A Tale of Two Women | Essay | Chicago Reader

A Tale of Two Women 

Hannah Senesh is one of Monica Lewensky's personal heroes. What would Senesh say about Monica?

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1. Two modern girls

Two Jewish girls in their early 20s, each from a large city on the water, a city where Jews are prominent in the arts.

Each girl suffers a traumatic family event in childhood. Each has material comforts, leads an assimilated life, and attends exclusive schools. Both are especially close to their mothers. Neither is given a rigorous religious education. They both love poetry--reading and writing it--and think about becoming teachers. Both get in trouble with the government as a result of their own actions.

The difference begins here: One is thin. The other is fat.

The first comes of age in a time of political upheaval and violence. The second travels to the capital of the only superpower left on earth and pleasures the leader of the free world--but she is not a concubine. "The irony is that I had the first orgasm of the relationship," she says later.

The first dies a virgin.

But we're getting ahead of the story.

2. What kind of name is Lewinsky, anyway?

That's what the president asked when she accused him of not knowing her name. Her "riposte," says her biographer, was "Jewish."

Riposte?

They shared dirty jokes. Monica told one that went like this: Why does a Jewish man like to see porno films backwards? So he can see the hooker give the money back. The President of the United States asked, What do you get when you cross a Jewish-American Princess with an Apple? A computer that won't go down on you.

An odd joke, considering whom he told it to. Monica was responsible for reviving the stereotype of the JAP, but according to Salon, the on-line magazine, she also played a part in "the emancipation of her sisters from their perceived state as neurotic prudes."

Judging by her biography, Monica Lewinsky has few positive associations with being Jewish, even if you include one of her many gifts to Clinton, the book Oy Vey! The Things They Say: A Guide to Jewish Wit. Her Conservative synagogue was too orthodox, writer Andrew Morton reports. She wanted a big bat mitzvah, but her father offered only a backyard party. It's unclear whether Morton understands that a bat mitzvah is still a religious occasion that takes place in a synagogue, no matter how outlandish and expensive the surrounding hoopla. Monica referred to it aptly--"a wedding for one." She ended up with a mere $500 affair, with a DJ and hot dog stand. There is no mention of the ceremony, though we're told she sang beautifully at her younger brother's bar mitzvah.

The bat mitzvah party was a point of contention with her father. She was much closer to her mother, especially after her parents separated and divorced a year later.

The only strength Monica drew from her religion was from the story of Hannah Senesh, a Jewish woman born in Hungary who became a martyr during World War II. Monica first learned about her from a Hollywood-style movie and wrote an essay in school about her. They both had strong bonds with their mothers, Monica wrote, though she was not as brave as Hannah. During that trying day when she was shut up, lawyerless, in a hotel room with FBI agents and Kenneth Starr's deputies, she was sustained by thoughts of Hannah. She also was helped by reading Psalm 91, which a Christian Science counselor had told her about. The counselor was recommended by her mother.

3. Hannah

Hannah Senesh was born in Budapest in 1921. Until her older brother went to school and was told he was Jewish, she didn't know her religion. Their last name sounded Hungarian because their father had changed it from the Jewish Schlesinger. The father, Bela Senesh, was a popular playwright and newspaper columnist, though his plays weren't performed at the National Theatre. Ah, well, he told his wife, his plays were better suited to the Comedy Theatre anyway.

They weren't bothered much by anti-Semitism. Both Christian and Jewish writers and actors mingled at their villa. The parents indulged Hannah and her brother, George. They tried to provide the perfect childhood--storytelling sessions, trips to the zoo and lake--because they knew Bela's time was short. He had rheumatic fever as a child and expected to die young. He died at 33, when Hannah was not quite six.

Hannah Senesh was brilliant and popular at school. From an early age she tutored other students. She wrote poetry, according to biographer Anthony Masters, as the only way she could express her feelings. She hoped to become a writer, teacher, or organizer of a summer camp. At 13 she started to keep a diary. She intended to write about "beautiful and serious things" and not stoop to focusing on boys and trivial matters--she chastised herself in print when she did. But, in addition to her thoughts on War and Peace, she did include descriptions of her ideal boy, of marriage proposals, and of dance parties that lasted until three or four in the morning. She owned a long blue dress.

She attended an elite Protestant school where Jews had to pay three times the regular tuition. If there were no discrimination, she'd have received a scholarship, according to her mother, who complained to the school. Eventually her tuition was lowered to the same price Catholics were charged. In 1937 she was elected president of her school's literary club; then she was refused the title by other students because she was Jewish.

4. Holy Land I

After Hitler annexed Austria in 1938, neighboring Hungary passed laws discriminating against Jews. Hannah Senesh came to see Palestine as a place where Jews could become full citizens, and she declared herself a Zionist. She learned Hebrew by correspondence course and applied for admission to a girls' agricultural school in Palestine. To prepare, she spent a vacation gardening in the middle of the day, when the sun's heat was at its hottest. She left Budapest in September 1939, regretting only that she was leaving her mother behind. Her brother had already left to study in France.

5. Holy Land II

Not much was was made of Monica Lewinsky's Jewishness--except by American Jews and anti- Semites. And then there was the grandstanding by her ex-lawyer, William Ginsburg, who gave an Israeli newspaper such gems as, "Clinton is very positive toward Israel and the Jews, and Monica and I are Jews." When asked whether his client would seek asylum in Israel, Ginsburg replied that he didn't think so, though, he added, Monica would feel comfortable there.

American Jews discussed whether it was good for Jews or bad for Jews that Lewinsky was Jewish. There was Arab speculation that Mossad or the American-Jewish lobby was behind a conspiracy to keep Clinton preoccupied so he wouldn't push Binyamin Netanyahu on the peace process. Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri was quoted by Reuters as saying, "It is not a joke--the Zionist lobby is twisting the arm of the president of the greatest country in the world." Some even alleged that Lewinsky's actions were part of a plot to influence Clinton's Iraq policy.

6. Laundry

From Hannah Senesh's diary, February 9, 1942: "Today I washed 150 pairs of socks. I thought I'd go mad. No, that's not really true."

Palestine was filling up with Central European intellectuals who had come to work the land. At agricultural school and later on a kibbutz near Caesaria, Hannah went to classes, washed laundry, scrubbed floors, sorted grapefruit, picked olives, served on guard duty, and worked in the dairy, bakery, garden, and chicken house. Occasionally she wondered what she was doing there, and longed for more satisfying work. She hoped she wasn't wasting her time. She wrote poetry in Hebrew, and thought of becoming a writer or a traveling poultry farming instructor. She had only one close friend. She wrote in her diary "there are a few men who love me"--yet she didn't love them. She wrote a play about a musician trying to figure how to divide her earnings between herself and the collective. She was lonely, but always concluded that she was happy she had immigrated, that she loved the land, that she would do it all over again. She became more committed to Zionism and socialism, and began to feel a sense of mission, a burning desire to stop the slaughter of Jews still in Europe.

7. The mission

Senesh volunteered to parachute over the Balkans to collect intelligence for the British. Only two other women took the training. They learned judo and how to use knives. They could assemble and disassemble guns. They were supposed to gather information on enemy positions, help downed Allied pilots, and organize Jewish resistance and rescue.

They parachuted into Slovenia in March 1944 and spent about three months with Tito's partisans while waiting to cross the border. Senesh grew restless, impatient to continue her mission in Hungary. In June she and another paratrooper left Yugoslavia. They were picked up the next day.

Senesh was beaten and imprisoned in Budapest. The Hungarian police brought her mother to the prison. Catherine Senesh found Hannah nearly unrecognizable--she had two black eyes, her face and neck were covered with welts and bruises, her thick hair was stringy and filthy. The police told Catherine: "Speak to her! Use your maternal influence and convince her she had better tell us everything, otherwise you'll never see each other again!"

Her mother decided she wouldn't try to influence her daughter, no matter what the cost. "If there was something Hannah did not want to reveal," Catherine Senesh wrote, "she had good reason, and under no circumstances would I influence her otherwise."

Later Catherine Senesh was sent to the same prison.

8. Lost in translation

"I wish I had the inner conviction that Hannah Senesh had," Monica Lewinsky wrote in her school essay. "I am not nearly half as brave as she was."

Andrew Morton writes: "The young Monica got the story a bit muddled after seeing the 1988 movie, Hanna's War, and thought the Nazis had told Senesh that her mother would be killed unless she, Hannah, revealed details of the British spy network....As a result of seeing the film she may have got parts of the story wrong--when Senesh was arrested, her mother was in fact living not in Hungary but in Palestine--but the love and loyalty illustrated in her version of it affected her deeply."

In fact, Morton got the story wrong. When Hannah Senesh was brought to Budapest, her mother was still there--she had been waiting five months for a visa to Palestine. Morton could have checked his story, but maybe he assumed no one would care to follow up. Maybe he was just careless. I bought his book (I swear) only because Naftali Bendavid mentioned Senesh in an account of the book in the Tribune. An Internet search found no reference to Senesh in other daily newspaper reports on Lewinsky.

9. Mental health

Reading Monica's Story is like taking a five-hour call from your most annoying friend--the one with constant boy problems--when you were 14 years old. The book is full of obsessions with weight, silly flirtations, canceled plans, hysterical middle-of-the-night phone calls, and hysterical waiting for middle-of-the-night phone calls. These are high school desperations: He noticed her; he didn't notice her; she was cool toward him and that made him more interested; he didn't call; she wrote him a letter and discussed it for hours with Linda Tripp. It's all so familiar, a young woman at her worst.

In junior high my friends and I would make little notebooks filled with tips on beauty, diet, exercise, and fashion culled from our monthly bibles--Teen, Seventeen, Ingenue. Another bible, a sort of alchemist's book for teens and preteens, was How to Get a Teen-Age Boy and What to Do With Him When You Get Him by Ellen Peck. Judging by the jacket photo and bio, Peck was a hip-looking junior high school teacher complete with a Mary Travers hairdo and the pale frosty lipstick we all wore in that era.

"Let's review some important principles," Peck writes. "First the best way to a boy is still through his crowd....But if the guy doesn't have a crowd, approach solo....Remember to be consistently friendly and outgoing....Remember the idea is that you make the first move." Which is exactly how Lewinsky proceeded.

Peck also provides info on "When it all ends, what do you do?" Things to do: "One. Wait twenty-four hours before you do ANYTHING....Two. Repeat this procedure for another twenty-four hours, meanwhile telling yourself this: 'I can eventually get him back.'" She also recommends spending money, appearing in public with other boys, and getting the word out that you want to date again. Lewinsky obviously told herself she could get him back, but she wasn't so good at waiting.

After reading about her ordeal in the hotel room, I put Lewinsky's book down. Why finish Monica's Story? I asked myself. I know what happens. I couldn't resist jumping to the conclusion, where I learned that Monica is angered by the president's actions, loathes Linda Tripp, and still feels guilt and shame. But Morton assures us that she is "feisty" and "principled" and "indominatable" as she talks about grad school, attaching herself to a worthwhile cause. She wants to put the episode behind her. She wants to get married and to become a mother.

10. The third character

Look in the index, under "Lewinsky, Monica: weight," and you'll find nine citations, just one less than under "immunity deal." And the indexer missed some mentions.

Weight becomes an issue early on in the book, from page three of the foreword, when Morton describes meeting with Monica while she flips through family albums. She keeps mentioning how fat she looks in some pictures, how she'd lost weight in others. Morton ascribes her avoirdupois to low self-esteem and unhappiness with her parents' divorce. Like most biographies of the merely famous, this one discloses all the mundane aspects of a very ordinary childhood. Here, at least, a theme emerges: At age nine, Lewinsky was called "Big Mac" because of her chubbiness. During the summer before eighth grade, she was excited to go to "fat camp," where she lost weight. The year started well, but her happiness was short-lived. In high school she gained 50 pounds in less than 12 months. After she was banished from the White House for "overfamiliarity," she spent the weekend crying, eating pizzas and sweets.

One of the first times Clinton noticed Lewinsky, she was flattered by his attention, but worried she might look fat "and therefore tried to suck in her stomach as she chatted to him. She also thanked her lucky stars that she was wearing black, a slimming color." The first time she unbuttoned his shirt--in the presidential bathroom--he sucked in his gut. She found it endearing. "I said, 'oh, you don't have to do that--I like your tummy.'" In one of their confidential talks, he confessed about his life as a fat boy. The best compliment, the savvy Clinton knew, was to comment on her weight loss. You're looking skinny, he said. You look good. Once after they passed in the hallway, he called her to say she'd lost weight. When Lewinsky and Linda Tripp met in the Pentagon, at first they talked about dieting. Monica encouraged Tripp to lose 60 pounds on Weight Watchers. Of course, conspiring Democrats were behind Tripp's issues with food: "She told Monica that she had become a compulsive eater on the return flight from [Vince] Foster's funeral in Arkansas on board Air Force One."

While some affairs take their character from the wanton consumption of martinis or marijuana or champagne, this one confined itself to a more ordinary elixir. In order to disguise the true nature of their relationship, Lewinsky would leave the Oval Office with a can of Diet Coke in hand. "It looked a little more friendly," she explained, "and less sexual."

11. Weight as fate

When the wife of on-again, off-again lover, Andy Bleiler found out about their affair, Lewinsky played the fat card: she'd only slept with him because she was insecure about her weight.

In November 1997 Lewinsky planned to take the fateful blue Gap dress with her on a Thanksgiving trip to San Francisco. Linda Tripp knew the dress had important evidence on it, and tried to convince her good friend to save it in a plastic bag "for her own protection." When that didn't make much of an impression, she tried again, telling Monica she looked fat in the dress.

That did the trick. Lewinsky put the dress back in her closet instead of taking it to the dry cleaner's.

Hannah Senesh was always thin. "I'm as healthy as a horse," she wrote in her diary on July 22, 1937. "But they are forever trying to put me on a fattening diet."

12. Man as fate

When she was seven, Monica wanted to grow up to be president of the United States. She thought later of being a teacher. She loved poetry. In college she considered getting a PhD in forensic psychology and jurisprudence. But she was so upset about her relationship with Bleiler that she did poorly on her GRE. One of the reasons Washington, D.C., appealed to her was that Bleiler would be far, far away. But men were never far from her mind. During the many hours she was detained by FBI agents, who threatened her with jail time, she said to Starr deputy Mike Emmick, "If I go to jail for twenty-seven years, who is ever going to marry me? How will I be able to have children?"

13. Prison and Palestine

In jail Hannah Senesh acted the way you would want to have acted if you were ever imprisoned. She taught her mother and other prisoners to speak Hebrew. She took a young girl under her wing. She argued about Palestine with her jailers. She stood on a bed, table, and chair in order to see outside. She made paper dolls. She crafted an anniversary present for her mother out of a talcum bottle, foil, and handmade flowers of straw and paper.

Soviets were bombing the city. She warned her guards they'd have to answer to the Allies at the end of the war. She was tried for treason and found guilty by a Hungarian military court. Senesh would not ask for clemency and was executed by firing squad on November 7, 1944. She refused a blindfold.

Senesh's body was buried in the martyr's section of the Jewish cemetery in Budapest, and a few years after Israel became a nation her remains were moved there and given a soldier's burial.

Editor and professor Marie Syrkin took the first ship from New York to Palestine after the war, in the fall of 1945, to interview Holocaust survivors and resistance fighters. "Hanna Senesh has become a national heroine of Palestine and hers was the name which I heard most frequently upon my arrival," she wrote in her book Blessed Is the Match: The Story of Jewish Resistance, published in 1947. "Every Jew in Palestine can recite the four simple lines of the poem Hanna wrote shortly before she was executed."

Blessed is the match that is consumed in kindling flame.

Blessed is the flame that burns in the secret fastness of the heart.

Blessed is the heart with strength to stop its beating for honor's sake.

Blessed is the match that is consumed in kindling flame.

It has become part of modern Haggadahs, the book used on Passover, which is constantly being updated and amended by feminists, vegetarians, parents, and religious leaders. American poet Ruth Whitman translated it 30 years later ("Blessed is the match that burns and kindles fire") so that there is less of the martyr in it; it's less passive, more active, but the idea is the same.

Israeli diplomat and politician Abba Eban wrote in 1971 that in Israel a ship, a forest, two farming settlements, and 32 streets had been named after Senesh. According to Livia Rothkirchen, there is also a species of flower.

Who will be the more well-known woman of the 20th century--the universally recognized Lewinsky, with her indelible smile and sought-after lipstick, or Senesh, who is probably unknown in most countries except Israel? Are these two young women, half a century apart, good examples of the paths that were open to privileged Jewish women in the developed world? Is it fair to lump them together?

14. Nature v. Nurture

They aren't the same. Times aren't the same. Losing a father to divorce is not the same as losing him to death. Budapest in the 1920s and '30s is not LA or Beverly Hills in the 1970s and '80s. A Monica Lewinsky born in 1921 Budapest would not necessarily have immigrated to Palestine. But even before 1938 she probably wouldn't have been a government intern. A Hannah Senesh raised in Beverly Hills might have spent more time worrying about her body and boys. But she probably wouldn't have displayed her thong underwear to the president.

15. Spin

Hannah Senesh is a hero, though she shouldn't be romanticized, Marie Syrkin cautioned in 1947. Years later, Abba Eban echoed her words: Senesh is not Joan of Arc.

Anthony Masters, a novelist, is the most cynical of her biographers, calling the plan to parachute young Zionists into Central Europe "a suicide mission." He writes, "Quite what Hannah thought she was going to do once she had crossed the border was difficult to imagine; certainly she gave it little thought."

Senesh's heroism was important to the new state of Israel, he claims, because it helped foster nationalism.

16. The making of Americans

Lenny Bruce had a famous routine called Jewish and Goyish. Chocolate is Jewish; fudge is Goyish. Fruit salad is Jewish; Lime Jell-O is Goyish. All New Yorkers are Jewish. "Negroes are all Jews. Italians are all Jews. Irishmen who have rejected their religion are Jews. Mouths are very Jewish. And bosoms. Baton-twirling is very Goyish."

In the first part of this century, immigrant Jews became Americans. In the second half, America claimed everything they had brought with them. Bagels and Yiddish have become American. The Holocaust has become American. There's even a national Holocaust museum. Ethnic Albanians are Americans. So are Freud and Nelson Mandela, Zen Buddhism and pasta.

Hannah Senesh, born in Budapest, left her home because her country did not allow her to assimilate. She immigrated to Palestine and after she died, like most Jewish women at the end of the century, she became American.

When I went back to finish the last chapters of Lewinsky's biography, I found another young Jewish woman. After Monica and her mother had been subpoenaed, they became afraid that their conversations were being bugged. They were scared to death. "This was not how we should be living in America in this century," Monica said later. "It reminded me of The Diary of Anne Frank."

I'll leave that comparison to someone else.

Monica's Story by Andrew Morton (St. Martin's Press, 1999)

Hannah Senesh: Her Life & Diary by Hannah Senesh and others, with an introduction by Abba Eban (published in Hebrew in 1966 by Hakibbutz Hamuechad Publishing House, in English in 1972 by Schocken Books)

Blessed Is the Match: The Story of Jewish Resistance by Marie Syrkin (Jewish Publication Society, 1947)

The Summer That Bled: The Biography of Hannah Senesh by Anthony Masters (St. Martin's Press, 1972)

The Testing of Hanna Senesh by Ruth Whitman, with historical background by Livia Rothkirchen (Wayne State University Press, 1986)

How to Get a Teen-age Boy and What to Do With Him When You Get Him by Ellen Peck (Bernard Geis, 1969).

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.

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