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The Jews of "Little Women"

Monday, November 19, 2018 | Permalink

By Emily Schneider

This year marks the 150th anniversary of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Readers will recall the novel’s unforgettable female characters: domestic Meg, artistic Amy, spiritual Beth, and, of course, strong-willed and literary Jo. Recent works, including Anne Boyd Rioux’s Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters, celebrate Alcott’s book as an enduring cultural touchstone. But even those who’ve read Little Women may not recall the presence of Jews in the story. Three members of our tribe make brief appearances—so fleeting that, if you aren’t Jewish, they may seem inconsequential. None of them are major characters; none even speak. They are marginalized people playing limited roles in the world of the March sisters. Now would be a good time to bring these minor characters to center stage.

All of the Jewish characters in Little Women appear in the chapter “New Impressions,” an account of Amy’s experiences in Nice on her tour of Europe. The chapter begins with Alcott’s colorful description of the Promenade des Anglais, the broad, tree-shaded street which attracts both the city’s residents and its eclectic visitors: “Haughty English, lively French, sober Germans, handsome Spaniards, ugly Russians, meek Jews, free-and-easy Americans . . .” The Annotated Little Women, edited by John Matteson, provides a footnote to explain the “ugly Russians”: apparently, Alcott’s friendship with the Polish patriot Ladislas Wisniewski had made her suspicious of his Russian oppressors. Matteson doesn’t find it necessary to explain the rest of this litany of cultural characteristics. They are obvious. Americans were brash and uninhibited, Germans serious and scholarly, and Spaniards were exotically attractive. Jews were meek. They were stateless, and only recently emancipated by law in France, freed from ghettos and onerous legal restrictions. Still, one would have thought that in an edition comparable in size to a volume of the Talmud, Matteson might have remarked on this condescending adjective, and the historical conditions that made it normal to label Jews as such. Ironically, in an earlier chapter he apologizes for Jo’s offer to play an instrument she calls the “Jew’s harp,” assuring readers that “it has no particular connection to Judaism . . . Though Jo uses the term innocently, the name . . . is now sometimes thought offensive.” I’m impressed by Matteson’s sensitivity, though it seems selective.

The mention of the next Jewish character is really curious. Not presented previously in the narrative, he shows up in a casual statement as if needing no introduction. Amy has to collect her mail at her banker’s and, Alcott narrates, “At Avigdor’s she found the precious home-letters.” (She learns from one of these letters that her beloved sister Beth is not long for this world, a key plot point in the novel.) There was a family by the name of Avigdor, a Hebrew name, in nineteenth-century Nice, and banking was a profession associated with the city’s small Jewish population from medieval times. Again, there is no comment in the annotated edition to remark on this. Perhaps to both Alcott and her readers, the identification of Jews with money was obvious, and lent a realistic touch to her detailed portrait of a foreign city.

Complicating Alcott’s portrayals of Jews is the fact that she herself may have had Sephardic ancestry, something Matteson and other scholars have noted. Although the genealogy is not clear, Alcott’s maternal family, the Mays, seem to have referred to this possibility. In Marmee and Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother, author Eve LaPlante makes this claim, and Matteson also notes it in a somewhat unconvincing explanation of why Jo is called a “Sancho,” in allusion to the Spanish novel Don Quixote.

Yet Alcott’s ethnic background does not seem to have influenced her description of the most glaringly clichéd Jewish character in the book—a guest at the Christmas party held at Amy’s hotel. Rubbing elbows with the diverse crowd that includes a Russian prince, a Polish count, and an unranked German noble, is an associate of someone whose significance would be easily recognized by nineteenth-century readers: “Baron Rothschild’s private secretary, a large-nosed Jew, in tight boots, [who] affably beamed upon the world as if his master’s name crowned him with a golden halo.” While Matteson fills in the details, explaining that Rothschild’s secretary was Frank Romer, and even makes mention of his wife, artist Louise Goode Romer Jopling, he ignores Alcott’s description of Romer. But the stereotypes wrapped up in her portrait of the secretary are difficult to brush off. Emphasizing the character’s large nose effectively codes him as an outsider, while his “golden halo” seems to draw a parallel between his religion with the precious metal of wealth. His tight boots also emphasize his poor understanding of social cues in polite society; for all his wealth, he cannot choose proper footwear. Surely Alcott’s choice of words is relevant to Matteson’s scholarship, particularly since they form a summary of Jewish stereotypes of the era.

So, should Jews boycott Alcott’s work and campaign to have her removed from the canon? Of course not. It’s intriguing that Jews were present in the author’s mind, and that she brought them, even momentarily, into the rich and expansive canvas of her novel. Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy will survive evolving standards of cultural and religious respect. But Avigdor, the Baron de Rothschild’s secretary, and those meek and unobtrusive Jews of Nice also merit our attention.

Image via Houghton Library, Harvard University/Wikimedia Commons

Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children's books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.

New Reviews November 19, 2018

Monday, November 19, 2018 | Permalink

New Reviews November 12, 2018

Monday, November 12, 2018 | Permalink

Help Us Find the World's Best Jewish Bookstores

Wednesday, November 07, 2018 | Permalink

More and more, Jewish bookstores (like so many brick and mortar shops) are either moving online or shutting down. But we know that some gems remain—shops where you can find religious texts next to contemporary literary novels, or where yahrtzeit candles and menorahs mingle with books of poetry. We want to compile a resource of the best remaining Jewish bookstores. Share your favorites in the form below, and we'll share the best responses we receive in a future article. If you have a high-quality photo, even better! Send it along to natalie@jewishbooks.org with the subject line "Jewish Bookstore."

In World War II-Era North Carolina, A Haven for German Jewish Artists and Academics

Tuesday, November 06, 2018 | Permalink

By Charles Darwent

Interviewed in 1967, Josef Albers, nearing eighty, was asked why he had spent nearly two decades at a small liberal arts school in North Carolina, having previously been a Meister at the Bauhaus (and would later become head of the design department at Yale). After a measured pause, Albers replied, “My gratitude to Black Mountain, [that] they had saved us from the Nazis.” His wife, Anni, added quietly, “In fact, we had to leave because of my background.” On both counts, they were not alone.

Set up by a group of offbeat U.S. academics in 1933, Black Mountain College would offer a safe haven to fifty-two refugees from Nazi Germany, almost all of them Jews. One of these was Anni Albers. Her mother, Toni, was born into the powerful Ullstein publishing dynasty. Like her daughter, she was baptized a Protestant; such assimilative niceties were lost on the Nazis, however. Within weeks of Hitler taking power in January 1933, Germans of Jewish ancestry were banned from academia and the professions. The country’s avant-garde, too, came under attack. In April 1933, teachers at the Bauhaus arrived to find its gates locked and buildings taken over by the Gestapo. In July, the school’s director, Mies van der Rohe, closed it down. Four weeks later, Black Mountain College opened its doors in a wooden antebellum mansion outside Asheville, North Carolina.

The timing could not have been more perfect. As Ted Dreier, one of the school’s founders, recalled, Black Mountain was short an art teacher. He turned for advice to the architect Philip Johnson, then at the Museum of Modern Art. Johnson had visited an earlier iteration of the Bauhaus, at Dessau in Saxony. Aware of what was happening under Hitler, he suggested Dreier write to Josef Albers. Desperate to leave Germany, the ex-Bauhaus Meister and his weaver wife leapt at the offer of jobs at a school that was far away, poor, and tenuous. Neither had heard of North Carolina. Anni hazarded that it might be in the Philippines; Josef spoke no English. Nonetheless, on December 5, the pair stepped from a train to be picked up by the Dreiers in their Model A Ford. “GERMANS TO TEACH ART NEAR HERE,” announced an astonished Asheville Citizen.

At first, the Albers wondered what they had come to. A year earlier, another college had opened in Asheville: called Galahad, this preached the mystical Fascism of its founder, William Dudley Pelley, who agitated for Jews to be rounded up in ghettos. Black Mountain, seventeen miles from Asheville, kept its distance. So, too, from the mainstream of American academia. Jewish academics arriving at other U.S. institutions found their reception less than warm: the Classicist and philosopher Ernst Manasse recalled meeting with as much anti-Semitism in American universities as he had in German ones. Realizing their luck at having come to Black Mountain, the Albers set about getting their friends there: first, in 1935, the psychiatrists Fritz and Anna Moellenhoff, for whose Berlin flat Josef had designed furniture; then, in 1936, the dramatist and ex-Bauhausler Xanti Schawinsky. Jewish organizations took note of Black Mountain’s open door, and pressed it to take more refugees.

It obliged. In 1938 came the phenomenologist Erwin Straus, along with the former conductor of the Cologne opera, Heinrich Jalowetz, and his wife and daughter. They were joined by musicologist Edward Lowinsky and his violinist wife, Gretel; then by Fritz Cohen, founder of the Jooss Ballet company, and his wife, the dancer Elsa Kahl. In 1944, via Norway, Siberia and Japan, came noted mathematician Max Dehn. By the end of the Second World War, Black Mountain’s sixty students were matched, more or less head for head, by Jewish émigré teachers and their spouses and families. They made up what may have been the densest concentration of intellect in the United States.

It wasn’t only the staff’s eminence that made it extraordinary. So small were the college’s numbers and shallow its pockets that teachers were forced to double up on subjects: thus Max Dehn taught not just mathematics but Latin and Greek. This early experiment in what would later be called interdisciplinarity came to define Black Mountain. Staff as well as students benefited: Josef Albers sat in on Dehn’s math lessons, Dehn took Albers’s art course. After the war, American-born academics and artists would embrace Black Mountain’s blurring of boundaries: John Cage’s dance/art/drama Theatre Piece No. 1, considered to be the first Happening, was staged in the dining hall in 1952. By then, Dehn and Jalowetz were dead, buried in the college’s woods; the Albers had moved on to Yale, Schawinsky to Chicago. The German-Jewish colony in the Blue Ridge Mountains was ended, but not its significance.

Charles Darwent is an art critic and reviewer and author of the biography Josef Albers: Life and Work, published by Thames & Hudson (November 2018). He contributes regularly to the Guardian, the Art Newspaper and ArtReview. He appeared in the Netflix series, Raiders of the Lost Art, from 2014 to 2016. His publications include Mondrian in London and The Drawing Book: A Survey of Drawing.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

New Reviews November 5, 2018

Monday, November 05, 2018 | Permalink

Only We Can Save Us: A Brief History of Jewish Superheroes, Real and Fictional

Thursday, November 01, 2018 | Permalink

By Adam Nemett

As I was finishing my debut novel, We Can Save Us All—about a group of Ivy Leaguers who respond to apocalyptic indicators by forming a student movement inspired by superheroes—my editor asked me why Jewish writers, from the scribes of the Old Testament to Michael Chabon, are so often called to the superhero genre.

I prepared a knee-jerk response—something about tikkun olam, perhaps, the Jewish notion of repairing the world. My real answer is: Jews have no choice but to reckon with notions of strength versus weakness, with the potential for progress versus history repeating itself, with good versus evil. In good times we can distract ourselves from such concerns, but they’re always there, like the Hulk rage monster bottled inside nerdy Bruce Banner. And in times of rising white supremacy and anti-Semitism, like now, it becomes necessary to deal with them head-on.

The first Superman was evil. In the 1933 comic, “The Reign of the Superman,” two Cleveland Jews, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, envisioned their initial Superman as a bum plucked from the breadline and transformed into a telepathic supervillain. But, according to Siegel, once he saw the plight of Jews in Nazi Germany, he decided he wanted to “help the despairing masses, somehow." So, Superman was transformed from an evil tyrant to a savior. Born with the distinctly Jewish-sounding name Kal-El, he was sent into space from dying Krypton as part of a planetary pogrom and adopted by kindly Midwesterners—Moses in the reeds. By February 1940, Superman was dragging Hitler and Stalin to the international courts, with a feature in LOOK magazine depicting the two “power-mad scoundrels” being convicted of “modern history’s greatest crime—unprovoked aggression against defenseless countries.”

From the beginning, we’ve been conditioned to expect Superman to come, a messiah who can rid a “defenseless” Jewry of this never-ending cruelty. There are antecedents and descendants, heroes who came before and after Superman: There were mythical Jewish strongmen like Samson. There was the Golem, that Frankenstein-like monster of incredible strength, made animate from a mass of clay, sent to protect the Jews of Prague. And there were real-life heroes. One of these was the “Iron King,” the “Strongest Man in the World," the “Superman of the Ages”: Siegmund Breitbart.

A Yiddish-speaking Polish Jew, Siegmund “Zishe” Breitbart became one of Vienna’s most popular stars of circus and stage amid the rising anti-Semitism of 1920s Austria. He was similarly famous around the globe (on his North American tour of 1923, he even came to Cleveland, possibly influencing Siegel and Shuster). He demonstrated superhuman feats of strength, performing in the costumes of earlier heroes: cowboy; gladiator; Tarzan; even Shimon bar Kokhba, the Judean revolutionary who rose up against Roman rule in 132 CE (Though his rebellion was ultimately crushed, many believed Bar Kokhba was the messiah who'd come to deliver victory for them. Bar Kokhba was a humanist, however, and explicitly relied on his own powers when entering into battle).

After Breitbart and Superman came the Golden Age of Comics, and its lineage of crime fighters, saviors, superheroes, and mutants—mostly created by Jews.

There’s the cast of Marvel characters co-created by Stanley Lieber (Stan Lee): Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, Doctor Strange, the Fantastic Four, Black Panther, the X-Men, Ant-Man, Iron Man and Thor. Before Marvel was The Spirit, a middle-class vigilante in a domino mask, created by Will Eisner; Batman, the upper-class caped crusader created by Robert Kahn (Bob Kane) and Milton Finger (Bill Finger); and Captain America, the working-class super-soldier created by Hymie Simon (Joe Simon) and Jacob Kurtzberg (Jack Kirby). Captain America’s debut in 1941 showed him socking Hitler in the jaw, a confident intro before America had even entered the war.

What are we to do with this genealogy, this legacy of icons that have dominated global popular culture for decades, only rising in prominence due to the recent slate of DC and Marvel blockbusters? From Bar Kokhba to Captain America, Jews are drawn to the promise of an intervening hero who can, in the words of historian Arnold L. Goldsmith in his study The Golem Remembered, “mitigate their suffering and lead them to the messianic redemption their religion taught them to expect.”

But what if we stopped looking, stopped waiting, stopped crying out for someone else to lead us to salvation? What if we instead found superpowers within, a way to catalyze a new future rather than replaying the past?

Last weekend, a hate-filled lunatic massacred eleven Jews in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue. Last year, eleven days after my daughter was born, Nazis invaded my town, picked fights in our streets, cracked a black man’s skull in the garage next to the police station, weaponized a car to kill an innocent woman.

It wasn’t some superhuman mud monster, and it certainly wasn’t the government or police who battled white supremacists in Charlottesville on August 11–12, 2017; it was a committed and heroic group of ordinary people, many of them among the most vulnerable to attacks from the alt-right: women, people of color, the LGBTQ community.

Our collective faith and individual relationships with the Divine are undoubtedly part of why our culture has survived and thrived. But Jews can't afford to wait for our latest messianic savior, real or fictional. We must work together and as part of a multiracial coalition against white supremacy. We must be our own saviors. 

And that can mean many things.

It doesn’t have to entail fighting with fists or militarizing our synagogues, but it certainly doesn’t mean waiting or hoping or praying that someone else will swoop in and save the day. It means doing something, taking action, tapping into whatever powers you have and cultivating them. It means deploying humor and art and knowledge and bravery. It means mutating beyond our collective history, recalling the heroism inborn and discovered in Jewish communities. It means being unified.

It means developing new skills, too, and remembering old ones. Over the last two thousand years, Jews have undoubtedly been oppressed and denied access to rights and professions, but—as some research suggests—we have also proactively prioritized certain forms of education over others.

When faced with the realities of escalating climate change and civilization breakdown, the mortal, scared student superheroes in my novel complement their vital liberal arts and STEM education with practical trades and survival skills: farming, hunting, construction, self-defense. Together, they form a united collective of highly humanistic individuals—tapped into a higher spiritual force but, like Bar Kokhba, reliant only on their own powers when the shit hits the fan.

This fictional movement inevitably and hypocritically has to contend with the presence of a charismatic and messianic figure, but I hope the message remains. It may not be a popular message in devout circles, but it’s one that may be increasingly relevant for Jews in our time: no magical superhero is coming to save us.

But maybe we can save us all.

Adam Nemett is the author of We Can Save Us All, a debut novel published by The Unnamed Press (November 2018). He is the creative lead at History Factory, the writer-director of the independent feature film The Instrument, and co-founder of the educational nonprofit MIMA Music. Adam graduated from Princeton University, received his MFA from California College of the Arts, and now lives in Charlottesville, Virginia. Find him at www.AdamNemett.com and @NemoAuthor.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Combating Anti-Semitism: A Reading List

Tuesday, October 30, 2018 | Permalink

The following is an excerpt from the 2019 issue of Paper Brigade, the Jewish Book Council's annual literary journal. You can pre-order the issue here.

Amid the recent upsurge of anti-Semitism, we asked prominent authors of recent or forthcoming nonfiction to recommend a book for this list. The breadth of topics and time periods covered by the works below attests to the insidiousness of anti-Semitism, but also to the impressive range of scholarship devoted to examining and overcoming it. Even the spelling of "anti-Semitism"/"antisemitism" is currently under scrutiny; to reflect this, the recommenders’ chosen spellings of the word have been left intact.

Henry Ford's War on Jews and the Legal Battle Against Hate Speech by Victoria Saker Woeste

We live in a new era of antisemitic hate speech and we have no idea what to do about it. Should Jewish organizations police hate speech in the media and sue antisemites? Or does that only fan the flames of antisemitism and stifle free expression? One place to look for answers is in legal historian Victoria Saker Woeste’s wonderful 2012 book, Henry Ford's War on Jews and the Legal Battle Against Hate Speech. Woeste deftly reconstructs the first major episode of antisemitic hate speech in American society, the publication of Henry Ford’s newspaper, The Dearborn Independent, and how Jewish lawyers debated the proper way to combat it.

—James Loeffler, author of Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century (2018)

Contemporary Left Antisemitism by David Hirsh

This is an incisive, hard-hitting, and very readable examination of antisemitism coming from the left. Hirsh’s focus is primarily on Britain and the Labour party. It is written with a scholar’s insight and balance and with a tinge of sadness as Hirsh, a longtime Labour supporter, ponders what has happened to the party that has been his political home for all his adult life.

—Deborah E. Lipstadt, author of Antisemitism: Here and Now (2019)


A Convenient Hatred: The History of Antisemitism by Phyllis Goldstein

Any book that starts with a slaughter of Jews in ancient Alexandria is not going to be a light, easy read. But as I was writing my most recent book, Goldstein's sweeping compendium became my grounding. The book is exhaustive; I can't imagine too many flare-ups of the ancient hate missed her gaze. But in reading the sweep of anti-Semitism in ancient to modern history, I was able to put this moment into perspective—for better, and, sadly, for worse as well.

—Jonathan Weisman, author of (((Semitism))): Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump (2018)

Jews, Judaism and Anti-Judaism: Reading the New Testament After the Holocaust edited by Paula Fredriksen and Adele Reinhartz

One of the earliest and most enduring sources of antisemitism is the interpretation of the New Testament; works like the Gospel of John continue to play a role in fostering misunderstanding and suspicion of Jews today. In Jews, Judaism and Anti-Judaism, two leading scholars of early Christianity aim to help readers better understand some of the key canonical texts that have long fueled Christian hostility to Jews and Judaism. This is by no means the only book to address the role of the New Testament in the history of antisemitism. What distinguishes it is the editors’ effort to include a range of divergent scholarly perspectives—in addition to their own essays, the volume includes contributions by three other major authorities in the field, E. P. Sanders, John Gager, and Amy-Jill Levine, along with a bibliography of additional readings. Slim and accessible, the book is a good entry point for those wishing to know more about the beginnings of Christian hostility to Jews, and makes a case for deeper historical understanding of the New Testament as the best way to overcome its role as a catalyst for Christian anti-Judaism.

—Steven Weitzman, author of The Origin of the Jews: The Quest for Roots in a Rootless Age (2017)


On Modern Jewish Politics by Ezra Mendelsohn

This book explores the different approaches taken by East European and American Jews toward anti-Semitism in the early twentieth century. Writing in a lively style full of telling anecdotes, Mendelsohn divides Jewish political groups into integrationists, who believed anti-Semitism was a manageable problem; and separatists/nationalists, who believed it was not. The rub was with Jewish socialist movements, which had a foot in both camps. An added benefit is Mendelsohn’s comparison with early twentieth-century African American politics.

—David E. Fishman, author of The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis (2017)

Warrant for Genocide: The Myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion by Norman Cohn

Originally published in 1967 and reissued several times, this is a classic historiography of antisemitism. It traces the origins of one of the most infamous and dangerous books of the twentieth century, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion,which claimed the existence of a Jewish conspiracy to dominate the world. Despite being a demonstrated forgery, Protocols was used to justify anti-Jewish persecution—including the Holocaust. Cohn identifies a number of political and literary texts that were used to build this narrative of a secret design of world conquest and domination by Jews. Although Protocols was most likely drafted at the beginning of the last century in czarist Russia, several of the works that inspired them were French; at the turn of the twentieth century, France was, in fact, one of the headquarters of modern political antisemitism (as exemplified by the Dreyfus affair). In an age of fake news, Warrant for Genocide shows how false anti-Jewish accusations were built and spread through an ambiguous and frightening text, which became the justification for hatred and murderous violence.

—Simon Levis Sullam, author of The Italian Executioners: The Genocide of the Jews of Italy (2018)

When Christians Were Jews: The First Generation by Paula Fredriksen

Increasing recognition that Jesus was a Jew and should be understood within the history of Judaism has played a major role in tackling Christian antisemitism over recent decades. Still, few Christians are fully aware of the Jewishness of Paul and most others in the early Church. With empathy and scholarly precision, Fredriksen tells the gripping story of the early Jewish followers of Jesus, tracing their changing perspectives as they awaited the end-time, and as events unfolded in ways they did not anticipate.

—Martin Goodman, author of A History of Judaism (2018)


New Reviews October 29, 2018

Monday, October 29, 2018 | Permalink

What the Torah Tells Us About God's Gender

Tuesday, October 23, 2018 | Permalink

By Joy Ladin

My family wasn't religious, but it didn't take me long to learn that everyone, Jews and non-Jews alike, referred to God as male. Even though the Torah tells us that God has no face or form, in prayer books, Bibles, sermons, and in conversations with Jehovah's Witnesses who occasionally rang our doorbell, God was always “He”—a pronoun that proclaimed that God, like everyone else, was defined by our system of binary gender. Even atheists referred to the God they didn't believe in with pronouns that implied that God, though non-existent, nonetheless was male: “What evidence do you have that He exists?” they'd ask, or, if they were particularly pugnacious, “If God can do anything, can He create a weight that He cannot lift?”

To some extent, the habit of referring to God as male made sense to me. Apart from me, binary gender was (and still is) everywhere: In my family, in my neighborhood, at school, in books and on TV, everyone was either male or female—and it was assumed that anyone in a position of power, as God was supposed to be, was male. As a transgender child terrified that others might discover I wasn't the boy I was pretending to be, I knew that to have a place in this world, everyone, even God, had to accept being seen as one or the other.

But even so, I found the gendering of God confusing. I was seen as male because I was born in a physically male body. God had never been born and, as everyone seemed to agree, didn't have a body. That gave me a sense of kinship, of closeness, with God. God was the only other person I knew who didn't fit binary gender categories. Like me, hidden inside my male exterior, God didn't have a body to make God visible. And like me, the real me who identified as female, God's lack of a body seemed to make it very hard for others to know that God was there.

For most of my life, I kept my ideas about God as hidden as my transgender identity. But once I began living as myself—that is, as someone who identifies as female despite my male birth and upbringing—I found that when I wrote or spoke about my journey as a transgender person, I often ended up talking about my relationship with God. When I received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, I decided to write a book, The Soul of the Stranger, about how being transgender had shaped my understanding of God. Because I was writing about the Torah and not just my personal experience, I had to confront questions I had until then avoided, like: Does the Torah portray God as male?

What I found is that, aside from its use of male pronouns (and in Hebrew, male verb forms), the Torah does not consistently portray God as male; in fact, God usually isn't gendered at all. For example, the second verse of Genesis portrays God as a “spirit hovering [or “sweeping”] over the water.” No gender there, or in any of God's other actions during the creation of the universe. In the next chapter, God forms a man, Adam, from earth, and a woman, Eve, from Adam's flesh, but neither those actions, nor God's interactions with Eve and Adam, identify God as male. If anything, creating life is generally associated with women, not men. Before God expels Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, God sews garments for them and clothes them, hardly stereotypically male behavior. In fact, nowhere in Genesis is God portrayed as male, except for the beginning of chapter 18, where the Torah tells us that when God appears, Abraham sees three men. But there's no reason to think the Torah here is telling us that God is male. In fact, it tells us that Abraham doesn't recognize God in this form, even though Abraham has always recognized God before.

Other books of the Torah do refer to God in terms of male roles, such as king, or father, or man or warrior. But these are descriptions of God's relationships with human beings, not portrayals of God. And those male metaphors share space, and sometimes even verses, with female and non-gendered terms for God—as when God is called a “rock” by Moses, or, by Isaiah, “my strength and my song.’ For me, Isaiah conclusively answers the question of whether the Torah portrays God as male in two verses in chapter 42. After referring to God as a male warrior in verse 13, the next verse portrays God as saying, “now, like a woman in childbirth, I cry out, I gasp and pant.”

When we look past the pronouns to the many ways the Torah portrays God, it's clear that the Torah not only does not tell us God is male, but summons us to recognize that God is not defined, and cannot be defined, in terms of human gender.

Joy Ladin, Gottesman Professor of English at Yeshiva University, is the first openly transgender employee of an Orthodox Jewish institution. She is a Fulbright Scholar and author of seven books including Through the Door of Life, a National Jewish Book Award finalist, and six poetry collections.

Image via Wikimedia Commons