An Ode to 40 Years: The Power of Women’s Friendship

NAAMAH KELMAN: From the minute we sat down to talk on the lawn in front of the library at Camp Ramah in Palmer, we knew. Even as we exchanged details of daily teenage life, we understood the magnitude of our meeting. In peasant blouses and jeans, both descendants of rabbinic families, we felt the insistent claim of our yichus (illustrious ancestry) and, as girls, its invisibility.

Our families had known each other for three generations; our futures would reach far beyond the conventions of what Jewish women in 1970 were supposed to be. Across continents, through time, by reams of letters, tapes, faxes, e-mail, and — always — the phone, often daily between Jerusalem and New York, we have taught each other to look at the world not from the narrow limits of self-doubt or despair, but through a great telescope toward the infinite.

The Talmud teaches us that when two people study Torah, the shekhinah (the feminine presence of God) dwells with them. The Torah and Talmud also tell us of the holiness of great friendships, but they are overwhelmingly between men. The notable exception is the love of Ruth for Naomi. In this remarkable relationship, Ruth embraces all that Naomi is: “Wherever you go, I will go. Your people will be my people, and your God my God.” This declaration, usually seen as an acceptance of the Jewish faith and peoplehood, also represents the ultimate act of love for another person. Ruth’s famous statement is her claim to a new people and faith, but it is also an oath of friendship.

Is the goal of friendship to give ourselves over completely to another? Rather, isn’t it to recognize the otherness of a friend and embrace it? Ruth is offered to us as the ideal; she seemingly negates herself for Naomi. Yet, this biblical account of true and steadfast friendship is about the rebirth of both women. Naomi’s loss creates, through Ruth’s devotion, the opportunity for a new beginning. By the close of the book, both Ruth and Naomi have changed and triumphed together.

A lifelong friendship encompasses the power to comfort and, enduringly, the capacity to impel a friend to realize all her gifts, to celebrate her in her success and even in her love for another: lover, spouse, child, parent, or friend.

Martin Buber has taught us that all real living is encounter. The Divine enters the encounter when two human beings meet. Spiritual intimacy has a tremendous liberating power: When two friends discover works of art together or share a breathtaking vista, surely the Divine is with them.

Above all, there is the compassionate insight that one friend can offer another. I am blessed with a friend who knows the right words to guide and yet to ease. When she responds, it is not only out of understanding but out of a wonderful confidence in me. At moments of anguish and of exultation, she meets me with the same steadfast love, never wavering in the great vision she has always had for me.

NESSA RAPOPORT: You, carrying your pail ahead of me, spilling mercy and forgiveness daily, calling my name at the same moment I am conjuring you, a voice of unpolluted clarity, half a world away, beside, within me. You, my theological relief, my proof that even in the midst of unslaked cruelty in a barbaric century, nothing less than a divinity could have tendered what you give me, and allowed that in my being on earth I give to you.

NK: In my worst times, and hers, in the losses of love and work, in devastating grief, we have found the strength to console one another, even within our own desolation. Ruth, in the midst of her tragedy, beheld a vision of Naomi’s life that Naomi herself could not see. The essence of redemptive friendship is to see well beyond the pain and fears of a friend, to foretell a glorious future for her, and to cajole and guide her there.

NR: The symmetry of leaving earth with friends is not allotted in this ragged life. We debate: When you and I grow old, which one ought to go first, to spare the other pain. But that choice is not offered us. What we can choose, and do, is perishable, imperfect love, intimate with loss and bound to it. To let go. Give us a natural parting in old age, completed lives, our children raised, indifferent to each other, like children forced to play together, our husbands tolerant, you mocking my distress at wrinkled flesh, me tender of your eccentricities. Neither to save nor be saved, not remarkable, Lord, transmute a passionate youth, grant two mortal friends an ordinary life.

NK: What has held us together, kept us sane, has been not sorrow but laughter. When the biblical Sarah, well into her nineties, howled at God’s promise of a son, I believe that she laughed not at the absurdity of the idea but out of hope––the laughter of our reaching beyond our most improbable and seemingly foolish dreams.

Once, when we were young, we laughed for an entire day, falling asleep to a joke we invented, waking up to find it just as funny, and laughing even when we traveled together on a plane to another city. That day became the metaphor of our friendship.

We could say that we were unseasoned, naïve. But now, 40 years later, we still laugh. When all the sound, professional advice falls short, we somehow find a way to laugh ourselves back to restoration. With her, I join those who came before and will come after me in the great Jewish sweep of faith and redemption, and I am comforted.

Is this communion not what the Holy One set us on earth to do? It is impossible to undertake the task alone. But when two friends can see the highest in each other, when they can be frail and then fortified, God dwells with them.

Rabbi Naamah Kelman, dean of HUC-JIR/Jerusalem, is the first woman to be ordained in Israel and a longstanding activist in Jewish education, feminism, and interfaith work.

Nessa Rapoport is the author of Preparing for Sabbath, a novel; A Woman’s Book of Grieving, a collection of her prose poems; and House on the River, a memoir of family and place. Her words here are adapted from A Woman’s Book of Grieving by Nessa Rapoport ©1994. All rights reserved.