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Women of the West

The American West has always been pioneering country. And it was so again as the Western Jewish Studies Association conferred its imprint of legitimacy on Jewish women’s studies by devoting its third annual conference entirely to this mushrooming field.

While universities throughout the country are producing Jewish feminist scholarship, few places receive these studies with unabashed enthusiasm.

“[We’re] more open in the West,… willing to take more risks,” says one conference organizer, Esther Fuchs, a professor of Jewish studies at the University of Arizona-Tuscon, where the conference took place in April.

The three-day gathering, which drew participants from many Western schools, was designed to look at subjects and places that had been marginalized: in Yiddish literature, in the Middle East, in German literature. But while the conference topics ranged widely, they all were interwoven with the adventures of Jewish women in the West in such sessions as “Soup, Soap, and Sermons: Texas Jewish Women Work to Solve Community Problems”; “Caroline, Hannah, and Mary: Jewish Women and the Legacy of the California Gold Rush”; and “All My Jewish Grandmothers: Four Generations in Cleveland and Omaha.”

It was Harriet Rochlin, however—the author of books about the Jews of Texas and author of “Riding High: Annie Oakley’s Jewish Contemporaries,” [LILITH, Fall/Winter, 1985] —who dramatized these stories in her 80- image slide narrative that uses diaries, letters and memoirs to trace a vital female Jewish presence in the West from 1590 until 1912.