Letter from Bima: Women Rabbis II: Eastern Tropes
A group of women rabbis is caught between two worlds—their Ashkenazi pulpits and rabbinical schools and the Sefardi and Mizrahi family traditions in which they were raised.
Perched on the edge of her chair, talking enthusiastically, Rabbi Tsipi Gabai waves her right arm around, causing a row of thin gold bracelets to chime together musically. She is seated in the living room of her comfortable home in Kensington, California, which is filled with North African décor—most notably, a graceful stone arch beneath the staircase. “I added that myself,” she says with pride.
Gabai, 48, comes from a long line of Moroccan rabbis on both sides—her father was Yoseph Gabai, chief Sefardi rabbi of northern Israel.
She chose to continue the family tradition by traveling from Kensington, near San Francisco, to the nondenominational Academy for Jewish Religion, California, in Los Angeles. “It was like Yaakov who wanted too much to marry Rahel,” she says of the long process. “I traveled to and from Los Angeles for three and a half years. I would wake up early in the morning, then come back after two or three days.”
Gabai received smikha in 2003, making her the first Moroccan female rabbi on record. Her ordination also places her in another unique grouping, one of female rabbis with Sefardi or Mizrahi heritage.
Their numbers are too small to be a trend, but in California, New York and even as far away as Australia, women with lineage from Iraq and Iran, Egypt and Spain have stepped into rabbinic robes. For them, success at school and work may only be a first step; some are also struggling to integrate their family’s traditions into homes and careers.
“American Judaism and synagogue life is overwhelmingly Ashkenazi,” says Rabbi Mona Alfi, 37, who comes from a mixed Iraqi, Iranian, Spanish and East European background. She attended the Reform Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion rabbinical school in Los Angeles. “Jewish books, particularly children’s books, show Jewish life as shtetl life or Ashkenazi Orthodox.… I cannot remember seeing any children’s resources highlighting non-Ashkenazi Jews, unless you are talking ancient world and Babylonia.”
Mizrahiyyim are descendents of Jews from the Middle East, North Africa and Central and East Asia. Sefardim are Jews whose ancestors lived in Spain (Sefarad, in Hebrew) and Portugal. Both groups have created thriving communities in America, with centers in the states of Washington, New York, New Jersey and California.
While it is difficult to generalize about the communities—even within themselves they are far from monolithic, each having its own customs and lifestyles—historically, religious Mizrahiyyim and Sefardim had a relatively liberal policy toward women. In fact, the first recorded female rabbi was a 17th-century Kurd, Asenath Barzani. Mizrahi and Sefardi women were also the first female psalm writers and ritual slaughterers.
Today, no religious mizrahi or Sefardi institute will ordain a woman, forcing those who seek to enter the rabbinate to leave their social groups, many of which have been influenced by the ultra-Orthodox. Yet even within liberal mainstream Judaism, it is difficult to find a place that welcomes and nourishes the rich cultural heritage of women like Gabai and Alfi; it is largely ignored by the Ashkenazi majority.
Both women see the workplace as a forum for correcting this imbalance. Alfi, who is executive director of Hillel at the University of California at Davis and Sacramento State University, invites Mizrahi and Sefardi speakers to her campus as part of a series of Friday night programs called “A Taste of Shabbat.”
All the students enjoy the programs. “They appreciate seeing different faces of Judaism,” Alfi reports. “Just last week, I met with an Iranian student whose father is Muslim and whose mother converted from Judaism to marry his dad. He has been connecting with the Jewish world. It was wonderful…to share our common heritage. I’ll be working with him to have an Iranian Shabbat in March, to coincide with the Persian New Year.”
Tehiyah Day School in El Cerrito, California, where Gabai is assistant director, is almost completely Ashkenazi. However, under Gabai’s direction, Mizrahi and Sefardi heritage is integrated into the curriculum. Mira Peretz, who teaches 3rd, 4th and 5th grades, points to the annual Purim festival as an example. The most popular booths are those based on Moroccan marriage themes: Children can get henna tattoos; exchange simulated marriage vows; ululate at the end of each ceremony—and eat baklava.
Peretz is of Moroccan heritage. “There is a running joke among the staff,” Gabai says mischievously. “If you’re Mizrahi or Sefardi, I hire you on the spot. If you’re Ashkenazi, I interview you.”
Gabai’s enthusiasm for spreading multiculturalism extends beyond the walls of her school. In 1997, she became one of four leaders of the first-ever egalitarian Mizrahi-Sefardi High Holiday services, held at Berkeley Hillel; she continues leading such services for the greater East Bay community.
“I was asked many times to chant Torah and haftara [at my local Conservative congregation],” Gabai says. “I did it [in the] Sefardi tradition. Then I was approached by members of the ritual committee, who asked me to lead a Moroccan Kol Nidre. I said, ‘I hope we’ll have a minyan.’” In a room seating 70 people, there was more than a full house.
Yet for many of these rabbis, their heritage has receded into the background. “I’ve accepted or resigned myself to the fact that I work in an Ashkenazi world,” says Rabbi Dianne Cohler-Esses, 45, a Jewish educator in New York and the first known female rabbi of Syrian descent. “In addition, my personal community is Ashkenazic.”
“I am dealing with being one of the first women rabbis in Sydney,” explains Jacqueline Ninio, 39, associate rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Sydney, Australia; her father is Turkish-Egyptian, her mother is an Australian Jew-by-choice. “There is still a long road ahead of us in terms of being accepted as equal to our male colleagues.”
Michelle Missaghieh, 38, associate rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood, California, and daughter of an Iranian father and American mother of Hungarian descent, does use some Persian traditions in synagogue programs—such as having people hit each other with scallions during Dayenu at the Passover Seder. However, she says, it is the exception, not the rule.
For some, putting aside their tradition has its roots in their ethnocentric rabbinic education. “While I felt that HUC was definitely committed to teaching about the spectrum of Jewish experiences,” Alfi recalls, “it was shocking to me how little my classmates had been exposed to non-Ashkenazi, non-American Judaism…. I definitely felt there were times when I had to remind people that there was more to Jewish culture than gefilte fish and matza ball soup.”
Cohler-Esses enrolled in the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary in New York seeking to integrate the traditional life of her childhood with feminist ideology. “I came to search for my Jewish roots,” she writes in her essay “Memory and Revolution,” in Women’s Passover Companion (Jewish Lights Publishing), “[but] my own roots were invisible. I found that, in all the classes I took, the Jews of the East disappeared after they left Spain, as if they disappeared entirely off the historical map.”
“What drives me crazy,” she says today, “is when people teach Jewish history and literature, [but] only teach Ashkenazi history and literature—hiding behind, ‘Well, my students are Ashkenazi, so they don’t need to know non-European history.’ Or more generally, when people aren’t at all aware of or interested in Jewish life and values outside their own small world.”
For all these women, the main factor in whether they continue in their traditions today is the family in which they grew up. Gabai’s expertise in Moroccan prayer stems from her participation in religious life as a child. “I grew up in an Orthodox home; my father was an Orthodox rabbi,” she says. “When we had discussions about Torah and mitzvot, I felt I had the same rights as my brothers.”
In Ma’alot, the northern Israeli town where Gabai was raised, she attended a religious school that was coeducational. This was typical for children of immigrants from Middle Eastern and North African countries: “We all prayed and studied Talmud together,” she recalls.
Decades later and thousands of miles away, this egalitarian education paid off. Though she married an Ashkenazi man, Yehudi Weininger, Gabai, now divorced, has passed on her heritage to their children—Shiri, 21, who is finishing her last year of college; Tali, 23, a special education teacher; and Itai, 25, an electrical engineer for NASA. “They have been exposed to the traditions of their father—like bar mitzva trope and so on,” she says. “But even when he and I were married, [our practice] was always Mizrahi.”
For Gabai, marrying an Ashkenazi was simply coincidence—“I was 20 years old and madly in love,” she says. But for Cohler-Esses, marrying Ashkenazi Larry Cohler was an extension of running from her tight-knit Syrian community in Brooklyn and into the arms of the mainstream Jewish world.
“As early as my adolescence, I began to see that the model for a young Syrian girl was not for me,” she notes in “Memory and Revolution.” “Feminism saved my life…from oppression by my own people…. Yet it was also feminism that alienated me from my people…and ultimately from my very self.”
Cohler-Esses is not steeped in the religious customs of her community. “I wasn’t sent to a Syrian yeshiva,” she explains. “Certainly the fact that I didn’t attend synagogue much—I would have attended more regularly had I been male—contributed to the fact that I don’t speak Hebrew with a Syrian accent or know the nusakh.”
Her children—Ayelet, 7, and twins Shira and Eli, who are 4—are exposed to their Syrian heritage primarily through visiting relatives. “I want my children to come to know and feel comfortable with Syrian Jews,” Cohler-Esses says. “If they learn specific traditions, that’s great, but to me that is a somewhat thin marker of a complex culture and character.”
Also emphasizing family visits—“There is constant contact with my relatives”—Alfi says she learned about her family through stories and hopes to offer the same gift to her son. In addition, she says, “It was very important for me to name my son Ezra—a common name in my father’s family.” However, she admits, her son is growing up in a mainly Ashkenazi environment, and her husband, Glenn Hammel, is Ashkenazi.
“I love to go to Persian affairs and see my aunts, uncles, cousins and their children,” Michelle Missaghieh says. “I love to introduce my kids [Jael, 6, and Sivan, 3] to this culture, but I’m really an outsider-insider in the Persian world. I’m an insider because I am half Persian…but I’m an outsider because I don’t live the lifestyle. In addition…I don’t speak Farsi.”
Both Ninio and Missaghieh grew up in the Reform movement. “I always saw my heritage as something unique, not part of the American norm,” says Missaghieh, who is married to Ashkenazi Bruce Ellman.
However, in Adelaide, Australia, where Ninio was raised, having a nona, not a bubbe, was the norm. “I remember going to summer camp in Melbourne with Habonim…. During one program, [a leader] asked, ‘Who is Sefardi?’ I was shocked to see how few people raised their hands. As time has gone on, I have realized more and more how different my heritage makes me.”
Today in Sydney, even as Ninio is adjusting to being a minority and a woman rabbi, she has found unexpected support. “I have discovered lots of [traditional Sefardim] who are proud that a woman whose father is from Egypt is a rabbi,” she says.
The world has changed a great deal since Asenath Barzani was a leader so revered that rabbis throughout the region reportedly turned to her for guidance. Challenged by their pasts and struggling with modern religious influences and gender acceptance, these women are not only making history, they are reclaiming it.