress Eleanor Roosevelt Award (1988); B’nai B’rith Women (now Jewish Women International) Woman of Distinction Award (1989); the B’nai B’rith Women (Jewish Women International) Woman of Achievement Award (1990); the Brandeis University Award to distinguished alumna (1995); Rockower awards from the American Jewish Press Association (1997, 1999, 2001); American Jewish Congress Commission for Women’s Equality “A Woman Who Made a Difference” award (2000); and the Polakoff Award of the American Jewish Press Association for lifetime achievement (2000).
Brody, Erica. “Founding Feminism: Two Looks Back at the Struggle.” Forward, February 21, 2003, 13; Cabot, Vicki. “Writer/Editor Discusses Jewish Women’s Future.” Jewish News of Greater Phoenix, October 8, 1999, 3; Cohen, Marsha. “Author, Editor, and Wife—Lilith’s Susan Weidman Schneider.” Palm Beach Jewish World, February 19–25, 1993, 3B; Marder, Brenda. “The Devil’s Advocate.” Brandeis Review 13/1 (Summer 1993): 20–25; Sacharow, Fredda. “Still Taking on the World: Lilith Magazine Turns Twenty with All Its Fighting Spirit Intact.” Jewish Exponent, May 30, 1996, 2; Wigoder, Geoffrey. “Jewish feminists start own magazine.” Jerusalem Post, October 3, 1976.