In the practice of Orthodox Judaism, all the rabbis are men (the Reform and Conservative branches of the religion now ordain women), men and women are seated separately in the synagogue and although both women and men have distinct religious obligations, women have traditionally not been expected to be scholars of the Torah and Talmud and other sacred texts. One of the countless revealing moments in the new anthology "Bread and Fire: Jewish Women Find God in the Everyday" comes in this story by teacher Karen Kirshenbaum of Jerusalem:
"I grew up in New York City in a family of all girls. I actually think that I was lucky I never had a brother. My father is not a feminist; had I a brother he would have surely spent much of his time studying Torah with him instead of with his five daughters. When my father was often asked: 'What's it like to have only girls?" he would answer in a teasing fashion with a smile: 'Girls are the best if you can't have a boy!"'"
That anecdote is typical of what is found in the nearly sixty contributions in the book. It speaks of the centrality of home and family, the importance of learning, the emergence of a feminist view and does so with a flash of bright humor. Some of the writers grew up in observant Jewish homes and speak from a lifetime's experience, others have found in secular experience a spiritual depth. Some of the women are professional writers, others are pursuing careers as lawyers, doctors and business executives, many are homemakers.
To succeed in our life's work as individuals we must harmonize our masculine and feminine characteristics. To fulfill humankind's essential mission we must understand, value and utilize the contributions of both male and female... In a painful irony, however, the rightful assertion of a woman's place and worth has often taken the form of woman imitating man. We cannot afford this loss. What this world needs most is not more men or doubled male energy but rather the full-bodied contributions of women.
-- from the Perspective to "Bread and Fire" by Rivkah Slonim
The anthology is divided into three sections, entitled Self, Home and Family, and Community and Beyond. "Bread and Fire" was edited by Rivkah Slonim. With her husband, Rabbi Aaron Slonim, in 1985 she founded the Chabad Center for Jewish Student Life at Binghamton University, where she now serves as education director. Mrs. Slonim is also an internationally-noted lecturer on Judaism and women's issues. Her first book was "Total Immersion: A Mikvah Anthology". She and Rabbi Slonim are the parents of nine children.
The consulting editor for "Bread and Fire" is Liz Rosenberg, professor of English and creative writing at Binghamton University. Dr. Rosenberg is author of many books of poetry and books for children. Her first novel for an adult readership, "Home Repair", ws featured on OFF THE PAGE earlier this year. Liz Rosenberg also contributed "On the Death of My Father" and, almost as a companion piece, Broome County resident Elizabeth Cohen wrote about her mother's death and her father's physical and mental decline in "The Fifth Commandment".
Rivkah Slonim and Liz Rosenberg join Bill Jaker on OFF THE PAGE for a wide-ranging discussion of female spirituality and the role of women in Judaism.