Cora Wilburn (1824–1906), who immigrated to the U.S. in 1848 under the name Henretty [Henrietta] Jackson, penned unforgettable portraits of being poor, Jewish and a woman in America. Her writings, especially her autobiographical novel Cosella Wayne, published serially in 1860, help fill a large void both in American Jewish women’s history and in the history of Central European Jews in America. Wilburn gave voice to the poor, allowing us to see class relations among Jewish women through the eyes of the usually mute women of the laboring classes. Her writings offer a vivid portrait of mid-nineteenth-century female Jewish poverty. She was also one of a comparatively small number of Jews to identify for a time with the Spiritualist movement in America. Spiritualism, in her view, was a pantheistic faith that championed freedom, equality and justice; emphasized reason, justice, health and purity; and held to “no Church, no Bible, no priestly expounder, and no creed.” She brought these values into Progressive Judaism, to which she returned in 1869. No statistics exist concerning the extent of female Jewish poverty during Wilburn’s lifetime, but it is safe to assume that orphans, immigrants and the unmarried— Wilburn was all three—were particularly vulnerable. Through her writings, that vulnerable population found both a chronicler and a champion.


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