From poetry to prayer; activism to art; comedy to collegiate study, over one hundred people converged on the Mills campus last Sunday to celebrate the diverse and multi-faceted voices of Jewish women.
The day long event was the first in a series entitled "Kol Isha: Jewish Women's Voices Unbound," to take place at various Bay Area venues over the next few months. Co-organized by Professor of English Cynthia Scheinberg, the conference featured panels, presentations, performances and workshops on Jewish women's contributions to spiritual, cultural, historical, and political change, as well as to the literary and artistic worlds.
Dr. Irena Klepfisz, a renowned poet, educator, feminist essayist and outspoken political activist, delivered the opening presentation to a captivated audience of Jewish women (and a handful of men) young and old.
"It's good to be in a Jewish women's environment where I hope we can feel comfortable to engage in debate," said Klepfisz.
Klepfisz explained in her speech that she was asked to discuss the significance of a number of Yiddish women writers, but that she also wanted to mention some of her observations while teaching about Jewish women writers at Barnard College. According to Klepfisz, her students tend to approve of Jewish art only when it presents Jewish characters in the most positive light. If the class is analyzing a story that in any way perpetuates anti-semitic stereotypes, Klepfisz said her students are reluctant to see its artistic value.
"This fear is deeply political because it supports the status quo," said Klepfisz.
As a writer, Klepfisz is not known for supporting the status quo. Some themes of her work include the struggle for justice in Israel and Palestine, her experience as a Holocaust survivor, lesbian Jewish identity, and women's rights.
Following Klepfisz's presentation, participants chose from a wide array of panels and workshops that addressed numerous topics including women's voices in prayer, the sexual politics of Hebrew and Yiddish, new directions in Feminist Rabbinics, and the reconstruction of Jewish and gender identities in post-communist Russia.
Mills professors Judith Berlowitz, Carlotta Caulfield and Chana Bloch also co-presented sessions on Mizrahi (Jews of Middle-Eastern descent) and Sephardi (Jews of Spanish/Moroccan descent) women's voices, Latin American Jewish women writers, and the poetry of Dahlia Ravikovitch.
Adina Lepp, an English major, spent the last semester interning for "Kol Isha," helping to organize the conference.
"I wanted to see the intersections between creativity and academia within the work of Jewish women taken seriously," said Lepp, who said that the Jewish presence on Mills is "incredibly lacking."
According to organizers, "Kol Isha" marks the beginning of an investigation of Jewish women's programming at Mills.
"We are developing academic programs all the time, of which Jewish women's studies is one," said President Janet Holmgren in an opening address.
According to Scheinberg, the school recently received a gift to help faculty incorporate content about Jewish women into existing curriculum as well as to develop new courses.
"Rather than create a Jewish Studies program from scratch, our approach is to support and collaborate with other existing programs and find ways for Mills to create co-curricular programming and courses that focus specifically on women and gender in Jewish studies," said Scheinberg.
Scheinberg said this would help fulfill the college's commitment to enriching the college's multicultural curriculum.
The next "Kol Isha" conference event scheduled to take place on campus is "Daughters of the Dream: A Conversation with Yolanda King and Susannah Heschel." This program featuring daughters of legendary Civil Rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Joshua Heschel is slated for April 10.
Sunday's event was sponsored by a wide variety of organizations including the James Irvine Foundation, the Berkeley Jewish Community Center, and the Mills women's studies program.