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Lessons from Aunt Sophie

I often find myself thinking about how lucky I am to have spent my childhood surrounded by strong women; my mother, my aunts, and my grandmothers have all taught me that shattering the glass ceiling takes not only the force of a sledgehammer, but also the courage to face what lies beyond. As I, a once incredibly timid child, have grown into a strong Jewish woman, I’ve realized that this idea applies just as much in my religious life as it does in my secular one. Had you asked me several years ago if I felt a strong connection to Judaism, I would have shrugged my shoulders, embarrassed that I even had to address my religion in conversation. However, the women in my life have helped me to see my Jewish identity as a strength rather than something to hide in the presence of my (mostly) non-Jewish community. Perhaps one of the women who has influenced my perception of Judaism the most is my great aunt, Sophie Gottlieb.

Sophie was born on March 31, 1937, in a lively neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. Ever since she was a child, Aunt Sophie desired a connection with her faith, but the restrictions placed on women’s involvement in Judaism at that time, as well as her conservative, non-egalitarian synagogue, made it difficult for her to seek the relationship with God that she craved. The physical separation between men and women at synagogue was one of the first indications to Sophie that there was a significant (and possibly detrimental separation) between the Jewish practices of men and those of women. Whereas her father and other male members of the congregation had the liberty to chant Torah, lead services, and wrap tefillin, Sophie, her mother, and her sisters had no such ritual opportunities. As she grew older and witnessed the boys at her temple become bar mitzvahed, she was struck by the realization that her gender alone was keeping her from doing things that she knew she could and wanted to do.

Despite much opposition from her religious community, Sophie soon began building the foundation for the Jewish life that she wanted. In her teenage years, she found her calling in the zionist movement. Each summer, she attended a Habonim Dror summer camp, where she was able to share her love of Judaism, social justice, and the state of Israel with boys and girls who were as passionate as she was. It was here that Sophie gained a fully immersive Jewish experience. Here she could pray unabashedly alongside her Jewish brothers without fear of being judged or scorned.  In this supportive environment, her appreciation for Judaism only continued to grow, a seed nourished by the newfound presence of an inclusive community.

With the confidence she gained from her involvement in the Zionist movement, Aunt Sophie became increasingly involved in her synagogue back home. She founded Hadassah chapters in her synagogues both in New York and Florida, and found strength in helping other women and young girls find their niche in Jewish society. She was seen as a strong leader by members of her Jewish community, and was given the opportunity to take groups of Hadassah members and congregants to Israel to learn more about the Jewish homeland. Sophie soon developed a lasting admiration for Israel, and was especially vocal in advocating for the importance of Women of the Wall . It was because of their efforts that Sophie got to see her three granddaughters have their B’not Mitzvah at the Kotel a few years ago. Although she has helped guide them in their Jewish learning, she knows that they will ultimately create their own paths on the journey to becoming empowered Jewish women.

I’ve realized through speaking with Aunt Sophie that our Jewish upbringings, though both incredibly meaningful, have been fundamentally different. We attribute this to a sign of the changing times; mid-20th century America was unkind, in both the religious and secular spheres, to young girls and women. And Aunt Sophie was caught between appeasing her sexist community and striving to be acknowledged as a religious equal with her male peers. I, on the other hand, am fortunate to have been raised in a Jewish community that treats me with the same amount of acknowledgement and respect as my twin brother. It has always been a wonderful feeling to know that he and I are equally capable, in the eyes of our rabbi and the temple clergy, of leading fulfilling Jewish lives. Aunt Sophie and I have led vastly different Jewish lives. But, in hearing the stories of how she challenged her community’s religious restrictions, I have learned the importance of having confidence in my abilities as a Jewish leader. Although she may not realize it, her commanding presence at seders and services as well as her noticeable passion for Judaism have taught me that I have the ability to rise above the standards and limitations people place on me; that it’s not enough to take “no” for an answer and that, instead of having someone else dictate my path of Jewish learning, I can create my own.

There is an immense power in being able to say a prayer aloud; a beauty in leading an eager congregation in song. I saw this firsthand during my cousin’s Bar Mitzvah four years ago. Aunt Sophie was called up to the bimah and, the instant her mouth opened, her previously reserved demeanor crumbled. As her voice rang out pure and clear, I was entranced. It was clear that she belonged up there; that she so naturally found comfort in the Hebrew. Her passion for Judaism was palpable and it stayed with me during my Bat Mitzvah two months later, and ever since.

I have looked up to my aunt Sophie for as long as I can remember. She and my grandmother have always encouraged my cousins and I to be unfailingly proud of our Jewish identities. She is the driving force behind our annual Passover seders, and her love of Judaism is infectious. I know that I wouldn’t be the person I am today without her constant encouragement to embrace myself wholly as a Jew and as a woman. Aunt Sophie, thank you for helping me grow into the empowered Jewish woman I am today. 

This article was also published on Teen Voices at Women's eNews.

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Rising Voices Fellow Hannah Himmelgreen's Aunt Sophie
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Sophie Gottlieb, aunt of 2016-2017 Rising Voices Fellow, Hannah Himmelgreen.
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How to cite this page

Himmelgreen, Hannah. "Lessons from Aunt Sophie." 30 May 2017. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on October 18, 2017) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/lessons-from-aunt-sophie>.

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