Menopause can mark a moment of gaining wisdom

Midlife crisis. Menopausal moment. These life passages often carry a negative connotation that for many women is just too much excess baggage.

Instead, they choose to celebrate midlife and the transition to elder years.

Many Jewish women are doing this by creating a spiritual ritual for themselves, and inviting friends and loved ones to share the occasion.

Among the Reform, Reconstructionist and Renewal movements, especially, women in the Bay Area and across the country are dipping into the mikvah, using seder-based ceremonies or turning to inspirational prayer to launch new life phases.

Many are having a Simchat Chochmah — a celebration of wisdom. The joyous rite of passage ceremony marks a new phase of life and the completion of study on a Jewish theme or body of Jewish knowledge.

“I definitely see an interest in it,” said Rabbi Jane Litman of Congregation Beth El in Berkeley. “There’s an interest in general in women’s ritual. There was a sense that there wasn’t a written text [for women], that needed to be written…”

Just as the bat mitzvah and baby-naming ceremonies for girls emerged to fill a void for Jewish women, Litman explained, in recent years other ceremonies have evolved as well. The bat mitzvah and baby-naming “opened up this idea that people could start writing their own ceremonies,” said Litman, adding that even the Orthodox are sometimes having baby-naming ceremonies.

First women, and now some men, said the Reform rabbi, have recently begun celebrating lifecycle milestones with religious ritual.

“At 83, people are having their second or third bat mitzvah; I’ve seen that more and more. Couples who’ve been married for a long time are either getting the ketubah they’ve never had, or renewing their vows.”

Sometimes Litman is asked to officiate or attend such events; other times she’s simply asked to serve as a resource to help people plan them. Many resources are available, she said.

One of the most comprehensive books is “Lifecycles Volume 1: Jewish Women on Life Passages and Personal Milestones” (Jewish Lights Publishing, 1998). Edited by Rabbi Debra Orenstein of Makom Ohr Shalom in Southern California, the book is often cited as an excellent source of ideas.

Another is “Timbrels and Torahs,” a short film that tells the story of three Jewish women and their Simchat Chochmah.

One of those women is Miriam Chaya of El Cerrito. Chaya, who co-produced the film with Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Judith Montell, noted that Litman, Amy Eilberg, Palo Alto Conservative rabbi in private practice, and others were helpful and supportive of their efforts. Since “Timbrels” made its debut at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival in July 2000, it has been shown at film festivals — both women’s and Jewish — and other venues around the world.

Chaya, the former public program coordinator at U.C. Berkeley’s Women’s Center, leads workshops about ritual, spirituality and aging. She calls them “spiritual eldering” workshops.

The ritual of Simchat Chochmah, she said, “has really reached out to people of all different backgrounds” within Judaism and beyond. Feminist, Jewish and academic communities are showing the film and using it as a starting point for discussion on myriad related topics.

The Simchat Chochmah, said Chaya, “is an individual kind of commitment. You look at where you’ve been, where you’re going. You make a dedication that you’re going to commit yourself to something.” Chaya celebrated her Simchat Chochmah at 60.

Another person in “Timbrels and Torahs” is Savina Teubal, a biblical scholar who is generally credited with creating the first Simchat Chochmah. Teubal, who lives in the Los Angeles area, acknowledges that hers “was sort of a template” for others, though “I didn’t intend it to be that.”

There were several reasons why she embarked on the journey. “My mother was terribly upset about getting old,” she explained, “so I decided I didn’t want that to be my fate. And it’s always bothered me that [people have] all these horrible things to say about women and growing old.”

Also, growing up Orthodox (her parents were from Syria) always made her feel, both physically and mentally, separate and apart as a religious Jew. “We were always upstairs,” she said.

That was something that, as an adult, she could not accept. She has written about great Jewish women, including her first book, “Sarah the Priestess: The First Matriarch of Genesis” (Swallow Press, 1993). These days, she is working on a novel, “the story of David from the point of view of Bathsheba.”

She decided, some years ago, that “I wanted to officiate at Shabbat morning service.” Then came her Simchat Chochmah. Looking back at the trend it started, she said, “it’s obvious there was a need for that, as there has been for many other rituals that have come up.”

Teubal noted that a good resource for ideas is “Four Centuries of Jewish Women’s Spirituality,” edited by Ellen Umansky (Beacon Press, 1992). The anthology is filled with blessings, prayers, rituals, poems and other writings by and for women.

Marcia Cohn Spiegel, the other woman whose ceremony was featured in “Timbrels and Torahs,” is the founder of Creative Jewish Women’s Alliance and the Drug Action Program of Jewish Family Services in Los Angeles. A co-author of “The Jewish Women’s Awareness Guide: Connections for the Second Wave of Jewish Feminism,” (Biblio Press, 1997), she, too, has lots to say on the topic of midlife, aging and ritual.

As for what the future may bring, the sky’s the limit, Chaya suggests.

“As the times change, the need for ritual and ceremony will come up.” Also, women and men are living longer and keeping active in their elder years. “Now menopause is like a little midlife,” she said.

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.