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April 25, 2018 by

Bar Ilan’s Speaker Line-Up for a Major Conference is All Women

audience-828584_1920When was the last time you attended a conference––or even heard about one––in which all the speakers were female and yet the conference was not about feminism, gender studies or female empowerment?

I asked myself this very question last week while looking over Bar Ilan University’s all-female speaker lineup for their upcoming conference next month titled Ink, Inc: History, Community and Text. No, this is not a “women’s conference,” nor is it a conference to bolster women’s voices or promote feminism. It’s a literary conference on how the past and present is traversed through writing, and the presenters are of Alicia Ostriker, Ilana Kurshan, Erika Meitner, Rachel Kadish and Deborah Lipstadt.

This three-day event is hosted by The Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing. It is being held this year in honor of outstanding poet and translator Linda Zisquit, who is retiring after being a leading faculty member since its inception in 2002. The program was established back in 2002 by Rudoff, a young Jewish woman who had emigrated from the U.S. with the particular aim of forming a unique writing program for the English community in Israel. Since then, the program has blossomed into a thriving platform for both Jewish and non-Jewish writers. Rudoff’s untimely death from cancer in 2006 did not put an end to the program.

This program is the only one in the world that actively fosters Jewish literature, although it also offers a diverse array of other courses; as a graduate of this program some years ago, I can attest to its heterogeneous nature. Although there is undoubtedly a stress on Jewish literature, my fellow students included not only Jews but also Muslims and Christians. And we were exposed to a plethora of texts straddling both classic and contemporary world literature. This program has undoubtedly provided an important platform and writing community in Israel, neither of which existed before, and I continue to enjoy this community today.  

Dr. Ilana Blumberg, the program’s current department head, a prolific writer herself, says that the speakers were selected at a meeting of faculty members. And feminism was not part of the equation.   

“All five writers bridge the historical and contemporary, ancient texts and modern responses,” she told me in a phone interview. “I grew up in an era where it was still very much a struggle to expand the canon of American literature to include female voices, particularly Jewish ones, as major players. Times have changed.”

The final decision to include these writers was based on merit, not gender: “I don’t think about them as the best female writers—that’s over and done with,” Blumberg explained. “Today it seems as if I’m on the receiving end of history; it was easy to come up with a list of five outstanding writers, all of whom happen to be women.”

Alicia Ostriker, a prominent American poet and one of the forerunners of American feminine literary criticism, is not surprised by this. “Choosing women writers might seem out of line, but we’ve lived through decades in which people of importance were men and it’s okay now for them all to be women,” she told me in a phone interview from her home in New York City. “In the 70s, when I began writing, women were just beginning to walk through the door of the dominant culture. As good writers, we have one foot in the past and one in the future. Although we haven’t rejected the literature of the past, we are actively engaged in transforming it today.”

Deborah Lipstadt, a professor of Holocaust studies whose History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier was turned into the acclaimed film Denial, has done much to correct the idea of women as unreliable witnesses throughout history. She will be appearing alongside Ilana Kurshan, a Jerusalem-based writer and translator who emigrated from the U.S. several years ago. Her stunning memoir, If All the Seas Were Ink, recently won the Sophie Brody Medal for achievement in Jewish literature.

The conference runs from May 13-15. It is worth noting that the conference is being held in Israel, where the struggles of feminism can seem to be at an earlier point of evolution than in the US. “In the university I work to represent women at the very least in a proportionate fashion,” Blumberg emphasizes. “I have seen any number of conference and literary award listings that have only a token woman in them. It seems critical to me that we educate men and women to recognize a conference where all the speakers are female.”

Kurshan is thrilled to be part of this lineup. “This is how far feminism has advanced. Look at that! After the fact! Here are writers and they happen to be women.”


The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.