Jewish Women, Many Voices

In a spate of recent novels, Jewish women writing from all around the Diaspora present points of view their North American Jewish sisters will find exotic, yet familiar.

In The Walled City, Esther David writes about her own tight-knit Bene Israel community in India. Her heroine’s family name, Dandekar, recalls tales of ancestors ship were kingdom the Konkan coast, “reciting the Hebrew prayers silently…wearing Indian clothes, speaking the local language and taking a new name, the name of the surrogate village that had adopted them.” The story that Esther David tells, about this 2000-year-old community’s struggle to preserve its identity as Jews even as the young people leave for Israel and other parts, is full of loving detail. We see the long, black, heavily oiled hair of the women, and the red kumkum dot some wear on their foreheads. The question of Jewish female identity on the Asian continent also arises in Harem. This first novel by Dora Levy Mossanen, an Iranian Jew, is a frank pot-boiler of a story about three generations of Jewish women in ancient Persia who get ahead the only way they can—with their bodies.

On the other side of the world is Buenos Aires, a city with the largest Jewish community in Latin America, where just about everybody undergoes psychoanalysis. It’s the setting for Alicia Steimberg’s strange and compelling Call Me Magdalena, a look inside the psyche of an Argentine-Jewish woman, Magdalena, who sometimes changes her name to Flora, or Lili Marlene. The narrator jumps back and forth between poetry and prose to tell Magdalena’s story about the conflicts inherent in being a Jew in Argentina, where “there’s a rule of etiquette that one doesn’t mention one’s religion or national origin.”

A different Jewish-Latina lens on identity is Achy Obejas’ Days of Awe. In the context of Castro’s revolution, this story explores the Jewish exile, here with a Cuban twist. Ale’s Jewish family flees to America from Cuba after the Bay of Pigs crisis in 1961, and she wre sdes with all of her identities—sexual, religious, national. She describes secretly watching her father, the descendant of amisim—Jews who were forced to convert under the Inquisition—putting on t’fillin and reciting Hebrew prayers in his Chicago basement. Her mother, also from ainisim stock, had Ale baptized (the custom for these Spanish Jews), and prays to statues of saints. When Ale’s father is asked if he is Jewish, he answers: “All Spanish people have Jewish blood in their veins.”

Canadian writer Gabriella Goliger also plays the sad notes of the exile theme in the dark, sometimes interviewed short stories of Song of Ascent. “One Morning in Prague” has Franz Kafka springing out of his grave to take the guided tour of Prague’s Jewish cemetery. In “Maedele,”Rachel, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, has an affair with her McGill professor of Yiddish literature, also a camp survivor.

Our Diaspora journey ends in Israel. Germaine W Shames’ Between Two Deserts, about a part-Jewish American woman living in the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, shows politics and personal life intertwining in a place where ancient conflicts stir up deadly violence. Eve, the beautiful protagonist with the biblical name, has a Palestinian lover as well as the legacy of her adored Jewish grandfather. The men she meets are always falling in love with her. Besides Salim, there’s a Hungarian Holocaust survivor who yearns for her, seeing in her the wife the Nazis murdered, and an Israeli father and son who both want her. It’s as if the author were saying that Jewish women rule all these disparate parts of the universe.