Women find fulfillment in developing own Jewish rituals

When Barbara Kavadias menstruated for the first time, her mother broke out a bottle of Magen David wine, poured a glass for each of them, recited the Shehecheyanu and the brachah over the wine and told the 11-year-old Barbara, "Now you're a woman."

Some 25 years later, Kavadias remembers the moment fondly. "It marked the occasion; it marked it as something special that was happening to me," says the Randolph, N.J., resident.

"It was something that was worth noting, worth recognizing not just on a physical plane, but on a spiritual plane. [Menstruating] was something so special that you would want to say a prayer."

Many Jewish women sense there is nothing in the traditional rituals to acknowledge them as women. Within some movements of Judaism, the bat mitzvah ceremony has taken an equal place next to the bar mitzvah ceremony. Yet that may be the only life-cycle ritual to do so. Although the simchat bat, a naming ceremony for girls, has become more common in recent years, it does not take on the urgency of the brit milah for boys.

"For the brit, people will say, 'I'll be there,"' says Rabbi Debra Orenstein, a fellow at the Wilstein Institute in Los Angeles. "When it's a baby girl, it's not so clear people will show up."

Orenstein and other women hope the simchat bat ceremony will one day become just as common and important a Jewish ritual as the brit milah.

The brit and simchat bat mark only the beginning of the lifecycle passages; the onset of menstruation is another passage that, as Kavadias experienced, can be recognized with a Jewish ritual.

Rabbi Elyse Goldstein of Thornhill, Ontario, in fact, has written a prayer just for the occasion: "Baruch ata Adonai, eloheinu melach ha'olam, she-asanisha,'' or "Blessed are you, Adonai our God, ruler of the world, who has made me a woman."

This prayer is cited in a study guide (published by Torah Aura Productions in Los Angeles) that discusses the cyclical nature of menstruation in connection with the cycle of nature and with Rosh Chodesh, the observance of each new month on the Jewish calendar.

Jewish women are using new and old prayers to mark the variety of life stages beyond bat mitzvah and menstruation and before menopause, including pregnancy and childbirth, miscarriage and abortion, nursing and weaning, marriage and divorce.

Kavadias, for example, recited prayers when she gave birth, the first time she nursed her new infant and when she weaned her daughter.

After giving birth, "I thanked God for seeing me through this period, for seeing me safely through my labor and for opening my womb and producing this child.

"It felt like the right thing to do," she says. "Something really momentous had happened. Our bodies are very special things. They're created in the image of God. They're part of our relationship to God."

There's a feeling among many women, says Sandy Schlanger, that there should be a religious connection to the things that happen in their lives.

"There is a spiritual longing in women to find a place in the Jewish tradition that acknowledges what they go through in their lives," says Schlanger, who was instrumental in creating a women's Rosh Chodesh group in Morris County, N.J.

Orenstein, who edited "Lifecycles: Jewish Women on Life Passages and Personal Milestones," says the appeal of ritual is in the "need for the individual to be acknowledged in the community."

Even if such things as childbirth, a miscarriage, menopause or even an abortion are marked by a private, not a public, ceremony, says Orenstein, there is still the knowledge that other Jewish women in the community experiencing those events are observing the same ritual.

Orenstein says women have been instrumental in expanding life-cycle observances in adapting observances that had been solely for men; altering traditional rituals (such as egalitarian ketubot and marriage ceremonies); and ritualizing women's biological milestones (such as menses, childbirth, miscarriage).

The ceremonies themselves, according to Orenstein, are created in at least three ways. They may adapt existing rituals, restore ceremonies or prayers that fell into disuse or create new observances that draw on traditional texts, symbols and ritual objects.

Vanessa Ochs of Morristown, N.J., says her Rosh Chodesh group held a service inspired by Kurdish Jewish women. Susan Starr Sered, author of "Women as Ritual Experts: the Religious Lives of Elderly Jewish Women in Jerusalem," spent the better part of a year among mostly elderly Kurdish women in Jerusalem.

One thing Sered says she found unusual was their reliance on tzadikim, righteous ones or "saints, if you will." The women would often light candles in honor of a tzadik, such as Elijah, the prophet, asking the tzadik to help their family in some way.

When they light Shabbat candles, they light one for each member of the family, dead and alive, "in the hope that the dead people would act in behalf of them with God and the tzadikim," said Sered.

Some observances are based on what is known as tehinas, individual prayers that Ashkenazi women recited in Yiddish in the 17th and 18th centuries. Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin has translated and edited a book of these prayers.

They range from prayers to be said for the lighting of the Shabbat candles to prayers to be recited during the entire pregnancy, and others for the seventh month and the ninth month.

"The tone becomes ever more personal, ever more earnest, ever more urgent as the woman moves through the first days of pregnancy, to the ninth month, to the birthing bed," says Cardin, editor of Sh'ma magazine, in her introduction.

The prayers and rituals today's Jewish women observe are just as likely to focus on sorrow as on joy.

In "Lifecycles," ceremonies and prayers are described to acknowledge miscarriage, abortion for medical reasons and abortion for other reasons.

Recognizing a miscarriage within Judaism becomes complex, says Orenstein, because the tradition does not accord the same mourning ritual for miscarriage as it does for death.

There are practical reasons for this distinction, she says. Miscarriage and stillborns were so common at one time that "if you mourned for every miscarriage, you could be in a constant state of mourning," says Orenstein.

What women are doing, she says, is devising ceremonies that draw a distinction, "that are not the same as shiva and not the same as mourning."

One prayer in "Lifecycles," written by Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, asks God for help in finding healing and discusses the anticipation of the birth of a child and the promise of a life "ended too soon." It concludes with a line from the High Holy Day Amidah, "Blessed are you, eternal our God, whose compassion renews us unto life."

For many women, going through menopause is a traumatic experience. Not only do many experience physical discomforts, but "it seems to be the end of a life, instead of the beginning of a new stage," says Schlanger.

By ritualizing menopause, she says, women can focus on it as another step in life, and as a time when they have reached a new maturity and wisdom.