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.
This piece was submitted on Friday, January 31, 2014. The event took place on Sunday, January 26.
When a couple gets divorced, the husband must provide the wife with a get (Jewish writ of divorce). If he refuses to grant her this document, she remains “chained” to the marriage, unable to re-marry. A woman in this situation is called an agunah.
Something incredible happened last Sunday night.
Three Modern Orthodox synagogues in St. Louis– Bais Abraham Congregation, Young Israel of St. Louis, and Nusach Hari-B’nai Zion– joined together to sponsor an event to raise awareness about the plight of agunot and to encourage couples to sign the halakhic postnuptial agreement. Featuring keynote speaker Rabbi Yona Reiss, Av Beit Din (Head of the Rabbinic Court) of the Chicago Rabbinical Council and former director of the Rabbinical Council of America, the event highlighted the abuse suffered by women in the Orthodox community when their husbands refuse to give them a get, whether to use it as leverage in the divorce proceedings or merely as a conduit to exert power.
On Sunday we came together as a community. We recognized a communal problem. And we worked together for a communal solution.
The halakhic prenuptial agreement – or postnuptial agreement, for those like myself who were already married without signing the prenuptial agreement – is currently the best solution to prevent future agunot. The agreement outlines that in the event of a divorce, the couple agrees to resolve any disputes related to the get before the religious court (in our case, the Beth Din Zedek Ecclesiastical Judicature of the Chicago Rabbinical Council) and that the husband obligates himself to support his wife in the amount of $150 per day, adjusted for inflation, from the time that they cease to live together as husband and wife for as long as they remain religiously married.
Thirty-one couples signed the postnup document on Sunday night, and another twelve who were unable to attend the event committed to signing the document.
Keren and Gabe Douek will be married for ten years this August. They attended the event with their four-year-old son Joel and two-month-old son Oliver in tow. “It is so painful to read stories of husbands abusing their wives and keeping this last element of control over them by refusing to give the get,” Keren said. “The postnup is a concrete step we can take towards a real solution, instead of just sharing an article on Facebook. I’d like to believe that I would never need my postnup, but Gabe and I felt very strongly that signing one is the right thing to do.”
Annabelle and Ken Chapel also signed the document. “I’m very fortunate. I’m going to be married sixty years,” said Annabelle. “But there are women who are not so fortunate and it is not fair that they are held hostage. This is a way of showing solidarity.”
Though there are eighty-six additional individuals who now have extra legal protection in their marriage, it is really all of our marriages that are now stronger and, indeed, our entire community that benefits. Together we took a stand. Together we shifted the communal norm. Together we declared that we refuse to allow our rituals of marriage and divorce to become a mechanism for manipulation.
Together we said that even one agunah is one too many.
I invite you to join us.
Click here for information about halakhic prenuptial agreements and various resources for agunot.
People talk a lot about societal changes over time, how perspectives and norms evolve – for instance, the idea that centuries ago, the sole accepted role for women was to birth and raise children. While there is truth to this sense of history, it is not the whole picture.
I was amazed recently to come across a commentary, or midrash, that addresses the core of today’s “mommy wars” – and that reflects a perspective as balanced and “progressive” as any I have heard expressed in modern times.
In chapter 4 of the Book of Judges, Deborah—unique in her position as a female prophet and judge—and the soldier Barak engage in battle against a Canaanite army, which is led by a general named Sisera. As the Jews gain the upper hand, Sisera flees and is given refuge – so he believes – by Yael, the wife of a Canaanite ally. After instructing Yael to stand guard, Sisera falls asleep – at which point, Yael picks up a handy tent peg and drives it into his skull, thereby securing the Jewish victory over this enemy.
Deborah’s song of victory in the ensuing chapter includes high praise of Yael: “Blessed above women shall Yael be, the wife of Heber the Kenite, above women in the tent shall she be blessed.” (Judges 5:24)
Who are these “women in the tent,” above whom Yael shall be blessed? And why is she blessed above them?
For some, the association of “women” and “tent” might conjure thoughts of a well-known midrash about Sarah’s modesty (see Rashi on Genesis 18:9). However, Bereishit Rabbah 48:15 provides a different interpretation – one that carries (other) surprising implications.
This midrash cites two similar perspectives on the identity and significance of the “women in tents:” Rabbi Eleazar suggests “women in the tent” refers to the women of the generation that wandered in the desert, where they lived in tents; Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman says the “women in the tent” are the four matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. The two sages agree, however, about the underlying meaning of Deborah’s praise of Yael:
“They [women in tents] gave birth and maintained the world (“קיימו את העולם”) – and what would it have benefited them? For without [Yael], [the Jewish people] would have been lost [at the hands of Sisera]!”
From their tents, these women contributed to the Jewish people by birthing children necessary to perpetuate the [Jewish] “world.” Without the matriarchs’ children, there would have been no Jewish people; and without the children born in Egypt and in the desert, there would have been no growth for the fledgling nation.
However, without Yael’s attack on Sisera, the women’s contributions could have been for naught, as Sisera might have ultimately destroyed the Jewish people.
The message in this midrash is both surprising and obvious.
The battles in today’s “mommy wars” tend towards two opposite extremes. One side maintains that previous generations held a one-dimensional view of a woman’s place and role, and that it is our job as enlightened modern women to overturn that perspective, going out into the world and serving in active leadership roles, with or without having children along the way. Or, declares the other side, the women’s movement went too far, and it is our job as postmodern women to return to our biological roots and focus on our maternal roles, where we will find the greatest personal fulfillment and make the greatest contribution to the world.
This midrash demonstrates that the rabbis of old weren’t as one-dimensional in their perspectives on women as either side of this argument– and neither should we be.
The passage does reflect an underlying assumption of the value of bringing children into the world: women who choose to focus on putting their bodies to the task of perpetuating humanity are indeed “maintaining the world.”
However, that is not the only role that can – or should – be served by women. Because what would become of those children without individuals who take initiative in other areas of life? Perhaps one might argue that the world COULD be saved by men alone– but the examples of Deborah and Yael, and of other women in the Bible, demonstrate that there is no reason for it to be so. Some situations require a woman to step out of the home and respond to a different kind of calling, because women as well as men might have the necessary skills and drive to make that sort of contribution.
Mommy warriors, take heart: These ancient, progressive rabbis think you’re all right.
Inspired by the ubiquitous Venmo ads on the NYC Subway, comedian and former yeshiva student Eitan Levine came up with these:
Lucas’s take on Genesis:
Lucas loves Jewish feminist literature, too!
Don’t know the Feminist Ryan Gosling? Give yourself some cultural education and a few good laughs.
And of course, we couldn’t help ourselves:
I am a person who puts on, or “lays,” tefillin (phylacteries). I happen to be female. While my gender, to my mind, does not affect the nature of my performance of this mitzvah, it inevitably adds a layer of complexity to others’ perception of it. I constantly smack up against the tremendous double standard that is applied to women who perform mitzvot that are seen as “male,” both in my day-to-day life and in the communal discourse.
I was recently interviewed for a piece in the Times of Israel about high school girls who lay tefillin. The piece was, on the whole, interesting and balanced. In this article, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach articulates the two most flawed and problematic ideas surrounding the concept of women and tefillin and most other “men’s” mitzvot. He questions the “seriousness” and motivation of the women who take on these mitzvot.
“For those people who are troubled by women putting on tefillin,” Rabbi Boteach says, “the message needs to be, ‘Fair enough, put on tefillin, but accompanied with a serious embracing of Talmud.’” In all my years as a halakhically observant Jew, it is only when it comes to women wearing tefillin and tzitzit (fringes) that “seriousness” is made a qualification for the performance of a mitzvah. Is a person who does not often make the blessings on food told not to bother praying mincha, the afternoon service? Is a person interrogated about how much Talmud they learn each day before they are encouraged to give to tzedakah (charity)? Since when does one have to meet a certain standard of observance, or “seriousness,” before one is given “permission” to perform mitzvot?
This issue of “seriousness” takes another form as well. I have often heard and read that it’s all well and good for “serious” women to lay tefillin, provided they do so every day. As a person who considers herself to have a binding halakhic obligation to lay tefillin, I can testify that I sometimes mess up. As a teenager who likes to sleep in, this is a difficult mitzvah for me to do, as I know it is for many of my peers. Despite my commitment to halakha and mitzvot, there have been Sundays when I have slept through my alarm and rushed out to teach Hebrew school without laying tefillin. I make mistakes; then I make a commitment to do better next time. But my “right” to lay tefillin is not contingent on my consistency. Do Chabad shluchim (ambassadors) only offer tefillin to men who don them daily? No. Mitzvot are mitzvot, and I do not need to prove my right to lay tefillin any more than my equally sleepy male friends do.
The second women-and-tefillin trope Rabbi Boteach employs is to question women’s motivation. “Judaism is not in a state where we can play games with it…If it’s to demonstrate [women] can do everything men can do, it’s not a spiritual motivation, rather politics, and that’s not favorable to Judaism. Assimilation is catastrophic. Let’s never forget the bigger picture.” Setting aside Rabbi Boteach’s ludicrous slippery-slope fallacy (women performing more mitzvot will lead to assimilation?), I will simply say to this: enough. I, and all other women, do not need to prove our motivation to you. We are seeking equality because it will bring us closer to God.
The dichotomy between religious and political motivations is a false one. Our demand to perform mitzvot to which we have been denied access is inherently political in a community where certain mitzvot, like tefillin, are indicators of power and masculinity. However, that does not make the mitzvah any less about God. Women’s performance of these mitzvot will enhance the Jewish community as a whole. By democratizing access to ritual practice, we can redefine “men’s mitzvot” simply as “mitzvot,” and thus change their function from an indicator of who’s a member of the “club” to an expression of commitment to God and Torah. By laying tefillin, I make a political statement about the moral and halakhic correctness of feminist innovation, evolution, and influence. This statement is a reflection of deep religious and moral convictions, and I am proud to make it.
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Anyone who knows me even a bit also knows that I thrive on social contact and interacting with people. However, during my year of mourning (avelut) for my father, I shied away from social situations. My guideline was: turn down the volume of my social life while turning up the volume of my family life. This gave me time and space to mourn and cherish my memories of my father while pondering my own role as a mother to my four children.
As I neared the end of this long year, a close friend gave me a valuable gift. About a month before the end she said: “Bracha, it’s time to start preparing yourself to step back into life.” Jewish law sets up a designated mourning period of a year for the loss of a parent. When this year comes to a close, we do not extend it as we are instructed by the Torah: “bal tosif” (do not add). When it is time – it is time.
My friend’s wise words made me mindful of this transition and allowed me time to think about how it would feel to socialize again and jump back in to life when the time came. It felt odd and a bit artificial at the beginning, but I was ready and prepared to shed my cloak of silence.
I shared this story with my Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshivat Maharat, Rabbi Jeff Fox, and he pointed out that while the halakha helps enormously to transition into mourning, there are no set laws or customs to transition out of mourning. Indeed, without my friend’s counsel, it would have been much more jarring and difficult for me.
What Reb Jeff said made me realize the function of two beautiful customs created by women for women. These customs “bookend” the year of avelut, and help shape the transitions into and out of saying kaddish.
Ushering In: A woman from my community in Raanana, Israel sadly passed away from cancer after a valiant struggle. Among her children, she left triplet daughters. I went to their synagogue on the Shabbat during shiva to give comfort to both her husband and to Judi, the daughter who lives nearby. As I accompanied Judi upstairs to the women’s section after Kabbalat Shabbat (when the mourners enter the synagogue) she shared with me that the triplets had decided to take on saying kaddish together. Each sister chose a specific service: shacharit, mincha or arvit (morning, afternoon, or evening) to say kaddish each day for the entire year. I was moved to tears and hugged her in silent empathy.
As we walked into synagogue, I was surprised to see my friend Talia sitting and waiting as she doesn’t usually pray in that synagogue. She rose to greet the new mourner. That’s when it clicked – and fresh tears arose in my eyes- Talia had just finished her own year of saying kaddish for her father. She was there to accompany the new mourner at her first appearance in synagogue saying kaddish. Talia showed Judi when and where to say kaddish and she hugged Judi when tears slipped down Judi’s face. I could see how comforting it was for Judi to have Talia’s support as she ventured into this new space.
Escorting Out: My friends Sharon, Talia and others have marked the end of their year of avelut in a unique and special way. Each of them hosted a se’uda shlishit on the Shabbat following their last kaddish of the year. Only women with some connection to saying kaddish were invited. This included women who said kaddish three times a day, once a day, only on Shabbat and only on the yahrtzeit. There were also women who had attending minyan specifically to answer amen to other people saying kaddish.
At each gathering, there was a powerful feeling within this circle of Jewish women. We felt a strong link with each other – both through our personal loss and through our choice to step forward and give honor in our bereavement. There were palpable layers of warmth, understanding and comfort as we helped escort the avela (mourner) and (I felt) the neshama of the deceased as well. This tradition has been passed along — from woman to woman – marking the transition from actively saying kaddish to fading back into the general circle of congregants who answer amen.
The short conversation with Reb Jeff shed a new perspective for me on these and other recently created traditions. I believe that these customs have a much larger role to play in our spiritual lives. They help us celebrate life-cycle events, move through transitions and achieve closure after difficult ordeals.
I see empty spaces just waiting for us to fill. Let’s do it!
Check out A Daughter’s Recitation of Mourner’s Kaddish to explore the halakhic sources surrounding women and kaddish.
If I ever had a rabbi, Ruth Calderon would be her. I only ever saw Calderon once, on Youtube, as she delivered her maiden speech to the Knesset. She knows Talmud, she’s got the right values, and she’s a mesmerizing sermonizer. The perfect rabbi sans rabbinic narcissism.
I was booked into the JOFA conference anyway because I was speaking on a panel, but when I heard Ruth was coming I resolved not to miss the plenary (my kids – bless them – delayed me at the last conference). My co-panelists queried why I belonged at JOFA. I don’t go to an Orthodox shul, my closest friends and family have exited observance, and I’m sometimes gabbai of my trad-egal minyan, Segulah.
My co-panelists were making me defend my attendance (as if anyone should need a defense for being a JOFA-nik!), and I responded: I am a gabbai at Segulah in a sheitel, I am the first woman to testify before Congress in that wig, I eat only apples and (bad) chocolate out of the house, and I don’t accept honors at the minyan at which I call others up to do so. You see, a (male) rabbi gave me an anti-partnership-minyan psak and I keep to it.
As a feminist spiritual seeker, JOFA seemed a place I might feel a bit at home.
Well, it was more than a bit. For Ruth Calderon, I stood twice – when she came up to the podium and when she went down. Her words were breathtaking and she has lost none of her modesty with all the adulation.
My mind spun with Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold’s description of the Shabbat babysitter who comes to watch her brood while she and her spouse both daven with the community. I thought back a generation to when I was both breadwinner and rebbetzin. I stayed home on Shabbat nursing my babies because there was no eruv and the babysitter was hired to cover for my actual job.
The vibe at the JOFA Conference was palpable, full of young people and their mothers and grandmothers. The young ones: we raised them but they raise us higher. They didn’t let us get away with last season’s false platitudes. They’re not out of the closet: they were never in it.
At lunch I invited a lone eater to join my daughter and me and she turned out to be a “mom in a sheitel in finance” like me; after meeting her I had another professional reunion I wished hadn’t taken twenty years to happen.
I wish the JOFA conference was longer and more often. Even if others question my credentials, I can proudly say “ich bin ein JOFA-nik!”