Fresh Ideas from HBI

The 21st Century Agunah Problem: A Reaction Against Women’s Equality Gains?

By Lisa Fishbayn Joffe

The day before Purim is marked by many Jews around the world as Agunah Day; a day to remember and speak out on behalf of women trapped in dead marriages unless and until their husband decides to let them go. Recently, I had the privilege of speaking to a group of women gathered at Mayyim Hayyim about the agunah problem in the 21st century. I spoke about how there have always been agunot, women whose marriages are effectively over, but who are unable to divorce under Jewish law and go on with their lives. The shape of this problem has, however, changed over time. I believe that the contemporary version of the agunah problem reflects an attempt, by some men, to undermine the equality already won under American family law.

The Talmud, (our redacted oral teachings) describes the sad plight of the classical agunah whose husband could not consent to divorce. This might be because the man had disappeared while traveling to another town to trade or been lost on a ship at sea. No one could be sure whether the husband had drowned, fallen victim to bandits on the road or whether he had simply taken up with a new companion somewhere else. Perhaps he had been injured and lost his memory of where home was and of who waited there for him. In those situations, rabbis wanted certain evidence of death before allowing a woman to remarry, lest her wayward husband should someday return. Alternatively, the husband might have been physically present but unable to form the requisite intent to consent to divorce because of mental illness or a malady rendering him unconscious. In these situations, rabbis developed strategies to try to minimize the suffering of these women, through establishing grounds to presume death or to validate the consent of a mentally ill man during moments of lucidity, but still many women remained agunot.

The historian, Haim Sperber, identifies a second dramatic change in the agunah problem which came in the late 19th century. In this era, the agunah problem became one of men abandoning their families. Sperber, currently a scholar in residence at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute Project on Gender, Culture, Religion and the Law, studies how agunot used popular Yiddish media to try to find their missing husbands, putting advertisements in the classified sections or writing to advice columns. These men had disappeared into another province, another European country or on a boat to America. With the emancipation of Jews in Europe, Jewish men could for the first time travel freely outside of Jewish ghettos and find even greater freedom in the promised land of America. They could leave behind their Jewish identities, and for many, this meant leaving their Jewish wives as well.

An open letter to a missing husband in the Bintel Brief, the advice column of the Jewish Daily Forward in 1908, captures one such woman’s pain:

Have you ever asked us why you left us? Max, where is your conscience; you used to have sympathy for the forsaken women and used to say that their terrible plight was due to the men who left them in dire need. And how did you act? I was a young, educated decent girl when you took me. You lived with me for six years, during which time I bore you four children. And then you left me.

From the late 20th century to the present day, we have seen a new kind of agunah problem emerge. We still have instances where the husband has absconded or is unable to consent, but now the most common context for the creation of an agunah is a contested civil divorce. This husband is physically present and mentally sound, but seeks to use his power to withhold a religious divorce to inflict pain on the wife or as a bargaining chip in negotiations over property, alimony and custody in the civil divorce. He demands that the wife give up her rights to family property or make cash payments in order to be granted a divorce. Why has this transformation taken place? One explanation may be the dramatic changes that have taken place in civil family law over this period.

In the wake of the second wave feminist movement, states across the U.S. rewrote their family laws to recognize the value of women’s contributions to the family enterprise and award spouses equal rights to assets accumulated over the course of marriage. Some men perceive their rights to withhold divorce under Jewish law as an appropriate tool to use to claw back some of the hard-won gains of the women’s movement. Our community should be united in rejecting these actions.

Feminist legal scholars are divided on how to fix Jewish family law. Some argue that the problem can be prevented if those marrying in Orthodox ceremonies sign an halachic (within the framework of Jewish law) prenuptial agreement in which the husband undertakes to give a divorce when asked. Others argue that the time has come to create a new understanding of Jewish marriage that recognizes our contemporary understandings of the fundamental equality of men and women, and allows women to initiate divorce, too. Just as Mayyim Hayyim has worked within halacha to re-imagine a mikveh experience that speaks to women’s needs, it is possible that both of these options provide an opportunity for a creative revision of marriage and divorce rituals.

Dr. Lisa Fishbayn Joffe is the Director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute Project on Gender, Culture, Religion and the Law. This is printed in collaboration with Mayyim Hayyim.

From Scalding to Prodding: Is This Any Way to Get Divorced?

By Amy Sessler Powell

In a Boston Daily Globe story dated April 17, 1904, via the sensational headline, “Crippled Wife Scalds Brutal Husband,” we learn that Mrs. Jacob Deutsch boiled a large pot of water, added fat, scalded her sleeping husband from head to toe and disappeared.

Slightly more than 100 years later, Rabbi Mendel Epstein stands trial in Trenton, N.J. accused of torturing recalcitrant Jewish husbands, sometimes with an electric cattle prod to the private parts, until they give their wives religious divorces, known as “gets.” Rabbi Epstein was allegedly available for hire, for $60,000, by women who believed they had nowhere else to turn.

What do these two stories have in common? They both highlight the desperation of Jewish women stuck in failed marriages who believe their best way out is through torture. Why would they believe this? Because the only way for a religious Jewish woman to get a divorce is to be granted a get by her husband. If he does not want to give it, is unable to give it or unable to be found, she is stuck.

As we approach the Jewish holiday Purim, we pause on the Fast of Esther, also known as Yom ha’Agunah, March 4, a day Jewish women have designated to protest the ongoing plight of agunot, women stuck in bad marriages because they cannot get the get.

There are differences between women like Mrs. Deutsch and those who allegedly hired Rabbi Epstein and his gang of thugs. At the turn of the century, many women became agunot due to immigration patterns. The Globe article describes Mrs. Deutsch as a “cripple with a rubber foot, and she was not beautiful to look upon, but her dowry was a fortune.” She marries in Moscow, but we learn that the husband, Jacob, absconds to America with her $2,000 dowry, leaving her penniless and without the option to remarry unless he grants her a religious divorce. She goes to America to find him.

Dr. Haim Sperber, a historian of agunot and a scholar-in-residence for the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute (HBI) Spring Seminar: New Approaches to the Agunah Problem, unearthed her story. Dr. Sperber’s research relies newspaper archives in many languages to trace the historical patterns of agunot between 1865 and 1914. He knows that today’s agunah presents differently than those of the past.

Today, an agunah usually knows exactly where to find her husband, but get refusal has become a new sort of domestic violence. The husband wields his power over the divorce to extort money or favorable property and custody conditions. Sometimes, he uses it simply to torture, because he can.

What else do we know about Mrs. Deutsch? She finds her husband in America, “but he had spent all her money.” The Deutsches attempt reconciliation but it does not go well. Her co-workers at the factory where she sews for a living report that her husband taunts her about her deformities, their poverty and “made her life unbearable,” turn-of-the-century code for a woman who is abused. We learn how she exacts her revenge and that Jacob was not expected to live. We don’t know if Mrs. Deutsch was ever found or charged.

Sadly, Mrs. Deutsch and the solution to her problem husband, a pot of boiling water mixed with fat, is not much different in scope than the cattle prod allegedly used 100 years later by Rabbi Epstein. As we turn our attention to the plight of the agunah on March 4, we need to make sure it is not a one-day affair. We do not want to spend another 100 years without better solutions.

Amy Sessler Powell is the HBI communications director. Visit here for more information about the HBI Spring Seminar: New Approaches to the Agunah Problem.

Dr. Haim Sperber is the GCRL/Sylvia Neil and Dan Fischel Scholar-in-Residence and a senior lecturer at the Western Galilee College in Israel where he chairs the Interdisciplinary Studies department.

Israel’s Photoshop Law Exposes the Body Image Fantasy

By Bethany Wolfe Barnett

Two years after Israel passed a Photoshop law designed to ensure models maintain healthy weights and to promote editorial transparency in fashion advertising, the law is gaining notice again.

At the start of the year, as people focused on New Year’s resolutions for health and weight loss, Israel’s law received attention on social media, prompting discussion about Photoshop’s effect on our minds and bodies. This attention came on the heels actresses, such as Keira Knightley, posing topless to show the real size of her breasts and others objecting to their Photoshopped images. The fashion magazine, Marie Claire, reports in a blog that they will be printing a photo of model Cindy Crawford without the benefit of a Photoshop retouch next month. The photo itself, revealing beauty, but not perfection, is circulating the Internet this week.

As consumers, we encounter digital manipulation everywhere. Bodies and faces are stretched, contorted, and smoothed over into an ideal. Already thin models are often slimmed down to points of unnaturalness.

Israel’s law makes us wonder: have we gone too far with images of women’s beauty? Do consumers no longer know what bodies look like, without the doctoring of Photoshop? Of course, we know that our thighs touch but that’s not what we see in the magazines. In print we are told that breasts are large and bodies are stick-thin. What we forget, however, is that these images are constructed to sell both clothing and a fantasy lifestyle. Israel’s law may help to puncture that balloon. The law may point out what is falsified about the images, and help us, consumers, realize what is enhanced.

The Israeli Photoshop law is part of a wider movement of body acceptance. Online clothing retailer ModCloth signed the Heroes Pledge for Advertisers, promising “not to change the shape, size, proportion, color and/or remove/enhance the physical features, of the people in our ads in post-production.” The no-Photoshop policy is also present in the women’s lifestyle magazine Verily. The Verily motto is “less of who you should be, more of who you are.” Their Photoshop policy recognizes that perceived imperfections - be they crow’s feet, birthmarks, stretch marks or softer bodies - are part of what makes a woman beautiful. This Photoshop movement celebrates a model’s natural beauty rather than changing her body structure into something it is not.

Photoshop itself isn’t evil. It is a tool to enhance photographs, to help the photographer achieve the best possible image. We would not demand that photographers stop using proper lighting, shooting the best pose, or using professional makeup artists. And even if we stop enhancing body parts altogether, we may still debate the merits of covering a scar, red eye or a bruise. Where is the line? Will we welcome the changes or have trouble letting go of the fantasy?

Overall, we applaud Israel for taking a stand in this international discussion. Other countries have indicated that they will follow suit. In 2014, the Truth in Advertising Act was introduced in the U.S. Congress. Campaigners have called for similar laws in Australia, Britain and France as well.

This conversation is one that we need to have. While we recognize that many fashion magazines and advertisements make heavy use of photo editing, we still compare ourselves to the manipulated images. We know, but cannot always find distance from the fantasy the images provide. Talking about what is fit, healthy and realistic are discussions that we all need to have, regardless of age or gender. When we look in the mirror and see our bodies, however they appear, we must recognize that they are real, fleshy and whole – not airbrushed and edited to oblivion. Whether individual publications and corporations lead the charge, or it becomes the purview of governments, there is a call for change in the air, one to prevent eating disorders, protect the citizens of the world and reacquaint ourselves with the reality of our bodies.

Bethany Wolfe Barnett is the HBI communications coordinator.

Cry for Me, Argentina

By Dalia Wassner

On January 19th, as the United States honored Martin Luther King and his message, Argentines awoke to a situation in stark contrast: the tragic news that that Alberto Nisman was found dead in his apartment.

While Americans honored the courage of a man who fought for the equality, honor, and inclusion of members of this society who were shamefully mistreated, Argentines found more injustice. Nisman, a prosecutor, was on the day of his death, to testify before the Argentine Congress about his government’s alleged collaboration in obstructing the prosecution of those responsible for the 1994 bombing of the Argentine Jewish Mutual Aid Society, (AMIA) which also housed the Jewish community center of Buenos Aires. Nisman, who had investigated the case for 10 years, was scheduled to testify that the current regime, led by President Cristina Kirchner, had conspired with Iran to obstruct further investigation into the AMIA bombing that killed 85 people and injured 300.

His testimony, expected only hours after his death, was to focus not only on the alleged Iranian-backed Hezbollah culpability for the bombing itself, but on the ongoing post-script of impunity 20 years after the largest terrorist attack on the American continent before 9/11. The AMIA bombing is the greatest act of anti-Semitism in the Americas whereby the perpetrators remain today unidentified and unpunished by the victimized nation’s government.

In stark contrast to Argentina’s refusal to face up to this crime, the recent events in Paris have seen government officials respond by denouncing attacks on Jews at a kosher market alongside those on journalists at Charlie Hebdo, thereby strongly denouncing anti-Semitism and national acts of terrorist in equal measure. Alberto Nisman’s murder, an act that the Jews of Argentina understood as furthering the impunity of the AMIA bombing, was not met with national condemnation. Instead, Cristina Kirchner’s government responded only insofar as evading blame for the murder itself.

Unlike French government leaders, President Kirchner first denied that Nisman was murdered and then, via social media alone, admitted that the death was indeed a murder. Yet, she bemoaned his murder not insofar as a setback to justice, but rather as a staged act aimed to further defame her presidency.

In a striking case of life imitating art, this murder was eerily foreshadowed by Marcos Aguinis , the former Argentine Minister of Culture who, one decade ago, wrote a novel accusing the Argentine government of being an accomplice in both the AMIA bombing and its ongoing impunity under then-President Carlos Menem. In his 2003 novel, Assault to Paradise, he clearly denounces Argentina’s collaboration in the second anti-Semitic attack on Argentine soil in two years, the first being on the Israeli Embassy in 1992 (and that too remains unprosecuted.)

In his prescient novel, Aguinis paints Argentines, not Jews, and the Argentinian democracy as the victims of the attack. In his narration of the crime, the victims include also the custodians of the AMIA (non-Jewish), children in a nearby nursery school, and residents of a home for the elderly down the block. It was a building for Jews in Argentina, which meant that an Argentine building within the city blocks it was located, was targeted and victimized.

Of note, rather than producing this book after the attack on the AMIA in 1994, Aguinis, a public intellectual, publishes it in the aftermath of America’s Sept. 11 attacks, almost a decade after the events in Argentina. Perhaps understanding that his message was more poignant in relief, Aguinis uses the American response to terror on its own shores in juxtaposition to Argentina’s shameful lack of response. Jews’ lack of integration in the national consciousness is thus posited as an affront on the country as a whole. In so doing, Aguinis clearly advances that until Argentina denounces and persecutes terrorism addressed to any of its citizens as an attack on its very nation and that nation’s sovereignty and way of life, Argentina is effectively aligning itself with forces of terror rather than with those of democracy.

In his novel, Aguinis chooses for his protagonist, a woman named Cristina as his prophet of justice. It is through her journalism and her mission to mobilize public opinion that Aguinis literarily aims to transform Argentina into a country that demands to be a true democracy. Aguinis states explicitly throughout his literary works that he understands Argentina’s equal treatment of its Jews and of its women as key to Argentina’s modern democratic identity. One way to literarily pursue this was to create a protagonist that united the plight of Christian Argentines to that of the Jews through the professional activities of a woman in the public sphere.

Today, as Argentina sorts out the events leading to the murder of Nisman, the national and international press wait for another Cristina, not that of Aguinis’ Assault to Paradise, but rather President Cristina Kirchner, to unite her voice with all those who denounce terror, violence, and unlawfulness, with those who state with pain and passion: “I am Martin Luther King,” “Yo soy Nisman,” “I am Charlie,” “Je suis Juif,” the myriad cries of conscience no country that claims or aims to be a democracy would ignore.

Dalia Wassner is a Research Associate at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute. Her recent book is Harbinger of Modernity: Marcos Aguinis and the Democratization of Argentina (Boston: Brill, 2014).

Anti-anti-Semitism, too, is alive and well in Germany

By Shulamit Reinharz

Amid the tragic, anti-Semitic events in Paris and all over Europe and Israel, I also see examples of something else, for which I have coined the term, “anti-anti-Semitism.” A recent example was the declaration by the French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, that “if 100,000 Jews leave, France will no longer be France. The French Republic will be judged a failure.” Without Jews, France will lose Jewish creativity, intellectual productivity, arts and advances in all fields of endeavor. Even more recent was the historic step Canada took on January 28, 2015 in signing the Ottawa Protocol to Combat Anti-Semitism.

We know the attack in France at both Charlie Hebdo was driven by anti-Semitism because the only woman at Charlie Hebdo singled out for death, while the other women were spared, was the Jewish columnist, Elsa Cayat. We salute her courage and mourn her death.

Yet, if we focus on anti-anti-Semitism, not just on hate and terrorism, we may discover people we can work with to improve the situation of Jews in Europe.

This topic should be of universal interest because in the last 70 years or so, we have learned some unexpected lessons. First, although “never again” may be a good rallying phrase, it does not describe what has occurred since 1945. Genocide has happened over and over again. A better slogan is “never forget.”

Second, people thought that after the bloodbath of the Holocaust and the complete defeat of Germany and its allies, anti-Semitism would be over. But, they were wrong. Research done at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute by Dr. Joanna Michlic shows that for countries behind the Iron Curtain, the Holocaust didn’t really end until 1991 and the fall of the Soviet Union.

Anti-anti-semitism started shortly after 1945. Government leaders in Western Europe, particularly in Germany, the country that originated the Nuremburg Laws and the Final Solution, embarked on policies of anti-anti-Semitism right after German surrender. Many Western European countries embraced Israel and Jewish individuals through financial policies of weidergutmachung, which means restitution or compensation. On the basis of these laws many persons who were persecuted by the Nazi-Regime continue to receive monthly compensation payments.

Second, artists were commissioned to create permanent memorials that would remind people continuously of the anti-Semitic violence that had been committed. These memorials are visible all over Germany.

Third, Holocaust denial is illegal in a number of European countries including Austria, Germany, Hungary, and Romania, all among the perpetrators of the Holocaust.

Recently, I traveled to Austria and Germany where I experienced many examples of anti-anti-Semitism. The main reason for my trip was to support Dr. Karen Frostig, a resident scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center, who organized the The Vienna Project, a social action memorial to victims of National Socialism. The project’s public nature, unfolding on the streets of Vienna over the course of a year, is an obvious example of anti-anti-Semitism.

Because I was going to travel to Vienna, I decided to also visit Gunzenhausen, Germany, the Bavarian village where my father grew up. I am currently writing a book about his experiences. There, I pleasantly encountered profound anti-anti-Semitism. I began my preparation for the trip by calling the German consulate in Boston. I asked if he could kindly connect me with the Jewish leaders of Gunzenhausen.

“Frau Reinharz,” I was told. “There are no Jews in Gunzenhausen.”

His response did not deter me. I thought I would simply walk around the town when I arrived, meet people and try to learn something about my family’s past. The next day, a junior high school teacher, Emmi Hetzner, contacted me by email, informing me that the mayor of Gunzenhausen would host my visit and that she, Emmi, would escort me through the community. I welcomed her warm hospitality.

It turns out that for 15 years, Gunzenhausen has been engaged in a school project that crosses all the disciplines. The students are reconstructing Jewish life before the Holocaust and studying how the town behaved during the Third Reich. Select junior high students have studied such topics as: What was the demography of Gunzenhausen in 1933? Where were the homes of every Jew? The town archivist teaches the children how to look at city plans. The students made maps, they gathered documents, and they learned more about my family than I knew myself.

How wonderful to learn that they had a web site, which they had produced themselves. There I found pictures of my family, including my beloved grandfather. I also found photos of the house where my father grew up, the letter my grandfather wrote to explain that he sold the house “without pressure” as he wisely decided to leave.

A teacher connected to the student research team had even spoken to my father in New Jersey 12 years ago. The website commented on their discussion: “Unfortunately Max Rothschild has not been able to become reconciled with the fate of the Jewish community in Gunzenhausen and especially that of his family. Mr. Rohrbach wrote to us: ‘I found Max Michael Rothschild in New Jersey and spoke to him today (18. December 2002). He was very friendly, and mentioned frequently that he does not desire any contact to Gunzenhausen.’ ”

In this little town in Bavaria, students are fighting anti-Semitism by acknowledging their families’ past. They speak of the “first pogrom,” the compelled departure to the train station of the Jewish men of the town, and the population’s violence toward their doctor, my grandfather.

In addition to being overwhelmed by the student interest, I had another response: I wanted to get involved in the anti-anti-semitism I discovered in Gunzenhausen. Fortunately, I found two ways. Next to the junior high school, there is a monument to all the war victims of Gunzenhausen during World War I. There I found the name of my grandfather’s brother and other Jews named Levy, Cohen and Avraham. This monument is adorned with a big cross. I suggested to the mayor that although the cross could be kept in place, next to the names of the Jewish soldiers, they add Jewish stars.

I also toured the old Jewish cemetery where my grandfather’s first wife is buried. Emmi and I could not find the gravestone we were looking for because the headstones had been looted during Holocaust. I have proposed to my brother and sister that, with Emmi’s help, we re-erect a gravestone for the grandmother I never knew.

From studying the Holocaust, I know that the violence against the Jews was both national and local. Hitler gave orders from above, but townspeople acted against Jews on their own initiative. In the first paragraph of this blog, I mentioned the powerful, lofty anti-anti-semitic statements from heads of state. I contend that just as significant is the 15-year old junior high research project taking place in the classrooms and streets of the town of Gunzenhausen.

Shulamit Reinharz, founder and director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, is the Jacob Potofsky Professor of Sociology and director of the Women’s Studies Research Center.

Do Jews Need God?

By Michelle Cove

That’s a question I’ve been thinking about ever since the Pew Research Study “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” came out in 2013 showing that two-thirds of Jews polled said it is not necessary to believe in God to be Jewish. I remember being shocked at the statistic when I first read it, although I’m not sure why exactly. I know many Jewish people who don’t believe in God, and are perfectly comfortable with their Jewish identity. I also know some atheists, to be fair, who struggle to feel connected to our religion given all the patriarchal language in prayer books and Torah stories. In a religion inundated with stories and prayers centered around God, there seems to be so much room and space to be Jewish and not believe. What makes some Jewish atheists feel at peace while others feel at odds?

For the latest issue of 614: the HBI eZine, I asked a rabbi, a few women authors, and an artist for their viewpoints on what it is to be a Jewish atheist and what the repercussions are. All of them struck me as confident and unapologetic about their beliefs. After all, Jews are not only allowed to have our doubts, we are encouraged to grapple and question, which is pretty unique. Says Rabbi Lev Baesh, who is featured in the issue: “You should never be asked to agree blindly or to demean your own views for others (or theirs for yours, for that matter).”

There are plenty of Jewish leaders and thinkers who worry that Judaism can’t sustain without a central belief in God. In a September-October, 2011 article in Moment, entitled, “Can There Be Judaism Without Belief in God?” Senator Joe Lieberman stated: “There can be Jews who are good people without belief in God, but ultimately Judaism cannot continue to exist without belief in God because the Jewish historical narrative depends on it.” Rabbi David Volpe of Temple Sinai in Los Angeles, California, in the same article says: “Yes, there can be Judaism without God, but only briefly, as it cannot reproduce itself. Judaism without God is running on the momentum of past generations.”

What do you think? How important is a belief in God to our religion? Can Judaism sustain without a belief in God? We hope you’ll read the issue with an open mind, grapple, and weigh in with your own thoughts.

Michelle Cove is the editor of 614: the HBI eZine

Jewish Voices in Feminism: Transnational Perspectives: Excerpts

By Nelly Las

Editor’s Note: The HBI hosted Dr. Nelly Las, Helen Gartner Hammer scholar-in-residence and author of the upcoming, Jewish Voices in Feminism: Transnational Perspectives previewed below. Dr. Las of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem researches contemporary Jewish history including Zionism, anti-Semitism, history of French Jewry, Jewish NGOs, and gender studies including women in Jewish history, Jewish women in feminist movements and analysis of contemporary Jewry through the prism of gender.

My approach is to observe what happens when today’s feminist activism and Jewish dilemmas meet and intersect against a comparative background of France and the United States. The feminist debate is thus placed in a setting which does not address women’s “voices” only but also more generally historical and contemporary aspects in Jewish identity and dilemmas. Why look for correlations between two topics that seem so far apart? Why deviate from the focal area of feminism and pose questions about it on the slippery and complex terrain of Jewish identity? This initiative is based on both theoretical work and hands-on experiences, in the context of feminist thought as well as the Jewish search for identity. Our starting point is the principle laid down by feminists themselves: that the issue of women must be considered as it intersects with all issues in the society in which they live and develop.


All research has its autobiographical roots, and the choice of this particular subject is definitely a reflection of various topics of interest to me, including Jewish history and current affairs, plus the universal topic of women, with the stress on France with which I have linguistic and intellectual ties. To this mixture I must add the American and Israeli sources and situations which have fed my Jewish and feminist experiences, enabling me to juxtapose different intellectual traditions. It goes without saying that “the Jews” are not a marginal topic, one studied only out of personal interest. Just as women’s issues do not concern women alone, so Jewish issues do not concern Jews alone. The Jews have played a key role in our civilization. They have in turn been idealized, denigrated, tolerated, or condemned, all the way to the abhorrent Nazi plan to exterminate them, a plan which passes all understanding. Today, they are still very much at the heart of current affairs, at the center of philosophical, political, and media discussions, especially in the context of the Israeli-Arab conflict in which, like it or not, they are caught up.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, a period which was particularly harrowing for the Jews, many Jewish women were involved in general feminist movements that called for women’s rights to vote and work, as well as for world peace. At the same time, organized action to help the oppressed Jews was undertaken almost exclusively by Jewish men and women. The Jewish women involved in these struggles had to fight for their co-religionists without any outside help.

Unlike the nineteenth-century anti-slavery movement, which many white women supported, female activists showed no empathy over anti-Semitism. At times, as we will see, they even joined the anti-Semitic camp. In France, during the Dreyfus affair there were both pro- and anti-Dreyfus feminists. Similarly, between the two world wars and then under the German occupation, no clear feminist line was adopted in favor of the Jewish victims of anti-Semitism. The phase of feminism on which we will focus here is the contemporary period, known as the “second wave,” which began at the end of the 1960s, some twenty years after the Nazi genocide and almost the same number of years after the establishment of the State of Israel.

This period coincides with the beginnings of increased awareness and speaking out about the Nazi period, as well as support by the left for Third World struggles, especially that of the Palestinians. A number of Jewish women who had thrown themselves enthusiastically into the feminist movement were bitterly disappointed by the indifference, lack of empathy, and sometimes hostility of their non- Jewish comrades about their fears and dilemmas. Others, including Israeli women, supported the vehement criticism of the Jewish state’s policies. Since this time, the feminist debate has included the question of Israel, the origins of Zionism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The contemporary Jewish “voices” cited in this work highlight diverse— and even contradictory—elements that make up Jewish identity, defined as a religion, a diasporic or national culture, or a historical memory bound up with anti-Semitism and the State of Israel. One of the questions that arise when feminism is chosen as a tool for analyzing multiple-component dilemmas in Jewish identity is, inter alia, to what extent is such an approach likely to enrich reflection by giving it new perspectives? The other question concerns the positions of feminists as a whole, in respect of issues of current relevance: is it possible to identify a particular tendency which is more in keeping with feminism than another? This refers in particular to debates of ideas about current events in the domains of politics and society with regard to the Jewish world: religion, history, memory, anti-Semitism, and Zionism. It goes without saying that we must take account of pluralism and diversity in both feminism and Jewishness: expressions of identity, as well as political, intellectual and ethical engagements. Hence the range of responses will be extremely wide and varied.

Jewish Voices in Feminism: Transnational Perspectives by Nelly Las is published by the University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London, for the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Dr. Las received a translation award from the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute to translate the book from French to English.

Highlights from “American Jewishness Today: Identity and Transmissibility in an Open World

By Sylvia Barack Fishman

Editor’s Note: Professor Sylvia Barack Fishman, HBI Co-director and the Joseph and Esther Foster Professor of Contemporary Jewish Life, delivered the Marshall Sklare Memorial Lecture at the annual Conference of the Association for Jewish Studies, this year in Baltimore, MD, December 14-16. Here are some of the highlights of her talk.

In my talk, “American Jewishness Today: Identity and Transmissibility in an Open World,” I discussed three challenges to Jewish family formation: late marriage and non-marriage; unwanted low fertility and infertility, and mixed marriage. Each of these is produced in part by the larger society’s social norms and is deeply influenced by American culture. And each of these challenges in turn has a profound effect on the transmission of Jewish culture to the next generations.

Many American Jews experience Jewishness primarily within families and friendship circles, so it is critical to understand Jewish family formation and the disruptions that have changed family format for Americans and American Jews.

On a positive note concerning the formation of Jewish families, Jewish partnership marriages are flourishing; ‘partnership marriages’ are marriages in which heterosexual or homosexual spouses share meaningful work outside the home, child rearing, and household tasks. Partnership marriages give both spouses room to grow and develop as human beings. But there are too few of these marriages and they start too late–many are initiated at an age in which it is difficult for spouses to achieve their own goals for parenthood.

The survival of the group as a self-evident goal, maintaining the society, and transmitting the culture have been values in and of themselves for historical Jewish societies, but today many younger American Jews do not share these group values. The declining centrality of the family is closely tied to the fact that Jewish identity is invested in the individual today rather than in the family or the community.

Today, many critiques of the family and theories that seemed disruptive of middle class norms and lifestyles in the 1970s have been mainstreamed and internalized by young middle class and upper middle class Jews.

Asking the questions: “Why am I Jewish, why does Jewishness matter to me, what about Jewishness matters to me?” is important not only for individuals but also for their children. Children respond to parental passion for aspects of Judaism, even if they don’t share those particular passions.

I concluded with a challenge: American Jewry today faces a crisis regarding the transmission of Jewish culture to coming generations. Personal Jewish journeys–how Jews ‘do Jewish’–are a central component of that transmission, but they are not the whole story or the whole answer.

Sylvia Barack Fishman is the HBI Co-director and the Joseph and Esther Foster Professor of Contemporary Jewish Life.

A Journey Through My 40-Year-Old Field Notes

By Ofra Greenberg

Forty-two years ago, as a 27 year-old married woman with a freshly minted Ph.D. in social anthropology, I embarked on a research project to learn about the only women’s prison in Israel, Neve Tirza. Specifically, I wondered if it would conform to Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman’s characteristics of total institutions: places where a large number of similarly situated people reside.

I used the participant observation method, spending days and nights with the prisoners and wardens, working alongside them and interacting over a period of one year. I took copious notes, filling more than 1,000 pages. I got to know them well, learning a bit about their private struggles.

One of the prisoners was Sonia, sentenced to life for the murder of her husband. She left her three-year-old daughter with her mother and found it nearly impossible to maintain a good relationship with the child. She told the child the prison was a hospital, but the lie ultimately made their relationship worse.

Though I learned so much about the personal stories of these women, I don’t know how their lives unfolded after I left. I drew my conclusions about total institutions, not entirely agreeing with Goffman. I published my research in a book, Women in Jail in Israel.

I have since engaged in what is now a 40-year academic career, today at Western Galilee College, specializing in medical anthropology. I am not sure if it is a function of my age or stage of life, but my mind frequently wanders back to my days at Neve Tirza. What happened to Sonia, to her relationship with her daughter, to the others? I have recently felt a need to return to the field notes because I know that they contain a great deal of information I didn’t use.

Even so many years ago, after I completed my dissertation, I toyed with the idea of writing about motherhood but never did as I became engrossed in a new research field, the use of traditional medicine. Other times since then, I considered using the diaries to write about my personal experiences and feelings during that time and perhaps I may still get there.

Through my teaching, I have recently delved into gender literature, and this has once more led me toward the issue of motherhood. Now that I am a mother, a grandmother and a senior scholar, I wonder how I would view this topic in my field notes through the lens of my life’s perspective? Would I find something else there?

Recently I was asked whether the young women whom I met in the prison had been sexually abused as children. I could not answer this question because I never asked. I was a young woman from a good family. What did I know about sexual abuse? Forty years ago, we talked less about this issue.

A summer scholar-in-residency at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute gave me the opportunity to revisit my notes. I scanned all my notebooks and took them with me to Brandeis University, where I began the process of re-entering that time of my life, of the lives of the women I studied so long ago.

As I read through the notes, there are so many directions I might have taken. I could have studied power relations, but the subject that rises to the surface for me today is motherhood and the social status conferred by it in prison. Not being a mother at the time, perhaps I did not pay as much attention or perhaps I simply stayed close to my original goals, to study the theory of a total institution.

Now the issue of motherhood takes center stage as I revisit my field notes and form new conclusions. I see that being a mother in prison entails an extra measure of pain. It brings with it a special concern, pity and a desire to help on the part of warders and other inmates. It leads the mothers to manipulate their status to win concessions and benefits. I am just at the beginning of the process, through 200 of the 1000 pages. Will I discover something unforeseen, about myself perhaps? The diaries bring to the surface memories of events that I did not record. I can hear the sound of clanging doors, of the main gate opening, the voices of certain women whom I now miss. What happened to them? I am sad that I will probably never know.

None of this emotion will appear in the present analysis. It belongs to an analysis that places the researcher at the center. The present research evokes my memories, but that is personal. I believe the research should be based solely on my notes. Yet, I wonder if my memories or a story about my own growth and relationship to this project remains an option for the future.

Dr. Ofra Greenberg was a Helen Gartner Hammer Scholar-in-Residence at HBI during the summer of 2014. She is a senior lecturer at the Western Galilee College in Israel specializing in medical anthropology.

Good Morning Heartache: International Law and the Global Challenges Facing Women

By Amy Sessler Powell

Fareda Banda

In the torch song, Good Morning Heartache, Billie Holiday sings, “Good morning heartache thought we said goodbye last night, I turned and tossed ’til it seemed you had gone, But here you are with the dawn.”

Some say the lyrics refer to a lover and others believe they relate to her struggle with heroin addiction, but Law Professor Fareda Banda sees the lyrics as a metaphor for the “two steps forward – one step back” pace of the global struggle for women’s rights.

“You think things are getting settled. Huge progress is being made. Then you wake up, hear the news and learn that 493 million women still can’t read,” she said.

Prof. Banda studies the role that international human rights law can play in reducing discrimination against women around the world. She is the author of “Women, Law and Human Rights: An African Perspective,” the leading text on the struggle for gender equality in Africa. She will address the tug-of-war that represents global women’s rights when she delivers Good Morning Heartache: International Law and the Global Challenges Facing Women, the Fifth Annual Diane Markowicz Memorial Lecture on Gender and Human Rights, Sunday, November 9 at 7:30 p.m., Rapaporte Treasure Hall, Goldfarb Library, Brandeis University.

Uniquely qualified to speak on these topics, Banda is a leading international scholar on human rights and a professor of law at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Currently a Hauser Global visiting professor at New York University School of Law, she has consulted to the United Nations and taught on three continents.

“There is no region in world where women enjoy de facto equality, but in most they do have de jureequality,” Banda said.

What actually happens in every region of the world is quite a bit different than what the law promises. The gulf between the two relates in part to gender stereotyping and in part to a need to move toward transformative equality, to look beyond the law and focus on attitudinal change.

“What happens now is that people think we need law, but in most jurisdictions we have enough law guaranteeing women rights. On some issues, we need to stop making law and start practicing, enforcing and implementing laws we have,” Banda said.

The laws give a starting point so women can make complaints, but law is not the only answer. Her lecture will look at normative gains – the body of important international legal work done in the last 20 years that protects women’s rights and equates women’s rights with human rights. But, she will also detail egregious violations in every region of the world. For example, the World Health Organization, in the 2013 report, noted that one in three women would experience violence in her lifetime.

The lecture will offer a “balance sheet, a state-of-the-union” showing examples such as progress in violence prevention and in greater participation by women in education, but areas where women are still being held back such as reproductive rights.

Dr. Lisa Fishbayn Joffe, director of the HBI Project on Gender, Culture, Religion and the Law said, “Professor Banda brings to bear a deep understanding of the operation of domestic and international law and the practical challenges in implementing these rights. She also has a complex understanding, based on her study of law reform efforts across Africa, of the ways in which culture and tradition can be involved, to enable as well as to impede, legal change that will benefit women.”

The Markowicz Lecture Series was created by the HBI Project on Gender, Culture, Religion and the Law by Project Founder Sylvia Neil and her husband Dan Fischel in memory of Sylvia’s late sister, Diane, to honor her commitment to gender, equality and social justice. The series features internationally renowned scholars, judges, and activists discussing ways of negotiating the tensions between gender, equality and religious or cultural norms.

Amy Powell is the HBI Communications Director.

RSVP to attend The 5th Annual Diane Markowicz Memorial Lecture on Gender and Human Rights, “Good Morning Heartache: International Law and the Global Challenges Facing Women” presentation by Prof. Fareda Banda, SOAS London.

Free and open to the public, dessert reception. Sunday, Nov. 9, 7:30 p.m., Rapaporte Treasure Hall, Goldfarb Library, Brandeis University, 415 South St., Waltham, MA 02454

The Beauty and the Horror of the Mikveh

By Rachel Putterman

This summer, I had dialectically opposing experiences connected to the mikveh, the Jewish ritual bath: one was exquisitely moving and beautiful, and the other was quite horrifying in its implications for women.

Until a few months ago, I didn’t know much about the mikveh even though I am nearly 50 years old, a rabbinical student, and a two-time user of the mikveh. In order to learn more, I trained to become a mikveh guide at Mayyim Hayyim, the local liberal mikveh. At Mayyim Hayyim, the grounds, building, staff and volunteers, are calm and welcoming; the air literally reverberates with the holiness of people converting, healing, marking life transitions and observing niddah, the family purity rules.

This past summer, I guided at Mayyim Hayyim for the first time. I was nervous, especially as I was going to be witnessing several immersions in a two-hour period. On the docket for the evening were a baby conversion, an adult woman conversion, a modern Orthodox bride, and a niddah. The same male Reform rabbi was sponsoring both conversions, and two additional female rabbis were sitting on the beit din, the panel of rabbis that constitutes a legal decision-making body. The baby conversion was easy. Next, the woman who was converting arrived. As she prepared for the mikveh, the bride arrived with her mother. The bride told me that the woman who taught her kallot, the rules of family purity, was going to be witnessing her immersion. Great, I thought, one less immersion for me.

Then, the other guide arrived, a modern Orthodox woman wearing a long skirt and a hat, and she was quite dismayed when she saw the conversion occurring with a male rabbi present. She said to me, “This is not right. There shouldn’t be a conversion scheduled for the evening, and there definitely shouldn’t be a man here. My kallah (bride) needs privacy.”

I gave the rabbi a heads-up that the other guide was upset. A few minutes later, the rabbi approached the guide, and in what can only be described as a state of grace, and he completely defused her discomfort. He recognized her name, and mentioned a mutual friend who went to her synagogue. At this point of human connection, the guide’s face softened, and the rabbi told her he would hold off on the immersion of the woman converting so that the bride could have total privacy. The guide was won over by the rabbi, and everything proceeded smoothly.

I, however, felt overwhelmed by the enormity of witnessing my first immersion. Immersing in the mikveh is the liminal moment when the convert actually transitions to becoming a Jew. I was going to witness this woman’s life changing event, and I didn’t even know her! I composed myself and went into the mikveh room. I had been taught that according to halakhah, Jewish law, for an immersion to be “kasher” or proper, there can be no barrier between the body of the person immersing and the water, which means in practical terms no piercings, make up, nail polish, contact lenses, nothing. Also, the woman’s entire body has to be surrounded by water. Her feet have to come off the bottom of the mikveh and her hair cannot float on top of the water. My concern was how to make sure the women immersing complied with these rules while respecting their privacy. I was taught to hold a sheet in front of me, and to peek over the top only once I heard the splash and knew she was under the water. While part of the job of a mikveh guide is to make sure the woman immersing feels respectfully tended to, the moment of witnessing the immersion is the guide’s true function, and I wanted to get it right. Despite my anxiety, I pulled it off. I witnessed her three immersions by peeking over the sheet, and after each immersion, I loudly said, “kasher” so that the rabbis in the anteroom outside the mikveh could hear me.

As I drove home later that night, I realized that the evening had been a peak experience for me. I was deeply moved by the gentle beauty of the ritual itself, as well as the vulnerability and trust of the women immersing. Perhaps most inspiring was the empathetic kindness exhibited by the Reform rabbi and the modern Orthodox guide, and the safe space they created for all involved.

The emotional high of my first night of guiding, however, was short lived. The following week, I attended a staff meeting at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, where I was an intern this past summer. On the agenda was a proposal for an art installation by an Israeli artist that documents the mikveh experiences of women converts in Israel. I was shocked to learn that the women immerse wearing robes in the presence of an all male beit din. I couldn’t believe it! This seemed to fly in the face of everything I had learned at Mayyim Hayyim. The women wear robes? What about the water needing to touch every part of their bodies? Also, the idea of a male beit din witnessing a woman’s immersion seemed blatantly wrong to me. Yes, I know that women are not considered valid witnesses in a Jewish court of law, but not even in the intimacy of the mikveh?

After the initial shock wore off, I read through the artist’s proposal and did a little of my own research. Sure enough, ultra-Orthodox male b’tei din are witnessing female immersions for conversion in both in the U.S. and Israel. Although this is not a widely known practice outside Orthodox circles, a quick search of the Internet reveals first-hand accounts of women who have experienced humiliation and embarrassment at having to immerse in front of male b’tei din.

I’m still trying to reconcile my evening of guiding at Mayyim Hayyim with the contrasting negative mikveh experiences of some women who undergo ultra-Orthodox conversions. Although discomfort with a male beit din witnessing one’s immersion may not be universal, that doesn’t detract from the fact that some women are traumatized by it. While I recognize that the need for privacy is highly subjective, it seems heretical to me that those varying needs are not being respected. Especially, when juxtaposed with my evening of guiding at Mayyim Hayyim, where respecting the privacy of the women immersing was paramount for all involved.

Read more

The Bat-Kohen: Between Holiness and Marginality

By Ranana Dine

It’s an exciting time to be a religious Jewish feminist. Great strides are being made by many progressive halakhic communities to find more and better ways to include women in religious Judaism. From learning Talmud, to more egalitarian minyanim to wearing tefillin, women are becoming a larger part of the conversation of Jewish observance.

While all these advances are being made, however, people involved in these progressive movements are finding new obstacles to overcome. It might sound simple to say that women should pass around the Torah during services, but soon you may have a headache from discussing mechitza configurations and the weights of different Torah scrolls. As the progressive halakhic community continues to innovate, more questions and more conversations will emerge.

I am proud to be a young Jewish woman involved in these conversations and innovations. Recently, I found myself confronted with a halakhic question related to egalitarianism that I had not anticipated. I was participating in a small halakhic egalitarian service over a Jewish holiday. I was helping arrange the services as well as chanting Torah and leading prayers. I was comfortable with all of these positions and was glad to be helping out in all the ways I could. In this particular minyan, however, I was the only child of a Kohen (descendant of the priestly tribe) present. This presented me with some unanticipated dilemmas.

My background prepared me for a moment such as this. I grew up in a Modern Orthodox environment, but coming from an extended family that stretched the whole spectrum of Jewish identities and observance, I was taught at a young age to explore my own ideas about Judaism and religion. I was lucky to grow up surrounded by relatives, both men and women, who modeled strong Jewish leadership, and naturally I wanted to be just like all of them. By high school, I realized that to be a leader in my Jewish community also meant to speak up for my gender in ritual settings. Graduating from high school into college environments, my passion for observant Judaism has only grown stronger, along with my feelings that women need access to Jewish leadership positions and educational settings from which they may have been traditionally barred.

For the past few years I have been comfortable receiving the first aliyah (blessing over the Torah), which is normally reserved for Kohanim at traditional services, despite not being male. Traditionally, only men served the role as a Kohen, which in the Temple period included making sacrifices and in the Diaspora includes certain honors, like receiving the first aliyah, and performing specific rituals. Kohanic status for observant men also means that they cannot marry a divorcee or a convert and must avoid interacting with dead bodies – they do not attend funerals unless it is a very close relative and do not go to cemeteries. As a girl, I am considered a “Bat-Kohen,” daughter of a priest, which in the Temple period meant I was allowed to be part of the Kohanic tribe and could eat certain foods. I would also have had the distinction of having a worse punishment than other women for “becoming a harlot.” If I married someone who was not a Kohen, I would have lost this status and my children would not be part of the priestly caste, since only men pass down Kohanic status. Also, if I married, my brothers would not be allowed to go to my funeral, something that I find emotionally and morally upsetting. Because I am a woman, my status as a member of the Kohanic tribe is in a grey area – I have some different ritual obligations, but I am not a priest and so can go in to cemeteries or marry a convert. As a Bat-Kohen I live in a liminal, ambiguous zone, between honor and marginality.

When it comes to accepting an honor like the first aliyah to the Torah, I decided that I felt comfortable as a Bat-Kohen taking the honor. The tradition behind the Kohen receiving the first aliyah comes from the idea of retaining communal peace, rather than by direct biblical or rabbinic decree. My full Hebrew name includes the fact that my father is a Kohen, and in an egalitarian service where both men and women are called to the Torah, why should I lower my familial status? Plus, in the case of this minyan, where no male Kohanim were present, there was no one to assert his right to the honor. I gladly stepped forward and said my blessing over the Torah.

On this particular Jewish holiday however, the duties of the Kohen were not concluded with the Torah service. In the Diaspora it is traditional for the Kohanim to bless the congregation, reciting the text of Birkat Kohanim, later on in the service. The Birkat Kohanim is an ancient and sacred prayer – the text comes straight from Numbers and the congregation is supposed to avoid looking at the Kohen because of the holiness of the moment. Needless to say, traditionally this prayer was said only by male Kohanim, the verse in Numbers commands Aaron, the high priest, and “his sons” to recite the verses. Without any male priests present however, would I be willing to say the blessing?

I had never before been in a setting where I could say Birkat Kohanim. The blessing had always been off limits to me as a woman, as “only” a Bat-Kohen. I had to make a split second decision and decided not to say the blessing. The blessing seemed too momentous to begin saying willy-nilly without a lot of thought. Also, if the blessing is said to commemorate the Temple period, where I would have been barred from the tradition as a woman, would it feel right to break with the historical record?

My decision sparked a good amount of conversation among my peers. Some of my friends wondered how I could accept the Kohen aliyah but not say Birkhat Kohanim. Another Bat-Kohen who was not at the service told me she also struggles with figuring out her position as a Bat-Kohen. After the holiday was over I began looking for sources and asking knowledgeable friends about the ritual. I still am happy with my decision, but the thoughts and conversations it sparked have taught me much about my identity and my stake in observant Judaism.

I am proud of my family, and my family’s position as Kohanim. In most of life it does not mean much – an interesting tidbit of family history or a way to find long lost relatives. Sometimes being from a family of Kohanim (my mother is also a Bat-Kohen, so I get this from both sides of my family) is a struggle, like when a relative dies and some of the family cannot attend the funeral or visit the cemetery. Now, as I navigate my way through the world of religious Jewish egalitarianism, I realize that my status as a Bat-Kohen will lead to more questions and more conversations. I am excited to be part of them.

Ranana Dine is a former summer intern at HBI and a junior at Williams College.

A Feminist Journey into Prayer

By Amy Sessler Powell

Marcia Falk will discuss and read from her new book The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season, on Thursday, Sept. 11, at 7 p.m. in the Rapaporte Treasure Hall of the Goldfarb Library, Brandeis. Professor Jonathan Sarna will deliver introductory remarks. Fresh Ideas Editor, Amy Sessler Powell, interviewed Falk about her new book and her journey into writing new liturgies.

Poet and scholar Marcia Falk, acclaimed author of the groundbreaking Book of Blessings, has just published a new book, The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season. Why did she choose to focus on the High Holidays? For the same reason Willie Sutton robbed banks. That’s where the Jews are.

The High Holidays are the days when religious as well as nonaffiliated Jews attend synagogue services in unparalleled numbers. Yet much of what they find there can be unwelcoming in its patriarchal imagery, leaving many worshipers unsatisfied. For those seeking to connect more deeply with their Judaism, and for all readers in search of a contemplative approach to the themes of the season, Falk has re-created key prayers and rituals from an inclusive perspective.

But the story of Falk’s engagement with writing prayer began several decades earlier.

“The words of prayer have always mattered to me, “ said Falk. “As a Jewish feminist in the 1970s and ‘80s, I thought it was important not just where and how we participate in synagogue life, but what we actually pray there. I had been a regular davener for years; I belonged to synagogues and attended services every Shabbat. I participated, gave drashot (talks about the Torah portion). But in the early 1980s, the liturgy was becoming more and more disturbing to me as a Jew and a feminist trying to live with integrity.

“I was in crisis. The liturgy wasn’t speaking for me, and in many ways I found it hurtful. But I didn’t want to give up my relationship to my community; I was attached to being a Jew in the Jewish world. “

Falk started to silently change the language, sometimes while on her feet during the Amidah (the prayer recited silently, while standing). She was often the last one to sit back down, because she lost track of time as she struggled to adapt the Hebrew words, changing the patriarchal image of God as the Lord and King to other, gender-neutral metaphors. She was not yet writing her new prayers down or sharing them publicly.

A turning point came in 1983, while she was a teacher at the Havurah Institute in Princeton. Rabbi Arthur Waskow was in charge of the Havdalah service to take place on Saturday night, and on Friday afternoon he asked Falk to provide a kavanah, meditation, for each of the blessings.

“I told Art I just couldn’t do that, and when he asked why, I blurted out that I didn’t say those blessings any more. That was the first time I said aloud that I no longer prayed with the traditional words. Without missing a beat, Art said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, ‘So write your own blessings.’ I told him I thought they’d stone me. ‘Marcia,’ he said in a booming voice, ‘they won’t stone you.’

So I sat down that afternoon and wrote my first four blessings, and the next night, full of trepidation, I recited them before a community of 300 Jews ranging in affiliation from atheist to Orthodox. I recited the new words without introduction, as though they had been written a couple of millennia ago by the rabbis, rather than the day before, by me. I offered no apology or explanation (I didn’t dare to), and, to my puzzlement and disbelief, the community said, Amen.”

In March of 1985, Falk published an essay in Moment Magazine, in which she presented some of her new blessings, which would eventually become part of her path-breaking Book of Blessings, published in 1996. The article engendered strong and voluminous reactions across the spectrum; Falk received fan mail as well as attack mail. While there were many Jews, especially Jewish women, who had been waiting for an alternative to the patriarchal imagery of the prayer book and who were thrilled that Falk had met the challenge, there were also people who insisted that she did not have the right to make changes, especially to the Hebrew. But, Falk says, Jewish liturgy has always changed over time. “If it doesn’t evolve, it ossifies.” And Falk believes it is not enough to change the English. Her work is unique in that it offers new prayer in Hebrew poetic language.

“Many Jews want a liturgy that expresses their values and concerns. Keeping it alive in a fresh way has always been part of Jewish tradition,” she says.

It has been eighteen years since the publication of The Book of Blessings, and Falk’s readers have waited long for its sequel. In The Days Between, Falk offers Hebrew and English blessings for festive meals, prayers for synagogue services, and poems and meditations for quiet reflection. The Rosh Hashanah section of the book includes a blessing for apples and honey, a re-creation of the Un’taneh Tokef prayer, and a new tashlikh (waterside ritual). Among the Yom Kippur prayers are a Viduy (confession) and a new Kol Nidrey. “Window, Bird, Sky,” a series of ten poems and meditations (one for each of the Ten Days of T’shuvah) bridges the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur sections.

Emphasizing introspection as well as relationship to others, Falk evokes her vision of the High Holidays as “ten days of striving to keep the heart open to change.” Her new book promises to open her readers’ hearts and minds.

Marcia Falk is the author of The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season. Amy Sessler Powell is HBI Communications Director.

Read more

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.