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  • Am I My Sister's Keeper?
  • Yolanda Shoshana (bio)

Thinking about Jewish feminists, I pondered what question might be food for the thoughts I wish to stir. The Torah called out to me to use words of wisdom from the source of the Jewish people, and there it was words said by a man that stirred my soul. Cain asked a question that has become famous in all religions: "Am I my brother's keeper?" Taking that question and making it feminine stirred many emotions and questions for me. I have always been an African-American feminist, but I have only been an African-American Jewish feminist for something over three years. I am not African American before I am Jewish or Jewish before I am African American. I am both of those identities twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. When I say "sister," that is inclusive of women from all Jewish backgrounds, and from all races, classes, and sexual orientations.

Am I my sister's keeper? It is easy for any of us to say "yes" to that question. Since we are all women going largely for the same things, surely we have [End Page 154] each other's back. But is that unconditional, or are there conditions? I have had white Ashkenazi women call me on the assumption that I would do something for them because we both believe in the same cause. If I politely responded, "No, thanks for thinking of me, but that is not the way I want to go," I might be challenged by negative words or actions, as if to say: How dare you defy me? In these circumstances, I was given the feeling that I "owed" something, or that I was "owned," because the callers allegedly were advocating for Jews of color or people of color. My assistance was requested without their waiting for input from me. I was supposed to show up and say or do what was expected of me. Everything was under their conditions.

From several resources on feminism, it would appear that the term "feminist" has suffered an ongoing identity crisis since the beginning of the feminist movement. Women identify with the issues, but they do not want to be deemed "feminists," because of the stereotyped implications of what that word means. This may be because so many women cannot explain what being a feminist means to them. A 1992 Ms. Foundation survey, "Women's Voice '92: A Polling Report," presented as the first national survey to evaluate women's views across class and racial lines, found that many women, even if they endorsed the movement's goals, saw feminists as "being more out for themselves than for the ordinary women and their families." While they generally evaluated the women's movement favorably—it rated 62 on a scale of 100—many of them "[felt] distant from the term 'feminist,' which to them does not seem to share their own priority of family nor the daily struggles of many women who are constantly pulled and stretched for money."1

When women's very identity as feminists is in question, how can the movement be in order? We have women out there who are down for the cause but are not ready to say that they are card-carrying members.

Furthermore, there is the double identity of being Jewish and female. An icon in the Jewish feminist world, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, wrote Deborah, Golda, and Me: Being Female and Jewish in America. Though written and published twelve years ago, the book offers clear evidence that no matter how things change, they stay the same for Jewish feminists. In her chapter "Why Feminism Is Good For the Jews," Pogrebin states:

In this chapter, rather than assume we all understand the term "Jewish feminism" the same way, I want to explain that I use it to summarize a whole system of moral and political commitments. Feminists dissect privilege. [End Page 155] We deconstruct and examine the way gender plays out in power relations, political agendas, and economic contexts. We ask: Who benefits? Who hurts? Webster's dictionary defines feminism as a doctrine advocating the legal, economic, and social...


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