- From Fashion to Politics: Hadassah and Jewish American Women in the Post World War II Era by Shirli Brautbar
“How did this housewife become so knowledgeable in international affairs, so able a defender of civil rights?” mused a bewildered Hadassah husband in his 1953 essay for the Hadassah newsletter. It is this puzzlement over post-WWII “Hadassah ladies” that has made them a challenging subject for students of American Jewish history. While researching my college senior thesis on the Hadassah organization in the 1950s, I remember staring into the photographed faces of 1950s Hadassah matrons standing alongside Mamie Eisenhower during a Washington, D.C., visit, and puzzling at their identity. Were they focused on fashion or politics? June Cleavers or powerful activists? The answer is, of course, a hybrid of the two. Brautbar’s From Fashion to Politics is a powerful contribution toward our understanding. More than a generation removed from the scrappy, radical colleagues of Henrietta Szold, the 1950s women of Hadassah have seemed less straightforward in their motivations, if [End Page 441] more at home in America. Shirli Brautbar’s book confirms my prior belief that motherhood was the concept that allowed postwar Hadassah women to reconcile the gender conservatism of their day with their politicization. As Brautbar explains, these women “utilized hegemonic gender ideals of domesticity and feminine consumer practices, such as fashion, to legitimate the participation of women in the nontraditional sphere of public action and education” (3).
What is particularly useful about Brautbar’s study is her postwar focus (most work on Hadassah examines its early years) and the author’s thoughtful probing of Hadassah’s responses to the issues of that era: the Holocaust, ideas about Arabs, McCarthyism, civil rights, Black Power, the Six Day War, and Soviet Jewry. Yet one category of great importance to postwar American Jewish life seems under-examined in these pages: religion. Although a primary characteristic of postwar Jewish identity, religion does not appear as a central concern of Hadassah members in Brautbar’s study. Its absence signifies the gendered experience of religion at a time when Hadassah members received commendation for their political work, but, like other Jewish women, remained second-class citizens in the sanctuary. Brautbar’s book ends just a few years before the flowering of Jewish feminism, and the reader is left with a cliffhanger. What happened to this group of women–so often associated with mink stoles and cookbooks–with the onset of feminism? Future work on Hadassah might productively examine the meeting ground between “Hadassah ladies” and the women’s movement.
A second major contribution of this work is its analysis of Hadassah’s postwar fashion shows and “beauty culture,” which were used, Brautbar explains, as a “platform for education and political activism and as a recruitment tool to attract women to political work” (86). Showcasing designs created by the Hadassah-sponsored Alice Seligsberg Fashion Institute in Israel, Hadassah fashion shows appealed to members’ sense of accepted forms of femininity even as these events became infused with political messages that challenged prevailing gender norms. “East meets West” may have been the theme of early 1950s publicity about Hadassah’s Fashion Institute, but Hadassah publications emphasized the differences between the exotic (Israeli women) and their American coreligionists. Israeli women were to be admired for their independence and intelligence, though perhaps not for their sense of style.
Cold War America proves a fruitful period for Brautbar’s analysis, which shows that the 1950s was not the desert of feminist activity that many have assumed. Unlike scholars such as Mira Katzburg-Yungman, [End Page 442] who argues that Hadassah did not encourage a feminist identity among its members, Brautbar views the organization as politicizing a generation of American Jewish women, offering them a means of contesting traditional gender roles.1 As mothers, Hadassah women “were impelled to act politically on their children’s behalf” (5). Youth Aliyah, which rescued Jewish children from Arab lands and Iron Curtain countries, emerges as one of the most...