When I think about my Jewish identity, I turn to the history of Jewish women. As a doctoral candidate, I recently had the privilege of teaching a course at the University of California, Davis, “Writing Their Way: Jewish Women between Eastern Europe and America.” On the first day of class, I asked my students — coming from Jewish studies, history, women’s and ethnic studies, mainly women, some Jewish, some queer, some people of color — “What is wrong with the title of this course?” Despite their varied backgrounds, they all agreed that it was the word “between”; it didn’t seem adequately definitive. That word, however, was the only one about which I felt totally sure!
I worried as I drafted the title how to define “woman,” or the massive geographical indicators of “America” and “Eastern Europe,” or what I meant by “Jewish.” The word “between” helped me mark the uncertainties in the geographical movement; it also marked the very instability inscribed by the act of writing, making the process of text and identity formation one of constant movement that I hoped my course could explore.
And indeed, we spent the rest of the quarter asking these questions, delving into women’s history through primary texts from the entire 20th century, and learning about the feminist movement that made women’s texts of the past available to us today. Yiddish texts that were translated in the 1980s by American Jewish feminists (such as Irena Klepfisz), shed light on an effort to rediscover the past in the service of exploring one’s own identity and politics. We also read feminist accounts of Jewish history, such as the works of Paula Hyman, which we used to explore how factoring in gender and sexuality, rather than merely adding detail, actually changed the way we conceived of Jewish history as a whole.
We asked about the racial history of the Jews, and how it was formed intersectionally with the construction of gender roles. We used queer theory to challenge linear narratives of history as such, and to complicate essentialist categories. The students’ questions drew from their own interests, identities, and political agendas — the challenges of being a second-generation Latina immigrant or the protest movement rumbling throughout the University of California system. By the end of the quarter, my title had been entirely deconstructed.
Today, in the wake of third-wave feminism and queer theory, gender is understood as constructed; this destabilizes the very category of “woman,” on which much of second-wave feminism has been based. While this new understanding of gender might widen how we define the feminist movement and identity politics in general, I want to offer an alternative model, one that can bridge multiple generations of thinking about feminist and queer theory and practice. It makes use of the tools of the past and contemporary interventions simultaneously.
For example, for the past few decades, we have seen a growth of “women-only spaces”— such as synagogue sisterhoods, Rosh Chodesh groups, or consciousness-raising programs. These groups have proved invaluable for creating safe spaces to explore new ideas and build skills, and, I believe, they should continue to exist. A queer sensibility — one that sees gender as more fluid — prohibits me from defining and limiting who should have access to this “women-only” space. Rather than being exclusively limited to “women born women,” the queer space would invite all self-identified women. This challenges us to consider what it means to identify as female and to be identified by others as female. Such an intervention attempts to recognize achievements of past women while creating a model of Jewish feminism that reflects the concerns and complications of being “between” rather than simply belonging.
The moment “between” is one I want to celebrate. It is the moment that allows me to connect to women of the past through their texts; to build alliances with women present, not based on sharing the same identity but on shared goals; to challenge dominant narratives and assumptions; and to constantly be surprised. I live as a Jewish woman between Israel (where I am from), Eastern Europe (where I conduct my research), and America (my chosen Diaspora). I choose how to make use of the past, connecting myself to the goldene keyt, the golden chain of Jewish women’s history, in search of new ways to carry it on to the future.email print