- Gertrude Weil: Jewish Progressive in the New South by Leonard Rogoff
In the first biography of Goldsboro, North Carolina, suffragist and social justice activist Gertrude Weil, historian Leonard Rogoff's argument is twofold. First, he counters Eli Evans's portrayal of North Carolina Jews as provincial by arguing that although Weil was entangled in the state's complex racial and gendered hierarchies, she was "cosmopolitan with roots" (p. x). Second, Rogoff offers Weil's career as usable history for readers seeking to "live a meaningful life" (p. xi). Weil was steeped in classical Reform Judaism and the civic-minded German ethos of Bildung—"moral education and self-improvement"—and she believed that Jews were meant to model moral conduct for other nations (p. 2).
While Gertrude Weil: Jewish Progressive in the New South builds on literature on North Carolina, women's studies, and Jewish history, Rogoff closely follows Anne Firor Scott's classic survey The Southern Lady: From Pedestal to Politics, 1830–1930 (Chicago, 1970), which documents how the southern women's club movement helped affluent white southern women build networks crucial to organizing politically. Rogoff also complements Pamela Tyler's and Landon R. Y. Storrs's research on the southern woman suffrage movement and consumer activists' emerging maternalist political apparatus. Weil mirrors Storrs's twentieth-century Jewish consumers and advocates whose northern education and international affiliation made radical, interracial organizing possible. Weil's career, however, provides a long view of grassroots movements, and Rogoff extends organizational histories by charting how Weil mobilized social networks to mitigate segregation, poverty, and public health crises for seventy years.
The first four chapters examine Weil's spiritual and educational development. Rogoff outlines the Weil family's German Jewish familial network that linked urban nodes like New York City and Baltimore to outposts such as Goldsboro and facilitated assimilation while maintaining traditions, language, and ties to Europe. Additionally, Weil's classical education in North Carolina and at Smith College sharpened the independent, civically engaged idealism that propelled her to join New Woman social work agencies that advocated "municipal housekeeping" to reform political systems (p. 73).
Next, Rogoff explores the interplay of Weil's interwar activism, science, and Jewish identity. As a member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association and the North Carolina Association of Jewish Women, Weil attended social work conferences and rooted "democracy and social justice in the canon of Israel" (p. 105). Yet racist and classist paternalism complicated Weil's egalitarianism. For instance, in 1919 she declared that black women's enfranchisement "is a problem" to be solved by strict voting requirements and not by "injustice and discriminations against the white women" (p. 119). In 1927 Weil called for economic equity while suggesting that allowing the poor and the "feeble-minded" to procreate exacerbated "social problems" (p. 200). Rogoff concedes that Weil's abstract idealism translated into "utopian thinking that overlooked social and racial consequences" (p. 202).
Rogoff shines in chapter 9, where he traces the southern, northern, and European channels that Weil used to rescue a dozen relatives from Nazi-occupied Europe. She doggedly interceded with American and foreign governments and [End Page 193] spent thousands of dollars to secure family members' visas and make travel arrangements. Rogoff narrates Weil's heartbreaking failures with building tension, as wartime bureaucratic delays prevented one of her relatives from fleeing to Cuba before its borders closed. Rogoff thus illustrates the deeply personal stakes that colored Weil's postwar commitment to Zionism, building domestic religious institutions, and racial integration as an antifascist measure.
Marshaling an impressive array of letters, ephemera, speeches, essays, newspaper articles, and government reports from the Gertrude Weil Papers and other archives, Rogoff painstakingly documents Weil's wide-ranging philanthropic, political, and religious efforts. However, without consistent historical signposting and confusing chronology, undergraduates and readers unfamiliar with the subject may become mired in Rogoff's thicket of details and dense prose. Nonetheless, Gertrude Weil invites further research into the history of southern Jewish women's organizations, specifically...