Who Am I? The Perplexing Nature of Jewish Feminist Identity

   

Review of Three Groundbreaking Jewish Feminists Pursuing Social Justice, Sharon Leder, Hybrid Global Publishers, 2020    

Sharon Leder begins her new book with the following maxim from Rabbi Hillel:

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am not for others, who am I?
If not now, when?

 (Pirkei Avot 1:14)

In three short lines, Hillel articulated the conundrum of Jewish identity that has perplexed Jews forever. The first question addresses the issue of identity, and to what extent Jews should identify as Jews and direct their activities to Jewish issues. In contemporary terms, this is known as particularism. The second question addresses the social/political responsibility of Jews to care for others around issues not necessarily Jewish; this is known as universalism.  The third question, perhaps the most historically interesting, addresses the process that leads to identity and action—when a Jew should act, either particularly or universally.  

It is this complex matter of Jewish identity that Sharon Leder raises in her book, looking through the lens of Jewish feminist activism. Leder, like Hillel, is not defining Jewishness in religious terms, but in social justice terms.[1] In telling the stories of three remarkable women who reclaimed their Jewish identities through different paths, Leder transcends the narrow scope of “identity politics”, and instead reveals the complexity and fluidity of the search for identity and social interaction that makes us all human. The stories of these women, fascinating in and of themselves, show both the particular and universal aspects of Jewish identity and the various ways individuals integrate their Jewishness with their social activism. Leder, in acknowledging her personal connection with each of the three women—as an academic, a friend, and an interviewer—suggests that the book may also reflect an aspect of its author’s own journey in defining her Jewish identity. This book is an important contribution to our understanding of the scope of Jewish women’s identity and activism over time.  

The Three    

Gerda Lerner was an Austrian-born Holocaust survivor, an adolescent when the Nazis came to power. She saw firsthand how Jews were humiliated and victimized, leading to two strong motivating forces in her life; first, not to be victimized, and second, to find community among other marginalized people across lines of religion, class, and race. She endured imprisonment in Austria, deportation, and finally came to the United States, and for much of her life, she kept a low profile as a Jew. While taking a writing class with John Howard Lawson (one of the Hollywood Ten writers and actors blacklisted by Congress during the 1950s) Lerner studied how race, class, and gender worked as interconnected modes of oppression in the US.  Subsequently, she began to relate her own vulnerability as a Jew under fascism to others who also faced discrimination. She went on to write Black Women in White America (1977) and paved the way for the new field of Black Women’s history. A decade later she wrote The Creation of Patriarchy, an analysis of the exclusion of women from history. The book specifically discussed how goddess worship of the ancient world was transformed by the Hebrew Bible into “a basically masculine concept of deity, lineage and communal responsibility”.[2] When criticized by colleagues for not writing specifically about Jewish women, she responded “I wanted to transcend differences of races, ethnicity, religion and nationality”.[3] Lerner’s complex approach to identity served as a forerunner of the concept of intersectionality, now so important in the feminist theory of identity.

Susana Wald was also a Holocaust survivor from Budapest, Hungary. As a child, Wald felt a strong Jewish identity, but as the Nazis took over, she increasingly felt constant fear and anxiety. The family converted to Catholicism, temporarily providing cover for their Jewish identity. But when Hungary came under Stalinist control, Wald’s Catholicism no longer protected her and she began nomadic travels to Argentina, Chile, Canada, and Mexico, all the while hiding her Jewishness. Through all this turmoil and existential uncertainty, Wald found a haven in her art. She became a well-known Latin American Surrealist, and surrealism offered entrance into the realm of mysticism, psychology, and politics, and eventually to feminism, as her art began to challenge conventional women’s roles.[4] It was this work as a Surrealist feminist that led her to consider the mystical and feminine aspects of Judaism. In a painting commissioned by the University of Michoacan, she portrayed the image of woman as spiritualized wisdom, perhaps influenced by the Shekinah, the feminine aspect of God. Through this work, Wald became more confident in expressing her own Jewish identity. She did this publicly at a rally in support of striking Oaxacan teachers. In this speech, she revealed her Jewish identity and spoke about the importance of joining together in surviving repressive regimes, how the powerless are empowered by gaining strength from each other. She later said “It was only in 2006 that I said publicly that I am Jewish. It took me that long.”

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Ruth Messenger’s story differs considerably from those of Lerner and Wald, in that she was born in the US, in an upper-middle-class family of assimilated Jews who served on boards of Jewish agencies, and who were influenced by the social justice teachings of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Early in her life, Messinger internalized Jewish social justice and therefore was more easily able to express her Jewish identity. Messinger is known for being the first Jewish woman to run in New York’s mayoral race (1997) and as CEO of America Jewish World Services (AJWS). In interviews with Sharon Leder, Ruth Messinger discussed how the “all embracing ethical values inherent in Judaism led the organization to become the first and only Jewish organization devoted solely to ending poverty and promoting human rights in the developing world”. Messinger saw herself as a Jewish change agent, and as such had her own take on what “chosenness” meant for Jews:

Embracing chosenness means accepting a moral mandate to speak for and with those who whose dignity has been denied. Choosing to do this through a Jewish lens means rooting our lives in ethical obligations, speaking out in the face of injustice. . . .Figuring out how to negotiate the dynamics of being different and advocating for those who are perceived as different.[5]

Groundbreaking

The contention of this book is that these three women acted on the universal values inherent in the Jewish tradition of social justice enabling them to reach out as activists to marginalized human beings in groundbreaking ways. Indeed, these three women claimed their Jewishness in ways that significantly changed their respective fields in academic history, in art, and in building organizations and making policy, in ways that influenced the larger society. It was interesting to me, coming, as I did, from the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s, that women who were radical feminists, like Shulamith Firestone, Ellen Willis, and Meredith Tax, among others, while involved in different kinds of groundbreaking and different kinds of ideologies and strategies for change, had very similar journeys as they came to accept the influence of their Jewish backgrounds on their social activism.[6] The book thus helped place my own delayed acceptance of Judaism in a more social context.  

The Persisting Trauma of the Holocaust

Two of the women in Leder’s book, Gerda Lerner and Susana Wald, survived Nazi anti-Semitism, and the lasting impact of that trauma played a heavy role in delaying their comfort with Jewish identity. For most of their adult lives, they kept that identity a hidden, unspoken part of themselves. But even for Ruth Messinger, Nazism, and the Holocaust influenced her identity as a social justice Jew. This was true, too, of the Jewish women of the Women’s Liberation Movement. Several of these women were but one generation away from the direct experience of Nazi anti-Semitism, but all felt the influence of the collective memory of the Holocaust as part of their childhood socialization. This collective memory likely holds for most Jews in the post-Holocaust era.

This legacy of the Holocaust is evidence of what Rabbi Tirzah Firestone calls “intergenerational trauma”.[7] That is, the initial trauma of the Holocaust is felt not only by those who directly experienced it but is passed on to their children and grandchildren. All these women experienced this trauma, either directly or indirectly, and had to transcend that trauma before they could safely feel comfortable in their Jewish skin. From Leder’s book, we see that Gerda Lerner, Susana Wald, and Ruth Messinger all demonstrated that it was possible to free themselves from the legacy of trauma; they were able to turn the traumatic fear, the sense of not belonging, into compassion for others.

The Importance of stories

Through the telling of these three stories, Sharon Leder has enabled the reader to understand how Jewish feminist identity develops, at moments in time and overtime. With these stories illustrating the role of Jewish values in encouraging social activism, Leder is using an ancient learning technique familiar to all of us, that of storytelling. We learn through stories, whether through the parables of Jesus, fables of Aesop, the Chasidic stories of the Baal Shem Tov, or the Torah itself. With the stories in this book, Sharon Leder provides answers to Hillel’s three questions and helps us understand what it means, not only to be a Jew but to be a socially conscious human being.


Footnotes:

[1] In many discussions of Jewish identity, there is often a reference to Isaac Deutscher’s Non-Jewish Jew, which looked at European leftist intellectuals, like Marx and Rosa Luxemburg, who were Jewish but did not act as Jews.  For Deutscher, Jewish identity meant the Jewish religion, not the Jewish community or social justice issues. Further, in “Who is a Jew”, Deutscher states his belief that Jews would not have survived as a community if it had not been for anti-Semitism, reflecting a deterministic view of identity.  Leder’s book is decidedly not deterministic and shows the importance of agency, intention, and choice as people make their own history. Had Deutscher seen Judaism as did Hillel and Leder, for its social /justice aspects, he would not have seen his European subjects as non-Jewish Jews. See “Deutscher and the Jews” Sam Farber, New Politics, Winter, 2014.

[2] Quoted in Leder’s book, p.32

[3] Gerda Lerner, “Weave of Connections”, quoted in Leder's book.

[4] In a series of paintings, The Wives, Wald showed wives as headless caricatured appendages of their husbands’ occupations, there to support the husband’s work, but with no agency of their own. A few of these paintings are shown in Leder’s book.

[5] “Ruth on Chosenness” from “Bridging the Near and Far,” Sh’ma Journal 2015, quoted in Cave, Messinger of Hope.

[6] Joyce Antler, Jewish Radical Feminism: Voices from the Women’s Liberation Movement, (New York University Press, 2018).

[7] Tirzah Firestone, Wounds into Wisdom: Healing Intergenerational Jewish Trauma,  Monkfish Publication Company, 2019, New York).

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