You may have missed a fascinating obituary from last week: that of Sheila Michaels, the feminist and civil rights activist who is credited for propagating the use of the honorific “Ms.” Outside of this news-making accomplishment, her life was fascinating, from being expelled from college in part due to her outspoken anti-segregationist views, to working as a cabdriver, to becoming a restaurateur. The New York Times piece adds a lot of color and detail in a short amount of space to the life of an amazing woman. But there’s one glaring omission: Michaels was Jewish.
That Sheila Michaels was Jewish should come as no surprise. From her prominent place in second-wave feminism to the fact that her biological father was “Ephraim London, a noted civil-liberties lawyer” (and, fun fact, the nephew of Socialist U.S. Congressman Meyer London), it all screams Member of the Tribe. But you wouldn’t know from just reading the Times obituary (by a Jewish writer, for the record, Margalit Fox).
The sad fact is, this seems par for the course for the paper of record. The New York Times often (not always) seem to reserve mention the Jewish identity of obituary subjects for when their work is in some way explicitly Jewish. Certainly they’re not the only mainstream publication to do so, but they’re particularly egregious, particularly for serving the local community of the most Jewish part of the country. Michaels is simply the latest example of a long, long trend.
Another recent instance would be pioneering journalist Gabe Pressman, who in his storied career briefly worked for a subsidiary of JTA, and as late as his eighties was still reporting on stories with a particular Jewish interest. Then there’s Leonard Litwin, the real estate mogul and philanthropist who (not that you would learn it from the Times) was a large donor to explicitly Jewish causes.
So why does this matter? These people all worked in their lives largely in areas that did not directly affect Jews any more than another group. And many Jews, of course, minimize their own backgrounds, or are divorced from it entirely.
Michaels, for the record, was invested in her Jewish identity. In a 1999 interview about her background in St. Louis, for example, she referenced her Jewishness several times, including referencing that there were businesses during her childhood that wouldn’t hire Jews. She invoked the Bible in her feminist work (she loved the story of Ruth and Naomi in particular). And at the end of her life, she was heavily involved in Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in Manhattan; in fact, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum was at her bedside when Michaels passed.
But even if this were not the case, it’s still an unfair omission to not mention that a prominent person is from a Jewish family when summarizing their life. Intersectionality has become a volatile word in public conversation, the idea that multiple aspects of identity, particularly of minority groups, form unique life experiences, and color interaction with the world as a whole. And Jews, never ones to back down from an argument, have been fielding discussions of what that means for us.
To talk about what these individuals have accomplished, in the arts, and business, and social justice, and not remark on the fact that they hold a similar history, subtly erases what Jews have accomplished in this country. It also impedes understanding what these great men and women overcame. Not everyone can read the Michaels obituary and read between the lines to understand that she was Jewish. She had to deal with not only sexism during her lifetime, but also with anti-Jewish prejudice.
Maybe fifty years from now, for yet-to-be-prominent Jews born into assimilated families it really will be besides the point to mention their ethnicity. But even for the most secular of older Americans, their Jewish origins lie closer to immigration, and to an era where anti-Semitism was more prevalent, where the notion of Jews in America as an “Other” was less up for debate.
The non-Jewish press doesn’t have to publish entire pieces focussing on Jewish identity where it’s not warranted. But in the summation of a person’s life, is it really not pertinent to mention it once?