There’s an old chestnut, “The more specific the writing, the more universal its appeal.”
You can say, “Six-year-old Lisa Levine is afraid of loud noises.” Or you can say, “When 6-year-old Lisa Levine hears thunder, she shuts her eyes, kisses the tiny Jewish star hanging on the chain around her neck, and says the Sh’ma.” Both sentences convey the same fact about the same character — a frightened little girl — but the second connects the reader to the character at a deeper level. It puts down roots in the psyche while also flowering out into wider associations. For readers with a spiritual bent, it may register as a validation of their trust in religious consolation. Or it may evoke private moments of dread that were relieved by prayer, or other religious rituals analogous to saying the Sh’ma, like saying the rosary. Secular readers may be moved to reconnect with their own childhood fears, or to ponder how adults cope with terror or find comfort in stressful times. The point is, you don’t have to be Jewish or female to empathize with Lisa Levine, who is unambiguously Jewish and female.
Obviously, details can be catalytic to memory and meaning. In both poetry and prose, particularity — of time, place, texture, taste, sight and sense — is the gateway to the reader’s mind and emotions. The question for writers is how do we unlock that gate? My answer: By owning the particularities of our own identity.
I’m a woman, a Jew and a writer. But when I first started my career, a writer is all I was, a nonfiction writer, sometimes a social critic but a generalist with no particular beat or specialty. Generalists have to know how to research and report any story, how to conduct an interview, sculpt a sentence, juggle paragraphs, trim the fat and polish the finished product. A generalist should be able to popularize concepts no matter how abstract or obscure, pluck the heartstrings for a good cause, analyze, explain or, if need be, advocate and persuade.
I did all these things because I was a writer. It took a while before I finally was able to acknowledge that I was also a woman, and that being a woman could inform, enrich, inspire and enhance my writing — if only I’d let it. Once I internalized that fact, something changed. I found my voice. The work deepened and grew bolder. Though brainwashed to believe that women’s news is “soft” news, I came to understand that it’s news, period, that institutionalized patriarchy is as serious a threat to society as the drug menace, gun violence, the trade deficit, the national debt and the threat of war. Suddenly, I saw women spotlighting issues like rape, violence, incest, unequal pay, sex discrimination, sexual harassment, economic injustice, denial of reproductive rights, the feminization of poverty, child care, machismo and male supremacy. As the poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” At end of the 1960s, that’s what happened.
Many of you witnessed the same things I did—seismic shifts in the tectonic plates of gender relations, manifestos, books,
consciousness-raising groups, articles, demonstrations. In 1969, I started paying attention — not just to “women’s lives,” but to my life as a woman. My first book, “How To Make It in a Man’s World,” was published in 1970. A year later, I started writing The Working Woman column for Ladies’ Home Journal, and thousands of letters from my readers made clear that the concerns of the women’s liberation movement weren’t radical, they were Everywoman’s concerns. In 1971, I became one of the founding editors of Ms. magazine. Now I wasn’t just writing about those issues, I was editing manuscripts submitted by girls and women from all over the country and their stories took me beyond my relatively privileged life into a world split open by the truth.
In my own writing, once I embraced the particularities specific to my experience and my woman’s way of knowing, they began to animate my prose. I wrote about losing my mother when I was teenager. About becoming a mother myself and trying to raise three children in an egalitarian marriage. I wrote about my body, my fears and anxieties. I wrote about female friendship, what we talked about in our consciousness-raising groups, and how to argue with a sexist pig. I wrote about family politics, the power relations in the home and the political exploitation of family issues in the public sphere. I looked at fashion and beauty through a feminist lens. Women in the workplace. Women in politics. FBI infiltration of the women’s movement. The importance of giving children nonsexist toys. The Equal Rights Amendment. The madness of trying to have it all. In short, I wrote about life in a woman’s skin.
But inside my own skin was another self I had yet to acknowledge: the Jew. I was reasonably well educated Jewishly and proud to count myself part of the Jewish people — yet I’d never spliced that particularity into my identity as a writer or as a woman. I thought of my Jewishness as a given. More precisely, I didn’t think of it at all except when I was in synagogue or celebrating a Jewish holiday at home with my family. My Judaism didn’t seem relevant to my politics or my other interests. I was, as they say, just Jewish.
What changed that was the United Nations’ First International Women’s Conference in 1975 in Mexico City. That was where delegates from around the world allowed the feminist agenda for global economic and social change to be hijacked for the passage of the “Zionism is racism” resolution. And that was what radicalized me as a Jew. Until then, I believed sisterhood was powerful enough to engender peacemaking across borders. I thought feminism could trump nationalism, and women’s solidarity would become a model of intergroup cooperation and ethnic harmony. But as events unfolded in Mexico City, and five years later in the U.N. Women’s Conference in Copenhagen, virulence against Israel and Jews increased and it became painfully obvious that though feminism had taken on its shoulders the fight against racism, antisemitism wasn’t even on its radar screen. Worse yet, some of my supposed feminist friends were antisemites. I learned that a sister could, when the survival of Israel was at stake, become an enemy. That patriarchy wasn’t the only force wreaking havoc in the human community. That other feminists could be the problem, not the solution—precisely because “woman” wasn’t my only significant identity. I was also a Jew.
From then on, I became suspicious of all single-factor analyses of social dysfunction. I had to accept that a woman can be a feminist and still hate Jews. I did not have the luxury of dismissing the Jew in me as if it could ever really be irrelevant, or of acting as if my Jewish experiences, feelings and perceptions belonged to some separate life. No longer was I an either/or; I would always be an indivisible “and.” Multiple “ands,” in fact: Not just a writer and a woman but a writer, a woman and a Jew, and all those constellations could inform, enrich, inspire and enhance my writing, if I’d let them. After that, I looked at the world through multiple prisms, became involved in Jewish life, studied texts, developed new passions.
In the early 1980s, I spent more than a year researching and writing a long essay for Ms. on “Anti-Semitism in the Women’s Movement,” a piece that elicited intense discussion in women’s groups, Jewish organizations and on college campuses, and helped foment both a raised consciousness and corrective action in the international feminist community. Writing that essay was the turning point in my journey of discovery and transformation, which I eventually cataloged in the memoir, “Deborah, Golda, and Me.”
Now, as an activist and a writer, I let each situation dictate which of my particularities will take precedence, whether, for example, it is important to speak up against antisemitism in the women’s community or against sexism in the Jewish community — or both.
Some might say a writer’s purview shrinks and narrows when she views the world through the prism of her particularities. I am certain mine widened. I see more now, not less.
I don’t just hear the thunder, I hear the Sh’ma.
The above essay was excerpted from the keynote address for “A Celebration of Jewish Women Writers” at Hebrew Union College last month.