Last year, John Tierney wrote an essay for The New York Times about what transpired when he offered a hand to an elderly woman struggling with groceries on West 23rd Street. Tierney and the woman (whose name was Miriam Seigel, and whose age was 91) began to chat, but soon they were distracted by two teenage girls loudly exchanging obscenities. One threw an empty bottle on the ground.
Tierney describes what happened next:
Mrs. Seigel promptly intervened.
“You pick that up,” she said sternly to the girl, who was twice her size. “The sidewalk is not a trash can.”
Tierney writes that the girl was so stunned by the absolute tone of authority coming from the mouth of this ancient tiny lady that she stood there dumbstruck. The girl didn’t obey Miriam Seigel, but she didn’t argue either. “She seemed to be experiencing a novel sensation—shame,” concludes Tierney. “It occurred to me then that New York might be a better place if more of us emulated Mrs. Seigel.”
Over the next few weeks, Tierney tries to do just that, but he recognizes that not everyone has a a gift for prophetic outreach and moral gauntlet-throwing. (Older Jewish women, perhaps, have the corner on this market.) He phones Mrs. Seigel for help, pen in hand. Okay, he says to her, someone is making a racket on the street, what do I say?
Miriam Seigel answers:
“If there’s someone out there on the street making noise, what I would do is just go right out and talk to him.”
“What would you say?”
“I’d say: ‘Hey, cut it out. You’re annoying people. You don’t live alone in this world.'”
Fully armed, Tierney takes to the streets. “Hey, you’re annoying people,” he chastises boors. “Cut that out! You don’t live alone in this world!” he tells drivers who sit on their horns, and other antisocial types. He’s into it, writing about it in The New York Times, feeling empowered, on the side of biblical prophets, on the side of angels, on the side of loudmouthed Jewish females. “You think you live alone in this world? The sidewalk is not a trash can! Hey, cut that out!”
We at LILITH, needless to say, revere the Miriam Seigels of this world. A few of us may actually be Miriam Seigels, but most of us are just Miriam Seigel wannabes, trying, like Tierney, to get better at stumping boldly for things that count: fairness, the common weal, the rights and feelings of underdogs, the status of women—for whatever makes the world a better place.
In biblical terms, Jewish loudmouths are indeed “prophets”— relentless pains in the ass like Isaiah, Jeremiah or Ezekiel, who never shut up about society’s failings and who rant, shout, berate and harrangue for social betterment. We are decidedly not priests (that other prototype of religious leader), institutional conservatives who anchor the status quo. Our “prophets” include Bella Abzug, Cynthia Ozick, Betty Friedan, Sandra Bernhard, Grace Paley, Judith Plaskow, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Adrienne Rich, Dr. Ruth, Judith Hauptman, and others. Challenging what’s unjust in a phallocentric world, we are definitely a counterculture—in the sense that our values are not held by the larger society.
Until now, in Jewish society, misogyny (often exercise by those who stereotype Jewish women as self-centered “JAPs”) has robbed us of much of our pride and fearlessness. The ugly JAP stereotype, which LILITH has written about extensively, has been a counterphobic response to Jewish women’s strength and the big-mouth Zeitgeist.
Maida Solomon, in a loudmouthed recent book, Talking Back: Images of Jewish Women in American Popular Culture (edited by Joyce Antler), reminds us that we Jewish women are living in an unprecedentedly receptive moment of history. “The potential for self-empowerment in Jewish women’s lives through the grassroots intersection of feminism and Judaism,” she writes, “takes my breath away.” In other words, there has never been a better time to be Jewish and female and have a huge mouth.
Last spring, LILITH put out a call to readers: “Send us the names of fabulous Jewish women with BIG MOUTHS who speak their minds, shoot from the hip, talk turkey, aren’t threatened by their own competence, don’t get nervous taking up space in a room, call a spade a spade, and, in general, take care of business.” We were not surprised by the flood of responses we received (including, of course, plenty of women who nominated themselves), but we were surprised by how deeply these Big Mouths were held in the hearts of other admiring women.
Abby Green, for example, from Boston, commented that during her teen years, her one overriding goal was to make “less” of herself, so that she could be a more “perfect” American female. She writes, “I was on a crusade. I wanted to have less personality, less mouth, less boobs, less apparent brain, less strong views on things, less sureness, less ability to get stuff done, less gushy caring, less smelly Jewish deli in my lunches, less . . . you name it. But then I spent a week at this high school program in D.C. with some loudmouthed Jewish girls from Brooklyn, and it was almost like breaking a spell. These girls were living—and being unapologetic about it. Their example saved my life. It gave me back a life.”
Ethel Munk, from Philadelphia, remembers Big Mouths at her first teaching job over fifty years ago. “These two Jewish girls were afraid of nothing. If something wasn’t fair, they screamed. It was effective. They cared about important things. I found them terrifying, but also thrilling. They became my role models. In retrospect, I would have to say that the ways in which I’m proud of myself are in direct relation to how well I’ve measured up to them.”
I myself have a John Tierney-Iike memory of my first encounter with a Jewish, female, big-mouthed firebrand who bravely ignored boundaries on a standing-room-only subway car in Manhattan. (I am not a New Yorker.) Her behaviors still strike me as something to aspire to. An extremely pregnant woman was hanging on to a strap in front of a young seated man when the loudmouth (another straphanger) gave the guy an abrupt push on the shoulder, pointed to the big belly in his face, and said, “Where’d you grow up, mister, the zoo?” He sat there. She immediately turned to her new constituency (one had the impression she had lots), which was the entire car: “Ladies and gentlemen, this human being grew up in the zoo.” And to him, “This is good. Sit. Enjoy.” By that point, half the car was on its feet, offering the pregnant lady what she was due.
There is a groove in my brain that retains this subway crusader’s syntax and delivery in the same way that John Tierney’s brain now has a groove upon which is embedded Miriam Seigel. It’s a classic, unmistakable recording; definitely Jewish and definitely female. It bumps up against every other compliant, self-negating female voice that’s ever been stuffed into my mainstream head. On good days (when the reception is clear), it goes like this: “Where’d you grow up, mister, the zoo? The sidewalk is not a trash can.” (You can mix and match here.) “You’re annoying people. This is good. Sit. Get up. Ladies and gentlemen, this human being grew up in the zoo. Hey, cut it out! You think you live alone in this world? You pick that up. The sidewalk is not a trash can. Enjoy.”
I find speaking like this a mechaya.
“Is what I am about to say amiable?”
There is no question that in mainstream America, males and females, almost from birth, get “shaped” differently. Studies of infancy show that girls are rewarded positively for docility, quietness, cooperation, caretaking and selflessness, and reprimanded for wanting their own way (which is called “headstrong,” “spoiled” and “selfish”). Male infants are also, unfortunately, narrowly “shaped,” being rewarded for cleverness, inventiveness, independence and self-sufficiency, and reprimanded for traits that are considered “girlish”: caring, crying, deference, altruism.
In the book, Failing at Fairness: How America’s Schools Cheat Girls, the social scientists Myra and David Sadker follow this thread once kids are in school. In standardized science tests in middle school, for example, the Sadkers report that girls, to a much greater extent than boys, select the “I don’t know” option rather than take a guess at the correct answer—even though this option is the only one guaranteed not to garner any points.
Risk is a path girls learn not to take. Females become adept at reading other people’s voices (not our own). We become skilled at following and reacting: not leading and acting. By the time American teens are in high school, males have mastered the art of sitting strategically in “power seats,” where they are affirmed and spotted quickly by teachers. Girls, on the other hand, have learned to compete with one another for “invisible seats”—those behind tall students, in musty corners, and at the back of classrooms.
By college, these conceptual mechitzas are set in stone. In the book At the Root of This Longing: Reconciling a Spiritual Hunger and a Feminist Thirst, Carol Lee Flinders recounts how she was once asked sternly by a religion teacher whether the remark she was about to make would pass through Islam’s rigorous “three gates”: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? The question simmered queasily in Flinders for a long time, until she realized why. As a female, she was constantly handicapped by all kinds of “gates” that no one seemed to care about or even notice. Flinders mentions three gates in particular that often keep us from opening our mouths in public. The first gate: “Is what I am about to say amiable?” The second: “Is it accommodating?” And the third: “Is it, uhhh, egads, ditzy?”
How come Jewish women are louder?
Given the chilly climate, then, how is it that some Jewish women (to a greater extent than other Caucasian women) buck these enormous cultural prescriptions and scale the ramparts to become Big Mouths? There are many answers to this, of course, but certainly Jewish women, like women from other oppressed minority groups (particularly African Americans) do not come from a stock that enjoyed physical safety, the latter a privilege that spawns the “luxury socializations” such as good manners, rituals of indirection and reticence, and female helplessness and discretion. These behaviors can develop only in times of peace—that is, when Cossacks (or KKK males) are not around the corner getting drunk.
Jewish familiarity with hardship and persecution goes back millennia, causing, no doubt, some natural selection over generations on the basis of “survivor skills”: How quick were you, physically and mentally, in the face of that danger? How good were your “lioness” skills when the children were threatened? How alert were you? Decisive? Daring? These are all life-saving adaptations. Values become crystallized, too; that is, there is an explicit articulation of what matters and what really doesn’t in life. For example, ideally, which takes precedence—whistle-blowing for decency and responsibility or succumbing to shyness in the face of jerks? Forged in a crucible of ethical violation, Jews (from the writers of the book of Exodus to the geshreyers on picket lines) generally developed a reflexive hatred of wrongdoing.
Jewish Eastern European women whose husbands were scholars (an impressive defensive male adaptation to helplessness, hopelessness and poverty) were remaindered with the devalued domain of the entire real world. We consequently developed “virile” skills: assertiveness, aggressiveness in the marketplace, self-reliance and practicality, strategic shrewdness and fearlessness, and the ability to take charge, jump in, turn on a dime. Our momentary glimpse of Miriam Seigel’s instantaneous anti-litter action shows a woman who is the avatar of all of this.
“What other people think of me is not my business”
Which brings me squarely to what is really the hugest leap that loudmouthed Jewish females make—not to be minimized—and that is: our willingness to displease. In therapeutic offices throughout America, females’ inability to say “no” to others is their most deeply rooted handicap, breeding entire self-help sections in bookstores on the topics of co-dependency, assertiveness training, women’s fear of their own anger, depression, female addictions, et cetera. There is little that is more heretical than a woman who dares to become the center of her own life.
Which is why someone like Bella Abzug is all the more remarkable. A model for how to displease people as a matter of principle, she was renowned for announcing preemptively, “Yeah, I’m a lightening rod. That’s what I am. So, attack me.'” Bella would not compromise values that she deeply held, regardless of opinion polls or exasperated colleagues. In her book, Bella, she wrote, “I spend all day figuring out how to beat the machine and knock the crap out of the political power structure.” Her description of how she came to retain her hat in D.C. is classic Bella. “When I got to Congress, they made a big thing over the hat,” she said. “So I watched. Did they want me to wear it or not? They didn’t want me to wear it, so I did.”
A LILITH reader who e-mailed us in response to our loudmouths call identified the single factor that she feels has most allowed her to be a force for positive change in the world, as well as to be true to herself. “Frankly,” she writes, “I really don’t care how liked or disliked I am. I learned long ago that what other people think of me is not my business.”
“Is a nose with a deviation such a crime against the nation?”
Another loudmouth tactic, correlative to the willingness to antagonize people if they get in the way of a higher good, is an ability to play the game of “chicken”—without getting an ulcer. In my first year of rabbinical school, a female classmate of mine, who was not doing much academic work, was told she had to withdraw from the seminary. In response to this, she simply continued to show up, day after day, taking up as much space as possible at the classroom table with her breakfast, snack, lunch, fruit, sodas, gum, books, stacks of mail, and imposing self. She won, and has been a rabbi for many years.
Playing “chicken” (which a male friend of mine asserts most men play as their birthright) means you are willing to fight longer, louder, bigger, crazier, more relentlessly and more unwaveringly than your opponent—whether that person is a boor on a subway or the administrator of your seminary.
In an idiosyncratic little children’s book, Positively No Pets Allowed, by Nathan Zimelman, the protagonist, Mrs. Goldberg, buys her son Seymour a pet gorilla, names him Irving, and then walks back towards their apartment house. On the way, the iceman calls out to her. “Lady, I know maybe a thousand landlords, and not one of them will let in a pet.” Mrs. Goldberg pooh-poohs him. “Who says a gorilla is a pet?” she answers. “A gorilla is a visitor.” The final frame shows Mrs. Goldberg, in haute I-don’t-care-what-you-think attire (beret, goofy fur-collared coat, shleppy pocketbook and orthopedic shoes) ushering herself, Seymour, and Irving past the landlord and into their brownstone apartment building. A huge brass plaque on the door reads: “Positively no pets allowed.”
On stage and screen, Barbra Streisand is an ace chicken-player, defiantly shoving her aggressively ethnic face in front of the camera and daring viewers to reject her. Her characters are loud, smart, female and Jewish, refusing to submit to either the cultural tyranny of sexism or assimilation. The nervy lyric in “If a Girl Isn’t Pretty” (“Is a nose with deviation such a crime against the nation?”) invites the audience to conspire with her in the thrill of chutpahdik norm-breaking.
Since most women’s self-esteem depends on the approval of others, ignoring all that can be a complete high. The popular poem by Jenny Joseph which begins, “When I am an old woman I shall wear purple,” is all about this rush. Joseph’s character pledges to “press alarm bells” and “learn to spit.” Ruth Harriet Jacobs, a well-known gerontologist and Big Mouth, is famous for her Gray Panther-type campaign (the original of which was started by another Jewish loudmouth, Maggie Kuhn) which she calls, “Be an OUTRAGEOUS Older Woman.”
“Your ability to be moderate is pretty much shot”
The enormous will that it takes for a woman to get to the other side of culturally prescribed captivities leaves many big mouths deficient in the “brakes” department. Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz, like Abzug, describes falling into a looking-glass universe where suddenly you’re “in everyone’s face.” A lesbian friend of mine wears a T-shirt that says “Loud Pushy Jew Dyke.” She explains. “First I saw the ‘Jew’ T-shirt in a store in lower Manhattan and I bought it, then I saw the ‘Loud Pushy Jew’ T-shirt and bought that, and so on. Once you start down this extremely brazen path, especially as a lesbian, there is no turning back. I mean, you’ve breached boundaries, you’ve broken all the rules, you’ve disappointed people you love. Your ability to be moderate, at that point, is pretty much shot.”
A 1972 report by Ralph Nader estimated that if Bella sponsored a bill, that would cost the bill 20 to 30 votes. Bella’s allies and supporters often pleaded with her to chill in the interests of the cause. But asking Bella, and other modern-day prophet types, to modulate their big mouths is, in a psychological sense, like demanding that someone be able to breathe both on land and in water. Becoming a Big Mouth often involves walking straight into the jaws of traumatic experience, of chronic rejection, and people who survive come out the other side different from John Tierney or me.
“So what’s the worst thing that could happen?”
If you wish to join the ranks of the mouthily endowed, you must be fine about your imperfections. This is truly an act of female defiance, as one of the most powerful ways that we women are silenced is through being ridiculed for our flaws.
Bella, despite her ferocity and intensity, was known for the ease with which she admitted mistakes, made mid-course corrections, listened and changed her mind. And comic Sandra Bernhard sees her commitment to the art of “correcting and adjusting” as being the prerequisite that frees her up to risk her transgressive public thing.
Several women who responded to our LILITH call attributed their ability to be Big Mouths in the world to having learned to challenge themselves routinely with one question: “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” (LuAnne Strauss of San Diego writes, “I imagine the worst-case scenario which I then always realize I would survive. LuAnne, what is the big deal? At that point, there’s no reason not to go for it.”)
The flamboyant, warm-hearted, radically independent theater agent Flora Roberts, whose big-mouthed gravelly basso has been legendary on Broadway since the 1940’s, remembers having the nerve, as a 20-year-old receptionist for a Broadway producer, to tell the famous Lillian Hellman (now there’s a Jewish Big Mouth) exactly what was wrong with her new play. Roberts remembers saying to herself, wryly, before she opened her big mouth, “So what’s the worst thing that can happen? You’ll get another receptionist job.” Hellman was so taken by the young, big-mouthed kindred spirit that she whirled around and shot off to Roberts’ boss, “How much are you paying this girl? Give her a raise!”
God’s Big Mouth
Besides the Big Mouth issues that pertain to gender, there are also the general characteristics of our tribe: Jews talk. That’s what we do. It is a little known fact that this is why the chosen people were chosen—because God is also a big talker. God talks from the very start of Genesis (in which God doesn’t just do stuff; God has to talk about doing it—e.g., “God said, “Let there be light.”), through those ridiculous Rube Goldberg-like Torah locutions that most Jews have in their bloodstream (Hebrew or English) that talk about talking about talking (e.g., “And God spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the Hebrews and tell them….”), through the final, gorgeous tikkun olam challenge of Deuteronomy 30 in which God sums it all up, saying to the Hebrew people, What are you waiting for? The answer isn’t in heaven. It’s within YOU, “in your mouth, and in your heart and in your deed.”
I find the sentiments of this latter passage completely inspiring, morally and politically. The passage also succinctly identifies the entire three-part activist credo of Jewish Big Mouths. That is, one pledges one’s allegiance 1) to blabbing (“in your mouth”); 2) to being real (“in your heart”); 3) to putting one’s money where one’s mouth is (“in your deed”). You can trace a direct lineage, probably verifiable through DNA testing, from God to the prophet Isaiah to Bella Abzug.
Andrew Vogel Ettin, in his very talky, free-associative book, Speaking Silences: Stillness and Voice in Modern Jewish Tradition, describes Jews as noisy generations of “professional and amateur storytellers, neighbors, homilists, poets, disputants, activists, cantors, shoppers, scholars, orators, actors, translators, legal authorities, prophets and tradespeople,” who have neither “anxiety about speech” nor “attraction to stillness.”
Ashkenazi talking, of course, substituted for everything—most notably money, power, security and food. (Ettin points out that Jewish speech, perfected into a weapon in Eastern European shtetlach, and rap music, perfected into a weapon in inner-city shtetlach, share an etiology.)
Anzia, Muriel and Adrienne
Scores of big-mouthed Jewish female writers, over generations, have identified that ironic, painful place where the shadow falls: between the Jewish injunction to talk, and the female injunction not to. The immigrant writer Anzia Yezierska put it, “As one of the dumb, voiceless ones I speak.” Muriel Rukeyser penned the now-famous line, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?/The world would split open.” And Adrienne Rich (who will undoubtedly be beatified by Jewish women some day as an especially worthy big-mouthed prophet), in The Dream of a Common Language, wrote of a friend—herself—who drowns in her own silence, “fear wound round her throat/and choking her like hair. And this is she,” Rich laments, “with whom I tried to speak.”
Lately, the presses are rolling out a stunning number of steely, empowered, feminist-Jewish books, one after another, and Alice Bach’s brainy Women, Seduction, and Betrayal in Biblical Narrative is, with the others, at the head of the class. Bach has the distinction of being a loudmouth’s loudmouth. She presses the female-friendly Bible reader to risk being “consigned to the ranks of the disloyal,” by refusing to align herself with the Scriptural “narratorial ‘we'”—which is only, Bach reminds us, after all, an ideological old-boys’ network pretending to be God. (A colossal game of “chicken.”)
Readers forget, says Bach, that the authors of the Bible are simply telling their version of things. The rhetorical device of the omniscient narrator—which we all learned about when reading Thornton Wilder in the eighth grade—is used to recurrent demagogic effect in these male-driven plots that we call Bible. It’s time, Bach says, to “challenge the privileged role of the biblical narrator,” and to call him what he really is: “the fictive henchman of the author.”
Bach urges all feminists to pull aside the curtain on these biblical wizards of Oz, and to begin, like Muriel Rukeyser, telling the truth: daring to silence those patriarchal narrative Kansans who, for millennia, have silenced us. Honest people, says Bach, need to step up to the podium for real, letting the millennial world know that the 5759-year-old filibuster is up. As contemporary Jewish-feminist writers like Esther Broner, Sandy Sasso, Alicia Ostriker, Ellen Frankel and Ellen Galford (to name only a few) are saying, “Okay. Now we’re telling the story. Sit. Enjoy.”
“Sleep with me!” (“Shikvah Immi!”)
For a little illustration of what constitutes, biblically speaking, an “acceptable” female Big Mouth versus a “strange” one, Proverbs (chapters 7, 8 and 9) provides an offensive, compact, shop-and-go example of females freeze-dried conveniently into theological dualism. The very famous “strange woman” (“ishah zarah”) is “riotous and rebellious,” she “seduces with words,” and she runs amok, “now in the streets, now in the broad places.” Her house, where she “maketh smooth her words” is “on the way to the netherworld.” (I love that.) She is Lilith, Delilah, Vashti—a woman whom the writers pretend to vilify because she likes sex; but really this vilification serves a higher purpose: to intimidate women from assuming any personal authority whatsoever. (The latter being the deep headache.)
The “good woman” is, interestingly, a big talker, too, but she “speaks excellent things,” her “mouth utters truth,” “the opening of [her] lips [is] right things.” She is a chaste stay-at-home, thus omphalically, writes Alice Bach, “not threatening the stability of the society that depends on her compliance.” Wonderfully bold, Bach blabs the forbidden yet obvious: Where does the ishah zarah reside? Only in “the male imagination.”
So, truly, how are thoughtful, fair-minded people supposed to proceed, stuck with such a tragically flawed canon? Advises Bach, “We must transport characters to a place where women are not thought strange for acknowledging their sexual desire”—or for GETTING A LIFE. “The mind of a feminist reader,” concludes Bach, “is such a place.”
Finally, for big-mouthed gals who use their maws not only for talking, but also for singing and noisy orgasms, there is one hidden feminist infiltration in the Torah that only (shhh!) LILITH subscribers know about. (To become a LILITH subscriber….) It is in Genesis 39, where Potiphar’s wife (Lauren Bacall) issues the shortest seduction line in the Bible—just two smoky words, “Shikvah immi!” (“Lie with me!”) It’s a sexy line, with just enough of that promising dominatrix zing. The puzzlement for commentators has been the Masoretic cantillation mark (a shalshelet) over the following word, a mark that is extremely rare and that connotes a weird sound—a kind of prolonged, intense, upbeat, ambiguous ululation. It is Potiphar’s wife’s orgasm, planted there nearly 2,000 years ago by feminists who, alas, lived before their time.
And finally, the truth about J.A.P.s
The final and most serious thing I want to say here has to do with loudmouthed Jewish women being called “J.A.P.s.” or, disparagingly, “Jewish Mothers.” It occurred to me, in thinking through and writing this article, that these derogatory labels not only silence us (because we fear being ridiculed), and confuse us (are we empty-headed and materialistic, overbearing and intrusive?), but, more to the poisonous point, they serve to completely erase who we really are. That is their noxious, underlying purpose.
Big Mouths are indeed the opposite of shallow, self-involved, whiny, immature, vicarious-living, materialistic, enmeshed, or suffocating. We are “contenders” who dare to live life on our own terms. We are authoritative, competent and empathic. We move the agendas on significant political and social issues. We comprise some of the advance-troops of the Messiah, prophets with a mission of tikkun olam—either on a courageous, grassroots level (like the 92-year-old Miriam Seigel), or on a policy-making, human rights level (like Bella Abzug). We practice in-your-face radical compassion. Our concerns are anything but meaningless; they are expressions of a deeply felt engagement with the world—in the most traditional, moral, political, and religious sense.
Of course, to those impaired by patriarchy, this is exactly what’s so threatening about us. First, our “engagement” with the world means we’re not (safely) incapacitated through depression, disconnection, alienation or shopping. Others envy us our capacity to engage, because much of America struggles with feeling alone, empty, disconnected. Many men depend anaclitically on females to give them this sense of “connected” well-being (shhh; this is a big secret). Yet Big Mouths are pretty self-actualized; we’ve dared to become whole human beings. We don’t depend on others to make us feel attached, committed or empowered. We just are.
Second, our “caretaking” out there in the world suggests that there might not be enough of us “as resource” to go around. Who’s going to take care of the men? Who’s going to collude with them in pretending that they have no dependency needs? Who is going to keep their awful sense of helplessness at bay if the truth about their needs, indeed, gets out? I feel sympathy with males in this culture; in certain ways, their narrowly defined roles are even more handicapping, prescriptive and Procrustean than women’s.
Big Mouths like us scare the underpants off of brilliant writers like Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, Bruce Jay Friedman, or Herman Wouk (to name but a few of the Jewish men who have so successfully created the ineradicable stereotypes of “J.A.P.” and “Jewish Mother”). Norman Mailer’s narcissistic acting out has always advertised his embarrassing need to keep at bay his consciousness of himself as a helpless sad sack. He dismissed Bella by calling her, wonderfully, reductively, the “voice that could boil the fat off a taxicab driver’s neck.”
As we know, Bella Abzug was not just an empty gragger; she was a woman of extraordinary substance. On her very first day in the House, for example, she called for the withdrawal of all troops from Vietnam. (She also called for the first resolution for Nixon’s impeachment, for the first federal gay civil rights bill, and for the first bill to decriminalize marijuana.) After three terms in Congress, Bella was voted by her colleagues (in a U.S. News & World Report poll) the third most influential member of Congress. As it says in Proverbs 31, “A Big Mouth who can find? For she gives precious, beautiful gifts to this planet: a wider, redemptive vision of what we, and the world, might be.”
In her eponymous book, Bella wrote, “I’ve been described as a tough and noisy woman, a prizefighter, a man hater, you name it. They call me Battling Bella, Mother Courage, and a Jewish mother with more complaints than Portnoy. There are those who say I’m impatient, impetuous, uppity, rude, profane, brash and overbearing. Whether I’m any of these things or all of them, you can decide for yourself But whatever I am—and this ought to be made very clear at the outset—I am a very serious woman.”
This call for “Big Mouth” role models ran in LILITH’s Spring 97 issue. In the following pages, Sarah Blustain profiles some of the Big Mouths our readers nominated.
Seeking: Jewish Women With Big Mouths
For an article on fabulous Jewish women who speak their minds, shoot from the hip, talk turkey, aren’t threatened by their own competence, don’t get nervous taking up space in a room, call a spade a spade, and, in general, take care of business . . . in udda woids, for an article on female role models who are OTHER than the neurasthenic American cultural distaff ideal, send in the name of a woman who has inspired you with her (fabulous, Jewish) BIG MOUTH.
Send your vitals as well as her vitals to; Susan Schnur, LILITH, 250 West 57th Street, Suite 2432, New York, N.Y. 10107, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
“Let me read you this!”
The latest battle for peace-activist Esther Leah Ritz lies in the Jerusalem neigborhood of Silwan, where the Jewish National Fund has asserted its domain over several properties now inhabited by Arab families. She’s furious at their plans to bring in settlers to occupy the Arab homes. “Let me read you this,” she grumbles in her gravelly voice, digging out the latest outrage in the local Jewish press.
Though consultation phone calls on Jewish activism need to be made and the papers “who all have babies” are waiting to be sorted, Ritz has put all that aside. All day she’d been preoccupied with writing an op-ed in response, both as a board member for Americans for Peace Now and as her irrepressibly outspoken self. No one else would do it. “Somebody had to,” the 80-year-old sighs.
Ritz has been, by her leadership in many major American Jewish organizations and by her own definition, an “establishment Jew.” Because she’s respected within the Jewish community—”even by people who disagree with me”—she has been able for the last 30 years to go around “plunking for peace,” as she calls it, working consistently from her secure place to challenge the Jewish community to live up to its moral obligations toward peace. In the American Jewish community, making dialogue with Israel’s Palestinian minority a higher priority than Jewish defense has not always been a popular position.
Ritz recalls how her official postings took her on mission after mission to Israel at a time when Israel’s security was a point of national pride. One day, however, decades before the infamous handshake on the White House lawn, she rebelled. “I didn’t want to go to any more air bases and see any more planes,” she recalls about the official tours she was offered. “I wanted to see what was going on in the peace process. I quit going.”
“I came naturally to it,” she says, the “it” being her willingness to speak out alone on issues she believed in. She cites how her grandmother, who founded the Wisconsin chapter of Hadassah, took to grandstanding on how Henrietta Szold was cheated out of her accolades because she was a woman. And she recalls her own campus activism in the 1930s, before her overtly Jewish involvement kicked in, when she took to public forums to mobilize people to join the United Front against the rise of fascism.
“I’m the voice of the silent majority. The rest of them call me up and say, ‘Esther Leah, I’m so proud of you.'” Does that make her mad? “Boiling!”
“People can’t shop for a government”
Not so soft-spoken as Golda Meir, nor as flamboyant as Bella Abzug, but definitely in the same league is Sophie Masloff, former mayor of Pittsburgh (1986-1992). Sophie—like Golda and Bella, often called by her first name—was president of the city council when Pittsburgh’s mayor died in office. She inherited the job, and two years later—then in her late 60s—was elected the first female and the first Jewish mayor in the history of predominantly Democratic Pittsburgh.
Mayor Masloff proved to a patriarchal city government that a woman could be a highly competent, tough-when-necessary mayor. But as a woman, she says, she also ran it the way it should be run—and usually is not: with a heart. “You cater to the people” she said recently, “[because] people can’t shop for a government.” And as a Jew—living in a Jewish neighborhood, sending her daughter to day school and contending with “ethnic remarks” throughout her career—”I tried to bring “Jewishkeit” into everything I did.” (She also brought her sharp wit, for which she was invited as a guest on the talk shows of Pat Sajak and Johnny Carson.)
Sophie’s father died when she was two years old, and she grew up in a struggling Romanian immigrant family of Orthodox background, headed by her resourceful mother who spoke no English. At 16, Sophie volunteered for the Democrats and went on to work in virtually every aspect of city government as she rose through the ranks of Pittsburgh’s Democratic party.
In her busier than ever “retirement,” Sophie belongs, by her own account, “to just about every Jewish organization” and the Democratic National Committee. (Whatever she is paid for speaking or an endorsement she gives to charity.) She has been invited to the White House by every Democratic administration during her career. Early in the Clinton era, Sophie received an unexpected phone call from President Clinton. He said, “This is Bill Clinton.” Not about to be fooled, she said, “And I’m the Queen of Sheba.” He said, “Well, maybe you are.”
When Sophie speaks with pride of her own accomplishments, she quotes her role model Golda Meir who said, “Don’t be so humble. You’re not that great.”
by Bonnie P. Theiner, teacher, counselor, writer and proud Pittsburg resident
‘I am who I am’
“Since I can remember, I have been told that I have the biggest mouth in the universe. In fact, I am famous for scaring people away! And when I get angry, watch out! I am totally honest, always tell the truth, and I never waste my time with chit-chat. I am one of those people that you either immediately like or dislike from the moment you meet me. . . .
“I think I am fair, honest, moral, loyal, highly ethical and I refuse to compromise these values under any circumstances. . . .
“It is difficult to be my friend. I know that I can be embarrassing at times and I have very high standards and expectations. I speak my mind even if it is not the majority opinion. I have been ostracized for my big mouth and I have lost many friendships because of it. But I have also learned that I am who I am. Very few men are attracted to BIG-MOUTHED Jewish women and very few women can tolerate my passion. It can be lonely, although I am rarely alone.”
Received via e-mail from a 44-year-old single mother of two, on the subject of her own big mouth.
Big Mouth from birth?
If newborns could speak, artist Beth Grossman would have been an activist from birth. At the age of 6, hearing of children starving overseas, she mailed her dinner meat out in an envelope addressed “To the Children of Bangladesh.” In fourth grade, she organized her first demonstration— to support her mother’s fight against a highway development project—and made the TV news. And in eighth grade she was suspended for orchestrating a school walkout to attend a demonstration against the war in Vietnam.
“I have always been a person that speaks my mind,” she reflects. “I do it with a Jewish sense of humor and by getting a community together.”
Going on her theory that “behind every Jewish woman Big Mouth is another Big Mouth Jewish woman,” community-building is at the center of Grossman’s efforts today. As a leader of San Francisco’s No Limits for Women in the Arts, a program of communal support for some 70 women artists, she teaches women how to encourage each other to have “big visions” and give one another “go-for-it attention.” It is that community support that has sustained Grossman, and that helped her fulfill a dream of installing an exhibit by and about Jewish women at Ellis Island in 1996.
“I would have given up so early on,” she says, explaining how, for her, being outspoken depends on receiving the type of support she elicited from her parents and teachers growing up. “They were all going, ‘go-girl,’ ‘get back in the saddle.'”
Judith Serebrin, a No Limits artist, has learned from Grossman “that it is not only possible to live a big, meaningful, fulfilling, playful life as a Jewish woman artist, but that it is not necessary to give anything or anyone up in order to do it.” Grossman returns the compliment: “Judy helps me keep track of the big picture and what’s really important. And I must say what’s really important about this Big Mouth story is our relationship.”
Among Grossman’s current projects is a battle to prevent developers from digging up a 5,000-year-old Native American burial grounds in San Francisco, very much like her mother fought the highway developers years before.
“Every time I go to the city council meetings” with son in tow, she says laughing, “I’m like, ‘Am I my mom or what!?'”
Big Mouth meets the Law
My mother, Ethel Kopelman, born in 1897, was always a take-charge person. At 70, she dyed her hair blond to be the “life of the party”; she ghost-wrote fiery speeches that my father delivered at Zionist fund-raisers; and, during the Great Depression, she worked at three jobs—day and night—to keep the family solvent. But my favorite story about her as a lebedikeh (full-of-life) force of nature was the time she used her Big Mouth to get my father out of a speeding ticket.
He was tearing along when a cop pulled him over. My plump mother, without missing a beat, heaved her girth across my father, rolled down the window, and got to work. “Officer!” she ordered the policeman, “arrest this man! Give this man a ticket! Do you think he listens to me?? For the past hour I’ve been telling him, ‘Joe, slow down! You’re a danger to the human race!’ But do you think he listens? I tell him, ‘Joe, get out of the left lane! So, what, you’re a teenage speed demon! Why do you persist in driving in the left-lane . . . .'” She ranted on, not letting the trooper squeeze a syllable in edgewise.
Eventually, the officer shook his head, rolled his eyes in henpecked sympathy with my poor father, and backed away to his police car, no ticket issued.
My father loved to recount this story; he was proud of, and amazed by, my funny, competent, fearless mother.
by Rebecca K. Stone
It’s scary to be a Big Mouth-in-training.
In 1946, Fanchon Shur ran away from home, “I put my coat on and walked about 5 miles to my 36-year-old syster Sylvia’s house. I sat on her dark back door step, knocking too quietly to be heard, waiting for over three hours there, fearing that she would turn me away.”
Peace activist and poet Sylvia Major, 25 years her senior, didn’t shut her out. Major, now 88 and physically frail, since the 1930s had been a social activist on behalf of world peace, ecology, civil liberties and civil rights. She fought the re-Nazification of Germany after World War II, opposed nuclear testing, protested McCarthy-era persecutions, helped her son take his fight for conscientious-objector status during the Vietnam War to the Supreme Court. “It was the impelling spark of my life to bring peace to the world,” she told LILITH, adding that her role models were found in the books of the prophets her father read to her at age four. “I was born to tikkun.”
Major also became the primary “influence on my outspokenness,” Fanchon Shur reflects, recalling the books her sister gave her to read on the history of the labor movement, apartheid and slavery. “I went back to school and I was nine years old,” Shur told LILITH, “and I said to my class, ‘Our book is lying. There are no ‘blackies’ sitting around with guitars.'”
Such outspokenness, however, had its darker side too. According to Shur, “Sylvia would watch over the family in a good, sweet loving way, but also be a warrior for people to do things [her] way.” That meant speaking out for what you believed in, even if you were, like Shur, a frightened nine-year-old child. “If she had said to me, ‘Fanchon, I know this is terrifying to you, and it’s okay if you just think it and don’t say it. . . .’ But she never said that.”
Is a Big Mouth ever too Big?
“A lot of people say if I was a man I would be a hero, but I’m a woman so I’m a bitch,” charges Judge Fran Fine, whose “fabulous Jewish mouth” was brought to our attention by her friend Sandy Pittle. “She’s a very big force in helping women in Las Vegas,” Pittle said, “even though the male lawyers don’t like it.”
Presiding over Las Vegas’ Family Court, Fine hears cases of families “who are in crisis.” She takes calls from battered women day and night; they know she can lend a sympathetic ear and a powerful hand in taking them out of harm’s way.
Quoting the ascerbic, hard-talking TV judge Judy Sheindlin—”Don’t pee on my leg and tell me it’s raining”—Fine has earned herself an aggressive reputation. She says she’s tough on lawyers and tough on litigants “who try to bull me.” She was even tough on her Dad, who was giving in to emphysema when she told him, “‘If you’re not going to make an effort, I’m not going to hang around.'” (Her father got himself out of bed and threw himself into helping her get elected as Family Court judge. Fine won the 1992 campaign, and her Dad lived two more years.)
Nominator Pittle—a rocket scientist who couldn’t get a job when she graduated in the 1960s because “they wouldn’t hire a woman anywhere that had to do with rockets”—wrote that Fine “is an inspiration to me at a time in my life when I really need one.” (Now in her 60s, Pittle is looking toward medical school, or at least to follow in her father’s footsteps as a 911 emergency technician.)
But toughness goes both ways. Fine has been charged with ethics violations for conversations she had with participants in cases pending before her. The accusing attorney said she “lacks the ability to exercise the judicial discretion and temperament” necessary. Fine denies any misconduct and claims the charges are simply pre-election shenanigans from lawyers who don’t like her style.
Out there for Israel
The Intifada was just beginning when Andrea Levin, director of CAMERA: Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, decided to fight for Israel—not with bullets or bayonets, but with words. Public relations is her battlefield. At a time in the 1980s when media images of Israeli soldiers shooting at unarmed Palestinian youths were ubiquitous, The Boston Globe, charges Levin, “was so outrageous that it was just painful every day to read it.”
A Bostonian just out of graduate school in public policy at the time, she decided to take on the daily newspaper with an ad campaign—”Why does the Boston Globe distort the news about Israel?”—to run in regional Jewish and secular papers.
It wasn’t popular to ask American Jews “to participate in the effort of defending Israel’s good name” at a time when the world body of the United Nations still condemned Zionism as racism. And there were no other watchdog groups that were actively—vocally—monitoring the press on Israel. “That was a little hairy,” she recalls about the eve of the first advertisement. “I remember feeling a little cold: What were people going to think?”
A decade later, taking out ads against such shibboleths as National Public Radio and CNN for their coverage of Israel, Levin remains firm both in her conservative politics and in her belief that her public relations war against the American press is something the American Jewish community—ultimately—appreciates.
If someone were to have taken a poll about the Boston Globe ads, she asks, “would everyone have said ‘great!’? They would not. But once you succeed, then you have people saying, ‘Oh, it’s good that you did that.’. . . You can’t let Israel be defamed. The risks [I take] are an outgrowth of a sense of indignation, and then one does what one has to do.”
Appetites: Big Mouth, Big Sex
When I think Big Mouth, I think Sophie Tucker, one of the early “mothers” of a long line of Jewish women Big Mouths on stage. In helping to create an American cabaret night life, she made loudness, power and sex synonymous by the 1920s. Her enormous voice, in the same tradition as great African-American women blues singers, crooned about wanting sex from her man—a deeply scandalous message that, more than once, got her arrested. Tucker also dared to lampoon the traditional roles of women and men, as well as the sanctity of marriage.
Tucker was part of a generation of “outsiders” who, for the first time, were flocking to cities, either as a result of the Great Migration or of immigration to America. Jews and African-Americans were creating something entirely new: a hot, jazzy urban culture. They toppled Victorian turn-of-the-century norms about propriety and the denial of pleasure. Female entertainers like Tucker asserted, through their bold presence on stage, that women have appetites, that they can risk taking public roles. They can sing about who they are, what they want, and how they will not be controlled by any man. But Tucker’s loud mouth also, remarkably, sang about something very different. “My Yiddishe Mama”—her signature song—became, for generations of Americans, the embodiment of longing for the lost Old Country, symbolized by devoted Jewish motherhood. As Jewish “outsider,” Tucker expressed both scorn for what seemed to her to be the “emptiness” of propriety, as well as complicated bereavement towards a world to which the “outsiders” would never return.
Tucker’s big mouth shouted out her right, as an American Jewish female, to be heard—no matter what she said. A long line of great entertainers—Fanny Brice, Totie Fields, Joan Rivers, Bette Midler and many others— are her descendants. They are all-star “transgressors” who contributed to redefining American culture.
by Riv-Ellen Prell, anthropology professor, University of Minnesota