Gertrude Weil: Jew­ish Pro­gres­sive in the New South

Leonard Rogoff
  • Review
By – April 4, 2017

Leonard Rogoff exploits a trea­sure trove of doc­u­men­ta­tion. Gertrude Weil, her fam­i­ly, and their friends were all ded­i­cat­ed let­ter writ­ers: when Gertrude went away to school (Horace Mann, fol­lowed by Smith Col­lege), she was instruct­ed to write her moth­er three times a week, and there was a rota of rel­a­tives who must also receive mis­sives. No excuse was accept­able; since fam­i­ly was the most impor­tant val­ue for Gertrude’s moth­er, study­ing for a test or fin­ish­ing a paper sim­ply didn’t cut it. Weil’s polit­i­cal activism was lat­er chan­neled into let­ters: let­ters to rel­a­tives, let­ters to Jew­ish friends, let­ters to mem­bers of the wider com­mu­ni­ty inside and out­side of North Car­oli­na. The result is an enor­mous­ly rich cor­pus for Rogoff to mine. 

Inevitably Rogoff is the pris­on­er of his sources. They tell much about how one ini­tia­tive led to anoth­er. Ear­ly efforts at pro­gres­sive social reform left Weil believ­ing that only if women had the vote could they make reform a real­i­ty. For her and her close asso­ciates, suf­frage was not a good in itself; the ben­e­fit was instru­men­tal. Fac­ing dis­il­lu­sion when many new­ly enfran­chised women joined their hus­bands in vot­ing against reform, pro­gres­sivism took new forms in the 1930s and 1940s; Rogoff steps care­ful­ly around Weil’s flir­ta­tion with eugenics.

Rogoff builds Weil’s life around three poles: pro­gres­sivism, women’s suf­frage, and Clas­si­cal Reform Judaism. The let­ters enable Rogoff to trace, in almost tedious detail, the build­ing of net­works for spe­cif­ic goals. With regard to suf­frage, fam­i­ly net­works gave way to state orga­ni­za­tions, includ­ing one for Jew­ish women and one includ­ing Chris­tians, while all were linked to nation­al orga­ni­za­tions. This pat­tern was repli­cat­ed for social reform.

Rogoff does a fine job of describ­ing Weil’s mus­ings, study, and cre­do with­in the con­text of Reform Judaism. The his­to­ri­an will miss treat­ment of the influx of East Euro­pean Jews, Con­ser­v­a­tive in their denom­i­na­tion­al alle­giance, who brought new ener­gy to cities such as Greens­boro and Charlotte.

It is easy to explain social change in North Car­oli­na as based on Chris­t­ian Evan­geli­cism. What Rogoff does, very con­vinc­ing­ly, is to demon­strate that Judaism, as exem­pli­fied by lead­ers like Gertrude Weil, was a cru­cial ele­ment in the mix. All three poles of Weil’s life con­tributed to this out­come. Jew­ish ethics, the imper­a­tive to activism based on those ethics, and the exis­tence of fam­i­ly and com­mu­ni­ty net­works as the vehi­cle and mod­el for mobi­liza­tion made for a pow­er­ful com­bi­na­tion. We stand in Rogoff’s debt for his painstak­ing and superbly doc­u­ment­ed explo­ration and assess­ment of the place of Clas­si­cal Reform Judaism, through fig­ures like Gertrude Weil, in North Car­oli­na history.

Relat­ed Reads:

Pro­fes­sor Saab, a native of Boston who was edu­cat­ed at Har­vard, is an unre­con­struct­ed North­ern­er who has lived in North Car­oli­na since 1965. She is an active mem­ber of Beth David Synagogue.

Discussion Questions