October 19, 2018

Embroidering a Jewish Life

By Rachel Braun

Editor’s note: Join us at Brandeis University on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2018 at 7 p.m. for Graphic Content: The Sacred Art and Beautiful Math of Rachel Braun, Liberman-Miller Lecture Hall, Epstein Bldg. 515 South St., Waltham.

This article first appeared in Lilith’s online blog.

God Counts the Stars, 2015, Rachel Braun.

Embroidery has been part of my life for over two decades; it is a core Jewish practice for me and an entry point into sacred texts. I design Judaic embroidery, starting with words from Torah or liturgy, then elucidating and interpreting the words with needle and thread. But before I discovered my embroidery passion, I’d thought about needlecraft only in limited ways.

In college, some 40 years ago, I read an article about Colonial quilt-making for an anthropology class. The author wondered why Colonial women would commit to such a painstakingly slow production process. Indeed, needlecraft is very laborious! Designing and stitching an embroidery canvas can take me easily 150 hours.

The author’s hypothesis was that usually women were responsible for repetitive production processes which had temporary outcomes, living under a tyranny of iterative tasks. Women cooked and fed their families; hunger returned anew. We laundered clothing; those garments became soiled. We cleaned; dirt arose again in every corner. Quilting, the author concluded, allowed women to participate in permanent material culture, establishing and recording their presence. Perhaps not as physical as barn-raising (and not as well paid?), but still valued.

In my adult life, I’ve become aware of the impermanence of traditional female tasks, though my responses to the feeding-laundering-cleaning conundrums of Colonial women may have differed. Raising four children, I cycled through three basic lentil recipes at dinner and taught my kids to use the washing machine. As for cleaning, my mantra became “as long as the kids don’t get cholera, the house is clean enough.” They didn’t, and it was.

But I do embroider—vigorously, creatively, spiritually. Am I, as was alleged for our Colonial quilters, seeking immortality in material culture? That premise seems a bit specious: what we call women’s work (and what that treatise I read in college alleged was impermanent) is indeed permanent work: a long-term investment in the continuity and culture of humanity, as stabilizing as building a barn. But material culture has its purpose—useful, beautiful, necessary, communal. My framed embroidery pieces adorn the walls of my home and shul, and I dream that one day they will be passed to future descendants, or even considered museum-worthy. Just in case they aren’t, I’ve made a dive at immortality by sharing them in a book, Embroidery and Sacred Text (2017).

In contrast, the process of designing and creating the embroidery is not about seeking permanence. For me, it has become a potent practice of living Torah and enacting Jewish life, rather than documenting myself for future generations. These experiences unfold in the offering of a drasha, a textual commentary, within the design itself, and indeed, in the repetitive glide of the needle through the fabric.

Jewish life is built around repetition, as can be attested by anyone who has slogged through a Torah reading about details of Sanctuary construction or particulars of sacrificial offerings. The former, including the lampstand of the Sanctuary, was a permanent aspect of Israelite material culture. In contrast, we who have fallen in love with our babies’ peculiar little scents fully appreciate that the fleeting sweet savors of the sacrifices might have ingratiated an ancient Israelite with the Deity.

Lampstand, 2016, Rachel Braun.

Perhaps it’s the statistician in me that is so attracted to these “boring,” repetitive verses. The verse that is worked into “Lampstand,” pictured above (2016) includes this construction detail: “a knob beneath two stems, from it, a knob beneath two stems, from it, and a knob beneath two stems, from it, for the six stems that issue from the Lampstand” (Exodus 25:35, translation by Everett Fox). Hearing that verse of Torah read aloud, emphatically, made me want to embroider the knobs, all the more emphatically.

Another favorite text is the list of Israelite stops in the wilderness of Sinai. The Book of Numbers, Chapter 33, lists 42 stops made by the Israelites as they progressed to Jericho, before entering the Promised Land. Remarkably, each stop is listed twice: “They set out from Hazeroth and encamped at Rithmah. They set out from Rithmah and encamped at Rimmon-perez. They set out from Rimmon-perez and encamped at…” (JPS). Moved by the rhythm of those repetitions, I embroidered the place names around the border of “Bamidbar: In the Wilderness(2011). 

Bamidbar: in the Wilderness, 2011, Rachel Braun.

Gertrude Stein wrote, “There is the important question of repetition and is there any such thing.… I first really realized the inevitable repetition in human expression that was not repetition but insistence” (“Portraits and Repetition,” in Lectures in America, 1935).*

Was the repetition of names and verbs describing their travels—setting out and encamping—insistence that the Israelite journeys could not easily be distilled? Surely, in God’s recurring acts of protection and anger; in Moses’ stream of reflection, rebuke, and encouragement; and in the Israelites’ stirrings of joy, desperation, and disappointment, there was much insistence and less mere repetition. I used the embroidery patterns of “Bamidbar” to develop that drasha in thread. Each pattern block (so-called blackwork embroidery) varies in geometric symmetry: a mixture of reflections, translations, and rotations. The placement of patterns and colors gives the piece, overall, an essential 180° rotational symmetry. The intention is to convey movement, unevenness, and variations of order and disarray– much like the biblical journeys described in Numbers.

If part of the human task is to seek the Divine by emulating God’s behaviors, we embroiderers are in a good place. The embroidery “God Counts the Stars” (2015), pictured at the top of this article, quotes Psalm 147:4-5: “God counts the stars, giving each a name; with grandeur and power, wisdom beyond measure” (my translation). God counts the stars! That God painstakingly conducts a celestial census, and in doing so honors individuality in each, certainly touches a statistician’s heart. What patience that takes! What concentration, and attention to detail! Just like stitching—patient, intentional, repetitive, faithful. And just as God names the stars, the embroidery gives each star its own needlework pattern. The art interprets the text, but it also mimics the text, and exposes the text.

The anthropologist was wrong. Repetition and renewal are not circumstances to be requited with permanence. Rather, they pulsate with the rhythm of life, honoring the endurance of its fragility and the individuality of seemingly identical elements, be they meals of a Colonial household, knobs of the Sanctuary lampstand, or stars in the sky. Repetition is everywhere in Jewish life: in sacred text, in the cyclical reading of Torah, in counting stars, in the geometric patterns of blackwork design, in the embroiderer’s steady hand on the fabric, in Jews’ never-ending celebration of words. With each repetition, we insist that we will seek and savor that which is sacred.


* I am indebted to Lisa Newell z”l for introducing me to Stein’s ideas. Addressing a Fabrangen Havurah High Holiday service long ago in Washington, D.C., Lisa wondered aloud why we had so many Amidahs to recite and to repeat. Paraphrasing Gertrude Stein, Lisa explained, “Repetition is insistence!” Among her many accomplishments, Lisa was co-counsel in the 1983 landmark comparable-worth case, challenging women’s wages paid by the State of Washington. She died in 2000.


Rachel Braun explores how Jewish texts can be embroidered—literally and figuratively—in original needlecraft designs. Braun is a Torah chanter, synagogue service leader, Jewish educator, and high school math and statistics teacher. Her talents—artistic, spiritual, and mathematical—come together in her book Embroidery and Sacred Text: New Designs in Jewish Needlework (Bookbaby, 2017). Her website is www.rachelbraun.net.

In Sara Levy’s Salon

By Rebecca Cypess

When, in 1798, the Jewish writer Wolf Davidson published his treatise On the Civic Improvement of the Jews, he joined an ongoing discussion among both Jewish and Christian thinkers of the Enlightenment concerning the merits of Jewish emancipation in Prussia and the participation of Jews in civic and cultural life. By way of justifying his agenda of emancipation, tolerance, and citizenship for Jewish residents of the kingdom, Davidson cited a long list of Jews, from philosophers and educators to practitioners of the mechanical arts, who were already making significant contributions to Prussian society. Among these, Davidson mentioned a handful of musical “Dilettanten”— amateurs for whom music was an essential component of the moral and cultural edifying process known as Bildung. One such dilettante who, Davidson noted, had acquired a reputation as a “prodigious keyboardist here in Berlin,” was a certain Madame Sara Levy.

Sara Levy, née Itzig (1761–1854), was a Jewish woman, salon hostess, musical collector, patron, and performing musician whose long life spanned a dramatic and tumultuous period in German history, and her distinctive persona and historical profile offer a vista onto these historical circumstances that has remained closed until now. Through both research and performance, my work attempts to open this vista, and to understand Levy as a complete and complex individual—a Jew, a musician, a woman, a modern individual.

With the help of two research awards from the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, I have recently brought one portion of my work on Levy to completion: a CD entitled In Sara Levy’s Salon, released in June 2017 on the Acis Productions label, which proudly bears the logo of the HBI. The second phase of the project is a collaboration with Nancy Sinkoff, my colleague in the Department of Jewish Studies at Rutgers. Nancy and I co-organized a conference entitled “Sara Levy’s World” in 2014, and we have expanded that project into a book of essays with perspectives from musicology, Jewish studies, history, philosophy, and related disciplines. This volume is due to be published in the spring of 2018 by the University of Rochester Press. At the same time, I have undertaken a single-author book entitled Resounding Enlightenment: Music as an Instrument of Tolerance in the World of Sara Levy, which is in progress. My goal is to retell the story of Levy’s world by placing her at the center of the narrative.

Born into one of the few wealthy and privileged Jewish families in eighteenth-century Berlin, Sara and her siblings received the finest educations available—appropriate, of course, to their sex—including unrivaled musical training. The only known student of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (1710–1784), eldest son of the famed baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750), Sara was performing as a harpsichordist for family guests by the time she was a teenager, and around the time of her marriage she began hosting a salon with musical performance at its center. Like other salons, that of the Levy home brought together family and friends, artists and intellectuals, philosophers and socialites, Jews and Christians. And she went still further, appearing in public performances as a concerto soloist at the Sing-Akademie zu Berlin, a bourgeois amateur musical society with both Jewish and Christian membership, in an age when few aristocratic women would expose themselves to a public audience. By citing Levy’s musical skill as evidence of the contribution of Jews to society at large, Wolf Davidson asserted the power of music to act as an instrument of Enlightenment—as a bridge between diverse individuals within a tolerant society.

For some, like Davidson, Levy’s activities as a performer, patron, and collector of music fulfilled this idealistic promise. Yet for many of her contemporaries, Jewish participation in music was unthinkable: Jews, these detractors claimed, were inherently unmusical, and this unmusicality was both evidence for and a result of their immorality and errant ways. Levy’s connection to the Bach family highlights this tension: the legacy of J. S. Bach was fundamentally grounded in an orthodox, pre-Enlightenment Lutheranism colored by anti-Judaism, and his biographer Johann Nikolaus Forkel, a close friend of W. F. Bach, included in his General History of Music (1788) a screed against modern Jews and their unmusicality.

Sara Levy knew of these tensions and debates, yet she left no written verbal testimony concerning them, nor any number of other pressing issues. She wrote no autobiography and no diary; all but a few of her terse letters are lost. Instead, what remains is the remarkable collection of some 500 musical scores that she assembled together with her husband, a banker and a proficient amateur flutist. Her collection did not appear by accident; instead, she cultivated it, shaped it, and left her mark upon it, inscribing each score with her name or stamping it with her distinctive ex libris. Seemingly in response to the accusation that Jews were inherently unmusical, Levy partook of German music and made it part of her own experience. In donating the majority of her holdings to the Sing-Akademie around 1815, she rendered her collection part of the Prussian patrimony and emerging cultural identity, and she inscribed herself—a Jewish woman—into that heritage. When her great-nephew Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy ignited the public “Bach revival” within the walls of the Sing-Akademie with his performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in 1829, he was picking up on family tradition.

If Levy’s participation in the musical culture of Prussia set her apart from other Jewish women whose salons focused solely on belles lettres, she stood apart from them in another essential respect as well: in contrast to many of the other salonnières, who left Jewish practice and identification, assimilated into the predominantly Christian society around them, converted, and married Christian husbands, Levy continued to identify strongly as a Jew throughout her long life. She provided financial support to numerous institutions of the Berlin Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment), including a Hebrew publishing house and a Jewish school and orphanage. She was intellectually, financially, and socially engaged with the Haskalah to an extent unmatched by other women.

Levy is known among musicologists as a transmitter of important German music, and among scholars of Jewish studies as merely a peripheral figure in the world of Jewish salons. Consideration of the relationship among these aspects of her persona—unexplored until now—sheds new light on her life as an individual, and on the story of this tumultuous moment in European history as a whole. I argue that through her salon, her public concerts at the Sing-Akademie, and the cultivation of her collection, Sara Levy forged a common cultural environment with music at its center in which both Christians and Jews could participate.


Rebecca Cypess is Associate Professor of Music at the Mason Gross School of the Arts, Rutgers University, and an affiliated faculty member in the Rutgers Jewish Studies Department. A harpsichordist and musicologist, she is founder of the Raritan Players, whose debut recording In Sara Levy’s Salon was released in 2017 by Acis Productions. Her publications include Curious and Modern Inventions: Instrumental Music as Discovery in Galileo’s Italy (University of Chicago Press, 2016), and she is co-editor, with Nancy Sinkoff, of Sara Levy’s World: Gender, Judaism, and the Bach Tradition in Enlightenment Berlin, forthcoming in 2018 from the University of Rochester Press.

Sara Levy’s story is fictionalized in the novel, And After the Fire by Lauren Belfer, a book selected by several of HBI’s Conversations programs.

Chronic PsychoSemitism: New Treatment Available

By Ellen Golub –

You’d think I would have gotten over it sooner. I read a few stories by Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem when I was ten about a dysfunctional married couple and then, OMG: a lifetime of flashbacks! It didn’t help that my parents were divorcing at the time. I asked them if I could see a psychiatrist. “What– and have it go on your permanent record?”

So I limped through latency, with the shrewish carping of Sheyne Sheyndel ringing in my ears; I agonized about the foolish decisions made by her luftmensch (airhead) husband, Menachem Mendel. There was a patina of courtesy between them, but the geshrei (shrieking) of that woman– is it any wonder I developed tinnitus?

Stories from the Tanach (Bible) tormented me, too. What kind of father even thinks about sacrificing his son? What kind of God knocks off whole cities (S’dom) and planets (Noach) and punishes until the tenth generation? Some guy named Shlumiel gets zapped for picking up sticks on the Sabbath—yikes! Adonijah hangs from a tree by his hair—who knew long hair was so dangerous?

“Look, they’re just stories, El.” My dad tried to minimize the collateral damage of my Jewish education.

But in the real world, there were worse stories, like my grandmother’s first person account of a pogrom she attended. Or that of my cousins in Israel, whose Holocaust tales made Halloween a mere stalk in the park by comparison. PLO and PFLP were just assortments of alphabet letters, until they became the menacing specters of my young adulthood auguring high panic mode. My college psych professor nailed it. “Signal anxiety,” he lectured, the deployment of emergency defenses in support of the ego.

So finally—as so many Jewish stories achieve their commentary– I found myself on the psychoanalyst’s couch, breathlessly recounting the tales that so haunted my imagination. I frequently revisited the Ur trauma, Sholem Aleichem’s Menachem Mendel and Sheyne Sheyndel and their sour pickle of a marriage. . . their hapless misery, their life’s limitations, the shviger’s (mother-in-law) grating and useless advice. . . . “Oy, Dr. Mahmish (precisely) !”

“You know,” the shrink interjected, “You are suffering from a disorder that affects more than 80 percent of Jews worldwide. There’s so much new research and just an extraordinary outpouring of anecdotal complaint. . . I expect the next DSM will list it as a new diagnostic category.”

I sucked in my breath, preparing myself for the worst. Was I some permutation of a borderline personality? Did I—and 80 percent of world Jewry– host bi-polar or tri-polar, or some other arctic bacillus? I steeled myself for the decree. And in a still small voice Dr. Mahmish delivered it. “You know, you are classically PsychoSemitic.”

His raised hand promised an immediate explanation. “You suffer from an emotional condition that, in its simplest terms, is a kind of cultural vertigo. You could probably become asymptomatic, were the messiah to arrive immediately. But for now—”

I sat bolt upright and faced the doctor. “I beg your pardon!!?” My diagnosis pierced my consciousness.

“Look,” Dr. Mahmish peered at me over tortoise shell glasses. “You typically experience manic outbursts, psycho-linguisitic dissonance, and an absurd obsession with all manner of characters and texts, correct? Your pintele Yid is at odds with your diaspora self. Let me translate from the Latin: ‘You’re attempting to dance with one tuches (behind) at two weddings.’”

Beginning to sweat and feeling my heart beat wildly, I careened to the punch line of my diagnosis. “But, Dr. Mahmish. Am I terminal? Is there a cure?”

“Life is terminal,” Mahmish opined, anecdotally. “There are no guarantees. Buh-utt—”

“But what?” Hope flickered faintly.

“But . . . many patients find remission in revisiting the original symptom, in your case that Sholem Aleichem story you always talk about.” His two index fingers touched tip to tip, pointing toward me like a divining rod.

Suddenly I knew what I must do. I must bring Sheyne Sheyndel and Menachem Mendel back to life and help them. I would feel better if I just made things right for these two struggling souls.

And so I did. I wrote them into a novel of my own and gave them what Sholem Aleichem couldn’t: a happy life, a thriving family, riches and satisfactions beyond measure. Oh yeah, and I gave them some Prozac.

I can’t emphasize how well I feel since doing this. So if you’re feeling PsychoSemitic, save yourself the angst and the Benjamins ($100 bills). Get to Amazon and buy my new novel. Read it. Think profoundly. Laugh liberally. This book may just tamp down those pesky—some say scorching– PsychoSemitic sparks. Dr. Mahmish now recommends it to all his patients as the most copacetic treatment yet for the most recalcitrant and unremitting PsychoSemitic symptoms…and it’s a great way to celebrate Jewish Book Month.

Ellen Golub was born in Chelm, the illegitimate child of an itinerant wedding jester and Mela Tonen, a descendent of the Talmudic sage, Bruria. At three, Golub could recite the entire Torah by heart. At five, she became the first female student admitted to the Mir Yeshiva, and quickly became known as The Beyz Mir, a fierce proponent of the second Hebrew letter. 

After viewing the movie Yentl, Golub became convinced that life as a female Talmud scholar would be more rigorous than advertised. She abruptly left the Yeshiva world and fled to America where she went into treatment with Edward Hopper. Her analysis convinced her that if she really wanted a happy ending, she would have to become a fiction writer. So she lit out for the Apple store and never looked back.
PsychoSemitic is Golub’s answer to the Jewish question. And yes, she is available for weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, and book groups.


Brandeis Acquires Lilith Archives, Cornerstone to Jewish Feminist Collections

By Amy Sessler Powell –

DSCN3188_resizedWith 40 cubic feet of boxes containing 800 files ranging from AIDS to Zionism, the newly acquired Lilith Magazine Archives at the Robert D. Farber University Archives & Special Collections tells pathbreaking stories from the lives of Jewish women over the past four decades.

Behind the stories are still other stories, all contained in these boxes. It is nothing less than the “concrete evidence of the changes that have taken place in 40 years — both in the women’s movement and in Jewish life. Lilith has both borne witness and spurred those changes along,” said Susan Weidman Schneider, ‘65, one of the founding mothers of Lilith.

The stories within show how a magazine can form a “connective tissue” for women around the world and give voice to their issues. They show how a group of pioneering women journalists with little business experience started a nonprofit social-change-oriented periodical from scratch, learning as they went.

“We hope many of these documents will be inspirational to other feminist start-ups,”  Schneider said.

DSCN3165_resizedThey tell the story of a bygone era of journalism where manuscripts went back and forth in the “snail mail,” with handwritten comments in the margins, providing a window into the way stories took shape. They cover a breadth of topics like fertility, abortion, gender, a woman’s role in ritual and more, including the “darker stories” of substance abuse, domestic violence and poverty in the Jewish community that Lilith boldly took on when others shied away. Within the subset of these broader topics, are the original notes, the ephemera, the correspondence, the minutes and agendas from meetings and conventions, and the correspondence between readers and editors.

Lilith offers 40 years of primary source material that opens a window onto myriad aspects of the lives of Jewish women over four decades. It reaches into every area of endeavor,” said Dr. Joyce Antler, the Samuel B. Lane Professor of American Jewish History and Culture, and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.

Schneider determined that Brandeis was the best home for these papers.

“This archive does more than document the women’s movement from a Jewish perspective. For example, through these documents one can trace the emergence of the Jewish women’s foundations, notes on how women will fund women’s projects — or not. The Lilith collection opens a window on the development of the Jewish community and a whole range of gender issues from the feminist perspective,” said Schneider, also a member of HBI’s Academic Advisory Committee.

DSCN3179_resized2For Brandeis, the Lilith archive anchors a burgeoning collection of papers and archives by important Jewish feminists including Aviva Cantor, E.M.Broner and Fanny Hurst to form a critical mass that both supports the curriculum, makes Brandeis a destination for Jewish feminist research and opens the door to future collections of Jewish feminist papers.

“We have a sense of the interests of our research community and want to build on our existing strengths. The Lilith material is a wonderful trove for scholarship in the area of Jewish feminism and other subjects, and it lays a cornerstone for future collections,” said Sarah Shoemaker, Associate University Librarian for Archives &​ Special Collections in the Brandeis Library.

Elaine Reuben, ’63 and a member of HBI’s board of directors, supported the acquisition of the Lilith archive with a generous donation. She did so to honor “the immense meaning and value of the Lilith papers,” to promote the notion of alumnae donating their papers to a Brandeis collection about women, and to encourage other donors to support this goal.

DSCN3184_resizedBecause the archive spans a movement for gender justice over 40 years, Schneider noted that it tracks the arc of change through time—change in religious practice, in community structures and in relationships. For example, the early writings ask why women are not being “let in” to Jewish ritual, a struggle to gain equal access to the tradition. Then one can see the struggle shift “from equal access to equal value, ensuring that new rituals honoring women’s particular experiences become part of the accepted liturgy and practice.” Several of the sections in the Lilith collection show the ways this happens—as in documenting how “women creatively repurpose a ritual such as the mikveh, using immersion to heal from the traumas of breast cancer or, mastectomy, or as a way of marking a transition out of an abusive relationship or marking a gender change.”

Lilith took on the subject of Jewish American Princesses (JAPs),  another topic documented in the collection, and Schneider stressed that this issue is more complex than it might at first appear—as many folders in the archive attest. Schneider says that this stereotype, often representing an amalgam of misogyny and anti-Semitism, brings to the fore both external and internalized bias, including “shame around financial privilege and shame around not having privilege, whatever the measure is in every generation.”

On the subject of motherhood, the cover of the fourth issue of Lilith, back in the 1970s, featured a pregnant torso, and asked why Jewish leaders want women to be fruitful and multiply. Over the years, the magazine’s articles about childbearing and reproductive choices have focused on everything from abortion or unplanned pregnancy to fertility challenges, new and old rituals around pregnancy, Jewish women’s embrace of new reproductive technologies, and stories of Jewish women who relinquished their babies for adoption in the pre-Roe v. Wade era. “These are complicated narratives and the archives’ voluminous files on the subject attest to this,” said Schneider.

Lilith also maintained a “talent bank, like expanded Rolodexes or binders of women experts” who could be quoted on various subjects, featured as speakers and cited as sources on a range of issues. “People knew to call us when they wanted to avoid panels full of men only,” Schneider said.

In this day of paperless offices and constant purging, how did Lilith manage to save so much?

Schneider credits another of Lilith’s founders, Aviva Cantor, whose papers are also at Brandeis, with having a historian’s sense of the importance of saving documents and ephemera of potential interest.  The fact that Lilith has remained in the same office building in Manhattan for 36 years also meant nothing, such as a move, prompted a purge.

DSCN3157_resizedNow that the Lilith’s collection is housed at Brandeis, it will become a “living archive,” with the magazine adding to the collection by sending more documents each year. “And apropos of  the Lilith collection being a magnet for the papers of other feminist entities, I pledged to send my own personal papers to Brandeis,” Schneider said.

Antler is excited about the impact this archive will have on curriculum. “I love to use primary sources, as do so many others on the faculty. Here, we are exposed to the thinking, the conflicts, the innovation of these exciting decades. In one place, we really get a lens into what women were doing and thinking at a time of amazing growth and change. Lilith was there, at the center.”

Amy Sessler Powell


Amy Sessler Powell is HBI’s Director of Communications.



weidman schneider_web

Susan Weidman Schneider, ’65, one of Lilith’s founding mothers, received the Alumni Achievement Award on October 24, 2015, along with Roy DeBerry ’70, MA ’78, PhD ’79, a human rights and social justice activist.

A Feminist Approach to the High Holy Days

by Amy Sessler Powell

Fresh Ideas, Editor, Amy Sessler Powell, interviewed Marcia Falk about her book, The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season and her journey into writing new liturgies.

Marcia Falk

Marcia Falk

Poet and scholar, Marcia Falk, acclaimed author of the groundbreaking Book of Blessings, last summer, published 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 akavanah, 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’s Communications Director. 

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