“Jewish Radical Feminism: Voices from the Women’s Liberation Movement” by Joyce Antler— Influencing Each Other

Antler, Joyce. “Jewish Radical Feminism: Voices from the Women’s Liberation Movement”, NYU Press, 2018.

Influencing Each Other

Amos Lassen

We are all aware of the influence of the women’s movement on the way we live and now we learn of the influence on how we believe. It has been some fifty years since the beginning of the women’s liberation movement and we can now finally read how the women’s movement and Judaism have influenced and impacted each other. We certainly can see that Jewish women were undeniably instrumental in shaping the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. What makes this interesting is that their contributions have been overlooked The natural reaction is to ask “why?”. Joyce Antler wrote this book to answer just that question. She has done amazing research and conducted many interviews with the pioneers of the movement to bring Jewish and feminist together, openly and proudly. She brings us biographical narratives that show both the struggles and achievements of Jewish radical feminists in Chicago, New York and Boston, as well as those who participated in the later— “the self-consciously identified Jewish feminist movement that fought gender inequities in Jewish religious and secular life.” Jewish women’s liberationists helped to provide theories and models for radical action that were used throughout the United States and abroad yet we may hear of the work but not of the women. Their articles and books became classics of the movement and brought about new initiatives in academia, politics, and grassroots organizing. There were also other Jewish-identified feminists who were able to bring the women’s movement to the Jewish mainstream and Jewish feminism to the Left. Antler tells us, and this is important, that for many of these women, feminism in fact served as a “portal” into Judaism.

It comes as no surprise that the role of women was regarded as a deeply hidden history since traditionally this has been the place of women (except in the more liberal congregations). Having grown up in an Orthodox congregation myself, women were severely separated from men during prayer and for many that remains true today. Antler reminds us that Jewish women’s activism at the center of feminist and Jewish narratives. She shares the stories of over forty women’s liberationists and identified Jewish feminists–from Shulamith Firestone and Susan Brownmiller to Rabbis Laura Geller and Rebecca Alpert and these show us how women’s liberation and Jewish feminism came together over the course of the lives of extraordinary women who had profound influence on the social, political, and religious revolutions of our era.

Now Second Wave Feminism is certainly one of the most important social movement of the last century and when we look at the stat of Judaism in the world today, we certainly see that this is true. Antler brings us revisionist history in which she measures how over-represented Jewish feminists were exactly and she groups together theologians, lesbians, secular liberals, Communists, and others, defining “radical” broadly. If these groups had not struggled, there would be no Second Wave.

Antler looks specifically at two groups: the mostly secular Jewish radical feminists of the late 1960s who did not share or speak about their Jewish pasts and those Jewish radical feminists in the 1970s and 1980s for whom “feminism enabled” their Jewish identity. These woman wanted to reshape their Jewish identities through feminism.

What I really found in this book is that Antler puts many current disputes about gender and Jewish identity into perspective. Looking back at the 1960s, many Jewish leftist founders redefined themselves as Jewish universalist feminists who were dedicated to getting rid of racism and anti-Semitism. In the 1970s, Jewish feminists looked to either update Judaism or their private lives.

Antler states that to become a Jewish feminist cost—there would be opposition from the Jewish establishment who would think that this would bring about the destruction of the family and many of the men of the left refused to support these women who were tried to change Jewish ritual, change the family and challenge stereotypes. It is never easy to be radical.

Antler looks at Orthodox women like Blu Greenberg, the founder of Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, who challenged the patriarchy while still preserving some tradition and Arlene Agus, who was responsible a number of reforms to Judaism including some that helped women trapped by Orthodox divorce. Antler also examines Rabbi Laura Geller, the third reform female rabbi ordained, and the theologian Judith Plaskow. These are indeed JEWISH feminists as are others and we see that the unifying factor is “the struggle against anti-Semitism, the trauma of the Holocaust, and the feeling that no matter what Betty Friedan had written about housewives in 1963, it didn’t speak to their generation.” So these women founded their own organizations.

This is a provocative exploration of being Jewish and Feminist in the 1960s and 70s.  We read personal stories of leading activists and see how intertwined identities produced powerful political consequences.  This is a critical volume for feminist Jews to be able to understand the past as well as an excellent primary source for historians of feminism and Judaism. It is quite academic but with a little effort everyone can read and understand what Joyce Antler has to say.

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