Two Lifetimes

Every act of communication is a miracle of translation. —Ken Lui

Today is a double-holiday: it’s International Women’s Day and Shushan Purim, or the 15th of Adar 5783, which in the Jewish calendar is when the holiday of Purim is celebrated in Jerusalem.

Shushan Purim is also a special anniversary for me personally: Shushan Purim 5747, which corresponded to Monday, March 16, 1987, was the day I interviewed at the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Rabbinical School. 

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I remember being so nervous, sitting in the hot seat at the enormous conference table in the Green Room, a third floor conference room in the Unterberg Building that was decorated almost entirely in green. I don’t recall which wool business suit I wore—the dark red or the forest green—but either way I certainly clashed with the décor.  

What I remember with complete clarity was the act of miscommunication that I was sure would determine my rejection by the committee. 

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I’d spent the previous summer at JTS, taking classes and living in the undergraduate dorm, and I already felt like part of the community. I knew the Dean of Student Life, who was a comforting presence at the conference table right up until he tossed me a softball of a question that I fumbled spectacularly. 

His question was about my view of our responsibility to serve others and contained the word AIDS. I was so nervous and so cognizant of the gender inequities at JTS and in the Conservative Movement at that moment—not even two years since Rabbi Amy Eilberg was ordained—and I was baffled. Why was he asking me about women serving as witnesses? 

[An aside: In Hebrew the word witness is eid (singular), and witnesses (plural) would be eidim. He said AIDS. I heard eids.]

While I thought it was strange he added an “s” to the word eid to say witnesses, I began answering by sharing my thoughts on women rabbis serving as witnesses to marriage documents, ketubot, and as witnesses on a rabbinic court, Beit Din.

He waited, then gently asked the question again, clarifying that he meant the AIDS crisis, and I believe I recovered adequately, admitting with a self-deprecating laugh that I couldn’t imagine he had used incorrect Hebrew, that I was confused because I was so nervous. 

I managed to make it through the remainder of the interview without crying, despite feeling discouraged about having to reapply in a year. 

The Dean of the Rabbinical School escorted me out of the Green Room and asked for a telephone number where he could reach me in a few hours, to inform me of the committee’s decision. I was planning to meet my Mom and some friends for dinner at a kosher restaurant before heading back to school. 

I gave him the name of the restaurant, forced a smile all the way to my eyes, shook his hand and thanked him. Walking to the subway, I wondered whether I could force myself to eat and make pleasant conversation over dinner.

I wouldn’t swear to it, but I think he called to give me the good news while everyone else at the table was enjoying the appetizers. 

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I woke up this morning and reflected on how I wanted to observe International Women’s Day and also celebrate Shushan Purim. I decided to post some information from HIAS about women refugees and encourage people to donate to help women and girls today. 

Then I did the math and realized my rabbinical school interview was 36 years ago. Double-Chai, two lifetimes.

I hope my deeds—serving as an activist and advocate for social justice, a witness on marriage documents, ketubot, and on rabbinic courts for many Jews by Choice—continue to answer the question(s) posed to me on Shushan Purim 5747.