Responding to colleague-friend-comrades calling for more serious look at East European Jewish history and culture, and with my own stakes in religion, here is another thought about what I’d like to call Ashkenaz. I’m also responding to colleague-friend-comrades Laura Levitt and Mara Benjamin, and also Naomi Seidman who weighed in with a critical take regarding the total absence of women’s voices at FB re: posts that I’ve been sharing there; and also, by way of deep implication, the absence of women in the Jewish (religious) thought canon of Ashkenaz.
What place is there for women in the interwoven thought-worlds of Maharal or Luzzato or Hasidism or the faith of the Mitnagdim, or Musar? Do they even exist there? Even as negative foils? Even a cursory re-reading of Paula Hyman’s Gender and Assimilation in Modern Jewish History would remind us, this was the traditional social milieu and religious ambiance against which young women rebelled. To spoof a movie title, maybe it’s the case that Ashkenaz is no country for Jewish Jewish Women; or another movie title: Get Out.
For intellectual historians, Ashkenaz is undoubtedly a must look at site of modern Jewish counter- or anti-modernity. But as a constructive spiritual or philosophical project it cannot be forgotten, especially by the people who want to promote its virtues, that this is the social and thought world that, for most of us, our grandmothers and grandfathers fled –when they came to America and Israel and already in the big city centers of Ukraine and Poland between the wars and before the Holocaust.
A women’s place in Ashkenaz is not by any means an impossibility when one considers how Jewish women have taken to Talmud over the last two decades, out in the real world and in the academy. It could be that there is in Talmud material with which to work. Women at least appear in Talmud, if only and for the most part as objects. I will leave it to the experts to show if there is any such material in Ashkenaz. Or is it the case that Ashkenaz is in some way a uniquely closed site? The burden of proof is on them.
[[photograph by Alter Kacyzne, Unemployed seamstress at her sewing machine, Bialystok, Poland, 1926]]