Her story is over: Paula Hyman (1946-2011)

On December 15, one of the most eminent historians of modern Jewish history, Paula E. Hyman, died.

311_jewish women learning (photo credit: Lydia Polimeni)
311_jewish women learning
(photo credit: Lydia Polimeni)
On December 15, one of the most eminent historians of modern Jewish history, Paula E. Hyman, died. Within a few short hours, numerous eulogies appeared on Judaic studies and women’s studies forums. Although it would be impossible to list and describe the numerous impressive accomplishments of this amazing woman in this short column, an attempt to highlight her life will be made.
Paula was an outstanding scholar, beginning her studies (simultaneously) at Radcliffe and Hebrew College and continuing her graduate studies at Columbia University, where she specialized in modern French Jewish history. Even before she completed and published completing and publishing her dissertation, “From Dreyfus to Vichy,” she and her colleagues produced “Jewish Women in America” (1976). Her feminist sensitivity often stunned male colleagues in the early years (Paula was justifiably outraged when she read Solomon Schechter’s assessment of Glikl of Hameln as a “simple housewife”), but in retrospect it is clear that she was shocking them with ideas that are taken for granted today.
Paula was a nurturer, an enabler and an activist. Her life was a juggling act; she wore innumerable hats. It is impossible to comprehend how she balanced everything while maintaining such high standards. She was inspired by her study of Eastern European immigrant women who reached America’s shores. (See “Gender and Assimilation in Modern Jewish History” lectures presented at the University of Washington). She co-edited comprehensive encyclopedias concerning Jewish women; she had been working on a reader containing translations of modern women’s writings, particularly in Yiddish, which were not previously available in English.
Prof. Hyman was a devoted and enthusiastic teacher and administrator. She taught at Columbia University and served as dean of the Seminar College of Jewish Studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary (1981-1986). She was named the Lucy Moses Professor of Modern Jewish History at Yale University, where she chaired the program of Judaic Studies for 10 years. She was always available to her students and was an inspiration to students and colleagues alike.
Paula was endlessly being asked to serve in any of numerous capacities: boards of directors of associations, advisory councils, executive boards, as series editor for publishing houses and academic presses and on editorial boards of almost all the significant journals of Jewish history, Jewish studies and women’s studies. She reviewed hundreds of books for publishers and advanced projects in women’s history time and again. She was on the scene and behind the scenes, helping young scholars and colleagues alike. I gained insight into this aspect of her life while on sabbatical at Yale in 2006; until then, our meetings had been limited to her visits to Israel and to conferences abroad. Spending a year in Paula’s department with an office around the corner from her was an incredible treat, enabling us to share ideas, to attend lectures and share meals together and allowing me to see the wide gamut of her intellectual pursuits and contributions.
Fortunately, her efforts were recognized as she garnered awards and grants, honorary degrees, travel funds and recognition. Paula traveled a great deal, coming to Israel as often as possible, lecturing in fluent Hebrew. Precisely one year ago she was presented with a jubilee volume in her honor at a moving celebration in Boston (Gender and Jewish History, Indiana University Press).
She was also incredibly active as a Conservative Jew, as one of the founders of the Ezrat Nashim movement (1971) and as a devoted member and Torah reader in her synagogue in Westville, Connecticut. Paula was a fighter, having survived numerous bouts of cancer, defying all odds; she survived so many times that we all considered her to be invincible. There is no doubt in my mind that Paula’s story touched the lives of students and colleagues alike. Paula inspired so many of us, from near and afar, and helped create a “world of our mothers.” Her beloved family, husband Dr. Stanley Rosenbaum and daughters Judith and Adina, should be comforted in knowing that Paula’s story touched so many lives.
Renée Levine Melammed is a professor of Jewish history and dean at the Schechter Institute as well as academic editor of the journal Nashim. She has published books and articles on Sephardi and Oriental Jewry and on Jewish women.