The ProsenPeople

Ernestine Rose, Judenschmerz, and Me

Friday, January 27, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Bonnie S. Anderson explored the Jewish identity of subject of her book The Rabbi's Atheist Daughter: Ernestine Rose, International Feminist Pioneer and why she would have been at the front of the Women’s March on Washington this past weekend. Bonnie is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.


The word Judenschmerz, which literally means “Jewish pain,” was coined in the first quarter of the nineteenth century to denote the difficulties of still being identified as Jewish when one has converted from Judaism to Christianity. Often used about the German poet Heinrich Heine, it came to mean suffering from antisemitism when a Jew no longer believes in religion.

Growing up in a nominally Jewish family in New York City of the 1950s, I experienced this pain. My mother had been raised in Ethical Culture, a self-defined “religion centered on ethics rather than theology” with a progressive, largely Jewish membership. My father was an atheist who believed that all religions were a force for evil and all believers stupid. We children were taught nothing about Judaism, never went to temple, and celebrated Christmas and Easter, which my father considered to be “American.” But the greatest family sin was to deny you were Jewish.

In those years, life in New York was segregated along religious lines: there were Jewish buildings, Jewish law firms, Jewish dancing schools. My first experiences of antisemitism occurred at Brearley, an elite private girls’ schools unique for having 25% Jewish students—the others in its cohort were almost exclusively Christian. When I told our headmistress that I wanted to apply to the women’s college at Harvard, she said I wouldn’t get in because “they have a Jewish quota.” I wondered why the head of this prestigious school supported such discrimination. When I interviewed at the women’s college at Brown, I was told that “girls like me” were not very happy there. “What do you mean, ‘girls like me’?” I asked. “Dark girls from New York City,” she replied. Since I was only accepted there, I was nervous about going.

I actually had a fine time. I encountered more antisemitism when I married and changed my maiden name, Sour, to Anderson. Assuming I was not Jewish, a number of my husband’s associates freely voiced antisemitic views, calling my city “Jew York,” saying someone had “jewed them down,” remarking that “all Jews are stingy.” When I wrote my first book with my best friend, Judith Zinsser, who is not Jewish, we used to trick people by asking, “Who’s the Jew?” and then telling them they were wrong.

All this was far milder than the antisemitism Ernestine Rose (1810 – 1892) encountered in the United States. She lost her faith in Judaism at seventeen, became an atheist, and frequently lectured for freethought as well as feminism and anti-slavery. Although she experienced far more prejudice against atheists than Jews, documents reveal at least two instances of antisemitism in her life.

In 1854, Lucy Stone, a co-worker in the women’s rights movement, wrote Rose’s closest female friend, Susan B. Anthony, that since Rose’s “facewas “so essentially Jewish,” and she was “avaricious,” she should not be allowed to represent women’s rights. Although Stone continued this criticism, Anthony paid no attention and continued to place Rose in important roles within the movement.

A more serious instance occurred ten years later, when Horace Seaver, editor of the freethought Boston Investigator newspaper, published a series of antisemitic editorials. Antisemitism directed at the ancient Hebrews had a lengthy tradition within freethought, but Seaver, previously Rose’s friend and champion, now attacked modern Jews, writing that Judaism is “bigoted, narrow, exclusive, and totally unfit for a progressive people like the Americans, among whom we hope it may not spread.”

Ernestine Rose initially answered her friend with humor: “I almost smelt brimstone, genuine Christian brimstone” when I read your piece, “Would you drive them out of Boston… as they were driven out of Spain?” She cited the widely accepted stereotype of “the renowned ‘Yankee,’ who, it is admitted by all, excels the Jew” as a “cunning, sharp trader” and concluded by writing “I know there are honest, honorable Yankees as well as Jews;” you “are one of the very best.”

Seaver responded viciously. “If the Yankees, as a class, like money as well as the Jews,” he replied, “we question whether so many of the former would be found in the ranks of the Union Army. They would be more likely to stay at home to deal in ‘old clothes,’ at a profit of ‘fifteen per shent.’”

This angry correspondence continued for eight weeks. Neither convinced the other. Ernestine Rose stopped writing to the Investigator for almost five years. But she did later resume her friendship with Seaver and expressed great sorrow when he died.

I felt a deep connection with Rose over our similar experiences with Judenschmerz, one of the critical reasons I decided to write her biography. I decided, however, not to put myself in the book, and have never written about this subject before. I hope Rose’s story—and my own—reaches and resonates with readers today, who have encountered religious, racial, or social prejudice in their own lives.

Bonnie S. Anderson taught history and women's studies at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York for over thirty years. A pioneer in the field of women's history, Anderson lectures throughout Europe and the United States on women’s movements, international feminism, the history of sexuality, and women’s issues today.

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How Jewish Was Ernestine Rose?

Wednesday, January 25, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Bonnie S. Anderson explained why the subject of her book The Rabbi's Atheist Daughter: Ernestine Rose, International Feminist Pioneer would have been at the front of the Women’s March on Washington this past weekend. Bonnie is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.


Born in 1810 to a Polish rabbi and his wife, Ernestyna Potowska, as she may have been called then—her Hebrew names have been lost to history—was raised as an Orthodox Jew. (Virtually all Jewish families were Orthodox then—the nascent Reform movement was just starting in Berlin.)

Educated by her father, Ernestine was taught skills usually reserved to boys: learning Hebrew and reading Torah. Early on, she began to ask questions, as Jewish boys were supposed to do. “Little girls must not ask questions,” her father declared, a pronouncement that she later said made her “an advocate of religious freedom and women’s rights.” At 12 years old, she tested God’s approval of her community’s stricture that “You must keep the Sabbath unto the breaking of a piece of straw.” When the deity sent no sign to stop her doing this, she “broke with the God of Moses and began her break with any personal God.”

She went through the motions of practicing her religion for a few more years, unwilling to finalize the breach with her father, whom she adored. But in her mid-teens she completely renounced Judaism—and with it, all religious belief. She later argued that to Jews, it was all or nothing; Christians could rotate among various denominations, but for the Jew “there is but one step between his religion and Atheism.” If one “takes one step in advance, he is out of darkness, into the broad light of day.” For the rest of her long life, Ernestine Rose, as she became when she married in 1836, identified as an atheist, lectured ardently for free thought, and repudiated all religions as “superstition.”

But can you ever leave the Tribe? I have written elsewhere in these columns about Rose’s experiences of antisemitism, but here I am interested in how much her Jewish upbringing shaped her adult values. After settling in England in 1831, she found a “new father,” the eminent industrialist-turned-radical Robert Owen. Rose became Own’s “disciple” and embraced his philosophy for the rest of her life. Owen believed that the religion of the “New Moral World” he hoped to create consisted in “promoting the happiness of every man, woman, and child[…] without regard to their class, sect, party, or color.” Rose consistently praised Owen’s patience, benevolence, charity, and kindness and made his ideals her own. The egalitarianism of this philosophy demanded human rights for everyone: “white and black, man and woman,” Rose declared, “humanity’s children are all one and the same family, therefore there should be no slaves among them.” In the United States, she consistently linked women and slaves. “Like or unlike, he [the black man] is a human being, and I will use the same argument with regard to him that I use when pleading—no, not when pleading—when claiming the rights of woman,” she declared in 1855.

Owenite philosophy did away with the Christian concept of Original Sin and refused to blame anyone—not the misogynist nor the slave-owner—since people’s characters and values were formed by the society in which they lived. “An entire change in the character and condition of mankind” can be brought about by “philosophical inquiries into the nature of the causes that produce depravity, vice, and misery,” Rose maintained. Restoring the rights of women and slaves would benefit men and whites as well. It would be “in the interest of all….all are one in the race.” Social and political reform can heal the world.

This ideal consitutes the Jewish ethic of Tikkun Olam, repairing the world. Found in classical rabbinic literature, this concept may have been conveyed to the young Jewish girl during her studies with her father in Poland. Whether in England or America, this ideal motivated Ernestine Rose’s amazing activism, leading her to tour and lecture, to join conventions and sponsor meetings, to write and petition. Throughout her career, she attempted to make the world a better place for women, for slaves, and paradoxically, for non-believers. I believe that even as an outspoken atheist, she remained committed to this basic Jewish precept.

Bonnie S. Anderson taught history and women's studies at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York for over thirty years. A pioneer in the field of women's history, Anderson lectures throughout Europe and the United States on women’s movements, international feminism, the history of sexuality, and women’s issues today.

Good Girls, Nasty Women: Gender and American Jewish History

Tuesday, March 28, 2017 | The Jewish Museum, New York City

Disappointed Amazon's Good Girls Revolt was cancelled after the first season? Hear from award-winning journalist Lynn Povich, the author of the memoir upon which the show was based, in conversation with Ernestine Rose biographer and women's historian Bonnie S. Anderson and Rebecca Traister, journalist and author of All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation. Discover the Jewish women behind history's great revolutions and contemporary movements, from the activists of America's Antebellum to the women's liberation stirrings of the midcentury—to today's "nasty" women—at Unpacking the Book: Jewish Writers in Conversation Tuesday, March 28, 2017 in New York City!

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Agitate! Agitate! Ernestine Rose and the Age of Trump

Monday, January 23, 2017 | Permalink

Bonnie S. Anderson is the author of The Rabbi's Atheist Daughter: Ernestine Rose, International Feminist Pioneer, a biography of “the queen of the platform” for women’s rights, free thought, and abolition in the mid-nineteenth century. In response to current events in the United States, Bonnie is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.


The healthiest way I coped with the election of Donald Trump was to write blog entries about Ernestine Rose, the subject of my recent biography. Rose, who lived from 1810 to 1892, spent her career combatting society’s inequities. She persevered for decades to implement her ideals.

A few months after she arrived in New York City in 1836, she knocked on doors in lower Manhattan, trying to get signatures on a petition for married women’s property rights. Legal doctrine then maintained that “husband and wife are one person and that person is the husband.” Single women could own property, but anything a married woman possessed or earned, from a salary to a pocketbook, belonged to her husband. At first, Rose gathered only one signature a month. “Some of the ladies said the gentlemen would laugh at them,” she remembered, “Others, that they had rights enough; and the men said the women had too many rights already.” Relying on her own beloved husband’s support, she persisted. She addressed the state legislature in Albany five times on this subject in the 1840s and found allies to work with her. In 1848, the state of New York gave women in future marriages the right to own property, but not their earnings. “This was not much, to be sure,” Rose later remarked, “for at best it was only for the favored few, and not for the suffering many. But it was a beginning, and an important step.”

Ernestine Rose and others labored on. Finally, fourteen years after she started this campaign, New York gave married women complete property rights. Rose celebrated the victory in a public letter:

How has all this been achieved? The answer is, by agitation—conventions and public lectures to enlighten woman on the laws which oppressed her—to enlighten men on the injustice he perpetrated against her….Agitate! agitate! Ought to be the motto of every reformer. Agitation is the opposite of stagnation—the one is life, the other, death.

Rose did not confine herself to property rights. She worked for women’s right to vote, for their ability to hold jobs and positions confined to men, for their right to equal education. But women’s rights were only one of her three chief causes. She labored equally hard for free thought and anti-slavery.

The only one of these three causes she lived to see achieved was the end of formal slavery in the United States. By the time she died at 82, women still did not possess the vote in any nation and atheists like herself remained discriminated against. But she never gave up and even in old age and illness continued to champion her beliefs.

If she were alive today, I know she would have been at the Women’s March on Washington this past weekend to protest Trump’s inauguration. In many ways, Ernestine Rose’s values are the opposite of Donald Trump’s. She set out on her own at 17 years old, not profiting from her father’s business as he did. She consistently believed that all people, “black and white, men and women,” were equal and so should have equal rights; by contrast, Trump and his father refused to rent their properties to black people into the 1970s. Rose defended prostitutes as victims of male desire; Trump has justified men’s sexual attacks on women. Near the end of her life, Rose argued that all people—“the Christian, the Mahomatan, the Jew, the Deist, and the Atheist”—can “reform the laws so as to have perfect freedom of conscience, the right to think and express our thoughts on all subjects.” Trump’s campaign denigrated Muslims, Mexicans, immigrants, and disabled people.

So no matter how disheartened you may feel by his recent election, I urge everyone to battle on. Don’t mourn, organize! Let the Women’s March be the first of many events championing our values and ideals. Follow Rose’s heroic example and agitate, agitate! It is the only way to change the world.

Bonnie S. Anderson taught history and women's studies at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York for over thirty years. A pioneer in the field of women's history, Anderson lectures throughout Europe and the United States on women’s movements, international feminism, the history of sexuality, and women’s issues today.

Good Girls, Nasty Women: Gender and American Jewish History

Tuesday, March 28, 2017 | The Jewish Museum, New York City

Disappointed Amazon's Good Girls Revolt was cancelled after the first season? Hear from award-winning journalist Lynn Povich, the author of the memoir upon which the show was based, in conversation with Ernestine Rose biographer and women's historian Bonnie S. Anderson and Rebecca Traister, journalist and author of All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation. Discover the Jewish women behind history's great revolutions and contemporary movements, from the activists of America's Antebellum to the women's liberation stirrings of the midcentury—to today's "nasty" women—at Unpacking the Book: Jewish Writers in Conversation Tuesday, March 28, 2017 in New York City!

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