I'm Over It
There is nothing scarier for a clergy person than when your temple president calls on a Shabbat afternoon. I immediately went into panic mode, certain that someone had died or gone to the hospital. Instead, he told me that a 94-year-old woman had called with an unspecified “emergency.” When I called her, she immediately burst into tears. Her aide hadn’t come that morning, and she needed food “for Smokey.”
“Okay,” I said, scrambling for something to write with. “Is Smokey a cat or a dog?”
Which is how I came to spend the rest of my afternoon hauling a case of cat food to the local housing project. I was glad to do it, though I didn’t know why the woman had reached out to our temple. When I arrived, I discovered that she had once been a member. She was very happy to see me, but, in part due to the fact that I was wearing sneakers, I’m pretty sure she thought I was a well-meaning volunteer.
When she did realize that I was, in fact, the rabbi, and not some emergency cat food delivery service, she got VERY EXCITED.
“Oh my!” she said, “I’ve never met a woman rabbi before!”
“Well, here I am!” I said, looking around the apartment to make sure the woman actually had a cat.
“Wow,” she went on, already moved to tears. “I’m 94 years old and now I’ve lived to see a woman rabbi!” She suddenly wanted to know the whole story of how I’d decided to become a rabbi. Which, though lovely, was not exactly how I had planned to spend my Shabbat afternoon.
I’ve been a rabbi for ten years now. In every position I’ve had, I’ve either joined—or replaced—a man who was at least 30 years my senior. I’ve been called “a breath of fresh air,” “just what we needed,” “a new perspective,” etc. None of this is bad, and it certainly beats the alternative (“abomination,” “joke,” “responsible for the downfall of Judaism as we know it”). I’m grateful for the open-mindedness and shows of support.
But after ten years in the rabbinate, I’m tired of being a novelty. Of course, I’m giving the 94-year-old woman a pass. But often I encounter much younger people than she who respond to my profession with something along the continuum of ignorance and childlike wonder.
Women have been rabbis since 1972 (or, depending on who you ask, 1935 or 1890). We should all know better by now.
It is no secret that I love telling my own story, and the story of women in the rabbinate. In fact, doing so makes up a big chunk of my rabbinate. I write for a feminist blog, after all! However, during my day-to-day interactions, I’m kind of over it. Most days, I just want to do my work (or, in another recent encounter, get through a complicated medical procedure) without having to explain, defend myself, or seek approval for what I do. I want to be a rabbi, or sometimes a woman rabbi, but not “Oh my gosh! A woman rabbi!”
Can you imagine going to your doctor/lawyer/professor/accountant, who happens to be a woman/queer-identified/person of color, and saying, “Gee! I didn’t know there were people like you doing work like this?” What kind of reaction do you think you’d get?
I’m reminded of an early episode of Friends where Phoebe’s body is inhabited by the spirit of an old Jewish woman who had died on her massage table. The woman’s husband tells Phoebe that his wife had always wanted to “see everything.” Phoebe drags herself all over New York City, trying to show the spirit a good time, so that her soul can move on to the next world. At the end of the episode, Phoebe and the gang attend a lesbian wedding (still somewhat of a novelty back then). “Well,” says Phoebe (in an old Jewish lady voice), “Now I’ve seen everything!”
Recently, one of the elders of my congregation brought one of his buddies for a tour of the synagogue. The friend wasn’t Jewish, and when I introduced myself he gave me a very well-meaning, “Well, I think that’s great! I support that!”
“Good,” I said in my sweetest possible voice. “Because you don’t really have a choice.”
How to cite this page
Berkowitz , Leah. "I'm Over It." 7 June 2018. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on June 9, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/im-over-it>.
I was one of the first women in my field forty years ago and remained one of the only women in the field for a good twenty-five years. I get it, I really do. It's a pain in the neck to always be singled out as a novelty.
However, when someone is well-meaning, albeit clueless, and offers support in the best way he or she knows how, it is petty and self-indulgent to slap them down into an embarrassed heap, however sweet the voice used. A simple nod will suffice, a dignified, "Thank you" takes little effort, and if you need to make a point, you could add (in the sweetest possible voice, of course), "I'm not exactly a rarity."