Jewish women: private ideals, public ambition

March 16, 1997|By Elizabeth Pachoda | Elizabeth Pachoda,special to the sun

"The Journey Home," by Joyce Antler. The Free Press. 385 pages. $27.50.

A wise woman once said, "History happens to you while you're doing the dishes." But that's only part of the story because after history knocks on the kitchen door, women, anchored in the important routines of the everyday, have been uniquely prepared to step out into the theater of history and make a difference.

The line about history and dishes belongs to the writer/activist Grace Paley, who knew why kitchen life might lead a woman to found a settlement house or march against "wars men plan for their sons." In a way, this is also the theme of Joyce Antler's book: how so many women came to do so much good in the world while also doing so many dishes.

Antler's brief lives of about 50 American Jewish women begins in 1849 with the birth of Emma Lazarus, the preeminent Jewish writer of her day and the author of "The New Colossus," whose verses grace the Statue of Liberty, where they crystallize the compatibility of American democratic values and the tradition of Jewish mothering. The book ends with Ruth Bader Ginsburg's appointment to the Supreme Court.

In between lie many lives most of us are ignorant of - from Rose Pastor Stokes, every bit as astonishing a radical organizer as Emma Goldman, to Annie Nathan Meyer, the complex and fascinating founder of Barnard College - and some we thought we knew but didn't, such as Sophie Tucker, Edna Ferber and Golda Meir. Maybe because the women chosen are so relentlessly accomplished, the chapter on the more obscure, but no less dedicated, Jewish women who labored in the New York City school system is particularly moving.

Antler's interpretation of these lives is the same, probably too much so: Jewish women in the New World took American idealism to heart, championing their own causes and those of others. But success did not come cheap. According to Antler's formula, most of these women were torn by multiple loyalties to family, profession, religion and the larger American culture.

Those who reached back to Judaism and Jewish cultural roots were, according to Antler, the ones who struck a healthy balance between conflicting loyalties. The emphasis upon ethnic roots seems more fashionable than apt, and it leaves Antler unable to say anything important about such figures as Emma Goldman, Gertrude Stein and Ethel Rosenberg, none of whom found a refuge in Judaism or Jewishness. Nowhere is there any sense that skepticism about religious tradition and ethnicity is also healthy, even a tradition of sorts for both Jews and Gentiles.

Jewish women are certainly less unique than Antler thinks in having a domestic ideal at odds with their public ambitions and a religion committed to their inequality. Nor are they alone in their fears about success estranging them from their origins.

It is easy to imagine another such book about accomplished black women who experienced similar tensions in their struggles to make the world a better place. Come to think of it, that book, minus the theorizing about roots, would be an immensely valuable resource for generations to come, just as this one is.

Elizabeth Pachoda is the executive editor of House & Garde magazine and a member of the editorial board of The Nation. Before that, she was on the editorial board of the New York Daily News.

Pub Date: 3/16/97

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