Every week, I am blessed to work with students all across the South as each prepares for his or her Bar or Bat Mitzvah: from Arkansas to South Carolina, from Kentucky to Mississippi… thanks to the modern miracle known as Skype (and other online forums)!
Recently, during a Skype session with a student in Florida, my student noticed something. He pointed out the unique mark above one letter in his Torah portion. It was a trope (cantillation) mark, which had two dots like a colon and a straight vertical line next to it – like so:
“I know it’s not a vowel…” He said. And then: “It looks like an emoticon. It can’t be! Can it, Rabbi?”
For a brief moment, I thought about dismissing this notion, considering it just a crafty tactic of distraction in this particular student’s endless game of procrastination. But then, another thought came to me, and I said: “What?! You mean to tell me that you’ve never heard that Jews created the emoticon, hundreds of years before the advent of the computer?! I mean, think about it. What’s the purpose of emoticons?”
He answered, “To let us know the feelings behind what someone wrote.”
“Precisely, my dear Watson!* And the same could be said of these trope marks, written down in the year 1000 C.E by the Masoretes. They added these marks to God’s words in order for us to know not only how to read Torah, but also how to express the Torah, adding feeling and emphasis to the words.”
In that moment I became the father from My Big, Fat, Greek Wedding. Somehow, I found a rational way to explain how everything can be traced back to Judaism, of note here are emoticons. Yes, indeed, there is a direct line from Torah to our tweets, so that we can be ever mindful that – when it comes to words – what is important isn’t just what we say, but how we say it.
*Pseudonym used to protect student privacy, of course
By Education Fellow Amanda Winer
I first heard about Women of the Wall as a counselor in training at Eisner Camp in Massachusetts, when the chairperson of the group’s executive board, Anat Hoffman, came to speak to us about her experience in Israel. Women of the Wall, formed in 1988, organizes Torah services on the women’s side of the gender-segregated Western Wall. Their attempts to worship as they see fit, which includes women wearing tallit, at Judaism’s most sacred site have made them the target of lawsuits, arrest, and even verbal and physical harassment. To me, it sounded like a worthy idea, but neither women’s issues nor Israel was my “cause of the moment.” Hoffman also serves as Executive Director of the Israeli Religious Action Center, and that aspect of her presentation was more inspiring to me at the time.
Last Rosh Chodesh (first day of the month), my feelings changed. I was scrolling through Twitter, when a name jumped out at me. Rabbi Elyse Frishman, someone I know, someone whose daughter I shared a bunk with at camp, was among four women detained Friday, December 14th, for wearing a tallis at the Western Wall. Rabbi Frishman, in my experience, is a wonderful rabbi, mother and woman who, in addition to her personal accolades, also edited the Reform prayer book, Mishkan T’filah.
The events surrounding these latest arrests, and the arrest of Anat Hoffman two months ago, brought about an outcry from groups in Israel and the diaspora that promote religious pluralism in Israel. Pluralism, according to Quaker philosopher Parker Palmer, is a three pronged process. First, we must admit that we, both as a people and as individuals, have wants and needs. Then, we must acknowledge that the wants and needs of others may be different, but they are also valid. Lastly, we must decide that there is inherent value in the discussion of the wants and needs of all parties involved. This process makes the seemingly daunting task a bit easier, a bit more real.
After reading that familiar name, Women of the Wall had my attention. I thought about the evolving role of women in Judaism. In the Conservative and Reform movements, and elsewhere, women read Torah, become rabbis and spiritual leaders, and run some of the most philanthropic Jewish organizations worldwide. This is fairly recent. My grandmother, Baba, would never have considered such things at my age; she grew up sitting with her mother on the women’s side of a mechitza. Later, though, she reached a position of leadership within her home synagogue, and on a regional and national level.
I couldn’t shake this. My next thought was about “Southern Belles.” Before I moved to Mississippi, I had in my mind an archetype of what Southern women were like. I pictured The Great Gatsby’s Daisy Buchanan—women who were beautiful, kind with a soft demeanor and a dress straight out of Gone with the Wind. I remember thinking, “I read The Help, I’ve got this.”
Based on my experiences in the past six months, I can say that I was not entirely wrong. Many of the women I have met, both professionally and personally, are beautiful, kind and sweet. There is another amazing aspect to them, though. Southern women are passionate people, with varied interests moving forward in the modern world. They are devoted and steadfast, whether to the Crimson Tide or their local Hadassah chapter. I see this especially in the commitment of Jewish women in the South to their religious communities. In fact, the point person for each of the religious schools that I work with is a woman. Witnessing this level of engagement leads me to think about and participate in gender equality activism in a way that I never have before.
The role of women is constantly evolving, and these women are changing with the times, taking active roles in making their realities the best they can and teaching their daughters and granddaughters about all of the possibilities being a woman can bring. These issues are important, and can and should not be taken lightly.
The biggest question to me is: Is religious pluralism possible? In Israel, the Women of the Wall struggle for a more pluralistic vision of Judaism. In the South, the ISJL’s success in working with communities regardless of denominational affiliation suggests to me that there is hope. Progress will take dialogue, and we see from Women of the Wall and others that a few strong, confident women can make it happen. Learning about the journeys and struggles of women like my Baba and Rabbi Frishman inspires me to love and support all the women in my life. And just like that, I guess I’m becoming a Southern belle!
Many of the Jewish communities that I research and write about for our Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities are quite small. Very few people are aware that Jews established congregations in places like Lexington, Mississippi, or Owensboro, Kentucky. Finding congregational records or other information about these communities can be a real challenge. Thankfully, I have found a few extremely useful sources at the leading archives of American Jewish history.
The American Jewish Historical Society, whose archives are housed at the Center for Jewish History in New York, owns the records of the Industrial Removal Office. The IRO once helped to relocate poor Jewish immigrants from New York to other cities and towns around the country. The organization’s records are fascinating, but perhaps most useful for me are the surveys they sent out to towns to collect information about the local Jewish community. In 1908, they sent one to Morris Baldauf, one of the leaders of the small Jewish congregation in Henderson, Kentucky. Baldauf took this questionnaire seriously, and gave a precise accounting of the local Jewish population, noting that there were 58 adults and 69 children. He also provided information about the local economy, educational system, and even climate. Such a rich, contemporary description of a Jewish community is the gold standard for us historians.
A few weeks ago, I was able to visit the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives on the campus of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. HUC has a long tradition of serving small congregations through its student rabbi program. The correspondence and paperwork related to the program have been preserved at the archives, and they provide a treasure trove of information. A big reason for this was the foresight of Jacob Rader Marcus, the longtime professor of Jewish history at the college and the founder of the archives. Marcus and the leadership of HUC had each rabbinic student who served a congregation fill out of a detailed form about the local Jewish community. Particularly useful was the form from 1935. While some of the questions were straightforward (how many Jews lived there; what the style of worship was), others were clearly those of a historian hoping to help future researchers: when did Jews first arrive; where are the records of the congregation kept; is there a shochet or moil in town; is there “a distinct cleavage between orthodox and reform Jews”; have Jews ever held elected office in the town; have there been any notable instances of anti-Semitism; are there any intermarried couples and are they raising their children to be Jewish.
Thanks to Dr. Marcus, I was able to use these questionnaires to provide a detailed portrait of several small Jewish communities at a particular point in history. Each year, the student rabbi filled out additional surveys, so I could gauge a congregation’s change over time. For a congregation like Adas Israel in Henderson, Kentucky, which never had more than thirty families and did not produce a long historical record, these documents have proven essential to my writing of its history. In another example, the only way I know that there was once a short-lived congregation in Danville, Kentucky, in the 1940s is through these student rabbi records.
My experience with the IRO Records and the HUC Student Rabbi files got me thinking about the work of our organization, the Institute of Southern Jewish Life. Each weekend our education fellows and rabbi hit the road to serve congregations across the South. After a Monday comp day, they return to the office on Tuesday and write a detailed trip report about their visit. One day, these trip reports will be an amazing source of information about southern Jewish communities in the early years of the 21st century. While history is a record of what happened in the past, it can be both sobering and inspiring to realize that one day we will also be part of history.