Biographies, novels reveal Jewish womens stories

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This year's Jewish Book Month, by happy coincidence, begins only a few weeks after the Bay Area Jewish Women's Conference. The number of books by and about Jewish women published in the last few years has increased, and the list of new fall titles is impressive. From biography and memoir to political theory and fiction, the following titles are just a few of this season's offerings.

Bette Roth Young's "Emma Lazarus in Her World, Life and Letters" (298 pages, Jewish Pub-lication Society, $34.95) paints a fresh portrait of the poet known primarily for her verse about the Statue of Liberty. A member of a wealthy Sephardic family, Lazarus (1849-1887) mingled in high society and enjoyed friendships with writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry James. As a Jew, she was both excluded from and drawn into the intellectual circles of her day.

Lazarus' own sense of Jewishness was ambivalent. Although she championed the East European immigrants who were coming to the United States in the 1880s, she felt distant from them and their beliefs. Her newly discovered letters to non-Jewish intimates included in this volume rarely mention her Jewish concerns. What emerges is a complex life, caught between assimilation and assertion.

Ruby Daniel was born in 1912, half a world away from Lazarus. In her memoir, "Ruby of Cochin, an Indian Jewish Woman Remembers" (211 pages, Jewish Publication So-ciety, $29.95), she de-scribes the rich Jewish culture that once flourished on the southwest coast of India. Daniel, who now lives in Israel on Kibbutz Neot Mordecai, was first approached in 1978 by anthropologist Barbara C. Johnson for help in translating songs of the Cochin Jews. As they got to know each other and Daniel's talents as a storyteller and writer became apparent, Johnson encouraged her to start writing her memoir.

These are the stories of an adventurous woman who got an education, worked as a teacher, joined the Royal Navy during World War II and came to the kibbutz in 1951. As she writes in her introduction, "It is important for people today to know about what happened before they were born, to know about the lives of ordinary women, people who were not known in the world."

Aviva Cantor, Jewish feminist and co-founder of Lilith magazine, has produced a work sure to provoke thought and controversy. In her "Jewish Women/Jewish Men, the Legacy of Patriarchy in Jewish Life" (HarperSanFrancisco, 548 pages, $32.50), Cantor draws parallels between Jews' experience as a minority and women's experience as "the other" in patriarchal society.

Using the tools of gender role analysis and a broad range of examples from history and literature, she seeks to answer the following questions: What has enabled Jews to survive oppression and persecution, and at what cost? What are the causes of conflict between Jewish women and men? What is the real motivation behind anti-Semitism? What lies behind monotheism?

Rebecca Goldstein, author of "The Mind-Body Problem," has produced an engaging new novel called "Mazel" (Viking, 357 pages, $23.95). Beginning on a suburban lawn in present-day New Jersey, the story unfolds backward to tell of the interlinked lives of three generations of Jewish women. Sasha, a rabbi's daughter, flees the narrow life of a Polish shtetl to become an actress in a Warsaw avant-garde Yiddish theater. Her daughter Chloe is a mild-mannered college professor specializing in the ancient Greeks. Granddaughter Phoebe has married a nice, observant Jewish man much to her freethinking grandmother's dismay and amazement. Goldstein wittily interweaves the three stories, demonstrating how the warring factors of mazel and sechel, luck and brains, rule her characters' lives. Told with humor and a strong vision, "Mazel" is rich in character and memory, full of surprising plot twists and lovingly steeped in Jewish history and culture.

All books are available for circulation at the Bureau of Jewish Education's Jewish Community Library, 601-14th Ave., S.F., which is part of the bureau's educational resource center.