The History of Women’s Sections, and Women Cantors, in Premodern Synagogues

In nearly every Orthodox synagogue today, women sit in a specially designated balcony, or in a women’s section set off from the men’s section by a partition or m’ḥitsah. The Talmud describes the Temple as having separate courtyards for men and women, but this practice in synagogues is not documented before the Middle Ages. Chen Malul provides a brief history of sex-separation in places of Jewish prayer, while Jewish Heritage Europe provides some additional information, along with numerous photographs.

The renowned scholar Shlomo Dov Goitein presented several sources from the [Cairo] Genizah dealing with the sha’ar nashim, the “women’s gate” in the synagogues of Egypt, proving that in the 11th century at the latest, special entrances were created for women through which they would go up to a gallery above the main hall, where they could then participate in prayer.

The term beit k’nesset nashim, “women’s synagogue,” first appeared among Ashkenazi Jews in the 12th century. But while the “women’s gate” in the synagogues in Egypt was an entrance to a gallery that separated the men from the women in the same space, the “women’s synagogue” in Ashkenaz was a physical structure separate from the “general” synagogue. The buildings were sometimes located at a distance from one another, but surprisingly, while the individual prayer services for men and the women were held in these separate locations, when the sermon began, the women would join the men in their hall and would either sit alongside them or a partition would be put up.

With the establishment of the “women’s synagogue” in the Middle Ages, a new creative world of women’s prayer flourished, featuring women poets, prayer leaders, and cantors. The tombstone of one such Jewish woman, Ornea, daughter of the cantor Rabbi Abraham of Worms, who died in 1275, features the epitaph: “This headstone was erected for the lady Ornea, . . . who with a pleasant voice petitioned on behalf of his people, and she too in a sweet voice, sang hymns for women.”

Women such as Ornea, who were called zogerkes and firzogerins in Yiddish, served as readers and poets who read or sang the words of the prayers for the illiterate in the women’s gallery.

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More about: Synagogues, Women in Judaism

UN Peacekeepers in Lebanon Risk Their Lives, but Still May Do More Harm Than Good

Jan. 27 2023

Last month an Irish member of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) was killed by Hizballah guerrillas who opened fire on his vehicle. To David Schenker, it is likely the peacekeeper was “assassinated” to send “a clear message of Hizballah’s growing hostility toward UNIFIL.” The peacekeeping force has had a presence in south Lebanon since 1978, serving first to maintain calm between Israel and the PLO, and later between Israel and Hizballah. But, Schenker explains, it seems to be accomplishing little in that regard:

In its biannual reports to the Security Council, UNIFIL openly concedes its failure to interdict weapons destined for Hizballah. While the contingent acknowledges allegations of “arms transfers to non-state actors” in Lebanon, i.e., Hizballah, UNIFIL says it’s “not in a position to substantiate” them. Given how ubiquitous UN peacekeepers are in the Hizballah heartland, this perennial failure to observe—let alone appropriate—even a single weapons delivery is a fair measure of the utter failure of UNIFIL’s mission. Regardless, Washington continues to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into this failed enterprise, and its local partner, the Lebanese Armed Forces.

Since 2006, UNIFIL patrols have periodically been subjected to Hizballah roadside bombs in what quickly proved to be a successful effort to discourage the organization proactively from executing its charge. In recent years, though, UN peacekeepers have increasingly been targeted by the terror organization that runs Lebanon, and which tightly controls the region that UNIFIL was set up to secure. The latest UN reports tell a harrowing story of a spike in the pattern of harassment and assaults on the force. . . .

Four decades on, UNIFIL’s mission has clearly become untenable. Not only is the organization ineffective, its deployment serves as a key driver of the economy in south Lebanon, employing and sustaining Hizballah’s supporters and constituents. At $500 million a year—$125 million of which is paid by Washington—the deployment is also expensive. Already, the force is in harm’s way, and during the inevitable next war between Israel and Hizballah, this 10,000-strong contingent will provide the militia with an impressive human shield.

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More about: Hizballah, Lebanon, Peacekeepers, U.S. Foreign policy