Weekly Reader People Who Make Yiddish Culture Tick

February 27, 2022

When we talk about Yiddish culture—or any culture, really—we tend to focus on its most obvious manifestations: the books, the music, the big personalities. But there is always so much that goes on beneath the surface, and so many people who are necessary to make the whole thing tick. This week, in keeping with this year’s Decade of Discovery theme, we’re taking a look at a few women’s experiences across the spectrum of Yiddish, from a childhood in Poland to political activism in the United States.

Ezra Glinter

Ahead of Her Time

In Orthodox synagogues women traditionally sit in a separate section, apart from the men, but even at five years old Sara Tepper knew she wasn’t happy with that arrangement. In this oral history interview she recalls going to shul with her grandmother in Poland, and her dissatisfaction, even at a young age, at having to sit apart.

Watch an oral history interview with Sara Tepper

American Women

Everybody knows a stereotype or two about American Jewish women, but fewer people are familiar with their rich history, going back to prerevolutionary times. On this episode of The Shmooze podcast, author Dr. Pamela Nadell talks about her book America’s Jewish Women: A History from Colonial Times to Today and the long tradition of Jewish women’s activism in the United States.

Listen to an interview with Dr. Pamela Nadell

Divorce Denied

One of the great difficulties of Jewish law is the one-way nature of divorce. A man can divorce his wife but not vice versa, meaning that women sometimes end up “chained” to recalcitrant exes who refuse to give them a get. One of the major figures in the fight for agunot is Norma Joseph, who helped create a law in Canada to help protect them. In this multilingual 1986 program from Montreal’s Jewish Public Library she talks about her work on behalf of chained women, in both the Jewish and secular legal spheres.

Listen to a talk by Norma Joseph

A Life in Song

She stood barely five feet tall, but Ruth Rubin was a giant in the field of modern Jewish culture. A solitary figure, she worked alone, drawing unique conclusions from 2,000 Yiddish folk songs she collected over the course of her 40-year career. She was a pioneer who brought together people from all walks of life, from all social classes, religious and secular, with the common desire to share Jewish folk songs.

Read about the life and work of Ruth Rubin