Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz

American activist

Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz (1945 – July 10, 2018) was an American essayist, poet, academic, and political activist against racism and for economic and social justice who lived in the USA.


"Some Notes on Jewish Lesbian Identity" (Summer 1980-Winter 1981)Edit

In Nice Jewish Girls: A Lesbian Anthology

  • That I am lesbian is my usual awareness. My close people are almost all lesbians, mostly not Jewish. I live in Santa Fe, among gentiles; and though I am lonely for Jews, I don't go to shul, and never did; and don't pray, or even know the prayers. I think Israel a boiling contradiction; and besides, they don't give queers citizenship. But the rise of Klan activity, Reagan and his white-on-white cabinet, synagogues bombed in France, have me in a sweat. Dreams of the camps. I need to know the network I may be forced to count on. I want to know the tradition, what binds us besides danger.
  • Liberals and pacifists often challenge the notion of "one's own people." Liberals "don't like labels"; pacifists say, "face your enemy with love." Both say, "people are people." I think Jews are haunted-intelligently so-by spectres of cattle cars packed to the top with our people. Some of who I am roots in the knowledge, as early as I can remember: there are people who did not want us to exist-millions of them. For these people, there is no love. It's easy for me to think in terms of "my people" and "our enemies."
  • Jewishness is a leitmotif in and out of my brain; not the main theme.
  • Exposed or isolated, deprived of our culture or locked into it, our powerlessness to define ourselves culminates in the camps: take Primo Levi, a chemist, deported from Italy to Auschwitz in 1943, one of millions: "Levi's number-174517-was tattooed on his left arm in a swift and slightly painful operation.... Only by showing the number could 174517 get bread and soup. Levi speaks: Nothing belongs to us anymore; they have taken/away our clothes, our shoes, even our hair; if we/speak, they will not listen to us, and if they listen,/they will not understand. They will even take away/our name: and if we want to keep it, we will have to/find in ourselves the strength to do so, to manage/somehow so that behind the name something of us/of us as we were, still remains.
  • think about asking every Jew you know: what was your name?
  • In the heyday of Barbra Streisand, it's hard to remember that every Jewish teenage girl of my generation whose nose "looked Jewish" longed for another chance.
  • As Jewish women, we are often blamed for our strength. When I became a lesbian and no longer had to care what men, Jewish or otherwise, thought of me, I came into my power. As a lesbian, I learned fast and ecstatically that women liked me to be strong. I began to enjoy, build, and relax into my full self.
  • gentiles persecuted the Jews for thousands of years before the Nazis got efficient at it
  • As Jewish women and Jewish lesbians, we need to reclaim words like pushy/loud/politico/power trippy/cheap/dominating/garish/sexy/emotional/always screaming/bossy/scary temper/difficult style/(and, of course) Jewish mother/(and) Jewish princess
  • w:Anzia Yezierska, who told, in yiddish-like english, stories of Jewish immigrants, especially women's struggles for love, freedom, and education. Of her work, she wrote: "It's not me-it's their cries-my own people-crying in me! Hannah Breineh, Shmendrek, they will not be stilled in me, till all America stops to listen. "
  • Most stories of the holocaust, like most other stories, have been told by and about men. I don't reject them for this, they are Jewish and mine. But as a woman, I need to know about the women, and that many Jews fought back, as they could, Jewish women among them. To fortify myself, I collect names and as much information as I can find. About women who fought inside the camps. Say their names.
  • I read about Krysia Frimer, whose brother was a resistance fighter but he forbade her to join because it was too dangerous yet she was killed first. I mourn all the women deprived of the night to fight back, who were not thereby saved; and all the women whose names have not survived, who took messages food weapons in and out of the ghetto, who whored to the soldiers leaders cops for somebody's life freedom food information, who kept themselves and their children alive. Those were Jewish women. I come from women who fought like that.
  • I want a button that says Pushy Jew. Loud Pushy Jew, Loud Pushy Jew Dyke.

To Be a Radical Jew in the Late 20th Century (1986)Edit

In The Tribe of Dina: A Jewish Women's Anthology

  • 'So, Melanie, what's with all the Jewish?' This was my father speaking, sometime in 1982, the year he died. I answered him clearly, carefully, the way I did that year because he often got confused, but the answer was not hard to find. I had been away from NY since I was 20-I was then 37-and I had noticed two things: my own hunger for Jewish culture, music, food, language, humor, perspective, Jewish people; and, the anti-Semitism palpable and growing around me.
  • Soon we would get our first TV, so my mother (and I) could watch the McCarthy hearings. I knew the whole fate of humanity hinged on these hearings, as surely as I knew the Rosenbergs had been good people, like my parents, with children the same age as my sister and me. I knew government people, like McCarthy, had killed the Rosenbergs, and I was terrified, but it literally did not occur to me that real people, people I might meet, people who had children and went to work, hated the Rosenbergs, thought they should die. Nor did it occur to me that there were people who thought unions were bad, people who did not know you never cross a picket line, did not know prejudice was wrong and stupid.
  • 1972. I had just moved to Portland, Oregon and was attending a feminist conference, talking with a woman while we waited for the elevator. I have forgotten the context for what she said: that she did not like Jews. They were loud and pushy and aggressive. This was the first time I had heard someone say this outright. I was stunned, didn't know what to say-"no they're not"?-and I couldn't believe she didn't know I was Jewish. I said, loud, flat, "I'm Jewish." I can't remember what happened next or even her face, only the moment by the elevator.
  • By the time I left Oregon in 1979, I had developed an interest in Jewish immigrant history and an obsession with the Holocaust.
  • 1980. I recognized in Reagan's election that the liberalism I had for years seen as the real danger was being superseded, that the right was gaining power, with all its Jew-hating, racist, sexist, homophobic capitalist thrust. At the same time the anti-Semitism I was encountering in the women's movement and on the left hurt me more, not because it was more threatening but because the feminist left was where I needed to be: this added to my sense of isolation as a Jew.
  • There were many of us on distinct but similarly inevitable paths. What happened as Jewish women began raising Jewish issues inside the women's movement? Even at the beginning, some of the issues we were raising seemed almost mundane, discrimination, assumptions of obvious: issues of direct insult, stereotypes, omission, exclusion, indifference, sameness, passing, invisibility, cultural difference, concern for cultural survival. . .I-and I think many of us-expected that the groundwork on these issues had been laid, that the heroic and tedious labor undertaken by women of color, with some white and Jewish support, to raise everyone's consciousness about racism would carry over somewhat to inform response to Jewish women. Not that I thought white-or Jewish-women had always been adequate in their commitment to fight racism. Not that I assumed experience and issues for Jewish women and for gentile women of color were the same; nor did I expect identical experience and issues for all women of color, including Jewish women of color. But I did expect some analogy to be apprehended. I expected that the movement would continue building on general principles, as well as differentiate what was unique. And this did not happen. I saw resistance, overt rejection, ridicule, a willful ignorance. Not from everyone. From some I saw respect, support and desire to extend themselves. From many I saw hypocritical silence masquerading as respect. From some, hostility. And-most often-I saw a bewilderment, an inability to grasp what was being said about anti-Semitism or Jewish identity, an incapacity to recognize why it mattered. And, of course, the too-polite silence, the bewilderment, the hostility intensified my self-consciousness as a Jew.
  • I was reading analyses of racism and discussions of identity, mostly by Black women, and my proximity to Chicana and Native American cultures allowed me tangible lessons in diversity and in non-mainstream survival. Cultures, people were being defined as Third World or white; where I lived it was Chicana, Indian or Anglo. But none of these categories, none of the descriptive analyses fit me or my culture. I was an English-speaker, my people came from Europe, but we were not Anglo and neither was our culture.
  • the more outside of a Jewish ambiance I was, the more conscious I became of Jewishness.
  • Why have so many radicals been impermeable to a pro-Jewish analysis and activity? Why are we getting the message that many of our erstwhile political comrades and sisters-including Jews-think it contradictory to be a radical Jew?
  • Nor does Jewish oppression fit into previously established analyses. If capitalism is your primary contradiction, the Jewish people is not a class category. If racism, many Jews have light skin, pass as gentile if they wish. If sexism, why should Jewish women identify with Jewish men? If Jewish is an ethnicity, a peoplehood, why don't you live in Israel, or call yourself Israeli? If it's a religion, how are you Jewish if you don't observe? But not only does Jewish oppression elude conventional categories, Jewish stereotypes prove that anti-Semitism does not exist. Jews are rich, powerful, privileged, control the media, the schools, the business world, international banking: the Zionist conspiracy rides again. How could such powerhouses ever be in trouble? These stereotypes, I've realized, prevent recognition of how we are threatened or demeaned as Jews.
  • By speaking about anti-Semitism, Jewish women unsettle an unspoken equation in the radical women's movement: in a society like ours, deeply racist and absurdly pretending to classlessness, class comes to be seen as identical to race. People of color are considered the same as working and poor people.
  • But when I look more closely at places other than New York-at Boston, where working class Italians and Blacks have been at odds over school busing; at Detroit, where Iraqi small merchants and Blacks have had racial tension reminiscent of the "Jewish shopkeeper in Harlem"; at northern New Mexico where Chicana/o and Native American communities may have differences, and where Anglos moving to the area are wresting political control from the Chicanas/os; at Miami, where non-Spanish speakers may resent the bilingualism requirement for civil service jobs dealing with the public-my grasp of the complexities of race, Jewishness, ethnicity, class, and culture is greatly enhanced. Instead of being characterized by polarization, in which anti-Semitism is treated as a phenomenon different in nature from racism, anti-Semitism can be clearly seen as a form of racism.
  • Jewish experience in the US, isolated from the experience of Jews around the world, seems fairly rosy. But Jews are an international people, and the nature of Jewish identity, oppression, fear and danger derive from and connect to experiences outside this country.
  • Wars between the US and other countries have always been fought in other countries; most people in the US live in an extraordinarily protected context. Not only is our country vast and populous and proud of an isolationist spirit (often masking an imperialist reality); but, in addition, the strictly limited immigration during the middle portion of this century has restricted most Americans' knowledge about war, persecution, torture, the experience of refugees. Most Americans seem to believe ourselves peculiarly unaffected by what goes on in the rest of the world.
  • We are up against a failure of Americans to take seriously the pitch Jewhating attained so quickly in Europe in the thirties, for example, because Americans think Europe and the thirties so far away. They know about evil Germans, sheeplike Jews, and heroic Americans, but are not taught to see the war against the Jews as a culmination to centuries of Jewhating. Americans are told lies about the base of Nazism, so that we imagine Jewhating goes with a lack of education: working-class people are-as with white racism in this country-blamed. We are not told of the doctors and doctorates trained in Europe's finest universities. For most Americans the Holocaust blurs safely, almost pleasantly, with other terrible events of the past, like Bubonic Plague in the Middle Ages. Nor have most Americans paid much attention to the persecution of Jews in the Soviet Union, or Argentina, or Ethiopia, unless an ideological point is to be scored against these nations.
  • Then, too, an assumption deeply integral to capitalism has been absorbed by all of us, since it is reflected in so much of what we see. I have called this the Scarcity Theory, not enough to go around: not enough love, not enough time, not enough appointments at the foodstamps office, not enough food stamps, not enough money, not enough seats on the subway. It's pervasive. We learn mistrust of each other, bone deep: everything is skin off somebody's nose.
  • in the short run, certain things are scarce. To what causes do I apply my limited "free" time? Where do I donate "extra" money? What books do I read, what issues do I follow and become knowledgeable about? Where will my passion be deep and informed, able to make connections and inspire others, and where will it be superficial, giving lip service only? The women's movement has only in the last few years and under considerable pressure begun to face its own racism; class is still addressed in the most minimal ways. Meanwhile, international crises-apartheid in South Africa, intervention in Nicaragua, torture and repression in Salvador and Guatemala-compel attention.
  • Identity politics of all kinds do contain an inherent potential not only for victim-competition but for splintering movements into 1000 groups whose members at last feel sufficiently the same: comfy but not a powerful resource.
  • anti-Semitism has sometimes masqueraded as a disdain for identity politics.
  • Literally, who will stick up for me if I don't respect myself enough to stand up for myself, if I can't articulate my own concerns so that others understand and care about them? Here is our beginning. Have we been for ourselves sufficiently already? Do we even know who ourselves are?
  • For some Jews, "passing" seems a choice; for others, passing means total denial and pain; for still others, passing is something they do without even thinking, and for still others, passing -as white/American/normal- is impossible. Some Jews have never felt a moment of Jewish fear; others smell it daily.
  • the nature of the Jewish people on the face of this earth has been totally transformed in the past 45 years
  • Anyone who has heard-as I have-Jew-hating remarks said to her face because to the speaker she didn't look Jewish knows both the survival value and the knife twist of passing.
  • Those who call resistance to assimilation a luxury might do well to think about calling "sexual preference" a luxury, or reproductive rights, or access to education or creative expression. None of these is bread, but "Bread and Roses" was a demand voiced by Rose Schneiderman, a union organizer and a Jew. What are the roses? As Jews we need our peoplehood, our culture, history, languages, music, calendar, tradition, literature... We need these things because they are beautiful and ours, and because the point of struggle is not bare survival but lives full of possibility. But Rose Schneiderman's metaphor flounders. Our culture is not a rose, it is our backbone.
  • Particularly for those of us who are not religiously observant, much confusion attends our grasping - through anti-Semitism and often prodded by anti-Semitism - for something beyond common danger. We need to figure out how to undo assimilation without being nostalgic or xenophobic: how to reach in and out at the same time.
  • The way Jews have been met with "not you too," the way anti-Semitism becomes the one issue too many, suggest that many white women are angry and resistant to dealing with racism but are too frightened to express that anger openly; suggest further how little our movement has taught us to see struggles against racism as life-giving, nourishing; as our own.
  • for the most cockamamie reasons, people land in situations from which they change and wisen. I did not take the D-train to Harlem when I was 17 with my present consciousness, yet I would not have developed my present consciousness without those formative experiences.
  • But guilt itself, as a motivating factor, is rooted in a way of thinking which does not promote change. Guilt asks: am I bad or am I good? guilty or innocent? racist or not? Very different from asking "is this a racist act?" which allows me not to commit it, or to do the work that ensures I never commit it again. For in order to change you have to be willing to expose yourself-at least to yourself-and observe and examine and understand. This takes time, patience, and a respect for process. Guilt prompts a longing to purge all impure impulses quickly, get it over and done with once and for all.
  • 'the white man's burden' was a polite name for imperialism.
  • how does any sane person react after a while to fear, guilt? Is this a way to build a movement?
  • Nor can guilt mobilize those who don't feel guilty. Try telling a white working-class woman, for example, to fight racism because of how privileged she is. She may think racism is wrong and may be committed to fight it; she may also think that movement analyses of racism are ridiculous because she is not living the easy life her white skin is supposed to guarantee her. Whatever privilege she may have, she clings to-things are tough-but she hardly feels guilty.
  • Only recognition of a common goal, the possibilities and I want to say-the joys of solidarity will inspire women who don't feel guilty to join another struggle as their own.
  • Solidarity requires the bonding together of a people engaged in common struggle. But solidarity also means standing alongside another struggle, not because you feel guilty but because you recognize it as your own; it means using what you have on behalf of the struggle.
  • Your privilege, insofar as it divides you from others, is in your way, unless you resolve how to use it for others, as well as for yourself.
  • let me say something which in this (christian) culture may come as a surprise: what is best in people is not self-abnegation. What is best in people is a sturdy connection between respect for the self and respect for the other: reaching in and out at the same time
  • We have to recognize that Jews are relatively well-off economically compared with most people of color in this country, as with the rural white poor; and that Jews endure about the same level of poverty as other ethnic groups who immigrated around the same time. Our job is to untangle class hostility from anti-Semitism, not to pretend the Jewish people still works in the sweatshop.
  • The attitude that claims we-of any group- are essentially victims and so can't be charged with our behavior is destructive to all of us.
  • True coalition is not a smattering of tokens. True coalition forms between groups, the premise is that each group has a strong base in a larger community. Thus Jews who want to work in coalition need not only to know who we are but to be bonded with other Jews.
  • A genuinely candid confrontation amongst all of us-a genuinely specific and candid confrontation - is much needed;
  • We must want equality, and we must grasp that equality does not coexist with class structure.
  • We forget that people can change, including our own people; including ourselves.
  • We know that while nothing guarantees allies, callousness guarantees callousness.
  • If we could start working together before we trust, understand, or like each other, we might learn to.
  • Perhaps we need to engage, even in uncertainty, and work out issues as they arise.
  • We must remember: what is beautiful is the resistance, and that people can-and must-resist from their own authentic place in the world. we must reach out to Israelis fighting for peace, civil rights, and feminism without secretly feeling the Palestinians are more beautiful, because more besieged. One of the hardest acts of self-love for American radical Jews is to identify in this with Israelis, and I have come to believe it is a crucial stretch, for the alternative is denial of the Jewish connection. It is from this solid, self-knowing place that we can work towards peace and justice in the Middle East.

Quotes about Melanie Kaye/KantrowitzEdit

  • Every minority woman did this. They went back to their communities and they said, Where are the women? Let me see where they've been hidden, where they've been buried, who's forgotten, who should be remembered. We all did that with our own communities of origin, and I did the same thing with the Yiddish. And so, when I did with Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz -- when we did "The Tribe of Dina," we highlighted Fradel Shtok, who I'd never heard of before, and Kadia Molodowsky, who I had, but I didn't even know that she wrote prose. And we published -- I translated two short stories by both of them. And aside, I think, from Rokhl Korn, it was, like, the first time that these people's prose was being shown.
  • I feel I was very lucky, though, because when I came out, which was in 1973, New York was just hopping. It was exploding. It was after Stonewall. Lesbians started getting organized. I belonged to a group of lesbian writers. There were four of us who decided to start Conditions magazine, for example, and before that we had a group called Di Vilde Chayas [the wild animals], which was a group that had Adrienne Rich, Melanie Kaye Kantrowitz, Gloria Greenfield, and Evelyn Beck, who did Nice Jewish Girls.
  • if you’re going to be involved with the Left, you’ve got to start thinking about Israel. Melanie and I became very committed to supporting the Women in Black in ‘87.
  • Irena Klepfisz, Interview (2018)
  • I met Melanie because of the women’s movement, specifically that part of the women’s movement where radical, anti-racist, Lesbian feminists were doing revolutionary work and carving out a place to survive. A lot of us here know how tough it was to be out as a Lesbian in the 1970’s...There is an untold history of feminists who challenged white supremacy, who did anti-racist organizing often in places where we were far from welcome. Our political activism and practice formed the roots of intersectionality, before the word was invented. Melanie was at the forefront of this work, which is embodied in both her beautiful writing and activism...Her inclusive political vision was nowhere more clear than in her leadership of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice. Look at the name of that organization. It says, Jewish people are challenging racism and class oppression. It says that Non-Jews can too! People of color and Jews can work together. There are Jews who are people of color and people of color who are Jewish. Melanie was far more than an ally. She was an incomparable co-conspirator... There’s so much integrity and courage that Melanie embodies and always will. We need to share that with others who think that it may have been easy and who don’t necessarily know the streets that we walked and the battles that we fought.

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