Friday, December 25, 2009

The power of inclusion & exclusion: in solidarity with Women of the Wall

Part of a solidarity blog series for Women of the Wall.  Each piece is written by a member of the Rosh Hodesh group of Congregation B'nai Israel.  Tonight's blog is by Heidi Gassel.

My first memories of Temple are sitting high in a balcony with other children and women during Purim. I remember being sad that I couldn't be with my daddy who was sitting below with all of the other men. I looked at my bright polka dotted grogger but it just wasn't fun. Even though I was just three years old, I still remember crying "Dada" and my mother comforting me. My father died unexpectedly of pneumonia just five months later.

My mother continued to bring all four of us to the orthodox synagogue. She made sure that her three daughters and son were involved in the Orthodox Synagogue and part of the community. She encouraged my then teenaged sisters to be active in the youth group and they ran for office. My sisters ran for Treasurer and Secretary and won. Even though they were active in their jobs, they still had to sit up away from the men. I continued to ask why we were not allowed to sit on the main floor. I remember feeling left out and not as important as the men.

One night, after a youth group meeting my mother noticed that some teenaged boys from New Haven were about to head home during a giant snowstorm. We lived near Mystic, CT and this is not a short ride especially for an inexperienced driver. My mother insisted that the boys stay with us where they could be safe - she probably saved their lives. The boys had guitars, sat by the fire and had a sing a-long with all of us. I was only four but I remember feeling very spiritual about the jewish melodies they sang.

The boys slept downstairs, the girls slept upstairs; it was very innocent. The snow was cleared by the morning and the boys got home safe and sound. Shortly after, my mother got a call from the Synagogue. She was called a brazen hussy, she was told she was no longer welcomed in the orthodox synagogue and that her daughters were no longer elected officials for the youth group. My sisters were devastated.

I didn't know about this until some years later when my sister Michele, alav hashalom (may she rest in peace), was on her death bed. She told me the entire story, from her perspective. We had just had an argument about organized religion. I then realized that the day the orthodox community denounced her and our family, was the very day that she no longer wanted to practice Judaism. That was the day the jewish community lost my sister. Two very strong, smart and spiritual jewish people were lost due to such sexist standards and that's really a shame.

My siblings are much older than I am. My mother joined a Conservative temple. I was happy sitting with everyone else. A year later, a reformed temple opened up in Groton. It was at the Reform temple that I felt connected for the very first time. The Rabbi was young and funny. I remember waiting for each of his sermons...I remember sitting on the edge of my seat and then falling off in laughter as he performed puppet shows. His sermons challenged me, provoking thought...I was only six or seven years old! The cantor played guitar, it was wonderful.

We stayed with this Temple till I was 12. We were very poor in a rather wealthy community. I found acceptance from the Rabbi. One day he announced that he was moving away. I remember crying. One day, shortly after he had gone I was attending hebrew school. My teacher was female and a mother of one of the other children. She made a callous comment about my clothing and snickered at the fact that I wore the same clothing last week. We didn't have money for a big wardrobe and it was bad enough that I got these comments at public school but to receive it from a grown woman from our congregation...was humiliating.

I told my mother I wasn't going back. And I didn't. I was not to be Bat Mitzvah-ed. I would not be wearing the tallit. I remember seeing my brother's Tallit and Tefillin when he was Bar Mitzvah-ed in the conservative temple. The Tallit was passed down to him. It was my understanding that I would not get to wear a Tallit in the conservative temple; my brother told me how special the tefillin was and told me not to touch it.

When I was 18, I moved to Chicago on my own. I did not know a soul there. I was lonely and yet one Friday night I walked into a synagogue. I didn't know anything about the synagogue but I just walked in. And, I was home. The music was didn't matter what sex I didn't matter what denomination it was. I was home when I was there. I would go from synagogue to synagogue. And I always felt like I was home when I heard the music.

I met my soulmate a few months after moving to Chicago. One day I was talking to his niece. She told me of her Rabbi and how he inspired her. She told me he was funny and thought provoking all at once. As I was about to tell her that he sounded like my childhood Rabbi the words "Rabbi Knobel" flowed out of both of our mouths simultaneously! Over a thousand miles away, and there he childhood rabbi!

I went back to hebrew school and started to learn again. Unfortunately I had just joined a touring post alternative band and wasn't able to continue. I do plan on going back someday. I do want to read Torah and I do want to wear the Tallit. I feel fortunate to be in a day and age when I will have the opportunity to wear a Tallit and that our daughter will be able to as well. I have seen many beautiful tallitot and admire the art.

Rabbi Peter Knobel and Cantor Jeff Klepper,1983 

In 1997, Rabbi Knobel married us and Cantor Klepper played melodic guitar at our wedding. It was the same music I remembered from childhood. My very favorite memory of our wedding is when the Rabbi wrapped the tallit around me and my bashert. We were soul-mates, foreheads touching, wrapped in beautiful judaic culture, wrapped in history, wrapped in a tallit I felt safe and at one with my bashert. It is a beautiful memory.

It wasn't until we had our daughter that I realized some things about being a Jewish girl in 1960's America. We had a really nice naming for Madison Michele who is named after my late sister. But I found out that in the 50's and 60's when my sisters and I were born, just my father went to the synagogue to name us. It's kind of sad to think of the birth of a daughter as being less significant than the birth of a son. I'm happy to be a part of a community where I can sit where I want, wear what I want, and to be a mother who can tell her children that we all have these opportunities. Our daughter and son can sit with us and wear what they want and enjoy the sermons and music of a male Rabbi, a female Rabbi and a female Cantor.

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