Into the Limelight

Women also played an ever-larger role in the recently announced National Jewish Book Awards

Women may have long been marginalized in synagogue life, but their take on the Torah and on prayer plays an important role in the 2008 National Jewish Book Awards, whose winners were announced last month.

"The Torah: A Women's Commentary," edited by Dr. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Rabbi Andrea Weiss (URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism), both Bible scholars at the Reform movement's Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, won the Everett Family Foundation Jewish Book of the Year Award.

The scholarship of Jewish women features in the book's biblical and contemporary commentaries on issues in each Torah portion that involve women; the book incorporates literary criticism, sociology and feminism, along with creative responses to the text in forms such as poetry.

"We wanted to bring the women of the Torah out from the shadows into the limelight, from their silences into speech, from the margins to which they have often been relegated to the center of the page," Cohn Eskenazi has said. "Since the book's release, women keep coming up to me and telling me they finally feel included in the conversation."

Cohn Eskenazi and Weiss, along with the winners in 15 other categories, will receive their prizes at the 58th annual National Jewish Book Awards ceremony, in New York, on March 5.

Whereas commentators on the Torah have, until recently, been men, women have long had their own devotional prayers (called tehinot [supplications] in Hebrew and tekhines in Yiddish). Often connected to traditionally female rituals in the home, like lighting Shabbat candles or baking challah, or to lifecycle events like childbirth, many of these once-popular prayers have been largely forgotten, likely an unforeseen side effect of women's increased participation in the synagogue and its standardized liturgy.

Now Aliza Lavie, who teaches political science at Bar-Ilan University and describes herself as a modern Orthodox feminist, is helping revive the tradition of women's prayers - and expand that tradition by including modern prayers as well - in "A Jewish Woman's Prayer Book" (Spiegel & Grau), which won the Barbara Dobkin Award in Women's Studies.

The book is translated from the Hebrew (called "Tefillat Nashim," literally "Women's Prayer"), which was a surprise hit in Israel when it came out in 2005 and, says Lavie, has attracted not just a wide range of Jewish women - from the ultra-Orthodox to members of staunchly secular kibbutzim - but Muslim and Christian readers as well.

"It was moving for me to understand what is actually happening with this book. Women are relating to the prayers without any inhibitions, as though the emotional outpouring of the women in the book is what is transmitted and what moves them," Lavie has said. "The fact that you can pray without being part of the synagogue, because in Israel many people belong to no community - suddenly people felt that they can pray, that they can touch without any fear."

Other National Jewish Book Award winners include:

  • History: "1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War," by Benny Morris (Yale University Press). Though Israel's victory in the War of Independence was hardly a foregone conclusion, Benny Morris, the always provocative Israeli historian, brings readers to understand that neither was it an amazing one, Ina Friedman wrote in Haaretz.

  • Holocaust: "The Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest's Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews," by Patrick Desbois (Palgrave Macmillan). A Roman Catholic priest from France whose grandfather had been in a prison camp in Ukraine during the war, Desbois spent several years going door to door to collect eyewitness testimony from Ukrainian villagers about the largely untold story of the approximately 1.5 million Jews the Nazis killed in Ukraine, after their invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.

  • Fiction: "Songs for the Butcher's Daughter: A Novel," by Peter Manseau (Free Press). Patrick Desbois isn't the only non-Jewish author to win a Jewish book award this year. Peter Manseau is the son of a priest and former nun whose interest in Yiddish culture - which ultimately became the backdrop of his novel about a Yiddish poet in Kishinev - was sparked by his work as a book collector for the National Yiddish Book Center in Massachusetts.

  • Biography: "Marie Syrkin: Values Beyond the Self," by Carole S. Kessner (Brandeis University Press/University Press of New England). "It is not sentimental overpraise to say that Marie Syrkin (1899-1989) deserves a place at the roundtable of great intellects who helped shape contemporary Jewish-American liberalism," Evan R. Goldstein wrote in Haaretz Books. "As the longtime editor of The Jewish Frontier, the English-language organ of the League for Labor Palestine, Syrkin began fashioning an American brand of Zionism at a time - the mid-1930s - when fewer than 2 percent of American Jews were members of the Zionist movement."