The American Jewess on Liberation and Freedom
Passover is the holiday of liberation and freedom. What do these terms and this holiday mean to us as Americans? This Go & Learn guide features an editorial from the April 1897 issue of The American Jewess exploring the meaning of Passover in relation to the Fourth of July. The editor, Rosa Sonneschein, asks what it means for Jews to celebrate Passover in the context of American religious and national freedom.
- We should exercise our freedom by taking part in human rights movements such as the feminist, civil rights, and labor movements.
- One of the ways that we make the miracle of the Exodus continually relevant is by considering the meaning of liberation and freedom in our own lives, as Jews, as Americans, as women and as men.
- Rosa Sonneschein was the first American Jewish woman to offer a strong and consistent critique of gender inequities in worship and synagogue leadership.
- What are the parallels between the Passover and Fourth of July narratives?
- What are some of the main reasons why Rosa Sonneschein established The American Jewess? What problems did she seek to address?
Introduction: Passover, Freedom, and The American Jewess
Passover, the Jewish holiday that commemorates the liberation of the Children of Israel from Egypt, marks a birthing moment for the Jewish people. As they pass through the Sea of Reeds, they are transformed from a band of slaves into a free nation.
On Passover, Jews are instructed not only to convey the story of the Exodus to the next generation, but to tell the story as if we ourselves experienced it. As is written in Exodus 13:8: "And you shall explain to your child on that day, 'It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt." That sense of empathy with our ancestors—the enslaved Children of Israel—and the commandment that we treat strangers with respect and kindness because we were strangers in the Land of Egypt (Exodus 22:30)—has led Jews throughout history to work for the liberation of other oppressed people. In America, Jews have exercised the freedom we experience by taking leadership roles in movements—such as the labor movement, civil rights movement, and the Feminist Movement—working for human rights.
One of the ways that we make the miracle of the Exodus continually relevant is to consider the meaning of liberation and freedom in our own lives, as Jews, as Americans, as women and men. The document featured in this Go & Learn guide—Rosa Sonneschein's editorial in the April 1897 issue of The American Jewess—does just that. Sonneschein explores the meaning of Passover in relation to the American celebration of freedom—the Fourth of July. She asks what it means for Jews in America to celebrate Passover, and in what ways we might think of ourselves as spiritually enslaved despite having religious and national freedom.
Rosa Sonneschein, who came to the United States from Hungary in the 1860s, created The American Jewess to address the issues of identity that American Jewish women faced at the end of the 19th century. 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. At its height, the magazine claimed a circulation of 31,000.
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 relatively early advocacy of Zionism by an American Jew.
Sonneschein oversaw and edited volumes 1-7 of The American Jewess. In the summer of 1898, deflected by setbacks in both business and health, she yielded control of the publication to an unidentified group of publishers. Although Sonneschein continued to appear frequently as a correspondent, the journal suffered from the loss of her sharp editorial perspective and vision. The last issue appeared in August 1899.
Rosa Sonneschein took to heart one of the central messages of Passover—the importance of telling the story of the Jewish people. She understood that the story was incomplete if it did not include women's experiences, and so she founded The American Jewess to preserve the progress of American Jewish women in writing. As she observed in the first issue of The American Jewess, "Not what has happened, but what is recorded makes history."
Rosa Sonneschein Editorial
Rosa Sonneschein Editorial
Excerpt of Sonneschein's April 1897 Editorial in The American Jewess
There is a great similarity between the Fourth of July and the Fourteenth of Nissan, and in celebrating the first some think we could dispense with the latter. Some enthusiastic American Jews would like to eradicate everything not strictly of American origin. They argue: “Would it not be ridiculous if the owner of a silken gown, should look with pride at the mulberry tree on whose leaves the silkworm feeds? Well, it is just as foolish, if free-born Jews of our day look back loftily upon the liberation from Egyptian bondage. Between then and now thousands of years have elapsed during which countless generations of Jews have lived and died slaves and outcasts among the nations, till at least we, in America are blessed with perfect liberty.” Pesach is a religious festival, and as such it must be celebrated. But one would think a race which so slowly gained liberty would have had ample time to purify its inner life, and should, in our time, be totally free from soul slavery. Is this so? Is this inner life of Judaism free from mediaeval slavery? We fear it is not. Some Jews hold the same relation to religious liberty as some citizens do to national freedom; they disrespect all constitutional edicts; to them liberty means that one may do as he pleased; in short they regard self-governing laws as remnants of slavery. Religious Nihilists came to the conclusion that the adherence to divine laws are the remnants of superstition. They are not ready to admit that religious, like national liberty does not consist of abusing laws, but that the highest duty of man is to respect and obey those laws by which the masses must be governed, so that liberty may become a blessing, and not a curse.
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "The American Jewess on Liberation and Freedom." (Viewed on April 26, 2017) <https://jwa.org/teach/golearn/mar06>.