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Jewish Girls Coming of Age in America, 1860-1920.

Jewish Girls Coming of Age in America, 1860-1920. By Melissa R. Klapper (New York: New York University Press, 2005. x plus 309 pp. $45.00).

Drawing on the voices of adolescent Jewish girls in the United States from 1860 to 1920, this book examines how several generations of young women navigated their Jewish identities and American identities, and how these negotiations shaped the experiences of girls, their families, and their communities. Using rich archival resources, including memoirs, diaries, letters, organizational reports, and American Jewish periodical literature, Klapper explores the ways in which Jewish girls acted as "keepers of tradition and agents of acculturation."

Klapper examines girls' lives during a time of rapid change in the United States and among American Jewish communities, change marked in part by immigration and urbanization. In 1860, there were roughly 150,000 Jews in America; by 1920, there were more than three and a half million. Jews also became increasingly concentrated in urban areas throughout this period. The desire to acculturate, to become American, was especially strong in these Jewish communities and is a central theme throughout the book. Another focus is on education, broadly defined.

Jewish girls benefited from a general support of education within their communities. One chapter looks at formal education, primarily for Jewish girls born in America, as public high school education began to spread from an exclusive experience in the nineteenth century to a nearly universal one by the middle of the twentieth century. Another chapter explores informal education, such as English and sewing classes, run by institutions such as at the Chicago Hebrew Institute and the Young Women's Hebrew Association. Klapper argues that acculturation was a shared goal for the providers and the young women. While this goal is often defined as "the worst kind of social control" by historians, Klapper writes that "the experiences of Jewish girls in America suggest a considerably more complex situation." Religious education also played an important role as Jewish communities began to provide religious schooling for girls outside the home and increasingly valued Jewish women as guardians of religious tradition.

Jewish Girls Coming of Age places individual experiences within the larger story of a growing youth culture, especially when the book turns to the twentieth century. It also moves beyond New York City, the site of many studies of Jewish life, to communities across the United States, including Baltimore, New Orleans, Milwaukee, and San Francisco. The book itself is part of a growing body of literature on youth and girls' culture, and with the final chapter, enters a discussion of how adolescent girls, defined here as ages twelve to twenty, participated in an emerging peer culture. Jewish girls did not always observe religious customs or dietary restrictions and they increasingly participated in a growing American "girl culture." They were likely, however, to marry Jewish men and to maintain connections to their Jewish communities. Girls' voices help demonstrate how individuals negotiated this tension between Americanization and dedication to Jewish tradition, whether struggling to attend synagogue and still participate in a high school debating society on Friday evenings or forgoing relationships with non-Jewish suitors.

Being Jewish, however, was far from a uniform experience, as demonstrated by the efforts of Emily Frankenstein's established, middle-class family to end her relationship with a recent Jewish immigrant. Klapper discusses these differences within the American Jewish community, especially between established Jews from central and western Europe and new immigrants primarily from Eastern Europe, but the book's conclusions tend to blend the experiences of Jewish girls in spite of their varied backgrounds. The book could also be more attentive to differences within its sixty-year time frame, a time of significant change related to the experiences of adolescents, the growth of public education, and the rise of commercial leisure. While each example is carefully placed within a specific time period, the significance of external trends and events on the lives of the individuals represented here are not always apparent.

The book offers a number of fascinating photographs of Jewish girls--alone or with families, classmates, or friends. The photographs provide additional clues to the central questions of adolescence, acculturation, and religious identity and could be probed more deeply in this regard. What can we learn from girls' companions, posture, hair, clothing, and jewelry? From their expressions and activities? These visual records could provide additional insight into how the adolescent experiences of young Jewish women both "resembled those of countless other boys and girls coming of age in America at the turn of the century" and were "shaped by their Judaism and Jewishness."

Kelly Schrum

George Mason University
COPYRIGHT 2006 Journal of Social History
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Author:Schrum, Kelly
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2006
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