A trio of extraordinary Jewish women died this week. But until their obituaries made them fleeting front-page news, few recognized the names, or knew the history they represented. These women aren’t over looked because they were unimportant, but because the narrative we repeat about Jewish women doesn’t make room for their remarkable stories.
They were not classic immigrant strivers or typical Holocaust survivors, though in some ways they all were, in fact, both. Rita Levi-Montalcini spent the war years running from Mussolini and Hitler, all the while maintaining a bedroom lab in which she continued the scientific research that led to her postwar discovery of nerve growth factor and culminated in a Nobel Prize. Beate Gordon used her position as a civilian translator attached to General MacArthur’s occupation army in Japan to find her parents and insert equal rights for women into the postwar Japanese constitution. Gerda Lerner channeled her experience resisting the Anschluss to assert that women were historical actors deserving of scholarly attention, and in so doing, pioneered the field of women’s history.
All three came from a cohort of Central European-born Jewish women who stepped outside of the confines of what was expected of them by their community to determine their personal trajectories and transform their professional fields. Doubly marginalized as women and as Jews, they nonetheless gained access to political, military, and scientific portals of power through a potent brew of enterprise, education, and perseverance.
At Shabbat dinner in traditional Jewish homes the hymn “Eshet Chayil,” meaning “Woman of Valor,” is sung to the woman who runs the household. It concludes with the line “Give her of the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates.”
According to the mysterious group Jewish Women Watching, — the organization’s members remain anonymous “to focus attention on the issues, not ourselves,” according to the group’s mission statement — leaders of Orthodox organizations in the U.S., and leaders of the State of Israel, are hypocritical because they presumably sing this even as they deny women the ability to serve in positions of religious leadership, not allowing them to enjoy the “fruit of their hands.”
“Religious Jewish women devoted to Torah, worship, and communal leadership are victims of constant sexist backlash,” said JWW in a press release the group distributed as the High Holy Days began. The release went on to say, “In this season of reflection and repentance, JWW calls on mainstream Orthodox leaders to do teshuvah [repentance], atoning for their actions that suppress valorous women.”