Sukkot, the feast of Tabernacles, our temporary hut holiday, is also the Great Jewish Guest-a-Thon. This year, with guests from our world banned, let’s welcome more guests from the mystical world. The Kabbalistic ushpizin custom – guests in Aramaic – welcomes one of Israel’s “seven shepherds” nightly: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and David. I challenge friends to my right: add ushpizot , female guests, to welcome women even more into tradition. Meanwhile, friends to my left should resist making your ushpizot contemporary figures like Ruth Bader Ginsburg — not out of disrespect for her, but to dig deeper into Jewish tradition: why always echo your trendiest impulses?
I’m thinking about this because I just stumbled onto a wonderful literary time capsule. Seeking a pre-Yom Kippur book, I opened Blu Greenberg’s 1981 On Women and Judaism: A View from Tradition .
Inside, I discovered eight newspaper clippings, one cartoon, one prayer, one envelope, and one pamphlet. My late mother Elaine Troy’s name and our Queens address were scribbled on the flyleaf – suggesting she had lent the book out. On the inside cover was a code: 47 50 55 63 67 68 69. These clues showed the feminist revolution finally breeching the conventional confines of my parents’ life in Hollis Hills – challenging them too.
The clippings included a review “Changing Traditions Seen as Positive in New Greenberg Book”; and a Newsweek column “Modern Woman’s Double Life” wondering: “Women have done much to correct lopsided pay scales, but what can we do about our lopsided lives?”
The cartoon had Mell Lazarus’s Momma’s hippie daughter asking: “Don’t you have a support system of women?” Momma sighs: “I used to … But… They all got emotional hernias.”
The prayer updated the Passover hymn “Dayenu ” – that would’ve sufficed – singing: “If our mothers had been honored for their daughters as well as for their sons… If Miriam were given her seat with Moshe and Aharon in our legacy, dayenu .”
The envelope postmarked March 20, 1985, from my mother’s friend Rita Hertz z”l contained two more prayers. One reworked the Eishet Chayil – woman of valor – prayer renamed “a Woman of Strong Character,” with lines like “She inspires confidence for her ability to manage her life in a full and protective way.” Rita also sent a lovely “Prayer of Thanks,” to read “As I Light the Shabbat Candles,” written by their friend Mira Clivner.
The pamphlet was a 38-pager by The American Jewish Committee, called “’Who Hast Not Made Me a Man’: The Movement for Equal Rights for Women in American Jewry.”
The “code” revealed my mother’s favorite pages from Greenberg’s book – including marked passages. The first quotation described their challenge: “Just as women are expanding their role in general society, so too Jewish women can expect to play a creative role in influencing rabbinic decisions for our time.”
Two others described what they were doing: “A large part of the responsibility for change lies with Jewish women who must articulate more openly and more clearly their own needs… There must be a flowering of women’s prayer….” And the fourth captured their shared vision: “an eternal Judaism will integrate and grow with such changes because these changes are wholly compatible with the spirit of the fundamental principle of Judaism – that every human being is created in the image of God.”
A model teacher-activist, Blu Greenberg was describing a phenomenon, nurturing it, and living it. These three Queens women, hitting their fifties like their heroine Blu, weren’t burning bras or busting up their lives. All four were supermoms. They defied the divorce revolution by staying married for 235 years (and counting: Blu and her husband Yitz are still going strong). Moreover, as families imploded around them, the four raised 13 equally-conventional children.
Nevertheless, they struggled, unlike either-or-ers, as pioneering traditionalists, to maintain the core values and defining structures of their delightfully-boring lives. Still, they needed more of a voice, more visibility, legitimacy, recognition. This time capsule suggests how these family-friendly-feminists kept their values while getting added-value as women.
Today, my mom’s role model Blu Greenberg is my cherished friend and mentor. I asked her to propose Ushpizot. Blu noted, shrewdly, that adding them is “a very nice, mild way to change the facts on the ground.” No zero-sum legal questions are involved, nothing’s being replaced. You simply add more learning to a lovely educational tradition.
Blu directed me to JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, which she founded in 1997, “to expand the spiritual, ritual, intellectual and political opportunities for women within the framework of Jewish law.” JOFA’s website proposed Eve, Sarah, Leah, Miriam, Deborah, Beruriah – the Talmudic sage — Ruth and Esther, or six legendary women educators, including Hadassah’s founder Henrietta Szold and the masterful Bible commentator Nechama Leibowitz. You can also go mystical, suggesting women paralleling the seven “shepherds’” Kabbalistic attributes: lovingkindness, might, harmony, eternal-victory, majesty, foundation, and sovereignty.
Ushpitzot , this“mild” addition, extends the runway, easing the overloaded airplane of tradition taking off in a new direction. The runway is long enough to avoid the abrupt climbs – then frequent crashes – characterizing many reforms.
A robust tradition requires creative preservation, so we remain guided by ancient wisdom in the modern world. While too many Orthodox Jews trash-talk change, too many reformers trash tradition. Better to learn from my four personal ushpizot who stretched constructively, innovating while always appreciating tradition – and God – as Mira Clivner still prays, “for making me live in a way that is fair.”
Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is the author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas , an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society and a 2019 National Jewish Book Award Finalist.. A Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University,and the author of nine books on American History, his book, Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, co-authored with Natan Sharansky was just published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.