Until The Women Dance

 If, like me, you are just catching your breath after Simchat Torah, you know the exhilaration, even the transformative power of communal dancing.

 Dance has always been an integral part of Jewish life: from King David dancing in ecstasy in front of the ark to the courtship dances of Tu B’av, from the harvest circles of Sukkot to the victory dances of biblical women. An early prototype is Miriam leading the women of Israel in a dance of gratitude after the exodus from Egypt and crossing of the Red Sea. When the rabbis ask why Miriam had to bother with her dance when the people had just offered up a lengthy song of praise, the Midrash comments, “The liberation is not complete until the women dance.”

 Yet, women – here, in Israel and round the world  – are finding that their liberation is far from complete.

 Just some ten months ago …

 Ultra-orthodox men spat on young girls who were on their way to school in a small town called Beit Shemesh.  My friend Miri Shalem, who was already a community organizer for the town’s women, responded: Within a week, seemingly out of nowhere, a flash mob of hundreds of women appeared to dance together in the public square. Just like her namesake Miriam, Miri’s dance made history. The dance went viral and life was never the same again. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pZd0kLWP01c

 And today…

 Miri’s new organization called Women Dance For a Change produces flash dances on demand in response to important women’s rights issues. Like Miriam’s archetypal dance, this is a round that is open to all. 

 Change begins with the participants – women who dance assume instant agency over their own bodies – some for the first time in their lives. Caught off guard by the upbeat “spontaneous” phenomena, spectators have to reconsider the banishment of women from public space. Without inflammatory rhetoric, without a single placard, women reclaim the public space simply by appearing there with energy, impact and joy. 

 I’m helping Miri grow the movement because it resonates with everything I care about. We are up and running, planning two more Israel-based events before the end of the year.         


Please like us, friend us and stay tuned for more liberation dance events near you

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Rosh Hashanah Trilogy

1. Sarah’s Choice

One recent summer weekend, my life — or my awareness of its imperatives — underwent a radical shift. My 28-year-old son was away at the beach with friends. He promised to be home early on the Sunday morning. But by noon he has not called or answered any of my phone messages. My mind spins off into a nightmare scenario of its own: He is at a beach known for its rip-tides, he always calls, every summer someone drowns on this beach, he might not have been cautious, why has he not made contact, there is no other plausible reason. And in an instant I slip from an anxious parental snit into an entirely altered state. I am the mother undergoing the ultimate sacrifice.

When 40 minutes later my son does call, expressing astonishment at my degree of alarm, I snap back to the present moment. I am utterly drained, yet eerily, profoundly calm. Out there in “the real world” nothing remarkable has happened. Yet, the day I dread my son drowned has provided me with a knowing as real as it is unreal, as potent as it is elusive. It has left me both shattered and oddly affirmed.

This nightmare trance leaves in its wake a new, visceral awareness: So much of our psychic energy is spent in denial of the ultimate realities. We love and we lose, we live and we die; but most days we do anything we can to dull awareness of these enormities. But on that day, I had a tiny glimpse of surrender to the inevitable. It was as liberating as it was chilling.

Abraham and his son Isaac walk side by side to the mountaintop where Isaac is to be bound and slaughtered at God’s command. The Biblical story of the akeda is considered the central text in the formation of our spiritual consciousness. This year I understand it from the depths of an experience of my own. Like Abraham, I lived out a scenario composed of inner fears involving loss of that which is most precious. Abraham was awakened from his nightmare by the voice of an angel; the ringing of the phone brings me back from mine. We both experience a transcendent moment, one that marks a new phase of our spiritual journey.


Right after the akeda, Isaac’s mother Sarah dies. The commentator Rashi explains that Sarah could not survive the shock and disorientation of her son’s almost… almost sacrifice. Sarah is not led to believe that her son has actually died, only that he came exceedingly close. What exactly is the shock that causes Sarah’s soul to fly out of this world?

Like most mothers, Sarah is fiercely dedicated to protecting her son from even remote possibilities of harm. She operates under a familiar maternal illusion that if only she takes care of every contingency she can keep her child safe. When Sarah receives the news of what very nearly was the outcome of Abraham’s early morning outing to the mountaintop, she is forced to move out of her carefully constructed world.

Bible scholar Avivah Zornberg tells us Sarah is invaded by “a sense of radical doubt.” Sarah glimpses of the existential vertigo “of not being able to preserve one’s being…. Not being able, from one minute to the next to live longer than is destined.” Zornberg goes on to say that Sarah “dies of this radical angst.”  Perhaps because of her inflexible nature, perhaps due to her advanced age, Sarah “didn’t manage to come through.”

As a child at this time of yearly reckoning, I feared my lease on life would not be renewed due to an insufficient tally of good versus bad deeds. But now, a grown woman and a mom, I can better identify the life versus death drama of Rosh Hashanah. It arises from Sarah’s Choice: Either we “come through” by expanding our capacity to be with what is or in every meaningful sense, our spirits will die to the ultimate realities.

If we do not die quite yet, or lapse into unfeeling denial, our sense of what it means to live may be radically altered.

2. The Plea for Parnussah

On Rosh Hashanah we re-enthrone the Sovereign King in order to perpetuate the ancient world order. But what happens when this particular male-dominant, top down world order is reversed? What are the repercussions when a prominent journalist lets us know in a New York Times Magazine cover story that “the era of male domination has come to an end as women gain power in a post-industrial economy”?

A Confession: When I pray for parnussah, or livelihood, on Rosh Hashanah I picture a vigorous and savvy male, preferably one armed with an MBA, who will, with or without swagger, be a dependable provider. Providence… provider … it’s hard to overlook the associative link between the two.

Second Confession:  I’m not really that naïve. Despite an Orthodox upbringing that endorsed the wishful construct that men rule the roost and bring home the pastrami, it doesn’t rock my world when Hanna Rosin (author of the cover story) comes out with a book called “The End of Men.” Besides, it’s nothing all that personal. Rosin explains that rising female hegemony is all a matter of economics and superior female adaptability to new circumstances. It seems that as millions of jobs were lost in the male-dominated world of manufacturing, millions more were added in healthcare and service fields to which women’s natural strengths – empathy, listening, communicating — are well suited.

Rosin’s not-so-new-news gives credence to an underground knowledge many of us little orthodox girls intuited all along, We lived in awe of the discrete strength of our mothers much as we understood that the imposed patriarchal order restored to men a power-base they did not come by naturally.

Rosin’s recent cover story “Who Wears The Pants in this Economy” goes right for the jugular of the stiff-necked, religious fundamentalists. Israeli-born Rosin plunks down her  “middle class matriarchy” in the heart of a southern Evangelical community where a whole mess of men have lost their jobs while their far more adaptable wives are the sole breadwinners. These days, the pastor at the First Baptist church has to do some fancy footwork to tiptoe his way around the cherished teaching that women owe obedience to their husbands. Meanwhile a group of not so stupid women find new meaning in the reading of the proverbial “Woman of Valor,” paean to the wife whose “lamp does not go out at night” (because she’s still working) while her less than useful husband schmoozes with the elders at the city gates.

In Rosin’s southern town, as in many others, a 100-year-old company that long employed most of the men has suddenly disappeared leaving its faithful employees bereft and adrift. The company is described as playing “the role of the dominant father – kind, generous and protective, even if at times overbearing, sometimes bullying.”  Sound familiar? I have often suspected that Jewish men are far more needy than are women of the structured demands of a patriarchal covenant. If women do not succumb to Sarah’s despair, they are willing to reinvent themselves in any number of ways  and this without a binding contract.

This past summer I cultivated a garden and earned good money by running a small town B&B. It was a revelation and the results were surprisingly gratifying. Now I’m asked to transition from a down to earth self-reliance to a supplicant mood: On Rosh Hashanah, in these uncertain times, we petition a not particularly empathic or adaptable God for sustained parnussah.

Where does the power lie? How can we change the course of our lives? Who will grant us the things we pray for – long life, health, livelihood, safety for our children, freedom from shame? Is it God or our own ability to recreate ourselves, in all ways empathic, that will see us through?

3. Strength in Fragility

With the summer’s end, my hands will no longer be gritty from tucking tangled roots into the soil, from weeding out invaders and doling out compost. The Jewish tradition now asks me to engage in a process of self-reckoning that takes stock of my deeds and questions even my innermost desires. The New Year is the time to meditate on our fate and on our personal worthiness to alter or fulfill it.

Exceptionally, Rosh Hashanah is not an agriculture-based holiday. Disconnected from fertility rhythms, this High Holiday calls for a more abstract moral inventory.  Reflexively, I shift into a state of existential anxiety.

As the summer edges away, we are asked to adopt what I call “please God” language once again. We are reminded that even though our repentance, prayer and good deeds can tip the scales of judgment in our favor, it is up to the Almighty to adjudicate who shall live and who shall die. Lest we forget that central teaching, we read the sobering story of the akeda.

Come the holiday, we ingather with a swollen-to-capacity community of worshippers. Yet, I know well that there are many among us who are as alienated as was the biblical Sarah from the commandeering God. Though the music is transporting, the poetry profound, when it comes to submission to the judgment of He Who Dwells On High, we have deep inner pools of doubt.  A recent study shows that of all the Abrahamic faiths, Jews “score lowest” when it comes to certainty about a transcendent God.

I will look around me at the ingathered, particularly the many women with whom I have laughed and cried throughout the year, with whom I have studied and argued, greeted new life and buried the dead. I will nod to women who, like me, have found new ways of generating income when spouses or old ways fail. I know the many ways, both in spirit and in deed, that we struggle to live with the radical uncertainty that cost foremother Sarah her life.

On Rosh Hashanah we surrender to the special brand of spiritual strength that is conceived in fragility. The coming together of women is a powerful act in a world where, as Sarah knew, every minute is a case of almost…almost. What matters is our mutual support and shared willingness to recreate ourselves anew. This is the sanctity of our prayer, the stuff of our self-generation into the new year, the grassroots of our faith.

It does not matter who else we might be addressing.

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Seven Blessings for Shavuot

Ten women share a heady excitement this Mother’s Day morning in the Upper West Side home of a friend and I am among them. For the past two years we have been studying Avivah Zornberg’s. Murmuring Deep: Reflections on The Biblical Unconscious. As our completion of the book coincides with Dr Zornberg’s annual U.S. lecture tour, she has agreed to join us for an at-home siyyum or traditional celebration.

For the past two years, we have been on a collective journey; by studying Zornberg together, we have acquired navigation skills. We begin with a query raised by the Biblical text or the fate of a character, we look for clues in language, then bring in a wide scope of traditional commentaries. We overlay it all with an indispensable psychoanalytic lens. Then we redistill the message of the midrash and marvel at the expression of a similar thought somewhere in the repository of world literature. Only it is much more of a freely-associative flow than a precise formula.

If this were but an elegant and intricate exercise of the mind orchestrated by a leading Biblical commentator of our day, it would suffice. But the Zornberg journey has an inescapable personal component. It awakens a parallel inner quest, calling for self exploration, and beckoning the baring of souls. We are a diverse group, but we have bonded through this shared study and now we are welcoming Avivah into our midst.

Our guest settles in a high-backed armchair as a blossom-scented breeze arises from the river. I recall how she once described a blessing as a fragrant aroma, something ethereal and invisible, yet potent like perfume, leaving a trace, capable of shifting dispositions and prompting new awareness. A blessing, like a teaching, is a catalyst of personal refinement. We are, appropriately, in the period of the Omer, leading to Shavuot and revelation.

As requested, we have sent her questions in advance, but she lets us know she prefers to dispense with formal structure.  Unmoored, I push the wrong button on my tape recorder leaving us without a historical record. But in keeping with the tone of the day, we have a potpourri of notes, a treasury of murmured insights, an assemblage of shorthand suggestions, the sort of intimated insights and glimpsed gems that always give Zornberg her unique sparkle.

On the eve of the Shavuot holiday when the heavens are auspiciously aligned, I recall how in all that she said there were whispered hints about increasing receptivity. In the season of revelation, she was diffusing  infinite longing for a fullness of being. I decant from our notes so that we might share Avivah Zornberg’s teaching along with the blessing blowing on the scented breeze.

Seven Blessings for Shavuot:

Avivah Zornberg learned Torah from her father beginning at a young age. He had two daughters and he taught each of them at home, daily and separately. Share your learning with another, one on one, so she gets to know why she is unique and the many ways in which she is fully human.

God speaks to us through human beings. Therefore there is a great urgency for us to clear out anything that does not allow us to become our truest, most conductive selves. Take a few deep breaths as neshima is the Divine inspiration of the neshama, the soul.

Erotic energy informs and animates everything. Love of another, or of God, love of this life, or of the spiritual life is the remaining adventure. Rapture .. desire.. seduction… all these speak of allowing ourselves to be plucked up and transported somewhere else. Even as things change, let life be informed by desire.

Communication takes place on the unconscious level. This is the realm of the midrash, of disturbance, provocation and ambiguity in the real world. The more we let that in, the richer our lives become and the closer we move to real understanding.

 Women reside in the hidden sphere, the realm of soulfulness murmuring deep. The rush to compete out there and the willingness to attune to inwardness… each of these has a different quality. Women would do well to know the difference and move with grace between the two.

To be fully human we have to acknowledge the despair, the terror, the anger, the fear, the resentment of God. Reconciliation arises in stillness, in the nearly inaudible whisper of the heart.

Where might a human being stand? How do we hold the center with so little certainty, so much instability. Where is our platform? In the search for certainty we risk self-deception. Abiding truth comes to us as fragrant whispers, there is no need to proclaim.

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Beit Shemesh: The Sun Also Rises

Before most of us ever heard of the small town of Beit Shemesh, Miri Shalem the orthodox mother of four children and a long-time resident was directing the town’s JCC. Under her auspices, Haredi women have been exchanging views with modern orthodox counterparts. Miri has been organizing discussion groups for the women of her town using tools for constructive dialogue usually reserved for debates about the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The modern and the ultra-orthodox women of Beit Shemesh have many differences. The ultra-religious are married off as teen-agers, give birth to, raise – and financially support – big families, all the while taking care of housework. Their husbands spend their time in study. The modern orthodox women generally have smaller families, higher education and in many cases, flourishing careers and household help. Their husbands serve in the army and exercise professions. There are many disagreements between the two groups. For example, the moderate women are frustrated by the others’ refusal to protest gender segregation on their local buses. On the other hand, the Haredi women find lots of sympathy when they admit to the arduous drear of their daily lives where so much responsibility and so little gratification is their lot.

Miri does not shrink from daring initiatives. Looking for more non-divisive ways to bring her constituents together she organized women-only dance evenings at the JCC offering all the women, even the most ultra orthodox, an opportunity to move to something other than liturgical music. The dancing went on late into the night and for a short time at least, all the single girls, wives and mothers of Beit Shemesh had agency over their own bodies.

I find myself warming up to Miri as she addresses an American Zionist Movement luncheon this past week at the Jewish Federation in New York City.  She explains how, with the outrageous behavior of some ultra-orthodox men, her town suddenly found itself in the eye of an international storm. To her profound dismay, deeply shocking images of local Haredi men assaulting and spitting on young girls went around the world.

Miri struggled to come up with something to counter all the negativity. It might have been the success of those dance evenings at the JCC that gave rise to her inspired solution. She decided to organize a flash mob to manifest on the main square of Beit Shemesh and perform a collective dance of protest. She hired an experienced producer and the event went viral. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pZd0kLWP01c

After showing us the clip, Miri tells her luncheon audience that she has “a really wild idea, maybe even a dream.” She wants to start a new political party in Israel, one that would promote gender equality. Wait, there’s more – she feels there is enough subterranean dissent among the Haredi women that she would persuade them – or at least some of them and then gradually more – to participate in this party.

I am electrified. In a recent post I agreed that the only way change can come about in the lives of the ultra-orthodox is via revolution from within the ranks of the oppressed women.

At the end of her talk, I ask Miri if she’s really glimpsed a spark of emerging dissent among the Haredi women. She assures me that she has: Even the woman whose father and eight brothers were founders of the extreme rightist Shas party has confided in Miri her secret longing for change. Shine a light. Miri would begin on the local level, seeking some political leverage to be sure ordinances against such outrages as segregated sidewalks are rigorously enforced. But Miri occasionally allows herself to dream big:  If these women no longer vote with their husbands in a uniform block, the ultra religious will lose a lot of electoral clout on the national level and the political landscape of Israel might well undergo a sea change.

To my surprise, not everyone in the room warms to the idea of a new political party. One woman argues that there are already far too many parties and that Miri’s concerns “are social and not political.” I have to muzzle myself not to shout out Steinem’s rallying cry, “The personal is political,” and wish I could conjure Gloria to show Miri the way.  Other more supportive women invoke the American suffragettes and assure Miri she should not give up hope. I feel we might just be witnessing a historic moment.

Before leaving, I compliment Miri on the flash mob initiative and share my enthusiasm for dance as a tool of social change. I remind her that the early Zionists used the reinvented Israeli folk dance in an analogous way to unite disparate peoples.

“Start a dancing party,” I encourage her. “Seriously, how much more can we talk? Let’s get the idea across with our own woman bodies.” There was more transpiring between us in that moment than banter and newfound camaraderie.

Beit Shemesh means the home of the sun. Who’s to say that the site of a festering sore won’t soon be bringing us rays of a new dawn?


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A Festering Impulse

In her bold article in the Jewish Week (Jan 3) Dr. Gail Bendheim decries the recent events in Beit Shemesh and calls for “examining carefully and courageously what it is about our religious life that has led to such a deeply festering misogynistic impulse.” The answer seems obvious to me as I imagine it must to any woman raised in an Orthodox Jewish family.

By the age of 10, I had come thousands of mornings to the bifurcated blessing when a boy gets to thank God “for not making me a woman” and a girl thanks the Creator for having fashioned her “according to His will”. I knew that the Bible excluded females from legal inheritance or bearing witness, and that our sacred texts permit a man to have more than one wife while a woman even suspected of adultery endures a terrible ordeal. I had stood on the sidelines while my dad prepared my older brother for a bar mitzvah, understanding that it was not in the natural order of things that I be celebrated. I was not much older when I memorized the dictate from the Ethics of the Fathers cautioning sages that women are unreliable and shallow. By the time I turned 13, I was coming to terms with the Talmudic truism that the birth of a girl is a consequence of sexual haste and a uterus impure.

These slights and calumnies are so well known to us as to render their enumeration something of a cliché. But the laundry list needs to be trotted out when a well-spoken Orthodox psychologist wonders what it is in our religious life that leads to a “festering misogynistic impulse.”

I can’t claim that any of the above leads in a straight or inevitable line to the abuse of an 8-year-old religious girl on her way to school. And there is of course, much in our tradition that protects and even exalts the female. (Exaltation as Dr. Bendheim wisely says, is the flip-side of debasement). The point is that while this extreme behavior is not a foregone conclusion, it is far from incongruous with the social mores and religious attitudes of even the more moderate Orthodox world.

Real life examples of the exclusion and humiliation of women, even in non-Haredi circles, abound: Just a few months ago, a close friend was in Sloan Kettering for cancer treatment. Despairing and lonely, she wandered in her bathrobe to a room where she heard there would be Jewish prayers. She took a seat in the back row and brightened up when a bearded man she thought was the rabbi approached her, feeling sure he would ask after her health, offer her a much-needed blessing. Instead he told her to hide herself behind a makeshift partition so that the all-male service might begin.

Some years ago, I lost a dear friend at the age of 50, and stood by while her Orthodox family explained to the three teenage daughters whom she single-handedly raised that a hired male stranger was entitled to say the kaddish prayer for their mom but, they, lowly nekevot, were not. And on a lighter note – when was the last time anyone saw an Orthodox man nervously jump up and down (as my mom did daily) in anxious concern that the soup he was serving his wife was hot enough to suit her taste?

Underneath the observable behavior, there lurks an unspoken counter-knowledge. We daughters lived in daily awe of the discrete strength of our mothers much as we frequently intuited the fragility of our fathers. In an Orthodox family, this reversal of assigned attributes is too subversive to ever be spoken. We understood that the established order was imposed to restore to men a power-base they did not come by naturally. Even the mores of the so-called moderate Orthodox are rooted in an ancient fear of exposing men’s weakness and unleashing women’s power.

Excess is a predictable – or at least a foreseeable and in its own way, even a coherent –  outcome of all these culturally-sponsored practices. Any form of race or gender repression paves the way for more grievous abuse when those with the upper hand are so inclined.

Before we can expect any sustainable change, Orthodox women will have to agree to examine their own complicity in the current state of affairs. The policy of assigned gender roles with the male dominant seems to meet the emotional needs of many of the faithful. Besides being squarely in their comfort zone, some will argue that second-class citizenship for women is prescribed by the law, sanctioned by our sacred texts.

I am reminded of the reaction of French women to the first echoes of American measures against sexual harassment in the work place back in the Nineties. French women didn’t want any part of it. They didn’t mind being kept off balance, subjected to male whims or sexualized. For them flirtation was the spice of life, a source of leverage, while the game of seduction went back hundreds of years and had its own rewards. Life was unimaginable any other way: social precedent functioned as a kind of secular yet sacred imperative. Many Orthodox women have their own version of attachment to the status quo along with reasons, both conscious and unconscious, for resisting change.

The majority of the Orthodox look on the recent events with horror along with Dr. Bendheim. I understand their outrage. I understand their disappointment. I empathize with their shame. I simply do not understand their surprise.

Posted in Archetypes (with a Twist), Fathers and Daughters, Stabat Mater, The French Disconnection | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

No Accidental Emission


Part One:

The ultra orthodox establishment in Israel is reportedly losing sleep over women’s demands for equality. While the conflict has serious socio-political implications for national survival, I find myself haunted by one detail of the ultra-orthodox men’s recent and reprehensible behavior in Beit Shemesh. I am focused on the act of spitting as a particularly loaded expression of men’s disdain for non-compliant women.

We need look no further than the Book of Numbers, Chapter 12 to find a precedent for this unsavory form of daughter censure. When Miriam objects to her brother Moses’ exclusive leadership, God’s anger flares up against her. To show the uppity lady who’s who, God smites her with skin-corroding leprosy.  Moses asks that his sister Miriam be healed of her disease and God responds, “ve’avee’ha yarok, yarak”…. “ if her father had spit,” continuing with “would she not be shamed for seven days?” Miriam speaks out in protest, her heavenly father metaphorically spits in her face. Despite Moses’ plea, (not to mention her brother Aaron’s consequence-free collusion) now Miriam has the corroded skin of a leper. Miriam the upstart must be excluded from the people of Israel for seven days before she can show her insubordinate face again.

When I first came across this almost casual reference to an apparently familiar custom of fathers spitting in their daughters’ faces, it sounded all my alarm buttons. With no discernable discomfort, our commentators agree that in the ancient Near East spitting is one of the most humiliating of disgraces, long considered a suitable response to reprehensible behavior. But there is no outrage about God’s invoking this paternal practice to justify his own treatment of Miriam. In this context, I must presume that spitting in a daughter’s face is relatively routine, something a man might well have seen his own father do to… say… his sister when they were both children. Very possibly, his mother endured the same at the whimsy of her father when she was a girl. When a man, or a father or a God with religious authority spits, cherchez la femme who provoked it.

And wherein lies the injustice? After all, a disenfranchised Miriam speaks out of turn. A provocative Miriam questions Moses’ choice. Moses is a great and humble man. Moses is chosen by God for exclusive leadership. Though it may be but metaphor, God spits in Miriam’s face much as an irate father would do and Miriam is clawing at her flaking skin.

Ve’avee’ha yarok, yarak…. The action is hypothetical (“if her father had spit”) but the text repeats the verb for spit twice –yarok, yarakor spit, he did spit –  assuring us this was to be no accidental emission. If this kind of projectile is not launched impetuously, then it must be calmly premeditated: Let the saliva rise like sap, then ingather, savor, swoosh, ready, take aim and fire. What follows is a daughter’s shame; the ejaculating papa is aiming to demean.

2. The opening chapter of Exodus, read on Shabbat not long  ago, brings us to a very different place. Pharoah’s plan to wipe out the Jewish people is thwarted by two courageous midwives who refuse to dispose of Jewish newborn boys according to decree. Atypically, these two heroines are identified by name – Shifrah and Puah. And it turns out, one Midrash tells us, that Puah is none other than a defiant young Miriam in disguise.

Puah means the confrontational face and we are reminded that Miriam is a young girl who has been defying male decrees ever since childhood. Earlier on she confronted her own father, a tribal leader named Amram, who decided that under the genocidal circumstances, no man should cohabitate with his wife and thus  “beget children for nothing.” The girl-child Miriam lets her father know that his decree is even more dire than Pharoah’s, thereby convincing Amram to relent and remarry his wife. Amram does so, inspiring all the other Hebrew men to do the same.

Miriam’s activism assures that the Hebrew nation does not die out. Even so, Miriam’s repudiation of her dad is not fully welcome. The code-name Puah singles her out as an agitator, a non-compliant woman to be identified by her confrontational face. The uplifted face that challenges male leadership in Numbers is the very same face that her criticized father might have… could have … and possibly should have spat upon when she questioned his leadership in the past. Despite her assurance of national survival, hers is a face that risks disdain.

So then, the fringe behavior in Beit Shemesh is not without a cultural context, arguably, it can even claim a Biblical precedent. But Miriam’s story confirms that women’s confrontation of the ruling establishment is just as vital a part of our tradition. Moshe Halbertal is quoted in the New York Times as saying that in Israel today, feminism is the issue that most threatens the male religious authority, posing “an immense ideological and moral challenge that touches at the core of life.”

So then, spit, they will spit and Miriam-Puah will increasingly lift up her face in defiance, along with women both in Israel and around the world. The hope is that once we wipe off the adversary’s spittle, we can move beyond polarization to an inclusive strategy for shared survival.

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Final Payment

When is the last time you saw an action-packed film with a woman who must reckon with her own history as its main protagonist? This sort of screenwriting doesn’t come around too often. The Debt is a thriller by genre, but a rare one with a woman’s crisis of conscience at its heart.

The main character, Rachel (Jessica Chastain and Helen Mirren in a split role) is a former Mossad agent, now in her late fifties, who has to revisit a high profile mission with which she was involved thirty years earlier. Her own proud daughter has written a book documenting her mother’s daring achievement. But the truth of the matter is not, as it turns out, the same as the official version. In fact, the now retired agent has all along been taking credit for something she did not do.

The official version has for all these years conferred upon Rachel the status of a hero in an insular, hero-worshipping Israeli society. While enjoying the prestige, she has clearly sacrificed any inner sense of wholeness or peace. She has been sworn by her fellow agents never to divulge the secret (i.e. what really happened). When sharing book promotion events with her proud daughter, Rachel can hardly contain her inner tension. We can see how her festering secret is tearing apart the inner lining of her life. But the consequences of telling the truth may be even more disastrous.

As events begin closing in on Rachel, it may no longer be possible to avoid a shattering confession. As a woman her age, I can fully empathize with her dilemma. Surely, no longer living with a lie will be an immense relief. Yet there is much to dread: What will history make of her now? Will it be as quick to condemn her as it once was to idealize? How will her contemporaries treat her once the truth is known? Will they be sympathetic to the very good reasons she had decades ago for the decision she and her two co-agents made under considerable duress? And most painful of all, how will this affect her relationship with her only daughter, a sincere young woman who has devoted years of her life to telling what she believes to be a true account of her mother’s heroism?

The film also raises other questions. Of what in our lives are we entitled to feel proud? Is actual achievement the only source of merit? Or might self-worth also arise from an honest reassessment of the past? How much do we value the courage to live with our limitations? Might the capacity to learn from our failures also be a true point of pride? What is the measure of a woman who later in life comes to terms with a former willingness to falsify history?  Is she necessarily diminished by a new truth that robs her of a false claim to glory?

What happens when a woman has to deal with her own daughter’s idealized version of her mom’s life? In circumstances less dramatic than Rachel’s, there may be no harm in letting a distorted version of history remain unchallenged. But I know several women who decided they would rather be known for who they were – and more precisely, who they were not – than be exalted for fictions whose fabrications ultimately distanced them from their loved ones.

One woman had always told her daughter that a first husband (who was not the girl’s father) died young, rather than admit that he had left her for another woman after years of abuse. Another woman told her daughter she gave up a promising career out of devotion to new motherhood when in fact she had suffered a nervous breakdown. And a third friend of mine never wanted to admit that she hadn’t graduated from an Ivy League college because leaving school was the only way to get away from an oppressive family.

In each case, where a less flattering but franker version of some past history was divulged, the disclosure brought mom and daughter closer. Daughters admired their moms for having to put up with real life obstacles to happiness and self-realization. They even sympathized with their mom’s needs to tell a less painful version of the past. All these women found the truth to be fully humanizing even if it meant crossing a line or two off a past resume.

In that newly-cleared space, oddly brightened by vulnerability, women not only find more of themselves, they also find one another.

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