My Jewish Feminism began years before I knew the word feminism and when Jewish was a word in my 11-year-old vocabulary that had more to do with murder than religion. Anne Frank was almost my contemporary, and we shared the same first name. Life magazine had published Margaret Bourke-White’s photographs of the haunted faces looking through the wire fences at the approaching liberators. The black-and-white-striped pajamas of my co-religionists seemed to be skeleton costumes for a world without love or redemption, especially for Jews.
I was enrolled in a Sunday school class at the Park Avenue Synagogue. They called it Sunday school because Jewishness was still an awkward condition, somewhere between a source of pride and a life-threatening affliction. These postwar Jews wanted to be like their neighbors, scrubbed of their ghetto days, rising into the upper stratospheres of American life. There were no greenhorns living in my neighborhood. They had been left behind, and would not have been admitted to the golf clubs, the boardrooms, the higher-end Jewish law firms sprouting up everywhere. But people were raw and anxious. You were expected to be Jewish, but not too Jewish. It wasn’t clear to me what that meant. This muddle was a betrayal of the Jews of Europe, but it was also a way to wear a protective coat, one that might shield you or your children from a fate that the world had already made plain.
In America, 1935, the year I was born, there were Hellenistic Jews and anti-Hellenistic Jews and every variety in-between. So it has always been, and so it was when I grew up, female, in the first building on Park Avenue—right at the edge of Harlem—in which Jews were permitted to reside. My story is a pointillist dot in a pointillist landscape, but a Jewish landscape nevertheless, and a feminist one.
My mother told me that I had a good nose but bad hair. I translate now: I had a gentile nose and frizzy, curly black Jewish hair. When I reached my late teens, I learned that many lovely Jewish girls were gifted as a graduation present a visit to the plastic surgeon, so we could reduce our inherited noses, wiping out centuries-old familial connections and leaving faces looking stunned and somehow empty, as if an eraser had passed over their features. Even as the ’40s turned into the ’50s, the ideal of female beauty was Aryan. Vogue models were blonde and fair and very tall: Jewish girls, not so much.
So, while in my school years, I wouldn’t have seen the rush to the surgeon as a feminist issue I did see the insult there. I brushed and brushed my Jewish hair in hopes it would turn golden and flat. It would be many years before I could see the beauty issue as an attack on the Jewish female, one that made the stranger more desirable. It would come as no surprise that Jewish men so often turned to non-Jewish woman as prizes in the American rumble.
The rabbi at the Park Avenue Synagogue was apparently famous: He was Milton Steinberg, author of As A Driven Leaf. I never met the wise man. In the school room we learned about the important holidays, and I read the World Over magazine with joy and each assignment from our text book with eagerness. I believed that in those pages were answers—answers to the why of the Jewish nation and the what of the hostile world. And so Sunday after Sunday I raised my hand to every question the teacher asked us. Until one Sunday he told me to keep my hand down. It was important, he said, to hear from the boys (who did not raise their hands because they hadn’t read the assignment). It was important to hear from them, he said, because they were going to be bar mitzvahed and would soon enough be Jewish men. I got up, slammed my book shut, left the room, and refused to ever go back. I didn’t understand that this was a feminist protest and also an act akin to cutting off your nose to spite your face.
At the Park Avenue Synagogue they did of course bar mitzvah the boys. The girls, however, were offered a confirmation service. They wore white dresses, a class of about 15 of them together. They each said a line of a prayer in English and were given a red corsage by the rabbi. I refused to participate. But I did want to learn Hebrew. No, my mother said, girls don’t need Hebrew. The prayers are translated, she said. Anyway we only went to synagogue on the High Holidays. But my younger brother had a Hebrew tutor. I asked him to give me his workbooks when he was through with them. I will, he said, one dollar a book. Also he said I want your pearls: I’m going to keep them he said, until you pay me 20 dollars. Never mind I said. And so my Jewish education came to a halt. I soon became interested in socialism, a system of equality for all, including (I ignorantly imagined) girls.
But even before all that I had a problem with God. It is the morning of Rosh Hashanah. I am walking with my mother and brother to the service. My mother is wearing her fox wrap with the black-and-brown, beady-eyed head and the little fox feet still attached. I am in a new wool suit, far too heavy for the warm September day. My best friend’s father had just died. He was an orthopedic surgeon who devoted hours to a clinic in Harlem. He had a sudden heart attack and was gone.
My father was mean, always angry, and had betrayed my mother and he didn’t believe in God or religion. His true passion was for my mother’s share of stock in her family company. I reasoned that if God was just, he would have taken my father and left my friend’s father to do his work, to talk to his children, to grow old with his beloved wife by his side. If God is not just then I will not pray to him. I turn around and go home.
Doormen in gold-buttoned uniforms and white gloves watched the passersby from under awnings on either side of the street as I said no. If God was not fair, I wanted no God. If God watched as the trains headed east, I wanted no God. If God preferred my brother I would make my life elsewhere. I did not know Job. I had not read Ecclesiastes. I didn’t know that not having answers can lead to glorious language, to a poetry of uncertain truths that will haunt and comfort as long as there are readers, as long as there are Jews. No one told me that you could bring God to a beit din to explain Himself. I had not heard of the Yom Kippur ball on the lower East Side where Jews who thought like I did defied the customs of their people. I didn’t know that the God that I was forsaking had been forsaken for generations and that that, too, was part of the tradition.
It is hard to think clearly when the words you need have never been spoken aloud, and the sense of hurt and exclusion you carry is not openly echoed by anyone around you. I did not know that it was feminism eating at my very young heart. I did know it was injustice.
Of course there were no female rabbis. There were no female doctors that I could see, either. My father called women “broads,” or dumb broads, or pushy broads, or worse. He liked tall women, and my mother was not five feet even in her Cuban heels. He spent his weekends at his male club where women were not permitted past the tiny vestibule except on Thursday night, which was cooks’ night out.
This was not a specifically Jewish matter at all. But since I lived in a Jewish world, swam in a pool at a Jewish country club, went to schools with other Jewish children, went to camp with other Jewish girls, the American way, the Jewish way blurred together in my mind putting ideas there that today seem almost beyond credulity.
Here is the embarrassing story I tell only because it would be unfair to edit it out of this account:
It is 1953. My last three years of high school I have attended a private girls’ school with a blue-and-white uniform and blue bloomers and several Rockefellers in nearby desks. I keep my lips firmly clamped during the weekly reading of the Lord’s Prayer. I have been to a Jewish dancing school but have not been invited to the exclusive dances or coming-out parties of my non-Jewish classmates, even those I considered friends. I would rather cut out my tongue than deny that I am Jewish. I do not think kindly of God, but I do think kindly of Israel—so kindly that I want to move there when I graduate high school. But how to do that? I have an idea, a pre-feminist, perfectly formed idea, that I will spend hours during the summer I am 17 (it is 1953) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and some Israeli soldier on leave will find me in one of the galleries and we will fall in love and he will marry me and then take me to Israel.
This was a Jewish plan but not a feminist one. It is hard to have feminist thoughts without feminist words and besides I am also convinced that the world is going to end soon as Atomic Bombs will fall everywhere and Jew or gentile alike will be consumed in the Armageddon of the cold war that if there was a God he could stop, but there is no God. So, I roam the hall of Greek Statues for an Israeli soldier who never appears. That is what my Zionist non-feminism looked like.
I know thousands of girls in 1957 joined pioneer groups, went to kibbutzim on their own, and made their way across an ocean without a plan or any certainty or any male to hold their hand. My only defense for this fairytale dream of mine was that I had been taught to wait to be asked to dance by a boy. When I went on a Friday-night date to the movies the boy came to the door and picked me up and returned me to the door and I paid him with a kiss, a quick touch and a dash into the apartment. I hoped he wouldn’t talk about me in the locker room on Monday. I had been taught that all the power and the glory belonged to the prince, and the princess should have small feet and a flashing smile. Yes there was Golda Meir and yes there was Eleanor Roosevelt. But like Ingrid Bergman and Judy Garland, like Shirley Temple and Elizabeth Taylor they were lottery winners who beat the odds.
My cousin by marriage, my aunt’s marriage, was Roy Cohn. My politics as they reared their simplistic head tended toward the sweet socialism of Pete Seeger, the ideals of the folk or the masses or the people of color. I actually knew none of the above personally, but I did cheer, as if my life depended on it, for Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers. While at Sarah Lawrence College, I wrote Roy Cohn a letter expressing my disapproval of his high-handed ways. Was this early liberalism a sign of being Jewish? Or rather was it the sign of a slightly soft head and an injured heart? Either way, Jewish identity blurred in my mind with the kind of Jewishness I knew from my home, from my place. I thought the bigger world, the non-Jewish world was more exciting, more tempting, rich in art and culture. I read Proust and Thomas Mann. I saw the Sistine Chapel. I lit a candle in Notre Dame. I wanted to run the bulls with Hemingway and dance and drink all night with Zelda and F. Scott. I wanted to own a ranch in Montana and ride my horse through fields of wildflowers. I wanted to be a Quaker who lived in plain clothes and never went to Bonwit Tellers to buy cocktail dresses. In other words I wanted to run away. I wanted to flee.
It is true that the Jewish national experience of exile and exclusion, persecutions and gruesome massacres, impels a sympathy with those out of power, with those who make jokes at the margins of society and craft ways to survive some very dark nights. If I can hear the loud metal against metal pulling at the gates of the archbishop’s residence in the center of Mainz and the agony of the Jews killing themselves in the upper chambers before the Crusaders reach them, then I must join those inside those blood-soaked rooms not those whose sword-rattling journey to the holy land will be most unholy. That sort of Jewishness remained mine but rested on no Jewish practice, no ritual acts, no Torah, no Sabbath, nothing more than a stubborn sense of belonging and perhaps a comforting trace of moral superiority to the Christians whose moral failures were all too evident.
I do know that is very problematic to attach one’s Jewish identity to the lachrymose version of Jewish history, but the truth is that once heard, it nails you to its plot. It has a deep power that you can try to escape or you can embrace. It just doesn’t go away because we wish it away. You can scold me forever for thinking of Jews as a suffering people, forever on the cross of history. But they were; perhaps they still are.
In his service to the Senate, Roy Cohn was a traitor to the Jewish people: also to America, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights. He wanted to be one of We the People, but of the wrong people. His good friends were Irving Sapol and Judge Kaufman, who sentenced Ethel and Julius Rosenberg to death. The Kaufman boys lived in my building on Park Avenue. They each had FBI bodyguards who rode the school bus, played ball with the boys, and flirted with the girls of the building. Communism may have had more than its share of dues-paying Jewish members around the world, but on Park Avenue in the early ’50s it had almost none. No one wanted to be called a pinko and no one wanted to sign anything that might threaten their future in the golden land. I was a Jewish girl with pearls who didn’t want the Rosenbergs to die. Enough Jews had died.
Genesis was not helpful in forging a Jewish American identity. Sarah was not selected for any particular virtue, and the way she behaved to Ishmael and Hagar was not admirable or inspiring. Judith was a warrior of sorts. Does striking a sleeping man after filling him with food and drink really seem so fine a thing to do? Yes, she saved the people and earned their respect. But there is something in this tale that is hard for a Jewish girl to cherish, especially when she is told that no one would marry her if she lost her virginity or beat the boys at tennis. Judith could brazenly go to the tent of Holofernes because she was a widow. That meant she had no sexual life, I puzzled: If you don’t have sex you can wield a sword. No wonder some men find women dangerous, and no wonder some men are frightened of women and their vaginal mysteries. You have to turn your moral principles on their heads to appreciate Judith as a heroine. This makes for a great story but helps Jewish girls find their own strength hardly at all.
And then there is Esther. For many years, before my hasty departure from the Park Avenue Sunday School, I dressed on Purim as Queen Esther. So did all my female classmates. It was a beauty pageant.
Esther saved the Jewish people because she was willing to dance for the king’s friends. She saved the Jewish people because she was the most beautiful of all the candidates for queen. I’m glad she played her part well, but as a role model for other Jewish girls she was a disaster. She reminded us to take care of our parts, avoid fat, decorate the outside, learn to dance invitingly, and whisper your wishes, political and otherwise, into the ear of your spouse.
These Jewish biblical texts grew from the fabric of life 2,800 years ago in an age where wind and grass and drought and storm allowed family and tribe to live with perilous determination on the work of their hands, the life of their animals, among idol-worshipping strangers. It is unfair to ask of these tales that they provide images and role models for the modern world. On the other hand our names, male and female, David and Moses, Gabriel and Joshua, Ruth and Naomi, Sarah and Rebecca, Leah and Deborah, rise from those same roots. On Park Avenue our servants were of other tribes, Irish, Polish, or German, free to go, but still servants. We had no sheep, but my mother’s friend did breed miniature poodles. Stories, biblical and Hollywood, radio and magazine, seep into the mind and leave their droppings everywhere. We played a game of cards called Old Maid. The point was not to be left with the old maid card. She was ugly and a warning to us all, don’t think it’s your math skills that will save you, it’s the facial cream you use.
The jokes on the Borscht belt were repeated on radio shows and by my parent’s friends. Those jokes, which were of the sort, “Take my wife, please,” reinforced the idea that Jewish women, especially Jewish mothers, were less than desirable, and an undesirable, non-compliant woman was worse than spoiled meat, a social contaminant. My father said a drunken woman was as disgusting as vomit on the sidewalk. He said, always order the cheapest item on the menu when out on a date or the boy will think you are a gold-digger. He said women lawyers had penises under their skirts. He said Franklin’s Eleanor looked like a dog.
These were not remarks aimed at Jewish women in particular, although he knew no other kind. I knew he personally knew no other kind.
There were many other kinds of Jewish women than those I knew. There was Rosa Luxemburg and Emma Goldman. There was Hannah Arendt and before her Rahel Varnhagen, who were genetically Jewish and culturally German. It was Jewish concerns that drew Hannah Arendt to Jerusalem and controversy unending. There were Jewish labor leaders and business woman and fashion editors. But these were exceptions, or seemed so. There were Jewish martyrs who were women. My least favorite of these was the mother who watched as each of her sons was burned alive because he wouldn’t accept the conqueror’s Gods, as told in the book of the Maccabees. I thought she was insane. I still think she was insane. I never felt warmly toward Hannah Senesh, either. She had escaped and she jumped back into the fire. It was noble and heroic and extremely unwise, and she added one more death to the mountain of others that need not have been. Also her poetry was romantic in an unromantic age.
And so I became 20 years old. And I married a non-Jewish writer and took a job as a receptionist to support him and assumed that I would never think about God or His Jews ever again. I intended never to go within a hundred miles of a golf course or a synagogue. My politics were clear. “Art is the only thing that matters.” My dress was beatnik black. I wore no makeup except for the dark eyeliner that made me look like an abandoned waif. I believed that art was worthy of worship, and artists were the true priests, and that I was meant to be a handmaiden at the temple.
It is hard for me to describe my devotion to Art with a capital “A.” It seems so absurd now. But then it seemed reasonable, and I was not the only person swept up in that worldview. Politics was a disaster. Communism was a failure; millions died because of its vicious masters. Democracy was corrupted by the cruelties of Jim Crow, by the greed of the very rich. The bomb could wipe us all out. All that was worthy of respect was a fine painting, a beautiful cathedral, a vital play, a good story. Art, the intelligent comment on life, seemed more important than life itself. But sadly when art becomes a religion, it falls short like other religions. William Burroughs shot at an apple placed on his wife’s head and killed her. Crazy painters, pugnacious writers, carried on like lions of the veldt. They ate their young and ignored their women until bedtime. They competed with each other for fame and fortune, while women fixed the drinks and went home early.
It was not a Jewish solution. It was not a feminist solution. But it held me enthralled for a number of years until reality carried my writer husband into an alcohol cloud of his own and I woke up at age 26 remembering that I wanted to write too. I remembered that I was Jewish. The male Jewish writers I admired were particularly fascinated with non-Jewish women. They married them sometimes one after another. They wrote about them, maybe dazzled like Woody Allen, or escaping their own childhoods, like Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, or Philip Roth. It wasn’t good for the Jewish female ego.
In 1967 I wrote a novel that critics informed me was feminist. It was. The novel had a Jewish heroine as its central character, but I did not give her a Jewish name or identify her as Jewish. I wanted to be a universal writer. My character was, however, Jewish and after the fact I saw that I should have identified her as such. The book would have been better. It was the 1950s in me that made me try to pass her off as a New Jersey gentile.
I also saw that feminism was deep in my bones. I had had no words for the problem for a very long time, and without words I kept losing it, burying it, ignoring its promptings. Also I had a child, a girl child, and I loved my child beyond all else. This made me more of a feminist, but it also made me a certain kind of feminist. It was not men or families I blamed but the particular kind of family America had built, and it was not motherhood that was the culprit as some feminists were saying. I believed that motherhood was the victim of our social ways, ways that ignored the real needs, economic and emotional of family: women and men and boys and girls.
So the ’60s rattled onward and turned into the early ’70s, and I remarried, a Jewish Doctor, whose Yiddish-speaking parents seemed of another century. We had two more little girls who were destined to be engineers or brain surgeons if I had anything to say about it. We all went on peace marches, down to Washington with the strollers and back from Washington with a sense of virtue if not accomplishment. We went to anti-nuclear-war rallies. Every day I read another article or book about another woman who left her husband because she wanted a different kind of fulfillment. I joined a women’s writers group. We fought over the Baby M case. We argued about whether or not there was such a thing as a good man. We knew there weren’t any female editors on the staff of the New York Times Magazine. We complained. We looked down on unenlightened women who dressed their little girls in frilly pinafores. It was comfortable to be Me and Free in the midst of a cultural revolution that was intended to change human nature itself.
The times felt glorious, and the fights were exhilarating. Women could be lawyers and doctors and professors. My little girls kept asking me to let them watch The Brady Bunch without making rude remarks about Marsha Brady every two minutes. We allowed no Barbie dolls in the house. I did notice that the toy trucks we brought them were transformed into dolls beds but then I knew the world couldn’t change in a day.
Most of the feminists I knew were Jewish but not religious. We sat down on couches all around the town and told sad tales of bigoted Orthodox fathers or empty depressed suburban Jewish mothers. Most, like me, did not think of Judaism as a moral or religious force in their lives. The synagogue had been left behind with the prom dress and the girdle.
And then in 1976 the New York Times asked me to write a short piece for the Home section. It was the second week of December. I wrote about bringing home a Christmas tree and seeing the rabbi, a holocaust survivor, who lived in the brownstone across the street, standing on his steps, and I felt ashamed. I wrote that the celebration of Hanukah always seemed uncomfortable to me because the miracle of the lights seemed so small compared to the horrors of war and occupation and all of Jewish history.
Letters poured in to the Times: Jews were angry. Their rabbis were angry and denouncing the piece from their pulpits across the country. I could have felt like Spinoza, but I didn’t. I was amazed. I thought I was just rambling on about life in New York City in a most ordinary way. I hadn’t heard that assimilation was the enemy of the day. Actually I had no idea why this article was so upsetting. It seemed mild enough to me. Cynthia Ozick was granted a half page in the Times to attack my ignorance and other bad qualities. That was both upsetting and interesting. I began to explore the subject of Jewish identity, mine and other people’s. I spoke to rabbis of all kinds. I read what I could find. I read Jewish history. I still loved Jewish history. I read Zionist history. I talked to Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Jews. My family went to a Seder at our Modern Orthodox pediatrician’s home. It lasted until after 1:00 in the morning, and we carried home sleeping children who still mention each year how long that Seder was and how hard it was to sit up at the table through all the endless songs. It was in fact a beautiful Seder. Rabbi Yitz and Blu Greenberg invited us to their house for a Friday night dinner. Yitz blessed his five children and I wished: It was too late for what I wished.
My Jewish husband had written a psychoanalytic riff on the two versions of the Genesis story. But he was, as most of his colleagues and Freud himself, a religious skeptic, a believer in the human unconscious, the power within, not the power above. Nevertheless he enjoyed the cooking and the family occasions and whatever it was we did for a Seder ourselves in the following years.
Two of our daughters were at the Park Avenue Synagogue Hebrew School and took trips to Israel with their group. By now I was a Jewish feminist or a feminist who was Jewish. By now I knew that women didn’t get to stay on the tractors or lead discussion groups. I knew that all ideologies including feminist ones have their black moods, blind spots where they become absurd in their extremes and destructive in their actions.
In my feminist world we reacted against the Jewish Princess joke. It was everywhere, and it wasn’t a joke. It was a slur and a nasty one at that. We wrote and talked about the hidden prejudice behind the assumption that Jewish girls were more materialistic, empty headed, than their gentile peers. We pointed out that most Italian or Irish girls were not sitting in the mall reading Rilke or discussing Occam’s razor on the bleachers at the football game. We talked about how Jewish males had deflected anti-Semitism onto their sisters.
We went on a trip to Israel and I felt joy. I also felt sorrow. Not just at Yad Vashem but also at the meeting I went to where Meir Kahane and his gun-slinging body guards made angry, threatening noises about the West Bank. I felt Jewish sorrow: Nothing is perfect. A Zionist assassinated Rabin, and as I worry for Israel I see that a state like any other state is sometimes morally suspect and never entirely innocent. It is not fair to expect Israel to be a better state than others, but I admit to a romantic hope, a kind of wish on a birthday candle hope, that Israel because if its Jewish history will be or could be a light unto the nations. But of course lights unto nations or on birthday cakes do tend to get blown out.
One summer I went to a meeting of American Jewish feminists and Israeli feminists, Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, socialist, free thinkers. We listened to each other, talked about the differences in culture between Israel and America and what that meant for women. Betty Friedan was there. Yael Dayan was there. Women of the Wall began there. I went to the wall and inserted a note in the cracks of brick pleading for the health of a child of mine who was very ill. I did not do that in hope of an answered prayer. I did it because I was standing with my own. I do not need to observe and believe to join the woman for whom sitting behind a mehitzah is an insult, for whom exclusion from a conversation with God as an equal with men is a wound. I join them because I respect their need for religious equality, and I admire their Jewish experience, their Jewish knowledge, their Jewish practice, even though it is not exactly mine.
As a secular Jewish woman I can express my admiration, my connection to, Jewish women who successfully pressed to become rabbis and to perform leadership roles of all kinds in the Jewish community. I admire woman astronauts too and am glad for their opportunity to rise up to the stars. There, in Israel, I saw coming together two important parts of my being. I was a Jewish woman, a female Jew, and there was joy in this fused identity.
But in the following years a new conflict besieged my days. The Israel I had admired and loved was a liberal Zionist Israel, with a deep humanism at its center and a hope for peace that infused all my concerns. I could always see that the Palestinians, badly led, tragically history’s fools and losers, needed a state of their own—which meant limiting the settler movement, voting the right wing out of power, and working incessantly for reasonable reconciliation. I joined Americans for Peace Now. I wrote column after column in the Jerusalem Report, advocating for a two-state solution even as settlement after settlement moved across the hills of the West Bank. I did feel despair when Rabin was assassinated. I felt ill when the most extreme of zealots won elections again and again. And during that time I was on a panel at a meeting of Artists and Writers for Peace in the Mideast. This was an organization that I soon came to see was financed by the Likud government to influence opinion in America. Most of its members were sympathetic to the “the whole land will become ours” group. They did not send flowers to Baruch Goldstein’s gravesite but they understood him all too well.
I thought the invitation to talk on the panel was part of a real dialogue within the Jewish community. It wasn’t. The audience was entirely unfriendly. Michael Lerner who was then the editor of Tikkun magazine and I were on one side, and Cynthia Ozick and someone else were on the other. The moderator wouldn’t let me or Michael finish any sentence as wild shouts rose from the audience. People were grabbing the mic to say in one way or another that we were traitors to the Jewish People. My teenage daughter, sitting in the first row, had tears in her eyes. There was shouting and foot-stamping every time either Michael or I started to speak.
Someone screamed out at me, Traitor. Someone else screamed out Nazi. There was loud angry booing when Michael took the mic but he couldn’t be heard. He said to me, We ought to leave, and I agreed. We stood up and walked off the dais and around the side aisle. My daughter and husband followed. Cynthia Ozick had the microphone, she was yelling at me as I walked, as fast as possible with as much dignity as I could summon, toward the door, “Coward, coward.” I was shaking when standing on the street. A few days later a post card arrived from Cynthia. I have kept it for some library. It said, “You are not a feminist, following a man out the door.”
I will always admire Cynthia as a writer. I loved her Puttermesser stories and her essays. I hate her political certainty and its lack of civility. I hate her position that the Palestinians are not a people, do not matter as Jews matter. I do not think that the God that I don’t believe in would share her view.
That was a long time ago. Sadly, we on the peace side of American Jewish politics have lost, at least for the foreseeable future, as have the moderates and liberals in Israel. The Palestinians have continually helped their own worst enemies in Israel win the battle for public opinion. The peace movement is stalled. The land is being occupied in every corner, and while it might end in a Jewish state right up to the steps of the Jordanian Palace it might end in another exile. The good opinion of the world is turning away from Israel as it turned against an apartheid South Africa, and that creates other dangers to the state. I am heartbroken. I am sure Cynthia is confident and celebrating.
I do not speak to Cynthia now. I imagine her in her home with her mild soft voice rejoicing in the strength Israel exhibited in Gaza. I imagine her quick wit smashing the idol of Liberalism. She was very fond of calling all the things she did not like idols: How easily she could demolish them.
I remained a liberal feminist. That means I may have been more of a supporter of Betty Friedan than of Gloria Steinem in those splits and skirmishes. I always thought universal childcare was a primary issue for woman and families and that equal pay mattered more than using the correct pronoun in speech. I didn’t believe in a female God, any more than I believed in a male God.
My daughter Katie while at graduate school wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times comparing the language in current date-rape pamphlets pressed into the hands of college freshmen to the language used in Victorian guides for young ladies, arguing that both were similarly infantilizing women. The response by some feminists to her piece was violent and passionate. It was as if she had encouraged rape or given comfort to the enemy. One of the founders of Ms. Magazine, Letty Pogrebin, said publically that Katie would be responsible for women’s blood spilled on streets around the world.
And so it came clear that the feminist movement, some of my old friends included, had themselves become intolerant and rigid in their political creed. It happens that movements begun in hope often end in ugly splits, name-calling, line-toe-ing, expulsions, etc. There are Trotskys everywhere, most of them dead. I had hoped the women’s movement would be different. I was wrong. I am afraid of dogma and even a little suspicious of Righteous Anger. Katie speaks for herself and her concerns are those of her time, not mine. I am, however, Katie’s kind of feminist. The party line, any party line, can so easily become an electric fence.
I am glad that feminism as a branch of humanism is alive and well, and I believe in the end that feminism that includes all genders and ages will be the feminism that lasts at least until history takes some other turn. But despite all that is left to accomplish (equal pay, childcare, health care, abortion rights secured, more women in science, more women on boards of public companies, a woman president, better protection from abusers of all kinds), I have seen amazing change in so short a time. I know as a person born before there was television, a lot of sand has already been crossed, and the Promised Land, while never arriving, is almost visible over the next hill and down the next canyon, as it always is.
I know more about Judaism than I did when I was younger. I know what the prayers are saying. I know what our holidays are about. I know what the history is. I may not eat kosher, but I don’t touch pork. I know that a love of the Jewish story is not all there is to a Jewish soul. I also know that reading Sholem Aleichem, Isaac Babel, Isaac Bashevis Singer, S.Y. Agnon, David Grossman, Yehuda Amichai, A.B. Yehoshua, Amos Oz, Cynthia Ozick, Walter Benjamin, Franz Kafka, Max Brod, Bernard Malamud, Hannah Arendt, Dan Pagis, Nellie Sachs, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Grace Paley, Leon Wieseltier, Gary Shteyngart, Art Spiegelman, Tillie Olsen, Deborah Lipstadt, among others, is a way of living with an ever-growing Tanakh, devouring it slowly but steadily, portion by portion. Actually, I am a member of a group of primarily secular Jews who meet once a month to study Torah. We are not getting in touch with the Yeshiva boy lurking within, but we are learning about our texts and what they have offered and what has been struggled with and is still the stuff of argument and drama today. Yes, this is buffet Judaism, but it is also real, burning, important to me.
I am my kind of Jew. I still wish I had learned Hebrew, and I still wish I had the opportunity to be as Hebrew literate, as knowledgeable about Judaism, as my brother was, but that is an old story. I wish that I had known just one woman doctor as I was growing up so that I might have been a chemistry major. And sometimes, when I wake in the early hours of the morning I consider that I might have missed my Israeli soldier. What if he did come, and I was waiting in the hall of Greek and Roman statues and he was in the Egyptian wing?
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