Jewish Identity: From Whitefish Bay to Rivington Street

MARCH 6, 1983


After Rivington Street was published, a high school friend who now worked for the Jewish Family and Children's Service invited me back to Milwaukee to make the keynote speech at a women's conference at the JCC. I said what I really thought, which people don't do all that much where I come from. Discussion was heated.


            My thoughts about Jewish identiy come from my biography: I grew up in Wisconsin, first in a small town, then in Milwaukee, then in the suburb of Whitefish Bay. I went to Brandeis, then London. I became a leftist and a feminist.
            To be a Jew in the heart of the Midwest is to be part of an obvious and conscious minority, the object of curiosity or attack. My mother's extended family were the only Jews in the small town she grew up in; the boys married out, but the girls remained single or had to import boyfriends from Milwaukee. Even in my high school in Whitefish Bay, exogamy was out of the question; you dated Jewish boys or you didn't date. The Gentiles were unpredictable; they acted nice but could turn nasty at any time We whispered about the history teacher who told us, "Say what you want about Hitler, he built good roads." When I went to the main library on Wisconsin Avenue, I would pass "war souvenir stores" that specialized in Nazi regalia. In the Bavarian Inn, a suburban retreat where I attended Sweet Sixteen parties, a sign hung until after World War II: "No dogs or Jews allowed.”
            I wanted to get out of the Midwest. The Jews there seemed to be mainly copies of the Gentiles and I didn't feel comfortable with either. The bonds were mainly social, not religious; and though I went though an adolescent religious period, the reform Judaism available didn't satisfy me intellectually or emotionally. I responded by losing interest in religion. I went to Brandeis was not to explore my Jewishness but to free myself from having it hanging around my neck all the time; was it possible that if Jews were in the majority I would be seen not as Jew but as a person?
            As it turned out, I was seen mainly as a girl. And smart girls, though thick upon the ground, were only slightly more welcome in the world of Brandeis than in my high school. I never had a woman teacher, except in gym. It was a commonly-held idea that education for women should be regarded as a prelude to marriage. A palpable gloom settled over the smart girls of the senior class, who were going to have to kill the years waiting for Mr. Right either by continuing in school or becoming a secretary for some guy very like their male classmates.
            All this is background to my ideas about Jewish identity, some of which follow.
            1) You don't get to choose whether or not to be Jewish, and you can't be Jewish alone; to be Jewish is to be part of a community. When I was a child in rebellion against my family, I used to say haughtily, “You can pick your friends but you don’t get to pick your relatives; we are not the same kind of people at all, merely connected by an accident of birth."
            In fact, that's true of Jews but it's not a small thing. Learning how to live with our amazing families, with their histories of war and betrayal, pain and cover-ups; with their tragic and fundamental differences of ideas, incomes, destinies; and even granted the impossibility of reaching agreement on anything important or behaving civilly to each other for more than an hour or two—living with this is part of being Jewish. Seeing our families as different from us and interwoven with our most private yet historically-constituted selves, is part of being Jewish.
            2) A Jewish community that is homogenized and without internal struggle, that suppresses dissent and devotes itself to formalized religious observance and public charity, will lose its children. That was the kind of community I grew up in; kids like me left. In the last few years a lot of people have begun to challenge the necessity of Jewish homogeniety. To me, our tradition is one of struggle; at every period of lively Jewish ferment, there were huge battles between frum and athiests, socialists and Zionists, communists and anarchists, women and men, parents and children, and it was all extremely healthy. An organism where nothing is moving is dead.
            Part of being Jewish is letting it all hang out; leaders who tell us our disputes will provoke anti-Semitism or be a shandeh to the goyim are bad leaders. Argument is fundamental to Jewish tradition.  The Commentary pods and their loathesome politics are Jewish and so am I; I have a responsibility to out-argue them if only because in the eyes of the world we are related.
            3) Jews are people to whom questions are posed by God and history, who ask questions and try to answer them. Even our characteristic cadence is a question. Some of the questions are: What does it mean to be the chosen people? What does the Holocaust mean? What does it mean that women are unequal to men in Jewish tradition? I can only say what my answers are.
            To me, what it means to be chosen is to be emblematic of humanity. All the contradictions within humanity, of class, race, gender, and belief, are contained within the Jewish people. The fact that we somehow became history's scapegoat of choice has meant we scattered all over the world and became part of everything else while still being separate. If we can live together, if we can tolerate each other and see our common Jewishness and common humanity, so can the others. If we can see that women and men are equally people, so can the others. If we can stop being racist, so can the others. We have been chosen the way an illustration is chosen, not the way a king is chosen.
            What the Holocaust means is the same thing. What is means is that it happened. German and Eastern European Jews were nearly annihilated, against the most fundamental moral principles of humanity, by people who deliberately and openly set out to exterminate them. Nobody did a hell of a lot to stop it, including us. That it happened means it could happen; that it happened means it can happen again, that humanity is capable of it, that we can as a species totally destroy ourselves with the inhuman perfection of a death machine, and without a hell of a lot of opposition. In other words, it is a warning.
            What does it mean that women are unequal in Jewish tradition--all that tiresome list of ways we are impure and things we are not eligible to do that everyone must know by now? It's another instance of what it means to be chosen; it shows the general state of things. Maybe it means that Jewish women are chosen to fight it. Or to leave it—for I know a lot more feminists who are Jewish than I know Jewish feminists. A lot of us have cut out, to the degree possible.
            The alternative is to develop a tradition that will not only see both sexes as important but will be based on a genderless idea of "human." For the "separate sphere" we've heard so much about, where the precious mothering qualities of Jewish women have held sway, symbolized by the mikvah, is a joke in terms of power. Take war, for instance: the division of labor on most occasions has been that men decided how to fight and women took care of the orphans. A nuclear war won't have orphans; a new job description is needed.
            There are times when it may be to the advantage of women to have a separate sphere. Women should be the ones who define those moments. They won't be the shulor the Knesset or the disbursement office of the Federation. If we can clean up the differences in power in those places, and some women still want to go to the mikvah, I wouldn't stand in their way. That's why I'm not interested in defining myself as a "secular Jew," or as a "religious Jew." I think there are more meaningful differences within Judaism, and I am most profoundly interested in differences in power.