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  1. Book ImageAmerica's Jewish Women: A History from Colonial Times to Today

    Pamela Nadell

    A groundbreaking history of how Jewish women maintained their identity and influenced social activism as they wrote themselves into American history.

Discussion Questions

  1. Nadell recognizes that what it means to be Jewish varies enormously, encompassing “the religiously observant and the fiercely secular, the needy immigrants and the savvy businesswomen, the feisty matrons and the spirited women who became rabbis” (p. xiii). What has a religious identity (or lack thereof) meant for your own life? How does it manifest itself in the daily activities of your life and home?
  2. What surprised you most in reading about the lives of Jewish women in America one hundred to three hundred years ago? Did Jewish women’s experiences in any particular time (during, for example, the colonial period, the Civil War, or the Great Depression) stand out?
  3. Do you know when the first members of your own family arrived in America? Do you know much about the day-to-day realities of their lives? What role did religion play?
  4. There are many inspiring women in this book. Do any of their stories particularly resonate with you? If so, why? If you were to choose three inspiring women from three different chapters, who would you choose, and why?
  5. Throughout American history, Jewish women have been at the forefront of the fight for social justice. What are the issues you think are most pressing in today’s culture?
  6. Nadell writes that early Jewish women in America were “keepers of the Jewish flame, orchestrating their families’ observance of customs and traditions” (p. 66). How did your mother, grandmothers, aunts, and sisters do this in your family? Is this a role you’ve taken on in your own homelife? How is it different today?
  7. It can be easy to assume that because religion is such an ancient institution it is somehow static, but this book makes it clear that the practice of religion is diverse and dynamic, often evolving in response to the world around it. Do you see contemporary religious life as being in flux? What are the social advances or concerns you see influencing the direction of your local places of worship?
  8. What religious traditions or practices have been passed down in your own family? Has it been a constant and overt presence in your family’s life, or has its prominence ebbed and flowed through the generations?
  9. Before reading this book, how would you have answered the question of what it means to be a Jewish woman in America? Would your answer be different now? Why or why not?
  10. Nadell began writing this book before the current wave of antisemitism reared its ugly head. What did you learn about the antisemitism Jewish women faced in earlier eras?
  11. Nadell talks about dinner parties where acquaintances that heard about her project would scoff and call it an “impossible” task (p. xii). Do you think she succeeded in writing a history that encompasses such a vast variety of lives and experiences? What do you think was the greatest challenge in undertaking such an ambitious project?

About Pamela Nadell

Pamela S. Nadell is the Patrick Clendenen Chair in Women’s and Gender History and director of Jewish studies at American University. Her books include Women Who Would Be Rabbis, a National Jewish Book Award finalist. She lives in North Bethesda, Maryland.

Books by Pamela Nadell

  1. Book CoverAmerica's Jewish Women: A History from Colonial Times to Today

    A groundbreaking history of how Jewish women maintained their identity and influenced social activism as they wrote themselves into American history.More