A Feminist Journey into Prayer

by Amy Sessler Powell

Marcia Falk will discuss and read from her new book The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season, on Thursday, Sept. 11, at 7 p.m. in the Rapaporte Treasure Hall of the Goldfarb Library, Brandeis. Professor Jonathan Sarna will deliver introductory remarks. Fresh Ideas Editor, Amy Sessler Powell, interviewed Falk about her new book and her journey into writing new liturgies.

Marcia Falk

Marcia Falk

Poet and scholar Marcia Falk, acclaimed author of the groundbreaking Book of Blessings, has just published a new book, The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season. Why did she choose to focus on the High Holidays? For the same reason Willie Sutton robbed banks. That’s where the Jews are.

The High Holidays are the days when religious as well as nonaffiliated Jews attend synagogue services in unparalleled numbers. Yet much of what they find there can be unwelcoming in its patriarchal imagery, leaving many worshipers unsatisfied. For those seeking to connect more deeply with their Judaism, and for all readers in search of a contemplative approach to the themes of the season, Falk has re-created key prayers and rituals from an inclusive perspective.

But the story of Falk’s engagement with writing prayer began several decades earlier.

“The words of prayer have always mattered to me, “ said Falk. “As a Jewish feminist in the 1970s and ‘80s, I thought it was important not just where and how we participate in synagogue life, but what we actually pray there. I had been a regular davener for years; I belonged to synagogues and attended services every Shabbat. I participated, gave drashot (talks about the Torah portion). But in the early 1980s, the liturgy was becoming more and more disturbing to me as a Jew and a feminist trying to live with integrity.

“I was in crisis. The liturgy wasn’t speaking for me, and in many ways I found it hurtful. But I didn’t want to give up my relationship to my community; I was attached to being a Jew in the Jewish world. “

Falk started to silently change the language, sometimes while on her feet during the Amidah (the prayer recited silently, while standing). She was often the last one to sit back down, because she lost track of time as she struggled to adapt the Hebrew words, changing the patriarchal image of God as the Lord and King to other, gender-neutral metaphors. She was not yet writing her new prayers down or sharing them publicly.


The Days Between

A turning point came in 1983, while she was a teacher at the Havurah Institute in Princeton. Rabbi Arthur Waskow was in charge of the Havdalah service to take place on Saturday night, and on Friday afternoon he asked Falk to provide a kavanah, meditation, for each of the blessings.

“I told Art I just couldn’t do that, and when he asked why, I blurted out that I didn’t say those blessings any more. That was the first time I said aloud that I no longer prayed with the traditional words. Without missing a beat, Art said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, ‘So write your own blessings.’ I told him I thought they’d stone me. ‘Marcia,’ he said in a booming voice, ‘they won’t stone you.’

So I sat down that afternoon and wrote my first four blessings, and the next night, full of trepidation, I recited them before a community of 300 Jews ranging in affiliation from atheist to Orthodox. I recited the new words without introduction, as though they had been written a couple of millennia ago by the rabbis, rather than the day before, by me. I offered no apology or explanation (I didn’t dare to), and, to my puzzlement and disbelief, the community said, Amen.”

In March of 1985, Falk published an essay in Moment Magazine, in which she presented some of her new blessings, which would eventually become part of her path-breaking Book of Blessings, published in 1996. The article engendered strong and voluminous reactions across the spectrum; Falk received fan mail as well as attack mail. While there were many Jews, especially Jewish women, who had been waiting for an alternative to the patriarchal imagery of the prayer book and who were thrilled that Falk had met the challenge, there were also people who insisted that she did not have the right to make changes, especially to the Hebrew. But, Falk says, Jewish liturgy has always changed over time. “If it doesn’t evolve, it ossifies.” And Falk believes it is not enough to change the English. Her work is unique in that it offers new prayer in Hebrew poetic language.

“Many Jews want a liturgy that expresses their values and concerns. Keeping it alive in a fresh way has always been part of Jewish tradition,” she says.

It has been eighteen years since the publication of The Book of Blessings, and Falk’s readers have waited long for its sequel. In The Days Between, Falk offers Hebrew and English blessings for festive meals, prayers for synagogue services, and poems and meditations for quiet reflection. The Rosh Hashanah section of the book includes a blessing for apples and honey, a re-creation of the Un’taneh Tokef prayer, and a new tashlikh (waterside ritual). Among the Yom Kippur prayers are a Viduy (confession) and a new Kol Nidrey. “Window, Bird, Sky,” a series of ten poems and meditations (one for each of the Ten Days of T’shuvah) bridges the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur sections.

Emphasizing introspection as well as relationship to others, Falk evokes her vision of the High Holidays as “ten days of striving to keep the heart open to change.” Her new book promises to open her readers’ hearts and minds.

Marcia Falk is the author of The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season. Amy Sessler Powell is HBI Communications Director.

Holocaust Study Challenges Stereotype of the “Ungrateful Jew”

By Joanna Beata Michlic

Joanna Michlic

Joanna Michlic

When I began researching the history of those who rescued Jews in wartime Poland, I quickly realized that this is not a closed chapter: that this history has had a deep impact, for a long time after the end of the Holocaust, on the lives of individuals and families of both rescuers and survivors.

My work on rescuers also aims to debunk some skewed popular myths pertaining to the memory of the Holocaust that crystallized in the early postwar period such as the theme of the “ignoble ungrateful Jew.” My research shows that the myth of ungrateful Jew was rooted in prejudice rather than in reality. The early postwar letters of Jewish survivors reveal that in some cases, ironically the best form of gratitude for wartime deeds was for the Jewish survivors to pretend to cut off contact with the rescuers in the early postwar period so these Poles would not be exposed to their neighbors’ disapproval of their wartime rescue activities, expressed in robbery and violence.

I belong to a generation of scholars, who have a free access to major archives in post-communist Poland and therefore can analyze previously inaccessible primary sources including personal testimonies and letters of Polish rescuers and Jewish survivors that throw a new light on the nature of rescue. My role, as I see it, is to revisit, reevaluate and reinterpret the history of Polish rescuers and the relationship between rescuers and their Jewish charges written during the communist period (1945-1989). During that period, the subject was a highly emotional and politicized topic presented in a biased and superficial manner in both the historiography and public memory. Many aspects of the relationship between rescuers and Jewish survivors during and after the Holocaust eluded close treatment by historians, as had a detailed typology of rescuers and the analysis of the status of rescuers and attitudes and behavior towards them within their own communities.

My research on this topic first started while working on a book on Jewish child survivors. I studied personal accounts of child survivors and rescuers from the early and late post-war periods and official records. There is no doubt that to write a comprehensive and nuanced history of the rescue of Jews in Poland today one has to approach the subject anew. I argue that studies of rescue should steer away from analyzing the topic from one point of view. They require a solid empirical, theoretical, and comparative approach that would result in placing it in the broader historical context of rescue in the entire Nazi-occupied Europe—that should lead to the demystification of it in and for Polish history. It is important for scholars to develop analytical tools and new intellectual approaches that would allow them to write a history of rescue in which all types of rescuers will be discussed from multiple perspectives.

In my work I insist that the history of rescuers who were dedicated to saving their Jewish charges without any intention of benefiting from their actions, has to be retold because of the ongoing manipulation of these rescuers by right-wing

Conservative politicians, historians, clergy, and pundits in post-communist Poland. In rewriting their history, one not only has to examine the socio-economic background, gender, and religiosity of these rescuers, but also investigate the more subjective factors such as family practices, the individual system of beliefs, emotions, and parental and sexual desires of married, widowed and single male and female rescuers.

In my own research I focus on the “dedicated rescuers” who went above and beyond their sense of duty to save Jewish life, and the ways they were perceived and treated by the local environment. I am particularly interested in the stigmatization of dedicated rescuers within their local environment. I argue that during the war and in the immediate postwar period, “dedicated” rescuers feared of being insulted and robbed, but this fear cannot be understood without cultural underpinning. People who robbed and ransacked rescuers’ properties did not do so solely for economic reasons, though they may have stolen in the belief that rescuers had acquired Jewish wealth. Economic reasons and benefits were important, but the rationale and motivation was to stigmatize, ridicule, and punish rescuers for saving Jews.

The pre-1939 ethno-nationalistic intention in labeling an individual a ‘Jewish saviour’ was to make him or her stand out from the collective for betraying Polish social and cultural norms. Prewar symbolic stigmatization of Poles who spoke out against anti-Semitism, in the form of verbal abuse, took on much more violent and aggressive forms under German occupation with its genocidal policies against Jews and punitive measures against rescuers of Jewish fugitives. Verbal violence easily turned into brutal deeds against dedicated rescuers. And this situation continued in the early postwar period, when Jewish survivors began to come out of their shelters and leave their rescuers.

Dr. Joanna Beata Michlic is the Director of the HBI Project on Families, Children, and the Holocaust. She is currently a Senior Fulbright Scholar at the Strochlitz Institute for Holocaust Research and the Weiss-Livnat International M.A. in Holocaust Studies, University of Haifa. She is a member of the department of Historical Studies, Bristol University. She is the co-editor of Bringing the Dark Past to Light: The Reception of the Holocaust in Postcommunist Europe.

Experiences in the U.S.

Dr. Brygida Gasztold of Koszalin, Poland recently completed her Fulbright Fellowship at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute. Fresh Ideas editor, Amy Powell, spoke to Dr. Gasztold about her experiences here.

Dr. Brygida Gasztold

Dr Brygida Gasztold

Q: Tell us about your Fulbright and the work you came here to do?

A: This was a great opportunity for any scholar, especially one like me who lectures in American culture and history. It was my first time in the U.S. and the hands-on experience was great. Coming to America is important and interesting for any scholar, especially in terms of meeting other scholars and discussing academic achievements. For any person who does American studies, the U.S. is the place to be and for me, a first time visitor, it’s very exciting.

Q: You are interested in Jewish-American literature. How did your Fulbright help you learn more about this?

A: The U.S. is the place where I was introduced to Jewish culture for first time in my life. I live in northern Poland and it was not historically a center of Jewish Culture. Before the Second World War, this region was part of Germany. Being here and meeting so many Jewish people and learning about their cultural institutions gave context to my studies. I am a critic so I work with text, not real life. This whole experience not just clarified my worldview, but made it more complex.

For example, I have seen how many different ways there are of being Jewish in the U.S. I went to different kinds of synagogues including Reform, modern Orthodox, and Conservative. I attended services that had tambourines and some that wouldn’t allow that.

Q: Are many people in Poland studying American Jewish modern literature?

A: It is not a big field of study, but there is growing interest in Judaism in literature and history. We are rediscovering our Jewish past. In Krakow and Warsaw, there are festivals and lectures. We can call it a revival of interest.

Q: Do you feel like you accomplished your goals during your Fulbright?

A: I set out to study modern Jewish American authors, and female characters in fiction, applying gendered lens to contemporary American Jewish fiction. I focused on Allegra Goodman, Rebecca Goldstein, Pearl Abraham, Cynthia Ozick, Tova Mirvis and Annie Roiphe. This project will be published in a book with the working title, “Stereotyped, Spirited and Embodied: Current Representations of Women in Contemporary American Jewish Fiction.”

Q: What stereotypes did you study?

A: I limited my study to the time period of the 20th Century to the 1970’s, looking at the ghetto mother, ghetto girl, Jewish mother and Jewish American princess. Within these stereotypes, I studied spirituality, their relationship to religion, and the relationship to the female body.

Q: In addition to the research, how would you characterize your time in the U.S. at HBI?

A: By being here, I was able to take part in scholarly debate, conferences, colloquia and got to be part of the scholarly life at Brandeis. I went to many events, not only related to my field, but also went to films, art exhibition, talks on gender and culture, Israel and law. I learned so many things. It is interesting and important to be able to exchange information and ask questions, to get views and context of things I wouldn’t get in Poland. I learned so much from the many experts and scholars at Brandeis. I may want to teach courses connected with American Jewish femaleness or American Jewish female writers.

Q: How do American universities differ from where you teach in Poland?

A: The most profound differences is that in Poland, students do not choose subjects. They choose a path and follow what is prescribed. I like that the classes here are smaller and more individually oriented. There is more interaction between professor and student. I also like that the students are involved in so many different extracurricular activities and sports, political and social organizations and that you can hear their opinions. The students really have free speech and voice that can criticize without penalty. It’s interesting that activism is encouraged and they learned how to discuss politics. Overall, university life is so rich and it develops their character and teaches them a lot along side their academic pursuits.


Brygida Gasztold is a professor English at Koszalin University of Technology.

Should Religious Symbols Be Part of the BRCA Discussion?

By Ranana Dine

When I began teaching Hebrew school this past year, I never imagined the experience would inspire a major research project. Each week, I would arrive at the small synagogue and try to get 11-year-olds to think that the Hebrew language was cool by playing them music by Idan Raichel (alas, they seemed to prefer American rap music). While this experience was interesting and challenging on its own, it didn’t quite inspire my academic imagination like my school readings on feminist Biblical scholarship or American landscape painting. But as I returned each week to teach about the letter yud or play hide and seek with Hebrew vowels, I could not help but occasionally find myself in the women’s restroom. And there inspiration struck.


Basser Research Center for BRCA

Like many synagogues, this one hung posters of Jewish interest in the hallways and occasionally in the bathroom. In the women’s restroom someone had put up a poster advertising screening for BRCA, a genetic mutation that raises a woman’s risk of getting breast and/or ovarian cancer. This mutation is more common among Ashkenazi Jews than among other populations. The poster in bold letters declared “Breast and Ovarian Cancer. Jewish Families Can Be At Increased Risk. Knowing Saves Lives.” But what caught my eye was the image paired with this message– the ubiquitous breast cancer ribbon filled with pink Jewish stars. It’s a strong image that sends a lot of interesting messages at once: the fear of cancer, the breast cancer support movement, Jewish identity. As someone who is interested in the intersection of religion, art and medicine, this poster seemed like the two-dimensional embodiment of everything that made my academic heart go pitter patter.

And so embarked my interest in the visualization of the BRCA mutation in Jewish culture. Luckily for me, The New York Times this past November published a long front-page article about breast cancer in Israel where BRCA took central stage. Along with the written text of the article, the Times included many well-crafted photographs and a video. One of the photographs, an image of an Israeli woman’s chest that included incision scars from breast cancer treatment, a Jewish star tattoo and a bit of the woman’s aureole made waves in the Times comments section and on the Internet. But along with the Times article came a slew of images and discussions in the Jewish press and among cancer organizations. Although the poster that originally caught my eye strongly connected a fairly generic Jewishness with breast cancer, I saw a powerful and problematic pattern emerging in these images: the intertwining of religious Judaism and BRCA.

As I researched, I found multiple images or descriptions of religious rituals like candle lighting, b’nei mitzvah celebrations, prayer etc. that linked these religious symbols forcibly to BRCA. A woman who tested positive for BRCA and underwent surgery was depicted as she lit candles for a Jewish holiday. I saw a Jewish mother praying for recovery at the tomb of Rachel. Although these images are incredibly powerful, they link together two things that are really not connected. Religious Judaism has nothing to do with BRCA. A woman can test positive for BRCA whether she is Jewish or not. And a Jewish woman can test positive for BRCA even if she has completely rejected Judaism and its religious symbols. The connection between BRCA and Judaism has to do with the fact that for centuries Ashkenazi Jews married within small communities and were isolated from the general population. Last time I checked, having a bat mitzvah did not make a woman particularly predisposed to breast or ovarian cancer.

I also realized that these images depicted the Jewish woman as religious, connected to Judaism. She also often had children and worried about how the mutation might affect them. Sometimes she worried about her marriage prospects. Rarely were women shown worrying about how a positive diagnosis for BRCA might affect her job. I never saw a discussion of what it might be like to live with BRCA without the support of a family.

Jewish genetics is a hot topic. The health of the Jewish people (and honestly, all people) is obviously of the utmost importance. But, I think most people recognize that Jewish health is disconnected from Jewish religious observance. A woman could undergo treatment for cancer or for a host of other “Jewish diseases” whether or not she prays three times a day or her favorite meal is a bacon cheeseburger. The serious medical issues surrounding BRCA could affect all Jewish women (and men). And, I sincerely hope, that my Hebrew school students feel as included in the discussion of BRCA and other Jewish genetic diseases even if they continue to prefer Kanye West to Shlomo Carlebach.

ranana_dineRanana Dine is a summer intern at HBI and a rising junior at Williams College. Her research at HBI concerns the visual symbols used to convey information about the BRCA gene.

Making Camp Memories

by Amy Sessler Powell

As I prepare for Visiting Day at Camp Tevya in Brookline, N.H., I reflected on my camp pickup from last summer.

I retrieved my camper shortly after we published our summer issue of 614: Jewish Camp Flashbacks. While I read the issue and reflected on my own camp experiences, I was fortunate to be able to juxtapose those with my daughter’s formation of her own camp memories.

I could see that she was immersed in the bubble that only summer camp can create, plugging into longtime traditions and experiencing all that would create her own rich experiences to draw on throughout her life.

But first, I doled out the tissues. I arrived to greet red-eyed campers, sleepless from staying up during their last night, teary with the thoughts of waking up the next morning without so many close friends. After the hugs, after the trail of girls grabbing the car as Claire sobbed quietly, she saw from the car window that some of the counselors started to hose off and pack up the dance mats. She doesn’t dance, never has, no matter.

“They’re cleaning up camp!” she cried with a new round of sobs wracking her body.

When she was able to speak again, she said through tears, “I never want it to end and I have only one summer left.”

I was nearly in tears myself at the emotion of it all. This is exactly what parents want, but it still seemed so sad. When we got home, things mentioned in extremely brief letters, received proper illumination.

A letter that read, “I got the Yarden bandana. The boys will tell you what it means,” was explained. Her three older brothers, Tevya alumni themselves, gathered around the dirty Ziplock bag. The frayed, smelly and filthy bandana within was removed and unfolded. The sacred object contained the names of Color War captains since 1993, before any of my children were born. The bag held a dried up piece of paper with names, each new captain adding their own. With it were good luck charms from captains past: a chalk hippo, a small piece of yellow feather boa, golden beads and other items.

My four children marveled at the names, discussed those they recognized. My daughter yearns to add her name to the list this year. The “bandana” is an endorsement of her leadership from last summer’s color war captains, but by no means a sure thing. They don’t make the decision. Even if she garners the top honor, she might get assigned to a different color war team. She was simply the caretaker of this sacred relic for the entire year. Next session, she will pass it to the current Yarden captains who will in turn pass it to new campers in the second oldest age group.

When the bandana was put away, she unpacked a piece of frayed nylon rope. I saw that this too would be important. “I got the waterskiing award!” she shared, symbolized by a piece of old towrope. My son, Jake, a good skier who coveted the award but always skied in the shadow of someone much better, nodded with pride that this frayed rope was in our family at last.

My daughter is dipping into a deep tradition. She respects these objects and the meaning behind them. My sons, who had no use for her state championship youth basketball games or other accomplishments at home, kvell in her participation in this beloved shared community. One son found an excuse to go to camp one year after he had aged out to warm up his sister for a four-square tournament, one for which she had earned a coveted spot.

Camp may be even more important than ever. It is still electronics-free. It is still somewhat of a meritocracy, albeit with multiple ways to succeed. Not everyone makes color war captain or the travel teams. If you don’t care for the athletic events in color war, there is music, art and silliness. Everyone has an equal chance to succeed at feeding Jell-O to a blindfolded teammate.

One year, my daughter put off camp a month to participate in a softball all-star team. I’m not sure it was her best decision, but it’s past. At the time, I remember one dad barging into the coach’s huddle to advocate for his daughter to bat in the leadoff position.

Not possible at camp. There, the kids have to advocate for themselves and they have multiple opportunities to learn how. When there are multiple paths, campers put forth their best selves, aspiring to success, modeling leadership for the younger camp community and take pride in passing on the traditions to a new generation. These are great lessons to take into life after camp. These are the memories she will bring to new experiences.

SONY DSCAmy Sessler Powell is the HBI Communications Director