Finding the sacred in the mundane
My grandparents were not big readers. Their English was slightly accented but fluent — they both left Poland in their early teens and came to America in the 1920s. But like many Orthodox Jews of their generation, when they had “leisure” time (although I’m not sure they knew the concept), it was spent reading Tehillim. They would sit at the table or on the bus or on the wooden bench outside their two-family brick house in Brooklyn chanting psalms from a weatherworn leather book.
Jewish presses hadn’t yet emerged as an industry, and the publishers at that time printed prayer books, Hebrew holy books and explications of the Hebrew holy books. Half a century later, the market was thriving for Jewish books in English: novels, kids’ books, poetry and non-fiction — clean and kosher enough for a religious, somewhat sheltered audience.
Now, following the latest publishing craze of themed Jewish anthologies comes “Bread and Fire: Jewish Women Find God in the Everyday” (Urim Publications, 2008), edited by Rivkah Slonim (with consulting editor Liz Rosenberg). The 400-page compilation features writings from 60 women on topics including modesty, faith, childbirth, prayer, family, community, feminism and, in one way or another, Orthodox Judaism.
“What can it mean to be a Jewish woman today? Does the Jewish tradition offer ways in which a contemporary woman can bring spirituality and meaning to her life? How and where does one begin in a practical way?” writes Slonim, a lecturer and Chabad shaliach, or emissary, of the Lubavitcher movement who works with her husband, Rabbi Aaron Slonim in Binghamton, N.Y. Slonim also edited “Total Immersion: A Mikvah Anthology” (Jason Aaronson, 1996, Urim, 2006).
“We all have moments of existential reflection. We might question why we are here. We might doubt our ability to make a difference, or despair of connecting to our inner self and to God,” she writes.
But this is not a book about existential reflection, doubt or inner despair. It’s not even a book about questions. It’s more of a collection of writings from people who have already found the answers. Some have had questions in their past — a number of the writers are ba’alei teshuva, or newly religious.
In Elizabeth Ehrlich’s essay “Seasons of the Soul,” on gradually becoming kosher over the course of a year, she writes: “Here are the things I have to give up: lobsters in New England, oysters sensually slithering down my throat, the French butcher. I give up calamari on Christmas Eve with a favorite friend, a traditional meal that links her to her Italian grandparents, and thus connects me to my friend’s childhood. I sacrifice bacon at my aunt’s house, crisped and greaseless beside a home-baked corn muffin, forgo Western omelets at diners I once loved to frequent. I give up being able to eat comfortably anywhere, able to make casual assumptions. It is like being an immigrant, maybe; never quite feeling at home.”
There’s the famous modesty queen Wendy Shalit, in a excerpt from her book “A Return To Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue,” on her fascination with “modestyniks” — her word for young single women raised secular who decide to become religious, wear long skirts and abstain from touching men until marriage.
There’s also Jan Feldman’s essay, “How a Daughter of the Enlightenment Ends Up in a Sheitl”: “I began to take on mitzvot sequentially in a way that appeared rational, at least to me, though perhaps irrational to others,” she writes.
First Feldman focuses on family purity and mikvah, then starts keeping kosher and finally becomes shomer Shabbat. When she and her family moved to Montreal, she decided to cover her hair, first with a tichel (kerchief) and later with a sheitl (wig).
“Donning a sheitl represented the seriousness of my commitment to Hashem,” she writes. “The sheitl will continue to be a symbol of beauty and controversy, but mostly, it will continue to be a source of blessing.”
Most of the notes of controversy — on covering hair, being modest, keeping kosher — while mentioned, are explained away in each essay. But that’s OK; these are women who have chosen to lead a religious lifestyle and to air their thoughts and feelings on subjects by which they are disturbed (Passover cleaning), pained (circumcision), inspired (chevra kadisha, or burial preparation) and awed (birth).
“Birth transforms the birthing couple and their caretakers. Meeting the dangers with awe, stepping out of our normal realms of control into God’s vast and magnificent dance, can renew all involved,” Tamara Edell-Gottstein writes in “Birthing Lives.”
This is an anthology for anyone interested in religion, in the religious experience, in a community of women who have chosen to live differently from the norm. Varda Branfman, for example, in “The Voice of Tehillim,” writes that during her first year in Jerusalem she was “peeling off the layers of my American cultural identity until I was left with what I had been all along, a Jew.” She discovered a custom of saying the psalm that corresponds to the number of years one has lived. At 29, she recited psalm 30:
“Hashem, my God, I cried out to You and You healed me. Hashem, you have raised up my soul from the lower world, You have preserved me from my descent to the pit…. Hashem my God, forever I will thank You.”
Perhaps this is what my grandparents had been doing all that time — they were reciting Psalms, although I am not sure they’d have been able to express it in Branfman’s words: “Even before we begin to say them, the act of taking the Tehillim down from the shelf returns us to the calm at the center of the storm. By saying these words, we climb into a lifeboat that carries us beyond this moment, beyond peril, beyond our finite lives.”