Mary Antin, My Cut­ty­hunk Jour­nal, from Schlesinger Library on the His­to­ry of Women in America

Win­ner of the 2019 Jew­ish Book of the Year Award, for Amer­i­ca’s Jew­ish Women: A His­to­ry from Colo­nial Times to Today, Pamela S. Nadell answers some behind-the-scenes ques­tions on fig­ures in her book and trends of Amer­i­ca’s Jew­ish women, as well as how she’s far­ing in these tur­bu­lent times. 

Staff: How are you keep­ing sane in quarantine?

Pamela S. Nadell: For a writer fac­ing a dead­line, quar­an­tine feels famil­iar. I am doing what I usu­al­ly do — sit­ting in my airy study, research­ing, writ­ing, more research­ing, rewrit­ing, more rewrit­ing. My guilty plea­sures are extra walks with the dog (who is now utter­ly exhaust­ed) and cook­ing din­ner. For­tu­nate­ly, I love to cook.

My class­es were small enough this semes­ter that we just con­tin­ued our dis­cus­sions online in real time. Know­ing that my col­leagues every­where were also quar­an­tined, I invit­ed those whose works we were read­ing to drop into my class. They brought a sil­ver lin­ing to my online classroom.

Staff: Were there women that you did not write about that you would have liked to add to the book but didn’t?

PSN: Sad­ly, so many notable women with com­pelling sto­ries end­ed up get­ting cut from my man­u­script, espe­cial­ly scores of well-known Jew­ish women, promi­nent activists in sec­ond-wave fem­i­nism. But there were oth­ers too. In 1881, Nina Morais Cohen respond­ed to an anti-suf­frag­ist who, con­vinced that women’s small­er brains proved their infe­ri­or­i­ty, argued against their get­ting the vote. Morais bril­liant­ly dis­man­tled her argu­ments. Liv­ing in an era of ris­ing anti­semitism, Morais also defend­ed the Jew­ish peo­ple against its slurs.

Staff: Which woman had the biggest impact on you as a writer?

PSN: I can’t name just one! Two stand out — Mary Antin, whose auto­bi­og­ra­phy The Promised Land I read my first year in grad­u­ate school, and Kate Simon, whose evoca­tive first mem­oir Bronx Prim­i­tive I read the year I became a pro­fes­sor. To this day their deter­mi­na­tion to get an edu­ca­tion, over­come the road­blocks they faced, and the way they told their sto­ries inspire me.

Staff: What start­ed you on the jour­ney to write this book?

PSN: Since child­hood, I was drawn to sto­ries of women’s lives. I pulled so many biogra­phies of famous Amer­i­can women — Bet­sy Ross, Clara Bar­ton, Amelia Earhart — off the children’s shelves of my New Jer­sey township’s library that I assumed that famous women had their own juve­nile series. They didn’t. I just wasn’t grab­bing the books on Wash­ing­ton, Jef­fer­son, and Lin­coln. Look­ing back, I imag­ine that stack of biogra­phies launch­ing me into women’s history.

Staff: Briefly unpack the word Jew­ess: neg­a­tive or positive?

PSN: This ques­tion made me laugh. I think there is a gen­er­a­tional divide here. I use the word when America’s Jew­ish women used it. The first Eng­lish-lan­guage Jew­ish women’s peri­od­i­cal (18951899) was called Amer­i­can Jew­ess. Thanks to Google Ngram, which traces the fre­quen­cy of words across mil­lions of pages, I know that the use of Jew­ess” pre­cip­i­tous­ly declined after 1940. Of course, Ngram doesn’t cap­ture media. It can­not show if there was an uptick after Gil­da Radner’s Sat­ur­day Night Live Jew­ess Jeans” skit or now as pod­cast­ers use the word.

Staff: Which Jew­ish women do you think are blaz­ing the trail today that you would include if you were writ­ing this book in the future?

PSN: No mat­ter how many Jew­ish women trail­blaz­ers I would name, I will be slammed for those I have left out! Just think of the great num­bers of Jew­ish women who have entered nation­al, state, and local pol­i­tics; or the myr­i­ads who are leav­ing their marks in the worlds of busi­ness, the arts, edu­ca­tion, the media, and activism. But I would like to pay spe­cial trib­ute to the hun­dreds of women who have become rab­bis, among them the first to receive Ortho­dox ordination.

Staff: Read a short pas­sage from a book writ­ten by one of the women you discuss/​cover in your book.

PSN: This is a pas­sage from Kate Simon’s Bronx Prim­i­tive (1982). Here Simon writes of a con­ver­sa­tion from half a cen­tu­ry before she pub­lished her first mem­oir: My moth­er didn’t accept her fate as a for­ev­er thing… while I was still young, cer­tain­ly no more than ten, I began to get her lec­ture on being a woman…’ Go to col­lege. Be a school­teacher… and don’t get mar­ried until you have a pro­fes­sion… Or don’t get mar­ried at all, bet­ter still.’”

There are so many pos­si­bil­i­ties in those words.

Staff: Share a few #DidJewKnow(s) about Jew­ish women in history.

PSN: Rosa Son­neschein, edi­tor of the Amer­i­can Jew­ess, was one of a hand­ful of Amer­i­can Jews who attend­ed the First Zion­ist Con­gress (1897).

Dr. Joyce Broth­ers launched her TV career, not as a psy­chol­o­gist, but as a box­ing expert, win­ning $128,000 on the TV game show The $64,000 Ques­tion.

At the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go, Heather Booth found­ed Jane, an abor­tion refer­ral ser­vice. It helped 10,000 women get abor­tions before Roe v. Wade.

Staff: The book starts in colo­nial times — is much or any­thing known about Jew­ish women who were here before the found­ing of the coun­try? If so, what are some facts that stand out to you?

PSN: For colo­nial times we have, of course, few­er sources. But we do have some trea­sure troves of let­ters and even poetry.

One col­lec­tion, buried in the archives, comes from Grace Mendes Seixas Nathan, whose great-grand­daugh­ter was the famed poet Emma Lazarus. I love hear­ing Grace Nathan’s voice in her let­ters. She grum­bles about a neighbor’s hum-drum wed­ding” and shares wor­ries about a great-niece who has been spit­ting up blood for weeks. But the doc­tors are not ter­ri­bly con­cerned; they think that her corsets are too tight.

Staff: How did you decide who to clas­si­fy as an Amer­i­can Jew­ish woman?

PSN: Years ago, when I was a mem­ber of the edi­to­r­i­al board of Jew­ish Women in Amer­i­ca: An His­tor­i­cal Ency­clo­pe­dia, we had heat­ed dis­cus­sions about who was in and who was out. For this book, my rule of thumb was if some­one was either born Jew­ish or saw her­self as Jew­ish, then she was in.

Staff: Were there his­tor­i­cal women you dis­cov­ered over the course of your research whose lives might chal­lenge our pre­con­cep­tions? Who was the most unex­pect­ed fig­ure you came across?

PSN: If our pre­con­cep­tions are that in the past America’s Jew­ish women were pri­mar­i­ly wives and moth­ers, car­ing for their fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties, then so many of the women in my book broke that mold.

Maimie Pinz­er was a pros­ti­tute who pre­ferred that life to sewing in a sweat­shop until her aching fin­gers bled. Annie Nathan Mey­er found­ed Barnard Col­lege but opposed women get­ting the vote. Com­mu­nist orga­niz­er Peg­gy Den­nis sent her daugh­ters to school on the High Hol­i­days but kept them home on May 1st, Inter­na­tion­al Work­ers Day.

Their lives, I think, do not fit most pre­con­ceived notions about America’s Jew­ish women.

Pamela S. Nadell is the Patrick Clen­de­nen Chair in Women’s and Gen­der His­to­ry and direc­tor of Jew­ish stud­ies at Amer­i­can Uni­ver­si­ty. Her books include Women Who Would Be Rab­bis, a Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award final­ist. She lives in North Bethes­da, Maryland.