Paula Hyman and Christopher Hitchens OBM

The Jewish intellectual world lost two great minds to cancer this week: Paula Hyman and Christopher Hitchens (who might not be happy to be claimed as a Jew).

If you entered the field of Jewish Studies and picked up a book on modern Jewish history, you will have encountered Paula Hyman at some point or another. You might have read her My Life as a Radical Jewish Woman: Memoirs of a Zionist Feminist in Poland (2nd edition 2002) or Gender and Assimilation in Modern Jewish History: The Roles and Representation of Women (1995), a book whose Hebrew translation helped to popularize the word gender in Hebrew. She was a towering figure in our field who work brought gender analysis into the mainstream of Jewish history (we’re always a bit behind and in need of a nudge). She was a Jewish feminist and scholar who died last Thursday, after a decade-long battle with cancer, at the age of 65.

Paula Hyman also had a distinguished teaching career and taught at Yale, and for about a decade, she headed their Jewish Studies program. She served as the dean of the Seminary College of Jewish Studies, taught history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and regularly spoke at the Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University and Ben-Gurion University. Deborah Dash Moore remembers her friend fondly at the Forward. She will be missed by many.

Christopher Hitchens needs even less of an introduction. One of the most influential public intellectuals of the last decades, he has written widely and sparred with many, not shying away from sampling water boarding or bikini waxes (more painful, though less scary than the former), or from shocking allies by defending Salman Rushdie or the wars in the Falklands or Iraq. You can read a full obit here, at the NY Times. In a class on “Holy Women in Judaism, Islam, and Christianity”, we read excerpts from his study of Mother Teresa’s institutions in Kolkata, fittingly named “Compromising Positions” and a  searing critique of her work. As my students liked to point out, he was the only non-Catholic invited to give testimony at hearing on Mother Teresa’s canonization. In another class, an Intro to World Religions, some chose to approach Atheism through his God is not Great: The Case Against Religion (2007). Many were puzzled by the books’ chatty and irrespective tone, they were  impressed by the author’s breadth, although they didn’t like his barbs in the Four Horsemen, a two-hour long debate I regularly assign to my students.  Intellectually honest to a fault, I still think he would have been amused by the remark posted on a friend’s FB wall: May he rest in peace and rise in surprise.

Their voices will be missed!


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