Sal­ly Opened Doors: The Sto­ry of the First Woman Rabbi

Sandy Eisen­berg Sas­so; Margeaux Lucas, illus. 

  • Review
By – September 9, 2022

The mod­ern era has intro­duced many changes into the lives of Jew­ish women. Undoubt­ed­ly, one of the most notable was the Reform movement’s 1972 ordi­na­tion of Sal­ly Priesand as the first Amer­i­can female rab­bi. As a token of our grat­i­tude, we have the very Jew­ish oblig­a­tion to teach chil­dren about her coura­geous per­sis­tence. Priesand did indeed open doors for those women, and men, who acknowl­edged the need for gen­der reform in tra­di­tion­al Jew­ish spaces. Fifty years lat­er, Sandy Eisen­berg Sas­so and Margeaux Lucas have craft­ed an acces­si­ble intro­duc­tion to Rab­bi Priesand’s life, per­fect for young read­ers who may not real­ize how firm­ly shut those doors once were.

While Lucas’s pic­tures cap­ture the time peri­od, they also depict a mod­ern­iza­tion that is cen­tral to Priesand’s quest. For instance, when she and a friend are con­vers­ing about the like­ly oppo­si­tion to women in the rab­binate, their dark brown hair and mid-cen­tu­ry fab­ric pat­terns stand out against the more gener­ic con­gre­gants seat­ed in front of them.

For Sasso’s part, much of the sto­ry relies on invent­ed dia­logue to advance the nar­ra­tive. While each sen­tence accu­rate­ly reflects the atti­tudes of the era, the cumu­la­tive effect is some­what ide­o­log­i­cal. I now know what I want to do. I want to be a rab­bi … like you,” remarks one grate­ful young woman. Priesand’s skep­ti­cal friend, whose jaw dropped” at the mere notion of female rab­bis, warns her that no one will accept her aspi­ra­tions: Sal­ly … look around! Women serve cof­fee, tea, and cake after ser­vices … they nev­er take out the Torah.” There is no dis­put­ing the real­i­ty of these prej­u­dices, but the char­ac­ters who artic­u­late them seem more like sym­bol­ic adver­saries than real people.

Sal­ly Opened Doors is effec­tive in that it focus­es on the most impor­tant parts of Priesand’s life, sim­pli­fy­ing cer­tain issues for young read­ers and main­tain­ing the momen­tum of an excit­ing sto­ry. Yet some nuances are impor­tant. One vis­i­tor to Priesand’s syn­a­gogue rude­ly con­tends, A woman rab­bi? Out­ra­geous! You start open­ing the door to change, and this is what hap­pens.” Here it would be appro­pri­ate for Sas­so to com­ment on the irony of his objec­tion. Reform Judaism, after all, was pred­i­cat­ed on a per­ceived need for change. Priesand’s main con­cern was not resis­tance to change in gen­er­al, but the hypocrisy of those who opposed reform pure­ly on the basis of gender.

Sas­so and Lucas show­case a Priesand who refus­es to let naysay­ers dis­cour­age her. Adults read­ing this book with chil­dren will have oppor­tu­ni­ties to dis­cuss the lim­its imposed on women in the past and present, and to con­sid­er the ways in which a lit­tle bit of anger might be pro­duc­tive in the face of ongo­ing inequal­i­ty. We are for­tu­nate to have this new resource about a trail­blaz­ing Jew­ish fem­i­nist who would not take no for an answer.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

Discussion Questions