Daughters of Israel, Daughters of the South: Southern Jewish Women and Identity in the Antebellum and Civil War South.
Jennifer A Stollman's Daughters of Israel, Daughters of the South is an impressively researched and compelling piece of recovery that paints a vivid picture of the lives of Southern Jewish women who have long been maligned or forgotten in the historical record. Following the work of Dianne Ashton and others, Stollman reveals the very public roles women played in preserving Judaism in the face of assimilation. Stollman then follows these women into their private lives and through diaries, letters, primers, and school records reveals the many ways Jewish women developed unique strategies to fight proselytization. While many of Stollman's interventions are aimed primarily at Jewish historiography, her book is offers ample material for scholars in a broad range of fields. Students of the history of whiteness as well as scholars of women's history will find it particularly rewarding. Stollman's deep research has uncovered a rich and distinctive culture of Southern Judaism protected and promoted by women.
Stollman persuasively argues that Jewish women in the South did not capitulate and assimilate for materialistic reasons, as contemporaries contended, but rather found creative ways to resist and maintain Jewish culture while taking advantage of the opportunities offered by participation in public life. Faced with mounting antisemitism during the Civil War era, Southern Jewish women resiliently defended faith through their writing and education while simultaneously using their actions toward slaves and loyalty to the Confederacy to defend their position as loyal, white Southerners. In this way, they not only kept faith alive, but battled anti-Semitism as well.
The first chapters of the book are concerned with reframing the debate on women's roles in preserving Judaism in the South. Stollman argues that although there was little explicit antisemitism in the antebellum South, that should in no way be read as a sign of acceptance. Jewish women, she contends, acted in the context of pervasive cultural anti-Semitism, which was only amplified during the war. Within this context, actions that other scholars have read as assimilative can be seen as strategies for survival. Her first chapter argues that women's public work within synagogues as well as their efforts to change schedules for holy days and retain Hebrew names and Jewish marital contracts represented a concerted effort to fulfill their roles as keepers of the faith. The next chapters follow the ways in which, through education and writing, Jewish women created a space for Judaism to thrive and resist proselytization in a culture that regularly used Jews as paragons of immorality in literature and educational textbooks.
In perhaps her most compelling chapter, Stollman urges us to understand Jewish women's interactions with their slaves through the lens of their own bid for whiteness. Drawing on the work of a generation of scholars of whiteness, Stollman argues that women used their relationships with slaves to help establish Jews firmly in the safe, white upper echelons of the South's racial hierarchy. Southern whites were often confused by the racial status of Jews-at times even dubbing them their own category, "the Iraelite race." Given that Jews were constantly required to negotiate their racial status in public, the plantation household gave Southern Jews a unique opportunity, a setting in which their white status was unquestioned. Women, too, embraced this setting.
Finally, Stollman follows Southern Jewish women into the Civil War and Reconstruction era, arguing that in conspicuous loyalty to the Confederate cause, Jewish women served as ambassadors for their faith, and effective counter examples to the anti-Semitic stereotypes circulating during the war. Intent is difficult to read across the barrier of a century and a half, and at times Stollman ascribes intentionality to actions where it does not seem justified. For instance, when Phoebe Pember, a Jewish woman married to a Swiss Gentile, was asked to be a ward matron in a Confederate hospital, she accepted immediately. The reasons seem clear enough-she had been asked by the wife of the Confederate Secretary of War, and refusing would not have occurred to her. Stollman criticizes other authors who have not speculated on the way her Jewishness might have influenced her decision. The question certainly does invite speculation. Flowever, the certainty with which Stollman states that Pember's decision had a "twofold purpose" of serving the Confederacy and "counterfing] pervasive anti-Semitic assumptions," seems misplaced (199). An even further stretch is her assertion that this method was effective.
More convincing is her long and sophisticated analysis of the actions of Eugenia Phillips, Pember's sister, who endured an extended house arrest in Washington, D.C., at the hands of the federal government. Pier case became a cause celebre in Confederate papers, and here Stollman is able to find ample evidence for the correlation between conspicuous Confederate nationalism and the attempt to prove Jewish loyalty amidst rampant antisemitism. Stollman demonstrates not only the way in which newspapers framed the arrest as violence against "pristine, noble and loyal southern women" but also how these defenses of Phillips were explicit about her religion (210).
While there are sections that touch on other historiographies without fully engaging them, for instance when, in a lengthy discussion of the domestication of Judaism in the antebellum South there is surprisingly little discussion of the broader context of the feminizing of Christianity during the Second Great Awakening. Still, these gaps do not detract from the usefulness of Stollman's work. It serves as an invitation to reimagine the meaning of women's actions, insisting that scholars consider not only their opportunities, but the limitations they were forced to contend with--a lesson applicable well beyond the area of Jewish history. This meticulously researched monograph proves to be fruitful reading for those with an interest in women's, ethnic and Southern histories.
Willa Hammitt Brown
University of Virginia
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|Author:||Brown, Willa Hammitt|
|Publication:||American Jewish History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2014|
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