Remembering the Life and Work of Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz
Author: Julie R. Enszer
August 22, 2018
Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1945. Her parent adopted the surname Kaye prior to her birth; she was born Melanie Kaye then later appended the family name Kantrowitz to Kaye, linking the two together with a slash to recognize the multiple histories within her family and within the larger experiences of diasporic Jews and other immigrants to the United States.
That opening paragraph suggests that this piece might be an obituary for Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz. An obituary tells the story of a life, written upon death. Scholar Tim Retzloff amplifies the importance of obituaries in queer communities, and I share his passion, but this is not an obituary. Nor is it a reminiscence; I am narrating a story of the past, but I did not know Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz personally, as reminiscence suggests. I know her only through her writing and through work I do with Sinister Wisdom in the long shadow she cast. Nor is this a tribute, an occasion of complete and unabashed adoration. I admire Kaye/Kantrowitz, but my purpose in writing about her extends beyond exaltation; my desire is to make the life and work of Kaye/Kantrowitz visible to a community of LGBTQ readers. My desire is to engage her ideas in community that they might seed new ones, that her work might continue to flourish with meaning and power.
Writer, feminist, lesbian, activist, organizer, and theorist, Kaye/Kantrowitz published four major works: We Speak in Code, published by Motheroot Press in 1980; the anthology The Tribe of Dina, published first in 1986 by Sinister Wisdom as issue 29/30 of the journal and then by Beacon Press as an anthology in 1989; a collection of essays, The Issue is Power, published by feminist press Aunt Lute in 1992; then her powerful book The Color of Jews: Racial Politics and Radical Diasporism, published by Indiana University Press in 2007.
While Kaye/Kantrowitz’s books have my attention in these weeks since her passing, her ideas were not only shaped on printed pages. Like other revolutionary lesbian–feminist figures of her generation—and of other generations—Kaye/Kantrowitz’s ideas and contributions were made both on the page and in the world of political activism, a gritty, lived reality of organizing and showing up as advocate, protester, witness, and demonstrator for a vision of change in the world. Kaye/Kantrowitz’s life and work in a variety of community institutions—literary, activist, revolutionary—shaped her ideas just as her writing did.
Kaye/Kantrowitz’s first book, We Speak in Code, is primarily poems, though the impulse to prose reveals itself in the essay, “On Being a Lesbian Feminist Artist,” which was first published in the feminist art journal Heresies. This essay outlines how lesbian feminists built “a sense of connection with other creators, and—if the tradition is not merely aesthetic but is rooted in people’s experience—with a common culture.” Kaye/Kantrowitz speaks of passing lesbian feminist books from woman to woman, of celebrating the birthday of Gertrude Stein by reading her work on the radio. Near the end of the essay, Kaye/Kantrowitz writes:
We all have stories, they should be told. One part of my work is to create space for women to read and hear each other’s work. This is not a matter of generosity, or even of sharing privilege. I think the wildest creativity happens when many are engaged. Thus we push each other to new edges, absorb new possibilities, en-courage each other. [….By] connecting with women whose experiences have not been voiced or voiced rarely, we expand who we are, not only enlarging our private understandings of women’s experience, but enlarging the community of women makers so that our experience is more fully, more accurately, named, explored, and known.
And changed. We need to know the fullness of female experience on this soil in order to change what has been. We need to ferret out what makes change possible, to record not only our private changes, but the larger changes whirling about us.
These sentences read today appear as a road map for the work that Kaye/Kantrowitz did over the course of her life. She recognized the importance of stories and particularly women’s stories to the work of revolutionary change. She also recognized that hearing these stories would expand the world of “makers”—creators, artists, agents—in the world. Kaye/Kantrowitz wanted to understand what is through naming, exploring, and knowing, in order to make change possible.
At the end, she says, “if I am a lesbian feminist artist, I am at least equally an activist, happiest when I can be both at once.” The essay is dated spring 1978. Kaye/Kantrowitz was thirty-three years old.
If this essay offers a manifesta for Kaye/Kantrowitz’s life, the collection as a whole maps the rage, passion, and possibilities of lesbian-feminism in the 1970s. In A Movement of Poets, a pamphlet with this influential essay, Jan Clausen noted in relationship to feminism and poetry, “poets are the movement.” We Speak in Code is emblematic of the work that poetry did among feminist and lesbian communities during this period. Reading it today, it is striking how women during the period understood violence and danger that patriarchy presented to women.
We Speak in Code is a small nearly square book, five and a half inches wide, six and three quarter inches high. On the cover is a statue of a naked woman, her hips pressed forward; she holds a large kitchen knife in her right hand. The visual iconography of the book tells a different story than the title. The visuals are not coded. They represent attacking, dismantling, slaying patriarchy. A recurrent graphic is a drawing of a flower, with teeth at the center where the pistil would be; teeth prepared to bite.
Nearly forty years later, the certainty with which Kaye/Kantrowitz imagines taking on the patriarchy is heartening and stark. She draws on mythic women to invoke power:
we should dream
how Lilith refused to lie under him
how Judith lopped off his head
how Clytemnestra stabbed him, for killing their daughter
how Procne fed him children in a pie, for raping her sister
how Penthesilea made war.
This poem, “August, 1977” concludes:
We could prowl the streets in packs
like female lions
We could name ourselves
and all the women who got away
and all the women who lived through it
and all the women who died because of it
nameless, how many millions
called witches and burned,
millions called—at best—victims
in this country one every minute
two or three while I read this poem.
* * * * * *
there is no rape.
Let half your dreams
slip from you
let the dry throat open, you’re out
after midnight, air
feels cold in your nostrils
at the edge of the park is
no more dangerous
than ducks or geese, silent along the pond
or the tree at the path’s turning
where you leave the path
to sit in the dark
on the wet grass, you wonder
how long before morning
why grass smells sweet
Kaye/Kantrowitz deftly merges naming violence, recognizing how patriarchy victimizes women, with the power that women have for resistance. The outcomes of resistance are evoked so beautifully in the final pastoral stanza, where the darkness is peaceful, not frightful, and the sensory experiences of the natural world can be appreciated.
Poetry for Kaye/Kantrowitz, as for many lesbian-feminists, is not only for individual reading and reflection; it is a tool for building community and for communal healing. “August, 1977” joins a handful of other poems at the end of We Speak in Code that function as soundscapes for communal ritual.
Kaye/Kantrowitz opens the poem “Ritual,” written for “the Portland Women’s Night Watch August 25, 1978,” with these lines:
we stand in a circle
we face out into the dark
we face danger
we’re not afraid
we are so many
we reclaim the night
The final poem of the collection, “Ritual: We Fight Back,” was originally performed on International Women’s Day 1978 in Portland, Oregon. The poem is an interactive reading with the refrain spoken by the audience, “I AM A WOMAN. I FOUGHT BACK.” Each stanza is the story of a women who fought back against domestic violence and/or sexual assault. The ritual was originally performed by eight women, wearing face masks with “a knife and a wreath of flowers” at their feet.
This performative element of feminism and feminist poetry is often forgotten in contemporary accounts of this work. Poets played an important role in the feminist movement and their poems were tools for women to use to build consciousness, build community, take action, and fight back. Imagine the eight women on the streets of Portland incanting together: “WE ARE WOMEN. WE FOUGHT BACK.” Enchanting. Incantatory. Revolutionary.
Kaye/Kantrowitz edited Sinister Wisdom with Michaele Uccella beginning in the winter of 1984 with Sinister Wisdom #25. They begin their editor’s note for the first issue with their triple passion: “women, creativity, and liberation.” This triple passion is evident in all of the issue Kaye/Kantrowitz edited. Uccella and Kaye/Kantrowitz edited two issues of Sinister Wisdom together, then Kaye/Kantrowitz began editing the journal alone, though with a community, like the one she envisioned many years earlier, surrounding her. In each of the “Notes for a Magazine,” Kaye/Kantrowitz names women working with her on the journal. One striking aspect of her editorship is the inclusion of many people in the life of the journal and how Kaye/Kantrowitz consistently recognized her beloved community in the pages of the journal as they collectively did the daily work necessary to make the journal a reality.
Over the eight issues that Kaye/Kantrowitz edited, Sinister Wisdom published a range of feminist writers, artists, and activists including Sudie Rakusin, Paula Gunn Allen, Juana Maria Paz, Beth Brant, Judy Grahn, SDiane Bogus, Jacqueline Lapidus, Sam Ace, Susan Stinson, Achy Obejas, Etel Adnan, Gloria Anzaldúa, Cheryl Clarke, Jan Hardy, Terri Jewell, Janice Gould, Barrie Borich, Donna Allegra, Chocolate Waters, Teya Schaffer, Melinda Goodman, Sapphire, and Irena Klepfisz. Reflecting on the array of work published during her tenure, Kaye/Kantrowitz wrote,
I brought to Sinister Wisdom, as did Michaele, a greater emphasis on class issues and on the experience of working class women. I’m proud of this. I’m especially proud to have continued the impetus built by Beth Brant’s guest editorship of A Gathering of Spirit, to include Native women’s voices. I’m proud of the “focus” format for Sinister Wisdom, the work on childhood sexuality and sexual abuse in Sinister Wisdom#27; on fat and body image and on work in Sinister Wisdom; of Irena Klepfisz’s and my co-editorship of Sinister Wisdom #29 /30, The Tribe of Dina, and of collecting Jewish women’s voices.
Issues edited by Kaye/Kantrowitz reflect the best editorial impulses; they satisfy the readings and attentions of the editor, as with the series of poems published in Sinister Wisdom #32 organized under the rubric “Ceremony” where Kaye/Kantrowitz offers more poems that celebrate and ritualize lesbian lives, and they expand the larger conversations within and outside reading communities. Kaye/Kantrowitz profound commitment to issues of peace and social justice are also present in the pages of the journal. For example, she dedicated Sinister Wisdom #28, published in the winter of 1985, to Barbara Deming, noting that her “death this last year leaves many lesbians, fighters for justice, women concerned about survival on this planet, bereft.”
Perhaps most notable among the issues edited and published by Kaye/Kantrowitz is the one she co-edited with Irene Klepfisz, Sinister Wisdom #29/30, titled, The Tribe of Dina: A Jewish Women’s Anthology. Originally, Kaye/Kantrowitz and Klepfisz envisioned this project as an anthology, not as an issue of Sinister Wisdom. The two wanted to expand the conversation initiated by Evelyn Torton Beck’s Nice Jewish Girls: A Lesbian Anthology. As the project evolved, they realized that publishing it as a special double issue of Sinister Wisdom made sense. Nice Jewish Girls opened a conversation about Jewish lesbians, about homophobia within Jewish communities, and about antisemitism in feminist and lesbian communities. To say that Nice Jewish Girls changed conversations and altered people’s lives is an understatement; the same can be said about The Tribe of Dina.
The vision for The Tribe of Dina evolved as Kaye/Kantrowitz and Klepfisz worked on it. Originally envisioned as an expansion of conversations initiated by Nice Jewish Girls and another anthology of feminists responding to religious doctrines in Judaism, what they published is a sustained engagement with lesbianism, feminism, Judaism, and social justice activism with a substantial section of the final book dedicated to work by Israeli feminists. The years between the publication of Nice Jewish Girls in 1982 and The Tribe of Dina in 1986 were tumultuous as a result of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Kaye/Kantrowitz describe this as “an event which had a profound effect on American Jews, as on Israelis. And it had its impact on the women’s movement as well, fueling anti-Semitism and dividing Jewish opinion.” With those international events as a backdrop, Kaye/Kantrowitz and Klepfisz edited The Tribe of Dina to explore histories of Jewish women, contemporary cultural concerns of secular Jewish women, the stories of Israeli women, and modes of activism and engagement to challenge antisemitism in feminist and lesbian communities and in the broader US. Like Nice Jewish Girls, The Tribe of Dina traveled widely within feminist and lesbian communities and was embraced by Jewish women. In 1989, when the original edition from Sinister Wisdom sold out, Beacon Press reissued it.
Reflecting on the impact of The Tribe of Dina in Sinister Wisdom #31, only a year after its initial publication, Kaye/Kantrowitz wrote:
[A]t at a time when the women’s movement had barely finished polarizing along Zionist/anti-Zionist lines, and then shutting up or down on the issues behind the words, I’m proud that SW has continued to represent these issues. Sometimes this has drawn heat, for a variety of reasons, but through these risks I have come to realize I can live through disapproval even from my own people, lesbians or Jews, and to affirm the living value of controversy
These words provide one window into the controversies in which writers were embroiled in the mid-1980s, but the window seems small, perhaps even with frosted glass. In fact, disagreements about Israel and charges of antisemitism played out publicly in the years leading up to the publication of The Tribe of Dina. Feminist newspaper off our backs published statements, exchanges and letters between a member of Di Vilde Chayes, a Jewish lesbian group in which Kaye/Kantrowitz and Klepfisz were members, and Women Against Imperialism. It was a public controversy that escalated with great heat and passion. (For a more complete account of this controversy see Joyce Antler’s Jewish Radical Feminism: Voices from the Women’s Liberation Movement). Publishing The Tribe of Dina in the aftermath of this particular controversy and editing the book amid broader national and international conversations about Israel and the Palestinian people was an extraordinary act of courage and political commitment by both Kaye/Kantrowitz and Klepfisz. Through The Tribe of Dina, both women demonstrate their commitments to dialogue, public conversation, reading, writing, and thinking. These commitments enriched Jewish women, feminist communities, and by extension many others. A year later, affirming “the living value of controversy” demonstrates Kaye/Kantrowitz’s commitment to political struggle and debate and her lifelong willingness to take risks and engage.
Kaye/Kantrowitz edited Sinister Wisdom through the summer of 1987. At that point she, like the other editors before her, handed the journal over to the next editor and publisher, Elana Dykewomon. In the final issue she edited, Sinister Wisdom #32, she wrote:
I think about the role of Sinister Wisdom in this, for lesbians, isolated lesbians, lesbians in prison, lesbians all over the U.S. and beyond; I think of Dina and what it’s meant for Jews; I think of Beth’s Gathering, what it meant to Native Americans in 1983 when it first came out and what it still means. All this work is about resisting assimilation, resisting the great American whitewash. I know Sinister Wisdom is a tool for the making of culture and culture is bread, culture is roses, culture is inspiration, inspiration is the breath of resistance, resistance is how we survive who were never meant to survive.
The Issue Is Power, Kaye/Kantrowitz’s 1992 book published by Aunt Lute, is a book that embodies lesbian-feminist political practice and theory from the 1970s and the 1980s. The Issue Is Power is akin to Anzaldúa’s Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Lorde’s Sister Outsider, Pratt’s Rebellion, and Smith, Pratt, and Bulkin’s Yours in Struggle. The Issue Is Power, like the other collections of essays, combines lived experience by the author with observations from political work and reflects on this embodied to discover insights into the world, particularly how it is organized and how it might be changed.
Subtitled, Essays on Women, Jews, Violence, and Resistance, this book is thick, gathering Kaye/Kantrowitz’s work over approximately fifteen years. Organized into five parts—a framing essay for the collection, a collection of three essays about violence against women and “naming it war,” essays on being “a radical Jew in the late 20th century,” an essay on Israel and Palestine, a series of feminist essays subtitled “While Patriarchy Explodes,” and then a collection of reviews—The Issue Is Power traces Kaye/Kantrowitz’s political attentions, activist work, and intellectual foundations. Reading it in 1992 was a transformative experience for me; rereading it this past month confirmed it continued relevance and power.
Beginning at the intersection of sex, race, class, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, Kaye/Kantrowitz asks hard questions in these essays about power, violence, resistance, and victimhood. She refuses the ideology of pacifism yet constantly returns to it to explore the nature of humanness and balance. She draws on rich histories to explore the contemporary expressions of antisemitism and how they are perpetuated and challenged in various communities. She also insists that history be of use to her as an activist and intellectual.
At the core of The Issue Is Power is a smart, engaged observer of the world who invites us to think and act with her. This book also maps Kaye/Kantrowitz’s activist engagements from the anti-domestic violence movement, the anti-rape movement, the New Jewish Agenda, Palestinian solidarity work, anti-war work, and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, where Kaye/Kantrowitz was the founding executive director.
One tension of creative work is the focus it requires, even demands. Creative work requires an artist to focus on the creation of something new to the exclusion of what exists now in the world; for political people, that focus can sometimes appear to excludes the problems that exist in the world today. Kaye/Kantrowitz’s work demonstrates how to refuse such exclusions; she responds to the tensions of creation by maintaining focus and engaging broad and powerful vision. A central strategy for managing this tension is the practice of solidarity. Kaye/Kantrowitz writes that solidarity is how to build a movement. She explains:
Solidarity requires the bonding together of a people engaged in common struggle. But solidarity also means standing alongside another struggle, not because you feel guilty but because you recognize it as your own; it means using what you have on behalf of the struggle
She further distills solidarity practice with this explanation: “if your friends, if your sisters are suffering you put everything you have into the struggle to free them because you need their freedom as your own.” Kaye/Kantrowitz concludes, “What is best in people is a sturdy connection between respect for the self and respect for the other: reaching in and out at the same time.” Kaye/Kantrowitz insists repeated on both/and; she holds space for engagements that are rich, complex, layered.
In a later essay reflecting on “Culture-Making” and classic lesbian books, Kaye/Kantrowitz links solidarity and sex, using the work by Judy Grahn and Adrienne Rich. Kaye/Kantrowitz advocates that lesbian culture must allow for both solidarity and sex because “from our deepest eroticism to our hardest struggles: if we know ourselves and each other, and that our lives depend on one another, we will cherish ‘the courage to be there when another woman needs you’; we will teach our daughters and our students to believe, and to act on the belief that “any woman’s death diminish me” (a line from Adrienne Rich). She concludes with the passage from Grahn’s poem, “A Woman Is Talking to Death,” where the speaker responds to the question, “Have you ever committed any indecent acts with women?”, with these concluding sentiments, “Yes I have committed acts of indecency with women and most of them were acts of omission. I regret them bitterly.”
Kaye/Kantrowitz’s final book, The Color of Jews, published by Indiana University Press in 2007, is in many ways a synthesis of her lifetime of activism and thought. The Color of Jews first interrogates the ostensible whiteness of Jews. Kaye/Kantrowitz argues through both the historical record and the lived experiences of Jews in the United States that there is a rich multiracial heritage among Jews and urges the recognition and embrace of that reality. In the final part of the book, she argues robustly against Zionism as another form of failed nationalism. Instead she articulates a vision of diasporism for Jews. Kaye/Kantrowitz writes:
Diasporism is committed to an endless paradoxical dance between cultural integrity and multicultural complexities. Diasporism depends not on dominance but on balance, perpetual back and forth, home and away, community and outside, always slightly on the edge except perhaps at intensely personal moments in the family created by blood or by love, or at moments of transcendent solidarity.
Her signature political practice of solidarity, an ideology forged in feminist anti-violence work during the 1970s, plays a key role in diasporism, both in process and outcome. Solidarity for Kaye/Kantrowitz is both a political practice, an action, and an organizing principle. It is also transcendent, a moment of being to use a Woolfian phrase the literary scholar in Kaye/Kantrowitz might appreciate. Present in this final book is a synthesis of Kaye/Kantrowitz’s multiple modes of thinking and acting that she used to engage in the world.
Lately, I have been working on poems that puzzle about what makes revolution, particularly, what and how does revolution happen in the time of Trump. I do not have answers to these questions, but the poems demand, if not answers, some gestures to answers. A few months ago, these same poems demanded some sex, an orgasm, here and there in the manuscript. As I wrote sex and folded orgasms into the manuscript, I realized that my answers about revolution often turn to sex. As a young woman, there was a revolution in being a lesbian, in talking about it, in expressing positive lesbian sexuality. As a middle age woman, I recognize that revolution is not going to come through an orgasm. Mine, or yours. So I have been contemplating what instead makes revolution.
Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz is a powerful thought partner for these ruminations. Her work, particularly in The Issue is Power and The Color of Jews, offers no easy answers to any questions, but if provides rich meditations on the complexities of the questions and on the conditions of the world that shape the questions and possible answers. Kaye/Kantrowitz was an intellectual proponent of grappling with complexity.
Her years of activism demonstrate the power of living within a vision of a world with no simple answers. I imagine that Kaye/Kantrowitz woke every single day seeking answers to questions like, What makes revolution? What makes change? How can I make the world better for women, for lesbians, for queers, for Jews, for blacks, for people? Every single day. What makes revolution? What makes change? She woke asking the question and knowing there were no simple answers, yet, within her life, work, and writing are answers, not simple, not complete. She left thoughts and ideas and words to piece together; from these, we might ask our own questions, from these, we might find our own answers.
Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz died on July 10, 2018 after a long struggle with Parkinson’s disease. She was 72 years old.
When Kaye/Kantrowitz passed the journal Sinister Wisdom on to Elana Dykewomon in 1987, she ended her letter to Elana with this wish: “May you survive well together.” Now, without Kaye/ Kantrowitz, we are left to find a way to survive without her.