Naomi Seidman
Naomi Seidman (University of Toronto)

Bay Area scholar Naomi Seidman wins National Jewish Book Award for study of Orthodox girls’ movement

Books coverage is supported by a generous donation from Anne Germanacos.

Bay Area resident and Jewish studies scholar Naomi Seidman has won a National Jewish Book Award for “Sarah Schenirer and the Bais Yaakov Movement,” a biographical history published in January 2019.

Seidman’s exploration of the Bais Yaakov movement and its founder, Sarah Schenirer, won in the women’s study category, but was also a finalist in the education and Jewish identity category, which was won by Deborah Lipstadt for “Antisemitism: Here and Now.” Winners were announced Jan. 15 by the Jewish Book Council.

Schenirer founded a series of schools for Orthodox girls in Poland between the two world wars, a time when traditional Jewish society was threatened by assimilation and modernity. The schools bloomed into a movement that revitalized the Orthodox community and continues to flourish today in Modern Orthodox circles.

“A vivid portrait of Schenirer shines through,” reads a blurb from the publisher, the Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, a branch of Liverpool University Press. “Her pioneering, determined character remains the subject of debate in a culture that still regards innovation, female initiative and women’s Torah study with suspicion.”

In a statement issued after the awards were announced, Seidman said, “It’s an enormous honor to have won the most prestigious book award that the Jewish world has to offer. But even more than this honor, being awarded the National Jewish Book Award also opens the possibility of reaching a wider audience than most academics can hope for. After spending years working alone in archives and at the computer, that relationship with readers is particularly sweet.”

In a phone interview with J., Seidman said that “the Bay Area is far away from the epicenter of Bais Yaakov life.” Most of the movement’s adherents are in New York and Lakewood, New Jersey, mused the creator of the website TheBaisYaakovProject.com. “But even in the Bay Area you find Bais Yaakov girls everywhere you go. It’s a real life connection that you never outgrow.”

Cover of "Sarah Schenirer and the Bais Yaakov Movement" by Naomi SeidmanSeidman, 59, is the daughter of Hassidic Jewish writer Hillel Seidman, who kept (and later published) a Yiddish-language diary of life in the Warsaw Ghetto, which he escaped in January 1943.

A graduate of UC Berkeley, she taught Jewish culture and other topics for 23 years at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, where her titles included Koret Professor of Jewish Culture and director of the Richard S. Dinner Center for Jewish Studies.

In the middle of 2018, she became a professor at the University of Toronto, splitting time between the school’s department of religious studies and its center for diaspora and transnational studies.

But she maintains a home in Berkeley and lectures often at GTU.  She taught Torah for many years at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, and was a Torah columnist for J. eight years ago. In 2016, Seidman received a Guggenheim Fellowship for the Humanities.

Deena Aronoff, who was appointed to Seidman’s position in 2018, was enthusiastic about the award. “Naomi is such a local treasure, and her work on Sarah Schenirer so groundbreaking,” Aronoff said. “The name Bais Yaakov is typically thought of as an ultra-Orthodox girls school from Poland. What Seidman did was to uncover aspects of it that no one else saw. It’s a major retrieval of a feminist youth movement that makes you rethink the ultra-Orthodoxy of that time, which did not all reflect the more rigid postures of today.”

Generally, Seidman’s scholarly writing explores relationships between Judaism, literature, gender studies, translation studies and sexuality. Her previous works include “A Marriage Made in Heaven: The Sexual Politics of Hebrew and Yiddish” (1997), “Faithful Renderings: Jewish-Christian Difference and the Politics of Translation” (2010) and “The Marriage Plot: Or, How Jews Fell in Love with Love, and with Literature” (2016). She also writes fiction.

The National Jewish Book Awards were established 69 years ago by the Jewish Book Council. The winners of the 2019 awards will be honored on March 17 in Manhattan. Seidman’s award is officially called the Barbara Dobkin Award, in honor of the 76-year-old, N.Y.-based Jewish feminist philanthropist.

Seidman will discuss her book at the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco on June 14, accompanied by a chorus of women singing some of the songs (mostly in Yiddish) of the Bais Yaakov movement.

Before that, on March 16 at 9 a.m., she is scheduled to be the leadoff speaker in “Storytelling and the Making of Jewish Culture,” part of the annual conference for the Richard S. Dinner Center for Jewish Studies at GTU in Berkeley. The conference is free and open to the public.

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s Culture Editor, and was a longtime J. freelance writer before that.