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The Price of Whiteness (Review)

Posted on March 25th, 2020 by

A blog post by Deputy Director Tracie Guy-Decker. Read more posts from Tracie by clicking HERE.

About 2 years ago, I took a course from the curriculum of the Florence Melton School entitled “Jews in America: Insiders and Outsiders.” I was excited to take the course to deepen my understanding of Jews as “insiders and outsiders,” a notion that had strongly emerged during my work on the future core exhibit of the JMM.

Unfortunately, I was underwhelmed by the course. The shortcomings are best illustrated by a disagreement I had with the instructor about Al Jolson. This “text-based” course included clips from various movies or television shows for the session about popular culture. One of the clips was of Al Jolson singing Kol Nidre in his movie The Jazz Singer (1927). The instructor for the class made a big deal of how brave and significant it was for Jolson to perform that holy music in a major motion picture. It signaled that Jews “had arrived.”

When I brought up the fact that Jolson “arrived” while performing in blackface, this instructor looked at me like a deer in the headlights. He countered my objection by suggesting the blackface was “immaterial” to our conversation about Jewish acceptance in American society. Indignant, I responded that not only was it “material,” it was actually core to Jolson’s proposition of Jewish Americanness. At least, that’s what I would have said if I had read The Price of Whiteness. (I think I actually said something like “blackface is never immaterial, and it is and always has been offensive,” which I still stand by.)

In the Price of Whiteness, Eric Goldstein convincingly traces what I was only starting to intuit in that ill-fated Melton session: in America, Ashkenazi (i.e. central or eastern European) Jews “negotiated their place in a complex racial world where Jewishness, whiteness, and blackness have all made significant claims on them.” (5).

Goldstein demonstrates how Jews in the nineteenth and even early to mid-twentieth century thought of themselves as a distinct race. As a contemporary Jew (I’m Generation X), I found this whole notion mind-blowing. In 2020, I have completely internalized the American understanding of race as a black-white dichotomy. If I think about my race at all (which my white skin gives me the privilege of not always thinking about), I think of myself as white, plain and simple. Goldstein traces how whiteness was not always so undifferentiated—in the nineteenth century, Irish, German, and Italian whites were not all the same. And Jewishness was often discussed—by Jews and non-Jews alike—as a race.

Though this idea surprised me, as I turned it over in my mind, it also made a lot of sense. We Jews seem to have quite a loose understanding of what “Jewishness” really is. We want it to be a religion, and so a Jew by choice is a Jew. We also want it to be a sort of ethnic identity: someone born Jewish who converts to another religion is still a Jew. (Goldstein mentions one of the most famous of these examples in Benjamin Disraeli, Prime Minister of Great Britain in the nineteenth century. Though Disraeli lived and worshipped as an Anglican, he “became a favorite hero of American Jews, who saw in him an exemplar of Jewish racial traits.”(20)) This both, and approach to Jewish identity fits neatly with pre-WWII ideas of race, and Jews and non-Jews thought of it that way in America.

This Jewish racial identity caused a problem for non-Jewish white Americans who, especially as time went on, wanted race to be cleanly divided into black and white. Goldstein writes “the black-white dichotomy functioned strategically and was employed by native-born whites to obscure complexity and infuse a sense of order and confidence into the national culture.” (42) The “Jewish Problem” in America was that Jews didn’t fit neatly into either category.

Jews themselves were aware of the discomfort they caused among non-Jewish white Americans. For some Jews, this led to a sense of kinship with African Americans who also caused discomfort among non-Jewish white Americans. In fact, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there is significant evidence of Jewish empathy and identification with African American people and causes. However, their own insecurity in America made many Jews feel unwilling or unable to act on that empathy. Goldstein writes that in the 1920s and 1930s, “although it is true that an increasing number of Jews became active in the struggle for black civil rights during this period, a closer survey of Jewish social patterns and Jewish discourse about African Americans reveals that only a small minority of American Jews felt free enough from the daunting social pressures of white America to engage in consistent high-profile advocacy of black causes.” (147).

In other words, many Jews felt the need to do what they could to assert their whiteness and thereby assuage the uneasiness they caused in white America. This often involved adopting the “racist trappings of American culture in order to relieve doubts about their own uncertain racial status” (139). (Al Jolson, I’m looking at you.) To drive the point home that pressure for acceptance in white America drove much of the anti-black racism of white-skinned American Jews in the 1920s, Goldstein points out, “not surprisingly, it was in Yiddish that the most assertive statements of identification with African Americans were made during the 1920s and 1930s. In their own language, unintelligible to a non-Jewish audience, Jewish writers could afford to express their deeply held emotional identification with blacks.” (153).

The phenomenon of expressions of anti-black racism serving a sociological and economic strategy looks very familiar. It supports the core of Ibram X. Kendi’s hypothesis, expertly explicated in Stamped from the Beginning. (I’ve written about Stamped before, here.) There, Kendi writes “Racially discriminatory policies have usually sprung from economic, political, and cultural self-interests, self-interests that are constantly changing.” And, though Jolson’s blackface was not “policy,” Goldstein shared the exploits of the Jewish Attorney General of Maryland at the turn of the twentieth century, Isidor Raynor, who “made disenfranchisement a central tenet of his political credo, arguing in 1903 that the Declaration of Independence was wrong in proclaiming that all men were created equal.” (58)

The events of the past three years have created a great deal of unease, especially around race, for white-skinned Jews like me. Though we had accepted the pressure (and the privilege) to identify as undifferentiated white Americans, the resurgence of antisemitism and white supremacy have reminded us that our whiteness is contingent on others’ acceptance of it. On top of that, the increasing presence and stories of Jews of color who rightly and righteously push back on the assumed whiteness of Jewish spaces have forced us to look more closely at who we are, who we’ve been, and who we want to be. Knowing the history of my forebearers’ negotiation with whiteness has been truly instructive for me. I find a certain amount of comfort knowing that however unique my particular circumstances, there are comparables in history, role models—and a great many negative role models—on whose experiences I can build.

May the wisdom gained from their history help lead us to a more just and equitable world.

This post was originally published at

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Reading with Talia: America’s Jewish Women

Posted on November 7th, 2019 by

Our Visitor Services Coordinator, Talia Makowsky, is highlighting books currently available in our shop, Esther’s Place. Today’s featured book is America’s Jewish Women: A History from Colonial Times to Today, by Dr. Pam Nadell, who will be speaking here at JMM on Wednesday, November 13, 2019 as part of the 2019 Jewish Literature Festival. To read more posts from Talia, click here.

Pamela Nadell starts her work, America’s Jewish Women: A History From Colonial Times to Today, looking to the women that came before her: her mother and grandmother.

Inspired by their strength and compassion as they worked to support their families, Nadell builds the history of Jewish women in America. Looking through the wide lens of women’s roles throughout American history, Nadell illustrates a rich history, full of fascinating women who juggled family life and work, fought for equal rights, or proudly adapted to their new American life.

The book covers a wide distance of time, starting with the early American women in the mid-1600s who fled to New Amsterdam looking for religious freedom. Despite the book’s scope, Nadell highlights particular individuals, some famous, such as poet Emma Lazarus, and some not so much, or at least don’t have their words written on the Statue of Liberty. The immigrant experience is an important theme throughout the book, as well as the question of American identity, as Jewish women yesterday and today wrestle with balancing religion with modern life or seek to fight for social justice through a Jewish lens. One thing all these women share, in addition to their Jewish identity, is this long and important history of Jewish women, whether they were the heads of their home  or leaders in the public sphere. As a Jewish woman myself, I’m proud to have this history as a part of my culture, and I enjoyed learning the stories of these women. There were a few individuals I wanted to highlight, as a preview to Pamela Nadell’s talk on Wednesday, November 13, at the Museum, as part of the Festival of Jewish Literature.

One woman who caught my attention was Ernestine Rose. One of our summer 2019 interns, Hannah Balik, dedicated a whole blog post to Rose, and I highly recommend reading through it for a more in depth look into Rose’s life. In Nadell’s book, what’s so fascinating about Rose (born Ernestine Potowski) is her uncommon position as a proclaimed atheist, even as she defended Jewish Americans. Rejecting Jewish teachings at a young age, Rose, refusing to marry at 16, sued her father for financial independence, Her rebellion against what she felt were patriarchal teachings led to her struggle for religious freedom and women’s independence. Supported by a devoted husband, William Rose, Ernestine dove into political action when they moved to the United States in 1836. She used her oratory skills to fight for the right for women to control their own property, religious freedom in this new country, and an end to slavery.

Ernestine Rose: “Courtesy of Jewish Women’s Archive”

What I find so interesting about Rose is her defense of the Jewish people even thoughshe proclaimed her atheism (along with her views on slavery and women’s rights) loudly and proudly. However, when the Jewish people were attacked by Horace Seaver, editor of the abolitionist Boston Investigator, Rose responded: “I don’t like your prejudice against the Jews, nor against any other people; and above all, keep your temper in an argument.” Despite her life-long journey as a rationalist and atheist, Rose still chose to use her position as a famous speaker to draw attention to the anti-Semitism of her day. Her commitment to speak against injustice, even for a people who followed teachings she vehemently rejected, speaks to the compassion displayed by many of the Jewish women in this book.

Nadell also describes the life of Henrietta Szold, a native Baltimorean, also found activist work through her compassion for others. In contrast to Rose, Szold embraced her father’s teachings about Judasim, in his work as a rabbi. As the oldest child in a family with no sons, Szold quickly became her father’s personal assistant in his rabbinic work. Guided by her passion for Judaism, Szold continued to work for others, including as a teacher for her father’s congregation, Oheb Shalom. As the Baltimore Jewish community transformed in the 1880s with Russian Jews settling in our local neighborhoods, Szold saw their need to learn English and American culture in order to be successful. She started the first night school in the United States to teach these immigrants; her school was located right down the street from our Lloyd Street Synagogue.

Make sure you say hi to Henrietta when you visit the Museum! JMM 1989.79.6.

Szold’s life of learning and teaching continued as she became a writer and editor at the Jewish Publication Society of America. She also studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, after promising that she had no intention of becoming a rabbi. While in New York, Szold joined a women’s Zionist study group which led to her advocating for the care of children and immigrants in Palestine. During a trip to Palestine in 1909, Szold was horrified by the miserable conditions people were living in. Upon returning to New York, she was ready to take up the cause for these communities.

In 1912, on the Purim holiday, Szold met with thirty-seven women to create a new organization: Daughters of Zion, Hadassah chapter, naming their new organization after the Hebrew name for Esther, who was the heroine in the story of Purim. Shortly afterward, the organization changed its name to Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America and it still thrives today as women lead the charge in charitable work.

Szold’s life was long and fascinating. There are far too many stories to recount, but luckily, we have a master storyteller to help us share them. We offer a Living History performance of Henrietta Szold’s life, performed by the wonderful Natalie Pilcher Smith. We’re pleased to offer this program for school and adult groups, off or on-site. Natalie’s masterful acting blended with the extensive research we’ve done about our local lady brings the audience back to Szold’s time as a local activist and national leader. This performance is a great way to celebrate Jewish women and to share the history of Jewish Baltimore.

Of course, Baltimore’s history includes stories of struggle as well. In particular, the garment industry in Baltimore and throughout the United States often forced workers to deal with extreme conditions. The garment industry was filled with immigrant workers, many of them Eastern European Jews. The industry was booming as mass production became the norm, and mechanization helped workers to complete tasks faster. This was work that didn’t require a mastery of English or an education, much like the scrap yard industry that we’re featuring in our new exhibit,

Clara Lemlich: “Courtesy of Jewish Women’s Archive”

Clara Lemlich fought for the women workers in New York garment factories, often staffed by?Jewish and Italian immigrants. Lemlich knew that women faced unfair conditions in both the workplace and in the unions; not only were women paid less than their male counterparts, but women were also denied strike benefits. However, Lemlich continued to display the dedication and power of women strikers, laying her body on the line when strikers were attacked by strikebreakers and hired thugs. Her passion for fairness was clear when she interrupted a public meeting to urge the people there to declare a strike. Most uniquely, in 1909, Lemlich demanded for this strike in Yiddish, resulting in thousands of people to vow on Jerusalem that they would support the cause. Lemlich’s commitment to the cause, as well as her connection to the Jewish community, was enough to sway fifteen thousand shirtwaist workers to walk off their job, resulting in a series of strikes in Philadelphia and Cleveland.

Bessie Abramowitz continued the fight, as she joined protests in the 1910s, while working at a men’s suit company in Chicago. She led women on a walkout that eventually led to a mass strike of 35,000 workers and was recognized as the leader of that particular movement. Her own courageous tangles with police trying to end the strike earned her the nickname, “Hatpin Bessie,” because she would jab the police horses with her hatpin.

“Bessie and her husband Sidney dedicated their lives to support the rights of workers. Courtesy of the Forward Association.”

However, Abramowitz faced anti-Semitism as well during her time organizing women for the United Garment Workers union. The leaders of the union were paranoid that Jews were trying to take over. In response to this unfounded fear the union leaders urged non-Jewish women to join, pitting them against the Jewish members. Abramowitz led over a hundred delegates to walk out of the organization to start a new group: the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. She refused to stand for the prejudice against her people and in doing so created a successful and powerful union that transformed the garment industry.

All these Jewish women displayed their great compassion and strength as they helped others and changed the world. Pamela Nadell’s book is chock-full of more stories of how they strove for equality, worked to take care of their families and made history as representatives of a long line of Jewish women. It’s an easy read about the way women have shaped history and how they were shaped as they became American women.

I highly recommend picking up a copy at our gift shop, Esther’s Place and getting your free ticket to Pamela Nadell’s presentation as a part of the Festival of Jewish Literature.


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Reading with Talia: Looking for Me

Posted on May 23rd, 2019 by

Our Visitor Services Coordinator, Talia Makowsky, is highlighting books currently available in our shop, Esther’s Place. Today’s featured book is Looking for Me in this Great Big Family by Betsy R. Rosenthal. To read more posts from Talia, click here.

In the book Looking for Me in this Great Big Family, Edith Paul is trying to figure out who she is. As a young girl growing up in Depression-era Baltimore, it’s hard enough for Edith to learn what kind of person she wants to become. To make it more complicated, Edith has a big family. There are twelve children, to be exact. With six boys and six girls, Edith is stuck right in the middle of them all.

Situated in the midst of all these different personalities, Edith writes poems to help express how she feels about her family, the good and the bad. The book, based on true stories from the author’s mother, is a collection of these lyrical poems. The poems in the book are all from the perspective of Edith over the course of a year, as she laments the ending of summer, stands up to the school bully, and tries her best to take care of her younger siblings.

This sweet book is an easy and honest read, perfect to share with your family!

Rosenthal’s writing is personable and honest. These poems feel authentic, especially since they are based on true stories. In addition, Edith shares her emotions freely with us, even if she’s feeling upset with her family members or with her situation in life. She doesn’t shy away from these moments of frustration, admitting that she’s gotten angry when her little brothers and sisters don’t listen to her. Edith also openly shows us her desire to figure out who she is, in her great big family. She compares herself to her older siblings, revealing what she admires about them or what she dislikes. She also imagines the life of her friends, especially the ones who don’t have as many brothers and sisters. Edith wonders what it would be like to not have to share the bed with her sisters, or to have brand-new shoes instead of hand-me-downs.

Despite her complaints, Edith’s family is the central part of her life. We can see this, as she’s incredibly conflicted when she finds out the history of how her Bubby came to America without her mother. Edith decides to avoid her in order to punish Bubby Etta. But Edith’s promise to not talk to her Bubby becomes harder as she misses stopping by on her way home from school, especially wanting the special treats her Bubby makes just for her.

This theme of family, and all the complications involved in loving her family, is a big part of what Edith tries to figure out, as she figures out herself. She likes being known as the “good little mother”, helping out with chores and younger siblings. However, she questions whether she deserves this title when she gets mad at her younger sister over a misunderstanding. Edith’s feelings come to a head when she loses a member of her family. Her reactions to this moment underscore how difficult it is to manage the stress of everyday life when normalcy is lost. However, this situation leads Edith to find new ways to connect with her family, and even help her to figure out who she wants to become.

This book is a thoughtful and easy read, making it a perfect gift for younger folk around the ages of 10 – 12. It’s also a great glimpse into the history of Baltimore, especially in a neighborhood like Jonestown, with the unique perspective of Edith leading the way. It even features photos of the real Edith Paul, as Betsy Rosenthal recounts what it was like to collect these stories. I found it easy to relate to Edith, even with our own differences, as she shares her desire for belonging and identity. I recommend it to anyone, older or younger, who’s interested in an honest and caring voice, of a girl trying to understand the world and how she fits in.

Come check out this, and many more books, in our Museum gift shop! We often have new additions to our collection.

Interested in picking up the book today? Stop by Esther’s Place, the gift shop at the Jewish Museum. We have it ready for you to grab or to gift to someone else!


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