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Evelyn Torton Beck

b. 1933

by Liora Moriel

Evelyn Torton Beck is Professor Emerita of women’s studies as well as an affiliate faculty member in the Jewish studies and comparative literature programs at the University of Maryland, College Park (UMCP).

She is a scholar, a teacher, a feminist, and an outspoken Jew and lesbian on campus. With her energy and drive, the state flagship campus has become a more welcome place for Jewish, female, and homosexual students, faculty, and staff.

Evelyn Torton Beck was born in Vienna, Austria, on January 18, 1933, to Max and Irma (Lichtmann) Torton. Max Torton was born in Buzacz, Poland; Irma Torton was born in Vienna. The family, which includes Beck’s younger brother, Edgar, survived the Holocaust and immigrated to the United States after the war, settling in Brooklyn, New York.

Evelyn and Anatole Beck married in 1954. Before divorcing in 1974, they had two children: Nina Rachel (b. 1955) and Micah Daniel (b. 1958). Nina, also a lesbian, has one child. Micah has one child, age eight. Beck has been married for many years to her partner, L. Lee Knefelkamp, a nationally known developmental psychologist and scholar of higher education.

Beck received her B.A. from Brooklyn College in 1954 and, a year later, her M.A. from Yale. In 1969, she completed her Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. The material gathered for an intended book, Wounds of Gender: Frida Kahlo and Franz Kafka became the basis for a second Ph.D., in clinical psychology, obtained from the Fielding Graduate Institute in 2004. Entitled “Physical Illness, Psychological Woundedness and the Healing Power of Art in the Life and Work of Franz Kafka and Frida Kahlo,” the thesis focuses on the Jewish dimension of their work and its impact on their split sense of self. She has also written an article for Feminist Studies, entitled “Kahlo’s World Split Open” (2006). Another current book project, a collection of her essays and speeches, entitled, From “Kike” to “J.A.P.”: Jewish Women and Anti-Semitism, also combines her interest in Judaism, women’s epistemology, and psychoanalysis.

Such eclectic interdisciplinary connections are the hallmark of Beck’s scholarship, which has produced two major but very different contributions to Jewish scholarship: Franz Kafka and the Yiddish Theater: Its Impact on His Work and Nice Jewish Girls: A Lesbian Anthology. The latter was the first anthology of its kind, collecting poetry, essays, reminiscences, and short stories from a wide variety of women from the United States and abroad who are Jewish and lesbian. Beck is known as the “grandmother” of Yiddish at the Modern Language Assocation, where she started the Yiddish section in 1972, years before the current Yiddish revival. For many years, she was an active member of B’not Esh [Daughters of Fire], a Jewish feminist think tank composed of rabbis, therapists, theologians, social workers, and scholars who, collectively, formulate theory and create new, woman-affirming ceremonies.

Since the 1970s, Beck has published countless articles and delivered many conference papers and keynote speeches around the world. She has always been a proud and assertive Jewish activist. She was instrumental in transforming UMCP into a Jewish-sensitive campus and introducing many Jewish-content courses into the curriculum. Moreover, she was one of the first to recognize the need for lesbian inclusion in Jewish circles and for Jewish inclusion in feminist circles.

After graduating from the University of Wisconsin, Beck taught there for a dozen years. In 1984, she was recruited by UMCP to further develop their Women’s Studies Program. When she stepped down as director in 1993, the program had become one of the most respected women’s studies departments in the country, offering an undergraduate degree and a graduate certificate in women’s studies.

In 1994, Evelyn Torton Beck received the university’s Outstanding Woman of the Year Award, and received the Distinguished Scholar/Teacher Award the following year. She is on the advisory editorial board of Bridges: A Journal For Jewish Feminists And Our Friends. In May 2002 she retired from the Women’s Studies department of the University of Maryland.

SELECTED WORKS BY EVELYN TORTON BECK

Interpretive Synthesis: The Task of Literary Scholarship, with Jost Hermand (1975); Kafka and the Yiddish Theater (1971); Nice Jewish Girls: A Lesbian Anthology (1982); The Prism of Sex: Essays in the Sociology of Knowledge, edited with Julia A. Sherman (1979).

How to cite this page

Moriel, Liora. "Evelyn Torton Beck." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 21, 2014) <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/beck-evelyn-torton>.

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