Judaism vs modernity

An Orthodox-raised woman reconciles her Jewish heritage and her rebellion against it.

By MORTON I. TEICHER
September 20, 2007 11:47
2 minute read.
studee book 88 224

studee book 88 224. (photo credit: )

Houses of Study By Ilana M. Blumberg University of Nebraska Press 177 pages; $24.95 Ilana M. Blumberg, the author of this sensitive autobiographical memoir, is an assistant professor at Michigan State University, where she teaches courses on Bible, Midrash, history of the novel, Victorian ethics and economics. She presents here the dilemmas that arise when a Jewishly educated, observant individual confronts secular modernity. Blumberg is a graduate of a Conservative day school and an Orthodox high school. She spent a year studying in Israel where she quickly learned that she was not a yeshiva student - yeshiva was for boys. She was in a michlala, a women's college. Blumberg's parents had attended day schools before earning undergraduate and graduate degrees. Her grandfather, a teacher, was the author of a popular Hebrew textbook as well as other texts and scholarly monographs. Following the family tradition, Blumberg studied first at Barnard and then at the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned her doctorate. As an undergraduate, Blumberg made extensive use of Columbia's Beit Midrash, the hall of religious study. It was not only a place to pray and study; it was also where male and female students met, in anticipation of becoming husbands and wives. The women debated the issues of wearing pants and of covering their hair after marriage. Blumberg describes how she decided to attend a class wearing pants. This was no trivial decision for her. It raised questions about the Jewish laws of modesty, but she continued to pray, to learn, to keep kosher and to honor the Shabbat. Her study of English literature both as an undergraduate and then as a graduate student did not appear to affect her Jewish identity. In fact, at the University of Pennsylvania, she helped to organize a women's prayer service, encountering some objections from Orthodox students. Blumberg's life became more complicated when she began to live with John, a non-Jew. Her mother was upset and claimed that a dybbuk had entered her. Conflicted herself, she decided to spend a summer in Israel to see whether or not further study could solve her dilemma. She was torn between her religious heritage and her rebellion against it. After returning to Philadelphia, she was invited one night to attend the women's prayer service that she had helped to found but which she no longer attended. A guest speaker responded to a question about whether or not women and men will ever pray together in a service led by women. The speaker said, "It's the men's sorrow that they can't hear our beautiful voices raised in prayer." Blumberg took from this statement the belief that "I no longer belong." Finally, she decided to leave John and to write her dissertation in New York, where she hoped to find a "new Jewish community, perhaps not Orthodox, perhaps egalitarian." The final chapter, set in Ann Arbor, describes Blumberg's marriage to Ori, a doctoral candidate in literature. He was raised as a Reform Jew but traditional Judaism is meaningful to him and, together with Priya, their young daughter, they attend a minyan that is Orthodox in orientation. This is a poignant and perceptive account of how a highly educated Jewish woman managed to combine her extensive Jewish knowledge with her insights into English literature. Her journey toward mature awareness, so well described here, has many impediments and we are privileged to take this trip with her. The writer is the founding dean, Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Yeshiva University, and dean emeritus, School of Social Work, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


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