Because of the work of Paula Hyman, I – and other women who grew up in the past few decades of the Conservative movement – never had to fight to be counted as part of a minyan.
Her tenacity, scholarship and deep belief in the power of women’s equality in all aspects of the American Jewish movement will continue to have a profound effect for generations to come.
And she coined a new word for “gender” in Hebrew, which is so bad ass.
Read her obit in the Forward to find out all the ways she impacted your life and those around you, perhaps without your even knowing.
By Deborah Dash MoorePublished December 15, 2011.Paula Hyman, a pioneering historian of modern Jews, published “My Life as a Radical Jewish Woman,” in 2001. Without its subtitle, “Memoirs of a Zionist Socialist in Poland,” it could stand as an apt characterization of Hyman herself.
The Yale University historian chose to edit the English translation of Puah Rakovsky’s Yiddish memoir because she sensed a kindred spirit whose feminism and dedication to Jewish education, Zionism, family and community paralleled her own commitments. In doing so, Hyman, who died of cancer December 15 at age 65, found a way to marry her two passions: Jewish history and feminism.
Hyman wanted to reclaim Jewish women activists of yore for contemporary Jews as part of her lifelong mission to challenge received ideas about leadership, values and ways of doing things in the United States and Israel. Her work ultimately transformed Jewish historical scholarship by bringing gender analysis into its mainstream. The Hebrew translation of Hyman’s 1995 book, “Gender and Assimilation in Modern Jewish History: The Roles and Representation of Women,” helped coin a new Hebrew word for “gender.” And her two-volume “Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia,” published in 1997, opened up the field of Jewish women’s history.
Born in Boston on September 30, 1946, the oldest of Sydney and Ida Tatelman Hyman’s three daughters, Paula attended public schools and supplementary Hebrew schools. She enrolled simultaneously at Radcliffe College and Hebrew Teachers College of Boston, earning undergraduate degrees at both institutions. She went on to Columbia University, where she studied alongside such scholars as Gerson Cohen and Ismar Schorsch, and where she received her master’s degree and Ph.D. in Jewish history.
Her years in New York City, during the 1970s and 1980s, proved formative. She joined the New York Havurah, an experimental Jewish religious community, and helped found Ezrat Nashim, a Jewish consciousness-raising group that advocated for women’s equality in American Jewish life. Hyman quickly emerged as a leader of a burgeoning Jewish feminism, pressing the Conservative movement to count women in a minyan and ordain women as rabbis.
Her activism did not derail her pursuits of a sustained scholarly career and of a rich family life. In 1969, she married Stanley H. Rosenbaum, then a medical student, and the couple had two daughters, Judith and Adina.
In 1974, Hyman accepted a position on the history faculty at Columbia. She went on to adapt her doctoral dissertation into a book, “From Dreyfus to Vichy: The Remaking of French Jewry, 1906-1939.” Published in 1979, its breadth and innovative social history method quickly established her as a rising star in Jewish history. She then embarked on a micro-history of small Jewish communities in Alsace, publishing “The Emancipation of the Jews of Alsace: Acculturation and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century” in 1991.
She also deployed her considerable historical acumen to bring immigrant Jewish women’s history into the consciousness of American Jews. An article on the New York kosher meat boycott of 1902 became her most anthologized work.
Hyman pursued such trailblazing activities and broke numerous glass ceilings, even as she faced multiple bouts of cancer. She battled illness courageously, refusing to slacken her pace. But living with an acute consciousness of her mortality toughened her, making her impatient with tokenism involving women even as she treasured the blessings of family and friends.
Hyman nourished several generations of students at Columbia, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and Yale University. In 1981, she became first woman to serve as dean of the Seminary College of Jewish Studies, and in 1986, she joined the faculty of Yale University. At Yale she was, until her death, the Lucy G. Moses Professor of Modern Jewish History. Three years after coming to Yale, she was appointed director of the Jewish Studies department, becoming the first woman to lead a major university Jewish studies program; she held that position for more than a decade.
Paula served on numerous editorial boards of journals and co-edited the Modern Jewish Experience Series at Indiana University Press for almost 30 years, publishing a steady stream of books that helped to launch aspiring Jewish historians. Until October, she was a member of the Forward Association’s board of directors and its publications committee.
Elected a fellow of the American Academy for Jewish Research in 1995, she became the society’s first female president in 2004. Recognition of Hyman’s work came through honorary degrees, awards for books, and honors from major national Jewish organizations.
Paula Hyman leaves behind an extraordinary legacy: a body of scholarship that radically altered modern Jewish studies, a large cohort of students and colleagues profoundly influenced by her insights, and a transformed American Jewish community that recognizes the principle, and even the necessity, of women’s equality. She also leaves behind deep friendships, a loving husband and two daughters pursuing creative careers.
Deborah Dash Moore is the Frederick G. L. Huetwell Professor of History and Director of the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan.