Agency at the Margins: ‘Reading Jewish Women’ by Iris Parush

Iris Parush argues in Reading Jewish Women that the inaccessibility of Hebrew texts to nineteenth-century Jewish Eastern European women paradoxically afforded them an education that the men in their culture did not receive. More specifically, the inability to read Hebrew and consequent propensity for books in Yiddish and national languages exposed Jewish women to more modern and worldly ideas than their husbands, fathers, and sons were reading. These women ended up ahead of their male counterparts in understanding the Enlightenment ideals circulating around Europe, and hence were largely responsible for the secularization and modernization of Jewish society. The book’s implications are larger, however: Parush sees this historical situation as but one way that women throughout history have benefited from their marginalized status — a claim she advances both effectively and somewhat problematically.

The argument for women’s significant role in the Jewish Enlightenment contains two main premises that Parush expounds and tries to prove throughout the book. These two pieces of the argument correspond to two types of interactions: that between Haskalah literature and the women who read it, and that between women and the rest of their society. The first and most developed premise — that women gained greater exposure than men to modern ideas —  dominates the first five chapters. It relies both on historians’ analyses of the cultural climate that set the stage for this phenomenon and on primary sources that attest to women’s reading habits and the Enlightenment ideas that they learned from their reading, including excerpts from the books themselves. In the first chapter, Parush provides a historical background on the politics, particularly those of literacy, that led the maskilim to target women in their mission to spread secular ideas and integrate Jewish cultures with the rest of their societies. The maskilim “had to identify cracks in the system of rabbidinal oversight and widen them” (14), and one of tne of these cracks was in the regulation of women’s reading, which authorities did not oversee because they were more concerned with men’s education. Combined with the gendering of languages and consequent gender differences in literacy, this led to a “segregation of the reading public” into female Yiddish readers and male Hebrew readers (37). The second and third chapters discuss how the Jewish family structure, education system, and market gave women the power to get an education and (setting the stage for the second part of the argument) educate others. She supports the above arguments with subsequent firsthand accounts of men’s and women’s reading habits in chapters four and five.

To support the premise that women’s knowledge of secular and modern ideas was influential, the second half of the book demonstrates mainly with primary sources that women used their familial and social influence to transmit the ideas in this literature from the private to public sphere. Parush documents communities of women readers and how the ideas introduced to them, from Dik’s critiques of Jewish class structure and gender roles (149) to romance novels featuring protagonists who choose love over familial and religious duty (191), affected their behavior, focusing on a majority that read only Yiddish in chapter six and a particularly worldly and influential upper class literate in both Yiddish and local languages (known as Laaz) in chapter seven. She shows how women exposed to European literature provided male family members and friends with access to new ideas and influenced “yeshiva students who were losing their faith” to question the values Jewish authorities had taught them and promote new ones (188). These chapters show that class as well as gender affected reading habits and spheres of influence, but  class, like gender, did not prevent women’s influence. Chapters eight and nine give an account of how women struggled to influence intellectual communities of men such as the maskilim directly through the ability to learn Hebrew.

I found the first argument I have delineated more thoroughly supported than the second. Parush makes it clear with copious examples that women were reading about modern and secular ideas while men’s Hebrew reading limited them to old religious ones. But the connection between this reading and the modernization of Jewish society as a whole remains tenuous. This is to say not that women’s ideas are historically insignificant unless they spread to men, nor that the way men influenced women is irrelevant, but rather that Parush has the burden of proof to show that female Yiddish readers contributed more than “mere passive presence” to their societies and that others’ lives also changed because of them (188). Her conclusion asserts that “the influence these women had on the society surrounding them was no less than the influence of the literature upon them” (245), yet there are few instances in the book that tap into a change in mainstream beliefs. Most instances that demonstrate women’s influence on men involve interactions between individuals: women showing books to men (189), men sneaking peaks at women’s books (146), women reading to children (159). Still, Parush gets away with these examples because individuals ultimately make up the mainstream, and these ideas travelled from the bottom of society up rather than the top down. Though Parush could have more fully traced the path of Haskalah ideas from the women who read them to the authorities who ultimately adopted them and from the time they emerged to the time they became the norm, it is difficult to debate the premise that half a population’s ways of thinking influenced the culture as a whole.

Now I will turn to what I believe to be Parush’s stakes in writing this book. A central thesis of the book is that there are “benefits of marginality” (57); that is, being confined to certain spheres of influence can create opportunities that may not have otherwise existed to influence others from within that sphere. She mentions early in the preface that, in more than one instance, “the marginalized space that a society allocates to its disparaged or neglected social groups provides these groups with degrees of freedom and latitude” (xiii). When talking about freedom, Parush is implicitly talking about agency — the ability to make one’s own decisions despite oppression. She is arguing that women’s position of inferiority within European Jewish society and confinement to roles considered passive did not actually make them passive, and because they were active agents, women have contributed more to their culture than historical records would have us believe.

Writing about women in a way that suggests they have agency is a commendable goal. Feminist approaches to history sound suspiciously similar to patriarchal accounts when they lament women’s passivity in the face of an insurmountable male ruling class. This depiction is especially a problem for theories about non-Western women — Gayatri Spivak has identified a common rhetoric of “white women saving Brown women from Brown men” (297) — but also applies to representing the past. It is easy to assume that we are now more enlightened and more empowering of women than in ages past, and that women had to be saved from old ideologies and traditions. Parush is determined not to depict pre-Enlightenment Jewish women who had to be saved from Jewish men. There are several instances, however, in with Parush risks reproducing the reasoning she seeks to contend.

One such risk is that in combating depictions of Jewish women who had to be saved from Jewish men, she depicts Jewish men who had to be saved from the Jewish authorities and traditions that kept them out of touch with the times and the rest of Europe. Parush writes in a celebratory manner about women who “made efforts to spread the Haskalah out of the declared ideological mission of aiding the secularization and modernization of Jewish society” (188-89). This implies that these women felt they needed to enlighten Hebrew scholars by converting them to a more mainstream and ultimately more Western belief system. On the one hand, this is a commendably subversive, gender-reversed way of looking at history. On the other hand, this picture of women saving men emerges from a broader dynamic within the book of modern secular European culture saving traditional Jewish culture from its antiquated values. This dynamic is apparent in certain uses of language that construct Yiddish-reading women as a stand-in for the maskilim and the ideas it advocated. Parush refers to these women as “conduits”for Haskalah ideas (146, 334), inadvertently painting a picture contrary to her argument, in which the agents for the advancement of Enlightenment ideals were not women but rather predominantly male authors and maskilim members who enlisted women. Parush’s disproportionate attention to how these readings influenced women as opposed to how women used the ideas they acquired augments the problem. Parush might have addressed this issue by elucidating how women interpreted and furthered what they read through the lens of their Jewish background. As it stands, the picture of women heroically heralding gentile culture into Jewish societies has problematic implications. From behind the gender opposition Parush constructs emerges an opposition between cultural backgrounds, one in which knowledge of non-Jewish backgrounds provides an “advantage” (xiii, 62) or “benefit” (xiii, 57, 243) over those with knowledge of the Jewish background.

Parush’s presentation of women’s exposure to modern, secular, European ideas, rather than traditional Jewish ones, as a positive development contributes to this savior narrative and is problematic in its own right. Parush does not bring the same critical lens to modernization that she brings to Hebrew literacy, for which she questions what is assumed to be superior. Just as women’s isolation from men’s Hebrew-reading world gave them their own Yiddish-reading culture, the segregation of Jewish society allowed for a culture that could not exist in the same way after the Enlightenment. This is not to say that modernization was a bad thing, but to refrain from making a value judgement at all. To Parush’s credit, women’s literacy in languages other than Hebrew, especially national languages, may have created practical advantages for them that are not value-laden. Still, one must be careful not to make a value judgement on a historical situation. It is easy to look back on modernization now as a triumph of progress over stagnancy and reason over tradition, but this would be to evaluate modernization from a modern and hence limited perspective.

Iris Parush argues in Reading Jewish Women that Rabbidic authorities’ “attitude of disdain and permissiveness toward women” allowed them more intellectual freedom than men, whose studies were taken more seriously and hence were formally regulated (243). This allowed women to slide under the radar as they catapulted Eastern European societies into the Jewish Enlightenment. Parush’s agenda in writing this book is to demonstrate women’s agency in the face of patriarchy and their consequent influence on cultural achievements thought to be men’s. She wants to argue that even in a culture invested in male dominance, women find a way to be dominant in the areas of life available to them. To accomplish this goal, she prioritizes what women did rather than what men did or what men told women to do. Such a project holds high stakes for feminist studies. It is important to show that women are not simply what men have made them or written about them.  However, when the stakes are so high, it is also important to question the value assigned to various historical developments. Parush neglects this task despite questioning the values assigned to gendered historical agents and roles, and by doing so uncritically paints a picture of a society in which modern, secular ideas triumphed over traditional Jewish ones.

Works Cited

Parush, Iris. Reading Jewish Women: Marginality and Modernization in Nineteenth-Century Eastern European Jewish Society. Trans. Saadya Sternberg. Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2004.

Spivak, Gayatri. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Eds. Carry Nelson and Larry Grossberg. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988. 271-313.


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