As a young Jewish woman privileged to have grown up in the new multi-racial South Africa, I like most of my fellow citizens, mourn Nelson Mandela’s passing like that of a family member. Mandela brought out the best in those around him. Women and children always held a special place in our beloved Madiba’s heart, and few leaders around the globe have done more to ensure the respect, freedom and equality of women.
South African women played a crucial role in the fight against apartheid. In 1956, women of all races marched against the discriminatory laws of apartheid with the rallying cry of “Wathinta umfazi, wathinta imbokotho.” (“You strike a woman, you strike a rock.”) In a speech commemorating this event on Women’s Day in 1996, Mandela stated that, “As long as women are bound by poverty and as long as they are looked down upon, human rights will lack substance. As long as outmoded ways of thinking prevent women from making a meaningful contribution to society, progress will be slow. As long as the nation refuses to acknowledge the equal role of more than half of itself, it is doomed to failure.”
Like all large groups of people, American Jews are complex and irreducible despite some aspects of shared culture. Recently, the Jewish Women’s Archive made an interesting choice to focus a new curriculum on Jewish involvement in the labor and civil rights movements — without cheerleading or focusing solely on women’s involvement — thereby shining a probing light on that very complexity.
Called “Living the Legacy,” the curriculum uses primary sources to paint a multifaceted portrait of Jewish activism from the roots to the height of the labor and civil rights movements, right up through today.
In other curricula on social justice, “there was little engagement with the history of American Jewish involvement in social justice movements, except to celebrate it in a fairly superficial way — ‘Jews were at the forefront of all social justice movements in American history — Yay, Jews!,’” JWA’s Director of Public History Dr. Judith Rosenbaum told me in an email exchange. “We felt that this loses much of what’s complex and interesting about Jews and social justice.”
Rosenbaum highlights accounts that complicate the oft-told tale of Jewish activism: Southern Jews who resisted civil rights because it “threatened their own precarious acceptance,” as well as those Jews who got involved in organizing not because of Jewish values but rather in opposition to their own Jewish communities which they perceived as conformist or materialist.
I first read the Joyce Antler’s book “The Journey Home: How Jewish Women Shaped Modern America” as an undergraduate, deep in the thrall of Jewish feminist academia. It was an enormously important part of my uncovering and understanding what Antler calls “the cultural chain” of my identity as a Jewish woman activist.
Joyce Antler is the Samuel Lane Professor of American Jewish History and Culture at Brandeis University, where she teaches in the American Studies Department and Women’s and Gender Studies Program. She authored or edited 10 books, including “You Never Call! You Never Write! A History of the Jewish Mother.” She is the co-author (with Elinor Fuchs) of the prize-winning documentary drama “Year One of the Empire: A Play of American Politics, War and Protest,” which was performed off-Broadway in 2008.
Beginning today and running through tomorrow, Antler is convening a conference called “Women’s Liberation and Jewish Identity: Uncovering a Legacy of Innovation, Activism and Social Change,” sponsored by NYU’s Goldstein-Goren Center for American Jewish History, the Jewish Women’s Archive, the Spencer Foundation’s Special Initiative on Civic Learning and Civic Action and Brandeis University. The conference will bring together 40 Jewish women who participated in the women’s liberation and Jewish feminist movements beginning in the late 1960s; the participants include Susannah Heschel, Evelyn Torton Beck, Gloria Feldt, Jaclyn Friedman, Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz and Susan Weidman Schneider. I spoke recently with Antler about her hopes, intentions and motivations behind this unique conference.
Chanel Dubofsky: What was your inspiration for convening this conference?