On January 14, 1998, I received a letter from my great-aunt in Chicago – Nell Ziff Pekarsky. It was dated January 8. "Dear, dear Janie," she began in customary fashion. Her letters have always been precious to me. I imagine Nell sitting on the edge of her chair, pounding energetically at her circa 1950s manual typewriter, each stroke a definitive act of love. The hand-corrected typos, the words capitalized for emphasis, the exclamation points, the sing-song cadence seemed of another era. Nell's correspondence found a special place in my filing cabinet.
Like all of her letters, this one was filled with detailed reports about family and friends. Her son Daniel had just returned from Israel; Mandy Patinkin's mother, Doris, had included her Pesach meat-loaf recipe in a new cookbook; Nell raved about a wedding she had just attended of the daughter of good friends. In the same breath, she spoke of my forthcoming wedding. "My heart pounds with excitement for and with you! I'm looking forward to meeting him and to see you both in all your glory." And, as usual, she signed her letter, Love and Hugs, accompanied by her scrawled signature and a smiling face.
The letter was quintessential Nell, but it was different from all the others: this was the last letter I would receive from her, arriving as it did the day after she died.
Nell made a strong impression. Her build was slight, but she was no pushover: her energetic gait and purposeful expression projected a commanding, yet accessible, presence. She laughed easily and sometimes uproariously – especially if the joke was on her. Nell loved to hear and to tell what she called "juicy" stories. She was not interested in idle gossip. But she was ever curious about people, relationships and the world around her. Nell abhorred pretension of any kind and was quick to detect it. She thrived on intelligent conversation, on learning for its own sake, but she had little tolerance for those who talked only to impress.
On most days, Nell wore sensible shoes and clothing that was more functional than stylish, but she loved bright colors and, on special occasions, donned simple – often Israeli – costume jewelry. Nell's medium brown, short-cropped, wavy hairdo was feminine but no-nonsense. Years later, I would learn that she wore a wig for most of her adult life. It gave her a look of eternal youthfulness.
I remember visiting Nell in her home when I was a little girl. Her courtyard apartment had an old-world feeling to it, so unlike my scrubbed, suburban home in Minneapolis. Everywhere, it seemed, there were books and magazines and photographs and Judaic chachkas. The clutter was mysterious, enticing. Her life seemed to ooze with people and ideas. This woman was unlike anyone I had met before.
Every so often, family members would murmur something about Nell's Zionist activities or about the famous people she knew – The Roosevelts, Henrietta Szold, Louis Brandeis, Stephen Wise. It was all very vague; I never heard a full story. But one artifact in her apartment kept my curiosity alive: a small, black and white photograph that hung unpretentiously on her bedroom wall. Nell was standing next to Eleanor Roosevelt. I didn't ask her about that photo until many years later.
In fact, it wasn't until I moved to Chicago in 1987 that we developed what I'd call an adult relationship – and a close friendship at that. I had just turned 30; Nell was 77. My office at the University of Chicago was less than a mile from her home, so we spent a lot of time together. One professor said she had seen me on a Saturday afternoon walking down Hyde Park Boulevard, arm in arm, with an older woman. (Nell and I must have been coming home from schul.) "You looked like young lovers," she said. Indeed, it often felt that way to me. She was such good company.
The three years I spent in Chicago gave me a chance – finally – to hear more substantial bits of Nell's personal and work history. Now, since her death, I am trying to piece together whatever fragments I can find into a coherent story. It's turning out to be a far more complex project than I had ever imagined.
I am fortunate to have some excellent primary and secondary sources: a two-hour audiotaped interview conducted by the rabbi of Nell's congregation; a videotaped interview done by two of her closest friends; four eulogies given at her funeral; the dozen or so letters I received from her; several photographs; selected correspondence from her files; a small stack of memos and articles she wrote, as well as drafts of fiery speeches she gave around the country; and the memories of our many conversations. These materials do not tell a complete story, but they do offer a glimpse of Nell's life and work.
Nell Ziff was born in 1910, in Hurley, Wisconsin. It was a tiny town in the northernmost part of the state – hugging the Michigan border. Nicknamed "Hurly girly" for its plethora of brothels and bars, it was an unlikely place for a religious Jewish family. They lived behind the town jail and, as the family was ushering out the Shabbat on Saturday night, the police were ushering in the town drunks. I believe the family's well-developed sense of humor came, in part, from living daily with such ironies.
Nell's parents – Nachman and Rasha Minna – had come to the United States from Eastern Europe just a few years earlier and opened a dry goods store. Nell was the fifth of seven siblings. She followed the older ones to school with such determination that the teacher finally admitted her into kindergarten at the age of 3. In school, she was an exceptional student, a gifted public speaker, and a member of the girls' basketball team. Nell graduated from high school at age 15, and became the youngest student at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.
Nell's talents blossomed in her college years. She was an outstanding debater. In addition to her full course load, she studied Hebrew language and Bible, and became involved in a variety of Jewish youth groups. Nell was also a patriotic young American; she spoke in public of her passion for American democracy and of the Jew's special responsibility to preserve it.
During Nell's college years, the Ziff family moved to Minneapolis. One year, when she was home on vacation, a Mrs. Schwartz chided her for not being a member of Junior Hadassah. Shortly thereafter, Nell did join the Des Moines chapter and, after college, the Minneapolis chapter, where she quickly became membership chair. In 1932, she was elected president of the Minneapolis chapter, then president of Junior Hadassah's Northwest Region, and from 1934 to 1936, its national vice president and membership chair.
In 1937, Nell was invited to become Junior Hadassah's national president. It was not good news to her mother. "My mom had a special philosophy about what one does with one's life," Nell said. "She always felt that it's not good to reach heights that are too high, or to go down too low…She always used to tell us, 'kinderlach, stay mitala' – in the middle there." Rasha Minna was certain that fame destroyed security and happiness, that it corrupted human character.
In the meantime, Hadassah's national leadership had other plans for Nell, and, in 1938, arranged for her to be a youth delegate at the annual Hadassah convention in Atlantic City – and to meet with the venerable Henrietta Szold. "I understand you're going to be the new president of Junior Hadassah and I want to tell you a great experience is before you," Szold told her. Nell was awestruck. "She had anointed me with the presidency, and I still hadn't decided that I would take it. But from that point on, it didn't seem as if I had a choice," she said.
The new volunteer post required her to move to New York City – a courageous step for a 21-year-old Midwestern maidel. For Nell, it was nothing short of a calling. During Nell's presidency, from 1938 to 1941, Junior Hadassah grew from 20,000 to 25,000 young women, ages 18 to 40. The girl from Hurley was at the helm of the largest national youth organization in the United States.
During this time, Eleanor Roosevelt was establishing the American Youth Congress, a coalition of youth groups designed to mobilize a new generation of American leaders. Roosevelt invited Junior Hadassah to join. Although Senior Hadassah advised against it, preferring their young counterparts to adhere to strictly Jewish concerns, Nell boldly accepted the invitation. She became a member of the Executive Committee of the Youth Congress, which meant she met regularly with Eleanor Roosevelt and occasionally with FDR. Nell's files contain reports on the meetings she attended at the White House and direct correspondence from Mrs. Roosevelt.
Within a couple of years, it became clear that the American Youth Congress was falling under Communist influence. What should Junior Hadassah do in the wake of this revelation? Nell told me this story about ten years ago, while we were taking a long stroll in the country, near the summer home of relatives. I could sense that a part of her was still replaying the chain of events. Nell was torn between her loyalty to the first lady – who encouraged Junior Hadassah to stay with the Congress – and her own moral principles. She needed advice and, with the encouragement of her executive council, wrote to someone she had met briefly once before – the ardent Zionist and respected Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis.
In a handwritten letter dated September 18, 1941, Brandeis wrote back about his concern for her dilemma. Unfortunately, he said, his public position prevented him from advising her in any formal way. The letter ended on a hopeful note: "When you chance to come to Washington, let me see you." Shortly thereafter, Nell was in Washington, "quivering" with anticipation as she rode up the elevator to his apartment. In a summary of that meeting she wrote:
"I was ushered into his small study, a very simple, unpretentious little room, filled with book cases and shelves of books…I felt as if I were in the presence of Abraham Lincoln…He has that same kindly, friendly, honest, sincere face as Lincoln; his physical build is similar, and the fact that, in my mind, I have always compared and likened these two personalities, made the experience all the more significant."
The meeting went well. Brandeis agreed that Junior Hadassah should pull out of the Youth Congress. He applauded the work of Hadassah. "I can see the difference between those women who have studied and learned and served in Hadassah and their cousins and relations who have not. There is a big difference. Hadassah represents the most encouraging, stimulating, inspiring force in Jewish life today." Brandeis also voiced concern about young Jews in America, whom he considered tragically uninformed.
Nell earned the trust of Justice Brandeis that day, and they would continue to be in touch over the years.
Nell remained active in Hadassah throughout her life. As was the case for most women in the 30s and 40s, she worked strictly as a volunteer, which also meant she had to pay the rent on her Upper West Side apartment. Nell's visibility in Hadassah opened many doors in the Jewish world, so she had no trouble finding employment. Over the years she would work directly for – and very closely with – some of the century's greatest American Jewish and Zionist leaders. On paper, Nell held various titles – secretary, executive secretary, assistant, personal assistant. These titles suggest a role of support and facilitation, not policy or decision-making. But, I wonder, did Nell's titles, in fact, match her functions in these organizations? And if her role was primarily of a supportive, facilitative nature, how are we to measure her – or any such individual's – contributions to history?
Nell's first job in New York was as an assistant to Samson Benderly, one of the most important Jewish educators at the time. Six months later, the great Zionist organizer – Meyer Weisgal – "lured" her to work with him on his latest project: the creation of the Palestine Pavilion for the 1939 World's Fair. Weisgal needed to raise $250,000 from Jewish Federations across the country to build the Pavilion and Nell wrote the first solicitation letter. "I didn't sleep nights preparing it," Nell said. When she turned in the first draft, Weisgal unleashed a string of curses (his profanity was legendary) and tore the document to bits. Finally, a letter that passed muster went out, the money came in – and the Pavilion was built.
When the Palestine Pavilion closed in the summer of 1940, Nell had at least two job offers that we know about. One was from Nahum Goldman, then president of the Emergency Council. Another was from Justice Brandeis, who asked Nell to assist the new lay chair of the Zionist Organization of America. Ed Kaufman was the wealthy owner of Kay Jewelers in Washington D.C. He had many influential friends in the assimilated American Jewish community and close ties to the political leadership in Washington. He also had a strong belief in Palestine as a Jewish homeland. What Kaufman lacked was a deep understanding of Zionist thought. Nell's job would be to minimize his vulnerability and help shape an agenda that played to Kaufman's strengths.
She agreed to take the job only if Kaufman himself, and not the Zionist organization, paid her directly. "I didn't want to be politically beholden," Nell said. At that time, internecine battles in the Zionist movement were intense. On one side was a group led by the Zionist leader Louis Lipsky, and included Nell's former boss Meyer Weisgal. On the other side were Justice Brandeis and other prominent American Jews. She insisted on staying clear of ideology in order to preserve her relationships with people in both camps.
Apparently, Nell and Kaufman developed a relationship of mutual respect and admiration. Kaufman called her "malkah," Hebrew for "queen" – and even named one of his racehorses after her. Nell traveled to Kaufman's winter office at the Hollywood Beach Hotel in Miami (he owned the hotel), and toured with him around the country, as he spoke, primarily to the uninitiated, about the dream of a Jewish nation. Throughout, Nell kept Brandeis apprised of their progress via letters and telephone calls.
Nell's last job in New York was as the assistant to Mordecai Kaplan, the esteemed rabbi and founder of the Reconstructionist Movement.
In all of these jobs, Nell was close to the source of power. It also seems clear that she was hired as much for her smarts and savvy as for her typing skills and administrative acumen. Was this unusual? What jobs were open to bright, competent, middle class American Jewish women at that time? How were these women perceived? How, in general, do we tell the story of the women behind the power? How do we value the story of people who implemented decisions more than they made them – especially if they leave no paper trail? Moreover, I wonder, in today's parlance, would Nell still be called secretary? Or would she now be considered the legitimate second-in-command, perhaps a vice president or associate director?
In 1942, Nell left behind her activist life in New York City, when, at the age of 32, she married Rabbi Maurice Pekarsky. Nell's parents had long awaited the day. So had the great Zionist leader and orator, Stephen S. Wise, whom Nell knew through Zionist circles. Wise was often a keynote speaker for Hadassah, and Nell often had the task of introducing him to the audience. More than once, apparently, he stepped up to the podium and declared, "What are we going to do about our Nell, to find her a chasan, a groom?" I'm sure these were embarrassing moments for Nell, as they would be for anyone.
But I never got the sense that Nell felt "rescued" by Maurice, or by the institution of marriage. In fact, at lunch one day, less than a decade ago, I was confiding to Nell about my ambivalence about marrying the man I was seeing at the time. It's not the kind of struggle I would ordinarily share with an older relative, but Nell proved time and again that she was thoroughly modern in these matters. Instead of giving me concrete advice, she offered a reminiscence: how, when Maurice proposed to her, she worried about giving up her independence and the stimulating swirl of activity in New York.
Nell would soon be known as Mrs. Pekarsky. She and Maurice were happily married. They moved to Chicago where he was Hillel Director, first at Northwestern University, and then at the University of Chicago, where he became a valued friend and advisor to many of the university's greatest intellectuals. Nell and Maurice had two children, Davida and Daniel. In the 1950s, they spent five years in Israel, where Maurice established a Hillel presence in Jerusalem. It seems that Nell's experiences as the silent partner to so many luminaries in New York prepared her for her new role as "rebbetzin," which she took very seriously, even beyond his untimely death in 1962. A cousin recently said she thought Nell believed in men and women as 'almost' equal partners. Was her diffidence a function of the social mores of the time? Her temperament? Her mother's early admonition to "stay mitala"?
Nell had no regrets about her decision to marry and rear a family. And while I don't know that I'd call her a feminist, I do think she was conscious of having made a choice about what kind of life to lead. Lately, I've been imagining what might have happened to Nell had she not met her match, or had she made a conscious decision not to marry. Would she have continued in her Zionist activities, eventually gaining the stature of a Henrietta Szold or a Golda Meir, both of whom reached the peak of their power when they were much older women? Were Jewish women allowed into the full ranks of Jewish community leadership only if they were 'unmarriageable' or long past childbearing age? What were the gender politics of the time?
And what is the meaning of leadership after all? I can think of many remarkable older Jewish women I know who have participated in Hadassah, synagogue sisterhoods, and other Jewish organizations – smart, creative, committed, self-deprecating – whose stories remain untold largely because we have not learned how to tell them – or not thought it important to do so. America is a culture of celebrity. Our history – even women's history until recently – has largely been the celebration of the individual. We are not as good at telling the story of groups. Some excellent work has been done on working class Jewish women, but it seems we still haven't found a way to tell the story of middle class American Jewish women in organizational life.
I'd like to be able to tell more than a sentimental history of my great-aunt, Nell Ziff Pekarsky. To those of us who loved her – and there are many – she was, indeed, great. But I'd like for her story – and the stories of other women behind the scenes – to resonate with those who never knew her personally, to figure into the larger history of American Jewry.
It's just like her to leave me with such an assignment.
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "Nell Ziff Pekarsky, 1910 - 1998." (Viewed on October 6, 2022) <https://jwa.org/weremember/pekarsky-nell>.
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