The morning started with the sound of “raspberries” being blown with abandon, continued with the shrill blast of about 15 shofars at once, and concluded with the sounds of Sisera’s mother weeping.
It was all part of a workshop held Sept. 7 at the Mount Freedom Jewish Center, in partnership with the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, on blowing the shofar during this High Holy Day season.
The event exploring women’s role in the ancient ritual was held in preparation for the Great Shofar Blowout, a project of the Whippany-based Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life, a partner agency of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
On Sunday, Sept. 21, the morning event will include workshops and an attempt to break the world record for most simultaneous shofar blasts (see sidebar).
The central questions of the Sept. 7 workshops were: Is it permissible for women to blow shofar and, if so, how?
The questions were addressed in a how-to session led by Howard Sragow of West Orange and a study session led by Dr. Carmela Abraham, a physician and third-year student at Yeshivat Maharat in the Bronx, the first yeshiva to ordain women as Orthodox Jewish clergy.
Sragow, a member of Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob & David in West Orange, demonstrated how to blow “raspberries” into the mouthpiece of the ram’s horn, the proper placement of the tongue, and breathing tips for those hoping to make a memorable tekia gedola — a lengthy blast.
Abraham opened her section by noting that women, unlike men, are not commanded to hear the shofar as part of the holy days’ ritual. “Actually, we are not obligated” under Halacha, or Jewish law, she said. “We feel obligated to hear the shofar. The question is how we got there.”
Despite the “non-obligatory” nature of the mitzva, traditional women are exploring the ritual as part of a feminist trend within Orthodoxy that includes women leading tefillot, or prayer services.
“Despite the fact that many [Orthodox] women can lead tefilla, many have never learned to blow the shofar,” said Aaron Steinberg, associate director of JOFA, who attended the workshop. “It’s a new area of ritual participation for women and girls.”
Also participating was Judy Heicklen of Teaneck, president of JOFA, which is also a cosponsor of the Sept. 21 “blowout.”
The workshop came on the heels of a recently published article on women and shofar by Alissa Thomas-Newborn, a student and peer of Abraham’s at Yeshivat Maharat. The article argues that during Rosh Hashana, Halacha allows women to blow the shofar for other women in private providing it does not conflict with the main shofar-blowing in synagogue.
Perhaps the most poignant moment of the discussion occurred as the group studied the sources of the sounds of the shofar blasts. Few were aware that one commonly cited source for the sounds are the sighs and cries of the mother of Sisera, an enemy of the Jews described in the Book of Judges. As the tale goes, Sisera is violently killed by the heroine Yael; Deborah’s poem about the event shifts to describe the grief of the warrior’s mother, waiting in vain for his return.
Abraham pointed out how much resonance this has for mothers even today, as Israeli mothers and mothers in Gaza are both waiting for their sons to come home.
The synagogue’s Rabbi Menashe East received ordination from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, which, like Yeshivat Maharat, is on the liberal, or “open,” side of Modern Orthodoxy.
“Trying to engage women in more meaningful ways in the ritual life of the synagogue, particularly around the shofar — which is so much about women’s expression, a woman’s expression of grief, the cry of the mother of Sisera who cries for her son, that cry that became the source of our sound of the shofar — is so important,” he said. “We’ve got to think about how we can be more embracing, more accepting, more hopeful for women’s opportunities.”
Lillie Brandt of Morris Township called the session “wonderful.” A longtime preschool teacher, she has been blowing the shofar at the Gottesman RTW Academy (formerly Hebrew Academy of Morris County in Randolph) for educational purposes for many years.
“Some people look at me in shock and ask if I’m supposed to be blowing the shofar. I always answer that I’m doing it for educational purposes,” she said. “But now I know I can blow it for other women, and I would do that.”
Rona Dickman of West Orange attended with her son Max, 12.
“I’ve never blown a shofar, but I own shofars,” she said. When Heicklen told the gathering she blows the shofar for her family every morning at home during Elul, the month preceding Rosh Hashana, Dickman said, she was inspired, adding, “I guess I could do that.”
Sherry Pollack, who organizes women’s participation in various rituals as Mount Freedom Jewish Center’s “gabba’it,” arranged the workshop. She said it was her first attempt at blowing the shofar.
“I have a whole new appreciation for people who blow the shofar,” she said. “I thought it would be like the clarinet, which I used to play. But I have a whole new appreciation for how hard it is.”