From Yiddish to Yemenite: Jewish womens conference to celebrate community

Irena Klepfisz may be a secular Jew who rarely attends synagogue. But she still leads a committed Jewish life.

"To me there's a big difference between assimilation and secularism," she stresses. "To me secularism is not contentless identity."

The content of Klepfisz' Jewish identity is shaped by her feminism and lesbianism. Her love for Yiddish culture and work in teaching, writing and translating Yiddish women's fiction and poetry also play a key role.

But despite her strong cultural and historical identification with Judaism, Klepfisz feels that within the larger community, she and other secular Jews are often shunted aside.

The 54-year-old Brooklyn resident, a Ph.D. in English literature who has taught at several American universities, will explore that issue as keynote speaker at the upcoming 1995 Bay Area Jewish Women's Conference, titled Creating Diversity — Creating Community.

The Sunday, Nov. 5 conference at San Francisco's Fashion Center is open to Bay Area Jewish women of all ages and backgrounds. More than 80 workshops on Jewish identity, self-expression, social action, spirituality and Jewish learning will be offered.

Anita Friedman, executive director of Jewish Family and Children's Services in San Francisco, will also be a featured speaker, addressing "The Future of Community: Stories that will Break Your Heart and Restore Your Faith."

In Klepfisz' talk, "Vocabularies of Struggle: Jewish Feminism and Jewish Secularism," she plans to explore the nature of the rift between secular and observant Jews, as well as ideas for helping secularists support each other and make the community more welcoming of them.

Discussing the issue openly, she maintains, is the first step toward realizing the conference theme of creating a diverse Jewish community. "I think Jews are always struggling about who the real Jews are. This is an old, old question. I think we resist multiplicity, diversity."

In addition, she believes that a general attack on secularism in American society may be fueling the alienation Jewish secularists feel within their own community.

"We're deep into a fundamentalist approach where the Christian right is basically saying that unless you're religious, you don't have a moral base, you're valueless," she says. "This is something I think is very, very important to challenge."

It's also important to challenge attacks on feminism, Klepfisz says, adding that the 1970s version appears to be undergoing something of a backlash among the younger generation of women.

"I have been on campuses where women who are involved in rape crisis hotlines or battered women shelters and take women's studies classes say, `I don't consider myself a feminist because I don't want to appear radical or extreme,'" she says.

"Most of it is fear of the environment in this country, which is against appearing extreme and radical. In some ways, the times are kind of scary."

Radical or not, Klepfisz says Jewish feminists have made great strides in terms of entering the rabbinate, the cantorate and various other community leadership positions.

Now she would like to see Jewish secular feminists raising their voices to encourage and expose the accomplishments of fellow non-observant Jewish women. In Yiddish literature, she points out, the first anthology of women writers was published only recently. "It's partly because we're less organized and partly because we're less visible."

Among the offerings at the Nov. 5 conference, meanwhile, will be a workshop exploring the healing power of Jewish dance, a look at the experience of Yemenite Jewish women, a discussion of Jewish women and AIDS, and a forum where Jewish women of mixed racial backgrounds can share their experiences.

Also included will be a workshop aimed at creating rituals for Jewish women at midlife, a look at women in the Bible, a discussion of Jewish women and body image, and a conversation with local women rabbis.

The conference is being developed almost entirely by volunteers, directed by co-chairs Marriam Cramer Ring and Serena Eisenberg. They have modeled the event on the sold-out 1992 Jewish Women's Conference that attracted more than 650. This year, organizers say they expect some 1,000 participants.

The goal of the conference, they add, is to bring diverse women together for personal growth and enrichment of the Bay Area Jewish women's community.

Funding for the 1995 Jewish Women's Conference is provided by the Endowment Funds of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay, the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund, and 50 other organizations and individuals.