From the editor, p

Bridges: A Jewish Feminist Journal. 21st Anniversary Issue: Conversations on Creativity, Activism, and Jewish Feminist Identity. Ed. Clare Kinberg. Volume 16: 1 (Spring 2011). 

                                                     

Reviewed by Evelyn Torton Beck, Womens Studies Professor Emerita, University of Maryland, College Park, USA          

                 

                  Even more than I had anticipated, reading and rereading this 240 page volume of Bridges (possibly the last print copy of the journal) was not only a pleasure, but a deeply satisfying experience; unique in its format, it is among the best that Bridges has produced in its twenty one years of publication.

                  The issue is constructed around a series of conversations between previous contributors to the journal. While some contributors deliberately chose partners they knew personally or with whose work they were familiar, others were paired by the editor; but however they ended up together, the pairings worked well. Conveying the richness, honesty, and spontaneity of these conversations (whose themes overlap and intertwine) proved to be a challenge. How was I to convey the depth and complexity of these thirty-five separate essays (and twice that many voices), which continued to speak long after I had closed the volume? 

                  Not surprisingly, these exchanges combine the personal with the political, the particular with the universal. The conversation partners include poets, novelists and visual artists; rabbis, modern orthodox, secular and atheist; academics and community workers; young and old; Jews by choice and born Jews; Sephardic and Ashkenazi, Caucasians and African-Americans; lesbian, heterosexual and queer Jews; able-bodied and physically challenged, reaching across multiple lines of linguistic, geographic, ethnic and racial differences. But within these differences, there is an important thread that repeatedly connects Jewish feminist identity with tikkun olam, the passionate desire to repair the world.  For some, this impulse came from activist parents, for others, it was a concept they only learned about as adults, although many had unwittingly been living according to its precepts. 

                  Taken together, these exchanges offer a map of the most salient issues that continue both to motivate and vex 20th and early 21st century Jewish feminists. Not surprisingly, concerns about Israels policies, Palestinian rights, and the possibility of peace in the Middle East recur like a leit-motif that often intrudes into conversations even when it is not the focal topic. While many long time peace activists, like Sherry Gorelick of New York City, remain hopeful, others, like Hannah Safran from Haifa, a founding member of the Coalition of Women for Peace, has revised her thinking and is close to despair.  

                  A theme central to many conversations addresses the responsibility of artists to bear witness, to use art in the service of social justice. In Why Write Poetry? activist poets Willa Schneberg and Frances Payne Adler (both of whose work appeared in the inaugural issue of Bridges), reveal how they each had struggled against the pressures of the dominant culture that would have them keep politics out of the very poetry which they both see as a change agent, a spur to awareness that could lead to action. It turns out that for both, Carolyn Forchs poetry of witness provided a model, as did the poetry of Adrienne Rich whose name comes up in many other conversations as well. 

                  Because so many of the contributors are themselves writers, it is not surprising that language is a thread that runs throughout the volume. It is at the core of the conversation between Dara Barnat, an American poet living in Israel and Gili Haimovich, an Israeli poet living in Canada. Although they continue to produce poetry in their native languages, they each also write in the language of their adopted countries. While many poets mourn the loss of the mother tongue when living in exile, for them, writing in a new language offers the freedom to speak in a different voice, although it may also be

tinged with bitterness and irony. Dara* left the United States seeking the liberation that comes with being immersed in a strange place, and found that poetry filled the sinkhole under my feet (52). In contrast, leaving Israel was not Gilis idea and her response to exile remains problematic. What is most exciting in their work, is their enthusiasm for collaborative translations, a feminist process by which they work together to translate each others poetry, going back and forth between the original and the translation till they come to a place that feels right to both. They believe that all translation requires mutual trust in the integrity and sensitivity of the other -- what they call acts of generosity.

                  From its inception, Bridges has been dedicated to publishing translations of womens writings in Yiddish (together with the original), so it is no surprise that Yiddish is at the center of several conversations between translators. Because the context for much of this writing was the political ferment of late 19th and early 20th century Eastern Europe, both Faith Jones and Irena Klepfisz consider whether these translations can be viewed as forms of feminist activism. Irenas years of teaching in a womens prison has changed her ideas about what constitutes activism, while Faiths approach has also changed, as she now wants to show that women poets addressed everything, not only womens issues.  But for both, Yiddish remains crucial.   Irena sums it up well for both of them, Yiddish work grounds me. . . .translating—its almost like meditating for me (59).

                  Many in this population of contributors are immigrants or children of immigrants,

or are no longer living in their country of origin. Therefore, it comes as no surprise to find themes of dislocation, exile, absence and loss, intertwined with the strong focus on

language and geography. Lolette Kuby and Diana Anhalt talk about what it felt like to become expatriates, a condition that was voluntary for Lolette who was drawn by the irresistible magnet of grandchildren to move to Canada as an adult, but involuntary for the eight year old Diana, whose family (overnight and without explanation) fled the United States for Mexico during the McCarthy era because her left-wing parents were in danger of being arrested. As the conversation makes clear, Dianas story is not an isolated one; there were other hidden immigrants in Mexico (many were Jews) who were afraid to reveal themselves even years later. 

                  Although only a few of the contributors would identify as religious Jews, Biblical history also finds a place in this volume. Radically different interpretations of the Akeda are central to the conversation between Kazim Ali (an American Muslim poet) and Rachel Tzvia Back (an American poet living in Israel who is descended from generations of Jewish Palestinians), and it comes up again in the exchange between Alicia Ostriker and Alana Suskin. According to Jewish tradition, Isaac has no idea of what Abraham is planning, and so this story becomes that of the fathers betrayal of his son. In Muslim tradition, Ishmael follows his father knowingly, in which case the son is a willing martyr for his people. Speaking from a feminist perspective, Alicia Ostrikers conversation with Alana Suskin focuses on the silence of Sarah, who Alicia argues, would never have agreed to sacrifice her son if she had agency. 

                  This kind of shift in perspective is the theme of Ellen Cassedy and Susannah Heschels conversation; both seek to challenge dominant paradigms in religious practice and scholarship. For example, Ellen focuses on the complexity that is lost in Holocaust Studies when scholars limit the categories to victims, perpetrators, and by-standers.  Susannah has reversed the gaze in Jewish history by combining feminist commitments with an exploration of the world of the enemy, -- Germany, Lithuania, and finding people there who reached out to her (153), for which she has been vilified by some Jewish scholars.  She also wants to restore her fathers iconoclasm (Abraham Joshua Heschel, 1907-1972) that been lost from his persona as recorded in history.        

                  Aging, facing death, and the call to write ethical wills is the focus of several of these conversations which, read side by side, echo and reinforce each other. Although I found it difficult to single out any one of these, I chose Rachel Josefowitz Siegel and Marcia Cohn Spiegels because it is one of the most inclusive. Now in their eighties, both Rachel and Marcia address the need to accept physical diminishment and to slow down, while maintaining a sense of self worth by remaining active contributors to life in whatever form that may take. Marcia continues to speak out about alcoholism, addiction, domestic violence, and sexual abuse within Jewish communities, topics that were taboo when she first brought them to public attention decades ago. Rachel generously offers us her personal legacy, the result of a lifetimes immersion in Jewish thought, a moving ethical will that can serve as a model.  

                  Among these conversations are several pieces that bring to life deceased contributors: Rabbi Julie Greenberg creates a moving portrait of lesbian-feminist activist, Felice Yeskel who was also her first lover and remained a life-long friend; Madeline Tiger and DeDe Jacobs-Komisar (Enid Dames niece) share memories of Enid who, in her poetry, recreated a Lilith with such good humor and compassion that quickly turned this traditionally negative figure into a symbol of Jewish feminism; Ruth Atkins and Judith Mazur talk about the difficult process whereby Judiths life partner, Jessica Barshay, a psychotherapist who suffered from multiple progressive disabilities, eventually decided to take her own life; Irena Klepfisz and Faith Jones offer a  tribute to the work of the Yiddish novelist, Chava Rosenfarb who died just a few weeks after their conversation.

                  A good measure of the richness of this volume is that I was so moved by the ferment of the ideas and the strength of the writing, that I spent quite a lot of time looking up and finding other work by these contributors, sometimes ordering their books, looking for their work I may have missed in previous issues of Bridges. This is a historic issue that should be savored, read, and re-read slowly, used as a point of reference. We will not see its like for a long time. 

                  Over the years, Bridges has accomplished what it set out to do—provide a forum for the many complex strands of Jewish feminist activism in all its forms, including the arts, some of which are visible in this issue. If, as seems likely, the journal now shifts to a web format, I see no reason why it should not continue its important work of bridging, which is sorely needed, and continuing to move us forward with a progressive Jewish agenda.

 

* In these conversations, the writers appropriately are on a first name basis with each other. Following this lead, in my first reference, I identify contributors by first and last names, but thereafter use only their first names.

 

Women in Judaism: A Multidisciplinary Journal Spring 2011 Volume 8 Number 1

ISSN 1209-9392

2011 Women in Judaism, Inc.

 

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