Assimilation in the United States: Twentieth Century

by Deborah Dash Moore

Jewish women began to assimilate into American society and culture as soon as they stepped off the boat. Some started even earlier, with reports and dreams of the goldene medine, the golden land of liberty and opportunity. Very few resisted adapting to the language and mores of the United States; those who did often returned to Europe. Well over ninety percent stayed, even those who cursed Columbus’s voyage and subsequent European settlement in North America. In their choice of paid employment and household labor, as well as through their attitudes toward love and marriage and in their methods of child rearing, immigrant women provided the first models of American Jewish womanhood for their daughters.

If assimilation began with immigration, it did not stop with the maturation of a native-born generation. Studies of assimilation often focus on the children of immigrants born in America or brought over when young: the second generation. The attitudes and behavior of the second generation in comparison to its immigrant parents reveal the extent of its adaptation to America and commitment to a distinctive Jewish way of life. Similarly, the third generation, with immigrant grandparents, often offers a touchstone to vouchsafe whether Jews and Judaism can survive in freedom. How these generations speak, eat, earn a living, vote, dress, observe religious practices, and rear their children, not to mention where they live and whom they marry, are data to interpret their assimilation. A continuum exists between Jews whose distinctiveness from other Americans appears in each of these categories and Jews who resemble their fellow Americans in everything except name or self-identification as a Jew. Often stages are postulated on the path of assimilation, suggesting that some changes–such as language, dress, education, and ways of earning a living—precede other, more difficult changes—such as those involving family, including religious observance and choice of marriage partner. Occasionally, a generation may get stuck on the path, unwilling or unable due to antisemitism to continue to adapt. Even more rarely, members of a generation may reverse their steps, moving away from assimilation toward greater Jewish distinctiveness.

Scholars of assimilation disagree in their interpretations of Jewish assimilation in America. Initially many saw a straight-line path to complete assimilation: They expected Jews to disappear as a separate group in American society. For them, intermarriage is the final step. Others argue for the transformative power of assimilation, suggesting that the process of adaptation stimulates Jews to acquire and invent new ways to maintain their identity in America. Still other scholars imagine Jews as a symbolic social group, discounting the significance of religion and ethnicity. Some emphasize the importance of religious distinctiveness, of Jews as non-Christian dissenters in America; they often consider religious observance more important than marriage partner. Almost all agree that politics, place, and period influence assimilation, and that assimilation is an interactive process involving Jews on one side and non-Jewish Americans on the other. There is less unanimity on the significance of gender in assimilation; until recently, many scholars ignored gender as a category of analysis. To date, no comprehensive study of gender and Jewish assimilation in twentieth-century America exists, despite pioneering work by Paula Hyman.

Since immigration usually initiated the process of Jewish assimilation in America, the concept of generational change remains useful. Second-generation Jewish women, growing up in immigrant households but attending public schools and with access to American popular culture, encountered at least two different understandings of gender roles. Their mothers embodied Jewish womanhood, although its dimensions could be quite diverse; their teachers and popular female cultural figures represented American womanhood. Often these contrasting versions of what it meant to be a woman created conflict as daughters struggled to develop an American Jewish womanhood acceptable to themselves and to their mothers. Differences between second-generation mothers and their third-generation daughters were less striking because the former spoke English, had studied in public school, and often were middle class. As a result, both mothers and daughters often agreed on acceptable gender roles. Friction returned with the third and fourth generations. Changes in American definitions of appropriate gender roles, especially after the rise of the new women’s movement of the 1960s, usually provoked this conflict rather than contrasts between Jewish and American constructions of gender.

If generation removed from immigration helps locate Jewish women in the assimilation process, it provides neither chronology nor historical framework for social, cultural, and religious change. Over the course of the twentieth century, four different, overlapping cohorts of Jewish women can be identified. Their paths of assimilation suggest alternative ways of defining American Jewish womanhood. The first group of women, the Yankees, came of age during the Progressive Era. Their parents emigrated during the nineteenth century, many of them from the German states; a few were descendants of old Sephardi families. The second cohort, the women of World War II, grew to maturity during the Depression. Their parents were part of the mass immigration of Eastern European Jews that ended in 1924. The third group, the baby boomers, reached their adulthood during the era of the Cold War and civil rights movement. Their parents usually were native born, although some were the children of refugees from Nazi Europe and survivors of the Holocaust. The most recent cohort, the orphans of history, grew up in the age of Star Wars with little Jewish historical consciousness or sense of connection to a Jewish past. Not only their parents, but their grandparents, are native born. Many scholars would argue that they offer the best evidence of Jewish assimilation in America.

YANKEES: 1900–1960

Autobiographies suggest that this group of American Jewish women grew up well integrated into their Jewish families, comfortably embedded in American communities scattered throughout the United States. Many enjoyed the luxuries of middle-class family patterns in which mothers managed the household, sometimes with the assistance of servants, and children received an education. Despite a lack of zeal among Jews to educate daughters as they did their sons, Yankee Jewish women often benefited from expanding educational opportunities for American women. Many went to high school or normal school; a handful of determined women like Jessica Blanche Peixotto or Fannie Hurst attended college. The rise of the women’s movement opened horizons for middle-class white women, including Jewish women. Even if, unlike Meta Pollack Bettman, they were not sufficiently radical to support the woman suffrage movement, they recognized that their lives did not need to be bounded by marriage and motherhood. Social feminism, the idea that woman’s particular strengths in caring for the vulnerable required that she leave her home and enter public life, attracted many Jewish women and provided a rationale for organizational activity.

Indeed, Yankee Jewish women created most of the national, mass membership of Jewish women’s organizations of the twentieth century. A sense of security as American Jews coupled with a desire to improve the world and educate themselves propelled this group into the mainstream of American women’s activities. In addition to participating in the women’s movement, they joined the club movement as did Hannah Solomon. They pioneered in the settlement house movement as did Minnie Low and Lillian Wald. They helped spark the consumer movement like Helene P. Gans. Together with such leaders as Ella Altschuler and Zerlina Hirsh Bilder, they supported the peace movement. And they established specifically Jewish venues to change the Jewish world. An encounter with Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, whose distinctiveness set them apart from other Americans, often stimulated action. Some Yankees saw immigrants as needy cousins while others feared that their poverty and radicalism might incite antisemitism. These Jewish women tried to help by alleviating poverty and teaching American ways of living. For some, like Josephine Lazarus, meeting immigrants inspired a romantic identification with Jewishness that strengthened their commitment to live as Jews. The National Council Of Jewish Women (NCJW), an organization that took up the challenge of helping immigrant Jewish women, appeared first on the scene in 1893. Hadassah, the women’s Zionist organization, followed in 1912. Then came the founding of synagogue sisterhoods, first the Reform National Federation Of Temple Sisterhoods (1913), followed by the Women’s League For Conservative Judaism (1918). Later, Orthodox women established the Mizrachi Women’s Organization of America (1925, today known as Amit) and the Emunah sisterhood (1935), religious Zionist organizations for North American women and for worldwide membership, respectively. The diversity of Jewish women’s organizations reflected differing religious and ideological stances. A commonality of belief in voluntarism and the power of women working together in women’s organizations united them.

Organizational activism represented only one response of the Yankee cohort to changing gender roles. Other Yankee Jews grasped opportunities for educated women to pursue careers to further individual dreams as writers, artists, lawyers, scholars, educators. A few, like Blanche Wolfe Knopf, transformed Jewish women’s traditional economic activity as partner with her husband in business (usually some form of commerce or manufacture) into a modern occupation previously closed to women—in this case, as director of the publishing firm Alfred A. Knopf. An open and optimistic society dissolved conventions constraining determined and talented Jewish women who sought alternatives to marriage and motherhood. Facing relatively few obstacles specific to Jews, these women forged personal careers. For many, such goals took them away not only from any Jewish distinctiveness but even from any Jewish identification. Writers as different as Gertrude Stein and Thyra Samter Winslow shaped cultural worlds for themselves that relegated Jewishness largely to a fact of birth and upbringing. Others found inspiration in their Jewish background that encouraged them to pursue political and social activism. Figures like Jeanette Goodman Brill, who served as a municipal judge in New York City, and Julia Richman, who was the first woman to serve as an assistant superintendent of New York City’s public schools, felt an intimate connection between their desire for careers in public service and their Jewish heritage. For them, new gender roles available to women—both married and single—did not translate into a form of assimilation that distanced them from other Jews or the Jewish community.

Only a minority of the Yankee group built the infrastructure of Jewish women’s organizations or pioneered in developing new careers for women, but their significance outweighs their numbers. In both cases they established important precedents for the masses of second-generation American Jewish women coming of age during the Depression. These precedents included a tradition of American Jewish voluntarism and activism accompanying marriage and child rearing as well as the recognition that talent and perseverance could bring rewards of independence. By their activities and presence, leaders of the Yankee cohort indicated possibilities available to Jewish women in America. Middle-class women could achieve individual expression and fulfillment; the personal sacrifices were less obvious.

Leaders stood out in contrast to the majority, most of whom married Jews and raised children, and confined their activities to socializing within their class. Their Jewish religious observance usually took place at home on holidays and important times during the life cycle. Many also enthusiastically celebrated American holidays, especially Thanksgiving, and for some, Christmas and Easter. Reform Judaism appealed to the majority as an American form of Judaism. In keeping with their middle-class position and urban residence in the Northeast, Midwest, and far West, the Yankee cohort usually supported the Republican Party, especially its progressive wing, when they received the vote. For most, Judaism was a family matter, not an issue of ideology or ethnicity. Although these Jewish women sought to replicate the integrated experience of their own childhoods, their children discovered anti-Semitic discrimination rather than an open society.


In contrast to the tens of thousands of Jewish women in the Yankee group, the cohort of World War II included hundreds of thousands. Their very numbers changed the character of their assimilation. For example, following in the footsteps of Julia Richman, thousands of Jewish women joined the ranks of New York City public school teachers in the interwar decades. In 1920, twenty-six percent of new teachers were Jews, and a decade later forty-four percent were Jews. By the 1940s and 1950s, Jewish women were the vast majority of all public school teachers in New York City, which at that time had the world’s largest public school system. As a result, Jewish teachers discovered that their essentially American occupation brought them into daily contact with other Jewish women. Their collective assimilation made teaching a distinctively Jewish vocational choice—indeed, it led New Yorkers to call teaching “the Jewish profession.” Their numbers also swelled the ranks of active unionists. Similarly, wholesale adoption of birth control by this cohort of women dramatically changed the Jewish birth rate from one of the highest among immigrant groups to one of the lowest among urban ethnic groups. Thus these Jewish women made low fertility a characteristically Jewish attribute, along with a high marriage rate of over ninety percent. In politics, their enthusiastic support of New Deal liberalism, especially its internationalism and social welfare policies, led to its identification with Jewish women. In many ways, this cohort overshadowed the singular achievements of the Yankee group, and its choices of gender roles often came to be considered typically American Jewish patterns, obscuring earlier alternatives.

Yet the women of World War II found far fewer options available than their predecessors. Society became more restrictive for Jews. Even as women achieved the right to vote in 1920, Congress limited immigration through legislation designed to reduce decisively the number of Eastern European Jews entering the country. Patterns of anti-Semitic discrimination became more widespread and acceptable, including exclusion of Jews from schools of higher education, white-collar employment, and residential neighborhoods. Substantial obstacles prevented Jewish women from assimilating into American society. For example, job placement agencies occasionally admitted that “it was a waste of time to send Jewish women to the New York Telephone company and to the large insurance companies.” In contrast to public school teaching, “it was common knowledge that ‘the phone company was part of the Catholic Church,’” as stated by Ruth Markowitz in My Daughter, the Teacher. In addition, most of the women of World War II grew up in working-class homes in large urban neighborhoods—New York City and Chicago accounted for half, and 75 percent lived in just five cities. They shared crowded apartments with many brothers and sisters. Ambitious and eager to achieve independence, they found themselves tied to family responsibilities, their horizons hemmed by neighborhood boundaries. Immigrant mothers expected daughters to help them; only those who enjoyed a modicum of economic security could afford to encourage their daughters to seek individual fulfillment. Pathways out of the neighborhood through education, employment, and talent existed, but reaching them often required extra measures of determination and ambition.

Given the obstacles, the number of Jewish women who succeeded in such diverse fields as art and science, literature and law, politics and business, as well as entertainment and education, is impressive. They include outstanding figures like Nobel Prize winner Rosalyn Sussman Yalow and U.S. Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Jewish women also shaped the growing field of Jewish education, writing history books and Bible stories, filling the ranks of Sunday and Hebrew school teachers, and contributing to the rise of Lit. "dedication." The 8-day "Festival of Lights" celebrated beginning on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev to commemorate the victory of the Jews over the Seleucid army in 164 B.C.E., the re-purification of the Temple and the miraculous eight days the Temple candelabrum remained lit from one cruse of undefiled oil which would have been enough to keep it burning for only one day.Hanukkah as an American Jewish holiday alternative to Christmas. Their creativity as writers helped to generate a substantial body of American Jewish literature. Diverse Jewish women’s voices, from the earthy stories of Grace Paley to the class conscious ones of Tess Slesinger, allowed not only for individuality to emerge but also for a sense of common concerns. Among recurring themes is the tension between mothers and daughters, the struggle to find one’s own voice and one’s own way of expressing American Jewish womanhood, as in Tillie Olsen’s poignant novella, Tell Me a Riddle. Few writers seek to replicate their mother’s Jewishness, whether that appears in the form of a competent baleboste (household manager) or a dedicated radical. Instead they strive to articulate a new way of understanding motherhood, marriage, and what it means to be an American Jewish woman. The desire to be part of mainstream American society remained strong among this group, perhaps because of difficulties gaining access and acceptance. When barriers fell in the postwar decades and Jewish women received recognition for their individual accomplishments, many discovered that their self-consciousness as outsiders endured despite new respect and influence.

For the vast majority who retired from paid employment upon marriage or the birth of their first child, American Jewish womanhood meant blending middle-class mores with a modified Jewish traditionalism focused on family and community. Even the minority who received a college education assumed that their lives should focus on fulfilling the duties of wife and mother. Their decision to leave paying jobs to marry and raise children reflected their acceptance of American gender norms. Immigrant Jewish women assumed that they would have to contribute to the family income, though they rarely did that by taking work outside the home—a pattern their daughters rejected as soon as feasible. Most of the women of World War II shouldered responsibility for passing on Jewish traditions to their children despite their own lack of formal Jewish education. Here, again, they adopted American mores that placed religion within the feminine domain. Since they knew very little about Judaism, though they accepted religion as the basis of Jewish distinctiveness, they usually turned to Jewish professionals to give their children a Jewish identity. This meant joining a synagogue, usually a Conservative one, when the children were old enough to attend Hebrew or Sunday school. Thus women increasingly attended synagogue services on the holidays, sitting together with their husbands and children. As mothers, this generation prepared Jewish foods learned from their mothers, though only a minority maintained Term used for ritually untainted food according to the laws of Kashrut (Jewish dietary laws).kosher kitchens.

The tradition of volunteer activism established by Yankee cohort leaders took hold as the women of World War II left the large cities for suburban neighborhoods and a measure of affluence. Jewish women flocked to join Hadassah, NCJW, the synagogue sisterhoods, as well as smaller national women’s organizations like Women’s American Ort, the American Jewish Congress Women’s Division, B’nai B’rith Women (now Jewish Women International), and Pioneer Women. Their numbers swelled the organizations’ membership lists. Through these organizations they gained an education in politics and ideology, as well as practical experience in fund-raising and political action, and leadership training for those who desired it. Like their predecessors, these Jewish women also joined Parent-Teacher Associations and a variety of secular voluntary organizations. Many enjoyed socializing with female Jewish friends at home over cards or coffee and cake. When Betty Friedan discovered “the problem that has no name” in 1963 and its cure—feminism—Jewish women also joined the National Organization for Women. Many subsequently decided to return to the paid labor force after their children left home; a minority continued to work outside the home throughout their lives.

Gender roles adopted by the women of World War II, even by those who felt they had no opportunity to choose, reflected their eagerness to become American women and their discovery that they remained Jewish women. Antisemitism and the Holocaust slowed their trajectory of assimilation. As the poet Muriel Rukeyser testified in her poem, “To be a Jew in the twentieth century” was both a burden and a gift, but neither could be refused without terrible cost. The cultural critic Susan Sontag also bore witness to the Holocaust, writing many years later of “a negative epiphany” upon seeing photographs of the concentration camps. “Indeed,” she writes in On Photography (1977), “it seems plausible to me to divide my life into two parts, before I saw those photographs (I was twelve) and after.” Thus even when antisemitism eased in the postwar period and the State of Israel offered an alternative image of Jews other than that of victims, few American Jewish women of this cohort dissociated themselves from other Jews or from an identity as a Jew.

Yet unlike their mothers, the women of World War II suffered from stereotypes widely purveyed in popular culture. Produced and popularized largely by men, often their sons but occasionally their husbands, the stereotypes mocked these American Jewish women as the epitome of nouveau riche crassness. From their mink coats and jewels to their ornate taste in home furnishings, to their overladen tables of food, to their enthusiasm for fund-raising to help suffering Jews in Israel, to their child-rearing patterns that induced guilt but avoided physical violence, to their ambitions for their sons and daughters, little in their way of life was not a potential target of mockery. Only with the rise of Jewish feminism in the 1970s did a re-evaluation begin of the women of World War II.


Until the recent appearance in the 1980s of the “orphans of history,” the baby boomers served as the touchstone of Jewish assimilation in America. The first cohort to include large numbers of third-generation Jewish women, as well as second- and fourth-generation, its social and cultural patterns provided critical data to interpret the meaning and character of assimilation. The women of World War II clearly remained Jewish in their social and family life, as well as in their occupational and residential patterns. As the group bearing witness to the two outstanding Jewish events of the twentieth century—the destruction of European Jews and the establishment of the State of Israel—it remained bound to its Jewish identity. By contrast, baby boomers grew up in a society of suburban comfort that included the luxury of privacy and a room of one’s own. In their world Israel was an accepted reality and European Jewry and Jewish culture did not exist. Education, including college and postgraduate study, became an accepted norm for Jewish daughters as well as sons. Self-expression, careers, and individuality became available to Jewish women. A 1990 survey found almost sixty percent of the baby boomers employed full time and only four percent not employed. Few obstacles impeded their assimilation. In fact, they faced an America that more closely resembled the one encountered by the Yankee cohort than the America their mothers knew. New opportunities for women opened, fueled by the second wave of the women’s movement in which Jews played an important part. In 1965, the United States even liberalized its immigration laws, though it did not return to the almost totally unrestricted situation that existed prior to 1921.

Unlike their predecessors, baby boomers received a formal Jewish education. A significant minority became Lit. "daughter of the commandment." A girl who has reached legal-religious maturity and is now obligated to fulfill the commandmentsBat Mitzvah, a new ritual originated by the women of World War II to mark the coming of age of their daughters, just as Lit. "son of the commandment." A boy who has reached legal-religious maturity and is now obligated to fulfill the commandmentsbar mitzvah symbolized a son’s maturity. As feminism became a popular political movement, those women who had acquired Jewish learning began to press for equal access to positions of Jewish leadership, including the rabbinate. The first women rabbis came from this generation, products of both changing American gender roles and expanding Jewish education for women. Other women, like Shoshana Cardin, who became the first woman elected to head the Conference of Jewish Federations, sought leadership positions within the Jewish communal infrastructure. Some women expressed dissatisfaction with positions in separate women’s organizations; others attacked the tradition of voluntarism established by the Yankee cohort and enthusiastically embraced by the women of World War II. Such battles between two groups of Jewish women reflected the impact of the new women’s movement and its challenge to previously accepted gender roles, exactly the roles adopted by the women of World War II. Baby boomers did not categorically reject marriage and motherhood—in fact, a majority married and bore children—but they did question patriarchal assumptions behind relegating women to such tasks and then subordinating them. A smaller number of radical lesbian feminists challenged the entire notion of the heterosexual family and argued for new understanding of the family based on love, commitment, and caring rather than sexuality. Some, like Irena Klepfisz, also turned to the Jewish community, demanding recognition and inclusion. Changing gender roles available to American women registered forcibly within Jewish institutions.

Most baby boomers were too busy pursuing careers, participating in politics—from mainstream parties to those of the New Left and various factions of the feminist movement—and eventually marrying, to seek leadership positions within Jewish life. The opportunities available to them as talented, highly educated, hard-working, articulate women led many to ignore most Jewish issues, except for Israel and the Holocaust. Integrating easily into American life, benefiting from programs of affirmative action, moving out of areas of Jewish concentration in occupations and residence to jobs and homes throughout the United States but particularly in California and the South, they increasingly distanced themselves from family networks of their youth. Many found such freedom exhilarating; others regretted the loss of Jewish connections but did not return to patterns of the previous generation. In ever-increasing numbers, they chose to marry non-Jews, breaking radically with earlier traditions but bringing their behavior as women in line with that of Jewish men. In the homes they created, Jewish observance centered almost exclusively around holidays. A seven-day festival to commemorate the Exodus from Egypt (eight days outside Israel) beginning on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Nissan. Also called the "Festival of Mazzot"; the "Festival of Spring"; Pesah.Passover and Lit. "dedication." The 8-day "Festival of Lights" celebrated beginning on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev to commemorate the victory of the Jews over the Seleucid army in 164 B.C.E., the re-purification of the Temple and the miraculous eight days the Temple candelabrum remained lit from one cruse of undefiled oil which would have been enough to keep it burning for only one day.Hanukkah, which could be celebrated at home, were the most popular, outranking the previously popular high holy days of Rosh Hashanna and The Day of Atonement, which falls on the 10th day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei and is devoted to prayer and fasting.Yom Kippur. Jewish cuisine similarly appeared only on holidays. As with the previous cohort, few kept Term used for ritually untainted food according to the laws of Kashrut (Jewish dietary laws).kosher kitchens.

Like their predecessors, baby boomers produced impressive numbers of writers, lawyers, artists, educators, professors, businesswomen, entertainers, physicians, and psychologists. Even as they continued to influence Jewish education, they played critical parts in shaping the new fields of women’s studies and Jewish studies. In 1996, for example, there were over two hundred members of the women’s caucus of the Association of Jewish Studies, an indication of even more widespread presence since neither the association nor the ten-year-old caucus included all women working in Jewish studies. Scholarship of baby boomers in the social sciences, including history, sociology, and anthropology, greatly expanded the work of earlier pioneers like Hortense Powdermaker and Gertrude Himmelfarb. Indeed, the entry of Jewish women into academia resembles the enthusiastic embrace of public school teaching by New York City women of World War II. Both occupations gave women flexible schedules to allow them to combine marriage and motherhood with a successful career; both occupations also provided opportunities to blend intellectual pursuits with mentoring. As with public school teaching, Jewish women brought to academia a radical élan that often found expression in support of unionization, affirmative action, collective bargaining, and curriculum reform.

Unlike their predecessors, baby boomers included large numbers of women estranged from Judaism and Jewish life; numbers of these chose to reverse their steps on the path of assimilation. Some returned to strict religious observance, finding a meaningful alternative to the alienation of contemporary society in orthodox Judaism with its sexual segregation. By their choices these Ba’alot Teshuvah challenged the majority embrace of a feminism that affirmed women’s equality with men. Even among Orthodox women, demands for opportunities to study sacred rabbinic texts and for female prayer quorums reflect the influence of American feminism. The phenomenon of return was not limited to those who opted for orthodoxy. Within the Reform and Conservative movements, women adopted patterns of increased religious observance, including keeping the Sabbath and a kosher home, as well as heightened ritual participation at home and in the synagogue. A few baby boomers sought to recover the radicalism of immigrant mothers and the ideological and cultural tradition of Jewish secularism connected with Yiddish. Others experimented with personal forms of spirituality to express their understanding of Jewishness. Occasionally such mainstream liberal Jews as members of the Reconstructionist Movement adopted the writing of figures like Marge Piercy and Judy Chicago, who had made reputations in secular America respectively as a feminist writer and artist. By including their poetry in the Sabbath prayer book, Reconstructionists transformed these personal reflections into collective expressions of Jewish spirituality.

Such contradictory trends—movements of return and Jewish leadership coupled with distancing from Jewish organizational life and dispersion throughout the United States as well as increasing intermarriage—provoked sustained debate among scholars over how to interpret the baby boomers’ assimilation. Measures of continuity with the previous cohort include Jewish women’s strong support for political liberalism associated with the Democratic Party, despite the changed content of that liberalism. Widespread marriage, despite increasing rates of divorce, and childbearing, albeit of fewer children and at an older age, can be seen as evidence of continuity or discontinuity. Elements of discontinuity involve adoption of different gender roles. Many baby boomers focus on their careers as much (or more) as on their families. Religious behavior offers diverse evidence for increased commitment based on formal knowledge, symbolic gestures, and accelerating dissaffection and dissociation. Many scholars turn to the most recent cohort, the orphans of history, to buttress their analysis of the most significant assimilation trends of the baby boomers.


While it is impossible to predict with certainty the paths of assimilation this last cohort will take, certain choices seemed clear as the century drew to a close. Raised in affluence and a security in which antisemitism was a topic in history books and not a living reality, this group of Jewish women faced an openness and opportunity for individual and collective accomplishment unmatched in any previous cohort. Higher education became the norm and advanced degrees were far from unusual. A fluidity in gender roles in America yielded a wider array of choices than in the past. The idea of a Jewish construction of womanhood was itself contested, further expanding possibilities for this cohort largely unburdened by historical memory, personal, collective, or symbolic. As a result, increasing numbers postponed both marriage and motherhood. How many would choose to forgo both cannot yet be determined, but age of marriage has risen rapidly as has age at the birth of a first child. Careers increasingly served as a focus of identity, although there have been signs of a return to voluntarism. Politics remained important, but this group was not defined by its commitment to feminism as were the baby boomers. Many viewed the women’s movement as past, though they appreciated reaping its benefits. An articulate minority criticized the movement’s mistakes. The Holocaust continued to provide an emotional and spiritual anchor; by contrast, Israel was important for the identity of only a minority, often those most committed to Jewishness.

Unlike previous cohorts, the orphans of history included a significant minority of women of mixed parentage. When these women chose to identify and act as Jews, they introduced new perspectives drawn from Christianity as well as other religions and cultures. Often what attracted them to Judaism differed from the values of third-, fourth-, and fifth-generation American Jewish women. How they will have influenced the character of assimilation remains to be seen.

Over the twentieth century Jewish women followed diverse paths of assimilation in America. At times the majority society largely dictated their choices; at other times they faced an array of opportunities so that their own cultural values proved critical to the road taken. Irrespective of the receptivity of American society to Jews, Jewish women have always had to confront the issue of gender and the need to reconcile Jewish gender roles with American norms. The difficulty of reconciliation periodically stimulated Jewish women to challenge American gender roles. Yet despite impressive achievements in fashioning successive versions of American Jewish womanhood, Jewish women have continued to be the butt of cruel jokes, such as those about the Jewish American Princess or JAP. Such stereotyping suggests that American Jewish women differ from other women of their socioeconomic class, that they remain outsiders in cultural style despite their accomplishments, and that Jewish men do not necessarily share their understanding of desirable gender roles.

The assimilation of Jewish women during the twentieth century provides perhaps more evidence of continuity than disruption. Each cohort accepted the centrality of marriage and motherhood; child rearing and transmitting culture to the next generation remain vital tasks. Each group also understood Judaism to be a religious culture rooted in family life. The tradition of political activism similarly endured, even as the issues changed. Yet American Jewish women at the end of the twentieth century looked very different from those of a century earlier. But then, so did America.


Baum, Charlotte, Paula Hyman, and Sonya Michel. Jewish Women in America (1976); Fishman, Sylvia Barack. A Breath of Life: Feminism in the Jewish Community (1993); Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique (1963); Hyman, Paula. Gender and Assimilation in Modern Jewish History: The Roles and Representation of Women (1995); Markowitz, Ruth Jacknow. My Daughter, the Teacher: Jewish Teachers in the New York City Schools (1993); Rukeyser, Muriel. “Letter to the Front.” The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser (1979); Sontag, Susan. On Photography (1977, 1990).


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The "Yankee" Jewish women of the first half of the twentieth century created the infrastructure of American-Jewish women's organizational activities. The founding of synagogue sisterhoods began with the Reform National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods in 1913, followed by the Women's League for Conservative Judaism in 1918, and the two Orthodox sisterhoods, Mizrachi Women’s Organization of America (AMIT) in 1925 and Emunah in 1935. Pictured here is the Orthodox Congregation B'nai David Sisterhood of Detroit, Michigan, ca. 1950. Among those seated are Rebbetzin Yetta Sperka (top left), wife of the synagogue Rabbi Joshua Sperka; Mrs. Hyman Adler (top right), wife of the congregation's cantor; and Mrs. David J. Cohen (second row, center).

Institution: Ahava Rivka Sperka.

How to cite this page

Moore, Deborah Dash. "Assimilation in the United States: Twentieth Century." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 19, 2021) <>.


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