Pamela S. Nadell holds the Patrick Clendenen Chair in Women’s and Gender History at American University. Her book America’s Jewish Women: A History from Colonial Times to Today (W.W. Norton, 2019) won the 2019 National Jewish Book Award—Everett Family Foundation Jewish Book of the Year. She is a judge for the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature.
Pamela S. Nadell
Winding my way to women’s history
During Women’s History Month in March 2019, my book America’s Jewish Women: A History from Colonial Times to Today appeared. Nine months earlier, I had pressed send on my computer winging the manuscript into production.
While on book tour I would share highlights. I spoke about the colonial matron Grace Nathan and her great-granddaughter Emma Lazarus, the poet of the ״huddled masses.״ I told stories about Rosa Sonneschein, editor of the magazine American Jewess, who was also, scandalously for the 1890s, a divorcée. I recounted how, for decades, the labor organizer Bessie Abramowitz Hillman got no salary because her husband was the union president.
After my talks, during the Q & A, sometimes someone would ask how long did it take to write this book. There are so many different starting points for a book. Looking back, I see this one reaching into childhood.
Before we writers begin to write, we start out as readers. For me Fun with Dick and Jane unlocked the keys to the kingdom of reading. Then I discovered in the public library’s children’s room shelves filled with biographies. I headed straight to the women—Clara Barton, Amelia Earhart, Dolly Madison. In fact, I was so sure that I read only accounts of women’s lives that I recently went looking for a midcentury female juvenile biography series. But if one ever existed, I cannot find it. It’s just that I never pulled Washington and Jefferson off the shelves.
Meanwhile, down the street from my cookie-cutter suburban home was a brand-new public school with its own tiny library. There I stumbled upon Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family series. Reading about its five pinafore-clad sisters, growing up on the Lower East Side in turn-of-the-century New York, wove the enchantments of encountering another place and time. Taylor’s words and illustrator Helen John’s drawings set the scenes of a world far away, of city streets lined with tenements, gas lampposts, and market stalls, where in the synagogue women, praying behind the men, peered out through a curtain. I wanted to understand the Jews who lived in that world so far away from my suburban Hebrew school.
When the entire series was republished in 2014, I quipped: I became a Jewish historian because of those books.
In college and graduate school, while reading the then canon of modern Jewish literature and a ton of history, mostly written by men, I began seeking out the Jewish women who had made it into history. I was learning Jewish women’s history on the fly.
Now I know that this is what those of us who became women’s historians back then did. But then I thought that I was alone. Eventually, I learned that I was not.
While I was still an undergraduate, a high school dropout, a graduate student, and a mom unhappily living the feminine mystique on New York’s Upper West Side, got together. With the feminist movement careening off in so many different directions, Charlotte Baum, Paula Hyman, and Sonya Michel left their mark on it with The Jewish Woman in America.
This first social history of American Jewish women arrived in 1976, but no one assigned it while I was in graduate school. Instead we were told to read Irving Howe’s World of Our Fathers, published the same year. So I didn’t read their book until the summer before I became an assistant professor. I had been assigned a new course, “Women and Sex in Jewish Tradition.” I figured I had better learn something about the subject. I found The Jewish Woman in America. Its opening chapter was titled “’Woe to the Father Whose Children Are Girls’: Women in the Jewish Tradition.” The book became my lodestar. It propelled me further along the byway that began with those childhood biographies. Eventually, that path wound its way to America’s Jewish Women.