When I think of Bonna Devora Haberman z”l, I picture her leaping into the air on Yom Kippur afternoon, her face pale but beaming as she gathers everyone within arm’s reach into a circle for a triumphant chanting of Mareh Kohen, the liturgical poem about “truly how majestic” was the look on the high priest’s face when he successfully exited the Holy of Holies. Bonna was very proud of her Kohanic lineage, and even though she sometimes came late to shul, she never missed Birkat Kohanim – when she and her husband and children would get up to bless the congregation from beneath their tallitot, breathing new harmonies into the ancient biblical text.
When I wasn’t davening with Bonna – we participated in the same minyanim both at Harvard Hillel and in Jerusalem – I would often see her jogging in the early mornings with her husband Shmuel and their dog Sumsum. Bonna rarely stood still. A self-avowed “textual activist,” she was also always active, always on the go, never content to let anything be. At the funeral her husband Shmuel—always the quiet one in their relationship, Matthew Cuthbert to her Marilla—told the story of how he first met her in college in Ottawa at an Israeli dance class, where Bonna, too, was spinning circles around him. At one point he sat her down and asked her to tell him her dreams. “I dream of a large barn and a community of women, dancing, reading books, busy with organic farming, discussing ideas, and caring for children.” A community of women was not exactly what Shmuel had in mind, but Bonna had given him his opening. “Where will all the children come from?” he asked, feigning innocence. “Well, a few men will be allowed once in a while,” Bonna conceded. Then she asked Shmuel his fantasy, and he said he wanted to retire with her to a desert island. Bonna was quickly dismissive. “We can’t,” she said. “There’s too much in this world that needs fixing.”
Bonna insisted that Dayenu must end with Tikun Olam, because only when the world was healed would it truly be enough. For her, that was what building the Temple—the actual last line of Dayenu—was about. It was what drove her to help found Women of the Wall, a monthly Rosh Hodesh group where women donned the garments of ritual prayer and read from the Torah at the Kotel. And it was what inspired her brilliant writing about the Beit HaMikdash, including her profoundly bold and radical essay “The Yom Kippur Avodah in the Female Enclosure,” which I reread every year on Yom Kippur and which has inspired so much of my own writing and thinking about eroticism and the Talmudic sages. For a while Bonna became, for me, the embodiment of that essay, as if that one piece comprised the entirety of her identity; each time I’d run into her I’d buttonhole her with further questions and new ideas inspired by her words.
But Bonna was so much more. When she wasn’t writing she was fighting sex trafficking around the globe, pushing for gender equality at the Kotel and in Jerusalem, informally counselling young women about natural childbirth, caring for Mother Earth, and staging theater performances with Israeli and Palestinian women to solve the conflict in the Middle East. One of her sons said that she understood her name to be Bonna DvarYa – that is, a builder of the words of God. Just as the midrash in Breishit Rabba relates that God used the blueprint of Torah to create the world, Bonna looked to Torah for inspiration to repair the world. Another one of her sons said that Bonna, particularly in her last few months of illness, never wanted to sleep. “I’ll have enough time to sleep in the grave,” she insisted. But her son was not so sure. He assured us at the funeral that he has no doubt his mother has already staged a revolution in heaven.
And he is probably right. I can just imagine Bonna taking the angels by a storm, gathering them in a circle for a frenzied recitation of Mareh Kohen in which it is the angels who are analogized to the priests rather than vice versa. I will miss her presence in shul, especially during Birkat Kohanim – but regardless of what she is up to in heaven, I have no doubt she will still be shining her blessing upon us.