Checking the Boxes

A new collection of Hannah Arendt’s writings on Jewish subjects is about to be published, cleverly titled “The Jewish Writings.” Arendt
wasn’t known primarily as a Jewish writer (even though Eichmann in Jerusalem may be her best known work), but she wrote a lot about Jewish themes and issues, maybe even more than she wrote about anything else. In the current issue of the Boston Review, Vivian Gornick considers this group of Arendt’s articles and essays. It’s an interesting piece overall, but I’m going to skip right to the end. Gornick describes the letter Gershom Scholem wrote to Arendt after the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem, famously accusing her of having “no love of the Jewish people.”

Here’s Gornick’s assessment of Arendt’s response:

“[B]eing a Jew had been a given of her life. Not only had she never wished to be anything else, but being Jewish had made her appreciate, as nothing else could have, the significance of being allowed to be what one is: ‘There is such a thing as a basic gratitude for everything that is as it is: for what has been given and not made.’

This regard for the givens of individual human existence had led her to think deeply about everything she had thought mattered during the previous thirty years. What she loved was the experience of the Jewish people: it had taught her how to consider the human condition at large. How much more Jewish did she have to be?”

How much, indeed? I came across Gornick’s piece while poking around for stories that dealt in some way with both Judaism and feminism. It’s the “and” where things get tricky. For something to qualify as “Jewish feminist,” do both boxes have to be checked? And how do we go about checking them?

This question is hardly new to readers of Lilith, or to other folks who identify as feminists, Jews or any combination of the two. But it’s one I can’t get away from, and it’s thrown in sharper relief when I’m sifting through other people’s material and trying to figure out what fits. “Jewish feminism,” is seems to me, can be awfully specific.

Identifying whether or not something is feminist has always been easy for me; even if the definition of that word remains in question, my “test” for feminism is basically a version of what the Supreme Court said about obscenity back in 1964: “I know it when I see it” – and just as importantly, when I don’t (though the gray areas are where things get the most interesting, anyway).

Judaism is more specific. There are basically two “tests” to determine whether a book or movie or whatever else is Jewish enough to be discussed in terms of its Jewishness: does it involve or address Jewish ideas? And, is the author Jewish? To get the attention of the Jewish press, the answer to one of these questions generally has to be yes. Of course, it depends who’s doing the answering.

The second question would seem to be the easier one to determine, but really, neither is all that straightforward. There’s a basic way to know whether or not a person is Jewish: is her mother Jewish? But lineage rarely tells the whole story. And when publications like the Jerusalem Post keep score of every Oscar nominee who’s even remotely connected to Judaism (references to Daniel Day Lewis being the son of “British Jewish actress” Jill Balcon particularly smack of desperation), I’m not sure what value the easy definition really has.

Which is not to say I’m in favor of a stricter one, one that would mean the Post ignored actors of Jewish descent unless their
Judaism was, in Arendt’s terms, made as well as given. For the purposes of my nascent blogging here, it can be tricky to avoid using overly simplistic tests when deciding what counts as Jewish feminist arts and culture. It drives me crazy.

–Eryn Loeb

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