I am standing on my side of the mechitza (divider that separates men and women to prevent distractions) at Yakar, an Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem. This is my first Friday night service since my sister’s makeshift Bat Mitzvah one year ago. I stand with my prayer book, squinting at the foreign alphabet I can barely read and whose words I can never understand. I suddenly realize that although I might never know the meanings of these words, I can make out names I recognize, names whose stories I know.
There is singing and amidst the singing, fierce communal prayer. This is not an egalitarian synagogue. I knew that when I walked in and saw my friends disappear behind a white curtain and the rabbi follow suit. Yet this truly hits me when I look down at the page and the only names I recognize are Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
I grew up learning that their wives – Rachel, Rebecca, and Sarah – are equally important. I wanted to read more about them – the women who persuaded their husbands to change the face of Judaism, who gave birth to tribes responsible for my existence in red tents. I went to synagogues where, immediately after we chanted “Avram v’Yishmael, v’Yaakov,” we chanted “Sarah, v’Rebecca, v’Rachel, v’Leah.” Yet miles away from home, I realize that these names are missing. The mothers are gone. How are there sons without mothers?
How could we forget Sarah, the woman who birthed a nation when she was told she was infertile, who lost all hope of getting pregnant, who wanted to be a mother so badly that when she finally gave birth to Isaac, she made certain she raised a son capable of continuing a religion?
And Rebecca? A woman who obeyed her father’s orders to marry up, to marry Isaac, and to give birth to Judaism’s first twins, she was strong-willed and pragmatic. She went to any length to make sure Judaism – the birthright of one of her sons – was put in the right hands when her husband died, tricking her husband on his deathbed. Why is her epic story not mentioned with the simple courtesy of a name?
As for Leah and Rachel, where are they? Where are the names of sisters who loved the same man, but who were able to realize that sisterhood is what matters above all else? They raised each other’s children and lived a life of pressure in polygamy, all the while known for their individual identities – Leah for being intelligent and having a good eye of judgment and Rachel for being staggeringly beautiful and too mature for her age.
It is crucial that we remember the matriarchs. Too often, they are left out and forgotten, their contributions to Judaism ignored while their husbands sneak in all the credit. To honor the matriarchs means we hear the whole story instead of half of it. We empower ourselves as women by honoring those that came before us.
These women must be remembered not exclusively in the context of men. We must remember them as women in their own right, women who possess identities beyond wifedom and motherhood, women with lives and stories of their own and with a perspective that just might differ from that of men. These four women are symbols for thousands more that live today. It is my job to hear their stories in Shabbat melodies so that I can live out my own.
That is why on a hot Jerusalem night I stand as the white cloth waves with the too short and unexpected breeze and I hear the Aleinu being read. And I hear my Orthodox friends sing “Avram v’Yishmael, v’Yaakov.” And I make a decision. I decide I will no longer be passive. I decide I will say the names of the mothers – metaphorical or not – that made it possible for me to stand here in the first place. As the congregation moves onto the next verse, I whisper with triumph, “Sarah, v’Rebecca, v’Rachel, v’Leah,” the names of my metaphorical mothers.