Friday, October 16, 2009

The most important Jewish woman (almost) no one has heard of.

So I was starting my work on my thesis (on creative liturgy and piyyutim) and was banging around ideas with my advisor when he said "...and of course, the poetry of Ruth Brin."


Ruth Brin is, arguably, the most important Jewish liturgist (male or female) of the 20th century. You can't pick up a siddur from any of the non-Orthodox movements without feeling either her direct influence (e.g. one of her poems) or indirect influence. Without Brin, I would argue, there would be no Marcia Falk, no women's voice in liturgy today (which means no Kol Haneshama or Mishkan T'fillah), and we would be the poorer for it.

Am I being hyperbolic? Probably, but her influence is everywhere, and I'm an unabashed fan. Not long after this conversation with Dr. Sarason, I found an old copy of Interpretations in the basement of the Klau Library as part of a book giveaway. It was a gem of a book (you can find it as part of Brin's anthology Harvest, which is still available.

Interpretations , for those who don't know, is a collection of English poems Brin wrote in the 1950s as an interpretive response to every weekly Torah portion, plus all the holiday portions. Accompanying each is the text from the Chumash (usually Hertz) that she cited. There on the pages before me were the poems written by a fiercely, profoundly bright, worldly, Jewishly literate woman, the product of the midwestern Reform Movement (specifically, from St. Paul), a graduate of Vassar, a daughter of two immensely smart people, who was just as comfortable with the wilderness of Minnesota as the wilderness of Sinai. In every one was a hiddush, a new interpretation, interweaving the rabbis and a very modern viewpoint to create a fully accessible, poetic understanding of the sidre.

Needless to say, I fell in love with her poetry instantly. I've used her liturgically countless times, teach on her poetry all the time (or use it to teach the text), and always find new insight whenever I go back to these pieces as well as her other poetic works.

I've often called her a proto-feminist--she used masculine language for God, she only took up wearing Tallit and Kippah later in life, and her poetry often echoes with the issues of the 1950s more than today (atomic war, the still newborn state of Israel, the burgeoning Civil Rights movement, the aftershocks of World War II and the Holocaust)--but (like Penina Moise before her) she created and presented an idea of a fully engaged Jewish woman in congregational life: not only in philanthropic works or the education of children but in her own self growth, and in the liturgical life of the synagogue, something that I'm still amazed to see shuls struggling with today.

Ruth Brin died this past week--ironic and poignant for me, as I was about to teach on her on Sunday. I never had the chance to meet her (though I've talked to people who have). I pictured her as witty, sharp-edged (in the best sense), thoughtful.

Bahiya Ibn Pekuda wrote that "days are scrolls; write upon them what you want to be remembered." Brin has written a whole host of scrolls, and has added to the wealth of Torah. May she be remembered for blessing.

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