What does it mean to be a Jewish woman in America? What did it mean to be a Jewish woman throughout American history? These are questions Dr. Pamela Nadell, Patrick Clendenen Chair in Women’s and Gender History and director of Jewish Studies at American University, asks in her important new book, America’s Jewish Women: A History From Colonial Times to Today.
The answers are as varied as the lives and experiences of the women Nadell profiles. Some were strong in their religious identification and beliefs; others were barely aware of or hardly acknowledged their heritage. The common thread among activist women, from colonial times to the present, Nadell concludes, is their strong sense of self and a desire to repair the world – the Jewish concept of tikkun olam – whether or not they were aware of the link between their social consciousness and their religious and ethnic roots.
Rather than profiling the woman individually or strictly chronologically, Nadel instead presents each in the context of American history. A profile of devoted wife and mother Grace Mendes Seixas Nathan (1752-1831), for example, is juxtaposed with the story of her great-granddaughter the poet Emma Lazarus (1849-1887), who never married.