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That Time of the Month

April 27, 2006 By:
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On a recent Thursday evening, five women were sprawled out on Neely Snyder's living-room couch - their shoes off, and their feet tucked underneath them or resting casually on the coffee table.

The conversation jumped from the fresh produce at the local farmers market to their Philadelphia neighborhood, Mount Airy, being featured on Page 277 of the April issue of O, The Oprah Magazine. The moon outside was just a sliver in the sky, seemingly irrelevant, but, in fact, it was probably the most relevant detail of the night.

The March 30 gathering marked the women's monthly observance of Rosh Chodesh, the holiday signifying the first day of each month on the Jewish calender and the day of the new moon. The group at Snyder's home was just one of dozens in the area that meet each month to observe the holiday in a modern way by discussing pressing issues, creating art projects, even howling at the moon for exuberance.

The holiday's modern traditions can be traced to the early 1970s and Arlene Agus. At the time, according to Penina Adelman - who among her other works wrote Miriam's Well, a guide to Rosh Chodesh and other rituals for Jewish women - Agus was studying with other Jewish feminists and came upon a mention of Rosh Chodesh as a holiday given to women by God. According to tradition, the gift was in recognition of the refusal by the Israelite women to contribute their jewelry to the making of the golden calf while Moses was receiving the Ten Commandments.

The next Rosh Chodesh, or the first day of Iyar, falls on Saturday, April 29.

Women were not expected to work on this day. Some Jewish women may remember stories of their grandmothers or great grandmothers observing the holiday - by closing a store early or not making dinner - back in Europe, but the ritual was virtually lost when Jews started assimilating into American culture, explained Adelman.

Agus looked into it further, and in an anthology edited by Elizabeth Koltun contributed a small article called "This Month's for You," describing various ways women could observe the Jewish holiday in a more modern manner. From that article, a tradition was born, which, at least on the East Coast, can be traced back to Philadelphia.

Honoring the Matriarchs

When Adelman was a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1970s, another graduate student had heard of the burgeoning ritual, and during Sukkot, got about a dozen other Jewish women to spend a women's night in the sukkah and honor various Jewish matriarchs. Even though it wasn't Rosh Chodesh - Sukkot always falls in the middle of the month of Tishri - the women liked the idea of devoting an evening to an appreciation of their gender.

"The Philadelphia area at the time was exploding with Jewish counterculture and creativity," said Adelman, who said the group was so touched by the experience in the sukkah that they started meeting once a month. The gatherings were eventually synced with the monthly observance of Rosh Chodesh.

"There was a real need," continued Adelman, "for Jewish women to meet together to answer a lot of questions that woman were raising about what it means to be Jewish and feminist."

Adelman said that women would come from Boston and New York to join the group because similar meetings didn't exist in their cities.

But if Adelman's group was one of the first, it certainly wasn't the last. Nowadays, Jewish women around the country hold gatherings on the holiday - or a designated day close to it.

Deborah Baer Mozes, for instance, has been part of a group for nearly a decade - made up of women who hail from the Main Line, Mount Airy and West Philadelphia. Baer Mozes explained that her group moves from one house to another each month, is very informal, and simply uses the themes of the month as a springboard for discussion.

During Kislev - the month of Chanukah - for instance, the group may discuss darkness and light in the context of what is affecting their personal lives. And during Adar - the month of Purim - they may examine issues of hiddenness and revelation.

Baer Mozes emphasized that the women are all on different levels vis-à-vis their Jewish affiliation and knowledge, and that the meetings merely act to weave Jewish texts and rituals into the monthly routine.

"We always start by giving personal updates and say what we're hoping for in the coming month," began Baer Mozes. "Then we'll do singing - or we've done collages and art things, and at times, we do text study."

Other groups, like that among members of Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley, designate a formal leader for the month to choose a topic and facilitate talk. According to Betsy Rentz, who started the Har Zion gathering about six years ago, the leader chooses a topic - this year, what's been covered includes forgiveness, domestic abuse and interfaith marriage - and makes an appointment with the rabbi, who will act as a guide to make sure the discussion stays within the Conservative movement's value system.

Back at Snyder's home in Mount Airy, Ashirah Lazarus-Klein, the designated leader for that meeting, announced that in honor of Passover and getting rid of chametz - or all things, in general, that shouldn't be in your life - she wanted to bring the genocide in Darfur to the group's attention. She put together a seder for Darfur, complete with celery and salt water to symbolize tears shed for all genocides, and four questions that ask the women to think about their responsibility as Jews to respond to international crises. As the group typically lights a candle to start off the evening, this particular night saw the lighting of a yahrzeit candle for those displaced or killed in the ravaged and war-torn African region.

For All the Ages

While the Rosh Chodesh phenomenon seems to mostly involve women over the age of 25, the groups certainly aren't limited to those in the post-college phase of their lives. About six years ago, Kolot, a center of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, launched "Rosh Hodesh: It's a Girl Thing!" a pilot program for Rosh Chodesh groups for teens. Now, with 155 groups in 25 states around the country and in Canada, girls in grades six through 12 meet each month to explore, through a Jewish prism, issues that affect them, such as friendship, health, relationships, body image, self-esteem, Israel and societal role models.

Like the adult groups, the girls have various activities or discussions, depending on the month, which are centered around specific themes.

According to Mindy Shapiro, national project director, participants have looked through magazines for positive and negative images of girls, and also designed their own Miriam's cup for a Passover seder to symbolize women's strength.

Shapiro said the same girls meet each month in order to create a cohesive group and an environment where they feel safe sharing their feelings.

"We aim to enhance self-esteem and Jewish identity," she said. "We want them to feel empowered by tradition so when they come up with an issue, they'll think about what Judaism teaches about it."

Regardless of the varying formality of the groups or the range of topics, most women note that their monthly meetings offer them, above all, a strong sense of friendship.

"Once you spend time in a group, friendship is a by-product," stated Rabbi Rayzel Raphael, who's sat in various bevies since 1976, and last year started a new one in the Melrose Park area. "This is the group that is with you through your ups and downs. It's a community without walls."

Baer Mozes agreed that the women in her coterie have become her closest friends, but added that she needs the meetings for more than that.

"I need to mark the month," she said, matter of factly. "It's become the basic rhythm of my life."

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