Honoring Paula Hyman, z"l, by continuing to ask questions
Last Friday, I joined members of the Jewish Women’s Archive “family” on a sad drive to New Haven for the funeral of Paula Hyman, who died on Thursday at the much-too-early age of 65. The Lucy G. Moses Professor of Modern Jewish History at Yale for the past 25 years, Paula was, in the words of the New York Times, “a social historian who pioneered the study of women in Jewish life and became an influential advocate for women’s equality in Jewish religious practice.”
As the Times obituary noted, Paula Hyman’s “work was informed by twin, deep-rooted and sometimes conflicting bonds: to Judaism and to feminism.” The same thing could be said of a great many of the women who founded the Jewish Women's Archive in 1995 and have supported it ever since. Among the most talented of those women is Paula’s older daughter Judith Rosenbaum, JWA’s Director of Public History.
Not surprisingly, Paula Hyman was committed to the Jewish Women's Archive from the very beginning. She was part of the group that helped founding director Gail Reimer turn JWA from an inspired—and inspiring—idea into a reality. She was one of the Jewish feminists invited to contribute historically significant objects from their personal collections, along with short statements about the objects' significance, to our online exhibit, Jewish Women and the Feminist Revolution. Paula chose her own typed copy of the “Call for Change,” which she and nine other young Jewish feminists presented to the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement on March 14, 1972 and disseminated to the press. Called Ezrat Nashim, the group demanded “the end of second-class status of women in Jewish life.”
A few years later, with a brand new PhD in history from Columbia and a toddler at home, she and two co-authors undertook a collaborative project, The Jewish Woman in America, published in 1976. "It was our passion as feminists that led us into this scholarship," Hyman recalled. “It was just simply something that we felt had to be done.” Of all her published work, this first book was, Hyman noted, the only one for which she received fan letters, “often from housewives who said 'I get up early to read this book, it's been so important to me, and thank you for writing it.'"
More than 20 years later, now a widely respected senior professor at Yale, she joined forces with Deborah Dash Moore to assemble the two-volume Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, which was published in 1997. In 2006, Hyman and Hebrew University historian Dalia Ofer expanded the work to encompass Jewish women around the world. Published first on CD-ROM, in 2007 Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia was digitized and added to the Jewish Women's Archive website. At the end of this enormous undertaking, Paula Hyman pointed out that "an encyclopedia should not be seen as the last word; it should really be a stimulus to ask more questions."
As I sat in Temple Beth El-Keser Israel in New Haven, listening to her colleagues and friends Deborah Dash Moore and Marion Kaplan, her daughter Judith, her husband Stanley, and her friend of many years, Rabbi David Ellenson, President of Hebrew Union College, I thought that we at the Jewish Women's Archive are in a privileged position to honor Paula by continuing to ask questions. Questions about the past and about the future. Questions about the struggles and successes of Jewish women. Questions about stories we’ve been told and stories we have not been told. Her memory will be a blessing.
For more on Paula Hyman, visit her entry in the online Encyclopedia.