Seeing the work of female artists is part of the pleasure of reading Lilith. The magazine has delightedly featured work by a whole cadre of Jewish feminist artists since its inception, Judy Chicago among them.
Now that Chicago’s “The Dinner Party” has been rescued from homelessness (well, retrieved from storage) and installed at the Brooklyn Museum, we have a chance to stand back and examine the power associated with what goes on at a table. In politics, as in family life, we ask: Who’ll come to the table? What does she bring to the table? Will you set the table?
Let’s start with that title. The Dinner Party. So female, even before our minds associate it with Chicago’s anatomically female imagery. A dinner party calls forth an event that’s simultaneously warm and hospitable, possibly formal and fraught, and sometimes an occasion for display and competition in the lives of women. A dinner party is an opportunity for good talk and good food and — sometimes — even good china. A cloth on the table may have been embroidered by women long gone in our own families or perhaps by women and girls moving needles and shuttles in intricate stitchery for substandard wages in faraway countries. But whatever the decor, a table has its own power plays.
Women seated at the conference table. Maybe it’s a conference table devoid of those softening niceties of textile and aroma, texture and taste. This one is a table where women make policy, not pot roast — or at least not at the same time. The late Bella Abzug, recounting how she’d been part of a dialogue bringing together Arab and Israeli women, suggested that in future the women could sit down at the table, get the conversation started and, having modeled this behavior for men, get up and offer their seats (figuratively speaking) to male politicians who’d then carry on what the women had started. There’s a lot of transformative potential when women talk unguardedly around the table.
Women at the board table. Judy Chicago speaks of Elizabeth Sackler, foundation executive and museum trustee, as a model for other women of power and money to step up and support bold, risk-taking feminist ventures. Chicago told Artnews magazine last month that “One of the big changes is that finally a woman has come forward to provide patronage for another woman’s work — at a level from which women had formerly been restricted. So much work by women has been erased, because we have not had comparable patronage.”
What about the injunction to set the table? In our heads we hear the words spoken in a mother’s voice, whether as polite request or as unshirkable demand to bring order and a measure of ritual to our lives. Treacly or tough, Jewish mothers have gotten a bum rap — or rather the image of the JM has been negative, while at the same time her daughters turn out to like her quite a lot. In this issue we take a look at the actual strengths underneath the oppressive caricatures of Jewish mothers as pathogenic, pathetic guilt-inducers. In a wide-ranging, frank and funny conversation, Susan Schnur and historian Joyce Antler inspect various portrayals of the JM, from the borscht belt to the campus, while Antler reports on women’s reactions to their own Jewish mothering. At last, the JM gets some respect.
So do queer Jews. Which bring us to the question of who gets invited to the table. At some Jewish institutions, those at the table have until recently been almost exclusively hetero males. Thanks in no small measure to activist efforts for inclusion and diversity, that hegemony is changing. At many tables now, there’s room for a more diverse assortment of rabbinical students, rabbis and just plain Jews of every gender. The Conservative movement has decided that its seminaries admit gays and lesbian for rabbinical ordinations. The Reconstructionist movement trumpets in a press releases that “a lesbian rabbi” will chair the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association. And the Reform movement has ordained an openly transgender rabbi, whose new blessings to recite at moments of gender transitioning appear in this issue.
Feminists are extending the table so it seats more people. The extra leaves were always there, stored beneath the surface. We’re getting strong enough to lift them out.