The social and hierarchical construction of the differences between the sexes, gender is also a way of signifying relationships of power. Historically, gender has generally been perceived in binary terms, with masculine traits privileged over feminine ones. Every society is gendered, with different expectations for the social roles of members of each sex; gender prescriptions are also tied to social class, religion, and geographical location, and vary with time. Although gender prescriptions powerfully shape individuals’ behavior, social and economic needs often lead to a relaxation of sharply delineated gender norms.
The four-woman managing committee of a local bikur ḥolim (“visiting the sick”) society: Mrs. Goldman, Mrs. Shtern, Rebetsin Morgenshtern, and Mrs. Abramtshik, Wyszków, Poland, ca. 1930s. (YIVO)
Jewish society in Eastern Europe displayed a variety of gender norms from the early modern period through the twentieth century. This entry focuses on the years before World War I because the significant changes occurred in the long nineteenth century, but it also mentions some later developments. The norms promoted in traditional Ashkenazic Judaism predominated until the mid-nineteenth century, to be supplemented, and challenged, by secular middle-class views with the emergence of the Haskalah movement and thereafter. Traditional Jewish society itself adapted to the challenges of the larger modern society, particularly in its recognition of the need for increased Jewish education for girls, although gender distinctions remained strong.
In the realm of Jewish learning, leadership, and religious expression, the traditional Jewish societies in Eastern Europe were strongly divided by gender. Seating in the synagogue was segregated, when women were expected to attend religious services at all: men occupied the main section of the synagogue while women were seated either in a separate structure, a vayber shul, or later in a women’s gallery, generally located above the central space of the service and often hidden from view of the men downstairs. Women often had their own prayer leaders, who recited the prayers for the large percentages of women who were not only unlearned but also often illiterate. Men were expected to pray on a daily basis in communal synagogue services while women were not required to engage in most synagogue prayer. Although women were allowed to participate in communal prayer, the synagogue was a male-dominated space.
In accordance with halakhah, formal synagogue membership and leadership were reserved for males. Only married males could vote for syndics of the synagogue, and wealth was an additional criterion for serving as a lay leader, both in the synagogue, in the administrative bodies of the kahal (community), and in the intercommunal Council of Four Lands. Only males were counted toward the minyan, the quorum of 10 adult Jews necessary for a formal religious service. Only males were obligated to perform all commandments, including positive time-bound commandments from which women were exempt. Only males could be called to the Torah, lead the gathering in prayer, or be recognized as a rabbi. Among men, wealth and status played a major role in the distribution of synagogue honors. Because rabbis were the decisors in cases between Jews that Jewish communities were permitted to adjudicate, women played no role in the administration of justice in the community. Additionally, the associations that were concerned with communal philanthropy and care for the dead were dominated by men, although some tasks were assigned to women, and women’s participation grew in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Of course, Jews and Christians alike shared this gendered division of roles within early modern society.
“In gas arayn” (Into the Street). Postcard depicting an apple peddler leading her reluctant young daughter into the street so that the girl may help her mother earn a living. Illustration by H. Goldberg; postcard published by Verlag Jehudia, Warsaw. (YIVO)
The social control of women has been of particular concern throughout history. In premodern traditional Jewish communities that worried about how gentile authorities would perceive their wealth, Jewish leaders often focused on women as the most visible bearers of the wealth of the community and aimed the sumptuary legislation that banned public ostentation at females who received their husbands’ largesse. Similarly, the transgressive sexual behavior of women was more likely to be punished than was the case with men.
Men were expected to pray daily, to study rabbinic texts if possible, and to participate in the affairs of the community. Their Jewish expression was communal and public as well as family based. Jewish women were as pious as their male relatives and had particular obligations that they incurred because of their gender, but their experience of Judaism was less bounded by communal institutions and less tied to the texts of the rabbinic elite. They practiced Judaism in familial and female-dominated settings. In addition to the three specific women’s commandments of the lighting of Sabbath and holiday candles, the immersion in a mikveh in accordance with the laws regarding nidah (menstruant), and the separation of dough in the baking of bread, women were responsible for running their households and maintaining a kosher kitchen. Because many Jewish ritual observances took place within the home, women played a central role in ensuring that all was ready for everyday living or Sabbath and holiday ritual.
Jewish women found their own forms of, and venues for, religious expression in addition to participation in the synagogue. Those who were literate made a ready audience for tkhines, a collection of personal petitionary prayers, written in Yiddish for, and often by, women. These prayers, which were not designed for recitation in the synagogue (although tkhines designed for the synagogue did begin to appear in the eighteenth century), reflected women’s concerns as mothers and wives for their families; those written by women occasionally asserted women’s religious importance as they carried out their assigned tasks. Women also met together on Sabbath afternoons to recite or hear Bible stories, from the “women’s ḥumash,” the Tsene-rene, a Yiddish book that conveyed the stories of each weekly reading of the Torah embellished with midrashic interpretation. As tkhines and Yiddish literature indicate, women adopted customs that developed because of their roles as family intermediaries. Thus, the ritual of preparing wicks for Yom Kippur candles by measuring the string around gravestones enabled women to engage their departed family members in the process of atonement. Women and men considered their sometimes separate performance of Jewish ritual activity and the different forms of ritual that they performed as integrally linked together in the chain of Jewish tradition. The family was the primary site of this linkage.
In Hasidic society, however, the rebbe’s court competed with the family as the center of religious life. The periodic absence of Hasidic males from their own families on Sabbaths and holidays underlined the gendered distinctions in their communities. The absence of women from the ranks of tsadikim, and the difficult reception given Khane-Rokhl Werbermacher, the Maiden of Ludmir, who served informally for a time as a female tsadik, confirmed that the different religious roles of Jewish men and women were based on their gender, rather than the quality of their spirituality or relation to God.
A heder for girls, Łaskarzew, Poland, 1920s. Photograph by Alter Kacyzne. (Forward Association/YIVO)
Although Yiddish was the vernacular for both men and women in Eastern Europe, Hebrew was associated with male prayer and study. Those women who were literate generally could read only Yiddish, and within both traditional and, later, modern Jewish society, Hebrew was gendered male and Yiddish female. Indeed, the typeface of printed Yiddish was called vayberksov, or women’s writing. The association of Yiddish with women, the fact that Hebrew was loshn koydesh, or the holy tongue, and Yiddish merely the day-to-day language, and the stigmatization of Yiddish as a mongrel language in Western cultures, initially hampered the development of modern Yiddish literature in the second half of the nineteenth century.
The most striking indication of distinct gender roles in the realm of religion was the disparity between the education of males and females in the Jewish community. The gender ideals embodied in that education conferred on men responsibility for the public expression of Judaism and for the transmission of Jewish learning from generation to generation. However, its limitation of women’s learning and public expression in the religious sphere ironically opened possibilities for women to become influential in other spheres of life.
Parents were expected to send their sons to heder, the primary school provided by the community to teach Hebrew reading and the Torah text and prepare boys for Talmud study. Wealthier parents hired private tutors for their sons, while the children of the very poor were likely to study for a very brief period, if at all. The brightest students continued their study in yeshivas, often traveling away from home to study at institutions presided over by rabbis recognized as among the learned of their generation. So valued was the mastery of Talmud and rabbinic interpretation that wealthy laymen arranged marriages for their daughters with outstanding yeshiva students and provided years of support for the young couple as part of the marriage arrangement. Men who did not become rabbis or teachers were still expected to study Torah—that is, the whole corpus of classic Jewish texts—informally but on a regular basis. The synagogue was regularly used as a house of study, and even in their artisan guilds some men devoted time to study.
Students from a Beys Yankev school near Kraków at a seminar, Rabka, Poland, 1930s. Photograph by Foto Janina. (The Ghetto Fighters’ Museum/Israel)
The education of daughters was less formal and less extensive and served different purposes. Some girls, particularly from wealthier families, might learn to read the Yiddish that was the Jewish vernacular as well as the Hebrew they encountered in their prayers. They might be taught foreign languages as a sign of the prosperity of the family. Many others, however, remained illiterate, learning by rote the blessings they needed for ritual performance. Most women’s education took place within their homes, as they learned from their mothers the basic, as well as the more complicated, rules of kashrut and the practical knowledge essential to managing a household.
The gender ideal for the learned elite, the rabbis and their families, was one of a particular complementarity. Since the learned male stood at the pinnacle of traditional Jewish culture, the roles of family members revolved around his need to succeed in devoting himself full time to sacred study. His wife was the facilitator of this important mission. As such, she was expected not only to manage the household but to provide for its economic sustenance as well. Because her responsibility was so central to the survival of elite tradition, she was permitted to engage in economic activity that necessitated her functioning in the public sphere, interacting with men who were not members of her family. The ideal of the scholarly male, divorced from practical concerns, and his efficient working wife became a trope of traditional Jewish culture in Eastern Europe.
To be sure, the cultural ideal did not reflect the reality of the lives of the vast majority of Jews. The learned elite were never more than a tiny proportion of traditional Jews. As was the case in most preindustrial societies, both Jewish men and women had to work to sustain their families. Men did not withdraw from their role as breadwinners but shared responsibility for the economic well-being of their families with their wives, who had to combine their business activities with caring for their children. Although some peddled, or ran inns, or had stalls in the marketplace, most women who were active in the economic world were partners in their husbands’ economic endeavors, and hence were overlooked by government officials, making it difficult to determine from official records just how many women were economically active. Independently recognized women were generally widows. The wives of wealthy men were also noticed and wielded influence simply because of the power of their husbands. However, the cultural ideal of the rabbi-scholar husband and the wife responsible for the survival of the family not only heralded rabbinic learning as the source of male leadership but also legitimated the economic activity of women in the marketplace and facilitated the creation of a space for women that was not purely domestic. The stories of shrewd Jewish women in the marketplace, who were more worldly and skillful than their husbands, became common in traditional Jewish society.
This cultural legitimation, however, was not uncontested. Rabbinic law considered it sinful for women to interact with men from outside their family, and Jewish communal authorities expressed dismay at the wanton disregard of this communal norm. In its condemnation of women peddlers in 1712, the Lithuanian council enjoined women with goods from entering “a gentile house or that of a priest or ruler, even two or three together.” The fact that the ruling had to be repeated some 50 years later, and that it acknowledged as social reality that almost a majority of women engaged in trade, suggest widespread tacit acceptance of women’s economic activity.
The nineteenth century witnessed the penetration of ideas of the general and Jewish enlightenment (Haskalah) movements into the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe, now incorporated for the most part in the Russian Empire. Traditional Jewish society and its gender norms continued, as a smaller proportion of the Jewish population, until the destruction of East European Jewish communities in the Holocaust, but Jewish society transformed under the impact of economic developments, governmental policy, and new ideologies. Traditional Jews and their rabbinic authorities confronted the challenge of new forms of education and new approaches to the larger society and its culture.
“Jewish Woman—Vote for 3.” Yiddish–Polish poster. Vilna, 1927. The poster urges a vote for the Jewish Women’s List in municipal or parliamentary elections. Printed by J. Lewin. (YIVO)
The Haskalah vision of the economic productivization of Jews, its acceptance of secular education, and its adoption of the vernacular of the surrounding society projected a bourgeois restructuring of Jewish life. Taking advantage of new, if limited, opportunities made available by the tsarist authorities—including government-sponsored schools—promoters of Haskalah proclaimed that Russian Jews would become upstanding members of Russian society, who, ceasing to regard themselves as alien to the Russian polity, would abandon the self-segregation of traditional Jewish communal life. Modern Jews would not cease to be Jews but would leave behind superstition and self-segregation to create a form of Jewish life in step with the needs of a forward-looking society. In particular, Jews would abandon the traditional dress that distinguished them from their neighbors and seek to participate in a modernizing economy. It is no accident that the Haskalah poet Yehudah Leib Gordon, in an epic poem that decried the victimization of women by Jewish law and its “backward” rabbinic interpreters, created a hero who worked for the new Russian railroad.
The maskilim attacked the gender divisions of traditional Jewish society, but they did not seek gender equality. Instead, they hoped to create a Jewish version of European bourgeois society. Jewish men would assume their responsibilities in the public arena as natural economic and political leaders, while women would retire from public economic life into the domestic sphere, where they would set the moral tone for their families. Indeed, maskilim saw working women as responsible for the social ills of traditional Jewish society. Women’s work outside the home led them to abdicate their maternal obligations and abandon their children to their own devices. Moreover, wives who brought in money permitted their husbands to be idlers. Finally, women’s economic roles could corrupt them, for their work in inns and cafés, or as peddlers, opened up possibilities for licentiousness; and the haggling that was an intrinsic part of petty commerce as well as the pursuit of wealth for its own sake could degrade women’s characters.
Maskilim saw male and female characteristics in essentialist terms, as ordained by nature, just as traditional Jewish society did. But their gender ideals were secularized; their masculine ideal was no longer the rabbinic scholar but the productive worker, the industrialist, the social and political leader, and the master of secular learning. Their feminine ideal was not the strong woman who shouldered economic responsibilities along with her husband, but the gentle figure that provided comfort and moral sustenance to her husband and children. Because they saw women as essentially different from men, and not destined for intellectual activity, they did not see them as potential members of the charmed circle of the enlightened. Even when they met the few women, such as Miryam Markel-Mosessohn (1837–1920) and Sarah Meinkin Foner (1855–1937), who were educated and wrote poetry or fiction in Hebrew or Russian, they ignored the ideological challenge that these women’s existence posed to the Haskalah view of gender roles.
Yet maskilim pioneered in the education of Jewish girls in Russia. Maskilim were largely responsible for the establishment, between 1844 and 1881, of more than 100 private schools for Jewish girls in the Russian Empire. To take Yehudah Leib Gordon once again as a model maskil, he was concerned with improving Jewish women’s status and established a girls’ school in each of the two Lithuanian towns that he lived in during his early years as a teacher in government schools. Taking advantage of gender norms in the traditional Jewish community, maskilim established girls’ schools because they presumed that as mothers women would profoundly influence their children, and they sought to shape that influence. Moreover, they knew that rabbinic authorities were not much interested in whether girls received education. They could experiment with providing the type of modern education that girls received at the time in Central Europe with little fear of interference from traditionalist leaders. They were not concerned with providing extensive Jewish education for their students because they saw no need for women to learn more Hebrew than was necessary for reading prayers and achieving a basic familiarity with Jewish texts. Indeed, Jewish learning would be of even less practical use to the modern Jewish woman than to her traditional counterpart. The only difference between maskilim and rabbinic authorities is that the former did not engage in debating Jewish law and custom to legitimate their position; teaching Torah to girls was unnecessary but not forbidden.
The gendered nature of traditional Jews’ attitude toward the education of their children in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries meant that because women were not expected to learn classical Jewish texts, they were free to learn vernacular languages and to read novels and history books that would have been seen as a waste of time for males. A great deal of anecdotal evidence exists in memoirs, newspaper articles, and other sources that girls in traditional families were far better educated in secular studies than their brothers. While their brothers learned in traditional heders, the girls attended public primary schools or were privately tutored in general studies. A number of women’s memoirs point to the frustration of girls in traditional families who yearned to learn more of Jewish texts even while relishing their exposure to Russian or German literature. There are also data to supplement the anecdotes. Government statistics, from Galicia, not the tsarist empire, demonstrate the gender division in the education of Jewish children: although 40 percent of girls attended public primary schools in 1890, only one-quarter of boys did. Even in the progressive city of Odessa, where Haskalah influence was strong, in 1898–1899 more than half of Jewish boys still studied in heders. Girls who had access to general education but whose formal Jewish education was minimal or nonexistent became painfully aware of their limited possibilities in the Jewish community as opposed to the larger society. These data suggest that, at least among some segments of East European Jewry, there existed a cultural gap between men and women of the same families.
It is important to stress that the Jewish woman better educated in secular culture than her husband or brother was a class-related phenomenon. Only middle or upper middle-class, generally urban, women had the luxury of prolonged study in childhood or adolescence. Still, as was true of the ideal of the rabbinic scholar husband with the wife who supported the household, the trope of the assimilated Jewish woman failing to raise children devoted to their religion or heritage had a powerful cultural impact.
From the last decades of the nineteenth century through World War I, in the Yiddish press as well as in publicity brochures for girls’ schools, writers who ranged from Jewish nationalists to Orthodox spokesmen decried what they saw as a dire situation. In 1913, the Vilna girls’ school Yehudiyah sought to persuade parents of the necessity of enrolling their daughters for three-hour daily classes in Jewish subjects after public school to forestall the scenario of the Jewish woman alienated from her religious and cultural heritage. The same year, a writer for the Yiddish newspaper Der fraynd commented that the Jewish man had a common language with his son but had to speak to his daughter in a foreign language—Polish or Russian.
Women in a nursing course sponsored by OZE, Kaunas, 1930s. The graph (right) is titled (in Yiddish): “The progression of productivity in the course of a workday.” Written on the blackboard: “Meningi [meningococcus].” (YIVO)
It was this fear of the corrosive impact of assimilated Jewish mothers on their children that led rabbinic authorities to support enhanced Jewish education for girls. Sarah Schenirer, the Orthodox seamstress from Kraków who in 1917 realized her idea of establishing girls’ schools that taught Jewish material in a traditional context, the Beys Yankev schools, quickly received support from rabbinic authorities. That same year the most renowned Torah scholar of the day, the Ḥafets Ḥayim (Yisra’el Me’ir ha-Kohen) endorsed formal Jewish education—the teaching of the Hebrew scripture and the ethics of the rabbis, but not rabbinic texts, to girls—because of the nature of the times. Gender distinctions remained in place but were modified because Orthodox society confronted changed circumstances.
By the last third of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, a large and growing proportion of East European Jews did not look to rabbinic authorities for guidance and sought secular education for their children. The majority of Jewish males and females received secular education irrespective of their gender in public primary schools or in private Jewish schools, although Jewish boys were still likely to begin their primary education in a heder. Although higher education was restricted to a small stratum of the Russian population, the most prosperous Jews displayed their eagerness to take advantage of its economic and political benefits even sooner. By 1886, male Jews constituted 11 percent of gymnasium (secondary school) students and 15 percent of university students in the Russian Empire (it is important to note that the total numbers are quite small). Jewish women sought higher education, too, but because the Russian government barred women from the universities (except for a brief two-year experiment) they had to content themselves with the “higher courses” designed for women. In 1886, they accounted for 16 percent of students in those courses. Eager to become physicians, they also settled for what was available to females, including “Courses for Advanced Midwives,” from 1872–1876 and their expansion as “Women’s Medical Courses” from 1876–1887, when they were closed down. At the Women’s Medical Courses in Saint Petersburg, Jews comprised more than one-third of the students. The percentage of both male and female Jewish students fell with the introduction of the numerus clausus (discriminatory quotas against Jews) in 1887. While male Jewish university graduates were entitled to permanent residence outside the Pale of Settlement from 1861, female students were entitled to live outside the Pale only during their time as students. It was not until 1911 that Jewish women graduates were granted the same residence rights as their male colleagues.
Secular education exploded for both males and females in the interwar period, with the opportunities in the Soviet Union far outpacing those in Poland because of the pervasive antisemitism and poverty there. In the USSR on the eve of World War II the number of Jewish girls in high schools and secondary vocational schools exceeded that of men, perhaps because there were more females than males in the Jewish population. The linkage of intellectual brilliance with men and the assumption that men would function as the primary breadwinners of their family likely accounts for the fact that more men than women acquired postsecondary higher education. The gender disparity in higher education continued after the war; in the 1970 census, of 1,000 Jewish males aged 10 or older, 363 were professionally educated while among females the number was 319. At that time the average education of employed Jewish women was almost equal to that of men.
Despite the expanded access of a small percentage of Jewish men and women to higher education in the second part of the nineteenth century, the vast majority of Jews did not experience upward social mobility then. The numbers of first-guild merchants, professionals, successful industrialists, and bankers were meager when compared with the total Jewish population. Most of them were men, largely because of the limited access of women either to higher education or the social world of big business. The overall position of Jews in the economy of the Pale of Settlement stagnated or worsened in the second half of the nineteenth century, leading to the pauperization of the Jewish masses. Increasing numbers of Jews, both men and women, earned their living as artisans and members of the industrial proletariat, with men accounting for the vast majority of Jews officially recorded as workers in governmental statistics. Women, however, dominated among Jewish servants.
In the course of the nineteenth century, Jews experienced an erosion of traditional faith and practice, spurred on by new educational opportunities, economic changes, and urbanization. This secularization paved the way for their involvement in radical Russian and Jewish political movements. Jewish men and women alike participated in the trend toward politicization that characterized Russian Jewry from the last third of the nineteenth century but with some differences attributable to gender. Although the numbers of those active in political movements were initially small, they grew in the early twentieth century and continued throughout the century. Workers were mobilized politically through the labor and revolutionary movements. Students of both sexes and young members of the intelligentsia were especially drawn to revolutionary parties. Historians have noted a disproportionate representation of women of Jewish background among the educated female radicals. In the ranks of “professional” Social Democratic women, women who devoted themselves full-time to party work, Jewish women, despite their small percentage in the total population, came close to the more numerous Russian women in importance. Both the labor movement and revolutionary political parties proclaimed the equality of men and women but that equality usually existed more in theory than in practice. Although a few women, including Rosa Luxemburg, became major figures in radical politics, it was difficult for women to go beyond the middle ranks of activists. Men dominated most labor unions and political parties. However, the opportunity for the public participation of women, even if not in leadership ranks, was notable.
Both Jewish socialist and Zionist parties accorded women recognition, but, as was the case in general political groups, opportunities for leadership positions in both camps were far greater for men than for women. Despite the primacy of class over gender in socialist analysis, women became leaders in the socialist Bund much more readily than in Zionist circles. It has been estimated that one-third of the Bund’s membership consisted of women, and one study of Bundist leaders, for example, documented that women accounted for close to 20 percent of the organization’s leadership. Moreover, the socialist movement seems to have accorded formal equality to women far more easily than did the Zionists. Although political Zionism was more receptive to women’s participation than had been the case of the earlier settlement movement that was more traditional in its cultural orientation (Ḥibat Tsiyon), and allowed women to serve as delegates to, and vote in, Zionist congresses, women were adjuncts in the nationalist movement. Still, Jewish women and men worked together in support both of remaking the Russian polity and of building a Jewish society in Palestine.
It was during the Holocaust that gender disparities loomed largest in the experiences of Jewish women and men. True, the fact that they were Jews, not their gender, determined the fate of both men and women in Eastern Europe but the paths they traveled to death or, to a far lesser extent, survival were not identical. Even before the establishment of the ghettos, when men seemed the most vulnerable to arrest, women took on the major responsibility for providing for their families and interceding with the authorities. After ghettoization, when women predominated among the inhabitants of the ghetto, as Emanuel Ringelblum, the chronicler of the Warsaw ghetto commented, women seem to have been especially prominent in the local House Committees that organized ghetto dwellers for mutual assistance. More women than men also passed successfully on “the Aryan side” in Polish cities because they were more likely to speak an unaccented Polish or, as the sociologist Lenore Weitzman speculates, because as females they were raised to cultivate the social skills necessary for successfully assuming a false identity. However, more Jewish men than women survived the Holocaust. Because children were seen as a mother’s responsibility, all mothers with children were sent to the gas chambers with their children immediately upon their arrival in death camps.
Gendered assumptions colored the roles of women in resistance movements. Young women and their male peers, both usually veterans of youth movements, joined together in resistance. Often they were used as couriers and smugglers because of the view that the Nazis were less likely to be suspicious of the movements of women than of men. Women like Liza Chapnik in Grodno and Bronka Vinicka Klibanski in Białystok risked their lives repeatedly as couriers and assumed leadership roles in the underground. Although they fought courageously in the underground of ghettos such as Warsaw, Białystok, and Vilna, women were commonly denied entry into partisan groups, or stripped of their weapons when they were allowed in rare cases to join, because of the prejudice that only men could be combatants.
Gender provides a lens for exploring such issues as religious experience, socioeconomic stratification, politicization, and identity formation. Jews were divided by many characteristics in the period we have surveyed, but gender—a primary point of difference in historical experience—has attracted scholarly attention only in the past generation. Men and women alike experienced social, economic, and political change, but its impact on their lives was not necessarily the same. Much research remains to be conducted. But even with the state of current knowledge, it is clear that attention to gender complicates historical narratives about the nature of traditional Judaism, the motives and consequences of educational reform, and the processes of acculturation and politicization.