The only memory of my grandmother that my son, Eli, has retained, is an evening during Hanukkah when the two of them were creating delicious edible dreidels. Their ingredients included a chocolate kiss, a pretzel stick and a marshmallow for the body of the dreidel. You had to heat the Hershey kiss just enough to stick to the marshmallow, because too much heat would melt the candy, rendering the tip for “spinning” too shapeless. The mistakes were eaten with laughter while the Hanukkah lights burned low. Eli’s great-grandmother, Elsie Pearle of blessed memory, was in the business of creating Jewish memories, portable for the next generation. I often wonder if Nana felt closer to God as she folded us in close with Jewish rituals.
I am completing my first year in a Jewish spiritual leadership training program called Kohenet. If this word sounds familiar to you somewhere down deep, that would make sense, because it is the feminine of Kohen, the priests of the biblical era with a lineage stretching all the way forward to our here and now. With my cohort of emerging Kohenets, I research, pray with embodiment, create and sustain Jewish ritual, and even write as I am doing here, with a primary focus on the feminine. This focus has enjoyed a reemergence for the past few generations granting the stories and rituals that have helped Judaism survive, to become a bright light as we usher in new generations. Stories like the edible Hanukkah dreidel, and those tens of centuries farther back still, of Shifra and Puah, the Hebrew midwives of the Exodus, who saved our baby boys from unspeakable fates. They will take their firm place in our foundations.
I want to pause a moment, for you, my reader, and invite you to conjure up a potent memory of Jewish ritual or Jewish impactful experience made lasting by a woman. I’ll even invite you to “feel” into it with your body and explore your senses as you recall this memory. Was there a smell associated with it? What could you hear? Does this memory reflect chesed, the Hebrew word for kindness? As you relax into your scene, is your face finding an expression of contentment?
The history and feelings, as well as the words both spoken and unspoken by our matriarchs, are powerful. When you are looking for them in Torah, and our sacred scrolls, it is a treasure hunt like no other, for each trinket you find along your journey may bring you closer to the Almighty. If you were to pay close attention to our sacred texts and all of the Divine messaging — the men and women of our legacy — wouldn’t that make Adonai’s teaching become whole? Could your focus include not only the black ink the scribe penned with a quill to paint the Hebrew letters, but also your contemplation of the white spaces, as your imagination began a thoughtful narrative of all our first Jewish people? What roles did the women play if not seen as strongly in this ink?
I often fantasize about what it would have been like to be in the desert for some of those fabled 40 years with Moses at the helm. Although one can’t say for sure, I hope I would have been an Israelite woman who believed God was at my right hand and at my left. Could I have resisted taking off my earrings to donate for the making of the Golden Calf? Would I have danced like never before with Miriam as the Red Sea parted for us, and the waters protected us? I wish I could have tasted manna from heaven on my tongue.
I long to impart sacred Jewish moments to my grandchildren, and, candidly, to my great-grandchildren, should the Shekhinah continue to protect me beneath her nurturing wings. I could then impart Jewish wisdom as my grandmother was able to do for her great-grandson. My soul almost aches to have the opportunity for these l’dor vador moments. I would like to verbalize prayer with them in my newly acquired Hebrew tongue, and I pray some of the experiences could be about reflecting the Divine’s inherent good qualities back at the children, and wouldn’t it be something if some of those memories could be made up of a family minyan?
Like many of my “sisters” out there, I, too, want to have Jewish children and grandchildren, but I am certain that we have to go back all those hundreds of generations, to that wilderness, that bamidbar, to bring it forward to our children in its sacred entirety so that we can grow from a place of deeply rooted Judaism. I warmly invite you to join me on this holy exploration into the gifts and contributions of Jewish women throughout time.