Commentary Magazine


The Jewish Woman in America, by Charlotte Baum, Paula Hyman, and Sonya Michel

The Jewish Woman in America.
by Charlotte Baum, Paula Hyman, and Sonya Michel.
Dial. 290 pp. $8.95.

In accordance with the first principle of Jewish sociology—vi es kristlt zikh, azoy yidlt zikh, as do the Gentiles, so do the Jews—the rise of feminism has given impetus to a Jewish feminism that transposes Women’s Lib into Jewish terms. The formula, originally a self-critical observation on Jewish trendiness and the lamentable tendency of Jews to follow where they ought, perhaps, to lead, has lost its ironic bite and is now merely descriptive: several years after the first outpouring of feminist writing, we were bound to expect, and to get, a tributary stream of literature on the Jewish woman.

Not that the result is wholly regrettable: a topic of proven fascination not merely to herself, the Jewish woman is an admirable subject of study and analysis, and a renewed interest in Jewish women through the ages, in Jewish grand-mothers and Jewish mothers, will surely yield something of value. But it is in the nature of trendiness to apply new insights overenthusiastically, simplistically, and without sufficient sensitivity to the implications of one’s bias. Even the best of the new literature is flawed in this way, often distorting where it seeks to clarify and diminishing that which it sets out to exalt.

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The Jewish Woman in America, “not an exhaustive, definitive history of all Jewish women in America,” but “a schematic approach to certain problems as we’ve defined them,” suffers, as this description by the authors suggests, from methodological imprecision. Arranged chronologically, the book devotes individual chapters to the German Jewish woman in America; to the East European Jewish woman in the old country, in America, and in the labor movement; to the differences between uptown and down-town women; and then, in an unexplained shift of focus, to the changing image of the Jewish woman in American Jewish literature over the past forty years and today. Different hands are visible in the uneven literary styles and levels of competence. The, historical sections, like the chapter on Eastern Europe, strike a fine balance between explanatory overview and anecdotal detail, while other chapters Turch from case histories, not always representative, to meaningless generalization “Although most young unmarried women usually received little family encouragement to go beyond a minimal education, many took advantage of courses offered in the evening-school system. . . .”

A main concern of the book is to correct the false impression that Jewish women of the immigrant generation were “bearers and conservers of culture” “when their real contribution” was that of bread-winner. This correction forms part of a statement on relative values. Written from a feminist point of view, the book is predictably sympathetic to those whom it regards as forerunners of that view, the highest acclaim going to women in the labor movement who are “finally give[n] . . . their much-deserved rose.” These are the culture heroines, and they are lovingly portrayed. Of a “samesex” marriage between-tow union women the authors write: “The intimacy and love between them probably grew out of their intense and time-consuming interest in the same cause.” No such idealism or affection is attributed to heterosexual Jewish marriages.

The authors desire to present a favorable view of Jewish women in America comes into conflict with their feminist assumptions when they move from the immigrant breadwinners to the middle generation of more prosperous women who abandoned the labor force to seek their pleasure at home. Unable or unwilling to examine the reasons for this choice, the authors disguise their subjects as victims of various social forces: their husbands’ prosperity and insistence that their wives be “ladies”; the prevailing American attitude that women do not belong in business; the pressure of assimilation; the social expectations projected by the media; and so forth. It is difficult to understand, except in terms of the authors’ bias, how or why the active women of earlier chapters should have come to be replaced by these marshmallows of the will.

To emphasize their passivity, the book turns at this point from the direct treatment of Jewish women to their image in literature, as though they had no real existence any more but were only the products of the novels and stories in which they figure and which “direct them into a domestic role.” On the surface the authors set out to rescue these women from their damaging stereotypes, but the confusion of literature with life ends up by giving those stereotypes a substantiveness they would otherwise lack. The book discusses Jewish “mothers” and “princesses” as though these were the categories of human life and Jewish women were really what American Jewish literature makes of them. It picks up the literary equation of domestic comfort with unhappiness—“Pearls around the neck, a stone upon the heart”—oblivious to the ideological allegiances of the writers who have made this equation. Facts, when available, are not allowed to cloud the authors’ vision. When statistics show, for example, that in a given period Jewish women attended college in greater numbers than their Gentile counterparts, the authors add that the “literature of this period [they cite one story and one novel] reveals that the parents—and often the young women themselves did not take their daughters’ education too seriously.” Where facts and balanced descriptions might have broadened our understanding and clarified our image of American Jewish women from the 20’s onward, this deference to literature as the basis of discussion and information has only reinforced the stereotypes, and given them weight.

Although the book is about Jewish women, the feminist outlook is unmatched, except in the chapter on Eastern Europe, by any corresponding Jewish perspective. The book tells us that “the Jewish religious tradition has been abandoned, wholly or in part, by most American Jews,” and from its description of that tradition as a male imposition on a submissive womanhood, this is understood to be for the best. The authors are not concerned with showing the effect on Judaism of the various social and historical trends they describe, not even to the extent of pointing out where Jewish and feminist values might be in conflict.1 It comes as a shock, nonetheless, when the book concludes, without a hint of irony, in a tribute to the liberating Jewish influence of Erica Jong! Quite aside from the lapse of social and literary sensibility, what are we meant to understand here by “Jewish? imagine a book on the Jews that defined them as a subject people, lately freed from their ascribed and internalized” roles, whose modern liberator is Norman Mailer. It would be called, I believe, an insult.

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On The jacket of The Jewish Woman in America a blurb advises us: “Instead of a bas mitzvah, let’s give our daughters this superb book.” Instead of Judaism, let’s have Women’s Lib. As Jewish women evaluate Judaism and Jewish history from this new perspective, they might consider that the commandment against idolatry has always been equally binding on men and women alike.


Footnotes

1 A new anthology, The Jewish Woman, edited by Elizabeth Koltun (Schocken, 320 pp., $12.95; paper, $6.95), seems to promise a greater sensitivity to such areas of conflict, but here too the women’s movement, not Judaism, remains the “organizing center,” the “‘Rosetta Stone’ through which we view and interpret and give room to others.”

About the Author

Ruth R. Wisse is the Martin Peretz professor of Yiddish and professor of comparative literature at Harvard. She is the author most recently of Jews and Power (Nextbook/Schocken).




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