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Our History

A Rosh Hashanah sermon by Rabbi Leonard Gordon

Shanah Tovah.

When we received my daughter Ronya's itinerary for her summer bat mitzvah trip to the Far East, the first thing that caught my eye was that her group, which was arriving on flights from different places, was to assemble itself in Beijing, China under the McDonald's "golden arches." What occurred to me is that our society has only recently begun to recognize the importance of appreciating ethnic, religious and other kinds of cultural diversity. Ironically, at the same moment that we are embracing cultural difference, everything, from marketing forces to a shared popular culture and of a world made smaller by our actual and on-line mobility, is conspiring to create the appearance of one world-wide culture. Of course, Golden Arches notwithstanding, the People's Republic of China is, in fact, a different world. After all, culture-which is comprised of history, art, literature, and everything that roots people in its identity-goes much deeper than the superficial lowest common denominator to which the marketplace appeals.

Thinking about our Jewish identity-which is of course where I am headed here-I have worried that however deep, rich, and interesting our culture may be, our identity as Jews depends on our individual access to that shared history. The extent to which we can identify with aspects of the Jewish experience depends on how familiar we actually are with the art, literature, and other components of our Jewish past. Throughout the year, as I meet members of our congregation, people introduce themselves to me as three-times-a year Jews. Sometimes that phrase is used apologetically, sometimes as a simple matter of self-definition. "I'm not much of a believer"; "ritual's not my thing." These "what-I-am-not" statements assume a counter-image of what a "good Jew" is. It is an image of devoutness and piety, synagogue attendance, traditional Sabbath observance, and norms that have been established by such important definers of Judaism as "Fiddler On the Roof" and the Vice Presidential candidacy of Joseph Lieberman as filtered through American media.

The self-proclaimed three-times-a year Jew does remind me that these are the three days when I have an opportunity to teach, to inform, and to move people in greater numbers than at any other time. Intimidating as that challenge may be, when I faced it this year, I found that what I most of all wanted to communicate to you is that there are many authentic paths of Jewish self-expression, many ways of being Jewish, and that synagogue and chicken soup are only the most popularized versions of being an engaged Jew. What I most want for everyone in this community is to discover many of the very many roots that ground the tree of Judaism and to discern which of them grounds your own life choices. The problem is that because we have increasingly allowed popular culture to define stereotypical Judaism, and because many of us don't know the details of Jewish history, we don't see ourselves mirrored in our own past.

Jewish history has been neatly summarized: "The Jews went here; they went there; they were persecuted; they wrote books." In fact, the two days of Rosh Hashanah and the day of Yom Kippur lend themselves to a slightly more nuanced mini-course on the story of Jews and Judaism, moving from biblical times, to the medieval era, to our own day. The book that is before us, our mahzor, reflects thousands of years of Jewish experience, containing lengthy quotes from the greatest hits of the tradition: Torah and prophets, Psalms and medieval poets, reflections on disaster and expressions of our highest hopes for the world to come, contemporary readings and essays on the meaning of prayer. But in some ways, the mahzor that we use is the McDonald's version of Jewish cuisine. We share this prayer book with Jews everywhere; there is good quality control. The typeface homogenizes excerpts from a thousands-year long history into a set of seamless services that use familiar melodies. This well-blended presentation of the tradition contrasts markedly with more traditional kind of Jewish books, books like the Talmud, books with several typefaces, font styles, and type sizes all on one page. A piece of sacred text is placed at the center, and individuals from different traditions who lived in different times and places respond to the central passage as if they were all in dialogue with one another. What I prefer about the multi-column Jewish book is that it discourages us from the presumption that Jews speak with one voice, in one style, out of a monolithic tradition that imagines even God in one way.

A good reason to study our history then is to see the diversity that girds our unity. One tragic consequence of our misinformed notions of what is a Jew, is that too many of us are shy to play the role of the good Jew because we have been misled into believing that we do not conform to that role. Over the years of my rabbinates, I cannot tell you how many well-spoken individuals, often women with Ph.D.s, have expressed insecurity about their ability to introduce a Torah reading. Only by broadening our definition of who we are, only by opening up our past, can we feel confident of our place on the current Jewish landscape.

This morning, I do want to remind us of moments in Jewish history, but I will try to do so mindful of the fact that these are the High Holy Days and that the theme of these days is change. At the center of the High Holidays is the challenge to change, to be different, and to imagine our world as a different and better place. I am interested then to know how Judaism itself has been changed in the past and how we too can effect change by adjusting our definition of, and relationship to, the past. Today, I will remind you of some extraordinary individuals in recent Jewish history, and invite you to notice how our knowledge of the greatness of individuals can inspire us in our own efforts to become our best selves. The larger message is that a one-size-fits-all Judaism, like most things one-size-fits-all, fits no one well, and does nobody justice.

I'd like to dip into our past first by imagining the Jewish Middle Ages. Against the background of feudalism yielding to the emerging Renaissance, the Jewish Middle Ages, as our textbooks have long depicted the era, was a male-dominated world of Jewish businessmen and rabbis, mystics, and philosophers. Men were responsible for the production of sacred books, dominated the life of the synagogue and ran the public affairs of the community.

The life and the public career of Glikl bas Judah of Hameln fills in a more textured memory of this important period in Jewish history. Author, businesswoman, and ethicist, she lived in a time of dislocation: The late seventeenth century saw the expulsion of the Jews from her native Hamburg, Germany, massacres of Jews in eastern Europe, and a renewal of the blood libel in France. Engaged at the age of twelve, Glikl lost two husbands in her lifetime, and as a single woman, she traveled widely, sustaining a family business and opening her own stocking factory and store, while arranging the marriages of the twelve children who were the survivors of her fourteen pregnancies.

Although her career and success were remarkable, her memoirs secured her immortality. She wrote that she had neither the authority nor the education to write a "book of morals," but despite her modesty, her life story remains in print to this day as an expression of the highest values of early modern Jewish culture. These excerpts from her story provide a window into her motives and philosophy. She justifies her writing by insisting that her intended audience is her own family:

"I am writing down these many details, dear children mine, so you may know from what sort of people you have sprung, lest today or tomorrow your beloved children or grandchildren come and know nothing of their family."

And this is how she contextualized her financial success:

"My business prospered (but) who knows if it is good to live in great riches...and spend our time in the transient world in nothing but pleasure...I tried only to sustain my honor."

Finally, this is how she retrospectively evaluated the worries of raising so large a family:

"Every two years I had a baby, I was tormented with worries as everyone is with a little house full of children, God be with them! And I thought myself more heavily burdened than anyone else in the world and that no one suffered from their children as much as I. Little I knew, poor fool, how fortunate I was when I seated my children like olive plants around about my table."

The life of Glikl of Hameln is notable for hard work, piety, and conscientious concern for the impact that her life would have on generations to come. At the same time, her life is also exemplary of those of our great grandmothers whose resourcefulness, tenacity, intelligence, and strength sustained their families and our people through the turbulent fortunes that constitute the Jewish historical experience.

I found Glikl's biography summarized by the Jewish Women's Archive as part of their work of preserving Jewish women's history. The importance for us of recovering such history is well articulated by the Canadian Jewish sociologist Nora Gold. Gold asked why Jewish women who pray in egalitarian synagogues have been hesitant to take certain leadership roles in prayer and synagogue governance. Look around you. The Germantown Jewish Centre has championed ritual equality for women for close to fifty years, yet how many women in the room are wearing a kippah or tallit? I do understand of course that there are many reasons why committed Jewish women would decide against assuming traditionally male ritual garb or practice, but Gold discovered that even in egalitarian contexts women's empowered participation in Judaism and synagogue life is significantly less than that of men. She concluded that the principle reason for this discrepancy is the relative absence of female role models. This absence of diverse role models limits our imagination of what is possible for us.

When Gold interviewed women about their Jewish role models, she discovered that few could name women in their families or in Jewish history whom they wished to emulate. When women were asked to name a Jewish leader, more than half only named various male rabbis and Israeli political leaders. One, among the dozens who were asked, named a female synagogue president and seven named Golda Meir. Similarly, in naming Jews worthy of admiration, more than half named men from the science, arts and politics: Ben Gurion and Weizman, Einstein, Kafka, and Alan Dershowitz. The only woman named more than once was Gold Meir. Consider how rich our associations are when we think of the men who have inspired our own Jewish journeys: Rabbis such as Elias Charry, military heroes like Moshe Dayan, religious thinkers like Martin Buber, social activists like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the heroes of the Bible, the Maccabees, the rabbis of ancient and medieval times. Given the distance between Nora Gold's 1985 survey and our own moment, I wonder who there is for my daughters to emulate? I doubt that the name Golda Meir is evocative for the current generation, and in their experience there have been no female Prime Ministers of Israel, nor female leaders in any arm of the movements of contemporary Judaism. The synagogue movement, rabbinic movement, and seminaries of Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, and Orthodox Judaism are all headed by men.

As a child, my earliest memories of leadership were in the synagogue. As a thirteen year-old, I accompanied my father to the Midway Jewish Center on Long Island each week for the three services of Shabbat. While the Friday night and Shabbat morning services were always led by the rabbi and the cantor, Shabbat minhah was led by lay people and in my teenage years became my responsibility. My sister Sharon, equally knowledgeable and equally available on Shabbat, did not have the same opportunities. When Sharon and I traveled to Jerusalem during our childhood summers, my uncle Shumel, living in the Orthodox enclave of Kiryat Mattersdorf, took me aside to test my ability to analyze Talmudic argumentation. I had never before opened a page of Talmud, but his not so casual words praising me for the questions I asked as a fourteen-year old gave me the expectation that I could read the most challenging of Jewish texts when I began the formal study of Talmud four years later at a Jewish Theological Seminary summer course. When I was married a few years after that first formal encounter with the Talmud, the missader kiddushin at my wedding, the person ultimately responsible for sanctifying the relationship that binds Lori and myself, was Rabbi Shmuel David Warshavchik. I will always remember with pride that the Rabbi who presided over my wedding had been my father's tutor when he was a young rabbinical student at the Mir Yeshiva in Lithuania in the early 1930's. What a wonderful connection between parent and child, old world and new, the Jewish past and my Jewish future. Lori better remembers Rabbi Shmuel David for the moment under the chuppah when he unexpectedly asked her to walk around me seven times instead of the three circles she had graciously compromised on that morning. What for me was an experience of love and connection became for Lori another experience of alienation.

Don't imagine that today's girls have an easier time claiming a natural ritual place in Judaism. My daughters go to school in Jewish day schools where boys wear kippot when they study Jewish texts but girls are not required to do so. At Ronya's non-denominational day school, the single daily minyan separates girls behind a mehitza and limits the number of seats available to the girls, while retaining the entire library for boys. Our community proclaims its commitment to egalitarianism, but markers of gender difference are all around us in the division of labor between women and men. In our lay leadership and in our professional staff, we constantly battle stereotypes. Our early childhood staff is virtually all women; some of our finance committees virtually all male. Rabbi Feldman and I have often taken time to ask what messages our choices convey.

As a male Jew afforded with a Jewish education, I find myself heir to a rich tradition, and I can see myself with ease and comfort in the image of those who came before me. On weekdays, I wear my father's tefillin, on these High Holidays I wear his kittel, and I prepare for the High Holidays from the mahzor of my uncle, Rabbi Mordechai Stern. When I was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1985 I was the latest and youngest of many among the male first cousins in the Gordon family to become a rabbi. When my sister received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology, her dissertation advisor whispered to her, half jokingly, "now you are a rabbi too."

Our sense of personal past is necessarily impoverished if we see only the partially-accurate picture of the boys in cheder, men in Yeshivas, holy mystics, and bearded businessmen, philosophers, and doctors. If we work to familiarize ourselves with the names and stories of our people's heroines, we discover a heritage of greater glory than we have yet imagined. One of the most impressive aspects of the Jewish Women's Archive's project is that the women whom they feature enlarge the arena in which we see Jewish values and Jewish commitment expressed.

The story of Philadelphia's own Rebecca Gratz, who lived from 1781-1869, is a good example of such expansion. Living a hundred years later and half a world away from Glikl, Rebecca Gratz was a pioneer institution builder in our community and a model social and educational activist for an American Jewish community beginning to come of age. As a young woman, Gratz associated with other writers and poets, including Washington Irving. While nursing her father after an illness, she helped co-found the non-sectarian Female Association for the Relief of Women and Children in Reduced Circumstances, and later she helped establish the Philadelphia Orphan Asylum. Rebecca Gratz noticed that Christian charities often proselytized among their poor, and she concluded that the Jewish community would need its own institutions. In 1819, she founded the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society, America's very first Jewish charity not associated with a synagogue. A lifelong learner herself, Gratz took the model of the Sunday school and founded the first Hebrew Sunday School for the education of Jewish girls and boys, an organization she continued to manage into her 80s. The Sunday School project hired Jewish women teachers and began a teacher-training program. It initiated the effort to create the textbooks needed to educate American Jews. In later years, Gratz continued her institution building by creating the Jewish Foster Home and Jewish orphan associations.

Modern American Judaism as we know it today is as much the invention of Rebecca Gratz as Israel was a vision of Theodore Herzl. Gratz created the Hebrew School, and then she furnished the teachers and books for this new institution; she created Jewish nursing, foster home, and orphanage associations. By building an infrastructure, Gratz created an American Jewish community independent of Christian charities. Gratz died in 1869, and some think she was the model for Sir Walter Scott's portrayal of the medieval Jewess Rebecca in his classic novel Ivanhoe. Scott's magnificent Rebecca (played by the young Elizabeth Taylor in the film version) was a lawyer, a doctor, a linguist, and a romantic beauty, and like Rebecca Gratz never married. Not an observant, entrepreneurial, maternal author like Glikl, Gratz's exemplary independence and energy are the outgrowth of fundamental Jewish values and history: discover the needs of the Jewish community and meet them.

Is Rose Schneiderman's name familiar to you? Schneiderman, who died in 1972, had a profound influence on the democracy we value. During the days when socialist activism was more than a little risky, Schneiderman was an energetic leader of the labor movement. Without any reasonable hope of success, but motivated by values familiar to us from the biblical prophets and the rabbinic concern for equity in the marketplace, Rose Schneiderman began her working life as a sixty-four-hour-a-week laborer at subsistence wages in a department store. Later, as a sewing machine operator, she organized the first women's local of the United Cloth, Hat, Cap, and Millinery Workers. She discovered that "poverty was not ordained...working people could help themselves." And she insisted that "what the woman who labors wants is the right to live, not simply exist." She articulated the memorable, heart-stopping demand that, "the worker must have bread, but she must have roses too." This commitment would motivate the next two generations of American workers in their drive to create the contemporary middle class.

The galvanizing event in Schneiderman's early career was the Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911. One hundred and sixty four young female workers, mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants, died when they were trapped behind locked exit doors or forced to jump ten stories to escape the burning sweatshop.

In decades that followed, Schneiderman ran for U.S. Senate, served as the only woman on Roosevelt's National Recovery Administration's Labor Advisory Board, and was New York State Secretary of State for the Department of Labor. She traveled throughout the United States enlisting support for the rights of workers and for women's right to vote. We feel her influence today in many of the laws we take for granted that she helped draft and pass: social security, worker's compensation, the elimination of child labor, maternity leave, safety laws, minimum wage and unemployment insurance. As the divide between rich and poor in American widens unreasonably, the temptation to again see workers as drones also grows. Schneiderman's point that the worker needs both bread and roses restates a core Jewish value, Hillel's dictum that no one may be treated as you would not wish to be treated, that all people are human beings created in the image of the divine. The phrase "bread and roses" reminds you to look into the beggar's eyes, to dignify the day laborer, to be humble and generous when you have the luxury to do so. No sensibility could be more Jewish. The Al Chayts of the Yom Kippur liturgy and the promises we make to ourselves to improve in the coming year might well bring Rose Schneiderman's image before our eyes.

My family, like many of you, went to see the new documentary about Hank Greenberg. The filmmaker powerfully recorded how much Greenberg's brilliance on the baseball field elevated Jewish pride, and Jewish boys for the first time, could fantasize a future for themselves as All-Americans, as baseball players. These few weeks we have been watching athletes from around the world compete and push the human body to its limits of strength and speed. We know the importance of competitive sports to our children's well being, but we also know that winning Olympic gold has not been a traditional fantasy of Jewish girls. I want to conclude with a short portrait of a stenographer in a Toronto chocolate factory who became a gold medallist and scored more points for her country than any other athlete, male or female, at the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam.

Born Fanny Rosenfeld, and known both as "Bobbie" as the "world's best girl athlete," Rosenfeld was born in 1904 and died in 1969. She won softball games before crowds of thousands, broke international track records, and led her ice hockey and basketball teams to league championships. She was so good at so many different kinds of sports that one author quipped that "the most efficient way to summarize Bobbie Rosenfeld's to say that she was not good at swimming."

When she retired from sports, Rosenfeld coached track and softball and became famous again as a sports writer. As both an athlete and a writer, Rosenfeld helped topple traditional barriers against women's participation in sports.

These women made a difference in our world; they model excellence, and they created classic expressions of our commitment as Jews to the importance of family, education, worker's rights, and barrier-breaking excellence. We and they are mutually obligated: they deserve to be known, and we, as heirs to their legacy, have the need and right to claim them for our personal and collective history.

When Nora Gold asked her focus groups what they wanted for the next generation, the response was univocal: The women she interviewed, aware that they were not comfortable taking on leadership roles, who felt that they "did not get the skills or have the role models for leadership," most wanted their daughters to be comfortable doing things that they themselves could not. The work of the Jewish Women's Archive, and other groups recovering the history of Jewish women, can offer us all, women and men, new role models for imagining our Jewish selves. These are Jews who challenged stereotypes and who acted as agents for change.

In our sanctuary we have had major changes during this past year designed to reinforce the message that the synagogue needs to be a place for active participation. During most of our services, we now sit facing each other, off the bimah, with the torah reading in the middle of this room. By sitting in a half-circle and locating the torah amongst us rather than above us, we remind one another that all of us are important, that the process of learning torah is interactive, that our voices matter. Ultimately, we affirm the presence of God in our midst and not only above. Week after week in the sanctuary women and men lead our service, reading torah, offering comments, leading the prayers. During the High Holidays, when we gather more formally, we have multiplied opportunities for individual participation.

I want to publicly thank Marty Coopersmith for suggesting that we spend time during these holidays thinking about our history and Peshe Kuriloff for having chaired a process over these past three years that has not only enriched our service, but has also created a community of women learning together about Judaism. These women of different ages, backgrounds, and understandings of the divine have found through this study group a pathway to Jewish learning and leadership.

At yizkor services, many of us will remember one of the women in this community who shaped contemporary Mt. Airy and who died this past year: Marjorie Kopeland. When I first arrived here to be your rabbi, Marjorie made an appointment to meet with me, saying that she wanted me to know her and to know about her life since, one day, I would be delivering her eulogy. These number of years later I did deliver her eulogy, after first having a multi-year conversation with a woman who created some of the hallmark institutions of our area, the Allens Lane Arts Center being only the best known among them. Marjorie was a woman of valor in our community. We miss her presence among us this year, and add her legacy to the archive that is our communal heart.

I want to conclude with a word of thanks to the Jewish Women's Archive and Ma'yan: the Jewish Women's Project of the Upper West Side, as well as to Lori, who has long been my teacher in all matters, but most especially in everything concerned with the subtleties of empowering Jewish women. When other people were celebrating the ordination of women at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Lori was asking how Judaism would need to accommodate the change. Lori has persistently drawn my attention to complexity. I have learned equal opportunity does not mean equality, which remains an elusive goal. Our main challenge must be to honor, serve and develop the best in each of us.

May the year ahead bring us better wisdom and understanding. May the Centre better serve all of our spiritual and physical needs, as we seek to become better Jews, our needs for community and learning, for support, celebration, and culture, and most especially, our need to help others. Lishanah Tovah.

Leonard Gordon, Rabbi of the Germantown Jewish Centre, delivered this sermon at the Germantown Jewish Centre on Rosh Hashanah 5761, Day One (September 30, 2000).

Women of Valor Collage
Full image
Bobbie Rosenfeld, Rose Schneiderman, Rebecca Gratz, Glikl bas Judah.
Courtesy of Canada's Sports Hall of Fame; Brown Brothers; The Rosenbach Museum & Library; and the Leo Baeck Institute, respectively.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Our History." (Viewed on January 24, 2018) <>.


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