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Jewesses with Attitude

A shuk of stories

Today is the 60th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel, and I'd like to mark it not (only) by eating falafel but with something less tangible but ultimately more nourishing: considering stories. Sixty years is only half way to 120 - the mythical age Jews wish upon one another - but this "half life" contains within it so many dreams and visions, loves and losses, hopes and fears, connections and fractures, struggles that remain unresolved. So many stories - I picture them jostling for space in our communal narratives, elbowing each other like shoppers in a crowded shuk, each trying to push its way to the front, shouting over one another in an attempt to be heard. Some are louder, more insistent, more entitled, more likely to leave with the freshest, unbruised fruit, while others cannot be heard above the din, can't push their way to the front of the stalls, and may leave empty-handed.

Even if I populate this shuk with American Jewish women only, it's no less crowded or cacophonous. American Jewish women have played numerous and diverse roles in imagining and reimagining Israel, building it and challenging it.

Their stories are both familiar and new, I suspect. Take Henrietta Szold. The founder of Hadassah, she is arguably the most influential American Zionist in history - having created the largest Zionist organization in America, developed the infrastructure for medical and social services in Israel, and administered the mass immigration of children from Nazi Europe to Israel. But how many people know that Henrietta Szold supported the creation of a bi-national (Jewish and Arab) state? This significant and radical aspect of her Zionist vision is relayed too quietly, if at all.

Or Zipporah Porath, whose letters from Jerusalem in 1947-48 form the basis of the most recent edition of our educational resource, Go & Learn. A young American studying abroad in Jerusalem, she captures in a November 30, 1947 letter home a familiar account of celebrations in the street at the news that the United Nations approved the Partition Plan, thus creating a Jewish State. Her own life story - of abandoning her studies to join the underground Haganah - is perhaps more unexpected.

I think, too, of the feminists who have challenged Israeli society to strive towards its egalitarian ideals and have shaped its politics and social life. An early pioneer, Rosa Welt-Strauss, had been an active suffragist in the US before moving to Palestine in 1919. She quickly discovered that while women had been promised the vote in Palestine, this policy had not yet been implemented and faced major opposition from the ultra-Orthodox and Mizrahi parties. As the head of the Union of Hebrew Women for Equal Rights in Eretz Israel, she organized in Palestine and internationally for equal rights for women (officially won in the Jewish settlement in Palestine in 1926) until her death in 1938.

Another American woman - Marcia Freedman - was also a powerful voice of feminist challenge to Israeli society, helping to found the modern women's movement in Israel. As both a grassroots activist and a member of Knesset (from 1973-77), she raised awareness about issues including domestic violence, breast cancer, sexual abuse, and prostitution, and helped create institutions and legislation to address these social problems. She was also a leader in the Israeli peace movement - a commitment she more recently expressed as the founding president of Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, an organization mobilizing Americans to work for a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Sometimes sharing stories cracks open our image of the world and allows a different vision to emerge. Gila Svirsky is a feminist peace activist in Jerusalem, and a co-founder of the Coalition of Women for Peace. But when she made aliyah in 1966, she was a religious, relatively right-wing Zionist. Over the years, influenced by political events and friends, she had drifted leftward, but meeting Palestinians and hearing their stories radically transformed her perspective. She has devoted the past 20 years to peace and human rights activism.

Sharing stories as a force for peace is the mission of Just Vision, an organization that works to publicize the stories of Israeli and Palestinian civilian peacemakers. Through a powerful documentary film (Encounter Point), the Online Network for Peace, and curricular materials, Just Vision strives to "create connection, understanding, empathy and hope - critical elements to the long-term implementation of or adherence to any diplomatic process."

Interestingly, Just Vision was founded by an American woman - Ronit Avni - and is run by an all-female staff. (So is Encounter, another non-profit devoted to the power of stories and personal relationships between Jews and Palestinians, founded by Rabbis Melissa Weintraub and Miriam Margles.) As I've blogged about before, women have played and continue to play a leading role in the peace movement.

So many stories. I bring this particular few today with a wish for the healing that sharing stories can bring. And I ask of you: what stories about Israel have influenced your perspective? Which voices in the metaphorical shuk capture your ear? What accounts would you like to include in our communal narratives?

How to cite this page

Rosenbaum, Judith. "A shuk of stories." 8 May 2008. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on October 21, 2014) <http://jwa.org/blog/shukstories>.

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