She's My Rabbi: When Genealogy Clashes With Social Change

'Tis graduation season -- or for rabbinical school, ordination season -- and my family welcomes my sister-in-law Dahlia as the first female rabbi in our tree. So it's a tad jarring that the family member whom I want to talk to most says, and I quote, "It's against my religion."
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'Tis graduation season -- or for rabbinical school, ordination season -- and my family welcomes my sister-in-law Dahlia as the first female rabbi in our tree. So it's a tad jarring that the family member whom I want to talk to most says, and I quote, "It's against my religion."

As a writer and researcher, I've picked up the mantle of family historian. My great-aunt Gloria holds the last living secrets to my family's Hungarian heritage. She's the youngest child of Ignatz Amsel, my great-grandfather and namesake, and the first one of the family to make it to America.

Most American Jewish families have similar stories, but I am genuinely proud to be a descendent of Ignatz. He fought in WWI, was in a Siberian POW camp for seven years, then walked (yes, walked) back home to his wife and kids in Hungary. When he immigrated to the States, he worked as a cloth cutter for years before he could send for his family. From all counts, Ignatz remained a hard-working but light-hearted man. He's an emblem of courage, defiance and love.

Gloria, who turns 80 this September, moved to Israel 20 years ago and lives in an ultra-Orthodox enclave in the shadow of the Western Wall. She used to be secular; now she covers her hair at all times. "I became religious in '67 after we got Jerusalem," she says, under her snood.

For the five female rabbis ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary this spring, religiosity is in the eye of the beholder. They each represent a slightly different branch of the religion, from Open-Sexuality Judaism, to Orthodox-in-all-but-penis. Yet they all have the same basic tenets in common, which emphasize tolerance and acceptance for all people. (You'll be hard-pressed to find a homophobic female rabbi.) For centuries, the word rebetzin was defined as "rabbi's wife." Now my brother Aaron proudly emblazons it on his baseball cap.

Female rabbis are a young institution, and change in the status quo terrifies those who cling to the past. After learning about Ignatz, I can't blame past-clingers. There exists a profound respect for those who came before us and set our stage. We want to connect to these people as closely as we can - that might be why we bestow their names unto our children. Personally, I want to connect to Ignatz's incredible courage and willpower. I assume the ultra-Orthodox yearn to connect to something meaningful in their history, too.

The problem, as Gloria illustrates, is the cognitive dissonance among the ultra-Orthodox. She doesn't hold with Torah-literate females, but she's proud that her grandfather was the rabbi and cantor of his village. She basks in the mythos that we're related to the rabbi who built the Golem.

I'm fascinated by family stories like these. Piecing the puzzle together, we can better understand where we came from and who we have grown to be. Entire human lives have been lived from beginning to end, and while some have been recorded in detail, others have left nothing but a single anecdote and a faded photograph. This is why I research family history.

We look toward our ancestors with a longing, a sort of admiration of their trials. We wonder, "If I were in that situation, would I have been able to do the same?" Survival seems so easy now, and maybe a part of us regrets that whatever made our ancestors strong and empowered has diminished over time.

I observe these female rabbis (or rabbot), and I listen to their stories. These are women who sing their prayers at the Western Wall with full expectation that men will throw chairs to silence them. Some women are arrested, clutching Torah scrolls, and are taken in police cars away from the Jerusalem center. The ultra-Orthodox are admonishing them for their act of social change, for straying from a heritage of female complacency. Each of the five women experienced this first-hand, and expect to in the future.

Generally, the Jewish population enjoys great liberties between America and Israel. These women are the vestiges of the remaining struggle for modern Jews -- a struggle at the hands of the past-clingers, no less.

But the joke is on Aunt Gloria. The ultra-Orthodox, in their insistence to honor the past, are creating the perfect conditions in which to cultivate new trail-blazers. For these female rabbis, their Serbia is cold ignorance, and they're slowly walking home to the embrace of acceptance. They are setting the stage for those who come after them, living not for the past, but for a future of tolerance. Like my great-grandfather, these women are nothing if not emblems of courage, defiance and love.

And tomorrow's historians will shake their own heads in wonder.

Jake Friedman is a writer, professor and the authorized biographer of Art Babbitt.

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