Jewfem Blog

Are the High Holidays a celebration of women?

Fourteen years ago this week, I gave birth. My beautiful daughter, Meital, arrived into the world two days before Rosh Hashana, the holiday marking the creation of the earth. It gave me a whole new perspective on births, birthdays, and beginnings (as I wrote back then) . The Talmud teaches that every human being is an entire world. I brought an entire world into life, just like God did 5778 years ago, or so the Jewish tradition tells us. I tell my daughter that she arrived on the earth’s birthday, and that she is a birthday present for the world.    The idea of God birthing the world on Rosh Hashana evokes a particularly woman-centric image. This is quite the relief in a tradition drenched with male-centric imagery. In our prayers, God is likened to a father, to a king, and to a slavemaster. The standard Orthodox prayerbooks continue the patriarchy by referencing God of our forefathers and ignoring our foremothers. The traditional blessing addresses God as male -- "barukh ata adonai". (Of course, there are no gender-neutral pronouns in Hebrew, so many people argue that the male form is actually a reference to all genders. But that doesn’t really work. After all, if male is really everyone, when is male just male? It’s tempting to make convenient distinctions when we don’t want to admit how much patriarchy has constructed our religion. But the argument that when we say “men” we mean “everyone” doesn’t really hold water. At least not for people who are not men.) My point is that despite the whole kings-and-fathers theme of Rosh Hashana, there possibly remains a certain echo of “feminine” themes in the liturgy. One of the main locations of this theme is in the text we read after the sounding of the shofar: Hayom harat olam. This is loosely translated as, Today is the birth of the world.  That is the imagery that I hung on to when my daughter was born. It felt beautiful, special, and profoundly relevant to my life experience. Last week at Hebrew Union College, I listened to a class by Dr. Ruth Kara-Ivanov Kaniel that expounded on this theme. A scholar researching the connections between myth, Kabbalah, psychoanalysis, and gender, Dr. Kaniel taught us a text from the Zohar that, she argued, demonstrated a rabbinic intention to invite a feminine manifestation of the divine into the high holiday liturgy. The text described a rabbinic discussion about how the ten sephirot , or energies of God, include some “feminine” aspects and some are “masculine” aspects. The rabbis in the text were struggling with the balance between these “masculine” and “feminine” aspects – with God as the avenger (male) versus God as the embracer (female). Dr. Kaniel argued that the rabbis were trying to make room for the so-called feminine aspects, something which can be viewed as radical. She said that this reading helped her personally come to terms with the festival, in that it enabled her to view the experience as a rabbinic...

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How I learned the significance of OYs and AYs in Rosh Hashana liturgy, Jewish life, and the human spirit

This morning in class, I think I was dreaming about Tevye. I was listening to Rabbi Uri Kroizer teaching us melodies of Selichot, the traditional prayers about repentance that Jews recite this time of year, and I could swear Tevye was somewhere in the room, spreading his energy around.  It may have been when Rabbi Kroizer, with his bellyful, honey-sweet voice and encyclopedic knowledge of Jewish liturgy, offered us the significance of oys and ays. “The oy”, he said, “is a powerful sound, coming from deep down, and when done right, it reaches straight up to heaven,” he said, the light glowing from his eyes. It is a primeval sound, coming straight from the aches of the heart, asking God to take our sadness, he said.  He was teaching us the melody of a classic piece of the High Holiday liturgy, “Sab’enu”. He did not only teach us the music. He also instructed us on how to do a proper “kvetch”, to access the meaning of the “oy”. “Think about something that has been missing for your this year,” he said, “something that you long for.” That “oy” is a moment of conveying that longing, of reaching out to God and asking to fill that gap. Plus, he said, “When you are upset about something, often you can feel yourself stopping to breathe,” he said. "The 'oy' is there like a pounding on the chest, to get your breath going again.” LISTEN TO RABBI URI KROIZER TEACH HUC RABBINICAL STUDENTS HOW TO DO A PROPER "OY" IN SAB'ENU Interestingly, the “ay-ay-ay”, on the other hand, serves a different function. It is meant to lift us up in joy. “When the melody is at its low point, it takes your spirit with it. So what do you do? How do you get out from under that?” he asked. The answer, he said, is in “the gradual uplift of the ay-ay-ay.” “The oy is sad and the ay is happy,” Daliah Shaham, a third-year rabbinical student and musician, told us. “Most of the liturgy has both oys and ays, as we are usually happy and sad in the same breath,” she said, thus explaining so much of the Jewish experience. I felt like I was moving back in time, feeling the aches of my ancestors throughout history   Only I wasn’t back in Europe with my Hassidic Jewish ancestors. I was in Jerusalem, at Hebrew Union College, studying to be a Reform rabbi. . There is some irony in the fact that I’ve spent my first two weeks of rabbinical school learning ancient liturgy. In joining the Reform movement, my assumption was that I would be moving forward in my practice, leaving some of this behind. And yet, I am finding myself connecting to old traditions – sounds, words, and practices –  accessing them in ways that I never have before. This has been an unexpected pathway into the Reform movement. And it has been exhilarating. In my 40+ years living in Orthodoxy, I never learned how to lead the High...

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Caramel Apples — A Very Sticky New Year

My spouse, master chef and master of kids in the kitchen, offers a sticky idea for making Rosh Hashana extra sweet. Published in The Forward Rosh Hashana edition. If the purpose of dipping apple slices into honey on Rosh Hashanah is to bring about a sweet year, caramel candy apples offer a kind of extreme dipping. The recipe puts a new twist on a custom that is hundreds of years old. Some believe that the tradition of dipping apples in honey originated from Solomon’s “Song of Songs” which says, “As the apple is rare and unique among the trees of the forest, so is my beloved — Israel.” In addition, a midrash, or biblical tale, says that trees and all vegetation were created on Rosh Hashanah eve. Others argue that the tradition came from Eastern Europe, where few biblical fruits, other than the apple, were common. Apple trees were also harvested around the holiday season. Either way, it is a beautiful custom: apples, the fruits of love, created on Rosh Hashanah eve, dipped in nature’s sweetest goo. It’s a sticky, finger-licking reminder of a sweet year. Caramel candy apples are a snazzy version of the practice, like an ancient tradition on steroids. The process of making them is rather straightforward and a fun way to spend an afternoon in the kitchen, especially with kids. Each caramel apple is dipped in a delicious lacquer of the gooey stuff and individually designed with endless options for colorful toppings. Read more: http://blogs.forward.com/the-jew-and-the-carrot/143487/#ixzz1cqpW7EZf

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