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On the Bookshelf

Women and work, women and prayer: from ancient Rome to contemporary Brooklyn

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Unreliable Witnesses: Religion, Gender and History in the Greco-Roman Mediterranean

Do women and men pray differently? Among Orthodox Jews, they sure do, starting with that infamous morning blessing in which men thank their creator for not making them female, while women thank Him for being created in His image. That sort of anti-egalitarianism has a long, complex pedigree, as Ross Shepard Kraemer demonstrates in Unreliable Witnesses: Religion, Gender and History in the Greco-Roman Mediterranean (Oxford, December). Treating the Talmud’s discussions of female Torah scholarship, Severus of Minorca’s Jewish women who resist conversion, and many other ancient sources, Kraemer makes clear that religious practices in the time of the Romans both contributed to and reflected the construction of gender differences in those times—uncannily anticipating Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.


The Miriam Tradition: Teaching Embodied Torah

Those who wish to celebrate religion as it is experienced particularly by women have an increasingly deep well to draw from. A dancer and yoga instructor with an interest in religious practices, Cia Sautter presents The Miriam Tradition: Teaching Embodied Torah (Illinois, November), which identifies the Sephardic women who traditionally danced and played music in celebration of Jewish events as the models for a form of spiritual and cultural engagement that goes beyond the textual. As Sautter notes on her blog: “Torah is awesome—so how can you confine it to what is written in a book alone?” Not that books of tkhines and translated Yiddish Bibles haven’t been endeavoring to meet Jewish women’s religious needs for hundreds of years. A more recent entry in that important literary tradition can be found in Enya Tamar Keshet’s In Her Voice: An Illuminated Book of Prayers for Jewish Women (Toby, November). An Israeli artist, Keshet enlivens traditional and more recent women’s prayers—assembled with the help of Joel B. Wolowelsky of the Yeshiva of Flatbush—with a lavish visual style that argues for their value as a sacred texts.


Gender and Jewish History

Most such projects have been made possible thanks to the opening of the American academy to feminist scholars in the 1970s, a development that transformed Jewish Studies (and, for that matter, just about every disciplinary nook and methodological cranny of the contemporary university). Yale’s Paula Hyman has been one stalwart leader of this development. Edited by her fellow historians Marion Kaplan and Deborah Dash Moore and containing contributions from many of the current leading modern historians, both male and female, a collection of essays titled Gender and Jewish History (Indiana, December) honors Hyman by illustrating just how unthinkable it would be to study Jews or Judaism nowadays without thinking deeply and particularly about women.


Ugly Beauty: Helena Rubinstein, L'Oreal, and the Blemished History of Looking Good

As unthinkable, we might say, as the history of cosmetics without Jews, and specifically without Helena Rubinstein. While a recent biography of Rubinstein—a Polish Jew who rose to the top of her industry, earning millions in both New York and Paris—is so far available only in French, Ruth Brandon’s forthcoming Ugly Beauty: Helena Rubinstein, L’Oreal, and the Blemished History of Looking Good (Harper, February) tells the make-up doyenne’s tale alongside that of Eugène Schueller, the Frenchman who founded L’Oréal and collaborated greedily with the Nazis during the Vichy occupation. Rubinstein, by contrast, personally fought anti-Semitism. In one telling case, when she discovered a Park Avenue apartment building would not rent to Jews, she just bought the whole building.


The White Negress: Literature, Minstrelsy, and the Black-Jewish Imaginary

Lori Harrison-Kahan’s brilliant new cultural history takes its impetus from a different sort of makeup, long out of fashion: the burnt cork used to “black up” for blackface performances by men like Al Jolson (see The Jazz Singer)—but also, as she reminds us, by Jewish women. In The White Negress: Literature, Minstrelsy, and the Black-Jewish Imaginary (Rutgers, December), Harrison-Kahan shows that such women complicate the widely embraced idea, promulgated by Michael Rogin, that Jews blacked up to assert their own whiteness, while also offering enlightening readings of authors like Edna Ferber and Fannie Hurst.


Raising Brooklyn: Nannies, Childcare, and Caribbeans Creating Community

Want to observe one contemporary example of Black-Jewish encounters firsthand? It’s easy: Hang out in any Park Slope playground on a warm weekday afternoon, and you’ll see a gaggle of privileged Jewish toddlers and their West Indian nannies. Tamara Mose Brown’s Raising Brooklyn: Nannies, Childcare, and Caribbeans Creating Community (NYU, January) offers a window onto this phenomenon. A Canadian of Trinidadian descent and a Park Slope mother herself, as well as a CUNY sociologist, Brown does not emphasize the prevalence of Jewish families in the Slope but studies the nannies themselves and the social connections they establish to combat the instability of their careers. (One of the community organizers Brown interviewed from her dissertation did opine that “us black people are not as determined as the Jews. … The Jews get so much because of what they went through, but us black people get nothing.”) For a Jewish perspective on the phenomenon of Caribbean baby nurses hired by Jewish couples, decades earlier and on the Upper West Side, see the final few short stories in Norma Rosen’s 1967 collection Green.

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On the Bookshelf

Women and work, women and prayer: from ancient Rome to contemporary Brooklyn

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