Women’s Hair: Why Cover It?

July 21, 2014

9647972522_eb1f0c3ca7_zA reader recently asked: “What is the background for women covering their heads during services? Is it optional in most US conservative and reform synagogues now?”

Head coverings for women are mentioned in the Torah in chapter 5 of Numbers, in something called the Sotah ritual. The Sotah was a woman suspected of adultery, and the ritual was a test. Part of that involved uncovering her hair, so the rabbis deduced from those verses that there was a biblical commandment for married women to cover their hair. Elsewhere in Tanach, in Song of Songs, there is the suggestion that the sight of women’s hair is erotic, from which the rabbis determined that hatless women would be distracting to a man at prayer.

The specifics of hair covering (how much cover, and when) was a matter of communal custom in ancient times, and it remains so today.

Today in Reform and Conservative synagogues women are welcome to cover their heads for prayer if they wish to do so; in some congregations, it is a requirement. Usually if there is a rule about it, it will be posted outside the sanctuary, and coverings of some sort will be available. In a Reform or Conservative shul, the kippah or yarmulke has become a common sight on men or women. These days it is not a modesty issue, but a matter of respect for the activity of prayer and the awareness of the Divine. 

Personally, putting on a head covering is part of my routine for prayer and study. It’s a way of telling my body, “OK, time to get serious now!”

There is a wider variety of practice among Orthodox congregations. There, a kippah may be seen as a men’s garment, and therefore is not worn by women. The lace hats you described in your original question are a feminized version of the kippah. Women may wear a tichel (head scarf, pictured above) or a regular hat, or in some communities they may cover their own hair with a sheitel (wig.) If you visit an Orthodox synagogue for services, wear a scarf; that will usually be sufficient for guests. 

For a wonderful article on the subject, read “Hair Coverings for Married Women” by Alieza Salzberg.


What’s Rosh Chodesh?

March 31, 2014
New Moon

New Moon

And on your joyous occasions-your fixed festivals and new moon days-you shall sound the trumpets over your burnt offerings and your sacrifices of well-being. They shall be a reminder of you before your God: I, the Eternal, am your God.” –Numbers 10:10

Rosh Chodesh (Rohsh Choh-desh – “ch” pronunced as a gutteral) literally means “Head of the Month.”

Every month in the Jewish calendar begins with a little celebration. The moon is dark (new moon) and we look forward to what the month will bring. It’s an optimistic celebration, looking forward to what is good without dwelling on the bad things that might happen.

In Biblical times, there were special sacrifices for Rosh Chodesh, and the shofar was blown to announce the new month. The Diaspora Jews found out about the new month via signal fires lit at Jerusalem, where the observation of the moon took place.  This became more and more difficult under Roman persecution, which is why Jewish astronomers worked to calculate a calendar that would allow Jews to observe the festivals without access to the site of the Temple.

Customs for Rosh Chodesh vary among the Jewish people. In Reform congregations, Rosh Chodesh is observed for one day, beginning at sundown. It is first announced on the previous Shabbat. Then on the actual day of Rosh Chodesh, we add prayers to the Amidah and the Birkat Hamazon (prayer after meals), giving thanks for the new month and asking God’s protection.  A short service of praise (Hallel) is added to the service. There is a special Torah reading for Rosh Chodesh (Numbers 28:1-15).

There is an old tradition linking women to the Rosh Chodesh holiday. Since the 1970′s, women have begun gathering for prayer and study on Rosh Chodesh, and you may hear reference to a “Rosh Chodesh group,” a group who meet regularly on the first of the month. Over the last quarter century, a group of women called The Women of the Wall have met at the Kotel in Jerusalem to pray and read Torah, and to advocate for their right as Jewish women to wear prayer shawls, pray, and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall.

Image: Eva Mostraum Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License

 


Who are You Calling Shiksa?

February 13, 2014

שיקסעWords matter. Words have power. Judaism establishes its reverence for words in Genesis 1, when God creates the world using the power of words.

I know that the word shiksa is a word many people have come to use ironically in English as a fun little word to use for gentile woman. It sounds cute. It’s crisp and appealing to the ear: shiksa!

But in Yiddish, shiksa means “filth” or “abomination.” It means the stuff you clean up out of the cat box. It means something you don’t want on your shoe, much less in your house. And yes, it came to be used to describe gentile women. It expressed disgust for women who were outsiders, women who were sources of contamination. It’s an ugly word.

The fact that it has become common via pop culture doesn’t change that history. It doesn’t change the fact that in Yiddish, that’s still what it means: filth.

But perhaps you say, no, I’m using it to take back the power of the word! I understand that idea – I am a lesbian, and I use the word “queer” to describe myself sometimes. But “queer” originally meant “odd” – the nasty connotations came later. There are words I would never use about other people, because those words were designed to convince both speaker and listener that a human being was sub-human. The word shiksa is such a word: it was coined to demean and denigrate a woman, to express nothing but disgust for her.

So when I hear a young woman describe herself as a shiksa, I cringe. Maybe her friends agree that it’s cute and sassy. But there is deep ugliness in that word, a hatred aimed at women. I  don’t want anything to do with it.

I know that my little blog post is not going to stop someone who likes the word shiksa.

I just want you to be perfectly clear what it means.


Names and Deeds

December 19, 2013
Moses in the Bulrushes

Miriam & Moses (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I love the little ironies that pepper the text of the Torah.This week’s Torah portion, Shemot, begins with the line:

“These are the names of the sons of Israel…” (Exodus 1:1)

and sure enough, it’s a list of men’s names. There is not one woman’s name in the list. For the first fourteen verses of the portion, it’s just boys, boys, boys. One might get the impression that Judaism really has no place for women from reading this stuff.

But here’s the irony: the rest of this portion is full of the daring actions of women, actions without which there would have been no Judaism!

In Chapter 1, we get the story of Shifrah and Puah, two midwives who refused to murder Hebrew babies.  In doing so, they defied the most powerful man in the world to his face. Pharaoh understood that they weren’t cooperating, even if he could not catch them at it, and he moved on to another plan. But the fact remains: children survived because they looked the King of the World in the eye and defied him.

In Chapter 2, we get the story of the mother of Moses, a Levite woman who hid her son from the king’s minions for three months. Again, a woman defies Pharaoh! And when she can hide him no longer, she puts him in a basket and puts the little bundle in the Nile – a desperate act indeed, considering that the river was full of crocodiles – but her daughter, Miriam, follows along on the bank, watching over the baby to see what happens. Midrash tells us that Miriam had the gift of prophecy, that she knew her little brother would grow up to be someone remarkable. But think for a moment about a girl, who sees her mother lose her nerve, putting the baby into the arms of God, as it were, but who follows along. There were crocs on the bank, too – yet little Miriam still watches over her brother.

In Chapter 4, Moses has grown up, and left Egypt, and his young wife, Zipporah, sees that he has a mysterious encounter with God that nearly kills him. She decides that it has something to do with Moses’ failure to circumcise their son, so she takes a knife and performs the circumcision herself. It is a very mysterious story, but one thing is definite: Zipporah’s name may mean “little bird” but she is no shrinking violet.

So yes, Exodus may begin with the names of  men, but it is the deeds of  women that set this great saga in motion.

 


My Dinner Party

September 9, 2013
Dinner table set for dinner party

Photo credit: Toby Simkin

When Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party was first exhibited in 1979, I was earning my living as a potter, making dinnerware and other stoneware goods in Tennessee. I remember poring over photographs of it in Ceramics Monthly, and wishing I could travel to see the exhibition. I loved the idea of a cross-time cross-cultural dinner party with all the great women of history sitting together.

Just now, I read a blog that reminded me of that: “Three Dinner Guests List” on the Sojourning with Jews blog. Ruth wrote about a game she plays with her family, from an issue of Bon Appetit: “If you could have dinner with any three people from history, who would they be, and why?”

Of course, part of the game is limiting the list to just three, but as I tried to imagine my own dinner party, I thought about how many wonderful Jewish women I wish I could have met:

Doña Beatriz de Luna, also known as Gracia Nasi would top my list.  Her current Wikipedia entry begins: “Doña Gracia Mendes Nasi was one of the wealthiest women of Renaissance Europe,” but there was so much more to her than her wealth! Widowed in her twenties, she was left with an infant daughter and a partnership in the House of Mendes, one of the great banking houses of the time. She and her husband were Conversos, secret Jews, whose families had been forcibly converted to Christianity but who secretly maintained their commitment to Jewish life and tradition. Besides being a businesswoman, Doña Gracia also managed one of the largest refugee operations in European history, moving converso families out of Spain and Portugal into the Ottoman Empire, where they could openly practice their Judaism and where they were no longer under the threat posed by the Inquisition. At the same time, she was a high-profile refugee herself, moving from city to city as politics shifted. She eventually moved to Istanbul where she died in 1569.

Rabbi Regina Jonas, the first woman ordained a rabbi in modern times, lived in Germany as Hitler rose to power. We know tantalizingly little about her, except that she had a huge determination to become a rabbi, and the scholarship to back up her desire. She graduated from the Hochschule fuer die Wissenschaft des Judentums, the Academy for the Science of Judaism, in Berlin. She eventually received a private ordination from Rabbi Max Dienemann, after rejection from other rabbis who deemed her request too controversial.  She served small Jewish communities in Germany, taught Torah, and in 1942, at age 40, was sent to the concentration camp at Theresienstadt where she worked alongside Dr. Viktor Frankl helping people cope with their disorientation. She gave lectures at the camp on various topics of Torah. She was deported to Auschwitz in 1944 and was murdered there.

Glückel of Hameln wrote a memoir, one of our best sources for what Jewish life in Central Europe was like during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. She was a businesswoman, a wife, and a mother of 14 children (and she found time to write!) Her diaries give us information about all sorts of aspects of life, from the markets of Hamburg and Hameln to the hysteria over false messiah Shabbatai Zvi.

Lillian Wald was a social worker, who founded the Henry Street Settlement House. She began work as a nurse, looking to improve the quality of life for immigrants in the tenements of New York City in the early 20th century, but she later worked to convince world leaders that children’s health and the health of nations are inextricably linked.

Henrietta Szold, the founder of Hadassah, was a rabbi’s daughter born in 1860. She was an essayist, translator, and editor, and worked both to build American Jewish culture and to support the ZIonist project. She was the first woman student at the Jewish Theological Institute, but was admitted only after she gave her word not to claim credit for her academic work there. She was a “silent partner” with Louis Ginsberg on his great work, “Legends of the Jews,” a compendium of midrash that has seen multiple editions.

… This is getting too long for a blog post!  I’d also like to invite Berurya, Imma Shalom, Emma Goldman, Golda Meir, Judith Resnickthe list goes on.  And that’s without getting into a list of wonderful women still living!

Who would you invite to your Jewish Dinner Party?


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