Paula E. Hyman, Who Sought Rights for Women in Judaism, Dies at 65

Michael Marsland/Yale University
Published: December 17, 2011

Paula E. Hyman, a social historian who pioneered the study of women in Jewish life and became an influential advocate for women’s equality in Jewish religious practice, including their ordination as rabbis, died on Thursday at her home in New Haven. She was 65.

The cause was breast cancer, said her husband, Dr. Stanley Rosenbaum.

Hyman, a professor of modern Jewish history at Yale University, wrote 10 books about the Jewish experience in Europe and the United States, many of them focused on women’s roles in various communities before and after the immense Jewish migrations of the 19th and 20th centuries.

She spotlighted the special stresses confronting married Jewish women from Eastern Europe when they arrived in the United States, for instance: although they were used to working outside the home, even as primary breadwinners in some ultrareligious families, they were initially housebound in America, where custom placed married women in the home.

In her books Dr. Hyman chronicled how married Jewish women from Eastern and Western Europe overcame such customs to become full partners in family businesses, a major part of the New York garment work force and leaders of successful community protests like the Lower East Side kosher meat boycott of 1902 and the New York rent strike of 1907.

Her works are considered seminal in creating a new field of historical study — part women’s history, part Jewish history, part history of immigration in America.

“The field of American Jewish women’s history as a scholarly enterprise owes its origins to Paula Hyman,” said Hasia R. Diner, a professor of history at New York University and director of the university’s Goldstein-Goren Center for American Jewish History.

Colleagues said Dr. Hyman’s work was informed by twin, deep-rooted and sometimes conflicting bonds: to Judaism and to feminism. When she was a graduate student at Columbia in 1972, she and a dozen other Jewish feminists delivered a historic manifesto to hundreds of rabbis gathered for the annual meeting of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.

Titled “Jewish Women Call for Change,” it demanded full equality for women in the practice of Conservative Judaism, one of the three major Jewish denominations. The Conservative denomination accommodated modern culture more than the Orthodox branch but less so than the Reform, which ordained an American woman as a rabbi for the first time that year.

“Call for Change” addressed the Conservative leaders because they continued to observe many Orthodox rules excluding women: denying them full participation in rituals, denying their right to initiate religious divorces and barring them from becoming rabbis and cantors. The bans on ordination and full participation have since been lifted, while the right to initiate divorce is still denied.

Partly to further the cause, Dr. Hyman agreed in 1981 to become dean of undergraduates at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Upper Manhattan, the flagship educational institution of the Conservative movement. Hired by the seminary’s chancellor, Rabbi Gerson D. Cohen, an outspoken supporter of women’s equality, she was the first woman to hold the post. Rabbi Cohen ordained the first female Conservative rabbi in 1985.

Paula Ellen Hyman was born on Sept. 30, 1946, in Boston, the oldest of three children of Sydney and Ida Hyman. Her father was an office manager; her mother worked as a bookkeeper. Her interest in Jewish tradition and history led her to enroll simultaneously at Radcliffe College and the Hebrew Teachers College of Boston, now known as Hebrew College.

After graduating in 1968 from Radcliffe, she pursued her graduate studies at Columbia University, where she received her Ph.D. in 1975. In 1969 she married Dr. Rosenbaum, who survives her, as do their daughters, Judith and Adina Rosenbaum; her mother; two sisters, Toby and Merle Hyman; and two grandchildren.

Influenced by the feminist movement of the 1960s, Dr. Hyman sought to apply “consciousness raising” principles to Jewish traditions that, in her view, made women second-class members of their own cultural communities, said Martha Ackelsberg, a fellow Columbia graduate student and now a professor of government at Smith College. Dr. Hyman organized discussion groups that evolved into the organization Ezrat Nashim (“Women’s Help”), which conceived and presented the “Call for Change.”

Dr. Hyman’s early scholarly work focused on Jewish life in France at the turn of the last century following the Dreyfus affair. She subsequently wrote about Jewish assimilation in Europe during the same period.

In 1976, she and two colleagues wrote “The Jewish Woman in America,” an unabashedly feminist view of the Jewish immigrant experience, in which Dr. Hyman argued that Jewish women worked as hard as men, accomplished great things and did it all while managing households single-handedly. It was, she said, “the only book for which I received fan letters.”

The academic interest sparked by that book produced many of the 700 scholarly articles collected in 1997 in the two-volume historical encyclopedia “Jewish Women in America,” which Dr. Hyman and Dr. Deborah Dash Moore edited.

In an essay for the Jewish Women’s Archive, Dr. Hyman described the small dinner party held by some of the original signers of the “Call for Change” manifesto on Oct. 24, 1983, the day the Jewish Theological Seminary opened its rabbinical school to women. “It seemed like a prolonged struggle,” she recalled saying at the time.

But “in the context of Jewish history,” she added, “11 years was like the blink of an eye.”

A version of this article appeared in print on December 18, 2011, on page A40 of the New York edition with the headline: Paula Hyman, 65, Leader In Study of Jewish Women.

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