Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The One With Jewish Lesbians

One of the truly remarkable women of the late 20th-early 21st centuries - Dr. Sally Ride, the first American woman in space - passed away on July 23rd of pancreatic cancer. She was only 61. She leaves behind her wife of 27 years (but not legally - and don't get me started on how unfair that is), Dr. Tam O'Shaughnessy, one of the few women in the world whose name is more Irish than mine.

July 23rd, 2012 was the one-year anniversary of the passing of Amy Winehouse. In honor of these two blessed memories, I've decided to follow through on what I said I'd do two weeks ago and dedicate a post to the some of the world's truly remarkable Jewish lesbians. (Sally Ride - not Jewish; Amy Winehouse - not lesbian - just to clarify. They are linked only by their death dates and my train of thought.)

First and foremost (at least in literary circles), there's Gertrude Stein (born 1874, died 1946). Says American Women Poets: Pioneers of Modern Poetry by Jean Gould, speaking of Stein's college experience, "At Radcliffe, the most important person in her life was William James, the eminent psychologist. He influenced her thinking and, to a certain extent, her career as well. She was his favorite student. On the day of her final exam, a very lovely spring day, Gertrude, who had been going to the opera every night, just sat there with the paper staring her in the face. She simply could not face answering the questions. Finally she wrote at the top of the paper, 'Dear Professor James, I am so sorry but really I do not feel a bit like an examination paper in philosophy today.' And she left. The next day she received a post card from James saying, 'Dear Miss Stein, I understand perfectly how you feel. I often feel like that myself.' And underneath he gave her the highest mark in his course."

The balls on that one! Gould also wrote of her, "Perhaps because of the gay liberation movement, Gertrude Stein's poetry is to the younger generation of the sixties and seventies what Edna St. Vincent Millay's sonnets of flaunted free love were to the 'flaming youth' of the twenties." Stein's wife was also her secretary, Alice B. Toklas.

The New York Public Library Literature Companion refers to her not only as a poet, but also "novelist, playwright, and essayist" and says, "Stein was at the center of the modernist literary artistic scene and counted Picasso, Matisse, Hemingway, and Ford Madox Ford among her intimates....Widely known for her bons mots and literary quips, Stein originated the line 'a rose is a rose is a rose' (in her Geography and Plays, 1922)."

QPB Anthology of Women's Writing quotes her The Making of Americans as saying, "I wish I had died when I was a little baby and had not any feeling, I would not then have to be always suffering." The anthology furthermore says, "Her style has been described as Cubist, as Steinese (gnomic, repetitive, illogical, sparsely punctuated) as straightforward ('Sentences must not have bad plumbing - they must not leak,' in her words to F. Scott Fitzgerald)."

In The American Women's Almanac, she's mentioned in the context of Harlem Renaissance author Nella Larsen. "Nella Larsen wrote to Gertrude Stein, praising her handling of the 'mulatto' character in her 1909 novel Melanctha, 'I never cease to wonder how you came to write it and just why you and not some one of us should so accurately have caught the spirit of this race of mine.'"

...although I'm sure than even in 1909, there were plenty of fine writers of African descent working in the English language. On the other hand, the mainstream media still to this day tends to ignore writers of color. When E. Lynn Harris died, for example, I didn't find out until a month later when I saw a library display in his honor, and he had multiple New York Times best sellers. So, it's possible that Larsen was unaware of some of the other writers working in her own community. 

Gertrude Stein may not have been a very good student of philosophy, but Judith Butler certainly was. (I say "was" not because Butler is deceased, but because she's no longer a student.) Between 1987 and 2011, Butler has published 20 books on philosophy, gender, sexuality, politics, violence and religion. Her most recent is The Question of Gender: Joan W. Scott's Critical Feminism (21st Century Studies)Butler's wife is the feminist/activist/philosopher/political scientist Wendy Brown. 

Butler could have a fascinating conversation with another Jewish lesbian, Rabbi Denise Eger. Raised in Tennessee, Reb Eger is now based in the Los Angeles area. She officiated the first legal wedding between two women in L.A. She's an expert on Judaism as well as a civil rights and HIV/AIDS activist. 

Another prominent name in Jewish lesbian sacred circles was Debbie Friedman, who passed away in January 2011. Friedman was a singer-songwriter-guitarist, and the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music at Hebrew-Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is named in her honor. She has 22 albums to her credit.

Friedman's secular counterpart is singer-songwriter Janis Ian. Her most famous songs are "Society's Child" and "At Seventeen," the latter of which won her a Grammy. ("At Seventeen" has been used in three episodes of The Simpsons.) She's also a columnist, a huge science fiction fan who frequently attends conventions and a writer of short science fiction stories. 

Other Jewish lesbians from the entertainment world include comedian Julie Goldman and Ilene Chaiken, the screenwriter/director/producer responsible for Showtime's The L Word. 

So there you have it - a basic primer of some of the more famous lesbian women of Jewish descent. By the way, the Canadian writer Leanne Lieberman, who wrote the Jewish lesbian young adult novel Gravity? Not a lesbian. An author worth checking out, though. 

For further Internet stalking: Via Jinni T., a.k.a. The Purple Junkie, I stumbled upon the LGBTQ+ history blog KnowHomo, whence I discovered this graphic of LGBTQ+ Jews. 

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