Closing the Sea

Since my childhood I have been proud of the deep-rooted Israeliness of my family-eight generations in the land, the family patriarch having arrived from Lithuania to Jerusalem in 1811.

Growing up in a secular home, my identity as a Jewish female didn’t concern me very much. The holidays at my parents’ home were mainly occasions for festive meals. We didn’t attend synagogue or fast on Yom Kippur. My parents celebrated my bat mitzvah with family and friends, attaching no religious significance. And whereas my two younger brothers learned a haftarah and had an aliyah in a synagogue, I wasn’t bothered by this, and didn’t feel I was deprived.

The only emotional connection to my identity as a Jewish woman came via the Shoah—when I read Anne Frank’sThe Diary of Young Girl, and other books about children in the Holocaust, I knew that if I had been born in a different place and a different time, my fate would have been the same as their fate, because of my Jewishness. I imagined myself living in the ghetto, in hiding, in a concentration camp. I remember asking myself, do I look Jewish? Would my blue eyes and small pug nose fool the Nazis into thinking I was Aryan, and would I possibly have been saved?

The first time I felt keenly my being a Jewish woman was at my mother’s funeral. I was already 27 years old. I stood by the open grave with my two young brothers, and the two of them mumbled the Kaddish prayer, stumbling over the difficult Aramaic words. I remember the pain of my being unable to say Kaddish for my mother. After all, I was her eldest child, and why did the unfair Jewish laws deny me this privilege? I knew that if I read the prayer, I would have done so in a deliberate and clear voice, without mistakes.

It was this pain that I expressed through one of the characters in a play I wrote a few years later. “Dvora Baron,” was performed at the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv in 2000, Thought of as the first female Hebrew writer, Dvora Baron was the daughter of a rabbi from a village in Lithuania and was privileged to obtain from her father a boy’s education. She also critiqued Judaism as a feminist early in the 20th century. Before her husband’s funeral Dvora is discussing with two good friends which of them will say Kaddish. “He has a daughter, ” says Tzipora, their daughter, “and I will say Kaddish for Father,” And Dvora says bitterly, “You can’t say Kaddish, Tziporaleh, not in our religion.” When Dvora herself dies, at the end of the play, Tzipora stands at the edge of her bed and says Kaddish for her mother in a loud and clear voice. The play ends with the singing of Kaddish in the beautiful voice of Mirah Zaldcai, the wonderful and best known opera singer in Israel. Thus did I compensate myself for not being able to say Kaddish for my mother, and I expressed my protest against the discrimination of women in Orthodox Judaism. 

Judith Katzir was born in Haifa in 1963. She is a bestselling novelist in Israel, the author of two children’s books, and works as an editor for Hakibbutz Hameuchad/Siman Kriah Publishing House.