Just when you thought there was nothing new left to say about religion and feminism, along comes "Ima on the Bema," a book as breezy and fresh as a 5-year-old's imagination, a nonviolent assault on sex role stereotyping.
"Ima" (pronounced EE-ma) is Hebrew for "mother"; "bema" translates as "pulpit"; hence the subtitle for the children's book: "My Mommy Is a Rabbi."
Just as matter of factly as more conventional works might detail a visit to daddy's office or helping grandpa on his farm, the book explores, in the language of a slightly precocious 5-year-old, the world of a little girl whose mother is a rabbi.
"Just having a daughter" was what got her thinking about writing the book, explained Rabbi Mindy Portnoy, the author of "Ima on the Bema."
"I really wrote it for her," she said of Ceala Eloise, 3, as well as for her 8-month-old son, Barney Samuel, "in anticipation of the kinds of questions they will be asking when they're a little older."
The book not only provides a daughter's view of what a rabbi does but offers a quick tour of some of the central celebrations of Judaism as well.
Another reason for writing the book, she said, was that familiar complaint of feminists of all persuasions: "I got frustrated in looking at the kinds of books I could buy for her, with their stereotypes of what men and women do."
Women rabbis have been around for more than 15 years in Reform Judaism and in general have found more acceptance than have women clergy in Protestantism. Last year Portnoy finished a five-year term as rabbi with the Hillel Foundation at American University and is now what she calls a "free-lance rabbi."
The rabbi/mommy in her book, however, is more traditional, with "an office in the synagogue" where "many people visit" and where on Friday nights she "leads Shabbat services."
The narration of the daughter in "Ima on the Bema" rings so true to a 5-year-old that it comes as a bit of a jolt to learn that Portnoy's own daughter is only 3 and that Portnoy had to create the book, rather than just follow a youngster around with a pen and paper.
"I do have women friends who are rabbis and who have children who are older," she explained.
The little girl in the book, Rebecca, goes to Shabbat services with her father and they "sit in the front row. Everybody listens to Ima when she talks, but once I saw a man sleeping," the child explains.
Sometimes, says Rebecca in explaining her mother's role in leading and preaching at Shabbat services, "Ima's job doesn't make sense. Jewish people aren't supposed to work on Shabbat and the Jewish holidays, but rabbis have to."
Like any 5-year-old, Rebecca wants to help her mother at whatever she's doing. When a man who "looked sad" went to her mother's office, the child "smiled at him. He smiled back at me. Part of Ima's job is to make people happier, and I try to help Ima do her job."
"Ima on the Bema," illustrated generously by Gaithersburg artist Steffi Rubin, is published by a small Rockville firm, Kar-Ben Copies Inc., established 10 years ago to produce appealing Jewish books for children. The firm will celebrate the new publication tomorrow, 3 to 5 p.m., with a book-signing at the Isaac Franck Jewish Public Library, 11720 Hunter's La. in Rockville.
Portnoy, who lives in Northwest Washington with her husband, Philip L. Breen, a Justice Department lawyer, said her desire to "spend more time with the children" after her second child was born led her to free-lancing.
In Washington, she said, "there are a lot of unaffiliated Jews, with no connections to a synagogue" who need a rabbi for a wedding, for a "naming ceremony for a baby daughter," or who just need to talk to a rabbi.
"Some people don't know where to go. Some, even sophisticated professional people, are intimidated by the thought of calling a big synagogue."
"I see myself as a link between the organized Jewish community and the unorganized."
At the same time, Portnoy said, she has had the opportunity to explore new professional possibilities -- such as writing "Ima on the Bema" -- "to continue my own professional growth."
Although illustrator Rubin's daughter Rebecca served as the model for the illustrations in the book, Portnoy said her 3-year-old girl sees herself in the book and her own rabbi-mommy as the Ima in the book.
Portnoy said she hopes that her book will help her daughter -- all daughters -- escape some of the limitations imposed on earlier generations by their sex.
"Up to now," said Portnoy, "up till the age of 3, she thinks she can do anything boys can do."