TORONTO — When Letty Cottin Pogrebin’s, LEFT, mother died, of cancer in 1955, Pogrebin, who was 15 at the time, felt shut out of the mourners service.
‘Female rabbis, cantors are old news’
“I was excluded from saying Kaddish for a parent. As a daughter, I was excluded by my own faith… As a woman, I was not counted in the minyan,” she told some 120 people, most of them women, at a recent luncheon at Congregation Darchei Noam organized by Kolel: The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning at the Bathurst JCC.
Keynote speaker Pogrebin, an accomplished journalist, a social activist and an internationally known feminist, said that while Jewish feminists have made many gains, there is still significant gender inequity among the Orthodox.
She shared the dais with Sarah Fulford, the new editor of Toronto Life magazine. The women spoke about the challenges and changes in the women’s movement, viewed from their respective generational vantage points.
Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, rabbinic director of Kolel, moderated the discussion. She noted that both guest speakers had achieved important feminist milestones. Fulford is both the first Jewish and the first female editor of Toronto Life, while Pogrebin, is the founding editor of Ms. Magazine.
There was also a surprise celebration to mark Rabbi Goldstein’s having received an honorary doctorate in divinity from Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion and her 25th anniversary in the rabbinate. It was noted that like the guest speakers, she, too, had set a feminist milestone as one of the first female rabbis in Canada.
The discussion contrasted generational differences in feminism. The thirtysomething Fulford said women her age don’t focus on gender equality issues because social changes such as extended maternity leave and the greater involvement of men in the care of children have given them “incredible freedom” to be mothers and realize their career aspirations.
She said her own mother, a radio producer for 20 years, and other women of that generation were torn between their careers and domestic responsibilities. Many of them led double lives, hiding the fact that they were mothers from their colleagues. “They didn’t keep pictures of their children on their desks.”
Pogrebin, who represents that older generation, lamented the fact that today there are too many individuals and a lack of “collective solidarity” among women on feminist issues.
She said she has seen many advances in Judaic practice, noting that women have made great strides in Jewish scholarship – in Talmud and Torah study – and she doesn’t foresee women losing the right to have aliyot.
She also pointed to other gains: “Female rabbis and cantors are old news. Women are becoming scribes, and we even have female mohels.”
She contrasted these gains with the traditional role of women when she was a child. “My father reclined on Passover. The women cooked and served. They stood there silently. They couldn’t say Kiddush. They couldn’t ask the Four Questions or say the Ten Plagues.”
Turning to another issue, Pogrebin said there is more readiness on the part of rabbis to speak out against domestic violence, although she noted that they are slower to acknowledge the problem within the Orthodox community.
She stressed that Jews are no different from other groups. “People say, ‘Jews don’t do that.’ [But] we have these problems like every community group.”
She called on the community to punish men who refuse to grant their wives a get, a Jewish religious divorce. “These women are chained to their husbands. We have to care for these chained women. They’re being blackmailed by their husbands… We have to find out who these women are and help them.”
She said recalcitrant husbands should be ostracized by their own communities.
Pogrebin also urged women to give more to charity. “We need to “de-genderize” philanthropy. Be more generous. You don’t need your husband’s permission to give.”