Making Jews Visible to Academic Feminists

Are Jewish women — or are Jewish women not — women of color? Should anti-Semitism be categorized as racism? What are the constraints a family-oriented Jewish tradition places on both lesbian and heterosexual women?

These were just some of the topics discussed at the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) conference in Akron, Ohio this June. For many, the Jewish Women’s Caucus of the NWSA is a “family of choice!’ Together this group meets every year to openly discuss issues that are often controversial and emotional. “The essential practice of Judaism is asking questions and struggling to find the answers^’ says one member, and by this qualification the women of the caucus are devout.

This spring, Jewish feminists, academics, and activists met in ten sessions covering topics ranging from learning to sing Jewish music to peace in the Middle East as a feminist issue. Particularly moving were sessions on relations between Jewish and African-American women and on identifying heterosexism. The first workshop closed with a call to examine the workings of anti-Semitism. Said one participant, “The work of education must be done before a crisis occurs; if not, Jews always lose the battle!’ The second workshop ended with tears and embraces between lesbian and heterosexual women.

The caucus, which has been in existence for five years, is one of twelve caucuses within the National Women’s Studies Association. The NWSA convention draws 2,000 people annually, and this audience takes part in workshops sponsored by each of the caucuses.

In a feminist movement often accused of ethnocentricity, the formation of a Jewish women’s caucus has been an important step. Says University of Maryland Prof. Evelyn Torton Beck, “We have brought Jewish visibility to the conference. Not only non-Jews are aware of the power and presence of Jewish women, but we’ve made Jewish women aware that they can be Jewish publicly in a feminist space. We have helped bring Jewish women back to their Jewishness!’