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Ambivalent EmbraceJewish Upward Mobility in Postwar America$

Rachel Kranson

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9781469635439

Published to North Carolina Scholarship Online: May 2018

DOI: 10.5149/northcarolina/9781469635439.001.0001

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Hadassah Makes You Important

Hadassah Makes You Important

Debating Middle-Class Jewish Femininity

(p.114) Five Hadassah Makes You Important
Ambivalent Embrace

Rachel Kranson

University of North Carolina Press

Abstract and Keywords

During the postwar years, American Jewish women received contradictory advice over how they ought to conduct their lives as they entered the middle-class. As Jewish men felt pressure to become breadwinners, the mores of the middle-class stipulated that married women limit their interests to the needs of home and family. Some Jewish leaders supported these middle-class gender ideologies and warned Jewish women against spending too much time away from domestic responsibilities; others encouraged Jewish women to defy postwar gender norms and engage fully and deeply in the public sphere. Significantly, both those leaders who believed that Jewish women needed to contributed to the world outside their homes and those who feared that they were spending too much time away from their families all tended to agree that the rising affluence of American Jews posed a threat to Jewish women and the Jewish families they were supposed to be raising.

Keywords:   Jews, femininity, upward mobility, domesticity

In 1957 Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, attempted to recruit middle-class Jewish homemakers by promising them a way to make an impact on the world beyond the confines of their comfortable suburban homes. “Hadassah Makes You Important!” trumpeted one 1957 membership brochure above a photograph of a well-coiffed housewife sporting manicured nails and gold-knot earrings. Indirectly challenging postwar middle-class conventions that limited women’s activities to hearth and home, this campaign sent a message to upwardly mobile Jewish women that involvement in Hadassah would offer them the kind of substance and fulfillment that they could not attain through household responsibilities.1

While this particular Hadassah campaign encouraged potential members to pursue activities outside of the home, American Jewish women during the postwar period received many, and often conflicting, messages about how they ought to conduct their lives as they entered the middle class. No less than American Jewish men, American Jewish women also faced new expectations regarding their proper roles in a middle-class community. As postwar Jewish men felt pressure to become breadwinners, the mores of the middle class stipulated that married women limit their interests to the needs of home and family. Jewish women received mixed messages from their leaders as they negotiated their responses to these middle-class prescriptions for domesticity. Some Jewish leaders supported middle-class gender ideologies, and warned Jewish women against spending too much time away from domestic responsibilities. Others, including the leaders of Hadassah, encouraged Jewish women to defy postwar gender norms and to engage, fully and deeply, in the public sphere. (p.115)

Hadassah Makes You ImportantDebating Middle-Class Jewish Femininity

“Hadassah Makes You Important” brochure cover, 1957.

Used with permission from American Jewish Historical Society, New York and Boston.

(p.116) Significantly, both those leaders who believed that Jewish women needed to contribute to the world outside of their homes and those who feared that they were spending too much time away from their families all tended to agree that the rising affluence of American Jews posed a threat to Jewish women and the Jewish families they were supposed to be raising. Some leaders believed that those middle-class Jewish women whose husband’s salaries allowed them to retreat from public engagement did not lead productive and meaningful lives. Others maintained the opposite: that Jewish housewives spent too much of their energy away from domestic pursuits and that their unpaid organizational work endangered the cohesion of the Jewish family. Jewish women, therefore, faced contradictory advice, counseling, and directives over how to negotiate their roles in an upwardly mobile community.

Postwar expectations of women’s domesticity differed from what had been expected of Jewish women earlier in the century. While American Jewish women had left wage work upon marriage as early as the immigrant era, they still contributed to the family economy in other ways, caring for boarders in their tenement apartments and laboring in family businesses. The income generated by married Jewish women, however, no longer seemed necessary once Jewish men were in a position to support their families on their own. Upwardly mobile Jewish families could now afford to subscribe more fully to domestic norms that testified to their middle-class status. Indeed, married Jewish women tended to retreat from wage work at slightly higher rates than their non-Jewish counterparts. In 1957, 27.8 percent of married Jewish women worked for wages, as opposed to 29.6 percent of non-Jewish women. This disparity intensified among married women with children under the age of six, when only 11.8 percent of Jewish women, as opposed to 17 percent of non-Jewish women, worked outside of the home.2

But even after their families could afford to survive on the earnings of a sole, male, breadwinner, married Jewish women rarely restricted their activities to the domestic sphere. In addition to the nearly 28 percent of married Jewish women who continued to contribute to the family income, middle-class Jewish women worked without wages for a variety of causes. They became leaders and activists on behalf of both Jewish and nonsectarian causes, and their unpaid labor served as the backbone of local civic institutions.3

The postwar suburban environment supported the trend of unpaid communal leadership for both Jewish and non-Jewish women. While men spent the bulk of their time pursuing professional goals in the city, women sustained the institutions serving their home communities. The gender patterns of (p.117) suburbia, therefore, offered unprecedented opportunities for women to become leaders in religious and civic life. Though the status and monetary rewards continued to go to men, women spearheaded and maintained the local infrastructure of the postwar suburbs.4

Middle-class Jewish women, like their non-Jewish peers, took advantage of the opportunity to serve their communities, and Jewish life in the postwar suburbs depended on their efforts. Women’s fundraising provided much of the money for both local Jewish institutions and for international Jewish causes, such as support for the survivors of the Holocaust. Within the synagogue, suburban Jewish women organized social and fundraising events, ran libraries and gift shops, served on educational committees, and taught in religious schools. They were more than twice as likely as their male counterparts to hold a leadership position in the local chapter of a Jewish organization and to consider this work their most satisfying activity. “This is the one thing I do that isn’t for myself or for my children,” explained one suburban Jewish woman to sociologist Marshall Sklare as she described her work on behalf of vocational programs for disadvantaged Jewish youth through her involvement in Women’s ORT, the Organization of Rehabilitation through Training. “In general, the women live a greater part of their life within the Jewish group, and are more concerned with it and about it than the men,” found sociologist Herbert Gans in yet another study of the postwar Jewish suburbs.5

Jewish women such as Faye Harriton of Levittown, Long Island, felt quite proud of the crucial role they played in building and sustaining the suburban Jewish infrastructure. Harriton, who moved to in Levittown as a young mother in the late 1940s, described the process by which she and her peers organized and funded the Jewish institutions in their new communities. She and her fellow suburban Jewish housewives asked their husbands “to be home early on Sisterhood nights” during which they “nominated … officers, ran card parties, sold home-made Jewish delicacies, held a Community Seder … solicited donations, ran dances, apple festivals, Hanukkah parties, and the like.” Largely as a result of their efforts, their congregation was soon able to erect a synagogue building, construct a religious school, and hire a rabbi. Harriton noted that the members of her community were “increasingly aware of the important role women play in the modern synagogue and our necessary contribution toward its financial and spiritual support.”6

Not all leaders applauded the positions of authority held by Jewish women in the suburban synagogues they had worked so hard to build. Newton’s Rabbi Albert Gordon, for instance, thought women lay leaders lacked the qualifications to uphold a viable religious institution. “Judaism (p.118) requires that its lay leaders also possess specific and even detailed knowledge of the basic texts and rituals of Judaism. The Jewish woman is unfortunately not prepared as yet for this kind of leadership,” he contended. But instead of recommending that the synagogues offer their female leaders the education that he deemed necessary for the roles they performed, Gordon instead suggested that Jewish women limit their involvement to social programming and leave the weightier tasks for the men.7

Other leaders begrudged Jewish women the time they spent outside of the home as they sustained Jewish life in the suburbs. These leaders embraced the dominant ideal of the male breadwinner and the female homemaker, describing middle-class gender norms newly adopted by upwardly mobile American Jews as a quintessentially Jewish way of organizing family life. In a 1955 manual distributed by the Reform movement to couples about to be wed, Rabbi Jerome Folkman went so far as to imprint these domestic ideals on the religious rituals practiced at the Sabbath table. “The role of the husband and father,” explained Folkman, “includes the blessing of the bread … which represents the physical necessities of life.” This ritual properly belonged to the Jewish husband, continued Folkman, because “he is the breadwinner.”8

Similarly, in a 1959 guide for Jewish homemakers, authors Shonie B. Levi and Sylvia R. Kaplan insisted that Jewish culture had long depended on the work of Jewish housewives who devoted themselves entirely to domestic pursuits. Levi and Kaplan, both leaders in the National Women’s League of Conservative Judaism, argued that traditional Judaism offered these female homemakers a kind of respect that they no longer enjoyed. The Yiddish language, they explained, referred to housewives by the word balabosteh, which “literally means ‘mistress of the home.’” According to Levi and Kaplan, the term itself proved that Old World Jews had once thought of homemakers as “important executives.” Knowing the significance of the housewife’s role in traditional Judaism, they added, “should raise our status in our own eyes” and “offset the diffidence we sometimes feel when we fill out a form ‘Occupation—Housewife.’”9

For the Reform movement’s Albert Vorspan and Eugene Lipman, the upward mobility of American Jews threatened the integrity of the traditional Jewish family that they understood as being supported economically by a male earner and nurtured by a full-time mother. In Justice and Judaism, a 1956 volume otherwise aimed at bolstering American Jewish commitments to social justice and economic equality, they warned Jewish women against working for wages. The materialist society of postwar America, they argued, compelled even financially secure families to “keep up with the Joneses” and buy things that (p.119) they could not easily afford. In this situation, they believed, “many middle-class wives who would prefer to concentrate on their homes and children feel themselves forced into the job market to supplement the earnings of their husbands in order to provide the expanded ‘necessities’ of the family.” Mothers who spent a great deal of time away from their homes, they warned, destroyed their family’s “cohesiveness” and compromised the “security” of the children. To combat these and other incursions upon what they viewed as the ideal Jewish family, Vorspan and Lipman suggested that synagogues educate their congregants about the “uniquely Jewish conception of marriage and the family” through sermons, lectures, religious school lessons, and adult education courses.10

Molly Forman, a Jewish mother and sisterhood member from Camden, New Jersey, echoed the idea that the money women could earn through wage work threatened to lure them from their proper place in the home. In an article that appeared in Women’s League Outlook, a magazine distributed to the 200,000 members of the National Women’s League of Conservative Judaism, she offered her own life story as a morality tale for other Jewish women. While Forman had originally “loved and lived for her work” and “shuddered” at the thought of living the “dull, drab and out-of-touch existence” of a housewife, she nonetheless felt compelled to become a full-time homemaker when her capable housekeeper quit. Upon noticing her daughter’s joy at seeing her when she returned home from school, Forman finally recognized that “all the material things which my independent income could shower on her were not enough! It was me, my presence, my nearness she wanted most.”11

For Forman, leaving the workforce allowed her to become not only “a mother in the fullest sense of the word” but also a better Jewish mother. No longer beset with workplace obligations, she joined her local synagogue and began to learn more about her “rich heritage.” “I knew naught before,” she explained, “I hadn’t the time for such things.” Within this article, acknowledged by the editors of Outlook as being “challenging,” the salaries earned by women (but not men) distracted them from their more important and fulfilling roles as parents and active Jews.12

It was not only working mothers who were cautioned against neglecting their domestic responsibilities as they enjoyed the benefits of the postwar economic boom. The vilification of affluent Jewish housewives emerged as a pervasive theme in postwar Jewish discourse, as critics charged that these women damaged their families as they pursued unpaid communal involvements outside of the home. Trude Weiss-Rosmarin’s The Jewish Spectator printed one of the most vitriolic rants targeting suburban Jewish homemakers in 1962. In an article entitled “The Organization Woman,” psychologist (p.120) Samuel Kling attacked middle-class Jewish housewives for being “arrogant, spoiled and exceptionally aggressive” as they abandoned their families in favor of “clubs, organizations, luncheons, courses, book reviews and other ‘cultural’ activities.” Taking his cues from Philip Wylie’s Generation of Vipers, which had accused “idle” American mothers of using their organizational work not to improve society but to “compel an abject compliance of her environs to her personal desires,” Kling too viewed Jewish women’s unpaid labor as something destructive rather than admirable. Eventually, he insisted, those affluent Jewish mothers who pursued interests apart from the needs of their husbands and children would “destroy” the “family fabric” of American Jews.13

Similar thoughts came from Victor Geller, who supported Orthodox Jewish communities in suburbia through his position in the Community Service division of Yeshiva University. Geller, too, begrudged Jewish women their unpaid labor as communal leaders in the suburbs of postwar America. Suburban Jewish mothers, Geller noted, spent a great deal of time at meetings of the local religious school, the synagogue sisterhood, and Hadassah. While Geller conceded the worth of these activities, he nonetheless accused affluent Jewish women of being “over-involved” and neglecting to make family “togetherness” a priority. For Geller, the tendency of Jewish women to pursue interests outside of the care of husbands and children compromised both the integrity of the Jewish community and the health of the Jewish family.14

As Kling and Geller posited that middle-class Jewish housewives neglected their families as they pursued organizational work, Jewish sociologist Erich Rosenthal warned that affluent Jewish women proved less likely to bear children, eroding what he considered to be a “traditional” Jewish emphasis on fertility and child-rearing. In a 1961 study, Rosenthal found that American Jews did not participate in the postwar “baby boom” at the same rate as other religious groups. As of 1957, children under fourteen years of age represented 27.7 percent of the Catholic community, 26.7 percent of white Protestants, but only 22.2 percent of Jews. Rosenthal attributed the lower levels of Jewish fertility to the greater proportion of American Jews who had adopted middle-class lifestyle patterns. Not only did he discover that high-earning households tended to have fewer children; he also found that women with higher levels of education were less likely to have large families. This particularly affected middle-class Jewish women, who had been twice as likely to graduate from college as other white American women during the postwar years.15 For Rosenthal and others concerned with Jewish natalism, the increasing financial and educational achievements of American Jewry seemed to impede their ability to reproduce and endangered the continuity of Jewish life in America.16

(p.121) While newly affluent Jewish women certainly received their share of directives telling them to spend less time on work, education, and communal service and more time bearing children and nurturing their families, they also encountered just as much—if not more—of the opposite advice. Many Jewish leaders, both male and female, strongly encouraged women to reach outside of their homes and have an impact in the public sphere. Even Shonie Levi and Sylvia Kaplan, who had exhorted Jewish women to take pride in their status as homemakers, also felt strongly that Jewish housewives should volunteer their time in both Jewish and non-Jewish organizations. These affiliations not only enabled Jewish women “to perform the mitzvah [commandment] of service” but also provided them a “ready outlet” for their talents and skills.17

Indeed, some of these leaders even cautioned teenaged girls that a life entirely devoted to their own homes and families would lead to discontent. In Blessed Is the Daughter, a 1959 volume intended as a gift to girls celebrating their bat mitzvah milestone, Sulamith Ish-Kishor, a well-known author of Jewish children’s literature, warned her young, female readers that a Jewish woman’s “usefulness must extend beyond her own family.” Jewish women, she insisted, had a responsibility to serve and educate their communities and to aid poor and suffering people around the world. Those who did not, she added, would certainly come to regret it, as “the really unhappy woman is the selfish woman.”18

Many of the Jewish housewives who heeded this call to service and activism did so through the auspices of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Founded by Henrietta Szold in 1912 in order to establish Jewish institutions in Palestine and to promote Zionism in America, the organization funded and built a system of health clinics, hospitals, and vocational programs throughout Israel. One of the main organizations to benefit from the unpaid labor of affluent Jewish women in the postwar years, Hadassah, in the opinion of writer Maurice Samuel, “rescued tens of thousands of Jewish women from the futilities and vacuities of the middle-class pattern of recent times.”19

Much of Hadassah’s promotional material built on the assumption that upwardly mobile, American Jewish women might welcome the opportunity to accomplish more than what might be expected of them within middle-class norms of domesticity. The “Hadassah Makes You Important” campaign of 1957, for instance, promised potential members that the organization would enable them to “work through the largest and most important organization of its kind to defend the American way of life,” underlining active verbs like (p.122)

Hadassah Makes You ImportantDebating Middle-Class Jewish Femininity

“This Is Your Life in Hadassah” brochure cover, 1954.

Used with permission from American Jewish Historical Society, New York and Boston.

“work” and “defend” that the conventions of postwar America associated more with male soldiers and breadwinners than with feminine housewives.20

Another brochure from 1954, under the headline “This Is Your Life in Hadassah,” displayed a picture of a carefully coiffed woman superimposed in front of photographs of female nurses, male surgeons, and male welders in Israel. If the well-off American Jewish housewife would not actually go to work as a nurse, surgeon, or welder herself, this campaign assured her that her support for those who performed these important tasks made her contribution just as crucial. “Your life has meaning for you because it is bringing meaning to the life of others,” read the back cover of the brochure, promising middle-class Jewish homemakers that their involvement in Hadassah could help them build more significant lives that transcended, to some extent, the limits of postwar femininity.21

In addition to rhetorically linking the unpaid labor of American Jewish housewives with the ostensibly more important activities of the Israelis that they supported, the Hadassah organization also offered some of its younger members an opportunity to move to Israel and engage directly in the enterprise of state building. Beginning in 1946, Hadassah provided its junior members with an avenue to relinquish the comforts of the American middle (p.123) class and join the movement to build the land of Israel through a chalutziut, or pioneering, program. This initiative supported young American Jews who wanted to live permanently in Israel and start their own kibbutz. In a 1948 brochure for Junior Hadassah, the organization promised that “the best of American youth” would embrace this chance to serve the Jewish state and that those who remained in America would “derive inspiration” from the ones who made the move. The photograph accompanying this description of the program portrayed a young woman wearing boots and trousers and working in a chicken coop, an image that contrasted quite sharply with popular notions of middle-class femininity. “This young American chose a life on the soil as her way of finding self-fulfillment” read the caption, insinuating that the affluent, domestic lifestyle that most of their constituency were poised to adopt might not prove quite as fulfilling.22

While it is impossible to know how most upwardly mobile Jewish women responded to Hadassah pamphlets that promised them avenues through which to circumvent middle-class gender expectations, we do know that Hadassah membership grew in the years in which they included these brochures in their arsenal of outreach materials. Other major American Zionist organizations, such as the Zionist Organization of America, lost members during the 1950s and 1960s as the thrill of Israel’s independence in 1948 began to wane. Of all these organizations, only Hadassah maintained its membership and also managed to attract 25,000 new members to its ranks. Indeed, with its 287,854 members in 1956, Hadassah was the world’s largest Zionist organization. While this particular advertising campaign may not have accounted for Hadassah’s popularity among postwar Jewish women, these numbers testify, at the very least, that these women did not shy away from an organization that acknowledged the limitations of middle-class gender norms.23

As Hadassah brochures linked American Jewish housewives to the drama of building the new state of Israel, idealized images of Israeli women circulated among American Jews and introduced alternative models of Jewish femininity. While Israeli society had never been as committed to the ideal of women’s equality as American Jews imagined it to be, romantic visions of female pioneers who devoted their lives to the Jewish state nonetheless provided a counterpoint to middle-class expectations of women’s domesticity. Many postwar Jewish leaders, both male and female, understood these women to be heroes and applauded their exploits beyond the private sphere. Their admiration for these Israeli women revealed a measure of dissatisfaction with the limited opportunities available to the Jewish women who conformed to the mores of the American middle class.24

(p.124) Using stock photographs reminiscent of the “Rosie the Riveter” images that proliferated throughout the United States during World War II, magazines and books circulating in the American Jewish community printed glowing reports of Israeli women succeeding in fields that the American context reserved for men. In December 1945, under the heading “Women of Valor,” the Hadassah Newsletter—a magazine distributed to all Hadassah members—published a pictorial centerfold of some of the “women pioneers” laboring to build a Jewish state. None of these photographs showcased women tending to their homes and families; rather, they featured women driving tractors, fighting fires, working in metal factories, laying telephone wire, and, in one particularly arresting image, smiling brightly at the camera from the cockpit of a fighter jet. In celebrating the lives and choices of those women who worked and fought for a Jewish state, Hadassah Newsletter leveled an indirect challenge against those middle-class gender norms that kept women out of the workforce and public life.25

A similar message was offered to the bat mitzvah girls who received a copy of the aforementioned Blessed Is the Daughter. This volume also included a photographic spread of Israeli women performing labor normally associated with male workers. One featured a woman picking cotton in a wide-brimmed hat, another showed a steely-eyed young woman in full army regalia, and a final photograph focused on women bent over microscopes at the Technion Institute. The text introducing these images proclaimed these female soldiers, farmers, and scientists to be models for women everywhere: “Capable in peace, valiant in war, their devotion unmatched among modern womankind, they have written a glorious chapter in the history of Israel and of all humanity.” Moreover, the editors of the volume presented the State of Israel as uniquely praiseworthy specifically because “in no other country do women play so important a role among their people.” Unlike the middle-class, American milieu in which the young readers of Blessed Is the Daughter presumably found themselves, the editors of the volume praised a society that welcomed the involvement of women in “every sphere of human activity—science, agriculture, the arts, literature, government, even the military.”26

In addition to romanticizing anonymous Israeli women who worked in fields marked as masculine, American Jews also celebrated individual, accomplished Israeli women who shunned middle-class comforts and conventions as they made their mark outside of the domestic sphere. The writings of Marie Syrkin, a well-known journalist and American Zionist, played a particularly significant role in publicizing images of strong, heroic Israeli women. Syrkin herself, much like the Israeli women she profiled, never left the workforce. The daughter of Nachman Syrkin, the socialist-Zionist theoretician, she (p.125) began her illustrious career as a journalist in 1934 when she joined the staff of the Labor-Zionist newspaper Jewish Frontier. She gained prominence in her profession by reporting heavily on the Nazi genocide of Jews in Europe and used her influence to lobby for the open immigration of Jews to Palestine and the United States. After the war, she became a professor of English at Brandeis University—the institution’s first female faculty hire—and published books about the war, Zionism, and the State of Israel.27

In 1947 the Jewish Publication Society of America published Syrkin’s Blessed Is the Match, a work that profiled Jews who resisted the Nazi onslaught during World War II. The book highlighted the story of Hannah Senesh, the Hungarian-born Jewish woman who left her affluent family in 1939 to become a member of a kibbutz in Mandate Palestine. At the age of twenty-three, however, Senesh voluntarily left the relative safety of her kibbutz and joined the British army. Under the auspices of the British military, she parachuted back into her native Hungary, now occupied by the Nazis, in an attempt to rescue as many Jews as possible. Tragically, before she could complete her mission, the Gestapo captured her, tortured her, and turned her over to hostile Hungarian courts that executed her as a traitor and a spy.

Syrkin’s profile of Senesh’s military exploits certainly provided the American Jewish public with an image of a heroic Jewish woman whose life did not conform to middle-class expectations of femininity. But Syrkin went one step further in contrasting Senesh’s life and choices to those of her well-off, American Jewish audience. Blessed Is the Match focused not only on Senesh’s dramatic mission and eventual execution but also on her initial decision to leave her wealthy family in Hungary to join the kibbutz movement in Israel. Senesh, in Syrkin’s rendering of the story, struggled with her resolve to abandon such middle-class concerns as developing her skills as a poet, wearing fashionable clothes, and attending lively parties, in favor of the backbreaking agricultural work of the kibbutz. Syrkin analyzed a play penned by Senesh for the members of her kibbutz, which centered on a gifted, middle-class violinist faced with the decision of continuing her musical career or moving to a Jewish agricultural collective. “The plot of the play is transparent,” wrote Syrkin, “It is Hanna’s problem and choice.” She quotes from Senesh’s diary: “My eyes surveyed my hands, sore from work. … I wondered if it was not simply romanticism which had driven me from a comfortable home to a life of physical work … but, no, I am right.” Syrkin portrayed Senesh not as a natural-born hero, but rather as a woman who made the very difficult choice to give up her artistic aspirations and affluent lifestyle in order to devote her life to the Jewish people.28

(p.126) Syrkin’s lengthy interrogation of Senesh’s decision to relinquish her middle-class world by moving to the Jewish settlements in Palestine represented a somewhat peculiar authorial choice. Certainly, Syrkin’s postwar readers understood that Senesh’s life on a kibbutz, no matter how austere, would still have proved infinitely more comfortable than the horrors she would have faced in Hungary had she remained there after the Nazi occupation. However, for Syrkin, an American Jew writing for an audience of affluent American Jews, Senesh’s middle-class background seemed a very relevant piece of information to share. It accentuated the notion that Senesh did not differ fundamentally from the American Jewish women who would read her story and introduced the possibility that they, too, might one day give up their middle-class security in order to aid the Jewish state.

Syrkin continued to profile heroic women who contributed to the State of Israel with her biographies of Golda Meir. She published Way of Valor: A Biography of Golda Myerson in 1955 and updated the narrative in 1963 under the title Golda Meir: Woman with a Cause, after Meir had Hebraicized her last name and been appointed as the Israeli foreign minister. Syrkin traced Meir’s life from her 1898 birth in Kiev, her migration to the United States in 1906, her move to Mandate Palestine in 1921, and her eventual rise to political prominence in the new state of Israel. By the early 1960s, wrote Syrkin, Meir’s many admirers viewed her as “already a legend: the American girl who became one of the founders of Israel; the heroine of Jewish national independence.”29

Syrkin painted Golda Meir as a woman who defied every stereotype associated with middle-class femininity, becoming a hero as she reached far beyond the private sphere. Throughout the biography, Syrkin celebrated and justified Meir’s decision to cultivate her career as a stateswoman instead of limiting her activities to domestic pursuits. Meir’s marriage failed, Syrkin argued, largely because she and her husband fundamentally disagreed about whether “a woman’s place” lay in “the home and the hearth” or “the public arena.” Indeed, according to Syrkin, the four years in which Meir retreated from public life in deference to her husband’s wishes proved “the most wretched of her life.” Meir despised being “swallowed up by her home to the exclusion of every other interest … neither childbearing nor the tough round of daily tasks had stilled her restlessness.” In Syrkin’s estimation, not only would Meir herself have suffered miserably had she continued to refrain from public service, but the budding state “was not rich enough in human material” to allow her that “extravagance.” Syrkin’s biography defended Meir’s choices and, in doing so, indirectly contested the middle-class expectations that would prevent American Jewish women from participating in public life.30

(p.127) Along with Hannah Senesh and Golda Meir, Henrietta Szold also emerged as an iconic figure among American Jews in the postwar years because of her contributions to the developing Israeli state. Born in Baltimore in 1860, Szold distinguished herself as a scholar early in her career by becoming the first woman to study at the Jewish Theological Seminary, as well as the first executive secretary of the Jewish Publication Society. But she achieved her greatest recognition for the work she accomplished on behalf of the Jewish settlements in Palestine. Szold created the Hadassah organization in 1912 before moving to the Middle East in 1920, at the age of sixty. There, she founded the Hadassah Medical Organization, served on the three-person executive of the World Zionist Organization, where she organized budgets for the education and medical systems of the Jewish settlements, and then, with the outbreak of World War II, organized the “Youth Aliyah” movement that rescued thousands of Jewish children from Nazi Europe and brought them to Palestine.31

Commentary writer Midge Decter assessed Szold’s legacy in a 1960 article. Ironically, while Decter would become well known in the 1970s for savaging the women’s liberation movement, her analysis of Szold extolled her decision to eschew the comforts of middle-class domesticity and become a prominent public figure in the new state of Israel. In spite of Szold’s many accomplishments as an intellectual and activist even before she moved to the Middle East, Decter argued that Szold would never have become a hero had she remained in her affluent, American milieu. Although Szold had been “respected and valued and surrounding by loving friends” in the United States, wrote Decter, she nonetheless decided to move to “a wilderness, whose physical conditions were almost intolerable to people much younger and much less kindly treated by life than she.” The twenty-four years she spent in the Jewish settlements of Palestine, Decter believed, “converted Henrietta Szold from an admirable woman of her day into a great woman.”32

Though Szold, throughout her years in Palestine, had regularly written of her desire to return to the United States, Decter dismissed Szold’s professed homesickness as empty sentimentality. Indeed, Decter argued that after living among the Jews of Palestine, Henrietta Szold “could no longer find being in America meaningful.” According to Decter’s portrayal, Szold became “discouraged and despondent” when she briefly returned to America in 1930 and did not find her continued work with the American women of Hadassah to be sufficiently rewarding. As proof of this claim, Decter made much of a small comment Szold had written about her activities in America making her “unfit” for “real things,” though this theme turned up in Szold’s writings far less often than her desire to return to the United States.

(p.128) While it remains impossible to know how truthful Szold had been when she articulated her longing for America, or how serious when she described the work of the Hadassah women as less than “real,” Decter made her own opinions abundantly clear. Certainly Decter, if not necessarily Szold herself, believed that Jewish women had more avenues for heroism when they escaped the privileged and protected world of the American middle class.33

Many other postwar American Jewish writers picked up on what Zionist leader Louis Lipsky termed Henrietta Szold’s “curious” wish to return to Baltimore in her later years—a wish that she never had the chance to fulfill. Like Decter, they made the case that returning to the abundance of America would have been the choice of a lesser woman and that remaining in Palestine helped prove Szold’s status as a hero and role model. “When Henrietta Szold was seventy-three years old, she wanted to return to America ‘to be coddled by my sisters,’ but her deep sense of responsibility” prevented her from doing so, wrote Naomi Ben-Asher and Hayim Leaf in The Junior Jewish Encyclopedia, the volume from which many Jewish youngsters would learn of Szold’s achievements. Similarly, Jewish children’s writer Elma Ehrlich Levinger, in a 1946 biography of Szold, rhetorically asked her young readers: “Hadn’t [Szold] served her people longer and more faithfully in Palestine than any other Jewess of her day? Hadn’t she earned the right to honorable retirement [in America]?” Levinger answered her questions in words attributed to Szold: “It would be easier to return to America … but one has a conscience.”34

According to the Canadian-born “Jerusalem housewife” Molly Lyons Bar-David, even those Israeli women who were not particularly famous or accomplished were still more heroic than their middle-class, American Jewish counterparts. Born in Saskatchewan in 1910, Molly Lyons migrated to Mandate Palestine at the age of twenty-six. Soon after, she and her husband Jaap Bar-David settled in Jerusalem, where they remained through the 1948 War of Independence and the siege of the city. In addition to running a literary agency with her husband, throughout the postwar years Lyons Bar-David wrote a column entitled “Diary of a Jerusalem Housewife” for Hadassah magazine, later changed to “Diary of an Israel Housewife” after her family moved from Jerusalem to a suburb of Tel Aviv. Her success as a Hadassah columnist led her to become a well-known, beloved figure among American Jewish women. Lyons Bar David’s American Jewish fans read Women in Israel, her overview of the status of women in the Jewish state published in 1950 through Hadassah’s education department, as well as her 1953 memoir My Promised Land. They also bought the cookbooks she published in the early 1960s, such as The Israeli Cookbook (1964) and Jewish Cooking for (p.129) Pleasure (1965). Her writings often valorized the choices of women like herself, who could have remained in Western abundance but elected instead to adopt the relative austerity that characterized life in the Jewish state during the postwar decades.35

Running throughout Lyons Bar-David’s columns and memoirs is the notion that quite ordinary women in Israel, by making the sacrifices necessary to live in the Jewish state, surpassed American Jewish women in their idealism and their sense of purpose. Unlike American Jewish women, she wrote in her introduction to Women in Israel, the “pioneer woman of Israel has committed herself to an ideal: the development of a better human being and a better future for him. She has deliberately turned her back on comfort and ease to struggle for this goal.” According to Lyons Bar-David, relinquishing material abundance in order to live in the Jewish state had only positive consequences for the Jewish women who made this choice. “Women in Israel on the whole live more seriously than women do in the United States,” she admitted, but “on the other hand their joys are deeper than mere pleasures, and they drink from the depths of life rather than from the light and frothy surface of fun.” In her view, these deeply fulfilled women in Israel did not need to achieve prominence in order to live meaningful lives, as “their very presence in Israel” drew them into “the great forces of Jewish history.”36

As she told the story of her own life in her Hadassah column and memoir, Lyons Bar-David emphasized her belief that she and other “ordinary” Israeli housewives were no less heroic than the male soldiers who fought for their country. During the siege of Jerusalem, she maintained, it was the “the hungry women and children” who “held Jerusalem’s houses, home by home, while their men in the trenches gave answering fire.” Her valiant sacrifices during the Jerusalem siege, she would later claim, justified her political engagements in the new Jewish state: “Your Jerusalem housewife is only a woman with a brood of kids, and she doesn’t pretend to know much about politics and its tactics,” she wrote in 1949. “But she does know that she didn’t desert Jerusalem, and that she pitted her children against the enemy in a starving city for Israel’s sake.” She continued to valorize her own sacrifices as an Israeli housewife well into the 1950s, when she and other Israeli homemakers were compelled to feed their families on meager rations so as to ensure that Jewish refugees coming to the new state from Muslim lands would have enough to eat. These deprivations were something to be proud of, she wrote, as “it made the housewife feel that she was fighting on a kitchen front.”37

At times, Lyon Bar-David gently berated her well-to-do, American Jewish fans for not making the same sort of material sacrifices that Israeli women (p.130) made for their homeland and the Jewish people. Though she often praised the American women of Hadassah for their great financial contributions to Israel, she also did not shy away from comparing them, often unfavorably, to their heroic Israeli counterparts. When writing about her 1950 lecture tour in the United States and Canada, for instance, she discussed the shock of experiencing American plenty after coping with Israeli austerity for so long: “I cried a great deal the first few days. I could not bear to see so much abundance and the sin of so much waste about me, knowing how I left my little Israel.” Eventually, she grew more acclimated to the wealth she saw around her, which made her “able to understand even if I couldn’t forgive how it was possible for a woman in the USA to get a new fur coat when she knew that her sister in Israel hadn’t a sweater.”38

Lyons Bar-David was no easier on her former countrywomen in Canada when she compared their middle-class habits to her own life of scarcity. “Don’t you hate us all? Whenever I come back home from a visit to Israel I hate everyone here for their splashy parties and their splashing,” she quoted Sally Gotlieb, president of Canadian Hadassah, as asking her when she visited the land of her birth. Lyons Bar-David found the comment ironic, as Gotlieb had made this complaint at a “very splashy party” that she herself had hosted. “She was as caught in the net of this way of life as they,” noted Lyons Bar-David, adding that she “felt a curious pity” for Canadian Jews, especially those who “had grown wealthy.” It was only after they had achieved their ambition of becoming affluent, she maintained, that “the real poverty of their lives faced them.” By the end of the trip, she could not wait to get back to the “harsh austerity of Israel.”39

The notion that the deprivations experienced by Jewish women in Israel made their lives more heroic, authentic, and meaningful than those of American Jewish women also threaded through the work of novelist Zelda Popkin. Born in Brooklyn in 1898, Popkin (nee Feinberg) grew up in Eastern Pennsylvania and became the first female general assignment reporter of the Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader at the age of sixteen. In the late 1930s, she published a series of mystery novels featuring detective Mary Carner and then in 1945 went on to write her most popular novel, The Journey Home, which relayed a love story between a working woman and a soldier just returned from World War II.

Popkin began to introduce Jewish characters and subjects in her writing after the winter of 1945–46, when she went on a mission with the Red Cross to help Holocaust survivors languishing in displaced persons camps. That experience inspired her to write a series of novels with Jewish themes, including Small Victory (1947) which dealt with the hostile treatment of Holocaust (p.131) survivors by American authorities, and Quiet Street (1951), the first American novel to center its drama around the newly independent state of Israel. Later, Popkin’s 1956 memoir Open Every Door offered a nonfiction account of her time with the Red Cross as well as her travels to Jerusalem in the fall of 1948, where she went to visit her sister Helen, who had moved there in the 1930s. Though Popkin herself never chose to live in Israel permanently, her sympathy for the Jewish state and her admiration for its inhabitants come through clearly in her writing.40

Quiet Street follows the life of Edith Hirsch, an American-born doctor’s wife living in Jerusalem, and the neighbors who live on her street. Set during the 1948 war that led to Israel’s independence, the novel recounts Edith’s struggle to provide as normal a life as possible for her husband and their ten-year-old son Teddy, and to cope with her fears for her eighteen-year-old daughter Dinah, who was fighting on the front lines of the Negev Desert. By the end of the novel, the characters celebrate the birth of an independent state of Israel even as they mourn the death of many of the inhabitants of their once “quiet street,” including Edith’s daughter Dinah.

Quiet Street focused on the bravery of everyday people who lived through the siege of Jerusalem rather than on the fierce warriors favored by Leon Uris in Exodus. As Zelda Popkin herself wrote in her memoir, she was determined to write the novel not about “exotic people” who lived in Jerusalem but about the “ordinary people who might have lived in Plainfield or Wilkes-Barre.” Such people, she insisted, were “in a way immortal. Through the simple fact of staying here [in Jerusalem], by coming to work, taking the hunger, thirst and shelling, they had become heroes.”41

Much like the work of Molly Lyons Bar-David, Popkin’s novel also relayed the message that housewives in Israel displayed remarkable heroism by continuing to raise their families in the Jewish state in spite of the hardships. Popkin spilled a great deal of ink detailing the deprivations suffered by Edith Hirsch in her determination to remain in her home in Jerusalem, sacrifices made all the more poignant because she was raised in middle-class, American abundance. In one scene, Edith had to convince her ten-year-old son to eat oatmeal (kvacker, in Hebrew) infested with worms, as it was the only food they had left to consume. Popkin portrayed Edith’s ingestion of the foul food as an act of valor, as it convinced her disgusted son to do likewise and get the nutrition he so desperately needed. Her son “saw her throat muscles ripple when the kvacker went down,” wrote Popkin. “She didn’t grimace; her face was serene. He was flabbergasted. His mother, that dainty lady from Boston … his mother, that fussy lady … was eating kvacker with worms.”42

(p.132) For Popkin, everyday moments like these, in which Edith found ways to conserve meager supplies of food and water in order to sustain her family’s life in Israel, proved the mettle of her main character. She has Edith and her husband express this point of view quite explicitly when they explain to their visiting daughter what it was like to live through the siege of Jerusalem:

“Jerusalem was saved … not by arms—we had none—not by an enemy’s cowardice. … But by discipline and stubbornness. By the drivers of the food convoys, the bakers, the water carts …”

“And the doctors,” his wife put in.

He smiled at her. “And the housewives.”43

To be fair, Popkin’s characters are complex, and Edith Hirsch does harbor doubts over whether the sacrifices she made on behalf of the Jewish state were worth it, particularly after the death of her daughter. And yet, these misgivings never compromise Edith’s status as the moral center of the novel, whose kindness and stoic bravery make her a role model and whose life, however painful, was full of weight, meaning, and Jewish authenticity. “Here is a woman …,” Popkin wrote from the perspective of Dinah’s grieving love interest, who “by her very presence, here, in this spot, has made history.”44

For Popkin, as for Lyons Bar-David, the self-denial of living in the Jewish state made heroes out of housewives, and their writings presented middle-class American Jewish women with an implicit, and sometimes explicit, critique of their life choices. Both writers sent their Jewish, female readers the message that a life of scarcity in Israel would have been far more meaningful and gallant than a life of abundance in America, because the sacrifices made by Israeli women helped bolster the Jewish state and the Jewish people.

While Popkin and Lyons-Bar David questioned middle-class ideals of femininity by idealizing the sacrifices of Israeli women, other writers popular among American Jews leveled similar challenges in their positive portrayals of American women who did not conform to middle-class gender expectations. Interrogating the benefits of middle-class affluence ran through the work of essayist, novelist, and short-story writer Sylvia Rothchild, and much of her writing dealt quite specifically with the fate of American Jewish women during a moment of upward mobility. In a 1952 short story entitled “My Mrs. Schnitzer,” for instance, Rothchild offered a romanticized portrait of a strong, working-class, American Jewish woman who did not attempt to assimilate into middle-class culture. She told the story through the eyes of Rosalyn, an adolescent girl who had befriended a woman named Bella Schnitzer while growing up in a tenement apartment in Brooklyn. Rosalyn’s (p.133) own family, who aspired to a respectable, middle-class life, disapproved of Mrs. Schnitzer for being loud and coarse. But Rosalyn loved Mrs. Schnitzer for the treats and praise that she lavished upon her and admired the outspokenness that made her seem so much more vital than her own upwardly mobile family.

Rothchild depicted Bella Schnitzer as the antithesis of middle-class femininity, a woman with little concern for respectability and few compunctions about making her private problems public. In one instance, the two women found themselves on a crowded city bus, when a drunken man made the mistake of pinching Mrs. Schnitzer’s bottom. Rosalyn begged Mrs. Schnitzer not to make a scene, but the older woman refused: “I’m not a little girl that stands on one foot and then the other, making herself small. I don’t make believe nothing is happening because I don’t know what to do. I’m not afraid of anything, not of anyone, not even of myself.” Mrs. Schnitzer proceeded to yell at the man and physically throw him off the bus, teaching Rosalyn the value of standing up for herself, even at the risk of flouting middle-class propriety.45

Rothchild’s depiction of the impoverished, unmannered Bella Schnitzer as a strong and loving role model revealed not only a certain amount of affection for the working-class, American Jewish past but also admiration for those Jewish women who had never been limited by middle-class conventions. It underscored the suspicion that as Jewish women acquired middle-class respectability, they may simultaneously have given up their right to publicly confront abuse and demand self-respect.

Rothchild offered a more complicated view of Jewish women’s upward mobility in her 1958 novel Sunshine and Salt. The narrative offered readers two contrasting models of Jewish femininity. Rothchild told the story from the perspective of Madeline, a dissatisfied, middle-class Jewish housewife. The central conflict of the story began when Madeline’s newly widowed mother Celia, who had always lived in a close-knit, working-class, urban Jewish neighborhood, came to Madeline’s wealthy suburb to live with her and her family. Indeed, the “sunshine” and “salt” of the title referred to the seemingly opposite values and lifestyles of these two women; Madeline considered her own life of permissiveness and material abundance as a world of “sunshine,” and her mother’s milieu of traditional Judaism, worry, and devotion to others as one of “salt.”46

While Madeline had left her working-class parents in Brooklyn years before the novel began, her character is unable to find fulfillment in her life as a suburban housewife. Throughout the novel, Madeline complained that being a homemaker made her feel “empty and useless” and that she “wanted a reason for (p.134) living that had nothing to do with … Susie’s lost socks and Debby’s skirts that needed lengthening, or David’s scraped knees and Johnny’s eggs.” At one point, in a fit of tears, she wondered if she cried because her husband “spent his days at meetings with interesting people while I … talked only to children and sick neighbors” or whether she was upset “because Mama was coming to drag me back to my childhood and I was worn out with pretending that I was pleased.”47

Though Madeline worried about how her mother would adapt to a middle-class lifestyle, Celia ended up surprising Madeline with her adaptability. While Celia initially complained about the lack of sidewalks and streetlights, the dangers of the wooded acres behind the house, and the way in which the non-Jewish neighbors neglected their children, Celia eventually found a place for herself within the suburban milieu. She began to bake cookies for the neighborhood children, even taking one troubled boy under her wing by letting him help her with household chores. She brought traditional Jewish foods and rituals into her daughter’s house, which Madeline’s husband and children enjoyed and cherished. To her atheist daughter’s annoyance, Celia also became very involved in a nearby synagogue, often joining in their fundraising and philanthropic activities.

The novel ends with Celia’s tragic death due to a heart attack as she tried to rescue some of the neighborhood children from a fire. But in the wake of this heartbreak, Madeline managed to find greater meaning in her own life because of her mother’s legacy. She and her family become involved with the local synagogue, having been quite touched by the congregation’s thoughtfulness after Celia’s death. And Madeline found herself continuing many of the things that her mother had introduced into her household: “Her [Sabbath] candles were on my table. Her favorite foods simmered in my pot because Lou and the children liked them.” In the end, she forged a balance between the “sunshine” of the carefree, middle-class suburbs and the “salt” of her mother’s traditions.48

While Rothchild did not idealize the character of Celia in quite the same way that she romanticized Bella Schnitzer, Sunshine and Salt nonetheless relayed the message that upwardly mobile Jewish women had a lot to learn from their working-class mothers. Madeline’s life certainly became more meaningful once she engaged with her local Jewish community and brought her mother’s Jewish traditions into her home. More importantly, Celia taught her daughter how to truly care for others, a trait that the narrator associates with unassimilated Jews. In showing how Celia brought significance to her unhappy daughter’s life as a suburban housewife, Rothchild leveled a critique against those upwardly mobile Jewish families who rejected even the positive aspects of their traditional, working-class backgrounds.

(p.135) Novelist Herman Wouk also seemed to understand that, at times, middle-class gender expectations felt constraining to Jewish women. He dramatized the limitations of postwar Jewish femininity in his best-selling 1955 novel Marjorie Morningstar. The book focused on the young adulthood of Marjorie Morgenstern, whose mother entreated her to uphold a particularly Jewish version of the “feminine mystique” by marrying an affluent Jewish man and settling down to a life of domestic housewifery. Young Marjorie, however, resisted these expectations and, instead, nurtured ambitions of becoming an actress. In pursuit of this dream, she entered into a tumultuous, passionate, and—in her most dramatic break with middle-class conventions of femininity—sexual relationship with Noel Airman, a dashing songwriter and playwright who embodied the bohemian, artistic world to which she aspired.

Wouk reinforced the ideals of Jewish, middle-class respectability at the end of the novel, when a more mature Marjorie finally recognized both her relationship with Noel and her desire to become an actress as elements of a childish dream. A chastened Marjorie thus accepted her proper role in life and wed Milton Schwartz, a prosperous Jewish lawyer. The epilogue to the book finds her a happily married, gray-haired mother-of-four living in the New York suburb of Mamaroneck. She had, in the end, subscribed quite fully to middle-class ideals of Jewish femininity. And Wouk implied that, in spite of her initial hesitancy to be confined to a life of domesticity, this had been the only decision that could have offered her true satisfaction.49

While the final chapters of the book undercut the frustrations felt by Marjorie Morgenstern about the limited choices she was offered as a middle-class Jewish woman, most of the novel illustrated Marjorie’s spirited quest for alternatives. Although Wouk may have intended the novel to be a morality tale for Jewish girls desiring to break free from the constraints of respectable femininity, Marjorie Morningstar nonetheless acknowledged, in a rather sympathetic way, that young Jewish women of the postwar era might have wanted more options than what middle-class America promised them.

Indeed, literary scholar Barbara Sicherman discovered that the Jewish women who read the novel during the postwar years did not necessarily accept the manner in which Wouk chose to end Marjorie’s story. Wouk received letters from hundreds of postwar housewives, almost all of them with Jewish last names. Many chided him for allowing Marjorie to end up a middle-class matron. One went so far as to rewrite the ending of the novel, insisting that rather than becoming a dull homemaker, Marjorie instead grew into an artsy young wife, “sitting on the terrace, reading the Theater Arts Magazine in Bermuda shorts, drying her black hair in the sun.” These postwar Jewish (p.136) women refused to read Marjorie Morningstar as a cautionary tale and instead took both Marjorie’s vexation with middle-class conventions and her ambitions to break out of those constraints quite seriously.50

As Wouk recognized, in a limited way, Jewish women’s dissatisfaction with middle-class ideals of domesticity, another, less-well-known postwar author sensationalized the unsavory underside of the gender dynamics of Jewish upward mobility. Everything but a Husband, a steamy romance written by Jeanette Kamins, followed the adventures of five young Jewish women in search of marriage. Kamins portrayed unmarried Jewish women as quite desperate in their quest for a husband who would raise them out of financial uncertainty and into a middle-class world of economic security. She also painted married Jewish women as avaricious schemers who achieved their middle-class status through mercenary marriages. “She looked beauty-parlored, golfed and bridged. She also looked as if she had shopped for a sponsor for a mink coat and found him,” wrote Kamins of one of the married housewives in her novel.

Though the unmarried main characters in Kamin’s novel disapproved of most of the married women, they envied them their husbands. As one of the protagonists commented about the aforementioned unsavory wife, “The way she was holding court, you’d think she was Queen of the May. Well, she’s got a husband, so I guess she is. She’s Mrs. Somebody Somebody. In this world, a girl isn’t much unless she’s got a husband to prove it.”51

Everything but a Husband offered a telling, angry comment on the politics of heterosexual courtship in an upwardly mobile community. After all, Jewish men had far more opportunities than Jewish women to take advantage of the postwar economic boom. This created a situation, exaggerated for purposes of titillation by Kamins, in which Jewish women who sought to enter the middle class depended on the income of male spouses to catapult them there. In addition to the romance, the novel explored the tensions surrounding women’s limited avenues to join the middle class without the help of a male partner.

As Jewish women moved into the middle class and were expected to take charge of the middle-class family, they received various, and often contradictory instructions on how to negotiate new gender norms. Clearly, American Jewish leaders, thinkers, and writers had different conceptions as to what represented an “authentic” or “ideal” Jewish family, and divergent understandings of what constituted the proper roles of women within these families. They offered mixed messages to Jewish women, who were simultaneously encouraged to engage outside of the domestic sphere and also cautioned that these outside interests would damage their families.

(p.137) In the end, all of these thinkers, writers, and leaders agreed that affluence posed a threat to Jewish women. Although they did not interpret the situation in the same way, and indeed counseled Jewish women differently, they understood that a middle-class milieu placed new demands on American Jews in terms of how they divided up gendered tasks and organized their families. These leaders, for all of their different points of view, aimed to preserve what they perceived as the authentic Jewish family. That the new, middle-class Jewish family might fail to uphold Jewish traditions or transmit Jewish values to the next generation seemed to them an unthinkable tragedy.

What became of the children who grew up in Jewish families that had been so transformed by postwar affluence? Did they maintain Jewish traditions, as their rabbis and teachers hoped they would? Or did they realize the worst fears of their leaders by abandoning their Jewish distinctiveness in favor of middle-class security and comfort?

There is no singular answer to the question of what happened to the generation of American Jews who had been raised in postwar suburbia, and a full report on their fates falls beyond the scope of this project. The next chapter, however, follows one group of young Jews who adamantly, and with considerably more vitriol than the rabbis who educated them, railed against the prospect of adapting Jewish life to fit the norms of middle-class American culture.

This cadre of Jewish youth grew up surrounded by the ambivalence over upward mobility that their elders continuously expressed. They, too, felt the tension between the history of Jewish poverty and the new realities of Jewish privilege. Moreover, they heard, and internalized, their parents’ and rabbis’ concerns that the Jewish culture being forged in postwar suburbia lacked authenticity. As they reached young adulthood in the tumultuous years of the late 1960s, they began their own search for the genuine Jewish life that they believed the older generation had given up in their quest for middle-class security. We will now focus our attention on these Jewish children of suburbia once they grew into young adults and examine their searing critiques of upward mobility in the late 1960s and 1970s.


(1.) Brochure (1957): “Hadassah Makes You Important!,” Hadassah Archives, I-578, RG17, box 9, AJHS.

(8.) Folkman, Design for Jewish Living, 24; Brickner, “Education for Marriage,” speech originally given in 1946, reprinted in Brav, Marriage and the Jewish Tradition, 179–80; Vorspan and Lipman, Justice and Judaism, 59.

(12.) Ibid., 9.

(20.) “Hadassah Makes You Important!,” brochure (1957), Hadassah Archives, I-578, RG17 box 9, AJHS (emphasis in original).

(21.) “This Is Your Life in Hadassah,” brochure (1954), Hadassah Archives, I-578, RG17, box 9, AJHS.

(22.) “This Is Junior Hadassah,” brochure (1948), Hadassah Archives, I-578, RG 17, box 9, AJHS.

(23.) Moore, “Hadassah in the United States”; Boim-Wolf, “‘Its Good Americanism to Join Hadassah’” 65–86.

(29.) Syrkin, Way of Valor; Syrkin, Golda Meir, 11. Meir would be elected Israeli prime minister in 1969.

(32.) Decter, “The Legacy of Henrietta Szold,” 483. Decter’s later works lambasting feminism include The Liberated Woman and Other Americans and The New Chastity and Other Arguments against Women’s Liberation.

(34.) Levinger, Fighting Angel, 161; Lipsky, A Gallery of Zionist Profiles, 142; Ben-Asher and Leaf, “Henrietta Szold,” in The Junior Jewish Encyclopedia, 303–5.

(44.) Ibid., 370.

(47.) Ibid., 65, 86.

(48.) Ibid., 236.

(50.) Letters to Herman Wouk from Jean Levy Collat (October 13, 1955) and Paula Shirley Farber (December 7, 1955), cited in Sicherman, “Reading Marjorie Morningstar in the Age of the Feminine Mystique,” 200–201.