Esther's spokeswomen

Three ladies talk about what reading the megila means to them.

Purim 2014 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Purim 2014
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A crowd of women hurry through the doors of the Amishav community center in Petah Tikva and take their seats in the auditorium.
Two women stand, facing the audience, at a table where a handwritten megila lies.
They carefully unroll the parchment, then a woman’s beautifully modulated voice begins reading the text.
Vayehi biyemei Ahashverosh… the ancient tale unfolds.
The reader gives every listener time to savor the drama and the comedy and the tension-building, as Haman’s genocidal plot against the Jews comes within an inch of success. The voice of Queen Esther herself seems to ring out as she denounces him to the king: “A man who is a persecutor and an enemy: this evil Haman!” The energy in the room is entirely different from that produced by a man reading the megila. It’s warmer, more personal, although every word rings clear, as required by Halacha.
The reading is part of a growing movement where women choose to read Megilat Esther and other biblical texts. From Yeroham to Haifa, congregations are gathering to hear women read. Many are Orthodox groups reading for women only and some, which define themselves as egalitarian, read to mixed audiences. The impulse started with the Anglo community of American women, and today there are many groups that are 100-percent Sabras or immigrants from other countries.
The women take turns reading the text, each with her own accent and traditional melody. Some women were tutored by their husbands and some studied how to read with the help of recordings. In some places, a woman may simply read the text out loud. There isn’t one format but the idea has caught on, and women’s megila readings are becoming almost mainstream.
What drives this movement? Metro interviewed three women readers who live in the Center and the North: Helena Tibber, a British retired computer programmer, of Petah Tikva; Rachel Kessel, an American translator, and resident of Afula; and Hagit Kfir, an Israeli-born singersongwriter with two albums behind her. She has a master’s degree in music and teaches at a Petah Tikva school, Yeshurun. Currently, she and her husband are teaching a group of women in Givat Shmuel how to read the megila.
We asked each woman what motivates her to read Megilat Esther. All responded, some in the same words, that there’s more room for women in Jewish ritual than women traditionally take.
HELENA TIBBER: “I always attended Orthodox services and sat behind the mehitza [creen that divides the men’s section from the women’s] and listened to the men reading. But I wanted to participate more fully. Reading the megila satisfies this need. And in practicing the cantillation, rehearsing it again and again, I’ve had some insights into the text that no one taught me. For example, where certain tragic things are mentioned, such as Ahashverosh’s use of precious vessels at his feast, it refers to vessels looted from the destroyed Temple in Jerusalem. The melody changes there, it drops down sadly. It’s identical to the melody used in reading Eicha [Lamentations]. I do my best to make my audience aware of the text’s meaning, not just to hear it as a stream of words.”
RACHEL KESSEL: “On a personal level, reading the megila is an outgrowth of my need for more space in religious life.
Then, many women in this community don’t attend any services, and certainly weren’t hearing the megila before I began organizing women’s readings. You can call me a community activist. My husband works with at-risk teens, and community work rubbed off on me. My aim is to promote Jewish studies in Afula. I’m reaching out to groups that are isolated from the mainstream. I invite atrisk girls to the megila readings, and am trying to get the Russian women of the town interested, too. We aren’t a very big group yet. If 20 women come, I’m happy.”
HAGIT KFIR: “I’ve been reading the megila for women about 12 years. My husband tutored me; he’s a phenomenal, seasoned Torah reader. It’s just in my nature to take an active part in things that matter to me. To feel like I belong, I have to participate. Just sitting apart and listening isn’t me – it makes me feel distant from what’s happening. When I read the megila, it becomes mine.
For example, if I were traveling, a mere passenger in a car, I wouldn’t learn how to get to a place. If I take the wheel and drive, I would, in a way, possess the road and the destination. Reading the megila is the same. And it’s wonderful to know the cantillation in depth. It’s the punctuation of the text. Each pause and comma is important to the meaning, and the meanings become clearer over repeated readings. Each reading becomes, in a way, something I created.
“I love how in women’s readings, the readers face the audience, contrary to when we listen to men and see their backs. I also love that we have group readings. Every woman brings something individual to her reading, things that come out of her character and intention. When my daughters became bat mitzva age, I taught them how to read the megila. This is my biggest satisfaction.
Another thing that’s excellent about women’s readings is that it gives both husband and wife a chance to hear the megila in peace. Usually we plan our readings for an hour after the men have finished theirs. Then we can go and hear the megila without small children, without the noise of a crowd, and with more physical space in the room.”
Reading the text doesn’t come easy. It requires hours of rehearsal, because if one word is read incorrectly, it must be repeated until it’s said right, or the reading isn’t valid.
“At first, you’re only concerned that you won’t make mistakes,” says Kfir. “Over the years, your reading improves, with a little more emphasis here or there as appropriate; you read with more feeling. You become a part of it, as it becomes a part of you.”
Are you a woman who would like to read Megilat Esther to her congregation? JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, has an app for you. To learn the cantillations for reading the megila, go to Megillat_Esther_App. The app can be downloaded to your smartphone or tablet or can be used on the web with Chrome or Safari browsers. It also includes instructions on how to organize a megila reading, a halachic discussion of the sources for women’s reading of the megila, and a dvar Torah about the Book of Esther.