Jewish women, or women who happen to be Jewish?

Thirteen years ago today, the newly appointed Secretary of State Madeline Albright went public with the discovery of her Jewish roots. This event brings up an interesting issue, one that we at the Jewish Women's Archive wrestle with daily. Is Madeline Albright a Jewish woman, or a woman who happens to be Jewish?  Is there a distinction between the two?  Should there be?

In a previous post, Renee Ghert-Zand made this distinction when she wrote: "Musicians like Chana Rothman, Naomi Less and Sarah Aroeste aren’t merely rockers who are Jewish. They’re Jewish rockers." To her, a "Jewish rocker" is one who incorporates Jewish themes into their music, rather than just a musician who happens to be Jewish. This seems to be a legitimate distinction that recognizes the infusion of Jewish identity into one's work. But what of the flip side?

Everytime a famous person dies, I count the hours until the Jewish community finds a way to claim him or her (see: Brittany Murphy). Only today I saw at least four articles on Jewish blogs and newsfeeds wondering if we could claim J.D. Salinger as a Jewish writer since his father was Jewish, but not his mother. Does it make a difference if he is known as a great Jewish author, rather than simply a great author? What does the Jewish community stand to gain from claiming him as one of our own? And if he hasn't incorporated Jewishness into his work, is it really appropriate to call him a Jewish writer? Or is he merely a writer who happens to (maybe) be Jewish?

A great many of the women recognized by JWA in Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia, as well as This Week in History and We Remember are women whose Jewish identity played a large role in shaping their values, work, and accomplishments.  At the same time, many of the women recognized do not have strong connections to their Jewish identity and are included because of their Jewish background. (Or are all Jews inherently influenced by their Jewish roots even if they don't identify as Jewish?)

This distinction goes right to the heart of the mission and purpose of the Jewish Women's Archive. At JWA we're in the business of celebrating Jewish women.  Since one of our organizational values is inclusivity, we embrace a broad understanding of what it means to be a Jewish woman. Still, we discuss and debate this issue and we do not always reach consensus.

I'm curious to know how you feel about the issue. Should there be a distinction between Jewish women and women who happen to be Jewish? Is there anything to gain from making that distinction?

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How to cite this page

Berkenwald, Leah. "Jewish women, or women who happen to be Jewish?." 3 February 2010. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on May 25, 2019) <>.

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