Finding My Hineni

Collage by Judy Goldstein.

Click, clack. In her high-heeled wedges, I watch my mom walk briskly ahead of my brother and me, parading the fresh, gruesome remnants of her divorce across the floor of Norfolk International Airport. I suddenly feel an overwhelming resentment toward those wedges. Their utter impracticality, frilliness, and sexiness revealed a newfound independence and humanity within her that made me nauseous with jealousy: HINENI! she seemed to holler. I witnessed a power I had yet to unlock in myself.

I credit much of my “Jewish feminist awakening” to the agonizing two years following the divorce of my parents. My understandings of love, femininity, intimacy, and independence felt viciously stripped from me. But I settled into a fixation on my mom’s now husband-less idiosyncrasies: heels at the airport, going out with friends who weren’t just parents of my classmates, makeup for dates with strange men, and setting up her now flourishing business as a Jewish Divorce Coach (who knew that was a thing?!). At school and in my extracurricular activities, I preached female empowerment, confidence, and undermining patriarchal constructs. Yet at home, I bashed my mom for her “weird” new ways of being. A not-so-little voice in the pit of my stomach told me I was a fraud.

What I didn’t know was that my mom was embodying her Hineni in the most miraculous fashion. In Hebrew, Hineni translates to “Here I am.” Hineni appears eight times in the Torah, often in moments of climax, when what’s to come is uncertain. The word shows up three times in the Akedah, when Abraham responds to G-d’s requests with Hineni. Hineni is a declaration: it requires an awareness of the space in time that you inhabit and a commitment to engage with your full self. It is declared despite fear and ambiguity. Hineni distinguishes itself from the more generic Hebrew phrase for announcing one’s presence (ani po: “I am here”). There is a sense of power, intention, and responsibility implied when declaring Hineni. In fact, “Hineh” alone often translates to “behold.”

Behold me, I imagine my mom utter. I grew up watching my mom chair San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum, participate in  the Wexner Fellowship Program for Jewish community leaders, and now chair the board of Jewish Vocational Service in San Francisco. She served as the most personal example of a female leader in my life. It never crossed my mind to slap a “Jewish feminism” label on my mom’s pursuits, but the sense of pride her work gave me was steadfast.

Here I am. It is an awareness, a deep understanding of space, as much as it is a declaration. Hineni invites you to confront your own presence and its unique and vital impact it has on any given point in time. Growing up with a twin brother, my space felt perennially shared. I couldn't seem to find a way to diverge from a life that felt passive and only complementary to my brother’s. I never considered myself to be shy, but the label preyed on me as I was constantly compared to my more outgoing brother. Honoring the value of my presence and my Hineni felt foreign.

It was not until high school that I felt a shift. Transitioning to a school separate from my brother’s marked the first time I felt like I was engaging in a space that wasn’t shared or teeming with competition and comparison. As being a twin became a fun fact and not the sole characterization of my existence, I felt like I had the space to explore what it meant to harness the power of my presence. Slowly and awkwardly, I began to speak my own Hineni. As my brother opted to distance himself from the routine Jewish practices we had growing up, I dug in, wanting to contextualize these familiar practices with my new understanding of Hineni and my presence. I stayed in synagogue after hours to discuss feminist interpretations of the Book of Esther with my rabbi, returned to Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique through a how-is-this-Jewish lens, and incorporated rituals and habits into my life that honor both my Jewishness and my femininity.

Constructing Jewish practices that felt individualized and personally resonant catalyzed my confidence in further defining my presence and the space I take up. The drive it took to engage at the intersection of my Jewish and emerging feminist identity was rewarding and invigorating. In tandem, I looked at my mom's once “weird” practices as aligned with my own agenda of learning to speak Hineni. Magically, the word began to proliferate in my life, showing up not only on the bimah during prayer, but in poems, headlines, and texts exchanged between my mom and I. Hineni became an anchor, a hype song, an umbilical connection to my mom’s spiritual and feminist journey.

In both inspiring and uncomfortable ways, my relationship to my mom and brother has taught me to own my Hineni. Furthermore, my mom has shown me what it looks like to distill Judaism down to what personally resonates for me and then to do something with it. In a world where concept doesn’t always translate to practice, it feels important that I leverage my Hineni to show up, commit, and act. Along the way, I have purchased my own pair of semi-impractical shoes: cream colored loafers that boast a slight heel. Hearing their click clack reminds me to shout Hineni in times of triumph, discomfort, awkwardness, and courage.

This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.

10 Comments
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Rosie - your essay is beautifully written, and your self-awareness and introspection are impressive! As a life-long friend of your mom's, I cannot say I am surprised. Congratulations!

Rosie,
What you have written is very impressive and insightful! I have read it three times and am so happy that you appreciate your wonderful Mother and can express yourself so eloquently.
Love from Ellen and Jon

Your essay blew me away. Yasher Koach! Rosie, in more ways than one you are definitely your mother’s daughter. You are as talented and gifted a writer as she is. Can’t wait to read more of your musings. Cousin Kay/your grandma must be kvelling. 😘

"I witnessed a power I had yet to unlock in myself. I think you unlocked it, Rosie. This piece is powerful on so many levels, and just by publishing it, I see you in your stylish cream-colored heels proclaiming, Hineni! Your impact, Rosie, is indeed unique and vital. Thanks for the beautiful, thoughtful piece.

A very insightful, mature, essay Rosy., both the content and style. I could feel your feelings all the way from the beginning through your metamorphosis and finally your self realization of your own Hineni. Insightful and clear, lucid
and expressive

Amazing self awareness and articulation. She sounds so mature explaining her place in our present society.

Wendy, kvelling is another word that comes to mind. Thank you so much for sharing this article!❤️

Speaking truth to power after the painful experience of your parents' divorce will help others find their voice. Loved reading your beautiful prose of the journey finding your North Star. I am in awe of how someone so young writes with such conviction and clarity.

What a profound and richly Jewish coming-of-age story. Kol ha k'vod! A vivid and powerful reflection.

What an extraordinary and powerful essay. Your keen observations and self-reflection are remarkable, especially during such a tender time of life. Thank you for sharing this very daring piece.

This is fabulous - a must read for all children of divorce. It grabs you in from the start and is meaningful throughout. Who knew that the newborn baby I was photographing would become such an eloquent thinker and writer. Well done Rosie!

How to cite this page

Yanowitch, Rosie. "Finding My Hineni." 28 November 2022. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on February 8, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/finding-my-hineni>.

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