Inspiring Jewish Women
A Candid Interview with Rabbanit Yemima Mizrachi
י״ז במרחשון ה׳תש״פ (15 בNovember 2019)
On any Sunday evening Midreshet Nishmat in Jerusalem fills up with women eager to hear Rabbanit Yemima Mizrachi. They come from the whole religious spectrum and crowd into the room; many will need to sit in the isles. Rabbanit Mizrachi enters with a big smile.
The Rabbanit aged 50 is married to Rabbi Chaim Mizrachi and is a mother of 8. She is a former lawyer and Rabbinical advocate but spends the whole week delivering dozens of lectures to halls filled with her devoted followers. She also advises mothers and couples needing help, has active contact with communities outside of Israel, distributes weekly Torah portion classes, writes her books with the help of her faithful helper Yikrat Friedman, and raises funds for her husband’s home for high risk youth that she established with him. She also writes a column for a women’s magazine, delivers a radio lecture, lectures at women’s events and is basically responsible for an institution making activities and events around the world.
Despite her popularity and the fact she is often in the public’s eye she stays clear of personal interviews. Almost every request for an interview is refused. You may as well talk to the wall… these refusals created an aura of mystery around the Rabbanit and though she answers in this interview with humor, you could tell it is difficult for her to talk about herself.
You are very driven to do all the things you in your self-imposed job. What’s your motivation?
“I think that my deepest motivation was the death of my 6th child Yosef Chai on the 34th of the Omer. This year would have been his bar mitzvah and instead of throwing candies down to him from the women’s gallery into the synagogue, I throw them up to him in heaven. The 34th day of the Omer has strong symbolism for me. It’s the day Rabbi Akiva found out he lost almost everything.”
After Yosef Chai died the words of the prayer echoed through me; “that I shouldn’t toil for naught nor give birth for confusion.” I asked G-d with all my might: “Why are you giving if you take it back?” The years that passed have taught me that G-d took 24,000 students from Rabbi Akiva but he gave him 5 great ones to rebuild from. I feel like that. G-d gives a lot and you’ve got to look at the good.”
“Another thing about Yosef Chai that penetrated every fiber of my soul is that now I can’t stand it to see women cry. I’m even terrified when people cry in front of me. My son Yosef Chai was born with a rare heart defect and was not allowed to cry at all, it could cost him his life. We took care of him with a lot of love and gentleness. The one time he cried he immediately left this world straight to heaven.”
“Over the years when I met the women coming to me and saw all their great hardships I felt that if someone were to start to cry they might G-d forbid die. So I always felt a strong need to placate and gladden people. That’s also why I can’t let women leave one of my lectures without a smile. If they leave with sadness it would be awful to me! Even a Tisha b’Av lecture on the saddest day of the Jewish calendar; if the Torah is properly delivered it is supposed to gladden.”
What do you think is the main reason for this complex situation where there are so many single and divorced women and more problems in marriage?
“Indeed there are many problems in this generation. I read my mails and say: ‘Master of the world! If my mail looks like this what does Your mail look like? How can You tolerate it?’ But I feel to identify the main reason for problems in this generation the spotlight needs to be on technology, especiually the internet. Every day I get letters from women and men which tell of dealing with problems of immodesty, contact with the wrong people and more. The family is much more exposed and vulnerable in our generation and people need to pray to be spared from this every day. Women ask me ‘why do you need to make us become suspicious?’ And I answer that anyone who has non-filtered internet access in his/her house should not suspect but should know something is happening on some level.”
Fields not yet ploughed…
Any woman participating in her lectures will feel the relevance and relationship between the spirit and practical life; they will laugh with her jokes and cry with her pathos. She empowers women on one hand yet can also talk about shopping and modesty. No one leaves without feeling she heard something relevant to her daily life.
How can you describe your unique style of teaching Torah to women that you have developed and constantly improve upon?
“When preparing a class I look at the face of the women, I look at their faces and see the hardships they are going through. Whether it’s child rearing or being an older single or the suffering of not yet having children; I try to find solutions to their challenges in the Torah.”
Do you ever feel like you are lowering the level of your class to reach as many women as possible?
“I wouldn’t call it lowering the level at all. I call it ‘as water that coves the sea’. The sea is deep and there is more water over these waters. I try to remove these covers one by one. I refuse to let a woman leave my lecture if I know she didn’t understand. I sometimes read books written by rabbis and I myself don’t understand what they are saying. I feel this isn’t fair; I can’t understand how a rabbi can write a book without making it accessible to every reader no matter what his level. By the way, it is far easier for me to give a class difficult to understand than it is for me to give a class that is easy to understand.”
Many different Rabbanits will make an evening where the women will together separate Challah and also travel to the graves of the righteous. Why don’t you do this too?
“I have too much pride inside me that doesn’t let me do these things. I can’t do something that isn’t intellectual and that is why I admire those Rabbanits that do this because they’re able to. Besides, I don’t want to be there; I want to be in the untouched territory in the field that wasn’t yet ploughed. Almost no one has touched on the area that I spend most of my efforts in. They haven’t yet cultivated the method for how women should learn. It’s like a dead mitzvah. Women learn without end; but that women should learn in a feminine manner is almost non-existent. In most instances either you forgo the intellect or it moves toward a masculine form of speech.”
How did you get your name Yemima?
Her unique feminine style was something she was brought up with. She was born in Casablanca and was only a few days old when moving to Israel. She lived in Bait Vegan in Jerusalem, her father was Swiss from the Rothschild family and her mother a Moroccan, the daughter of the rabbi there.
“My maternal grandfather was a big judge in Morocco and in Israel, a linguist and researcher of poems named Rabbi Chaim Shoshanna. I inherited my love for the Hebrew language from him.” My father was Swiss and after he grew up he went to open Talmud Torah schools in Morocco. My mother was the beautiful daughter of the rabbi that he married. I was born right after the six day war so they called me Yemima (days). I’m lucky I wasn’t born after Yom Kippur. If I’d have been born after Yom Kippur they’d have called me ‘Kapparah’ (atonement)!! Only a few days old we moved to Israel. Many people felt the footsteps of the messiah coming at the time right after the war and moved to the holy land.”
Rabbanit Yemima’s father was the one who pushed his daughters to get a broad education. In every school break they would learn foreign languages and cultures like French, Latin and Arabic. “My father wanted us to be wise and intelligent. I learned Torah, Prophets, Scriptures, Talmud and more besides secular studies with him and in various other places . My father didn’t have one Torah for men and another for women and I want to clarify this because I’m sometimes misunderstood. I don’t teach women’s Torah which is different from man’s Torah, I teach the same thing in a different language. It need to be a different language.
“The Torah writes: ‘So you should say to the house of Jacob and speak to the house of Israel’. The commentators ask aren’t they the same words? Why say them twice? The answer is that the Torah’s language for women is different than the Torah’s language for men and this is one of the greatest things we miss out on. Until now Torah was taught only in a masculine fashion and women could learn it only that way or elevate themselves by separating Challah or going to pray by the graves of the righteous. Don’t get me wrong I also do these things for myself but the language and the awareness of deep Torah learning is more important to me and they must be in a feminine fashion. This is my great challenge that I’m trying to do, to open this giant and important thing.’
When discussing the idea of women learning Torah we couldn’t overlook the great difference between the women’s Torah world of previous generations and this generation. “I think that the great difference is that today a woman can learn Torah without feeling she is being defiant. I altogether don’t like Torah learning in debate form which is masculine. To say we are like men or we are more or less than them; I’m not there at all!”
Are you a Feminist?
“Not in today’s meaning of it. I find the confrontation and the battle found in some of these women shocking. I really don’t need my definition of being a woman dependent on a man. This whole outlook is wrong. Words like; we are better or we are worth less just waste my energy. I see so much strength and beauty in the woman’s world; we were given so much, why do we need to look elsewhere to what were not? It doesn’t help any!”
The true Torah for women doesn’t compete with anything; it stands strong on its own. It is elevated and holy and that’s why I so appreciate any woman who gladdens and empowers women with words of Torah. Thank G-d there are many such women in our generation.”
My husband, my pillar of strength
Yemima’s partner in all she does, her learning, her Torah and child rearing is Rabbi Chaim Mizrachi a kabbalist from Salonika origins who learns in a Yeshiva for Kabbalists in Jerusalem. They actually met in university when they were both studying law. “He was in the year above me. He got in touch with me during studies and asked a few times to go out with me. I refused him telling him we’re not compatible. I always wanted to marry an accomplished budding Torah sage, someone whose spiritual world was very stable and well defined and Chaim was just coming to Judaism at the time. Then one day he told me that he and his roommate start their day every morning by singing ‘Adon Olam’ with guitar accompaniment and get very emotional about it. This touched me in a different way. It told me of the infinite light Jews repenting have and that light was missing in my world.”
So what was the next step?
“We went out for 9 months; yes I know it was a long time. I was hesitant at first and wasn’t sure he was the one because my whole life I wanted to marry a Torah student. But his strong will to come close to G-d convinced me to go with this. I went out with men who were very learned in Torah but no one came close to Chaim's sheer will power. His will power was simply mighty!”
When speaking of her husband, Rabbanit Yemima’s eyes light up. She normally doesn’t speak of him and he, as opposed to her, hides from the spotlight. “My husband is terrific and humble. Mine and theirs is all his’, (my teaching and the women learning are all thanks to him) she says alluding to Rabbi Akiva talking to his students about his wife Rachel.
What does your day look like?
The mornings first of all are all about the children: Preparing them blessing them and sending them off each to his own way. They see me so little and I want them to take these moments with them throughout the day. There’s no way that they’ll leave the house without my blessing, each child according to his needs. I place my hands on them (she motions with her hands as if on her child’s head). Sometimes it will be a blessing related to friends sometimes to strengthen general happiness sometimes to overcome something difficult they're studying and so on. My boys learned in the Zilberman Yeshiva in the old city and now they are elsewhere. My girls are in Beth Jacob high schools. We live in Shaarei Chessed in Jerusalem. I love the neighborhood it’s like an ingathering of the exiles.”
“The moment the children leave I start to incubate my ideas. I start learning on Shabbat on Sunday I gather sources and set off. I also pray endlessly that the Torah I learn and teach will console all the women who will hear it. The truth is that this is what I originally wanted when I studied law. My intention was to console women. All told, I saw that no matter what it wouldn’t come out okay. I focused mainly on marriage law and it was very sad. I so much wanted to see happy women. Therefore because of my desire to make women happy I want each of my classes to be like the giving of Torah on Sinai. That women should enjoy it, become empowered and get healed. When the children come home in the afternoon I’m back home for them. I go back out in the evenings for more classes. I never put them to bed and say Shma with them.
Your classes are full of humor and cynicism. Is this somewhat of an escape?
“It’s true I take refuge by being cynical. By the way the Torah is full of humor, you can’t do anything without humor and it balances things out. Without laughing I would cry all day and laughing allows me to distance myself from the pain. People without humor are half-dead!”
Talking about humor what are your weak points? Do you come down on yourself?
“Wow; I have endless short comings and perhaps that’s why women like me. I’m just like them, a regular woman with a lot of difficulties and problems alongside a lot of good things. For example, I love to dress up, I love clothing but I’m very disorganized and not your model wife/mother. Even today I can burn food if I run out of the kitchen thinking about some Torah thought I had. I’m also not home enough for my children and that is a big lack.”
Did you ever feel like going into anonymity and simplicity and leaving all of your routine behind? Did you ever find being Yemima Mizrachi tiring?
“Definitely! Totally! Sometimes I’d just rather be a clothing sales lady in Zara. You can’t imagine how many ‘selfies’ I need to do with people and always be visible all the time. Being Yemima and maintaining her persona is difficult. It makes me tired. I’m always chasing her. My name precedes me and I limp weakly after it. There’s a lot of crying, I cry all the time; sometimes from sadness and sometimes from happiness.”
“But look, it’s worth it. When I see the good faces of the daughters of Israel of every stripe enjoying what I do, it is really big. The daughters of Israel are simply full of love. To be always busy with Torah is a great merit. I still don’t believe it when women come; each class is a miracle to me!”
Article courtesy of 'Women's Magazine'
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