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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