In this paper I would like to explore how the Jewish tradition is represented in modern Jewish American feminist women’s fiction. I chose as examples Marge Piercy’s novel “He, She and It” and Cynthia Ozick’s story “ Putermesser and Xanthippe” from “The Putermesser Papers”.
The attitude towards Judaism has changed significantly since the beginning of immigrant women’s writing at the threshold of the 20th century when writers like Anzia Yezierska or Mary Antin began new lives in the New World. In order to enter the American society and become successful they seemed to have no choice but to completely shed their Jewish roots, get rid of their Yiddish accent (at least in writing) and also part with the Jewish way of thinking. Especially as women, they received unheard-of opportunities in the New World; they wanted to become American as quickly as possible and the new identity required getting rid of the old.
Judaism was out of fashion not only in literature but in general – according to Hasja Diner, in the late 1920’s, 80 percent of young Jews living in New York had no knowledge of Hebrew letters and no religious training. (344).
Beginning with the second half of the 20th century till today the development seems to go in the direction of embracing one’s heritage.
The attitude towards the “old country” became completely different. In order to be a “genuine” American it is not necessary anymore to get rid of the “old” identity completely. The whole notion of being an American has changed. According to Louis Harap: ”One of the changes in postwar American literature has been the turn to religion of one sort or other by some Jewish writers”. (353)
In modern literature, multicultural and ethnic writing are en vogue. The authors of early immigrant novels like Abraham Cahan or Mary Antin addressed themselves to the mainstream audiences and tried not to use foreign words or explained them in a glossary. In contemporary ethnic or immigrant novels foreign words are used without
explanation, in cursive at best.
Within Jewish culture, in which the biggest treasure was learning and spiritual knowledge, women’s access to sacred texts was very limited.
Women were not encouraged to read, study or write. „Men’s centrality offset by women’s peripheral status defined Jewish experience in the old world and the new“ (Rose Kamel, 2- 4)
Rachel Adler states in her essay “The Jew who wasn’t there” that women have the same legal status as children and slaves thus being unable to bear witness in a Jewish court. “Teaching, the fundamental method of the Jewish people for transmitting religious insights, was closed to women...Woman’s meager mitzvot are...connected to some physical goal or object.” The prayers for women were written in Yiddish because they were unable to understand Hebrew liturgy. The female mind was viewed as frivolous, all women as potential adulteresses. Adler calls Jewish women “a golem who did her master’s will.” (16-17)
According to Claire Satloff, “...the Jewish man has had far more power to control his world than has the Jewish woman.” The key to this ritual and historical power is linguistic and literary, since men alone controlled biblical and liturgical texts.
Allegra Goodman writes in her essay “Writing Jewish Fiction In and Out of the Multicultural Context” that the Jewish American writers of her generation inherited two traditions of Jewish fiction. One is the tradition of writers like I.B. Singer, who wrote in Yiddish and had to overcome the barrier of translation, recording the lost culture and language. The other tradition comes from writers like Roth and Bellow, who develop their ambivalence and guilt about the Jewish tradition into mainstream American fiction. (Goodman, 271.)
But how does one write within a heritage that traditionally disempowers women?
Is it possible to be a Jew and a feminist at the same time?
Piercy and Ozick come from different backgrounds but it seems in their work both of them combine feminist views with deep knowledge of the tradition.
According to the page of New York State Writers Institute, http://www.albany.edu/writers-inst/piercy_marge.html , Marge Piercy is one of America's leading feminist literary figures who creates novels and poetry with a political mission. A number are rooted in Jewish ritual and lore, and grow out of Piercy's central role in Jewish Renewal, a movement that brings new creative approaches to Jewish spirituality. She also was spokesperson for the Feminist Movement.
Cynthia Ozick is described in Susanne Klingenstein’s essay as a writer who “has successfully combined being a writer and a Jew. Her fiction... is inescapably shaped by the structure of Jewish thought, which evolved from the intellectual axioms of Torah and Talmud.” (p. 50)
Neither of them calls herself “a Jewish writer” but their work is permeated with Jewish way of thinking, references to Jewish religion and language.
Ozick’s character in “Putermesser and Xanthippe” is an unmarried lawyer Ruth Putermesser. Her profession and status show that she not only shares but lives the feminist views. Ozick is somewhat ironic about her political correctness. “...as a feminist, she was careful never to speak of “man’s” nature. She always said “humankind” instead of “mankind”. She always wrote “he or she” instead of just “he”. (p. 24)
- Quote paper
- Alina Polyak (Author), 2006, Blending future and past -Jewish tradition and feminism in contemporary American-Jewish women’s writing, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/75402