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The Women of the Shofar


From Manhattan to Manitoba, women have embraced the role of baalat tekiah, shofar blower, bringing Jews a wake-up call for the New Year.

By Elicia Brown

Photo by Hannah Mayne
Tiffany Gordon, a rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Boston, blows the shofar.
Walking through Jerusalem on an autumn evening last year, Elana Roberts suddenly stopped short. She couldn’t believe her luck. There, along the edge of Ben Yehuda Street, a pedestrian mall known for its Judaica shops and sidewalk cafes, she spotted a barrel stocked with 20 enormous shofars. She peered around. Nervously, she picked up a horn and tooted it, then another. Her trip to Israel included three missions: to visit family and friends, to celebrate the rabbinical ordination of a friend, and to find her “magic shofar.”

Roberts, who, like a growing number of women across the liberal streams of Judaism, sounds the shofar for her New York City congregation on the High Holy Days, hoped to discover that special horn she could play with ease—one that will “resonate with a call that cannot go unnoticed,” says Roberts. “How will I know when I’ve found my magic shofar? It is kind of like love. I will know.”

Not that Roberts, who in 2007 became the first woman to blow the shofar for the main service at her egalitarian synagogue, feels anything but affection for her current shofar, a blond and black ram’s horn, approximately 17 inches in size. She fears though, that “something might happen to it.” She also believes that somewhere out there, another shofar, perhaps more resplendent, would be an even more perfect fit.

Shofar shopping, even in a more customary setting than the one Roberts discovered, can be a daunting experience for women. Some fervently

Orthodox shopkeepers expect only men to blow shofar. But that assumption may be changing with each passing Jewish New Year. Outside of Orthodox communities, the image of the baalat tekiah, or the female shofar sounder, no longer startles Jews. At least since the early 1970s, with the awakening of Jewish feminists, women have been blasting these ancient instruments for non-Orthodox congregations. In fact, the history of women sounding shofars for their own ears, for themselves, dates back hundreds of years, as far back as the 12th century, when Talmudic sages ruled that women could not only blow shofar, but also recite the blessing for themselves.

“It’s seen as totally normal and unremarkable for a woman to blow the shofar,” says Rabbi Jeffrey Kurtz Lendner of the Reform synagogue Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla.

Carol Goldbaum, left, a social worker who lives in the Chicago suburbs, has been blowing the shofar since 1979.

And yet, the experience varies from one community to the next, sometimes suddenly shifting when the man passes away who, for decades, held onto that long note of tekiah gedolah, that last blast of the High Holy Days. Penny Myers, 35, a cantorial intern at a large Reform synagogue in Buffalo, N.Y., says, “I don’t get a sense that it is common for women to blow shofar. I rarely see or hear of other women fulfilling this mitzvah—I suppose, until now.”

Within many Orthodox communities, of course, the image continues to mystify—and madden—onlookers.

Roberts, an editor for HBO in New York City, did not fulfill her third mission in Jerusalem last fall. She returned from Israel with a dazzling black horn of tremendous size, produced in a shofar factory in Tel Aviv. It reeked of dead animals. It was not magic.

As for that serendipitous opportunity on Ben Yehuda Street? A group of yeshiva boys had sidled past, laughing raucously at the sight of a woman sounding a shofar. “I felt really uncomfortable,” remembers Roberts. “I wanted to sound every one.” Roberts waited until the street cleared before attempting another sound. Once again, she began testing the contents of the barrel, when she felt the gaze of another pedestrian, who appeared to be an extremely religious woman. As Roberts recalls, the woman was dressed in black, her head covered, her eyes disbelieving and disapproving. The woman whispered: “Aht minageret shofar?” Do you play shofar?

Photo by Elicia Brown
In 2007, Elana Roberts became the first woman to blow the shofar for the main service at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Manhattan.

“I looked at her, and I’m like, ‘Yeah,’” says Roberts. “She nodded at me, and then went back into her world. She left me with an understanding. It was a nod of approval, even though it was forbidden.”

Even within the world of liberal American Jewry, the baalat shofar is still a rare enough event that women remark on novel images and challenges, from choice of nail polish (not red) to lipstick (best without the glossy finish). The Women Cantors’ Network hosted a discussion a few years ago on the best lipstick brands for blowing shofar, e-mails Mary Feinsinger, a composer of Jewish music based in New York City. “The grease makes it difficult to make proper contact with the horn.”

Short stature can also distract worshippers. “People say, ‘You’re so small, and you get such a big sound out of it. You must have big lungs,’” says Pat Danoff, a retired teacher and Jew by choice, who blows shofar at the Conservative Congregation Beth-El in Bethesda, Md., and is 4-foot-11 on a good day.

In fact, size doesn’t matter, except occasionally in one area: the womb. Carol Goldbaum, a social worker living in a Chicago suburb, has been intoning the shofar since 1979—every year, that is, except 1981. She was pregnant. “I needed my diaphragm and abdomen to do it right,” says Goldbaum, who has designed a shofar resume to display her experience, and notes that she “gets a charge out of” blowing shofar. “I hear it in my ears and also in my body. It resonates; it’s my breath; I plant my feet a certain way and feel grounded. It’s not something casual.”

Some believe that to properly sound the shofar, one must appreciate its rich and vibrant history, its ancient use as a clarion call to war and as a signal of freedom, in announcing the Jubilee Year and the liberation of slaves. The primal cries of the shofar have called assemblies, marked time in announcing the new moon and celebrated the coronation of a king. It is a history that may include as many as 6,000 years of thunderous blasts, according to some sources. “It hasn’t changed while everything around it changed,” says Oded Zehavi, an Israeli conductor who has spent the past year at the University of Michigan researching the shofar.

 

Sounding Off

“There was just a slant of light and candles. I blew the shofar into complete darkness. We were aware of the souls that joined us from the Shoah for the blowing of the shofar. Somehow they filled the room, savoring that we were there, strong, connected, purified and ready to go forward.”
—Rabbi Dr. Goldie Milgram, author of Reclaiming Judaism as a Spiritual Practice: Holy Days and Shabbat (Jewish Lights), recalling her experience sounding the shofar in Holland on Yom Kippur

“Never has anyone remarked how unusual it was to see a woman blowing the shofar, except for one thing. I always turn my back to wipe off my lipstick right before blowing.”
—Rabbi Cookie Lea Olshein, Reform, Congregation Beth Israel, Austin, Texas

“The loud, piercing cry of the shofar is still striking, especially when produced by a diminutive woman.”
—Marcia Chaiken, Reform and Renewal congregations, Ashland, Ore.

“Some people are too invested in it. It should not be about Pat Danoff. I see myself as a messenger. Kids come up to the front, sitting at my feet; every eye, every ear is on me. But with a shofar, you never know what you’re going to get out of it.”
—Pat Danoff, Conservative, Congregation Beth-El, Bethesda, Md.

“It was definitely new for some people. As a halachic minyan, how can we find a way that says that women can blow shofar? We decided that the word, nashim, this category of passive women, is a term that doesn’t exist anymore.”
—Meg Lederman, Washington Square Minyan in Brookline, Mass.

“When I realized that a person who is not a cantor, not a rabbi, can do this, it led to other steps in Judaism. It led to my adult bat mitzvah in 1997, at the age of 47, an age which is about as awkward as 13.”
—Marcia Eisenberg, general counsel, Jewish Community Relations Council in New York, and a member of Ansche Chesed, Conservative synagogue in New York

“When Connie [the balaat tekiah] was pregnant, it was especially glorious. There she was, round and full of radiant light, sounding the wordless prayers of our alternative minyan.”
—Carol Rose, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

“The raw sounds produced by the shofar bring us back to ancient times; they return us to our basic modes and feelings—the foundations of human nature.”
—Rabbi Mary L. Zamore, Reform, Temple B’nai Or, Morristown, N.J.

“The first time I sounded the shofar, in 1981, Rabbi Stein raised his arms over his head as if a touchdown had been scored in the last three seconds of a tied football game. This was followed by spontaneous applause from the congregation.”
—Patti Freeman Dorson, Reform, Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation

“With the tallis as a wrapping that covers the head, it is hard to distinguish male from female.”
—Rabbi T’mimah Ickovits, founder of Ohr HaMakor, a home for Holistic Kabbalah, Santa Monica, Calif.


In modern times, the shofar continues to draw the rapt attention of many worshippers during the High Holy Days services, with 100 blasts blown on each day of Rosh Hashanah in traditional services. But it has also been adopted for a variety of other purposes, often by and for women, from Judith Shatin’s modern composition for string quartet and shofar to a Baltimore Jewish community event to call attention to domestic violence. At the event, several victims spoke, and “in between each one, a shofar was blown,” recalls Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin. “It was a call to assembly, a call to witness, a call to action. It was really powerful.”

Roberts helped craft a shofar ceremony to celebrate the Jubilee (50th) birthday of her friend Rabbi Pamela Wax. Along with Wax’s husband, the pair arose in the darkness of an early February morning, making their way through snowy streets toward Wax’s favorite destination in Central Park. There, at the edge of a pond, Roberts offered a blessing to the rabbi based on the Jubilee year. She spoke of letting go old debts, of discovering “the freedom to become who you really are.” Then Roberts lifted her ancient horn and emitted a series of blasts.

Roberts says that in her egalitarian community at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, “I’m a person who blows shofar; I’m not a woman who blows shofar.” She stands on a recent morning in the quiet sanctuary, where faint light filters through the stained glass windows. The small gathering of early worshippers begins to disperse, several members sharing a joke with Roberts before they leave.

This group knows Roberts from her year of Kaddish, which began in September 2006, when she rose every morning to pay respects to her deceased father. At the end of that period, she began to teach herself to blow the shofar, which, she says, helped her fully reenter the world after a year of slumber.

Her first toots didn’t awaken any souls, though they did make her teenage daughter cringe. “I sounded like an injured ram,” remembers Roberts. Unlike many talented shofar blowers, Roberts didn’t have prior experience with the brass horn.

But Roberts felt a natural affinity for the ancient instrument. That year, she blew it every morning for the daily minyan throughout the month of Elul, when Jews listen to the shofar in preparation for the High Holy Days. Just a few weeks after she first picked up the horn, she sounded it powerfully at her father’s unveiling at the tiny cemetery in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., where he was buried.

Within a month, she recalls, she developed a fan club of synagogue members who lobbied for her to blow the shofar during the main service for Rosh Hashanah, to serve as a baalat tekiah. Before she left her apartment that morning of the Jewish New Year, she spent 30 seconds thanking God for her blessings. In the synagogue, she asked to sit in the center of the aisle, an undistracted zone, so she could focus on the spirituality of the day.

“This is a very holy thing for me,” she says.

She was shaking when she reached the bima. “I thought, ‘This must be what it is to tremble before HaShem,’” she says. Wrapped in a large white tallis that enveloped her body and covered her head, Roberts closed her eyes, raised her shofar to her lips and blew. It may not have been the magic horn of her dreams, but the cries pierced the hush of the sanctuary, resonating into the lives of the men and women and children gathered for the Rosh Hashanah service.  

“I am a messenger,” says Roberts, “but the sound takes on a life of its own within each person.”


Elicia Brown, a columnist for The Jewish Week in New York, writes frequently about religion for a variety of online and traditional media.

 

 

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