VCU Menorah Review
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VCU Menorah Review Summer/Fall 2007
Number 67
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

From the Feminist’s Corner

Taking Root: Narratives of Jewish Women in Latin America edited by Marjorie Agosin. Ohio University Press, Ohio University: Research in International Studies, Latin America Series No. 38, 2002.
by Sarah Barbara Watstein

The immense diversity of Latin American Jewish experience is captured in stories and essays, visions and narratives from Jewish women from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Columbia, Cuba, El Salvador, Mexico, Peru and other countries. Themes of exile, loss, death, and travel crisscross through the various stories and essays. Emigration and immigration are front and center, and throughout there is a profusion of cultures, languages and colors. Agosin has brought together a line-up of distinguished and multitalented contributors; their “meditations” form a rich tapestry. In her Introduction, Agosin writes - - “I believed that each of these women had an important story to tell, ancient and new wisdoms that would shed light on a diasporic existence that is not exclusive to Jewish experience.” Readers who seek to explore the many faces and facets of Jewish women and immigration, those who are drawn to probe the connection between the Jewish people’s emigration and the topic of the diasporic condition, as well as those who seek to better understand Latin American history and culture, will not be disappointed by this collection. In fact, I suspect these readers will eagerly recommend purchase to their friends.

Inge: A Girl’s Journey through Nazi Europe by Inge Joseph Bleier and David E. Gumpert. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

In early 1939, after Kristallnacht, young Inge Joseph’s family in Germany is broken apart, and her desperate mother sends her alone to Brussels to live with wealthy relatives. She soon finds herself one of a hundred Jewish children fleeing for their lives following Hitler’s invasions of Belgium and France. This is a dramatic story of Christian rescue of Jewish children during the Holocaust. It is also a totally frank account of the life and feelings of a teenage girl struggling to survive through her life and on into the lives of her descendents. Many readers may be familiar with the Kindertransport - - the 10,000 Jewish children who were sent to England to live with foster families. However, readers may be less familiar with the several hundred Jewish children from Germany and Austria who were sent to Belgium and other continental European countries instead of to England. These children did not have foster families, because they had to flee for their lives when Hitler invaded their countries. Inge was among a group of 100 such children who escaped from Belgium to southern France, where they lived in a goat barn, then a beautiful chateau. Eventually they were arrested and sent to a French concentration camp, at which point Inge embarked on a series of escapes that would haunt her for the rest of her life. Entering Inge’s world is painful - - there is no easy way out. And yet, here is a reaffirmation in the strength of the human spirit under the most trying conditions. Gumpert, a nephew of Inge, deserves high praise for telling and preserving his aunt’s story. We are all the richer for the telling.

The Committed Marriage: A Guide to Finding a Soulmate and Building a Relationship Through Timeless Biblical Wisdom by Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis. San Francisco: HarperCollins

Jungreis shows how relationships can be built and sustained on a foundation of faith. With a solutions focus, she examines common marital problems, and offers practical, optimistic advice on a variety of topics - - becoming a desirable mate, how to find a mate, grow together and grow apart, communicate without hurting, grow old together in dignity. Torah study has penetrated Jungreis’ mind and heart, and it is to Torah that she returns, time and again, in this work. She believes that Torah wisdom can protect those who are married from failure in marriage, and that it can inspire individuals to relate with chesed, compassion and sensitivity to their mates. And, “most significant, Torah study teaches you how your marriage can become the most awesome experience through which you can realize your potential as a man or woman and impart a legacy to future generations.” For readers who share these views, or those who are curious about them - - and open to her convictions and values, The Committed Marriage will prove to be a worthwhile “read.” While I share Jungreis’ belief that marriage is an opportunity to grow in kindness, wisdom and love, I found this guide to be intrinsically frustrating - - all Jungreis’ stories convey success, which is hardly representative in contemporary America. Positive outcomes are not always possible for each and every marital problem. Additionally, Jungreis’ focus is on the heterosexual lifestyle. Her way of thinking is inherently heterosexual. I suggest that this lifestyle is less homogenous than she would suggest, and, moreover, that the life-transforming experience that is Torah study has much to say, also, to gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender Jews who may also be looking to find a soul mate and build a relationship. The Committed Life would have been stronger if Jungreis had challenged herself to venture beyond the traditional, to explore the diversity that increasingly characterizes our culture.

Jewish Girls Coming of Age in America, 1860-1920 by Melissa R. Klapper. New York University Press

Klapper skillfully recreates the American Jewish lives many girls led during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The analysis of previously untapped archival material makes the book notable. Popular periodicals, personal papers - - published and unpublished autobiographies and memoirs, and diaries, allow for a detailed collective portrait of adolescent Jewish girls in America between 1860 and 1920. Klapper focuses on Jewish girls and the problem of education in turn-of-the-century America. She turns her attention also to the religious education of Jewish girls, and to adolescent Jewish girls and American youth culture. Throughout, modernization and tradition continuously encounter one another. For readers interested in the encounter between Jewishness and Americanness, this is rich reading. Klapper’s bibliography is testament to the quality of her scholarship, and serves as a jumping off point for readers seeking to pursue published primary or secondary sources which influenced the author. For this reader, Klapper’s treatment of the phenomenon of acculturation was particularly fascinating. What does it mean to be both Jewish and American - - then, as well as now? What social prejudices, cultural influences, and economic opportunities impacted these dual identities? Klapper is clearly drawn to these questions.

Storm of Terror: A Hebron Mother’s Diary by June Leavitt. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee

The 1993 Arab-Israeli conflict is at the heart of this personal narrative which is dedicated in memory of all the victims of terrorism and their families. Often in life, we are unaware of the deep forces, within and without, that would soon change the surface of all things. Leavitt, an ex-American, raising five children in Hebron, miles from the West Bank of Israel, explores these forces and what it is like to live side-by-side with terrorism. This is at once a book about life in the home, and also about faults and calamities, about trying to make a living, to raise a family, while under enemy fire. It is a book about the search for meaning and form in chaos. It is also a book about healing, about doing the spiritual work of transformation which cannot be done under prolonged stress. Reading this book, I was inspired. Israel and Jerusalem are indeed burrowed into my consciousness, and it is possible to revive our connection to earth. Leavitt shows us that while Israel is indeed a difficult country to live in, there are lulls in the terror - - there is calm, energy and love do make all things possible in this world, and our journeys do ultimately have

Peace in the House: Tales from a Yiddish Kitchen by Faye Moskowitz. Boston: Godine

Thirteen delightful tales make up this slight collection, which is anything but slight. This series of stories of Moskowitz’ parents, their extended families, their neighbors and landsleit, and finally of her own coming of age in America, is a “keeper.” Sit back and listen - - absorb what it means to grow up female, Jewish and smart in America. Taking place in 1940s all the way through the 1990s, each of these stories is pitch perfect. Take this slim volume in hand and rediscover the beauty of writing, the beauty of storytelling. This is pleasurable writing, and memorable writing, at its best.

A Letter to Harvey Milk by Leslea Newman. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press

Between these covers are nine stories about what it means to be a Jew in the twentieth century. A Jewish lesbian, Newman is a gifted writer who is not afraid to confront both Jewish and lesbian concerns. Nor is she afraid to confront both timely and eternal issues. Indulge yourself with a mug of coffee or tea, settle in to your favorite armchair, and ease into these stories.  You’ll soon understand why the University of Wisconsin Press decided to reprint this collection. The new Preface provides insight into our times, and nicely frames the collection. The time you spend with these stories will pass quickly, and leave you wanting more.

Going South: Jewish Women in the Civil Rights Movement by Debra  Schultz. New York University Press

This book is an oral history, reflecting on the experiences of fifteen Jewish women who went south for civil rights, working primarily with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a southern civil rights group led by young Black organizers. Who are these women? What do they have in common? What does it mean to be a boundary-crossing, northern Jewish woman in the 1960s? To be a boundary-crossing northern Jewish woman with the opportunity, means and will to put their bodies on the line to challenge the entrenched system of southern racism in the 1960s? Schultz succeeds in getting a sense of these women in their movement context. The grandchild of Russian Jewish immigrants who fled persecution and found security in American, she succeeds in contributing to ongoing efforts of memory and action by making visible an antiracist Jewish women’s tradition. Much has been written about Blacks and Jews in the Civil Rights movement, less so about Jewish women in the movement. What about the interweaving of religion, gender and politics? Religion, gender, sexual politics and reactionary populism? What about it indeed! Oral and public history has rarely been better.

Princess or Prisoner: Jewish Women in Jerusalem, 1840 – 1914 by Margalit Shilo. Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press

Shilo’s research focuses on the lives of women in the Jewish community of Jerusalem, and specifically on the female experience of immigration; marriage as a female experience; women at home; women in the public sphere; scholarship, illiteracy and educational revolution; and finally on poverty, widowhood, husband desertion, prostitution, and missionary efforts.  Exposed here is the world of women in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community of Jerusalem toward the end of Ottoman rule in the Holy Land. How does society impose gender roles? How does a traditional culture contend with modernization? How do women serve as both catalyst and barometer of social, cultural and economic change? These are fascinating questions, and Shilo does them justice in this comprehensive work. Nearly 100 pages of notes and references complete this text; here is historical writing at its best. Bravo.  

Sarah Barbara Watstein is Associate University Librarian for Research and Instrumental Services at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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