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Community Blog Raising Miriam’s Cup to Honor A Feminist Scholar

By Sydney Gross
Passover companion - closeup

Judith Kates

Judith Kates, retired Professor of Jewish Women’s Studies at Hebrew College, begins her family seder with kos miryam – Miriam’s Cup – to commemorate the role of Moses’ older sister in the story of Exodus. And on her family’s seder plate, she places a mirror in honor of the righteous Jewish women who brought mirrors to inspire their enslaved husbands in the Egyptian fields.

Now Kates’ colleagues are honoring her role as a feminist Torah studies pioneer, through a Hebrew College Passover Companion, a type of a “festschrift,” or collection of writings published in honor of a scholar.

“Judith has been such a feminist pioneer in so many area of her life, and we really wanted to honor her in print,” said Hebrew College Associate Dean for Academic Development and Advising and Professor of Rabbinics Jane Kanarek, one of the co-editors of the Passover Companion. “Passover is such a central ritual at Judith’s home, and feminism is so central to her seder, that we decided to create a Passover Companion in her honor. We wanted to do something that actually fit who Judith is as a teacher and as a scholar. Judith is a teacher of Torah and Torah is meant to be shared.”

Kates became a founding faculty member of the Hebrew College Rabbinical School at its inception in 2003, creating core text courses on Torah as understood within the full range of Jewish interpretation. She has taught Bible and Rabbinics in many settings of adult learning in the Jewish community. Before joining Hebrew College in 1992, Kates was a member of the Harvard faculty and administration and the first coordinator of the Harvard Faculty Committee on Women’s Studies. In addition to hosting seders, she and Gail Twersky Reimer, founder of the Jewish Women’s Archive, always host a joyful gathering on the Shabbat of Passover, where they sing as many songs as possible from the “Song of Songs.”

“Judith’s generosity as a host, her joy in cooking, and her remarkable talents as a teacher, are all part of what make her Passover Seder special – for her and for her guests,” said Reimer, another co-editor of the Passover Companion, who also co-edited a women’s companion to the High Holy Days with Kates more than 20 years ago. “The Haggadah is a compendium of rituals, narrative, questions for discussion, and songs, all things that matter deeply to Judith.”

Kanarek, Reimer, and their third co-editor, Rachel Adelman, Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Hebrew College, asked Hebrew College alumni and faculty, as well as Judith’s family and friends, to contribute essays, poems, and contemporary midrash that would speak to Judith’s talents and inspiration as a teacher, a mentor, a feminist scholar of tanakh and midrash, a mother, a wife, a friend, and an inspiration to so many.

While especially meaningful for Judith, the essays also offer a broad audience a pathway into the Passover holiday and an opportunity to deepen thinking about the different rituals in the seder. The Companion is structured around the simanim, or signposts, of the seder, bringing readers from the ritual’s beginning, through the meal, and to its closing. There are longer pieces that can be read before the seder, and shorter pieces that can be read as part of the seder itself.

“Judith, for me, is the living embodiment of ahavat torah, a deep and abiding love of Torah. I can picture the expressions on her face as she teaches a text — the mix of reverence, playfulness, protest, curiosity, discovery, and delight. And always, as she listens to her students, there is that look of utter seriousness, her attentive presence modeling an exquisite blend of intelligence and kindness,” said Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, President of Hebrew College. “We are thrilled to honor Judith with this beautiful collection of writings on Passover by her students, colleagues, and friends, the second in our new series of Hebrew College holiday companion volumes.”

Kates, who learned about the book from Kanarek, Reimer, and Adelman shortly before its completion, says she was “beyond surprised — stunned and overwhelmed” by the project and amazed that her colleagues, friends, daughter-in-law, and husband were able to keep it a secret.

“As I quickly came to understand what this book was, I needed to reach for a language of the deepest gratitude,” she said. “I couldn’t help hearing in my mind and heart, the words of one of my favorite prayers from our Shabbat and Yom Tov liturgy: ‘Were [my] mouth filled with song as the sea…..[I] would still be unable to express [my] gratitude’ – to God who has kept me alive and given me the great gift of a community filled with love of Torah and our traditions, and with learning infused with that love.”

Kates said that in enhancing and deepening the experience of the Passover rituals and the text of the Haggadah, the Passover Companion is the “perfect expression” of what she cared about most deeply in her many years of teaching in the Jewish community, especially at Hebrew College. And she is grateful that the volume is available now to enhance individuals’ seders during this complicated time.

“I am honored to be known and valued for what I’ve tried to offer. The Rabbinical School faculty members and ordained rabbis, the friends and family who have written so beautifully in this wonderfully accessible volume have given a gift that will accompany us for many years,” she said. “But its appearance at this time of need, when we are preparing for Pesach in a mode of ‘social distancing,’ is poignantly perfect. It provides a ‘companion’ for our seder when we most need it.”

Hebrew College contributors include Hebrew College President Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, Hebrew College Rector Rabbi Arthur Green, Hebrew College Faculty Members Rachel Adelman, Jane Kanarek, Rabbi Ebn Leader, Rabbi Nehemia Polen, Rabbi Micha’el Rosenberg, Rabbi Shayna Rhodes, Rab`08, and Rabbi Jordan Schuster, Rab`18; Hebrew College alumni Rabbi Jordan Braunig, Rab`14, Rabbi Gray Myrseth, Rab`17, and Rabbi Avi Strausberg, Rab`15; and adjunct faculty members Tamar Biala and Abigail Gillman. Artist Anita Rabinoff-Goldman, whose “Seeing Torah” exhibit will be on display at Hebrew College this fall, also contributed to the Passover Companion.

To order your copy or read it online, visit the Hebrew College website.

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