Questioning the other woman


Fifteen minutes behind schedule, Larisa Reznik, AM'05, an organizer for the conference Modernity’s Other? Studies on Jewish Women, stood up to begin the two-day event’s last symposium, which, she said, might provide “the sort of pseudo-closure that never really happens.”

The first speaker, Shulamit Gunders, an anthropologist recently retired from Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, “came here because of my daughter,” she said. Her daughter's doctoral work is on Orthodox Jewish women, who, Gunders noted, face a dilemma today between the secular world’s increasing gender equality and traditional Orthodox limitations on women’s roles. Gunder's daughter, an Orthodox Jew, trained to be an advocate in the rabbinical courts but didn’t become one because her husband “thought it would be bad for her soul to hear all those divorcing couples.”

Speaking next, Paul Mendes-Flohr, professor of modern Jewish thought in the Divinity School, observed that the many spheres Jewish women occupy had become a recurring theme in the conference's previous talks. Such overlap, he argued, is not only a modern but also a “postmodern condition”: identities are shaped and reconfigured by religious, secular, cultural, and other factors. “We are hybrids and constantly rehybridated,” he said.

Reznik then took questions from the small group gathered in Swift Hall’s third-floor lecture room. One woman asked about the purpose of the question mark in the conference’s title. Another organizer, Sarah Imhoff, AM'05, answered from two seats down. “Jewish women aren’t publicly discussed as Jewish women. They’re always falling under someone else’s category.” The question mark, she said, was meant to ask, “In what sense is she the other?” It seemed that the conference—hosted by the Martin Marty Center and the Center for Gender Studies—had answered with another question. In the Jewish community, in the women’s community, and in greater society, Imhoff said, Jewish women are sometimes the other, and sometimes they are not.

Jenny Fisher, '07

Photo: The poster for the Modernity's Other? conference.

February 14, 2007