Acting Like a Jewish Woman

A germinal essay from Kaye/Kantrowitz, the late pioneering intersectional lesbian writer who told it straight.

Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz (1945–2018) forged her intellectual tools in feminist and civil rights communities during the 1960s and 1970s and used them throughout her life as an organizer, activist, and theorist addressing fundamental structural inequalities and the root causes of sexism, homophobia, racism, and anti-Semitism. Kaye/Kantrowitz adopted her last name during the 1980s as a part of her emerging consciousness about Jewish visibility; she retained the shortened name of her parents, Kaye, while reclaiming the more ethnically Jewish name Kantrowitz and uniting the two with an unconventional slash. She was the founding executive director of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice and is survived by her longtime partner, Leslie Cagan. While she did not live to see the events of the past few months, Kaye/Kantrowitz’s thought provides frameworks for understanding contemporary police violence and strategies for multiracial coalitions to challenge it. Kaye/ Kantrowitz was one of many lesbian-feminist theorists who contributed to fundamental feminist insights known today as intersectionality. The following excerpt from The Issue Is Power (1992), just published in a new edition which I edited, demonstrates the ongoing relevance of her work.

—Julie R. Enszer

As Jewish women, we are often blamed for our strength. When I became a lesbian and no longer had to care what men, Jewish or otherwise, thought of me, I came into my power. As a lesbian, I learned fast and ecstatically that women liked me to be strong. I began to enjoy, build, and relax into my full self.

On the other hand, a few months ago, I was applying for jobs and was interviewed by an all-women’s collective for one job, and by English department faculty (women and men) for another. I found myself comfortable with the “English” people—the school was a city college, and most of them were either Jewish or very accustomed to women “like me.” With the women’s collective members— several of whom were lesbians—I had an eerie sense of unbalance. None of them were Jewish; I was a surprise to them.

This unbalance can explode into bitter repercussions. In one group, several of the women were having a hard time with “my style.” It had never occurred to me to count noses. But I counted noses. They didn’t look Jewish. Most of the women troubled by me had been sent to expensive colleges by their fathers; they spoke with well-modulated voices, and they quaked when I raised mine. They didn’t understand that to me anger is common, expressible, and not murderous. They found me “loud” (of course) and “emotional.” Interestingly, I got along fine with all the women of color in the group, one therapy buff, and one middle class WASP woman who was also a dyke and a radical and my best friend at the time—and who hipped me to the covert anti-Semitism (she explained since she’d been afraid of me, she could recognize it in others).

But I’m talking not just about differences and fear of difference. I’m talking also about power to suppress difference. Why ugly?

So when women say things like she has a “difficult” style as well as aren’t all Jews rich? (or, the more sophisticated version, aren’t all Jews middle class?) or, there are so many Jewish teachers women’s movement or, when they don’t say these things but assume them, we are not being paranoid if we hear familiar themes: pushy, loud, moneygrubbing, exploitative, and—especially—there we are taking over again, in the schools, the art world, even the movement.

Nor are we being paranoid if we point to anti-Semitism, in the United States, or in the women’s movement; and they say it isn’t really. Or, as happened last year in San Francisco, tell Jewish women wanting to meet as Jews, that this is divisive, that Jews are “really” white; or “really” European.

Or, if they hint that “all that” is over now, why are we making a fuss.

Or, if their ignorance compels us to explain that gentiles persecuted the Jews for thousands of years before the Nazis got efficient at it; and that a year after the Nazi defeat, in Kielce, Poland, a mob stormed a Jewish community center and killed, out of the tiny number of surviving Polish Jews who remained in Poland, forty-one Jews. And that pogroms then erupted all over Poland.

That even now, with a Jewish population of five to eight thousand (from 3.5 million pre-Hitler), anti-Semitism rises again, accelerates, in Poland.

I am pulled back to the theme of danger as the shared Jewish identity. As Jewish women, we need also to define ourselves by ourselves, on our own terms. As women and as lesbians we have learned to reclaim names like










(even) lesbian

even woman had first to be reclaimed from a place of squeamishness.

As Jewish women and Jewish lesbians, we need to reclaim words like











always screaming bossy

scary temper

difficult style

(and, of course) Jewish mother

(and) Jewish princess

Take Jewish mother. Who accuses her of the heinous crime—of let’s face it—pushiness? Often, Jewish men; especially those who have climbed out of her class because of her help. Ironic, too, that success often comes to Jewish boys through an education which teaches them to be ashamed of their Jewishness, and of their mothers. Perhaps the familiar putdowns of Jewish women by Jewish men stem from male resentment of the strong mother; indignity that a successful Jewish man, unlike his idealized WASP counterpart, has to contend with uppity women.

As Jewish women, we need to look at our people with our own eyes. To see Judith, who saved the Jewish people; she flirted with the attacking general, drank him under the table; then she and her maid (whose name is not in the story) whacked off his head, stuck it in a picnic basket and escaped back to the Jewish camp. They staked his head high over the gate, so that when his soldiers charged the camp, they were met by their general’s bloody head, looming; and they ran away as fast as their goyishe little feet could run. Then Judith set her maid free, and all the women danced in her honor.

That’s a Jewish princess.

Or Anzia Yezierska, who told, in Yiddish-like-English, stories of Jewish immigrants, especially women’s struggles for love and education. Of her work, she wrote: “It’s not me—it’s their cries—my own people—crying in me! Hannah Breineh, Shmendrek, they will not be stilled in me, till all America stops to listen.”

That’s a nice Jewish girl.

Or Violette Kaye, who recently when I asked, ashamed, to borrow money for an airline ticket back East, and she said, of course; and then told me they’re retiring, and I said, this isn’t a good time for any of us, and she said, listen, if I have it, and I do, it’s yours.

That’s a Jewish mother. (Mine.)

From The Issue Is Power: Essays on Women, Jews, Violence and Resistance. Copyright © 1992 by Melanie Kaye/ Kantrowitz. Reprinted by permission of Aunt Lute Books. Julie R. Enszer, Ph.D., is the author of four poetry collections and editor of Milk & Honey: A Celebration of Jewish Lesbian Poetry (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2011), a finalist for the 2012 Lambda Literary Award in Lesbian Poetry.

Photograph via Jewish Women’s Archive