Lost and Found:
Jewish Women Recovering Tradition, Remaking Themselves
This study explores the turn towards stringently observant Orthodox Judaism among lesser observant Jewish women ages late 40s to early 70s residing in a rapidly growing Sunbelt city. It seeks to answer three questions: what is the impulse that inspires such a fundamental life change; what is the process for making that change; and how does that change impact the sense of self, as individuals and within families and communities?
It is an ethnographic study that uses a qualitative, modified grounded theory methodology to gather and analyze data, allowing themes to arise from extensive field observation and intensive participant interviews. The data establish an underlying phenomenon of lost and found, a personal loss, compounded by a lessening or loss of religious grounding, which inspires a recovery of traditional religion and a remaking of identity.
Other key findings manifest a fluidity of religious identity and a propensity for change; the social nature of such identity and the significance of communal belonging in its progression; the impact of memory, history, generation, life course position and geographic location in inspiring and informing such a progression; a reframing of feminist assertions and gender roles within a traditional religious framework; an assertion of the existence of women’s interior life and assumption of personal responsibility for its realization; a reconciliation of a rhetoric of choice and individual autonomy within a traditional religious system.
In contrast to this study, previous scholarship focused on younger men and women, most in their 20s or 30s, the majority unmarried and without children. The prior studies took place several decades earlier in major metropolitan areas, most along the Eastern seaboard and in the Midwest, more densely populated with larger, older and more established Jewish communities.
This study elucidates a shift towards more traditional religion within American Judaism and within the broader context of American religion. It provides fertile ground for future study of age and stage of life, feminism and gender roles, individual autonomy, choice, communal responsibility and religious change.