This column introduces the first of four issues of LILITH which will mark our 20th anniversary season. As a kickoff, we’re giving you a present: a pullout poster with a quick review of Jewish women’s history for the past several thousand years, highlighting some of the extraordinary events that have taken place in the universe during the two decades LILITH has been publishing.
Here’s a brief then-and-now review, to indicate the sheer quantity of the changes women have wrought in two decades:
- Art: When LILITH debuted in 1976, New York’s Jewish Museum had no solo contemporary women’s work exhibited; in 1996, 11 out of the 23 artists in the acclaimed “Too Jewish?” exhibit are women.
- Books: In 1976, giant book purveyor J. Levine Books in New York stocked on its shelves 3 feet of books relating to Jewish women; this year, a tape measure marks off 16 feet, 8 inches—and most of these are books by women about women.
- Women rabbis: In 1976 there were 3 women ordained as Reconstructionist rabbis and 1 in the Reform movement; by 1996, scorecard for the total number of women rabbis reads: Reconstructionist, 73, Reform, 259, Conservative 70.
- Feminist seders: In 1976, there were two or three private feminist seders held in the U.S. and Israel; the participants adored them and other women yearned to be invited. For Pesach 1996, LILITH received reports of more than 250 community feminist seders being held all over the world, open to all women.
All this creative thinking has helped to ensure women’s stake in Judaism—not just women’s participation in Jewish life, but our investment in the process by which Jewish life is defined, from Orthodox women scholars who are prepared to make decisions in Jewish religious law to women using their financial contributions to Jewish organizations as a spur to a more equitable distribution of power in the Jewish polity.
I often remind my lecture audiences that we’re living in a remarkable time; we are witnessing (and participating in) an explosion of Jewish women’s scholarship. The timeline poster suggests some of these riches: original books, anthologies, academic and popular articles on a whole range of Jewish women’s issues. And then there are the college courses, informal discussion groups, adult education programs, feminist activities for Jewish summer camps and more. Along with this flowering of Jewish women’s learning has been the equally transformative efflorescence of Jewish women’s artisanship. In the 20 years that LILITH has been publishing, female artists and artisans have been amplifying the ways women (and men) approach Jewish ritual, a beautification of the acts we perform as Jewish women entirely in keeping with the goal of making a mitzvah more aesthetic (and therefore more pleasing).
The transformation probably began with women who wove lovely, original tallitot for men to wear at prayer. Then came the designs of prayer shawls for women, some even with slits so you could nurse a baby while davening. And now: handmade wedding huppahs have become canopies over the marriage bed. A tallit for a bat mitzvah girl is created from the mother’s and aunts’ wedding dresses. A Passover Kos Miriam, as a parallel to the cup of wine for Elijah, commissioned by LILITH’s editor Rabbi Susan Schnur to accompany an article on a new Passover ritual, is in the permanent collection at the Jewish Museum. LILITH’s Creative Edge department, which began in 1991 as a locus of information on feminist Judaica, has more than doubled, and we have now started a registry (check it out in this issue’s Creative Edge) to help connect the makers of rituals objects with their users.
That there’s much more to be done goes without saying, and creating beautiful ritual, and accompanying artifacts, does not address directly certain basic inequities in Jewish life. The next three issues of LILITH in this landmark year will examine where we’ve been and help map out some of the territory we have yet to traverse. In the meantime, rejoice in how far we’ve come!