Hannah’s Legacy

I.

In the entirety of the Bible, there is only one mention of a woman praying. There are many stories of men – there’s Abraham and Isaac and Cain and David and Jacob and so many more – but only one woman. Only Hannah, who prays for a son.

 The Books of Samuel, sandwiched between Ruth and the Books of Kings in the Hebrew Bible, are usually studied for the lives of the leaders of Ancient Israel. They chronicle the switch in Ancient Israel from the rule of judges to the rule of Kings. Samuel tells of Saul, the first king, and of David, the great king. Some parts of Samuel have crept into the mainstream (think the tale of David and Goliath). And throughout, in the midst of the violence and politics and all the men of the Bible, Hannah prayed.

A different Hannah, my maternal great-grandma, was a woman who called everyone bubbeleh. She had two sons; one was my grandfather. She was the youngest [1] of 11 Cohen brothers and sisters, born in Scotland, moved to Russia, and ended up in Yonkers, New York. She spoke with either a heavy Scots brogue or a Yonkers (Yaaaahn-kers) accent. Hannah Cohen is a name imbued with a significance that she probably understood. Her father was a rabbi. She was named Hannah, for the woman who prayed, and her last name signified the ancient priestly class. [2]

Yet, Hannah grew up with barely enough food on the table, and eventually moved into – to quote her daughter-in-law, my grandmother – “an awful walk-up on Elliott Avenue” with her husband. She married Morris Becker, youngest of 13 Becker siblings from Lithuania, in autumn 1928. Few details about Morris have survived; he spoke with a distinctly Eastern European accent, was completely bald, always wore a suit, and used to sit in a big green stratolounger chair with his feet up. Hannah may have prayed for a son (she may have never prayed) but she had Allan in 1929, and my grandfather, Jack, in 1935. Just two sons for parents from such large families.

In 1961, just two years before my grandfather became a father, his father– Hannah’s husband– committed suicide. On May 8, 1961, The Daily News of Tarrytown ran a small article with the headline “Drop Off Fire Escape Kills Man in Yonkers.” The readers came across the heartbreaking detail that “the body was found by a son” in the courtyard. On that awful walk-up on Elliott Avenue, Hannah never moved out and never took off her wedding ring.

 The same year, a more famous Hannah reported on the trial of Adolf Eichmann. [3] While the trial of one of the most famous war criminals of the twentieth century took place, beginning to break the silence surrounding the Holocaust, my great-grandma Hannah learned to live alone for the first time, surrounded by a new type of silence.

Morris’ suicide is never discussed in my family; my grandfather never mentioned it, and the silence, woven with shame, persisted. Only recently did my mom find out that Morris had been diagnosed with Leukemia before he killed himself. Yet not everything is silent and not everything is hazy.

Despite never knowing Hannah-- she died in late December, eleven years before I was born in another decade’s December-- she feels like mine. She died over Christmas break when her grandchildren were home from college, which is, according to my mom, fitting, as Hannah never wanted to inconvenience anyone. Selfless to her last breath. I have always known that she was the perfect grandma. I have learned that she spoke frequently about Jewishness and perhaps she is the reason why my grandpa Jack became so religious. I am the sole Becker grandchild to be named after her; my Hebrew name (and my middle name) is Hannah [4], just three letters in Hebrew [5], and her legacy stays with me.

II.

First & Second Book of Samuel, estimated to be written between 630 and 540 B.C.E.

Biblical Hannah makes her first, and only, appearance in 1 Samuel 1-2. While feminist scholars may argue that Hannah’s narrative only serves an androcentric agenda – setting up the birth of the prophet Samuel and his rise to prominence in ancient Israel – denying the impact of these passages of Hannah’s prayer denies their radicalness. The priest, maybe a Cohen, who sat at the door of the temple as Hannah prayed and cried to God for a son, thought Hannah was drunk. But no, she tells Eli, “I have only been speaking all this time out of my great anguish and distress.” Eli understands, and tells her, “may the God of Israel grant what you have asked of him.” Eli did not deny the validity of Hannah’s prayer: remember this.

Hannah’s first prayer is motivated by her barrenness. She prays to God to give her a child, and vows:

O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head. 

Hannah’s vow is a classic [6] Hebrew Bible vow: a condition, followed by a commitment made if the condition is satisfied. [7]  Hannah wants a son, and if she gets a son, she promises he will be a nazirite. [8] Yet Hannah’s vow is notable because of her gender; praying before God is a remarkably revolutionary act as a woman. In Judaism, women are exempt from many obligations (mitzvot) – including prayer – that men are required to comply with. Because women are not obligated to fulfill the mitzvot of prayer, many argue that they should not. So, Hannah’s prayer becomes a subversive and powerful statement of faith.

The Song of Hannah, after Hannah has given birth to Samson and dedicated his life in service of God, is an “ancient poem of thanksgiving.”[9] She is devoted to God. After all, she got what she wanted. “Hannah prayed and said, ‘My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God’” (1 Sam 2:1). This line is remarkable for its language choice; there are active verbs attributed to Hannah. Hannah prays and Hannah says; therefore, Hannah is at the center of her own faith. And, oh, the use of possessive pronouns: “my heart,” “my strength,” and “my God.” Hannah takes ownership of her faith and her Judaism.

III.

I wish I could ask my grandfather, Jack, what he thought of his mom. I wish I could ask my grandfather about Judaism. To me, he represents Judaism. He went to Shabbat services every week, throughout his seven-year long battle with cancer, until the very end. Jack passed away in 2011. His approach to cancer was radically different from his father’s. Jack was Hannah’s son, through and through. Jack’s Hannah was beloved; so was Jack. Although I do not have Jack to ask about Hannah, I do have Debbie (my grandma, Jack’s wife, my mom’s mom).

In her words,

Grandma Hannah was a good cook. She never drove.[10] 

Dad was a Rabbi in Glasgow.

Her sister Deborah was a doctor [11] and married to Ed and he was doctor too.

She was very kind and happy all the time and made the best out of any situation. She was the most non-judgmental person you could meet - everyone in her family was perfect in her eyes. 

She had breast cancer when she was much older and had a mastectomy and radiation.  

She was widowed young but never felt sorry for herself. 

And in my mom’s words,

You could do no wrong in Grandma Hannah’s eyes.

Is this how I will view my children and grandchildren? Is this how Hannah, Hannah of the Hebrew Bible, not Hannah Becker (née Cohen) of Scotland-Russia-and-New-York, viewed Samuel? You could do no wrong. This feels like a lovely sentiment for a grandmother, but it also feels, maybe just maybe, because my mind cannot help but jump to the political realities of Jewish identity, how many Jews view Israel.

IV.

Western Wall, Jerusalem, 1967 – 2017

Israel could do no wrong. On the third day of the Six-Day War, the Israeli Defense Forces captured Jerusalem. Newspapers projected images of young men wonderstruck, brought to tears, at the Western Wall [12]  in Jerusalem, still carrying their weapons and exhausted from battle. They had returned. (Mind you, nowhere are women to be found in these photos). Moshe Dayan, Minister of War during the Six-Day War, proclaimed, “we have returned to the holiest of our places, never to part from it again.” Men from across the young nation poured into Jerusalem to be at the wall, to pray at it, and to revel in the significance of Jewish people once again existing in Jerusalem.

Lieutenant General Mordechai Gur commanded the division that took control of the Old City of Jerusalem (Gur would later commit suicide in 1995 after being diagnosed with cancer, just like Morris). He famously broadcasted “the Temple Mount is in our hands!” He told his troops, “Jerusalem is yours forever.” But whose? Could it be Hannah’s? Could it be mine? Once Eretz Yisrael [13] became possible, religious fervor swept through the Jewish men and women both in Israel and in the Diaspora. Many emigrated to Israel. Hannah did not. It would have been her fourth move to another world in a single life. Perhaps she considered visiting Israel, yet, even if she went to the Western Wall, she would have been cordoned off in a small woman’s section.

After Hannah’s time, the Women of the Wall movement emerged in Israel dedicated to securing the right of women to pray at the Western Wall. I would like to think that Hannah would have supported them, that as the youngest daughter of the Rabbi from Scotland in all her selflessness and kindness and young-ish widowhood, would have admired what the Women of the Wall were fighting for. But maybe she was traditional. Maybe she respected the authority of the Rabbinate, and would not dare to fight back. Maybe she wanted to keep her faith to herself. Maybe she lost her faith.

Women are technically allowed to pray at the Western Wall, in a small woman’s section on the far right side. Women are banned from praying aloud in a group, singing prayers, wearing prayer shawls, blowing a shofar, and carrying or chanting from a Torah scroll.[14] In Judaism, women are not obligated to pray or chant Torah. Just as Eli was confused by Hannah (Biblical Hannah, not my Hannah) praying, sure she was drunk, many religious men fail to women’s desire to publicly pray.

Women of the Wall try to conduct services at the wall; they are spit on and pelted with rocks. Their Torahs are confiscated. They are subjected to harassment from those of their own faith. Norma Baumel Joseph, a member of Women of the Wall and an Orthodox Jewish feminist, writes that “praying at the Kotel has become a way of publicly proclaiming inclusion in Jewish history and religious practice.[15] Look at Hannah: she prayed, and her son became a prophet.

 

V.

I spent my senior year writing a thesis on the emergence of Jewish militancy in Brooklyn in the late 1960s. I spent a lot of time thinking about warping religion as justification for violence. I also spent a lot of time writing about the Six-Day War, and how important it was to Jewish identity, but the chain of negative reactions it spurred. How the Six-Day War is now synonymous with occupation and the growth of the religious settler movement.

I often despair that a faith integral to my identity can cause such terrible violence. That some men see Judaism as justification for violence, like the Cave of the Patriarchs massacre. How some men take Judaism to mean the denial of women’s rights. Women can easily grow weary of the Bible; it is full of stories that fixate on sexual violence against women, on valuing men over women, on women in subservience, and on blaming women for the downfall of men.

But I cannot focus on this. I must remember how Miriam sings a song of victory, how Deborah was a judge of Israel, how Esther [16] saves her people, and how Hannah prayed. And mainly, I remember my great-grandma Hannah. Hannah, a Cohen born in Scotland, raised in Russia, died in New York. Hannah, a Jewish woman in the century that was simultaneously one of the most terrible (see: the Holocaust) and most inspiring (see: the State of Israel) for Jewry.

Hannah lived a full life. She lived for 86 years, witnessing two world wars, the establishment of the state of Israel, and sixteen presidents. She saw the birth of all her grandchildren. She lived through the suicide of her husband. Throughout, like the Biblical Hannah, my great-grandma was at the center of her own story. She accepted her circumstances and strove for better ones for her sons. For me, the Hannahs connect; their strength, their heart, their God.

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[1] My grandma thinks Dorothy, her sister, was younger.

[2] According to my cousin, Brian, my Grandpa once told him that the real family name was Karnovsky and they only took the name Cohen in a “vain attempt to gain status.”

[3] Hannah Ardent published her New Yorker reports into Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil in 1963.

[4] Pronounced Chhhhhhh-annah, deep from the back of your throat. 

[5] Hei, nun, hei. You read from right to left, and it looks like a palindrome without the vowels. חַנָּה

[6] If you are not familiar with the classic Bible vow structure – as many are not – you can look at Genesis 28:20-22 or Judges 11:30-31, vows made by Jacob and Jephthah respectively. 

[7] The Jewish Study Bible, note on 1 Sam 1:11, on pg. 603.

[8] Nazirite, literally the “consecrated one,” serve God and do not cut their hair or become ritually impure. Samson, seduced by Delilah, is arguably the most famous nazirite of the Bible.

[9] The HarperCollins Study Bible, note on 1 Sam 2:1, on pg. 420.

[10] My grandma should maybe embrace that not-driving thing; she is the worst driver I know.

[11] Note from my mom: seems very unusual since she was born in 1800s.

[12] Brief history lesson: the Western Wall, the Kotel in Hebrew, alternatively referred to as the Wailing Wall, is considered the holiest site in Judaism as it is the last remnant of the Second Temple. The Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E. by the Romans, thus marking the beginning of what is called the “Jewish Exile” or “Jewish Diaspora.”

[13] The promised land; the entire land of Israel; what was promised to the ancient Israelites by God.

[14] Phyllis Chesler and Rivka Haut, “Introduction,” in Women of the Wall, ed. Phyllis Chesler and Rivka Haut (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2003), xxvii.

[15] Norma Baumel Joseph, “Shema B’Kolah: On Listening to Women’s Voices in Prayer,” in Women of the Wall, ed. Phyllis Chesler and Rivka Haut (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2003), 290.

[16] Oh my god, Queen Esther is my hero.