The Great Adventure of 1929: The Impact of Travel Abroad on American Jewish Women's Identity

By Klapper, Melissa R. | American Jewish History, January 2018 | Go to article overview

The Great Adventure of 1929: The Impact of Travel Abroad on American Jewish Women's Identity


Klapper, Melissa R., American Jewish History


"I am getting so excited over the prospect of this trip that I find it difficult to function normally each day. It is all so marvelous that I can hardly believe that it is going to be true."

Rebecca Hourwich, July 10, 1929 (1)

During the summer of 1929, Setty Swartz Kuhn (1868-1952) and Rebecca Hourwich (1897-1987) began to plan a trip abroad. (2) Both had traveled overseas before, but this was to be the trip of a lifetime for each of them. They hoped to go to Russia, Turkey, Greece, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt, an itinerary that would take several months and necessitate traveling by steamer, river barge, train, automobile, carriage, and mule. Sixty-year-old Kuhn, a Jewish woman from Cincinnati who was active in the League of Woman Voters and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, enjoyed the personal and financial resources to turn her dream trip into reality, but she was leery of traveling alone for so long and could not convince any of her children to accompany her. An acquaintance suggested she contact Hourwich, a younger woman who had recently left her job with the National Woman's Party. Hourwich was writing copy for an advertising agency but aspired to find more interesting work and to establish her journalism credentials by reporting from abroad. She also came with the distinct advantage of speaking Russian, a legacy of her Eastern European Jewish immigrant parents, which Kuhn felt was important for the Russian leg of the trip. Kuhn herself knew German and French, the languages bequeathed her by her German Jewish grandparents and her own formal education. (3)

Nothing about the general decision to take such a trip was so unusual. Foreign travel at the time was common primarily for the middle class and wealthy, but, as historian Daniel Soyer has noted, third class steamship tickets and the new category of "tourist" accommodations made going abroad increasingly accessible to the working class as well. While some Jewish immigrants, even if they could eventually afford to do so, had no interest in returning to Europe or even in leaving the United States, others seized the opportunity to revisit their hometowns. Regardless of either their class background or their destinations, American Jews who traveled abroad during the first decades of the twentieth century joined a more general tourist boom. By one count, 278,331 United States citizens sailed for foreign countries in 1922; the number rose to 461,254 in 1930. Resident aliens also went abroad in large numbers: 92,246 in 1926 and 102,627 in 1929. (4) These numbers reflected the growing commercialization of tourism during the period, a phenomenon enabled by the access of more people to a combination of leisure, vacation time, and discretionary income. (5) In his classic work on tourism, Dean MacCannell points out that the early twentieth century saw a significant shift in travel abroad. Whereas earlier travelers typically intended to visit family and friends, to attend special events or ceremonies, or to conduct business of some kind, by the early 1900s sightseeing had become an end in itself and an entire mass tourist industry of guidebooks, markers, maps, and tour guides had sprung up to facilitate this new economic sector. (6) Kuhn and Hourwich's trip encompassed both the older model of personal travel with a specific purpose and the newer model of tourist sightseeing.

Their 1929 journey also placed them squarely in yet another tradition: international travel by women. American women who could afford it had been traveling abroad regularly since at least the mid-nineteenth century. This was no less true of American Jewish women, who went to school overseas; visited relatives and sometimes found husbands; attended international meetings of various activist groups; and took sightseeing trips alone, with family members, or with organized tour groups. Most went to Europe, but some visited Palestine as well, and a few even traveled to Asia. …

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