A Place in History: Jewish Women Tell Their Stories

Joyce Antler, Series Editor

From the harsh and unforgiving plains of North Dakota, to the teeming ghettos of the Lower East Side, to the expanding urban metropolis of Atlanta, Georgia, to the new suburban Baltimore in the transition years of the 1950s—these four memoirs written by Jewish women take us to varying regions of our country in which Jewish women and their families sought to mold and improve their lives. Their stories take us to regions of the mind, and of the emotions, as well as to actual physical sites.

Taken together, these four books of this first JWA Reading Series indicate how complex, rich, and varied Jewish women's lives in the United States have been. Told in the distinctive, expressive voices of authors who intuitively understood why their private experiences as Jewish women ought to be set down and recorded (if, in several cases, only for self- and family enlightenment), these memoirs open a window onto the wider experience of Jewish and female life in America. Providing glimpses into the perennial struggles between Old World tradition and New World culture, the processes of settlement, acculturation, and modernization, and the often hard-fought struggles between the generations and between genders, they suggest insight into what was unique—and what universal—about Jewish female experience in the different regions of the United States. Most especially, they give us deep insights into the ways in which different generations of American Jewish women lived out their lives in the midst of families and communities as they carried out their daily tasks and dreamed of a brighter future.

How Jewish women in these varied locales with varying traditions and customs came to grips with the challenges of youth, romance, sexuality, marriage, childbirth, and childrearing;

how their labors—as women—contributed to their families' survival;

how they experienced discrimination, and internalized or struggled against patriarchal tradition;

how they imagined themselves as Jews, as women, and as Americans—all these issues, and many more, are presented in these evocative memoirs. Each of them presents us with an authentic and unique voice of a Jewish woman who took the trouble to record her remarkable history for herself—and for posterity. In telling their stories, they suggest a great deal about the stories of other Jewish women who were unable to offer theirs.

Heart of a Wife

The Heart of A Wife: The Diary of A Southern Jewish Woman was written as a personal account and not intended for public consumption. Discovered by her grandson, Marcus Rosenbaum, who edited the published version of the diary, Helen Jacobus Apte's dramatic and emotionally revealing account of her life as a Jewish wife and mother in Atlanta, Georgia, offers an extraordinarily rich resource for understanding the lives of Southern Jewish women during the first half of the twentieth century.

Rachel Calof's Story

Rachel Calof's Story, written in Yiddish by the title character as a private memoir for her family, found its way into print after being deposited in the American Jewish Archives. In simple, yet vivid and unforgettable prose, the memoir conveys the extreme hardships— emotional as well as physical— that confronted this Jewish woman pioneer homesteader in the American heartland.

Out of the Shadow

Out of the Shadow: A Russian Jewish Girlhood on the Lower East Side was written by Rose Cohen, another relatively anonymous Jewish woman who also believed that her personal story was worth preserving. Cohen's first-hand account of tenement life and sweatshop labor on the Lower East Side, replete with generational and interreligious conflicts, sheds light on the immigrant generation's heartaches and longings.

A Joyful Noise

A Joyful Noise: Claiming the Songs of My Father, by Deborah Weisgall, chronicles the author's efforts, as a young Jewish woman growing up in modern Baltimore, to come to terms with the cultural and Jewish heritage of her father, a noted composer, and her grandfather, a cantor, both of whom were shaped by the classical traditions of Europe; it is an engrossing story of memory, empathy, struggle—and finally—liberation.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "A Place in History: Jewish Women Tell Their Stories." (Viewed on September 24, 2023) <https://jwa.org/discover/inthepast/readingseries>.


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