Author Archives: Rochelle Furstenberg

Rochelle Furstenberg

About Rochelle Furstenberg

Rochelle Furstenberg is a Jerusalem-based journalist and critic. She has written extensively on Hebrew literature in a variety of books and periodicals, and has a regular column on Israeli life and culture in Hadassah Magazine.

Orthodox Israeli Women Novelists

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Reprinted with permission from

JOFA

,The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.

Until the mid-1980s, modern Hebrew literature was dominated by men. There were some fine women novelists in Israel, but their works were generally considered minor. Veteran author, Amalia Kahana- Carmon, once said, “Just as Jewish women were exiled to the balcony of the synagogue, Israeli women novelists were relegated to the peripheries of Israeli literature.”
Butterflies in the Rain by Mira Magen
But in the last two decades, a revolution has been taking place, which has affected Orthodox women writers. Female writers have come into their own. In fact, they might even be perceived as dominating Israeli literature today. Their artistic outpouring is a consequence of socio psychological changes within the country.

Shifting Tides

From its beginnings in the 19th century, Hebrew literature struggled with collective issues, revolving around the fate of the Jewish people. Indeed, literature was a primary force in crystallizing the Zionist agenda. During the pioneering period and in the early days of the State of Israel, Hebrew literature projected a new image of the Jew as farmer and soldier.

Writers of the sixties, like Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua, attempted to retreat from the collective and focus on the individual. But they could not disengage themselves from national issues, and the individual was often used to symbolize the larger nation.

During this time, women writers were perceived as sensitive observers of domestic psychological situations, not relevant to the debates in the public realm, and they remained on the sidelines. However, in the 1980’s a change took place in Israel. People began to thirst for works about the private realm. Young Israelis became weary of the constant involvement with nation-building.

They wanted to concentrate on personal interactions, rather than collective ones. Women’s literature, with its traditional emphasis on emotional relationships, was celebrated in this new milieu.

It emphasized female autonomy. Much of this striving for autonomy and self-knowledge is evident in the writing of observant or traditional-minded Israeli women novelists, such as Esther Ettinger, Hannah Bat-Shahar, Michal Govrin and Mira Magen.

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Medieval Jewish Women Were Leaders in Religion and Business

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Reprinted with the author’s permission from Hadassah Magazine (June/July 2002).

Medieval Jewish Women Were Neither Ignorant nor Powerless

Urania, daughter of Abraham, sang before female congregants in Worms. Another cantor, Richenza, is mentioned in The Memorial Book of Nuremberg. Dulcia, wife of Rabbi Eliezer of Worms, taught women prayer words and songs. While today female teachers and cantors hardly seem shocking, these women lived during the medieval era when, as has long been historically accepted, women held little power, leadership or communal roles.

This view is changing, and Avraham Grossman, a professor in the Jewish history department at the Hebrew University, is at the center of new thinking on Jewish women in the Middle Ages. He points out references to godmothers at their grandson’s circumcisions, as well as female ritual slaughterers. His book, Ha­sidot U’Mordot: Nashim Yehudi­ot B’Europa B’Yemei Ha’Bainaim (Pious and Rebellious: Jewish Women in Europe in the Middle Ages, Zalman Shazar Center for Jewish History), which will be published in English by Univer­sity Press of New England …., cites women wearing talitot [prayer shawls] and tefilin [phylacteries]. “There is also mention of synagogues for women,” he says. “The woman cantor stood next to the window, fol­lowed the men’s prayers and repeated it…out loud with a sweet melody.”

In Grossman’s modest Jerusalem apartment–his study boasts thousands of books neatly organized floor to ceiling–he recalls the months spent in the Cambridge and Oxford libraries poring over medieval Jewish manuscripts. About nine years ago, Grossman realized there were countless books on medieval women, but none on the Jewish women of that era.

Piety and Pursestrings

After an enormously painstaking amount of research–there are ­no writings by Jewish women of this period, everything must be deduced from what is written about them–he pieced together a new vision of Jewish society in Christian Europe during the Middle Ages. “When I began,” the tall, polite, scholarly Grossman says, “I assumed that I would find the medieval woman to be downtrodden. But the more I researched the more I realized that a revolution had taken place. Women were out ­there fighting for their rights in the home and community.”

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