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Confrontations

Our Royal Line of Interns Reflect on the (Sometimes Happy) Havoc that Judaism, Feminism and Determination Have Wrought

I’m tired of admitting it, but it’s true; I never noticed the gendered-ness of Judaism until it came Into my home. I didn’t notice It in the texts we studied in Hebrew school or at the Orthodox synagogue where my grandparents prayed. I wasn’t even aware, until much later on, that I was the first girl in my Conservative synagogue’s history to become bat mitzvah on Saturday—and to read the haftorah. I took It for granted. But when, a few years later, my grandparents’ eldest son was blessed with his first child—a boy!—all hell broke loose, both in the house and In my consciousness.

On the notion that in the lives of all young women comes a time when “all hell breaks loose,” we turned to the 20-year line of LILITH’s Interns. Here was a group of women, coming down different paths, all arriving at the nexus of Judaism and womanhood, personal ambition and communal responsibility (i.e., our door), just when time had brought them to the nexus of adolescence and adulthood. For a moment they were asked—perhaps permitted—to believe that all of these paths could meet and continue as one, no road untaken. And then they were gone.

Where did those paths lead? We tracked them and found that they led our former Interns to institutions— academia, education, business, marriage, even that vaguest, the superego—where not all those developing identities have been welcome. We asked them: What conflicts have you faced? What compromises have you made? What spurs you to passion, and where? In the streets of Israel, In Honduras, the seminary? Has the struggle moved out of the public or Jewish realm, into your personal lives? What remained of your effort, that summer way back when to resolve at least two Identities Into one?

One of our earliest interns tells us of preparing for a daughter’s bat mitzvah, which pitted the sex-segregated Orthodox synagogue against the egalitarian school. Another tells of the problem of worship after a synagogue door (almost literally) is shut in her face when the rabbi hears she is a lesbian. And a third, the great granddaughter of the great egalitarian innovator Mordecai Kaplan, Is warily ceding to the pull of a more traditional Judaism.

The profiles in these pages will speak to anyone who on her own path has come to a crossroads— and resisted having to choose.

Paula Gribetz Gottlieb, 40, 1977

“It felt very natural to me. I don’t think I realized how revolutionary it was,” recalls Paula Gribetz Gottlieb about her days at LILITH. Then a junior a Barnard eyeing a career in journalism or books, she joined the newborn magazine as one of its first interns.

She recalls the energy of the LILITH office— and Jewish feminism—in those days, but also the humility of those involved, and says there wasn’t as much “ego” as in the secular feminist movement. “In that room at LILITH … they knew there was a lot of work to do, and they were doing it.”

Having a daughter and also following traditional Judaism has challenged Paula, as she says, to put her money where her mouth is. This year Paula’s daughter approached bat mitzvah, and the family had to decide how to mark it: In her daughter’s Conservative day school, all the other girls will participate fully; in her Orthodox synagogue, she is among the most liberal. (Paula herself had resisted the urgings of Rabbi Irving Greenberg to become bat mitzvah when she was 12.) So, with the blessing of their Orthodox rabbi, and some explaining to her daughter’s classmates, the family has decided on a women’s t’fillah ceremony.

We’ve just hung up after an hour’s chat when Paula, who runs her own marketing and communications firm in Mt. Vernon, N.Y., calls back with a postscript: her husband. It is Michael Gottlieb who at times urges her to take on the tradition, defends and builds up his daughter’s presence in the Jewish world. “My whole life would have been different if I hadn’t married this person.”

Beryl Salter, 38,1980-81

In her recently completed book, Beryl Salter writes about women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries who tried to break the confines of their Protestant religion by creating alternative, proto- New Age religions—only to bump up against the walls that continued to contain them.

An assistant professor at Rutgers University, Satter talks at length about these questions, but the walls that contain her, particularly as a Jewish lesbian, come up much later in the conversation. At first she cheerfully describes the “lesbian thing” that concerned her as a student at Columbia. “In a way LILITH was a little more conservative than what I was doing,” she recalls. “They were talking about families, and we were talking about whether you needed a family.”

More than 15 years later, she is in a committed relationship and trying to maintain a Jewish identity. The big problem: homophobia. Satter had been raised in a open-minded Jewish home by her mother, and supported in many ways by the organized Jewish community, which sent her on scholarship to Jewish camps and to Israel. But now that she’s “out” that community has been less than warm. She recounts her confrontation with a rabbi in a New Jersey synagogue where she’d hoped to attend High Holiday services. Discovering that Satter was “not married” but in a stable relationship with a woman, the rabbi asked her not to come.

“Jews are very proud of our labor history,” she says. “We’re eager to claim the Jewish radical at the turn of the century, and even eager to claim the Jewish feminist. But when it comes to claiming Jewish gay and lesbian leaders,” she says, putting the issue into perspective, “that isn’t [considered] Judaism.”

Rachel Hallote, 1983

At this moment, conversation with archaeologist Rachel Hallote begins and ends with her 18-month-old son. Mainly, his birth is responsible for a change in her vision of what she, as a woman, could accomplish. “I always assumed I could do anything,” she says, “Even while I was pregnant.” The reality has been quite different.

“When he was small, all I wanted to do was nurse him, and that’s what my priority was, and that’s something that his father didn’t have to provide.” Determined though she was to do it all, Rachel has cut back significantly on her fieldwork and teaches part time at Penn State University. Convinced that men and women could be partners in childraising, she now accepts that she is the primary caregiver. And focused though she had been on tombs in biblical archaeology, her attention has now turned to a different subset: female figurines.

“When I present my paper, they’ll say, she wouldn’t have written about that unless she was nursing, and they’ll be right,” she says, quickly adding that her nursing doesn’t undermine the seriousness of her scholarship.

To Rachel, it’s all part of the same system, the one that she suspects might be responsible for holding back her mother, Cynthia Ozick. “My mother,” she asserts about the woman who also first inspired her to believe that women could do anything, “did not go as far as she might have if she were male.”

Rachel Kadish, 28, 1989, 1991

“There are very few places I can go where all the comers and edges fit,” says Rachel Kadish in the cool tones of the novelist she is. Speaking from a pay phone at the McDowell writers’ colony in Massachusetts, she describes the openness to women’s concerns and the wariness of Jewish ones in the writerly circles in which she travels. “In a lot of art circles, the easiest way to be Jewish is to be an alienated Jew. And I’m not an alienated Jew.”

Kadish doesn’t define herself as religious, but says that when it comes to her writing, “the Jewish world is my world.” (Indeed her novel-in-progress is set in Israel.) When it comes to feminism, she says, “You pick and choose where you want to get into an argument. LILITH is one of the few places I’ve been where every place fits.” If there is a generation gap, she think it’s that “the older generation has a sense of being part of a movement. Our generation has the luxury of thinking of our lives as individual lives.” And luxury, one senses, may not be an entirely good thing.

Rachel Dobkin, 29,1990-93 “After being at Bowdoin where I was [seen as] Ye Olde Jew, then I was at Columbia where I wasn’t considered a Jew anymore. …LILITH was a way back. I didn’t feel blasphemous saying certain things.” (Bowdoin’s Jewish population is tiny, Columbia’s, large and outspoken.)

Co-author of Educating Ourselves The College Woman’s Handbook, a feminist guidebook, Rachel was no stranger in her college years to either the feminist or the activist impulse. She had taken time off from school to organize for the National Organization for Women, had joined a NOW president on the Campaign Finance Board, and worked for environmental, labor and gay and lesbian causes.

But she had confronted early on that Judaism might pose special problems to her take-charge operation. “In 4th grade they said I couldn’t be a rabbi. That’s when I decided that I had to be a rabbi.” She says the time she spent computerizing LILITH “really opened my eyes to the fact that I didn’t have to give up anything to be observant.” [Editor and rabbi Susan] Schnur taught her: “You’re not only allowed to but you have a mandate to reinterpret.”

Kathy Sillman, 25, 1991 & 1992

An hour speaking with Kathy Sillman, a graduate student in education at Bank Street College, leaves one word hanging in the air: activism. Kathy, who since college has spent one year in Honduras and another in New York City’s public school bilingual program, continually expands what “Jewish feminism” and ‘feminism” mean. “The work that I’ve done leads me to believe that issues of feminism cannot be separated from so many parts of a person’s life, culturally, religiously, economically.”

“When I think about the students I worked with [in the bilingual program], . . . I could think about feminist issues, . . . but there was so much at play. They were
children who came to this country, living with relatives they had never met, who had grown up in El Salvador during the war.”

In her memory, it’s a certain spiritual activism that she appreciated about LILITH. “A lot of the work was about taking from the tradition what is personally and spiritually rewarding to you.” And when asked what she’d like to see in LILITH, and by extension Jewish feminism, she said, “how people are enacting the idea of Tikkun Olam,” repairing the world, “what sort of action is being taken.”

Karen Prager Kramer, 28,1992-93

“Will I ever find a place where all my varied identities can be comfortable?” wrote Karen Prager about her stay on a cattle ranch in Kansas (“Herefords, Hebrew and Me,” Summer 1993). “In Israel I am an Anglo,’ in the States I am a Jew, and no matter where I go I am marginalized as a woman and— except for some places I’ve worked—feared, ridiculed, or loathed as a feminist.”

But questions of identity raged much earlier for Karen, who was raised in an Orthodox home and says “by the time I was four years old, I knew I wasn’t Orthodox.” In sixth grade she started failing her Jewish studies—the same year that boys and girls were separated. But where the segregation really got to her was at home: “At Friday night dinners I was expected to clear my brother’s bowl of chicken soup. And that sent me straight into women’s studies at Harvard….The moment the professors opened their mouths, I knew I was home.”

But home she wasn’t. The problem was, “I was Jewish and no one was talking about it.” Clearly a woman of enthusiasms, Karen recalls her senior year when finally she discovered a model during a visit by University of Maryland women’s studies professor Evelyn Torton Beck. “I wanted to run up on the stage and kiss her because you could say Jewish and feminist in the same breath and not be crazy.”

For a time, she says, “LILITH was perfection,” though she also recalls entering the office and asking for a desk of her own. “It was like no one had ever said that before. I wanted to say to them, ‘You’re entitled to take up space,’ I mean, they were the ones who were supposed to be teaching me that.”

In the constant search for a sense of home (Karen says both secular feminism and organized Jewry leave her feeling very isolated), she has now turned to none other than—home. Chided by her family for not feeding her husband enough, she also heard those voices in her own head. “When I first got married,” she explains, laughing, “I had this almost primal drive to make pot roast. It was absurd.”

Robin Beth Schaer, 25,1993-1995

“I was really looking for community, I was desperate for it,” says Robin Beth Schaer, who recently left her editorship at a community newspaper in New York City to pursue a Masters in Fine Arts and Creative Writing. Coming to New York from Colgate University, where she felt the Jewish community was hostile to the feminist innovations she was trying to introduce— such seemingly familiar concepts as a gender-neutral naming of God—Robin found her community in LILITH’s nascent outreach program to young Jews.

While today she still engages both Jewish and feminist issues, “It [had] consumed my whole identity,” she says, “I felt like I was constantly putting myself in different compartments and just talking about one part of myself I’m a Jewish woman, but I’m also very funny, I’m also a writer, I’m also dark-skinned. … I was meeting with people based on these two aspects of what I am, and what I needed was friends.”

Sharon Musher, 25,1994

What do you do if you’re 25 and turning toward Conservadoxy but confused over women’s participation? What if your parents have already turned to Orthodoxy? If your great-grandfather was Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of the egalitarian movement and your great-aunt was Judith Kaplan Eisenstein, the first woman to have a bat mitzvah? The answers to these questions are still pending for 25-year-old Sharon Musher, who was “never denied access” to any part of Judaism as a child and now finds herself drawn to more traditional practice.

“I like davening separately, men from women,” she explains, acknowledging the contradictions, “but I don’t like at all that women can’t lead services.” Musher, who is a Ph.D. student in American history at Columbia, has posed similar questions to her fiance: “To what extent do we want to play similar roles? To what extent different?”

Rebecca Wand, 23,1994

This year Rebecca Wand went to Israel for the first time, and found herself taking up the egalitarian argument with traditionalists she met everywhere. “I sort of can’t help myself I feel so strongly about it that I almost can’t understand how other people could not feel this way.”

Wand’s initiation into feminist Judaism hadn’t occurred until she read Judith Plaskow’s Standing Again at Sinai for her Harvard Introduction to Religion class. But she says the passion she found for it at LILITH and at school persists (her senior thesis examined the experiences of female rabbis), and she soon will leave her job at the UJA-Federation to pursue a Masters in Judaic studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary. “In a way I feel [my Jewish feminism] has brought me closer to Judaism,” she explains about her decision, “but it’s hard to be involved in Jewish feminism without the education to make good arguments.”

Sarah Wallis, 22,1996

To Sarah Wallis, activism comes in all forms. Since graduation a year ago she’s continued to work on her senior thesis, collecting the stories of the women of her family, looking at their immigrant identities. “Writing down my own stories, taking down other people’s stories, is [a step toward] making our voices heard,” she says.

Sarah clearly claims a Jewish feminist identity, working to fill in the Jewish knowledge that her rearing left empty. Her parents were communists in the 1970s, and while they gave her a cultural and even ritual grounding, religious training was ignored. “I’m definitely the big Jew of my family. They think it’s kind of funny, but I think at the same time it’s making them more interested in Judaism.” She can’t be wrong. Sarah’s mother this year hosted her first Passover seder.

Natalie Blitt, 24,1996

When as a girl Natalie found out that she couldn’t get married in Westminster Abbey, she was distraught. After all, her connection to Judaism was “very wishy-washy, just something that meant I couldn’t celebrate Christmas.” Since those years she has clung to a pendulum, swinging toward a feminist Orthodoxy and away again, struggling to find a way into the religion, and to answer her family’s questions as well. “‘We brought you up to think you can do anything,'” she says, describing her parents’ attitude, “‘and here you are limiting yourself.'”

In response to queries, Natalie, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition, says, “We all have restraints. I just have a few more.” And she believes that in her Orthodox world, it is knowledge, not activism, that will create change. “If you aren’t learned, you have to take someone else’s word for it.”