This is a transcript of the Dialogue Podcast, Episode 3: Rainbow Tallit Baby, an interview with Aurora Mendelsohn.
00:00 Hila Ratzabi: Welcome to the Dialogue Podcast of the Jewish Reconstructionist Communities. I’m Hila Ratzabi, Editorial Associate ofRitualwell. These podcasts are part of a broader series exploring relevant topics through a Reconstructionist lens. This month we’re hosting discussions with leaders on the cutting edge of the Jewish community in general and Reconstructionist communities specifically. Today, my guest is Aurora Mendelsohn, who writes the blog “Rainbow Tallit Baby.” Thank you for joining us today, Aurora.
00:33 Aurora Mendelsohn: Thank you for having me.
00:35 HR: So, I would love it if you could tell me a little bit more about your blog. It has such a cool name. What inspired you to create it?
00:43 AM: Well, I can tell you about the name. The name is called “Rainbow Tallit Baby.” It’s a reference to a book called “Red Diaper Babies,” which is about people growing up in the Communist left and how their childhood was very different. The idea being their parents were so Communist they had red diapers for their babies. I called mine “Rainbow Tallit Baby” to talk about my growing up in the ’70s in a Reconstructionist community and somewhat Renewal community where the normal tallit that I saw was a rainbow tallit.
01:15 AM: What inspired me to start the blog in the first place was over the years realizing how different an upbringing that was for me compared to everyone else in the Jewish community, how that affected my interaction with the Jewish community. Specifically, what made me, inspired me to start my own blog in the first phase, was I noticed the word “egalitarian” being used in the way that I felt was not really anything like the egalitarianism that I had known even 20 years before. And I felt a need to explain my perspective on what egalitarianism meant. I was thinking, well, what blog could I send this to you. I talked to some people and I was like, “Well, you should just make your own blog,” so that’s what I did.
02:05 HR: In what context were you seeing egalitarianism playing out differently than how you were raised?
02:13 AM: So, I mean, I’ve been to many different synagogues in my time that weren’t always the Reconstructionist synagogue that I grew up in. And the one that I was attending and still attend now is you would call traditional egalitarian synagogue, in that, most of the liturgy was traditional. There were some changes — adding the matriarchs. And most of the service was a traditional service.
02:38 AM: And, for me, not having liturgical changes that were really widespread and consistent was an egalitarian… That egalitarianism wasn’t limited to having men and women have access to the same ritual things, but also liturgy in terms of ancestors, in terms of recognizing who is in the synagogue — not assuming a male worshiper — and God language where I grew up being exposed to female God language and that being a normal thing. And here, the word “egalitarian” was used simply to describe what I would call a first level access to the bimah, access to rituals, but not anything beyond that.
03:21 HR: So, it does seem like it’s still kind of rare to have that level of egalitarianism be what you’re raised in and what you consider to be the norm. I noticed that as well, having grown up in a Conservative synagogue and also travel through different communities, and now attend a Reconstructionist synagogue, that it’s kind of jarring at first to have that difference in the liturgy and yet it does seem kind of rare.
03:46 AM: It is rare and I think that’s what inspired me realizing that I was rare in that way, inspired me to write the blog, but I think it’s also, in some sense, many more children growing up now are growing up in environments that have that, so I’m almost like a little bit of a window to the future of what it would be like if you did grow up in that situation.
04:07 AM: And I can tell you that for people who grew up with- (say) -out the matriarchs; without female God language, it can be a nice thing to add it in. You feel like, “Yeah, I’m affirming women, I’m adding this nice thing in,” but if you grow up with it, then you don’t see it as being added in. You go somewhere else and you see them leaving out the normal women that are usually there or the female God language that is usually there or whatever. It’s very different than adding.
04:35 HR: Right, that makes a lot of sense. Can you speak more just about your experiences growing up in a Reconstructionist community in addition to the egalitarianism and how that was different and any other aspects of how you grew up and also how that influenced your future Jewish practices?
04:55 AM: I would say I grew up in what was, at the time, a very small community in a very… Though we had rabbis, they would be the only professional and started off, they were started off as student rabbis or part-time rabbis then later full-time rabbis, but a very lay-led community and a very small community, which meant that is was very participatory.
05:19 AM: So that’s not a uniquely Reconstructionist thing, but it was something that was very much part of my childhood. It was really good ‘cause a lot… I felt a lot of voices were heard that way and a lot of people got to participate who may not have otherwise got to participate in a more formal and structured and larger setting, but also I think because Reconstructionism was, I wouldn’t say new, but new to almost all its adherents. In my community, there was always a lot of, “Well, what is it?” And a lot of explaining which was really good if you were a child because I really got to absorb a certain relationship with text and with tradition that I think served me very well, so I wasn’t…
06:04 AM: I think a lot of people are stuck with this idea that tradition is monolithic and static and halacha is monolithic and static, or that there is a one way or one main interpretation of a text. And I was brought up with this idea that the halachic process has always been reactive to the community needs. And we’re only just continuing along a path that does that, it has never been static; our liturgy has never been static. But still, we have a continued relationship with that text or with that liturgy or with that ritual tradition, so that we still have access to it.
06:44 AM: I think a lot of people feel like if they can’t handle a certain part of what they view as traditional Judaism, then they have to give it all up, or they can no longer have a relationship with it. And because I had these tools or these views, I was able to continue that relationship, or be able to make my own babynaming for my daughter without needing a clergy member, because I was sort of empowered that that’s something you could do, had examples of people doing that and had sort of the framework of “how can I take over a traditional male ceremony and make it more universal?”
07:28 HR: And I like what you said earlier about people talking about Reconstructionist Judaism using the phrase “Well, what is it?” And I wonder if you would consider that to be kind of an appropriate definition of Reconstructionist Judaism, “well, what is it,” right? That there’s so much open-ended possibility in interpretation and in renewing practices, so do you think that would be a good definition?
07:55 AM: I think part of it is like a relationship that you have with tradition and with text and with ritual, where you want to know why did people do this? I ask myself a series of questions when something’s problematic or when something’s exciting, whether it’s a Torah portion that I am trying to understand or a ritual practice that I’m having problems with, why did people do this at the time? Where did it come from? What did it mean to them?
08:21 AM: What purpose did it serve for that community at that time? How has that changed over time? Whose voices are heard or not heard in the development of the text or the ritual in our Jewish interpretation to it? And what does it mean now? And so, if you have that sort of toolkit of questions, you can still have a relationship, you can still be connected to the tradition without feeling boxed in by one step or one interpretation along a line of many different ones.
08:55 HR: That’s great, and I like this sort of focus more on the questions than the answers. And thinking ahead a little bit, since you did grow up in this earlier stage of the movement, do you have any ideas or visions of where the Reconstructionist movement is headed now or in the future?
09:14 AM: Well, on one hand, it actually just… I don’t know. I see I was particularly interested in a recent conference that there was, a liturgy conference which was multi-denominational, but it was sort of really put together by the… As far as I could tell, I could be wrong, by the Reconstructionist movement.
09:36 AM: And I kind of think that that could be a really important role in the future, when a lot of non-Orthodox and even modern or open Orthodox are engaging with liturgy and struggling with some issues that the Reconstructionist movement has struggled with already and has sort of engaged with and not necessarily that we would come up with the same answers, but the idea again of how to go through that struggle or how to look at those topics is something that I think the Reconstructionist movement can really provide a lot of leadership on. I think, as a shul-based denomination, it’s not gonna suddenly take over and be a huge lion’s share of the affiliated Jewish community.
10:20 AM: But I think a leader in ideas is definitely something that I see. A lot of ideas and issues that the Reconstructionist movement has really struggled with and really come up with answers and good methodology for could be useful to a large range of Jews, especially Jews who don’t affiliate or feel they were post-denominational, but also Jews who affiliate very differently than Reconstructionist.
10:48 HR: And maybe it’s even more significant to be a thought leader than necessarily leading with numbers of synagogues and synagogue members, and obviously, that matters to many people, but to have the kind of influence… And you do see that and even the history of Reconstructionist Judaism that Mordecai Kaplan really influenced the other denominations very strongly in a way that you can see to this very day, you see the influence of Reconstructionism throughout all of Judaism, I think.
11:20 AM: Oh, I definitely agree with you. And I think a change that I hope, or maybe it could happen, I think more now than before is that this kind of thought influence is something that would be sort of acknowledged and appreciated instead of something that is initially derided and found really irritating or upsetting. And when you’re a thought leader that happens, but I think other segments of the Jewish community are more receptive to those ideas now and more willing to acknowledge influence and cooperation than they have been in the past.
11:56 HR: That’s kind of your own experiences now in the Jewish community. What are you looking for in a Jewish community or a Reconstructionist community, and do you think that you are finding what you are looking for?
12:09 AM: So this is a kind of sad answer. So, no. Am I finding what I’m looking for? In the community that I live in, where there are a lot of Jews here in Toronto, Canada where I live, and they’re very traditional Jews, and there are fewer liberal Jews, My synagogue that I grew up in is strong, thriving, enormous, in my view, compared to what it was, and it provides a lot of the liturgy and some innovation, everything that I kind of want on paper, but most of the people that I’m friendly with there are my parents’ friends. I live far away from that synagogue in a more downtown space.
12:51 AM: I go to this traditional egalitarian synagogue because I don’t like the liturgy, I don’t like the service, but all of the… Not all of them, but a lot of them are liberal people my age, and I’m not that young. Families who have the same kind of intellectual curiosity and questioning that I do in this sort of more urban, general ethos go there, and my kids’ friends from day school go there, and that’s sort of where my social community is. So we kind of go to both synagogues, but we sort of demographically, my Reconstructionist synagogue that I grew up in, is kind of not where I am right now. What I’m looking for is sort of a marriage of both, right, which I just don’t have.
13:40 HR: Yeah, and I think what you’re describing is pretty typical. I think most people are not lucky enough to find sort of that ideal community where all of their values and all that they want from a community is fulfilled by just that one community. A lot of people attend multiple different synagogues or multiple communities, and sometimes that’s just sort of what we have to do in order find of the best Jewish community that we can find in our geographical area. How do you see yourself as contributing to making the community something that you want to be a part of?
14:15 AM: Yeah, I am involved in some ways. I’ve been kind of immersed in the sort of parenting aspect of my life, and I’ve been… I still have a small kid at home, I have three kids. And so, I haven’t really jumped in and gotten formally involved, but I definitely try to be involved by… We have a Tikkun Leyl Shavuot, which is a multi-synagogue thing here, but it’s located in the downtown core, and I’ve tried to teach there, do some seminars.
14:45 AM: I’ve kind of tried to talk to people and try to say, “Well, would you be interested in doing things a little differently?” But I haven’t actually, to be honest, taken large action, because a lot of people are pretty happy with the way things are. And I want to contribute and offer my viewpoints, but I also don’t want to cause friction.
15:07 HR: I’m gonna ask a question that we’re using as a thread throughout all these different conversations that we’ve been having lately. Speaking to this idea of Reconstructionist Judaism as being described as “cutting edge”, and this kind of also reflects back on some of the things that we’ve already talked about earlier in the conversation, but do you agree that “cutting edge” is the right way to describe Reconstructionist Judaism, and if so, how would you define “cutting edge”?
15:34 AM: I do think Reconstructionism has definitely been cutting edge and is still cutting edge in terms of what it’s offering the Jewish community and the Jewish thought world. I think a lot of the ideas that it has put out to the world still haven’t really been absorbed.
15:52 AM: Even though they were articulated decades ago, I still feel like they’re so different, and so, I wouldn’t say counterintuitive, but not what people are used to and not following the mythology that people carry around with them about what’s tradition and what’s religion even, that it literally has taken decades to propagate and reach people, and I still think that is the case. New things that come out, same thing, I don’t think even people always are ready to absorb what comes out right now, but it takes them time and some communication for those ideas to be accepted or to be even understood.
16:34 HR: Maybe that really is what cutting edge means, the kinds of things that don’t catch on right away, but that over time, you kind of slowly see that the influence has gotten there, but you’re not gonna see it immediately.
16:47 AM: Yeah, I think immediately, it kind of is sometimes too far away from where people are, so they kind of reject it initially. And that is in fact what being cutting edge is, and I think part of being cutting edge is also, there is a positive in that you are kind of a leader and you’re taking people to a different place, and they can be very grateful for that. But if they don’t realize that sometimes they’re gonna be very unhappy with what you have to say or what you’re doing, or react to it in fear as well, and I think that if you’re gonna be cutting edge, that is just a natural consequence sometimes.
17:25 HR: Yes, and change can be very uncomfortable, and we see that throughout history, just that the major changes that have happened and social movements usually make people really uncomfortable in the beginning and that eventually kind of becomes normal, so hopefully that will continue happening. And before we finish, are there any projects, any initiatives, really anything else that you wanna bring attention to before we conclude?
17:52 AM: One of the things I’ve been involved in recently is a Facebook group that I started with two other women for people who are sort of really committed feminists, but also observant Jews, and so, we were kind of… We met on a group for Orthodox feminists, women who are angry, but still in the Orthodox community, and we kind of were sort of supportive allies in that none of us are Orthodox…
18:21 AM: But all of us were sort of supporting these women in their struggle and in their difficulty, and we thought… But we were always holding back on our opinions to some degree because it wasn’t our space and we thought, “You know what? Maybe we should make our own space.” And it’s actually been a really rewarding conversation that I’ve had, it’s called Hagba if anyone’s interested.
18:40 HR: And is this an open group that people can join?
18:43 AM: It’s an open group, yeah. But it’s been really interesting, like dealing with questions of how do you deal with being in a community-wide event that excludes women, how do you react to that, how do you react to community day schools when your children are enrolled and they’re not as egalitarian or as forward-thinking as you would like, but you’re stuck in that community, and just all kinds of issues that come up. And I think we’ve all sort of faced this thing where we have feminist communities that we’re a part of, but most of the Jews in those communities aren’t particularly observant; they don’t live immersive Jewish lives in the same way that we do.
19:26 AM: But the majority of people who are sort of observant aren’t as attuned or passionate about feminist issues as we are, so we just didn’t feel totally ourselves in either space. And it’s not all women, in case I gave that impression, it’s an all-gender group. And it’s been very rewarding for me because it’s not geographically based. It’s also interesting to hear really diverse kinds of opinions. I think I am one of the more Reconstructionist voices on there; a lot of the people are Conservative, but it’s just been very interesting.
20:03 HR: So if people want to join that group, it’s on Facebook and it’s called Hagba. Thank you so much for participating in this conversation today, Aurora. This was wonderful. We invite our listeners to explore our other podcasts and essays at www.jewishrecon.org/dialogue/cutting-edge-judaism. Please join the conversation by commenting on the essays on the website. Follow us on Twitter @RRCcommunity and like our Facebook page RRC, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. And we will see you next time.