Hasidism has long piqued the interest of Western Jewish scholars, beginning with the notable collection of Hasidic material by the famed theologian Martin Buber. But the tension between dispassionate study and attraction to the exotic that many enthusiasts brought to their work has made a sophisticated understanding of the movement and its adherents elusive until very recently. How much greater the challenge when seeking to understand Hasidic women, whose experiences are even less well documented and accessible. In Lubavitcher Women in America: Identity and Activism in the Postwar Era, Bonnie Morris focuses specifically on Lubavitcher women in post-World War II United States and their role as advocates for a traditional Jewish feminine lifestyle. Discussing the rise of girls' and women's schools, the annual conventions of Lubavitcher women, the quarterly periodical Di Yiddishe Heim, and the responses to feminism in Lubavitcher rhetoric, Morris charts the growth of women's activism in the postwar era in response to both growing assimilation on the part of American Jews and transformations in American society, especially the challenge of feminism.
Morris provides an informative review of these institutions and publications. As this material is not widely available and rarely used by scholars for analysis, Morris performs an important service not only by giving us a glimpse of its riches but also by reminding us of the [End Page 169] significance of this type of source for study of women's history. Documenting the extent to which Lubavitcher women struggled to establish their own schools and find outlets for their talents and energies as adults, Morris also notes the extent to which Lubavitcher women became crucial instruments in the Rebbe's battle to win new adherents. He specifically reached out to women and, by inducing talented, energetic women to join in his sacred task, the Rebbe expanded the leadership opportunities available to them within Lubavitch. Encouraged to battle assimilation by introducing secular women to the riches of the traditional Jewish lifestyle, many Lubavitcher women found outlets for their talents that earned them praise and admiration rather than scorn. That these women still ultimately played a subservient role must be understood, Morris reminds us, within the context of the larger mission of service to the Rebbe that both men and women assumed.
Most interesting is the extent to which Lubavitcher women absorbed the arguments of second-wave feminism even as they vehemently refuted them. Feminism affected their thinking not only because of the influence of the broader culture but also because of the growing presence of baalot teshuva (returnees to Judaism) in their midst. These women brought their own experiences from the secular world and then served as effective spokespersons who contrasted their old and new ways of life, preaching the superiority of Lubavitch. An effective marketing tool to win additional adherents, this confessional mode also helped legitimize the newcomers and bolster the veterans who struggled to justify their choices of full-time motherhood and large families. Living within a larger society that increasingly encouraged advanced education and career training for women, Lubavitcher women lauded the liberated views of women they insisted were always to be found in Judaism. They preached the idea that truly liberated women would find ultimate fulfillment in the traditional female roles of wife and mother.
As Morris herself notes, the sources present a heavily edited public face, limiting their value as windows into the full range of attitudes among Lubavitcher women. Rhetoric lauding motherhood and family life as the height of spirituality abounds, but one wonders the extent to which such words served as a mantra for women fearful of honestly considering alternative choices. Given the contemporary time frame of her study, Morris would have benefitted from oral interviews that might have corroborated the glimpses of evidence of other perspectives and enriched the study as a whole.
Morris is also hampered by her reliance on monolithic categories against which she evaluates the experiences of Lubavitcher women. For example, describing the impact of feminism on American society between [End Page 170] 1960 and 1990...