Live from the Lilith Blog 1 of 2
May 7, 2012 by admin
At the time of her death in December, Paula Hyman was the Lucy Moses Professor of Modern Jewish History at Yale University. She had been the first female dean of the Albert A. List College of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the first woman president of the American Academy for Jewish Research, and co-founder of of the germinal Jewish feminist group of the 1970s, Ezrat Nashim. While still a graduate student, she authored what may have been the first social history of Jewish women, The Jewish Woman in America , and then proceeded to transform the way that Jewish scholars think of such basic historical paradigms as assimilation and acculturation by viewing these phenomena through the lens of gender.
Most of the Jewish girls born in America today will take it for granted that women can be rabbis, count in a minyan, and read from the Torah. And Jewish historians being trained today are called to task when the do not take gender into account. Paula Hyman was at the forefront of the religious and intellectual struggles that generated these changes. Her influence extended both into the academy and far beyond it, affecting the lives of Jewish females in schools and congregations in ways of which many are still unaware.
The reflections that follow give some glimpses into her legacy, and the extraordinary ways in which she shaped the Jewish feminist world we live in today.
Read more in a free download from Lilith’s Spring 2012 issue.
Rachel Kranson teaches in the religious studies faculty at the University of Pittsburgh. She is co-editor of A Jewish Feminist Mystique: Jewish Women in Postwar America (2010) and a contributing editor at Lilith.
Elaine Shizgal Cohen:
Paula Hyman and I were friends – our daughters attended day school together at Schechter of Bergen County in their elementary school days, and we were both involved in Ezrat Nashim when I joined the group in its quieter, post-activist years in the 1980’s. Yet it’s the memory of spending several days as her student that had a deep and indelible impact on me, leaving me with an enduring appreciation of her brilliance and boldness as a scholar.
About 30 years ago, I took Paula’s class on the memoir of Glückel of Hamelin, a seventeenth-century Jewish businesswoman, at the National Havurah Summer Institute. Paula’s pioneering approach, which would eventually lead to a greater acceptance of social history within the academy, introduced me to new ways of looking at historical documents and women’s history. She validated the lives and contributions of women, and demonstrated how much could be learned about societies of the past from a focus on family life and women’s experiences. Other historians could continue to study war, government and the rivalries of “great men;” Paula was charting a new path by looking at commercial and domestic life from a feminist vantage point.
Elaine Shizgal Cohen, EdD, Director of the Schechter Day School Network, is Chairperson of the Adult Education Committee of Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck NJ, where she is a vice-president.
Susan Weidman Schneider:
I can’t recall when I first met Paula Hyman, but I do know that when I first read her. In her co-created book The Jewish Woman in America, I was not only enlightened, I was also charmed. Its worn brown paperback cover now pulls me back to the joy and delight—and surprise—one could feel at having women’s roles in Jewish history, including recent Jewish history, confirmed and validated by a certified historian, no less. Here was proof that we’d moved from the realm of hand-me-down stories of women’s activism and learning into an era of recognition and legitimate, justified honor for our foremother’s experiences. What a pleasure!
To Paula all later writers and thinkers about Jewish women’s lives owe a debt of gratitude.
Susan Weidman Schneider is editor in chief of Lilith magazine
Paula and family came to live in Tenafly and joined our havurah, Harurat Reyim in the late nineteen seventies. Not that long after, Paula had her first bout of breast cancer. As someone who already had had a mastectomy at a young age (40) I knew there were not that many women in our age group at that time and I reached out to her on this personal level.
I stood by–as did all of her friends–as she went through four more bouts of metastasis. Throughout, she kept working and taking part in our Havurah and dismissed our tributes to her bravery in the face of such an onslaught. I went on to have another mastectomy and Paula moved to Yale. There she had many blessedly cancer -free years, allowing her to write her seminal works, be a beloved teacher, wife, and mother to her children.
Paula was an indefatigable lover and pursuer of life. Paula followed with all her soul the directive to “….choose life”(Deuteronomy 30:19). She leaves behind the legacy and the blessing of her choice, z’l.
Menorah Rotenberg is a psychotherapist and family therapist in private practice in Teaneck, NJ. She taught “The Matriarchs, The Patriarchs: Ourselves” and ‘The Joseph Cycle” at the National Havurah Institute the years that Paula Hyman taught there as well.
Phyllis Holman Weisbard:
In the early 1980s when Paula was Dean of Undergraduates at Jewish Theological
Seminary, I accepted a part-time job at JTS as librarian for the Melton Research Center
for Jewish Education. I had a babysitter for my infant son Ari, at home in Montclair, New
Jersey, who would also take care of my 4 year old daughter Talya when she returned
home school. . On my first day on the job, however, after I’d been there for at most a
couple of hours, a messenger came into the Melton Library and told me that I had a
phone call in Dean Hyman’s office. The call was from my babysitter (I hadn’t even found
out yet what number to give her to reach me — I’d left a general number for the Seminary
and it had been relayed to Paula’s office). I was told that Talya’s school had called and
that she was being sent home because she had lice. I was mortified to receive such a
call, and in the Dean’s office, no less, but Paula heard what the call was about, and in her
always gracious way immediately put me at ease by saying “Oh, it’s no big deal. We’ve
had it in our house, and you just follow the drill.”
Phyllis Holman Weisbard is University of Wisconsin System Women’s Studies Librarian and is a former Judaica librarian. She contributed an “Annotated Bibliography and Guide to Archival Resources on the History of Jewish Women in America” to “Jewish Women In America: An Historical Encyclopedia” and to “Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia,” both co-edited by Paula.