Election Day

QUESTION: HOW MANY JEWISH MOTHERS DOES IT TAKE TO CHANGE A LIGHTBULB? ANSWER: WHO CARES? WE’RE CHANGING THE WORLD! In a week when the presidential election matters more than in almost two generations, as Jews we need to remember and … Read More

By / November 4, 2008



In a week when the presidential election matters more than in almost two generations, as Jews we need to remember and act on our legacies as social reformers.

From the striking garment workers in the early twentieth century whose militancy helped establish the modern labor movement, to the transformative civil rights and women’s liberation movements of modern times, Jews have been in the vanguard of social change.

And Jewish women, even the much maligned "pushy" Jewish mother, have been right up there in the front lines, advocating, lobbying, marching, protesting.

While we are amused by the comic caricature of guilt-inducing, nagging, “Jewish mothers” –ones who, like Philip Roth’s fictional Sophie Portnoy, intruded inappropriately into every crevice of their children’s lives– we would do well to remember that down through the generations, Jewish women have been vital to the politics of everyday life and to the nation as a whole.

In my own family there was my grandmother, tiny but militant, who went out on strike with the garment workers in 1909, and was then arrested for striking a policeman. The judge released her when she promised not to hit any more coppers! Later in life, after she married and had four children, one of whom died from a burst appendix when she could not find a doctor to treat him, she became a fierce protector of the family’s well-being, especially after her husband, my grandfather, laid off from his milliner’s job during the Depression, could no longer find work. She scrimped and saved every penny, and was back on the picket lines protesting the high price of kosher meat and bread, whenever price increases seemed to be price gauging.

In both actions, my grandmother represented thousands of other housewives who as consumers both supported workers and acted on behalf of their families and communities to mobilize against unfair pricing. During the famous New York City kosher butcher boycott of 1902, this “dangerous” class of women made life miserable for unscrupulous merchants as well as the policemen who came to arrest them (my grandmother was not yet among them). One policeman even had an “unpleasant moist piece of liver” thrust in his face. It would not to do have such an “infuriated” mob of mothers on the loose, wrote The New York Times. But the mothers won their boycott, the first of many that followed.

These mothers acted in their own best interests but they also wanted a socially responsible workplace and cared that employers not exploit their workers. Today, following upon the scandals at kosher processing plants in Iowa, when there is a growing interest in eating foods that are produced in a way that meets Jewish ethical standards, e.g., respectful of the environment, avoiding cruelty to animals, and with responsible work practices—we think back to these foremothers who organized—and even threw around livers and chickens!—to demonstrate their convictions about justice and fairness.

In more modern times, as women have increasingly achieved power directly in the political sphere, Jewish women have served on boards of supervisors, city councils, mayor’s offices, state legislatures and in governor’s mansions, as well as in the hallowed halls of the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate, as well as far-flung diplomatic posts. As a group they have been bold and innovative, fighting for the so-called women’s issues of education and child care, health and reproductive rights, and women’s rights more broadly, but also championing economic and security issues that they consider to be significant “women’s issues” as well.

The granddaughters and great-granddaughters of the immigrant women who fought sweatshop bosses and protested against unfair pricing have arrived front and center on the stage of American political life. They take with them the inheritance of generations of Jewish women whose passion for political life and deep-seated commitment to social and moral values has been exercised in a variety of effective ways, both inside and outside of conventional political channels.

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Do you have any “dangerous” women in your family background? How much do you know about them and what legacies do they offer you?


Jewish women history-makers

Kosher Wars

Joyce Antler author of You Never Call! You Never Write!: A History of the Jewish Mother, will be guest blogging on Jewcy this week. Stay Tuned.

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