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Idle Worship

In a new HBO documentary, Gloria Steinem is treated like the icon she is. But efforts to praise and eulogize her feminism don’t do the subject—or the liveliness of the movement she helped inspire—justice.

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Gloria Steinem in the 1970s. (Jason Laure/HBO)

The new documentary Gloria: In Her Own Words, which airs tonight on HBO, treats its subject, Gloria Steinem, like the icon she is. Produced and directed by Peter Kunhardt, a filmmaker who has turned his lens on such august subjects as the Kennedys, Gloria depicts Steinem in the requisite soft light, with its subject sitting on a sofa in her New York City apartment as snippets of her own sentences float across the screen and images of her in earlier years fade in and out. Driven by archival photographs and footage, the hour-long film is a cursory walk down memory lane. It’s a gently reverent look at one of the more significant figures of the past 50 years—and one unlikely to inspire much following in her footsteps.

Steinem’s life has been full of glamour and intrigue and controversy and historical weight. Here, though, she’s reduced to a generic person of interest, someone whose life has yielded anecdotes featuring other notable figures, including Richard Nixon, George Burns, and Helen Gurley Brown, bits of quotable wisdom, and lots of photographic evidence of her presence at important events while wearing era-appropriate outfits. The film covers Steinem’s famous undercover Playboy Bunny piece, her ambivalent relationship with her mother, her feminist “click” when she realized that the abortion she had at 22 was more than just a personal experience, her fierce independence, her breast cancer, and her tap-dancing skills.

Despite this encyclopedic approach, Gloria never alludes to the fairly well-known fact that Steinem—like many other prominent second-wave feminists, including Bella Abzug, Betty Friedan, and Andrea Dworkin—is Jewish. The concentration of Jewish women in the movement has been variously attributed to Jewish women’s tendency to embrace progressive causes, our inherent love of arguing, and our relative comfort with being seen as outsiders. As Steinem herself told the Jewish Standard last year, “I think the emphasis on social justice … has probably created a situation where Jewish women may be disproportionately represented in the women’s movement.”

Liberal Judaism and feminism have always seemed obviously wedded to me: Both emphasize asking questions and taking responsibility for the state of the world. In different ways, they both involve having faith. And if you want to be reductive about it, sure, Jews and feminists are stereotypically loud and opinionated. In my experience, they’re identities that complement more than complicate each other. I’d call them inextricable, except that while I can’t imagine being Jewish without being a feminist—or being compelled by a form of Judaism that wasn’t feminist-flavored—it’s less of a stretch to think of things the other way around.

Maybe this is because feminism is the broader of these two worldviews. It’s more flexible, with fewer rules. It’s also an identity that people choose rather than inherit (though there’s undoubtedly a hereditary element—my copy of Steinem’s book Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions was handed down from my bubbe, who along with her sister was involved in a Jewish feminist study group they irreverently called the “Minyan of Crones”).

Though Gloria is not particularly nuanced—nor concerned at all with Judaism—there’s a moment in the documentary that suggests a more subtle parallel between Judaism and feminism is possible. It comes not from Steinem but in her quoting of a non-Jewish icon of an even earlier feminist wave, Susan B. Anthony. Anthony, Steinem paraphrases, “said our job is not to make young women grateful; it’s to make them ungrateful, so they keep going.” It’s a line that distills something essential about feminism and Judaism: their shared commitment to remembering their history, as well as a dedication to moving beyond it.

Anthony was calling for young women to continue the work of their mothers, to push on to accomplish what the older women couldn’t. But the line also points to the fact that feminists’ goal all along has been for their daughters’ lives to look different—less burdened—than they’d had to fight to achieve. Speaking “in her own words,” Steinem is happy to talk about the past, but she looks determinedly to the future. She insists on the importance of trusting younger generations, of passing down knowledge and experience but not resenting your children for not making your experiences the center of their own.

Jews and feminists alike care about remembering because they know there is danger in forgetting. If we don’t take careful stock of why things are different today and how we got here, we risk returning to a past that we worked so hard to get beyond. And yet to never forget, to be constantly remembering and re-remembering, can be a kind of paralysis.

This is not at all the point of Gloria, even though it’s probably one of feminism’s prevailing themes, and it’s admittedly something of a stretch to zero in on it amid what is otherwise a general, well-meaning overview of Steinem’s life and legacy. But without some extrapolating, the film risks putting you to sleep. This is partly due to the filmmaker’s apparent uncertainty about who he thinks will be watching: On one hand, Kunhardt seems to presume a certain familiarity with the basic facts of feminist history, because they are glossed over. At the same time, the film never really moves beyond those basics, failing to capture the urgency of second-wave feminism and the spirit of the women, including Steinem, who helped lead it. It’s a soothing, feel-good portrait that is likely to be celebrated by the same people who celebrate Steinem off screen—who know she’s got more dimensions than she’s allowed to show in this film but will be gratified to see her getting her due.

Given the complexity of all that Steinem represents, that means Gloria is a missed opportunity. But there’s also something honest about it. Steinem is 77 years old, and her legacy is coalescing. Though she’s still vocal and visible and shows no sign of slowing down, the history in which she played such an important role is receding, and this documentary is part of an understandable—and worthwhile—attempt to solidify her significance.

But significance and boilerplate are easily confused. Steinem continues to be relevant despite efforts to pin her down and praise her, to write her eulogy and feminism’s along with it. In recent years, she’s shown a determination to be part of feminist debate without defining it, to let her ideas evolve, and to acknowledge the relevance of feminism beyond her own generation in ways that many of her peers have been unwilling to. In 2004, she cheered the overwhelming turnout by young women at the March for Women’s Lives in Washington, and, to its credit, the film does include a clip of this. During the 2008 presidential election, she weighed in on the blazing debate over whether a white woman or a black man was more “electable.” She contributed an essay to an anthology of women’s writings about getting their first period. Just last week, she called for a boycott of the upcoming NBC drama The Playboy Club—frustrated by the way it romanticizes a job she knows firsthand was anything but glamorous—and published an op-ed about the militarization of Jeju Island, South Korea.

I wish that this standard-issue film about the life of one of our great heroines had been better, juicier, truer to the spirit of the movement she helped lead—and to which she continues to be a model of ingenuity, grace, and perhaps most important, a much-needed provider of perspective. I wish it could have been a rallying cry, something more than a validating if disappointing hour of programming for people who already know how important she is. Luckily, Gloria will not be the last word on Gloria Steinem.

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Dear Friends: One reason why Gloria Steinem’s Judaism may not have been emphasized in the film is that she was the child of an intermarriage in an era (pre-WWII) in which there were very few intermarriages and the subject was taboo.

Steinem’s parents (Jewish father, Christian mother) divorced when she was young, after her mother developed serious mental illness. It is my understanding from what I have read that Steinem as a teen was burdened with both homework and caring for her divorced, seriously ill mother, in an era where there was little good treatment for mental patients. Her Jewish father had left for another state, and Steinem and her mother lived in poverty.

I don’t know if Steinem was raised Jewish — almost no children of intermarriage were raised Jewish in that era.

As the Coordinator of the Half-Jewish Network, I have always admired Steinem’s willingness to embrace her Jewish “half” after a childhood that would have made other people decide to ignore it.

I was pleased to see this article paying tribute to Steinem and her work.

Robin Margolis

I’ll also not soon forget Gloria Steinem’s feminist impact as a late teen-early 20 in the socially turbulent 1970’s.

As a traditional Jewish guy in the singles dating scene her, and others,’ influence was prevalent drastically changing the dating and relationship general rules.

As a result of seeing the feminist direction especially Jewish women were headed I determined I’d be likely marrying out of my faith as the Women’s Movement may have started out as an “equal pay” issue but quickly devolved into a women’s independence from men issue, starting financially ceasing considering Jewish women. The movement was women’s selfishness/self indulgence trumping selflessness/family.

I’ve now been married to a traditional Italian/Catholic woman for almost 30 years and wouldn’t want it any other way.

bill, i wouldn’t want your marriage any other way either, because you clearly have no idea what you’re talking about. Jewish women are moving up and creating a new, vibrant Judaism. Borukh Hashem.

Rita Krohn says:

Gloria Steinem is my contemporary. She is an inspiration to us all. Considering her difficult and I’m sure exhausting childhood, she could have so easily have taken another path. Her generosity of spirit and strength of character has benefited us all. This documentary is just one tribute to focus on many jobs well done. Hopefully, there is more to come, since there is so much more to Gloria Steinem.

Lazer, I never said Jewish women weren’t “moving up or creating a new vibrant Judaism.” I said feminism, which many Jewish women adopt, is selfish, self-indulgent, and geared towards women’s independence from men. Not a pro traditional family societally unifying movement.

If you celebrate that, IMO, you’re in the right place.

Another reason for the overwhelming representation of Jewish women in the feminist movement may be one I heard Betty Freidan give many years ago. She said that while the husbands of other ethnic and religious groups picked up their wives’ paychecks at week’s end, Jewish women, not only picked up their own pay checks, they general took care of the family’s financial situation as many of the husbands were studying – not to be a understood as a negative comment. Only a way of life in Ortodox homes at that time,especially with immigrant Jewish men.

Read Letty Cottin Pogrebin’s extensive bio of Steinem in the Jewish Women’s Archives to understand that only by a major stretch is Steinem Jewish —

Bill Pearlman says:

She is not Jewish. And I’m not talking about other people with a Jewish father who embrace it and don’t pass muster with chief rabbis’s or anything like that. She wasn’t born Jewish, wsn’t raised Jewish . And as far as I know never did anything for the Jewish people.

brynababy says:

Bill, You sound like a jerk in your description of Jewish women and feminists. So misinformed- so biased with false impressions.

I wonder how happy your Catholic wife is in her secondary position.

amy fj stone — I had a look at the biography of Steinem that you linked and it actually indicates that Steinem identifies as a Jew and not as a Christian.

Bill — if you read the link to the biography that amy fj stone posted you will see that Steinem actually has done things connected with Judaism and specifically does not identify as Christian.

Speaking as the Coordinator of the Half-Jewish Network, I often notice that some members of the Jewish community complain constantly that half-Jewish don’t always identify as Jews.

But if you continuously put them down as ‘not Jewish enough,’ even when they are engaging in Jewish activities or identifying as Jewish, then few of them will identify as Jews.

dina adler says:

bill pearlman is correct. gloria is not in any way Jewish nor does she present herself as such. it is only Jews
who are desperate to include others in their ranks that call her Jewish. and–I would like to know what “:things connected with Judaism” gloria steinem has done, according to Robin Margolis.

brynababy, “misinformed–biased with false impressions?” I grew up in Newton, MA absolutely dominated by Jews. On Jewish holidays in Elementary School 22 of 29 kids in class would be absent. My view stands. I understand the truth is painful.

As for my wife in her secondary position…….if being reverential and deferential to her constitutes her being secondary, I don’t think you’d hear her complain too strenuously. Being feminine and selfless has its advantages.

That’s great that you married an Italian/Catholic. Your children aren’t Jewish and neither are your grandchildren. The Jewish community doesn’t need any more anti-semitic self-haters like you. Btw why are you here? You’re basically a gentile like your wife and family. Shouldn’t you be reading an Catholic website?

Yael, you’ll be dismayed to know we celebrate both Jewish and Christian Holidays. And I’m sure you’d agree it’s better to marry someone you love outside your faith than someone you don’t love within it.

Reform Jewish community has devolved into a far leftist, social justice, secular, anti Israel, Democrat, and government worshiping entity. How Reform Judaism could accept homosexual marriage and abortion as acceptable is unfathomable.

I understand you’re so comfortable in the US you’ve renounced Israel as your homeland declared it now being the US. Keep fighting for the two state idea appeasing Arabs bent on destroying Israel when we both know only “right of return” will satisfy them voting Israel out of existence as a Jewish state.

I promise when I find the Catholic website you referred to I’ll be sure to forward it to you.

So much yakkity yak about whether Gloria was or wasn’t jewish! Really…get over it. As a Jewess who has lived through the same years as Ms. Steinmen..I am indeed grateful for all her accomplishments…
and yes, I also agree the HBO documentary was totally inadequet….she was and is much more than ‘just a pretty face’.

sharon rosen teig says:

All this chatter on what being a Jew is…ridiculous
Exclusivity is a sad reality in any religion and often comes from being part of any group
….them us..does nothing to enhance humanity..

Why would a gentile Christian family like yours celebrate Jewish holidays? That’s ridicoulos.

What does love have to do with your intermarriage? It’s obvious that the main reason you married your wife is because she wasn’t Jewish. Your hatred of Jewish women is clear.

By the way I’m not Reform, don’t support gay marriage or abortion. I’m about as hawkish as they come in regards to Israel. I don’t beleive in a two-state solution. I believe in the one state solution,
which is Israel in all the territories.

I don’t know of any catholic websites but I’m sure your wife would.

Yael,Obviously with your misandrist attitude you’d be better off with women. The Jewish influence in the anti and independence from men womyn’s liberation movement exhibited their selfish self-indulgence over selflessness and family contributing to societal decay.

Jewish men are leaving especially the Reform Temple in droves as it becomes more feminized. Traditional Jewish women are practically extinct. If you’re wondering, perhaps you should look in the mirror.

If my wife passing along that Catholic website I promise to forward it.

Where in my comments do I say that I hate men? I’m not Reform so how can I be blamed for driving Jewish men away from the Reform Movement? Do you know how to read?

There are many traditional Jewish women around but obviously all your family and friends are gentiles so you wouldn’t know. Have you heard of Orthodox Jews?

I wouldn’t care about a Catholic website but obviously you would. You are a weirdo.

Your hatred of Jewish women is blatant, especially in your last post, that it’s obvious you’re an anti-semite and also a brain-damaged drunk. I doubt your Jewish. Something is definately off with you.

“Something off with me?”
Here we have a piece glorifying Steinem lavishing praise on Jewish women on the forefront of feminism, which was a misandrist woman’s independence from men movement you obviously support.

Steinem’s most quotable statement was her reciting Irina Dunn’s 1970 quote at a news conference, Women’s Action Alliance, January 12, 1972 …. the feminist slogan “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” Very unifying, don’t you think?

Traditional Jewish women I respect. Just don’t ever find them. But your argument is typical of liberals. If one shows disdain for feminism, “you hate all women.” I know the drill.

You obviously can’t read. I’ve written repeatedly, I’m neither a feminist nor a liberal. I never even mentioned Gloria Steinem, I’m not a fan, in my reponse to you. This has always been about your hatred of Jewish women.
There are many, many traditional Jewish women but you’re a gentile, it’s obvious, so you wouldn’t know.
I don’t think you hate all women but you do hate Jewish women. I won’t respond to your comments anymore. You’re obviously mentally unstable.

LOL…….as you wish. My respect for traditional women is universal, as is my non respect for liberal feminists.

However, you’ll just have to deal with the fact I was Bar Mitzvah and Confirmed here just outside Boston, and remain Jewish to this day–because there’s no way I can convince you otherwise.

Sha, already. You’re more biased and vitriolic than anyone else on this list. Bill, you have nothing to prove to anyone, least of all Yael.

Ora, being new to this list not knowing anyone here your comment is appreciated.

I find it odd a person claiming to not be feminist would launch into a personal vitriolic attack over my comments as we’d be in issue agreement, whereas I’d expect that kind of attack from one feminist oriented vehemently in disagreement.

Hard to apply motive but can’t help but wonder if she personally experienced a relationship loss where a guy she liked married out of the faith. No way of knowing. My experiences have been derived growing up in the US–perhaps Yael is Israeli too young or unable to relate to those early 1970’s times.

Her attack caught me by surprise. Won’t be so next time.

Again, thanks for your appreciated input.

Leslie Martin says:

What a waste of time to read all this vitriol. I wish I hadn’t. Gloria has been an inspiration to me for decades. I’ve had the opportunity to meet her several times–she’s most approachable, not at all the angry, hate-all-men stereotype portrayed in the media. She may not technically be Jewish but I believe she identifies as such because of the values of our religion. She has lived selflessly on behalf of equality and justice for women and all people around the world.

As for the comments about Reform Judaism, they obviously come from someone who hasn’t set foot in a Reform synagogue. Ours is alive with tradition, prayer, Hebrew, kavanah (intention),song, community, welcoming and acceptance of all “strangers,” and a commitment to social justice.

Finally, the documentary was beyond disappointing.


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Idle Worship

In a new HBO documentary, Gloria Steinem is treated like the icon she is. But efforts to praise and eulogize her feminism don’t do the subject—or the liveliness of the movement she helped inspire—justice.

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