On a miserably rainy November morning, a journalist battled the wind through downtown Manhattan to arrive at what was, until recently, a women’s prison in Chelsea. The inherent Chelsea-ness was impossible to ignore; soft electronic music pulsed above the hiss of expensive espresso machines and the journalist, wearing an unsubtle shade of red, found herself nervous in the crowd of chic wearers of black.
“How,” she wondered, “are all their shoes so dry?”
The music and espresso were trappings; the main event a preview of Annie Leibovitz’s show “WOMEN: New Portraits,” which has toured the globe under the auspices of UBS – yes, the bank – before reaching its penultimate stop in New York. To mark the occasion, Leibovitz appeared with Gloria Steinem who, to the journalist’s relief, also wore red. (Ok, over black.)
They spoke of the strange, complicated beauty of being a woman, their grief over Hillary Clinton’s loss, and the women, formerly incarcerated in the prison, who had visited and discussed the exhibit the day before. Once their microphones had disappeared, the journalist shouldered her way towards Steinem.
“Can you tell me a bit about what you see the specific challenges and opportunities facing Jewish women at this time to be?” she panted.
“It’s not for me to say, because I think each individual woman knows best,” Steinem said. “But in a general way, it’s the same challenge that all women in a monotheistic religion are facing, which is patriarchy.”
She paused to laugh.
“If god is man, man is god,” she continued. “Now, Judaism has an older, more mystical spiritual part, that seems to have preceded patriarchy. So, perhaps we can bring that forward.”
“That would be nice,” responded her interlocutor, internally cheering. She asked if there were challenges Steinem felt she personally confronted as a Jewish woman.
“Well you know, the truth of the matter is that my father was Jewish, in theory, and my mother was Christian, in theory,” Steinem said, “but in fact he was a secular person and my mother was a mystical person, was a theosophist.”
“So, the truth is that I identify as Jewish when there’s anti-Semitism, and not when there isn’t.”
The crowd around her laughed, and the brightly garbed journalist asked Steinem for a photo. A bystander commented the two were wearing matching outfits. Steinem held out her cherry-colored shawl and laughed at the young woman by her side.
“So there, Chelsea,” thought the journalist, smiling back. Then, feeling a new warmth – is this what it is to be fired up? – she stepped back out into the rain.
Talya Zax is the Forward’s culture fellow. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, @TalyaZax