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  • Reading and Writing Women:Minority Discourse in Feminist Jewish Literary Studies
  • Sheila E. Jelen
Wendy I. Zierler . And Rachel Stole the Idols: The Emergence of Modern Hebrew Women's Writing. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2004, xiii + 349 pp.
Carole B. Balin . To Reveal Our Hearts: Jewish Women Writers in Tsarist Russia. Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 2000, x + 269 pp.
Iris Parush . Reading Jewish Women: Marginality and Modernization in Nineteenth-Century Eastern European Jewish Society, trans. Saadya Sternberg. Waltham, Mass.: Brandeis University Press, 2004, xix + 340 pp.

In Jewish literary studies, we are only just beginning to locate the women within a male literary culture, to distinguish between silence and repression, between women's absence and women's marginalization. At the same time, the study of images of women as opposed to men or the identification and documentation of literature produced or read by women as opposed to that produced or read by men have come to be understood as passé lines of inquiry in the field of women's studies. Is it possible as scholars of Jewish literature to ask the kinds of questions that women's studies scholars have already stopped asking while still maintaining the sophistication and nuance that contemporary gender studies have to offer? Is it possible to understand women as a minor voice within Jewish literary studies without falling into the trap of isolating those voices in monolithic opposition to the presumably male voices of their contemporaries?

Feminism has turned, in recent years, toward the contemplation of its own blind spots, its own assumptions of essential similarity between women regardless of sexual or religious orientation, geographic location, race, and socioeconomic status. As they struggle to locate a starting point for feminist discourse that neither essentializes all women as "oppressed" vis-à-vis men nor, for that matter, assumes that women are univocal or unified, scholars in the field have moved toward theorizing the differences among women. Susan Stanford Friedman, for example, develops the notion of "borders" as critical loci of feminist discourse [End Page 195] because, while borders "enforce silence, miscommunication, [and] misrecognition, they also invite transgression, dissolution, reconciliation and mixing."1 Friedman states: "In an increasingly globalized and transnational context, feminism has become ever more acutely attuned to the meanings of borders as markers of positionality and situatedness."

In a similar vein, the 2002 title of an international conference in women's studies at the University of Maryland was "Theories and Practices of Difference and Commonality." Contemporary feminism, in other words, seeks to identify the commonalities not in the differences, but despite the acknowledged differences between women.

Three recent studies of women's writing and reading in Hebrew, Russian, Yiddish, and other languages from the eighteenth century through the middle of the twentieth century have joined a slowly growing field of Jewish feminist literary studies. These works, by Wendy Zierler, Carole Balin, and Iris Parush, are important contributions to a surprisingly new field. Since the 1970s, literary feminism has been producing important works, such as Gilbert and Gubar's Madwoman in the Attic (1979) and Alicia Ostriker's Stealing the Language (1986), but studies of modern Jewish literature written from a feminist perspective or about female authors have only gathered momentum since the late 1980s.2 Esther Fuchs's Israeli Mythogynies: Women in Contemporary Hebrew Fiction (1987) was among the first in-depth studies of the image of women in Israeli fiction. Founding Mothers, Stepsisters (1991), by Dan Miron, a study of the Hebrew women poets of the 1920s and 1930s in Palestine, was followed in quick succession by two anthologies of essays in English: Gender and Text in Modern Hebrew Literature (1992), edited by Naomi Sokoloff, Anne Lapidus Lerner, and Anita Norich; and Women of the Word (1994), edited by Judith Baskin.3 In addition to an interesting mix of essays on Hebrew and Yiddish women writers, Gender and Text offers several excellent annotated bibliographies: one on Jewish women's literary production in Yiddish and one on Jewish feminist critical literary discourse. Women of the Word focuses on women's writing and on literary images of women throughout a broad historical period and geographic area, beginning in medieval Spain, traversing Eastern and Western...


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