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American Jewish History 88.1 (2000) 174-178

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Fighting to Become Americans: Jews, Gender, and the Anxiety of Assimilation. By Riv-Ellen Prell. Boston: Beacon Press, 1999. 319 pp.

Researchers working with single Jews report that Jewish men and women articulate "toxic" feelings about each other. While crediting the typical Jew with being intelligent, successful and responsible, single men and women in workshops vociferously assert that Jews of the opposite sex are spoiled, materialistic, demanding, neurotic, and selfish. They often think of their co-religionists as physically unappealing, with blunt, unrefined facial features, chunky, out-of-shape bodies, and shrill, whining voices. 1 To an astonishing extent, the images harbored by Jewish men and women about each other echo not only stereotypical portrayals of Jews in contemporary films, fiction, and popular culture, but also the anti-Semitic images of the Jew promulgated in nineteenth-century London and Vienna, as chillingly described by Sander Gillman. 2 [End Page 174]

In Fighting to Become Americans: Jews, Gender, and the Anxiety of Assimilation, a colorful and convincing new anthropological study of the acculturation of American Jews, Riv-Ellen Prell illustrates the sources and evolution of an often troubled relationship. Suspicion and antipathy between American Jewish men and women, still notable today, was already remarked upon in the teeming tenements which housed millions of immigrants in the decades before and after the turn of the twentieth century. Working from contemporaneous sources, Prell demonstrates the ways in which Jewish men and women turned on each other as they struggled to further their own progress in Americanization.

As members of an impoverished Jewish immigrant group, men and women both confronted the most basic and often overwhelming economic issues. Moreover, many were also ambitious. Not willing to remain "Ghetto Girls" or "green" newcomers, both men and women used whatever resources were at their disposal--including romantic liaisons--to further their upward socioeconomic mobility. As they worked long hours in sweatshop factories, young women dreamed and schemed to marry rising business or professional men; young men looked for dowried females whose fathers' fortunes could bankroll their own career trajectories.

Jewish men and women each wanted the same thing: a spouse who would financially support their entry into the middle class. Each, however, bitterly resented similar attitudes in Jews of the opposite sex and publicly decried the gold-digging behavior of potential partners, wishing to find a spouse who would adore them for themselves alone. Some observers at the time blamed ambitious Jewish men, but as time passed more blamed the women. As one columnist put it, "let him lack enough of the national medium of exchange, commonly known as 'the dough,' and the chances are mighty good that he will be looked upon as 'alright, if only he had the money'" (p. 95).

Prell finds that, beginning in 1920, these exploitative, grasping behaviors were seen as being specifically Jewish, rather than a culture-wide phenomenon linked to the entry of seasoned immigrants into the American middle class. According to one reporter, for example, unlike the Jewish girl, who was perceived as expecting to be taken care after she married, "thousands of Gentile women work. In most restaurants the waitresses are married. The downtown offices are full of young brides who feel that now-a-days the burden of supporting a home is too great to be born entirely by the man." In contrast with these supportive, hard-working Gentile brides, "a Jewish girl who has to go to work after her wedding looks upon herself as the unhappiest creature on earth" (p. 97). Jewish women, for their part, were quick to see unfairness in the pictures [End Page 175] which were being spread about them. As one New York correspondent wrote: "'She is mercenary and extravagant' says the man who showers presents on a shikse [non-Jewish woman]" (p. 101).

Negative images of Jewish women were well-launched in the public imagination, and this negativity was indelibly linked to economic issues. Ironically, in assuming that married women ought to devote themselves to home and...


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