Jewish Women in Focus

Celebrating women's history, one month at a time.

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This Week in History from the Jewish Women’s Archive recounts notable historical events related to the history of American Jewish women that occurred on the dates of the current week. In this article, Karla Goldman reflects upon the larger stories that grow out of the smaller moments that happen every day. This article first appeared in The Forward (March 03, 2006).

Each March, "Women's History Month" is officially celebrated, offering a relatively random opportunity to focus for a short period of time on a historical experience that remains largely invisible in mainstream histories. Arbitrary as the celebration may be, those who take full advantage of a commemorative month like this often learn how central these supposedly marginalized histories have been to the development of our nation and our communities.

Pioneers In Their Fields

A close look at historical events related to Jewish women's history in any month reveals multiple historical arcs, outlining how American Jewish women have reflected, challenged and broadened American realities and possibilities. A focus on March alone, for instance, points to the influential role of American Jewish women in creating and defining a number of fields.

In regard to public health, there are several dates related to nursing pioneers Lillian Wald and Margaret Arnstein. And in the field of fashion, there are contributions ranging from the catalogs of Lillian Vernon (born March 18, 1927) to the Barbie doll, first introduced by creator Ruth Handler on March 9, 1959.

March also suggests how broadly Jewish women have enriched American culture with evocative dates that range from Barbra Streisand's March 22, 1962, Broadway debut to the birth of novelist Marge Piercy (March 31, 1936), to Smith College professor Senda Berenson's officiation at the first women's basketball game March 22, 1893.

One of the narratives that can be drawn from examination of March-associated dates is of the distinctive way that changing roles for women have shaped and defined American Jewish life.

On March 15, 1820, following the lead of their compatriots in Philadelphia, the women of New York City's Shearith Israel announced the founding of a Female Hebrew Benevolent Society, staking out a public identity for Jewish women in attending to the needs of the poor. Women's growing role within the 19th-century American Jewish community would find its first national expression in the work of the National Council of Jewish Women, whose founding secretary, Sadie American, was born on March 3, 1860.

Women's religious roles evolved throughout the 20th century. On March 18, 1922, Judith Kaplan, the daughter of Reconstructionist movement founder Mordecai Kaplan, celebrated the first American bat mitzvah, thus introducing a female coming-of-age counterpart to the male bar mitzvah. And it was on March 30, 1928, that the women's Zionist organization Hadassah asserted its defining independence, when president Irma Levy Lindheim publicly condemned the male-run Zionist Organization of America's efforts to control Hadassah funds.

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Karla Goldman

Karla Goldman, historian in residence at the Jewish Women's Archive and editor of its online series This Week in History, is the author of Beyond the Synagogue Gallery: Finding a Place for Women in American Judaism (Harvard University Press, 2000).