Women go on record in exhaustive book of quotations

So, what do Roseanne Barr, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the Bible’s Esther and the pithy writer Grace Paley have in common?

They all have something to say in Elaine Bernstein Partnow’s “The Quotable Jewish Woman.” A collection of 2,400 quotes by 317 women on 72 topics, the book, if nothing else, is a real eye-opener — showing the breadth and depth of what some great (and not-so- great) Women of the Book have to say about … well, just about everything.

“My husband said he needed more space, so I locked him out of the house.” That’s one of Barr’s zingers, on the topic of “Marriage, Husbands, Wives and Divorce.” Ten of her quotes appear in the book.

Looking for something a little more serene?

“Love is the ultimate giving, an expression of one’s best self.” Partnow plumbed that one from Bel Kaufman’s book “Up the Down Staircase” (later made into a notable film).

And, in case you’ve never heard of Kaufman, a little probing toward the back of “Quotable Jewish Woman” — where the bios are located — will inform you that the German-born Kaufman won numerous awards for her short stories, fiction and nonfiction — including a moving tribute to her grandfather, Sholom Aleichem.

Useful information, as is the glossary of Hebrew and Yiddish terms. The index of women quoted lets you easily look up some of your favorites.

Calling herself “a real maven of women’s quotations” — and well she should be, having authored “The Quotable Woman” and several subsequent editions prior to this publication — Partnow writes that her criteria for selecting morsels for the book were rather broad. First, one must be Jewish, of course (Partnow includes those who converted to Judaism, as well as “half-Jews”). The women cover the spectrum from the biblical era to the present, politician to pundit, serious to silly.

As for the quotes, “the only criteria were my own sensibilities,” Partnow writes in the introduction. If “it made me kvell, if I laughed or was moved to tears, if I found myself nodding in agreement or my brow furrowing in thought, if I was moved in some way … it was included.”

Thus you’ll find serious thoughts, such as the late feminist Betty Friedan’s “It is easier to live through someone else than to become complete yourself,” juxtaposed with searing humor, like Fran Lebowitz’s flip “Humility is no substitute for a good personality.” Both can be found in the section “Individuals, Self-Realization and Human Nature.”

To her credit, Partnow puts every quote in context. Friedan’s, for example, came from her 1963 tome, “The Feminine Mystique,” while Lebowitz’s was simply “a remark.”

Naturally, there are barbs.

“Boys don’t make passes at female smart-asses,” notes Letty Cottin Pogrebin in “Down with Sexist Upbringing,” from the first Ms. Reader, 1972.

“What is the use of being a little boy if you are going to grow up to be a man?” asks Gertrude Stein in her 1937 “Everybody’s Autobiography.”

But the darts aren’t only aimed at the opposite sex: Pointed comments can be found on nearly every topic, including women. “We gals were babes in the woods then and clung to that old cliché about sports for sports sake,” complained Olympic gold medalist Bobbie Rosenfeld, a Canadian track and field star, in 1950.

There’s a lot to say on Israel and Zionism, a section sprinkled with such luminaries as Golda Meir, Emma Lazarus and Henrietta Szold. And there are pages and pages on Jews and Judaism — from poet Dorothy Parker’s mocking “I’m just a little Jewish girl trying to be cute” to early 20th-century educator and welfare worker Rebekah Bettelheim Kohut’s solemn “The denial of women’s ability to serve the synagogue in every part of its work is cruel and dangerous.”

You may have never heard of Kohut, nor the late performance artist Lotus Weinstock, or the Talmud’s Imma Shalom, or even the Ephron sisters, Delia and Nora, both writers of humorous books and screenplays.

Some of the women are quoted just once, while heavy hitters like Meir, scholar Hannah Arendt and critic and writer Susan Sontag crop up throughout the book.

“Quotable Jewish Woman” is great for perusing on a rainy day or quiet evening.

One could say Partnow has performed a mitzvah by calling attention to a few hundred of the Jewish women who’ve contributed so much to our culture.

“The Quotable Jewish Woman” by Elaine Bernstein Partnow (450 pages, Jewish Lights Publishing, $29.99).

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.