Profile: Elyse Goldstein
Elyse Goldstein remembers the entry she submitted in 1973 for her high school yearbook. Each senior was entitled to three lines: name, club and professional aspiration. Her description read: “Elyse Goldstein, choir, rabbi.” The editor called. “We can’t put jokes in the yearbook,” he said.
From the bima at her bat mitzva, Goldstein had already announced that she wanted to be a rabbi. “The cantor broke into tears,” she recalls.
“And then, the rabbi fell off his chair.” So it’s no surprise that she fought the yearbook committee and won, and that she achieved her childhood dream: She was ordained by Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in New York in 1983. Goldstein has devoted the past 26 years to meshing two of the three “isms” by which she lives her life: feminism and Judaism (the third is vegetarianism).
Goldstein is director of Kolel: The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning in Toronto, which offers Judaic text study, High Holiday services, trips to Israel and online study. But she likes to go by a more traditional title—rosh yeshiva. In her office at the Bathurst Jewish Community Centre, among her books, family pictures, Judaica and workout clothes, a vanity license plate propped on a bookcase says, “Rebbe,” a gift from her previous pulpit, Temple Beth David in Canton, Massachusetts. “It used to belong to the Bostoner Rebbe,” she explains, “until his eyesight failed.”
In some ways, Goldstein, 54, is the paradigm of a rebbe, dedicated to study, learning and guiding her community. But with long, curly black hair and a penchant for bright colors, she rewrites the role. She avoids black suits on the bima—preferring red dresses— owns 12 talitot (from black lace to a high-priestess-style robe with bells that she dons on Yom Kippur) and 45 hats, for religious occasions that she participates in but does not lead. She wears a kippa for her official rabbinic capacities.
In the early days of her career, Goldstein followed conventional advice to dress down her femininity, even to lower the register of her voice. “I really regret that,” she says. “[Now] I try to bring the ‘woman’ back to ‘woman rabbi.’”
In 2005, the Covenant Foundation named her Outstanding Jewish Educator. “Elyse is talented, unconventional and willing to address the most difficult issues facing the Jewish community,” says Covenant Executive Director Harlene Winnick Appleman.
Goldstein has written prolifically on Jewish feminism and edited anthologies of women’s commentaries: Seek Her Out (URJ Press);ReVisions: Seeing Torah Through a Feminist Lens; The Women’s Torah Commentary; and The Women’s Haftarah Commentary(both published by Jewish Lights). Her latest anthology, New Jewish Feminism: Probing the Past, Forging the Future (Jewish Lights), is a 2008 National Jewish Book Award finalist.
“People worry that feminism will change Judaism to be unrecognizable,” she says. “Is today’s Judaism recognizable as Judaism anyway? Now that we have ‘Women and Judaism’ classes we realize that we have been studying ‘Men in Judaism’ all along, mistakenly believing we have been learning ‘just Judaism.’”
The anthologies don’t reject or apologize for the text but reread it in a new light, reappropriating the central value of midrash. In fact, Goldstein says that she does not struggle much with biblical texts—“I just midrash the difficulties away.” Her favorite biblical women are the daughters of Zelophehad, who petition Moses for an inheritance of land when their father dies with no male heirs. “They go up against the system with a rational plan and achieve a minor feminist triumph,” she says. “They are cool, calm, collected. They’re named. Unlike the matriarchs, nobody lies or deceives. They win and they get off the stage.”
By questioning “every assumption of Jewish life,” Goldstein writes inNew Jewish Feminism, feminism has created a participatory Judaism, one that has brought formerly marginal issues into the mainstream. But, she stresses, women rabbis don’t say yes to everything: “Jewish feminists have striven to conserve while changing…to enrich and expand while holding on tight…. What a tightrope we have walked!”
To many, it feels as though feminism may have reached the end of its revolutionary work. Goldstein herself asks: “Do we still need the ‘F’ word? Haven’t we done it all?” New Jewish Feminism opens a dialogue between early feminist pioneers and the new generation, to look back as well as to plan for the future.
“I’m an old feminist,” says Goldstein. “Our issues were black and white; today’s are grayer. Feminism is being stretched by new categories, by issues of gender and transgender, male and female, gay and straight….”
Today, she is content to move on to the role of mentor, yet she has already inspired many. As a 16-year-old, Elizabeth Dunsker attended a Jewish camp at which Goldstein taught. “She was absolutely the most impressive person I’d ever met. I had never had a rabbi listen so intently…. That was the moment I considered the rabbinate,” says Dunsker, now rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in Vancouver, adding that Goldstein continues to be a role model for her.
Goldstein’s mother, Terry, former associate director of National Federation of Temple Youth, tops the list of Goldstein’s own mentors. Raised in Queens, New York, in a passionately involved Reform home, Reform leaders and rabbis surrounded the family’s Shabbat table. “They came to dinner and a few days later marched on Washington. Who would not have wanted to be a rabbi?” asks Goldstein. Her sister, Marsha, who worked in advertising at New York’s The Jewish Week, passed away in 1993.
Goldstein has long been feisty and outspoken, “a troublemaker with love and reverence of the system,” she says. Not afraid to “grab for the gusto,” she has taken the Hebrew name Aliza (joyful) in addition to her given name, Esther Malka.
“She’s a firecracker,” says author Anita Diamant, who wrote the foreword to New Jewish Feminism. “It’s her attitude that is so refreshing. She combines passion and wisdom like nobody else…and I always learn something from her.”
Goldstein was one of the first to advocate for the healing and spiritual potential of the mikve, which Diamant has championed in recent years. Reclaiming and reinventing ritual remains a critical area for Jewish feminism, says the rabbi. Her own creative rituals include a blessing for the monthly onset of menstruation: Barukh ata…she’asani isha: Blessed are You…Who has made me a woman.
Instead of being a time of uncleanness, Goldstein posits, menstrual blood can be considered covenantal blood—akin to the blood of circumcision. “We have the brit [covenant] inscribed in our flesh as an everlasting covenant not once at eight days but every month!” she writes in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (published by Women of Reform Judaism), to which she contributed two essays.
Goldstein majored in Jewish studies and sociology at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. Upon graduation, she immersed herself in an Orthodox lifestyle at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. She was a student rabbi at Temple Beth Or of the Deaf in Queens, New York, where she became proficient in sign language. She continues to sign at events and consult with families of deaf children on Jewish education.
When she moved to Toronto for the first time in 1983 to take an assistantship at Holy Blossom Temple, she was the only woman rabbi in Canada—there are now nine—where the Jewish community is very traditional. Still, Goldstein became the first woman to head the interdenominational Toronto Board of Rabbis.
Her favorite class to teach remains advanced, line-by-line Torah study. In 18 years, the Kolel class has progressed to the fourth book of the Torah. The Kolel itself (www.kolel.org) has come a long way since it opened in 1991 with four classes. Goldstein remembers that on its first day, the rebbetzin of the Orthodox kolel in town called. “‘The rebbe forbids you from calling your school a kolel,’” Goldstein recalls her saying. “She thought I would listen to the rebbe’s edict! ‘You ask your husband to call me, rabbi to rabbi,’” Goldstein responded, “‘or you can call my husband, rebbetzin to rebbetzin.’”
Her husband of 23 years, Baruch Browns-Sienna, designs Jewish Web sites and does branding for small businesses and nonprofits. Together, they chose Sienna as their family’s last name (officially, she is Goldstein-Sienna). Their three sons, Noam, 19, Carmi, 17, and Micah, 14, are simply Sienna. “We put gold and brown on a palette and came up with sienna,” she explains. “We drive a sienna-colored [Toyota] Sienna and in our living room there is a map of Siena [Italy], where we are not from.”
Goldstein sings alto in a Jewish community choir, skis, cooks, bikes, walks everywhere and leads culinary trips to Israel. The family recently downsized and moved into a small Victorian house in Toronto. Her sons are all feminists, she says, and her next book will be about spiritual parenting with a special section on boys.
“How to raise boys in a religious community without the assumption of male privilege is a hard question,” she admits. And she worries about where her children will find their spiritual home. Though Goldstein is a Reform rabbi, the family belongs to Darchei Noam, a Reconstructionist synagogue, and their practice is closer to Conservative; they are staunchly egalitarian and pluralistic.
“I’ve never pictured a male God,” she explains. “It’s always an amorphous spiritual image.” She supports gender-neutral language but wishes “people would not let words get in their way so much…. All prayer language is metaphoric.” Personally, she often davens “above” the words. “They are vessels to hold my prayer and to connect with community. I infuse them with my own meaning.”
Goldstein has infused Judaism with new meaning as well. She holds her own Friday night dinners, inspiring others the way she was inspired as a child. Last year, she received an honorary doctorate from HUC inscribed with the words, “learned rabbi.”
“I’m proud when people have to reconstruct their assumptions about Reform rabbis,” Goldstein says with tears in her eyes. “The combination of ‘learned’ and ‘Reform’ means so much to me.” H
Rahel Musleah’s Web site is www.rahelsjewishindia.com.