Interview with Rabbi Noam Lerman
Sarah Biskowitz: How were you introduced to the spiritual
traditions of Yiddish-speaking women, trans, and gender
Rabbi Noam Lerman: I was first introduced to the spiritual
traditions of Yiddish-speaking women, trans, and gender-expansive
people through my grandmother, Malke Sore or Malche Swatta or
Marlene Marcus. She had a practice where she would pray to G-d
throughout the day in Yiddish. She learned Yiddish on the boat on
the way to the US. It was the second to last boat that was allowed
into the US right before the borders were closed to Jews and other
immigrants during the war. Her mother told her that all the Jews in the US speak Yiddish so she should learn it as well. Somehow my grandma just kind of turned Yiddish into her liturgical language, and didn’t really speak it day to day with other people. But she would speak to G-d throughout the day, specifically as she woke up, as she walked around the house, and when she was falling asleep.
I have various interviews with her explaining how she would pray to G-d. I felt like she may have viewed G-d as her good friend, as her witness, and maybe even her therapist. She certainly did not have a therapist– she was a traumatized refugee with a lot of PTSD. She lost most of her extended family, only her immediate family came over to the US. She had so many stories to share about her best friends, her cousins, all the people that died, and I would listen lovingly. She told me that she would have dreams where they would come to her and be smiling and hugging her and she would feel so guilty that she survived and they did not. She was living with so much pain,and there weren’t resources for refugees, for people with that type of trauma.
Friday nights, my family would gather around the Shabbes candles. We would each light our own candle, and we would wave our hands three times, cover our eyes, say the bracha [blessing], sing it out loud, and then we would leave space and time for private prayers. This is something that we would do even when my grandparents weren’t present, and usually it was a time for silence. But when my grandparents were there, my grandmother would be whispering quite loudly–I don’t know if she knew how to whisper quietly, to be honest! She would be whispering in Yiddish and she would whisper all of our names–she would list us off slowly. As a kid, I liked standing next to her, and I would keen my ear in, and try to find my name. I would try to understand what else she was saying, what else she was praying, but I couldn’t understand because it was in Yiddish and I didn't speak Yiddish. So I believe this time with shabbes candles impacted me greatly, and showed me the importance of private spontaneous prayers, whispering, and conversing with G-d."
SB: Did anything in this tradition especially speak to you, and if so, why?
NL: As a child at Jewish day school, I remember going through the Amidah, the Hebrew words of the prayer, and I didn’t know what I was saying. The words didn’t really feel meaningful or related to my personal life. Burying my head in my siddur and reflecting on my own life and the places where I wanted attention felt a lot more meaningful, a lot more personal to me than these words that were written in my siddur. Whispering private prayers was modeled to me by my grandmother. Besides her practicing zogn tkhines, my mother would also pray spontaneously in English.. So, I saw something happening with women and spontaneous prayer around me, and I thought, “This is meaningful, I can relate to this, because I’m experiencing my own life, and I can put in reflections of my own life and hopes and dreams and visions into my prayers that maybe aren’t necessarily captured by the Hebrew prayers.” Now I daven shakhris every morning, and I try to daven three times a day. The traditional liturgy is really important to me; it feels like a structure, something I can meditate within. With the addition of zogn tkhines spontaneous prayer, I feel like it’s a really beautiful balance.
SB: Did these experiences illuminate any surprising discoveries or conclusions for you?
NL: Yes. Most people associate spontaneous prayer with Rebbe Nachman of Breslov and he has a practice called hitbodedut/hisboydedes which he writes about extensively, and gives instructions, many of which are quite similar to what women and poor folks of all genders were already embodying. One of his instructions says to begin a hisbodedus prayer with “reboynu shel oylem,” [master of the world.] Even if a person can’t think of something to say, they can keep repeating that phrase over and over and over. I noticed that a lot of tkhines open with that very line, “riboynu shel oylem,” and I also heard from an elder in her 80’s or 90’s that her grandmother would begin her spontaneous Yiddish prayers with “riboyno shel oylem”. So, a question that I’ve held as I’ve been learning more and more about tkhines is: Where did Rebbe Nachman learn this practice? Who was he seeing model the spiritual outpouring of spontaneous prayer? Was it the women in his life who raised him, his mother, his grandmother?
Probably it was. Because those were the folks that didn't have as much access to the Hebrew liturgy of the siddur. Some of them were davening from a siddur, but many of those folks were poor, “unlearned,” , disabled, gender-marginalized, so they were finding, developing, and passing down their own paths of spirituality. They were praying words that directly addressed their personal life experiences. So something that I’ve been curious about is that Rebbe Nachman called this practice hisboydedes, which we are taught in our various circles–Renewal, Neo-Hasidic, orthodox circles,. Something that I’m thinking about a lot is, what other practices, what other Hasidic teachings, or spirituality that we carry in Judaism actually were channeled down by women, or gender nonconforming people, or people that were really on the margins that did not have social capital? I mean the people who were disabled or poor or houseless, who were not public, charismatic people, yet they were bringing down these very deep, beautiful spiritual practices, and were living them out? Did Rabbis or men with social capital see them doing practices, and then take them on and attribute them to themselves or to other well-off men?
How many folks who were invisibilized actually were the ones that were bringing these [practices] down? How does the Torah of the people from the margins shine through our Torah today? Chava Weissler writes about this in her book on tkhines, how she was hoping to find more innovation within the tkhines, and she was disappointed. It is certainly disappointing that so much has been lost from our grandmothers and transcestors, yet at the same time, we just don’t know everything. Maybe the wife of Rebbe Yitskhok of Berdichev taught him something, or his mother taught him something, and then he wrote it down so we attribute it to him. Maybe the rabbis of the Talmud, and the prophets in the Torah were quoting their mothers, bringing the teachings of their sisters down. Maybe some of the prophets and rabbis were trans themselves, and their inner experience of gender fluidity influenced their teachings. I believe that the Torah of gender-marginalized people is still shining through, even if it doesn't come directly from their mouths.
I like to imagine this concept extending all the way back through history and time, to everything. We attribute these teachings to particular men, but I wonder whose voices are also being heard through them, and we’re not actually knowing their names? There’s this mitzvah of naming Torah b’shem omro, in the name of the person that said the wisdom. In the case of tkhines, this was not honored, because it wasn’t the cultural norm to attribute ideas and teachings to women and to certain people who are invisible themselves. Even today this still happens to gender-marginalized people, to BIPOC people, to non-owning-class people, or people who are not as publicly visible. All the more so this has happened throughout history– where work is not being attributed to each and every person who co-creates community and culture. So, folks become invisibilized, and we have all this beautiful oral Torah–The Mishnah, The Talmud everything–and it’s all being attributed to men, or at least filtered through and preserved by men. What are the voices that are coming through in these teachings that we aren't seeing, and we’re not able to see, because they were intentionally hidden?
SB: Are you interested in reclaiming and reviving any of these practices? If so, how?
NL: I am very interested in reclaiming and reviving practices. How do we do it? I teach workshops on it and I try to practice it on my own. I like to affirm a lot of the spiritual practices people are already doing because I believe that maybe through osmosis, maybe through seeing parents or grandparents doing certain “superstitious” things, people picked up on spiritual practices. They might not even say oh, these practices are traditionally Jewish. What I want to do is affirm that yes, they are. My grandmother whispering all of our names in Yiddish and having these extra prayers after lighting the Shabbes candles is a very traditional thing and maybe it wasn’t Halacha, but it just is a traditional and holy practice. My parents giving my sisters and I personalized, direct blessings after lighting the candles also feels like one of these practices. I’ve come across people in my workshops that say, “Oh, you know when I really want something I’ll write it in my journal a few times.” And what I like to say is, “Oh, that’s a tkhine, you are participating in a long line of people that have practiced a version of this folk custom. Keep it up!”
SB: How can this legacy be incorporated into the contemporary progressive neo-Hasidic movement, and Jewish practices and communities at large?
NL: I think one way we can incorporate it is when we are teaching Rebbe Nachman and hitbodedut, I believe we can actually call what he’s doing tkhines. I think that would be very powerful, it would be a tikkun in a way. It would name this invisible visible practice, this practice that was made visible through his writing, that was thank G-d preserved. A practice that was given a name but was already being embodied all the time by women, by poor “uneducated” men (wise and educated in other ways than torah and Jewish knowledge). We can credit this practice to the people who were doing it, the women and gender-expansive people. So that’s one thing, a kleyne tikkun. And I think another thing that would be very good, which harkens back to me as a little kid being in Jewish day school: how powerful would it have been if we read through each section of the Hebrew prayers and really learned what we were saying, why are we doing this? I could have connected to it more personally.
What would happen if during tefillah, could we actually make space for zogn tkhines, for saying tkhines, doing hisboydedus. We could actually carve out space in Jewish schools, in our yeshivas, in our synagogues, where we say, okay, we are going to do this practice now, it’s deeply part of Jewish tradition, part of Jewish prayer, and it’s very important. It’s a big part of Jewish prayer practice that has been happening forever, since the Torah, since Hannah in the Torah, all across the diaspora, and we just do it! We give it the kavod, the importance that it deserves, alongside davening three times a day.
Noam Lerman (they.he.zi) is a story-collector, musician, restorative justice circle keeper, nature and shabbes lover, anarchist, writer, amulet maker, and soferex (Hebrew scribe). Noam was ordained from Hebrew College in June 2020, and they are currently the rabbi and Jewish Student Advisor at Smith College at the Center For Religious and Spiritual Life. They founded Der Tkhines Proyekt, which provides experimental and songful workshops that give life to Yiddish spontaneous supplications that were/are composed and prayed by trans and gender-expansive-people and women. Noam also organizes with Gates of Resilience, which is an intergenerational community that centers storytelling, disability justice and healing processes by and for folks from the margins. Previously, they have been a chaplain for elders, incarcerated youth, and recently-incarcerated fathers resiliently fighting for survival. Spontaneousprayer.com @rebbe_tzn