Early 20th-Century Jewish Girls
I am becoming common place, ordinary, the very thought of it maddens me,” wrote 16-yearold Marie Syrkin in her diary in 1915. This diary, as Melissa Klapper points out in Jewish Girls Coming of Age in America (New York University Press, $45), allowed Syrkin to combat her fears of anonymity. Her adolescent writings and those of other young Jewish women give us a unique window into the lives of this middle-class, educated cohort. While Syrkin herself became a well-known author of Zionist history later on in her life, most of the two dozen diarists and 150 memoirists that Klapper uncovers in this excellent study of turn-of the-last century Jewish girlhood were written by women and girls who never achieved great recognition outside of their own circle of family and friends. In their writings, however, they insist upon the value of their own life experiences, no matter how “common place” they might have seemed to others. Klapper takes their claims seriously, allowing them to emerge as distinct subjects of their own history.
Scholars have been slow to legitimize girls’ understanding of themselves as significant historical actors. According to Klapper, most of these diaries that she found had “languished unread and appreciated” in historical archives; she culled them from collections across the U.S. In an academic climate in which Jewish women are but a side note of American women’s history, Jewish women’s history tends to study immigrant, working-class strikers rather than middleclass diarists, and the study of adolescence remains quite small. Klapper found a rich, untapped source in these personal writings.
The diaries reveal how popular conceptions of what it meant to be American, Jewish, young, and female shifted drastically during this time, and Klapper painstakingly traces these changes. She notes, for instance, that Jewish girls’ willingness to rebel against their traditional families increased over the course of the twentieth century, as a distinct and oppositional youth culture developed in the United States. The diaries, then, provide crucial insights into the complex development of all of these identities. Frieda Fligelman, who struggled to attend college instead of finishing school, wrote that finishing school “made ladies out of the crudest of us. [But] no lady would go to college. That was a little crude.” Surrounded by a culture that was beginning to support women’s education as well as the independence of youth, Fligelman overrode her parent’s wishes to turn her into a “lady.” Against their better judgment, they agreed to send her to college.
Klapper remains true to the spirit of her subjects by including their personal words and stories, in addition to uncovering general historical trends. Fannie Hurst tells of her misery while attending a St. Louis private school at which the headmistress had little affection for her Jewish students; Helen Jacobus writes of how moved she had been to see her mother bless the Sabbath candles “with the ancient blessing of the women of Israel”; Ann Green attempts to juggle her English and Spanish classes at the University of Maine with her involvement in the mandolin club, dramatic club, concerts and dances. Jennie Franklin reflects in her diary on the difficult transition of moving from childhood to adulthood: “Another year of my life gone by…” she wrote on her 17th birthday in 1890, “…am beginning to feel that it is high time for me to definitely shape my career and awaken to the duties of a woman.” Her insecurities over this process emerged two months later: “I don’t know what the matter is. I would like to know whether there are any other girls in this whole world like myself.” Klapper’s book shows that there were.
For middle-class .Jewish girls at the turn of the century, the constraints of age and gender allowed them few opportunities to express their desires, thoughts and fears. For many of them, diary writing became a primary means of establishing a sense of their own worth. With insight and sensitivity, Klapper has listened to their words and reconstructed their world. Anyone interested in the history of gender, Jewishness or adolescence will benefit from the resulting project.
Rachel Kranson is a doctoral candidate in Jewish American history at New York University.