Bread & Fire
Jewish Women Find God in the Everyday
Edited By Rivkah Slonim
Distributed by Coronet Books Inc.
454 pages, Illustrated, 7 x 9 3/4"
Bread and Fire is about the everyday lives of Jewish women and the struggles and aspirations, failings and triumphs of their spiritual endeavors.
This book asks: What does it mean to be a Jewish woman today? What does Jewish tradition offer to modern women who are looking for practical ways to bring spirituality and meaning to their lives and the lives of their loved ones?
The women whose writings appear in this book span a wide range of ages, backgrounds, perspectives and professions. In her own way, each one reveals God as an anchoring force in her life: from the birthing room to the boardroom, cleaning in the kitchen or scrubbing up for surgery. In places as far apart as Jerusalem, Washington, DC and southern India, these women help us find the sacred within the apparently mundane.
Readers will find themselves laughing, crying and gaining reassurance and strength as they come face-to-face with these women – women just like them – who are moving forward in the ancient quest to find God in the everyday.
About the Editor:
Rivkah Slonim, an internationally known lecturer and activist, addresses the intersection of traditional Jewish observance and contemporary life with a special focus on Jewish women. Over the past two decades, she has appeared before audiences in hundreds of locations across the United States and abroad and served as a consultant to educators and outreach professionals. Slonim is the editor of Total Immersion: A Mikvah Anthology (Jason Aronson, 1996; Urim, 2006). Slonim and her husband, Rabbi Aaron Slonim, have been the shluchim of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory, to Binghamton, NY since 1985. Together they founded and direct the Chabad House Jewish Student Center at Binghamton University. Rivkah and Aaron Slonim are the parents of nine children.
Bread and Fire contains moving teachings and honest reflections from more than sixty contributors, including:
Shoshana S. Cardin
Ruchama King Feuerman
Rachel Naomi Remen
Sarah Yehudit (Susan) Schneider
Praise for Bread and Fire:
“Bread and Fire is an eloquent expression of contemporary Jewish women’s spirituality. Women write here about critical experiences in their inner and outer lives, as well as about the evolution of their attitudes to the givens, the normal pleasures and problems of a woman’s world. Many describe their struggle to find the sacred within the humdrum, the sensual, and the traumatic dimensions of experience. Single, married, divorced, disabled, with and without children, juggling the demands of home and profession, passionate students and teachers of Torah, these women convey the joy and complexity of Jewish religious life. Deeply felt and powerfully expressed, these essays should touch the hearts and minds of those who seek the sacred within the mundane.”
–Dr. Avivah Zornberg, author of Exodus: The Particulars of Rapture
In attempting to create a grammar of women’s spirituality, Rivkah Slonim has set herself a daunting task. To her credit, she avoids the treacly apologetics and patronizing odes to women as the fairer, gentler sex that so often mark enterprises of this sort.
In one essay, Karen Kirshenbaum, teacher of a women’s Mishnah class in Jerusalem, recalls the Lubavitcher Rebbe encouraging her own mother to launch study groups for women. In another, Susan Handelman describes the Rebbe’s encouragement of her academic pursuits, as well as his lifelong efforts to ensure women’s active and visible inclusion in Jewish life.
Slonim’s collection takes its inspiration from the pathway forged by the Rebbe. Rather than asking writers to talk about women, she has created a collection that allows women their own voices.
First-person narrative is a powerful window into spiritual experience, and yet its power is also its peril, because real lives are complex, with no neat beginning and middle and end. On occasion, these essays contain multiple stories that intrude on each other. A template for personal exodus is interwoven with allusions to an eating/reading addiction, and the resulting confusion does justice to neither strand. An essay misleadingly entitled “My Life as a Nun” does not address its central theme about the sacredness of the physical expression of love until halfway through the essay. It can be hard to truncate the creative meanderings that result from thoughtful introspection—but not all stories can be told here, and tighter editing might have allowed for more focused exploration.
On balance, however, Slonim’s strategy succeeds. These accounts are not airbrushed views, but any disappointment we may feel in reading of unanswered questions and unfulfilled possibility is amply compensated by the empathic honesty of the accounts and the genuine struggle for spiritual connection.
Esther Shkop’s bittersweet retrospective of her learned Jerusalem grandmothers also tells of the hungry longing of her great-aunts for whom Jewish study was a locked world. Deena Yellin’s frank admission that “the tension she feels between wanting to a be success in the home as well as the workplace is a battle that will rage within her for the rest of her life,” co-exists with her sweet savoring of the life lessons brought home by her AC (after children) life.
A number of essays unabashedly embrace the “otherness” of Jewish femininity, reflecting on the mystique of childbearing, nursing, and other exclusively female experiences. Closely related to these are essays that examine stereotypically feminine pursuits, discovering in the mundane a deeper vision. In “Cleaning with Meaning,” Sherri Mandel writes, “Cleaning is a paradox: it contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction. But cleaning for Passover can be an exercise in spiritual growth . . . We are ultimately humbled in our cleaning . . .”
Even in tasks that are onerous and weigh heavily on women, there can be redemption. In an essay in which humor is separated from hysteria by no more than a hairwidth, Elizabeth Ehrlich describes the web of complication that threatens to choke her as she considers how observing Shabbat will alter the rhythm of her week. And yet, “without commitment . . . the forms we love . . . will wither and disappear . . . Someone, many someones, have kept the forms alive and vital, have kept the choices available to me. . . It is my turn now.”
Similarly, Ruchama King Feuerman describes the occasional transcendence and more frequent distraction of days filled with prayer as well as the freedom but emptiness that marked the years in which she did not pray. She is not overly romantic about the shift in consciousness when she resumes daily prayer; some days, she still struggles with boredom, but she now recognizes that “prayer is meaningful even on days that do not produce a high” and finds herself “learning to get comfortable with the yearning again.”
Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveichik writes “We have two traditions . . . Father teaches the son the discipline of thought as well as the discipline of action. . . . What kind of a Torah does the mother pass on? . . . That Judaism expresses itself not only in formal compliance with the law but also in a living experience . . . that there is a flavor, a scent and warmth to the mitzvot . . .”
Some voices speak to this equilibrium of opposed, yet balanced spiritualities. In her opening essay, Rivkah Slonim challenges us to recognize her grandmother’s challah baking as an act no less spiritual than the scene of her grandfather wrapped in tallit and tefillin. “They were both completely immersed in conversation with G-d; intimate conversation, loving conversation, in a place where little else mattered.”
Susan Schneider makes clear that the feminine and masculine domains are not simply “separate but equal”—they interact, working like two hands in tandem, each lending support to the other. She describes the vital synergy of the feminine modality that is prayer, vs. the masculine domain of study. “‘I don’t learn except where I pray . . . and I don’t pray except where I learn ((Tractate Berachot, 8a).’ Study must be powerful and must be accompanied by an explicit plea to absorb truth and be changed by it. And conversely, the prayerful yearning to grow and transform requires the fortification of study.”
In a brilliant essay called “Speaking to G-d,” Tamar Frankiel considers why male imagery is used to describe G-d in our prayers. In the process, Frankiel asks us to confront the fears that often underlie a strident feminism. Rejection of the masculine can sometimes be a mask for our own self-doubt and even self-loathing:
“Like an abused child who cannot suffer intimate touch, we as women often fear to evoke too much passion from men. In our religious lives, we may also guard ourselves from evoking the love of G-d, from asserting our ability to call forth love. So we have frequently chosen to take a meeker role . . .”
Frankiel boldly reframes gender: “We cannot define masculine as one thing and feminine as another, and then bring them together to construct our understanding of love. Rather, love comes first and genders emerge from it . . . To love and yearn, to call forth love and receive it. Surely at this point, the meaning of gender defined in specific ‘roles’ disappears.”
In its most glorious moments, this book achieves what is so rare in accounts of women’s spirituality and transcends the artificial distraction of male and female. It creates a grammar of womanhood that makes no reference to womanhood at all, totally transparent, calling no attention to itself, yet authentic to the feminine experience. These essays could have been written by men, but they are related by women because women relate them best.
They speak of universal themes, of G-d, Torah, family, and the cycle of life. In a breathtakingly lyrical piece, Devorah Leah Rosenfeld, recalling the challenge of explaining death to her young students twenty years earlier, writes, “My father took his final small breaths at dusk, and the long night and day that followed became a confused jumble of disbelief, numbness, and the crushing heaviness of loss. But one slice of time stood out from the rest. As my father’s casket was laid gently in the earth, and those who loved him best covered it with shovel after shovel of dry rocky soil, I stood dry-eyed, reassured, calmly watching. Just then, like those four-year-olds had patiently explained to me, it really was the most natural thing in the world.”
-Chana Silberstein, Lubavitch.com
Right inside our front door, we have a wooden cabinet where I store copies of my first two books, Expecting Miracles and One Baby Step at a Time. The only other book in that cabinet are copies of a thick lavender book entitled Bread and Fire: Jewish Women Find G‑d in the Everyday.
This lavender book’s place of honor is no coincidence. Bread and Fire is there because it is my favorite book. It is a book I have given to my mother, my sister and my sister-in-law (none of whom is Orthodox) as well as my rebbetzin (who is). It is a book for which I have established its own lending society in my Jerusalem neighborhood. It is a book that I have recommended on my website www.JewishMom.com as one of the top resources that exists for Jewish women.
In her book’s introduction, Rebbetzin Rivka Slonim, a mother of nine who is co-director with her husband of the bustling Chabad House of Binghamton University, recalls the first time she questioned the Jewish woman’s role as a young girl:
“I had been grappling with the intersection of women and observance within traditional law . . . I was mostly at peace with the tradition, but a part of me was agitated . . . did women somehow end up with the short end of the stick? I still remember the feeling of righteous indignation that filled me and spilled over as I ran into my grandparents’ kitchen that Friday morning, determined to discuss these issues with my learned grandfather. I wanted answers and I wanted them right away. Instead, I was arrested by a scene so pure that I can still feel its power today.
“In one corner, my grandfather, wrapped in tallit and tefillin, was completing his morning prayers; in the other, my grandmother was concentrating on her prayers as she fulfilled the Biblical commandment of challah . . . I felt like I was a trespasser on holy ground. They were both completely immersed in a conversation with G‑d: intimate conversation, loving conversation, in a place where little else mattered. In that moment, my perfectly valid questions concerning equal access for women within Judaism seemed somehow unworthy. If it was truly service of G‑d I was after, if what I honestly craved was that connection, then I had found my answer in the devotions that filled the room.
“My questions did not vanish into thin air . . . but now I ask my questions with less arrogance and a little more honesty.”
While writing Bread and Fire, Slonim presented her questions on the role of Jewish women to 57 Jewish women at all stages of life and in a diverse life circumstances. The result is an honest-to-goodness page-turner – personal, honest, gripping, heartrendingly exquisite.
In one article, bestselling author Ruchama King Feuerman reflects poignantly on her evolving relationship with prayer throughout her life:
From her years as an older single when, “I opened my siddur to pray, [and] lists would assail me; the ingredients I needed to buy for dinner that night, the number of guys I’d gone out with whose names started with ‘Y,’ phone calls I needed to make, appointments I needed to go to.” Then to recent years as a mother of young children when she has come to see prayer as “some kind of spiritual chiropractic . . . an inner alignment that set me straight and steady for the entire day . . . I was part of G‑d’s plan of tikkun olam. He was interested in me. He loved me. And sometimes, I allowed, He even liked me, and enjoyed my personality quirks.”
Elizabeth Cohen writes in her heart wrenching and eye-opening article “The Fifth Commandment” about her experiences caring for her aging parents: “Had you told me at the time my mother was dying that I would someday be happy that I drove each day to see her, slept by her side, spoon-fed her, rationed her medications, held her like an infant, I would have thought you were a lunatic. Had you told me I would someday think back fondly on the time my father lived with me, lost his shoes and glasses every day and cried at night out of frustration because he could not remember where he was, or even his own name, I would have told you that you were nuts.
“But now it is two years later, and it is slowly dawning on me that although this experience was terribly hard, it was one of the best of my life. There is no way to sell this to someone on the outside. There is no brochure for parental caretaking that can make it look like a holiday, or infomercial that sells it like a timeshare . . . But to anyone with a sick parent, or whose parent grows weak or needs them, I can say this: It is time well spent. It will go on your soul’s resume. Honor your father and mother and you may like yourself better having done so.”
What I love most about Bread and Fire is its real-ness. It is Jewish womanhood uncensored.
I highly recommend Bread and Fire to every Jewish woman at every stage of life. I thank Rebbetzin Rivka Slonim for asking the same questions that I have been asking myself for years, and for having the courage, the intellectual integrity and the determination to answer them in this thought-provoking and powerful book.
-Chana Jenny Weisberg
The Jewish Press
Finding the sacred in the mundane
My grandparents were not big readers. Their English was slightly accented but fluent -- they both left Poland in their early teens and came to America in the 1920s. But like many Orthodox Jews of their generation, when they had "leisure" time (although I'm not sure they knew the concept), it was spent reading Tehillim. They would sit at the table or on the bus or on the wooden bench outside their two-family brick house in Brooklyn chanting psalms from a weatherworn leather book.
Jewish presses hadn't yet emerged as an industry, and the publishers at that time printed prayer books, Hebrew holy books and explications of the Hebrew holy books. Half a century later, the market was thriving for Jewish books in English: novels, kids' books, poetry and non-fiction -- clean and kosher enough for a religious, somewhat sheltered audience.
Now, following the latest publishing craze of themed Jewish anthologies comes "Bread and Fire: Jewish Women Find God in the Everyday" (Urim Publications, 2008), edited by Rivkah Slonim (with consulting editor Liz Rosenberg). The 400-page compilation features writings from 60 women on topics including modesty, faith, childbirth, prayer, family, community, feminism and, in one way or another, Orthodox Judaism.
"What can it mean to be a Jewish woman today? Does the Jewish tradition offer ways in which a contemporary woman can bring spirituality and meaning to her life? How and where does one begin in a practical way?" writes Slonim, a lecturer and Chabad shaliach, or emissary, of the Lubavitcher movement who works with her husband, Rabbi Aaron Slonim in Binghamton, N.Y. Slonim also edited "Total Immersion: A Mikvah Anthology" (Jason Aaronson, 1996, Urim, 2006).
"We all have moments of existential reflection. We might question why we are here. We might doubt our ability to make a difference, or despair of connecting to our inner self and to God," she writes.
But this is not a book about existential reflection, doubt or inner despair. It's not even a book about questions. It's more of a collection of writings from people who have already found the answers. Some have had questions in their past -- a number of the writers are ba'alei teshuva, or newly religious.
In Elizabeth Ehrlich's essay "Seasons of the Soul," on gradually becoming kosher over the course of a year, she writes: "Here are the things I have to give up: lobsters in New England, oysters sensually slithering down my throat, the French butcher. I give up calamari on Christmas Eve with a favorite friend, a traditional meal that links her to her Italian grandparents, and thus connects me to my friend's childhood. I sacrifice bacon at my aunt's house, crisped and greaseless beside a home-baked corn muffin, forgo Western omelets at diners I once loved to frequent. I give up being able to eat comfortably anywhere, able to make casual assumptions. It is like being an immigrant, maybe; never quite feeling at home."
There's the famous modesty queen Wendy Shalit, in a excerpt from her book "A Return To Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue," on her fascination with "modestyniks" -- her word for young single women raised secular who decide to become religious, wear long skirts and abstain from touching men until marriage.
There's also Jan Feldman's essay, "How a Daughter of the Enlightenment Ends Up in a Sheitl": "I began to take on mitzvot sequentially in a way that appeared rational, at least to me, though perhaps irrational to others," she writes.
First Feldman focuses on family purity and mikvah, then starts keeping kosher and finally becomes shomer Shabbat. When she and her family moved to Montreal, she decided to cover her hair, first with a tichel (kerchief) and later with a sheitl (wig).
"Donning a sheitl represented the seriousness of my commitment to Hashem," she writes. "The sheitl will continue to be a symbol of beauty and controversy, but mostly, it will continue to be a source of blessing."
Most of the notes of controversy -- on covering hair, being modest, keeping kosher -- while mentioned, are explained away in each essay. But that's OK; these are women who have chosen to lead a religious lifestyle and to air their thoughts and feelings on subjects by which they are disturbed (Passover cleaning), pained (circumcision), inspired (chevra kadisha, or burial preparation) and awed (birth).
"Birth transforms the birthing couple and their caretakers. Meeting the dangers with awe, stepping out of our normal realms of control into God's vast and magnificent dance, can renew all involved," Tamara Edell-Gottstein writes in "Birthing Lives."
This is an anthology for anyone interested in religion, in the religious experience, in a community of women who have chosen to live differently from the norm. Varda Branfman, for example, in "The Voice of Tehillim," writes that during her first year in Jerusalem she was "peeling off the layers of my American cultural identity until I was left with what I had been all along, a Jew." She discovered a custom of saying the psalm that corresponds to the number of years one has lived. At 29, she recited psalm 30:
"Hashem, my God, I cried out to You and You healed me. Hashem, you have raised up my soul from the lower world, You have preserved me from my descent to the pit.... Hashem my God, forever I will thank You."
Perhaps this is what my grandparents had been doing all that time -- they were reciting Psalms, although I am not sure they'd have been able to express it in Branfman's words: "Even before we begin to say them, the act of taking the Tehillim down from the shelf returns us to the calm at the center of the storm. By saying these words, we climb into a lifeboat that carries us beyond this moment, beyond peril, beyond our finite lives."
LA Jewish Journal
Religion; Jewish Studies
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