Still Playing with Matches

Girl playing with match. Dangerous situation at home.

I felt like I was 12 years old again, stuck helplessly in a system the rabbi controlled.

by Ellen Golub

Most of my friends hated Hebrew school. Not me. I found pleasure in the elegant turns of each Hebrew letter. I found excitement in learning Humash. I was every Hebrew teacher’s pet – except for my rabbi, against whom I lobbed a steady barrage of adolescent pique. In the 1960s, he was the face of a Jewish tradition that was keeping women down.

Referencing Dr. No, the James Bond film that was so popular at that time, I privately called him Rabbi No, as in, “No, you can’t read from the Torah or lay tefillin. No, you can’t become a rabbi. No, not a witness in a rabbinical court, either.”

As a nascent Jewish feminist, nettled and spurned by this sexist system, I felt it my obligation to stir the pot. I baited Rabbi P at every opportunity. “But rabbi, all I get are these three lame mitzvot? Going to the mikveh, baking challah, and lighting Shabbos candles? C’mon. Bathing, baking, and playing with matches? That’s the best you can do?” Rabbi P was always polite, if cool toward me. Understandably, I wasn’t his favorite customer.

As an adult, I found my way to egalitarian chavurot and minyanim. I received my first aliyah to the Torah from Rabbi Zalman Schachter. I came to teach Jewish studies in a university and developed many friends and colleagues with whom I shared Jewish feminism. My home congregation had changed as well, softening its stance on the women’s issue.

In 1980, when I married, my parents planned my wedding at our home congregation; Steve and I flew in a few days before the wedding for the perfunctory appointment with the rabbi. Funny, I actually looked forward to it, thinking that the rabbi would appreciate the mature me, who was, after all, marrying the son of a rabbi and pledging to build a bayit ne’eman b’yisrael, a true home among the nation of Israel.

Rabbi P greeted us warmly and described the details of the ceremony. He determined, as was his responsibility, that neither of us had married before and that neither of us required or had neglected a get. He was warm and engaging, something I had always wanted from him. “Do you have any questions for me?” he asked, almost ready to end the meeting.

“Just one,” I replied naively. “How can we amend the ketubah to give me Steve’s power of attorney in case of a divorce?”

“What?” There was a sea change in his attitude.

“You know, so I don’t end up an agunah.” The Lieberman clause was now almost 30 years old and, apparently, there had been discussions of pre-nups among the conservative rabbinate before, but my rabbi never took that turn. Instead, looking troubled, he suggested, “If you’re thinking about getting a divorce, maybe you shouldn’t be getting married.” Then he turned to my bashert, and asked, “Do you want this, too?”

“I really don’t care, but it’s important to Ellen. And I’m cool with it,” said Steve. The rabbi gave me that look I had seen so frequently in adolescence. I wanted to jump up and take my business to another synagogue. But the invitations were out; the caterer’s dishes were already in the kitchen. My parents would be very upset.

“Rabbi,” I said, “Steve doesn’t need my permission to divorce. The law favors him. If the ketubah is a contract between us, why can’t we craft an agreement that suits both of us?”

“Again, I am wondering why you are so intent on divorce. Are you sure this marriage is something you want? Maybe you should think about it some more.”

I felt like I was 12 years old again, stuck helplessly in a system this guy controlled. Disappointed in my rabbi? I was crushed and disappointed in myself and my capitulation. I accepted the ketubah from my bashert with love and commitment, but also with a sense of gall. Over the last 35 years, I have kept it close by, as required by law, but I have never hung it on the wall or displayed it.

I love my husband, and we have had the zechut, the privilege, to build a bayit ne’eman b’yisrael, filled with many children, grandchildren, and Jewish learning. One thing I have learned since: it is customary to study the laws of divorce before studying the laws of marriage. As another rabbi taught me, “Lifnei kiddushin, gittin.”

“You were ahead of your time,” Steve tells me. Maybe. I prefer to think that the rabbis of our generation are behind the times; that until they enfranchise the other half of the Jewish people, those of us without the sign-in-the-flesh will remain aggrieved.

About the Author

ellenNow a research associate at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, Ellen Golub, PhD, is a recovering English professor and a product of Hebrew College in its heyday. Her new novel, PsychoSemitic, will be released this summer by Gaon Books.


  1. janet freedman May 21, 2015 Reply

    What a wonderful piece! I’ve known Ellen for many years and admire her intelligence, writing talent and chutzpah. I can just picture her as a Hebrew School student and appreciate the questions she asked then and before her marriage. She has never stopped asking them and I’m pleased that participants in a continuing Jewish feminist movement make this a collective effort.

  2. ruth housman May 22, 2015 Reply

    I think many rabbis, have a huge lesson to learn in humility. I think this patriarchal notion of being “higher” being somehow closer to G_d has its big codicils. There is this phrase that comes to mind, whether in Jewish Writings or not, and that is, “the meek shall inherit the earth”.

    It could very well be, the Messiah they’re looking for is the bag lady in the subways, beseeching spare change. Or it could be the street musician who is playing heart and soul, for a living, for the spare change that falls into the hat, and it could be a man, or it could be a woman, and it could be anyone at all, whose heart, could you see it, is a heart of gold. I remember the play so well, Lies My Father Taught Me, because Theo Bikel played the grandfather. The little boy said, Tell me could anyone be, the Messiah. Even me? And the grandfather in the play said, of course. Even you. And the little boy stood taller. But I wonder what the grandfather would have said had it been, after all, just a mere girl.

    Heart in French is coeur, and I think it takes great coeur rage, for many women, who are forced into submission because the Rabbi, is to be respected, honored, and totally obeyed. Because he knows what God wants. And so I go to the WALL on all this, and women, well, that’s been a struggle at the Wailing Wall. Permission.

    The answer is clear to me. I look for humanity wherever I go, and I find it, in places they would probably never go. My life feels like a dream and I am walking a straight line of total synchronicity, and in so doing, everyone, on my Page is going into synch with me. God is so everywhere and not, and knot. And language is the key to a major story, about heart break and what is ONE. It’s a webbed feat. And sadly, many rabbis are not privy to what is happening right now, all over the net. A perfect ten. As in Shavuos. As in, The Book of Ruth. We sort, the wheat from the chaff.

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