Books by Sylvia Barack Fishman

Released: May 3, 1993

An uneven analysis by Fishman (a senior research associate at Brandeis), who argues here—only sometimes convincingly—that feminism has brought a 'breath of life' into a faltering American Jewish community. Perhaps the best statistical evidence of this phenomenon are the 280 women who have been ordained as rabbis by Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative Jewish seminaries in the 20 years since the gender line was broken in 1972. In these seminaries, the number of women cantorial candidates exceeds that of men, even though only 30 years ago it was forbidden for women even to study Talmud. Fishman also introduces us to a wide range of female life-cycle ceremonies that modern Jews have begun to practice (one of those at which a woman rabbi might officiate is the shalom bat—welcoming the daughter—ceremony, paralleling the longstanding rites welcoming male Jewish babies to the community), and the author successfully renders the ongoing tension between feminism and traditional, especially Orthodox, Judaism. But the statistics and conclusions that support the thesis here sometimes appear suspect. Fishman states, for instance, that 70% of married women affiliated with the rigorously orthodox Agudah sect practice birth control after the arrival of their first child—even though this group's continued proclivity for large families is well documented. Similarly puzzling is the statement that ``recent surveys show that even highly educated, ambitious young women—but not men—say that they would rather be thin than be successful and happy.'' The author is most appealing when she abandons sociological data for first-person accounts. Her account of American and Israeli women trying to hold prayer services at Jerusalem's Western Wall, despite violent opposition, is riveting. Fishman attempts to examine feminism's impact on too many aspects of Jewish life, and the subsequent lack of focus weakens her thesis—which, in any case, will appeal most strongly to those already committed to both feminism and traditional Judaism. Read full book review >