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What I learned from Rachel Brodie by Jhos Singer

It is not so much what I learned from Rachel Brodie that is noteworthy, but how I continually learned from her. Many years ago, my beloved spouse, the lovely Julie Batz, called me into our office to watch a YouTube video of her Hollywood heartthrob, Patrick Stewart doing a brief “Master Class” on the comedic device he calls the quadruple take. He reviews the single take, in which an actor turns their head very deliberately towards an object or person who is calling their attention. The effect may be to convey humorous disbelief or incredulity. The double take has the actor slightly inclining their head, returning to neutral, and then making a full turn to the source of their interest. This intensifies the effect. Similarly with the triple take but as I’m sure you have surmised, this time the actor turns their head in three incrementally larger arcs until finally focusing on the object. And then there is the quadruple take. This is a totally different move. Here the actor basically winds their head around in 4 circles before landing on the perplexing object. The quadruple take is pure slapstick, an exaggerated, cartoon-like reaction to something so outlandish that it literally sends one’s head spinning. And that is usually how I learned from Brodie—first take, second take, third take, and fourth take. Her subtle genius—first take. Her provocative assertions—double take. Her rapid-fire wit/wisdom/wit/wisdom teaching style—triple take. And her out of the box deconstructed Torah put back together in a whole new way—quadruple take.

The first time I met Brodie was as her reluctant and cynical student. I had been told all about what a genius she was, what a fantastic teacher, how incredibly she gave over Torah, and how I was going to love her. I can say with some surety that the most reliable way to pit a strong-willed, talented, and ever-so-slightly insecure person against someone else is to say “So-and-so is SOOOO AMAZING, you are going to love them!!” I was certain that this Rachel Brodie was, at the very least, overrated, if not a downright fraud. “You have to come hear Rachel Brodie teach next week!” I was commanded. I wanted to get it over with, so I said, “OK, what is she teaching on?” “Women in the Torah!” I had studied with every Feminist Torah scholar the Bay Area had to offer and I was over it. “Perfect!” I chortled, certain that this would be a “one and done” and the end of Rachel Brodie for me.

Of course, you know what happened. I went and spent the entire night single, double, and triple taking. She was brilliant. She was masterful. She was hilarious. She was in total command. She made me cry. She was the most generous teacher I had ever learned with. Somehow, she managed to fill every nook and cranny of the room with her energy one minute, and the next she was tsim-tsuming, creating sacred space for the questions and insights of the learners. She learned from every person in the room without pandering or patronizing. She listened deeply, carefully, thoughtfully. I walked out of that classroom into the night doing a quadruple take, mind blown, life changed.

Brodie and I became friends, occasional chavruta, reliable thought partners, goofball buddies, and workmates. In 2012 she was the CJO (Yep, Chief Jewish Officer) of the JCCSF and she hired me to be her side-kick Maggid (a position I still hold as of 2023) which allowed me to see more of the Wizard behind the curtain. She struggled with getting the right balance of Jewish truth and accessibility; she wrestled with sorting out Jewish particularity from universal spirituality; she puzzled over what was explicit and what was implicit; she pushed everyone on the team to hone our work to a razor’s edge. It was maddening, mind-boggling, and magical work.

Once, we were driving across the Golden Gate bridge on our way home from work. We were bantering, trash talking, and generally being snarky—blowing off steam at the end of a long and frustrating day. Once that therapeutic exercise had run its course, we steered back to a sober assessment of our work. “Brodie,” I said, “I don’t know how you do it… You show up and teach with integrity this baffling, beautiful, and broken thing we call Judaism. And, I dunno, I feel like we are up against a tidal wave of dumbed down Jewish pedagogy, you know? Like, Noah’s Ark is NOT a happy animal story for children!! But it sells, and I don’t know what to do with that…”. She said “hmmm…” in this loving, compassionate, sing-song way. She lingered in quiet for a few moments and then shared her secret, “Assume positive intent, Jhos. Always assume positive intent.” I didn’t do a single, double, triple, or quadruple take, although I was, in fact, dumbfounded. Rather, I silently nodded, knot in throat, grateful for that gift of her vulnerability, and the deep, tender, truth that she lovingly taught, as always, at just the right moment.

Jhos Singer is a dynamic preacher, storyteller, pastoral counselor, and musician.

Other Pieces Remembering Rachel Brodie z”l