Each woman has doors that lead into her Jewishness: Food, of course, and music; Torah study and tikkun olam [“repairing the world,” or social activism]; being part of a Jewish community; celebrating holidays and lighting the Sabbath candles.
For me there has also been another, less well known door: The door of dreams. When I tell people that my adult reconnection with Judaism has been guided by Jewish dreams, they usually knit their foreheads, puzzled. But it’s true. After thirty years of thinking that being a Jew wasn’t important to me, it was dreams that led me to look again.
The first dream was of an old, bearded Jewish man, locked in a cage in the basement while a party went on upstairs. The second dream came soon after. I was with my grandfather, who was as confused as he had been before he died. The two of us searched through a stack of yellowing magazines for something he had published long ago. We couldn’t find it. But on a tattered sheet was scrawled, “My light has gone out. Now I can no longer do Jewish. I can only be Jewish.”
Like my dream grandfather, I didn’t know how to “do Jewish.” I wasn’t even sure I knew how to “be Jewish.” Maybe I needed to find out. Seven years ago, I began following my dreams into the Jewish world.
Here are a few of my Jewish dreams, signs for me that revelation is ongoing, that there is a Torah of mayim chayim, living water, flowing beneath and alongside the written texts. There is unquestionably a Torah of the hidden heart.
My grandmother waves a thick cookbook.
“This is my Torah, ” she tells me.
We’re on a dingy walkway behind the nursing home where she lives. A voice announces the name of this place. It is Crying, Confessional and Complaint.
Dirty water fills a concrete gutter that runs along the path. My grandmother knows where to turn a valve that will drain the water away.
(I woke from this dream feeling both sad for my grandmother and strengthened by what I had been shown. Women’s Jewish tradition—providing nourishment and knowing how to deal with the dirty waters of life—has sustained our people as much as official texts. The play wright Naomi Newman says of women’s wailing: “If we were men, they’d call this Lamentation.” Women’s place of Crying, Confessional and Complaint is holy ground.)
I’m sitting with women and girls outside the building where a seder will be held. While we wait there, a mother asks her daughter to lead us in a song. The girl—about nine years old, stocky, short-haired, unornamented—stands up. Both shy and bold, she begins to sing. I sense how the world will endanger her charming, slightly pushy self-confidence.
Her voice is strong and clear. She sings a song we’ve never heard:
“There is a rose, and it will shine. . . “
Soon we join in sweet harmonies, the girl’s voice rising above the rest. It is so beautiful that we start to cry.
Then it’s time to go inside. As people set up for the seder, the daughter and I walk around the room. She teaches me her song.
(When I awoke from this dream, I lay still to remember the song: “There is a rose, and it will shine.” It felt like some kind of promise. I was hungry for women’s voices. I had heard the bold songs of Jewish girls and the deafening silence of Jewish women. Though our lives had taught us soul wisdom, we stood tongue-tied before scholarly tradition. Perhaps, as in my dream, we would begin by meeting outside the formal community. But we would find a way to share our songs.)
A darkened room in a dancing school. One of the dancers is a curly-haired man, airy and powerful. I think he’s gay. He is dancing for someone we can’t see. He gathers himself in, eyes closed in the passionate concentration of prayer or sex.
“Glorietta, ” he mutters. “Glorietta. ” His feet trace a circle as if she is at the center. He opens his eyes, turns to the entryway. A door opens, letting in light. It’s Glorietta! It’s the Sabbath Bride! He’s so glad to see her, we’re all so glad. She comes in, graceful.
In a moment, everyone falls away into the dark. I’m there with her alone. Her white gown is loose from her shoulders to the floor. Above her head an arc of white cloth curves like a calla lily, framing a dark hollow around her face. The Sabbath Bride stands with lowered gaze, indrawn, radiant.
I begin to dance around her. Self-consciousness makes me stiff, but I push through it, flinging my arms and legs widely. Leaning along one side like a windblown tree, my arm is a branch, a lover yearning toward her. Curling back, I draw her light to me. Though I don’t touch her, I’ve never felt so erotic, so spiritual. Leaping and .spinning around her brightness, I give myself to the Sabbath Bride.
(I awoke feeling that I had been visited by an angel. This dream still colors my waking life. On Friday night, as I draw the candlelight toward me and welcome the Sabbath, I know in a new way “who” I am welcoming. The halos of flame remind me of the arc around her face. When I sing for my congregation’s Sabbath services, I invite her presence: “Come, Sabbath Bride—be in my song.”)
Susan Rothbaum is a writer and singer who lives with her partner in Minneapolis.