In her able hands

Debby Flancbaum interviews women connected by a commitment to Judaism and improving the world.

woman next door 88 (photo credit: Courtesy )
woman next door 88
(photo credit: Courtesy )
The Jewish Woman Next Door: Repairing the World One Step at a Time By Debby Flancbaum Urim 135 pages; $21.95 'Eishet hayil mi yimtza?" - "Who can find a woman of valor?" asks King Solomon in Proverbs 31:10. In the view of Debby Flancbaum, author of The Jewish Woman Next Door: Repairing the World One Step at a Time, this is a legitimate question when it comes to American pop culture. In a world where the quintessential Jewish woman is stereotyped as "neurotic, overbearing and materialistic," Flancbaum asserts, such a heroine is indeed hard to find. So this Teaneck, New Jersey, wife and mother went looking elsewhere - right next door, as the title affirms - and came up with a montage of modern-day Jewish heroines who successfully blast apart the whiny-snoop myth and show that where real women are concerned, Torah values nearly always trump Hollywood fabrications. Her jumping-off point is tikkun olam - the Jewish concept of repairing the world. Choosing 10 mitzvot (commandments) connected to social activism, Flancbaum has compiled essays on 32 Jewish women who exemplify these mitzvot in their lives' work - be it through starting a women's yeshiva, like Machon Chana founder Sarah Labkowski; running a major charity organization, like Eileen Sklaroff, who heads the nearly 200-year-old Female Hebrew Benevolent Society (FHBS); or simply opening their homes freely to guests, like Albany resident Wendy Kay. Perhaps the most famous of Flancbaum's subjects is journalist Ruth Gruber, who accompanied nearly 1,000 refugees on their voyage to the United States in the summer of 1944. Undertaking the top-secret voyage under the Nazis' noses, Gruber provided moral support for these war victims and recorded their stories in her acclaimed book Haven. After their arrival in the US, Gruber went on to fight for their right to citizenship. Less famous is Rena Halpern Kieval, a bereaved mother who started a community organization dedicated to helping mourners cope with their losses. Kieval, a social worker, lost her 10-year-old son, who had struggled with a series of disabilities that plagued him since infancy. Rather than crush her into depression, the experience propelled her to found the Yad Yonatan organization in her son's memory and pursue chaplaincy at a New York medical facility. She was recently ordained as a rabbi. More personally, the author writes about her own grandmother, a housewife who had no formal education but who always made sure everyone who entered her home had something to eat. Flancbaum does not discriminate in her book between the importance of bringing Ethiopian Jews to Israel and that of performing hachnasat orhim, the mitzva of hospitality. The list, which goes on and on - longer than the book, in fact, as many more women were interviewed but could not be included for space reasons - boasts representatives of all ages and from various streams of Judaism. The book is notably nondenominational and non-judgmental, and the author only mentions each woman's brand of religious observance if it is relevant to the story. What ties all of the women together is a commitment to Judaism and making the world a better place. "Why do these women do what they do? What makes their endeavors uniquely Jewish?" Flancbaum asks in her introduction. "Often, even the most secular woman can trace her motivation to perform mitzvot to a Jewish value or experience first encountered in childhood. Perhaps it was something she studied in a Hebrew school text or absorbed by sitting at her grandmother's knee, but at some moment, the idea of doing an act of loving kindness emanated from a Jewish source." There are, of course, women who engage in more controversial realms of social action - a point that Flancbaum commendably acknowledges in her introduction to the book's final section, which focuses on rodef shalom, or the pursuit of peace. Centering particularly on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this section includes author and former Americans for Peace Now president Letty Cottin Pogrebin, who has joined dialogue groups between Jewish and Palestinian women, and Dr. Paula Rackoff of Israeli/Palestinian Physicians for Human Rights, who declares, "I believe that Jews have a right to the Land of Israel. But we are obligated to treat other people who live there with decency, and that doesn't always happen." The fact that this last section requires a disclaimer is food for thought; but the inclusion of these women in the book alongside activists for Israeli terror victims poignantly demonstrates the author's point that at the end of the day, these are all Jewish women trying their best to fix the world through the values set down in the Torah. Granted, the book could be more tightly written - the stories tend to meander and don't always tie themselves together at the end - and my copy, at least, could have benefited from a more thorough proofreading. However, this detracts very little from a project that was obviously a labor of love meant to engender (no pun intended) feminine Jewish pride and to highlight positive role models for Jewish women in the Western world. In this aim, Flancbaum succeeds marvelously.