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In quarantine, finding inspiration in the lives of great American Jewish women

Since childhood, I was drawn to the stories of women’s lives. I pulled so many biographies of famous American women—Betsy Ross, Clara Barton, Amelia Earhart—off the children’s shelves of my New Jersey township’s library that I assumed that famous women had their own juvenile series. But they didn’t. I just wasn’t grabbing the volumes on Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln. Looking back, I imagine that stack of biographies launching me into women’s history.

But, of course, none of them were about America’s Jewish women. For decades now I have been studying their history. We each have our own way of coping with the crushing daily news of this pandemic. Mine is to continue my life’s work, for as long as I can. Today, the last day of Women’s History Month, designated by Congress since 1987 as a time to focus on the unsung women of our past, I remember the lives of three women of the American Jewish past — a letter writer, a magazine editor, and an historian. Their birth and death dates reveal that they too lived in times of plagues. Theirs were yellow fever, smallpox, and polio. But they didn’t write about them. Instead, when they took up their pens, they left us stories of lives they lived, the families they made, the work they did, the worlds in which they lived, and what it meant to them to be a Jewish woman in their time.

From colonial New York, Bilhah Abigaill Levy Franks (1688-1746), a mother yearning for her son, sent letters across the sea. Born in London, she was brought to these shores as a child. When she was barely sixteen, she wed twenty-four year old Jacob Franks. During their long marriage, she was “brot to bed,” as colonial women called childbirth, nine times. Two of יher children died young.

The eldest, Naphtali, was eighteen when he sailed to London to enter the family business with his uncle. For the next fifteen years, Abigaill—whose portrait shows her dark hair curled over her shoulder, her blue velvet gown cut low over her breast—wrote him letters by candlelight. When they were first published in 1968, they were called The Letters of the Franks Family (1733-1748). But, when they were republished in the twenty-first century, their editor, Edith Gelles, the distinguished biographer of another letter writer, First Lady Abigail Adams, insisted that they be correctly titled The Letters of Abigaill Levy Franks (1733-1748). Of the thirty-eight surviving letters, Abigaill had written thirty-five.

Reading them more than 250 years after they were first penned, we meet an observant Jewish woman. She kept the Sabbath and was so concerned about kashrut that she urged Naphtali only to eat bread and butter at his uncle’s table. But Abigaill was a feisty, spirited, woman of her day. She hired tutors to teach her daughters Hebrew but avoided as much as possible the women of her community outside of the synagogue’s balcony for they were a “Stupid Set of people.” An avid reader of the philosophy and novels Naphtali sent her, an admirer of the writers Henry Fielding and Baron de Montesquieu, she exploded in one letter against Judaism’s many superstitions and idle ceremonies. Would that a great reformer come to the Jewish people, as Calvin and Luther had led the way to the Protestant reformation; if so, she would happily be the first of their followers.

Still there were limits to the changes she would accept. She wanted her daughters to marry men who could keep them in style. Discovering that her daughter Phila had indeed married into one of the city’s leading Christian families when she wed Oliver Delancey, a stunned Abigaill wrote Naphtali of her shock and despair over the marriage. Whether she ever saw or spoke to Phila again, we do not know.

Abigaill would have been astounded, and perhaps dismayed, to see her private letters in print. But with their publication, her life entered into history.

Some 150 years later, in Chicago, another Jewish woman, wanting change and convinced that she could lead the way, launched a magazine. Its editor and publisher, Moravian-born Rosa Fassel Sonneschein (1847-1932), had come to America in the late 1860s as a rabbi’s wife. Settling in St. Louis, raising her four children, her waist cinched into frocks that she bought on return visits to Europe, Sonneschein occasionally wrote articles in the Jewish press. There, at first, she used the pseudonym D’Arwin because she knew that in matters of religion, no one paid any attention to what women said or thought. This well-educated rabbi’s daughter also gathered a group of friends and founded, in 1879, the first Jewish women’s book club in the nation, a group still going strong today. They called themselves the Pioneers and discussed whether reading novels was injurious to one’s character.

Sonneschein was unusual in her personal life too. In the early 1890s, deeply unhappy in her marriage of more than a quarter century, she walked out on her husband, giving him grounds to divorce her in the days when ending a marriage required legal grounds. She moved to Chicago, and a few years later, launched the American Jewess magazine.

Like Ladies’ Home Journal and the other new women’s magazines sprouting up around the nation, the American Jewess wooed its readers with stories about hearth and home. Yet from the get-go Sonneschein trumpeted that its pages would celebrate and advance Jewish women’s emancipation. She lauded all that had already been done to promote religious equality. Confirmation gave boys and girls the same obligations. Reform synagogues had brought women down from the balcony and eliminated the daily prayer thanking God for not making a man a woman.

But more had to be done. She decried that in those same synagogues widows, paying for their pews but unable to vote, suffered “Taxation without Representation!” She called for women to sit on Sabbath school boards. She featured Ray Frank, a charismatic lay preacher, ordained elsewhere by the press as “the girl rabbi of the golden west.” She even attended the First Zionist Congress, convened by Theodor Herzl in Basel, Switzerland in 1897, but was infuriated that women were not allowed to vote there. Demanding Jewish women’s religious emancipation, The American Jewess showcased Sonneschein’s calls for change until financial troubles closed it down in 1899.

Across the ocean, almost forty years later, the Nazis marched into Vienna. There they threw seventeen-year old Gerda Kronstein (Lerner, 1920-2013), a committed activist, into jail under such horrific conditions that she thought she would not survive.

Lerner had grown up in a bourgeois Jewish family with a Christmas tree. But her parents sent a governess packing after Fräulein told the child that the Jews had killed Jesus but that God wanted her to save Gerda’s soul. Attending services regularly to prepare for her bat mitzvah, she became increasingly annoyed with being confined to the women’s balcony. More than half a century later, in Firewood: A Political Autobiography, she connected her discomfort to the low position of women in Jewish life, but back then she recalled just being annoyed that she could not see the services as well as the men. Meanwhile, she was becoming upset over the hypocrisy that she saw in the synagogue where a poor Jewish family, who could not afford to buy seats, stood in the stairway during worship. A crisis of faith ensued, and Lerner refused to go through with the bat mitzvah. Nevertheless, she considered herself “a Jew belonging to the Jewish community, the Jewish tradition, sharing a common fate,” but that fate was not “inextricably linked with religion.”

Released from Nazi prison and with a coveted visa in hand, she sailed to America. Working odd jobs and mastering English, she married Carl Lerner, raised a family, and began writing fiction. Planning a novel about Sarah and Angelina Grimké, southern white abolitionists and woman’s rights activists, Gerda Lerner realized that she needed to learn more about their world. At the age of forty-six, she earned a Ph.D. in history. A career as a professor of women’s history at Sarah Lawrence College and the University of Wisconsin followed.

Abigaill Franks longed for a modernized Judaism, Sonneschein wanted it to grant women equality — but Lerner gazed beyond Judaism’s horizon. As a newly minted Ph.D., Gerda Lerner devoted the rest of her life to proving on the page, in the classroom, in the profession, and in public forums that women indeed had a history. “My commitment to women’s history,” she wrote, “came out of my life, not out of my head.”

In the late 1970s, having heard of a successful women’s history week in California, she began campaigning for a national women’s history week, timed to coincide with March 8th, International Women’s Day. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter established the nation’s first Women’s History Week. Seven years later Congress designated March Women’s History Month.

Writing Jewish women into history followed. In 1976, three graduate students, Paula Hyman, Sonya Michel, and Charlotte Baum published The Jewish Woman in America. Twenty years later, the distinguished historians Paula Hyman and Deborah Dash Moore edited the groundbreaking Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, now available online, at the Jewish Women’s Archive of which I’ve been privileged to serve as an editorial board member.

This encyclopedia propelled hundreds of America’s Jewish women—the previously ignored, excluded, or simply unknown—into history. It opened the way to including Jewish women in scores of topics, among them colonial female entrepreneurs, the peace movement, and sports. Today myriads of America’s Jewish women have entered the historical canon. They have joined Abigaill Franks, Rosa Sonneschein, and Gerda Lerner among the women who made history and whose accomplishments we remember during Women’s History Month.

I hope that reading their stories will inspire us, as we hunker down in our homes, to record stories of the maverick women of our own families. Then next year in Women’s History Month, we can celebrate them.

Pamela S. Nadell holds the Patrick Clendenen Chair in Women’s and Gender History at American University. Her new book, America’s Jewish Women: A History from Colonial Times to Today (W.W. Norton), won the 2019 National Jewish Book Award — Everett Family Foundation Jewish Book of the Year. It will appear in paperback later this spring.


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