Pamela S. Nadell's New book Shows How the Country Influenced Jewish American Women, and Vice VersaHistorians in the News
tags: Jewish history, books, American History, womens history, Jewish Women
Considering that the very definition of Judaism and what it means to be a Jew has changed so much over the last three centuries of American history, it’s a near impossible endeavor — yeoman’s work — to capture succinctly the role of Jewish women over that long span. But that is the task that Pamela S. Nadell has set for herself in “America’s Jewish Women”: summarizing what cannot really be summarized. She’s mostly successful.
Nadell is clearly aware of the magnitude of the job. In her prologue, she sets the stage for her analysis by introducing Grace Mendes Seixas Nathan and her great-granddaughter, the famed author of “The New Colossus,” Emma Lazarus. Nadell does so in order to make a point: While both were Jewish American women, they lived in dramatically different eras, self-actualizing and contributing differently as a result. They were constrained by the mores of their times and sought to redefine the roles handed down to them, just as Jewish women have done throughout American history, Nadell argues.
The book proceeds chronologically and is stronger in some time periods than others. Nadell’s recounting of the colonial era, for example, is fuzzy. She muses about the life of Rachel Hendricks Samuel, widow to New York’s Judah Samuel as of 1702, wondering if the woman could read a prayer book. “That is doubtful,” she concludes. “But perhaps in her short life — she was probably 42 when she died — she had prayed over candles kindled in her two brass candlesticks, as commanded of Jewish women on Sabbaths and holiday eves.” Much of this section is replete with similar conjecture, which makes sense. After all, at this point, Jewish women tended to spend most of their adult lives being pregnant, nursing, caring for children or some combination thereof. None of these pastimes lend themselves particularly well to quiet contemplation, or to crafting long written musings. Unresolved elements of the history, like the absence of a Jewish ritual bath, or mikvah, in New York until 1730 and in Philadelphia until 1786 are raised, but not adequately addressed.
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