A group of women sat in a circle. Some were Jewish. Many were not. Ellen Ledley began. “We’re here tonight to share our experiences and pride about being Jewish women,”
A simple beginning to a complex and rewarding evening. That was the atmosphere at the recent Forum on Jewish Women held at the YWCA in Pasadena, California. The Forum served as a sounding board for attending Los Angeles women and focused on women’s dual roles in Judaic life today— being Jewish and being a feminist.
The Forum was the last in a series of four held in Los Angeles but was the only one that dealt with the Jewish topic. Along with Ledley, organizers of the evening included Sharone Abramowitz, Candace Compton and Janine Baer. All brought their personal experiences as Jewish women to the discussion.
Baer and the other group leaders began the evening by discounting Judaism as a patriarchal religion. She said being Jewish was more of “an identity” where a woman can “feel free to define for herself what it means to be Jewish and how much religion she wants to accept or reject.”
Another topic covered was anti-Semitism. Compton explained the subject as “a type of oppression much like sexism. It represents misinformation about a sector of society and it hurts. To say that Jewish women are obnoxious and loud is like believing the sexist thought that all women are basically passive and want to be dominated.”
They also stressed the value for both Jews and non-Jews of understanding anti-Semitism. Forum leaders said understanding anti-Semitism would inspire protests against stereotypes which result in insulting jokes about Jewish women.
One of the most interesting portions of the Forum was an open discussion about how Jewish women “passed” for non-Jews in America. Many blue-eyed women said they weren’t thought to be Jewish. Those with small noses agreed they could pass, too. Another woman felt that any aspect of Anglo beauty possessed by a Jew made overall acceptance easier. Others expressed more personal opinions. Those with parents of European origin said they didn’t like to have friends hear their parents’ accents and ask a lot of questions.
Leaders and Jewish participants alike felt the exchange was good, that it had offered everyone, even non-Jews, a chance to hear first-hand how subtly anti-Semitism works.
An invaluable portion of the Forum dealt with a historical view of women throughout Jewish history. “There’s little recognition of ethnic women in history,” said Abramowitz. “Many of the conditions we face as Jewish women today are not faced by other women.”
She mentioned the Jewish mother stereotype—what she called “the bitchy, castrating, domineering, nagging, Yiddish woman who acts out all these things through her mother role.” This stereotype, she said, is a source of comedy in American culture, in jokes and television. She questioned the actual source of the Jewish mother personality.
“Yiddish literature is 99% male,” she said. “A whole body of Yiddish women’s poetry is just now being translated. This theme never comes up as dominant in European literature. It first develops in American literature.”
She added that when Jewish women fled the pogroms of Europe with their families and came to the United States, they were no longer needed to fulfill a secular role in the Jewish household. They were told to become accepted members of society, in other words, to “pass.”
“The message was to assimilate,” she said. “America told them, ‘You’re threatening.’ So the stereotype started because they did not fit America’s idea of the role of the woman. This was a combination of anti-Semitism and sexism.”
She also said that the persecution of Jewish women should not be tolerated as a romantic theme in literature. “Rape was used in the pogroms to persecute the Jews and their property. Jewish women were a large part of what was considered property,” she said.
After several hours of history, singing, questions and answers, many Los Angeles Jewish and non-Jewish women felt they had been enlightened. They had stepped back into Jewish history and philosophy. Together they had questioned being both Jewish and feminist. And these were the original concepts behind the Forum.
Janine Baer provided an accurate summation: “For Jewish women, we wanted to pursue the experience of being Jewish. For non-Jewish women, we wanted to provide accurate information to take out into the world. In the end we wanted all of us to learn more and find out exactly what the Jewish woman’s experience is all about.”