Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A Woman of Valor, Who Can Find?

Traditional orthodox synagogues are usually not well known for women's empowerment, but a glance at the history of the Old Broadway Synagogue shows that women's participation and traditional Judaism are not mutually exclusive either. I have in mind, of course, our Ladies Auxiliary, which seemed to be active in the shul from the 1920s through the 1950s and maybe even for longer. I should state right off the top that the women's empowerment that existed at Old Broadway was not egalitarianism and would not satisfy those for whom nothing else measures up (indeed the reason the women's group in the shul was called "Ladies Auxiliary" was that the primary members were the men), but if we want to talk about women playing a central role in a traditional synagogue community, this is it (Ladies Auxilary group photo below from the 1959 48th Anniverary Journal). I have not yet had a chance to study the minute books of the congregation, so what I am going to say comes from what is visible around the shul. First of all, there are the two photographs in the Kiddush Room, both from the late 1940s or early 1950s. In one, members of the Ladies Auxiliary stand around a primitive electrocardiograph machine that was purchased and donated to Israel. Another similar photograph shows the women behind a obstetrics table that they bought and were sending to Israel. I think it is fair to say that most of the women in the photograph have that solid Eastern European Jewish look that says, "don't mess with me or you will be doing the dishes for the rest of your life!" Another object that testifies to the importance of the Ladies Auxiliary is a pewter gavel that was inscribed for the Ladies Auxiliary and dates to 1927 (we have not found anything similar for the male membership). The real thing that is the clincher for me is perhaps the most surprising: the inscription over the ark.
In most synagogues, the inscription reads, Da lifnei me atah omed (Know before Whom you stand) or Shiviti hashem le-negdi tamid (I will place God before me always) or something which elevates the congregants thoughts towards heaven. Our inscription reads (and here I will transliterate from the original Hebrew/Yiddish characters From Ladies Egzelery oyf Ch.T.T.A.M. Let from translate: "From the Ladies Auxiliary of the Chevra Talmud Torah Anshei Marovi." So here is our dirty little secret: out inscription is in English (but written with Yiddish characters). And to make matters worse, what should the men be thinking about when they daven and look towards the ark? The Ladies Auxiliary (which was made up of their wives)! Just in case the men forgot who was really in control! These bits of evidence suggest a women's group that was dynamic and able to accomplish a tremendous amount. In a time when a family could have a middle class life on a single income and women whose children were grown were able to devote themselves to volunteer work, these women gave their time and talent to our shul and to the Jewish community. We were lucky! I dare say that without them, our shul wouldn't be here.

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