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  • Interviews of, and Articles about, Sonia

Interviews of, and Articles about, Sonia Pressman Fuentes

Articles about Sonia are also contained in the section on Belgium.

Sonia Pressman Fuentes

The Making of a Jewish American Feminist: Sonia Pressman Fuentes

By Lisa Katz

Part 6: Jewish Q&A 

Host:

Did you ever experience anti-Semitism in New York, Cornell University, the University of Miami or Washington D.C.? In contrast, did you ever feel your Jewish identity was a help to you in getting your education and advancing in your career?

SPF:

I do not recall experiencing anti-Semitism myself, by and large, except for two isolated incidents, both in restaurants, where thinly veiled anti-Semitic remarks were made to me. In the late 1930s, when my brother closed his candy store in the West End of Long Beach, Long Island, and walked home at night, teenage boys used to chase after him taunting him with anti-Semitic remarks.

I believe my Jewish identity helped in advancing my career, since my career focused on fighting discrimination and civil rights. As a Jew who had to escape from Germany to save my life, I was well aware of what discrimination did to people and had a sensitivity to it that led me in the direction of fighting for the rights of discriminated people, be they Jews, African Americans, Hispanics, or women.

Host:

You were in your early teens when news of the Holocaust was broadcast in the United States. As a family who left Europe in 1934, how did you feel and how did your parents feel about the news they heard? Did you or your family do anything to help survivors?

SPF:

If we take, for example, the year 1940, I was twelve years old then and it was sixty years ago. I'm afraid I have no recollection of how I and my parents felt about the news we heard. Some years later, my brother, Hermann, who was fourteen years my senior, did help our first cousins, Berta and Fred Fischel (married couple), who were survivors, to settle in Long Beach.

Host:

As someone who escaped Hitler's plans to annihilate the Jewish people, you felt a need to do something meaningful with your life. Women's Rights became your cause, and you made extraordinary contributions to changing the status of women in the world. Did you feel any similar call to fight for a Jewish cause given your Jewish background?

SPF:

I have not been an activist and leader in Jewish causes as I have been in the women's rights movement. I have, however, always, of course, openly identified myself as Jewish and been involved in Jewish organizations.

Currently, I am a member of the National Coalition of Jewish Women, Yiddish of Greater Washington, the Jewish Centers of Greater Washington and Sarasota, Florida, and the Jewish Women Leaders online listserve. I have attended the following programs: Circle Lodge (the Workmen's Circle camp), the National Yiddish Book Center, Mameloshn at Rutgers University, Klezkamp, the Yiddish Vinkl in Sarasota, Florida (where I winter), and the program on Yiddish at Queen Mary and Westfield College in London. This summer I attended the conferences of the Catskills Institute (an organization of Jews who lived and worked in the Catskills during its heydey) and the International Association of Yiddish Clubs.

My work has been published in Jewish newspapers and journals, such Jewish Currentsand Humanistic Judaism in the US and Outlook in Canada and Jewish Affairs in South Africa. My book was reviewed in the Jewish Week, the Jewish newspaper for the Washington, DC, area, and I have had other articles published in that paper.

My book was reviewed in jewhoo.com and was a May 2000 selection by Ofrah's Jewish Book Club. Excerpts from my book will appear in the February issue of Jews, which is distributed in New York City, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia.

I have done memoirs readings and given talks for Temple Beth El in Boca Raton, Florida, Temple Emanu-el in Sarasota, Florida, and at the JCC in Sarasota, Florida, the JCC of Greater Washington and the JCC in the District of Columbia. I will be doing a memoirs reading January 23 for the Yiddish Vinkl in St. Petersburg, Florida. 

This past summer I was one of a number of Jewish authors in the DC area honored by being invited to a luncheon at the annual conference of the Association of Jewish Librarians.

Host:

Did your parents want to give you a Jewish education? Do you today feel that you missed out on getting a Jewish education? Did you give your daughter any Jewish education?

SPF:

I learned to read printed Yiddish with my parents and was a steady reader of the Yiddish Forward when I was a child. My mother sent me to Hebrew school but, unfortunately, only kept me there a week. She felt going to regular school and Hebrew school would be too difficult for me. I don't know why she felt this way other than that I was a very over-protected child.

My daughter, Zia (named after my father, Zysia), went to Hebrew School first in Stamford, Connecticut, and then in Beachwood, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. We belonged to the Jewish Secular Community in Cleveland, and Zia's bat mitzvah was part of a b'nai mitzvah held by that community for the six children who turned thirteen that year. The parents of these six children and the children devoted a year to preparing for this b'nai mitzvah. We wrote the entire service, which consisted of talks by the parents and children, songs, music, and slides. Those who came said it was the most meaningful such service they had ever attended. Zia's bat mitzvah will be included in a forthcoming book entitled Bat Mitzvah by Arnine Cumsky Weiss.

I regret that I did not have more of a Jewish education. I believe a Jewish education plays a vital role in maintaining Judaism.

Host:

How has your Jewish background affected the way you have raised your daughter? Are there any values you have stressed with your daughter that have come from your Jewish background?

SPF:

The values Zia has gotten from me have come not just from what I have said to her but from the examples I have set in the way I live. I light candles on Friday nights. Zia knows the Shabbat blessing, and when she is home, we say it together. This year, as in some years past, I had a seder and Zia came to attend it from Chicago, where she was living at the time.

Although her father was not Jewish, Zia never considered being any religion other than Jewish and has always identified herself as Jewish.

Host:

How do you feel when American Jews today say assimilation and intermarriage will destroy American Jewry just as the Holocaust destroyed European Jewry?

SPF:

I think it is likely that the number of Jews in the US will diminish due to assimilation and intermarriage. We have additional problems within the Jewish community itself. I recently heard Samuel J. Freedman, the author of Jew vs. Jew: Inside the Civil Wars of American Jewry, discuss the polarization between secular/Reform Jews and Orthodox Jews that has already taken place in this country.

Host:

Has it been difficult to be married to someone with a different religious background? Do you care if your daughter marries someone Jewish or not?

SPF:

My husband's being of a different religion from Judaism caused no problems in our marriage. He was a Protestant but did not engage in any religious practices connected with his religion. We were married by a Reform rabbi in a Jewish ceremony and wedding. My husband was very supportive of my Judaism, of our raising our daughter Jewish, and attended Shabbat services with me on occasion. 

Of course, I would prefer it if my daughter married someone Jewish and I have told her that. I would like the Jewish people to continue as an ethnic and religious group. She knows, however, that I, myself, did not marry someone who was Jewish. She also knows that when I did that, I maintained my own Jewishness and raised her as a Jew. My daughter, however, is an adult and will make her own decisions.

Host:

Do you feel any special connection to Israel? How do you feel about Israel's situation today?

SPF:

Of course, I feel a connection to Israel and have visited it on two occasions. I have cousins in Bat Yam and visited them when I visited Israel. 

I do not have any special information about Israel beyond what anyone else who reads the papers and watches TV has. I regret profoundly the fighting that is going on there now, with the consequent loss of life. The situation in Israel is, and always has been, terribly complex. My sympathies are with the people there and those trying to reach a peaceful, fair solution.

On another issue, I do, however, have an opinion and that is on the status of women in Israel. It is deplorable in many respects--both for Jewish and Arab women--because when the government was created, matters of marriage, divorce, child custody and child support were given to the Orthodox. I support the efforts of the Israel Women's Network, an umbrella organization of women's organizations in Israel , the New Israel Fund, and other organizations to improve the status of women in Israel. While much progress has been achieved, as long as the Orthodox continue to have control over marriage, divorce, child custody and child support, the amount of progress than can be achieved is limited. 

Host:

Do you have any other thoughts you would like to share with members of this About Judaism Web Site?

SPF:

I often tell people that if one were to cut me open, it would say "Jewish" in my bones. I am a tremendous fan of Yiddish and of Jewish culture: songs, jokes, and stories. In the past two years, two non-Jewish e-mail friends of mine, neither of whom I have ever met, have taken Jewish names because of their relationship to me. My e-book publisher, Barbara Quanbeck, has taken the name Bruhkhe and the screenwriter who will write the screenplay of my book, Christina Hamlett, has taken the name Chana. Barbara Quanbeck, in addition, has put a mezzuzah I sent her on her doorpost, has bought Jewish books and CDs, and is studying Yiddish. 

While the work I have done to improve the status of women has brought me a modicum of fame and a sense of accomplishment, I also feel joy and satisfaction when I experience and share my Jewish heritage.

 

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