Gender and Assimilation in Modern Jewish History: The Roles and Representation of Women

Paula Hyman’s masterful and provocative Gender and Assimilation in Modern Jewish History serves provides a most lucid synthesis of two key issues in modern Jewish history: assimilation and the intimate connection between it and shifts in the meaning of gender for Jews as they confronted modernity.

Hyman, a distinguished historian of the modern Jewish experience is an author (with Sonya Michel and Charlotte Baum) of the book that launched scholarly study and public discussion of the history of Jewish women: The Jewish Woman in America (1976). Her knowledge of modem Jewish history, her intelligent mastery and use of gender theory, and her linguistic abilities in Yiddish and Hebrew ensure that this is a solidly grounded work. Hyman’s book offers an analysis of the ways in which Jewish women and men encountered modernity through the issue of gender. Both sides of the question—”modernization” (here referred to as assimilation) and “the roles and representation of women”—have constantly played off against each other. According to Hyman, neither historical trajectory can be understood without its linkage to the other. As Jews, men in particular, started in the late eighteenth century in Western and Central Europe to imagine some kind of equality with the non-Jews around them, they entered into a complicated project by which they tried to remake themselves. How much about themselves they wanted to remake varied over time and place, but a key element involved the renegotiation of the relationship between men and women.

Germany, England, France, Central Europe had a different history vis-a-vis their Jews than did Russia, Poland, and the lands of eastern Europe. The Jewish encounter with modernity in the West began earlier, drew out over a longer time period, moved with fits and starts, and held more realistic prospects for assimilation. The possibilities for an integrated civic life, in which Jews who lived in Germany could become Germans, were basically offered to Jewish men. Jewish women, because of the gendered division of the non-Jewish world around them, had fewer places where they could become assimilated into the larger society. While their worlds changed too, and they spent more of their time in the domestic sphere and less in the world of the marketplace in which they had heretofore been active, Jewish women lagged in the assimilation process. Ironically, assimilation for these women made them “more Jewish.” Jewishness, Judaism, the Jewish world came increasingly to be the world of the home and, as such, the world of women.

A different dynamic took place in eastern Europe. In this key section of the book, Hyman uses education as the metaphor and the vehicle by which to trace the processes of assimilation and changes in women’s roles. Here, women may have actually spearheaded the assimilatory process. Before modernity in the East, traditional Jewish life was rigidly divided into a male and a female zone; because of the centrality of Jewish learning to sustaining that world, women-because of their relative unimportance-could become more educated than men in the languages and cultures of the larger society. Highly traditional parents, whose sons immersed themselves only in the traditional texts of Jewish learning, very likely allowed their daughters to learn foreign languages and other “unimportant” subjects. What were the implications of this gendered contact with Russian culture? What did it mean when these young women, as well as their brothers, migrated to America?

The book traces the movement of the Jewish women and men of these European regions to the United States, where they played out the drama of their European assimilations in the context of America. Hyman deals with education, politics, work, religious practice and, most importantly, women’s consciousness as they experienced this transition. She has studied the ways in which women attempted to shape their own destiny, while at the same time the men around them, community leaders in particular, blamed them for the decline of Judaism.

Hasia R. Diner is the Steinberg Professor of American Jewish history at New York University. She is the author of In the Almost Promised Land: American Jews and Blacks, 1915-1995, Erin’s Daughters in America: Irish Immigrant Women in the Nineteenth Century, and A Time for Gathering: The Second Migration, 1820- 1880, the second volume in the Johns Hopkins University Press series The Jewish People in America.