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Rachel’s Daughters: Newly Orthodox Jewish Women

RACHEL’S DAUGHTERS: NEWLY ORTHODOX JEWISH WOMEN by Debra Renee Kaufman; Rutgers University Press, $30; paper, $11.95

Debra Kaufman, a professor of sociology and a feminist, wanted to know what attracts young, relatively affluent, well- educated and highly assimilated women to the most traditional, right-wing, patriarchal and fundamentalist branch of Judaism—often assumed to be oppressive to women. For her comprehensive study of ba’alot teshuva—Hebrew for women who have “returned” to Orthodox Judaism—the author interviewed 150 newly Orthodox Jewish women across the United States.

The women in this study express and defend their status as women admirably. Like some feminists, these newly Orthodox Jewish women are women-identified, celebrating the female and women’s life-cycle experiences. They avoid feminist politics by choosing to enhance the status of women and to protect women as a group within the boundaries of patriarchal religion.

Almost all the women in the study speak positively of the family purity laws [a two-week sexual separation between husband and wife during the woman’s monthly menstrual cycle]. Many claim increased sexual satisfaction and pleasure within the marriage. Newly married women were more likely to complain about sexual separation, as compared to those married for a longer time, who found the laws quite positive when viewed over the adult life cycle.

Says Kaufman, “While religious orthodoxy may not provide the answers for most of us, these women have raised important questions about the meaning of family, the politics of gender identity, and feminism in the closing decades of the twentieth century”. Their stories, and those of other “born again” women, reveal more than the antipathy of an antifeminist right. Their voices are the voices of women trying to cope with what they perceive to be the inequities and imbalances of post-industrial living and liberal patriarchal culture.

Molly Abramowitz, a senior government writer, lives in the Washington, D.C. area