Women and Torah: Masking words

Especially during this time of year, when many of us disguise ourselves for the holiday of Purim, the idea of masks is usually associated with people. Even in politics and everyday life, we talk of people masking their real intentions or hiding behind a façade.

But in Judaism, and in particular the study of holy texts, words hide as well.

In fact, it’s hard to enjoy a talmudic or midrashic text without appreciating this very idea: It’s what’s behind the text that’s really interesting.

I got a taste of this at a class I attended recently at Limmud NY.

It’s worth reading the full text of midrash we studied:

“A story of R. Akiba’s son when he married. How did he conduct himself? After his wife entered the nuptial chamber with him, he stayed awake the whole night, reading in the Torah and studying Haggadot. He said to her: ‘Fetch for me a lamp and light it’: and she fetched a lamp for him and kept it lighted for him the whole night. Standing by his side, she held the light for him.

“He opened the scroll, and he unrolled it from the beginning to end, and from end to beginning, and all night she remained standing, holding the light for him until dawn came. At dawn, R. Akiba approached his son and asked him: ‘Is she well found or ill found?’ and his son replied: ‘She is well found.’ Hence, Who so finds a wife finds a great good.”

Yes, it’s hard to imagine a more chauvinistic text.

Seriously, is this how you treat your wife on your first night of marriage? You ask her to hold a lamp all night so you can study Torah?

Even worse, this harsh treatment seems to be a test of whether the bride will be a good wife or not, as suggested by the groom’s response to his father in the morning: “She is well found.” In other words, she’s the right woman because she obeyed me like a slave!

I found this “mask” of chauvinism so obviously distasteful that I couldn’t imagine a positive interpretation, and I nearly left the class. 

But I was also intrigued, so I stayed, encouraged perhaps by the fact that our teacher was a woman.

The class itself was titled “Feminist Religious Education: How Should We Do It?” and was led by Renana Ravitsky Pilzer, the head of the Beit Midrash at Jerusalem’s Hartman High School for Girls.

Pilzer is one of the founders of the well-known Shira Hadasha feminist Orthodox congregation in Jerusalem and is pursuing a doctorate in Midrash and Gender at Bar-Ilan University. She had a sweetness about her that was dissonant with the harshness of the text.

Slowly, methodically, gently, with the mind of a surgeon and the heart of an artist, quoting commentators and studying the hidden meaning of words, she “turned and turned” the text over until she unmasked its ugliness to reveal holiness.

First, there was context: The son was rebelling against his famous father, who had left his wife for years to study Torah. When the son said, “She is well found,” he conveyed this message: “Unlike you, Father, I don’t have to leave my wife to study Torah.”

Then, there was the idea that Torah learning on that first night together was a shared experience — they were both learning. One interpretation quoted by Pilzer went as far as to say that the wife herself was teaching her husband, by “lighting the way.”

Underlying the whole text is the notion that a marriage needs shared ideals and a common pursuit in order to succeed.

The consummation of this marriage, the text suggested, started with God’s Torah. By making clear that they would both serve the Torah with equal passion and dedication, the husband and wife could now serve each other.

Now, you can be a cynic and call this a positive spin — which was my inclination.

But, the way Pilzer explained it, this trusting embrace of the text, this giving of the benefit of the doubt that precedes sharp inquiry, is itself a crucial part of the learning.

As you dive into midrashic or talmudic texts, it’s as if you’re entering a giant Purim party, where you encounter a million disguises that must be turned over and over to uncover an essential teaching of meaning and goodness.

Maybe this is why Jewish texts have lasted for thousands of years. These are not self-help texts that lay out “the 10 steps to a happy marriage,” which you forget the minute you’ve finished reading them. It’s one of the ironies of language that in the area of life lessons, clarity, which demands so little of us, is overrated.

Clarity is certainly not a virtue of Jewish texts. Because so many of our teachings are circuitous and opaque, they invite the student to invest great energy in order to decipher and understand the meaning. 

My experience at the Limmud class taught me another lesson: We need more women to teach Talmud and midrash. The text, on the surface, was so problematic and “anti-women” that I might not have stayed had we not been studying with a woman.

Just as Rabbi Akiba’s son needed his bride to “light the way,” we need women to help light our way, as well. 

Chag Purim Sameach

Trick or tweet: Anthony Weiner and Bernie Madoff Halloween masks

Are Halloween masks of Jews in the news a trick or just a new treatment?

With a new latex mask of disgraced former Rep. Anthony Weiner now selling alongside that of convicted swindler Bernie Madoff, I wonder: In some weird way, have American Jews entered a new era of awful acceptance?

What will people think if a Weiner or Madoff shows up at their door on Halloween? Will they identify these masks first by religion or indiscretion? Are these pop culture masks good for the Jews?

Through rubbery eye holes, they do allow a more evolved view.

Unlike other eras of American products, such as 19th century racially offensive castiron toy banks, today there is no exaggeration of features or ethnicity, the threesome’s noses are not elongated or hooked. They simply stare back at us as a new kind of pumpkin head, hollow objects of ridicule who happen to be Jewish.

OK, so they’re not bad for the Jews. But are these masks goods for the Jews? Would a Jewish person in particular want to wear them? On Purim, we still dress as Mordechai or Esther—the heroes. But in an era about three posts past irony, would we now choose instead to masquerade as a villain who is Jewish?

For a darkside Jewish mask, there is no need to revise characters from an ancient scroll—say, a leery-eyed Mordechai, or a wet T-shirt contest winner Esther—when we can look to Jewish personalities pulled from the book of today.

The Weiner costume—produced by Ricky’s, a costume superstore chain in New York that also sells online—includes a mask and an optional pair of boxers from which a pair of latex testicles hang out. Kirsten Slotten, who works for a publicity firm representing Ricky’s, tells JTA that the Weiner get-up “is one of the most popular costumes.” The company is marketing the costume along with versions of Charlie Sheen and Arnold Schwarzenegger as a trio dubbed “The New Stooges.”

Costume dealers say that sales of Bernie Madoff masks are way down in 2011.

The Weiner costume is “quite controversial,” says Marc Beige, whose 60-year-old competing costume company, Rubie’s, took a pass on the outfit.

“We sell to mainstream America like Wal-Mart,” Beige said. “We did not feel that it would be that popular.”

Noting that some New Yorkers still feel that Weiner was an effective congressman, Beige added, “Nobody’s perfect. He’s a human being.”

Rubie’s, along with Ricky’s and other companies, are also marketing a Charlie Sheen costume. The mask—a good-enough likeness of the former “Two and a Half Men” star in the Ricky’s version—comes with an optional T-shirt emblazoned with words and phrases Sheen made infamous, including “winner” and “tiger’s blood.”

Not included: Sheen’s “goddesses.”

In attempting to deflect claims of anti-Semitism, the Hollywood meltdown warlock claimed to have Jewish roots on his mother’s side. So can we count his costume along with the Weiner and the Madoff?

Either way, Beige said, “religion never comes up” when the staff at Rubie’s discusses the appropriateness of a potential costume.

As for mask sales of the tragic Madoff, “That’s pretty much over,” he said.

Wondering about the Jewish identity of the people behind the masks, I asked Beige (who is Jewish) if any of his friends ever thought it odd that he was in the Halloween business.

“No, that’s never come up. I think over 50 percent are Jewish,” said Beige, noting that the company also has a branch and catalog in Israel.

“When you think about it,” he adds, “this business is one part Hollywood, one part garment business, one part toys—all businesses where you find a lot of Jews.”

Anthony Weiner mask ($24.99, from Ricky’s), “Just hanging around” boxers ($19.99, from Ricky’s)

Madoff mask ($22-$30 from various online vendors)

Charlie Sheen adult costume kit, shirt and mask ($20 from Rubies, adult sizes only)

Know of a product that might be good for “Goods for the Jews”? Please send to Edmon Rodman at edmojace@gmail.com.

Unmasking Purim’s Heroes — and Ourselves

Who needs Halloween or Mardi Gras? On Purim, themasquerade of characters is lively and intriguing: Spangled Vashtis,bearded Mordechais, snarling Hamans, bejeweled Esthers, silk-robedAhasueruses.

The secret of Purim, however, is to see beyond themasks. Purim’s noise and noshing is great fun, but the holiday alsounveils the story of character and courage. For us, too, Purim can bea time to strip away external masks in order to find the strengthsthat lie within us. The heroes and villains of Purim can lead theway:

Vashti: Once the stereotype of a vixen, Vashti isno longer perceived as the siren of the Purim story. Instead, she’sbecome a feminist hero who refuses to flaunt her beauty for theking’s entourage. One in a long line of women, from the Talmudicscholar Beruriah to Rosa Parks, Vashti stands up for her convictionsin order to preserve her integrity.

Esther: Esther might seem like a meek andmalleable young thing who does her Uncle Mordechai’s bidding, but shediscovers a strong sense of identity along the way. Beauty contestsaside, without a mature understanding of herself and the meaning ofher Judaism, she could not have taken the risks she did. It wasn’teasy being Jewish in Persia, but Esther proudly announced herJewishness to save her people.

Take a bold step this Purim. Reveal your Jewishself. Take on a ritual you may be afraid of or embarrassed ofbeginning. Take one step toward keeping kosher. Recite “Kiddush” onShabbat. Enroll in a Hebrew class or an Israeli dance course. Learnhow to lift or dress the Torah.

Mordechai: Mordechai’s combination of fearlessnessand faith in God enables him to rise above the Persian politicianswho indulge themselves and lose sight of the larger good. Mordechainever puts his ego above his convictions or forgets the suffering ofhis people. No matter what the consequences are, he holds steadfastto his beliefs, refusing to bow down to Haman, putting on sackclothto mourn the decree of destruction for the Jews of Persia, andremaining humble even when paraded through the streets ofShushan.

We, too, need to help uproot suffering. Because ofthe comforts our own lives may offer, it takes courage to stand upand call attention to the suffering of others. But communities aroundthe world still suffer — whether they are Jews in Argentina orneighbors in our own cities. Infused with the spirit of Mordechai, wecan stop standing by in silence.

Ahasuerus: From Ahasuerus and Haman, we learn hownot to behave. The king of Persia is a roly-poly, wishy-washy partyanimal who relegates power to unsuitable advisers. He surroundshimself with luxuries and vices that mask the real priorities: theneeds of his family and subjects.

Purim can be a time for us to re-evaluate ourpriorities in order to find the cherished jewels in our own kingdoms.Let’s reinterpret the name of the holiday as a true “feast of lots”– not in the gambling sense but in terms of how much we have. Fromthe uniqueness of our children to the sweet simplicity ofhamantaschen, we have “lots” to celebrate.

Haman: As for Haman, he hangs on to his prejudicesuntil they catch up with him and make headline — excuse the Purimpun — noose. We can all do something to stop bigotry or hatred. Takea friend to visit a Holocaust museum. Tell a non-Jewish neighbor thestory of Purim, and explain how much it means to live in a world offriendship and forgiveness.

Happy Purim!

Rahel Musleah is a free-lance journalist andthe co-author, along with Rabbi Michael Klayman, of “SharingBlessings: Children’s Stories for Exploring the Spirit of the JewishHolidays” (Jewish Lights).

The Almanac

Purim 5758: The Jewish Journal’s User-Friendly Guide


As told in the biblical Book of Esther, the Purimstory recounts how Haman, the chief minister to King Ahasuerus,plotted to destroy the Jews of Persia. In Shushan, capital of Persia,Haman cast lots (purim) that fixed the date of the Jews’ doom to 13 Adar. Esther,the King’s Jewish wife, was spurred on by her cousin Mordechai tointercede on the Jews’ behalf. The Jews were saved, Haman hanged, andPurim became a festival for rejoicing.


Ahasuerus has been identified with Xerxes I, whoruled Persia from 486 to 465. The first observance of Purim datesfrom the Hasmonean period, but scholars have long debated thehistorical basis for the Purim story.


* Attend synagogue services on Purim eve (March11) for the raucous reading of the Book of Esther from a handwrittenscroll, or megillah.

* Enjoy one of the numerous Purim carnivals aroundtown (see the accompanying listing). Eat a festive meal.

* Give mishloahmanot. According to Jewish law, we give agift consisting of food items to at least one friend, and at leasttwo gifts of charity to the poor.


* Groggers: Noisemakers used to drown out the nameof Haman during the reading of the megillah.

* Costumes: Children from 2 to 92 traditionallydress up as characters from the Purim spiel or in other outlandishget-ups. Groggers, masks and costumes areavailable at Jewish gift stores.


Hamantaschen:Triangular fruit-filled pastries, called “Haman’s Ears” in Hebrew.Make your own or stop by any Jewish bakery.

* Liquor: It’s customary for Jews to drink onPurim until we can’t tell the difference between evil Haman and goodMordechai. Enjoy in moderation, and don’t even think of drivingafterward.


Purim celebrates Jewish survival, but it alsovenerates Jewish laughter (see page 49).


Nowhere in the Book of Esther is God mentioned.Some scholars believe the book itself is a kind of Purim joke.


“The Harlot by the Side of the Road” by JonathanKirsch is an exploration of Esther’s racier side.

“The Jewish Way” by Irving Greenberg

“Purim: Its Observance and Significance” by AvieGold

News Flash!

Beyond Baby GAP…Way Beyond

Where do you gowhen you want a really warm cardigan in subtle earth tones? Or theperfect housedress in a bold floral print? From now on, you’ll go toBubby GAP. Joining its cousins Baby GAP and GAP Kids, the first BubbyGAP stores opened simultan-eously last week in Miami, Palm Beach andon Fairfax Avenue.

Designed to appeal to the over-60s set, BubbyGAP’s clothes come with their own ad campaign (see photo), featuringreal-life bubbies and zaydies. “Let’s face it, the boomers are aging,” said a GAPspokesman, “but as long as their checks clear, we’ll have clothes forthem.”

Bubby GAP will go other company outlets one stepfurther, carrying gourmet rugelach (in sun-dried tomatoand jalapeño flavors), crocheted trivets and prepaidlong-distance phone cards to send to GAP children and GAPgrandchildren — if they should ever think to call.


There’s a new letter in town. Dreamworks SKG, thewunder-studio headed by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg andDavid Geffen, has just announced it will add Jewish JournalContributing Editor Tom Tugend to its partnership. The new companywill be called Dreamworks SKGT. At a press conference last week,Spielberg and Tugend (above) celebrated their partnership. “Tom knowseverything that’s happening two days before it happens,” said thedirector, “and he can write about it faster and better than anyone Iknow.” Tugend said now that he is a full partner at SKGT, he plans tospend most of his time playing doubles tennis, hanging out with hisgrandchildren and reading good novels.

Hard Work

At Temple Nerot, they’re washing dishes. AtCongregation Chaim, they’re dusting furniture. At Temple Beth Ohr,they’re mopping floors. Just who’s doing the dirty work? Parents.It’s all part of an innovative new program called “Scrub 4 School,”initiated last month by the Bureau of Jewish Education. The programenables parents to work off part of the cost of their children’sday-school tuition by doing a variety of menial chores in areasynagogues.

“It’s saving us a bundle,” said Cindy Simons. Afilm editor by day, she and husband Jim, a lawyer, don dungarees atnight to mop wine spills and challah crumbs at Temple Beth Ohr’ssocial hall. With two children in Jewish day schools at $7,000 perchild, the Simons found themselves in financial straits — untilScrub 4 School. Twenty parents are involved with the program, which,said one organizer, “finally makes Jewish day schoolaffordable.”

Said Jim Simons, “We’ll do anything for our kids.”Anything? “Well,” he corrected himself, “we don’t do windows.”

Bay Cities Jewish CommunityCenter, (310) 828-3433: street carnival,Sun., March 8, 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 21st St., south of Olympic Blvd.,between Michigan and Pennsylvania.

  • Beth Shir Shalom, 1827 California Ave., Santa Monica. (310) 453-3361: carnival, Sun., March 15, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
  • B’nai Ami Synagogue, (818) 700-4732: parade and megillah reading, Wed., March 11, 6:30 p.m.
  • B’nai Tikvah Congregation, 5820 W. Manchester Ave., Westchester. (310) 645-6262: megillah reading, Wed., March 11, 7:30 p.m., and Thurs., March 12, 9:30 a.m.; carnival, Sun., March 15, noon.
  • Chabad of the Conejo, (818) 991-0991: megillah reading and presentation with hypnotist Mark Prines, Wed., March 11, 6:30 p.m., Agoura High School, 28545 W. Driver Ave.; services, Thurs., March 12, 6:30 a.m. and 9 a.m., 30345 Canwood St., Agoura Hills.
  • Chabad of the Marina, 2929 Washington Blvd., Marina del Rey. (310) 578-6000: party and megillah reading, Wed., March 11, 7 p.m.
  • Congregation Am Hayam, (805) 656-6634: service geared for children, Wed., March 11, 6:30 p.m., Oxnard Monday Club, 1401 W. Gonzales Rd., Oxnard; traditional service, Thurs., March 12, private home.
  • Congregation Shaarei Tefila, 7269 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 938-7147: Purim seudah, Thurs., March 12, 5 p.m.
  • Congregation Shaarei Torah, 550 S. Second Ave., Arcadia. (626) 445-0810: pageant and brunch, Sun., March 8, 11 a.m.; carnival, Sun., March 15, noon.
  • Etz Jacob Congregation, 7659 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 938-2619: megillah reading, followed by magician Allen Oshiro, Wed., March 11, 6:30 p.m.
  • Hollywood Los Feliz Jewish Community Center, 1110 Bates Ave., Los Angeles. (213) 663-2255: carnival, Sun., March 15, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
  • Kabbalah Learning Center, 1062 S. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 657-5404: children’s show and carnival, Sun., March 8, 10:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; costume ball and megillah reading, Wed., Feb. 11, 7 p.m.
  • Kehillat Israel, 16019 Sunset Blvd., Pacific Palisades. (310) 459-2328: megillah reading, Wed., March 11, 7 p.m.; carnival, Thurs., March 12, 4-8 p.m., Santa Monica Pier.
  • Kol Tikvah, 20400 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills. (818) 348-0670: carnival, Sun., March 8, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
  • Noah’s New York Bagels, 21917 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills. (818) 999-9577: “Shmooze and Shmear,” Sun., March 8, 8-11 a.m.; festival, noon-5 p.m. Percentage of sales donated to Temple Kol Tikvah.
  • North Valley Jewish Community Center, 16601 Rinaldi St., Granada Hills. (818) 360-2211: carnival, Sun., March 15, 10:30 a.m.-4 p.m.
  • Ohel David, 7967 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 938-2619: seudah with Grand Rabbi Eliezer, Thurs., March 12, 6 p.m. RSVP.
  • Ohr HaTorah, (310) 278-9049: megillah reading and party, Wed., March 11, 7:30 p.m., Redeemer Baptist Church, 10792 National Blvd., Los Angeles.
  • Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, 10500 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood. (310) 475-7311: megillah reading, party and carnival, Wed., March 11, 6 p.m.
  • Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood. (310) 474-1518: “Purim Mania ’98,” carnival games, costumes, petting zoo, Sun., March 8, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; megillah reading, Wed., March 11, 6:30 p.m.
  • Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4636: “Purim Pandemonium” grogger making workshop, Sun., March 8, 2 p.m. Advanced reservations suggested.
  • Temple Akiba, 5429 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 398-5783: megillah reading and festival, Sun., March 15, 9:30 a.m.-2 p.m.
  • Temple Aliyah, 6025 Valley Circle Blvd., Woodland Hills. (818) 346-3545: carnival, Sun., March 8, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; megillah reading and costume parade, Wed., March 11, 6:30 p.m. (early childhood service), 7:30 p.m. (congregational service).
  • Temple Beth Am, 1039 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 652-7353: Purim carnival, Sun., March 8, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.; megillah reading and costume parade, Wed., March 11, 7 p.m.
  • Temple Beth Emet, 1770 W. Cerritos Ave., Anaheim. (714) 772-4720: megillah reading, Wed., March 11, 6:30 p.m.; services, Thurs., March 12, 7 a.m.; Purim party, Sun., March 15, 4 p.m.
  • Temple Beth Haverim, (818) 991-7111: carnival, Sun., March 15, 11 a.m.-4 p.m., Willow Elementary School, 29026 Laro Drive, Agoura Hills.
  • Temple Beth Ohr, 15721 Rosecrans Ave., La Mirada. (714) 521-6765: megillah reading and festivities, Su
    n., March 15, 10:30 a.m.

  • Temple Emanuel Community Day School, 300 N. Clark Drive, Beverly Hills. (310) 288-3737: carnival, Sun., March 8, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
  • Temple Etz Chaim, 1080 Janss Rd., Thousand Oaks. (805) 497-6891: carnival, Sun., March 8, noon-3 p.m.; services, Wed., March 11, 7 p.m.
  • Temple Isaiah, 10345 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 277-2772: carnival, Sun., March 15, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.
  • Temple Israel of Hollywood, 7300 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 876-8330: Purim family service, “Purim Under Water,” Wed., March 11, 6:30 p.m.; carnival, Sun., March 15, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
  • Temple Judea, 5429 Lindley Ave., Tarzana. (818) 758-3800: Purim family picnic, Wed., March 11, 6:30 p.m.; service, 7:15 p.m.
  • Temple Mishkon Tephilo, 206 Main St., Venice. (310) 392-3029: megillah reading and celebration, Wed., March 11, 7 p.m.
  • Temple Ner Maarav, 17730 Magnolia Blvd., Encino. (818) 345-7833: carnival, Sun., March 8, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
  • Temple Ner Tamid, 10629 Lakewood Blvd., Downey. (562) 861-9276: carnival, Sun., March 8, 11 a.m.; service, Wed., March 11, 7:30 p.m.
  • Temple Ramat Zion, 17655 Devonshire St., Northridge. (818) 360-1881: “mini megillah reading” for pre-school children, Wed., March 11, 6 p.m.; reading for everyone else, 7 p.m.
  • University Synagogue, 11960 Sunset Blvd., Brentwood. (310) 472-1255: carnival, Sun., March 15, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
  • University Synagogue, 4915 Alton Pkwy., Irvine. (714) 654-2720: services, Wed., March 11, 7 p.m.
  • Valley Cities Jewish Community Center, 13164 Burbank Blvd., Sherman Oaks. (818) 786-6310: masquerade ball, Sat., March 7, 8 p.m.; carnival, Sun., March 15, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.
  • West Valley Jewish Community Center, 22622 Vanowen St., West Hills. (818) 587-3300: carnival, Sun., March 15, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.
  • Westside Jewish Community Center, 5870 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 938-2531: carnival, Sun., March 8, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
  • Westwood Village Synagogue, 900 Hilgard Ave., Westwood. (310) 470-0080: “The History of Purim,” following services, Sat., March 7.
  • Yeshiva of Los Angeles, 9760 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 553-4478: lectures on Purim with Rabbi Sholom Tendler, Sun., March 8, 9:30 a.m.; and Rabbi Yonatan Peisach, 10:45 a.m.
  • Young Israel of Beverly Hills, 8701 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 470-3644: performance with comedian and “Tonight Show” writer Marvin Silvermintz, Wed., March 11, 8:30 p.m.