A Brilliant Woman – An Education Cut Short

HBI Board Chairwoman Phyllis Hammer delivered these remarks about her late mother-in-law, Helen Gartner Hammer, during the inaugural Helen Gartner Hammer Memorial Lecture on April 9, 2014.

HBI Co-Director Shulamit Reinharz, Brandeis President Frederick M. Lawrence, HBI Board Chairwoman Phyllis Hammer, Author and Speaker Tamar Biala. (Photos by Mike Lovett, Brandeis photographer)

HBI Co-Director Shulamit Reinharz, Brandeis President Frederick M. Lawrence, HBI Board Chairwoman Phyllis Hammer, Author and Speaker Tamar Biala.
(Photos by Mike Lovett, Brandeis photographer)

I would like to tell you a bit about Helen Hammer so that you will understand why underwriting the scholar-in-residence program at HBI is such a fitting way to commemorate her.
If you were to meet Helen Hammer in her later years, you would have been charmed by her engaging manner, delighted by her quick wit but perhaps, above all, you might have been struck by her beautiful facial complexion. That smoothness of skin, however, belied a complex and difficult life.

Paradoxically, that smoothness also ‘symbolized’ her fierce determination to create for herself, a normal life, a smooth life.
Helen was born and raised in Tarnow, a city in Poland not far from Krakow. Always a brilliant student, with her near photographic memory and fluency in many languages, her dream was to go to university and enter the academic world. But that was not to be–WWll intervened. Instead, she spent those years first in the Tarnov ghetto working as an accountant in a “Shindleresque” factory and then in five concentrations camps–Plaszow, Birkenau, Auschwitz, Ravenbruck and Malchow. Then, she was forced to the infamous death marches across Poland and Germany at the end of the war. She was the lone survivor of her family.

Years later a newspaper reporter asked her about her war time experiences. She answered, “It would take me six years to tell you about them.”

In 1947, in Paris, she married another survivor, my father-in-law, Henry Hammer, and they left for America, and eventually settling in Annapolis, Md. Helen set about recreating her life. She learned a new language and honed her skills through voracious reading, eventually becoming a master crossword puzzler. She prided herself on speaking English fluently yet if you listened closely you could hear the soft accent that haunted her words. She continued to challenge her mind studying philosophy, literature and history.

But her deepest intention after the war was creating a family, another family. She had a child, Michael, and her child had children, Jessica, Alison, Dana and David. She fostered in them a love of learning and nurtured their intellectual curiosity. Her granddaughter, Jessica, said of her, “She lovingly taught me how to cultivate my mind–she has had an impact on my life in ways I didn’t understand until I was much older.”

I think it is safe to say that her message got across–her son Michael became a university professor and a best selling author. Her grandchildren span the academic, business and arts worlds–all the while deeply committed to their Jewish heritage.

In thinking about how to honor Helen’s memory, my late husband Michael and I felt strongly that we wanted to celebrate the life that Helen Hammer would have had, were it not for the Holocaust–a life of scholarship and community. What better venue than HBI whose very mission is to produce and promote scholarly research, artistic projects and community engagement in their exploration of the issues surrounding Jews and gender.

HBI gives life to Helen’s highest aspirations and for that I am grateful.

In Consideration of “Going Rogue” this Passover

By Michelle Cove

140130_cover_v8_i2It’s time. This is when we dig through the family recipe box, or “Google,” to find the perfect charoset recipe, hunt down a more challenging location to hide the afikomen, and locate the right person to get the shank bone this year: not Uncle Alan who purchased chicken wings last year. The rituals, even when they can be hassles in our chaotic lives, comfort many of us. Here we are again, preparing for this same, age-old ceremony conducted by millions of other Jews on the same night. It’s pretty amazing, really.

While plenty of Jews prefer to replicate the same experience every year, many others search for new rituals that will connect the story of the Exodus to current times: whether it’s finding a way to tie in the Ukraine; reading new poetry or excerpts about freedom; baking Matzo Almond Brittle from Gourmet magazine; passing out toy plagues (here’s your plastic frog and locust!) to the kids; or asking an additional “Four Questions” like, “When have you most longed for home?” to dinner guests.

We often get so set in our Jewish ritual ways that we forget, or never acknowledge in the first place, that we have the right to make up our own. Yes, there is beauty in following the same actions and re-making the same Seder plate every single year. But there is also comfort, joy and exhilaration that arise from establishing new Jewish rituals, ones that may be even more meaningful.

One of the aspects I love about editing 614 is the constant challenge of coming up with “fresh ways of thinking about Jews and gender,” the HBI mission. Last fall, I wrote an essay about adapting the Rosh Hashanah ritual of Tashlikh, casting away our sins symbolically by throwing breadcrumbs into the water. I took my pre-teen daughter to a lake and replaced “sins” with “bad feelings about my body.” We vowed to have kinder, gentler thoughts about our bodies this year. If you have or know a pre-teen daughter, you understand what a pressing issue this can be. I heard back from many moms saying they will replicate this idea, and wondered what other ritual adaptions I could share.
So, for the current issue of 614, we partnered with Ritualwell.org, and included rituals that mark the loss we feel when we move away; help us connect with family members at dinner time; honor a child’s transition to double digits; and celebrate the end of cancer treatment with a mikveh. In past issues, we have asked our readers “What would you make the 614th commandment?” and pondered surprising “aha Jewish moments.” If there’s a new way to think about living our lives as Jewish women, we want to explore it.

If you like your rituals traditional, that’s fine. Keep going. But if they sometimes feel rote, give yourself permission to change the rituals—or make new ones—that feel meaningful. I know, I know, it can feel like one more thing to add to our spilling-over to-do list. It’s much easier to go with the flow and follow directives. But, if we want religion to be a significant and valuable part of our lives, we must keep finding ways to make it relevant for our families and ourselves.

So, is there a new ritual you’ll be trying out this Passover?


Michelle Cove is the editor of 614: the HBI eZine
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Views from Jewish Women in Ukraine

By Karyn Grossman Gershon

Karyn Grossman Gershon

Karyn Grossman Gershon

Fresh Ideas from HBI invited Karyn Grossman Gershon, the Executive Director of Project Kesher, the largest funder of Jewish women’s programming in Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Russia and Ukraine, to blog about the political situation in the Ukraine and its effect on Jewish women. Here is what she reported.

Vlada, from Krivoy Rog, Ukraine, is representative of many of the women in the Project Kesher network when she says, “During my life, I have always thought that I would fear being Jewish in Ukraine. But, today, I am more fearful of simply being Ukrainian in my own country.”

As one of the early organizers of Jewish life in her community Vlada shares that, “I have always said prayers of peace for Israel. It is strange to be saying Jewish prayers of peace for Ukraine.”

Jewish women in Belarus, Georgia, Russia and Ukraine have been at the forefront of coalition building in their region and they find it ironic that their skills are now being called upon to facilitate dialogue between people in Russia and Ukraine, countries that were unified during their lifetime. Initially, Jewish women in the Project Kesher network, on different sides of the border, expressed anger at each other about the conflict.

Women in Ukraine, many who have been active in the Euromaidan protests, were angry that Russian women did not defend their right to affiliate with Europe. Some women in Russia believed that parts of Ukraine were historically Russian and, if the population wanted to rejoin Russia, they should be allowed to do so. Others, pounded by government propaganda 24/7, began to believe that widespread anti-Semitism was a legitimate threat.

During the past few weeks, the internal tensions have subsided as the women began to seriously listen to what each was hearing from their government and media; and what they were seeing in their own communities. They began to remember that they were not each other’s enemies and that they needed to take concrete actions to help re-stabilize the region.

Jewish women in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine have realized that they do not have the ability to force the Russian government to be less aggressive in Ukraine but they do have the power to create public sentiment for restraint, diplomacy and ultimately, peace. Project Kesher activists have been posting programming ideas to promote a peaceful resolution on their websites.

In their roles as community leaders, teachers, social workers, etc., they are reaching out to school children, children in hospitals, youth groups, college students and other community leaders to stage peace protests, art programs for peace and community roundtables to discuss the situation. They retold the story of Esther at Purim to highlight the leadership role Jewish women have played in saving their people. They are gearing up for Passover and contemplating how their family can process the events in the region through the prism of the holiday.

In the past months, Jewish women in the Project Kesher network have asked for support to learn mediation skills to facilitate dialogue across borders and opportunities to bring together leaders at neutral sites to strategize about how Jewish women can help stabilize Ukraine and Russia and continue to make strides in advocating for women and girls.

The rights of women and girls are almost always an afterthought in this region and have certainly not been a priority under the Putin administration or the last two administrations in Ukraine. Issues like domestic violence, trafficking and rape have barely begun to be addressed in any satisfactory way and will likely get worse as the economies in these countries are impacted by the current situation.

While Jewish women share the frustration and fears of others in their region, many are trying to regain some control over their quality of life through the framework of their Jewish identity and the social activism skills they have developed in the past decade.

Karyn Grossman Gershon is the Executive Director of Project Kesher, the largest funder of Jewish women’s programming in Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Russia and Ukraine. Through Project Kesher’s support, Jewish women in this region have created a network of more than 180 Jewish women’s groups and 90 interfaith coalitions that work to build Jewish identity, promote gender equality and advance civil society.

A Q&A with Irina Rebrova, HBI-BGI Scholar-in-Residence

irina_rebrova_02Irina Rebrova is the first scholar-in-residence from HBI’s partnership with the Brandeis-Genesis Institute for Russian Jewry (BGI), dedicated to the mission of galvanizing the Russian-speaking Jewish community around the world by empowering young adults to actively engage in Jewish life. She comes to HBI from Krasnodar, the same region that recently hosted the Winter Olympics.

Irina’s work involves looking at narratives from Jewish Holocaust survivors in the south of Russia. She is examining narratives for peculiarities and gender aspects. She is working on a Ph.D. in the politics of memory. The HBI Blog, “Fresh Ideas from HBI” recently interviewed Irina about her work.

Q: How did you get interested in this work?

A: I was invited to go to a conference in Rostov in 2012, devoted to the 60th anniversary of the mass extermination of Jews there, in Zmievskaya Balka. The organizer of this conference was the Russian Research and Educational Holocaust Center in Moscow. At that time, I already hold a Russian Ph.D. on the topic of written memoirs from people who struggled in second World War. For this work, I had collected oral histories with the witnesses and war veterans in the region.

People who knew my work and interests encouraged me to come and present about the Holocaust. I had little time to prepare and did not find much research, only two dissertations; one in Hebrew and one in Russian. That’s how I knew that a lot of work was needed to be done and I was interested.

I had already collected oral histories and mentioned places where Jews had been murdered so I had many leads on how to begin this research. By the way, I didn’t go to the conference because I was in Berlin at the time and they were not able to pay for my travel to Rostov, but I still did the research, published it in Russian and then I decided to write my Ph.D. about memory politics in South of Russia about Holocaust.

Q: How did you start?

A: I started with field research. I found storytellers and interviewed survivors. Until now, I interview Holocaust survivors in several southern cities: Krasnodar, Maikop, Rostov, and Taganrog. Leonid Terushkin, the head of Archives and Museum of Moscow Holocaust Center and local Jewish communities helped me a lot to find storytellers. . When I moved to Germany I continued to collect testimonies, which are stored in the Visual History Archive. I’m very happy that my Center for Research on Anti-Semitism at the Technical University in Berlin has access to this archive. And, I’m grateful to the director of this Center, Professor Stefanie Schüler-Springorum, who understood the importance of my research and became my supervisor.

Q: What hurdles and barriers have you encountered?

A: It is horrible to listen to these stories. They told me crucial things about how they needed to survive. Some of them struggled all their lives with this and did not get any help. But, there are many interested and positive stories too. Many of my storytellers came from the intermarried and they learned more about their Jewish heritage as adults. There was one story about a Russian mother and her half-Jewish daughter who were forced to house a Nazi soldier. He left an ashtray in their house and they saved it. My storyteller, who was a eight years old during the occupation told me, with a humor, that she wishes to travel to Germany and find that Nazi solder and give it back so she can tell him she is Jewish and he never realized it. But, no one in her family died or suffered. Her story was not a tragedy. The tragedy for her were the stories that came out after the war and that became troublesome for her afterwards.

Q: Can you give me an example of memory politics you have encountered?

A: Russia is still hiding Holocaust history and if we now live in a Democratic society, we need to confront the Holocaust history. We are only starting to do this. Some say that Mikhail Gorbachev and glasnost were the beginning of confronting our history. For example, there is a monument in Rostov that is dedicated to the 27,000 “Soviet people” who died in World War II, but it did not say they were Jewish.

The monument was built in the 1970’s. In 2004, a new inscription was made by the local Jewish researchers, who wanted to point out that this was the place, where on “11-12 August 1942 more than 27,000 Jews were killed by the Nazis. It is the largest in the Russian Holocaust Memorial.” But in 2011, the local authorities changed the inscription. They did not wanted to mention the Holocaust or Jews as the main victims. After several trials initiated by the Jewish community, they achieved the agreement to mention “among the victims were Jewish people.” The narrative of the former Soviet Union was not to segregate Jews into a separate category, but to only speak of Soviet citizens.

Q: Is anyone else doing this work?

A: When the Soviet Union fell into different regions, Jewish communities were established. Many of the Jews in the southern region were exterminated during World War II and so we don’t have their stories. It is popular to study about the Cossacks, but not the Jews. It is so important and very few local historians and activists are talking about it. That’s why I want to do this research.

Irina Rebrova is the HBI-BGI Scholar-in-residence. She will be blogging regularly during her residency at HBI.

Change Comes Slowly to Orthodox Synagogue Life

By Lila Kagedan

I have learned that change comes ever so slowly to Orthodox synagogue life, but it does happen. When I was 12 years old, my shul launched a search for a new rabbi. My father, who was on the search committee, gave me an important job. He had me prepare questions to quiz the job candidates based on the weekly Torah portion. I diligently chose the toughest questions. I felt like my voice mattered as part of the committee in an Orthodox synagogue that seldom saw, much less heard, the voices of women in the community.

Ultimately, this rabbi became my teacher in several different educational settings and we butted heads to the say least. We argued over my ability to do rituals and celebrate my bat mitzvah in the manner in which I wanted. We argued about learning Talmud in high school. We argued about the role of women in the synagogue, politics, and we continued to argue about parsha questions. We pretty much argued for more than a decade. Then, I readied myself for what I thought would be the biggest argument of all: when I revealed to him that I had been accepted to get smicha /ordination as a student at Yeshivat Maharat.

While I saw this as the ultimate compliment to his years of teaching me as I was truly committing myself to a life of service and learning, I knew that there were limits and this would be the “last straw.” I decided that year on Rosh Hashana to casually mention my course of study after shul one evening. When I did, he didn’t really react. It was clear to me that I had crossed a line and that was that. It saddened me that he could not see my commitment to study as a positive, but I had long lived in a world where women’s learning was of little interest so I certainly was not shocked.

A few weeks later he said to my youngest brother, possibly jokingly or maybe he was testing the waters, “So your sister is going to be a rabbi?” It was clear to me that this was a positive step and I decided to pursue as many halachic conversations with him in casual short ways after services as possible when I visited home. I was never certain where he stood on the matter of ordination and we never discussed it.

This past Thanksgiving/Chanukah, this very same rabbi invited me give a talk at the shul on halacha and ethics relating to inclusion for differently abled persons. I was shocked. No woman had ever spoke about halacha in the shul setting before. I thought he disapproved of my studies and me. The invitation had been a simple email, no drama, no pomp just a simple and direct email invite.

When he introduced me at the lunch prior to my talk with over 100 people in attendance, he used the most complimentary of terms to describe my studies and I returned the compliment by introducing myself as his long-time student. It was an amazing, groundbreaking moment for the shul, but most all, it just felt normal. As the audience filed out of the room after the talk, the rabbi came up to me and challenged a few of my points and we talked some of them through. I thanked him for the invitation and told him that I would be sending him an invitation to my ordination ceremony when the time came. We both wished one another a Shabbat Shalom and I thanked him for being my teacher for several years.

Change can happen when you least expect it and in the most surprising ways. Patience would not have achieved this goal. The passage of time would not have brought me to this place. What brought me here was more than a decade of facing the issues and pursuing these goals. That’s what yielded these results. It would turn out to be a season of milestones for women in the shul of my childhood. After years of advocacy, women danced with a Torah for the first time on Simchat Torah and will read from the Megillat Esther on Purim. Now it is time to focus on what we want to do next.

lilakadeganLila Kagedan in a student at Yeshivat Maharat and a research associate at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute. Her beloved father, Ian Kagedan referenced in this article, passed away on Feb. 17. May his memory be a blessing.

As part of a collaboration between the HBI’s Project on Gender, Culture, Religion and the Law and the School of Law at the School of Oriental and African Studies, supported by the Bridging Voices Program of the British Council, we present a series of invited reflections on the intersection of Gender, Religion and Equality in Public Life from activists and scholars around the world. Contributors have been asked to reflect upon the ways in which conflicts over gender, religion and participation impact their work and inform their understanding of events in the news. They are particularly asked to consider how religious norms around gender shape civil policy making, adjudication and women’s capacity to fully participate in public political and ritual life.