Last Thursday would have been the 75th birthday of the late Jewish historian Paula Hyman, who wrote a definitive study of modern French Jewry and likely did more than anyone to make women as well as men a subject of Jewish historical scholarship. Among much else, she put forth the then-novel argument that Jewish women in 19th-century Western Europe and America often sought to preserve religious practices and traditions that their husbands were eager to shed. Although an unabashed feminist who agitated for the Conservative movement to approve the ordination of female rabbis and otherwise change its attitudes toward women, Hyman sought to understand the past on its own terms rather than pass judgment on it, and her writings were free from the theoretical jargon that characterizes much feminist scholarship today. In an anthology of brief tributes to Hyman, Deborah Dash Moore writes:
I recently read this sentence about the Pletzl, the Parisian Jewish immigrant neighborhood in the early 20th century. “Its narrow streets,” Paula Hyman writes, “displayed signs in Yiddish, harbored kosher butcher shops and Jewish restaurants, and gave shelter to the petty commerce of immigrant peddlers.” I paused. . . . The imagery . . . powerfully evoked Hyman’s deep respect and affection for immigrant Jews.
Hyman chose her historical subjects with great care. Guided by profound commitments to women’s equality, she pushed Jewish historical scholarship into radically new areas. She tackled subjects, such as sexual abuse in sweatshops, ignored by labor historians, and she uncovered figures, such as Sadie American and Rebecca Kohut and especially Puah Rakovsky, who had been completely overlooked despite their significant accomplishments. Rakovsky, a revolutionary Jewish Zionist feminist, exemplified all that had been missed in the many histories of Zionism in the 20th century.
Noam Pianko, a former student, adds:
Paula’s historical scholarship was critical of the past and present without being doctrinaire or unidimensional. Paula had an empathy for the tradition and a commitment to transforming it to reflect gender equality, but favored good-faith efforts to identify a usable past that would allow Judaism to continue to thrive as a lived religious tradition. She transformed scholarship by working within the very texts, institutions, and rituals that contributed to the marginalization of women’s voices and roles.
[As an activist], her protest never led to boycotts or flat-out rejection of organizations that she insisted needed to change.