Highlights from this issue...
Feminist reflections on the battle between global capitalism and fundamentalist terrorism
By Rosalind P. Petchesky
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THESE ARE TRYING TIMES, hard times to know where we are from one day to the next. The attack on the World Trade Center has left many kinds of damage in its wake, not the least of which is a gaping ethical and political confusion in the minds of many Americans who identify in some way as "progressive"--meaning anti-racist, feminist, democratic (small d), anti-war. While we have a responsibility to those who died in the disaster and their loved ones, and to ourselves, to mourn, it is urgent that we also begin the work of thinking through what kind of world we are now living in and what it demands of us. And we have to do this, even while we know our understanding at this time can only be very tentative and may well be invalidated a year or even a month or a week from now by events we can't foresee or information now hidden from us.
So, at the risk of being completely wrong, I want to try to draw a picture or a kind of mapping of the global power dynamics as I see them at this moment, including their gendered and racialized dimensions. I want to ask whether there is some alternative, more humane and peaceable, way out of the two unacceptable polarities now being presented to us: the permanent war machine (or permanent security state) and the regime of holy terror.
Let me make very clear that, when I ask whether we are facing a confrontation between global capitalism and an Islamist-fundamentalist brand of fascism, I do not mean to imply their equivalence. If, in fact, the attacks of September 11 were the work of Bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network or something related and even larger--and for the moment I think we can assume this as a real possibility--then most of us here are structurally positioned in a way that gives us little choice about our identities. (For the Muslim Americans and Arab Americans among us, who are both opposed to terrorism and terrified to walk in our streets, the moral dilemma must be, I imagine, much more agonizing.) As an American, a woman, a feminist and a Jew, I have to recognize that the Bin Ladens of the world hate me and would like me dead; if they had power over me, they would make my life a living hell. I have to wish them--these "perpetrators," "terrorists," whatever they are--apprehended, annulled, so I can breathe in some kind of peace. This is quite different from living at the very center of global capitalism--which is more like living in a very dysfunctional family that fills you with shame and anger for its arrogance, greed and insensitivity but is, like it or not, your home and gives you both immense privileges and immense responsibilities.
Nor, however, do I succumb to the temptation of casting our current dilemma in the simplistic, Manichean terms of cosmic Good vs. Evil. Currently this comes in two opposed but mirror-image versions: the narrative, advanced not only by the terrorists and their sympathizers but also by many on the Left in the US and around the globe, that blames US cultural imperialism and economic hegemony for the "chickens coming home to roost"; and the patriotic, right-wing version that casts US democracy and freedom as the innocent target of Islamist madness. Both these stories erase all the complexities that we must try to factor into a different, more inclusive ethical and political vision. The Manichean, apocalyptic rhetorics that echoed back and forth between Bush and Bin Laden in the aftermath of the attacks--the pseudo-Islamic and the pseudo-Christian, the jihad and the crusade--both lie.
While I do not see terrorist networks and global capitalism as equivalents or the same, I do see some striking and disturbing parallels between them. I picture them as the phantom Twin Towers arising in the smoke clouds of the old--fraternal twins, not identical, locked in a battle over wealth, imperial aggrandizement and the meanings of masculinity. It is a battle that could well end in a stalemate, an interminable cycle of violence that neither can win because of their failure to see the Other clearly. Feminist analysts and activists from many countries--whose voices have been inaudible thus far in the present crisis--have a lot of experience to draw from in making this double critique. Whether in the UN or national settings, we have been challenging the gender-biased and racialized dimensions of both neoliberal capitalism and various fundamentalisms for years, trying to steer a path between their double menace. The difference now is that they parade onto the world stage in their most extreme and violent forms.
I see six areas where their posturing overlaps.
Wealth: Little needs to be said about the US as the world's wealthiest country nor the ways in which wealth accumulation is the holy grail not only of our political system (think of the difficulty we have even in reforming campaign finance laws) but of our national ethos. We are the headquarters of the corporate and financial mega-empires that dominate global capitalism and influence the policies of the international financial institutions (IMF, World Bank, WTO) that are its main governing bodies. This reality resonates around the globe in the symbolic pantheon of what the US stands for--from the McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken ads sported by protesters in Genoa and Rawalpindi to the World Trade Center towers themselves. Acquisitiveness, whether individual or corporate, also lurks very closely behind the values that Bush and Rumsfeld have in mind when they say our "freedoms" and our "way of life" are being attacked and must be defended fiercely. (Why, as I'm writing this, do unsolicited messages about Wall Street investment opportunities or low fares to the Bahamas come spewing out of my fax machine?)
Wealth is also a driving force behind the Al-Qaeda network, whose principals are mainly the beneficiaries of upper-middle-class or elite financing and education. Bin Laden himself derives much of his power and influence from his family's vast fortune, and the cells of Arab-Afghan fighters in the 1980s war against the Soviets were bankrolled not only by the Pakistani secret police and the CIA--three billion dollars, writes Katha Pollitt in The Nation, "more money and expertise than for any other cause in CIA history"--but also by Saudi oil money. More important than this, though, are the values behind the terrorist organizations, which include--as Bin Laden made clear in his famous 1998 interview on ABC--defending the "honor" and "property" of Muslims everywhere and "[fighting] the governments that are bent on attacking our religion and on stealing our wealth." Political scientist Paul Amar, in a recent talk at Hunter College, rightly urges us not to confuse these wealthy networks--whose nepotism and ties to oil interests eerily resemble those of the Bush family--with impoverished and resistant social movements throughout the Middle East and Asia. There is no evidence that economic justice or equality figure anywhere in the terrorist program.
Imperialist nationalism: The Bush administration's initial reaction to the attacks exhibited the behavior of a superpower that knows no limits, that issues ultimatums under the cover of "seeking cooperation." "Every nation in every region has a decision to make," pronounced Bush in his speech to the nation that was really a speech to the world; "Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists." "This is the world's fight, this is civilization's fight"--the US, then, becoming the leader and spokesman of "civilization," relegating not only the terrorists but also those who refuse to join the fight to the ranks of the uncivilized. To the Taliban and to every other regime that "harbors terrorists," Bush was the sheriff stonewalling the cattle rustlers: "Hand over all the terrorists or you will share in their fate." And a few days later we read "the American announcement that it would use Saudi Arabia as a headquarters for air operations against Afghanistan."
As the war campaign progresses, its aims seem more openly imperialist: "Washington wants to offer [the small, also fundamentalist, drug-dealing mujahedeen mostly routed by the Taliban] a role in governing Afghanistan after the conflict," according to the New York Times of September 24, as if this were "Washington's" official role. Further, it and its allies are courting the octogenarian, long-forgotten Afghan king (now exiled in Italy) to join in a military operation to oust the Taliban and set up--what? a kind of puppet government? Nothing here about internationally monitored elections, nothing about the UN, or any concept of the millions of Afghan people--within the country or in exile--as anything but voiceless, downtrodden victims and refugees.
Clearly, this offensive involves far more than rooting out and punishing terrorists. Though I don't want to reduce the situation to a crude Marxist scenario, one can't help wondering how it relates to the longstanding determination of the US to keep a dominant foothold in the Gulf region and to maintain control over oil supplies. At least one faction of the Bush "team," clamoring to go after Saddam Hussein as well, is clearly in this mindset. And let's not forget Pakistan and its concessions to US demands for cooperation in return for lifting of US economic sanctions--and now, the assurance of a sizable IMF loan. In the tradition of neo-imperial power, the US does not need to dominate countries politically or militarily to get the concessions it wants; its economic influence backed up by the capacity for military annihilation is sufficient. And, spurred by popular rage over the WTC attacks, all this is wrapped in the outpouring of nationalist patriotism and flag-waving that now envelops the American landscape.
Though lacking the actual imperial power of the US, the Bin Laden forces mimic its imperial aspirations. If we ask, what are the terrorists seeking? we need to recognize their worldview as an extreme and vicious form of nationalism--a kind of fascism, I would argue, because of its reliance on terror to achieve its ends. In this respect, their goals, like those of the US, go beyond merely punishment. Paul Amar says the whole history of Arab and Islamic nationalism has been one that transcended the colonially imposed boundaries of the nation-state, one that was always transnational and pan-Arabic, or pan-Muslim, in form.
Although the terrorists have no social base or legitimacy in laying claim to this tradition, they clearly seek to usurp it. This seems evident in Bin Laden's language invoking "the Arab nation," "the Arab peninsula" and a "brotherhood" reaching from Eastern Europe to Turkey and Albania, to the entire Middle East, South Asia and Kashmir. Their mission is to drive out "the infidels" and their Muslim supporters from something that looks like a third of the globe. Provoking the US to bomb Afghanistan and/or attempt ousting the Taliban will surely destabilize Pakistan and possibly catapult it into the hands of Taliban-like extremists, who would then control nuclear weapons--a big step toward their perverted and hijacked version of the pan-Muslim dream.
Pseudo-Religion: As many others have commented, the "clash of religions" or "clash of cultures" interpretation of the current scenario is utterly specious. What we have instead is an appropriation of religious symbolism and discourse for predominantly political purposes, and to justify permanent war and violence. So Bin Laden declares a jihad, or holy war, against the US, its civilians as well as its soldiers; and Bush declares a crusade against the terrorists and all who harbor or support them. Bin Laden declares himself the "servant of Allah fighting for the sake of the religion of Allah" and to protect Islam's holy mosques, while Bush declares Washington the promoter of "infinite justice" and predicts certain victory, because "God is not neutral." (The Pentagon changed the "Operation Infinite Justice" label to "Operation Enduring Freedom" after Muslim Americans objected and three Christian clergymen warned that "infinite" presumed divinity, the "sin of pride.")
But we have to question the authenticity of this religious discourse on both sides, however sincere its proponents. A "Statement from Scholars of the Islamic Religion," circulated after the attacks, firmly denounces terrorism--the wanton killing of innocent civilians--as contrary to Sh'aria law. And Bush's adoption of this apocalyptic discourse can only be seen as substituting a conservative, right-wing form of legitimation for the neoliberal internationalist discourse that conservatives reject. In either case, it is worth quoting the always wise Eduardo Galeano, here writing in Mexico's La Jornada: "In the struggle of Good against Evil, it's always the people who get killed."
Militarism: Both the Bush administration and the Bin Laden forces adopt the methods of war and violence to achieve their ends, but in very different ways. US militarism is of the ultra-high-tech variety that seeks to terrorize by the sheer might, volume and technological virtuosity of our armaments. Of course, as the history of Vietnam and the survival of Saddam Hussein attest, this is an illusion of the highest order. (Remember the "smart bombs" in the Gulf War that headed for soda machines?) But our military technology is also a vast and insatiable industry for which profit, not strategy, is the driving rationale. As Jack Blum, a critic of US foreign policy, pointed out recently in the Sacramento Bee, "the national defense game is a systems and money operation" that has little if any relevance to terrorism. Missiles were designed to counter hostile states with their own fixed territories and weapons arsenals, not terrorists who sneak around the globe and whose "weapons of mass destruction" are human bodies and hijacked planes; nor the famously impervious terrain and piles of rubble that constitute Afghanistan. Even George W., in one of his most sensible comments to date, remarked that we'd know better than to aim "a $2 billion cruise missile at a $10 empty tent." And yet four days after the attack the Democrats in Congress piled madness atop madness and withdrew their opposition to Bush's costly and destructive "missile shield," voting to restore 1.3 billion dollars in spending authority for this misconceived and dangerous project. And the armaments companies quickly started lining up to receive their big orders for the impending next war--the war, we are told, that will last a long time, maybe the rest of our lives. US militarism is not about rationality--not even about fighting terrorism--but about profits.
The war-mania and rallying around the flag exhibited by the American people express desire, not for military profits, but for something else, something harder for feminist and anti-war dissidents to understand. Maybe it's just the need to vent anger and feel avenged, or the more deep-rooted one to experience some sense of community and higher purpose in a society where we are so atomized and isolated from one another and the world. On September 25th, Barbara Kingsolver wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle that she and her husband reluctantly sent their five-year-old daughter to school dressed in red, white and blue like the other kids because they didn't want to let jingoists and censors "steal the flag from us." Their little girl probably echoed the longings of many less reflective grownups when she said that wearing the colors of the flag "means we're a country; just people all together."
The militarism of the terrorists is of a very different nature--based on the mythic figure of the Bedouin warrior, or the Ikhwan fighters of the early twentieth century who enabled Ibn Saud to consolidate his dynastic state. Their hallmark is individual courage and ferocity in battle; Malise Ruthven's Islam in the World quotes one Arab witness who described them, foreshadowing reports by Soviet veterans from the 1980s Afghan war, as "utterly fearless of death, not caring how many fall, advancing rank upon rank with only one desire--the defeat and annihilation of the enemy."
Of course, this image too, like every hyper-nationalist ideology, is rooted in a mythic golden past and has little to do with how real terrorists in the twenty-first century are recruited, trained and paid off. And, like high-tech militarism, terrorist low-tech militarism is also based in an illusion--that millions of believers will rise up, obey the fatwa and defeat the infidel. It's an illusion because it grossly underestimates the most powerful weapon in global capitalism's arsenal--not "infinite justice" or even nukes but infinite Nikes and CDs. And it also underestimates the local power of feminism, which the fundamentalists mistakenly confuse with the West. Elaine Sciolino, writing in the New York Times, for example, reports that Iran today, in all its internal contradictions, shows the resilience and globalized/localized variety of both youth cultures and women's movements.
Masculinism: Militarism, nationalism and colonialism as terrains of power have always been in large part contests over the meanings of manhood. Feminist political scientist Cynthia Enloe remarks that "men's sense of their own masculinity, often tenuous, is as much a factor in international politics as is the flow of oil, cables, and military hardware." In the case of Bin Laden's Taliban patrons, the form and excessiveness of the misogyny that goes hand in hand with state terrorism and extreme fundamentalism have been graphically documented. Just go to the website of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), at www.rawa.org, to view more photos of atrocities against women (and men) for sexual offenses, dress code offenses and other forms of deviance than you'll be able to stomach. According to John Burns, writing in the New York Times Magazine in 1990, the "rebel" leader in the Afghan war who received "the lion's share of American money and weapons"--and was not a Taliban--had been reputed to have "dispatched followers [during his student movement days] to throw vials of acid into the faces of women students who refused to wear veils."
In the case of transnational terrorists and Bin Laden himself, their model of manliness is that of the Islamic "brotherhood," the band of brothers bonded together in an agonistic commitment to fighting the enemy to the death. The CIA-Pakistani-Saudi-backed camps and training schools set up to support the "freedom fighters" (who later became "terrorists") in the anti-Soviet war were breeding grounds not only of a worldwide terrorist network but also of its masculinist, misogynist culture. Bin Laden clearly sees himself as a patriarchal tribal chief whose duty is to provide for and protect not only his own retinue, wives and many children but also his whole network of lieutenants and recruits and their families. He is the legendary Arabic counterpart of the Godfather, the padrone.
In contrast to this, can we say that the US as standard-bearer of global capitalism is "gender-neutral"? Don't we have a woman--indeed an African American woman--at the helm of our National Security Council, the president's right hand in designing the permanent war machine? Despite reported gender gaps in polls about war, we know that women are not inherently more peace-loving than men. Remember all those suburban housewives with their yellow ribbons in midwestern airports and shopping malls during the Gulf War? Global capitalist masculinism is alive and well but concealed in its Eurocentric, racist guise of "rescuing" downtrodden Afghan women from the misogynist regime it helped bring to power. Feminists around the world, who have tried for so long to call attention to the plight of women and girls in Afghanistan, cannot feel consoled by the prospect of US warplanes and US-backed guerrilla chiefs coming to "save our Afghan sisters." Meanwhile, the US will send single mothers who signed up for the National Guard when welfare ended to fight and die in its holy war; US media remain silent about the activism and self-determination of groups like RAWA, Refugee Women in Development and NEGAR; and the US military establishment refuses accountability before an International Criminal Court for the acts of rape and sexual assault committed by its soldiers stationed across the globe. Masculinism and misogyny take many forms, not always the most visible.
Racism: Of course, what I have named fascist fundamentalism, or transnational terrorism, is also saturated in racism, but of a very specific, focused kind--which is anti-semitism. The WTC towers symbolized not only American capitalism, not only finance capitalism, but, for the terrorists, Jewish finance capitalism. We can see this in the misreporting of the September 11 attacks in Arabic-language newspapers in the Middle East as probably the work of the Israelis, and their erroneous allegation that not a single person among the dead and missing was Jewish, so Jews must have had advance warning of the attacks. In his 1998 interview, Bin Laden constantly refers to "Jews," not Israelis, in his accusations about plans to take over the whole Arab peninsula. He asserts that "the Americans and the Jews... represent the spearhead with which the members of our religion have been slaughtered. Any effort directed against America and the Jews yields positive and direct results." And finally, he rewrites history and collapses the diversity of Muslims in a warning to "Western governments" to sever their ties to Jews: "the enmity between us and the Jews goes far back in time and is deep rooted. There is no question that war between the two of us is inevitable. For this reason it is not in the interest of Western governments to expose the interests of their people to all kinds of retaliation for almost nothing." (I cringe to realize I am part of the "nothing.")
US racism is much more diffuse but just as insidious; the pervasive racism and ethnocentrism that fester under the American skin always boil to the surface at times of national crisis. As Sumitha Reddy put it in a recent teach-in, the targeting of Sikhs and other Indians, Arabs and even tan Latinos and African Americans in the wave of violent and abusive acts throughout the country since the disaster signals an enlargement of the "zone of distrust" in American racism beyond the usual black-white focus. Women who wear headscarves or saris are particularly vulnerable to harassment, but Arab and Indian men of all ages are the ones being murdered. The state pretends to abhor such incidents and threatens their full prosecution. But this is the same state that made the so-called Anti-Terrorism Act, passed in 1995 after the Oklahoma City bombing (an act committed by native white Christian terrorists), a pretext for rounding up and deporting immigrants of all kinds, and that is now once again waiving the civil liberties of immigrants in its zealous anti-terrorist manhunt. Each day the New York Times publishes its rogues' gallery of police photos of the suspects, so reminiscent of those eugenic photographs of "criminal types" of an earlier era, imprinting upon readers' minds a certain set of facial characteristics they should now fear and blame. Racial profiling becomes a national pastime.
Continue to Page 2 of Rosalind P. Petchesky's Phantom Towers
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Boy with Calla Lilies, San Crist�bal, 1961.
From The Burden of Time.
The things they carried
The Burden of Time: Photographs from the Highlands of Chiapas by Marcey Jacobson, edited by Carol Karasik, translated into Spanish by Francisco Alvarez Quinones. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001, 148 pp., $39.50 hardcover.
Reviewed by Suzanne Ruta
MARCEY JACOBSON came to San Crist�bal las Casas, Chiapas, from New York City in 1956. She has lived there ever since. In September 2001 she turned ninety. This book of her black and white photographs from the 1950s and 1960s is long overdue.
In 1956 San Crist�bal, 7500 feet up in the central highlands of Mexico's southernmost state, was a small muddy town of 16,000 inhabitants, proud of their connection with the Spanish conquistadors who founded the colonial settlement in 1527. With its lumpy baroque churches, green mountain vistas and heavy morning fog, the town, for all its social problems, was an absorbing place to live in.
The townspeople, who called themselves ladinos, depended for their survival on the underpaid or coerced or stolen labor of Mayan Indians from the surrounding highland villages. At the open air market, held on a long rectangular platform at the top of a small flight of stairs, like the lower level of a truncated Mayan pyramid, the Conquest was reenacted every day in the dickering over a handful of beans. As late as the mid-1960s, a kind of Mexican apartheid prevailed in the region. Indians had to be off the streets of San Crist�bal by dark. Those caught loitering were sent to the town jail and released the next day to clean the streets.
Moving Chairs, San Crist�bal, 1960.
From The Burden of Time.
Yet some ladinos were tied, as godparents, to Indian families, and gave them a feudal kind of protection (and a place to spend the night in town). Many ladinos were themselves destitute. American anthropologist and novelist Carter Wilson, who wrote the book's insightful Afterword, credits Jacobson with opening his eyes to the local nuances. She knew, for example, where the town beggars spent the night--in a pottery factory, next to the still warm kilns.
Jacobson was not an anthropologist but, as she explains in a brief, discreet autobiography, an accidental, self-taught (and exceedingly modest) photographer, with a borrowed Rolleiflex, a patient eye and a sympathetic ear for her neighbors' penas, their troubles. The ear is as essential to her photographs as the eye. She photographed the people she saw every day in the street, at the market, people whose stories she could tell you. It's a pity, come to think of it, that someone didn't encourage her to do just that. If only we had her running commentary for each and every photograph, what a book that would have been! Yet by and large the work speaks for itself. It carries, as Wilson says, a strong narrative charge. These women, children, adolescents, beggars, the very old and very young, summon you to reconstruct their lives.
By the time I met Marcey Jacobson, in 1973, she had amassed a great fund of stories. She knew where all the bodies were buried and where hidden treasure (dating from the revolution of 1910) had been buried and unearthed. The people of San Crist�bal in the 1970s had a precapitalist mindset. The going explanation for a neighbor's wealth was piracy--someone buried a hoard of gold and someone else dug it up. My landlord, Jacobson informed me, was supposed to have struck it rich right inside the old watermill he owned down by the rio Amarillo. In fact, she said, it was one of his Indian hired men who discovered the treasure--a cache of old coins--but my landlord made him give it up, beat him, and sent him away. From then on his fortunes rose but his reputation fell. The locals called him--gossip their revenge--don Ladron. Sir Thief.
Alberta Making a Water Jar, Amatenango,
1966. From The Burden of Time.
Some of Jacobson's stories were more upbeat. She recalled the intellectual excitement--readings, concerts and the like--that came to town with Rosario Castellanos in the late 1950s. Castellanos, Mexico's first feminist writer, and first major woman writer in (some say) centuries, returned to her home state of Chiapas in the late 1950s to work for the National Indigenous Institute that had recently opened offices in San Crist�bal. Influenced by her reading of Simone Weil, Castellanos wanted to live the life of the poor. She travelled to remote villages with an itinerant puppet theatre that put on playlets about the importance of dental hygiene and boiled water.
In 1962, Castellanos published a big, ambitious Chiapas novel, The Book of Lamentations (a beautiful English translation was published by Penguin in 1998), the story of an Indian rebellion that ends in chaos, cruelty and a prompt return to the iron status quo. In part historical, in part based on her own fresh observations, it's a deeply pessimistic book, where the only source of light is her own warm intelligence, penetrating the secret sorrows and corruptions of Indians and ladinos both.
THE 75 OR SO black and white photos in The Burden of Time could illustrate Castellanos' gloomy yet incisive novel. Burdens are a leitmotif, as the title suggests. "Burdens of time" sounds suspiciously metaphorical. It refers to the Mayan notion of time as a weight to be carried and then set down. It also alludes to the cargos--charges, or social burdens--offices in the religious-social hierarchy of traditional Mayan villages that men and their wives are expected to fill as upstanding members of the community. All this is well explained in Wilson's Afterword.
But the burdens in these photographs are definitely not metaphorical. Even the most picturesque have bulk and weight and weary the carrier. "Bean Girl, San Crist�bal, 1962," carries a sack of beans on her head. The sack droops elegantly, framing her face, but what stays with you are her beautiful big eyes and her quiet scepticism. No one perhaps, before Jacobson, had ever told her her eyes were beautiful. "Boy with Calla Lilies" recalls a favorite Diego Rivera motif. Rivera, the great expansive stylizer, ignores the details Jacobson records: the boy's bare chest under his ragged wool tunic, his diminutive stature. The cool white lilies engulf his bent head. We see his sheaf of flowers. He sees the ground in front of him.
Bean Girl, San Crist�bal, 1962.
From The Burden of Time.
In "Moving Chairs" a barefoot woman from the village of San Juan Chamula (the scene of Castellanos' novel) strides rapidly under a load of at least five small wooden chairs fitted together like a puzzle, the whole anchored by a strap across her forehead. The strap is called a tumpline in English; the Spanish word is mecapal, but either way it's painful to see a woman turned into a beast of burden. Her woven straw bag sits inside the nest of chairs. When she's sold them, she'll fill the almost infinitely stretchy bag with her purchases, and haul it home in the same way. The photograph dates from 1960. In the 1970s, women from the villages still seemed reluctant to appear in public without a load on their backs. Often around midday, when market was over, and families trekked home to the villages, one saw husbands striding ahead unencumbered, while the womenfolk tottered after them under their untimely burdens.
For the people in these photographs, San Crist�bal is enemy territory, to be entered with caution, wearing rags. Good clothes, fine weaving, are reserved for feast days at home in the villages. Of course Jacobson recorded the Chiapas fiestas, with their colorful fusion of Mayan and medieval Spanish Catholic rites--giant crosses and giant primitive straw puppets crowned with antlers or the horns of a bull, ritual bonfires and plaster saints, swaddled in layers of exquisite weaving, carried aloft in processions. Carnival (when Mardi Gras coincides with a tag-end of the Mayan calendar called Pop), photographed through a haze of smoke from ritual bonfires, has an almost mystical quality.
But Jacobson is by nature a demystifier, and her best work is simple, human and direct. In "Alberta Making a Water Jar, Amatenango, 1966," the stalwart young woman sits on the ground with a work in progress on her lap, a fat amphora she's beating into shape with one expert hand. She's looking at her work, not at the camera, but she's laughing at something off camera that has also caught the attention of her small daughter. The child clings to her mother with both hands, smiling with lively, almost coquettish interest. Could crafts, instead of guns or manifestos, be the salvation of Mayan Chiapas? This genial, relaxed photograph almost makes you believe it. Later women weavers too would form cooperatives here (see The Living Maya, by Walter Morris and Jeff Foxx, published in 1989) and achieve the kind of confidence and self-sufficiency this rare portrait radiates.
Big changes came to Chiapas after these photos were taken. First, tourism. When tourists started shooting everything in sight, in the 1970s, and offending the locals with their oblivious intrusiveness, Marcey Jacobson tells us, she stopped photographing people and trained her camera instead on "landscapes, skies and trees."
Second, the wheel. The bicycle came to the hilly terrain of central Chiapas in the 1980s. Early one morning in 1987, on a road between the river and the market, a young man from the nearest Indian village whizzed by me on a bicycle with a little makeshift two-wheeled cart behind. His gleeful passenger, a young woman, rode in the cart, a bit close to the dust of the road, perhaps, but what an improvement for both of them over the long slow burdened trudge, uphill and down. The wheel--VW vans, trucks, bicycles--made rebellion possible in Chiapas. Before that, as these photos remind us, people used all their energy just getting from here to there.
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From democracy to demagogy
Political Fictions by Joan Didion. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001, 322 pp., $25.00 hardcover.
Reviewed by Ellen Willis
THE ATTACK THAT SMASHED the New York skyline and the continuity of American life also tore abruptly into our political conversation. Before September 11, we had a president who had not been elected and had been further weakened by his party's loss of the Senate and a declining economy. His opponents were fairly hopeful that he would be gone in four years and that with luck, right-wing Supreme Court appointments and the evisceration of Social Security could be stalled until then. Now we have a commander-in-chief, buoyed by the support of an all but unanimous Congress and, according to the Gallup poll, ninety percent of the American people. On the morning of September 11, New Yorkers were voting in the mayoral primary that would begin to end the Giuliani era. The leading candidates were boring, but they shared the virtue of not being Rudy, whose authoritarianism in a time of low crime rates had worn out its welcome. Afterward, because the mayor shone in a crisis, he became a national hero, inspiring serious (if ultimately unsuccessful) proposals to change New York State's term-limits law to allow him to run a third time.
It would be hard to imagine a more awkward time to publish a collection of essays on politics, the most recent of them written during the 2000 campaign. Indeed, when I first read Joan Didion's Political Fictions, back before the plot changed, I thought the book suffered from the absence of an essay on the presidential election and its aftermath. Since the fictions of the title serve, as Didion sees it, to mask the devolution of American democracy, this omission deprived her own counternarrative of its climax (a complaint she would disdain, being far less convinced than I of the usefulness and reliability of any story). Now that Florida, which had consumed my waking hours for weeks, felt at least temporarily like a minor contretemps, I wasn't sure I could bear rereading these essays, let alone writing about them. Yet, as it turns out, Didion's rendition of the late '80s and '90s political world actually gains in power by its seeming remoteness from the present moment. For what it does is insist on certain crucial details of our recent political history that are all too likely to be erased and rewritten in the interest of unity, patriotism and above all the craving for heroes.
Didion is outraged at the tailoring of both major parties' campaigns to the interests of a narrow, affluent slice of the electorate, with the result that fewer and fewer people bother to vote. She abhors the pervasive substitution of image for substance, the contempt of Washington pols and pundits for the American public, the intrusiveness of the right-wing culture police. The "political fictions" she invokes range from a scripted game of catch, designed to present Michael Dukakis as a regular guy, to the "living the dream" tough-Texan speech meant to convince the nation that George Bush (p�re) was not a wimp; to the rationalizing of Ronald Reagan's imaginative anecdotes about welfare queens and student loans stashed in the bank as "morality tales" that need not be literally true; to Bill Clinton's staged denunciation of Sister Souljah; to the Democrats' use of "middle class" as a coded invitation to suburban voters to come back to a party no longer soft on the poor, the black, the marginal. The book ends with the ultimate fable--the effort to present a cultural vendetta against the Clinton presidency as a simple matter of the moral integrity of the office and the rule of law--and its sequel, in which Al Gore and Joe Lieberman embrace the religious Right's myth that Americans are yearning to redeem themselves by repudiating their disgraced leader.
As Didion sees it, politicians and political operatives regard the construction of these fictions as their essential task, while journalists identify with the pols' professional skill at manipulation and collaborate with the game in order to validate their own status as insiders. There are exceptions in Didion's political universe: candidates like Jesse Jackson, who disrupt politics as usual; reporters like the New York Times' Raymond Bonner, who exposed the Mozote massacre in El Salvador, only to be sent to Coventry. But such figures are--not coincidentally--losers.
THE PERSONA OF POLITICAL COMMENTATOR has not come naturally to Didion; it goes against the grain of a deep aversion to the assumptions and language of political discourse. In a 1970 essay (reprinted in an earlier collection, The White Album) that looks at the convulsions on the Berkeley campus through the lens of her own college years in the '50s, she remarks that her "silent generation" avoided politics because "the exhilaration of social action seemed to many of us just one more way of escaping the personal, of masking for a while that dread of the meaningless which was man's fate." Writing about the women's liberation movement a couple of years later, in a New York Times Book Review piece that comes closer to being a rant than anything else I've read of hers, she attacks the idea that the personal is political: as she sees it, making "trivial" matters like who does the housework into a question of class oppression merely evades adulthood with its burden of complexity and moral choice.
In her Foreword to Political Fictions, Didion recalls the various forms of procrastination with which she resisted Robert Silvers' invitation to cover the 1988 presidential campaign for the New York Review of Books. The Foreword itself reads like another attempt at procrastination: Didion devotes a couple of tedious pages to sharing notes she wrote while trying with some difficulty to get on board Jesse Jackson's campaign plane, bound for Los Angeles and the California primary. It's as if she is mounting a last-ditch struggle to fit this alien political terrain into her accustomed framework of the personal and the literary. Didion's forte as a journalist has always been her novelist's eye for the metaphoric detail: over thirty years after I first read "Slouching Toward Bethlehem," her classic piece on the Haight-Ashbury hippies, its final image--communards are in their kitchen trying to recover "some very good Moroccan hash" lodged in debris from a fire started by a little boy--still makes me shiver. But the inability of Jackson's aides to decide whether Didion belonged on his plane would seem to be a metaphor for nothing more weighty than her doubts about her assignment, of which we've already heard more than enough.
The essays in Political Fictions, most of them published (some in different form) in the New York Review over the past twelve years, also reflect the limitations of a writer who does not merely reject the trivialization of contemporary electoral politics but is leery of the very category of "the political" as a mode of human engagement. For all her indignation about the present state of affairs, Didion displays little interest in why it has come about, or rather seems to assume it's purely a question of moral venality on the part of the political and journalistic elite. Her own political perspective (which she divulges rather grudgingly, in response to having been asked "with somewhat puzzling frequency") is likewise presented as a series of moral stances: her exemplary politician is Barry Goldwater in 1964, which is to say she's for "low taxes, a balanced budget, and limited government," thinks the Reagan Right subverted true conservatism, and identifies with salt-of-the-earth ordinary Americans.
That the political trends she deplores surfaced during a time of growing corporate power and concentration and a massive upward redistribution of wealth; that the ascendancy of the cultural Right reflects a more pervasive, if also more ambivalent, backlash against social movements, especially feminism and its "trivial" preoccupations--such phenomena and the questions they raise do not register on Didion's screen. In "the last true conflict of cultures in America, that between the empirical and the theoretical," she casts her lot with empiricism. By theoretical she really means solipsistic; she does not allow that theory, or anyway analysis, might be needed to provide a context for the empirical or a way of connecting its fragments. Perversely, a writer known for her conviction that reality is elusive, ambiguous and created rather than given--yet another reason for distrusting politics, with its inevitable reductionism--has apparently decided that in the political realm, facts speak for themselves, and "fictions" can be clearly distinguished from "the real life of the country."
IN TRUTH, POLITICIANS and the journalists who cover them, despite the hermeticism of their Washington milieu and their commitment to what Didion refers to as "Insider Baseball" (the title of her essay on the Bush-Dukakis race), are also Americans whose fantasies have been shaped by the same popular culture--not to mention the historical myths fashioned from the political fictions of the past--as the rest of us. Their fables, however contrived, have more of a connection with the life of the country than we might like to think--at least to the psychic lives of those the campaigns are targeting, who may be a shrinking percentage of the population, but still exist in large numbers. Another of my favorites in the Didion archive is "Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream," a piece written in 1966 about a southern California murder case whose mise en sc�ne and characters reflect a culture in which "a belief in the literal interpretation of Genesis has slipped imperceptibly into a belief in the literal interpretation of Double Indemnity." Surely Didion of all people ought to understand the genesis of many of our political fictions in It's a Wonderful Life (or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington); but the fact is that San Bernardino housewives are real to her in a way the George Bushes and Joe Kleins are not.
Still, despite all, Didion has managed far better than I would have predicted to find a convincing political commentator's voice. In large part this is because she has such a good ear for the nuances of cant, hype, and low-key demagogy. She takes empiricism as far as it will go, piling up the evidence: most of it comes out of her targets' own mouths, from Dukakis' "pink-cheeked young aides... referring to themselves, innocent of irony and so of history, as 'the best and the brightest'" to Washington Post/ Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff's squirmy attempts to explain how he had been used by Linda Tripp and Lucianne Goldberg to nail Bill Clinton: "What happens when you become beholden to sources with an agenda? There are no easy answers here."
But Didion also had the luck, so to speak, to be confronted with a fraught historical moment: her three main targets--the political class, the Washington press corps, and the cultural Right--converged in an attempt to bring down a president. To her credit she rose to the occasion rather than making for the existential sidelines; her essay on the Clinton scandal, "Vichy Washington," is one of the best accounts I've read of the Washington elite's collaboration with what was indeed a right-wing conspiracy, and of the "disconnect" between that elite and the American people. The equally powerful essay that follows, "God's Country," pursues that disconnect into the presidential campaign, as candidate George W. Bush invokes "compassionate conservatism" to mask his connection to the religious Right, while Gore and Lieberman distance themselves from Clinton and try to outdo Bush in religiosity. "The distinct possibility that an entire generation of younger voters might see no point in choosing between two candidates retelling the same remote story could benefit only one campaign, the Republican," Didion presciently concludes. These last two pieces are distinctly different in tone from the rest of the book: Didion is scathing as ever about politics, yet far more comfortable with "the political" and its demands than she has ever been before. As our national crisis unfolds, I'll be watching for her response.
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Good hair days
Tenderheaded: A Comb-Bending Collection of Hair Stories edited by Juliette Harris and Pamela Johnson. New York: Pocket Books, 2001, 302 pp., $25.95 hardcover.
Reviewed by Veronica Chambers
AS BLACK WOMEN, we take our hair very seriously. Perhaps even more than skin tone, it has been the most debated gauge of our beauty. Since slavery, we have debated the merits of "good" hair and "bad" hair. "Good" hair being hair that is naturally straight, soft to the touch, long and closest in texture to white women's hair. "Bad" hair being our hair in its natural state--thick, woolly, an enemy to a fine-toothed comb.
Tamara and Tarika, Easter Sunday, Baltimore,
1995. By Bill Gaskins, from Tenderheaded.
It's no accident that the first black American millionaire was Madame C. J. Walker, the woman who in 1906 invented a straightening formula for black hair. Throughout the twentieth century, black women have pressed, permed, braided, woven and curled their hair, worn Afros and grown dreadlocks, each hairstyle representing more than fashion--a cultural marker, not unlike African scarification, that says something about who you are and what tribe (black elite, ghetto, working-class, revolutionary, bohemian) you belong to.
In Tenderheaded: A Comb-Bending Collection of Hair Stories, editors Juliette Harris and Pamela Johnson elevate black hair into a literary trope of almost mythic status. They are a well-suited pair. As a former senior editor and current columnist at Essence, Pamela Johnson has a keen sense of popular culture and of the "sister-girlfriend" dialogue that makes the book so engaging. Juliette Harris, editor of the International Review of African-American Art, has a powerful eye for the multitudes of hair stories that images can tell. The book's photo elements range from an 1852 pickaninny illustration to 1950s black pageant winners with Doris Day flips. We see Grace Jones' flat top and Diana Ross' luxurious curls. We see braiding techniques from Harlem to Zimbabwe and everywhere in between. There are images of Billie Holiday's gardenia, RuPaul's platinum tresses and a row of bronze-skinned beauties donning bowlers at a 1938 boxing match.
The writers included in this blow-out book range from Nobel prize winner Toni Morrison to activist-professor Angela Y. Davis to a young, hip array of essayists including Lisa Jones and editor Pamela Johnson herself. Hair for these writers is more than just fashion: it is a reminder of slavery and a symbol of freedom (see Alice Walker's "Oppressed Hair Puts a Ceiling on the Brain"), it is the colorful collage of a young girl's braids and barrettes and the sculptural flair of an African updo, it is a marker of assimilation and a badge of rebellion. It is, above all, serious business. Hair, in this anthology, lies heavy on the head.
In even the shortest selections, the editors transport us to worlds we have never imagined. Take for example, this sweet peek into Billie Holiday's dressing room:
In the early 1940s, Billie Holiday worked at Kelly's Stable on New York City's Fifty-Second Street--a.k.a. "Swing Street." One night the house band sounded just like the tune they were playing, "Sweet and Mellow." Lady Day, about to go on, was grooving to the music through the cracked door of her tiny dressing room... Nodding her head to the beat, Lady grabbed a curling iron off the Sterno and turned her shoulder-length hair under. (p. 21)
The story goes on to describe a scene that elevates Lady Day into a princess who can ask a mirror who's the fairest of them all, and be well satisfied with the mirror's answer.
The editors include a folktale that has been passed down from generation to generation. The story reinforces the pain that black women have felt about having kinky hair. It is also layered with not-too-subtle digs at stereotypes about black people and food, as well as the tardiness once referred to as CP time (Colored People's time).
In the beginning, the story goes, nobody had hair. So God called everybody together to beautify them and hand out the hair. When the call came that the hair was ready, black folks were having a big barbeque that they wanted to finish. The other races came running, put the hair on, and smoothed it down. And so they have smooth hair. Then they issued a second call to the colored people. But the only hair that was left was the trampled hair on the ground. So the colored folks got stuck with the kinky hair. (p. 1)
Tenderheaded also quotes an eighteenth-century advertisement for a runaway slave: the owner was looking for Hannah, who might be recognized by "her Hair... lately cut in a very irregular Manner, as a Punishment for Offences." We learn that the hair-straightening business was closely linked to skin-lightening cosmetics, as in a 1919 pamphlet, "A Complete Course in Hair Straightening and Beauty Culture." The pamphlet's author recommends mixing hydrogen peroxide, citric acid solution and almond meal, applying "with the tips of the fingers before retiring at night." As if anyone could sleep soundly with a layer of acid on her face!
Traditional basket hair style worn by women
in the Congo. Photo by Upi Bettman, from Tenderheaded.
MANY OF THE PIECES HERE speak with the eloquence of Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye about young black girls who grow up longing for white women's hair. One poignant example is an excerpt from Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. As a young girl, Angelou dreams that Shirley Temple hair will not only change her appearance but change her life. "Wouldn't they be surprised," Angelou writes, "when one day I woke out of my black and ugly dream, and my real hair, which was long and blonde, would take the place of the kinky mass that Momma wouldn't let me straighten?" Passages like these, and there are plenty, are just enough to break your heart.
The editors refuse to hew to political correctness. They are eager to recognize the impact of the "black is beautiful" era, when as A. B. Spelman writes, with "Big bushy Afros on the sisters and hardbop in the air... Hair was pride you could grow." Contrasting pieces explore the elegance and pride many black women, among them Diahann Carroll in the landmark sitcom "Julia," found in straight hair. As Jenyne M. Raines writes in "Relax Your Mind!"
I am not ashamed to crow, I love my hair relaxed! When your hair is relaxed properly, you can have fun. Scrunch up your freshly washed hair with styling gel and let it air-dry, and you have ringlets. Blow-dry it smooth and let it hang for black girl au naturel. Swoop it up in a topknot. Headband it for a black Muffy look. Twist it, braid it, tuck it up in a neat chignon. All of these do's can be done with ease until touch-up time, which is akin to Cinderella's coach turning into a pumpkin. (pp. 95-96)
The Kitchen, 1997 (acrylic on board).
By Daniel Minter, from Tenderheaded.
There is no good hair and bad hair in this book, just strands and strands of history, hairstories and provocative questions. The "Store-Bought Hair" section features an image of Whoopi Goldberg's famous "Spook Show" performance, where she covers her head with a long white skirt and pretends to be a nine-year-old black girl who wants desperately to be white and blonde so she can appear on "The Love Boat." On the opposite page, there's a picture of the rapper Lil' Kim, with a sexy leather outfit, Marilyn Monroe hair and blue contact lenses. The caption reads, "Lil' Kim, with the bluest eyes, and blondest hair money can buy, flaunts the fantasy." What to make of Goldberg's social commentary and Lil' Kim's fantasy is up to the reader.
There is much to learn from this book, but my favorite passages were the ones that spoke of memories, linking hair to hearth. For these writers, the tenderness in the term "tenderheaded" harks back to childhood, when one's hair was braided, straightened, or combed by loving mothers, aunts and grandmothers. As bell hooks writes:
On Saturday mornings, we would gather in the kitchen to get our hair fixed--that is straightened. Smells of burning grease and hair, mingled with the scent of our freshly washed bodies, with collard greens cooking on the stove, with fried fish. We did not go to hairdressers. Mamma fixed our hair. Six daughters--there was no way we could have afforded hairdressers... Hair pressing was a ritual of black women's culture--of intimacy. It was a moment of creativity, a moment of change. (p. 111)
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Pioneers in the pulpit
Lesbian Rabbis: The First Generation edited by Rebecca T. Alpert, Sue Levi Elwell and Shirley Idelson. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2001, 252 pp., $24.00 paper.
Reviewed by Cheryl B. Torsney
From Lesbian Rabbis.
LINDA EBER'S PHOTOGRAPH on the cover of Lesbian Rabbis depicts two women holding candles used in the havdalah ceremony, which signals the end of the weekly Shabbat observance and demarcates the border between it and the workaday week. As I read the photograph, the older of the two, somber-faced and tight-lipped, looks ahead with resolve while the younger woman gazes upward with hope and expectation. This welcome collection reflects these two visions: one that of a group of lesbians who came out at seminary and in their congregations with great risk to their dreams and livelihoods; the other of younger lesbians who were out at college and seminary, while they were on the job market, and in their professional positions. For the most part, these committed women have been able to enlighten the communities in which they work, love and raise their families. But not all lesbian rabbis feel free to be honest about their sexuality, as the concluding anonymous essay painfully reveals.
The introduction alone, by Sue Levi Elwell with Rebecca T. Alpert, is worth the modest price of the book. This opening essay answers the question nearly everyone who saw me carrying around the book asked either in words or with various eye-rolling gestures: "Why a Book on Lesbian Rabbis?" The short answer is that maybe ten percent or more of the women in the rabbinate are lesbians, and it is incumbent upon all of us to understand how this constituency of religious leadership affects the groups they serve and how lesbian rabbis challenge traditional Jewish definitions of family, readings of Jewish texts and understanding of Jewish identity. Or, to phrase the question differently, "Why is this rabbi different from all other rabbis?" Because this rabbi is a woman who loves other women (or in most cases here, one other woman to whom she is for all intents and purposes married) and thus comes at Judaism from a very different angle than a heterosexual female rabbi, or even a gay male rabbi.
The introduction begins with a quick historical sketch situating Judaism in post-Enlightenment Europe, discusses the beginnings of Reform Judaism in nineteenth-century Germany, and then focuses on the role of women in current American Judaism as it is practiced by the four major movements--Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstruction and Reform--as well as on the spiritual lives of unaffiliated Jews. Each of these groups has responded differently to feminism and to the gay and lesbian synagogue movement which began in the 1970s.
A milestone on the road to the very possibility of this book was the ordination of women to the rabbinate, beginning with Rabbi Sally Priesand in 1972. As Elwell and Alpert declare, "The ordination of women as rabbis has brought into focus the dynamics of a gendered religious life that has both silenced women's voices and muted feminist values of cooperation, mutuality, and equality." With a woman in the rabbinate and a growing demand for liberalization, lesbian voices began to be heard within the Jewish world. (That lesbianism is not even mentioned in the Torah and is hardly considered an issue by the writers of the Talmud or by the Jewish philosophers who followed are only two of the points raised in the editors' fine Introduction.)
THE EIGHTEEN ESSAYS cover denominational movements, heterosexual congregations, gay and lesbian congregations, unaffiliated Jews and Jews on campus, and being a lesbian rabbi in the Conservative movement, the denomination that, after Orthodoxy, is the least flexible about sexual preference.
Several themes emerge and link the essays: fear and secrecy, love and marriage, struggle and achievement, the richness of Jewish life. Almost every essay offers the writer's coming out story followed by her realization that living honestly required negotiating her vocational choice of the rabbinate. Many of the writers protest that their decisions to be out in the seminary and in the rabbinate were not "political." In fact, political seems a dirty word in some of these essays, and I wish their writers hadn't felt the need to apologize and thus call into question their positions as feminists. The personal, one would think, is still the political.
More important, however, many of these writers discuss their marriages, their pregnancies and their introductions of their partners to their congregations. Nearly all talk about the support they have been given by teachers, colleagues and other community members. It's been a tough row to hoe, but the result for nearly all of these rabbis has been a gorgeous, flourishing, aromatic and nourishing garden. Many of the congregations and other groups they serve offered a whole lot of "fertilizer" at the outset, and eventually they, too, have come to enjoy the fruits of the collaborative efforts between themselves and their rabbi.
The anonymous author of the concluding essay, "In Hiding," however, talks about the weeds that strangle her voice and choke her dreams. She writes, "Hiding is hurtful to the soul. It cuts away at the spirit. It is insidious." If she were public about her lesbianism--if she had signed her essay in Lesbian Rabbis: The First Generation--the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly would have summarily dismissed her from her pulpit. She dreams of the day when "no one will have to hide who they are to discover the richness of Judaism, to dedicate their lives to the task of teaching, counsling, and inspiring the Jewish people."
AS WITH MOST ESSAY COLLECTIONS, the reader finds some writers' voices more lively, more immediate or friendlier than others. Yes, all are lesbian rabbis, but each has a distinctive personality. Julie R. Spitzer opens her essay by recalling how, when she first fell in love with a fellow seminarian, she was afraid that her "first intimate experience with another woman... would appear as a scarlet 'L' across her forehead." She confesses her fear that "I would return in shame to my hometown faster than you could say 'bad role model'." I liked Julie Spitzer from the humor in her written voice, and I nearly cried when I read in the first endnote to her contribution that she had died at the age of 41 in September 1999. (I had missed on first reading that the collection is dedicated to her memory.)
Sue Levi Elwell describes how her lesbianism has enriched her commitment to Judaism and how official Judaism has offered its support to her and her partner, Nurit. At their wedding, at which the chuppah was held by her daughters and their nieces and both sets of parents blessed the happy couple, 25 rabbis were among the guests, suggesting a sort of official sponsorship.
Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah, on the other hand, one of only three lesbian rabbis in Britain, isn't concerned about whether the rabbinic (or any other) establishment accepts her or not: "Patience was my biggest challenge. It still is. Tolerance comes a close second. I don't like the word." And then there's the reminiscence offered by Dawn Robinson Rose, who might try stand-up comedy in her off hours:
My first day of rabbinical school... I saw a young woman with spiked white hair and a blue crocheted kippah bent absorbedly over her Torah lesson. The feeling I got was indescribable. My first thought was "I'm in love." My second thought... was, "Damn! I'm at the wrong school" (The Conservative movement doesn't allow lesbians). (p. 217)
These are only a few of the pieces that spoke most personally to me: other readers will gravitate to the other articulate voices in this volume.
Alpert, Elwell and Idelson's collection of these lesbian rabbis' personal stories is historic. These brave women who write about their experiences with their families, teachers, classmates and those they serve constitute, as the volume's subtitle reads, "The First Generation." These pioneers have suffered and triumphed in the face of prejudice, never losing their faith in the foundation and teachings of Judaism. Clearly, each is a woman of valor whose worth is, as the proverb goes, "above rubies," both to her partner and to us readers: "She openeth her mouth with wisdom; and in her tongue is the law of kindness."
Despite their hesitation to claim a political message, their personal stories nonetheless create one. This message of perseverance, tolerance and justice, part and parcel of the Judaisms they love and practice, will undoubtedly be handed down l'dor va dor, from generation to generation.
One comes away from this collection looking, like the younger woman pictured in its front cover photograph, toward the future and the next generation, who will not have to fight as their older sisters did for acceptance and employment. Instead, they will be able to devote their time and energy to simply being good rabbis. Women are no longer called "women rabbis." In the future, I pray, lesbians in the rabbinate will be known just as rabbis.
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