Jewish Women’s Rich American History

March 6, 2019

The American Jewish woman has been depicted in popular culture in so many ways — ranging from Molly Goldberg to Mrs. Maisel, from the Jewish American Princess to the Notorious RBG — that she can best be described a shape-shifter.

Pamela S. Nadell, one of America’s leading scholars on the subject, comes to something of the same conclusion in “America’s Jewish Women: A History From Colonial Times to Today” (Norton), a commanding survey of the roles they have played over the last 350 years, starting with the earliest origins of the Jewish community in North America and ending with a glimpse into the future.

“In family photos, I see America’s Jewish women changing over the years,” Nadell writes. “One of my great-grandmother shows her wearing a sheitel, a wig some observant married Jewish women wear, and a black brocaded dress with a high lace collar. Digital images of my daughter sliding across my computer screen reveal a student wearing skinny jeans and tall boots. As our clothing differed, so too did the fabric of our lives.”

Nadell is the director of Jewish studies at American University, where she holds the Patrick Clendenen Chair in Women’s and Gender History. Her previous work includes “Women Who Would Be Rabbis,” a National Jewish Book Award finalist, and “Three Hundred and Fifty Years: An Album of Jewish Memory,” which she co-authored with Jonathan D. Sarna, among others.

She previews her point of view at the outset of her rich, colorful and endearing study: “At its heart lies the assertion that Jewish women were a part of America’s women and yet, throughout history, have remained distinctly apart from them.” She begins by introducing us to Ricke Nunes and Judith Mercado, refugees from the Inquisition in Brazil who arrived in New Amsterdam in 1654 to become “America’s first Jewish women.” Soon enough, as Nadell shows us, America tempted its Jewish residents into assimilation, intermarriage and conversion, no less in colonial times than in our own.

 “At [the book’s] heart lies the assertion 

that Jewish women were a part of America’s women and yet, throughout history, have remained distinctly apart

from them.” — Pamela S. Nadell

Abigail Franks, for example, was an open-minded Jewish woman in New York. “Yearning for a modernized Judaism, long before others would start constructing one, she groused to [her husband] about her frustrations with its senseless ceremonies, absurd superstitions, and punctilious rituals,” as Nadell reveals. Abigail even claimed that if “a Calvin or Luther would rise amongst us, I would be the first of [their] followers.” But when her own daughter married out, Abigail complained that she was “Soe Depresst that it was a pain … to Speak or See Any one.”

Not surprisingly, Jewish women tended to embrace the values of the people among whom they lived. During the Civil War, Nadell writes, “Southern Jewish women stood with their neighbors in support their states’ right to secede.” She introduces us to a Jewish adolescent named Clara Solomon, who lived in New Orleans under federal occupation and confided her passions to her diary, including her murderous thoughts about the Union general who commanded the occupying troops: “If he could only have as many ropes around his neck as there are ladies in the city & each have a pull! Or if we could fry him!”

Other women in Nadell’s book will be deeply familiar, but she fills in the blanks in their biographies. Emma Lazarus, whose iconic poem is famously displayed on the Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free”), was the descendant of Jews who had been expelled from Spain in 1492. When she beheld the latest arrivals who sailed past the statue of Lady Liberty — Jewish refugees from Russia and Eastern Europe — she saw among them “a new kind of Jewess.” Nadell reminds us that the women who caught Lazarus’ eye brought with them a willingness to engage in the American life in a way that “would eventually overwhelm the earlier American Jewesses of her world.” Significantly, she reveals that a magazine titled The American Jewess started publication in 1895, a moment when women were turning to social and political activism.

 The American Jewess, for example, advocated for feminist issues ranging from women’s suffrage to liberation of women from the corset and “endorsed equal pay for men and women, a law Congress would not enact until 1963, even if the current reality does not meet the law.” Meanwhile, Jewish women took to the streets to demonstrate against poor working conditions in garment factories and high prices in kosher butcher shops. Anzia Yezierska was “dubbed the Cinderella of the sweatshops after one of her novels set in the Jewish ghetto was made into a silent film.” A teacher asked a student who worked in a sweatshop, “When the Americans could no longer put up with the abuse of the English who governed the colonies, what occurred then?” The little girl replied, “A strike!”

Nadell also chronicles the changes in the role of women in American Judaism. On a Sabbath morning in 1922, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan engaged in an act of revolution when he called his eldest daughter, Judith, to read from the Torah as a bat mitzvah. “Talk to your son,” her maternal grandmother told her paternal grandmother. “Tell him not to do this thing!” To which the paternal grandmother replied, “You know a son doesn’t listen to his mother. You talk to your daughter. Tell her to tell him not to do this thing!” And yet the thing was done, and it was the beginning of a slow transformation in Jewish practice that eventually led to the ordination of women as rabbis. 

The pace of change only accelerated after World War II, as Nadell signals with a roster of headline- and history-making Jewish women that includes “Miss America Bess Myerson, convicted spy Ethel Rosenberg, quiz-show champ Dr. Joyce Brothers, Holocaust survivor Gerda Weissmann Klein, Barbie’s Ruth Handler, Reform Judaism’s Jane Evans, songwriter Carole King, and journalist Betty Friedan.” The startling differences among these notable women is the whole point of her admirable book: “For America’s Jewish women,” the author concludes, “nothing would ever be the same.”

Jonathan Kirsch, attorney and author, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.

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