Don’t be mad, but I am ordaining myself as a Hazzanista, which is like a cantor, barista, and fashionista rolled into one. I am your musical mixologist assembling liturgical outfits for all seasons and synthesizing musical traditions from across the Jewish world to create substantive and transformative prayer experiences.
I’m not starting a new religion; I’m just impatient and want to wear this cool hat like my Grandpa Frank. Hats aside, what I really want is an “authentic” Jewish woman’s voice, something that continues simultaneously to pursue and elude me in its ebb and flow.
But does “authentic” really mean anything?
In my experience, “authentic” means text and lineage that I can sink the teeth of my imagination into and taste every bit of its richness, malleability, and complexity. Is that too much to ask?
So even if it’s a little reckless, or plain old annoying to some people or institutions, I now bestow upon myself the title of “Hazzanista.”
So how did this all start? Great question! A few years ago after graduating college, losing my job, and getting dumped big time by my opera singer boyfriend (best thing he ever did for me), I enrolled in cantorial school. The first year in Israel consisted of studying at a halakhic, gender-egalitarian yeshiva. As the year progressed and I increased my content-based knowledge of Jewish law and prayer, I felt increasingly overwhelmed and shut out by the predominantly masculine verbal and visual vocabularies of traditional Judaism. I felt a gender imbalance even more in physically egalitarian spaces because there was no mechitza, physical barrier between men and women in a synagogue, in place to serve as a concrete manifestation of gender biases. Instead, it was a lattice screen of default Divine vocabulary.
And though modifying canonized Jewish prayers in an effort to include women seems more like giving a band-aid to someone who is having a heart attack, I cannot bring myself to wholly reject this archaic and gender imbalanced tradition. Like many people who grew up steeped in old school Jewish liturgy, I still manage to maintain a deep spiritual and emotional connection to its almost exclusively male voice. The poetry and music are like colorful beads that I get to string together in different combinations each time I sit down or stand up with them.
While in cantorial school, I started out trying to embody the music of the great Ashkenazi cantors— Koussevitsky, Rosenblatt, and Ganchoff. Enchanting, exciting, and deep music, yet singing it was like walking around in a pair of incredibly beautiful shoes that just didn’t fit my feet. I needed a musical space where my voice could walk in and make itself comfortable. Ultimately, I discovered niggunim and Middle Eastern music with its subtlety, inwardness, and expressiveness in contrast to the showmanship and—dare I say—phallic high notes of performative cantorial music. The feminine began to seep into the liturgy, not through the modification of God language, but in the way this music manifested and empowered my body and mind. I could finally sing without pretense, be softer rather than louder, and listen to the silence in between the notes, which is as vital to the music as the notes themselves.
In an era of instantaneous communication revealing worldly unrest to us at all hours of the day and night, this approach to music is more important than ever before. Surrounded by gadgets and screens, we are longing to connect to a stillness found in the brilliant darkness of the starry night and in many Middle Eastern and North African musical traditions. When the world’s problems seem unmanageably big, the noise too cacophonous, the pace too swift, we can always come back to this tender voice of silence reminding us we were all once in the womb, free from time.
Prayer is a gateway into that timelessness that rests at the nexus of our time bound transient lives. It is a transformative and creative act. It is an acknowledgement of the moment right before sound comes out of our mouths, an act of faith that sound will come, will make something beautiful, and might even make things different. It might not be the most comfortable or convenient place to be in, but it is dynamic, alive, and spiritually sustaining.
And this is what songs like “Hish Hish” suggest for me, its melody originating in an Arabic pop song sung by a woman named Siham Rifqi. It is not a “woman’s song,” but it indicates that Jewish liturgy is porous and wants to be stretched further. The Hebrew text implores the Holy One saying “Raise up your banner, filled with compassion,” and “stand by the poor.” That compassion is our insistence upon digging up the feminine in our liturgy, and that banner is an amalgam of women’s voices, teachings, and wisdom that we are raising up together in real time through music, art, discussion and UnConferences. So let’s keep going.
I didn’t mind the mechitza at first. The wall—more frequently a short partition—separating men and women in ritual spaces was something to which I had grown accustomed in my long experience with traditional, Orthodox synagogues. Partnership minyanim were not a reality in my adolescent consciousness as I traversed the long road of a yeshiva day school student; but feelings of inequality, misogyny, and the limited opportunities for women to publically express their dedication to ritual Judaism grew increasingly prominent. Everything I did as a Jewish woman seemed to be in the context of a male experience, even within the walls of my all-girls high school. We learned Torah while the men learned Talmud, hailed male figures in Jewish history, dressed modestly to prevent men from succumbing to their basic instincts, and were shipped off to seminaries, whose names would feature prominently in conversations about our future shidduchim, marriage prospects. Halichos Bas Yisroel, a text filled with proverbial advice for young Jewish women, was to become the mainstay of our religious experience. And, because I had “lost” my copy, I wasn’t having it.
I remember the first time I received an aliyah. It was the summer of 2011. I was shocked when the female gabbai glanced my way as though I was a viable option for the position. When I heard my Hebrew name—Naomi bat Zev—being called, I murmured the most sincere shehechiyanu that I have ever said, gingerly approaching the scroll that I had been taught was off limits to me and my kind. This was a turning point for my religious practice, as I suddenly recalled a line from a famous Robert Frost poem, “Mending Wall”: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” And that something was me.
My distaste for exclusion from the action on the bima led me to partnership minyanim. Though most of these spaces still had me face to face with a mechitza, I found so much comfort in the sound of a woman’s voice ringing through the pews of an Orthodox synagogue that the partition became less and less significant. I learned to chant from the Torah, properly singing the blessings and songs that I had tuned out for years when I was quarantined on the woman’s side. I needed to ensure that when I was called upon, I’d be ready. Women’s ritual expression electrified a room of worshippers who had grown tired of the silence of being an onlooker. In the past months and years, as partnership minyanim have become central to the media tug-of-war between the right and left factions of Orthodoxy, I balk at the notion that women are being kept from carving a meaningful space for themselves in some Orthodox synagogues. Sitting, as I often do on Saturday mornings, with my coffee and New Yorker, I can’t believe that rabbis would prefer that I be in the comfort of my apartment reading about Putin and Ukraine than leading pesukei de’zimrah (a portion of the prayer service that women are permitted to lead in partnership minyanim).
And yet, on most Shabbat mornings, I still find myself doing just that: waking up late and catching up on my reading. I realize, though I am loath to admit it, that partnership, and even fully egalitarian, minyanim just aren’t doing it for me. Though I will fight to the death for the right of these prayer spaces to exist, the actual experience of joining the tefillah has withered since that first aliyah I received on that Shabbat afternoon almost three years ago. I continue to want to be revved up by the feeling of my own voice in the Orthodox prayer space, but when I’m honest with myself, I need something more.
I found it completely by accident. When a colleague and friend approached me about a new synagogue starting in Washington Heights, his passion for creating an inclusive, alternative community drew me in almost immediately—even if it would mean giving up my Saturday morning coffee ritual. Beit Hamidrash Hagadol, a statuesque and historic synagogue that boasts being the oldest in Washington Heights, was the scene for this revival minyan, which we have loving taken to calling “the Beis.” As a motley crew geared up for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services in the behemoth sanctuary of this synagogue, I found myself face to face with my old frenemy: the mechitza. This time, however, I would not need to approach the bima for my voice to be heard.
Though women were not involved in leading the prayers at the Beis, a group of volunteers worked together to prepare explanations that they would share as an accompaniment to the Yom Kippur Avodah prayer service. Intermittently during prayer, a designated man or woman would interject his or her own kavanot, intentions, for people to ponder during a service that is seemingly endless and often monotonous. These words—spoken in English—provided inspiration, focus, and new perspectives on ancient texts for a community of individuals that ranged from secular to Orthodox. When I volunteered for this role, never having seen explanatory services done in this fashion, I had no idea how powerful and empowering it would be.
“During the next prayer, Aleinu, we bow our bodies so that they are prostrated fully on the ground,” I pronounced to the room of worshippers. The prayer leader’s voice floated behind my words as I grew louder, ensuring that both men and women could hear me from where I stood on the women’s side of the mechitza. “Often, we find ourselves serving God with our hearts, connecting to God through deep emotions and spiritual experiences. Other times, we serve God with our minds, learning the laws and considering the existence of a Creator. Invariably, a hierarchy exists within us between the heart and the mind. Today, we have the opportunity to put our hearts and minds on the same level and serve God as a single being – with heart, mind, and body coming together in anticipation of welcoming His presence in our lives.”
As I bowed to the beautiful sound of the leader singing Aleinu, I didn’t feel out of place in the slightest. The curtain between the men and women disappeared as I took part in one of the most meaningful, innovative ritual experiences that I have had to date. Throughout the day, fellow worshippers thanked me for my contributions to their prayers. They really felt connected this year. And I did too.
Ritual inclusion for women is not merely about interpreting laws in a way that allows for women to occupy a place that is traditionally reserved for men. Rather, it’s about considering which experiences —both new and old—will be meaningful for both the men and women who come to synagogue to connect to God, eat the sponsored Kiddush food, and chat with friends. Full inclusion of women is allowing their physical presence, and their creativity, to enter into a traditionally male space.
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Two years ago a number of parents in my community approached me for assistance. Their daughters would all become b’not mitzvah within the next year and they wanted to read from the Torah at their ceremonies. I offered to teach the girls and coordinate the services.
Our rabbi was not supportive of the Women’s Tefillah gatherings and he would not permit the families to borrow a Torah from the synagogue. Ultimately, I scrambled to call in a few favors and successfully acquired a scroll for each occasion.
The s’machot (celebrations) were all lovely. The bat mitzvah girls were mature, poised, gorgeous, and proved to all in attendance that they had learned well. But, my experience of getting the Torah scrolls was stressful. I wanted to find a way to make it easier for the next cohort of girls in our neighborhood. So, I approached JOFA about the possibility of storing a Torah to lend to those in need.
In May of last year, my dream became a reality with the inauguration of the Joan S. Meyers Torah Lending Program for the tri-state area. Thanks to the generosity of the Meyers and Lindenbaum families, individual women have free access to a Torah – for the bat mitzvah leyning at her Rosh Chodesh Tefillah, for the bride-to-be celebrating at her Shabbat Kallah, and for the new mother as she is called up to name her infant. We also provide communities with free access to a Torah – for the nascent partnership minyan hosting its first Shabbat morning service, and for groups of women who want to be able to touch, kiss, hold and dance with a Torah on Simchat Torah. A Torah for one and a Torah for all!
I take great pride in knowing that the Joan S. Meyers Torah Lending Program has reached its first anniversary. You can help extend the reaches of this program by getting the word out to family and friends. And when you borrow the JOFA Torah, please tell me about your experience! Did you teach a class for girls to learn how to chant the ta’amei hamikra (cantillation marks)? Did you call up a woman for her very first aliyah? Did you witness a woman recite Birkat haGomel with this Torah on the shulkhan (table)?
Though the Torah is housed at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, its true home is in its portable aron kodesh (holy ark). This Torah wants to take part in your milestones. This Torah wants to move from one place to the next. This Torah wants to join in relevant and meaningful celebrations. This Torah wants to make its home in your home.
If you’d like to borrow the Torah, fill out this form and someone will be in touch to discuss details.
This was my first Pesach away from home. I am a first-year college student and although I love my college and my vibrant Hillel community there, I was looking forward to spending the seders with my own family. And yet, as much as I wanted an idyllic Pesach at home, I knew that it would be impractical, given the amount of class I would miss while traveling. Logistically, it just didn’t make sense, so I stayed on campus. It was clear to me that there was a reason I was supposed to be at college instead of at home. And so, rather than accepting an invitation to someone else’s first night seder, I decided to host and lead my own.
My mother has led the family seder every year I can remember, so a woman at the head of the table is definitely not foreign to me. However, the idea of leading it myself was intimidating. I have never been confident asserting my voice in Jewish ritual (for example, saying Kaddish for my dad always made me nervous). I decided not to let this fear stop me and I reached out to other first-year students who might be uncomfortable going to a large communal seder, not have a smaller seder to go, or just not seek one out in the first place.
I expected about fifteen students, but even more showed up. The diversity of the group was wonderful, ranging from hopeful converts to unaffiliated Jews who had never before experienced a seder to Orthodox students who had never missed one in their lives. Consequently, the discussions during Maggid were rich with viewpoints informed by various religious ideologies and academic backgrounds.
In planning the seder, one of my priorities was to make a safe space where all of the attendees could feel comfortable. Before beginning, I made it clear that everyone was welcome at this seder, and explained the orange on the seder plate to illustrate my point. To make the seder interactive and inclusive, we took turns reading paragraphs from the Haggadah during Maggid. Only a few people were familiar with Hebrew or Aramaic so we conducted most of the seder in English. We sang rousing renditions of Chad Gadya, Echad Mi Yodeia, and Adir Hu.
Since I’m known for my feminist tendencies, nobody was surprised that I included Miriam’s Cup and discussed the strong women who are the backbone of the Exodus story. People also appreciated that I used (and encouraged others to use) gender-neutral language. We had a lot of really good conversations about the Four Sons: do we gain anything from them being male, or do they actually reflect children of any gender? How do we rationalize pushing away the Wicked Child from the Jewish community? What are the feminist implications of the Haggadah’s use for the feminine you in “you should say [to the Simple Child]?”
Although I definitely missed my mother’s charoset and all the customs we have at home, I really enjoyed leading this seder. I am so happy I was able to provide and facilitate a Pesach experience for all those people. As much preparation and stress as it took to plan, I’m looking forward to doing it again next year.
Every year costumed women and children arrive from communities across the island, all aglow and abuzz with great anticipation. Purim with the MWTG is truly a happening here in Montreal. The Montreal Women’s Tefillah Group (MWTG) was founded in 1982 under the direction and leadership of Dr. Norma Baumel Joseph and our halakhic advisor, Rabbi Howard S. Joseph of Canada’s oldest congregation (1768), the Spanish and Portuguese. At the time our mandate was to provide a venue wherein women, citywide, could gather in prayer, complete with Torah service on Rosh Chodesh. Years later we were able to realize Norma’s goal of conducting our very own reading of Megillat Esther by and for women. I believe we may now claim to be another of the treasured fixtures on the Montreal Jewish scene.
Montreal is also home to the Coalition of Jewish Women for the Get, a body created to advocate on behalf of the agunot in our midst. The Coalition deals with agunot, rabbis, and government. In 1990, the Coalition succeeded in having Bill 21.1 amended to the Canadian Divorce Act, which removed any barriers to religious remarriage.
The Coalition had held its first Vigil for Agunot on the evening before Ta’anit Esther. After another year with a small turnout, the vigil was moved to Purim day, just before Megillah reading. It was quite a success! As Purim is our most well-attended event of the year, averaging one hundred participants, it is our best opportunity to inform and update our community on this most shameful and deplorable status.
We have led workshops on agunot, held art displays, watched Israel’s Savta Bikorta videos followed by group discussion, and listened to a
very moving address and plea from a local agunah of six years now. Last year seven women scattered and seated throughout the chapel read brief, scripted accounts of local agunot. This action had quite an impact on attendees, as a voice was suddenly heard from one side of the room, followed by another from the opposite side and so on. These added activities have fostered much creativity in our community and I heartily suggest that other groups follow suit.
CHAG PURIM SAMEACH!
Click here to read more about International Agunah Day, which is on Ta’anit Esther (March 13, 2014).
Recently, the Ritual Committee of my congregation, Kehillat Yedidya in Jerusalem, asked its members whether we might occasionally allow Kabbalat Shabbat to be led by a woman. The question, spurred by requests from the daughters of several members and raised at a specially convened and very well-attended Seudah Shelishit before Rosh Hashanah, has set off a lively debate in the community, at times bordering on acrimonious.
People have threatened to leave the community if this change is adopted, or suggested that those in favor of it go elsewhere if that is what they want to do. Even the left–right political debates that have occasionally wracked our community have rarely been so divisive. Where it comes to politics, people want the other side to shut up; Where it comes to the debate over Kabbalat Shabbat, they want them to leave.
In a community like ours that pioneered the lengthwise partition and the customs of passing the Torah through the women’s section, women dancing with the Torah on the holiday of Simhat Torah, women’s Torah readings, women standing before the whole community to give divrei Torah and read the Megillot, and girls singing Shirat Hakavod, why is this particular question so divisive? Continue reading