Miriam blazed trail for modern women, says writer

She may not seem like your typical businesswoman, but looks are deceiving: The Bible's Miriam would fit right in as a Silicon Valley executive, quips Rebecca Schwartz.

"Unlike every other woman in the Bible," said the director of San Mateo's Peninsula Academy for Jewish Education, "Miriam is not just a wife, a mother, a daughter or a victim — she's a career woman, a leader."

Schwartz's newly released book, "All the Women Followed Her," explores Miriam's emergence as a strong symbol in the Jewish feminist movement. Conceived and edited by Schwartz, the book contains a diverse compilation of poems, fiction and essays about Miriam the prophet, sister of Moses. The contributing writers are women from across the Jewish spectrum.

"There's not a lot about Miriam in the text of the Bible but what is there is fascinating," said Schwartz. For example, Miriam played a seminal role in the Passover story by abetting the infant Moses' escape down the Nile and, many years later, leading the Jewish people in celebration after they'd crossed the Sea of Reeds.

Later, Miriam flexed her muscles by challenging Moses for the leadership of the Jewish people. Despite being exiled by God, she is eventually allowed to re-enter the Promised Land, symbolizing the struggle women have had to go through in order to be considered equal, said Schwartz.

"The image of Miriam — her challenges to male leadership, the way she danced, sang and celebrated the joy of being Jewish — really speaks to Jewish women today," she said. "I don't think there's any other Jewish figure so popular among Jewish women."

Perhaps Miriam's popularity accounts for Schwartz's success in collecting pieces for her book. Through a call for submissions over the Internet, in Jewish publications and Jewish women's studies programs, Schwartz managed to settle on more than 40 diverse works by women writers of various affiliations, ages and professions. Bay Area writers include Debbie Findling, Aliza Shapiro and Abbe Donn.

Miriam's enduring popularity is also reflected in the role she now plays in feminist circles at the Passover seder. Nowadays many women highlight their celebration with the use of a cup for Miriam set alongside Elijah's cup.

Schwartz has adopted the new Miriam's cup tradition, one she hopes to pass on to her daughter, Alyssa Rose.

"My daughter will grow up not knowing that Miriam's cup has not always been a part of the Passover seder," said Schwartz, a San Bruno resident. "She'll grow up knowing that, as a woman, she can have any role in Judaism she wants."

To drive this point home, Schwartz dedicated her book to 2-year-old Alyssa Rose.

Schwartz, who grew up in a Reform household and earned her master's in Jewish studies from Baltimore Hebrew University, was not always aware of the unequal status of women in traditional Judaism. It was in 1989, while praying at the Western Wall, that she suddenly began to understand.

Schwartz, then 22, was standing on the women's side, praying with the feminist Israeli group Women of the Wall. When the women began to pray aloud, the men on the other side, who according to Jewish tradition are not supposed to hear a woman pray, grew violently angry and threw chairs at them. Police eventually had to break up the scene by hurling tear gas at the crowd.

"This was a pivotal point in my life — which opened up a lot of questions," said Schwartz. "A month later, when I attended a women's seder, the experience at the Wall really began to come together for me."

Schwartz began her own research on the woman's role in Judaism by focusing on Miriam, whom she learned about during the women's seder. In Miriam, she saw a woman who "stood with men, side by side," she said, as an equal.

In 1996, Schwartz co-authored "The Dancing with Miriam Haggadah: A Jewish Women's Celebration of Passover." She pursued the theme of Miriam with her latest book, released just this year.

The title "All the Women Followed Her" is both a quote from the Book of Exodus, said Schwartz, and "a reflection of women in this generation, who are following in Miriam's footsteps."