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January 17, 1992 - Image 75

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1992-01-17

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

FOCUS

A
Singular
Voice

How one woman's feminism turned her from
Judaism — and later led her back.

LETTY COTTIN POGREBIN

S

trange as it may sound,
in 1970, before there
were female rabbis and
cantors — even before there
was a Ms. magazine — I
found myself in the pulpit
serving as a cantor for the
High Holy Days. This bizarre
event never made the feminist
record books but for me it
marked a historic moment —
the end of my long estrange-
ment from Judaism and the
beginning of a profound
spiritual journey back into
the fold.
My break from the Jewish
community dated back to
1955 when I was 15 years old
and was not permitted to
count in the minyan at a
shiva service because I was a
female. Although this exclu-

From Deborah, Golda And Me:
Being Female and Jewish in
America. Copyright ©1991.
Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a
founding editor of Ms.
magazine, is the author of seven
books.

sion was predictable for an
era when none but the Recon-
structionists accepted women
in the quorum for Jewish
prayer, I found it intolerable
for several reasons. I had been
an observant child, a yeshiva
student, a Hebrew high
school graduate, and one of
the first girls to be Bat Mitz-
vah in Conservative Judaism.
I knew more about prayer and
ritual than the stranger who
was recruited to be the tenth
man. Most importantly, the
shiva service in which I was
told I could not count was for
the death of my own mother.
If Judaism could reject me,
I would reject Judaism. So I
left the organized, institu-
tionalized Jewish world of my
father and I practiced only
the home-based rituals I had
learned from my mother.
That is, until I became the
cantor for the landed (or
sanded) Jewish gentry in
Saltaire, Fire Island.
Nestled between the Atlan-
tic Ocean and the Great
South Bay about 60 miles
east of Times Square, our lit-
tle summer village is a family

enclave; weathered American
Gothic, not Brighton Beach.
In 1968, when my husband
and I and our three small
children first started spend-
ing time there, one could get
bagels at the village market
but lox and herring required
a special order. A few years
before that, there would have
been few requests for either.
Saltaire. had been tacitly re-
stricted since its founding in
1910 and the two or three
token Jews who'd slipped into
town over the decades had
kept a low profile. In the early
Sixties, an undeclared change
of policy opened the harbor to
a steady influx of Jewish
renters and homeowners, and
today, estimates of Jewish
households range from 20 to
30 percent.
But who's counting? Sal-
tarians are more concerned
with beach erosion and Lyme
Disease than with questions
of theology lbday we are a
restricted community only in
that motor vehicles are pro-
hibited in favor of bicycles
and little red wagons (for pull-
ing baggage and freight from
the ferry to our homes.) Yet
for all its secular character,
one fact about this 400-house-
hold village could not escape
the alert observer. Rising out
of the beach grass are two
churches of quite respectable
size, the brown-shingled
Episcopal sanctuary•situated
hard by the softball field, and
the whitewashed Roman
Catholic mini-cathedral
which backs on the marshes
of Clam Cove. From ocean to
bay, from one horizon line to
the other, there isn't a
synagogue in sight.
Back in 1970 few of us Jews
cared. We were the Wood-
stock Generation and those
were the God Is Dead years.
We were active in the anti-war
or civil rights movements not
in Jewish causes. If you'd
asked me then how the ma-
jority of us felt about our
religious identity, I would
have answered, "We're just
Jews."
But even "just Jews" tend
to go to synagogue on the
most solemn days of the Jew-
ish calendar and often this
meant forgoing a golden
autumn weekend at the beach
and staying in the city to at-
tend services. The previous
year, to avoid leaving the
Island, 30 Saltaire Jews had
performed their own service
in someone's living room
reading the English passages

from ten borrowed prayer
books, and letting Richard
Tucker's recording provide
the Hebrew liturgy.
When this group an-
nounced it would reconvene
the following year I resolved
to join up instead of spending
the High Holy Days in yet
another "overflow" service in
the basement of one of the
many synagogues where I
had been paying for a seat
each year rather than affiliate
formally to the faith that had
rejected me.

next day, I told the "rabbi"
that I would read or sing part
of the service in Hebrew, con-
fessing that I thought certain
prayers would be irreparably
diminished if recited in
English.
I did not realize it at the
time, but when I stepped for-
ward in this way, when I
chose to take responsibility
for the traditional sound and
texture of the service, I was
beginning a journey toward a
new place for myself within
Judaism.
My ascension into the pul-
pit happened without protest
or fanfare. The women's
movement was still in its in-
fancy, and Jewish feminism
was not even a gleam in its
founders' eyes. It would be
two years before the first
woman Reform rabbi was or-
dained, three years before
Conservatives counted
women in a minyan, five years
before any synagogue in
America would see a Reform
woman cantor, and the mid-
Eighties before the Conser-
vatives finally accepted
women rabbis and cantors.
Lefty Coffin Pogrebin.
But here we were with a
Planning for the 1970 Holy self-ann.ointed woman cantor,
Days was spearheaded by a prayer books, a shofar, and a
stockbroker who was a real home made "sanctuary" At
promoter; he didn't just rely the front of a volunteer's liv-
on word-of-mouth to publicize
our Rosh Hashanah services, It is ironic that
he posted signs at the
market, the ferry dock, and feminism, a secular
on the lifeguards' shack at movement, is at the
the ocean. Many people were root of the most
intrigued. Some volunteered seismic changes in
to bring wine and honeycake
for the kiddush. Some began my Jewish life.
in August to rehearse the
children's choir. Others con- ing room, we covered two
tributed money toward ex- stacked end tables with a
penses — and suddenly, we cloth to create an altar for a
had expenses.
kiddush cup and a pair of
The stockbroker, our de fac- candlesticks. Tall reeds and
to rabbi, went to Bloch Pub- dense blueberry bushes
lishers in lower Manhattan to pressed against the windows,
buy 25 more High Holy Day while inside about fifty peo-
prayer books and a shofar. To ple pressed against each
avoid having to charge sales other, balancing kids on their
tax, the clerk said he would laps. I imagined us as mem-
need the name of our congre- bers of a lost tribe taking
gation. Our "rabbi" thought refuge at an oasis in the
quickly and replied, "B'nai Negev.
Saltaire."
Everyone participated, the
But it turned out that none shofar blasts brought a spon-
of the B'nai — not a single taneous roar of appreciation,
male — could read Hebrew and the children's singing was
well enough to daven aloud. I
as sweet as the honey and ap-
took home one of the prayer ples awaiting us on the side-
books, thumbed the pages board. It was an unconven-
and mouthed the words I had tional little service, stripped
been saying in synagogue down to 90 minutes and
every year since I was a tod- mottled with mistakes, yet I
dler. The liturgical chants was overwhelmed by the
flooded my memory like a beauty of it and by a new
medley of old love songs. The sense of belonging. Others

THE DETROIT JEWISH NEWS

75

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