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Bella Abzug Remembered As ‘Tikkun Olam Incarnate’

April 1, 1998
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“It is the passing of an era,” Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, said upon hearing of this week’s death of Bella Abzug, the first Jewish woman elected to Congress.

She “was a spitfire,” said Forman, who worked with the Democratic lawmaker from New York when he was a staffer for one of the congressional committees on which she served.

“A lot of tough old pols on the Hill were scared of her. If she believed in something, she would go to the mat for it,” said Forman.

Many sad voices filled with passion this week as they remembered Abzug — for her devotion to feminist causes, her raspy voice and her wide-brimmed hats.

Most of all, “she was a force in the universe, a tikkun olam incarnate,” author and Jewish feminist Letty Cottin Pogrebin said, using the Hebrew term for “fixing the world.”

“She had a tough outside, and a sweet, sweet inside, like so many Jews. She was the quintessential fighter.”

Abzug, 77, died Tuesday after complications following heart surgery in her hometown, New York City.

Abzug, who served in Congress from 1971 to 1977, made unsuccessful bids for the U.S. Senate and mayor of New York City.

She was born of Russian Jewish immigrants and became a Zionist at the age of 12, collecting money and giving speeches for Zionist causes at subway stops.

Pogrebin and many others recalled Abzug’s commitment to fighting anti-Zionist rhetoric and policy when it emerged at United Nations conferences for women during recent decades.

“Abzug fought when she could have retreated into the feminist crowd, but she stood up as a Jew,” she said.

Friends and colleagues cite story after story demonstrating Abzug’s passion, fire, commitment to women’s issues and loyalty to Israel.

In the early 1980s, Shirley Joseph, then the policy coordinator of the Jewish federation of Buffalo, remembers how astonished she felt when Abzug — the over-obligated legislator — agreed to take time out to speak to a group of students about feminist and Zionist issues.

“She has done more for Jewish women and all women on both the local and international levels than any other I know,” said Joseph, who chaired the Jewish caucus at the U.N. women’s conference in Beijing in 1995.

Already suffering from illness and confined to a wheelchair, Abzug attended that conference as a member of the Jewish caucus.

“The most interesting thing about Bella Abzug,” said Hyman Bookbinder, the veteran Jewish activist in Washington, was that while she was extreme on the left, “she never lost her commitment to the Jewish community.”

Indeed, besides supporting pro-Israel legislation, Abzug was a member of Hadassah and B’nai B’rith, and she studied at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary in New York for a period of time.

Since she was an outspoken feminist, however, many tended to disregard her commitment, and instead ridiculed her strength.

She often said descriptions of her would have been dramatically different if she were not a woman — “courageous” instead of “abrasive” “forceful” instead of “strident.”

“Those who say I’m impatient, impetuous, uppity, rude, profane, brash, or overbearing,” she wrote in her 1972 book “Bella!”

“Whether I’m any of those 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.”

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