Pamela S. Nadell, a professor of history and the director of Jewish Studies at American University, has written an interesting new book that traces the lives of American Jewish women since America’s inception. Throughout America’s Jewish Women: A History from Colonial Times to Today, we learn a great deal about some spectacularly brave and innovative women who transgressed traditional boundaries to break new ground.
We hear about Henrietta Szold, the founder of Hadassah, who became a passionate Zionist and in 1927 moved to Jerusalem, where she set up the Jewish community’s social welfare system, and who later on rescued children trapped in Germany. Nadell writes about Hannah Solomon, the fourth of 10 siblings, who was born in 1858 and became the founding president of the National Council of Jewish Women in 1893. Solomon was tireless in her fight to make women’s and children’s lives better. She worked to institute Chicago’s first juvenile court and to improve the laws concerning the treatment of children. Her parents, Michael and Sarah Greenebaum, were part of the earliest group of Jews to settle in the frontier city of Chicago and were also active in civic life.
Nadell chronicles the life of Grace Mendes Seixes Nathan (1752-1831) who came from Portugal and whose life was confined within marriage and motherhood, unlike her great-granddaughter Emma Lazarus (1949-1887) who was a radical and whose poem “The Exodus” was inscribed upon the Statue of Liberty. Grace’s life as the wife of a wealthy merchant and the sister of an important Jewish scholar was sidelined by the men in her life who commanded center stage in the public sphere. But Emma Lazarus was able to experiment with new ways of living as a Jewish woman in America; a woman out in the world. Yet, Nadell points out that both women felt alienated as Jews in America.
Nadell peeks into the life of Abigail Franks, who yearned for a more modernized Judaism in 1760 in Philadelphia. She was married to Jacob Franks, a London-born businessman. She was the mother of nine children, two of whom died in childhood. She ran a traditional Jewish home, observed the Sabbath and kept a kosher kitchen. She yearned for Judaism to become more amenable to the present-day world, yet when her daughter Phila married outside the faith at a time when this was almost unheard of, she cut off contact with her daughter for several years.
Rebecca Gratz founded the first Hebrew Sunday school in 1840, geared to poor Jewish children who knew very little about their faith at a time when Jewish education in the United States was almost invisible. Gratz spent decades launching her pupils into careers as Jewish educators; an idea that quickly spread to other cities where Jews resided. Her work eventually extended to the creation of orphanages for Jewish girls that included having her pupils learn embroidery, dressmaking and how to operate a sewing machine.
Rosa Sonneschein landed in St. Louis with her husband in 1869, but her marriage later ended in divorce. She eventually ventured into journalism and started the first magazine for Jewish women called The American Jewess, which addressed domestic concerns, but also the rising cries for emancipation. Nadell explains how women were changing and coming to see their role in life as one that extended beyond the kitchen: “They defended their interventions into public life as natural extensions of their maternal instincts. From caring for disadvantaged women and children, they leaped to concern for the health, safety, and welfare of all women and children. From there, they vaulted in to the political fray, demanding government attention to sanitation, schools and child labor.”
NADELL DEMONSTRATES repeatedly how many early American Jews struggled with their sense of Jewish identity, which had been ruptured as they fled from their homelands around the world. Some tried to assimilate and ignore any remnants of Jewish connectedness. Others attempted to define themselves as “a distinct race.” The term “ethnicity” had not yet emerged. The catastrophe of the Nazi rampage to eradicate the Jews lay in the future. For late 19th-century Jews, calling themselves a race – they also used the terms nation and people – “resolved the paradox of defining who was a Jew.” But there was much confusion mingled with a still-resilient feeling that if they had to express to someone who they were in essence, the word “Jew” would undoubtedly quickly slip from their lips.
Nadell tries to explain the muddle: “Being Jewish was less about God or synagogue than about a way of living. As one Baltimorean, remembering the aromas of her mother’s kitchen, put it: ‘Jewish feeling was in your home.’”
Two and a half million Jews arrived in America in the late 1880s, most of them fleeing the pogroms in Russia. Others came from Spain, the Ottoman Empire, and the Mediterranean lands, Hapsburg, Galicia, and Romania. Bessie Abaomowitz was born in 1889 in the Pale of Settlement and was one of 10 children. She settled in Chicago and began work in a garment shop. She later became a labor activist and led the 1910 Chicago Workers’ Strike that eventually brought about the creation of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America labor union in 1914.
Nadell ping-pongs from one woman to another and, if truth be told, never really seizes the spirit of any of them. They remain ghost-like, almost surreal. Surely, the author is hampered by the lack of information about many of them, as women’s lives at that time, even the ones that were trailblazers, were not seen as worthy of serious consideration. But one senses she is too comfortable simply presenting to us a thumbnail sketch of so many of them that they eventually all blend into some sort of indefinable void.
We long to linger over the lives of a few of them and imagine what it might have been like to face so many personal, social, religious and spiritual obstacles and still endure. How did they do it? In whom did they confide? Was there any recourse if something went wrong? But Nadell seems comfortable resting on the margins of women’s lives; she steers clear of the messiness and chaotic confusion that often defines them. She seems uncomfortable even contemplating the inner life of anyone else. The portraits she paints for us in America’s Jewish Women are almost exclusively tied to their tangible accomplishments, but this leaves out so much that is of equal or superior importance.
Muriel Rukeyer was born into a wealthy Jewish family in New York in 1913. She wrote in one of her poems this unforgettably crushing line: “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.”
Somehow, Rukeyer’s sentiment expresses what is missing from Nadell’s reportage. Nadell leaves out the unspoken truths of women’s lives; a place she seems hesitant to intrude upon.
READING NADELL’S book, I couldn’t help but think she had left out one very important Jewish woman who had as much to contribute to the story of early Jewish American female life as any of the others. My own grandmother, Lottie Rothberg, mother of three, who never ventured far beyond her own tiny kitchen window in Brooklyn. Lottie Rothberg lived in abject poverty and did what she needed to do in order to survive. She took in boarders that stayed with her family in order to pay the rent. Then there were the unspoken and unwanted backroom abortions she endured, fearing for her life each time she went.
But there was laughter, too, and singing; always Yiddish songs, which she sang while cooking and doing the dishes at night. There were also the sisters and cousins and nephews and nieces that lived nearby – or in the living room on the sofa when times were especially rough. And her husband’s factory work, which wavered according to the need of those who ran the garment shops, leaving them wondering when the money might stop, and when it might begin again. There was always her devout religiousness, which she never abandoned, and her husband’s atheism, which he swallowed whole in order not to hurt her. My grandmother never embraced the political and social movements that were gaining steam right outside her tiny kitchen window. It took all her energy just to keep the family afloat.
I never met her and only know of her through my mother’s stories, which somehow were able to bring to life a real woman who cried, bled, mourned, feared and persevered despite the misery that often threatened the love they all had for one another. Nadell never allows herself to wallow in such agony. She’s an achiever; and most of the women she writes about are achievers just like herself. But sometimes, achievement is only a disguise that can obliterate greater truths about the lives we lead and what makes them truly meaningful.
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