Last month, after I’d agreed to give a talk to a Jewish women’s group about changes Jewish women face in the 90’s (or something like that), I began to look through my file drawer marked “speeches.” The labels on the folders ranged from “J Superwoman” and “J women and J men” through “intermarriage,” “abortion rights,” “campus crises” and “Philanthropy ’92.” In each folder I found typed notes, scraps of papers with brilliant ideas scrawled illegibly on them, and lots of insights I had forgotten I’d had and was perfectly willing to recycle. Which caused me some alarm. Were the same ideas I’d had eight or more years ago still sounding fresh to me? Had women made so little impact on the Jewish community, and on society as a whole that my analyses of the female condition appeared timeless?
Two days later I had a phone call from a college student conducting interviews as part of her senior thesis. What did I think were the successes and failures of “the” Jewish women’s movement? Where was “it” going? And what progress had I seen in the fifteen years LILITH has been publishing and the nearly twenty years I’d been lecturing? SIGH.
Major change has taken place. In religious life, certainly. In women’s spiritual life, yes, and still more to come. In our personal relationships with women, and especially with men, the jury (the Jewry?) is still out. And in the Jewish community women are still grossly under represented, under recognized, underestimated and underpaid.
But we can see major, significant change. Examples: Women’s reproductive freedoms are threatened and the National Abortion Rights Action League sends out a notice for the April 5 March on Washington and included on the roster of their supporters are mainstream Jewish women’s groups; announcements of upcoming events all season have included information about where Sisterhood or Hadassah members can meet to march together. A heterosexual Jew-by-choice who is the president of her large synagogue lobbies for members to be more receptive to the gays and lesbians in the congregation. The Jewish women’s caucus of the Association for Women in Psychology announces a conference on Jewish women’s issues in psychology.
I remind myself that there have been other signs of progress, too. Adult Bat Mitzvah celebrants have worn a path to the synagogue door for men as well as for women; women’s openness about wanting to be full participants in Jewish life has helped enfranchise marginal men also, enabling many of them to come forward and say that they too want to learn as adults. And this year’s focus on Sephardic women in the pages of LILITH, underwritten in part by the Maurice Amado Foundation, is part of a growing understanding of the diversity of the Jewish experience. And more: LILITH’s new project looking at the ways Jewish women try to change society through their philanthropy has generated queries from mainstream charities—most of whom are part of the appalling statistic that only 4% of U.S. foundation grants go to women’s endeavors.
Yet this Spring issue of LILITH is not a polemical one. Here we celebrate quieter realities and note some ripples in the fabric of women’s lives. Women have been looking for new ways of celebrating Miriam in the seder story and a ceramicist was just waiting in the wings to create the Cup of Miriam. Something new for forty something? Of course there are rituals that draw on Jewish sources and that can be celebrated with men as well as with women. And then there’s the figure of Lilith. We’ve seen her hovering around for two decades. In her incarnation in “Guarding the Garden” she speaks for us all when she speaks for the soil. Along with LILITH and Eve, we’d like to have the planet around for a while longer so that we can evaluate just how far we’ve come in bringing it closer to perfection.