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Ordained, at Last

What do you do when you discover a dozen rabbis in your family tree? You join them.

Lisa Klug
November 28, 2023
Rav Yosef Caro, Rabbi Yehuda Hai Alkalai, and the author. In the background is the nameplate of Rav Ben-Zion Alcalay’s book ‘Kisaot Mishpat’

Tablet Magazine

Rav Yosef Caro, Rabbi Yehuda Hai Alkalai, and the author. In the background is the nameplate of Rav Ben-Zion Alcalay’s book ‘Kisaot Mishpat’

Tablet Magazine

This summer, I was ordained as an Orthodox rabbi. In retrospect, I’ve been skirting joining the fold for decades—without realizing it.

In my 20s, while dating a rabbinical student, I took a few classes at his program, which shall remain unnamed. We weren’t right for each other: not the guy, not the school.

Hadassah magazine later asked me to report on what was then an emerging trend: Orthodox women rabbis. On visits to Jerusalem, I studied Talmud with the late Rabbi Arie Strikovsky, who ordained one woman in my article, Haviva Ner-David. When Rav Strikovsky asked, “Do you want to become a rabbi, too?” I shook my head. “Oh no,” I said. “Not me.”

At Berkeley Hillel, I attended a lecture by Rabbi Avi Weiss, co-founder of Yeshivat Maharat, which trains Orthodox women rabbis in New York. When he asked a question, my answer floated through the crowd of several hundred people. Excitedly he responded, “Who said that?” I raised my hand. He extended his arm, pointed straight at me, and proclaimed with a verbal thunderbolt: “You should become a maharat!”

And when I published my first humor book in 2008—Cool Jew: The Ultimate Guide for Every Member of the Tribe—I designed the cover to resemble a religious sefer, with faux leather and gold lettering, and bling (because, why not be extra?). In that spirit, I figured the book also deserved a letter of rabbinic endorsement. Since friends jokingly morph my surname into quirky diminutives, who better to write a mock haskama praising the book’s contents, and myself for that matter, than my alter ego, the “Klugerebbie”?

Fifteen years after I pretended I was a rabbi, I was ordained—for real.

As a humorist who became an Orthodox rabbi, I’m the opposite of the late Jackie Mason, an Orthodox rabbi who became a comic. In 2016, I attended a live taping of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert at the Ed Sullivan Theater. Afterward, I spotted Mason nearby having drinks with an entourage. I couldn’t help but stare. Mason caught me in the act, said, “You look familiar,” and invited me to join. If only I’d asked for career advice.

Somehow, my second grade teacher foretold I would become a rabbi. I have no clue what prompted a public school educator to picture a 7-year-old California girl as clergy, but she must have been some kind of seer. What feels like a lifetime later, my mother reminded me of my teacher’s prediction after I enrolled at Beit Midrash Har’El.

Har’El is a rare initiative in which men and women study together for Yoreh Deah smicha. This requires passing six exams in Shabbat, Issur v’Heter, Niddah, an optional test in Kiddushin, and a final comprehensive oral exam on these topics, as well as the laws of Aveilut and Dinei Beit Knesset, with Talmudic scholar and Israel Prize-winner professor Rabbi Daniel Sperber. This translates to the laws of Sabbath, kashrut, family purity, marriage, mourning, and synagogue rituals. Writing this, I still experience an element of shock that it’s behind me. In July, I joined the more than 100 women in the world who have received Orthodox rabbinic ordination or its equivalent.

We go by various titles: rabbi, rabbanit, rebbetzin, maharat, meshivat halacha, darshanit. I favor rabba, which also connotes abundance, and, in the spirit of the many Ladino-speaking rabbis in my family, Rubisa Lisa. Perhaps it’s hashgacha pratit—Divine providence—such a whimsical honorific fulfills my forgotten childhood prophesy.

I studied for Orthodox ordination for multiple reasons—including, simply, because I could. This may sound flippant but this plain phrase, “I could,” is relevant because, as opposed to say even 30 years ago, advanced halachic inquiry among women is now widely accessible. We are of the (nearly) limitless generation. As my late father, a Holocaust survivor from a shtetl in Poland, frequently told me, “You can do anything if you put your mind to it.” Born 100 years ago, my father watched opportunities develop for women. How I wish he were here to celebrate this milestone. In actuality, his passing was a critical motivator to improve my Jewish literacy and, hopefully, be of service.

When people ask what’s ahead, I don’t know yet. I’m already older than Rabbi Akiva. The surprise that I earned the title of rabbi is intrinsically linked to the many other ways the pandemic has been laced with disbelief. As a friend observed, it’s not just that I’ve been working toward this goal the past three years. “It’s been your whole life,” she said.

And she’s right, though it was hardly planned. I am an accidental rabbi who never had a bat mitzvah. While my family regularly attended a Conservative shul with an Orthodox rav who was a refugee like my father, I had a very spotty Sunday school Jewish education. I could sing certain parts of Kabbalat Shabbat as a child because I knew them by heart. I didn’t learn the alef-bet until I enrolled in Hebrew my first week at UC Berkeley. Now, after considering the intricacies of a non-Jewish maid milking your “Jewish cow,” it’s easier to imagine why Jews are so neurotic.

As the Shulchan Aruch, the code of Jewish law, explains (Yoreh Deah 115), if you know your non-Jewish maid is milking your cow, but you’re sitting down, and you can’t see her milking, but you could if you stood up, then the milk is kosher. That’s as long as you know there is no pig in her living quarters, but even if a few drops of pig milk fell into her pail, as long as you didn’t know it until after she added kosher milk to the pail, well that’s a different story, and it could potentially be nullified and … you get the picture. It’s a massive flow chart of conditions. In some ways, similar mental gymnastics may characterize any given topic. I’m stunned how much I love it. 

This path snuck up on me because it was free-range: serpentine, independent. In retrospect, it looks astonishingly linear. After I gained Hebrew skills, I grew in my religious observance, taught myself how to daven, recite kiddush and havdalah, kasher my home for Passover, and perform other rituals. I took on many other practices that nourish my spiritual life, including almost 10 years of experimenting with baby steps before I committed to formally keeping Shabbat. As my observance grew, it brought me closer to my father, who hailed from a large hasidishe family before the Shoah tore them apart and made him a war orphan. 

When my father passed in 2014, I brought his body for burial from California to Israel and decided to recite kaddish—a tradition some say dates back several hundred years for women. This was part of a larger commitment to do whatever possible to help elevate my father’s soul. He had suffered so much, I wanted to help ensure he would enjoy the highest afterlife.

Reciting kaddish for my father was healing and supportive in many ways. It gave my mourning structure, purpose, and expression. But praying three times daily at Orthodox minyanim for 11 months was also radicalizing. I witnessed women marginalized, especially in Israel, and often struggled to find a gabbai to unlock the women’s section so I could participate. At most shuls, I consulted the rabbi in advance to confirm I could recite kaddish aloud. Frequently, I was met with frustration, resistance, and ignorance, most disappointingly from women. The worst experience was at the Kotel, where a woman screamed at me while I attempted kaddish. But she was also filled with compassion: A half-hour later, she made space for me at the ancient Kotel stones themselves. (I’m not sure she knew it was me!)

I pursued rabbinic ordination because I am deeply invested in the ongoing evolution of the Jewish people. As Ghandi taught: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” I also see the transformation of our world reflected in my family. As the daughter of immigrants, I inherited a complex narrative, not only of my father’s survival, but also of my mother’s rabbinic heritage as an Alcalay (which is spelled various ways in Latin letters). When I was 10, a newspaper published her account of seeing a namesake rabbi, Yehuda Hai Alkalai, a pioneering advocate for the Jewish state, honored in an exhibit at Mount Herzl.

As the pandemic ensued, and journalism assignments evaporated, I decided to apply to rabbinical school as a means of intensive, structured Torah study. With a limited Talmud background, I faced a steep learning curve. Although I was determined to give the program my all, I wasn’t convinced I would actually earn smicha until I finally did. Meanwhile, my family tree kept fruiting more cousins and rabbis. The alignment that I was studying toward ordination like our forefathers felt uncanny. These two interests, genealogy and Halacha, began to converge as I progressed through each exam and realized I was inching toward what was a family pursuit for 500 years. Apparently, my soul knew, even if my consciousness didn’t. 

The dozen male rabbis I have since identified in my genealogy hail from Sephardic communities. At least one of their wives was a recognized spiritual adviser: my mother’s great aunt Perla, who married the chief rabbi of Haifa, Nissim Ohana. He received male visitors inside the home; women consulted Perla on the balcony. How did she guide them? She put her hand on the Good Book, meditated for a moment, opened its pages, and let her eyes fall on the right words.

Perla apparently inherited her “knowing” from her father, Rav Yitzchak Moshe Perera, a distinguished leader, kabbalist, author, and ritual scribe. He is profiled in The Cross and the Pear Tree: A Sephardic Journey by the late Victor Perera, whom I discovered was my cousin after he joined the faculty at my alma mater, Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. As we say at Passover, dayenu, that could have been enough. 

But for decades, I had passionately sought connections to Alcalays, mainly HaRav Yehuda, but could not establish a direct tie. Finally, in spring 2018, I struck genealogy—and rabbi—gold. This pivotal moment occurred at Jerusalem’s City Hall. The Sephardic archive of pre-state records contains vast holdings. Yet, like Perla, within minutes of my arrival, I found redemption: a difficult-to-decipher Mount of Olives grave listing of my great-grandfather, Rav Moshe Alcalay, who wed Perla’s older sister. The tiny handwritten Hebrew letters confirmed his father’s identity. Rav Ben-Zion Alcalay was a prolific author, kabbalist, and rabbinic emissary who was blinded in childhood. The head archivist was so taken aback by this rapid-fire revelation, he shattered the room’s hushed tone by exclaiming in Hebrew: “This woman receives heavenly help!” Similarly, throughout my studies, when I intuited a halachic stance, I couldn’t help but feel I was somehow guided. I often envisioned Ben-Zion as inspiration and added him to my browser’s toolbar—where he remains.

For so long, my genealogical quest felt like near-futile stringing of rare gems. Suddenly, Ben-Zion unlocked a vast treasure chest. His presumed grandfather dates our presence in the Holy Land to 1740 to the founding of a rebuilt Tiberias. Ben-Zion also authored many books as part of Yeshivat HaMekubalim, a real Hogwarts for kabbalists in Jerusalem’s Old City. And through their “Brotherhood of Beit El,” our family tree extends to Rav Yosef Caro, mystic and compiler of the Shulchan Aruch (circa 1555). But as Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, the scion of the renowned rabbinic family, told me, “Yichus [lineage] is only what you make of it.”

My “making” includes this unfolding narrative, yielding many more twists and turns through the alleyways of Jerusalem and beyond. I remain overwhelmed with gratitude at the synchronicity that led to embracing my family’s rabbinic legacy, from Klugerebbie to Rubisa. And I’m as curious as the next rav as to where this blessing will lead.

Award-winning journalist Lisa Klug is the author of the bestselling pop culture titles Cool Jew, a National Jewish Book Award Finalist, and Hot Mamalah: The Ultimate Guide for Every Woman of the Tribe. Her work has appeared in many outlets, including The Atlantic, Forbes, Forward, Huffington Post and The Los Angeles Times, as well as The New York Times, The Times of Israel, and Variety, where she is a stringer. Visit her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter @lisaklug.