Paula Hyman: 30 Years of Shaping Jewish Women's History
If you want to trace the progress of Jewish women's history, you couldn't do much better than to follow the career of Yale University's Lucy Moses Professor of Modern Jewish History, Paula Hyman. Among the most respected contemporary historians of Jewish experience, Hyman has deepened and broadened understandings of modern Jewish history, through her studies of French Jews and her application of gendered analysis to Jewish experience.
Beyond her individual scholarship, however, Professor Hyman's accomplishments have been accented by three ambitious collaborative projects that have progressively redefined the horizons of knowledge of Jewish women's history. The most recent of these is a newly launched CD-ROM, Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia, published with the institutional sponsorship of the Jewish Women's Archive. The first was The Jewish Woman in America, published in 1976, when Hyman was a graduate student.
"It was our passion as feminists that led us into this scholarship," Hyman recalls. "When I and my two colleagues [Sonya Michel and Charlotte Baum] decided to write a book on American Jewish women. It was just simply something that we felt had to be done." Hyman is careful to note that The Jewish Woman in America was not the first book on the subject, but it was the first to approach it from a feminist orientation. As Hyman says, "it was clearly a book with a mission ... we felt it was going to tell a story that hadn't been widely recognized." Taking on such a broad and weighty subject might have been daunting for two young graduate students and an older woman returning to school for her BA, but they were empowered by feminism: "We said: 'well we can do this' and began to work." The Jewish Woman in America, Hyman notes, "is the only book for which I 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.'"
When Hyman returned to collaborative work with her close colleague Deborah Dash Moore 20 years later, she was a respected senior scholar at Yale. By that time, what had started as "telling good stories" had become a validated academic endeavor pursued by many scholars. At the prompting of publisher Ralph Carlson and with the support of the American Jewish Historical Society and a devoted editorial board, Hyman and Moore assembled the two-volume Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, which was published in 1997.
Hyman is justifiably proud of this project's ambition, with its 800 individual biographies and 110 topical essays going far beyond coverage of the famous, its success in organizing existing information and "generat[ing] new knowledge," its "beautiful design," and particularly of the way that it took on and redefined "areas of general concern to Jewish history in America." Like the 1976 Jewish Woman in America, the 1997 encyclopedia has not remained "hidden." Its unprecedented gathering of information has proved an invaluable resource for numerous public history projects, including JWA's This Week in History.
Apparently undaunted by the work involved in creating the American encyclopedia, Hyman accepted the invitation of Israeli publisher Moshe Shalvi, husband of pioneering feminist Alice Shalvi, to extend this approach to the whole world. The completed effort—equivalent to a four-volume printed work—fueled by Shalvi's devotion and co-edited with Hebrew University historian Dalia Ofer, has recently been launched on CD-Rom.
By drawing on Jewish Studies scholars from around the world, Hyman notes that the project vastly expanded both scholarship on Jewish women and the "universe of people" interested in the subject. The new encyclopedia, with its coverage of as many regions and eras of Jewish history as was possible, has once again reframed our knowledge of Jewish and Jewish women's history. Hyman notes "a tremendous amount of reference to Judaism and the development of Judaism" with approaches that "transform the way we look at classical Jewish texts and halakha." Moreover, the technology that is being used to distribute this research offers users a powerful electronic tool for following the thematic connections that link the encyclopedia's hundreds of entries.
The academic rigor of this latest project may seem to contrast with the openly feminist ideology of Hyman's first book. But Hyman refuses to distance herself from the powerful motivations that have made all of this work possible: "People who take feminism for granted are ignorant of the important changes that have occurred in our culture because of [it]." Her work on the encyclopedias has sustained her sense of feminist endeavor, of working as "part of a community that was seeing the world in a different way... It has felt good to be doing it as part of my generation, rather than thinking that I'm doing this. I guess it's no accident that I've gotten involved in collaborative projects, and most of the time those projects have been great fun."
As with her previous projects, Professor Hyman looks forward to seeing the impact of this latest endeavor: "An encyclopedia should not be seen as the last word; it should really be a stimulus to ask more questions."
Reprinted from Re://collections. Article by Karla Goldman.
This article was written to celebrate the launch of the CD project in 2005. Paula Hyman died on December 15, 2011.