Leading tefillah for the first time is scary. Countless bar mitzvah boys, and increasing numbers of bat mitzvah girls, experience this fear as part of a rite of passage; facilitating a community in prayer marks their coming of age, their full adult membership in this community. Despite my familiarity with traditional Hebrew prayers and innumerable hours spent in shul, however, I did not lead any element of tefillah, nor did I read from the Torah, until I was seventeen — three weeks ago.
Growing up in a Modern Orthodox community and attending Modern Orthodox day schools, I was given tremendous gifts of Jewish literacy. I can read Biblical texts and accompanying commentaries. I can look up and understand halakhic rulings. With the help of a dictionary or two, I can make my way through a page of Talmud. But these skills did me little good in the synagogue. At prayer, I was a silent observer, able to mutter liturgy quickly and fluently, but never with the knowledge, confidence, or — most importantly — the opportunity to lead.
As I began to move in the world and become active in creating Jewish spaces, especially as I agitated to ensure that egalitarian tefillah was provided in as many contexts as possible, my inability to serve as a shlichat tzibbur or to leyn became a serious hindrance. I could plan a prayer service, but not lead it, coordinate leyners but not read from the Torah myself. This surprised people; I seemed, apparently, to be a person who is comfortable and competent in Jewish leadership positions, so how could I be neither in the synagogue?
I’ve always been a nervous performer. For as long as I can remember, school plays and class presentations were a source of terror. As I have grown older, I’ve become confident presenting about World War I to my history class, happy to announce a club meeting at morning announcements in school; the vestiges of my stage fright, however remain. I still opt out of plays, preferring to applaud my friends from the audience, and when asked to speak in front of large groups, I often demur. This anxiety carries over to tefillah — though I am fluent in the prayers, the thought of leading them alone prompts trepidation.
Ideally, membership in a community requires participation. Investment in a shul or a minyan asks one to step up, to take on a role in facilitating services. But is this a necessary prerequisite for egalitarianism? Should I have to participate in them to ensure that there are services which meet my basic moral standard of treating me like a person? This has been a dilemma of mine for the past year, as I press for egalitarianism but could not act out those principles myself.
On one hand, if I want a certain type of prayer community, it is my responsibility to create it. I cannot simply sit and wait for others to carry out my values in any context, but all the more so religiously. On the other hand, however, my commitment to egalitarianism is as an issue of fundamental equality. Must I be shul-competent to earn the right to a prayer service in which I am counted and treated as an equal adult Jew? By what calculus does one earn accommodation of her moral principles?
Ultimately, my desire to be fully literate in the language of the synagogue won out over my fear of performance, and I’ve now led weekday maariv and mincha. I was spurred to learn to leyn by a friend who simply insisted that I do it; the expectation that I needed the skill to be a full member of my Jewish community was a new one, one that every Orthodox bar mitzvah boy experiences. Every time I do it, it gets easier. I have not resolved my internal conflict — I still don’t believe that I need to earn the right to egalitarian tefillah, but now I am more competent to create it.
The creation of a truly egalitarian community requires the community to internally encourage and expect women, who are often raised without the skill and comfort with liturgy and Torah reading that our male peers have, to learn (and then teach) these abilities. Egalitarian communities must offer women education paired with expectation. One does not need high-level musical skill to lead weekday mincha. Leyning is, for many people, not as hard as it looks. There must be a balance: one should never have to earn her place in the synagogue, to be treated as full member of the community, through liturgical skill. But women are shortchanged when we are not expected to attain the skills and literacy that almost every observant thirteen-year-old boy learns.
Avigayil is a 2014 graduate of the Hebrew High School of New England. She is an alumna of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships and The Jewish Women’s Archive and Prozdor’s inaugural class of Rising Voices Fellows, as well as Drisha Institute’s Dr. Beth Samuels High School Programs. Avigayil plans to spend the upcoming academic year studying at Midreshet Ein Hanatziv, after which she will attend Yale University.
“See that lady over there? That’s the rebbetzin.”
“Ohhh.” I leaned forward to get a better glimpse at the woman with silver hair sitting in the front row of shul. “What’s a rebbetzin?”
I was about eleven years old, and we had just started going to a Conservative shul. My mother pointed out the rebbetzin at our new shul the way one might point out a movie star or head of state or renowned scholar, but I had never heard of one before.
“A rebbetzin is the rabbi’s wife. She’s a very important person.”
“Well…” my feminist mother, with her short cropped hair and her kippah, struggled to find words to explain. “A long time ago women couldn’t be rabbis, so instead there were rebbetzins. They were very knowledgeable and respected, and people went to them with their problems, and they would advise people in the community. Sometimes people went to rebbetzins with problems they didn’t want to talk to the rabbi about.”
At the time, my mom’s answer was good enough for me. I sat through the service and then ran off with my friends. I didn’t stop to wonder why my mother’s definition revolved around what a rebbetzin used to be, in some vague and distant past (which I now know to be about 1971). I didn’t stop to question what kind of politics were involved around my mother’s hesitation, why this was the only time my mother had defined a woman by her husband’s occupation. I didn’t question what kind of lingering shtetl memories passed down through the generations had fostered my mother’s residual respect for an anachronistic (and possibly sexist) role. I didn’t stop to think about why a rebbetzin is important now.
Then I married a rabbinical student.
Suddenly I find myself much more interested in these questions regarding the modern rebbetzin role.
My own experience of the role involves getting invited to Shabbat dinners and finding myself amidst a social minefield. Small transgressions like mentioning a moment when I texted my sister on the second day of Passover are met with raised eyebrows, and I often wonder whether I’ve inadvertently jeopardized my spouse’s future career. For the past three years, every time I’ve gone to shul I’ve wondered exactly how much my hemline matters and how many congregants would judge me for wearing the wrong thing. (You wouldn’t. I know. But maybe your aunt would.) I clearly have no idea what I’m doing as a rebbetzin—but I feel like I ought to.
I try to research what to do as a rebbetzin, but everything I read about them references the past, either with reverence or righteous indignation, and nothing is fully in present tense.
Yes, there is something archaic and sexist about the role of the rebbetzin. The idea that someone’s identity, their title in the world, can be defined by his or her partner’s occupation in this day and age is absurd. It’s outrageous. One would think that in our progressive circles we would be finished with such an idea.
However, the rebbetzin still exists.
The rebbetzin role exists when we force it to, by insisting that families of rabbinical students spend a year in Israel/Palestine (as if all spousal careers are nothing important or could magically occur on whatever continent is needed at the time).
The rebbetzin role also exists in our subconscious, when we feel disappointed if a rebbetzin isn’t friendly enough with congregants.
The rebbetzin role exists when shul board members would prefer to hire a rabbi who is already married, when rabbinical students feel more comfortable if they’re partnered, because somehow the partner of the rabbi means something special and important, but we’re not exactly sure what.
If the rebbetzin role still exists, then we need to pay attention to it. Just because something is ignored does not mean it goes away. If we don’t pay attention to roles we rely upon—yet feel vaguely guilty about—we end up doing tweaky things like disrupting careers with Israel/Palestine sabbaticals.
I want to know why we still need rebbetzins. I want to figure out what kind of psychological and economic and gender relationship stuff is going on such that there is still a role out there which is defined by partnership. I want a better answer for my eleven year old self who asked “why” so many years ago—I want an answer that doesn’t start with “a long time ago”; I want an answer that starts with here and now.
While it appears that the seams are splitting in Israel, here’s Kung Fu Jew‘s piece from March 2013 on women in the Knesset, and at least to me, things felt like they might be moving in different direction.
A Newly Feminist Knesset — Sort Of (Updated)
Updated: New ministerial positions were appointed since time of publishing, including two more women.
There are 53 new faces in the 19th Knesset — 16 of them women. With the 11 women who retained their seats, this is one of the highest women’s representation in Israel’s parliament at 27 MKs. But it’s not just because four more women got elected than last time. Former lawmaker Naomi Chazan was wont to lament last Knesset that barely a tenth of MKs were female and even fewer were feminist. Not the case any longer. Just a week ago, all but one banded together in a new women’s lobby. More »
Tamar Fox is one third of the team that brings you “Talking in Shul,” along with Mimi Lewis and Zahava Stadler. Tamar is a writer and editor in Philadelphia. She has worked at MyJewishLearning.com, Haggadot.com, Shma.com, and Jewcy.com, among others. Her writing has been published in the Washington Post, the Jerusalem Post, and Tablet Magazine. Tamar’s first book, No Baths at Camp, was published in 2013, and is a PJ Library selection.
Jewschool: Tell us about Talking in Shul and how it got started.
Talking in Shul is a roundtable podcast featuring Zahava Stadler, Mimi Lewis, and me, talking about various Jewish political and cultural topics. It’s one of several podcasts in the Open Quorum
family of podcasts–the other big one is SermonSlam
, but there are many more forthcoming. David Zvi Kalman, who came up with the idea for OpenQuorum approached me about creating a podcast and I’m a total podcast fiend, so I was on board right away. I really love podcasts where a group of people bat around an idea for 10-30 minutes, so that’s the kind of podcast I wanted to create and we set about looking for other people to join the table, as it were.
Jewschool: What do you think each of you brings to the podcast, in terms of background and perspective?
Tamar Fox: Zahava is pretty solidly modern Orthodox. Mimi comes from a Reform background, and I grew up going to Conservative and Orthodox day schools, and going to a non-denominational minyan, so between us I think we speak to a wide scope of Jewish experiences.
Jewschool: How do you decide what to talk about?
Tamar Fox: We have a Google doc where we brainstorm ideas, and we sometimes come up with ideas for future tapings while we’re recording episodes. We also try to be at least a little newsy, and think about whatever stories are big in the Jewish news world.
Jewschool: What do you think is unique about this podcast? Why should we listen to it?
Tamar Fox: I didn’t set out to have it be only women, but I think it’s really wonderful that we are featuring women’s voices, and that’s not something that you see a lot in Jewish podcasts. Also, I think we’re really a fun, interesting crew, and it’s nice to have a Jewish news/culture discussion podcast. That’s not something that really exists otherwise, to my knowledge.
Jewschool: How can people find Talking in Shul?
You can subscribe
to the podcast on iTunes, or you can list on the Open Quorum
website. Sermonslam is basically a poetry slam for sermons, where sermons are very loosely defined as “short performances on a preset theme.” They are similar to the Moth storytelling events, with winners chosen at the end, but we record all performances, and you can listen to them on the Open Quorum podcast stream.
Jewschool: Finally, what are you excited about for the future of the podcast?
Tamar Fox: I don’t know for sure when we’re going to talk about it, but we’re thinking about doing a segment on Jewish social justice, and how sometimes Jews want to frame an issue as particularly Jewish, when really, it’s just a moral imperative, and maybe that’s Torah based and maybe not, but we should still act on it.
(P.S. If you do a Google search for “Talking in Shul,” this comes up. Which apparently is the inspiration for the song “Don’t Talk, Just Daven,” by the Miami Boys Choir. When I did a search on You Tube for that song, I found this.)
This is a guest post by Avigayil Halpern.
One of my most vivid memories from elementary school is obstacle courses in gym class. Riding on small, flat, scooters and propelling ourselves with our hands we would wind our way through a series of foam pads and balance beams in relay races, an activity that I found more fun than the usual sports activities. I don’t remember these races for the fun, however. On a regular basis, my skirt would catch in the wheels of the scooters as I raced my peers through the obstacles, and this is what sticks in my head.
I’ve worn skirts to school every day since first grade. The skirts/school connection is so strong in my mind that I have had nightmares about accidentally showing up at school in a pair of jeans, the Orthodox day school girl equivalent of the showing-up-at-school-in-your-underwear dream. It has been such a part of the natural order of my world that back when my skirt got caught in the scooter wheels, I shrugged and pulled it out again, calmly, accepting that the dress code would make me fall a little behind the boy racing me from the other team. More »
Just about a year ago, the first class of Maharats graduated. For those of you who haven’t been following the various stories over the last year or so, the term Maharat is a Hebrew acronym for Manhiga Hilkhatit Rukhanit Toranit, translated as one who is teacher of Jewish law and spirituality. In other words, an Orthodox Jewish female rabbi. But, you know, without the title of rabbi. I was fortunate enough to be a part of a webinar hosted by JOFA entitled “The Maharats’ First Year: A Retrospective,” where three Maharats and one soon-be-ordained Maharat spoke about their experiences thus far. Part of me was hoping for anger: these women are basically rabbis, don’t they deserve the respect of earning the same title for the same job that men do? Even though I was hoping for angry women ready to lead the way for change in their fields, I’m also relieved that this was not the case. Instead, Maharats Ruth Balinsky Friedman, Abby Brown Scheir, Rachel Kohl Finegold, and Rori Picker Neiss were enthusiastic, calm, and not bitter in the slightest.
Each woman spoke of the supportive nature her respective congregation and fellow clergy people. While there were minor displays of negativity, for the most part each Maharat was warmly welcomed into her community. Communities that for so long have denied women the opportunities to become leaders in their shuls. Now, these communities can see the full potential the women members of their synagogue have to offer. Maharat Abby spoke of how excited her community was to have her, and how interest in bat mitzvahs have increased since she began her position. More »
It’s been almost a year since I started working at the Jewish Women’s Archive. I started off as a summer intern, working with almost everyone in the office at least once and learning the ropes of the organization. After a couple months, I was offered a part-time position as the Education Program Assistant, and I worked almost exclusively with the Education team. And now, I’m proud to say that I have been a full-time staff person at JWA for almost six months. And in the time that I’ve been here, a lot of exciting changes have been underway.
For the past eighteen years, Founding Executive Director Gail Twersky Reimer has been our fearless leader. It was her vision of an online resource all about Jewish women that has brought us here, and her dedication and passion have kept the organization alive and the website running. And now, after eighteen loyal years, Gail will be retiring and passing the torch to a new Executive Director.
About three weeks ago, many of JWA’s friends, supporters, and a contingency of its staff gathered at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York to celebrate Gail’s legacy. A colleague and I stood at the entrance to the museum welcoming the guests and pointing them towards the reception upstairs. As someone who has been working in the Jewish non-profit world for over two years and who has steeped herself in Jewish and feminist academia for most of her life, I was thrilled to have this job. We greeted artists, writers, teachers, board members, and so many more people that it was absolutely dizzying. The number of people who walked in who I admired and respected was insurmountable, and I found myself practically quivering with excitement the whole evening.
The air in the reception hall was electric, to say the least. What made the event so special was not just that everyone was there to celebrate Gail and the Jewish Women’s Archive. But everyone had so many other connections as well. People who had worked together, studied together, grew up together, all converged in this event. When describing the event later to my roommate, she said thoughtfully, “The Jewish community is really small, isn’t it?” And while the hall was filled with friends, supporters, and family of Gail T. Reimer and JWA, I couldn’t help but notice how everybody was connected in so many different ways that evening, making the Jewish community a most intimate and loving one.
If you’re in Jerusalem on Sunday, June 1, check out The Good Mother Myth editor Avital Norman Nathman & contributor Sarah Tuttle-Singer at the Jerusalem Press Club for great conversations and readings!
Directions and more on the event’s Facebook page.
So there’s this piece in Ha’aretz right now that is apparently about Ayelet Shaked and how she’s a deplorable human, but then there’s this opening paragraph that is kind of a problem:
“She first appeared as a curiosity – a young and pretty secular woman from an upscale north Tel Aviv neighborhood, a fresh and well-educated Zionist who found a warm Jewish home — to borrow from her party’s name, Habayit Hayehudi. She doesn’t resemble extremist figures from the past like Meir Kahane and Moshe Levinger, or former MK Michael Ben-Ari. She’s much more attractive and elegant than the caricatures of crazed right-wingers with their bushy beards, skullcaps askew and Uzis dangling from their shoulders.” (emphasis mine)
I just did a search of Ayelet Shaked on Google, and one of the first suggestions that comes up is “Ayelet Shaked hot.” (Thanks, Internet.) Look, I understand the mystery here. How can an attractive woman have politics that are repugnant? Isn’t that behavior that’s reserved for ugly women? Aren’t pretty women just supposed to be pretty?
Ravit Hecht’s lede is that Shaked doesn’t look like the dudes with repugnant politics who have proceeded her in the Knesset, hang out on hilltops, etc. That’s not actually what the rest of the piece is about, and it’s a cheap way in. It doesn’t matter if she’s attractive. (I can’t believe I even have to type that.) It’s not even a little bit relevant and it’s sexist. Apparently, there’s no way to talk about a female politician without mentioning how she looks, and this is true on the Right AND the Left, in US politics as well. Hillary Clinton is one obvious example, but when Illinois GOP candidate Susanne Atanus said that God put tornadoes and autism on earth because of the homosexuals, the comment threads exploded with references to her physical appearance. (I know, I know, never read the comments.) There’s an unfortunate and repetitive trend here, and it’s sad, really, how easy it is to not perpetuate the sexism in this case, but since it’s sold as not only relevant, but newsworthy, lede worthy, we keep it up. CUT IT OUT, humans. I know you can do better.
P.S. Also, read this. And stop it.
This is a guest post by Shani Ben Or, the Community Coordinator for Kol HaNeshama, Jerusalem’s flagship congregation of the Reform Movement, where she also serves as a cantor, studies Critical, Feminist Pedagogy at the Kibbutzim College, and is a fellow in the inaugural Jerusalem cohort of the Takum social justice beit midrash. Translated from the Hebrew by Aryeh Bernstein.
A few years ago, I volunteered in a youth center for teens at risk in south Tel Aviv. The constituency served by the center represented the sectors most oppressed and discriminated against by Israeli society. In many respects, this encounter was life-changing for me, but was also wound up with numerous challenges, among the most significant of which related to gender. Every week, I was greeted with comments about my appearance, my beauty, and my body. I received countless “offers”, of varying degrees of obscenity. It was clear to me that these teenage boys were testing my boundaries in a smart and sophisticated way. When push came to shove, they touched on my greatest place of vulnerability with regard to them. In every other way, the power hierarchy in this youth center was clear and priviliged me: I was a volunteer and they were the troubled youth being mentored and counseled. The power hierarchy in Israeli society was just as clear and to my privilege: I am an Ashkenazic Jew in Israel from an American background. However, in one respect, the power relationship privileged them and put them in a position of power over me: I am a woman and they are men. They tipped the scales of the power balance to assert some power over a person who in many ways has power over them, and it worked: as a woman, with my own experiences of gender oppression, I was affected by their actions. They succeeded. More »
This is a guest post by Miriam Cantor-Stone.
About three weeks ago, I walked into a hair salon and when asked how much hair I wanted cut, I responded, “All of it, please!” It was a bit of an exaggeration, but only just. When the hair stylist was done, I left with a pixie cut and a foot and a half of hair to donate. As I walked out of the salon, I found myself simply buzzing with energy. I felt as if I had a load lifted off of me (practically literally, as I have very thick hair!), and I might as well have floated home. I wanted to jump and shout and… say a blessing?
Ever since that day I’ve been wondering if and how Judaism deals with haircuts. Of course I thought about the story of Samson losing his strength from an unwanted haircut. I seem to have had the opposite experience though; I’ve gained a new energy rather than lost it. I looked up “Judaism and haircutting” and all I could find was the ritual of upsherin. In some traditional Jewish sects, boys do not get their first hair cut until they are three years old. This ceremonial hair cut signifies the beginning of the boy’s Jewish education, and they are often given a kippah and tzittzit to wear. More »
This is a guest post by Miriam Cantor-Stone. Miriam serves as the Education Program Assistant at the Jewish Women’s Archive in Brookline, MA. When she’s not working at JWA, she teaches third graders about immigration and Jewish culture at the Boston Workmen’s Circle Shule/Sunday School and sings in Voices Rising, an all-female feminist chorus.
I have had many experiences in my life that have involved spaces made just for women. These women-only spaces were not created specifically to exclude men, rather they were to give opportunities to women who might not have had them otherwise. For instance, I graduated from Mount Holyoke College, a women’s college in western Massachusetts. While I may have been initially drawn to a women’s college to escape the “dumb boys” of high school, I stuck with it for the excellent education and once-in-a-lifetime chances offered to me, like working abroad for a summer and directing plays as a non-theatre major.
So when I read the blog post entitled “Man’s Seder: The Backlash,” I was immediately skeptical. I imagined it was written by the same kind of person who would obnoxiously ask, “If there’s a ‘women’s studies’ major why isn’t there a men’s studies’ major?” As I read the post, by Rabbi Reuven Spolter of Israel, I couldn’t help but scoff and snort my way through most of it. It’s clear to me that he has little to no understanding of why events like women’s seders were created in the first place. He makes this very clear when he says, “I wondered why only women were having such an event, and decided to organize a similar program for the men. Was there an outcry at the exclusionary tactics of the Federation for creating a gendered version of the Seder? Hardly. There was a need, and we created it.” Rabbi Spolter makes all sorts of assumptions about his readers that I find both laughable and a little bit offensive. When defending the idea of a Men’s Seder, he says:
“At your Seder, who recites the Kiddush? Who breaks the Matzah? Who makes the Motzi? At most Sedarim (although I wonder about those of the members of the “I’m also fed up with the way women are treated in Orthodoxy” FB group), a man makes the kiddush, breaks the Matzah at Yachatz, etc. In other words, he ‘leads’ the Seder. That doesn’t mean he monopolizes or controls it. He leads it. Wouldn’t it also make sense that in addition to the technical aspects of leading, that he also came to the Seder prepared to lead a discussion and engage in meaningful conversation about the Exodus? Yes? You agree? That’s the basic idea of the Man’s Seder.”
Rabbi Spolter seems to think that all seders everywhere are just like the ones he attends. While he’s making his case for a Men’s Seder, he’s perpetuating every reason why Women’s Seders exist in the first place. His argument is that because men have traditionally led seders in the past, then of course an all-male seder makes sense. Rabbi Spolter, you really don’t get it, do you? Women’s Seders were created for the purpose of giving women the opportunity to participate in a ritual that up until the last few decades has been exclusively a men’s zone. And when he mentions the Facebook group that lit the spark of criticism of Men’s Seders, he is completely disrespectful and hypocritical. He says, “You’re fed up? You’re angry? Can there be a more negative, nasty, distasteful group on Facebook? (It is the definition of what’s wrong with Facebook. While FB can be a tool to spread ideas and share constructive thoughts, too often it serves as a clearinghouse for venomous spewing of negativity and hatred).” Umm, HELLO?! You’re writing a BLOG POST, buddy. Don’t condemn people for online discussions when you’re writing in essentially the same manner. He continues, “What you end up with is a group of Feminists from across the religious spectrum who have gathered to criticize Orthodoxy. Great.” It’s not Orthodoxy they’re criticizing, dude, it’s the idea that people are creating ritual space for men that has been a space for men for centuries, and acting like it’s revolutionary and necessary.
I fully understand the need for an inclusive space. It’s important to have a group of people that understands each other’s situations and feelings and needs. Rabbi Spolter and all rabbis who have done or are thinking of hosting a Men’s Seder, please think about your intentions and about how women have been treated in the past in your chosen movement. Each branch of Judaism has had to work on (and is still working on) the full acceptance of women as full members of the Jewish community. No longer are women confining themselves only to the kitchen to prepare the enormous Passover meal; they’re also digging through scores of Haggadot to choose the best way to lead their Seders. And remember that Women’s Seders were not created to exclude men, so do not for a moment think that a Men’s Seder is needed to exclude women. However much Rabbi Spolter claims to support women in his community, it seems to me he’s got a whole long way to go, as do many other Jewish communities, not to mention people in general.
I noticed recently that polygamy and its presumed benefits seem to be making the rounds – unfortunately – once again, so I dug up this old fisking. Nope, still not a good idea.
…from what I can tell, her real complaint is that this younger generation prefers monogamy and childrearing to the raunch that she claims her generation championed. Look at the utter condescension:
Punishing the sexual woman is a hoary, antique meme found from “Jane Eyre” to “The Scarlet Letter” to “Sex and the City,” where the lustiest woman ended up with breast cancer. Sex for women is dangerous. Sex for women leads to madness in attics, cancer and death by fire. Better to soul cycle and write cookbooks. Better to give up men and sleep with one’s children. Better to wear one’s baby in a man-distancing sling and breast-feed at all hours so your mate knows your breasts don’t belong to him. Our current orgy of multiple maternity does indeed leave little room for sexuality. With children in your bed, is there any space for sexual passion? The question lingers in the air, unanswered.
Right. Just where does she think those babies come from… what, they were decanted from a tube? The irony is so thick – she seems to be arguing for people to uncouple sex and intimacy even while her subtext is that people are rejecting intimacy. I wonder if she actually remembers any of the people who were engaged in those wonderful open marriages?
- See more at: jewschool.com/2011/07/12/26564/not-bringing-sexy-backplease/#sthash.fLGNmfGM.dpuf
This is a guest post by Miriam Cantor-Stone. Miriam serves as the Education Program Assistant at the Jewish Women’s Archive in Brookline, MA. When she’s not working at JWA, she teaches third graders about immigration and Jewish culture at the Boston Workmen’s Circle Shule/Sunday School and sings in Voices Rising, an all-female feminist chorus.
In an age where fewer people seem to be joining, let alone attending, synagogues, the writers from the Forward call their list of “America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis, “an affirmation that despite the worrying mega-trends, our spiritual leaders are connecting with Jews and strengthening communities across America.”
I don’t think a list like this a bad idea. If anything, it might help connect people to their rabbis or potential future rabbis. It’s fair to say the Jewish people appreciate good press, and it’s nice to see Rabbis from all denominations represented. Frustratingly, what wasn’t very well represented was gender. The list features 28 rabbis from across North America (mostly New York, which isn’t much of a surprise) and only 9 women.
I’m sure the creators of this list will have plenty to say in their defense. But what excuse could they have? Women have quickly become an important presence in the rabbinate, even in Orthodoxy. Yes, women rabbis are still making new and crucial strides on the pulpit (see the fabulous Rabbi Angela Warnick Buchdahl at NYC’s Central Synagogue) but women rabbis are more accepted today than in the 50 years since Rabbi Sally Priesand was ordained at Hebrew Union College.
It’s fair to say that people frustrated by this list aren’t asking for a re-do. The list features some incredible Jewish leaders who all certainly deserve to be recognize for the work they do. I just hope next time the Forward will better represent the women involved in keeping Judaism alive as best as they can, just like their male counterparts.
This is a guest post by Avigayil Halpern. Avigayil is a senior at the Hebrew High School of New England. She is a Bronfman Youth Fellow for 2013, a Rising Voices Fellow, through the Jewish Women’s Archive and Prozdor, and an alumna of Drisha’s Dr. Beth Samuels High School Programs. She maintains a personal blog at theprocessofthetaking.blogspot.com. Follow her on Twitter at @avigayiln.
The first time I wrapped tefillin was on Masada, in Israel last summer as a Bronfman Youth Fellow. It should have been highly meaningful: I was watching the sun rise, standing in the ruins of a final Jewish stronghold, and I was with tremendously inspiring peers and teachers. Instead, when my counselor handed me the green velvet bag, I stood holding it, nervous and unsure of what to do with myself. As a childhood friend of mine wrapped the straps around my arm and hand and helped me adjust the head-tefillin, I stood still, repeating the brachot after him. When I prayed, any concentration that might have stemmed from the tefillin was canceled out by the strangeness of the physical sensation; the tefillin were powerful because of what they were, not because they grounded me.
My prayers that morning were punctuated by quibbles between my friends — the chazzan was going too fast, a more slowly praying participant was “backseat leading” — and repeatedly counting to make sure we still had a minyan as people wandered away. After we finished, my friend helped me unwrap the tefillin.
It was not until three weeks later that I was taught properly how to don tefillin myself. It was in a rush, the afternoon before my program left Israel, when we were all dashing around packing stray socks and squeegeeing the tile floors. Judith Rosenbaum, a program faculty member, Jewish women’s historian, and personal mentor, took me aside and taught me how to put on tefillin. She showed me how to twine the bands around my fingers, needing to practice on herself; it is not often that one wraps tefillin around another’s hand.
These anecdotes, my first tefillin stories, aren’t simple and spiritual. My experiences were confusing and mundane. Those moments did not ring with feelings of empowerment or reclamation. My Orthodox background, contrary to what I had expected, did not make the tefillin feel taboo — by the time I actually wore them, I had long been considering the idea. What sticks with me about these experiences is how natural it felt to be taught this mitzvah by a woman. I didn’t feel alone, as I had expected; I was part of a chain of tefillin-laying women.
My experience when I began wearing tzitzit was radically different. While I had previously considered wearing them, my first pair was an impulse buy. I was shopping on Ben Yehuda Street with a friend, and wandered into one of the tourist-geared Judaica shops that pepper the boulevard. I began to pick up packaged tallitot katan, examining them to see if I could find a small size. When the only pairs out were in a men’s medium, I asked the store’s proprietor (a friendly-looking, white-bearded, American-sounding Chareidi man) if they had tzitzit in smaller boys’ sizes. He answered in the affirmative, and began to hold up very small garments. “I’m looking for one that would fit a twelve-year-old boy,” I said. My friend added, “It’s for her little brother.”
I walked out of the store, three pairs of tzitzit in hand, grinning. I wore them for the first time the very next day. It was a Friday, and my group was venturing to Tzfat for Shabbat. As we walked through the city’s narrow stone alleyways and blue-painted synagogues and cemeteries, I grinned each time I caught sight of my fringes. They were both very strange and intimately familiar, totally new and yet totally me. Several times over the course of the weekend, I was approached by friendly strangers inquiring as to why I, a woman, was wearing tzitzit. The first time this happened, two young Chareidi woman came over to me at Kabbalat Shabbat. I wasn’t prepared to answer their question, and simply stammered out “it’s a mitzvah!” The twenty-somethings smiled, and one of them said, “That’s so interesting, I’ve never seen that before. Does your Rav think it’s okay?” I grinned and assured them that yes, my rav permits it. I didn’t attempt to explain to them that the community of people I consider to be my “rav” is large and diverse; while not everyone around me approves of my tzitzit, the people I look to for religious guidance, my “rebbeim,” are supportive.
My experiences of tzitzit and tefillin are unique. Some women wear tzitzit under their clothes, as a private reminder of the Divine. Some women have been laying tefillin since their Bat Mitzvah. Some women find these practices radically spiritual, while for others they are entirely mundane. Each woman’s experience is different. But we share a common bond; every time we perform these mitzvot, we shift Jewish practice a little bit. Every time I explain to a little girl that “yes, girls can wear tzitzit too, isn’t that cool?” as she curiously twists the strings between her fingers, she is more likely to feel that she, too, can own this mitzvah. Every time a woman changes her Facebook profile picture of one of herself praying with tefillin, the cultural image of the praying Jew becomes a little more female. Every time a woman is seen in tefillin or tzitzit, the Jew at prayer in the common imagination becomes more fluid, less likely to have a beard.
The Jewish world needs to hear women’s real experiences with these mitzvoth. It is for this reason that I have founded V’Tzivanu: Women, Tefillin, and Tzitzit, (v’tzivanu translates to “and has made us a mitzvah”) a blog project which will publish women’s writing on tefillin or tzitzit twice a month. Recent uproar in the Jewish blogosphere about women and tefillin has led to an increased presence of women’s voices and stories, but this is insufficient. V’Tzivanu is a project for my past self, the tenth grader who Googled “women and tefillin” and found only an explanation of why women’s spiritual superiority leads to our exemption from mitzvot. This is a project for older women, who have been laying tefillin for decades and have faced obstacles of which I have never dreamed. This is a project for Bat Mitzvah girls, who will see that Jewish womanhood is so much broader and deeper than a set of candlesticks. This is a project for the Jewish people.
For anyone trying to hold on to those last breaths of Purim, here is my piece from the recent Jerusalem Sermon Slam on the theme of Amalek, in which I consider a bizarrely persistent custom about about language, Amalek’s relationship to sexual violence and degradation, and how we capture that dystopic reality theologically. It was a provocative evening — a safe space for dangerous Torah (h/t for that phrase to my student, Rabbi Eric Woodward). Check out the other videos from the event, as well. My personal favorites are by Charlie Buckholtz (Amalek, predatory housing corruption, and more), Candace Mittel (remembering so that there’s no room left for Amalek), Bonna Haberman (how we produce Amalek), and Julie Seltzer (finding Amalek through its physical letters). To find out more about Sermon Slam and to support its next steps, you can check out the Kickstarter campaign. Check out upcoming Sermon Slams March 24 in Philadelphia, March 27 at Brandeis University, April 3 triple-header in Berkeley, Boston, and NYC-Washington Heights, April 7 in Philadelphia (Interfaith), and April 10 in Providence.
The following post is contributed by guest poster Miriam Liebman. A native Detroiter, Miriam Liebman is currently a second-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Miriam is also an alum of AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps.
On a Shabbat afternoon last summer, sitting with two colleagues, one turned to the other and said, “Daniel, is this your tallis?” “No,” I said, “It’s mine.” Nothing specifically identifies my tallis as feminine. To the contrary, it is nondescript; white with blue stripes, the tallis my brother received for his Bar Mitzvah. The bag, too, is blue velvet with a gold embroidered star. I would have made the same mistake. The only thing that identifies my tallis as belonging to a woman are the lipstick stains.
I wear make-up and high heals, I like manicures and nice clothes; I am a girly girl. But when it comes to my prayer garb, I feel I will be taken more seriously in something considered un-gendered, neutral. But the more time I spend in traditional Jewish spaces, the more I have come realize that when we claim that a tallis is not gendered what we really mean is that it is male. And when we claim that we are creating egalitarian spaces what we really mean is that women are allowed to enter and participate in traditionally men’s spaces. Are we really only asking for women to find a role in a man’s world or are we asking to ungender the entire space?
Still from "Sermonizer" video
Judaism was a system created by men for men. To the rabbis of the Talmud, “all Jews” meant “all free men.” Today, I am in my second year of rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary. I spend my days immersed in texts that tell the lives, stories, and laws of those rabbis. As their words come to life for me, I feel more and more embedded in a vision of Judaism that will both allow me to honor my inheritance and bring my voice to bear on what future generations will inherit. My love of Jewish texts and tradition is not void of an understanding that my voice and the voices of many others are missing. If we are to exist in community where “all Jews” really means “all Jews,” we must live that out without exceptions, without caveats, and without apologies. We must hold ourselves to standards, not because we are expecting perfection, but because being in community means holding each other accountable.
This past fall, a group of seminary women at Duke University put out a parody of Britney Spears’ Womanizer. Taking the music of Britney Spears, they sang and danced on library tables about their own experiences as Lady Preachers in a music video they called Sermonizer. In reflecting on the video, one of the women, Christina, wrote,
I am a lady preacher because some of the best preachers I know are women. Because they stood behind pulpits and talked about periods and infertility, about rape, about divorce. Because they stood behind pulpits and said words that you don’t say in church. Because they helped me learn to say them, too.
I too stand behind a long line of women and their male allies who helped create a place where I can struggle openly and honestly with the inheritance handed to me.
And so, inspired by the Lady Preachers, a group of women at the Jewish Theological Seminary decided to make our own video for the JTS Purim Spiel: Rabbinical Girl, to the music of Madonna’s Material Girl. We did this because we are both proud of and proud to be at JTS. We make jokes about the absence of women’s restrooms on the fifth floor and the pressure often felt at JTS to be partnered, especially as women. Like the Lady Preachers, we were being silly. We were creating and sharing what we knew to be the best Purim Torah we could think of. And like so much of the best comedy that exists, there was no doubt truth in what we said.
There was a moment during editing of the video where I wondered out loud if some of what we were saying was too offensive. I immediately retracted my statement understanding that if we are not willing to publicly say what we believe at our core, we don’t stand for anything. And though we joke about being invisible to those in the non-egalitarian minyan at JTS, and pride ourselves on having worn tefillin since the 80s, the sentiments behind our jokes hold true. Because until we begin to redefine what a person who wears a tallis looks like, lipstick stains or not, and incorporate the experiences of non-masculine bodies and voices into our perceptions of what we mean today when we say “all Jews,” we are continuing to do nothing more than allow women to participate.
When we start from the premise that women and other minority members of our community must be affirmed, we are maintaining a system of patriarchy. Let’s start from the fundamental assumption that all members of our community are equal. I am not under any allusion that habits change over night. But the way we perceive gender roles can only change if we begin to shift the conversation to one that assumes that all roles are open to all people. Affirmation and allowance are not enough. Acknowledging that we are already on a path to full equality, this necessary phase of acceptance must move beyond a woman’s ability to enter into and participate in traditionally held men’s spaces and into one where roles and obligations are no longer questioned on the basis of gender.
It’s time we stop viewing particular women as honorary men. It’s time we stop giving women permission to take on certain roles. It’s time we raise a generation who no longer assumes the rabbi is a man. It’s time we embrace tradition not because it belongs to the binaries we’ve created of men and women but because it belongs to us.
You can read more of Leah’s work at the Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe Series.
On February 10, Leah Vincent and I met in early afternoon around Union Square. Over cups of hot tea, we discussed her recently published memoir, Cut Me Loose: Sin & Salvation After My Ultra Orthodox Girlhood, which traces her body’s exit from her Haredi upbringing in Pittsburgh to her acceptance at Harvard University–and the detours in-between. For the course of an hour, we delved into the mise-en-scène of writing a book, bodily contaminations, and what it means to live like a zombie orphan.
Sam Shuman: I’m curious about your habits of writing. I don’t think in any of your other interviews, people have asked: where do you write? When do you write? Do you have specific habits around the craft?
Leah Vincent: No. And I feel very guilty about this. I feel like I need to be more disciplined. And that’s my constant resolution—to get more disciplined about it. I have a toddler. So my writing revolves around whatever time the babysitter is there and [whether] I don’t have other pressing things. I write on the couch, or chair, on my bed. With my laptop. And just type frantically. I’m a really big believer in the shitty first drafts. So I’m just always trying to just push myself to write whenever it comes and not judge it. And come back to it. And rework it and rework it and rework it.
I try to write everyday. It’s also depends. It’s very project bound. So when I was in this book, and especially once the draft was done, I worked very heavily with my editor to shape that final draft. So, as soon as she gave me something, it was so exciting to get to work with somebody on it. Because it’s so solitary. I spent two years working on it beforehand. And suddenly I’d have something with comments. I’d throw myself into it. It was just like this drug. Any moment I could grab to work on the edits and to write was just incredibly exciting. I would love to be able to say, “I sit down in my office from 9 AM to 5 PM.” That does not happen at all. Of course, every time I come to a difficult scene, I’m checking on Facebook every ten seconds. Something on Twitter has become very, very important instantly. I know that I should shut off the internet, but I don’t. It’s a very organic, meandering engagement.
I’m particularly interested in women writers. I’m particularly interested in female memoir writers. But let’s say women writers—and particularly mothers who have to balance their motherhood with their profession. That’s really interesting to me. I think a little bit about that–about how I feel like I have to push harder. Even in the most understanding relationship with my husband and a progressive world and community, I still have to push to make the space. I feel like if I could go to an office everyday, doing something like being a pediatrician, I’d have the time for my work. But because I’m a writer, somehow I have to fight a little bit harder to be taken seriously–by myself maybe more than anybody else (laughs). I’m allowed to say, “I’m not taking everything else. I’m just writing for two hours.” There’s this constant pushing of the space that one needs to live and that one has to do on one’s own.
SS: That’s an interesting sense of immediacy, too–all these other things that you’re balancing at the same time. That probably changes the tempo of your writing.
LV: Yes. Especially when you’re writing something that’s so emotional. I’m not distanced from this material. Life is just woven together. The book. The rest of my life. There’s no separate spheres really, which, in a way, is a great blessing. Because it means that the work I’m doing is like my lifeblood. It’s personal to me. To me, it’s so thrilling because it’s something that I care so much about. But, on the other hand, if I was a pediatrician or a plumber, I’d be like, “wait, this is my work life and this is my personal life.” And that might be nice to have that space.
SS: Do you keep a notebook for your writing?
LV: I keep like seven notebooks. Not even notebooks. Documents. I’m so organized in all aspects of my life but my writing is schizophrenic. There’s bit and pieces everywhere. So I have my diary notebook, where I try to records some thoughts. And I just started doing dailies, where you’re supposed to write three pages. So I have that. And then I just started a secret poetry blog, where I try to write a poem every day about my life going on. So I have that. And then I have my to-do list. And then I’m sometimes carrying notes. And then I have my phone, which has forty-six documents from the past week alone. So it’s a little bit totally crazy, but somehow the magic works and it comes together. And one day, I will get more organized with it.
SS: Do you see your work as a break or a continuation of an older genre of literature—something like the Autobiography of Solomon Maimon or the treatises of that other rabble rouser, Baruch Spinoza?
LV: I’ve not read enough of Spinoza or at all of the first [writer] you mentioned, but I definitely think we have a claim to the Haskalah. Before OTD [Off the Derech] became as popular as it was two, three years ago, I was saying we have to call ourselves Maskilim, not because we’re identical to the original Maskilim, but because we carry some of their spirit forward and it’s important for us to realize that we have a lineage. That we’re not coming out of nowhere. It’s not, obviously, an unbroken chain. The themes are very different. For example, they are, for the most part, much more intellectual than say, my book is. But I’m proud to claim them. I don’t know how they would feel about being claimed, but I’m proud to claim them (laughs). And I think we should.
On the one hand, you’re working within the construct of the frum community, which assumes that historical precedence gives you validity. I think that’s part of the urge to claim the connection to them. And I think there’s value to that. I don’t just dismiss that. But, on the other hand, I think you’re right. People got angry at me for saying let’s call ourselves Maskilim, but I was never saying it literally. Obviously, literally, I’m not saying I’m the same as them. I do think that, especially when you’ve been rejected, as some of us have, by everyone we knew and cared about, to claim kinship with people who are dead, to be able to look out onto a much wider world, and say, “listen, the immediate world has rejected me, but I’m going to find family or intellectual counterparts or people I can to connect to.” I think that’s hugely powerful. I wouldn’t want to deny myself or other people who find comfort and confidence and ideas and inspiration from that.
SS: People have been presumably going off the derech since the legal bricklayers paved the path. But leaving the Haredi world is no longer enough—there’s a drive now to change it, whether it be through writing, protests, billboards, or non-profits. Having spoken to people who went off the derech over twenty to twenty-five years ago, they’ve noticed that change, too. How do you account for this change? Why do you think that there’s been a cultural shift now?