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Amsterdam Museum Chronicles 700 Years of Jewish Women’s Experience

A compendium of Jewish law painstakingly copied by a 14th-century Dutch Jewish woman scribe… a special prayer book for Jewish women (Amsterdam, 1882)… a photo of the first woman rabbi ordained by the Conservative movement… a text of a prayer celebrating a Jewish woman’s transition to middle age… an egalitarian Reform marriage contract…

All these and more are part of an exciting, multifaceted exhibit on the changing roles of Jewish women currently on display at the Jewish Historical Museum of Amsterdam. Entitled “Sing to the Eternal One a New Song,” and subtitled “Changing Tradition: The Role of Women in Judaism,” the exhibit brings together historic photographs, manuscripts, legal documents and personal testimonies to chronicle women’s ongoing struggle for equality in Jewish law, ritual, education, and communal life.

Among the subjects that find expression in the exhibit are: the rediscovery of Biblical heroines and other female role models in Jewish history; the movement for equality in Jewish education; the reinterpretation of traditional Jewish women’s rituals (e.g., Rosh Chodesh, the blessing for the new month); the rewriting of the liturgy to incorporate feminine terms and imagery; and the creation of new ceremonies celebrating various points of the female life cycle, such as birth (brit banot, welcoming a newborn Jewish daughter), pregnancy, childbirth, weaning, and midlife.

In recounting the story of the Jewish women’s movement, the exhibit highlights the experience of Dutch Jewish women. Included is material on female Jewish scribes, publishers, and midwives of the 14th and 19th centuries; special prayer books written for, and sometimes by women; Bat Mitzvah ceremonies in Amsterdam liberal and Orthodox synagogues; Aletta Jacobs (1854-1929), the first woman physician and PhD in Holland; and Dina Samson (1868-1929), the first woman to enter the Dutch police corps, in 1911.

Also, the Council of Jewish Women, an influential organization of well-to-do Dutch Jewish women founded in the early 20th century; two contemporary Jewish women’s organizations: Deborah, founded in 1978 with a predominantly Orthodox membership, and the Liberal Jewish Women’s Group of The Hague; and Kolenoe, a Jewish women’s magazine founded in Holland in 1981, which has just ceased publication.

Under the direction of Jewish Historical Museum Curator Dr. Edward van Voolen, the exhibit was curated by Judith Belinfante and Judith Frishman, and coordinated by Bernadette von Woerkom, with the assistance of numerous organizations and individuals in Amsterdam, other European cities, and the U.S.