A Feminist DNA: Exploring a Political/Intellectual History


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A Feminist DNA: Exploring a Political/Intellectual History
  A Feminist DNA: Exploring a Political/IntellectualHistoryDebbie Epstein Cardif ni!ersity "c#ool o$ "ocial "ciences Being Jewish—Beyond the Pale Before the opening credits of the Coen Brothers’ lm,  A Serious Man  (Coen& Coen 2009), a prologue tells a story from the shtetl 1   . n old man arri!eshome late "ecause the #heel came o$ his #agon on the #ay "ac% from the mar%et and an old neigh"our, #hom he has in!ited to come to share the soup his #ife is ma%ing, helped him #ith the repair. he insists that the neigh"our died of typhus three years "efore and that the 'person’ #ho helped him must "e a dybbuk  a #andering spirit from the dead, usually mischie!ous or male!olent .  here is a %noc% on the door* the dybbuk  +helper arri!es for the soup. he fearful #ife sta"s the !isitor, insisting that he is a dybbuk  . he !isitor does not "leed, "ut staggers out of the cottage. Because a dybbuk   #ould not die, this lea!es open the uestion of his true identity. he lm proper, set in -90s mid/est merica, tells the story of the peasants’ descendant, 1arry opnic%, a uni!ersity professor currently up -   htetls #ere 3e#ish !illages some#here in the 4ale of ettlementthe srcin of the phrase '"eyond the pale’esta"lished "y Catherine the reatto e5clude 3e#s from sarist 6ussia..-  for tenure. 7t traces the terri"le, tragicomic things that happen to him and his family* his life "ears the trace of his ancestor’s o$ence to the dybbuk  . 8or me, the lm is uintessentially an e5ploration not only of morality, a modern interpretation of the story of 3o", "ut also of #hat it means to "e  3e#ish. Culturally and historically, 3e#s are, indeed, haunted "y our pasts.1i%e the Coen "rothers’ lm, my story "egins in a shtetl . ere it #as that, despite the fact that 3e#ish girls #ere generally denied an education, my great/great/aunt, :irelle ;uc%erman, #as famed for her studies of the Torah  and Talmud 2  and had once, possi"ly uniuely for a 3e#ish #oman, (successfully) defended herself in a ra""inical court. :irelle’s spirit continues through my dista$ inheritances, not as a male!olent presence, "ut rather ma%ing mischief through the line of feminist thin%ers and acti!ists in my family< in traditional 3e#ish thin%ing, "eing a 3e# is inherited through the maternal line. The Dybbuk of Heritage long #ith 90= of outh frican 3e#s, my family #ere migrants from 17thuania. :y mother’s parents arri!ed at the turn of the -9 th  century and their children #ere "orn in outh frica. :y father, his mother and sister  >oined his father in outh frica around -9-?. hese 3e#s #ere @eeing the pogroms of sarist 6ussia, of #hich my father had !i!id memories. 1i%e many others, my grandparents "rought #ith them a commitment to socialism and atheism, often de!eloped, ironically enough, in the Yeshivas  (religious schools) #here the "oys #ere educated. his may "e "ecause a 2    he "oo% of ra""inical arguments and commentaries on the Torah  (the !e "oo%s of :oses) and the la#. 7t is the Talmud  that pro!ides the "asis of 3e#ish la#.2  signicant part of ra""inical education is de!oted to the de!elopment of  pilpul , the a"ility to argue in detail, to analyse a sentence, a concept or a te5t. he conseuent culture of intellectual argumentation, indeed deconstruction (and may"e it is not a coincidence that Aerrida #as  3e#ish), led many Yeshiva  students of the late nineteenth century to a"andon religion in fa!our of some form of socialism. :y family #ere therefore part of the atheist, socialist+communist 3e#ish community, manyof #hom #ere later to "e found amongst #hite anti/ apartheid  acti!ists andthe tradition of argumentation #as carried for#ard into my family of srcinand "eyond. s the nineteenth century turned into the t#entieth, outh frica #as already split racially "et#een #hite and "lac% inha"itants. here #as also con@ict "et#een nglish/ and fri%aans/spea%ing #hite outh fricans. 7n a#rangling common in many countries at the time (see 6oediger -99 for adiscussion of ho# some, "ut not other, migrants to the Dnited tates "ecame #hite), 3e#s #ere, e!entually, designated as #hite and therefore "eneted from the pri!ileges of #hite supremacy, #hilst continuing to endure signicant antisemitism. :ost outh frican 3e#s, including my family, left their early po!erty "ehind them #ithin a generation and >oined the professional middle classes. :y paternal grandfather descri"ed himself as a 'freethin%er’ (that is, an atheist) and #as e!idently something of a socialisthe supported stri%ing outh frican miners "y supplying them #ith food from his corner shop #ithout ma%ing them pay, lea!ing his o#n family almost destitute. :y paternal grandmother too% seriously religious in>unctions a"out gi!ing to ?  the poor, impressing on my father the duty to treat poor people #ithout charge #hen he "ecame a doctor. :y mother’s parents #ere socialist, atheist 3e#s. :y grandfather, "ram, descri"ed himself in a letter to rots%y (#ho #as then in e5ile in :e5ico) in -9?9 as 'a supporter of the  th  international local group’ ? . :y earliest political memory #as of him sho#ing me photographs of three men #ith "eards:ar5, 1enin and rots%yand e5plaining ho# important they #ere, and that t#o of them #ere 3e#ish. :y maternal grandmother, y"il, #as a strong socialist and feminist, acti!ein the outh frican su$ragette mo!ement  . he #as e5ercised a"out #omen’s reproducti!e rights and told me of her o#n t#o illegal a"ortions. Ene result of her feminism, and my grandfather’s support for it, #as that all of their four daughters #ere e5ceptionally #ell educated for #omen of their time, #ith careers in medicine, music, horticulture and science. :y mother, 4olly (-90/-999) studied horticulture in 4retoria "efore #inning ascholarship to do a masters degree at the Dni!ersity of California, Aa!is. he #as forced "y the marriage "ar to lea!e her >o" #hen my parents married in -9?. er sister, my aunt i%!ah F , studied physics and mathematics at the Dni!ersity of Cape o#n "efore going to Berlin to study for her 4hA #ith 1isa :eitner, lea!ing "efore completing her doctorate #hen itler #as elected. ? :uch of this information is dra#n from the "iography of my parents #ritten "y my daughter, Aiana 4aton (-992) hite outh frican #omen got the !ote in -9?0.F here are se!eral o"ituaries for i%!ah online, for e5ample http<++###.independent.co.u%+ne#s+people+o"ituary//ti%!ah/alper/--0-2?.html (accessed 22 8e"ruary 20-2).   Moral Mischief: a South African hildhood   hese #omen, together #ith my grandfather and father, encouraged me to >oin in 'adult’ discussions of politics, fairness, >ustice, the rights of #omen, the e!ils of apartheid, and other ma>or issues from an early age. 4olitical struggle #as a part of e!ery day li!ed family e5perience. 7n -9F-,  i%!ah "ecame one of the rst people to "e threatened #ith the loss of herpassport "y the apartheid regime and @ed to the DG. :ean#hile, my mother in!ol!ed me directly in her acti!ism, ta%ing me #ith her #hen it #as her turn in a rota of li"eral #hite #omen to feed the prisoners in the early days the rst "ig reason rial of anti/apartheid acti!ists  . 7 still ma%ethe soup for 4asso!er in the saucepan that she used to gi!e those on trial, including Helson :andela, their meals. 7n -9FI, #hen 7 #as t#el!e, 7 accompanied her to gi!e lifts to to#nship people "oycotting the "uses, "ut#ho ne!ertheless needed to get to #or% in. t - 7 attended my rst formal political meeting #ith my parents, #hich the then leader of the HC, Chief l"ert 1uthuli, descri"ed #hat happened in the follo#ing terms< he police arri!ed too late to pre!ent the distur"ance #ith #hich this meeting "egan.  #ell/organised group of fri%aner men entered, and "efore any"ody #as a#are of #hat #as de!eloping they assaulted the chairman and secretary J and the guest spea%er.  he secretary (a #oman) #as @ung into the auditorium, and 7 found myself "eing systematically %ic%ed under the platform ta"le. Eur assailants re!ealed at their trial that they acted as they did "ecausethe considered it grossly improper for an frican to address a #hite gathering. (1uthuli -92< 2-2) ee http<++###.history#or%shop.org.u%+radical/o">ect/my/mothers/saucepan+ for a photograph and e5planation of the saucepan.F
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