Jews and Gender: The Challenge to Hierarchy

By Jonathan Frankel | Go to book overview

Two Models of Modernization:
Jewish Women in the German
and the Russian Empires Paula E. Hyman
(YALE UNIVERSITY)

Like most phenomena in Jewish history, the ways in which European Jews were modernized has been discussed almost exclusively without consideration of gender differences. By modernization, a highly contested term, I mean the socioeconomic, political, and cultural changes that occurred as a consequence of emancipation (or its promise), capitalist development, and the exposure of Jews to secularism. It includes the erosion of Jewish communal autonomy and of rabbinic authority, the dissemination among Jews of secular culture, and the reconsideration of their self-definition as well as of their relations to the larger society. These changes, many of which continue into our own time, first gained real momentum during the “long nineteenth century, ” which extended from the French Revolution until the First World War.

Even the recent edited volume Paths of Emancipation, which offers a theoretically sophisticated comparative study of the entry of Jews into the different modern polities in which they lived, presumes that differentiating Jews by gender is not relevant to the subject at hand. 1 With the exception of Steven Lowenstein's The Jews of Berlin, which is concerned with the social and religious crisis experienced by the Jewish elite in Berlin at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, and a few scattered references in Todd Endelman's Radical Assimilation in Anglo-Jewish History, only books devoted specifically to Jewish women's history or related studies have explored the role of gender in the acculturation and identity formation of Jews in the modern period. 2

Yet historians have demonstrated that women experienced the new conditions that accompanied the social and political changes associated with emancipation differently from Jewish men. Moreover, the “woman question” preoccupied Jewish communal leaders as they struggled to define an identity that would facilitate their integration into the larger society while setting boundaries to complete assimilation. As Sander Gilman, Daniel Boyarin, and I have demonstrated, the “feminization” of male Jews in the common discourse of Central European culture in the fin de siècle heightened the tensions involved in the process of assimilation and stimulated male criticism of Jewish women's behavior. 3 Looking to the patterns of bourgeois society in

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