Studying the Public and Private Selves of American Jewish Women

With the resurgence of the women’s movement in the past decade has come a renewal of interest in women’s history. The search for a usable past has accompanied efforts to shape a new present for women in the United States. Women have demanded from historians an explanation of their neglect of women as subjects of study, and in the process have challenged prevailing models of the nature of historical inquiry. A new group of scholars now work in the field of women’s history and in such related areas as family and social history.

American Jewish women have recognized- the crucial importance of a usable past to their quest for an equal future. Yet their efforts to rediscover their history have been hampered in ways that reflect the situation of Jews and Jewish scholarship in America.

American Jewish women as subjects of study suffer from the disability that their defining characteristics—American, Jewish, female—war with each other. Historians of American women ignore Jews just as scholars of American Jews overlook women. The irony is compounded by the fact that many of the women’s-history scholars are Jewish by birth while the specialists in American Jewry include a significant minority of women. Why have American Jewish women who study the Jewish American past resolutely refused to hold a mirror for themselves, to seek out the interrelatedness of their own history, social structure, and ideology. Why are American Jewish women so little studied at all? The recent article by Arthur Goren on American Jews in the Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups fails even to mention women. An analysis of what has been written on the history of American Jewish women suggests some reasons why the scholarly community skirts the ideological hazards of this most value-related topic.

Prior to the 1970’s a handful of historians approached the subject of American Jewish women in a search for heroines. When their point of view toward women was rooted in historic Jewish values, they discovered heroines who usually excelled in traditional female roles, involving primarily the care and nurture of children, and secondarily the doing of deeds of charity.

An early volume on Jewish women by Anita Libman Lebeson, a pietistic historian of American Jews, embodies these characteristics. While the roster of appropriate Jewish heroines in American life was short, Recall to Life: The Jewish Women in America (Yoseloff, 1970), did bring attention to such exceptional women as Rebecca Gratz, the 19th century organizer of Jewish Sunday Schools; Lillian Wald, the 20th century founder of the Henry Street Settlement and its visiting nurse program; and Henrietta Szold, the woman who started Hadassah and ran Youth Aliyah.

Ironically, marriage and its corollary, child rearing, were often exalted as the modal experiences for Jewish women through heroines who neither married nor bore children. By contrast, if the historian searching for American Jewish heroines emphasized the American context of Jewish history, she produced a list that usually spotlighted those figures who had achieved renown in “masculine” terms. The poet Emma Lazarus of Statue of Liberty fame, the Owenite Socialist Ernestine Rose, the radical anarchist Emma Goldman, and the union organizer Rose Schneiderman were featured in this competing cast of heroines. If the accomplishments of these women were clearly extraordinary, their position as Jews was questionable. With the exception of Lazarus, whose passionate concern for East European Jewish immigrant pogrom victims placed her on both lists, these women renounced their ties to traditional Judaism and refused to acknowledge any primary loyalty to the Jewish people. The contrast between particularist and univer-salist Jewish heroines could not be more vivid.

With the rise to prominence of social history, perspectives on American Jewish women shifted dramatically. Social historians uncovered the lives not of exceptional people but of ordinary folk, and in the process they discovered the anti-heroine among American Jewish women: the prostitute. If Jewish women initially had been portrayed as the upholders of virtue and morality, the mainstay of the home and tradition, or as the righteous champions of prophetic justice in America, they now appeared in history as the perverters of marital purity or as the victims of male oppression. Yet the reclamation from history’s dustbin of the Jewish prostitute, and her associates—the unwed mother, the abandoned wife, and the exploited factory girl — by those scholars working within the framework of American social history did not stimulate sensitivity to the Jewish aspects of these women’s lives. Ruth Rosen’s introduction to the letters of that remarkable Jewish ex-prostitute, Maimie Pinzer, The Maimie Papers (Feminist Press, 1977), rarely takes cognizance of Maimie’s Jewishness, of her responses to efforts to convert her to Christianity, or of the Jewish resonances of her conflict with her mother.

There is more attention paid to Jewish identity factors in Alice Kessler-Harris’s influential article, “Organizing the Unorganizable: Three Jewish Women and their Union,”* on Pauline Newman, Fan-nia Cohn, and Rose Pesotta, organizers in the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. Like Rosen, Harris explores the complexity of women’s responses to economic exploitation, the intersection of patriarchy and class conflict, and the difficulties these Jewish women encountered in their search for identity. But while Harris focuses on the dilemmas the three faced by choosing a career with the union instead of the conventional option of marriage and family, she also notes that American Jewish culture’s “injunction to self-suffiency encouraged a militant sense of independence” in American Jewish women. Harris attempts to balance the class-conscious environment of the Lower East Side and its ethic of social justice with its competitive individualism and desire to get ahead. She credits these contradictory values to a multi-faceted American Jewish culture, enabling us to understand American Jewish women better. Yet the secularist orientation of this insightful analysis still falls short including the particularly Jewish within its universalist perspective.

Typically, when historians who work within the context of Jewish history confront lower class American Jewish women, they deal with them through the reformers who tried to improve their plight. This approach especially characterizes Rudolf Glanz’s two volume history of The Jewish Woman in America (KTAV, 1976, 1977).

However, Charlotte Baum, Paula Hyman, and Sonya Michel, in their book of the same title The Jewish Woman in America (Dial, 1976), also employ an institutional lens to refract an analysis of poor working women’s lives. They examine the situation of Jewish prostitutes largely through the efforts of the National Council of Jewish Women to alleviate their plight. This perspective illuminates the relationship between upper-middle-class Jewish women and their poorer sisters, revealing that the former had no more special ability to transcend class and ethnic barriers than their American Gentile peers. The authors also demonstrate that Judaism, whether understood as religion, social justice ethics, sense of peoplehood, or culture, did not substantially alter the relationship between the two classes of women. In fact, the most potent insight of this thoughtful and stimulating book is a feminist one that lays bare the male bias of Jewish philanthropic social service organizations and their histories. The institutional approach to Jewish women places the concept of Jewish community in the forefront, insuring that inherently Jewish issues will be explored. But Baum, Hyman, and Michel’s valuable contribution to American Jewish communal studies also mutes the impact of a focus on ordinary individuals by its emphasis on middle- and upper-class organizations.

Most recently, the resurgence of feminist scholarship has suggested new categories of analysis that derive from an appreciation of woman’s social and psychological situation. Feminist historians have stressed the importance of developing modes of thought which recognize the inherently male bias of much previous study of women. The search for women in parallel fields of endeavor as men—in politics, economics, the arts, and social service—constricts the possibilities of seeing women on their own terms. Feminist scholars have spurred study of the nature of women’s bonds with other women, women’s attitudes to their sexuality, the relationship of mothers and daughters, as well as the character of women’s work and education. These issues imply a shift away from the public aspect of women’s lives to the private sphere. Here scholars can uncover women’s sensibilities, and by fusing these with the insights of social history, perhaps reclaim a usable past.

But Jewish feminist historians seeking to follow the same path are stymied by the revolutionary character of the enterprise. How can one link a feminist perspective on American Jewish women with the concerns of Judaism or Jewish history? The first work to try this feat—The Jewish Woman in America by Baum et al—had a special problem in its efforts to rescue the world of our mothers and rehabilitate the model of an aggressive, self-confident American Jewish woman. When compared to the immigrant pioneers, contemporary American Jewish women appeared weak. Yet perhaps the most moving section of the book, the description of an immigrant woman’s weekly night at the steam baths, is a hidden tribute by one of the authors to her mother, an ordinary yet vital Jewish woman who transmitted to her daughter a healthy dose of self-assurance.

As the jointly authored volume’s reception among Jewish historians indicated, the task of developing a feminist perspective on American Jewish women is enormous, and the environment is far from receptive. Vaunted for its liberalism by students of American Jewish women who can find a bevy of radical heroines or cohorts of militant women garment workers to study, the Jewish community refuses to recognize women outside their proper place. Communal histories can glorify striking shirtwaist makers but can-‘, not cope with women who strike over the cost of kosher meat. The former fit neatly into the universalist perspective, where their Jewishness appears marginal or at most inspirational to their protest for higher wages, better working conditions, and a chance to live with dignity and self-respect. But women who protest against parts of the Jewish community shatter that perspective, as Paula Hyman has shown in her superb article, “Neighborhood Women and Consumer Protest: The New York City Kosher Meat Boycott of 1902.”* After all, these Jewish wives are on strike not over exploitative sweatshop labor but over the price of kosher meat.

The immigrant women who were traditional enough to buy kosher meat also knew why they could interrupt the Sabbath worship services to voice their protest over the injustice being done. Jewish tradition provided not merely the social context for their protest but the mode and motive as well. Yet the strikers were modern women, too; they understood how the capitalist economy worked and employed the rhetoric of the socialist class struggle. The American, Jewish, and female aspects of their lives cohered. We need to make room for an appreciation of their synthesis, but to do this we must overcome the ironies American Jewish women face.

The recent history of American Jewish women, Consecrate Every Day (SUNY, 1981) by June Sochen, illustrates one dilemma with particular vividness— the inability to transcend the universa-list/particularist divide. Sochen combines both portrait galleries of Jewish heroines but places each in separate chapters. She similarly copes with the conflicting perspectives of American and Jewish social history; working women receive equal but separate treatment from women’s communal organizations. Only in her penultimate chapter, appropriately titled “Successful Mergers,” does she recognize the synthesis and tentatively explore how exceptional women created it.

Jacob Rader Marcus similarly stumbles in his efforts to describe how some women combine the universalist and Jewish aspects of their lives in his new book, The American Jewish Woman 1654-1980. Yet the synthesis begs to be analyzed, understood, and built upon. Furthermore, the tools for future research are available.

Alice Kessler-Harris speculates that “feelings of displacement and the need for mutual support may have prompted the drive by women members of the ILG’s Local 25 to create first an educational department and then a vacation retreat.” Here we have a glimpse into that union of private spheres with public actions, embodying, by implication at least, a coherent synthesis developed by American Jewish women. Clearly, the women workers entertained different ideas from their male counterparts about the purposes and structure of a trade union. Their values and attitudes toward their own lives as working women, as Americans with a sense of their rights and dignity, and as Jews with a concept of community all combined into an image of a trade union whose faint outlines we can see.

A recent study, “Jewish Involvement in the New York City Woman Suffrage Movement,”* by Elinor Lerner provides another example of a perspective on American Jewish women integrating the facets of their identity into a whole. Lerner shows how attitudes toward women’s rights (seen as a general civil-rights issue) depended in part on the experience of men and women working together in factory and marketplace. Immigrant Jewish women shared an environment with men which embraced home and factory, bedroom and street. The overlapping of friendships, activities, and issues in this context narrowed the distance between men and women, allowing the latter to construct flexible identities, even producing a synthesis of Jewish, American, radical, and feminist values. Specifically, Jewish immigrants saw a vote for women’s suffrage as a vote for civil rights, another step in the dismantling of the wall of prejudice Jews faced, and an affirmation of America’s fundamental creed of equality.

If we want to understand how American Jewish women have reached their current condition, we need to know also how the second generation coped with the intersecting problems of work, residence, family, and community.

American Jewish women must reclaim their heritage, for its richness will enhance the study of American women as its breadth will broaden the scope of Jewish scholarship. Within the study of American Jewish women lie the sources for a perspective on women which will help to etch more sharply their identity and social position. As the sociologist Cynthia Fuchs Epstein recalled regarding her own Jewish childhood, in history lies the possibility for imagining the future.

“I never imagined that by my own mind or hands I could achieve the exalted position to which I aspired. This was in spite of the fact that my father liberally bestowed on me books containing the biographies of great women, particularly great Jewish women. Deborah in the Bible, the poet Emma Lazarus . . . and the socialist Rosa Luxemburg. I suppose they had impact, however, because they exposed me to the idea that women could be doers . . . * “

A perspective placing American Jewish women not merely within the family, as manipulative mothers and precocious princesses, but within interrelated social structures, would free the study of American Jewish women from the universalist/ particularist dilemma. It would help to explain how American Jewish women today can be typed as Hadassah ladies and NOW organizers, as princesses engaged in conspicuous consumption and as professionals pursuing full-time careers. This perspective would challenge those who are so comfortable in their universalism that they cannot recognize a Jew, as well as those Jews so parochial in their outlook that they refuse to perceive women. It would lead us to a pluralism of perspectives and plurality of models of American Jewish women. While some of the differentiating criteria are obvious—such as class—others are more subtle and involve an appreciation of the variety of Jewish communal structures available to women. These social structures translate Jewishness into a liveable, mutable, reality. What we need to explore is how women use them to achieve a synthesis of public and private selves.

Deborah Dash Moore is Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies at Vassar College and a Fellow at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. She is the author of At Home in America: Second Generation Jews in New York.