February 25, 2020

HBI Awards $52,000 in Research Funds

By Amy Powell

“The LGBTQ Jewish Anthology: A Reader of Primary Sources from the Talmud to Stonewall” and “From the Gay Synagogue to the Queer Shtetl: Normativity, Innovation, and Utopian Imagining in the Lived Religion of Queer and Transgender Jews” are two of the 20 proposals given HBI Research Awards for the coming year. They were both awarded in HBI’s newest category, LGBTQ Studies.

Each year HBI selects awards that expand our thinking about Jews and gender. The anthology project, considered the first of its kind, was awarded to Noam Sienna, Brandeis ’11, now of University of Minnesota. The latter proposal was awarded to SJ Crasnow of Rockhurst University, a Jesuit school in Kansas. In total, HBI awarded $52,000 to the 20 different research projects from universities in the U.S., Israel and Hungary.

The other research awards divide into sub-categories: History, Israel and the Yishuv; Families, Children and the Holocaust; Diaspora Studies; Judaism; Gender, Culture, Religion and the Law; Biography; Film and Video; and Arts.  The awards show the range of support offered by HBI to nurture the careers of junior scholars and aid those who are already established in the field of Jews and gender.

To choose the competitive annual research awards, HBI works with its Academic Advisory Committee, comprised of 160 experts and academics from 52 schools in eight countries. These advisors read the proposals and comment over a review period. The process culminates with a day-long meeting at HBI each December to discuss the best proposals. Final decisions are made by Prof. Sylvia Barack Fishman, HBI’s co-director and chair of the AAC, along with Lisa Joffe, director of HBI and also director of the HBI Project on Gender, Culture, Religion and the Law, and HBI Assistant Director Deborah Olins.

Fishman explains that, “by supporting the most excellent researchers and artists who focus on Jews and gender, HBI has played a critical role in building the fields of Jewish women’s and gender studies.”

AAC members have praised the HBI for offering awards that support the mission of developing fresh ideas about Jews and gender. “As opportunities dry up, particularly for people in the humanities, it’s an extraordinary help. If not for this award, the field would have different terrain,” said AAC Member Ellen Golub, also a past recipient.

Lilach Rosenberg-Friedman, who recently published Birthrate Politics in Zion: Judaism, Nationalism, and Modernity under the British Mandate, was both a scholar-in-residence at HBI and recipient of multiple research awards, including one in this cycle for “Outmarriage between Jews and non-Jews in Mandatory Palestine and in Israel (1920-1968): National, Ethnic, Social and Gender Aspects – A View from Below.”  She believes that the connection with HBI was her “breakthrough as a researcher.”

At a recent launch event for her book she said, “The combination of financial and moral support from HBI was an injection of encouragement and a significant catalyst to my academic advancement. My links with HBI have grown even tighter as the institution has continued to support me.”

Professor Jonathan Sarna, the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History and Chair of the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program at Brandeis University said, “These awards have been of great importance in providing assistance and offered publicity to those working in the field of women and gender studies, they have provided encouragement and recognition to those entering the field, and they have nurtured a generation of scholars.”

Fishman, also the Joseph and Esther Foster Professor of Judaic Studies, noted that the “sustained relationships between HBI and Research Award recipients add up to far more than the sum of their parts. In reunions in the United States and Israel, Research Award recipients have testified how profoundly their relationships with HBI–and with each other–have nurtured and transformed their professional lives.”

For a complete list of HBI Research Awards as well as for the criteria and an application for next year, visit HBI’s web site.

Amy Powell is the assistant director of HBI.

A Usable Past, a Useless Present

A Piece of Kvetch

By Galina Zelenina

On a gloomy October day in Saint Petersburg, I was having coffee with a local LGBT activist at a half-clandestine queer studies conference. Just a few months before, the State Duma Deputy, Yelena Mizulina, had authored her infamous ban on “gay propaganda” (whatever that means). At the time, I was working on a series of essays for an independent internet journal, one of the few respectable venues in the Russian internet that straddles the boundaries between academic and socio-political debate. The series were supposed to delve into parallels between the queer discourse and homophobia in the USSR and that in contemporary Russia; my column on the Saint-Petersburg conference was meant for that series. In the end, the editors cancelled the project. “This is not our war,” they explained apologetically.

Now, sitting together in this coffee shop, I listened as this LGBT activist began praising academic work as a form of activism: “You don’t have to take to the streets or go out to Marsovo Pole (a usual venue for unpermitted protest marches in the city)—instead, you can make a bigger difference by just publishing an article.”

During my time as a scholar-in-residence at HBI, I have had a pleasure of attending two events Brandeis hosted recently. The first was an annual Simon Rawidowicz Memorial Lecture given by Elisheva Baumgarten of Hebrew University in Jerusalem who spoke on matchmaking in medieval Ashkenaz. The second was a panel discussion on how race, ethnicity, and religion intersect with sexual violence, organized by Bernadette Brooten, the Kraft and Hiatt Professor of Christian Studies at Brandeis.

Highly regarded for her invaluable achievements in scholarly activism (most importantly for her search for a usable past for Christian lesbians in her book Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism), Brooten organized the discussion to initiate a talk on the influence exerted by religions on people’s views on and practice of sexual crimes. Although religions change over time, becoming more sensitive, old laws still matter, and we need to study religious past in order to improve the present.

The timing of this discussion, part of Brooten’s ongoing Feminist Sexual Ethics Project, could not have been better as it coincided with the wave of recent accusations of sexual misconduct against Harvey Weinstein and several other “males of influence” followed by the hashtag campaign #MeToo flooding social media with stories of sexual harassment and assault.

Interestingly, this is not the first campaign of its kind. In spring 2015, the #NotGuilty campaign was launched in the British social media, and in 2016, a Ukrainian feminist kickstarted a similar Flashmob on Facebook under the hashtag #яНеБоюсьСказати (“#Iamnotafraidtospeak”) that went viral, spreading to Russia and Belarus. Judging by my social media newsfeed, the campaign attracted enormous attention, and was perceived as having potential for making a difference and leading to social change. Ironically, the only tangible response it has invoked in Russia was a law decriminalizing domestic violence, passed by the State Duma in the early 2017.

Unlike the participants of the #яНеБоюсьСказать campaign who predominantly shared their experiences of rape, the women responding to the #MeToo movement started in response to the Harvey Weinstein scandal have posted accounts of sexual harassment and assault. The importance of the campaign in bringing the conversation of sexual assault into the mainstream cannot be underestimated.

After Brooten’s panel discussion about the intersectionality between sexual violence and race, ethnicity and religion, evaluation forms were passed out so that participants could “strongly or somewhat” agree or disagree with the assertions that both religious past and ethnic context influence sexual violence. While the degree of influence and other details may be subject to debate, there seems to be general agreement about one fundamental question: issues of sexual violence must be addressed.

Refuting the Karaites’ contention that frequent disagreements between the Talmudic sages rendered the rabbinic tradition untrustworthy, medieval Jewish scholar Abraham ibn Daud claimed that the sages disagreed not over commandments in principle, but only about details: “They did not dispute whether or not it is obligatory to light the Shabbat light. What they did dispute was with what it may be lit and with what it may not be lit.”

Blessed are those who are disputing the details once they have achieved general agreement on fundamental issues.

The lecture by Elisheva Baumgarten, although seemingly much less burning and time-sensitive, actually deserved no less attention by social-minded students. Not only because she is such a brilliant scholar. (I know one influential politician in Israel, likely to become a PM someday, who—to make the long story short—left academia for politics because he had always admired Baumgarten’s academic career and had finally faced the fact that he could never achieve an equal measure of success.) The true reason is that, being thoroughly medievalist, her lecture was nonetheless relevant for and connected to the present.

Unlike her predecessors in the study of medieval rabbinic responsa on family issues, Baumgarten takes a feminist stand, arguing and proving that women used to be much more active, powerful, influential and independent in medieval Judaism than later, in modern Orthodoxy. In her lecture, she discusses whether medieval Jewish parents, on a regular basis, married off their daughters as minors, or whether the daughters still had the final say. After considering responsa, moral exempla, and tales (and keeping in mind that all three genres, being written by learned men, represent the male perspective), she concludes that non-halachic genres offer a more realistic picture than the responsa and that we may assume that in medieval reality, girls had more choice, freedom, and final say than we are led to believe.

Baumgarten seems to belong to the same scholarly trend whose main spokesman, Daniel Boyarin, a talmudic scholar, Orthodox Jew, liberal, feminist, and LGBT advocate, refutes the common view of talmudic culture as androcentric and misogynist, purposefully and consistently discovering a usable past for his liberal Orthodoxy in rabbinic texts.

Blessed are those who search for a usable past once they have a usable present.

I highly doubt that in Russia, any Orthodox Jew wants to hear of medieval Jewish women playing “traditionally male” roles of rabbis, circumcisers, or ritual slaughterers. It seems even less probable that any Russian Jewish community would be willing to learn about the specifically Jewish masculinity and the long tradition of homoeroticism and homosociality. Queer scholarly activism is a risky affair in the city where, alongside the recently unveiled bike lanes—the unmistakable sign of a modern, civilized society—a chain of food stores displays a “No Entry for Sodomites” sign in its windows. But at this point, this is precisely where the activism is probably needed most.

Galina Zelenina is a 2017 Helen Gartner Hammer Scholar in Residence at HBI and an associate professor at the Center for Biblical and Jewish Studies at Russian State University of Humanities in Moscow.

Nine Jewish Women You Should Be Reading

Courtesy of Sylvia Lustgarten and the Jewish Women's Archive

Kadya Molodowsky (left), Ida Maze (center), and Rokhl Korn (right). Photo courtesy of Sylvia Lustgarten and the Jewish Women’s Archive

Why do some writers become part of the canon while others do not? In HBI’s spring seminar, Fresh Voices: Jewish Women Writers From North America, some of the important Jewish women studied by our scholars, for various reasons, have not remained in the canon. However, fresh interest in their work may restore them to their rightful place among other giants in Jewish and Yiddish literature. Here they are:

  1. Emma Wolf

Scarcely a day goes by without an article or social media post on intermarriage, but Jewish writer, Emma Wolf, got a big head start on the rest of us. Her novel, Other Things Being Equal, focused on intermarriage in 1892. Born in San Francisco in 1865, the daughter of French-Alsatian pioneers, Wolf was arguably the first female Jewish novelist to achieve renown in the U.S. Her father, a successful businessman, was among the early Jewish settlers in the Bay Area, and her family belonged to Temple Emanu-El, a congregation founded during the Gold Rush of 1849. Members of Emanu-El formed an elite society of Jews, who had emigrated from central Europe in the mid-19th century and who lived as neighbors in upper-middle-class Pacific Heights. Two of her novels, Other Things Being Equa(1892) and Heirs of Yesterday (1901), were set in the San Francisco Reform community and featured cultured, professional, well-off Jews who could not be differentiated from their gentile neighbors except in their religious practices.

  1. Miriam Michelson

San Francisco-based Miriam Michelson’s wide-ranging oeuvre includes picaresque novels, science fiction, historical romance, parlor room melodrama and literary journalism. Though unknown today to scholars of Jewish American literature, Michelson was recognized in her time as a famous Jewish writer—“a California Jewess who has succeeded with her pen,” in the words of The Washington Post. Among the most popular and prolific women writers of the first decade of the twentieth century, Michelson drew on her experiences as a reporter for San Francisco’s top dailies, San Francisco Call and the Bulletin in the 1890s, and then for a few years in the East, for the Philadelphia North American,  to create entertaining narratives with audacious, slang-speaking new women protagonists. Professionally, she reported on a host of progressive issues, from the suffrage movement and political corruption in Chinatown to the annexation of Hawaii and assimilationist policies of Indian boarding schools.

While occasional Jews do appear in her stories, usually as denizens of the theater rather than the ghetto, Michelson also populated her fiction with Irish, Black, Chinese, Hawaiian, and Native American characters. Set in California, Nevada, and the Dakotas, her work testifies to the ways that Jewish writers captured the regional and ethno-racial diversity of American life and were engaged with cultures and traditions other than their own—an aspect of literary history easily forgotten among the New York ghetto tales that make up the turn-of-the-twentieth-century canon. Born in 1870, she was brought up in the mining town of Virginia City, Nevada, where her parents settled after immigrating to the United States from Poland.

  1. Harriet Lane Levy

Harriet Lane Levy followed a life path that led from a privileged and observant home in San Francisco to the Paris expatriate scene with Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein. In her memoir 920 O’Farrell Street: A Jewish Girlhood in Old San Francisco (1947), completed when she was 80 years old, Levy described growing up as the daughter of religiously observant parents who simultaneously demanded that she abide by strict nineteenth-century gender conventions and encouraged her to pursue the education that led her to become an independent woman of the new century. After Levy’s graduation from the University of California Berkeley, her literary aspirations took her to The Wave, where her short stories, society pieces, and dramatic criticism made her one of the San Francisco journal’s most promising young writers in the early 1890s. Yet Levy’s story is also one of unrealized ambition: 920 O’Farrell Street was the only book of prose she published in her lifetime. Notably, she traveled to Paris, with her friend and O’Farrell Street neighbor Alice B. Toklas. The traveling companions became part of a group of American expatriates dominated by members of San Francisco’s elite Jewish community, including a family of art collectors, Gertrude, Leo, Michael, and Sarah Stein. When Levy left Europe four years later, she returned to San Francisco without Toklas, who had stayed behind to make a new life with Gertrude Stein. Recollections of her time in Paris were posthumously published as Paris Portraits: Stories of Picasso, Matisse, Gertrude Stein, and Their Circle.

4-5. Anna and Rose Strunsky

Anna and Rose Strunsky arrived in the United States from Russia in the 1880s, living first in New York and then, by 1893, in California. As undergraduates at Stanford University, the sisters, known for their brilliance and beauty, became involved in socialist politics and took up with “The Crowd,” a group of bohemian artists that boasted Jack London as a member. Both aspiring novelists, Anna and London were drawn to each other, sharing their works in progress and igniting a romance that evolved into an even longer friendship. In 1903, they published a collaborative book, The Kempton-Wace Letters, an epistolary novel and philosophical treatise in which two male correspondents, Dane Kempton (Strunsky) and Herbert Wace (London), debate love, sex, and marriage. Based in part on the real-life correspondence between its authors, the book offers insight into London’s scientific views on race and reproduction, which kept him from marrying his Jewish collaborator despite their erotically charged intellectual partnership.

Anna Strunsky has received attention from literary scholars and historians for her passionate relationship with London and her marriage in 1906 to socialist intellectual and reformer William English Walling (at the time, one of several well-publicized intermarriages between Jewish women and gentile philanthropists who shared political views). But no scholar has fully examined her writing efforts—both successful and failed—or considered her career in relation to that of her sister, Rose, who makes even briefer appearances in literary history as the object of Sinclair Lewis’s unrequited affections and as a translator of Gorky, Tolstoy, and Trotsky. As foreign correspondents for Walling’s news syndicate, Rose and Anna traveled together to Russia where they reported on the revolution. Anna and Rose Strunsky rarely wrote about explicitly Jewish topics, but their literary interests and political passions were shaped by their backgrounds as Russian Jewish immigrant women reared on the freedoms of turn-of-the-century intellectual life in San Francisco. Their writings address topics ranging from the role of women in socialism to labor strikes in Britain and race relations in the United States.

  1. Penina Moise

Penina Moise is considered the first Jewish American woman to contribute to the worship service, writing 190 hymns for Congregation Beth Elohim in  Charleston, S.C.,  a synagogue founded in 1749 and considered the birthplace of many ideas that later became important in the founding of the Reform movement. By 1932, The Reform Movement’s Union Hymnal still contained 13 of Moise’s hymns.

Born on April 23, 1797 to a large and wealthy family in Charleston, S.C., Moise’s  father, Abraham, was a successful Alsatian-born merchant. Her mother, Sarah, was the daughter of a wealthy family from the island of St. Eustace. They came to Charleston in 1791, fleeing a slave insurrection. Moise was the sixth of nine children and the youngest daughter. She left school at age twelve, after her father’s death and served as the family nurse, caring for her mother and brother Isaac, an asthma sufferer.

Growing up in the presence of a diverse, vital, and well-integrated Jewish community, Moise devoted herself to Jewish issues. Her work appeared in both the Jewish and general press. Her 1833 collection of poems, Fancy’s Sketch Book, was the first by a Jewish American woman. Moise also wrote columns for newspapers throughout the United States. Her poetry covered a variety of topics, including current events, politics, local life, Judaism, Jewish rights, and Jewish ritual reform.

Along with her literary endeavors, Moise devoted her life to teaching and serving as religious school superintendent in 1845 at Congregation Beth Elohim. The Civil War forced Moise to leave Charleston for Sumter, South Carolina. She returned after the war but in reduced financial circumstances supporting herself by running an academy together with her widowed sister and her niece. She died in 1880, blind and poor, but still a fixture in the Charleston Jewish community and literary life.

  1. Irena Klepfisz

Diversity and inclusion are hot topics of conversation these days but were just as pertinent 30 years ago. Born in 1941, Jewish poet and feminist, Irena Klepfisz, contributed to publications that dealt with diversity-related subjects that were considered controversial at the time, specifically lesbianism in the Jewish community, as seen in writer Evelyn Beck’s anthology, Nice Jewish Girls. Her subsequent publication, with fellow poet, Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz, was The Tribe of Dina: A Jewish Women’s Anthology (1986), showcasing the diversity amongst secular Jewish women of varying economic backgrounds. The Tribe of Dina provided a platform for these women, some of which were lesbians, heterosexuals, Ashkenzi and Sephardi women, to not only identify with their Jewish culture but to also share their perspectives on how to overcome the marginalization of women in the Jewish culture.  Klepfisz’ literary contributions encompass two very important goals of diversity and inclusion: creating a sense of identity and community, while remaining inclusive. As a result, her work remains relevant in the ongoing diversity and inclusion conversation. Klepfisz is currently a professor at Barnard College.

  1. Kadya Molodowsky

Kadya Molodowsky’s life began in 1894 in the shetl Bereza Kartuska, White Russia, but included a distinguished career as a teacher and prolific writer of acclaimed Yiddish poetry over 50 years, across several countries and continents. She was rewarded many times with strong reviews and accolades, but toward the end of her life, in Tel Aviv, in 1971, Molodowsky received the Itzik Manger Prize, the most prestigious award in the world of Yiddish letters, for her achievement in poetry.

The second of four children, Molodowsky’s father was a learned Jew and teacher as well as an adherent of the Enlightenment and an admirer of Moses Montefiore and Theodor Herzl. Her mother, Itke, ran a dry-goods shop, and later opened a factory. Molodowsky received an unusual education for a girl in those times, learning Yiddish, the Hebrew Pentateuch, Russian language, geography, philosophy and world history. She taught in many settings before her prolific publishing career.  In 1920, having survived the Kiev pogrom, she published her first poem, met her husband, Simkhe Lev, a young scholar and teacher. From 1927 through the 1970’s, Molodowsky published many books, focusing on topics such as the landscape of Jewish Eastern Europe, roles decreed by the Jewish tradition for women, experiences of the poor, immigrants, pioneers in Israel and exile. Her literary endeavors branched out in several directions, including a series of columns on great Jewish women for the Yiddish daily, Forverts, and various journals. Published in Buenos Aires in 1965, Molodowsky’s last book of poems, Likht fun Dornboym (Lights of the Thorn Bush), includes dramatic monologues in the voices of legendary personae from Jewish and non-Jewish traditions and contemporary characters. The book concludes with a section of poems on Israel from the 1950s, which, like the ending of her autobiography, express Molodowsky’s Zionism.  Kadya Molodowsky died in a nursing home in Philadelphia on March 23, 1974.

  1. Rokhl Häring Korn

Born on an East Galicia farm in 1898, Rokhl Häring Korn utilized the quietness of her surroundings to project her imagination through writing. Korn published eight volumes of literature and two collections of fiction, becoming an integral figure in Yiddish literature. Her early work was originally in Polish until World War I and became the catalyst to learn Yiddish. With her husband, Hersh Korn as the teacher, Rokhl Häring Korn learned to speak, read and write Yiddish, in order to adopt it as her medium.   While her first Yiddish poem, Lemberger Tageblatt, was published in 1919, it wasn’t until the 1920s and 1930s that she became a renowned Yiddish poet with her publications:  Dorf, Royter mon and Erd. While these works featured Korn’s view of her surroundings in relation to her inner being, later publications reflected the impact of World War II on Jewish people. By removing herself from her writings, she unselfishly gave a poetic platform for Jews devastated by the conditions of the war. In 1948, Korn immigrated to Montreal, Canada, where she died on September 9, 1982. She and Kadya Molodowsky maintained a correspondence and friendship.

This blog was prepared by HBI Scholars-in-residence, Lori Harrison-Kahan, Kathryn Hellerstein and Chantal Ringuet and HBI staff, Amy Sessler Powell, communications director and Zanefa Walsh, communications coordinator with assistance from the Jewish Women’s Archive Encyclopedia.


The Spring Seminar, North American Jewish Women’s Writing of Fiction, Memoir and Poetry, is supported in part with a gift from Elaine Reuben, HBI Board member. 

Confession from an Israeli

By Tamar Biala –

Editor’s note: This blog was featured in the final issue of our e-zine, 614, “How Moving to the U.S. Shaped My Judaism.” – 

Spinoza got the better of me long ago. My Judaism is not based on faith in the Torah as the divinely revealed word of God. Rather, it’s based chiefly on a national identification with the Jewish people, on the feeling of belonging and shared responsibility for its fate, on being drawn to Jewish culture, and the motivation to help shape it.

I identify with ideas and principles in Tanakh and the tradition as it developed over the generations, and accept upon myself the mitzvot, as best I can (while also rejecting other ideas and principles, and some mitzvot, as best I can). I feel entirely a part of the Jewish people; for better or worse, I feel responsible for the fate and the essential character of the people as a whole. And this is the me who I brought with me when we moved to America three years ago, when I was 43.

When we arrived, the chief anxiety that I encountered among the Jews with whom I became friendly, was for the Jewish identity of the next generation. While worrying about Jewish existence was very familiar to me, it was not for spiritual survival, but physical. In Israel, the continued existence of Jewish identity is clear; what is less clear, of course, is how this identity will survive in the Middle East, and by the same token, what is the nature of the Jewish identity worth preserving, developing, fighting for, and sacrificing, even dying for. My question had less been how to preserve my children’s Jewish identity, but what Jewish identity do I want to pass on to them? A question, not of strategy, but of essence.

In Israel, this sense of the continuity of Jewish survival is natural. Responsibility for Jewish physical and cultural survival is basic and is internalized from early childhood on through schools, youth groups, the army, and volunteer organizations. This sense of responsibility has wonderful sides: youth mature earlier, the sense of solidarity – change though it does – endures, and Jewish culture flourishes in wonderfully creative and riveting ways. Yet there are also dark sides to this unmistakable Jewish identity: chauvinism and patriotism that cost ‘the other’ dearly, racist interpretations of Scripture, abuse and exploitation of religious institutions for brutality and injustice, and more.

In our years in Boston, I discovered, to my surprise, that I have a very hard time feeling solidarity with the local Jewish community. Personally, I’ve made new and wonderful connections, and strengthened some old ones. I get and give love, and actively participate in the synagogues we’ve joined, but overall, I can’t shake off my severe judgment of the choice to remain in exile. I’m perplexed to discover just how much my worry for the “Jewish people” all these years seems to be limited to those who dwell in Zion (and there, largely to the Zionists). Again and again I wonder: Can I change my beliefs and accept the choice of exiled Jewry to stay here and develop a Jewish culture of their own?

Some days I feel the Jewish people is split into sub-peoples who don’t share a common fate. I am utterly aware of how unjust my judgment is: American Jewry, in one way or another, has, does, and will support Israel; and, anyway, what the hell am I talking about – every fellowship I’ve ever gotten that enabled me to study in university, learn in a beit midrash, that paid my salary for teaching, and enabled me to publish the book that is my life’s dream come true, all came from American Jews who have tried to support me, and support the Zionist enterprise. Is it the drastic difference in daily life between Israel and American Jewry that keeps me from accepting the latter, and feeling some sense of belonging? If this exile were more miserable, would my judgment be more easily dissolving? In the end, I understand the tension between Babylonia and Israel that I encountered so often in the Talmud: The jealousy, competition, resentments, and anger.

I ask myself, what is “Jewish fate”? Is it possible to speak of one “Jewish fate”? Will I, can I, agree to live a Jewish fate that isn’t Israeli?

I understand it would be worth it for me to grapple with these questions rather than avoid them, while contenting myself with waiting, exhausted and embittered, for our return to Israel, to my natural community. I take it upon myself to try to accept the fact that there always was and always will be an exile, that just as I am pluralistic when it comes to how different Jews shape their relations to Jewish culture, to Torah and mitzvot, so must I try to be pluralistic when it comes to the place of Israel in their Jewish identity. But, somehow, it’s very hard for me. Very, very hard.

TamarBialaHeadshot2.2Tamar Biala is a Helen Gartner Hammer Scholar-in-Residence at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute and co-editor of Dirshuni: Midrashei Nashim (Yediot Acharonot, 2009), the first collection of midrashim written by contemporary Israeli women. A podcast of her recent lecture, “Bastardy, Incest, and Siblings Who Look After One Another in Recent Midrashim by Israeli Women” is available here.

The Accidental Hebrew School Teacher

By Ornat Turin and Vardit Ringvald

Who teaches Hebrew to youngsters in the United States?

Are they trained teachers with a passion for educating young students; How about Israeli women who are here for other reasons such as their husbands’ graduate work?

These were the central questions to emerge from the HBI’s 2014 spring seminar entitled, Gender and the Teaching of the Hebrew Language, under the supervision of Professor Vardit Ringvald, Middlebury College Director of the School of Hebrew, and until 2013, director of the Hebrew and Arabic Languages Program at Brandeis University.

Despite years of analysis, a variety of teaching methods and a range of settings, research shows a constant decline in Hebrew proficiency, according to Ringvald. Rather than focus on these issues, the seminar focused on just one part of the equation, the teachers. It started with the premise that teachers of Hebrew are almost always female native speakers from Israel, usually not certified or trained to teach.

Prominent scholars from different disciplines, including an anthropologist, a journalist and media scholar, a movie director, a Hebrew teacher, a linguistics expert and a sociologist convened to study the issue and begin to develop a framework for future research. Professor Ornat Turin’s topic of research, together with Professor Ringvald, was the experience of teaching Hebrew in the United States through the eyes of Israelis who have returned home. Turin was a scholar-in-residence at HBI during the seminar, along with Dr. Rahel Wasserfall and the late poet, Janice Rebibo, z”l, who also participated in the seminar.

Although much research has been accumulated on issues of immigration, gender and Israelis in the U.S., very little research has been conducted regarding Israeli teachers in America; and, what exists concerns other perspectives such as diminishing command of the language or issues of religious identity. Our research project focuses on the teachers’ perspective — those Israelis who have found themselves teaching Hebrew, simply because they were staying in the United States and are native Hebrew speakers.

Our research method was a semi-structured interview with women who lived in the United States for a period of one to 10 years, then returned to Israel where they may or may not have continued teaching. Interviews were conducted face-to-face or through Skype and lasted about one hour. We asked questions such as: “Why did you go to the United States and what were the circumstances for starting to teach Hebrew? Could you share a memory of something nice that occurred during this period? Could you share a difficulty? In retrospect, what makes a good Hebrew teacher and what makes a bad one? What is the difference between teaching in Israel and in the U.S.?”

Preliminary results

  • Our initial results show that all of the women interviewed so far were in the U.S. because of their husbands’ work such as advanced degree programs or prestigious academic positions. The wife started teaching Hebrew as a means of financial support for the family.
  • Initially, all the interviewees reported that their motivation for seeking teaching positions was extrinsic. Intrinsic motivations developed at a later stage as teachers became motivated to strengthen the Hebrew language and Jewish awareness. Over time, they developed pride in becoming ambassadors, of sorts, for Israel.
  • The secular teachers confronted their own lack of acquaintance with the religious corpus, including prayer. Teachers reported that as they taught American students, they drew closer to the Jewish holidays – a culture from which they had drifted away.
  • Following a brief period of bewilderment, the teachers learned the new cultural system of which they were now a part. As they saw it, their success, their turning point was the moment they realized that they had to free themselves from a strict methodological framework and adapt a ‘marketing’ approach for teaching a second language, incorporating playfulness and lures.
  • Historically, the fact that women sought teaching positions was deemed legitimate, as the role of the teacher was perceived as an extension of the maternal one.
  • In the cases at hand, which take place within progressive families and a modern professional environment, teaching is still shadowed by patriarchal ideas. The teachers of Hebrew are essentially those with an occupation secondary to their spouse, using “natural” capabilities rather than professional qualifications as a means of supporting the family.

These “accidental teachers” concluded that the experience was a positive one and used words such as “it was like a dream.” Upon reflection, they said the job did not have any of the dull qualities they expected. The prestigious concept of relocation and temporary limited residence in America (as opposed to emigration), has turned Hebrew teaching into a chapter of “the good life.” One wonders if the “dream” has been nostalgically polished? 

From Ornat Turin:
Let me dedicate a few words for one seminar member and colleague – former Senior Program Officer/Technology Director of Hebrew at the Center, Janis Rebibo, z”l, a unique poet, who could express herself in both languages, as accurately as a native speaker. Janice, a part of this seminar, who was known for her humor and strong voice, passed away a few months ago in March, unable to complete her work. She intended to study curricula, and to conduct a content analysis of the textbook used to teach Hebrew. We all miss her. She could lift the whole room into high spirits the minute she came in.    

Ornat TurinOrnat Turin was a scholar-in-residence at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute. She is the head of the media education department at Gordon College of Education in Haifa, Israel.


Vardit RingvaldVardit Ringvald is the Middlebury College Director of the School of Hebrew, the CV Starr Research Professor of Languages and Linguistics and until 2013, director of the Hebrew and Arabic Languages Program at Brandeis University. She led the 2014 HBI Spring Seminar, Gender and the Teaching of the Hebrew Language. 

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