Honoring the life and legacy of Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz, z”l

We are deeply heartbroken to share that our comrade, our sister, our beloved friend, Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz, died on Monday July 9th after a long, tough battle with Parkinson’s. As an eloquent and incisive poet and essayist, she, better than any of us, would have known how to write about the sting of such an immense loss and how, with the rousing impact of her passionate words and deeds, to galvanize us for the battles ahead.

JFREJ would not be what it is today if it had not been for Melanie. As JFREJ’s founding director, Melanie pushed us to become a membership organization. She also, critically, centered our 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 us 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 established JFREJ’s workshop for confronting white privilege, racism, and antisemitism. She launched a series of radical Jewish history conferences, called In Gerangl/In Struggle/Con Peña, events that brought together histories as diverse as the Jewish Labor Bund, lesbian radicalism, and the Civil Rights Movement. History mattered to Melanie as an activist principle. She knew that reckoning unromantically with and finding inspiration in the past could help shape new, radical visions for the future. When a controversial New York City professor vociferously claimed that Jews had been responsible for the Atlantic slave trade, sparking predictable outrage, Melanie responded differently: she organized a public JFREJ forum that brought together historians, scholars, and activists to reckon honestly with Jewish involvement in both slavery and in the abolition movement. She took back ‘Kantrowitz,’ the family name her father had discarded for ‘Kaye,’ but, rather than hide his assimilationist act, kept ‘Kaye’ in front of that forward slash, signaling that the closet was part of her Jewish American history, too.

Melanie came to JFREJ with considerable experience as an activist – just part of the reason she was, for founders Donna Nevel and Marilyn Kleinberg Neimark, the dream candidate for the job. And in turn, JFREJ was a dream job for Melanie, a place where her formidable radical commitments, her embrace of both bread and roses, and her intense Jewish identification could find full and fruitful expression. She left a position as a tenured professor in Vermont to take the barely compensated job. And her move to New York produced something else beshert: her extraordinary partnership of 21 years with the organizer Leslie Cagan, with whom she shared deep ethical commitments, dedication to the movement, and a wicked sense of humor. Fittingly, they met for their first date at the Dyke March.

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 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.”

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 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.

Melanie calls out to us still, in an essay from her ferocious 1992 book The Issue is Power: “We are up against one of the most powerful, impenetrable machines of human history, our government,” she writes. “I am talking, ultimately, not only about preserving women’s choice, or fighting hate, or even about peace between Israel and Palestine, but about massive transformation of society. . . .The old activists of my childhood who were my models – now I become them.”

Words by Esther Kaplan, Marilyn Kleinberg Neimark, Donna Nevel, & Alisa Solomon