Catherine Fischer is the coordinator of the Center City Kehillah in Philadelphia, Penn. The Center City Kehillah is a community building project of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia in cooperation with the Jewish Outreach Partnership.
A Jew-by-Choice Writes a Negative Book about Her Welcome from the Jewish Community
Review of SHIKSA: The Gentile Woman in the Jewish World, by Christine Benvenuto, St. Martin's Press, N.Y., N.Y., 2004.
Christine Benvenuto's book, SHIKSA: The Gentile Woman in the Jewish World, draws on interviews with gentile women, those who have converted, Jewish leaders, as well as her own experience as a Jew-by-choice to understand the perception of the gentile woman in the Jewish family. Her book may also be viewed as a feminist portrayal of women, both Jewish and not, throughout Jewish history.
Ms. Benvenuto examines the historical, biblical, Talmudic and contemporary ways that woman of Jewish and non-Jewish descent have been seen through various lenses. She explores such issues as matrilineal descent, the triangle between a Jewish mother, her son and his non-Jewish partner, as well as the conversion process and the ways in which the Jewish community welcomes and integrates new Jewish women into the Jewish people.
Ms. Benvenuto's choice in title is of particular importance to her both personally and professionally. She uses "SHIKSA" to catch people's attention because of the negative connotations associated with its usage. As she states in her introduction:
For me, shiksa is a word that is neither humorous nor benign. It is an instant red flag, one that I raise as a signal that this book will confront head-on controversial and complex issues that I have never seen addressed frankly and directly. ... they kept us away from most Jewish institutions, and most Jews. Judaism was an exclusive club that certainly did not want me for a member--or any other non-Jewish woman either. The early days of our marriage, I heard two stories from my husband's family that served to conjure the invisible NO GENTILE WOMEN NEED APPLY sign hanging over the gateposts of the Jewish world.
Ms. Benvenuto shares the stories of women who persevered to find synagogues that not only welcomed them but nurtured their Jewish paths, bringing them further into Jewish life and ultimately into leading lives as rabbis, cantors and religious school teachers. She also includes stories of women who have been deeply hurt by their rejection by unwelcoming Jewish people.
Despite Christine Benvenuto's wealth of knowledge, her negative views become redundant and tiresome. She emphasizes over and over again the negative ways in which these women have been and are still viewed in the Jewish world. Her use of terminology becomes tedious and dated. She uses the word "convert" to describe a woman who chooses Judaism when, today, there are phrases such as "Jew-by-choice" that more effectively convey the essence of this decision to embrace a Jewish life. She also uses convert and non-Jew synonymously to emphasize her perception that Jewish culture is not ready to accept a non-Jew into the Jewish community even if she does convert. Using convert and non-Jew almost interchangeably would be considered by the vast majority of Jewish leaders to be not only incorrect but also counter to the notion that once someone converts they are accepted fully into the Jewish community as a Jew.
As a Jew-by-choice myself, I found her experience very different from my own. While I certainly had issues of acceptance from my in-laws, I found the wider Jewish community to be supportive and encouraging of my choices. As I grew closer to deciding to convert, the rabbi with whom I was taking an Introduction to Judaism course welcomed me with open arms. He made Judaism not only accessible at every level but was sensitive to the ways that I felt insecure by giving me room when I needed it. When my husband and I decided to join a synagogue, I again was greeted warmly. Everyone from the rabbis and the cantor to the staff and religious school teachers nurtured my Jewish path. I remember my son's third grade Hebrew school teacher making an extra set of Hebrew flash cards for me to further my knowledge of Hebrew. It was clear that people's hearts were in the right place, so when something occurred that could be perceived as negative or unaccepting, I was able to see it as an opportunity to grow. There are times in life when people might make assumptions or may judge any of us prematurely. Time allows us to decide how we can meet those challenges. I was fortunate to have so much love and support behind me that the challenges only strengthened my commitment to live a life based on the Jewish values that continue to guide me today. Seventeen years later, my Jewish soul is so much a part of me that I do not remember not being Jewish. Today, I think that is how I am perceived, as well.
Ms. Benevuto recognizes that there have been and continue to be fears of assimilation among Jews. Intermarriage continues at high rates and many Jews seek strategies to protect themselves from being affected by this trend through their use of words and actions that alienate others. However, many rabbis and leaders in our religious movements recognize that this is not only ineffective but also turns away people who might otherwise be drawn to Judaism for themselves or for their families. Today, values that emphasize respect, acts of loving kindness, the notion that we have been created in God's image, and the mitzvah of keruv (to draw near those who are far) guide many to view intermarriage as a challenge and an opportunity to bring new people into Judaism.
Jews living in America today have experienced an acceptance far beyond what we have ever before experienced in our history. While change never happens quickly, we have changed, especially during the last thirty years. We now have more programs intended to meet the specific needs of interfaith families, as well as for those who are interested in conversion. Many rabbis and Jewish leaders are strong advocates for outreach efforts that serve all Jews and their families whether or not they choose to convert. In all religious Jewish movements many are working hard to draw near to the "stranger," whoever that may be.
I found that the title, SHIKSA, in all capital letters, was a turn-off and frankly, I found it embarrassing to walk around with the book in public. Yes, the capitalization may get people's attention, but in a negative and outdated fashion. The repercussions may not only deter some from reading the book but scare people away from Judaism altogether. Most people living in America today would be uncomfortable to use the word shiksa. As the author herself states, when a person uses this word it reflects more about his own Jewish identity than it does about the person it is describing.
Benvenuto's writing style and long, drawn-out explanations for all the negative experiences that she and others have had make it difficult for the reader to stay interested. The book reads like a personal cleansing of Ms. Benvenuto's unfortunate experiences with very little for an outsider to gain by reading it.
Christine Benvenuto's afterward, although brief, may be the most compelling part of her book. She uses her knowledge of text to convey her convictions and passions for feminism while acknowledging the contributions of many:
Thanks to the examples of Jewish feminists, I am able to envision my own ways to remember all our mothers. On Friday nights I offer my son the traditional blessing of wishing him the prosperous fate of Menassah and Ephraim, the sons of Joseph and his non-Jewish wife, Asenath. When I bless my daughter, I find that tradition tells only two-thirds of the story, so I add the missing pieces myself. I wish for her to flourish like matriarchs Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah, and I also speak the names of Bilhah and Zilpah, acknowledging the other two non-Jewish mothers of the twelve tribes of Israel.
Today, in the United States, more and more Jews are availing themselves of creative and powerful ways to reclaim their heritage. The sense of the diverse Jewish community seeking to lead richer more meaningful lives is what makes American Judaism so exciting. This could have been the message of Ms. Benvenuto's book. It's a shame that it was not emphasized and explored more fully.
Hebrew for "bringing close," a term meaning Jewish outreach.