The Rabbi's Atheist Daughter: Ernestine Rose, International Feminist Pioneer by Bonnie S. Anderson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. xi +231pp.
In this deeply researched, eloquently crafted volume, Bonnie Anderson brings to life one of the most fascinating, yet elusive, figures of the nineteenth century, Ernestine L. Rose. Known best for her pioneering role in the early years of the United States women's rights movement, Rose emerges from Anderson's careful, creative treatment as a complex figure whose politics and identity did not neatly conform to the historical shorthand we have come to rely upon to narrate the nineteenth century.
The rabbi's atheist daughter was arguably one of the most famous Jews in nineteenth-century reform circles, despite the fact that she rejected Judaism at an early age. Born Ernestine Louise Susmond Potowska in Poland in 1810, Rose and her family were religious minorities in a largely Catholic society. Her father departed from tradition and taught young Ernestine to read Hebrew, a skill typically reserved for sons. Steeped in the study of the Torah, Ernestine engaged in vigorous questioning and debate until her father reversed course and pronounced that "little girls must not ask questions," a moment that Rose credited with simultaneously igniting her feminism and her dedication to repudiating religion (13). More than an adolescent rebellion, Rose's new found atheism would prove to be a lifelong commitment, one that put her at odds with the religious zeal that motivated both abolition and the women's rights movement. While she rejected Judaism, Rose was unable to elude anti-semitism. She battled it throughout her life and at times within the very movements--women's rights and free thought--to which she dedicated her reform career.
Rose's early years were peripatetic. She left Poland at age 17, according to her own account, after successfully representing herself in court to break an undesirable engagement and protect her inheritance. She traveled to Berlin and later Paris, where she witnessed the Revolution of 1830. One of the many fresh themes that Anderson brings to light is Rose's entrepreneurialism. In Berlin, she developed a paper-based room deodorizer that she sold for over a decade to support herself. She mastered German well enough to later support herself giving language lessons in both German and Hebrew. From Paris she moved to London, where she immersed herself in the work of Robert Owen and...