Rabbi Eve Posen, who works at Congregation Neveh Shalom in Hillsdale, and Lois Sussman Shenker, one of her congregants, recently wrote a book called "Pirkei Imahot: The Wisdom of Mothers, the Voices of Women." What started as private study sessions for Sussman Shenker turned into 18 months of research, gathering testimonials and writing — with a pregnancy, "lots of emails" and a bit of "chutzpah" in between.
The resulting book has led the co-authors on a journey into what wisdom means in the Jewish faith, in the modern world and for women in particular. They plan to lead workshops around the country to continue the conversation, making the book a means of continual study.
The co-authors recently spoke to the Connection about "Wisdom of Mothers." The conversation has been edited for length:
The Connection: Could you explain a bit about the beginnings of your collaboration together — how this book got started, your inspiration?
Rabbi Eve Posen: I did some homework and I found out that Lois really likes a good project, so I suggested that we study Pirkei Avot, which is generally translated from Hebrew as "Ethics of the Fathers." It's part of the Mishna, a section of our oral law that was written about 250 CE, and it's sort of like an ethical will. It's the rabbi saying that these were the favorite teachings we have: Treat each other in a nice way, this is what it means to be a good and moral person in society.
But it was written by men, for men. So when Lois came in, I said, "How about we study Pirkei Avot, but let's write a book on a women's take on it and call it Pirkei Imahot, or 'Wisdom of Mothers.'" Little did I know that when you suggest a project to Lois, your world will never be the same, and here we are 18 months later and now we have a book.
Lois Sussman Shenker: One of the things about this project that has been so very special is that this is intergenerational learning at its best.
When I speak or talk about my being Jewish, I always say that you can be Jewish two ways: You can be born of a Jewish mother or you can convert to Judaism. ... I say, "I'm Jewish by birth, I'm Jewish by practice, I'm Jewish by choice, and every day — inside out, upside down and backwards — I'm Jewish to my core." So that may not be the rabbinical training and the formal background that Rabbi Eve has, but I bring that to the table. She brings a youthful exuberance.
TC: It's awesome that it started very organically, with what sounds like multiple conversations, but then to actually push that into a book — did it feel like there was a female voice missing you needed to convey?
LSS: That was the reason.
REP: So Pirkei Avot, which has stood the test of time from 250 CE, was written by men. And while it was written for the Jewish people, men were the ones who did the primary study of it. So you'll read sections, there's one that says, "Don't engage in idle chatter with your wife" — that's one of the pieces of wisdom which didn't really sit well with us, right? There's other ones, (like), "There's nothing worse than the prattle of children," which is also terrible. That's not where we come from - we're both educators, we're raising children.
Some of the pieces like, "Don't separate yourself from the community" — that's good information for everybody, but it might mean something different for a woman who perhaps is having a baby and staying at home with her child.
Or there's one that says, "More women, more witchcraft ..."
LSS: Oh, I don't remember that one. Eew!
REP: Right. So we felt like we had to respond there. But the book isn't just us responding to the text. That's the first half.
The second half, we actually asked women from around the world to share the wisdom that they learned from other women in their lives. So we put it together based on categories that we saw as common themes. The second half of the book is really women's wisdom that's sort of a modern take of Pirkei Avot. It's what we would share.
So what my piece of wisdom that I added was what my mother told me before my wedding, which is, "Never go to bed angry, always say I love you." But Lois' wisdom is funny, I love your piece that you put in there about your mom and the queen.
LSS: This is my favorite, always my favorite.
Picture it: Summer 1960, two weeks before my wedding, we're standing in the guest room of our home, which I was raised in, and in those days people gave fancy wedding gifts and they were on display. My mother and I are sitting looking at all these gifts. … She said to me, "I've got a question for you: If the queen of England came, would you use your finest things," and I said, "What a silly question. Of course I would." And she said, "Oh honey, she's not coming." She said, "Do not wait for the queen of England. You should use the finest things for your family because you will never get more important company."
I get goosebumps every time I tell that story, because by the time my children got out of high chairs, they were eating Friday-night Sabbath dinner on sterling and china and still do. And I take it out every week for myself and my husband — now it's the two of us since the kids are away.
Somebody asked me, "Well, is (the book) all Jewish?" No, but yes, you know, I mean because the truth is, the story about the queen of England — is that Jewish? Well, actually it is, because the highest priority — do you know what the most important institution is in all of Judaism?
LSS: That is correct, but that's not what most people think. They think it's the synagogue, it's the educational institutions. It isn't. It's the family, and in point of fact, you can celebrate much of Judaism, not all, but much of Judaism in the home.
There are lots of things in the book that you would not claim are Jewish, but they all have to do with basically ethical behavior. Rabbi Eve uses the term "ethical will." I often use the term "ethical roadmap" when I'm talking about the book, because they're guidelines for daily living that enhance your life.
REP: You'll notice when you look through the book that we have questions at the end of every entry and we left space for actual writing to happen on the page opposite it. Because we didn't want this to be a book that you sort of picked up and read and said, 'Oh that's nice.' We actually wanted there to be room for everyone who reads it to add their own voice into the text.
TC: Do you foresee people gathering and studying it?
REP: In Judaism, the way that we learn is called "chavruta," from the root chaver, which means friend. So it means that you study in partnership with a pair. So, when you go into a Jewish place of learning like the library, it's actually a very loud place, because you're talking, because learning happens in the conversation and then how you reflect on the page.
We've got workshops scheduled in a couple places, and we did one in Seattle, and those are group study where we're going to pick our favorite section of the book and invite women to respond with each other and engage in it.
TC: It sounds like it's much more than a "project" at this point.
REP: Yeah, it's definitely a friendship and a part of our life.
LSS: Oh my gosh, yes. We've really found each other and it's really very special.