Paula Hyman, a pioneering historian of modern Jews, published “My Life as a Radical Jewish Woman” in 2001. Without its subtitle, “Memoirs of a Zionist Feminist in Poland,” it could stand as an apt characterization of Paula herself.
The Yale University historian chose to edit the English translation of Puah Rakovsky’s Yiddish memoir because she sensed a kindred spirit whose feminism and dedication to Jewish education, Zionism, family and community paralleled her own commitments. And in doing so, Paula, who died of cancer December 15 at age 65, found a way to marry her two passions: Jewish history and feminism.
Paula wanted to reclaim Jewish women activists of yore for contemporary Jews as part of her lifelong mission to challenge received ideas about leadership, values and ways of doing things in the United States and Israel. Her work ultimately brought gender analysis into the mainstream of Jewish historical scholarship. For example, Paula invited serious consideration of Jewish women’s organizations such as Hadassah, long scorned by male historians and skewered by comedians.
The Hebrew translation of Paula’s 1995 book, “Gender and Assimilation in Modern Jewish History: The Roles and Representation of Women,” helped coin a new Hebrew word for “gender”: migdar. In 1997, Paula and I co-edited the two-volume “Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia,” which inspired plentiful scholarship on hundreds of American Jewish women in arts, politics, society and religion.
Born in Boston on September 30, 1946, the eldest of Sydney and Ida Tatelman Hyman’s three daughters, Paula went to public schools and supplementary Hebrew schools. She earned undergraduate degrees at Radcliffe College and Boston’s Hebrew Teachers College. She went on to Columbia University, where she studied under such scholars as Gerson Cohen and Ismar Schorsch, and where she received her master’s degree and doctorate in Jewish history.
Her years in New York, during the 1970s and ’80s, proved formative. She joined the New York Havurah, an experimental Jewish religious community, and she helped found Ezrat Nashim, a Jewish women’s consciousness-raising group that advocated for women’s equality in American Jewish life. Paula also pressed the Conservative movement to count women in a minyan and ordain women as rabbis.