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Archive for the ‘Torah’ Category

This is cross-posted at Jewesses with Attitude.

I’ve been thinking a lot about literacy lately. Maybe it’s because I’m working for a children’s book company this summer or maybe it’s because I am now open to seeing the holes in my own literacy. Of course, when I think of literacy, I tend to associate it with Judaism because that is where many of my holes originate. I was given opportunities for Jewish literacy through Hebrew School, synagogue, and family gatherings all throughout my elementary school years, but I was not ready to take it in, to absorb it, to fuse that into my New York City culture. So instead I decided to become feminist literate, reading The Feminine Mystique, bell hooks, and Gloria Steinem. I abandoned anything that showed a hint of sexism (with the exception of the guilty pleasure teen literature that shall not be named) because I immediately assumed there would be nothing I could learn from it.

I was wrong. It took a trip to Israel and interviewing my grandmother to learn that Jewish literacy in all forms and capacities is a path to empowerment for Jewish women. When I interviewed my grandmother for my senior project, she said of Jewish literacy in her synagogue, “The women come up for Haftorah. Women if they’re knowledgeable. They come up and read English prayers. We’re getting a more egalitarian siddur. They want to replace the one we have so that it incorporates women.” I realized that there can be multiple definitions of “egalitarian” and those multiple definitions can be different manifestations of a feminist philosophy. To include women “if they’re knowledgeable” goes by the feminist principle of gender being secondary to knowledge, forming a meritocratic rather than sexist society.

Read the rest here.

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Name: Sophia Henriquez

Age: 16

Place of Birth: New York City

Neighborhood: New York City

Denomination: Reform

Race: Caucasian

Ethnicity: Hispanic

Sexuality: Heterosexual

Profession: Student

“So, who are you interviewing next?”

“Sophia Henriquez from Peer Leadership,” I answered.

“But I thought your project was about Jewish feminism,” my mom replied, her face scrunching into a contortion of confusion that accompanies assumptions proven incorrect.

My mother is not the only one who responded like this when I mentioned that Sophia was my next interviewee. With a common Hispanic last name and a self-identified Latina, she is not the most likely Jew and that makes her a fighter for her religious identity, someone who goes the extra mile to prove to people that she is, in fact, Jewish not in spite of but in conjunction with her last name.

Sophia is not only Jewish, but Christian as well. She has grown up embracing diversity. After going to camp with her when we were younger, we have reunited in the Peer Leadership classroom, a place where high school juniors and seniors are taught to acknowledge differences and use them to construct individual identity. I knew she would be an ideal candidate for this project when she said during a lesson on family identity that what she loves most are the traditions her family has created, traditions that stem from a fusion of practices generally thought to run parallel, but to never intersect. This is precisely the beauty of the Henriquez interfaith and interracial household: it proves that this intersection is possible and that Judaism has a place in it.

I meet Sophia in the Senior Inquiry classroom. There are teachers bickering in the background and the din makes her assert her responses just like she asserts her unique and occasionally unaccepted identity. As with many young Jewish women, the first example that comes to mind when I ask Sophia to describe her religious upbringing is her Bat Mitzvah. The least genetically Jewish of all the women in her immediate family, she and her sister were actually the first ones to have Bat Mitzvahs.

She describes her mother’s influence, “My mom wasn’t a force on [my sister and I having Bat Mitzvahs] because she didn’t have one herself and neither did my grandmother so it was very individual for my sister and I because it was always a question of where we belonged.”

Sophia is a representative of what happens when you choose religion and religious practices. She puts choice back into religion and tradition. She took the initiative in having a Bat Mitzvah. This initiation is the most mature step to take in a ceremony that has the intention of a coming of age.

Just as she defined her desire to have a Bat Mitzvah, she defines other rituals on her own terms. Flexibility with Judaism is vital for this reform Jew from Stuyvesant Town. Her take on religion is beautiful and modern, containing elements of acceptance and comfort. As someone who is a part of two religions, she is able to take Judaism into a greater context.

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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.

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Name: Lucille Weisfuse

Age: 88

Place of Birth: Bay Ridge, Brooklyn

Neighborhood: Boca Raton, Florida

Denomination: Conservative

Race: White

Ethnicity: Jewish (very strongly)

Sexuality: Heterosexual

Profession: Math Teacher

There is a look people have when they have everything they could possibly want in life. There is a glimmer in their eyes, a posture in their bones not of resignation, but of contentment. But even more telling than those physical attributes is their willingness to reveal absolutely everything about their lives to the world. When people have nothing to hide, they shine with the verbosity of their stories.

As I sit in the dining room of my grandmother’s Century Village (this is the name of her retirement community where I am convinced people live for centuries) apartment, she has this look and intense need to tell her story as much as and to whomever she could. For the purpose of this narrative, however, she is not my grandmother; she is Lucille Weisfuse because her life began way before she was a grandmother, a mother, or a wife. She has a long story to tell.

Our discussion begins with Lucille revealing bits about her Jewish upbringing as a Conservative Jew born and bred in Brooklyn. She grew up with a concern for the Jews around the world, those whose homes were being burnt in Eastern Europe and those whose fates were unknown in faraway ghettos. Her heightened sensitivity to anti-Semitism is apparent.

Attending a Conservative synagogue her parents helped to open, Lucille reveals that “women did not go up to the bima and they could not really participate, but [men and women] did sit together as equals. There was no separation between men and women in synagogue.” Because of where she comes from, Lucille and I identify separation and sexism differently. I begin to wonder if she is blinded by the myth of sexist traditions that do not allow women to the bima or if she is simply more respectful than me of an institution (Judaism) that is greater than the values of one person.

She was confirmed in that synagogue. Bat Mitzvahs were not as popular or accepted in 1935, when the Conservative movement was still deciding which ancient laws to follow and which to reform. A Bat Mitzvah means that girls read from the Torah. In most synagogues at the time, that was still an exclusively male role yet the Conservative movement wanted to find some way for women to participate. Then came the creation of the confirmation. Lucille says of the ceremony, “They had a confirmation class. It was all in English and I gave a talk.” The English is what makes a confirmation different from a Bat Mitzvah. While the talk she gave was meaningful, it was not holy in comparison to the sanctity of Hebrew in a Bat Mitzvah in an assimilated society where only the most educated and devout spoke this founding religious language. The initial intention of a Bat Mitzvah is to provide a ceremony for hard-learned Jewish literacy to be showcased. A confirmation is cultural, but less literacy-based.

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This just in and sparking serious conversations on listservs and blogs galore – the Rabbinic Council of America, after their 51st annual conference, issued a press release on the status of women in Orthodox Jewish life:

1) The flowering of Torah study and teaching by God-fearing Orthodox women in recent decades stands as a significant achievement. The Rabbinical Council of America is gratified that our chaverim [members] have played a prominent role in facilitating these accomplishments.2) We members of the Rabbinical Council of America see as our sacred and joyful duty the practice and transmission of Judaism in all of its extraordinary, multifaceted depth and richness – halakhah[Jewish law], hashkafah[Jewish thought], tradition and historical memory.

3) In light of the opportunity created by advanced women’s learning, the Rabbinical Council of America encourages a diversity of halakhically and communally appropriate professional opportunities for learned, committed women, in the service of our collective mission to preserve and transmit our heritage. Due to our aforesaid commitment to sacred continuity, however, we cannot accept either the ordination of women or the recognition of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title.

4) Young Orthodox women are now being reared, educated, and inspired by mothers, teachers and mentors who are themselves beneficiaries of advanced women’s Torah education.  As members of the new generation rise to positions of influence and stature, we pray that they will contribute to an ever-broadening and ever-deepening wellspring of talmud Torah, yir’at Shamayim[fear of Heaven], and dikduk be-mitzvot[scrupulous observance of commandments].

I’m a little confused. How does the Rabbinical Council of America transmit Judaism “in all its depth” when they do not transmit the title of rabbi or the training that creates the process of becoming one to women? When the future of Judaism depends on more members of the community actively practicing Judaism, it would make sense to make it accessible everyone who wants to learn. If women are already receiving “advanced women’s Torah education” (question: how is this different from advanced men’s Torah education?), what should stop them from becoming rabbis? Furthermore, how can they contribute to this “ever-broadening” and “ever-deepening” well of Judaism if they are not given the training, title, or pulpit to do so?

Bottom line: this portion of the press release seems extremely unproductive. Nothing new is being said in terms of women in Orthodoxy. As the discrimination continues so does the inaction to end it. Yes, there are halakhic reasons, but as for those, I ask: Who created halakha? Male rabbis. Would halakha be different had women participated in its binding structure? Absolutely. Were they able to? No. That is why I am writing this post. It’s time to include women in positions of leadership across the denominations so that – one day – Judaism becomes inclusive and empowering to all who desire the power rather than exclusive and male-centric.

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This entry is cross-posted at JWA.

The work of the historian is to not only tell a story, but to tell it in a way that makes it real, vivid, alive, and human for the receiver. I learned this on Monday when I had the privilege of attending the Matrix Awards and hearing Doris Kearns-Goodwin’s acceptance speech. This wisdom instantly struck a chord because it describes exactly why I write and what I want to do with my writing. I want to tell a story that makes someone want to act because when statistics or historical jargon is turned into characters, the process of humanization begins and we start to act.

Here is my revelation from Monday: It is the work of the Jewish feminist to tell a real, vivid, alive, and human story. Why? The lives of Jewish women, while documented in Talmudic footnotes and filed away birth certificates, are not recorded in a way that allows them to be remembered. Judaism is all about storytelling. The Torah – the oldest foundation of Judaism off of which everything else is based – is a book of stories that are beautifully written, intricately woven together, and undoubtedly sexist in a way relevant to the times. We tell stories to remember. What is so enlightened about religion is that it does not matter if what we remember actually happened. What matters is how we remember it and how we share it and let it spread in the creation of tradition, ritual, and community.

Read the rest here.

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The JWA has a great idea. It’s a revolutionary idea. It’s bad-ass. It is an idea with the potential to change the way we are educated, to change Hebrew School classrooms, to change services, to change our past. So what is this idea? It is to literally create a map of all the monuments, exhibits, and features of our country that delve into the histories of Jewish women. Ya know, those histories that rabbis tend to leave out of Devar Torahs and that I have to go through numerous searches to look for when it takes me 2 seconds to find that of Jewish men.

On this blog, Dina and I try to “write women into history [and living history]” but what does that even mean?

Leah from JWA says it so eloquently,

‘Writing women into history’ implies that history is something written–something that exists on paper, in books, or on the internet. This is partially true, but history does not reside only on the page, in the intellectual abstract or literal memory. History also has a physical presence. It is connected to material places and tangible spaces. The spot on which a historical event occurred becomes meaningful, and the physical act of standing on that spot (a Civil War battlefield, the entrance to Auschwitz) can often evoke a deep, emotional experience of history. This is why we make pilgrimages, take guided walking tours, and consider field trips a valuable part of learning.

I know I felt this when I went to Yad Vashem, to the Children’s Memorial. I thought not only of the children, but of the mothers, the mothers who were told to stop breastfeeding, who had their children taken away from them, who hid their pregnancies. The memorial seeks to evoke this sympathy, this sense of identifying with Jewish history. What are these places right here in the U.S.? Even more important, where are these places in areas where there are smaller Jewish communities? Writing women into history means to make this sense of empowerment and understanding accessible to all who seek it. It is only with accessibility that women can claim their Judaism.

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