Timbrels and Torahs marks women celebrating age

It's a long time between a wedding and funeral, with no women's rituals in between. With that in mind, Miriam Chaya is shining light on a new ceremony called "Simchat Chochma."

With the making of a short film called "Timbrels and Torahs," Miriam Chaya tells the story of three Jewish women, herself included, who have gone through the ritual celebrating the accumulation of wisdom gained over the years.

Hoping that other women will follow in her path, she said, "Launching a movement is my legacy. To find your tikkun olam is a blessing."

Wearing a loose outfit of lavender silk, Miriam Chaya spoke animatedly about her life's journey in her El Cerrito home last week. Her spiritual journey thus far culminated in her Simchat Chochma three years ago, when she turned 60. She closed her eyes often, summoning up the events about which she was describing.

Author of two feminist children's books and the former public program coordinator at U.C. Berkeley's Women's Center, Miriam Chaya is also an actor and director. She co-produced the film.

A veteran of Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Marin and Elat Chayyim, a Jewish Renewal retreat in New York's Catskill Mountains, she also attended a Jewish spiritual leadership training program at Chochmat HaLev, the Jewish meditation center in Berkeley.

It was at her Simchat Chochma that she took the name Miriam Chaya, which comes from her Hebrew name, Chaya Mira. She also chose it because Miriam in the Bible was a leader of women.

Her former name was Harriet Fields.

"I had never liked 'Harriet,'" she said. "When someone said 'Harriet,' I always looked around to see who it was."

Indeed, Miriam Chaya describes her life as one long Jewish journey, culminating in the Simchat Chochma. But at the same time, it is the beginning of her passing her wisdom on to others. Miriam Chaya is now conducting workshops around the Bay Area on spirituality and aging, and what women (and men) can gain from having such a ceremony.

When she first began to inquire about creating an arriving-at-age ceremony, she learned about two other women who had designed similar ceremonies, biblical scholar Savina Teubal and Jewish activist Marcia Cohn Spiegel, both of whom appear in the movie.

In fact, the last few years have seen the rise of similar women's rituals, for example, the "croning ceremony," which reclaims a formerly derogatory term for an older woman and celebrates menopause or a 60th birthday.

"We're in this youth culture, where older women are not valued," she said. "Men trade their wives in for younger women and we're all looking at the physical image. This is acknowledging that we are people with gifts we have to offer society."

Miriam Chaya emphasized that the Simchat Chochma is completely different from a bat mitzvah, which was originally developed for a girl making the transition to adulthood.

"The Simchat Chochma is different because there are certain components to it," she said. "People can choose whichever components they wish to make it their own."

For herself, Miriam Chaya invited people she knew from all walks of her life to help mark her life transition. She engaged in Torah study for the year preceding. She also had a tree-planting ceremony and took a "self-examination period, to ask, 'Where have I been and where am I going?'"

In addition, she made a covenant or promise, going to the mikvah, relinquishing "Harriet" and taking on a new challenge with her new name. By adopting the name Miriam Chaya, she said, "I was taking my place as a leader among women."

Her ceremony was held at a time when she was going through some major life changes, including getting married for the second time and selling her old house.

After the ceremony, Miriam Chaya decided to make a movie about the experience. That's where the challenge began. While she could enlist the help of her co-producer, Academy Award-winning filmmaker Judith Montell, securing funding was not as easy. In the end, she pursued her dream and the money followed.

"Timbrels and Torahs," which includes music by Debbie Friedman, debuted at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival this past summer, and is now appearing in Jewish film festivals around the country.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."