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Posted in: Judaism

Published on Apr 30, 1998 by

Written for Tikkun

Jewish Women in America

An Historical Encyclopedia


This is a magnificently massive treasure, a 1,770 page large-size encyclopedia filled with photographs—a priceless family album of ladies in large hats, radicals-in-spectacles, suffragists holding up signs in Yiddish, Barbra Streisand as the unforgettable Yentl. Gathered together, they comprise the missing, invisible World of Our Mothers and Grandmothers. The quantity and quality of information is, seemingly, comprehensive. Drs. Paula E. Hyman's and Deborah Dash Moore's undertaking is large; they wish to include women in Jewish history. Between the misogyny of the Jewish world and the anti-Semitism of the non-Jewish world, this is no small task. Theirs is a formidable accomplishment.

However, in any project of this nature, omissions (some mistakes, too) are inevitable. Photographer Lisette Model was Catholic, not Jewish, While women of wealth are well represented here, missing is Muriel Siebert, a Jew, and the first woman to buy a seat on the New York Stock Exchange; Barbara Dobkin, whose financial contribution made this Encyclopedia possible and who, in 1994, founded Ma'ayan; and philanthropist Judith Stern Peck. Missing also is an entry for Dr. Shulamit Reinharz, who founded the first graduate degree in Jewish Women's Studies in the world as well as the International Research Institute on Jewish Women, both located at Brandeis.

A number of Jewish women whose fathers only were Jewish, and/or have not necessarily defined themselves or their work as "Jewish," are included-which is fair enough, given their secular prominence. However, there are too few entries for those women who have, for the last twenty to thirty years, been transforming Judaism at the root: Torah scholars, agunah activists, grassroots diplomats, ritualists, intellectuals, women whose place in Jewish history is already assured-but only if they are not prematurely forgotten.

Shockingly omitted, in terms of not having their own biographical entries, are: Aviva Cantor—who organized the first-ever Jewish Feminist Conference in the early to mid-1970s, co-founded and co-edited Lilith magazine (19761987) and wrote, in my view, the most important secular Jewish feminist work of our era: Jewish Men/Jewish Women: The Legacy of Patriarchy in Jewish Life; and the American-born Marcia Freedman, the first openly Second Wave feminist (and, eventually, lesbian), to be elected to a patriarchal Parliament anywhere in the world—she was elected to the Knesset and formed Israel's first Woman's party in the mid-1970s.

Also omitted as individuals: Joan Roth, whose sublime and unrivaled photographs make her the pre-eminent living photographer of Jewish women world-wide (ironically, at least ten of her photos are used throughout the Encyclopedia); Lilly Rivlin, who was one of the earliest to work, tirelessly, as a feminist on behalf of the Israeli peace process; who wrote the first piece ever on Lilith in Ms. Magazine (1972); and who, together with artists Bea Kreloff and Edith Isaac-Rose, were key New York feminist Seder mothers; and artist Helene Aylon, whose "Liberation of God" piece alone deserves a biographical entry.

There are no biographical entries for some major Jewish feminist Torah scholars and activists, some of whom are mentioned in passing, but whose importance is understated or unknown: for example, Arlene Agus, who re-introduced Rosh Hodesh to the modem Jewish feminist world; Judith Antonelli, who has published an important feminist reinterpretation of Torah; Marcia Falk, liturgical poet par excellence; and scholars Rachel Adler, Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Judith Hauptman, Rivka Haut, Vanessa Ochs, Elana Pardes, and Judith Plaskow.

Missing are the American-born members of Women of the Wall arguably the most important halachic, legal, civil, feminist, multi-denominational, "pluralist," Israeli and American challenge to a patriarchal, divided, Judaism. Women's struggles to pray at the Kotel (1988-still ongoing) is only mentioned in passing. Why is there no collective entry for the American-born Women of the Wall (WOW), or for the American leaders of the International Committee for WOW?

It is important for us to remember the prophet-and the people, the inspired, grassroots energy as well as the prominent organization, one's friends and supporters as well as one's opponents or rivals. Who is remembered, who is forgotten, is an awesome responsibility. While women often err on the side of extra-inclusiveness, in this case, since the Encyclopedia is a first of its kind, a scrupulous inclusiveness might better have served the editors' purpose.

Thus, I urge—no, I beg—the editors to restore these inadvertently "disappeared" Jewish women in a future, paperback edition—and I thank and congratulate both Paula Hyman and Deborah Dash Moore for an otherwise splendid, stunning, accomplishment.


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