Book Review: Building A Jewish Framework To Live By

A book review of Chapters of the Heart: Jewish Women Sharing the Torah of Our Lives

In essence, we all go through life struggling with similar issues—identity, relationships, family, health, loss, and aging. We are not usually well prepared to handle life’s ups and downs. No one gives us classes on what to expect, and certainly no one can predict how it will all turn out. Relevant in the midst of our struggles, at every stage of living, this collection of 20 essays written by an extraordinary group of female intellectuals—women rabbis and scholars—offers honest reflections on how one can choose to deal with life’s Big challenges. Every topic covered is familiar to humankind, presented with lived truths and clarity. Though there is much discussion related to Torah, one doesn’t have to be a Torah scholar to follow the reasoning and appreciate the thought process.

These essays are written by strong women who are strong thinkers, well-versed in articulating Jewish teachings and values. Judaism provides the foundation and the framework of their lives. Almost all are over 50, and some are closer to 70. For this writing endeavor, each woman looked at her life experience through her “Jewish lens,” and chose a single snapshot to share. Many chose a life-changing event, the dividing line that defines their moment of having to let go of parts of their former selves. As each essay begins, we meet a new voice and hear a different perspective, and the angle of the Jewish lens changes ever so slightly. The result is fresh, honest, and inspiring. Together, the writers’ voices shape an impressive collection of nuanced and layered autobiography.

The volume is organized into four sections that correspond to verses from Psalms. The first section, All the Days of Our Lives (based on Psalm 27:4), examines relationships. In “Between Sisters,” Professor Ellen Umansky describes her relationship with her younger sister, comparing it to the tie between Rachel and Leah. In looking back at their changing life circumstances and different life choices, Umansky shows a willingness to accept their differences.

The strong, charismatic patriarch of our family, our father frequently compared us, describing me privately or to others as ‘the smart one’ and Amy as ‘the pretty one.’ . . . I came to realize that in many ways, the biblical account of the relationship between these two women illuminates Amy’s and my own complex relationship, a connection of love, friendship, envy, and eventual mutual acceptance.

Rabbi Hara Person’s funny, serious, and insightful essay, “On Raising a Son,” weaves biblical themes throughout, giving us a window into her perspective on figuring out how to deal with a male child.

I got girls. I knew about girls and self-esteem, girls and body-image issues, girls and school performance. Boys, though, were foreign to me. . . I didn’t understand the way they were wired, how they saw the world, how they thought.

Her essay, so well-constructed, blatantly honest, is written with wry humor.

One may begin the volume’s second section, From the Narrow Places (based on Psalm 118:5), with Ellen Frankel’s moving and intellectually rigorous depiction of dealing with her hysterectomy at age 26, or Rabbi Amy Eilberg’s essay about dealing with her daughter’s eating disorder, or Rabbi Ruth Sohn’s affecting story of living through her husband’s heart surgery, and how she uses meditation and prayer: 

While my worries and fears for Reuven eased over the years, the power of my meditation experience stayed with me and continued to inform my understanding of how to live in the world. . . We have a natural tendency to try and avoid pain and discomfort, and we live in a culture that encourages us to do so. To live more and more from the grounded place of an open heart—open to everything that is unfolding in and around us—has become one of my guiding aspirations.

The third section, Opening the Gates (based on Psalm 118:19), includes stories about challenges that many of us have faced. There is Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell’s poignant essay that offers an original and wishful midrash on an unwanted pregnancy, Professor Wendy Zierler’s fascinating essay that looks at Malamud’s “Talking Horse” story in comparison to her life and beliefs, and an essay by the well-known feminist Blu Greenberg, who chronicles her path of breaking out of a sheltered existence and establishing interfaith relationships in the world, sometimes disappointing ones, while learning to listen to others. Greenberg gives us a straightforward unapologetic portrayal of her strongly held beliefs, and how some of her views have changed.

The final section, Be Still and Know (based on Psalm 46:10), includes psychotherapist Barbara Eve Breitman’s “A Heart So Broken It Melts Like Water,” titled for the Baal Shem Tov’s first successor, the Maggid of Mezhirech, who writes of the radical mystical transformation that can come “from the breaking of the heart.” Her essay opens with her ride in the ambulance at the age of 46 with her husband who has just died.

My sense of order and meaning shattered when my young husband dropped dead on the beach. Though I never lost clarity about caring for the children, the universe lost coherence. . . . We all try to minimize loss, avoid pain and suffering. It is only human. Certainly pain does not necessarily lead to spiritual growth…But grief can be ‘a birth process from ego to spirit,’ as Miriam Greenspan describes it.

Breitman explores the mystical traditions of Judaism, and the transformation that can take place through suffering and brokenness.

What becomes clear through reading these essays, is how each writer has mastered the art of facing life, using Judaism in some way to find her way, reach forgiveness and acceptance, let go, and move on. Chapters of the Heart helps us discover that our private struggles have universal themes, captured in these stories, written in distinct voices that speak from life experience. These essays reminds us of the value of compassion and understanding, of going forward after loss, of sharing our best, and offering us as proof the open-hearted stories from the script that is all of our lives.

Deborah Rood Goldman is a member and the volunteer librarian of the Garden City Jewish Center in Garden City, NY. She also is the Union for Reform Judaism's librarian and a member of its marketing and communications team.