September 23, 2019

Nine Jewish Women You Should Be Reading

Courtesy of Sylvia Lustgarten and the Jewish Women's Archive

Kadya Molodowsky (left), Ida Maze (center), and Rokhl Korn (right). Photo courtesy of Sylvia Lustgarten and the Jewish Women’s Archive

Why do some writers become part of the canon while others do not? In HBI’s spring seminar, Fresh Voices: Jewish Women Writers From North America, some of the important Jewish women studied by our scholars, for various reasons, have not remained in the canon. However, fresh interest in their work may restore them to their rightful place among other giants in Jewish and Yiddish literature. Here they are:

  1. Emma Wolf

Scarcely a day goes by without an article or social media post on intermarriage, but Jewish writer, Emma Wolf, got a big head start on the rest of us. Her novel, Other Things Being Equal, focused on intermarriage in 1892. Born in San Francisco in 1865, the daughter of French-Alsatian pioneers, Wolf was arguably the first female Jewish novelist to achieve renown in the U.S. Her father, a successful businessman, was among the early Jewish settlers in the Bay Area, and her family belonged to Temple Emanu-El, a congregation founded during the Gold Rush of 1849. Members of Emanu-El formed an elite society of Jews, who had emigrated from central Europe in the mid-19th century and who lived as neighbors in upper-middle-class Pacific Heights. Two of her novels, Other Things Being Equa(1892) and Heirs of Yesterday (1901), were set in the San Francisco Reform community and featured cultured, professional, well-off Jews who could not be differentiated from their gentile neighbors except in their religious practices.

  1. Miriam Michelson

San Francisco-based Miriam Michelson’s wide-ranging oeuvre includes picaresque novels, science fiction, historical romance, parlor room melodrama and literary journalism. Though unknown today to scholars of Jewish American literature, Michelson was recognized in her time as a famous Jewish writer—“a California Jewess who has succeeded with her pen,” in the words of The Washington Post. Among the most popular and prolific women writers of the first decade of the twentieth century, Michelson drew on her experiences as a reporter for San Francisco’s top dailies, San Francisco Call and the Bulletin in the 1890s, and then for a few years in the East, for the Philadelphia North American,  to create entertaining narratives with audacious, slang-speaking new women protagonists. Professionally, she reported on a host of progressive issues, from the suffrage movement and political corruption in Chinatown to the annexation of Hawaii and assimilationist policies of Indian boarding schools.

While occasional Jews do appear in her stories, usually as denizens of the theater rather than the ghetto, Michelson also populated her fiction with Irish, Black, Chinese, Hawaiian, and Native American characters. Set in California, Nevada, and the Dakotas, her work testifies to the ways that Jewish writers captured the regional and ethno-racial diversity of American life and were engaged with cultures and traditions other than their own—an aspect of literary history easily forgotten among the New York ghetto tales that make up the turn-of-the-twentieth-century canon. Born in 1870, she was brought up in the mining town of Virginia City, Nevada, where her parents settled after immigrating to the United States from Poland.

  1. Harriet Lane Levy

Harriet Lane Levy followed a life path that led from a privileged and observant home in San Francisco to the Paris expatriate scene with Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein. In her memoir 920 O’Farrell Street: A Jewish Girlhood in Old San Francisco (1947), completed when she was 80 years old, Levy described growing up as the daughter of religiously observant parents who simultaneously demanded that she abide by strict nineteenth-century gender conventions and encouraged her to pursue the education that led her to become an independent woman of the new century. After Levy’s graduation from the University of California Berkeley, her literary aspirations took her to The Wave, where her short stories, society pieces, and dramatic criticism made her one of the San Francisco journal’s most promising young writers in the early 1890s. Yet Levy’s story is also one of unrealized ambition: 920 O’Farrell Street was the only book of prose she published in her lifetime. Notably, she traveled to Paris, with her friend and O’Farrell Street neighbor Alice B. Toklas. The traveling companions became part of a group of American expatriates dominated by members of San Francisco’s elite Jewish community, including a family of art collectors, Gertrude, Leo, Michael, and Sarah Stein. When Levy left Europe four years later, she returned to San Francisco without Toklas, who had stayed behind to make a new life with Gertrude Stein. Recollections of her time in Paris were posthumously published as Paris Portraits: Stories of Picasso, Matisse, Gertrude Stein, and Their Circle.

4-5. Anna and Rose Strunsky

Anna and Rose Strunsky arrived in the United States from Russia in the 1880s, living first in New York and then, by 1893, in California. As undergraduates at Stanford University, the sisters, known for their brilliance and beauty, became involved in socialist politics and took up with “The Crowd,” a group of bohemian artists that boasted Jack London as a member. Both aspiring novelists, Anna and London were drawn to each other, sharing their works in progress and igniting a romance that evolved into an even longer friendship. In 1903, they published a collaborative book, The Kempton-Wace Letters, an epistolary novel and philosophical treatise in which two male correspondents, Dane Kempton (Strunsky) and Herbert Wace (London), debate love, sex, and marriage. Based in part on the real-life correspondence between its authors, the book offers insight into London’s scientific views on race and reproduction, which kept him from marrying his Jewish collaborator despite their erotically charged intellectual partnership.

Anna Strunsky has received attention from literary scholars and historians for her passionate relationship with London and her marriage in 1906 to socialist intellectual and reformer William English Walling (at the time, one of several well-publicized intermarriages between Jewish women and gentile philanthropists who shared political views). But no scholar has fully examined her writing efforts—both successful and failed—or considered her career in relation to that of her sister, Rose, who makes even briefer appearances in literary history as the object of Sinclair Lewis’s unrequited affections and as a translator of Gorky, Tolstoy, and Trotsky. As foreign correspondents for Walling’s news syndicate, Rose and Anna traveled together to Russia where they reported on the revolution. Anna and Rose Strunsky rarely wrote about explicitly Jewish topics, but their literary interests and political passions were shaped by their backgrounds as Russian Jewish immigrant women reared on the freedoms of turn-of-the-century intellectual life in San Francisco. Their writings address topics ranging from the role of women in socialism to labor strikes in Britain and race relations in the United States.

  1. Penina Moise

Penina Moise is considered the first Jewish American woman to contribute to the worship service, writing 190 hymns for Congregation Beth Elohim in  Charleston, S.C.,  a synagogue founded in 1749 and considered the birthplace of many ideas that later became important in the founding of the Reform movement. By 1932, The Reform Movement’s Union Hymnal still contained 13 of Moise’s hymns.

Born on April 23, 1797 to a large and wealthy family in Charleston, S.C., Moise’s  father, Abraham, was a successful Alsatian-born merchant. Her mother, Sarah, was the daughter of a wealthy family from the island of St. Eustace. They came to Charleston in 1791, fleeing a slave insurrection. Moise was the sixth of nine children and the youngest daughter. She left school at age twelve, after her father’s death and served as the family nurse, caring for her mother and brother Isaac, an asthma sufferer.

Growing up in the presence of a diverse, vital, and well-integrated Jewish community, Moise devoted herself to Jewish issues. Her work appeared in both the Jewish and general press. Her 1833 collection of poems, Fancy’s Sketch Book, was the first by a Jewish American woman. Moise also wrote columns for newspapers throughout the United States. Her poetry covered a variety of topics, including current events, politics, local life, Judaism, Jewish rights, and Jewish ritual reform.

Along with her literary endeavors, Moise devoted her life to teaching and serving as religious school superintendent in 1845 at Congregation Beth Elohim. The Civil War forced Moise to leave Charleston for Sumter, South Carolina. She returned after the war but in reduced financial circumstances supporting herself by running an academy together with her widowed sister and her niece. She died in 1880, blind and poor, but still a fixture in the Charleston Jewish community and literary life.

  1. Irena Klepfisz

Diversity and inclusion are hot topics of conversation these days but were just as pertinent 30 years ago. Born in 1941, Jewish poet and feminist, Irena Klepfisz, contributed to publications that dealt with diversity-related subjects that were considered controversial at the time, specifically lesbianism in the Jewish community, as seen in writer Evelyn Beck’s anthology, Nice Jewish Girls. Her subsequent publication, with fellow poet, Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz, was The Tribe of Dina: A Jewish Women’s Anthology (1986), showcasing the diversity amongst secular Jewish women of varying economic backgrounds. The Tribe of Dina provided a platform for these women, some of which were lesbians, heterosexuals, Ashkenzi and Sephardi women, to not only identify with their Jewish culture but to also share their perspectives on how to overcome the marginalization of women in the Jewish culture.  Klepfisz’ literary contributions encompass two very important goals of diversity and inclusion: creating a sense of identity and community, while remaining inclusive. As a result, her work remains relevant in the ongoing diversity and inclusion conversation. Klepfisz is currently a professor at Barnard College.

  1. Kadya Molodowsky

Kadya Molodowsky’s life began in 1894 in the shetl Bereza Kartuska, White Russia, but included a distinguished career as a teacher and prolific writer of acclaimed Yiddish poetry over 50 years, across several countries and continents. She was rewarded many times with strong reviews and accolades, but toward the end of her life, in Tel Aviv, in 1971, Molodowsky received the Itzik Manger Prize, the most prestigious award in the world of Yiddish letters, for her achievement in poetry.

The second of four children, Molodowsky’s father was a learned Jew and teacher as well as an adherent of the Enlightenment and an admirer of Moses Montefiore and Theodor Herzl. Her mother, Itke, ran a dry-goods shop, and later opened a factory. Molodowsky received an unusual education for a girl in those times, learning Yiddish, the Hebrew Pentateuch, Russian language, geography, philosophy and world history. She taught in many settings before her prolific publishing career.  In 1920, having survived the Kiev pogrom, she published her first poem, met her husband, Simkhe Lev, a young scholar and teacher. From 1927 through the 1970’s, Molodowsky published many books, focusing on topics such as the landscape of Jewish Eastern Europe, roles decreed by the Jewish tradition for women, experiences of the poor, immigrants, pioneers in Israel and exile. Her literary endeavors branched out in several directions, including a series of columns on great Jewish women for the Yiddish daily, Forverts, and various journals. Published in Buenos Aires in 1965, Molodowsky’s last book of poems, Likht fun Dornboym (Lights of the Thorn Bush), includes dramatic monologues in the voices of legendary personae from Jewish and non-Jewish traditions and contemporary characters. The book concludes with a section of poems on Israel from the 1950s, which, like the ending of her autobiography, express Molodowsky’s Zionism.  Kadya Molodowsky died in a nursing home in Philadelphia on March 23, 1974.

  1. Rokhl Häring Korn

Born on an East Galicia farm in 1898, Rokhl Häring Korn utilized the quietness of her surroundings to project her imagination through writing. Korn published eight volumes of literature and two collections of fiction, becoming an integral figure in Yiddish literature. Her early work was originally in Polish until World War I and became the catalyst to learn Yiddish. With her husband, Hersh Korn as the teacher, Rokhl Häring Korn learned to speak, read and write Yiddish, in order to adopt it as her medium.   While her first Yiddish poem, Lemberger Tageblatt, was published in 1919, it wasn’t until the 1920s and 1930s that she became a renowned Yiddish poet with her publications:  Dorf, Royter mon and Erd. While these works featured Korn’s view of her surroundings in relation to her inner being, later publications reflected the impact of World War II on Jewish people. By removing herself from her writings, she unselfishly gave a poetic platform for Jews devastated by the conditions of the war. In 1948, Korn immigrated to Montreal, Canada, where she died on September 9, 1982. She and Kadya Molodowsky maintained a correspondence and friendship.

This blog was prepared by HBI Scholars-in-residence, Lori Harrison-Kahan, Kathryn Hellerstein and Chantal Ringuet and HBI staff, Amy Sessler Powell, communications director and Zanefa Walsh, communications coordinator with assistance from the Jewish Women’s Archive Encyclopedia.

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The Spring Seminar, North American Jewish Women’s Writing of Fiction, Memoir and Poetry, is supported in part with a gift from Elaine Reuben, HBI Board member. 

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