GTUs Jewish studies gets a womans literary voice

Less than 100 years ago, Yiddish was the language of women — "kitchen talk," says Naomi Seidman.

It was used for the crafting of penny novels about dragons and princesses locked in towers, as well as "personal prayer and alternative liturgy — prayers about everything from sex to cooking."

Most were denied the opportunity to study Hebrew, the language of the Bible. While a few women did write in Hebrew, their writing never gained the popularity with women that Yiddish stories and prayers did.

As the most recent appointee to the faculty of the Richard S. Dinner Center for Jewish Studies at Berkeley's Graduate Theological Union, Seidman offers a Jewish woman's literary voice to a program that until now was staffed only by men.

"It's my ideal job," says the 35-year-old former assistant professor of comparative literature at Pennsylvania State University. "I can bring together the Jewish studies side of where I am with the literary side, which is where I like to place myself."

With undergraduate, master's and doctorate degrees in comparative literature and an Orthodox New York upbringing, Seidman synthesizes two worlds, marrying her interests in literature and Judaism.

She sees "a continuum from traditional Jewish life to secular Jewish creativity," epitomized by a number of contemporary writers who bring a rich Jewish perspective to modern literature.

Until recently, Seidman explains, most Jewish writers came from traditional backgrounds and used the sources of their study to bring a new dimension to literature, enriching their work with the resonances of Torah, Talmud and Jewish life.

Having studied the Jewish sources, these mostly male writers "managed to twist and shape this unspoken textual language [Hebrew] into a flexible tool and make the language speak to their own life," she explains.

"This is the story of modern Hebrew literature."

Seidman is adding another dimension to the story, teaching this history through the experiences of women.

She says researching Jewish literature through this lens provides her with the opportunity to add depth, history and ammunition to the Jewish feminist movement.

"One of my goals as a feminist scholar is to introduce America's Jewish audience to the first wave of Jewish feminism," Seidman says. "American Jewish feminists spend a lot of energy reworking traditional male liturgy with very little knowledge of what exists.

"They're fighting certain battles without the knowledge that these battles were fought 100 years ago in radical and direct ways."

Seidman attributes this lack of knowledge about Jewish feminist thought to the male-centered tradition of Jewish studies. Until about 60 years ago, the scholarship was only accessible through what was considered a traditional male education.

Women educated in Hebrew were the exception. So contemporary writings, in addition to Torah and Talmud, weren't accessible to them.

The training of women in these sources in the last several decades has changed all that, leading to a "groundswell of Jewish women scholars — women moving beyond American Jewish literature and feminist theology to Talmud and medieval Italian poetry with a firm grounding in traditional Jewish sources," she says.

Seidman's dual background enables her to apply literary theory and linguistics to both historical and theological material, within a Jewish context.

"In other words, I wanted to study literature against the background of Jewish studies."