An award-winning historian and scholar of gender studies has returned to JTS, joining the faculty as the first Women’s League Chair in Jewish Gender and Women’s Studies, associate professor of Jewish History, and associate chair of the program in Jewish Women’s Studies. Dr. Stefanie B. Siegmund, who earned master’s and doctoral degrees with distinction at JTS, is the author of The Medici State and the Ghetto of Florence: The Construction of an Early Modern Jewish Community, winner of the American Historical Association’s 2006 Herbert Baxter Adams Prize, the most prestigious prize awarded in the United States for a book on European history. Dr. Siegmund is a specialist in the history of the Jews of the early modern Italian states and in the history of the Jewish family.
What’s special about the graduate seminar you’re teaching this semester, Conversion, Gender, and Identity in Premodern Jewish History?
We start with the issue of how people become Jews. There is a real moment in Jewish history when a ritual for conversion into Judaism is created, sometime in the third century CE, which is also when the change to matrilineal descent in Judaism occurred. Prior to there being a ritual for women to convert, we know of few ways women could physically or publicly or politically mark themselves as Jews, whereas men did it by circumcision. It’s really a very interesting moment for us to study: what was going on at that time for women, why did that ritual get created then?
We’ll also pay attention to people leaving Judaism. The church was at different times more or less aggressive in its pursuit of converts, in its mission to convert. And at different times men and women respond differently, statistically speaking, to the call to convert.
So there are very interesting things to study. What is going on internally in Jewish history that lead men and women to respond differently to the possibility of being Christian? Most Jewish historians concentrate only on the internal Jewish dynamics in explaining why people leave the community, but I’m also interested in the history of the church, and I pay a lot of attention to what it says about itself, what kind of Christianity is it presenting, and in what ways that message might appeal differently to men and women.
Why did you choose to focus your current research on the conversion of Jews to Catholicism in sixteenth-century Italy?
My first book was about the ghettoization of the Jews in Florence, and in my research I discovered that a percentage of Jews converted instead of entering the ghetto. And it turns out that, fairly frequently, there were women born into the pre-ghetto generation who chose not to convert when their husbands did. That happens frequently enough that it’s a bit of a phenomenon. And then, I suspect, this phenomenon fades away pretty quickly, and women convert with their husbands in the next generation. That’s something I’m just beginning to explore.
What are some other connections between conversion and gender issues in Judaism?
The relationship between gender and Jewsh identity is fundamental. Do men and women experience and express their Jewishness differently, in a different way? Do they understand what it means to be Jewish in completely different terms? That’s why I ask whether men and women think they are doing the same thing when they convert or if they think they are doing something different. Do they refuse to convert for different reasons? And there are practical implications for a woman’s life when she converts that are different from the practical implications for men. Like, what would happen to her children, what would happen to her dowry.
What makes for a good man, in the Jewish tradition, and what makes for a good woman is very important in classical texts of Judaism, and it is equally important to contemporary students, to figure these issues out.
The fallacy is that people think we are the first generations to bend gender norms. But what a local society considers appropriate behavior for a man and what it considers appropriate behavior for a woman—those norms change dramatically, from century to century and place to place. It is simply not the case that women used to just be housewives and be domestic, in the home.
You earned two graduate degrees at JTS. Now that you’ve returned as a member of the faculty, what are you looking forward to?
The University of Michigan, where I taught for ten years, is a very fine institution. I loved my work there and living in Ann Arbor with its vibrant, creative Jewish community. But I’m a third-generation New Yorker, and this position at JTS means I can end a ten-year commute between my two homes, here and there, which will allow me more time for my research and for my partner Karen and our two boys, Daniel and Eli.
When I first arrived at JTS as a student in 1984, I studied the history of Jewish women and the family. Jewish women’s studies and Jewish gender studies have come a long way in the United States since then. The field is about more than history—things are happening in rabbinics, Kabbalah, and Bible, in modern literature, in fields like ethnography and performance studies. I am eager to help build on our existing strengths in the department of Jewish Women’s Studies so that we can expand our offerings. Every student who comes through JTS could be exposed to some of the fantastic debates and challenges that arise when you engage in a serious analysis of the way that gender differences are constructed, maintained, and transformed in Jewish cultures.
I am delighted that my interest in conversion and the fact that I will be integrating the history of the Catholic church into my courses on Jewish history is welcomed here. The faculty and administration here understand that when we do Jewish history we also need to do non-Jewish history. That’s very important in my teaching.
And I expect to be directed by my students. I’ve always found that my teaching ultimately reshapes my research. So it’s exciting to come here and to learn what questions the students are asking, and to see how that will affect my research. I look forward to that.