The primary intention of teaching Jewish History in Jewish day schools is not to make young historians. Of course, there is nothing wrong with teaching, or even enjoying, history for history’s sake. However, teachers of Jewish History usually try to make the Jewish past and the students’ connection to it more meaningful in order to create meaning in the Judaism of our students’ lives today. If we want our students to feel this type of connection from the past to the present (and hopefully into the future), do they need to personally identify with historical events and the people that were a part of them? No, and yes. An Ashkenazi male student can identify with an account of a converso woman being accused of Judaizing during the Inquisition, just as a Sephardi male student can find meaning in the Diary of Anne Frank. However, sometimes students can benefit from hearing the story of someone in Jewish History who shares more with them than “just” religion. In the Jewish history we usually teach there are (male) rabbis and (male) writers and (male) philosophers, (male) poets and (male) leaders. Where are the women in Jewish History? Shouldn’t the young women in our classes have the opportunity to identify with and learn from the Jewish women of their past?

Until recently, history has been told by the “winners” and by those who could write it down or pay someone to write it down. In traditional patriarchal societies, this is usually not the women. The first known book written by a Jewish woman is the Memoirs of Glikl of Hameln written in the late 17th century. But, what about before then? Despite the paucity of attention to women in traditional Jewish History studies, there is a growing body of literature emerging focusing specifically on women—their lives and roles both as individuals and as historical figures. As teachers, we, and our students, benefit from this approach. It can enable us to teach about Jewish women of the past with whom our students, especially our female students, can identify. Our male students can also benefit and learn from the struggles and successes of these female participants in their Jewish pasts.

I teach an optional course to high school seniors in the Jewish Studies program at TanenbaumCHAT in Toronto. Its main focus is Jewish Women, and it combines Jewish History and Gender Studies. It is an exciting opportunity for our students to study women in Jewish History and appreciate them through a lens that they haven’t encountered in other classes. Who were these women and how do we find out about them if their stories are not found in conventional history books? Current historians with an interest in these issues use different methodologies to bring the stories of women forward so they may be understood and appreciated. One of these ways is the study of physical artifacts. This can be particularly exciting and meaningful to our students, as photographs and videos of these “pieces of the past” are increasingly available to be viewed online.

In order to further appreciate women in ancient Jewish history, using these tools I have successfully taught about three different women known from three types of ancient artifacts from three different locations. We know more about these three than about many of their historical sisters, as they were wealthy enough to own land and therefore left documentation related to it. This documentation has been discovered, translated, and analyzed by archeologists and historians and their work is available to us, so we can pass on the stories of these women, our female ancestors, to our students.

Mibtahiah lived in the 6th century BCE on an island in the Nile River named Elephantine in a time period when Egypt was ruled by the Persian Empire. The community she lived in was multicultural as it was the home of the families of foreign mercenaries—including Jews—who worked for the Persian army. We know of her, the first documented Jewish woman known of outside of the Bible, from papyri that were official legal documents that included records of her marriages, divorces, and land acquisitions. We know that she was a Jew living in a diaspora community during the time of the First Temple and that she interacted with the non-Jewish society around her. The Judaism she practised was different from the one in Jerusalem. She married twice and had children and was also able to acquire, inherit, and gift real estate and even initiate divorce. These demonstrations of power were not unique to her in her society. However, it is rare that we have multiple documents related to a named ancient diasporic, biblical era, Jewish woman with such capabilities. These details about this ancient Jewish woman can be enlightening to our students who may otherwise assume that ancient Judaism is monolithic and always oppressively misogynistic.

Babatha lived before and during the time of the Bar Kokhba Revolt (2nd century CE), in and around Judea which was under foreign rule (except for the short time when Bar Kokhba was successful). She was a refugee in that violent time and hid with others in the caves near the Dead Sea. Among the artifacts discovered by archeologists in one of these caves was a purse holding legal papers that have become known as the Babatha Archive. It contains 35 legal documents that teach us that Babatha was a landowner near Ein Gedi, was married and widowed twice, and was a second wife in her second marriage. She lent money and seized property when it was not repaid and was involved in Roman court proceedings regarding her family and properties. From the information on these documents, written in scrolls in the different languages used in the region, it may be deduced that she was responsible, resilient, intelligent, and strong; all qualities that can serve as inspiration for our students.

Rufina lived in Smyrna, in western Asia Minor, around the same time period as Babatha. We know of her and her accomplishments from an impressive physical artifact, an engraved marble slab that she commissioned to mark a burial place for her household staff. It was written in Greek letters and threatens fines enforced by both the local Jewish and non-Jewish community for use of the site to bury anyone other than the members of her household. Rufina is not named in association with any male members of her family, and we do not know if she married or had children. The inscription explicitly identifies her as a Jewess, with the title “Head of the Synagogue.” The title is found on other ancient inscriptions as well and there are also other titles that are known from similar sources that may be compared to it: Patron, Elder, and Mother of the Synagogue. The meaning of these titles is disputed by historians, and none of them are found in rabbinic literature. They do not conform with any other known Jewish tradition of women being directly involved in public ritual matters. However, these titles clearly convey a sense of honor granted to these women, even though we do not know if this honor is derived from family connection, financial contribution, or a respect for wisdom, gained through experience or more formal methods of study. While there are still many unknowns about Rufina and other women like her, we can see from her example that ancient Jewish women were capable of controlling their finances and having a position of respect in the community, potentially even in the realm of the synagogue.

Learning about women like Mibtahiah, Babatha, and Rufina can serve as a reminder to our students that everyone counts. These women (and others) are worthy of notice, of study, and can teach us a great deal about our past. We should be teaching that people (even women), who are not considered “famous” in most Jewish History classes, lived lives of responsibility, resilience, importance, success, and failure. These are ideas to which our students—even the ones who claim not to like Jewish History—can relate. We can demonstrate that ancient relics, and our ancestors that they illuminate, are important, and can teach us about our past and perhaps even ourselves.

Anna Urowitz-Freudenstein received her Ph.D. (Midrash) and her M.A. (Ancient Judaism) from the Jewish Theological Seminary. Dr. Urowitz-Freudenstein teaches at TanenbaumCHAT, where her students know her as Dr. U-F, and she is Head of the Department of Jewish Thought. One of the courses she teaches and developed is “Gender and Judaism”.

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