"I am getting so excited over the prospect of this trip that I find it difficult to function normally each day. It is all so marvelous that I can hardly believe that it is going to be true."
Rebecca Hourwich, July 10, 1929 (1)
During the summer of 1929, Setty Swartz Kuhn (1868-1952) and Rebecca Hourwich (1897-1987) began to plan a trip abroad. (2) Both had traveled overseas before, but this was to be the trip of a lifetime for each of them. They hoped to go to Russia, Turkey, Greece, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt, an itinerary that would take several months and necessitate traveling by steamer, river barge, train, automobile, carriage, and mule. Sixty-year-old Kuhn, a Jewish woman from Cincinnati who was active in the League of Woman Voters and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, enjoyed the personal and financial resources to turn her dream trip into reality, but she was leery of traveling alone for so long and could not convince any of her children to accompany her. An acquaintance suggested she contact Hourwich, a younger woman who had recently left her job with the National Woman's Party. Hourwich was writing copy for an advertising agency but aspired to find more interesting work and to establish her journalism credentials by reporting from abroad. She also came with the distinct advantage of speaking Russian, a legacy of her Eastern European Jewish immigrant parents, which Kuhn felt was important for the Russian leg of the trip. Kuhn herself knew German and French, the languages bequeathed her by her German Jewish grandparents and her own formal education. (3)
Nothing about the general decision to take such a trip was so unusual. Foreign travel at the time was common primarily for the middle class and wealthy, but, as historian Daniel Soyer has noted, third class steamship tickets and the new category of "tourist" accommodations made going abroad increasingly accessible to the working class as well. While some Jewish immigrants, even if they could eventually afford to do so, had no interest in returning to Europe or even in leaving the United States, others seized the opportunity to revisit their hometowns. Regardless of either their class background or their destinations, American Jews who traveled abroad during the first decades of the twentieth century joined a more general tourist boom. By one count, 278,331 United States citizens sailed for foreign countries in 1922; the number rose to 461,254 in 1930. Resident aliens also went abroad in large numbers: 92,246 in 1926 and 102,627 in 1929. (4) These numbers reflected the growing commercialization of tourism during the period, a phenomenon enabled by the access of more people to a combination of leisure, vacation time, and discretionary income. (5) In his classic work on tourism, Dean MacCannell points out that the early twentieth century saw a significant shift in travel abroad. Whereas earlier travelers typically intended to visit family and friends, to attend special events or ceremonies, or to conduct business of some kind, by the early 1900s sightseeing had become an end in itself and an entire mass tourist industry of guidebooks, markers, maps, and tour guides had sprung up to facilitate this new economic sector. (6) Kuhn and Hourwich's trip encompassed both the older model of personal travel with a specific purpose and the newer model of tourist sightseeing.
Their 1929 journey also placed them squarely in yet another tradition: international travel by women. American women who could afford it had been traveling abroad regularly since at least the mid-nineteenth century. This was no less true of American Jewish women, who went to school overseas; visited relatives and sometimes found husbands; attended international meetings of various activist groups; and took sightseeing trips alone, with family members, or with organized tour groups. Most went to Europe, but some visited Palestine as well, and a few even traveled to Asia. A robust scholarly literature on women's travel explores how it freed women from domestic duties at home, shored up their individual agency through the daily decisions they made about how to spend time and money, and gave them a voice through their travel writings, whether or not these were publicly shared. (7) As scholar Mary Louise Pratt argues in her work on travel writing, the very mobility of traveling women contributed to the creation of modernity while also problematizing it in the figure of the "sentimental traveler." (8) American Jewish women shared the same benefits and perils of travel as other women. They interpreted the sights they saw through similar sets of assumptions about the relative value of their own cultural backgrounds. Yet, as Kuhn's and Hourwich's accounts of their 1929 time abroad illustrate, they also participated in a particularly Jewish grappling with identity that added an extra dimension to their experiences.
Many of those who traveled, regardless of their class background or intentions, kept diaries and journals, meticulously noting their sightseeing itineraries, modes of transportation, and, very often, meals. Jewish women's journals, diaries, letters, and scrapbooks should be seen as a special case of the wider genre of American women's travel narratives. They are also witness to and commentary on diasporic Jewish communities during the last decades of the nineteenth century and first decades of the twentieth century. Neither Kuhn nor Hourwich was traditionally observant, and Hourwich in particular was then ambivalent at best about what Judaism meant to her. They both focused their activism on feminism and peace and identified more with an ethnic or cultural Jewish identity than a religious or national one. Yet in addition to seeking out other activist women on their travels, they also sought out Jewish sites. Their experiences illustrate the ways in which Jewishness shaped travel and identity among Jewish women who went abroad.
American Jewish women's history has largely neglected travel as a common, if not everyday, experience. Many major works in the field mention in passing that this or that figure traveled to this or that international meeting or visited relatives overseas, but there has been little sustained attention to what these experiences might have meant to them. (9) Particularly interesting are questions of how Jewish identity animated and shaped the experiences of American Jewish women abroad who, like Kuhn and Hourwich, visited pre-state Palestine. (10) As avowed feminists and pacifists at the end of the 1920s, Kuhn and Hourwich set out on their journey believing more in the prospect of an international order than in the kind of national projects represented by both the young Soviet Union and the Zionist settlements they visited in Palestine. Their experiences abroad led them to confront their own Jewish and political orientations. This essay will draw on Kuhn and Hourwich's accounts of their 1929 odyssey as exemplars of a robust corpus of American Jewish women's travel narratives that deserves scholarly attention. As their journey demonstrates, going abroad could both destabilize and reaffirm American Jewish women's religious, cultural, ethnic, national, and gender identities.
When Kuhn first contacted Hourwich about accompanying her as a paid companion, both women were at a crossroads. Kuhn, a wealthy widow, was encouraged by her children to take a break from her many civic and communal activities to embark on this trip. She had been going abroad regularly since she was a music-mad eighteen-year-old who attended the Bayreuth Festival in 1886 but had never fulfilled her own lifelong dream of visiting Palestine, although as a Reform Jew and internationalist she viewed Zionism with caution. A politically savvy suffragist and peace activist and a supporter of international Jewish causes, she was also especially interested in seeing for herself what life was like for women and Jews in Russia after the Great War and the Russian Revolution. (11) Kuhn was determined to make this trip the perfect blend of casual sightseeing, in places both familiar and new, and purposeful visits to sites of feminist and Jewish activity. Thirty-two-year-old Hourwich, whose only previous trip overseas had been a lengthy reporting junket to South Africa in 1924, had been unsuccessful since then in fulfilling her desire to travel internationally. Separated from her husband and raising her daughter more or less alone, Hourwich was eager to see the sights of Europe and the Near East and then write magazine articles about her experiences that could help secure her financial independence. As the daughter of secular Jewish radicals, she, like Kuhn, approached travel from the perspective of an activist committed to the post-World War I idea of internationalism common among social and political activists at the time. Her family supported the idea of the trip, and her sister offered to move in with Hourwich's ten-year-old daughter Faith for the duration. Both Kuhn and Hourwich had relatives in some of the countries they planned to visit, and both had contacts in numerous places from their work in the suffrage and peace movements. (12)
Despite their mutual activist histories, Kuhn and Hourwich, separated by age, geography, and origin stories, had never crossed paths. They arranged to meet in New York in June 1929 to test the waters. The encounter went well, and Hourwich wrote to Kuhn that she thought they would get along, but would like to know exactly what her duties would be and how much of the time they would spend together. She asked Kuhn for a salary of $250 a month, most of it to be paid directly to her sister for household upkeep and care of Faith. (13) Kuhn agreed to the financial terms and later in the summer advanced Hourwich half the September salary to cover the expense of preparing to leave. (14) The question of how the two women would spend their time while...