Ageing Jewish Lesbian Tells Some
Is it enough to put on my flannel shirt, climb on that winged horse, and barge forward howling?
On a wall of my advising office for the Department of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies (GWSS, pronounced Gee Whizz) I have taped an 81/2 by 11 inch copy of this poster.
It was created by the Chicago Women’s Graphic Collective in 1974 and I saw it for the first time when I was making out with some woman I barely knew in Milwaukee around 1976. The sex was likely pot soaked and unremarkable. The poster had a lasting effect on me as an artist and as a Jew.
In the early 1980’s, as I began the scraps of writing what would become Running Fiercely Toward a High Thin Sound, this image particularly the young woman on the back of the horse, long curly hair falling over her shoulders, riding through a sky filled with tiny Labrys stars, spoke deeply to me. Lesbonic labrys stars, ethnically ambiguous (and culturally inappropriate) Amazon and winged horse aside, the woman on the back of the horse seemed to me the first image of a dyke who looked like me. By that I mean, a dyke from the 1970’s (jeans, flannel shirt) who definitely could be Jewish (long frizzy hair).
I’m not talking observant Jewish dyke. Until I moved to Minneapolis in the late 1980’s I hardly gave going to synagogue a thought. I was one of those women who looked to tarot cards and stolen I-ching readings for spiritual guidance. But I had the privilege in my Northampton days of living next door to a Smith College professor who offered me my first taste of cholent in the shelter of her family’s sukkah. And I believe I was lead to my true Jewish writer’s voice in the 1980’s when a woman I knew turned me on to writing by the great Jewish writers, Chiam Grade, I.B. Singer, I.J. Singer, and more importantly, Anzia Yezierska and the Singer boys’ sister, Esther Kreitman.
When my pal Emma got me involved in the Women’s Pentagon Action in 1980, I had the great good fortune to meet the activist and sublime short story writer, Grace Paley. I found the work of E. M. Broner. I lived in a house with Elana Dykewoman. Adrienne Rich and her partner Michelle Cliff lived in the woods outside of Northampton then and in their capacities as editors of Sinister Wisdom they published the first words of Running Fiercely’s… eventual heroine, Nadine Pagan in Issue 13. Nadine spoke articulately then, she had a political analysis. She was nothing like the Nadine Pagan who sets her hair on fire at the start of Running Fiercely Toward a High Thin Sound. But she does represent the way that I initially came into a full identity as a Jewish dyke—Nadine identifies with victims and survivors of the Holocaust in that piece. I came to understand my own Jewishness back then through a re-reading of The Diary of Anne Frank, discovering the late Helen Epstein’s Children of the Holocaust, and perhaps most importantly Yaffa Eliach’s anthology, Hassidic Tales of the Holocaust.
I was born into an assimilating Jewish family: My mother was from an observant immigrant Jewish family, though all three of her brothers shortened their last names so that their Polish -itsky was removed. In her adulthood she and her sister, my Aunt Sylvia spoke to each other on the phone many times a day, often in Yiddish.
My father’s mother did not believe in God, although she invoked God in Yiddish often. My father forgot how to speak Yiddish (or that he ever knew it) somewhere in the late 1950’s. When his older brother Milton died at age 39, even my mother announced that there was no god, though she continued to light candles just before dusk every Friday night until she moved into an apartment where this was not allowed.
My siblings and I attended Hebrew school. My brother had a bar mitzvah. My sister had one in her twenties, my mother in her eighties, I never had one, though the door remains open to me now in this enlightened age.
The Jewish part is clear to me. The lesbian part is clear to me.
What remains to be discovered now, as I approach my 67th birthday, is how to best use this clarity as an elder and an artist, especially in this treacherous time. How best to confront a president who has deliberately poured gasoline on the city of Jerusalem and then recklessly thrown in his own lighted torch? To sufficiently respond with more than outrage to his racism and misogyny. To the wickedness of our republican congress? To the overt injustice of the Israeli Occupation? Do I look to my Jewish community? My lesbian community? Is it enough to put on my flannel shirt, climb on that winged horse, and barge forward howling?
Edit: Please note - with profound apologies, that I was incorrect in my mention of "the late Helen Epstein". The writer and scholar is very much alive.