With “Jewish identity” on every agenda in the wake of recent intermarriage statistics, let’s look at those “first moments” where a girl is touched by experiences identifiably Jewish. Considering how pulpit preaching emphasizes the importance of “the home” and “the family” in inculcating and reinforcing Jewish identity, we need to begin giving equal time to institutions. I have subversive purposes here. First, to point out that parents may have as great an impact on daughters in selecting for them Jewish schools and youth groups, where girls and young women interact with their peers, as by what’s going on at home. Second, to praise the often unacknowledged women who touch the lives of girls and young women at three distinct stages in their identity formation.
The Marines of Jewish life. A personal recollection: despite very positive Jewish experiences at home, my earliest Jewish bonds were, it seems to me, forged not in my family’s kitchen but in a kindergarten, even though I grew up in a family where Shabbat candles were lit each week, where Yiddish was spoken with loving grandparents, where my zayde carried a luach (Jewish calendar) in his vest pocket, and my bubbe cooked Eastern European Jewish foods, and my paternal great-grandparents are buried on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. My first sense impressions of “Jewish” derive from Friday afternoons in the kindergarten of my Jewish day school in Winnipeg. Every time since then that I’ve sipped purple grape juice (now from my daughter’s cup on Friday nights) I am back there, setting the tiny table for Shabbat, finding out who will get to be eema and abba that week.
So I recognized a homely truth when I heard my colleague Naomi Danis quote early childhood specialist Floreva Cohen: “Nursery school teachers are the Marines of Jewish life,” the shock troops who often represent the very first contact parents have with a Jewish institution as adults. The nursery school staffers are the ones who have to see the parents through their own Jewish ambivalence (“What do you mean the .school is going to be closed because it’s Succot?” “How can I explain to my daughter that even though Daddy’s new wife has a Christmas tree we won’t have one in our house?” And so on.) These educators, almost invariably underappreciated, underpaid, and female, often represent “the” Jewish community to parents, guiding them and their children through divorce, death and mourning, holiday celebrations with relatives of different backgrounds, plus all the usual socialization and learning skills. The Marines imagery feels just right.
Women cantors as role models. In the wake (so to speak) of the Marines image came a letter from Cantor Amy Miller reminding me that women cantors, the ones who train Bat and Bar Mitzvah celebrants and spend many hours one-on-one with them, have a unique opportunity to influence girls in that liminal state between childhood and the teen-agerhood. They are the Jewish adults who, like the nursery-school Marines, tutor, sing, cajole, reassure, praise, instill self-confidence, and represent women’s strengths and talents. Their influence can be a useful counterweight to some of the more egregious Bat and Bar Mitzvah influences. As one cantor told me: “Bar Mitzvah is the boy’s first opportunity to appear in public in a three-piece suit. A girl’s Bat Mitzvah has become an opportunity to debut in a bustier, showing off not her learning but her sexuality.” A woman cantor, downplaying sartorial inappropriateness, can suggest, among other things, that B’not Mitzvah return to the custom of wearing robes, and that they consult LILITH’s ongoing listing of worthy tzedakah projects (in the Tsena-Rena pages and elsewhere) to which their guests can contribute in the name of the celebrant.
Jewish women on campus, a population at risk. More so than their male peers, they express uneasy feelings about identifying as Jews, perhaps as a result of the powerful negative images set forth in the angry JAP-baiting which persists in college communities. Whatever the reason, Jewish women are less likely to be outspoken in their defense of Jewish causes, less assertive even in admitting that they’re from a suburb associated with being significantly “Jewish.” All the noise about the rising incidence of intermarriage has so far failed to address the problem that no matter who the spouses of these women will be, the women themselves need to have their Jewish identity buttressed. What helps? The presence of women rabbis on campus. Students can see a female Jew, overt about her Jewishness, speak out authoritatively on women’s issues, on Jewish topics, on campus controversies, and command respectful attention. Women in college have many models for successful womanhood but fewer models for integrating feminism and Judaism.