1908 – 1989
Trude Weiss-Rosmarin was one of the foremost Jewish intellectuals of the twentieth century. She was the editor of the Jewish Spectator, author of many books, and a woman of intense passions and commitment to Jewish life, with very strong and often provocative opinions. A dynamic speaker backed by broad-ranging Jewish scholarship and a prodigious memory, she was a popular lecturer at synagogues and Jewish centers across the United States and a foremost critic of American Jewish life and institutions.
She was born in Frankfurt-am-Main on June 17, 1908, daughter of Jacob and Celestine (Mullings) Weiss. Her father was a successful wine merchant. As a young girl, Trude joined the Blau-Weiss, the German Zionist youth movement, and studied at the Hebraische Sprachschule, the Zionist Hebrew school, under Yosef Yoel Rivlin. For a brief time, she ran away from home to a hakhshara training farm near Berlin that prepared young people for agricultural life in Palestine, but a bout with pneumonia forced her to give up those plans. When only seventeen, she established and ran a Hebrew-language school in Duisburg. She continued her studies of Jewish texts, both by herself and at the Frei Judische Lehrhaus established by Franz Rozenzweig, while preparing herself for her final school examinations and university entrance. In later years, she noted that the Blau-Weiss, the Hebraische Sprachschule, and the Frei Judische Lehrhaus were the three focal points of her Jewishness.
Trude studied first at the University of Berlin (1927–1928) and then at Leipzig (1929). In 1931, at age twenty-two, she completed her doctorate in Semitics, archaeology and philosophy at the University of Würzburg. Her thesis, a collection of Babylonian-Assyrian references to Arabia and the Arabs, was later published as The Mention of the Arabs in Assyrian-Babylonian Texts.
She married Aaron Rosmarin, a Russian Jewish scholar who was an American citizen, and they emigrated to New York in 1931. They had one son, Moshe. She and Aaron Rosmarin were divorced in 1951. She later married Nissim Sevan.
When Weiss-Rosmarin was unsuccessful in finding a teaching position in Assyriology, she and her husband established the School of the Jewish Woman on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in October 1933. In the beginning, the school was under the auspices of Hadassah. Weiss-Rosmarin modeled the school on the Frankfurt Lehrhaus. She believed that Jewish women were being shortchanged by not getting an adequate Jewish education and she wanted to remedy this with adult education. Weiss-Rosmarin was the director and taught two classes every day; her husband was the registrar, and Albert Einstein was the honorary chair. Classes were taught in Hebrew, Bible, Jewish history, and Yiddish. The school continued until 1939.
At the end of 1935, Weiss-Rosmarin introduced a newsletter, News from the School of the Jewish Woman, and in February 1936, the newsletter became the Jewish Spectator: “a typical family magazine, with a special appeal to the woman.” She became sole editor in 1943. It was through the Jewish Spectator, as well as through her extensive and popular lecture tours, that Weiss-Rosmarin had her extraordinary impact on the thinking of rabbis and Jewish professionals for over five decades. The paper appeared monthly until 1974, and then became a quarterly. In 1978, Weiss-Rosmarin moved to Santa Monica, California, and continued publishing the Spectator there. Shortly before her death in 1989, she passed the editorship over to Robert Bleiweiss. While the Spectator never had a mass circulation, it was always very influential. During the more than fifty years that Weiss-Rosmarin was editor, it remained independent and unsubsidized. The magazine covered a wide range of Jewish topics and included both original fiction and poetry, but the most important part for readers was “The Editor’s Quarter,” which included Weiss-Rosmarin’s editorials.
Writing in 1988, Weiss-Rosmarin considered that “what gives publishers/editors of controversial and struggling little magazines the will and strength to continue, is that some of their far out opinions of yesteryear have become the ‘in’ opinions of today.”
A strong Zionist from her youth, Weiss-Rosmarin made Israel a major focus of her concerns. She came to believe that the Palestinians had a legitimate case and believed in the reality of Palestinian nationalism (although she said that, emotionally, she would want Israel to extend from the Euphrates to the Nile). In the midst of the general euphoria following the Six-Day War in 1967, she had already written an article titled “Toward Jewish-Muslim Dialogue.” She felt that Zionist organizations had become obsolete after the establishment of the state and considered the Jewish Agency, in particular, rife with bureaucratic waste.
In other columns, she attacked the lack of accountability in the fund-raising drives of Jewish organizations and condemned the misuse and abuse of communal funds. At a time when federations were considered the primary Jewish organizations in the United States, she emphasized the primacy of the synagogue.
Weiss-Rosmarin repeatedly stressed the need for Jewish education at all levels. She was a strong advocate of Jewish day schools when other Jews considered them un-American. Recognizing the inadequacy of supplementary Jewish education in America, she advised delaying bar and bat mitzva ceremonies in Reform and Conservative congregations until the age of fifteen or sixteen, so that youngsters would have more years of Jewish education.
For Weiss-Rosmarin, the key to Jewish survival was Jewish education, and she promoted it in every way. In 1940, she launched a series of inexpensive Jewish books called The Jewish People’s Library, issued by the Jewish Book Club. Some of her own books, dealing with topics as diverse as Jewish women through the ages and Jewish expressions on Jesus, were included in this series.
Besides teaching for periods at New York University and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, Weiss-Rosmarin was one of the most popular lecturers on a vast range of Jewish topics in the United States. She was passionate about Jewish culture and Jewish life and was immensely learned in Jewish sources. Her editorials, articles, and lectures were full of biblical and Talmudic quotations. At the same time, she had a mind free of conventional views and was prepared to follow the logic of an argument wherever it led. She never pandered to audiences or feared being controversial.
Weiss-Rosmarin held very strong but carefully nuanced views on the role of women in Jewish life. She was prepared to say that while Judaism denied women many legal rights, it offered them a uniformly high, even privileged, social position. In many ways, she believed, Judaism honored women and assigned them great importance. She considered that the position and status of Jewish women had to be looked at in the context of each historical period. For example, she considered that the social and legal status of Jewish women in biblical times “was incomparably higher and in every respect, more favorable” than that of other women.
Weiss-Rosmarin strongly advocated changes in Jewish family law, railing against inequities in marriage and divorce, particularly in the treatment of the agunah. She called for transferring authority in matters of divorce from the husband to the Bet Din, many years before the Conservative Movement called for this change.
Yet she was prepared to disagree with Jewish feminists on many issues. She was opposed to women’s prayer groups and women’s minyans, because she considered them a revival of the “woman’s synagogue”—the “weibershe shul”—of the Middle Ages. Instead, she advocated egalitarian minyans of women and men. Her belief that the future of Jewish women lay in integration, not segregation or separation, led her to dismiss Jewish women’s studies. For her, what was important was equal access for Jewish women both in the marketplace and in places of worship. Self-segregation, she warned, was as misguided and wrong as segregation by others.
Her sensitivity to linguistic sexism distinguished between what she considered genuinely offensive and what she felt women often objected to out of ignorance. That the prayer book referred to God in male terms did not bother her especially, because the Torah, Shekhina, and Shabbat were all seen in feminine terms. While believing that the liturgy should address God as God of the foremothers as well as God of the forefathers, she considered that many progressive contemporary writers committed the same offense in their book titles by referring to “fathers and sons.” She attributed the greater prevalence of linguistic sexism in English and other Germanic languages to the lack of the feminine form for nouns.
Weiss-Rosmarin was one of the first to raise the issue of discrimination against women in Jewish public life. In an August 1936 editorial, she wrote that “In every institution whether it is a synagogue, a Hebrew school, a hospital—we find the identical situation. The women members are allotted no say and almost no representation at all when it comes to basic decisions affecting the policy of the institution.” Through the decades, she continued to speak and write against the underrepresentation of women.
While she was determined that her role in bringing up her son would not interrupt her professional life, Weiss-Rosmarin felt that Jewish women should be free to be homemakers and be respected for their choice. She wrote, “The real challenge of women’s liberation is not taking women out of the home but emancipating the homemaker as homemaker by placing dignity on her work, instead of derogating it....[Women] must be liberated in their selfhood as women and in fulfillment of their femininity—not by assimilation and imitation of men.”
While editing the Spectator, Weiss-Rosmarin sent articles to other Jewish newspapers and periodicals worldwide, including a regular column, “Letters from New York,” in the London Jewish Chronicle from 1963 to 1966. She served as vice president of the National Association of Biblical Instructors. From 1947 to 1951, she was national cochair of education for the Zionist Organization of America. She sat on the advisory board of the National Jewish Curriculum Institute and the Jewish Book Council, and was a member of the American Academy of Religion and the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.
Trude Weiss-Rosmarin died of cancer on June 26, 1989, at age eighty-one. Her combination of scholarship, iconoclasm, and absolute commitment to Judaism and its future had made her a unique figure in American Jewry.
The Hebrew Moses: An Answer to Sigmund Freud (1939); Highlights of Jewish History (1941); Jerusalem (1950); Jewish Expressions on Jesus: An Anthology (1977); Jewish Survival (1949); Jewish Women Through the Ages (1940); Judaism and Christianity: The Differences (1943); New Light on the Bible (1941); The Oneg Shabbath Book (1940); Religion of Reason: The Philosophy of Hermann Cohen (1936); Saadia (1959); What Every Jewish Woman Should Know (1940).
Dellenbach, Carolyn. “An Inventory to the Trude Weiss-Rosmarin Papers (1908–1989).” AJA, Cincinnati, Ohio; EJ 14 (1965); Gertel, Elliot B. “My Friend, Trude Weiss-Rosmarin.” Jewish Spectator (Fall 1989): 11–17; Gilson, Estelle. “Trude’s a Holy Terror: Scholar, Critic, Rebel, Gadfly.” Present Tense (Winter 1978): 33–36. Reprinted in Jewish Spectator 54 (Fall 1989): 6–10; Moore, Deborah Dash. “Trude Weiss-Rosmarin and the Jewish Spectator.” In “The Other New York Jewish Intellectuals,” edited by Carole S. Kessner (1994); Reed, Barbara Strauss. “Trude Weiss-Rosmarin: Rebel with a Cause.” New Jersey Journal of Communication 3 (1995): 58–76; UJE 10:494; Weiss-Rosmarin, Trude, and Marie Syrkin. Interview. Moment 8 (September 1983): 37–44; WWIAJ (1938).