Inclusiveness: Remembering Bonna Devora Haberman Brown

In 2005, six months into what I’d intended to be a year exploration in Israel, before I’d then return to Oakland, I met Shoshana Gugenheim right before Yom Kippur. Our first conversations were very interesting, but the love dust hadn’t sprinkled upon us. I traveled up to Tzefat with my dear friend, Shimshon Stuart. When Shoshana called me to invite me to her sukkah for Hoshanah Rabah, I cut the trip short with Shimshon, and he drove me the distance and dropped me off at Shoshana’s in Jerusalem. In the sukkah was Shmuel, sleeping, a visiting tarantula, Shoshana, and Bonna. Once we safely carried the tarantula out of the space, we studied Fifty Gates of Laughter together. What learning could have introduced me to Bonna more directly? Even with whatever desire I had to be liked and approved of by Shoshana’s dear friend and teacher, the learning was compelling enough for me to just be, to be celebration. It was in that very sukkah, a few days later, where Shoshana and I fell in love.

Weeks after that first meeting, Bonna offered to guide us in learning during the half-year preceding Shoshana’s and my wedding. The primary topic we dove into was kinyan. I wish none of you understood this word, from a modern perspective, and that I could refresh the meaning with its original essence, which I’ll get to. But inviting ignorance was never one of Bonna’s interests. So, in the spirit of her wrestling with the current paradigm, I’ll summarize this joint study as an example of the grace of Bonna as a teacher, and of how deeply her Torah lives in me. Kinyan is generally considered to mean “acquisition,” this particular use deriving from the time when our patriarch, Avraham, bought the cave, Machpelah in Hevron in Genesis 23:18,  לְאַבְרָהָם לְמִקְנָה, it is said that “For Avraham it was acquired,” miknah, a form of koneh, kinyan.

She introduced us to the idea of Kidushin, the process of sanctification during one’s chuppah at the wedding. She brought various sources, leading us back centuries, even millennia, to explore the specialness that kidushin was speaking about in this sanctification, what most of us think of as being the groom’s giving of the ring to the bride, and the witnesses shouting “m’kudeshet”. I’ll leave the minutiae of this aspect of the learning for a different time.

Bonna brought Shoshana and me to understand the idea of kinyan, at is original, essential meaning, and how the meaning of the word and the understanding of the practice has shifted over time to what she taught us to be a problematic status, the practice being a central contributor to the issue of agunot, women whose husbands withhold a get, the Jewish divorce document, and how these women suffer because of this. Before I continue with the learning, I interrupt myself in the spirit of how our study sessions were “interrupted”. Since Shoshana and I were at Bonna’s from 8pm until 10, and often until midnight, one of the Haberman Brown family members would bring some sort of gift: Shmuel would carry in a tray set with elegant Japanese-style tea cups, crafted by one of the family members, or Adir Chai would offer us a full plate of hand-rolled sushi, replete with wasabi and tamari.

Once nourished, we would continue. And it was with the many shabbatot that Shoshana and I would stay with the Haberman Brown tribe, whether in the house or the cottage-room—once even tenting with our kids in the garden, whatever it was we were learning was in the context of delightful, generous, spacious, and caring family contact.

With Bonna, we followed the word, kinyan, to its early uses in Torah, first in Bereishit, קָנִיתִי אִישׁ אֶת-יְהוָה. “With God kaniti man,” what Eve says about the birth of referring to wonderful collaboration with the All That Is, Was, and Will Be. Then there was the time when Avram triumphed for Melchizedek, who, in turn, blessed Avram:

בָּרוּךְ אַבְרָם לְאֵל עֶלְיוֹן, קֹנֵה שָׁמַיִם וָאָרֶץ.

“Blessed is Avram’s God on High, konay heaven and earth.” Again, kinyan, in the form, konah, here expresses wonder and the dynamics of creation. Any hint of hierarchy, acquisition or exchange of ownership is absent from these two early uses of a form of kinyan.

Then Bonna brought us through the centuries to demonstrate the change in the word’s use, and how, once the insidious aspect of “acquisition” seeped in, certain parties used that to their advantage. I will say here that most Orthodox people I know and love do not see or experience a feeling of acquisition or hierarchy when witnessing or participating in a chuppah. Yet most people haven’t explored and considered, meditated on and wrestled with gender issues and the imbalances of power in Jewish communities, and in Israel, anywhere to the extent that Bonna had. And she’s helped me understand the subtle nuances of the hidden, sometimes subconscious energies that empower patriarchy and disempower those who are not ultra-Orthodox men. I recall one wedding when Bonna returned from, shaking, having heard the officiant say to the groom, “You now own this woman, her body, her mind, her soul.” Now, I understand that this is an extreme example. However, that no one, other than Bonna, seemed to even blink, pointed to the wider, ingrained issue of inequality.

Part of the problem of kinyan lies in the fact that there are hundreds of agunot who suffer from the system that allows them to be at the effect of spouses, who, in some cases, remarry, leaving them unable to go on with their lives. This learning wasn’t just by words. Bonna sent us home with intellectually and emotionally challenging articles and essays to read, and she even sent us across the street to Leah’s house so that we could watch a documentary on agunot when Shoshana’s mom was visiting.

Early on in our studies together, Shoshana and I had asked Bonna if she would lead our chuppah. “It depends on what you choose,” Bonna said. “If you choose a traditional chuppah, with kiddushin, I can’t.” Months later, our desire to have Bonna officiate our wedding grew, as did our clarity on what it would mean to the ceremony itself: We would need to forego a ceremony that we’d considered “acceptable” in the Orthodox community, of which many of our friends and colleagues inhabited.

We went through great emotional discomfort, while we searched out precedents to understand what had been done so far. At some point, it became clear that I couldn’t, with an open heart, go ahead with kiddushin, so, no matter how painful and uncomfortable for us, we chose derech kiddushin, and we included women as musicians as well as participants in the circle of those reciting sheva brachot.

The result was a time of our lives. I felt fully expressed. We experienced the beauty and wonder of our tradition—for the ritual was fully based in traditional acts—without any remorse that would have accompanied compromised integrity.

Making this choice reminds me of participants in an epic adventure of trying to be truthful and to battle negative forces. Sometimes, it might have been appropriate to see Bonna in the formal armor of a Shogun, a samurai master, the one who was bringing justice to the nation, battle after battle. But any feudal image doesn’t work with Bonna. What I’m trying to get to here is how epic the experience of change and transformation can be when the actual decision is miniscule. What’s the actual difference between kiddushin and derech kiddushin? The difference between only one person giving a ring, and two people exchanging rings? The difference between men only reciting blessings and men and women reciting? Physically, there’s a difference of 5-10 grams of gold. There’s the same amount of breath, regardless who recites the blessings. What about a mixture of men and women being counted in minyan? Or leather straps bound on feminine as well as masculine arms?

More than 9 years after our chuppah, I still run into people who say, “I think of your chuppah whenever I go to a wedding. That was gevalt.” The four rabbis I had been learning with did not attend the chuppah for fear that it would be taken as a political statement. There is some truth in that, but much is missing. The chuppah was a statement of the equality and deserved celebration of all beings. It was about b’tzelem elokim, being created in Gods image.

Bonna and Shmuel’s son, Uriel, said that, instead of his mom now resting up there, she’d already found Rosa Parks and was starting a revolution. To think that she was also with Rabbi Abraham Joschua Heschel and Mother Teresa, and all the other great workers toward justice, I imagine she’s flying.

And while she soars, here I am, left to ask myself questions about integrity.

May our discoveries of strength and persistence be a blessing for Bonna’s memory and for her family who will continue living under her spiritual wing.

About the Author
Andrew Tertes is a novelist, podcaster, and coach.
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