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American Jewish History 88.3 (2000) 422-424
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Scholars in American religious history and women's history have consistently documented the importance that religion played in the lives of nineteenth-century women. However, the overwhelming presence of women in public worship in no way equated to female dominance or control of these important institutions of nineteenth-century life. Even as a minority in churches, males were the ordained, the lay leaders, and in the eyes of the institutional hierarchy, the "real" members of the congregations. Using the synagogue as the focus of her study, Karla Goldman, expands the research on women and religion by focusing on [End Page 422] the changing role and place of Jewish women in the nineteenth-century American synagogue. Based on centuries of religious tradition, Jewish women's presence in public worship, in contrast to their Christian counterparts, was not encouraged since religious law mandated synagogue attendance and public prayer for men only and was a centerpiece of male religious identity. According to Goldman, although women took a great interest in the synagogue and its doings, "[they] remained essentially peripheral to the institution's purpose and practices" (p. 4).
Although this was certainly true of the early nineteenth-century American synagogue, Goldman traces the institutional changes brought about by male leaders and Jewish women themselves who desired to Americanize by assimilating and in some cases emulating Protestant, middle-class society's ideas and practices on gender and public worship. Sensitive to criticisms from the Protestant mainstream and seeking "respectability" as an American religion but unwilling to give up their religious distinctiveness and traditions, American Jews used the synagogue as a "laboratory where Jews, laypeople and rabbis alike, tested the components that would be necessary to build an appropriate American religious identity" (p. 11). As the physical space accorded to women expanded in the synagogue, so did the parameters of American Jewish women's role, behavior and activities. Goldman argues that this led to a "redefinition of women's religious place . . . and other adjustments involving synagogal sacred space, education, membership, music, and liturgy, as well as congregational participation, attendance and leadership" (p. 4). Consequently, by the 1890s, women not only had an important physical presence in the synagogue but also in the organizational activities of the growing American Jewish community. This foreshadowed the more central role for women in the synagogue and in public life that became an accepted part of twentieth-century American Jewish life.
Utilizing available sources that include first-person accounts, newspapers, published proscriptive materials on Jewish womanhood, and congregational records, the author effectively profiles the spread of the Reform movement and the resulting changes in synagogal practices and women's activities that occurred in many cities throughout the East and Midwest. In a fascinating examination of architectural changes and religious practices and rituals, Goldman documents the transition from screened female galleries, to open, enlarged galleries, to gender- mixed family pews on the first floor of the sanctuary. With the addition of the organ and choral music, women's voices became part of "mixed choirs" not only for special occasions (attended by non-Jews) but as a common practice. Seeking to avoid comparisons to the "emotionalism and lack of [End Page 423] control . . . that characterized so much nineteenth-century worship among lower- class white Protestant, immigrant Catholic, and African-American church communities" (p. 13), Jewish leaders made attempts to formalize the worship service and make it more characteristic of middle- and upper-class Protestant church communities. Consequently, the "embarrassing disorder of traditional Jewish worship" characterized by "chaotic behavior and swaying movements" (p. 81) gave way to more uniform liturgy with men and women praying in unison. Additionally, as the century progressed, Jewish women created an organized presence in the synagogue through the creation of temple sisterhoods and the National Council of Jewish Women that provided important philanthropic services to the wave of late nineteenth-century Jews immigrating...