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February 6, 2018 by

Welcome (Back) to the Resistance, Mom

It was just a few minutes before Shabbat, and I was rushing to get everything done (read: running very late). Not an ideal time to talk to anyone, so of course the phone rang. And of course it was my mother. And of course she was very agitated.

Time to pause.

Take a deep breath.

And listen.

I’m glad I did.

My mother didn’t know what to do with herself. She was so, so angry. (Not at me). She was confused. She was genuinely and sincerely trying to understand how people she liked and respected could hold such terrible and selfish and fundamentally illogical positions on matters of basic human rights and dignity.

My mother was, it turns out, having coffee with some Trump supporters.

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February 5, 2018 by

Academic Grief: A Satire

A recent memo about changes in departmental budget protocols at my university included the following:

“Items not allowed under department and program budgets: Given the tightness of budgets across campus, department and program funds should only be used for expenses related to the professional work of the department. Faculty are asked to avoid expenses that are not directly related to the mission of the department or program. A few exceptions to this rule may be allowed. For example, sending flowers to the funeral of a department member or emeritus faculty is an allowable expense. When in doubt over the nature of the expense, please consult the Dean of the Faculty for approval prior to committing funds.”

While the above is real, a faux memo follows that might provide guidelines for those funeral flowers. Even the irreligious among us should pray that cost-conscious administrators do not adopt these guidelines.  

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February 2, 2018 by

Why I Became Fascinated by a Teshuvah on Women and Mitzvot

Ever read something you knew was arcane but been fascinated by it nevertheless? Maybe you even wanted to discuss deeply like when you were back in school, not just as a shallow “share” on a social media post? Well, that was me about three and a half years ago when I read Rabbi Dr. Pamela Barmash’s 30-some-odd page teshuvah (legal opinion) on Women and Mitzvot. Yeah, I said I was excited by a long legal treatise. Occupational hazard of being me, a literate Jew, a philosophy minor, English major, with a J.D. Anyway, Barmash’s holding was at once simple and revolutionary: women were never properly exempted, excluded, or prohibited from-time bound mitzvot. The relegation of women to second-class status was a colossal misreading of Jewish texts. 

The teshuvah asks if Jewish women are responsible for observing the mitzvot from which they have traditionally been excluded. Barmash argues both retrospectively and prospectively that women are in fact responsible to observe mitzvot. 

If you’re wondering why I found the teshuvah interesting, wondering why I thought anyone else would want to discuss it, I’d certainly understand. After all, on the one hand, many Jews don’t feel particularly bound or obligated to mitzvot, so what difference does the teshuvah make? On the other hand, many Jews who abide by mitzvot are so entrenched to years of their genderedness that they would not necessarily be inclined to discuss or be persuaded by it either. Personally, I fall into the former category, feeling bound like the definition of “Rebecca” and like my family before me to mitzvot. I feel tethered to Judaism even as I know it is hard to reconcile with humanism, feminism and modernity. This tension I feel between being both bound and bothered makes it pressing for me that women count in a minyan, be included in the Amidah and recite the Shema. I take no comfort in the theology which patronizingly tells us that women are on a pedestal, so close to God, that they need not bother with mitzvot.

Perhaps unsurprisingly—after the high of my initial epiphany—I read the teshuvah a couple times and put it away.

About a month ago, an opportunity arose which brought the document to the fore of my consciousness again: A few friends were discussing whether and how to do a second Shabbat-appropriate woman-themed event timed to coincide with women’s marches all over the world January 20, 2018. Last year, the group had hosted Rabbi Abby Sosland to address us. This year, I debated with myself whether to raise Rabbi Barmash’s 2014 teshuvah to the group. After all, it was three years old, I hadn’t heard anything about it since, and it was a little arcane. My bolder self rose to the fore, and I suggested inviting her. Lo and behold, the others agreed. Even more miraculously, when we wrote to Rabbi Barmash—out of the blue—she agreed to make the trip to address our group and congregation as a scholar-in-residence during Shabbat.

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February 2, 2018 by

Why This Week’s Parsha Is Devastating For Women—And What Can Be Done About It

The Torah portion we read this coming Shabbat starts with the story of Yitro, Moses’s father-in-law, giving him some tips about refining his leadership model, delegating, becoming more effective in his leadership.

Then, fast-forward. The people Israel are waiting at the base of Mt. Sinai, while God gives instructions to Moses. God tells Moses to קדש the people—to make them holy, sanctified, set-apart.

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר ה’ אֶל־מֹשֶׁה֙ לֵ֣ךְ אֶל־הָעָ֔ם וְקִדַּשְׁתָּ֥ם הַיּ֖וֹם וּמָחָ֑ר וְכִבְּס֖וּ שִׂמְלֹתָֽם׃

“God said to Moses, ‘Go to the people and make-holy them today and tomorrow. They should wash their clothes.’”

It’s clear from the verb that Moses needs to do a thing to them. So then Moses goes back, and he does it! He קדש them. Sanctifies, makes holy, sets apart, something. It’s still not clear what the action is, but he does it. And, as instructed, laundry happens.

וַיֵּ֧רֶד מֹשֶׁ֛ה מִן־הָהָ֖ר אֶל־הָעָ֑ם וַיְקַדֵּשׁ֙ אֶת־הָעָ֔ם וַֽיְכַבְּס֖וּ שִׂמְלֹתָֽם׃

“Moses came down from the mountain to the people and made-holy them, and they washed their clothes.”

And then—he keeps talking.

“וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ אֶל־הָעָ֔ם הֱי֥וּ נְכֹנִ֖ים לִשְׁלֹ֣שֶׁת יָמִ֑ים אַֽל־תִּגְּשׁ֖וּ אֶל־אִשָּֽׁה׃

“And he said to the people, ‘Be ready for the third day: do not go near a woman.’”

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February 1, 2018 by

When Your Child Brings a Sexist Book Home from Jewish Day School

The truth is that I don’t remember the name of the book. Something innocuous, something to do with sewing and the first flag and maybe even Betsy Ross. Something nicely Philadelphian and, given that she brought it home from the school library, something certainly age-appropriate for my kindergartener.

Age-appropriateness isn’t the only kind of appropriateness to be concerned about with kids’ media, but to be honest we’ve never heavily screened the books that our children read. For the younger ones, we still do the reading with them, so we can talk with them about the messages that make us uncomfortable or with which we disagree. Sometimes it’s even a good opportunity to explain our values or worldview and how it differs from the book, or to ask them what they think about how something is presented or plays out. It’s rare though: most of the books we get are pretty great, and the other ones tend to fall out of (read: be removed from) circulation fairly quickly.

Library day is every Wednesday for kindergartners at her Jewish Day School. My daughter is always really excited for me to read her the book she’s come home with. They’re usually fine; classic kids’ stories or something nicely historical designed to appeal to just her age group. This one was a little older, a little more battered, with well-loved pages and the marks of time.

Just like a lot of classic kids’ books. Just like nearly every book I own.

She was so excited for me to read it with her: a book about sewing (which she loves), featuring a young girl with siblings (just like her), set in her very own city (not far from her house). I certainly didn’t think to read it to myself first—it was coming from her school library, from the section designated specifically for kindergarteners, with all the markings of a book that has stood the test of time.

Time’s a funny thing though. The books of the (recent) past sometimes have very different subtle (or not so subtle!) messages than the books of the present. Especially books about girls and sewing and post-revolutionary Philadelphia.

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January 31, 2018 by

A Feminist Prayer for Tu b’Shvat

May my body be strong
Made of earth
Growing as a tree 
May my limbs spread wide
May my seed sprout forth
May my fruits be tasted by all
As sweet
May the pits that lie within me
In the darkest depths of my dear heart
Serve me in my vulnerability 
May the flames of the Divine
And the body I carry
Unite to provide
A shelter of Oneness
A growing, thriving plant
Legions of seeds
For I am Human
A tree

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine. 

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January 30, 2018 by

How About Some Composers Who Are Women Cantors?

piano-1655558_1920When I founded the Women Cantors’ Network in 1982, there were very few women who composed cantorial music. In fact, music often had to be adjusted for the voice of a woman cantor, sometimes even rewritten. But today, there are dozens of incredible women cantors who are composing for the synagogue. In the era of #MeToo, it is more important than ever that congregations #HearOurVoice and create spiritually safe places that respect women and use our work.

If you or your congregation is looking for more songs composed by women to sing, here is a list of amazing cantors whose work I regularly use in my own congregation. While it was difficult to narrow this down to seven (and my choices of course were purely subjective), I chose based off of melodies that really stick to your kishkes and bring the text to life. I also focused on cantors who have been composing for years; whose music is sung regularly in Reform, Renewal, Conservative, and Reconstructionist Congregations. But even as you read this, young composers are writing and their compositions will become the new “traditional” music in the future. There are dozens more composers whose work is worthy of attention, but hopefully this list can get you started.

Cantor Benjie Ellen Schiller. As a professor of Cantorial Arts at Hebrew Union College (HUC) NYC, Benjie has inspired a new generation of cantors and exposed them to her passion for meaningful Jewish music. Choirs all over the world sing her “Halleluhu Psalm 150” and her new “Oseh Shalom” has been performed with orchestra and world class singers. Personally, I sing “May You Live to See Your World Fulfilled” at every B’nai Mitzvah and “Zeh Dodi” at every wedding. Benjie is also publishing a songbook in the near future—it belongs in every cantor’s library! Her CD, A World Fulfilled, is magnificent.

Cantor Natasha Hirschhorn. Natasha is the Music Director of Congregation Anshe Chesed in New York City and is part of the faculty both of HUC and the Jewish Theological Seminary. Her music is haunting and unusual. My congregation’s choir sings her rendition of “Oseh Shalom” during the High Holidays, and I believe that her “Yesh Adonai Bamakom Hazeh” (“G-d was in this place and I did not know”) has the power to cause a spiritual awakening every time it is sung.

Cantor Robbi Sherwin. Robbi is a force of nature—a unique mandolin playing cantor/rabbi who plays with the popular band, Sababa, and has been a leader in the Women Cantors’ Network. She and Marci Vitikus (also a member of the Women Cantors’ Network) co-wrote “Atah Kadosh,” which my congregation uses to complete the chanting aloud of the Amidah each week. Her “Maariv Aravim” and “Love Adonai Your G-d” are also both notable.

Cantor Rachelle Nelson. Rachelle is a composer of Jewish music from South Florida. She has created several songbooks and CDs and also runs In the Spirit Music Foundation, which encourages writing new inspirational Jewish liturgical music. She graduated in 1984 from HUC’s School of Sacred Music (now the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music). Her “Modim Anachnu Lach” is a Hebrew-English prayer of giving thanks that I use at my interfaith Thanksgiving services.

Beth Styles. Beth is a producer/composer/musician/vocalist and a popular Artist in Residence at synagogues. As a composer, her music is fresh and unusual, a mix of Jewish gospel flavored with deeply spiritual and lush melodies that stick to your kishkes. I met Beth in the 1980s when she produced my first CD, Jewish Soul. (She also produced for Diana Ross.) Years later, she is a frequent musical guest in my synagogue creating a “Shabbat Experience” that moves and inspires. I could list a dozen of her songs, but “Grateful,” “Light These Lights,” “Mi Sheberach,”  “Shehecheyanu,” “Hashkivenu,” “Adonai S’fatai,” and “Shabbat Shalom” have now become “traditional” songs in my synagogue.

Cantor Lisa Levine. Lisa is a worship artist, songwriter, recording artist, and yoga prayer facilitator, who has been writing music for over 30 years. She created “Yoga Shalom,” combining Yoga and Jewish prayerful movement and worship. Her songbooks and CDs are numerous and well received, though I love her “Mi Sheberach” and “V’shamru” in particular. These tunes are essential parts of my Shabbat services, bringing an easy singing and soulful quality to song and worship.

Ellen Allard. Ellen is arguably the best known children’s composer and teacher around today. Her captivating energy and catchy tunes are classics in the preschool communities. “Holy Holiness” is one of those rare songs that can be perfect for three year olds, teenagers leading a service and/or any intergenerational group praying. The piece’s simple repetition of beautiful lyrics, like the phrase, “All around everywhere, holy holiness,” is transformative. “I feel like an angel,” said one young boy after singing this work. That’s what I hope to create in a service—a sense of holy transcendence, a feeling that is uplifting and peaceful. “Holy Holiness” does that every time!

Want more music written by women? The Women Cantors’ Network is soon publishing a new songbook that will shed light on many known and unknown composers.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine. 

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January 29, 2018 by

A Prayer for RBG’s Long Life—And Our Pursuit of Justice

Photo credit: CKnight70.

Photo credit: CKnight70.

At a time as disquieting as this,

When so many of us feel deflated, shaken, worried for the future,
When we almost can’t remember what it’s like to go a day without name-calling, without lies, harshness, or callousness.
When we’re nostalgic for those halcyon years of complete sentences, dignified statesmanship, acts of empathy,
We still look to you, Ruth Bader Ginsburg—yeshiva-girl-turned-legendary-justice, RBG icon, fighter for the powerless and wronged.
May you go from strength to strength because you have been ours.
May you live many more years because you make the world brighter, fairer, kinder….Because we need you.
You have helped us remain clear—not just on the foundational principles of a nation, but on our Jewish mandate: to welcome the stranger and never to stand idly by.
The Hebrew words on your office wall in calligraphy read, “Zedek, Zedek, tirdof: Justice, Justice shalt thou pursue.” You have. And we’ll keep trying.

Abigail Pogrebin is the author of My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Year and Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk about Being Jewish, for which she interviewed Justice Ginsburg. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine. 

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January 26, 2018 by

This Week’s Torah Parsha Is Inspiration to Keep Marching

Last year, my friend Micha made her own drum.
It was painted blue, with a large wooden frame, and I’d seen the social media snaps she’d taken throughout the day as she’d crafted it with her hands. She began bringing her drum to circles where we’d sit in song and in prayer, and I watched over the months as her entire musical repertoire began to expand. Her voice opened and her beats shifted. Each time she played that drum and found the rhythms that worked for her, her soul came out in new ways.

Witnessing this made me want a drum, oh so desperately. Although I stopped at music stores and admired the beautiful specimens there, I knew I needed to undertake the work of building it myself.

So a month ago, when my friend Alex came to town and announced she’d be leading a drum making workshop, I jumped at the chance. I ordered the skin (elk) and the size (14 inch) I wanted, but deliberately did no research on how to build a drum. I knew it would be a learning curve for me. I’m a champion of embodied action but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easy for me. On the contrary, hands on mechanics can be a struggle for the girl who fights her body and lives in her mind. But that’s why I work so damn hard at it.

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January 24, 2018 by

JWFNY To Host #MeToo Town Hall; Work Toward Creating Code of Conduct

I always knew the time would come for the Jewish communal world to face the sexual assault and harassment that pervades it. That time is now. I wish it wouldn’t have taken this seismic #MeToo movement/moment for us to get on board in fixing a problem that has persisted in our peoplehood since biblical times, but those who abuse power do not let go of it easily, especially without institutions that stand unwaveringly behind victims and survivors. This is a large part of why it’s so exciting that the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York (JWFNY) is hosting a town hall meeting this week titled, “Revealing metoo as wetoo in Jewish Communal Life,” to specifically address “gender abuse and harassment in the Jewish community.”

The language used to describe the event already cued me to the fact that the organizers care deeply about those who are most affected. I spoke to JWFNY executive director Jamie Allen Black who told me that she specifically chose the phrase “gender abuse and harassment” as opposed to “sexual harassment” because as she described, “it’s not about sex but about power and demeaning—for me that’s a big message and now seemed like the right time because people are actually listening.” 

In fact, JWFNY has been working to address this problem well before the Weinstein allegations came to light. Starting in the summer of 2016, JWFNY began holding trainings to combat harassment and gender abuse for professionals in Jewish organizations, improving their model overtime.

In early December of 2017, Black was approached with the idea that JWFNY hold a town hall meeting on the topic for the Jewish communal world, like those hosted by the Royal Court Theater in London and the Public Theater in New York. The idea would be for individuals to share survivor stories before communally establishing a code of conduct.

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