My Feminist Foremothers
This is the eleventh entry in an ongoing series exploring Jewish feminism.
My own attachment to Jewish feminism arose from my relationship to the women in my family — my grandmothers, my mother, and my sister — during my childhood and teen-age years. I was very close to my two bubbes (grandmothers), both of whom were Eastern-European Jewish immigrants to the United States.
My father’s mother, Bubbe Ellenson, lived in my hometown of Newport News, Va., while my maternal grandmother, Bubbe Stern, lived in Cambridge, Mass. They were both wonderful and loving companions to me. Bubbe Ellenson would eat dinner with my family three nights every week, and every Saturday night of my childhood I slept at her apartment.
Each summer, for a decade of my childhood, I went to Cambridge and stayed with Bubbe Stern, who would talk to me into the night and tell me stories — often harrowing ones, of pogroms — of her life in Russia and how grateful she was to America for the gift of freedom it allowed. She was a stately and educated woman. (She could read and write Russian as well as Yiddish. I remember fondly how she would take me at least once each summer to the statehouse in Boston, and would tell me how wonderful this country was. I would go with her to shul in Cambridge every week and watch her prepare traditional Jewish foods in her kitchen as she magically transformed her home for Shabbes. I cannot calculate the impact the love these two women shared with me had upon my life. I still feel it every day.
Then there was my mother, Ros. She was genuinely my best friend. Like her mother, my mother possessed an innate dignity that made people naturally respect her and identify her as a leader. She was calm and extremely intelligent, and always encouraging. She was interested in so many things, and I loved speaking with her about Judaism, Israel and politics. With her, as with her mother, I would speak for hours into the night.
As a teenager and college student, my mother had attended Boston’s Hebrew College, and she possessed fine skills as a Hebraist. When I was a little boy, it was she who would read narrative portions of the Torah with me. My mother was also a devoted Zionist and very active in Hadassah as well as our local Jewish federation. It was she who taught me how crucial it was for a Jew to be devoted to community and to love the State of Israel. In her professional life, she served as director of the department of social services for the city of Hampton, Va. No one has ever influenced me as she did, and I have always attempted to emulate the model she set for me through her commitments to family, to Judaism, the Jewish people and to the larger world.
Finally, there is my sister, Judy. Judy is brilliant and we remain close. She graduated from MIT and then did graduate work in mathematics as Harvard. Yet, unlike my brother and me, who often led services and chanted from the Torah in our Orthodox synagogue, Judy was not allowed to fulfill these public roles so central to Jewish religious life. Here she was shunted to the side, and I identified closely with the pain she felt by this exclusion.
Given the roles these women played in my life as well as the negative impact non-participation in the ritual life of my childhood community had upon my sister, it is only natural that I would come to identify as a Jewish feminist and feel that full enfranchisement of women in the public life of our people was a natural and just way for our tradition to evolve.
I am extremely proud that my wife, Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson, through her position as director of the Women’s Rabbinic Network, her role as past chair of the Hadassah Foundation, and her participation in Women of the Wall does so much to make this evolution a reality. And I am grateful that through my role as president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion I can play a part, as well, in allowing the full talents of our capable Jewish women to be realized.
I think my grandmothers and mother would be proud.
Rabbi David Ellenson, Ph.D., is president of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and I.H. and Anna Grancell Professor of Jewish Religious Thought.