Paula Hyman 1946-2011

Reflecting on the life of a prominent Jewish scholar.

Paula Hyman 311 (photo credit: COURTESY YALE UNIVERSITY)
Paula Hyman 311
Something extraordinary happened at the 43rd annual conference of the Association of Jewish Studies (AJS), the largest professional organization representing Jewish studies scholars worldwide, being held December 18-20 in Washington. After a long day of meetings, dozens of conference attendees – people of all ages, from a wide variety of fields and institutions – came together to share memories of prominent Jewish history scholar Paula Hyman, who died of cancer at her home in New Haven, Connecticut on December 15.
No eloquent eulogies were read nor was there a formal program featuring Prof. Hyman’s colleagues or friends. Instead, in something reminiscent of a Quaker meeting, a microphone was passed around as colleagues, students, and friends spoke about what Hyman meant to them. It was clear that all present keenly felt the loss of one of the pillars of that community – an influential scholar, a courageous leader, an admired role model, and a generous colleague, mentor, and teacher.
When a small group of scholars founded AJS in 1969 to promote and facilitate research in Jewish studies, Hyman was a young graduate student in modern Jewish history at Columbia University. At the time she was also finding her voice as a Jewish feminist activist. By the time of her death, at 65, Hyman had transformed Jewish historical scholarship as well as the larger American Jewish community. Her impact on AJS was clearly in evidence in the many sessions and papers on women or gender at the recent conference as well as in the many women holding leadership positions in this once allmale preserve.
Feminism coupled with a deep commitment to Judaism were the driving forces in Hyman’s life and work. They led her to help found “Ezrat Nashim” in 1971, a small feminist activist group that lobbied for women’s equality in Jewish communal and religious life and sparked the Jewish feminist movement. The group’s efforts would eventually lead to the Conservative movement ordaining women as rabbis and counting women as part of a minyan.
While continuing to pursue her research on French Jewry as a young assistant professor at Columbia University, Hyman co-authored “The Jewish Woman in America” (1976) with Sonya Michel and Charlotte Baum.
Years later, reflecting on this pioneering work, which provided Jewish women with a past in which they could see themselves and the entire community with a more accurate and inclusive history, Hyman wrote, “‘The Jewish Woman in America’ is the only book for which I received fan letters, often from housewives who said ‘I get up early to read this book, it’s been so important to me, and thank you for writing it.’”
Some 20 years later, after publishing several landmark scholarly books and hundreds of articles on modern Jewish history, Hyman would again collaborate on two path-breaking works. The first, coedited with Deborah Dash Moore, was the two-volume “Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia,” winner of a National Jewish Book Award. With 500 contributors, 800 individual biographies, and 110 topical essays, this ambitious work was itself a testimonial to the impact her work had on the study of American Jewish women. A second encyclopedia, “Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia,” co-edited with Hebrew University historian Dalia Ofer, included Jewish women from all around the world and all of Jewish culture from the Hebrew Bible to the present.
Paula Ellen Hyman was born on September 30, 1946, in Boston Massachusetts. The oldest of three daughters, Paula’s passion for Jewish knowledge led her to pursue a degree at Boston’s Hebrew Teachers College while simultaneously earning her BA at Radcliffe College. Early in her graduate career at Columbia University, she married Dr. Stan Rosenbaum and in 1973 gave birth to her first child, Judith. By the time her second daughter, Adina, was born three years later, Hyman had completed her PhD, been appointed to the faculty of Columbia University and had completed her coauthored book on American Jewish women.
Hyman became, as fellow graduate students testified at the AJS memorial, a vital role model for other academic women, setting an example of how to combine scholarship, motherhood and community service.
In 1981, Hyman left Columbia for the Jewish Theological Seminary, where she became the first woman to serve as a dean of the Seminary College of Jewish studies. From there she went to Yale University, where as the Lucy Moses Professor of Modern Jewish History, she broke yet another glass ceiling, becoming the first woman to direct Jewish studies at a major American University.
But her academic career never took her far from the causes she was passionate about. I was fortunate to be among the many beneficiaries of Hyman’s generosity. It is not simply that the Jewish Women’s Archive would have been inconceivable without Hyman’s substantial efforts to surface hidden stories and restore the experience of women to Jewish history. She became an active and enthusiastic champion of JWA, taking time out of her overfull schedule to present and share her knowledge with teachers at our summer Institute for Educators, directed by her daughter and JWA’s Director of Public History, Judith Rosenbaum.
Hyman challenged her fellow historians to see what they were missing when they ignored the experiences and perspectives of women, exhorted communal leaders to see what was lost when women were excluded from full religious participation and positions of leadership, encouraged individuals and institutions to uncover and chronicle the hidden stories of Jewish women, and empowered a generation of women to follow in her footsteps and change the Jewish world into which they were born.
The writer is founding director of the Jewish Women’s Archive.