A Daughter's Letter to Her Father for Mother's Day

Seeking a Feminist Alternative to the Mourner's Prayer

Getty Images

By Leah Vincent

Published May 06, 2014, issue of May 09, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

When I was a girl, on Friday nights, I would compete with my sisters for the privilege of fetching my father’s slippers when he returned home from prayers. My siblings and I would beg for the seat to my father’s left or right at the Sabbath meal. I was often chosen for this honor. My father and I had a special bond. But as I entered a rebellious adolescence, our relationship disintegrated and he soon stopped speaking to me.

In my 20s, in one of our sporadic doomed attempts to repair our relationship, my father and I met up in Manhattan. We walked up Broadway together, a young atheist in modest disguise and an ultra-Orthodox rabbi. Suddenly, a woman approached my father and, flinging up her hand, knocked his velvet hat from his head, surprising him and putting him so off-balance he collapsed to the ground. Seeing my estranged father go down on the pavement had all the horror of watching a Torah scroll fall.

I’ve spent the last year reengaging with broader Jewish culture from my current perspective as a secular woman. As part of that effort, I recently read “Kaddish” by Leon Wieseltier, one of American Jewry’s most famous sons. This book, written to honor Wieseltier’s father on his passing, explores ancient Jewish scholarship on the mourner’s prayer. It is a volume of men’s teachings and men’s ideas and men’s laws.

“Kaddish,” a bold book by a prominent secular Jew dismayed me. It fortifies the same Judaism that had excluded me as an ultra-Orthodox girl. It perpetuates a very narrow incarnation of our faith: a Judaism that reveres men and renders women invisible. A Judaism based solely on cycloptically male-focused books. There was nowhere for me, an activist seeking the empowerment of women within Judaism, in “Kaddish.” Nowhere for any woman who pushes back on the silencing of female authority in the Jewish world. Nowhere for any woman at all.

We have for too long colluded in our acceptance of the illogical idea that Jewish authenticity is solely determined by an elaborate system of ancient verse and text. That cannot be the only way to determine Jewish truth. If our understanding of what it means to be Jews is to belong to a family and faith that has passed a tradition down over the centuries, the core of that faith, its stamp of authenticity, cannot reside only in Torah study, a practice that 50%of its members were banned from participating in for the vast majority of our history. Rather, it must also be found in the experiences of Jewish women.

Many progressive Jews take great pride in the intellectualism of their faith. But only half of us are the people of the book — the other half is illiterate. To continue to define the scope of Judaic authenticity and history by an exclusively male legacy makes modern liberal scholars as responsible for the continuation of the silencing of women as the ancient misogynistic rabbis.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.