By Deborah Dash Moore, University of Michigan
Paula E. Hyman, distinguished Yale University historian of European Jewry, served as president of the American Academy for Jewish Research from 2004 to 2008, the first woman to hold this position. Elected a Fellow of the Academy in 1994, Hyman forged a brilliant career through pioneering scholarship in social history. She introduced gender studies to Jewish historical research in her influential volume Gender and Assimilation in Modern Jewish History: The Roles and Representation of Women (1995), originally presented as the Stroum Lectures at the University of Washington, and she challenged regnant interpretations of the modernization of European Jewry in her book The Emancipation of the Jews of Alsace: Acculturation and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century (1991). The latter examined village Jewish communities and demonstrated how Jews resisted demands for religious change emanating from Paris. The former looked at Western and Eastern Europe as well as the United States, illuminating how gendered understandings shaped and differentiated the project and process of Jewish assimilation. Hyman exemplified excellence in her research and leadership. Her path-breaking projects transformed Jewish historical studies in the United States, Europe, and Israel.
Hyman’s twin intellectual interests intersected with her profound commitment to feminism. In 1971 she helped to found Ezrat Nashim, a consciousness-raising group of Jewish women in New York. The following year the group entered politics and issued a manifesto, “Jewish Women Call for Change,” which they presented to the Rabbinical Assembly’s convention in the Catskills. It called for equality for women in all aspects of Jewish life and especially in leadership positions as rabbis and cantors. Hyman’s feminism extended to the academy, where she regularly challenged standard practices that ignored women, relegating them to the margins.
She also demanded serious study of women’s lives, contending that scholarship that only considered Jewish men was incomplete.
As a modern Jewish historian, Paula Hyman focused on French Jews, the subject of her dissertation, published in 1979 as From Dreyfus to Vichy: The Remaking of French Jewry, 1906-1939. Twenty years later she completed a survey of The Jews of Modern France that synthesized two decades of research generated in part by her own scholarship. In these books, Hyman reinterpreted ideological movements, social changes, marriage patterns, educational trends, religious innovations, and political developments. Her broad grasp of the complexities of social transformation in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries inspired new research on French Jews and invited serious consideration of their experiences alongside those of German Jews. She trained a number of historians of French Jews, including AAJR Fellow Vicki Caron.
Paula Hyman’s scholarship extended to Jews in the United States and spurred creation of the field of American Jewish women’s history. Indeed, she wrote her first book, The Jewish Woman in America (1976), while still in graduate school. Co-authored with Charlotte Baum and Sonya Michel, this popular feminist book aimed to excite interest among a broad audience in Jewish women’s history and represents the first sustained effort to raise important questions about Jewish women’s experiences as immigrants. Hyman returned to answer some of these questions in subsequent articles, including her oft-reprinted study of the 1902 New York City kosher meat boycott, “Immigrant Women and Consumer Protest,” which appeared initially in American Jewish History in 1982. But her award-winning co-edited two-volume The Jewish Woman in America: An Historical Encyclopedia (1997) really initiated scholarship in this field. With eight hundred entries by five hundred authors—scholars, graduate students, writers, and journalists—the encyclopedia introduced a wide range of figures and topics, igniting an array of new research. Hyman subsequently expanded the reach of the encyclopedia by collaborating with Dalia Ofer on the electronic publication, Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia, which covered the lives of Jewish women across historical time and space.
The oldest of three daughters of Ida Tatelbaum and Sydney Hyman, Paula was born in Boston on September 30, 1946. Her parents made sure she received the best American and American Jewish education available. She attended Boston Hebrew Teachers College, graduating in 1966, and Radcliffe College, graduating summa cum laude in 1968. Pursuing two degrees simultaneously, Hyman acquired an enduring love of Hebrew and Zionism from her teachers at Boston Hebrew Teachers College and a deep engagement with Jewish history from her professors at Harvard, including Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi and Isadore Twersky. After graduation she moved to New York City to study Jewish history at Columbia University, receiving her M.A. in 1970 and her Ph.D. in 1975. She studied Jewish history with Gerson Cohen and Ismar Schorsch, and modern French history with Robert O. Paxton.
Her teaching career began at Columbia University in 1974. During her seven years as an assistant professor of history, Paula Hyman’s love of teaching inspired both undergraduate and graduate students. At a time when there were few women in the History Department, except as staff members, Hyman served as a model of a successful female academic. She devoted herself to mentoring her students but she shared with them as well her commitment to her growing family. These students included AAJR fellows Elisheva Carlebach and Marsha Rozenblit. Hyman left Columbia in 1981 for an appointment as Dean of the Seminary College of Jewish Studies, the first woman to hold that position. Her presence at the Jewish Theological Seminary proved critical to the decision to admit women to receive ordination. When she accepted the Lucy Moses Professorship in Modern Jewish History at Yale University in 1986, Paula Hyman left a transformed institution. In 1991 Hyman agreed to direct Yale’s Program in Jewish Studies, the first woman to do so. She held this position for over a decade.
Paula Hyman’s leadership registered in an array of activities in the United States and Israel. She served on numerous editorial boards of leading journals in the field of modern Jewish studies and feminist studies, including YIVO Annual, Jewish Social Studies, Journal for the Feminist Study of Religion, Nashim, and AJS Review. She also served for many years on the Board of Directors of the Association for Jewish Studies and played a key role in creating its Women’s Caucus. Since 1982 she co-edited with AAJR fellow Deborah Dash Moore an influential Indiana University Press book series , the Modern Jewish Experience, which published some of the leading works of Jewish historians. In the twenty-first century, Hyman received recognition for her outstanding achievements and pioneering leadership. The National Foundation for Jewish Culture honored her with its Lifetime Achievement Award in Historical Studies in 2004. Both the Hebrew Union College (2002) and the Jewish Theological Seminary (2000) awarded her honorary degrees.
In 2001 Paula Hyman published My Life as Radical Jewish Woman. Without its subtitle, The Memoirs of a Zionist Feminist in Poland, the book could be said to represent Hyman’s own life. Paula Hyman shared Puah Rakovsky’s commitments to Zionism, education, feminism, and family. Throughout her extraordinary career, Paula Hyman remained devoted to her husband, Dr. Stanley Rosenbaum, and their two daughters, Judith and Adina Rosenbaum. In a marriage that spanned over forty years, Paula and Stan blended their love and careers. They raised their daughters to be feminists and encouraged them to live fulfilling lives. Despite battling multiple bouts of cancer, which first struck in 1979 when Paula was 32 and Judith and Adina were five and two respectively, Paula retained a fundamentally optimistic attitude toward life. She was impatient for change and unwilling to endure tokenism involving women, but she also passionately savored life and gave generously of her mind, heart, and self. A consummate scholar and teacher, colleague and friend, mother and wife, she leaves an outstanding legacy.