Lecture to highlight the role of Jewish women in America
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Lecture to highlight the role of Jewish women in America

Speaker says we should learn from history

Dr. Pamela Nadell
Dr. Pamela Nadell

On August 1, David Fine, the rabbi of Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood, will conclude his 6-week lecture series on American Jewish History at Fort Lee’s Congregation Gesher Shalom.

What better way is there for the shul to move forward from those talks than by arranging a lecture on American Jewish women?

“It’s a natural follow-up,” said Marvin Chertkoff, coordinator of the lecture series, whose synagogue was drawn to the topic, and to the speaker, Pamela Nadell, through a favorable review of her new book, “America’s Jewish Women: A History from Colonial Times to Today” in the New York Times.

The book “is a thoughtful history of a group of diverse, passionate, contemplative, vocal and dynamic women, and is a welcome addition to the American historical canon,” reviewer Jordana Horn wrote. “It’s truly remarkable to read this book and appreciate how these women — numerically small, qualitatively great — made such a tremendous impact on this nation.”

Dr. Nadell, a professor of women’s and gender history and the director of the Jewish studies program at American University, will deliver her August 8 lecture via Zoom. That’s a first for Gesher Shalom.

Dr. Nadell lives in Rockville, Maryland, with her husband — they have two grown children — but she has a longtime connection to New Jersey. She grew up in Livingston, attended Douglass College, and has cousins in Fair Lawn.

For the most part, her two academic passions — women’s studies and Jewish studies — have co-existed peacefully, she said. “They don’t conflict in the sense that my passion is Jewish women’s history. But I know that there are often conflicts in the contemporary feminist movement over the place of Jews in that movement. We can trace that conflict decades back, and further. History gives context.”

That idea, of learning from history, also is illustrated by one of her previous books, “Women Who Would Be Rabbis: A History of Women’s Ordination, 1889-1985” (Beacon Press, 1998), which was a finalist for a National Jewish Book Award. (“America’s Jewish Women” is her ninth book.) “If we don’t know our past, know where we came from,” it’s difficult “to make sense of the world in which we live and to move forward,” she said. “We’re standing on the shoulders of those who came before us.

“American Jewish women raised questions about [women rabbis] in 1889. Every generation would raise it,” but didn’t know that others had raised it before them. “They were crafting arguments they wouldn’t have needed to.” Perhaps, she suggested, “that’s why it took so long to move forward.”

Speaking of her new book, Dr. Nadell said, “I’ve been thinking about writing this book for most of my life. As a little girl living in Menlo Park, I went to the Woodbridge library and read biographies of women,” such as Florence Nightingale and Clara Barton. “I read so many I was sure there must be a biography series.”

“Reflecting back on the past, I was being pointed in a dual direction. I studied at Hebrew University, Jewish studies, but I would pay attention to women while doing research and writing. I was moved to write about women.”

In the course of writing her new book, “I was surprised by so many things,” Dr. Nadell said. For example, “when she was 13, Sheryl Sandberg” — Facebook’s chief operating officer — “was twinned for her bat mitzvah with a Soviet Jew. I found her twin on Facebook. She’s a web designer in Jerusalem. But they’re not Facebook friends.”

Dr. Nadell said that American Jewish women’s contribution definitely has been underreported as well as undervalued. For her part, she writes in her book about two categories of women, the very famous, such as Emma Lazarus and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “and those who left their mark on smaller canvases and communities.”

One of those women is Grace Nathan, Emma’s great grandmother, the author of letters and poetry, who is paired with her great-granddaughter in the book. “I tried to use hooks to draw the reader into large stories,” Dr. Nadell said. Sometimes the pairs of women are related, sometimes they are not.

“After 1945, the world rushes open for American Jewish women,” who are characterized by “tremendous diversity,” Dr. Nadell said. For some, “being Jewish mattered. They are part of America’s women, but set apart from them in so many striking ways. And for some, that being set apart is a powerful marker. Judaism is at the core of their lives. For others, that doesn’t really matter, although they may have bumped against the reality that it did matter.

“What really jumps out is their commitment to making the world a better place,” through organizations such as Hadassah, synagogue sisterhoods, and the National Council of Jewish women.

“They were bent on improving the world,” Dr. Nadell continued. For example, some women stationed themselves at Ellis Island “to make sure young women didn’t fall into the hands of slavers.” They also offered citizenship classes in Yiddish. Jewish women also made “an enormous mark in the wider world, in the forefront of American feminism in the 60s and 70s” — think Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Of the latter, Dr. Nadell noted that the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia is planning an exhibit about Ms. Ginsburg’s life. “There are also Ruth Bader Ginsburg dolls,” she said.

Ginsburg “changed the law. In the feminist movement, women pushed ahead in their area of expertise. Hers was the law. Changing the law was absolutely fundamental to people like me.” Citing a famous Ginsburg quip, Dr. Nadell asked rhetorically, “What is the difference between a bookkeeper in New York City’s Garment District and a Supreme Court Justice? One generation.”

Acknowledging that her original manuscript for “American Jewish Women” was twice as long as her book — her editor limited her to a specific word count — Dr. Nadell said she chose to include women whose stories illustrate broader themes.

Dr. Nadell cited Abigail Levy Franks, “who wrote a treasure trove of letters. I have them — 38 letters. She was very observant. She told her son Naphtali, who was in England, to eat only bread and butter in his uncle’s house. And she was crushed when her daughter Phila intermarried. She wrote that she was so ‘depresst’ that she never wanted to see or speak to anyone again.” Franks’ letters help us understand marriage and family in the Jewish world in American life, Dr. Nadell said.

Most scholars today are attentive to including gender in their works, Dr. Nadell said, but she specifically credits Gerda Lerner as a pioneer in the history of Jewish women. Dr. Lerner came to America from Europe in her 40s and got a Ph.D. in women’s history, “leading the way for women’s history in American life,” Dr. Nadell said. Dr. Lerner also championed Women’s History Week, now a month-long celebration.

“Looking at photos of my own family — my great-grandmother in a shetl, my grandmother looking extremely chic, my mother in a pencil skirt and white blouse, me in my black jacket, and my daughters in tall boots and jeans, I realize that just as the clothing has changed, so too have our lives” — and the lives of all Jewish women in America, Dr. Nadell said.


Who: Professor Pamela Nadell

What: Will speak via video-conferencing about her new book, “America’s Women: A History from Colonial Times to Today”

When: August 8, from 1 to 3 p.m.

Where: Congregation Gesher Shalom, 1449 Anderson Ave, Fort Lee

For more information: Go to Dr. Nadell’s website, pamelanadell.com

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