Jewish Women's Contributions to Education, Culture, Hidden No More

Judith Baskin: Her book focuses
on the representation of women by
Jewish writers and on Jewish women
writers themselves.

Jewish women recently have been a subject of discussion for a variety of reasons, ranging from their roles in religious rituals and within the Jewish community to their perspectives on events in Jewish society. Many of the current issues and problems can be traced back through history, says Judith Baskin, chair of the Department of Judaic Studies. Baskin is one of the leading scholars involved in that search, working to increase understanding of how Jewish women’s history relates to the present.

"What we see from the past is that the concerns of modern Jewish women stem from the same problems that Jewish women have always had," Baskin said. "Even in ancient times there were debates about whether or not women should be allowed to become educated and the extent of their place in public life."

Baskin feels that if people knew more about the women of the past it might help empower women of the present, who would realize that they are part of a long heritage of strong women who did take leadership roles. "It might also help persuade those who are less positive about new roles for women," she said. "Sometimes, people have a romantic view of the past, that in those days women ‘knew their place,’ etc.," Baskin added. However, she notes, that has never been true. Things have always been complicated and women have always had many responsibilities and roles.

"We seem to have a limited picture of women’s history, that they had to stay in the home," Baskin said. "However, there is evidence of Jewish women doing many things outside the home, particularly for the economic benefit of their families. From the Middle Ages on, we have evidence of women who were physicians and midwives and who participated actively in family trades and businesses."

Baskin’s writings have examined many different kinds of women and situations in Jewish history. They range from "Prenatal Testing for Tay-Sachs Disease in the Light of Jewish Views Regarding Abortion," to "Rabbinic Reflections on the Barren Wife."

In 1991 she edited the book, Jewish Women in Historical Perspective, a pioneering work for which she also wrote the introduction and a chapter on Jewish women in the Middle Ages. "I went to people who I knew were experts on various historical periods and asked them to write a chapter for the book," said Baskin, who also teaches a course on women in Jewish life and literature. There are 12 chapters in the book, ranging from biblical times to the present day.

Baskin also edited another book of essays called Women of the Word: Jewish Women and Jewish Writing (1994). She said she looks on this as a companion volume to the first book even though the emphasis is on Jewish women as writers. "I hoped to fill in some of the gaps that were not covered in the first book," she said. "For example, the first book included little about Jewish women in Eastern Europe and in Israel." This second work focuses on the way women are represented in Jewish writing and Jewish women as writers themselves. Both books are selling well and Baskin says that Jewish Women in Historical Perspective is used as a textbook for courses in Jewish history in classrooms across North America and in Israel.

In collaboration with a colleague, Baskin has also published a collection of course syllabi that deals with or includes Jewish women. It contains topics from the Bible to social science to modern literature and is now used across North America and in Israel. It was published by Biblio Press, a company that concentrates on books about Jewish women.

Baskin is now working on a book called The Midrashic Women, about representations of Jewish women in Rabbinic literature, which she hopes to complete by summer’s end. For this book, she is looking at women as wives and co-wives, visions of women that appear in interpretations of the story of creation, the way women get along with other women, and portrayals of infertile women.

"Most books written in and about that time were male-centered books, written by and about men," Baskin said. "In these books, women are only seen and described in relation to men." She added that the subtitle may be "Constructions of Gender in Rabbinic Tradition."

This coincides with Baskin’s area of expertise, which is the Middle Ages and the period referred to as late antiquity (after the Bible was completed, in Jewish terms called the Rabbinic period) from the First to Sixth Century.

Baskin says she got the idea of writing and editing books on this topic because there weren’t really any books available on the history of Jewish women. Previously, she had focused on the history of Jewish biblical interpretation.

Throughout her research, Baskin said the most interesting aspect has been finding out about the variety of tasks and achievements performed by women. "It can also make you angry to learn how women were excluded from the things that Jewish culture has considered most important, such as learning and being community leaders," Baskin said. She noted however, that wealthy women, particularly widows, were allowed to have an important role in the community because they were able to be donors and philanthropists and achieve recognition that way.

Nevertheless, Baskin’s contributions are not limited to publications. In July 1995, she was a visiting professor at the University of Rochester Center for Judaic Studies’ excavations in Israel. She participated in an archaeological dig in Yodefat, on a hillside in western Galilee. There, she said, she found evidence of womens’ lives through pieces of pottery used in cooking, work done mostly by women. Baskin said these items are one of the most abundant artifacts searchers usually find. They also found loom weights, which revealed a good deal, because in ancient times women were expected to weave whenever they had spare time. The items found on the dig, which was performed at a site destroyed in 67 A.D., came mostly from the Roman and late Hellenistic periods.

Being in Israel made Baskin conscious of the many roles women play today, especially seeing the young female soldiers. They were very visible because they were the ones checking bags as people went in and out of buildings.

Baskin said she is most interested in the way in which gender roles have been constructed in Judaism. Every society makes decisions about what is appropriate male and female behavior and it is often very different in each culture and in different times and places.

As for current times, Baskin feels things are getting better. She frequently reviews books of all kinds about Jewish women. "In the last 15 years there has been an incredible blossoming of books of all kinds about women in general and women in Judaism in particular," she said. "It is a very exciting time for someone who is interested in this subject." She added that many scholars are now sensitive to the role of gender in people’s lives. Gender, as social and economic class, has always been crucial in determining what your options, your education, and your role in life will be.

Baskin received her Ph.D. in Medieval Studies from Yale. She was named a Collins Fellow for Outstanding University Service in 1995 and received a Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching in 1993. Prior to joining Albany’s faculty, she taught at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

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