‘I am declaring another way to be Jewish’: Remembering writer and activist Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz

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Writer, scholar, and activist Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz died last month, on July 10, after a long battle with Parkinson’s. She was 73 years old.

As an eloquent and incisive poet and essayist, Melanie played a pivotal role in the women’s movement, and the movements for LGBT rights, against racism and anti-Semitism, and for Palestinian rights. Among her most galvanizing ideas was what she called “radical diasporism,” an update of the Jewish Labor Bund’s notion of doykayt (“hereness”). In contrast to the Zionist insistence that Israel is the Jewish homeland, diasporism, for her, involved an assertion of the richness of Jewish identity and culture wherever Jews live. “What do I mean by home?” she asked in her book, “The Colors of Jews: Racial Politics and Radical Diasporism (2007). “Not the nation state; not religious worship; not the deepest grief of a people marked by hatred. I mean a commitment to what is and is not mine; to the strangeness of others, to my strangeness to others; to common threads twisted with surprise.”

As a teenager, Melanie participated in the civil rights work of the Harlem Education Project, where, she once wrote of her first experience of the power of collective action: “I was hooked.” At City College in the 1960s, and then at graduate school in California (she earned a PhD in Comparative Literature at Berkeley), she joined the emerging feminist and lesbian liberation movements. Her work against domestic violence in Portland, Oregon in the 1970s was among the first in the country. She served on the steering committee of New Jewish Agenda, the national, multi-issue grassroots group that was active from 1980 to 1992, and co-chaired its Task Force on Anti-Semitism and Racism.

Melanie’s pioneering writing and teaching developed alongside her activism. At Berkeley, she taught the first Women’s Studies course and she went on to teach in programs as diverse as Urban Studies, Race Theory, Public Policy, Gender and Queer Studies, and Jewish Studies. For five years she directed the Queens College/CUNY worker education center, which served mostly middle-aged women of color. She taught in the Bard College Prison Initiative. She was an attentive, nurturing mentor to students and emerging activists of all ages, and deeply respectful of the distinct wisdom of the young. Reflexively generous, she wrote encouraging notes to young writers; even when Parkinson’s was taking its toll, she looked out for the labor rights of her care-givers.

Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz. (Photo: Jews for Racial and Economic Justice)

Melanie moved to New York City in the early 1990s, leaving a tenured academic position to become the founding director of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, and that was where she met her partner of 21 years, the organizer Leslie Cagan, with whom she shared deep ethical commitments, dedication to the movement, and a wicked sense of humor. At JFREJ, Melanie centered the organization’s work in a deeply feminist, queer, anti-racist, multicultural, class-conscious analysis. The word ‘intersectionality’ did not yet have wide currency, but Melanie communicated the concept and put it into action. She urged the group’s early members to grapple with the connections among racism, antisemitism, misogyny, homophobia, classism, and other oppressions, as she insisted on contending with the contradictions and conflicts at the heart of movement-building. A public intellectual in the best sense, she combined sparkling ideas, emotional sensitivity, and moral courage – a steely fierceness embedded in a quiet, unassuming style. At the same time, her deep humility allowed her to shoulder even the most tedious tasks required for building an organization, and a community, by hand.

Melanie also had a profound impact on untold numbers who encountered her ideas through her writing, editing, and public talks. As co-editor of the groundbreaking lesbian feminist journal Sinister Wisdom in the 1980s, she helped amplify radical voices in a multitude of forms and from a range of underrepresented perspectives. In a special 1984 edition, for instance, she and co-editor Michaele Uccella gave over the entire issue to an American nurse’s chronicle of her experience working at a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon at the time of Israel’s 1982 invasion. For many Jews, the editors noted in their introduction, reading the nurse’s account would be painful and scary. Nonetheless, they wrote, “We need to know what Israel did in Lebanon, need to listen to a woman whose nearly hopeless job was to heal those wounded by American cluster bombs dropped by Israeli soldiers.”

In 1989, during the First Intifada, Melanie traveled to Israel and the Occupied Territories as part of a delegation organized by the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Though she had been to Israel before and was already active against the occupation, on this trip, she later wrote, she viscerally and concretely encountered Palestine for the first time. In her compelling essay reflecting on the delegation’s meetings there with Palestinian leaders, feminists, human rights lawyers and teachers, and with Israeli peace activists, Melanie meditated on the blinders that constrained how she’d been raised to see the region. “When I was growing up in Brooklyn, Palestine and Israel were, vaguely, the same place,” she wrote. “Palestinians were Jews from Palestine. But by the time I was an adult, the word Palestine set off a subtle alarm system. People who said Palestine did not say Israel, and vice versa.” Traveling back and forth between Hebrew and Arabic, across the invisible but unmistakable green line, she experienced how “they are both here, Israel and Palestine: obvious, palpable” and on her return to the United States, she committed to helping make that Palestinian reality known, especially to American Jews who would deny it.

Melanie once wrote, of one of the many ad hoc, typically small Jewish efforts to advance Palestinian rights we were all a part of during the 1980s and 1990s, that she was hoping “to design an action that would help shift the center of Jewish peace activism leftward.” It was in some sense a mission statement for those years. In the 1980s, she and Grace Paley and a handful of others would stand on street corners, leafletting; from before the First Intifada, through the many brutal Israeli crackdowns that followed, she helped put together Jewish statements and press conferences, and panel discussions and protests, some festive, some desperate and furious, to challenge what was then lockstep support for the Israeli government from the mainstream American Jewish community.

In May 2001, at an international gathering of 175 activists called Jewish Unity for a Just Peace, or JUNITY, in Chicago, Melanie proposed a powerful direction action: renouncing the Jewish “right” to Israeli citizenship granted by Israel’s Law of Return. She elaborated on the idea in an essay in “Wrestling with Zion,” edited by Tony Kushner and Alisa Solomon: She recalled thinking back to the hundreds of Vietnam vets who had hurled their combat medals onto the steps of the Capitol, trying to imagine a gesture that would “communicate our rage at the Israeli government’s violation of human rights, our grief at the protracted suffering, and our sense of betrayal by those cynics who invoke Jewish survival—our survival—to justify brutality.” People, she recalled, were unnerved by the proposal, and responded viscerally.

Melanie excelled at that: hitting us with ethical and emotional truths. 

With “The Tribe of Dina: A Jewish Women’s Anthology,” which she co-edited with Irena Klepfisz, Melanie helped ignite a diverse, complex radical Jewish feminism for the late 20th Century. Her early short story collection, “My Jewish Face & Other Stories,” offered a moving, humorous, deeply human portal to the urgent struggles of the 1980s. Her most recent book, “The Colors of Jews,” presciently historicized and decentered Jewish whiteness. These writings and others invigorated and challenged generations of activists, writers, and radical thought.

Her essay in “Wrestling with Zion” ends with her imagining what she’d say if she were to show up at the consulate to reject her “right” to aliyah: “I do not believe the solution to anti-Semitism is the creation of another hated minority so that I can enjoy the privileges of majority. Far from feeling protected by Israel, I feel exposed to danger by the actions of the Israeli state.”

“I identify with those people who cherish life and believe that each of us is worth exactly the same,” she wrote. “I am declaring another way to be Jewish.”

A memorial service, open to the public, will be held on September 15, 2018, in New York City. Details at melaniekayekantrowitz.com.

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Thanks for this nice tribute to someone I unfortunately was not familiar with.