- Jewish Girls Coming of Age in America, 1860-1920
What did it mean to be young, female, Jewish, and American during the period between 1860 and 1920? In this carefully researched and well presented book, Melissa Klapper (History, Rowan University) uses an exploration of the daily lives of adolescent Jewish girls as an avenue to address larger questions of gender, ethnicity, religion, and education. Drawing on a wealth of primary sources, many of which have never been published, and a broad range of secondary materials, Klapper uses Jewish girls' adolescent experiences to explore tensions between tradition and modernity, and between Jewishness and Americanness, during a time when questions of identity and place in society were very much in play.
The decades between 1860 and 1920 marked a time of massive Jewish immigration to America, as the Jewish population expanded exponentially, from under one million to more than 3.3 million. Recent immigrants from Eastern European countries as well as deeply assimilated German Jews who had been in the United States for generations struggled with what it meant to be both Jewish and American during a period marked by increased diversity within the religion as well as changing understandings of who and what could be called American.
Jewish girls, according to Klapper, "both recognized and were recognized for the role they played in maintaining a particular ethnic identity and religious culture while still aiming for integration into American society as large" (p. 3). Choices of which schools to attend and whom to associate with and marry were made against backdrops of families struggling with who they were [End Page 206] and how they fit in, both within their Jewish communities and within larger American society. Jewish adolescent girls carried heavy mantles in their families, as they were expected to both forge their families' paths into the American mainstream and at the same time retain elements of traditional Jewish pasts. The pressures of modern America and traditional Judaism at times exerted contradictory claims against them, and Jewish girls trod delicate paths as they negotiated the pushes and pulls of each world to create their own identities and their own lives, during a time of rapid societal change.
A particular area of interest to Klapper is education, broadly conceptualized. She charts the massive growth in public education that occurred during this time period and looks at the opportunities for assimilation and learning that this afforded Jewish girls. At the same time, she looks beyond formal classrooms and explores alternative forms of education—afternoon and evening classes, Sunday schools, and extra religious instruction. Jewish girls, who spent their days in school learning about American culture and becoming increasingly assimilated into mainstream American life, and their afternoons taking dancing, deportment, and music lessons, on weekends would be sent by their families for religious instruction, so that their understandings and appreciation of Judaism would not be lost, even as they joined—and helped their families join—the American middle class. According to Klapper, girls' school experiences did not in most cases threaten their families' traditions with respect to religion and gender roles. But other trappings of American society did. "Adolescent girls, especially those from middle-class families, were so busy developing their credentials as Americans that they often had little time left over to focus on their identities as Jews" (p. 176). Thus, supplementary Jewish education was deemed essential by many parents and community leaders, to enable girls when they reached womanhood to play the roles expected of them, those of torch bearer and keeper of the faith for their families and communities.
Overall, this is a rich book that, aside from some repetitive passages, is well-written and clearly presented. It contributes much to scholarship on Jewish life, adolescent life, and issues of identity during the decades surrounding the turn of the twentieth century. Some readers may wish for a more nuanced discussion of distinctions among different groups—ethnic, religious—within the Jewish community; others may want from Klapper a greater focus on change over time rather...