May 06, 2019
In the hit Israeli television series Shtisel, an intricate and compelling portrait of Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox community, protagonist Rabbi Shulem Shtisel berates his aged mother in Yiddish for watching television, a big no-no in the religious world: “Ikh gedenk di teg, I remember the days,” says Shulem, “When you’d use every spare minute to read the Psalms and the Tsene-rene.”
Netflix’s subtitles translate Tsene-rene as “Woman’s Bible,” an explanation that barely touches on the book’s complexity. One of the most popular works in the history of Yiddish literature, the Tsene-rene continues to enjoy a readership among ultra-Orthodox women in Israel to this day.
Attributed to Jacob ben Isaac Ashkenazi of Yanov, a figure we know next to nothing about, the Tsene-rene is a seamless compilation of Bible stories, commentaries, and folktales organized according to the weekly parasha. The book also contains the haftarot, additional readings from the Prophets or the Writings, and the Five Scrolls, the Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther, texts that are read on the festivals of Passover, Shavuot, Tisha B’Av, Sukkot, and Purim.
“In the beginning,” the text starts, “And why does the Torah begin with the letter Beys and not the letter Aleph—why the second letter of the alphabet and not the first?” Fragmentary quotes from the Hebrew Bible open retellings of midrashim and discussions on Jewish law, sometimes leading the reader far away from the topic of the week’s reading and into the world of Jewish folklore.
“My mother used to read it every week,” said Jerusalem resident Moshe Shor, an elderly Braslaver Hasid with a long white beard and broad smile of shiny false teeth.
“Today it’s mostly a Neturei Karta thing,” Moshe continued, referring to an eighty-year-old sect of Haredi Judaism. “They barely speak any Hebrew in their community so their Yiddish is very pure. They speak Yiddish among themselves, and they have done for generations.”
Fierce opponents of the Jewish state, Neturei Karta Jews refuse to engage with Israeli institutions. Their use of Yiddish not only preserves the sanctity and separateness of the language of the Torah; it is also a rejection of Israeli Hebrew secularism. Many ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem have a great deal of respect for Neturei Karta’s position, which is manifest in the way they romanticize the purity of the sect’s Yiddish.
Israel’s Neturei Karta community lives in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea She’arim, a place of narrow alleyways, rickety housing, and streets full of men in Hasidic garb. Mordekhai, a sixty-something-year-old khalmer, a Yiddish term for an ultra-Orthodox Jew whose family has lived in Jerusalem for more than a hundred years, is member of the sect.
“In the Neturei Karta community, not only women read the book; children learn from it too,” he said. “I learned the whole Torah from the Tsene-rene, from bereshis to ve-zot ha-brakhah, from the first reading to the last.”
Though Mordekhai learned from the Tsene-rene as a child, the majority of the book’s readers today are women.
In a little synagogue on the eastern edge of Mea She’arim, I met Shai, a seventy-year-old man who described himself merely as a posheter yid, a simple Jew, unaffiliated with any of the myriad sects that coexist in the neighborhood.
“Women aren’t supposed to study, so the Tsene-rene isn’t a serious book,” said Shai as he recounted his memories of watching his mother and grandmother reading the book.
In a recent article, Morris Faierstein argued that scholars have vastly overstated the Tsene-rene’s historic association with women. Faierstein traces Yiddish literature’s association with women to the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, when Hebrew-language revivalists and anti-religious Bundists attached the “women’s” label to Yiddish as a way of denigrating religious literature in the language. The myth prevails to this day: besides Mordekhai, none of the men I spoke to regarded the Tsene-rene as anything but a bowdlerization for women.
“It’s just a mixture of all sorts of midrashim,” Shai continued. “Do you know what midrashim are?”
Though midrash is an important component of the Tsene-rene, the book is more than a mere collection of fables: it is a window into the vast universe of Jewish texts. A masterful feat of redaction, the Tsene-rene sifts the Jewish exegetic tradition, including this interpretation, excluding that one, weaving together fragments of Bible, Talmud, midrash, and commentary to produce a unique hermeneutic vision of the Torah. Though perhaps originally intended for a wider readership, some of the author’s editorial choices can often seem consciously targeted at women.
The Tsene-rene is deeply concerned with dietary laws, for instance. Though the Torah doesn’t refer to kashrut until Leviticus 11:2, the laws around food appear early on in the Tsene-rene and are the subject of intense focus throughout. In Genesis 3:3, God tells Adam and Eve that they can eat of any tree in the Garden, “but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said: Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.”
The Tsene-rene asks why Adam didn’t die when he ate the fruit of the forbidden tree. The answer immediately follows: Adam didn’t die because the crime wasn’t his. He was only eating what his wife had given him.
In the Yiddish, the episode becomes a conte dévot, a tale to teach the reader about the roles of men and women. Adam’s peroration in the Tsene-rene provides the moral of the story: “You provided me a woman as a helpmeet so I can learn Torah while she makes a home, cooks, and bakes. I shouldn’t have to ask her if what she’s giving me is kosher. I trusted her when she gave me the apple from the tree. It is not my responsibility to ask her what kind of apple she feeds me.”
It is easy to see the female reader as the addressee of the story. The text teaches readers that women are responsible for the domestic realm. A woman’s job is to make a home, to cook, to bake, and to ensure that the food she provides for her family is kosher. The reader learns that men are not responsible for women’s mistakes. The text entrenches the structures of the patriarchal household, illustrating to the female reader how dangerous her missteps can be.
As well as offering a particular way of reading the Torah, the Tsene-rene provides all manner of practical advice, some of which directly relates to women. While describing the garments worn by the high priests in Parashat Tetsaveh (Exodus 27:20-30:10), for example, the Yiddish text reminds readers of a popular folk remedy: if a woman is having a difficult pregnancy she should wear a ruby, and if she’s struggling to get pregnant, she should crush a ruby into a fine powder and drink it.
The Tsene-rene’s association with women is firmly established in Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community.
“My wife got a set when we were married,” one young Karlin-Stolin Hasid with a thin wiry beard told me.
“My wife reads it every evening,” said another, trying to outdo his friend.
“Every bride gets a Tsene-rene,” Mordekhai of Neturei Karta said, putting an end to the argument.
At a popular bookshop on Mea She’arim Road, leather-bound copies of the Tsene-rene intended as wedding gifts sell for 600 NIS, around $170. Since the seventeenth century, about 300 different editions of the text have been published. Over the centuries, the spelling, grammar, and content have changed to fit the needs of new generations of readers. Some older editions include orders of prayer, suggesting that the book may have been used in synagogue services; some editions are playful and include woodcut illustrations, indicating the text’s use in the education of children.
“It’s a froyishe zakh, a woman’s thing,” said the Haredi owner of the bookstore. “The Yiddish of the Tsene-rene is very hard, but all our wives have copies. My wife has four. She got one when she was engaged, and she inherited others over the years. She reads it every week.”
Most of the men I spoke to were very proud to tell me that their wives owned and read copies of the Tsene-rene. They stressed the difficulty of the language as they boasted of their wives’ ability to understand it. Religious literature in Yiddish once served a wide audience unable to access texts in the original language. In modern Israel, however, reading religious literature in Yiddish is an act of nostalgia for an imagined Jewish past and withdrawal from a secular, Hebrew-speaking present.
The structure of the book hints at why it is so strongly associated with women. In the Tsene-rene, the first words of each weekly reading appear in Hebrew and are often immediately followed by a quotation from the book of Proverbs in Yiddish translation.
Part of the corpus of Wisdom literature, the book of Proverbs is the portion of the biblical canon most associated with women: the Hebrew for wisdom is the feminine noun ḥokhmah, which contrasts with the masculine ḥakham, an honorific for a Talmudic sage. In the universe of Jewish texts, the Talmud, the domain of the male ḥakhamim, finds its feminine Other in Sapiential books like Proverbs and, by extension, the Tsene-rene.
Quotes from Proverbs offer female readers moments of reflection on personal morality. Nevertheless, the overwhelming message of the Tsene-rene is one of collective responsibility. Women are not only responsible for themselves; they have a duty to look out for the modesty of their female coreligionists too.
When Miriam plays a timbrel as the Children of Israel sing the Song of the Sea in Exodus 15:20, the Tsene-rene asks: “Why did Miriam play a drum and not another instrument?” The answer immediately follows: “The reason is that women should not let their voices be heard by men. It is a great sin when a strange man hears the singing voice of a strange woman. It is as though he had fornicated with her. Since the women were singing songs, Miriam worried that the men might hear them, so she took a drum and started to play. That is why, to this day, women clap with their hands when they sing at weddings, so that men will not hear their voices.”
This interpretation of Miriam’s timbrel, an unusual reading that doesn’t originate in the exegetic tradition, highlights the Tsene-rene’s strict position on kol isha, the prohibition against women singing in earshot of men. The text portrays Miriam as a protector of other women’s decency. The ideal woman is not only modest; she also looks out for the moral welfare of the women around her. The Yiddish text’s interpretation connects Miriam’s use of the drum to women clapping at weddings, lending a biblical precedent to common contemporary practices. The book draws clear borders between men and women and stresses the individual’s responsibility towards the whole community.
Though today’s readers of the Tsene-rene are women, none of the religious women I spoke to wanted to answer my questions about the book. Deeply segregated, men and women in the community don’t generally speak to one another if they aren’t related or married. Men in Mea She’arim were eager to speak of their wives’ piety and ability to read the text, though most of them were unaware of the broad exegetic scope of the work.
The division between men and women in the community is so deep that the Tsene-rene’s association with women is often the butt of jokes among religious men.
“A woman once sat reading the Tsene-rene,” a sixty-something-year-old Hasid called Yitzhak told me. “She came to the story of Joseph and she began to sob. She cried and cried. ‘Poor Joseph. How could his brothers sell him like that? May the Lord have mercy on him.’
“A year later the same old woman was sitting in her chair reading the Tsene-rene and she started to cry. When her husband asked her what was wrong, she said, ‘Poor Joseph…’
“Her husband looked at her and laughed, ‘Narishe froy, foolish woman,’ he said, ‘You read the same thing last year!’”
Ultra-Orthodox Jews believe their survival depends on strong boundaries—between kosher and non-kosher food, between religious and secular society, between Hebrew and Yiddish, between men and women. Today, the Tsene-rene is used to teach female readers their place in society, entrench patriarchal values, and ultimately strengthen the borders between the sexes.
Those borders are weakening, however. In the television series Shtisel, Shulem’s anxiety about his mother’s behavior reflects a common concern in ultra-Orthodox society: television and technology offer dangerously tempting gateways into the secular world. In the series, Shulem’s mother listens to her son and throws away her television. Nevertheless, the community faces serious intergenerational conflicts, and with modest but growing numbers of young ultra-Orthodox Israelis leaving religion, it is not clear whether the Tsene-rene will hold against the allure of secular modernity.