In 1997, I was honored by Kolot, the forerunner of today’s Ritualwell, for my contributions to Jewish art. Up until that point I had not created any specifically Jewish feminist art, though I had designed many a birth announcement and bat Lit. Commandment. It is traditionally held that there are 613 mitzvot (plural) in Judaism, both postive commandments (mandating actions) and negative commandments (prohibiting actions). Mitzvah has also become colloquially assumed to mean the idea of a “good deed." invitation.
In response to the honor, I decided to create a design depicting mythical women reading The Five Books of Moses, and the foundation of all of Jewish life and lore. The Torah is considered the heart and soul of the Jewish people, and study of the Torah is a high mitzvah. The Torah itself a scroll that is hand lettered on parchment, elaborately dressed and decorated, and stored in a decorative ark. It is chanted aloud on Mondays, Thursdays, and Shabbat, according to a yearly cycle. Sometimes "Torah" is used as a colloquial term for Jewish learning and narrative in general. at the The Western Wall, which was a retaining wall of the Second Temple, is all that visibly remains of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. It has long been a holy site for Jews. Since 1967, when the Israeli army recaptured the Old City, including the Western Wall, a large plaza has been created where Jews can congregate and pray. The Wall has also been the subject of controversy, including for women from liberal Judaism, who have been successfully barred from reading from the Torah or donning a tallit at the wall., something they were forbidden from actually doing. Hostile men were, at that time, throwing chairs over the mechitzah at the brave women who attempted to chant the words of Torah. In my mind’s eye, that chair became an analog to the Chair of Elijah is a biblical prophet who is said never to have died. There are therefore many legends associated with Elijah. In the Talmud, unresolved arguments will be resolved when Elijah comes. He will herald the coming of the messiah. In Jewish ritual, Elijah is a liminal figure, arriving at moments of danger and transition – at a brit milah, a chair is put out for him, a cup is poured for Elijah at the Passover seder, and he is invoked at havdalah. His Hebrew name is Eliyahu.. This would be the chair of Miriam is the sister of Moses and Aaron. As Moses' and Aaron's sister she, according to midrash, prophesies Moses' role and helps secure it by watching over the young baby, seeing to it that Pharaoh's daughter takes him and that the baby is returned to his mother for nursing. During the Israelites' trek through the desert, a magical well given on her behalf travels with the Israelites, providing water, healing, and sustenance., our spiritual mother, who led us in dance and song, with her tambourine held high. Hence, “Thanks for the Chair!”—a tongue-in-cheek title protesting that it was the women (not the chair-throwing men) who were arrested.
I painted the image on an actual tambourine and the piece was very well received. I took a leap and ordered 50 reproductions. My husband David was very cautiously optimistic—he figured I could always give them away as bat mitzvah gifts. My daughter Nomi was only nine at the time. She and her sidekick Ronya sold the tambourines at the Havurah Institute. To our astonishment, they sold three dozen in one hour.
In time I added more tambourine designs, several with feminist images, and I have sold more than 12,000 to date. I retired the original “Thanks for the Chair” design a few years ago, thinking it was getting tired. I donated the original to Philadelphia’s National Museum of American Jewish History, where it is displayed in the permanent collection. People who see it might not know that women are not permitted to read Torah at the Western Wall; ironically, what they see on the tambourine is an image of women doing just that.
When I realized 15 years had passed since I released that first tambourine design, I approached Ritualwell about jointly reissuing the design. Regrettably, women are still not permitted to read Torah in plain sight of the wall.
I am delighted that your purchase of the 15th anniversary reissue of my original design will benefit the wonderful work of Ritualwell, which has been so effective at helping women and men own Jewish tradition. Instead of suppressing our voices, Ritualwell facilitates sharing, encouraging everyone to speak up and be heard! This is as it should be.
Order your tambourine here.
Betsy Platkin Teutsch is an artist in Philadelphia.