Bay Area Jews featured in online feminist exhibit

If there is a hall of fame for Jewish feminists, it is the Jewish Women’s Archive in Brookline, Mass..

The archive has just launched an online exhibit called “Jewish Women and the Feminist Revolution” — — and three women with Bay Area ties (Marcia Falk, Rabbi Amy Eilberg and Loolwa Khazzoom) are featured in it.

For many young Jews, it is hard to remember a time when there were no female rabbis or gender-inclusive liturgy, which is one of the reasons the exhibit was created.

“As activists, professionals, artists, and intellectuals, Jewish feminists have shaped every aspect of American life,” says the exhibit’s introduction. “Drawing on the insights of feminism, they have also transformed the Jewish community.”

Falk, a Berkeley-based poet, has now had her original blessings anthologized and included in numerous prayerbooks and collections. But it wasn’t always that way.

At a gathering of the National Havurah Institute, her friend Rabbi Arthur Waskow asked Falk to help him lead Havdallah.

“It was a moment of truth: I told Art what I had not yet told anyone — what I had not yet fully admitted even to myself — that I no longer prayed with the traditional liturgy,” she said in an exhibit statement. “Hesitating at first, I explained how the words of those blessings stuck in my throat, how I could no longer pretend to worship God as lord and king.

“‘Fine,’ said Art, without skipping a beat, ‘so write your own blessings — we’ll use those instead.'”

Falk answered that the congregants would stone her, but the opposite happened. When she reached the end of one of her blessings, everyone uttered “Amen.”

The following year she was invited to speak at another conference, where she introduced a new Kiddush and received a standing ovation. That moment is widely seen as giving people — both women and men — permission to create their own liturgy.

Eilberg, who lived for many years in Palo Alto but now lives in Minnesota, was the first woman to be ordained a rabbi by the Conservative movement.

In her exhibit statement, Eilberg says 1985 was a watershed year. Not only was it the year she was ordained, but it was the year that a new ordination ceremony took place at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

In previous years, rabbinical degrees were conferred like all academic degrees from the institution. As the rabbinical students worked on crafting a new ritual, a big debate ensued over the use of the Shehechiyanu blessing.

Some of the more traditional students felt it should not be used during a once-in-a-lifetime event such as ordination, arguing that it is traditionally used to mark the first time something occurs in a season or year.

But eventually the rabbinical students worked out a compromise that the prayer would be said.

When the ordination ritual was over, one of Eilberg’s classmates approached her.

“I want you to know why I said the Shehechiyanu today,” he said. “I said it for you.”

Khazzoom, a Berkeley-based writer and educator is the third Bay Area woman honored in the online exhibit. Of Iraqi Jewish descent on her father’s side, Khazzoom’s statement talks about the tokenism she has felt from always being asked to represent the non-Ashkenazi voice. In a video clip on the Web site she discusses her relationship with her nose.

“My mom gave me the complex about my nose, and it was reinforced by all of society, so she didn’t need to say much,” Khazzoom says.

“So when I was 6 years old, I said, ‘Mommy, am I pretty?’ and she said, ‘No.’ Because I’m not blond, I don’t have blue eyes, and I don’t have a ski-slope nose. And especially my nose bugged the shit out of me because, do you know how much shit is out there about the Jewish nose? How much, like, mockery? And, I was thinking, you know, I’ve started touching my nose recently and saying, ‘You poor thing. You’re just sitting here to help me breath. And like, all this hatred is on you,’ you know?”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."