Signposts: reflections on articles from the journal's archive: how a Kosher Meat Boycott brought Jewish women's history into the mainstream: a historical appreciation.

Author:Moore, Deborah Dash
Position:Essay
 
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In 1980 Paula Hyman published an article in American Jewish History on an obscure three-week boycott of kosher butcher shops in New York City that would subsequently revolutionize American Jewish women's history, bringing it into the mainstream of American women's history. (2) "Immigrant Women and Consumer Protest: The New York City Kosher Meat Boycott of 1902" was not the first article on American Jewish women reflecting the impact of the feminist movement. In fact, several influential articles, one by Alice Kessler-Harris on three Jewish women labor organizers in the garment industry and another by Maxine Schwartz Seller on the education of immigrant women in the United States, considered significant activities of American Jewish female immigrants. (3) However, Hyman's was the first to conceptualize immigrant Jewish women's activism within the context of Jewish as well as American history. By devoting attention to married Jewish women's behaviors, she also deliberately engaged emerging paradigms that highlighted single Jewish women in the paid labor force as significant actors in shaping immigrant politics and culture. As she introduced married Jewish women's activism into American history, she challenged the relegation of Jewish women to labor history where their strikes and unionization attracted serious scholarship. (4) In the process she broadened the scope of women's

history in the United States and drew attention to consumer boycotts as sites of political activism. Finally, with this article Hyman initiated a whole new field of historical scholarship on American Jewish women.

Her article on the kosher meat boycott of 1902 succeeded in using a case study to illuminate gender dynamics and economic conflict within the immigrant world of New York City that reverberated far beyond the confines of its place and era. It pointed toward fresh understandings of Jewish modernization both in Europe and the United States that Hyman would subsequently articulate in her influential volume on Gender and Assimilation in Modem Jewish History. (5) Most importantly, through these Lower East Side housewives she brought Jewish women into Jewish historical consciousness. In addition, the article connected her feminist activism with her historical professionalism, charting a path that many scholars would subsequently follow. (6)

As a feminist, Paula Hyman knew that women had made Jewish history but in the 1970s they were mostly invisible. Scholars ignored them. (Worse, many Jewish historians denigrated both women and efforts to study them.) Politically engaged feminists like Hyman believed their activism had precedent, but without historical scholarship, they lacked critical knowledge. Hyman employed a number of venues to awaken American Jews to the historical importance of women, starting with two essays on Jewish women published in general Jewish journals, Conservative Judaism (1972) (7) and Congress Monthly (1975) (8), that reached an audience of affiliated American Jews. These served as prelude to The Jewish Woman in America (1976), a jointly authored volume that she wrote as a graduate student together with Charlotte Baum and Sonya Michel. (9) This explicitly feminist history, published by a trade press, reached an even broader audience than her essays.

In The Jewish 'Woman in America Hyman had written sections that narrated a transnational history of Jewish women, looking at German Jewish immigrants and their gender roles in Europe and the United States and comparing them to Eastern European immigrants. Researching Jewish women in the United States, she produced innovative scholarship that broadened the scope of modern Jewish history. She also demonstrated as a modern European Jewish historian that American Jewish history lay within her purview. Indeed, Hyman considered American Jewish history as part of modern Jewish history. Writing her chapters for the book, she introduced topics rarely broached by historians at that time. For example, in the chapter on labor, "Weaving the Fabric of Unionism: Jewish Women Move the Movement," she devoted several pages not only to gender bias and discrimination against women in the garment industry but also to sexual abuse. (132-36, 144-48) Despite this accomplishment, Hyman was aware of academic bias against writing popular, not to mention feminist history. So she kept the book off of her curriculum vita for over a decade.

This reluctance to allow The Jewish Woman in America to stake an academic claim for a feminist and gendered interpretation of American Jewish history influenced her decision to research and write the kosher meat boycott article. This essay examines her path leading from the book, a product of Hyman's feminism and the place where she did her first work in American Jewish history, to her article. A brief analysis of the article will show how it addressed multiple audiences, including immigrant historians and those European historians interested in women's political activism (especially their roles in food riots), in addition to her primary audience of Jewish historians.

The article began as a paper read at the Berkshire Conference on the History of Women. The Conference itself started in 1973 as Women's History was emerging as a field, although there had been a regular gathering dating back to the 1930s of women historians who did research in various areas. The Conference's initial 1973 meeting attracted three hundred participants, far more than anticipated. The 1974 conference at Radcliffe College drew a thousand, an enormous number for those years. (10) Recognizing the growing importance of the Berks, as the Conference came to be called, for women's history, Hyman wanted Jewish history to be part of this intellectual exchange. She did not want Jewish women as actors in history to be left out of the emerging scholarship on women. When the call for papers for the 1978 conference at Mt. Holyoke came out, Paula was visiting me with her daughters at Vassar College, where 1 was teaching Jewish history in the Religion department.

On that 1977 summer visit we talked about the importance of Jewish historians appearing on the program at the Berks and discussed what Paula might propose as a topic. The labor historian, Herbert Gutman, had recently published a provocative op-ed in the New York Times. In the piece, titled "As for the '02 Kosher-Food Rioters ...", Gutman called attention to rabid language used against Jewish women in order to condemn and contextualize similar terms employed to describe those who participated in looting that occurred during the July 13, 1977 blackout in New York City. (11)

Gutman had previously mentioned the kosher meat boycott in a major article, "Work, Culture and Society in Industrializing America, 1815-1919," published in the American Historical Review in 1973. (12) There he had argued for the importance of culture in shaping working class social history and used the boycott to illustrate a Jewish expression of a broad desire on the part of workers to seek a just price for food. The editors of America's Working Women: A Documentary History 1600 to the Present (1976) picked up on Gutman's quotes from a New York Times 1902 editorial condemning the immigrant Jewish women and published newspaper articles on the "food riots" in their volume. (13)

But in this particularly hot...

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