‘The Feminine Mystique’: ‘All that I am I will not deny’

In reflecting on the 50th anniversary of Betty Friedan’s groundbreaking The Feminine Mystique, Stephanie Coontz wrote in the New York Times that “readers who return to this feminist classic today are often puzzled by the absence of concrete political proposals to change the status of women.  But The Feminine Mystique has the impact it did because it focused on transforming women’s personal consciousness.”

I was thirteen when The Feminine Mystique first came out.  I didn’t read it until I was in high school.  Betty Friedan was not only famous, but also the mother of my younger brother’s best friend.  She was simultaneously deeply familiar, a Jewish mother, and at the same time larger than life to me.  I never spent time with her, but I knew her family well enough that she would take my call. 

In 1979 I made the phone call.  I had been a rabbi for three years.  The Central Conference of American Rabbis (the Reform Rabbinical Association) Convention was scheduled to take place in Arizona, a non-ERA state.  There were just a handful of women rabbis.  It felt important that women rabbis be at the convention, but we wanted to honor the boycott of non-ERA states.  Not knowing what to do, I called Betty.  She not only took the call, but her advice was clear: “Go to the convention and invite me to speak!”  We did, and that speech was the first time Betty Friedan made a public connection between her feminism and her Judaism.

She began:  “…sometimes history books say that the modern Woman's Movement began with my book The Feminine Mystique.  Many people have asked me… what made me do it?  Probably the simplest answer is that my whole life made me do it, or that I grew up as a Jewish girl in Peoria, Illinois.  I grew up isolated and feeling… the burning injustice of the subtle and not so subtle anti-Semitism that was the experience of my generation… the irrationality of being barred from sororities, fraternities, and all the other things, like country clubs, that you were barred from as Jews.  I think that the passion against injustice that I have had all my life must have come from that.  Then, too, I grew up in an era when Jews, if they could, would try to pass.  You'd shave off your nose… you'd change your name. When I went to Smith, some wealthy girls from Cincinnati would… hold their hands behind their backs so they wouldn't talk with their hands.  And when there was a resolution to open the college to any of the victims of Nazism and to ask President Roosevelt to undo the quotas that kept the Jewish refugees from coming here, the Jewish girls from Cincinnati didn't vote for that resolution.  I, who was just a freshman from Peoria, Illinois, with hayseed in my hair, was horrified.  I had this burning feeling, all that I am I will not deny.  It's the core of me.

“I had this feeling as a Jew first.  First as a Jew before I had it as a woman.  All that I am I will not deny.  And if I've had strength and passion, and if that somehow has helped a little bit to change the world or the possibilities of the world, it comes from that core of me as a Jew.  My passion, my strength, my creativity, if you will, comes from this kind of affirmation… I knew this, in some way, though I was never religious as a Jew, and did not feel alien in the male culture of Judaism at that time…

 “You can see why so many Jewish women particularly gave their  souls to feminism, when you think of all these girls brought  up by the book, brought  up to the book, to the worship of the word, as our brothers were.  When you think of all the passion and energy of our immigrant grandmothers, in the sweatshops without knowing the language!  When you think of mothers rearing sons to be doctors, and coping with all the realities of life!  When you think of all of that passion, all of that strength, all of that energy, suddenly to be concentrated in one small apartment, one small house as happened with Portnoy's mother! …A lot of women realized they were not alone and we broke through the feminine mystique.   A lot of women began to say, “All that I am I will not deny.”  The personhood of woman is really what the Woman's Movement is all about. And once we said we are people, no more, no  less… we could… apply to ourselves human freedom, human dignity, equal opportunity:  all the things that should have been our human and American birthright….

“And we who started the Movement did it with the simple concepts of American democracy.  But we applied those concepts to our situation as women, to our unique experience as women. We applied them not to an abstract blueprint for some future generation, but here and now to the dailiness of life as it’s lived. And I always thought that the unique aspect of the Woman's Movement …comes from the unique experience of women.  Later, as my children, my own son and my spiritual daughters (some of whom are in this room), began to educate me on Jewish theology, I discovered that it's also profoundly Jewish…”

Betty went on to challenge the assembled rabbis to devote themselves to the passage of the ERA, and she would continue to challenge us over the years to change the systems that make gender-equity so hard to realize. The moment she catalyzed is not yet complete.  In some ways it even feels that we are losing ground, as rights we came to take for granted seem to be in jeopardy.  Even in Jewish communal work, there are still significant disparities in salaries of men and women in comparable positions, and a dearth of serious family-leave policies in Jewish institutions.  This 50th anniversary reminds us that the personal is the political, and there is still so much work to do.

I am grateful to be one of Betty Friedan’s spiritual daughters… and that she took that call.

Rabbi Laura Geller is the Senior Rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, California.

Middle Ages and 21st Century Clashing

The following are excerpts from an interview with Wafa Sultan, an Arab American psychologist from Los Angeles. It aired on Al Jazeera TV on Feb. 21, 2006.

Wafa Sultan: The clash we are witnessing around the world is not a clash of religions or a clash of civilizations. It is a clash between two opposites, between two eras. It is a clash between a mentality that belongs to the Middle Ages and another mentality that belongs to the 21st century. It is a clash between civilization and backwardness, between the civilized and the primitive, between barbarity and rationality.

It is a clash between freedom and oppression, between democracy and dictatorship. It is a clash between human rights on the one hand and the violation of these rights on the other hand. It is a clash between those who treat women like beasts and those who treat them like human beings. What we see today is not a clash of civilizations. Civilizations do not clash, but compete….

Host: I understand from your words that what is happening today is a clash between the culture of the West and the backwardness and ignorance of the Muslims?

WS: Yes, that is what I mean….

Host: Who came up with the concept of a clash of civilizations? Was it not Samuel Huntington? It was not Bin Laden. I would like to discuss this issue, if you don’t mind….

WS: The Muslims are the ones who began using this expression. The Muslims are the ones who began the clash of civilizations. The Prophet of Islam said: “I was ordered to fight the people until they believe in Allah and His Messenger.”

When the Muslims divided the people into Muslim and non-Muslims and called to fight the others until they believe in what they themselves believe, they started this clash and began this war.

In order to stop this war, they must re-examine their Islamic books and curricula, which are full of calls for takfir and fighting the infidels. My colleague has said that he never offends other people’s beliefs. What civilization on the face of this earth allows him to call other people by names they did not choose for themselves?

Once he calls them Ahl Al-Dhimma, another time he calls them the “People of the Book” and yet another time he compares them to apes and pigs, or he calls the Christians “those who incur Allah’s wrath.”

Who told you they are People of the Book? They are not the People of the Book; they are people of many books. All the useful scientific books that you have today are theirs, the fruit of their free and creative thinking.

What gives you the right to call them “those who incur Allah’s wrath” or those who have gone astray, and then come here and say that your religion commands you to refrain from offending the beliefs of others?

I am not a Christian, a Muslim or Jew. I am a secular human being. I do not believe in the supernatural, but I respect others’ right to believe in it.

Dr. Ibrahim Al-Khouli: ( a teacher at Al-Azhar University) Are you a heretic?

WS: You can say whatever you like. I am a secular human being who does not believe in the supernatural.

Al-Khouli: If you are a heretic, there is no point in rebuking you, since you have blasphemed against Islam, the Prophet and the Quran.

WS: These are personal matters that do not concern you…. Brother, you can believe in stones, as long as you don’t throw them at me. You are free to worship whoever you want, but other people’s beliefs are not your concern, whether they believe that the Messiah is God, son of Mary — or that Satan is God, son of Mary.

Let people have their beliefs…. The Jews have come from the tragedy [of the Holocaust] and forced the world to respect them with their knowledge, not with their terror; with their work, not their crying and yelling.

Humanity owes most of the discoveries of the 19th and 20th centuries to Jewish scientists. Fifteen million people, scattered throughout the world, united and won their rights through work and knowledge.

We have not seen a single Jew blow himself up in a German restaurant. We have not seen a single Jew destroy a church. We have not seen a single Jew protest by killing people.

The Muslims have turned three Buddha statues into rubble. We have not seen a single Buddhist burn down a mosque, kill a Muslim or burn down an embassy. Only the Muslims defend their beliefs by burning down churches, killing people and destroying embassies.

This path will not yield any results. The Muslims must ask themselves what they can do for humankind before they demand that humankind respect them.

Translation from Arabic is courtesy of MEMRI: The Middle East Media Research Institute.


Unintended Consequences

“I tell you, there was never a trip like this before. The motives are terribly sad, but we are going to have a lot of fun. This is another dimension of history.” With these words, Arnost Lustig and Jan Wiener, both Jewish survivors of the Shoah, embark on a trip to the Europe of their childhoods, documented in the film “Fighter.” Premiering at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival, “Fighter” is a unique exploration of both the Holocaust and the Communist era of Eastern Europe.

The documentary is distinctive, in part, because Wiener and Lustig choose to focus on stories that tend to get soft-pedaled in favor of episodes portraying stoicism, heroic sacrifice and fighting spirit. While “Fighter” was originally envisioned as a historical biography, the focus turns more toward the relationship between Wiener and Lustig, whose friendship deteriorates during their trip as their conflicting personalities and divergent stories of survival give rise to one confrontation after another.

Director Amir Bar-Lev’s first feature-length film, “Fighter” makes intriguing use of the two survivors’ narratives, along with war footage, Nazi and Communist propaganda, and beautiful images of the European countryside to take the viewer on a journey through history and the human mind. It’s an unorthodox treatment of the Holocaust that gives the viewer a unique perspective on the damage exacted by not only by victimization but by heroism.

“Fighter” will have its world premiere on Fri., April 14, 11 a.m., with another screening Sun., April 16, 11 a.m. at the Directors Guild of America, 7920 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. Tickets are $8.50 at the box office, over the phone at (888) ETM-TIXS or on the Internet at www.etm.com. The “Fighter” Web site is at www.fighterfilm.com.