In memoriam: Paula Hyman

Paula Hyman, a leading historian of modern French Jewry and an internationally recognized authority on the history of Jewish women, died on Dec. 15 after a long illness.

Paula Hyman, a leading historian of modern French Jewry and an internationally recognized authority on the history of Jewish women, died on Dec. 15 after a long illness.

Paula Hyman
Paula Hyman

A funeral will be held Dec. 16 at 11:30 a.m. at Congregation Beth El-Keser Israel, 85 Harrison St., in New Haven

“The History Department is grieved to learn that our colleague, Paula Hyman, passed away today after a long and dignified struggle with cancer,” wrote Laura Engelstein, the chair of Yale’s history department in an announcement to faculty members. “As long as possible, she continued to teach and participate in department affairs. We admire her dedication to her craft and her courage in the face of illness.”

Hyman, the Lucy G Moses Professor of Modern Jewish History, was a pioneer of Jewish feminism, both as a scholarly subject and as a social cause. She was a founder in 1971 of Ezrat Nashim, a small activist group that lobbied for the ordination of women as Conservative rabbis, and she generally championed gender equality in Jewish life and worship. A book that she co-authored with colleagues Charlotte Baum and Sonya Michel, “The Jewish Woman in America,” gained prominence in its field upon its publication in 1976.

The child of first-generation Jewish-Americans of Eastern European background, Hyman was born in Boston in 1946, the eldest of three daughters. In her final years of high school and first years of college, she simultaneously devoted herself to the study of Hebrew and classic Jewish texts at Hebrew Teachers College of Boston, earning a B.J.Ed. in 1966. Two years later, she graduated summa cum laude from Radcliffe College (then the “sister school” of Harvard).

Hyman received a doctorate from Columbia University in 1975. Her dissertation, published in 1979 under the title “From Dreyfus to Vichy: The Remaking of French Jewry, 1906–1939,” gave a much-acclaimed account of the changing face of the French Jewish community as it absorbed an influx of Eastern European Jewish immigrants leading up to the war. The book was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award in history.

Before coming to Yale in 1986, Hyman taught at Columbia University and was a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, where she also served as the first woman dean of the Seminary College of Jewish Studies.

French Jewry and the shifting role of women in Jewish life continued to be the focus of much of her scholarship throughout her life, as the titles of books she authored and co-edited attest: “The Jewish Family: Myths and Reality,” co-edited with Steven Cohen (1986); “The Emancipation of the Jews of Alsace: Acculturation and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century” (1991); “Gender and Assimilation in Modern Jewish History: The Roles and Representation of Women” (1995); “Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia,” co-edited with Deborah Dash Moore (1997); and “The Jews of Modern France” (1998). In 2003, Hyman published the memoirs of the feminist and Zionist Puah Rakovsky, and in 2006, she co-edited, with Dalia Ofer, “Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia.”

“Paula was in many respects a trail-blazer whose rigorous scholarly standards, passionate commitment to the historical project, fertile mind and indefatigable spirit have inspired and will continue to inspire generations of students in America, Europe and Israel,” said Christine Hayes, who taught with Hyman in the religious studies department at Yale.

According to Hayes, at the time of her death Hyman was working on a biography of Leon Blum, a history of Zionism, and two projects on the history of Jewish women, including a multi-volume encyclopedia and a source book.

Among Hyman’s many awards and honors are a 1999 National Jewish Book Award, a 2004 Achievement Award in Historical Studies from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture and honorary degrees from Jewish Theological Seminary of America (2000), Hebrew Union College (2002), and Hebrew College (2010).

Hyman is survived by her husband, Stanley H. Rosenbaum; two daughters, Judith and Adina; and twin grandchildren, Ma’ayan and Aviv; as well as her mother, Ida Hyman, and two sisters, Merle and Toby Hyman.

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