Savina Teubal, 1926–2005
I grew up in Buenos Aires, Argentina in a tight-knit Jewish community from Syria. Some, like my father and his family, emigrated directly from Syria to Argentina; others, like my mother’s family, emigrated to England before going to Argentina; even others came from Egypt, Lebanon, and Turkey. Wherever they came from, they all brought with them the Jewish-Syrian culture of their ancestors. We ate Arabic food, listened to Arabic music, and spoke Arabic mixed with Spanish, French, and English. But we all prayed in Hebrew.
In that community, a girl like me was not bat mitzvah, did not go to college, or have a career. I did what was expected of me: I married a boy from the community. But by age 36, I was divorced and living in California. It was the time that the civil rights and women’s movements were in full swing. Needless to say, I joined the marches and rallies for equal rights (women’s right to education, employment, sports, and so on), became the first coordinator of (National Organization for Women) in Santa Monica, and helped create one of the first women’s seders.
In the early 1970s, when I was driving down Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica, I saw a bumper sticker on the car in front of me that read “Question Authority.” Those two words did for me what the burning bush did for Moses: they changed my perception of reality. I began to ask myself: What authority asserted that I could not be bat mitzvah, could not attend college nor have a career simply because I was female?
For years I had fought and struggled for other women’s rights, not my own; “Question Authority” changed the course of my life. I went to college, received a degree in ancient Near East Studies, and turned my dissertation into a book, Sarah the Priestess. I was invited to teach all over the country, in synagogues, women’s groups, and universities. I was at the height of my career – but also about to turn 60 years of age, nowhere near my idea of retirement.
I felt I still needed to participate in that part of Jewish ritual that had been denied me as a woman. In lieu of a bat mitzvah, I decided to create a rite of passage to celebrate the beginning of the last phase of my life, rather than the end of it. I called the ritual Simchat Hochmah (the Joy of Wisdom). The ceremony reflected events in the life of the Matriarch Sarah but also included my leading a Shabbat morning service, embracing the Torah scroll, reading from the Torah, and wearing a tallit (prayer shawl). I also changed into a kittel (white robe used as a shroud) during the ceremony because I wanted to acknowledge that I was on the journey to the end of my life. Since that time I have written and lectured on women in the Bible as well as about the importance of leading a vital and fulfilling old age.
My Simchat Hochmah became the template for women’s eldering ceremonies all over the country, so much so that, 14 years later (2000), a documentary called “Timbrels and Torahs” was released at the Jewish Film Festival in San Francisco that recorded some of the ceremonies that women had created during that period.
Savina Teubal was an accomplished biblical scholar and the founding president of Sarah’s Tent: Sheltering Creative Jewish Spirituality. Sarah’s Tent is an organization that offers Shabbat dinners, retreats, classes, and holiday festivities such as Pesach seders and Rosh Chodesh gatherings. With Rabbi Drorah Setel and prominent Jewish singer/songwriter Debbie Friedman, Teubal created the Simchat Hochmah (“Joy of Wisdom”) ceremony, which celebrates the rite of passage from adult to elder. The ceremony is based on biblical stories and includes a blessing, a name change, tree-planting, a covenant, and acceptance of mortality. Teubal offers do-it-yourself guidance for women who want to perform this ceremony. She has written articles for numerous magazines, as well as published innovative works on women in Genesis, including: Sarah the Priestess: the First Matriarch of Genesis and Ancient Sisterhood: Lost Traditions of the Matriarchs.
To see enhanced versions of these objects, please access the multimedia version of this page.