Rabbi Tali Artman-Partock
Rabbi Larry Becker Rabbi Emeritus
If you think you lead a busy life, here is what new Rabbi Dr Tali Artman-Partock packs into her day.
Tali, who is 43, is studying to be a psychoanalyst. She is also a writer and was a broadcaster and journalistbefore turning to academia. She has a BA in Psychology and Hebrew Literature and a Ph.D. in Rabbinic Literature. And she still manages topublish academic articles ranging from ‘Why there are no Jewish womenin hell?’, ‘The status of intersex people in Judaism’, and ‘ Humour inrabbinic literature’.
Born in Israel she came to the UK in 2014 and became a lecturer in the Faculty of Divinity at Cambridge University and also at Leo Baeck College.
“I live by that old saying,” she says, “that if you enjoy what you do, then you don’t work a day in your life!”
She has been a student rabbi at the South West Essex and Settlement Reform Synagogue at Ilford in Essex for the past couple of years and is thrilled at the prospect of staying in the Redbridge area and following in the footsteps of Rabbi Larry Becker who has held the post at Sukkat Shalom or Tabernacle of Peace since 2008.
She loves the fact that shalom is prominent in the community’s title. “Not many shuls have the word Shalom in them and are really peaceful,” she adds with a smile.
“The Synagogue celebrates its 40th birthday this year. The age of 40 in Jewish mystical tradition represents transition and change or a new beginning. It is a young community with a huge potential for growth. So many young families are now seeking a good family life in the East London suburbs and one of my ambitions is to encourage families to become involved in community life here and re-establish the tradition of Jewish Youth clubs in collaboration with our neighbouring Reform and Liberal communities.
“Many people think of Judaism as fixated on halacha which of course is important. But there’s so much joy in Judaism that is often overlooked. Jewish life in the UK is something to fight for. It is important to preserve our culture. We have a diverse community and it is something to be proud of.”
Rabbi Tali’s posting even now comes as something of a surprise to her. “You know, if I were still living in Israel I wouldn’t have trained to be a Rabbi. It would have made little difference. But now in the UK with my husband and 2 children here, and another child back home in Israel, I know I have so much to give.”
And by the way, she insists she does sleep, usually drifting off before her head touches the pillow.
Reprinted from the Jewish Chronicle in September 2021
British Jewry has always been an importer of rabbis. Once we looked to Central and Eastern Europe to replenish our clerical stock; more recently, North American accents could be heard booming from the bimah. Now Israelis have begun popping up in the pulpit.
Last week Dr Tali Artman-Partock from Jerusalem celebrated her first Shabbat as the new rabbi of Sukkat Shalom Reform Synagogue in Wanstead, East London. Trained at London’s Leo Baeck College, she follows other Israeli rabbis such as Irit Shillor (Harlow Reform) and Yuval Keren (Southgate Progressive), earlier graduates of the college’s semichah course.
But when she arrived in the UK seven years ago, she had no idea she’d become a rabbi.
She grew up in a “very secular” family — although immediately qualifying the description. “I think what is considered secular in Israeli is in many ways practicing Reform”. But such is the politics of organised Judaism in Israel that “people may not identify as Reform even though their practice is completely Reform”.
In her youth, the prevailing Zionist ethos meant “you loved your country and you loved the Bible” but “everything that came in between and was associated with exile was something you were not supposed to know about and care about.” Preservation of that was “outsourced” to the Orthodox. Beyond her brothers’ Barmitzvahs and sometimes on High Holy Days, she did not set foot in synagogue.
What changed was coming to the Hebrew University to study psychology and Hebrew literature. She was required to study literature from different periods including rabbinic literature — and that proved “mind-blowing”.
But she had to transcend an initial resistance. “Did they really expect me to believe all those stories that made absolutely no sense — frogs that were bigger than trees, a fish that is actually an island? Like many people I came with this naïve concept, that you are meant to read those texts literally.”
It took a while to understand that this literature was “a wonderful playground in which people can experiment with thinking” — exploring what it is to be human and the limits of reality, which “gets you into thinking and reflecting about life itself”. Having once aspired to specialise in modern Hebrew poetry, she did a doctorate in rabbinics.
Midrash, which is “still my greatest love”, is “put into the most beautiful, compelling, literary form and it is tiny. The beauty of Midrash is sometimes you can take five lines and in those five lines of narrative, you get a whole universe. It should be read like poetry.”
She worked as a journalist for IDF Radio until able to pursue her academic interests full-time. A “secular woman” in the “ultra-Orthodox field of Talmud and Midrash”, she was making a statement, that “this heritage does not only belong in Mea Shearim, but… to every Jew.”
When she came with her family to Cambridge in 2014, it was to enjoy a post-doctoral fellowship for a year or two. A conference she jointly organised on humour in rabbinic literature led to an invitation to teach at Leo Baeck College.
At the same time, she was being inducted into the ways of diaspora life and sampled both Orthodox and Reform synagogues in Cambridge, where she still lives..
“Because I grew up unaffiliated, I didn’t understand what a rabbi does. But slowly, slowly, I understood that what it means in the UK is basically congregating a congregation — bringing a community of people together and giving them a sense of pride in their cultural identity and opportunity to study and relate to it.” And that appealed to her.
When she enrolled as a rabbinic student — her textual knowledge enabled her to do the five-year course in three — she envisaged an educational role afterwards.
But it was the “human interaction” she experienced as a trainee that drew her to the possibility of being a community rabbi — moments such as trying to find an appropriate word from tradition to say to a bereaved family, when “suddenly a rabbi becomes someone you turn to, even though you may not engage with any rabbi throughout your life.”
Or when “I talk to cheder children about prayer as meditation or a way to disengage from this world and go into a fantasy world — like when you are playing a video game. It’s this interpreting of religion into tools to live by that became for me a pursuit.”
She felt she could offer more as a rabbi here than in Israel, where there are many others like her “and the future of Judaism does not feel like it rests on me”. Whereas for Jewish Israelis, Jewish identity is a given, in the diaspora where people have to make a conscious choice to be “a link in the chain of Jewish generations, it is much harder. It is much more of a challenge”.
Attached as a trainee to South-West Essex Reform Synagogue, she did some teaching for neighbouring Sukkat Shalom, a community she describes as “super-friendly and relaxed” with an openness to experiment and willingness to learn.
Rabbi Artman-Partock will combine her rabbinic mission with continuing to teach in Cambridge University’s divinity faculty. She also starts an introductory course to train as a psychoanalyst next month.
While the author of scholarly articles on topics such as the sages’ attitude to intersex people and currently researching the definition of rape in Jewish tradition, she has something else in mind for education at Sukkat Shalom.
“In my first year, I am going to focus on teaching fun stuff from rabbinic literature. You think mermaids came from Scandinavia, and vampires from American TV or Romania and Dracula, or demons are something that came from anime shows — but you start looking at the Talmud and you have all of that.
“You have your werewolves and your mermaids and your mermen as well and a whole host of imaginary creatures, which I dearly love, because they help us think about the boundaries of our reality but also because they remind us that our tradition can be fun.”