This weekend, June 22 to 24, “Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries” is taking place at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Throughout the conference, contributors to Anabaptist Historians will give short dispatches for those who are unable to attend in person. “Crossing the Line” builds on the 1995 conference “The Quiet in Land? Women of Anabaptist Traditions in Historical Perspectives” held at Millersville University.
The conference opened with a plenary address by Hasia Diner of New York University entitled: “Jewish Women in America: A History of Their Own.” The presentation was framed by how each facet of her title—“American,” “Jewish,” and “women” shaped the experience of these individuals.
While admitting that she works a very different group from Anabaptists, she noted similarities between the two ethno-religious communities, noting that both were shaped by an inability to disconnect religion and group identity, and living lives according to the demands of religious tradition while maintaining boundaries with host cultures.
Diner noted that in America, the experience took a distinct turn for Jewish women, when they began to gain influence within the synagogue. Traditionally, synagogues were strictly male public spaces, and while the men were obligated to attend, women were neither required nor expected to come. This could be seen architecturally, where women sat hidden behind thick walled screens, able to see and hear only through thin slits into the synagogue. But in America, as Jewish women observed how heavily Protestant women were engaged with church life, they too began to push for more engagement, including starting to attend synagogue. The building design then changed, with the women’s balconies opening up and more fully allowing for the women to seen and be seen. This in part could also be traced to the Female Hebrew Benevolence associations formed by Jewish women which provided social functions, as well as aid for the poor and travelers. The men of the synagogues often turned to these associations for moneys to construct new synagogues, but the money was conditional on the women, who were successful fundraisers, to have more input.
She also noted that Jewish immigrants had a distinct experience from their contemporary eastern European immigrants. While Italians immigrated three men for every woman, and the Greeks eight men for every woman, Jewish communities migrated equally, both men and women. Especially when looking at which children to bring, Jewish families brought the oldest children, regardless of gender, while the other eastern European immigrants preferentially brought sons. Diner noted that this was because girls were not a liability in the family task of raising enough funds to bring the remainder of the family to America. In the garment industry, where many young women worked, there was no disadvantage based on gender, other than less pay. Interestingly, because many Jewish women were working in the garment industry and could clearly see that they were being paid less and facing harassment their male counterparts were not, they flocked to trade unions.
Diner noted that the question of why to study (Jewish) women was obvious: “No man was ever defined as a problem in the synagogue.” Women also had different experience than men in work culture, as well as in education. She noted a constant tension in that while the women organized and responded to local needs, the men quickly decided that the cause was “too important to be controlled by women” and would wrest control. This was the case for what has become the Beth Israel Hospital in Boston, as well as the National Council of Jewish Women’s project to station receiving volunteers for single Jewish women arriving to Ellis Island.
She ended the presentation by hoping that it gave a way to think about intersectionality, and especially in thinking about how people juggle identity and demands.