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Ruth Gay

1922 – 2006

by Paula E. Hyman

“The West Bronx is located in time midway between the lower East Side (or the East Bronx) and West Side Manhattan. It is a community whose residents seem occupied full time in discovering the wonderful things produced by the world that can be had for even the moderate amount of money at their disposal” (Glazer, 1949). With a few strokes of her pen, Ruth Glazer (later Gay) painted a vivid portrait of the culture of second-generation Jews in New York. As a free-lance writer and editor for over fifty years, she has explored the Jewish experience of both America and Germany.

The oldest of three daughters of Harry and Mary Pfeffer Slotkin, Ruth was born on October 19, 1922, in New York City and was educated in local schools. When her family moved from the Bronx to Queens so that her milkman father could open a delicatessen—the subject of her first article—Ruth transferred from Hunter College to Queens College, from which she graduated in 1943. At college she was a member of Avukah, a leftist student Zionist organization. Shortly after graduation, in September 1943, she married sociologist Nathan Glazer, then a graduate student and later an editor at Commentary. They had three daughters, Sarah (b. 1950), Sophie (b. 1952), and Elizabeth (b. 1955). In 1958, they divorced, and the following year she married the historian Peter Gay.

In the early years of her first marriage, Ruth Glazer pursued employment in the fields of education and editing. Working first with the labor movement, she served in 1943–1944 as assistant to the director of the education department of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers and from 1944 to 1946 as education director of the leisure-wear joint board of the same union. She then became assistant editor and staff writer at the magazine Labor and Nation (1946–1948) and researcher and editor on the American Joint Distribution Committee’s JDC Review.

Like many educated and talented women of her generation, Ruth Gay combined motherhood with part-time work. Free-lance writing and editing meshed well with her domestic responsibilities. Beginning in 1946, she published human interest articles about contemporary Jewish culture, with such titles as “The Jewish Delicatessen” and “The World of Station WEVD” in the “American Scene” department of Commentary. In the late 1960s, she also contributed occasional pieces about American life to Amerika, a magazine published in Eastern European languages by the United States Information Agency. In 1965, she published her first book, Jews in America: A Short History.

Gay received an M.L.S. from Columbia University’s School of Library Service in 1969. From 1972 until 1985 she combined writing with a position as archivist/cataloguer at the Yale University Library. In 1984, she spent three months in Berlin, funded by a grant from the library, to organize the archives of the West Berlin Jewish community.

After 1985, Gay devoted herself to her research and writing. Her wide-ranging essays on cooking, Germany and German Jewry appeared in such journals as The American Scholar, Midstream and Conservative Judaism. She also published two additional books, The Jews of Germany: A Historical Portrait (1992) and Unfinished People: Jewish Immigrants to the United States: 1880–1914 (1996). The latter earned her the 1997 National Jewish Book Award for non-fiction.

Ruth Gay’s life demonstrates how it was possible for an intellectually vibrant woman who became an adult in the mid-twentieth century to build a career that accommodated both marriage and motherhood. She died of leukemia on May 9, 2006.

SELECTED WORKS BY RUTH GAY

“Baroque Judaism.” Midstream (April 1972); “Baroque Judaism II.” Conservative Judaism (Summer 1974); “Berlin and Its Counterworlds.” American Scholar (Autumn 1992); “Counting Jews.” Commentary (November 1971); “Danke Schön, Herr Doktor: German Jews in Palestine.” American Scholar (Autumn 1989); “Fear of Food.” American Scholar (Summer 1976); “Floors: The Bronx in the 1930s.” American Scholar (Winter 1995); “How We Used to Laugh.” Commentary (October 1949); “Inventing the Shtetl.” American Scholar (Summer 1984); “The Jewish Delicatessen.” Commentary (March 1946); “The Jewish Object.” Commentary (January 1951); Jews in America: A Short History (1965); The Jews of Germany: A Historical Portrait (1992); “Reichenbachstrasse 27: The Jews of Munich Today.” Midstream (October 1975); “A Spa in Germany.” American Scholar (Autumn 1987); “The Tainted Fork.” American Scholar (Winter 1978–1979); Unfinished People: Jewish Immigrants to the United States: 1880–1914 (1996); “The West Bronx: Food, Shelter, Clothing.” Commentary (June 1949); “What I Learned about German Jews.” American Scholar (Autumn 1985); “The World of Station WEVD.” Commentary (February 1955).

2 Comments

After picking up Ruth Gay's book Unfinished People as a library cast off several years ago I finally read it through. It is a fascinating and moving book. It relates to my background rather tangentially as my mother's connection to her immigrant parents was severed when she was only 2. Her father died in the flu epidemic in 1918 and her mother descended into a quiet madness. She was the youngest of 7 and spent her childhood & youth living in the attics of brothers homes and taking care of their kids. Her connection with
Jewish tradition was limited to a few Yiddish words and some limited cooking. My father came from a broken home and it seemed had even weaker connection.
Like many of Gay's third generation people I tried to return, in part as a reaction to the holocaust. Though I married an Indian she converted and we tried to raise our 3 children with a Jewish background but when my wife divorced me it all fell apart and none kept any connection. I then married a woman of Irish (mostly) roots and our son has chiefly Christian connections. I don't know why I'm writing this except that I am nearly 80 and Ruth's book made me feel sad that I failed to be part of the survival of my people.

Ruth Gay's history "Unfinished People," gives the most accurate, least sentimental, picture of the immigrant generation and their children (my parents, my aunts and uncles) that I have ever come across.

How to cite this page

Hyman, Paula E.. "Ruth Gay." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on July 26, 2017) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/gay-ruth>.

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