Portraits by or of Women Star at the Smithsonian
Who was the first woman ordained a rabbi in the U.S.?
Which American female rabbi was the first to have her portrait hung in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery?
Answer to both: Sally J. Priesand, who in 1972 became the first woman to be ordained rabbi by an American rabbinical seminary. Now, she’s set another precedent. Hers is the first portrait of a female rabbi to appear in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
It is part of a 21-work collection in the museum’s annual “Recent Acquisitions” exhibit, largely featuring portraits of or by women.
In between those two milestones, Priesand served as spiritual leader of Monmouth Reform Temple (MRT) in Tinton Falls, New Jersey, retiring after 25 years because, she said, “It was time for someone with a fresh perspective to bring their creativity to the temple.”
She is the recipient of several honorary doctorates, a slew of honors and awards, the sole subject of an exhibit in the Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County, has served on local and national nonprofit boards, founded organizations, written a book, edited and contributed to others, and is still a member, Rabbi Emerita, and active congregant at MRT.
She is also the subject of a children’s book titled “Sally Opens Doors.”
“Now that I’ve retired, I sit in the back row at services,” the unpretentious trailblazer said. “The kids have given me a new name, which I love. They call me Back-Row Sally.”
Asked for her response to being included in the exhibit, Priesand said, “This is very exciting. It is a really big honor. I am amazed by it.”
She’s looking forward to visiting the museum to see the exhibit which will be open until the end of October 2024. It is already on the “Must See in D.C.” list for many. The rabbi said that a number of people who attended the Nov. 14 Rally for Israel took advantage of being in Washington to see it for themselves.
“I understand I have a prime location: between American-Yiddish stage and film star Molly Picon and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, both of blessed memory.” Others in the exhibit include Hollywood icon Greta Garbo, science fiction author Octavia Butler, and pop singer Beyoncé Knowles-Carter.
Offered the option of medium, Rabbi Priesand chose a photograph because, she said, it most accurately captures the real person. She then requested that the photographer be Joan Roth, internationally acclaimed for pioneering coverage of such diverse issues as Jewish women of Ethiopia and homeless women in New York.
“I was honored to be asked,” Roth said. They first met when Roth was asked to photograph the rabbi as part of a celebration of the 50th anniversary of her ordination. “We had so much fun working together, “she said, “that we’ve remained close. I am in awe of her kindness and generosity.”
She said that the museum imposed a series of restrictions, but that she and the rabbi were quite clear about what they wanted.
“She especially wanted the photograph to be colorful. The temple’s sanctuary is a piece of art in itself, so it was a perfect location. I wanted to make sure that her sweetness shone through. She’s so humble. And a real rabbi. She cares more about everyone else than herself. That’s why I really wanted her to love it.”
“The whole experience was joyous for me,” Roth said
Robyn Asleson, curator of Prints and Drawings for the museum, said the museum gets about 200 new acquisitions each year.
“When it’s time to make the selection for each year’s exhibit, the curators have a series of discussions, almost as if we are choosing whom to invite to a dinner party,” Asleson said. “We ask ourselves who would add something to the conversation.
“It’s a group decision,” she added. “Rabbi Priesand has had such an amazing career that all of us – there are five curators who ultimately make the decision – felt she should be included from the beginning.”
Describing the photograph itself, the curator said, “It is an inkjet print of a 2022 photograph. We have two copies so we can rotate them, ensuring a longer life. Rabbi Priesand wanted it to be colorful and it certainly is. The filtered light through the stained-glass windows, the color in her jacket, and the beautiful cover on the Torah scroll she’s holding, they add to the spiritual light that seems to be coming from within her.”
Asleson said she is particularly pleased about the placement of the exhibit. “It is in the first corridor,” she said. “It’s the first thing people see when they come in.”
She is hoping everyone who has a chance will come to the museum. “This exhibit is really special. It is jubilant.”
For more information about the exhibit, go to https://npg.si.edu/exhibition/recent-acquisitions-3.
Joann Abraham began chronicling Jewish life as editor of Monmouth County’s Jewish newspaper, now defunct, and has written for national and international publications. She is a contributing writer to Jlife Magazine.