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Paula Hyman, the Haimish Feminist Scholar Who Remade Jewish Studies

Colleagues and former students remember the pioneering activist and teacher

Rebecca Kobrin
Noam Pianko
October 04, 2021
Courtesy Judith Rosenbaum
Paula HymanCourtesy Judith Rosenbaum
Courtesy Judith Rosenbaum
Paula HymanCourtesy Judith Rosenbaum

This week marks the 75th anniversary of the birth of Paula Hyman, who died in 2011. Much has been written about her scholarship and activism which transformed both how we view the Jewish past and experience the synagogue service in the present; less has been penned on how her presence in the classroom—from Columbia to the Jewish Theological Seminary to Yale—shaped the world of Jewish studies.

One of the first female doctorates to fill the ranks of Jewish studies positions that cropped up in the 1980s, Paula Hyman had no model to base how she would go about teaching and training students in Jewish history. Instead, she forged her own path, revolutionizing the field in the classroom in ways that echoed her scholarship. She was not only a woman in a field dominated by men, she was a feminist professor who brought to bear in her work all the social and economic forces of her coming-of-age moment, working to help all see the past with more precision and empower women and men equally in her classrooms.

Those of us lucky enough to be her students relished our relationships with her as much or more than her colleagues did. She aroused in us not only a strong desire to uncover stories relegated to the dustbin of history but she also threw aside many protocols we had come to expect in academic relationships in order to forge a new type of student-teacher relationship, as well as a new approach to scholarship.

Here, a selection of her colleagues, some of whom were also her students, remember both her scholarly originality, and haimish warmth.

Natalie Zemon Davis, Professor Emerita in the History Department at the University of Toronto:

“Paula Hyman was an inspiration to us all. Her pioneering studies of Jewish women in America led to a whole new generation of students. Her leadership in bringing women into the world of the Jewish Theological Seminary has enlivened scholarship there for women and men both. Her spirit lives on.”

Deborah Dash Moore, Professor of History and Professor of Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan:

In a chapter assigned for my course, From Ghetto to Suburb, 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. I marveled at the beauty of the sentence, the vigor of its verbs. The imagery of narrow streets harboring kosher butcher shops and restaurants and giving shelter to petty commerce powerfully evoked Paula Hyman’s deep respect and affection for immigrant Jews.

The sentence reminded me of the grace of Paula’s prose. It let me hear her voice once again. It awakened memories of conversations about Jewish history; how important it was to write history that challenged accepted pieties and reclaimed those ignored and missing from past narratives.

Paula 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.

As she wrote history, she also made it.

She possessed the courage to overcome substantial barriers to women’s leadership in the academy. Paula was willing to be “the first”—at the Jewish Theological Seminary, at Yale University, at the American Academy for Jewish Research. A Jewish feminist activist, she changed the cultures of both Jewish and secular academic communities.

To hear Paula Hyman’s voice today, we need only read her words.

Rebecca Kobrin, Associate Professor of American Jewish History at Columbia University

On a hot August afternoon in a packed, unairconditioned room at Yale, Paula Hyman ended the first class of the semester on a wry note: Participation was essential, she said, but we should all remember that she’d titled the seminar “The Jewish family,” not “My Jewish family.” So no stories about your grandfather’s business or your grandmother’s wisdom. Rather this small, lithe woman with a Boston accent asked for engagement with the entity of the family, long mythologized and rarely analyzed in ways that could shed light on the Jewish past.

Her instruction, on that afternoon in 1990, came 15 years into her career as a professor and teacher, and about two days into mine. I was a freshman, and with my day school background, I thought I knew a lot about Jewish history, but Paula Hyman put me on my toes. I would continue to take numerous undergraduate classes with her, and her course on Jewish immigration inspired not just a senior thesis, but a career’s worth of questions. And of course, I am just one example. Paula Hyman helped shape a generation of scholars—I can count five fellow Jewish Studies scholars from just my Jewish immigration seminar I took with her.

In each class, Paula Hyman was a provocateur, making the topic we thought we knew, like the nuclear family, the Holocaust, or the experience of migration, unrecognizable by the end of the semester. In classroom discussions, she treated her students as equals and called out dynamics she found troubling. Some Yale students could wax on for hours; others were often silent. She challenged the entrenched forces that shaped the classroom. Female students in many instances had been socialized to speak up less, take themselves less seriously, or take fewer risks. So Paula Hyman called on her female students, especially when male voices were dominating the discussion. While there was a hierarchy in the world around her, she worked to eliminate it in the spaces she created. No small feat 30 years ago, when Jewish studies was still “a men’s club” both in terms of who taught in it and the types of subjects considered to be worthy of investigation, which Paula Hyman constantly contested.

Paula Hyman also challenged gender dynamics in her scholarship, by showing that the disciplines that defined the field, primarily legal and intellectual history, left little space to see women. Week in, week out she came into the classroom with new primary sources for us to pour over, demonstrating that writing about women was not about women, but a political act about including those Jews whose stories had been left out. When we read her seminal article on the “Kosher Meat Boycott,” she made the class aware that she “found” these women just by looking at front page news in the Yiddish press. Why had no other scholar found the tale of Jewish women activists protesting the high price of meat, engaging in political protest, and effecting change in the market for kosher food worthy of study?

Indeed, perhaps her most significant imprint is that Jewish history without a serious reckoning with gender is a distortion of the past. The discussion of the 1902 Kosher Meat Boycott forced her students to ponder: What other key parts of Jewish life have been ignored, forgotten, overlooked, or unanalyzed? Whose stories deserve to be studied? What stories have been left out? Hyman made clear in the classroom and in her scholarship that there are no insignificant lives, only inadequate ways of looking at them.

Nothing in the classroom prepared me for what transpired in her office. As one nervously sat down prepared to speak about a certain reading or one’s research, she would pepper you with personal questions about your family and then launch into sharing the mundane frustrations of her daily life—as though teacher and student were sitting at her kitchen table. I confess, over the years, she often caught me off guard with her prodding questions and candid revelations. Not only was she not shy, but these meetings felt very different from those I had with other professors of her stature. She was interested in helping me navigate the complex juggle of life and indeed she is the only professor I ever conversed with who honestly admitted when she mistakenly said something in either a private or public forum.

Her insistence on establishing a personal rapport with her students had a serendipitous effect, at least for me: For Paula, curiosity about the past was part and parcel with curiosity about the people around her in the present. And it is from being engaged in the present, from reading it from clues and signals, that we can look back and begin to unravel the hidden elements of the past. She knew how to listen for archival silences and interpret their meaning. By sharing herself, Paula Hyman also engaged in a highly effective form of mentoring: She let me know that a woman could become a professor, struggling with raising children, the bureaucracy of university life, the challenges of running a minyan, and the need to cook dinner. By sharing her reality, she set me and others on a realistic path.

I encountered Paula Hyman at two decisive points in my career: as an undergraduate at Yale while I was deciding what to do with my life, and as a postdoctoral fellow, when I was figuring out how to juggle being an historian, active community member, wife and mother. Her writings were one essential guide. So was how she lived her life, combining scholarship, teaching, community activism, and politics. Her mentoring was forceful: She not only instructed me to apply for certain jobs and fellowships, she encouraged me to engage in family planning. A guiding passion was her desire to increase opportunities for women in the classroom, as teachers, students and subjects of study, and in places far beyond, from the sanctuary to the boardroom.

As we celebrate what would have been her 75th birthday, I find myself asking, where would Paula Hyman have pushed the field? Since she died in 2011, issues of intersectionality have come to the forefront, and I believe they would have been of great interest to her. She was aware that gender did not trump all other identifications: Even women may not be able to fully see the experiences of all women or may not want to as a result of their class interests. The sources make clear that class places blinders on women: Wealthy women have long ignored dynamics even within their own households or boardrooms concerning the mistreatment or abuse of other Jewish women. Wealthy women protect wealthy men, not other women.

In conversations we had together in her office, she pointed to numerous examples of abuse of poor Jewish women by wealthy Jewish men, to be found in historical records left by Jewish communities in Europe. But the sources do not show women standing up for other women, but the opposite: They show women standing by, as their sons or husbands took advantage of household help. In one sensational case I researched, women provided alibis to the court when they knew that a member of their family had not only impregnated a Jewish maidservant (who was actually their cousin!) but had also murdered her. The long history of men defining the topics of interest in Jewish history has left scholars silent on the topic of violence within the Jewish community and within the Jewish household. Jewish men and their abuses were protected and enabled by Jewish women in ways we need to think about if we ever hope to have a full picture.

Paula Hyman would have pioneered new ways to find the answers and give us a more nuanced vision of the Jewish community, past, present and future.

Noam Pianko, Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Washington

During the graduate school application process, I traveled to New Haven to meet with professor Paula Hyman for an informational interview. I prepared for the interview with pages of notes about my research interests, dissertation ideas, and questions about Yale’s graduate program. But, when I arrived at Paula’s office (I soon learned to follow all the other graduate students who always referred to her as Paula!), she steered the conversation in a very different direction.

After welcoming me, Paula jumped into telling me about her leyning (Torah reading) assignment, Shabbat dinner plans, and updates about her kids. Her approach not only put me at ease but also cut through the rigidity of the adviser-mentee relationship. Within a few minutes, Paula’s openness allowed me to share my own concerns and anxieties about my possible future identity as a scholar. We eventually got to the content I had prepared, but Paula’s willingness to move seamlessly between personal life and scholarship stood out as a unique experience during the graduate school admissions process, and helped solidify that she would become my Ph.D. adviser.

I felt so grateful, both after this meeting and after so many others during my graduate training, to be working with a scholar who cared about being a whole person and treating those around her multifaceted individuals. At a place like Yale where the ivory tower ideal often seemed so unapproachable and formal, Paula humanized academia, making Old Eli Yale feel unpretentious and even haimish!

As an adviser, Paula’s feminist sensibilities trickled into all her interactions with students. Paula engaged in hierarchical communities in nonhierarchical ways. Her students and colleagues benefited from the priority she placed on networking and connecting people before these words became popular business buzzwords. Paula decentralized academic and Jewish communal hierarchies by nurturing grassroots relationships and welcoming her students into these communities. Despite the challenges she had clearly faced as a path-breaking woman scholar and activist, Paula never flaunted her academic accomplishments, demanded conformity to a certain methodology, or used her position to put others (particularly graduate students and junior faculty) in their places.

Paula also realized that informal networks could not ultimately be the only path toward making systemic changes. As an activist, Paula protested and agitated for change in very dramatic and performative ways. Perhaps the most famous example is how she protested, along with several other prominent Jewish feminists in the Ezrat Nashim group, at the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly meeting in 1972, where she distributed a pamphlet titled “Jewish Women Call for Change.” In my eyes, though, what makes Paula such an inspiring leader and activist scholar is that her protest never led to boycotts or flat-out rejection of organizations that she insisted needed to change. Rather, Paula took her feminist activism inside these flawed institutions, and worked within and through these systems to make meaningful and lasting change.

For example, a few years after protesting the Conservative movement’s refusal to ordain women as rabbis, Paula took on the position of dean of the JTS Seminary College. In 1982, a reporter asked Paula in her capacity as dean whether “American Jews are shifting to the right?” Paula’s response appeared next to another respondent, Norman Podhoretz, Commentary editor and intellectual shaper of the neoconservative movement. Paula diplomatically shared that although “there is a visible group which leans to the right … galvanized in part by the women’s issue … the Conservative movement prides itself with being a kind of umbrella that embraces a number of different positions.”

In 1983, one year later, and 11 years after Ezrat Nashim first demanded that “women be permitted and encouraged to attend Rabbinical school”, the faculty of JTS finally approved the ordination of women as rabbis. Paula recognized that adaptive change requires both protest from the outside and also working patiently from the inside, through organizational channels. If she were still alive today, I think she would have great insights to offer in today’s debates about when we best make change by “calling out” versus “calling in.”

The tremendous change Paula brought about in the study of Jewish history exemplified a similar balance between a sharp underscoring of the problematic absence of women in the story of the Jewish past and a deep dedication to recovering Jewish women’s experiences even when they fall short of modern feminist sensibilities.

Toward this end, Paula’s historical scholarship was critical of the past and present without being doctrinaire or unidimensional in her analysis. 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.

This approach characterized her work from the beginning of her scholarly career. In 1972, Paula, still a graduate student herself, wrote an article in the journal Conservative Judaism articulating her approach to scholarship and Jewish feminism. On the one hand, Paula urged an empathetic reading of the Jewish tradition that acknowledged “its own context” and “refrains from pointlessly blaming our ancestors for lacking our own insights.” At the same time, however, Paula affirms that “until we see that a problem exists … we cannot begin to take steps to attain equality for women, both in Jewish law and Jewish attitudes.”

Unfortunately, we don’t have Paula’s important voice to guide and offer leadership to the field of Jewish studies and the Jewish community more broadly. Thankfully, I do have her mentorship, scholarship, and activism to hold up as a personal inspiration, and these continue to guide me in my own professional work. As scholarly debates on highly politicized issues become more and more contentious, we would do well to try to channel Paula’s powerful vision of equality and her strong legacy of modeling change-making from within.

Rebecca Kobrin is the Russell and Bettina Knapp Associate Professor of American Jewish History at Columbia University

Noam Pianko is a Professor at the Jackson School of International Studies and the director of the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Washington