Les­bian-fem­i­nist poet and schol­ar Julie R. Ensz­er blogs this week for The Pros­en­Peo­ple on the sem­i­nal Jew­ish les­bian voic­es of the pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion and the process behind her own writ­ing. Her sec­ond col­lec­tion of poet­ry, Sis­ter­hood, comes out this week.

As my sec­ond col­lec­tion of poet­ry Sis­ter­hood pub­lish­es this fall, I have been think­ing about books from the past that made it pos­si­ble for me to write Sis­ter­hood. One of these books is Nice Jew­ish Girls, edit­ed by Eve­lyn Tor­ton Beck and pub­lished in 1982.

Writ­ers are read­ers, first and fore­most. For many of us, we, ini­tial­ly, write our books on the pages of oth­er books, as though our books are a midrash, squeezed between the words and lines of oth­er texts. We imag­ine our­selves part of a vibrant simul­ta­ne­ous dia­logue with books and authors, alive and dead, writ­ten and emerg­ing; we imag­ine that our book extends sto­ries from oth­er books, speaks direct­ly to char­ac­ters echo­ing in our minds. As if by mag­ic, words flit across our man­u­script page from oth­er sources re-formed, re-shaped, and re-writ­ten into our own book. In this way, all books mim­ic the dia­logue of midrash: one writer speak­ing to anoth­er or hun­dreds of oth­ers, each book speak­ing to ear­li­er ones, words and images lay­ered upon the past, a cacoph­o­ny of voic­es dis­tilled into sequen­tial words on sin­gle, order­ly pages.

In Judaism, midrash elab­o­rates the Tanakh, but les­bian-fem­i­nists have no Urtext for per­pet­u­al return. Rather, les­bian-fem­i­nism is a con­stant­ly unfold­ing text; les­bian-fem­i­nism is a con­cate­na­tion of the­o­ries, philoso­phies, com­mu­ni­ties, and lives lived. While there are no Urtexts, there are books that are touch­stones, books to which I repeat­ed­ly return, books for which I am grate­ful, books to which I am always respond­ing, books into which I try to write myself.

Nice Jew­ish Girls is one of those books. The con­di­tions of anti-Semi­tism in les­bian-fem­i­nist com­mu­ni­ties and homo­pho­bia in Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties moti­vat­ed edi­tor Eve­lyn Tor­ton Beck to imag­ine and cre­ate the anthol­o­gy Nice Jew­ish Girls in the ear­ly 1980s. Perse­phone Press, an inde­pen­dent, les­bian-fem­i­nist pub­lish­er, pub­lished the first edi­tion of Nice Jew­ish Girls. After that first edi­tion, two oth­er edi­tions of Nice Jew­ish Girls cir­cu­lat­ed — one from The Cross­ing Press in their Fem­i­nist Series” and anoth­er from Bea­con Press. Nice Jew­ish Girls stayed in print through­out the 1990s, a lodestar for many, includ­ing me.

Dur­ing the first half of the 1980s, fem­i­nist press­es pub­lished a vari­ety of Jew­ish les­bian nov­els, includ­ing Alice Bloch’s The Law of Return (1983), Ruth Geller’s Tri­an­gle (1984), and Sarah Schul­mans The Sophie Horowitz Sto­ry (1982). Nice Jew­ish Girls, how­ev­er, dis­tilled the iden­ti­ty of Jew­ish les­bians. Nice Jew­ish Girls includes the work of an array of writ­ers includ­ing Ire­na Klep­fisz, Elana Dyke­wom­on, Melanie Kaye/​Kantrowitz, Rachel Wah­ba, Mai­da Tichen, Susan J. Wolfe, Judith Plaskow, and Martha Shel­ley.

Nice Jew­ish Girls was a gen­er­a­tive text; it nur­tured new voic­es and sparked con­ver­sa­tions between and among Jew­ish les­bians. Speak­ing direct­ly to Nice Jew­ish Girls, Melanie Kaye/​Kantrowitz and Ire­na Klep­fisz pub­lished Tribe of Dina, ini­tial­ly as an issue of Sin­is­ter Wis­dom and lat­er as a book; Tribe of Dina respond­ed to Nice Jew­ish Girls in pro­duc­tive ways, think­ing par­tic­u­lar­ly about rela­tion­ships between U.S. les­bians and the state of Israel. Nice Jew­ish Girls also inspired a new gen­er­a­tion of writ­ers, who pub­lished — or con­tin­u­ing to pub­lish — in the ear­ly 1990s, includ­ing Judith Katzs Run­ning Fierce­ly Toward a High Thin Sound (1992), Lesléa New­mans Good Enough to Eat (1986), Anna Freud Loewenstein’s The Wor­ry Girl (1992), Sarah Schulman’s Empa­thy (1992), and Jyl Lynn Fel­mans Hot Chick­en Wings (1992). Nice Jew­ish Girls artic­u­lat­ed a Jew­ish les­bian sub­ject posi­tion and gen­er­at­ed activism and lit­er­ary work from that subjectivity.

A few years ago, I had the extra­or­di­nary plea­sure of meet­ing Eve­lyn Tor­ton Beck in per­son to talk about her work in Nice Jew­ish Girls. I revered Beck’s many con­tri­bu­tions as an activist and schol­ar; my awe grew while talk­ing with her. In the dozen years since her retire­ment from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mary­land, where she was a pro­fes­sor of Women’s Stud­ies, Beck earned anoth­er PhD in Clin­i­cal Psy­chol­o­gy, pub­lished numer­ous essays on top­ics that extend from clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gy to art, devel­oped a new exper­tise in aging, and con­duct­ed class­es on danc­ing and cre­ative aging. It is not sur­pris­ing that the woman who helped to artic­u­late and syn­the­size Jew­ish les­bian iden­ti­ties con­tin­ues to live in the world in a dynam­ic, engaged, and joy­ful way. May I be so bold as to hope for the same?

I return to Nice Jew­ish Girls reg­u­lar­ly, for inspi­ra­tion, solace, and stim­u­la­tion. Many of the poems in Sis­ter­hood fit into the cracks, between the words, amid the sen­tences of Nice Jew­ish Girls. Sis­ter­hood speaks to the women who wrote Nice Jew­ish Girls, some­times with force, some­times with trem­bling. My own small hope is that some­day Sis­ter­hood will be a mean­ing­ful part of Jew­ish les­bian her­sto­ry like Nice Jew­ish Girls; I hope that Sis­ter­hood may be a touch­stone text for a Jew­ish, les­bian writer in the future.

Julie R. Ensz­er is a schol­ar and poet. She is the author of four col­lec­tions of poet­ry: Avowed, Lilith’s Demons, Sis­ter­hood, and Hand­made Love, and is the edi­tor of The Com­plete Works of Pat Park­er and Milk & Hon­ey: A Cel­e­bra­tion of Jew­ish Les­bian Poet­ry