Author of more than a dozen books and countless articles in national publications, and a regular columnist in two Jewish publications, Francine Klagsbrun is a writer of protean interests. She has succeeded in making an impact on both American and American Jewish culture.
She was born Francine Lifton in 1931, the daughter of Anna and Benjamin Lifton. From an early age, she displayed an uncanny ability to take the best from each situation in which she found herself. Her elementary education in the all-girls Orthodox Shulamith School of Borough Park, Brooklyn, gave her a sense of what women can accomplish and a wealth of female role models. She also developed there a love of both classical Jewish texts and language, particularly Hebrew. Her love of learning was supported by her parents, who nurtured in her an expectation of excellence. Her mother was responsible for her enrollment at Shulamith and her father, himself quite learned in Jewish texts, would often help her with her studies. She attended public [high?] school and then the Jewish Theological Seminary. Many of her professors there, including Abraham Halkin, Judah Goldin, and Gerson D. Cohen, were important influences.
Throughout her education, Klagsbrun maintained her interest in both secular and Jewish subjects. She earned a B.A. degree, magna cum laude, from Brooklyn College, where she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, a B.H.L. (Bachelor of Hebrew Literature) from the Jewish Theological Seminary, and an M.A. in art history from the Institute of Fine Arts.
Klagsbrun’s work has been notable for the careful research that undergirds it and the clarity and elegance of her prose. Although her academic training was in art history, her professional career turned early toward publishing, including executive editorships at both Encyclopedia Americana and World Book Encyclopedia. Her earliest books were written for children, on topics as diverse as psychiatry, Moses, and spices. Her more recent publications have reflected her interest in feminism and Judaism.
Klagsbrun’s early involvement in the current feminist movement is reflected in her writing for Ms. and her editorship of both The First Ms. Reader (1973) and Free to Be ... You and Me (1974). Her interest in personal and interpersonal issues came to the fore in books like Too Young to Die—Youth and Suicide (1976), Married People: Staying Together in the Age of Divorce (1985), and Mixed Feelings: Love, Hate, Rivalry and Reconciliation Among Brothers and Sisters (1992). Her deep commitment to Judaism and Jewish scholarship is most evident in Voices of Wisdom—Jewish Ideals and Ethics for Everyday Living (1980); Jewish Days: A Book of Jewish Life and Culture Around the Year (1996) and The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day (2002). She currently writes a popular monthly column for the Jewish Week entitled “Thinking Aloud” and is working on a biography of Golda Meir. Ultimately, a remarkable aspect of Francine Klagsbrun’s work is that each of her interests informs the others, allowing her to intertwine the various strands of her scholarship.
Klagsbrun’s commitments to feminism and Judaism extend to her communal activities. In 1978 she was appointed to serve on the Commission for the Study of Women in the Rabbinate of the Jewish Theological Seminary, a multi-disciplinary group that deliberated the question of ordaining women as rabbis in the Conservative movement and in 1979 recommended ordination. The struggle to have women ordained continued until 1983, when the Seminary faculty voted to admit women into the rabbinical school. During those years, Klagsbrun became known as a passionate advocate for women in the rabbinate, writing and lecturing extensively on the subject. She remains a leader in causes concerning women in Jewish religious life.
She was also involved in the founding of Women of the Wall (WOW). In 1988, at the First International Jewish Feminist Conference in Jerusalem, an inter-denominational group of women organized a prayer service at the Kotel, and chose Klagsbrun to carry the Torah at the head of the group, the first woman to carry a Torah to the Western Wall. A year later, she helped dedicate a Torah to the Women of the Wall group of Israeli women that formed from that first encounter, and continues to support their struggle.
Klagsbrun has also served as chairwoman of the Board of Overseers of the Jewish Theological Seminary Library, secretary of the board of trustees of the Jewish Museum and cochair of its exhibitions committee. She has been a member of the Publication Committee of the Jewish Publication Society of America,the Professional Advisory Board of the Petschek National Jewish Family Center of the American Jewish Committee and the Artistic Advisory Committee of the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, and remains a member of the Commission on Equality for Women of the American Jewish Congress, the Women’s Dialogue group of the American Jewish Committee, and the Board of Directors of the National Jewish Book Council. She is also on the Board of Directors of Lilith and on the Editorial Board of Hadassah magazine.
Francine Klagsbrun and her husband, Dr. Samuel Klagsbrun, are among the founders of Or Zarua, a Conservative congregation in New York. The couple has one daughter, Dr. Sarah Devora Klagsbrun.