Evelyn Torton Beck

Lilith interview

Evelyn Torton Beck, whose article on “LB. Singer’s Misogyny” appeared in LILITH #6, teaches an array of women’s studies courses and comparative literature at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Her most recent work has been to edit the collection Nice Jewish Girls: A Lesbian Anthology, just published by Persephone Press, a feminist publishing house in Watertown, Massachusetts.

In this interview with LILITH’s managing editor, Beck examines some of the issues that led her to create the book. Excerpts from her Introduction, appearing on page 13, are reprinted by permission of Persephone Press.

As a companion piece to the Beck excerpts, we are printing a dispatch just received from a Jewish Lesbian activist in Chicago, documenting her recent confrontation over anti-Semitism in a women’s group there.

LILITH: What do you mean when you say that “the experience of coming out as lesbians was a crucial step toward our coming out as Jews”?

BECK: Once you really accept yourself as a lesbian, you irrevocably remove the illusion that you belong to the patriarchal society at large. Once that illusion falls away, you are more open to seeing other ways in which you stand outside society—both inside and outside the feminist community. That tearing away of a veil, that recognition that you are, in fact, really different, also allows you to experience other parts of yourself that are different, that you may have been covering over—because in our culture it is a less radical outsidership to be a Jew, but it is an outsidership. The process of overcoming the homophobia of the society and really accepting yourself fully also leads a lesbian to accept and love other parts of herself that she may have hidden because they are less accepted in the society at large.

If you are in a lesbian feminist community, you have a lot of support for being who you are. Ironically that support helps you to confront ways in which you perhaps don’t have the support that you want. That was the process for me. In other words, recognizing that there was not a visible Jewish presence among the lesbians I met in this community, made me want to say ‘1 am not only a lesbian feminist, I am also Jewish and I want that recognized.’

LILITH: Could you describe the Jewish lesbian movement—did it arise out of acknowledging the experience of being an outsider?

BECK: To the best of my memory it really began from an aspect of lesbian feminism. You see, lesbian feminism is dedicated toward acknowledging and celebrating the diversity of what it means to be woman and to fighting all forms of oppression.

What happened was, there are a great many Jewish women involved in the lesbian feminist movement. Jewish lesbians involved in this movement began to realize that they were very busy working toward making this diversity come to the fore and were not dealing with their own difference. The first Jewish lesbian groups were called together at the Michigan Women’s Music Festival; somebody just called a session and said, let’s get together as Jewish lesbians. At the beginning, Jewish women didn’t particularly know what to do with that, they just knew they wanted to get together and affirm that they were not only lesbians but also Jewish.

This occurred at the same time that within the country a rise of anti-Semitism was beginning. Some convergence of the desire to celebrate our own roots and origins and diversity coalesced with the recognition that there was larger anti-Semitism in this country, and that gave the movement even greater impetus.

These are really grass-roots groups that have formed, not only in large cities where you would expect them—like Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Chicago—but in smaller cities like Madison and Ithaca, New York. Many of these groups are struggling with questions of identity. People are studying their own history and diversity.

What I have learned from putting together this anthology is not only the scope but also the diversity of Jewish experience —I was very Ashkenazi-bound in my own experience—and to recognize how many Jews of color there are: interracial Jews, Sephardic Jews. Jewish lesbians come from backgrounds from assimilated to Orthodox. Women are sharing their knowledge of what it means to be Jewish in terms of Jewish history, Jewish law, Jewish culture, Jewish languages, and also the history of anti-Semitism, which even a great many Jews are ignorant of. Jewish women are studying about Israel because anti -Semitism is taking the form of “Zionism is racism.”

Jewish lesbians held seders all the way from Canada to Washington and Madison; they are writing their own haga-das, which are specifically both Jewish and lesbian and making connections with other oppressed groups. They are having Hannukah ceremonies. Many of these ceremonies are transformed, but are nonetheless very much both Jewish and lesbian.

LILITH: You write that it is difficult to identify oneself as a Jew outside anti-Semitism. The anthology has a great deal on anti-Semitism; it seems that confronting or at least recognizing anti-Semitism is a large part of the Jewish lesbian identity. Is there any more positive Jewish element or Jewish dimension of the Jewish lesbian identity? Is it more difficult for Jewish lesbians—as contrasted with non-lesbian Jews—to identify themselves as Jews “outside anti-Semitism”?

BECK: I think what I said about it’s being difficult to identify as a Jew outside the long shadow of anti-Semitism is true for every Jew—even Jews within temples and institutions. Anti-Semitism, particularly in the modern period, has just always been there as part of our consciousness. But this recognition does not take away the fact that there are ways in which we come together as Jews that are particularly affirming of Judaism.

I’d start with the notion of reclaiming our roots in the shtetl (East European townlet). I am particularly speaking now about Ashkenazi Jews (of European descent).

I think that the celebration of our foremothers whose strength was often needed in the shtetl to hold the family together is something which we see in ourselves and in our own mothers.

Then of course I would say we feel the roots of our radicalism to be very Jewish—the roots in the [Jewish Labor] Bund and in the civil rights movement. I really do see the Jewish involvement in lesbian feminism in a direct line with radical Jewish activity in this country. Caring about others is a part of Jewish tradition as is an emphasis on this life and this world, and making it a better place.

Then the emphasis on learning, which I think we really did all grow up with, and the joy in that learning. The way we see the world—which is a way of interpreting the world based on the full recognition of having a tradition different from the dominant one.

The celebration of our holidays is something that Jewish lesbians see as particularly Jewish, particularly as the Jewish calendar is a moon calendar. Here there is a real coming together of elements of lesbian culture which coincide with Jewish culture.

I think a lot of Jewish lesbians want to have children and I think that grows right out of the Jewish emphasis on children.

LILITH: Is that more common among Jewish lesbians than non-Jewish lesbians?

BECK: I think there is a movement in the lesbian community for lesbians to have children. But I have heard it reiterated particularly frequently among Jewish lesbians. I think probably more Jewish lesbians are more concerned and eager to have children because of that aspect of their growing up.

LILITH: There is really nothing in what you have just said that a Jew who is not a lesbian couldn’t accept. What you said about women in the shtetl is something that women in the Jewish feminist movement have written and spoken about for quite a long time. That is the Jewish component of Jewish lesbian identity. But what is the particular Jewish lesbian component? Is there a particular Jewish lesbian heritage in addition to the Jewish heritage or the Jewish women’s heritage?

BECK: The Jewish lesbian heritage is something that has been buried. There is one reference in The Jewish Woman in America [Baum, Hyman, Michel] that there were Jewish lesbians in the labor movement, but their names are not yet available to us. In terms of the specificity of the history, we are just beginning to try to uncover it. Part of what it means to affirm a lesbian identity is a kind of full and total acceptance of the female. Somehow the way in which Jewish lesbians have reclaimed the Jewish heritage is not totally a break, it’s not something totally different but rather, an intensification of what other women have said.

The other thing that we have talked about is that there is something about the separation of men and women in the shtetl and even in some parts of Jewish culture still today, that perhaps even encourages a kind of lesbian being-in-the-world. Being with other women that intensely seems almost to make the female be the most important and central part of a woman’s life. Many of us have talked about how in our families there is a whole female culture. You can draw a line from seeing the women be that close and that central to each other in your life toward a lesbian way of life which means that women take this to its fullest steps and say, “we want to live and be with other women and to love other women fully and not stop short.”

The other part of Jewish tradition and culture that feeds into a lesbian way of being-in-the-world is that we as Jewish women are encouraged to be very affectionate and very physical with each other.

LILITH: You spoke about a certain invisibility as Jews Jewish women have experienced in the lesbian movement. At the same time do you have the feeling that regardless of whether the Jewish component is visible or not, Jewish lesbians are on the cutting edge of the movement?

BECK: I do think there is a tremendous amount of Jewish energy in the lesbian feminist movement. Many Jewish women have not wanted to recognize how much, partially for reasons of internalized anti-Semitism: namely, that when Jews have made ourselves visible as Jews, we have been seen as wanting to take over. That is part of the nature of anti-Semitism—that you don’t have much space between being invisible as Jews or being too visible as Jews.

LILITH: But why is it that the minute we come out of the woodwork we are immediately accused of trying to run the world?

BECK: That is part of the very old pattern of anti-Semitism, and a way of keeping Jews in their place.

You know, it’s really not so different from how it is to be a lesbian, if you think about it. There are a great many people who know lesbians are very active in the feminist movement and that’s okay so long as they don’t get up and say, we’re lesbians. As soon as you begin to say, “we are active in this movement and we are lesbians,” there is a sense of too much visibility and charges of a “lesbian takeover.”

I think this is also the experience of many groups that the society wants to keep in place. Groups that the society fears it tries to make invisible.

Making the connections between the various oppressions has been one of the most important theoretical tenets of the lesbian-feminist movement. Because the nature of anti-Semitism is very often just to ignore oppression of Jews, Jews have not been named in that theoretical stance as yet. Jewish lesbians are on the cutting edge of trying to make anti-Semitism a concern of the movement. Jewish lesbians are also very aware of the necessity of making connections with lesbian feminists of other minority groups, particularly lesbians of color.

LILITH: Has there been anything done along those lines?

BECK: It’s just beginning. There was one dialogue that took place in Boston (published in Conditions) between several Jewish and Black women which just began to scratch the surface of the similarities and differences. It is a touchy subject because of the way in which the whole Jewish experience in the cities intersected with the rise of the Black Power movement. The factors are so many and so complicated and there is so much emotion involved, that it will take a lot of good will and a lot of willingness to face our own prejudgments before full dialogue can take place. But I think it is very important that it happened and I think that—I am hopeful that—with this book the dialogue will open up.

LILITH: Is there more anti-Semitism in the lesbian movement than the general women’s movement? Or do Jewish lesbians seem to be more sensitive to it and have very acute antennae or constitute a kind of litmus test of anti-Semitism, able to pick up nuances and subtleties? If that is so, is it because they’re more likely to be in contact with non-Jews than straight Jewish women?

BECK: That last point is probably true, because I think the lesbian feminist movement has brought people together who would probably never have made common cause without that particular bond. Jewish lesbian feminists are more likely to be in contact with non-Jews.

I don’t think that there is more anti-Semitism in the lesbian feminist movement. What I do think is, when we experience it at all, it feels much more painful and it is much more unexpected because of the theoretical stance of the movement. We have seen the lesbian feminist movement as a place of refuge. When we hear something that is anti-Semitic in that space, it is much more serious, because that is the place that is supposed to be the protected place.

I also think that Jewish lesbians are more likely to be sensitive to anti-Semitism than straight Jewish women partially because I think lesbian feminists are more willing to be in touch with their own oppression.

I think some straight women might also feel more protected in their environment because they are not total outsiders in society, and therefore are perhaps less likely to perceive their vulnerability.

Some straight women may also be more likely to overlook anti-Semitism, because to the extent that you have a stake in preserving society as it is, you’re likely, if you hear it expressed, to turn the other ear.

LILITH: What is the relationship, if any, between the nascent Jewish lesbian movement and the Jewish feminist movement?

BECK: So far I don’t know that there have actually been a great many meeting points. But I do consider it all part of the same movement—Jewish women becoming radicalized wherever they are. I don’t see it as two separate phenomena. I think that what we are seeing are two phenomena that are going to come together at some point. I hope that this book will catalyze the recognition of the heterosexist assumptions that so many Jewish women make, that they don’t even know that they make.

LILITH: For example?

BECK: For example, their not being aware of the fact that there are Jewish lesbians. If you talk to many straight feminists, they know there are lesbians out there but they don’t think of them as being right in their own community. I think that Jewish women have to realize that there are Jewish women who will end up with men and many who will not, that Jewish life must encompass the recognition.

LILITH: What would constitute acceptance by the community? Is it just acceptance of the fact that you are there, that you exist, that the way you live your lives is equally legitimate…?

BECK: I want to give you examples of some negative things I’ve experienced and maybe we can go on from there. I gave two symposia at Hillel in Madison, Wisconsin, the first in 1979 and the next one in 1980. The first time we did this at Hillel, one of the Hassidic rabbis who was studying in Wisconsin totally disrupted the meeting. He got up and started shouting, “Get out of my Judaism!!” This was one of the most painful experiences I have ever had.

I want to give you another instance. My mother knows I am a lesbian but she obviously was looking for some kind of support from her rabbi, because he had not been so pleasant to me. She went to him and asked, “Is it possible that Evie is a lesbian?” What she wanted from him was some affirmation of that because she knew the answer. Instead of giving her any kind of positive affirmation, he snapped at her and said: “That is impossible!” I think she was very hurt by that.

I teach Women’s Studies. I teach Womens’ Jewish Studies. Right now, I feel I could never come as an open Jewish lesbian and get a teaching job in any Jewish institution or even at any department of Jewish studies in the country because they are so homophobic. I would like to be able to take everything I know and use it for the purposes of enhancing Jewish life without having to cut away a part of who I am.

I have had better experiences. At a New Jewish Agenda meeting held in Madison, I spoke about the necessity for being considered a part of Judaism—not just let in by the back door but having it acknowledged fully, that there are among Jews lesbians and gay men and that they are as Jewish as anybody else and that one’s choice of partner in no way should make anybody less Jewish.

I am concerned in reaching the active consciousness of the masses of Jews in this country. I would like their consciousness to include our existence as part of who they are, because in fact it is their children, their sisters and their relatives who are in the gay synagogues now. I am looking for a kind of affirmation that at the moment would not necessarily have to be included in the law itself.

What I guess I really hope for from the Jewish community is that the recognition that the diversity of what it means to be Jewish also include Jewish women who choose other women as their life partners and that we are all part of what it means to be Jewish.

LILITH: As there is growing anti-Semitism, I think the tendency in the community is to turn very much inward and close ranks and be afraid that any rocking of the boat will plop everybody right into the water with all the sharks….

BECK: Well, 1 think the Jewish community has this very stubborn and blind side. There were always fanatical forces resistant to change, so I suppose that is also very Jewish, but I do believe that eventually they will have to open up some way.

LILITH: What gives you that faith that lesbians will eventually be accepted by the community?

BECK: One of the things I see as most important to being Jewish is a knowledge of survival; as Jews we are all survivors. In order to survive, Judaism is probably going to have to open itself up to that diversity or it will not survive.

LILITH: It might self-destruct?

BECK: Well, it would die out. It would fall into the hands of a few fanatics and I don’t think it can survive as that kind of a fringe fanatic group.

I perceive Judaism as being very life-affirming, and I think it is that life-affirming quality which may allow Jews to open up toward greater and greater acceptance of diversity.

by Aviva Cantor

Nice Jewish Girls—What Made the Book Happen?

In Vienna in 1938, when I was five years old and Hitler came to power, visibility was not safe.

Men came and took my father away…. I did not know why or where my father was being taken, nor how long he would be gone. Later I was told: to the camps—to Dachau, to Buchenwald. My mother took me with her to the Gestapo when she tried to get him released. After a year she succeeded; I don’t know how or why.

When my father was still in the camps, my mother had arranged to have me, the elder child, sent to England where British citizens were taking in “endangered” European children. According to my mother, it had been easy to place me because I was so pretty (did not look Jewish, did she mean?). But I never went; she needed my father’s permission — which he refused to send. Though he did not know if he would ever see any of us again, my father refused to split the family, even to save me.

Very often this year, when people asked me what I was working on, and I answered, “a book about Jewish lesbians,” my answer was met with startled laughter and unmasked surprise bordering on disbelief: “Are there many?”

To me, these responses had the force of warnings.

I got the message. Or rather, it got to me. While I fought against silencing myself completely, I did begin to hesitate before answering, to assess the safety of the terrain.

I began to understand the limits that the dominant culture places on “otherness.” You could be a Jew and people would recognize that as a religious or ethnic affiliation or you could be a lesbian and some people would recognize that as an “alternative lifestyle” or “sexual preference,” but if you tried to claim both identities—publicly and politically—you were exceeding the limits of what was permitted to the marginal.

During the last seven years I had given a great deal of energy to the lesbian-feminist movement and had come to feel more at home among lesbian-feminists than I had ever felt anywhere before—until I realized that my Jewish identity was… invisible unless I made a point of mentioning it. I was pained but not surprised to feel invisible as a lesbian among Jews. I was terribly disappointed and confused to feel invisible as a Jew among lesbians….

To a great extent the energy for this book came from my desire to break the silence and the cycle of confusion: to refuse any longer to feel like a victim, to raise the issue. I had to find out whether the lesbian-feminist movement would accept me as a Jew, join in my fight. Whether my fight was also our fight.

[Eight years ago] I managed to rationalize my shock and dismay when I found the narrator of Ruby-fruit Jungle describing the fat Jewish girl Barbara Spangenthau as someone who “always had her hand in her pants playing with herself, and worse, she stank. Until I was 15 I thought that being Jewish meant you walked around with your hand in your pants.”

In 1974, as an emerging lesbian, I didn’t want to admit that the movement’s leading fiction writer was basing her humor on age-old anti-Semitic stereotypes. I simply couldn’t afford to take it in. So I kept silent. In those early years of struggle it seemed unworthy to make a fuss. And worse —it seemed divisive. I could not yet claim my anger. I wanted too much to belong.

Even in 1981 while I was preparing this anthology, I hesitated to protest publicly the anti-Semitic and racist stereotypes in Noretta Koertge’s [novel] Who Was That Masked Woman?…

Having broken her leg, the main character Tretona contemplates the wonders of the Kutschner rod technique being used to heal her—a technique she claims Nazi scientists had developed on American GIs: “She tried to figure out if it wasn’t good after all that the Nazis had done the experiments.”

This seemingly harmless question entirely obscures the fact that it was overwhelmingly Jews who were used for grotesque medical experiments by Nazi doctors. While the author makes these remarks in the voice of her character… the narrator in no way discredits or questions the character’s integrity….

That virtually no reviews of these [and other] highly-praised and widely-read authors mention anti-Semitism is a symptom of how little consciousness there is of this issue.

While lesbian-feminists have increasingly begun to acknowledge diversity, anti-Semitism is still not taken seriously in the lesbian-feminist movement.

Anti-Semitism has not been included by name in the important litany of “isms” against which the movement has pledged itself to struggle: sexism, heterosexism, racism, classism, ageism, able-bodyism.

Some lesbian-feminist theorists claim that anti-racist work subsumes the fight against anti-Semitism, but I have not found that to be true in practice. For example, in an otherwise excellent workshop on “Racism and Lesbianism” held at the 1981 National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) Conference, in a discussion of the Ku Klux Klan, the Klan’s anti-Semitism was not even mentioned until I brought it up. [Most often,] the attempt to include anti-Semitism in discussions of racism is rejected and sometimes met with a sense of outrage that Jews are trying to take over again.

The risks for both Jews and gentiles of entering into a dialogue were painfully demonstrated at an all-day workshop on “Jewish Lesbians and Anti-Semitism” held in Madison, Wisconsin in May 1979. At one point in the day, the Jewish lesbians asked that the group be divided, because the gentile lesbians’ stories about their anti-Semitic backgrounds were creating pain for the Jewish women.

While everyone understood the need to separate at that time, the non-Jewish lesbians were loathe to discuss their anti-Semitism with each other and found it difficult to do so. Some expressed jealousy of the developing close ties they sensed among the Jewish lesbians who were, for the first time, coming together around their common heritage, as lesbians and as Jews. [Their] feeling of exclusion, though understandable, does not differ in kind from some heterosexual women’s responses to lesbian bonding.

[This book] has already had an impact on the lesbian-feminist community. More people acknowledge the need to deal with anti-Semitism. … A greater sense of Jewish pride is emerging. Jewish lesbians have become more thoughtful about themselves as Jews….

A dialogue has begun.

Dispatch from Chicago by Judy Berns

I’m a member of the Jewish Lesbian Group of Chicago.

I joined after leaving a five-member lesbian support group which I had joined last summer.

In order to join this small “support group,” I was first interviewed and then accepted into the group along with another newcomer, Beryl, who was also Jewish. I believed that they would give me the social niche I needed.

Then came Christmas 1981. The three goyim in the group began planning a Christmas party. I’d assumed as lesbians they’d know enough about oppression, invisibility and denial to acknowledge that two out of five in the group were Jewish. It follows that the name and purpose of the party would automatically change. I spoke out strongly about their pretending Beryl and I didn’t exist.

This comment touched off an explosion. The “majority” (three out of five) refused to change the party’s name. One woman said, “Christians are the majority in this country, and you’ll just have to deal with it.” She continued, “What are we supposed to do? Celebrate every holiday of every little minority group in this country? Next thing you know, we’ll be expected to celebrate some holiday of the Muru-Buru, just because there are Blacks in this country!” Another woman said that she wished I’d vomit up my rage elsewhere.

Beryl then tried explaining to the goyim a little of what Christmas has always meant for us—at best exclusion, an alien religion forced down our throats at every turn, and at worst, a pogrom season, the murder and rape of our grandmothers. She said that calling the party a Christmas party and expecting us to attend was like expecting black women to celebrate the birth of the Klu Klux Klan.

The gentile women listened impatiently to her explanation and then dismissed it. What bothers me is that I don’t think anything I said or did made the gentile lesbians think about their anti-Semitism and disregard for Jewish lesbians. More than that, the gentile women had me thinking that how I went about describing my feelings about anti-Semitism was wrong.

Beryl and I have joined the Jewish Lesbian Group of Chicago. We meet every other week. We talk about our families and the differing levels of acceptance we’ve received from them. We talk about anti-Semitism and how to fight it. We share the scattered bits of Judaism we’ve salvaged from our different backgrounds, which range from Orthodox to no background at all. And we celebrate together, share Shabbat, rewrite the Pesach seder, sing Hebrew songs we learned as children and re-learn the Yiddish songs we have only the faintest memories of.

I feel that I’ve gone from a group that’s suffocating to one that’s refreshing and a source of joy.