Jewish Studies Jewish American Women Writers in the 18th and 19th Centuries
by
Irina Rabinovich
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 July 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0198

Introduction

While the only existing substantial writings by Jewish women in 18th-century North America are the letters of Abigail Levy Franks and Rebecca Gratz, several 19th-century women published novels, short stories, essays, and poetry. Moreover, a periodical edited by Rosa Sonneschein, The American Jewess, appeared between 1895 and 1899. Despite these writers’ important literary contributions both to Jewish and general readerships, their work was often overlooked in studies of American literature. While women’s writings in general have frequently been neglected and excluded from literary canons, it is likely that the situation for Jewish female authors was also a result of their triple “otherness,” as artists, women, and Jews. In addition to a general bias against female literary endeavors in the 19th-century, these writers’ own culture often rebuffed their ambitions. Hence, Jewish women writers sometimes lived with a sense of agonizing ambivalence within a Jewish community that tended to reject their aspirations. However, while a life dedicated to literature required sacrifices, these women found that writing allowed them to repossess and investigate their Jewish legacy. This bibliography focuses on primary documents and scholarly writings that demonstrate the literary accomplishments of the 18th-century Franks and a range of 19th-century Jewish American women novelists, short story writers, poets, and essayists who wrote in English.

General Overviews

Although overviews of literature written by Jewish women began to be published in the first decades of the 20th century, those which are most helpful to contemporary readers have been written since the 1980s. These incorporate the most recent literary critical approaches, including the use of gender as a category of literary analysis.

  • Baskin, Judith R., ed. Women of the Word: Jewish Women and Jewish Writing. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1994.

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    This book delves into the lives of women in different times and places through literature. Many deal with American Jewish writers writing in English and in Yiddish. It is an excellent and readable collection of essays.

  • Kramer, Michael P., and Hana Wirth-Nesher, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Jewish American Literature. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

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    This captivating collection includes a series of essays by leading scholars exploring major dimensions of Jewish American literature and culture. The volume focuses on the unique Jewish American contribution to American literary criticism, poetry, and popular culture, including those made by Jewish women.

  • Lichtenstein, Diane. Writing Their Nations: The Tradition of Nineteenth-Century Jewish Women Writers. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.

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    In this very important volume Lichtenstein focuses on the distinctive literary tradition of 19th-century American Jewish women who have been almost neglected and excluded from literary canons. The book presents twenty-five Jewish-American female writers, paying special attention to their multiple loyalties as Jews and Americans. Lichtenstein’s argument is that 19th-century Jewish women writers shared a tradition combining two ideals: the pious, domestic, Christian “Cult of True Womanhood” and the protective, assertive “Mother in Israel” one.

  • Marcus, Jacob R., ed. The American Jewish Woman: A Documentary History. Hoboken, NJ: Ktav, 1981.

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    This volume records mainly primary (though also some secondary) invaluable sources relating to Jewish women’s literary, social, economic, political, and religious activities. The book is arranged chronologically, from 1737 to 1980, and includes useful headnotes. It provides a wide array of letters and documents and rare items such as 18th-century letters by Abigail Franks and Rachel Gratz, epitaphs, wills, etc.

  • Nadell, Pamela S. America’s Jewish Women: A History from Colonial Times to Today. New York: W. W. Norton, 2019.

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    The book insightfully intertwines the stories of exceptional women from the colonial-era matriarchs to modern activists and writers who helped to shape the Jewish American identity.

  • Zaborowska, Magdalena J. How We Found America: Reading Gender through Eastern European Immigrant Narratives. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1995.

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    This important volume, arranged chronologically, traces the tradition established by twenty-five immigrant Jewish women writers who arrived to America in the 19th and 20th century. The volume focuses on the writers “double otherness,” as immigrants to the United States and as female writers writing outside the male literary canon.

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