Gender and Identity


In traditional Judaism the woman’s role was mainly centred on the household. Her primary identity was that of mother and wife. It is she who was charged with keeping a kosher home. If we consider the entry of the Jews into England with the Normans, we are aware of the way Jewish women from Caen brought with them the rituals surrounding Jewish Purity Laws. This is detailed in the London Jewish Museum’s reconstruction of a ritual bath or mikveh.

Women’s work

 Daughters traditionally learned from their mothers. Their required knowledge was to welcome in the Sabbath by lighting candles, understand what must be done in the household for the many festivals and help their mothers with the weekly Sabbath meal. Women were seen as mothers, daughters, wives and sisters whereas men were traditionally seen as heads of the household. The Edenic image of a woman made from Adam’s rib remains as a strong trope and endorses the idea of the Jewish woman as being secondary to the Jewish man. In Jewish law, a woman’s testimony is worth half that of a man’s.  However, we know that women throughout the medieval period and onwards worked, when necessary, to support their families.  Women’s lives were not only domestic in the medieval Jewish community. Charlotte Newman Goldy suggests possible, unrecorded, social interactions between Jewish and Christian women after all Jews were not ghettoized and they shared the same social geography. 

 In the Journal of Medieval History, Goldy writes about Muriel of Oxford whose husband David wanted to divorce her as she bore no living child. He demanded intervention by the royal court which granted his divorce and superceded the rabbinical court.  After his divorce, David married Licoricia of Winchester who became a hugely important money lender after the death of her husband. A dynamic woman as a powerful public figure is not in contravention to the medieval Jewish practice where women were allowed a public position in the temporal world. 

The rights – and wrongs – of women

Judaism offers certain legal rights.  From the biblical period to today a woman about to marry has a contract called a ketubah, what we would now call a pre-nup. Divorce for orthodox Sephardi or Ashkenazi Jewish women was always dependent on a husband’s legal agreement. A wife seeking freedom must await a ‘get’, a legal document that her husband can refuse. This can leave her chained to him. The Sephardi philosopher Maimonides (1138-1204) challenged this practice. He was critical of tyrannical husbands, writing in defence of the chained wife that, ‘She is not a prisoner so that she may be forced to have intercourse with a man she cannot abide.’ He also writes that ‘a woman is at liberty to refuse intercourse with a man, even if he is her husband.’

Within orthodox Judaism, a man can divorce an infertile woman as the primary role of marriage is to produce children but a woman can request a divorce if her husband does not satisfy her sexually. Therefore, although Judaism is patriarchal, it is perhaps the first Abrahamic religion to speak about the importance of female orgasm. Another area of inconsistency is that Judaism, which was previously patrilineal, became matrilineal during the Roman period, and is now inherited through the mother’s line.

Ongoing debates

As Judaism is a religion of debate and not of absolute authority –there is no pope or archbishop-Talmudic argument has split hairs over women’s role for centuries.  Jewish practice was also affected by the host culture. Under Biblical Law a man was allowed to marry many women and did not need her consent for a divorce. Israel Abrahams writing in Jewish Life in the Middle Ages reveals how ‘in Spain, under the Moors, monogamy was never fully recognised by the Jews’. Jewish sages did not always agree. In Moorish Spain, rabbis discouraged, bigamy and sometimes the husband was forced to pay back his wife’s dowry before another marriage was allowed.

Hidden from history

The history of Sephardi women in English life is minimal in the archives compared to that of men. Women were clearly as polylingual as their French, Spanish, Ladino- speaking brothers and fathers and some would have known Hebrew.  Shakespeare gives us Jessica, the imaginary  Jewish daughter of the infamous creation Shylock and Marlowe offers us the villainous Barabas’ daughter Abigail. Both redeem themselves by becoming Christians. Real Jewish women  appear in the figure Emilia Bassano who is believed to have been the first woman of Jewish identity to have published poetry in England. She is also thought by some to have been Shakespeare’s lover and perhaps his Dark Lady of the Sonnets.

Shakespeare’s feminist collaborator?

Emilia Bassano was born in 1569. Her father, Baptista, was a Sephardi Venetian musician invited to play at King Henry VIII’s court. In 2017, Morgan Lloyd Malcolm wrote the play Emilia, which was produced at the Globe Theatre and in the West End. Malcolm, whose Jewish father had been an actor, suggests, and many academics agree, that Bassano was both Shakespeare’s lover and possibly, his occasional co-writer. The unusual name ‘Emilia’ occurs in several of Shakespeare’s plays. Bassano was the first Englishwoman to identify herself as a professional poet with her 1611 Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum/Hail God King of the Jews. Within this volume, Eve’s Apology refuses to damn Eve for provoking the Fall. Bassano proclaims that Adam is the sinner not Eve and, in her stunning punchline, declares that men’s ‘superior’ knowledge is stolen from women:  

Yet Men will boast of Knowledge, which he took

From Eve’s fair hand, as from a learned Book

Jewish actresses in eighteenth-century England

Another famous (unknown) stage name is Hannah Norsa. Norsa was born in 1712 and her mother was believed to have been Esther de Aharon de Chaus who married Ishac de Jehosuah Norsa (Isaac) at Bevis Marks Synagogue. Norsa, who claimed to be the first Jewish actress to appear on the English stage, starred as Polly Peachum in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera at the Covent Garden Theatre in 1732. She also took leading roles in works by George Farquhar and Thomas Otway. Norsa was the mistress of Robert Walpole, Earl of Oxford and lived with him in Norfolk. A local clergyman’s wife wrote of the actress, ‘She is a very agreeable Woman, & Nobody ever behav’d better in her Station, she has every body’s good word, and bears great Sway at Houghton.’  When Norsa died in 1784 she was buried in St Mary Abbots Kensington. She left £4,300 invested in Treasury stock. Engravings and prints of her are kept in the British Museum and the National Portrait Gallery.

Ida Romanzinin, another Sephardi woman in the arts, worked under her married name of Maria Bland. Born in 1770, she performed from the age of four. An image of her in the travesty role of Madelon in George Coleman’s The Surrender of Calais testifies to her charismatic quality. Bland was baptised but her ‘Jewish appearance’ was mocked and satirised in stories of her sewing in front of her window each Saturday in the presence of a pig.

A Sephardi woman of great importance

The lives of Bassano, Norsa and Bland were far from the norms of traditional Orthodox Sephardi society. However, there was another prominent woman, who lived in the heart of the Sephardi community. Maria de Carvajal was the widow of Antonio Fernandez de Carvajal, one of the most prominent Jews in Cromwell’s Republic. When Jews were threatened with re-expulsion after Cromwell’s death, Maria called a meeting at her house in Leadenhall Street in Aldgate. A woman’s voice is still not allowed to be heard during Bevis Marks Synagogue services but, in the 17th century, it had political heft. In 1660, Maria petitioned Charles II pleading for ‘His Majesty’s protection to continue and reside in his dominions.’  She was supported by the Sephardi male establishment and heard by the king. 

Second class citizens

Sephardim in the 17thcentury existed in a state of anxiety. Yet these exiles and their descendants also controlled their own society through a strict social hierarchy. In his 2017 essay, Discipline, Dissent and Communal Authority in the Western Sephardic Diaspora, Yosef Kaplan writes of rigid class differences within the London Sephardi community. He notes that it ‘found special expression in the punishments levied for transgressions of this kind. Poor people who insulted members of the leadership were liable to lose their monthly stipend from the charity fund.’ The synagogue authority ‘represented the interests and reflected the values of the men of means and property, of those who paid dues and were capable of sustaining themselves independently.’ Women’s role was to sustain this authority and be obedient to it. Just as in Christian England, Jewish women’s bodies did not belong to them. A daughter could not marry without her father’s consent. The Sephardim absorbed the class system of English society which was close to the hierarchical structures of the Iberian Peninsula. 

A few dared challenge these attitudes. In 1770, when Isaac Coronel was accused of the ‘theft’ of Rebecca, the 13-year old daughter of Aaron Pereira, he was excommunicated. His fiancée Rebecca was later married to a wealthier man. Whether Isaac was to Rebecca’s taste is unrecorded. As Kaplan writes in another essay, The Abduction of A Girl In Order To Marry Her, it is likely that Rebecca Pereira was complicit in her choice of Isaac and of running away with him but, Kaplan notes that, ‘the community register took care to erase any sign of cooperation on the girl’s part’. Even in 2020, official Sephardi archives are not freely available. The archives of the Sephardi and Portuguese community’s history are deposited at London Metropolitan Archives and permission to access them is a lengthy and difficult process. 

Untold stories

Sephardim arrived in England carrying family memories of denunciation, auto-da-fe, torture and burning at the stake. Unsurprisingly, Sephardi survival tactics were to keep a low profile but it is sad that so many women’s experiences are lost and only the narratives of successful men dominate this history.
Virginia Woolf wrote in her 1928 essay A Room of One’s Own that, had Shakespeare had an ambitious actor-writer sister, she would have been raped and murdered. It is not surprising, therefore, that feminists celebrate Emilia Bassano as a symbol of ambition and its partial realisation. Although Bassano was forbidden to act in, or publish, plays, she used her pen to deconstruct the central myth of Abrahamic patriarch.  Whether Rebecca Pereira could read, write or live the life she wanted, is doubtful. Maria de Carvajal is to be admired for her political agency but, although there are reams written about her husband, the reader must search hard to find more than a few sentences about the political activism of his widow.