Erasing Jewish Women

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 And here I am with one unpublished novel (which I still think is good, although I’m embarrassed to admit it to those who ask), plans to change careers, and a knot under my ribs.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.

10 Responses

  1. I just can hear the agony in your post. I wish I could help in some way. Yes there are losses to mourn and maybe that just has to come first.

    When I was doing research for The River Midnight, it bothered me that I would read something about, say, “children,” only to discover that the description was actually about boys. Where were the girls? I found them, it just took more digging. There is a rich history, for example, in tehinas–women’s prayers written in Yiddish.

    I think there is another consideration besides erasure as far as Bea Arthur goes. If she was Jewish then the story would be about a Jewish woman instead of all women, even if she was still proud and independent and not caricatured negatively. What I mean is that WASP is the default, because it’s the dominating culture, but that makes it a blank slate. If you want to talk about a social issue without locating it in any particular culture, without going the extra mile to say this is true in this culture but also all cultures, it’s simplest to use the blank slate.

  2. Lillian, you’re right about the perception of a blank slate but that’s part of the invisibility/erasure that Julie is talking about. I always figured Maude couldn’t be Jewish because she was Archie Bunker’s cousin, and Archie sure wasn’t Jewish, but that’s far too literal and superficial a reason.

    WASPs have a culture. The world John Cheever wrote about wasn’t without sociological complexity and significance. WASP America isn’t really a blank slate – it’s a set of assumptions about how people behave that is the default set, and because it’s the default, everything else is Other. I understand some of the consequences that would have befallen Norman Lear if he’d made Maude Jewish; it would have been easier to marginalize and dismiss the character and it would have opened the door to a host of misogynistic and anti-Semitic readings of the work. That’s the way the kyriarchy works.

  3. It wasn’t the only time she played a non-Jewish woman, either. On the Golden Girls, she and the staight-from-the-Borscht-Belt Estelle Getty both played Italians. See also, Carla Tortelli. It’s part of a long history of erasing Jews on tv.

  4. I was once taking the metro downtown and the car was full of religious Jewish children, around 10, and a half dozen of their teachers. They were cheering and being altogether obnoxious, and then one of the teachers yelled out that we should all be impressed, because the smartest Jewish children around were headed to the finals for some contest.

    But of course, all the children and all the teachers were male. The girls weren’t even a consideration.

    I switched cars to get away from the noise, but also the irritation, and I not so accidentally stepped on the foot of the person who yelled it out.

  5. This is a gorgeous, heartbreaking, and incredibly important post.

    And, seconding Jay here: yes, it’s true that WASPs are perceived as being culturally neutral, but it’s extremely racist and white supremacist that this is the perception. It’s also totally false.

  6. Such a fantastic post.

    Also, now I have a new, completely refreshing list of authors to check out.

  7. On the Golden Girls, she and the staight-from-the-Borscht-Belt Estelle Getty both played Italians. See also, Carla Tortelli. It’s part of a long history of erasing Jews on tv.

    So I knew all of that, but now I find myself wondering why being Italian was considered better or more acceptable (I know the obvious answer is Italians are Christian, but Italians used to have a lot of nasty stereotypes associated with them, as well). I also wonder at the interplay between Jewish writers and television executives and what I presume are non-Jewish executives from the companies whose advertising paid for the shows. How much of it is Jews being self-conscious about their Jewishness and choosing something that still feels ethnic and urban, but somehow safer, and how much of it is that it is actually more acceptable in that mystical “middle America” to be Italian than Jewish, that the shows actually wouldn’t be as popular if the characters were Jewish?

    I have noticed that a lot of comedy that is very obviously Jewish to me doesn’t read Jewish to people who didn’t grow up around Jews or Jewish culture.

    Anyway … nice post, and yes, new authors to check out.

  8. Lee Grant, one of my very favorite actresses, was born Lyova Rosenthal. I remember that because I learned of her name and Bea Arthur’s name from the same trivia book, one I used to have in my bathroom (!)… and it included “real names of the stars”…it was when I first learned Tony Curtis was Bernard Schwartz, too.

    Lee Grant took her name from the two Civil War generals. She was also a victim of the 50s Hollywood Blacklist.

    As a teenager, I first fell in love with her after I saw THE NEON CEILING. She also played Carrie Fisher’s mother in SHAMPOO, if you ever saw it–that was her Oscar-winning role. I had no clue she was Jewish until reading the trivia book. (this was long before the internet). She is the first woman I thought of, reading your wonderful post.

  9. Качество друзей тоже надо учитывать. Дональд Трамп, например, на двадцатку потянет.

  10. Another depressing anecdote along the lines of this post: I was told a couple weeks ago about a female writer (I didn’t catch her name, but I’m sure you could figure out who with a bit of sleuthing) who published a story about a couple getting genetic counselling for Tay-Sachs in Redbook. In the edits, Redbook cut all the references to the couple’s Judaism but, strangely, kept the medical references to Tay-Sachs (which is nearly always found in people of Ashkenazi Jewish descent). Apparently, having the couple actually appear to be of the ethnic group that gets this particular disease would have made the story “not universal enough.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: