Discover aspects common to the different Baltimore women’s life experiences and shared qualities that characterize their long and fulfilling lives.
Resilience is a leitmotif throughout these women's stories. Born in the early decades of a tumultuous century, many of them faced the upheaval and displacement of migration, disease, war and the Holocaust. Some were orphaned while others struggled as young widows. Many survived the loss of beloved children or life partners. They also confronted the challenges of anti-Semitism and gender discrimination faced by other women and Jews of their generation. These women courageously responded to daunting challenges, creating inspiring lives of meaning and purpose.
Like generations before them, Baltimore Jewish women contributed significantly to the economic well-being of their families. Many grew up in households permeated by the sounds and smells of their families' bakeries and butcher shops. As adults they worked alongside husbands, parents, or in-laws, as saleswomen, office managers, cashiers, or hostesses. Those who started their own businesses sometimes found themselves pioneers in worlds dominated traditionally by men. Juggling childcare and household responsibilities with workplace demands required flexibility, dedication, and ingenuity. In creating and sustaining some of Baltimore's most noted and beloved businesses, Jewish women played vital roles in the economic and social lives of their families and communities.
Many in this generation of Jewish women take enormous satisfaction in their roles as working women in the professional and volunteer sectors. Some worked out of necessity as dedicated employees, saleswomen, and teachers, often earning a loyal following among generations of Baltimoreans. In the face of family pressures, favoritism for sons, and economic hardship, what enabled these women to pursue higher education or other professional training? As pioneers in the work force, they opened new doors for women in medicine, law, and politics. As dedicated and professional volunteers, their stories describe how they built lives of commitment and purpose that helped to transform their communities and the world.
Artists, educators, and advocates, Jewish women have immeasurably enriched Baltimore's cultural life. As children, they were immersed in a world of the arts. Violin and dance lessons at the Peabody Conservatory, Saturday movies at the Pimlico, and tickets to "the pit" at Ford's Theater nourished their artistic passions. As mature artists, actors, dancers, and arts educators, they have passed their knowledge and expertise on to students of all ages. Baltimore is the fortunate recipient of their leadership and participation and activism in organizations like the Baltimore Theater Alliance and the Creative Alliance and in the founding of the Art Seminar Group. Their lifelong commitment to the arts continues to enhance all of Baltimore.
East Baltimore, where many of these women grew up, was the old heart of the city's Jewish community. Childhood memories evoke the sights and sounds of their neighborhoods and the sense of security people experienced on the city's steps and stoops. Despite growing prosperity, many Jews found housing options limited by restrictive covenants that kept Jews and African Americans out of certain neighborhoods. Perhaps this enforced containment of Baltimore's Jewish community is precisely what made it so dynamic and cohesive. Still, the Jewish community's steady migration north and west through the city reflected its climb up the economic ladder. They found homes in Druid Hill and Eutaw Place, Windsor Hills and Forest Park, Liberty Heights and Pikesville. But nothing seems to touch deep reservoirs of memory and feeling like "the old neighborhood."
Baltimore's vibrant Jewish community goes back to the mid-1800s. From early on, these women witnessed and participated in a century of momentous change within Judaism that has encompassed the Holocaust, the establishment of Israel, changing roles for women, and evolving frameworks for Jewish education and community leadership. Whether being Jewish was central or peripheral to their own identities, these Jewish women's lives reflect the broadest spectrum of tradition and change, transformation and continuity, that define contemporary Judaism and Jewishness.
Nourished by the support of parents and grandparents, the guidance of professional mentors, and the heritage of Jewish values, these women are continuing to nourish and nurture new generations. Jewish women's relationship to food is also a central theme in the narratives. Symbolizing economic sufficiency, family unity, and generational continuity, food figures prominently in stories of family recipes passed from one generation to the next, and especially of lavish weekly Shabbat dinners and Passover seders. Sustenance, defined in our stories, is about nurturing souls as well as bodies.
Baltimore Jewish women have played a critical role in the pursuit of justice and social change in their communities and beyond. Over the past century they have participated in and led social movements that have reshaped American society. Through Jewish and secular organizations, they have worked on behalf of civil rights, feminism, Zionism, and reproductive rights. They protested the Vietnam War and worked to end domestic violence within the Jewish community. Some began as "professional volunteers" and went on to assume paid positions or undertook further professional training. Their lives are extraordinary examples of the difference that individuals with strong ethical values and high energy can make in the world.
At the forefront of social change, this pivotal generation of Jewish women helped to transform the region and the nation by courageously confronting social inequity based on gender, race and class. They grew up in a world in which covenants restricted where Jews and African Americans could live, laws and practices discriminated against them, and social expectations limited women's roles and behavior. Through personal and communal advocacy, philanthropy, and professional work, these women have succeeded in challenging and changing the status quo. Whether on behalf of racial equality, health care, reproductive rights, or equal opportunity, these women paved the way toward a more just and equal society.
At the heart of Jewish women's lives is family. As daughters and sisters, as wives, mothers, and grandmothers, these relationships formed the essential structure and the most powerful bonds of their lives. Geographic proximity to family provided economic security, a ready-made group for leisure activities, and the primary participants and contributors for weekly and annual holiday celebrations and life-cycle events. Today, whether in their own homes or those of their children and friends, they maintain strong bonds and the warmth of Jewish heritage in their lives.
Whether on the street or in the meeting room, Jewish women have worked tirelessly to strengthen their communities. Some have helped forge a deep bond between the Jewish community and Israel. Others have welcomed immigrants and refugees to the community or provided safe havens for Jewish women suffering domestic abuse. Working in the larger Baltimore community, they have offered their skills, their financial resources, and their voices to help create educational opportunities for all children, improve access to family planning, and ensure that all eligible citizens could vote. Their vision and dedicated work over many decades have strengthened the social fabric of Baltimore for all its citizens. The intellect, values, and boundless energies of these 30 women have invigorated more than 110 organizations locally and nationally.
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "Themes." (Viewed on December 8, 2016) <https://jwa.org/communitystories/baltimore/themes>.