News / Weird & Wonderful

Molly Tolsky: "I changed all the pictures on my JSwipe profile to professional-looking photos of me wearing an ugly velvet Hanukkah dress"

Molly Tolsky
© Marissa Roer
Molly Tolsky is the kind of all-round success story all women should aspire toward. She holds two fiction degrees, she has managed to keep 2/3 of a Zanzibar Gem alive for an entire year, she took the "ugly" out of ugly velvet Hanukkah dress, and above all, she is the editor of Alma, an "online community for women trying to figure this whole adult thing out." We swiped right and found out more about her hilariously accurate, wildly entertaining website for Jew-ish millennial women.  
 
On your website, you claim that a real adult requires one houseplant for good measure...which houseplant do you own?
 
I have a ­Zanzibar Gem named Topanga that a very plant-informed friend gave me for my birthday. She swore it would be easy to take care of though I’ve already managed to kill 1/3 of its leaves in less than a year. I recently had to say goodbye to a succulent I either overwatered or didn’t water enough — I’ll never know.
 
On the topic of plants, what untilled soil did this creative seed (Alma) sprout from?
 
I had been the editor of Kveller, a Jewish parenting site, for a few years and found it to be incredibly rewarding. I got to work with amazing women and help them share their stories and connect with others in a meaningful way (which can be hard to do online). But I’m not a parent myself so I wasn’t exactly personally relating to the material (see above re: plants for my lack of caretaking skills). I thought about how nice it would be to have a site like Kveller for Jewish women in my stage of life (namely, dating and building a career and watching a lot of Netflix). Turns out a website like that didn’t exist yet, so I knew what I had to do. Luckily the company I worked for, 70 Faces Media, was totally on-board with the idea and helped make it happen.
 
With two degrees in fiction writing, why develop a "creative non-fiction" website?
 
Because nobody reads fiction (lol, #sadbuttrue). But really, there were a lot of successful aspects of Kveller that I used as a model for Alma – namely, the authentic personal essay. I think that when it comes to building communities and connecting people online and otherwise, it’s the real life stories that people can relate to. Plus, there’s something nice about keeping my “fiction life” separate from my “work life.” I still write fiction in my own time (though not nearly as often as I’d like to…) and I’m the senior editor of a literary magazine called No Tokens that some friends from graduate school and I started, so there’s plenty of fiction in my life. And I’m actually thinking about experimenting with publishing some fiction on Alma once in a while, too. We’ll see.
 
What sort of Jew-ish topics does Alma cover?
 
The topics range from career to dating to pop culture to current events to feminism to mental health to fashion to holidays and so on and so on. To me, the “ish” is a current running through everything we do – whether or not a piece is about something explicitly Jewish, if it’s coming through the lens of a Jewish woman, you’ll feel it in the sensibility, the word choice, the shared references, etc.
 
What's the strangest, or most "eclectic" story you've ever covered?
 
I think it might have to be my own article, in which I changed all the pictures on my JSwipe profile to professional-looking photos of me wearing an ugly velvet Hanukkah dress, and then did a little experiment to see how the men I matched with would react. Mostly, they responded with lewd jokes about lighting my fire. One special guy used the ever-thoughtful segue, “Speaking of donuts, nice breasts!”
 
Which has been your most popular or revisited article?
 
One of the most unique pieces we’ve ran – and one of our most popular – was an essay called “Notes on Frump: A Style for the Rest of Us” by Emma Eisenberg. It’s a Susan Sontag-ian exploration of the word “frump” as an aesthetic way of being a woman, in opposition to the idea that all women need to portray themselves as “sexy.” We got a lot of “Yes! This is me!” responses. My mom told me it helped her better understand her one friend who she finds to be a less-than-impressive dresser.
 
Another popular one was Yiddish insults to call all the dirty old men in your life, because everyone loves Yiddish/knows plenty of dirty old men.
 
Tell me a deep, dark secret...
 
I cheated on an economics test in high school. Everybody was doing it. (I’m terrible with money so joke’s on me.)
 
Can Millennial women with children benefit from your site? How about men? My dad for instance, loved the website...
 
Yes and yes! More and more millennial women (including my friends, not that I’m freaking out or anything) are having babies, and there’s no reason why they can’t still enjoy the content on Alma. I’m guessing that reading about the horrors of online dating might even make you feel better about the fact you’re up at 5 a.m. nursing a baby. As for men (and your dad), if they’re enjoying Alma, more power to them. Maybe it can help them better understand women’s perspectives and the kinds of things we deal with on a daily basis. I actually thought about experimenting with one male columnist for Alma. We’d call him the Almo.
 
Have you acquired an NJB (Nice Jewish Boy)?
 
Alas, I have not. All of my serious relationships have been with NNJBs (nice non-Jewish boys) for no particular reason. I’ve definitely thought about the benefits of dating somebody Jewish, and sprang for JSwipe and JDate accounts last year, but then a couple of months ago, I met another NNJB through Tinder who I’m currently seeing. He kinda looks Jewish, though. Does that count?
 
Do you find you have any Israeli demographic? Or more-so Diaspora Jews?
 
The large majority of our readers are in the U.S., with a healthy sprinkling of folks from Canada and the UK. Israel’s fourth on the list, but I’d love to have more readers there. Two of the women on my team are Israeli and it’s fascinating to talk about the differences in our upbringings and our Jewish identity. I think it would be great to have more of that dialogue online.
 
Can anyone contribute content?
 
I’m open to pitches from anyone. What are the chances of me running something by an old man? Not likely, but you never know. So far we’ve pretty much stuck to Jewish women (and Jew-ish women, and Jewish atheist women) in their 20s and 30s, but if somebody outside that cohort came to me with a great idea that fits into the Alma aesthetic, I’m all ears.
 
There are endless websites featuring a cacophony of voices. What's the secret to a well-balanced harmonization?
 
I think it’s important to establish the tone of a publication from the get-go. Yes, we have many different voices writing for the site that offer differing opinions and perspectives, but I think that Alma itself has a voice, too – smart, funny, irreverent, self-aware, with an appreciation for both the high-brow and low-brow. That voice comes across in our social media, our newsletters, and our curation of content (at least I hope).
 
Do you identify with The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Lena Dunham, or any of the badass Jewesses of New York?
 
I probably identify the most with Abbi from Broad City. She’s smart and creative and afraid of a lot of things and gets really awkward around the boys she likes. And I relate to Mrs. Maisel in that I have had a long-held desire to try stand-up comedy. I guess I just need to wait until I get married and for my husband to cheat on me, plus I'll need to have parents who can watch my kids at all hours. Then I can get really drunk and make it happen.
 
If you could invite one writer (dead or alive, female or male, feminist or feminist) to contribute an article to Alma, who would you choose and why?
 
Okay this is hard, but I’ll try. One of my favorite writers of all time is Grace Paley. Her fiction told the everyday stories of women and Jews and immigrants and New Yorkers, and in her personal life she was a staunch feminist and fought for civil rights and women’s rights and all the good kinds of rights. I’d love to hear what she has to say about living as a Jewish woman now (except she’s dead so I can’t, boo).
 
Who or what has helped you achieve your great level of chutzpah?
 
Oh gosh, you’re making me blush. It’s taken me a while to assemble any kind of chutzpah, to be honest. I was super shy as a kid – like really, really shy. It wasn’t until I started taking writing classes in college that I broke out of my shell a bit. I feel like I can be my truest, most honest self in writing, and the more I’ve followed down the writing path and gained confidence in my work, the braver I’ve felt.
 
You're always on the upward move...any foreshadow of future projects?
 
I’m working on a collection of short stories that I’d love to finish in this decade. They’re about girls and boobs and friendship and puberty and all the fun stuff.
 
Anything else you'd like to add (i.e. unknown talent, favorite literary trope, embarrassing nickname, or something relevant to Alma perhaps)?
 
I performed a dance to “Welcome to Miami” by Will Smith at my own Bat Mitzvah and I don’t regret a thing. (And no, it was not in Miami.)
 
Looking for a good read and/or to contribute? Fall down the enticing Alma rabbit hole...I guarantee that it's more exciting than whatever's currently on your work desktop.
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