Tootsie and Me: The Enigma of Older Jewish Women

Dustin Hoffman would have walked straight past me. In a touching interview about preparing for his role as a woman in the movie Tootsie, he poignantly noted ‘there are too many interesting women I have not had the experience to know in this life’ and acknowledged that he had been ‘brainwashed’ into only showing interest in attractive, and presumably, younger women.

As I enter my 60th year this Rosh Hashanah, I am theoretically halfway into my allotted 120 years. Reflecting on the words we invoke during the Days of Awe, I hope I will not be cast off in this time of old age. Getting older is liberating actually, as essentially, menopausal women have been metaphorically and sociologically de-sexed. While young fecund women are prized, an older woman’s sexuality is no longer a threat, thus unconsciously allowing women to forge ahead in ways they never dared to dream. As most Jewish communities are focused on the very young or the very old, women ‘of a certain age’ are generally overlooked and in this vacuum, I’ve noticed five typologies of older Jewish women emerge.

The Ritual Revolutionary: Her mother brought her to the synagogue every Shabbat in her favourite dress, and she often sat with her father, playing with the strings of his tallit. After her bat mitzvah, she dutifully moved to the women’s section; she went along to the youth service, an attempt by the rabbi to engage the next generation, but there was nothing for her to do, other than put out some food at the end. While the young boys acquired the skills and confidence to lead a synagogue service, she felt increasingly alienated and eventually stopped coming. She never wavered in her observance, but she did not have a place. And then her father died. She wanted to say kaddish but she was silenced. Her rage was dormant until years later, when she refused to stay silent after she buried her mother. And as she found her voice, she understood that she had been denied opportunities and ritually short-changed. She could have walked away, but it meant too much to her, and so she found ways to adapt and now advocates for women’s greater inclusion in ritual life.

The Compassionate Elder: She is the invisible thread that binds the panels of religious life. A generous woman, she is the venerable home-maker offering endless Shabbat hospitality to the wayfarers. She is the devout woman who goes into the dark every night to open the doors of the mikvah, she collects the left over bread from the baker to redistribute to hungry families, she has racks of wedding dresses in her home for the poor bride. She is the inscrutable, mute voice of acquiescence to divine command. Others seek out her presence for comfort and consolation, and when she chooses to speak, her words are measured, sagacious and perceptive. However, as she ages, she recasts this modest, caring role as her sacred duty, creating a paradigm of holy work and selflessness that deserves public acknowledgement and appreciation.

The Communal Activist: Unless professionally employed by the community, the shenanigans of Jewish communal politics are of limited interest to most people. However, women are often the catalysts for addressing issues that have been marginalised by the communal leadership. Examples include Jewish Women’s Aid offering support and a shelter for Jewish victims of abuse, Chana, providing services for those facing infertility and organisations such as Ora and Mavoi Satum raising awareness about divorce laws and helping women obtain a get, a Jewish bill of divorce. More specifically in Israel, Haredi women are campaigning on issues of crucial importance within their community, arguing that Haredi male politicians do not have women’s interests at heart. Esty Shushan helped to establish Nivcharot to protest the exclusion of Haredi women from Haredi political parties and the Haredi public sphere in general. This activism shifts the narrative about ‘subservient Orthodox women’ and highlights their focused strengths and capabilities to take on essential issues in a broader context.

The Intellectual Outlier: Daily Jewish practices have been shaped by the huge corpus of responsa, written by men and accumulated over hundreds of years. Women have been silent receptacles of pronouncements, oblivious to their potential for active decision-making but in recent years, this has changed dramatically. At Nishmat  founded in 1990, the visionary Rabbanit Chana Henkin created the role of Yo’etzet Halacha, a woman trained as an halachic advisor regarding the laws of Taharat Hamishpacha, sexual intimacy and fertility. To date, Nishmat has trained over 120 Yo’atzot Halacha and answered over 300,000 questions, thus  recognising the benefits of women advising other women on intimate matters.

At Matan, established by Rabbanit Malka Bina in 1988, the five-year Hilkhata programme for the advanced study of Halacha has graduated scholars who will become certified Meshivot Halacha, able to answer legal questions. In early 2019, Koren published the first volume of the Hilkhot Nashim series, edited by Rahel Berkovits who answers questions of women in the synagogue: Kaddish, Birkat Hagomel, and Megillah. The initiative by Kolech to have women speakers on Shabbat is testimony to increased women’s learning, but is also about a societal shift in expectations of women in public spaces. Inspired by the emerging cadre of young women scholars, older women, many of whom are established and highly regarded in their professional life, are discovering their intelligent religious voice. Remaining mute is no longer an option.

The Philanthropic Priestess: There’s a new cadre of educated, financially independent Orthodox women who are using their clout to leverage their funds to support causes that are important to them. Credit is due to the more traditional donors who have generously poured billions of dollars into programmes to promote Israel engagement and increase the availability of Jewish education, However, it is already evident that the younger, secular generation of donors do not necessarily support the Jewish causes of their grandparents. In contrast, the Orthodox community continue to prioritise their own, relatively insular needs, necessary for maintaining the infrastructure of a religious life. However, the women are the ones to watch as they draw on their own resources, or inherited legacy, to shape a different sort of community that values women’s choices – whether it be their scholarship, leadership, activism or increased support for various parenting opportunities.

What type are you? These roles are not mutually exclusive, and perhaps the space in the Venn diagram of these types in the most challenging and rewarding. I will be thinking about my place during Rosh Hashanah — I’ll also be making a few mental notes for my eulogy. After all, the first 60 years went very quickly, and I fear the next 60 will be even quicker.

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