- “An Interest in Physical Well-Being Among the Feminine Membership”: Sporting Activities for Women at Young Men’s and Young Women’s Hebrew Associations
A pamphlet commemorating the twenty-fifth Anniversary of the founding in 1909 of the Bronx Young Men’s-Young Women’s Hebrew Association has an article entitled “Athletics Featured in Y Program”, which emphasizes the growing importance of physical training and sport in Jewish associations: “The Jewish boys and girls in America since the turn of the century have engaged in many types of athletics,” and they “continue to strive for physical perfection,” according to Executive Director A. W. Rosenthal. In fact, Jewish American women had been advocating for physical culture and sporting opportunities despite gender constraints and institutional limitations. In the “Girls’ Gym Program Extensive” the Bronx Young Men’s-Young Women’s Hebrew Association says there emerged “an interest in physical well-being among the Feminine Membership.” 1 Although contemporary American Jewish female athletes have participated in such sports as tennis, golf, and basketball, the historical study of Jewish women in American sport and [End Page 61] physical culture remains underexplored in women’s history, sport history, and American Jewish history. 2
Exploring the role of various institutions and individuals in shaping the sporting practices of Jewish American women in the late nineteenth century and first decades of the twentieth century reveals how upper-rank social reformers sought to influence the sporting practices of Eastern European Jewish immigrant women and girls. Jewish women of the upper-and middle-classes in urban areas formed ladies’ auxiliaries of Young Men’s Hebrew Associations. These women desired to Americanize new immigrants and strengthen women’s spiritual and physical well-being. Especially at the Young Women’s Hebrew Associations—often more autonomous than the Young Men’s Hebrew Associations, in which men controlled the resources and athletic spaces—physical training programs for women were developed. Historical research on Jewish institutions and Jewish Ys demonstrates that some Jewish female leaders enthusiastically endorsed physical recreation and sports as a valuable part of Jewish working-class women’s use of leisure time. In the New York Young Women’s Hebrew Association’s Annual Report for 1916, President Bella Unterberg asserts, “The athletic work is not merely confined to the gymnasium; there are health talks, meets, games, and [End Page 62] special classes that look to the individual as well as to the group development.” 3
To varying degrees in time and place, Jewish American women participated in sporting activities at Jewish institutions as part of programs designed to promote their spiritual and physical well-being. As American Jewish historian Paula Hyman has maintained, “The complex interplay of gender, social class, and religio-ethnic culture shaped the ways in which Jewish women participated in the economic, cultural, religious, and political life of the immigrant Jewish community and U.S. society.” 4 Likewise, the ways Jewish women participated in the sporting life within the immigrant and larger American culture were shaped by gender, class, ethnic and religious considerations. In the venue of sports, some German-Jewish...