We have much to lift our spirits and much to concern us in the attention paid to young women laying tefillin at outstanding high schools in the New York area. Our spirits rejoice because so many people, both men and women, are passionately engaged in the service of God. Everyone from school principals to principled women wants to do what is best for klal Israel (the Jewish people). In this age of so many competing demands, we are neither ritually lazy nor spiritually complacent, and that is good.
The tefillin conversation is a single piece of a larger conversation about the place of women in the public ritual life of the Orthodox community. Several options exist for women who want to lay tefillin. They can do so privately with devoted consistency and halakhic authorization or they can choose to pray in non-Orthodox spaces. Personal prayer is not the issue. We are also not talking about whether women should be synagogue presidents, day school principals, halakhic (legal) authorities, or students of Talmud sitting side by side with men in a study hall. Conflating every possible form of a woman’s participation in public life puts too great a burden on tefillin.
I am not the only Orthodox woman to have heard the following sort of comments from Jews and non-Jews alike: “You’re Orthodox? I don’t see how a woman nowadays can stand it. You are a second-class citizen, right? Aren’t you stuck behind a wall in the synagogue? You don’t get to DO anything! It’s all about the men.” And the questions that from our daughters are especially tough: “Why are we segregated, with no tallit and no tefillin? Isn’t my prayer as important as my brother’s? I leyn just as well, if not better. Why do we go to a women’s tefillah group when there is no such thing as ‘separate but equal?’ What about these equal rights you keep going on and on about?”
Not only are we physically separated in prayer spaces, but are we also textually excluded from meaningful prayer? What do we do with the verses in the Shema that refer to tzitzit and tefillin and the stage directions in the siddur (prayer book) which instruct a man to kiss his tzitzit? Are gender differences so essential to public prayer? Isn’t it about time we made ourselves seen and heard everywhere? Shouldn’t we be able to expand our possibilities for experience? Don’t we rationalize a deep-seated problem by declaring that men and women espouse different roles and that a textual heritage dominated by men belongs to all of us?
Well no, we don’t.
All Jewish experience belongs to all of us as does all Jewish text. We are obligated to inhabit our tradition with respect even as we question it. It takes courage, intelligence, and infinite love to commit ourselves to the complicated relations of men and women and of women and God, relations which become stronger and more profound through the embrace of the multiplicity of our obligations. To be made in God’s image is to confront the One and the Infinitely Many. By adopting uniformity of practice and homogenous responsibilities, we risk eliminating the wonder of difference. Look at family photographs of a brit (circumcision) or a wedding: everyone engaged in a mitzvah in a variety of ways, all precious and all necessary. Isn’t that what women who want to lay tefillin in public are saying: that they have a right to participate in a mitzvah in a deeply personal way? But what effect does that have on the unity of the community? No one proposes to force women to wear tefillin, but isn’t that being naive about the nature of community? Isn’t there an implicit message that “real women wear tefillin?” How does it affect the nature of public, communal prayer to have tefillin not be optional for men but always optional for women? And no – those are not rhetorical apologies for the status quo. They are questions.
Judaism is a religion not of rights, but of obligations. Born into the covenant or choosing it as an adult, a Jew lives a life of obligation to God and man. As a citizen of the United States, I claim my right to religious freedom, but in Judaism I have the obligation to follow halakhah, not the right to self-defined religious expression. We misinterpret and constrict our religious life when we reduce it to a civil rights movement in pursuit of individual liberties. “Separate but equal” is a cruel absurdity for a citizen, but not for a believer. We have no intrinsic right to pray as we please, just as we have no right to eat, honor Shabbat, or conduct business as we please. That is not to say that the definition and fulfillment of our obligations does not undergo continuous renewal. And of course spiritual life is meaningless without individual devotion. Remarkable women chose to lay tefillin throughout Jewish history. One of our questions must be whether they are models for communal behavior or whether their unique circumstances serve a different purpose.
Wrapped in the tallit of solitude on the women’s side of synagogue at 5 am on Shavuot or raised aloft by my congregation’s collective intensity during Neilah, wrestling alone with God about the pain built into His creation or dancing with His words on Simchat Torah, my community around me – I constantly question what it means to pound on the gates of heaven as a Jew and a woman.
Accept for a moment the obligation to pray without tefillin. That is one rocky path, eased by no tangible assistance – only the overwhelming magnitude of word, intellect and heart in the presence of the Kadosh Baruch Hu.
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Two summers ago I was having a relaxed conversation with Judy Heicklen, the president of JOFA. She mentioned to me that JOFA decided to upgrade its old Megillat Esther CD to a user-friendly, interactive smartphone app. I particularly liked that they wanted to use a single voice for all the chapters and that it would be built as a tool for learning how to leyn.
“Of course,” she said, “we’ll need someone whose voice is easy to follow and who will be precise and consistent in her recordings.”
“Yup, I agree.”
Then the kicker: “So we thought of asking you.”
I was blown away. Me? JOFA was asking me to record the whole Megillah? Wow!
I learned to leyn over ten years ago. Previously, in my secular, hi-tech world I found moments of spirituality in Shabbat and chagim (holidays), and in taking an active role in my synagogue, going to shiurim (classes), and giving divrei Torah. But when I learned how to leyn, it filled empty spaces in my soul.
After months of practicing every night and loving the involvement in something so intensely Jewish, the leyning course ended. But I didn’t want to step away from this spiritual experience!
I had heard stories about Esther Farber A”H who taught many, many girls to read for their Bat Mitzvah. Her sons Steven and Seth told me they couldn’t remember a Shabbat without a girl coming to practice her leyning. Stories about Esther shone a light on the path I wanted to take: sharing my passion by teaching others.
In an incredible twist of events, my first student was Esther’s granddaughter Eliana. Sadly, Esther passed away only a few months before Eliana’s Bat Mitzvah. They had been studying together in the pre-Skype era through video-conferencing and they hadn’t quite finished. When Eliana heard my story, she chose to finish her learning with me. Although I had never met Esther, it somehow felt like she was giving me her blessing by passing the baton on to me.
Slowly I became identified as a “go-to” woman for issues connected with leyning, davening (praying) and Bat Mitzvah celebrations. I felt my involvement deepen and broaden: I ran a weekly Torah leyning class for women at my dining room table. I learned the trop for megillot Ruth, Eicha (Lamentations), and Esther. One exhilarating Purim I read Esther in front of five hundred women and girls! I thought that I had reached my personal pinnacle, and yet, to my delight, there was even more waiting just around the corner.
So here was Judy’s offer and my heart was beating fast as I considered it. Did I have time to record the whole thing? No! Could I possibly turn it down? No way! God gives each of us special gifts. It is our responsibility to use these gifts to give back to the world and make it a better place.
I turned my study into a mini-recording studio, lining the walls with cardboard and packing material to absorb the echo. I upgraded my microphone and created a makeshift stand on a tissue box – just the right height and distance from my mouth. The app required countless hours of recording, listening, re-recording. My gentle yet exacting editors taught me to be extremely consistent and did not allow for any sloppiness in the pronunciation or the tune. My husband said that he heard more Megillat Esther during those months than he ever wanted to hear in his entire life!
The app is truly an all-in-one guide. Its interface is so easy to follow that I continue to use it myself when I practice (think: follow the bouncing ball). It’s also great when listening to the Megillah – just make sure the voice is turned off! I was delighted to find JOFA hadn’t stopped there. There are extra articles on the app about Halakha, tips on how to organize a reading, and more.
Recording the app required a lot of time and hard work. Yet the memory of all that melted away when men and women excitedly told me how they learned to leyn the Megillah using only the app! How amazing for me to go from teaching one-on-one to touching the souls of so many. Countless people have said to me: “I’ve been listening to your voice for the last two months. This app enabled me to realize my dream to read the Megillah on Purim.”
This past December I was honored to lead an introductory leyning workshop at the international JOFA conference. Leyning In has been an extraordinary journey of passion and connection with my Jewish roots and my soul. I invite you to come along with me.
I have been hiding from the audience my entire life. I am not sure if this is because I have performance anxiety or that kol b’isha erva (a woman’s voice is nakedness) has presented an obstacle. Is it both? Has my anxiety been influenced by my fear that I am not being a “good girl” when I sing in public?
After many years of “hiding” from public performance, I’m stepping onto the stage. Just thinking about it sets my heart racing. Although I am still anxious because my education defined the Jewish woman in a certain way, I have come to the conclusion that it cannot be wrong for me to use my God-given talent to help people hear their soul’s yearning for spiritual greatness. I now need to tap into my inner strength and model for my children, my students, and future generations what I believe.
I come to this concert with a singular idea: Orthodox women singing in public are an endangered species. Our people, theoretically guided by the maxim, “every Jew is responsible for all other Jews,” don’t even realize the importance of this species to the spiritual biosystem or even that it is in such danger.
Judaism teaches us to release ourselves to faith and connect to God through mitzvot. Through mitzvot, we realize that each of us is a living Sefer Torah, part of an infinite God. Everything emanates from our faith in God and our Jewish community. Much of this is accomplished by women, the core of Jewish families.
Women are creators of life, physical developers of the next generation. Jewish women also define spirituality in the home. We are Jewish because our mothers successfully connected their children to God.
“If words are the pen of the heart,” taught Rabbi Schneur Zalman “then song is the pen of the soul.” While God’s words of Torah flow down to our minds and actions, joyous song carries our souls upward to connect with the Almighty. Jewish women are connecting their children with words of Torah, but many are not tapping into the spiritual core of ecstatic singing that Rabbi Zalman spoke of.
Rabbi Herzfeld’s article, “Kol Ishah” states that many rabbis including, Rabbi Yechiel Weinberg, Rabbi Moshe Lichtenstein and Rabbi David Bigman, agree that women may sing publicly. Many in our community have not adopted this view and run the risk of destroying our spiritual community if women are treated like Dinah and locked in a box. Rabbi Herzfeld writes: “If we deny the girls of our community the ability to express themselves through song, we run the very real risk of allowing them to be serenaded by an alternative influence.” Consider Neshama Carlebach’s recent announcement that she is “making aliyah to the Reform Movement.”
Rabbi Herzfeld further points out that by not allowing women to sing, the Orthodox community is teaching men that girls “are such erotic creatures that it is impossible to have an encounter with them that is not erotic…We are in fact reinforcing the notion that our spiritual personality cannot rise above our physical nature.”
After reading Rabbi Herzfeld’s article, my interest was sparked and I did some research. It seems that the word erva comes from the root ayin-raish-hey which means to uncover, bare oneself. The idea of revelation in this root seems to be more innocent than the Gemara’s later definition of erva as unchasteness or lewdness.
Right now I choose to understand the idea of a woman’s voice as revelatory – innocent and chaste – and my songs as pronouncing the Jewish truth of holiness that is a part of our lives.
The following experience describes how redemptive music can be:
Two years ago I was wheeled into emergency surgery on Yom Kippur. Still awake, the nurse asked if she could play my CD that I had given the surgeon. I had not heard my CD in years and did not sing or listen to my music the entire time I was sick. (Often, we drift from the things we need most in our lives.) Lying on the steel table, I nodded, closed my eyes, and heard Birkat Kohanim (the priestly blessing), while the anesthesiologist told me to count back from 20. This was my prayer on Yom Kippur.
To listen to Rebecca’s music and for information about her March 9th concert in Tenafly, go to rebeccateplow.com. All proceeds will benefit JOFA.
On Keshet, an anonymous group of parents reflects on their difficult journeys accepting their children—and the challenges their communities pose.
“We are not going to tell you it was easy absorbing this news from our children. We had the same hopes for our children that you have for yours. But as hard as it has been for us, it has been a much more difficult journey for our children. We now see our children as very brave for having told us, their friends and extended family, about who they are. As most have described it to us, it was a frightening and lonely experience to hold on to this secret, and most have held on to it from a very young age. We have come to respect how difficult it was for our children to find the strength to come out of the closet in a seemingly unbending Orthodox world.” Continue reading here>>
The excitement in the halls was palpable. Was the enthusiasm because of the record-breaking number of attendees (1,000), the new venue John Jay College, or was it the opening panel with Ruth Calderon? The spirit of optimism and confidence at the recent JOFA conference was so high that most likely it had to be more than the sum of these wonderful elements. For what happened was the creation of a historic gathering in which we saw how far we have come.
The days of tiptoeing around difficult subjects have been swept aside. Instead, we saw new faces exploring new uncharted territory. Topics that had previously been “dealt with” were now embraced and engaged on a profound level.
For the first time, LGBTQ concerns were taken up during four separate sessions in this one-day conference. Here, Queer, and Machmir: Orthodox Life in the LGBT Community launched the events. A screening of DevOut, a movie about the spiritual lives of lesbian and transgender Orthodox women, followed a lunchtime affinity gathering. Finally, a panel entitled Modern Family: Unconventional Structures offered a picture of the challenges faced by nontraditional family constellations in Orthodox contexts.
Miryam Kabakov, one of Eshel’s Executive Directors, remembered that ten years ago, when she had given a session at the JOFA conference on Lesbians in Orthodoxy, the session was nowhere to be found on the program. Only through word of mouth could JOFA attendees locate the “secret” session. Most of the women who attended that session were not openly lesbian, bi, or trans women, but rather agunot, divorced, childless, and single women, who said they were there because this session spoke to their own marginalized status in Orthodoxy.
Ten years later, a cross-section of the conference came to the sessions on LGBT Orthodox Jews. People wanted to explore how issues of gender identity and sexual orientation impact their own lives and those of their family and friends. Parents who have heard the statement: “Imma, Abba – I’m gay,” wanted to hear from a panel of LGBT Orthodox Jews to understand what lay ahead in their children’s future living in Orthodox community.
JOFA has come of age not only due to the persistence and vision of great women, but in some measure due to the men, rabbis and laymen, fathers and brothers who did more than cheer from the sidelines. Orthodox men are increasingly present as “allies.” Many Orthodox men, among them leaders, have joined the chorus of voices when it comes to women’s access and leadership. For both women and LGBT people, allies broaden the field of concern making the challenges of a minority a calling that we all face together. This groundswell of communal action has the power to urge leaders toward an expanded understanding of community itself. The very power of alliance is that it moves us from a place of pain and complaint to a broad sense of communal purpose and shared values. In a sense, alliance is a first step in a process of communal expansion, one in which a new sense of “us” appears on the horizon.
We at Eshel are very grateful to JOFA for opening up the international conference to our voices. Your alliance is not only incredibly encouraging; it will make an enormous practical difference for us. Parents and siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins, teachers and students, and friends can help us to urge our religious leaders to open up a space of hope for LGBT Orthodox people and their families.
This year’s JOFA conference felt like a whole community beginning to walk forward together. What comes to mind is Moshe’s insistence to Pharoah that the service to God that he has in mind cannot be done by a few chosen insiders: “With our children and our elders will we go, with our sons and our daughters….will we go” (Exodus 10:9). The deepest religious vision, and truest service, requires us all. No doubt people will excel in different ways. We will need the old to carry memory and the young to carry promise. We will need strong-hearted women and men to lead us so that no one will be left behind. Redemption, like the revelation to come, requires us all.
Eshel’s Retreat for Orthodox Parents of LGBT Children is March 7-9, 2014. If you know anyone who might benefit, please share this link.
Become a member of Eshel’s Orthodox Allies Roundtable; an organizing effort to gently and respectfully move our communities forward. Sign up as an ally. Join OAR.
Listen to a recording of the session, Here, Queer, and Machmir from the JOFA Conference:
I’ve always really liked Purim. When I was younger, my main interest in the holiday was dressing up in fun costumes and eating hamentaschen. Although I still enjoy those aspects, I now appreciate Purim because it brings two independent women, Vashti and Esther, into focus. I’m certainly not the only one who has noticed Purim’s feminist quality; for decades, Orthodox women and men who are sensitive to gender issues have rallied around the holiday, taking Ta’anit Esther as an opportunity to talk about agunah and using Esther as an example of why Jewish women’s voices must be heard.
Although Mordecai is an integral part of the Purim story, Esther is undoubtedly the main character. However, based on the communal recitation of pesukim (verses) during the Megillah reading, one might think that Mordecai is the more important figure: of the four verses recited aloud by the congregation, three are specifically about Mordecai, and none invoke Esther. This erasure of Esther’s contributions to the story seems oddly dissonant with the overall feminist slant of the holiday. Consequently, some Orthodox feminists have begun to right this wrong and recite pesukim about Esther aloud as well.
Reciting pesukim out loud during Megillah reading is a minhag (practice) that dates back to the Gaonic period, although the verses of choice were not settled upon for another few centuries. Because the practice is purely minhag, there is no halakhic reason congregations can’t say additional pesukim about Esther out loud. Although reciting the four traditional pesukim has been part of the mesorah (tradition) for centuries, Judaism is a living religion that can and should be tweaked within the framework of halakha to remain contemporary.
For communities interested in introducing more gender parity to their Megillah readings, Kehillat Hadar has identified pesukim about Esther that are roughly parallel to those recited aloud about Mordecai. The first pasuk that we recite aloud, “In the fortress Shushan lived a Jew by the name of Mordecai, son of Yair son of Shimi son of Kish, a Benjaminite” (2:5), can be accompanied by, “He was foster father to Hadassah – that is, Esther – his uncle’s daughter, for she had neither father nor mother. The maiden was striking and beautiful; and when her father and mother died, Mordecai adopted her as his own daughter” (2:7).
As a parallel to 8:15, “Mordecai left the king’s presence in royal robes of blue and white, with a magnificent crown of gold and a mantle of fine linen and purple wool. And the city of Shushan rang with joyous cries,” perhaps recite Esther’s petition to Mordecai in 4:16, “‘Go, assemble all the Jews who live in Shushan, and fast on my behalf; do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maidens will observe the same fast. Then I shall go to the king, though it is contrary to the law; and if I am to perish, I shall perish!’”
In connection to “For Mordecai the Jew ranked next to King Ahaseurus and was highly regarded by the Jews and popular with the multitude of his brethren; he sought the good of his people and interceded for the welfare of all his kindred” (10:3) can come “And Esther’s ordinance validating these observances of Purim was recorded in a scroll” (9:32).
If you would like to recite pesukim about Esther aloud, but you can’t find a Megillah reading in your area that does, you should organize your own! You can register your reading on JOFA’s Project Esther directory. If you’ve never leyned before, you can also learn how to do so by using JOFA’s Megillah leyning app. Whatever sort of reading you end up attending or organizing, the important thing to remember is to enjoy it! Purim is a time of unadulterated simcha, and we can’t let anything – even frustrating little bits of perceived sexism – to take away from our joy.
This post references various parts of the morning prayer services, or Shacharit. For an overview of the parts of that service, click here.
Yesterday I was walking along the park that lines the old railway tracks linking our Jerusalem home
and the twins’ gan (daycare) when I ran into a friend from the neighborhood. He was standing with
an older man who looked vaguely familiar. When my friend introduced us, the man said, “Oh, it’s the Tehillim lady.” When I looked back at him quizzically, he continued, “I hear you singing Tehillim every morning. You’re so devout!” It took me a few moments to realize what he was talking about, because as far as I know, I never chant Psalms. But then suddenly I understood.
Every weekday morning, as I push the girls’ stroller on our way to gan, I “daven” aloud with them. I am putting the word “daven” in quotes because it’s a far cry from serious prayer. I do not have a siddur (prayer book) with me, and I do not recite the full morning service, nor do I stand and sit at the appropriate points, since I am pushing a stroller all the while. Rather, I sing my favorite melodies from the opening psalms of Psukei Dezimra as we walk: I recite Mah Tovu as we walk down the hill to Derekh Hevron, then I chant Ashrei as we cross the busy highway, and I belt out a few Hallelujahs as we make our way through the parking lot towards the park. Many of these prayers are indeed psalms, which explains that older man’s misperception. By the time we get to their gan, I am usually up to the blessings before the Shema. But at that point I stop to take out the girls from their strollers, deposit them in their high chairs, and bend over to kiss them goodbye on the tops of their heads.
I did not realize until now that anyone overheard my morning davening, and I’m a little embarrassed by it all. After all, the proper way to daven is in synagogue with a minyan, while holding a siddur and bending and bowing at the appropriate moments. And yet my approach to prayer is not without precedent; in the third mishnah of Berakhot (10b) we are told of a famous debate between Beit Hillel and Shammai (two schools of thought) about how to recite the Shema. Shammai says that at night one should recite the Shema while lying down, and in the morning one should recite it while standing, to fulfill the verse, “When you lie down and when you rise up” (Deuteronomy 6:7). Hillel, who is more lax, says that any position is acceptable, in fulfillment of the verse, “When you go along your way.” That is, Beit Shammai would never approve of the way I daven on the walk to gan, but Beit Hillel would have no problem with my ambulatory prayer.
My husband, too, has a hard time finding time to daven during our rushed and busy mornings, so he has come up with his own creative solution. He puts our two-year-old Matan in his chair with breakfast in front of him, and then brings his siddur and tefillin to the table, where he davens while standing next to Matan. Our son loves singing along, though he knows that he is not allowed to touch the “feeleen” boxes until he finishes eating and washes his hands, after he and Abba have sung Adon Olam together. And Daniel is grateful for the opportunity to daven, even though he looks forward to the day when he can return to minyan and not have to worry about picking cheerios off the floor in between Psukei Dezimra and the Shacharit prayers that follow.
When I think about where we are in our prayer lives, I am reminded of the first mishnah of the fifth chapter of Berakhot (30b), which teaches that one should not begin praying except with koved rosh, a phrase that literally means “heavy-headedness” and connotes tremendous reverence and respect. The mishnah goes on to state that the early pious ones used to wait an hour before praying in order to get into the proper frame of mind for speaking with God. Neither Daniel nor I are able to pray with any degree of koved rosh at this point in our lives. If we feel heaviness of head it is not from our tremendous powers of concentration, but rather from major sleep deprivation caused by our three children under the age of two and a half. Nonetheless, I like to think of our prayer these days as analogous to that preparatory hour of the early pious ones. It is not really prayer, but a preparation for the rest of our prayer lives, when hopefully we will be able to focus better.
The Talmud, in discussing the mishnah about the early pious ones, relates that the Biblical source for the laws of prayer is actually the prayer of Chana, who wept in Shiloh for God to grant her a child, and then offered a beautiful and poetic prayer of thanksgiving after Shmuel was born. And so the rabbis derive the laws of how to pray from a parent. As Chana herself surely knew, praying as a parent is not easy, particularly not in the early morning hours when you are drunk with exhaustion and can hardly see straight. Even so, when I set off to gan with the autumn wind blowing through my hair and my two gorgeous daughters sitting side-by-side in the stroller before me, I feel so full of gratitude that I cannot help but pray.
I could never have anticipated the impact that reading Perek Daled (chapter four) of Megillat Esther would have on my life. In 2008, I was a student at Cambridge University, and what had started as a shyly mooted idea to organise a women’s megillah reading had been taken up enthusiastically. After some reluctance, our student chaplain acquiesced, and even beneath the boys’ standard jokes was an undeniable note of respect.
With last-minute timing typical of students, we split up the ten chapters, found recordings to learn from, and learnt our parts. I don’t think I realised at the time that learning leyn Megillat Esther would transform my understanding of the book, and deepen my relationship with Judaism.
Applying notes to the text has been a key part of this experience – the leyning trop (cantillation) really does mirror the mood and pace of the story. I had always loved the bits of Megillat Esther which were sung to the Eicha (Lamentations) tune: remembering the exile of Mordechai’s family from Jerusalem, and as Esther prepares to approach the King uninvited, and face the same fate as Vashti. Until I learnt to read them myself, I hadn’t appreciated the depths of the words beneath them.
Each time I’ve leyned the megillah since then, and there have been five occasions (and counting!), I have felt my bond grow with these ancient, beloved words. Esther’s story has come alive in new and astounding – and sometimes disturbing – ways. I’ve discovered new characters I never realised were there (they never mentioned Hatach or Hegai in cheder [Jewish elementary school]) and I’ve noticed nuances in the narrative. The words and phrases and their tunes have stayed with me, popping up at surprising times. They inform my study of other parts of the Tanakh, enabling
new cross-readings and echoes between stories. (And I felt rather smug on one occasion when a rabbi quoted a phrase from “my perek,” and I noticed that he missed out a word!)
Reading Megillat Esther has been an enriching experience in so many other ways. In the community where I live now, it has brought together a wonderful group of like-minded friends with a variety of ages and backgrounds – some of whom I may never have spoken to otherwise. While some are deeply involved in our community, others feel alienated by Judaism, and yet reading the megillah has been a source of connection and meaning for them. To anybody who says that women’s megillah readings are a “slippery slope” away from “authentic Judaism,” I would encourage them to consider the women whom it has inspired to greater levels of Jewish knowledge, spirituality, and engagement. In addition to my feelings of connection with the text, my Hebrew skills have improved significantly, and I am finally mastering the difference between pronouncing a heh and a chet, something, embarrassingly, that I never properly achieved in cheder or even in seminary.
The readings themselves have always been memorable, both for their good decorum and clarity of reading – and simply for being fun occasions. It is incredibly refreshing to be a part of a reading where you can hear every word, when each leyner brings a unique voice to her section, and when you can feel the hours of work, effort, and worry that has gone into preparing each chapter. And we have fun! Each year, our group has picked a dressing up theme, from wigs and wings to silly hats. We also give tzedakah as a group each year, picking both a local cause and one further away.
Reading megillah has changed and enriched my Jewish life. I hope that both women who choose to leyn and those who don’t have only respect for one another. Ultimately, I see participation in reading the megillah as taking one of the many opportunities that life throws at us to bless God – to do something positive, active and public that connects us with our spiritual heritage. It makes me proud to know that I have been part of the growing movement of women’s megillah readings, and that the young girls – and boys – in our community will grow up seeing it as a normal and beautiful part of the Jewish year.
Are you organizing a megillah reading this year? Add it to JOFA’s international directory.
Reading the Torah has always fascinated me. I grew up in a home of leyners (readers of Torah, traditionally men) and I loved nothing more than the “gossip” surrounding synagogue on Shabbat. Who had an aliyah? Why was there a hosafa (an extra aliyah, usually to accommodate a celebration or yahrtzeit)? Why did we read a special maftir?
When my three brothers came close to their bar mitzvah age, they learned how to read from the Torah. I was so fascinated that I had them teach me the trop (cantillation), but they soon tired of it, as did I. I didn’t see much point as I wasn’t able to do anything with the trop anyway.
Over the years, nothing really changed. I still loved listening to the Torah leyning; I still followed along closely with all the readings and different tunes. But the knowledge itself remained in a secret garden, one that I only saw bits of as I peeked over the hedge.
Then – one day – someone opened a door to this secret garden. Judy Rosen organized a course for women in ta’amei hamikra (cantillation marks). I heard about it and thought: “Me? Learn now? Hey – I’m over forty!” And on the heels of that came another thought: “If Rabbi Akiva could learn to read Hebrew at age forty – well – I can do this too.” I didn’t know what I would do with that knowledge but I felt it touch a chord deep inside.
Signing up for that course was one of the best decisions that I ever made.
From the very first lesson, I was totally hooked. I’d stay up at night until the wee hours practicing each new set of ta’amim (tunes) that Judy taught us. In fact, I had to force myself to finish everything else that I needed to do first or I simply wouldn’t get to them. Practicing my leyning was my reward after all else was done.
At around this time, a women’s prayer group started in Ra’anana. After a few months, Judy pronounced us “ready” to read an aliyah. I was petrified. Me, ready? What if I made a mistake? What if I froze? But I couldn’t resist the siren’s call. I practiced that aliyah over and over. There was one particularly complex pasuk (verse) that I just couldn’t get right and worried over it aloud to my husband. He laughed and said: “Those are the psukim that leyners dream about.” That was all I needed to hear – I wanted to be one of those leyners too! And I learned that it’s okay to make a mistake, God knows we aren’t perfect.
Reading from a Sefer Torah (Torah scroll) for the first time was an incredible experience for me. I was full of awe, apprehension and excitement. Standing so close to our holiest object, I felt honored and moved. This was truly a rite of passage for me. Everyone disappeared except me, the Sefer Torah and God.
I was thrilled to have learned to leyn and walk around that garden freely. What I didn’t know was that just beyond were many more gardens that unfolded and unlocked before me– teaching leyning, giving divrei Torah, leading davening and acting as gaba’it in a partnership minyan. Each one was a step on a path I had not taken before. Each step required taking a deep breath and placing my foot forward, at first hesitantly, then more firmly. Each time I embraced a new skill it gifted me with new insight and deepened my connection to God.
This is what has happened to me. Each garden that I enter uncovers a truer and more honest me. Over ten years have passed since that first Torah leyning class and today I am a full-time student at Yeshivat Maharat.
When you find something that fills you with passion and makes you happy – grab it. It may change your life in the most unexpected ways.
Reading megillah is a great way to enter the secret garden of leyning. Check out JOFA’s Megillat Esther app!
This blog post was written shortly after Purim 2013. If you’re reading megillah this year and need help learning the tune, check out JOFA’s Megillat Esther App. To catch up on last Purim’s other blog posts, follow these links: A Visit to Shushan, Purim in Hollywood, St. Louis Women Write a Megillat Esther, and An Adar of Anticipation.
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.
For an online directory of megillah readings around the world or to download JOFA’s Megillat Esther app, visit the Project Esther homepage.