The Zogerke’s Vort

IPIR 2007, soumis à copyright
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Dalia Wolfson

I. Lemoshl: For Example[1]

A mayse is told of the zogerke, the literate lady-cum-cantor in the vaybershul (the women’s section) of the shtibl. The wizened zogerke sits on a benkele at the door with a lone leather makhzer and all around her other vayblekh crowd, a mass of heaving and trembling, they’re veyning and whining, echoes and murmurations. On the other side the men have just concluded the last aliye of Shabes minkhe. To the vaybershul vayber the Toyre is invisible, but each woman can imagine Her being read.

And at the threshold the prayer sounds loud and in her voice louder: the zogerke speaks, and the women answer in noise.

Me ken zogn (that is, one can say) with some confidence that this is no longer the case in America.
First of all, there are enough mahzors to go around.
Secondly, they would now be called “siddurs.”
Thirdly, a good number of our women can read Hebrew.
Moreover, there is transliteration. With some rummaging in the bookshelves, an interlinear translation too may be found, phonetics and semantics formatted for those who today in literacy approximate what in the Old World would have been the category of “women and men who are like women.”[2]

Lastly, it would be too loud in the cavernous bellies of the North American Modern Orthodox synagogue for a recitation (the zogerke), never mind another -repetition (the ladies)! It’s all the chazzan can do to bang on the shtender and wait for things to shtil. One call and response, the cantor and the congregation, is more than enough … if, that is, you can even hear him over the chattering chicken coop of the women’s side. Feh!

II. A Concise History

The zogerke—or the zogerin, or the firzogerin—says the Encyclopedia Judaica (not yet in 1971, but by 2007, in the entry “Firzogerin” by Emily Taitz), means “foresayer” or “precentor” in Yiddish. The zogerke was responsible for “reciting vernacular translations, enabl[ing] less educated women, who did know Hebrew and often were illiterate, to pray in their own language.”

Reading ahead in the EJ, tombstones and communal ledgers attest to zogerkes as far back as the medieval period: Dulcea of Worms, known for “enabling [the women’s] pleasant intoning of songs,” Richenza of Nurenberg for being a “leader in the women’s synagogue.” Often these zogerkes were the daughters or wives of rabbis; their level of literacy was usually an exception. In the early modern period and onwards, firzogerins would have recited tkhines: petitionary prayers for recitation in the synagogue, in the home, in the cemetery and in other liminal spaces. Some tkhines were written by men for women’s recitation; others, however, were written by women, including Sarah Bas-Tovim and Leah Horowitz.

Taitz concludes:

A few of these women prayer leaders immigrated to the United States in the large migration of Jews that began in the 1880s, but by the second half of the 20th century, the firzogerin had disappeared in both Europe and the Americas, made obsolete by the Sho’ah and an almost universal standard of literacy for women.

At least eight centuries of zogerkes. A good number lie tucked away as memories in yizkor books. Certainly, they have left tkhines, Eastern European pamphlets, and Western European collections of paraliturgy expertly brought to light by Chava Weissler and recently also revived or reinterpreted as an online project. But where did the fleshly, articulating, gesticulating zogerke go? Passing away in the totalizing destruction of the Holocaust or the gradual disinterest of secularism, the zogerke was a casualty of tragedy and social change. Dropped from the roll call of women leaders, her primarily verbal and ephemeral work—repetitions, translations, instructions—grew inaudible.

III. Dreams

My muse is a zogerin,
An old, wretched klogerin.
By the shtender the poor thing stands
And says warm tkhines aloud.
Resounding, beloved speech
And melodies long sung.
The shine of ancient dreams,
And far-away hopes.
(M. Sharkansky, “Mayn shprakh un mayn muze,” Minkes Family Papers, 1 Dec. 1902)               

Here, a fragmentary timeline of the public narrative of Ashkenazi Orthodox feminist legacies of leadership:

Miriam. Deborah. Beruriah. Then: Machon Gold. Midreshet Lindenbaum. Drisha. Matan. Yoatzot Halacha Program. GPATS. Yeshivat Maharat.

So: Beruriah of Mishnaic times, then a far stretch until the mid-20th century. Following that sparse period (“How could there have been so few…”) a collection of dreams form, such as:

“It is my dream that young Orthodox girls will be able to say, ‘When I grow up, I want to be a maharat and serve in the capacity of female Orthodox rabbi.’ ” (Rabba Sara Hurwitz cited in Abigail Pogrebin, “The Rabbi and the Rabba,” New York Magazine, July 9, 2010)

“I did not do this for me, I did not do this for you, I did it so that somewhere a seven-year-old girl could dream of becoming an Orthodox rabbi.” (Rabbi Dina Brawer, The Jewish Chronicle, July 15, 2018)

Such visions and their attainment are an immense thing: the learning institutions above—and many others not mentioned in this deeply abbreviated list—are massive undertakings of love for Torah and learning, raised by women and men both. In their scale, accessibility, and visionary quality, they are unprecedented. In their ranks they hold halachic advisors, judges, legal advocates, rabbis, commentators, teachers. As for the zogerke—where to fit her into this waking dream anyway? She left behind no visible followers, did not found yeshivas, did not write responsa. Observed in prayer, her hopes initially appear to point back to some ancient mythical nostalgia, not toward a radical future. Tasked with producing a paper for the lightning round on religious feminisms, the zogerke looks down at her empty hands. The term is unfamiliar and the concept—well, she would need a better translation. And in any event, what texts would go on the source sheet?

Somewhat apologetically, she points towards the synagogue bins. Old issues of Lilith lie atop yellowing newspapers.

So often men wrote me, you see, she says. In the news. And that’s old news, she sighs, and I don’t know if it’s the stuff of dreams.

IV. Disappearing Act

With concert halls and conservatories establishing standards of musical refinement, musical descriptions of the sagerin highlight, and often ridicule, a distinct women’s aesthetic that resembled “weeping.” Elizabeth Tolbert describes the weeping sound as idiomatic to the broader women’s “lament” genre, a “mixture of stylized weeping, singing and ritual speech” that projects both “performative efficacy” and “powerlessness … a lack of emotional control, and … low status.” (Judah M. Cohen, “Professionalizing the Cantorate—and Masculinizing It?” The Musical Quarterly 101.4 (Winter 2018): 455-481)

Here is how the zogerke disappears: in a river of tears, in a flutter of mispronunciations, in a noisy monotone. To reenvision her in the annals of female leadership might not be straightforward. In his 1913 article “Yiddish Literature and the Female Reader,” critic S. Charney observed that the same need that the zogerke answered—translation from Hebrew to Yiddish for uneducated women—drove the development of Yiddish from a vernacular, dependent form into a literary language, a high art (and, predominantly, a man’s craft).[3] A more promising direction: Judith Baskin’s statement that the tkhines contain “liberating and empowering potentialities” for creating female readers and writers.[4] Recent scholarship, and old newspaper clippings read here anew,[5] suggest that the zogerke can hold that empowering potential not only as a sometime writer, but also as an embodied performer, an improviser, an initiator.

And it’s true: some of these zogerkes would have protested at linking their professions or dreams to those of female rabbis, cantors, halakhists. Our zogerke does not lead a chorus of consensus; she has come, first, to acquaint us with some of her peers.

And indeed: going back to the archives, the most frequent depictions of zogerkes focus on piety or parody, not some deeply untraditional potential. Feminist revisionism may hang on traces, hints, and exceptions. From these exceptions it might fashion something that looks like continuity, or at the very least—precedent.

And yet: let us entertain the promise of her feminist potential, so that we might return to the texts and interrogate their subjects and witnesses with new questions.

But firstly: we must pass through the mass of sources that depict her as backwards. And only then we will seek the zogerkes that may speak over the text.

V. Tears

Well, what did you come here for? Leave the lachrymose lady alone.

The mythical, hunched Bubbe turns around and says: gey kakn afn yam, you think you’ll find what you’re seeking? Here’s what they left: a beautiful, faithful, overflowing stream, and all you can do is muddy the waters with your agenda. They had trern in di oygn, tears in their eyes, so many that Leah Horowitz, author of the famous tkhines of tears, would be glad for their piety.[6]

For example:

  1. She sits on a benkele by the wall, and around her sit some women—a couple older, a couple younger—all with teary faces, listening strangely to the horrible stories of the Destruction, interrupting the zogerke from time to time with groans and wails. (Zakef Gadol, “Der fergesener keyver,” Der Morgn Zhurnal, 16 July 1908)

  2. And up there, in the women’s section, the heartfelt tkhine is sighed out by the Jewish woman’s soul, she who has woven it from passion and pain, childhood and modesty, suffering and faith. And crying, the true mame-loshn [Yiddish], with the glare of the old, real loshn-koydesh [Hebrew], in the dreamy night … And Dvoyre the Zogerke thunders from the Tsenerene, and whispers the Maamados [liturgy], and old, half-blind bubbes repeat after her. (Nakhum Sokolov, “Dos bukh fun mobul,” Yidishes Tageblat, 11 January 1917)

  3. [In order to understand the prayer] one must go to the zogerin. She, the learned one, will say it aloud, and the shtume nefoshes [silent souls] will repeat after her. With trembling, moist eyes one follows the zogerin’s mouth and catches a word, and adds an oy … And when does one cry? … She leads the train of tears first, and the mitzogerins take it up, some earlier, some later. (B. Shefner, “Gedrukt in Birnberg,” Folksblat, 9 October 1938)

The newsprint grows damp with the sobs of the leaders and followers. One zogerke after another weeps on the pages of Der Morgn Zhurnal, Forverts, Der Kibitzer. And soon a long river forms, a taykh ful mit tkhines. And little shvartse pintelekh—the little black points of Hebrew—lively and curious, dart like tadpoles in the currents.

VI. Noise

“How did it come to be,” one Jew asks his clever pal,” that almost every year for Kol Nidrei, a great chaos breaks out in the vaybershul that there’s a fire, and women run, and everyone gets wounded and trampled?”

“It’s very simple, the clever Jew responded: “The zogerin reads aloud the words in the tkhine: ‘Der molekh fun fayer.’ [The Angel of Fire] A yidene, sitting a little behind, makes a mistake and says: ‘Baym golekh a fayer.’ [A fire by the priest] Another yidene makes yet another mistake, saying: ‘Baym golekh in shayer.” [By the priest in the field] And all the women get to their feet, screaming in one voice: “A fayer baym golekh in shayer! [A fire by the priest in the barn!]…” (Khaim Molits, Der Morgn Zhurnal, 21 May 1916)

Though the zogerke’s role is to clarify and translate, the vaybershul is often remembered as a site of discord. Every woman’s repetition adds mistakes, until their cumulative representations create physical chaos. And who would not want to forget such a mess? There is a conflagration by the priest in the barn; the mirror that should have reflected back the angel of fire is tarnished with burns.

Another time:

The deaf wife of a butcher once asked the zogerin to raise her voice; in return, she’d receive a large liver.

This zogerke, however, answered her with a tearful, weeping voice in the prayer sing-song: “With the liver, without the liver, it’s the same.”

The unknowing womenfolk standing around thought these words were part of the prayer, and all exclaimed with weeping voice: “With the liver, without the liver, it’s the same.” (Pauline Wengeroff, Memoirs of Grandmother: Scenes from the Cultural History of the Jews of Russia in the Nineteenth Century: Volume One (2010), 164)

Once again the zogerke reads; once again her chorus repeats with unknowing. The utterances—be they tkhines texts or the synchronized taytsh translation—become indiscriminate, save for a humorous mishearing here and there. The queen bee’s specific vibration gets lost in the bumbling of the hive. This is what the journalists remember: the zogerke’s work as a minor drone, with dozens of buzzing refrains.

It’s like her lips are moving but her voice can’t be made out. Sorry, is it bothering you, the groaning of this congregation of errors and prayers? It is all so embarrassing, not what we set out to find. But who said this would be comfortable? You could mute that empty drone, if you’d prefer not to continue. Tell her: Shvayg—zog gornisht.[7] She’s zoging עפּעס (epes af Yiddish: “something”) but articulating אֶפֶס (efes be-Ivrit: “nothing”) so it is not worthwhile to shrayb it down, or for that matter, to give those papers of hers a proper burial.[8]

VII. A froy kholmt /A woman dreams

Alright. Let’s begin again. How can her voice be restored to some coherence, the words into their discriminate parts, so that we may speak with the zogerke about her possible legacy?

It is an exercise not dissimilar from the zogerke’s own: listen to the muffled, distant sounds from the men’s section. Filter them into meaningful words for the women. Translate as necessary.

We open the door to the besmedresh, we flip through the newspapers, we retrieve books from the shelves, and wait patiently for the zogerkes to share. So they come: Bintshe, Gnesye, Yokhne, Trayne, Tsipke.

VIII. Bintshe

Bintshe storms in, vulgar and loud. She needs a place to sit immediately, she is tired from advocating to save the bathhouse in Bintshe The Tsadeykeste or the Demolished Bathhouse, a mid-19th century farcical tale of Hasidic daily life in a Polish shtetl by maskilic writer Jacob Morgenstern (1820-1890), translated by Myra Mniewski. A strange film covers her, an oily slick as though she herself could use that bath—that is the layer of satire, though, isn’t it, written on Bintshe before she can even open her mouth? But stay awhile, Bintshe. Zits, have a glezele tea.

All day Morgenstern has been making her dash from place to place—he even hid away the synagogue key when Bintshe, having gathered her bathhouse lobby, suggested: “let’s go to the shul and pray — each woman her own prayer and each man his own.” Finally they make it inside. Bintshe takes up her place at the Torah ark:

Reb Yoyneh Shel Oylem!
I am your servant, Bintshe, your servant …
Show me favor on the merits of Blind Sheve
And show me favor on the merits of Lot the Zaddik who called out from his ark, “She is more righteous than me.”
Show me favor on the merits of Blind Leah Mordkhe’s.
May I reap everything good on the merits of Miryem Hinde the Mattress Ticker…
Answer our prayers on the merits of Titus, on the merits of Korah, on the merits of Belshaazar … answer us!

“Bintshe, what shtus!” Morgenstern laughs so hard his eyes glisten. And it is: prayers in the merits of evil men, the merits of simple women, the merits of incorrect citations.

But Bintshe’s lips curl, then she smiles and assents: “It is nonsense, Reb Yankev. Of course I know how to say the tkhine correctly. But what’s the khokhme (wisdom) in that? And wouldn’t you agree that for all her mattress ticking, Miryem Hinde deserves her bisl merit, a bit of zkhus?”

IX. Gnesye

Gnesye, kum arayn, we’ve been waiting for you!

Gnesye comes in, takes a spot on the benkele. Rokhel Brokhes, prolific Belarussian Yiddish writer (1880-1945), wrote up Gnesye in a short story: “The Zogerin” (translated by Shirley Kumove). 

Gnesye has just returned from the house where she monologued:

“No, I say: enough is enough! On their behalf I prayed … May I be struck dumb if I will say one more word, not even my name, Gnesye.”[9]

It has come to this: Gnesye, like her ancestor Moses, has arrived at such a point of desperation that she offers to erase herself from God’s book through her silence. In Moyshe’s case it was a Golden Calf that motivated his own self-nullifying threat to God to save the People of Israel; for Gnesye, it is a threat aimed at the Children of Israel, who refuse to pay even a silver coin for her prayers. Well, no one appointed her! No one hired her, neither as judge nor officer for the nation. Stooped for so long under the people’s prayers, they become too heavy for Gnesye to carry alone. She prays now only to save herself.

“For whom have I not prayed and for whose sake have I not pleaded? And what have I gotten from it all? They paid me only a fiver a week and that’s enough!”

The women tittered, “whispering and telling secrets quietly among themselves.”

She told them:

“It’s mine. I lamented, I pleaded before the riboyne shel oylem. All he gave me were my bloody tears. This is all me and my prayers … Me and my prayers. … All that is mine, my hard-working prayers …”

In other words: these prayers are not precisely hefker, neither ownerless nor derivative.

“I knocked on all their doors. No, that doesn’t belong to them! Everything they own is mine, mine!”

They are Gnesye’s prayers, she has produced them, and she will have their value acknowledged, their maker known.

“No, I’ll show them … I’ll go on praying. I’ll go on weeping but now I’ll pray for me … All that they have is mine. I’ll pray for it back … My prayer will be a prayer of revenge.”

X. Her Own Tkhines

What might it mean to own your tkhines? At this point it might be said that Bintshe and Gnesye introduce a perspective on their paraliturgical work.

Firstly, says Bintshe: I have written my own tkhines. They are literary composites of my own time and devotion, these women around me, the learning I’ve gathered, the cantors I’ve heard. These are my improvisations and my interpretations, not rote repetition. And my mistakes—or what you read as mistakes—are also my own.

Secondly, thunders Gnesye: those tkhines, those prayers, are a product like any other. This means I am owed compensation, and I will not make prayers for free.

They assert: this is not just chessed, a bit of charitable kindness. Their work is both labor and creativity. It has value, charges a fee, and invents something novel.

XI. A vaybl kholmt / A little woman dreams

Literacy is a powerful thing, for not only can it lead to writing one’s own tkhines—it might also prompt tentative steps in the other’s liturgical field. The zogerke’s literacy creates new ritual possibilities. Take, for example, Trayne and Yokhne, whose literacy enables them to take on mitzvos coded masculine.

XII. Yokhne

In struts Yokhne the zogerke, satiated and smug. She has been leading sholeshudes, the third meal of Shabes, in the women’s section.

One time our zogerin, Yokhne Sosye, found a law in her big book of tkhines, that women should fulfill the mitzvah of sholeshudes on Shabes, just like the men (even though the men of Simferofol rarely hold by this rule—but then again, as we’ve noted above, the women are frummer … ) … and Yokhne went on and on, until the women believed that every Shabes they must eat three sudes [meals], and not just three sudes—three sudes, the hassidic way …

For minkhe on Shabes all the women came to daven, and after davening minkhe, they made themselves a tish [festive meal] in the vaybershul, and they did a sholeshudes…and instead of singing zmires, they found somewhere [the tkhines collection by Sarah bas Tovim] Three Gates for the three meals, and said only tkhines …

One time, on Shabes after minkhe, they began to say the sholeshsudes tkhines, letting their voices rise higher. In the mennishe shul some men who didn’t hold sholeshsudes were scared…what could it be? Then they figured: perhaps there was a sick man in the house that had taken a turn for the worse, so all the women ran to shul, begging God for his health!

But then the noises got quiet, and one yidene says; ‘Raboytisem, lomir bentshen!’

They were bentshing a mezumen after sholeshsudes! (Shmaya der Zoger, “Gelt iz di velt,” Kol Mevaser, 12 September 1872)

XIII. Trayne

And there’s Trayne, dressed like a woman but with a head like a man’s: “an elderly Jewish woman with a kupke [traditional women’s headcovering] on her head and a mansbilshen [masculine] intellect…people say she can learn as well as men.” Trayne’s son left for a “foreign land” and told her tearfully that he would have no one to say kaddish in his stead. She comforted him, promising that if, “khas vekholile, he would die without leaving a child behind, then Trayne herself would say kaddish for him!” Trayne’s son dies childless.

Later that same day … she went to minkhe at the synagogue in the Gensher cemetery, slid into a corner—one would have hardly noticed—davened with everyone and, after Aleynu, she began to say kaddish for her son in a loud voice.

The surprised praying public began to protest: What’s this, a Jewish woman saying kaddish, and in shul among men at that! But Trayne didn’t pay any heed and continued saying kaddish.

“What?” she yelled, “You think that a Jewish woman can’t say kaddish? Don’t be so haughty! Jewish women don’t say kaddish because they don’t know Hebrew! But I, borukh Hashem, do — so why shouldn’t I then say it?” (“Trayne di zogerin zogt kadish nokh ir argentiner zun,” Hayntige Nayes, 20 September 1931)

And there she stayed, “standing with a siddur in hand and swaying, davening and saying kaddish with a beautiful kaddish-nigun.

Trayne won’t sit for long. She nods at Yokhne—there better be a minyan here for Mayrev; can’t have the men running out after the women’s tish.

XIV. Her Own Ritual

The strict categories that index masculinity as full-bodied Jewish male adulthood and capability are troubled, in folk interpretation, by a widow and old ladies with too much time and texts in their hands. Indeed, these “women,” taken alone, slowly begin to resemble “women who are like men.”

What do we mean by this? It is a complicated matter—and newspapers are no responsa. But here is a quick take: the zogerke does not fit her era’s profile for the religious Jewish woman. Such a woman takes on mitzvos dictated to her by the rabbis: a set of mitzvos that are not time-bound (so that women may devote them to the needs of a household) and assume female illiteracy in Hebrew (exempting her from various liturgical obligations). She is wary of kevod ha-tzibur (the congregation’s dignity), wary too of kol isha (the woman’s singing leading to unholy thoughts).

But what happens when these historical conditions of women’s literacy, time, and tradition skip a beat, and allow for a zogerke? When she has time to pray and to read, and someone to teach her? When she knows more than some men? When her voice sings, but in the women’s section?

In that strange condition—which holds Trayne and Yokhne—fluency, creativity, and necessity allow for gendered trespass.

XV. A yidene kholmt / A Jewess dreams

Let us pick up from here. We’ve met four: Bintshe, Gnesye, Trayne, Yokhne. The verbal artist, the prayer writer, the kaddish sayer, the sholeshudes singer.

I have one more for you, says the zogerke: Tsipke. She’s a dreamer, that one.

XVI. Tsipke

Tsipke startles awake; she had been dozing quietly on the side. She wants to tell us about the other day:

Tsipke was walking on a thin footbridge to cross the river. Midway the bridge began to bend and nearly broke. Tsipke, terrified, yelled out: “Riboyno shel oylem, if you take me over the river safely, I will give half a ruble to Rabbi Meir Bal ha-Nes [the Miracle Maker].” When Tsipke got over to the other side of the river safely, she pretended not to know about her own promise to the Rav.

But Rabbi Meir Bal ha-Nes is the type of Jew who won’t be fooled, and he came to Tsipke in a dream and demanded that debt. Tsipke explained: “I didn’t drown in the river—that was a miracle that happened to me. I myself am a bal ha-nes [miracle-maker]. I’m a partner with you in the business of miracles; so what does it matter which partner gets half the ruble?”… (“Er handelt mit zayn vayb vi mit Meir Bal ha-Nes,” Forverts, 9 August 1925)

Such a partnership, who could have thought? Tsipke the zogerke knows how to make an effective blessing, and draw up her own terms, even in a dream—or, perhaps, precisely in a dream.

Sitting in the corner of the besmedresh, our zogerke shrugs: Nu, there may not have been many, but, well, isn’t that curious? Fictional or real, doesn’t it make you wonder: why one would have imagined them, or what they might have imagined for themselves?

XVII. Ir ort oyf der velt / Her place in this world

“Frume the zogerin said so:” (This means: the women’s firzogerin in shul was considered a vayserin [a maven] among women in the past. People would refer to what she said, because she must have surely known.) (Volf Yunin, “Shprakh vinkl,” Forverts, 6 May 1974)

Wait—someone’s knocking, though no one expected her. Dvoyre the zogerke stumbles into our besmedresh, her black dress threadbare. She had been spinning an egg, a superstitious custom for a young woman’s welfare, in “In Grandfather’s Fields,” the story of one Y. Metzker published in the Forverts in 1952. It is late, 1952, so late that Dvoyre is dizzy herself after all that spinning. How is she here, so many years later, past the mid-century mark? In 1954, Stern College is founded; in 1958, Machon Gold. Where has she come to, this preposterous besmedresh: what to make of such a gathering, all zogerkes pulled from the pages? And what to make of the modern women, soon to enter, soon to be seated in their individual makoms, learning the seforim? What role could the zogerke hold in a time of literacy, who then does she lead? How to understand what might draw the zogerkes and the new women together, when the two have not properly met?

Still holding on to the egg, Dvoyre shares a moshl:

When a queen bee dies, the whole hive enters swarm mode. The worker bees must find some very young eggs—so young they are less than three days old. These are the little queens, reared in her memory, groomed for the future role. If it takes too long to replace the queen—or if the worker bees fail to find her a place, or reject her, God forbid, if the state of queenlessness is extended—the hive dies, and so do the little queens.

Here is the nimshl: I finished my term as a queen bee without little queens and as such, without institutional memory. Many years later other hives arose, and there the little queens began to lead. As for that distance between our generations—the differences are confounding, true, but the similarities conceivable. Conceivable, in that I have lived such parallel problems myself. Conceivable, too, in that I suspected they would return.

In other words: the zogerke, with her actions and her words, asks to be found in the dream of religious feminism. That dream, which seems to arise out of the mid-to-late twentieth century, has an earlier history. Perhaps, one might say, it was already dreamt.

A dream, we know, detangles emotion. It is a series of strange, hybrid recombinations of elements, meant to defuse trauma and detach fraught feelings from objects and people. Now hold the zogerke’s dream (beware: it is paper-thin!) with its elements: Trayne saying kaddish, Bintshe praising Mirele the mattress ticker, Yokhne raising her voice in a zimmun; Gnesye, asking why they will not pay her enough, Tsipke, standing alongside her partner the rov. It is a perplexing hybridity made up of solely old elements, but in rearrangement they are surprising. A vague image forms in the dream, an unprecedented assemblage of all of the original parts. It is made up of antique fragments, this new hybrid, and yet it begins to resemble—in its struggles, behaviors, and reception—something highly familiar even today.

The past dreams the future, something we could only say looking back. The matter of religious feminisms—perceived at times as arising from the mid-to-late 20th century—nevertheless bears resemblance to the older stuff that once surfaced and was quickly repressed, silenced, or doomed to obscure anomaly: a cry for equally paid labor, a call for honor and status, an insistent midrashic liturgical artistry, a ritual that oversteps its threshold. These and others demands form in the zogerke’s dream, waiting to be remembered when the community wakes.

Let’s not forget that little bit of slippage: firzogerin means “foresayer.” She says it aloud for those before her. In other words, she says it aloud for those who come after her, too.

XVIII. Old Whine in a New Barrel

Two things that happened:

“The learned zogerke would get into a large barrel, so that the women wouldn’t crowd her overmuch, and she’d recite aloud after the cantor from the men’s section with an enormous makhzer with Rashi-writing, and all the women around her would repeat and pour out rivers of tears.” (“Geyn yonkiper in shul iz oykh a mode,” Di Varhayt, 12 October 1910)

In the smaller Jewish towns, in the absence of such a woman, a man had to crawl into a barrel in the middle of the women’s section of the synagogue and from this rampart—surrounded by women—recite the prayers. (Wengeroff, 164)

Now, this one did not happen; or, I have not seen it inside. But surely someone saw a dream a long time ago, lucidly or otherwise:

If there are not “men” in the men’s section, the zogerke gets into a barrel. She packs in her makhzer with its little black points, her handkerchief, her purse with its rattling groshn. And she rolls, turning over and over, until she reaches the other side.

[1] This heading, as well as VII, XI, XV, and XVII, are taken from: Irena Klepfisz, “Etlekhe Verter Oyf Mame-Loshn / A Few Words in the Mother Tongue,” Symposium (Syracuse), vol. 52, no. 4 (Abingdon: Taylor & Francis Inc, 1999): 280-282.

[2] Chava Weissler, “‘For Women and for Men Who Are like Women’: The Construction of Gender in Yiddish Devotional Literature,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, vol. 5, no. 2 (1989): 7–24.

[3] On female readers and literacy, see: Iris Parush, Reading Jewish Women: Marginality and Modernization in Nineteenth-Century Eastern European Jewish Society (Lebanon: University Press of New England, 2004).

[4] Judith R. Baskin,”Jewish Women’s Piety and the Impact of the Printing in Early Modern Europe,” in Culture and Change: Attending to Early Modern Women, eds. Margaret Mikesell & Adele Seeff (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2004), 224.

[5] While the figure of the zogerke as found in newspapers specifically has not received focused attention, scholars have discussed the zogerke in other sources (several are brought in this piece), including memoir and fiction. See especially: Alicia Ramos-González, “‘Zogerkes’ en la sinagoga. Judiàs hablando desde la orilla de la diferencia,” DUODA Revista d’Estudis Feministes 26 (2004), 47-67; Edward Fram, My Dear Daughter: Rabbi Benjamin Slonik and the Education of Women in Sixteenth-Century Poland (2007), 63-70; Lidia Jerkiewicz, “Rola zogerek w tradycyjnej społeczności żydowskiej : rekonesans badawczy,” Nieme dusze (2010): 59-76.

[6] Chava Weissler, Voices of the Matriarchs: Listening to the Prayers of Early Modern Jewish Women (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999), 104-125.

[7] “Be silent—say nothing.” Anna Margolin, ”She of the Cold Marble Breasts,” in Drunk from the Bitter Truth: The Poems of Anna Margolin, trans. Shirley Kumove (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005), 273.

[8] Dvora Baron, “Burying the Books,” in “The first day” and other stories, trans. Naomi Seidman (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 147–54.

[9] All citations from this story taken from: Rokhl Brokhes, “Di Zogerin,” translated by Shirley Kumove, in Found Treasures: Stories by Yiddish Women Writers,   eds. Frieda Forman, Ethel Raicus, Sarah Silberstein Swartz, Margie Wolfe (Toronto: Second Story Press, 1993), 85-90.

Dalia Wolfson is a graduate student in the Comparative Literature department at Harvard University, where she studies Hebrew and Yiddish literature.