Frieda Vizel is completing her first year in the Women’s History graduate program at Sarah Lawrence. Her personal experience with Hasidic Judaism has driven her interest in and historical inquiry of the subject. This is an excerpt from her historiographical essay on women in Hasidism.
“There are no women Hasidim […] There are only daughters of Hasidim and wives of Hasidim,” wrote sociologist Tamar El-Or in Educated and Ignorant, quoting from her interviews with Hasidic women of the Gerer Hasidic sect. A review of the history of the Hasidic mystical Jewish movement, a history that is well documented yet is so clearly missing the voices of women as leaders or as members, can lead one to wonder if it is true that there were no women in Hasidism. Until recently, the narrative of Jewish women’s lives in Europe was portrayed mostly from the perspective of immigrants from Europe to the United States, as part of the well researched subject of lives of Jewish women in the United States. Otherwise, the history of women in Eastern Europe is still in its infancy#. In the last twenty years, Historians have attempted to address the subject of Hasidic women in Eastern Europe by trying to understand the place of women in Hasidisim. Historians have debated if the movement improved women’s lives or further marginalized them, and to what degree.
While we cannot generalize about the lives of Hasidic women of Central and Eastern Europe because these women were scattered over a vast geographical plane of Russia, Poland and Central Europe, and had unique cultures and flavors in each shtetl, city or Hasidic dynasty, some common threads do appear that seem to have been standard. Women in the Hasidic movement could not participate in the Rabbi’s hoyf (court). The Hasidic courts, as Jacob Katz first wrote in Tradition and Crisis in sentiments that were echoed by many subsequent scholars, weakened the family institution. Women were married at a very young age, often soon after puberty, in an arrangement the parents made with the family of the groom. Thereafter the tradition was general matrilocal and the new couple lived in the home of the wife’s parent’s for a period called kest. After that period expired the couple – by then usually with several children of their own – left the parents’ home. When the couple became independent the woman often shouldered a significant share of the economic responsibilities while the husband either studied Torah or focused on his religious life and Hasidism, in an arrangement called eshet hayil — although Moshe Rosean argued that women’s role as breadwinner was often equal to or subordinate to that of the men’s, that is, men too participated in business endeavors. However, while the role of men in the economic sphere can be argued, scholars agree that women were active in economic life.
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the trickling influences of the Jewish Enlightenment affected Hasidism and increased modernity, especially the lives of Hasidic women who attended schools and often had access to more literature. This too added to their ability to interact with the outside world and increased their participation in the economic and other materialistic spheres.