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Eureka!

What were the texts and experiences that shaped these notable women into feminist Jews? Crystallizing the moment revealed by Cynthia Ozick, Marge Piercy, Bella Abzug, Francine Klagsbrun, Susannah Heschel, E.M. Broner, Aviva Cantor, Marcia Falk, Evelyn Torton Beck, Barbara Levy Kipper, Harriet Lerner, Alicia Ostriker, Faye Moskowitz, Vanessa Ochs, Alexandra Lebenthal, Lynne Landsberg, Riv-Ellen Prell, Judith Plaskow, Nessa Rapoport, Peninnah Schram, Alice Shalvi and Savina J. Teubal.

FRANCINE KLAGSBRUN, author of more than a dozen books, writes and lectures on social, religious and feminist issues.

I had already been involved in feminist writing— having edited Free to Be You and Me— when I began working on my first Jewish book. Voices of Wisdom, a compilation of traditional responses to everyday issues of life. I had always loved our sacred texts, but the more deeply I delved, the more sickeningly aware I became of the dearth of women’s voices. In the midst of this conflicted enterprise I was invited to sit on the Commission for the Study of Women in the Rabbinate of the Jewish Theological Seminary to examine the question of ordaining women. As I listened to the testimonies of bright, dedicated women who wanted to enter the Conservative rabbinate (impossible in 1982), I knew that the only answer to the paucity of women’s responses that had so pained me was for women to have full access to study and leadership. It was then that I became a passionate advocate of women in the rabbinate, and from there an advocate of all aspects of Jewish feminism.

SUSANNAH HESCHEL edited On Being a Jewish feminist (Schocken). She teaches at Case Western Reserve University.

The sudden, unexpected death of my father. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, brought me the deepest pain I have ever experienced. I turned for consolation to the halakhah of mourning, described by Rav Soloveitchik so eloquently as a source of compassion and healing. Yet it turned out to be a horror of exclusion for me. My mother and I sat in the hallway as male mourners gathered to pray during the week of shivah; I was turned away, again and again, from synagogues in the U.S. and Israel when I went to say Kaddish; my father’s grave is in a family plot that segregates men and women.

Trying to understand the roots of sexism, I read Mary Daly’s Beyond God the Father, and realized for the first time that the problems were very deep. I was both elated—to find an explanation for what was happening to me—and despairing—to realize how difficult it would be to bring about change.

EM. BRONER is the author of Jewish feminist books, A Weave of Women and The Telling (HarperSanFrancisco).

My mentor was myself in that curious way in which you mother yourself, instruct yourself, and are the pioneer in your own life—and, it turns out—in the lives of others.

There were no Jewish feminist writers when I was working—or not readily available. But I learned from the concern and poetic language of Grace Paley and her material—mothers and children—about the validity of that subject matter and later, from Toni Morrison’s experimental work, that one could go deep, deep within, into the unacceptable.

AVIVA CANTOR was a founding co-editor of LILITH. Her book, Jewish Women, Jewish Men: the legacy of Patriarchy in Jewish Life, will be published by HarperSanFrancisco in 1995.

I became a feminist in 1970 when I was involved with the Jewish Liberation Project, a Socialist Zionist organization I co-founded that was part of the vibrant Jewish movement of the late ’60’s-early ’70’s. When the women in the movement began to apply feminist perspective to Jewish religious and communal life, we were surprised to encounter considerable ideological resistance among many male haverim (comrades).

One event emblematic of their response took place at a 1971 cultural conference sponsored by the movement’s umbrella, the North American Jewish Students Network, and WUJS (World Union of Jewish Students), held at a camp in Zieglerville, PA. To mollify the men, who were angry that the women had caucused separately for three days to discuss our concerns, we decided to have a “coed” session. Expecting support, we were stunned when men from left to right hurled verbal brickbats at all of us, charging that feminism was “Bad for the Jews.” It was at this point that many of us correctly realized that feminism, which we considered ethical, logical, and good for the Jews, would meet with great resistance in the community. My attempt to understand the root causes of that resistance led me to analyze the specific character of Jewish patriarchy, its gender roles and gender psychology.

MARCIA FALK, poet and translator, most recently authored With Teeth in the Earth, a translation of the Yiddish poetry of Malka Heifetz Tussman (Wayne State U. Press). She is currently at work on The Book of Blessings: A Re-Creation of Jewish Prayer (HarperSanFrancisco), forthcoming in 1995.

Translating The Song of Songs in the ’70’s had been a true labor of love for me, a pleasurable escape into the realms of sensuality, nature and eros. The Song was a rich offering of women’s voices—immediate and authentic— not reported by a male narrator, not filtered through a patriarchal lens. In it I had discovered a model for myself as a lyric poet, while reclaiming my history as a woman and as a Jew. I wanted more. I decided to turn to the Psalms—the obvious source of lyric poetry in the Bible— and see what could be found there.

So I spent the summer of 1980 in an artists’ colony in Virginia, trying to give new voice to the words of the ancient psalmists. But it was as though a huge boulder was thrust before my eyes whenever I caught a glimpse of what my rendition might be. That boulder was The Lord God King. There just seemed to be no way for him to take his place among the crowded company of trees and rivers and stones, all clapping their hands and rejoicing and clamoring for poetic attention. Whenever he entered the room, the music stopped.

That was a crucial turning point in my life, both as a creative artist and as a feminist Jew. I realized that I was no longer able to glide along, creatively stimulated and spiritually satisfied, on the stream of tradition as I had been led to it. I would have to throw my own pebbles into the flow, and wait and .see what happened. If the stones made rippling waves and the water became choppy for a while, so be it. If the pebbles sunk to the bottom, to remain unseen forever, so be it. And if they fell in piles and the piles grew slowly into formations that ever-so-slowly shaped the contours of the river bed itself, so that eventually the flow took some new turns and wound its way into new terrains—that, too, was not up to me.

I accepted the sad reality that The Song of Songs is unique, and I stopped searching for ancient sources of Jewish women’s voices to reclaim through translation. Instead I began adding newer voices to the ancient flow— including my own.

EVELYN TORTON BECK is the author and editor of Nice Jewish Girls: A Lesbian Anthology (Beacon Press).

When I first taught courses on Yiddish language and translation at the university, I knew I wanted to focus on Jewish themes, but I was only beginning to understand myself as a woman. The syllabus was all male. I began by picking stories about women by male Yiddish writers, then I uncovered work in Yiddish by women as well. I began to see that my activist work would be to name and transform absences.

BARBARA LEVY KIPPER is chairman of the Chas. Levy Company, the 11th largest woman-owned company in the U. S. A recipient of American Jewish Congress’ Deborah Award, she is also a trustee of the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies.

My involvement with women’s issues was evolutionary— not one Aha! moment. I was a traditional wife and mother living in Israel when, in 1986, at 44, I inherited my family’s business and became the first woman to head it in its 93-year history.

I’m passionately involved with my business; I .see it as a place of opportunity for people of talent, women and men. And in guiding the company I became keenly aware of the complex responsibilities and sometimes unenviable choices women must make. Now my Jewish sense of community impels my participation in a broad spectrum of organizations advocating for women.

HARRIET LERNER is staff psychologist at the Menninger Clink in Topeka, Kansas, and author most recently of The Dance of Deception (HarperCollins).

I was born in Brooklyn in 1944, the younger daughter of progressive Jewish parents who were allergic to both religion and ritual. Our family sang Christmas carols and recognized no Jewish holidays.

Not surprisingly, I moved more naturally toward feminism than toward Judaism, although I was slow to “get” each. What heightened my consciousness was a move from Berkeley, California, to Topeka, in 1972. A feminist and a Jew, I became a scarce commodity in both categories.

The first time I recall feeling like a “Jewish feminist” (as opposed to a feminist who also happened to be Jewish) was at a workshop on ethnicity conducted by Irish- American family therapist Monica McGoldrick, who noted that Jews tend to enter therapy more readily than other ethnic groups and to stay longer, seeing it as a learning experience. On the spot, I forgave my mother for starting me in therapy at age two and sending me back whenever I came home from school with anything less than a B+. I found it liberating, normalizing and grounding to sit in this workshop and reflect upon my family’s strengths and weirdness in the broader cultural context of Jewishness.

At that point I stopped insisting that my parents “didn’t raise me Jewish,” because the statement seemed false. My feminism, including my scholarly contributions, reflected my parents’ Jewish values: the importance of working toward a fair world and the belief that my work counted.

ALICIA OSTRIKER is a poet and critic. Her forthcoming book is The Nakedness of the Fathers (Rutgers U. Press).

It was the Fall of ’85 or ’86. I began scribbling random jottings about the book of Job. I was musing on paper about how the Jewish God seems to like being challenged, and rewards the challenger. Then I came again to the end of the book where Job gets back his health, wealth, and 10 children. 10 children being replaced by 10 new ones! I fell off a psychic cliff.
My focus shifted to Job’s wife and I went into a virtual automatic writing trance (unlike anything I have experienced before or since). My pen figured that, unlike her husband she wouldn’t be fooled: she knew very well that God didn’t reward the good and punish the evil.

What would happen when Job’s wife screwed up the courage to demand justice from God? What kind of reparations would be asked for? When I read what I had written, I realized that these had not been conscious thoughts at all, but were lodged deep in the unconscious—that is, in my soul. I have been thoroughly engaged in feminist biblical scholarship ever since.

BELLA ABZUG is a lawyer, former member of the United States Congress, Zionist since the age of 12, and presently the Co-Chair of the Women’s Environment and Development Organixation.

I was early influenced by my grandfather. He was my babysitter, and since he spent most of his time in the synagogue, so did I. I early learned how to daven. He would show me off to his friends and after I demonstrated my prowess, he would dispatch me to sit with the women behind the mehitzah. It has been suggested that it was those early days behind the mehitzah that had a great deal to do with my becoming interested in women’s rights.

I studied at a Talmud Torah, at the Florence Marshall Hebrew High School and at the Teachers Institute of the Jewish Theological Seminary, all of which played a major role in my development.

When I was quite young my father died. There were no sons, he had no brothers, so I went to our Orthodox synagogue to say Kaddish. Some of the men scowled, but I stood off by myself and no one stopped me. Very early I learned that one had a right, indeed an obligation, to try unconventional paths, and no one would or could stop us.

FAYE MOSKOWITZ, writer, edited recently Her fate in the Mirror: Jewish Women on mothers and Daughters (Beacon Press).

I think that the Yom Kippur my budding breasts made me no longer welcome among my father and brothers in the main sanctuary at the Blaine Shul in Detroit was crucial for me. Suddenly I had no choice but to be banished to the balcony along with the other women. Matching rejection with rejection, I joined the Labor Zionist movement. This was 1946, when my Orthodox parents were still waiting for the Messiah to carry us on his wings to the Holy Land.

In Habonim, caught up in the fervor of belief in a prospective Jewish State, I adopted as my ideal the romantic image of the suntanned chalutzah working side by side with her male counterpart as together they reclaimed the desert. Though, ultimately, I didn’t find my way to Israel, the lessons I learned in the movement became part of my life’s fabric.

Habonim taught me that women could be equal partners in the political struggle for a Jewish state. The Biblical injunction, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,” became my credo, the inspiration for later political action and for the self-love that would not allow me to see myself or any other woman as less than any man.

VANESSA OCHS is the author of Words on Fire: One Woman’s Journey into the Scared (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich).

In Women and Jewish Law, Rachel Biale emphasizes that we must familiarize ourselves with the sources of halakhah in sacred texts, regardless of our intention to practice and regardless of the fact that we, as women, can find those texts so alienating. I set off to become more intimate with those texts and to learn from the remarkable women who had long been wrestling creatively with them.

Before I embarked on this process of learning. Rabbi Susan Schnur reminded me that sacred learning, however highly regarded in institutional Judaism, is but one aspect of Jewish life. It certainly pays no heed to the ritual creativity of Jewish women. It’s that aspect of Jewish life that engages me most these days: uncovering and giving honor to what Rabbi Laura Geller calls “the Torah of our lives,” or what Schnur calls “Kitchen Torah..”

ALEXANDRA LEBENTHAL is a Vice-President at Lebenthal & Co., the New York retail municipal bond firm. She serves on the UJA Board of Young Investment Advisors.

I was brought up in a mixed marriage. Although I did not identify as a Jew, I went to the inaugural conference of UJA’s “Women of Distinction” during Operation Exodus because I was curious about Judaism, and the conference was presented as a glamorous event.

They showed a film about Anna, a Jewish violinist who lived in Moscow. The authorities wouldn’t let her leave for several years. When they finally let her go, they forced her to leave behind her violin, her mother and her sister.

As the film ended, Anna walked into the room with her violin and played Kol Nidre. Everyone in the room was crying—a woman had made an unbelievable journey to be free, to follow her own religion.

The event was powerful. To hear Anna’s story and music while sitting with some of this country’s most successful Jewish women was awesome. It was almost as if I had been commanded to become actively Jewish.

CYNTHIA OZICK is a novelist, short story writer, essayist and poet. Her latest work is a play. Blue light.

My grandmother Rachel was born in Hlusk, in Minsk Province, in 1861, the year the .serfs were freed in Czarist Russia. In her childhood she learned Hebrew at a level well beyond the prayerbook. How did this come about in the life of a little girl of the shtetl? When the boys were convened to study, she listened behind the door, excluded and hidden. But she wanted to learn; therefore she did learn. In later years, before I was old enough to read, she translated for me—enchantingly— a Hebrew children’s novel her son, my uncle, had written.

Jewish feminism is simply that: wanting to learn, and wanting (or seizing, or contriving) access to learning. Jewish feminism is an act of the intellect. It emerges out of a hunger for history, philosophy, logic, language, heritage. It is the desire for the Torah, and the passion for the meaning of Torah. The source of Jewish feminism is no more and no less than Jewishness itself (or call it the Jewish idea). Genuine Jewish feminism has no interest in woman’s body; insofar as it centers on body, it departs from feminism and collaborates with anti-feminism.

At 25, I came upon “Romantic Religion,” an essay by Leo Baeck: it galvanized my thinking and inspired me to read voluminously, independently, and over many years, in Jewish studies. It taught me the difference between Torah and so-called spiritualism. Today I am distressed by the prevalence, in the name of feminism, of women’s “spiritual” groups; New Moon ceremonies honoring the menses; invented rites marking the menopause; and other allegedly “feminist” practices that fly free of textual studies.

If it is not centered on text and study it is neither Judaism, nor Jewish feminism. Study means a gradual and steady and patient and laborious accretion: it is the opposite of a sudden self-revelation or antinomian exaltation.

Jewish feminism signifies the achievement of the opportunity to study Torah. Anyone who defines it otherwise—as a celebration of the body, or as the corridor to pneumatic experience—is antifeminist, retrograde, and trivializing.

LYNNE LANDSBERG, rabbi, is the Associate Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, D.C.

Ironically, the voices of Christian feminists I encountered at Harvard Divinity School made me realize I could bring my Jewish self and my feminist .self together. They challenged me to realize that faith can be looked at in ways other than patriarchal if we really look hard within Judaism. Hearing Christian feminists’ stories and journeys and their deep sense of self helped me understand that my own Judaism and feminism could come together in a peaceful way. Only then was my decision to become a rabbi galvanized.

RIV-ELLEN PRELL, an anthropologist, is the author of Prayer and Community: the Havurah in American Judaism (Wayne State U. Press) and, forthcoming, fighting to Become Americans: Jewish Women and Men in Conflict in the Twentieth Century (Basic Books).

The transforming moment of my life as a Jewish feminist came when I began wearing a tallit in 1974. I had found it difficult to make the transition from being able to argue for the importance of equality in Jewish practice to actually living it. I felt somehow unworthy. “When my Hebrew is better; when I know more,” I told myself, “then I will be ready.” At Chanukah, my friend Isa Aron made up my mind for me, she gave me one. I don’t remember putting the tallit on for the first time; it wasn’t a moment I ritualized. I simply became a Jew who prayed in a tallit, experiencing my entitlement to its sensuous beauty as part of my obligation to wear this garment. My public and unambiguous violation of normative Judaism was linked to my growing private life as a Jew. My tallit left me nowhere to hide.

JUDITH PLASKOW is the author of Standing Again at Sinai, (HarperSanFrancisco). She is professor of religion at Manhattan College.

I attended a lecture by Naomi Weisstein at Yale in the winter of ’70. She described her experience as a female graduate student at Harvard—identical to mine at Yale. One line stood out: “Women want to be ministers, lawyers and doctors. They end up as their wives.” I had wanted to be a rabbi as a child. I was then a rabbi’s wife. I was deeply troubled by that. But Weisstein’s refrain was that we couldn’t do it alone. That we needed a movement. I walked away a feminist, and began translating feminism into my work.

MARGE PIERCY is a poet and author. Her latest book is The Longings of Women (Fawcett).

I have been active in the women’s movement since 1967. When did I begin to apply my zealous feminism to my Judaism?

One catalyst was the death of my mother. Although she had a son—my half-brother who has died since—he had converted to Catholicism, so it was only I who could say Kaddish for her. I did so for a year.

So every day I was saying blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. I didn’t understand a word of the Kaddish; this irritated me (only my brother had gotten a Jewish education). At the same time I found the cadences fascinating and beautiful; I began to feel that I had to know what I was saying, I had to learn.

I don’t believe in cutting off any part of my awareness of the world, of history, of science, of political forces and interests. I want to examine and be fully critically conscious of my beliefs and my practices, including needing to integrate a direct mystical perspective. It was then that I began to find a Judaism I could function in actively, that I could come to with all of my identities.

NESSA RAPOPORT is the author of A Woman’s Book of Grieving, and the novel Preparing for Sabbath, She is the (o-editor of the anthology Writing Our Way Home and a founder of the Jewish Healing Center.

When I was 16, I published a cri de coeur in The Canadian Jewish News: Why could a man who barely knew Hebrew stand before his community and utter blessings over the Torah when I, as learned as the boys in my day school class, quite literally did not count? Why did boys need tallit and tefillin every day while girls, through some mysterious equation of biology and spirituality that would have been deemed pagan had it been applied to boys, were exempt from the means to prayer and God which our people had sanctioned for thousands of years?

More than 20 years after the dawn of Jewish feminism, I am astonished at what we’ve wrought. Of course, many inequities remain—legal and sociological—before we can dwell in the world we imagined in our teens. Still when Jewish feminists of our century depart this world, we can say with pride and wonderment: We made a difference.

PENINNAH SCHRAM is a storyteller and the author of Jewish Stories One Generation Tells Another. She teaches speech and drama at Stern College for Women at Yeshiva University.

Reflecting on my journey as a Jewish woman, three pivotal “texts” come to mind. The first “text” was oral tradition— conflicting advice from my mother; A woman should give in more than 50%; a woman should listen and also question; a woman can accomplish anything she wants (just “zai klug,” as my mother used to say—be smart/wise—and “hob sekhl”—use common sense).

The second influence was a book a friend gave me in graduate school whose thesis was that women cry more readily which releases their negative emotions, a catharsis that helps them live in a more creative, positive way—and longer. I had never liked that I cried so easily. Now I viewed my tears as a positive feminine force.

The third ‘text’ was a folktale, “The Innkeeper’s Wise Daughter,” that I first discovered when I was in my 30’s. I loved the resourcefulness of the young woman in this story; her example—through wit, wisdom and perspective— of how life can be lived, on all levels, as a win-win situation; how if you’re given a condition, you can meet it with a condition.

I define myself as a Jewish feminist because I believe in the right of choice, in the power of transformation from negative to positive, and in the necessity of mutual respect in relationships.

ALICE SHALVI is Chair of the Israel Women’s Network, the leading advocate for women’s rights in Israel, and Emeritus Professor of English at Hebrew University. She was also principal of Pelech Religious Experimental High School for Girls.

Although I have been a fairly militant egalitarian for most of my life, my place and role within an Orthodox synagogue was something I grew to accept. After all, one can praise God as loudly and wholeheartedly from one side of the mehitzah as from the other.

It was not until early adulthood that I began to feel a strong sense of exclusion—from the beautiful Sukkot procession with lulav and etrog, from communal dancing with the Torah scrolls on Simchat Torah. With growing envy I watched as boys read their bar mitzvah portions, as bridegrooms were feted on Shabhat, as fathers made blessings on the births of their daughters. I was an outsider, a spectator. It was not in my flesh that the covenant had been sealed. But I felt helpless to change the situation.

In 1977, during my first visit to the U.S., I witnessed a bat mitzvah for the first time. This ceremony was virtually unknown in Israel. I was overwhelmed by the skills, the knowledge, the grace, the beautiful voices and the self-possession not only of the bat mitzvah girl herself, but also of her mother, grandmother and sisters, all of whom shared the Torah reading and even the leading of prayers that day. When I returned to Jerusalem and reported enthusiastically on what I had experienced, I was soundly rebuked.

Two years later, I found myself at the annual sisterhood service of a Conservative synagogue in Milwaukee. I was accorded the honor traditionally extended to visitors—an aliyah. Only women were present; no infringement of halakhah was involved. I accepted.

As I saw the silver pointer indicating the spot in the scroll which I was to kiss before uttering the blessing, tears filled my eyes. For first time in 53 years of my life as an observant Jew, I was seeing the inside of a Torah scroll at close quarters. With breaking voice, I added a second blessing— the “shehechiyanu,” the blessing we make on performing something for the first time.

For me that first aliyah was a distinct turning point, for it made me determined not only to increase my own knowledge and skills, but also to do everything in my power to educate and encourage my Israeli pupils to emulate their American peers and break through the barriers of ignorance and misconception that restrain and marginalize Orthodox women.

SAVINA J. TEUBAL is the author of Sarah the Priestess: The First Matriarth of Genesis (Swallow Press/U. of Ohio) and Hagar the Egyptian: The Lost Traditions of the Matriarchs (Harper & Row).

I am 68 years old and feel as though I have been guided throughout my life by the pillar of fire and the column of cloud. I was about 11 or 12 when I overheard my father inquiring from our Hebrew teacher how my two brothers and I were doing. The teacher began to praise an essay I had written on Abraham. Never mind the girl, my father interrupted, what about the boys? From that time on. Genesis remained a guiding force in my life.

The Shekhina is always with me, giving me a little nudge here and there when I wander into desert years. It is She who kept the vision of Sarah before me: At a seance after my divorce when I thought the apparition was my grandmother Sara; during my studies where I thought I had chosen the field of the ancient Near East but found myself writing Sarah the Priestess, and on my 60th birthday where She wove Herself into my Simchat Hochmah, the crone ritual I created for the occasion.

My insight into the lives of the biblical matriarchs continually returned me to my Jewish roots. My feminist Judaism includes women’s seders, spiritual retreats, celebrations of Shabbat and Rosh Chodesh, and an intimate support group (called Mikveh Ladies) in my hot tub.