“Just call me on my cell. My house can be difficult to find.”
I hobbled through the alleyways of the thick, cobbled ancient stone in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City in Jerusalem. I found an open seating area. I called.
In moments, an exuberant, petite, head-scarved woman holding a cell phone next to her ear skirted past me.
“Emunah!” I exclaimed.
“You must be Tamara with the red glasses!”
The conversation continued at a rapid pace as we were both curious about the other.
Emunah had made aliyah (immigrated) to Israel forty years ago from Brooklyn. Fourteen children and two husbands later, she now resides inside the walls of the Old City. She is a believer. Her name, Emunah, means faith. She teaches and practices her faith.
When we arrived at her home, she quickly set up chairs outside for the small gathering of four women and one man that enlarged our intimacy. We ate her homemade oatmeal chocolate bars and drank water to refresh ourselves from the middle eastern summer climate.
Emunah reflected about our personal prayer and the power of God’s prayer.
“It is not about what we want. Think about it. What if God wants to pray for us? What would God pray for? Knowing that God loves us. Knowing that God would want the best for us. What would God want for you?”
God’s prayers for me! Perhaps my prayer requests should come from God’s point of view.
“We are all in God’s shadow. We pray because the Holy One of Discernment prays for us.”
As we listened to Emunah’s lessons, the day darkened into a bold night. The illumination from Emunah’s question continues to delight and excite me: What is God praying for me now?
Is it kosher to listen to Neshama Carlebach in concert? Go to an opera where women are singing solos? Enjoy the latest production of “Fiddler on the Roof“?
Based on traditional rabbinic law, the prohibition known as kol isha (literally, “a woman’s voice”) is based on a verse from the Song of Songs 2:14: “For your voice is sweet (arev) – and your appearance pleasant (naveh).” It has had the Orthodox world in yet another gender-driven debate.
Turning that verse inside out in order to protect the men from the allure of a female voice and the transgression of the laws of ervah (“nakedness”), a man was prohibited from praying or studying Torah in the presence of a singing woman.
The essence behind hearing a woman’s voice is not solely its intrinsic sensuality, as many halachic authorities have indicated, but the functional concern that it might distract a man from his concentration on prayer or study.
Although liberal Jewish communities around the world do not adhere to the strict interpretations of kol isha, in Israel it has become an issue of religious rights for men and women on both sides of the debate.
Last September nine religious soldiers, in obedience to the Kol Isha prohibition, walked out of a mandatory Israel Defense Forces (IDF) training course because it included women’s singing.
An IDF committee was formed to study the issue and make a recommendation about how to handle this military insubordination in light of this religious law. The decision? The army required all soldiers to remain at these mandatory training sessions regardless of the kol isha prohibition.
The religious authorities who have jurisdiction over the Kotel have framed their opposition to women publicly praying at the Western Wall around the kol isha prohibition. Since 1967, women’s collective voices at the Kotel have been silenced. In December 1988, Women of the Wall was founded to secure women’s rights to hold and read the Torah in public in the women’s section of the Western Wall. Each month on rosh hodesh, the group meets and prays at Robinson’s Arch, the place designated by the authorities in 2003 for women’s public prayer.
The Psalmist encouarges us to “lift our voices” (Pslam 147) and to “open our mouths” (Psalm 144) to declare God’s glory. Our voices are our instruments towards religious freedoms. Let us find the path together as we sing God’s praises, male and female in one united voice.
The Western Wall beckoned at the beginning of the new Hebrew month of Kislev, 5760.
I was studying at the Conservative Yeshiva for a month and residing at the Ratisbonne, a French Catholic monastery in the heart of downtown Jerusalem. My neighbor for the month was a sixty year old nun from South Africa named Trudy.
Although I had lived in Israel and visited there many times, I had never ventured into the Holy Sepulchre where the Tomb of Jesus resided. Trudy, who had been in Israel nine months, had never experienced the Western Wall, known in Israel as the Kotel. We made a deal on that rainy early morning in December that we would share each other’s holy places.
Trudy and I awoke before dawn and started the 30-minute walk to the Old City. We wanted to be present for the Rosh Chodesh morning prayers that are being sustained by the Women of the Wall, an organization of religiously and socially diverse women who come together once a month on the New Moon at the Western Wall. We reached the Kotel and immediately gazed at the gathering of women on the separated women’s section of the Western Wall. In lullaby hush tones we heard the singing and chanting of some sixty women. We drew closer to this monthly prayer circle. We lingered with them in a bittersweet prayer cocoon for twenty minutes. Like pregnant women getting ready to give birth, they packed their prayer books and the Sefer Torah (the Scroll that held the Five Books of Moses) in anticipation of their journey towards motherhood.
Since the religious municipality that governs the Wall prohibits women from chanting directly from the Sefer Torah’s scroll, the women journey half a mile to a more secluded and less public space known as Robinson’s arch.
The ancient space offered a stone carved table for our precious Sefer Torah. Several women unwrapped the scroll from a large blue duffel bag, and like a newborn baby, they placed her gently and lovingly on this changing table.
The rain turned sun reigned on us; the chatter turned silence shone inside. Trudy and I watched and waited for the next prayer chapter.
As the women prepared the sacred scroll for the reading, they asked if anyone would like to come up and receive an aliya, an honor.
I scanned the women’s faces, absorbed the question and hesitated before I answered. “Yes, I would like an aliya.”
The woman standing next to me was wearing a special “Women of the Wall” tallit embroidered with the names of the four matriarchs on each corner.
“May I borrow your tallit for my aliya?” I asked this stranger pleading as I spoke.
“Yes, but of course,” came her quick unequivocal reply.
The tallit made my aliya complete. This slow holy motion moment remains in my memory.
I returned to my place next to Trudy and removed the tallit from my shoulders. I thanked this beautiful lady for her generosity.
“What a wonderful way to inaugurate my new tallit with your blessings. This is my first time wearing it. Thank you.”
“You are the blessing,” I said.
Sometimes what we need someone else has to give.
Before I could read and write in English, I spoke Yiddish. At age 3 I learned the Hebrew alef-bet alongside the English alphabet. Together they remain by my side, right to left and left to right. This summer while in Israel I will continue my love affair with Hebrew and study yet again all the cool new phrases and lingo that I have missed since my last visit five years ago.
In my sixth decade, I continue teaching the holy Hebrew tongue from scratch to my budding bar/bat mitzvah students. I chant the Sh’ma and the V’ahavta with them and I empower them to decode the mysteries in all those final letters and strange vowels that play upon our gutteral abilities. Some Americans can do it better than others, but most struggle with a more perfect “chet.” Each one of them succeeds in getting close to their Hebrew heritage.
Some parents ask me again and again: “Can my child have a bar mitzvah without learning Hebrew? Hebrew is such a barrier. It takes too much time to learn. They’ll never use it again. I hated learning it myself during Hebrew school. Why put the pressure on them? ”
Ah, yes, the Hebrew controversy yet again. Why Hebrew?
I listen and I empathize for there is truth in everything they say. And then there is another truth: The veracity that the Jews have a special relationship with this ancient language with its venerable sounds. Hebrew is the best kept spiritual secret of the Jewish people.
Classical Hebrew is used for prayer or study in Jewish communities around the world. The language is attested from the 10th century BCE to the late Second Temple period, after which the language developed into Mishnaic Hebrew. Modern Hebrew is spoken by most of the eight million people in Israel, and it is one of the official languages of the country, along with Arabic. As a foreign language it is studied by Jews and students of Judaism and Israel, by archaeologists and linguists specializing in the Middle East and its civilizations, by theologians, and by Christian seminarians.
To learn Hebrew is to tap into a resource that offers more than just the acquisition of knowledge. Hebrew connects the Jewish child with a historical telescope that reaches beyond our insular present. Putting sounds and words together creates a jigsaw puzzle of revelations. Like a mathematical logarithm, when they figure out how to read the most familiar of prayers, a light sparks inside of them.
The child delights in himself/herself when upon entering the synagogue they can read from the siddur that only a few months ago looked like a Chinese manuscript from a disappearing dynasty. They embrace this “adult” practice. This mandatory mitzvah to learn the Hebrew language, one prayer at a time, is magical, mystical and memorable.
I teach Hebrew by design. God’s design.
I prepared the bimah with two kiddush cups, a bottle of kosher wine and a glass wrapped in a white linen napkin. With the chuppah above me, I waited for the processional music to begin. The bridesmaids and the groomsmen walked down respectfully. The Chatan savored his steady pace as his parents walked by his side.
As the music changed its melody, the drama inside the sanctuary began. The congregation turned their heads towards the action behind them. They stood and gazed at the beautiful Kallah as if she was the Shechinah herself entering into this holy palace. When the Chatan took the hand of his beloved and guided her up the steps to the chuppah, a rush of spiritual seduction filled the cavernous space at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in the District of Columbia.
The music stopped. An expectant stillness descended while the couple circled each other before settling inside the sanctified chuppah for the single purpose: to wed each other.
At that moment in time and space, we become the witnesses to their private love story and we are inoculated with a joy drip.
After the exchange of rings and their vows, the ketubah was read.
One of the joys of being a rabbi is witnessing the making of a marriage. The journey towards the chuppah may be a few months or a few years or sometimes a few decades. When the invitations arrive by email or by snail mail, many of us sigh knowing that we have the possibility of being moved, inspired and transformed, if only momentarily.
Last week, I brought two families together under the chuppah with an energy I didn’t think I had. I imagined that we were in the Garden of Eden and that all our desires were taken care of and all the craziness of life had somehow disappeared. Time and space evolved to make this love story come alive.
The connection between bride, groom and rabbi doesn’t just happen. For me there is no pro forma wedding ceremony. I meet with all my couples for a minimum of three sessions and a maximum of five sessions. Through face to face meetings, skype and phone calls and emails, I contract with them for a period of time from their engagement to the chuppah.
My relationship with them and the relationship to each other creates a vibration field of energy that promotes a spiritual outcome. Why would any couple want less from their officiant? But are they willing to spend the time and the money to enhance not just the ceremony but the marriage itself?
As a rabbi, I know that when a couple decides to marry, they want someone who understands their joy and their pain, their deepest dreams and their darkest fears. They want someone who is interested in their spiritual interiority and can listen without judgment or critique. Who else will have these conversations if not their spiritual leader and confidante? These transitional times in our lives call for reflection, mindfulness and soul expansion.
The Baal Shem Tov expressed it best.
From every human being there rises a light that reaches straight to heaven. And when two souls that are destined to be together find each other, their streams of light flow together, and a single brighter light goes forth from their united being.
As a rabbi, I am called to bring these lights together and to add my light and the light of the Holy One into the love story called Kiddushin. You may now break the glass! Mazal Tov!
The eldest son was chosen by his father to recite the Kaddish in his memory.
Standing at the gravesite where his mother and father lay side by side, the son gathers his large black and white bar mitzvah tallit and drapes himself like a flag on the fourth of July. Enveloped in white, he illuminates the cemetery’s grey exterior. He speaks to the mourners and friends who have come to grieve with him.
“Two years ago my father told me that I would be expected to say Kaddish for him when he died. The Kaddish was a familiar prayer to me, but could I chant it by myself, by heart? So soon after I came home from my visit with my dad, I went on the Internet to get acquainted with this venerable prayer. I wanted to be ready when the time came. Today, two years later, I am prepared to say the Kaddish for my father.”
He then proceeded to enunciate every vowel and syllable in this transcendent prayer. His voice, confident and grounded, remained steady throughout the upside down mantra-like sounds. No hesitations. No pauses. No mistakes. A solid-gold performance sincere and sacred.
A Kaddish recited by heart from the heart.
Kaddish is the ancient memorial prayer written in Aramaic and recited by those who are mourning a loved one. In traditional Judaism, it was the eldest son who was obligated to say this prayer three times a day for eleven months to honor his parent and to raise the soul of the lost one to a higher realm. Today, in most denominations, women and men, the eldest and the youngest, chant this prayer in a communal setting. It serves as a therapeutic ritual for the grief work necessary to heal from our losses.
There is no conformity for liberal Jewish women in the synagogue when it comes to wearing a head covering. Look around you the next time you go to a bar/bat mitzvah. How many women and post bat mitzvah girls are wearing a kippah? Is the female rabbi wearing any kind of headgear? Does it vary from denomination to denomination? Is there a growing cultural tradition that is evolving in the 21st century? Are Jewish women being shaped by what we wear or don’t wear on the bimah?
Enter Diaspora Girl, a website that sells sassy headcoverings for the girl who wants to “rock” on a Shabbat morning at the local temple. The site asks women to decide between “those flimsy little white things at the door of the shul that look like Thanksgiving turkey decorations” and their affordable and spiritual hip designer hats. If you are a modern Jewish girl who likes the idea of ritual headgear, but you are “cognizant of the fact that traditional kippot look about as cool on women as sandals with black socks look on men” then these hand-made gems are calling you to take action with a credit card.
What is a Diaspora Girl? According to the owner, Rina Barz Nehdar, a diaspora girl is someone who refuses to conform to the mainstream. They have their own thing going on and the power and the chutzpah to stand out from the crowd.
“The women most attracted to my product are women who are trying to find their niche in the Jewish world without giving up their individuality,” writes Nehdar.
Diaspora’s funky and feminine kippot are crocheted from cotton and/or cashmere and are adorned with beads, sequins and ribbons. Each style has a fun name, “Dreamcatcher,” “Japanese Blossom,” Goldilocks and “Belladonna.” Women like choices in their style of headgear. A skullcap by every other name looks and feels ritually different.
Are they cooler to wear than hats or kippot for women? Do they really prevent “hat hair”? Inquiring heads want to know!
When I began leading Shabbat services during rabbinical school, I dressed up for prayer. A weaver from Asheville, North Carolina supplied me with a dozen kippot of various shapes and colors and yarns. No black yarmulkes for me. I am a fashion-conscious female rabbi looking to distinguish myself and my wardrobe from the masculine model. My tallit matches my kippah and sometimes the color of my dress. As a rabbi pioneer on the bimah, I continue to cause a red carpet stir at the Oneg.
Today, when I walk into a reform synagogue, a kippah on a woman is an anomaly. In Conservative synagogues those white doilies are still quite popular. More women wear a tallit and a kippah during a Reconstructionist service. I continue to individuate my synagogue look. By definition, I am a diaspora girl.
My eldest daughter Na’ama wore a kippah and a tallit at her Conservative bat mitzvah in 1985. She has not worn her handmade prayer accouterments for 27 years. Perhaps these funky hip kippot will convince her to be another diaspora girl. It is never too late to begin a trend even in my own family where the heads of three girls lie in the balance. Let’s all go funky! My treat!
The important thing is not how many separate injunctions are obeyed but how and in what spirit we obey them. -Baal Shem Tov
The purpose of the shiva minyan is to comfort the mourner.
Last week I was called upon to facilitate a shiva minyan for a woman whose brother had died in another city. Now that the mourner was back home, she wanted to complete her seven days of mourning with her own local community.
People poured in during the day, but as the seven o’clock evening hour approached, only a few people remained. So we waited for a minyan, the obligatory quorum of ten to be able to pray. When seven-thirty arrived, so did the tenth person.
I assessed the situation. Two Jews, two Hindus, two Baptists, two Evangelical Christians, one Catholic — and me, the rabbi.
Shiva is the most therapeutic of Jewish mourning rituals. It honors the journey of the bereaved by providing friends, family, and co-workers a proscribed setting in which to express their sympathies and condolences.
“‘Shiva’ means seven, the holy number of the days of creation and the number of days Jews withdraw from daily life to mourn a beloved,” I explained.
“Has anyone been to Jerusalem?” I asked, not knowing what the response would be.
“Oh, yes!” came the feedback. “Several times,” echoed the African American couple sitting directly across from me.
“As you might remember, there are seven open gates in the Old City. In ancient times, there were eleven gates, and the Temple in the ancient city of Jerusalem had a separate path set aside for the mourners. As the mourners came through this selected gate, they came face-to-face with other members of the community, and the people expressed the recognition of their loss by reciting this Hebrew verse.”
HaMakom y’nachem etkhem b’tokh sh’ar aveilei Tzion v’ Yrushalayim.
I had them repeat the words after me and focus on their friend who stood with a torn black ribbon on her jacket above her heart indicating externally her internal private grief.
We formed a circle around the mourner and recited the verse in unison.
May God comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.
Suddenly and in harmony, we were all on the same page of the heart. We have all traveled on the same path of loss and bereavement. Language was not the barrier. Faith traditions didn’t separate us from the realities of life and death. How easy it is to create a sacred comforting space among our diversities.
The expression “black hat” denotes Jews who are extremely observant in their religious practices. They wear black fedora hats on special occasions, including the weekly holiday of Shabbat. Some come from Hasidic families, but many do not. They are somewhere between Modern Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox. The men dress this way to show respect to their past and uniformity in their community.
My sister and I both grew up in a traditional Jewish family in the Bronx with our Polish immigrant extended family. She found her observant lifestyle in Israel while working and living there in the early 1970s. Now, nearly forty years later, her family has blossomed to include nine children and 27 grandchildren.
As I stood amidst the sea of black hats and dresses, I asked myself yet again, “Why all the black on such joyous occasions?”
I learned that the medieval church and state demanded that Jews wear black at all times. At that time, European countries generally decreed so-called “sumptuary” laws (the Latin word sumere refers to spending or consuming). These laws required each social class in the feudal system to wear clothes appropriate to its rank. Hence, the upper class wore gaudy clothes of many colors and ornamented profusely. By law, Jews were non-persons and had to wear black clothes so they could be immediately identified.
Black clothes are also known to Jews as an expression of divrei yirat shamayim, “fearing heaven.” To some Jews, life is very serious, and the Jew is always conscious of his relationship to God. Black is worn so as to avoid frivolity. Black is a statement of values.
As I surveyed the invited guests, I realized that though everyone looks similar, they are as unique as you and I. I knew many of these guests, and I saw that their outer clothing did not hide their true beings. In Jewish tradition, what makes an individual is not the clothing but the character.
My family is part of a community of people that all dress the same. There is only one way to stand out: You have to be original not with your clothing but in your character. You are judged not by what you wear but by how you treat people. Fashion statements come and go; what is hip today may not be hip tomorrow.
I wore my black dress and black shoes in deference to their tradition. I didn’t stand out. I blended in with my beautiful nieces and nephews. I actually felt safe doing so.
I hope my character was my defining essence. I am okay with that.
Last Monday evening a light rain fell on the Capitol City where I live on 16th Street, a mile up from the White House. I caught a bus in front of my house to go downtown for a class. After five minutes, the bus stopped unexpectedly.
Police cars blocked the entrance to the tunnel. We all imagined the worst. The bus turned to the right to find an alternate route. Another string of police cars blockaded that street as well. The driver led us through the traffic, the rain — the uncertainties of getting to our destinations on time.
Next to me sat a red-headed, attractive, thirty-something female who, suddenly realizing the situation, offered up the explanation. “Oh!” she said, “They must be blocking off the streets for the president. I’m going to hear him speak at the Hilton Hotel, but I guess I am going to be late.”
Well, the president is coming! That changes everything! I got off the bus and began walking in the rain among the others who were finding this rush hour to be particularly challenging. Police kept us in line and politely guided us to the other side of the street. We waited as the president’s motorcade drove by.
Big, beautiful, shiny black limousines passed in front of me with American flags waving in the wind. Which car holds the president? Will he notice this rush hour public? The locomotion of the city streets became a still life picture. People ceased their chatter and their movements. We froze in a timeless moment.
I closed my eyes and prayed for his safety. Like a flash mob at the end of its performance, people slowly began to walk away from the scene. All with their own thoughts. All a little late to their activities.
If they resonated with the atmosphere that surrounded us, perhaps like me, they were uplifted by the ritual of the moving motorcade of the president of the United States. A miracle on 16th Street.