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…And An Anthropologist Says…

One of the things that strikes me powerfully about these two rituals — and these rituals are deeply moving to me — is how different they are from rituals that were created in the 1970’s and 1980s. Then, when we chose to “own” rituals by creating versions that experimented with our own voices in the tradition, we tended to focus on Shabbat, on weddings and on births.

These rituals, on the other hand, focus on loss — on death and on divorce — recognizing both a literal loss and a loss of dreams and a future. We have grown up and expanded the life cycle. We have grown old, life is weightier, and we need more rituals to bring our new experiences to a tradition which sometimes overlooks us and the significant moments in our lives.

A feminist Judaism learns from personal experience. When our enlarging lives confront ritual, we (like all people) need to search again for our own image and our own voice in the traditions we inherit. Vicki Hollander and Diane Solomon have done that, creating rituals which reflect their lives.

There’s an interesting difference here between Vicki and Diane. Vicki is a rabbi and Diane’s a laywoman. As a rabbi, Vicki has a large Jewish vocabulary. She knows how to create an alternative document, how to borrow metaphors from Yom Kippur or from mourning rituals. But Diane, with a smaller vocabulary, still has a profoundly Jewish experience. Diane wants to say the kaddish at her fetus’ burial; she and her husband want a Jewish “death;’ Diane calls on Jewish symbols and liturgy to put her miscarriage into the Jewish lifecycle. It’s important to note that the act of appropriating ritual is not only for the experts.

Neither of these rituals constitutes an attack on broadly conceived Jewish authority, and this feels new to me too. These women are simply trying to make their own claims, to find their own places. Part of the success and beauty and authenticity in these rituals comes from the fact that there is no anger here. Diane and Vicki are focusing on how to find their own spaces within Judaism, how to connect themselves to the Jewish people.

These are stunningly successful undertakings. They feel authentic because they are emotionally satisfying, and you can feel each woman’s transformation — the essence of a rite of passage. After reading these stories, I felt spiritually impoverished. Vicki’s and Diane’s close attention to themselves, to their needs, and to their Judaism inspires me to take less for granted and to create more.

Riv-Ellen Prell is an anthropologist in the American Studies Program at the University of Minnesota. She is the author of Prayer & Community: The Havurah in American Judaism (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1989) and co-editor with the Personal Narratives Group of Interpreting Women’s Lives: Feminist Theory & Personal Narratives (Bloomington: Indiana University Press 1989)