"The Change"

Rabbi Deborah Silver
January 24, 2013
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I consider myself lucky to live in an age where Jewish lifecycle transitions are being creatively marked in progressive Jewish practice; an age which boasts, along with Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies, groups such as Moving Traditions, which create Jewishly informed curricula both for teenage Jewish men and teenage Jewish women; an age in which there is good access to creative ritual for those at college, and one which has retained the beauty of our existing traditional frameworks (while also developing and adapting them) when it comes to marriage and childbirth.

But it feels to me that there’s a lot less creativity further down the line. It feels progressively harder to find vibrant Jewish spiritual models for what other traditions might call ‘cronehood’ or ‘wise womanhood.’ There’s plenty going on at the institutional/political level – witness the sterling work of the Women’s League, among others – but aging in general, and the menopause in particular, get short shrift in the sources. The general emphasis in Torah and even in the remainder of Tanakh is that fertility=good and lack of fertility=bad; despite the valiant efforts of generations of midrashists, this leaves me with a lingering sense of inadequacy. Sarah complaining of her wrinkles and Naomi of her dried-up reproductive organs rings a little too true to my rather older ears. (Even modern Hebrew calls it balut – ‘withering.’ Ugh.)

My own menopause came earlier than I expected: I was done and out at 48. It was a rocky sort of a ride, and I emerged feeling fundamentally different. On the advice of Rabbi Cheryl Peretz at the AJU, I decided to see if I could create a ritual for myself to mark the transition.

It turned out to be a fulfilling project. The AJU has a beautiful mikveh, which provided the mise en place; seven dear women, ranging in age from their 20s to their 70s and including both family and friends, came to be with me. I wrote a list of seven things I was relinquishing, one for each step into the mikveh, and seven things I was claiming as I came back up the steps. In between, there were three immersions, with blessings. The photos (there are photos, not for publication but I am glad to have them) show me sopping wet, with a radiant, tearful smile that beams out and is reflected in the faces around me.

Since then, I’ve written other mikveh ceremonies to mark other women’s transitions – post-surgery, post breakup, pre-wedding. I’m reassured by the fact that there are other women out there doing the same. I find myself wondering about reclaiming other rituals – for example, whether the piece of jewelry called the yerushalayim shel zahav that Rabbi Akiva purchased for his wife might form the basis of some kind of crowning ceremony. I wonder what other models are hiding in the sources.

And I’m left with the feeling that, while I have no wish to breach privacy, there is a deep conversation which needs to be had about Jewish understandings of menopause. Just about every Jewish woman over 55 has gone through it. Surely there should be a ritual language for this transition, too?

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