JWA Writer Leah Berkenwald Wins Blogging Award
As the Online Communications Specialist for the Jewish Women’s Archive, Leah Berkenwald always harbored a fascination for the Harry Potter books. She relished the intricacies of J.K. Rowling’s imaginary world, its spells and characters, and the fullness of the created alternative universe it presented. On the occasion of the premiere of the final Harry Potter movie, Berkenwald melded her work and private life into a post for JWA’s blog Jewesses With Attitude, “Harry Potter: Four Progressive Lessons for the Jewish Community.”
This post won the 2011 Simon Rockower Award for Excellence in Jewish Journalism, winning first place in Division A (readership of 15,000 or more) for Excellence in Single Commentary. The Annual American Jewish Press Association Conference was held June 11-14 in Philadelphia at the National Museum of American Jewish Heritage. The adjudicators stated that Leah effectively made “connections between the themes of freedom and equality in the most widely read story of her generation to the movement for equal rights for women and resistance to bigotry in a clear, energetic and youthful voice.” Berkenwald credited “jwa.org as my teacher and road map.”
Berkenwald’s post celebrated the Potter series’ gender equity, citing Hermione Granger as “undoubtedly, one of the best feminist role models out there (especially compared to the sad range of alternatives like the Disney princesses or Twilight’s Bella Swan).” She noted the books’ condemnation of hierarchies based on blood status, noting their relation to racism and the Holocaust. “J.K. Rowling’s world doesn’t really have religion, per se, but discrimination against Muggles (non-magic people) and ‘Muggle-born’ wizards (wizards born to non-magic parents) by ‘pure-blooded’ wizards is very real.”
Berkenwald notes that the Harry Potter books decry discrimination based on practice. “For plenty of non-practicing Jews, their Jewish identity is central to their understanding of self. Harry Potter teaches us that everyone, practicing or not, is a deserving member of our community with an equal claim to their Jewish heritage.” And she noted the complexity of working for social justice when Hermione forms the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare:
Our short-term aims … are to secure house-elves fair wages and working conditions. Our long-term aims include changing the law about non-wand use, and trying to get an elf into the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures, because they’re shockingly underrepresented.
Berkenwald observes, “Hermione doesn’t fully understand the creatures she’s trying to help; since house-elves consider their servitude a noble duty, they are insulted when Hermione tries to free them. Her experience deftly demonstrates how we must be culturally sensitive and avoid the paternalist ‘I know what’s best for you’ approach to activism.”
By writing that “Harry Potter helps us see our individual struggles as connected,” Berkenwald concludes that alliances and community building across and between groups are part of a valiant and worthy cause, even in a world without magic.
Source: “Our own Jewess With Attitude wins prestigious journalism award,” Jewesses With Attitude, June 18, 2012.
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Jewish Women's Archive. "JWA Writer Leah Berkenwald Wins Blogging Award." (Viewed on June 22, 2021) <https://jwa.org/thisweek/jun/11/2012/jwa-writer-leah-berkenwald-wins-blogging-award>.