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Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 23.1 (2002) 96-125

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"O, My Shehena, who shall live in your tent?"
Gender, Diaspora, and the Ambivalence of Return in E. M. Broner's A Weave of Women

Ranen Omer

A woman, a Jew, I was created as a feminist at the balcony in my grandfather's shul (although I did not know the word then), sent into exile. Convicted for violating an ancient Law I had not known, even as I mutely acknowledged the sentence, I began to resist the word. The boundaries set out for me simply by virtue of my gender seemed to invite and even demand multiple acts of transgression.

Eileen T. Bender, "Lifting the Mehitza: Confessions of a Jewish Feminist" 1

A woman at the Wall is like a pig at the Wall.

Rabbi Yehuda Getz, Chief Rabbi of the Western Wall 2

Jewish American Feminism and Textuality in the 1970s

I open the following analysis of Jewish feminism and literary diasporism with these quotations because they suggest a discursive, cultural, and ideological field within which can be situated the emergence of Jewish feminism and its articulation in E. M. Broner's 1978 novel, A Weave of Woman. 3 Specifically, both the novel and the movement are ultimately skeptical of homecomings. 4 Prior to Philip Roth, American Jewish writers had little to say about the subject of Zionism and the Jewish State. Besides the early- to mid-twentieth century contributions of novelists and polemicists such as Maurice Samuel and Ludwig Lewisohn, the reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty left a surprising sense of indifference in its wake. But for Broner, writing in the 1970s, the reality of Israel reinforced her sense that, whereas the Jewish woman had been subject to the same dislocations and exiles that have afflicted the Jewish people as a whole, she had also been subject to a ruptured identity that is all her own. For Broner, the challenge was to imagine a bold vision of a woman's spiritual, political, and cultural relation to the reconstructed homeland in ways that would shake up the status quo and complacent forms of Jewish identity. In a larger [End Page 96] sense, Weave reflects a crucial shift that took place in the lives of many Jewish American women during the 1970s, the time period during which it was written. Jewish women had been reading classic texts of the feminist movement such as Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, Shulamith Firestone's The Dialectic of Sex, and Robin Morgan's Sisterhood is Powerful, all available and widely read by 1970. 5 Although Firestone, Morgan, and Friedan were all Jews who identified the "socially constructed differences between the sexes as a mode of social control," 6 none reflected on the significance of what they learned for Judaism or the Jewish community. However, by the early 1970s other feminists had begun to take the argument into the Jewish arena. By 1974 articles analyzing the ostensibly patriarchal nature of Judaism began to appear. A group called Ezrat Nashim issued a call to the Conservative Movement to count women in the minyan (the quarum of ten Jews required for worship) and to ordain women as rabbis. The Jewish Feminist Organization held two successful conferences in New York City. 7 Weave is a novel that warrants our attention not only because it captures this exciting ferment unlike any other Jewish American novel or because its reflection of a nascent feminism may offer nostalgic pleasures, but because of its unique expression of dwelling-in- displacement. I will argue that the true achievement of Broner's richly ironic novel is its imagined Zion, understood as an elusive landscape shaped by impossibly conflicting traditions, texts, and desires that fail to satiate the dreams of its internal exiles.

Looking back on the Jewish American novels of the last few decades of the twentieth century, it is difficult to detect cultural traces of the enduring tension between Zionism and diasporism...


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