Evelyn Torton Beck
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Evelyn Torton Beck (born January 18, 1933) has been described as "a scholar, a teacher, a feminist, and an outspoken Jew and lesbian". Until her retirement in 2002 she specialized in women's studies, Jewish women's studies and lesbian studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. Beck has published a number of essays and books on Judaism. She came to wider prominence in 1982 with her book, Nice Jewish Girls: A Lesbian Anthology, a compilation of poems, essays, reminiscences and short stories, believed to be the first published collection of works by lesbian Jewish women in the United States.
Nice Jewish Girls: A Lesbian Anthology (1982)
"Why Is This Book Different from All Other Books?"
- According to Jewish Law, this book is written by people who do not exist. I assure you, it's all very logical: we're not proscribed because we don't exist. If we existed, believe me, they'd be against us.
- I began to understand the limits that the dominant culture places on "otherness." You could be a Jew and people would recognize that as a religious or ethnic affiliation or you could be a lesbian and some people would recognize that as an "alternative lifestyle" or "sexual preference," but if you tried to claim both identities-publicly and politically-you were exceeding the limits of what was permitted to the marginal. You were in danger of being perceived as ridiculous and threatening.
- In Vienna in 1938, when I was five years old and Hitler came to power, visibility was not safe. Schools were closed to me, as were parks, stores, restaurants. Once I was sent to buy butter because I was blonde and did not look Jewish. Men came and took my father away.
- My family history is a series of gaps, leaving questions to mark the spaces: What happened to my father while he was gone? Who took us in after the Nazis evicted us from our apartment? How did we get by after they confiscated the small business my father had painstakingly built up over the years? How did my father get out of the camps? My parents talked about those years, selectively. And not often.
- For many of us, unexpectedly, the experience of coming out as lesbians was a crucial step toward our coming out as Jews. The experience of being outside the bounds of society as a lesbian makes a woman more willing to acknowledge other ways in which she stands outside. It becomes increasingly harder to ignore the signals of outsiderhood. And soon one doesn't want to.
- To be born a Jew is to be part of a unified culture that is also extremely diverse.
- Historically, Jews have been proud of our non-homogeneous thinking and our skills in seeing complexity. "Three Jews, four opinions," is a maxim quoted with pride.
- I was pained but not surprised to feel invisible as a lesbian among Jews. I was terribly disappointed and confused to feel invisible as a Jew among lesbians. While lesbian-feminists have increasingly begun to acknowledge diversity, anti-Semitism is still not taken seriously in the lesbian-feminist movement. Anti-Semitism has not been included by name in the important litany of "isms" against which the movement has pledged itself to struggle: sexism, heterosexism, racism, classism, ageism, able-bodyism.
- Isn't it vital for us to make connections between oppressions? To see in what ways anti-Semitism, racism, and other forms of oppression are different and alike?
- In response to an upsetting confrontation between Jewish women and women of color in a New England regional Women's Studies Conference,** Cherríe Moraga (et al.) wrote in Gay Community News, "We don't have to be the same to have a movement, but we do have to be accountable for our ignorance. In the end, finally, we must refuse to give up on each other."
- We have come to understand that white women must work on their racism with each other, that such education is not the burden of women of color.
- Why is it often difficult to see parallels? Do we resist seeing them? Need one oppression cancel out another? Would the recognition that it is not either/or but both/and be too overwhelming? What would happen if we admitted that oppressed groups can themselves be oppressive? In the face of this complexity, a few facts remain clear: oppression is never less oppressive simply because it takes a different form.
- I had managed to rationalize my shock and dismay when I found the narrator of Ruby fruit Jungle (by Rita Mae Brown) describing the fat Jewish girl Barbara Spangenthau as someone who "always had her hand in her pants playing with herself, and worse, she stank. Until I was fifteen I thought that being Jewish meant you walked around with your hand in your pants." In 1974, as an emerging lesbian, I didn't want to admit that the movement's leading fiction writer was basing her humor on age-old anti-Semitic stereotypes. I simply couldn't afford to take it in. So I kept silent. In those early years of struggle it seemed unworthy to make a fuss. And worse-it seemed divisive. I could not yet claim my anger. I wanted too much to belong...Bertha Harris' novel lover shocked me by its reliance on Jewish stereotypes, associating Jews with violence, sex and money. Jewish physical characteristics are consistently seen as exotic and dangerous...while there are quite a number of Jewish characters in Jan Clausen's short story collection Mother, Sister, Daughter, Lover, not one of them has any positive attributes.
- That virtually no reviews of these highly-praised and widely-read authors mention anti-Semitism is a symptom of how little consciousness there is of this issue. Fortunately, excellent guidelines that would help raise consciousness are available. Paul E. Grosser and Edwin G. Halperin in Anti-Semitism: The Causes and Effects of a Prejudice, include an extended discussion of how to analyze anti-Semitism in works of literature while keeping in mind the integrity and responsibility of the artist.
- I started this project in a spirit of optimism, rooted in my pleasure (and relief) at finally having found a sense of congruence for the pieces of my life. I have since become increasingly sobered by the ramifications of what it can mean to want to say: I am a Jewish lesbian. The truth is that it is extremely difficult to identify oneself as a Jew outside the long shadow of anti-Semitism. It is like trying to imagine what it would feel like to be a lesbian in a non-homophobic world. So this book has become the exploration of complexities, as well as a celebration of our survival.
- Probably the single most insistent theme in this book, repeated with variation and from many different angles and perspectives, directed at both non-Jewish lesbians and non-lesbian Jews, is the desire of the contributors to be "all of who we are."
- What I hope is that this book will also open a dialogue with the rabbonim. Well, maybe not the rabbonim, but with members of the Jewish community-at-large. I'd like them to shep naches from our contributions to Jewish life. I'd like to hear them say "mazel tov" instead of "oy gevald" when they see we've made a book of our own.
- I want the radicalism of the very outrageous, very outspoken, very political lesbian-feminists, Maxine Feldman, Robin Tyler, Alix Dobkin, and Linda Shear to be recognized as part of the Jewish radical-activist tradition in Eastern Europe. As comics, Feldman and Tyler follow the tradition of Jewish storytellers and wedding jesters (who warned the brides against marriage), whose job it was to keep the community laughing and crying, revealing it to itself: “Jewish women within the movement have often been the ones to change their names. . . . My last name is obviously very Jewish. Someone once asked me why I hadn't changed my name. I said to them, "I think you better check your anti-Semitism. Why haven't you asked Meg Christian?" (Maxine Feldman)
"Next Year in Jerusalem?"
- For many Jews, the question of Israel is the most complex and confusing aspect of identifying as a Jew today. Israel is undoubtedly a patriarchy and theocracy hostile to women and lesbians; there are also serious problems with its foreign policy and its treatment of Palestinians. Jews of color who live in Israel experience racism, classism, and the elitism of Ashkenazi Jews. This situation becomes even more complex when we realize the strong Sephardic backing of the present Begin administration.
- The degree of public and private hatred unleashed onto Israel seems far out of proportion to what Israel has actually done (in comparison to other countries, such as England, France, Belgium, and the Soviet Union-whose right to existence is not questioned).
- Jewish lesbian-feminists cannot help but feel critical toward the present Israeli government. Yet, Israel mirrors the pluralism behind the initial Zionist impulse. Israel was to be all things to all Jews. Instead, it became simply a nation among nations, nothing more and nothing less. Let us understand its limitations and work to change it to be a place that we can comfortably call a Jewish homeland.
- Is it not anti-Semitic for women to refuse to work with Israeli feminists solely because of their nationality, especially since many of these Israeli women are courageously taking stances against their government?
Quotes about Evelyn Torton Beck
- I feel I was very lucky, though, because when I came out, which was in 1973, New York was just hopping. It was exploding. It was after Stonewall. Lesbians started getting organized. I belonged to a group of lesbian writers. There were four of us who decided to start Conditions magazine, for example, and before that we had a group called Di Vilde Chayas [the wild animals], which was a group that had Adrienne Rich, Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz, Gloria Greenfield, and Evelyn Beck, who did Nice Jewish Girls.
- Irena Klepfisz, Interview (2018)