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Ellen Frankel

b. May 22, 1951

by Susan Berrin
Last updated June 23, 2021

Ellen Frankel.
Courtesy of Ellen Frankel.

In Brief

Ellen Frankel is a feminist Jewish pioneer in business and cultural arts. As the first woman CEO of the Jewish Publication Society, she re-established the publishing house as a major player in contemporary American Judaism and shepherded more than 200 books through publication, many of which won National Jewish Book Awards. She is the author of several books, including The Five Books of Miriam, a classic feminist retelling and woman’s commentary on the Five Books of Moses, the Torah, and has written several librettos, including “Sarah” and “Hannah.” She continues to serve as a model of a Jewish woman who has shattered the proverbial glass ceiling.

Early Life, Education, Family, and Lay Leadership

Ellen Frankel was born in New York City on May 22, 1951. She was the first of two daughters of David Frankel and Ann (Frieda) Frankel (née Gordon). Frankel was almost three years old when her sister, Barbara, was born. She lived in New York until the age of seven and then in Metuchen, New Jersey, until she finished high school. Frankel attended the University of Michigan, where she was the James Angell Scholar, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1973 with a B. A. in Comparative Literature. She earned her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Princeton University in 1978, writing on “Allegory and Irony in the works of Edgar Allen Poe and Charles Baudelaire.” While still a graduate student at Princeton, she taught writing classes to Princeton staff as part of their extension program.

On August 10, 1975, Frankel married Herbert Levine, whom she had met while they were both graduate students at Princeton. They both became active in the Princeton Havurah The quorum, traditionally of ten adult males over the age of thirteen, required for public synagogue service and several other religious ceremonies.Minyan at Hillel and were the only two graduate students in literature during their time there who took their classical language examinations in Hebrew rather than in Greek or Latin. Frankel and Levine moved to the Mount Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia, an area known for its ethnic diversity and vibrant Jewish life, home to rabbinical students and faculty at the nearby Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, a thriving Jewish Renewal congregation, and the lively Germantown Jewish Center, where three minyanim meet and work together on many social justice and intergenerational projects. Frankel and Levine have two children—Sarah, born December 30, 1980, and Les, born April 30, 1982. Their daughter, Sarah, her wife, Liz, and their three daughters live in Auburn, ME. Their son, Les, and his wife, Nicole, live in Levittown, PA.

Devoted Teacher

Between 1977 and 1989, Ellen Frankel held several teaching positions: From 1977-89, she taught part-time at Franklin and Marshall College and Millersville University; she taught creative writing from 1979-1985 in the Lancaster/Lebanon County school system; and she taught at Drexel University from 1978-79. In 1988-89, she was the Judaic principal at the Lancaster Jewish Day School. During this period, she also led writing workshops for educators and businesspeople throughout the state of Pennsylvania.

Frankel’s devotion to teaching is demonstrated by her commitment to workshopping and teaching at various week-long institutes, including the National Havurah Summer Institute, the Hillel Eastern Winter Institute, UAHC Kallah (Reform Movement), Kislac Elderhostel Program, Eilat Hayyim, and Limmud-UK. She has participated as a weekend scholar-in-residence at more than 50 North American synagogues across the denominational spectrum.

Frankel has volunteered as a storyteller in a first-grade classroom at a Philadelphia public school, sharing tales from Greek mythology, West Africa, African-American slave lore, Native American lore, and American folk legends. She is an engaged and engaging teacher. She is also a frequent speaker in the Jewish community, lecturing on publishing, women, writing, and a variety of Jewish topics.

Enterprising Editor

A pioneering feminist leader in business and the literary arts, Frankel served as the first woman CEO of a major Jewish publishing house. Her soaring spirit provided an avenue to cultivate women’s imaginative thinking. She follows in the distinguished footsteps of the Jewish Publication Society’s first editor, Henrietta Szold, who served from 1893 until 1916. Frankel’s tenure at the JPS, where she served as editor-in-chief from 1991 and as CEO from 1998 until 2009, reinvigorated a declining institution. After JPS experienced a moribund eighteen-month hiatus in publishing (1989-90), she restructured the non-profit organization’s financial operations and reduced its institutional debt, revived the Editorial Committee, and refilled the book acquisition pipeline, while remaining true to the institution’s 115-year core mission of popularizing Jewish scholarship for lay readers. JPS remains the only non-denominational, non-profit publisher of Judaica in North America.

During Frankel’s tenure, JPS renewed its commitment to undertaking long-term, labor- and capital-intensive projects that are of enduring value to the Jewish community but may never prove commercially profitable. Major projects launched under Frankel’s leadership include several feminist and innovative initiatives, such as its first graphic commentary, Megillat Esther; first books by scholars Avivah Zornberg and Rachel Adler; an English translation of the first book written in Yiddish by a woman, Meneket Rivkah; and numerous volumes on contemporary Jewish ethics. During this period, JPS also published the 3000-page Outside the Bible, the first compendium of extra-canonical texts organized and annotated from a Jewish perspective, and Folktales of the Jews, a four-volume selection of Jewish folktales from every Jewish language community, culled from the Israel Folktale Archive. In addition, Frankel oversaw the new edition of the JPS Hebrew-English TANAKH; a gender-sensitive translation of the Torah; and a new two-volume, re-indexed edition of Louis Ginzberg’s classic Legends of the Jews. Frankel’s insightful acuity, determination, and perseverance re-established the publishing house as a major player in contemporary American Judaism. She shepherded more than 200 books through publication, many of which won National Jewish Book Awards. After Frankel’s departure, the press became an imprint of the non-profit University of Nebraska Press, which took over its backlist and continues to publish new JPS titles acquired by a reduced staff in Philadelphia, headed by Rabbi Barry Schwartz.

Author and Storyteller

Ellen Frankel is also author of several books, including four children’s books: Choosing to be Chosen (1985); George Washington and the Constitution (1987); Tell It Like It Is: Tough Choices for Today’s Teens (1995), which she wrote with her teenage daughter, and The JPS Illustrated Children’s Bible, with art by Avi Katz, which won the National Jewish Book Award in 2009. She is also the author of five adult titles: The Classic Tales: Four Thousand Years of Jewish Lore (1989); The Encyclopedia of Jewish Symbols (1992), co-authored with Betsy Platkin Teutsch; The Five Books of Miriam (1996); The Jewish Spirit (1997), and The Illustrated Hebrew Bible (1999). She was a contributor to the multi-volume series, My People’s Prayerbook; a consulting editor to the ground-breaking Three Testaments (2013), edited by Brian Brown, which brought together for the first time English texts of the Torah, the Gospels, and the Qur’an; and co-editor, with Rabbi Goldie Milgram, of two volumes of Mitzvah Stories (2011, 2014).

Ellen Frankel’s intellectual lucidity and adventurousness proved most persuasive in The Five Books of Miriam, a compelling retelling and woman’s commentary on the Five Books of Moses, the Torah she-bi-khetav: Lit. "the written Torah." The Bible; the Pentateuch; Tanakh (the Pentateuch, Prophets and Hagiographia)Torah. The book brings to life the stories of the Bible recast in the voices of women. The book’s imaginative format and deeply textured explication reveal Frankel’s creativity and skill as a text scholar. Her work adds a uniquely modern element of critique and feminist dialogue with the ancient text. Drawing on the rich tradition of Jewish folklore, rabbinic A type of non-halakhic literary activitiy of the Rabbis for interpreting non-legal material according to special principles of interpretation (hermeneutical rules).midrash, contemporary feminist scholarship and criticism, and her own invention, Frankel has produced a modern Ze’enah u-Re’enah, an earlier anthology of story, ethics, legend and tradition intended for women unschooled in the Hebrew classics. The Five Books of Miriam has been translated into Hebrew and published by Am Oved as Midrash Miriam.

Frankel is currently working on a series of thrillers, featuring a fictional Israeli intelligence agent, Anat Yisraeli. The first novel centers around the Dead Sea Scrolls and antiquities theft; the second, around the Ethiopian Jewish community and witchcraft.

In addition to her books, Frankel is the author of numerous stories, essays, and reviews. She is also an accomplished storyteller, lecturer, and teacher, speaking in numerous capacities and appearing on National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition. She has served on the Board of the Jewish Book Council, the Board of the National Havurah Committee, the Board of Advisors of the National Bible Literacy Project, the Executive Board of the Dialogue Institute at Temple University, and the Advisory Board of jewishfiction.net.

Musical Enterprises

Since 1999, Frankel has also been writing librettos for musical works. Two of her pieces, “Sarah” and “Hannah,” were included in Andrea Clearfield’s cantata, Women of Valor, premiered by the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony in 2000. In 2010, the Women’s Sacred Music Project of Philadelphia commissioned Frankel and Clearfield to write a new movement, “Hagar,” for a chamber version of Women of Valor, performed in September 2011 at Daylesford Abbey and the Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia. Following the success of “The Golem Psalms,” inspired by the ancient Jewish legend of the Golem, which premiered at the University of Pennsylvania in May 2006, the Mendelssohn Club (a renowned music institution in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, founded in 1874) began work with Frankel and Clearfield on a project about robots and artificial intelligence, based on Karel Capek’s 1920 play, R.U.R. In 2010, Frankel was commissioned by the Center City Opera Theater in Philadelphia to write the libretto for a new two-act opera, Slaying the Dragon, based on Kathryn Watterson’s 1996 book Not By The Sword, which dramatizes the remarkable transformation of the Grand Dragon of the Nebraska KKK from a white supremacist into a repentant spokesman for tolerance who ultimately converts to Judaism. Frankel’s second opera, The Triangle Fire, with music by Leonard Lehrman, premiered at the American Labor Museum (Haledon, NJ) and the Brown Building at New York University, the original site of the Triangle Factory Fire.

Ellen Frankel is widely known for her intellectual thoughtfulness, innovative midrashic voice, storytelling and writing. She continues to serve as a model of a Jewish woman who has shattered the proverbial glass ceiling.

Selected Publications

Books

The JPS Illustrated Children’s Bible. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2009. Winner, National Jewish Book Award, Children’s Illustrated Books, (2009)

Midrash Miriam. Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 2007. (Hebrew Edition)

The Illustrated Hebrew Bible. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1999.

The Jewish Spirit. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1997.

The Five Books of Miriam. New York: Putnam, 1996.

Tell It Like It Is: Tough Choices for Today's Teens. Brooklyn: Ktav, 1995.

The Encyclopedia of Jewish Symbols. Oxford: Jason Aronson, 1992. (With Betsy Platkin Teutsch.)

The Classic Tales: 4000 Years of Jewish Lore. Oxford: Jason Aronson, 1989.

George Washington and the Constitution. New York: Bantam, 1987.

Choosing To Be Chosen. Brooklyn: Ktav, 1985.

Selected Stories, Essays, Articles

“’What Troubles You, Hagar?’ On Writing the Lyrics for ‘Hagar.’” In The Bible

Retold by Jewish Artists, Writers, Composers and Filmmakers, edited by Helen Leneman and Barry Dov Walfish. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2015.

“Parashat Behar.” Jerusalem Report, May 10, 2014.

“The Art of Libretto Writing.” The Journal of the International

Alliance for Women in Music 19, no. 1 (2013).

Sing, O Barren One!” In Chapters of the Heart, edited by Sue Levi Elwell

and Nancy Fuchs Kreimer. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2013.

“Preface to the Torah.” In Three Testaments: Torah, Gospel and Qu’ran,

Edited by Brian Arthur Brown. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2012.

“Saved by the Evil Eye,” In Mitzvah Stories, edited by Goldie Milgram and Ellen Frankel. New Rochelle, NY: Reclaiming Judaism Press, 2011).

“On Sin and Forgiveness.” In Mahzor Lev Shalem for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. New York: RA, 2010.

Preface to “Deuteronomy.,” In Women’s Torah Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazy and Andrea Weiss. Philadelphia: CCAR Press, 2008.

“Stretching Forth a Hand.” In Siddur Sha'ar Zahav: The All-Inclusive Siddur. San Francisco: Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, 2009.

“Against the Odds: Adopting an Older Child with Disabilities.” Sh’ma, 2000.

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How to cite this page

Berrin, Susan. "Ellen Frankel." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 23 June 2021. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on July 27, 2021) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/frankel-ellen>.