American Jewish Women in the Early 20th Century

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


The Jewish Woman in America, Part 1


Prior to the development of the American Jewish community, Jewish women were at all times viewed as inferior and subservient to men. These views were rooted in the Jewish religion and were transmitted from there to other religions derived from Judaism. It is therefore not surprising that the eastern European Jews who arrived in this country between 1891 and 1924 continued to hold the view.

The first Jews to come to the North American continent came from Recife, Brazil, in 1654 because the Dutch colony there had been invaded by the Portuguese, who brought the Inquisition with them. Twenty-three Jews traveled to New Amsterdam that year.

These few Jewish refugees were joined by a few co-religionists from Portugal and Spain during the seventeenth century. The women in these families occupied the traditional inferior place in the families governed by their husbands. This continued to be true when between 1840 and 1880 some 250,000 German Jews migrated to the United States. Like all Germans at that time, patriarchy was common in these families, although German Jewish women were the first to challenge the dominance of men in several spheres of family life.

These challenges did not go unanswered. On January 21, 1864, an article, “God’s Curse of Womanhood”,  appeared in the Jewish journal The Occident. This said in part: “Now when Eve was created she was made equal to Adam in every respect, and by no means had he any power or authority over her whatever... But after she had induced him to break the commandment of God, and he was cursed to labor and to toil for his living, and to support her, to supply all their wants through hard work, she was also cursed by losing her right to be equal to him... he shall rule over her.

    The German-Jewish American women who challenged male authority were in part successful. However, their numbers were very small and the impact of their attitudes were hardly felt after the vast number of eastern European Jews arrived in the United States beginning in 1881. That year marked a major turning point in Jewish history. In March of that year the Czar of Russia, Alexander II, was assassinated. His son, Alexander III, ascended the throne and promptly began a brutal persecution of the Jews in his vast empire. This led to a major migration of Jews to western Europe and from there to America. By the early 1920’s, when Congress closed the doors to mass immigration, some 2.5 million Jews had arrived in this country. More Jews and other ethnics would have come in subsequent years but could not do so because the Immigration Act of 1924 severely limited the number of southern and eastern Europeans as well as Asians allowed into the country.

The eastern European Jews had three things in common which set them apart from the Portuguese and German Jews already here. Unlike these earlier arrivals, the eastern Jews spoke Yiddish or Jewish. The Yiddish language is written with Hebrew letters but is not Hebrew any more than English is Latin, although written with Latin letters. Yiddish is derived from the same root as a number of German dialects, particularly Bavarian. It is not “corrupt German” as is popularly believed but is a branch on the tree of the Germanic languages.

The second difference between the newly arrived Yiddish speaking Jews and the American Jewish community was that the newcomers were destitute. Poor in the realms of the Czar, they were even worse off financially in New York or the other east coast cities where they first settled.

Thirdly, the eastern European Jews differed from almost anyone then in America because they lived in a sacred community governed by the Almighty. These families were absolutely patriarchal even if the mother worked outside the home selling food or commodities from pushcarts.

Children in the sacred family treated parents with utmost respect and old age was seen as “beautiful” as age was held in high esteem. In turn, children were held to rigid standards enforced by scoldings and beatings. Fathers had near-deity standing in a culture in which there was a sharp division of labor between the sexes. Some families were extended families including grandparents. In that case the oldest male was the head of the household, but women were never the heads of households.

Among the Yiddish speaking Jews marriage was always Jewish and was viewed as a “sacred occasion”. Marriage to non-Jews was almost unknown as neither Jews nor Gentiles were normally willing to promote such a union. Normally, marriages were arranged by the father of the bride and the father of the groom. Undoubtedly, mothers maneuvered “behind the scene” to get their daughters married, but fathers had the final word as to who married whom. Divorce was possible but so rare that it too was nearly unknown. While a man could divorce his wife easily, a wife could not divorce her husband unless the couple visited four rabbis and even then could not be certain that a divorce would be granted.

Jewish family life was dictated by the law which dealt with women entirely from the point of view of a patriarchal society. Woman’s role in life consisted of caring for her husband, children and home. All her needs were to be met by her father, husband and son. The novelist Anzia Yezietska wrote in her novel Bread Givers in 1925: “only through a man has a woman an existence. Only through a man can a woman enter heaven.”

Women in the eastern European Jewish family were obliged to prepare all food according to the Jewish dietary laws and she was also expected to undergo the ritual baths regularly. In court, however, her word was not accepted.

The sex life of the eastern European woman was strictly controlled by the demands of  a book called  The Set Table.  This book, also called The Code of Jewish Law, contains numerous regulations as to chastity, laws forbidding a man to be alone with a woman, laws pertaining to menstruation and laws pertaining to intercourse.

Women in that society shaved their hair and wore a wig instead. The reason for this procedure was that a woman should only be attractive to her husband and not to other men, who might like the sight of a woman’s hair.

This, then, was the heritage of the eastern European Jews and the position of women in those families.

In the 1920’s, some forty years after the beginning of Jewish mass immigration to the United States, the orthodox Jewish community experienced a number of changes which altered Jewish family life and finally led to the emancipation of Jewish women from the strictures of the eastern European environment.

Although there are a few Jews in America at the beginning of the 21st century who still live a lifestyle resembling the eastern European orthodoxy, the vast majority of American Jews have left these arrangements and have given Jewish women an entirely different status-role.

This new status-role came about through the secularization of the Jewish family in an America which also promoted secular values at the expense of various religious traditions.

The most dramatic difference between the role of the Jewish woman at the beginning of the 20th century and that same role at the beginning of the 21st century is the high intermarriage rate of Jews with non-Jews. This, of course, affects men and women and has become the central issue of concern for Jewish survivalists.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including The Restoration of Israel (2006).

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