Yale Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies
Volume 2, Issue 2
spring 2012
Editor, Geetanjali Singh Chanda
Managing Editor, Linda Hase
Layout Design, Nick Appleby

In Memoriam: Paula Hyman
1946 – 2011

by Laura Wexler


All of us are busy, and heedless of the inexorability of loss.  We seem instead to expect replenishment, as if it is inevitable and only what we deserve.  Even Paula herself did not take much time to stop and deliberately commemorate. To pause in the limelight was not her way.  For her, there was only the next student; the next book; the next project.  Yet at her funeral, it was so impressive to hear how everyone spoke of her and to be reminded of all the things that Paula did and meant to so many people.  I do wish we had gotten to tell her those things while she was alive, and not assumed that there would be time enough later.

The message is to take less for granted.

It is important for the feminist history of Yale for us to remember Paula.  There would have been much less of it without her.  She was a stalwart in the WGSS program.  She came to meetings, had lunch around the table, loitered in the hallway, and contributed her energy, support and strategy up until she simply did not have the strength to do so any longer.  She taught courses for the program about Jewish women and she wrote about rebellious women pioneers.  In later years, the discourse around that table shortsightedly set her sometimes to the side - but she kept coming and supporting the program anyway.  Hers was a class act.

Paula was also a stalwart at the Women Faculty Forum Council and Steering Committee meetings. She was particularly concerned with fairness in hiring practices. She was a good partner to anyone who made a real effort to bring women up through the ranks. 

Paula took famously good care of her students, but she also mentored new young faculty.  I noticed this myself because for years there were people who sought me out because Paula had told them something nice about me.  When I first came, she nominated me to be a Fellow at Saybrook College, and brought me to meetings, and introduced me to the other Fellows.  Never overbearing or officious, this was just one more way she tried to make community.  I miss that gift especially.  I had not realized how much my own ability to imagine life at Yale had depended upon her being here, until she was gone.

On campus, of course, aside from her teaching and mentoring, she played many other feminist roles.  Especially memorable was a series of two or three Jewish feminist conferences at the Slifka Center in the early 1990s in which she played a powerful part. Paula was also tirelessly involved with Jewish feminism off campus and her national role in fact profoundly eclipsed these local manifestations of her feminism, important though those were.  Paula was one of the country’s most influential and effective activists in the struggle to get women to be treated as equals in traditional Judiasm, including ordination. She was also totally on board with the issue of lesbian and gay rights.  Having a dear friend who left her husband for another woman had made her think it through - and once she felt she understood, she was a strong clear voice.  As the numerous obituaries published after her death attest, she was among the foremost scholars of Jewish life and of gender in her generation. I attended a memorial to Paula held at the Association of Jewish Studies shortly after her death.  The photograph accompanying these thoughts is one I took of the sign in an empty hallway announcing this event.  Person after person filled first one large room and then another and then spilled out the door, and for two hours scholars in her field spontaneously shared their memories of what they had learned from her.  Every individual voice held up a resonant facet of her work.

In her personal life, Paula was a leader in the observant synagogue that enveloped the Sabbaths of her life. Her private life and her religious practice, in fact, were seamless, in the way of the ancient traditions, but made new for the post-war years. I had known of Paula long before I ever met her, because she was involved in the founding of the New York Havurah.  This was a movement of young Jews who wanted to escape what seemed to them the ossified synagogues of their parents, and to create rituals, readings and practices that fitted their vitality.  While I was myself a student in Boston and New York, I was very admiring of the Havurah.  There was real learning there, for women as well as men.  I was attracted by this, even though I eventually chose to go another way.  When Paula was young, she was a brilliant, blue eyed, golden haired radical.  You have to imagine the impression she made.

Actually, Paula was generally pretty opinionated, which was something I really liked about her, and she relished the opportunity to show that she would not be bullied into changing her mind.  I often disagreed with her - for instance about the relative importance of bringing in new faculty to study Europe versus Africa or Asia, -- but I depended upon her always to speak her mind.  Israel was a case in point.  She went to Israel most summers; she had family, friends, close ties there; and she stood up for the difficulties of the Israeli situation vis-a-vis Palestinian aspirations.  She took positions that I would not, even as I knew she was not a bigot or a knee-jerk supporter.  But Israel’s Jewish existence was bedrock to her, and her Jewish life was central.  Anyone who spoke with her was going to have to acknowledge that.  

I also knew of her long struggle with cancer.  She was a young mother of two very young children when she was first diagnosed, and it was a shadow that never for a moment left her life.   She spoke about it occasionally – especially the sexism of one of her surgeons – but she never seemed anywhere near self pity.  It is astonishing what she accomplished under this constant threat.  She defied it numerous times.  This was the reason her friends and colleagues, and maybe she herself, believed she would beat it once more.  That seemed to be what she ordinarily did.   I'd say that she was a hero in that respect.  Her courage had a matter-of-fact-ness, a lack of drama, a forthcoming quality, even a pleasure in competitiveness around intellectual matters, that strike me as placing her beyond the pain of the personal.  Paula was almost a character-type, except that she was so original.  Certainly she was a force.

One day, far into her last illness, while I was Co-chair of the Yale Women Faculty Forum, Paula climbed a very steep flight of stairs to an early morning Steering Committee meeting .  It was very difficult for her physically to do this.  Her feet were in bad shape.  She was painfully out of breath.  There was no particular organizational reason for her to make such an effort to attend that meeting.  But Paula had come to resign.  She couldn’t tell herself any longer that she had energy for the WFF.  And to her, there was nothing she did at Yale that was as important as her work for women.  She had come, she said, to tell us this in person.  No other way would do.

Paula’s death puts me in mind of Emily Dickinson, another brilliant strong-willed woman:  "Because I could not stop for Death/ He kindly stopped for me..."  That is exactly how she met every challenge of adversity, of which she had many.  She refused to stop doing what she knew was to be done, until virtually the very moment death overcame her.

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