WHO ARE YOUR
AND WHY SHOULD
KNOW THEIR NAMES?
If as rabbinic sages say, an angel touches us before we are born and causes us to forget all the Torah we have learned in the womb, then we arrive in the world ravenous to learn. And although we are a people of the book, we acquire understanding not just from the written word but from people, present and past. “Who is the wise one? One who learns from everyone,” says Rabbi Ben Zoma in Pirkei Avot 4:1 (he uses the word “men,” but I include all genders). “Everyone” includes rabbis and scholars and also biblical and historical figures or elders—in fact, just about anyone can show us how to live and better serve the world, or God, if we believe in her.
These teachers, whether we are conscious of it or not, are role models from whom we absorb traits and attitudes, for better or worse. What is a role model? The dictionary defines it as a person looked to by others as an example. It is someone we admire and in whom we sense something that we want to incorporate into ourselves. It may not be someone well known, but rather a family member, a mentor or a person who inspires us through their life’s work.
Identifying role models is a necessary step to emotional intelligence and self-awareness. This process begins unconsciously in childhood and continues throughout our lives. As we evolve, our role models evolve also, filling gaps in ourselves. The canvases of our souls remain absorbent until death. In this way, we strengthen our own humanity. And the more aware we are of the individuals who have shaped us, the more complete we are—and the more likely the Jewish people can become, as the prophet Isaiah says, a “light unto the nations.”
We have asked people to share with us their role models and the core qualities they exemplify. As we discovered, this is not often done on first thought; we went back to many, more than once. It’s easy to veer into unadulterated adulation when discussing role models rather than to elucidate traits that we would like future generations to model. We hope that these responses will inspire you to identify your own role models, and we’d love to hear who they are. Please send them to us at firstname.lastname@example.org or on your preferred social media platforms.—Nadine Epstein
Jennifer Bardi, Sarah Breger, Nadine Epstein, Noah Phillips, Amy E. Schwartz,
Francie Weinman Schwartz, Ellen Wexler & Laurence Wolff
Early on I was strongly influenced by Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1996). She wrote in her novels about the lives of women, including their romantic and sexual lives, but also about wider political, social and economic forces. That really appealed to me, growing up poor and Jewish in a predominantly Black part of Detroit, when Jews were not considered white and when antisemitism was something I experienced constantly. I was far more interested in societal forces than most women writers of my era. In fact, when I had only published one novel and was looking for a new agent, one of the most prominent agents of that time told me I could write well but that I should stick to writing about love. (“Why not set a romance against that background?”) I wasn’t interested.
An influence on my later life was Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (1924-2014), who introduced me to Kabbalah and Jewish meditation, all with historical context. I have meditated ever since, and it keeps me from imploding when I deal with a lot of stress in my daily life—especially important in the Trump and COVID years. I’ve continued to study on and off, including with other teachers, but Zalman was the key to my practice. He was very kind to me and gave me a new Hebrew name, although I also kept the one my grandmother Hannah gave me when the doctor said I was dying of rheumatic fever. (I hyphenated.) He was encouraging while I was writing my novel He, She and It, which he loved and touted after reading. I also worked with him and others in writing and producing the Shabbat morning siddur Or Chadash.
Marge Piercy is the author of 17 novels, 20 volumes of poetry and a memoir. She helped found a Cape Cod havurah called Am Ha-Yam and teaches at the Elat Chayyim Center for Jewish Spirituality.
I know how pretentious this is likely to sound, but Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) has probably been the biggest influence on me. I first heard his name when I was in the 10th grade and attending an ultra-Orthodox girls high school—the type that discouraged us from going to college. Spinoza was mentioned to us as a cautionary tale: His views had led him to be permanently banished from the 17th-century Jewish community of Amsterdam in his mid-twenties. But my teacher mentioned that Spinoza had kept his heretical views secret until his parents both had died, in order not to shame them. Right then, before I knew anything else about the philosopher, I vowed to follow his example, at least in regard to my own parents.
It was when I became a professor of philosophy that I began to study him in earnest. At first, I was skeptical, since this was the kind of metaphysics my training as an analytic philosopher made me doubt was possible. His magnum opus, the Ethics, makes every claim for human reason that has ever been made. But though its formalism can make it seem dry and emotionless to the uninitiated, it’s anything but. It’s a work of transcendent power, which can have a transformative influence on the reader. The type of transcendence to which Spinoza can lead you is almost akin to a mystical experience—a sense of grateful oneness with all that there is. But it’s an experience that rejects all supernatural premises.
Among Spinoza’s inspiring traits were courage, integrity, love of truth and a realistic optimism that allowed him, despite all, to keep his faith in humanity. He knew what he was up against: the egotistical distortions that limit our view of the world and of each other, causing us to increase suffering. These forces are sometimes subdued and sometimes take on a terrible intensity, but they’re always with us, and there is never a time, most certainly not now, when we don’t need to muster Spinoza’s traits in ourselves.
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein is a philosopher and the author of ten books, both fiction and nonfiction, including Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity.
Setting aside family members who are my most important role models and inspirations—such as my father, my older brother, my wife and daughter—I think back to my youthful admiration for Arnold Schwarzenegger (b. 1947), who is an immigrant like myself and somebody I had a chance to meet. He appealed to me then as a movie star and a hard-working, successful immigrant American and later as a mature adult who served in government and tried to make this nation a better place.
I’ve also been influenced by historical figures and, as you can imagine, any number of folks in the military sphere. Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) showed incredible fortitude when the country was basically on the precipice of disaster. And so, he’s been an influential figure in my life, especially in the context of my own recent experiences. Other role models whose moral courage changed the orientation or direction of a country or of humanity include Rosa Parks (1913-2005), Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) and Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968).
Although I had limited interaction with him over the course of my military career, General Jim Mattis (b. 1950) is someone from whom I took the example of a soldier-scholar and a soldier-statesman—he exemplifies both. Secretary of State Colin Powell (1937-2021) was another prominent figure who fit the same roles. These men gave me an enormous amount of latitude to contribute to U.S. national security by deploying my expertise and knowledge of Russia and the region.
Alexander Vindman is a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel who testified in the 2019 impeachment trial of Donald Trump. He is a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
When I was growing up in Moscow, Andrei Sakharov (1921-1989), the Soviet nuclear physicist, dissident, Nobel laureate and activist for disarmament, peace and human rights, was the greatest hero for all the people in my circle. He professed and fought for what we all believed in (freedom and democracy), and he was a morally impeccable person. Unfortunately, I never got to meet him.
A few years after moving to the West, I learned about Elie Wiesel (1928-2016) and read his book, The Jews of Silence, which brought the world’s attention to the plight of Jews inside the Soviet Union. He became my other hero. He clearly also had firm democratic and humanistic convictions and a profoundly Jewish soul. Luckily, I met him several times, and we spoke Yiddish to each other. It’s hard to say whether all the things I admire in these two men are things I learned from them or were just always very close to my nature and that’s why I became their great admirer.
Evgeny Kissin is a Russian-born concert pianist known for his interpretation of Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Brahms and Rachmaninoff. He also performs and records Yiddish poetry.
From a biblical perspective, I always admired Esther. I was named after both grandmothers, but my name meant a lot to me because of Queen Esther. Esther was a very clever woman, and she risked her life to save the Jewish people. She showed incredible courage, taking care of people who were being persecuted for no reason other than their religion. And she was one person, just one, who managed to change many lives.
Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) is an example of the power that one person can possess and utilize, even as a woman in her day. She stood up for the things she believed in, even when they weren’t popular. She didn’t just sit back quietly and watch; she took action. She fought for refugees, and she saw the power of education to improve people’s lives.
In the present day, I would point to Michelle Obama (b. 1964) as someone I admire. I’m older than she is, so she’s perhaps less of a role model than an affirmation of what I believe. I’ve admired her for standing up and speaking her mind, for trying to help people experiencing poverty and for advocating for good food in public schools.
Running through all of this is the power of one. That you can do something, even if you’re alone. In 1941 a young Harvard graduate named Varian Fry (1907-1967) traveled to France to rescue Jews who were being targeted by the Vichy regime. He went alone and saved approximately 2,000 Jews before he was arrested by the Vichy government and sent back to the U.S. Fry was one person who made a huge difference and was the first American recognized in Israel as “Righteous Among the Nations.” We all have the power to improve the world. We just need to do it.
Esther Wojcicki is the author of How to Raise Successful People: Simple Lessons for Radical Results. She is vice chair of the Creative Commons advisory council and cofounder of Tract Learning, Inc.
In naming role models I assume we’re thinking of people we would like to emulate in some way. So, while I have a deep appreciation for cabaret singers and cartoonists, what they do is so far afield from my abilities that I don’t think they qualify. And then there are inspiring individuals such as Nelson Mandela whose roles extend so far beyond my own that it also makes no sense to call them my models. There are other people whose work I love, admire and may hope to emulate—their writing, their art, their films—but about whom I know little, which makes me reluctant to hold them up as role models because I’m not really thinking about them as fully realized human beings. Because the truth is, people are complicated and everyone has flaws. I also don’t subscribe to the prevailing presentism, whereby we rigorously apply standards or values that have evolved over time to people in the distant past.
All that said, there are certain character traits I really admire: Courage. Independence. Curiosity. Determination. Reason. Clear-headedness. The first person who comes to mind here is Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962). She’s someone for whom there were very low expectations, which over time she learned not only to overlook but to defy. This was someone who was quiet and considered reserved, who really learned how to use her voice prolifically as a writer and as a speaker. From our vantage point of 2022, the strong stands she took—on human rights, civil rights, women’s rights—seem basic but at the time were trailblazing. For me, she is one of those figures who stand out, especially when we’re thinking about educating and inspiring young people.
Another person I’ve been thinking about recently (having just read a book in which she played a part) is Dorothy Thompson (1893-1961). As a woman, as a journalist and as a foreign correspondent she was outspoken and fearless in taking stances, most notably raising awareness about the Holocaust when the United States was ignoring it. She also said racist things and may have even been an out-and-out racist—I don’t know enough about her biography and everything she’s written to say definitively. This is an example of those caveats above.
Someone I know personally and admire enormously is Robert Gottlieb (b. 1931). He’s been the editor-in-chief at Simon & Schuster, Alfred A. Knopf, and The New Yorker and has written a number of books himself. The consummate editor and supporter of writers, Gottlieb reads everything and approaches books with an open mind that I find increasingly rare. At 91, he’s still writing, still editing, still reading, still thinking. He’s just endlessly curious and is also a delightful human being.
Jane Goodall (b. 1934) is probably as close to a purely good person as possible, and while it’s far-fetched to consider her a personal role model because her endeavors are so far removed from mine, I have huge admiration for her as someone who took her powers of observation and her childhood curiosity and turned them into not just an occupation but a mission. She went out into the field. The time came when she could have rested on her laurels; instead she went from doing science in the field to advocating for animals and for the planet. She’s never slowed down. I’m a big fan of the octogenarians and nonagenarians of the world who are still out there trying to do good, and that is Jane Goodall.
And finally, as a book person, I have to laud J.K. Rowling (b. 1965) for opening up the world of literature to millions of readers. She reinvigorated the world of children’s literature and proved to adults that children’s books are worthy of being read. And then she defied expectations; instead of doing another middle-grade or young-adult fantasy series, she wrote stand-alone children’s novels, crime fiction and adult fiction, all the while doing a huge amount of philanthropic work in medicine and advocacy for at-risk women and children.
Pamela Paul is a New York Times columnist and former editor of The New York Times Book Review. Her books include 100 Things We’ve Lost to the Internet, How to Raise a Reader and Pornified.
When I was 17 years old I was a junior counselor at Camp Ramah in the Poconos, where I met a man named Moshe Greenberg (1928-2010), who was probably then in his early 20s. He ended up doing a doctorate in biblical studies at the University of Pennsylvania and then teaching his whole career at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He was very charismatic. I had never seriously studied the Bible before, and he taught a class for the junior counselors that was riveting. It was on a section of the David story in 2 Samuel. That class was what got me excited about the Bible.
Beyond that, Moshe and I used to sit together for many meals in the dining hall. All of our conversations were in Hebrew because Camp Ramah was pervasively Hebrew-speaking in that distant era. This was my first encounter with not just a Bible scholar, but maybe my first serious intellectual. His mind was constantly operating on all kinds of ideas. He was open to the world in this lively, intellectual way, and that was a serious model for me.
A second role model is someone I met when I was a graduate student at Harvard. I took two courses with a man named Reuben Brower (1908-1975). He’s not generally known today. He was maybe one of the last, and one of the best, of the New Critics. He had a great gift for reading poetry with minute attention to subtle details. I took a course with him on 18th-century English poetry. We studied Alexander Pope, John Dryden and a little bit of Jonathan Swift as well. It’s all in rhyming couplets—so-called heroic couplets, iambic couplets. It seemed to my superficial early reading of them that it was kind of jingle-jangle. Reuben Brower taught me that this poetry had great complexity, great subtlety. He showed me that a good teacher can open up new worlds for students. He also was always very respectful to students and treated them as people. That’s something that I tried to do in my teaching career.
My final example of a role model is an Israeli intellectual historian named Amos Funkenstein (1937-1995), who spent most of his teaching career in the United States. He was a genius. Among other things, he had a photographic memory. I learned from Amos that it’s possible to look at any question freshly, turn it around and see a whole new possibility. He was still alive when I translated Genesis, and I would send draft sections to him. Then we would get together and discuss them.
I had one very memorable experience at the end of that project. I had sent him the last batch of drafts and we spoke on the phone and he said, “Listen, I have to be at the cancer center tomorrow afternoon for a treatment and it’s actually pretty boring. Why don’t you come over and we’ll talk about your translation?”
I still have this vivid visual memory—I came in, and there’s a big clock in his treatment room. The clock said five after one. Amos and I began to talk about the translation. We went on from verse to verse. When I looked up at that big clock again, it was about ten after four. During those three hours, everything ominous around us—the IV tubes going into his arm, the treatment room, the fact that he was dying of cancer—had disappeared. We just entered together into this world of learning and intellectual investigation. That moment, you might say, was a model I will always remember.
Robert Alter is a biblical scholar and the author of 23 books, including his translation of the Hebrew Bible. He is a professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley.
Amos Funkenstein (1937-1995) was the person who had the most important influence on me in terms of my career but also as a role model. What made him so special in the field of Jewish studies was that he was also an expert on the history of Christianity and the history of science. Instead of teaching Jewish studies as a kind of ghettoized field, he made it part of this very large, capacious intellectual world in which the Jews played a major role—but in conversation with all of the great thinkers, starting with Aristotle and going through Thomas Aquinas.
Funkenstein grew up in Jerusalem in an Orthodox family. He was the first Israeli to get a PhD (in medieval history) in Germany. Two years later, in 1967, he was appointed as a professor at UCLA to teach Jewish history, which he had never formally studied at the university level. He gave his students the feeling that you can research, write about and teach anything you put your mind to. I was a graduate student of Funkenstein’s in the mid-1970s, and the idea that you didn’t have to go to a Jewish theological seminary to pursue Jewish studies was incredibly liberating.
I’ve always approached that field as a place to explore questions that were important to me personally, without necessarily imposing my values on the past. So I’ve looked at questions like sexuality and Jewish history, power, blood and so on, where I was asking modern questions of ancient sources without necessarily expecting the sources to give me answers that conform to my values. That dialogue with the past is something else I got from Funkenstein.
He was a phenomenon—one of those people who seemed hatched from the forehead of Zeus knowing everything. At the same time, he was completely egalitarian. It didn’t matter if you were a freshman, if you were a beginning graduate student, if you were a famous scholar—he treated everyone equally. And he established a friendship with his students, which was a great lesson for me in terms of how I’ve related to my students over the years. They are my partners. And I convey to them that they can do whatever interests them, and I will support that. I’ve found, even with undergraduates who know absolutely nothing about Jewish studies, you can throw them into the deep end, and, if the ideas are exciting enough, they’ll want to get the tools they need to understand the texts.
Funkenstein was also eccentric, unorthodox and iconoclastic. He famously convened his classmates at a religious high school in Jerusalem and announced there was no God. That was the kind of guy he was. He liked to attack things that everybody believed in to show that maybe that was the wrong way of thinking about it. It was his Socratic method. In seminars, we would be reading a text, he would pose a question and then we would go around in circles for an hour trying to figure out the answer, never quite getting it. And then his answer was something none of us had thought of. That was the experience of studying with him. I described it once as watching a mind thinking. Total originality.
Actually, most of his undergraduate students couldn’t understand Funkenstein, but they came back over and over again because they realized they were listening to something they would never hear anywhere else. If you were to ask people in the field of Jewish studies today, “Do you know who Amos Funkenstein was?” they might say they’ve heard the name. People need to know about him. He was truly unusual.
David Biale recently retired as professor of Jewish history at the University of California, Davis. His books include Not in the Heavens: The Tradition of Jewish Secular Thought.
As far as I know, Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1933-2020) and I have only two things in common. I learned the first at the White House in 2013. It’s a story I’ve told dozens of times by now because I think it says something fundamental about who Justice Ginsburg was as a person.
My wife and I were invited to one of the annual Hanukkah parties at the White House that year. And because we didn’t know when or if we would ever be invited back again, we debated whether or not to bring our then 7-year-old son along with us. Now, our son is a brilliant, creative, amazing person, but he also has severe ADHD, which was much more of a challenge for him then than it is now. We decided to make a deal with him—we promised to leave the party if things got too hard for him to handle.
Turns out that our son did great getting through security and for the first hour and a half or so at the party. But eventually, as it did get very crowded, he invoked our promise, and we agreed to leave.
As we were walking out, Justice Ginsburg was walking in. I suggested to our son, “Let’s go over and say hello.” As with most breaches of contract, this was a huge mistake. As we approached, he threw a temper tantrum. Literally sitting on top of Justice Ginsburg’s shoes. Right on the buckle of her Ferragamos.
I immediately started to apologize, and Justice Ginsburg, almost as immediately, cut me off. This is what she said: “I have a son. He is almost exactly your age. When he was that age,” she said motioning down to my son, “he acted like this as well. His childhood was a ‘trial.’ But now he is very successful, lives in Chicago, and has a wonderful wife and children. So don’t worry, it will be fine.”
In my line of work, I come across a lot of very smart people all the time. None smarter than Justice Ginsburg. The point here is that she was equally kind. For the rest of my life, I will always be grateful for what she said to me that day.
The second thing Justice Ginsburg and I have in common is that we both worked at the law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. I worked there for 25 years, starting as a summer associate in 1990, Ginsburg in the summer of 1958. Despite her obvious talent, she was not offered a full-time position as a litigation associate at the firm at the end of the summer—the norm for summer associates then and now. The rumor I heard was that Judge Simon Rifkind offered her a job in the tax or trusts & estates departments instead and that she justifiably turned both down. While only Justice Ginsburg knew the truth of what happened, there was likely a simple reason behind it—the partners didn’t believe a woman could, or should, be required to adjust to the demands of being a litigator, particularly a woman like Ginsburg who was already a wife and a mother.
Ginsburg repeatedly experienced, in her formative years, what it was like to be marginalized. She has been quoted as saying that while she did not personally experience antisemitism the way that Justice Louis Brandeis did, she surely experienced gender discrimination. And this is what I most admire about her: She employed her formidable intellect, creativity and command of the law to do something about it.
As founder and director of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, Ginsburg argued six cases before the Supreme Court in the early 1970s, winning five out of six. In case after case, she challenged state and federal laws that enshrined discrimination, and won. While I don’t cite the late Justice Antonin Scalia often, he was 100 percent correct in describing her as “the leading (and very successful) litigator on behalf of women’s rights—the Thurgood Marshall of that cause, so to speak.” It is quite literally the case that I would not be where I am today without her.
Roberta Kaplan is the litigator who successfully argued against the Defense of Marriage Act before the Supreme Court and who recently won a settlement against the leaders of the 2017 Unite the Right rally.
Perhaps every Jewish New Yorker wants to become a comedian on some level. I started out as a humor columnist before I became earnest and deadly. When my career turned toward journalism, I found a kind of intellectual milieu in a group of writers active between 1955 and 1965—people like Jane Jacobs (1916-2006), Rachel Carson (1907-1964), Daniel Bell (1919-2011), Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) and Walter Lippmann (1889-1974). I read the magazines they wrote for and it was a world I wanted to enter. (If you had asked me back then who ran the universe, I would have said, well, obviously it’s the people who work at The New Republic!)
These were nonfiction writers, a little more highbrow than journalists but a little more lowbrow than academics. And they were ambitious; they wrote these big books on big subjects. I mean, Niebuhr wrote a book called The Nature and Destiny of Man—that covers a lot of ground. Bell wrote The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, about how a society that relies on self-discipline was creating a consumer culture that rewarded spending and borrowing. These were big themes, not from a specific academic discipline but taking the whole sweep of American life into their grasp. And these writers were moralistic in a good way, asking: “What is a just life? What is a just society? How are we falling short?” So they became role models for me, at least professionally.
When I was 25 I was the book review editor for The Wall Street Journal. One week I noticed that every book reviewer was over 85 years old, and they had all been contributors to Partisan Review—a tremendously influential “little” magazine—in the 1950s, which was a time of great cultural and intellectual ferment. I found the debates in these pages entrancing. These writers had the idea that a book review could change the world.
Once everything became more academic, a lot of those people were swallowed up writing boring papers for academic journals. I think we’re recovering the popular intellectual tradition a bit—there are more places, like Moment, where you can do that sort of grand analysis.
Switching gears, Bruce Springsteen (b. 1949) is someone I discovered when I was 13 and never stopped listening to. And I’ve often wondered how, if you spend so much time listening to a certain musician, that person influences you. Psychologists have a saying: Some people need tightening, and some people need loosening. Growing up in a New York Jewish intellectual household, I was definitely in the latter category. But Springsteen brought an operatic, uninhibited and raw passion to my life and also a deeply moral sense about the marginalized and the dispossessed—and our obligation to them. For most of my life, my politics were quite different from Springsteen’s, but that level of moral concern is something I got partly from him and partly from my grandmother.
The heady mentality I grew up around was all about argument. Springsteen—and music in general—is, by contrast, about story. There are some truths about people you can’t capture in argument—you have to tell stories about them, including their motives and their goals. How bad luck or things outside our control can ruin or bless a life. And so, with Springsteen you really get the human person in full form; songs like “Rosalita” are explosions of joy, and then you’ve got others like “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” “The River” or “Racing in the Street” that are about lives that have gone horribly wrong. Like I said, I needed to get out of my head and into my body, and Springsteen is a guy who enables you to do that.
David Brooks is a New York Times columnist and a regular commentator on the PBS NewsHour. His books include The Road to Character and The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life.
After careful consideration, I have realized that I do not really have any role models. There were people I admired, but no one about whom I said, “I want to be just like her” or “What would she do?” My number-one rule in life has always been “Know yourself and be yourself,” and no matter how many people thought they knew what the first woman rabbi in America should be like or look like, I always tried my best just to be me. As a result, I have become a role model for others, something many people have conveyed to me during this past year celebrating the 50th anniversary of my ordination.
A man I greatly admired and who was most responsible for my ordination and the subsequent ordination of women as rabbis was Nelson Glueck (1900-1971), president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He was passionate about things of importance to him, and he had a certain charm that inspired others to dream bigger and do more. The higher horizon to which he aspired enabled him to envision a day when women would serve the Jewish people as rabbis. From the moment I arrived in Cincinnati for rabbinical school, I knew he believed in me, and I was conscious of the fact that ordaining a woman as a rabbi was a decision being made not by the Reform movement but by the College-Institute under his leadership.
Unfortunately, he died the year before I was ordained. I was devastated, but his wife Helen, a distinguished physician and researcher, told me that before he died, he said there were three things he wanted to live to do, and one of them was to ordain me. I cherish a letter she sent to me, which ends: “I have already told you how meaningful your ordination would have been for him and how he would have loved to have seen that day. I am sure when I see you ordained, in my mind’s eye I will see his hands on your shoulders, for no matter whose hands are there the meaning will be clear, the continuity of Jewish life and his immortality of spirit.”
I continue to be motivated by my female colleagues, who inspire me with their enormous creativity and faithful devotion to the Jewish community and all humanity. Shortly after my ordination, a Jewish scholar said that female rabbis would be little more than a footnote in history. “Gam zeh ya-avor,” he said. “This too shall pass.” Fortunately for all of us, it didn’t, and today there are well over 1,000 female rabbis of all denominations throughout the world.
Sally J. Priesand was the first female rabbi in the United States, ordained in 1972 by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Ohio.
While Christianity and Islam are very good at macrocosmic issues like building nations and empires, the Jewish faith has focused much more on the microcosmic: How do you build a strong family? How do you have a passionate marriage? How do you raise and inspire children? And above all else, how do you live justly and righteously? Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968), more than anyone else that I know of, leveraged the Hebrew Bible to make American men, women and children feel that God called on them for justice and righteousness. That if a Black child was being bitten by a police dog in Birmingham, Alabama, it mattered to you sitting in Los Angeles, California.
We Jews so often treat our Bible as a page of history. We struggle to get people to go to shul to hear the Bible read on Shabbat. And here was Dr. King bringing the words of Zechariah, Jeremiah, and Micah, making them into a living, breathing document of freedom.
Committed, scholarly and morally courageous, he created an army based on words. Based on morality. The question was whether King could use biblical ideals of justice to shame white Americans into doing the right thing sooner. Could he reach their conscience somehow? It was a very risky proposition, and he did pay for it with his life. But as I’m someone who seeks the relevance of my faith to modern times every single day, he’s a hero to me. Always has been.
Next, I’d like to talk about two people at the same time: the Lubavitcher Rebbe (1902-1994) and Theodor Herzl (1860-1904). Herzl decided, based on his experience of European antisemitism, that the only solution to antisemitism was a Jewish state—that as long as Jews lived on European land, they would always be hated. If Israel doesn’t come into existence within the next 50 years, he said, a cataclysm beyond the imagination is going to happen. And the tragedy, of course, is that the creation of the State of Israel was five or six years too late; most of our people were murdered in the Holocaust because they had nowhere to go.
The Rebbe came along and said, “Wait a second. I get Israel. I’m passionate about Israel, but are you really saying that we Jews should not be a global religion? Are you saying that when Israelis leave the State of Israel, they shouldn’t even have a shul to go to when they go to visit Paris? When Israeli soldiers finish their three years in the IDF and they travel to Nepal, to Argentina, that they should have no Jewish experience, that they should be lost to their people? Judaism must be a global religion.” And I think for the longest time, these two visions were seen as being in conflict; Zionism was a replacement for Jewish globalism and Jewish universalism, while Jewish universalism and globalism were a dismissal of Israel as a nation-state.
The Rebbe said, “We have to have both.” Even when Israel became a great success—the soaring buildings, the technology sector, the yeshivas, the army, the young people, the tourism—and some were writing off the diaspora, he sent his emissaries to live in Bangkok, Thailand; Tulsa, Oklahoma; Sydney, Australia; Oxford, England, and so on.
Herzl and the Rebbe are the two great Jewish visionaries of the past half millennium. And if you were to ask which vision has been more successful, you would be hard pressed to choose. Israel is the greatest miracle and yet people are in awe of what Chabad has achieved. It’s a melding of Jewish globalism and Jewish particularism: the nation-state and the global space. And that’s why the Rebbe and Herzl are such important role models.
Shmuley Boteach is an Orthodox rabbi, author and TV host whose 31 books include Kosher Sex: A Recipe for Passion and Intimacy and Kosher Jesus.
Murray Feshbach (1929-2019) was a demographer who studied Soviet census data throughout the Cold War and discovered truths that conflicted with the Soviet Union’s official success propaganda and with the arguments of Cold War players who saw in the USSR a potent enemy state. The military might of the USSR may have been formidable, but life expectancy there was declining; maternal death rates were on a par with undeveloped countries; the hospitals were terrible; the environmental pollution was shortening life spans; birth rates were down; the primary form of birth control was abortion and women had so many that uterine injury was common; and birth defects were on the rise, suggesting poor prenatal health. Murray described the Soviet Union as it was: a nation in collapse, a system broken.
Public health indices had improved after the Russian Revolution and brought Russia closer to European standards, but by 1960 they were veering back to Third World levels. Murray was brimming with data and illustrative stories: the heart clinic that was a walk-up. The number of rural hospitals that had no running water. The region near the Finnish border where life expectancy was at a low for the Soviet Union. Murray spoke with digressions in his digressions within his larger digressions, and when I would suggest interviewing him, my producer colleagues, who would have to cut the interview, would run and hide under their desks (figuratively). But he was uniquely well informed and, to the modest extent that I knew him, a delightful guy.
I would say that he helped the world understand why the Soviet bloc was collapsing, without focusing on GDP or the number of missiles under Russian control. His was, ultimately, a holistic view of what leads to a society’s undoing: failures of health, welfare and environment.
I would also cite Edward R. Murrow (1908-1965) as a role model for setting the standards of the trade that I plied: courage, integrity and an insistence on training first his microphone and then his camera on the most important issues of the day. He was a war correspondent during World War II who reported on the resolve of Britain when appeasers thought the UK was a lost cause, and later on he described the liberation of Buchenwald with a powerful if dispassionate precision. He took on Joseph McCarthy and, equally, the plight of impoverished migrant farm laborers. And he brought passion, intellect and clarity to a business in which cynical windbaggery can prove very successful. Murrow’s protégés included my late colleague and friend Dan Schorr, Marvin Kalb, Fred W. Friendly—his producer and later head of CBS News who was also my professor in graduate school—and the thousands of younger broadcasters who took him as a model, myself included.
Robert Siegel is special literary contributor at Moment and former senior host of NPR’s All Things Considered.
I was introduced to Ruth Messinger (b. 1940) after she had just taken over as the executive director of the American Jewish World Service. It was 1998, I was just out of rabbinical school and Ruth blew my mind with her vision to take this small organization and expand it into a global one. What was so influential for me was her understanding of tikkun olam, of changing the world, meaning not just Jews helping Jews, but Jews helping all people. I’ve always found it to be very important for us to have an embodied sense of our spirituality and an understanding of tzedakah (to do what is right and just). To not be so insular; to be expansive.
Ruth is a boundary-pusher in every arena where she stands, whether it is political, global, justice or Jewish. Growing up as women in America, we’re encumbered by questions: What do they think of me? Do I belong here? and so on. Ruth encouraged me to care less about what people thought of me and more about what I was doing in the world. It has been a lesson I share with women on my journey all the time. We do belong, and we are here to change the world.
Gilda Radner (1946-1989) is another major role model of mine. And it’s partly because when I was a kid, I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to be a rabbi or a standup comic. (People ask, how did you decide? And I say, well, I’m both. I mean, how great is it that every Friday night I have a built-in audience?) My mom and I watched Gilda Radner every week on Saturday Night Live. Roseanne Roseannadanna and her other characters were incredible to me, as was the fact that Gilda didn’t hide anything about her Judaism (and in fact, she married a nice Jewish boy, Gene Wilder). Moreover, most Jewish comics were men, so she was inspirational in that sense. As a comedian she was unique and brilliant and so smart. Her combination of eccentricity and authenticity made me understand the power of laughter and how you can take on difficult things by laughing at them. There was a series of sketches she did with Bill Murray called “The Nerds” (she was “Lisa”; he was “Todd”) that stands out in my memory. I was a queer kid living in Highland Park, Illinois—in the suburbs where there were a lot of Jews but not a lot of queer people. I was a weirdo and a little bit of a nerd. And so, to have people love Gilda so much and see her being the nerd was also something that gave me comfort for my future. Maybe I wasn’t going to be a nerd the rest of my life. Maybe people weren’t just going to laugh at me, they would laugh with me.
As the very first woman in history to be ordained as a rabbi, Regina Jonas (1902-1944) is a role model to me in terms of her tenacity, conviction and humanity. For a woman to want to be a rabbi in the 1920s and 1930s wasn’t just unheard of; it was verboten. And here’s this young woman in Berlin who writes a thesis daring to make the case that no law prohibited a woman from being ordained.
And while I knew of Jonas, it wasn’t until I went to Berlin and visited the places where she lived that I read a direct quote from her, in which she said that her desire to become a rabbi was based on her love of humanity and her devotion to God. I wanted to be a rabbi for very similar reasons—I loved people and could see the cruelty and the immense goodness in them; caring and love and compassion are what drew me to the rabbinate. The fact that she served as a rabbi in the 1930s gives me a lot of strength, because to this day, there are people in the Jewish world who don’t think that I, or any woman, should be a rabbi.
Jonas was ordained in 1935 and worked as a pastoral counselor in the Jewish hospital in Berlin. As rabbis were being deported, she stepped in at liberal synagogues. Then she was deported to Theresienstadt, where she served as a rabbi preaching and comforting. And from firsthand accounts, she was an incredible inspiration to fellow inmates at Auschwitz, where she herself was murdered.
I appreciate being asked to think about and talk about my role models. I base a lot of my own spiritual strength on these three and many other women.
Sydney Mintz is a rabbi at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco and a member of the U.S. State Department’s Working Group on Religion and Social Justice.
I first began to seriously consider role models after a 2019 conversation with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1933-2020) in her chambers during which she talked about some of hers. This conversation led to our collaboration on a book about women role models, which immersed me in the topic and became the inspiration for this Big Question project.
During the years I knew her, Justice Ginsburg became one of my role models. I imbibed some of her no-nonsense clarity of purpose, her perseverance and her willingness to say outright that the presence of women much improved the tone of private deliberations at the Supreme Court. I came away a more resolved feminist with higher expectations. She also modeled how a naturally reticent person could learn to speak out publicly. When I once told her that I preferred being behind the scenes, she said resolutely, “Get over it. If you do not speak your mind, no one will speak it for you.”
Another role model of mine is the Judean queen Salome Alexandra (139 BCE-67 BCE), who successfully led a nation in her own name. Her rule so impressed Flavius Josephus that he not only included a woman in his historical chronicle (a rare occurrence throughout history) but praised her for her wise leadership. Despite this, she is barely remembered, even though decisions she made led to the focus on learning in rabbinic Judaism, making it possible for Judaism to survive the fall of the Second Temple.
Compared to her, another of my heroes, global shipping magnate Gracia Mendes Nasi (1510-1569), is enjoying something of a public renaissance. In addition to transcending the laws and customs that prevented women of her time from owning and running a business, Nasi saved large numbers of Jews from the Inquisition. Less known is that she also envisioned and created a homeland for Jewish refugees in Ottoman Palestine. Fiery crusader Ernestine Rose (1810-1892) is another one of my role models. The daughter of a strict rabbi in Poland, she had the chutzpah at 16 to take her father to civil court to fight for the right to control her own money and avoid an arranged marriage. She argued the case herself and won. Decades later Rose became one of the trio of women leading the American suffragist movement along with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Astonishingly, she is practically forgotten, but I hope I have absorbed some of her indomitable determination and power. Lillian Wald (1867-1940) was visionary in her understanding that poverty was a social issue and not a personal failing. She believed that sick people, rich or poor, deserved access to quality health care and could be taught how to protect themselves from dangerous diseases. Wald was strong enough not to care about what women were supposed to do or not do, or with what people thought of her. Instead, she founded the fields of community nursing and public health, creating programs that we take for granted today. She also helped found the NAACP.
There are many leaders, past and present, from whom I try to learn. Two come to mind today: Yitzhak Rabin (1922-1995), the Israeli prime minister whose assassination led to the crumbling of hopes for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Why is he a role model to me? For his evolution from warrior to peacemaker, for his ability to see what might be and for his courage to seize a moment and move forward. Conversely, I have learned from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (b. 1978), who has evolved from comedian and actor to warrior in defense of his country’s freedom.
In contemplating my role models, I must mention two Holocaust survivors. Elie Wiesel (1928-2016), the Romanian-born cofounder of this magazine, was both a mentor and a friend. His attention to words, exemplified in Night and his many other books, and his clarity of thought are traits I work on having, as well as his curiosity and joy in the tumult of Jewish thought. On a personal level, he encouraged me to be myself and find my own voice. Much earlier, the Austrian psychologist Victor Frankl (1905-1997) spoke to me through the pages of his 1946 book, Man’s Search for Meaning, which I was so struck by that I carried it around in my backpack for months in my 20s. His argument that the ultimate test is to find meaning in our lives and that it is in our power to do so, regardless of our health, wealth or circumstances, resonated with me. No matter how miserable or dire things are, no matter how much we are suffering, we retain the ability to choose our attitude. It’s how we react to suffering that counts, and purpose is our superpower. I hold this message close.
Now that I’ve started thinking about role models, I understand that I am made up of the qualities of many people I admire, a construction of their strengths and values mingled with my own. We all are such inventions, whether we recognize it or not.
Nadine Epstein is the editor-in-chief of Moment Magazine.