For the women of Hollywood Florida, the Women’s Megillah reading is a highlight in our spiritual lives. This year almost 150 women collectively attended our evening and morning readings. As in years past, some of the women who attended had never heard the megillah read before. This year, some of our supporters generously donated new copies of the megillahfor the group, so that we now have our own dedicated copies of the megillah for future use. The first time we read megillah, six years ago, we consulted with Beth Hindin and Robyn Shoulson of the Women’s Megillah Reading in West Orange, NJ who gave us much needed advice and guidance. This year, our readers included four of our original readers who have read for the past six years (Diana Levy, Julia Steiner, Maxine Gill, and me!), two readers who have been reading for the past two years (Abby Schochet and Nessa Reich), one new reader (Sheryl Dennis), and our newest reader (Rina Reich) who, at thirteen, is our youngest reader ever (and the daughter of one of our readers).
Most of our readers and attendees are members of Young Israel of Hollywood and our readings, although not “official” readings because of the policy of the National Young Israel movement not permitting women’s readings (thus we not permitted to read in the physical building of our synagogue) are done under the supervision of our rabbi, Rabbi Edward Davis, with whom we consult for all halachic matters and who has been wonderfully supportive of our readings. Young Israel of Hollywood includes details of our readings in all of the Purim publicity sent out by the synagogue.
Our readings are “groggerless.” Initially, we decided not to use groggers because we were somewhat nervous about our ability to read with interruptions but we have kept this tradition because we feel that the quiet of the reading adds to the spiritual tone we have set over the years. We hold the readings in the home of one of our readers and the chairs are brought to her home by Young Israel. Each year we place a little favor on each chair, whether it be a bookmark or a bag of candy. For the past two years, all of the readers dressed in the same costume- last year we were the “Pink Ladies” and this year we were pirates.
We use a megillah lent to us by one of our readers. This beautiful megillah was commissioned by her grandfather eighty five years ago when he lived in Syria. He used to read the megillah and then pass it around his community for others to use. Our reader’s father also continued this tradition and now we use it for our community.
Two of our readers publicize our readings through a Facebook page and by sending out Evites. Many of our attendees have come to our readings for each year that we have read.
On a personal note, I am in awe of the feeling of community among the readers. We work really hard in learning and relearning our chapters (and are blessed to have one reader, Diana Levy, who is an expert reader and helps train all of us!!) and we are supportive and caring of each other. In addition, I am grateful that so many women of our community are truly appreciative of our efforts and tell us that they cannot imagine a Purim without our readings. And finally, I am especially proud that my two daughters (two of our original readers!) have continued to read- my daughter Ilana read at Stern College while a student there and my daughter Liora has read at the Columbia-Barnard reading for the past two years.
I took a deep breath and looked around the room. There were more faces looking back at me than I had ever seen in my living room previously. Bodies overflowed into the dining room, kitchen, and hallway. Many of the people were familiar, but many were new; friends and family who heard about our megillah reading.
I felt my stomach knot up. This was the sixth year that we were hosting a Megillat Esther reading, and no matter how many times I have done this and how much time I spent preparing the first chapter, I always forgot the nusach (tune) of the brachot (blessings) said before the reading. Each year I would run over to someone and have them sing the blessings to me before beginning. This year had been no different.
With my friend’s voice fresh in my mind, I opened my mouth and began, making sure to be loud enough to be heard in the other rooms. I said the first bracha (blessing)–al mikrah megillah (on the reading of the megillah)– and heard a resounding amen. “Close enough,” I thought of my rendition. I took a breath and began again, the second bracha– she’asa nissim l’avoteinu (who performed miracles for our ancestors)– rushing through the myriad of words in the hopes of masking the fact that I did not know the tune. The blessing was met with another loud amen. I thought to myself, “two down, one to go” and I began the third bracha– the shehechiyanu (who has given us life). Somewhere in the midst of saying the blessing, my tune began to change. As I sang the final words, I realized that I was singing them to the tune traditionally used on Hanukkah.
I listened to the final amen resonate throughout the rooms of my home, and I laughed quietly to myself. I immediately felt my stomach unknot and my shoulders relax. I smiled. I had done it. I had made the first mistake of the evening. And with it out of the way, we were now ready for any mistakes that might follow. And thus I began leyning (reading) the first chapter of Megillat Esther.
To be sure, the goal of our megillah reading is not to make mistakes. Everyone who leyns practices long and hard to try to avoid errors as much as possible. But we all do make mistakes. And for me, that is the beauty of our megillah reading. It is about creating a warm, welcoming, safe space for anyone who wants to read from the megillah– male or female, young or old, experienced or novice. It is about a space where anyone is welcome and everyone can participate. It is about individuals being empowered in their own Judaism, to engage with the faith and ritual directly and make it personal and meaningful for them.
As I finish the final words of my chapter, “umedaber k’lishon amo,” I reflect on the meaning of the words, “and speak the language of his own people.” In the context of the story of the megillah, these words are not favorable– they reflect a policy in which men are given supreme authority over their wives and can speak a language that might be foreign to their partners. But as I step aside to allow the next reader to begin his chapter, the words take on different meaning for me. I watch reader after reader step forward to leyn the chapters they had prepared. I listen to ancient words chanted b’khol lashon– not in every language, but in every voice. The lilt of each voice is different, the tunes of the trop (cantillation) change slightly, pronunciations vary. But the words are the same as they have always been. In this moment, they are ours; truly ours. It is powerful. And it is beautiful.
Orthodox women reading Megillat Esther on Purim are a common sight in many communities, but this year, a group of Orthodox women in St. Louis has written their own megillah!
On Tuesday, after nearly three years of preparation, the St. Louis Women’s Megillah Writing Project completed their megillah, just in time for Purim 2013. They celebrated this milestone with a siyyum, filled with words of Torah, reflections on their accomplishment, and a workshop for those who wanted to try out safrut (scribal calligraphy). Four primary scribes worked together to complete the megillah–Phyllis Shapiro, Shelly Wolf, Aviva Buck-Yael and Dorit Daphna-Iken. The megillah also contains illuminations by female artists, and was sewn together by another female participant.
This siyyum marks the completion of the firstmegillah written by Orthodox women in the United States, showcasing yet another way that Orthodox women can take ownership of their ritual experiences and use their skills to become active participants in their religious experiences. As a result of this siyyum, the Orthodox community has a new set of role models to look up to, and Orthodox women have a new set of possibilities open to them.
Phyllis Shapiro, first woman president of Bais Abe in St. Louis and project organizer, explains that she initially learned Hebrew calligraphy because she wanted to write mezuzot as house-warming and wedding gifts. She was discouraged when she learned that a mezuzah written by a woman is not kosher in Orthodox communities. A male friend suggested she redirect her new skill and “just write a megillah.” “The project was too big to take on by myself so I gathered a group of interested women to help,” says Ms. Shapiro. The project began in Spring 2010 with a group of ten women who studied the halachot of writing amegillah and began calligraphy classes. After two years of studying the halachah, and practicing their calligraphy, the group began to write on parchment in Summer 2012. Of the original participants, four wrote the megillah, three participants became involved with illuminating the megillah, and one sewed together the four pieces of parchment. “Working with a group was the best idea—the group aspect of the project was one of the most gratifying parts.”
The group began by studying the halachic aspects of writing a megillah with Rabbi Hyim Shafner of Bais Abe, and continued to learn the technical skills of creating each Hebrew letter through step-by-step videos online. They were eventually able to find a local rabbi, Rabbi Mark Fasman of Shaare Zedek Synagogue, to work with them in person as they continued to learn the calligraphy and the practical details of writing a megillah.
Resources and Advice
Not only have these women written a kosher megillah, that will be read on Purim this year, but they have also documented their journey, laying out a practical and clear roadmap for others who are interested in following their lead.
It is fascinating to watch the progression of the project through their blog, and to see the way these women slowly learned to create individual letters, and learned to use the special nibs and ink for writing on a klaf (parchment). They practiced each letter for weeks, using step-by-step guides and graph paper guides, before they transitioned to writing directly on the klaf, and on their megillah.
The group has been very thoughtful about the way they have approached this project—through studying and translating the halachic requirements of writing megillah, to studying the halachic sources that allow for illuminating the scroll. The blog contains detailed accounts of every step—from identifying prospective new members, to purchasing materials, to creating the guides for the calligraphy letters, to illuminating the megillah.
The blog includes translations of the laws of writing and sewing a megillah, a collection of sources permitting illuminations in the megillahand links to step-by-step guides for creating each letter.
Ms. Shapiro offers the following practical advice for women interested in writing amegillah: “Work with a group of at least four scribes. Find a good teacher for learning how to write the alphabet–we tried learning the STAM script on line, which was not a good idea. Buy all of your supplies at the beginning, including the parchment, ink, nibs and gid (thread) for sewing. Set up a light-table to work at. It is very easy to make a makeshift one – use a large piece of Lucite held up by two TV snack tables, and a lamp underneath. Copy a megillah that has the same format (number of columns and rows per column) as the one you will write. Copy it, cut the columns and tape them (with masking tape) behind your parchment pieces – this will take care of all spacing issues – and working at the light table, you just follow the model Megillah.”
Participants combined a variety of skills to help them with this project. Some of the women had prior experience with calligraphy, which served as a template for going forward, while one woman used her computer skills to create practice grids which were the same size as the letters in the megillah.
This brand-new, illuminated, kosher megillah will be used at the sixteenth annual women’s megillah reading in St. Louis this year. It is truly a special experience for any community to have an opportunity to read from a megillah created in their community, but it is unique that Orthodox women will have taken ownership of every aspect of thismegillah reading this Purim, beginning with the creation of their own megillah.
Shapiro concludes, “I’ve done lots of craft items over the years– from scenery for kids’ school plays to making chuppot–but nothing compares with this. We actually created a holy piece of Judaica – adding a scroll to our people’s sacred items.”
Check out the St. Louis Women’s Megillah Writing Project online at womensmegillah.blogspot.com.
Among the laws governing the reading of the scroll of Esther discussed in tractate Megillah is the stipulation that the megillah may not be read backwards: “One who reads the megillah backwards has not fulfilled one’s obligation” (17a). The story of the Jews in Shushan unfolds in linear progression, moving from “sorrow to joy and from mourning to festivity,” as we learn only in the penultimate chapter (9:22). Of course, since we read the megillah every year on Purim, we already know how it will end, and the triumphant hanging of the evil villain Haman whose plot to exterminate the Jews was foiled by the beautiful Queen Esther comes as no surprise. Even so, we are commanded each year to read the Megillah with a sense of “who knows,”inhabiting a world of lottery and chance in which we cannot divine the ending but can only pray for a better outcome. As Esther’s uncle Mordechai says to her, “Who knows, perhaps you have attained a royal position for just such a moment” (4:14).
I write these words on Rosh Chodesh Adar of 5773 (2013), exactly six years after I first learned Maskhet Megillah in daf yomi. I sit here nine months pregnant with twins, thinking back to a time when I did not know if I would ever get married again, let alone be privileged to bring children into the world. I try to put myself in the shoes of the person I was back then, pretending that I don’t already know about all the twists and turns that life would take to sustain me and enable me to reach this day. As I try to identify with that uncertainty, I am struck by the realization that in a world ofhester panim—a world where God’s face is hidden—the sense of “who knows” never completely dissipates. We may have a wider vista now that we have ascended to the top of one difficult mountain, but other, higher mountains lie ahead, and there is no guarantee that we will surmount them as well.
I think about this metaphor as I lie in bed, looking over the mountain that is my pregnant belly and wondering if I will ever be able to see directly down to my feet again. Last summer, when I first learned I was pregnant, I remember looking at the calendar and thinking that I’d probably give birth between Tu B’shvat and Purim. Tu B’shvat is over and gone, and with it all the flower and tree names we played around with these past few months. Today we ushered in Adar, the month of joy, and my husband reminded me that Rosh Hodesh Adar would make a great birthday. At this point, though, I don’t need any reminders. Everyone who sends me e-mails, surely in an attempt to be thoughtful and considerate, prefaces their messages with, “I’m not sure if you’re in the throes of labor as I’m sending this,” or “I wonder if you have already given birth.” No, no, not yet. The new month, whose invisible new moon is not even the barest sliver of a crescent, has not yet revealed what it holds in store. Still, it is a good thing to have made it to 39 weeks in a twin pregnancy. As a friend just reminded me, the zodiac symbol for Adar is two fish, perhaps because Adar is the one month that can fall out twice in a shana meuberet, a leap or “pregnant” year. But the symbol is also pregnant with personal meaning, since I have swam nearly every day these past nine months. “Are you teaching your babies how to swim?” the ladies at the pool always ask me. “Oh no, they are swimming already,” I assure them, imagining my two little fetus-fish awash in their individual sacs of amniotic fluid. At some point the seas will split and they will be cast on to dry land –hopefully long before Pesach, as I exhausted those metaphors in my previous pregnancy.
Meanwhile, as Purim approaches, I think of Esther enjoining the people to come together in fervent prayer that all should proceed smoothly when she risks her life to approach King Ahaseuerus (the last five letters of whose name, as commonly transliterated, are a near-anagram of uterus). The Talmud in the first chapter of Megillah interprets the verse that describes Esther’s reaction to hearing of the king’s decree to destroy and massacre all the Jews: “Va-tithalhal hamalka meod.”The word “Va-tithalhal,” often translated as “became agitated,” provides fodder for the midrashic imagination: “What is Va-tithalhal? Rav says: She became a menstruant. Rabbi Yirmiya says, “She suffered a miscarriage” (15a). Rashi explains that the cavities of her body dissolved. All these interpreters are playing with the etymological similarity between Va-tithalhal and “halal,” the Hebrew word for cavity or hole and the nomenclatural hallmark of the N’keva, the female. I wonder if maybe Esther heard the news and felt like she was in labor, bearing inside her womb the destiny of the Jewish people.
Sitting here on Rosh Hodesh Adar, attuned to the first signs of any contractions, I do not know when I will begin to feel changes in the holes and cavities of my body. The megillah is ten chapters, and I am already at the end of my ninth month – but I cannot scroll ahead to find out what happens in chapter ten. We read the megillah in order and live our lives day by day, and as Mordechai tells Esther “who knows” what tomorrow will bring. But as Adar begins, joy increases, and I can only pray that for us, too, it will be so.