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Female authors featured at Shaar learning series

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Rachel Kadish, author of the recent award-winning novel The Weight of Ink, will take part in Congregation Shaar Hashomayim’s spring Tuesday Night Learning program.

If it were a baseball game, Lewis Dobrin would have hit a grand slam.

Dobrin, the creator of Congregation Shaar Hashomayim’s Tuesday Night Learning at the Shaar program, has lined up four outstanding authors for the spring.

That prominent international speakers are featured at this long-running free adult education series is not new. What has Dobrin so excited – and he hopes many others will be, too – is that the four are all women.

Their writing – and, in some cases, other aspects of their work – is about women, specifically Jewish women.

The opening pitch is thrown on March 19 by Rachel Kadish, the American author of the novel, The Weight of Ink, which won a National Jewish Book Award in 2017.

The plot, which alternates between 1660s London and the early years of this century, weaves together the stories of two women of shimmering intellect: Ester Velasquez, an emigrant from Amsterdam who is permitted to scribe for a blind rabbi, just before the plague hits the city; and Helen Watt, an ailing historian with a love of Jewish history.

The citation accompanying her Koret Award for Young Writer on Jewish Themes hailed Kadish as “a gifted and prolific young writer whose fiction bridges the gap between realism and metaphor. Her poetic style and rich consideration of Jewish themes brings to mind the early work of Bernard Malamud.”

Kadish will be introduced by Rosalie Jukier, a McGill University law professor.

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On March 26, American actor, singer and writer Alexandra Silber will take the stage, in conversation with Lisa Rubin, the artistic and executive director of the Segal Centre for Performing Arts.

At 35, Silber already has an impressive resume, having performed in British and American theatres since the age of 21. She was nominated for a 2014 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theatre Album for her role as Maria in West Side Story.

Silber played Hodel in a 2007 British production of Fiddler on the Roof and recently completed a run on Broadway as Tzeitel in the Tony-nominated revival of Fiddler.

Her debut novel, After Anatevka, is a sequel to Fiddler on the Roof, starring the characters Hodel and Perchik. Her most recent book, White Hot Grief Parade, is a poignant memoir about losing her father to cancer when she was 18.

Israeli scholar and social entrepreneur Tova Hartman, who has spent her life negotiating a path between feminism and traditional Judaism, speaks on April 2 on “The Challenge of a Shared Society in Israel.”

Hartman is the daughter of the late rabbi and philosopher David Hartman, who was the founding rabbi of Montreal’s Congregation Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem from 1960 to 1971.

Tova, who’s currently the dean of humanities at Kiryat Ono Academic Colleges, was previously a professor of gender studies and education at Bar-Ilan University. She is the founder of Kehillat Shira Hadasha, a congregation that seeks to increase women’s role within halakhah.

The author of Feminism Encounters Traditional Judaism, which won a National Jewish Book Award in 2008, she most recently wrote, Are You Not a Man of God? Devotion, Betrayal and Social Criticism in Jewish Tradition.

McGill law professor Shauna Van Praagh will introduce Hartman.

Making the last, but not least, round of the bases is Francine Klagsbrun, author of the widely acclaimed biography, Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel, the winner of a 2017 National Jewish Book Award.

Writer Cynthia Ozick described this more than 800-page study as “a masterwork, melding character and history.… Part biblically reminiscent drama, part novel-like interiority, part American-inspired pioneering.… Golda Meir’s story … has no parallel in the annals of nations.”

The author of more than a dozen other books, Klagsbrun is also a longtime feminist and was the first woman to carry the Torah to the Western Wall in 1988.

She’ll be introduced by National Post and CJN columnist Barbara Kay.

Dobrin says he regrets that the annual Steinberg Lecture at the Shaar, which he also oversees, has only had two female speakers during its 36-year history. He also recognizes that there has not been a gender balance over the 12 years of Tuesday Night Learning, which he now co-chairs with Mark Caplan. Dobrin has tried to get more female speakers in the past, he says, but, for various reasons, things have not worked out.

That’s why he’s so thrilled with hitting one out of the park this time.

A goal of the series is to attract new people, especially younger men and women, to the synagogue. Dobrin hopes this lineup will appeal to a fresh segment of the community.

“I like strong women, powerful women,” he said, noting that his maternal great-grandmother, Ida Roth Steinberg, a Hungarian immigrant, founded what became the Steinberg supermarket chain.

His mother, Mitzi Dobrin, a McGill law graduate, ran the company with her father Sam Steinberg. She was also the first woman named to the board of directors of the Royal Bank in 1976.

And Dobrin is proudly married to an accomplished woman, Rosalie Jukier, a McGill law faculty member since 1985.

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