I watched and listened as women took the stage recently in two different Manhattan synagogues to probe, with personal experiences and opinions, two questions under scrutiny now. Race in Judaism. Zionism-and-feminism.
In “Women of Color in the Jewish Community: Beyond the Hyphen,” panelist Natasha Nelson said: “What’s visible is black, versus choosing to wear my Magen David.” Perhaps because Jewishness is an invisible marker, the moderator, Yavilah McCoy, instructed that “all the Jewish women of color in the room stand up.” And then, to the rest: “Applaud them. Say ‘I am so glad you’re here’.”
This separation made me uneasy. Isn’t the idea that the Jewish community holds multitudes, and yet that we’re all in this together?
And yet…don’t we as feminists also remember the reasoning behind women-only consciousness-raising groups, and Lilith salons too? It’s to create safe, comfortable spaces for women, without “others” steering the conversation. As Jews commit to building a community of inclusion, it’s necessary to recognize differences among us, and respect them. Because race is a social and not a scientific construct, I was waiting for some of the larger questions to surface—like the tensions between solidarity and diversity; they didn’t come up. I yearned for a little more nuance; at the same time I recognized my role was to sit still and listen.
Amani Hayes-Messinger, an undergraduate who “wears her decolonized hair proudly,” said she’s often explaining her dual identity as a black Jewish woman. “It’s a constant need to convince others that I was possible,” as she put it. And Shoshana Brown: “My [Ashkenazi Jewish] mom doesn’t have to sign off on my paperwork anymore,” to let people know she’s a Jew.
Demonstrating Jewish authenticity came up, including being adept at the language of prayer, mouthing every word in services so that those around her would know she was no stranger to Jewish liturgy. Tamar Fish said, “I’m aware of how long it takes me to drop my guard” in synagogue. Another common theme was the combination of identities. Growing up, Natasha Nelson’s [white] mother had a bookcase filled with Jewish books, while her [black] father’s held volumes on black history and thought. “My bookcase looks like my parents’ bookcases together.”
Sponsored by the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York, part of the philanthropy’s effort to hear from Jewish women of varying backgrounds, “Jewish Women of Color” took place at Central Synagogue in Manhattan, where the senior rabbi, Rabbi/Cantor Angela Buchdahl, has one Jewish and one Asian parent. No Asian-Jewish women appeared on the evening’s program. Could it be that the same discrimination (or the surprise expressed when “white” Jewish congregants see a black person in their midst) doesn’t surface so overtly when the worshipper looks Asian?
Still ruminating on the subtleties of “Beyond the Hyphen,” where I didn’t hear Israel mentioned, the next night I attended a program with similar visuals: a cluster of women, mostly feminist activists or writers, lined up on the bima at Manhattan’s Town and Village synagogue. Their topic was the perceived–but not fully articulated–conflict between feminism and Zionism. The “Conversation on Zionism and Feminism,” was part of a Hadassah series, “Defining Zionism in the 21st Century.”
On this page in Lilith’s spring issue I wrote about the intersection of Zionism and feminism, so I’ll share just a few of my notes from this “Conversation.” The panelists almost all sounded to me beleaguered, as understandable as when Jewish women of color know they face scrutiny that other Jews may not.
Bari Weiss, staff editor at the New York Times and the program moderator, asked, “If intersectional feminism is genuine, why is there no outcry about honor killings or female genital mutilation?” Emily Shire, pushing back against statements about Israel’s policies toward Palestinians, from some organizers of last winter’s Women’s March and Women’s Strike, questioned why “There’s no calling on Catholic women to hold the Vatican responsible for anti-choice policies.” And Libby Lenkinski of the New Israel Fund described her own Zionism as “more aspirational, looking toward a better future.”
Even if no solutions—not even salves—were put forth either evening, the panelists represent a significant spectrum of Jewish and female experience. In both programs, women, exclusively, had the mic, some of them clearly accustomed to using it. Women articulating the tensions Jewish women feel right now around race and gender and Israel.
This diversity of views, and the succinct personal narratives, felt familiar to me. It’s what Lilith brings you consistently, in issue after issue, in print, online at the Lilith Blog, and in Lilith salons. This issue, hearken to a woman struggling with a legacy of abuse in her Jewish family; hear how a complicit and frightened silence enabled the abuser to continue unstopped. Listen in on the advice the wedding-dress whisperer gives young ultra-Orthodox brides, and perhaps soften some of your own biases about women in these very traditional communities. Watch for newly translated fiction, plus work by Israeli women artists. Attend carefully to voices speaking frankly about reproductive justice, about women’s health, about who pays for making sure we stay whole, in body and mind. And keep reading….
Susan Weidman Schneider
Editor in Chief