Chap­ters of the Heart: Jew­ish Women Shar­ing the Torah of our Lives

  • Review
By – May 22, 2014

At crit­i­cal points in our lives we often seek guid­ance and con­so­la­tion. In this stun­ning­ly can­did col­lec­tion, twen­ty Jew­ish women — a for­mi­da­ble group of fem­i­nist rab­bis, edu­ca­tors, schol­ars, most past fifty— turn back to crit­i­cal points in their lives and show how Jew­ish texts offered help and under­stand­ing. For some a sim­ple phrase was an illu­mi­nat­ing flash; oth­ers grap­pled with the con­flict between text and their real­i­ty; some turned to new prac­tices. All made clear their strug­gle and desire to get past it and live ful­ly again. 

Strug­gle exists at sev­er­al lev­els here. In a deeply thought­ful essay, Judith Plaskow grap­ples with the pres­ence of evil in the world and final­ly finds majesty and moti­va­tion in the God who appears to Job. Lamen­ta­tions is the tem­plate for Rachel Adler’s mov­ing record of her mother’s descent into demen­tia. Three times a wid­ow, Tama­ra Cohn Eske­nazi still awak­ens to love each morn­ing with the holy poet­ry of the Song of Songs. Blu Greenberg’s hon­est con­fronta­tion with the disappoint­ments, ben­e­fits, and, per­haps, futil­i­ty of inter­faith friend­ship and dia­logue con­trasts strik­ing­ly with Mar­garet Holub’s hon­esty as a self-described pharaoh and occu­pi­er who finds her­self in a moral­ly dif­fi­cult place in this moment of history.” 

The tra­di­tion­al roles of women — daugh­ter, sis­ter, wife, moth­er — are here enriched by con­trast to and knowl­edge of bib­li­cal women. Leah and Rachel are mod­els for Ellen Umansky’s rela­tion­ship with her younger sis­ter; Hara Per­son looks to David as a way to under­stand her son. Ellen Frankel, for the first time, talks about the shame of her steril­i­ty, the result of a hys­terec­to­my at twen­ty-six; Sue Levi Elwell talks about the shame of silence about her choice to have an abor­tion when it was not the time of favor.” 

Dur­ing a stress-filled car trip, Nan­cy Fuchs Kreimer briefly finds her hus­band of almost forty years a stranger and turns to Jew­ish sto­ries for solutions. 

Fac­ing wid­ow­hood, remar­riage, sick­ness, retire­ment — forced or nat­ur­al — these writ­ers find direc­tion and solace in their Jew­ish knowl­edge, and through them read­ers may share that knowl­edge and find their own sources of strength and guid­ance. Authors’ end­notes, con­trib­u­tor biogra­phies, glossary.

Relat­ed content:

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Discussion Questions