Week 2: Religion and Gender in the Making of American Judaism

  • Goldman, Karla. Beyond the Synagogue Gallery: Finding a Place for Women in American Judaism. Harvard University Press, 2001.

In this week’s readings, Karla Goldman explores the development of American Judaism and the role women had in those developments and changes. Goldman seeks to explore uncharted arenas by focusing primarily on the synagogue. It is through the change in the brick and mortar as well as the functionality of the synagogue that allowed American Jews to commence “[i]n the work of translating traditional identities into identities appropriate for the New World.” [9]

Goldman is primarily focused on articulating the historical actors desire for cultural equality. American Judaism was undergoing a process of acculturation, primarily to gain the respect of the middle-class Protestant faiths and assimilate into American culture. The most important factor in this acculturation process is the centrality of Jewish women and their place within the traditional society. Goldman highlights that “every major transformation of the American synagogue through the end of the nineteenth century was integrally associated with major redefinitions of the place that women were to take within and beyond its walls” [202]. Respectability among other American faiths could only come through the improvement of Jewish women’s standings. Thus, these changes or transformations that take place illustrate the “fundamental ambivalence about women’s religious roles that persisted even among those who pressed for the principle of women’s religious equality” [152]. Cultural acceptance, in large measure, trumps many facets of traditional Judaism.

The distribution of power is quite apparent in Goldman’s narrative. Her interest is in identifying the changing position of women within American Judaism, yet the primary historical actors are overwhelmingly men. Goldman understands this framework and addresses it early on when she states “one consequence of choosing to focus on the synagogue is that what purports to be a study of ‘finding a place for women’ is often not about women at all” [8]. It is precisely the power structure of the synagogue as the male’s domain within Judaism that limits the voice of women (as they are not considered members until after the 1920s) within Goldman’s text. Individuals such as Isaac M. Wise, Kaufmann Kohler, or Henry Berkowitz are the historical actors with which the reader spends the most time. Her analysis would be strengthened by including additional female actors in order to illustrate the response of women to their changing place at synagogue.

Tweed’s definition of religions is quite applicable to Goldman’s narrative. First, the overwhelmingly intense emphasis placed on the acceptance of Judaism among American religions and culture exemplifies Tweeds “confluences of organic-cultural flows.” The adoption of mixed choirs and mixed seating, as well as other reforms were, again, attempts to “transform Judaism into a suitably modern and American religion” [98]. American Judaism, in many respects, began to reflect the religious culture in which it was found. Both Judaism and American culture emphasized the home as the domain for women, yet Americn culture also placed religion within that same sphere. Judaism struggle with assimilation was a result of this categorization.

Second, American Judaism, with its redefinition of the place of women, is an attempt at home-making. Tweed discusses homemaking as a process that “extends the boundaries of the territory that group members allocentrically imagine as their space…[and the space is] continually figured and refigured in contact with others” [Tweed 110]. It is interesting that Goldman narrative is both about a religious group with a strong collective identity who are attempting to take on an even larger collective identity as an American religion. Goldman would argue that they are adopting, or possibly just adding, a new homeland to their religion. Tweed notes that the process of homemaking exerts power as it makes meaning. The power exerted in the process of adopting an additional type of homeland is the redefinition of women within the synagogue and American Judaism at large.



Week 2: Religion and Gender in the Making of American Judaism

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