Women share personal stories with a focus on Torah in a new collection of essays edited by two local rabbis.
One writer tells the story of undergoing an emergency hysterectomy before she ever had the chance to have children; another recounts the trauma of seeking an abortion in the early 1970s; a third voice belongs to a mother whose college-age daughter wages a life-and-death battle with an eating disorder.
These stories and 17 others make up Chapters of the Heart, a new collection of essays written by notable Jewish women, including a number of rabbis. Recently published by Cascade Press, the collection was edited by two Philadelphia rabbis, Sue Levi Elwell and Nancy Fuchs Kreimer.
The volume contains works by a number of Philadelphia-based writers, including Ellen Frankel, an author and editor; Rabbi Vivian Mayer, a teacher at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College; Rabbi Julie Greenberg, who heads a Center City congregation; Rabbi Dayle Friedman, who specializes in spirituality and aging; and Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg, who specializes in Jewish meditation.
The book’s title is a play on Pirke Avot, which is often translated “Ethics of Our Fathers” but is more literally rendered “Chapters of Our Fathers.” It is perhaps the most famous tractate in the Mishnah, the second-century compendium of Jewish laws and wisdom.
For this modern take, Elwell and Kreimer tasked their writers not only with writing about an intensely personal experience, but also with exploring how Jewish texts and traditions helped to shape their understanding of their experiences.
Elwell and Kreimer said that by choosing these highly personal stories and showing the role that faith played — or didn’t play — at the time, as well as processing the experience later, they hope to encourage more Torah study. And, they said, they want to do so by giving voice to what was arguably the first generation of women who had open access to Jewish learning and therefore could gain an unprecedented understanding of the texts.
“We want people to talk about this. We want to encourage people to think about their own lives through the lens of Jewish texts,” said Elwell, who works for the Union of Reform Judaism and has written and edited several books. “We wanted to share our friends — who we love and we think are so thoughtful, who live their Judaism — with our readers.”
The editors have created a website (chaptersoftheheart.com) to promote the book. And they are finishing up a reader’s guide for book clubs.
Elwell said the origins of the book date back several years, when she was looking for someone to collaborate with on a new project. As the co-editor of compilations such as Lesbian Rabbis, The Open Door Haggadah and a contributor to works including The Torah: A Woman’s Commentary, she had learned that she wrote and edited best with a partner. She approached Kreimer, her longtime friend, who founded the department of multifaith studies at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote.
Kreimer had lots of ideas, but what grabbed Elwell was Kreimer’s lament about the dearth of spiritual autobiographies written by Jewish women. That’s partially because confessional writing has been more closely associated with Christianity than with Judaism, Kreimer explained.
She wanted a textbook for her RRC course in spiritual autobiography that she could also share with her book club, which is made up of Jewish, Christian and Muslim women.
“You write the book that you need,” said Kreimer.
They solicited a diverse group of scholars and rabbis, mostly over age 50, and began a two-year process of choosing topics and shaping the parts into a cohesive whole.
Some writers, like the Bible scholar Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, had, according to Kreimer, never published a personal piece before. Eskenazi, a professor at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Los Angeles campus, wrote about the death of her three husbands and how the Biblical Song of Songs framed her loves at different stages of her life, as well as her loss.
Perhaps the piece that’s gotten the most attention so far, according to Elwell, is the one written by Rabbi Amy Eilberg, a native Philadelphian who was the first woman to receive rabbinical ordination by the Conservative movement. In describing her daughter Penina’s dire struggle with anorexia nervosa, Eilberg invokes Moses’ visceral prayer for his sister, Miriam, to be cured of leprosy.
The chapter includes a short response from Penina Eilberg-Schwartz — now a writer living in San Francisco — who offers a very different view of the causes of her struggles with anorexia and the role that God played in her healing. She also offers her mother a heartfelt apology for putting her through the ordeal.
“Eating hyper-consciously, I told myself, was a political act of resistance against the unjust system that left millions of people hungry and undernourished. I would not be wasteful; I would eat only what I needed to live,” Eilberg-Schwartz wrote in a longer response published in Reform Judaism magazine.
Kreimer and Elwell also added their own voices to the anthology. Kreimer told a story of how arguing with her husband over driving directions turned into a meditation on the challenges of marriage by channeling the second-century sage Ben Azai. Elwell wrote about her decision to have an abortion as a 22-year-old graduate student. Before the Supreme Court legalized abortion with Roe v. Wade, the procedure was not widely available and she was forced to speak with a Christian clergy member in order to be eligible.
The book, she said, provided her and others the opportunity to revisit a powerful experience. “For some of us, there was something that we had carried around for a long time that we wanted to explore in a different way,” said Elwell, who also writes Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. “What I discovered was that I hoped to be the rabbi that I didn’t have when I was 22 years-old.”
In the end, she said, she and Kreimer hope that “other people will explore chapters of their lives,” and link their “personal journey to the journey of the Jewish people.”