The great synthesizer, bringing together Jewish feminism, Zionism, socialism, animal rights and concern for the environment, Aviva Cantor remains best known for her work as co-founder and editor of Lilith, the independent Jewish feminist magazine, her landmark Egalitarian Hagada, and her passionately analytical and theoretical volume Jewish Women/Jewish Men: The Legacy of Patriarchy in Jewish Life. But this woman of immense enthusiasms and outrage also remains a devoted Trekkie (as in Star Trek) while continuing her earthly quest for a nurturing community of political activists.
When you hear her cry of distress, seemingly hard-wired from the shtetl, it is hard to believe that Aviva Cantor was born in the Bronx, New York, on February 12, 1940. She describes her parents as “deeply committed to the Jewish tradition but not strictly observant.” Her father, Joseph Cantor (1867–1961), owned a corner drugstore. Born in what is now Belarus, he studied at the Volozhin yeshiva, which Cantor describes as “the Harvard of the yeshiva world.” After emigrating to the United States, he graduated from the Brooklyn College of Pharmacy. Her mother, Naomi Friedman Cantor (c. 1911–1966), born in “Russian Poland,” now part of Ukraine, grew up in Toronto, Canada, then moved to New York. In Cantor’s words, her mother was an “economic energizer,” working as a beautician, sales clerk and homemaker.
An only child, Cantor attended New York’s prestigious modern-Orthodox Ramaz School on Manhattan’s exclusive Upper East Side. Coming from a “middle-middle-class” family in the East Bronx, Cantor found Ramaz “socially a nightmare,” but she was smart, loved by her teachers and class valedictorian.
Cantor’s father was a fervent Zionist who had been unable to obtain permission to emigrate from Europe to Mandate Palestine. Her own dream was to study at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She combined Barnard College with two years at Hebrew University. She graduated from Barnard in 1961 and got her M.S. from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 1963. She then worked as a reporter for the U.S. bureau of the British Jewish Chronicle. In 1966 she married Murray Zuckoff (1925–2004), a journalist and author of socialist theoretical papers who became editor of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
In the 1970s, as assistant editor of Israel Horizons, the Mapam monthly magazine, Cantor covered the initial actions of what became “the Jewish movement.” She was a founding member of the Jewish Liberation Project, a “radical Zionist organization”; editor of the Jewish Liberation Journal; and on the first steering committee of the North American Jewish Students’ Network. She remembers fondly the 1970 takeover of the offices of the Jewish Federation of New York with demands for more funding for Jewish education and for public accountability. A personal triumph was finding the Federation allocations budget, which was published in the Jewish Liberation Journal.
She was associate editor of Hadassah Magazine from 1972 to 1976, while being part of the early days of the Jewish feminist movement. She helped plan and spoke at the First National Jewish Women’s Conference in February 1973 in New York. It was there that she and others began to conceptualize a Jewish feminist magazine. The first issue of Lilith appeared in 1976 with Cantor’s groundbreaking analysis of “The Lilith Question.” She theorized that the independent, vengeful Lilith, “the only important negative female role model invented by Jews,” took shape during the Exile as a warning to Jewish women by their now landless men. She found precedents for reclaiming Lilith’s God-given equality with Adam. For the next decade, Cantor was Lilith founding co-editor.
Never one for moderation, along with her feminist work Cantor extended her involvement in the animal advocacy movement. Her pivotal article on animal rights, “The Club, the Yoke and the Leash,” appeared in Ms. magazine in 1983. She was also deeply involved with CHAI: Concern for Helping Animals in Israel, founded in 1984. At the same time, she started the Women’s Appeal for Ida Nudel, Soviet prisoner of conscience.
She was on the JTA staff from 1985 to 1986. On assignment as a freelancer for JTA in 1987, she wrote a series on Jewish communities in Argentina, Austria, Cuba, Central Europe and Kenya. From 1999 to 2001 Cantor was news writer for the English section of the Algemeiner Journal, a Yiddish-English weekly. From 1999 to 2003 she wrote a monthly column for the Jewish Voice of Greater Monmouth County (New Jersey).
Cantor’s Jewish Women/Jewish Men, published in 1995, covers 3,500 years of Jewish history, emerging with her analysis of Judaism’s unique patriarchy with its scholarly, religiously observant men supported by assertive, breadwinning women.
She continues to write and edit in her Upper West Side Manhattan apartment, itself a testament to her wide-ranging passions: stuffed animals, shelves exploding with books and cat curios, and a kitchen shade hung with decades of political action buttons. A few highlights: “Cat Lovers Against the Bomb,” “No Donation Without Representation,” “Write Women Back Into History,” and the Star Trek Vulcan Delegation button, “United Federation of Planets Delegate.” On her kitchen wall, the sentiment that drives a lifetime of agitation, the quotation from Warsaw Ghetto fighter Mordechai Anielewicz (1919–1943) that concludes: “Whatever may happen to you, remember always: Don’t adjust! Revolt against the reality!”
The Egalitarian Hagada. New York: 1991, 1992, 1996. (out of print) An alternative Passover ceremony in non-sexist English interweaving traditional readings and melodies with modern poetry and prose connecting the Exodus with today’s Jewish struggles for freedom.
The Jewish Woman 1900–1985 Bibliography. New York: 1986, 1987. More than 4,000 citations including esoteric and out-of-print treasures. The 193-page bibliography is divided into eleven sections including Women in Jewish Law, Israel, the Holocaust and Resistance, and in America and Canada.
Jewish Women/Jewish Men: The Legacy of Patriarchy in Jewish Life. New York: 1995. An original, often controversial feminist analysis of Jewish history, culture and psychology. Cantor uses feminist methodology to dissect the more than three and a half millennia history of the Jews to discover and analyze the patterns and paradoxes in Jewish private and public lives that still influence Jews.
“Animals in Jewish Law, Lore and Literature.” Jewish Catalog 3. Philadelphia: 1980; “Feminism Is Good for Women—and Men, Too.” Present Tense. (Spring): 1984; “Halcyon Days: The Sixties Movement for Jewish Regeneration.” Culturefront, (Winter): 1997; “Is Smashing the Glass Ceiling for Women Professionals in Jewish Organizations a Priority When the Walls Are Collapsing and the Foundations Sinking?” Jewish Voice of Greater Monmouth County (New Jersey). (January): 2002; “Lilith Liveth.” Ibid. (August): 1999; “Maccabees and Martyrs.” Ibid. (November): 1999; “My Children Are Disappeared—A Jewish Mother’s Struggle Against Argentine Fascists.” Lilith 15 (Summer): 1986; “My Son, the Suicide Bomber.” Jewish Voice of Greater Monmouth County (New Jersey). (October): 2001; “The Club, the Yoke and the Leash: What We Can Learn From Patriarchy’s Treatment of Animals.” Ms. (August): 1983; “The Lilith Question.” Reprint of the author’s first analyis of the Lilith mythology in Lilith magazine’s premiere issue, Fall 1976, later expanded in Jewish Women/Jewish Men; “The Role Model Retrieval Project.” Jewish Voice of Greater Monmouth County (New Jersey). (March): 2002; “Therapy and Jewish Women.” Na’amat Woman. (January–February): 1993; “TV’s ‘Holocaust’: The Selling of Assimilation.” Lilith, Vol. 5, 1978.
“The Phantom Child.” In The Woman Who Lost Her Names, edited by Julia Wolf Mazow. New York: 1980. Account of the painful decision by a Jewish woman to have an abortion.
Tamar’s Cat: A Story of the Exodus. Manuscript awarded first prize in the 1991 Sydney Taylor Competition of the Association of Jewish Libraries. The story of the Exodus told from the point of view of an enslaved pre-teen Jewish girl whose mother was one of the midwives who defied the Pharaoh and invented mazzah and whose father was Nahshon, according to the midrash the first man to follow Moses into the Red Sea. The plot revolves around Tamar’s schemes to take her cat with her when the Jews leave Egypt.
Goodbye, Longfellow Avenue. A memoir organized around the evolution of Cantor’s thoughts on love, the women’s movement, the animal/human bond and more. Excerpt appeared in the Algemeiner Journal.