“Stories My Mother Never Told” is a three-part blog series dedicated to re-envisioning what it can mean for parents and children to engage in Torah and ritual together as a family. These stories are ones that many of our own mothers did not have the opportunity to experience and share with us growing up. By sharing them here, we hope to inspire others to consider how we can use sacred traditions in new ways to create meaningful Jewish homes.
A couple of months ago my 12-year-old, recently Bat Mitzvahed, daughter took part in the JOFA Be’er Miriam program which focuses on women in Judaism and the importance of their voice. When she arrived home, she said she had enjoyed the session but didn’t elaborate much. The following day was Friday and we had guests staying for Shabbat. We had a lovely dinner and when it came to benching (grace after meals), my daughter looked round the table and proudly announced that since there were only two men over Bar Mitzvah age (so not enough for a mezuman) but there were five women/girls over Bat Mitzvah, it meant that we could have a women’s Zimmun instead. Everyone round the table looked at her in complete surprise (and pride) as she took a bencher and started to lead the benching. After a little stumble at the beginning when she struggled to find a bencher with the right words inviting women to bench, and a touch of self-consciousness as she realised what she had started to do, she proudly and beautifully led the benching for all of us with everyone enthusiastically joining in.
It was a really wonderful moment – completely unexpected, spontaneous and natural – nothing to do with making a point or pushing an agenda, it was just the way it was, more women round the table than men. And as a girl who had gone to a Jewish primary school, who had grown up learning the same as boys, it was something very familiar, which she knew and was able to do without really thinking. After she finished she was a mix of surprised, nervous, and shy. Surprised at herself as it was such a spur of the moment decision and not something she’d planned or thought through. And despite the fact that everyone round the table was close family and close friends, she was shy about what she’d just done, and nervous about the response she would get because – without thinking – she’d gone completely against convention. The response she received from everyone round the table was positive and encouraging; we didn’t ask her too much about it afterwards so as not to make it into a big deal or make her feel embarrassed.
Since that Friday night meal she has not led benching again and has been a little shy when we have mentioned it. However, she is always enthusiastic when other opportunities arise and keenly participated in our shul’s women’s reading of Megillat Esther where she was the youngest girl to lein.
It was amazing to see what an impact the shiur (lesson) had had on her. She had never heard a woman lead benching before and had never seen it at home, yet she was so comfortable with it. It is amazing to see her response to encouragement that women can be involved and can take the lead when the right opportunities arise and it is also amazing to witness the impact a dynamic female role model made on her to keep her actively involved.