Ron Ashkenas’ recent post for Forbes about Labor Day has me feeling unsettled, and I finally know why. In his article, Ashkenas explains that the “real purpose [of Labor Day] was to serve as a tribute to the working class — the men and women whose physical, and largely manual, labor had built the country.” He goes on to bemoan (as we have in the past) how the meaning of Labor Day has been lost in end-of-summer soirees and all-American barbeques. So far, I’m totally onboard with his argument. We should find more meaningful ways to commemorate the people who built this country, brick by brick.
Each week during JWA’s Thursday morning staff meeting, we sit around our conference room table and share “Words on the Street”—tidbits, stories, and anecdotes that we’ve heard from various places in the JWA community. This week, as Gail Reimer’s tenure as Executive Director comes to an end, we dedicate a blog post to words from our staff honoring the vision and commitment of our leader, colleague, and friend. We invite you to share your words and stories about Gail and JWA in the comments below.
Dear Kate is an underwear company that I first heard about this morning. The company’s founder is a former chemical engineer named Julie Sygiel who felt betrayed by her leaky underwear—yes, Dear Kate was created to make better period panties. The company is run by four women, and their website is full of words like “technology” “revolutionary” and “real women.” I arrived at said website because my friend sent me Dear Kate’s latest ad campaign and it really rubbed me the wrong way. All of my mixed feelings about using feminism in advertising—a trend that has rapidly gathered steam over the last few months—came to a head. This was BAD. I hated it. It pissed me off.
“This memorial garden is dedicated to her noble spirit, which celebrated the oneness of humankind, and to the bonds of everlasting friendship between black and Jewish people.”
If you had to guess who this epitaph belonged to, who would you choose? Lillian Wald? Dorothy Height?
Nearly every Jewish woman is familiar with the stereotype of the Jewish American Princess (JAP). You probably went to camp or high school or college with that girl, you know, the one who got a nose job the summer before eleventh grade, or the one who talked loudly about her tour of Europe over winter break. Even if you’re not really the jappy type, whenever you acted remotely bratty or spoiled, there it was: someone telling you to stop acting like a JAP.
Lauren Bacall was one of the first female actors who showed audiences that female confidence was incredibly attractive. Her characters didn’t need to be saved by the leading man, they could take care of themselves just fine, thanks. There’s a scene in To Have and Have Not, when the police are interrogating her and Bogart, and one of the officers slaps Bacall across the face. She hardly blinks an eye at the attack, doesn’t falter or faint, and doesn’t need someone else to defend her.
I am not going to lie, this one has hit me pretty hard. As a comedian who grew up watching Mork and Mindy and left for college the same time he yelled out “Carpe Diem,” today I am mourning the loss of a man I never knew. I just cannot seem to figure out how he knew me so very well.
In my neighborhood, Sikhs hand out free cold drinks on certain Saturdays. They do this on important days in Sikh history to raise awareness of their beliefs—the water bottles and cans of Coke are accompanied by small printed brochures detailing Sikh practices and culture.
In Terezin, the US Commission for the Preservation of American Heritage Abroad sponsored the dedication of a plaque as a memorial. A day before traveling to Terezin, we saw Regina's papers, a small pile that must have been all that survived of a much larger collection. We stared at a photograph of her, the sole image that remained. In the formal portrait, she wore a rabbinic robe and her young face was dignified and serious. I yearned for photographs of her teaching, laughing, and loving, images of a full life. But there were none.
For nearly thirty years I have had the good fortune to carry the title “first woman rabbi ordained in the Conservative Movement.” I have carried the designation with pride, at the same time knowing that I was a relative newcomer to the world of “first women rabbis.” After all, Rabbi Sally Priesand (the first woman Reform rabbi, ordained by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1972) and Rabbi Sandy Sasso (the first woman Reconstructionist rabbi, ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 1974) had preceded me by many years. Only this week did I come to know my forbear, Rabbi Regina Jonas, the first woman ever ordained a rabbi.
Just days before leading German newspapers called for an end to hatred against Jews, our group heard from two German dignitaries who were deeply concerned about the new wave of anti-Semitism infusing protests against Israel’s operations in Gaza. Both MP Volker Beck and Sybilla Bendig of the Foreign Office were clearly shocked by slogans and chants they didn’t think possible in postwar Germany.
One of my least favorite things about summer—after bugs, overcrowded parks, and face-sweat—is the serious dearth of decent TV. My TV schedule disappears, and is replaced with an array of below-average reality shows. The only thing I’ve been watching with any regularity is The Bachelorette, a show that alternately bores me, amuses me, and causes me to exclaim to no one in particular, “Oh, come ON!!!!” an average of sixteen times per episode.
The first of the historic events that marked our trip took place on the second evening at Berlin’s Centrum Judaicum. For the first time, the pioneering American women rabbis who were the first to be ordained by their denominations joined with their counterparts in Europe in a public forum to talk about their journeys to the rabbinate and experiences as rabbis. Or that was the plan.
After Bel Kaufman, writer and public school teacher, published Up the Down Staircase in 1965, one assistant principal at a school where she had taught began adding a warning to his memos: “DO NOT SHOW THIS TO BEL KAUFMAN.” The disclaimer is a testament to what a nerve Kaufman hit with her novel, which followed a young teacher through her first year in an urban public school and highlighted the insane bureaucracy that got in the way of actual teaching.
Our trip officially began Tuesday morning with participants sharing key words or phrases that captured the ideas, feelings, or intentions with which they were embarking on the first day. Some focused on Regina Jonas—honoring her, standing on her shoulders. Others spoke more generally about women, noting their interest in the "place of women in different worlds," or "a passion for women." And they came to the day with varied emotions—anticipation, anxiety, optimism, seeking “internal reconciliation” and hoping to “find themselves” here.
A major theme of our shared JWA/AJA journey is the recovery of the lost narrative of Regina Jonas. We are here in the company of America’s pioneering women rabbis to bring Fraulein Rabbiner Jonas back into the story we tell of them and those who followed.
I have never been to Germany before, and this is no accident. My mother, who lost extended family members in the Holocaust, raised me not to buy German products. I do not walk on the site of the Temple in Jerusalem, for it is sacred. I did not go to Germany, because it was the very opposite of sanctity. The sound of the German language made me cringe; it was the sound of the Nazis. But over the decades, I had come to be in relationship with young Germans who were profoundly remorseful about the Holocaust. I was ready to explore a new personal relationship with the German people, and to travel there when the right opportunity presented itself. This trip is that opportunity.
I have often marveled at words like culaccino, which in Italian means "The mark on a table left by a cold glass." Words like this simply can’t be replaced by the sum of their parts. The English language has a wealth of words to choose from—over a million by some estimates—to complete the perfect turn of phrase. But, alas, sometimes one million words are not enough to lovingly tell your boyfriend that he has cream cheese in the corner of his mouth.
At Temple Beth Or’s Erev Shabbat service last Friday my associate Rabbi Ari Margolis offered a blessing for me as I embark on this journey to honor the memory of Rabbi Regina Jonas. Just a few weeks ago, I offered a prayer for Rabbi Margolis and those from the temple traveling to Israel in hopes of spiritual enlightenment and deepening connection to land and heritage. In contrast, Rabbi Margolis’ prayer Friday night had a more urgent feel to it. In those few weeks between these travelers’ prayers, Israel has gone from a period of relative calm to a country searching for the “Protective Edge.” And this past week Malaysian flight MH17, shot down mid-air by rocket missiles designed for warfare, shattered any illusion that one might cling to that the weapons of terror are just another distant chapter in that story of the world’s horrors.
Our knowledge about Rabbi Regina Jonas has been limited. I had heard that she was ordained in Berlin, her thesis was on whether women could be rabbis, and that she had died during the Holocaust. I was intrigued, but there was not much more information to fill in the blank spaces. This trip has opened up a wealth of material about her life, her vision and her contributions.
For many years, I resisted going to Germany or Eastern Europe, but when I learned about this trip to Berlin and Prague, I spoke without thinking: “I’d really like to go on that journey.”
Reflecting now on that immediate response (and the fact that I didn’t have second thoughts afterward), I’ve learned a few things about what has changed and what has crystallized for me, individually and, I think, as a member of my generation.
I decided I wanted to be a rabbi when I was sixteen years old. At that time, I had never heard of Regina Jonas. I was well into my rabbinic training before one of my professors mentioned her to me. He knew her personally, having attended the same academic institution in Germany. I discovered, however, that very little had been written about her and that basically her story had been lost, as was the case for so many other women in the Jewish community whose stories were hidden away.
Walking out the door of my hotel room on the first day of my first trip to Berlin, (a trip I had determinedly avoided for many years), I was on guard and immediately caught off guard. As I entered the Hackescher Market just steps from the hotel, I found myself face to face with a large size portrait of Regina Jonas on a kiosk that also detailed her story. What was Rabbiner Jonas doing here? Why here? Why now?
I don’t do well in humidity. I don’t think rallies have been particularly effective since the 1970s. Still, I stood outside for two hours this Tuesday, gathered at City Hall with a couple hundred of my fellow concerned citizens. We were there to show solidarity against certain recent Supreme Court decisions.
Lupita Nyong’o is an Academy Award winning actress. She has a Master’s Degree from Yale. She speaks four languages. She is the writer, director, and producer of a documentary about Kenya’s albino population. She is also a stunning beauty, and a fashion plate. It’s that last point, that shallow observation, which I’ll write about today.
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "Blog." (Viewed on September 2, 2014) <http://jwa.org/blog>.