Jewish feminist and historian passes away

Paula Hyman, former chair of the program in Judaic Studies and a renowned feminist and historian, died Dec. 15 after a battle with breast cancer. She was 65.

Paula Hyman.
Yale
Paula Hyman.

Hyman rose to national prominence in 1971 when she helped to found Ezrat Nashim, a group of Conservative Jewish women that advocates for changes in the religion’s treatment of women. Colleagues said Hyman was an innovator within the field of Jewish women’s studies and a symbol of Jewish feminism.

“Her extremely sophisticated analysis was some of the first to bring what was happening in the general fields of gender history and Jewish history together,” said Deborah Dash Moore, Hyman’s longtime friend and colleague.

Born in Boston in September 1946, Hyman was the oldest of three sisters. After simultaneously attending Radcliffe College and the Hebrew Teachers College of Boston, she went on to receive a doctorate in Jewish history from Columbia University in 1975.

While working toward her doctorate, she founded Ezrat Nahim and successfully pressured the Conservative Jewish movement to include women in the count of people required for some rituals, allow women to participate equally in prayer leadership and begin ordaining women as rabbis.

Hyman broke glass ceilings in the field of Judaic studies with her own scholarship. As one of the first women to speak in the prestigious Stroum lecture series at the University of Washington, Hyman asked a predominantly male academe to pay closer attention to the history and achievements of Jewish women, Moore said.

“She endured a lot of flack,” Moore said. “Her male colleagues didn’t take the subject seriously.”

Moore said she and Hyman later collaborated on the two-volume encyclopedia “Jewish Women in America” in 1997, which she said “reclaimed” the history of Jewish women and their successes in fields including the arts, sciences and politics. Moore said this achievement, along with Hyman’s other work, laid the foundation for other scholars to publish books and develop courses about Jewish women’s history.

After arriving at Yale in 1986, Hyman served as the chair of the Judaic Studies program for 13 years and remained active even after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. In the fall semester of 2011, she advised six of the 15 graduate students in the Judaic Studies program.

At Yale and in New Haven, she was a mentor and friend to many, Rabbi James Ponet ’68 wrote in a Dec. 15 email to affiliates of the Joseph B. Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale.

“[Her] capacity for loyal friendship, her love of the Jewish people writ large and her passionate engagement in numerous Jewish communities provide us all with an enduring model of what makes a life worth living, and what it means to live a committed Jewish life,” Ponet said.

Judaic Studies professor Eliyahu Stern said Hyman was “an inspiration” both as a scholar and as an embodiment of the ideas she studied. During her illness, she stayed involved with the Westville Jewish community and often spoke at community events, said Lauren Gottlieb GRD ’16, who studied with Hyman.

“I learned so much from her, not only about Jewish history, but also about how to move in the world as a woman scholar,” Gottlieb said. “She taught by example and allowed us to see her not only a professor, but as a proud mother and grandmother, community activist and Jewish leader.”

Prior to her time at Yale, Hyman served as the first female dean of the Seminary College of Jewish Studies. She is survived by her husband, Stanley Rosenbaum, two daughters, Judith and Adina, and two grandchildren.

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