- Forward and Backward:Jewish Lesbian Writers
I've been a lesbian writer and activist for the last forty-some years. I've published seven books (novels, poetry, short stories), edited the journal Sinister Wisdom, taught, and worked for all kinds of lesbian, feminist, antiwar and anti-racist organizations. I've always been engaged with what lesbians are writing. I read Jyl's book of stories, Hot Chicken Wings, when it came out, and reread her memoir, Cravings, last month. I'm pleased to be in conversation here.
I published a number of poems in Bridges during the early '90s, many of them while I was working on Beyond the Pale (a Jewish lesbian novel, set in Russia & NY, between 1860-1912). One of the reasons I wrote Beyond the Pale was because I looked around and saw that so many of my generation's activists were Jewish dykes, and I felt like we couldn't have sprung full-grown from our moment in time—we must have had some kind of origin. Doing research, I found that Jewish women (who were often clearly what we would now call lesbians) have been activists for as long as any women have been able to move into public spheres. They made the way for us even when we couldn't see whose tracks we were following in.
I've been a lesbian writer and artist since my twenties. I'm fifty-seven. In my twenties, thirties, and forties my Jewish lesbian identity as a writer/artist was very strong. And in those years, I was also an activist. I've written three [End Page 228] books, Hot Chicken Wings, short stories; Cravings, a memoir; and Never A Dull Moment: Teaching and the Art of Performance, essays on radical feminist pedagogy. My work was also included in The Tribe of Dina a special Jewish issue of Sinister Wisdom and in Tik-kun. I've written many one-woman performance pieces and performed all around the country and abroad. My writing also includes cultural essays and book reviews. Recently I started writing plays.
Bridges was a haven for me when the journal first came out. Immediately I knew I wanted to be published in those glorious Jewish feminist pages! And I was. Two short stories, "Voices," and "Absence." Most recently my one-woman show "Terri Schiavo, Inc." was published in the Health/Illness issue. I wanted to "talk" with Elana Dykewomon because I've long been an admirer of her work, most especially Beyond the Pale, and her prose and poetry. There always was/is a fierce intelligence and energy in her work that I love.
One of the most significant events in my life was being fired from Brandeis University after teaching there for eight years. I was the only out Jewish lesbian faculty and it was as if I had been (and indeed was!) expelled from The Tribe. This had a profound effect on my voice and vision.
Can you say more about what tribe, exactly, you felt expelled from? Because this brings to mind when I published an essay in the first Nice Jewish Girls anthology, that Evi Beck edited, and all the contributors were "excommunicated" (that is, sat shiva for) by a group of Orthodox rabbis in the early '80s. My mother was incensed, but I had a terrific (brief) sense of elation—that I no longer existed in that world, and so I was free to do anything, be anyone, I could imagine. Certainly I have felt pain at being excluded from places I thought I belonged, but I have learned to take the wisdom from a line of Rilke's: We are free because where we thought to have been welcomed, we were sent on (odd as it is to quote a German man here...).
It's complicated. At Brandeis, my experience was that Jewish faculty weren't really "out" as Jews unless perhaps they taught in Judaic Studies. At first, I was heralded as a great new addition to the faculty. And then some of the women faculty in Women Studies started challenging my syllabi, saying...