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Tradition in a Rootless World

Tradition in a Rootless World: Women Turn to Orthodox Judaism

Lynn Davidman
Copyright Date: 1991
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    Tradition in a Rootless World
    Book Description:

    The past two decades in the United States have seen an immense liberalization and expansion of women's roles in society. Recently, however, some women have turned away from the myriad, complex choices presented by modern life and chosen instead a Jewish orthodox tradition that sets strict and rigid guidelines for women to follow. Lynn Davidman followed the conversion to Orthodoxy of a group of young, secular Jewish women to gain insight into their motives. Living first with a Hasidic community in St. Paul, Minnesota, and then joining an Orthodox synagogue on the upper west side of Manhattan, Davidman pieced together a picture of disparate lives and personal dilemmas. As a participant observer in their religious resocialization and in interviews and conversations with over one hundred women, Davidman also sought a new perspective on the religious institutions that reach out to these women and usher them into the community of Orthodox Judaism. Through vivid and detailed personal portraits,Tradition in a Rootless Worldexplores women's place not only in religious institutions but in contemporary society as a whole. It is a perceptive contribution that unites the study of religion, sociology, and women's studies.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-91157-4
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. 1 A Day in the Life of Two Jewish Women
    (pp. 1-25)

    It is Saturday morning, about 9:30, The streets of the Upper West Side of Manhattan are empty, except for a few hardy joggers puffing along with their Walkmen. As Stephanie,¹ a thirty-two-year-old advertising executive, approaches her destination, the large, modern, white-stone synagogue at the corner of West 69th Street, she begins to notice the dressed-up people converging on the streets, all seemingly heading to Shabbat² (Sabbath) services. She draws her breath and follows them into the synagogue.

    Inside the building, in the red and black carpeted lobby, people are milling about. The women are fashionably dressed and bejeweled, and several...

  5. 2 Women, Judaism, and Modernity
    (pp. 26-48)

    Stephanie, Beth, and the other women I introduced in the last chapter caught my attention because they were engaged in an unusual enterprise: they and their companions at Lincoln Square Synagogue and Bais Chana were modern secular women who were choosing to explore Orthodox—that is, very strictly observant—religious communities. While any evidence of renewed interest in Orthodox Judaism (the most fundamentalist form) is surprising because it challenges some commonsense assumptions about the fate of religion and Judaism in modern society, Orthodox Judaism’s appeal to this group of women is especially intriguing because it runs counter to an additional...

  6. 3 A Journey into Two Jewish Communities
    (pp. 49-73)

    In late June 1983 I boarded an airplane in Boston that was headed to the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport. I was on my way to participate in and study the daily life at Bais Chana, a residential institute run by the Lubavitch Hasidim. Bais Chana serves to introduce young, mostly Jewish women to traditional, Lubavitch-style Judaism through an intensive program of classes and everyday living. I was twenty-eight years old, I had been married for four years, and I was doing research for my doctoral dissertation.

    I had first learned about Bais Chana through the literature I had been reading on...

  7. 4 Order, Belonging, and Identity
    (pp. 74-107)

    At both Lincoln Square and Bais Chana the impetus to join an Orthodox community was clearly related to each woman’s perception of her place in her life course. More than 90 percent of the women I met in both communities were in a transitional phase of adulthood that was shaped by their increasing desire to create and establish families of their own. For the Lincoln Square women the critical age was generally when they reached their early to mid-thirties. In contrast, the college years, especially the first year at college or the year following graduation from high school, were critical...

  8. 5 Women into Wives and Mothers
    (pp. 108-135)

    The women coming into the modern Orthodox and Lubavitch communities were seeking a sense of self rooted in a larger, continually existing community with a past and a future. They were also seeking an ordered sense of self on a personal level: they were troubled by the confusion over gender in the wider society and by the lack of comfortable, established patterns for forming nuclear families. Critics of contemporary culture see the “deinstitutionalization” of the private realm—the transformations in society’s norms for courtship, marriage, sexuality, and childrearing—as leading to a sense of anomie and discomfort that proves fertile...

  9. 6 Teachings on Jewish Religious Observance
    (pp. 136-173)

    The women who were attracted to the modern Orthodox and Lubavitch communities were seeking an alternative to the established ways of life offered by contemporary U.S. society. Recent cultural analyses, such as Bellah and his coauthors’ study of the “habits of the heart” of the white middle class in the United States, have found “a notion of the self as pure, undetermined choice, free of tradition, obligation, and commitment.”¹ Orthodox Judaism was appealing to these women precisely because it offered them a clearly articulated identity constructed in the context of an inherited religious tradition and a community of memory. Yet...

  10. 7 The Dynamics of Conversion
    (pp. 174-190)

    Conversion is a dynamic process shaped by the interactions and mutual influence between conversionist institutions and their recruits. Most of the literature on conversion looks at the issue either from the perspective of the convert (the more common approach) or from the perspective of the organization. My approach is to develop an interactive model that analyzes individual experiences and institutional contexts simultaneously. When applied, this model reveals that the conversion experience in each setting was shaped by certain characteristics of the settings, such as the strength of their boundaries with the wider society, and of the women, such as their...

  11. 8 On Women and Religious Traditions in Modern U.S. Society
    (pp. 191-206)

    The two central themes in this book—women’s nature and role in the social order and the place of religion in secular society—have been in the forefront of social discourse in industrial societies for the past one hundred fifty years. Recent structural changes in women’s roles and signs of religious resurgence have resulted in a revitalization of these concerns in the late-twentieth-century United States and elsewhere around the globe. A close examination of a particular case in which these issues converge—that ofba’alot teshuvah—allows us to see more general stresses and strains in the culture. Although few...

  12. Appendix A: Interview Guide for Ba’alot Teshuvah
    (pp. 207-210)
  13. Appendix B: Interview Guide for Rabbis
    (pp. 211-212)
  14. Appendix C: Questionnaire for Bais Chana Women
    (pp. 213-218)
  15. Notes
    (pp. 219-226)
  16. Glossary
    (pp. 227-234)
  17. References
    (pp. 235-248)
  18. Index
    (pp. 249-254)