Pamela Nadell’s prize-winning book on the history of Jewish women in America has, well, a long history.
“I thought of writing this book for almost my entire life,” Nadell tells The Jewish Week. “I became a fan of women’s history when I read ‘All-of-a-Kind Family,’” part of Sydney Taylor’s children’s book series based on the author’s family in turn-of-the-20th century New York City.
All these years later, Nadell’s thorough and thoughtful book, “America’s Jewish Women: A History from Colonial Times to Today” (Norton), has just won the Jewish Book Council’s 2019 top honor.
Awarded the Everett Family Foundation Book of the Year Award, the narrative begins with colonial wife and mother Grace Mendes Seixas Nathan and delves into the lives of women both little-known and world-renowned, including magazine editor Rosa Sonnenschein, poet Emma Lazarus, nurse and advocate Lillian Wald, feminist writer Betty Friedan and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Nadell, the Patrick Clendenen Chair in Women’s and Gender History and director of Jewish studies at American University and the author of several books including “Women Who Would Be Rabbis,” says that all of these women represent a powerful sense of Judaism and a committment to making the world a better place.
She underlines that diversity is a major thread in the book, and shows that there has been broad diversity of experience among Jewish American women since the first of them came to this country.
“For some,” she explains, “Judaism was the core of their lives — it determined everything as they moved from Sabbath to Sabbath, holiday to holiday, and within Jewish circles. For others, Jewishness was important, but didn’t have that centrality.”
Among the themes that Nadell traces over the centuries are work and family, religious life, education, activism, marriage and intermarriage. As she says, she didn’t set out to write a triumphant history and couldn’t ignore the lives of impoverished women and those who engaged in prostitution.
“When people read this book, they often see their own family stories,” she says.
Continuing her research, she is now thinking about “the ways in which American women responded to anti-Semitism,” praising two other 2020 Jewish Book Award recipients, Deborah Lipstadt (“Antisemitism: Here and Now”) and Bari Weiss (“How to Fight Anti-Semitism”).