Reading with Talia: America’s Jewish Women
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.