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Identity and Anxiety

Feminism is the good news in Jewish continuity

It’s not that I’m naive about the demographic panic of 1990’s Jewish life. I understand that the high rate of intermarriage, the thin content of most Jewish education and the diminution of charitable contributions to Jewish causes have all powered the wave of high anxiety sweeping across the Jewish landscape-leaving in its path task forces and commissions dedicated to ensuring “Jewish continuity” (that is, “how to ensure our ongoing vitality as a Jewish community,” as one report says.) The numbers, taken from the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, do represent an almost unprecedented turning away from Jewish connectedness by some Jews. But the bad news has masked the good— and there’s plenty to be learned from the good. If you watch carefully, you can see other numbers, as yet untallied: numbers of women who have never before in their lives been interested in discovering the Jewish component of their identity, and who are now doing just that.

Every day I meet women who are excited about Jewish life in all its aspects—learning, celebrating, teaching, praying, creating, writing (new liturgies, checks to charities and letters to the editor, among other things). Then I go to meetings on “Jewish continuity” and I feel as if I have entered some weird parallel universe. The excitement, the creative ferment, the Jewish exploration that women are making happen for themselves haven’t yet filtered into the consciousness of the wider, “organized” Jewish community.

Feminism is the route these women take to Judaism. We are living in an era of unprecedented interest by women in Jewish celebrations and rituals, in scholarship and text study, in the creation of new curricula and teaching methods [see box], which can make a huge difference in the way the next generation of Jews-female and male—will see themselves. One simple example: the now ubiquitous adult bat mitzvah has made it possible for men to come forward and say that they, too, want to be taught from scratch. Since competence with prayers and rituals is so much a part of feeling that one is “successful” as a Jew, women’s assistance in modeling how to ask for directions or instructions is invaluable.

In many ways, Jewish women are opening doors for Jewish men.

• Women have their fingers on the pulse of each community’s real needs, because they are the primary “consumers” of Jewish services. Even now, 31 years after the publication of ‘the Feminine Mystique, women are still the ones making the visits to elderly relatives in the nursing home, taking children through the doors of the local Jewish community center, enrolling them in a Hebrew school, attending an adult education class, creating a holiday ritual. Someone should invent a program where men see Jewish social services up close, the way women do.

• Jewish women are hinders of many of the same services they themselves utilize, and this duality makes for a complex, but potentially transformative, engagement in the Jewish community. Women are heavily invested—psychologically as well as financially—in the survival of the projects their tzedakah helps make possible.

• While intermarriage rates have been rising consistently for three decades, Jewish women are still about a third more likely to many Jews than their brothers are.

• Women’s enrollment at rabbinical and cantorial schools has burgeoned over the past decade; now about half of the candidates for rabbinic ordination in the Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative seminaries are women. This means that there will be women rabbis in pulpits and other positions of Jewish leadership to serve as models for other women.

• Women’s fundraising campaigns are up [see LILITH’s 1993 reports on Jewish women’s philanthropy!, while general Jewish campaigns are flat or down—which makes it quite astonishing that “American Jewish Philanthropy in the 1990’s,” a 1995 research report by demographer Gary Tobin which examines 36 factors affecting American Jewish philanthropy, does not mention gender. Jewish women are earning more and inheriting more and giving away more money than ever before—and doing it differently from Jewish men. Wouldn’t it have been useful to find out why?

• Religious exploration and scholarship by women is flourishing, in the form of original papers, books, collections of historical documents. Just look at the books and other resources in the reviews and listings sections of this issue of LILITH to feel the range of this extraordinary Jewish productivity by women.

• The Jewish renewal movement, initiated mostly by male gurus, has been democratized by the groundswell of interest in Rosh Hodesh groups, women’s midrash-writing, new rituals (around mastectomy, for example) and celebrations (how about silk panels created by an artists’ collective for a women’s Sukkot event?). Women are generating—for themselves and for men and for the next generation too—a whole new interest in Jewish spirituality, this time from a feminist perspective.

Nu? Why isn’t all this seen as a model for the Jewish community as a whole?

Paradoxically, this multimodal and productive Jewish women’s creativity seems to be going on beneath the radar screen of the wider Jewish community. The national continuity agenda reads like a world without women. Compare the comments and experiences of women with a heralded piece of work by Leonard Fein, the founder of Moment magazine. Fein has just written a monograph (published by the Nathan Cummings Foundation) called “Smashing Idols and Other Prescriptions for Jewish Continuity.” in which he names social action as the main reason for Jews to continue being Jewish. His language is rich and convincing; his rhetoric is powerful; his frame of reference and his imagery are entirely male. Feminism appears as one of several “shared interests or convictions”—which he dismisses glancingly as mere distractions en route to Jewish social action.

Fein issues a call to reshape Jewish life “as a community’ of intention rather than merely of coincidence or of fate.” This is what the Jewish women’s community, worldwide, is all about: intention (kavanah) and repairing the world (tikkun olam). Interesting to note, by the way, that we always translate tikkun as repair, rather than mending—again a male image rather than the homelier and more female language option.

Gail Twersky Reimer, editor of Reading Ruth, has responded to Fein’s call on Jews to forge ahead with Abraham’s hammer in one hand and Jacob’s ladder in the other. At a recent conference she said this imagery “leaves me feeling like a motherless child. Haven’t our mothers bequeathed any tools with which to make our case? Of course they have—but knowledge about them is not part of our cultural memory.” She suggests alternatives to the hammer-and-ladder: Miriam’s timbrel, used for calling women to participate in the exodus from Egypt, and “the mirrors used by the women enslaved in Egypt to heighten their attractiveness to their overburdened husbands. ,, thus ensuring the continuity of the people.” Reimer adds that “the symbols associated with women require extensive explanation, whereas just the mention of Jacob’s ladder is enough.”

Despite persistent feelings of exclusion, women do draw near, pulled in by the promise of a Judaism which will truly reflect their female experience. I have seen women come to a feminist seder knowing so little of Jewish laws and customs that they have brought bread to the potluck—but they stick around, and they learn, and because they are interested in exploring the world of our mothers (and foremothers) they hear the blessings chanted. They come to Judaism through feminism. As did my friend who grew up in an assimilated Jewish family, Christmas tree and all, who discovered her Jewishness in a women’s consciousness-raising group. To her astonishment, the women with whom she had most in common were other Jews! When the talk turned to the families that had shaped them, she found herself becoming passionately interested in the Jewish lives of her female forebears. Women’s history became her path to Judaism.

Obviously not all women feel that their Jewish and female identities are totally consonant. LILITH is finding that young Jewish women, especially, pick up very quickly on the male bias in mainstream Jewish life (organizations, synagogues, texts, etc.). “Often I feel invisible,” one of them told LILITH.

Despite negative feelings, young Jewish women are not rejecting their Jewish identity: instead they are finding new ways into Jewish texts, Jewish experiences, and social action. For text study, institutions of serious, full-time Jewish study for women—in New York, Boston, Jerusalem and elsewhere—encourage women with heretofore very little Jewish education to come forward and say “I want to learn,” in addition to welcoming women already knowledgeable.

In parallel developments, women are infusing Jewish practice into their lives, often via women’s prayer and study groups (some originally constituted as places where a woman could say Kaddish, or mark a life crisis). Rabbi Donna Berman, speaking on “The Farce of Jewish Continuity” at a conference last year, mentioned how “the synagogue must be a place where people can be real, where they can share their pain and their anguish as well as their joy and achievement.” Women’s prayer and study groups have been exactly such places—where women teach and mentor each other, and create a ritual community for easing members through the passages of divorce, healing, loss—and simchas too. This paradigm could shift over into mixed-gender Jewish worship.

Just look at the drawing power of feminist Jewish ritual. Feminist seders are one striking example—dozens are now held in cities and towns across the continent. Some are grassroots efforts of a circle of friends, others are in synagogue banquet halls. Indianapolis uses a feminist Haggada written in English, Hebrew and Russian—so that recently arrived Russian Jewish women can follow. Davie, Florida brings together Jewish and Christian women for an “ecumenical seder.” Several are projects of college women (the Haggada used at Williams College says, “Our own efforts to reshape Judaism are intertwined with the Passover Story of liberation)”.

Perhaps one reason that so little of this very upbeat Jewish activity lightens the gloom in the corridors of Jewish [male] power is that seders don’t require permission from a hierarchical Jewish organization. “It’s simple. If you build it, they will come,” says Eve Landau, director of Ma’yan, the Jewish Women’s Project at the JCC on the Upper West Side of New York City, whose three feminist seders this year drew more than 650 women of all ages.

As for social and political action: Even traditional Jewish women’s organizations find that when they recast their work with a feminist emphasis women are likelier to join. When the so-called women’s agenda is on the table (projects addressing reproductive freedoms, economic equity, education, health care, an end to violence and sexual exploitation, and more), Jewish organizations showcase social justice in action, not just in fancy words carved into the sides of Jewish buildings. [See page 7 for news of Jewish programs for battered women.]

Here are some other suggestions for opening the door—especially to younger women— even wider.

Listen to young Jews. Nearly all of the news stories in the Kol Ishah section of this issue were written by women aged 16-23. The reasons? First, it’s good reading; second, it demonstrates to younger women that a national Jewish public welcomes their views. Continuing this welcome, LILITH is beginning a series of small-group discussions with Jewish women and men in their twenties. Some of what we’ve already heard? “I’m afraid of being called a JAP.” “My issues are race relations, not Jewish stuff” “I hate it that the only thing I’m ever invited to that’s Jewish is singles events.”

Invite them in—especially via internships. Nearly half of all Americans ages 18-24 do volunteer work, according to a recent Gallup poll. Since internships are the sine qua non for job seekers these days, providing substantive internships in a Jewish setting engages young adult job seekers right away. Internships are cost effective—the Jewish community gets good workers, and young Jews see Jewish agencies up close. How about internships not just in Jewish organizations, but with committed Jewish role models? For young Jews whose own Jewish identity is dormant during precisely the years when their professional identity is in formation, mentors who are successful at what they do in the outside world—as professionals, entrepreneurs, managers, whatever— and have a positive sense of themselves as Jews could be very appealing.

On campus, faculty members can be recruited as mentors also. Female Jewish faculty members may be considerably less ambivalent about their Jewish identity than their male counterparts; they see many possibilities in integrating Jewish and women’s issues (including new areas of academic research) and relish sharing this excitement with their students.

Jewish college women do not necessarily respond to the same kinds of Jewish programs and outreach efforts as their male cohorts. For programs on topics like “Beyond the JAP Stereotype” and “Body Image, Eating Disorders and Jewish Women’s Self-Esteem,” young women pack lecture halls and discussion groups to air their feelings about being Jewish. [LlLlTH’s “Jewish hair” issue—Spring 1995—was a big hit with them.]

Engage young adult women. There is life after college, and young Jewish adults at this stage are not just seeking mates, they are seeking community. Young adult women, whether married, partnered or single, feel neglected. They believe, probably with justification, that “families” take precedence in the programming of Jewish community centers and synagogues. In all the anxiety over intermarriage, Jewish organizations have forgotten to recognize the importance of strengthening a young woman’s Jewish identity-regardless of whom (or if) she marries. Having her spiritual and intellectual needs met in an authentic way that respects her as a woman reinforces the likelihood that she will make her major life decisions in ways that favor her Jewish participation in the future—which is, presumably, what “continuity” is all about.