Live from the Lilith Blog 1 of 2

February 17, 2012 Rabbi Mindy Avra Portnoy

Spinoza and Cherry Ames

Like so many people who harbor secret sins and obsessions, I thought I was alone. And then one day, in the midst of a conversation, no doubt about high-level theological issues (or maybe where to go for lunch), with my friend and rabbinic colleague, Leah, I blurted it out: “did you ever read Cherry Ames when you were young?” She looked startled for a moment, and then responded, “I LOVED Cherry Ames!” Turns out, she and I are not the only ones who did (and do).

When I was a child, Cherry Ames was a favorite. Although I also read the Bobbsey Twins and Anne of Green Gables series, Cherry was the standout. Was it her black curly hair (like mine?) Was it her feisty independence? Was it her ability to solve every problem, not only of the medical variety, but mysteries of every kind? Was it her cute bedroom furniture in her home town of Hilton (Illinois)? Although I never expressed an interest in being a nurse, the Cherry Ames series (23 volumes in all), which portrayed a young woman who seemed to have a new doctor “suitor” in every book, yet always moved on to a new job leaving the would-be boyfriend behind, surely must have had some career-inspiring influence on me.

Somehow, unlike my Pee Wee Reese doll, several of my Cherry Ames books survived through adulthood. And I managed to find the remaining ones in second-hand bookstores and eventually on the Internet.

Recently, as I was re-reading the entire series (not a particularly time-consuming pursuit), I was stunned to find the following sentence on page 101 of Cherry Ames: Visiting Nurse (volume 8): “the old man (Mr. Jonas, owner of a grocery store and delicatessen)…was just as likely to discourse to her on literature, the history of the Jews, and the moral writings of Spinoza, if she had time…”

Spinoza in Cherry Ames?! And a few sentences later: “Ah, Mama, we do not live by bread alone… I am only explaining to Miss Ames the grammar of classical Hebrew…”

I could not believe my eyes. Cherry Ames, the quintessential Midwestern Gentile, was learning Hebrew from a New York deli owner. I hastened to share the information with my colleagues of the WRN (Women’s Rabbinic Network). After explaining to them my long-time interest in the series, I wrote: “I’m now re-reading the entire oeuvre (!) and just learned to my great surprise that Helen Wells (the author) refers to Spinoza , etc…. who knew?! So is anyone else a secret fan out there? I actually think that Cherry Ames was a great role model for girls in the ‘50’s…she was very independent and had a career to which she was devoted and often put ahead of the more common option of marriage at a young age. And she had dark curly hair!”

Shockingly, 13 of my colleagues (an above-average response to a posting) responded, nine of whom also shared my appreciation for Cherry. One colleague wrote, “wow, who knew. I haven’t ever known a single soul who loved Cherry Ames besides me…” Another: “I read them over and over” and a third was delighted to take my duplicate copies off my hands.

But the revelation was not quite complete. A few days later, I was having coffee with my friend, Claire. I told her my Cherry Ames saga, and my surprise at the Jewish references. She asked me the author’s name. “Helen Wells”, I told her, until Julie Tatham took over the writing after the 8th volume. “Well, I’m sure that’s not her real name,” quick-thinking Claire responded, “don’t you think she must have been Jewish to write that?”

And so it was on to Google, to discover that Helen Wells was in fact originally “Helen Weinstock”, a social worker turned writer, a native of Illinois, whose family moved to New York when she was seven. According to the Cherry Ames page on the Internet, she studied at NYU (graduating in 1934) where she became the first female editor of the school’s literary journal. In addition to the Cherry Ames series, she also wrote the Vicki Barr flight attendant series and other books for young people. In an interview with the author Bobbie Ann Mason (in The Girl Sleuth, 1975), Wells (a.k.a Weinstock) commented on her own work: “It’s like writing in a straitjacket—or on a tiny canvas with only three colors to work with. Yet within this tiny scope one can try to be honest, to be fun, to project real feeling, honest observations, values one believes in. Literary values? The series have none. Entertainment values, yes.” (page 109)

Almost two decades after the earliest Cherry Ames books, Wells authored Doctor Betty (1969). I graduated from high school that same year, entering a world where women could now be depicted as doctors as well as nurses—and not so much later (1972), become rabbis too.

Helen Wells (nee Weinstock) died in 1986 (the same year my book Ima on the Bima: My Mommy Is a Rabbi, was published). She lived long enough to see phenomenal changes in the career aspirations of women.

I hope she knew that the pretty young nurse with the dark eyes, curly hair and cherry-red cheeks, whom she created, helped pave the way for all of us who reveled in her adventure and her spirit.

Rabbi Portnoy is a Rabbi at Temple Sinai (Washington, D.C.) and the author of five children’s books, including “A Tale of Two Seders” (Kar-Ben/Lerner, 2010) and “Ima on the Bima: My Mommy is a Rabbi” (1986). She is a graduate of Yale University.


  • Susan Pober

    I LOVED Cherry Ames. Now I’m going to have to find them (we don’t have them in the library where I work!) and re-read them. Thanks for the blog & for stirring up old, but good, memories.

  • http://imdb.com Dimple Ballesteros

    Great explanation. I prefer to read it Martha

  • http://www.wordsthatcomfort.com Robbie Miller Kaplan

    Loved this post. Loved Cherry Ames too. Thanks for sharing your memories and your findings. How about Nancy Drew? Loved her too.

  • Marlene Cimons

    Well, who knew?
    Mindy, I shunned Cherry Ames because, even as a child, it bothered me that she had to have a traditional woman’s job and wasn’t a doctor. I was a Nancy Drew girl all the way! I loved how she solved every case, outsmarting her boyfriend and her father every time. I also read every Hardy Boys mystery, because that’s what my older brothers were reading and the books were in the house. But that’s another story…

  • Diane Davis

    Mindy, thanks for sharing your memories about this childhood favorite. I hadn’t thought of the books in YEARS. I, too, will search for some and reread them. Hope I have the same warm feelings all these years later. When I recently watched some of the original Nancy Drew movies on tv, I was sooooo disappointed. I was sorry the old movies clouded my wonderful memories of an old book friend!

  • http://home.earthlink.net/~nshiffrin Nancy Shiffrin

    I loved Honey something or other, Nancy Drew, Cherry Ames and a host of other
    girls’ mystery stories. I also loved Dostoevsky. It’s amazing these days to see the plethora of women’s detective, mystery, problem solving novels — my favorites are still the early Amanda Cross/Carolyn Heilbrun. A University professor solving literary and feminist problems. And enjoying a cocktail and a great husband.

  • http://home.earthlink.net/~nshiffrin Nancy Shiffrin

    I loved Cherry Ames and a host of other girl mystery stories: Nancy Drew, Honey something or other. I also loved Dostoevsky and the New Yorker. I’ve become a fan of contemporary feminist mystery, problem solving and private eye novels; most notably
    Carolyn Heilbrun/Amanda Cross.

  • Linda Byard

    I too was a great fan of Cherry Ames. When I was growing up, our public library would not stock these book series, so we passed Cherry Ames around along with Nancy Drew, Happy Hollisters, Trixie Belden, Bobbsey Twins, and others whose names escape me at the moment. I especially liked how Cherry Ames was a different kind of nurse in every book. I found this article very interesting. I wonder if anybody out there remembers the “Maida” books, a series about a rich little girl whose father seemed bent on creating a utopian atmosphere for Maida to grow up in – complete with poor children from the community.

  • Jill Moss Greenberg

    Thanks so much for this article, Mindy. I read the entire Cherry Ames series, one after the other, but hadn’t thought of those books for years. How fascinating that Helen Wells was actually Weinstock – and Jewish. I am now the director of a Women’s History Center and Museum in Maryland. Since people mentioned other series they liked, the other one that I read voraciously was the Black Stallion series. I was ready for adventure. I wonder if our mutual experiences in our youth led to our future paths. I was ready for adventure. Would love to get together sometime in DC or Maryland and share!