My story begins in Washington Heights, New York, in the 1940s, where being Jewish, female and political was the air I breathed; it was what my girlfriends and I aspired to. I knew that our grandmothers (and for some of us, our mothers) had been oppressed, but I also knew that they were powerful Jewish women who, in coming to America, played major roles in saving our lives.
My grandmother went on strike in the garment industry, and my mother was proud of her Rochester roots; she liked to brag that Emma Goldman came from Rochester. I knew that Jewish women held the “big picture” of things, and that my scope in life was expected to be large and important.
After World War II, America was jubilant, but the Jews in my neighborhood were grief-stricken; the War had given us the Holocaust. On the other hand, America gave us Bess Myerson, the first Jewish Miss America.
My mother used to run around the house, saying to my sister and me, “You could be Bess Myerson, too!” What she meant was that Bess came from a socialist, working-class Jewish background, and that she’d only entered a stupid beauty pageant to win money so she could go to Juilliard. I was told that Bess used her platform to talk about racism and anti-Semitism, and that after her reign the pageant made a rule that Miss America couldn’t talk “politics.”
The first “protest” letter I ever wrote, as a young teen, involved Bess Myerson. She was a panelist on the TV show, “I’ve Got a Secret,” and I felt she was consistently downplayed, while a blond panelist, Betsy Palmer, was in the spotlight. I complained that Bess was discriminated against because she was dark, and a much smarter woman. All year I waited and waited and waited for a response, and when a form letter finally came, I was devastated. I still haven’t forgiven myself for not using the word “anti-Semitism” in my letter.
For me growing up, being a Jewish woman was not the synagogue; it was being a mensch in the world, and working for justice. We thought we were beautiful, and we were confused that the world, including many Jewish men, didn’t think that, too.
The first social justice movement I remember was Ban the Bomb, which called for a “sane nuclear policy.” Later, Bella Abzug, who grew up in the same world as me, co-founded Women’s Strike for Peace, a movement that launched her into Congress. In New York, tons of Jewish women were doing anti-nuclear work — our gender connected us to wanting peace — but I don’t remember anyone discussing that we were Jews, almost annihilated in the Holocaust. We didn’t connect the Holocaust to standing up against the potential mass destruction of the world. In my mind, it was hard to cry out, even in the U.S., “Look what happened to us!” so our forums became Ban the Bomb and the Civil Rights movement.
In 1956, at 12-and-a-half, I became the first girl in my family to have a bat mitzvah. I was proud of that, but I also saw that there wasn’t a future for women in religious Judaism, that I couldn’t take on leadership there, and that was a reason that I withdrew from Judaism.
In my teen years I remember the Rosenbergs, their execution, McCarthy, being “blacklisted” — in my mind, this was all about Jews having a social obligation to speak out. I heard my first Israeli song, Tzena, Tzena, at Carnegie Hall, sung by a very “goyishe” folk singer named Pete Seeger. Seeger is the one who introduced Israel into my Jewish identity.
In the 1960s, I got involved in the student anti-war and civil rights movements. I participated in sit-ins in Rochester, NY, and taught at a school for high school dropouts in a black community in Chicago. At the National Convention for New Politics in 1967, a platform was passed “condemning Zionism as racism,” and I successfully worked to eliminate it. This was the first time I remember feeling a conflict between my social justice activism and my Jewish identity.
Tensions began to arise between blacks and Jews, between anti-Semitism and anti-racism, and the emerging Black Power movement directed whites to go “back to their own communities” and fight against racism there. I got a job working with the parents of white, working-class children who were being bused into black elementary schools, but my project ran out of funds.
I remember thinking, “What is my community?” In my mind, it wasn’t the Jewish one, it was the newly-hatched feminist one, which, it turned out, was very very Jewish. None of us, though — it now seems so strange — were even thinking about ourselves as Jews. We didn’t see the intersectionality.
I helped plan a historic women’s conference in Boston in 1969 where I saw karate for the first time and attended workshops about whether we should smash the nuclear family. I lived in a women’s commune and was a founder of Bread and Roses, the first large grassroots women’s-liberation organization in Boston that started feminism’s Second Wave. Again, none of us talked about how many of us were Jewish, and the sole place Jewish identity emerged was when babies were named after Rosa Luxemberg and Emma Goldman, the only Jewish names we were proud of.
I wasn’t a practicing Jew anymore, except for the seder and Rosh Hashana, and when I called home and talked to my mother.
The women’s movement legitimized the idea that women have their own authentic, individual feelings (this seems so obvious now, but it was new!), and that personal matters are political. So when Golda Meir spoke at Brandeis in the early 1970s and placards were raised in relation to the Israeli occupation that said, “Gramma, how many babies did you kill today?” I was ready, finally, to formulate a response from my broader identity.
Golda was a woman adored by my family; next to Barbra Streisand, she was the most visible Jewish woman in the world. Plus this was Brandeis, the Jewish university, where I was getting my doctorate. My feminism and Judaism converged and, regardless of my disagreement with Golda’s politics towards Palestinians, I understood these placards as anti-Semitic and as misogynist attacks on a Jewish woman. The worst cries against Margaret Thatcher didn’t stoop to this, and no one called Ronald Reagan “Grampa.”
Between 1975 and 1985, the international women’s movement soared alongside the U.N. “Decade for Women” and “World Conferences on Women.” “Zionism is Racism” was everywhere, though, and I felt torn in half. It was hard to be Jewish in the leftist women’s movement. Letty Cottin Pogrebin published a now-famous article in Ms. Magazine, “Anti-Semitism in the Women’s Movement,” that galvanized many Jewish women.
Letty formulated Israel’s right to exist. Israel was a “liberation movement” for Jews, given the attempt to exterminate us; it wasn’t just an “imperialist oppressor.” Palestinians deserved a homeland, too. Letty offered integration. I could be a feminist in the global sense and retain my strong ties to being a Jew. At the same time, I could have a place in the Jewish world as a feminist. [This was the time when Lilith ran game-changing articles like “Blaming the Jews for the Birth of Patriarchy” and “Blaming the Jews for the Death of the Goddess.”]
I began to find women who were struggling with these same issues; we began to find each other, to feel less alone. Finally we could have a home, a place, with integrity.
When I travel I like to go to Jewish places to feel at home, so when I attended the non-governmental organizations conference that paralleled the U.N. Conference on Women in Nairobi in 1985, I found an Ashkenazi shul and went there on shabbes. I go in and, uchhh, there’s a mechitza. My instinct was to crash it, to sit downstairs. There were only a few white men there, I don’t think even 10. I look up, and there are a couple of hundred women up there, because of the conference. There’s Bella, Betty Friedan, other leading Jewish feminists. Bella’s wearing a big hat on shabbes. I’m shocked, but I go upstairs.
The rabbi looks up and down, up and down, as though he’s thinking, “What’s wrong with this picture?” Finally he says, “Oh, come on down.” None of us talked about this afterwards. We didn’t say one word.
There was a Jewish women’s caucus in Nairobi, because Jewish women had begun to organize, and there were a lot of Israeli women. In Israel, the peace movement and the feminist movement had gotten tied together, not unlike the U.S., where many feminists came out of the anti-war movement. Anti-militarism has always been a deep feminist value.
I co-chaired a workshop on a two-state, Israeli-Palestinian solution, and it was a firestorm. We were booed and heckled. Two very courageous women — one Israeli, one Palestinian — were good friends, and just the fact that they had a friendship blew up everything. In the audience there were right-wing Israelis, rejectionist Arabs, and everything in between. The idea of two homelands was extremely controversial; to boot, that an Israeli woman and a Palestinian woman were friends? It was explosive that you would have that close a connection.
After Nairobi, I continued my connections with the Israeli women I met there, going to Israel, working with the Israeli Women’s Network. I cared deeply about Israeli issues that combined feminism, peace and Judaism. In Nairobi, 15,000 feminists from across the globe were together for two weeks; in Beijing, in 1995, there were 40,000.
I led a women’s Shabbat at the fourth U.N. Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 — that had never happened before — and a couple hundred women came. For me, it was a process of building “home” as a woman and a Jew, of having a place in this world as a Jewish woman.
In 2000, I got involved with, and later became the Executive Director of, the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace (a.k.a. Brit Tzedek v’Shalom), a grassroots organization in the U.S. whose mission was the support of a two-state Israeli-Palestinian solution. Brit Tzedek allowed me to take a stand that felt principled, and that freed me to embrace more of my Jewishness. The organization was mixed gender, but it was new to have women in charge; powerful women leaders formed its core. In 2003, I went to Geneva for the signing of the Peace Accords, and I was there fully as a Jew and as a woman.
I decided to have a re-affirmation of my bat mitzvah, but different from the one I’d had in 1956 when girls didn’t read from the Torah. My theme was “Who’s the Community?” — such a long-ago challenge, and I looked out from the bimah to see my feminist friends, extended family, my brother (who had journeyed from civil rights activism to becoming a rabbi), my sister (an elected public official), Workman’s Circle friends who connected me to Ashkenazi yiddishkeit, politically progressive friends, and everyone else. I reconnected with my mother, who was no longer living; she was the one who had fought for her family to “stay Jewish.”
I started wearing a Jewish star every day. It tells the world that I identify as an unassimilated Jew, and its visibility links me to yellow stars, to my roots of having been born during the Holocaust. And at shul, until sexism ends, I wear a yarmulke.
I have a home at shul (we have a man rabbi and a woman rabbi), but a home isn’t a place where you have to feel satisfied with everything. Many issues — Jewish and feminist — have to be resolved in the shul, but you have to show up in order to raise them. My shul is now where I’m trying to build a feminist presence.
Historically, Jewish women have been at the forefront of a lot of social justice movements, and maybe we’re beginning to find our way back there; the political controversies over Israel have made it hard for “visible Jews” to lead movements for peace. During the Occupy protests, though, Jewish women led Kol Nidre, Sukkot celebrations and Jewish caucuses; their identities — as activists, as feminists, as Jews — were so public and integrated.
The fight for real gender egalitarianism in the secular and religious worlds has definitely not been won; there is inclusion, but not equality. We’re only at the beginning of this battle. Sexism remains alive and well on our planet; in every country it shows itself uniquely and specifically. There is the devaluing and sometimes killing of young girls, the sexual trafficking of women, the feminization of poverty, and violence against women. There is sexism in religious fundamentalism, and worldwide structural inequalities in economic and political systems. In the U.S., as we know, women’s reproductive autonomy is endangered.
Still, honestly?, I think the time is right for another major wave of Jewish feminism and, beyond that, for a powerful movement, across the globe, for women’s authentic and enduring equality. Betty Friedan started N.O.W.; Jewish women can be active again in a gender-justice movement across continents.
Diane Balser, a professor of Women’s Studies at Boston University, is the author of Sister and Solidarity: Feminism and Labor in Modern Times.
[Balser was interviewed following an N.Y.U. conference, “Women’s Liberation and Jewish Identity: Uncovering a Legacy of Activism and Social Change” and a discussion at the Jewish Women’s Archive, both convened by Joyce Antler, now writing a book, Ready to Turn the World Upside Down: Radical Feminism and Jewish Women.]