11 6 “America’s Jewish Women: A History from Colonial Times to Today” with Pamela S. Nadell

11 6 “America’s Jewish Women: A History from Colonial Times to Today” with Pamela S. Nadell


I want to introduce Professor
Pamela Nadell who I think does not need much of an introduction in this place.
Most of you here know Professor Nadell as both an outstanding scholar and an
outstanding teacher and I guess that’s the reason why she got the highest award
of American University Scholar Teacher Award.
Professor Nadell has been a faculty member at AU for a long time over three
decades. She holds the Patrick Clendenen chair in Women’s and Gender History and
she’s been chair of the History Department and president of the
Association of Jewish Studies which is a nationwide association and she also was
the recipient of the American Jewish Historical Society’s Lee Max Freedman
Award for distinguished service. In addition ,she’s well known for her
consulting work for museums which includes the National Museum of American
Jewish History, Philadelphia and the Library of Congress; and her books
include “Women Who Would be Rabbis: A History Of Women’s Ordination,” which was a
finalist for national Jewish Book Award. Let me just add on a personal level how
much I appreciate being a colleague and friend of Pam and I want to give a big
welcome not only to her tonight but also to her husband Ed Farber, who’s probably
still in Nat’s heaven; both really have been instrumental in welcoming my wife
and me over six years ago now here to Washington and making our transition
smooth and easy and I really want to express my gratitude to both Pam and Ed
for all they have done for us over the years and just a few words because
you’ll hear much more from her and from our discussion just a few words about
Pamela Nadell’s new book which is a groundbreaking history
and in fact the first all-encompassing history of American Jewish women. In a
masterfully written account, Pamela Nadell traces the history of many
generations of women from all over the United States, over two and a half
centuries. We learn about, for example, the poet Emma Lazarus whose lines are
engraved with Statue of Liberty and about the journalist Rosa Sonenshine who
founded the American Jewess, which was not the first journal for American
Jewish women but unlike its predecessor in German D de Beauvoir not just
intended for priestesses in their home. We learn about Zionist activist
Henrietta Soul and about our contemporary Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. We read about immigrants from Germany Hungary and Russia, about housewives and
union organizers, about rabbitsons and woman rabbis, about the long time
limitations and the chances that open for modern women, Jewish and non-Jewish,
in more recent days. It is a book that received much praise not just by
colleagues and students maybe but also in the press, for example in New York
Times, The Times of Israel, and the Jerusalem Post. And it is a book, which
by the way you can purchase here if you don’t have it yet and have it signed by
the author after our event tonight. So I’m especially excited when I asked Pam
Nadell about the format of today’s evening and she suggested that she would
like to be in a conversation with our students and I think this is a wonderful
idea, so please join me in welcoming professor Pamela Nadell and later in
conversation our AU seniors Hannah Gelfand, Jamie Gottlieb, and Rose Hass. Good evening and and thank you Michael
again for such a warm introduction. I really really appreciate it. I think I’ve
been at AU for a super long time and I’ve done a lot of things that I like to
think of have been successful but honestly one of the best things I ever
did was hiring Michael, so I’m seeing a lot of nods. I was able to write this
book because of American University. I got an appointment that allowed me to
have the space and the time to think and I also like to think especially for my
colleagues from the history department that writing this book proves that
there’s life after being a department chair that you can you can continue your
scholarship. So I’m gonna do something that’s a little different than what you
might think would normally happen in an academic talk. I’m going to show you
some family photos. This is my great grandmother. For those of you who’ve been
in my house a couple of people here have, it hangs on the wall of my dining room and
if you it’s a little hard to see with the lighting but if you look at her
hairline you can see that she’s wearing a wig the kind of wig that married
Jewish women wore it’s go thank you that’s great but don’t fall asleep in
the front. The wig that married Jewish women, observant married Jewish woman,
would wear it’s called a sheitel and she’s super old-fashioned and I wrote
in the book that she was super old-fashioned and then I gave a book
talk where one of my former AU students at a university where one of my former
AU students is getting a PhD in apparel design and she told me that the style of
that dress went out in 1870 but I know that the photo was taken in the first
decade of the 20th century. The reason I know that is because it was taken at the
same time as this one and that’s her daughter my grandmother and she is
wearing what’s called a lingerie dress or a linen dress and I like to think of
her as very she she. So if you look at her she’s got a bow in her hair. She’s got
bow’s on her shoes and this dress was only in style for seven years
between 1903 and to 1910 so I know exactly when this had to have been taken.
And then if I go further in the family photos I’m going to show you this one.
The woman with her back to us is my mother and she’s wearing a white blouse
and a black pencil skirt and if you look especially those of you in the front you
see the the baby’s bonnet peeking over her shoulder, that’s me and so I know
when this was taken on a warm spring day in the early 1950s and then I didn’t
bring a photo of me because you can see me and also because I’m wearing what I
always wear which is a black jacket but I did bring a photo of my daughter and
she’s wearing a short skirt and tall boots and looking very appropriate for
college student or graduate student as she was at the time it was being taken
and one of the things that she said I had to say is that when when I said
can I please use this photo in my talk she said sure you can but you have to
tell them the boots are yours and of course I did remember that. But the point is,
like why do I open a talk about America’s Jewish women with the women in
my family? and why do I open it by talking about
their clothing? But it’s their clothing and how their clothing changed over the
generations that really drew me into my story. So I knew that their clothing
changed but then how had their lives changed? How had the families that they
raised changed? What was different about their patterns of bearing children? What
was different about what they were cooking in their kitchens? What was
different about the homes that they were living in? What was- I wanted to know-
what was different about the games they played? When did mahjong become a Jewish
woman’s game? And I can tell you that was the 1920s. I want to know what was
different about their politics. I wanted to understand them across the breadth of
America, whether they were living in colonial seaports, frontier towns,
or urban ghettos, or in modern X-erbia. I wanted to get a sense of how their
lives had changed so dramatically over the three hundred and fifty plus years
that Jewish women have lived in these United States and their predecessor
colonial America. But most of all, I wanted to know what it meant to them to
be Jewish women. Because the women in my family were Jewish and because I’m aware
that being Jewish is very difficult to describe and to understand. So I like to
think of the women that I talked about is existing on kind of three different
trajectories. There’s one group of Jewish women for whom being Jewish was at the
center of their lives. Judaism with its Sabbath’s, with its holidays, with its
celebrations govern them across the decades of their lives and they put
Judaism at their center and because they did, it also dictated what they cooked in
their kitchens, who they were in conversation with, what organizations
they joined. There’s a whole nother category of Jewish women that I write
about for whom Jewishness is at the center of their lives or is is part of
their lives, I won’t say it’s at the center but it affected them deeply.
Because they were Jews it determined who they could marry. It fixed where they
would live. It fixed the kind of work they did or the kind of work they were
prohibited from doing. It fixed their politics, the kind that they joined in
certain kinds of political forces. There’s a third category for whom being
a Jew was either utterly incidental hardly ever cropped up or didn’t crop
didn’t matter at all to them but sometimes they discovered it mattered to
others. And I like to think of it as sort of this. If you think you can be a little
bit Jewish you think you can be a little bit pregnant.
So two women take me into my story. The first is Grace Nathan. Now the
students can’t say anything and my husband can’t say anything, but anybody else have
you ever heard of her? No? Okay, so Grace Nathan, take a look at her date-
1752 to 1831, clearly she was well enough off to have a portrait painted
and what we know about Grace Nathan, is because of the letters she left behind,
we know of her life as a daughter and a sister and a wife and a mother and a
grandmother and a widow. But when I look at the year she lived in what do I see? I
see she lived through the American Revolution, she lived through the
Declaration of Independence, she lived through the Constitution, she lived
through the war of 1812. What does she talk about in her letters? She writes one
letter to a niece and she says I’m really worried about this relative of
ours because she has been spitting up blood for several weeks but the doctors
are convinced it’s because her corsets are too tight. Clothing matters. Now this
woman, anybody recognize her? Emma Lazarus. Emma Lazarus was Grace Nathan’s
great-granddaughter. And so we have two women who were extensive writers.
Nathan left letters, they are unpublished, Lazarus of course left a body of poetry,
you heard from professor Brenner’s comment before that
it’s her poem that’s in the base of the Statue of Liberty, that is welcomed the
huddled masses yearning to breathe free to America for more than a century. But
they were two very different women despite being related. Nathan was a wife
and mother, Lazarus never married, never had any
children. But they shared three things in common. They were Americans, they were
women, and they were Jews. And as Americans they both reveled in the
freedoms of America. As women, they were both constrained
by the rolls the society assigned to women of their social class and as Jews
they both inherited a powerful tradition but as American Jewish women they set
out to change that tradition and they become my kind of exemplars of the
Jewish women I write about who did that. So I want to explain what they did. Emma
Lazarus in one of her poems wrote that America had given her people the freedom
to follow Moses’s law and then she said “and to think the thoughts
Spinoza taught” for those of you yeah so Eileen knows, so for those of you who
aren’t familiar with Benedict Spinoza, he was a 17th century Jewish philosopher
in Amsterdam who was excommunicated by the Jewish community. He was kicked out of
the Jewish community for his ideas about biblical criticism that were seen as
heretical. She’s a maverick. She’s claiming Spinoza for her people. The
interesting thing is that Grace Nathan, who has a much more traditional life
does the same thing. Grace Nathan at the end of her life wrote a document where
she said to her son “at my death only keep your beard for seven days.” Under
Jewish law, a man will not shave for a minimum of 30 days following the death
of a parent, many Jewish men do not shave for even longer. She was telling her son
I want you to follow my Jewish law. And so we have two women who began changing
Judaism which becomes a major theme that I talk about, but they’re also exemplars
of my two kinds of women. Emma Lazarus was famous. She’s been in the news
so much today during the immigration crisis that I think people think she’s
still alive. And so there are certain women who would
have to be in a book like this because there are the names that you would
expect to hear, but I also always wanted to talk about the women who left their
mark in a kind of smaller canvas, on the on the canvas of their families and
their neighborhoods and the memories of those. So I’m gonna leave
behind the colonial and early republic world of Grace Nathan and most of the
time of Emma Lazarus and I’m going to jump to this woman.
Rosa Sonenshine who professor Brenner also mentioned. Rosa Sonenshine came
from Central Europe to the United States in the 1860s. She settled with her
husband who was a rabbi in St. Louis and there she did what a good Jewish wife
and mother should do. She gave birth to the fourth of her four children, she did
things in the synagogue where her rabbi husband worked, and she also
astonishingly founded the first Jewish woman’s book club in America and it is
still meeting today. They’re called the Pioneers and it’s amazing that something
from 1879 to today would still be meeting but she was also a maverick in a
different kind of way because in 1892 she walked out on her husband and these
were the days when you needed grounds to get divorced and because of that he he
divorced her and she had to find a way to earn a living.
So as we heard from Professor Brenner she created the first english-language
Jewish women’s magazine in the United States, it was published for a brief
period of time in the second half of the 1890s and she called it the American
Jewess because the term Jewess is the term that women used, Jewish women and
Jewish men and Gentile women and men used to refer to Jewish women. In the
American Jewess she shows us how change is underway. So one of the things that
she writes about is she writes about an organization that had just emerged
called the National Council of Jewish Women. The National
Council of Jewish women was founded in 1893 and it’s the first of a group of
organizations that I refer to as the powerhouse organizations of American
Jewish life. It was founded by this woman
Hannah Salomon who’s very careful always to describe herself as a good wife and
mother, shuttling between her desk and the kitchen to cook on Fridays. Believe
me, she wasn’t cooking in her kitchen she had servants. But the National Council of
Jewish women this is long before women have the right to vote they enter into
politics and what do they take up? They take up fighting against the cause of
white slavery. Does anybody know what white slavery was? That familiar that term? I
see some nods. White slavery is is the term that was used at the turn of the
20th century to refer to International rings of that engaged in prostitution
especially in in term in Jewish terms of enticing young women traveling on their
own to America and enticing them into what proved to be illegal marriages and
the dispatching them to brothels in Buenos Aires and Istanbul. And it was a
terrible problem. It was also a problem that helped to spark anti-semitism because
some of the purveyors were known as Jewish gangs, and so they were both
fighting against white slavery trying to protect women traveling on their own to
America, and at the same time they were also standing up to fight against
anti-semitism. The second of the powerhouse organizations to emerge was
in 1912, and it was Hadassah, the women Zionist Organization of America. And
what’s stunning about this is that this is from 1913, when Hadassah sent two
nurses to Jerusalem and that committed the women of Hadassah in America to
health care providing health care for the Jewish community in
Palestine and they saw 5,000 patients in their first year. But why were these
powerhouse organizations emerging at this time? That’s what’s really striking.
These organizations they still exist today, over a hundred years later. But
what’s going on at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th
century again before women have the right to vote, what’s going on that
enables them to create these organizations? And here I think you have
to turn to American history. What we know about American women’s lives. In 1800 the
average white American woman had seven children. By 1900 she has 3.5. Now I don’t
know what to do with the point 5s, I can’t figure it out.
But in 1850 the average lifespan of a white woman in America was under 40
years, by 1920 it increased to 57 years. Women were living longer, they were
absorbed with childbearing and childcare for far fewer years, and the women of
these organizations are middle class women, they were not going to be out on
the workforce and they were looking for ways to give back to their communities
and to leave the world behind them a better place. And so this is really the
moment when these organizations emerge but I want to go back to Rosa for a
second because one of the striking things about Rosa Sonenshine was her
Zionism. Soneshine was had met Theodor Herzl, I
know there are a bunch of students here from the history of Israel class, right?,
so she had met Theodor Herzl on return visits to Europe, she became enraptured
with his idea and in 1897 when he held the first Zionist Congress
she went to Basel Switzerland, oh she was one of about a handful of Americans to
attend it and because no representative of the US press showed up she declared
herself the sole representative of the United States press at the Zionist
Congress and then she came back and wrote about Zionism and championed it in
the American Jewess. Women, Jewish women in America did not
only need powerhouse organizations to be activists. This is a photo from the
around 1910 but it stands for what was the first kosher meat strike in America.
In 1902, when the price of kosher beef soared from 12 cents a pound to 18 cents
a pound, women who could not feed their families, immigrant women from Eastern
Europe who could not stretch those pennies any further, got so mad that they
staged the first kosher meat boycott. They broke into butcher shops, they took
the meat, they threw it out on the street they doused it with kerosene so nobody
else could eat it and sometimes they even set it aflame and they it was the
harbinger of a host of rent and meat strikes sparked by Jewish women in New
York and Philadelphia and Boston and Baltimore to to make certain that they
could manage their families on the small amount of money that their husbands were
bringing home. Sometimes however Jewish women stood up against other forces on
their own and here’s my example of Edna Ferber. Some of you might be familiar
with her although, I imagine most of you aren’t. Edna Ferber was a Pulitzer Prize
winning novelist and she wrote “Showboat” she wrote “Giant” they were both made into
movies and into plays. And Ferber describes that in the 1930’s,
shortly after Adolf Hitler had come to power, she was invited to a soiree in
Michigan in the home of some kind of tycoon and everybody it was she said it
was in the pine forest everybody had to stay over and at dinner that night the
host started talking about money-grubbing Jews. And she watched as
everyone around the table began to agree with the host and she stood up and said
I am a Jew because they didn’t know and she said she had never seen such
hatred on the faces of the people around her and that night when she went to her
room she not only locked her door, she put a chair under the doorknob
in case anybody was going to try to come in and attack her. Jewish women standing
up against anti-semitism is something that we see today and it is something
that that goes way back in American history. But what was going on in the
home? Meanwhile with Jewish women in their homes continued to push for change.
This is one of my favorite books– Kate Simons “Bronx Primitive.” Kate Simon
was a memoirist and she describes in this book what happened on fridays in
her house when she was growing up. So her mother would polish the furniture with
lemon oil and she would make a gefilte fish. And then, like a pious Jewish woman,
she would cover her hair and she would light the candles and say the blessing.
And then one Shabbat Eve her mother in the middle of the prayer stops blows out
the candles tears off the head covering turns to her family and says no more I
never believed in it and I don’t have to do it to please my mother or anyone else
here. According to her daughter she never lit Sabbath candles again, but the house
still smelled of lemon oil and gefilte fish on Friday evenings. So again an
example of Jewish women changing Judaism, what makes so many rabbis happy but an
example of them changing Judaism. So when I when I get to after World War II, kind
of jumping ahead, something really struck me about the 1940’s and the 1950’s into
the early 1960’s. So there are these headlines Bronx girl, 21 wins Miss
America title. Anybody know who? Bess Meyerson, right.
Okay $64,000 quiz show, champion. anybody know that one
was? No? Dr. Joyce Brothers. Dr. Joyce Brothers was so her story is great. So
Dr. Joyce Brothers was had first of all very unusual gotten a PhD in psychology
in the 1950’s, now she wants to stay home and raise her only child
but the problem is her husband is a physician and he’s a resident and they
can’t make it on his salary. So either he says to her or she says to him, “you know
what I’m gonna do, I’m gonna memorize a boxing encyclopedia which is gonna make
me look really interesting to these new TV quiz shows and I’m gonna go on” and
she went on the $64,000 question and won a hundred and twenty eight thousand
dollars because she won twice. So another another kind of headline from these
years, case of the teenage doll. anybody know? Barbie. Right, Barbie. Okay Barbie was
created by Ruth Handler. Ruth handler had two children they were named Barbara and
Ken, no surprise? This one’s not a headline but it’s a song there was a
song that was sung in the late 50s early 60s called will you love me tomorrow it
was written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin, what you won’t know however is on
their wedding day um first of all and she was also
originally Carol Klein but what you won’t know is that she’s pregnant on
their wedding day and that’s why they’re getting married because in the 1950s
women who got pregnant out of wedlock essentially had three choices try to get
an illegal and very dangerous abortio, or or give up the baby give up the baby
for adoption that happened much more to Catholic women than to Jewish women
although it happened to some Jewish women or get married. Annd then the last
example from these year,s Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” and so they come
in kind of at the close of this period of the 1960s, 1963. So the reason that
there’s such different women but they’re all Jewish and they’re all they’re all
Jewishly identified in very different ways, but they their names in the news bolide
this image of women from the 1950’s. This is from the National Museum of American
Jewish history. I love this photo. I like to think of it as the women who bore the
baby boom pushing the baby boomers into the future, and some of those baby
boomers they’re pushing would grow up to make a revolution but also some of their
mothers would make a revolution because women pushing baby carriages have a lot
of time to think. So the 1960’s comes in and there’s a major
technological change. It’s not just the invention of the frozen TV dinners which
which some people that were older will remember coming in, but the big
technological change that ushers in the feminist revolution is the invention of
the birth control pill which gives women for the first time ever the opportunity
to control, really control their fertility. You know the 60’s are a time of
tremendous turbulence but for women this is the image of the 1960’s. We think of
the feminist revolution underway and women on the march and what is
astonishing is the number of Jewish women in the forefront of American
feminism in its leadership. I even in this book I couldn’t begin to enumerate
all of them and the places where they made their contributions but I want to
tell you about two. So I’ve already pointed out Friedan. I wanna I want to
point to two women who actually came from Europe one was named Sonia Pressman.
She was a lawyer, she had left Nazi Germany as a refugee and
when she was trying to get a job as a lawyer in the 1960’s she was told that by
one man he said to her you can be my legal secretary, instead she went in
1964-65 to work for something called the Equal Employment Opportunities
Commission. which had been established to enforce Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act which prohibited discrimination in employment based not only on race, but
also on sex. Pressman was a lawyer working there and she watched as all the
men who were working with her were only interested in picking up the cases about
racial discrimination in employment. But one-third of the cases coming in were
about sex discrimination. And so she turned to Friedan and she said to Friedan
“we need our own civil rights association” referring we meaning American women and
they together they helped found the National Organization for Women. 12% of
its founding members were Jewish women, at a time when Jewish women made up about 3%
of the population of the United States. Another Jewish woman, this one of refugee
from Austria came to America got a PhD in history in her 40’s and decided
that the history of half of the world had never been written and she
championed in her adopted country to create a women’s history week.
Her name was Gerda Lerner my historian colleagues know this well and now we
have Women’s History Month the feminist movement deeply affected American
Judaism. This is what the Jewish world used to look like, anybody recognize
anyone in that photo? yeah to the left of the rabbi is Ruth Bader Ginsburg. yeah
this is great a great photo this is her confirmation the equivalent of her Bat
Mitzvah in 1946 and because of the work that she did, after all Ruth Bader
Ginsburg has asked what is the difference between a bookkeeper and a
Supreme Court justice and her answer is one generation. And that same generation
ended up bringing major changes to American Judaism, so that the world now
looks and parts of the Jewish world like this. So we’ve covered a huge amount
like a very short period of time, we’ve talked about women for whom Judaism was
at the core of their lives like Grace Nathan, we’ve talked about women for whom
Jewishness was more in the center of their lives like many of the women in
the National Council of Jewish women, we’ve talked about women for whom
Jewishness was really incidental like Edna Ferber until somebody else made it
count for them made it really count, So I want to close out these remarks
with one one final pair of letter writers. And some of you will remember
this some of you won’t know about this. In in the 1980s when the Soviet Jewish
movement was underway in the United States, American Jewish boys and girls at
their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs would be twinned with a Jew in the Soviet Union a
child who couldn’t have a Bar and Bat Mitzvah.
So in 1982 a teenager from North Miami Beach sends to her twin Kyra Volvosky a
letter and she says “did you get the stationery that I sent you and the
letters that I sent you?” so I went looking for Kyra Volvosky I found her
thanks to Facebook interviewed her from Jerusalem where she is now a web
designer and I said “did you ever get the stationery that your twin liked to
collect and did you get the letters?” and she said she had no idea she didn’t
remember her twin’s name is Sheryl Sandberg COO of Facebook. And so you
can understand why I didn’t go trying to interview Sheryl Sandberg about this but
she said then Kyra continued she said that her father and Cheryl’s mother are
Facebook friends. And I think it’s a great place to end this part of the
program because it’s a way to think about the future what are historians
going to use to write the next chapter in this particular book. So thank you and okay and we’re gonna I’m going to invite
our panelists I know I’m going to introduce them working yeah this is on okay so the
first thing that I want to say before I sit down is I want you to help me thank
these amazing students for agreeing to read a book in the middle of the
semester that wasn’t required for one of their courses! And I and I really really very grateful
to them because they’re just extraordinary. So next to me is Jamie
Gottlieb, she’s a senior from Cherry Hill New Jersey majoring in Jewish Studies
with a minor in leadership and management and she’s currently
researching for her senior thesis in Jewish Studies eating disorders, sexual
abuse, and sexual education in the ultra-orthodox community for her senior
thesis. And last semester she studied abroad at Hebrew University and next to
her is Hannah Gelband a senior from Chapel Hill, North Carolina
who’s majoring in history with a minor in Jewish Studies and one in psychology.
She’s writing her senior thesis in the history department on the hidden
children of France and Belgium and the formation of their Jewish identity. And
last summer she interned at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and next to
her is Rose Haas, who is a senior majoring in Jewish Studies who comes
from Los Angeles and she has a minor in elementary special education she teaches
at Washington Hebrew Congregation and at the lab school and she’s writing her
senior thesis with Lauren Straus, as is Jamie Gottlieb, on Holocaust survivors
children and grandchildren and the transgenerational epigenetic inheritance,
which seeks to understand the phenomenon of inherited trauma through the external
environment and gene alterations. Okay so an amazing group of seniors and I don’t
know where should we start we should? Start with you Rose? You want to start? There’s yeah is it on did you is this on
great yeah okay um Well first thank you so much for having us up here to chat. um
In in your book talk just a few minutes ago you referenced the American Jewess
in classes that we’ve taken with you and in scholarship that I’ve read I am
familiar with the term Jewess as a derogatory way to refer to Jewish women,
a slur. When did that, when did the etymology of the word change? And when did it go
from acceptable to unacceptable and now socially acceptable? Right so it seems to
it seems to me come around again I don’t know what what people think about it we
so I actually I had a slide but you won’t be able to see it through our
heads I guess we there there’s something so there’s something called Google N-gram
you know about Google N-gram right you might explain that yeah sure
so Google N-gram looks at books and words mentioned in books throughout history so
you can type in like a word into Google N-gram and then it will show you like the
frequency of the usage of that word over time. So essentially, if you typed in
Jewess you could see like the years where it was published the most and then
where it kind of drops off, and then where it might start to come up. You’re
getting, especially for the students, you’re getting a sense of how our
research changes because of these new technologies that are out there so
Google so with Google N-gram you can you can chart Jewess just like Jamie’s said
and it’s very clear that that the word is used pretty extensively in literature
and then after about 194, it just kind of disappears and then it never
completely goes away and the really striking thing is there’s a new spike
like in this generation. So I we were the four of us met over the weekend and we
were chatting about this and I I didn’t really know that you would all know who
Gilda Radner was but they did so that so Gilda Radner was this comedian on the
first cast of Saturday Night Live and she’d had this very famous skit called
Jewess jeans, where she’s and and it’s and it’s very sardonic and it’s not
something that a Jewish woman really wanted to be called but I hear the word
a lot. you guys hear the word? Yeah, like in what contexts where are you hearing
it? use use the yeah yeah pick that up out and then keep it close to you and
pass it back and forth, Social media people refer to themselves as such in
a in a good sense a positive word. I’ve seen it more in the books that I have to
read for class or the books the academic works that I see it’s usually used to
describe a Jewish woman either derogatorily or not but most of the time
in more recent works I see it as someone a Jewish woman calling herself a Jewess
and saying it proudly. Oh interesting yeah. I have seen it in a couple
different friends that I have have started blogs or different like new
publications and one of them is called the Jewess Diaries, where she details
like her modern day like trials and tribulations of being an American Jewish
woman. So she kind of writes about like what it means to be an American Jewish
woman today and the different things she encounters. oh so cool.
I don’t like the word. I just yeah I know I know I I did a podcast and called Un-Orthodox, maybe some of you know it and the host that show have like this
argument back and forth about using it and one of them uses it and one of them
doesn’t and sometimes they call their guest Jewesses of the week and I told
them “do not call me that I don’t like that.” All right what else did you guys
want to talk about? who’s next me yeah I can go next okay. So one of the topics
that you use throughout your book is that of a woman’s home life and
oftentimes like how marriage and children and family life shifts for
American Jewish women throughout time. So one of the big topics today
that people are talking about in the American Jewish community is that of
intermarriage and assimilation, so how how do you think this really affected
American Jewish women throughout history and what like do you think it’s the new
topic that everyone thinks that it is or do you think it’s been around for kind
of a while we just haven’t been paying as much attention to it? Right so it’s
clear that you know this is one of those places where like it’s so important that
people know history under like you have some context for the world. So I didn’t
have a chance to talk, I often do in a longer version of my talk I talk about
Abigail Levy Franks who was this like amazing letter writer and she’s the
great letter writer of colonial Jewry. And and you you see how women’s history
change because when her letters were first published in the 60s they were
called the letters of the Frank’s family but thirty-eight of the 41 letters were
written by Abigail so when they’re republished in the 21st century by a
woman’s historian the republishes letters of Abigail Levy Frank’s and so
she’s one of those women who centered Judaism at the core of her life. She was
observant. She told her her son never to eat anything except for bread and butter
at his uncle’s house because she didn’t trust her sister-in-laws kosher kitchen,
and but but she and she has these like really radical impulses but when her
daughter Fela inter marries she’s so depressed I mean that’s her words she
spelled it a little oddly but so “deprest” that’s how she spelled it with
a T, that she said she never wanted to speak or talk to anyone again. And we see
was where we really see the big change is that over the course of the 19th and
early 20th centuries intermarriage is really gendered men are much more likely
to marry out. By the time we get to the 1970s the pattern has shifted
and I think it’s I think it stayed that way now. What do you think? what do you…
Hannah? I mean my family kind of has a saying that my my dad marry my mother my
mother was Catholic and but she converted before I was
born so but he did marry out and then she she did convert I am currently
dating an Irish Catholic boy so I think it is a little more common for women to
marry out these days. My sister is also dating a Christian male and I haven’t
really heard many many Jewish men marrying out these days and it’s a lot
more common for women. that’s interesting! That would be really
fascinating to find out, if it’s really shifted that much. There’s there’s a
moment in the 19th century where some Jewish newspaper says that it’s it’s
bemoaning Jewish men marrying out and it actually says not one of our Jewesses
would even consider it for a moment. And we where we have statistics in the 19th
century it’s very clear that men are marrying out in much greater numbers
probably in part also because there’s a shortage of women in the United States
and in the 19th century I mean there’s there multiple reasons for it but you’re
right the patterns have changed and of course the intermarriage statistics
today in the Jewish world outside of the Orthodox are 70% marry apps. So it’s
really a big a big moment of change. So I know one of the things that we were
talking about was we thought maybe we would talk a little bit about like like
who are the figures that you would want to see in a book if that would take this
story further? So who would you like to see? like um I would like to see well
Natalie Portman for one she’s just [get a little closer to this loop] um Natalie
Portman she’s an actress that everyone knows Jewish Israeli American really
outstanding in everything she does and also very prominent in the Jewish
community. We have Mayim Bialik star of Big Bang Theory and also neuroscientist
making waves in her own way. And we also have a representation of Jewish women in
the media with The Marvelous Mrs. Masiel, if anyone’s ever seen that, breaking
craze, making people laugh. And then in animation we have the character from Big
Mouth Jesse Glaser 13 year old Bat Mitzvah feminist, feminist of the future. That
one I don’t know this is the problem is I don’t know popular culture. As a
reverent as a reverend of that as that show is she really.
yeah very cool who would you want to see? I would probably say the next chapter of
this book or the next book that you write. I would go with the female Twitter
rabbis who are social activists in their own sense and they’re using social media
as their platform to really make a difference, a few that come to mind rabbi
Jill Jacobs and Danya Ruttenberg. They’re they’re becoming like really famous and
they’re using Twitter as their platform to preach, for lack of a better word, and
they talk about social issues and climate change and anti-semitism and and
they’re they’re making a splash on social media. So in that sense talking
about issues they they linked to these histories of the women who were also
social activists but we historians are gonna have to use new tools to reach
this, you know we’re gonna have to read Twitter. you know, reading those tweets. Who
would you want to see? I think that I would want to see the new female CEOs,
who are Jewish female CEOs of different Jewish organizations who are taking the
Jewish institutional world into a new direction so Sheila Katz who is the new
CEO of the National Council for Jewish women and she was also a vice president
at Hillel International for a long time. And I think that these there are both
women in the Jewish organizational institutional world and also in the
Jewish religious world who are changing what Jewish institutions look like, and
one of them is from a Jewish prayer space called Mishkan in Chicago. Rabbi
Lizzie Hyman and I think that women like this are really pushing the bounds of
what American Jewish society looks like and where it’s going to go in the future.
So I think that they’re guiding these organizations and institution
like the National Council of Jewish women that have linked them to their
history in this book but will take them forward into the future. And of course like
went in this book until we get to the last chapter there are no women rabbis, I
mean there it just didn’t didn’t exist. Maybe we should open it up to questions,
comments from the audience? and you can ask them to not just me. Um sure … I just yeah okay. My name is
Theo, I’m a freshman in SIS I was just wondering about the female rabbis thing,
I don’t know actually no like who was the first female rabbi and how did that
change in the rabbinical system come about in America? The I wrote I wrote an
earlier book called women who would be rabbis which is a which is about that
subject, there’s there’s an argument in American Jewish life that’s part of the
argument that’s going on in American life about whether or not women can
enter the professions. And it starts in the late 19th century but it’s not
resolved in America until the first woman in the United States becomes a
rabbi in 1972. Which I know is before you were born and seems like a long time ago
but really 1972 is not that long ago and it’s why until women become enter into
the rabbinate in a significant cohort, and really have enough I would say
enough women behind them who kind of are supporting them that the kinds of
changes that that Jamie and Rose have been talking about could could begin to
happen. So it’s it’s really a real a very recent phenomenon. It’s me yeah it’s
amazing, and and that was in and there are different branches of Judaism and so
it was more than a decade after that that women in the second branch of
American Judaism got ordained, in the conservative movement and today
there are women who are either functioning as rabbis with the title
rabbi more often with a feminized version of a different title in the
Orthodox world as well and that’s very recent. So we’re really talking about
something that that’s only been happening for a short period of time.
Good question! yeah and welcome to AU! Others other questions or comments? hi Pam
hey what really strikes me is the question, how is it that this book did
not exist until you wrote? It it seems so obvious yet it wasn’t there so. Well
Michael, your husband was a little bit more generous there was there there was
one there essentially like two predecessors to this book. One was
written in 1976 by the historian actually who wrote about the kosher meat
boycott Paula Hyman and with two other people, she wrote it is a graduate student in
a summer and it was seen and and basically the book is you know we don’t
know we don’t know we don’t know but these are things we want to know about
and there’s one sentence in that book that sparked my writing, women who would
be rabbis. I mean that that’s what’s so striking. But it was it was a popular
book it didn’t have the academic sourcing behind it, and she was so
nervous about that book than when she came up for tenure for the first time
she debated whether or not to even put that book on her resume. And then there
was earlier in the 21st century there was one book that a journalist and a
historian did together, they don’t source it well and it really wasn’t in my
opinion a very good book and I also know that it didn’t sell well. So I I think
the reason that this book has done well and and why I could do it now is because
I’ve been thinking I’m just gonna stand so I can see you in the back. I’ve been
thinking about about this book for my whole career I’m when I say American
University supported me I really mean it. I had multiple sabbaticals where I was
working on some version of this book and I needed two things I needed the
scholarship in American women’s history, I needed decades of that
ship underneath me and then I needed the scholarship in American Jewish women’s
history which only really began to emerge in the 90s and I will say that
the day that I sent off this manuscript my daughter posted a photo of herself on
Facebook at the age of four, she is now 26 she said my mom finally finished the
book. So I where I thought about it and worked on it for a long time and I also
frankly I was afraid of doing this book. I didn’t think I could do it.
I just didn’t, there’s some book projects that we do that we know it’s
like you can see them you can see them from the beginning this is this is a big
book and I didn’t think that I could do it and and I knew I wanted to
make it accessible. I wanted it to speak to my academic
colleagues but I wanted to speak to the audience like Paul and I were having
conversation before about people need to know American Jewish history. right? so I
wanted to speak more widely … others? oh so I it has been my experience from
my contemporaries and younger people and my mother’s generation and grandmother’s
generation that Jewish women do tend to be strong-willed, assertive, dominating. Is
there any studies or any information on how we came that way or why we’re that
way? Right or why why the why the stereotype why this stereotype exists.
The yeah yeah you guys haven’t you want to say something? Wanna respond? I’m not
totally sure, I did look once in a Jews in an American popular culture class at how
Jewish women are portrayed in different sitcoms and in media, and I think that
and it’s often like that it’s often a strong-willed or like loud and I think
that that can contribute to what society thinks about it, because that’s really
what people consume is media and like how they formulate their thoughts about
the world around them so I mean I’m not an expert I’m not totally sure why and
if they actually are like that, I’m like that. What do I think? I am going to give Hannah a chance too. I think their representations, but in in the book
I argue that Jewish women have a very strong sense of self and that part of
the way they translate that sense of self is about being activists that they
really wanted to change the world around them. And they do it in different ways
like fighting to become rabbis, or through their powerhouse organizations,
through philanthropy and so there it’s not that there’s necessarily an element
of truth in those representations but that there is of the groups that I
wrote about and I didn’t write about everyone, but of the thread that runs
through is about that powerful sense of self.Sand so sometimes that gets
translated as being loud or pushy or something like that. It gets
disseminated by largely by American Jewish comedians but [also oh how did oh
okay you and Jamie right then right no] but some some of it is I would say that
that that there’s that there Jewish women are very empowered in American
Jewish in Jewish culture they were also breadwinners so they have a long history
of being breadwinners. They also it Judaism, is a very gendered religion and
it has very strong places for Jewish women but I can’t speak for everybody,
And going back to Jamie’s point about people consuming the media and that
message being distributed across the media, it’s Jewish women who are watching
these representations in the media and then absorbing that into themselves
saying this is if this is the Jewish women woman that is being just being
told that this is how she has to be if she has to be assertive a go getter, go
what she wants I would like to be like that as well so then they absorb that
and try to represent that in their lives if that’s being the stereotypical Jewish
women of the times then that’s not really a bad thing to be necessarily. Yeah all right well let’s talk
afterwards I’ll talk with you afterwards about it I think I saw another question
do I see another one I’ve seen a couple here’s one. Hi my name is Kate, I’m a
junior at AU uh this might seem like a silly question but I kind of enjoy the
fact that my peers are in front of me right now and I just want to know that
what woman did you enjoy reading about in this book the most and why?
Oh that’s such a good question thank you! I am a big fan of Rose Soneshine I
think that she is funny and also excellent and I admire her and I think
that like going out of her way to make a publication and employ herself and
really sell it and do it and like also have like had a relationship and had a
family and decide that she doesn’t want it doesn’t like it and wants just like
move on, I really respect her and I think that she is gutsy and I like that about
her so I like reading about her and learning about her. I just have one my
favorite quote of rRosa Soneshine is that she told her grandson he said why
did you walk out on grandpa? And she said I wanted to get rid of him, I didn’t want
to ruin him. Yeah yeah she’s really gutsy. Thank you. I also enjoy Rosa Soneshine
but um I really liked reading about Emma Lazarus, mostly because she’s someone
we’ve learned about in elementary school their poems and her writing and just
learning about the person who she was as a person when an activist she was she
say screw that I’m not gonna get married I’m gonna write my poems are gonna be on
the Statue of Liberty and they’re gonna be inspiration to anyone who’s coming
into this country, Jewish or not, and I really think that’s such a strong woman
who knows what she wants she’s gonna go out and write and can also express
herself in such a way is really really fitting to learn about and I just I
really like reading about her. I’m gonna say that’s just because
there’s a certain professor in the back of the room.
Clara Lemlich in this book and not um not you know it’s exciting to see these
names not only because we we learn about them in class here at AU with with our
professors but um she’s someone who you know I I strive to be kind of like. She’s
a go-getter, she’s an organizer. And explained to them I don’t think they all
know I didn’t talk about her I didn’t talk about Lemlich explained it looks
like there goes my A. Clara Lemlich it was a labor or a union labor
organizer and staged major strikes to protest the like awful working
conditions that sweatshop workers and Jewish women especially were affected by.
Yeah and she she was always described as a wisp of a girl but when she galvanizes
the 1909 sure waste makers strike with twenty thousand women walk out and this
wisp of a girl was really twenty three years old and had multiple ribs broken
because she had been galvanizing strikes for years. Yeah was a good question. Any
others? Over there we’ve got one more. Hi my name is Madison, I’m a junior at AU.
My question is so for a long time history has been mainly gendered on men
specifically how do you think that the next generation specifically including
your book as well can try and focus and bring up these women that have not been
talked about before because of how centered did it has always been on men
specifically in the early like 1940s and all of that? Right I I love your question
because it’s it’s just indicative of how history was was written for so long. So
my favorite one of my favorite historian comments by a historian about Grace
Nathan who I showed at the very beginning he puts her in a book and he
says the only reason she’s in this book he literally says this is because her
brother was famous and her husband was famous that’s the only reason that they
even mentioned her in the book and then of course I center her so differently
and I think what I what in hopes is that as we craft more complicated narratives
of the American experience that this kind of work and the work of some of my
colleagues who are here tonight will enter into those narratives and they and
and allow for the kind of decentering away from you know reading about sort of
the the men who were engaged in politics in war. That said when I was thinking
about writing this book I somebody in the publishing industries sent me to
Politics and Prose and said I want you to look at whether the books on the
bookshelves in the history section and I looked in in the Jewish history section
as well and they’re mostly still about men. They’re mostly they’re the but the
biographies of you know presidents and at war. Those are those are still what
people tend to read. So I think one of the things we need to do is we need to
diversify what we’re reading. It was a really good question. Okay do we have
time for one more? Let’s see. Okay that’s so important. I’m curious when we talk
about American Jewish women in public political life we often
focus on a particular Supreme Court justice but there are quite a number of
Jewish women in high elected office and have been for quite some time. I’m
curious where that story begins, American Jewish women in electoral politics, and
also what we know about what might be different of the experiences of Jewish
women in elected office as compared to either their Jewish male colleagues or
their non-jewish female colleagues? Right oh this great question. First first of
all like you mentioned there’s a Jewish Supreme Court justice a female one,
but there are two. Right I mean we tend we tend to forget because Ruth Bader
Ginsburg has become you know such an icon for so many people. The first Jewish
woman in in Congress was Florence Prag Kahn. She succeeded her husband, she took
over what was usually called the widows seat and then she got continued to get
elected but people don’t know much about her
because she was a Republican and the majority of American Jews became
Democratic. And so I there are two friends of mine right now who are working on a
biography of her, but you’re right Jewish women entered into politics and into
electoral politics but I would argue that the women of the National Council
of Jewish women were also in politics. They just weren’t in electoral politics
and that Jewish women have a long history of that kind of political
engagement and then there are there many now we’re writing the next chapter and
some of them come out of Jewish women’s organizations, I mean there’s there’s one
woman in Congress now who had been not at a women’s organization,
she’d been synagogue president and she used that as her platform to say if I
could run a synagogue, I could also run this particular congressional office. So
I think maybe we should we should break but would you thank my wonderful
students thank you!

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