Essays focus on Jewish Canadian women authors

English professor Ruth Panofsky hopes that her new book will make readers aware that the experience of Jewish Canadian women is unique, varied, rich and important.

English professor and author Ruth Panofsky

For her book At Odds in the World: Essays on Jewish Canadian Women Writers, Panofsky wrote a series of critical essays on the works of seven authors – Miriam Waddington, Adele Wiseman, Lilian Nattel, Helen Weinzweig, Fredelle Bruser Maynard, Joyce Maynard and Nora Gold – that tackle the themes of sexuality, patriarchy, marriage and motherhood.

“Throughout my career I’ve always been interested in the experience of Jewish Canadian women and I’ve looked for that experience in literature… Those experiences in the early days were hard to find,” said Panofsky, a Ryerson University professor.

“There was a progression of locating other work by Jewish female writers, particularly Canadian, because there were a fair number of American Jewish writers, but the Canadian story wasn’t told very much.”

Panofsky, who won the Helen and Stan Vine Canadian Jewish Book Award for Poetry last year for Laike and Nahum: A Poem in Two Voices, said she acted on a “personal impulse” to “find the voices of those who have not really been represented and… I wanted my own world experience reflected in literature.”

She said that American Jewish female writers tend to write about being outside the tradition and being denied access to certain religious practices.

“They do feel to be on the margins of their own society and at the margins of the larger society as well,” Panofsky added.

“I want readers to be cognizant that the experience of being a Jewish female in Canada is something unique and rich and varied and important.”

She said that although many Canadian Jewish female writers describe being marginalized and undervalued, they also value their community and they don’t want to separate from it.

“They seek desperately to find ways to include themselves in it, and it is that tension, that feeling that they are both in the world and out of it at the same time, that I wanted readers to see and to recognize.”

She said the last essay in the collection, titled The Freedom to Write, which examines works by Fredelle Bruser Maynard and her daughter, Joyce Maynard, was important to her because it was about a relationship between a Jewish mother who mentored her daughter in the art of living and writing.

“That mother and daughter describe a troubled, often painful relationship is not surprising, given the gargantuan task Fredelle undertook in spite of patriarchal resistance to worldly education for girls and a religious tradition that prescribes restrictive roles for women,” she wrote.

Panofsky referred to another essay in her book based on the fiction of Wiseman and Nattel about Jewish prostitutes and motherhood.

“The figure of the Jewish prostitute I always found very compelling because of her special vulnerability and also a remarkable strength,” she said.

In her essay This Was Her Punishment, Panofsky wrote: “The prostitute may reclaim her Jewish identity through marriage, but the right to legitimate motherhood will elude the Jewish prostitute who remains thrice outcast, thrice isolate from the community of Jews, women and mothers that will neither forget nor forgive her improprieties.”

Panofsky said that the issues examined in her book are important for the female Jewish community and hopes that writers will find it easier to explore what it means to be Jewish and female in today’s society.

“There are many poets… and a growing number of contemporary writers who probe what it means to be Jewish from a very different perspective than earlier generations, so there is a real growing developing or growing interest in what it means to be Jewish and female,” she said.

“Women, traditionally, have hesitated to be very open about their cultural identity and… despite the rise in anti-Semitism worldwide, in Canada there is a sense of openness and tolerance and interest in cultural diversity. I think that it is definitely encouraging our writers to explore their own identity through a range of perspectives.”