Life-Affirming Holocaust Painting Draws Attention in Reading

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

What is your reaction to this Holocaust painting by Juliette Aristides?

Now on display in a one woman show Observations at the Reading Public Museum that continues until September 14, the large canvass titled 1945 (Bendheim Remembrance) attracts rapt and immediate attention. Ownership of the painting quietly changed hands during the opening weekend, shortly after Alison Rotenberg brought her husband Dr. Larry Rotenberg MD, a child survivor of the Holocaust, over to see saying: “We’re buying this.” The Rotenbergs plan to temporarily place the work in their Reading, Pennsylvania home, for depth of contemplation and then move it to a more permanent, public venue.

See their interview following the jump, and see Dr. Rotenberg’s article A Child Survivor/Psychiatrist’s Personal Adaption in the Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry.
How do I know all of this? Full disclosure: Juliette Aristides is my step-daughter, though she was an adult when I married her father, Barry Bub, then a family practitioner in Reading, PA. Juliette was born in South Africa, and while yet in her infancy, immigrated with her parents to Reading, PA. Many family members were murdered in Nazi death camps on both the paternal “Bub” and maternal “Bendheim” sides of her lineage. Her long period of research and work on the canvas was encouraged and funded by a surviving branch of the Bendheim family.

Juliette’s usual theme in her art is “beauty” — making this work all the more significant. When I first saw this painting, it was unframed, leaning against a wall in Juliette’s atelier in Seattle. Tears rushed in as I witnessed this new evolution in Holocaust-related art. Even so, since the painting’s inception I had wondered how this interpretation might affect survivors and their loved ones-both here and overseas.

The couple who will take possession of the painting when the show closes, Alison and Larry Rotenberg were willing to be interviewed for this article. They own several other pieces of her work and have known her since childhood when she was an art student. I ask Alison, a retired realtor in the Reading area, what touches her in the imagery, some aspects are so subtle that they can only be discerned by viewing the 49″×72″ oil on canvas work in person.

“It is evocative of so much. On the right hand side of the painting are the crematoria, the smoke, and perhaps the souls going up. Then the two people–he is looking off to the side with that sort of pained expression, with the striped shirt that was so common in the concentration camps. She is much straighter, looking ahead. She steps out, she’s stepping forward…they’re leaving that all behind and the future is ahead. Or he could be one of the prisons and she could represent the future, for as it is said we can light a candle or curse the darkness. We recently went to the 20th anniversary of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and Larry and our second son went to the original gathering in Jerusalem around 1981. There are fewer and fewer people alive to attend these things. This painting, it’s for future remembrance.”

Dr. Larry Rotenberg was born in Romania, where his family was walled into the ghetto that was set up for the Jews of Czernowitz. In the fall of 1941, not yet eight years old, along with his family and 200,000 others he endured a forced march to the Ukraine in mid-winter where his beloved parents would die of the extreme conditions in a village turned-internment camp. His sisters foraged for food until two sisters and Larry were shifted to an orphanage in Bucharest by way of Yasi in 1944. From there the youth made their way to Western Russia, Poland, Sweden, Denmark and finally to Canada in 1948. This data I’ve taken from his published article which is a poignant valuable piece for all who wish more understanding of the beautiful, sustaining, early life family remembrances, experiences, reactions and emotional development of a young Holocaust survivor. During our interview, he indicated first meeting his wife in Vancouver, Canada. Still, it is the painting that he wants to speak about on our call:

“The work has a degree of both dread and grandeur. Dread of what they have left behind and the grandeur of their future. It reminds me of Coleridge’s Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner:

Like one, that on a lonesome road
doth walk in fear and dread.
And having once turned round walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows, a frightful fiend.
Doth close behind him tread.

It sort of summarizes for me what this couple are trying to do, trying to escape from this frightful scene but they can’t quite do it, although they are going into a hopeful future, they still have to take the weight and heaviness with them spiritually and mentally. They will always carry it with them. What is so amazing is that this painting is such a powerful evocation of the spirit of survival of the Holocaust.”

I ask could this image have been received ten, twenty, thirty years ago? Dr. Rotenberg explains:

“The immediacy of the past was still sufficiently there to keep this from occurring. Well, it is so that what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger. In a sense this couple carries with them a hope of humanity, a hope of the world. If you go back to the Talmud it teaches that one who saves a life, saves the whole world. This painting captures aspects of that, too. Each human being contains a world that lives within him or her and dies within him or her. Triumph and tragedy are combined in this picture, evocative of the importance of the singularity of human survival.

If you want to be even more symbolic, it is almost like Adam and Eve have re-emerged from being thrown out into the world and have come through a crisis and through the crisis to somehow survive and yet carry the memory. The painting is complex, offering dozens of layers of meaning. The thing about art is that ultimately you like a piece because it speaks to you. It captured Alison and certainly captures me.”

Our call ends, and so I turn to find that section of the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Colerige, a poem my father had me memorize as a youth. Its fullness capturing the essence of our the feelings they’d presented with such unity of vision:

Like one, that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turned round walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows, a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.

But soon there breathed a wind on me,
Nor sound nor motion made:
Its path was not upon the sea,
In ripple or in shade.

It raised my hair, it fanned my cheek
Like a meadow-gale of spring-
It mingled strangely with my fears,
Yet it felt like a welcoming.

Swiftly, swiftly flew the ship,
Yet she sailed softly too:
wetly, sweetly blew the breeze-
On me alone it blew.

Observations, the solo exhibition of works by Seattle artist Juliette Aristides continues until September 14 at the Reading Public Museum.

Book Review: Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Erica Brown’s Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe aims readers toward heightened self-awareness, through both traditional and self-help approaches. She does this in order to advance our capacity for teshuva — correction of our foibles and realignment of relationships as the pathway to increased happiness.

Similarly to the approach of Rabbi Abraham Twersky, the talented addictions counselor, Brown analogizes teshuva to “recovery.” Each chapter is based on a different verse of al cheyt, the prayer where we knock on the door to our hearts in Gestalt-like fashion, in hopes of awakening awareness and heightened authentic teshuva.

More after the jump.
This delightfully portable volume includes a well-written academic introduction to teshuva, translations of traditional teshuva teachings, and Brown’s own midrashic and interpretive work woven, with quotes from contemporary Jewish scholars, along with points excerpted from her reading in the field of psychology. The book is well-worth purchasing for the powerful compilation of traditional texts. Unfortunately, the self-help component is surprisingly unsophisticated, and in some cases seems likely to backfire, as I will explain later in this review.  

The author elects to join the current trend of sweetened, mussar-like awareness raising, by incorporating within the teshuva ten topics of human development: faith, destiny, discipline, humility, compassion, gratitude, anger, joy, honesty and holiness. She uses these categories to help the reader raise  self-awareness of where they may have room to grow in regard to these attributes. This is one of the volume’s strengths.

An example I especially appreciated was her “Day Two” entry, which begins: “For the sin we have committed before you with a confused heart.” While, as Brown explains, Jewish tradition more often connects this verse on the “confused heart” to doubt of some aspect of Jewish practice or Jewish history, she adds a helpful nuance for our consideration:

How can confusion ever be a sin? It is not intentional. Confusion is not an act; it is a condition brought about by the ambiguities of a situation. But we can perpetuate confusion by not seeking clarity soon enough or not at all. And for that we confess…

Dr. Brown also includes translations of excerpts from Rambam’s Hilkhot Teshuva, R. Moshe Hayyim Luzzatto’s Mesilat Yesharim, and R. Abraham Isaac ha-Cohen Kook’s Oros HaTeshuvah, for each topic. For example, this piece from Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, that ripens powerfully when discussed with a study partner, or in a community (page 143):

Great and sublime is the happiness of repentance. The consuming fire of sin’s pain in itself refines and will result in a superior and radiant purification of character, til the great wealth of repentance to be found in the treasure of life develops and unfolds before him. Humans continue to ascend through repentance, through its bitterness and its pleasantness, through its sorrow and its joy; nothing refines and purifies man, truly uplifting him to the level of man, as does the profound contemplation of repentance, “in the place were the penitents stand even the wholly righteous cannot stand.” (Berakhot 34a)

Teshuva is a foundational mitzvah: a condition of realignment within our behaviors and relationships, in which Jews almost perpetually dwell. “Jews praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur,” 1878 painting by Maurycy Gottlieb.

Brown also cites teachings of leading scholars such as Jonathan Sachs, Adin Steinsaltz, Jonathan Levenson and Joseph Telushkin. Be sure to have a TaNaKh (Jewish translation of the full Jewish canon) at hand, because the narrative sections assume familiarity with the High Holiday season traditions and sacred stories. It would also be helpful if the publishers — OU Press and Maggid Books, a subdivision of Koren Publishers — could put the original, untranslated text segments online, to facilitate study by those of us with sufficient language skills. Hebrew transcends what translations can offer.

One section within each chapter is titled “Life Homework.” Here, unfortunately, Dr. Brown seems out of her element. She falls into what I consider to be a common mussar trap, of mistaking raised awareness and the force of one’s willpower as being sufficient to power sustainable change. The tragic ethical scandals accruing to too many revered pious Jewish (and other) business, educational and spiritual community leaders, would seem to substantially defeat this assumption. Brown cites, for justification, authors Roy Baumeister, John Tierney and Kely McGonigal to the effect that they “believe” that “willpower alone is our greatest human strength”.

Dr. Brown’s book and website bios do not clearly indicate in what subject her doctorate was undertaken. Perhaps education, given that she describes herself on the present front page of her website as learning not through professional training and supervised practice, but rather “by reading. I order a mountain of books on a subject, plow through them and try to organize my thoughts in relation to what others think.”

This approach shows distinctly and problematically in the narrative, which offers a more pop psychology, or self-help orientation, than an appreciation of the deep psycho-dynamic work and spiritual development necessary for effective healing within our relationships with ourselves, our family, our community and God.

Dr. Brown’s exercises are simple, decent things like writing gratitude letters to one’s parents, a teacher, etc. Later, when she suggests writing a letter commending an anger management strategy to one of the reader’s presumably adult children, it is hard to imagine this facilitating teshuva or intimacy as much as building resentment and resistance. In the words of Dr. Robert Anthony: “If you want to make an enemy, try to change someone.”

Support for how to directly seek out those with whom one needs to do teshuva, for meaningful dialogue, insight, cultivation of authentic empathy, and the gradual restoration of trust, is largely overlooked in this book. Almost everything happens in one’s head — rather than in the holy space of interpersonal encounter, termed by Martin Buber “the between.” Despite capably writing out traditional teshuva processes in an academic fashion, Brown seems unaware of that the self is co-constructed within relationships, much more than in one’s head, i.e. via projections onto others and thoughts about what they may feel or think, when asking directly is the only way to know.

Given the plural nature of the al cheyt shechatanu liturgy, the long-missing onus, of communities taking responsibility for missing ethical and mitzvah-centered behavioral marks, would also make a welcome addition within Brown’s approach to High Holiday preparation practices. While she stays within traditional Orthodox liturgy (and translations), many contemporary prayer books already add new al cheyts for the sake of things like caring for the environment, fostering better systems of healthcare, environmental preservation, education, etc.

The chosen topics in this volume are very safe. How about some mitzvah-centered risk-taking, in the way of setting communities onto chanting and reflecting upon the “sin of suppressing communal awareness of internal problems?” And “not teaching and supporting healthy boundaries between staff and students?” And “for the sin of not providing a living wage for all of our employees?” etc.

Also unfortunate is that the author does not point readers toward the array of contemporary literature and professions which offer deeper and more effective levels of teshuva and spiritual development, that are barely alluded to in Brown’s effort. To name a few, I would like to see mentioned there books such as “Sacred Therapy,” written through a Jewish lens by psychotherapist Estelle Frankel, or related articles by Rabbi Anne Brener, Mashpi’ah Carola de Vries Robles, Rabbis Abraham Twerski, Rami Shapiro, and Howard Addison and his partner Dr. Barbara Breitman.

A further problem in this first edition is that some might assume that that Brown is accurately describing Torah stories, while she is sometimes actually giving her own, often unusual and interesting, spin. (This process is known as “making midrash.”) It is also sometimes difficult to appreciate why certain texts and topics are sequenced or emphasized. It seems that parts may have been edited out at the publisher level, for the sake of greater volume brevity, with neither the insertion of alternative segue-ways, nor attention to the presentation’s conceptual flow. The absence of an index, as always, is disappointing, as indices are helpful for returning to key points and quotes.

Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe does commence with a worthy introduction to teshuva, where Dr. Brown collates a number of important primary and secondary sources for us in translation. Helpfully, she introduces the multifaceted steps of a full teshuva process, as found in the teachings of the Catalonian rabbi, Jonah ben Abraham Gerondi. He, who had abetted the burning of the works of the renowned Jewish sage, the Rambam (Maimonides), certainly came to deeply appreciate the angst and stages involved in meaningful teshuva. He even prostrated himself on the Rambam’s grave, as a component to his grief of self-awareness and yearning to achieve the joyful fullness of teshuva — in the very manner recommended in the writings of Maimonides himself!

Teshuva is a foundational mitzvah: a condition of realignment within our behaviors and relationships, in which Jews almost perpetually dwell; and this is by intentional ancestral design of our tradition. While we can turn to our sense of God for support in this process, our tradition teaches that errors with humanity can only be corrected directly through contact with each person, upon their grave, and, in the case of theft, with their heirs. God cannot fix our errors for us, save for our sense of our efforts at the fullness of teshuva being “received.”

Uncovering the “Torah” of healthy relationships is a paramount issue in most lives, and Dr. Erica Brown’s Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe offers helpful frameworks, sources and accessible discussion points for communities, individuals and families desiring self-reflective practices, that may enhance their individual capacity for teshuva.  

Lo Yisa Jew el Jew: Being Touched by Tisha B’Av’s New Possibilities

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Tisha b’Av is a fast day in which we are turning our consciousness away from food, and onto how we tear down the fabric of society when Jews hate one another. Such hatred is traditionally given as the reason for the destruction of the Second Temple and is invoked in regard to other tragedies that have beset our people. A recent JTA article mentioned a video recently posted online, of a “Shas” (Sephardi Orthodox) rabbi declaring Jews in “knitted kippas,” i.e. modern Orthodox Jews, to be “Amalek.”

“Amalek” refers to the mitzvah of stamping out those engaging in pure evil. This evil is associated with those who assaulted the weak and elderly Jews at the rear of the Israelite exodus through the wilderness, later with Haman and his family in the Purim story, and eventually with Hitler and Nazism. Take a deep breath — and before vilifying the rabbi above, as he has reportedly done to other members of the Jewish people — let us not dare to be so easily goaded. Let’s rather “be peace” and maintain an intention within our Tisha b’Av practice of creating room for the many religious and secular cultures within Judaism. I so deeply want to be what I am asking for — to “be peace.” Yet, can I? Can you?

More after the jump.

It’s not easy, even within my own family. I was just recently attempting to pray on the women’s side of a synagogue, behind a mechitzah, the division between males and females — one taller than any of us women, made of thick plasticized canvas. Our connection to the prayer experience felt to me to have been deemed irrelevant in that darkened, muffled, scruffy space. Under such circumstances, inevitably most of the women chatted and few prayed. It was hard to be fully proud of the bright and caring bar mitzvah lad’s entry into young Jewish adulthood, with such substantial impediments in place.

Oh, what’s that, I hear? Inside of me, a voice whispered then, and now, “Be peace.” In Jewish tradition, one of God’s 105 names is Shalom. So, in my prayers, then, and now, I returned my intent to this goal, silently blessing the lad and his community with health, happiness and ahavas yisroel — to find ways to include all branches of the Jewish people in this mitzvah of love.

As depicted in the photo, when one of the women opened the mechizah for a peek, I, too, took a look, as the men were all focused in the direction of the ark and not at us. Later, at the reception, women and men were seated at separate tables. Upon picking up my “Mrs. Goldie Milgram” name tag, my step-grandson raced over to me calling, “Rabbi Goldie, Rabbi Goldie, how are you?” For the first time he did not offer a hug, as I am not a first degree blood relative. By dint of my being a step-grandmother, he can no longer touch or be touched by me, save by my words. So I told him, “Thank you for the wonderful, inclusive welcome! Perhaps you are a spark of the mashiach (messiah) — one who may kindle peace through keeping the flame of love among Jews and towards all. For by interpreting the mitzvah of ahavas yisroel as respectful, supportive interconnection within the Jewish people, it becomes more possible among the nations.” His reply, “I know, Rabbi Goldie. And I will, I will!” I am so proud of him.

Even while marinating today, on Tisha b’Av, in the horrors recorded in traditional Book of Lamentations (Eichah), I will not descend into hate and fear. My intention is to follow the instruction, to “Be Peace,” and to return to this intention as each verse and thought comes my way.

The news also includes some inspiration and hope, that of the solidarity of Italy’s Jews in support of the first black minister, who has been publicly degraded for her race. May we each and all be blessed with the courage to Be Peace, and for an easy and meaningful Tisha b’Av fast day of prayer, reflection and kind connection.  

Book Review: Pazuzu’s Girl by Rachel Coles

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Rachel Coles’ use of science fiction and fantasy in Pazuzu’s Girl allows her to creatively convey a contemporary version of the immigrant family’s teen-parent cultural divide: the agility of youth in adapting, prejudices encountered, and the parental frustrations and foibles. Written in the action language and imagery style of a teen movie, the literally alien father, daughter and her peers also suffer the horrific overreaction of the single parent father with his super-temper and super-powers. Another theme is the daughter’s learning to respect and love a human student who isn’t so much hot and hip as genuinely supportive and caring. Pazuzu’s Girl raises a fundamental question for teens: when to obey a parent, and when parental commands must be set aside for the sake of survival.

More after the jump.
The relevance of this work, when paired with the following mitzvot, makes this book relevant for Hebrew high school and day school settings:

  1. The Fifth Commandment: Honor Parents — kibud av v’em. Educators and parents may want to have teens explore why this mitzvah doesn’t instead read unconditionally to “obey your parents” and neither is written in the Torah or tradition that one must love one’s parents. It is a good time to see that the Mishna, in the Kiddushin tractate, says this mitzvah requires a child to ensure their parents are, when unable to do so for themselves, fed, given fluids, dressed, shoed and transported as needed, and to understand this in synergy with the mitzvah of ezrat cholim — helping those who are ill or frail.
  2. Another traditional take is to associate the mitzvah of hakarat ha-tov (acknowledging the good) with honoring one’s parents, naming the good they have done and acknowledging it to them and others. This is while they are alive, and also after their souls have ascended in death, through saying Kaddish and philanthropy honoring them by name. Our sages teach that this leads us to the mitzvah of yirat ha-shem (God fearing): the awesome/fearsome way of nature, divinely amazing and sometimes very hard to accept.
  3. The mitzvah of survival, pikuakh nefesh (soul watching) — saving a life, your own first, and then others. Here is where our sages temper the mitzvah of kibud av v’em, such that if they put you at risk with their actions, then you must act to save yourself.

Somehow secondary to the well-drawn, strong emotions of the main characters, is a plot originating from ancient Mesopotamian myths, involving a “Tablet of Destiny” that must not be found by those who would destroy the world: Pazuzu — the demon of plague, Enlil, and many other period names of gods and leaders, and even a demoness, known for killing children. A museum adventure, to learn about cultures from the times before and during the development of Judaism, could be another meaningful adjunct activity.

The author does call a bit too much on recent popular culture to have the volume stand the test of time, and the father’s ability to turn into a host of grasshoppers would likely send Michael Creighton fans into fond recollections of some of the devices in his works. But for now and all-in-all, Rachael Coles is an author to watch. Pazuzu’s Girl is a well-articulated young-adult novel, from an author with a great imagination and awareness of the challenges brought on during teenage years in the Western World. The book is available in paperback and Kindle editions.

Book Review: Adirondack Mendel’s Aufruf

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Adirondack Mendel’s Aufruf: Welcome to Chelm’s Pond is a delightful and successful new interpretation of the genre of Chelm stories, with an original tale by author Sandor Schuman.

Theological inquiry and Jewish learning are traditionally embedded like subtle gems in the Chelm genre, and Schuman has not missed a beat on this score either. The illustrations, by Kevin Kuhne, are so clever and lively that one can also get drawn into the story through them. The pacing and parsing of the narrative has the tone of a great storyteller. Good fun and solid musing, all in one.

More after the jump.
Some of you may be thinking, “Chelm?” While today a town of almost 70,000 residents in Eastern Poland, for Jews Chelm is the name of a legendary village of inept, inside-out, hilarious illiterate Jews, whose behaviors and Yiddishisms have kept our people in stitches through many hard times. Beyond Mendel, “the renowned adventurer, woodsman, mountain man, and Adirondack guide who always tells the truth, even if he has to lie to do it,” the main characters in the book include Aufruf, the Yiddish-speaking dog, the Jewish quote maven Rabbi Chayyim Shammayim, “the oldest and wisest khokhem in all of Chelm’s Pond,” and especially, Bloomie, the dim-some shayne meydl.

Is this book for you? In this sample passage Bloomie is speaking:

“What’s your name, doggy?

Wagging his tail wildly, Aufruf replied, “Aufruf.”

“That’s a lovely name for a dog. How appropriate. Who gave you that name?”

“Colin Powell.”

“Hmmm. I don’t know him. Is he your owner?”

Nisht ahin, nisht aher. I am without an owner.”…

[Aufruf]… How can you just talk with me like it was an ordinary thing?”

“Well, it is an ordinary thing for you, isn’t it?” Bloomie replied. “And as for me, I talk to animals all of the time.”

“Yeah, but they don’t talk back.”

“Sometimes they do,” Bloomie replied, and then added, slowly for emphasis, “but you really have to listen.”

Aufruf was taken aback. Here was someone who could teach him his own lesson. Perhaps he should be more open-minded to hear other animals…”

Love, difference, gender issues, conversion to Judaism, belief in God, honesty and over 130 Hebrew and Yiddish terms are brilliantly introduced within the 103 pages of a book that can fit in a coat pocket. There are many interpretive levels to this book, making it appropriate for reading and discussion with children as well as adults. Adirondack Mendel’s Aufruf, while keeping faith with the Chelm traditions, is also moving us forward with honest inquiry on difficult topics. It is a great way to develop a useful Jewish cultural vocabulary, and as a new piece of Jewish folklore, a sheer delight. A Guide to Chelm’s Pond for Teachers and Discussion Leaders is available as a free download at

Book Review: Renee H Levy’s Baseless Hatred

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Do you appreciate a good collection of Jewish sources on a topic, presented in a very readable way? One that guides you toward reflection upon your own prejudices and predilections? One that provides a review of the related research literature and a psychological approach to helping you to evolve into a better, more aware person? Then Baseless Hatred by Renee H. Levy might draw you in during the first half of the volume, and that would be a dayenu, i.e. it would be enough to justify encountering it.  

More after the jump.
Levy’s thesis is that:

… hate is triggered because our primitive neural system reacts to events from the perspective of our own preexisting insecurities, because we make generalizations (which may be positive or negative) and confuse associations (additional but not necessarily relevant information) with causality. We will see that once hate has been triggered it is difficult to extinguish. We will understand the rapid switch that occurs when a person who initially feels victimized into a vindictive perpetrator of hate.

The primary focus of Baseless Hatred is on preventing and resolving hatred between individual Jews, based upon Leviticus 19:17-18, is that “you shall not hate your brother in your heart.” The Bible offers examples of such hatred: Esau’s hatred for Jacob and that of Jacob’s sons for their sibling Joseph. Traditionally, the loss of the Temple and exile of the Jewish people from the Land of Israel are attributed to sinat hinam, “baseless hatred” between Jews. The lore of the Talmud includes a story (Yevamot 62b), that one of the great rabbis of the second century, Rabbi Akiva, had 24,000 students, and a terrible plague struck the students as Divine punishment for the utter lack of respect they showed to each other. When the plague finally ended, only five remained, and they are credited with carrying the learning from this trauma forward and saving Judaism in their time.

Contemporary case examples of how hatred arises between individual Jews are given in a clinical fashion in Baseless Hatred, along with potential approaches to avert and/or resolve such hatred. This facilitates readers in finding their own life parallels, and trying on the awareness methods that the author provides. One might call this section of the book an experience of mussar (moral), training in interpersonal awareness and personal change.

Arvevut, the mitzvah of mutual responsibility between Jews, is at the core of Levy’s approach to encouraging peace within the Jewish tent, under the heading: “Judah’s Legacy: The Judah Principle”. Judah was Jacob’s son and he offered his life as hostage to Joseph in place of his youngest brother in the Biblical story.  She explains: “Judah taught that in order to return and live in Israel, the Jewish people must reestablish its commitment to mutual responsibility. They did so at the covenant at Sinai.” And on the next page, in a way similar to how she will later quote Rabbi Jonathan Sacks she explains that: “…hatred between two Jews results in a tear that does not stop at their relationship. It reverberates and ultimately destroys the unity and integrity of the national fabric.”

Indeed, but what of the human fabric and the narratives and feelings of all the other peoples and nations? The volume continues, unfortunately, into a blindly self-indulgent view of the Jewish people, accounting us as vastly more saintly than we are, or any humans could be.

“Jews will understand that acceptance and respect by other nations will eventually come when the latter will see that Jews have used their freedom and sovereignty to become moral individuals. At that point, anti-Semitic voices that accuse Israel of being a terrorist or outlaw state will have no echo and will be silenced.”

Were Rene H. Levy to have applied her theories and analysis with empathetic and authentic care for those beyond the Jewish people, this could have been a great book. Instead, in the second half of the volume she falls into the trap of speaking of Jews as great and essentially everyone else as perpetrators that do not appreciate us. The wisdom and process recommendations of finding empathy and understanding from the first half are so quickly lost. What a shame and ironic reflection of the prevailing human condition. We are all responsible to evolve, individually and as peoples. In the words of Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch:

“An “art” is any skill that is not innate but must be acquired by constant training and practice. To our thinking, therefore, being good is surely an art.”

Interview: Jewish Lesbian Couple Are First to Sign Civil Union in Colo.

Photos by Stevie Crecelius

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Two Jewish women, Anna and Fran Simon, both of Denver, Colo., became the first same-sex couple to be issued a Civil Union, license at a midnight ceremony on May 1 in the Denver Office of the Clerk and Recorder. Rabbi Steve Booth participated in the rite, as well, having long-served beside them as an activist in this cause. In fact, it wasn’t the Simons’ first marriage ceremony.

Full interview after the jump.
Q: When did you decide to marry?

Anna Simon: Back in 2005 we had a Jewish wedding, so that we would be married in the eyes of God before we had children. We are somewhat traditional in that way, and felt it important to commit before our family and friends with a rabbi. 100 friends and family attended and Rabbi Jamie Korngold officiated. There were no civil legal ramifications of that ceremony at all, so it was very important to us that there one day be a civil service, and at it to have a rabbi and say the Shehecheyanu (prayer for special occasions) for being joined in the eyes of the law.

Q: Was the Jewish community able to be there for you?

Fran Simon: We felt incredible support from the Jewish community here in Colorado. From the Anti Defamation League that testified numerous times, Rabbi Steve Booth Nadav was at many hearings and votes. Keshet, the LGBT organization, was incredibly supportive, B’nai Havurah (congregation) and Judaism Your Way have also been very supportive and helped us achieve civil unions and continue in the fight for marriage equality. It was because of Steve’s role in the civil union fight that we wanted him to be part of our civil ceremony. Many faith leaders were involved in winning these protections.

Homosexuality in Judaism

The Reconstructionist movement, in its 1992 Report of the Reconstructionist Commission on Homosexuality, expressed its support for the full inclusion of gay men and lesbians in all aspects of Jewish life.

The Reform Movement‘s March 2000 Resolution on Same Gender Officiation states that, “the relationship of a Jewish, same gender couple is worthy of affirmation through appropriate Jewish ritual.”

The Conservative Moment: Homosexuality, Human Dignity and Halachah: A Combined Responsum was adopted in June 2012 by the Committee of Jewish Law and Standards, voted 13-0 with one abstention to formally approve same sex marriage ceremonies.

Orthodoxy: No mainstream Orthodox organization has endorsed same sex marriage. A growing number of independent Orthodox rabbis, starting with Rabbi Steven Greenberg have conducted such rituals.

Above: the Simons’ Brit Ahuvot, Female Lovers’ Union, between the bride and the bride

Q: How did the two ceremonies differ?

Anna Simon: We met the rabbi for our Jewish wedding, Jamie Korngold, to study the elements of a Jewish wedding, the brit (covenant), the sheva brachot (seven blessings), the priestly blessing, the kiddush — our rabbi, as a feminist, had already made tweaks to the ketubah for her own wedding, and ketubah for men and women too, that fit for us as well. The traditional ketubah is based on ownership law, but for our marriage we had a brit ahuvot (feminine plural for Covenant of Beloveds). We drew on Jewish partnership law, not ownership law, to formulate our document and the ceremony.

Fran Simon: We both broke glasses. It was extremely emotional for us when the rabbi said it was valid and binding. We honestly didn’t think it would make that much of a difference, but it did. We became somehow very much more committed to one another. Doing so in front of friends and family, and everyone agreeing to support our relationship, was overwhelming. The amount of love and support at both ceremonies was tremendous.

Q: Were there unifying factors between the two ceremonies?

Fran Simon: We customized our vows for our wedding, and our civil union incorporated the same themes. We designed our brit ahuvot with elements of justice, righteousness, lovingkindness and faithfulness.

Anna Simon: We both believe that customizing for authenticity and honor is really important.

Did these rituals change your relationship with your extended families?

Fran Simon: I believe my family saw us differently as a result. Leading up to the Jewish wedding, my parents weren’t telling their friends. I don’t think they saw it as a marriage until it got closer.

Anna Simon: Fran’s father’s toasts had everyone in tears. At our rehearsal dinner he said, “You know Francine, when you came out as a lesbian to me, I was really sad and I told you then, I had always wanted to dance at your wedding, and tomorrow — I will.”

Anna Simon: I want to add something about Fran’s mother, who always loved me completely: The wedding ritual changed her perspective and attitude about Fran’s being gay.

Fran Simon: My mother refers to Anna as her “daughter” and asks her to call her “mom.” As a consequence of the wedding, she told all of her friends about us. She’s completely out about her daughter now, after struggling with it for many years.

Q: Anna, what about your mother?

Anna Simon: Well, when I told her I was in love and this is the one, her first two questions were “Is she Jewish?” and “Where did she go to school?” And she was very happy with the answers to both those questions; that I married a nice Jewish girl.

Q: Where did you go to college? I imagine readers would now be curious.

Anna Simon: Fran went to Cornell and then Stanford. I went to Earlham and the University of New Mexico.

Q: Do you have children?

Fran Simon: We have a son who will be six in July. He was our ring-bearer at the civil union.

Q: You now both have the same last name. Was that a difficult decision?

Anna Simon: If I was married to a man, I would most certainly not have changed my name. Fran felt more attached to her family name. We didn’t want our children to always be answering the question: “Who is this woman with that other name?” Not only that, but Jeremy is the one that will carry on the Simon name, as there are no other male grandchildren in the Simon family.

Q: Have you had to make accommodations around caring for your son out there in gun country?

Fran Simon: Not really. They did have “mom’s night” and “dad’s night” at our school, and when we questioned the gender separation they said it’s just so that they don’t have everybody show up all at once. So we said, “why not just call them ‘parents’ nights?” That worked.

Anna Simon: We are very happy with people’s attitudes here, very warm and welcoming. Jeremy went to daycare at the university where I work. And when he got older we switched to our neighborhood school and we’ve benefited from families that have come before us. Though we are still doing some educating, we feel completely accepted.

Fran Simon: I think we also shelter ourselves. We have been in the media a lot in this fight for civil unions, and I read the comments in some of the articles calling us terrible parents, etc. People don’t say things to our faces, but in this state there are certainly a lot of people who don’t support our relationship.

We’ve come such a long way; in 2006 we had Referendum I, which was domestic partnerships, and only 47% of the state supported it. But in the last couple of years support for civil unions has been 70% or higher. And now for marriage, one poll I saw was 50% for and 38% against. All this in a state where a 2006 amendment defines marriage as between a man and woman. Colorado was labeled the “Hate State” in 2002 due to Amendment 2, which allowed legal discrimination against LGBT people.

Q: New Jersey has a State Amendment, that may come up for a vote, that would require health insurance to cover treatment for those who want to cease being homosexual and attain a heterosexual life. How would you address such a situation?

Anna Simon: There is not just moment when someone makes a decision to be attracted to someone of the opposite sex or the same sex. It is a very deep part of a person’s biological and psychological makeup. We only have to look a little bit back in history and see what happened when people writing with their left hand were forced to use their right hand. They could manage, but it was not what their natural position was. And we have learned very clearly there is harm in such forcing. I think it is a good analogy for one’s sexual orientation except on a more serious scale: There is horrible damage done through this so-called reparative therapy — suicide and destroyed lives in the wake of these well-intended but damaging therapies.

Fran Simon: Well-intended?

Anna Simon:  A parent who wants their child to be straight loves their child, and thinks that is the healthy way to be. My heart goes out to that parent; rather than trying to change their child, I would encourage them to find support to accept their child for who they are. PFLAG, Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, is a helpful organization to seek out for guidance and support.

Q: What role does faith play in your lives?

Anna Simon: Our faith exists in everything that we do. We say Jewish prayers before we eat, and at bedtime; indeed at every significant event. Jewish ritual is woven into our everyday lives; at the end of each day we sing the shema with our son and talk about the things for which we are grateful to God.

Q: Did prayer help you hold the course in advocacy?

Fran Simon: I would say that faith played a role in the civil unions battle. It really was an emotional roller coaster at times. Last year, the Republican leaders essentially killed 30 bills just to kill the Civil Unions bill. We kept our faith, knowing it would pass, just as we know marriage equality will come to be in the near future.

Anna Simon: I feel strongly that we are called to the lives that we have and the work on justice. In our brit ahuvot, we talk about tikkun olam (repairing the world). We were able to testify a half a dozen times regarding this bill, in part because of where we live and the type of work we do, and given that we are out and at less risk than some. I believe literally that God intended us to do this work.

Q: How did your son relate to the civil ceremony?

Fran Simon: One Colorado organized a lot of the press who came. We did bring our son to testify at the hearings this year. Not previous years, just now, when we were very confident that it was going to pass. He also attended the rallies; he was part of help makeing this bill become law. We felt extremely honored to be the first couple to receive the civil union. Our son saw the signing pens on the document table, and asked for one before the ceremony. And I said, “No, these are for very special people.” And then, at the bill signing, one of the bill’s sponsors, Senator Guzman, spontaneously gave one the pens to the governor to give to Jeremy.

Anna Simon: I want to acknowledge how grateful we are to all the people in Colorado who supported the effort, and to our legislators, who showed courage and real leadership in passing this bill. There are many people that put in time, money, effort and sacrifice to make the bill pass.

Q: Thank you so much. May you be blessed with long healthy lives together in your loving Jewish home, and may your work for justice prevail.

Rabbi Goldie Milgram’s Living Jewish Life Cycle: How to Create Meaningful Jewish Rites of Passage at Every Stage of Life (Jewish Lights Publishing) provides traditional and inclusive step-by-step guides to all Jewish rites of passage. Also see the websites ritualwell and Keshet for information on the subject.

Book Review: The Rebel and The Rabbi’s Son by Yisroel Eichenstein

— Reviewed by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Sometimes a book becomes a mitzvah because it’s just what you needed to better understand how to deal with a difficult situation. My spouse and I struggle greatly with relating to our family’s baal teshuvah branch — those who have chosen ultra Orthodoxy and become passionate adherents of its stringencies as their path to self-realization. Conversely, there are those who, like Yisroel Eichenstein, autobiographical author of The Rebel and the Rabbi’s Son, are born into ultra Orthodoxy and ultimately choose to leave that path in order to attain the freedom to be themselves. This slender, courageous volume helped us to better appreciate how to relate to our very religious children and grandchildren, and the extremely important role grandparents of all backgrounds and practices may have in such scenarios.

The full review after the jump.
Early on Eichenstein reveals to what is like to be born into a family where you don’t fit in and where you incur disgrace to your family’s good name just by being yourself. No, he isn’t gay, if you were also expecting such a turn of events. It’s just that trying as best he can, life at the thriving intersection of the Zhidachov and Novominsk Chassidic dynasties can’t work for Eichenstein’s inherent nature. We were twisting in our seats with empathy for young “Izzy”, as we read of his extreme efforts at trying to please, to accept the norms of sect stringencies while being born with the very distinct disadvantage of having a curious mind, a love of sports and a serous rebellious streak. This man, a direct descendent of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hassidism, did his best to find a comfortable place in that world, but his soul was unwilling and unable to shut out the entire rest of the world around him.

The Challenge of Conformity

Reading The Rebel and the Rabbi’s Son, we soon began to appreciate some of the reasons why those of our family who have chosen ultra-Orthodoxy seem to go to such pains to ensure they and their children conform precisely to the behavioral norms of their segment of ultra-Orthodox society, and, to ensure that we don’t give the (grand)children any unacceptable ideas. Meaning, we such things as can’t take our grandchildren to science museums where evolution might be discussed, even as a theory, or art museums where unclothed human figures might appear in great art, and certainly no television, nor share our understanding of verse of Torah or Haggadah, etc.

Our first big ‘aha’ arose when Eichenstein spells out the methods used to ensure conformity: first the carrots of affection, praise and acceptance, and then a slap in the face or words of condemnation of a degree that creates toxic shame with the potential to endure for a lifetime. Ultimately, if as an adult one loosens one’s practice, the consequence becomes essentially shunning — being shut out of social loops and other vital aspects of communal support.

Eichenstein goes on to explain:

“The worst insult you can give someone in the Orthodox Jewish community is to call them apikoros, heretic. Many times I wonder how different my life would have been had my zaide (grandfather in Yiddish) been around during my lifetime. Tolerance, which he believed in, should not brand you an apikoros, as I have been branded: someone who won’t share in the world to come.”

The author’s conflicted spirit over being himself versus disappointing his parents shines through as he writes about his family with empathy and affection. While his father clearly tries to overlook his son’s need to push the limits of living in an ultra-Hassidic setting and not do battle on him, the whole weight of the family’s noble Hassidic lineages was pressing down on him. I’ve rarely seen kavod, intended to be expressed through the mitzvot (deeds) of bringing honor to God and one’s ancestors, more misused by a family than in Izzy’s childhood home and community, where not HaShem — God, but social norms are treated as the authority.

The Flexidox Zaide

We had yet another aha coming. Eichenstein reveals he was aware that not everyone was always so uptight and stringent in social norms and Jewish practice as in his childhood community. His father, perhaps out of love, planted the seed that would ultimately set him free when he tells Izzy about his zaide‘s (grandfather’s) relationship with a Reform rabbi.(OMG!)

The only reason I know about the bond of friendship between Zaide and the Reform rabbi is because my father’s conscience moved him to confide in me. I was already an adult when he pulled me aside and whispered, ‘Your brother or extended family would never acknowledge or believe what I’m going to tell you, but I was with your zaide when this happened.’

His urgent tone reminded me of a CIA operative delivering secret intelligence data.

‘I was twelve years old when my father took me with him to meet the Reform rabbi who had helped him in his early days in Chicago. The Reform rabbi’s daughter was getting married, and my father wished to give him a mazel tov (good luck). He was so grateful to this generous man that he wanted to make a public gesture.’

Can Love Prevail in the Face of Religious Difference?

Eichenstein also honestly relates some of his own parenting mistakes, replicas of schooling traumas his own parents visited upon him. Today he portrays himself as a happily married, successful West Coast industrial real estate magnate who belongs to a liberal Jewish congregation. His wife also left ultra-Orthodoxy with him; her parents seemed to have handled this far better than his. I appreciate how the author shows us that ultimately, sufficiently caring relationships with parents can be maintained in the face of such strong religious differences, disappointments and traumas. Ultimately, this book is a wake-up call to the importance of respecting the differing needs of children within every kind of family and religious community, the need for discernment in regard to the wishes of one’s parents, the probability of repeating parental mistakes along with the possibility of noticing and being able to catch and redirect oneself.

Most of all, The Rebel and the Rabbi’s Son would have reduced our families struggles greatly because of how explicit it makes the social stakes for those entering or leaving ultra-Orthodoxy — and we realize that those intent on realizing their needs and nature will brush past us to fulfill such drives. Meanwhile, the grandchildren in the “frum — very religious” branch of the family know that their step-grandmom, yours truly, is a woman rabbi and that their zaide, my sweet hubbatzin is an irrepressible free-thinker :) that all came out somehow… ahem. Also, it has become clear that in our home we have different approaches to Judaism than some of those required in their home, for example, their family brings their own food during visits to us. And so, for whomever among these precious young ones will need it in order to survive and thrive — the seed is planted.

Purim: A Rite of Reversal Teaching Ways to Survive

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Difficult to date, but definitely written prior to 87 B.C.E., when it was translated into Greek, Megillat Esther appears to have been a romance novel or satire of the Persian Empire period, incorporating aspects of the Babylonian mythological goddess Ishtar, also known as Astarte, and the god Marduk. Notice how strikingly close these names are to those of the Purim heroine, Esther, and her uncle, Mordechai. So nu? Why make Purim a sacred time for Jews?

Purim is what cultural anthropologists would term a rite of reversal. Such rites, during hard times, serves as a people’s valve for letting off toxic emotional steam. The story is a political satire — where else in antiquity could Jews win at every turn? Purim is wish fulfillment within comedic relief during times of oppression — the Daily Show of its times.

More after the jump.
The social order is turned topsy-turvy. Jewish women weren’t likely to become queens to the conquering kings or emperors. The bad guy is made look like a dunce and dies for his evil ways. Esther, our nice Jewish girl, is pimped by her uncle into the palace. Esther decides to play the seductress to win the day, the opposite of modesty mitzvahs for sure. And she intermarries with the king who presumably follows Zoroastrianism, the religion of the region. In the end, the king permits the Jews to do whatever necessary to defend themselves against the evil decree, including killing his troops. Riiiight.

A Surprising Hebrew Root of the Word Purim

The root of the word Purim is the Hebrew word “hafarah,” which can be translated as disruption or annulment. (Things have changed since they taught us it was “purs” — “lots”, as in casting lots in Hebrew School, eh?) Hitler outlawed Purim by name. Why? Purim isn’t just some Hebrew School activity, it is an intentionally subversive festival, where, by analogy, we mock our oppressors and inculcate the belief that the people can triumph over evil, “even a woman” can save the day. And, one wonders, at times what were we sharing besides sweets when visiting each other to deliver nosh presents known as mishloach manot?

Jewish holidays are each a mitzvah in their own right, composed of sequenced spiritual practices, many mitzvot, that, when taken seriously, thicken with meaning and memories as we mature. Dressing in costume for Purim, for example, might at first seem like a way to engage the interest of children. But it can also serve as a jumping-off point for discussing what you might hope to do if placed in the position of Queen Esther. She had to choose whether to attempt to save the lives of her people with serious risk to herself involved.

Will We Have Had Esther’s Lifesaving Chutzpah If Needed?

Purim is a time to step into Queen Esther’s shoes and discover where God is to be found in this story. That’s right, God is not a character in this megillah, never named or apparently mentioned. Our sages do cleverly find G*d in Megillat Ester by pointing to Deuteronomy 31:18. Listen to the sound of the Hebrew words as you read them aloud: Ah’noe’hi ha-stehr ahsteer, “I will hide my face on that day.” Can you hear how ahsteer sounds like Esther? So, on Purim, G*d is also wearing a mask, that of Esther. Every day, you, a stranger, your teacher, a partner, your neighbor, your enemy — each has the potential to realize that s/he is in the Esther position — able to unmask and bring a mitzvah-centered consciousness into difficult circumstances. The choice belongs to the individual; the consequences belong to all. There, in each of us, he’ester, is hidden inside the soulspark of Esther’s courage and determination to make a difference. She used every asset she had, including her gender and sexuality. It’s a good conversation to have: was how she acted actually kosher from our contemporary point of view?

Social Justice Advocacy and Purim Options

On the evening of February 23 or before Sunday on February 24 of this year, when Purim arrives, consider bringing a life-saving agenda with you and dress in Esther’s persona for the Megillah reading. Step out in front of the crowd to raise consciousness (I can see your Esther now dressed with props to promote gun control, or to raise awareness about the trafficking of women and children, for example). See if your own people will raise the scepter of their own Purim norms and embrace your courage. It’s up to us. We are the starter dough, the baking powder in the cake of creation.

Book Review: Rav Hisda’s Daughter

— Reviewer: Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Fascinating reading and learning surprises await those who dive into the vividly depicted world of Babylonian Jewry in Rav Hisda’s Daughter, Book I: Apprentice: A Novel of Love, the Talmud, and Sorcery by Maggie Anton who earlier brought us the remarkable historical fiction series Rashi’s Daughters. Anton succeeds brilliantly in drawing us into the formative period leading up to the Talmud. This was a time when most in the third century Persian culture — men, women and children, sages and commoners, Jews and gentiles – wore amulets, incantation bowls and spells for protection from demons and disease, and in hopes of fertility, healing and good fortune. Yes, this is all well documented right in the Talmud, a typically 37 volume work that emerges after the time of this story, aspects of which are elegantly embroidered into the Rav Hisda’s Daughter‘s narrative. Anton also incorporates Jewish ownership of slaves during this time, rabbinic laws and customs re menstruation, along with betrothal and marriage law by means of the engaging tools of good fiction.

More after the jump.

What is the Talmud? Redacted memories, stories and teachings on Jewish laws and customs. Components are the Mishna, quoting sages who lived from about 100 BCE to 200 CE called the Tanaim. The Gemara surrounds the Mishna, with interpretations and debates from 200 CE to about 500 CE and these sages are known as Amoraim. Also on most Talmud edition pages are sages known as Rishonim and Tosefta/Tosafot, 1,000 C.E. until 1,500 C.E. There is both the Jerusalem Talmud (Yerushalmi) and the Babylonian Talmud (Bavli) reflecting shared, although sometimes differently remembered teachings, as well as unique topics and stories.

Anton helpfully contextualizes aspects of the Talmudic record that appear heretical and discomforting when viewed from the contemporary practice of traditional Judaism. She shows us a century when people, Jews and their non-Jewish compatriots believed in demons as they died like flies of plagues, infections and the absence of lifesaving antibiotics and other essential medications. These were times when a women’s primary apparent value to society was her ability to reproduce amply and run a household. Anton’s redemptive thesis reveals how what we would view as magical thinking and behavior would, or could, have been a form of prayer and much sought-after professional community service. For example:

“Inscribing an amulet is like praying?”
Kimchit stared at me with her small, beady eyes. “Exactly. Once you’ve met the clients and heard their sad stories, you’ll want to help them,” she said. “As you write the protective spell, you pray with all your heart that Heaven heed your words, so your compassion imbues the amulet with healing power.” [Page 84]

Anton goes on to document the validity for pious Jews of such an activity as amulet making by citing the Talmudic words of the famed male sage Abba: “…What is a reliable amulet? One that has cured three people.”

The incantations provided are the richly fascinating ones, for example:

“Health and guarding and sealing from Heaven from Ahai bar Mevrat and Kimota bat Horan, their house, possessions, sons, daughters, and fetus. By the ban of Bugdana, king of shaydim and satans, ruler of liliths, whether male or female, I adjust that you be struck in the membrane of your heart by the spear of Tikas the Mighty…..sealed with the signet ring of Solomon ben David, King of Israel. Amen. Amen. Amen. Selah.” [Page 154]

Incredibly strange, isn’t it?-given that the Torah outright prohibits the practice of witchcraft! A few examples:

“You shall not suffer a witch to live.” Ex 22:17 <blockquote>
Mekasefa is the word for witch used in this verse, a term which Anton draws on throughout the volume.

“You shall not eat any thing with the blood; neither shall you use enchantment, nor observe times.” Lev. 19:26

This phrase meaning an auspicious conjunctions of constellations, i.e., astrology is retained in the Shehecheyanu prayer.

“There shall not be found among you any one that … uses divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch, or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer, for all that do these things are an abomination unto the Lord.” Deut. 18:10-12

Jewish Witches after the Biblical Period?

Here in Rav Hisda’s Daughter, what we have is the work of a master craftswoman set upon repairing a major gap in Jewish literature and understanding of our own past. Maggie Anton is forging a repair that goes even deeper than history, for her story gives insight into how to approach contemporary encounters with what Phyllis Trible dubbed religious “Texts of Terror” against women (Texts of Terror:  Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives  (Overtures to Biblical Theology)). In pre-modern Judaism any collection of these include “You shall not allow a female witch to live,” and also famously:

‘R. Simeon ben Shetah hanged eighty witches in Ashkelon, these being women who had lived in a single cave and who had ‘harmed the world.’ [Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Hagigah 2:2; by context we infer these were not Jewish witches, though others in the Talmud are.]

An on-line article by Meir bar Ilan makes an excellent study complement to Rav Hisda’s Daughter, it is based on his book Some Jewish Women in Antiquity and demonstrates the Biblical and Talmudic magical actions and books of Jewish men. In fact, two “how-to guides” became available:

“The books of witchcraft of the Talmudic era, Harba de Mosheh and Sefer HaRazim, are attributed to males, and many of the examples in the Talmud deal with men (including some who were titled Rav) who were involved in witchcraft.” [Ibid.]

Bar Ilan notes that the great Amora (scholar of his times), Amemar sought out the counsel of a known kesefa, according to the Talmud Bavli Pesachim 110a and, in 111a, the men of the Talmud easily described such practices, for example:  

“If two women sit at a crossroads, one on this side and the other on the other side, and they face one another – they are certainly engaged in witchcraft.” [Ibid.]

In the Babylonian Talmud [Gittin 45a] girls are cited in patrilineal format: “The daughters of R. Nachman stirred a (presumably boiling) pot with their bare hands…they stirred the pot with witchcraft.” [Ibid.] Meir bar Ilan further includes a worthwhile, extended study of Sota 22a where “a maiden who gives herself up to prayer, a gadabout widow and a minor whose months are not completed – these bring about the destruction of the world.” The sin here? The thirteenth century Rabbinic commentator Rashi is emphatic: “witchcraft”. [Ibid.]

Among the many examples of occult practices by Talmudic sages that we studied in rabbinical school, one finds the Talmudic story of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai performing an exorcism by removing a spirit which had entered into the body of the emperor’s daughter [Talmud Bavli Me’ilah 17b], and in another text, he places an evil eye on his opponent and turns him into a heap of bones [Talmud Yerushalmi Shevi’it 9:1, 38d]. In the words of bar Ilan:

“If R. Simeon bar Yohai carried out actions beyond the realm of the laws of nature, that was a miracle, but if a woman carried out the same action, that was witchcraft. Similarly, if Moses threw a staff and it turned to a snake, that was a miracle and a sign from God, but if a non-Jew did that same action, it was witchcraft. It thus follows that, in ancient times, the boundary between the miracle and witchcraft depended not only on the person’s religion, but also on the person’s sex.” [Ibid.]

Drawing on such distinctions, the persecution of women as witches was carried from Judaism into Christianity, only to result in Salem and other witch burnings. As is well-known, tens of thousands of women were killed based on allegations of witchcraft, and very few men, within a two hundred year period.

Revisiting the times that contributed to such misogynous terror crimes is hard and holy work. What a blessing for Anton to be born in the age of computerized key word searching of the 63 Talmud tractates (approximately 6000 printed pages)! Looking for women who are mentioned or quoted in the Talmud is the needle-in-a-haystack task many women rabbis took up starting way back in the challenging days of organizing notes handwritten on index cards. Anton’s field notes list consultation with topic rabbinic and doctoral scholars in the field.

Who Was Rav Hisda? Why His Daughter?

Map from Parshablog

After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, Babylonian Jewry established major academies of learning at Nehardea, Sura and Pumpedita, in the region today known as Iraq. Sura, where Rav Hisda primarily lived and taught, would have been just south of today’s Bagdad. Benjamin of Tudela reported that when he reached Sura in the 1170s he found only ruins, but that a significant Jewish community then remained in Pumpedita (A History of the Jews).

Hisda is known for being one of the sharpest sages of his time, as well as for his appreciation of the “power of leniency” when interpreting Jewish law and applying it (Heavenly Torah: As Refracted through the Generations). In the Talmudic tractate Shabbat, [folio 140b] we also find a passage where Rav Hisda teaches his daughters the art of sexual foreplay.

So it is both fitting and wonderful that this story of Rav Hisda’s Daughter focuses substantially upon Anton envisioning her apprenticing to a woman who makes amulets and incantation bowls. While the story line’s resolution is disappointingly obvious from the get-go and Jewish holidays seem more described than experienced for their spiritual force, Anton effectively opens the times to us through a pleasurable texture similar to the details of dreams that unfold wonders. This is ever so fitting, since Rav Hisda famously observes: “A dream not interpreted is like a letter unread.” [Babylonian Talmud 55a]

The Pergamon Museum in Berlin, Germany, houses the original, massive cerulean and gold tiled gates of King Nebuchadnezzar; it was his forces that captured the Israelites’ First Temple. Those who have witnessed those astonishingly beautiful gates will be afforded heightened appreciation for Anton’s vivid, almost tactile written descriptions of the arts of the period. Nebuchadnezzar’s forces massively slaughtered Jewish families and then exiled survivors to Babylonia in 586 BCE. Turn to the Book of Lamentations, Eichah, to appreciate the excruciating pain of the first wave of exiled ancestors. Later descendants of these Babylonian Jewish exiles would come to live and prosper under the tolerance of the Zoroastrians. By contrast, those Judean Jews who remained behind would live under the Roman Empire, the Second Temple would be destroyed, Rome would become a Christian land called Palestinia, and Jewish power, though not presence, would be extinguished there until our own times.

The Early Sages–Initially, a Legend in Their Own Minds

Curiously, as Anton reminds us, contemporary scholarship teaches that academies like the one at Sura, were minor enclaves with little influence on the dominant Judaism of the third through fifth centuries CE. Yet their discussions, redacted into generations of material within the Talmud, would come to be foundational to the evolution of Judaism up to this day. Anton agreeably positions a number of traditional Jewish legal debates and principles within the family life of Hisda’s Daughter, allowing her to sit in and have us listen-in through her experience. Here is an example of how she incorporates the norm that during this time anyone who incurred debt might well have to sell themselves into slavery until having paid off that debt, even into the home of a prominent Jewish sage:

“I stared at the circle of maidservants sitting in the courtyard, grinding wheat in time to the songs they sang. It was grueling labor, twisting pestle against mortar from before sunrise through midday, until there was enough flour for all that day’s bread. Thought I had already thanked Elohim in morning prayers for not making me a slave, I thanked Him again.

The Mishna said that if a bride provides only one slave as her dowry, that slave grinds grain, bakes bread, and does laundry instead of the bride. And if she provides two slaves, the second one cooks and nurses the children. Apparently women too poor to bring even one slave as a dowry didn’t marry.

But Father told us that this Mishna was contradicted by a Baraita, which taught that a wife is only for beauty and for having children, and thus not for tasks like grinding and baking that could mar her appearance. I was surprised that he’d made no attempt to resolve the contradiction between the Mishna and Baraita, for if a wife was only for beauty, what happened to the women who brought less than four slaves as a dowry?” [page 24]

Finding and Creating Names for Jewish Women of Antiquity

Anton does us the mitzvah of zachor in creating Rav Hisda’s Daughter — researching, reclaiming and “re-membering” the little-recorded lives of Jewish women and girls retroactively into our people’s history. The volume title illustrates how even the names of those of female gender were rarely recorded in sacred text by the sages of patriarchal times; instead they were generically female–“daughter”–and labeled by paternal descent (unless only the mother’s line was known, such as due to rape in war).

Hisda and his wife or wives had two daughters and seven sons. So, one might wonder, which daughter does the Talmud mean when it offers the line upon which Anton hangs her tale of a girl who, when asked which of two young men she wants to marry, oddly answers “both.” Anton chooses to position both girls into our historical awareness by fashioning diverse destinies and personalities for each.

Maggie Anton (pictured to the left) provides evocative imagery, such as the “smell of boiling pomegranates,” the color and texture of silks, the tiling of mosaics with, yes, women’s images on synagogue floors, the fragrance of love, the scent of fear and the hormonal surge of having your feet washed by the one to whom you are betrothed, which brings us fully into each moment of the life of Rav Hisda’s daughter, whom Anton names Histadukh. In a cool bit of interpretation of the incantations and signage on bowls that were placed upside down to capture demons on the street in rabbinic times, Maggie Anton points out in her notes that the term “dukh-daughter” is appended to the name of the father to yield female names on these items and so dubs her main character, Rav Hisda’s daughter — Hisdadukh. This idea can also be bolstered, perhaps, by the practice found to this day in Iceland, where children’s last names go by the mother’s first name, e.g., Adam Goldieson, Karen Gertsdottir, etc. The Talmud itself offers an approach to naming females in an intra-textual commentary on the story of three types of women said to bring devastation to the world, where one alleged witch is named: “Yohani daughter of Retibi” (Maenads, Martyrs, Matrons, Monastics: A Sourcebook on Women’s Religions in the Greco-Roman World).

Rav Hisda’s Daughter joins the annals of great historical fiction beside Jewish examples such as Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent: A Novel, and Deena Metzger’s What Dinah Thought; the novels of Hayyim Grade also come to mind. Expect authentic period depth and delights when reading a work of historical fiction by Maggie Anton. Let’s hope the next in the Rav Hisda’s Daughter series comes through soon.