Bea Arthur was born Bernice Frankel. I didn’t find that out until the day she died.
Kirsten Fermaglich writes, “Had Maude been labeled ‘a Jewish mother,’ her courage and fiery independence probably would have been caricatured as insignificant nagging. The decision to make Maude a WASP allowed her to be a “prototypical woman” and thus an icon of the women’s movement.” Cole at JVoices responds: “Fermaglich outlining that to be an ‘icon’ meant erasing race and ethnicity, requires that we ask the question, if the character ‘had to be a WASP,’ whose women’s movement then were they really talking about and portraying?!”
The eternal question.
Lately I’ve been researching female Ashkenazi writers. Anna Margolin, Fradel Stock, Elza Frydrych Shatzkin. Margolin died a recluse who requested that her tombstone say that she’d “wasted her life/On trash, on nothing;”* Stock was institutionalized and died in a sanatorium; Shatzkin killed herself at age 25. Meanwhile, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Sholem Aleichem (and then Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Safran Foer…) enjoyed immense and lasting acclaim. I read Stock’s “The Shorn Head” and found it exquisitely sad – it’s about a young Jewish widow trying, unsuccessfully, to grow against rigid gender roles. The character isn’t plucky or resilient; the psychic toll of oppression is evident throughout the story. Margolin, whose work explored the silencing of women, wrote about “pressure in her throat, obstruction; imagining growths, tumors.”* I’ve felt that – tightness in my solar plexus and my chest. Actual pain in my throat. Stress and emotions are physical. The body responds to the mind responds to the body.
Anyone with an MFA knows about the attrition rate after grad school – writers who go back out into the real world and fail to get published (enough), or gradually give up on “becoming” writers, or both. They get other jobs. They stop writing. They make themselves stop caring.
Any woman with an MFA knows that those who stop writing are disproportionately female. And here I am with one unpublished novel (which I still think is good, although I’m embarrassed to admit it to those who ask), plans to change careers, and a knot under my ribs. No 500 pounds a month, no room of my own. But this isn’t about me – it’s about all of us. It scares me that if I want to be a Jewish artist, Margolin and Stock and Shatzkin are my role models.
You won’t find a Wikipedia entry for Bertha Pappenheim, German Jewish feminist and activist. A search will, however, redirect you to the entry for Anna O., Freud’s famous patient. Anna O. did stuff besides suffer from hysteria! Who knew? But the work of Jewish German feminists isn’t noteworthy – at least, not as noteworthy as their use to the work of men.
Gertrude Berg was once as well known as Eleanor Roosevelt. The show that she wrote and starred in paved the way for The Honeymooners, I Love Lucy, and all the sitcoms that came after. How many people today have heard of Gertrude Berg?
From Lital Levy’s “How the Camel Found Its Wings” (in The Flying Camel, a collection of essays by Mizrahi women):
When I told the professor of Hebrew literature in my department that I wanted to write my undergraduate honors thesis on the poetry of Anton Shammas and Na’im ‘Araide (two Palestinian-Israeli writers of both Hebrew and Arabic), she refused to work with me, offering flimsy excuses.
After a few weeks of trying to meet with her and getting nowhere, I asked her bluntly: “I know there’s another reason behind this. Would you tell me what the real problem is?” She paused, made a face, and then answered me in Hebrew. “I feel you’re neglecting your Hebrew because of this Arabic business. But I understand your attraction to Arabic – it seems more exotic to you.”
…Did this young, female, ostensibly progressive professor know that my father and his entire family were born in Iraq, that Arabic was their mother tongue, that Arabic was the language in which my grandmother expressed her love for me and my sister on our all-too-brief visits to Israel? She did.
Jewish women erasing other Jewish women – deliberately, forcefully, frantically.
Jewish women are stereotyped as loud and pushy. Many of us want to reclaim this; we want to celebrate our strength! But I want there to be room for quiet, sensitive Jewish women, too. I want my identity to have room for me.
If I were to go to the Western Wall to pray, I would have to do it silently. I could be arrested for singing.
And do I even need to mention the lack of women in visual representations of Jewishness? When you see typical pictures of Jews praying, which Jews are they?
I know this is all complicated. I know that Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath and countless writers I haven’t heard of met bad ends, too. I know that Jonathan Lebowitz would never enjoy the same popularity as Jon Stewart, even though he’s openly Jewish. I know about Ayelet Waldman, Adrienne Rich, Cynthia Ozick. I know the term “erasure” makes it sound like I’m putting a name change or an unkind remark on the same level as murder, colonization, genocide – but I don’t know what else to call it. I know women have been talking about erasure for a long time.
And I know there’s hope.
I’m just saying that I can’t separate my erasure as a Jew and my erasure as a woman. I’m just saying we have losses to mourn.
* From The Tribe of Dina, edited by Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz and Irene Klepfisz.
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