Feminists talk sex, food and Torah — for a decade

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They may look like a bunch of bubbes sitting around the dining room table in Sylvia Silberstein's Terra Linda home. But as soon as they start talking, it's obvious that sharing photos of grandchildren is not what this group is about.

They call themselves the Feminist Torah Study Group and will be celebrating their 10th anniversary this summer. They meet on Mondays, alternating between San Francisco and Marin.

In recent weeks, they've been reading "Down-to Earth Judaism" by Rabbi Arthur Waskow and discussing Judaism's relationship to various topics. The group's leader, Marsha Rivkind/Raleigh, wanted to start with Jews and money but the women, who range in age from 68 to 84, wanted to talk about sex and food first.

This week they're on money.

"I have a question," says Silberstein, a retired nurse, after a short passage in Waskow's book is read aloud. "What is spiritual about money? Money is power."

Rivkind/Raleigh asks if anyone saw the PBS special "Who Owns Free Speech?" a show about who controls the airwaves.

"Money talks, big money hollers," says Fran Jacobs, a musician and retired teacher, quoting Langston Hughes. "TCI owns 'MacNeil Lehrer.' No wonder we don't hear more about [who controls the airwaves]."

The I-have-a-question interruption, Rivkind/Raleigh explains, is why it took the group 2-1/2 years to read the Torah.

"Sometimes we only covered three sentences in two hours," she says.

The group started in 1989 as an outgrowth of a literature class co-sponsored by San Francisco's Jewish Community Center and City College. The class was reading "The Miracle Hater" by Shulamith Hareven, and several participants were unfamiliar with the biblical references raised during the discussion.

Vanda Colma approached Rivkind/Raleigh, the most biblically knowledgeable person in the class, and asked if she'd be willing to facilitate a Torah study group. The plan was to meet for the summer and read the Book of Exodus.

They did read Exodus, although it took more than a summer, and then the rest of the Torah, which they finished in February 1992. In honor of the occasion Rivkind/Raleigh hosted a luncheon and presented everyone with a diploma.

Meetings involved a "much broader coverage of the five books of Moses than in a [traditional] Bible study group," according to Jacobs, who says discussions included other writers, anthropological information and family memories.

After the Bible, members read a number of books, discussing such topics as the history of Jewish women, Jewish views on homosexuality, the history of Yiddish and the role of women in Yiddish-speaking communities, and the rise of Jesus and Christianity.

In the past decade, one member has died and another moved away. Another had a stroke but continues to participate. The group, which now numbers 13, includes several retired teachers, a retired computer specialist, lawyer, nurse, social worker, travel agent and librarian.

Hilda Boucher was born in Germany, survived the Holocaust as a hidden Jew and fought in the underground. She is a cousin of noted Torah commentator and Rabbi Gunther Plaut. Rita Kurtz was raised in South Africa, lived for many years in South America and moved to San Francisco to be near her children.

Several participants were raised in observant households, but most were raised secularly. All strongly identify themselves as Jews but feel their Jewish education was neglected.

Rivkind/Raleigh, affectionately called "rebbitzen" by other group members, is the exception.

"I was the only daughter between two boys," says Rivkind/Raleigh, whose father was a modern Orthodox rabbi. "Neither of them were interested in Judaism so my father taught me instead. He was very liberal in his thinking."

What they share is feminism, a liberal labor-oriented ideology and a desire to know more about their Jewish roots.

Over the years, the group has become more than just a study session. The women bring brown bag lunches to the meetings and devote the first hour to kibitzing.

Members celebrate Chanukah and Purim together, enjoy programs of Jewish music and visit Jewish museums. They even attended an Elderhostel session at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.

In May 1992, the group was the minyan for Rivkind/Raleigh's bat mitzvah.

When talking about the group, the women use words like "cohesive," "supportive" and "inspirational."

Vanda Colma now attends High Holy Day services and has joined a chavurah. "There's a feeling of togetherness and identity that I never experienced before," she says. "It's tremendously emotional."