In honour of International Women’s Day, I’d like to go back to my ancestors, the women of small Jewish villages in Eastern Europe, who prayed in their own language, Yiddish, rather than the holy one–Hebrew.
Being just women, they weren’t expected (or allowed) to learn this holy language, to pray in it, or to study the bible. Instead they did what had less status in their community. They worked, they ran small shops, they traded, learning to read and write often in two languages, their own and their Gentile neighbours.
Craving another use for literacy, they pored over the Tzena Urena, a cherished commentary on the bible written for women in Yiddish, and scoured the book peddlers’ carts for novels (when such literature came to be written in the late 19th century in Yiddish) and for prayers.
The prayers written for women in Yiddish, some written by women, were different from the Hebrew liturgy canonized in earlier centuries. It was unfixed, flexible, immediate, timely. It expressed their concerns about their daily lives, sickness, dependence (“Please God, don’t let me become ill and dependent on others”), their children and spouses, (“Don’t let my husband gamble or chase after women when he’s gone from town peddling”). Often the women spoke to God as an intimate (“Only you know my secrets that I can’t tell anyone else”). They also spoke to the spirits of biblical women as one might a saint who had the ear of God, but was also one’s best friend (“Rachel, dearest Rachel, you know what it’s like to be barren.”)
But one of my favourite of the Tehinas (these women’s prayers) is really more the expression of a vision of heaven, written in the 18th c by a woman known only as Sarah Bas Tovim. Here is an excerpt from the “3 Gates Tehina” as translated by Norman Tarnor in A Book of Jewish Women’s Prayers (p 32):
In Paradise there exist six chambers in which dwell thousands of righteous women…There is Bithia, daughter of Pharoah…In a third chamber is our Mother Yocheved, mother of Moses our teacher, with many [women] praising God, blessed be…There is Miriam the prophetess with drum in hand…Many Holy angels with her praise the name…In a fourth chamber sits Deborah the prophetess with many thousands of women…and sing the Song…The chambers of the Matriarchs are indescribable. No one is admitted. What pleasure there is!