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Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women's Studies & Gender Issues 7 (2004) 247-251

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Pamela S. Nadell and Jonathan D. Sarna (eds.). Women and American Judaism: Historical Perspectives. Hanover and London: Brandeis University Press / University Press of New England, 2001. xv + 322 pp.

Although a good deal of research has already been done on the lives, inner worlds, public activities, and historical legacy of Jewish women in America—some of it, indeed, written by the scholars who have contributed to the present volume—it is fair to say that much of the detailed, initial research in the field is still being done. In this still-developing field, conceptual innovation has been a major factor in putting it on the map at all, and some of the most stimulating monographs written over the past two decades—by Paula Hyman, Susan Glenn, Sylvia Barack Fishman, and Riv-Ellen Prell, for example—have indeed broken new theoretical ground. The spadework of historical documentation, however, is also indispensable. Women in American Judaism leans mainly toward this latter approach, though not exclusively.

The twelve essays collected in this volume range over a variety of Jewish women's religious experiences in America, arranged chronologically from colonial times to the present. There are certainly few monographs on the subject of American Jewish religious life which pay close enough attention to the gendered aspects of the topic, and this collection therefore aims to fill some of that gap.

The individual chapters either are close studies of particular women (five of the twelve essays are biographical or based on the personal experiences of a small number of paradigmatic women), or else they focus on particular communities and specialized issues, including, among others: Jewish women and their relationships with gentiles during the Civil War; Cincinnati's Jewish women in the spheres of synagogue and philanthropic activity; Jewish women [End Page 247] in the American west; the emergence and popularization of the bat mitzvah ceremony; and contemporary feminism.

While the volume does progress chronologically from the earliest days of American Judaism to the end of the twentieth century, it is not comprehensive in its coverage—making the book most useful as a set of autonomous pieces rather than as a collective synthesis. As autonomous pieces, the essays can be separated and used judiciously as readings in a teaching situation. The introduction by the editors helps to place the various studies into a wider perspective, but does not seek to impose an overall conceptual thesis. Thus, it points toward the need for more comprehensive research, to be built upon the kind of data and the perspectives which they introduce. Fortunately, simply putting women on the scholarly map is no longer a conceptual breakthrough in itself (although that does not deter one or two of the authors in this volume from putting their case in precisely that way).

It is perhaps to be regretted that a book on the religious experience of American Jewish women does not include a single study relating mainly to the religious lives of the vast majority of American Jewish grandmothers—east European immigrant women and their daughters in major, east coast American cities. The reader does learn much about Sephardi women, German-Jewish women, and acculturated second- and third-generation Jewish women, all of which is presented as evidence for continuous cycles of religious innovation and adaptation. Save for a few brief references, however, the generation of immigrant Jewish women between 1880 and 1930 is overlooked.

Among the most engaging essays, from the topical and conceptual point of view, are Felicia Herman's examination of upper-class Jewish women in New York City involved in social service projects ("Sisterhoods of Personal Service") during the era of mass immigration; Eric Goldstein's consideration of race, religion, and gender as social constructions in the late nineteenth century; and Beth Wenger's study, called "Mitzvah and Medicine," which deals with the deployment of scientific arguments in an attempt to create a positive, modern approach to the halakhah of nidah, chiefly during the interwar decades. In Wenger's...


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