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Reading Jewish Women's Writings

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By Esther Frank, Dept. of Jewish Studies, McGill University

The proliferation of writings by Jewish women in America, the expansion of scholarship, and the 1997 publication of Jewish Women in America An Historical Encyclopedia herald a new moment in the study of Jewish writing. When taken together, these features point to a current interest in women's writings and argue for a revitalization of Jewish concerns in America. Since the 1960s and 70s extraordinary changes in the area of literary studies has given rise to diversity in critical approaches and raised new ways of reading literary texts. In the 80s and 90s a wide range of works produced by Jewish women was brought to the foreground. Critics and scholars drew on available new approaches to read them. Although a body of criticism had been developed to read writings by American Jewish writers, until recently relatively few scholars approached any of the writings though the category of gender. Ongoing changes in varying discourses on women's writings alerted critics to distinctive aspects of women's experience, and emphasis on gender has effectively been taken up as a category of analysis. By challenging and analyzing assumptions made from the study of only one half of the population, scholars, mainly women widened the range of interpretive possibilities, and exposed some of the limiting ideas upheld in varying fields. In the area of literary studies the use of gender as an analytic category has enabled literary critics to focus on ways in which literature represents sexual difference through language, calling attention to varying socially or culturally constructed divisions between the sexes. Combined with the variety of new literary approaches emphasis on gender has broken the boundaries of conventional literary frameworks and opened the way to re-visioning how writings could be read. Changes in reading literary works has posed a dilemma for some scholars since it has, from their view, resulted in a loss of standards and led to making it difficult to distinguish fashion from worthwhile. These changes some have argued, has vexed the already vexing problem of literary evaluation. More specifically, changes in reading literary texts has re opened serious questions about whether or on what grounds, a tradition of American Jewish writing can be made.

The proliferation of critical material on Jewish women in America emerged mainly in the 80s. In some respects this is related to changes which occurred within the Jewish cultural world and in some respects it is related to events in the culture at large. From the 80s on, the successful entry of Jews into mainstream American life and within a changed socio-cultural context placed them in the position of occupying the status of white and marked them as a new elite. From this perspective Jews were seen as integrated into a dominant majority. This view was at odds with the Jewish perspective and with a Jewish desire to maintain continuity with their own tradition and their own heritage. Jewish women writers emerging from the 60s through the 80s, and desiring to maintain continuity with their own heritage, were conscious of themselves as a minority. Their effort to create a distinctive mode of writing required challenging positions which re-enforced subordination on the one hand, and on the other hand affirmed values of what was now perceived to be a new elite. Writers entering the American cultural sphere from the 70s on, turned inward personally and culturally to find solutions which could be more inclusive both of their Jewish heritage and their self understanding as women. Although fiction produced by Jewish women has appeared in America since the early decades of the century or even earlier, the impact of these writings is most noted in the criticism since the 80s when the feminist literary project was taken up by Jewish scholarship. Since feminism at large had developed many different modes of literary analysis but had by the 80s not included looking at writings by Jewish women writers, some scholars and critics felt compelled to turn to writings by Jewish women. Benefiting from the work done by their contemporaries, scholars fruitfully adapted categories of analysis to probe fictions by women held to be conscious of themselves as Jewish women writers. The most important accomplishments achieved by recent critics is the publication of anthologies of writings by Jewish women. The considerable efforts made by scholars and critics from the 80s through the 90s have effectively remedied the problem of neglect facing writings by Jewish women. The rediscovery of Jewish women writers has prompted some critics to show that women have a literature of their own. Others have attempted to construct an American Jewish Women's Literary tradition. For some scholars the re examination of literary works from the perspective of women's writing promises the revitalization of what had earlier been hailed as an American Jewish Literary tradition, a tradition which according to others was very short lived. Refining or re examining assumptions about literary development or taking note of varying hierarchies within culture and society, some recent critical writings exposed the exclusion of Jewish women from contemporary feminist writing, while others noted their neglect in accounts of a development of a modern Jewish American Literary tradition. Using varying approaches, critics of Jewish women's fiction have for example, chronicled cross-generational patterns from the early decades of the century to the present. While some critics postulate an independent female literary tradition, others include the study of women's writing in what is generally understood to represent the American Jewish canon. By drawing attention to complex ways in which Jewish women participated in and were shaped by culture and society in America these critics seek to re constitute and/or revitalize the canon. Looking at writings by women during the immigrant period, what scholars note for example, is how the first generation of women writers unlike their male counterparts had first to re invent themselves in their writings and recreate personal histories which defied tradition before they could achieve independence as women. Mary Antin some note, dramatized the struggle of the immigrant experience as transformative. For her as for Yezierska Jewish society became in some respects a counter to mainstream America. Each of these writers unlike many of their male contemporaries had to create myths of America and of American freedoms and find ways to merge with what they invented before their protagonists could assert a triumphant female autonomy. For each author, the issue as many critics note, was related more to gender than to Judaism but each work sheds new light the immigrant experience.

The 50s and 60s heralded a new position for Jewish male writers. During these years the outsider male Jew became an insider. Jewish male writers came to be seen as having merged with mainstream American writing. By contrast, Jewish women writers emerging on the scene received little critical acclaim. Paley and Ozick consciously responded in essays and interviews to ways women were treated in the fictions of Bellow Malamud and Roth. Seen from a feminist perspective, Jewish male writers are shown to have entered mainstream America in their writing by representing Jewish women as repositories of a Jewish past. By using overbearing images of women as mothers, wives, or japs, and depicting them as threatening to male protagonists male writers, feminist critics note, gender Jewishness feminine and represent it as impeding male entry into mainstream American tradition. In the 60s Paley and Ozick in very different ways countered this view. Paley laid claim to Jewishness and femaleness, joined them and made them work together to articulate a Jewish and female identity proud of the very aspects of female and Jewish life that caused anxiety among Jewish men. About Ozick more will follow later in the paper.

In the decades which followed, the socio-cultural climate in America changed. Women's writings focused on various sexual groups. Accordingly critical readings of writings by gay and lesbian writers developed categories to permit their inclusion. Varying approaches were developed to scrutinize universalizing definitions of women, of Jewishness and of writing in general. In varying spheres of thought notions of homogeneity were challenged and held to be partial or political. Using a range of methods of interpretation critical readings were widened to include popular culture and mass media. Essays on representation of women in cinema, radio, television now contribute to our understanding of the ways in which Jewish women were or are represented, constructed or circulated through these media. Documenting a conflicting and often disturbing record of representations, recent essays highlight the impressive yet often threatening aspects of women's roles throughout the 20th century. Recent critical articles focus on these representations both in popular and high fiction deliberately blurring distinctions earlier upheld.

Critics and scholars of Jewish women's writings have conducted a broad-based effort to widen an understanding of Jewish women's literature. Looking at male and female-authored texts in relation to each other critics also locate Jewish writings in English in relation to Yiddish predecessors. Some critics do so by focusing on the gendering of Yiddish. In addition to examining the ways in which the Jewish encounter with modernity involved a re-negotiation of traditional Jewish gender roles, some critics draw attention to efforts made by male writers to construct a modern Yiddish Literary tradition, by noting ways in which these efforts also intersected with the construction of Jewish masculinity as writers struggled with the feminization of Yiddish. Or others, focusing on the gendering of Yiddish and on the women's sphere in the world of Yiddish, call attention to a tradition of prayer followed by Central and East European women. In recovering this tradition efforts by these scholars work not only to help bridge the present to the past, but also enable the establishment of literary tradition for women and provide a corrective to studies of Ashkenazic Judaism. Other contributions made by scholars who turned their attention to the work of Jewish women is the recovery of a tradition of memoirs which are part and yet apart from European modes of writing. Looking at the writing by Glickel of Hamel, the memoir written by a Jewish woman in the 17th century and examining the ways she narrates the life of a German Jewish woman engaged in trade, clearly shows us among other things, how Jewish tradition sanctioned economic achievement in women. Likewise the journal of Pauline Wengeroff, most recently examined, reveals what modernity meant for a traditional woman at the turn of the century and interestingly describes how her husbands eagerness for assimilation deprives the author of her religion and her faith both of which gives her a sense of dignity as a woman as well as an active role in the community. Reading these writings from the perspective of Jewish women exposes current unreflective identifications of Judaism with repressive patriarchy. Analyzing their literary and historical developments also enables us to understand ways in which traditions come to be devalued and revalued over time as they intersect with the course of changing social, political and cultural norms.

The diversification in contemporary studies of writings by Jewish women in conjunction with the opening up of ways of thinking about what might constitute an American Jewish literary canon, has been combined in recent years with the recognition by some thinkers that categories by which we define ourselves are unstable. The debates about gender have widened to include debates about class, race, otherness, difference, and around postmodern notions of the authority of the text. These views have caused some unease in Jewish self-understanding and created concerns around value of traditions and continuity. Some scholars hold these new approaches and writings to constitute a threat to Jewish distinctiveness. Others raise questions about the impact the debates of the late 20th century have on the concerns of the orthodox. One new response to late postmodern concern is a renewed interest Jewish spirituality from a woman's point of view. This literature is characterized by drawing on diverse orthodox societies and on the range of options available to its members, specifically as drawn through the eyes of the women. Some writer, for example, portray young women struggling with the demands of youthful passion and spirituality, some reveal a fascination with hasidic learning . Significantly many of these writers write out of a richness of Jewish knowledge, and out of an awareness of Jewish literary, scriptural and Jewish theological traditions. From among the growing number of Jewish American women writers interested in Jewish spiritual, intellectual, and cultural traditions the most notable is the writer and critic Cynthia Ozick A serious and challenging writer both in her fiction and in her essays, Ozick some critics argue, has most changed our ideas of possibilities for American Jewish writing by setting a new direction for that writing herself. Her importance, aside from knowing and caring so much about Judaism is in part related to her effort to "formulate and execute a literary project that is part of a larger religious- cultural project"[1] which is meant to address and insure enduring value in American Jewish culture. In this paper I will trace some key moments in her career, briefly highlight some feature in her essays, and draw attention to some aspects of her fiction which mark her efforts to invigorate or probe aspects of identity as woman as writer and as Jew. Her writing spans the several periods and participates in and responds to the changes in the world in which she lives. Ozick in the late 80s and 90s takes up and draws different conclusions from the current debates. Subtly evolving since she first broke into print her writings offers another set of strategies and possible approaches to the dilemmas of being a woman writer who is a Jew. Although Ozick as feminist has not garnered much attention, in part because gender as an issue rarely looms as large in her writing as other issues threading through her work, her recent publication The Puttermesser Papers, which I plan to discuss, invites a recognition of femaleness as a state to be reckoned since it is foregrounded and placed in relation to her usual other themes. In this work Ozick puts the richness of Jewish tradition in relation to a version of femaleness and in tension with a preoccupation with art. She sets this up as a conflict in the main character. The story is replete with images and themes which lampoon the culture that creates and perpetuates what can be considered women's desires and experiences, and links these to her usual or earlier concerns with the Jewish struggle of authorship as idolatry.

Ozick first appeared in print in the late 60s, but began to receive recognition in the 70s when she provocatively laid out her ideas. In Notes Toward Finding The Right Question Ozick says: "The relation of Torah to women calls Torah itself into question. Where is the missing commandment that sits in judgment on the world? Torah is silent offers no principle of justice in relation to women. The Covenant is silent about women; the Covenant consorts with the world at large." In her well known essay Towards a New Yiddish first published in 1970, she clarifies her views on how to embrace Judaism and on how to establish a new literature that would be centrally Jewish. and not be debasing to men and/or women. Ozick has since her earliest debut in print, refused to label herself as a "woman writer". Nor has she considered her work to be "women's writing" Ozick's interests at the time were to create new basis for an American Jewish Literature to be written in English. She characterized her claims as a call for a liturgical literature impregnated with the values of Judaism. What would make Jewish fiction distinctive and enduring would be the incorporation of Jewish religious and historic matter. While this may have been a call for a religious consciousness, it was also a call for the universalization of Jewish writing in terms that could be regenerative and that would restore "the Jewish sense of things". The new Yiddish was not the Yiddish the poet Edelshtein mourns in her story Envy;orYidish in America, the new Yiddish Ozick sought to affirm is of a more ancient and more revered tradition- the great tradition of Hebrew. In her view, it is this tradition that could establish principles for unifying a civilization and a culture of ones own. Her emphasis on the recovery of tradition and on the requirement to assert the universality of Judaism as a world civilization is among other things, and by her own admission, an effort to restore the standards T.S.Elliot set out for the period of high modernism. Standards no longer present in America or in Jewish America in the 70s when quarrels over the literary canon began to escalate About this Ozick writes "I admit to being arrested in the Age of Eliot...the etiolation of high art seems to me a major loss, I continue to suppose that some texts are worthier than other."[2] Ozick invokes Eliots authority in support of a traditionalist position however her invocation of Jewish traditionalism unlike Eliots gives her formulations a special inflection. While it enables her to support some notions and standards of art it also, as Jewish traditionalist, allows her to decry some forms of artistic creativity as a form of idol worship. Ozick articulates her main concerns here and other essays - as a conflict between Jewish spiritual and cultural traditions and what she calls a Hellenic tradition of artistic creation. In her stories she sets out to transform the aesthetisizing longings of the artist, sharply calling into question the current self reflexive moment by showing it to be at odds with moral Jewish seriousness. Ozick's stance and her deepest concerns are related to her situation as Jew and as writer and her main focus in her writing since the 80s is her exploration of her uneasiness about the aestheticizing tendencies in her work. In Puttermesser and Xanthippe Ozick probes the conflict between the imagination as creative and destructive force in her protagonist as woman and as Jew. Here Ozick strongly neutralizes the feminist project even as she sets it up as an ideal. The center of the story is Puttermesser but the innovative feature in the story is the golem Xanthippe a non human creature made of clay fully sprung from Puttermesser's overactive imagination. Puttermesser a highly learned and unmarried lawyer lives and works in New York and at 46 is avowedly single and fervently intellectual. She prefers to read Plato in bed to making love to her married lover. When we meet her she is ground down by the bureaucracy in her office despite dedication and years of self sacrifice. Wounded Putermesser dreams up a plan to rescue the city from corruption and incompetence and the dream one day becomes fact as there appears in Putermesser's bed a child, the offspring of her imagination. Puttermesser thinks of her as Leah which in Hebrew means wild cow and underscores the conjunction of golem and idol .The golem wants to be called Xanthippe named after Socrates shrewish wife. Xanthippe is the first female golem. Ozick wittily shows us how Puttermesser drawing on norms prescribed by tradition but deviating from them turns herself into an image maker described by the Hellenic philosopher Plato. The golem is her desired child her offspring the object of her imagination. Ozick pairs Puttermesser's desire as artist with her desire as woman putting the golem to work to fulfill her ideals. Xanthippe creates an ideal city, Puttermesser becomes Mayor of NewYork and New York is on its way to becoming a recovered paradise. But the golem grows well beyond the control of her creator. Initiated into sex by Puttermesser's former lover Xanthippe becomes a sex crazy ravager of every man in sight. Xanthippes voracious sexual appetite brings down all that has been created. The perfect city begins to collapse and Puttermesser's career is crushed. Finally in cahoots with her old lover Putermeeser tricks Xanthippe and turns her back to dust. The golem's irrepressible urges like Putermesser's uncontrolled desires are contained. The unruly double is returned to earth. The golem the invention of her imagination images back to Puttermesser her own desires. She is the offspring or product of her desires and as her creation mirrors her longing for an unprecedented place in Jewish textual history. But the golem as her text is also the force of her destruction. Practicing in the tradition of the patriarchs, but along self reflexive lines leads to Puttermesser undoing. What gives Puttermesser nourishment, in the texts of her forefathers is also her undoing for it puts her in a transgressive dilemma for which the story has no resolve. In the end Putermesser comes to be aware of her limits But if this gives the tradition its value and confirms its tenets it denies to the female protagonist her woman centred artistic subjectivity. Ozick gives us an art committed to its own unmaking so what this means for her redemptive program awaits clarification.

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Endnotes:

[1] Krupnick, Mark. "Cynthia Ozick As The Jewish T.S.Eliot." Soundings 74.3-4 (Fall-Winter 1991):351-368.

[2] Ibid., p.353.

 

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