My Grandmother’ Tallit

It’s been five years since my daughter Anna had her bat mitzvah. In her bat mitzvah state of mind she had read trope cues as easily as ABC’s. She teased out meaning from her Torah portion, which recorded the life and death of Sarah. And she wore a tallit or a prayer shawl she picked out in Jerusalem. I’ve never felt any of the rituals my husband and I gifted her were truly mine, but my daughter didn’t think twice about accepting them. Her Bat Mitzvah was as much about her rights as a Jewish woman as it was her rite of passage.

When I look at Anna’s tallit—pink and silk and uniquely hers—I think of my grandmother whom I called Abuela. Abuela was born in Greece at the dawn of the 20th century and went to a school there funded by the Rothschilds. She learned the minimum Hebrew to recite the blessings over the Sabbath candles and did needlepoint to fill in the rest of her life. Family lore claims that she and her siblings made their way to Cuba after Greek soldiers kidnapped her sister and held her for ransom. Her father and brothers delivered the ransom on horseback and when the exchange was complete, there was just enough money left for passage to Havana. Abuela was a young teenager when she arrived in Havana.

Even in Cuba, nobody wielded a needle and thread like my Abuela. With deft rhythm and mesmerizing patterns, she conveyed a life story of painstaking work and imposed silence. Abuela sewed late into the night to make ends meet. She made my mother and my aunt frilly dresses between the sewing jobs she took in from neighbors. Abuela also crocheted her husband and her son’s tallitot—prayer shawls—for which she carefully tied the ritual fringes with sore fingers.

In America Abuela fashioned a kind of tallit for herself when she pulled the wool shawl she wore year round closer to her chest. In her small apartment she sat in a chair with stuffing peeking out of its arm that she was too tired to mend. The few times a year that she ventured to a synagogue, she stood when the ark was opened and blew kisses toward the bimah or altar as if greeting a lover. In a hoarse voice she muttered the Kaddish or the Mourner’s Prayer with her hand firmly on my shoulder so that I could not stand up and tempt fate.

When I was twelve my mother lugged a reel-to-reel tape recorder home, which she borrowed from the high school where she taught Spanish. She had planned to record Spanish lessons for the kids that she tutored on the side. But I quickly seized the recorder. The microphone that came with the machine transformed me into a roving reporter. I walked around the house inventing news about my mundane summer days.

Abuela spent most of that summer sitting on our porch, staring through the slats of the new jalousie windows. I felt that I was doing something important when Abuela intently watched me playing with the reel-to-reel. And then one day I got the idea to interview her. “Talk about anything,” I told her. Recipes, sewing, childhood stories. But mostly I wanted her to sing again. When she was a young girl she played the lute and sang Ladino songs in a lilting soprano. Her father forbade her to sing when she turned twelve.

My grandfather, Abuelo, was more than willing to take Abuela’s turn at the tape recorder. He held the microphone like a preacher and told me a story from when he was a boy in Turkey. On his way to school he witnessed a Turko soldier stab an Armenian man to death. His family left for Cuba a week later. “Why Cuba?” I asked him. Spanish was easier to learn than English for a Ladino speaker.

The next day Abuelo came back for another recording session dressed for prayer. He wound the straps of his tefillin around his left arm and placed the leather boxes on his forehead in the crook of his left arm. At twelve, I was approaching bat mitzvah age yet had no hope of winding leather straps of my own tefillin around my arm. Abuelo wore a tallit that he snagged from a local synagogue—he had to leave the one that Abuela made him with the rest of his possessions in Cuba. He sang the shacharit—as if offering that morning liturgy as his personal history. His voice started off as wobbly as the plastic reels spooling the shiny brown ribbon of tape.

His voice was stronger after he gathered the tzitzit or fringes of his tallit to recite the Sh’ma—Judaism’s central prayer. Eyes closed. Voice pleading. I joined him at the microphone. It was thrilling to sing about listening for and loving God with all of my heart and my soul and my strength. In that moment I blurted out that I wanted to be a rabbi.

Abuelo stopped singing and the only thing audible was the squeaking of the reel-to-reel tape recorder, making me cringe as if I heard nails scratching a blackboard. He dropped his tzitzit and said, “Eso es muy feo”—that is so ugly. Abuela looked up.

Turko,” she screamed at Abuelo as if he had stabbed me. Finding her voice, she said to me, “You can be anything you want.”

A few years ago Anna had a towel draped around her shoulders. She had been drying her hair. “Look Mom, my tallit,” she joked. I wished I had recorded the moment in memory of my Abuela, in honor of the future. But more importantly, I wished that Abuela could have seen her great-granddaughter happily wearing her tallit and celebrating her coming-of-age by reading from the Torah about every woman’s life.

Ghosts of Sukkot Past

Sukkot is here and my guests are on the way. Like Chagall’s lovers they fly over the silver moon; their white gauzy clothing double as wings. I greet them in the sukkah—a makeshift structure akin to a hut that we build from a kit. The sukkah also has a roof with slats generously spaced to see the sun and the moon and the stars.

The company I’m talking about stargazing with is called ushpizin—the Hebrew term for mystical guests who will grace sukkot (plural of sukkah) all over the world on each of the seven nights of the holiday. This is my kind of celebration. When I was a kid I loved reenactments of historical events. The old sitcom Bewitched tickled me because someone like Columbus or Shakespeare came alive for me.

To that end, I have a wish list of historical figures I’ve always wanted to meet. Moses and Leah top my list. No one is more associated with the Torah than Moses. In my mind, he’s an inspiration because so much of his leadership was marked by doubt. As a parent in the 21st century, I take solace in the fact that even with God’s direct intervention, Moses still had a difficult time leading the Israelites out of the wilderness and into the Promised Land. Leah is my role model as a mother. Every parent has been a Leah at some point—taken for granted, ignored, but still triumphant in ordinary yet miraculous ways.

The Rachel that I want to meet was Rabbi Akiva’s wife. I like her rebelliousness. She was from a prosperous family who followed her heart and married the illiterate Akiva against her family’s wishes. To complete the fairytale, she recognized Akiva’s natural genius and encouraged him to learn to read when he was 40. Forty! Akiva excelled in his studies beyond their wildest dreams. Rachel was alone for years as he studied and taught in the greatest Jewish academies.

In his absence, Rachel coped with grace and fortitude. I want to ask her how she did it. I want to know if she was as disoriented as I am when my husband is only away for a week on a business trip. I want to know how she controlled herself when her husband finally came home and his students, protective of their beloved teacher, did not let her through the throng to greet him. When Akiva realized what was happening, he ordered his students to let Rachel pass immediately. He told them that she single-handedly was responsible for everything that he and his students had attained. I want to know if witnessing her husband’s success was worth sacrificing his company all those years.

I want to introduce my daughter Anna to Sara Schenirer. Hunched over her sewing machine, she had a revelation. Or was it a moment of despair that gave way to lucidity? She dared to imagine girls in their own schools studying Torah. It was a radical idea in the late 19th century. Although nowhere near egalitarian, the fact that girls had a classroom of their own to be formally educated was inspiring and enduring and just. I want Anna to know that she is the direct beneficiary of Sara Schenirer’s prescience.

I love spirits. I buy into the notion that there are other times during the year for formal visitation from phantasmagoric souls. There are the seven days of shiva or mourning. The week during which the sheva b’rachot—the seven blessings following a marriage—are celebrated. We boldly mingle with our ancestors on Passover when Elijah joins us and Miriam remembers us with a shake of her timbrel.

But it’s on Sukkot that I reflect on people I would give almost anything to see again. I close my eyes and see my father healthy and strong. I remember my father-in-law’s mega-watt smile and can-do optimism. I feel the presence of Anna’s namesake—a grandmother whom I adored. I miss my friend Miriam so much that I ache. My sukkah is a space painted in a full spectrum of memories and emotional colors.

It makes sense that a holiday that welcomes ghosts to the dinner table would end with Yizkor—the service to memorialize the dead. Yom Kippur and the three harvest festivals—Sukkot, Passover and Shavuot—are the four times a year there is time and space to mingle with loved ones who have died.

What comforts me most about remembering my dead on Sukkot is that I can walk out of my fragile sukkah into the sturdy structure of community where, I believe, a lot of people understand that otherworldly visitors frequently stop by throughout the year.

 

 

The God of Our Foremothers–Why I am a Feminist Jew

I am a feminist Jew because I am the mother of a daughter and a son.

I am a feminist Jew because the God of my foremothers doesn’t recognize a caste system. When my G0d blessed Jacob’s children, he also blessed Jacob’s concubines, Bilhah and Zilpah. Yet it astounds that mentioning the God of my foremothers – the imahot – is still optional in the Conservative Jewish liturgy. To my mind, this sends a message that the imahot can be optional in the hearts and souls of our children.

I am a feminist Jew because I’m angry over the injustices too frequently lorded over Jewish women.

A few years ago, my children’s day school finally included the imahot in every prayer service. But it came after a struggle. The message that landed in my mailbox announced that in consultation with local Conservative rabbis, the school decided to include the imahot in the Amidah as standard practice. Amen. And yet the message felt perfunctory to me, as if our foremothers were shadowy figures. Had Abraham, Isaac and Jacob finally decided to share their God?

Perhaps lost in redaction, our foremothers are not mentioned as a group in the Bible, but thank goodness they star in many ancient and modern midrashim as role models and prophets.


I am a feminist Jew because Sarah was said to be a greater prophet than Abraham. She understood that God didn’t demand the sacrifice of her first-born son. During her pregnancy, Rebekah knew that she had two great nations inside of her, but that the fate of the Jewish people rested with her younger son. These women triumphed over infertility and infidelity (even when they sanctioned it). I am a feminist Jew because the imahot are summoned to help the Jewish people in times of distress. Rachel was buried at a strategic place on the road where she can hear the cries of her people in captivity. Her prayers uniquely move God on their behalf.

I am a feminist Jew because prayer is instinctively beautiful for Jewish women.

Prior to the modern debate over whether to include the imahot in the liturgy, women had the wisdom and clarity to call upon them in their own prayers throughout the centuries. The imahot are front and center in the techinot, prayers of Jewish women from medieval times through the 19th century.

I am a feminist Jew because our foremothers were called upon to help Jewish women express their deepest desires and most fervent hopes in both set and spontaneous prayer.

I am a feminist Jew because I can frequently call upon the God of my foremothers. God of Sarah, hear my prayers to keep my children safe in planes, trains, automobiles and all manner of place and time. God of Rebekah, help me to recognize perilous situations. God of Rachel, help me guide my children through disappointment and desperation. God of Leah, comfort me when someone doesn’t love my children the way they deserve to be cherished.

I am a feminist Jew because the G0d of Bilhah and Zilpah brings women to the foreground where they belong.

Some sources – the sources that shaped my vision as a feminist Jew – acknowledge Jacob’s concubines, Bilhah and Zilpah – the mothers of four of Israel’s 12 tribes – as matriarchs, bringing the number of imahot to six. In terms of Jewish symbolism, six corresponds to the six days of creation. Who on earth has been more responsible for the creation of the Jewish people than Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah?

I’ve read about the brouhaha of nursing a child in a public space. I am a feminist Jew because I know that Sarah, a mother who weaned her own child when he was 3 years old, would have defended these women asserting their right to be mothers. Rachel would have heard the cries of those hungry babies and interceded so that their mothers could do the most natural and loving thing in the world for their children – nourish them.

Leah continues to hear the prayers of all mothers who send their children to serve their countries in dangerous places. Rebekah hovers near mothers who must make tough choices for their children. Bilhah and Zilpah understand women who feel marginalized.

I am a feminist Jew because women recovered Leah’s story to teach my children and their children that the woman thought to be plain with weak eyes, was as strong and holy as her husband.

One of my favorite midrashim on the imahot addresses the order in which the matriarchs appear in the liturgy – God of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. After the name Leah appears in the text, the next word is Ha-el – The God. Ha-el is Leah spelled backwards. This wordplay elevates Leah from second class wife to matriarch. Hers is the last name to linger after the initial blessing. Hers is the name that inverts the name of God.

Moving Waters: Racelle Rosett’s Debut Short Story Collection

Racelle Rosett, an award-winning television writer whose credits include “thirtysomething” and “Blossom,” has just published her first volume of fiction, “Moving Waters: Stories.” Rosett’s notable successes with the short story include winning the Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation Prize for Jewish short fiction and the Lilith Fiction Prize. Her work has also appeared in “Tikkun,” “Ploughshares,” the “New Vilna Review,” and “Jewish Fiction,” among other publications.

The title story of “Moving Waters” explores sexuality in all its permutations, including the end of a marriage and the healing effects of immersing in the mikveh. Later, in “The Unveiling,” a young widow’s makeover coincides with the unveiling of her husband’s tombstone. In other stories Rosett ponders the efficacy of lamed vavniks — the 36 righteous people who keep the destruction of the world at bay — and the prohibition of saying God’s name out loud. In a recent interview with the Sisterhood, Rosett discussed her new collection of literary fiction and explained how this latest chapter in her writing life has reflected a deep examination of her Judaism.

BOLTON-FASMAN: You wrote for television for almost three decades. How has that type of writing influenced your literary voice and short stories?

ROSETT: I look for stories in the same places — in moments of transition, places where a character struggles and finds her way. But writing for television is more collaborative. The stories [in “Moving Waters”] represent a very personal exploration. In them, I was immersed in a world that held a lot of contradictions and I needed to get inside of them to make sense of it all.

Your title story is about fluidity in sexuality and individuality. Why did you lead off your collection with the image of a mikveh?

There are two answers to this question. I did a reading from “Moving Waters” for “Zeek” last fall and met a wonderful young artist named Will Deutsch, who heard the title story and shared some of his work with me. His artwork depicting immersion into a mikveh was so tied to what I was doing that I immediately imagined his work adorning the book’s cover. I loved the idea that at first glance the image looked as much like a swimming pool as a mikveh, which underscores the theme of the book that we are in two worlds at once—the ancient and modern.

I also felt drawn to the image of Deutsch’s mikveh because I felt as if I were literally stepping into a pool. I hope this is the experience for the reader in the sense of stepping into the lives of these characters and being engrossed in their world. I also hope readers will be moved to reclaim and redefine mikveh as a ritual that is relevant and useful in contemporary life. I am compelled by the idea of reclaiming and redefining mikveh as a ritual that is relevant and useful in contemporary life. In many communities Mikvah is now being used as a demarcation of transition — to heal from losses like infertility and divorce as well as celebrate new lifecycles like adoption and recovery.

Your stories reflect an intensive interest in Judaism. Can you say something about your own Judaism and how it has influenced your work?

What is most surprising to me is that like the characters in my book, Judaism became relevant to me unexpectedly. I brought Shabbat into our family lives as a way of impressing the idea of community and rest on my children. I did that to anchor them in a place where many forces are competing for their attention.

Do you consider yourself a Jewish writer in the sense that Judaism inspires and moves your stories along?

I certainly feel that [Judaism] informs the stories in “Moving Waters.” My characters embody what I most value and want to keep from my tradition. I think as you mature in your faith you’re constantly holding it up to the light and reappraising it. I was watching “Weeds” recently and there was a plot line with a rabbi and the idea of struggling with yetzer h’rah — the Evil inclination. You write from a place that is shaped by everything you are. Having said that, I may write a story or a script in which the characters are not Jewish but my belief about the world will not change.

Do you still write for television?

I do. I’ve had an ongoing role in television over the years as a consultant working with writers I love. Several months after I completed the story collection I met an extraordinary young woman and I was compelled to write a script about her that is still in the works.

What’s on your agenda this fall?

I’m doing a number of visits to temples and Jewish Book Festivals as part of a Jewish Book Council author tour. I love visiting Jewish communities and seeing their dynamic and energetic engagement. For example, I attended a service in San Francisco that, in addition to being in a beautiful setting, was entirely relevant both socially and politically. It was thrilling to see the kind of deliberate participation not held over from generational guilt but was about bringing together a community in a purposeful and joyful connection.

Family Blessings

May the Lord bless you and protect you. May the Lord illuminate His/Her countenanceupon you and deal graciously with you. May the Lord bestow favor upon you and grant you peace. Numbers 6:24-26

A few years ago when Anna was assigned to memorize the Priestly Blessing in Hebrew it was an opportunity for me. I would finally bless my children on Friday nights with those famous words without a cheat sheet, or mumbling so my kids wouldn’t realize how poor my Hebrew is.

Blessing one’s children reaches back to biblical times. In the Torah Isaac blesses his sons and Jacob blesses his children as well his grandchildren. One of Aaron’s last acts as the High Priest is to bless the children of Israel. And Moses blesses each of the tribes of Israel. During rabbinic times parents adapted this biblical practice by expressing their pride and love for their children with the Priestly Blessing.

There is nothing sweeter in this life than blessing one’s children especially on a Friday night. When Anna and Adam were little I’d drop to my knees to so that they could look into my eyes and tacitly understand that blessing them was an act of thanksgiving and humility for me.

I recently learned that there are also special hand gestures that accompany the Priestly Blessing. Like the prophets of yore, the kohanim or priests stretched their arms forward (with an outstretched arm!) with their hands palms-down. They also split their fingers so that, counting the space between the opposing thumbs, there were five spaces for each hand.

Another allusion. My reading led me to a reference from Song of Songs 2:8-9 which states that God “peeks through the cracks in the wall.” God watches, God protects, God blesses. Now when I fan my hands on Anna and Adam’s heads, the spaces between my fingers are filled with their goodness, their innocence, their strength and my fragility.

For a while my kids were very clear that this blessing business was not exactly their favorite part of our Friday night festivities. “Do it more quietly,” Anna said. “I don’t think you have all the words down,” Adam said. But I persisted and tried not to let their tween behavior dampen my joy.

Recently I hit on a time-saving method acceptable to both my children and me—blessing them together. After the initial blessing I turn to Anna and ask God to make her strong and wise like Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah. Then it’s Adam’s turn and I ask God to make him a role model like Ephraim and Menashe.

Asking God to give our daughters the laudable tributes of our foremothers is obvious, but the blessing for our sons is less so. The reference to Ephraim and Menashe comes directly from the Bible. Just before Jacob dies he blesses his grandsons with these words: “In time to come, the people of Israel will use you as a blessing. They will say, ‘May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe’.” (Genesis 48:20)

I think that Anna and Adam don’t mind being blessed these days because they like to reciprocate. My daughter is now tall enough to look me in the eye when I place my hand on her head. My son is nine inches taller than I and has to bow his head. These days they offer me a blessing too by saying the words with me.

Anna and Adam’s Shabbat blessing acquired another level of meaning when our friend Susan asked them what they thought of a blessing that asked God to make them like someone else. She pointed out a contradiction that speaks to one of my favorite midrashim about God’s challenge to Rabbi Zusya. When it came Zusya’s time to go to heaven, he had ready answers for God about why he wasn’t a great prophet like Moses or a gifted scholar like Maimonides. But he was worried that God would ask him the most difficult question of all—why wasn’t Zusya more like Zusya in this life.

Susan sent me to Marcia Falk’s Book of Blessings for an alternative blessing. The subtitle of Falk’s volume promised New Jewish Prayers for Daily Life, The Sabbath and the New Moon Festival. Falk’s didn’t disappoint. The version of her blessing for a child to simply “Be who you are—and may you be blessed in all that you do.” Falk chose these words to echo God’s announcement in

Exodus—“I am that I am”—the ultimate proclamation of authentically being.

In her commentary on her version of the blessing Falk notes that “in its specificity, this blessing seems restrictive rather than expansive: it doesn’t open out to the range of possibility and promise that ought to characterize youth.”

I appreciate Falk’s point that giving our children a strong, unlimited sense of self is crucial. But we—Anna, Adam and I—do not want to give up the ancestors. Our foremothers are not just archetypes. At different points in our lives they are us and we are them. And for me, Jacob directly blessing his grandsons rather than his sons tells me how precious and hopeful the future is. Finally, a pair of brothers in the Bible who don’t want to kill one another!

Anna and I tested each other for a week until I finally got the Priestly Blessing down in Hebrew. We also assimilated the notion that in its three straightforward lines, the beauty and genius of the blessing rests in its simplicity as well as its swift movement from the material world to the ultimate wish for peace.

Dear Sarai: A Letter to a Young Israeli Soldier

In anticipation of reviewing  a collection of linked stories coming out in September called  The People of Forever Are Not Afraid a collection focusing on three young women doing their mandatory service in the Israeli Defense Forces–I revisited an epistolary essay I wrote after I met Sarai, a young Israeli army officer. Sarai was mostly skeptical about peace for her country. But towards the end of our conversation I heard a glimmer of hope in her voice. Here’s the letter I dedicated to her after our encounter four years ago.

Dear Sarai,

There is a lot on your young shoulders. Twenty-one years old and you’re already an officer in the Israel Defense Forces.

Thank you for defending Israel. Thank you to your mother for sending you out into the world to do this work for the Jewish state, and for Jews everywhere. Back home in Boston descriptions of what you and your unit do sound surreal. People will shake their heads in disbelief as much as in admiration that your unit—18 and 19 year-old young women—monitors the Israel security barrier and the surrounding area 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

“It’s only a job for girls,” one of your charges proudly says. “Because girls can multitask better than boys.”

Girls with long, shiny ponytails—the same ponytails I see swinging up and down the soccer field when I watch Anna play. They’re eating the same junk food teenagers everywhere eat. But these teens munch on potato chips while wearing their country’s uniform and focusing on their monitors. They blink as often as the guards at Buckingham Palace. The room where they work is uncannily silent.

I wonder what your subordinates think of the American visitors cheering on one of the girls as she follows a suspicious character and then communicates with soldiers in the field to pick him up for questioning. It’s stunning to realize that the decision is hers alone on who warrants a closer look. And it’s even more stunning to know that the soldiers on the ground have only her judgment to rely on. She’s the one who guides them if they have to crawl around brush and barbed wire to capture a suspect. If things go badly, hers is the last voice a soldier hears in his earpiece.

Sarai, your charges are only four years older than my daughter. I wouldn’t blame you if you were resentful that my daughter and her friends are relatively carefree. I can understand if it bothers you that American groups observing your work sometimes relate to it as if watching a video game. Please be patient with us. The first Gulf War was beamed into our living rooms like a remote video game. But that was in 1991. You were only 3 years old and the soldiers now in your charge were babies. None of you remember being bundled into your safe rooms.

I was so sad when you said you’ve lost all hope for peace. You chide your friends for being unrealistic, even naïve about peace between Jews and Arabs. You say it’s because you’ve seen too much. I can understand why it disheartens you to see 5 and 6 year-old Palestinian children throwing rocks through the fence at your fellow soldiers.

But your hopelessness coupled with those Arab children’s burgeoning hatred are also casualties of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I’d like to share a personal story with you. When I was a little older than you I worked for a civil rights organization where my job was to monitor right-wing extremists. You have infrared cameras and the latest communications equipment to do your job. I collected my information by reading hate rags put out by the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, skinheads and Holocaust revisionists. I was 25-years old and had never encountered such raw hatred. I monitored these right-wing extremists for 3 years. I knew where every Klan cell was in the United States.

After reading so much hate material day in and day out, it skewed my vision of the world. A few hate-mongers led me to believe that the United States was a country full of racists and anti-Semites. I had to pull out of that job to get my bearings again. Maybe you need to do the same after you honor your commitment to the army.

Sarai, your name tempts me into midrash. Sarai was Sarah’s name before God changed it. Perhaps this is a before moment for you. Maybe you’re more pessimistic as a younger Sarai. But I think you’ll find your optimism again. I saw a glimmer of that optimism when I asked you why witnessing the conflict up close wouldn’t want to make you work that much harder for peace.

Even though you were stunned by the question, I saw an older, wiser Sarai briefly emerge. “I never thought about it this way,” you said. “I need some time before I can answer you.”

While you are thinking my dear Sarai, I want to leave you with a saying from the Talmud. “You are not required to finish the task, but neither are you free to absolve yourself from it.”

I know that your duties as an officer in the Israel Defense Forces wear on your soul. Remember that you don’t need to solve every problem you encounter. But please marshal your strength, your experience—and yes—your optimism to work for peace.

Tefillin Barbie and Me

The other day I was in my rabbi’s office for what she and I like to call my 10,000-mile tune-up. And there she was on a bookshelf in a plexi-glass frame—a super hero ready to wrap and unwrap at a moment’s notice to redeem the world—my old friend Tefillin Barbie.

Tefillin Barbie is modest and learned and devout. She wears a long denim skirt. Her sleeves are below her elbow. She wears a head covering and is draped in a tallit—a prayer shawl. And, of course, the most notable thing about her is that she wears tefillin. Prominently, proudly and naturally.

I know all the feminist arguments against Barbie, but I can’t help myself, I’ve always loved Barbie. She came into my life when I was six-years-old and bedridden for three months. My aunt sent me a Barbie along with the doll’s extensive miniature wardrobe. I kept her outfits in a black patent leather wardrobe created just for her clothes. I spent hours dressing Barbie in ball gowns, tennis skirts and my favorite—a bridal gown.

Over the years Barbie’s outfits have used over 105 million yards of fabric. She has owned over a billion pairs of shoes. Through it all it never fazed me that Barbie was blonde and tall and I was not. She measured an impossible 36-18-38, but I attributed that to the fact that she was a doll.

A few facts about Barbie and her creator. Ruth Handler invented Barbie in 1959 and named her after her own daughter, Barbara. Ms. Handler went on to co-found the toy company Mattel. Barbie was not her only significant invention. Recovering from a mastectomy in 1970, Handler discovered the need for a suitable prosthetic breast and invented Nearly Me, a prosthesis close in weight and density to natural breasts.

Barbie has had over eighty careers ranging from a rock star to a presidential candidate who focused on educational excellence and animal rights. She has served in every branch of the military and was a medic in Operation Desert Storm. In addition to being a devout Jew, Barbie is also black and Hispanic. Forty-five nationalities claim her as their own. She has been present at diplomatic summits and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. And now she is a baal koreh—a woman who reads Torah.

I’m not surprised that Tefillin Barbie’s inventor is a soferet—a woman scribe who is trained and certified to write holy texts by hand. According to the Jewish Women’s Archive Jen Taylor Friedman is one of six soferot (plural of soferet) in the world. She has a workshop in her native Southampton, England handwriting an entire Torah for a congregation in St. Louis..

Discovering the occupation of this late incarnation of Barbie led me to do a bit of research on soferot. I learned that the first woman soferet was certified in October of 2003. A congregation in Seattle underwrote the cost of training additional soferot in order to be the first synagogue in the world to have a Torah exclusively hand calligraphed by women. Additionally, women metalwork artists are creating the breastplates, crowns and a clasp for the Torah.

All of this wonderful female energy sent me on a virtual journey that ended up at the Jewish Women’s Archives site where I came upon an entry for Joan Snyder’s lithograph “Our Foremothers.” Serendipity. I have a copy of Snyder’s print hanging in my living room, a gift from my mother-in-law. She thought it was my destiny to have it because the name Judith is so prominent among the Jewish women’s names that Snyder commemorates. Snyder uses shades of red and pink—the colors of blood and tutus—to write names like Hagar, Leah, Rachel and Sarah. She pairs these iconic names with those of her mother, daughter and life partner.

People have two reactions to the print—some are mesmerized and others think it’s the work of a child. “Did Anna make this?” more than a few people have asked me. Snyder’s presentation is both basic and profound. The listing and mixing up of these name reminds me that at some point in a woman’s life she has been cast out like Hagar. She has been adored like Rachel. Taken for granted like Leah or not taken seriously like Sarah. Our foremothers are not simply archetypes. They are us and we are them.

So where does this newest incarnation of Barbie fit in with our own mothers and sisters and foremothers? For one thing she’s an all-American girl who is at ease with every aspect of Jewish ritual. I’m envious of her. A couple of years ago I went to the World Wide Wrap at my synagogue where I was the lone adult among a group of bored pre-teens. I didn’t get a lot of support for trying to learn how to wrap tefillin as a grown woman, so thank God for Tefillin Barbie. When I look at her I remember that nothing in Judaism is off limits to my daughter and my nieces.

Here’s another fun fact about Barbie. Every second of every day a Barbie is sold somewhere in the world. And here’s a wish inspired by Barbie’s sales numbers. Every time that a Jewish girl comes of age, may she be comfortable in her own body and wrapping her own tefillin.