Women Help Reshape Jewish Life
Anne Bayme had the best of all models of what it is to be a Jewish woman: her mother, Sylvia Brown.
Not only did Brown keep a kosher home and her family observant of Jewish tradition, but she was part of holding together the 10 Jewish families of tiny Vidalia, Ga., going out into the vastly Christian world around them and bringing Judaism to life.
In her own time, Bayme would do a version of this in her hometown of Macon, Ga., but in ways her mother never could have dreamed.
For Anne Bayme has lived in extraordinary times, when American women have transformed their status in Judaism, creating one of the most dramatic cultural shifts in centuries of Jewish history.
The newfound power of women is “the greatest change in Jewish life since the destruction of the Temple in the 1st Century,” said Susannah Heschel, a scholar and author of one of the first books on Jewish feminism.
The fabled Jewish gift for grand statement may be in evidence in that claim, but there is much to support it.
If a rabbi from another century parachuted into just about any non-Orthodox synagogue in America--yes, even in an outpost like Macon--the first thing he would probably notice is the women.
Increasingly, in years to come, he might be noticing them more prominently in Jewish communities worldwide. “This is the Judaism that we are now exporting to Israel and South Africa and Australia,” Heschel said. And American Jewish women are at the root of that change.
Women rabbis, cantors and synagogue presidents are all phenomena of the past two and a half decades. Lay women also are stepping up to the bimah, or podium, to lead services and study sessions, to read from the Torah and have aliyot, the honor of chanting Torah blessings.
Girls in Reform and Conservative synagogues are now treated no differently from boys as they prepare and conduct bat mitzvah services. These coming-of-age ceremonies also are performed by legions of women who are long past 13 but who did not have the opportunity in their youth.
In short, in the past generation, a religious tradition that gave the Western world the very model for the term “patriarchy” has been reinterpreted. As a result, the acceptance of women has become among the most stinging issues in the Jewish world.
Debates Over Power, Traditions
In Israel, the mere presence of women praying with men near the Western Wall has provoked violent protests by Orthodox men. In America, wrangling over the role of women has split some Jewish communities even as it spurs the growth of others.
“In some cases rabbis dragged their congregations in the right direction. In other cases, it bubbled up from below and rabbis lost their jobs,” said Jack Wertheimer, provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary.
Overall, the new influence of more than half the Jewish people--the women--helped recast American Judaism for all with an increased emphasis on spirituality.
The turn began in the mid-1980s, around when Laura Geller, then a young rabbi, organized a conference at UCLA on women’s spirituality and Jewish tradition. Geller, the third woman ordained by the Reform movement--in 1976--said the conference began a shift among feminists from a singular focus on equality to spirituality.
“We began asking: ‘Now women are being counted . . . how do they pray? Now they can be rabbis, what kind of rabbis are they becoming?’ ”
“I’m convinced,” said Geller, now rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, “that focus on the nature of women’s spirituality started everybody talking about spirituality. So what you now see across the board in Jewish organizations is a gift of Jewish feminism.”
New rituals for pivotal moments in the “life cycle” and Jewish calendar--for everything from healing after a miscarriage to 50th birthdays--spilled from the West Coast into the Jewish mainstream.
Challenges still loom from a tradition that often does not take its women seriously enough for their taste and from a popular culture that sometimes denigrates Jewish women as princesses and overbearing mothers.
But over the next generation that, too, should change, say the women and men who want to make it happen.
Of course, there are many currents underlying Jewish life. For huge numbers of women, Judaism is not a major determinant of their choices in life. But for many others who have strong ties to organized Judaism, their religion is key--to where they live, where they study, and whom their children marry.
Some of those women, particularly in Orthodox communities, are happy with the status quo. Many others, however, want more women in positions of power in Jewish institutions--heading big-city congregations, controlling philanthropy and teaching in Jewish rabbinical schools. Only six of 50 full-time teachers at the Jewish Theological Seminary are women; only two are teaching in the rabbinical program at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles.
Rachel Adler, a pioneering Jewish feminist theologian, said there needs to be an intense reexamination of “how power is allocated in the education and spiritual concerns of the Jewish people.”
But first, she said, Jewish law must be reconstructed to eliminate the ancient premise that women are subordinate to men. For without law there is no means to translate the stories and values of Judaism into action, Adler argues in her new book, “Engendering Judaism.”
“I don’t believe categories or rubrics of Jewish law are immutable,” said Adler, a professor at USC and Hebrew Union College. “I believe that God wants there to be justice.”
Under traditional Jewish law, women were peripheral in society, Adler wrote 27 years ago in a groundbreaking article entitled “The Jew Who Wasn’t There.”
Jewish women held a status parallel to that of children and slaves, she wrote. But male children could grow up, and slaves could be freed. Women, she argued, remained “the other.”
Now, she predicts that in the next 20 years all branches of Judaism, including the Orthodox, will accept women fully. “These questions of pluralism cannot be evaded much longer.”
For One Woman, a Turning Point
But back to Anne Bayme.
Just as her mother organized a Jewish Sunday school in a community center in Vidalia (home of a famous onion), Bayme started a Jewish preschool program at her synagogue and not only joined Hadassah, but became active in this international Jewish women’s organization.
All the same, her spiritual life was nothing to preach about. Inspiration did not come at meetings, or even in temple pews. For that, Bayme took yoga with other women, went to PMS discussion groups and took classes about women in ancient cultures. Bayme did everything but dance under the moon. (That would come later.)
Still, she was restless.
“I had to turn back to what I am and what my religion is,” said Bayme. “But that took some digging around.”
One Friday seven years ago, Bayme was invited to a friend’s Sabbath dinner to meet a new circuit-riding rabbi who would be filling in while the synagogue fathers sought a new leader. There were no synagogue mothers. (That, too, would come later.)
At dinner, Bayme began telling the rabbi about her classes with women. As a result of a generation of struggle by Jewish feminists, the rabbi was a woman, Mychal Springer, a physically delicate but spiritually muscular New Yorker.
“I had never met a woman rabbi before, and if she had been a ‘he’ I don’t know that it would have had the same effect,” Bayme said.
Springer explained about the forgotten generations of respected Jewish women between the biblical matriarchs and Golda Meir. She also told Bayme about ancient female ceremonies that Jewish women around the country were remaking as their own.
“I began to see a way back into my religion,” Bayme said, “and that I could step out of tradition without losing it altogether.”
For the first women who sought change, the so-called mothers of Jewish feminism, that was the dream--to shake up, but not abandon, tradition.
In the winter of 1972, 10 well-educated young women from Manhattan, caught up in the enthusiasm of the 1960s and the writing of a relatively unknown Jewish woman named Betty Friedan, braved the snowy roads of the Catskill Mountains to confront an assemblage of Conservative rabbis at the famous Concord Hotel.
These New York women were all high achievers in the secular world who felt a disparity between their lives in elite graduate schools and how they were treated in the male turf of a synagogue.
“We had received equal educations in Conservative synagogues along with men, but at a certain point our educations became irrelevant,” recalled Paula Hyman, then studying at Columbia University and now director of Jewish Studies at Yale University and coauthor of a Jewish women’s encyclopedia.
Initially, the 10 women’s request for a meeting was denied. They ended up calling a meeting in the Concord lobby with the rabbis’ wives to read a manifesto. Eventually the rabbis, too, heard them.
“We said to them, ‘We are your children.’ We were the kind of American Jews they were trying to produce,” Hyman said.
The young women wanted the Conservative movement to consider ordaining female rabbis and investing female cantors. But perhaps the most emotionally charged issue was, literally, “Who counts?”
Traditionally, Judaism requires a quorum of 10 people, a minyan, for public prayers to be said. Traditionally, Judaism counted only men.
When Susannah Heschel’s father, Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great Jewish philosopher and ethicist, died in 1972, she struggled to find places where she could be counted in the minyan so she could say kaddish, the prayer recited by mourners, which may only be said with a minyan present.
“It was the first time I really needed a Jewish community and it failed me,” she said.
Today, women routinely become rabbis and are counted in minyans of Reform and most Conservative synagogues--although not by the Orthodox.
Although some of the tensions persist, Judaism is forever changed. “Never again will a woman not be able to find a place to say kaddish for her father the way I couldn’t,” Heschel said.
Worry Among the Orthodox
For now, Orthodox Jewry has seen little of this change. Yet many Orthodox women, passionate about the progress that has allowed them to gain Torah knowledge parallel to men’s, are worried about what comes next.
Sharona Margolin Halickman would be the first to deny that she’s a wild-eyed revolutionary.
“I have always been happy with my place in life,” said Halickman, who is 24 and married to an accountant.
But as a congregational intern at a modern Orthodox synagogue in Riverdale, N.Y., Halickman is skirting a controversy that some ultra-observant rabbis worry threatens to break Orthodoxy’s link with the past.
Since December, Halickman and another female intern in Manhattan have been paid to assist their rabbis in pastoral work. In the past, paid interns were exclusively males preparing for the rabbinate. But Orthodox Jews have not even considered making women rabbis because they are bound by a belief that it is men who teach and lead, not women.
In early March, Halickman edged into territory that the pious fear: She gave a small sermon from the pulpit during Saturday morning services. Men and women in Orthodox synagogues sit separately because of questions of modesty. By chance, the pulpit in Riverdale is in a neutral zone between the two.
“I was not in the men’s section,” Halickman said.
Despite her careful denials, Halickman, who is getting a master’s degree at Yeshiva University, is part of a generation of young Orthodox women who, after receiving a religious education equal to that of men, are eager for a greater role in Judaism.
A year ago, about 450 women willing to call themselves Orthodox feminists registered for a conference in New York. This past February, when a second conference was held, it drew 2,000 women.
The quiet agitation by such women has led to controversial experiments at congregations on both coasts--to the dismay of some Orthodox rabbis who want neither female quasi-rabbis nor feminist conferences nor Orthodox women meeting, as they have been for 20 years, in female prayer groups.
A year ago, after Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky allowed 70 women to gather for a prayer group at an Orthodox synagogue, B’nai David Judea in L.A.'s Pico-Robertson neighborhood, he was asked to resign from a key committee of the Rabbinical Council of California.
The council did not want to be seen as endorsing women publicly reading the Torah, which is permitted only for men in a minyan.
Kanefsky, then recently arrived from New York, left the committee voluntarily. But he now wants to be reinstated.
“The fear is that these women in prayer groups are cracking open a door, ultimately pursuing an agenda that will break down many of the traditional male/female roles,” Kanefsky said.
In fact, feminism is seen by many Orthodox rabbis--and many Orthodox women--as a threat to the whole traditional framework of Jewish family life, he said.
“But if you sit down and talk to women interested in prayer groups and Talmudic studies, you discover the vast majority has no intention of bolting from Orthodox life,” Kanefsky said. “They’re just looking to develop themselves in a profound way.”
Destructive Stereotypes in Popular Culture
Although Orthodox and liberal Jewish women may differ in their approach to religious life, in the secular world they share a common demon: inveterate stereotypes about them in popular culture.
The Jewish American Princess and the Jewish-mother-as-terrorist and the nagging, materialistic, food-obsessed, sexually repressed Jewish woman so deftly drawn by Philip Roth and Woody Allen are the toxic types that many Jewish women feel stalk them like creepy former boyfriends.
Most Jewish women, said Sylvia Barak Fishman of Brandeis University, hate the stereotypes. But many--particularly those who aren’t Jewishly educated or rooted--absorb them to the detriment of their self-image, said Fishman, who has spent her career studying Jewish women.
“These women have no inner resources to counteract what they see in the culture,” she said.
Fishman’s analysis is drawn from eight focus groups conducted for the Morning Star Commission--as in the film character Marjorie Morningstar--which was established in 1997 by Hadassah Southern California to look at TV and film depictions of Jewish women and try to promote change.
The commission found that these ugly characterizations of Jewish women, now calcified in popular culture, drew on anti-Semitic stereotypes from the 19th century that have been perpetuated in 20th century films, usually in comedies by male Jewish writers.
Jeffrey Goldberg, a columnist for the Jewish Forward, doesn’t need a focus group or a rerun of “The Heartbreak Kid” to explain the problem.
In a review of “The Nanny” in the online magazine Slate, he fingers the culprits, the Jewish men of Hollywood--"avowedly assimilationist in all matters but gastronomic"--and lays out a plot:
“There is a type of Jewish male who equates acceptance into the broader American culture with the acquisition of a blond . . . (evidence: thirtysomething, Seinfeld’s on-air dating patterns, and Philip Roth’s “American Pastoral.”) As a further means of cutting himself off from his ethnic roots he scapegoats Jewish women by attributing to them all the negative stereotypes traditionally associated with Jews of both sexes,” he writes.
Reinterpreting Ancient Traditions
The flip side of the advances Jewish women have made in synagogue and secular life is that they have expanded their burdens: Now, not only do many Jewish women still feel the charge to form the Jewish identity of their children and guide domestic life, they have a whole new set of responsibilities as able spiritual participants.
And as modern Americans with careers and advanced educations--86% of Jewish women have some college education or advanced degrees, according to a Times poll--these women end up with mighty crowded lives.
“For me to get home on Friday night from work, clean up, make a nice dinner, get the kids ready before sunset, is all too much,” said Ellen Blum, a Boston lawyer with two sons in elementary school and a non-Jewish husband who travels frequently for business.
“Sometimes I just buy a challah and call it a Shabbat.”
Blum, however, has a persistent fantasy that involves her “Jewishness” and transcending the daily grind.
“If I could somehow find the time--and I will--I’d like to take classes to get to the stuff that helps you think about the meaning of life,” she said. Then she laughed at hearing her own grand goal. But she is serious.
“I want to understand what it is to have a Jewish heart and soul.”
Blum’s Jewish education stopped when she was in the eighth grade and was confirmed in a Reform temple in Baltimore. She now sends her children to Sunday school and rarely attends Jewish services. As her sole act of religious expression, she flies to Manhattan once a year to attend a feminist Seder with two cousins.
This year, 500 women attended that Seder, in a dining hall overlooking the Brooklyn Bridge. On each Seder plate, along with the traditional symbols of the Exodus from Egypt, was an orange--a reminder of the time an elderly man lectured a Jewish feminist at a forum in Florida that “a woman belongs on the bimah as much as an orange belongs on a Seder plate.”
“This one act of communion with other Jewish women changes my life for awhile and propels me to do new things,” said Blum, who will turn 40 next month.
“I know being Jewish is about standing for values, asking questions, and good deeds. I just don’t always have time for all that.”
Anne Bayme’s mother certainly imbued her with life’s possibilities. But it was Bayme who had to root them out in her religion.
Bayme’s spiritual transformation began with an all-women’s Seder that she organized in Macon. It followed the order of a traditional Seder but was edited “to put a female spin on it,” she said.
Bayme also collected Jewish books, looking for women’s stories and ways to add female symbolism to holidays.
A few years ago, she and other women in Macon began marking Rosh Chodesh, an ancient holiday that celebrates the new moon each month with dancing, singing and discussion groups. Jewish women across the country have reclaimed the celebration, which traditionally was an occasion on which women had a respite from household work.
In Bayme’s synagogue, the congregation also began using egalitarian language. “We don’t do God as ‘He’ in English,” Bayme said. In time, the synagogue also elected its first female president and dissolved its “Sisterhood,” historically the place where Jewish women exerted power. Instead, women joined the board of directors along with the men.
“Some of the men have felt left out” by events like the women’s Seder, Bayme said. “But really, the activities by the women have changed everybody. We’re trying to get at the core of the liturgy and flesh it out with new rituals, to fill a spiritual void.”
Bayme’s effect on Macon’s spiritual life is a lesson in what happens when half the Jewish people are energized. Indeed, if modernity is to be blamed for all the problems in Judaism, it can also be credited with giving greater opportunities for women to be Jewish, said scholar Heschel.
“Thanks to the secularization of Jewish identity--that you can’t live apart from the larger world, intellectually, socially, economically--arguments about women’s inferiority stated in 1998 are unacceptable,” she said. “Judaism has to cope with that.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Snapshots of Jewish Life
“Intermarriage is not threatening to individuals. But the phenomenon is threatening to our collective well-being. “
--Egon Mayer, director, Jewish Outreach Institute, New York
* Married respondents whose spouse is...
Born Jewish: 60%
Converted to Judaism: 6%
Not Jewish: 33%
Don’t know: 1%
“I think sometimes women are more willing to admit what they don’t know than men are.”
--Rabbi Gila Ruskin, a Reform rabbi in Baltimore, who teaches an adult education class
* (Asked of unmarried respondents.) Would you consider marrying someone only if that person:
Is Jewish: 21%
Would convert: 3
Would raise children Jewish: 6
Would convert and raise children Jewish (volunteered): 5
Doesn’t matter: 57
Other (volunteered): 3
Don’t know: 5
“If [my son] comes to me someday and says, ‘Mama, I met a nice Christian girl,’ Mama’s gonna die a lot inside.”
--Jewish preschool teacher in Houston married to a Presbyterian lawyer
* If your child married someone who is not Jewish would you be:
Wouldn’t matter: 58%
Don’t know: 3%
” It’s a beautiful country. They love us. They love us so much they marry half of us.”
--Dennis Prager, author and radio talk show host
* Are you raising your children Jewish? (Asked of parents.)
Among American Jews whose religious practices are...
Highly Moderately Not very observant observant observant Yes 97% 80% 37% No 2 16 59 Don’t know 1 4 4
Among married American Jews whose spouse is...
Jewish Not Jewish Yes 91% 39% No 7 57 Don’t know 2 4
* Should women be allowed to be rabbis?
Don’t know: 6%
“Separate ain’t equal.”
--Rabbi Danny Landes, an Orthodox rabbi who has broken with the men-only tradition and teaches core Jewish texts to men and women together at his yeshiva, the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies
KEY DATES IN AMERICAN JEWISH WOMEN’S HISTORY
1922: Judith Kaplan becomes first girl to celebrate a bat mitzvah.
1972: Reform Judaism ordains first female rabbi, Sally Priesand. Conservative Judaism follows suit in 1985.
1982: Judith Hauptman named first female Talmud professor at Jewish Theological Seminary.
1996: Drisha Institute, founded in 1979 by Orthodox rabbis to teach Talmud to women, has its first three graduates.
* American Jews who have been bar or bat mitzvahed...
Age Men Women 18-36 63% 44% 37-51 67% 13% 52 + 74% 11%
* What kinds of formal Jewish education have you received? (Multiple replies accepted)
Men Women None 19% 36% Day school/Yeshiva 19 13 Sunday school 24 28 Hebrew school 47 32 Bar/bat mitzvah education 45 15 Adult education 16 16 Afternoon programs 4 4 Other 5 6
“I try to bake a challah every Friday. I might not cook anything else for dinner. It might be just a salad and a challah. But there’s something about the baking of it--my kids can smell it cooking and they like to braid the dough and it feels like this is a Jewish home.”
--Linda Gross, 34, of Encino, mother of three
This series examines key issues in American Jewish life.
Monday--Can Jewish identity survive the American dream?
Today--American women remake ancient traditions.
Wednesday--A new wave of immigration.
Thursday--The Jewish contribution to American culture.
HOW THE POLL WAS CONDUCTED
The Times Poll contacted 848 American Jews nationwide by telephone March 8 through April 1. Telephone numbers were chosen from a list of all exchanges in the nation so that listed and unlisted numbers could be contacted. Seventy-three percent of the Jewish population lives within the top 10 Metropolitan Statistical Areas in the nation, according to the 1997 Jewish American Yearbook. The sample was drawn in proportion to the Jewish population in these 10 regions, plus the rest of the nation. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 4 percentage points; for certain subgroups the error margin may be somewhat higher. Poll results can also be affected by factors such as question wording, the order in which questions are presented and the response rate.
Note: Numbers do not total 100% where more than one response was accepted or not all answer categories are shown.
Source: L.A. Times Poll
Times Poll results are also available on the World Wide Web at https:// www.latimes.com/HOME/NEWS/POLLS/