Gender, Memory, and Judaism

TitleGender, Memory, and Judaism
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsBabovic, Jovana
Author(s) of reviewed materialGazsi, Judit, Andrea Peto, and Zsuzsanna Toronyi


PublisherBudapest: Balassi Kiadó
ISSNISBN: 978-963-506-742-8
Review year


Full Text

Emerging from a collaborative conference titled “Diversities” organized by the Bet Debora Initiative Group and the EszterTáska Foundation, Gender, Memory, and Judaism boasts a collection of papers and lectures which were presented in Budapest in August 2006 (For more information on the conference, click here). The book also includes selected biographies and portraits of Jewish women from a 2002 exhibition at the Hungarian Jewish Museum and Archives entitled “The Jewish Woman,” as well as series of fin-de-siècle graphic Yiddish-language postcards depicting women and a 30-page photographic essay of family photographs from the Centropa collection. The diversity of the assembled material reflects the diversity, albeit also the division, of voices and experiences of Jewish women in 19th and 20th century European society. The collection is both a homage to the often marginalized memory of Jewish women, and a catalyst for continued debate regarding the intersection of history, gender, and Judaism.

Through the various articles, a pluralistic voice arises and speaks of Jewish women’s political engagements (several biographies of activists, and a particularly comprehensive article by Borbála Juhasz), experience in professional employment (Anna Borgos’ narrative about Jewish women psychoanalysts, and Chia Longman’s more inclusive article on women’s employment), and cultural representation within European societies treating religious stereotypes and cultural (mis)representations). Within gender studies, the variable of Judaism provides another venue for expanding the study of women’s experience, while Jewish studies stands to examine the gendered element in greater detail. Esther Jonas-Märtin’s article “The Meaning of Israel in Yiddish Poetry” is particularly interesting, while the illustrated post cards and photographs show the visual representation of Jewish women. The most eminent purpose of the collection, however, seems to be directed at history and the practice of historiography. The primary concern of the authors is the memory and the processes of forced, deliberate, or unintended forgetting. Conversely, the authors’ primary aim is to recover the fading stories of Jewish women and to carve out a niche for their future histories.
The collection is timely and relevant because gender and religion continue to be determinant axis of power in society. Despite obvious progress, contemporary Europe is still plagued with gender discrimination and anti-Semitism, and the editors note some negative encounters in their advocacy work in addition to the persistence of opposition to women’s groups. The first part of the book is dedicated to establishing a legacy of feminism, from the nineteenth-century to contemporary organizations in Eastern Europe such as Bet DeborahInternational Council for Jewish Women, and Esther’s Bag. These groups continue to serve a vital role in societies where minorities have not necessarily shared agendas for joint emancipation, citizenship, or human rights, and therefore remain surprisingly segregated in their contemporary political agendas. More concretely, women’s organizations typically do not exert much effort in the fight against anti-Semitism, while Jewish groups do not always support women’s movements. Although not mutually exclusive, these groups rarely act in accord and therefore inadvertently create fissures which Jewish women’s groups must bridge, primarily by creating a unified front from the divided diversities of Jewish women’s experiences. In fact, these organizations, similarly to Gender, Memory, and Judaism, aim to foster a productive pluralism in the representation of Jewish women’s identities in history and in contemporary Europe. As Andrea Peto writes, the principal goal of the book is to facilitate a “space for constructions of gendered memory in society” (p. 35).
Gender, Memory, and Judaism is notable for its wide international representation of academics, activists, and rabbis (included are articles by scholars from Israel, United States, Hungary, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, and France), and its interdisciplinary approach to the experiences of Jewish women. The collection of articles and visual primary sources mirror the diversity of issues confronting Jewish women, especially in societies where a coexisting pluralism within Judaism deepened the chasm between Eastern and Western Jews, especially in Hungary and Budapest where the population was extremely heterogeneous. The authors and editors are very perceptive of current debates, within and across disciplines, and they collectively succeed in situating their work into a useful context of gendered memory implicating religion and modernity, orthodoxy and employment, political activism and religious principles. By questioning the essentialism of gender and religious studies, the collection also interrogates the process of remembering, or rather, the process of forgetting and erasing of Jewish women’s history. Through this, Gender, Memory, and Judaism belongs to the modern historiographical trend of recovering and rewriting history, with particular attention paid to recalling the first generations of Jewish feminists whose narratives are in great danger of falling prey to the jaws of forgetting.
However, at times, the content of the book is disjoined and scattered. Gender, Memory, and Judaism often reads too much like a series of short biographies; in addition to the articles specifically aimed at profiling significant Jewish feminist, some essays are fragmented by tedious accounts of individual women. For example, Anna Borgos’ article “’You’re the Exception…’ The First Jewish Women Psychoanalysts” is a compelling narrative of the socio-cultural place of women within the psychoanalytic discipline, but becomes encumbered with detailed biographies in its second section. Another weakness of the collection is the missing link between the texts and the images. The graphic postcards, showing Jewish women in stages of contemplation and featuring Yiddish verses, appear throughout the book, but lack serious analysis apart from vague social and temporal contextualization in the introduction. Similarly, the selected family photographs from the Centropa collection are interesting excerpts from a greater oral history project, but lack a clear correlation to the texts. These documents might benefit from more extensive narrations or detailed analysis, in addition to the accompanying simple personal testimonials.
The collection of texts and images is ultimately a useful contribution to gender studies, Jewish studies, and history in its pluralistic approach to feminism, Judaism, and memory. Among the most insightful essays, Miklós Konrád’s “The Jewish Woman as an Allegory: The Portrayal of Jewish Women in Hungarian Literature at the Turn of the Century” is both descriptive and analytical in tracing the construction of the stereotype of the Jewish woman through literature and into Budapest society. The article traces the politically charged association of Jewish women to the degeneration of society and the perversion of Hungarian spirit as a product of modernity and the accompanying portrayal of urban, materialistic, Jewish population – women were a more prominent target because of their visibility in the city, while the men were sheltered in the workplace. According to Konrád, “the allegory of the depraved and depraving modernity, she is the discarnate metaphor of all temptation and evil” (p.208).
Despite the more focused topics dealt with on the pages of Gender, Memory, and Judaism, the book is ultimately a project about remembering, distortions of history, and the looming threat of forgetting. From this perspective, the collected texts and images not only contribute to gender and Jewish studies, but can also be extended to other fields that have encountered problematic accounts and representations of histories. While Gender, Memory, and Judaism is not cluttered with heavy historical detail or difficult recounts of injustices, it is noteworthy as a model which lends a dignified tone to the tribulations of Jewish women while allowing for a plurality of voices.
The central questions of the book are addressed from several methodological perspectives. The articles are classified into three categories – “Traditions-Now,” “Gender and Religion,” and “Gendered Remembering” – while the images, postcards and photographs, grant a visual medium for assessing the representations of Jewish women. This composite of sources is the editors’ understated motive: to document the overwhelming presence of Jewish women in history, despite the fact that they have been undermined on two levels, as women and as Jews. Contributing to current debates in gender and Jewish studies, the collection challenges both fields by introducing a non-essentialized perspective on Jewish women in modern history.