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Under My Hat

Under My Hat
by Sally Berkovic
Joseph’s Bookstore, London (fax 44-181-731-7575)

Part memoir, part scathing social commentary, part rallying cry for Orthodox feminism, this first book by self-described “unorthodox Orthodox” author Sally Berkovic traces the struggles of modern Orthodox Jewish women and reveals the paradoxes of living a traditional Jewish yet modern life in a “post feminist” age.

In this courageous book (which will no doubt earn Berkovic the ire of many in her community), Berkovic covers familiar Orthodox feminist territory: women’s Jewish education, tefillah groups, agunot, battered wives, the possibility of Orthodox women rabbis. She does so with a refreshing non-American focus, often referring to the situation of Orthodox women in England (where she now lives). Unlike North American Orthodox Jews, British Jews are under the jurisdiction of a Chief Rabbinate and must follow its halachic rulings; there’s no “shopping around” for alternative answers to pressing question.

The daughter of Holocaust survivors, Berkovic grew up in Melbourne, Australia, in a community where, until she was a teenager, she didn’t know anyone whose parents weren’t survivors. A thread of grief runs through the book. She recalls how she was too anguished and passive to say Kaddish after her mother’s death, when Berkovic was 19. By the time her father died 12 years later, Berkovic felt a strong need to recite Kaddish daily, despite the controversy it could have caused. While she had once “thought being devout meant being silent. . . [n]ow I am devout because I found my voice in between the deaths of my parents.”

In good feminist fashion, Berkovic’s personal reflections are expanded into a piercing social commentary on the vagaries of contemporary Orthodox Jewish life. Berkovic reveals how the internal divisions in Orthodox Jewry are often played out on the heads of Jewish women. At a menu-planning meeting for a function in Berkovic’s community, only women who covered their hair were allowed to bring cakes baked in their kitchens; bareheaded women were relegated to bringing fruit and drinks. (“What, do we mix the batter with our shaytels?” one woman complained.)

Berkovic advocates dialogue between women from other “orthodoxies.” “The shaytel, the nun’s wimple and the veil are all variations on the same theme…. Women pressing for change within their own religious tradition can learn from the experiences of other women—be it in terms of strategy, theological arguments or handling the social fallout which comes from agitating for change.” In an era when Orthodox Judaism is at best ambivalent about its relationship to other Jewish denominations, Berkovic’s call for interfaith dialogue is truly remarkable.

Unfortunately, at times Berkovic’s narrative spins off on tangents. A discussion about Bertha Pappenheim as a model for single Orthodox career women, because of her campaign against Jewish prostitution and white slavery, leads to a 14-page digression on the problems of agunot. A tragic story of a modern day mainzer breaks back into the life of Bertha Pappenheim, which then segues into a discussion of another of Berkovic’s heroines, Henrietta Szold. These abrupt transitions mar the flow of Berkovic’s otherwise graceful narrative.

Under My Hat addresses the serious issues of Orthodox feminists with wit, pathos, and uncompromising honesty. One hopes to see more honest descriptions of the personal and political successes and challenges of Orthodox feminists like Berkovic