February 26, 2020

Sarah’s Tent to Fete Feminist Scholar

Driving down Wilshire Boulevard about 35 years ago, Savina J. Teubal saw the bumper sticker that changed her life.

“It was one of those ‘Question Authority’ bumper stickers that were popular in the early ’70s,” she recalled. “Up until that point, I had been aware of the injustice in other people’s lives. It hadn’t occurred to me to ask questions about my own life.”

The 79-year-old Teubal considers herself a prime example “of what you can become if you do question authority.” A feminist scholar and innovator of Jewish ritual, Teubal will be honored on Aug. 28 by Sarah’s Tent, the organization she founded to promote creative Jewish spirituality.

The event, which will include an appearance by musician Debbie Friedman, will also kick off two initiatives in tribute to Teubal, who is ill with lung cancer. In Teubal’s name, Sarah’s Tent will both endow a chair for feminist Jewish scholarship at the Academy for Jewish Religion and present an annual Jewish Women Achievement Award. For Teubal, the chair is particularly important, “because there’s loads of feminist writings now, but not enough of them get taught,” she said.

Teubal has been hailed as being consistently on the cutting edge of feminism and spirituality. Whether it’s her books about the biblical Sarah and Hagar, or initiating The Mikveh Ladies ritual, which consisted of women gathering for honest, life-affirming discussion in her Santa Monica hot tub, Teubal “has always been so grounded in both scholarship and creativity,” said Marcia Cohn Spiegel, a writer and community activist.

“She’s also so encouraging and nurturing to other people,” she added. “What she’s done to push Jewish women forward is extraordinary.”

Born in Manchester, England, Teubal grew up in Buenos Aires. Her family belonged to an affluent, tight-knit community of Syrian Jews, and Teubal described having “an Arabic upbringing at home and a British upbringing at school.”

With her three older brothers, she received private Hebrew lessons, and remembers the day her father asked the tutor how his children fared.

“The teacher went into some rapture on an essay I had written about Abraham, and I remember my father saying, “Never mind the girl,'” she recalled.

Teubal’s parents did not allow her to attend college or pursue a career, so to leave home, she married and moved with her husband to England in 1953. That same year, she published a book of short stories in Spanish, the product of writing for years in her parents’ house.

“Writing was the one thing no one could stop me from doing,” she said in her crisp British accent, while sitting on the living room couch in her Santa Monica home.

While in England, Teubal and her husband divorced, despite her father’s threat to cut her off. To support herself, she worked as a chauffeur for several years, before relocating to Mexico and then to the United States. By the time she arrived in Los Angeles, “it was the 1960s, and my life took off,” she said.

Teubal dove headfirst into the “feminist revolution” and eventually became active in Beth Chayim Chadashim, the world’s first gay and lesbian synagogue. Increasingly, she found herself interested in religion and the ancient Near East.

To finally obtain a college education, Teubal enrolled in a university-without-walls program; she received her doctorate from International College at 41. This allowed her to be mentored by Rutgers scholar Raphael Patai, while doing coursework in Los Angeles.

Taking her dissertation a step further, Teubal published “Sarah the Priestess: The First Matriarch of Genesis” in 1984, followed by the 1990 “Hagar the Egyptian,” reprinted in 1997 as “Ancient Sisterhood: The Lost Tradition of Hagar and Sarah.”

She broke ground writing about biblical women long before Anita Diamant’s novel, “The Red Tent,” made the best-seller lists. But Teubal also helped develop new Jewish rituals. Most notably, her Simchat Hochmah, which she created in 1986 in honor of her 60th birthday, celebrated the transition from adult to elder. It has been adopted by women all over the country and became the subject of a documentary.

“I was upset with the way people treated old age, as if death doesn’t happen in America,” she said.

“Savina has dedicated her life to understanding and freeing women from the limitations that have been imposed upon them,” said Rabbi Miriam Glazer, a literature professor at the University of Judaism who’s known Teubal for 25 years. “She’s also a true, independent scholar who has the courage to go where her imagination leads her and the academic discipline to follow through.”

After years of informally gathering people together for Shabbat services, study sessions and experimental rituals, Teubal co-founded Sarah’s Tent with Rabbi Judith Halevy in 1994. The organization has attracted both men and women to classes, retreats and holiday celebrations. In the past few months, Teubal has received an outpouring of phone calls and e-mails from its members.

“I didn’t realize how many people I influenced until I got sick,” she said.

“I can look back and feel very proud of what I’ve done,” said Teubal, who is currently at work on a novel about the biblical Bathsheba. “Had I followed some other, more traditional path, I wouldn’t have been able to free my imagination.”

Sarah’s Tent will honor Savina J. Teubal on Sunday, Aug. 28, at 6:30 p.m. at Kehillat Israel, 16019 Sunset Blvd., Pacific Palisades. Tickets are $36. For more information, visit www.sarahstent.org.