Ruth F. Brin
Ruth F. Brin developed her personal approach to writing through her liturgical poetry, which reflected her experiences as a woman and a modern American Jew, beginning in the 1950s. Most Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist prayer books now include her prayers and poems. She also published four books of poetry, a novel, five children’s books, dozens of scholarly articles, and librettos for cantatas and two operas. She founded a Jewish literary magazine, Identity, in 1966, through the Minneapolis Jewish Community Center, editing it for five years. She taught Jewish studies at two universities and served on the board of directors for the League of Women Voters, the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), Hadassah and the Urban League, and helped found Mayim Rabim, a synagogue in Minneapolis. She chaired her area’s Head Start program through the NCJW and Urban League.
Ruth F. Brin was one of the liturgical pioneers of the post-World War II era. In the 1950s, when most Jewish women still seemed content with their traditional subordinate role in public worship, Brin was already at work modernizing traditional Jewish prayers and texts and offering new interpretive readings and original poetry reflecting her own religious experience. Her liturgical innovation bore fruit. Today it is difficult to find a Reform, Conservative, or Reconstructionist prayer book or anthology that does not include one or more of her writings, and many individual synagogue services throughout the United States and Canada make use of her work. She was the first woman, and one of the few American-born writers, of whom this can be said.
In a writing career that spanned more than fifty years, Ruth Brin’s published works included four books of poetry and prayers, five worship services, five children’s books, dozens of scholarly and historical articles in more than 30 periodicals, and librettos for Cantor Charles Davidson’s “The Hush of Midnight” (1970), “Kristallnacht” (1988), and David M. Brin’s “Jacob and Esau” (1980). She founded Identity, a Jewish literary magazine in 1966 and edited it for five years.
Brin taught Jewish Studies at the University of Minnesota and Macalester College and wrote book reviews for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the American Jewish World, the newspaper of the Jewish community in Minnesota. She served on numerous boards of directors, including the Minneapolis Urban League, League of Women Voters, National Council of Jewish Women, and Hadassah. and in 1992 she was a founder and board member of Mayim Rabim, a Reconstructionist-affiliated synagogue in Minneapolis. She chaired her area’s Head Start program through the NCJW and Urban League and continued to enjoy working with children, late in life volunteering at a day care center, in addition to teaching at special synagogue programs.
Brin described her own work as “a personal search for the ultimate reality, the wonder, the mystery, the meaning that most of us call God.” She has been called “one of the few truly authentic Jewish poets,” and her work has been described as “a spiritual feast” and “a resource for people seeking faith or engaged in helping others understand and make sense out of their traditions.” Charles Silberman says Brin was “responsible for creating an atmosphere conducive to liturgical innovation and experimentation.” Reviewers commented on Brin’s propensity for mentioning her Minnesota locale, which reminds the reader that her poems and prayers were not detached and otherworldly, but rather were reflections of a wife, mother, community activist, poet, scholar, and observer of nature.
Renée Bauer, former rabbi of Mayim Rabim, noted, “Ruth was not only a Reconstructionist but also a lifelong feminist. For that I am grateful for I am aware that I am able to walk my path as a lesbian rabbi because of women like Ruth who expanded thought and practice in the Jewish community. Ruth did so with her feminist thought and creative liturgy.”
In her late 80s, Brin published her first novel, The Most Beautiful Monday in 1961 (Lerner), which concerns a group of six middle-aged Jews on a boating trip on the Mississippi River.
Early Life and Family
Born on May 5, 1921, in St. Paul, Minnesota, Ruth (Firestone) Brin was the third child and only daughter of Milton and Irma (Cain) Firestone. Her mother’s family was from Germany and Alsace. Her father’s family was of Hungarian-Jewish descent. Brin’s two older brothers were Linn, an attorney, and George, a pioneering family medicine doctor. Her attorney father was a graduate of Northwestern University Law School and her mother a graduate of Vassar College. Both were Reform Jews and very active in the Jewish community. Brin’s father served on the Ramsey County Welfare Board during the Depression years and was president of Mt. Zion Temple in St. Paul. Her mother was a suffragist and board chair of the St. Paul NCJW, and through that organization founded a birth control clinic; she also directed Sophie Worth Camp through the St. Paul Jewish community.
Ruth graduated from Vassar College Phi Beta Kappa in 1941. On August 6, 1941, she married Howard Brin, a 1941 graduate of Harvard. While he served in the U.S. Army in England, she worked for the War Production Board in Washington, D.C. At the end of the war, they settled in Minneapolis. Howard managed the family business, the Brin Glass Company, and became a leader in the Jewish community. He died on June 1, 1988.
Ruth Brin earned her M.A. in American studies from the University of Minnesota in 1972 and was recognized with the Most Outstanding Alumni Award of the College of Liberal Arts. In 1985, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College awarded her the Keter Shem Tov [Crown of a Good Name]. The American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, OH, maintains a collection of her unpublished papers. Most of her published papers are held by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College Archives in Philadelphia.
The Brins’ four children are Judith Brin Ingber (b. November 5, 1945), author of Victory Dances: A Biography of Fred Berk, editor of Seeing Israeli and Jewish Dance, and a choreographer/dancer; Aaron Brin (b. September 3, 1948), an organic farmer and organic farm inspector; David Brin (b. September 29, 1950), a cellist, composer, and editor; and Rabbi Deborah Brin (b. October 8, 1953), Rabbi Emerita of Congregation Nahalat Shalom, Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Realizing she needed to live in a more supportive environment, Brin moved into the Kenwood Retirement community in the last five years of her life. Hungry for easy access to a Jewish community, she created it there. Once a month she organized a program around Jewish themes, and she often planned the holiday programs or gave lectures herself.
More than fifteen years after Brin’s death on September 30, 2009, most likely due to her frequent imagery of nature in her poetry, there is new appreciation for her works. An example is
Before the wind shakes the bronze leaves from the oaks,
While the maple is aflame and the poplar is still gold,
Flocks of birds take to the flyways of the continent
Down the great river valleys and along the seacoasts….
We thank You, Oh Lord, for making us part of earth,
To wonder at its creatures, to exult in all its beauty.
We give thanks to You for making us part of heaven,
To see beyond the changing beauties of this fair earth,
To praise You and bless You who are creator of all.
Another of her poems has become a standard at bat mitzvah celebrations:
“A Woman’s Meditation”
When men were children, they thought of God as a father;
When men were slaves, they thought of God as a master;
When men were subjects, they thought of God as a king.
But I am a woman, not a slave, not a subject,
Not a child who longs for God as father or mother…
Selected Works by Ruth F. Brin
Bittersweet Berries: Growing Up Jewish in Minnesota. Duluth, MN: HolyCow!Press, 1998.
"Can a Woman Be a Jew?” The Reconstructionist, 1968.
David and Goliath. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner, 1977.
Harvest: Collected Poems and Prayers. Wyncote, PA: Reconstructionist Press, 1986; revised edition HolyCow!Press, 1999.
The Hush of Midnight, with Cantor Charles Davidson, a LP recording and a prayer book by Adas Israel (1967).
“Letters from a Mystic.” The Reconstructionist, January 12, 1968, pp. 15-22
The Most Beautiful Monday in 1961: A Novel Minneapolis, MN: Lerner, 2008.
A Rag of Love. Minneapolis, MN: Emmett, 1971.
The Shabbat Catalogue. Brooklyn: KTAV, 1978.
The Story of Esther. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner, 1976.
A Time to Search: Poems and Prayers for Our Day. Middle Village, NY: Jonathan David, 1959.
Contributions of Women: Social Reform. Minneapolis, MN: Dillon Press 1977.
Gersten, Lana. "Ruth Brin, 88, Whose Prayers and Poetry Grace Siddurium." The Forward. October 7, 2009. Web.
Greenberg, Sidney, and Jonathan Levine. Likrat Shabat. Bridgeport, CT: Prayer Book Press/Media Judaica, 1981.
Harlow, Jules, ed. Bond of Life: A Book for Mourners. New York: Rabbinical Assembly, 1975.
Meier, Peg. Wishing for a Snow Day, Growing Up in Minnesota. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2010.
Plaut, Rabbi W. Gunther, Bernard J.H. Bamberger, and William W. Hallo, eds. The Torah: A Modern Commentary. New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981.
Riemer, Rabbi Jack. Wrestling with the Angels: Jewish Insights on Death and Mourning. New York: Schocken Books, 1995.
Silberman, Charles. Introduction to Harvest: Collected Poems and Prayers, by Ruth F. Brin. Duluth, MN: HolyCow! Press, 1986.
Specktor, Mordecai. "Ruth Brin, acclaimed poet, liturgist and American Jewish World book critic, dies at 88." American Jewish World News, October 1, 2009.