For this prospective look at the next generation of Jewish feminist movers and shatters, LILITIH intern REBECCA WAND, a Harvard junior whose most recent project examined synagogue politics in small-town America, interviewed a cross section of highly effective Jewish women in-their 20’s and early 30’s. Keep your eye on them.
ON TO BEIJING
As a senior at Columbia University, Calanit Dovere wasn’t sure what she wanted to do after graduation. She only understood that being another lawyer was out of the question.
“I couldn’t stand the idea of doing something somebody else had done,” she says. “Then I got the Israel bug. I went for a semester and really was searching for a way I could make myself happy and at the same time make a difference.”
Now 23, and a graduate of the Columbia School of International Affairs, Dovere lives in Israel where she is developing Mo’adon Nisan, an I8-month leadership program that will give 28 Jewish, Druze and Arab high school girls such tools as public speaking, workplace skills, and background in current issues. The curriculum she is designing will culminate in a group trip to Beijing, China for the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995.
“We’re aiming to help these girls fulfill their potential in a way they define in order to become leaders in Israel,” she says. “We would like to bring out in them new kinds of Israeli leadership.”
Native New Yorker Julie Blane made aliyah in 1991 and developed Kol Isha, the first annual international conference for Jewish college women. She now coordinates educational programs for visitors to Israel at the World Union of Jewish Students, and co-teaches a course she developed for WUJS on Jewish women in history.
“Because I’m an Israeli from the United States, I feel like I’m straddling both worlds,” she says. “One of the things I’d love to see is how each community can enrich the other. For instance, I often feel the Israeli feminist movement is anti-religious. The American model can offer a more pluralistic view of religious identity.”
Blane helped develop HERitage and HERstory, a highly regarded new book which explores Jewish women’s issues through campus and adult education programs, including feminist rituals for Jewish holidays, and information on each Hebrew month to help make Rosh Chodesh celebrations mare varied through the year. “I never actually thought I’d be paid for doing what I did at Brown,” says Blane, who started a Rosh Chodesh group while an undergraduate.
Motivating large numbers of Jewish women outside of Israel is the next item on Julie Blane’s “peace-process” agenda. “I’d like to create more of a Zionist feeling among Diaspora women,” she proclaims. Currently, Blane is creating a resource center for The Jerusalem Link, a new group of women who are activists for peace in Israel.
Lauren Eichler, 23, has developed a set of campus programs focusing on Jewish women. A Celebration of Jewish Women: A Hillel Program Guide for the Campus Community explores topics such as women leaders, the female body, spirituality and feminism, and, sexuality.
“The reason I called my guide A Celebration of Jewish Women is that there’s a lot of negativism that goes on,” says Eichler, who graduated from Princeton in 1994. “There’s a need to promote programs that are very positive. I specifically left out things like JAP- baiting.”
Now the Bittker Fellow at the National Hillel Center in Washington, D.C., Eichler helps develop student leadership, networking and conferences on campuses nationwide. She is considering becoming a rabbi or a Hillel director herself, and says she would like to study female personalities in the Bible and sexuality in the Talmud.
OUT OF BOUNDS
Shana Sippy, 22, is completing, with coauthor Rachel Dobkin, a handbook for college women to be published next spring by Workman Press. That’s the feminist part. This fall, Sippy enters Harvard Divinity School for a Master’s degree in comparative religion.
Sippy says she is fascinated by the boundaries created by such forces as religion, ethnicity, gender and class. Raised in Berkeley, California as a Jew by her Indian Hindu father and Jewish mother, Sippy says her interest in comparative religion likely stems from her own experiences. “My multiple heritage puts me on a border in the way I see things,” she says. “I’m often both an insider and an outsider.”
While at Barnard College, Sippy began a dialogue project linking campus women with older Jewish women in discussion and mentor relationships. She says through the project she discovered Jewish feminism’s ability to reach out to feminists estranged from Judaism.
“The dialogue group brought in a lot of women who had not been identified Jewishly, but had been identified in feminist ways,” she says. “It functioned as a women’s support group, but also as a place of Jewish awakening.”
Reaching out to Jews on the margins of the community is a concern shared by Loolwa Khazzoom, 25, who says her Sephardi Jewish heritage may be on the verge of extinction. Khazzoom says she feels marginalized in two ways—by the Ashkenazi community for her Middle Eastern background, and by the Sephardi community for her gender.
“I am always having to choose—do I want to go to an Ashkenazi synagogue where women can participate or do I want to go to a Mizrahi synagogue where I have to sit in the back?” says Khazzoom, whose heritage is Iraqi and whose Jewish upbringing was Orthodox.
As a child, Khazzoom left her Jewish Day school after a teacher told her it was against Jewish law to use a Sephardi prayerbook. When she felt similarly excluded as a Columbia University undergraduate, she began a campus organization for Jewish students from Arab countries.
Khazzoom delayed a music career after graduation because she worried Sephardi tradition was not being transmitted. Without money, support, or mainstream interest in the cause, she founded in Los Angeles the Student Organization for Jews from Iran and Arab Countries, and plans to take the program to San Francisco this year. Also in Los Angeles, she created the One People Many Voices Coalition, a project which presents educational programs about Sephardi traditions at local synagogues.
One of the biggest problems Khazzoom faces is the attitude that Middle Eastern traditions have nothing to do with American Jewry. “Much of what [Ashkenazi Jews] learn is exoticized. They’ve been taught that gefilte fish is Jewish, they’ve been taught about the Holocaust. But you say ‘Yemenites’ and nobody recognizes that as Jewish— they think it’s Arabic. They can’t even begin to identify.”
Khazzoom is compiling an anthology of writings by Middle Eastern women entitled Arabic/ Iranian, Jewish and Female: The Fusion of Sexism, Racism and Anti- Semitism in the Lives of Middle Eastern Jewish Women.
Deborah Morgan, 25, Government Relations Coordinator for the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council, has had a more institutional crucible for merging Judaism and feminism. A summer internship at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism launched her career in Jewish communal service.
“I was exposed to the way things work lobbying on Capitol Hill,” says Morgan, who graduated from Indiana University in 1990. “I was exposed to issues I’d never thought about before. I came back to Bloomington for my senior year in college and knew that was what I had to do with my life.”
Now Morgan represents the interests of the 20,000 Jews in Indiana lobbying at the State House for such issues as .separation of church and state and reproductive rights.
“We’ve continuously got a fight on our hands here because it’s a really Republican-controlled, anti-choice, conservative state,” she says. “There’s just something embodied in Jewish tradition that indicates that people should have choices, and we’re commanded to do tikkun olam to make this world a better place. That means women having choices about the way they conduct their lives.”
Morgan is on the board of the National Council of Jewish Women in Indianapolis and interned at the organization’s Washington office while completing a double Masters in Jewish studies and policy sciences. “When I moved here, I joined as a volunteer and tried to do everything I could on my own time,” she says.
Deborah Rosenwald Levy, 30, left a career in French-American relations to found The New York Women’s Building, a home for New York City women’s organizations planned to open within the next year. Levy is executive director and founder of the project, which seeks to provide affordable, permanent office space for 15 to 20 groups and meeting rooms open to non-tenants.
“I left French, which I really enjoyed but it wasn’t in my heart,” she says. “I am now so happy and fulfilled. Now I know why people have careers.”
Levy began using her mother’s maiden name as a middle name not only to honor her mother, but also to make herself “sound more grown-up.” With support for The Women’s Building from a board which includes Bella Abzug, Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger, and authors Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Naomi Wolf, Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan, Levy no longer needs to worry about sounding too young.
Levy may have successfully resolved her feelings about her age, but not yet her uneasiness about organized religion. She says feminism has estranged her from much of religion. “It distances me because it does not value me as much as it does my brothers,” she says. “Publications like LILITH—that’s what keeps me involved with Judaism.”
FICTION AND FEMINISM
In the arts, Allegra Goodman examines the experiences of Jewish women through her writing. Goodman, now 27, had her fiction published in Commentary when she was a first-year student at Harvard. Since then. Harper & Row has brought out a collection of her short stories entitled Total Immersion (1989), and Goodman has contributed to Out of the Garden: Women Writing on the Bible (Random House, 1994). Her writing now appears regularly in The New Yorker ; for their recent fiction issue she was photographed by Richard Avedon in the company of such authors as Ann Beattie, Nicholson Baker, Thom Jones and John Updike.
Goodman’s stories include Jewish female characters of all ages. “I enjoy the challenge of getting inside people who are far from me in age and experience,” she explains. The intergenerational issues she writes about are key, says Goodman, to understanding how communities function. “It’s about the transmission of tradition from one time to another. It’s about writing the history of families,” she says. “I’m interested in the way Jewish communities have changed and people have changed.” On the other hand she says, “A lot of my stories are about the ways different communities have stayed the same.”
Goodman grew up in Hawaii, where her parents helped to found a Conservative synagogue and flew in their kosher meat from California. She grew up “among feminists”— her mother directed the women’s studies program at the University of Hawaii.
Now living in northern California with her husband and two year-old son, Goodman is completing a doctorate in English at Stanford University and a collection of short stories Farrar Straus and Giroux will publish next year. She is also working on two novels, one examining a community of Orthodox Jews in New York.
“I think it will have some interesting resonance with feminism because these people are so traditional,” she says. But Goodman emphasizes her approach to feminist topics is never didactic. “When I look at feminist perspectives in my work I like to find the humor in them,” Goodman asserts. “I think art has to be non-dogmatic.”
SONGS WITH MEANING
Singer/songwriter Ruth Gerson, 23, has been giving Manhattan clubs a taste of her Jewish feminist ideas. Gerson sings about the Holocaust in her song “Shoah” and in “Evil Sex Queen” lampoons images of women in the media: “I’ve seen enough of the evil sex queen, midnight fright dream, helter-skelter beauty queen/With what pretty young thing and that hooker’s scheme/Twisted baby sitter eats your wife and kids for dinner/Can’t we find some other situation/ Some kinda, new kinda stimulation.”
The singer graduated from Princeton where she studied Jewish existentialism, and rejected an acting career because she wanted to perform her own material. “It’s about doing things that have meaning to you,” she explains.
“What I have to say is distinctive,” she says, but continues with generosity, “I’m of a generation that has benefited from the work done at another time. I use humor in a new way because of the work other people have done before me.”
In the visual arts, California photographer Jennifer Kolsky, 24, now an artist in residence at the World Union of Jewish Students at Arad, Israel, is creating portraits of bathers in the Dead Sea. Through these pictures, Kolsky, whose photographs have been shown in the Israeli Knesset building and the Arad Museum in Israel, hopes to show a peaceful side of Israel she feels contrasts with negative images in the media.
In one portrait, a Russian woman is submerged wearing a headscarf and dress. “I was connected to that photo because of the physicality of her body, how comfortable she was, how it was okay that her body wasn’t perfect,” Kolsky recalls. “It was still a very beautiful moment. She’s not a product of society’s obsession with the body.”
Kolsky says she hopes her future endeavors will further equality between the sexes. “I am using my camera to challenge society’s assumptions,” she says. Her past projects include portraits of her grandmother, who had Alzheimer’s disease.
Art therapist Diane Kaston, 30, believes she has discovered an important—and neglected—feminist resource in an unlikely place, The Jewish Home and Hospital for Aged, in New York City. In addition to a visual history project where residents decorate their own enlarged photographed portraits, Kaston facilitates Lilith’s Cave, a weekly discussion group for 25 to 30 women.
“I never thought I’d find models for my own feminism in 90 year olds,” she says. “They worked and raised families and survived the Depression all before people started talking about careers and the Mommy Track.”
Last Memorial Day, Kaston couldn’t find a Jewish newspaper to bring in for discussion, and instead brought in an issue of Mirabella highlighting 100 famous women. The magazine generated unexpected enthusiasm.
“These were 90-year-old ladies nobody thought to ask. All of a sudden you put them in a room and give them an opportunity and they’re all radical,” she says. “They’re sick of male doctors, and they’re sick of being oppressed.”
The women discuss such issues as halachic menstrual “impurity,” and have written letters supporting women’s right to pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, responding to an Israeli court decision rejecting women’s pleas for equality.
Now reading Esther Broner’s The Telling, a book about a feminist Passover seder, the group hopes to have an egalitarian seder next spring. The women are deciding which parts of the liturgy to keep and which to change; the four sons will become, next spring, the four children.
Kaston believes the discussion group empowers its participants. “These women are a lost resource,” says Kaston. “I realized I had a millennium of kneidlach (matzo balls) soup; I had a thousand years of women who had cooked and learned, and not one of them had ever stood at the head of the table and led the seder.”
Non-sexist ritual possibilities excite Yael Ridberg, 25, a third-year student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia. Ridberg creates rituals focusing on women’s lifecycles and experiences to integrate her love of Judaism and her feminist convictions. Ridberg recently created “The Swinging Pendulum: A Ritual for the Sandwich Generation” for her mother, who was caring for both her aged mother and her children. The ritual involves discussion with a group of close friends, a set of meditations, and immersion in a mikveh.
“The idea was for the daughter to affirm her own life separate from caretaker, to recognize the intensity of the process she’s been going through in taking care of her mother, and also to recognize the other blessings in her life: her family, her work, her hobbies,” Ridberg says.
Ridberg calls her own Jewish upbringing “eclectic”—raised in a Conservative synagogue, she lived on an Israeli kibbutz after high school, and later attended a semester of Haifa University, where she worked at the women’s center Isha l ‘Isha and was active in Women in Black, a women’s group protesting the Occupation.
An editor of the Jewish Women’s Studies Project newsletter at her rabbinical school, Ridberg hopes to be a pulpit rabbi for at least part of her career. “I’d like to be serving a Reconstructionist congregation and really reach out to Jews who somehow have felt on the margins of the Jewish community, whether they be female, gay, lesbian, or intermarried,” she says. “It seems to me that in order to make a difference in the Jewish community you have to be willing to extend yourself and reach out to the fringes to bring people in.”
For Mitzvah Day, an annual day of community service for the Reconstructionist community, Ridberg wrote a blessing which captures the spirit—and the work ethic—of so many of the young women who are defining Jewish feminism through social action, religion, politics and art:
“Blessed are You Adonai, Creator of the universe, who has brought us closer to Your work and has called upon us to transform the world in holiness. “
Linking Young Jewish Feminist
by Robin Beth Schaer
Sharsheret (Hebrew for chain or link) is a grassroots Jewish feminist organization of women in their 20’s and 30’s. Created in the fall of 1993 after a group of young Jewish women met at a Jewish feminist conference, Sharsheret meets twice a month, for Rosh Chodesh and for general discussion. The group plans to provide a mechanism whereby women can start their own groups linked together in a national network.
Sharsheret members discuss what they were looking for when the group was formed:
ELLEN STEIGMAN: We were all looking for the same thing—community—a need that wasn’t being met. SHELLY SOCOL: I returned from a year in Israel to begin making a life in New York City. The first thing on my agenda was to find a community of young Jewish feminists. After speaking with many women, we realized that there was an urgent need to formulate a mechanism to bring us together. We wanted a place where we could listen to one another’s voices and a space in which to verbalize to others what young Jewish feminists were feeling and thinking today. ROBIN BETH SCHAER: I searched every progressive Jewish conference and organization for my peers. At one “Emerging Leaders” workshop the panelists spent the entire time defending their needs to the older women. At another twentysomething workshop the men monopolized the conversation, repeating over and over that being Jewish must be our first priority. I wanted to stand up and yell, “You may think of yourself as a Jew only, but many of us also belong to other communities. We are female, lesbian, gay, bisexual, Sephardi and of color. If having other priorities prevents us from taking a leadership role or being in your club then the Jewish community will never be whole.” JUSTYN LEZIN: Just because something is Jewish and female doesn’t mean it will hold a great deal of appeal, or address my concerns. We can create structures that address very specifically our goals, ideas and feelings, not in opposition to others but specifically for us. Some things we take for granted that our mothers fought for, and some things we are demanding our mothers never dreamed of achieving. ERIKA MARCUS: There is something hopeful in young progressive women coming together and saying both Judaism and feminism are important. We will see a change in the face of the Jewish community. We will be the next leaders—and there are a lot of us.
To get involved contact: Sharsheret, PO Box 2276, Stuyvesant Station, NY, NY 10009.