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Feminist (But Not Jewish)

While discussing in the LILITH office the young adult books that influenced us the most, we were all struck—despite the wide range in our ages—by the incompleteness of many of the books we’d read. Lots of our favorite books had strong female role models, but no Jewish content. Others had powerful Jewish characters, but were far too… well, male. Our literature presented us with a very compartmentalized picture: we learned how to be women, we learned how to be Jews. But where were the Jewish women?

Our nominees in the “Feminist (but not Jewish)” category were not so different from those of our respondents: Anne of Green Gables, Little House on the Prairie and Little Women, with their strong and somewhat iconoclastic female role models. Betty Smith’s books, notably A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Joy in the Morning, still reach readers today with their realistic and exhilarating stories of life in poverty torn Brooklyn. (Despite scattered anti-Semitic passages, many of us had the sense that Francie and other characters felt Jewish, even when they obviously weren’t. What do we make of that?)

Some of the most familiar and admired personae in modern children’s literature are women, attracting a wide spectrum of adolescent readers, both male and female. Cynthia Voight’s books about Dicey Tillerman and her family {Homecoming and Dicey’s Song, among others) feature many powerfully nonconformist women of all generations, such as the teenage Dicey, who leads her siblings across the East Coast, and the unconventional grandmother who takes them in. Madeleine L’Engle’s books, too, are replete with female role models, though very Christian: Meg and her scientist mom in the award-winning A Wrinkle in Time fantasy series are two.

In a category all by itself is Judy Blume’s assortment of wonderful books for teens and young adults. Many girls, teetering on the edge of puberty, turn to Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret for their first exposure to issues of adolescence in a humorous and personal way. Her novels that portray young women coping with a parent’s death (Tiger Eyes) and divorce (It’s Not The End Of The World) have proved invaluable for young adults going through these difficult times. Several of her books also contain Jewish characters; in Margaret, the protagonist struggles with her parents’ intermarriage as she these to “choose” one religion in sixth grade.