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.
Traditional synagogues are bifurcated by a wall, a mechitza , that keeps men and women in their sex-assigned place. In “Kaddish,” trying to reclaim his tradition in contemporary life, Wieseltier went to men’s side of the partition, leaving the other half of the sanctuary unexplored.
But what could Wieseltier have tried to say, if he wanted to right the wrong of ignoring half of our population?
The quarantining of women to the kitchen and child-bearing bed, far from the study halls and rabbinic pulpits, created a distinct female Judaica, evolving in the personal and domestic sphere. Women’s traditions were not preserved in brash books revered and elevated by the passing of time. It is very difficult to say what the legacy of religious Jewish women is beyond chicken soup and submissiveness.
Reading Wieseltier takes me back to my parents’ Sabbath table. After the soup, after a hymn had been sung and soda distributed to the children, my mother would sit, perched on the edge of her chair, pinching fingernails at the ready to silence any of us, as my father prepared to share a dvar Torah.
Rabbi so-and-so asks, he would say. Rabbis’ questions were not wild and unseemly like those of teenage girls. Rabbis’ questions were like the cover of a jewelry box being lifted — there was always a perfectly fitted cavity to be filled. And so Rabbi so-and-so teaches us, my father concluded.
When I was 9, my father and I developed a game. He would tell a parable and I would try to guess the story’s moral. All of the children could play, but he always asked for my interpretation before revealing the true lesson behind the story. My father didn’t know then how to say “I love you,” but that was his message as he facilitated an exchange that made room for my voice.
As I got older, his world offered no further room for our relationship to mature. How could my father love his daughter if, in his faith, all love was bound to Torah learning, and Torah learning was restricted to men?
The Kaddish, an obsequious prayer of 75 words, is traditionally recited by men at synagogue services for 11 months after a family member’s death. “Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled, mighty, upraised, and lauded be the Name of the Holy One,” and on and on. But there is also another Jewish prayer for death — the Shema.
Shema Yisroel Adonai Elohainu Adonai echad.
Hear O Israel my Master our God my Master is one.
The Shema is recited twice a day, by every man and every woman, but it is also the prayer said before death. It is therefore the martyr’s prayer — screamed by rabbis burned at the stake by the Romans, by children speared by Crusaders, by our European cousins as they trudged to the gas chambers.
As a child, I knew the anti-Semites would come for me sooner or later, and I prayed that when they did, I’d be quick-witted enough to scream out those six words that would guarantee me a spot in heaven.
At 17, estranged from my family, I sang the Shema in my head as I lay naked, jammed beside my snoring Jamaican boyfriend on a soiled couch in the basement of a Manhattan club. The Shema, epitomizing the Jew who would rather die than forsake his faith, functioned both as a condemnation of my sin and, as the prayer shaped by my mother’s voice as she coached me through it night after night of my childhood, a conveyor of love. I sang the Shema to myself, trying to insert a parental voice into a situation that was desperately missing a parent.
At that confusing time, still clinging to faith in God while struggling to find a place for myself in the world, I developed a dvar Torah about the Shema, of which I am reminded in reading “Kaddish.”
Unlike Wieseltier or my father, I don’t know how to weave together a tapestry of ancient sources and quotations to create a picture of the historical and academic underpinnings of this foundational Jewish prayer. If I wished, I could enroll in one of the new progressive religious schools for women of the Orthodox far left and plunge myself into the Talmud, but I resent having to start from scratch at the age of 32. I resent the assumption that I must turn away from the domestic world of the traditional Jewish woman and enter the rigid male academic structure to have any claim of authority in our faith. If I worked within the contemporary framework of academic Judaism, I would be relinquishing the too-often abdicated opportunity to claim a Jewish female voice.
Despite my ignorance, I posit that my humble meanderings are as godly, as Jewish, as valid as those of any man or rabbi. It is the Shema itself that gives me permission.
My dvar Torah asked: Why is there a redundancy in the Shema? Why not just say: “Hear O Israel my Master our God is one” instead of “Hear O Israel my Master our God, my Master, is one”?
Why the bouncing back and forth, twice, from the personal “my Master” (or, in the original, the tetragrammaton, the “One who exists”) to the collective “our God” and then back to the personal “my Master”?
Perhaps, I posited, this extra wording gives the Shema a beautiful meaning: The speaker standing beside her peers (“O Israel”) reminds them that she, like all of them, has her own personal sense of the divine (“my Master”), and that they, as a collective, have a shared understanding of God (“our God”), but that they should remember that the personal sense of the divine they each possess (“my Master”) is “Echad” — it is unified, it is one.
This prayer may be giving us permission to believe that our own personal experience of the divine is a piece of the thing to which we point when any of our co-religionists say God, and that all of our individual gods make up the collective Jewish divine.
Judaism, as a monotheistic religion, collapses all divinity into one God, but the Shema reassures the Jews that one God doesn’t mean a God with a single voice. God is a populist, the Shema says, he speaks with all of our tongues.
Throughout our history, mothers who had little religious authority beyond the transmission of this powerful, opaque phrase, recited the Shema every night with their sons and daughters. It is a prayer that is jarring with its echo of future death, fragrant with the smell of breast milk, tinged with the warmth of a good-night hug. A tiny prayer of all this terror. A tiny prayer of all this love.
The Shema, a secret sleeper cell, passed down from mother to child, containing a compact DNA sequence of the suppressed voices of Jewish mothers. The Shema, an engine of female Jewish transmission, even as it was transmitted unconsciously. If we could sequence the Shema, perhaps we could resurrect 3,000 years of silenced Jewish femininity.
Today, the Shema is the perfect progressive Jewish women’s rallying cry, a reclaiming of the prayer our mothers taught us, its words emphasizing a turning away from obsessively structured exegeses toward an embrace of the mundane personal connection to the divine that we all share.
All the gods of the Jews are one, be we son or daughter, scholar or housewife. These words can be the basis upon which I have the right to claim that my experience of the divine is valid. In this central payer, I can find a platform equal to the pulpit of my father.
The Kaddish and the Shema are dialectical:
The Kaddish obedient, submissive, garrulous.
The Shema a chant, a communal rallying cry.
The Kaddish retroactive testimony, recited after a body is lowered into the earth.
The Shema said at the time of death, expressing a current emotion.
The Kaddish tells the listener: something has happened.
The Shema testifies: this is what I feel now.
The Kaddish recited by sons.
The Shema recited by all.
Hear O Israel,
My Master, our God,
My Master, he is one.
Many religious Jews slur through the endless hours of repetitive daily prayer in one rush of sloppy sound. My father is known for his unusual habit of wrapping his lips around every consonant and vowel, each utterance pronounced with clear intent, honoring the holiness of every sound with a staggering amount of patience.
As per the law, my father always ended the Shema with a hard and sharp “
” the ‘D’ sound at the end of the word echad
. Each time I said those words, I did the same, honoring my father’s meticulousness, my precious lineage.
My father’s name is Israel. He pronounced his own name with the same deliberate care of any prayer. I can hear him, in my memory, speaking into the phone that hung by my parents’ dining room table: This is Israel Kaplan. Izzz-rehl. Much later on, echoing the community’s movement toward a further rejection of the American and modern, he began to call himself by the Hebrew version of his name more frequently: Yisroel. This is Yisroel Kaplan. Yih-srohl. The same precise method of speech, in English or in Hebrew.
I cannot speak with a pure female Jewish voice, because I don’t have a clear sense of what that is, but my interpretation of the Shema as a text that points to the deeper lesson that all of our diversity is deserving of equal respect, is of a hybrid nature: It uses the skeleton of male Judaism, the framework of picking at the rigid text to find meaning, to try and give structural support to thoughts that come from the traditionally female domain of the personal and the inclusive.
This entire essay is a hybrid of the masculine and feminine, and serves as an attempt to rope in Wieseltier and my father, to give strength to my own silenced voice. I need my father’s permission, Wieseltier’s permission, the Talmud’s permission, to lay claim to my place at their table.
We need to ask for love and permission from those who hold the keys. Even if they can’t or won’t ever give us permission, even if they haven’t spoken to us in two years and nine months, we still need to ask permission from their stand-ins in our heads.
Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that this essay is a love letter to my father. I imagine this sentiment would anger him, since I have hurt him so through my work as a writer, saying things he doesn’t want to hear, does not believe are true, things that damage him and the people he loves.
Still, I do love him.
It is easiest for me to understand why my father has rejected me so harshly by acknowledging that I am a piece of him (and my mother). A piece that my father rejected in himself, that bloomed in me; when my father sees me, he sees the parts of himself that he has cast away, and he despises me for resurrecting them.
As a child, my father attended a co-educational school. He had a television in his home and dressed like any American boy, with only a yarmulke over his long bangs to identify him as a Jew. In his own journey into adulthood, he rejected progressive values for an ever more fervent attachment to fundamentalist rabbis and teachers. He erased his sister from his family for not following suit. Within him, he must have a voice for all he left behind, even if he has done his best to stone that voice into silence. And here I am, that voice, popping up. How he must hate me. And how I must love him, for giving me this, the thing in me that I love the most, my voice, my ideas, a branch off his tree, even if the tree refuses to acknowledge itself as the branch’s source.
Growing up in a family of 11 children, we categorized ourselves by who was like Mamme and who was like Tatte . My mother the heart, my father the brain. To be like my father was the higher compliment, but I was clearly like my mother. I had her round face and almond eyes, and I was emotional like her.
It is only recently, as my self-made life expands, that I have been told by the few siblings who still speak to me: You’re just like Tatte . You’re as smart as Tatte . You have Tatte’s brain.
Would I resemble my father, I wonder, if I had never left, if I was now a housewife and a Bible teacher with six kids?
I am, still, complimented by the comparison to my father.
Shema Yisroel , hear O Israel. Adonai Elohainu , God, our God — the one you have, the one I have, the ones that seem to be enemies, Adonai echad. Our gods are one.
Your God, Tatte , the fundamentalist principles to which you sacrifice your children and your happiness, and my god, the difficult truth-telling and embracing of life’s possibilities to which I sacrifice my comfort and dignity, are the same. The passion is the same. We are the same zealots, you and I.
Our God is not one because your god is identical to my God. Our God is one because it is two sides of the same coin. The brain and the heart. The text and the life. The father and the daughter. The adherent and the rebel.
The love for my father expressed here is not a response to an unanswered parable he posed. It does not bring me back to the conversation he and I were forced to abandon 17 years ago. I no longer know how to play that game with him. This is a strong love with its own voice, fed but not defined by his love and anger and hatred. I know he doesn’t want it as it is, but I can’t and won’t modify it to something he wants.
In “Kaddish,” Wieseltier gets to love his father with a Jewish man’s plush scholarly tome that spans the length and breadth of an ancient community of scholars. I love mine with the frail thoughts of a solitary Jewish woman’s personal essay.
Wieseltier’s father is dead. He will never know or be touched by the elegy his son has composed in his honor. My father will never know mine. Still we sing — Wieseltier in the power of his full baritone, and me, in my mezzo-soprano, a Jewish son, a Jewish daughter, telling our deaf fathers: I love you.
Leah Vincent is an activist and the author of “Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood” published by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday