Name: Lucille Weisfuse
Place of Birth: Bay Ridge, Brooklyn
Neighborhood: Boca Raton, Florida
Ethnicity: Jewish (very strongly)
Profession: Math Teacher
There is a look people have when they have everything they could possibly want in life. There is a glimmer in their eyes, a posture in their bones not of resignation, but of contentment. But even more telling than those physical attributes is their willingness to reveal absolutely everything about their lives to the world. When people have nothing to hide, they shine with the verbosity of their stories.
As I sit in the dining room of my grandmother’s Century Village (this is the name of her retirement community where I am convinced people live for centuries) apartment, she has this look and intense need to tell her story as much as and to whomever she could. For the purpose of this narrative, however, she is not my grandmother; she is Lucille Weisfuse because her life began way before she was a grandmother, a mother, or a wife. She has a long story to tell.
Our discussion begins with Lucille revealing bits about her Jewish upbringing as a Conservative Jew born and bred in Brooklyn. She grew up with a concern for the Jews around the world, those whose homes were being burnt in Eastern Europe and those whose fates were unknown in faraway ghettos. Her heightened sensitivity to anti-Semitism is apparent.
Attending a Conservative synagogue her parents helped to open, Lucille reveals that “women did not go up to the bima and they could not really participate, but [men and women] did sit together as equals. There was no separation between men and women in synagogue.” Because of where she comes from, Lucille and I identify separation and sexism differently. I begin to wonder if she is blinded by the myth of sexist traditions that do not allow women to the bima or if she is simply more respectful than me of an institution (Judaism) that is greater than the values of one person.
She was confirmed in that synagogue. Bat Mitzvahs were not as popular or accepted in 1935, when the Conservative movement was still deciding which ancient laws to follow and which to reform. A Bat Mitzvah means that girls read from the Torah. In most synagogues at the time, that was still an exclusively male role yet the Conservative movement wanted to find some way for women to participate. Then came the creation of the confirmation. Lucille says of the ceremony, “They had a confirmation class. It was all in English and I gave a talk.” The English is what makes a confirmation different from a Bat Mitzvah. While the talk she gave was meaningful, it was not holy in comparison to the sanctity of Hebrew in a Bat Mitzvah in an assimilated society where only the most educated and devout spoke this founding religious language. The initial intention of a Bat Mitzvah is to provide a ceremony for hard-learned Jewish literacy to be showcased. A confirmation is cultural, but less literacy-based.
This confirmation class does deserve some credit. It provided Lucille with a context of Jewish history that has followed her throughout her life. When I ask if she studied the matriarchs, she responds, “Yes, we did. And I was always impressed by the influence the matriarchs had on the patriarchs. After all, it was Rebecca who fooled Isaac into giving the birthright to Jacob and not to Esau. And who saved the Jews from Haman? Esther! So I said we’re not such a patriarchal society after all when the women have such important roles and have really influenced the religion completely.”
This is a highly unique perspective on women in Judaism and on the definition of feminism and empowerment altogether. Lucille portrays women’s roles in Judaism as influencing men to make the right decisions. Women have made all the indirect decisions, but what we have to ask ourselves is if they were given the credit.
Growing up in New York City shaped Judaism for Lucille immensely. It is one of the only contexts in which she knows how to be Jewish – being surrounded by other Jews. She describes, “I consider New York City not just a city, but a whole mixture of many communities and many ethnicities. You’re not so much influenced by the city itself, but by your community. I think in New York City there are opportunities for women.” These communities are the intended audiences of my project. New York City represents pluralism within and outside of Judaism, giving options for how to practice Judaism in relation to personal identity. Jews did not have this opportunity elsewhere.
Lucille’s community was comprised of “many churches and many saloons,” but she “sought to have companionship with [her] own kind.” In terms of seeking out her identity, she describes this companionship as “my Jewish friends, the storekeepers’ children. We started out with six girls and then we expanded to ten.” Although Lucille might not have realized it as a child who was not included in the traditional minyan prayer circle comprised of ten men, her group of friends makes up a symbolically ironic and subversive bunch.
Her Jewish life seems to be a blur for the next fifteen years when she worked at the Army Regional Accounting Office, got married, began to teach, had her sons, and made a home of her very own in Brooklyn. She is a grassroots matriarch of Brooklyn Judaism in her own right. She details, “We joined a synagogue. I was one of the founders of that synagogue. We used to meet in a market, in a store, and Martin went to Hebrew School there.”
Even with all this Jewish activism, she still was not secure in her religious practice. “I wanted to be more observant and I tried not to use any lushenhura.”
“What’s that?” I ask.
“Gossip about other people. [Now], people say that they hardly hear me say anything bad about others.”
The spreading of lushenhura is seen as a traditional stereotype for Jewish mothers. Joyce Antler in her book, You Never Call! You Never Write!: A History of Jewish Mothers, deconstructs this stereotype with a rather popular example that I, as a granddaughter, can testify that it applies to Lucille.
“With Oedipus Wrecks (1989), Woody Allen took the notion of a Jewish monster mother to new heights. When Sheldon Mills wishes for his busybody mother to disappear, her inflated head and torso appear on the Manhattan skyline. She can now gossip about him to the entire city.”
Antler goes on to explain that this is the epic cultural characterization of the Jewish mother. Motherhood and Judaism are the two core intersections of Lucille’s identity. She is hyper-aware not of the stereotypes necessarily, but of the Judaism behind them, the traditions that rebel against social constructs that say she must be a “Jewish monster mother.” On the contrary to this stereotype, Lucille believes, “being a caring wife and understanding mother [is what] Judaism preaches, asking people to be kind to each other. Judaism is the moral basis for society.”
It is my personal belief that viewing Judaism as the moral basis for society leads Lucille to think that through Judaism, she does not experience other forms of oppression. She believes she never experienced sexism yet she details an experience in Judaism where sexism – to me – seems wildly apparent.
“In our synagogue, there was one rabbi who wanted to have women come the bima and be more participating people and they had a bima. You wouldn’t believe what I did. I got up and I said that if it creates any rift in the synagogue by having the women go up to the bima then maybe we shouldn’t push it. And another reason why I felt we shouldn’t push it: our generation’s not so learned as my daughter’s generation. I said my daughter’s more knowledgeable about Judaism and Hebrew than my sons and in her synagogue, I could see women being participants, but in this synagogue where very few of us have the background, let’s not push it. Two rabbis later, [the current rabbi] is encouraging it and the president of our synagogue is encouraging it and women are on the board. They are participating and they are knowledgeable.”
At first I questioned if this acting against women being allowed on the bima is rationalized sexism. I thought that maybe she does not believe she has experienced sexism because she participated in it. I now realize that this situation in synagogue brings up a nuance of feminism. We want women to break glass ceilings in quality, not quantity. Women cannot have responsibilities just because of their gender. That is reverse sexism. They can only have responsibilities if they are as deserving of the men they should not be competing against, but joining forces with. Lucille values tradition and qualification before breaking glass ceilings. She is a proponent of the notion that glass ceilings can only be broken by those deserving – through education, desire, and observance – to break them.
There is a solution to this modern problem of Jewish women having opportunities while not arbitrarily wasting them. This solution is intergenerational Jewish feminism where the younger women (like my mother who directs a Jewish community center and speaks Hebrew) can teach the older women (like my grandmother). There is a whole fight occurring for Jewish literacy where Jewish leaders believe that this generation is Jewish-illiterate compared to the previous generation. The truth is that only the men are less literate because they have a benchmark of comparison. Jewish women are more literate today than our mothers and grandmothers because we do not have that same benchmark.
Simply because one day long ago Lucille did not believe Jewish women should go up to the bima does not mean that she thinks they should lack power. She believes the opposite, especially when it comes to her involvement in her synagogue’s Sisterhood – the organization of women that put on the show.
“We need women,” Lucille says of her synagogue and Judaism as a whole. “It is the women who have made the synagogue survive. The Sisterhood brings in the most money. The Sisterhood does most of the functions. And now to make things better for the Brotherhood, the Sisterhood has invited the Brotherhood to participate in their functions because everyone knows that if it weren’t for the Sisterhood, the synagogue would not survive.”
This sounds to me like the first wave of feminism. Women are getting power through running a synagogue like they run their homes – planning, organizing, and putting on “functions.” These domestic skills are often underrated, discredited, discarded as trivial, but when it comes to Judaism, these skills are necessary for surviving as a community.
At around this time of heightened involvement in her immediate Jewish community, Lucille had a Bat Mitzvah at the age of sixty-two, and not half a decade too late. She was ready then. She says, “I wanted to learn more. In fact, I still feel I didn’t need to be Bat Mitzvahed. I didn’t feel I was that knowledgeable to be honored like that, but they wanted to encourage women to be Bat Mitzvahed so we had a class and one of the men taught us the music.”
While her modesty is compelling – many women think they are not “enough” of anything (good enough, literate enough, smart enough, knowledgeable enough) – it is truly false. Lucille is probably more knowledgeable than the Upper East Side girls I know (including myself) who are having Bat Mitzvahs for the sake of a party, without thinking about its significance in a religious context as they memorize their Torah portions on a tape recorder.
After discussing this empowering experience, I decide to ask Lucille one last time if she has ever experienced sexism. I just find it extraordinarily difficult to believe that someone from a less-privileged society and generation has not experienced a phenomenon I notice every day.
“I always felt that Judaism did really revere women,” she begins, then pauses. “Oh, one time. We were in Israel and we went to Meah Sharim. We wanted to go into this bakery. And in the bakery store, they didn’t wait on us and they said, ‘Men in this line. Women in the next line.’ And I was so surprised.” This is an explicit form of segregation and apartheid on the basis of gender. I attribute this recognition of sexism only in its most extreme form to our generational gap.
But Lucille does consider herself to have experienced anti-Semitism “a great deal.” Anti-semitism was more prevalent than sexism in the world she grew up in. In talking to her, I witness the competition of oppressions rather than the intersection of them. One trumps the other based on extremity. Anti-semitism to my grandmother is more recognizable because it is less internalized. As with the situation of going up to the bima, there is this feeling of not deserving a ritual because of gender. This is characteristic of internalized sexism because the society at large says she should feel this way. With anti-Semitism, however, there are enough forces saying that it is not okay to discriminate based on religion to combat those that say it is.
I go on to ask Lucille about the importance of tradition. She responds, “I think tradition gives you a certain amount of security and protection.” I ask what she needs protection from.
“From change and you can feel you belong to something,” she asserts. By “change,” she means “technology advancements and the role of women being much stronger and equal to men.” Lucille believes tradition is the antidote to that. “It’s something you can look back onto. It gives you roots.” Judging by the overall sentiment during this conversation on feminism, I can see that she is afraid feminism could compromise this protection.
Tradition comes from community and Lucille feels “a sense of pride in what we’ve accomplished and a sense of belonging, of being part of a people that have contributed so much to the world.” Being part of this minority is Lucille’s primary identity. It is unique for religion to take this priority in an assimilated society and it is what sets this interview apart from others, what sets a grandmother apart from a granddaughter.
Because tradition is learned in huge part in the synagogue, I ask Lucille if the synagogue she now prays in and attends weekly services at in Century Village is egalitarian. I soon realize that egalitarian means something totally different to an eighty-eight year old traditional observer of Judaism than to an eighteen-year-old feminist.
“The women come up for Haftorah. Women if they’re knowledgeable. They come up and read English prayers. We’re getting a more egalitarian siddur. They want to replace the one we have so that it incorporates women.” I am realizing that there can be multiple definitions of “egalitarian” and those multiple definitions can be different manifestations of a feminist philosophy. To include women “if they’re knowledgeable” goes by the feminist principle of gender being secondary to knowledge, forming a meritocratic rather than sexist society.
As we close the interview, I ask Lucille what she thinks of the title of this project. She gives me a traditionalist interpretation, one that does not dare challenge textual metaphor. But, seeing as this is my grandmother talking, she puts her own spin on the book: “Isn’t it interesting that it was the woman who got Adam to eat the forbidden apple, which, to me show’s the power of women.”
As for the character Lilith, a mythical woman who was created at the same time as Adam and then turned into a Biblical villain, Lucille applies the same response to the women at the bima situation. “I don’t think we have to really push it so much.” Our conversation is potent with feminist ideas embedded in the stories of a life full of experiences. Yet there is a resistance to change that concerns me. What could that mean for the future of feminism?
And this makes sense for Lucille, seeing as feminism ranks very low on her list of priorities – two out of five in fact. She defends, “I don’t feel in this day and age – women have accomplished so much – I don’t feel it’s important. Women can get any kind of job they want today. I think we’ve made so much progress that we don’t have to work for feminism so much. There are so many other causes.”
Soon, Lucille will go to her grandnephew’s wedding. he is Hassidic-Orthodox and she is in the market for a dress that meets the clothing requirements. She, however, will not complain because her standard of comparison is much lower. “For this wedding, I have to wear long sleeves, [my arms] covered, but in Saudi Arabia they have to wear veils, their faces covered.”
It is true that Lucille will never have to cover her face because of her religion. She chooses to practice traditions and rituals that make her feel comfortable as a woman, but firstly as a Jew. This choice allows for her to never cover her face, to be a woman who is confident in her religion, and to use that religion within the bounds of tradition to empower herself as a “woman who has really influenced the religion completely.” In my book, that’s what makes a feminist, but her identity is not up to my definition.