Pioneering Historian, Feminist Remembered

Yale’s Paula Hyman pushed for women’s equality within Judaism.

12/20/11
Staff Writer
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A graduate student at Columbia University in 1972, Paula Hyman was part of a dozen Jewish feminists who delivered a manifesto — demanding full equality for women in the practice of Conservative Judaism — to the annual meeting of the Rabbinical Assembly, the movement’s rabbinical group.

The Ezrat Nashim’s  “Jewish Women Call for Change” statement, which grew out of a study group under the auspices of the New York Havurah, listed the ordination of women as rabbis and equal participation with men in religious prayer services in its list of demands.

In addition to placing the manifesto in the rabbis’ convention packet, members of Ezrat Nashim, including Hyman, arranged a session with the rabbis’ wives.

“We recognized that the subordinate status of women was linked to their exemption from positive time-bound mitzvot ... and we therefore accepted increased obligation as the corollary of equality,” Hyman later explained.

A little more than a decade after the 1972 RA conference, the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary of America voted to start ordaining women — Dr. Hyman was then a member of the school’s faculty — and a Conservative movement’s acceptance of egalitarian prayer services was underway.

Dr. Hyman, who died of breast cancer on Dec. 15 in New Haven, Conn., at 65, was remembered this week as a key player in the effort to grant women equal rights in the Conservative movement and in the wider Jewish community.

“Because of the work of Paula Hyman, I — and other women who grew up in the past few decades of the Conservative movement — never had to fight to be counted as a part of a minyan,” Jewish feminist Halley Cohen wrote in an online appreciation. “Her tenacity, scholarship and deep belief in the power of women’s equality in all aspects of the American Jewish movement will continue to have a profound effect for generations to come.”

Dr. Hyman was “among the most respected contemporary historians of Jewish experience,” the Jewish Women’s Archive said in an online statement. She “deepened and broadened understandings of modern Jewish history through her studies of French Jews and her application of gendered analysis to Jewish experience.”

A professor of Jewish history at Yale University and chair for a decade of the school’s Jewish studies program, Dr. Hyman had earlier served as the first female dean of the Jewish Theological Seminary’s College of Jewish Studies.

Her “capacity for loyal friendship, her love of the Jewish people writ large and her passionate engagement in numerous Jewish communities provide us all with an enduring model of what makes a life worth loving, and what it means to live a committed Jewish life,” Rabbi James Ponet, Yale’s Jewish chaplain, wrote in an e-mail message last week to affiliates of the university’s Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life.

Dr. Hyman was the author or editor of several books, including “The Jewish Woman in America,” “Gender and Assimilation in Modern Jewish History,” “Puah Rakovsky’s My Life as a Radical Jewish Woman: Memoirs of a Zionist Feminist in Poland,” and the two-volume encyclopedia “Jewish Women in America.” She served as an editor of Indiana University’s Press’ series on The Modern Jewish Experience.

“The Jewish Woman in America,” which she wrote — with colleagues Charlotte Baum and Sonya Michel — in 1976 while still a graduate student, was considered a pioneering work, establishing her reputation as a scholar.

“It was our passion as feminists that led us into this scholarship,” Dr. Hyman later explained. “We felt it was going to tell a story” — about the accomplishments of Jewish women — “that hadn’t been widely recognized.”

A native of Boston, she attended Radcliffe College and Boston’s Hebrew Teachers College (now Hebrew College), and received her Ph.D. degree from Columbia University, where she served as assistant professor of history. She frequently lectured, in Hebrew and English, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, at Tel Aviv University and at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

A former president of the American Academy for Jewish Research, she received a 1999 National Jewish Book Award, and, in 2004, the National Foundation for Jewish Culture’s Lifetime Achievement Award in Historical Studies.

When she began her activism four decades ago, Dr. Hyman said later  in a statement on the Jewish Women’s Archive Website, she and her fellow feminists “were not yet able to articulate the ways in which women might seek to transform the Judaism that had marginalized us.”

“We chose to target the Conservative movement,” she wrote, “because most of us had grown up in its ranks, and because the Reform movement was already moving on the issue while Orthodoxy presented too many obstacles.”

E-mail: steve@jewishweek.org
 

Last Update:

12/25/2011 - 08:45

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Remembering my Friend-- Paula Hyman

Like all of you, I am deeply saddened by the death of my friend, Paula Hyman. I have known Paula and her immediate family since childhood. We lived in the same 3 decker house in Dorchester, we played together as kids, we often visited each other’s homes, we took family trips together, her entire family attended my Bar Mitzvah, and our parents were life-long friends.

So before Paula became— Dr. Hyman, Professor Hyman, author, social historian, women activist, et.al. -- she was, and still is, just Paula to us. She was, however, always brilliant. Even in elementary school all the kids in the neighborhood knew Paula was the smartest one in the class. And in spite of this, everyone liked her. There was no pretense or sense of superiority about her.

Paula was always a serious student, sometimes too serious. One time, at about age 7, we were on her front porch and she was reading to me. Then an apple fight broke out with some neighborhood kids, and we were in the middle of it. With Paula mostly out of the line of fire, she kept reading. Finally, in her stern teacher voice she said, “Steven, be still. I am trying to read to you.” In my humble defense-- if I had remained still, I would have gotten hit.

In all of the eloquent tributes to Paula, one element is not complete-- the profound influence and contribution of her parents, Ida and Sid. In addition to Paula graduating Harvard and Hebrew College, her sister Toby also graduated from Harvard and Hebrew College (and then Harvard Law), and her youngest sister Merle graduated from Harvard and Hebrew College (and then law school). What a remarkable legacy for Paula’s parents.

When reflecting upon the sad events of the past week, I am reminded of the Talmudic story of a man asking his friend how he could celebrate the birth of his child, knowing one day the child would die. He answered, “When it is time to celebrate, I will celebrate. When it is time to mourn, I will mourn. “

In the midst of celebration of Paula’s life, I miss my friend, and it hurts.

Steve Prenovitz
Atlanta, GA

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