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7 Nisan 5766 - April 4, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Home and Family

Water from a Well
Reflections on Being a Jew at the End of History

by Rebbetzin Holly Pavlov
Reviewed by S. Weinbach

Targum/Feldhein 239 pages

Still waters run deep, a cliche which begins to describe this book. Jews associate very well with the well, especially so Jewish women, whose history is so entwined with this symbolic entity.

To sum up my feelings about this beautiful book already at the beginning of this review, I would have you look at the meaningful cover, designed by Targum's Diane Liff, which suggests water in a well reflecting a light from above.

To tell the truth, when asked to review this book, I thought I could skim through it, pick out some passages here and there, and dish it up to you. Not so. This is a book for deeper thinking, reflection.

Interesting, that word, reflection, so significantly captured in the title and the jacket cover. Both invite you to dip in, drink, and watch the ripples spread in velvety water circles. Drink, read, and contemplate what you have read before reading on. And then, perhaps return for some more of that first refreshing taste.

I prefer to take my time with this book, and review it even before I have finished reading it, which I want to do at my own pace. I want to digest this `heavy water' that oxygenizes my heart, soul, intellect.

Rebbetzin Pavlov is a world-known lecturer on Jewish subjects, the author of Mirrors of Our Lives: Reflections of Women in Tanach and of many articles for Torah publications. She is also the founder of She'arim College of Jewish Studies for Women, a seminary with a unique approach to study. How is that? As teacher, Reb. Pavlov has the students make their own discoveries as she leads them gently but skillfully through the process of learning through understanding, asking, resolving, internalizing into one's own psyche and soul.

The one graduate of this baalas tshuvah seminary whom I know well and whose life I have been involved in ever since she married one of the star talmidim of Yeshivas Ohr Somyach who was a frequent visitor in our home, exemplies those goals, and methods of reaching them. I have seen her growing through various stages, different challenges in the jobs she found, and always asking, seeking a more precise truth within her.

Here it was a teaching job that was not up to her standards of Yiddishkeit, there it was a writing job that demanded a watering down of educational material, and again, a different job that also required adaptation which she was unprepared to make because of compromises that were not up to her standard of honesty, integrity, and her intuitive feeling of what was right. And so she asked, listened, reflected — and acted accordingly.

Never mind who she is. Never mind that she could have made lots of money at these jobs. Suffice it to say that I believe she is a model product of this school and what it stands for: a Jewish woman in this modern world finding and defining her role in the light of Jewish history and the talents at her disposal.

So much for my introduction. Now for the Introduction, or Preface, which captured my attention right away with its appeal. Have an excerpted taste:

"When I was a child, I learned Jewish history. I felt small in the face of the courage I read about — the bravery and self-sacrifice of the Jews who lived before me. They were often given terrible choices: to be true to their Torah or to their instinct to survive . . .

"I was amazed by how many Jews chose spiritual commitment over physical survival. I wondered how they lived under such oppression, forgoing an easier life if it meant conversion. I marveled at the strength of their beliefs and their trust in G-d . . . "

And you, the reader, haven't you pondered over this and asked the question the author now poses?

"Mostly, I wondered if I would have such strength of conviction. Would I, given a choice of conversion or death, choose Torah? . . . Would I opt for an easier life in this world over eternal life in the next?"

Sometimes, she notes, we are given the choice; other times, "the knife, the gun, the bomb chooses the Jew and his death sanctifies G-d's name. In these moments, G-d Himself selects the person and his `mission'. Yet, there is still choice — we choose to live in Israel, to ride a bus . . . to go to public places . . . knowing that there is danger . . . "

And the bottom-line message: "Life is more about struggle than joy and, in fact, joy comes to punctuate the struggle, and not the other way around. The darkness is the backdrop against which we see the light.

"In fact, without the struggle . . . " Read on, yourselves.

After the Preface comes the directions: "How to Read This Book."

"Learning Torah is like digging a well — the deeper we go, the more water we find . . .

"Those who have dug before us provide guidance and skill for this venture . . . In fact, as we learn, we find ourselves in a dialogue with them. What do you think, Rashi? And you, Ramban? We ask and we listen to their answers . . . We resolve and debate. We engage in a conversation that traverses centuries . . .

"It is this sense of dialogue that I wanted to convey when I wrote this book . . . In each essay, I present Torah concepts, as a teacher would to her students, aiming to provoke, elicit questions, and work out life lessons together."

Which brings us to the Table of Contents. Some chapter names as a come-on:


Before I end up quoting the entire book, let us turn to the first essay: "Laughter is a Serious Business." Sounds interesting, intellectually stimulating?

The author explores the dynamics of laughter and its Jewish history, beginning with Avrohom, Sorah and Yitzchok. She leads us through the commentaries on the Torah text, first analyzing Rashi, dealing with grammatical structures (the difference between tzchok and s'chok — irony vs. laughter) , injecting something from R' Hirsch and eventually arriving at the Eishes Chayil who "laughs at the time to come."

This book represents a pleasant, very stimulating learning experience. Written well, clearly, with a light but sure hand, it is not ponderous but has appeal for all women, even if they are busy housewives wishing to take time out for something refreshingly cerebral and meaningful.

I would like to end with a personal reflection: Both Rebbetzin Pavlov and this graduate product I mentioned before, and the book, reflect the ultimate Jewish woman's trait of tzniyus, modesty, unassumption (is that a word?), simplicity, wisdom that is not taken for granted but acquired through a women's intuitive thinking process as drawn up from the well of our sages' teachings. There is reticence, discretion, a quietness from inner strength. Jewish women who know their place and are proud of it. The power of wise Jewish women throughout history.

Still waters running oh, so deep.


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