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.
While attending a Jewish Funder’s Network conference 15 years ago, I received a monograph on Jewish social justice. The powerful essay, written by Leonard Fein, lifelong champion of many social justice issues, had a major flaw. It did not refer to a single woman activist.
When I challenged Fein on this, he responded with a question: “Where would I go to find out about such women?” I knew at that moment that I needed to create the Jewish Women’s Archive to make certain that in the future no one could ask that question or use it as an excuse. Everyone would know where to go to find out about Jewish women, past and present. Since 1996, they have been going to JWA.
Yet once again, it seems Fein did not know where to go. I recently received an email announcing a new JCC lecture series titled “Hot Buttons, Cool Conversations” at Boston’s Leventhal Sidman JCC. Initially the description that appeared on my screen drew my interest:
discuss hot issues, ask questions, and add to the conversation with notable experts in their fields as we tackle politics, faith, economics, Israel, and culture through a Jewish lens.
But as I scrolled down I felt an increasing sense of discomfort with what I was reading. The discomfort quickly turned to disbelief and profound disappointment. All nine speakers in this series conceived by Leonard Fein are male.
As it does every year, The Forward recently published its Forward 50 — and just like every year, the list is short on women. Forward editor Jane Eisner notes the lack of female names on the list, saying “it also could be because we weren’t looking in the right places” for women worthy of inclusion on the list. I’ve got a few names in mind:
Idit Klein (Executive Director, Keshet) Boston-based Keshet is a national grassroots organization that works for the full inclusion of LGBT Jews in Jewish life. Last summer, with a grant from the Schusterman Foundation, Keshet merged with Jewish Mosaic, another Jewish LGBT organization, to strengthen its overall reach. They’ve since launched Do Not Stand Idly By: A Jewish Community Pledge to Save Lives, a Jewish response to the bullying of homosexual youth.
Kat Dennings (Actress, “2 Broke Girls”) Forget Natalie Portman; she’s been around forever. It’s fresh, new faces like Kat Dennings that are making a mark on current culture. The 25-year-old Dennings, who once told the Jewish Journal that she is “a billion percent Jewish,” has starred in films like “40-year-Old Virgin” and “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.” This season, she’s making waves as Max, a tough, Brooklyn waitress on CBS’s new hit comedy “2 Broke Girls.” She recently told Rolling Stone, “I want to bring the sitcom back.”
The current theme here at the Sisterhood is about women being seen and heard. I like that! Renee Ghert-Zand wrote about a really important initiative to encourage women to get their strong voices out there by writing more op-ed articles. Debra Nussbaum Cohen and Devra Ferst reminded women to speak up unapologetically. And I, myself, have been writing, perhaps a bit obsessively, about female representation (or lack there-of) in print, in professional life and in leadership. It’s all about women having a presence, and being properly acknowledged and respected for what they say and do.
Elsewhere on the blogosphere, other Jewish women have apparently been thinking the same thing. Over at Jewish Women’s Archive, which cross-posts regularly with The Sisterhood, there is a new initiative to help achieve the goal of seeing and acknowledging women’s work. The project, which the Forward wrote about here, is called “On the Map”. It’s a graphic interactive, user-generated database of Jewish women’s history and achievements.
A space dedicated to visually representing Jewish women’s work is quite a welcome creation.