December 10, 2019

Four Jewish Women Who Influenced a Century

“Jewish immigrants living in the squalor of the ghetto.”

It’s not a sentence you hear much these days, but it’s a sentence that cuts through both the anti-Semitic underpinning of the left’s identity politics as well as the right’s anti-immigration fervor. When 2 million Yiddish-speaking Jews arrived in the United States 100 years ago — their lives made untenable by repeated pogroms — they were the outcasts, the outsider, the other. They lived in dark, filthy, crammed tenements and worked in sweatshops. They were here, but they were rarely made to feel welcome.

“The Salome Ensemble,” by historian Alan Robert Ginsberg, is a fascinating look at the lives of four Jewish female immigrants who, despite what they left behind and what they initially endured upon arrival, changed history in the early 20th century.

Rose Pastor Stokes became a prominent political activist, dedicated to feminism, socialism, and workers’ rights. In the tense pre-World War I climate, she was seen as such a threat to nationalism and patriotism that she was arrested and tried for treason.

Anzia Yezierska became a fiction writer who used Rose as a model for “Salome of the Tenements,” a popular novel published in 1922. Sonya Levien wrote the screenplay for “Salome” and went on to become a prolific, Oscar-winning screenwriter whose credits include “Oklahoma” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Jetta Goudal played “Rose” in the 1925 silent movie adaptation of
the novel.

Ginsberg weaves together the lives of these four women, three of whom were good friends. Each used a different type of female power to create a life — a life that was rare for all women at that time, but especially rare for immigrants. Rose used her superior intelligence. Anzia used her brazenness. Sonya used her beauty and charm. Jetta was perhaps closest to the Salome of the Bible: She was called a “cocktail of temperament.” All four refused to take no for an answer.

While Rose was the most politically active, all four women stood at the forefront of feminism: They were career women before the phrase existed. They had an immigrant work ethic, but they also questioned authority and challenged the status quo. They were projects of self-invention, self-creation, leaving behind not just the sweatshops but the restrictions of the Orthodox Judaism they grew up with. They had friendships or relationships with men like Theodore Roosevelt, Sinclair Lewis and John Dewey.

Jetta, the only one born in Amsterdam and not in the Russian shtetl, ditched her entire identity upon arrival, including her Judaism. Later in life, she publicly made anti-Semitic remarks, and after nearly all of her family was killed in the Holocaust, she refused to even meet with the one niece who managed to make it the United States. She may have been the original self-hater, and Ginsberg makes no excuses for it.

The other three women struggled with maintaining aspects of their identity while assimilating. Ginsberg quotes the critic Carol Schoen on Anzia’s being “torn between her love for her heritage and her resentment at its demands; she would always feel the pull to become part of American life, yet rail at its materialism and hypocrisy.” Sonya was probably the most assimilated and in many ways the most evolved, integrating work and family in a way the others weren’t able to do. All four either married or had affairs with men who were not Jewish.

And yet, no matter how successful or assimilated they were, Rose, Anzia and Sonya never forgot who they were and where they came from. They felt it was part of their Jewish identity — part of their Jewish souls — to give back, to focus on the abhorrent conditions of all low-income workers.

I found the book inspiring in a personal way, as a Jewish woman who also has danced between identities. I would imagine that many Jewish women today can identify with the four heroines of the book. All four women were driven, sometimes to their detriment. Their struggles fueled their creativity and their drive. They were early Wonder Women who would be proud at how quickly Gal Gadot has conquered Hollywood with her beauty, charm and intelligence. They embraced their exotic, creative, often fiery otherness.

They assimilated, but in no way conformed.

Throughout the book, I kept thinking: Where would each of these strong-willed, left-leaning women be in today’s turbulent political climate? Each, no doubt, would have zero tolerance for the alt-right. But I also think they would have zero tolerance for the anti-Semitic underpinnings of the alt-left.

Perhaps Rose, who died in Frankfurt in 1933 at the age of 53, also would do one other thing, something that would confirm her desire to fully engage in American society but never conform. Something that would annoy both the alt-right and the alt-left: proudly call herself a Jewish American, and encourage others to do so.

Karen Lehrman Bloch is a cultural critic and curator. Author of “The Lipstick Proviso: Women, Sex & Power in the Real World” (Doubleday), her writings have appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic, The Wall Street Journal and Metropolis, among others.