Here’s a confession: When I find out what women scholars are learning about Jewish women’s lives—and how they’re analyzing what they discover—I’m entranced. There’s hardly any subject that strikes me as too arcane; I’m almost indiscriminately drawn to it all, even when some of the findings have a believe-it-or-not quality, like the fact that in a sect of modern Karaite Jews in California the custom is for women who are menstruating to sit at a separate Shabbat table. (This from a paper delivered at an academic conference.)
At every December meeting of the Association for Jewish Studies, and at the annual meetings of scholars in religion, history and literary studies, more facts about—and clearer interpretations of—the lives of Jewish women emerge than you could have hoped for even a decade ago. And the details are often delicious; We know that the women who ran those famed Catskill Mountain hotels in the 1950s were successful entrepreneurs; Jennie Grossinger of the eponymous resort and cookbook, for one. But did you think of that Catskill leisure world as a path to success that resisted some of the cultural norms for women of that era? Lilith contributing editor Rachel Kranson’s new doctoral research shows how these hospitable Hotel Mamas used the domestic role of the 50s to mask the fact that they were tough and successful businesswomen. And of course there’s more: for example, the potent experiences of rabbi’s wives, once the province of treacly fiction, now come under close and sympathetic scrutiny and analysis in The Rabbi’s Wife, a new book by Shuly Rubin Schwartz of the Jewish Theological Seminary.
Some of the findings of these intrepid women scholars horrify even as we are drawn by the light they cast on the darkest days of Jewish experience. One example appears in this issue in the explicit details Helene Sinnreich gives of the harrowing and often stomach-turning ways women in the Lodz ghetto tried to fight against all-consuming hunger, a result of Nazi torture by starvation.
Regardless of whether some of the details lure or repel you, you’ve got to agree that our understanding of how Jewish women live—and have lived—is more complex and richer than it has ever been. Don’t you want more? I do. I have become a women’s research junkie. I want to know more about the material culture and the intellectual energies of Jewish women, not just from 50 years ago, but from the distant past too. I’m moved by the new readings of texts, like the insights Rivy Poupko Kletenik gives us on women’s hidden role in the Hanukkah narrative we thought we knew so well already (see page 22). And I crave knowledge of what life was like in the streets of Jerusalem for my father’s grandmother, who came to Canada in 1882 from Grodno and then, after settling the family in Winnipeg, convinced her husband (so the story goes) to make aliya to Jerusalem in 1904. What were the streets like there, then? Show me etchings from the period. Let me see what’s on the gravestones. (Hers reads: “Rachel, the kosher wife of Dov Ber.”)
The rich pleasure of knowing more is one reason you’ve got to read about the medieval Jewish women who ran financial institutions in Europe a thousand years ago (page 38). It’s unlikely that the Hotel Mamas knew of their precursors, but now we do, luckily.
The past can inform the present in useful ways. Without being too obvious….you can read the Judith story (like Yael murdering Sisera with a tent peg) as a gritty talc of a woman doing what one has to do to ensure the survival of her people. You can better understand some of the stereotypes of Jewish women, which emphasize privilege and over-the-top adornment, once you understand how an immigrant people needed proof of success and their entitlement to luxuries. Feminist scholars, by tilting the prism and looking even at known facts in new ways, give us an opportunity to understand our cultural matrices differently, and often more sympathetically.
We’re living in an amazing time. When I talk to audiences about the research women have been doing for the past 25 years or so, I sometimes have to stop myself and alter my language. I often start to say that this flowering of women’s scholarship on Jewish life is like the Renaissance for its diversity, quality and impact. But then I have to back up and say No. This is not a renaissance, because there was no naissance that came before. There’s no precursor for this: Academic scholarship in universities coupled with an explosion of interest in learning. Adult education courses attended largely by women springing up in every community. Torah study as part of Jewish yoga retreats; synagogue sisterhood lecture series; Me’ah out of Boston; Melton courses everywhere; New York’s advanced Jewish study center for women, Drisha; informal Jewish study and reading groups; JCC classes in Bible women; The Jewish Women’s Archive sponsoring research into popular culture (including some of Kranson’s); Kolot, The Center for Jewish Women’s and Gender Studies at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, reaching beyond academic circles with its website rituahvell.org. The women’s culture that characterized much of Jewish women’s organized activity in the time of Jennie Grossinger—fashion shows and house tours, theater trips and bowling parties—is changed utterly. The change is happening with wit and rigor, and Lilith is proud to be a part of its influence.