Matriarch Narrative

As a Jewish woman and as an academically trained cultural anthropologist and sociologist it has struck me since childhood of the inequality for women and girls in Jewish communal life.  Coming of age in the fifties I happily saw the beginning in earnest of the civil rights movement and what one hoped would be the golden age of Equality in all sectors of society.  But sadly, it did not happen.  While many of us have fought on many fronts to bring about meaningful change, there were too many forces pushing to keep the status quo.  We did make progress, but not enough.

As my avocation and vocation switched from Equal Employment and civil rights activities to full-time artist and sculptor and as I became a mother of three children including two daughters, I experienced firsthand gender inequality.  I saw the ordination of the first woman Rabbi and the challenges as she and her colleagues struggled to find pulpits.  The refusal (even in Reform congregations of which I was a member) to allow a woman to carry the Torah unless at a lifecycle ceremony.  Friends, who were Orthodox, obviously had it much, much worse.  When invited to a friend’s daughters’ bat mitzvah, she sat with the women in the balcony and listened to her father have an alleah!  By the time my daughter Emily became a bat mitzvah in the late 70s, she conducted the entire service.  As a gift to the synagogue we gave a Holocaust Memorial Scroll and I adorned it with a Yad that I sculpted of Rachel Weeping for her Children.  It was the first time a feminine image was in the sanctuary.

Holocaust education has always been a priority for me.  Creating holocaust sculpture was the reason I first learned how to weld.  After creating a number of pieces to educate about the Holocaust, including many commissioned by Holocaust survivors for synagogues throughout the country, I felt compelled to change my focus.  Even our children at times questioned us why there was so much emphasis on martyrdom, suffering and discrimination.

About this time, friends and Judaic museum shops were asking me, to create items for them.  I did many of the national juried and invitational craft and art shows.  One thing led to another and I began to spend more and more time creating sculptures and ceremonial Judaica that address women and especially the Jewish woman and her life experience.

In 1987, Bishop Walter Sullivan head of the Richmond Diocese commissioned me to create an 11 foot tall Holocaust memorial sculpture created of bronze and copper to sit on the east lawn of the cathedral near the street to be seen by all.  The image we selected was inspired by a verse in Jeremiah, the same one I used to create the Yad for the Holocaust Torah so many years before.  And as a young child growing up during world war two, there is no doubt what my fate would have been, had my ancestors not left Europe years before.  The millions of children who perished never had the opportunities we take for granted.  The passage from Torah, Jeremiah 35:

A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping, RACHEL WEEPING FOR HER CHILDREN; she refuseth to be comforted for her children, because they are not. 

Bishop Sullivan and I had the delight of attending the 25th commemoration of the sculpture shortly before he passed on.

And now I am almost back to where I began, except with 55 years of hindsight I am now able to design and create a comprehensive collection of judaica designed for women and girls.

—Linda Gissen