Circle of Friends
I see that it’s time for the media to replay the perennial horror story known as The Dying Jew. “The Vanishing Jew,” by Alan Dershowitz, is a mea culpa over his son’s intermarriage. Elliot Abrams, the former Reagan administration official, has written “Faith or Fear: How Jews Can Survive in a Christian America,” a political argument against liberalism and in favor of blurring the lines between church and state. New York magazine’s cover story this week asks, “Are American Jews Disappearing?” and rounds up the usual Orthodox, Conservative and Reform suspects for the unsurprising reply: maybe. The Dying Jew has become our Loch Ness monster, a friendly nightmare story brought out during summer doldrums, a crime story without a real perpetrator.
But, this summer, such news does not stand alone: As the stories of Jewish extinction are being repeated, the women’s group Hadassah has announced a $1 million grant to fund a new International Research Institute on Jewish Women at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. Its purpose: to study the entire Jewish woman’s experience as reflected in spirituality and religion, the arts and media, Israel, the Holocaust, family and community. For the first time, an educational institution will study women’s lives as a special component of the Jewish people, discrete and real.
Naturally, this research institute lacks the sex appeal of the Dying Jew story (New York magazine will never put it on the cover). Nevertheless, to rewrite Virginia Woolf, even the press release announcing that Barbra Streisand is the think tank’s honorary chair constitutes, for women, true “news of our own.”
“As a Jewish woman, I have always been bothered by negative stereotypes about us,” read a statement prepared by the woman whose life is a Rorschach test of a Jewish woman’s acceptability in America. “[This] is the first institute in the world that focuses the spotlight on Jewish women.”
The Dying Jew stories prove why such a spotlight is needed. The unnoticed (though obvious) fact is that such accounts about Jewish extinction are written by men. If men see Jewish life as a trail that has come to the end, so be it. But women have another point of view.
Jewish men and women have had two distinct histories in America, a fact conveniently ignored until now. Men have held the license over the American Jewish experience; from men’s exploits (creating Hollywood) and stories (Roth, Malamud, et al.), we have learned about our success and our roadblocks. They’ve defined who we are.
How distinct is the Jewish woman’s experience? That’s a question the institute will help us answer. But it starts from the fact that women are two generations behind men in all indices: While Jewish men began to assimilate in the first generation, women held back. While men changed their names, gained jobs in banking and industry, intermarried, women stayed home, keeping the Jewish world intact. Our mothers and grandmothers were less distracted by American values, if only because they were less free to know them.
“We’re half the Jewish people, but our role in history has been obliterated,” Shulamit Reinharz, professor of sociology at Brandeis and director of the new institute, told me. “We’re not part of the people as men have always been.”
Though women have been integral to Zionism, the building of the Jewish state, and the creation of American communal organizations, J.J. Goldberg, in his 1996 study “Jewish Power,” barely mentions them.
This male domination of the Jewish experience must be questioned now before the Dying Jew becomes a self-fulfilled prophecy. Like a cancer patient who thinks he’s got a month to live, a people who are told that they are dying will no doubt act accordingly.
“There’s a real half- empty/half-full syndrome going on about Jewish life,” said Reinharz, who also heads Brandeis’ women’s studies department. If men are becoming either strident or giving up hope, she said, “women are energized.”
If I sound excited about what might ordinarily be an academic exercise, there’s a reason. Here’s the first think tank with the money to address a problem that goes back three generations: For all our education, energy and high- level employment, Jewish women continue to feel stereotyped, outcast and isolated within both America and the Jewish world; we use TV and movies as our mirror, only to find, as Streisand correctly implies, a world that seems to scorn us. But, now, through research and study, we finally will broaden the picture.
Reinharz said that the Institute’s first goal is to help Jewish women rethink themselves, and then to help men see the Jewish world more accurately by incorporating the truth of women’s lives. There will be scholars-in- residence, conferences and discussion of policy issues from a woman’s perspective.>/p>
Men may think the Jewish people is dying, but women are not taking that prophecy lying down.
Marlene Adler Marks is editor-at-large of The Jewish Journal. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Read a previous week’s column by Marlene Adler Marks:
July 11, 1997 — Celluloid Heroes
July 4, 1997 — Meet the Seekowitzes
June 27, 1997 — The Facts of Life
June 20, 1997 — Reality Bites
June 13, 1997 — The Family Man