A Classroom of Her Own

My Daughter, the Teacher: Jewish Teachers in the New York City Schools by Ruth Jacknov Markowitz [Rutgers University Press, 1993] Cloth $40, Paper $15.

Less acclaimed than their more famous doctor brothers, female Jewish teachers nonetheless fulfilled their parents’ ambitions faithfully, too. Now, in Ruth Jacknow Markowitz’s My Daughter, the Teacher, Jewish teachers in the New York City public schools finally receive their due. This history focuses on the years between the first and second World Wars when young Jewish women, the ambitious daughters of immigrant parents, entered the teaching profession in extraordinary numbers.

By the end of World War II, Jewish women became a majority of New York City public school teachers. To paint a group portrait, Markowitz follows the career trajectory of over 60 retired female teachers whom she interviewed. She also uses data gathered from a sample of thousands of teacher record files located in the Board of Education’s musty storerooms.

The book moves thematically, beginning with immigrant kitchens, where dreams of study were first nurtured by Yiddish-speaking mothers. Markowitz next enters public school classrooms where eager daughters encountered their American role models: English-speaking teachers of Irish background. Then come tumultuous years when Jewish students, determined to gain the education that would allow them to teach, clashed with their Gentile teachers and deans over such issues as political activism, support of the student peace movement, and even dress codes.

Markowitz notes that some of the disputes really represented disguised anti- Semitism, for deans disdained their Jewish students’ lack of polish and their immigrant backgrounds, Jewish women mastered an increasingly rigorous curriculum in order to attain the final prize of certification. Yet even upon graduation many faced the additional hurdles of certification—its demanding tests, especially the oral test in which examiners often failed Jews if their English betrayed any Yiddish accents or inflections.

During the Depression, when New York City had more teachers than it needed, very few new teachers were certified, despite their clear qualifications. But Jewish women persisted, working as substitute teachers and taking the tests over and over again until they attained their goal: a classroom of their own.

Unlike the enduring Jewish vision of becoming a doctor (a profession Jewish men had pursued for many generations in both medieval and modern times), a Jewish woman’s dream of becoming a teacher involved embracing new American values of working as a professional. Though their mothers encouraged them and shared their dreams, Jewish public school teachers embraced an American ideal of a new woman that departed significantly from their immigrant mothers’ lives. Yet few Jewish teachers rejected their parents’ values, and, unlike the situation with upwardly mobile sons, Markowitz finds no unbridgeable gulf between teachers and their immigrant parents.

Most teachers tried to integrate Jewish values learned in immigrant homes into their new lives as professionals, combining an American career with traditional marriage and motherhood, relying upon family networks to care for young children, and supporting extended family members with their paychecks. Many enthusiastically embraced unionism and left-wing politics, understanding—as they risked their positions to improve the lot of teachers and students and worked to change society—that they were continuing their parents’ radical traditions.

Yet, as Markowitz points out, the opportunity to acquire professional training as a teacher depended also upon the specific character of New York City. New York’s public school system, one of the largest in the nation, expanded enormously during the 1920s to meet pressing needs of a rapidly growing population of immigrant children. New York offered free college education for men at City College and for women at Hunter College. Future teachers could choose to attend free normal schools (teacher training schools) or Hunter or Brooklyn colleges—a crucial condition for poor immigrants who might be willing to forego a daughter’s wages but could not afford to pay for her education. Many young women, in fact, held part-time jobs while in school; so many Hunter girls worked at Macy’s on Saturday that the 1937 yearbook dubbed the store “the Saturday branch.”

Unlike many American cities. New York City allowed married women to continue to teach, though it required pregnant women to take mandatory two year maternity leaves. Perhaps most significant, the city provided equal pay for equal work, though most men worked only in high schools and supervisory positions. Despite bias on the Board of Examiners, New York’s public school system was open to female merit. Immigrant mothers could imagine their daughters as teachers because New York City, unlike many other large cities, offered the opportunity to fulfill their dreams. “My daughter, the teacher” was a New York story.

Unfortunately, New York City also robbed the dreams of a small but significant minority of Jewish teachers. Anti-unionism, anti-Semitism, and anticommunism drove dedicated teachers from the public school system in the 1940s and 1950s. Although some might argue that anti-communism proved to be the most virulent force, Markowitz observes that all of the teachers that the New York City Board of Education fired during the post-World War II red scare were Jewish and members of the Teachers Union. Harassment of radical Jewish teachers started during the Depression (in fact, punishment of Jewish women began in college when deans and presidents disciplined students who supported the student peace movement), but investigations and revoking of licenses did not occur until the postwar era. The chill that settled over the public schools in the 1950s only lifted gradually in the 1960s. For those who were involved, the fear never dissipated—most of Markowitz’s interviewees, these many years later, still asked her not to use their real names in this book.

Markowitz blends oral history and statistics, memoirs and newspaper accounts into a comprehensive and compelling history. It is a story intimately connected to many of us who grew up in New York City. Reading her penultimate chapter on the postwar persecutions, I suddenly discovered a teacher’s name I recognized; In 1952, Mildred Flacks was fired from her job teaching in a Bedford-Stuyvesant public school because of her political activism on behalf of its poor black community. Until the moment I read this, I had not known of the heroism and idealism of my second grade teacher.

My Daughter, the Teacher reclaims a lost generation of Jewish women for us and our children.

Deborah Dash Moore teaches American and Jewish studies at Vassar College. Her most recent book is To The Golden Cities: Pursuing the American Jewish Dream in Miami and L.A.