On the Bookshelf
Behind the pink tallis: thoughts on Jewish womanhood from Thomas Edison to Gwyneth Paltrow
Next time you’re sitting under an incandescent light bulb, think about this: In 1911, Thomas Edison asked, “Do you want to know my definition of a successful invention? It is something that is so practical that a Polish Jew will buy it.” The Quotable Edison (University Press of Florida, March), edited by Michele Wehrwein Albion, includes that tidbit along with a few other of the inventor’s musings on the chosen people. The Wiz of Menlo Park had a fascinating explanation for what he described as “the almost supernatural business instinct of the Jew”: “Women have, from the beginning, taken part in Jewish councils; Jewish women have shared, always, in the pursuits of Jewish men; especially have they been permitted to play their part in business management. The result is that the Jewish child receives commercial acumen not only from the father’s but from the mother’s side.”
It’s not clear where exactly Edison was getting his information, but he may have had a point in the limited sense that at least since the time of Glückel of Hameln, some Jewish women have had opportunities to be breadwinners for their families. Does this undermine the claim Rabbi Elyse Goldstein makes, in her essay “The Pink Tallit,” that until recently “the patriarchy has defined us”—Jewish women, that is—“as child bearers, child rearers, caregivers”? Not much. The new paperback edition of a collection of essays Goldstein edited in 2008—titled New Jewish Feminism: Probing the Past, Forging the Future (Jewish Lights, March), its contributors include such religious leaders as Tirzah Firestone, Jill Jacobs, and Danya Ruttenberg—reminds us just how far Jewish women have come. As Goldstein phrases it in her introduction, “Growing up in the 1960s, the notion of a woman rabbi, a woman Israeli Supreme Court judge, or an Orthodox synagogue where women read the Torah from their side of the mechitzah … were impossible dreams, even ridiculous scenarios.”
Something else that would’ve been unimaginable, most places, before the women’s movement: a woman not taking her husband’s name when they married. Now keeping one’s name has become socially acceptable, but the practice of taking one’s husband’s name still hasn’t become the sort of comic anachronism giddily exploited by Mad Men. Israeli sociologists Orly Benjamin and Michal Rom set out to understand what factors contribute to Israeli women’s decisions about taking and keeping names today, in view of the particular gender dynamics of their nation, in Feminism, Family, and Identity in Israel: Women’s Marital Names (Palgrave, May).
In some areas, Jewish men and women have achieved something like equality: When Leah Koenig remarks that her focus in The Hadassah Everyday Cookbook: Daily Meals for the Contemporary Jewish Kitchen (Universe, March) is not on “bubbe food,” part of what she seems to mean—given the gender neutral language with which she refers to her readers—is that zaydes, and potential zaydes of the future, should also get in on the action. If that sounds a little strange for a cookbook from the Women’s Zionist Organization, clearly you haven’t heard enough about the Hadassah Associates.
Not that Jewish men in the kitchen is an entirely new phenomenon. Apparently, aside from serving as executive producer of St. Elsewhere and directing an episode of Homicide: Life on the Street, Bruce Paltrow also taught his daughter to cook, or at least that’s the premise of My Father’s Daughter: Delicious, Easy Recipes Celebrating Family & Togetherness (Grand Central, April), authored by the Academy-Award-winning, Huey-Lewis-duet-partnering, three-time-SNL-hosting beauty that Rabbi Tsvi Paltrowitch, the Gaon of Nitzy-Novgorod, could not possibly have imagined would be his great-great-great-granddaughter.
If Gwyneth seems almost miraculously well-adjusted despite a childhood among Hollywood types, think how much more difficult things must have been for Molly Jong-Fast, born half a decade after her mother contributed the term “zipless fuck,” indelibly, to the international vernacular. There were benefits, too, to being raised to think of herself as “first and foremost a Jewish neurotic,” as Jong-Fast recalled in her 2005 memoir: “Rich kids in Manhattan who aren’t the sharpest knives in the drawer are considered dyslexic: they are sent to tutors who do their homework and (best-case scenario) give them candy.” In The Social Climber’s Handbook (Villard, April), Jong-Fast tells the bouncy fictional tale of Daisy Greenbaum, an Upper East Side socialite and occasional killer of Wall Street execs.
Like Daisy, Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) reacted intensely to the excesses of capitalism; unlike her, Luxemberg did so as a Marxist theorist. Born in Zamosc, she made her mark in German Communist circles, and the Jewishness of her family mattered less to her than their support for her revolutionary activities; her father bailed her out of jail in 1906. The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg (Verso, February), edited by Annelies Laschitza, Georg Adler, and Peter Hudis, includes everything from Luxemberg’s youthful mash notes to her theoretical arguments, as well as her uncanny prediction of “pogroms against Jews in Germany.”
Doubt that science fiction remains something of a boys’ club? Google “sci-fi women” and see what you get (“Hottest Sci-Fi Girls,” “The Top 13 Hottest Sci-Fi Women Ever,” and so on, ad nauseam). On the other hand, it would be unthinkable these days to publish a collection like People of the Book: A Decade of Jewish Science Fiction and Fantasy (Prime, March)—which includes Michael Chabon’s 2005 Nextbook lecture “Golems I Have Known” and a story by Neil Gaiman—without contributions from women, such as Jane Yolen and Tamar Yellin, too. Especially since one of the book’s editors is Rachel Swirsky, an Iowa Writer’s Workshop student, WisCon chronicler, and maintainer of a “blog of a feminist writer.” Let’s hope that soon her site will be the first hit for those Googling “Jewish sci-fi women.”
Tablet Magazine’s illustrated column imagines a nudist crestfallen over the fact that he can’t dress up for Purim. Help him fulfill his dream with do-it-yourself cut-outs.