November 17, 2017

The Literary Equivalent of Eavesdropping

Note: This is one of an occasional profile of the expanding Jewish-Feminist collections at The Archives & Special Collections at the Brandeis Goldfarb Library. We previously wrote about the Lilith collection

By Violet Fearon

Before I gain access to the carefully stored correspondence of Esther M. Broner, I’m given a few instructions: no pen, keep the documents flat on the table at all times, file everything back exactly in the order you found it. In this quiet room, filled with books and cardboard boxes, it feels a little like I’m about to undertake some kind of secret mission. The first letter I examine is dated from the early 60s; it feels brittle and thin. Even if I hadn’t been briefed on proper handling procedure, there’s something about old paper that tells you to treat it with care.

As I place the designated cardboard marker in the box to hold the document’s place, two women across the room are having an intense whispered conversation. Their low voices mean it is something I am not supposed to hear; a private conversation. At the back of my brain – and I don’t think I’m alone in this – is a curiosity. We all want to be privy to things not meant for us.

Maybe that’s why I was excited to come here. Reading correspondence is, after all, the literary equivalent of eavesdropping. There’s a sense that you’re being a little sneaky – a little bit of a busybody. And, if I’m honest with myself, that’s where most of the fun of the whole endeavor comes from. You are reading something not meant for your eyes, something intended to be kept to the confines of friends and family. All of a sudden, the famous figures I remember reading about who instructed their diaries and letters to be burnt upon their deaths suddenly seemed like very forward-thinking individuals.

First, a little backstory. Esther M. Broner was a Jewish American author, whose works focused on fusing her feminism with her faith. She wrote ten books, among them renowned works like A Weave of Women and The Women’s Haggadah, which largely revolved around themes of creating new, women-centric Jewish rituals – forging a feminist identity within the confines of religion and tradition. In 1976, she held the first all-female Passover seder on the floor of her NYC apartment, surrounded by a horde of plants, with women such as Letty Cottin Pogrebin and Gloria Steinem (the founders of Ms. Magazine) in attendance.

In her correspondence, some of what I found was expected: evidence of a woman with an intense focus on Judaism and feminism (or, in her own words in a letter to a friend, “my Jewish thing”). But I also found something else – something that makes correspondence uniquely valuable to researchers: a human being. There is joy when babies are born, and sadness when relatives die. She commiserates with friends over the incompetency of various politicians. During a visit to London, there’s musings on her love for the picturesque gardens, though some cultural frustrations that still ring true today (“The British are quite relaxed, and to the impatient American it can be somewhat exasperating – it’s always “Would you have another cup of tea,” when you’re trying to get a steady stream of work done.”). A letter from a friend, Susan, who tells Broner to never forget to be cheeky, because “sass is so fine”. A note from a writing mentor, Professor Edward Albee, to “Work hard – you are so good.” Albee also talks about the process of writing his latest play; he hasn’t settled on a title yet, but he likes the sound of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

When we study an author’s works, it’s easy to see them as static creations – things that were always there, or that were summoned into creation in some frenzy of creativity. In reality, of course, writing is a long and gradual process, no matter who’s doing it. There’s no clearer way to find this out than by reading personal, casual writings. In a 1976 journal entry, Broner described the beginnings of the themes that would come to define her work, writing, “Michele and I talk about magic and the idea for my book becomes clearer – a ritual between women, holidays and rituals – births to deaths – and the weave of women who enact these occasions and what happens to them, Israelis and Americans – here and there – who live together and who returns, who dies by fire and who by hunger . . . I don’t like the idea of women and black magic – but women and ritual – and ritual deep in our roots and cultural origins, can organize the book.”

Working your way through years of a person’s life in the space of a few hours can be a strange experience. In the course of a few pages, her daughter, Nahama, has transformed from a little girl in the 1960s trying on trenchcoats and deciding to get her hair cut into “the most adorable bangs” to a 1970s teenager who “laughed nastily” at her father’s recounting of Esther and his honeymoon, prompting Esther to write a long passage on how difficult teenagers are.

(In the spirit of research, later I googled “Nahama Broner”, hoping to find some old family photographs so I could put faces to story. Instead, I found her RateMyProfessor page, with a stream of NYU undergraduates reviewing her skills in teaching psychology. She seems to be a very good professor, though now bereft of bangs).

In a way, it was much more – “disturbing” is too dramatic, but perhaps “perturbing” is the right word – than I expected, paging through decades of a life in a single afternoon. Years slip through your fingers; there is joy, then sadness, then anger, then joy again. In one of the earliest documents, Broner discusses an uncle who had just passed away; she muses over his life, wonders if he spent more time happy or sad. In closing, she writes: “And his death is painful because he had not realized all of his dreams. But then, who does?”

Violet Fearon, a freshman and Humanities Fellow,  is the HBI student blogger.

To learn more about the Jewish-Feminist collections or to make an appointment, contact Chloe Morse-Harding, Reference and Instruction Archivist, cmorseharding@brandeis.edu / 781-736-4657.

Sephardic Women’s Voices: Out of North Africa

HBI recently caught up with 2010 Scholar-in-Residence Nina B. Lichtenstein, who earlier this year published Sephardic Women’s Voices: Out of North Africa, a project she started at HBI.

HBI: How did you become interested in the topic of Jewish writers from North Africa?

NBL: When I was in graduate school working toward a master’s and then a doctorate in French, a large part of our reading was literature by writers from the former French colonies, such as the Caribbean, West Africa, and North Africa. I had a Bachelor’s in Jewish Studies and French, and anything from the intersection of these two disciplines interested me. Knowing that North Africa, especially Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, had been the home to a large Jewish population—nearly 500,000 at its peak and now mostly gone—I was intrigued to find voices that captured this rupture. But there were no Jewish voices on our reading lists, except one or two male writers such as Albert Memmi, and so, my project revealed itself, asking to be developed.

HBI: Why women writers, specifically?  

NBL: Women writers bring a different sensibility to their writing than men, and often one that observes and responds to a gendered experience of, say, trauma, as it is lived by a family or a community. We know that, historically, these experiences have been underrepresented if not invisible. I was eager to find them and put them in the forefront of a study about a unique moment in Jewish history.

HBI: There has been a burgeoning of Sephardic Studies in recent years, for example as seen by the growing numbers of sessions on the theme at the AJS and MLA. How has this affected your work and research?

NBL: In the early days of my research, in the late nineties, it was a lonely job. I was the only one at my University pursuing anything Sephardic, although the University of Connecticut had a Jewish Studies program, (I was one of their first majors) it focused on Ashkenazi history and culture. I recall speaking with a Moroccan sociologist and scholar in France who had doubts my project was going to fly, but he was the beginning of a network of engaging Sephardic writers and scholars that I slowly developed, and which eventually sprouted in the U.S. as well. This is not to say there were not important senior scholars here who had already paved the way—such as Norman Stillman, Jane Gerber and Aaron Rodrigue—but as far as a network for junior scholars who were entering the field, it took time. Now, the AJS has a separate caucus for Sephardic and Mizrahi studies as well as a large number of panels and sections dedicated to this rich and heterogeneous sub-genre within Jewish Studies. It has been fun to be part of and observe this growth.

HBI: Your book, Sephardic Women’s Voices: Out of North Africa (Gaon Books 2017), is divided into two parts: the first is rich in historical and theoretical references, and the second is a literary and thematic study of specific texts by the women writers. What reader(s) did you have in mind when you wrote this book?

NBL: The book went through several phases. When it started out as my dissertation, it was my thesis-advisors and the academic community I imagined as readers. I knew revisions were necessary in order to publish it as a book and coming to the HBI as a scholar in residence in 2010 marked the beginning of that renewed energy and work. It took time and thought to reimagine the reader I envisioned. When the small, independent press, Gaon Books, finally published the book in January 2017, I was excited to have shaped it into a more accessible text.

Since then, readers who are not academics or scholars, but lay-people interested in Jewish history and culture, have told me they enjoyed its “readability,” which I take as a great compliment. My litmus test was when a dear friend, Dr. Calvin Mass, who at 95 years old read the manuscript and called me up from his nursing home the week after I had dropped it off and asked me over for lunch “so we could discuss the work.” He grew up as an Ashkenazi Jew in Hartford, CT in the 1930s, and had very little exposure to anything diverse within Jewish culture. But he was educated and curious.

HBI: What are some challenges, if any, you have faced with this project?

NBL: During the long research-phase, I had three young children and a husband who worked all the time, so travelling to France or North Africa was not possible. That felt compromising to me, but I found other ways to develop the content of the project. Aside from the seemingly endless revisions and the often-painstaking rounds of editing, the biggest challenge for me is always to “just sit down and do the work.” That means writing for some time, every day—except on Shabbat—uninterrupted by all the usual attention grabbers readily at our fingertips.

HBI: Tell us about how your relationship to the HBI began?

NBL: In the spring of 2010,I came to HBI as a SIR, and I vividly recall walking through the doors of the Women’s Studies Research Center feeling like I had come home. The warm and welcoming environment created by the supportive staff and all the folks who work and are affiliated with the Center was a game-changer for me. It was the first time in my academic life I didn’t get a blank stare when asked about my work. Jews and gender and fresh ideas, well, it was a match made in heaven.

While there as SIR, I applied for and won the HBI translation award that led to the translation from French of Chochana Boukhobza’s novel, For the Love of the Father. When my time as SIR ended I was welcomed to stay on as a Research Associate—a relationship that continues today. I have also been a member of the Academic Advisory Committee since 2011 and enjoy being a part of evaluating some of the annual research award applications as they relate to my field.

HBI: In what way is the translation project unique?

NBL: Throughout my scholarship, one of my primary goals has been to share stories of Sephardic/Mizrahi communities from Islamic lands, and especially its women. Among them, the Francophone writers —and there are many—are not generally known within the Anglophone world, as many if not most of their works are yet to be translated. Chochana Boukhobza—who is born in Tunisia—and whose work figures in my book, is a prolific Sephardic woman writer in France who has written with great rawness about the uprooting of North Africa’s Jews. This moment in history and its repercussions on a familial level is portrayed with sensitivity in the translated novel. I love that the novel is made available for free from the Brandeis Institutional Repository.

HBI: What’s next for you in terms of projects?

NBL: I have a couple of projects on the docket; both relating to Jews and gender in their own ways. The first is a novel inspired by a true story about a Norwegian non-Jewish woman who falls in love and has a child with a Norwegian Jew in 1933. She only reveals this part of her secret past to her family when she is on her deathbed, 55 years later. Shifting between time periods the story explores how one woman’s secret affects not only her life but that of future generations. The second project is a collection of first person essays by women converts to Judaism, tentatively titled, That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Jewish. I run a blog and a Facebook group by the same name, and I seek well-written stories that celebrate the diversity of converts to Judaism. Between these two projects I have my work cut out for me, and feel invigorated by the beginning of the fall season and cooler weather.

Nina B. Lichtenstein is a writer, teacher and storyteller. She holds a Ph.D in French and is a 2010 HBI Scholar in Residence, winner of an HBI Translation prize, member of the HBI Academic Advisory Committee and an HBI Research Associate. Nina is a recent empty nester, and now lives in Brunswick, Maine. She recently published Sephardic Women’s Voices: Out of North Africa.

 

Ruach HaYam: Why We (Still) Need Queer Jewish Space

By Penina Weinberg

A few years ago I started a group in Boston aimed at providing space for LGBTQ Jews to gather for learning and worship in a way that would enable us to bring our full selves to the table.  We named ourselves Ruach HaYam, Spirit of the Sea, after the sea surrounding us in Boston, and for the sea across which Miriam and Moses led the children of Israel.  Ours was not a unique idea at the time, but as we are completing our fifth year at Ruach HaYam, I find it becoming harder, and therefore more essential, to find spiritual community dedicated to queer Jews.

As synagogues open up to LGBTQ Jews and make it apparently less necessary for groups aimed specifically at queer Jews, there is a tendency for queer congregations to become less relevant.  Many synagogues now attract queer Jews through LGBTQ outreach programs or through a greater tolerance of queer Jews (note the word “tolerance” – we’ll get back to that).  There remain specifically LGBTQ synagogues in larger cities, for instance Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York and Congregation Sha’ar Zahav  in San Francisco.  Yet in the Boston area, which is no doubt not unusual, the longtime LGBTQ Congregation Am Tikva founded in 1976, has had a falloff in membership. Nehirim, a national organization that provided programming and support for the Jewish LGBTQ community for nearly a dozen years shut down two years ago saying that its work was done.  As reported in the Tablet:

“The decision to close Nehirim highlights a significant shift in the American Jewish LGBT landscape. ‘When Nehirim began in 2004, there were a handful of LGBT synagogues, and only a few truly welcoming congregations outside major metropolitan areas,’ said Jay Michaelson, a Jewish writer and activist who founded Nehirim. ‘[Nehirim] met a pressing need for a place for LGBT Jews to build spiritual community together. In 2015, that need is no longer present outside the Orthodox community.’”

Despite what the Tablet reported, there is a problem. Tolerance and even acceptance is not the same as celebration. Allowing me in the room is not the same as understanding me.  And in fact, there are still many places where that most elemental of rooms, the bathroom, is closed or hazardous for my transgender and non-binary friends.  Wendy Chapkis, Professor of Sociology and Women and Gender Studies at University of Southern Maine, expressed it this way in a 2017 Portland Phoenix interview : “Tolerance doesn’t build community; tolerance doesn’t provide a mirror in which you can see yourself as fierce and fabulous. Queer space does that — and we’re losing those spaces…  We absolutely still need queer space. Gay-bashing and anti-trans violence is a very real threat in the streets.”    Wendy is talking about queer community, not necessarily spiritual community, but what she says is equally relevant for those who wish to be fierce and fabulous and unthreatened at the intersection of LGBTQ and religious identity.

When I was an active participant in the Nehirim community, teaching at two or three retreats each year, I absolutely loved the chance to learn and to practice ritual with other queer Jews.  My queer Jewish identity was celebrated, and the interaction with other queer Jewish seekers fed my soul and deepened my love and understanding of Judaism and diversity. I loved it so much that in 2013 I decided to create a retreat experience in the Boston area, modeled on the Nehirim program.  I did not know then that the Nehirim program was destined to fold, only that I wanted to have deeper connections on a local level.

I gathered a few local friends whom I had met at Nehirim women’s retreats and we founded Ruach HaYam in Boston.  Our purpose was to provide an ongoing and intimate way for local queer Jews to worship and study together.  We began with an annual retreat, we added one or two Shabbat lunch and learns during the second year, and by the end of the third year we added monthly queer Torah study sessions.  Our mantra from the beginning has been inclusion. We worship without a mechitza so as to make less observant Jews comfortable, but with acoustic music only in order to not to drive away those who are more observant.  We serve only kosher food at our annual retreats. We have put together our own inclusive siddur.  Our services and study sessions are warm, meaningful, collaborative, lead to deepening of friendships, and are simply fabulous. More than that, although Ruach HaYam speaks with a queer Jewish voice, we welcome persons of all gender and faith identities. As we complete our fifth year, I can proudly say that we include among our intergenerational members the newly Jewish, Jews by tradition, Christian, secular, pagan, and undeclared, those who are neurodivergent or disabled, with identities across the gender spectrum, including those who do not identify as LGBTQ.  We have evolved into a sort of havurah with two dozen people who come to at least one of our events during the year.

What makes Ruach HaYam work, I believe, is that we have succeeded in creating a community that celebrates and welcomes each identity, whether solid or in formation.  Each person is welcomed in their full and fierce self, not just tolerated. The text study I teach is full of nuance and ambiguity, and as such, we offer a soft space in which to be vulnerable and in transition.  In an era of crystalizing political doctrine, we have a community in which to share “I don’t know” and “I can see many sides.”   When we held our retreat on November 12, 2016, I thought that perhaps people who had been devastated by the election results would stay home and lick wounds.  Instead, we had a full turnout of compassionate souls who learned about journeying to ourselves (Torah Portion Lech Lecha), and who cried and laughed together while we held sacred space for a day.  If ever there was proof of the need for celebratory, not just tolerant, queer Jewish community, this was it.

I am particularly pleased that Ruach HaYam is co-host for Spiritual Sisters: A Poetry Reading by Lesléa Newman and Joy Ladin.  Joy was one of my first teachers at Nehirim and had a significant impact upon my queer Jewish journey and upon my valuation as a teacher for careful listening, story-telling, and compassion for students.  Through the years I have arranged readings for Joy, attended her talks and poetry readings, and attended Shabbatons which she has headlined locally.   The poetry reading by Joy and Lesléa, however, is Ruach HaYam’s first collaboration with HBI, and I hope not the last.

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Penina Weinberg, MJLS Hebrew College ‘09, is an independent Hebrew bible scholar whose study and teaching focus on the intersection of power, politics and gender in the Hebrew Bible. She has run workshops for Nehirim and Keshet and has been teaching Hebrew Bible for 10 years. She has written in Tikkun, founded the group Ruach HaYam, where she teaches a monthly queer Torah study, and is president emerita and webmaster at her synagogue. Weinberg is a parent and grandparent.

Finding a Lost Cuisine: The German-Jewish Cookbook

 

By Gabrielle Rossmer Gropman

I just finished a large batch of ‘krokerle’ from The German-Jewish Cookbook. When chopping the hazelnuts, I automatically went to my mezzaluna, called a ‘wiegemesser’ in German, that antique wood-handled steel half-moon knife that chops expertly. Halfway through this exercise I realized – “Wait a minute, why am I not using my Cuisinart?” Why, indeed?

Most likely, co-authoring this book with my daughter, Sonya, and immersing myself in the history of this cuisine, I connected to the time and place where these cookies originated, where Cuisinarts didn’t exist yet. Besides, the mezzaluna satisfies with a sense of control over each chop.

The recipe comes from one of our favorite elders, Herta Bloch, and we recount in the cookbook the not so successful first time we made them together. She was 92 years old at the time and we visited her small apartment in Washington Heights, N.Y.

We are here to learn how to bake Krokerle – the untranslatable name alone piqued our interest. It is a cookie that is unique to her German-Jewish family, though we could see it resembles the numerous spicy German cookies that are eaten during the Christmas season. It was baked by her mother and exists in Herta’s archive of family recipes.

 We are surprised, and find it hilarious when Herta says, “I have never made these cookies before.” We are here to learn from the wisdom of an old master, only to discover it is her first time! On second thought, we realize it is great, as is adds to the living quality of the food that the “old timer” is learning to make her mother’s recipe for the first time, because of our visit.”

Eventually, we perfected the recipe with Herta’s daughter Marion who learned from her grandmother.  The expertise on this particular recipe appeared to skip a generation. While we didn’t learn the best way to make the krokerle that day, we still learned so much from Herta’s fluid movements in the kitchen and from her knowledge of the deep traditions of the culture we were exploring. She was both a traditional and modern woman all at once. She worked alongside her husband, Alfred, in Block and Falk, their kosher butcher and sausage shop until it closed in the mid 1990’s. Everyone in the community came there to buy sausages and smoked meats.

Sonya, Gaby Gropman

Sonya Gropman (left) and Gabrielle Rossmer Gropman

So, here is our new cookbook. We wrote this book to preserve and document the cuisine of a nearly vanished culture.

In a wonderful review this week in Tablet Magazine, Leah Koenig wrote, “It is hard to overstate the importance of a book like The German-Jewish Cookbook, which the Gropmans hope to have translated into German. It captures a lost moment in time, elevating a rich history and culture that, within a generation, will have almost no one left who experienced it.”

Koenig captured our myriad reasons for writing. When I go back to Germany, the Jews of German origin aren’t there anymore. The history of the expulsion is there, but what came before is not. This was something we needed to do.

Gabrielle Rossmer Gropman, Brandeis ’59, is the co-author, with her daughter Sonya Gropman, of the The German-Jewish Cookbook: Recipes and History of a Lost Cuisine, published in the HBI Series on Jewish Women.

 

 

 

It Takes a Community to Say Kaddish, Especially as a Woman

By Gila Silverman

Everyone who says kaddish for a parent for the full 11-months required by Jewish tradition has stories. Most people have at least one story of being welcomed at a synagogue far from home, feeling supported in their grief by the strangers in the minyan. But for women who say kaddish, there is also another kind of story. Most of us have at least one story of feeling uncomfortable or excluded, of a time when we were forced to confront the deep gendering embedded in Jewish tradition.

For me, ironically, that story happened at an academic Jewish Studies conference.

Mid-way through my year of saying kaddish for my mother, I was attending the Association for Jewish Studies annual conference and I noticed that both egalitarian and “traditional” minyanim were on the schedule. As a single mother, saying kaddish every day was not feasible, but I had made a commitment to say kaddish two to three times each week. I was glad to see that I would be able to fulfill my obligation while traveling to attend the conference. I was also curious – what would minyan be like in this academic setting? Who would show up? Would anyone show up?

I had breakfast meetings in the mornings, so I could not attend the shaharit minyan, but at the appointed time for minhah, I left a session and made my way to the designated minyan room. Disappointingly, only three people showed up for the egalitarian minyan – all of us looking for a place to say kaddish. Several men wearing kippot were standing in the hallway, trying to gather people to make the “traditional” minyan, and they kindly invited us to join them in the room next door. I explained to them that I was saying kaddish, and asked if that would be a problem for anyone. I knew that some Orthodox men would not want me to say the kaddish out loud, and I knew that if I joined their minyan, I would do so in a way that respected their minhag. They welcomed me and said that was more than fine.

But when we entered the room, I realized that a floor-to-ceiling black curtain had been set up as a mehitzah, enclosing the “women’s section” from three sides (with the back wall of the room as the 4th side). I wanted to respect the more observant expectations of this minyan, but I also knew that I could not say kaddish while standing behind an opaque curtain that separated me completely from the community that would say “Amen”. Feeling slightly queasy, I quietly asked those who had welcomed me if I had to sit behind the curtain, and asked if they would feel comfortable if I sat in the back of the “men’s section”. With their agreement, I quietly pulled a chair out from behind the curtain and sat in the back corner of the room. The other woman who was also saying kaddish did the same. Although we received several confused glances, no one said anything to us, and when we stood to say kaddish, I thought I felt a collective nod of understanding and support in the Amen’s that answered us.

I left the room shaking slightly, realizing later that not only had the male mourner not needed to clarify that he could be there, but that he was also asked to lead the service, while I – if I had not spoken up – would have davenned invisibly behind a thick black barrier. Outside of that room, these men and I were peers and colleagues, sharing our scholarship and debating ideas at a professional meeting. But inside that room, I was clearly not equal.

The next afternoon, the same thing repeated. This time there were only two of us for the egalitarian minyan, and we quickly again joined the traditional one. Once again, with a nod at those who had welcomed me the day before, I moved a chair out from behind the thick curtain and respectfully and quietly sat in the back corner. This time, the other female mourner wasn’t there, but there were several Orthodox women. They came in, looked at me, looked at the curtain, and went to sit behind the curtain, leaving me alone in my corner. This triggered such mixed feelings – I completely respect their right to pray in whatever place they feel most comfortable, and yet I also felt abandoned by those who could have supported me. There were more men that day too, and – based on their dress and davenning style – more of a range of observance. I received more confused glances, although again no one asked me to move. I realize now that those women and men may have thought that I was intentionally violating the norms in order to make a political point. But that was far from my truth. I simply wanted to honor my mother, in the presence of community, as required by Jewish tradition.

I felt uncomfortably self-consciousness – whether from my own internalized perceptions and fears, or because of the looks I received, I can’t say. I felt like an interloper and an outsider, instead of a member of the community. When it came time for kaddish, I very quietly joined in and then quickly left the room. One of the men who had so warmly welcomed me the day before came after me, to tell me that they would be doing ma’ariv in about 15 minutes, if I wanted to come back. He must have seen the confusion on my face, because he added, “I know you’re saying kaddish, so I wanted to make sure you know that we’re also doing ma’ariv.” I mumbled something about having to meet a colleague, and walked away, but his small gesture almost brought me to tears. He could not have known of my inner turmoil at that moment, but he recognized the importance of what I was doing and wanted to help make it happen.

As an anthropologist, I’m trained to look for the layers of cultural meaning hidden in even the smallest social encounter. There is so much hidden and revealed in this story, so many different ways I could interpret it. What struck me most at first, was my own visceral and embodied reaction – the nausea and shaking that accompanied my decision to move my chair and to stand in that room of men, as I honored my mother’s memory by reciting the kaddish out loud. Later, as I thought more about what happened, and collected more stories from other women who chose to take on the kaddish obligation, I reflected on the social issues underlying this experience.

Previous generations of Jewish feminists, including my mother, fought for the right to say kaddish. While in most American Jewish circles, we have won this fight, we have yet to change the social structures that make that kaddish possible. Most minyanim are at times when parents of young children are getting them off to school, or making dinner and dealing with after-school activities, homework and bedtime. Because these home and parenting activities are still primarily women’s work, this makes daily attendance at minyan, which is required to say kaddish, particularly complicated, if not impossible.

In addition, most members of the liberal American Jewish denominations do not see daily prayer as a religious obligation.  Many non-Orthodox synagogues do not have a daily minyan and finding an egalitarian minyan in which to regularly say kaddish presents another layer of challenge. Where I live, in Tucson, Arizona, for example, there are 10 congregations, but only one that has an egalitarian daily minyan where I could say kaddish. And there too, like at AJS, there were often days when not enough people showed up to make an egalitarian minyan possible. At AJS, it was the Orthodox men who showed up to daven, the Orthodox men who already had the siddur app downloaded on their phones, who came prepared to lead a service if asked, and who knew that it is their obligation to show up for the minyan – both for their own religious observance and to ensure that the minyan is complete for those who need it.

I learned many things during my year of kaddish. I learned that Judaism provides a rich and beautiful set of rituals to guide us in our grief. I learned that we never stop missing those we love, and that Judaism reminds us – through kaddish and yahrzeits and yizkors – that remembering them is an integral part of continuing to live. And I learned that we need each other.  Like so many Jewish traditions, saying kaddish cannot be done without a community. We need others to say “Amen” to our kaddish, and we need others to make the minyan in which that kaddish can be said.

As women, and as Jewish feminists, we, and our allies, have a responsibility to be there for each other. Those before us demanded the right for women to say kaddish, and to mourn our dead in the full way prescribed by our tradition. Now it is up to us to make sure that it is possible to do so without feeling uncomfortable or unwelcome. We need to make sure that egalitarian minyanim are available everywhere – in our own communities and in the places we visit. We need to show up, with an egalitarian siddur downloaded on our phone, prepared to lead a service if asked, and know that it is our obligation to ensure that the minyan is complete for those of us who need it.

Gila Silverman is a 2017 HBI Scholar in residence. A cultural anthropologist working at the intersections of religion, medicine and healing, she is currently affiliated with the Department of Religious Studies and the Arizona Center for Judaic Studies.

 

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