Jewish feminists mull the past and eye the future

In the early years of her career, Rita Semel was a "copy boy."

Neither her job nor her title at the San Francisco Chronicle were unusual during World War II. Many American women followed Rosie the Riveter's lead, trading aprons for coveralls while their husbands, boyfriends, fathers and brothers fought on the front lines overseas.

Semel even signed a release, standard practice at the time, agreeing to give up her job when the boys came home.

"We [women] didn't think a thing of it. Women in the city room were pretty much unheard of at the time anyway," she remembers.

What made Semel different from many of her contemporaries was a desire to remain a part of the workforce after the war. When the ticker-tape parades ended, she didn't return to the kitchen but instead accepted a position as assistant editor at what is now the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California.

Later Semel moved from the newsroom to the family room, creating a home office for her freelance public-relations work when she and her husband had their babies in the 1950s.

"I had two kids, a job, drove carpool, entertained. Does that make me a feminist? I suppose," remarks Semel, who lives in San Francisco. "The term wasn't even coined yet and my husband was a women's libber before Betty Friedan introduced the phrase. He supported everything I did and wanted to do.

"I'm sure it would have been easier for him if I'd stayed at home and cooked and cleaned. I did that too. Just not particularly well."

Semel acknowledges that she made education, career and family choices at a time when most women were not afforded the same opportunity. Thankfully, the situation is different today, she observes.

One difference is that today Jewish feminists have a publication in which they can chart and discuss the changes and choices in their lives. For more than 18 years, Lilith, the New York-based Jewish feminist magazine, has served as a forum and link for Jewish women.

As the publication can now look back on last year's chai (life) anniversary, Bay Area women such as Semel simultaneously recall past struggles and anticipate the issues and leaders that will emerge in the Jewish feminist movement in the coming years.

"The bottom line is that there are many different ways of expressing one's feminism and one's Judaism," Semel says. "For example, there's this assumption that all Orthodox women do is shave their heads, wear wigs and bake challah. That's just not true. Feminism does not belong to just the Reform and unaffiliated."

Nan Fink, of Oakland, is living proof.

A co-founder of Tikkun magazine, from which she broke away several years ago to focus on her own writing, Fink converted to Judaism more than a decade ago — twice. The first time was with a Conservative rabbi, the second with an Orthodox one.

For the last several years she has been associated with the Jewish renewal movement, which, she explains, "experiments with ritual and creates a space where even secular Jews feel comfortable."

Her effort is to create new ritual that addresses women within established Judaism. Tradition can create a barrier, she observes.

"In Orthodoxy, for example, the same morning service is done everywhere in the world. It's not so complicated for, say, Protestants to include more women. Their body of ritual isn't so concrete. It's not so complicated," Fink says.

Berkeley resident Pat Cohn, member of Dyke Shabbos, a monthly Sabbath service for lesbians and bisexuals, has been working to create feminized liturgy since the early 1980s.

"[Dyke Shabbos] reworked things and patchkied around. More than anything, we wanted to find a way to give women more participation and an equal voice," Cohn says. "The easiest way to shut a woman, or anyone, up is to tell her that her words don't count."

Cohn believes that by maintaining a certain level of invisibility, by "not rocking the boat," both Jews and women have functioned successfully in America. But she believes this coping mechanism is neither healthy nor productive — "We just end up silencing each other."

She is glad to see attitudes changing, she says, as coalitions are built.

Cohn points to the now-defunct Jewish Women's Newsletter, which she edited and published from 1985 to 1990, to show how women of all backgrounds can rally around an issue. An edition focusing on food, for example, might feature an Orthodox woman working in a soup kitchen and a secular Jewish baker making challah in a nonkosher establishment.

"We tried to chronicle lives and talk about issues of concern to women with an integrative approach. I looked at it like a French country garden, where the anise and the rosemary and the tomatoes all grow together," she says.

Lilith, she adds, plays much the same role — by "dealing with taboo subjects, breaking down women's sense of isolation, and representing many voices."

Today, about half the students attending Hebrew Union College and Jewish Theological Seminary's rabbinic and cantorial classes, Lilith's editors point out, are now women. Females in Jewish leadership positions, like Rita Semel — who was associate director and then director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council from 1970 to 1989 — hardly cause a second glance anymore.

So Lilith's editors are expanding the publication's role.

To help increase women's influence, says editor-in-chief Susan Weidman Schneider, Lilith has grown from a magazine to an organization that includes a talent bank, resource center and speakers' bureau. Rather than constantly having to reinvent the wheel, women can learn from each other through Lilith's services, she says.

"We're a lifeline."

But Fink hoists a red flag: "As there is a general backlash against feminism in America, there is also within Jewish feminism. It's not in the bag that this [progress] will continue. Early Jewish feminist leaders [such as Letty Cottin Pogrebin and Bella Abzug] named the problems. The challenge now is developing troops to get in and continue the work."