Women and American Judaism: Historical Perspectives / Edition 1

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In April 1998, the front page of the Los Angeles Times proclaimed that Jews "live in extraordinary times, when American women have transformed their status in Judaism, creating one of the most dramatic cultural shifts in centirues of Jewish history." At the end of the 20th century Jewish women had redefined how they lived their Judaism: innovative religious ceremonies welcoming the birth of daughters proliferated, girls came to mark their bat mitzvah, and Jewish women turned out for feminist seders and became rabbis. These essays show, however, that since colonial times Jewish women have continually reshaped their roles. Offering a gendered overview of three centuries of American Jewish religious life, they raise key questions about how women from across the nation conceptualized their ideas of Jewish womanhood even as they transformed their roles at home, in synagogues, as volunteers, and in the public eye.
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Meet the Author

Pamela S. Nadell is Professor of History and Director of the Jewish Studies Program at American University, and Chair of the Academic Council of the American Jewish Historical Society. Her most recent book is Women Who Would Be Rabbis (1998).

Jonathan D. Sarna, Joseph and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, has written, edited, or co-edited 16 books, including Minority Faiths and the American Protestant Mainstream (1998) and Religion and the State in the American Jewish Experience (with David G. Dalin, 1997).

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Chapter One

Queens of the Household

The Jewish Women of British America, 1700-1800

Holly Snyder

Then Esther bade them return Mordecai this answer, "Go, gather together all the Jews that are present in Shushan, and fast ye for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day: I also and my maidens will fast likewise; and so will I go in unto the King, which is not according to the law: and if I perish, I perish."

—Esther 4:15-16

And it was so, when the King saw Esther the Queen standing in the court, that she obtained favour in his sight: ...
Then said the King unto her, "What wilt thou, Queen Esther? And what is thy request?"

—Esther 5:2-3

Then Esther the Queen answered and said, "If I have found favour in thy sight, O King, and if it please the King, let my life be given me at my petition and my people at my request:"

—Esther, 7:3

Little has been written on the experience of Jewish women in the developing social world of British North America during the eighteenth century. In large part, this is due to the fact that most of the works which purport to depict that world were written before the appearance of women's history as a valid genre of historical writing. Then, too, Jewish historians have been slow to apply the techniques developed so skillfully by American social historians to their own work. Neglect of the colonial period has been further abetted by the small numbers of Jews involved, leading many scholars to dismiss its broader significance for the formative years of American Jewish culture. In addition, there are also a number of key problems which historians face in attempting to approach the study of Jewish women in colonial America, and foremost among them is the fact that there are so few narrative sources—documents such as letters and diaries—by which scholars can get at the sense of consciousness, or mentalité, which is the essence of good cultural history. Moreover, there are few extant materials which would appear, on their face, to shed any light on the structure of the eighteenth-century Jewish household in colonial America.

    Nevertheless, when we consider that from the very beginning Jews arrived on American shores in family groups, it is clear that colonial British America merits closer attention from scholars interested in understanding the religious lives of Jewish women in the Atlantic world. And by using the extant source materials in creative ways, it is quite possible to find much valuable information on the activities and life experiences of Jewish women within the social world of colonial British America. The following discussion utilizes these sources to describe how Jewish women actively carved out for themselves a social sphere which reflected their own interior world. As I will argue here, longstanding patterns of Jewish domesticity and religious practice, both Sephardic and Ashkenazic, brought Jewish men and women together in ways distinctly different from those of their Gentile contemporaries, rendering gender relations within the Jewish households of colonial British North America more complementary and interdependent than separated and exclusive. It was, indeed, the unique conception of gender differences which Jewish women and Jewish men espoused as Jews that created positive identities and roles for each gender within the family and the Jewish community. In the end, a closer examination of the experiences of Jewish women in colonial America illuminates the relative balance between gender and faith in the formation of identity for the Jewish women of British North America in the eighteenth century and thus gets to the very heart of the question of gendered spheres of activity. Let us take, for a beginning, the following biographical sketch:

    Catherine Hays, known as Katey to her friends and relations, was born in New York City in the early 1740s of Ashkenazic immigrant parents from the Netherlands. The sixth of ten children, young Katey was raised in an observant Jewish home, attending services at the small stone synagogue built by the New York Jewish community in 1728 on Mill Street in the City's Dock Ward, near the East River, where she would sit with her mother, sisters, cousins, and other women of the congregation in the upper gallery. But though visually separated from male family members by this symbolic latticework barrier, Katey and the other Jewish women nonetheless remained wholly within the context of family. Perhaps the clearest example of the centrality of their family role lies in the resolution of conflict within the synagogue gallery. In 1760, Katey's sister Josie was the focal point of a complaint made by their father, Judah Hays, over seating in the gallery. Josie and her cousin had apparently laid claim to the same seat. On one particular Sabbath in June 1760, Josie's uncle, Judah Mears, made his way up to the gallery and unceremoniously tossed his niece out of the contested spot so that his own daughter might be seated there. The Parnassim (governors of the synagogue), then pressed by Judah Hays to find an appropriate seat for his daughter, decided on lengthening the bench so that Josie might be seated next to her mother.

    Some five years earlier, another conflict—this time, over the seating of Katey's Aunt Gitlah—precipitated a deep discord which permeated the entire congregation over the high holidays that year and brought Katey's admittedly querulous Uncle Solomon before the Parnassim, who ultimately excommunicated him as a result of his behavior in the affair. In this case, Gitlah Hays, whose assigned seat was located next to a window, found herself and her Gentile guest soaked by a sudden thunderstorm during Kol Nidre services at the commencement of Yom Kippur, because the window had been removed at the request of seven other ladies due to the oppressive heat. When Gitlah complained to her husband, Solomon Hays sought to remedy the situation the following day by replacing the windows on their sashes. However, he did so without first consulting the Parnassim, under whose authority they had been removed the day before. In the wake of the continuing conflict between the seven women complaining of the heat, on the one hand, and Gitlah Hays (who clearly feared a repeat of her thorough soaking the evening before), on the other, Moses Gomez and other members of the Parnassim were obliged to intervene for the restoration of order in the congregation. Harsh words were exchanged between the Parnassim and Solomon Hays in the courtyard of the synagogue, and Hays would later allege that the Parnassim had "laid violent hands upon him." In the end, the Parnassim elected to expel Hays and his family from the congregation; Hays in turn reported their purported assault to the Crown authorities, resulting in an unsuccessful criminal suit. In this case, as in the later dispute between the Hays and Mears families, Jewish women in the congregation relied upon the father and husband of the family to resolve a dispute whose genesis lay among the women themselves, while Jewish men acted to defend the honor, merit, and social status of their respective wives and children within the framework of existing synagogue governance.

    As a teenager, Katey Hays was married, with her father's approval, to Abraham Sarzedas, a widowed Sephardic man several years older than herself, who already had a young daughter from his first marriage. Katey's subsequent married life was neither ideal nor completely settled. Abraham's business interests were far afield, encompassing most of the British colonies in North America and the Caribbean, and he made long and frequent sojourns in distant places. Abraham did whatever he deemed necessary for the success of his enterprises and took physical risks which would have raised the concern of any loving wife. He was not averse, for example, to piloting ships himself in the dangerous Caribbean basin. Moreover, Abraham, a confident and self-assured trader, did not stint to keep hours at his shop more inclined to Mediterranean than English custom. In the early years of their marriage, Abraham and Katey set up household in New York City. But by 1757, Abraham had resettled his family in Savannah, Georgia. Within a decade, the family had removed from Savannah to Newport, Rhode Island, only to return to Savannah early in 1775. Among these various household moves, Katey bore five children between 1760 and 1767 and of necessity had to fend for her family by herself during the long months of Abraham's extended absences. These absences were, perhaps, made somewhat easier to bear by the presence of close family members in each of the communities where Abraham established a home for them subsequent to their departure from New York. It was during one of his extended trading voyages, to St. Nicholas Mole on Hispaniola, where he hoped to set up a correspondent warehouse, that Abraham Sarzedas suddenly became ill and died. Katey (now in her mid-30s) was left alone with five minor children to support.

    Though the majority of the Jewish women Katey grew up knowing in New York were respectable matrons who managed households, children, and social engagements, there were a few widows of her acquaintance who engaged in business. Rebecca Gomez, for example, whose husband, Mordecai, died in 1750, shortly set herself up in a grocery shop next door to Merchants Coffee House. Katey's own widowed Aunt Hetty, out of dire necessity, had taken up the keeping of a kosher boardinghouse, since the money she was given by the synagogue's Tzedakah (charity) fund was never enough to make ends meet. Katey Sarzedas now found herself in similar need of finding some means to earn a living for her family. Following Aunt Hetty's example, she took her situation in hand and critically appraised her skills and her assets. After a few months, she placed an advertisement in the Georgia Gazette to alert the public that she had opened a respectable boardinghouse in town and would accept boarders by the year or for any other suitable term of residence. Among her first customers was her husband's former clerk, Jacob Jacobs.

    Perhaps Jacobs had secretly taken a shine to Katey when they first met many years earlier, or perhaps her now unmarried status changed his perceptions of her in some profound way—we will never know which. However, it is evident that love quickly blossomed between them, and they married later that year. Katey now had no further need to worry about supporting herself or her children. Though she and Jacob had no children together to cement their familial bond, her new husband nevertheless loved her tenderly, and in all the years of their marriage never let her want for anything. When he became ill in the spring of 1796, he made provisions for her to become a feme sole trader in Charleston. At his death, after twenty years of marriage, he left her well-endowed, providing in his will that all his estate, apart from a few nominal bequests, belong to "my dearly beloved wife Katey" for the rest of her life and only then to revert to their grandchildren, the children of her daughter Rebecca, who had married Jacob's best friend, Gershon Cohen.

    We may wish to ask how the lived experience of Katey Hays Sarzedas Jacobs helps us to understand the broader context of Jewish women in colonial British America and the ways in which their religious lives may have been distinctly different both from those of their contemporaries living in Europe and from American Jewish women of subsequent generations. The work of Natalie Zemon Davis and Marion Kaplan suggests that European Jewish women, between the seventeenth and the twentieth centuries, were closely circumscribed by the sphere of Jewish communal life. In her study of Glikl bat Judah Leib, for example, Davis likens the communal world of seventeenth-century Ashkenazic Jewish women to the public space re-created as Jewish private space for the purpose of Sabbath observance by means of eruvim (liminal gateways). In this world, the private space of home and family was enlarged to encompass a public religious purpose, and women were at the center of the transformative rituals. This world had altered so little that, even in the early twentieth century, Ashkenazic Jewish women in Central and Western Europe were able to more strictly adhere to traditional forms of religious observance because of their insulation from the vagaries of the gentile world. Meanwhile, their fathers, brothers and husbands, lacking the day-to-day protection of the communal sphere, consistently faced obstacles in the performance of their religious obligations due to their frequent travels and business interactions with Gentiles. By contrast, Jewish women in America by the mid-nineteenth century faced a shift in the practices of Judaism which forced them to relocate the central focus of their religious lives from the home to the synagogue and gave them the impetus to take a more active role in synagogue affairs. The question which clearly demands examination here concerns the gap between the religious experiences of Jewish women in seventeenth-and eighteenth-century Europe, on the one hand, and in nineteenth-century America, on the other. Given the very different environmental conditions in colonial British America, we cannot assume that Jewish religious practice in colonial America was identical to that of contemporary Europe. Neither can we presume that Jewish women responded to the prospects of colonial British North America in much the same way as their Gentile contemporaries.

    Jewish women's lives did not necessarily follow the same trajectory as those of White Protestant women, who increasingly described the "separate spheres" of women and men between 1780 and 1830. Indeed, the shift in Jewish women's behavior which Karla Goldman describes for this period constituted a response to the same pressures asserted on their Christian contemporaries but nonetheless resulted in greater (not lesser) participation in the public sphere of American Jewish religious life than Jewish women had previously known. In this respect, it is apparent that Jewish women held a different place within their own communities from that of their Christian contemporaries. It is in this regard that the story of Katey Hays Sarzedas Jacobs encapsulates many of the significant themes in the lives of Jewish women living in colonial British America during the eighteenth century. Following is an elaboration on those themes which, I hope, will illuminate the complex and rich lives of the first Jewish women to populate British America.

Women's Religious Roles in Contemporaneous Perspective

In trying to comprehend how Jewish women's religious experiences may or may not have been transformed in the process of migration to British North America, it may be helpful to compare the religious roles of Jewish women with those of their Gentile contemporaries in America. Mary Beth Norton has suggested that the general conditions surrounding migration to the New World from England reinforced the preexisting English social pattern, which idealized the nuclear family as the locus of authority by separating the nuclear family from extended kin and from the traditional institutions of communal life. Such wrenching shifts in power and authority forced a reconsideration of the social order and created new opportunities for change. Among the Puritans who settled New England between 1630 and 1660, for example, struggles ensued over the proper role of women in religious life. In many of the Puritan meetings in Massachusetts Bay, women's confessions of faith were read by male elders out of a clear sense that a woman's proper place in church was to be silent. However, in Wenham, female public speaking was justified during the 1640s under the leadership of minister John Fiske on the grounds that in no other way could the church judge the sincerity of women's confessions and their worthiness for election to church membership; a number of Wenham women subsequently became active in church governance. Numbers of women in other New England towns, among them Anne Hutchinson and Anne Eaton, were active in their dissent from received and accepted church doctrines and willingly paid the price for voicing such opinions. While female dissent was vigorously suppressed by church authorities and eventually died away after 1660, the first thirty years of settlement in New England provide ample testimony to the fact that Puritan women took advantage of perceived opportunities to enlarge their role in religious life.

    Quaker women played a markedly different religious role from that of their Puritan sisters. For Quakers, the Divine Light did not distinguish by gender, and women were thus likely to be called to the public ministry in the same way as men were (although perhaps not with the same frequency). In addition, Quaker women actively engaged in church governance, discipline, and admission to membership through the establishment of women's meetings which oversaw the spiritual development and conformity of Quaker women. Women also were perceived among Quakers to hold a key role within the faith as the nurturers and spiritual guideposts for Quaker children. As Barry Levy has argued, "The Quakers melded women's sexuality, and maternal authority into a novel feminine mystique that later became the model for New England advocates of domesticity." Eighteenth-century Baptist congregations promoted a similar egalitarian stance with respect to the religious fellowship of women, who were respectfully addressed as "sisters" by the faithful and who participated as members in the collective governance of congregations. Baptist women, in the early years of the denomination, also were not reticent about sharing their theological opinions on matters such as conversion narratives, church membership, and the appropriate sphere of the clergy.

    Jewish women, however, had traditionally played a scant public role in Jewish worship and the administration of synagogue affairs. To begin with, the religious obligations imposed on Jewish women were distinct. Jewish women were expected, in marriage, to maintain the laws of ritual purity surrounding their menstrual cycles, to light candles for welcoming the Sabbath, to make a burnt offering of a small portion of dough while baking bread for the Sabbath, to observe the dietary laws of the kashruth, and to celebrate the festival days. Women were not, however, bound by the obligations imposed on Jewish men to pray at the three specified times during the day, nor were they encouraged to read and study Torah, and their appearance in synagogue was not generally mandatory. Only on special occasions—such as Purim, when all Jews were expected to appear for the ritual reading of the Megillah (the Book of Esther)—were women required to attend public worship. As Karla Goldman has noted, their presence even on these occasions "was usually as auditor rather than participant." While their Puritan, Quaker, and Baptist counterparts thus shared in the experience of public worship, Jewish women's piety was primarily expressed in other, informal ways and usually within the privacy of the home and family.

    If Puritan women, as Laurel Thatcher Ulrich has suggested, were exhorted to hold to the standards of Bathsheba, Eve, and Yael as models for female behavior, Jewish women were provided with different biblical models. We might expect that the four matriarchs (Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah) would have served as the key models of proper feminine conduct among Jews. Here, the evidence provided by eighteenth-century naming patterns becomes instructive. The perusal of countless genealogical information reveals that the single most popular biblical name choice for Jewish girls in colonial British America was Esther, not that of one of the matriarchs. What makes this selection particularly interesting is that Esther was a heroine with a curious story. Orphaned while young, she was raised by her cousin Mordecai and was selected by Ahasuerus, king of Persia, for his queen. Thus wed to a non-Jew, she concealed her Judaism at Mordecai's command until such time as Mordecai advised her of a plot to annihilate all the Jews of the land. Esther then revealed to her husband her true faith and interceded with him for the lives of her co-religionists. Her heroism was particularly inspiring for Sephardim who had formerly lived as conversos, or crypto-Jews in Spain and Portugal, for whom Esther's courage in the face of a deadly situation had echoes in the experience of the thousands of conversos who had been examined and tried by the Inquisition. Indeed, converso devotion to Esther focused on the fact that she kept her true faith secret in the service of her people.


Excerpted from Women and American Judaism by Pamela S. Nadell and Jonathan D. Sarna. Copyright © 2001 by Brandeis University Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Introduction 1
Queens of the Household: The Jewish Women of British America, 1700-1800 15
The Exceptional and the Mundane: A Biographical Portrait of Rebecca Machado Phillips (1746-1831) 46
Shifting Veils: Religion, Politics, and Womanhood in the Civil War Writings of American Jewish Women 81
The Public Religious Lives of Cincinnati's Jewish Women 107
From Domestic Judaism to Public Ritual: Women and Religious Identity in the American West 128
From Priestess to Hostess: Sisterhoods of Personal Service in New York City, 1887-1936 148
Between Race and Religion: Jewish Women and Self-Definition in Late-Nineteenth-Century America 182
Mitzvah and Medicine: Gender, Assimilation, and the Scientific Defense of "Family Purity" 201
The Road to Bat Mitzvah in America 223
Ambassadors without Portfolio? The Religious Leadership of Rebbetzins in Late-Twentieth-Century American Jewish Life 235
Justine Wise Polier and the Prophetic Tradition 268
Feminism and American Judaism: Looking Back at the Turn of the Century 291
List of Contributors 309
Index 313
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