Tradition in a Rootless World: Women Turn to Orthodox Judaism

Tradition in a Rootless World: Women Turn to Orthodox Judaism

Tradition in a Rootless World: Women Turn to Orthodox Judaism

Tradition in a Rootless World: Women Turn to Orthodox Judaism


The past two decades in the United States have seen an immense liberalization and expansion of women's roles in society. Recently, however, some women have turned away from the myriad, complex choices presented by modern life and chosen instead a Jewish orthodox tradition that sets strict and rigid guidelines for women to follow.

Lynn Davidman followed the conversion to Orthodoxy of a group of young, secular Jewish women to gain insight into their motives. Living first with a Hasidic community in St. Paul, Minnesota, and then joining an Orthodox synagogue on the upper west side of Manhattan, Davidman pieced together a picture of disparate lives and personal dilemmas. As a participant observer in their religious resocialization and in interviews and conversations with over one hundred women, Davidman also sought a new perspective on the religious institutions that reach out to these women and usher them into the community of Orthodox Judaism.

Through vivid and detailed personal portraits, Tradition in a Rootless World explores women's place not only in religious institutions but in contemporary society as a whole. It is a perceptive contribution that unites the study of religion, sociology, and women's studies.


It is Saturday morning, about 9:30, The streets of the Upper West Side of Manhattan are empty, except for a few hardy joggers puffing along with their Walkmen. As Stephanie, a thirty-two-yearold advertising executive, approaches her destination, the large, modern, white-stone synagogue at the corner of West 6gth Street, she begins to notice the dressed-up people converging on the streets, all seemingly heading to Shabbat (Sabbath) services. She draws her breath and follows them into the synagogue.

Inside the building, in the red and black carpeted lobby, people are milling about. The women are fashionably dressed and bejeweled, and several are wearing stylish hats. Little children run around, comfortable in the shul (synagogue). Some of the men wear long white shawls, with black stripes and fringes at the ends, over their suits.

Stephanie hesitates. The people in the lobby appear so at ease, whereas she feels awkward and conscious of not having been in a synagogue for years. Recently, Stephanie and her boyfriend of three years had split up, and she had been going through a rough time at work. She had mentioned to a friend, an Orthodox woman, that she was looking to do something new and exciting, something that would be intellectually as well as socially stimulating. As the two of them had recently been talking about Judaism, her friend suggested that she go to the Beginners’ Service at Lincoln Square— a lively, fascinating service led by a dynamic rabbi and attended by many young, attractive people. Stephanie decided to give it a try, and today is the day.

She glances around, trying to get a feel for the place. On her left, through a pair of glass-paned doors, she sees an unusual sanctuary. It is built in the round, with women and men seated on . . .

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