Paula Hyman was born and raised in Boston. As she completed high school and entered college, she studied Hebrew and classic Jewish texts at the Hebrew Teachers College of Boston (now Hebrew College), receiving a B.J.Ed. degree in 1966, two years before graduating summa cum laude from Radcliffe. She did her graduate work at Columbia University, earning a PhD in 1975 for a dissertation on French Jewry. During her time in graduate school, she also became a feminist activist and a founding member of the Jewish feminist organization Ezrat Nashim. After teaching at Columbia for several years, in 1981 she became the first female dean of undergraduates at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, the flagship educational institution of the Conservative movement. She served as Lucy G. Moses Professor of Modern Jewish History at Yale in 1986 until her death.
Despite talking on occasion about death, and Paula telling me that rarely did a day go by that she did not think about her own mortality, like most people I preferred to imagine that we all would live forever, or at least long enough.
Paula crammed so much life and accomplishments into her 65 years. She tasted many pleasures, including some—like grandchildren—she had not assumed that she would experience.
Consciousness of herself and her place in the world permeated much of Paula’s life. She had determined when we first met as graduate students to pursue both career and family. Paula consciously wore a wedding and engagement ring, although professors made clear that in their opinion she was broadcasting a lack of seriousness toward her PhD and career. Paula consciously decided not to change her name; it was a sign of her feminism and professional identity. She and [her husband Stan Rosenbaum] had children while Paula was still a graduate student.
Conscious of women’s position in society, Paula deeply resented misogynist assumptions and worked diligently to alter attitudes and dismantle discrimination. An ardent feminist, she also channeled her anger over prejudice against women into advocacy for women’s equality in Judaism, targeting the Conservative Movement with her friends in Ezrat Nashim. Their “Women’s Call for Change,” handed out in 1972 at the Rabbinical Association’s meeting in the Catskills, has entered the annals of history. It led to women being counted in the minyan, to women gaining the right to become rabbis and cantors, to women accepting leadership positions in congregations… Her daughters Judith and Adina could celebrate a bat mitzvah—something Paula never had—equal to any bar mitzvah, in part because of Paula’s powerful and effective activism. For her, the struggle was always about perception and practice.
Paula sought to break the grip of “common knowledge” not just for her family. She also wanted to transform our historical understanding. She loved history, although the history she learned in college and university barely mentioned women and paid no attention to gender. And most histories also ignored Jews. Paula set out to revise the writing of history, on both fronts. She repeatedly parried attacks from older male colleagues who refused to consider that women belonged in history or that gender provided a valuable perspective on the Jewish past. At the same time, she discouraged graduate students from choosing a topic on Jewish women. For your second book, she would tell them.
As Paula gained increasing renown, breaking glass ceilings at the Jewish Theological Seminary as its first female dean, and then at Yale as director of Jewish Studies, the first woman to lead a major Jewish studies program in the United States, she discovered that any number of organizations in the U.S., Israel, and Europe, were eager to invite her to be their token woman. Pointedly Paula began to inquire who else was on the program or the editorial board, and to insist that other women be invited. If not, she would not participate.
These concerns for the big picture framed her attention to the intimate picture: family and friendship mattered very much to Paula. One of the pleasures of being her friend was the ease with which one moved from conversation about an article or book one was writing to political questions mostly involving Jews, to personal concerns about raising children. Paula did not segment her life. Her husband and children knew her as a working mother, a scholar, a teacher, a feminist activist, a religiously committed Jewish woman.
Now Paula has given us a new challenge: that of living with her memory, not her physical presence. But her voice, her intellect, her will, and her values survive in so many forms. We should hear her when we need courage to oppose sexism, whether political, historical, or unconscious; when we strive to balance family commitments with demands of career; and when we seek to follow in her footsteps to chart new paths in making and writing Jewish history.
Director of the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies and Frederick G.L. Huetwell Professor of History at the University of Michigan, Deborah Dash Moore co-edited Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia with Paula Hyman.
by Marion Kaplan
There are friends you share your youth with, friends who become your school or graduate school comrades, friends from the playground where you watch your children, friends with similar politics, and friends with common intellectual interests. For me, Paula was all of these. We met at Columbia, noticed each other at Columbia Women’s Liberation and pamphleted against the war in Cambodia in Park Slope Brooklyn, not the Park Slope of today but a very nationalistic pro-war area. We pamphleted together; we were scared!
Just as our conversations hopped between politics, Jewish history, and feminism, our lives embraced work and family. A few years ahead of me, Paula was a role model in the way she combined the two. When she worked at the Jewish Theological Seminary, we had weekly lunches in my kitchen, where we argued the world, but first she dropped off large bags of clothing from her daughters for my daughter, and we reported on our children’s progress, their interests and their needs…
So, it is time to say goodbye to Paula and to be deeply grateful for the opportunity to have been her friend. To say that she will be missed is not enough. She is irreplaceable, but she would want us all to go on in her spirit, challenging, arguing, and loving.
Marion Kaplan is the Skirball Professor of Modern Jewish History at New York University.
Adapted from eulogies given on December 16, 2012 in New Haven, CT.