Jewish Women, Jewish Men: The Legacy of Patriarchy in Jewish Life was published by Harper San Francisco in 1995 – 25 years after an epiphany had jolted me into feminism.
I was at that time active in the Jewish (student) movement, which aimed to transform American Jewry into a democratic, pluralistic, and authentically Jewish community. The feminists in the Jewish movement began to see Jewish life through feminist eyes and to insist on equality in communal organizations, especially in the religious sphere; to learn classical texts; to research history; and to create liturgy. To keep up with these projects and retrieve our history and culture, I originated Lilith magazine and was co-founding editor in its first decade.
While we in the Jewish movement were deeply involved in a serious analysis of the Jewish condition, I found Jewish feminists’ lack of interest in serious analysis puzzling, risky, and unacceptable. Analysis is the prerequisite for developing an appropriate program of action and strategies to implement it. Imposing general feminist theory on Jewish life did not explain how and why Jews’ gender roles were different from those of “classic patriarchy.”
When my friend Doris B. Gold – the founding head of BiblioPress – got Harper interested in a work of Jewish feminism, I envisioned the book as more than an analysis of the condition of the Jewish woman, past and present. What captivated me was developing what amounted to a “unified field theory” by applying feminist methodology to explain all of Jewish history, culture, and psychology.
I became especially enthusiastic when grappling with patterns of behavior that seem on the surface either to need no complicated explanation or to be irremediably puzzling. For example, what was the real reason for the mikveh (ritual bath)? What was the psychological motivation for envisioning God as a rescuing male? Why did Israelis revert to old patriarchal roles after the establishment of the State? Why, until fairly recently, was studying women’s specific experiences during the Holocaust considered a sacrilege? What was the fear that triggered matriphobic “jokes”? And, ultimately: does the Jewish experience prove that nurture overrides nature?
Writing and editing the book took close to six years. I kept notebooks on the night table and in my purse to collect the insights that poured out in torrents once I had established the central premise. I drew on college notebooks, my notes from all the Jewish events I had covered as a reporter, oral histories. And when I opened the box with the first copies, I couldn’t believe this was not a dream. I have great naches (joy) from knowing that in many different places, people are carrying around dog-eared, well-underlined copies of my book close to their hearts.
An advocate of feminism and egalitarianism in Judaism, author Aviva Cantor has promoted Jewish activism for over 30 years. She was a co-founder of the Jewish Liberation Project in New York and an editor of its Jewish Liberation Journal. In 1976, she co-founded Lilith, an “Independent, Jewish & Frankly Feminist” magazine. She regularly wrote for Lilith and Ms., and created Lilith’s anti-sexist, gender-inclusive Haggadah. In addition, Cantor has published The Jewish Woman.1900-1985: A Bibliography and Jewish Women/Jewish Men: the Legacy of Patriarchy in Jewish Life in 1995. Cantor’s work analyzes the double marginalization of being a Jew and a woman in a patriarchal society and advances a feminist agenda for improvement.
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