Although subtitled a biography, Feld’s real mission is to parse competing claims on Lillian Wald’s identity as a Jewish female reformer in the Progressive era. Instead of offering a comprehensive study of Wald’s life, Feld focuses on the relationships and issues that illuminate what she identifies as the key struggle of Wald’s career — balancing the universalist philosophy of the Progressives against the more particularist, Jewish interests of her philanthropic backers. Her discussion of Wald’s younger years, for example, explores the assimilationist bent of her Rochester, NY, Jewish roots and the later attraction of Protestant ‘social gospel’ when she moved to Manhattan. Wald’s connections with philanthropist Jacob Schiff and British Labour leader Ramsay Mac- Donald are highlighted, while her relations with other women, sexual or otherwise, are barely mentioned in passing, presumably because they do not speak to Feld’s universalist- particularist thesis. While Feld’s vision of Wald as the quintessential ‘ethnic Progressive’ explains some of her odder positions, like her support of Stalin and her opposition to Zionism, a fuller look at Wald’s world would have given readers a better sense of who this woman was. Bibliography, index, notes, photographs.
Bettina Berch, author of the recent biography, From Hester Street to Hollywood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezierska, teaches part-time at the Borough of Manhattan Community College.