In the half century since the 1954 tercentenary celebration of Jewish life in America, a sea change has occurred in historical writing. As fresh approaches emerged, first social history and more recently cultural history, scholars of American Jewry eagerly embraced new angles of vision and innovative methodologies. One approach to historical writing, which merited only the most cursory attention during the tercentenary celebrations, (1) has moved, if not to the center of the writing on the American Jewish experience, then at least firmly within its mainstream. Today's historians take into account women and gender as they construct narratives of the "remembered past." (2) While scholars once "subsumed women ... in a generalized, unified conception that was represented in the idea of man," (3) in recent decades they have attempted to open up the "true history of women [which] is the history of their ongoing functioning in that male-defined world, on their own terms." (4)
Writing about women and gender--that is, the social construction of the relationships between the sexes (5)--in the context of American Jewish history means writing about Jewish women against the backdrop of U.S. women's history. Not surprisingly, the diversity of America's women precludes a single story. Criticizing some of the early efforts to write women's history, historian Estelle Friedman observed, "The most serious of the problems which recent studies manifest is that of excessive generalization--the tendency to write about the American woman, when race, class, region, and ethnicity have significantly divided women." (6) She could have, although she did not, added religion to that list of factors complicating women's history.
Subsequently, the most important single-volume histories of American women grappled with that complexity chiefly by incorporating the different experiences of African American women. (7) But the particularity of America's Jewish women rarely surfaces in these narratives, and, when they do merit attention, the topic is almost invariably East European Jewish immigrant women, especially their 1909 shirtwaist makers' strike. (8) Even the widely-taught Unequal Sisters: A Multicultural Reader in U. S. Women's History did not embrace American Jewish women's historical particularity until its third edition. (9)
Not surprisingly, just as the diversity of America's women precludes a single story, so too the diversity of America's Jewish women makes it difficult to construct a single, overarching narrative. Even ethnicity and religion, which would seem to bind Jewish women, are deeply variegated historical variables for America's Jews. Surely, gender roles are constructed rather differently among Lubavitcher men and women than among late-twentieth-century Jewish feminists. Not surprisingly, then, to write the history of America's Jewish women in the half century between the tercentenary of American Jewish life and the 350th anniversary of American Jewish history in 2004 demands significant attention to this diversity. And even though the dates are utterly arbitrary for periodizing American Jewish women's history, the current anniversary does provide, as such moments so often do, the impetus for reflection.
Certain themes--among them, domesticity, work, politics, and feminism--emerge time and again as reflective of the gendered realities of Jewish women's lives as they are of the lived experiences of America's women. This essay begins to explore these themes; acknowledging commonalities with the broad construction of U. S. women's history, even as it foregrounds distinctions and complexities essential to understanding the particular history of America's Jewish women.
As historian Nancy Woloch has observed, "During the 1950s, women's expectations were shifting in two directions, simultaneously." (10) On the one hand, this was the era in which American women rushed to embrace what Betty Friedan later called "the feminine mystique," which prescribed that women could only find fulfillment in marriage and motherhood in the patriarchal family. (11) Among the most powerful female images of this era were television's contented suburban middle-class mothers, Father Knows Best's Margaret Anderson and Leave It To Beaver's June Cleaver. As they baked and vacuumed wearing dresses and pearls, they embodied the idealized, glamorous, and also sexualized (12) 1950s wife and mother, whose happiness lay in her meticulous housekeeping, bright and talented children, and with her loving and invariably wiser husband. (13)
American Jewish women and men in the 1950s confronted this domestic ideology as they moved in droves both to new urban middle-class neighborhoods and to emerging postwar suburbs. (14) As these Jewish women and men settled, sometimes with their friends, relatives, and neighbors from their old neighborhoods, they created new urban Jewish enclaves and what can be called "Jewish" suburbs because of the disproportionate number of Jews. For example, as Jews fled New York City for the suburbs of Nassau County, New York, its Jewish population exploded from 4.3 percent in 1940 to 25 percent by 1960. (15) Sherry Ortner found that her Newark, New Jersey, Weequahic High School class of 1958 was 83 percent Jewish. Her classmates' parents had chosen this middle-class, urban neighborhood in the 1940s and 1950s, seeking "to form a little homeland where it was OK to be Jewish and where Jews were not threatened [because] parents wanted their children to be in an environment with many Jews." (16)
In these new neighborhoods, Jewish women, just as women have done wherever they have settled in the American past, played major roles in building their communities. (17) Even as Jewish suburban mothers were a part of the PTAs of their new neighborhood schools and of the local chapter of the League of Women Voters, they nevertheless stood apart from their Gentile neighbors when it came to founding new synagogues, selling menorahs in their sisterhood gift shops, shopping at kosher butchers, driving their children to Hebrew school, making Passover seders, and planning bar mitzvahs. (18)
Moreover, early 1950s American Jewish women had no need to point to Margaret Anderson or June Cleaver for their images of domesticity. They could also turn to one of their own, one of the most famous Jews of their era, Bess Myerson, whose story is well known. Born in the Bronx in 1924 to Russian Jewish immigrants, she grew up in the Sholom Aleichem Cooperative, an apartment complex in a solidly Jewish neighborhood that was home to politically liberal and left working-class families. In 1945, like so many other of New York City's Jewish women, Bess Myerson graduated from Hunter College, with a major in music. That year, the Miss America pageant offered a scholarship for the first time, and Bess's older sister sent her younger sister's photograph to the pageant, hoping to help her win money to buy a better piano and a scholarship so that she could continue to study music. Myerson went on to win Miss New York City, and from there emerged during pageant week in Atlantic City as the leading candidate for the Miss America crown. (19)
That a Jewish candidate was in the lead--only months after the newsreels of the liberation of the death camps--evoked mixed reactions of both antisemitism and for Jews, deep pride. Some judges received anonymous phone calls warning them not to vote for the Jew. Pageant officials tried and failed to persuade Myerson to Anglicize her name to mask her Jewishness. During pageant week, titter strangers approached her, telling her how important her victory would be for Jews everywhere. In later, filmed reflections of those days, Myerson recalled that some were concentration camp survivors, baring the numbers tattooed on their arms, saying, "You see this? You have to win." (20)
When Myerson won the crown without having to pay the price of hiding who she was, shouts of "mazel tov" rang out in the hall. Yet, an anti-Jewish animus dogged her reign. She was barred from a countryclub reception held in her honor because the club did not admit Jews. Three out of the five pageant sponsors declined to use this Miss America in their ads. Ultimately, Myerson spent a good portion of her year as Miss America speaking out against racism and antisemitism for the Jewish Anti-Defamation League.
Yet, a decade later at the tercentenary, Myerson remained a highly visible, almost iconic figure of American Jewish womanhood. Immediately after her reign, she had joined America's postwar women in rushing to wed. The novelist Anne Bernays has eloquently captured that moment. Bernays grew up in a wealthy, assimilated, Upper-East-Side New York Jewish family that was the polar opposite of Myerson's. In the Bernays household, "being Jewish was something we almost never talked about, just as we avoided the contagion of cancer, poor people, and sex." Of young women in the 1950s, Bernays mused: "All my female friends, intellectual, artistic and/or professionally ambitious, were also looking for mates. That's what you were expected to do and that's what you did. You got educated, you married, you had children."...