Note: This is the eleventh of an ongoing series of personal essays on the beginnings of Kehilla. Each article shares the origins of one or more of the ideals and/or values that motivated me to start Kehilla. The essays are adapted from the manuscript of the book I have now completed, There is Only One Love: The Ba’al Shem Tov in the Modern World.
Second-wave feminism got its start in 1963 with the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. I became aware of this book in 1969. A woman I was dating at the time suggested that I read it. Rachel wanted to become a rabbi. Well, this was a new idea for me. A woman rabbi. But where would she study? Who would ordain her? Nonetheless, I encouraged her.
So I read The Feminine Mystique. Friedan wrote that modern women felt a sense of depression because they were forced to be subservient to men. In post-World War II life in the United States, she stated, women were encouraged to be wives, mothers and housewives—and only wives, mothers and housewives. So, she wrote, housewives were asking themselves, “Is that all?”
I took the book home to show my mother. “What does she say?” she asked. I summarized Friedan’s thesis. “So what’s new?” my mother quipped. I was not too surprised by her response, for while I was growing up, and especially during my adolescence, my mother made me aware—mostly in subtle non-verbal ways—of the limitations she had to endure because of her status as a woman and a housewife.
I was able to identify with the issues Friedan described because I myself—a sensitive and somewhat passive man—had grown up feeling dominated, even oppressed, in my family, at school, in college and later by my instructors at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Over time the feminist analysis of culture and society would enable me to critique both the patriarchal foundations of traditional Judaism and the modern hyper-masculine capitalist nation-state with its competitiveness, militarism and materialism.
What if women were to have a more equal role in managing society? In re-fashioning contemporary Judaism? Could things be different? In that first discussion with my mother she told me: “Mark my words, it will be a long time, perhaps centuries, until women are really treated equally in this society.”
It had certainly not been not easy for my mother. As an adolescent, Gertie Goldberg had enthusiastically envisioned a professional career as a musician. In her late teens, she started the first all-women’s jazz band, but the parents of these young women would not allow them to book any professional engagements.
Gert became an organist for the silent movies. She was dating my father at the time, and he would feed her dinner while she played in the darkened theatre. In 1927, Gert received a contract at the largest movie palace in Cleveland, but two weeks later The Jazz Singer, the first “talkie,” made its debut in theatres. Her contract was cancelled. Gert was nineteen years old at the time.
When my parents married, my father made it clear that he was going to be the sole breadwinner in the family and Gert was no longer going to work. She was saddened, but like most of the women of the time, she accepted my father’s pronouncement as her fate. Through the years, however, as she gained more of a sense of her own worth, she became a piano teacher and a visual artist, and she lectured on the history of Jewish art. By the end of her life she was seen as both a mentor and a model for many younger women in San Antonio.
Early on, Gert also turned her talents to volunteer work in the Jewish community, most especially as the chairwoman of the Anti-Defamation League in Cleveland. In that capacity she waged a furious campaign to convince the leaders of the Jewish community that Adolph Hitler’s rise to power in Germany posed a threat to the Jews of Europe. She also traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with senators and congressmen. But her Cassandran warnings were ignored. The sense of helplessness she felt as her catastrophic visions materialized left her enraged, bitter and depressed.
When our family moved to Texas in 1947, Gert became the chairwoman of the Anti-Defamation League in San Antonio. In that capacity she worked with teachers in the public schools, instructing them on how to promote racial, ethnic and religious tolerance in their classrooms. I remember her telling me that on the rare occasion when she had to ride a municipal bus, she would always sit in a seat at the rear of the vehicle, under the sign that read, “These seats reserved for colored patrons only.” Bus drivers were unsuccessful in their attempts to get her to move.
In the 1960’s, after race riots had rocked San Antonio, Gert Jacobson became the first woman and the first Jew invited to become a member of the San Antonio mayor’s Human Rights Commission. In this capacity she worked with the mayor and with the male leaders of the African-American and the Latino communities on issues of bigotry and on measures that might help repair the racial inequality that was so omnipresent.
In her own way, Gert Jacobson contributed to the feminist revolution that began in the 1970’s. And it was my mother’s example that inspired me toward a lifelong commitment to human justice and to tikkun olam, the mending the world.
When I was formulating the vision of Kehilla Community Synagogue, I made it clear that this would be a congregation in which both women and men would share all leadership roles in an equal way. The early liturgies that I composed for High Holy Days, Shabbat and the festivals did away with patriarchal language. I used a variety of metaphors for the great mystery, but the only gendered name for the divine was “Shekhinah,” which Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb translated as “She who dwells within.”
Despite my commitment to feminism, though, I discovered that my male conditioning led me, at times, to act out in chauvinist ways toward women. As my awareness increased, I was able to grow and shift some unconscious behaviors. At the same time, I feel regret for the way I have hurt some of the women in my life, and wherever I could, I have reached out to seek their forgiveness.