"The American Jewess" begins publication
Published between April 1895 and August 1899, The American Jewess was the first English-language publication directed to American Jewish women. It covered an evocative range of topics, from demands for synagogue membership for women, to Zionism, to health and fashion tips, to the propriety of women riding bicycles. The publication's sense of possibility was captured in its title. Though strange and archaic to contemporary ears, the phrase "American Jewess," in the 1890s, described a new type of Jewish woman, one who could fully embrace the possibilities of both the religious and national aspects of her identity. The American Jewess set out to explore the challenges and possibilities inherent in this new identity. At its height, the magazine claimed a circulation of 31,000.
Rosa Sonneschein, who created, oversaw, and edited volumes 1–7 of The American Jewess, came to the United States from Hungary in the 1860s. After more than twenty years in St. Louis where her husband was a rabbi, Sonneschein left her husband and moved to Chicago where she was able to attend the Jewish Women's Congress held at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. As she later wrote, "then and there we conceived the impression that the time had come to establish a literary organ for the American Jewess, an organ which shall connect the sisters dwelling throughout ... this blessed country, concentrate the work of scattered charitable institutions, and bring them to the notice of the various communities as an imposing and powerful unit."
Sonneschein was the first American Jewish woman to offer a strong and consistent critique of gender inequities in worship and synagogue leadership. She demanded that Jewish women "thirsting for the word of God" be allowed to "drink directly from the fountain of Religion." Her written contributions to The American Jewess are also noteworthy for their early advocacy of Zionism by an American Jew.
Deflected by setbacks in both business and health, Sonneschein yielded control of the publication to an unidentified group of publishers in the summer of 1898. Despite the new publishers' assertion that the magazine would benefit from no longer having to depend for all aspects of its creation upon a single individual, it was clearly Sonneschein's energy that gave life to the endeavor. Although Sonneschein continued to appear frequently as a correspondent, the journal suffered from the loss of her sharp editorial perspective and vision. Five more monthly and two "quarterly" issues appeared after Sonneschein's departure as editor; the last issue is dated August 1899.
Rosa Sonneschein recognized that the progress of American Jewish women needed to be preserved in writing. As she observed in the first issue of the American Jewess, "Not what has happened, but what is recorded makes history."
To learn more about Rosa Sonneschein, visit Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia.
See also: "The American Jewess", Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia; The American Jewess Project; The American Jewess on Liberation and Freedom, Go & Learn: Primary Documents and Lesson Plans; This Week in History for January 25, 1879, "Pioneers convene in St. Louis, forming early Jewish women's literary society"; Rosa Sonneschein on Twitter; American Jewess in Jewesses with Attitude.
Sources: American Jewess, vols. 1-9 (April 1895-August 1899); Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, pp. 1289-1291.; www.hti.umich.edu/a/amjewess/.