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4 Questions with Lillian Faderman

Rebecca Keys

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This month, Lillian Faderman, a distinguished scholar of LGBT history, and author of the Jewish Lives biography Harvey Milk: His Lives and Death, answers 4 questions about the Jewish experience.

1. In your opinion, what is the defining feature of Jewish life today?

The defining feature at present is one that worries me a great deal because it’s truly divisive for our community: and that’s the passionate disagreements over Israel. As an academic, I’m concerned that so many Jewish college students, and faculty as well, are not nuanced in their criticisms of the Israeli government. They’re hostile to, or dismissive of, the country. They have little sense of the history of why it came into being as a life raft--too late for six million, but there if (or rather, as history would suggest, when) virulent anti-Semitism rears its head again. I’m especially bothered that young American Jews are sometimes in the forefront of their campuses’ BDS movement and don’t do enough to challenge the anti-Semitism that is too often connected with criticism of the Jewish state.

2. What is your favorite Jewish book and why?

There are so many Jewish books that are important to me, but if I had to pick just one I would choose a collection of stories by Bernard Malamud, The Magic Barrel, which was published in 1958. Malamud wasn’t as cerebral as Saul Bellow, and he certainly wasn’t as hip as contemporary writers such as Michael Chabon; but he captured a generation that I knew well from my childhood, and I love him for it. I’ve reread the Magic Barrel stories even in recent years, and they continue to move me. I like the way Malamud gets the Yiddish idiom so right in the voices of his immigrant Jewish characters—I can hear my own immigrant mother and aunt in those voices. I like the ethical issues his stories raise too. He’s concerned with questions about, for instance, the responsibility we have for one another—and he always complicates the answers so interestingly.

3. What do you think Jewish life will look like in 100 years from now?

As a female who in the mid-20th century became part of the group that we now call LGBT, I remember very well how things used to be—and I’m astonished and happy about how they’ve changed. Liberal Judaism has opened up in recent decades to the leadership of women and the presence of out LBGT people. That women can lead congregations, that out LGBT people are now welcome in most reform, reconstructionist, even many conservative synagogues—such expansion of the active Jewish community bodes well for future growth. It also bodes well for “100 years from now” that liberal Judaism has become increasingly vocal in recognizing and welcoming Jews of color. That helps insure that Judaism will continue to grow and that diverse Jews will continue to play a part in the Jewish community.

Another factor (not so happy), that will inevitably impact Jewish life in the future is the perennial sickness of anti-Semitism. Not only history but recent events too demonstrate that anti-Semitism is as regenerative and many-headed as Hydra. If Jews 100 years from now, through assimilation or whatever, forget their Jewishness anti-Semites will remind them.

4. If you could meet any figure from Jewish history, who would it be and why?

If I had to choose just one figure, it would be the man I wrote about for the Jewish Lives series, Harvey Milk. In the course of my research for the book, I discovered all Harvey’s many warts, and I didn’t hold back on revealing them. But I also discovered the ways in which he was big-hearted and brave and truly a mensch. And I grew to love him for his complex humanity. I also grew to admire him deeply for how he crafted the person he became and how he inspired. It may be exaggerating to say that Harvey Milk was the LGBT community’s Martin Luther King—after all, he didn’t live long enough in the public eye to garner the huge national platform that King did. But for huge masses of us, Harvey Milk is the closest thing the LGBT community has ever had to a larger-than-life hero.