Handmaidens of Jewish Feminism

Tracking recent history

Two new books succeed in describing the complex roles of Jewish women in the time of Betty Friedan and the rise of the second wave feminist movement in America. In Jewish Feminists: Complex Identities and Activist Lives (University of Illinois Press, $20.00), Dina Pinsky seeks to build a complex understanding of who these foot-soldiers — or is it handmaidens? — of Jewish feminism are, and how they understand the two strands of their lives and work coming together, or, in some cases, not. Pinsky, decades younger than her subjects, conducted indepth interviews with 25 women and five men of the second-wave feminist movement, and had them carefully consider the ways in which their feminist and Jewish identities converge, diverge, interlock and push against one another.

Jewish Feminists is an intriguingly constructed book, weaving together personal narratives and academic research. Although marred at times by a flattened understanding of time — Pinsky refers to the “upsurge of Jewish-feminism” as having occurred 20 years ago (which this reviewer would contest) and includes in her review of recent literature accounts published in the 1970s — Jewish Feminists contributes strikingly to our understanding of this complicated topic, thanks to Pinsky’s innovative breakdown of her material.

The book’s four sections explore in turn feminist activism through the lens of ritual engagement (Pinsky’s wonderfully named “Torah warriors”), “the discourse of Jewish-feminist congruence,” marginalization of Jewish identity within feminist or other left-wing settings, and an examination of male Jewish feminism. These categories are not obvious ones, and yet in choosing this structure, Pinsky allows the multiplicity inherent in her interviewees’ narratives to shine through.

While Jewish Feminists seeks to build a comprehensive narrative from the ground up, the editors of A Jewish Feminine Mystique? Jewish Women in Postwar America (Rutgers University Press, $25.95) attempt to break a preconceived narrative down. Hasia Diner, Shira Kohn and Rachel Kranson marshal their impressive array of contributing authors towards one goal: to demonstrate that Jewish women in the American postwar period had a complicated relationship with the archetypal Woman of Betty Friedan’s famous tome. Although the external situations of many of the women examined in A Jewish Feminine Mystique? match Friedan’s formula — middleto upper-middle-class white women, newly suburban surroundings, normative domesticity — these authors find notable examples where Jewish women navigated these situations in ways that complicate Friedan’s “problem with no name.”

Some women had no choice but to fail to fit the paradigm, such as the Egyptian Jews in Audrey Nasar’s chapter. These were newly arrived immigrants in the postwar period, adjusting to life in America and to living outside the normative Ashkenazi narrative of Jewish experience here. Others, like Jenny Grossinger, managed to inhabit Friedan’s stereotype even as they subverted it to their professional advantage, as Rachel Kranson meticulously documents. Other highlights of this volume include Nancy Sinkoff ’s illuminating examination of Lucy Dawidowicz’s shifting politics and Giovovanna Del Negro’s piece on the down-and-dirty jokes of Jewish comediennes of this period. Not a chapter here feels extraneous, and no serious scholar of this period can afford to pass by this satisfying read.

Taken together, these books provide a rich chorus of voices, further proving that whatever the lives of Jewish women in the American postwar period were, they weren’t simple. 

Melanie Weiss is a Dorot Fellow and contributing editor to Lilith.