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The Boulders in the River – A Thousand Years of Women’s Achievements

If we are going to talk about the history of women, Jewish women, over the last thousand years, let’s start with the tale of Gertrude B. Elion, who won the 1988 Nobel Prize for her work in medical research .

Born in New York City in 1918, to a long line of rabbis, Trudy spoke Yiddish at home. A good student, she was forced to attend a free city college when her father lost his money in the stock market crash of 1929 .

Although she majored in chemistry, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa, she couldn’t get the financial aid of an assistantship to continue her studies. Professors told her that a pretty young woman like herself would be a distracting influence in the labs. She enrolled in secretarial school instead, and worked seven years as a secretary to save the $450 she needed to attend graduate school. Working on her Master’s Degree, she continued to work part-time as a receptionist in a doctor’s office. In 1942, when male chemists were all drafted, she was hired by a British pharmaceutical company, Burroughs-Wellcome.

Within two years, her revolutionary work altered the way drugs are discovered. In a major breakthrough, she developed drugs that interfered with the development of abnormal cells leaving healthy cells alone. Attempting to earn her doctorate by attending school after work, her professors insisted she quit her job. She refused. Because of her discoveries, today 80% of children with childhood leukemia survive. When Trudy began her work, half of all such children died within two or three months, and fewer than a third lived a year. Her work in the development of AZT, the main drug used to combat the AIDS virus, was rewarded with the Nobel Prize in 1988.

She never did get her Ph.D.

And one cannot help but wonder what would have happened, if Trudy Elion hadn’t been able to type.

Over the last thousand years, the history of women in general, and Jewish women in particular, can be compared to a mighty river of talent, ability and creativity willfully dammed by huge boulders of prejudice, social and religious strictures. And yet, despite the choking impediments, a small trickle has still managed to flow around and through, reaching us in the form of cultural, literary and scientific achievements .

What all these women achievers seem to have in common is the ability to somehow free themselves from a male-dominated society by either never marrying, or though a fortunate birth which conferred on them by proxy the powerful, unique status held by noteworthy fathers or brothers .

Others, like Trudy Elion, rose above the barriers by simply sprouting wings and flying when their climb up the ladder of success was permanently blocked, achieving such spectacular successes that they became simply impossible to ignore. It is interesting that some of our earliest information about such women comes from the Talmud, that bastion of male intellectual hegemony.

Despite its own dictum that “women are lightheaded,” it is from the Talmud that we learn of Beruriah, the 2nd Century wife of Rabbi Meir, who actually corrected a misinterpretation of ritual law, and is thanked for it in the Talmud (Kelim, Chapter 1).We learn of Yalta, Rabbi Rachman’s wife, and the daughter of Rabbi Chanina ben Tardyon, who disagreed with her father on a point of law and her view is accepted (Tosephta Kelim). And from the Talmud Yerushalmi, Chagigah, 2:1 we discover that the daughter of Elisha Ben Avuyah refuted the arguments of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi and forced him to admit this mistake.

One of the rishonim, Rabbi Eliezer of Mainz, praised his wife, saying:” Her mouth opens with wisdom and she is fluent in all the laws of issur v’heter and on Shabbat she sits and expounds the law…” Rav Shmuel HaLevi of Bagdad had an only daughter who was fluent in Torah and Talmud and would deliver lectures to men from behind a curtain.

The Maharshal reported that his grandmother, Rebbitzen Miriam, directed a yeshiva for many years . Also sitting behind a curtain, she would lecture advanced students. There is also Osnat, the only child of a rabbi in Kurdistan, who, in the 1500’s, ran her own yeshiva .

In other cases, the unique conjunction of the particular needs of the age and personal circumstances opened up unique opportunities for women to reach prominence. In the sixteenth century, the terrors of the inquisition and the death of her husband, gave Portuguese converso, Dona Gracia Mendes, the opportunity and the power to use the vast wealth of her spice trading empire to spirit Jews out of the hands of the Inquisition. She bought land in Tiberias and her plan was to give the Jews of her time a place of refuge.

It is noteworthy that male historians have often tried to credit her achievements to her nephew, Don Joseph . However, archival material point clearly to Dona Gracia being the moving force through that moment in history .

Another unique opportunity for women came along after the death of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Chassidim, whose void was filled by other charismatic leaders, some of them women. The most famous was Hannah Rachel, renowned as the “Maid of Ludomir.” Her story is illustrative of the kind of pressures brought to bear on outstanding women to force them into a more stereotypical existence. Born in 1815, the only child of a prosperous merchant, Hannah had an ecstatic experience and thereafter began praying with tallith and teffilin. After her father’s death, she said Kaddish for him and used her inheritance to build a Bet Medrash in which she delivered scholarly discourses. attended by thousands from all over Europe, including many prominent rabbis. Eventually, rabbis accused her of being possessed by the devil. To counter this, her friends urged her into a disastrous marriage which soon ended in divorce. After that, her influence declined and she soon left the country, becoming the first chassidic leader to settle in Israel.

In contrast, Sara Schnerir, founder of the Beit Yaakov school system, rose to prominence with the blessing of the rabbinical establishment. The idea of a school for religious girls was revolutionary in its day, a time when girls received no education at all or were sent to Christian schools. This was less than seventy years ago.

Born in 1883 in Cracow, Poland, Sara was the pious daughter of Belz Chassidim. Troubled that religious girls would not follow in the path of their pious fathers if they continued to be ignored, she asked the blessing of the Belzer Rebbe, the Rebbe of Ger, and the Chafetz Chaim, to turn her sewing workroom into the first religious school for girls. The leaders, reluctantly acknowledging that it was only fair to teach Jewish girls that which non-Jewish girls wishing to convert needed to know, i.e. laws, rituals, etc., gave her their blessing. At first, young women refused to attend, and she was forced to teach children. But by 1935 there were 248 Bet Yaakov schools in Poland alone, comprising 35,000 students. It is perhaps ironic that today Beth Jacob schools educate girls to marry early and bear many children. Sara Schnerir herself was divorced and childless.

A true pioneer in Torah study for men and women was Professor Nechama Leibowitz. Born in 1905 in Riga, Latvia, Nechama’s father took the rare step of hiring private tutors to teach his daughter Hebrew and religious studies. Professor Leibowitz became the world’s greatest teacher of the Bible, pioneering a completely unique method Biblical analysis and emphasizing the moral teachings and practical application of Biblical texts. She also popularized Torah study for the masses through her weekly bible sheets, beginning the program after giving a Bible class to vacationing women factory workers, who expressed a strong desire to continue studying when they went back to work.

Nevertheless, despite her unique achievements, when Rabbi Shlomo Riskin asked her to teach students in his yeshiva in 1987, he was condemned by haredi rabbis for inviting a women to teach his students. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef actually proposed that Professor Leibowitz teach the class behind a curtain! Prof. Leibowitz taught the class, without curtains.

For some women, the ticket to greater accomplishment came with illness, or with immigration, both of which conferred on them a freedom from the strictures women suffered under normal circumstances. Writer Grace Aguilar’s delicate health earned her private tutors, and the ability to devote her time to literature. She wrote seven books, both novels and non-fiction, and was considered a champion of the Jewish faith.

For writer Mary Antin, born in 1881 in Plotzk, Russia, the catalyst to freedom was immigration to America, where her strictly Orthodox family quickly Americanized and Mary benefited from public schooling. Attending Columbia University and Barnard College, she published the first American bestseller, The Promised Land” which went into 34 printings and sold 85,000 copies.

Another Nobel Prize winner was Rosalyn S. Yalow, born in New York in 1921. She, like Trudy Elion, also graduated from Hunter College, but was awarded an assistantship and eventually received her Ph.D. Her revolutionary work with radioisotopes in medical research, was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1977. Nevertheless, her mother would always admonish her: “No self-respecting woman goes to work and leaves two small children at home with just a maid.” Speaking to authors Bob and Elinor Slater for their 1994 book “Great Jewish Women,” Ms. Yalow said: “If women are ever to move upwards, we must demonstrate competence, courage, and determination to succeed and must be prepared to challenge and take our place in the establishment.”

These fleeting glimpses of the achievements of Jewish women over the last thousand years is remarkable more for what it tells us about what has been lost rather than gained. From these drops of accomplishments, we learn of the huge reservoir of ability and talent lost to the human race because of all the man-made dikes and breakwaters that hold it back, barriers which even today continue to interfere with women’s ability to share their unique gifts.

The following is a case in point. Israeli filmmaker Elena Chaplin documented a remarkable haredi women’s rock group called “Tofa’a,” filming the women’s lives as well as their performances. At every step, the women in the group encountered another obstacle. They needed to care for their children, one of which was severely handicapped. Another battled health problems. All of them were circumscribed by strict rabbinical decrees which dictated who they could perform for, what kind of material they could use, what clothes they could wear, and how they could advertise their show.

And always, there was the Catch 22, an unexpected rabbinical ruling that threw a wrench into the works at the last minute: A rabbi, who had originally given them a ruling permitting them to be filmed, suddenly told them that their mouths couldn’t be filmed while they were singing. And so, they appear on screen with a large crayon scratch mark where their mouths should be. A little bigger, I thought, and the Rabbis will have achieved their ultimate goal: to erase these women completely .

And yet, despite it all, the women, bursting with musical skills, songwriting talent, remarkable voices, and amazing energy, lit up the screen .

It made me want to cry.

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