Jewish Women in the 21st Century

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


The Jewish Woman in America, Part 2

An example of the life of a Jewish woman raised by an Ashkenazi Jewish mother and Irish Catholic father was published by Charlotte Green Honigman Smith in 2003.

According to Jewish law, children of a Jewish mother are Jewish no matter the religion of the father. Hence, Charlotte Smith was taught to observe the Sabbath and Jewish holidays, attend Reform religious school and  become Bat Mitzvah. She also attended a rabbinic school and has worked for synagogues and Jewish organizations.

Smith recites how her father was always a practicing Catholic who took her to Mass and other Christian events and who lit a Christmas tree in their home every year but that, nonetheless, she was always Jewish. Contrary to popular opinion, Charlotte Smith was not conflicted about her religion nor did she become an agnostic. She was Jewish in every way, as a child knew more about Judaism than most children with two Jewish parents, and did not suffer the “December dilemma”.

Smith next shows how she became a Hebrew school teacher and found that a considerable number of children in her class had one non-Jewish parent and said so openly. This represents a huge change from the days of the immigrant Jews of the early twentieth century. In fact, Smith worked for the Jewish National Fund and found that many of the contributors to the Tree in Israel program included names of recent Bat-Bar Mitzvahs such as Rossini, Yamamoto and Chang.

Her principal argument follows. It is this: For forty years Jews have worried about losing Jews in the next generation because of intermarriage. Yet, it has not declined. Therefore, the Jewish community needs to do more to bring the children of interfaith marriage into the community instead of assuming that such children are always lost to Judaism .

Smith also shows that her father, a practicing Catholic, participated in the activism that existed with respect to letting Soviet Jews leave the Soviet Union. The point here is that non-Jews have a conscience and are often willing to be supporters of Jewish causes. She even says, “I believe what I take from my Irish heritage makes me a better Jew.”

Smith is not alone. Her situation is now common in the Jewish community and depicts a level of self-determination utterly unknown one hundred years earlier.

    Eve Rosenbaum is another contributor to the anthology Joining the Sisterhood.   Once more we see that a Jewish woman at the beginning of the 21st century enjoys self-determination, unlike her great-grandmother. Rosenbaum is a native of the San Fernando Valley in California. Her family came from New York but Eve learned to ride a horse, acted in plays, took music lessons and attended High Holy Day services with other once a year Jews.

   But after her grandfather died in New York, her father decided the family would become “religious” and “he meant it”. Under the influence of the family, Eve Rosenbaum became determined to become a “religious” girl in the orthodox sense. Rosenbaum associated with an orthodox community and attended an orthodox school in Los Angeles. Yet, in that absolute atmosphere, those not born into orthodoxy were singled out as outsiders and a “bad influence.”

   In the course of attending a school called Bais Yaakov (The House of Jacob), Eve Rosenbaum discovered that she was to refrain from watching television, talking to boys, was to be unemployed because women should not work (outside the house), and that she shouldn't go to college but should get married directly after graduating from high school. She was also told that she shouldn’t do anything without the permission of her husband.

When her family moved to New York, Eve Rosenbaum rebelled against the family. She went to college, lived with other students and lived her life without pretenses.

Then there is Lynne Schreiber. She too describes her Jewish life in Joining the Sisterhood. Her experiences are so far removed from the immigrant families of the early twentieth century that her Polish Jewish ancestors would never recognize her family.

She met a Catholic man who knew all about his religion. She, however, could not explain Judaism. The family hung a stocking over the mantle lest the children feel “different” on December 24-25 each year. She has an uncle who became a Buddhist and only one aunt still lights “Shabbat candles” every week. She calls herself “a product of a “fast paced USA Today world of sound bites and quick bites.”

Lynne Schreiber notes how she was “dragged” by her parents to boring services on the High Holy Days. Her Catholic boyfriend asked her one day how she could be so Jewish without knowing anything about it. This is again a common Jewish American dilemma. The Jews of the early twentieth century knew only Judaism. They knew nothing else. The Jews of the early twenty first century know everything else, but not Judaism.

Schreiber shows how she left her Catholic boyfriend and became acquainted with Judaism. She associated with Jews committed to “modern Orthodoxy”, which rejects contempt for women but emphasizes family life and the meaning of the Scriptures (Torah). She is an exception among American Jews because she came from secular confusion and found security in her heritage.

The difference between the lives of Jewish women who have come of age at the beginning of the 21st century as compared to the immigrants of the 20th century is evident. Now, self determination is the rule. Women of all faiths decide for themselves whom to marry and what career they wish to achieve. It is no accident that it was a Jewish woman, Betty Friedan (Friedman), who wrote The Feminine Mystique, nor was an accident that the National Organization of Women was headed by several Jewish women. Jewish women have been in the forefront of those who demanded equal rights, and Jewish women are disproportionately represented among the professionals of this country.

   In the family, too, women have become dominant. This is best illustrated by the story of the boy who comes home from school and tells his father that he has been given a part in a school play. “What is the part?” asks the father. “A Jewish husband,” answers his son.  “Tell the teacher to give you a speaking part,” says the father.

    No doubt, Jewish women have liberated themselves from the near slavery of a century ago. This also cost the Jewish community. The Jewish birth rate is only 1.4, so that the American Jewish population stands at zero population growth. The intermarriage rate for Jews is 53%, so that the chances of Jews having Jewish grandchildren are severely diminished.

     There are millions of Americans who have one or several Jewish ancestors but are not Jewish themselves, like the former candidate for the Presidency of the United States, the Senator from Massachusetts, John Kerry. In fact, until he became a presidential candidate and his life was scrutinized by the media, Kerry was thought to be of Irish descent.

Shalom u’vracha.

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

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