New York City in the 1970s produced Jewish kids ducking Judaic restraints in favor of Saturday night fevers at Studio 54, Danceteria, and other dance meccas with alcohol, coke-induced frenzies. However, by the end of the frenetic decade, many former yeshiva girls and boys circumnavigated back to a consideration of religion, marriage and morals. Some tried Jewish Buddhism or Jesus while others returned to Judaic traditions.
Shira Dicker was one of those who was rebellious against Judaic conventions which in her case were guided by her rabbi father. Then, one day on the side of Mount Sinai she met God. Nearly forty years later in 2013, Dicker, 52, remade Jewish tradition with her experiences from the dance floor. She believes that the artistic themes of the Seventies rebellions were flamboyant representatives of the creative tradition of New York Jews.To display her faith model style with ‘70’s flairs, she threw herself a spiced up bat mitzvah dance party during the midnight hours at The JCC’s Shavuot festival. She recapped her religious tribulations and Jewish return in a medley of song and comedy titled The Rabbi's Girls Present: Songs of Religion and Rebellion. She wooed the audience with donated tequila and DJ REL’s music.
The ‘70’s girl says that The Rabbi's Girls was also a sermon "about the mixed messages” she got from growing up with a rabbi father who mixed conservative and feminist messages at home “in the era of sex drugs and rock and roll."
Religious Jews in New York City created modern Orthodoxy, Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism as modes of modern American faith but faced the dilemmas of their liberalizing effects on their kids. In 1975 Midge Decter called this dilemma “liberal parents, radical children.” Now, some ‘70’s children like Dicker who moved away from the more conservative Judaic conventions are revisiting the “disco Judaism” of their high school and college years.
Born in 1960 to a woman from the Bronx, Dicker struck a mother lode of love when she was adopted at the age of five months into a Conservative Jewish rabbi’s household in Douglaston, Queens. First, the adoption was a celebratory moment for her new parents Henry and Rochelle Dicker because they had tried unsuccessfully for six years to procreate a child. Second, her new family was local nobility due to her father's leadership position at the neighborhood synagogue. Her father, Rabbi Henry Dicker, had shepherded the Marathon Jewish Community Center since 1956. Consequently, Shira’s arrival into the family was a community celebration. Later, Dicker ended up in another peachy position as eldest daughter when her parents finally were able to conceive two other children, one boy and one girl.
Of course, growing up as a rabbi’s daughter also created a self-consciousness in Dicker that she was being watched in her honored role. She dutifully studied the Torah and attended Saturday Shabbat services week after week. She also had to share her father with the rest of Douglaston's Jewish community.
In some ways the respect that her father got from the community was like pixie dust on Dicker’s portrait of her father. She fancied that he looked like a Jewish John F. Kennedy. She tucked into her memory moments that showed his loving, compassionate nature. However, she noticed that he was slightly out of sync with the modern world just as she was making her entry into the disco ‘70s.
A tall and skinny youth, Dicker had many unfulfilled hopes for boys which started to come true as her body filled out. A lusty girl arrived into the sexually liberated world of NYC teenagers. She became an avid reader of racy books like the coming of age diary Go Ask Alice (1971), the story of a contorted sexual life in Sophie's Choice (1979), and the mix of sexual and religious confusion in Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret (1970), books banned from homes, synagogues, and school districts around the country for being too lewd for young adults.
Despite worries about Dicker's interest in Spin the Bottle situations, her parents were also flirting with a more liberal style and never stopped her from reading books.
By the fifth grade Dicker was eager to ditch her lamentable Jewish day school as an outpost of bullying and poor education. She notes in her blog that she sat in the back of the classroom “sharing shocking sexual trivia with the boys,” cheating on tests and reading porn classics like The Happy Hooker.
Her father the rabbi was slightly out of his depth in giving her the sex talk about the birds and the bees. Dicker was way beyond the rabbi's discussion by the sixth grade when she got the talk.
"Hearing my father say penis and vagina was the most hilarious thing," Dicker said with a giggle. "My father's line to me growing up was, 'Sex is beautiful, but wait until you're married.'" Dicker didn’t take that advice.
Her awareness of her womanhood also sharpened her perception about how boys were treated better in Judaism. She watched as the boys got their bar mitzvahs at age thirteen while the girls got pats on the head.
Oh, sure, she told herself, her Dad was hip enough to support women on the podium (which was not the norm for synagogues at the time) and show up at civil rights rallies, but he did not give her, the oldest sibling, or her sister anything like the big, gregarious bar mitzvah celebration that their brother got. The Queens synagogue had bat mitvahs for girls, but the girls never had one. Her parents’ choice of high school was also one of those uneasy compromises between tradition and modernity that propelled Dicker onto the war path of feminism.
Ramaz was modern Orthodoxy’s synthesis of American culture and Judaism. It established itself as “a Progressive Day School offering a comprehensive Jewish and secular education to boys and girls.” According to historian Jeffrey S. Gurock, its curriculum included Talmudic study for girls, teach-ins on the Vietnam war, protest marches for Soviet Jewry, and, most tantalizing to Dicker, “mixed dancing.” Long known as the school of “tuxedo and dancing shoes,” it was an Orthodox Judaism for the elite East Side. Conservative Jews like Rabbi Dicker who were supportive of women’s rights saw Ramaz as a destination for their daughters.
The problem as far as his daughter was concerned was that Ramaz talked a good game but in the end it was after all “Orthodox,” meaning no bat mitzvahs for the girls at age 12. Girls also didn’t count toward making up a Jewish service (i.e. toward a minyan, the ten males that must be present for a Sabbath service to be held).
"My parents sent us to modern Orthodox schools where girls didn't have bat mitzvahs," she complained. "I knew that if I were to have a bat mitzvah, it was going to be a phenomenal achievement. “ Mentally, Dicker veered toward rebellious, heroic feminism.
"I really wanted to be a boy," Dicker said about her childhood. "They have all the fun. I wanted to be heroic." As an avid reader of the stories of David, the Bible became a resource of heroic accounts about how to grow up. David, whom God called "a man after his own heart" (1 Samuel 13:13-14), fought down the giant Goliath, headed a guerilla band, danced before the Lord, and emerged as the second King of Israel and a forerunner of the Messiah. Dicker wished to live an action-packed life like David’s.
A transgressive image of Jesus Christ also caught Dicker’s attention. "I was in another rabbi kid's house when I was young, and she played “Jesus Christ Superstar,” the 1970 rock opera by Andrew Lloyd Webber," Dicker recalled. "I went home and asked my parents, 'Did you know Jesus was a Jew?'" Of course, her parents were well aware of who Jesus was and amused that their daughter hadn't known. Her transgressive act didn’t lead to a deep exploration about Jesus.
Dicker loved music and sang rabbinically-correct songs in the choir at her day school. Then she would come home, turn on the radio and listen to punk rock music, particularly if her favorite band, the Talking Heads, was blaring out. The band got going during Dicker’s high school years when it opened for the Ramones at CGBG in 1975.
When Dicker turned 17, her father left his position at the synagogue to became a clinical psychologist. Consequently, the family moved to Forest Hills, Queens. Although the influence of the rabbi’s Conservative Judaism continued, as far as his daughter was concerned, the move brought her home one step closer to the rebellious Jewish day school girl’s dreamland of Manhattan.
In her blog Dicker wrote, “A kid from Queens, I sat in my seat taking notes, getting a crash course in becoming that thing I so desperately wanted to become: a complicated, neurotic and sexy New York intellectual who would be adored by a brainy, emotionally unstable New York man.”
Two years later, at the age of 19, Dicker detoured to Israel for a year abroad program. During a trek into the Sinai desert where God gave Moses the Bible, Dicker had a mountain top experience.
After climbing Mount Sinai (called Jabal Al Musa in Arabic and identified by many scholars as the Biblical Mount Sinai) in the wee hours of the morning, Dicker recalls, "We got to the top at day break." Someone gave her a siddur, a Jewish prayer book. As she looked down at the prayer book, the letters in the book suddenly turned red. She was overwhelmed with belief. "I felt holiness was there," Dicker said. "God was there, Hashem was there."
Dicker was awestruck. She thought back about the Jewish roots of her childhood that brought her to that moment in the desert. She remembered her father, a real mensch (man, a responsible person), even if he was slightly awkward in the modern world. Dicker realized that the closeness to God that she was experiencing came out of her father’s teaching and example. "My father instilled that in me," Dicker said. It was a one of those moments when memories of her belief in God became present and reinforced.
Dicker now felt like she had become a grown-up, not just a rebellious youth. "There's a childhood understanding of Judaism filled with apprehension and an adult understanding that's mature," she observed about the changes in her attitudes.
Whereas previously, she had seen of her father’s sexual ethic as quaintly old-fashioned, now she saw its good fruits. “Judaism is very sex positive, it taught me that sexuality could be contained within moral bounds and in relationships.”
Whereas before, she had accepted sharing her father with the congregation, now she focused on remembering his absences as an outpouring of compassion.
"Being a community rabbi, he was there to counsel people," Dicker said. "He held their hands during a terrible tragedy, like a family who had to encounter the death of their child. My father was there for people."
However, Dicker retains the right to define what she will take from Jewish tradition and the right to revert back to youthful rebellion as an elixir of rejuvenation. "Do I believe there's a covenant between the Jewish people and God?" she asked. "I believe a lot of Jewish law is very ethical, yet a lot of the laws don't have a clear application. There's a metaphorical message in Jewish law." The Biblical images of the world are models of ethical inhabitation.
She singled out one message from the Jewish law about tza'ar ba'alei chayim (literally, “the suffering of living creatures”).. The law states that one should not cause suffering to animals. "We have to understand our place in the world," Dicker concludes. "I believe we were given the garden to take care of it." The Biblical metaphor for the world as a garden implies a type of ethical life.
Consequently, over the last two decades, Dicker has been involved with Jewish environmental organizations. Recently, she helped one of her clients, the Art Kibbutz NY, to launch a pilot project of providing an art residency program called The Jewish Waltz with Planet Earth in Putnam Valley.
The metaphor of humans as “the family of God” has sharpened her ideas of sexual responsibility. Dicker's actions are now rooted in her father's teachings. "My father shaped my understanding of being a Jew," Dicker said. "Being Jewish is not just about being in a persecuted group of people always running away, but a group of people with a deep sense of social responsibility."
That sense of social responsibility carried over to sexuality and motherhood. At the age of 23, Dicker outgrew her sexually experimental ways to marry a creative professional and Orthodox Jew in Manhattan and then mother three children.
The ‘70’s rebel now picks and chooses from the full panoply of Jewish traditions. She attends three synagogues on the Upper West Side. For the celebratory meals at which she keeps in touch with friends, she goes to Congregation Ramath Orah, which practices a traditional but inclusive Orthodoxy, and the Conservative synagogue Ansche Chesed.
A few years ago, she also became a member of Romemu, which has a New Agey, Pentecostal-like atmosphere which keeps her ‘70’s inner child charged. She says Romenu is "charismatic, innovative, and part of the Jewish renewal. …A lot of people are moved by the spirit and lifting their arms there.” The synagogue includes services with yoga and meditation.
One of her heroines of the moment is the ruthless, ambitious, bi-polar Carrie Mathison of “Homeland.” Dicker seems to have a never ending source of energy, so much so that it is impossible for her to sit still during a rehearsal of her monologue. She buzzed back and forth in the recording studio, often jumping up and down in her black leather Dr. Martens' boots in parts of her monologue.
Forever proud of her energetic, wacky and religious childhood, Dicker wove into her bat mitzvah the Addams Family theme song into The Rabbi's Girls Present to remember that she felt that "my family were complete freaks.”
"Here's a great recipe for creating a writer or artist: make them an outlier.” She describes herself as "having been born into one family, raised in another, and in the public eye be a part of a Jewish rabbi’s family. One can produce a crazed human being."
Still, in the end, the ‘70’s disco-maniac became the disco-maven with a bat mitzvah at The Jewish Community Center and not Danceteria.
A version of this article was originally published in 2013.
Next, video from The Rabbi's Girls Present: Songs of Religion and Rebellion will be released by A Journey through NYC religions. Tune in!