Following the Lead of My Radical Foremothers

by Dina Ripsman Eylon (Thornhill, Ontario, Canada)

The idea to start an academic journal on Jewish women came to me while researching the lives of Rachel Yanait Ben Zvi, Mania Shochat and Netiva Ben Yehuda for an article on women in the military in pre-state Israel. I realized that despite the fact that these women were instrumental in military organizations prior to the establishment of the Jewish state, nothing about them was mentioned in history textbooks of the period. Growing up in Israel during the 1960s and 1970s, I was not aware of the contribution of any of these women, except for Rachel Yanait Ben Zvi, (the wife of the second president of Israel) even though during this time in North America, the Second Wave of the feminist movement flourished.

Confounded by personal reflections and undefined theories forming slowly in my mind, I devoured books in the fields of women’s history and feminism. I wanted to know more about complex issues like Jewish marriage and divorce, and the role women were expected to play in the family. I wanted to understand political and social structures that propagated discrimination and inequality.

Through this personal quest for enlightenment, I was introduced to the works and philosophy of the renowned novelist and author Virginia Woolf. In the late 1920s she explored the subjects of women’s history and writing. Woolf delivered two lectures on the topic of women and fiction at the Cambridge women’s colleges of Girton and Newnham. She examined women’s writing from all possible angles and famously concluded that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,” and inevitably, if she is to write anything at all, or be written about. In A Room of One’s Own, her subsequent work, she articulated women’s inopportune historical exploits and boldly stated: “For most of history, Anonymous was a woman.”

In Israel, the question “what does it mean to be Jewish?” does not surface except for the need to affiliate oneself with either the secular majority or the observant minority. When I arrived in Canada in 1980 to pursue my graduate studies, I learned that being a Jewish woman was not limited to being merely secular or religious. Jewish identity was not inherent but actually a product of one’s self-search or desire to belong socially. Assuming a Jewish identity was a choice that many women wanted to make.

As the eminent Jewish feminist Susan Weidman Schneider wrote in her seminal work Jewish and Female, “the tension for Jewish women today comes from the struggle to stay within the tradition yet not compromise one’s identity and integrity as a woman.” Weidman Schneider described a variety of ways in which these identities are sought: changing and feminizing known rituals, “rediscovering” new aspects of Judaism that may relate to women, studying sources and texts to discern women’s input, and moreover, “transforming traditional Judaism and Jewish institutions so that they include women…”

Schneider’s book was another milestone in shaping a more defined view on the life of Jewish women in North America and helped to crystallize my feminist ideology. It was an ideology based on a determination to empower women by the only weapon I had – education.

As the founder and editor-in-chief of Women in Judaism in 1997, I wanted to help create ‘a paradigm shift’ within the field of Jewish Studies and build a new one reintroducing the findings to what is considered now the ‘mainstream’ or “malestream” study of Judaism. Since its inception, the journal has gained international readership and is listed in dozens of directories and indexes. In addition to publishing prominent scholars, the journal promotes young and emerging scholars and makes it a priority to give a voice to materials that most likely would have never been published by “malestream” Jewish periodicals. The journal welcomes a diversity of points of view, conflicting or harmonizing, in order to develop a genuine dialogue.

Our primary goal is to give Jewish women an uninterrupted voice, a place where all voices are heard and listened to, devoid of any patriarchal sponsorship or censorship.

Author and publisher, Dina Ripsman Eylon has a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto. She has been teaching various undergraduate courses at Carleton University and at the University of Toronto. For the past twelve years, she has served as the publisher and editor-in-chief of Women in Judaism: A Multidisciplinary Journal (http://www.utoronto.ca/wjudaism/journal/journal_index1.html), a gender-related publication, which has engaged and promoted new feminist scholarship in Jewish Studies. Her book, Reincarnation in Jewish Mysticism and Gnosticism, was published by Edwin Mellen Press (2003). Eylon founded the Vaughan Poets’ Circle and serves as the Thornhill branch manager of the Ontario Poetry Society.

This piece is based on Dina Ripsman Eylon’s “No More Anonymity,” which appears in Living Legacies: A Collection of Inspirational Contemporary Canadian Jewish Women (edited by Liz Pearl). It’s reprinted here with permission of the author.

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1 Comment

Filed under Jewish writing, Judaism

One response to “Following the Lead of My Radical Foremothers

  1. Nice Posting…
    Thank You

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