By Amy Sessler Powell
NEW YORK – With a warm crowd filling the Brandeis House on a cold night, Dr. Laura Schor, HBI’s board chairwoman, launched her new book, “The Best School in Jerusalem: Annie Landau’s School for Girls, 1900–1960,” with a forward by Dr. Shulamit Reinharz, HBI’s founder and co-director.
In attendance was Dr. Oliver Sacks, best known for his role as neurologist and best-selling author. Lesser known is that Dr. Sacks is the nephew of the book’s subject, Annie Landau.
Dr. Sacks shared heartwarming anecdotes about his “Aunt Annie” from his childhood adding that she was small in stature but powerful in her presence. He recalled a time when he rode his tricycle on Shabbat and found himself stuck in a downpour. He recalled being scolded by Landau who reminded him “what happens when you ride your tricycle on Shabbat.”
Schor also shared anecdotes about Landau, including that she often brought her own interpretation to Orthodox observance. One such example was when she threw a masquerade party and danced with men.
The successful book launch was held just one month after the launch of two other books in the HBI Series on Jewish Women and Brandeis Series on Gender, Culture, Religion and Law published by University Press of New England: “Fertility and Jewish Law: Feminist Perspectives on Orthodox Responsa Literature,” by Ronit Irshai and “Marriage and Divorce in the Jewish State: Israel’s Civil War,” by Netty Gross-Horowitz and Susan Weiss. Together the three events drew approximately 200 different people.
Dr. Reinharz noted that though these books hail from an academic publisher, the books by Schor and by Weiss and Gross-Horowitz are accessible to readers outside of academia.
She drew ties between Landau’s contribution to education in Israel in the time of the Yishuv after coming England and the contributions to agunot activism made by Gross-Horowitz and Weiss after they moved to Israel from the U.S., she reflected that, “These books show how women who came to Israel from other places made a huge difference. They demonstrate what can be done,” said Dr. Reinharz.
Here are summaries of the three books.
“The Best School in Jerusalem: Annie Landau’s School for Girls, 1900–1960,” recounts the remarkable tenure of Annie Landau as principal of the Evelina de Rothschild School in Jerusalem. A biography of both an extraordinary woman and a thriving institution, this book offers a lens through which to view the struggles of the nascent Zionist movement, World War I, poverty and unemployment in the Yishuv, and the relations between the religious and secular sectors and between Arabs and Jews, as well as Landau’s own dual loyalties to the British and to the evolving Jewish community.
“Marriage and Divorce in the Jewish State: Israel’s Civil War,” is a comprehensive look at how rabbinical courts control Israeli marriage and divorce. With no civil marriage or divorce in Israel, the interpretation and implementation of Torah law is in the hands of the Orthodox religious establishment, the only stream of Judaism that enjoys legal recognition in Israel. The rabbinic courts strenuously oppose any changes to this so-called status quo arrangement between religious and secular authorities. In fact, religious courts in Israel are currently pressing for expanded jurisdiction beyond personal status, stressing their importance to Israel’s growing religious community. Using case studies, this book shows how religious courts, based on centuries-old patriarchal law, undermine the full civil and human rights of Jewish women in Israel.
“Fertility and Jewish Law: Feminist Perspectives on Orthodox Responsa Literature,” is a comprehensive comparative study of Jewish law on contemporary reproductive issues from a gender perspective. The book presents, from the perspective of feminist jurisprudence and feminist and liberal bioethics, a complete study of Jewish law (halakhah) on contemporary reproductive issues such as birth control, abortion, and assisted fertility. Irshai examines these issues to probe gender-based values that underlie the interpretations and determinations reached by modern practitioners of halakhah. Her primary goal is to tell, through common halakhic tools, a different halakhic story, one that takes account of the female narrative and its missing perspective.
Amy Sessler Powell is director of communications at HBI.