Jewish American History Month

Background Notes: Last month during Passover I was subbing in the high school cafeteria when I spotted boxes of matzoh all around the kitchen & cafeteria itself. The brand was Manischevitz & each box had a different story on the back about an important fact or person in Jewish history. The article also noted that May is Jewish American History Month, something I never knew. I decided I needed a “herstory” book on Jewish women, since I wanted to post information here, my site for women. Lo & behold, I found that I already had a book, sitting in a stack on the floor because we emptied our bookcases to have a bamboo floor installed. Coincidence? I think not. It was fate or foresight!

The book is called Great Jewish Women* by Elinor Slater & Robert Slater, published by Jonathan David Publishers in 1998 and again in 2001. (Nice that Elinor’s name comes first!) The names are taken from this book and I also used the Internet for photos and additional material. I chose names of women that were either my contemporaries or older women I had read about as I was growing up. The book also includes women from the Bible, but I am focusing on women from the late 19th & 20th century. The exceptionis Anne Frank, who died as a teen and was not an American. Here are just a few:

Bella Abzug was born on July 24, 1920 in New York City and died on March 31st, 1997. I always remember her array of trademark hats, but more importantly for her role as a women’s right activist, which may have stemmed from the inequalities surrounding her experience of sitting behind a curtain to pray in the synagogue, because the men were more important. A graduate of Hunter College and Columbia University Law School. In 1970, on her first try, she became the first Jewish woman to serve on Capitol Hill. In 1971, Abzug joined other leading feminists such as Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan to found the National Women’s Political Caucus. She predicted that in the 21st century” women will change the nature of power, rather than power changing the nature of women.” (From Great Jewish Women, p. 13.)

Lauren Bacall was born on September 16, 1924 in New York City. Raised by a single mother, whose maiden name was Weinstein (wine glass in German) her birth name was Betty Joan Perske. Her sultry looks (downcast eyes, husky voice) dubbed The Look gave this one-time model a chance at movies. The first was with Humphrey Bogart in 1944, To Have and Have Not. The two fell in love off screen and Bogie married the 21 year-old actress when he was 45. Sadly, the Bogie & Bacall (Russian derivative of wine glass) duo came to an end when Bogart died in 1957. Betty Bacall, which she calls herself, went on to be in many more films and grab two Tonys for her Broadway roles in Applause (197) and Women of the Year (1981). I loved her in The Mirror has Two Faces with Barbra Streisand in 1996. I still love to watch her on Turner Classic Movies with Bogart.


Gertrude Berg was born in New York City in 1899 and died in 1966. Growing up, I used to love her portrayal of the funny Jewish mother in Molly Goldberg, a show that was first on radio for almost 20 years. As main creator, writer, producer, director and star, she modeled her character after her mother and grandmother, bringing immigrant Jewish wisdom to her neighbors, especially her upstairs neighbor to whom she would call, “Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Bloom.” The European accent was feigned. I saw an interview with her in a documentary and her English was perfect! Unfortunately, her co-star Phillip Loeb, was a target for the McCarthy “witch hunt.” She lost her battle to protect his reputation and a new co-star was chosen. After the show lost ratings because the folksy humor was no longer popular, she starred on Broadway, capping a long career in radio, TV, and Broadway. She was a delightful character as Molly Berg.


Anne Frank was not an American, but The Diary of Anne Frank as a book, Broadway show, and movie in the mid to late 50s had such as impact on the American public that I wanted to include it. When I saw the play in 1955 on Broadway, I was in college and could not sleep well for one week after seeing the show. The impact of her short life on my life has been strong and I own several books about her. Her optimism in the diary unfortunately did not come to fruition while she was alive. In hiding with her family until they were “reported” to the Nazis, she and her older sister and mother all died in the concentration camp. Anne died of typhus in Bergen-Belsen, not long before liberation The diary was found in the hiding place and published to great acclaim by her father, who did survive. The death of one so young (1929-1945) and with so much talent has always given me pause for reflection about my Jewish heritage, because I lived safely in America during WWII.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, born in 1933 in Brooklyn, NY, went to law school when very few women attended. Though she graduated at the very top of her class from Columbia Law School, she could not get a job in New York after graduation. She was hired as an assistant professor (and later full professor) at Rutgers University. When she learned that her salary was lower than her male counterparts, she became involved in a legal case that eventually led to a large increase in faculty womenâ€s salaries. She subsequently began to take more interest in cases dealing with sex discrimination. Before becoming the second judge on the US Supreme Court, she also served as the US Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia. In her acceptance speech after her appointment by President Clinton, she paid tribute to her late mother, who died of cervical cancer on the day of Ruthâ€s high school graduation in 1950.


*P.S. I thoroughly enjoyed this book & hope to post one more set of names before the end of the month. I could have also posted it in Reviews, but thought the women chosen belonged in Profiles, because it is American Jewish History Month.



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