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  • Signposts:Writing Women into American Jewish History
  • Pamela S. Nadell (bio)

It is most fitting that “Signposts: Reflections on Articles from the Journal’s Archive” appears in this special issue of American Jewish History (AJH) celebrating Jeffrey S. Gurock’s fortieth anniversary at Yeshiva University. After all, for twenty years (1982–2002), Jeffrey Gurock, Yeshiva University’s Libby M. Klaperman Professor of Jewish History, was the journal’s associate editor—one-half of a dynamic-duo editorial team with Marc Lee Raphael, the Nathan Gumenick Chair of Judaic Studies at the College of William & Mary, who was my teacher.

Not only was Gurock editor extraordinaire, he was also deeply interested in the journal as a historical object. For more than a century, the writers who have published in the journal and the articles that have appeared in its pages have reflected the state of American Jewish history. At the journal’s centennial, Gurock analyzed that history, publishing in these pages a major retrospective that was essentially a stand-alone monograph.1 He then collected more than 200 of the journal’s most important articles in the multivolume series American Jewish History. Perhaps no scholar alive today knows this journal better than he.

“Signposts,” in fact, rests on Gurock’s pioneering scholarship of the history of AJH. When “Signposts” was first conceived, I was invited to find its first article on Jewish women’s history and to reflect on its contribution to the field. This topic, too, is especially appropriate for honoring Gurock, because his own scholarship, such as The Men and Women of Yeshiva, has recognized that attention to women’s and gender history must be paid.2

As I began searching for that earliest article in what was then called the Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society (PAJHS), Gurock pointed to Gratz Mordecai’s 1897 “notice” of the Warrenton (N.C.) Female Seminary founded by his grandfather Jacob Mordecai.3 [End Page 337] Gurock rightly calls Gratz Mordecai an “unabashed filiopietist,” one of the many amateur historians writing for the journal in its first decades. These amateurs employed history to defend Jewish honor against a rising tide of antisemitism and social exclusion, staking out through the Jewish past their claim to the American present.4 Interestingly, Gratz Mordecai acknowledged that more could have been done with his subject. In fact, Gurock drew our attention to another article about Jacob Mordecai’s academy—one published some ninety years later in AJH by Sheldon Hanft.5 Yet neither of these articles qualifies as the journal’s first article on the history of America’s Jewish women. The Warrenton (N.C.) Female Seminary was not a school for Jewish girls; rather, as “a young ladies’ non-sectarian school,” it offered Southern girls the education necessary for them to assume their serious roles as mothers of the republic charged with educating their sons (and daughters) to their responsibilities to the new nation.6

But what does jump out, in retrospect, in Gratz Mordecai’s “notice” is his source material. He had relied to a large extent on documents written by Rachel Mordecai, Jacob Mordecai’s eldest daughter and the seminary’s lead teacher. Both Gratz Mordecai and Sheldon Hanft were mainly interested in Jacob Mordecai, the family’s patriarch and the school’s founder, and not in his daughter. But when author Emily Bingham, who was attuned to reading records through the lens of gender, wrote Mordecai: An Early American Family in 2003, she recognized that actually it was Rachel Mordecai who stood “at the school’s core,” and who “effectively headed what became the Mordecai family’s business.”7

The ways in which historians wrote Rachel Mordecai into American Jewish history may serve as a paradigm for the writing of women into our journal. In Gratz Mordecai’s version, Rachel Mordecai was a bystander and a source, a witness to her father’s remarkable life. Sheldon Hanft had more to say about her. Rachel Mordecai was interested in philosophy and history. Her success as her father’s pupil won for him “respect and admiration” from Warrenton’s leaders. Although Hanft writes that [End Page 338] the school’s teachers became “role...


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