The Encyclopedia features over 1,700 biographies, 300 thematic essays, and 1,400 photographs and illustrations on a wide range of Jewish women through the centuries -- from Gertrude Berg to Gertrude Stein; Hannah Greenebaum Solomon to Hannah Arendt; the Biblical Ruth to Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
In 1815, Rachel Mordecai Lazarus, a twenty-six-year-old North Carolina schoolteacher, met a “Shylock.” Dishearteningly, he was a character in her favorite writer’s latest novel. Even worse, the malicious London coachmaker of Maria Edgeworth’s The Absentee (1812) was named Mr. Mordicai. The sting festered, and Rachel wrote to Edgeworth, a best-selling Irish writer of fiction and progressive educational guides, requesting an explanation. Rachel’s genteel, principled criticism moved and shamed Edgeworth, who not only begged pardon but set out in her next tale to unveil antisemitism’s irrational roots. So began an epistolary friendship that continued until Rachel Mordecai Lazarus’s death, though few knew of it. Adhering closely to social strictures on women—to be widely known was to risk one’s virtue—she refused ever to have her name publicly linked to Edgeworth or to the apologetic novel she inspired, Harrington (1817).
Since the late twentieth century women have begun to assume leadership positions that are undoubtedly “religious” in both content and form. Religious leaders, like any other leaders, guide their followers towards achieving goals and purposes, and can do so by influencing their followers’ motivation. Religious leaders guide their followers towards religious goals and derive their authority to do so from the strength of their own religious characteristics. What therefore distinguishes them from secular leaders is that even in democratic societies their authority does not emanate solely from the public, but also from a religious source—in the case of Judaism, the Torah. Hence, a crucial criterion for religious leadership in the world of Jewry is “knowledge of the Torah,” by which is meant the ability to refer to the canonical texts in an unmediated manner.
All early biblical leaders of the Jewish people were elected by God. The matriarchs and patriarchs, priests, prophets, kings, judges and warriors were chosen by divine plan to lead the nation at different points in its history. The Torah offers us glimpses into the relationships between Sarah and Abraham, Rebecca and Isaac, Rachel, Leah and Jacob, based on the principle that ma’aseh avot siman le-banim (the deeds of the ancestors serve as a model for the descendents). Beyond the biblical text, the influence of matriarchal faith and insight is conveyed in the midrashic literature which expands the role of wife, helper and mother to include prophetess, teacher and visionary. Yet it is clear from the biblical narrative that females did not serve in the broader leadership roles filled by males.
Leah is the elder daughter of Laban and the wife of Jacob, father of twelve sons who will become the twelve tribes of Israel. Leah and her sister Rachel, whose names mean “cow” and “ewe,” give Jacob many sons; and their father gives him actual live-stock Leah is described as having “soft (lovely) eyes” (Gen 29:7). Some translations (such as NJPS, RSV, NEB, and REB), perhaps influenced by Jacob’s preference for Rachel, render this as “dull-eyed” or “weak eyes,” but the more appropriate translation is “soft eyes” (as in NRSV and NAB)—what we might call “cow eyes.” She has six sons, who become six of the Israelite tribes (Gen 35:23; 46:5, 14).
Leah is depicted in the Torah as the woman who was married to Jacob against his will, and as the sister of the beloved and beautiful Rachel. The Rabbis compare Leah and Rachel: both were equivalent in beauty and in their erect stature. However, Leah’s eyes were weak from crying, for she feared that she would have to be married to the wicked Esau. The Rabbis found this weeping to be praiseworthy and declared that by merit of her prayers this fate was set aside and she was married to Jacob.
The long-standing idea that women are either not fit to be educated or do not need to be educated has deep roots in Jewish history. Beginning with the Hebrew Bible, the primacy of men is a given and women’s status is closely related to their childbearing function. There are, however, some exceptions. Both Deborah and Huldah were prophets and therefore presumably knowledgeable in the law. The matriarchs, although not equal to their husbands, displayed assertive behavior and did not hesitate to manipulate events to fit their own interpretations of God’s will.
Tillie LeBlang was known as a businesswoman, philanthropist, and mother. When her husband, Joseph, died in 1931, she took control of a family business valued at $12 million to $15 million. During their thirty years of marriage, the LeBlangs built a small retail cigar shop into a cultural empire that operated three ticket agencies and controlled five theaters, three in New York City and two in Newark, New Jersey. LeBlang worked with her husband while raising three daughters. She continued to manage the business until just a few months before she died, with the help of her second husband, William Jasie, who had been the LeBlangs’ business lawyer.
A writer of lyrical and sometimes sentimental poetry, Malka Lee was one of the most beloved female poets writing in Yiddish in America during her lifetime. Her poems had great folk appeal to Yiddish readers as reflections of their own experiences in the Old World and the New. Her work was favorably received by literary critics of the time, such as Shmuel Niger and Melech Ravitch. In 1965, she was awarded the Hayim Greenberg Award of Pioneer Women of America.
Sara Lee, a Jewish educator who combines charisma with caring and vision with realism, has become a central figure in the effort to ensure Jewish continuity. In recent years the American Jewish community has recognized both the critical need for and the difficult challenge of providing all Jews with an excellent, compelling Jewish education.
Mishnah Niddah 3:7 gives no status to the embryo prior to forty days from conception: it is considered “mere water.” At three months after conception, the pregnancy is considered recognizable (Niddah 2:4). This does not explicitly change the legal status of the fetus but rather that of the mother in terms of legal presumptions concerning her purity status. Some poskim do make a distinction in reference to abortion between the first forty days and three months.
Hebrew is a gendered language in which women are or may be included in masculine plural address and masculine plural verbs. When the address in the Torah is “man or woman” (ish o isha) or “a person” (adam or nefesh), and sometimes in the plural, inclusion of women (sg. isha) can be assumed. When the Torah addresses in unspecified masculine singular language it is assumed that women are included unless they are exempted on grounds of physiology or by particular hermeneutic methods which depend chiefly upon the gendered aspects of the language, such as singular and plural masculine pronominal suffixes which are the norm, and word choice in address such as ish. These include but are not limited to “the sons of Israel but not the daughters of Israel” (for benei Yisrael); “the sons of Aaron but not the daughters of Aaron” (for benei aharon); “your son/s but not your daughter/s” (for banekha or beneikhem); “you [masculine]” (ata or atem) and the like.
The rabbis established the criteria necessary for legal marriage. These include the man’s acquiring (purchasing) the woman with a formula that indicates that he is the purchaser, the sole active party in the marriage process: payment of the appropriate minimum amount of money; or a document with the appropriate formula; or sexual relations for the sake of marital acquisition (Rambam, Ishut 3: 2–5). There must be two valid witnesses. The acquisition must be done with the woman’s consent and any document must be written specifically in her name. There must be two valid witnesses to the seclusion of the couple for marriage by sexual relations, the man must state that it is for marriage through sexual relations, and he must complete a sexual act even if it is not vaginal intercourse. Although sexual relations for the sake of marriage constitute legal marriage, it was considered inappropriate behavior and the man was flogged for performing this type of marriage (ibid. 3:21). Casual giving of goods using a marriage formula is not considered marriage since it must be part of a serious conversation with marriage as its purpose (ibid. 3:7). The father may betroth his minor and maiden daughter to a Jewish man without her consent, but if she is subsequently divorced or widowed as a minor, she is considered an orphan in his lifetime and he no longer has the right to marry her off (ibid. 3: 11–12). A minor girl cannot arrange her own marriage. Marriage can be accomplished by agency from both the husband’s side and the wife’s side, but it is considered a mitzvah for the man to see the woman prior to marriage lest he find something repulsive in her that the agent would not notice. The woman is not obligated to see the man before marriage because of the rabbinic understanding that she would prefer to be married even if the man was not appealing (ibid. 3:15, 19). A blessing (birkat erusin) should be recited (ibid. 3:24).
A moredet is defined as a married woman who refuses to have sexual relations with her husband (the most normal case), or refuses to do the assigned work of the wife (Mishnah Ketubbot 5:5), a betrothed girl or woman whose set time for marriage has arrived and who refuses to marry, or a yevamah who refuses to undergo yibbum (levirate marriage) with the yavam (levir). The cases of the married woman refusing sexual relations and the yevamah refusing yibbum demonstrate that the legal concept of a married woman includes the idea that she has given ongoing and permanent consent to sexual relations and that refusal thus constitutes rebellion.
Perhaps one of the most embarrassing and humiliating situations for a man, particularly in the Middle East, is infidelity on the part of his wife. Suspicion of infidelity creates a similar dynamics in the Jewish legal system but is moderated by issues of doubt. A man’s suspicion of infidelity on the part of his wife is one of the most prejudicial legal situations for women, clearly demonstrating inequality in the marriage relationship. When a man acquires a woman as his wife, he acquires exclusive rights to her sexuality. The reverse, of course, is not true, since a man (until the decree of Rabbenu Gershom [c. 960–1028] for Ashkenazic Jews and the rise of the State of Israel also for Sephardic Jews, with some anomalous situations still existing) is permitted to have more than one wife as well as concubines, and his legal status is unprejudiced by fornication.
The basic ketubbah of a virgin (two hundred maneh [one maneh=fifty shekels]) was double that of a non-virgin (one hundred maneh) (Mishnah Ketubbot 1:2). Those who were divorced or widowed while betrothed but before marriage retain their status of virgin. This difference was doubled in the case of the daughter of a priest who was a virgin, whose basic ketubbah was four hundred maneh (Mishnah Ketubbot 1:5). This distinction emphasizes the value of virginity and the significance of sexual exclusivity on the part of the woman to her husband and, in the case of the priest, the value of caste status. A number of situations were described biblically which deal with the seduction or the rape of a virgin who is either unattached or betrothed. Consensual sexual intercourse of the betrothed or married woman with someone other than her husband would put both the woman and her paramour in the category of adulterers. Seduction is considered to be consensual but the cases discussed in the Bible according to rabbinic interpretation were dealing with minor girls who did not have the legal right of consent. Rambam covers this material in Hilkhot Na’arah Betulah.
The underground movement Lohamei Herut Yisrael (Fighters for the Freedom of Israel, known by its acronym, Lehi) came into existence in 1940 in the wake of the opposition on the part of Avraham (“Ya’ir”) Stern (1907–1942) to the cessation of hostilities against the British rule in Erez Israel (Palestine) proclaimed by David Raziel (1910–1941), the commander of the Irgun Zeva’i Le’ummi (IZL) during World War II. Stern regarded this decision as mistaken and as the loss of a rare historic opportunity to take advantage of the war situation to obtain concessions from the British, who he felt should be compelled by use of force to fulfill its promise to establish a Jewish state in Erez Israel. “Even in time of war, England is fighting the Jewish Yishuv, attempting to restrict it, and even manages to provide the military forces to prevent the rescue of Holocaust survivors. In reality, Britain is a foreign power, whose interests in the Middle East do not include a Jewish state … we must not cease our war until Britain is expelled and an independent State of Israel is established.”
Adele Lehman, a New York City philanthropist, was not only a substantial donor and fund-raiser for a number of organizations and causes, but was also an administrator and served as an officer or board member for many agencies. Although Lehman is primarily recognized as honorary chairperson for the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies, most of her volunteer work centered around secular organizations. She was a board member of the New York Service for the Orthopedically Handicapped and founder and board member of the Arthur Lehman Counseling Service.
Although she preferred to be addressed as Mrs. Herbert H. Lehman, and often insisted that marriage was her career and family was the greatest interest in her life, Edith Altschul Lehman’s public persona reflected her commitment to social causes. Known to many only as the cultured wife of one of New York’s most popular governors and senators, she was in her own right a passionate social activist and philanthropist, although much of her philanthropy was not made public.
“Hitler put me in the handbag business,” Judith Leiber recalled in Enid Nemy’s book, Judith Leiber: The Artful Handbag. She was born Judith Peto in Budapest, Hungary, on January 11, 1921. Her well-to-do parents, Emil and Helen Peto, originally planned that she make a fortune in skin creams. Instead, she enrolled in the Hungarian Handbag Guild as its first woman member. Judith, her older sister Eva, and her mother survived the Nazi occupation of Budapest by staying in a building designated for Jews and then in a house set aside for Swiss citizens. Her father, an Austro-Hungarian who managed the grain department of a bank, obtained a pass for himself and forged the words “and family,” using the same typewriter used to issue the pass.
For decades, Annie Leibovitz and her camera have exposed to the public eye subtleties of character in rock stars, politicians, actors, and literary figures that lay beneath their celebrity personae. Her work first fueled the American fascination with rock ’n’ roll dissidents in the 1970s and then, in the 1980s and 1990s, captured the essence of the day’s great cultural icons. Her photographs make plain that, as Leibovitz herself once put it, she was not afraid to fall in love with her subjects. Anna-Lou Leibovitz was born on October 2, 1949, in Westbury, Connecticut. She was the third of six children to Marilyn Leibovitz, a modern dance instructor, and Sam Leibovitz, an air force lieutenant colonel. As the daughter of a career military officer, Leibovitz moved with her family frequently from town to town. The constant relocation fostered strong ties among the six Leibovitz children.
Nehama Leibowitz was born in 1905 in Riga, Latvia, to Mordechai and Freyda Leibowitz. She grew up in a home filled with Jewish and general culture, competing in her father’s Bible quizzes against her brother, Yeshayahu, who later became a famous and controversial Israeli philosopher. In 1919 the family moved to Berlin, where Leibowitz taught, wrote articles and studied for her doctorate. She married her uncle, Lipman Leibowitz, who was many years her senior, and on the day she finished her doctorate they fulfilled their dream and moved to Israel (c. 1930).
Käthe Leichter was undoubtedly the foremost socialist feminist in “Red Vienna” during the interwar years. A Social Democratic politician, labor organizer and author, with a doctorate in political economy, she directed women’s affairs for the Viennese Chamber of Workers (Arbeiterkammer). In May 1938, before she had a chance to escape from Austria, Käthe Leichter was arrested by the Gestapo for illegal socialist activities; she was never released from imprisonment.
In the wake of the Civil War, one of the bloodiest wars in the nation’s history, Americans discovered pleasure. “Vacation” became a verb as well as a noun and, in some quarters, even a form of moral exhortation. A vacation, insisted reformer Melvil Dewey, is not just a luxury but a “necessity for those who aim to do a large amount of high-grade work.” Well-to-do, hardworking German-born Jews of the 1870s heeded Dewey’s words. Like other affluent Americans, they vacationed at Saratoga Springs, then one of the country’s premier watering holes, had enjoyed the bracing sea air of the New Jersey shore where luxuriously appointed hotels dotted the beach. “Fond of fun and frolic,” they spent their mornings and afternoons promenading on the boardwalks and boulevards of America’s resort towns; in the evenings they dined, danced, and gambled. America, they believed, was truly God’s playground.
Blume Lempel was a master of stream-of-consciousness, flashback, free association and eroticism—all rare in Yiddish literature. Her modern short-story style was appropriate to her themes, which were often daring: incest—Oedipus in Brooklyn (1981), rape—Aleyn in Eynem (Alone Together, 1989) and the ambivalent attraction of one woman to another (Correspondents, 1992).
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Jewish Women's Archive. "Encyclopedia." (Viewed on January 21, 2019) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/content/L>.