December 15, 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.

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.

We are Responsible for Each Other

By Shulamit Reinharz

HBI Director Shulamit Reinharz accepted an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters on May 31 from Hebrew College. Here are her acceptance remarks:

 Several years ago, I had the privilege of meeting and speaking with the Dalai Lama. At one point he asked me, “Shula, the Jewish people were exiled from their homeland 2,000 years ago, yet they never have forgotten where they came from. My people were exiled from Tibet in 1950 and I fear most of them have already forgotten their origins. How were the Jews able to remember?”

I took a deep breath and answered, “Your Holiness, our secret is that we don’t have a Dalai Lama. Instead, each Jew is responsible for all the other Jews.”

For me, the operative word here is responsible. In my opinion, an important yet typically unstated aspect of an honorary degree is to confer responsibility upon its recipient. Receiving this honor from Hebrew College led me to think about another familiar message about responsibility: “You are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.”

This famous saying from Pirkei Avot led me to the question, “Which tasks have I begun that I am responsible to continue?” Here is my one-and-one-half minute answer.

First, I feel responsible to follow the suggestion of Natan Sharansky who said that we should never ask someone to make aliyah, but rather we should make Israel so wonderful that Jews will want to flock there. Through the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, we have created countless opportunities for researchers, activists and artists to work in Israel.

What else? I feel responsible to remember what Blu Greenberg said when I asked her if there would ever be a female orthodox rabbi. She said, “Where there is a will, there is a halachic way.” Anything is possible. I have devoted much of my energy to understanding Jewish women and gender relations in history and to advancing the options for women in Judaism. I am committed to continuing this work for women in general.

And what other task do I need to continue? I remember what my father – a Holocaust survivor – told me, when I asked him shortly before he died, “What is the most important thing you want me to remember about the Holocaust?” He responded, “Remember that there are good people in the world.” What he was referring to was the fact that for each person who survived – as he and my mother did – there was at least one good person who helped. In their case, there were many good people who risked their lives to save my parents. I view it as my responsibility to write a book about my father, sharing this message. And I have started.

And what’s the final item on my current to-do list? Both my mother and father received graduate degrees in Hebrew language and literature. Their love of the Hebrew language is something they passed on to me. As my friend and chavruta partner, Chabad Shaliach Peretz Chein told me, “If Hebrew withers, we will lose touch with the Torah, and it will be difficult to sustain ourselves as the Jewish people.” I have tried hard to master the language, to give my children a Hebrew education, and through various initiatives to encourage American Jews to learn Hebrew.

So, I thank Hebrew College, and particularly its president, Rabbi Danny Lehman and the Hebrew College board, for this honor with its implicit message – I may have taken the first steps, but my work is not done. Todah rabah.

shula2015Shulamit Reinharz, founder and director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, is the Jacob Potofsky Professor of Sociology and director of the Women’s Studies Research Center.

 

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