Gender and Jewish Culture

Of Cultural Deference. A Conversation with Rabbi Tanya Segal, Poland's First Female Rabbi — Warsaw, 12 July 2008

by Rohee Dasgupta

Rabbi Tanya Segal leads the progressive reform congregation Beit Warszawa and is currently engaged in rebuilding the infrastructure for the renewal of progressive Judaism in Poland. She also works as a travelling Rabbi in other cities in Poland, determined to help develop a meaningful dialogue in the revival of Polish-Jewish culture. Rabbi Tanya Segal, the first female Rabbi in the entire history of Poland, shares her life’s experiences and work in an interview with Rohee Dasgupta. Beginning as a dramatist and actor in Moscow’s Yiddish theatre she talks about the transitions in her own Jewish identity as she ‘made Aliyah’ to Israel for seventeen years and her motivation behind combining education, religion and culture to create value in society.

‘I saw a woman on the street whose manner was bizarre
Some people spoke in whispers of her children and Ponar
This is the winter of our souls, the blackest hour of night
But nature’s timeless wheel must turn and bring a new day’s light
Then there will come another time before your eyes grow old
For us a warmer season when our foes will feel the cold
We’ll greet your papa at the door, we’ll be a family as before
And you will sing out loud forevermore-forevermore.’

Song by the actor in Yiddish in Sobol’s Ghetto, Tamar joins her in English.
[Excerpt from Midrash theatre script “And Her Name Was Heather” composed and directed by Rabbi Tanya Segal]


Living between cultures with troubled histories is not easy — repressed memory, exilic consciousness and the realisation that all cannot be reduced to any simple reconciliation becomes an obvious consequential overlap. However, when the recollection of what’s left behind is understood through art against the counter-point of the current experience, it enriches factuality — as the facts interact with the veneer of the performative to help interpret cultural, political or religious questioning and reinstate ideas of common concern. Such questioning about enduring time with a deep awareness of historicization of the circumstances evokes a renewed contestation for knowledge, imagination and identity in relation to the present condition. Rabbi Tanya Segal, the first female Rabbi in Poland, shares her story of living cultural humanism through her own Jewish identity and work — where art and religion revitalize the politics of identity.

Born in 1957, Tanya Segal was raised in a secular Jewish family in Moscow amidst anti-Semitism and troubled political times. For Tanya, art was a spontaneous medium of expression and a means to alleviate the discomfort of her present situation. In her twenties she began to work as an actor and singer in the Jewish theatre in Moscow (KEMT). The authorities established the theatre as a substitute for the synagogues and Jewish schools it had closed. Her involvement with the theatre helped Tanya connect with Jewish heritage, the Yiddish language, her Jewish identity and provided the sense of community that was denied to her elsewhere. In the late eighties, she completed her studies at the Russian Academy of Theatre Arts (GITIS) in stage direction. Although she intended to concentrate on symbolic theatre, her first independent projects were in the field of political satire, strongly criticising her country’s domestic and foreign policies. As the artistic director of a cultural centre for youth, she focused on issues that were ignored and attempted to raise social awareness. She also gave performances of Yiddish songs, accompanying herself on the guitar, which she continues till today when leading Sabbath services.

Tanya made Aliyah[1]Aliyah (plural Aliyot) in Hebrew means ascent and refers to Jewish immigration to the Land of Israel (and since its establishment in 1948, as the State of Israel). Aliyah is regarded as an important Jewish cultural concept and a fundamental concept of Zionism, enshrined in Israel’s Law of Return, which accords any Jew (and some non-Jews with Jewish relatives) the legal right to assisted immigration and settlement in Israel, and entitles them to Israeli citizenship. In Zionist discourse, Aliyah refers to voluntary immigration of Jews for ideological, emotional, or practical reasons as well as mass flight of persecuted Jews to Israel. to Israel together with her son Benyamin in 1990. There she primarily worked in three areas — culture, the translation of books on Jewish themes from Russian to Hebrew, and teaching theatre. In 1997-8 she appeared in a one-woman show entitled “The Dybbuk.” The play reflected her ongoing search for Jewish identity in a multidisciplinary context. Following this, Tanya went to Riga, Latvia to work as an emissary, teaching Jewish history at the Dubnow Jewish School. After returning to Israel she began to study at the Israeli Rabbinical Programme based in Hebrew Union College (HUC), Jerusalem. Her decision to begin rabbinical studies was a profound process of addressing the religious dimension of her Jewish life. Through her years of experiences in the college she came to recognise the strength of Jewish prayer and ritual in their progressive form. Tanya gradually became a rabbi. Alongside her studies at HUC Jerusalem, Tanya studied both in the department of philosophy and the department of theatre at Tel-Aviv University. Her master’s thesis is entitled “From Zoharic Text to Liturgical Performance: The Role of Weeping in the Performance of Eikha.” Her thesis combines three fields: a Midrash[2]Midrash is a Hebrew word meaning commentary. on the Zohar, Jewish liturgy, and theatre — an apt complement to her interdisciplinary interests. The same theme continues in the foundation of Tanya’s rabbinical thesis in which she composed a play entitled “And Her Name Was Heather,” which blends a creative Midrash on the Book of Ruth with the story of Tamar (Heather) Havilio, an American convert; the play was first staged as part of HUC’s Tikkun Leil Shavuot programme in 2006.

Since last December, Tanya has been working as a full-time Rabbi at Beit Warszawa reformed Jewish congregation in Poland together with Rabbi Burt Shuman, the chief rabbi of the congregation. Rabbi Tanya is helping rebuild the infrastructure for the renewal of progressive Judaism in Poland and is also developing communities in Krakow, and other cities in Poland.