Amer­i­ca’s Jew­ish Women: A His­to­ry from Colo­nial Times to Today

By – June 11, 2019

It is hard to imag­ine an expe­ri­enced his­to­ri­an, old-school or avant-garde, will­ing to write a 400-year his­to­ry of any group in any coun­try in just 270 pages — much less of Jew­ish women in Amer­i­ca. But, Pamela Nadell has giv­en it her best. With ample end­notes and a sol­id grasp of the arc of both Amer­i­can and Jew­ish his­to­ry, she has pro­duced an acces­si­ble, yet schol­ar­ly account of our history.

Nadell approached her project by break­ing it down into five chap­ters, each about a mix of social groups and time peri­ods. The colo­nial Jew­ess­es” are fol­lowed by nine­teenth cen­tu­ry domes­tic moth­ers, turn of the cen­tu­ry immi­grants, mid-twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry semi-assim­i­la­tion­ists, and then final­ly, our con­tem­po­raries. Nadell sketch­es the his­to­ry with a broad brush, pep­per­ing it with anec­dotes of indi­vid­ual women. Although the same person’s sto­ries are some­times used too often, this approach serves to enliv­en the narrative.

With­in the first four chap­ters, she explores how rit­u­al­ly obser­vant (keep­ing kosher, pray­ing, hav­ing chil­dren, obey­ing author­i­ty, doing good deeds) each cohort of Jew­ish women has been. Nadell high­lights par­al­lels with gen­tile trends, although for her, gen­tiles” usu­al­ly means white Chris­tians. She points out, for exam­ple, that when Chris­t­ian women were into the cult of domes­tic­i­ty,” so were Jew­ish women, even if their styles were slight­ly dif­fer­ent. While she notes some key excep­tions, the basic mes­sage is clear: Jew­ish women have had a mar­velous his­to­ry, and it was not so dif­fer­ent from that of Christians.

In these chap­ters, how­ev­er, Nadell focus­es on a lim­it­ed demo­graph­ic. She dwells more on the women who are exem­plary, such as Jew­ish female lead­ers, espe­cial­ly the club­women and the reform­ers. How­ev­er, she often over­looks the women on the receiv­ing end of their char­i­ta­ble inter­ven­tions, as well as all but the most col­or­ful of our way­ward women. Most of the fig­ures she men­tions are also het­ero­sex­u­al. Nadell dis­cuss­es Jew­ish women who didn’t mar­ry, but implies that they sim­ply pre­ferred to have careers rather than raise fam­i­lies. If she men­tions sex, it’s in the con­text of cam­paigns for birth con­trol. More­over, few of these Jew­ish women seemed to have impor­tant rela­tion­ships, either per­son­al or insti­tu­tion­al, with non-Jews or peo­ple of color.

But in the final chap­ter, Nadell broad­ens her scope con­sid­er­ably. We are intro­duced to fem­i­nists, les­bians, inter­mar­ry­ing women, women of col­or, Zion­ist activists, women who dis­cov­er they are Jew­ish late in life, and men who dis­cov­er they are women. Sud­den­ly, we become a diverse crowd under a big tent. This last chap­ter is so live­ly that per­haps peo­ple should start here, and then work their way back to our prim ances­tors who would rend their gar­ments if a daugh­ter even threat­ened to mar­ry a gentile.

In any event, the rar­i­ty of his­to­ries like this — short enough for the lay read­er to appre­ci­ate and com­pre­hen­sive enough for a more schol­ar­ly audi­ence — makes this work important.

Bet­ti­na Berch, author of the recent biog­ra­phy, From Hes­ter Street to Hol­ly­wood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezier­s­ka, teach­es part-time at the Bor­ough of Man­hat­tan Com­mu­ni­ty College.

Discussion Questions

cour­tesy of W.W. Nor­ton & Co. 

  1. Nadell rec­og­nizes that what it means to be Jew­ish varies enor­mous­ly, encom­pass­ing the reli­gious­ly obser­vant and the fierce­ly sec­u­lar, the needy immi­grants and the savvy busi­ness­women, the feisty matrons and the spir­it­ed women who became rab­bis” (p. xiii). What has a reli­gious iden­ti­ty (or lack there­of) meant for your own life? How does it man­i­fest itself in the dai­ly activ­i­ties of your life and home?

  2. What sur­prised you most in read­ing about the lives of Jew­ish women in Amer­i­ca one hun­dred to three hun­dred years ago? Did Jew­ish women’s expe­ri­ences in any par­tic­u­lar time (dur­ing, for exam­ple, the colo­nial peri­od, the Civ­il War, or the Great Depres­sion) stand out?

  3. Do you know when the first mem­bers of your own fam­i­ly arrived in Amer­i­ca? Do you know much about the day-to-day real­i­ties of their lives? What role did reli­gion play?

  4. There are many inspir­ing women in this book. Do any of their sto­ries par­tic­u­lar­ly res­onate with you? If so, why? If you were to choose three inspir­ing women from three dif­fer­ent chap­ters, who would you choose, and why?

  5. Through­out Amer­i­can his­to­ry, Jew­ish women have been at the fore­front of the fight for social jus­tice. What are the issues you think are most press­ing in today’s culture?

  6. Nadell writes that ear­ly Jew­ish women in Amer­i­ca were keep­ers of the Jew­ish flame, orches­trat­ing their fam­i­lies’ obser­vance of cus­toms and tra­di­tions” (p. 66). How did your moth­er, grand­moth­ers, aunts, and sis­ters do this in your fam­i­ly? Is this a role you’ve tak­en on in your own home­life? How is it dif­fer­ent today?

  7. It can be easy to assume that because reli­gion is such an ancient insti­tu­tion it is some­how sta­t­ic, but this book makes it clear that the prac­tice of reli­gion is diverse and dynam­ic, often evolv­ing in response to the world around it. Do you see con­tem­po­rary reli­gious life as being in flux? What are the social advances or con­cerns you see influ­enc­ing the direc­tion of your local places of worship?

  8. What reli­gious tra­di­tions or prac­tices have been passed down in your own fam­i­ly? Has it been a con­stant and overt pres­ence in your family’s life, or has its promi­nence ebbed and flowed through the generations?

  9. Before read­ing this book, how would you have answered the ques­tion of what it means to be a Jew­ish woman in Amer­i­ca? Would your answer be dif­fer­ent now? Why or why not?

  10. Nadell began writ­ing this book before the cur­rent wave of anti­semitism reared its ugly head. What did you learn about the anti­semitism Jew­ish women faced in ear­li­er eras?

  11. Nadell talks about din­ner par­ties where acquain­tances that heard about her project would scoff and call it an impos­si­ble” task (p. xii). Do you think she suc­ceed­ed in writ­ing a his­to­ry that encom­pass­es such a vast vari­ety of lives and expe­ri­ences? What do you think was the great­est chal­lenge in under­tak­ing such an ambi­tious project?

This enthralling and well-doc­u­ment­ed chron­i­cle of the vari­ety of ways in which Jew­ish women have embraced the pos­si­bil­i­ties of Amer­i­ca is essen­tial read­ing for all Amer­i­can Jews. Build­ing on her deep schol­ar­ly foun­da­tions in Amer­i­can Jew­ish his­to­ry and her pio­neer­ing and inno­v­a­tive research on Jew­ish women, Pamela Nadell’s acces­si­ble and rev­e­la­to­ry nar­ra­tive begins in the ear­ly era of Euro­pean set­tle­ment and con­cludes in an ever-evolv­ing present. Much of the charm of Nadell’s approach is her focus on indi­vid­u­als, some well-known and oth­ers obscure. She brings names and per­son­al details to women’s expe­ri­ences of immi­gra­tion, edu­ca­tion, the work­place, mar­riage and moth­er­hood, and syn­a­gogue, orga­ni­za­tion­al, and polit­i­cal involve­ments, as well as of anti­semitism, sex­u­al dis­crim­i­na­tion, and harass­ment. Nadell’s approach ren­ders the larg­er pat­terns of Jew­ish women’s lives vivid and par­tic­u­lar, as do her well-cho­sen illus­tra­tions that visu­al­ly demon­strate what her book relates about women’s engage­ment in Amer­i­can Jew­ish life. Images include a fam­i­ly doing gar­ment piece work at home, and women strik­ing for bet­ter work con­di­tions, play­ing mah-jongg, work­ing for civ­il rights, and study­ing for rab­binic and can­to­r­i­al ordi­na­tion. We see Ruth Bad­er Ginsberg’s 1946 con­fir­ma­tion pic­ture and Chabad women attend­ing a 2015 week­end, as well as a pho­to­graph of female phil­an­thropy in action. As Nadell teach­es us, the diver­si­ty of America’s Jew­ish women is stag­ger­ing, but equal­ly awe-inspir­ing is their share in the col­lec­tive Amer­i­can Jew­ish female past.”