Generations of family pictures inspired scholar Pamela Nadell to take up the monumental challenge of writing a history of American Jewish women.
Nadell, a professor of gender and American Jewish history at American University, in Washington, DC, saw how necklines lowered, sleeves shortened and then disappeared; Edwardian skirts receded into the short athletic shorts of modern girlhood. The pictures, she says, “pulled me back” to think about the ways in which the women of her family shaped and were shaped by their own historical surroundings.
The product of this introspection is “America’s Jewish Women: A History from Colonial Times to Today,” coming out March 5. It is a book that is both personal and sweeping, intimate and general as it attempts to show the history of Jewish women in the United States in a concise and accessible volume.
Nadell eschews a historical narrative that would privilege events over experiences, focusing as often on domestic and community spaces as on landmark events. Prominent figures, male and female alike, sometimes did not make the cut in an effort to offer a women-centered and concise text.
In an era in which academic and so-called “crossover” literature tends to the monumental, Nadell’s drive to write a book that is accessible not just in its style but its length posed a unique challenge. Some of the usual cast of characters — the Rebecca Gratzes, Bella Abzugs, Emma Lazaruses and Gloria Steinems — walk across Nadell’s stage. But so too do women whose lives were largely lived out of the historical gaze.
“I was aspiring to try to describe the lives of women — I don’t like to use the word ‘ordinary’ — there were American Jewish women who lived lives on smaller canvasses and their stories were known in their families, their communities and their neighborhood,” Nadell explains.
“I wanted this story to balance in telling about both, [and] that really guided whom I decided to highlight. This was one of the things that was a critical decision in deciding how do you take a very big subject,” she says.
Applying the tools of women’s history to four centuries of American Judaism, this approach leads “America’s Jewish Women” to offer granular, occasionally intimate, views of lives easily imagined within its readers’ families.
The book introduces readers to Pearl Nadel, a cheerleader who met saxophone player Jules Sachs, becoming engaged in the run-up to Pearl Harbor. When war was declared, Sachs enlisted in the Army Air Corps (the book calls it the Air Force) and he and Nadel quickly got married.
The details are brief but thorough: how the bride’s family got into the car and hurriedly arranged a wedding, dress and all. In two brief paragraphs, Nadell — Pearl’s niece — goes through years of Pearl’s life on base until the morning in 1944 when the war bride became one of over 100,000 American war widows in World War II.
“I had heard that story about her becoming a war widow my entire life,” says Nadell. “Not long before my father died, I sat down with him over breakfast and he told me the story with all those details. I thought it was a powerful story and it’s really close to my heart.”
The candid and intimate moments are intentional. “On a personal level, people are going to see something that’s going to resonate. I’m hoping that people will find a deep personal connection,” she explains.
At the same time, she hopes readers see a larger picture.
“On the other hand, as a historian, I want people to love history and I think that if we don’t understand our past we won’t understand our present,” she says.
Mind the gap
Nadell conceived of the project as filling a gap in that understanding. When she was thinking about a topic for a new book, a friend sent Nadell to local bookstores, telling her to “go through Judaica, history and women’s studies sections and see what is on the shelves.”
“When I went through the sections, what jumped out is that history is almost all politics, great men and war. In Judaica, it was about understanding Judaism and a lot on kabbala, and in women’s studies there was almost no women’s histories — more sociology and psychology.”
Nadell’s years of experience in academia come together in this project.
“I’m sitting on more than a quarter century of work in women’s history and American Jewish history. I had this huge corpus sitting under me. Joining these streams of scholarship is what makes this book unique,” she says.
Writing the history of Jewish women in America may seem like a daunting task. Defining the parameters of America, beginning with a colonial migration from Recife to New Amsterdam, and extending into the global age is a challenge within itself, but the challenge is compounded by the diverse identities and stories of Nadell’s dozens of subjects.
In her research, Nadell demonstrates striking consistencies and familiar experiences across the centuries.
In the closing years of the 18th century, Rebecca Samuel settled in Petersburg, Virginia, knowing that the Jewish population of the town outside of Richmond is tiny. After a while, she and her husband decide that the lack of Jewish life was unsustainable and they move elsewhere in search of better kosher food options and a more observant community.
Early American Jewish women complained in different language of an 18th century “shidduch crisis” in which the tiny populations of unmarried Jews spread up and down the Eastern Seaboard meant that there were few non-relatives, if any, who would make suitable partners.
A 19th century Jewish matron, left out of church-based ladies’ society decided that her family can attend church but pray to the Jewish God — only to convert on her deathbed to Christianity; turn-of-the-century sixth-grader Kate Simon struggled to get the math grades to enter an accelerated junior high school that would lead her to college; an on-air interviewer asked two-time Hadassah president Rose Halperin in 1957, who coordinated a massive organization, logistical and fundraising network, “How much time do you spend taking care of your husband?”
“On the one hand there are tremendous continuities — women are wives, grandmothers, daughters and widows. In those different roles, they’re embedded in communities, and work and Jewishness affects most of their lives, but the meaning of that has changed over time,” Nadell explains. “What it meant to be a wife and a mother in colonial America is very different from what it means today.”
A very big book
Discussing her decision to write a book that appeals to a wider audience than the tight circle of academics frequently exposed to gender histories, Nadell says, “People are telling me that as they read it they start to think about their own families.”
“America’s Jewish Women” may drop academic crumbs — here a reference to gender history in use of terms like “separate spheres,” there a groundbreaking application of the concept of republican motherhood to Jewish women in the Federal Period — but Nadell envisioned her challenge as writing a broad and sweeping history in a way that was academically rigorous but appealed to a broader audience.
Earlier versions, she says, were much longer and contained many more footnotes.
“The decision was if I was going to write a book for academics and a small audience or was I going to write for a broader audience,” Nadell acknowledges. “I always wanted to write a big book. There’s something very exciting about using scholarship and bringing it to a larger audience.”
Nadell’s book comes out weeks after prominent US analyst Max Boot decried the absence of historians from the public debate, but Nadell’s examination of Jewish women’s history is part of an attempt to engage with an audience outside of college seminars.
“Historians used to write for much wider audiences, but [over time] much of their work got embedded deeply in the academy,” she says.
Nadell hopes that her book will help readers think about the history of American Jewish women in new depth. As Nadell says in the book, the longue durée history “tells us a great deal about how the American Jewish community has changed – most of these women were married but today, a large chunk of American Jewish women have chosen not to marry and have made different choices in their lives.
“Another aspect is the complexity – I have tried to show the diversity of American Jewish women in the past as well as today. There are many who center their lives around Judaism. There are Jewish women for whom Jewishness has inflected their lives; it wasn’t an all-encompassing identity but it influenced their lives. But there are also some for whom being Jewish wasn’t consequential or at least they didn’t see it as consequential,” she writes.
Nadell is also interested in the contemporary context of struggles with anti-Semitism, a topic to which she begins to ascribe prominence in the mid-19th century.
“It seems to me that this is a moment in which we need to be talking not just about what’s happening now but how this moment is grounded in the past,” she asserts.
“America’s Jewish Women,” carefully footnoted and indexed, is designed to do just that. Rather than explaining American Jewish history and showing how women intersected it, it shows how American Jewish women worked both within and against the parameters set by their respective societies and circles of community to find a place for themselves amid constantly changing conditions.