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Judaic Studies in the United States

by Paula E. Hyman

When the Association for Jewish Studies (AJS) was established in 1969 as the professional organization of scholars in the interdisciplinary field of Judaic studies, there were no women among its founders. In 2005–06 women comprised 41% of the AJS membership. Within the past generation a field that was traditionally dominated by men has gradually witnessed the emergence of a significant number of women scholars. Although those scholars are clustered in modern Jewish history, literature, and the social sciences, for the first time in Jewish history the study of Jewish texts and culture is no longer virtually a male preserve.

Both traditional Jewish culture, which held the study of Bible and rabbinic texts as an ideal, and the modern Western university excluded women from their ranks. It is no surprise, then, that in America there were no women in the nascent field of Judaic studies. Most of the earliest professors of Semitics and later of Jewish history acquired their expertise through their study for the rabbinate, a profession closed to women in America until 1972.

The expansion of the field of Judaic studies in American universities beginning in the 1960s coincided with the entry of women in substantial numbers into Ph.D. programs. Under the impact of feminist consciousness, increasing numbers of women have specialized in Judaic studies over the course of the past forty years, assuming positions in American colleges and universities, and have led the way in introducing considerations of gender into the study of both Jewish history and literature.

Even before the expansion of Judaic studies a few women carved out for themselves scholarly careers in the field in America, though generally without receiving as much recognition as they merited. Naomi Cohen (b. 1927) worked in the area of American Jewish history as a professor of American history at Hunter College, until her retirement in 1996. Lucy Dawidowicz (1915–1990) held positions at the YIVO Institute and Yeshiva University and wrote widely for Jewish publications, but became well known as a scholar only after the publication of her The War Against the Jews in 1975. Two refugee scholars from Europe, Rachel Wischnitzer (1885–1989) in the field of the history of Jewish art and architecture and Selma Stern Taübler (1890–1981) in early modern European Jewish history, concluded their careers in the United States but had little impact on the American academy.

Since the 1980s, however, these pioneer historians have been joined by a host of others. Modern Jewish history has proven especially appealing to women in Judaic studies, initially because it required less specialized knowledge of religious texts but increasingly because it offered opportunities for original work in social and women’s history. Paula Hyman (b. 1946), the Lucy Moses Professor of Modern Jewish History at Yale University, has specialized in modern French Jewish history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and has contributed to the growth of the area of Jewish women’s history, having co-edited two encyclopedias of Jewish women’s social and cultural history. Columbia University produced not only Hyman but also the historians Esther Feldblum (1933–1974) and Deborah Dash Moore (b. 1946), whose scholarship on American Jewry, particularly of the twentieth century, has contributed significantly to our understanding of American Jewish ethnicity and of Jewish life in the United States. Harriet Freidenreich (b. 1947), who has published on Jews in east central and central Europe, and Marion Kaplan (b. 1946), who trained as a German historian but all of whose work has been on German Jewry, also received their doctorates from Columbia. Working with Hyman at Columbia University, Vicki Caron (b. 1951), Marsha Rozenblit (b. 1950), and Shulamit Magnus (b. 1950) have also published important studies on the history of Jews in modern Europe, while Jenna Weissman Joselit has illuminated a broad swath of American Jewish culture. Ellen Umansky, a specialist in Jewish women’s spirituality and religious leadership, also received her Ph.D. from Columbia, in her case from the Department of Religion. Columbia thus provided an opportunity for women scholars in Judaic studies to establish an informal network.

Other female scholars received their graduate education elsewhere. Frances Malino (b. 1940) and Phyllis Cohen Albert, both of whom specialize in modern French Jewish history, trained at Brandeis University, as did Deborah Lipstadt (b. 1947), whose work focuses on the Holocaust, particularly on Holocaust denial. Hasia Diner (b. 1946) and Pamela Nadell, both specialists in American Jewish history, received their doctorates elsewhere, Diner in American history at Illinois and Nadell at Ohio State University. They have been joined by a younger generation of scholars who have trained at a wider variety of American universities. In American Jewish history these include Beth Wenger (b. 1963), Karla Goldman (b. 1960), and Melissa Klapper and in European Jewish history Maud Mandel (b. 1967), Nancy Sinkoff (b. 1959) , Carole Balin and Sarah Abrevaya Stein. The social sciences have also proven supportive of female scholars. Shulamit Reinharz (b. 1946) has applied her sociological tools and interest in women’s studies not only to research on women in the Yishuv, the prestate Jewish settlement of Palestine, but also to the creation of a Jewish Women’s Studies Program at Brandeis University and to the Hadassah –Brandeis Research Institute. Like Reinharz, Ewa Morawska, who was educated in Poland, and Shelly Tenenbaum (b. 1955) have also recently published significant works of historical sociology, both of American Jews. As a sociologist whose focus is quantified and contemporary, Rela Geffen has conducted a number of important studies, most recently on American Jewish women. Similarly, Sylvia Barack Fishman (b. 1942) has explored contemporary American Jewry, and particularly American Jewish feminism. Women have also conducted ethnographic studies as sociologists, anthropologists, and folklorists. Both Lynn Davidman (b. 1955) and Debra Kaufman (b. 1941) have produced ethnographic studies of Ba’alot Teshuvah [newly Orthodox women]. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (b. 1942) has written not only on Eastern European and immigrant American Jewish folklore but also on the representation of Jewish culture in a variety of different venues. As a specialist in American studies, Riv-Ellen Prell (b. 1947) began her career with an ethnographic study of a havurah [religious fellowship] and has recently explored stereotypes of American Jewish women in her book Fighting to Become Americans. Yael Zerubavel, whose graduate training in folklore and academic career have taken place in the United States, has written on the construction of Israeli collective memory.

In the social sciences and in history some scholars have specialized in the study of the Jews although they did not receive their training in programs of Judaic studies and are not formally attached to Judaic studies programs. As “outsiders” to the field they have often promoted a sensitivity to gender lacking in the graduate education of those who received their doctorates in Judaic studies. Deborah Hertz, for example, has focused on German Jewish history as a historian of modern Germany. Joyce Antler (b. 1942), trained in the interdisciplinary field of American studies, has written widely on American Jewish women’s experience and literature.

Literature has often been depicted as the field most appropriate for female scholars, and this has been the case in Hebrew and Yiddish literature and in American Jewish literature as well (although I will not deal with the latter subject). Women teach both Hebrew language and (generally modern) literature in Judaic studies programs throughout America. Anne Lapidus Lerner (b. 1942) teaches Hebrew literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, where she served as the first female vice-chancellor in that institution’s history from 1993 to 1999; Chana Kronfeld has taught modern Hebrew literature at the University of California at Berkeley since about 1985. Naomi Sokoloff (b. 1953 teaches Hebrew literature at the University of Washington. Esther Fuchs (b. 1953), whose position is at the University of Arizona, has focused on gender issues in her study of Israeli literature, while Yael Feldman (b. 1941), a professor at New York University, has provided a psychological analysis of that literature. Focusing on the Bible and its impact on modern literature, Nehama Aschkenasy teaches at the University of Connecticut. Jewish literature of the Holocaust has been the primary subject of Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi (b. 1942), who teaches at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and of Sara Horowitz (b. 1951). Ruth Wisse (b. 1936) was one of the first professors of Yiddish literature in North America and has contributed to the dissemination of knowledge about Yiddish culture through her monographs and edited books of literature in translation. Anita Norich (b. 1952), who has combined her interests in English and Yiddish literature in her teaching, has focused on twentieth-century Yiddish prose in her writing. Chana Bloch (b. 1940), Marcia Falk (b. 1946), and Katherine Hellerstein have combined scholarship with translation as has Naomi Seidman. Bloch specializes in translation of Hebrew poetry, Falk in both Hebrew and Yiddish poetry, Hellerstein in Yiddish poetry. All three have also published their own poetry. Seidman specializes in the translation of Hebrew prose.

Although female scholars in Judaic studies have worked primarily on the modern period, a handful of women have pioneered in the study of classical Jewish texts and premodern history. Adele Berlin, Tikva Frymer-Kensky, and Carol Meyers (b. 1942) have contributed to the area of biblical studies. Judith Hauptman became the first woman to teach Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the educational center of the Conservative movement. Judith Romney Wegner, who trained first as a lawyer, received her Ph.D. and has published in the field of rabbinics. Charlotte Fonrobert is a leading representative of the latest genertion of women scholars in rabbinics, as is Miriam Peskowitz (b. 1964). Judith Baskin (b. 1950) specializes in both rabbinic Judaism and medieval Jewish history. The two books she has edited, Jewish Women in Historical Perspective and Women of the Word: Jewish Women and Jewish Writing, have become important resources for the teaching of courses on Jewish women’s history and for incorporating gender perspectives into general courses. In her innovative work on tkhines, Jewish women’s liturgy of the early modern period, and especially in her book Voices of the Matriarchs, Chava Weissler has opened up the area of women’s spirituality and popular culture. Jane Gerber (b. 1938), who focuses on Sephardi Jewry both in Spain and in its diaspora, has expanded her interests from the medieval to the modern period. In the field of Jewish philosophy two scholars, Hava Tirosh-Samuelson (formerly Tirosh-Rothschild, b. 1950) and Tamar Rudavsky (b. 1951), have both published work on the medieval period.Despite their shared sociological characteristics, women in the variegated field of Jewish studies have explored a wide range of subjects from many disciplinary perspectives. They have had their greatest impact as a group, however, in their introduction into Jewish studies of issues of gender and women’s experience, which are currently yielding many academic presentations and monographs and as subjects of research are no longer limited to female scholars. As prejudice against female scholars has decreased, as the field of Judaic studies has expanded, and as opportunities for women to receive a traditional Jewish education have grown, younger women are distributed more evenly across the field than were their predecessors. This process is likely to continue. With the entry of large numbers of women into the field and under the impact of women’s studies, the construction of “Jewish learning” as well as the image of the “learned Jew” has been transformed.

Bibliography

History

Albert, Phyllis Cohen. The Modernization of French Jewry (1977).

Albert, Phyllis Albert and Frances Malino, eds. Essays in Modern Jewish History (1982).

Antler, Joyce. The Journey Home: Jewish Women and the American Century (1997).

Balin, Carole. To Reveal Our Hearts (2000).

Baskin, Judith, ed. Jewish Women in Historical Perspective (1991).

Carlebach, Elisheva. The Pursuit of Heresy: Rabbi Moses Hagiz and the Sabbatian Controversies (1990) and Divided Souls (2001).

Caron, Vicki. Between France and Germany: The Jews of Alsace-Lorraine, 1871–1918 (1988) and Uneasy Asylum (1999).

Caron, Vicki, co-editor. Jewish Emancipation Reconsidered (2003).

Diner, Hasia. In the Almost Promised Land: American Jews and Blacks, 1915–1935 (1977), A Time for Gathering (1992), Jews in America (1999), Hungering for America (2001), Her Works Praise Her (2002), and The Jews of the United States (2004).

Feldblum, Esther. The American Catholic Press and the Jewish State, 1917–1959 (1977).

Freidenreich, Harriet. Jewish Politics in Vienna, 1918–1938 (1991), The Jews of Yugoslavia (1979), and Female, Jewish, Educated (2002).

Gerber, Jane. Jewish Society in Fez, 1450–1700 (1980), and The Jews of Spain (1992).

Gerber, Jane, ed. Sephardic Studies in the University (1995).

Glenn, Susan. Daughters of the Shtetl (1990) and Female Spectacle (2000).

Goldman, Karla. Beyond the Synagogue Gallery (2000).

Hertz, Deborah. Jewish High Society in Old Regime Berlin (1988).

Hyman, Paula. The Emancipation of the Jews of Alsace: Acculturation and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century (1991), From Dreyfus to Vichy (1979), Gender and Assimilation in Modern Jewish History (1995), and The Jews of Modern France (1998).

Hyman, Paula E., Charlotte Baum, and Sonya Michel. The Jewish Woman in America (1976).

Hyman, Paula E., co-editor. The Jewish Family: Image and Reality (1986).

Joselit, Jenna. New York’s Jewish Jews (1990), Our Gang (1983), The Wonders of America (1994), and Perfect Fit (2001).

Joselit, Jenna Weissman, and Susan L. Braunstein, eds. Getting Comfortable in New York (1990).

Kaplan, Marion. Jewish Feminism in Germany: The Campaigns of the Jüdischer Frauenbund (1979), The Making of the Jewish Middle Class: Women, Family and Identity in Imperial Germany (1991), and Between Dignity and Despair (1998).

Kaplan, Marion, ed., Jewish Daily Life in Germany (2005).

Kaplan, Marion, ed. The Marriage Bargain: Women and Dowries in European History (1985).

Kaplan, Marion, Renate Bridenthal, and Atina Grossmann, eds. When Biology Became Destiny: Women in Weimar and Nazi Germany (1984).

Magnus, Shulamit. Jewish Emancipation in a German City (1997).

Malino, Frances. A Jew in the Revolution (1996), and The Sephardic Jews of Bordeaux (1977).

Malino, Frances, co-editor. The Jews in Modern France (1985), From East to West (1990) and Voices of the Diaspora (2005).

Mandel, Maud, In the Aftermath of Genocide (2003).

Moore, Deborah Dash. At Home in America (1980), B’nai B’rith and the Challenge of Ethnic Leadership (1981), To the Golden Cities: Pursuing the American Jewish Dream in Miami and L.A. (1996), and G.I. Jews (2005).

Nadell, Pamela. Conservative Judaism in America (1988) and Women Who Would Be Rabbis (1998).

Pamela Nadell, co-editor, Women in American Judaism (2001).

Rozenblit, Marsha. The Jews of Vienna, 1867–1914 (1981) and Reconstructing a National Identity (2001).

Rozenblit, Marsha, co-editor. Constructing Nationalities in East Central Europe (2005).

Sinkoff, Nancy. Out of the Shtetl (2004).

Stillman, Yedida K., and Norman A. Stillman, eds. and trans. Travail in an Arab Land (1989).

Stillman, Yedida K., and George K. Zucker, eds. and trans. New Horizons in Sephardic Studies (1993).

Umansky, Ellen. Lily Montagu and the Advancement of Liberal Judaism (1983) and From Christian Science to Jewish Science (2005).

Wenger, Beth, New York Jews and the Great Depression (1996).

Social Science

Davidson, Lynn. Tradition in a Rootless World (1991).

Fishman, Sylvia Barack. A Breath of Life: Feminism in the American Jewish Community (1993), Jewish Life and American Culture (2000), and Double or Nothing? (2004).

Geffen, Rela, ed. Celebration and Renewal: Rites of Passage in Judaism (1993) and coauthor, The Conservative Movement in Judaism (2000).

Kaufman, Debra. Rachel’s Daughters (1991).

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara. Destination Culture (1998).

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara, and Luczan Dobroszycki. Image Before My Eyes (1977).

Morawska, Ewa. Insecure Prosperity (1996).

Prell, Riv-Ellen. Prayer and Community: The Havurah in American Judaism (1989) and Fighting to Become Americans (1999).

Reinharz, Shulamit. “Toward a Model of Female Political Action: The Case of Manya Shohat, Founder of the First Kibbutz.” Women’s Studies International Forum 7 (1984).

Tenenbaum, Shelly. A Credit to Their Community: Jewish Loan Societies in the United States, 1880–1945 (1993).

Weissler, Chava. Making Judaism Meaningful: Ambivalence and Tradition in a Havurah Community (1989.

Zerubavel, Yael. Recovered Roots: Collective Memory and the Making of Israeli National Tradition (1995). Davidson, Lynn. Tradition in a Rootless World (1991).

Literature

Aschkenasy, Nehama. Biblical Patterns in Modern Literature (1984) and Eve’s Journey (1986).

Baskin, Judith, ed. Women of the Word: Jewish Women and Jewish Writing (1994).

Bloch, Chana, and Ariel Bloch, eds. and trans. The Window: New and Selected Poems/Dahlia Ravikovitch (1982).

Bloch, Chana, and Stephen Mitchell, eds. and trans. The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai (1996).

Ezrahi, Sidra DeKoven. By Words Alone: The Holocaust in Literature (1980) and Booking Passage (2000).

Falk, Marcia. The Book of Blessings (1996).

Falk, Marcia, ed. and trans. Song of Songs: A New Translation and Interpretation (1990) and With Teeth in the Earth: Selected Poems of Malka Heifetz Tussman (1992).

Feldman, Yael. Approaches to Teaching the Hebrew Bible as Literature (1989), Modernism and Cultural Transfer: Gabriel Preil and the Tradition of Jewish Literary Bilingualism (1985), and No Room of Their Own (1999).

Fuchs, Esther. Encounters with Israeli Authors (1982), Israeli Mythogynies (1987) and Sexual Politics in the Biblical Narrative (2000).

Fuchs, Esther, ed. Women and the Holocaust (1999) and On the Cutting Edge (2004).

Horowitz, Sara. Voicing the Void (1997).

Lerner, Anne Lapidus, Anita Norich, and Naomi Sokoloff, eds. Gender and Text in Modern Hebrew and Yiddish Literature (1993).

Norich, Anita. Homeless Imagination in the Fiction of Israel Joshua Singer (1991).

Seidman, Naomi, A Marriage Made in Heaven (1997).

Sokoloff, Naomi. Imagining the Child in Modern Jewish Fiction (1992).

Wisse, Ruth. See bibliography of her entry.

Bible, Rabbinics, and Philosophy

Berlin, Adele. Biblical Poetry Through Medieval Eyes (1991) and Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative (1983).

Frymer-Kensky, Tikva. In the Wake of the Goddesses: Women, Culture and the Biblical Transformation of Pagan Myth (1992) and Reading the Women of the Bible (2002).

Hauptman, Judith. Development of the Talmudic Sugya (1988), Rereading the Rabbis (1998), and Rereading the Mishnah (2005).

Meyers, Carol. Discovering Eve (1988) and Exodus (2005).

Rudavsky, Tamar, ed. Divine Omniscience and Omnipotence in Medieval Philosophy: Islamic, Jewish, and Christian Perspectives (1985) and Time Matters (2000).

Tirosh-Rothschild, Hava. Between Worlds: The Life and Thought of Rabbi David ben Judah Messer Leon (1991).

Tirosh-Samuelson, Hava, Happiness in Premodern Judaism (2003) and Women and Gender in Jewish Philosophy (2004).

Wegner, Judith Romney. Chattel or Person: The Status of Women in the Mishnah (1988).

Gender and Women’s Studies

Adler, Rachel, Engendering Judaism (1998).

Antler, Joyce.The Journey Home: Jewish Women and the American Century (1997).

Antler, Joyce, ed. Talking Back (1998).

Aschkenasy, Nehama. Eve’s Journey (1986).

Baskin, Judith, ed. Jewish Women in Historical Perspective (1991) and Women of the Word: Jewish Women and Jewish Writing (1994).

Biale, Rachel. Women and Jewish Law (1984).

Davidman, Lynn. Tradition in a Rootless World (1991) and Motherloss (2000).

Davidman, Lynn, and Shelly Tenenbaum, eds. Feminist Perspectives on Jewish Studies (1994).

Falk, Marcia. The Book of Blessings (1996).

Fishman, Sylvia Barack. A Breath of Life: Feminism in the American Jewish Community (1993).

Fonrobert, Charlotte. Menstrual Purity (2000).

Frymer-Kensky, Tikva. In the Wake of the Goddesses: Women, Culture and the Biblical Transformation of Pagan Myth (1992) and Reading the Women of the Bible (2002).

Frymer-Kensky, Tikva, co-editor. Gender and Law in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East (1998).

Fuchs, Esther. Israeli Mythogynies (1987) and Sexual Politics in the Biblical Narrative (2000).

Glenn, Susan. Daughters of the Shtetl (1990) and Female Spectacle (2000).

Hertz, Deborah. Jewish High Society in Old Regime Berlin (1988).

Hyman, Paula. Gender and Assimilation in Modern Jewish History (1995).

Hyman, Paula, Charlotte Baum, and Sonya Michel. The Jewish Woman in America (1976).

Kaplan, Marion. Jewish Feminism in Germany: The Campaigns of the Jüdischer Frauenbund (1979) and The Making of the Jewish Middle Class: Women, Family and Identity in Imperial Germany (1991).

Kaplan, Marion, ed. The Marriage Bargain: Women and Dowries in European History (1985).

Kaplan, Marion, Renate Bridenthal, and Atina Grossmann, eds. When Biology Became Destiny: Women in Weimar and Nazi Germany (1984).

Kuzmack, Linda Gordon. Woman’s Cause (1990).

Levitt, Laura, Jews and Feminism (1997).

Meyers, Carol. Discovering Eve (1988).

Orleck, Annelise. Common Sense and a Little Fire (1995).

Peskowitz, Miriam, The Truth behind the Mommy Wars (2005).

Peskowitz, Miriam, and Laura Levitt, eds. Judaism Since Gender (1997).

Plaskow, Judith. Standing Again at Sinai (1990) and The Coming of Lilith (2005).

Reinharz, Shulamith. “Toward a Model of Female Political Action: The Case of Manya Shohat, Founder of the First Kibbutz.” Women’s Studies International Forum 7 (1984).

Rogow, Faith. Gone to Another Meeting: The National Council of Jewish Women, 1893–1993 (1993).

Rudavsky, Tamar, ed. Gender and Judaism (1995).

Sacks, Maurie, ed. Active Voices: Women in Jewish Culture (1995).

Sokoloff, Naomi, Anne Lapidus Lerner, and Anita Norich. Gender and Text in Modern Hebrew and Yiddish Literature (1993).

Umansky, Ellen. Lily Montagu and the Advancement of Liberal Judaism (1983).

Umansky, Ellen, and Dianne Ashton, eds. Four Centuries of Jewish Women’s Spirituality (1992).

Wegner, Judith Romney. Chattel or Person: The Status of Women in the Mishnah (1988).

Weinberg, Sydney Stahl. The World of Our Mothers (1988).

Weissler, Chava. Voices of the Matriarchs (1998).

Lipstadt, Deborah - still image [media]
Full image

After publication of her seminal work Denying the Holocaust, Deborah Lipstadt was sued by a historian whom she had accused of denying the Holocaust. To disprove his claim she had to demonstate that the events he denied had actually occurred. Thus a court case about libel ultimately served to put the truth of the Holocaust on trial, and to catapult Professor Lipstadt from "academic" to "celebrity."

Photographer: Jillian Edelstein; Institution: Deborah Lipstadt

How to cite this page

Hyman, Paula E.. "Judaic Studies in the United States." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 22, 2014) <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/judaic-studies-in-united-states>.

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