It’s a good sign for Jewish feminists when a marvelous new resource arrives — in this case a CD edited by Paula E. Hyman, Dalia Ofer and Alice Shalvi, put out by Shalvi Publishing. Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia ($99) contains over 1,690 biographical entries, 330 thematic articles, over 1,200 illustrations and 1,071 contributors (full disclosure: I’m one).
The Encyclopedia includes all of the earlier Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia (1997), edited by Paula E. Hyman and Deborah Dash Moore, with many articles now updated: Tamara Cohen’s entry on feminist Phyllis Chesler now alludes to Chesler’s conflicts with the feminist Left. Beth Wenger enlarges her discussion of the mikvah to include interpretations by contemporary Jewish women artists as well as new rituals to mark fertility or cancer treatments, recovery from sexual abuse, and more. The CD also adds American women, such as Lilith co-founder/editor Aviva Cantor, editor-in-chief Susan Weidman Schneider and photographer Joan Roth, who were too young in 1997 to meet the earlier work’s cut-off.
For Jewish women’s history, this CD, under the sponsorship of the Jewish Women’s Archive, is a treasure. Here’s a sampling of women and topics new to this reviewer: Bella Perlhefter, a 17th century professional Hebrew letter-writer and businesswoman who endured the early deaths of all seven of her children; Berthe Bénichou-Aboulker, the first Algerian woman writer published there; Mela Muter, a landscape and portrait painter; the low status of Ethiopian women potters; the frequent and varied portrayal of women in Hasidic Hebrew fiction; why the media professions in Israel have become feminized; and how Achsah, of the Biblical tribe of Judah, is regarded as a practical woman in the Midrash.
Of course, there are the inevitable omissions. Perhaps a revised edition will include poet Merle Feld, educator Shoshana Silberman and Chief Justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court Shirley Abrahamson. And I had hoped for an exploration of whether Jewish women are as prominent in “Third Wave” feminist studies as they were in earlier phases. But mostly I worry that the CD-only format will be a stumbling block to wider availability and use, either by the traditional book-buying Jewish public or to those who expect everything to be on the web, whether free or fee-based. This valuable a resource mustn’t be overlooked.
Phyllis Holman Weisbard is the University of Wisconsin System Women’s Studies Librarian, responsible for Feminist Collections: A Quarterly of Women’s Studies Resources and other publications.