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Rediscovering and Creating a Women’s Literature

“The story of Bruria [second century women renown for her scholarship] should be read by women as the haggada is read during Passover!’ said the Israeli novelist Ruth Almog in a moving presentation at a conference on “Gender and Text” at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York in June.

While Israeli men write about “reality’,’ politics, ideology, “we write about love, intimacy, family!’ and arc made to feel trivial, continued Almog. This is part of the social-historical perception of the writer as prophet in Israeli culture. The collective supercedes the individual, and the representation of the collective is expected of the writer.

“I did not live up to this expectation until my last novel. Dangling Roots, which I consider a political, ‘male’ novel!’ Almog said with some regret.

Chava Rosenfarb, a Yiddish novelist and Holocaust survivor, claimed in her address that the only narrative tradition she could call her own was her foremother’s oral literature: lullabies, folk tales, Tsena U’Rena. Yiddish women writers have unique transitions to make from oral storyteller to novelist.

It became clear to the hundred or so attendees at the conference that while Israeli women writers are struggling to find their authentic voices, create models and expand the borders of traditional literature in order to include the newly found voice of “silent humanity’,’ Yiddish women authors, an almost totally extinct species, must be rediscovered and included in the male-oriented canon. The conference brought to the front several Yiddish poets, such as Anna Margolin and Tsilya Drapkin, and some extraordinary women journalists of the Yiddish press.

The portrayal of both male and female protagonists by Israeli male authors was another issue discussed at the conference.

“Is English competing as the universal language of the Jews’?” asked Anita Norich in her closing remarks, “and if so, should it not be included in this conference?”

While feminist literary criticism in general literature is by now a strong and viable approach, this conference broke new ground in the feminist consideration of Jewish literature. The fifteen papers offered in the conference will be published soon.