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Paula Hyman: A personal appreciation

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Commitment, generosity, courage — and brilliant scholarship

While the bright Chanukah lights were kindled during the shivah for Prof. Paula E. Hyman, they could not dispel the darkness that overcame her family and friends, colleagues and students with her death on Thursday, Dec. 15. Her luminous smile, her bright intelligence, and her shining example will be sorely missed.

Paula Hyman was one of those rare people who seamlessly integrated the disparate parts of her personal and professional life. She was an activist, as well as a scholar; a wife, mother, grandmother, daughter, and sister, as well as a productive professional. She was passionately committed to the wide sweep of her interests and managed to balance them well.

For me, Paula was, above all, the closest of friends. We had both developed our interest in Judaism and Jewish scholarship in the course of our double education growing up in Boston. In those years, it was not unusual for graduates of the 10-12 hour a week elementary Hebrew schools to go on to the Hebrew (Teachers) College High School and then to its college, while attending fine institutions of general secondary and higher education. Paula Hyman’s commitment to this dual program was supported by her parents, Ida Tatelman Hyman and the late Sydney Hyman. As she once told me, they thought that getting a good education was the most important thing that she and her younger sisters — Toby and Merle Hyman, now both attorneys — could do; it was their job. She was a graduate of Girls Latin School in Boston. She went on to complete Hebrew College, while getting her B.A. degrees at Radcliffe, as I had done a few years before.

We became particularly close in the years that Paula and her husband, Dr. Stanley H. Rosenbaum, a critical care anesthesiologist and now a professor at Yale Medical School, made their home in Tenafly. They sent their daughters Judith and Adina to the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County, and were members of Temple Emanuel of Ridgefield Park, now the Kanfei Shahar Minyan.

Paula and I shared hours upon hours of good conversation on issues both personal and professional. She often raised questions that led me to reconsider my own position on issues. Thus, for example, she brought to our shul’s Religious Committee a request to include the names of the imahot, the matriarchs, alongside the avot (the patriarchs) in the Amidah. I hesitated, but joined her when she demonstrated that their omission made women invisible. With the rabbi’s approval and congregational support, the change was adopted in the early 1980s.

Our friendship continued to flourish throughout the years after she and her family moved to New Haven.

An outstanding scholar of modern Jewish history, Paula played a major role in reshaping the Jewish narrative to include women and social history along with the standard political and intellectual history. Although her initial focus was modern French Jewish history, she reached beyond that field to include American Jewish history and to co-edit two ground-breaking encyclopedias: “Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia” (1997, with Prof. Deborah Dash Moore) and “Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia” (2006, with Prof. Dalia Ofer). Her pioneering “Gender and Assimilation in Modern Jewish History: The Roles and Representation of Women” (1995) analyzes the role of gender in the project of Jewish assimilation into the majority culture in Western Europe, Eastern Europe, and the United States.

In her scholarly work, Paula addressed big questions that had not been previously raised. Careful research and lucid writing are the hallmarks of her work.

For the last 25 years, Paula was Lucy G. Moses Professor of Modern Jewish History at Yale, where she was involved not only in Jewish studies and history, but in many campus-wide committees and initiatives.

Prior to her appointment at Yale, Paula was a professor of Jewish history and dean of The Seminary College of Jewish Studies, now List College, at Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS). Hyman’s first academic appointment was to the History Department at Columbia University, where she had earned her doctorate.

When I think of Paula, three of her qualities stand out: commitment, generosity, and courage.

Paula was absolutely committed to her family and friends, to her scholarly enterprise, to her students, to Judaism, to Israel, and to feminism. Her commitment pushed her not to accept things as they are, but to work hard to improve them. Her involvement in Ezrat Nashim, a group of Jewish feminist activists in the 1970s, brought her and some of the other members to the March 1972 Rabbinical Assembly Convention carrying a “Call for Change.” In fewer than a dozen years, in October 1983, their most radical demand, the ordination of women as Conservative rabbis, was approved by the JTS faculty.

Her pride in the accomplishments of her daughters, who share so many of her qualities, was deeply held.

Paula’s generosity was extended to the many people with whom she shared her experience, time, and knowledge. She reached out to others and was always willing to help.

Paula’s courage was indomitable. She did not allow her life to be defined by the cancer that shadowed more than half of it. She faced it head-on, fully aware of its potentially lethal consequences, but without letting it give her a pass.

No one who was there can ever forget seeing Paula in her purple dress stride up the stairs to our little shul in Ridgefield Park to participate in her daughter Judith’s celebration of becoming a bat mitzvah just six days after undergoing brain surgery. That morning, Paula read Torah as planned. In many ways, her having successfully overcome her previous cancer recurrences made her seem invincible.

Ultimately, it is her spirit that is invincible. Paula is survived by her family and friends and by those who will continue her enterprise of writing women back into history, confronting tough issues, and asking big questions.

Yehi zikhrah barukh. May her memory be a blessing.


Anne Lapidus Lerner
Anne Lapidus Lerner is director of the Jewish Feminist Research Group and assistant professor of Jewish Literature at JTS. She was the first woman to be vice chancellor at JTS, a post she held for several years, making her one of the highest-ranking women in American Jewish institutional life. As vice chancellor, she focused on bringing Jewish knowledge to the lay community through adult education. Her most recent book is “Eternally Eve: Images of Eve in the Hebrew Bible, Midrash, and Modern Jewish Poetry,” published by Brandeis University Press.
The views in opinion pieces and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of The Jewish Standard. The comments posted on this Website are solely the opinions of the posters. Libelous or obscene comments will be removed.
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Stay tuned for the return of comments

rs posted 13 Jan 2012 at 03:37 AM

In have always remembered and quoted from the lecture that Paula Hyman delivered to a Sisterhood gathering at JTS many years ago.  She introduced the Napoleonic Sanhedrin, opening my mind to the 19th century, Europe, regional tensions, ghettoiztion ,and so many other aspects of Jewish history. I have always regretted that I missed other oportunities to learn from her.  Thank you for this tribute.


Tzitz, tefillin, and the halachic process

Recent weeks have seen much discussion about the permissibility of women wearing tefillin.

Although I do not question the sincerity of the parties involved, and maintain high regard for the individuals involved, I see this as an opportunity to reflect on the unique mitzvah of tefillin and on maintaining the integrity of the halachic process. In addition to the specific halachic question involved, this controversy also raises the broader question of how halachah functions, and I would like to provide some perspective on both of these issues.



Ask the right questions

With the arrival and maturation of my generation, the Millenials, the question “Who is a Jew?” is rather passé.

Forget the halachic dimensions to this endlessly debatable topic. Forget all the moralizing arguments over the issue. Forget the demographically induced paranoia, the post-Holocaust hand-wringing, the Israeli legal maneuvering (not to mention the pandering that comes with it), and the denominational infighting. And — for heaven’s sake! — forget the Pew study.

The fact is that “Who is a Jew?” is the wrong question. To maintain our relevance — to regain it, really — the question we must ask today is “Why be Jewish?”



Holy water

Two weeks ago I visited a place in Israel that I had never seen before.

Shafdan, as the place is called, is a high-tech water reclamation plant just a few kilometers outside of Rishon Letzion. It looked a little like Area 51 in Nevada and it smelled a bit like the New Jersey Meadowlands. But what is happening there is amazing.

In the simplest of terms, Shafdan takes more than 90 percent of waste water — that’s water from kitchen and bathroom sinks, showers, drains, and toilets — from a large region in northwestern Israel. Shafdan repurifies the water, and then it can be reused.




Passover reflections

Freedom is a tricky entity.

It can open avenues of positive imagination and creativity because a free people’s potential belongs ultimately to them and need not answer to a master who may limit that potential.

This is why the Haggadah must open with questions. Indeed, the Talmud tells us that if a person celebrates Pesach alone, he must ask himself the questions that lead into the story of the Exodus. The right to question, the ability to challenge authority, is the sign that a person ultimately is free. As long as an authority can say, “Keep that unacceptable idea to yourself,” you are not free. Therefore our Festival of Freedom must start with questions, which are always in some way subversive.



Why be Jewish? I’ll answer the question myself

In March I wrote in the Jewish Standard about the challenges posed to the organized Jewish community by my generation, the much- (if not, over-) discussed Millennials (“So, really, why be Jewish?”).

We need to refocus ourselves, I said, by turning away from questions like “Who is a Jew?” The key Jewish question of our time is this: Why be Jewish? “With the arrival and maturation of my generation, the Millennials, the question, ‘Who is a Jew?’ is rather passé,” I wrote. “The fact is that ‘Who is a Jew?’ is the wrong question. To maintain our relevance—to regain it, really—the question we must ask today is ‘Why be Jewish?’”



Hudson County is welcome to the federation

I read Joshua Einstein’s op-ed piece in last week’s Jewish Standard with great interest (“Hudson County needs a federation”).

He’s made a great case for creating a formal connection between Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey and the Hudson County Jewish community. His argument makes sense. Northern Hudson County has been in our coverage area for many years, so we already have connections there. We now provide services to southern Hudson, including those services Einstein mentions, and more. So it all seems like a natural fit.


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