HAARETZ: 'Amen' - without the men

Evenings for religious women, including a meal, entertainment and especially blessings, are becoming increasingly popular in various circles. Not surprisingly, some rabbis object.

In a Rishon Letzion synagogue one evening a few weeks ago, dozens of women burst into laughter when Noam Zigedon joked about getting one's husband to change a lightbulb: "So it takes him a month or two - a year or two. Never mind. Thank him with all your heart, praise and exalt him," said Zigedon, going on to describe husbands as "childish and slow," but not malicious.

One woman in the audience wiped away tears of laughter; another held her chest and tried to catch her breath. Zigedon then launched into a vigorous sales pitch for candles - talismans for a good livelihood, good health and so on. "A hundred shekels, don't be afraid," she repeated several times. The women opened their purses.

Rabbanit Zigedon is one of the most successful moderators of a series of evening programs for women being offered lately in ultra-Orthadox and other religious communities. Known as "seudot amenim" (literally, "amen meals" ), these events take place in private homes or synagogue halls. The main element, though, is not the food but the blessings that are uttered there - and particularly the "amen" uttered in response, which is believed to transform bad luck into good luck.

The moderators, the spiritual leaders of these events - all women, of course, like their audiences - often do stand-up comedy based on their own experiences. In some cases the meal is only symbolic, a few morsels on a plastic plate, over which can be recited different types of blessings: These include blessings for "minei mezonot," referring to various types of food, said over a pretzel; "pri ha'etz" ("fruit of the tree" ), for a date; or an all-encompassing blessing that can be said over candy. On occasion, the hostess prepares a sumptuous meal, or participants bring dishes of their own.

On this particular evening, the narrow tables in the Rishon Letzion synagogue held plates of pastries, salads, dried fruit, cake and coffee, provided by the hostess, whose daughter was married that week. The event was honor of the newly observant daughter - a belated bridal shower of sorts. After the entertainment of the stand-up part was over, the women ate and recited the blessings aloud. The young bride sat at the head of the table and received special attention from Zigedon.

Zigedon herself, who is in her fifties, also grew up secular and later became religious; she mentioned this at the start of the evening. Her face glowed - she wears no makeup - and she tightened her head covering as she orchestrated the part of the program with the blessings and amens: While half the women in the hall recited the blessings over the various foods, the others responded with a loud "amen." Then the two groups switched roles.

Because the guest of honor had just become religious, there were quite a few secular women there, both friends and relatives. They had expected a boring religious affair, one of them told me, but found themselves having fun. Some of the women asked to read the names of friends or relatives who needed special support. They described the problem the others were having - and Zigedon instantly came up with an appropriate and amusing blessing. "May she find an Ashkenazi groom with lots of money," she said to one woman who complained that her daughter was still single. In cases of illness, she became serious and came up with a formulation to help spur healing.

Salvation and leisure

The underlying rationale for these events is the popular belief that saying "amen" loudly and repeatedly (some say as many as 100 times a day ) brings luck and salvation to a person and can, for example, help single women find a partner, help barren women have children, heal ailments and so on.

For Haredi women, this is also a legitimate leisure-time activity. Formerly, only ultra-Orthodox men went out in the evenings - for prayers or Torah lessons - while the wives stayed home to look after the children. These days women, too, are finding ways to get out of the house and meet with girlfriends.

Such activities began in recent years with morality lessons or groups that met to discuss the weekly Torah portion or take part in other religious activity, such as collective recitation of Psalms. The amen meals became part of this trend, and gradually also spread to national Orthodox and traditionalist communities. More recently, the meals have attracted secular women who also visit tombs of holy men, light candles on Shabbat and engage in other quasi-spiritual activities, in the belief that if it doesn't help, it won't hurt, either.

Other contributing factors include the emergence of female Haredi entrepreneurs looking for new ways to augment the household income, along with an audience in need of religious "reinforcement." The going fee for a moderator is about NIS 1,000 an evening, which is covered by the participants. In some cases, the hostesses may donate their services for yeshiva or synagogue fund-raising events.

At one such meal, held in a Modi'in apartment, one women informed the others, "This is the first time I have gone out without the children since they were born." Her youngest daughter, she added, was 2 years old. She had obviously taken trouble to dress nicely.

According to Dr. Rivka Neria Ben-Shahar, from the School of Communication at Sapir College in the Negev, dozens of these events are now held every week across the country. Currently researching the phenomenon at Brandeis University in Boston (on a Fulbright scholarship ), Israeli-born Neria Ben-Shahar has attended dozens of them.

"A certain type of folklore has developed around these meals involving recurrent stories of 'salvation' - about women who have become pregnant and girls who found a match after taking part in amen meals," she says. "The moderators or the participants tell their stories. Some of them find it hard to believe in what goes on, but the event is very powerful and moving."

One story repeated at two meals I attended was about a man who urgently needed a liver transplant. One day, after his wife took part in an amen meal, the hospital informed them that a donor had been found. The couple rushed to the hospital, driving on the shoulders because of the heavy traffic. A policeman stopped them, but after they explained their situation, he escorted them to the hospital, siren wailing. The transplant was a success.

The events can also be viewed as a collective effort to encourage positive thinking. "The idea that saying 'amen' aloud brings salvation is very meaningful in a world of chaos," Neria Ben-Shahar explains. "One of the powerful aspects of these meals is the order of things, the framework: Now we hold the pretzel, bless it and respond 'amen.' You pray, you ask and you believe that it's happening. The ritual element has a good effect - it's like going to a gym. Despite the feeling that a family member is about to die, for example, you feel you can do something."

It is not common practice in the religious communities to tell others that you are undergoing fertility treatments, she notes. "And who would dare talk publicly about money problems? But these gatherings create an open, liberated atmosphere. It is very New Age: Think good thoughts and things will be good. Women try to imbue one another with strength, to raise each other above their hardships. They do it through joy and faith. It is something that generates strength, even if you know that something like lighting a candle doesn't really get you a groom or an organ donation."

'The real thing'

A good number of amen meals are held without a moderator. For instance, a group of national-religious women meets once a month in Har Nof, Jerusalem. Michal Hershko, a mother of six and a lawyer by profession, says they began meeting in memory of someone's niece who died of cancer. "We meet in a different home each time, and there are always new faces," Hershko says.

Meetings without a moderator can be even more meaningful to participants, Neria Ben-Shahar says: "It's the real thing, it's like an all-girls party with something tribal, something powerful about it, generated by the blessings and prayer. It imparts power and security. When everyone is praying and making blessings it sweeps you in, in the emotional community sense, it creates collective support, especially for women who bear a heavy burden, no matter in what society."

Hershko says one woman who came to all the meetings recently became pregnant after years of fertility treatments. "All in all, it's a social gathering," she says, noting that older women "usually do not find their place in this forum."

Apparently the more conservative elements in religious society are against these events, and not all husbands are pleased to see their wives going to them.

Indeed, Rabbi Dov Lior of Kiryat Arba - a rather controversial figure himself - issued a declaration objecting to these gatherings. Other rabbis have said that repetition of blessings in such forums will actually dilute their power.

"No one asks you to do it - to say 'amen' so many times. You are not obliged to do so," Hershko explains. "But there is concern that it will become merely technical," and that the blessings will lose their meaning.

But beyond these reservations, the greater concern is apparently that women will accumulate too much autonomy power. "I don't understand the point of this thing," says a national-religious man whose wife attends amen meals regularly. "It has no justification in the religious sources," he adds, raising his voice. "I don't see what they get out of it."

"There are objections to the ritual character of the meals," Hershko says. "Some people claim it is like a seance. They find the gatherings distasteful. We hold them for people who consider them beautiful. Those who want to, come, and those who don't, don't. And our men are very supportive."

According to Neria Ben-Shahar, "There is no doubt that the meals are a display of feminine power, and that is the source of the fears in the community. The thing is that women do not consult with rabbis but say, 'It's a ceremony we do for ourselves. That space is ours. After all, we do not have a shared place for Torah study and religious ritual like the men.'"

For many women who have had to make do with the usual routine of prayers and blessings, these meals provide a sense of religious renewal - but that feeling may be viewed as subversive, because it is characteristic of the less mainstream, rejected communities: the Bratslaver sect or the newly religious. Their male establishment naturally does not want women exposed to this experience, as it might undermine their obedience and conformity.

For Hershko, the experiential dimension is second to the feminine encounter: "The bond among the women is something special that you do not find in random meetings between women in everyday life. When there is chemistry you achieve a type of openness that generates a profound experience. Often someone talks about something that is bothering her, and the other women offer encouragement and support - they say something or get up and embrace the woman. In chance conversations or in large forums, there is no way she will share those feelings with others. But the moment she asks the participants to direct the blessing and the 'amen' at her, a human bond is forged, a space is created that warms the heart."

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