Author Archives: Tamara Cohen

Tamara Cohen

About Tamara Cohen

Tamara Cohen is a Jewish feminist writer and educator currently living with her partner is Gainesville, Florida. She is the spiritual leader of a community in Litchfield County, CT and is on the board of Brit Tzedek V'Shalom: The Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace.

The Esther/Vashti Purim Flag

Reprinted from, a web resource sponsored by Kolot, The Center for Jewish Women’s and Gender Studies at RRC. Used by permission of the author.

Megillat Esther has been understood as a fantasy of Jewish power written in a time of Jewish powerlessness. But the megillah actually tells two parallel stories. The primary story is about how Jews in the Diaspora became victims to the whims of power, and then, in the “happy” conclusion, the victors. The secondary story, a story about women and men, follows a similar course, beginning with a wife who is banished when she refuses to obey her husband and concluding with a wife who is listened to and given a significant amount of power. In both stories edicts are issued that threaten the rights of an entire group–Jews and women. Both edicts are eventually subverted through the cunning and courage of Esther and Mordecai. Yet, only one of these subversions is celebrated in our communal observance of Purim. 

A New Ritual

With the new ritual of waving Esther/Vashti Purim flags, we encourage our communities to celebrate and more deeply explore both of Purim’s stories. Purim thus becomes both a celebration of and reflection on Jewish pride and perseverance and an opportunity to honor women’s power in the face of those who fear it.

The central ritual of Purim is the reading of the megillah. During the megillah reading we call attention to Haman, the story’s villain, through the spinning of gragers intended to drown out his name. We highlight the role of Mordecai by joining with the entire congregation in reciting four verses of the megillah out loud. These verses introduce Mordecai (Esther 2:5), accentuate the moment of his parading before the king in royal apparel (8:15-16) and tell of his new role as deputy to the king at the conclusion of the story (10:3). These two customs–the gragger and the recitation of the four verses–serve to ritually emphasize the characters of Haman and Mordecai as the central actors of the story.

How to Prepare Spiritually for the Jewish New Year

When is Rosh Hashanah 2015? Find out here. Or wondering when is Yom Kippur 2015? Click here to find out!

Reprinted with permission from Journey, A Journal of Jewish Feminism, published by Ma’yan: The Jewish Women’s Project.

The Jewish month of Elul is traditionally a time for personal reflection and spiritual preparation for the New Year. It offers a structured opportunity to examine what is holding us back from being who we really want to be. If we use the period of Elul to take concrete steps towards becoming advocates for change, together we can make a difference!

Relationship With God

Tradition: The word Elul can be understood as an acronym for the Hebrew verse Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li — “I am for my beloved and my beloved is for me.”

Suggestion: Think about your relationship with whatever you conceive of as the Divine Presence. Try to imagine a more intimate relationship, as if God were your beloved. You might want to write a letter addressed to this Beloved in which you speak as you would to a close friend. You may want to honor yourself as “created in God’s image” by treating yourself as you would treat a beloved.

Human Relationships

Tradition: The teshuvah [repentance] process operates on two levels, one involving human relationships and the other involving our relationship with God. According to tradition, one resolves human relationships during Elul by asking forgiveness for wrongdoings. If one earnestly asks three times, the obligation is fulfilled.

Suggestion: As part of your teshuvah process try to sort out difficult relationships (with people, organizations) that drain you of your creative energy. Think about what kind of closure you need in order to move forward into the next year.


Tradition: The shofar (ram’s horn) is blown at the conclusion of every weekday morning prayer service during Elul.

Suggestion: Use this month to listen for the shofar’s rousing call. Carve out some time to think through the kinds of changes you want to make in the coming year. What’s holding you back?

An Orange on the Seder Plate

Reprinted with permission from

In the early 1980s, while speaking at Oberlin College Hillel [the campus Jewish organization], Susannah Heschel, a well-known Jewish feminist scholar, was introduced to an early feminist Haggadah that suggested adding a crust of bread on the seder plate, as a sign of solidarity with Jewish lesbians (which was intended to convey the idea that there’s as much room for a lesbian in Judaism as there is for a crust of bread on the seder plate).

Heschel felt that to put bread on the seder plate would be to accept that Jewish lesbians and gay men violate Judaism like hametz [leavened food] violates Passover. So at her next seder, she chose an orange as a symbol of inclusion of gays and lesbians and others who are marginalized within the Jewish community. She offered the orange as a symbol of the fruitfulness for all Jews when lesbians and gay men are contributing and active members of Jewish life.

In addition, each orange segment had a few seeds that had to be spit out–a gesture of spitting out, repudiating the homophobia of Judaism. While lecturing, Heschel often mentioned her custom as one of many feminist rituals that have been developed in the last 20 years. She writes, "Somehow, though, the typical patriarchal maneuver occurred: My idea of an orange and my intention of affirming lesbians and gay men were transformed. Now the story circulates that a man said to me that a woman belongs on the bimah [podium of a synagogue] as an orange on the seder plate. A woman’s words are attributed to a man, and the affirmation of lesbians and gay men is erased. Isn’t that precisely what’s happened over the centuries to women’s ideas?"

Miriam’s Cup

In describing "a new ritual object," this article looks at an innovation that a number of people have added to the seder. Obviously, many traditionalists would not take part in this ritual or other innovations discussed in related articles in this section. For many liberal Jews, these new rituals are of great importance and are even viewed by some lay leaders as a new development in modern halakhah. Reprinted with permission from

What is a Miriam’s Cup?

A Miriam’s Cup is a new ritual object that is placed on the seder table beside the Cup of Elijah. Miriam’s Cup is filled with water. It serves as a symbol of Miriam’s Well, which was the source of water for the Israelites in the desert. Putting a Miriam’s Cup on your table is a way of making your seder more inclusive.

It is also a way of drawing attention to the importance of Miriam and the other women of the Exodus story, women who have sometimes been overlooked but about whom our tradition says, "If it wasn’t for the righteousness of women of that generation we would not have been redeemed from Egypt" (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 9b).

There are many legends about Miriam’s Well. It is said to have been a magical source of water that followed the Israelites for 40 years because of the merit of Miriam. The waters of this well were said to be healing and sustaining. Thus Miriam’s Cup is a symbol of all that sustains us through our own journeys, while Elijah’s Cup is a symbol of a future Messianic time.

When and How to Use Miriam’s Cup

As Miriam’s Cup is still a new addition to the seder, its use is not fixed. Some fill Miriam’s Cup at the very beginning of the seder. Miriam, after all, appears at the very beginning of the Exodus story (watching over her brother Moses in the Nile). Starting with Miriam’s Cup is also a way of letting people know right from the beginning that your seder is going to be a fully inclusive one. Also, since Elijah’s Cup comes at the end of the seder, it is nice to use the two cups as a frame for your seder and begin with Miriam.

The Next Wave of Jewish Feminism

The movement to obtain equal rights and opportunities for women in Jewish life emerged in the 1960s. The Jewish feminist movement worked for changes in leadership (female rabbis and cantors), liturgy (including gender-equitable language and gender-neutral or female God imagery) and scholarship (the inclusion of Jewish women’s voices/history in the canon). Tamara Cohen’s article suggests some of the issues on the current Jewish feminist agenda. It is reprinted with permission from the January 2000 issue of Sh’ma, A Journal of Jewish Responsibility.gender quiz

I didn’t attend the First National Jewish Women’s Conference in New York in 1973. My mother wanted to bring me, her two year‑old daughter, but the conference organizers asked her to either stay home with her baby or attend the conference alone. Although she resented the choice, she went to the conference without me. 

Over the years, my two sisters and I have embraced a feminism we feel takes my mother’s feminist thinking to the next step. So it is with a deep respect for her, and the feminism with which she raised me, that I voice the following, somewhat critical, observations and questions.

Is Jewish feminism about finding new images for God, ordaining women as rabbis, generating new midrash and developing new ritual? Or is it about becoming partners with women of color, protesting the human rights abuses in the West Bank, and demanding changes in an unfair economy?

The answer to both of these questions must be yes. Jewish feminists have made significant changes to the fabric of Judaism and the shape of the Jewish community. While we continue that work, we must also acknowledge with equal creativity and energy our responsibility to the broader questions of feminism, seeing other women’s issues as our own.

we can do itHow many Jewish feminists are managing their increasingly busy and over‑committed lives by relying on the labor of women of another class and race, women who can’t afford good care for their own children? What is a community‑sponsored, feminist seder, if it is served on non‑recyclable plastic plates, harmful to the environment and manufactured by underpaid Third World women?