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Honoring Aging: A Review of Timbrels and Torahs: Celebrating Women's Wisdom

Marica Cohn Spiegel, stands on the bimah (podium), tears in her eyes. She acknowledges the recent losses of loved ones she has endured, including the loss of her husband, but chooses to look to the future and move ahead with life. She is open about the challenges she is facing--such as learning how to manage her finances for the first time--but she radiates strength and resolve, as well as vulnerability.

Why is she standing on the bimah telling her story? Cohn Spiegel is participating in a new ritual, one of the many devised by Jews seeking to create a vital Judaism relevant to the lives we are living today. We name our babies; celebrate as our teenagers claim Judaism as their own; dance at weddings and mourn at funerals--but, as adults move between middle and old age, we have had no public marking of that transition.

Savina Teubal, a biblical scholar and founding president of Sarah's Tent: Sheltering Creative Jewish Spirituality, in Southern California, decided it was time to address that gap. In 1986 she created the first Simchat Hochmah ceremony with the help of Rabbi Drorah Setel and Debbie Friedman, the well-known Jewish singer and songwriter. With Friedman writing the music, Teubal wrote the words to a song, "Lechi Lach," or "The Journey Song," specifically for the ceremony. Also included in her ceremony, which she based on biblical stories, are a blessing, a name change, a tree-planting ceremony, a covenant or commitment, and an acceptance of mortality, for which she chose to put on a kittel (the garment used for burial). Her focus, however, was to make a statement about "who you were, who you are, and who you are going to be."

In 1987, a year later, Marcia Cohn Spiegel--with the help of Marcia Falk, who wrote special blessings for the occasion, and Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell--adapted the ceremony to fit her own needs. Debbie Friedman also helped, writing two songs for the ritual, the now well-known "Mi Shebeirach Song" and "Miriam's Song."

Little by little, people around the country began hearing about this new ceremony which acknowledges reaching a new stage in life, when one becomes an elder. In fact, Blu Greenberg, a modern Orthodox, Jewish feminist, educator and author, said: "This shows that girls and women are as much connected to the Covenant as men . . . To create a ritual that lives is part of the process of revitalizing Judaism, as long as it is done without overstepping halachic boundaries . . . It is overwhelming to see . . . a ritual that will be part of the liturgy in 200 to 300 years."

The ceremony, which can also be used by men, has become such a phenomenon that Christians are now studying it to see how they can adapt it to their own liturgy.

In 1997, as a way of marking her sixtieth birthday, a teacher and actress named Harriet Fields, who had never made a film, decided to have a Simchat Hochmah ceremony and to make a film about the ritual. She enlisted the help of Judith Montell, the mother of one of her daughter's friends. Montell had been nominated for an Academy Award in 1991 for her film Forever Activists: Stories from the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade . Together, the two planned a film that would include interviews with, and clips from, the Simchat Hochmah ceremonies of Teubal and Spiegel, to be interspersed with clips from Fields' own ceremony, in which she changed her name to Miriam Chaya.

In her Simchat Hochmah , which we see in the film, Fields pledges to live fully and to "stand up to be counted, take my place and power, to be a leader of women. I will not live an unlived life, or be afraid. I will be open . . . "

And this woman who had never before made a film has created an important document. As film editor Judith Montell said, "I tried to imbue it with a sense of beauty and wonder and joyousness." She certainly succeeded.

Timbres & Torahs; Celebrating Women's Wisdom is a joyous film that conveys an exuberant portrait of Judaism--a Judaism full of singing, dancing, and honest grappling with life's issues. It's also a Judaism flexible enough so that women can reinvigorate it to meet our changing needs. After all, it wasn't until this century that most people lived long enough to have a ceremony honoring elder status.

The film is greatly enhanced by the music, the three songs played throughout it--"Lechi Lach," or "The Journey Song," "Mi Shebeirach Song" and "Miriam's Song"--and by scenes of women and men joyfully dancing under tallit (prayer shawls) and table cloths, as they rename themselves while celebrating their Simchat Hochmah.

Timbrels and Torahs will be shown at the Boston Jewish Film Festival on Nov. 5 at the Museum of Fine Arts at noon. For information on how you can see the film in other locations, check out the website at: www.timbrelsandtorahs.com .

More about the people in the film:

Judith Montell, co-producer and co-director of Timbrels & Torahs , is currently working on another film, with filmmaker Bonnie Burt-- A Home on the Range: The Radical Jewish Chicken Farmers of Petaluma-- which traces the history of the founders of this special community and their descendents. For more information about their film, contact Bonnie Burt at: marbon@aol.com

Miriam Chaya, co-producer and co-director of Timbrels & Torahs , is author of the Forest Princess and Odyssey of a Jewish Woman . She leads Spiritual Eldering Seminars.

Savina Teubal, creator of the new ritual, is author of Sarah the Priestness: The First Matriarch of Genesis and Hagar the Egyptian: Lost Traditions of the Matriarchs . She is an affiliated scholar at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. She helps adults create their own unique life-cycle rituals.

Marcia Cohn Spiegel is co-author of The Jewish Women Awareness Guide and Women Speak to God: The Poems and Prayers of Jewish Women . She is founder of the Alcohol/Drug Workshop and Creative Jewish Women's Alliance.

Blu Greenberg is author of numerous books and articles, including How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household , King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba , On Women and Judaism , and Back Bread: Holocaust Poems .

Ronnie Friedland

Ronnie Friedland was the founding Web Magazine Editor of InterfaithFamily.

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