Erica Schacter Schwartz

Rediscovering A Timeless Bat Mitzvah Gift

On the school calendar, June is an emotional time of endings and beginnings. In my own family, within the span of a few weeks, my oldest returned from college, my second returned from a gap year in Israel, my third graduated high school, and my other three completed their respective grades of study. And in my broader Jewish community, I was privileged to watch six more Orthodox women graduate and become ordained as rabbis at Yeshivat Maharat’s 11th Annual Semikha Ceremony.

All of these academic, professional, and religious milestones took place against the backdrop of a more physical ending in my life. The end of an era in a home I’ve lived in for 20 years. I have spent the past few weeks packing up a lifetime of memories, rummaging through old pictures, handwritten letters, birthday cards, our children’s first footprints and hospital bracelets–the rapid passage of time feeling palpable. In the course of packing, tucked away in a tall bookcase in the very back of my apartment, I came across the original Hebrew-English translated Soncino Talmud, a gift from my paternal grandparents on the occasion of my bat mitzvah. It has been with me these 35 years, in both my childhood homes and adult homes, its signature red-cloth binding still visible, despite its fading color.

Coincidentally, I rediscovered the set the morning of the Maharat graduation, and as I packed the dusty volumes neatly into boxes, I found myself marveling at this gift–both at the grandparents who gifted it to me and the prescience of the gift itself. The gift came from my grandmother, Nathalie Lookstein Friedman, the daughter of Rabbi Joseph Lookstein and from her husband Israel Friedman, the son of the Biyaner Rebbe, who entered her life after the untimely death of her first husband, and her children’s father. He was the only grandfather I knew. It was certainly no surprise when my grandmother gave me a Talmud. A sociology professor at Barnard, and the child of a coeducational Jewish day school founder, she was an early champion of women’s advancement in Orthodoxy, a member of JOFA who taught herself to leyn. But for my Chassidic grandfather, this was certainly not the norm.

Over these three and half decades I have used this gift sparingly to say the least, opening its pages perhaps several times back in high school, before a test, hoping that the English translation would help me better decipher the challenging Aramaic passages of tractates like Baba Metziah and Sanhedrin. It didn’t.

But in January 2020 I jumped into the Daf Yomi Cycle and dusted off the vintage Tractate Brachot eager to use it as I listened to Michelle Cohen Farber’s Hadran podcast. To my disappointment, I found the yellowish pages a little stark, literally just a line-by-line translation of the daf, especially compared to the Artscroll and Koren editions Michelle referred to so frequently in her daily shiur. I couldn’t help myself. Like someone driving an old used car, I test drove the Koren Brachot and Artscroll Brachot both, and ultimately chose the Koren Hebrew English colored edition, the Tesla of Talmud publications. There are vivid photographs, and maps, personality sketches of the famous rabbis, historical contexts, biology and astronomy lessons. The pages are beautiful and packed with supportive commentary. Nearly halfway through the seven and a half year cycle, I am now in the midst of the 21st volume—Tractate Gittin—this new glossier Talmud set growing across my shelf, tractate by tractate.

The evolution of my Talmud set captures in many ways how I see modern Orthodoxy today. Both its beauty and its challenges. The original set reminds me of the transmission of values from one generation to the next. Chasidic, modern Orthodox, no matter the label, my grandparents believed that the Talmud, the incredible pages of discourse from which all of Jewish law is derived must be passed down to children and grandchildren, regardless of gender. My grandfather’s female ancestors might not have studied Talmud, but this gift suggested that he recognized times were changing. We all must try to study, to analyze, to internalize and we must re-gift what we learn to the next generation. This is the essence of Jewish continuity.

But the fact is, the Soncino set grew old. It was not accessible. It didn’t offer me insights and applications into real life. It was just literal. The Koren in contrast speaks more to where I am today. It offers honest assessments of where the rabbis did seem to understand the world around them and where they simply speculated before advances in science and medicine. The Koren helps me read between the lines, extract my own messages and lessons. The Koren (and Artscroll– I am just a Koren fan in general) make the Talmud feel alive. I often feel like a time traveler, thrown back into a beit midrash in Babylonia, listening to a roomful of rabbis think, argue, kibbitz, and arrive at resolution. Or oftentimes decide there is no resolution, the humanity and modesty of which can be endearing. The Koren presents a different voice, a different perspective, even as it shares the same text and heritage as the Soncino.

I thought about this as I watched the ordination of the six Maharat women later that evening, joining the 58 graduates before them who are currently serving as Orthodox rabbis across the Jewish community. Like the Koren, they represent a fresh voice and perspective on a millennia-old tradition. They have completed the same intense process of study. They have mastered the same texts and laws. But they have their own unique ways of teaching, guiding and leading. If there is one message I have taken away from the 21 tractates I’ve studied so far it is that ours is a religion of diverse opinion. There is nuance. There is a commitment to halacha that goes hand in hand with a commitment to the needs of the community. This in the end is how modern Orthodoxy stays Orthodox AND modern.

Perhaps this message was the real gift my grandparents imparted to me as I entered Jewish adulthood— and it is one that I will strive to regift to my own children as they build their own Jewish homes.

About the Author
Erica Schwartz is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Jewish Week and The Forward. She is currently working on her first novel. She lives in Manhattan with her husband and six children.
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