Friday, March 18, 2022

Pioneer: My life as a Second-Wave Jewish Feminist


I wasn’t thinking in halachic terms (in terms of Jewish religious law) at the time, but it made sense to me that, in a synagogue where women had equal rights, we should also have equal responsibilities, such as wearing a tallit .  It didn’t make any sense to me that the only female ever to wear a tallit at the SAJ, which hosted the first Bat Mitzvah celebration in the U.S. and may be the first then-Conservative synagogue to have become egalitarian, was a girl celebrating becoming a Bat Mitzvah.  So I decided to start wearing a tallit.  People there may have been startled, but no one was particularly offended.  Then I persuaded some of the women from the SAJ’s Women’s Consciousness-Raising Group to begin wearing tallitot.  Then I persuaded my oldest friend to begin wearing a tallit, which was really cool.  😊

Then we moved.

I wasn’t thinking in halachic terms at the time, but it just didn’t make any sense to me to stop wearing a tallit after I’d been wearing one for over a decade.  But I figured that it might not go over so well if I borrowed one of the synagogue's tallitot at a Conservative synagogue (in the 1980s), so I brought my own tallit to our new shul, and scandalized the entire congregation. 

To their credit, no one at our new (and now) synagogue ever asked me to take off my tallit.  But I certainly got stared at a lot, in the beginning.  Eventually, they got used to me, but I stood out like a sore thumb . . . for something like 25 years.  I was almost always the only woman at any service there who was wearing a tallit.  Later, as our son got old enough to be left alone at home, I began attending morning minyan occasionally, so I started wearing tefillin there, as well.  One of the old guys even tried to help me figure out how to put them on as a lefty.

I caught a lot of flack for insisting on leading Ashrei from the bimah instead of in front of the bimah, once women were finally authorized to lead Ashrei, which was a big deal for this synagogue.  Interestingly enough, it was mostly the women who protested, quite audibly, “There she goes, up on the bimah again.”  My husband said that the older woman may have taken my Jewish feminism as an insult to the way they were raised, as if the traditional Jewish role for women was not good enough.

Eventually, as the congregation shrank and moved to a smaller building, the decision was made to start counting women in a minyan.  I can’t even take credit for that change—we just ran out of men.  But I can take credit for having persuaded the Ritual Committee that what we were doing had no halachic justification.  “You can’t say that we have a minyan but that we don’t have enough people for a Torah reading.  From a purely halachic point of view, once you have a minyan, you automatically have enough people for a Torah reading.”  It was based on my argument that our synagogue finally became egalitarian.

I was so excited, heading to the shul on the Shabbat (Sabbath) morning after that vote and looking forward to being the first woman to have an aliyah on any day other than Simchat Torah (which we’d been “cheating on” for years).  But when we walked into the lobby, H.D. , who’s old enough to be my mother, was already there, as usual.  So I did the only right thing—without even clearing it with my husband, who was the Ritual Committee Chair and almost always gave out the aliyot, I walked over to H.D. and offered her Shlishi, the third aliyah.  (We still give the first aliyah to a Cohen and the second one to a Levi.)  I can’t even remember which aliyah I had that day.  😊  But it was cool that the other congregants insisted that any woman having an aliyah must wear a tallit.  And the best part was that our first Olah bought herself her first tallit a couple of months after that aliyah—she was in her eighties, at the time.  😊 

So that’s a good part of my legacy—I persuaded a number of women to begin wearing tallitot and I persuaded a traditional Conservative synagogue to become egalitarian.  No one will remember any of this, a hundred years from now, but I’m proud of being a Jewish feminist pioneer, and/or, as I've often called myself, an "inside agitator."


Blogger David Staum said...

I attend an Orthodox shul most of the time, but occasionally daven at our local conservative shul as well, including an occasional weekday minyan. While that conservative shul is fully egalitarian, something that struck me recently is that almost all the women wear a tallit, but NOT tefillin. While the men wear both. There's no policy, everyone's free to wear what they wish, I just found it surprising. Why not wear tefillin as well?

Fri Mar 18, 09:24:00 AM 2022  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Believe it or not, I've seen this with men, as well, in non-Orthodox prayer spaces. My best guess is that it's a combination of ease and cost--it's a lot easier to put on a tallit, and you don't have to own your own tallit, while tefillin, which aren't usually provided by a synagogue, usually cost over $100 per set.

Fri Mar 18, 09:36:00 AM 2022  

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