Literary Reformers: Crossing Class and Ethnic Boundaries in Jewish Women's Fiction of the 1920s

Article excerpt

Contemporary literary critics, perhaps unintentionally, have placed immigrant and acculturated Jewish women novelists in opposition to one another.(1) Yezierska is read along side other immigrant authors, Mary Antin and Rose Cohen, for example. Edna Ferber and Fannie Hurst are rarely read in the context of their ethnicity, let alone in relation to immigrant fiction.(2) This critical trend suggests that Eastern European immigrant authors have little in common, at best, with middle-class writers of German-Jewish descent, and, at worst, that Jewishness and Americanism are still being figured as antithetical.(3) Working and middle-class Jewish women's writing in the twenties did not simply oppose but, in fact, intimately informed one another. An historicized analysis of Yezierska's fiction in relation to the work of her middle-class sisters, Ferber and Hurst, suggests not thematic unity but the rich exchange of rhetorical strategies and sometimes conflicting ideas among Jewish women writers of the 1920s. Yezierska, Ferber, and Hurst's fiction also demonstrates how immigrant and acculturated women writers constructed their ethnicity in relation to one another.

The biographies of Yezierska, Ferber, and Hurst establish that all three women involved themselves in debates occurring among Eastern European and German-Jewish communities, specifically those concerning immigrant aid. Yezierska's interactions with middle-class Jewish women ranged from having lived in the Clara De Hirsh Home for Working Girls to having worked in a settlement house to lecturing members of the National Council of Jewish women as a celebrity author.(4) Edna Ferber's father was of Hungarian descent and her mother of German-Jewish ancestry. Her fascination with Jewish immigrant communities is described in her autobiography, A Peculiar Treasure, where Ferber also revealed her awareness of the stratification among Jewish populations and acknowledged her friendship with Lillian Adler, a German-Jewish settlement house worker, who provided the model for a character in Ferber's novel The Girls (180). Not surprisingly, Fannie Hurst also circulated among Jewish women philanthropists. She wrote a tribute to Mary Fels, Rebekah Kohut, and Annie Nathan Meyer, for example (Hurst, "Forward"). Hurst's interest in immigrants was also generally known, not only because of her novel Lummox, but also because of her writerly reputation for mingling with the working class; for example, she once travelled to Europe in steerage for story material (Anatomy 138). Moreover, Hurst married an Eastern European immigrant, Jacques S. Danielson, over the objections of her father who was of Bavarian ancestry.

In addition, the Jewish press of the 1920s foregrounded the work of Ferber and Hurst together with Yezierska. Reviews of all three women in The Jewish Woman and the Jewish Tribune suggest that these women knew of one another and were embraced by the press for their Jewish thematics. Hurst was foregrounded much more frequently than either Ferber or Yezierska in the Jewish English-language press. Articles authored by Hurst on motherhood, marriage, contemporary politics, and writing appeared most often in the Jewish Tribune but also in The Jewish Woman and American Hebrew. Similarly, Ferber was reviewed, interviewed, and singled out in the Jewish Tribune more than once as one of America's most important Jews. Like Hurst and Ferber, Yezierska too was embraced by middle-class Jewish women journalists and was reviewed favorably in the early as well as the late 1920s.(5)

Historically, Jewish women's immigrant aid work was a site of ethnic, gender, and class negotiations among Jewish women. Acculturated Jewish women's immigrant aid (also known as Americanization) work included helping Eastern European women come through Ellis Island, locate family and friends, gain employment, learn English, and apply for citizenship. More broadly, it included settlement house activity and homes for working women. …