Workshop on Jewish Women’s Labor in the Premodern World at HUC-JIR/Cincinnati

people looking at old book

Conference participants

Reflecting on her 50 years in the rabbinate, Rabbi Sally Priesand ’72 wrote that the ordination of female rabbis “allows [us to hear]—often for the first time—the stories of those whose voices have been silenced for too long.” The 50th anniversary of Rabbi Priesand’s ordination provides an opportunity to celebrate the legacies of Jewish women throughout history.

“Workshop on Jewish Women’s Labor in the Premodern World,” a conference featuring new research on women’s labor in medieval Jewish societies, recently took place on our Cincinnati campus. This conference was funded by a Priesand Ordination 50th Anniversary Initiative Grant through the HUC-JIR President’s Office, supported by HUC-JIR/Cincinnati Dean’s Office and the Jacob Raider Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, and organized by Jennifer Grayson, Ph.D., the Rabbi Aaron D. Panken Assistant Professor of History. This workshop presented an opportunity for participants to meet together, collaborate, and share works in progress.

Dr. Jennifer Grayson

In describing women’s work, Dr. Grayson explains that it has always been integral to Jewish life. “Premodern Jewish women performed often-invisible and uncompensated domestic labor and childcare. At the same time, many were economic actors in their own right: they served as medical practitioners, textile producers, moneylenders, merchants, real estate investors, teachers, donors to communal charity, and, in certain cases, even as prayer-leaders.”

She continues, “Recovering this legacy of Jewish women’s labor, however, remains challenging. Most of the available sources for reconstructing premodern Jewish history were written by men, for men. Their discussions about the everyday lives and labors of mothers, wives, and daughters are often opaque. The history of domestic labor remains particularly difficult to access.”


Dr. Rachel Furst

Dr. Pratima Gopalakrishnan ’14, the Provost’s Early Career Fellow in Classics at the University of Texas at Austin and conference participant, says, “Many of us deal with rabbinic literature through the ages, which offers tantalizing yet opaque discussions about the everyday lives and labors of women. Even documentary sources like contracts, notarial records, and wills must be read in the context of scribal and archival practices, and they don’t offer transparent access to women’s lives or voices. This workshop has been an invaluable space for thinking about these shared questions and challenges.”

Some conference participants included scholars who regularly meet with Dr. Grayson on Zoom to share academic works in progress. Their research interests span the rabbinic period through the early modern period and encompass northern Europe and the Mediterranean world.

“Although we study different historical contexts, we all ask similar questions of our sources,” Dr. Grayson explains. “Particularly about the relationship between prescriptive rabbinic law and the everyday experiences of Jewish women.”


Dr. Eve Krakowski

The group enjoyed the opportunity to meet in person at this conference. Dr. Grayson comments, “We all left feeling very energized by our work, both together and separately. We plan to continue these conversations over Zoom and hold another in-person gathering within the next year or two. On a personal note, I was so grateful to have the opportunity to share the resources of the Cincinnati campus with a visiting group of scholars. As a group, we had a ton of fun examining original 18th and 19th-century ketubot from Charleston and Suriname in the American Jewish Archives, and exploring the treasures of the Rare Book Room in the Klau Library.”

The conference took place at the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives. Some sessions of the conference were open to the public and in partnership with the Klau Library and Jewish Language Project.

The public programs included:

The Language of Dying: Women’s Wills in the Premodern Mediterranean with Dr. Rena Lauer, Associate Professor at Oregon State in partnership with the Jewish Language Project.
View the recording on YouTube.

The Klau Library Talks, Women’s Work: A Speaker Series Featuring New Research on Jewish Women’s Labor in Medieval Jewish Societies:
Emotional Labor: Ritualized Grief in Medieval Jewish Thought and Practice
with Eve Krakowski, Ph.D., Associate Professor at Princeton University
Jewish Women and the Rabbinic Establishment in Medieval Ashkenaz: Voices from the Courtroom with Dr. Rachel Furst, Research Fellow at the University of Haifa

Once the recordings of all the public events are available, we plan to share them publicly through HUC Connect On Demand in the coming months. Stay tuned.