When we received our JOFA sukkah poster last week, I excitedly showed my daughters, ages five and ten, the poster of women leaders. They looked it over and the following conversation ensued:
Child: “Do you think Uncle ____ and Aunt ___ would want to hang it in their sukkah?” (We are city dwellers who don’t have our own sukkah.)
Me: “Sure, why not?”
Child, a bit sheepishly: “Well, Mommy, I don’t want to be mean, but the women are a little ugly, don’t you think? Couldn’t they have made them prettier?”
Me: “I don’t think the point was whether they were pretty or not.”
Child: “I am not saying Nechama Leibowitz looked like a rock star in real life, but I’m sure she was prettier as a young woman.”
Me: “Do you think that we’d be having the same conversation about the Baba Sali or Rav Moshe Feinstein? Are they especially handsome?”
Child: [Rolls eyes] “I knew you were going to say that, but I still think they could be prettier.”
And so I thought about it—should the artists have attempted to “airbrush” Nechama Leibowitz?
Why do pictures of older male rabbis look distinguished to most viewers, but pictures of an older Nechama Leibowitz remind us of an elderly grandmother?
This summer the New York Times ran an article about camps that ban “body talk”—among them the Jewish farm camp Eden Village. The article noted that at Eden Village “on Friday afternoon, when the campers, girls and boys from 8 to 17, are dressed in white and especially polished for the Sabbath, they refrain from complimenting one another’s appearances. Rather, they say, ‘Your soul shines’ or ‘I feel so happy to be around you’ or ‘Your smile lights up the world,’ … Signs posted on the mirrors in the bathroom read, ‘Don’t check your appearance, check your soul.’”
While I could see the virtues of checking your soul, rather than your appearance, if I am to be honest with myself, I can’t actually imagine parenting (or living) this way. I do tell my kids they look beautiful, and when they remember to brush their hair, I comment on it. I like hearing compliments on my appearance and I want my daughters to hear those compliments too and compliment others, while not being overly focused on their appearance. This, of course, is a very tough balancing act, made all the more difficult if one has a child who loves fashion and notices everyone’s clothes (as is the case for my five year old).
One of the great virtues of JOFA commissioning this project is that it allows all of us to see women scholars represented on the walls of our sukkot and schools. While there’s certainly some part of me that wishes that my girls didn’t ask “why aren’t they prettier,” I am glad that this sparked the question for them. There is no doubt that children raised as part of a society that thrives on airbrushing will expect conventional beauty from women leaders and scholars, but I hope that we as parents and educators can begin conversations with them that will begin to chip away at some of these notions.
For millennia, it has been taken for granted that the place for Jewish women was in the home and in the kitchen. And of all the public arenas that women were discouraged from entering, the Beit Midrash (study hall) was on the top of the list. Many Jewish women never even had the opportunity to engage with a page of Talmud.
While that reality has changed for most modern Jewish women, we owe a great debt to those pioneers who cleared the way for thousands of Jewish women to engage in high level Torah and Talmud study.
To celebrate a few of these women, JOFA has teamed up with six young Jewish women artists to create a poster featuring six such educational leaders from the 19th and 20th centuries. These posters are available now through a Kickstarter campaign ending July 14.
Meet the scholars:
Nechama Leibowitz (1905-1997) Nechama Leibowitz was born in 1905 in Riga, educated in Berlin, and moved to Palestine in 1930. She taught at many schools including Tel Aviv University, where she was appointed a full professor. In 1942, she began distributing stenciled pages of questions on the weekly Torah portion, They reached a vast audience and were eventually translated and published. She was awarded the Israel Prize for Education. Though her thoughtful, literary approach to the Bible revolutionized Torah study, she humbly insisted, “I only teach what the commentaries say. Nothing is my own.” Her tombstone is inscribed, “Nechama Leibowitz: teacher.”
After graduating high school in Baltimore, Henrietta Szold established the first American night school to teach English and vocational skills to Jewish immigrants in Baltimore. After moving to New York, she became an editor for the Jewish Publication Society. At the age of 49, her first trip to Palestine sealed her life’s mission: the health, education, and welfare of the Yishuv. In 1912 she founded Hadassah, which became the largest and most powerful Zionist organization in America, and which now boasts 330,000 members worldwide. Starting in 1933, Szold also ran Youth Aliyah, which helped save 30,000 children from Nazi death camps.
Rachel “Ray” Frank was born in San Francisco to Polish immigrant parents at a time when Jewish communities were just beginning to emerge in the West. She taught bible studies and Jewish history in California, where she quickly garnered a large following. She rose to prominence after delivering a series of sermons in Washington for the High Holidays and was soon dubbed “the Jewess in the Pulpit,” and later, “the Golden Girl Rabbi of the West.” Although she had no rabbinic aspirations, Ray Frank’s presence in the pulpit made space in the collective imagination for public female religious leadership.
Farha “Flora” Sassoon was born in Bombay to a family of influential tradesmen from Baghdad known as the “Rothschilds of the East.” By the age of seventeen, she knew Hebrew, Aramaic, Hindustani, English, French, German and had a thorough knowledge of Jewish texts. She wrote on Rashi, lectured on religious education, read publicly from the Torah, and her expertise in Sephardic doctrine and practice was unparalleled. According to historian Cecil Roth, she “walked like a queen, talked like a sage and entertained like an Oriental potentate.”
Born in Poland, Beilka “Bessie” Gotsfeld immigrated to New York with her family in 1905. In 1925, she founded the precursor of AMIT, an organization connecting religious women to the cause of Zionism and expanding educational and vocational opportunities for religious women in Israel. Gotsfeld became the Palestine representative of the organization, eventually settling in Tel Aviv. She worked to establish three urban vocational schools for adolescent girls and two large farm villages that provided Jewish children, Holocaust survivors, and new immigrants educational programs and resources.
Born in Krakow to poor Hassidic parents, Sarah Schenirer left school after she turned thirteen and became a seamstress. After World War I broke out, she started to teach Jewish studies to a group of girls. This blossomed into 300 schools now known as the “Beis Yaakov” network, and by the time of her death approximately 35,000 girls were learning at Beis Yaakov schools. In her will, she wrote: “My dear girls, you are going out into the great world. Your task is to plant the holy seed in the souls of pure children. In a sense, the destiny of Israel of old is in your hands.”