How Does One Invent a Canon?

by Julia Phillips Cohen and Sarah Abrevaya Stein

Some six years ago, we began a collaboration with little idea that it would last so long, or yield such rich fruit. Our collaboration was motivated by a single realization:  the bulk of sources by and about the Jewish communities we had dedicated our lives to studying remained inaccessible, to specialists, students and lay readers. Most had never been translated into English, republished (in the case of published works), or (in the case of archival sources) published in any form.

Sephardi_LivesThe communities in question were modern Sephardi Jews—descendants of Jews who fled medieval Iberia (modern-day Spain and Portugal) following their expulsion in 1492 and settled in the western portions of the Ottoman Empire, including the Balkans, Anatolia, and Palestine. For over four-and-a-half centuries these communities continued to speak and write in their own Judeo-Spanish language, Ladino, an Ibero-Romance language grammatically similar to fifteenth-century Castilian Spanish but encompassing loan words from other Romance languages as well as from Hebrew, Aramaic, and other languages that Sephardim encountered in their new homes, such as Turkish, Greek, and South Slavic languages.

When we began our project, English-language readers had precious few primary sources about Sephardi history at their disposal—and next to none originally written in Ladino, a language that is today threatened with extinction. This inaccessibility, we concluded with amazement, existed despite the fact that the history of Mediterranean Jewry is of great interest to so many, including overlapping circles of scholars and general readers invested in Ottoman, Middle Eastern, Jewish, Balkan, European, United States, and Latin American histories.

This insight initiated a six-year long conversation of surprising profundity, one that raised questions we debated, resolved, and reopened again and again. Where ought the geographic contours of modern Sephardi history be drawn?  How might one impose boundaries (chronological, religious, linguistic, conceptual) on this topic whilst remaining attentive to its essential richness? Whose voices, what spaces, and which historical dynamics was it necessary to include?  Was Sephardi history indeed a discrete history, or did it bleed so deeply into local, regional, imperial, continental, and Jewish histories as to render it altogether amorphous?

With these questions always motivating (and vexing) us, we gathered and collected.  Our goal was to amass a corpus of sources that reflected Sephardi history in all its diversity; from the courtyard to the courthouse, spheres intimate, political, commercial, familial, and religious.  We sought to reflect life within Jewish communities and between Jews, Muslims, and Christians (Greek Orthodox, Armenian, and Serbian Orthodox, among others), as well as between Sephardi and Jewish communities of other varieties (those of Judeo-German, Judeo-Greek, or Judeo-Arabic backgrounds, for example). Finally, we wanted to depict Sephardi culture in times of peace, manifold wars, and during the Holocaust, focusing on the Ottoman heartland of Southeastern Europe and the Levant but reaching across the Middle East and Europe and into diasporic contexts that spanned four continents.

Working in a field still in its infancy and without an established body of canonical texts to choose from meant that we were compelled to do extensive archival research of our own and to consult with scores of experts in a variety of fields to identify sources that covered the broad sweep of modern Sephardi history—ranging from documents of high politics to those covering various aspects of everyday life. Our list of sources topped three hundred at its peak, but was, at last, arduously winnowed down to just over one hundred a fifty. They were translated from fourteen languages, with the help of many colleagues and collaborators.  The selections are of a vast range, including private letters from family collections, rabbinical writings, documents of state, memoirs and diaries, court records, selections from the popular press, and scholarship.

In the words of one of our sources, all this remains but “a drop in the ocean.”  For perhaps the most profound lesson that we learned over years of collaboration is this: when it comes to Sephardi history, one must invent a canon painstakingly, humbly, and with the knowledge that there is far more cultural richness and historical complexity that can be confined to a single volume.

Read a Q&A with the editors of Sephardi Lives

juliaphillipscohenJulia Phillips Cohen is Assistant Professor of History and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of Becoming Ottomans: Sephardi Jews and Imperial Citizenship in the Modern Era (Oxford University Press) and co-editor of Sephardi Lives: A Documented History, 1700-1950.


sarahsteinSarah Abrevaya Stein is Professor of History and Maurice Amado Chair in Sephardic Studies at UCLA. She is the author of several books, including most recently, Saharan Jews and the Fate of French Algeria (University of Chicago Press) as well as co-editor of multiple volumes including A Jewish Voice from Ottoman Salonica: The Ladino Memoir of Sa’adi Besalel a-Levi and Sephardi Lives: A Documented History, 1700-1950. She is also a series editor for the Stanford Studies in Jewish History and Culture


Julia Phillips Cohen and Sarah Abrevaya Stein received a 2011 HBI Research Award for their work on Sephardi Lives.

Gender Discrimination in the Air: Is it Legal?

by Lisa Fishbayn Joffe

In a recent article in Tablet Magazine, Elana Sztokman describes a disturbing experience flying on the Israeli airline, El-Al. Her plane was delayed because the ultra-Orthodox man assigned to the seat next to her, refused to take his seat. He felt obligated to find someone to trade with him so that he would not have to sit next to a strange woman for the 11-hour flight to Israel. Sztokman describes her feelings of humiliation as men negotiated with each other to solve the problem presented by her embodied presence. The issue ignited discussion from other women treated this way on El Al flights and by those who simply feel that flights should not be delayed for this reason. Sharon Shapiro, a Chicago writer, circulated a petition signed by more than 3,600 people, demanding that El Al “stop the bullying, intimidation and discrimination against women on their flights.”

What have the courts said about this? This issue of sex segregated seating on public transport has recently been addressed very clearly by the Supreme Court of Israel.  In response to a civil lawsuit brought by women who had been harassed and assaulted when they refused to move to the back of buses, into makeshift “women’s sections,” the Israeli Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that coerced sex segregation in seating on public (and privately owned) buses in Israel was discrimination against women and ordered it stopped. Some ultra-Orthodox people might feel uncomfortable having to ride with or sit with people of the opposite sex, and with people who did not share their point of view about gender, but they would have to find a way to cope. They have no right to force others to comply and the state is not permitted to accommodate them by violating the rights of others. Now this issue has re-emerged in the context of air travel.

Opposition to coed seating on public transportation is also a novel and stringent interpretation of Jewish norms. In the past, men who felt unable to sit next to women without succumbing to lustful thoughts might be said to be “weak-minded.” Rav Moshe Feinstein delivered the leading 20th century opinion on the permissibility of mixed seating on public transportation when asked whether an Orthodox Jewish man could sit next to a female stranger on a crowded New York subway train. He responded that there was no prohibition on incidental contact with women or sitting next to them when there is no other seat available and when this contact was not undertaken with any sort of sexual intent. If a man thinks that travelling under these conditions might incite sexual thoughts, he should try to distract himself and think about words of Torah. If he is so filled with lustful thoughts that even this incidental proximity to women might cause him to be sexually aroused, then he ought not travel. His pathology is not another person’s problem, though Feinstein lamented the fact that anyone should be so weak-minded. Such obsessiveness is the result of idleness, Feinstein said, and men like this need to be more involved in Torah study and work and “not be that way.”

Commentators differ on how this decision should be applied in the context of the modern state of Israel. Some emphasize Rav Feinstein’s point that while Jewish law expresses concern that men may be distracted by the sexual appeal of women, and mandates that both men and women dress and behave modestly, it is clearly men’s responsibility to control their appetites – “to not be that way.” Others, however, argue that Feinstein’s ruling ought not to apply in the state of Israel, where Jews hold the instrumentalities of the state in their hands and can recreate public life to be more fully compliant with Torah law. Halacha may not require it, but, according to Shlomo Rosenstein, Agudath Yisrael coordinator of public transportation, “If it possible to sanctify ourselves, why not?” Indeed, Rabbi Yehuda Warburg, writing in the Jewish academic journal, Tradition, has argued that Feinstein’s ruling should be confined to the diaspora. Orthodox Jews outside of Israel have not applied these norms to public transportation because “in modern society such a practice is unrealistic.” But in Israel, it might be possible. The fact that Jews who understand themselves to be Orthodox have not sought to practice such separation in the past or elsewhere does not preclude accommodation of this novel but legitimate conception of the requirements of Jewish law, according to Warburg.

Setting aside the fact that the El Al flight in question originated in the U.S., where anti-discrimination laws and Federal Aviation Rules also make this practice unrealistic, the Supreme Court of Israel issued a clear refutation of this argument in the bus case. Orthodox passengers who see women as a source of temptation to men are entitled to their opinion, but not to impose it on others, or ask that women who do not share their views be compelled to see themselves that way.   Perhaps this man on the airplane felt he knew himself well enough that he could not sit next to a woman for an 11-hour flight without having lustful thoughts. Perhaps he thought the only way to deal with this temptation was to create physical distance between him and women whom he viewed as sources of temptation. However, this sort of heightened caution about contact with women has the perverse effect of sexualizing what would otherwise be read as neutral encounters. It is the anxiety about the temptations that hyper-sexualizes these interactions between men and women. Dwelling on how to avoid all women because they constitute a temptation turns men like this passenger into Rav Feinstein’s third category of the disappointing fellow who needs to develop more internal self discipline, to focus on more noble thoughts and works, and “not be that way”.

Lisa Fishbayn Joffe

Lisa Fishbayn Joffe

Lisa Fishbayn Joffe is director of the HBI Project on Gender, Culture, Religion and Law. She is the co-editor with Sylvia Neil of “Gender, Culture, Religion and Law: Theorizing Conflicts Between Women’s Rights and Cultural Traditions.”

Weaving Memory and Imagination

By Marjorie Agosin


Marjorie Agosin

I grew up listening to the stories of my great-grandmother, Helena Broder, a refugee from the Nazis. I also learned from what was left unsaid in our conversations, spoken in German, Yiddish and Spanish. I never realized that her history as a Jewish refugee would later became my own. History has its peculiar ways of manifesting itself and it often unfolds mysteriously. My immediate family left Chile in the 1970s due to political unrest that culminated with a 17-year military dictatorship.

Growing up with my great-grandmother Helena, I understood that women became the guardians of memory. She always told me stories about her beloved Vienna, but also spoke of the times in which her son was forced to clean the streets because he was a Jew or the clear fall afternoon when she returned the keys to her apartment to the Gestapo.

I listened very closely to her stories and it seems that I have always intertwined her own life with my own poetic imagination. I am grateful for her passing on to me her memories, which I in turn pass to my own children and to the world as they have become an essential part of my literary work.

Gender and memory play an important role in my own writing life. In my family, women pass on the family stories over several generations from Helena Broder to my mother, Frida Agosin, to me. The experience of being part of a tiny Jewish community in Chile, less than one percent of the entire country’s population, gave my family ways to understand the meaning of being a foreigner, a displaced person. We understood the complexities of learning a new language and finding ways to feel at home amidst strangers.

My wise great-grandmother always told me that as Jewish women we have learned to live in the Diaspora. Being a Jewish woman and growing up in the close company of my Diaspora relatives, I had plenty of stories to share and even more to imagine. I also learned that memories do have a special relationship to gender. The house was filled with material objects that Helena Broder was able to save such as her embroidered wedding dress and silver candelabras. In her notebooks, she documented her journey to the New World and also how she learned to love her new country, Chile, especially the port city of Valparaiso.

I have always wanted to write about this colorful and poetic port and wanted to bring the memories of Helena Broder to life. She is a prominent character in my novel, I Lived on Butterfly Hill, and she is also able to pass her own memories of her life in Vienna before and during the time of the Nazis to the central character of the book, Celeste Marconi, the protagonist whose life as a young emigrant mirrors my own.

In the uncanny way that history repeats itself, Broder found joy and refuge in Valparaiso, Chile and this is the story I want to share. These memories are not mine but somehow I have adopted them and they’ve become engraved in the ancestral fables of my family, in which arrivals became the central themes of our conversations. As a young girl, my imagination was always vibrant and alive with their tales of exile and homecoming. I often felt that imagination was the key to our family past.

Celeste Marconi, the young protagonist of I Lived on Butterfly Hill (Simon and Schuster, 2014), guided by the hands of her grandmother, inherits fundamental Jewish values. She learns of a hidden library that her grandmother preserved during the dictatorship and thus she becomes the guardian of the books that contain the memories of exiles. She becomes an activist as she builds a traveling library through her beloved city of Valparaiso. Books and memories, through the shadows of the Holocaust as well as the ghosts of the disappeared who live in Chile intertwine in the life of Celeste Marconi as she comes of age and she is able to honor all. She unfolds like the wings of a butterfly.


Marjorie Agosin is the Luella LaMer Slaner Professor in Latin American Studies and a professor of Spanish at Wellesley College. She is a poet, human rights activist, literary critic and published author. She is a member of the HBI Academic Advisory Committee.

A Dose of Inspiring Courage – and “Thinks” – For the New Year

by Michelle Cove

“What you are is what you have been. What you’ll be is what you do now.” – Buddha

140811_cover_v8_i5When I ran across that quote this week, it stopped me in my tracks. It’s not that I don’t like what or where I have been, although I, like many, sure would have done things differently at certain points of my life if I knew then what I know now. But, that said, I wouldn’t change much because all roadseven the ones lined with glaring and oh-so-humbling mistakesled me right here. Still, there is power in this idea of taking time to reflect on the choices we are making right now because they determine what we will become.

That’s what I cherish about Rosh Hashanah. It stops us all in our tracks every year and requires us to reflect on where we’ve been, where we are, and what changes we’d like to make for the upcoming year. It’s kind of like an Oprah-retreat, Jewish-style. It’s all too easy to avoid this self-reflection and grappling and stay put. We can easily go through the motions again that we did yesterday and the day before that: eat the same cereal, tell the same jokes, talk to the same people, crank out the same work. There’s a comfort in that sometimes, and the rituals can even be nourishing. But how many of us take the time to ask, “Is this really where I want to be right now?”

That’s why I am excited to present our newest issue of 614: New Year Special: 5 Inspiring Tales of Starting Over.

In this issue, you’ll find five tales of Jewish women who made a major life transformation and jump-started their Jewish identity. Author Leah Vincent, for example, talks about how she separated from ultra-Orthodoxy and trekked into the unknown. Former HBI intern Fabulous Flores (best name ever, right? Yes, it’s real.) writes about why she was so determined to convert to Judaism at the age of 16.  Ornat Turin, a scholar-in-residence at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute recently, explains how traveling to America from Israel made her fall in love with Shabbat.

We hope this issue will inspire you to consider where you are in your life, as a Jewish woman and in general, and whether it’s where you want to be. If it is, fantastic, this is something to be honored and celebrated. If it’s not, we hope the stories will give you the extra dose of courage you may need to head towards where you’d rather be. It all starts right now. You may just have to look at your life from a few new angles. To quote Dr. Seuss: Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try!

To a sweet and bold new year filled with thinks you can think up,

Michelle Cove, is the editor of 614, the HBI ezine.

The Beauty and the Horror of the Mikveh

by Rachel Putterman


Rachel Putterman

This summer, I had dialectically opposing experiences connected to the mikveh, the Jewish ritual bath: one was exquisitely moving and beautiful, and the other was quite horrifying in its implications for women.

Until a few months ago, I didn’t know much about the mikveh even though I am nearly 50 years old, a rabbinical student, and a two-time user of the mikveh. In order to learn more, I trained to become a mikveh guide at Mayyim Hayyim, the local liberal mikveh. At Mayyim Hayyim, the grounds, building, staff and volunteers, are calm and welcoming; the air literally reverberates with the holiness of people converting, healing, marking life transitions and observing niddah, the family purity rules.

This past summer, I guided at Mayyim Hayyim for the first time. I was nervous, especially as I was going to be witnessing several immersions in a two-hour period. On the docket for the evening were a baby conversion, an adult woman conversion, a modern Orthodox bride, and a niddah. The same male Reform rabbi was sponsoring both conversions, and two additional female rabbis were sitting on the beit din, the panel of rabbis that constitutes a legal decision-making body. The baby conversion was easy. Next, the woman who was converting arrived. As she prepared for the mikveh, the bride arrived with her mother. The bride told me that the woman who taught her kallot, the rules of family purity, was going to be witnessing her immersion. Great, I thought, one less immersion for me.

Then, the other guide arrived, a modern Orthodox woman wearing a long skirt and a hat, and she was quite dismayed when she saw the conversion occurring with a male rabbi present. She said to me, “This is not right. There shouldn’t be a conversion scheduled for the evening, and there definitely shouldn’t be a man here. My kallah (bride) needs privacy.”

I gave the rabbi a heads-up that the other guide was upset. A few minutes later, the rabbi approached the guide, and in what can only be described as a state of grace, and he completely defused her discomfort. He recognized her name, and mentioned a mutual friend who went to her synagogue. At this point of human connection, the guide’s face softened, and the rabbi told her he would hold off on the immersion of the woman converting so that the bride could have total privacy. The guide was won over by the rabbi, and everything proceeded smoothly.

I, however, felt overwhelmed by the enormity of witnessing my first immersion. Immersing in the mikveh is the liminal moment when the convert actually transitions to becoming a Jew. I was going to witness this woman’s life changing event, and I didn’t even know her! I composed myself and went into the mikveh room. I had been taught that according to halakhah, Jewish law, for an immersion to be “kasher” or proper, there can be no barrier between the body of the person immersing and the water, which means in practical terms no piercings, make up, nail polish, contact lenses, nothing. Also, the woman’s entire body has to be surrounded by water. Her feet have to come off the bottom of the mikveh and her hair cannot float on top of the water. My concern was how to make sure the women immersing complied with these rules while respecting their privacy. I was taught to hold a sheet in front of me, and to peek over the top only once I heard the splash and knew she was under the water. While part of the job of a mikveh guide is to make sure the woman immersing feels respectfully tended to, the moment of witnessing the immersion is the guide’s true function, and I wanted to get it right. Despite my anxiety, I pulled it off. I witnessed her three immersions by peeking over the sheet, and after each immersion, I loudly said, “kasher” so that the rabbis in the anteroom outside the mikveh could hear me.

As I drove home later that night, I realized that the evening had been a peak experience for me. I was deeply moved by the gentle beauty of the ritual itself, as well as the vulnerability and trust of the women immersing. Perhaps most inspiring was the empathetic kindness exhibited by the Reform rabbi and the modern Orthodox guide, and the safe space they created for all involved.

The emotional high of my first night of guiding, however, was short lived. The following week, I attended a staff meeting at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, where I was an intern this past summer. On the agenda was a proposal for an art installation by an Israeli artist that documents the mikveh experiences of women converts in Israel. I was shocked to learn that the women immerse wearing robes in the presence of an all male beit din. I couldn’t believe it! This seemed to fly in the face of everything I had learned at Mayyim Hayyim. The women wear robes? What about the water needing to touch every part of their bodies? Also, the idea of a male beit din witnessing a woman’s immersion seemed blatantly wrong to me. Yes, I know that women are not considered valid witnesses in a Jewish court of law, but not even in the intimacy of the mikveh?

After the initial shock wore off, I read through the artist’s proposal and did a little of my own research. Sure enough, ultra-Orthodox male b’tei din are witnessing female immersions for conversion in both in the U.S. and Israel. Although this is not a widely known practice outside Orthodox circles, a quick search of the Internet reveals first-hand accounts of women who have experienced humiliation and embarrassment at having to immerse in front of male b’tei din.

I’m still trying to reconcile my evening of guiding at Mayyim Hayyim with the contrasting negative mikveh experiences of some women who undergo ultra-Orthodox conversions. Although discomfort with a male beit din witnessing one’s immersion may not be universal, that doesn’t detract from the fact that some women are traumatized by it. While I recognize that the need for privacy is highly subjective, it seems heretical to me that those varying needs are not being respected. Especially, when juxtaposed with my evening of guiding at Mayyim Hayyim, where respecting the privacy of the women immersing was paramount for all involved.


Rachel Putterman is a former HBI summer intern and HBI research associate. She is a rabbinical student at Hebrew College.