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Jewish Feminists: Complex Identities and Activist Lives, by Dina Pinsky. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010. 152 pp. $20.00 (paper), $60.00 (cloth).
The sociological analysis in Dina Pinsky’s Jewish Feminists, developed from interviews with two dozen women and five men, is clear, lively, and anecdotal, so much so that the reader may happily lose herself in the subjects’ stories until Pinsky gently reminds us that the assemblages from her conversations are actually in the service of an enterprise that is larger than oral history per se. Pinsky organizes the data from these interviews to illustrate and discuss significant concepts in identity and cultural theory, in particular, “intersectionality,” that is, the place in one’s self understanding where different self-identifications collide, in this case, Jewish identity and feminist identity. Pinksy’s “book is about making sense of what it means to be composed of varied and dynamic selves,” and she demonstrates how these Jews, who were active in the feminist movement in the 1970s, negotiated contradiction and ambivalence. The cohort of pseudonymous personalities—Miriam and Mark, Rhonda and Natalie—share their recollections of their early involvements as Jewish feminists, guided by the interviewer to reflect on the origins and development of these distinct aspects of their self-definitions. Because the subjects are so engaging, this study does its educational work with a light touch, largely through the skillful organization of data and Pinsky’s intelligent contextualizing commentary.
Although to date inadequately studied (as Pinsky observes, academic attention to the intersectionality of race, class, and gender has curiously neglected the category of “Jews”), the particular intersectionality of Jewish and feminist identities is especially interesting because Jews understand what it means to be Jewish in many different ways. Some profess to be “allergic to religion” but nonetheless identify strongly as Jewish, sometimes by virtue of ethnic attachments and sometimes through allegiances (ironically) forged by antisemitism or the memory of the Holocaust. For some, Judaism and feminism are understood to share values (championing the disenfranchised), and Jewish values (often absent Jewish practice) informs their social activism; for some, being Jewish and being a woman duplicates the sense of disempowerment that motivates activism; for others, Judaism is alienating and disempowering, one influential source of patriarchy and the authorization of male privilege. Further complicating this mix, being Jewish affects how people experience their gender identity: stereotypes support the conviction that being a Jewish woman or a Jewish man is different from being simply a woman or a man. Pinsky helps us to hear both harmony and dissonance as she creates an artful map of shifting Jewish feminist identities over time.
One interest of this book is that it shows how varied are the self-understandings among people who may claim the same set of overlapping identities, a cautionary tale against presuming affinities. The interviewed subjects will charm any reader, irrespective of her personal identifications, though the book will be of special interest to Jewish feminists. Jewish Feminists should also serve as a case study for introductory courses in sociology or the sociology of identity, and as such, will also remedy neglect in the study of the roles played by Jews (and antisemitism) in the feminist movement and the influence of Judaism and Jewishness on social change during the historical period that the book covers.
In good feminist practice, Pinsky begins by locating herself in relation to her subject matter, and this reviewer feels a similar inclination. I am a Jewish feminist—both existentially and professionally—and old enough to remember the beginnings of a movement when we dreamed that the bat mitzvah would someday have the prestige of being a Saturday morning occasion; when we dreamed of more than token women in the rabbinate; and when innovations such as the women’s Seder began a systematic feminist reappraisal of liturgy, ritual, and ceremony. But still, I am too young (amazingly) to have qualified as a subject for this study because I came of age when “Jewish feminist” was rarely considered a contradiction in terms. Pinsky’s book triggered, and helps me better understand, the memory of powerful encounter I had during that transition.
It was the late 80s, and, new on the faculty at Kenyon College, I gladly accepted an invitation to team-teach the “Introduction to Women’s Studies course.” A rumor soon reached me that a senior colleague, a pioneering feminist activist who had worked tirelessly to establish the then brand new Women’s Studies program, objected to my having been offered this opportunity—because she knew that I was a practicing Jew. As a New Yorker, Brandeis graduate, and daughter of Holocaust survivors, now in the unfamiliar territory of rural Ohio, I felt a mix of emotions, including anger and fear. Trained up in gender theory, I was wounded and mystified by a challenge to my teaching credentials (by someone who had yet to meet me) based on my kashrut and Sabbath observance. When I screwed up the courage to confront my colleague, she patiently explained that Judaism, as a religion, is patriarchal and that my claim to being a feminist is belied by my choice to subscribe to an egregiously sexist institution. “Even Adrienne Rich,” she elucidated, “understands a Jewish feminist to be split at the root.”
I, in turn, explained that I could disown neither my feminism nor my Jewishness; and I necessarily subject Judaism—which I knew to be dynamic and changeable—to the same feminist critique to which I subject everything. More Orthodox than I, the senior professor was not persuaded. Disentangling confused strands of the self, Jewish Feminists: Complex Identities and Activist Lives brings us back to that era of passionate feelings. In so doing, Pinsky accounts for our own present. Beyond telling the stories well, this slim, smart book gives us a tool—a prism—to refract the light of the self, enabling us to see splendid variety beneath the guise of coherence.
Lori Hope Lefkovitz