Bella Abzug’s Jewish Heart
04/03/98
Associate Editor
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Bella Abzug, the flamboyant hat-wearing and pioneering feminist who fought for civil rights and Jewish causes and against the war in Vietnam, was remembered this week as a “one of a kind” woman deeply committed to the Jewish principle of tikkun olam, or repairing the world.Mrs. Abzug, a three-term congresswoman, died Tuesday at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan following heart surgery. She was 77. She had been hospitalized for 32 weeks, according to her spokesman Harold Holzer.With her New York-to-the-bone accent epitomizing her toughness, Mrs. Abzug in 1970 became the first Jewish woman elected to Congress, running on the theme, “This woman’s place is in the House.”“When I was elected ... I was lonely and an oddity, a woman, a Jew, a New York lawyer, a feminist, a Nixon opponent from way back, a peace activist who passionately opposed American involvement in Indochina and just as strongly favored aid to democratic Israel,” she recalled.Seldom seen without a hat, Mrs. Abzug, who represented Manhattan’s West Side, explained to an interviewer in 1987: “When I first became a lawyer, only about 2 percent of the bar were women. People would always think I was a secretary. In those days, professional women in the business world wore hats. So I started wearing hats.”In her 1972 book “Bella!” Mrs. Abzug wrote: “There are those who say I’m impatient, impetuous, uppity, rude, profane, brash and overbearing. Whether I’m any of these things, or all of them, you can decide for yourself. But whatever I am — and this ought to be made very clear at the outset — I am a very serious woman.”A fighter for Jewish feminism, Mrs. Abzug attended the First National Jewish Women’s Conference in 1973, and the first feminist seder in 1976, with Gloria Steinem, Letty Cottin Pogrebin and others.Blu Greenberg, a leading Orthodox feminist, remembered Mrs. Abzug as being “always present at Jewish women’s enterprises even if she wasn’t speaking or a central figure. Her heart was in it, she wasn’t ego driven, she was dedicated to the cause. She felt herself thoroughly a Jew, through and through, and a good Jew.”Mrs. Abzug was a founder of the American Jewish Congress’ Commission for Women’s Equality, and a member of other Jewish organizations.Pogrebin, who first met Abzug as a volunteer in the 1970 congressional campaign, told The Jewish Week, “There was no one like Bella; [she was] one of a kind. I think of her as tikkun olam incarnate. She’s been repairing the world from the time she arrived in it. She’s been an advocate for women and Jews in places where advocates have been shot down.”Pogrebin recalled Mrs. Abzug at several United Nations international women’s conferences “when she could easily have been content representing women, but she stood up representing Jews,” leading the fight against the “Zionism is racism” resolution passed at the women’s conference in 1975, and repealed in 1991. Mrs. Abzug insisted internationally and in Congress that “Zionism is a liberation movement.”Pogrebin said that too few people realized that “her tough exterior wasn’t the whole story. There was a very soft and gentle interior. We saw this close up, those of us who were her friends, and what we saw was an incredible love for her husband [Martin, whom she married in 1944] which didn’t fit anybody’s notion of the hard-driving feminist with the strut and the swagger.“She loved him so much that I worried she might give up the fight after his passing to be with him.”Born Bella Savitsky to Russian immigrant parents in the Bronx, Mrs. Abzug was an early Zionist, attending Hashomer Hatzair summer camps and later raising money for the Jewish National Fund and Hashomer Hatzair with impassioned speeches at subway stops.In the new encyclopedia “Jewish Women in America,” historian Blanche Wiesen Cook wrote that after Mrs. Abzug’s father died when she was 13 in 1933, she attended synagogue every morning to say Kaddish for a year.“The congregants didn’t approve but she just did what she needed to do for her father, who had no son — and learned a lesson for life: Be bold, be brazen, be true to your heart,” according to the passage.A student at the Teacher’s Institute of the Jewish Theological Seminary after graduating from Hunter College, she later taught Hebrew and graduated from the Columbia Law School in 1947. As a young lawyer she championed the civil rights movement, working for the Civil Rights Congress and the American Civil Liberties Union, and defending targets of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s investigations in the 1950s.Mark Talisman, the longtime top staffer to Rep. Charles Vanik (D-Ohio), recalled that on one congressional junket to the former Yugoslavia, on a boat from Dubrovnik to Split, Mrs. Abzug “suddenly stripped down to a racer’s swimsuit and dove off the bow. The look on the members’ faces was incredible; they could just see the next day’s headlines. What we didn’t know was that she had been an Olympic-level swimmer in her youth. She actually beat the boat to the pier.”In 1976, instead of running for a fourth term, Mrs. Abzug lost a Senate primary to Daniel Patrick Moynihan. She also lost campaigns for New York City mayor and two attempts at a congressional comeback.Her last bid was in 1986, the year her husband died. She spoke of her grief: “There’s a whole emptiness. You feel different. But I think about him being at my side. I think about how he would be reacting ... the strength he would be giving me. I feel he’s there in some way with me.”Mrs. Abzug is survived by her daughters, Isobel and Eve Gail.Staff writer Steve Lipman and Washington correspondent James D. Besser contributed to this report.

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03/06/2012 - 22:26

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