Follow My Footprints: Changing Images of Women in American Jewish Fiction

Follow My Footprints: Changing Images of Women in American Jewish Fiction
Sylvia Barack Fishman, ed., Brandeis University Press, 1992, $45 cloth, $24.95 paper.

At last, the book that begins to piece together a literary tradition by and about Jewish women. In Follow My Footprints, Sylvia Barack Fishman gathers together in one volume many of the sources that shape the way we perceive ourselves and the way the world perceives us.

Beginning with “The Eastern European Milieu” and moving on to modern America, Follow My Footprints effectively covers the development of the sometimes-championed and often maligned icon that is the American Jewish Woman. Fishman’s introduction, which gives a brief history of women’s position in Jewish culture and religion, is a quick and effective orientation to the world of Jewish women’s representation.

The anthology brings us immediately to the literature that is the heart of many of our cultural myths; the self-sacrificing mother of Yiddish literature, portrayed either in halcyon tones as in the excerpt from Sholem Asch’s Three Cities or with a bitter realism as in I. L. Peretz’s short stories. In the selections that follow, we see these heroic images of Jewish womanhood transformed through the wrenching adaptation to American life into images of the Jewish American Princess and her domineering mother, images of grabbing, materialistic, or over-protective women.

Follow My Footprints documents the problematic representations of Jewish women by Jewish male authors, but the anthology is far more than a retrospective of what has been written by Jewish men about Jewish women. The final sections of the anthology, featuring fiction by women struggling with Jewish themes in a modern world, are a triumph of Jewish women’s agency. Here we encounter Gloria Goldreich and Ruth Knafo Setton, Rebecca Goldstein, Cynthia Ozick, and other contemporary writers who are now, for the first time in our tradition, speaking openly as Jewish women—a feat that has taken us many years and much struggle to accomplish.

Despite the fact that Fishman has done a wonderful job of rounding up previously uncollected works, the format of an anthology carries with it its own limitations. Excerpts, while chosen to highlight representations of Jewish women, are not always from the most pivotal or coherent parts of the larger works they represent, and so the most satisfying segments of the anthology are those in which works appear in their entirety. Fishman’s mini-introductions before each excerpt are likewise, not always as strong as they could be, and the overly directive titles she assigns some excerpts (eg. “Princess Brenda Fixes Life” or “Jewish Mother Par Excellence” for pieces from larger works that have perfectly good titles of their own) are intrusive and at times border on kitschy.

Follow My Footprints, nonetheless, is an essential tool in every American Jew’s education. If you haven’t read the predecessors of Woody Allen’s Jewish Mother imagery, if you haven’t read Tillie Olsen or Grace Paley, or if you want to know why people get so worked up about Philip Roth’s depictions of Jewish women, sit down with a copy of this anthology. Some of what you will read is great literature, some of it is “classic” only because of the times and lives it represents, but all of it has a message. Reading Fishman’s anthology is the equivalent of taking a college course in a subject that was never taught when most of us were in college.

Not only does Follow My Footprints fill a gaping hole in our collective education, but it is a milestone in the legitimization of literature on and by Jewish women.