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Journal of Women's History 15.1 (2003) 227-234

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Religion, Agency, and Power in Jewish Gender Studies

Robin Judd

Frankel, Jonathan, ed. Jews and Gender: The Challenge to Hierarchy (Studies in Contemporary Jewry). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. xiii + 394 pp. ISBN 0-195-14081-8 (cl)
Nadell, Pamela S. and Jonathan D. Sarna, eds. Women and American Judaism: Historical Perspectives. Boston: Brandeis University Press, 2001. xiii + 322 pp; ill. ISBN 9-78158-465-1 (cl)

A decade ago, scholars who called for the integration of Jewish women into Jewish studies scholarship were in the minority. Their historiographical reviews lamented the dearth of publications on Jewish women, the isolation of those scholars who conducted work in the field, and the shortsightedness of those historians whose works on Jewish women kept their subjects isolated from the larger narrative of Jewish history. 1 Today, the field of Jewish gender studies has come into its own. There are graduate programs devoted to the study of Jewish women, research, and archival centers whose focus lies in Jewish women's scholarship, and dozens of available books and articles concerning gender and Jewish history.

Extant scholarship on Jewish women has promoted a dramatic rethinking of traditional narratives. No longer attempting to insert the experiences of women into already existing accounts or to overlook them completely, many scholars now question the ways in which female pasts have changed history and how history has shaped women's experiences. Influenced greatly by the pathbreaking works of Marion Kaplan and Paula Hyman, these scholars have increasingly identified gender as crucial to the shaping of modern Jewish identity. 2 They are particularly interested in its role in the acculturation process. Women and men, scholars suggest, acclimated differently to the challenges of modernity. According to this viewpoint, men acculturated quickly in the workforce and public sphere. As such, men were quick to abandon their religious ways of life. Women, however, simultaneously adopted bourgeois norms into their home life while also maintaining religious standards and customs far longer than their husbands or sons. Women, in other words, served as the principal transmitters of Jewish culture in the modern period.

These works have had a significant impact on the field of Jewish history. They give women agency in the molding of their own lives and they suggest ways to recast our understandings of men's experiences as well. [End Page 227] They fundamentally reform the study of Judaism because they identify the processes through which women and religion became identified with the private sphere. Moreover, they identify the significance of little-studied transformative events, phenomena, and processes, such as the playing of piano, the evolving rituals of dating, and the establishment of summer camps.

Even though the field of Jewish gender studies is flourishing in the United States and Europe, it only now has begun to make inroads into certain aspects of history. Few scholars have considered female actors ignored by past scholarship: lower class Jews, women from countries other than Germany or the United States, and Sephardic women. Similarly, while some scholars have shifted their gazes to the body in order to understand Jewish history, most overlook the body and Jewish sexuality as significant. 3 Furthermore, historians often have believed that the model of female acculturation and religiosity as set out by Kaplan and Hyman can be adapted to all places and time periods. Recent works concerning French Jewish women and women of the Ottoman Empire suggest that this is not the case. 4

Within this changing and nuanced landscape, two anthologies recently have been published. The twelve articles in Jonathan Frankel's fascinating anthology, Jews and Gender, illustrate that an inclusion of Jewish women's voices widens our understanding of Jewish history, rabbinic law, religion, literature, and sociology. The thirteen scholarly contributions to Pamela Nadell and Jonathan Sarna's eminently readable Women and American Judaism similarly examine the interrelatedness of gender, acculturation, religion, and identity. In some ways, a comparison of the two anthologies is artificial. As their titles indicate, Nadell and Sarna's anthology is concerned only with American...


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