The Mehitza and Separation in the Age of #MeToo

Photographer Myriam Tangi on her ground-breaking photographic essay, "Mehitza: Seen by Women", which began in 2003 and spanned multiple continents

New York, 2008, photograph by Myriam Tangi

When I began my photographic essay, “Mehitza: Seen by Women” (a mehitza is the physical partition placed between men and women in a synagogue), I was well aware of being a female photographer in a Jewish sacred space and I was filled with enthusiasm. Women are only rarely permitted to examine and reveal the inner workings of a synagogue. It was revelatory to me and perhaps revolutionary to worshippers to dare to take a camera into the inner-sanctum of Jewish women’s devotion.

Morocco, 1985, photograph by Myriam Tangi

This project began in 2003, in response to an emotional shock I received when viewing a series of six photos, taken from 1982 onwards. I suddenly realized how physically distant I was from the centrality of worship, traditionally led and directed by men. In that moment, I decided to explore the female perspective – a point of view and experience unknown and, often unrecognized and undervalued by men. The aesthetic challenge was how to photograph this separation architecturally, ritually, and emotionally – a photographic essay as an artistic vision, not a documentary project. I set out to ask the question: In what ways do distance and a limited view of the central point of worship influence women within the synagogue structure, spiritual experience, and community?  How could my camera provide a window into the feelings and experiences of women standing behind the mehitza? In its essence, “Mehitza: Seen by Women” offers a new perspective and contributes to studies on religion and gender by questioning male and female territories while unveiling another layer in the complexity of contemporary Judaism.

USSR, 1985, photograph by Myriam Tangi

The project also represents a spiritual photographic journey that has been ongoing for seventeen years now and is still a work in progress. Below are a number of questions I would like to put forward which were raised after the exhibition went on display at the Museum of the Art and History of Judaism (MAHJ) in Paris and after a book was published in 2016 in Jerusalem.

Jerusalem, 1991, photograph by Myriam Tangi

First, however, I would like to clarify my position as a Jew – born in Paris, I grew up in a Sephardic and traditional family – I do not consider myself orthodox, nor reform, nor conservative, but rather a Jewish woman who follows halacha (Jewish law) while questioning preconceived notions and giving expression to my own creative vision as an artist who is deeply invested in the subject. “Mehitza” gave me the opportunity to investigate the roots of Judaism, in an attempt to reconnect to its Hebrew origins, as well as to explore the new Jewish identity being developed in Israel, all the while maintaining the centrality of the principle of Torah as a revelation (Written and Oral), the essence and heart of Judaism.

Paris, 2004, photograph by Myriam Tangi

And now, to the questions. How do we avoid extremism when considering and reconciling the eternal nature of Jewish Law and the reality of women’s place in modern society? Men must also reconsider their own place in this respect, and allow women to find a place of their own, in which they are treated fairly. This is not only a question for women, of course.

Paris, 2007, photo by Myriam Tangi

Why do men and women come to the synagogue (“the little temple”, “the gathering house”)? How do we create a place where the dualistic desires, that of God and that of the human being, meet, where we voluntarily offer the best of ourselves, echoing the essence of the divine order, for Him?

Outskirts of Paris, 2008, photograph by Myriam Tangi

Another question raised by “Mehitza”: Why were women forbidden from leading services in the time of the Temple? From a certain perspective, this is not only a question of gender since most Israelite men (aside from the Kohanim and the Levites) were forbidden from performing the priestly services as well. So what was the core reason for the barring of women from leading services in the Temple?

Outskirts of Paris, 2008, photograph by Myriam Tangi

Was it the matter of the female voice (kol isha)?

The issue of women mixing with men? (Tradition claims that the first mehitza was installed during the Second Temple era because of inappropriate behavior inside the Temple during the celebrations of Simchat Beit HaShoeiva).

Paris, 2007, photograph by Myriam Tangi

Is it that women have no need of this function in order to maintain a connection with the community? – Perhaps a lack of time, due to the demands of domestic duties and children ?

There is no prohibition on women holding Torah scrolls during menstruation, so it seems this is not a question of purity/impurity.

Paris, 2007, photograph by Myriam Tangi

Is the beit knesset (synagogue) a special place, with a different status than other gathering places such as theaters or public halls? If this is so, what is the purpose of the synagogue? Is it a place for social interaction? A place to connect with the divine? (The two are not necessarily contradictory…) What does this connection require?

Paris, 2007, photograph by Myriam Tangi

A few years into my photographic essay, it became clear that the concept of the mehitza (in order to be clearly understood) should be divided into two main aspects: the notion of separation (which is linked to the concept of kedusha – “holiness”) and the place of this separation.

New York, 2008, photograph by Myriam Tangi

The Hebrew root k-d-sh is the source of the words kedusha, kaddish (a hymn of praises to God) and kiddush (the blessing recited over wine), among others. The different variants of the root are mentioned 648 times in the Torah and 4180 times in the Zohar.

Paris, 2007, photograph by Myriam Tangi

The link between the concepts of separation and kedusha is mainly rooted in Leviticus 19:2 – Speak to the entire congregation of the children of Israel, and say to them, You shall be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy” – God, through His absolute transcendence (and immanence), is separated. His “separation” is seen as an example to follow, with the goal of achieving holiness, and becoming more like Him. After all, Genesis 1:27 repeats how man was made “in the image of God”, twice: “And God created man in His image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.”

Paris, 2008, photograph by Myriam Tangi

Regarding the place of the separation: It is important to remember the basic halacha concerning the mehitza: men are forbidden from seeing women – but women are supposed to see everything. When considering the state of many synagogues since the destruction of the Second Temple, it seems evident that the second half of this halacha has not been properly implemented. For some 2000 years, these halachic instructions were disregarded.

Paris, 2008, photograph by Myriam Tangi

How can we thoroughly re-imagine the ezrat nashim, the women’s section of the synagogue, as this place is perceived by many women as a place of inequality and discrimination?

Today, more and more orthodox synagogues in both Israel and the United States separate the synagogue with a mehitza perpendicular to the axis of the heikhal and the bimah, so that the congregation’s women are hidden from the men’s view, while the women are able to see and hear the entire service – in equal proximity.

Paris, 2005, photograph by Myriam Tangi

During my exhibition at the MAHJ (which ended in January 2016), many visitors told me that because today’s men are different, due to progressive trends in modern society, we shouldn’t have any more need of a mehitza…Then, in 2017, #MeToo came along.

New York, 2008, photograph by Myriam Tangi

The effects of this movement have swept across our modern world like a tsunami, bringing necessary changes and a greater sense of “equality” between men and women – But what have we (re)discovered since #MeToo? Today’s men are perhaps not as different as we thought when it comes to questions of desire and sexual relations, which are relevant throughout the various sections and levels of society.

Jerusalem, 2012, photograph by Myriam Tangi

As a consequence, perhaps we need a solution which provides a fair and equal separation in the synagogue. The “Mehitza” project serves as a platform to rethink and renew  the question of a space in which both men and women can feel comfortable, equal, and free from distractions of a sexual nature – a place to which we come specially, to gather together for a moment in God’s holy presence.

Jerusalem, 2010, photograph by Myriam Tangi

Why not restore some equality in light of God’s will regarding kedusha (holiness)?  Modern-orthodox synagogues have begun to take on this challenge.

Jerusalem, 2010, photograph by Myriam Tangi

Judaism contains all the answers which can enable a harmonious reconciliation of both modern and eternal values when it comes to questions concerning the complementary equality of men and women.

Self-portrait, Paris, 2004, by Myriam Tangi


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Is “Chad Gadya” the First Children’s Song in Recorded History?

Parents have probably been singing songs to their children since the dawn of history, but “Chad Gadya” – composed specifically to help children stay awake until the very end of the Passover Seder – may be the first song ever printed specially for children


From a Passover Haggadah, Amsterdam, 1796; the Braginsky Collection, Switzerland

For most modern secular readers not well versed in the enigmatic midrashic style of our Sages, the Passover Haggadah is a rather abstruse text. The decision to conclude the work with an obscure liturgical poem about a strange little goat perhaps only increases the sense of confusion amongst readers. It is possible that the source of this odd song lay in the desire to hold the interest of the youngest participants until the very end of the Seder, which is traditionally a lengthy affair.

Detail from the Passover Haggadah, copied by Nathan Ben Shimshon of Mezeritsch, 1730; the Braginsky Collection, Switzerland

The purpose of the Haggadah is to fulfill the important commandment “and you shall tell your son” (and your daughter, we might add) the story of the Exodus. Thus, young boys and girls are the focus of the Passover Seder text and the Haggadah is full of various rituals and passages aimed at keeping the Seder’s youngest participants alert and interested: It is the children who ask the four traditional questions inquiring about the strange customs of the evening. They are the ones who search for the Afikoman and keep an eye out for the arrival of the Prophet Elijah. Chad Gadya, the concluding song, with its animals and other fantastic figures, represents something for the children to look forward to.

Chad Gadya with Yiddish translation, from a Passover Haggadah copied by Nathan Ben Shimshon of Mezeritsch, 1730; the Braginsky Collection, Switzerland

For this reason, some scholars have crowned Chad Gadya as the earliest known children’s song – or at least one of the earliest. We obviously have no information about songs which were not set down in writing and which were sung by parents to their children over the course of the thousands of years of human history – there must have been many. But in “Chad Gadya,” we encounter, probably for the first time, a song that was specifically written and put into print for the sake of the edification of children.

Chad Gadya with Yiddish translation, from a Passover Haggadah, 1738; Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana, Amsterdam, the Netherlands

You may very well know the song by heart and perhaps you’re even humming along as you read, but let’s take a closer look at its attributes. Chad Gadya is what’s known as a cumulative song, meaning that in each progressive verse a new element is added to the list of elements from the previous verse. You are probably familiar with songs of this type. For example, “Old MacDonald Had a Farm,” “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, and the song that precedes “Chad Gadya” in the Haggadah, “Echad Mi Yodea?” (“Who Knows One?”). The repetition and familiar refrain make these kinds of songs especially popular with children.

What else can we learn from a quick look at the song? Although the language appears to be Aramaic, the song is in fact full of grammatical mistakes, and there are Hebrew words embedded in it as well, suggesting that the author wasn’t fluent in Aramaic and that at the time of its writing, Aramaic was no longer a spoken language.

An early version of Chad Gadya from a siddur from the Jewish community of Provence, ca. 13th–14th century

This is also perhaps a clue as to when the song was written. The song’s appearance in the Haggadah dates to the 15th or 16th century, and earlier versions of it may have been written as early as the 14th century. The song first appeared in print in the 16th-century Prague Haggadah. An early version of the liturgical poem (piyyut), in impeccable Aramaic, has been located in a manuscript which was subsequently added to the prayer book of the Provence community in France. The wording is somewhat different than the version we sing today (for example, a mouse appears in some of the versions found in the region of modern-day France). It is assumed that the Jews who fled France after the great expulsion of 1306, brought the liturgical poem with them to communities in the region of Ashkenaz (modern day Germany and northern Europe), and from there it found its way into the Haggadah. Only later did the song also reach the Haggadot of the Sephardic communities in Spain and the Middle East.

Hand-written copies of the liturgical poems “Echad Mi Yodea” and “Chad Gadya” added to the Prague Haggadah, 1527

But what is the origin of the poem? Are the motifs in it a Jewish invention? As one might expect in the case of an ancient folk song, we have no definitive answer to these questions. Similar motifs appear in many songs from around the world. In his article on Chad Gadya, Uriel Ofek mentions similar motifs in stories from Japan, Greece and as far as South America. One can find comparable tales in Russian and French, and some German-language versions even use the “Chad Gadya” formula. Interestingly, a Brothers Grimm fairy tale song, “The Pear Does Not Want to Fall,” bears a remarkable resemblance. In this song, a landowner sends a peasant boy named Jockli to shake a pear from a tree. After Jockli refuses, a dog is sent to bite him. When the dog refuses, a stick, water, a bull, and a butcher are sent in succession, with each refusing to carry out the task, until the intimidating executioner arrives, causing the rest of the characters to fall in line.

The song’s English equivalent is “The House that Jack Built,” with the chain beginning with malt (grain) that is eaten by a rat. The song’s characters are radically different and progress from a rat to a cat, a dog, a “cow with the crumpled horn”, a “maiden all forlorn”, a “man all tatter’d and torn”, a “priest all shaven and shorn”, a “cock that crow’d in the morn” and a “farmer sowing his corn”. Not everyone eats each other, but some scholars have insisted on the connection between the songs and have argued that Jack’s tale originated from the song about the Jewish goat. As mentioned, there is no way to determine for sure which came first. Uriel Ofek speculates in the article mentioned above that “it would not be an exaggeration to claim that there isn’t a nation or language that does not have a fable, rhyme or folktale with some Chad Gadya-like format or content.”


Jewish scholars over the years, not content to leave “Chad Gadya” as just an endearing tale in the Passover Haggadah whose sole purpose is to entertain the children, have layered it with interpretations. The cumulative chain of episodes, which can easily be read as nothing more than a humorous fairy tale, has been weighed down with theological import about God’s role in the world. One commentary, for example, suggests that the goat is a symbol of the Jewish people, and the other characters are the nations that have plotted to destroy it: Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Greece, Rome, the Muslims, the Crusaders and the Turks. Finally, the Holy One will come and redeem the Jewish people.

A Passover Haggadah from Amsterdam, copied by Chaim Mordechai Binger, 1796; the Braginsky Collection, Switzerland

Much has been written about this intriguing song that begins with a little goat and which concludes the Passover Haggadah. The mysterious piyyut has aroused the interest of researchers of folklore and liturgical poetry over the years who have tried to locate its origin and connection to similar folk songs in different languages. Perhaps around the Passover table this year you can also share something about the song, which may very well be the first recorded children’s song in history.



We did not forget that preceding “Chad Gadya” in the Haggadah is another song of similar structure, also intended for the enjoyment and edification of children. The story of “Echad Mi Yodea” deserves a separate article, but we can already tell you that it too appeared for the first time in print in the same 16th century Prague Haggadah, and that it was known in Europe perhaps from the 15th century. “Echad Mi Yodea” also has parallels in European languages, but unlike “Chad Gadya,” it spread much earlier to the communities of Spain and Portugal and even reached the Cochin community in India. Hence, the question of its origin is even more complicated, but we will tell you more about that in the future.


You can listen to a range of different performances of Chad Gadya which are preserved in the National Library of Israel’s National Sound Archive, here.


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Prayers, Amulets and Spells to Ward off Plague

The sages of Safed created amulets, the Jews of Italy wrote prayers and other Jews warned of less conventional plagues…

An amulet attributed to Isaac Luria, "The Holy ARI", 1855

The first occurrence of plague in the recorded history of the Middle East was known as the “Plague of Justinian”, named after the Byzantine Emperor, Justinian I. It made its way to the Land of Israel from Egypt around 541-542 AD. The results were documented in detail by the emperor’s court historian.

A thousand years later, the residents of the land were still dealing with fairly frequent outbreaks. Throughout the 16th century, plague spread across different parts of the Middle East. The common wisdom in Jerusalem of the period spoke of a new wave of pestilence hitting the city every six or seven years. In the writings of the sages of the holy city of Safed (Zfat), in the northern Land of Israel, we find evidence that these rabbis sought to fight off the plague with the help of special amulets, among other things.

We found the amulet below in a copy of the book Shaar HaYichudim (“The Gate of Unifications”) by the famous Safed Kabbalist Hayyim ben Joseph Vital. The Hebrew title appearing at the top reads “This amulet is for plague from the holy ARI…” (The holy ARI was Rabbi Isaac Luria, Vital’s teacher). The charm in fact consists of two different amulets joined together, one on top and one below. The image here is taken from a later printing of the book which includes various commentaries on the writings of Vital and Luria, but the amulet, or similar versions of it, appear in earlier printings as well. This edition was published in 1855 in the city of Lemberg, today’s Lviv, in western Ukraine. Isaac Luria perished during an outbreak of plague in the year 1572, when he was only 38 years old.

The letters appearing in the upper amulet – אנקתם פסתם פספסים דיונסים, likely transliterated as Anaktam Pastam Paspasim Dionsim – form one of the secret divine names, according to certain Jewish mystical traditions

Another interesting text can be found in a manuscript which is part of the Bill Gross Collection and which received the rather generic title, “Prayers Against the Plague“. The text begins with the words שויתי יהוה לנגדי תמיד (“I have placed the Lord before me constantly“), followed immediately by Psalm 91, in which the speaker tells of the refuge provided by the wings of the Lord, while also citing the various evils from which he is protected, including “devastating pestilence” (דבר הוות). Later, the story of how Aaron the High Priest was able to halt the plague with incense is recounted, along with what appears to be a recipe.

As opposed to the Kabbalists of Safed, who invoked the secret divine names to save themselves, the scribes of this manuscript decided to make use of canonical texts telling of the victories of God over the various plagues which threatened the People of Israel. Judging by the style of script, as well as the name of the youth to whom the manuscript was dedicated – Yosef Tzemach Gabriel Donati – which appears on the last page, it is likely that the manuscript was inscribed in Italy during the 18th or 19th century.

The manuscript ends with a dedication to a young man: Yosef Tzemach Gabriel Donati

Over time, the Hebrew word for “plague” – Magefa (מגפה) – has come to be associated with other meanings as well. In the pashkevil broadsides which are popular in ultra-orthodox Jewish communities, the word is often used to describe various “ills” which have spread throughout modern Israeli society, whether they be of a biological, theological or moral nature. In 1980, this Pashkevil poster warning of the plague of archaeology spreading throughout the Holy Land was printed and hung up in various ultra-orthodox communities. The text states that “new areas are discovered from time to time, where the plague of archaeology has taken hold in the northern, southern and central regions“.

“The plague of archaeology”, a pashkevil from 1980

Another pashkevil, seen here below, which dates to the period of the British Mandate, warns of the “plague” of eating and selling non-kosher meat, which had “broken out” among the Jewish community.

A “plague” of non-kosher meat, from the British Mandate period

The last manuscript which we will present also hails from 19th century Italy. It is preserved today in the British Library in London.

The main difference here relates to the type of pestilence which was spreading across the country, with the text mentioning an outbreak of “cholera morbus” (קולירה מורבוץ) and expressing the hope that “no harm will befall us, nor will a plague draw near to our tent“. Like other manuscripts of its kind, it draws a link between observance of the laws handed down to Moses at Mount Sinai and the health of the individual and the community. This promise is expressed in the quote: “I, the Lord, heal you, for it is written – and the sun of mercy shall rise with healing in its wings for you who fear My Name.”

A prayer warding off the effects of cholera morbus, Italy, 19th century, the British Library


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Erasing the Name of Haman the Wicked: The Origin of the Grogger

How does one drown out the name of the most hated, evil man in the Megillah? By making good use of a Christian folk tradition of course!

Haman meets his end, Scroll of Esther, Ferrara, Italy, 1617, the National Library of Israel

There are few people in Jewish history who are despised as much as the wicked Haman, the villain of the story of Purim and the Book, or Scroll, of Esther. As the saying goes, “in every generation they stand up against us to destroy us” – words embodied by the figure of Haman, whose actions fulfill the supposed prophecy/timeless historical truth. Haman the Wicked, Haman the Evil, and various other derogatory epithets have been attached to his name – even in the Scroll of Esther itself. The story even links his name to Israel’s greatest enemy – the Amalekites. He is described as “Haman the Agagite” in the Megillah (scroll) of Esther, thus linking him to Agag, king of Amalek. In the book of Deuteronomy (25:19) Israel is ordered “blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven”.

So how do we erase the name of the man who is mentioned repeatedly in the Megillah, which we read during the festival of Purim?

Rabbi Abraham ben Nathan writes of a 13th century custom, in which young boys “would take pebbles from a stream and write ‘Haman’ on them. Then, they would knock the stones together while citing the name of Haman and his crimes, ‘and the name of the wicked shall rot’“. This idea quickly gained popularity among European Jewry and was manifested in various ways, such as breaking clay pots or banging on synagogue tables – with one’s hands or with wood sticks prepared in advance.

About three hundred years later, Rabbi Moshe Isserles (“The Rema”) also wrote of a custom popular among children, who would bang pieces of wood or stone with the name of Haman written on them against each other, all with the purpose of erasing the name of the wicked foe.

“So they hanged Haman on the gallows which he had prepared for Mordecai”, Scroll of Esther, 18th century, Amsterdam, the National Library of Israel

The common theme is that the very purpose of mentioning Haman’s name is to erase it, in both the literal sense – the gradual disappearance of the letters of Haman’s name from the river pebbles as they are knocked together – as well as in the sense of noisily drowning out the name of Haman with the sound of objects banging against each other. Rabbi Isserles added that this customary noise making evolved into the practice of “beating” Haman by producing similar noises whenever his name was mentioned during the reading of the Megillah in the synagogues.

When, therefore, do we meet the Purim noisemaker – the grogger?

It seems as though this unique toy only became popular among Jewish populations during the 19th century.

Reading the Megillah in Tel Aviv, 1985; The Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Before the grogger, came the firecrackers. In 17th-century Germany, from the moment gunpowder became an affordable commodity, young boys began adding early forms of firecrackers to their noise-making tools. These crude explosives were made of various combustible materials that were relatively available and easy to find, with sulfur or gunpowder sprinkled generously on top. This custom quickly spread to Poland, Lithuania, Russia, and Romania, and from there to other Jewish communities. Occasionally, a hollow key was filled with gunpowder and then lit ablaze; a practice that could still be observed in 1930s Tel Aviv.

Regarding the noisemakers and groggers, in addition to written testimony from different periods, we also have physical examples which survive from the 18th-century onwards. They first appeared in Europe and later spread to Eastern communities. Ethnographer Yom-Tov Lewinski, noted that “groggers originated in Greece” – meaning Ancient Greece. The Romans used them in various magical rituals and ceremonies, and during the Middle Ages, noisemakers became popular among Christian communities.

“He robed Mordecai, and led him on horseback through the city streets, proclaiming before him, “This is what is done for the man the king delights to honor!” The Scroll of Esther, 18th century, Amsterdam, the National Library of Israel

The custom of using groggers on Purim was likely born out of popular folk traditions (common among Middle Age Christians) that held that such noisemakers contained the power to exorcize evil demons and spirits. Groggers were used during weddings and violent storms, and even to welcome the coming of spring. During the buildup to Easter Sunday, when church bells were ordered silenced, groggers were used to summon Christian worshippers to prayer. On the eve of Easter, Christian youths used groggers to “beat” or punish Judas Iscariot, and from there, we can assume that the custom extended to Ashkenaz Jewry, who “beat” the figure of Haman the Wicked.

The first direct evidence of the use of Purim groggers dates to 19th-century Europe. We also have examples from the same period in the United States, especially in New York. This being said, in Mimi Reuter’s doctoral thesis, which assisted us greatly in the preparation of this article, she writes that “there appear to be two Purim groggers, which are dated to the 18th century, but it is likely that they are actually from a later period.”

Two early examples of groggers, Holland (left) and Italy (right), from The Book of Festivals – Purim, Lag Ba’Omer, Tu Be’Av, Yom-Tov Lewinski, Agudat Oneg Shabbat, (1950)

The Jewish grogger, or gragger, or gregger is known by many names. In Polish it is called a terkotka, in French crécelle and in Hungarian kereplő. In Hebrew the word for noisemaker is ra’ashan, derived from the root ra’ash (רעש), which simply means “noise”.


Thanks to Shirat-Miriam Shamir, aka Mimi Reuter, for her assistance in the preparation of this article.


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