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Reclaiming Jewish Herstory

Sixty-one courses in American Jewish Studies are currently offered in colleges and universities throughout the country, at least one-third of them introductory history surveys, according to a 1978 study. I teach one of these surveys, “The American Jewish Experience,” at the State University of New York at Buffalo. This piece will summarize my experiences in putting women into that course.

My efforts in this direction owe much to the theoretical work on women’s history done by historians such as Gerda Lerner, Juliet Mitchell, Sheila Ryan Johansson, and Joan Kelly-Gadol. I began with what Lerner calls “compensatory” history—adding the missing women to the traditional male-centered course. This was not difficult to do because, as a glance at the index of any American Jewish history text will demonstrate, almost everyone was left out except Rebecca Gratz and, occasionally, Emma Lazarus or Henrietta Szold.

While a wide range of American Jewish men are included in such texts, only a few token women are there and these few were apparently selected only if they followed the most conventional lifestyle and devoted themselves to the service of famous Jewish spouses or of a limited number of approved Jewish causes.

When this double standard is eliminated, a new cast of characters appears, including Ernestine Rose, Emma Goldman, Anzia Yezierska, Rose Schneiderman and Bella Abzug, and others whose lifestyles were widely varied and who were active in the wider political and cultural life of the nation. To the usual questions one asks about important American Jewish figures—what was their relationship to their Jewishness and to America—I added another: what was the importance of their identity as women?

The second step was insisting that students consider women’s activities, interests, and perceptions as an integral part of every topic, equal in importance to the activities, interests, and perceptions of men. Gender became a major category of analysis, whether the topic was education, work, immigration, institutional life, or anything else.

Several things began to happen as a result. First, analysis became more complex because the category of women is a complex one, intersected by other categories. Students must be confronted with the diversity of American Jewish women as part of their knowledge of the diversity of the Jewish community.

A second thing that happened when gender became a category of analysis is that old topics opened up in new ways and conventional wisdom became questionable. For example, the Jewish tradition of religious scholarship is usually evoked to explain Jewish success in American public schools. Some questions:

• Since this tradition was for men only, how do we explain the educational success of Jewish women?

• Did the rapid educational mobility documented for men by Marshall Sklare and others take place at the same time for women, or did it take place a generation or two later? Much has been written from a male-centered perspective about Americanization and about social mobility. Some questions:

• Americanization for men was often seen as the loss of spiritual ideals in the interest of economic advancement, but what did Americanization mean for women? Charlotte Baum, Paula Hyman, and Sonya Michel suggest in The Jewish Woman in America (1976) that it often meant giving up the role of breadwinner with its accompanying power for one of American-style feminine dependence and powerlessness.

• Social mobility for men was the move from semi-skilled labor to the professions or to business ownership. For women was it the rise from sweatshop sewing to secretarial work, bookkeeping, and teaching? Or was it the sudden move from labor to leisure, based not on education or individual achievement, but on skill in becoming an American “lady” and attracting an upwardly mobile husband?

Finally, the political activity of the American Jewish community takes on a new dimension when women are included. The much-touted tradition of American Jewish liberalism was undoubtedly shaped by the contributions of East European immigrant women nurtured on the radical doctrines of socialism and Zionism, both of which had strong feminist content. Was there a straight line of development between immigrant women trying to overthrow the Czar in Russia and unionize the sweatshop in America and their daughters and granddaughters in the peace movement, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Women’s Movement of our own time?

The introduction of women as equal participants in American Jewish history does more than redefine the traditional topics; it also opens up vast new content areas. The role of Jewish women in women’s causes such as suffrage and birth control becomes important, as does their role in both Jewish and non-Jewish community organizations. Women’s social networks, their cultural interests, and their special occupations (social work, teaching, bookkeeping) become classroom topics, as do changes in family structure, in numbers and spacing of children, and in female life-cycle patterns.

Ultimately, putting women into American Jewish history—not as a footnote or supplement but as an integral part of that history— changes the way we see the entire subject—not only its content, but also its conceptualization. The traditional organizing framework based upon three consecutive waves of immigration—Sephardic, Central European and East European—has long been attacked as inadequate and misleading, but historians have failed so far to agree upon a replacement. Any new conceptual framework must make sense in terms of the lives of women as well as men. At present I organize my course around economic and social change in the United States, more specifically, industrialization and urbanization. This is still less than satisfactory, since changing industrial technology may have been a more important determinant in the lives of men than of women.

I would like to be able to report that I have moved from “compensatory” history through the transitional stages of redefining old topics and adding new ones to a final stage of recon ceptualizing my course, but this is not the case. I am still doing all four of these things simultaneously. I am also doing a fifth thing—looking for course materials.

Finding materials to teach the new non-sexist American Jewish history survey is as difficult as defining the content. Standard texts such as Nathan Glazer’s American Judaism (1957) and Henry Feingold’s Zion in America (1974) are male-centered in language, content, and conception. Even recent works focusing on social and cultural history give women inadequate space or treat them with condescension.

Irving Howe’s World of Our Fathers (1976), for example, underemphasizes women’s roles in the Jewish labor movement, devotes several pages to the stereotype of the shrewish Jewish mother, and suggests that “the successful entry of the immigrant Jews into the American business world required a reassertion of ‘the male principle.’ ” Awaiting the publication of a better alternative, I assign parallel chapters from two texts, a traditional male-centered one and The Jewish Woman in America. Since the book by Baum, Hyman and Michel has no material on colonial women, I supplement it with a few of the biographical selections in Anita Lebeson’s Recall to Life: The Jewish Woman in America (1970).

Unfortunately, the inadequate textbooks cannot be supplemented with the usual documentary collections or with collection of articles from scholarly journals because these materials consistently ignore women or, worse yet, insult them. Two leading historians, Joseph Blau and Salo Baron, wrote a documentary history, Jews of the United States 1790-1840 (1963), containing 352 documents, fewer than 20 of which deal with women. Eleven of the 20 are letters, eight of which are written by Rebecca Gratz. The collection contains two documents on women’s philanthropy which, the editors point out, was a way for well-to-do women to pass their time. Men’s charities are, of course, accorded more respect. The only other documents dealing with women are poems, two by Penina Moise, whom the editors introduce as a curiosity, noting that “it is clear from her verses that she had no poetic talent.”

Collections of scholarly articles are no better. Jacob Rader Marcus’s Memories of American Jews, a three-volume collection of articles from the American Jewish Archives (1955-56), contains not a single one focusing on women. Abraham Karp’s The Jewish Experience in America, a five-volume collection of articles from the American Jewish Historical Quarterly (1969) contains only one—on Rebecca Gratz. (Under its new name, American Jewish History, this journal appears to have changed its policy; the September and December 1978 issues contained articles about women.)

The material in social science volumes was equally disappointing. Some of this material reinforces negative stereotypes about the “self-indulgence” and even the” frigidity” of Jewish women. In a 1976 study, Community and Politics: Organizational Dynamics of American Jewry, a prominent political scientist refers to “the onslaughts of the Women’s Lib movement.” Daniel J. Eleazar argues that Jewish women control American Jewish cultural life because they purchase most of the books and theater tickets, and suggests that women are Hebrew school teachers rather than administrators because teaching is a “part time position, ideal for housewives who want to earn some money on Sundays or in the late afternoons.”

Fortunately, I have found biographies and autobiographies extremely useful (although biographies must be selected with care, since some contain an anti-feminist perspective.) These cover a wide range of women—from the excellent out-of-print work by Yuri Suhl, Ernestine L. Rose and the Battle for Human Rights (1959), about a 19th century colleague of Susan B. Anthony to The Maimie Papers, letters of a Jewish prostitute in early 20th century Philadelphia (1977; reviewed in LILITH #4).

Poetry, fiction, and drama about American Jewish women and, whenever possible, by American Jewish women can also be a rich source of material. Most libraries have anthologies of such works (some of it translated from the Yiddish). I do not teach poetry, fiction or drama as works of literature; rather, I treat them as historical documents. I assign I.L. Peretz’s poem “The Three Seamstresses” as a source on reasons behind East European immigration. I use Anzia Yezierska’s short story, ‘The Fat of the Land,” and her novel Bread Givers (1925; 1975) as sources on Americanization and inter-generational conflict. I have used Abraham Reisin’s short stories “The Dime Bank” and “The Contribution” as part of an assignment on the Jewish labor movement. Workshop classroom readings of one-act Yiddish plays (in English translation) have provided the basis for discussions of changing values and women’s changing roles.

A third set of useful materials is the work of journalists, social workers, and government commissions, much of which dates from the early twentieth century and thus covers the East European immigration. Some are well known and easily accessible—Hutchins Hap-good’s journalistic portrait of “new” and “old” types of women in New York’s Lower East Side, The Spirit of the Ghetto (ca. 1900; 1965), for example. Other such materials are more obscure and contain fragments of information about Jewish women scattered among materials on other immigrant groups. Carol Manning’s study, The Immigrant Woman and Her Job (written for the Women’s Bureau in 1930) contains data about the citizenship, educational background, and family status as well as the work experience of young Jewish women in Philadelphia. Sophonisba Breckinridge, a University of Chicago sociologist and social worker, published several volumes of case studies that contain information about the daily lives of Jewish women, including details about their family’s health, whether or not they were breast-fed, their relationship to their husband, and what kind of toilet facilities their homes had. It also gives data about the poor laws and school laws that affected Jewish immigrant women, and about the social services available to them.

Recent anthropological work, some of it done by people sensitive to women’s issues, also provides information about American Jewish women. Songs about children’s games, courtship, marriage, and immigration are available in Ruth Rubin’s Voices of a People, the Story of Yiddish Folksong (1973). Oral histories that I have found useful include Sydelle Kramer and Jenny Masor’s collection Jewish Grandmothers (1976), Corinne Krause’s study of Italian, Jewish, and Slavic immigrant women in Pittsburgh (published by the American Jewish Committee), and Dorothy Rabinowitz’s accounts of Holocaust survivors in the United States, New Lives (1976). Number Our Days, Barbara Myerhoff’s moving study of the Jewish aged in southern California (1978), contains a wealth of information on the lives of Jewish women and upon the strength and dignity with which they meet old age [reviewed in this issue -Ed.]

Finding materials for a non-sexist course in American Jewish History can be exciting because this is still a relatively unmined field. Sources can be located in Aviva Cantor’s Bibliography on the Jewish Woman, (Biblio Press, 1979), in the bibliography in Baum, Hyman and Michel’s The Jewish Woman in America, and in Babett F. Inglehart and Anthony Mangi one’s bibliography, The Image of Pluralism in American Literature (American Jewish Committee, 1974).

Whatever materials are selected, they should be presented as integral parts of the regular class assignments, not as supplementary or optional readings; Moreover, they should be presented without apology; women have a right to equal time. Accustomed to the usual, male-centered course, some students may express surprise or, in the case of the men, disapproval of a course that is non-sexist in content and materials. Most of my drop-outs have been men.

My course includes a research paper from each student. Although I encourage research about women I do not, of course, require it. I do require students to use non-sexist language in their research papers, however, and to use gender as a category of analysis whenever appropriate.

In addition to the materials mentioned above, students can use the records of local Jewish women’s organizations and of social and governmental agencies as research sources. Beginning history students will need guidance in dealing with governmental reports and other quantitative materials. Government agencies use different categories of reporting at different times. Students should be alerted that Jews are sometimes listed separately as “Hebrews” in government reports and sometimes included in other categories such as “Russian” or “Polish.”

Official documents may contain a variety of distortions in dealing with women. For example, Jewish women who earned money by taking in boarders, sewing at home, or keeping shop either alone or with their husbands might not be numbered among the “employed.” Male-centered reporting may distort the realities of women’s lives. The Dillingham Report on immigration measures the degree of congestion in living quarters by counting two children under eight as one adult. Yet the Jewish housewife who shared her small apartment with her husband and two adult boarders, all of whom were at work 14 hours a day, did not experience the same degree of crowding as the housewife with no boarders but with four children under the age of eight!

Students must also be cautioned about another pitfall of women’s history—the confusion of proscriptive with descriptive literature. What male authorities said Jewish women were or should be did not necessarily coincide with the realities of what those women were or what they actually did.

Oral history is a popular form of research but again one that requires careful preparation. Grandparents and great-aunts may appear to be ideal interview subjects, but relatives are often reticient in discussing personal feelings in sensitive areas—sex, for example. Students have better results from interviewing strangers, such as residents in a home for the aged.

My attempt to put women into the American Jewish History survey course has presented problems of content, format, conceptualization, materials, and student reaction—problems which I am a long way from solving. As a historian, my commitment to the new social history made this effort imperative; a history course that omits half the population supposedly being studied is clearly inaccurate and inadequate. As a Jew, my concern is that American Jewish women are being kept ignorant of the wide range of political, economic, social, and cultural activities of their predecessors and are therefore deprived of a rich source of role models.

Finally, as a feminist, I am committed to improving the status of women in Jewish life as in every other aspect of life. Unless Jewish students have a realistic knowledge of the ideological and structural factors that have determined the status of American Jewish women in the past, they will be unable to respond affirmatively and effectively to need for change in the present and the future.

Maxine S. Seller, Associate Professor in the Department of Social Foundations at SUNY Buffalo, authored To Seek America: A History of Ethnic Life in the United States (1977) and the forthcoming The Immigrant Woman