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Writing selves: Constructing American-Jewish feminine literary identity

Joan M Moelis, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This dissertation explores the many-faceted, and somewhat elusive question: "What is American Jewish feminine literary identity?" Working from the premise that no one set of writers, themes, or literary forms constitutes a centralized identity, I suggest that Jewish feminine "collective" identity is heterogeneous and involves multiply-voiced debate. Drawing on feminist criticisms that emphasize both form and social context, as well as on Bakhtinian dialogism and theories of Otherness, I approach the problem by focusing on three prominent, yet diverse writers--Cynthia Ozick, Grace Paley, and E. M. Broner--who construct multiple and mutable selves rather than fully-integrated personae. Rejecting rigid dichotomies, I probe the tensions both among and within their identities as Jews, women, and Americans.^ I first illustrate how Paley, resisting any firm or didactic explanation of her Jewishness, widens American Jewish identity by depicting diverse immigrant women's voices--all too often subsumed in a "world of our fathers." For Paley, Jewish identity is inextricably enmeshed in feminism, social activism, and empathy with the Other. Next, I explore how Ozick employs literary strategies rooted in what she terms forbidden, "pagan" magic in order to carve a place for herself in male-dominated Jewish literary and religious traditions. I argue that despite her resistance to the term "woman writer," Ozick's identity as a woman is a major driving force shaping her identity as an American Jewish writer. I then examine how Broner rebels vehemently against Jewish patriarchal frameworks and at the same time patterns her Jewish feminism after them.^ While the dissertation focuses on issues specific to Jewish women writers, the same problems of dual (or multiple) identities also bear upon the work of other women who identify both as feminists and members of ethnic groups. Thus, my last chapter offers a comparison between black and Jewish women's literary identities, showing that frameworks which attempt to essentialize race almost inevitably break down when viewed across borders of ethnicity. Seen in a broader perspective, the dissertation serves to integrate further the fields of Jewish, feminist, and ethnic studies. ^

Subject Area

Women's studies|American literature|Ethnic studies

Recommended Citation

Moelis, Joan M, "Writing selves: Constructing American-Jewish feminine literary identity" (1996). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9709630.