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Why History Matters: Life and Thought

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Overview

In Why History Matters, Lerner brings together her thinking and research of the last sixteen years, combining personal reminiscences with innovative theory to illuminate the importance of history and the vital role women have played in it. Why History Matters contains some of the most significant thinking and writing on history that Lerner has done in her entire career - a summation of her life and work.

A major figure in women's studies and a long-term activist for women's issues, Gerda Lerner is a pioneer in the field of Women's History and one of its leading practitioners. Why History Matters is a summation of her work which includes pieces on the author's early life as a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany and on her slow assimilation into American life. 288 pp.

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Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
Despite its somewhat grandiose title, this isn't in any way a comprehensive approach to the vital question posed, but a collection of speeches and articles that offer only a glimpse of the author's important contributions to historical inquiry.

Lerner (The Creation of Feminist Consciousness, 1993; Univ. of Wisconsin, Madison) is a fascinating woman, and some of her extraordinary experiences are revealed here in the portion of the book called "Life." An Austrian Jew, Lerner escaped from the Nazis and emigrated to America at age 18. Once here, she determined to be a writer and set about gaining a proficiency in English the likes of which few native-born Americans can boast. But Lerner didn't stop there. At the age of 40, she returned to school to get a graduate degree in history—and not conventional history, but women's history, an area of study that she helped define. In another section, called "Thought," Lerner discusses the field of women's history a little, but these essays, collected from her writings and lectures of the past few years are limited in scope and often repetitive. (For instance, we hear many times that women cannot be treated as a single, unified category because they come from all classes, races, and religions.) This is not to say that Lerner offers nothing of value. For example, her discussions of how to put women into the history curriculum without making them seem inferior to men are perceptive and thoughtful, as is her attempt to redefine race and class in terms of gender.

Even here Lerner has much to offer students of history, but from a scholar of her stature, this jumble of essays is a disappointment.

From the Publisher

"Gerda Lerner brings us to the moral Grand Divides of history, then quietly explains where she sees humankind having been, and where, with rational unity, we might yet go.I was fascinated reading Professor Lerner's account of her own disciplined struggle not to hate Germans today for the genocide of European Jewry. She makes it very clear the process is important and on-going."--Alan Adelson, Executive Director, The Jewish Heritage Project

"With her customary brilliance and clarity, Gerda Lerner offers us her own story and in the process explains how history happens, is interpreted, utilized, transmuted into meaning and memory, and denied and distorted by those with the power to do so. This book is a gift to all who hope to understand the role of the past in the present"--Letty Cottin Pogrebin

"This moving collection of essays is testimony--if more were needed--to the breadth of Gerda Lerner's spirit and her humane wisdom."--Linda k. Kerber, co-editor of U.S. History as Women's History: New Feminist Essays

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195122893
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 2/28/1998
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 1,295,112
  • Product dimensions: 7.90 (w) x 5.30 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

About the Author:
Gerda Lerner is Robinson-Edwards Professor of History, Emerita, at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

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Read an Excerpt


Chapter One


A Weave of Connections

In these days of the agony of the state of Israel, its native-born citizens and that large group of survivors from every part of the globe who have found refuge there—all of us as Jews in the diaspora—are forced to examine our relationship with the fact of being Jewish. What does it mean to us? What burdens and responsibilities does it pose for us? What values do we derive from this accident of birth or this chosen allegiance?

These are very personal questions that do not lend themselves easily to meaningful generalization. They are ancient questions which, it seems, are posed anew to each generation of Jews. Simple existence, the acceptance of one's being as normal and secure and unchallengeable, has not been possible for Jews. We have had to live consciously, with awareness, and by making choices. This is so because everywhere, since the days of the destruction of the Temple, since the days of the onset of the diaspora, Jews have not only been defined by themselves as "different," but they have been everywhere defined by non-Jews as "the Other," the outsider, the deviant. Among equals there is no category of "Otherness." The very act of categorizing another implies oppression. The one who does the categorizing sets himself up as the norm, the defining subject, while the one being categorized becomes the deviant from the norm, the defined object. Being so defined forces one to take a position, to assert or deny, who one is.

Let me illustrate what I mean by being "the Other" from my own experience. I grew up in Vienna, Austria, after World War I, in acomfortable middle-class family. We were "assimilated" Jews, that is, we did not keep a kosher home, although my grandmother did; we were raised in the best traditions of German culture and regarded ourselves as liberal Austrians. Still, I was sent to Sabbath services in the orthodox synagogue and we kept the religious holidays in the traditional way, going to synagogue and celebrating at home. Strangely, it was not at Sabbath school that I learned that I was a Jew and what that meant—it was in a number of subtle lessons my family taught me.

In elementary school, a public school, I met a girl I wanted to be my special friend, but my father forbade it because she was not Jewish. I then tried making friends with a Jewish girl. All was well as long as she visited me in my home. When I was invited to hers I encountered a traditional Jewish home in which Yiddish was spoken and kosher food was served. At age eight or nine, this was a novelty for me on which I reported enthusiastically at home. After a few questions my father elicited the fact from me that the girl's father was the local kosher butcher, whereupon he categorically forbade me ever to visit that home again. It was all right for the girl to come to my home, but not the other way around. I am still not sure whether this edict was due to class or cultural prejudice, but the result was that the friendship ended abruptly, when the girl refused to accept these conditions and informed me I was a stuck-up goose. My family, it seemed, mixed neither with non-Jews nor with Yiddish-speaking Jews. True, mine was a peculiar family, but the friends and neighbors of my childhood were all homogeneous in class, education and religion. We lived in self-chosen affinity groups, in which for a long time, one could exist without having to confront most of the actual negative conditions of one's existence.

Yet when, one day in high school, I brought home the first B grade I had ever earned, my father reacted as though the world were coming to an end. I was berated, scolded, punished. When finally I objected meekly that, after all, I had so far earned nothing but A's and the other children in my class got C's and D's, I was told in no uncertain terms, "Jews don't get B's."

I never did get one thereafter. So we were the chosen people, intellectually superior, more disciplined, more conscious of the need to achieve. Excellence was the mark of the tribe and each of us had better live up to that standard. Even though it was a good preparation for achievement. it was a burden too heavy for a child to bear. And worse, it only further separated one from the other group. Scholastic excellence, prized by parents as a guarantee of future success, meant for Jewish children, especially female children, that they were only further marked off as being different in a world where being different was definitely not good.

In public school there was a crucifix on the wall in every classroom. On Wednesday afternoons students were required to take religious instruction and the class divided into two groups—them, thirty or more Christians; and us, three or four embarrassed Jewish children who were gathered in a separate room with the Jewish children from the other grades so that we might be instructed by a Rabbi imported for that purpose. The Rabbi was an ardent Zionist and preached politics to us. I disliked him and his message. I was an Austrian, a normal person, I was not going to allow him to make me into some sort of foreign misfit, dedicated to setting up a so-called Jewish homeland in some distant desert area in the Mideast. I read Goethe and Schiller, I formed my views of the world from German fairy tales and heroic sagas of the Norse people. I was, as it happened, blue-eyed with light brown hair and was constantly mistaken for one of them, which was not unpleasant to me. On the other hand, there were my black-haired, yellow-complexioned mother and sister—I always explained that they looked Hungarian, which my mother was by birth. Strangely, it was my blue-eyed father and his family who kept up the Jewish tradition, while my more Jewish-looking mother was a modern European and world citizen who wanted nothing to do with "Otherness." When we went on summer vacations in the beautiful mountain resorts of Austria, my father impressed us with the need not to "act Jewish," that is, we were not to speak with our hands, not to raise our voices, not to be noisy or too lively or too inquisitive. The message again backfired—it told me we were outsiders and ought to try to hide our deviant, disgraceful status as best as we could.

I have sometimes been asked, "How has your being Jewish influenced your work in Women's History?"

The simplest way I can answer this question is, I am a historian because of my Jewish experience. With the Covenant story in the Book of Genesis, Jews invented teleological history, the concept that the God-given purpose of existence is the fulfillment of a distant goal defined in the Covenant. It is not individual fate that matters, but the historical promise of people, land and prosperity in some distant future which is implicit in the Covenant between God and Abram. With it history as the unfolding of God's promise begins. After the destruction of the Temple, and with the beginning of the diaspora, this unfolding of historical events included the promised return of the people of Israel to their homeland. Thus every Jew is born into a historical world, and a consciousness of being linked to other members of the Jewish community. How to define that collectivity becomes a crucial and disturbing question. In the Bible the Jews are referred to as the "chosen people," a nation set off from others because of its special relationship with God. I never could accept this, even when I still believed in God. Since the diaspora that chosen flock had not been a nation. Was it "a people"? But it came in different colors, nationalities, spoke different languages, lived in vastly different cultures. Was it then merely a group of religious believers, united by that belief and by nothing else? Where I grew up, such thoughts about the nature of Jews and the origins of their history were forced upon us by daily experience.

What I learned from that comfortable, sheltered life I led in a country in which Catholicism was the state religion and antisemitism was an honored political tradition, was that being Jewish set one apart. Jews were not "normal," we were not right, we were different. And that difference had something to do with our inescapable, compelling history.

Was our history different because we were the "chosen people"? Were we different because of our history of persecution and suffering? Had we shaped our history by our refusal to be like other nations, by clinging to customs and habits that inevitably set us off from those among whom we lived? Assimilated Jews in Central Europe, like my birth family, accepted that explanation. If it was true, then the more we became like those among whom we lived, the less would our difference be offensive. We spoke High German, not Yiddish; in appearance, clothing and education we were not to be distinguished from the gentiles, except for those inescapable physical characteristics that identified some of us immediately as Jews—the dark hair, a certain kind of nose, the intense, vivid gestures. Self-hatred was a necessary component of assimilation, a self-hatred so subtle we never admitted it, even to ourselves, but still it operated as a corrosive poison, setting family members against each other. We reinforced it by keeping our distance from those not interested in assimilation—the orthodox, the Yiddish-speaking Jews. We were different, different from the gentiles, different from "those" Jews.

Assimilated Jews did not wish to dwell on the actuality of European Jewish history. There were biblical times and there was the present. What was forgotten and silenced out of existence was the long, bitter, repetitive history of persecution. There was no good news in it. As a child I once heard a story of how in the Middle Ages the Jews of certain German cities had been forced onto leaky boats to float down the Rhine river and drown to the last man, woman and child. Such stories made me feel the shame of belonging to a group so thoroughly victimized. Victims internalize the guilt for their victimization; they become contemptible for being available to victimization. Did they never fight back? Did they go like sheep' Today, I know innumerable instances of Jewish heroism, resistance, fighting back in the series of medieval antisemitic disasters which led to the 15th-century holocaust which destroyed two-thirds of the Jewish communities of western Europe and ended with the expulsion of all Jews from Portugal and Spain. I never heard of this history, not at school, not at home, not in the synagogue, any more than I heard of the existence of a women's history. Had I been a boy and studied Talmud, I would have learned Jewish history in a positive way. I would have learned about the existence of wise rabbis and great leaders; I would have studied that mysterious mental construct which held the community together for all these persecuted millennia. I was a girl, and the life-line of Jewish learning—Talmud, Mishna, Midrash—was out of my reach. All I got was indoctrination in gender restrictions and a thorough exposure to the great silences—the denial of the past, the suppressed voices, the absence of heroines.

Thus, historical consciousness grew together with consciousness of gender, but all the process yielded were baffling questions, no answers. Why did women and girls have to sit upstairs in the balcony in the synagogue, while men and boys sat below? Why could men speak and act during the services, reading the daily portion of the Torah, swaying dramatically over their prayer books, chanting their Hebrew lines in ragged unison, while we upstairs sat in stiff silence, at best following the words with our fingers in the Hebrew text. And when the Torah was lifted from the ark and carried on the shoulders of two of the elders in a sort of procession through the synagogue, so that each man might touch his finger, wrapped in the tallis, reverently to the scroll and then kiss it, why were the women allowed only to stretch out their fingers into the air reaching for the Torah without seeing or touching it? These were questions I asked repeatedly and the answers were never satisfactory. I was told that it was the tradition; and when I asked where was it written in the Bible, there was no answer other than that the rabbis had so interpreted it for thousands of years. Thus I became a Jew and a Jewish woman and double difference became imprinted on me—not pride, but embarrassment; not collectivity, but exclusion. I did not have the words for it at the time, but I know that my discomfort at being part of the religious Jewish community was based not so much on theological differences as on my unwillingness to accept the role this community assigned to women.

I soon stopped stretching out my hand in search of the Torah during services, a cheap and inconspicuous refusal. More difficult and public was my refusal, four weeks before the appointed date, to go through with my Bat-Mitzvah on the ground that since I no longer believed in God nor in what I was taught in religious instruction, it would be hypocritical for me to go through the ceremony. This provoked a family crisis, much noise, anger and pressure of various sorts, but in the end I prevailed. But more—I refused to set foot in a synagogue again and kept to that refusal for over fifty years. As I look back on these events, these small steps taken for reasons not entirely understood at the time, I can now name them differently my first feminist actions came out of my experiences as a Jewish woman.

What is left to a Jew who refuses the religious community? Antisemitism and history. In short order I experienced plenty of both.

On March 11, 1938, German troops, meeting no resistance, occupied Austria and were greeted enthusiastically by millions of wildly cheering Austrians. The Anschluss was quickly followed by outbursts of violence against Jews that exceeded anything that had been inflicted in Germany since 1933. Gangs of armed Nazis terrorized Jewish pedestrians. Jewish men and women were forced to scrub the streets, walls and toilets in police barracks with their bare hands or with toothbrushes to the amusement of crowds of bystanders. Raids on homes and businesses, followed by theft of property by Nazi gangs, were commonplace despite their illegality. In the streets and Jewish communities of Vienna there was open season on Jews for anyone with a Nazi insignia on his lapel. Jewish businesses were forced to close their doors; Jews were dismissed from their jobs and official positions; the University was closed to Jewish students and faculty within six weeks of the Anschluss. The legal and administrative regulations to legalize these excesses were soon enacted.

Violent antisemitism came naturally to Austrians, who had a long history of antisemitic political parties and movements. The Germans had to be led into violent antisemitism; in Austrians it erupted spontaneously. Within weeks of the Anschluss the situation of Jews in Austria was worse than that of Jews in Germany six years after the Nazi takeover.

Right from the start, a reign of terror was instituted. Prominent Jewish leaders and businessmen, the heads of various Jewish organizations, doctors and university professors, journalists and politicians were arrested without any charges against them and held for weeks and months in jail or in the Dachau concentration camp. Jewish playwrights, actors and directors were barred from the stage, and many prominent writers and actors were arrested. A Jewish orphanage was closed, the orphans thrown out and the building turned into a Nazi barracks. SA troops forced their way into the biggest Jewish synagogue during evening services, arrested all present and desecrated the premises by singing the Horst-Wessel song. All government employees were forced to take a loyalty oath to Hitler; those unwilling to do so were summarily dismissed. By the end of April a decree of the Education Department assured that all school and university sessions would open and close with students and faculty giving the Hitler salute. Everywhere, former Nazi sympathizers and "illegal" Nazis now emerged proudly with new power and status. In the private school I attended, which had many Jewish teachers and a Jewish director, a number of the teachers turned out to have been underground members of the Nazi party. The Jewish director was replaced by one of these illegal Nazis before the end of the school term.

My father fled the country after being warned by a "friendly" Nazi that his name was on a list of people to be arrested. He thought of course his absence would be temporary, but it proved permanent. A few weeks after my father's flight, twelve fully armed stormtroopers raided our apartment, put a gun at my twelve-year-old sister's chest, demanding to know where my father was, tore up the furniture with bayonets and generally terrorized us for hours while they pretended to search the apartment for hidden gold. In the end they took me and my mother to jail. We were taken to regular prison, separated from each other, and for six weeks we were forgotten, not accused, not indicted, not tried. We were, in fact, held as hostages for my father and were released only after he finally signed away all his property and his business. We were then forced to sign our own deportation orders.

I lived for another six months in Nazi Austria after that, because we could not get the various permits necessary to leave. Each week we had to report to the police, who threatened to throw us in a concentration camp if by the next week we were still here. During these months, the persecution and daily harassment of Jews increased. Destitute families doubled up in apartments, and many people never left their homes for fear of arrest during the random street raids that were a daily occurrence. The number of Jewish suicides increased from five in January to more than a hundred during each month of that summer. In our circle, each family had its own horror stories; everyone had heard of some acquaintance who had committed suicide rather than be taken to jail. This was long before the "final solution," long before any of these persecutions were cloaked in the mantle of legality. The Austrian treatment of Jews was improvised on the spot; its versatility, ingenuity and brutality were then unprecedented.

Legally and theoretically, it was then still possible for Jews to leave the country. In actuality, all borders in Europe and most other countries of the world were closed against refugees from Nazi persecution and only a lucky few had the connections or money to escape. Since by newly enacted legislation, Jews leaving Austria were permitted to take only the equivalent of $10—in cash and their household goods and clothing—money or connections were essential for survival abroad. In April approximately 25,000 Viennese Jews applied to the U.S. consulate for immigration visas; at the time the quota for immigrants from Austria was fixed at 1413 per year.

With the aid of "Aryan" lawyers and by signing over all our property and assets, finally, one week before Kristallnacht, my mother, my sister and I secured all the necessary papers and were able to join my father in Liechtenstein, a tiny country on the Austrian border. We had residence permits for Liechtenstein because my father had established a business there in 1934. This fact saved his and our lives. He was also able to rescue his mother and adopted sister, while most of our relatives remained in the death trap.

An emigrant now, awaiting my U.S. immigration visa, I had become virtually a stateless person. With a German passport which marked me as a Jew, return to Germany meant certain death. Being stateless, a Jew and destitute change one's view of what it means to be part of an establishment: my outsider status from then on was firmly fixed. Even after coming to America, I never felt secure in front of anyone connected with an establishment—bureaucrat, policeman, soldier or lawyer.

During World War II the U.S. government forced me and other Jewish immigrants like me to register once a month at the post office as "enemy aliens." Still, I did eventually become an American citizen. Insofar as I now had citizen's rights I could trust, this fact changed my outsider status. But I was different, marked by my experience; I was carrying my "Otherness" within me.

A few years after the end of the war, when the full extent of the horror in which some of my family members had perished had become known, the sense of the difference of my own experience became sharper. My mother had died at age fifty, a death hastened by the hardships of emigration. Still, I was among the very fortunate; most of my close relatives had survived. But the personal loss was dwarfed by the enormity of the loss of a people, of communities, of one's own past.

Sometimes, when you walk up a mountain, the views of the valley below are clear and sharp. Then the weather changes, a cloud of fog settles into the valley and the view vanishes. There is nothing beneath one's feet except gray mist. It is eerie, like the terror of nightmares, one is cut off and cast off and the very place from which one came, what once was home, has vanished. When this happens, on the mountain, one can console oneself in the knowledge that the place in the valley is still there; it is as it always was and one will see it when the fog lifts. But for the refugee such consolation does not exist. The city in which I had grown up, the circle in which I moved during the years of my childhood no longer existed. Of the 176,000 Jews of Vienna, over 9 percent of its total population in 1934, only 4746 survived in 1944, a few months before the liberation of the city. More than 65,000 Austrian Jews died in the ghettoes and concentration camps of Nazi Europe. The others, who had been deported or forced to emigrate survived scattered all over the world. I have visited Vienna six times in the past fifty years. The buildings are restored, some of them are more beautiful than they ever were. But what I notice most, as I walk through the streets of the city is the absence of Jews, an absence I think only a survivor could notice. For me, there is no one left to go back to; there is no place to go back to except a place of hatred and bad memories. There is only one life-line left—memory, personal and historical. After the Holocaust, history for me was no longer something outside myself, which I needed to comprehend and use to illuminate my own life and times. Those of us who survived carried a charge to keep memory alive in order to resist the total destruction of our people. History had become an obligation.

Like all immigrants, I did not think this through or find such fancy words for it. I had to struggle for existence and survival and if I gave any thought to the matter at the time, it was how to become a good American. I tried to erase whatever I could of my foreign characteristics. I worked hard at acquiring as pure an English as I possibly could. I shed my indestructible European clothes, as soon as I could afford to replace them with throw-away American fashions. I tried to make friends with Americans and be accepted by them. It is no accident that decades later when I began to prepare for an academic career I chose the field of American history, not European. I still wanted, as I had in Austria, to be a "normal" person. Yet, from the start I chose a deviant field, in fact, a then non-existing field, that of Women's History. My "Otherness" was obvious from the moment I entered graduate school—too old (over forty), a foreign-born woman, a Jew, insisting on specializing in a field of history my professors considered "exotic" and weird. I will skip over the years of struggling for the legitimation of this new field of inquiry. It was only when I came to Madison, by then a well-established historian of fairly advanced age, that for the first time I began to feel accepted, an insider. The University gave me recognition, honors, support for my work and clear signs of their appreciation. The advances made in my embattled field—Women's History—had brought some measure of respectability and, while some colleagues still considered me a deviant sort and not quite up to their measure, my general experience was of having finally made it. I was now an insider and began to worry about being corrupted by that unaccustomed state. Then, a few years ago in April, there was a swastika smeared on a poster on my office door. In August there were forty-one antisemitic incidents in Madison and one, not reported and thus not included in that number, a threatening antisemitic phone message left on my answering machine. Back to square one. The Jew remains "the Other."

My story illustrates quite well the effect on Jews of being designated a deviant out-group. There are essentially three major response patterns: cultural separatism, denial through assimilation, and acculturation.

Cultural separatism means affirming one's "Otherness" as a positive good. We are the chosen people, smarter, better, morally superior and somehow purified by our history of suffering. We prefer to live in self-selected ghettoes, confine our social contact to people like ourselves and cultivate our separate institutions.

Denial through assimilation is an effort to fuse with the majority and ultimately to give up all distinctiveness. For many Jews of the generation between the wars in both Central Europe and in America this took the form of adopting a philosophy of modernism, of anti-nationalism and internationalism, of a desire to find a new form of community which would embrace different cultures, religions and nationalities. This was my mother's philosophy and for a long time it was mine. We abhorred all nationalism and all theories of hierarchy and dominance. Tolerance and a "new humanism" would take the place of the old separations, hatreds and differences.

I married a second-generation American. My husband's family represented another response, in its shtetl culture in the Jewish ghetto of Philadelphia. His parents were immigrants from Russia who had come to the U.S. to escape the infamous Kishinev pogroms. They were working-class people who spoke Yiddish and were proudly affiliated with their synagogue, their Landsmannschaft and their Yiddish culture. They were as unassimilated as Americans as one can be and they were wonderful, loving people who took me in as their own, even though at first glance I seemed to them to be a shikse. Living in solid, tightly knit networks of families, they were mutually supportive, but resisted the tendency of the younger generation—the first-generation Americans—to partake of the general culture, to accommodate to the values of tolerance, multi-culturalism and internationalism. To this younger generation, the old folks seemed hopelessly limited and limiting. The horizontal mobility of first-generation Americans—out of the ethnic working-class ghettoes—into ethnic suburban ghettoes—illustrates this process of "Americanization."

The third response, "acculturation," is both more adaptive and more realistic than the other two. It embraces the demand for integration in regard to rights and opportunities—one wants to be an Austrian or an American with full equality—yet one does not want to lose one's group identity. Integration and difference is the goal. Jews with that stance will privatize their Jewishness and separate its communal function within their group from their public roles. Jews would adopt the external behavior and standards of the dominant culture but retain their emotional, psychological affinities to their own group. They might, as in America in the third generation, move into integrated upper-class neighborhoods, attend elite colleges and vote not on the basis of ethnicity but of class, yet their social life would be within a like-minded circle of Jews. My father represented that stance in its European version.

The irony of these choices is that antisemitism would not recognize any difference between the separatist, the assimilated, the acculturated Jew. Hitler's Nuremberg laws defined Jews by "genetic" inheritance into the third generation, and lifestyle choices meant nothing. Similarly, the person who put a swastika on my door in Madison, Wisconsin, fifty years later cared not one bit as to what kind of a Jew I was or I am. I was a Jew, that was sufficient.

Each of us has over a lifetime struggled with choices representing these different positions. And as we choose, we take on ourselves the guilt over our existence. If we choose right, we and the people will be spared. If we get all A's, we will be among the saved. If we choose wrong, the holocaust is our fault. It is a cruel bind, which blames the victim and obscures the actuality of the situation in which he or she exists. What it obscures is that it is not difference, but the designation of difference as inferiority which has created the evil.

The psychological effect on Jews, as on other out-groups designated as deviant, is that they internalize guilt for their being "different" and spend their lives choosing between various forms of adaptations to the constraints placed upon them. But what is really oppressing us is not our choice of adaptation or our nature as a group designated as "different," it is having our definition of self made not by ourselves but by others.

To be a Jew means to live in history. The history of the Jews is a history of one holocaust after another with short intervals of peaceful assimilation or acculturation. Most of us never study this long and bitter history and yet we live with it and it shapes our lives. We live from pogrom to pogrom, one of my friends recently said. What it means to be a Jew—having to look over your shoulder and have your bags packed.

It is only in the light of this history that we can understand the significance of the existence of the state of Israel and even the idiosyncratic behavior of the leaders of the state. It is not always a sign of paranoia to think that one is surrounded by enemies. For many religious Jews, Eretz Yisroel, the land of Israel, means the fulfillment of biblical promise and the re-establishment of their rightful place in a land from which they were driven. But for millions of nonreligious and secular Jews the state of Israel, means that for the first time in two thousand years Jews no longer will allow themselves to be defined by others and scapegoated by them. I think that this particular meaning should be important as well to every non-Jew who believes in the right of people to self-determination and freedom.

It was this understanding of the problem of "Otherness" and of the denial of self-definition which led me to the study of the history of women. For women have, for longer than any other human group, been defined by others and have been defined as "the Other." Women have, for longer than any other group, been deprived of a knowledge of their own history. I have, for the past thirty-five years, tried to comprehend analytically what I experienced and learned as a prototypical outsider—a woman, a Jew, an exile.

There is a third strand to this weave of connections Why did I spend years helping to develop the then nonexistent field of Black Women's History and never, until recently, study the history of Jewish women?

As one who chose to be an American, I had to accept the problematic in my newly adopted home together with the good. Race was the crucial issue in America. The relative freedom of the American Jewish community compared with Jews in other countries, and its long existence under conditions of tolerance and open access to the resources of the society, is no doubt due to the existence of the American Constitution and its protections, but it is also due to the existence of racially defined minorities which are the primary target for discrimination, hatred and scapegoating. This is not to minimize the existence of a history of antisemitic discrimination. We must recognize that, whether we like it or not, as Jews and as whites we have had privileges and benefits from the racially segmented labor market and from housing and job discrimination against people of color, just as have non-Jewish whites. Moreover, the way the system of competing outgroups works, there is an incentive for members of one minority group to display their assimilation, their Americanism as it were, by participating in institutionalized racism. Thus some European Jewish immigrants, who in all their lives had never seen a person of color, learned racism in short order once they assimilated to American society. I wanted to be an American but I did not want to assimilate to the evil of racism, here any more than there. It was logical for me as a scholar to focus on the issue of race in American history and because of my interest in women, on the history of black women.

There was another reason why I could not then focus on Jewish women. Coming out of my own experience of fascism, I had become convinced that nationalism of any kind could only lead to conflict and war. It was this conviction that made me unable for a long time to accept the ideological premise of Zionism. I wanted to get away from nationalistic allegiances; I wanted to transcend differences of race, ethnicity, religion and nationality. I saw my choice as "either-or." Now I am more aware of the complex weave of connections, of multiple causes, of interdependencies.

None of us can be defined simply as being members of one group or another. We are Jewish, Christian or Muslim, women or men, immigrants or fifth generation, we may be differently abled or differently acculturated by being rich or poor, we may be lesbians or married heterosexual women, battered or independent, educated or deprived of education. And all of us, ultimately, will join one of the most despised, neglected and abused groups in our society—the old and the sick. As Jews we know the frailty and unreliability of acquired status and privilege. It may be here today but gone tomorrow. We know the perils of being defined by others and of being stigmatized. We know the pain and the invisibility, the fickleness of friends and the conformity of enemies. Our history of suffering has taught us patience and survival skills.

But now, what must survive is no longer the small group, the kin, the shtetl, the Landsmannshaft, even the nation. All of us must survive in a world in which difference is the norm and no longer serves as an excuse for dominance or we will not survive at all. And in order to survive in this interconnected global village we must learn and learn very quickly to respect others who are different from us and, ultimately, to grant to others the autonomy we demand for ourselves. In short, celebrate difference and banish hatred.

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Table of Contents

Introduction
Pt. I History as Memory
1 A Weave of Connections 3
2 In the Footsteps of the Cathars 18
3 Living in Translation 33
4 Of History and Memory 50
Pt. II History: Theory and Practice
5 Nonviolent Resistance: The History of an Idea 59
6 American Values 74
7 The 20th Century: A Watershed for Women 93
8 Looking Toward the Year 2000 103
9 The Necessity of History 113
Pt. III Re-visioning History
10 Differences Among Women 131
11 Rethinking the Paradigm 146
I Class 151
II Race 184
12 Why History Matters 199
Notes 213
Index 239
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