The Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women

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Kim Chernin

May 7, 1940–December 17, 2020

by Karen E. Waldron
Last updated June 23, 2021

Kim Chernin.

In Brief

Writer Kim Chernin moved to Los Angeles with her family at age five after her older sister died. Marked by loss and leftist politics, she went to Moscow after high school but, disillusioned with communism, entered the University of California at Berkeley. While there, she married David Netboy, traveling with him to England and Ireland and studying at Oxford and Trinity College. Returning to California, Chernin received her B.A. with honors. Her marriage ended in divorce, as did a second marriage. In 1971, she spent nine months on an Israeli kibbutz, then began a lifelong writing and consulting practice in California. Chernin met her partner and co-author Renate Stendahl in 1982. Chernin’s multi-faceted writings expanded the potential, power, and stylistic range of American prose while recording one Jewish American woman’s lifework in “the politics of the small.”

From poetry to the probing of women’s eating disorders, from autobiography to the story of a voice, from commentary on sexual identity to Israel and Palestine, Kim Chernin’s writing, “writing consultation,” and pastoral counseling practices all arose from the “spiritual politics” and deep examination of self and society that she considered the essence of her Jewishness.

Family and Education

Born May 7, 1940, in the Bronx to Paul Kusnitz, an engineer, and Rose Chernin, a radical organizer, Chernin was profoundly influenced by her parents’ experience as Russian-Jewish immigrants and their commitment to Marxist principles. Another profound influence was the loss of her older sister to cancer when Chernin was only four, after which the family moved to Los Angeles.

At the age of eighteen, while studying at the University of California/Berkeley, Chernin met and married David Netboy and traveled with him to Europe, where she gave birth to her daughter Larissa. After the marriage to Netboy ended, she changed her last name to Chernin in honor of her mother and her shtetl grandmother Perle. She kept the name Chernin during her six-year marriage to David Cantor, then lived four years with Susan Griffen. During her travels, she met Renate Stendahl in Paris. Eventually Chernin returned to Paris and re-engaged with Renate Stendahl, who became her life partner and frequent co-author. Chernin and Stendahl lived in Berkeley and then Point Reyes, California, until Chernin died from Covid-19 on December 17, 2020.

Multi-faceted Writing

Kim Chernin was a writer of and about the spirit, the body, religion, psychology, and gender. She led a rich, often radical, and deeply rewarding life, traveling widely, publishing eighteen books ranging from poetry, essays, fiction, and fictionalized autobiography to deep psychological probings of the ways body and spirit join. She also left multiple manuscripts in her archive at the Schlesinger Library at the Harvard Radcliffe Institute, noting on her website that she was not yet ready to publish them but ensuring that they would be available. During her life, she was featured on multiple television talk shows (Good Morning America, The Today Show, Phil Donahue, and others) and on talk radio ranging from NPR to Larry King Radio. She was published in The New York Times Magazine, Tikkun, and other journals. Many of her books won awards and she had roles in the documentaries If Women Ruled the World: A Washington Dinner Party and Remembering the Goddess. In 1983, in The New York Times, Alice Walker chose In My Mother’s House as her favorite book of the year.

Voicing the Self, Voicing for an Era

Chernin’s literary innovations and courageous self-exploration, blended with a poetic and political focus on women’s psychology and spirituality, helped open up, diversify, and radicalize American women’s culture — especially the culture of the middle class. In My Mother’s House, perhaps her most famous book, weaves a narrative of multiple voices to produce both a tale of contemporary mother-daughter encounters and a family history that traces back through several generations of Eastern European Jewish women to the Russian (Yiddish) Small-town Jewish community in Eastern Europe.shtetl. Growing up as politically active, with an avowed communist for a mother, led Chernin to deep engagement with questions of adult womanhood at the same moment such questions were emerging on a national scale. Chernin’s experience as the child of leftist Jewish immigrants added a unique and important voice to the conversation. She later returned to the mother-daughter theme in The Woman Who Gave Birth to her Mother, a collection of stories that delineates this complex relationship (1999). However, Chernin also wrote poetry, novels, and an autobiographically framed series focusing on women’s search for spirituality through food, psychotherapy, and the body. She innovated continuously in a lifelong attempt to carve out new spaces for self-expression and identity, often serving as a leading voice for others. For example, Sex and Other Sacred Games (1989), written with Stendhal, uses two narrating voices plus letters and journals to create a stunningly intellectual and uniquely prescient female story of a friendship that eventually became spiritual, erotic, and sustaining.

The Oeuvre and its Development

Chernin’s first book, The Obsession: Reflections on the Tyranny of Slenderness, was published in 1981 and catapulted her into the mainstream conversation about American women’s lives. The Hunger Song (Poems) came out in 1982. During the 1980s, she was immensely productive, following The Obsession with In My Mother’s House: A Daughter’s Story (1983) and The Hungry Self: Women, Eating, and Identity (1985). Chernin also published The Flame Bearers: A Novel in 1986, continuing to experiment with literary form, depending on the story or tension she was exploring. Reinventing Eve: Modern Woman in Search of Herself (1987), like In My Mother’s House, marked her narrative ability and intent to merge the personal and the political at a time when such issues were dominating American women’s lives in newly urgent ways.

Chernin’s later writings expanded on this prolific period and its expression of individual and cultural and subcultural themes. From the 1990s forward she expanded and continued to develop her interests in gender, spiritual politics, and literary form. The novel Crossing the Border: An Erotic Journey (1994), dealt with Jewish-Arab conflict through sexual relationships. A Different Kind of Listening: My Psychoanalysis and Its Shadow (1995) traced Chernin’s psychoanalysis. Both completely subvert traditional modes of storytelling. Not only did they blend fiction and autobiography, they also challenged conventional notions surrounding sexuality and women’s psychology. Other 1990s publications, such as My Life as a Boy: A Woman’s Story (1997), In My Father’s Garden (1996), and Cecilia Bartoli: The Passion of Song (with Renate Stendahl, 1997) synthesize the psychological, ethnic, spiritual, and literary sophistication of her work. Everything that she wrote documents the passionate struggles of a woman in the process of transformation and growth. My Life as a Boy, written when her daughter had left for college, her marriage was uncertain, and her explorations of love and sexual passion were deepening ever further, expresses the honesty and depth of Chernin’s writing in its title: she is both a woman and a boy. As the San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle wrote, "Chernin writes with the grace of a poet and the insight of a psychotherapist, bringing the shape-shifting nature of intimate relationship alive.” The comment is apt; Chernin did train as a psychologist and had experienced years of psychological analysis. Her courage with self-exploration, especially through writing, led her to unflinching commentary on the nature of the self in relation as well, which became the focus for her later work.

Jewish Identity

The combination of poetic and fictional sensibilities in narrative with psychological courage marks Chernin’s oeuvre. But so does her identity as an American Jewish woman. Probing her relationship to womanhood and to Jewishness simultaneously led to Chernin’s spiritual politics in practice, especially in the realm of intimate relationships. Such relationships were not simply with lovers but also with those she counseled. Her pilgrimages ranged from her time in Moscow to her 1971 stay in an Israeli A voluntary collective community, mainly agricultural, in which there is no private wealth and which is responsible for all the needs of its members and their families.kibbutz. Chernin simultaneously embraced and wrestled with her Jewishness, and her family’s Jewishness, throughout her life. She published in Tikkun, the American/Israeli publication and organization that describes itself as “The Prophetic Jewish, Interfaith, & Secular Voice to Heal and Transform the World.”

Chernin inherited not only her parents’ radicalism but also her mother’s complex relation to Judaism—along with a vivid sense of her family’s roots in the shtetl and a fierce if complex relation to the politics of the Middle East. At a 1987 talk for the Women’s Studies/Jewish Studies Conference at Stanford University, she expressed pride and pleasure in being recognized as a Jewish writer. Later works included three books with clear Jewish themes: the novel The Girl Who Went and Saw and Came Back (2002), The Seven Pillars of Jewish Denial: Essays (2004), and Everywhere a Guest, Nowhere at Home: A New Vision of Israel and Palestine (2009). Regardless of form, each of these works dramatically illustrates the interwoven realities of the personal and the political, human striving and human failings. In Everywhere a Guest, Nowhere at Home, Chernin’s essays apply the trope of the diaspora to the Palestinians, confronting her own and others’ perhaps uncritical support and need for a Jewish homeland with the equally pressing need to hear the voices of the Palestinian diaspora. Chernin did not presume to have the answers, but in embracing the questions, her works move readers toward both their own questions and answers in a continuing quest to “heal and transform” self and world. 

In fact, Chernin’s courageous use of the self—body, mind, and spirit—as living laboratory for engaging multiple questions of identity became a form of pastoral work not just for readers but for fellow writers and self-seekers. The two practices reinforced each other. The body of her work, her generosity, and her willingness to challenge borders and boundaries radically expanded the potential, power, and stylistic range of American prose while simultaneously recording one Jewish American woman’s lifework in “the politics of the small.”

Selected Works by Kim Chernin

Lesbian Marriage: A Love and Sex Forever Kit, with Renate Stendhal.  www.lesbiansexsurvival.com, 2014.

My First Year in the Country. Shebooks, 2014.

Everywhere a Guest, Nowhere at Home: A New Vision of Israel and Palestine. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2009.

The Seven Pillars of Jewish Denial: Essays. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2004.

The Woman Who Gave Birth to her Mother. New York: Penguin, 1999.

Cecilia Bartoli: The Passion of Song, with Renate Stendhal. London: The Women’s Press, 1997.

My Life as a Boy. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 1997.

In My Father’s Garden: A Daughter’s Spiritual Journey. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 1996.

A Different Kind of Listening: My Psychoanalysis and Its Shadow. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.

Crossing the Border: An Erotic Journey. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1994.

“A Matter of Attitude.” In The Erotic Edge: Erotica for Couples, edited by Lonnie Garfield Barbach. New York: Plume, 1994.

“The Politics of the Small.” Tikkun Vol. 8, No. 5 (September/October 1993).

“Current Trends in Psychoanalysis: Social Constructivism,” with Michael J. Bader. Tikkun (1993).

Sex and Other Sacred Games: Love, Desire, Power and Possession, with Renate Stendhal. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1989.

Reinventing Eve: Modern Woman in Search of Herself. New York: Times Books, 1987.

The Flame-Bearers: A Novel. New York: Perennial Library, 1986.

The Hungry Self: Women, Eating and Identity. New York: Times Books, 1985.

In My Mother’s House: A Daughter’s Story. Boston: Ticknor & Fields, 1983.

The Hunger Song (poems). London: Menard, 1982.

The Obsession: Reflections on the Tyranny of Slenderness. New York: Harper & Row, 1981.

Bibliography

Barker-Nunn, Jeanne. “Telling the Mother’s Story: History and Connection in the Autobiographies of Maxine Hong Kingston and Kim Chernin.” Women’s Studies 14, no. 1 (1987): 55–63.

Cartwright, Braden. “Kim Chernin, Who Lived to Write, Dies at 80.” Point Reyes Light, January 13, 2021 (https://www.ptreyeslight.com/article/kim-chernin-who-lived-write-dies-80).

Chernin, Kim. Telephone interviews with author (May 18, 1992; May 1, 1996).

Chernin, Kim. Website (https://kimchernin.com, bio Jerliyn Fisher).

Contemporary Authors. Vol 10. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Research Inc., 1983.

Dias, Karen. “Review of Kim Chernin, The Girl Who Went and Saw and Came Back.”, thirdTspace: A Journal of Feminist Theory and Culture, 2:2 (March 2003).

Faderman, Lillian. “Clouded Hindsight.” Los Angeles Times, February 27, 1994, 10.

Gagnier, Regenia. “Feminist Autobiography in the 80’s.” Feminist Studies 17 (Spring 1991): 135–148.

Green, Penelope. “Kim Chernin, Who Wrote About Women, Weight, and Identity, Dies at 80.” New York Times, January 5, 2021.

“Jamison, Kay Redfield. “Physician, Know Thyself.” Washington Post, March 19, 1995, 5.

Mantell, Suzanne. “PW Interviews Kim Chernin.” Publishers Weekly 228, no. 1 (July 5, 1985): 72–73.

Penn, Shana. “Review of Sex and Other Sacred Games”. Women’s Review of Books 7, no. 6 (March 1990): 28.

Waldron, Karen. “Kim Chernin.” American Women Writers: Supplement. Edited by Carol Hurd Green and Mary G. Mason. St. James, MO: Saint James Press, 1994).

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How to cite this page

Waldron, Karen E.. "Kim Chernin." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 23 June 2021. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on July 31, 2021) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/chernin-kim>.