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Jews in America: American Jewish Women


Jewish women first arrived in North America in 1654 when a boatload of refugees — four women, six men, and thirteen children — fleeing Dutch Brazil after its reconquest by the Portuguese landed in New Amsterdam, now New York City. Most of the refugees, known as Sephardim (the descendants of Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal in 1492 and 1497, respectively), returned to Holland or sailed for the West Indies or Suriname when they were unable to maintain a viable community of their own in New Amsterdam. Nevertheless, by the eve of the American Revolution, about twenty-five hundred Jews were in the American colonies, many of them merchant families clustered in six eastern port cities. It was another two generations, and with a steady infusion of immigrants, before Jewish communal life in New York and the other cities became firmly established.

Colonial Era

In this period, the typical Jewish woman, sometimes herself a seamstress, was the wife of a craftsman or storekeeper. Perhaps involved in the family business, she most likely kept a home where the dietary laws were observed. Almost always literate, an important skill in a family enterprise, these women were barely visible in early American Jewish communal and religious life and publications. Public Judaism was reserved for males. Women expressed their religion in the home as the keepers of the spiritual legacy and then publicly as the founders of associations such as the first Female Hebrew Benevolent Society established in 1819 or the first Hebrew Sunday School dating from 1838, both in Philadelphia.

An exception — like poet Emma Lazarus — was writer Penina Moise, who lived in Charleston, South Carolina, her entire life. Moise wrote 180 of the 210 hymns that appear in Hymns Written for the Use of Hebrew Congregations.

Nineteenth Century

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, middle-class women played an increasingly active role in philanthropic life, both Jewish and gentile, while upholding the “cult of true womanhood.” They embodied the role of pure and pious homemakers who stressed the ethical, rather than the ritual and ceremonial. In the twentieth century, the new American Jewish woman, primarily of German descent, sought higher education, other ways to express her Judaism, and solutions to the challenges of the Progressive Era. The National Council of Jewish Women, founded by Hannah G. Solomon (1858-1942) at the World's Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893, created mission schools and settlement houses and provided aid for newly arrived Jewish immigrant women and children (see Labor and Progressive Reform Organizations in the Manuscript section). Between 1881 and 1921 more than two million Jewish immigrants came to the United States, most often in family units.

Twentieth Century

By 1920, Jewish women of Eastern European heritage and their American-born children outnumbered Central European Jewish immigrants and their native American Jewish children by five to one. Concentrated in the large urban centers, hundreds of thousands of these female immigrants made a living in the garment industry and sweatshops, as reflected in the photographs and field reports of reformer Lewis Hines (see Prints and Photographs Images from Organizations' Records). Many of their daughters who took advantage of public schools and higher education became teachers and others became physicians, dentists, or lawyers. Other first-generation Jewish women became union leaders and political radicals.

Five playscripts written by the Socialist reformer, lecturer, and labor agitator Rose Pastor Stokes (1879-1933), who was on the staff of the New York Yidishes tageblatt (Jewish daily news), are in the [Library of Congress] Manuscript Division, as is a collection of sixteen items from social worker Pauline Goldmark (1874-1962), who was an executive of the New York office of the National Consumers' League. Rose Schneiderman (1882-1972), Jewish labor organizer, socialist, and suffragist, was president of the National Women's Trade Union League of America from 1927 to 1947 and went on to serve in government positions for the cause of labor. Emma Goldman (1869-1940), the outstanding woman radical in the Jewish community who spoke out against social injustice for half a century, helped edit an anarchist journal. She is the best-known Jewish woman represented in the Anarchism Collection and in the anarchism materials in the Paul Avrich Collection (RBSC). Deported to Russia with others during the 1919 Red Scare in America, she fled the Soviet regime and lived in exile in Canada. Upon her death, however, the United States government allowed her to be buried in Chicago, close to the graves of the men executed in 1886 for the Haymarket killings. Political activist Mollie Steimer (1897-1980) is represented in the Paul Avrich Collection as well. The stage and screen also attracted Jewish women to the spotlight, first as stars of the Yiddish theater and film and then on the national scene.

Still, marriage was all-important to most American Jewish women, and careers outside the home for middle-class women were not the norm. The lives of Jewish homemakers were filled with child rearing, local female mutual-aid societies, and involvement in religious life, primarily through synagogue auxiliaries and national Jewish women's groups such as Hadassah, a Zionist organization, or the National Council of Jewish Women.


American Jewish women began to find new voices at the same time that Americans responded to Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, which appeared in 1963. Some participated in campus upheavals, civil rights marches, and protests against the war in Vietnam. The women's liberation movement also appealed to many American Jewish women. They entered the Reform and Conservative rabbinate and sought parity with men in religious life, while Orthodox women began to learn traditional texts generally reserved for men. Today Jewish women are academic scholars, politicians, Nobel Prize-winners, and astronauts.

The [Library of Congress] Manuscript Division, for example, holds the papers of the political philosopher, writer, and lecturer Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), who wrote widely on Jewish affairs and totalitarianism and on the Jewish response to the Holocaust, and of current Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (b. 1933).

The Future

Currently, the Jewish population of the United States numbers close to six million individuals. Jewish women in this cohort continue to adapt to change and challenge even as they seek new ways to maintain their Jewish identities. Sources on these women are abundant throughout the Library of Congress and may be found as part of collections discussed throughout this guide, through catalog searches by individual name or organization, and through the use of selected reference tools that yield relevant information. In all cases, as perhaps nowhere else, the immensity and range of the Library's resources can be used, to synthesize an understanding of American Jewish women within the broader society.

Sources: Library of Congress