Searching for the light switch

An anthology of day-to-day grappling with the religious experience of women.

cartoon girls 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
cartoon girls 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Bread and Fire: Jewish Women Find God in the Everyday Edited by Rivkah Slonim Urim 455 pages; $32.95 When Rivkah Slonim was a new bride, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, assigned her and her husband Aaron to serve as a bridge to Judaism on a large and important American university campus. The decision was unexpected. Rivkah Sternberg came from a hassidic family that could trace its roots at least as far back as the Maggid of Mezritch. She was a bit of a rebel, articulate and outspoken. Aaron Slonim had arrived from Israel, from a Hebron family, a bookish yeshiva student in a black suit. He didn't speak English. It worked out. The Binghamton campus of the State University of New York to which they were dispatched became one of the model outposts of Chabad's Jewish outreach. If Jewish campus life changed as a result of their presence, then campus life had its impact on Rivkah Slonim, who serves as the director of the Chabad House, a buzzing educational and social center where more than 300 students show up each Shabbat for her homemade hallot, hot meals and the opportunity to schmooze with the rabbi and rebbetzin. On this liberal, intellectual campus, even as Slonim explained and defended Judaism in light of the burgeoning feminism, she worried that women really did wind up with "the short end of the stick." And so on a visit back to New York City, she headed for the kitchen of her grandmother, who had played such a formative role in her life. When she opened the door, she found both grandparents: her grandfather, wrapped in his tallit and tefillin, completing his morning prayers and her grandmother concentrating on her prayers as she fulfilled the biblical commandment setting aside a portion of dough for halla. "Both were immersed in loving conversation with the Creator," writes Slonim. "Neither one of them was thinking about self-actualization or equal opportunity. They had achieved." But few of the women with whom Slonim has held heartfelt conversations over more than two decades have come to religion with such self-actualized role models or the inbred, intuitive, educated Judaism of a woman born into a hassidic dynasty. Slonim's new book, Bread and Fire, is an anthology of day-to-day grappling with the religious experience of women. The essays, with introductions by Slonim, make up a fascinating and eclectic collection of life slices, replete with seminal experiences and deep thinking, by women who live in Israel and the Diaspora. Some are better-known: Rachel Naomi Remen, Wendy Shalit, Sherri Mandell, Shoshana Cardin, but many are new, compelling voices you'll be glad to discover. Slonim has succeeded in her mission of making the anthology both intimate and panoramic. There are a few "I found the light" essays, but more are compelling accounts of searching for the light switch. Women talk frankly about shadowed areas of Jewish life. Marcia Schwartz's essay about her reaction to her youngest son trading in his motorcycle helmet for a yarmulke, Minna Hellet's story of her retarded son, Honey Faye Gilbert's description of the dissolving of her marriage give frank expression to painful subjects. Certain essays will appeal to beginners in Judaism, but much of the material will resonate for women with some basic Judaism under their belts. If you need to know something to get the subtlety of the argument, footnotes provide important glosses. One of my favorites is by Yocheved Reich who tells a story about a Jewish student transplanted from communism into a Jewish school in Brooklyn. Despite their lack of observance, her parents have lovingly carried her grandmother's candlesticks into the new world, and in an act of rebellion Yocheved decides to light them. "During the week I had surreptitiously gathered candles, matches and my grandmother's candlesticks. Furtively I made my way through the house to the one room where I would not be discovered. I thrust my package inside, and locked myself in the bathroom. I didn't know that it's improper to perform a mitzva in the bathroom." Her anguished parents assume she's smoking, hiding secrets and disgracing the family. So she owns up. "My mother, her eyes moist with relief, looked away in embarrassment. She rescued the candlesticks, rinsed them in the sink and after a minute's hesitation handed them back to me." I find myself going back to reread the personal piece by Liz Rosenberg, who is also the book's "consulting editor" (and the contributing editor of Slonim's previous book, Total Immersion: A Mikvah Anthology). She describes her last days with her father as he lay dying, finding soulful connectedness and comfort through a rich Judaism she mined as an adult. Miriam Luxenberg's telling of the loss of her first baby, interwoven like the strands of the halla she learned from a wise and kind woman, is much like the book itself - many individualistic strands that blend insight, knowledge and kindness into a delicious blend of heaven and earth. What is the relationship of Chabad to women's lives? The question is best answered by Susan Handelman, a Torah scholar and English literature professor at Bar-Ilan University. In "Putting Women in the Picture: A Personal Account of the Lubavitcher Rebbe's Attitude Towards Feminism," Handelman - a graduate of Smith College, where her commencement address was given by Gloria Steinem - shares the surprising and exhilarating experience of having the Rebbe personally edit articles she wrote for Di Yiddishe Heim, a journal published by the Chabad woman's magazine. She also details Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson's views. According to Schneerson, each generation further away from Sinai is also closer to the final redemption and messianic era. "And so, the Rebbe adds, we could say we have merited the increase in Torah study for women precisely because of that proximity: It is part of the preparation for - and already a taste of - redemption." This perspective, she says, paralleled his reinterpretation of the halachic obligations of women in the mitzva of Torah study, and within Chabad, his encouragement of their dramatically increased public participation in Chabad outreach activities. Slonim, a mother of nine, is among the best exponents of that work. She is unapologetic about God rather than the self being the point of departure in Jewish life. As she says: "Judaism is neither patriarchal nor matriarchal - it is covenantal." Don't skip her chapter introductions. If I have one complaint about the volume, it's that I didn't have more of her unique voice with its vast experience, wisdom and compassion. I look forward to it.