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  • Introduction
  • Sylvie Fogiel-Bijaoui (bio)

This issue of Nashim presents five papers on the theme of Jewish women in the economy.

In "The Scholarly life—The Laboring Wife: Gender, Torah and the Family Economy in Rabbinic Culture," Gail Labovitz depicts how rabbinic culture in the periods of the Mishnah and the Talmud constructs a world in which men's and women's spheres are separate and distinct from each other. Wives are expected to engage in productive labor, while husbands are expected to commit themselves to the Jewish (male) vocation: Torah study. Religious study is praised as the most prestigious occupation, while women's labor, even when it provides the work-free open space in which Jewish life is lived by Jewish males, is denigrated as "domestic work."

In the Ottoman Empire in the sixteenth century, prevailing norms demanded that women stay at home. Ruth Lamdan's paper, "Jewish Women as Providers in the Generations Following the Expulsion from Spain," illustrates that Jewish women nevertheless did play a role, modest as it usually was, in providing for themselves and their families, often leading to recognition of their occupations by Jewish communal authorities. Lamdan emphasizes that the upheaval of the Expulsion, in forcing Jews to strike roots in a new social and geographical environment and cutting many women off from their protective extended families and familiar routines, gave rise to a climate that allowed some social and halakhic leniency. But, as she concludes, this was a transitional phase; at least in Istanbul, things eventually returned to the former normative gender order: Men were the family providers, while most of the women were housewives.

Harriet Pass Freidenreich's paper, "Joining the Faculty Club: Jewish Women Academics in the United States," describes the successful road traveled by Jewish women in the twentieth century from the margins toward the center of the U.S. academic world. For Jewish women with doctorates, gender, even [End Page 5] more than religion or ethnic origins, limited their opportunities for academic advancement throughout much of the century. Pass Freidenreich argues that thanks to second-wave feminism and the issues it raised about sexism in academic hiring and promotion, Jewish women have managed to carve out secure niches for themselves within the academy, as women, as Jews and as Jewish women.

The last two papers refer to Jewish women in the Israeli economy in the global era. My paper, "Women in the Kibbutz: The 'Mixed Blessing' of Neo-Liberalism," argues that the neo-liberal transformation of the kibbutz has proven a mixed blessing for women. Meritocratic changes have granted women new educational and professional opportunities and greater autonomy, but as far as economic rewards, power and prestige are concerned, men are overrepresented among the winners in the neo-liberal process, while women are overrepresented among the losers. In explanation of this imbalance and of the passivity with which women, as a group, have responded, I claim that the historical gendered division of labor, legitimized by the social construction of motherhood and masculinity, is still at work in the kibbutz. As a result, although women have little control over economic or symbolic resources in the new kibbutz, most of them disapprove of women organizing for change.

In "The Gendered Display of Work: The Midday Scene in an Ultra-Orthodox Street in Israel," Orna Blumen examines the spatialization of work and gender. In Israel's contemporary ultra-Orthodox culture (as in the period described by Gail Labovitz), religious study in the yeshiva constitutes men's vocation and is praised as the most important occupation, literally defined as "holy work" (avodat kodesh). This stands in sharp contrast with mundane, secular work, including the entire range of paid work, which—particularly in younger families—belongs to the women's sphere. Blumen shows that although ultra-Orthodox fathers shoulder some domestic chores to support the mothers' paid work, these are largely outdoor activities that confer visibility upon the men's limited contribution. As a result, representations of domestic work by women and children are obscured by the vitality of those presented by men, enhancing and reinforcing the ascendancy of men and their unpaid religious work. Although ultra-Orthodox public space has been changed dramatically...


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