A Personal History of Jewish Learning


A Personal History of Jewish Learning


Search our Archives:

» Home
» History
» Holidays
» Humor
» Places
» Thought
» Opinion & Society
» Writings
» Customs
» Misc.

Jewish Education

By Esther M. Shkop

In her review of Shoshana Pantel Zolty's important book about the history of Jewish women's education and their study of Torah, All Your Children Shall Be Learned, Dr. Sylvia Barack Fishman points to the "critical evidence of the widespread nature of literacy among Jewish women in many societies" and concludes that the "intellectual roles accorded Jewish women in traditional Jewish societies were often far more extensive than might appear."

While there is substantial evidence that Jewish women throughout the ages were far more learned in Jewish lore and law than most of our contemporaries, there is a sense that for centuries the erudite woman, proficient in original texts, was more the exception than the rule. Even if the numbers of female Jewish scholars throughout history were large, the fact remains that formal education and schooling for the majority of Jewish women was not a priority of communal life. Consequently, in her review of the same book, Malka Bina comments, "I thank God every day that I was born in the middle of the twentieth century and not in earlier periods when so little Jewish learning was available to members of the female sex."

In reading these disparate views, I was struck by their familiarity; they resounded with the same conflicting messages of the "oral tradition" I received from the women in my family, who exemplified - in the flesh - both sides of the story. Unlike most of my peers growing up in America in the middle of the 20th century, I was privileged to know - first-hand - the Old World women. At the age of twelve I was sent to study in Israel and live with my grandparents in Mea Shearim. Having attended an American public school, my Jewish education had been based in the home and entrusted to several European immigrants who taught at our local synagogue Talmud Torah.

As a daughter of Chassidic parents, fluent in Yiddish and with some proficiency in Hebrew, I was among the rare children who identified with and admired the scholarship and piety of these teachers. Most of my classmates were turned off by their thickly accented English, and freely expressed their contempt of the "old-fashioned" instruction - never bothering to heed the message. Thus, despite my traditional upbringing, the transition from the lifestyle of 1960's America to the heart of the Old Yishuv of Jerusalem was jarring.

Even as I was struggling to overcome the "culture shock," I was intrigued and enchanted by my grandmothers. My paternal Babbe Matel was a firebrand, witty and sharp-tongued, who rushed from task to task and spoke a mile a minute. Her speech was peppered with sharp humor, sweetened with Biblical quotations and salted with Yeshivish (Aramaic) expressions. Her sons and husband clearly admired her wisdom and were enamored with her loquacious charm. She regaled me with stories about her mother, for whom I'm named, whose erudition in Talmudic texts was legendary. Her knowledge was acquired through her father, a scholar and communal Rabbi of Hebron, whom she served as secretary and reader from the time he was blinded in his mid-30's by diabetes. As an only child, she became the heiress and transmitter of his scholarship and social honor. My father described how she tested him and his brothers on their weekly learning of both written Law and Talmud, while serving them home-baked rolls and cafe au lait.

My maternal grandmother, the Babbe Rochel, long widowed and alone, was soft-spoken and warm, but not nearly as much fun. It took a few years before I understood and revered the hours she spent in prayer and study. Using Yiddish translations, she was knowledgeable in Midrashic literature, the entire Tanakh, and had a thorough under-standing of Halakhic literature. Her learning was acquired primarily in later years, and she was not as forthcoming in stating an opinion or venturing into a debate at the table. But, when asked by someone who displayed a sincere desire for her wisdom, she revealed a hidden life of the mind and heart that was both cerebral and spiritual.

Both grandmothers attributed their education to three years of formal tutelage under a "Rebbetzin" who was assigned to teach the young girls (aged 6 to 9) in the old city of Jerusalem. Their curriculum consisted of learning the mechanics of reading and writing in Hebrew and Yiddish, as well as the rudiments of arithmetic. The former language was reserved for prayer, and Yiddish became the mode of oral and written expression. Once they mastered the Prayer Book and could translate the prayers, the little girls were taught the Pentateuch and some commentaries through the Yiddish interpretation, and were introduced to the major stories of the Early Prophets. They were then escorted through some moral and midrashic essays (in Yiddish, of course).

Teachings about keeping a kosher home, observance of Shabbat and Holidays, social and ethical behavior as well as cooking, sewing and housekeeping were left to their mothers and other female family members. Once her basic literacy was assured, a young girl in turn of the century Jerusalem could rely on her own curiosity and access to books for the continuation of her Torah studies. Secular literature was generally forbidden. If the women in one's family were more knowledgeable, and more affluent, that girl was encouraged to use her spare time for reading. Apparently reading aloud and singing in unison was common as the women sat late afternoons sewing and embroidering. Since most of the women in Old Jerusalem had a wealth of knowledge culled from both formal learning, casual reading and osmosis, they proved to be trustworthy and capable transmitters not only of tradition and knowledge, but also of spirituality.

My Babbe Matel was never much good with the needle so she read and sang, and was allowed by her relatively well-to-do parents to continue her formal schooling through the age of twelve. She read newspapers regularly and seemed to have a good grasp of geography and general history. On the other hand, Babbe Rochel's parents were much poorer, and she began to work in the family grocery store by the age of ten, where she learned the fine art of dealing with customers, keeping accounts and negotiating prices. Yet both seemed to have a boundless admiration for wisdom - and did not express by word or gesture the notion that it is the exclusive province of the men. On the contrary, they considered an ignorant woman to be far more despicable than an ugly or a poor one.

I was regaled with stories about the family heroines. The Bubbe Fraide Gitel was renowned in Old Jerusalem for her piety and mysticism - her wisdom and mastery of holy texts were legendary and famous rabbis, Sephardi and Ashkenazi, would rise "in honor of her Torah." She prayed daily at the Kotel, and her blessings were cherished by men and women. As she was described to me, dressed in a white lace apron, clutching her Korban Mincha Prayer Book even on her forays to the spice market, I recall a description of another saintly woman.

In his eulogy to the Rebbetzin of Talne, Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik noted that historically mothers were entrusted with transmission of their own tradition, distinct from the tradition of the fathers. In describing what he had learned from the "Torah of Your Mother" Rabbi Soloveitchik recalls:

Most of all I learned that Judaism expresses itself not only in formal compliance with the law but also in a living experience. She taught me that there is a flavor, a scent and warmth to mitzvot. I learned from her the most important thing in life - to feel the presence of the Almighty…Without her teachings…I would have grown up a soulless being, dry and insensitive."

I, too, found that my grandmothers linked me to the matriarchal chain, highlighting for me the role-models that were intelligent, deeply religious and competent - in the house and the in market.

I was told about my grand-aunt Chana Devorah - for whom my youngest sister is named - was not only renowned for her smart mouth, but for her courage and resourcefulness, as she scrambled for ways to bring in some money when the family suffered business downturns as a result of a worldwide depression. My father adored her and called her the "eizene kop." In similar fashion, I heard the praises of female relatives who could debate a Talmudic point with the men in the family, and who could recite chapters of Scriptures by heart, interjecting verbatim phrases and verses into appropriate junctures of conversation.

My impressions of women's life and education in Old Jerusalem are consistent with Barkin's findings about Eastern Europe Jewish life. She notes that while the masses of girls were taught housekeeping skills and religious laws, connected to domestic rituals, food preparation and marital relations, it was only the exceptional women,

generally daughters of elite families [who] received far more thorough training in traditional texts and commentaries, and some of these... supervised the instruction and prayers of other, less fortunate women.

Apparently, many of my female forebears were among the more fortunate, and were given liberty to study and express their thoughts and feelings within the family circle. Clearly, as with men, the more gifted and tenacious, shone more brightly. But, such was not always the case.

My paternal grandfather, my Zeide, grew up as the youngest in a middle-class, Chassidic family in Poland. He, like his brothers, was given an intensive Yeshiva education, which was enriched with lessons by hired tutors. My great-grandfather, a well-to-do businessman and a scion of a scholarly family, established the curriculum for his seven sons, and oversaw their achievements. They studied foreign languages (aside from Biblical Hebrew - including formal grammar and composition-, Aramaic and Yiddish), including Polish, Russian and German. Once having mastered both speech and reading in these languages, they also learned to read and write in the Queen's English. They studied mathematics, including algebra and geometry. And they studied music - learning to read and write musical notes. In addition to classic Talmudic study, with Rishonim and Acharonim, all of the sons were required to study a chapter of Tanakh every day.

Zeide was sent to learn in Israel in 1924, where he ultimately settled and married. His single brothers, sisters and parents followed him in 1936. Those that did not leave Poland then perished in the ensuing Holocaust. Thus, when I knew my Zeide, he was not only a Talmid Chacham - he was a walking, breathing Biblical Concordance, with extraordinary memory and perfect recall. I was eager to meet and talk with his sisters, whom I met for the first time when I was 16 years old.

I was taken aback to find them so "modern," living the life of secular Tel Aviv, delighting in theater and cafe society. Two never married, and one married well beyond her child-bearing age. She met a Holocaust survivor, a deeply religious artist, with whom she made an observant home in fashionable London. Of the two single great-aunts, I bonded with Doda Rivka for her zany sense of humor and patience with my endless questions. She was always curious about my thoughts and studies, and closely followed my progress.

Doda Rivka adored my grandfather, her baby brother, and got vicarious nachas from his large brood. But she felt out-of-place in pious Jerusalem, and tended to avoid going to shul with the family. I did not know if she was a non-believer, and was reluctant to pry. When I became engaged to my husband, she demanded that I bring him for a visit to her apartment in Tel Aviv so she can check him out.

As we drank tea in her salon, she finally opened up. First, she praised me to my fiance, expressing her delight that I had completed my university degree in English literature and philosophy, and added her astonishment that I remained religeous and would be marrying a Talmid Chacham. Then, in a lower voice - as if sharing a secret - she explained that she would never marry someone of whom her father would disapprove, but would never consent to be matched to the Chassidic young men who were her contemporaries in Lodz. "Most of them were not like my brothers," she explained, "they were narrow-minded and didn't understand a life of culture." I asked her if she did not appreciate their Torah learning. And she turned to me, answering in a clipped voice, "How can you appreciate what you do not know or understand?"

She then bemoaned the lack of Jewish education for women in Poland, and the apparent indifference of her dear, revered Tata'she to his daughters' schooling. By law they were required to attend a public school, and being bright they managed to gain admission to the gymnasia, but their religious education and spiritual development was largely ignored. Her words are reminiscent of Sarah Schenirer's recollections of the life of Jewish girls in Poland of the 1920's,

As we pass through the Elul days the trains which run to the little shtetlekh where the Rebbes live are crowded. Thousands of Hasidim are on their way to spend the High Holidays with the Rebbe. Every day sees new crowds of old men and young men in the hasidic garb, eager to secure a place on the train, eager to spend the holiest days in the year in the atmosphere of their Rebbe, to be able to extract from it as much holiness as possible. Fathers and sons travel...thus they are drawn to Ger, to Belz, to Alexander, to Bobow...

And we stay at home, the wives, the daughters, and the little ones. We have an empty Yom Tov. It is bare of Jewish intellectual content. The women have never learned anything about the spiritual content that is concentrated within a Jewish festival. The mother goes to the synagogue, but the services echo faintly into the fenced and boarded-off women's galleries. There is much crying by the elderly women. The young girls look at them as though they belong to a different century. Youth and the desire to live a full life shoot up violently in the strong-willed young personalities. Outside the synagogue, the young girls stand chattering; they walk away... They leave behind them the wailing of an older generation...further and further away from synagogue they go...

In a similar vein, Doda Rivka described her sense of alienation from the world of her father and brothers. She always insisted that she and her sisters would never dream of hurting their father, yet they were deeply hurt by the sense of exclusion. At her father's home, the lively conversation around the table was dominated by the boys, and included concepts and language of which the daughters knew nothing. They sat silently, hungrily wishing to understand and participate.

In the absence of a full spiritual life, and lured by the culture and literature of the secular, gentile world where they participated during the week, they began to live a double-life, trapped between two worlds. She whispered to me, "as you know, the Tata'she and my brothers came home late on Friday nights." After candle-lighting, she and her sisters would sneak off with their friends (Jews and gentiles alike, boys and girls) to the theaters or dance halls. "But, we were always home in time for Kiddush, and no one was the wiser." And then, in a sad tone, she added, "He always asked us if we had davened, and reminded us every Shabbes afternoon not to forget to eat Seuda Shlishit, as he left for the shtibel for Mincha. How blind could they be?!"

Such conversations with Doda Rivka gave me a glimpse into the life of women in Eastern Europe before the introduction of Jewish Day Schools for girls. I knew that women had always been creative in injecting meaning into the mundane, and had been entrusted with transmitting not only the traditions but also the religious feelings which was the lifeblood of Jewish survival. But how could they do so when they were permeated with the competing noise and values of an alien culture - particularly when that culture seemed more inviting to women, than the one to which they belonged by birth?

It is astonishing that historians find that even in the absence of formal Judaic schooling, even in societies with overwhelming rates of assimilation, women still carried on ritualistic traditions, and maintained a living relationship with the Almighty. In her study of Jewish women in Imperial Germany, Marion A. Kaplan found that

Even among more secular, urban, bourgeois Jews, who no longer observed dietary rules or the Sabbath and whose religious behavior was often a conglomerate of Christian and Jewish forms (Christman trees and bar mitzvah were not uncommon), it was frequently the women in the family who were the last bastions regarding enforcement of dietary laws and other traditions. They were also the one who left memories of Judaism with their children.

The resistance of women to the complete abandonment of their religious heritage was contingent upon their acquaintance - through study or memory - of the substance of that heritage. Those who had developed an intimate relationship with the Almighty in their youth were loath to abandon the flavor and feeling of Yiddishkeit.

Sigmund Freud's son, whose father persuaded his mother to drop all religious practice, and who was raised without any instruction of Jewish ritual or faith, nevertheless recalled his grandmother's religiosity, "On Saturdays we used to hear her singing Jewish prayers in a small but firm melodious voice." However, Freud's grandchildren would have no such recollections. Once the "golden chain" had been broken, one could no longer rely on the home and its women to be transmitters of Torah, and once they could more freely enter the secular academies and workplaces, they were less likely to adhere to what has been termed "domestic Judaism."

That was the case in Eastern Europe before the introduction of formal Judaic schooling for girls and women, and even more so in the United States, where anti-semitism was not as deeply engrained and sanctioned. "Guided by realistic consideration, wherein the withholding of formal education from girls exposed to secular culture might well lead to girls' straying from religion," community and clerical leaders were guided by the courage of Rabbi Israel Meir ha-Cohen (1838-1933; popularly called after his most famous work, Chafetz Chaim) in giving moral support to Sarah Schenirer's endeavor to open schools for Torah and secular education for young girls.

Sarah Schenirer's incredible success came too late for Doda Rivka, but its impact was felt by subsequent generations. Sadly, the devastation of the Holocaust decimated the ranks of Schenirer's proteges, whom she so lovingly and painstakingly cultivated to continue her work. If Schenirer was concerned with the difficulty of findng qualified personnel to staff the schools - teachers with pedagogic training and experience who also held a deep personal commitment to traditional Torah observance and whose values and cultural patterns would not clash with those of their students, how much more deeply should this concern be to American Jews concerned about continuity and survival ?

A sense of historicity, which was bestowed as the legacy of the women of my family that spurred me to undertake a career in Jewish higher education.


Dr. Shkop is Dean of the Blitstein Institute of Hebrew Theological College, and Associate Professor of Bible. She has a Ph.D. in Public Policy Analysis, a Masters in Biblical Studies and a B.A. in English Lit and Philosophy.


from the March 2000 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

The Jewish Magazine is the place for Israel and Jewish interest articles
The Current Monthly Jewish Magazine
To the Current Index Page
Write to us!
Write Us
The Total & Complete Gigantic Archive Pages for all issues
To the Big Archives Index Page